Kicking Off is a Feminist Issue

by John Brissenden, Emma Dowling

Resisting the neoliberal crisis means understanding how it plays out through unequal power relations of gender, race and class.

First published: 08 February, 2012 | Category: Activism, Gender equality, Vision/Strategy

Emma Dowling was a panellist in one of the discussions at last week's event to mark the publication of Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere by Paul Mason. Earlier that day, she discussed her analysis with NLP co-editor John Brissenden.

Your work seems to be very wide-ranging, eclectic almost, and I wondered how you see the themes in Paul Mason's book relating to your work.

It's very interesting that you should say that my work is quite eclectic, because, looking at Paul's book, it spans a lot of different areas as well, ranging from financial crisis and the economy, to struggle, resistance, forms of protest, but also addressing questions of human existence and experience, and what it means to live in a so-called ‘network society'. As he puts it, Paul is trying to understand why it is ‘kicking off everywhere’. He is trying to understand the connections between struggles and the economy. He is also trying to comprehend the technological changes, as well as transformations in the access, circulation and production of knowledge and of information, and how they are changing politics, as well as our sense of self and the ways that we relate to one another. I am also interested in connections.  Like Paul, I am also interested in the question of how we relate to one another, that is, how contemporary subjectivities are produced, and I am also concerned with challenging the notion of an individualised, contained ‘self’ of Liberalism.

However, my focus is less on technology and information and more on the body and its affective dimensions. I’m also interested in making the connections across different subject positions in society, stratified as they are by unequal power relations – by gender, race and class and within a global economy.  For example, we should not just be concerned with the networked  connections between the immaterial labourers of what some have called cognitive capitalism. What matters is how those immaterial labourers –  young entrepreneurial types on their MacBooks sitting in Starbucks, as Paul characterises them in his book –  are connected to those workers in the fields, mines and factories of the world on whose labour the work of the Starbucks youth depends.

The session that you're taking part in this evening - can you tell me a little about that?

The topic of the panel is the Arab Spring and women, as well as gender and social movements more generally.  I was watching an interview with the Egyptian feminist, activist and writer Nawal el Sadawi the other day and she said something very interesting. She said that the Egyptian revolution had managed to cut off the head of the regime, but it had not yet managed to deal with its body. Now, aside from a conversation that we could have about the lack of women’s political representation in government and the struggle of the Egyptian Women’s Union and others to change this, I think that Nawal’s comment reveals a vital feminist orientation. The body has of course always been an important site of struggle for women, in particular in how capitalism has depended and continues to depend upon the control of women’s bodies, our sexuality, labour and reproductive capacities. But I think that the metaphor of the body is also an apt image with which to think about a broader feminist politics that acts upon and from within the body of society, that is, the social body. A feminist politics is very much about how we relate to one another, in so doing challenging conventional modes of politics.

For example, the kinds of political practices that Paul describes in his book, horizontal/non-hierarchical organising, consensus-decision-making, prefigurative practices: these are of course not only practices that were used by the anti-capitalist and global justice movements and are now used in the squares of Syntagma or Madrid, at #Occupy or within the student movement. These are also practices that stem from the feminist movements of the 1970s. Moreover, a feminist politics is concerned with making visible the vast amounts of unpaid labour, mostly done by women, that reproduces the social body and enables it to function. Here in the UK, as austerity hits and we begin to experience the effects of the cuts, we can see that there is clearly a crisis of the social body and its ability to function, and that crisis hits women more adversely because of how women are more likely to be picking up the tab: in terms of either the domestic work they do at home or because female workers are over-represented in most of the sectors that are being hit by the cuts.  

What does that tell you about the current situation and what we may see happening going forward? Taking your point about women in that context?

What it tells me is that we have a lot of work to do. A feminist politics is not simply about making these material relations of power that traverse the social body visible, it is of course foremost concerned with transforming them. If we want a movement that is not only defensive, but can also engage in a progressive struggle towards something better, then we have to be attentive to the power differentials of a gendered as well as racialised society, and the way that that is related to the social organisation of work. Any contemporary movement has to address this, and it is not just the problem of those social subjects directly affected (e.g. women or migrant workers), it is the responsibility of everyone.

Now, with regard to the gendered division of labour,  there is a difference of course, today compared to, say, 30 years ago, when  campaigns around wages for (or perhaps better against) housework, saw the housewife as one of the dominant figures of struggle and of resistance. Today, we're not in exactly the same situation any more, with many more women in full-time waged work, and with the further marketisation of housework, care work and so forth, at least in countries such as the UK. So there are different conditions, but work is still gendered. We see this in the gender divisions of households, that is, of reproductive labour, and we see this the ways that gender is performed, enforced and reproduced in forms of waged work. Here lies one of the unfinished projects, I would say, of the feminist movement: gender and the social organisation of work. Austerity makes this very evident. At the end of the day the cuts are about a disinvestment in the reproduction of labour power, and that falls back onto women to a large degree. 

You used the term "the movement": how would you characterise that? This thing that we call "the movement" is so multi-faceted.

That's a very good question. One of the ways ‘movement’ used to be talked about in the anti- or alterglobalisation movement, was as a ‘movement of movements’. The concern was always to embrace and affirm the diversity of movements that saw themselves as part of the movement struggling against the neoliberal project and for global social justice.  To say there are a multiplicity of movements involved in a movement is also to say that movement is not necessarily a discrete entity that you can point to – somebody you can call when you want to speak to ‘The Movement’ - but that there is a movement that moves and (hopefully) transforms social relations –

– So it's a direction of travel?

That's right, exactly. So taking the word quite literally, it's a movement that's involved in changing the relations of power in society. So it's fine to see the various struggles converging, and engaging in struggles all over the world, but they are still part of this movement, that transforms and is transforming as it moves.  That doesn't mean that there aren't conflicts and differences between those movements, or even within them, because what is really important about what is going on at the moment, and also what was really important in previous cycles of struggle, is that movement is in itself a process. It's not just that you have a goal, and you deploy whatever tactics you use in order to get to that goal. Participating in movement is about prefiguring the world that you want to be living in. It's about, in the here and now, using and bringing into being the kinds of democratic practices, as well as the kinds of material solidarities and collective processes that are desired across differences.  So that movement is conflictual, it's diverse, but it's moving and transforming in the process.

I'd like to ask you about that word "resistance". I was very struck, but also very troubled by, your analysis of, for example, the Big Society¹. The power differentials that you've talked about, as you say affect women disproportionately, and there are women who may be unemployed, may be working in very low-paid, very precarious environments, service workers, care workers and so on. You talk there about spaces of solidarity and bonds between individuals and groups: how can women in those kind of situations, who are being really hammered right now, resist? What opportunities do you perceive for resistance by and with those women?

My first response would be that this is not a question that simply concerns those particular women. It would be about the kinds of solidarities that we find across different workplaces and different struggles. One of the interesting things about #Occupy, is that, even though it started in one place, it emanated out to different places, and different people took initiatives and started occupying other places and being involved in the struggles where they were. That's a metaphor for what could happen more generally, in terms of people being able to connect up wherever it is that they are, in their particular situation and in communication with others.

I wouldn't say that I have a 10-point plan about what women should be doing, but I would say we are part of the movement that needs to have precisely these conversations about what situation do we find ourselves in? What is my situation as a woman working in a university? And how does that relate to the situation of a woman working in the hospitality industry, for example? What brings us together and what keeps us apart? What is our common conversation, and what is our common struggle? And it's those conversations that I think are really important, because they're conversations that can also lead to collective action. So it's connecting up the dots, and also recognising these class stratifications. Only in the conversation, I think, can we actually find the solidarities and the collective processes and action that we need to happen.

What do you see happening in different parts of the world? Paul Mason is, as you say, very much about joining the dots, and seeing the common themes and threads. What's your take on that?

The common thread is that people are rising up against having to pay for the crisis. People realise that, time and again, those in power have not stood up for their interests and their needs, and that a global crisis is being offloaded onto them. Not only are we being made to pay for the crisis, but also many of the promises of neoliberalism - that if you aspire, work hard, get into debt, invest, you will be rewarded - are no longer being fulfilled, or were never fulfilled in the first place. The link between an economic crisis and a political crisis is evident: a crisis in representation, a crisis in access to power. Think of the website where people have been posting their reasons for understanding themselves as part of the 99 per cent, and for participating in protests, it says quite clearly: I am in massive debt, I can't afford healthcare, I'm unemployed, etc etc. The neoliberal deal is broken, and people know that they were either never on the winning side or are no longer on the winning side of that deal, and something has to change.

People are seeing that, clearly, but not everybody is seeing that. At the same time as we talk about 'the graduate with no future', we're also seeing graduates who don't see themselves that way, don't recognise the picture that you've just outlined, at all, and I struggle to reconcile those two things. I wondered what you think about that.

I think we have to understand how much fear and anxiety there is (not to mention depression). One of the ways that neoliberalism governs is through the constant production of anxiety. Precarity is all about producing anxiety, and this permeates people's lives quite considerably. So it's not only fear in terms of the Other, whether the Other is within, or whether the Other comes from without. It's also the fear of "am I going to be able to pay my rent?", "am I going to get a job?" … and the hope that comes with that fear, that maybe there's a chance that I'll be the one who will actually win.

A lot of my students say, well that's just human nature. Human nature is self-interested, selfish. Now we can do an ideology critique of selfishness as human nature, but for a lot of people the reality is that they have to act in that way, because of the material conditions that they find themselves in. Many of us find ourselves in a situation where it feels like nobody else is going to help us if we don't help ourselves. I think it's really the production of anxiety and fear that keeps a lot of people locked in the situations they find themselves in, and the hope maybe they might still be on the winning side, they might be ‘the one’, because that's the neoliberal promise as well, right? If you work hard, if you play the game, then you will rise.

I think the other problem Is that there is a lack of courage to envision concrete alternatives together. It takes both humility and courage to say, "we don't know the answer either, but let’s figure it out together, because that's the process that we think needs to happen in order for change to occur". But that's not the most enticing motivation to take collective action, so there is work that has to be done in connecting up the dots between our different lived experiences and finding commonality. And, also, capital continues to divide and rule. Some people, in relative terms, are still 'winning', or are at least don’t necessarily see the need for something different.

Can I ask you more about your analysis in the ‘Occupy Everything’ essay? You talk about a threefold crisis, and I wondered if you could explain what that threefold crisis consists of, and where it's taking us.

The threefold crisis that I identify begins with trying to understand the current crisis of the state in the way that the economic and financial crisis has become a crisis of the state and a crisis of politics. The fact that the state has to bail out the banks, the fact that it has to offload the cost of bailing out the banks onto its population, creates a crisis that has a number of facets.

Take the slogan "we won't pay for your crisis": if people are not shouting it on the streets, they're certainly thinking it. It's evident that there is widespread knowledge and understanding of precisely what is happening, that ordinary people are being made to pay for the crisis. The many different forms of resistance that have emerged in a year and a half –  protests, strikes, riots, occupations – are indicative of a crisis of legitimacy. In the essay you are referring to, my particular concern was with the Big Society, and across the board (by journalists, civil society organisations and others), the idea of the Big Society has been criticised as a smokescreen for austerity. So, the first crisis I outline in the essay is a crisis of legitimacy, a political crisis in the classic sense of the term.

The second crisis we can identify at present arises out of a fault-line between capital's need to accumulate and the need to reproduce livelihoods on which that accumulation depends. So it is obvious that there is a crisis there too, with the economic crisis and austerity, and questions of how people can afford to meet their needs. So there is a crisis there in terms of the state's involvement with that process, as it retrenches the welfare state even further (it's not like it started retreating with the crisis. We know it started retreating with the introduction of neoliberal policies beginning thirty years ago). It's a problem for us because it becomes harder for us to sustain our livelihoods, but it is also a problem for an economy that needs people to work. So, by deploying discourses of about the devolution of power to communities coupled with the rhetoric of mutualism, the current government obscures the massive disinvestment in the reproduction of labour power by the state and the increase in the amount of unpaid work that will have to take place in the community, because it is not coded as work but a different type of activity, namely ‘social action’. We can see the parallel with what feminists called ‘the work of love’, i.e. the kind of work that is done to reproduce life, that has value for capital in that reproduces labour power, but is not coded as such so as to make it invisible as work.

The third crisis then lies in the need to find drivers of economic growth and the state's role in that process, not through increasing aggregate demand through consumption, which is what a Keynesian model suggests, but in opening up markets, in regulating and disciplining certain governance processes in ways that enable those drivers of economic growth to be valorised by capital. So with the Big Society, the idea that we now can have a more philanthropic, ethical capitalism is about opening up ever more areas of social life to market in a continuation of what happened under New Labour, public private partnerships and private finance initiative. So, you can have a community organisation that says we can provide this particular service, we need the funds to do so, and the state comes and says we will enable the Big Society Bank to come in and give you those funds - if you organise your community service in in ways that enable a return on investment, thus introducing a profit logic. It's there that we understand what it means to say the market has a presence in these different areas of social life. On one hand, there is this rhetoric of mutualism, of community care, which is the working-for-free bit. The other bit is where are the resources going to come from? The resources are coming from private investors, and private investors want a return on their investment.

So we come back to this problem of resistance. The way you've described it, the withdrawal of the state is proportionately less than the massive extension of the logic of capital into the social which it then enables. Clothed in these terms of mutualism and ethical capitalism, and responsible capitalism... value...

...and it all sounds lovely, and a lot of well-meaning people would say that doesn't sound too bad. How to resist that? You say in the essay how we inhabit that world that's being built around us, so resistance, again, becomes very problematic.

It does and it doesn't. On the one hand, the question is what to do about this, because of course for many folks involved in radical politics, self-organisation is a key aspect. So at first sight, there seems to be some kind of concurrence between the struggle for autonomy and the devolution of state power that the Coalition Government is proposing. Yet, there is a fault-line regarding the conditions under which this self-organisation is to take place, and that fault-line we could perhaps characterise as the difference between social solidarity and social value or the valorisation of the social. That is, the difference between how we in our communities want to organise the material sociality of our lives, and the way that business sees an enticing investment opportunity in this precise same sociality, seeking in turn to govern and shape it in ways that make it amenable to producing a return on investment by imposing logics of profitability, cost-saving, competition and so forth.

Consequently, the pertinent question seems to be: what does it mean to resist the imposition of key performance indicators on all aspects of our lives? What can it mean to become ungovernable for this kind of machine? Another is to say, well, if you are decreasing the social wage, if you are disinvesting from the reproduction of labour power, and if you are making us work more for free, pay us a wage. Turn the problem on its head and say, this is work. This is not just me being nice to my next door neighbour, this is work that I'm involved in, and I want to be paid for it. So conversations around struggling for a basic income, a guaranteed social wage, are interesting here. But it also means understanding waged and unwaged work along the same continuum. A reduction of working hours would also be an interesting idea, to frame resistance on this terrain. The important thing is that these issues come to light when we understand the Big Society is about social reproduction and work, as much as anything else.

You also say in your essay that to dismiss the Big Society as some sort of joke is a very dangerous error. Do you have that sense, that particularly on the Left, we're very guilty still of doing that? That we see the Big Society as propaganda, and a gimmick, and that we don't take it anything like as seriously as we should?

I would say that there is a problem around not taking it seriously, but I think there's a difference between taking it seriously in terms of the rhetoric of the Big Society, and taking seriously the material restructurings that are happening. I haven't heard so much recently about the Big Society recently coming from the Coalition Government. That doesn't mean to say that the things that I've been talking about, in terms of the restructuring of our communities and our society, isn't still happening. I do think we need to ask some questions: what does the Public Services (Social Value) Bill say is actually going to happen?  The European Commission has OK'd the Big Society Bank; what is the Big Society Bank? Who's behind the Big Society Bank? It might not be called the Big Society Bank, but what lies behind it?

I'd like to ask you about another aspect of your work, namely democratic governance, for example in the Eurozone and the imposition of technocratic governments and so on.

First of all, I think that every opportunity has to be taken to prise open the spaces of politics that technocracy eradicates. For example, think of how #OccupyLSX politicised the way that ‘health and safety’ regulations were used to try and evict the occupation, by calling the church to account over its ethical commitments, by contesting the democratic accountability of the City of London Corporation, or by making material practices of care and solidarity (i.e. of health, well-being and safety) a key concern of the movement.

Also, I think that transnational connections continue to be important. One of the key things about the anti-globalisation movement was this global terrain as a common site of struggle for movements from many different places. It was, of course, not the first time that people were organising transnationally, but it was a very important part of what people saw themselves doing. Making these connections at the World Social Forums, or at summits, and summit protests was really key. I think what is fantastic about some of the #Occupy stuff is the way that it has grounded a lot of struggles much more in the everyday, in the locations of the City etc., but what can't be forgotten is the connections across national boundaries. It's those conversations that I think we need to be having much more.

For example, what can the movements in Germany do in solidarity with movements in Greece, vis-a-vis their government, that is imposing these structural adjustment policies on Greece? With regard to the North-South divide in Europe, in terms of governance - how do we counter that within our movement? It comes back to what I was talking about earlier in terms of the differences between women, and power differentials between women. There are differences in the way that the crisis is playing itself out within Europe, and we have to have a conversation within our movements across those national boundaries about what is happening, how it is happening, and how we struggle together and assist one another in real solidarity.

So my grounds for optimism - - is that those conversations are taking place. We have to continue them and have more of them. But to my mind, the only way to move forward is from the bottom, from within movements, to continue to challenge what is happening in terms of policy, to continue to challenge the way that the crisis is being offloaded onto ordinary people, and to engage with how to resist that, and how to enact different forms of democratic governance that come from below.

What is really important is continuity. I think that #OccupyLSX for example has had quite a high turnover of people passing through. What is also important is sustainability. I think this issue of communities of care, and how to create them, relates to that. How can we have movements that are sustainable, where we take care of one another? How to find ways not to burn out because we have thrown ourselves heart, body and soul into the urgency of organising in an unsustainable way? And here, I think that creating continuity, not just protest events, is really important.

You were asking me before about forms of resistance against the Big Society. Another issue that comes to my mind is the way that debt is currently being politicised. Think for example of the students and lecturers in the US pledging support for the non-repayment of debt. There is an obvious connection here with the ‘drop the debt’ campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s.

On the question of debt, the banking system is insolvent, but that's not being admitted in polite circles; Paul Mason uses the Alien analogy of the acid blood melting through the world economy; are we looking at things taking a step change for the worse, and we haven't really seen anything yet?

I don't have a crystal ball, so I can't say what is going to happen. I think what is important is, whether we've seen the worst of it or not, I would still take my cue from the well-known maxim: “Don’t panic, organise!” We probably haven't seen the worst of it, but what happens also depends on what we do. We can't see resistance, struggle and protest as separate from what the future may bring, so these things are always interdependent, and it also depends on what we do.

So it's almost the wrong question, in a sense.

I would say the problem with the question in the way that you framed it, is that it creates a sense of panic, and a sense of something overwhelming coming towards us, that we can't really do much about. I prefer to be reminded that a lot of the measures the government wanted to impose, they haven't been able to do precisely because there has been widespread resistance. Just to point to two examples – last month’s announcement by the government against private universities, that's a result of the struggles of teachers, lecturers and students in the education sector. In the same way, the NHS reforms couldn't be pushed through in the way that government wanted to push through with them, because of the resistance they were met with. So that's why I think we always have to bear in mind that struggles matter in terms of what the future holds. 

Emma Dowling is a writer, researcher and activist. She researches the relationship between social and political conflict and governance processes/institutions, and she studies ethics under the rubric of forms of valorisation and measure. One of her current projects looks at the political economy of the UK Government's austerity measures in relation to the concept of 'social value' and the widely criticised notion of a 'Big Society'. Emma also writes about affect and affective labour and her writing on the topic appears in journals such as Ephemera and Cultural Studies ←→ Critical Methodologies.  She is a contributing author to 'Occupy Everything - Reflections on Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere' edited by A. Lunghi and S. Wheeler. Emma lectures at Queen Mary, University of London.

¹1 Lunghi, A., and Wheeler, S. (2012) Occupy Everything - Reflections on Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere . London: MInor Compositions

Front page image courtesy of WarmSleepy at Flickr.

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