Jasmine Curcio is a scholar and feminist activist in Melbourne, Australia.
C. Derick Varn: You have talked to me a few times about the disconnect in Australia between second-wave feminism and both anarchist and socialist currents to which you have been exposed. What do you think has led to this disconnect?
Jasmine Curio: It’s a bit of a two-sided phenomenon. On the one hand, the predominance of neoliberal “third-wave” currents of feminism — a fundamentally liberal feminism that stemmed from the liberal backlash to radicalism in the 1970s — has led to the abandonment of previously articulated critical positions by anarchists and some socialists, most notably on the exploitation and objectification of women in prostitution and the sex industry, in favor of the uncritical embrace of a liberal individualist “empowerment” discourse, and the embrace of identity politics based on idealist theories of gender.
On the other hand, the very creation of Marxist and socialist feminist currents as actual theoretical positions or feminist sects were themselves a response or reaction to the Women’s Liberation Movement — especially to the theorizing of patriarchy through women’s use of the materialist method — both of which suffered from certain problems from their very inception. One of these is the prevalence of theoretical holes stemming from a current’s fundamental orientation toward a presently-existing women’s movement — which, today, would lead to the embrace of neoliberal identity politics without much critical theoretical examination (in the case of most extant socialist feminist groups, and some groups calling themselves Marxist feminist).
Or worse, a sectarian and falsified historical perspective on the feminist movement is maintained — a hastily constructed account of a Marxist feminism that has supposedly comprehensively answered all important feminist concerns which can be addressed in the works of Marx and Engels on the subject matter, using rationalistic, deductive reasoning — all of which was formed in reaction to the second-wave, which initially consisted of women’s indignation at and uprising against their misogynist treatment, frequently by men in organizations.
Interestingly, Lenin’s acknowledgement in his communique with Clara Zetkin that the materialist method had not yet been applied to “questions of sex and marriage” — that is, to the entire domain of sexual politics, which remained unarticulated and untheorized until Kate Millett’s publication of Sexual Politics in 1970 — is never substantively addressed, let alone acknowledged. Judith Ezekiel, in her book Feminism in the Heartland, details the contemporaneous emergence of socialist feminism and radical feminism, which was fundamentally due to the former’s loyalty to existing organizations and personalities, and the latter’s devotion to the practice of consciousness-raising, autonomous feminist organizing and theorizing, whilst never departing from socialism.
C.D.V.: What do you make of the response to liberal feminism by “radical feminists,” which is increasingly nearly or outright primitivist in orientation? Do you see this as a regression within liberal feminism or something separate?
J.C.: Well, radical feminism has a long history of existing outside of formal organizations, usually embodied in small consciousness-raising groups, and has been intimately linked to ecofeminism. That makes the embrace of a radical feminist account of sexual politics by Deep Green Resistance an interesting phenomenon, but not particularly surprising. The links between ecological politics of various kinds, such as those of vegans, and radical feminism, have been well established over time.
But to center radical feminist politics as they exist in the neoliberal era is problematic, as they have been watered down and to some degree lost their socialist foundations and comprehensive and conscious analysis of patriarchy as a system. It is a problem for radical feminism proper, which theoretically does not exist far outside of established radical feminist academics and some theoretically sharp and conscious radical feminist women, who even acknowledge the problems in contemporary radical feminism — or as a term a radical feminist friend of mine, Catherine Wooddell, coined, “neo-radical-feminism” — as representing a theoretical position distorted by the dominance of identity politics and neoliberal individualism, which manifests in a different manner to that of third-wave liberal feminism. In fact, modern radical feminist politics increasingly resemble those of second-wave liberal feminists, such as Gloria Steinem, et al. My friend and colleague Kathy Miriam has written in brief on some of these phenomena.
The strength of present day radical feminism is in its retention of the materialist aspects of its feminism, in response to third-wave liberal feminism, whose neoliberal and highly idealistic framework is simply the comfortable transformation that liberal feminism was capable of making. The theoretical presuppositions were largely pre-existent, and the reaction from the male sexual liberals in the liberal community which led the backlash to feminism, really set itself into the consciousness of many liberal females. Being insufficiently autonomous in theory and organization, being rebuked by their male counterparts really set them into an embrace of their line, with the distortion of feminist theory representing its opposite, the burgeoning “raunch culture” of the male sexual liberals with the contemporaneous expanse and proliferation of the sex industry. It began in its contemporary cultural form with pornographic magazines such as Playboy and Hustler in the 1950s and 1960s, in the continuation of a misogynist liberal politics which condemned men’s private ownership of women but embraced a more public ownership of women via the culture of prostitution, which has existed since ancient times as the corollary institution to marriage.
Indeed it was a regression within liberal feminism, as entrenched and lucid feminist analysis of women’s exploitation in the sex trade — made by women prior to the first-wave, and by feminists in the second-wave — was abandoned. A large impetus of second-wave feminism was the male sexual revolution, spurring its critique of patriarchal sexuality in its various manifestations, especially as the models of sex promoted to both right-wing women in marriage via Freudian ideology to serve their husbands’ desire and fetishes, and the sexual model of “free love” promoted by left-wing men. Never mind that the concept of free love was first articulated by women of the first-wave, such as Emma Goldman, who sought to escape the institution of marriage at the same time as ending the culture requiring women to perform sexual favours and engage in a subordinate sexuality to men, in order to gain recognition, affirmation, and most often, money and shelter. Nowadays, liberal feminism bends itself over backwards to defend the patriarchal choices of individuals who self-identify as feminists, and trying to fight this culture with actual, materialist, feminism is a difficult and often frustrating task.
C.D.V.: Why do you think Marxism itself has become a mostly male discourse since the 1970s?
J.C.: The reaction to the second-wave of feminism by many men on the left was not a small matter. It is not really mentioned today, since hindsight focuses more on the successes of a feminist movement than its failures, its theory, or even just the general historical circumstances. But it was well-documented, by feminists such as Christine Delphy in France in her article “Our Friends and Ourselves.” Aside from the interruption of the early feminist meetings and the misogynist remarks made by various men —which were commonplace in the late ’60s and ’70s with the rise of a new wave of feminism and women’s consciousness of their oppression as women — reaction did occur, subtly, in the realm of theory, which is not to say it was done exclusively by men, but overall it happened that it was for the benefit of men in not addressing their privilege or their consciousness. Attempts at independent feminist theorizing, particularly around patriarchy, were dishonestly construed as apolitical. The hostility towards women’s attempts at autonomous organizing materialized in the form of constructed orthodoxies of Marxism on questions of sexual politics. And while the autonomous consciousness-raising groups faded away at the tail end of the 1980s, Marxist organizations remained and so did their theory from this period. I am not speaking of socialist feminism, which did acknowledge the importance of women’s organization and engaged with and embraced the theoretical understanding of the system of patriarchy that they and radical feminists largely uncovered.
And so many years on, feminist discussions around the left continue to be subtly dominated by men and their perspective, with the aid of theoretical frameworks that marked disdain towards feminism in decades past. Men have become gatekeepers of feminist discussion, and many debates take place with ignorance, disdain, and sometimes subtle tactics of bullying. Phenomena that lie outside of the bourgeois-proletarian contradiction are not really taken on board as material facts, but either made to fit with constructed orthodoxy or they are discarded. So not much of a productive and open discussion is had. Though I’m sure many men do participate in good faith, theoretical blinders from the past are not a good way to contemplate feminist questions. Neither is uncritical acceptance of what appears to pass as a real feminist movement.
This is the situation in which the SWP opposition finds itself. I greatly admire Richard Seymour, but feel he is doing feminism a disservice by not recognizing the privileged position that history has given him with respect to addressing feminist questions and Marxism, and by engaging with third-wave liberal feminism as if that were feminism proper. The first thing to do in that situation would be to examine history; to examine the second wave and its key texts and theorists and find out how the SWP became the way it was in that environment. Unhooking radical feminism from lesbian separatism will be a major task, since the SWP conflated both — indeed, many present-day neo-radical-feminists do not seem to succeed at this task.
Marxists and feminists alike need to engage in critical self-examination and critical assessment of the present situation and how it came to be – otherwise we will make very poor revolutionaries.
C.D.V.: How is Richard Seymour engaging with third-wave feminism?
J.C.: Well, his recent article on Lenin’s Tomb is a fairly uncritical embrace of the concept of “intersectionality,” the keystone of third-wave ideology by which it attempts to differentiate itself from second-wave theorizing through blatant strawmanning of its predecessors as apparently not acknowledging or understanding other oppressions in their theorizing. For instance, the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin articulated the same general notion as the “primary emergency” faced by racially oppressed and other oppressed peoples, while noting women’s oppression as something additional and existent but by no means less important. Her contribution and consideration of the matter is by no means unique to her movement. This is not to imply that a particular subject matter with which the concept of intersectionality was used to explore, the phenomena experienced by those situated at the intersection or overlap of sexism and racism, is at all invalidated — a concept usually lives a life of its own separate from the subject matter used to abstract it.
However, unlike Marxists and feminists on the ground in activism, Seymour does not seem to know how the term tends to be used in actual practice, which is done in a matter to silence dissent towards mainstream “radical” politics, that is, identity politics. It facilitates the deprioritisation of feminist discussion by changing the subject to another form of oppression, which functions to stifle that discussion, when separate and supportive avenues for discussing the subject matter already exist. In my experience as a feminist activist, both online and in person, the term intersectionality is most often invoked in a manner of “whataboutery” or “trumping” one’s analysis of phenomena in asserting one’s identity, or invoking others as a less privileged identity group, usually by those who are in a position of material advantage — overwhelmingly white, middle-class, self-identified feminists — in a way to assert or attribute a certain legitimacy to their argument without ever having to do the hard work of argument or proof.
Standpoint epistemology in its idealist, identity-politic formation is often used to negate any materialist analysis and sound standpoint epistemology based in materialist analysis of systems which in part intersect, but that latter meaning of intersection is not the essence of “intersectionality.” Intersectionality is concerned with the intersection of varied identities, atomized and particular, from supposedly immediate experience, with no real or primary understanding of consciousness and thus identity being formed by systems, as it has eschewed such an understanding. It becomes, in intersection with liberal privilege discourse, part of the ideological repertoire of neoliberal identity politics. And the understanding, if not the assumption, that oppression lives in individual behaviors, hence the isolate concepts of “privilege” divorced from any real understanding of what a system of oppression entails (it is not the mere sum of “privileges”), but described with respect to individual actions and perceptions in the first person. Such things are useful as an educational guide pointing beyond itself to something larger, but that is often not the case.
C.D.V.: I have heard standpoint epistemology linked to a Marxian analysis of social awareness. Why do you think standpoint epistemology tends towards idealism?
J.C.: I do not think it is all standpoint epistemology which is idealist; rather for any standpoint epistemology to truly make sense it must be anchored in the material. Let’s take a classic example, Georg Lukács in History and Class Consciousness. He defines class consciousness as “consist[ing] in fact of the appropriate and rational reactions ‘imputed’ to a particular typical position in the process of production.” So already we have a material situation from which class consciousness, whether false or true, can be examined, with respect to any economic class and its activity in history. So, the proletariat, due to its unique position, has the potential to view the social totality of capitalism and have the power to demolish capitalism.
Let’s take this to feminism. Women, due to their position in the patriarchal system and undergoing objectification and appropriation, have the unique potential to view patriarchal society, and can often see the operations of the masculine gender construct better than most men can in their state of false consciousness, and the same with people of color in a racist system. But I do want to address the idealist tendency here.
There appears to be a sort of liberal appropriation of this materialist standpoint epistemology and divesting it of its concretion. Without an understanding of a materialist system, of course, what one is left with is pure subjective consciousness, but no notion of a system of oppression, of social forces shaping individuals. It is just a pure abstract standpoint that can be taken by almost any subject, whose legitimacy is granted by its mere subjectivity and the appearance of the phenomena they describe. This has been taken in recent years by liberal activists, such as pro-sex-work, self-defined “sex workers.” And their perspective has some presumed sovereignty, and is entirely unrelated to a comprehensive systemic understanding of patriarchy, because to admit of such a thing and its effect would nullify the preciously constructed identity of the “empowered sex worker,” as the knowledge of one’s construction and mediation by patriarchal social forces would certainly ruin the high sustained on male attention and praise. To inform them of De Beauvoir’s distinction between prostitutes and hetairas (usually high-class, women who consider their entire selves capital to be exploited, and experience a curious narcissism in their false consciousness of their state of dependency), produces a great deal of anger in the undermining of their identity.
So basically, standpoint epistemology can only be made to make sense within the understanding of a material system of oppression. When divorced from that, it is as abstractly idealist as one can imagine. Indeed, it is an integral part of liberal identity politics which eschews any systemic understanding, substituting it with one-dimensional perceptions that cannot integrate into a comprehensive social totality but clash with other identities, which can at best intersect with each other. Truth becomes something enclosed within individuals who view themselves as a socially-impermeable identity category, which undermines real solidarity and connection with others, as the logic of identity politics is atomizing.
C.D.V.: Do you see similar problems with “privilege theory” when privilege is moved out of the explicitly materially defined?
J.C.: There are similarities. In some sectors of the lesbian and queer communities problems ensue when “privilege theory” is applied to situations where one may feel alienated in a situation where oppression is not in fact occurring. Take for example the notion of “femme privilege” — the idea that women who present in overtly feminine, or insufficiently masculine ways owing to their socialization as women, somehow oppress women who present as butch, or are a causal factor in the patriarchal mistreatment of butch women. It is often said that femmes, who are understood to be willing conformists, enjoy a privilege with respect to their appearance and how they are treated in the workplace or in general, and their reluctance to embrace a butch appearance and characteristics is therefore reinforcing the mistreatment of butches. A clear analysis of the situation shows the coercion that both apparent categories of women experience, both of whom are punished for being unable to meet impossible patriarchal standards. So a category of women are singled out for exercising a power that they do not have, on the basis of a highly shallow understanding of patriarchy. Thus the failure to understand a material system’s operation leads to absurdity, and a form of victim-blaming. The identity category and the construct of identity politics is very much bound up in an immaterialist version of “privilege theory” which never points beyond itself, only to support a peculiar calling-out practice by which privilege can be absolved through acknowledgement, ego te absolvi, after which one can go about as one wishes, so long as they do not repeat a form of behavior which is deemed an exercise of privilege.
C.D.V.: What would a materialist view of patriarchy give us exactly? I realize this is a huge question but the outline seems crucial to the relationship between feminism and Marxism.
J.C.: You’re right, it is a huge question, and it’s not one easily answered. I can point to some feminist tendencies which address the relative sex-blindness of Marxist theory; though in another sense these feminist tendencies employ a continuation of the materialist method of Marx in their uncovering of the system of patriarchy. These tendencies are both the French materialist feminism as embodied by Christine Delphy, Colette Guillaumin, et al., and radical feminism as embodied by Andrea Dworkin, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Kathleen Barry, et al., excluding the tendency of cultural feminism as embodied in Mary Daly, for instance. Self-described dual-systems theorists such as Sylvia Walby, who defined themselves as a synthesis of radical feminism and Marxism, are also worth exploring.
The notion of sex-class as first coined by Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex should not be rejected on the basis of her biological-naturalist account of the general phenomenon she is trying to clarify and examine. In fact it had been elaborated by various feminists, to come to mean a certain class system that had some economic cross-over with class society (contra to the strawman of dual-systems theory, the systems are never absolutely separate, but embody separate logics within a social totality), but referring specifically to a system defined by a division of labor based on sex, requiring males’ domination of females, and gender, being the ideology sanctioning, and one means for reproducing this system of domination. It is sometimes called by different names: “patriarchy,” coined by Kate Millett in Sexual Politics; “sexage,” being Guillaumin’s term to describe the kind of bondage women experience. Indeed, Guillaumin’s account of women’s condition as one of individual and collective appropriation by men is one of the clearest theoretical elaborations of patriarchy.
No singular feminist work provides a perfect account, as indeed the system of patriarchy is very complex and stands far closer to the natural, that so much that in fact is a social phenomenon is confused with, or attributed to, nature. Indeed, socialism has often been guilty of this naturalistic attribution; Engels’ account of the division of labour between the sexes as natural, was a grave error. So what we have, with radical-materialist feminism, is a materialist method inherited from Marx, of course not to be confused with the economic content of his analysis of capital, that can help us uncover how patriarchy operates, but which is not found in completed form in any given text. Analysis taken up by an entire movement of a complex phenomenon cannot yield an ideal internal coherence in the same way that two intellectual comrades may. However, it is peculiar how feminist texts have been held to an absurd standard for perfection by some socialists, that no other texts pertaining to liberation are, and strawmanning of an entire project or tendency occurs on the basis of minor analytical imperfections in just one text.
I’m sorry I can’t elaborate too much, from the general — to try to condense so much fact and materiality into a response to such a direct question is difficult! But the best I can do is point to some methods and analyses and proceed from negation of absurd and liberal accounts. I hope their abstract content is intuitable enough.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
J.C.: Thank you, very much, for the interview – it is not very often that one gets the opportunity to ponder feminist questions in a critical manner, especially trying to project forward and move on, and recover a movement. So much feminist discussion is either closed down from the very beginning or just an exercise in repeating and adhering to an ossified line. It was nice to break out of feminist sectarianism and really think about things.
(Originally published here)