So, it turns out feminism is a CIA plot to undermine the left

Laurie Penny's eyebrow-raising encounter with a media studies professor at Occupy Wall Street.

My eyebrow-raising encounter with a media studies professor at Occupy Wall Street.

I'm having a major political rethink this week, because it turns out that all along, feminism was a CIA plot to undermine the left. Don't just take it from me. Mark Crispin Miller, author, professor of media studies at NYU, and host of New York's Notes from Underground book event, raised the issue himself when challenged about the all-male, all-white, all-over-forty lineup of his panel on The Future of Occupy Wall Street. Later, a young woman in the audience told me that it felt, to her, no different from watching an all-male lineup on the Hill debate the future of abortion rights in America on television that morning.

To give Miller his due, he did open the whole event with the sort of shrugging, cutesy apology for the homogeneity of the panel - which included David Graeber, Nick Mirzoeff and Andrew Ross - that has become routine at speaking events whose audiences are likely to care. All the usual excuses were trotted out, as questioners for the audience, including myself, pressed the point: it was very last minute. We couldn't find any women, or young people, or people of colour at short notice. We just put the panel together from our friends and from academics we knew.

The thing is that we've heard all of these excuses for the marginalisation of women, ethnic minorities and young people in debate spaces so many times before, and they are often tragically sincere in their intent, and they all have obvious retorts:

  1. Why does the fact that the event was called at 'short notice' matter? (Are there any speaking events that aren't?) Were you asking women and people of colour along at the end, as an afterthought? Why aren't you asking them first, as a natural part of the process of inviting speakers?
  2. If you can't think of women, people of colour and young people to talk about your chosen subject, that says more about what you're reading and who you're associating with than it does about the participation of people who are not old white professional blokes in any particular sphere. In this particular case, I could easily name you half a dozen women and people of colour living in New York City who know more about 'The Future of Occupy Wall Street' than at least three out of four of the people on that panel, and I've been here a fortnight.
  3. If you're just selecting speakers from your friends and colleagues, don't you find it problematic that your friends and colleagues are overwhelmingly middle-aged white blokes?
  4. No, having one woman/minority/young person in your lineup and five doesn't make it all better. Speaking as someone who is regularly invited to be the one woman and/or the one young person on a panel of older white blokes, it makes something twist and ache inside to know that you are valued not primarily for what you say but because of your particular demographic: they could put any of over a billion women under thirty on the planet in your place and feel that they had achieved the same effect.
  5. No, inviting that one woman to chair your debate rather than participate in it doesn't make it all better. This is such a common get-out tactic, and it's a special sort of offensive, because it shows that organisers understand the importance of having a female person present in the debate, they just can't quite bring themselves to allow her to voice her own opinions - her job is merely to manage and make things pleasant for the men as they talk. Seriously. I'm sick of watching panels where the one woman's only role is to facilitate discussion between men, to handle rude or unruly questioners, to lay out the dialectical doilies and retreat into the background when she is not needed.
  6. For fuck's sake, why exactly is it so hard to make space in political discussions - even on the nominal left - for people who are not middle-aged, middle class white men?

Well, between us, the women in the audience extracted the normal platitudes from Miller, but it's always worth asking again, because just occasionally people crack and say what they actually think. In this case Miller utterly lost, as the Americans like to put it, his shit, and - well, just watch the video. The significant quote is:

It's interesting to note that Ford and Rockefeller and the other foundations with strong CIA connections started giving grants in the early 70s to study race and gender. It was a sudden move towards identity politics by these organisations and the theory is that the reason they did this was to balkanise the left and to prevent it from pursuing any kind of a class or economic analysis. Without denying the justice of what you're saying, this is not an irrelevant theory. I don't think, anyway.

My favourite part of the clip is what the other three panellists do when Miller launches into his eyebrow-waggling rant about how 'identity' politics is a plot to distract white male academics from doing the real work of talking about class and economics whilst entirely ignoring the race and gender issues with which they are inextricably intertwined. Mirzoeff looks away. Graeber picks awkwardly at his shirt. Ross writes in his notepad, possibly the words 'honestly, I'm not with this guy.'

The next day, I had a Twitter exchange with Miller, in which he directed me to the theory he was referencing, which is apparently the work of someone called Daniel Brandt. In the essay in question, Brandt's groundbreaking ideas about the duplicitous, damaging role of women's rights on the left include frothing paranoid spittle-flecks like this:

One yearns for the good old days, when issues were big, women didn't want to be imperial spies, and idealism and ethical indignation were accepted from nonvictims. In 1977 the CIA notified eighty academic institutions that they had unwittingly been involved in -- surprise! -- mind-control research...

The Women's Liberation Movement may be considered as subversive to the New Left and revolutionary movements as they have proven to be a divisive and factionalizing factor.... It could be well recommended as a counterintelligence movement to weaken the revolutionary movement." This was from an August, 1969 report by the head of the San Francisco FBI office.[4] Within several years, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations were pumping millions into women's studies programs on campus.

OH NO, THE CIA ARE USING WOMEN'S STUDIES TO CONTROL YOUR MINDS. THIS IS SERIOUS, CHAPS. For the love of god, someone investigate Planned Parenthood and Abortion Rights UK right now! All that faff about a woman's right to choose might be an attempt to distract the white working class from issues that matter to real people! When I asked Miller to clarify his comments, he responded with the following TwitLonger essay (it's on his Twitter feed, for anyone to read):

Struck by how much time we'd spent on our (the panelists') race and gender, I made the point to note Brandt's argument that, in the Seventies, the student left may have been subtly guided toward race/gender issues as a way to get the movement not to deal with class or economics -- which, if they'd kept that focus, might have led to an alliance with the labor unions.

According to that argument, in other words, the rise of what we call "identity politics" was engineered to drive a wedge between the left and working-class whites, who now perceived the academic left as focused on "diversity" instead of economic justice; and this estrangement also made it easy for the right to woo white workers by playing on their racism and sexual anxieties (which had already started happening under Nixon, and which would soon help put Ronald Reagan in the White House).

By now, of course, the left's race/gender reflex -- what rightists call "political correctness" -- is so well-established that nobody even thinks to ask how it arose. Your persistence in attacking us last night struck me as an opportunity to raise that question, which I think is a good one, and worth pondering.

I could see, however, that it really pissed you off -- and it's clear that you're pissed off about it still. I'm sorry it offended you, but there it is.

In other words, I'm sorry you're upset, little lady, but you can't cry away the truth. The academy - which is, of course, where all the important liberal politics really gets done, rather than workplaces, schools, factories, town squares and the streets - had 'identity' politics and 'political correctness' foisted upon it by non-profits with CIA connections.

Never mind that the students of the University of Columbia, for example, went into occupation in 1996 to demand an ethnic studies department. They must have been funded by the secret service too. It's all a plot to stop the real left - which absolutely doesn't include any women or non-white people - from changing the world.

My mistake: I had assumed it was kneejerk, paranoid throwbackery.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.