Saturday, September 03, 2016

Thinking Out Loud

I have been trying to figure out what I don't like about a lot of contemporary political ideas. This is an ongoing process, and I've written about it before. I am talking about sexism here. I could also be talking racism, with the caveat that racism does not precede capitalism and colonialism. These three come together. I could be talking about class, how the 1% rips off everyone else. I could be talking about all kinds of prejudice and oppression, how they influence and reinforce each other. But let's stick with women.


Sexism is a world system. Men as a group oppress women as a group. This true everywhere, though details vary. There are more and less oppressive societies, societies that allow men to assume female roles and women to assume male roles, societies that allow for more than two sexes. But most women in the world (it seems to me) deal far too much with poverty and violence, work too hard and get too little, especially too little freedom. I don't think we can ignore them. As Solomon Burke sings, "so long as one of us is in chains, none of us is free."

We have to oppose the entire system, and the only way to fight it is to see it as a system. It precedes capitalism, though capitalism has put it to good use. Women are more likely than men to be poor, badly educated, badly paid, abused, enslaved... Some individual woman have always been able to make space for themselves: Elizabeth I and Hatshepsut. (It helps to be royal and lucky enough or ruthless enough to be the heir.) But most cannot. The problem of sexism -- like the problem of capitalism -- cannot be solved by individuals.


The categories that the system uses cannot be waved away. If categories such as male and female are ignored, then it becomes much more difficult to see the oppressive system. This does not mean such categories are real. It means they are real within the system, and system is real. In the same way, in order to see the system of racism, one has to see race as the system defines it.


Solidarity is essential. In order to struggle against sexism, women must recognize their common problems and the strength they have when unified. Sisterhood is powerful. My favorite surly political scientist, Adolph Reed Jr., calls identity politics the neoliberal form of progressive politics, because it focuses on the individual: the struggle of single people to self-actualize and to confront other individuals who are oppressive. This is not enough. People working together must change the world system.


Action is necessary. Words are important, but so are picket lines and demonstrations, passing new laws, electing new governments, changing social structures... Endless arguments about the right names for oppressed groups does not constitute adequate political action, though names do matter. I remember when women made a big deal about not being called girls, and black men made a big deal about not being called boys. But changing names is not enough. If your preferred weapon is words, then write to educate people about the world, humanity's past and what the future might be like. Develop an analysis of the human condition that helps people understand their lives and helps them to change their lives.

Right now I am cheered by Black Lives Matter, the struggle for a $15 minimum wage and the Native American demonstrations against the pipeline which threatens Lakota land and water at Standing Rock. All these people have their bodies on the line.


Obviously people should work on their own lives. There is no reason for you and I to suffer, if we can make personal changes. But that is not politics, and that is not struggling for systematic change. I realize I am arguing with the famous Feminist slogan: the personal is the political. In a sense the slogan is correct. We experience prejudice and oppression personally. But solving your own problems does not solve larger social problems. As far as I know, Elizabeth I did little for women's rights in 16th century England.

Second PS:

This is very much a work in progress. I am thinking out loud. I don't know how to handle gender fluidity, except I think -- at least at present -- fluid people remain within an oppressive system. It's possible that capitalism, a very flexible system, can adjust and come to terms with sexism and racism, homophobia and transphobia while continuing to oppress and exploit most people. But this hasn't happened yet. It's important to remember that any oppressive system needs ways to divide the people who are oppressed and to distract them from the reality of their situation. Prejudice works in the service of oppression.


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