By Ben Barker / Deep Green Resistance Wisconsin
What makes a radical a radical is a willingness to look honestly and critically at power; more specifically, imbalances of power. We ask: Why does one group have more power than another? Why can one group harm another with impunity? Why is one group free while another is not? These kinds of questions have long been used by radicals to identify oppression and take action against it. The process has seemed both straight-forward and effective—until applied to the oppression of women.
As persistently as the radical Left has put names to the many rotten manifestations of the dominant culture, they have ignored, downplayed, and denied the one called patriarchy. While it’s generally understood that racism equals terror for people of color, that heterosexism equals terror for lesbians and gay men, that colonialism equals terror for traditional and indigenous communities, that capitalism equals terror for the global poor, and that industrialism equals terror for the earth, radicals somehow just can’t get that patriarchy equals terror for women. If it ever comes up at all, the oppression of women is diluted to the point of sounding more like a bunch of isolated, temporary, uncomfortable circumstances than what it really is: an ongoing war against the freedom, equality, and human rights of more than half the world’s population.
The degree to which sexism, male privilege, and patriarchy are not addressed amongst radicals is the degree to which they plague us. It’s a vicious cycle: as men on the radical Left repress feminism, they forcibly silence concerns about unjust male power within the radical Left, and thus solidify dominance over political movements which will likely never again be able to overcome unjust male power.
Patriarchy run amok is the enemy of truly radical activism. There can be no liberation in the world, if those claiming to fight for it aren’t ready for the liberation of women in their own ranks. As my dear neighbor says, “There’s nothing progressive about treating women like dirt; that’s what’s happening already.”
Maybe some of these men don’t see their privilege. Or maybe they see it fine and feel entitled to it. In either case, most are comfortable with the status afforded to them based on their sex, both in society and social movements. Men sit atop a hierarchy with half of humanity beneath us, forcibly there for us to talk at, dump undesirable work on, and use for sex. This reality doesn’t simply disappear by calling yourself “radical.” Indeed, any radical who doesn’t see this—never mind challenge and stop it—isn’t worth the name.
Too often, so-called radical politics are really just men’s politics. Righteous declarations about resistance to all forms of domination aside, men cleverly manipulate movements to stifle anything threatening our own power and privilege—including women.
Within this rigged game, radical men and the political groups they control are more than happy to address patriarchy; as long as they control the debate, it’s no sweat. With a snap of the fingers, the fangs of feminism disappear. Men are oppressed too, they plea. Things aren’t as bad as they seem, we learn. Women are liberated, they demand. And somehow, with all traces of common sense thrown to the wind, the radical Left as a whole eats the lies and turns them into political policy.
If only radicals would understand gender like they do race and class. It seems so obvious: gender, like race and like class, is a social construct that justifies the oppression of one group by another. That’s it. But ask most—though, especially men—on the radical Left about gender, and prepare for the bizarre. In taking power entirely out of the equation, they claim gender is really just a spectrum to choose from, or something innate and therefore inevitable, or even a metaphorical and playful war between the sexes.
In actual reality, gender is none of these things. It’s not a choice; women don’t have the power to decide to not be treated as they will within a woman-hating culture. It’s not natural; biology is an excuse used to justify the ideology of patriarchy. It’s not fun and the war against women is not metaphor. Assault, slavery, exploitation, trafficking, and second-class status are daily fare for women, and gender is the excuse. You don’t accept or play with a hierarchy; you dismantle it. Radicals should know this.
Gender is a terrible lie with the realest of consequences. It starts with human beings and socializes—read: deforms—them into classes of people called “men” and “women”. Further, it claims that men and women each possess an innate set of personal habits—and worth—termed masculinity and femininity, or “maleness” and “femaleness”. Men learn domination and women learn submission. Patriarchy thrives.
This social construction is the same with race and class. The difference is that radicals would have no problem—we hope—seeing through the idea of some innate (or chosen) “blackness” or “poorness”. No human being is born on the bottom of a hierarchy; women, like the global poor and people of color, are forced there.
Power isn’t pulled from thin air; it is taken from the powerless. If men have power, women don’t.
Masculinity is defined by the violation of boundaries. No longer simply human, men use sheer military-style force to get what they want, to satisfy an insatiable ego. Men prove we are real men by making others—often women—bend, and ultimately break, to our wills.
Male privilege is the grand rationalization, the justification of unjust power that we men try to make ourselves, and everyone else, believe. The lesson is that masculinity is normal and men are absolved from accountability; that men know best and are always right. The hierarchy thus becomes inevitable, resistance seeming like an utter waste of time.
Feminism is the other side of the war. It is, in the brave words of Andrea Dworkin, “the political practice of fighting male supremacy in behalf of women as a class.” This commitment is radical politics at its most honest, which is precisely why the male-dominated radical Left stands in its way.
Feminism explodes the lies that make patriarchy seem benign. It demands full humanity for women and is willing to struggle to achieve it.
When we’re honest about the breadth of damage that gender does to women, we see the breadth of action necessary to get us from here to justice. Sexism is clearly not a mere uncomfortable circumstance, amendable by attitude alone. Rape, pornography, humiliation, trafficking, and reproductive slavery are anything but mental events. If the radical Left would look honestly at these atrocities—let alone, not participate in them—we’d know what to do: organize and resist.
Instead, radicals call it “sexual liberation” and choose to celebrate it—a heart-breaking legacy with its roots in patriarchy and history in the social movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. If a woman can choose to fuck, they claim, she must be free.
Choice, however, is only as meaningful as what there is to choose from. Women can choose between invisibility and sexual exploitation; they can choose between poverty and sexual exploitation; they can choose between death and sexual exploitation. I’d trust radicals to call bluff here if the opposite—collusion with the sexual exploitation of women—hadn’t been confirmed over and over again.
Feminism strikes a nerve. When men don’t get our way, backlash isn’t too far behind. Feminists face it from all directions. It seems anarchists, communists, sexual libertarians, men’s rights activists, and right-wingers can agree on at least one thing: the sanctity of male power. Men, along with whatever groups they dominate, come out in full force to put women back in place, whether through slander, censorship, threats, or physical violence.
There’s been little reason for women to count the male-dominated radical Left as anything resembling an ally. On the contrary, radicals seem ever willing to lend a hand to the other side. Take just this past week for example, when one environmentalist woman was barred from speaking at a university’s Earth Day event because she happened to also be a feminist; and when a decades-old women’s music festival was publicly ostracized for not letting men in; and when a venue slated to host one of the world’s only radical feminist conferences is considering reneging on the agreement after ongoing harassment from radical and conservative men, alike.
But if it’s not blunt retaliation men use to silence feminist women, its outright lies. The most common one is that men are, in fact, oppressed too. The radical Left has taken the bait. In the face of story after story depicting the terror waged daily against women, radicals want to know one thing: what about the men?
Of course men experience oppression—but not because we are men. Patriarchy means that, no matter the individual man, he will be treated as more of a human being than a woman would within the same circumstances. Men may be subjugated in a myriad of ways—each abhorrent and deserving of resistance in its own right—but not because we were born not female. Indeed, even the most otherwise oppressed or egalitarian or radical men have the capacity to use their power as men to hurt women. We needn’t ignore one injustice to see another.
If we, as radicals, are to live up to our name and traditions by getting to the roots of unjust power, we need to reject and combat patriarchy on all counts, at every level. Every time we allow men to wield power over women, we help the enemy.
If radical men want to fight the power, as many claim, we can start with men’s power over women. We can resist domination in all its manifestations; even—or especially—when doing so threatens our own privilege; even when it means changing who we are.
There’s no revolution and no justice without freedom for women. Patriarchy is destroying our social movements as surely as it’s destroying the lives of women and as surely as it’s destroying the planet. As musician Ani DiFranco sings, “The road to ruin is paved in patriarchy.” The road to revolution, on the other hand, is paved in feminism. As radicals, the choice is up to us: ruin or revolution?
Beautiful Justice is a monthly column by Ben Barker, a writer and community organizer from West Bend, Wisconsin. Ben is a member of Deep Green Resistance and is currently writing a book about toxic qualities of radical subcultures and the need to build a vibrant culture of resistance. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
A Swedish translation of this article is available at: http://djupgron.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/den-sexistiska-radikala-vanstern-versus-kvinnor/
A French translation of this article is available at: http://coll.lib.antisexiste.free.fr/CLAS.html