Laurie Penny on her book "Meat Market" and privilege in the modern age

Somewhere along the line women seem to have forgotten how far we’ve got to go.

The man in the audience is calling me a liar. He sits a few rows back, behind the women and the handful of men who have come to hear me do my talk about anti-capitalism and feminism, about sexual politics and the backlash against women's freedom in the west. He speaks with dull rage. He calls me a fantasist and a lunatic, tells me that men and women are as equal as they're ever going to be or need to be, that I’m hysterical, attention-seeking. I’ve met this guy before. I’ve met him with different faces, always in his mid-thirties, in a vicious mood and often, curiously enough, in one of those pseudo-liberal campaign groups that fights tirelessly for free speech - except when it’s women talking about feminism, because those bitches need to shut up already.

In the past month I've given talks all over Europe, mainly speaking about with Meat Market, my little anti-capitalist-feminist pop-theory book, doing interviews and discussions and readings in twelve cities. If this particular talk were happening in Italy, someone would have turned around and laughed in this guy’s face. In Britain you'd have had a bit of cross muttering followed by quietly furious people coming up to me after the event to ask if I'm sure I'm okay and isn’t it shocking, which is British for "this is fucked beyond belief". But this is Germany, and the room is an orgy of polite silence. And suddenly I’m tired beyond words.

It’s the kind of tiredness that’s mental as well as physical, the kind that makes your soul feel grimy. Rattling between Hamburg and Bumblefuck, West Germany, I find myself wishing, not for the first time this trip, that feminists could go on tour like rock bands. What I wouldn’t give for some interesting support acts, groupies, fascinating fall-outs, booze. Instead it’s just me, on my own, traveling in second-class and hoping there’ll be somewhere to wash my socks at the next stop before I actually have to beat out the crusty bits with a hammer. Somewhere between Paris and Athens I got sick - really sick, sick enough to have lain sweating and vomiting for twenty-for hours in a strange bed in a friend-of-a-friend’s house in Exarchia. The sickness hasn’t really gone away, though sprays and pills and a variety of culturally-specific alcoholic hot drinks have just about chased it off my chest, a product of too many late nights and cheap carbs and nasty cigarettes and unhygienic kisses and fascinating new friends who are more interesting than sleep.

Friends sometimes ask me why I do this. They ask why I live out of a suitcase and fling myself around the world writing for next to no money, work that keeps me from all the things young women my age are meant to want: the steady boyfriend, the the steady job, the shoe collection with a place to keep it in, the flat. Why do I do a job that makes me constantly nervous about being on show and not having the right answer, this work that means that I have to deal every single day with bullshit like this particular chap in the audience who right now seems to represent, perhaps unfairly, every single back-seat mouth-breather who ever set up a webpage dedicated to calling me a mad cunt who deserves to be raped to death? Why? I could have gone and worked in PR. I could have done fashion journalism. But instead, I do this, because I can, because the opportunity was there to live the sort of life denied to women like me well within living memory.

At my age, twenty- six, my grandmother was a recent immigrant with five kids and another on the way. She was shackled by religion to a violent alcoholic husband whom she had married in wartime to escape her island poverty. At twenty-six, my mother was already divorced, had begun the process of sacrificing herself to work and marriage and all the things expected of a second-generation immigrant career girl duped into believing you can ‘have it all’. Neither of them would have called themselves feminists. But feminism was what won for me and my sisters the birthright of all women in the twenty-first century, the one conservatives across the world are actively trying to confiscate right now: the right not to have to rely a man to keep you, the right to live your life without worrying whether or not you’re pretty enough or well-behaved enough to stop your boss or your husband getting sick of you, the right to be socially, sexually and financially independent. 

I do this because I can and because they couldn't, and because most women, even in the privileged west, still can’t. Feminism has won social mobility for a minority of women, but not social justice for all of us, not yet. I travel with a purse full of lipstick and birth control and books because if I didn’t I would be dishonoring the memory of my grandmother and generations of women like her who grew up frightened of the things they most wanted, of sex and power and self-reliance. I feel I have a duty to live as freely as I possibly can and to join the fight to defend and extend that freedom to women who did not grow up with my privilege. Let me explain this another way:

There’s a great deal of reading I ought to be doing, dull but important books I’d set aside to read on the interminable trains, but when I’m lonely on the road I keep coming back to science fiction. I lose myself in stories of other worlds, Dune and The Dispossessed and Use of Weapons and the Vorkosigan books, whizzing through the cold flatlands of mid-west Germany on trains that are a little like spaceships themselves, with doors that swish open at the slightest touch and, not for the first time, I find a hot, urgent sort of longing swelling in my chest. I always get emotional when I read books or watch films about space travel.  I know that I won’t ever get to the stars, or have adventures under the light of strange moons. My friend Deirdre Ruane wrote a fantastic comic about just this feeling. I wonder, often, if this is what women of my nanna’s generation felt when they saw girls like me living our lives today.

I wonder if the shiver of impossible yearning I experience when I watch space-battles on the television is what my nanna and women like her felt when they watched us going to university, having boyfriends before marriage, travelling to other countries, dancing all night in dresses cut short so you can feel the sweaty air of dark clubs on your thighs. For her, my life was, is, science fiction: strange and frightening, enabled by technology, and I see women my age handling it all as casually as a extra on Original Star Trek might handle one of those palm-computers that looked so exciting in the 1970s and now look like dated, old-model smartphones. We handle it all casually because we’re unable to conceive of an even better world. We’ve been told that this shaky picture is the best we’re ever going to get.

In Frankfurt, the fifth stop on my book tour, I walked alone to the student social centre through the city's small, grisly red light district and felt my phone buzz in my pocket: an email from a comrade, had I seen the news? Back home the minister for Work and Pensions had made a speech declaring that the big reason the British economy is in trouble has nothing to do with corporate tax avoidance, irresponsible banks, or the decision to sell off the welfare state to pay for the mistakes of the financial elite. No: women are the problem. Poor women, and their children. How dare they reproduce without husbands to support them? How dare they demand ‘handouts’ from the state? 

The week before that it was women who have late-term abortions under fire. How dare they? How dare they presume to have the right to decide what happens to their own bodies, how dare the brazen hussies ask for access to basic medical services? Whenever right-wing governments want to distract attention from their frenzied evisceration of the social contract, they point to women, particularly poor women and women of colour, and tell us that those women are the real problem. And we let them, because we still live in a world where structural misogyny and the machinations of post-Fordist capitalism dance together like Fred and Ginger dancing to "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", moving as one. Look at him driving her backwards in high heels.

Somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten how far we’ve got to go. Women have made enormous strides in the past hundred years, yes, of course we have, but let’s get beyond this idea that we’re supposed to be grateful that some of us are now permitted a warped sort of equality in a fundamentally unequal labour market. We have no reason to be grateful. We have every right to want more. We have a right to want everything, including not being morally and financially attacked by bigots in government with a business agenda every time they want to distract attention from their own fuckups. We have every right to demand more than this. 

The man in the audience who called me a liar is not happy with my answer. He shrugs on his coat and marches out. Once he’s gone, the rest of us get down to the serious questions. Spiky-haired students and parents with young kids who’ve crossed town to be there ask me: where do we go from here? And just what are we supposed to want? And what do I believe can really change? And every answer is a little different, a little bit personal, and every answer comes back to this:

Feminism isn’t about telling women how to live or who to love or what not to wear. Feminism is about imagining a future where gender isn’t destiny and sexism isn’t rampant, and then working to achieve that future. I believe it’ll happen, if we want it enough. If we allow ourselves to want it. 

So that's what I told the shy student with the curtains of dark hair who asked the last question on the last stop in my little book-tour, the girl who asked if we really have so much further to go. I told her - your mileage may vary, but I’m a utopian. I believe that the time will come when women have full control over our bodies and our lives, when girls do not grow up ashamed of our sexuality, when we do not have to fear violence at home and in the streets if we step out of line and poverty if we are not born rich. I believe there will be a time when the world is better and braver and freer than we can possibly imagine. And hey, maybe I won’t get to live in that world for very long, but I’m prepared to believe that some of the women who will lead it and build futures in it have already been born. Until then, I’ll keep on writing and talking and watching the star battles on television, because it’s longing like that that sets us free.

You can watch Laurie reading from the conclusion of Meat Market here:

Laurie writing during a stop on her book tour. Photograph: Internazionale on Flickr

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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.