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Women for sale: can you be a capitalist and a feminist?

We Were Feminists Once is a sometimes confused look at the question – but it reminds us to focus on what we're doing, not how we define.

Is Barbie feminist? Is Beyoncé feminist? What about Game of Thrones, or Girls? Is smoking feminist? Or intimate waxing? Emma Watson? Spanx? Michelle Obama?

Questions of this sort have provided many headlines over the past few years. Whether celebrating the credentials of a well-known personality, film, or programme on tele­vision (“We need Kim Kardashian and her full-frontal feminism”), or pointing out sexism in popular culture (“The five most sexist moments in Jurassic World”), the online media have discovered that celebrity plus feminism equals clicks. The market is so crowded that it has become ripe for parody. In 2014 the spoof news website the Onion ran an article with the headline “Woman takes short half-hour break from being feminist to enjoy TV show”.

Andi Zeisler, who co-founded Bitch magazine in 1995, is among those who question whether the rising profile of feminism has resulted in better lives for women. She believed that pop culture could be used to spread feminist ideals throughout society. But even she was surprised when, nearly two decades after Bitch began, “Something weird happened: feminism got cool.” In 2013, Beyoncé sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Tedx talk “We should all be feminists”. Around the same time, Miley Cyrus declared that she was “one of the biggest feminists in the world”; then a Chanel runway show took the form of a faux-feminist rally. “By 2015, you couldn’t swing a tampon without hitting someone or something that boasted its feminist import,” Zeisler writes. “It was hot. And, perhaps most important, it was sellable.”

Zeisler’s new book, We Were Feminists Once, explores how feminism evolved from a radical fringe movement into something that is altogether softer and sexier, a kind of lifestyle brand. This is what she calls “marketplace feminism”: cool, fun and accessible, yes – but also decontextualised and depoliticised. Language that was intended to describe power relations between the sexes has become meaningless under the influence of PR, journalism and advertising. “Empowerment” applies to buying lipstick just as much as it does to changing the fundamental hierarchies of society. “Feminist” is now a label that is as marketable and coveted as Gucci or Chanel.

The culprit here is capitalism, which encourages us to believe that we can buy our way to happiness: marketplace feminism, in turn, encourages us to believe that we can buy our way out of oppression. But it is possible to be too fastidious about the corrupting influence of cash. Important feminist texts are profitable, from bell hooks’s Feminism Is for Everybody to Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City. If Beyoncé’s album Lemonade made $3m a day, does that invalidate its artistry? This book retails at £17.99 – so is Zeisler simply profiting from feminism’s fashionable status? Clearly not. Being popular and commercially successful isn’t enough on its own to make any work or person a hollow symptom of feminism’s commodification.

Yet there is a serious issue about how a radical movement has been co-opted to flog TV shows, beauty products and even an internet provider (last year’s Virgin Media campaign featured a girl being inspired by clips of Billie Holiday and Emmeline Pankhurst). When mainstream feminism encourages us to believe that the political is only personal, it employs the neat trick of redistributing responsibility from structures to individuals. Worried about global warming? Take shorter showers. Concerned by the continued oppression of women? Feel empowered by having a feminist leg wax, or show your support with a slogan T-shirt. This emphasis on personal behaviours and consumption quietly displaces any need for ­organised political resistance. “Feminist” as a personal brand is a lot less threatening to existing power than “feminism” as a collective social movement.

There is some cognitive dissonance at the heart of this book. After asserting that a focus on individuals is unhelpful, Zeisler cannot resist weighing up the relative feminist credentials of Beyoncé (“undeniably powerful”), Amy Schumer (“problematic”) and Emma Watson (“well-meaning” but “off-key”). Her title, too, suggests an element of the personal: once upon a time, we were the real feminists, before the mainstream got its grubby little hands on our movement, before everyone else was feminist, before it became cool.

I and many of my peers know that accessibility and trendiness have their merits: if seeing cooler, older women self-identify as feminist encouraged me to do the same, that superficial approach was still a productive gateway to appreciating the more complicated and political elements of the movement.

But the content of Zeisler’s book suggests that simply identifying oneself as a feminist is a fruitless goal in any case. For her, the future of the movement depends not on “who labels themselves feminist”, but on “what they’re doing with feminism”. It seems wise to stay focused on that.

Anna Leszkiewicz co-hosts the SRSLY podcast and writes for

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist