The banalisation of female suffering: pain as a feminist issue

Charlotte Godziewski

I started thinking about endometriosis when one of my friends was diagnosed with it, about a year ago. The monthly pain she was going through was so atrocious it became impossible for her to lead a normal life during her period. She told me she was relieved to finally get a medical diagnosis for what was happening to her, yet remained frustrated by the lack of detailed information provided by her gynaecologist. We thus did what any modern person looking for answers would do, we googled the term. Basically, endometriosis is defined by an abnormal proliferation of the intra-uterine tissue (endometrium) outside (mostly around) the uterus, where it normally doesn’t belong. The endometrium, however, is the tissue that grows, breaks down and bleeds out before getting regenerated every month, and having it grow and bleed outside the uterus can cause abnormal, absolutely disproportionate menstrual pain. Around 10% of all women experience endometriosis to varying degrees, at some point in adulthood (Endometriosis.org, 2011). Besides the intolerable pain, endometriosis is associated with, among others, higher rates of infertility, although evidence on the mechanisms relating the two is still unclear.

Finding a balance between over-medicalization and negligence

Generally, there is a lack of awareness regarding this condition, and it is not systematically considered a disease, even by physicians. As a matter of fact, I had a conversation about this with my gynaecologist. Her opinion was that a condition as common as endometriosis and with no solid evidence for any major and systematic complication should not be medicalized and depicted as a serious “illness”. On the contrary, “taking the drama out of it” would help the women cope with it, she argued. This left me thinking about what underlying assumptions she was making; did she, as a practitioner exposed to this on a regular basis, consider these women to be making mountains out of molehills, or was she genuinely concerned about over-medicalization of common biological traits? When it comes to some other societal trends, obesity for example, I absolutely agree that conceptualizing it as a disease often has negative consequences. The nature of discourses shaping our conceptualisation of fat bodies as being “an abnormality, thus a disease” is certainly constructed and strongly subjective.

However, in the case of endometriosis and pelvic pain, the situation is more delicate and I disagree with downplaying it. Whether medicalized or not, awareness and acknowledgement, and I would even add respect towards it, should be increased. The problem is that endometriosis related pain is often considered drama and not taken seriously. It is indeed a shame that pelvic pain has to be officially baptised as “a disease” in order to slowly start being acknowledged as a reality, and attempted to be understood. Many girls and women come to think that their pain is no different from other women’s pain – that they are responsible for not being able to cope with it properly. It is common that people in their surrounding don’t understand why they cannot put up with “regular” menstrual pain and may even tacitly judge their apparent squeamishness. Unspecialised doctors are ill-equipped to deal with an endometriosis patient and often tend to exacerbate their feeling of inadequacy (Albee, 2013).

Strong women “remain tender, unforgettable and full of charm” in their pain

I recently came across a testimony (in French) of a young woman describing her agony and the frustration of not being understood and properly diagnosed, constantly facing her social and medical entourage’s fatalist mantra “It’s all normal, this is part of what being a woman means”. So clearly there is a recurrent trend suggesting that being a woman and suffering goes hand in hand (Ballard, 2006). Experiencing pain is portrayed as being (at least part of) a woman’s fate. Judging by President Putin’s last speech on International Women’s Day, for whom being a woman means having “a mysterious power” and the ability to “keep up with everything, juggle a myriad of tasks, and yet remain tender, unforgettable and full of charm” (Dockterman, 2016), women are expected to balance all sorts of challenges without ever complaining.

Do these unrealistic expectations explain the taboo around pain experienced by women, pelvic pain in particular? Interestingly, the Global Forum for News and Information on Endometriosis, “Endometriosis.com”, displays a list of expert recommendations. Out of all the statements, the one made by Professor Stacey Missmer, from the Boston Centre for Endometriosis, USA, caught my attention: 

“We need to shout from the rooftops that pelvic pain matters!

We need to make this clear in medical school education, for general and family practitioners, for school teachers and parents. We need to make this clear by focusing in our research on patients who present with pain as often if not more than we focus on patients who present with infertility.”

Infertility versus pain – What drives general concern

This statement hints towards the problematic nature of a certain form of hierarchization of complications, according to which infertility is seen as an important complication, whereas a condition involving merely pain (however extreme it may be) is not deemed worth caring for and spending research money on. Have medical researchers started to show an interest for this condition only once associated with infertility? Does infertility have a greater externality compared to pain? Surely, pain alone does not seem to be enough to catch public attention.

Maybe this difference lies in the fact that infertility upsets the “normal” (the socially expected) course of life? Most websites on endometriosis list “Not Having Children” as a risk factor (HealthLine, Endometriosis-Surgery.com, womenshealth.gov…), but how exactly is this meant to be understood? Not having children…by when? Not having children by the time society expects you to? This could be seen as subtly contributing to the strong societal pressure establishing norms for a woman’s life.

Back to the reality of a woman’s body

Women’s menstrual pain is with no doubt poorly understood, and the issue of endometriosis is starting to gain momentum only through the “risk of infertility discourse”, leaving the problem of pain itself unaddressed (even though the latter is far more frequent). There remains a strong taboo around menstruation, even in gender progressive countries. While there is a struggle to achieve gender equality, bio-physiological realities of genders, such as menstruation are being deliberately silenced. In a society where porn, sex and nudity is displayed quite straightforwardly, how is it possible that a picture (Photo by Rupi Kaur) of a blood stained pyjama unleashes vehement attacks and gets temporarily banned from Instagram for being too “provocative” (Saul, 2015)? In a world of sterile aesthetics, where “plasticized” beauty is glorified, especially with respect to women, one does not talk about a bleeding uterus! Menstruation is simply not glamourous. But “glamour” is expected to be present in most parts of a woman’s life, even in illness. Take breast cancer, for example. Breast cancer, affecting mostly women, has been extensively marketed using the colour pink. From mediatised celebrity mastectomies to pink goodies and CSR endorsements, breast cancer has been transformed into a girly commodity, taking the focus miles away from any authentic empathy for suffering cancer patient and their loved ones (Smith, 2012, Kolata, 2015).

Let’s look at pain from a feminist perspective. Menstruation related pain is conveniently dismissed, considered unimportant compared to “serious” problems affecting lifestyle norms, such as infertility. This can have a strong effect of stigmatisation and victim-blaming. Additionally, menstruation and pelvic pain is not easily commodifiable, which could be another reason for the lack of public concern. Menstruation can hardly be associated with an image of glamour and sexiness as expected nowadays. Rather, it brings us back to the crude biological reality of the body, around which a taboo persists. What is needed to break the taboo? No judgements, no soppiness, no pink glitter. Just the acknowledgment of what menstruating means, how it looks like, how it feels, and how it can sometimes be related to intolerable suffering.

 

References

Albee, R (2013). Is endometriosis all in your head? Opinion piece retrieved from: http://endometriosis.org/news/opinion/albee-is-endometriosis-all-in-your-head/

Ballard, KD, Lowton, K, Wright, JT (2006). What’s the delay? A qualitative study of women’s experiences of reaching a diagnosis of endometriosis. Fertil Steril 86:1296-1301.

“Caillou”. (2016) Tribune: atteinte d’endométriose comme une femme sur dix, elle témoigne. Kobini. Retrieved from: http://www.konbini.com/fr/tendances-2/tribune-endometriose-femme/

Dockterman, E (2016). Putin Salutes the ‘Mysterious Power’ of Women. The Times 08th March 2016.

Endometriosis.org (2011). About endometriosis. Website consulted on 29. March 2016: http://endometriosis.org/endometriosis/ )

Kolata, G (2015). A Growing Disenchantment with October ‘Pinkification’. The New York Times, 30th October 2015.

Saul, H (2015). Menstruation-themed photo series artist ‘censored by Instagram’ says images are to demystify taboos around periods. Independent 30th March 2015

Smith, SE (2012). Pinkification: how breast cancer awareness got commodified for profit. The Guardian, 3rd October 2012.

 

 

 

On feminism

Jo Mitchinson

I’ve had a reasonably long-term relationship with feminism, but lately, things have been on the rocks, and I’ve had to ask myself;  should I break this off?

I discovered feminism a few years ago, through my PhD study. Before this, I’d been pro gender equality in a vague way, but considered that feminism was quite ‘man-hating’ and political. It wasn’t something I identified with at all, probably because I knew little about it.

My PhD was looking at sex work, so inevitably I had to research a lot of feminist thought. It really disturbed me, and I resisted strongly. I hated the idea that there was so much wrong with the world, and I hadn’t noticed, or worse, that I’d been duped into not noticing. But then I started to think- I’d always been shy, socially awkward, and struggled with confrontation, because that was my personality. Right? Not because I’m a woman and I’ve been taught to be passive and demure- right? Hmmm. Suddenly I wasn’t sure anymore. Everything I thought was just ‘me’, could potentially be stuff I’d picked up culturally because I’m female. This was quite a revelation, and it flicked the switch in my mind. The Feminist Awakening, they call it, and I was definitely awake.

I became a firmly Left-identifying feminist, and all was peachy-keen. Or was it?

The feminist world can be far from warm and friendly. That ain’t always no sisterhood out there. Sure, there are wonderful groups which support each other, but I quickly learned that just because two people identify as feminist, doesn’t mean they agree on anything beyond the idea that women don’t have equality. What is worse, the level of acrimony and lack of constructive communication between disparate feminist ideologies is startling. It’s a jungle out there. Due to my stance on burlesque and sex work, I found myself accused of promoting rape culture and sexism, of being misinformed and unaware; I was patronised and insulted and sniped at, all by women who were supposed to be fighting for the same thing I was. I would see the beginnings of important conversations, derailed as different feminists couldn’t agree on the goals or on the means to reach the goals. None of us could agree on what feminism was, how we should do it, and what we wanted the end-game to look like, especially when it came to sex work and sexuality.

This shouldn’t’ve been a shock, really. There are millions of women, millions of experiences, hundreds of cultures, thousands of feminists. How could one ‘feminism’ possibly fit all of those lives? What did bother me, though, was the way people were fighting so much over the how and what, that they weren’t actively progressing as much as they could. Why couldn’t we put aside our difference and find a compromise, a way forward? I’m sure there are feminist groups doing just that, but sadly so far that hasn’t been my experience.

Enter the anti-feminists and the Men’s Rights Activists. They love this division. They love to watch feminism eat itself, as they put it, and they ridicule us for being ineffectual.  As a free speech advocate,  I felt obliged to listen more to what the feminist-haters were saying. Again, the level of pure vitriol they had was both astonishing and depressing. According to these people, feminism was (in no particular order):

  • based on false assumptions and inaccurate data
  • biased against men
  • man -hating
  • seeking supremacy over men
  • damaging to men
  • selfish and navel-gazing
  • focused on trivialities while ignoring big issues
  • championed by fat, ugly, angry women
  • worse than cancer

Crikey! These people were working really hard to discredit feminism, and they were getting a lot of attention. Were they all just terrible misogynists, ardent back-lashers? Or was there some truth to what they were saying?

The answer is-yes, there is truth to it.

Some feminists do hate men, or at least, they appear to do so, to some men. Some feminists do want a revolution, and this would involve a reshuffle of power. Some feminism is very derogatory to men and also to women who don’t follow the *correct* ideology. Yes, there are different ways of interpreting data, such as regarding rape or the wage gap, and these things are still up for critical analysis. Yes, one could argue that feminists should be fighting against forced marriage or the massacre of Yazidi women, rather than campaigning against Page 3 Centrefolds or shouting about what some scientist has on his shirt. We know that these important fights are happening, but in poplar media, what people see is the (arguably) less weighty work.

I wasn’t happy about admitting it, but these perspectives are valid, or at least are worthy of discussion. At the very least, I could see where the misconceptions come from.  Some of what these folk are saying, is a more intense version of what I’ve thought about some feminism. I looked critically at my Lefty feminist viewpoint and while I didn’t totally agree with the anti-feminists,  I have to admit, I found my perspective a little one-sided. I hadn’t factored in this whole other school of thought, because it was mainly Right-wing and I’d never really encountered this way of thinking before. So now what? Would I have to break up with feminism?

The answer is no. Never. I would fight in the street for equality, I’d die for it. I will always be a feminist because to be otherwise, means I don’t believe women are equal to men. But I can never let myself stop being critical. I must never block out viewpoints just because they seem abhorrent to me. And I must never dismiss a person, just because I don’t like what they have to say. I’ll never break up with feminism, but I’ll also never consider it to be so weak that it can’t withstand an intellectual onslaught from direct opponents.
Feminism needs to grow, to change. to listen, to have uncomfortable dialogues, if for no other reason than it is wise to know your enemy and keep yourself primed. And the enemy is out there, coming for us everyday, in powerful ways. If feminism doesn’t rise to meet this threat, and instead turns its back with its fingers in its ears, then I worry what will happen.

So feminism, I’ll never leave you, but a successful relationship requires people to move with the times. Let’s just try and remember what we are actually fighting for, and make sure we do it together.

Is the sisterhood painful as well as powerful; is the sisterhood painful because it is powerful?

Anonymous contributor

I have been thinking a lot about the sisterhood recently. That shared understanding, when you catch another woman’s eye in the street; that shared recognition and solidarity smile from a woman across the bar, when your boyfriend is being a dick. The fantastic supportive friends who ‘get it’ with whom you don’t have to start with an explanation of the injuries that the patriarchy inflict; we just know, right?

A male friend observed to me a while ago; there’s no such thing as the sisterhood. Really?  Well maybe guys don’t get it, but for me there very much is.  I have some amazing, supportive, sassy and smart female friends and colleagues. People who I know ‘get it’ without long, endless explanations. People who support, encourage and can be relied upon.  I can, of course, include some of my male friends and colleagues in this description. But sometimes, it is nice to have those female only spaces, connections and shared empathies.

But what about when that goes wrong?  In my previous research, with a feminist agenda, when I have faced hostility from women about the kind of research I have been undertaking, rather than overtly and publicly criticise other women, I have tended to ignore these kind of comments.  A question at a conference made me wonder whether there was value in producing a paper that reflected the hostility of women to feminist research; although I still don’t feel I can bring myself to write that paper, ethically and politically. Am I wrong?

What has also been significant within the academy, and gives me pause to wonder about how to respond, is some of the experiences I have had at the hands of other women.  Recent examples from myself and other female friends/colleagues include: a female colleague having another female friend and colleague present a research paper as their own; being briefed against to colleagues by a female deputy while undertaking a management role; being actively undermined and publicly vilified by a female colleague, who then came to offer support and suggest that I resign my role; being ‘disciplined’ by a female friend/colleague on the wishes of a male head of department who was wishing to bully female staff; being made to cry by a senior female project manager while working as an hourly paid RA on a project; being subject to lengthy email abuse by a female colleague working on a feminist project (!).  While we might expect this kind of behaviour from (some) men; why is it so much more hurtful when it comes from other women?  Over the years I have learned how to handle the injuries inflicted by the patriarchy, through the strong and resonant writings of many great feminist authors. I wonder if contributors can suggest readings that offer strategies for dealing with the pain inflicted by the sisterhood.

Feminist academics: what’s eating us?

Anonymous contributor. 

Since embarking on my PhD, I have been lucky to meet a range of inspiring feminist academics and to study alongside equally inspiring students. It’s always reassuring to discuss your work with individuals who just “get it” – no need to explain why gender isn’t a “soft” political topic, no need to insist that feminism is still necessary in the Western world and there is certainly no need to politely smile in response to statements such as the following: “I once read up to Page 72 of The Beauty Myth and what I don’t like about feminism is (enter vague point about men’s biological urges.)”

Similarly, alongside an interest in gender politics, I’ve found that there is a commonality that acts as an unspoken truth between the feminist academics and PhD students who I have come into contact with: we are slaves to body shame. Whilst we are ardent critics of the policing of women’s bodies, we scrutinise and punish our own through disordered eating and/or obsessional exercising.

Outside of academia, I’ve grown up alongside highly intelligent and witty women who have fallen prey to anxiety and/or depression. This is not uncommon; a 2015 survey by Girlguiding contended that girl’s and women’s mental health was at “crisis point”, with 83% of the age 7-11 group reportedly feeling sad or anxious (BBC, 2015). Likewise, it is widely recognised that “women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem and are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders” (Mental Health Foundation, 2015). I’ve always felt that this is partly linked to the price to pay for being an attentive and observant woman; you are aware of the restraints placed upon you by society because of your sex and feel frustrated. This frustration may bubble and boil under the surface of your mind until it becomes a deep sadness and sense of powerlessness. Whilst it may be the case that men are not coming forward with mental illnesses due to a fear of not fulfilling a “masculine” role, the statistics on women’s mental health should not be ignored.

For me, it is extremely cathartic to discuss the issue of feeling like a “hypocritical feminist” who religiously partakes in the structures and norms that my research attempts to critique; I exercise for 1-3 hours every day without fail, follow a regimented diet and experience extreme levels of stress and anxiety when I am placed in a situation where I have no choice but to eat “bad” foods, such as at a birthday party or on a night out. Some of my colleagues and I have agreed that we often have to fight the urge to avoid social occasions for fear that we will be confronted with greasy or sugary foods, the subsequent feelings of guilt, to then spend the next few days “making up for it” with an extra hour at the gym.

Why is this? Surely, feminists should be able to resist the pressure to modify their bodies to reach the unrealistic standards of beauty that drive women to obsessional regimes and drastic cosmetic surgery? Susie Orbach maintains how thinness has become “synonymous with success, wealth, love and happiness” (Orbach, 2006, p.207). Slim women are depicted in television shows, films, music videos and magazines as sexually desirable and “in control” of their bodies (Rothblum & Solovay, 2009, p.294). In contrast, overweight women are presented throughout popular culture as “agents of abhorrence and disgust” who have “lost control” of their bodies (Braziel & LeBesco, 2001, p.75; Mobley, 2014). This normalised pursuit of thinness has been linked to the high levels of eating disorders within western societies, with 90% of Anorexia Nervosa sufferers being female (Silverstein et al, 1986). Orbach suggests that Anorexia should be considered a “metaphor for the age”, acting as a physical embodiment of the restraint and expectations placed upon women by society. Anorexia is a “silent protest” that represents a culture that “disdains and supresses female hunger” in order to shame women into abstaining from their basic human need to eat (Orbach, 2005).

But, perhaps it is an awareness of the lack of control that feminists know they have over the representation of the body that cause us to long for some form of control over the body, even if it reinforces the very structures we are critiquing?

There is the inescapable feeling that we exist to be little more than objects who are desired or mocked, despite what we may have to offer as people. A sense of control over the body could be a reaction to the lack of control that we feel we have within society; if intelligence and creativity are to be dismissed in favour of a judgement on the body, then we can at least have control over that body and how it is perceived. After all, these bodies are ours and ours to control if we wish. Likewise, if those who spend their careers attempting to dismantle the structures put in place to keep women shackled within the “iron maiden” of beauty, it is demonstrative of the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of the beauty ideal (Wolf, 1999).

It is a sad reality that some of the women who may be perceived as the most resilient to gendered pressures are engulfed by body-shame. To me, this proves that there is an ever-pressing need for more feminists within academia and a more widespread celebration of feminism. We need to continue ebbing away at structures that determine women’s worth by their appearance so that future generations of women can be liberated from a fear of their own bodies so they may be free to be solely defined by their intelligence, creativity and kindness.

BBC. (2015). Parents miss pressures on girls, says Girlguiding: Date accessed: 9th March 2015. Retrieved from: www.bbc.co.uk: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34039534

Braziel, J.E. and LeBesco, K. (2001). Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression. California: University of California Press, Ltd.

Mental Health Foundation. (2015). Mental Health Statistics: Men and Women. Date accessed: 9th March 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-men-and-women

Orbach, S. (2006). Commentary: There is public health crisis – its not fat on the body but fat in the mind and fat on the profits. International Journal of Epidemology, 35(1), 67-69.

Orbach, S. (2006). Fat is a feminist issue. London: Arrow Books.

Orbach, S. (2005). Hunger Strike: The Anorectic’s Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age. New York: Karnac Books.

Rothblum, E.D. and Solovay, S. eds., (2009). The Fat Studies Reader. New York: New York University Press.

Rothblum, E. (1992). The stigma of women’s weight: Social and economic realities. Feminism & Psychology, 2(1), 61-73.

Wolf, N. (1999). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. London. Random House.

Some more thoughts on Trumpism

David Rylance

To really understand the Trump phenomenon, you have to prioritize the fact that Trump is running against the political class. This is the fundamental, though not exclusive, source of his newfound popularity and power. He is an antipolitical force. But, at the same time, he also does have a political agenda of his own.

The American Conservative, in rightly emphasising that Trump’s candidacy is powered by a grand repudiation of, and revenge upon, the political class which chronically oversees the administration of harm against ordinary people, ventures that Trump himself is more or less an ideologically vacant figure: “The point of nominating Trump isn’t really to promote a set of policies (one would be hard-pressed to describe Trump’s agenda in much detail in any case) but to repudiate the party leaders that have repeatedly disregarded and dismissed Trump voters’ interests and concerns.” This is certainly true, but it overlooks the political reorientation that Trump has broadly indicated is the desired outcome of his intervention into politics. You don’t have to be hard-pressed as all that to offer a broad description of it.

As a bourgeois who seems to only have undergone some kind of definitive transformation into a conservative during the Obama years, he has also, simultaneously, found himself “without a party” when looking to the GOP to represent him, and so the purpose of his intervention has been to initiate a hostile take-over to make it representative of the type of bourgeois he is. Now, the fact he even can do this is due to a pre-existing state of affairs: namely, the advanced state of enervation and rot party politics as a whole has reached, with the conservative side of the political establishment leading the way in the US. (And it should be noted: this means that this is not a crisis for the conservative side of politics alone; it will, sooner or later, engulf the Democrats too – has, already, in their utter major unelectability at the state and local levels in spite of the heinousness of their Republican opposites – and it will bring with it “opportunities”, such as we see with Sanders, which will themselves simultaneously become morbid symptoms of political derangement, confusion, losses and disarray yet to come.)

In this frame, thinking of Trump’s relation to conservatism as engaged in neither a straightforward repudiation or radicalisation but a type of reframing of it, the interesting part is that Trump then emerges in political terms as neither a moderate right-winger nor a radical right-winger – although he is a conservative. Instead, because he is engaged in an attempt at reformatting the conservative side of politics along a different spectrum of moderation and radicalism, he manifests as both simultaneously. This is the whole thing about his ideological malleability: while it relates directly to the fact that his trashing of the whole political class positions him outside of it – which is actually where his more moderate stances come from, not his radical ones, despite the flagrant antipathy toward the working class at work in the “horror” at the masses crashing the gilded gates of “the process” – that malleability is also part and parcel of his refusal of the stagnant doctrines of the Right as he attempts to assert a “new Republicanism”.

Reading what he’s actually had to say and listening to his speeches beyond the soundbite grabs, this Republicanism seems to be based on three main tiers:

1) the separation of US military force from its democratic promotion alibis – that is, the embrace of its unvarnished and unapologetic use as a weapon of punishment or conquest (cf. his stance on ISIS and on resource annexation) – but also its strategic limitation of deployment (cf. the angle of his excoriating critique of the Iraq invasion), with a focus on only acting when it can be sure the result will build US power, in consciousness of a sense of finitude about the dangers which come with squandering it, and building “co-management” alliances with other nations, like Russia (especially because of the turn for Trump toward a more aggressive stance against China). The line of logic, then, is the idea of a sort of “preservational imperium”, simultaneously more unabashed in its aggressive intensity and more moderated in use;

2) the “redistribution of market participation”: in her book, ‘The Undeserving Rich’, Leslie McCall makes a powerful case that the historical consequences related to such things as the non-emergence of a labour party in the US have forged social conditions which leads its working class, in particular, to strongly support measures against inequality which expand opportunity and redistribute earnings in the market even as they strongly oppose measures which try to attain the same end through redistribution of income after the fact with taxation and spending. Whether this is accurate or not as a description of fact in relation to the multifarious contradictoriness of what the US working class wants, Trump’s policies are lined up with this logic. His overall vision insists upon a reorientation toward a conservative, pro-market position which emphasizes “increase of social share” in the market, while continuing to stand in strict and recalcitrant opposition to the mobilisation of the aggregating power of state finances to fund social care. Thus, though Trump is staunchly opposed to wage increases and worker’s rights, he’s (at least rhetorically) for tackling employment opportunity through turning back to strategic tariffs. His talk of “smart trade” where free trade won’t suffice is his way of flagging support for promoting the stolen possibility of blue-collar careers. Likewise, although he’s against both universal public health care and welfare state expansion, he’s for introducing freedom for the state to negotiate on pharmaceutical prices, for the end of entry barriers of cheap import pharmaceuticals into the American domestic market, for the retention of Medicaid as a “safety net” for the lumpenproletariat, and for the dismantling of the 1945 McCarran-Ferguson Act – with its exemption from antitrust provisions of the health sector in respect to erecting barriers against cross-state competition, exempting the health insurance industry from the jurisdiction of the federal consumer protection enforcement authorities, and opening the capacity for sharing information which contributes to price-fixing. Similarly, while he’s for reducing the corporate tax rate to zero, he’s also for calculating taxes on imports on the basis of how much the currency of the importing country is undervalued as well as for a twenty percent tax on companies which export jobs overseas. In all of this, what stands out (separate from whether any of it would actually work or not) is the high capitalist conservatism in the staunch defence of the authority and power of the market as the dominant and necessary mechanism of provision for workers (coupled with a conspicuous absence of any movement on freedom to organise their labour which might make this meaningful for them) connected to a consciousness that the balance of shares in the market that stabilises the legitimacy of otherwise conservative actions. Trump calls this “common-sense conservatism”.

3) the enforcement of what I’ll call “geoquarantine”, vetted by a “multicultural” poaching of what’s wanted through the immigration process: the (understandable) critical focus on the extremism of Trump’s border policies and his call for a temporary racialized religious ban on Muslims entering the United States has tended to either ignore his clear statements on his staunch support for generous legal immigration processes or to see them only as a kind of ploy or smoke screen, rather than a central distinguishing feature between his particular brand of reaction and that of the far right, both as it exists in the political process (exemplified by those who denounced him in the National Review) and outside of it (exemplified by David Duke). Listen to him and you’ll find that Trump expresses remarkably little concern with the direct racial composition of the US – his statements are actually quite notable for the utter absence of even sideways attention to this. To do so would require, as the right-wing critics of the National Review acidly insisted, looking to the legal immigration process too – and certainly not talking in the expansive terms about it that Trump does. Rather, he is instead activating the connections between race and citizenship and guiding them away from their racialist anchorage and toward a type of “multicultural geoexclusivism”, a paradigm which links the US to a set of geomorphological rather than biomorphological traits. For exactly that reason, for Trump, illegal immigrants carry with them, embodied in their illegality, the wrong geographical dimensions, regardless of already being in the US, even as, biologically, they present “no problem”, could theoretically come back through the “big door” in the wall, since there is a distinct absence of demonology in Trump’s approach of races qua races but, rather, only of races qua geography. The fact that largely clapped out and exhausted far right entities like the KKK or the American Nazis are either disorientated or deludedly opportunistic enough to think that Trump represents a shift toward their purist white supremacist views any closer than the Latino candidates, Rubio or Cruz, would take them – and the fact, further, Trump is willing (racistly, of course) to indulge them in this fantasy, in line with shoring up his hard right credibility as he shifts the spectrum toward his ends – thus diverts most critics from really unpacking the stance Trump has toward matters of legal immigration. In this respect, even the temporary Muslim ban he put forth – a blanketly discriminating ban on the grounds of race/religion – is useful for Trump insofar as it can appear a definitive response to “Islamist terrorism” while, in the very form of winding it back, gaining leverage for imposing some kind of a geomorphological heuristic going forth, a mandatory sortation process (such as quotas) which can figure out what constitutes the basis for not having to demonize Muslims “as a whole”, but, more insidiously, to work out functioning processes which sort “the good ones” from “the bad ones”. Functioning processes which would not be possible to attain by in their own right, starting out from the position of needing to introduce limited rules of discrimination into immigration policy devoted to the “special problem category” of Muslims, but which, wound back to in the context of the wider ban, appear moderate, a compromise, an artful deal attained through the work of an initial “big opening bid”.

In all these regards, Trump’s radicalism is recurrently to the left of the current far right – more moderate than it in key terms – even as it proposes a new line of scope for reactionary expansion. It’s an effort at resetting conservative politics, in other words, an effort at a paradigm shift. It’s reaction in response to new realities.

All of this, however, is a political project. And political projects require real social movements for their success and solidity, for their capacity to wield the power which alters the material composition of social relations in their favour, to simply be carried through, even if only in part. Despite the fact Trump is achieving a lift in new participants to the voting process, this surge of attachment to him is not grounded not in his political vision but, rather, in his destabilisation and humiliation of the political class – his anti-political disruptiveness. Indeed, there’s every reason to think that its relative weakness over and against the ongoing rates of non-participation amongst the ever-denounced “white working class” – that is to say, the fact the “Non-Voters Party”, with white workers making up large portions of its ranks, remains the biggest real movement in society – is related to the fact that, by and large, attracted as much as they are by his antipolitical critiques, Trump remains transparently enough of a political creature to many to give them no reason to back him as a real revolution against the field of politics altogether. And the more that Trump becomes another politician, even one who promises to offer a “new new morning in America”, the more the active popularity he does have will risk crashing as swiftly as it arose, with no institutionalised and deeply rooted social base to prop it up politically when it sells its temporary electoral support short.

So, as much as Trump may want to build a new Republican party, this simply isn’t going to happen – no more than Sanders has a chance of overseeing a new Democratic party – something the lack of lift in turnout for the Democrats in response to Sanders’ “political revolution” seems to indicate is already clear to many erstwhile left-oriented voters. The political vision Trump proposes may well turn out to be the direction that the conservative side of politics is forced to drift toward anyhow, as its own political crisis continues in the wake of him. But the fundamental point is this: Trump is, ultimately, a bourgeois who possesses a strong sense of political ambition. And it will not be his “recklessness”, his “incitements to violence”, his “lack of credentials”, and certainly not the finger-wagging identification by liberals and leftists of his gaucheness, his obscenity, his base cunning, or his trashing of all the rules of ‘proper’ political participation — let alone the totally shortsighted linkage of all these qualities to the utter repugnance of his racism and sexism — that will unravel him. It will be, rather, the basic similarity of his political ambition to that of the political class he is currently presenting himself as so subversively opposing that will bring him unstuck. Whether or not that only finally becomes clear in the wake of his being elected President, it will become clear. And when it does, he will be subject to a repudiation as sharp as that he is now bending to his own ends.

Some thoughts on Trumpism

David Rylance

Trump is not only an outsider to the political class (rather than an outsider within it, as per Sanders). He’s also, more importantly, a chaos principle in regard to it, taking advantage of breakdown within the political class to advance his own agenda. Hence, the power of his populism resides in three key elements:

in one part, being haute bourgeois enough to convey a credible sense of “being in charge of things”, of occupying the “commanding heights” of global capitalism to be able to manage its realities in office while pushing for transformations in its workings;

in another part, being right-political enough to (1) appeal centrally to the “promise of the nation” as that which puts its citizens first (and, importantly, not only large swathes of its white workers and lumpens, as well as elements of its downwardly spiralling pb – although as with any appeal to nationality or citizenship in “white” countries, this is inferred and normed as primary – but also its legal immigrants, who he positions as among the most adversely affected by his (racist) picture of the “criminality” of illegal immigrants) as well as to (2) draw on desire for preservation of the “good” elements of the status quo to oppose any form of left radicalism as bad for the country’s prosperity and security (cf. this being the content which marks Trump’s gravity as right-of-centre, that defines why he is running as a Republican, especially in relation to race and gender, even when he’s floating stuff, like critiques of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, which are substantially the ground of the left);

and, finally, in a third part, being anti-political enough to engage a key section of a growing general “negative real movement” in core-capitalist societies that sees the practice of politics in and of itself as the problem. This last is the radical content in Trumpism – the rational kernel – that the left should be paying close attention to. As it stands right now, however, next to none of its representatives seem able to even conceptualise (let alone organise) this radicalism which asserts itself as the rejection of politics as such, despite the fact that it is the most crucial plank of Trump’s success. For it is not, ultimately, the political program Trump stands for which has suddenly ruptured the GOP’s political field, but the kinetics of his destructive orientation toward the entire political field, Republican and Democrat, altogether.

Trump engages this through three primary mechanisms.

First, his presentation of himself as outside all the informal and formal pathways of the establishment through his very ability, in cross-wiring the ideological fixities of clearly right-wing stances – like an aggressively “vetted” and absolutely enforced citizenship racism considered impossible by orthodoxies about how contemporary capitalist labour supply has to work – with clearly left-wing stances – like approval of state-driven growth stimulus spending declared unaffordable by orthodoxies about the way contemporary capitalist economics has to work – to unify the current wings of the political class against him (and who do so, in cultural terms, mostly on grounds which express clear disdain of his gaucheness as a bourgeois, exposing their shared elitism).

Second, his hammering home again and again of the generalised self-enriching and self-advancing two-faced cupidity which is indispensable to the political class and which makes politicians constitutively corrupt (while, far from being a sign of complicity, his bourgeois status, in its apparent independence of the political (not the economic) process, only makes his own history of purchasing influence a virtue for him (at least for now), in the sense he’s one of the buyers, not one of the bought; and, indeed, this is also part of what makes his narcissism and bombast “refreshing” for many people – there’s no (apparent) two-facedness, just plain outright admission this is about “winning”, i.e. self-advancement, and an invitation (to citizen-Americans, if mainly white) to be part of the winners, not the losers).

Third, and last but certainly not least, his canny approach to “culture war” battles, one of the most bedevilling parts of contemporary political power. This has three main prongs:

(1) “force a solution” to culture war battles – such as propelling Obama to release his birth certificate, which, even though it only confirmed the obvious fact of Obama’s American citizenship, demonstrated Trump’s ability not merely to run forever on insoluble cultural intractables but to “get to the bottom of them”, to “sort things out”. He has further shown a willingness to apply these standards “equally” (albeit with vasty differentiated impacts due to distinctions in social history of the targets) to the Right as well as the Left through airing a new set of “Birther” accusations against Ted Cruz;

(2) deliver a stark rebuke of culture war battles, with an emphasis on exposure of their divisive cynicism – as in the slapping down of Cruz’s attack from the right on his “New York values”, or the marking of Clinton’s “feminism” as a ploy through pointing out the outright sexists she not only “rubs shoulders with” but ideologically concurs with in the DNC effort to attack Trump’s sexism from the left;

(3) engage in a deliberate side-stepping of their terms – such as by opposing PC not so much because it’s a cultural Marxist conspiracy aimed at suborning the capitalist and/or conservative order, or the invidious class warfare of liberal elites seeking ways to terrorise workers or whatever – although all anti-PCism has the flavour of this insofar as it thinks of PC as an actual coherent “entity” – but because, on both right and left, he claims it over-regulates political life, enervates it, and thus, in the name of having to say or do things purely out of formalistic respect for authority, power and institutions or else formalistic inclusion, recognition, and equality of representation, it empowers a political mandarin class, of both the left and the right. As such, his denunciation of the political class and media for not being able to speak plainly about the Bush administration’s failures in the intelligence alerts it had before 9/11, his refusing to be “nice” and abide by ritualistic genuflection codes that hold bourgeois collegialism together, and his denigrating Sanders for his weakness (i.e. his susceptibility to being corralled by left-wing activists) in his response to the BLM takeover of his Seattle event (with the subtext not only that all left radicalism is bad for the power of the nation and requires strength to be stared down – although this right-wing nostrum is certainly there – but also that the real impasse and stagnation for left-wing politics induced by “recognition politics” is a part of the swamp of the political field, and something that someone like Sanders will only bounce haphazardly back and forth between ignoring and aggravating) are all of them interrelated.

Given that the left is unable to find any way to deal with the oppressions except in culture war terms, is often the most “politically obsessed” grouping in the spectrum of politics (due to its dismal view of the majority of society as a cesspool of reaction as well as its incapacity to deal with its very real, ubiquitous impure contradictoriness in terms of its class consciousness and oppression consciousness), and its incapacity to work out a left wing stance on “right wing issues” (cf. security, individualism, economic “liberty”, so forth) that doesn’t just amount to a collapse into Third Wayism, these last – absolutely crucial – elements of Trumpism have had to be screened out completely. They’re too destabilising to the left’s own basic operating premises on the need for politics to lead society, and for the social to express itself in terms of what Marx criticised as “political reason”. That is, for the social to seek its own freedom in the very terms of its own alienation, in a political realm set apart from itself, standing over and against it. The division between the political and the social marks the practice of politics as the embodiment of an upside-down social relationship in which freedom is supposed to be realised in distinction from the practice of social life, not in a merger with its real activity but in a regulation over and against that activity which will “reform (or “revolutionise”) its ways” (yet, insofar as it achieves anything in this regard, only reorganises, not solves or emancipates from, social want). And so, because of just this, paradoxically, the social becomes both the realm of pure unfreedom due to the very lack of “polity” in the social – with all left to the rule of egoistic interests and various forms of cartellism (ranging from the illegal – in criminal syndicates – to the legal – in “community organising” – to the para-legal – in joint fronts of sections of capital jostling to attain petty sovereignties) – but also seems to act as the realm of real freedom, so far as that exists in real life under capitalism, in its partial and fragmentary freedom from politics.

Thus, despite opportunistic (and not a little desperate) Neo-Nazis attempting to assuage their political marginality by riding the coat tails of Trump’s strongman performatives and ramped-up border chauvinism, Trump finds himself roundly denounced by the “sensible” parlour intellectuals of the GOP Right for his lack of bona fides in failing to adopt a properly conservative view on the race-sapping dimensions of legal immigration. To reiterate: even as the far Right denounces Trump as indicative of a crypto-liberal interloper taking the conservative movement apart at the seams with faux conservative gestures, the very lack of a right-wing surge by all conservative accounts has been transformed by the Left into signs of incipient fascism. In both directions – whether it be the idea that Trump is somehow a far Right political actor or the notion that he is engaged in a great undoing of the conservative capture of the GOP – what stands out is the shared priority for both left and right analyses to try and force the intrusion of signs of social radicality into politics back to the fixities of politically determinate assessments of the innately right-wing or left-wing political investments of the populace, rather than the distance between them and such investments. As it stands, for both Right and Left, the distance of their own political visions from the social has them convinced not of the flaws in their political visions but, rather, of the social in failing to bear those out. This is exemplary of political reason. It is also indicative of a loss of orientation of the Left (in all its ambitious and world-changing revolutionariness of end goals) in relation to social activity – not merely in the sense of the old bromide of a failure to meet “the people where the people are at”, but, rather in even being able to see, what, in their real lives, people are already doing which is the basis upon which they can begin to be brought to practice social freedom together, to overcome the material bases of exploitation, oppressive domination and person to person alienation which silo them away from one another and render them dependent on a state-bound political process they rightly loathe. The hatred of politics is actually the basis upon which the Left today has to begin thinking anew of its own ability to “conquer the political” – not in the sense of eliminating politics for the sake of some “pure sociality” but in the sense of abolishing the very gap, ultimately upheld by property, the state, and wage labour, between political power and social right.