In this week's New Statesman: India - The economic miracle implodes

William Dalrymple on India: can it ever become a superpower? PLUS: Sophie Elmhirst profiles Ai Weiwei and an "Autumn Books" special in the Critics.

Rafael Behr: Cameron fantasises about the next big push while the troops struggle

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr rounds up lessons learned from the annual party conference season. From feel-good speeches to “pleb” badges, here are the takeaway messages:

Liberal Democrats miss the moral high ground

While the junior coalition party was meeting in Brighton, headlines were dominated by tales of Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative Chief Whip, allegedly calling a police officer a “fucking pleb”. Many Lib Dems didn’t seem to mind their demotion down the news agenda. They revelled in Tory discomfort at the episode. Ministers made “pleb” jokes in their speeches. “I’m a pleb” badges became a must-have conference accessory . . . The party is “battle-weary”, in the words of one senior adviser. “[Lib Dems] long to feel good about themselves again.”

Ed Miliband really is the leader of the Labour Party

Ed Miliband delivered his big speech in Manchester with a thespian fluency of which many had previously thought him incapable . . . It gave delegates hope that they might actively promote the idea of the Labour leader as a potential prime minister instead of dodging accusations that he doesn’t fit the part . . . The sceptics in his party are not entirely won over. They acknowledge that he has proved capable of raising his game but doubt that he can keep it up.

Morale is low on the Conservative front lines

The impatience of many Tory MPs… is well known . Such ingratitude is part of a cycle that began when David Cameron failed to win a majority in 2010 and that systematically erodes his authority. Common complaints are that the party machine is rusty, that its central office is staffed with lightweights and that Labour campaign teams are more motivated and better organised.

These are not gripes about ideological direction: they are the grumbles of a demoralised infantry whose commanding officers are miles from the front, fantasising about the next big push and apparently unaware that their ill-equipped troops are struggling just to hold the line.

Read the piece in full, published online here.

 

William Dalrymple: After the blackout

India has long been hailed as the world’s next great superpower, notes the historian William Dalrymple in this week's cover story:

For over a decade now, India has marketed itself as the coming superpower, placing itself in the same league as Europe and the United States, and hyphenated with China as the dominant force of the near future. Indian futurologists have projected that China will overtake the US in gross domestic product between 2030 and 2040, and that India will follow suit by roughly 2050.

Yet Dalrymple has doubts. He finds a country questioning if it will ever become the powerhouse many promise it will be. From the power outage this summer that left 700 million people in darkness, to larger issues of wealth imbalance and crippling poverty, he probes the issues in the way of India’s rise to superpower:

How far Shakti Dehra was typical of a much wider scenario in India became clear this August after the country suffered what the international media soon christened “the largest power blackout in human history”. India’s creaking electricity grid had finally collapsed in the middle of the hot summer, due to the load of supporting hundreds of thousands of air-conditioners, and had supposedly plunged 700 million people across 21 of India’s 28 states into darkness.

India carried on much as it usually did: it muddled through. It was able to do this as the government provision of power is always so inadequate that the rich all have their own generators or “inverters” – a sort of giant rechargeable battery that can keep the fans going until power returns – while most of the poor get so little electricity anyway that its disappearance was barely noticed: of the 700 million people allegedly left powerless, in reality only 320 million had electricity in the first place.

What the power failure did was expose to international scrutiny the scandalous state of Indian infrastructure and the failure of the Indian state a full 65 years after independence to provide even the basic necessities for modern life across most of the country. It also highlighted the growing sus­picion that India’s dream of a rapid rise to the international top table might be just that – a dream.

 

Ai Weiwei: "If someone is not free, I am not free" - a profile of our next guest editor by Sophie Elmhirst

For the NS Profile, Sophie Elmhirst spent a week at the Beijing studio of the artist Ai Weiwei, the next guest editor of the New Statesman. Ai’s special issue will be published next week, 19 October.

Reacting to a Beijing court’s refusal last month of his appeal against a £1.5m fine imposed on his design company for “tax evasion”, Ai says the entire legal process has been deplorable. “The company could not place inquiries about the case or defend itself,” he says. “Our side of the story has not been heard in the trials. Not only did the authorities have no respect for the law and violate all the legal procedures as the case proceeded, they failed to provide any hard evidence for the charges they made.”

Ai also recalls that “from the beginning the tax case is doomed and everyone involved knows it”.
The police, he says, told him in private that “their aim was to discredit me because I criticised the government publicly”. When he challenged them about why the state couldn’t address his dissidence directly rather than impose a fine, they told him that people in China listen to him and often agree with him, and that imposing a fine would more “effectively damage my reputation and popularity”.

Of his reasons for continuing to protest against the actions of the Chinese government, Ai says:
“If someone is not free, I’m not free . . . If artists cannot speak up for human dignity or rights, then who else will do it?”

He is aware of the dangers to himself, but maintains that he will keep fighting injustice and oppression as long as he can:

“I always have to question myself . . . what happens if I spend the rest of my life in jail? Or what happens if I can never travel again? Can I afford to do that? I think, still, there is something I can do . . . As a living creature, you have to prove what you can do.”

 

Mehdi Hasan: Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty

In Lines of Dissent, Mehdi Hassan sticks out his neck and declares: “I’m a lefty, but I’m with Jeremy Hunt and Christopher Hitchens on time limits for abortion.” He compares his stance with the liberalism of Hitchens, writing:

It has long been taken as axiomatic that in order to be left-wing you must be pro-choice.Yet Hitchens’s reasoning was not just solid but solidly left-wing. It was a pity, he noted, that the “majority of feminists and their allies have stuck to the dead ground of ‘Me Decade’ possessive individualism, an ideology that has more in common than it admits with the prehistoric right, which it claims to oppose but has in fact encouraged”.

Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and “defending the innocent”, while left-wingers fetishise “choice”, selfishness and unbridled individualism.

He refutes the claim that being pro-life means being “anti-women” or “sexist”:

For a start, 49 per cent of women, compared to 24 per cent of men, support a reduction in the abortion limit, according to a YouGov poll conducted this year . . . Then there is the history you gloss over: some of the earliest advocates of women’s rights, such Mary Wollstonecraft, were anti-abortion, as were pioneers of US feminism such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton...

In recent years, some feminists have recognised the sheer injustice of asking a woman to abort her child in order to participate fully in society; in the words of the New Zealand feminist author Daphne de Jong: “If women must submit to abortion to preserve their lifestyle or career, their economic or social status, they are pandering to a system devised and run by men for male convenience.

I’m not calling for a ban on abortion; mine is a minority position in this country. What I would like is for my fellow lefties and liberals to try to understand and respect the views of those of us who are pro-life, rather than demonise us as right-wing reactionaries or medieval misogynists.

 

In the Critics: An Autumn Books Special

It’s the Autumn Books special in The Critics this week. Our lead book reviewer is Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007. Powell reviews Kofi Annan’s memoir, Interventions. “I don’t think Annan has anything to apologise for,” Powell writes. “The problem is not with the man but with the international community.”

The former Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd also considers the future of the international community in his review of Governing the World by Mark Mazower. “The UN has endorsed the notion of ‘the responsibility to protect’,” Hurd notes. “As on many similar occasions, the baptismal name is misleading. The responsibility to protect is not so much about protection as about intervention.”

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to D T Max about his biography of the late David Foster Wallace, and in her Personal Story, the American novelist A M Homes explains how growing up amid the tumult of Nixon-era Washington, DC shaped her fiction. “It was a strange time and place to be a child,” she writes. “A multilayered existence with shifting standards, exceptions and different rules for different people.”

 

Elsewhere in Autumn Books

The business editor of ITV News, Laura Kuenssberg, reviews John Gapper’s Wall Street thriller, A Fatal Debt;  the NS’s pop critic, Kate Mossman, reviews Philip Norman’s biography of Mick Jagger; the poet Christopher Reid on The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett; Linda Grant enjoys Colm Tóibín’s retelling of the story of Mary, mother of Jesus; and much more.

 

Elsewhere in the NS

Ryan Gilbey is impressed by Walter Salles’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Rachel Cooke reviews the BBC2 documentary I Was Once a Beauty Queen; and Antonia Quirke is entranced by a Radio 4 programme about the Irishness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

PLUS: Will Self on Jimmy Savile in Maddness of Crowds

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Let's not abolish sex work. Let's abolish all work

To describe sex work as "a job like any other job" is only a positive reframing if you consider a "job" to be a good thing by definition. 

Is sex work "a job like any other" - and is that a good thing? Amnesty International today officially adopted a policy recommending the decriminalisation of sex work around the world as the best way to reduce violence in the industry and safeguard both workers and those who are trafficked into prostitution. 

“Sex workers are at heightened risk of a whole host of human rights abuses including rape, violence, extortion and discrimination,” said Tawanda Mutasah, Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Law and Policy. “Our policy outlines how governments must do more to protect sex workers from violations and abuse.

“We want laws to be refocused on making sex workers’ lives safer and improving the relationship they have with the police while addressing the very real issue of exploitation,” said Mutasah, emphasising the organisation’s policy that forced labour, child sexual exploitation and human trafficking are human rights abuses which, under international law, must be criminalised in every country. “We want governments to make sure no one is coerced to sell sex, or is unable to leave sex work if they choose to.”

The proposal from the world’s best-known human rights organisation has caused uproar, particularly from some feminist campaigners who believe that decriminalisation will "legitimise" an industry that it is uniquely harmful to women and girls. 

As sex workers around the world rally for better working conditions and legal protections, more and more countries are adopting versions of the "Nordic Model" - attempting to crack down on sex work by criminalising the buyers of commercial sex, most of whom are men. Amnesty, along with many sex workers’ rights organisations, claims that that the "Nordic Model’"in fact forces the industry underground and does little to protect sex workers from discrimination and abuse. 

The battle lines have been drawn, and the "feminist sex wars" of the 1980s are under way again. Gloria Steinem, who opposes Amnesty’s move, is one of many campaigners who believe the very phrase "sex work" is damaging. "'Sex work' may have been invented in the US in all goodwill, but it has been a dangerous phrase - even allowing home governments to withhold unemployment and other help from those who refuse it,” Steinem wrote on Facebook in 2015. “Obviously, we are free to call ourselves anything we wish, but in describing others, anything that requires body invasion - whether prostitution, organ transplant, or gestational surrogacy - must not be compelled." She wanted the UN to "sex work" with "prostituted women, children, or people". 

The debate over sex work is the only place where you can find modern liberals seriously discussing whether work itself is an unequivocal social good. The phrase "sex work" is essential precisely because it makes that question visible. Take the open letter recently published by former prostitute ‘Rae’, now a committed member of the abolitionist camp, in which she concludes: “Having to manifest sexual activity due to desperation is not consent. Utilising a poor woman for intimate gratification – with the sole knowledge that you are only being engaged with because she needs the money – is not a neutral, amoral act.”

I agree with this absolutely. The question of whether a person desperate for cash can meaningfully consent to work is vital. And that’s precisely why the term "sex work" is essential. It makes it clear that the problem is not sex, but work itself, carried out within a culture of patriarchal violence that demeans workers in general and women in particular.

To describe sex work as "a job like any other job" is only a positive reframing if you consider a "job" to be a good thing by definition. In the real world, people do all sorts of horrible things they’d rather not do, out of desperation, for cash and survival. People do things that they find boring, or disgusting, or soul-crushing, because they cannot meaningfully make any other choice. We are encouraged not to think about this too hard, but to accept these conditions as simply "the way of the world".

The feminist philosopher Kathi Weeks calls this universal depoliticisation of work “the work society”: an ideology under whose its terms it is taken as a given that work of any kind is liberating, healthy and "empowering". This is why the "work" aspect of "sex work" causes problems for conservatives and radical feminists alike. "Oppression or profession?" is the question posed by a subtitle on Emily Balezon’s excellent feature on the issue for the New York Times this month. But why can’t selling sex be both? 

Liberal feminists have tried to square this circle by insisting that sex work is not "a job like any other", equating all sold sex, in Steinem’s words, with "commercial rape" - and obscuring any possibility of agitating within the industry for better workers’ rights. 

The question of whether sex workers can meaningfully give consent can be asked of any worker in any industry, unless he or she is independently wealthy. The choice between sex work and starvation is not a perfectly free choice - but neither is the choice between street cleaning and starvation, or waitressing and penury. Of course, every worker in this precarious economy is obliged to pretend that they want nothing more than to pick up rubbish or pour lattes for exhausted office workers or whatever it is that pays the bills. It is not enough to show up and do a job: we must perform existential subservience to the work society every day.

In the weary, decades-long "feminist sex wars", the definitional choice apparently on offer is between a radically conservative vision of commercial sexuality - that any transaction involving sex must be not only immoral and harmful, but uniquely so - and a version of sex work in which we must think of the profession as "empowering" precisely because neoliberal orthodoxy holds that all work is empowering and life-affirming. 

That binary often can leave sex workers feeling as if they are unable to complain about their working conditions if they want to argue for more rights. Most sex workers I have known and interviewed, of every class and background, just want to be able to earn a living without being hassled, hurt or bullied by the state. They want the basic protections that other workers enjoy on the job - protection from abuse, from wage theft, from extortion and coercion.

A false binary is often drawn between warring camps of "sex positive" and "sex negative" feminism. Personally, I’m neither sex-positive nor sex-negative: I’m sex-critical and work-negative. 

Take Steinem’s concern that if "sex work" becomes the accepted terminology, states might require people to do it in order to access welfare services. Of course, this is a monstrous idea - but it assumes a laid-back attitude to states forcing people to do other work they have not chosen in order to access benefits. When did that become normal? Why is it only horrifying and degrading when the work up for discussion is sexual labour? 

I support the abolition of sex work  - but only in so far as I support the abolition of work in general, where "work" is understood as "the economic and moral obligation to sell your labour to survive". I don’t believe that forcing people to spend most of their lives doing work that demeans, sickens and exhausts them for the privilege of having a dry place to sleep and food to lift to their lips is a "morally neutral act".

As more and more jobs are automated away and still more become underpaid and insecure, the left is rediscovering anti-work politics: a politics that demands not just the right to "better" work, but the right, if conditions allow, to work less. This, too, is a feminist issue.

Understood through the lens of anti-work politics, the legalisation of sex work is about harm reduction within a system that is always already oppressive. It's the beginning, rather than the end, of a conversation about what it is moral to oblige human beings to do with the labour of their bodies and the finite time they have to spend on earth.

Sex work should be legal as part of the process by which we come to understand that the work society itself is harmful. The liberal feminist insistence on the uniquely exploitative character of sex work obscures the exploitative character of all waged and precarious labour - but it doesn’t have to. Perhaps if we start truly listening to sex workers, as Amnesty has done, we can slow down at that painful, problematic place, and exploitation more honestly - not just within the sex industry, but within every industry.

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