The inconsistency of Femen’s imperialist "one size fits all" attitude

You cannot dismiss the aims of Femen altogether - they are a group of women looking to change society - but Bim Adewunmi fears the execution of their protests leaves much to be desired.

 

There was a time in 2011, when you couldn’t walk in central London without bumping into sluts. I am of course, referring to the Slutwalk march that took place in the capital that June.  Following the example of Canadian women – who in turn were sparked by the throwaway comment of a policeman who advised women to “avoid dressing like sluts” to remain safe from rape – women took to the streets to protest rape culture and slut-shaming. I heartily approved, even as I sat it out. Slutwalk, with a message of genuine goodness and worth at its core, was not something I could whole-heartedly join in with. Because I had to consider an extra element: the fact that I inhabit a black body, and that body and the term "slut", or variations thereof, have a long and unsavoury joint history. I understood the appeal and value of Slutwalk, but decided that its execution was not for me. 

For the last couple of months, I have been watching the rise of Femen, the naked feminist protest group formed in the Ukraine in 2008. 4 April has been named "International Topless Jihad Day" by the group, (“our tits are deadlier than your stones!”) inspired by Tunisian feminist Amina Tyler, who posed topless for the Femen Tunisia Facebook page, with the words ‘fuck your morals" written across her chest. The act triggered a cleric, the chair of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, to allegedly call for her death; she apparently “deserves to be stoned to death". More than 100,000 people have signed a petition to charging the Tunisian government with Tyler’s safety. Richard Dawkins has signed it too – make of that what you will. I watched a clip of the Femen activists disrupting a sex show in Paris, pushing over the performer on stage and disrobing to send their message. Once again, I cannot dismiss the aims of Femen altogether. They are a group of women looking to change society, and make the place of women – at the top table, alongside men, in equality – a reality. But, like the Slutwalks, I fear the execution leaves much to be desired.

During the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre last month, African-American photojournalist Miki Turner gave an anecdote in which she’d asked writer and activist Nikki Giovanni why more black women hadn’t been involved in the ERA movement in the US in the early 70s. Giovanni’s response: “Because that was not our struggle.” Later that weekend, in a Q and A session, author and activist Alice Walker was asked a meandering question about the responsibility of Western feminists to turn their gaze on their sisters in the developing world in particular. Her answer brought forth a spontaneous whoop from the audience: “part of the problem with Western feminists, I find, is that they take after their brothers and their fathers, and that’s a real problem. And that is where, generally speaking, the loyalty is and the solidarity.  So, the struggle for many of these women has just been to get what these men have and to share it with them and naturally that means that they don’t connect very much or very deeply with the women in the other cultures of the world. And that’s really a problem.” 

Watching the antics of Femen has reinforced this Walker view starkly for me. Founder Inna Shevchenko’s words: “Muslim men shroud their women in black sacks of submissiveness and fear, and dread as they do the devil the moment women break free...” and “topless protests are the battle flags of women's resistance, a symbol of a woman's acquisition of rights over her own body!” are filled with a rhetoric very much formed by her Western life. Like much of the feminisms that have been exported from the West, it does not seem to take into account the obstacles to carrying out this form of protest. It rides roughshod over grassroots organisations and the work they may have been quietly and steadfastly engaged in over years, and stipulates that this feminism, the one where you  bare your breasts and sloganise your skin, is the feminism. It does not take into account community mores, and, in this case, incorporates more than a little Islamophobia. (Last year, Femen France organised a "better naked than in a burqa" event in front of the Eiffel Tower.) 

Naked protest is not new: I grew up partly in Nigeria, where the famous Women’s War in 1929 (an anti-colonial and anti-taxation protest by Igbo women), a culturally specific and sensitive form of protest, was on the school curriculum. Only last year, women in southern Nigeria protested community invasions using the same method. People who are being oppressed are rarely strangers to this fact. Do you have to tell a woman who is forced to drink the water her husband’s corpse was washed in, or the one forced to marry her late husband’s’ brother that she is being oppressed? And furthermore, will a topless Ukrainian with black ink on her chest and back change her condition? As Zanele Muholi said about Africa and ally activism, the key is partnership: “I personally believe in transparent collaborations. Come to my space, respect the people in that space and negotiate their space. Do not come and project.” 

Femen’s imperialist "one size fits all" attitude shows a deafening inconsistency in their own ideology: “Women!” they seem to be saying. “Your bodies are your own – do with them what you will! Except you over there in the headscarf. You should be topless.” It can’t work like that. It won’t work like that. It simply doesn’t work like that.

Femen activists demonstrate outside Tunisia's Embassy in Paris on 4 April 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Getty
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?