Lord Rennard (r), who denies the allegations against him, with Sir Menzies Campbell at Lib Dem Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on the "Lord Grope" case: a system that discriminates against women

Systematic abuse happens when the system is abusive.

Sexual abuse is like every other abuse of power. It assumes that those who have power are entitled to do what they like to those who don’t, and it runs through the British establishment like veins of rot through stinking cheese. This week, when my editor asked me if I might write about “Lord Grope” – aka Chris Rennard, the Lib Dem peer at the centre of the latest high-profile (denied) allegations of sexual harassment – I hesitated. I’ve spent a solid month writing about sexual abuse and women’s rights – and young female writers who talk too much about “lady problems” often find ourselves edged away from talking about “serious politics”. Unfortunately, the fact that the sexual abuse and violence at the heart of the political establishment are not considered “serious politics” is precisely the problem.

Unless you’ve spent the past decade living in the bottom drawer of an elderly lecher’s bedside table, nesting down among the used tissues and copies of Razzle from 1983, you will probably have noticed that the way we understand sex and power is undergoing a vertiginous shift. Across the rainy vistas of the establishment, whether it’s the church, the media, politics or entertainment, sexual abuse by powerful people has suddenly become unacceptable, where for years it was tacitly condoned.

Now panic is setting in. Those with their own dirty bottom drawers are hoping like hell that throwing a few handsy pseudocelebrities to the tabloids to be torn apart will be enough. In the case of “Lord Grope”, it has become clear that Nick Clegg was made aware of complaints about his party’s chief executive years ago but did nothing. Why would he? Until extremely recently, it has been politically expedient to ignore such complaints. Nobody wants to be the next Anita Hill.

The scale and importance of sexual abuse, the difference between a naughty scandal and a rape allegation – these are things that the British public is more than intelligent enough to understand. We just don’t seem to want to. Just this past week I was invited on to ITV’s This Morning to explain to Phillip Schofield whether it is ever appropriate to grab a woman’s bottom. This taught me two things: first, that mainstream sexual discourse still struggles like a dying fish with the notions of context and consent, and second, that you’re not allowed to say “arse” on live television before lunchtime. You’re allowed to talk scurrilously about scandals, but not seriously about rape, abuse, or trauma. That might frighten the kiddies or, worse, the electorate.

Right now, we’re undergoing a small revolution in our understanding of what sexual and social abuse looks like. I do not use the word “revolution” lightly. In a courageous blog post, the Channel 4 journalist Jon Snow described how the Savile case brought back memories of his own experience of childhood abuse and explained that British society is undergoing a “sexual watershed”, where routine exploitation of women and children by those in authority is finally spoken about in public.

“This is a dramatic moment in the affairs of men and women; we shall all be tested,” Snow writes. “And while we in broadcasting, in the law, in parliament, in education, and in wider society must tread with diligence and great care to both accuser and accused, we owe it to those who suffered in a hopefully departing age to have the full protection of us all in ensuring that their claims [are] thoroughly investigated and responded to.”

The question is: are we ready to deal with the warped attitude to power and gender that underpins exploitation, or is bringing down a few gropers going to satisfy us?

In 2013, almost everywhere you look – from the Socialist Workers Party’s wincingly suspicious “rape tribunal”, to the Pollard report on the Savile inquiry, to Father Fiddly being kicked out of the Catholic Church – men who never expected to be held to account for exploiting younger, less powerful women and children are having to deal with the consequences of their actions. What links these cases, apart from a gobsmacking institutional acceptance of sexism, is that the accusations quickly become questions of discretion, discipline and protocol, not of routine exploitation of the vulnerable. The establishment is dealing with the new backlash against sexual and sexist abuse the only way it knows how – by talking to itself.

The voices of women are quickly muted in the press; what might begin as a case of “he said, she said” quickly becomes “he said, he said”. Issues of abuse and exploitation, after all, are “lady problems”, not “serious politics”. Serious politics, politics that makes and keeps headlines, is what happens when women shut up and let the men fight it out like dogs over an inappropriate boner.

When people keep asking themselves a question to which the answer is obvious, it usually means the answer is uncomfortable. Every time the newspapers ask themselves – on the pages opposite images of topless models soundlessly mouthing the editor’s opinions – how decades of sexual abuse of women and children have gone unchecked, they ignore the plain fact that sexual exploitation and sexist discrimination were and remain the background noise of power.

Systematic abuse happens when the system is abusive. It happens when those in power are allowed to exploit and dehumanise those less powerful than themselves without facing any consequences. And it won’t change until it is challenged.

UPDATE 28 February 2013 14:40:

Following a productive debate on Twitter, I'd like to remind readers that, although systematic sexism plays an enormous role in the normalisation of sexual harassment, it is not only women and children who are victims of institutional abuse. Some people felt that this piece didn't reflect this adequately, and I'm happy to make the point clear.

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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain