Several attempts at defining and then mapping the characteristics of neoliberalism (or “neoliberalization”) begin with a list of obstacles which such an effort must confront (see Streeck, 2014: 4; Kotz, 2015: 8 and Dean, 2012: 1). Many of these obstacles are also evident when reviewing the wider literature concerned with neoliberalism: there are different emphases, on different neoliberal dynamics, between and within academic disciplines. Furthermore, doubt is regularly cast on the efficacy of neoliberalism as a coherent term worthy of further investigation (see Jessop, 2013: 65), even to the extent that there is little consensus as to whether neoliberalism was “created” in the 1930s (Mirowski & Plehwe, 2009: 2), the 1970s (Harvey, 2005: 9) or if it mutated into something else entirely after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and we are currently experiencing either an “interregnum” of capitalist models, or living in “post-neoliberalism” (Madra & Adaman, 2010).
This set of obstacles is compounded by the paucity of available, explicitly neoliberal, actors or agents. Even the think-tanks most readily associated with neoliberalism (e.g. the Adam Smith Institute; Heritage Foundation etc.) avoid use of the term, which in popular criticism is often used as a vague pejorative. Without an ur-text, and without high profile advocates to demarcate as “neoliberals”, much of the academic writing has instead responded to changes in governance and culture during the neoliberal era, speculating on isolated examples of neoliberal influence (Apple, 2005) as opposed to proactive efforts at providing a fixed definition. This has led to many analyses focusing on “accelerated contradictions” that have manifest during “the enduring contradictions of neoliberalism [which] have, rather perversely, become drivers of this rolling program… at the same time reactively opportunistic and proactively experimental” (Peck et al, 2012: 267).
“Neoliberalism, as understood from the perspective of Western market economies, embodies the ideological shift in the purpose of the state from one that has a responsibility to insure full employment and protect its citizens against the exigencies of the market to one that has a responsibility to insure protection of the market itself” (Wrenn: 346-347)
Neoliberalism is often cited as an iteration of capitalist reproduction, which was, to use the neoliberal term, a “victor” in a “struggle of ideas” (Hayek, 1960) during the [Western] economic shocks of the 1970s (see Davies, 2016). This positions neoliberalism as the successor to the Fordist political-economic compromise, and Keynesian management of the economy. However, even if we accept this temporal dimension uncritically (see below for reasons why this is problematic), the question as to what this new political-economic arrangement looks like, and how best to ascertain its impression, is answered by several distinct academic voices.
David Harvey’s (2005) influential, historical account is clear in its characterisation of neoliberalism as being the latest answer to capitalist crises of profitability, and notes a variety of policies pursued consistently by different neoliberal governments that share an emphasis on what he calls “accumulation by dispossession”. These include but are not limited to the selling off of public housing where it previously existed; aggressive deregulatory efforts (particularly in the banking sector) and the privatisation of public spaces in redevelopment programs. This emphasis on the continuity of neoliberalism, as an example of a “return to laissez-faire”, is a common thread in the existing literature (see Connell, 2013 & Cahill, 2014). “Laissez-faire” is a key term here, and one we will return to, for it is in the changing role of the state, and its relationship to the market, that we can observe a relatively clear distinction within the academic writing as to the nature of neoliberalism. Harvey’s broad argument is that the modern state apparatus has been shrunk under neoliberalism.
Many critical engagements have emphasised the role of highly complex financial devices and services, as being the key transformation during the neoliberal era. There are nuances in the form and practice of financial arrangements, but there is a wider point here about how important the incorporation of finance (and, crucially, the incorporation of financial speculation into normative business strategy: financialisation) has been to private enterprise and the role of the state, under neoliberalism:
“Financialisation is the term that describes the dissociation between money as capital and money as claim on future capital… I think it is innate to the dynamic of the capitalist form of wealth, of money that begets more money”
According to this line of thinking, the removal of barriers to globalised financial trading practices and the introduction of super-fast technological mediums, both of which were the result of economic, political and social interventions mediated by the state, facilitated the financial sector’s tremendous growth to upwards of several trillion USD by 2007 (Atkinson et al, 2013). The “new normal” of highly complex amalgamations of various products (Credit Default Swaps, securities, futures and hedges et al) “pressured banking capital to supplement the ‘boring banking’ activities of financial intermediation and risk-management with financial speculation and risk-taking in the search for higher profits” (Jessop, 2013: 88). There is a burgeoning literature concerned with detailed examinations of these financial products (e.g. Lavoie, 2013), and the impact that this growth has had for business, the state and markets. This literature often intersects with both the debate over the role of the state (i.e. is the state marginalised by seismic economic activity occurring in financial trading, or is it reified by its role as mediator/facilitator?), as well as an extensive literature concentrating on global economic and cultural flows (globalisation).
Academics have in the past tied globalisation to the ascension of neoliberalism and, although I argue that the former is best understood as both neoliberal epiphenomena and an example of historical-materialist transformation, it is clear why:
“The globalization of the economy destroys a historical constellation that made the welfare state compromise temporarily possible. Even if this compromise was never the ideal solution for a problem inherent within capitalism itself, it nevertheless held capitalism’s social costs within tolerable limits.”
(Habermas, trans. Penksy, 2001: 43)
The correlation between global economic flows and stymied national sovereignty, pressures on welfare services and increased inequality, are features of many political-economic accounts of neoliberalism (e.g. Dufresne & Sacchetti, 2013). Further, the ease with which financial transactions occur, and the [neoliberal] demands for financial liberalisation in countries seeking IMF assistance (the “Washington Consensus”), have led to a significant expansion of the financial economy. The volatility of financial markets is well recognised, though there is some dispute over the possibility of “light touch” regulatory bodies keeping them in “balance”. This is in contrast to some of the business organisations engaged in these markets, who, as this leaked citigroup memo suggests, are uninterested in the paradoxical “bull” market and accentuation of international (as well as national) inequality levels:
“The “disaster waiting to happen scenario” we hear about most from our clients, is the low savings rates in countries such as the UK and US. Well, we disagree that this is such a big problem in the near term, the time horizon that matters for most equity investors… We think this income and wealth inequality (plutonomy) helps explain many of the conundrums that vex equity investors, such as why high oil prices haven’t seriously dented growth, or why “global imbalances” are growing along with the equity bull market. Implication 1: Worry less about these conundrums”
(Kapur et al, 2006: 1-5)
There are questions of neoliberalism’s “home” that will be discussed below, however it is worth noting that, while financial markets might inflict economic hardship on countries across the world, there is no question that the financial centers of the world are “HQ’d in the West” (Harvey, 2005). There is then, a thread of academic writing, often from a post-colonialist perspective, that positions neoliberalism as a type of financialised neo-conservatism (e.g. Wacquant, 2012). This is not unusual; even among those who write in favour of “neoliberalism” as an accurate signifier, there is acknowledgement of its propensity to “latch on” to alternative ideological configurations (see Brown, 2006 and Springer, 2012).
Prior to fully assessing the contentious transformation of the state, and its role under neoliberalism, it should be noted that much of the literature on neoliberalism concentrates on how it has changed the practices of work and business, particularly in the realm of corporate pay and strategy. There are two primary approaches evident in this literature: first, that corporate strategy began to reflect new technological investments and shifts in the subjectivities of the self. This typically comes from heterogeneous and radical economic accounts (e.g. Quiggin, 2010). According to these writings, the “incentives” required for a workforce cannot not feasibly be reduced to pecuniary gain: “Work psychologists have regularly emphasized that pay is insufficient to induce commitment and stimulate enthusiasm” (Boltanksi & Chiapello, 2005: 8), and so the space of work itself is said to have been assigned renewed importance as a [re]producer of capitalist relations. The critique of bureaucracy, planning and hierarchy, which had crossed the political spectrum in the “climactic” disturbances of 1968 (Berardi, 2014) were absorbed into new organizational models which repeated as mantra the virtues of loose networks, flexibility and autonomy. This supposed rejection of hierarchy, and its confrontation with notions of[self]-control, has been the defining dynamic of neoliberal business theory (Boltanksi & Chiapello, 2005: 81).
The second emphasis worth noting is that of corporate mergers, creative or fraudulent accounting practices (particularly in the investment banking sector) and generous remuneration schemes for managers, either in the form of stock or bonus structures. The demand for short term profit found its way into the boardroom through radical “idea[s] that any manager should achieve at the minimum a 15 percent rate of return on equity (ROE)… notwithstanding the fact that such a norm was impossible to achieve consistently at a macroeconomic level under the usual conditions in developed economies” (Lavoie, 2013: 222). The “stakeholder view” has been substituted for a “shareholder view”, wherein the “bottom line” – itself subject to neoliberal calculations – takes on such a position of importance that it incentivizes the type of highly leveraged, complex financial “shadow” economy, both within institutions and more broadly in national or transnational economies, that has characterised much neoliberal economic policymaking. This dynamic of creating the conditions for neoliberalism’s own reproduction and necessity is subtle, but as Mirowski notes, the system of financialised trading relied on the production of these now roundly castigated “toxic” assets: “The [toxic] metaphor … elided all the hard work of explaining ABSs, CDOs, CDSs, SIVs, and nearly everything else that actually caused the crisis. The assets were toxic; we didn’t need to know how or why. We didn’t stop to think that the financial system intentionally produced them and therefore the entire metaphor was wonky at base.” (2013: 169).
The role of the state under neoliberalism is changed, this much most academics agree on. However, whether the state is more influential (or interventionist), or whether it is in retreat, is unresolved. Where one sits is this debate, I suggest, depends on the epistemic position staked: is neoliberalism’s impact on the state most convincingly illustrated by its direct influence over policymaking (here we have a greater focus on the sovereignty of the state to affect economic development, and the “post-democracy” phenomenon of economic matters being taken outside the remit of traditional democratic structures and the election of governments with the capacity to pursue alternative programs), or is it the state’s role in setting out the conditions that allow for economic growth to be dictated in its shape by [transnational] market forces? In the first case, there is ample literature detailing how options for alternative policies in the field of economy have been put outside the purview of governments (see Brenner et al, 2010; Berardi, 2014 and Fraser, 2007). Examples of this include but are not limited to: the tacticalization of the juridical system (Kalb, 2012: 325); bypassing of democratic structures; production of misinformation (agnotology) and the positing of financial crises as independent of neoliberal historicity (Hilgers, 2012:183). These coincide to varying degrees with Agamben’s thesis that the “new normal” of neoliberalism is constructed via the binary of “continuity” and “exception” (2005: vi). It certainly mimics Hayek’s declaration of war upon the “realm of common sense” (see Jones, 2012: 26).
These examples do not make mandatory the rejection of a second epistemic position, best described in Foucault’s biopolitics lectures as: “the market determines that good government is no longer simply government that functions according to justice… The market now means that to be good government, government has to function according to [market] truth.” (1979). This rethinking of the role of the state under neoliberalism is developed by subsequent writers, who posit that the neoliberal state is better understood as a “rationality” that operates through policymaking that ensures “pathway dependency” (i.e. granting ultimate authority and agency to the market: not a natural condition, but one that must be constructed). I use the term “rationalities” rather than “theory” partially because the aforementioned reversals make deciphering any core neoliberal theoretical principles problematic. “A mongrel mode of governance” (Peck et al, 2012: 270) the claim here is that it is no accident that neoliberalism evades definitional capture when even those governments most associated with the term employ the rhetoric of alternative ideologies (e.g. neo-conservatism, or social democracy (Le Baron & Roberts, 2012: 28; Lazzarato, 2012)), while simultaneously pursuing policies which seem to contradict those same principles. Furthermore, it is rationality – the inculcation of neoliberal ideas in the very functioning of the state, the market and its citizenship – rather than a precise political model that neoliberalism typically fosters.
But what is this rationality? Is it any more precise than “constantly hybridised”? I defer here to the closest to a consensus that I have come across in the literature: if neoliberalism is founded on any core belief it is that “the market is the ultimate information processor” (Mirowski, 2013: 42 but on this consensus see also Hall et al, 2012; & Brown, 2003) and so has access to efficacy beyond the capacity of human knowledge. Neoliberalism is predicated on the limits of human knowledge and the endorsement of market alternatives as a governing force. In practice this is far from a stable approach to governance, and so remains an obstacle for securing a firm understanding (or list of characteristics) of neoliberalism. For one, “the market” can – and is – distinguished from simply a location for competition (Solty, 2013: 92). It is referenced constantly and contradictorily by the neoliberal state, from desire to withdraw state influence in utilities (“creating markets”) to the facilitating, contra ordoliberal theory, of monopolies (“de-regulating markets”).
It is therefore vital to understand neoliberalism as a future-orientated process wherein the expansion of market society is continual: “Neoliberalism is a constructivist project: it does not presume the ontological giveness [sic] of a thoroughgoing economic rationality for all domains of society but rather takes as its task the development, dissemination and institutionalization of such a rationality” (Brown, 2003: 4). The impossibility of a pure market provides the neoliberal “core” with a utopian and so eternally thwarted vision: no amount of deregulation and no degree of market expansion into the public sector can erase externalities and the imperfect input of human knowledge. Concurrently, no market failure can ever be the fault of the market per se.
This is an important step in recognising a pattern of neoliberal governance, one in which “waves” of de-regulation, trade liberalisation, financialisation etc. repeatedly attempt to construct environments better suited to further enforcement of market rationalities (Peck et al, 2010: 713-714). This propensity for one policy to “open” the space for a succession of ostensibly disparate pro-market policies defuses the autonomy of state apparatus, no matter the government in power, to shift this directional force: it is politically easier to give up responsibilities than take them back (Crouch, 2011: xi).
The role of crises in perpetual “neoliberalization” (ibid. 269) is an illustrative historic contingency, demonstrating both reactive and proactive qualities to neoliberal processes. As with the example of British tuition fees, a “problem” is discovered and via the axiomatic “truth” the market provides, is deemed suited to pro-market “solutions” which in turn require market corrections and so on. The point here is not to focus on the discovery of a problem, nor the [temporary] solution, but the tautology which is inscribed to the system, what [Jodi] Dean calls a “neoliberal self-reflexivity” (2010: 8). In this way neoliberalism is a directional rather than destinational movement, which fixes its utopia as permanently another [market]solution away.
The literature on “state rationality” under neoliberalism is often accompanied by analyses of the body politic living under neoliberalism. Again, Foucault’s final lectures are an influence here, especially when discussing the themes of “governmentality” “biopolitics” and “human capital”. There is a broad acknowledgement that one part of the “neo” in neoliberalism, particularly in comparison to previous capitalist iterations, is its devolution of control and agency to the market – and, further to this, the “marketisation of the self” (Dean, 2010). It is in uncovering and repoliticising this “everyday neoliberalism” or “neoliberalism of the self” (Gershon, 2011: 537) that many academics have found more manageable means of examining neoliberal events and processes. We will return to this theme of “cultural neoliberalism” under the bracket of “Space Problems”. Governmentality is in the first instance an extension of this investigation into neoliberal freedom, and its role in the constitution of the self. Furthermore, it has been linked directly to the previously described “new spirit” of the workforce under neoliberal conditions: networked, self-reliant and prepared for immediate redistribution. The most critical voices during the Keynesian consensus were those of neoliberals, and of [neo-]Marxists (Žižek, 2009: 19; Bell, 1976: 36-37). Both critiques extrapolate from this same observation: the neglect of labour as a factor of production.
There are however limitations of a Foucauldian analysis, at least if we only use his biopolitics lectures and ignore his earlier works (see Foucault, 1972; 1976). Namely, in an environment when control is deferred to the self, and the self is then required to interact on the terms of an increasingly “market-led” society, where is authority located? The search for new forms and fields of power is never quite answered in Foucault’s lectures – unsurprisingly considering they were very much ‘research in progress’. While he problematizes the construction of [neoliberal] individual freedom, he ends by implying a reification of the market: “What is the utility value of government and all actions of government in a society where exchange determines the true value of things?” (1979). This I suggest is a bizarre limitation of governmentality as it is communicated by Foucault and some of his successors. Having concluded that the “self” has been identified and pursued as a site for the reproduction of capitalist processes, and that the dispositif arrangements of the state are an unstable and threatened quest to secure order, he “leaves “the economy” as the independent Representative of the Real, a placeholder without interrogation” (Mirowski, 2013: 98). In this case, “the economy” – or “the market” – is not merely ideally beyond the interference of the state or civil society, it occupies the position of referent; in not bringing “the economy” to light, Foucauldian governmentality paradoxically mirrors its own conception of neoliberalism. The impact of this neoliberalization of the self crosses many political sites, but none more so than mental wellbeing: “know yourself” becomes “express yourself”; exoteric measures of worth rather than internal self-actualization stirs within the individual invidious comparisons… and dogged fears of inadequacy” (Wrenn, 2014: 347)
I’m trying to write a literature review, or part of a literature review, under the title of “neoliberalism”. Unsurprisingly, the scope of this project is expanding like a blocked toilet, and giving me an equivalent anxiety. It has quickly become obvious that neoliberalism, which I’m a firm believer in, requires some sort of framework if it is to be communicated in everyday conversation, let alone as a term for political organisation. I hypothesize that this elasticity is a characteristic – one of many, sure – that allows for its ubiquity to reproduce so quietly. Not quietly as in “without violence”, but quietly in “without being termed”. Quietly as in, the political blast-holes of 2016 (Brexit, Trump, Syria, murder in the Mediterranean Sea, continued breakdown of NH Services etc.) are very much now “given” gaps, and yet are not treated in much academia as symptomatic of a coherent ideological worldview. When the “faux” outrage about how people spend their benefits continues in spite of a collapsed center, having conversations on behalf of an un/deserving poor like it’s 2009, or 1981, you’ve got to ponder if Fukuyama was right, and we really are existing as the “end of history”. The last great financial crisis was nearly a decade ago, but moralising still carries purchase.
For the record no, I do not think we are living as the end of history. Neoliberalism remains an historically contingent, and so surpass-able entity. No, its one-time ubiquity as a leftist slang synonym for “anything bad” does not corrupt its efficacy, or rather the necessity of naming contemporary ideology. For what the record is worth, the real contemporary ubiquity is a droning mantra/rebuttal to any question that uses neoliberalism as its object: “There Is No Ideology!” (TINI!). In the same way that we “must” go through these conversations about benefit scroungers, we “must” fight just to acknowledge that ideology still plays a role in our institutions, our politics and our subjectivities.
I’m going to use this page to put more rough drafts out, with the intention to develop a usable definition of neoliberalism. Currently I am most persuaded by the insights of Michel Foucault, Philip Mirowski, Dean (Jodi), Dean (Jonathan), Sara Ahmed, Stuart Hall, Judith Butler and Colin Crouch. Hopefully this list will expand over the year.
This is my rough draft of the rough drafts:
Neoliberalism as thought collective
Neoliberalism as capitalist iteration
Neoliberalism as subjectivity
Neoliberalism as political project
The crucial thing here is what neoliberal is not:
I want to avoid reducing it to some sort of epiphenomenon of capitalist reproduction (though it certainly informs economic policymaking and institutional organisation);
I want to avoid neoliberalism as a conspirational cabal of elite-level actors (though the Mont Pelerin Society and subsequent networks of think-tanks certainly share neoliberal characteristics)
I want to avoid neoliberalism as simply a dumbing down of discourse into “post-truth” (though agnotology, the deliberate production of misinformation, is a political strategy consistent with neoliberalism, and certainly has impacts on local cultures)
And finally, I want to avoid neoliberalism as being simply the extension of homo economicus to all spheres of public life (though the arguments of classical liberalism are regularly deployed in favour of neoliberal policymaking).
Oh, and all politics leeches to identity, for better and/or for worse. Don’t you forget it.
Here are my tweets on George Michael’s song “Outside”. A close reading of the lyrics and a homage! Rest in power, George!
Actually… I am going to do a tutorial.
“Back to nature, just human nature
Getting on back to”
– the most powerful lyrics in LGBT music.
Because from the beginning George Michael returns to sexuality as desire; sex is the meeting of two desiring bodies; gay sex follows the natural logic of two desiring men
There is no place to stigmatise, marginalise, belittle or put-down if the starting point is constructed as natural & shared by most: desire
“I think I’m done with the sofa
I think I’m done with the hall
I think I’m done with the kitchen table, baby”
heterosex is boring! Restricted by social mores and religious strictures
Domesticated hetero sex, a legacy, in part, of the #c18 intro of street lighting, is normative…
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Robot Wars and Gender: The Judge’s Decision
TW: Discussion of masculinity and “women”
No matter how much evidence you have of racism and sexism, no matter how many documents, communications, encounters, no matter how much research you can refer to, or words you can defer to, words that might carry a history as an insult, what you have is deemed as insufficient. The more you have to show the more eyes seem to roll. My proposition is simple: that the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism. – Sara Ahmed
Robot Wars holds a special place in my heart. As a tween, the promise of robotic destruction drew me to BBC2 every Friday, tucked into the legendary terrestrial schedule of The Simpsons, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Top of The Pops and, as I got older, South Park and Trigger Happy TV. I’m fairly convinced that this was not an uncommon televisual education. At its peak Robot Wars was drawing 4m viewers per episode; not a monumental figure, but the success of spin-off video games (yes; on my PC and on my Game Boy Advance) and toys suggests that its fanbase was a passionate one. The team of Craig Charles (presenter) Jonathan Pearce (equally bombastic commentator) and Philippa Forester (reporting from “the pits”) was, with the panel of judges, a consistently engaging human face. But that was in the halcyon days of the late Nineties and early Noughties. Isn’t the world of 2016 more cynical, more technologically advanced, more jaded? Will Robot Wars be too childlike for today’s children? And how can the BBC’s commitment to making the show more “female friendly” work? Would it be your standard “bung in some smiling women and tone down the aggression” approach? Would this drain the remake of the original’s exuberance? Would it succumb to the frighteningly powerful imaginary of… political correctness? Head judge Noel Sharkey wasn’t really giving anything away when he said:
And it isn’t just the boys with their toys. There have always been females competing and it has been wonderful to see a large increase in the reboot… Engineering departments in UK universities are pretty desperate to reduce the gender gap as it is still unacceptably large. So come on girls, make me proud.
But he did at least acknowledge that there was an explicit intent underpinning the remake, to avoid being pigeonholed as “Top Gear for kids”. Considering that gender mainstreaming as a normative technocratic impulse – in much popular culture and organization (let alone within the BBC) – receives strident critique from pro-feminists as well as post-feminists, it was with multiple concerns that I started watching again…
Axes, spinning discs and gender roles
The 27yo, pro-feminist (and pro- all that “SJW Bullshit”) me is hopefully different to the 13yo version. 13yo me wasn’t readily articulating the distinct roles occupied by the female and male competitors in my favourite programmes. Most likely I “did not see” gender at all. Of course, retrospectively, the interaction between the promise of a combat-led aggression, and the nuanced expressions of masculinities of the combatants involved, was an intriguing dynamic even then. The “roboteers” were not an especially manly group or, more accurately, performed a brand of masculinity painfully familiar to any teenage non-sportsman. It was there in the boasts (“We’re going to tear them apart!”), the nervous laughter, red cheeks and glances to the floor that regularly accompanied Forrester’s jocular interviews, and the feverish devotion to mechanics. And yet, the “survival of the fittest” mantra of the programme, tech-know-how elevated to the function of physical muscle, allowed for the successful roboteers to present as alpha-male champions – in spite of the aforementioned tension between physical prowess and tech-wizz geekery. In the age of the graphic designer, the programmer, the engineer, this is the one dynamic of Robot Wars that has reached new heights of mainstream resonance.
It’s important to be very clear here: it was a show about men. This isn’t to do the show down: I’m always overwhelmed by the propensity for such an observation (“X is about men”) to evoke cries of political correctness. What is politically correct about this claim? It’s the closest social analysis can come to empiricism, and in the case of Robot Wars and shows of its ilk, it’s the antithesis of controversy. Robot Wars pitted male contestants, with their masculinized creations (“Razor” “Chaos” “Behemoth” “Tornado” etc), against male contestants. Women were the exception, and they proved the rule by the gendered roles they played within the programme: decidedly non-competitive.
This is a phenomenon that endures in the new series. To demonstrate, I want to briefly describe some of the roles the women who do make it on screen have fulfilled.
It’s tempting to see female participation as both utterly necessary to reify the implicitly threatened masculinities on show, and to project a more progressive image. I’ve given into this temptation: the new series has a clearly defined set of roles available to its competitors, with a line going right down the middle according to the perceived gender of the contestant. I say “perceived” because one of the great roboteers from the show’s first run, George Francis, is now most often discussed as somewhere in-between male and female, and all because (as far as I can make out) he had a high-pitched voice. No amount of tech-know-how can make up for a funny voice, guys, and in a show which relies pretty heavily on gender performance (and binary), Francis’ demeanour and performance is almost as prominent a made observation as the success of his robotic contraptions.
Anyway, here’s my take on the twin roles available to female competitors. It is based entirely on one viewing of the new series, often slumped at my desk after a day selling jewelry to the great British public. The evidence is presented as a series of anecdotal observations, because I can’t face re-watching the whole thing. Got a lot on atm.
The Counsellor (see also: “the girlfriend”; “the aesthetic co-ordinator”)
Noel Sharkey was correct in his claim that there were more women involved in the new series. Unfortunately – for I can just tell that his desire for “more” is really hiding a deeper desire to break apart the constraints that gendered roles have placed on the women who have historically featured in Robot Wars – these women fall pretty much squarely into one of two roles. “One of two” is something to remember, repeat, challenge. Go for it.
The first of these is what I call The Counsellor, named in homage to the bizarre Ridley Scott movie of the same name, which included a scene wherein Cameron Diaz humps a sportscar. It was so much more than just a scene, but that’s for another ramble. The Counsellor is a role fulfilled by a younger woman. Many of the young women who feature on the new series of Robot Wars are only ever implied to be partners of a male driver or team leader; sex, even its most abstract or hetero-confirming sense, is left out of the Robot Wars MO. The closest that the series comes to rocking this boat is when we’re introduced to a team, one man and one woman, who met on an “online Robot Wars forum”. The mind boggles – and then quivers with recognition that this kind of thing happens on forums all the time.
These younger women are invisible partners, but visibly involved in the “team” that manages their robot. Even in its invisibility though, the secret truth – that these women are desired, desirable and so sexualized actors – means that they hold a particular capital, almost mystical within the sealed world of the pits. Their duties? Invariably they are introduced to the viewer as being the emotional valve of the team; the person who keeps tempers in check, who makes sure everyone is getting along. This subtextual role as a sexual agent reaches a peak when we are introduced to one woman as an “aesthetic coordinator”; her duty to maintain the beauty of the agent of chaos: spike-killer; destroyer; kaboom – whatever it was called. Allow me to reiterate that I loved the remake, but this one made me chortle. The counsellors are here, literally and metaphorically, to provide a level of gloss and civility to proceedings. Again, not an inherently demeaning role (Far Side Virtual, the vaporwave album par excellence, maintains its reputation in my eyes as a work of glittering importance for its devotion to aesthetic coordination) but in the context of “gender mainstreaming and progress” which couches the new series, it makes for a humorously ham-fisted attempt at diversifying the faces of the show.
The Sandwich Maker (see also: “the wife”; “the mother”)
The older relative of The Counsellor, the Sandwich Maker is a familiar trope across British popular culture (and I’m sure elsewhere). A maternal figure who provides emotional labour of the sort The Counsellor does, the key distinction here is the removal of any sexualized element – again, a dynamic which will not surprise anyone who has observed the roles commonly associated with women over forty.
With regards to serving the pro-women agenda of the new series, The Sandwich Maker evokes a sigh – who could bemoan the mother, or wife, of a contestant her moment in the televisual sun? There’s a twin tension occurring here, however. Firstly, the presence of these older women with no real influence on the creation or application of the robot is catnip to those who would very much enjoy bemoaning their presence. “What do they even do?” “She’s not there on merit” and, inevitably, “This is proof of political correctness”. There are, of course, a million reasons why these women warrant a place in front of the cameras; just because emotional labour doesn’t come across particularly easily in thirty-second segments detailing the RPM of a spinning disc, doesn’t mean that those sandwiches didn’t help in construction of the blade. On the other hand, when the roles available to women are solely to counsel or to make sandwiches (speaking a lil’ allegorically here) then there surely comes a point where the accusation of political correctness has an unintended truth. In the pursuit of gender mainstreaming, the editors have substitute numbers for substantive roles. Women are present, but they are so obviously delimited by their gender.
“We would love more women roboteers, but they didn’t raise their hands” would be the most consistent response to this. Well, quite. But until whatever factors that maintain this derisory list of potential roles for women is articulated by the show (take your pick from gendered pedagogic practice, sexism in further education, rigid norms of femininity on prime time TV…) the argument that women collectively/homogenously desire to fulfil these roles and these roles only – ergo, this gendered [im]balance is “natural” – will continue to hold real purchase in the popular imagination, popular culture and its viewership.
It is apt then that the most subversive actor in the new series of Robot Wars, or at least looking at it as an exercise in gendered understandings, is a child. I can’t remember her name, or the name of the robot, but she was introduced as the controller of the robot’s weapon. Considering she was under 15 (children under 15 blur into an ageless void for me… she was definitely a child though) this was a reasonably empowered platform to be granted. If I remember correctly, this was the same child who had influenced the glittery, pink decoration of the robot’s axe. Regardless, when being interviewed, this child rebuffed her father’s attempts to grant her this platform, because it was a fraudulent claim. With the irritation that the lie warranted, she responded along the lines of “Well, actually, Dad says I can only push this button when he tells me to. So it’s his fault.” Bravo! More than a female, oil-splattered boilersuit-wearing 45yo roboteer, this child brought light to the weird double-think behind gender mainstreaming in a show like Robot Wars.
It has ended up going without saying that there are more roles available to male competitors: after all, there are a helluva lot more of them, and someone has to construct and run the damn things. This greater diversity doesn’t interest me quite so much, if only because there has been no push towards expanding the options for male competitors. The day that a male couple, or a transgendered man, or a man who wants his axe to be glittery, occupies a role on Robot Wars, I think we’ll have an interesting conversation. Until then, let’s quickly note the most common ways that men-folk inhabit the Robot Wars world.
There’s The Joker/Boaster (see also: “the young man”) best epitomised by eventual series winners Apollo. Young, besuited men who are out to “entertain”, their engineering kudos wasn’t as pronounced as many of their competitors, but this expense was mitigated by branching into a masculinity that was evident in the first seven series (oh I remember Nemesis fondly) but remains a difficult act to pull off. To be genuinely humorous requires accepting the limitations and slightly ludicrous tenor of the show itself, and yet remain respectable in the arena itself. They did so gallantly.
The Tech-Head’s (see also: “the younger man”; “the older man”) are the bread and butter of Robot Wars. The men, young or old, who can exist with or without a Counsellor or Sandwich Maker (bonus rugged masculinity point for going solo; plus I’m-getting-laid points for having a Counsellor; bonus sandwiches with a Sandwich-Maker). Series runners-up Carbide were a decent example of this. They had a cocksure swagger, boosted with getting-laid points, which meant that while on the one hand they didn’t qualify as tech-heads extraordinaire (girls detract from tech-know-how, because ultimately they aren’t actual robots) they did avoid the, however harsh, “basement dweller” pitfall. Top job.
Finally there’s The Father/Son (see also: “the boss”; “the servant”) combo, such as the TR2 team (replete with arguably the most dynamic Sandwich-Maker in the series). These combos are invariably most exciting when the two male leads either get on exceptionally well (it can be authentically touching) or when the authority-bearing, the conflict between a child-like desperation to attach all possible importance on the event, the fatherly devotion to his child’s happiness versus his own ego, becomes a simmering tension worthy of The Archers. Within this combination, one can detect the impulse of a tech-head, or an entertainer. As such, this is a fluid constellation from which can be birthed all manner of future stars: just another example of the transformative potential for male competitors.
Indeed racism and sexism work by disregarding evidence or by rendering evidence unreliable or suspicious – often by rendering those who have direct experience of racism and sexism unreliable and suspicious. This disregarding – which is at once a form of regarding – has a central role in maintaining an order of things. Simply put: that evidence of something is deemed insufficient is a mechanism for reproducing something. – Sara Ahmed
I don’t think I’m making any leftfield claims or bizarre observations here. What started as a thought experiment (“I should jot some notes about gender while watching Robot Wars stoned! lolz”) turned into a writing experiment. I could hear heckles of “looking for problems” and “professionally outraged feminists!” while I was doodling. This in itself forced me to force myself to type something up. As Ahmed points out, when the evidence of something is fobbed off as insufficient so regularly, so unblinkingly, it’s a mechanism for reproduction. Sociology 101, that damn Mickey Mouse discipline. So, I wrote it down – that’s all.
“We just don’t know what’s going to happen next” has become the giddy political axiom of the immediate post-“Brexit” environment – and I, like most, have given up trying to predict the next dramatic schism to manifest. Instead I would like to assess the contrasting fortunes of two long-serving politicians; the new Prime Minister Theresa May, and the brief leadership candidate for the opposition Labour Party, Angela Eagle. What can feminist thinkers learn from these experiences at the top-end of political manoeuvring, and to what extent is this influenced by their ideological commitment to opposing parties?
I am particularly interested in complicating adjoining narratives that cast (1) May’s victory as “proof” that having women in leadership positions is inherently meaningless (if the woman in question is not vocalizing and enacting a specific feminist agenda) or a bona fide “feminist victory”, while simultaneously positing (2) Eagle’s decision to and rationale for stand[ing] down as emblematic of the feminist “blind-spot” in the British left. I conclude with reference to the transformative characteristics of all feminist analyses, and to suggest an alternative narrative: that a feminist politics can work most coherently outside of organised political spaces, and that grounding those politics within traditional political environments ultimately limits feminist possibilities.
Theresa May: a feminist victory?
The new Tory leader (and Prime Minister) Theresa May is only the second woman to hold that position, while the ostensibly more progressive Labour Party has only ever been led by [cis, white] men. It is not without irony that descriptions such as these infuriate the “sensible Left” – sensible presumably because they hold to just such selective positivist indices (e.g. a focus on polling data, on bending idealism towards the aim of securing “real” results and power). Perhaps surprisingly the question of whether May’s ascension has been a “feminist victory” has been the focus of multiple op-eds since her premiership became a formality.
On closer inspection of course, the desire to speculate on May’s feminist credentials is entirely predictable: May will be expected to “represent” women just as she will be keen to distance herself from any notion that her gender validates her promotion. That would be antithesis of conservative meritocracy. The at best qualified, at worst scorched-earth legacy of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, led to something resembling a consensus within feminist academia: having women leaders will not necessarily improve the material prospects, nor emancipate the imaginative function, of the women they lead. In the wider press and academy, Thatcher was the archetype of a “postfeminist” model. So, female leaders can be empowered by [further] weaponising patriarchal logic/s: the infamous (and best-selling) “Lean In” (Sandberg, 2014) claimed to reimagine the traditional role of women in competitive corporate environments even as it maintained a highly conservative conception of gender and success. However performative this conception might be, the vision of women CEOs aping the “survival of the fittest” mantra of homo economicus while sustaining “advantageous” feminine traits (sensitivity, emotional intellect etc), has continued to attract high level institutional support (Budgeon, 2011).
I am reminded at this point of two remarks which highlight hegemonic double-speak. Firstly, the manner in which the ruling Communist Party has legitimised increased FDI and marketization through its vision of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”. Nina Power’s (2011) summation that “The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were both justified by an appeal to the emancipation of women, and the discourse of feminism was specifically invoked” similarly warns of how cutely an event or process can explicitly recall emancipatory theory as its justificatory license.
Does calling the rise of Theresa May a “feminist victory” partake in the same game? May’s record while Home Secretary (2010-2016) of anti-feminist policymaking (see the detention practices of Yarl’s Wood and the plight of asylum seekers, particularly women and trans* asylum seekers) underlines the selectivity of any claim that hers is a “feminist victory”. May’s gender does not take precedence from this history of gendered violence. Ergo, this is no feminist victory, and to suggest that it is simply by virtue of May’s gender is to debase the feminist argument – to essentialise it.
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that May’s ascension is a feminist victory only when understood in strictly positivist-institutionalist-historicist terms. When understood as an impossibly rare event wherein one woman reaches the zenith of British political power, for only the second time ever, we can re-approach this as a “feminist victory” – but not a victory for feminists:
“…it is one of the gains of the feminist movement that women can access the highest positions of political power and influence, without condition, and it should be a basic tenet of any feminist politics that our right to such positions is not contingent on our using power better than men have traditionally used it. Some feminist goals, especially those related to welfare provision, might be better realised by other governments, with other Prime Ministers, who might very well be male. But at least one important feminist goal – the goal of women exercising power, for its own sake, just because it is something we have a right to – has been realised for one woman, and made a tiny bit easier for all the women that follow.” (Reilly-Cooper, 2016)
Angela Eagle: A feminist fail?
Eagle’s attempt to not only become the first woman, but also the first “out” lesbian to lead any major British party (shout-out here to Sandi Tosvig and the Women’s Equality Party) never left the ground. To some this was further proof, in addition to the brick through a window close to her constituency office, and the relentless drivel of twitter trolls, of the Labour base’s neglect and general disregard for gender politics.
We dislike her politics, gender has nothing whatsoever to do with who we rally around and who we heckle.
It is worth noting here that Eagle crucially lacked support from other PLP members, not the wider membership, and it was the rush to unify around Owen Smith (supposedly less easily bracketed as a “Blairite” in spite of his past lobbying for Pfizer) that was ultimately responsible for her withdrawal from the leadership election. However, I am always attracted to the “problem of perception” (Ahmed, 2015) and its peculiar influence on issues of public interest. In this case, the suggestion that the vitriol Eagle received might have been filtered through particular hurdles facing high profile women, let alone older and lesbian women, was a trigger for many Corbyn supporters. Merely the suggestion that gender played a role was enough to magnify the ridicule, and led to accusations of opportunism, as if Eagle was using her gender to out-manoeuvre our more authentically feminist-friendly leader.
I voted for Corbyn as leader once, and I will do so again. Even so, the Eagle experience can serve as an eye-opener for anyone who considers gender an irrelevance in British politics, and particularly within whatever constitutes the British left.
“I’m not a Blairite, I’m not a Brownite, I’m not a Corbynista… I am my own woman”
With these words Eagle announced her candidacy. We all know what happened next, but this short statement immediately opposes schools of political thought associated with past leaders, with Eagle’s own claim to uniqueness: her gender.
That’s no substitute for political theory, that’s the opportunism of a politician real-politiking off the back of her accidental gender – she’s just a Blairite who has run out of arguments.
Or so some would argue. In truth, Eagle is perfectly entitled to oppose these schools of thought with her gender, if only because the Labour Party has always been led by men. No, there is no “school of thought” shared by women, not institutionally nor through lived experience. But it remains an opposition by virtue of the same positivist schema that makes May’s leadership a feminist victory if not a victory for feminists.
Losing a high profile chain from the high street (or shopping center) is a big, nostalgic deal. Mention Woolworths and you’ll typically bring forth misty-eyed recollections of pick ‘n’ mix and Pokémon trading card Fridays (that might have just been me); Blockbusters has been immortalized in movie and meme. The recent collapse of British Home Stores (BHS) is rumored to be but the first in another tranche of old warhorses soon to fall victim to the Invisible Hand. As the final burial of BHS draws closer, three entwined conversations will be had: on the radio, on those Channel 4 segments, on Question Time. One will detail the various ways in which BHS’ business model, its engagement in a competitive market, fell short. Mary Portas wrote on this subject last week:
To separate yourself from the pack, you have to be the best in practice, whatever that means for your particular business. That can be across different things: the best fashion, the best product, the best price, the best social experience, the most desirable, the most innovative or simply the most wanted because you’ve got a brilliant brand. Sadly, British Home Stores was none of those.
The next conversation will focus on the human cost of such a large business failure: 11,000 jobs directly under threat, the giant question mark[et] over pension obligations which could affect over 20,000 current and ex- workers, and the inhospitable environment for jobseekers in a retail sector that has struggled since the 2007 financial crisis. The knock-on consequences for nearby businesses, adjoined now to massive empty units, will no doubt be equally sizeable. The delivery-truck drivers who brought stock, the outsourced cleaners, the security: 11,000 is by no means a suitable guestimate of the number of jobs which will be lost, nor the number of working hours soon to be deemed unnecessary. Across multiple businesses, further pressure for low-hour contracts will be ramped up.
Finally, we will hear plenty of hand-wringing over the nefarious doings of a variety of individuals, mainly beginning with “Phillip” and often ending with “Glass”. These individuals will be anointed with the retrospective “responsibility” for BHS’ mismanagement and grisly demise. Hand-wringing is typically a slimy, occasionally squeaky noise. It has a short lifespan before it starts to cloy. Thankfully, we don’t generally speaking need to find too many arbiters for this kind of responsibility. Bernie Madoff, one single human being, quite successfully managed to become the poster-boy for the Ponzi Scheme dynamics of an entire financial system. Somewhere in the ether critical economist Hyman Minksy wept into his spreadsheets, as the 2008 financial crisis became increasingly framed a failure of morals. Too many wolves of Wall St., too many mini-Madoffs, had corrupted our system.
You might remember the lament of Harriet Harman: if only it had been Lehman Sisters! The female (or should that be feminine?) propensity for caution, borne of generational oppression, would have prevented these rotten apples from getting into the pilot’s cabin and doing an Icarus. If you don’t remember that’s okay, because I now want to make several claims which also seek to locate the role of gender in neoliberal political economy. They are more useful interventions, if only because they reject the implicit stability of gender performance Harman’s hypothesis rested on. Through these claims, I intend to open up an alternative interpretative space which synthesizes these conversations, all of which have some merit but which, without a critical dimension, remain isolated from one another and limited to an aesthetic response. The conceptual glue which holds these claims together is an acknowledgment of the multiscalar impact of feminized labour.
- Neoliberal common sense has mad love for the retail sector
I have hypothesized before about the ways in which neoliberalism has utilized changing subjectivities of “radical, emancipatory” love in order to pursue its own reproduction. It remains a wooly theoretical apparatus: part- Deleuzian lament, part- identity politics. The tale of BHS is a tale of a different kind of love: the value that neoliberalism places on the services sector, which accounts for – by conservative estimates – anything from 26% of the total British workforce. Within this, the retail sector employs some 2.9m workers: it is the UK’s largest private sector source of employment.
The “age of austerity” dictates that the unemployed require a damn good explanation for their “work-shy” lives: retail work provides a neoliberalist valve for those out of work. Why is this?
Unprofessional, low-paid, flexible hours, feeble union representation: the retail sector idealizes a feminized workforce, and this is a quintessentially neoliberal impulse. Since the turn of the century and in the post-2007 reorganisation, developments like the death of defined benefit pensions and a stalling of mandatory corporate social responsibility charters have made the sector internally more disciplined to the neoliberal tune. Further, the oft-cited decline in manufacturing, the polarisation of skilled and non-skilled work and the clumsy introduction of universal credit as a symbolic as much as practical warning against “shirking” has afforded the sector a paradoxical importance, just as its workforce faces extra pressures and a less stable environment. Often the solitary requirement for working retail is some experience on the shop-floor (which can be acquired via unpaid volunteering in charity shops, or forced through by DWP programs designed to “get people back to work”) and a willingness or need for income that supersedes any qualms about short-shifts, irregular shifts, weekend working or poor pay.
- The failure of BHS changes nothing
What has happened to BHS ought to be criminal. It might end up being considered so, legally. Unfortunately, until there is a rigorous re-appraisal of the importance of the services sector and retail work – in capitalist democracies generally, as well as specifically in the UK – the pattern of BHS’ decline will be repeated. Quietly, perhaps, but you can be sure that it is those already existing in the sector’s ample precariat who will absorb the damage.
This is no humanist doom-mongering either. Portas is correct in her appreciation of the role of online entrepreneurialism as an influence on shriveling high streets and shopping centers. The success of Uber-esque sites like Etsy, and the lowering of barriers when it comes to individual sellers, shows no signs of abating. For every example of individuals making big money through doing their business here in [micro] cyberspace, there are many more users making smaller sums to supplement their income. The result is a development of the neoliberal maxim of the “human capital” doctrine. One is presumed to have a base online presence, now one can hope to use that “brand” to sell within their own communities and abroad. It is an internecine dynamic, which threatens the smaller- and medium-sized businesses that exist between the Gap, if you will.
You would be forgiven for assuming we should pit the two relatively small-scale industries against each other as dialectical, but there is little inherently dangerous about individual sellers. Indeed small-businesses often compliment their shop-floors with their own selling websites, ebay and Amazon stores. The sellers themselves are disproportionately women who work at home: an archetypal customer for many high street sellers. The problem is in the policymaking that has skewered the market architecture around which physically existing businesses operate. Rate relief following 2007 has ended. Rents remain high (“stubborn” doesn’t do justice to the longevity of this problem). It is not hard to conclude from this parallax that the constructivist arm of neoliberal ideology does not extend to the rentier market, and that it is big business which will enjoy the privileges of scale as well as tax assistance (let’s call it that…) before having their pension schemes semi “rescued” when the bottom falls out. This is the new, warped, Invisible Hand, an increasingly distant relative to Smith’s first approximation.
Further, the warning signs over the particular problem of pension funding dot the industry’s recent history. The UK’s Pension Protection Fund (PPF) warned just last year that the pension regulator required increased robustness when judging the plausibility of company pension funding. The stagnation of sales on the UK’s high streets has become an axiom. If, as we know, it is the lower-paid workers who will have their lives most brutally altered by the neoliberal common sense, how then should we confront the task of resistance?
- Retail unionization over more women in boardrooms
The theory that having more women in boardrooms influencing corporate strategy at the highest echelons will inevitably result in a spike of humanist policymaking has been firmly rebuked – most firmly, as it happens, by feminist scholars (see Griffin, 2015). And yet, the myth continues to reproduce itself. I suggest here that the “feminine” is understood almost exclusively as subservient to “money-blind” business acumen. More precisely, the neoliberal common sense argues for all the difference and diversity under the sun: that sun is the bottom line, however, and it is inequality as a natural phenomenon. Thus, we can have Facebook offering their users over twenty options of “Gender” so long as they acquiesce to demands for great mining of their data generation. This is the dialogue on gender that neoliberalism permits: “can women break the glass ceiling? / anyone can become a woman!” Funnily enough, neither conversation explicitly tackles the feminization of labour so characteristic of neoliberal societies. So, we have the actual “issue” of precarious working conditions elided via the false antagonism over whether women make better neoliberal leaders, or whether neoliberal societies are ignoring institutionalized sexism in favour of “identifying out of oppression”.
The lesson from the plight of BHS workers is that only certain types of work are considered worthy of organisation. That work might be heavily gendered, as is the retail sector, but gender only exists under neoliberalism insofar as it can be monetized. Thus, the feminization of labour is not an issue of gender – though it might be enforced by sexist and racist norms – it is an issue of profit. This is most clearly demonstrated in the political conversation over a national minimum wage, in which the “anti-” position often boils down to a belief that untrained work should not have its remuneration dictated by national standards, let alone internationally. It’s an uncontroversial belief too, but it does create problems for those still attached to a “back to work” model of welfare state: if people cannot attain a mobile standard of living through the work that neoliberalism relies on, then they are lost as failures of human capital.
If the genitals of who runs these companies – or the regulatory bodies that poke them into reform – has negligible impact on their chosen priorities, and yet there is an expectation that swathes of the retail workforce ought to silently accept the violence implicit in a communicative-capitalist feminization, where do we go? I follow two impulses here, one somewhat quaint, the other esoteric. In the case of the latter, we should embrace Occupy’s “demand the impossible” mantra. What is the “impossible” utopia in the retail sector? It’s quite boring: regular hours, a living wage, a guaranteed pension scheme. This need not even counteract the other leftist dream, a Universal Basic Income and the end of the fetishisation of work: decent pay in services in fact makes complete sense within the world outlined in the second half of Srnicek and Williams’ “Inventing the Future”. At the same time we could do a lot worse than recalling the twentieth-century socialism of organisation: unionize retail workers. It’s been attempted before, though the vitriol that greeted striking McDonald’s workers points to the ideological transformation that is required to garner popular support for such a movement.
In sum, resistance to the mundanity of BHS’ collapse means resistance to neoliberal common sense. It means the end of retail and services’ relegation to the fag-end of national workforces. It also implies radicalism: championing the struggle and the precarity of those in sector, and supporting an enhancement of their labour power, remains as distant a dream as a revolution.
Griffin, P. (2015) crisis, austerity and gendered governance: a feminist perspective feminist review 109: 49-72
Portas, M. (2016) How I would have saved BHS The Guardian 25th April https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/apr/25/mary-portas-how-i-would-have-saved-bhs
Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso)
“Once we move beyond a certain point, what were requests within institutions became claims addressed to institutions, and at some stage they became claims against the institutional order. When this process has overflown the institutional apparatuses beyond a certain limit, we start having the people of populism” (Ernesto Laclau, 2006)
The British left love to disavow the emancipatory credentials of actually-occurring activism.
Slut Walks are consistent with neoliberal emphases on choice and agency. Refusing to share a platform with progressive stalwarts who might or might not have behaved in racist or transphobic ways is equal parts churlish and cultish. Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) is an aesthetic protest seeking to censor history via the removal of a statue.
The specifics of these events are interesting and extremely varied. Less varied are the framing devices used to [mis]represent their points of protest and intervention. There is a uniform rebuttal: these activists are targeting the wrong people, for the wrong reasons. Slut Walks should avoid deliberately provoking whatever patriarchy still exists with gratuitous, anti-feminist nudity; no-platforming makes the twin mistake of placing too much emphasis on the individual while demonstrating intellectual cowardice in refusing to engage; RMFO ought to acknowledge the relative enlightenment of the Oxbridge bloc and focus on fighting racism someplace else.
What I want to examine here is the democratic environment in which these campaigns and the subsequent framing of their messages take place. I claim that a more rigorous understanding of apoliticality and post-democracy will make clear why these “identarian” interventions make up a vanguard of a renewed leftist opposition, and so warrant the support and solidarity of all self-described progressives. I will optimistically conclude: identity politics erected and preserve statues such as Rhodes’, and it is identity politics that will bring them down.
Changing shapes of democracy
The neoliberal era has imposed a raft of pressures on populations. Some of these are well documented: increased precarity, underemployment, downwards pressure on wages, the decimation of public housing. Some have not been so well documented: the gendered and racialised impact of austerity, the return of a grim British nationalism and a shift in our understandings and practices of democracy. Critical accounts of neoliberal democracy exist in the academic literature and are worth revisiting, even as the phenomena they describe become increasingly central to the “common sense” of everyday politics.
“Post democracy” offers a materialist analysis of governance, arguing that the outsourcing of political knowledge (e.g. collaboration between legislators and elite City institutions in banking regulation) and capacity (e.g. expanded corporate social responsibility charters in lieu of reform policy) is the institutional context that allows for democratic enclosure. Crouch (2013: 4) uses the term “kinetic energy” to describe what is transferred from a normative function of elected government, to those undemocratic structures and institutional spaces which are increasingly capable of pursuing their own agendas (e.g. private businesses enjoying monopoly or near-monopoly status).
“Apoliticality” refers to the prominence of a specific set of narratives which describe contemporary society as disinterested and unconvinced by radical politics. These narratives operate performatively, manifesting in emotional investment and instinctual reflex towards pessimism regarding contemporary opposition movements. This is also visible in claims of imminent re-politicisation. Several popular [leftist] theorists have offered ostensibly optimistic accounts of “the return of history” and a revitalised, pro-communist movement (see Douzinas & Žižek, 2010: ix).
What they do not challenge is the disavowal of contemporary radicalism, locating the vast majority of organised protest as more examples of post-1968 political passivity and/or limitation. Sara Ahmed (2004: 92-93) undermines the claim that apoliticality has a causal relation to leftist failure in the last thirty-five [neoliberal] years. Instead she ascribes an affective “stickiness” to apoliticality which effaces the contingency of protests to particular histories. This is how apoliticality functions: emotional investment in failure allows actually-occurring activism to be shorn of its interaction with the present. Instead, it is reduced to the latest incident in a singular history: that of the decline of a socialist alternative to neoliberal hegemony.
How does our post-democratic and apolitical environment shape how we understand campaigns like RMFO?
Let us be specific in what the stated objectives of this campaign are. This is particularly important because of the misleading emphasis that many op-ed pieces have placed on the role of the Rhodes statue itself. According to RMFO’s website, its objectives are as follows:
- “Tackling the plague of colonial iconography (in the form of statues, plaques and paintings) that seeks to whitewash and distort history.”
- “Reforming the Euro-centric curriculum to remedy the highly selective narrative of traditional academia – which frames the West as sole producers of universal knowledge – by integrating subjugated and local epistemologies. This will create a more intellectually rigorous, complete academy.”
- “Addressing the underrepresentation and lack of welfare provision for Black and minority ethnic (BME) amongst Oxford’s academic staff and students.”
RMFO targets the institution that maintains the statue of Rhodes and several others like it. In and of itself, this is unremarkable. Look closer though, and we can observe why this is a critique which addresses the British state and its hegemonic identity. The University of Oxford’s privileged position as the gatekeeper to high political office is well-known and in targeting it the political class is thus implicitly made subject too. It is important to avoid fobbing this off as incidental. Chancellor Lord Patten, for instance, is the former governor of Hong Kong, chairman of the BBC Trust and, indeed, Conservative chairman. This should be in mind when we interpret his response:
“If people at a university aren’t prepared to demonstrate the sort of generosity which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history…then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere.”
Leaving aside Patton’s [revealing] aggression, the above allows us to recast RMFO as an attack on the identities that constitute the most empowered sectors of British society: political, cultural and international. The University of Oxford and other elite institutions represent an apt node for protest under post-democracy: deeply imbricated in the British political system and the identity that this system reproduces. The autonomy it holds over matters of statue removal however makes RMFO’s “physical” demand entirely reasonable and attainable. This is a strategic necessity for activism under post-democracy, wherein protests must isolate a specific demand from which it can communicate a broader message, in this case over latent and explicit colonialism.
RMFO has been critiqued from teleological accounts of apoliticality from which it could never be an acceptable intervention.
The criticisms levelled against RMFO commonly assert the impossibility of its objectives. I will now examine some of these repeated criticisms and their collective conservatism, concluding with an argument for RMFO as the renewal of radical, progressive identity politics. In no way is conservatism exclusive to the right-wing: apoliticality as the preservation of defeat is an inherently conservative phenomenon, and is at least as likely to be evident in left wing circles – perhaps even more so, as the rhetorical commitment to anti-racism is less likely to be challenged here. Indeed, more and more high profile leftists have turned to bemoan the reduction of class-based analysis to the “flimsy” level of identity politics.
I’ve decided to bypass the tub-thumping attitude of some preservationists for whom Oxbridge is the epitome of meritocracy. It should go without saying that Oxford and many other elite institutions have a long way to go before their record of diversity becomes something to boast about, and that diversity and meritocracy are very much part of the same schema.
The first framing I will call the “Narrow Horizons” angle.
Why does RMFO place such importance on one statue, in one university? Why not expand horizons, and search for the hidden machinations that do so much more to reproduce racist logics than the artefact of a bygone era? So the argument goes, and so it was spoken at the debate chaired by the Oxford Student Union. What can we learn from this?
The most obvious lesson is that remarkably few preservationists have engaged with RMFO’s objectives as declared, which are explicit in their broad attack on institutional racism of all forms within the academy. It’s not difficult information to acquire, and RMFO representatives patiently remind viewers in their writings and remarks just in case there is any confusion. This is the first sign that there is something askew in the integrity of this “dialogue”.
The second elision is the international context in which RMFO is embedded. Most people know about the original campaign to bring down a statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, and a noteworthy number of otherwise ambivalent or preservationist commentators accept the justification for this. How ironic then, that the actual “home” of Rhodes, ideologically and biologically, the nation that was remunerated directly via his racist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation, will not tolerate the removal of his statue. No matter that the South African people have a much stronger claim to preserve his figure as a “legacy.” Campuses across the world have and continue to engage in this struggle. Tellingly, elite American institutions (e.g. Harvard) have engaged in far more nuanced and honest debates over such demands. I can’t help but think that this says much about the reach and impact of BME thinkers in the US, and the comparative paucity of well-known BME thinkers in the UK. Regardless, framing RMFO as an exclusively British point of protest is indicative of apolitical de-linking from its historical contingency.
But where does it end?
In a sleight of double-speak, the argument against Rhodes falling often descends into panicked glances cast around the rest of Britain and the signposts of its history as an empire. If we cast away Rhodes, where will we stop? Will we see campaigns against statues of other hero-imperialists? What about Churchill? By setting Rhodes as an example, are we not encouraging a plunge down the rabbit hole of narrow horizons? We cannot start because we will not stop and, such is the depth of our historical imperialist practices, we might be quite low on monuments if we apply RMFO logic across the board.
On first reading this is another example of RMFO being misrepresented as fixated on the physical significance of a statue. More interesting is the hypocrisy in a dual framing which posits that (1) RMFO must “expand” (which is to say concentrate upon the non-physical manifestations of colonialism) but (2) avoid expanding its own view of what constitutes colonial legacy, because to do so would mean a radical re-mapping of so much British semiology. RMFO will not be legitimised unless one of these criteria is fulfilled, and the criteria cannot be fulfilled until RMFO changes its objectives.
When facing the question “Where will it end?” the only answer we can make is to ask: Where does it begin? The whole point of an activist movement is to intervene on an existing order and to challenge, undermine or re-contextualise its value system. This is the only answer to the claim that interventions such as RMFO will not stop until our entire landscape has been crucified at the altar of relativism. We must refuse the logic that, because we do not know where the struggle for de-colonialism will end, we should not begin it.
These framing devices operate in tandem within a wider environment of a “Special Snowflake” narrative, perhaps the apolitical tool par excellence.
The reader will likely be familiar with this narrative and, with its contemporary purchase, might well approve of its diagnosis of the zeitgeist. It can be summarised as follows: people – particularly students, young people and those who use social media platforms – are too sensitive. They shirk from honest intellectual debate, opposing views and dissent. They seek confirmation bias and the online world has abetted this desire: we move closer and closer towards an echo-chamber of groupthink and cultish devotion to “purity” from “bad” opinions. More than this, special snowflakes are said to be obsessed with identity – particularly their own. How do we know? All those no-platforming diatribes, those petitions and those safe spaces illustrate that today’s budding intellects are vehemently anti-intellectual. We cannot “identify out of oppression” – and the likes of RMFO are attacking rather than reform dominant understandings of identity in a doomed attempt to do just this.
Apoliticality homogenizes contemporary activism as passive, limited in scope and doomed to failure. Activist interventions are then re-rendered as not only flawed but detrimental to the project of leftist progress. The “Special Snowflake” narrative is a passive-aggressive denunciation of this perceived threat, being used widely and regularly to rebuff activisms which center subaltern identity. So widely is it used that the most disparate group of writers are brought together to sound the alarm. Rod Liddle, a minor British figure of the right, wrote recently in support of awkward bedfellows Peter Tatchell, Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Milo Yiannopoulos and the Rhodes statue, all of which have been subject of pressure from student groups. He writes:
“The student activists do not wish to hear anything at all that conflicts with their views. Or even hear anything that does not conflict with their views but allows for the fact that there might be conflicting views… It is spreading, this intolerance of dissenting views, from banning speakers to getting rid of inanimate objects that may offend.”
But this is not enough. The “Special Snowflake” narrative cannot explain why RMFO is asserting the in/visibility of racism that operates in British institutions. These are not individuals championing their own uniqueness. It is a collective project to raise awareness, to undermine the orthodoxy positing racism as a system of the past, or as a violence that has been pushed to the farthest margins of the political spectrum. No: racism is functioning and it is reproducing at the highest level. No: enduring racism is the product of a dominant British identity politics. In his fantastic long read at The Guardian, Chaudhuri draws out the alignment between anti-immigrant politicians (e.g. Donald Trump and Nigel Farage) and the revisionist academics and artists who claim the positive legacy of the imperial project (e.g. Niall Ferguson and Martin Amis). Moreover, this re-sanitizing of empire refers back to an ontology wherein the white Western world is defined in terms of political process, adjustment and progress, while the rest of the world is defined only by racial conflict and post-colonial impact.
This is what de-colonising the academy means and this is what RMFO represents. And this is what the British media, political apparatus and public has to face up to: no amount of straw-man arguments over the exaggerated significance of the Rhodes statue, fear-mongering over the censoring of British history, or claims that students just don’t want to see things they disagree with will de-link RMFO from its international and ideational context. Nor will it be demeaned by the term “identity politics”. It is visible in Black Lives Matter, it is visible in the fight for sex worker rights and it is there in trans* movement. These are products of identity politics that know the unspoken, performative narratives which prevent their own legitimacy are the identity politics of hegemony.
Ahmed, S. (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)
Chaudhuri, A. (2016) The real meaning of Rhodes Must Fall The Guardian 16th March [available at http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/16/the-real-meaning-of-rhodes-must-fall%5D
Crouch, C. (2013) The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism (Cambridge: Polity)
Douzinas, C. & Žižek, S. (2010) Introduction: The Idea of Communism in Douzinas, C. & Žižek, S. (eds) The Idea of Communism (London: Verso)
Faye, S. (2016) If you don’t like no-platforming, maybe it’s you who’s the “special snowflake” The Independent 19th February [available at http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/if-you-dont-like-no-platforming-maybe-its-you-whos-the-special-snowflake-a6884026.html%5D
Laclau, E. (2006) Why constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics Critical Inquiry 32.3