Saturday, September 08, 2007

The greatest?

A couple of weeks ago John Minto gave a talk called Gender, Race and Class - and the greatest of these is class. I really admire the work John Minto has done, of course. But I disagree with a lot of the arguments, and assumptions behind this talk, just as much as I disagree with the title.

In this post I am concentrating on John Minto's comments on gender and feminism. Not because I believe that 'the greatest of these is gender', but because I know far more about the women's liberation movement than the Tino Rangatiratanga movement.

The talk began:

Those of us active in politics in the 1970s and 1980s will recall the interminable debates about race, sex and class within all manner of progressive organisations, protest groups and social agencies.

Anti-apartheid meetings could be dominated by debate about patriarchal processes, peace groups about institutional racism, union meetings about representation of women.
John Minto appears to be implying this was a problem, or at least that these discussions were a distraction from the main aims of these groups. I think all groups need to look at ensuring women can participate, and I think anti-racism and peace work are completely intertwined, but it his the third example that, to me, showed a stunning lack of analysis.

Women and union members are not two discrete groups; women are now the majority of union members. To talk as if the representation of women is a side-line issue for unions is to say that only half of union members matter. The first thing to acknowledge in any discussion about gender, race and class is that our world is not just made up of working-class white men, middle-class Maori men and middle-class white women.

Another problem I have with his talk is what I'd call 'straw-movementing'. I can't talk with any knowledge about the Maori sovereignty movement, but I think the feminist movement he is describing (and critiquing) in his speech, never really existed in NZ.
Feminism sought to empower women in their own right (a bit like the black consciousness movement sought to empower black South Africans through pride in their race) and to gain equality of opportunity with men.
That's a really limited description of what feminism is. The women's liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s certainly went far beyond empower and equality of opportunity. I'd say even in these moribund times we're talking about a lot more than that. Here's another example:
Where is the focus for the struggle of women and Maori today? The former seems to be within the equal opportunities and equity arguments while the latter is largely focused on the Treaty of Waitangi process.
The feminist groups that were set up within the equal opportunities/equity framework in the 1970s - NOW and WEL - have all folded.* The biggest, organised, feminist groups are in response to violence against women - rape crisis, refuges. I don't think I'm giving disproportionate attention to the activities I've been involved in when I say that the focus for the struggle of women in New Zealand over the last few years has been police rape.

Given that his view of the feminist movement is so limited, it's no surprise that he argues:
So while the feminist struggle has largely impacted on the middle-class women the benefits for working class women have been illusory.
I don't think the benefits of the feminist movement for have been illusory for working class women. My rough list of the feminist gains of the last 40 years looks something like this:

  • The ability to decide when and whether to have kids (before the feminist movement you often couldn't even get the pill unless you were married or pretending to be)

  • Equal Pay and the DPB - as well as being important gains in themselves, they both make it more possible for women, particularly women with children, to live without a male partner.

  • Women's refuges, the right to say no in marriage, rape-shield laws, the fact that 95%* of the country believes Clint Rickards is a rapist, and any understanding that rape and domestic violence are not ok. The size of the problem of violence against women is over-whelming, but compared to how much worse things were 40 years ago we've won a lot (including the possibility of surviving without a male partner).
  • Making sexism less acceptable

I'm sure there's stuff I've left out - but that's not a list that only impacts on middle-class women.

I'd agree with part of what he's saying - women now have access to all sorts of jobs they didn't have before, thanks to the feminist movement. If your brother was never going to be able to be a lawyer (for example), then opening up the lawyer profession to women isn't going to make much difference to you (although women also have more access to the relatively well-paid working-class male jobs - there was a huge fight to get on the meat-works, for example).

But there is so much more to feminists' aims, and the gains feminism has won, than that sort of formal equality. John Minto he has a very narrow view of the feminist movement - so he argues the feminist movement is narrow.

The crux of his discussion is about the 1980s, and how the hell it happened. John Minto appears to be offering two related explanations:
It reached a climax in the mid 1980s with many erstwhile stable groups and sensible people imploding or exploding, unable to hold together because the conflicting views within them developed greater strength than the political glue which bound them in a common cause.

While all this angst was going on a revolution took place. Almost while our backs were turned, while most of us were distracted perhaps, Rogernomics ripped the heart out of our economy and in a few short years destroyed what two generations of the welfare state had established.
I don't dispute that the NZ left was imploding, or exploding, in the 1980s, although I'd want to do considerable more research before speculating on a cause. But if it was the ideas of women's liberation and Maori sovereignty that were causing groups to implode, then surely the problem was primarily sexism and racism on the left, not people pointing out this racism and sexism.

The other explanation John Minto offers is basically that the left was bought off:
The question has often been asked as to how this process could have been driven through by a Labour government. The answer is because Labour is a middle class party. This middle-class constituency was rewarded by David Lange with social policy changes such as anti-nuclear and gay rights legislation while Roger Douglas hammered the hell out of working New Zealanders. The impact of these new right economic policies was felt by working class families while the middle class – the heart of Labour activism – was largely protected.
Firstly, I'm not entirely sure why middle-class people benefited more from anti-nuclear legislation and homosexual law reform. Working class gay men exist and Don Franks has done some really good work to point out that nuclear ships wasn't just a middle class issue.

More importantly I think the amount of progressive legislation out of the fourth labour government has probably been over-estimated (particularly if you take into account that they didn't pass pay equity legislation in time to make a blind bit of difference to anyone). For example, there was at least as much, if not more, feminist influenced out of the following National government (as well as some vile anti-woman legislation, but that's true of both governments). Domestic violence, rape and censorship** laws all got reformed by the Bolger government's, and as far as legal codes go they're as feminist as you get.

I wasn't there*** so I don't know if people really were bought off, but I do know that doesn't really discuss the most important reason why people didn't fight back in the 1980s: The union movement's loyalty to the Labour Party. It wasn't the lack of class analysis which stopped people fighting back, it was a really bad class analysis.

But I have a more fundamental objection to John Minto's argument - I don't think we have to choose. I think choosing, pitting causes against each other, is inevitably going to weaken our ability to fight back, rather than strengthen them. In this country capitalism, colonialism, misogyny and sexism are intertwined like one of those parasite plants that is slowly strangling a tree. You can hack away at one branch, try to clear a section, get some breathing room and sunlight on a piece, but we have to attack the whole thing if we're going to get any kind of freedom.

* I'd argue that they didn't always operate within those frameworks but now is neither the time or the place.

** I don't think I've ever heard any complaints about our censorship laws from the left/feminist perspective. All I know about them is that in the 1990s they changed the criteria censorship is based on from one of obscenity to one of harm. Even the obligatory fractious pornography discussions, are generally void of any discussion on what the law is, let alone what we want them to be. Is this because our censorship laws are generally OK? It seems a bit unlikely.

*** Much - I went to a few demos, even organised one, but I hadn't started secondary school so I didn't keep up with internal politics.


  1. Anonymous12:32 pm

    Thanks for this post Maia, its really interesting. I missed Minto's talk when he came to Otautahi, but had a feeling from the title it might be quite provoking.

    I think alot about the links between oppression of womn and indigenous peoples.
    Our bodies were the first colonised land. The white colonisers of Aotearoa honed their oppressive ways breaking down and controlling womn back in the "motherland".

    For example, the burning of witches was the natural precursor to Tohunga Suppression Bill of 1907 and similiar laws in colonised lands around the world.

    As for unions and womn's rights, when are unions going to start doing workplace visits to homes, where the majority of the work is done? Or do you not count as a worker if you're not paid?

    I agree that the watered down feminism, which demands all white, male, middle class priviledges be available to all white, middle class womn, is a load of bollocks.

    The greatest success of the womn's movement in Aotearoa is the numbers of strong girls and womn today who are unwilling to put up with oppression of anyone, anywhere. period.


  2. Anonymous4:48 pm

    I tend to agree with what you say.

    I think John Minto's slogan is correct only in a very general, very abstract sense. Class distinctions are more fundamental to the maintenance of capitalism to the extent that it would be impossible to abolish the capital-labour relation and still have capitalism, where it would be possible - theoretically - for the
    oppression of women and colonised peoples to be abolished within the framework of capitalism. There's nothing in the logic of the capital-labour relationship which precludes, say, a Maori ruling class in Aotearoa, or a Polynesian Empire exploiting the US.

    In the real world, though, the way that capitalism was established and has spread around the globe makes it almost inconceivable that oppressed peoples could turn the tables and become oppressors.

    Capitalism could only come into being because of the primitive accumulation made possible by the dispossession of indigenous peoples in places like the Americas, and it has only managed to survive by institutionalising the exploitation of the semi-colonial 'peripheral' countries by the imperialist countries of the First World.

    As long as they stay locked into an economic grid which assigns them the roles of providers of cheap labour and cheap exports of raw materials, the countries of the 'developing' world will always be on a hiding to nothing. Only those countries that overturn capitalism and break out of the grid have been able to establish the economic independence the Western nations take for granted.

    I think the same logic applies to oppressed groups within individual countries. In New Zealand, the development of capitalism was only made possible by the destruction of the non-capitalist economy Maori had established, amidst the sort of 'enclosures' that Marx had described taking place in Scotland and England in Capital.

    Maori were driven to the edges of the new economy, and became first a reserve army of labour and later a supply of cheap labour. A few te reo courses are not going to break them out of the marginal place they have been assigned in our society.

    Similarly, women have played a vital role in stimulating profits and getting the ball of capital accumulation going by offering unpaid domestic labour and acting as a cheap source of casual labour.

    Minto wants us to focus on the working class, and it's easy to understand why, as a veteran activist of great integrity, he is disgusted by the self-proclaimed feminists in the Labour government, or the 'corporate warriors' of the browntable. But even if we reject the simplistic and self-serving class-free politics of these types, there's no reason to go to the opposite extreme and focus on class at the expense of other categories.

    As you point out, everyone who works is a lot more than a worker. You can't understand anything about the composition of the working class in New Zealand without taking into account the history of the dispossession and oppression of Maori, or the peculiar role that capitalism has assigned to women.

    Nor are we going to impress Polynesian and female workers by telling them to forget about everything except their class status. At the place where I'm working at the moment probably 75% of the staff is Polynesian. Virtually all of the political conversations I've had with other staff members have revolved around various issues they face as Maori or Pacific Islanders. Telling these people that race and culture are secondary issues, and that a dead white guy with a hippy beard has all the answers is not likely to go down well.

    At the same time, I think it's unfair to associate Marx with an analysis of the world that reduces everything to class and simple economics. (I've just been trying to rescue him here:

    I think John Minto could learn a lot from Marx's dialectical method, which involves the 'abstracting' of particular aspects of social reality and the building up of a complex picture of the world out of multiple abstractions. We require multiple abstractions to capture the complex, multi-faceted nature of the society we live in and the identities we hold as members of that society. Class, race, gender, culture - all these must be understood as mutually determining parts of a complex whole. Bertell Ollman is worth reading:

  3. Anna-Claire: Thanks for your comment. I agree that intersectionality (for want of a better word - I'm sure there must be a more powerful word that says the same thing), is a really important point for analysis.

    I agree with you about the importance of keeping unpaid labour front and centre.

    Maps - I agree with most of what you say.

    I've heard that thought experiment before, I'm not convinced it means anything (capitalism could survive without discriminating against gays and lesbians, but it couldn't survive without discriminating against people with physical disabilities, I'm not sure that means anything), but I'm also not convinced it's true. Capitalism needs reproduction to be unpaid, unvalued labour. I'm not sure I can imagine that being possible without a division on the grounds of gender.

    I agree that there was no inevitability that the colonising nations had white skin, and the colonised had brown skin. But I don't think that means anything - we live in this world, not the hypothetical alternative.

    I don't think feminists are any more responsible for Helen Clark's feminism, than socialists are for her claims to represent working people (which admittedly are few and far between nowadays, but she's only sounded feminists twice in the last 8 years, so it's all much of a muchness).

    I'm not sure anyone has associated John Minto's ideas with Marxism - although obviously there is a connection.

  4. 'I'm not sure anyone has associated John Minto's ideas with Marxism'

    I thought he did, at the end of the talk! It's good he's gotten a debate going, anyway - there aren't enough discussions of this kind on the Kiwi left.

  5. So he does - I forgot about that. I agree it's a good idea to have more of these sorts of discussions. ALthough I'm not sure that blogs (and particularly not indymedia) are particularly useful vehicles for them. But it's what I've got.