Fifty Shades of Grey's cover
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Laurie Penny in defence of Fifty Shades of Grey

Critics' main problem with these books seems simply to be that they are porn for women.

Fifty Shades of Grey is easy to mock. The reason it's easy to mock is that it's porn. I picked up the book, with its dark-and-mysterious cover that looks, through half-closed eyes, a bit like one of the Twilight novels, in an airport. I read it on the plane, and I enjoyed it. There, I said it. I enjoyed it because there were, amongst some terrifically trashy bits of girly romance and some eye-watering blow-job scenarios[1], a few quite good, quite detailed descriptions of fucking written from the point of view of a woman who seemed to be really enjoying herself.

That's it. That's all. Fifty Shades of Grey is porn, and porn can be quite fun. With the publishing industry in such choppy waters, I fail to understand why this record-pounding paperback has come in for extra-special derision all over the world, other than the fact that some people are appalled at the idea that somewhere out there, well over ten million women might be – whisper it – masturbating.

"But it's badly written!", I hear you cry. Um, hello? It's PORN. Whilst there is some pornography out there written with a deft stylistic hand – from Anais Nin and Henry Miller to Anne Rice's luscious, filthy Sleeping Beauty series – that's hardly the point, even if you don't buy Oglaf author Trudy Cooper's adage that "erotica just means porn that works for me." A dildo painted with an intricate lubricant-insoluble motif may look delightful, but a plain old rubber shocker gets the job done just as well. This book is porn. It is for wanking to. Pornography made for men is rarely judged on its artistic merits – the average 20-minute RedTube clip has hundreds of thousands of views and practically nobody leaves comments complaining that the lighting is garish, that the pounding cheese music is weird and unsettling, or that there's someone's Bassett hound running about in the background[2].

Similarly, I can't recall Page Three of the Sun ever getting taken to pieces for its lack of artistic imagination. The point, the only point, is to show three million men some tits in the morning, and they've been happily ogling those pixellated teenage breasts on public transport for thirty years. That's understood. Exactly the same basic principle applies to the Fifty Shades series, which has the added bonus that no actual nubile, desperate postpubescents were harmed in its production – but somehow the idea that women might gobble down a poorly-written book in their tens of millions just because they've heard there might be some fucking in it is uncomfortable for the sort of snobbish commentators who have absolutely never themselves bashed out a cheeky one over FHM magazine.

When you get down to it, the problem most people seem to have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it's for girls. Even worse - it's "mommy porn", porn for mommies, for older women to read and get excited about, and that dangerous nonsense really needs to be stopped right now. Everyone knows that the only women who are allowed to actually have sexuality are slender, high-breasted twenty-one year old virgins – rather like, it has to be said, the heroine of "Fifty Shades of Grey".

Tens of thousands of words have been wasted over whether Christian Grey, our well-tailored, long-dicked hunk of fictional man-meat, is an appropriate lust-object for today's right-thinking feminist, but less attention has been paid to the fact that Anastasia Steele, the protagonist, rather embodies the contemporary concept of "fuckable". Those of us reading Fifty Shades may not all be innocent virgin college graduates, but getting moistly involved with a hardcore sexual fantasy feels less uncomfortable if you can temporarily imagine that you are. Virgin college graduates don't have to feel guilty for fantasising about being seduced by a gorgeous young multi-millionaire entrepreneur with his own private jet and a fleet of audis who's rather unnervingly like Mark Zuckerberg, if Mark Zuckerberg were hot and well-dressed.

Derivative and aesthetically childish though they may be, women everywhere are reading these books, especially now that ebook technology uptake has reached a point where anyone with a smartphone or Kindle can read porn privately on public transport, or one-handed in their bedrooms. The only people who haven't bothered to read the damn books, it seems, are most of the journalists writing about it – which seems to be the only possible explanation for why the parts of the series that have been most anxiously discussed are also the least interesting.

Firstly, there's the sadomasochism. Katie Roiphe's now-infamous Newsweek cover story claimed that the popularity of the Fifty Shades books was evidence that women everywhere are tired of all this feminist liberation and secretly want to be tied down and whipped by wealthy plutocrats. But in fact, there are barely two spanking scenes in the whole of the first book – by far the most in-depth and detailed sex-scenes are "vanilla" – and our protagonist spends most of the time feeling shocked and horrified about her paramour's predilictions, to an extent that anyone actually involved in the S&M community might well find offensive. The watered-down approximation of sadomasochistic sex in the first book, at least, is merely an extended fantasy of possession, of being utterly desired by a person who takes full physical, moral and social responsibility for any boning that may or may not ensue. In a world where women are still made to feel ashamed of ever wanting to experience sexual pleasure for its own sake, that's an appealing fantasy.

Secondly, and most importantly – these books started out as smutty fan fiction. The publishers are extremely keen to underplay this aspect of the Fifty Shades books, and E. L James doesn't discuss it in interviews, but the fact that these books began as extended stories published on the internet in the Twilight fandom community is, to my mind, the most fascinating aspect of the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon.

If you're not familiar with fan fiction, or "fanfic", please just take my word for it that there are countless thousands of men, women and girls out there on the internet – mostly women, mostly young women, and some of them extremely young women – writing and sharing long, dirty stories set in their favourite fictional universes, from Harry Potter to Buffy and Twilight. These stories tend to place beloved characters in sweaty pairings that make private sexual fantasies a community experience – readers comment on and critique one other's work, correcting the most anatomically implausible details and discussing the ins and outs and ins and outs of possible scenarios at breathless length.

Not all fan fiction is filthy, but a great deal of what makes the enormous volume of dirty short fandom stories out there on the internet so exciting is that it's a unique way for readers to re-occupy a text, to rewrite anhedonic, sexless sagas like Harry Potter or actively disturbing chastity propaganda like Twilight with all the bonking and bodily fluids back in. Dirty fanfiction existed before the internet, but online forums have allowed enormous communities of antsy fifteen-year-old girls to crowdsource the education their classmates are getting from RedTube. It was in one of those communities, written largely by women, largely for women, that Fifty Shades emerged, and that fact probably goes quite a long way towards explaining why it works so damn well as what it is. Which, to reiterate, is porn. For women. To masturbate to. Horrifying, I know, but I suggest we all get used to the idea.

[1] "My very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle" is not a phrase I'm going to be able to burn out of my brain any time soon.

[2] For more on this theme, visit the absolutely genius indifferent cats in amateur porn tumblr, which just goes to show that the oceans of human time lost in the lonely, backlit wank-alleys of the internet have not been entirely wasted. If you're under 18, get someone who isn't to Google it for you.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: HANNAH MCKAY/REUTERS
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The lure of Lexit must be resisted – socialism in one country is a fantasy

Much of the left still must learn that the existing British state is the prison of their hopes.

Lexit, the left-wing case for leaving the EU, is rising from the dead. Its hopes were best captured in 1975. In the run up to the first referendum on EU membership, E P Thompson, the historian of the early English working class, published his clarion call to leave what was then called the Common Market. Doing so would see “Money toppled from power” as Britain moves “from a market to a society”.

“As British capitalism dies above and about us”, Thompson asserted, in a revealing passage worth quoting at length, “one can glimpse, as an outside chance, the possibility that we could effect here a peaceful transition – for the first time in the world – to a democratic socialist society. It would be an odd, illogical socialism, quite unacceptable to any grand theorist…  But the opportunity is there, within the logic of our past itinerary. 

"The lines of British culture still run vigorously to that point of change where our traditions and organizations cease to be defensive and become affirmative forces: the country becomes our own. To make that leap, from a market to a society, requires that our people maintain, for a little longer, their own sense of identity, and understanding of the democratic procedures available to them…”

Thompson spoke for the majority of the British political left at the time, from the then numerous Communists and Trotskyists through to the conservative-wing of the Labour Party and trade unions via the Bennites. All were hostile to sharing sovereignty with the capitalists running the rest of our continent. All believed that just as Britain was the birth-land of the industrial revolution so it could create a unique socialism across its land by going it alone.

I expected a resurgence of a similar left anti-Europeanism in last year’s referendum, and a renewed advocacy of a British road to world progressive leadership. Instead, with few exceptions, the inherently right-wing nature of Brexit bore down on advocates of left-wing politics. Owen Jones, with his family roots in that past history, flirted with Lexit. He has described how his comrades across Europe, such as those in Podemos in Spain, were appalled at the prospect and he wisely backed away.

Labour Leave was mainly business-oriented in its call for UK democracy. The decisively working class vote for Brexit was neither socialist nor social democratic. It simply and understandably rejected the all-party consensus that things should carry as hitherto. Given a chance to say what they thought of ‘the whole lot of them’, millions of Labour voters displaced their disgust with Westminster onto the EU.

The event that resuscitated the Anglo-Lexiteers was not the referendum result but this year’s UK general election. On the summer solstice, two weeks after its astounding outcome, the Lexit-Network posted its first blog entry. It’s aim to help steer a future Corbyn government. In parallel, the New Socialist website, with its strapline for “robust debate and intransigent rabble rousing”, launched a week before the election, also gives voice to Lexiteers.

Prominent among them are sirens from across the Atlantic: Joe Guinan and Thomas M. Hanna and Harvard’s Richard Tuck. They draw on the outstanding work of Danny Nicol who has shown how the EU’s constitutional structures embed neoliberalism. Their arguments – often published in the New Statesman and openDemocracy – pre-existed the referendum. But only as opinions. Now they are gathering energy with the prospect of a Corbyn-transformed Labour Party taking power.

The underlying dream of ‘socialism in one country’ may be potty. But it is essential to recognise the core issue that could give legitimacy a left-wing call for Brexit, a democratic argument anchored on the moment that changed British politics, the launch of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto.

The June 2017 general election was a political watershed. The outcome was due to combination of the 5 “M”s. The man, the movement, the manifesto, May and McDonnell. Of the five, the keystone was the manifesto, whose architect was John McDonnell. In the first place, however, it was “the man” who was crucial.  

Jeremy Corbyn was the personal embodiment of unbroken resistance to the military and financial priorities of Blairism. His personal vision, however, is mostly limited to opposition to tangible injustices and he is not a natural leader. But the outrageous presumption of his unsuitability by a failed New Labour establishment and the torrid injustice of the media contempt unleashed a surge of support. The blowback to the ruthlessness of the assault upon him generated the credibility of the call for a halt that he personified. With poetic justice, the elite aura of entitlement provoked a wave of solidarity that crystallised around Jeremy. A movement was born that took a new form suitable to the age of the platform capitalism of Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Thanks to Momentum, Corbynism became a social-media driven ‘social movement’ independent of Labour officials and MPs. The confinement of politics to parliamentary routines permits the corporate acquisition of policy. The hysteria around Momentum signalled the pain of a genuine threat to its domination.

Even so, the combination of the man and the movement was incapable of moving public opinion. Especially when it seemed that the Tories under May, with the Brexit breeze filing their sails, were now a party of ‘change’. The local election results on 4 May this year saw Labour crash to 27% support, with the Tories establishing an 11 per cent lead and making gains after seven years in office. The general election had already been called. What turned things around was Labour’s Manifesto. It was leaked shortly after the local elections (probably to ensure it was not filleted by the party’s executive) then published. It turned the tables on a Tory party whose leader had foolishly decided to present herself as the allegory of ‘stability’.

After two decades of the wealthy stealing from the rest of us, Labour set out how it proposed to take a little from the rich to help the poor. After decades of rip-off privatisation, it proposed nationalising railways and water to remove them from what are in effect a publically subsided form of taxation by profiteering monopoly suppliers. In the face of an acute rise of indebtedness among the young, it proposed free university education. A neat contrast of the winners and losers was posted by the New Statesman’s Julia Rampen.

The key to its success was that Labour’s manifesto was not an opportunist response of unfunded promises concocted in response to the surprise challenge of a general election that the government had repeatedly pledged it would not call. McDonnell told Robert Peston on the Sunday following: “We geared up last November. As soon as the Prime Minister said there would not be a snap election we thought there would be”. The result was a fully-costed, professional challenge to the outrageous inequity of the neoliberal consensus. By contrast it was Theresa May’s manifesto that was composed in secret, bounced on the Cabinet, contained amateurishly formulated commitments and had to be promptly disowned by the Prime Minister herself.

The outcome was the most dramatic upset in the history of general election campaigns and, more important, a reversal of the terms of Britain’s domestic politics, grounded on Labour’s well-judged pledges. As Jeremy Gilbert argues, “The June 2017 UK General Election was a historic turning point not just because it marked the full emergence of the Platform Era. It also marked the final end of neoliberal hegemony in Britain” – although not he emphases, neoliberalism itself.

It follows that quite exceptionally for the platform of a losing party, Labour’s manifesto has an afterlife. This poses a fundamental question with respect to Brexit. If the UK were to remain in the EU would a Labour government be allowed to carry out the nationalisations and redistribution that its manifesto promises? If the answer is ‘No’ then the democratic case against continued membership is immeasurably strengthened. Whatever the immediate costs, it would be essential to leave the trap of an EU in order even to start to build fairer and more just 21st century society. 

The Lexiteers claim exactly this. That the EU would prevent Labour from renationalising, under its rules favouring the private sector. The argument quickly becomes technical and clearly there are ways that EU membership restricts a government’s freedom of action. But it does not prevent the exercise of all self-interested national economic measures.

In July, to take the most immediate example, the still fresh President Macron nationalised shipyards about to be taken over by an Italian bidder. In the same month, in his barbaric speech in on how Europe should belong to Europeans, Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban claimed he had achieved, “clear majority national ownership in the energy sector, the banking sector and the media sector. If I had to quantify this, I would say that in recent years the Hungarian state has spent around one thousand billion forints on repurchasing ownership in strategic sectors and companies which had previously been foolishly privatised."

Both the French and Hungarian measures are right-wing forms of national takeover to which the Commission will be naturally less opposed than a Corbyn one. But the Lexiteer argument is not that there will be resistance, there will be plenty of that here in the UK as well, but that EU membership makes nationalisation illegal and therefore impossible as beyond politics. The only response to the EU, therefore, is Leave!

The tragic reality is that the UK political-media class, especially the Tories, made the EU a scapegoat for their domestic policies. They hid behind the EU to claim they were powerless to prevent unpopular policies they were in fact themselves pursuing. The most egregious example was immigration. But the UK is not powerless within the EU. Brussels would not be able to prevent Labour from implementing a social-democratic reorientation of the economy to ameliorate the gung-ho marketisation that is the legacy of Cameron and Osborne’s six disastrous years.

But what about red-bloodied socialism? Could this be allowed by the corporatist constitution of the European elite? Of course not. But, however much this might be McDonnell’s and my own dream, it is hardly on the immediate agenda. The stated priority for Labour is securing jobs, preserving the benefits of the EU’s single market and reversing the acute regional inequalities that have made the UK the most territorially unbalanced society in the whole of the EU (mapped by Tom Hazeldine in New Left Review).

Absurd as it may seem, however, the lure of Lexit is a belief that a Corbyn majority can unleash British socialism while the EU groans under the austere regimentation of the Eurozone.

For example, Guinan and Hanna writing in New Socialist assert that Labour can “seize upon the historically unique opportunity afforded by Brexit to throw the City under the bus”. Apparently the ‘opportunity’ of a Commons majority created by first-past-the-post means a Labour government can snap its fingers at the House of Lords and the monarchy not to speak of the media and the banks, to use the imperial British state to “assert public control over finance, and rebalance the UK economy”. No consideration is given the fact that the ‘opportunity’ is likely to be based on considerably less than 50 per cent support amongst the voters. Meanwhile, the country’s largest export market will, apparently, despite its ineradicable neoliberal character, sit idly by as the path to socialism is pioneered on its largest island.

Perhaps we should be grateful to brazen Lexiteers for being carried away when others, such as the Guardian’s Larry Elliot are less candid about the logic of their views.

It hardly needs the genius of a Varoufakis to grasp that the UK is made up of European nations and when it comes to the dominant economic system this will be changed only through a shared European process that defies EU corporatism, or not at all. Much of the left still must learn that the existing British state is the prison of their hopes and will never be the instrument for their delivery.

Back in 1975 when E. P. Thompson hurled his diatribe against the ‘grand theorists’ of socialism he had Tom Nairn in his sights, whose fine polemic, The Left Against Europe had recently scorched every corner of anti-European prejudice. Against the fantasy of socialism in one Britain, Nairn had argued:

“The Common Market—Europe’s newest ‘constitutional regime’—represents a new phase in the development of bourgeois society in Europe. To vote in favour of that regime ‘in a revolutionary sense alone’ does not imply surrender to or alliance with the left’s enemies. It means exactly the opposite. It signifies recognizing and meeting them as enemies, for what they are, upon the terrain of reality and the future. It implies a stronger and more direct opposition to them, because an opposition unfettered by the archaic delusions of Europe’s anciens regimes”.

Nearly 50 years later the terrain of reality and the future is still shunned by the Lexiteers as they cling to the fetters of the old regime. 

Anthony Barnett’s “The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump” is published by Unbound

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left