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.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change