Some thoughts on Anarcha-Feminism - Chepina Hukku

Chepina Hukku discuss current strands of feminist anti-capitalism in the light of the anarch-fem intervention at the Anarchist movement conference (2009). Originally published in September 2009.

You might have heard the story. It was about 4pm on Sunday 7 June and the Anarchist Movement conference in London was drawing to a close. The 15 discussion groups had finally all had their turn at the mic in what had been a painstaking 2-hour final plenary. Perhaps more interesting than the much distilled feedback from each of the groups on 2 days of discussion among 15 near strangers was the fact that for the 200 odd people in the large hall, this was the first opportunity to get a sense of their fellow participants at the conference. Inspired by what seemed to have emerged somewhat more organically at the famed Bradford gathering of 1998, the conference organisers’ were determined that class-war anarchists should spend the weekend sat alongside climate campers in small discussion groups. Along with tube delays that prevented many from arriving for the opening plenary on Saturday morning this meant that until this point, the numbers and make-up of participants had been impossible to gauge.

The arrival of anarcha-feminist group No Pretence couldn’t have been better timed. Although I can only speak for myself, surveying the room, my doubts of the past 2 days seemed to be shared by others: just how much of an affinity did each of us feel with the people around us? And just how much did this room reflect the movement we had each felt we were part of?

Enter No Pretence, projector, screen and very own mic a-blazing.

As I say, the intervention was well timed. With the discomfort described above hanging over the room and the conference organisers about to facilitate the ominously-titled “What next?” part of the programme, the sight of eight masked, black-clad figures bursting onto the floor, hastily setting up their kit and launching an impassioned critique of the movement, as exemplified (for them) by the Anarchist Movement conference, certainly offered the possibility of seeing some of these doubts articulated. Five minutes later and No Pretence’s raw yet well-rehearsed attack on gender discrimination in our movement (and the absence of this issue from the conference programme) was over, and the group were bounding triumphantly out of the room. The statement they had read out claimed: “No matter how much we aspire to be ‘self-critical’ there is a clear lack of theorising and concrete action around sexism, homophobia and racism in the anarchist movement.” But what had the intervention achieved?

Lamentably, the intervention cannot claim to have shaken the conference out of its inertia and forced it to acknowledge not only the patent fragmentation of the movement it supposedly represented, but also that movement’s present weakness despite sharp new increases in class conflict and social unrest with established institutions. But that was never its intention, I suppose. It didn’t bode well either that the most the onlookers could muster in response to the intervention was polite applause; that the male conference organiser who resumed proceedings immediately after No Pretence’s exit didn’t even make the gesture of offering the mic to a female; or that the same guy’s misjudged comment about it “all being planned” was the only acknowledgement that the “interruption” had even happened.

Beyond the confines of that room, however, the intervention has certainly been able to provoke a reaction. If at first the intervention received applause from most, if not all, of the anarchist audience, since then the response seems to have fallen into two camps. Firstly, there are those individuals or representatives of various feminist and anarchist groups who have applauded the action as long overdue. They echoed the sentiment that women in the anarchist movement have not been spared sexist behaviour from men (and other women). The second camp, which we will examine in more detail later, is made up of those, including some of the conference organisers, who have predictably rejected the comparisons drawn between mainstream society and the anarchist movement.

Unfortunately, both sets of responses fail to distinguish between the No Pretence statement and the accompanying video. The latter, which has sadly proved the most enduring talking point since the conference, features a stark comparative look at male domination of political activity and the persistence of traditional gender roles in the photo albums of liberal democracy and the anarchist movement respectively. The sort of facile finger pointing at overt gender hierarchies in which the No Pretence video indulges is not without its place (after all, if it creates a space in which we can vent our frustrations with the gendered society we all experience daily, either within the movement or beyond, it can be considered a useful exercise in and of itself). This is especially true at a conference which did tend to give primacy to the issue of class struggle and thus tend (whether unintentionally or otherwise) to accept agency to lie with the male factory worker.

Unfortunately though, this finger-pointing is not without its pitfalls either. The preoccupation with obvious sexisms draws attention away from the crucial point: that is, the relationship between sexism and social domination in a capitalist society. It is this relationship that should be scrutinised if we are to understand the truly incipient forms of sexism embedded in our social relations. A case in point: No Pretence far too easily cried “Oppression” when they misheard a heckler from the audience: “Are you going to dance, sexy?” It has since been revealed (and I can confirm first hand), that the line was actually “Are you a dance act? Diversity!”; a remark not on the gender of those storming the stage, but a reference to the winning act of Britain’s Got Talent, who chose a similarly black-hood/concealed-face outfit for their popular audition. While occurrences of overt sexism are not unthinkable also in anarchist circles, real oppression will come much more subtly than that.

If anarcha-feminists are trying to tackle a feudal form of sexism, where women are actively prevented from participating in political society by a ruling class of men, they are attacking a straw man. The particular form that capitalist patriarchy, or patriarchal capitalism, takes is of a more structural, indirect kind. Capitalism, ironically, is based on the (liberal) principles of freedom and equality. Only when we are free and equal can we sell our labour power for survival – it is the basis of a class society. Capitalist patriarchy is not shaped by direct exploitation of women, obvious discrimination and domination. It is more subtle, and therefore more persistent, than that. We should not ask of society, and its representation in the anarchist movement, a liberal awareness of feminist issues, gender inequality and positive discrimination. I’d much rather hear the speeches of feminist men than sexist women.

To be fair to No Pretence, they have recognised this themselves, when they write that “hierarchical social relations cannot be reduced to personal insults or behaviour. Sexism thrives upon subtle and intangible processes which make gender domination and exploitation endemic.” But the vocabulary of gender “exploitation” nonetheless tends towards outdated understandings of sexism (under capitalism) as analogous to similarly misled concepts of class as a crude slave vs. master relationship.

Earlier waves of radical feminism adopted an anti-capitalist position based on the asymmetrical way in which capitalist economics impose value on traditionally gendered social roles and divisions of labour. Today, the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, one of the more contemporary radical feminists to which the No Pretence statement proudly alludes, has paved the way for just one of the many more sophisticated lines of analysis that have been developed in more recent years in response to the onset of the advanced global capitalism we know today. The body of radical research that emerged from Anzaldúa’s Borderlands, for example, based as it is around the physical and psychological violence inflicted by the new digital industries of the unregulated US-Mexican border zone upon their increasingly feminised labour force, is a stark reminder that more sophisticated critiques of the interstices between class, gender and production – traditional understandings of which are now blurred – are required if we are to unearth the indirect structures that underlie to sexism in society.

Likewise, today we are faced with much more complicated forms of social control, with liberal society adopting women quotas for representation in public life, positive discrimination embedded in employment legislation and formal equality of opportunity. Does this make modern capitalist society anti-sexist? No! But at the heart of an anarchist feminism must be the understanding that capitalist exploitation is structured in a more complex manner. If future No Pretence actions are to be taken seriously they should refrain from seeking a liberal response by insinuating that more female participation in anarchist platforms would in any way constitute a rejection of capitalist patriarchal forms of domination.

But there is perhaps an even more compelling lesson to be learnt from No Pretence’s use of sensationalist visual material which, as I have demonstrated, might have detracted from, rather than reinforced, their more astute accompanying statement. It seems to me that the use of such a montage betrays a certain naivety as to the response of a movement that, outside of radical feminist spheres, is largely indifferent to and comparatively unsophisticated in its analysis of gender politics (when compared to other Western European countries, for example). Indeed, it has been all too easy for those who are reluctant to engage with No Pretence’s proposition, for whatever motive, to dismiss the intervention based on the (fair?) assertion that the examples used by No Pretence to illustrate sexist behaviour in anarchist circles were selective and misleading. The fact that the intervention has given way to this sort of refutation is disappointing, but not particularly dangerous in itself. Conversely, that criticisms on these grounds have proven to be so easily and widely accepted/acceptable has in turn allowed far more sinister comments to creep into the debate relatively unnoticed, under the guise of springing from objections similar to those that dismissed the video as unrepresentative.

Some anarchists have suggested, for example, that the group should have brought feminism to the discussion table during the conference group sessions, rather than set their own. Comments such as this prove that while the video was perhaps a mistake for the group, covering up was certainly the right thing to do. It does not matter whether No Pretence are men or women, masking up was an adequate way to anticipate the response from the conference organisers: that the anarcha-feminists should have brought their opinions to the available structures of the conference. This to me was the truly sexist response: the suggestion that a feminist critique of patriarchal hierarchy could be adequately addressed – and thereby recuperated – within the constraints of facilitated discussion on anarchism, movement, and class.

Summing up, it seemed to me that the anarcha-feminist intervention was held back by a pseudo-radical proposition: that anarchism is opposition to hierarchy in its amalgamated multiplicity; i.e. anti-capitalism + anti-racism + anti-sexism + anti-homophobia + etc = anarchism. The intervention seemed to say that ‘you can’t be an anarchist without being a feminist’. Maybe they had it the wrong way round: ‘you can’t be a feminist without being an anarchist’ would be a radical slogan based on the recognition of capitalist patriarchy. Sexual liberation can only be achieved in freedom!