The Feminist Imperative to Believe Another World Is Possible

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It makes a perverse kind of sense that the election of a gleeful, pussy-grabbing misogynist to the highest office in the land would cause a feminist backlash at the grassroots. Since the 2016 presidential election, women have been rising up: marching in the streets, mobilizing their communities, running for office, and winning a whole lot of them. And many have been explicit about their intention to pull this country’s political center to the left. The two democratic socialists to win congressional seats in the 2018 midterm election were not white guys shaped by the old-school mold of Bernie Sanders, but young women of color, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, who defy the alleged division between economics and identity politics with every breath. They, along with Ihlan Omar, point the way toward a forward-looking, appealing, and effective radicalism that we can only hope will continue to catch on.

But even as women rise, we’re also divided: a whole lot of mostly white women voted for Trump, and a good number of his key lackeys are female. Plenty of women would rather protect their relative privilege than fight for redistribution.

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It all makes for fertile, if conflicted, terrain. How can we talk about gender consciousness as a force for good when some women cheer sexist boors and seem to crave fascism? What would a truly feminist political movement or truly egalitarian and liberated society be like? How can we organize toward such an end, and are the obstacles mostly external or, actually, inside our heads? (These are questions that also haunt my recent documentary film, What Is Democracy?, and new book Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone.)

They also propel the work of Natasha Lennard, author of the luminous and insurgent Being Numerous: Essays on a Non-Fascist Life. Insightfully evoking these dilemmas and many more, Lennard never shies away from complexity, complicity, and the need for courageous, uncompromising, world-turning change—which is why she’s exactly who I want to be in dialogue with during these confounding times.

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ASTRA TAYLOR: Let’s talk about women’s anger. Since Trump’s election, a media cottage industry has sprung up to address “women’s anger” as a political tool. Some works on this have been better than others. But all too often, the idea treats “women” as a homogenized and united force, in opposition to Trump. What are the problems with this sort of framing?

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NATASHA LENNARD: As you mention, the idea of some unified “women’s anger” risks ignoring that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. I’m not interested in pathologizing these women, in suggesting that they “voted against their interests” in electing an unapologetic misogynist whose administration is keen to decimate women’s rights. But what’s clear is that the amorphous idea of righteous women’s anger entirely fails to account for—and thus fight—the white supremacy that undergirds this country’s history and has been emboldened under Trump. I don’t directly address “women’s anger” in my book, but I do discuss fascism in a way that might be helpful here. I’m not interested in idea of fascism that sees the masses duped into choosing a system that oppresses them. In the 1930s, German psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich rejected this “duping” hypothesis and insisted instead that we take seriously people’s desire for fascism, for authority, for forms of domination and power—which are not innate, but fostered under capitalism. In this vein, I’m not going to think about Trump-voting women as somehow duped; I don’t feel sorry for Melania.

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If we want to talk about feminist anger as a political tool, I think we can appreciate how anger at patriarchal oppression has driven radical historic change. But anger’s just an affect, #Resistance is just a hashtag; anger matters only insofar as it’s funneled into organizing. As we’ve seen in the last two years of women-led teacher and service industry strikes. As I know we’re both concerned, feminism that doesn’t put front and center the material conditions of poor women, of women of color, of trans women is not feminism worth its name.

I’m often frustrated by how feminism is limited to “women’s issues”—abortion access, workplace discrimination, et cetera—as opposed to something broader. For example, I see both my film and book as feminist to the core, but they are not about women’s issues per se. (Though maybe this is a trick we should use more. My film is about democracy, so men show up to watch it, thinking it’s about an intrinsically male business, and then they have to sit through a movie where the majority of people speaking on screen aren’t men!) I’m curious how you would define a feminist protest? Which movements, forms of protest, and organizing are read as explicitly “feminist”? Which are not? And why?

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This is a tricky one, because even though a lot of radical activist communities call themselves feminist, or insist that they’re committed to intersectionality, we see misogyny is rife. Of course the prejudices that organize contemporary society are present inside social movements—you don’t somehow free yourself of all pernicious social codings by becoming an activist. In the book I discuss the really abusive, sexually manipulative treatment I received from my well respected anarchist ex—a manarchist, I suppose—who was woker than thou and fluent in, indeed a scholar of, feminist queer theory. So it takes ongoing work to purge these tendencies, these micro-fascisms, from our midst. And I think MeToo helped give us framework for that sort of calling out, even if we’re still all working out what justice should look like.

I think it’s interesting which movements do or do not get read as feminist. So, MeToo does, because of the nature of patriarchal sexual violence. And the Women’s March, which put women front and center but was, of course, about broader anti-Trumpism and social justice. But much anti-racist struggle puts focus on the profligate police violence against black trans women, but isn’t read as feminist. When what gets to be seen as feminist protest is only the political speech of white, privileged liberal women we’ve got a problem. Thankfully, so many organizers, from striking teachers to sex workers, are undermining that monopoly on “feminism.” So, too, are officials like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and longtime heroes like Angela Davis.

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I’m curious how you feel about this. As women on the left—however much I hate the sentence construction—I feel like we get called divisive for refusing to uncritically team up with liberal centrist women. Women, like Nancy Pelosi, who I deem conservative because such figures want to conserve—they seem to dream of the halcyon days of November 7th, 2016, as if only a strange aberration of history’s progress brought us here. But I see liberal centrist feminism as divisive; it divides along class and race lines.

I think the Obama administration made it pretty clear there were no halcyon days, and anyone who thinks there were is latching onto an illusion.

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The Debt Collective, which is a union for debtors that I co-founded, was engaged in a long battle against Obama’s Department of Education around predatory for profit-colleges, which tend to prey on poor black and brown women, especially single mothers, and leave them buried in student loans for worthless degrees. This is something I, and my fellow organizers, very much see as a feminist issue: the administration basically propping up these disgusting companies and even bailing some out, instead of helping the victims—sort of like what happened with the banks after the financial crisis. Watching this ostensibly liberal administration refuse to do what was right—and legal—really drove home how deeply the system needs to be transformed. Though of course it’s just gotten worse. Now we have a woman, Betsy DeVos, serving as Trump’s Education Secretary and she’s trying roll back all the gains we made. She’s definitely not “duped”—she’s a billionaire who knows exactly where her interests lie. So much for sisterhood! 

It’s definitely tempting to call DeVos a fascist, but I have to admit I rarely use that word. Your book, specifically the first chapter, “We, Anti-fascists,” made me rethink my aversion a bit. The word fascism often gets tossed around in a way I’m skeptical of, since it seems to be invoked in order to produce a distancing effect—as though Trumpism represents some sort of foreign element and not a deeply American tendency. Nazis, after all, were pretty impressed by American segregationists. And what could be more all-American than a racist plutocrat who rose to prominence by starring in a reality television show? But you mean something different when you use the words fascism and anti-fascism, right?

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I reject a reductive view that sees fascism only when constituted in a totalitarian, militaristic state regime. In the run up to Trump’s presidency, column after column was dedicated to debating whether Trump was or was not A Fascist. I’m more interested in an expansive understanding of the term, that enables us to see fascist tendencies, fascist habits—the love of oppressive power, hierarchy, racism, misogyny—and how the desire for them gets fostered and enabled to flourish. I’m interested in fighting fascistic tendencies through the understanding that they are not habits to be reasoned with, just as they don’t function as ideologies that people are reasoned into. I want to take seriously the way a desire for fascism works.

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I think there’s a concern about using the term “fascism” preemptively, or when it’s not quite appropriate, as if we need to saving for when things are really bad. As if it loses all potency through overuse. I understand the desire for precision. But I also think it’s important to be ready to talk about the sort of fascist-ing behaviors, institutions, and groupings that permeate—and have long permeated—so much of American life. And to recognize how these perverted desires for power, for domination, get enabled and encouraged. A president praising Neo-Nazi gatherings as containing “fine people” doesn’t help, but nor, I argue, does giving genocidal ideas a space in the “marketplace of ideas” as if, somehow, met with enlightened Truth, virulent racism will collapse in on itself.

I think it’s important, to talk about desire. It’s something I shy away from in my book, but I do touch on this theme a bit in the film where, towards the end, I ask the philosopher Cornel West if people even want to be free. Do we want democracy? Do we want to rule ourselves instead of being dominated and told what to do? It’s not always so clear. Freedom is not just liberating, it’s also a burden, a responsibility, something some people would rather run away from. He basically says the jury is out.

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I tend to think that part of activism is trying to cultivate or generate new desires, to foster new kinds of people with new capacities and solidarities. Movements challenge power structures but also transform participants at the same time.

When I write about the trials of Standing Rock participants, and the tribulations of the J20 inauguration day arrestees, or the media mistreatment of the Ferguson uprising, my aim is always to disrupt narratives that seek to pit “good protesters” against “bad protesters.”

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I also think what counts as an effective protest needs to be problematized more. So let’s take the Women’s March, if the idea was just to bring thousands of people together, to feel a sense of community and solidarity in the shadow of Trump’s inauguration, then it was a success! And certainly, connections were made and fed into further organizing platforms. But, of course, it was in itself no threat to the administration. I do think that too often very large protests get celebrated as something potent just because of their size, even if they function as no more than parades—albeit affirming ones. We can sometimes get stuck in a nostalgic image of what protest should look like, as if nothing had changed since the 1960s. But of course, it’s easier to amass 100,000 on the National Mall today than it was half a century ago—thanks social media! But that also means that a gathering of a 100,000 people can be read as less of a threat: it can point to the extent of a movement’s capacity, not its potential.

Meanwhile, antifa tactics of no-platforming, direct confrontation and doxxing have been really effective in recent years in getting white supremacists off college campuses. Richard Spencer himself admitted that antifa is the reason he canceled his college tour.

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Then we’ve seen other tactics, like door-to-door neighborhood organizing, like getting democratic socialists elected to state houses and Congress, have other successes—like stopping Amazon building its second HQ in Queens. Like having Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in our lives!

In the book you quote John Berger, a hero of mine: “If the State authority is open to democratic influence, the demonstration will hardly be necessary; if it is not, it is unlikely to be influenced by an empty show of force containing no real threat.” And then you write, “the history of anti- fascist, anti-racist activism is not one of presuming the good faith of state power. It is not one of asking. It is a history of direct and confrontational intervention—the sort of which is itself seldom protected by a rights framework.” I completely agree that if our aim is social change, militancy and conflict are likely required. We have to raise the stakes. But I’d love for you to say more about why this means we have to go beyond a rights framework, which means going beyond liberalism, right?

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I do love John Berger! So, yes, as I write in one chapter, we need to defend our First Amendment rights, but we also can’t let that be the only framework we use to defend dissent. That which gets legitimized by liberal institutions will not (alone) bring us the justice and democratic life those institutions claim to uphold. There’s no right to punch Richard Spencer!

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Following the original Women’s March, I saw another #Resistance female journalist tweet something about how great it was that such a big crowd gathered and there were no arrests. I read this as, in part, a jab at the previous day’s more riotous J20 protests, during which an infirm mass arrest swept up over two hundred protesters. There had been property damage—broken bank and Starbucks window—during the main march that day. The arrestees faced hefty felony charges, and endured a lengthy and punitive legal process, until all charges were eventually dropped. The government’s case was a vast First Amendment violation. I took part in the J20 protests and reject that we were somehow “bad protesters” because more radical tactics were taken up and arrests took place. And resistance against Trump (or any oppressive state) will be stymied if would-be dissenters throw each under the bus in deference to order.

Where do you think we are going? How do you think we need to prepare for what lies ahead?

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Oh God. I fear we’re going to see the continued rise of racist nationalism in the U.S. and Europe, which centrist liberals will continue to pander to under the guise of reining it in. But I also think we’re going to continue to see more robust leftism in mainstream politics, as we have been. I hope, though, that we don’t see leftist politics that only focuses on electoral and legislative wins. We do need revolutionary actions, revolutionary vision, and that won’t be delivered by an elderly statesman new-deal liberal from Vermont, however much as I’d like Bernie to win—or Elizabeth Warren. I don’t really know how to prepare, it can feel pretty hopeless and overwhelming; I watch an immense amount of crap TV on my laptop in bed and I drink a lot. But in one essay in the book I talk about a ghost, a ghost that haunts my childhood bathroom, in whom I both believe and disbelieve. Folks will have to read the book to know more about the ghost and why I care about it politically, but I’ll just repeat this thought from that chapter here: It’s a political imperative to believe—impossibly—that another world is possible, while necessarily being unable to explain that world from the confines of this one.

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