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John Pilger: Julia Gillard’s rise marks the triumph of machine politics over feminism

As commentators from Germaine Greer to Anne Summers fawn over the hawkish prime minister, John Pilger in Sydney wonders what happened to sisterly solidarity.

In 1963, a senior Australian government official, A R Taysom, deliberated on the wisdom of deploying women as trade representatives. "Such an appointee would not stay young and attractive for ever [because a] spinster lady can, and very often does, turn into something of a battleaxe with the passing years [whereas] a man usually mellows."

On International Women's Day 2012, such primitive views are worth recalling; but what has happened to modern feminism? Why is it so bereft of its political, indeed socialist roots, that any woman who "achieves" within an immoral system is to be admired? Take the rise of Julia Gillard as Australia's first female prime minister, so celebrated by leading feminists such as the writer Anne Summers and Germaine Greer. Both are unstinting in their applause for Gillard, the "remarkable woman" who on 27 February saw off a challenge from Kevin Rudd, the former Labor prime minister she deposed in a secretive, essentially macho back-room coup in 2010.

Greer wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald of 3 March that she "fell in love with" the "matter-of-fact" Gillard long ago. Omitting Gillard's politics entirely, she asked: "What's not to like? That she's a woman, that's what. An unmarried, middle-aged woman in power - any man's and many women's nightmare."

Addicted to vanity

That Gillard might be a nightmare to the Aboriginal women, men and children whom this quintessential machine politician has abused and blamed for their impoverishment, while implementing punitive and racist measures against their communities in defiance of international law, is apparently not relevant. That Gillard might be a nightmare to refugees detained behind razor wire, children included, in places that are a huge "generator of mental illness", according to Australia's ombudsman, is of no interest.

That Gillard has been determined to keep Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and that the overwhelming majority of Australian casualties in that country have been killed or wounded during her period as prime minister are beside the point. Her feminist distinction, perversely, is her removal of gender discrimination in combat roles in the Australian army. Thanks to her, women are now liberated to kill Afghans and others who offer no threat to Australia, just like their comrades in the "hunter-killer" units currently accused of massacring civilians. In ending the "cultural and other taboos that have kept women from combat roles in the past", wrote Summers, Gillard has ensured that "Australia will again lead the world in a major reform".

The devotion of this new "feminist icon" to imperial war is impressive, if strange. Referring to the despatch of Australian colonial troops to Sudan in 1885 to avenge a popular uprising against the British, she described the forgotten farce as "not only a test of wartime courage, but a test of character that has helped define our nation and create the sense of who we are". Invariably flanked by flags, she makes her point well.

And the point is that celebration of this kind of politician, regardless of gender, has nothing to do with feminism. On the contrary, it is complicity in some of the wickedest crimes of our age. It was Margaret Thatcher who ordered the sinking of the Belgrano, with the loss of 323 young Argentinian conscripts, and rejoiced. It was the outspoken British feminist MP Harriet Harman, along with other Labour feminists known as Blair's Babes, who supported the invasion of Iraq and stood cheering one of its principal war criminals.

In the west, "glass ceilings" remain the issue of choice of bourgeois feminism. How many women who "make it" in politics speak out against the machine, reaching down to women left behind? How many resist the addiction of vanity to power and the media? How many use their platforms to analyse and expose the psychopathic militarism and its industries of death and lies that contaminate our political, cultural and media life and are the source of so much violence against women in stricken, faraway countries, if not against women at home? Who spoke out against Gillard's junket to Israel in the wake of the massacre of 1,400 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, and her unctuous support for their killers? Where in the coverage of politics are the principled voices of women such as Medea Benjamin, Arundhati Roy and the bravehearts of Rawa
in Afghanistan?

Hillary Clinton was applauded by renowned feminists supporting the west's invasion of Afghanistan to "liberate women from the Taliban". No matter that this was never the reason; no matter that tens of thousands were killed as a consequence. In her 2008 campaign for the White House, Clinton, supported by feminists such as Anne Summers, boasted that she was prepared to "annihilate" Iran.

Blood vote

Here in Australia, familiar distractions apply: the same insidious corporate PR aimed at women and the young that says personal identity is the limit of politics; the same organised forgetting of people's history and any notion of class and our servitude to an undemocratic elite. Yet Australian feminism has an especially proud past.

With New Zealanders, Australian women led the world in winning the vote. During the slaughter of the First World War, Australian women mounted a uniquely successful campaign against a vote for conscription. A poster declared illegal in several states was headlined "The Blood Vote" and showed a defiant woman placing her vote in the ballot box rather than "that I doomed a man to death".

On polling day all but one of Australia's political leaders urged a Yes vote. They lost. Most followed the women. Such is true feminism.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex

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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.