I’ve been happy to see Nina Power’s book strike some blood, since this was what she was aiming at. Nothing is worse than missing the artery if you are trying to plunge in a needle. I’m a little less happy that the contretemps immediately got shunted onto a sideline about the issue of elitism, with Jessica Valenti attacking Power for elitism, and Power striking back to deny being tainted with that most monstrous vice.
I think it is symptomatic that as the distribution of wealth in the U.S. and the U.K. has become so monumentally unequal that it would make the slaves of Ancient Egypt gape, “elitism” has become a more common term of abuse. The same people who weep over the very idea that a man or woman who brings home the bacon to the tune of 300 million per year should have to fork over an extra 3 percent of that to the government (it is an oppression like unto throwing our successful entrepreneur into a concentration camp!) are also always ready to denounce elites. But who are these elites? Those who usually have enough cultural power to denounce a society that is so servile as to bow down before entrenched economic, gender and racial power.
Now, though I find the Power-Valenti argument off track, in one sense the question of elitism goes to the heart of Power’s attack on consumerism, which is that it offers false power, based on the reinforcement of a deeply passive attitude towards our present political, economic and cultural arrangements.
Feminism comes from many sources. One of those sources, in which Valenti operates, is accommodating to consumer society – with its affection for positive thinking. This affection has a long history in the U.S., going back, as Ann Douglas showed in Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the twenties, to the convergence of various reform movements – including women’s suffrage – and the advocates of New Thought back in the nineteenth century. Power, on the other hand, comes from another strand of feminism, which mounts a fierce attack on patriarchy as the very template of consumer capitalism. This strand has an affection for the power of the negative. Now, the latter group are and have always been in minority – and in as much as elites are, quantitatively speaking, minorities, it is easy to elide the difference, which is a difference in social power. When the term elite is detached from its relationship to power, and is simply used to paint any minority critique of the social (which must necessarily forge its own vocabulary or be enslaved by the dominant concepts of the time), we are looking at a familiar ideological routine. You don’t have to be Adorno to notice that the simplest credit card form is more ‘elitist’ in using deliberately chosen esoteric concepts to mask entrenched power than the collected works of Alain Badiou – yet the credit card form, as well as all the esoteric, everyday documents by which the middle and working class signs away its freedom, gets a free pass.
I’m reminded of the way Tom Friedman – that paragon of neo-lib pundits – uses the word democratization – as in sentences like, ‘401ks have led to a democratization of the stock market.’ What is meant is the opposite of democracy – that is, a process by which concentrated private power is augmented against the rights of the average person. No doubt, to this mindset, the forced contribution of labor by the serfs ‘democratized’ the wealth of the nobility.
In the same way, Power, by criticizing the abandonment of the attack on patriarchy, becomes an elitist. The deep contempt for the theoretical base of feminism precedes its abandonment as a radical political practice.
And so the story would end – except that it doesn’t. Valenti is right to point out that she hasn’t abandoned political practice. She actually does quite a lot of it. Myself, I’d say that Valenti is working broadly in a liberal – not neo-liberal – vein, under the aegis of ‘softening of manners” and using the state to create reforms. It is the core of the liberal hope, going back to the Scottish enlightenment. It is one thing to take up rape as an exemplary instance of patriarchal power, and another to help find the funding for counseling rape victims and work on making police departments conscious of their very often horrifying behavior vis a vis same. In 1994, when Hilary Clinton went to a feminist conference in Beijing and sounded off, one could say – I’d probably say – that this was hot air. But in fact this had a very powerful affect on third world feminist movements. In Mexico, for instance, it is after that conference that the state was forced to start taking domestic violence crimes seriously, and changed the laws – not enough, not so much that domestic violence is still taken out of the context of ‘reconciling’ husband and wife, but enough that there are now shelters, there are now laws, there are now organizations, etc. Thanks to people like Valenti, this happens.
Valenti’s hope is, I think, that there is a lot more play in the institutions of the liberal order, the order that emerged in the Cold War, to satisfy the need for gender justice. Power’s book poses two questions. One is, how much has the compromise with these institutions cost? The second question is, how much real play is left?
The quarrel arises out of Valenti’s use of ‘accessory’ to describe feminism. That’s a telling metaphor, since the manufacture of accessories, shoes, purses, clothing, have been moved out of unionized first world factories and into maquilladora in the less developed countries. The structures in the first world have adapted – but was this a ruse, a shuffle of the sites of oppression in which the game seems to change, but the same group always wins?
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