And So the Radical Vagina was Most Patriarchal of Them All

This Summer, the trajectory of the Jeremy Corbyn surge has been mirrored by the most fascinating but also irritating brand of cuntpolitik. After frequent reminders of Yvette Cooper’s radical vagina, comment pieces about how abstaining from voting on savage cuts to tax credits was feminist and how real feminists would elect a woman whatever her politics, I was feeling all cunted out. Then it got worse, the cuntpolitik came back last night with a vengeance as my newsfeed was overrun by the march of the #WhiteKnights4WomensRights despairing that Corbyn didn’t have enough vaginas at the top table – OH NO! Which white women will represent all the women of the land?! And yet – masked by this circus of identity politics — are the most violent forces of patriarchy at play. The masculinity of liberal imperialism is being mobilised with full force.

The politics of women’s representation in Labour has often been a bitter pill to swallow. While the excitement about Blair’s Babes raged on in the 1990s, it was Harriet Harman, the new Secretary of State for Social Security, who announced that Labour would go ahead with the Conservative plans to scrap lone parent benefits. This is a  politics that has  always been about securing the interests of cis white middle class women. I asked, only to be met with a resounding silence, where all these think pieces were when Diane Abbott was running for Labour Leader. Suzanne Moore (who doesn’t even think trans women are women) instead seems comfortable leading the charge against ‘brocialism’ while bemoaning a socialism which focuses too much on inequality as working class women continue to bear the brunt of austerity. This kind of lazy privilege is why the ‘bold’ portfolio of cuntpolitik unleashed on us this summer, Corbyn’s consultation on issues disproportionately affecting women and his support from the majority of women in the party received not one mention. The demand for women’s representation above all else wrongly presumes that women exist on a singular axis – that we are not black, queer, disabled or working class. It misses the first lesson of intersectional theory, our difference means that to speak of ‘women’s’ issues is necessarily incoherent.

Indeed, this politics rests on even shakier ground – an inaccurate understanding of patriarchy. If patriarchy was concerned primarily with men and women, it would not punish feminised men so violently. Rather, it is concerned with pegging that which is not masculine as undesirable. While we debate whether John McDonnell got the job because Corbyn trusted him most or because he is a bloke, we all remain blind to a broader and more pernicious consolidation of liberal masculinity.

When the Cold War ‘ended’ the seeds for the War on Terror were already being sown. Now, in ISIS, it has found every caricature of horror realised. As for Corbyn, he is the only thing more frightening to liberalism than beheadings – he who will not go to war. The imperative of war was deeply embedded in the conception of the liberal state. The white noise of war drums has been sounding ever since. It is in the shadow of war that political obligation* is constructed, by exploiting the claims that women – under patriarchy – have on the emotions of men. It is necessary therefore for the liberal state (or its women) to constantly be under threat. For so long, we have been on the cusp of war and it is to this mode of being (one of constant emergency) that Corbyn represents a serious threat.

We should have seen it coming. When the tide turned in Corbyn’s favour and the smears kept rolling in, the salient accusation was not one of racism or extremism but his passivity. From Yvette Cooper’s shift in CLP hustings to more adamantly defining the position of Prime Minister by the ability to ‘defend’ the country (read: militarily) to his Sky Hustings stand-off with Liz Kendall – the contradiction would be as delicious as it is illuminating if it wasn’t so frightening. Kendall and Cooper, the two women in the race, led the most gendered attack – the emasculation of Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn is not only passive, he is also irrational. He cannot be rational because the West needs there to be no option but to fight. ‘In these uncertain times’ – when the infantilised arab other is playing with the toys we left behind – it is now more important than ever that that which is masculine is ready to fight for the liberal project. As the non-white other is feminised by his irrationality, so too is Corbyn. The anti-imperialist is necessarily queered – Corbyn’s is a masculinity that the hegemon cannot comprehend.

This is why, as a feminist, my interest was most drawn by the announcement that Jeremy has appointed the UK’s first woman Shadow Secretary for Defence – Maria Eagle. I’m fascinated by the contradictions this appointment exposes. The Conservatives are on the offensive, the war machine is readying itself for an intensification of struggle and the carnage of Europe’s sins is landing squarely on its doorstep. The nebulous question of ‘security’ is about to be milked for all it is worth. In the coming months, we must constantly remind ourselves that it is those who have power who determine what is most in need of security – single mothers on benefits or the pockets of arms traders.

Owen Jones, in hindsight, was right to identify that Corbyn will come under attack for being “weak on defence and military action abroad” but he was wrong to think that taking on the language of the military industrial complex will provide any solutions. To shake the core of this patriarchal rot, Jeremy Corbyn must uproot the foundations of the marketplace of morality on which liberal imperialism rests. He must queer the state.

Edit: the article was written in the early hours of Monday morning when reports emerged that Gloria De Piero had been appointed shadow Defence Secretary. Since then the shadow cabinet has been reworked with the position now going to Maria Eagle. The article has been edited accordingly.


See specifically: R Westbrook, ’I Want a Girl, Just Like the Girl That Married Harry James’: American Women and the Problem of Political Obligation in World War II, American Quarterly (Dec., 1990)

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An Anatomy of Exhumation

I

I go to the graveyard to think. And to speak. I watch the people in their boxes dead and waiting to die. I cannot remember which of my homes this is, which street, castle or group. I go because their deaths remind me of all the coffins I have lived in – ready me for the offering. This is my safety when I forget my mouth full of graves and the gravediggers in my spine tiptoeing across their hungry mouths.

II

The coffins are in, they are back from being lonely elsewhere and here, somebody will listen to them. They have all these bones to spend but nowhere are they so tender but here. The bone collectors come around with their metal detectors, they wait for these coffins to thrust their skeletons to the surface decorated with the medals of their previous deployments.  As the exhumation continues, we hollow ourselves to prove that we are weak and thus pure. The collector will throw the bones down at the shrine, dissatisfied with their diagnosis she will move them until they fit. The bones are now blessed and ready to be spent.

III

I don’t always remember well enough what happened to steel my argument with assurance. The movement in my chest and the sinking of my stomach mean nothing if there is no body count. And yet they believe me – even as the fog clouds the edges of my vision. Even when I forget to remember, because my Blackness is all they need know. There is a story in this black, even though I do not know it yet. I do not know it but I am worthy of safety, for now – so long as they know that I too have pain, that I too am powerless. I have been trying to breathe through these movements in my chest; to speak but this safety is suffocating. The lifejacket is dragging me further out to sea, the water is blurring my vision and seizing my chest until all I had to say comes out in gasps of desperation. Again, I am helpless – now, I am worthy of audience. The ritual continues, until we all lay bound and ready for sacrifice. There is no sign of the Deity, so we lay there speaking but in silence – here, we are safe.

***

I cannot remember where or when I wrote this. And yet, as soon as I read it, I remembered how it felt to write. Like a hollowing of the self. Like looking out over the graveyard, fighting conflicting struggles for the privilege of trauma and humanity. Like sacrifice for the promise of visibility.

I spend a lot of time thinking about ghosts. The ones we revive to try to bury. I wonder how they feel and taste, how they think and act; and yet I know. I feel them kicking and screaming under the surface, knocking the wind out of us whenever we hang on the precipice of exorcism. I feel them isolating us as we build community. I feel them. They permeate every aspect of this ritual of politics in which I have immersed myself, or in which have been immersed. I spend more time contemplating my position. This space in which I scream at my comrades for visibility and yet feel consumed to nothingness by my sisters. And now these thoughts must spill on to pages, lest they join the spectres which haunt me.

***

“Genuine love is rarely an emotional space where needs are instantly gratified. To know love we have to invest time and commitment…‘dreaming that love will save us, solve all our problems or provide a steady state of bliss or security only keeps us stuck in wishful fantasy, undermining the real power of the love — which is to transform us.’ Many people want love to function like a drug, giving them an immediate and sustained high. They want to do nothing, just passively receive the good feeling.” bell hooks

As Powerlessness.

I have come to rationalise the politics of safety as ritual. It has its own (flawed) logic but it produces, for that moment, something very real – something which brings us back to the shrine for worship. We, sick patients, come seeking healing and restoration. They, those who came before, pass down their own medicines. Soon we too become ailing doctors.

We define these spaces as safe to keep ourselves safe. We invest in the most mephistophelian of myths – that the danger is on the outside and that here, on the inside, we are out of harms way. [We know because we have seen. All those fiendish ghouls and trolls cast out, we must stay open so we can cast out the bad blood.] That so long as we are bleeding we are safe.

We see the balm and think it a cure – keep our wounds wet and anointed, festering and open. We use the balm to remind ourselves that we are in pain and thus pure. That we are in pain and thus can do no wrong. We rub our wounds in the open so everybody will know that we are in pain and that we too require protection.

I mistook your fingers in my wounds for safety. Where is the healing in that?

As Violence.

We do not cower, we brandish our weapons to show that we are not afraid. And yet, the practice of safety is all too often a practice of fear. We cannot speak for the ghouls and trolls wait on the sidelines to celebrate that we are weak but not safe. Through this repression, we find the ghouls in ourselves, ugly and violent. The whip grows fervent. We dispose of those whose wounds are not gaping enough. Cut deeper; bring your bones with you to the altar.

To keep ourselves safe, we must guard the gate. The effigies of violence make our bones ache, they must be cast out. We cast out the unintersectional. We cast out the unreconstructed. We cast out the appropriators. These things are bad because they make our bones ache. Our bones are always aching. They ache because our fears loom over us. We do not know why we fear but we do. The whip reminds us of what to fear.

The practice of safety is all too often the practice of violence. Here, at the intersection of blackness and womanhood, my wounds set an example and my wrath is fearsome. Before I speak, I must remind them that I too am a victim, I too am weak and thus pure. Some days they believe me. Somedays their bones ache louder than mine. Somedays I leave the bones I’m sure I have in my nightmares.

I gave you my bones to pick your teeth with. Where is the safety in that?

And Transformation?

“For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” bell hooks

The movements in my chest happen as stasis. My chest is moving but I am not breathing; or growing. To succeed, the ritual must immortalise our trauma. We cannot interrogate it. We cannot touch it or taste it. If we do the mirage will fall and behind it the same violence we were always running from. And how sorry is this irony. That the ghouls have conjured our ghosts and yet we did not know it was they who uttered the incantation. That we had thought our own language appropriated when it is really their own sorcery. And what have we lost in this time, that we are more alone today than when we started building our communities in graveyards.

We say oppression when we mean trauma. We say trauma when we mean oppression. For our wounds to be radical, we must be alone in having them. We know real pain. We know what is authentic. It is real if you are oppressed. You are real if you are oppressed and yet you are not. We must remind the ghouls that they are too strong. They must know that they are strong and thus impure. We do it when we think we are talking to people who have ‘power’. We do it when we think we are defending the ‘powerless’. We do it to the very people who we claim to be ‘protecting’. We turn our backs on the red raised scars.

I can no longer see the ghosts in me, or the skeletons. I have spent all the spines in my tongue. The site of the wound is wet and anointed, open and festering, until it is too painful to speak. Again, we are atoms, as we always were. Again, we are speaking in silence. We have forgotten the spectres in the face of our wounds. The contradiction is dangerous but heady, a balm but no cure. The pretence of structural analysis supported by a convergence around the individual. The liberal masqueraded in the language of radicalism. The ghouls have colonised our silence. We are ripping ourselves open to speak. There will soon be no bones left to spend. And for what?

Why are we fighting a war that we think we will lose?

IV

I have watched the bone collectors rob graves many times before. I have written this many times before. Always too bloody and mistaking the rattling bones for night terrors. I have written it now, and yet somehow still feel hollow.