Sunday, 27 July 2014

What's wrong with feminism?

Feminism has had a good run since the 1970s at universities and in public debates. Yet, more recently it seems to have lost momentum. There are few female political or cultural commentators that are happy to call themselves feminists and the movement itself appears to be fragmented and riven with theoretical factions.

Let me state at the very outset that I believe that feminism has made an enormous contribution to a better understanding of the female experience of oppression and disadvantage which has been with us (and still is) for times immemorial. Yet, the question remains, why has feminism not made more of an impact? Given that horrific injustices against women are still perpetrated (not least FGM) and appear to be still deeply ingrained in cultural traditions, the question is legitimate: what went wrong?

Feminism started with a laudable agenda. It was to chart the female experience of systemic oppression and injustice. In academia it quickly became mired in theoretical subtleties and undercut by countervailing philosophical movements such as postmodernism. This may have sapped some of the energy of the initial project, but some of the blame, I think, should surely be shouldered by feminist theorists themselves (they include men too).

I recently read Nancy Hirschmann's attempt to outline a feminist account of political obligation (Rethinking Obligation. A Feminist Method for Political Theory, Cornell: Ithaca 1992) and here is what she says about why the feminist experience is different from the masculine one:

'The very process of identification for girls is relational, whereas for boys it tends to deny relationship and emphasize abstraction and fragmentation. ... Just as the boy's identification with an abstraction makes it difficult for him to maintain connection and trust in later life, so does the girl's difficulty in breaking away from her primary identification [her mother - AK] inhibit her sense of separateness.' (p.135)

Hirschmann's problem is that either she wants to make an empirical point, for which Freudian psychoanalysis may not be a suitable vehicle, or she intends to forge a new conceptual framework, which requires justification. Over about 150 pages of psychobabble, it increasingly appears apparent that Hirschmann actually believes that children grow up without a father, which means that boys cannot form relationships and girls cannot reason abstractly. Where the evidence comes from for this strong claim is never quite clear but she refers repeatedly to Freudian psychoanalysis in post-war incarnations as her main witness.

The problem for a feminism built on Freudian foundations is obvious. As an empirical claim, it is certainly wrong that girls cannot reason abstractly and boys cannot form relationships. But the real danger lurks in the essentialism that she advocates. In her theory of personal development, she actually confirms the most egregious gender prejudices that have been advocated for centuries and contributed to the marginalisation of women in public life. So, basing her feminist theory on 'empirically proven' accounts of gender difference in personal development re-arms the prejudices she wants to defeat.

Philosophically, this lands her in hot water as she proceeds to build a political theory of obligation out of gendered difference that she actually wants to eliminate. The choice she has is either to privilege the 'feminine' over the 'masculine' experience, or to simply claim that neither of them should be epistemologically superior. The latter position closely resembles the contortions of linguistic theorists and social constructionists who claimed that all narratives of reality are equally valid.

Whilst this position may sooth some notions of political correctness, it jars with reality on a daily basis. Clearly, Hirschmann's starting point was that injustices perpetrated against women (such as FGM) ought NOT to be seen as morally equal to those practices that are based on women's free choices.

Hirschmann spends about 200 pages to bat away the ghosts that her own inconsistent position calls up yet ultimately arrives at little more than the banal statement that 'a theory of feminist obligation requires us to attend to the political context for obligations, and that context requires participation, communication, and interpersonal relationship as the model of political community' (p296). You don't say!

So why is Hirschmann's attempt so instructive for feminist theory? It appears to throw a light at the heart of any essentialist philosophising. If you think that the way in which we are positioned in our world should be the starting point for theorising, then don't be surprised that the way the world looks from those positions is slightly wonky. Whilst Hirschmann is full of contempt for liberal philosophers who try to abstract in their work from actual situations, she mistakes this for wilful masculinist distortions. In fact, although abstractions may not allow us to see the whole picture (which is often shot through with serious injustices for specific groups in society) they are a useful heuristic device to agree on basic principles that can apply to all, regardless to creed, gender, colour or status. It's is this universalising feature of philosophy which feminism appears unable to accommodate.

Monday, 21 July 2014

On Scottish independence

In 1630, at the height of the Thirty Years War in Germany, the French Ambassador to the Holy Roman Empire made a clear and unequivocal demand: reduce your troops and sack Wallenstein (the Imperial General). This placed the Emperor in a difficult situation. The Swedish King had just landed in Northern Germany and the Ambassador's demands were tantamount to leaving German lands defenseless. Still, the Emperor acquiesced. Wallenstein was sacked and most of the troops demobilised.

Listening recently to the debate about Scottish independence I was reminded of this episode in the Thirty Years War. In effect, the French Ambassador's ultimatum was something akin to President Holland asking David Cameron to sack the Chair of the General Staff in London. Our reaction, rightly, would be: 'Who the hell does he think he is?'

Comparisons are of course fraught with problems, especially if they bridge several hundred years of European history, but this historical example is instructive. Sovereignty never was and certainly is not the indivisible prerogative of national governments.

This is where the Scottish independence debate strikes me as curiously lopsided. Let me say at the start that I firmly believe that Scotland, independent or as part of the Union, is and will continue to be a prosperous country, with rich natural resources and a highly educated and skilled workforce.

However, the tenor of the independence campaign has strangely romantic overtones that I struggle to reconcile with any realistic assessment of modern nation states operating in an interdependent world. This cuts both ways, interestingly. How so?

Firstly, it's what I would call the French Ambassador test. Some in the independence campaign appear to suggest that, once Scotland is independent, it can decide its own fate (whatever that means). The experience of the German Emperor should be a lesson to the contrary. The vision of an unencumbered Scottish public will manifesting itself in a sovereign Scottish government free to do all it currently cant do, is hard to sustain in a world like ours. In a sense, those who argue that independence will grant eternal freedom from external strictures (English or otherwise) take a similar view of Scotland as those in UKIP entertain for Britain. If only those evil 'others' would grant us full autonomy, we could decide things for ourselves. There is good reason to believe that this may turn out to be a mirage.

Yet, secondly, this vision of an independent Scotland assumes that there is a consensus about what this future Scotland should look like. The picture put forward tends to be a strange amalgam of socialist egalitarian nirvana with prosperity for all thrown in. This strikes me as an even stranger case of romanticism gone wild. It seems to rely on a caricature of 'the English system' (which is everything bad on the planet) and an eclectic melange of utopian, socialist and proto-communist elements.

There are two arguments that strongly suggest that an independent Scotland will not massively divert from where England is going, socially, culturally and politically. First, the Scottish government already has full powers over pretty much anything that matters in people's lives. Education, health and social services are all fully devolved issues at present. The Scottish Executive has even tax varying powers (which it has not used so far). It is interesting to note that there has been very little divergence from the 'English' path in devolved areas so far. So, why should independence be the start of total transformation?

The second aspect however is that this vision of a radically transformative society post-independence somehow assumes that there is a broad consensus amongst Scots about the direction of travel (to this socialist nirvana). Nothing could be further from the truth. The polling (and previous elections for the Scottish Parliament) indicate that Scots are just as politically diverse (political scientists speak of electoral cleavages) as any other modern society. There are even a solid 15 percent of Scottish voters who vote for the Conservative Party. So, the utopian socialist consensus does not seem to extend much further than the one third of voters who favour independence in the first place.

Which brings me to the reason why I believe this referendum will be lost by the SNP. Right from the start the campaign for independence was strongly premised on a cultural, political and social vision of Scotland that is curiously narrow, something that speaks to the proto-socialist romantic convictions of those who supported independence in the first place. Yet, the campaign was to be won (or lost) with the votes of those who did not share the SNP's electoral manifesto. All polling suggests that the Yes campaign has failed to reach out to the moderate centre. Barring any major political earthquake, Scotland may thus just stay part of the Union it joined about 300 years ago.