Right answers to the right questions: An Interview with Richard Seymour on Feminism and the Left

by Ankica Čakardić on December 7, 2013

Can you comment on SWP “crises” and the relation between feminism and leftism in general?

The SWP crisis begins with the leadership’s failure to apply even its own stilted and dogmatic version of women’s liberation politics to allegations of rape by a senior party member.  The leadership began by trying to implement a cover-up, and persisted with this until it was no longer sustainable.  At that point, it began a campaign of lies and intimidation against dissident members, including a number of expulsions.

This is shockingly at odds with my previous experience of the SWP.  As a grassroots member, it was always clear that sexism was not tolerated at any level.  The party always enforced a rigid distinction between feminism and women’s liberation; eschewing the former, it claimed to practice the latter.  This was partially based on a series of caricatures of feminism, and dogma inherited from political battles fought in the 1980s.  Nonetheless, sexism was not tolerated.  Sexist jokes, anything that could constitute harassment or aggression, were simply unacceptable.  In most cases, if there was a report of domestic abuse, for example, the accused would be expelled or suspended, on the strength of an allegation.  It would then be up to the comrade alleging abuse whether to go to the police.

In retrospect, though, it seems obvious that there must have been an implied double standard, since the pattern that has emerged is that people with institutional authority within the party have been coddled.  This would make sense, because the party has a very hierarchical culture.  Although it doesn’t have a huge apparatus of rules, it has a fairly large bureaucracy for such a small party and a great deal of status and relative privilege accrues to those who achieve a bureaucratic position.  This also helped explain why the leadership would not accept that there was anything wrong with a rape allegation being investigated by a panel consisting of friends, political subordinates and associates of the accused – they insisted that the ‘cadres’, meaning the anointed bureaucracy, had a special ‘political morality’ that meant they would not be biased in such cases.

All this raised a number of questions.  First, if the party’s practices could not safeguard women, what sort of practices could?  Second, if the party’s gender politics remained stuck in inherited dogma, what new perspectives did we need?  Third, if the party leadership was able to protect leading members from rape allegations, and systematically deceive members, what did this say about the party democracy which was constantly extolled?  What would a real democratic party look like?  And if this resulted in a cultish logic, according to which ‘cadres’ are insusceptible to the flaws of the normal human being, how long had such cultishness been lingering below the surface?  What were its causes?

Finally, since the leadership insisted on banging the drum for ‘Leninism’, accusing opponents of ‘autonomist’ and ‘creeping feminist’ deviations, we had to ask what Leninism really meant.  Because our understanding of the historical phenomenon of ‘Leninism’ was profoundly at odds with the bureaucratic, top-down structures that we had encountered.  If that historical experience is of value to political organising today, and I think it is, we have to radically revise our understanding of it.

I can’t say that we have answered all these questions; we are working out the answers to them in practice.

Would you say that emancipatory practice is more feasible within the organised, institutional Left, or, rather, that it can be fully developed only within leftist subpolitics: direct democratic strategies, fight for commons, the Occupy movement, union and student struggles…

I think the existing institutional Left is inadequate, bearing too many accretions of dogma, sectarian practices and control-freakery.  However, I don’t think subpolitics is sufficient either.  Speaking from the British perspective, the problem we have faced in this crisis has been that there has been a great deal of social struggle over the last thirty years, but few of its successes were institutionalised in a viable way.  The old forms of representation and condensation within parties, alliances, unions and so on have been breaking down, but nothing new and sustained has begun to replace or abut them.

It is an open question exactly what forms institutionalisation should take, and this will vary depending on the needs of given national contexts.  Nonetheless, I think the emergence of radical left-of-social-democracy formations across Europe indicates that there are some shared conditions, viz. the degeneration of social democracy, the unwavering advance of neoliberalism, the secular breakdown of trade unions and so on.  So we have to study groups like Syriza, NPA, Front de gauche, Rifondazione, Left Bloc and so on, and work out what how such groups succeed or fail.

In connection to this, are the parliamentary Left and non-institutional left movements separate fields of practice, or it is indeed possible to simultaneously work within the both?

It depends on who you are, what kind of organisation you have, and what kind of base you represent.  In general, I think we need radical left formations which have both a parliamentary and extra-parliamentary presence.  A narrow parliamentary strategy would be doomed as the institutions of the state and the languages of state policy are heavily pre-structured against achieving radical, left-wing objectives.  However, parliament matters.  Even if it is a less powerful state apparatus than the unelected bureaucracy, it is a terrain of political and ideological struggle, and achieving parliamentary representation opens up a certain space within the dominant media and it begins to change the way in which political questions have to be phrased by the main neoliberal parties.  It also permits, within certain limits, concrete, short-term achievements, reforms that make people’s lives easier and moderately alter the balance of class and other political forces.

Moreover, extra-parliamentary struggles in this conjuncture are likely to raise the question of governmental power – to stop austerity and try to implement a resolution of the crisis.  I think achieving governmental power for the radical Left would be an important pedagogical moment, if nothing else.  That may be something that revolutionaries want to take a strategic distance from, as they may not want to bear responsibility for the compromises and pro-capitalist policies that would follow from taking office.  The experience of Rifondazione is still very fresh in the memory.  Nonetheless, even if they don’t want to take office, they should support others in doing so and see it as a complex part of their own strategy.

Which social movement-alliances do you find important and necessary for current feminist leftist struggle?

I suppose that depends entirely on the axis of struggle and where it’s located.  In general, I think the principle of ‘intersectionality’ should be respected.  That is, it won’t help to try to keep the struggles narrowly focused on neatly demarcated gender issues, because very quickly their other dimensions – to do with race, class, empire, sexuality and so on – start to unravel.  In order to be a consistent feminist, one has to care about the needs of working class women, black women, gay women, and so on.  So, it requires broad systems of alliances, linking diverse and occasionally antagonistic subject-positions.  Beyond such generalities, I can’t say.

The result of “add on” strategy (Women, LGBT, race/nation/ethnicity are, for instance, added to the “dominant” leftist questions – something we can witness at different conferences, festivals, round tables and similar) is that socialist feminism, which largely contributes to a systemic analysis of oppression, is sidelined; the result of this is the impoverishment of the analysis of economic exploitation and oppression. Would you agree?

Yes, I think I would.  I think the idea of ‘adding on’ hitherto excluded or marginalised groups means that you try incorporate them into an existing paradigm that is conserved; but the existing paradigm needs to change.  So, for example, traditional workerists might be persuaded that it is necessary to ‘add on’ women’s struggles, but they will attempt to do so within the narrow terms of their existing analyses, without reconsidering the terms of their analysis of, say, production and reproduction.

The artificial division of labour is a fundamental element of supporting class system and patriarchy in capitalism. What do you think could be the most valid methodological approach in dealing with the problem of patriarchy and capitalism? Do you find the anthropological explanation (division of labour is a result of women’s pregnancy and them staying at home) of women’s oppression helpful in the explanatory level of the question of women’s subordination?

I have some reservations about this.  The virtue of such a theory is that it points to the importance of social reproduction, and that is where I think the link between gender and the mode of production is most obvious.  Social formations are reproduced as much in the household, in Althusserian terms the family ISA, as in the workplace.  And this is the privileged sphere where gender ideologies, as material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals, are communicated and reproduced.  It is also where the division of labour is most obviously gendered.  This is why socialist-feminists such as Silvia Federici and Selma James were right to highlight the ‘hidden work’ of women – hidden because it was not waged.

That said, I think it is unhelpful in a number of ways to try to base the explanation of women’s oppression in a transhistorical structure of male domination, which can somehow subsume all mechanisms and relations in which the subordination of women has historically been secured under a single logic.  It is empirically unsustainable, and it relies on a conception of social causality which is too simple – as if the incredibly complex social constructions of gender can be reduced to expressions of an essential anthropological cause.

I also think there’s a particular politics motivating this, which needs to be problematized.   The old ‘socialist’ regimes were marked by pronounced sexual hierarchies.  For left-wing feminists, this meant that the abolition of classes did not necessarily mean the abolition of gendered oppression.  The basis of this inference has to be contested – these ‘socialist’ societies had not abolished classes or exploitation.  They were basically developmental regimes that were playing catch-up with the advanced capitalist core, and the irony is that they dramatically increased the rate of exploitation in order to do so.  How they organised the social and sexual division of labour had a lot to do with those imperatives.  So, to an extent I think the anthropological solution is the wrong answer to the wrong question.

Could the topic of unproductive work in the context of social reproduction become the point of articulation for the contemporary left feminism, and even the Left as such?

Yes, particularly in the era of neoliberal austerity, and the frontal assault on the social wage.  The idea that money which is spent on social benefits is ‘wasted’ assumes that raising children or caring for the elderly is somehow ‘unproductive’.  The neoliberal mantra is that if it doesn’t happen on the market, it is unproductive  – even though, through benefits, the labour has been assigned a cost and value; and even though the health, care and socialisation of the population is part of the extended reproduction of capitalism, and of the social formation in which capitalism has taken root.  This is obviously highly gendered.

One can potentially link this to the old Marxist debates about what constitutes productive vs. unproductive labour.  The latter distinction is based on which labour is directly involved in the production and realisation of surplus value, and which is not.  It might be argued that the distinction is based on an old gendered dichotomy between masculine and feminine types of labour, and that since everyone is involved at some level in the production of surplus value, the distinction is unsustainable.  I don’t see it that way: I think there is an important strategic distinction between labour which directly produces surplus value, and that which does not; because labour which does produce surplus value has more disruptive capacity, and thus more potential power, than that which does not.  It is probably not useful to characterise these as ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ forms of work, especially given the gendered connotations of such language, but that’s what the distinction was supposed to refer to.  Incidentally, I don’t think that’s the only strategic distinction which matters, and nor is the ability to strike the only form of disruptive power available to us.  But there is something to the distinction.

We are aware of co-optation of feminism since the 1970s, which resulted in the problem of NGOs/NGOization/neoliberalization of feminism and state outsourcing the feminist (and many other) issues to the NGO sector. So, what is actually the relation between the state structure and feminist/women’s issue, and why is the state important when it comes to women position and their material status? 

I think the state is important because it is the strategically privileged terrain from which politico-legal and ideological forms of gender are fought over and institutionalised.  It is not just that ideological-state apparatuses such as schools and state media, or repressive-state apparatuses such as the police or armed forces, play a dominant role in organising the material practices of gender ideologies.  It is that even the supposed ‘outside’ of the state, the ‘private’ sector of families and markets and civil society is thoroughly constituted by the state; the public-private dichotomy is internal to the state and its legal classifications.  So, the state has a lot to do with whether or not women are paid for housework, or are subject to arbitrary domestic violence, or have workplace rights such as maternity leave, and so on.

With that said, I want to take a detour into what neoliberalism has done to feminism.  Neoliberalism promotes a particular conception of the market as a superior information processor, the only efficient aggregator of all the fragmented pieces of information distributed throughout society.  It urges people to submit to the emergent order of the market, and to abandon any attempt to achieve a total perspective on society and how it might need to be altered – because neoliberals say we can’t achieve that, and any attempt will put us on the ‘Road to Serfdom’.  Instead, we should see ourselves as entrepreneurial agents, capable of transcending the resistant realities of socially constructed genders, races and so on through innovative transformations of the self.  If we bet on the market and lose, that is simply an aspect of risk, not a structural feature of the system; we should learn from our losses and try again.  The worst thing that can happen, according to this perspective, is for the state to get involved in supporting ‘losers’.

There is a pseudo-feminist position available in this – I hesitate to even call it pseudo-feminist, because it is actually profoundly anti-feminist, but its advocates often adopt a faux sympathetic posture.  Neoliberals accept that there is such a thing as sexism, but they mean something quite different by it – they refer to male attitudes which can be ascribed to atavistic impulses, or forms of male solidarity which can be linked to pre-modern social forms.  They say that these can best be overcome by letting the market decide everything.  Thus, for example, the ‘career woman’ can be seen as a feminist hero not because she attacks patriarchy, but because she has fully assumed the risks of the entrepreneurial self and succeeded.  Better still if she also assumes the many demanding roles of mother, social entertainer, church organist, charity fund-raiser, and perhaps even a certain type of ‘activist’ (of the NGO, TED Talks sort).  Neoliberalism loves to ‘super-mums’ who juggle careers, children and busy social calendars.  This sort of pseudo-feminism is obviously entirely compatible with certain traditionalist gender roles.

The interesting thing about all this is that it certainly doesn’t involve the state retreating from its involvement in sustaining gender roles.  It simply re-organises the state’s role.

Take the example of single mothers.  The state is gradually rolling back benefits for single mothers, adopting instead a disciplinary role.  Instead of fostering the traditional ‘male breadwinner’ type of politics in which women are kept in privatised domesticity, it is attempting to inculcate the love of market discipline and risk in these women.  The state says, instead of languishing in ‘dependency culture’, you will be much better off if you go out and work several jobs to support your child, and outsource the childcare to a babysitter.  You will enjoy the thrill of trying out new selves, betting on new opportunities.  And it will be more efficient to let someone on less than the minimum wage take care of your offspring’s needs.  And the state then implements a series of material incentives and punishments to induce just that shift.  The ultimate goal is to effect a profound subjective transformation, so that government becomes self-government and everyone judges themselves in relation to ‘the market’.  This is not about reducing the size of the state, and it is not really about cutting costs: if anything, it increases the state’s powers of regulation and governmentality.  It is about digging deep down into the micro-physics of subject formation, and installing governmentality at the most atomic level.  If successful, it would dramatically increase the amount of work that women have to do.  Concurrently, it also constructs new gender ideologies and stereotypes to explain the ‘failure’ of the single mother, and sotto voce invites a degree of social sadism as it punitively attacks the ‘loser’.  It makes it much harder to fight and win feminist struggles, because it seeks to undermine the very basis on which a problem like women’s oppression could be recognised, and erode the collective solidarities which could fight it.

Having said all that about neoliberalism, I should stress that this is just one type of gender project, and if it is the dominant form, it is not the only type coming from within the state.  Since the state isn’t an instrument or a thing, but is rather a set of social relations condensed in institutional forms, it can’t be bound to a single gender project.  Rather, what you see is several gender projects being contested within the terrain of the state: in the UK, you could identify: a soft Labourist egalitarianism advanced by the likes of Harriet Harman which organises and represents the feminist struggles of constituents in a moderate reformist project; a traditionalist patriarchal politics advanced by the Tory Right, which is linked to the attempt by (especially bourgeois) husbands and fathers to ‘restore discipline’ in the face of global precarity; and occupying the mass between them but gradually colonising both sides is the neoliberal gender project.  There are not strict boundaries between these projects.  They overlap to an extent.  Nor is the dominance of neoliberal gender politics assured.  But the dominant way in which gender is being reconstructed in the UK is through neoliberal governmentality, and that is how I see the relationship between the state and gender politics at the moment.

How can we work/create strategies on combining feminism and progressive leftism but in order to avoid sexist (and also violent) treatment of women comrades in leftist groups/parties?   

I would be reluctant to pose as some sort of expert on this.  I am aware of practices of ‘transformative justice’ that have been developed by radical communities to cope with sexism and sexist violence, and I’ve been reading up on those experiences.

I think, to help formulate these responses, a good practice might be for women to organise semi-autonomously in caucuses within whatever organisation they are part of, so that they have the space where they can discuss the issues that affect them and how to address it without worrying about being misunderstood or in some way reproved by male comrades.  This flows from recognising the effects of women’s oppression on the relationships between men and women, and the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) biases it can introduce in the psychology of male comrades.

In the International Socialists Network, set up by the first wave of departing SWP members, there is a women’s caucus which addresses issues that specifically affect female comrades.  This doesn’t mean that issues related to sexism are hived off to the women’s caucus, being of no interest to anyone else – but it does mean that discussion can take place without the distorting effects I mentioned.  I think a degree of political confidence in one another is necessary for this to work.  Those not involved in the caucus have to set aside any worries they have about what may be being discussed, if they have any; while the caucus itself ultimately has to be accountable to the wider organisation for the ideas it comes up with.  Fortunately, there is such trust, due in part to the basis on which we left the SWP.

What is the relationship between the workers’ struggles currently taking place in the UK and the labour unions? How many labour unions in the UK use leftist strategies, i.e. are truly struggling for labour rights? How many workers are unionized in the UK? Are there larger unions in the UK which address women’ rights and seek solutions for their unpaid work? How would you comment the recent claim how Margaret Thatcher saved Croatia?

It is very difficult to embark on a labour struggle in the UK unless you are unionised.  About six million workers are unionised, but this is falling over the long-term.  And the unions are themselves weakened by anti-union legislation, a legacy of harrowing defeats, a deeply conservative culture in the leadership, and the tendency toward ‘bureaucratisation’ wherein more and more power flows to the unelected officialdom and away from grassroots members.  Whereas there was once a ‘rank and file’ movement in the UK, based primarily on shop stewards who were elected but not part of a formal union apparatus, it no longer exists.  Nor are there any big powerful battalions capable of waging set-piece battles with the government.  This means such struggles as do occur tend to be either localised, or highly top-down, as in the ‘bureaucratic mass strikes’.

As for ‘leftist strategies’, there isn’t a great deal of that.  There is a history of unions supporting and funding worthwhile struggles, such as the anti-war and anti-fascist movements.  There are some moves toward ‘social movement unionism’ on the part of the Unite leadership, which are positive, and some unions are backing wider anti-austerity initiatives.  But as regards substantive industrial action, the more militant unions tend to be the smaller unions, and ironically they include professional associations which have historically been quite conservative – such as the Royal College of Nurses.  But their battles thus far are mainly defensive – pay and conditions fights.  I’m also unaware of any attempt by unions to directly address the question of unpaid work, such as household labour.  This would require strategies that go well beyond their current repertoire.  Nor are there any serious strikes over equal pay, for example.

As regards Thatcher ‘saving’ Croatia, I understand that Tudjman was very fond of her and that she supported Croatian independence.  Despite her having attended Marshal Tito’s funeral, it was predictable that she would back what she perceived as a war of liberation against ‘communist Serbia’.  Her speech in Zagreb in 1998 did Tudjman the courtesy of endorsing ‘Operation Storm’, something that most Anglophone political leaders would hesitate to do in public.  On the other hand, I was surprised to see the tributes to her from Croatian sources.  Whatever one thinks of secession from Yugoslavia, I don’t think her role was terribly important.  She was no longer Prime Minister and, while she undoubtedly had some diplomatic influence, it seems a stretch to say that she ‘saved’ Croatia.  Perhaps it has to do with her symbolic role as a leader of European reaction, a pole star of anti-socialist politics.  But in that very role, she advanced the processes of privatisation and debt accumulation that contributed to the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia.  So, whose interests did she ‘save’?

(originally published at Zarez in Croatian, translated by Nikolina Rajković, and at Lenin’s Tomb in English)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

shakira red tube March 14, 2015 at 2:50 pm

If they take away the only way they know how to decompress,
they will go crazy. Eliminates all bad stimulus and
allows for unlimited good stimulus. This underlying fear
can result in manipulative behaviors that overfocus on maintaining
another person’s presence and approval.


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