It’s a good job I wasn’t in the office last week, or the week before, when comedian, celebrity-shagger and saviour of the people Russell Brand was sashaying around. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good sashay. The revolution – as Brand’s guest edit of this magazine was modestly titled – could do with a little more flash and glitter. It’s just that had I been in the office I would probably have spent a portion of my working hours giggling nervously, or hiding in the loos writing confused journal entries. My feelings about Russell Brand, you see. They are so complex.
Brand is precisely the sort of swaggering manarchist I usually fancy. His rousing rhetoric, his narcissism, his history of drug abuse and his habit of speaking to and about women as vapid, ‘beautiful’ afterthoughts in a future utopian scenario remind me of every lovely, troubled student demagogue whose casual sexism I ever ignored because I liked their hair. I was proud to be featured in the ‘Revolution’ issue that this magazine put out, proud to be part of the team that produced it. But the discussions that have gone on since about leaders, about iconoclasm and about sexism on the left need to be answered.
I’d like to say, first off that there are many things apart from the hair and cheekbones that I admire about Brand. He’s a damn fine prose stylist, and that matters to me. He uses language artfully without appearing to patronise, something most of the left has yet to get the hang of. He touches on a species of directionless rage against capitalism and its discontents that knows very well what it’s against without having a clear idea yet of what comes next, and being a comedian he is bound by no loyalty except to populism. And he manages without irony to say all these things, to appear in public as a spokesperson for the voiceless rage of a generation, whilst at the same time promoting a comedy tour called ‘Messiah Complex.’
I admire the audacity of it. It’s a bloody refreshing change from all those bland centrist politicians who grope for a cautious, cowed purity of purpose and action which they still fail to achieve. Brand, unlike almost every other smiling bastard out there, is exactly what he says he is: a wily charmer with pots of money who thinks the system is fucked and can get away with saying so. Yes, he is monstrously self-involved and self-promoting; yes, he is is wealthy and famous and has, by many people’s standard’s, no right to speak to any working-class person about revolution and be taken seriously. He also quite clearly means what he says, and that matters.
I agree with Brand about the disappointments of representative democracy. If I must pick a white male comedian to lead my charge, I’m on team Russell, not team Robert. And I am glad – profoundly glad – that somebody has finally been permitted to say in public what commentators and politicians have not yet dared to suggest: that rising up together in anger, as young people did in London and elsewhere in 2011, might be a mighty fine idea.
It’s not just Brand’s wealth and fame that allow him to say such things. Consider how the rapper and artist MIA was treated when she said very similar things about the London riots two years ago. Brand is playing the court jester, and speaking limited truth to overwhelming power in one of the few remaining ways that won’t get you immediately arrested right now – from an enormous stage made of media money, liberally thickened with knob jokes, with a getaway sportscar full of half-naked popstars parked out back and one tongue firmly in his cheek.
But what about the women?
I know, I know that asking that female people be treated as fully human and equally deserving of liberation makes me an iron-knickered feminist killjoy and probably a closet liberal, but in that case there are rather a lot of us, and we’re angrier than you can possibly imagine at being told our job in the revolution is to look beautiful and encourage the men to do great works. Brand is hardly the only leftist man to boast a track record of objectification and of playing cheap misogyny for laughs. He gets away with it, according to most sources, because he’s a charming scoundrel, but when he speaks in that disarming, self-depracating way about his history of slutshaming his former conquests on live radio, we are invited to love and forgive him for it because that’s just what a rockstar does. Naysayers who insist on bringing up those uncomfortable incidents are stooges, spoiling the struggle. Acolytes who cannot tell the difference between a revolution that seduces – as any good revolution should – and a revolution that treats one half of its presumed members as chattel attack in hordes online. My friend and colleague Musa Okwonga came under fire last week merely for pointing out that “if you’re advocating a revolution of the way that things are being done, then it’s best not to risk alienating your feminist allies with a piece of flippant objectification in your opening sentence. It’s just not a good look.”
I don’t believe that just because Brand is clearly a casual and occasionally vicious sexist, nobody should listen to anything he has to say. But I do agree with Natasha Lennard, who wrote that “this is no time to forgo feminism in the celebration of that which we truly don’t need – another god, or another master.” The question, then, is this: how do we reconcile the fact that people need stirring up with the fact that the people doing the stirring so often fall down when it comes to treating women and girls like human beings?
It’s not a small question. Its goes way beyond Brand. Speaking personally, it has dogged years of my political work and thought. As a radical who is also female and feminist I don’t get to ignore this stuff until I’m confronted with it. It happens constantly. It’s everywhere. It’s Julian Assange and George Galloway. It’s years and years of rape apologism on the left, of somehow ending up in the kitchen organising the cleaning rota while the men write those all-important communiques.
It comes up whenever women and girls and their allies are asked to swallow our discomfort and fear for the sake of a brighter tomorrow that somehow never comes, putting our own concerns aside to make things easier for everyone else like good girls are supposed to. It comes up whenever a passionate political group falls apart because of inability to deal properly with male violence against women. Whenever some idiot commentator bawls you out for writing about feminism and therefore ‘retreating’ into ‘identity politics’ and thereby distracting attention from ‘the real struggle’.
But what is this ‘real struggle’, if it requires women and girls to suffer structural oppression in silence? What is this ‘real struggle’ that hands the mic over and over again to powerful, charismatic white men? Can we actually have a revolution that relegates women to the back of the room, that turns vicious when the discussion turns to sexual violence and social equality? What kind of fucking freedom are we fighting for? And whither that elusive, sporadically useful figure, the brocialist?
For this dialogue, I spoke to the author Richard Seymour, formerly of the Socialist Workers’ Party, once the foremost British far-left party, which recently and dramatically disintegrated in the wake of a rape scandal in its top ranks (I wrote about the case on this blog earlier in the year). Seymour and I come from different left traditions with dispiritingly similar track records of ignoring structural gender oppression, and because he is a chap you’ll be nicer to him in the comments. Take it away, Richard:
Richard Seymour: My experience is that ‘brocialists’ don’t openly embrace patriarchy; they deny it’s a problem. Or they minimise it. They direct your attention elsewhere: you should be focusing on class. You’re being divisive. You’re just middle class (quelle horreur!). Or they attack a straw ‘feminism’ that is supposedly ‘bourgeois’ and has nothing to say about class or other axes of oppression. Or they just ignore it. To me that’s quite straightforward. Obviously it would be difficult, given their egalitarian commitments, to openly defend a gendered hierarchy; but their defensiveness about this issue suggests they associate a challenge to patriarchy with some sort of ‘loss’ for themselves. The question is, what do they have to lose?
That’s where Russell Brand’s manarchism/brocialism come in. The swagger and misogyny sits quite comfortably with another part of his persona which is a sort of squeaky beta-male self-parody in which he appears to really trash the protocols of traditional masculinity. I’m thinking of a routine he did about travelling abroad and being ‘embarrassed’ by his pink suit case and made to feel small about it by a bunch of burly lads. Likewise, he mocks his own sexuality in his act – the stuff about putting on an American accent while fucking, or wanking with a ‘serious face’, etc. To an extent, he genderfucks, he queers masculinity. He has his hair as a beautiful bird’s nest, and wears eyeliner. His comportment is very ‘effeminate’ in some ways. Part of his attractiveness, then, is that for all his sexual swagger and rigorous self-objectification, he isn’t conventionally ‘manly’. And yet this is the same guy who makes rape jokes – not as a one-off but as something that has happened a number of times – and is reported to have harassed female staff. More generally, he has a fairly obnoxious way of talking about women which implies that they are only really of value or interest to him if they are ‘beautiful’. For someone so plainly rooted in the 21st Century, it makes him sound like a fucking Fifties crooner.
Why doesn’t this jar? Why don’t such attitudes make him sick? Why don’t the words stick in his throat? How can he be so heartfelt in his sympathy for poor women fucked over by the rich one minute, and yet sound like an enemy of women the next? Why do some men on the Left who plainly feel in some way oppressed and undone by masculinity, who are obviously hurt by patriarchy – not at all to the extent that women are, but in real, concrete ways – respond by embracing it nonetheless? It can’t just be that Brand is now a rich man. Loads of leftist men who have no economic stake in the system share these attitudes.
The system of patriarchy has a lot of material compensations and advantages to offer those who accept it and identify with it. To me, the rape jokes and misogynistic language – all this is straightforward symbolic violence, ascriptive denigration, and obviously linked to punishment for transgression. Whether knowingly or not, it’s an occasion for male bonding – the ’naughty’ laughter – and the production of a type of masculinity. It’s the exercise of a ‘privilege’ of patriarchy. Of course, not all men like or want such ‘privilege’. But for it to be effective, quite a large number of men and women have to accept its basic inevitability, its naturalness.
So I think the ‘brocialist’ disavowal, the pretence that sexism doesn’t matter or is a distraction, is a natural coping strategy for those who really do think they desire total liberation, but haven’t yet broken with their ‘privilege’.
Laurie Penny: It’s very clear that the discussion here on what we’re calling ‘brocialism’ goes way beyond Russell Brand and his detractors. Nor is it unique to the organised left – the brocialist’s more chaotic cousin is, of course, the manarchist, who displays many of the same traits in terms of blindness to privilege, casual sexism and a refusal to acknowledge structural gender oppression, but has a slightly different reading list and a more monochrome wardrobe.
Nor is it all about gender. It also has to do with what we speak of in anarchist circles as ‘the problem of charisma.’ It’s about whether or not we need leaders at all, about what those leaders should look like and what they should do. The trend in the past three years has been towards horizontalism, a very precise and dogged refusal to appoint leaders or set goals, an organic resistance to hierarchy – but somehow the leaders we don’t have usually end up being charismatic white guys. How are we to fix that problem without descending into dogma?
RS: I agree that it has a lot to do with power. If you look at the SWP’s ongoing, worsening crisis, it’s really telling just how many of the accusations concern individuals who were in a position of authority, or were looked favourably upon by those who wielded some sort of power. I think that’s probably true elsewhere. Personally, I don’t have a problem with elected ‘leaders’ provided they are actually accountable. But whether we have leaders or not, I think we have to recognise that men are often too deeply socialised into their gender roles to even be aware of what they’re doing, even with the best will in the world. That’s why I think organisations on the Left should have explicitly organised caucuses of women, of LGBTQ people, of black people, and so on – and these caucuses should have real authority, they shouldn’t just be debating societies where issues that are ‘inconvenient’ can be hived off. They should make policy.
LP: That brings us back to the crux of the question, which is – are we asking too much? Is it a waste of precious time if we demand that a revolution be ‘perfect’ before it begin? That’s the issue that I’ve seen raised time and again when it comes to powerful men within movements and sexism or sexual violence, or to matters of fair representation, often by those seeking to defend or excuse the violence, but not always. If someone is a galvanising figure – like Brand – or an important activist, like Julian Assange, should we then overlook how they behave towards women?
Because of course, there are elements of socialisation at play that make it almost inevitable that powerful men within movements who are attracted to women will have a great many opportunities to abuse that power, especially because those movements so often see themselves as self-governing. One of the biggest problems with the crisis in the SWP was that the victim, W, was offered no support in going to the police with her complaint of rape and assault. The fact that she might have expected better treatment from the Met, with their track record of taking rape less than seriously, than she received at the hands of the Disputes Committee, says a great deal.
I believe that socialism without feminism is no socialism worth having. Clearly we need to be strategising a way to have both pretty damn quickly.
RS: As I see it, the problem was posed most acutely by Occupy. They appealed to the 99 percent, the overwhelming majority of working people against the rich 1 percent. And I sympathise with that: you can’t hope to win unless you bring an overwhelming majority with you, because the Party of Order is too powerful otherwise. And I agree that class is what unites the majority.
But, how do you unify people who are divided not just by nationality, region and prejudice, but by real structural forms of oppression like sexism? The old (white, bourgeois male) answer is to say, “don’t talk about ‘divisive’ issues, ignore them for now, they’re secondary”. They’re merely ‘identity politics’. They’re somehow not as material as class. Judith Butler put her finger on what was wrong with this – what is less material about women wanting to work less, get paid more, not be subject to violence, not be humiliated? And why should class ‘compete’ with race or gender? Aren’t they contiguous? Austerity is a class offensive, but is it a coincidence that cuts to welfare, the social wage, disproportionately affect women and black people? And at any rate, it won’t work: if you try to impose a ‘unity’ that depends on people shutting up, they will just drop out. Gramsci was right: you can build broad alliances, but only if you genuinely incorporate the interests of everyone who is part of that alliance.
So, in place of a unity in which the oppressed preserve a tactful silence, we need a complex unity, a unity-in-difference. This is what ‘intersectionality’ means to me. It is the only strategy that will work. We aren’t asking too much; we’re demanding the bare minimum that is necessary for success.
LP: I attended two talks last year at which I was told by older white men in left academic circles that feminism was either irrelevant to class struggle or actively its enemy. Mark Crispin Millar announced that ‘identity politics’ were invented by the CIA as a way of dividing and weakening the American left, by way of foreclosing any further discussion.
The thing is that on one level those conspiracy theorists are dead right – issues of race, gender and sexuality are extremely effective at creating divisions within radical and progressive movements, large and small. But that’s not the fault of feminism, or queer politics, or anti-racist organising. These divisions do not happen because the whining women, queers and people of colour like to pick fights and want to hold back the tide of history – in fact, we have even more to gain from revolutionary change. The divisions happen because we are not prepared to shut up and stay seated while people in positions of unexamined privilege try to create a new world which looks rather too much like the old one.
The left, because we like to fight from the moral high ground, is particularly bad at confronting its own bullshit. That tendency leaves it susceptible to the mawkish modern delusion that all rapists are evil, inhuman monsters, and therefore nobody you know personally, work with or admire could be that sort of abuser. In fact, revolutionary sentiment and rape culture have never been mutually exclusive. The Socialist Worker’s Party and Wikileaks are far from the only such organisations to disintegrate because there is no process of accountability, and no framework by which it can be understood that a man can do respected, useful work on the one hand and be an oppressor on the other.
That brings us back to the more immediate question – if we accept intersectionality, which some people prefer to call basic equality, as a fundamental principle of making change – if we accept that sexism, misogny, homophobia and racism should not be overlooked in any figureheads who present themselves – then what are we to do with all the brocialists? Whither the manarchists and their rousing communiques against the Young Girl? Must they be taken out and shot behind the chemical sheds? Is ostracisation the only option, or can we envision alternative processes of justice and accountability?
RS: I suppose what we do with the manarchists and brocialists depends above all on one crucial consideration: the safety and well-being of others in the movement, or the organisation. I believe that people can change, and I am very interested in ideas of ‘transformative justice’ that feminists have been working on and trying to implement. But that wouldn’t always be appropriate. Some men are in fact unwilling to change their behaviour, and we have limited resources. I think if they’re dangerous, they have to be ostracised and anyone whom they have victimised has to be supported in whatever they want to do:including going to police if they want to.
But for most brocialists, I think it’s actually a question of getting them to see that sexism is not someone else’s problem. Patriarchy, and the whole system of gender regimentation that goes with it, is incredibly violent to men as well as women. Of course men don’t suffer from it to anything like the same extent, but it damages them. At the extreme, it might manifest itself as homophobic murder, the literal obliteration of someone who does not obey the correct gender protocols. You get this weird thing with many brocialists (I think this is true of Brand to an extent) who are clearly hurt by dominant norms of ‘masculinity’, and who resist it to an extent. And yet they still basically identify with patriarchy at some level, they still enjoy its brutality – the rape jokes, for example. Persuading them that this system ultimately harms them, damages their relationships with people around them, and also prevents them from realising their better aspirations – that it, not feminism, is their enemy – is vital.
The global women’s uprising of the last few years is a real opportunity to start forcing this argument open. The backlash among some left-wing men has been real, but it is also caused others to question, rethink, and maybe even notice their own bullshit.
LP: Thanks for your time, Richard. I also believe in forgiveness, and when the feminist counter-revolution comes, you shall be spared. All I’d like to add is that right now, women and girls across the world are clearly not going to wait patiently for liberation until the conclusion of a class struggle that speaks largely to and about men. They want change now and they are going to keep demanding it, and I believe that they – that we – will win. And brocialists everywhere had better listen, or get left behind.