The Socialist 20 September 2017 |
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Non-fiction: Bitch Doctrine
Refreshing, anticapitalist - but little pointing way forward
Following the election of Donald Trump millions of women marched around the world in protest, photo Paul Mattsson (Click to enlarge)
Becci Heagney, Salford Socialist Party
Many people, particularly young women, will see their experiences reflected in the pages of Laurie Penny's latest book. 'Bitch Doctrine' features the struggle for abortion rights, the battle against gender stereotypes and the frustration at the little that capitalism has to offer to us.
Penny is clearly anticapitalist, which makes a refreshing change to many writers in the mainstream press who essentially say 'there is no alternative.'
In one of the articles on abortion rights, for example, she argues it is a right for women to have autonomy over their bodies, but also an economic issue: "If there were real choice, real equality, pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood would not come with enormous socioeconomic penalties for all but the richest women."
However, her writing does not focus on what capitalism is and where oppression comes from. Instead it mainly looks at relationships between individuals and language.
Offensive language and behaviour should always be challenged. But to restrict our fight for change to this renders it ineffective.
The book's blurb promises that "these revelatory, revolutionary essays will give readers hope and tools for change." Unfortunately, it disappoints on giving either. In fact it's easy to feel quite depressed after reading Bitch Doctrine.
The first page contains the passage: "As I write, it feels like the world is falling apart. A craven billionaire real-estate mogul and reality television shyster has just been elected to the presidency of the United States, swept to power by a wave of racist rage and violent populism.
"The British government is collapsing after the worst political crisis in living memory, the centre-left opposition is eating itself, bigots are getting brave in the streets and the stock markets are tumbling."
For many people, the crisis of the Tory government after the EU referendum, including the resignation of David Cameron as prime minister, was welcome! The following general election pushed the Tories further into crisis as Jeremy Corbyn's anti-austerity manifesto got massive support in the polls.
Certainly it's depressing that Trump won the US election and that racist attacks are increasing. But is it accurate to say that Trump won because of a "wave of racist rage"?
Penny describes Trump's election as being "about white resentment, which is now among the greatest threats to global society." Racist and neofascist individuals and groups do support Trump.
But he was able to win some working class votes by posing as anti-establishment and promising to bring jobs back to the deindustrialised 'Rust Belt'.
And it wasn't just some white working class people who thought Trump might represent something different - 29% of Hispanic and Asian voters did too.
Trump was able to get away with this argument because his opponent was the neoliberal establishment figure Hillary Clinton.
Penny reflects the defeatism of much of the left in Britain and the US today. "Personally, I spent three days after the [US] election weeping, writing and trying to force food down myself."
Meanwhile, Socialist Alternative (the Socialist Party's co-thinkers in the US) helped mobilise tens of thousands in protests across the country after Trump's victory was announced.
There is very little in Bitch Doctrine that points a way forward for people who are angry and want change.
Instead, Penny puts the blame, several times, on "years and years of rape apologism on the left" or the "inability to deal properly with male violence against women" and a bizarre accusation that "the usual suspects are at pains to point out that geopolitical disaster could have been avoided if we had all been less precious about gay rights and women's rights and black lives and concentrated on the issues that matter to real people."
It's true that some left organisations have unhealthy internal regimes and poor positions on fighting for liberation. But it is wrong to put the whole of 'the left' in this pigeonhole.
The Socialist Party, for example, has always taken seriously any accusation of violence against women within our own ranks.
We reject the idea that "issues of race, gender and sexuality are at best a distraction from class politics and at worst a bourgeois tendency that will be destroyed after the revolution."
On the contrary. We are at the forefront of campaigning not only against austerity - which disproportionately impacts oppressed groups - but also against all bigotry and oppression.
We want to help build a vibrant movement that involves all sections of the working class to tackle racism, sexism, homophobia and all kinds of discrimination - and the capitalist system which perpetuates them.
But it seems that for Penny, power and class do not originate in the structure of capitalist society, but from an individual's position relative to another individual within that structure.
For Marxists, it is more complex than this. Class is key not only because it explains where oppression comes from, but because it unlocks the door to creating a better society.
Being working class is not just about being poor. It's about our collective role within society and the power that gives us to change it.
Imagine the difference we can make if we go beyond just correcting the language used by others to mass strikes and political struggle that could start to build a new, democratic and equal society: a socialist world.