Academic journal article Capital & Class

Pulling Together in a Crisis? Anarchism, Feminism and the Limits of Left-Wing Convergence in Austerity Britain

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Pulling Together in a Crisis? Anarchism, Feminism and the Limits of Left-Wing Convergence in Austerity Britain

Article excerpt


Since the onset of the 2008 economic crisis, left-wing politics in Britain, despite some initial optimism, has struggled to contest dominant discourses and policy formations, which remain rooted in neoliberal ideology and the pursuit of an austerity agenda (Worth 2013; Cooper & Hardy 2013; Seymour 2014; Gill 2008). As part of this battle, however, a number of significant new voices have emerged which, taken together, could be seen as a partial reorientation of the discourses, objectives and forms of organisation shaping the trajectory of British left politics. In this article, we examine three key, recently emergent sites of anti-austerity activism--namely, Left Unity, the Peoples Assembly and Occupy--in order to explore to what extent and in which ways the traditional British left is in the process of transforming itself.

More specifically, we seek to discover whether, as some have claimed, the 'traditional left' is exhibiting a new found amenability to anarchism (Critchley 2013; Day 2005; Graeber 2012; Newman 2010). We argue here that while we find a number of fruitful points of contact between anarchists and the traditional left--including attempts in some socialist spaces to cultivate more democratic and participatory modes of activism --the ideological and organisational gulf between these two movements remain significant.

Indeed, if we are seeing a mutation of the left at present--and it is not yet clear that we are seeing a permanent one--it concerns a noticeable 'feminist turn in terms of the composition, ideas and practices of Left Unity, the Peoples Assembly and Occupy LSX, In contrast to this Special Issue's characterisation of the left, we suggest that the main challenge to traditional left politics in Britain today has come from feminism, rather than anarchism. This is by no means to say that anarchism is absent in these three left spaces, but that its significance needs to be understood in relation to feminism. This line of argument, in turn, complicates a number of assumptions shaping the recent literature on feminism and the left. Authors such as Nancy Fraser (2009), Angela McRobbie (2009), Nina Power (2009) and Hester Eisenstein (2009) have all, in different ways, offered accounts of what they consider to be the disarticulation of socialism and feminism. For them, the dominant modalities of feminism in contemporary political discourse are individualised, 'soft' liberal or even neoliberal variants of feminism (Rottenburg 2014), in which the more systemic critiques of patriarchal capitalism that characterised earlier generations of socialist feminism have been cast to the margins. Now, while we do not dispute the existence of significant obstacles to the strengthening of feminist socialism, we do think that the palpable impact of feminism across a variety of strands of contemporary left activism should make us sceptical of claims that socialism and feminism have parted company. What follows, then, is an effort to map the multiple and precarious 'points of contact' between feminism, anarchism and the traditional left in Britain today, and to offer some reflections on the strengths and limits of these burgeoning alliances.

Mapping the field of study

In this article, we undertake a feminist reading of our three exemplars of contemporary left-wing politics, and in so doing, commit to a number of methodological imperatives. The first concerns the need to be attentive to the role that gender, as a power relation, plays in shaping the discourses and practices of all social activism, including on the left. While tracing the operations of gender, feminists remind us that sexism is not always the result of intentional action, and that it is important to explore how oppression can be produced unwittingly and even unwillingly. Thus, recent allegations of sexual violence involving high-profile left individuals and organisations (such as Julian Assange, and within the British Socialist Workers' Party and the Socialist Party), although important and depressing, do not tell the full story of gender discrimination within the left. …

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