What's it going to be - Feminism or fascism?
Most of us have already made our choice.
I’ve known the brilliant journalist and broadcaster Sibel Schick for years, and I was overjoyed when she asked to interview me about Sexual Revolution when I was in Leipzig earlier this year. This is a cleaned-up and extended English version of the interview -the German version is available here along with some fun photos I tried not to giggle my way through.
S: The first sentence of your book Sexual Revolution is "this is the story of the choice between feminism and fascism". But fighting against fascism is not really the focus of mainstream feminism, is it?
It depends what you mean by ‘mainstream’ feminism. When I was growing up in the late 90s and early aughts, in a very white part of England, the feminism I was aware of was focused on middle and upper middle class, straight, white women. That’s what we usually mean by the mainstream.
S: I mean the kind of feminism you call ‘having it all feminism“ in your book.
That sort of ‘mainstream’ feminism is the sort of feminism that can be incorporated within the dominant thought structures of neoliberal capitalism without challenging the system. It’s the sort of feminism that does not really require men to change.
And that sort of feminism is not anti-fascist, because it does not have the capacity to actually challenge the authoritarian tendencies within our social structures. But even so, even with the limited changes that a century of women’s liberation has brought about, there is a growing backlash- and that backlash is a big part of what is driving the modern far right
I use ‘fascism’ and ‘the far right’ interchangeably in this book, in part because the logical conclusion of the modern far right is fascism- but partly because English speaking readers need to understand that these sort of movements do not only exist in history, in ‘other’ countries.
You see, members of racist, religious extremist groups in North America and Britain take great pride in being from countries that ‘beat the Nazis’ in the 1940s- it is central to their identity to believe they are the ‘good guys’ of history. And then when you try to speak about slavery, or about the British Empire, there is a huge and violent reaction.
But the history of feminism grew out of the movements to destroy slavery and colonialism, too. These things have always been connected.
S: Do you think the choice between feminism and fascism is easy?
You wouldn’t think the choice between fascism and feminism would be as difficult as it seems to be. But there are a great many people, men in particular, who simply cannot deal with the prospect of a world where they are not entitled to certain services from women- and that idea is even more frightening to them than the return of authoritarianism. At least with authoritarianism, a lot of young angry men who want to feel like heroes think they know what their role would be. But for most people in the world, when it comes down to it, the choice between feminism and fascism will be made on instinct. Many people have already chosen a side. They just don’t know how to name it yet.
When people come together in solidarity to create communities of care and resist the logic of violence and coercion, that is feminism
S: When I imagine someone who would rather choose fascism - I wouldn’t know how to make them choose feminism instead. Is it even possible?
When I talk about this, I am often asked how I plan to ‘persuade the other side’. That’s not point of the writing I do. I am much more interested in writing that gives people permission to know what they already know.
People who have chosen a dark and violent path in politics don’t like to have their mistakes pointed out to them. We live in cultures based on shame, and for most people the first reaction to being told you are wrong, or doing harm, is to double down and go on the offensive- to protect themselves from moral injury. But it does not do any good to moderate the message.
What does help is to make it clear that there are paths back, that it is possible to change and choose differently in life- and to create a dignified bridge for people to cross back to community
That does not mean ignoring harm done, or tolerating abuse. The same is true within anti-rape activism, for example
S: What is your definition of the political economy of patriarchy?
Ha! Just the easy questions, then. So. When I talk about the political economy of patriarchy, I’m trying to name the fact that the economies we all live in are structured around male entitlement to women’s free labour. On every level- individually and collectively. Patriarchy is a system of dominance and extraction that treats women’s bodies and women’s labour as a natural resource, which men are entitled to make use of collectively and individually-this is the ‘sexual contract’ that props up the social contract of liberal market representative democracy
S: Why do you think work is considered a virtue while in most cases it's actually exploitation?
Within the moral logic of capitalism, human worth is inextricably linked to our individual capacity to be productive in the profit-driven economy. I’m sure you know how that feels. So do I. I can talk about this for days and come up with all sorts of angry opinions, but I’m also a millennial and a second generation immigrant and I find it hard to feel good about myself when I am not being ‘productive’. Mainstream feminism has been co-opted into that inhuman logic, with the idea that the only sort of freedom that matters is the freedom to sell your labour in the same marketplace as men.
Feminism was always about more than that. Feminism has always been about rethinking the concept of work entirely. Because so much of the labour that women are expected do is vital to the function of our societies- it is essential labour- but it is not considered work, and it is underpaid or unpaid, and no room is made for it in the official economy. The idea has always been that it is inherent to women’s nature to do this work - but now that more and more women and girls are simply refusing to do it, economists are rethinking those assumptions very fast!
S: What part does white supremacy play in the political economy of patriarchy?
White supremacy is connected to patriarchy by a common logic of extraction and dominance. If you look at the history of imperialism, our modern ideas of whiteness evolved from the need to explain and excuse the murder and enslavement of millions of people by European colonisers. And myths about gender have always been part of that idea of Whiteness. Myths about Black, brown and colonised men as a sexual threat to white and coloniser women have long been used to justify violent repression - and those racist myths are still current today. We see in Europe, for example, the fearmongering around immigrants and refugees as a unique threat to white women- when, in fact, sexual violence does not come from ‘outsiders’. Most abuse of women and children takes place within the home and within the family unit.
S: You say that the work of care, the work of common survival, has never been more critical than it is now. why do you think that is?
The work of care has never been more critical than it is now because the human species is facing the prospect of relentless, unending, interconnected crises on a scale most of our official economies are simply unprepared for. This is happening as the support structures of social democracy and welfare have already been worn away to almost nothing in many nations, including my own, Britain, which is trying to deal with the impact of a pandemic, the economic fallout of Brexit and now the consequences of war in Europe after thirteen years of imposed austerity. Many people and many families are already desperate and indebted.
But the COVID pandemic taught us that the work that holds society together often isn’t the work of the official, ‘productive’, thing-making economy- it is what David Graeber calls the ‘baseline communism’ that holds capitalism together. That communism is the work of care that has historically been done by women and by low-waged workers of all genders. So anti-capitalism is to me inherently feminist.
S: You say that white capitalist patriarchy will collapse. How can you be sure?
Have you seen the news lately? It already is collapsing. The question is how long it will take and how many of us will be buried in the rubble.
We’re talking now in the third week of Putin’s war of conquest in Ukraine- a war that Russia is currently losing. Putin anticipated a quick and easy victory. And like most tyrants, he has no plan for how to handle failure. That’s why so many military experts all over the world are scared- because it’s clear that Putin would rather destroy Ukraine than accept defeat. Autocrats and supremacists are most dangerous when they are losing.
White supremacist patriarchy is currently more violent, unstable and unpredictable than ever because it is losing. And because it has built a future that simply cannot be fixed with shouting or shooting.
S: What are the parallels between rape culture, capitalism and work?
What links rape culture and capitalism is the logic of exploitation and extraction. And what I say in this book is that the movements of resistance to rape culture and to male supremacy are best understood as movements of collective bargaining, just like any workers’ rights movement. Heterosexuality in particular is a hostile work environment; women and queer people are on strike until conditions improve.
The full interview is available to paid subscribers, along with other special offerings. If you appreciate the work I do and you’ve got the means to support it, I’d love it if you could join the gang. If not, no worries whatsoever. Happy Sunday!