Saturday, 16 February 2008

Sisters and power

Some light exchanges from the previous Zenpolitics posting has me reflecting on the varying motivations of women in political life.

As intimated, geneticist Steve Jones has already documented the gathering 'redundancy' facing the male of the species, an outlook which, alongside the apparent soaring of girls' academic performance over boys', suggests a gloomy prognosis for the male power-seeker.

Ergo, for all of us other over-inflated male egos. Ah, well, if any other woman tells me I'm useless, I can always just blame it on evolution.

But while the 'glass ceiling' for women in politics may have been 'shattered', the recent record and current prospects of a female-led politics of humanity is despairingly bleak.

With Hillary Clinton promising to re-cast the US of Amnesia as a more caring, sharing land for the forgotten poor, we can be reasonably sure that, as with her spouse's past promises, any 'new female deal' won't be at the expense of the private health insurance companies or the corporate beneficiaries of America's war economy.

Ascendancy to the Oval Office carries hopes for many of a new politics in the making. But, of whose making? Beyond the symbolic novelty of the White House's first lady not to be just the First Lady, are we persuaded by the suggestion that "change" means anything other than a moderated version of corporate-ordered 'democracy'? Are we really to believe, beyond the glaring fascinations of our slavish media, that this 'sister' is remotely intent on changing anything?

Whether elected or not, Clinton's political rise has been assumed as a defining statement of 'woman power'. It's part of the same bourgeois conceit that 'career fulfilment' and 'market success' represent the pinnacle of female liberation.

In fact, while more women are, thankfully, making greater headway in public and political life, the unthankful truth for the vast majority of women is a lifetime of service-sector wage slavery as well as all the perennial bonds of domestic 'duty'. In short, most women are worse-off in the great gender re-division of labour with all its promised liberations and remunerations.

Maggie and the clones

And, here in Britannia modernica, we have our former dear leaderene to thank for much of that. It's a cruel irony that Margaret Thatcher was instrumental in actually setting women back so much.

Thatcher infamously asserted that there is "no such thing as society". Need we recall the brutalisation of the society she presided over?

Actually, yes, for it reminds us very starkly that the present generation of defeated youngsters and the brutalised locales they inhabit owes much to the inhuman philosophy of selfish individualism she idealised. And if that's not a central issue for how we advance a more caring (female?) politics, I don't know what is.

While many, male and female, from all classes, recorded their outright or sneaking admiration for this 'game woman in a man's world', the neoliberal policies Thatcher enacted were laying the blueprint not just for the destruction of whole communities but for the Blairite development of that amoral project, with all the widening inequalities we see today.

It's notable that one of the first Downing Street guests of the man responsible for mass crimes in Iraq was none other than the Iron Lady. Blair, no doubt, wanted his own 'Falklands legacy'. Perhaps Iraq was the Thatcherite realisation of his 'female side'.

In desperate need of a politics that cares about how to redress such social breakdown, we see nothing but vacuity in the current crop of female notables. From Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith, Wendy Alexander and other New Labour she-clones to erstwhile Thatcherites lke Ann Widdecombe, the female parliamentariat has failed to offer the first inkling of how a compassionate politics might be constituted.

Wedded to power

We need, of course, little reminding that men have been responsible for the vast proportion of wars, genocides and atrocities in this world. Yet, we are all, male and female, capable of being co-opted and corrupted by power. Lynndie England, who eagerly participated in the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, is a frightening case in point.

I've witnessed female Israeli soldiers and border officers act as if they took their cues from the Gestapo handbook. From the standard uniform to the power suits and dresses of high political office, a disturbing transformation seems to takes place when men or women secure even a modicum of authority.

And, on the big political stage, that usually coincides with a basic adherence to dominant interests. Again, Hillary might represent for many, men and women, that longing, liberal hope of a 'more feeling' 'female America'. But, of course, like Obama, she wouldn't even be in the running if she harboured the slightest threat to corporate America and the Wall Street mandarins who really run the country.

As the ever-cogent Pilger puts it:

"That the leading Democratic candidates are a woman and a black man is of supreme irrelevance; the fanatical Condoleezza Rice is both female and black. Look into the murky world behind Hillary Clinton and you find the likes of Monsanto, a company that produced Agent Orange, the war chemical that continues to destroy Vietnam. One of Barack Obama’s chief whisperers is Zbigniew Brzezinski, architect of Operation Cyclone in Afghanistan, which spawned jihadism, al-Qaeda and 9/11."
Clinton has always proclaimed an independent spirit, showing her 'I'm no Tammy Wynette' fortitude during the Lewinsky saga. But where was her (and America's) indignant hurt or human outrage over Bill's order to drop Cruise missiles on an aspirin factory in Sudan on the spurious pretext that it was procuring weapons? More appallingly, where was her (or America's) shame over the president's direct part in the sanctions policy that, by all official UN accounts, saw the deaths of at least half a million Iraqi children? Like Cherie with Tony, Hillary has 'stood by her man' in basic denial of her partner's crimes against humanity.

Recall, also, that it fell to another female Clintonite, Madeleine Albright, to state the immortal words when asked by CBS reporter Lesley Stahl if the deaths through sanctions of half a million Iraqi children was a price worth paying. Albright replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it." Despite later expressing regrets over the utterance, she remains convinced of the case for the sanctions that caused those deaths.

Female icons

Among the now-expanding list of female prime ministers and presidents, iconic political women have nurtured the hopes and devotional support of third world nations. But, few were radically concerned with replacing their internal systems of privilege. Indira and Sonia Gandhi's National Congress may have defended a secular politics for India, but it spawned and continued a party nepotism more concerned with political security and pandering to Western capitalism than addressing the country's vast caste and class inequalities.

More 'romantically', Eva Peron advanced female suffrage and welfare gains for the poor in Argentina. But Peronism was always a cult conservative politics of top-down 'reform' with neo-fascist leanings, not a movement to revolutionise the society.

Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri, likewise, lived-off her father's reputation rather than challenge the ruthless IMF neoliberalism that has ravaged her country.

The recently-assassinated Benazir Bhutto maintained a loyal populist following. But she also presided over a corrupt and venal regime, paying the ultimate price in the latest contest to become Washington's favoured proxy over Musharaff.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir - who held the "Iron Lady" epithet long before Thatcher - is a more fearsome example of the emboldened female blind to the injustices of the system she lovingly upheld. Here's how Meir neatly rationalised the ethnic cleansing of Palestine:

"There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? ... It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist."
From the "they did not exist" 'logic', it was an easy step for Meir to the corollary that Israel could not return what it had appropriated:

"How can we return the occupied territories? There is nobody to return them to."

"Arab sovereignty in Jerusalem just cannot be. This city will not be divided—not half and half, not 60-40, not 75-25, nothing."
A denial of existence typifying the zero-sum bluntness we see today over Israel's 'final status' demands.

Like Mrs T, Meir wasn't just being 'a female in a man's world'. Both, like their male peers, were knowing and willing players in a politics of naked aggression, greed and self-preservation - in sum, a politics of inhumanity.

This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood at a joint press conference with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert reaffirming her unwavering support for Israel. One might, of course, recognise the sensitive implications of such a 'special alliance'. But why should that preclude Merkel from condemning the state of Israel for persecuting the Palestinians? Where, in short, is Merkel's concern for the ongoing victims of the Holocaust?

Adherence to neoliberal orthodoxy is, likewise, consistent across the spectrum of female leaders. From the disastrous privatisation policies of Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark in New Zealand to Merkel's welfare cuts and right-wing economics in Germany, there's been no serious deviation from the standard text.

Sisters in strength

And yet, and yet.

I reserve this deep inclination that a 'female politics' can be a force for radical change. Indeed, I'd go further and suggest that it won't happen without that female lead.

For most politicians, male and female, the prime motivation is a desire for office, not a commitment to liberation politics or humanitarian policies. There are, of course, honourable exceptions, as in the brave political leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma.

But it's actually away from the public glare that we see a true female politics in action. In contrast to Clinton's money-driven electioneering, women are taking an emerging role in real political life through NGOs and grassroots organisations, building, albeit incrementally, the kind of lasting communal projects that don't depend on party machines and neoliberal relations.

This is apparent in those parts of the impoverished world the media rarely see fit to mention. For example, the Grameen microcredit Bank in Bangladesh was founded very specifically on the allocation of loans and control to women.

In Venezuela, women are at the heart of the Bolivarian revolution to bring real participatory democracy to the barrios.

Peace movements are also being driven by female influences. At Faslane and other nuclear bases there's a much higher proportion of women demonstrating and being arrested in opposition to Britain's WMD.

While none of this necessarily excludes men, it does suggest a female understanding of power more attuned to the root causes of oppression.

The international network Women in Black, for example, view war and injustice as particular expressions of male power. Founded in defence of Palestinian rights, WiB:

"have a feminist understanding: that male violence against women in domestic life and in the community, in times of peace and in times of war, are interrelated. Violence is used as a means of controlling women. In some regions, men who share this analysis support and help WiB, and WiB are supporting men who refuse to fight. Women-only peace activism does not suggest that women, any more than men, are ‘natural born peace-makers’. But women often inhabit different cultures from men, and are disproportionately involved in caring work. We know what justice and oppression mean, because we experience them as women. Most women have a different experience of war from that of most men. All women in war fear rape. Women are the majority of refugees. A feminist view sees masculine cultures as specially prone to violence, and so feminist women tend to have a particular perspective on security and something unique to say about war."
Unlike Hillary and the mainstream, there's been no shortage of notable radical women throughout history, from Rosa Luxemburg to Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein, articulating a politics of serious change, the kind of change which requires a proven political understanding and concern for how people suffer through brute force and corporate life.

Challenges to that hegemony are particularly evident in the political actions of women running anti-nuclear protests, Palestinian human rights groups, stop-the-war campaigns and multiple other actions concerned with the preservation, rather than elimination, of life. Beyond the adulatory politics around Condi and Hillary, this form of female action at least has the merit of caring about whether people live or die in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine.

Most men, I suspect, will never really understand the deep and, I would venture, more advanced, 'mindset' of women. I gave up a long time ago, happy just to ponder and appreciate the enigma. But beyond the special intuitions and sometimes (with a nod to Kipling) 'deadly wiles' that seemingly drive the female of the species, female liberation of the political, economic and social kind is a process that requires unity of, not a battle between, the sexes.

Sisters and brothers together.



marlene said...

I don’t think prospects are gloomy at all for the male power seekers, social circumstances have not shifted enough to liberate ordinary women into the world of big business and management, the glass ceiling is still firmly in place. For working class women the responsibilities of children, managing a home, caring for relatives is still disproportionate to men. They are roles that women do not necessarily want to give up but they do want be valued. There contribution to the fabric of society is seriously undervalued. Footballers are paid many thousands of pounds a week what does that say about what society values. If it was suggested that women are recognised for their contribution as a carer or childrearing there would major backlash and resistance to tax increases but we pay out billions on side effects of poor social conditions, crime and abuse.

The decreasing birth rate in this country is a consequence of the expense and sacrifice required to raise a family. We have been sort sighted not to value and support women who want to stay at home and support family now the have to work to if the family has to have roof over their head. The hours they contribute in the work place bring back less than what men contribute and the family is turn disadvantaged.

Now Scotland’s population cannot support the services and industries required for a healthy economy the adult available to work to support the children and older people in the population has become disproportionate. While England is bleating on about restricting immigration we need to attract adults to come and work in this country.

So the whole family are disadvantaged in this gender re division of labour and boys and men are worse of for the lack of value placed on the women’s role as mother and wife.

So yes I agree brothers and sisters do need to work together to improve each others quality of life. Tell more men that they do not seem to be listening.

Scotland has it own issues with domestic violence and teenage pregnancies. In Iraq women are being murdered by Iraqi men for what they wear of being teachers girls should not go to school. In the rich civilised Saudi women are not allowed to driver a car alone. It may encourage licentious behaviour. Is that what the men in the country think of themselves that will feel compelled to harass any women who is on their own. How sad I am so glad I am not a man.

Sorry for the rant John glad my earlier” light exchange gave you food for thought” I have gone a bit off track but Hee so what I am a women bit dizzy scatty.

John Hilley said...

Thanks for those comments, Marlene. I, of course, take many of your points, particularly the continued imposition of work and responsibilities on women, with inadequate regard or remuneration.

As you say, "the whole family are disadvantaged in this gender re-division of labour".

In working together, female and male, it's useful to remember what's driving all this social breakdown and inequality: capitalism and the uncaring imperatives of market life.

Best wishes,

Rosie said...

I've just discovered your blog, John (having enjoyed your wise words on medialens for some time). I think marlene is probably right when she says that the glass ceiling is still firmly in place. And whilst those women who wish to enter into the boys' locker room of big business and management should certainly be given a fair go, I sometimes wonder if women have forgotten how talented we are at working underground, at making things happen from another, more covert, level. Operating in this way necessitates putting the ego firmly in its place - one cannot seek public acclaim but do the work in secret and for its own sake. There is much power in letting the world view you as "being no one going nowhere"!

Another reason life is so difficult for women torn between work and children/home is that we do not live in communities, but in domestic isolation. If we were able to share our resources instead of hanging on to personal acquisitions then I feel life would be easier and we would be happier - we are social beings, after all.

Thank you, John.