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Revolts don’t have to be tweeted: Laurie Penny on a force bigger than technology

There is a lot more to the recent uprisings than just the knock-on effects of social media.

An extraordinary thing has happened. In Egypt, a million-strong movement forced the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's government, even though the state had pulled the plug on the internet. After over a week without reliable access to their Facebook profiles, the people of Egypt did not abandon their revolution. They have forced concessions from the government and sent shock waves through the region - without firm help from Twitter. What on earth is going on?

Despite what you might hear on the news, there's a lot more to the recent uprisings than just the knock-on effects of social media. As the world's press has struggled to retain control of the narrative, it has seized on how many of the dissidents are - gasp - organising online.

In what appears to be dogged unwillingness to recognise the economic brutality of governments as the root cause of popular unrest, news people everywhere have boggled exhaustively over the way in which protesters in Cairo, Tunis, Paris and London are using the internet to communicate. What did they think we were going to use - smoke signals?

Of course, technology has been a shaping force in these uprisings. The internet is a fascinating and useful tool, the best we have for organising and sharing information.

The low cost of participation in digital networks allows protesters to circumvent the sometimes arthritic hierarchies of the old far left and to organise horizontally, while the instant dissemination of camera and video footage and reportage from citizen journalists means that the truth can travel around the world before government propaganda gets its boots on. This has allowed the protests to grow and evolve faster than anyone expected.

At times of crisis, human beings have a reassuring tendency to use the best tools at their disposal to steal a march on the enemy, especially if native fluency with those tools gives us an edge over our oppressors. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that young protesters and their allies are organising on Twitter and Facebook.

Capital punishment

The internet is a useful tool, but it is just a tool. HTML does not cause mass uprisings any more than a handgun causes mass murder - although, for people of a certain mindset, the mere proximity of the tool is enough to set dangerous thoughts in motion. The internet isn't the reason people are getting desperate and it isn't the reason things are kicking off. Things are kicking off for one reason and one reason alone: there is a global crisis of capital.

The writing is on the wall, with or without the web. Across the world, ordinary people - including a huge, seething pool of surplus graduates without employment - are finding their lives measurably less tolerable than they had anticipated. They are realising that they are not suffering alone, or by accident, but because the capitalist classes have consistently put their own interests first.

The writing is on the wall, and it would still be there if we had to paint it on with mud and sticks. Technology is defining the parameters of global protest in 2011 but it is a crisis of capital that has set the wheels of revolt in motion.

 

Laurie will be speaking on the politics and new media panel at the Progressive London conference this Saturday.

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

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.