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Marina Strinkovsky on Shulamith Firestone: The forgotten firebrand

Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex was a bestseller; an almost unimaginable feat for a book that called pregnancy barbaric, childhood a segregationist institution and heterosexual love “the pivot of women’s oppression”. 

This piece is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays here.

It’s difficult not to think of Shulamith Firestone in Biblical terms. Partly this is a banal reflex: she was Jewish, the second child and oldest daughter in an orthodox family of six. Her name, Shulamith (originally Feuerstein, later changed to the evocative Firestone), is the original Hebrew of Salome, the tragic seductress who demanded a man’s head on a plate. Like the burning chariot of an angry, ranting prophetess, The Dialectic of Sex: A case for Feminist Revolution - Firestone’s broadside against all of the intimate institutions of society - blazed across the feminist firmament before its lessons were snuffed out by the resurgence of capitalist patriarchy and the 1980s politics of backlash.

The Dialectic was a bestseller; an almost unimaginable feat for a book that called pregnancy barbaric, childhood a segregationist institution and heterosexual love “the pivot of women’s oppression”. Without so much as a single fanny joke or wacky dating anecdote, the Dialectic gripped and electrified thousands of people, giving the so called Second Wave of feminism much of its initial impetus and energy. At the core of the book, and at the core of Firestone’s definition of radical feminism, was one simple but terrifying idea: the point of a feminist revolution is not merely to abolish the inequalities and exploitation that attach to gender distinction; the point is to abolish the very idea of gender:

“...the end goal of feminist revolution must be...not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.” 

Like one’s blood group or specific gut biota, the organisation of our reproductive systems must become a marginal irrelevance to which no social, political or economic importance is attached. Only then, after eradicating the very difference over the exact nature of which so much acrimonious ink has been spilled before and since, can we arrive at a truly equitable society. One in which all members are expected and required to contribute equally to its reproductive labour, the flourishing of its members and the sustainability of its future.

Drawing on the thought of de Beauvoir, Marx, and especially Freud, Firestone sought to analyse and expose the mechanisms by which the social structures of oppression and exploitation are constituted. She looked both to economics, and to the formation of intimate relationships between people along the developmental axis from infant neutrality to adult complexes and neuroses first theorised by Freud. Accompanied by (sometimes shaky) historical analysis, this approach mostly leads her along the right path, though occasionally astray. Her chapter on the institution of childhood is not only barnstorming, but chilling in its prescience. She wrote of what she saw as a historical process of pushing children ever further out of the society they will one day be expected to function in. First out of the medieval family’s manufacture and work, later into the schoolroom or nursery, later still into the boarding school, and eventually into a state of separateness, idealised by thinkers from Rousseau onwards as both fragile and impenetrable.

“The rise of the modern nuclear family, with its adjunct 'childhood', tightened the noose around the already economically dependent group by extending and reinforcing what had been only a brief dependence, by the usual means: the development of a special ideology … And with the increase and exaggeration of children's dependence, woman's bondage to motherhood was also extended to its limits. Women and children were now in the same lousy boat.”

Firestone would have been horrified to learn that we have now banished children even from the streets; that they meet their peers either virtually or via adult-organised and supervised ‘play dates’; that they are kept in standardised, age-stratified schooling ever longer, being now expected to pass seamlessly into a similarly structured corporate work without any non-institutional experience of the world, except perhaps, for the most privileged, a permissive but rigidly conformist ‘gap year’, during which they are all expected to get drunk on the same Thai beaches and post identical selfies with Rio’s Christ the Redeemer. The awful injustice and social fracturing Firestone foresaw arising from a banishment of young people from their own lives has proven not only every bit as damaging as she predicted, but that it can get so much worse even than it was when she observed it.

When she was right, she was very right; but boy could she be wrong. The Dialectic’s chapter on race is an incoherent, baffling mess of Freudian supposition that reads almost as a malicious satire of Second Wave attitudes written by an intersectional prankster – a feminist Sokal Affair. Certainly issues of race were deeply important to the feminists in Firestone’s milieu; the caricature of ‘white ladies’ interested only in abortion for middle class university students and advancing their own corporate careers is unfair and, as described by Susan Brownmiller and others, simply untrue. What is indisputable is that the analytical tools brought to bear on race relations by many of the earlier writers – particularly on American race relations – were simply not fit for purpose. Freudian theory is very much a case in point.

Far from being an academic theorist in hock to fanciful notions, however, Firestone was deeply involved in the grassroots and quotidian organising of the Second Wave. She had fled her repressive upbringing to live and fight among other equally electrified women in the febrile atmosphere of a political movement blossoming into unlikely, miraculous relevance. A founding member of Redstockings, New York Radical Women and New York Radical Feminists, she spent a large part of her early life seeking and trying to create a political space which a restless, voracious intellect and an uncompromisingly critical radicalism could call home. Before being overtaken by mental illness, Firestone was involved in some of the most painful and important organisational experiments of the movement. Collectives, leaderless hierarchies, formless anarchic groups, communes; all were tried as alternatives to the well known patriarchal mechanisms of organisation.  And although most campaigned successfully when allied to networks of other feminist groups working in concert, they left many disillusioned, embittered or mentally broken casualties along the way. The revolution fed on its women – in that at least it was patriarchal to the core.

Shulamith Firestone died in 2012; she had only published one other book in her lifetime. Virtually forgotten and practically alone at the end, she is not widely read today. Her revolution, meanwhile, remains incomplete. Oh, women have rebelled; don’t believe the hype – powerful as the backlash was, the rates of both matrimony and childbearing among women are at an all time low. Far from facing a population explosion – a Malthusian dystopia much canvassed by white men who, as George Monbiot once said, are happy to be panicking about something that’s not their fault – birth rates are crashing all over the world (yes, even in Africa) in an inverted hockey stick graph that is not looking to reverse direction any time soon. There are more never-married, financially independent women in the world today than there may have been at any other time in our history. In that respect, unacknowledged as it is, we owe an enormous debt to Firestone’s startling, frightening hostility to the very idea of love and procreation. Quietly and without ever actually painting it on their banners, modern women the world over have absorbed the message that men’s dirty socks are as risky a consummations to be wished as men’s seed.

But the eradication of gender as a concept is arguably a dead project. It is arguably a more powerful organising principle in today’s consumer society than it ever was in the supposedly ‘repressed’ days of Friedan’s feminine mystique. We face an increasingly strict apartheid of his and hers, pink and blue, ‘normal’ Jenga and ‘girl’s talk’ Jenga, the warriors and the victims they rape. Bolstered by a resurgence of pseudo-scientific theories of essential difference, the very notion of there being very little meaningful difference between the male and the female of the species seems to be further out of Overton’s window than at any time since the 19th century. In that sense we are not only in an age of revolution, but very much still in an age of reaction.

The active prescriptions for revolution Firestone set out in the final chapter of her book were, by her own admission, vague and sketchy; prescribing every detail of a hitherto non-existent mode of being and relation is not only difficult but probably unwise. The specifics of what she said was not nearly as important as the fact that she said it; that she lived and thought in a time when it was plausible - respectable even - to think outside and beyond the limitations of our society instead of simply trying to mitigate the worst damages it inflicts on its members. The habit of revolutionary thinking is out of step with an intellectual climate in which grand narratives, universal principles and global aspirations are seen as suspect, imperialist, arrogant, old hat. But though we may have forgotten about the big ole narratives, they haven’t forgotten about us: the global economy is in freefall, economic inequality is mushrooming, and, as Beatrix Campbell writes in the recently published End of Equality, it is women who are paying the price. Crucially, the natural environment on which we depend is threatened by our activities as never before. Firestone was among the first to recognise the agreement between feminist goals and ‘ecological’ – what we would call today environmentalist – ones:

“The best new currents in ecology and social planning agree with feminist aims. The way that these two social phenomena, feminism and revolutionary ecology, have emerged with such coincidence illustrates a historical truth: new theories and new movements do not develop in a vacuum, they arise to spearhead the necessary social solutions to contradictions in the environment.”

I think we can, and must, learn from our radical predecessor the lessons of passion and vision without falling into the (sometimes real, often imagined) mistakes of modernist thinkers who were not embarrassed to commit to an absolute notion of a better world, and not ashamed to apply its optimism to the entire human race. Not just our flourishing and wellbeing, but our survival might depend on it.

MarinaS is a feminist writer and campaigner who blogs at It's Not a Zero Sum Game. Her main interests revolve around male violence against women, reproductive justice, sexual exploitation, rape and harassment. Marina has written for the F-Word and Indy Voices among others. She lives in Swindon with her one surviving cactus and, remarkably, no cats.

Marina Strinkovsky is a feminist writer and campaigner who blogs at It's Not a Zero Sum Game. Her main interests revolve around male violence against women, reproductive justice, sexual exploitation, rape and harassment. Marina has written for the F-Word and Indy Voices among others. She lives in Swindon with her one surviving cactus and, remarkably, no cats

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.