In Australia, the ascent of a female prime minister has brokered an open, passionate embrace of the parliamentary order by several ex-radicals and self-described socialists. Few hints of restraint or scruple are apparent.
The governing party, in turn, has mobilized these feminist courtiers and thrust them to media prominence. With its traditional sources of electoral appeal now exhausted, the ALP plainly seeks, in imitation of the US Democrats, to convert women into a reliable vote-bank, and make its own leader into a celebrity object of adoration.
Thus, in the glare of Klieg lights purposefully re-positioned, feminist intellectuals now operate as canvassers, vote gatherers and general-purpose ideologues, churning out a partisan stream of commentary, advocacy and encomium on behalf of their Labor patron.
Let me give two examples of this phenomenon before trying to explain it.
In 1978 Anne Summers wrote a brief piece in Hecate about Adela Pankhurst Walsh.
The first Women and Labour Conference had just been held at Sydney’s Macquarie University, organized by labour historians including the ex-Stalinist Ann Curthoys.
Summers, like Curthoys a founding member of the Refractory Girl collective, observed a renewed interest within these circles for the ‘unwritten history’ of ‘Adela Pankhurst Walsh’s own intellectual odyssey from her espousal of militant feminism to her decision to reject it and devote most of her energies to the socialist movement.’
In those days Hecate sought what it called ‘contributions employing a marxist or radical methodology to focus on the position of women in relation to capitalism and patriarchy.’
The journal’s founding editor, the Queensland academic Carole Ferrier, helped to establish an Australian section of the so-called International Socialist tendency (to which she apparently remains devoted).
Hecate‘s deputy editor, historian Carmel Shute, was a member of the Communist Party until its 1991 dissolution. Having worked as a union official, she later ran her own PR firm before most recently moving to the National Tertiary Education Union.
Ferrier’s editorial in Hecate‘s third issue (January 1976) noted:
‘Women’s Liberation’ has become big business… Not surprisingly, up-and-coming academics, both female and male, have not been slow to leap upon the profitable women’s studies bandwaggon. Utilizing the increased funding and research facilities available in this field, they are spawning a diverse array of data and theoretical material about the position of women.
Regrettably, one must entertain serious doubts about the worth of many of the new intellectual endeavours that are engaged in under the aegis of feminism. For some academics they provide a fashionable and not too difficult means of ascending the academic ladder.
By 1983, as if to prove the point, Bob Hawke had taken Anne Summers on as an adviser on the Status of Women. By 1987 she assumed the New York-based editorship of Ms. magazine, after Australian media firm John Fairfax Publications acquired the struggling title.
Summers immediately aligned the magazine, now run as a for-profit concern, with the US Democratic Party.
Yet what Summers’s website proudly describes as ‘the second only women-led management buyout in US corporate history’ quickly ended in commercial failure, and Summers returned to accept induction into the Order of Australia and work for Paul Keating’s 1993 election campaign.
Speaking later in an interview from ‘her Upper West Side condominium’, Summers explained that Ms. had needed an update for the 1980s and 1990s.
Under her control, the magazine sought to be ‘a player on Madison Avenue as well as Capitol Hill’:
I think a lot of women, as they started to get good jobs, started having kids, saw themselves developing in all kinds of ways the magazine wasn’t keeping up with. I thought there was a constituency out there I could claim.
More recently Summers has returned to media prominence as an opponent of the ‘political persecution of Australia’s first female prime minister’. She complains that ‘sexist and discriminatory treatment’ (including use of the epithet ‘liar’ to describe Julia Gillard) seeks to ‘undermine her authority as prime minister’ and ‘assault her legitimacy’.
It would be wrong to understand this as merely the natural idiom of la gauche respectueuse, of pleas from the journalistic insider to respect the ‘dignity’ of ‘the holder of our highest office’.
The impulse behind Summers’s appeal is more tawdry.
For neither Gillard’s personal qualities nor her government’s political record suffice to invite loyalty, let alone giddy engouement, from anyone who self-conceives as a feminist.
Even invested with the authority and mystique of office, she is devoid of the magnetism, conviction or aplomb that might otherwise have allowed her to personify female triumph over gender prejudice or any other uplifting popular identification. Nor has her government been willing to dispense the socio-cultural confetti of lifestyle and mores, the sops of symbol and ‘values’ (marriage, faith, etc.), necessary to propel culture warriors into the ALP camp.
Electoral support for the female prime minister (whom Summers renders as ‘CEO of Australia Pty Ltd’) must therefore be motivated by eliciting sympathy for her mistreatment at the hands of sexist enemies.
The appeal is purely negative. As with Hillary Clinton in 2008, Gillard’s sole contribution is her putative ‘toughness’ in the face of unfair attacks.
Now to the second example.
In 1987 Carole Ferrier, Carmel Shute and Zelda D’Aprano (former CPA member) joined a colloquium in the Communist Party’s Australian Left Review, along with the feminist historian Marilyn Lake.
Described as a ‘well-known activist’, Lake was to expound on ‘the current state of socialist feminism’.
In her piece, she referred derisively to ‘femocracy’ as the ‘the public face of feminism in the 1980s.’ Women were divided by social class, she said, and one ‘cannot help but wonder, in the Australian context, to what extent some Affirmative Action strategies are facilitating the “inevitability” of this hierarchy.’
‘Socialist feminists’, declared Lake, ‘must learn how to bargain with the men in the socialist movement, for socialist feminism must continue to grow.’
In 2013, Lake no longer publicly evinces interest in ‘building a socialist movement with men’ or without them.
Instead she has used a recent column in Fairfax newspapers to write, like Summers, about the widespread hatred for Labor prime minister Gillard.
Lake’s defence drifts into — putting it politely — cloying boosterism:
The future belongs to Gillard, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, Bill Shorten, Greg Combet, Mark Dreyfus and others with talent and forward vision. It also belongs to politicians who care about more than themselves and their careers, who care about climate change and the environment, as Combet does, who care about disability insurance, as Shorten does, who care about the state of our hospitals, as Plibersek does, and who care passionately about access to education as our Prime Minister does.
Enough is enough. It has been exasperating for many of us, as citizens without power, to watch helplessly as this campaign of denigration dragged on and on. Journalists seemingly too lazy or unimaginative to investigate policy innovation, larger contexts, new ideas or broader social and economic change seem to rely wholly on polls for their subject matter and many seem personally obsessed with destroying Gillard. She has been subject to sexist attacks and unwittingly called up the misogyny that lies deep in Australian culture, brought to the surface by the terrifying sight of women in power.
Little wonder that men still dominate those other august institutions, the military, the churches, the press and our universities.
When some people speak of Prime Minister Gillard they do so with the particular contempt and dislike they usually reserve for women. People often spoke about Margaret Thatcher in the same way…
As the Prime Minister displays extraordinary grace under pressure, as she continues to govern the nation in the face of incessant attacks, as she shows admirable commitment and clear-sightedness, male commentators now move to deplore her toughness – an admirable quality in a man – suggesting surely that it is unbecoming in a woman. But Gillard doesn’t only have strength, she has compassion and good humour. And she knows that most women and fair-minded men support her in her program of change and her vision of a fairer society.
The career trajectories of Summers and Lake, and their recent media interventions, ought to raise a number of questions.
In the first place, why are such not-very-clever ideas springing to the mind of eminent academics and intellectuals, and why are they being given an airing in centralized media platforms right now?
Ultimately, it is because traditional labourism and social democracy have outlived their usefulness and are defunct.
Intellectuals whose career fortunes are bound up with those of the Labor Party have made large sunk investments that they cannot easily redeploy. New patronage networks are hard to find. Mindful of the need to safeguard their professional assets, these ageing intellectuals must invent new reasons for the moribund entity (the ALP) to survive.
The historical basis for social democracy — conditions in which wages and salaries could rise apace with labour productivity, preserving a constant share of value added for employee compensation — has long since evaporated.
Since no later than the mid-1980s, the activities of labour parties and union officials have therefore been openly inimical to the interests of employees, their dependents and the vast majority of the population. Cast to the winds have been the fortunes of every segment of society besides a tiny financial oligarchy and an upper-salaried layer.
The former mass membership of trade unions and the ALP has been hollowed out and the organizations reduced to corrupt shells.
The bourgeois state accordingly needs other ideological supports and mystifications to perpetuate its rule. Political institutions that now rest on an unprecedentedly narrow distribution of wealth and social power must, to sustain their own existence, secure the fealty of other, less traditional social layers.
Among these latter-day helpmates of the ruling elite are the ideologues and activists of feminism.
In Australia, the embarrassingly toadying efforts of Summers and Lake attest to this, as does the success of Julia Gillard’s contrived ‘misogyny’ speech in inspiring a dutiful and fawning response hailing a so-called ‘new wave of feminism’.
For these writers and academics, the task of applying a ‘progressive’ gloss to the political establishment presents, as Hecate wrote in 1976, an opportunity for new sources of earnings and career advancement.
In return for the anticipated rewards of clientelism, they provide a reliable constituency or voting bloc. Their elite patron finds this support useful not just for partisan electoral purposes, but more fundamentally as a guarantor of social stability at a time when Australian authorities are preparing for a decade-long decline in popular living standards.
This brings us to a second question. What does degeneration of these intellectual seers (Summers) and avowed radicals (Lake) into shameless vote-gatherers and canvassers for the ALP say about the political movement of feminism as the latter grew out of Women’s Liberation, antiwar protests and the New Left?
Conventional opinion — where it does not simply welcome such individual journeys towards political moderation as examples of inevitable maturation and coming to one’s senses — ‘explains’ them as mere apostasy.
What, after all, is more familiar than the betrayal of youthful convictions?
But this media and scholarly commonplace exaggerates how much danger was ever posed by the intellectuals of the New Left and activists of the ‘new social movements’. Despite their bloodcurdling slogans, the latter were always politically harmless and were known to be so by their most canny patrons among the ruling elite.
As clear-eyed servants of the political establishment would have discerned, the booty of middle-class ‘inclusion’ — a few academic posts, access to the professional salariat and positions in the middle ranks of the public service — would be enough to satisfy the most intransigent of sex-based demands. These spoils of office, accruing to a few women, would be presented as gratifying symbols of esteem for them all.
To serve this purpose, institutionalized rent-sharing did not need to be the explicit goal of the entire group (i.e. it did not need to accommodate the wishes of all or even most feminists, as of course it did not). Such a program was simply the logical outcome of group-specific politics, and the point beyond which it could not progress: the maximum that could be achieved.
Today, if one sorts Australian full-time non-managerial employees by mean weekly earnings, the lowest-paid occupations are still typically filled by women: textile, clothing and footwear trades, hairdressers, childcare workers, checkout operators, cleaners and laundry workers, receptionists, food-preparation and hospitality workers.
Curthoys, probably the most astute and intelligent of her milieu, noted in 1984 that ‘many feminists are anti-male in a crude sense, are simply seeking their own advancement vis-à-vis middle-class men, have abandoned socialist ideals and organizations, and are out of touch with or unsympathetic to the very real problems of working-class people, both female and male’ (emphasis in original).
Of course by 1988, having herself re-examined the ‘shibboleths of the left’ in an academic discussion group, Curthoys declared that she was now persuaded by Alec Nove’s vision of market socialism. She hoped to ‘reconcile public ownership with competition and the operations of the market.’ (In 1987 the Kremlin bureaucracy, in whose orbit Curthoys’s early political formation took place, had enacted a Law on State Enterprises that conferred managers of state firms with decision-making autonomy. This reform would quickly lead to full privatization and capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union.)
This concession to political fashion was instructive about more than just Curthoys’s own political background, ideological unmooring and personal demoralization (‘the perspective of the traditional left’, she announced, ‘has lost persuasiveness in recent years’).
In scrambling to stay just inside the left-most boundary of respectable public opinion as the latter rushed swiftly rightward, Curthoys was being true to form. In doing so she divulged the social character of the broader enterprise that she and other feminist intellectuals had long been engaged in.
Today the behaviour of Lake and Summers discloses the truth about their feminism even more unsparingly: it is a kind of abject truckling for favours, in which fortunes (media profile, recognition from one’s peers as someone intellectually fashionable, advisory gigs, perhaps even a pensionable job in the state bureaucracy) depend on maintaining the favour of the wealthy and powerful, or joining their ranks.
[Dangerous] human proclivities can be canalised into comparatively harmless channels by the existence of opportunities for money-making and private wealth…
Liberal ‘policymaking’ — as it’s pursued and carried out by lobbyists and technocrats in think tanks, government agencies and pressure groups — is chiefly a matter of tinkering with markets through subsidies, taxes and legislation to shift economic surpluses between groups, transferring rents from one set of interests to another.
From time to time, ruling authorities accommodate the redistributive demands of a particular constituency (e.g. an industry, class fraction, social layer or ‘interest group’). The latter will then be done the honour of being indulged by ‘progressive’ public opinion.
Spokespeople and ideologues responsible for articulating group aims will suddenly find themselves the subject of media fascination and patronized by the powerful. They will be invited to write newspaper columns, give convivial TV interviews, make submissions to parliamentary inquiries and have tea at the prime minister’s residence.
Whether in the name of social stability and preserving a fragile status quo, or of reformist meliorism, journalists and academics will begin to rail against the exorbitant privileges won by other powerful but narrow groups (mining companies, large landowners, financial institutions, sugar growers, pharmaceuticals corporations, professional doctor’s guilds).
These ‘special interests’, it will now be admitted, have long sought to influence state policy (e.g. tariffs, patent law, monetary policy) to garner for themselves a larger share of the pool of property income. Why not the little guys: small proprietors, manufacturers of solar panels, etc.?
Even the apparently ‘radical’ or subversive varieties of such movements, the most sensationally ‘militant’ and incendiary activities of comparatively subaltern groups, conform to Marx’s 1850 verdict:
The democratic petty bourgeois, far from wanting to transform the whole society [by which he meant overturning property relations of employment and private ownership] … only aspire to a change in social conditions which will make the existing society as tolerable and comfortable for themselves as possible.
Masquerading as democrats, egalitarians, reformers, patriots and even socialists, such groups pursue privileges and wheedle for favours: the laurels of officialdom and government-service jobs, dedicated seats in parliamentary chambers, advisory posts and commissions, entry to the liberal professions and senior management positions, admission to higher education which serves as a passport to those jobs, favourable credit terms, academic chairs, property rights, procurement contracts, monopoly rights and commercial licences, etc.
Modern feminism (as distinct from the struggle for women’s rights and equality) is unblushingly a variety of this. Its gurus and cynosures aim to carve out for themselves a lucrative niche in existing society, rather than to transform the latter’s basic economic institutions, such as household labour.
Like ethnic identity, sex is an excellent device for political mobilizations, since its defining characteristics are easily identifiable while group entry and exit are restricted.
But increasingly the figureheads and hacks of feminism also play something more than a mercenary role. While pursuing their own careerist goals, they have become crucial bulwarks for existing society and its political institutions.
Tags: Anne Summers, Australian Labor Party, Australian Left Review, Carole Ferrier, clientelism, Communist Party of Australia, Destroy the Joint, feminism, Hecate, identity politics, International Socialist Tendency, Marilyn Lake