Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour have written an article in the New Statesman this week, in response to the televised Newsnight Interview between Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman, and Brand’s one-issue tenure as editor of the New Statesman.
Whilst Brand’s eloquent intervention in favour of revolution (however it might manifest itself) was welcome, his ‘casual and occasionally vicious’ sexism, as says Penny, belies a deeper rot within the gender politics of the Left – specifically among male leftists; the brocialists and manarchists we all know too well…
We’ve reproduced some of the exchange between Penny and Seymour below. Both are Pluto authors. Click on the cover images below for more information on their books. Check out the article in full on the New Statesman website.
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.
Read the rest of the article – click here.