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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Excitement, hatred and belonging: why terrorists do it

A new book by Richard English suggests that killing can bring its own rewards.

Like most questions about terrorism, why large numbers of people join terrorist organisations can only be answered in political terms. However terrorism may be defined – and disputes about what counts as terrorism are largely political in their own right – we will be ­unable to understand how terrorist groups ­attract members if we don’t consider the politics of the societies in which the groups are active. But terrorism’s appeal is not ­always political for everyone involved in it. Richard English, in his wide-ranging new book, highlights some of what he calls the “inherent rewards” of terrorism gained by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). According to some former members, involvement in PIRA operations brought adventure, excitement, celebrity in local communities and sometimes sexual opportunities.

Terrorist activity also brought other intrinsic benefits. As one Belfast ex-PIRA man put it, “You just felt deep comradeship.” Or as another said, regarding involvement in the Provos: “Now I felt I was one of the boys.” Yet another reflected tellingly: “Although I was ideologically committed to the cause, for me, in many ways, being in the IRA was almost the objective rather than the means”; conspiratorial “belonging” and “comradeship” were, in themselves, rich rewards. Friendship, belief, belonging, purpose, community and meaning. One ex-Provo described his PIRA years as “days of certainty, comradeship and absolute commitment”. A bonus was that PIRA members’ actions could gain them influence and standing in their own communities; one ex-PIRA man reflected on how he saw himself after having joined the PIRA, in the simple words: “I felt important.”

English is a professor of politics and director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. He has studied political violence in Northern Ireland for many years and, for him, these inherent benefits are one of four ways in which terrorism can “work”. The other three comprise strategic victory in the achievement of a central or primary goal or goals; partial strategic victory, which includes determining the agenda of conflict; and tactical success, which may lead to strengthening the organisation and gaining or maintaining control over a population.

Understanding terrorism, English writes, requires taking it seriously: “treating it as the product of motivations and arguments which deserve serious, respectful engagement; and also assessing it as something worthy of honest, Popperian interrogation”. He is sanguine – surprisingly so, given the conflicts with which he is concerned – regarding the practical results such an inquiry might bring. Finding out how far and in what ways terrorism works has “practical significance” – indeed, its importance may be “huge”. As English makes clear, he “is not arguing that if we understood more fully the extent to which terrorism worked, then everything would have been fine in the post-9/11 effort to reduce terrorist violence”. He is convinced, however, that understanding how far terrorism works can greatly improve the struggle against it. “It does seem to me strongly possible that if states more fully knew how far and in what ways terrorism worked (and does not work, and why), then they would be able to respond much more effectively to it in practice.”

With all its caveats, this is a strikingly bold claim. It assumes that the failures of the post-9/11 “war on terror”, which no one can reasonably deny, were largely due to intellectual errors. But was it a lack of understanding that rendered these programmes ineffectual or counterproductive? Or was it that some of the West’s allies – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and, more recently, Turkey – have been less than unequivocal in taking a stand against terrorism or may even have had some complicity with it? If so, it was the geopolitical commitments of Western governments that prevented them from taking effective action. Again, much of the current wave of terrorism can be traced back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Voicing a long-familiar consensual view, English criticises the US-led occupation for being “ill-planned”, leading to the destabilisation of the Iraqi security situation. But it is not clear that more forethought could have prevented this result.

If Western leaders had thought more carefully about the likely consequences of the invasion, it would probably not have been launched. With the regime and the state so closely intertwined, topping Saddam Hussein always risked creating a power vacuum. It was this that enabled al-Qaeda and then Isis and its affiliates to emerge, gain control in parts of the country and then project their operations into Europe.

Errors of analysis may have played a contributory role in this grisly fiasco. When British forces were despatched to Basra, it may have been assumed that they could implement something like the pacification that was eventually achieved in Northern Ireland. But the kinds of allies that Britain made in Belfast – and before that in the successful counterterrorist campaign in Malaya in the 1950s – did not exist in that part of Iraq. Like the overall programme of pacifying a country whose governing institutions had been dismantled abruptly, the mission was essentially unachievable. But this was not accepted by either the US administration or the British government. The invasion was based in ideological conviction rather than an empirical assessment of risks and consequences. In this case, too, high-level political decisions were far more important in unleashing terrorism than any failures in understanding it.

As has become the usual way in books on terrorism, English begins with his own definition of the phenomenon:

Terrorism involves heterogeneous violence used and threatened with a political aim; it can involve a variety of acts, of targets and actors; it possesses an important psychological dimension, producing terror or fear among a directly threatened group and also a wider implied audience in the hope of maximising political communication and achievement; it embodies the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations; it represents a subspecies of warfare, and as such can form part of a wider campaign of violent and non-violent attempts at political leverage.

This is a torturous formulation, not untypical of the academic literature on the subject. English tells us that his book is intended for readers in “all walks of life”. But the style throughout is that of a prototypical academic text, densely fortified with references to “majority scholarly opinion” and buttressed with over 50 pages of footnotes fending off critics. As a storehouse of facts and sources, the book will be a valuable resource for scholars, but its usefulness to the general reader is more doubtful.

The most interesting and informative of the book’s four main sections – on jihadism and al-Qaeda; Ireland and the IRA; Hamas and Palestinian terrorism; and Basque terrorism – is the one on Ireland, where English’s knowledge is deepest. Extensive interviews with people who had been involved in terrorist campaigns in the province led him to what is perhaps his most instructive generalisation: those who engage in and support terrorism “tend to display the same levels of rationality as do other people . . . they tend to be psychologically normal rather than abnormal . . . they are not generally characterised by mental illness or psychopathology . . . the emergence and sustenance of terrorism centrally rely on the fact that perfectly normal people at certain times consider it to be the most effective way of achieving necessary goals”. Terrorists are no more irrational than the rest of us, and there is no such thing as “the terrorist mind”. In many contexts, terrorism has functioned principally as an effective way of waging war.

As English notes, there is nothing new in the claim that terrorism is a variety of asymmetric warfare. The practice of suicide bombing has very often been analysed in cost-benefit terms and found to be highly efficient. The expenditure of resources involved is modest and the supply of bombers large; if the mission is successful the operative cannot be interrogated. The bombers gain status; their families may receive financial reward. (Religious beliefs about an afterlife are not a necessary part of suicide bombing, which has been practised by Marxist-Leninists of the Tamil Tiger movement and in Lebanon.) An enormous literature exists in which asymmetric warfare has been interpreted as demonstrating “the power of the weak”: the capacity of militarily inferior groups using unconventional methods to prevail against states with much greater firepower at their disposal. Understood in these terms, there can be no doubt that terrorism can be a rational strategy.

Yet there is a problem with understanding terrorism on this basis, and it lies in the slippery word “rational”, with which English juggles throughout the book. Terrorists are not always rational, he says; they are prone to overestimate the impact of their activities, and they make mistakes. Even so, what they do can be understood as rational strategies, and in these terms terrorism often works, if only partly. Here, English is invoking a straightforwardly instrumental view of reason. What terrorists do is rational, in this sense, if there is an intelligible connection between the ends they aim to achieve and the means they adopt to achieve them.

This means/end type of rationality typifies much terrorist activity, English maintains. But some of the ends achieved by terrorism are internal to the actual practice. “Inherent rewards from al-Qaeda terrorism might potentially include aspects of religious piety; the catharsis produced by revenge and the expression of complicatedly generated rage; and the remedying of shame and humiliation.” In this case, “hitting back  violently and punishingly at them [the US and its military allies] has offered significant rewards in terms not merely of political instrumentalism but also of valuable retaliation in itself”.

The inherent rewards of terrorism also include the expression of hatred. “The vengeful, terrorising punishment of people whom one hates, or with whom one exists in a state of deep enmity,” English writes, “might be one of the less attractive aspects of terrorist ambition. But it might also (perhaps) be one in which we find terrorists repeatedly succeeding fairly well . . .” Here, he may have understated his case. Killing cartoonists, customers queuing at a Jewish bakery in Paris and families celebrating Bastille Day in Nice will be a rational act as long as it succeeds in venting the terrorists’ hatred. Even if the operation is somehow aborted, the attempt to inflict mass death and injury may still serve as a type of therapy for those who make the attempt. If “hitting back at people whom one holds to be (literally or representatively) responsible for prior wrongs” can be rational on account of the emotional satisfaction it brings the terrorist, how can terrorism fail to work?

Clearly something has gone badly wrong here. Without mentioning the fact, or perhaps without noticing it, English has switched from one conception of rationality to another. Much of what human beings do isn’t the result of a calculation of con­sequences, but more an expression of their sense of identity. Philosophers describe this as expressive rationality, an idea they use to explain why voting in circumstances where you know your vote can make no practical difference can still be in accordance with reason. But is expressive rationality beyond rational criticism? In order to understand terrorism in Israel-Palestine, Ireland and Spain, English tells us, we need to understand the national context in which the terrorists act. This doesn’t imply “a comfortable acceptance of any single national narrative”, given that various terrorist groups “have done much to open such narratives to a very brutal interrogation”.

But is the terrorist narrative exempt from questioning? The reader might think so, as there is nothing in English’s account that fundamentally challenges the narrative of Hamas, for example. There is no discussion of the endorsement in the Hamas Charter of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and no examination of the influence on Hamas’s policies of the delusional world-view that this infamous anti-Semitic forgery articulates. If this is a Popperian interrogation of terrorism, it falls short of the impartial critical rationalism that Karl Popper recommended.

An analysis of the intrinsic rewards of terrorism may be useful in considering the outbreak of Isis-affiliated ­terrorism in Europe. In contrast to that of the IRA, including its ultra-violent Provisional wing, this cannot easily be understood in terms of instrumental rationality. Even when compared with its predecessor al-Qaeda, Isis has been notable for making very few concrete demands. No doubt the present outbreak is partly a reaction to the jihadist group losing ground in Iraq and Syria. But as English suggests, we need to ask for whom terrorism works, and why. When we do this in relation to Isis, the answers we receive are not reassuring.

Nothing in human conflict is entirely new. There are some clear affinities between anarchist terrorist attacks around the end of the 19th century and jihadist “spectaculars” at the start of the 20th. However, there are also certain discomforting differences. Anarchists at that time made public officials, not ordinary civilians, their primary targets; they attacked state power rather than an entire society; and they never acquired a mass base of supporters and sympathisers. Bestowing identity and significance on dislocated individuals and enabling them to discharge their resentment against a hated way of life, terrorism by Isis is of another kind. Against the background of deep divisions in European societies, these rewards could become an increasingly powerful source of the group’s appeal.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue