1. St George’s day and why I am an internationalist

    I didn’t write a post for St George’s day. On the one hand, I don’t like nationalism, but on the other hand, a lot of criticisms of St George’s day are very class based and seem a lot more bothered about the loutishness or stupidity of people taking part in any celebration of it than actually focused on what the issues with nationalism itself actually are. It often all gets a bit focused on flags and lager.

    I’m an internationalist because national borders don’t have any logic to them. I don’t see any scientific or ethical reason as to why where you are born in the world or your ancestry should dictate how much access you should have to world resources or where you can travel, and I definitely don’t see why it gives you the right to decide it for someone else. When I was about 20, I went to Amsterdam with some friends; we got the train, and in Brussels (I think) we passed through a passport check point. At one side of the steady flow of people walking through was a huge queue of people who had been stopped - I watched someone get pulled out a few people in front of me. There was one main difference between those like me who were walking through with ease and no questions, and those being kept behind.

    I really think national borders exist for the benefit of the elites within them. I don’t see how our current world distribution of resources and the borders we use to police this is anything other than racist, and it irritates me that if you think that way you are dismissed as being either a frothing trot by the centre or a woolly minded pc liberal by the right. I think this world of borders exists within our heads alone, a sort of shared delusion of ownership of the land we happen to inhabit. It is propped up by a false claim of nationalism (in its embodiment in specific Western nation states) somehow having ownership of values relating to equality - feminism, liberalism - as those these values were somehow supported and brought about by our colonial history rather than something which it tried to crush. Values of equality such as feminism can’t be owned; they existed in the first point where a decision was made to resist a privileging of one over another, and are rebuilt in every act of resistance around the world. The bits of feminism (and other egalitarian values) which are culture specific are probably the bits which most need challenging.

    On St George’s day, I usually think about my Grandad, who was a George, and who my son (who learnt to crawl on St George’s day 4 years ago)’s middle name comes from. I know that I am biased, but he is one of if not the most amazing person I have ever known, and it is nice to think about him. Roughly 8 years ago, when he was close to dying, I visited him quite a bit in hospital, and I will always remember one particular visit. This elderly man, close to 80, in huge amounts of pain, spoke to me at quite some length, with tears in his eyes. The tears did not come from his own suffering, which was considerable, but from a book my dad had brought him back from Palestine about the atrocities happening there in that very specific war of national identity, which he wanted to talk to me about.

    I really hope that there will be a future point where people look back at these delusions of invisible boundaries people in the same way as we now look at the idea of a flat earth. It is a similar sort of delusion, based on received knowledge and an inability - or aversion - to challenging it.

  2. Democracy =/= Capitalism: Christmas, and child labour

    After a year of record political unrest, we are winding down for a bit of “peace” (if you can call it that, maybe not in our house!); a christmas breather. It is going to be a very unusual christmas for me this year, for two reasons: firstly, because I am in the process of losing someone I am very close to to a form of terminal cancer, and secondly, because it comes after a year in which my world view has been “sharpened”, where I struggle to switch the politics off.

    The last year has seen people taking to the streets in record numbers: from the massive TUC demonstration in March, to the summer riots, from the springing up of occupations around the country to the growing crescendo of public sector strikes, the voice of dissent is growing. Add to this that the UK is only a tiny part of a worldwide picture: the dischord is globalised and being felt from continent to continent.

    It has been quite a politically charged year for me too. This time last January I had strong political beliefs but wasn’t particularly active: the mounting evidence of the injustices of the austerity drive has led me to the point of thinking “if not me, who?”, and in the space of a year I have gone from political near inertia to building a 2000 strong petition and taking to the streets with my slutwalk sisters to protest the culture of victim blaming, speaking in front of a few thousand in Birmingham at the June 30th strike ralley, speaking on a panel about activism at the UK Feminista summer school, writing a chapter on the working class right wing for the Labour Left red book, and taking on the role of regional women’s officer for UCU. As a result of this, combined with my vocal social media presence, I have made some great new connections, but I have also put myself in the line of fire for a good deal of negative attention, both from people I know and people I don’t. (Anyone looked at their hidden “other” messages on facebook yet? Wished I hadn’t when I found them the other day). People who know me well and know my character and beliefs know that if there is one thing I hate more than almost anything, it’s conflict. I’m naturally a people pleaser and in most cases would do almost anything rather than disagree. So it is a sign of how bad things really are when I am putting myself through the emotional stress of a year of public disagreement.

    Many people automatically assume I’m a revolutionary. I’m not, I’m a social reformist - I don’t believe in revolution as an effective method for bringing change, unless we are talking non-violent direct democratic revolution rather than bloody insurgence. For some reason (probably the effect of tabloid-think grouping all dissenters from liberals right through to Stalinists into one simple package) some people think I’m a pro-soviet communist! Clearly, I’m not. I have no more support for a handful of State figures holding the majority of the resources than a handful of anyone holding the majority of the resources, that’s why I’m a marxist. I’m a marxist because I believe in the analysis that money is essentially an illusory system whereby consensus about the relative worth of the different roles people fulfil in society inevitably keeping a huge number in poverty. I’m also a liberal.

    I tweeted about this a few weeks ago, saying something along the lines that I was gravely concerned that lots of people (marxists) seemed to believe that we were living through a time in which capitalism was in its last throws, commenting that I believe capitalism is not in crisis, and that it is the checks on capitalism which are actually at risk. I had a brief exchange with Eleonora Belfiore from the University of Warwick, who commented that one of if not the biggest problems is that people lack the imagination to see beyond Soviet communism as an alternative to capitalism. We also agreed that the fundamental problem in terms of conceptualisation is that the majority of the public assume that capitalism and democracy are synonymous rather than separate and often conflicting things. So for most, while they sympathise with criticisms of the excesses of capitalism, they assume that consumer choice is the freedom they must preserve in order to avoid a totalitarian state regime. As long as we have capitalism, we have democracy, and vice versa, therefore we must not complain too much about the obvious inequalities of capitalism because these are the necessary price for freedom.

    Of course, the key issue overlooked in this argument is that it only sees the western consumer as involved in the process of capitalism and democracy. It ignores the key issue that it is only a pocket of civilisation which capitalism is working for; that for millions globally capitalism does not mean a vote, it means sweated labour, child labour, poverty, starvation, epidemics of treatable illnesses, slavery and death. The West does not have its consumer freedom and the benefits of consumer choice in some sort of bubble from the unfortunate goings on in the rest of the world, but as a direct consequence. It is not democratic for a child to go blind before the age of six or lose fingers in machinery to make meaningless disposable items for some other more fortunate child elsewhere, because who ever would possible get a majority vote through for that to happen, and yet it happens, daily, and because of the ability of capitalism to mask these very undemocratic processes under the guise of consumer freedom, we continue to support them just by not trying for change.

    I’ll try to write more about this at a later date, as I really belief that it is only in tackling globally sweated labour that capitalism can properly be regulated and kept in check, but I think the biggest problems in tackling this issue are the following:

    1) Sweated labour is ironically a class issue. There is a cultural expectation to provide your child with a magical (expensive) christmas and while the better off can afford to do this in (not always) more ethical ways, for many at the bottom in UK society struggling to keep up with the demands of a child already being socialised to continually want, the cheap items sweat-shops provide allow for a guilt-free christmas.

    2) Psychologically, the sweat-shop workers who produce so much of the never-ending chain of goods which feed the western lifestyle exist in a place so distant in the western mindset that they might as well be imaginary. When we perceive cultural similarities, we find it easy to think about and imagine ourselves in a place that is geographically very distant (New Zealand, for example), but the mechanisms of capitalism mean that we see a product as a reified thing, separate from any of the processes and more crucially the people involved in its production. 21st century capitalism allows or even encourages us to think that the starting point for a product is the shop floor. To think otherwise is to risk imagining the self as part of an exploitative chain in which ultimately you are benefitting from child/slave/sweated labour, and it’s not a happy place to be.

    3) The biggest issue is a combination of current democratic processes leaving a feeling of impotence, combined with a massive scale version of what social psychologists call the “bystander effect”. The current political system is not fit for purpose, in that it does not allow for direct democracy or empowerment. I’m constantly trying to get people more involved politically but why should they be anything other than apathetic given the lack of ability to influence what is in place? I’ve spent months writing to my MP, Chris Kelly, with barely a couple of e-mails to show for it. People are (in my opinion) basically good but programmed to make the least possible effort; the current system encourages and feeds off a feeling of powerlessness which allows the elite to continue to control the majority of how society works. Add to this that the more people who can do something in any one situation, the weaker the moral obligation felt by the individual to get involved. For example, when social psychologists get someone to collapse in the street and one person is passing, that person will generally help. However if a person collapses in front of a large number of people help is much less likely: diffusion of responsibility has taken place where all present both assume that others will step in and feel vindicated of responsibility should this not be the case. On a much bigger scale, I think exactly the same thing happens with child labour, and I’ve certainly been responsible for ignoring my conscience in favour of this belief in powerlessness and blamelessness over the years.

    So, this year I’m attempting a child/sweated labour free christmas - I’m buying from these organisations/sites, and hoping for a new year where the world wakes up to the clear distinction between capitalism and democracy:

    http://www.oxfam.org.uk/shop/ethical-collection * edit: it has been brought to my attention that oxfam are currently involved in some questionable practices including unpaid internships and participation in workfair. Whilst I would not suggest any boycot because of the numbers of industries relying on oxfam as a buyer I will publish details of any campaigns to address these issues soon.



  3. My reflections on Fem 11: inclusion, debate and building a shared movement

    Just back after a very long day down in London for the Fem 11 feminist conference, so thought I would spend a few minutes organising my reflections on what was an enjoyable and challenging few hours.

    The session started in the main hall with a general address from a small selection of speakers. There were about 1000 of us gathered altogether. Sandi Toksvig (who we think we spotted coming out of Euston about half an hour earlier) gave a warm and funny overview of her perceptions of the relationship between women, language and power which I disagreed with somewhat (particularly her anatomical distinction between “male brain” and “female brain” which I felt oversimplified the overlapping spectrum of individual male and female structural differences into a binary) but which was engaging none the less. Kat Banyard, who was visible at various points during the day remaining completely hands on in the running of the conference, highlighted the Fawcett society’s critique of the disproportionate impact of cuts on women, before outlining her belief in the importance of moving on from the sub-categorisation of different types of feminist, stating her belief that this is divisive and restricts progress. It is a theme I have heard her raise already this fortnight, as she spoke at the UCU women’s conference last week and was questioned about where UK Feminista falls politically by a delegate there. (Incidentally, I was proud to see UCU represented at the stalls at the conference and hope that as the Feminista movement develops engagement with trades unions grows.)

    It is a sentiment I partly agree with and partly have reservations about. Certainly I share her frustration that at times debate is locked down into stating of ideological differences which impedes action, an issue which is not unique to feminism but shared in any political group I have ever participated in. Issues of shared concern can often get lost in quibbles over belief or language - one of the most common issues of debate at the moment, for example, is “the sex industry” (itself a loaded and disputable term), and while there are real differences between the radical feminist opposition to all forms of pornography and the counter-critiques that these raise, there are plenty of shared areas which the anti and pro-porn feminists could agree on, such as the necessity to highlight trafficking of sex-workers where it is taking place, or the nasty misogynist and often racist element to a lot of mainstream pornography. It isn’t an area I can ever make my mind up about - as a marxist feminist I think there is a class bias in the main “anti” critique of sex work and a need to engage the voices of sex-workers more thoroughly in the analysis, support improvement of working conditions, unionise etc, but I am also uncomfortable with certain elements of the pro-sex industry argument, at least where the pornography in question is mainstream, in particular the nagging suspicion that the statistics as to who actually forms the main labour force of sex work and why.

    Coming back from that sex work tangent, I think we need to keep a dialectic approach, and that includes recognising that different “types” of feminist, moving away from the label and onto the actual critique that they bring, broaden and strengthen the movement. I would love to see the day where class, ethnicity, disability, sexuality and any arena for discrimination is embedded firmly within the core of mainstream feminist analysis, but until that day comes, there is a need to recognise that what is being presented as the united and central school of feminist thought has to be open to a spectrum of analytical positions.

    Once we had finished the introduction session, we went along the the workshop on “Migration, cohesion and religion: A gendered perspective” from Southall Black Sisters. I have to say now that this was one of the most inspiring groups of speakers I have ever witnessed, with Pragna Patel in particular absolutely turning a light on for me and possibly the whole room, illuminating and drawing together a number of the murkier issues of culture, ethnicity, religion and prejudice. She spoke very coherently about the current political climate, in which ethnic communities are being relocated culturally as religious communities, effectively passing the right to decide who should speak for a whole group of people to patriarchal religious organisations within these communities and in doing so silencing internal dissent. This is located in parallel to a move towards “big society” in which state funding for secular and fem positive organisations such as SBS is being slashed with the gap in provision is fulfilled by patriarchal religious groups, further disempowering the most vulnerable. Also occuring in tandem is the narrative of “integration” in place of the previous problematic but less damaging concept of “multiculturalism”, with the result being that non-white cultures are framed as “others” who must adapt and be assimilated within UK society even as the very political voices stating this are structurally reinforcing the increase of religious authority. The group also spoke about the need for ethic/gender/class interscted issues to be heard within the Occupy movement, and about the discriminatory practices at the heart of the immigration system. Coming from a marxist perspective I am constantly aware of the extent to which the illusion of capitalism working effectively is built on a comfort for a global minority sustained by the sweated labour of the world’s poorest, women and children; ethnicity and class have to be at the heart of a feminist struggle otherwise it is a meaningless tokenisation of “equality”, and it was inspiring to hear this belief reinforced and further informed so eloquently.

    During lunch we were able to hear a performance from the Woman Asylum Seekers Choir, which for me further added to the issues I was already grappling with by hearing some of the women most excluded by our society, and it was very moving but also troubling to hear the choir giving voice to their experiences and the ways in which these are denied by the mainstream: “I was not born an asylum seeker”. I was reminded of the SBS call out to us all to make sure we support black feminist groups and integrate a critique of the disproportionate marginalisation of black issues within our movement.

    After lunch we went along to Platform 51s session on teenage pregnancy. This was a lively and informative session, with three young mothers who have accessed support from the group testing us on our knowledge about teenage pregnancy, and talking about their experiences. Once we got into small group discussion I managed to get myself in a semi-heated exchange (nothing unpleasant, just somewhat passionate) which to me again brought home the need for marxist feminism as a critique within feminism as a whole (whether it is labelled that or not). Basically a couple of other people within the group were, in my opinion, coming from the point of view that teenage pregnancy is a problem which needs to be solved, and because it is in many cases unplanned should therefore be ideally prevented. As a lecturer who works a lot with Access students (often returning to education after teenage or young pregnancy) I have come to the opinion over time that it is in fact the social restrictions placed on teenage mothers which are the issue rather than the pregnancy itself. If our society did not centralise a patriarchal model of education as something done between the ages of 2 and roughly 25 before embarking on a career, and instead opened up strengthened multiple educational pathways throughout life, then motherhood (itself educational) could be integrated effectively within the system instead of being seen as a barrier which has to be circumnavigated by an add on. I also found it difficult to believe that someone in my group couldn’t understand the teenage mother’s perspective that childbirth is a process they are patronised and disempowered by in a lot of health provision. There are of course issues with health with very young mothers (as there are with older mothers, who face their own battles with dominant cultural norms but are not stigmatised in the same way), and below a certain age questions about consent become much more difficult areas to address. However, the reality is that the care to learn funding support for young parents has got an axe hanging over it, Access is in real strife, and I think the situation for young mothers is going to get worse. I really felt like some of the arguments I was meeting came from a lack of contact with teenage mothers and the relative cultural voicelessness they have in public discussions about their own lives. Anyway, it was a really engaging session and I was very impressed with Platform 51 and the work they do.

    Once the workshop was over it was time for Feminist Question Time back in the main hall, with Shami Chakrabarti, Bea Campbell, Zoe Williams, Carlene Firmin, Matt McCormack-Evans, and chaired by Cllr Rania Khan (who spoke briefly about her work opposing local lapdancing clubs at the start of the day). The panel discussed a range of issues, including representation, the sex industry, the role of men in feminism (which I will come back to in a minute), and lots of other areas which have now escaped me as it has been a very long day! It was an interesting and lively panel, with Carlene Firmin particularly wooing the crowd with her articulate raising of the issue of feminism reaching outwards to engage young and disaffected women who without encouragement and discourse see no place for themselves within the movement.

    There was some cat-calling when an elderly gentleman took a very rambling route towards a point/question, and while I can understand the frustration of those who wanted to move on, I did feel this was a low point of the day for me. I felt really uncomfortable about it happening, not least because I felt there was a certain element of ageism involved. Many people do ramble as they get older going on my experience, and it doesn’t mean they should be silenced. I’m also finding myself increasingly irritated by the standard dismissive line of “what about the menz” which a small but vocal minority seem to bring up whenever mens activity within the movement is discussed, and which was being expressed by a couple of people behind me when the sole man on the panel was clapped for talking about the need to engage men as feminist activists. This is something which as a marxist feminist (and a mother of a young son) I have strong opinions about too. Yes, occasionally a male comes along to a feminist event and is very vocal and dominates discussion (although there are plenty of female participants who do this too). However, in general for a lot of men coming along to a feminist event, knowing there is a small minority of radical feminists who don’t want them, and the micro-social group is one in which they are a minority. As a marxist feminist I firmly believe there is a lack of a strong, feminist critique of the systematic way in which the capitalist patriarchy hurts (mainly working class) young men. Who are the cannon fodder in the war machine? On a more local level, young women suffer horribly from the gang culture which grows out of poverty and marginalisation, but this is not to say young men don’t suffer from it too - how many die per year from knife crime? They are all somebody’s son, and they entered this world as blank and blameless as the next baby, to be manipulated by a system which may give them more power than women in most areas but it is not as simple as the oppressor and the oppressed for me. This is before any kind of analysis of the extent to which macho culture stifles the creativity and development of the young men who are as imprisoned by it as the women they victimise.

    Lastly, three out of four of the London mayoral candidates took part in a q and a - Boris for some reason didn’t want to face us. It was interesting for me (although as I live in the west midlands arguably some sort of other option might have been useful, though I can appreciate the need to have a big audience to add to the appeal for candidates to come along. I will probably write about this for Labour Left tomorrow as it has been a very long day, but in summary, I felt that Ken was charismatic (if in places misguided) and generally very clear, the woman representing the green candidate was evidently fully engaged in feminist issues, and the Lib Dem candidate was something of an enigma, seeming to distance himself repeatedly from his party and his previous role in the police but taking a more partisan aggressive line on the other candidates than either of the others. I will be interested to see if the panel take up Kat Banyard’s challenge to don a muff and join the “muff march” (does sound like a feminist parody and perhaps not going to do much work in engaging “women not normally defining themselves as feminist” but highlighting the very serious issue of the rise of vagina surgery in the increased intrusion of public artificial norms on women’s bodies) down Harley Street.

    I feel like I have been sounding quite negative up to this point but the day itself was really positive. I first heard of UK Feminista when I was asked to speak on a panel about everyday activism at the summer school this August, and when I actually went along I was really excited to see how big a thing it actually was = bigger still now and it is really positive to see the movement on the rise. Kat Banyard has worked immensely hard to bring everything together and as I commented earlier clearly continued to work hard through the day. There is no trace of egotism in her manner and it is great to have someone so committed to bringing forward a unified feminism doing all the work she does. We absolutely have to stand together and keep pushing forwards as a sisterhood - a shared sisterhood built on a recognition of the many fronts of power and exclusion, built on positive and dialectic spaces for debate.