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
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Time to start fixing the broken safety net that no longer catches struggling families

We are failing to ensure we look after the children of families both in and out of work.

Families on low incomes are once again bearing the brunt of a tough economic environment. Over the past decade, rising costs of items such as food, energy and childcare, combined with stagnating wages and cuts in benefits, have repeatedly put a squeeze on family budgets.

Between 2014 and 2016, some of these pressures eased, as inflation sank to zero and pay started to grow again. But now that inflation has returned, for the first time in postwar history the increasing cost of a child is being combined with a freeze in all financial support for children. The failure to uprate either benefits, tax credits or the wage levels at which tax credits are withdrawn means that inflation is bound to erode modest family incomes both in and out of work.

The gradual fall in living standards that this produces will be worsened by other benefit cuts that come in over the next few years, for different families at different times. For a start, the phasing out of the “family element” of Child Tax Credit (and its equivalent in Universal Credit) will eventually result in all low-income families getting more than £500 a year less from the state than at present.

Since this only applies to families whose oldest child was born in April 2017 or later, it hits families with the youngest children first, with the effect spreading gradually through the population. The restriction of tax credit entitlements to a maximum of two children is also being phased in, affecting only third children born from this year on, but will clobber families much more severely, with a loss of nearly £2,800 a year per child.

Some existing larger families who escape this cut have nevertheless had their income severely reduced this year (by anything up to £6,000) by the reduction in the benefit cap.

My latest report on the cost of a child, for Child Poverty Action Group, takes stock of these trends and the effects they will have on parents’ ability to provide for their families effectively. For some families in work, improved support for childcare and a higher minimum wage partially offsets the losses incurred as a result of the above cuts. But for those relying on benefits as a “safety net” when they are not working, the level of this net is being progressively lowered over time. On present policies, the support that it provides will sink below half of what families need as a minimum sometime early in the 2020s – having in contrast provided about two thirds of their requirements at the start of the present decade.

There comes a point when a “safety net” stops being worthy of its name because it is no longer enough to provide even the bare essentials of modern life. The evidence shows that when income sinks this low, most families can only escape severe material hardship either by going into debt or by getting help from extended family members.

We are about to enter a new parliamentary season, led by a government that survived by the skin of its teeth after a disgruntled electorate failed to give it the clear majority that it sought. Raising family living standards has been at the heart of the political promise to improve people’s lives. The benefits freeze alone seems to contradict this promise by creating a downward escalator for the half of families relying on some kind of means-tested benefit or tax credit, in combination with child benefit.

For those  who are “just about managing”, and particularly for others who are not managing at all, the clearest signal that Philip Hammond could give in his Autumn Budget that he is starting  to reverse the direction of that escalator would be to restore a system of benefit upratings. This would at least allow incomes to keep up with living costs, stopping things from getting systematically worse, and giving a stable foundation on which measures to improve living standards could build.

Professor Donald Hirsch is director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University