Hillary Clinton And The Supposed Political Windfall For Feminism

The ‘feminist legacy’ of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi is an ambiguous one. These women, in varying fashion, rose to great political power, and exerted it with varying degrees of aplomb. (They both earned nicknames that assimilated their visible displays of ‘steel’ into a stereotypical vision of male toughness.) Gandhi came to power in a nation whose imagined and real social role for women was sharply limited; it is unclear what Gandhi’s being in power had to do with the greatly increased visibility of women in Indian public life (the latter presence might well be linked with the changes in the political economy that have been introduced in India since the 1990s.) Thatcher’s ascendancy was seen as a victory for women in British politics while her policy support for women’s causes was widely debated. Again, in her case, it is not clear whether her tenure broke glass ceilings and rolled back the tide of sexism in British public life.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it is unclear to me that the election of Hillary Clinton as president will represent a windfall for feminism and women’s rights. The US of 2016 is not the England of  1979 or the India of 1966, but patriarchy–engaged in mutually supportive roles with corporate structures–still rules the roost here. The American corporate stronghold over politics, whose most visible symbol is the rampant economic inequality that so permeates the lives of American citizens, is better than most in co-opting potential foes as allies.  In its embrace, traditional identity politics matter for little (even as Barack Obama found that his being black was as potent a political force to be ranged against him as any other.)

Materialist feminists know that dismantling patriarchy will not be done without dismantling the economic system it works with; elect an economically privileged person to power and they will simply perpetuate class privilege. Their identity lies with their class, with their economic group, with the allegiances that ensure their economic and political power. Nothing in Hillary Clinton’s record–stretching back to her days in Arkansas–indicates that on taking power she will enact policies that will act to dismantle the very system that is her, and her family’s, best friend. To be sure, the symbolic value of her victory will be immense; it would send a powerful signal to many women, old and young, that their voices have been heard, that they have political representation of a kind, and that oft-repeated-claim that more young women will find it possible to dream about political power will sound ever more plausible.

But those same women, I fear, will find their paths to the ‘top’ blocked if the routes remain the same. And they will resolutely remain the same unless power–in this political and economic system–is exercised differently, for different ends, by those who attain it, by those who show their priorities lie with matters more weighty than the mere retention of that power. Hillary Clinton does little to indicate she will make the kinds of possibilities dreamed about by women more tangible, more substantial. Worse, her election could weaken those arguments which claim that women are economically and politically under-represented. Remember, the refrain will go, if she can make it, so can you.

Matthew Arnold On Inequality

In his 1879 essay ‘Equality,’ Matthew Arnold wrote about inequality too:

What the middle class sees is that splendid piece of materialism, the aristocratic class, with a wealth and luxury utterly out of their reach, with a standard of social life and manners, the offspring of that wealth and luxury , seeming out utterly out of their reach also. And thus they are thrown back upon themselves–upon a defective type of religion, a narrow range of intellect and knowledge, a stunted sense of beauty, a low standard of manners. And the lower class see before them the aristocratic class, and its civilization, such as it is, even infinitely more of out of their reach than out of that of the middle class; while the life of the middle class, with its unlovely types of religion, thought, beauty, and manners, has naturally in general, no great attractions for them either. And so they too are thrown back upon themselves; upon their beer, their gin, and their fun. Now then, you will understand what I meant by saying that our inequality materialises our upper class, vulgarises our middle class, brutalises our lower.

And the greater the inequality the more marked is its bad action upon the middle and lower classes….

[O]ur aristocracy…is for the imagination a singularly modern and uninteresting one. Its splendor of station, its wealth, show, and luxury, is then what the other classes really admire in it; and this is not an elevating admiration. Such an admiration will never lift us out of our vulgarity and brutality, if we chance to be vulgar and brutal to start with; it will rather feed them and be fed by them….our love of inequality is really the vulgarity in us, and the brutality, admiring and worshipping the splendid materiality.

[Matthew Arnold: Selected Essays, edited with an introduction by Noel Annan, Oxford University Press, 1964]

Arnold does not speak here of rage, outward or inward directed, but he might as well have. For there is a black envy here, in his mention of an ‘admiration’ that is not ‘elevating’ but that instead ‘feeds’ and is ‘fed’ by ‘vulgarity’ and ‘brutality.’ This corrosion of sensibilities that inequality produces–all the more acute as the inequality grows more pronounced–cannot be anything but a destabilizing force, one that may not restrained too long.

In some cultures it is said staring at someone eating brings bad luck to the person eating. The watcher is urged to show some manners; the eater turns away to consume in peace. A pair of hungry eyes looking at sustenance denied them cannot but ruin the appetite of those conscious of their gaze. Matters, no doubt, are infinitely worse when the food on the plate has been stolen from those watching, when they have been forced to serve it up with their own hands.

The converse, of course, of such a superstition, is that the ostentatious consumer of food denied others reminds others of their misfortune, rubs their faces in it. He runs the risk too, of having his plate snatched out of his hands.

The Beating in the Bus

Violence against a ‘lower order’–visible and tangible preferably–is a time-honored technique of social control.  It brings pain and humiliation together in a cruel package and issues a stinging reminder of difference and domination; it has not lost any of its effectiveness over the years. This is a brief note on one such public display of violent assertion.

During my university years, I rode city transport–a bus–both ways to the campus on the other end of town. The city transit authority made available a limited number of buses exclusively for use by university students; these ran point to point from pick up locations in the city to the campus (and back.) Soon after I began using them, I became aware that the students regarded the drivers and conductors with what might be described as a kind of combative, yet perhaps even genial, contempt. Stories of edgy, verbal encounters with the transit staff were legendary, as were stories of fisticuffs. The reasons for these seemed to rise only one level above the trivial: the staff’s ‘rudeness’ seemed to be the most common reason for arguments or brawling to break out. This situation was made especially mystifying by the fact that interactions with the bus crew were minimal; the students carried monthly passes that meant we did not even need to buy a daily ticket.

One return trip from campus brought this needless conflict to the fore. On that day, a bunch of lads that rode in our bus–college athletes by the look of them–decided it would be a good idea to make it go on a little detour so that they could–rather more conveniently for them–alight at a spot closer to their final destination. They told the bus driver to divert; he ignored their rather brusque commands, drove on a little further on the usual route, and then halted at the next available stopping area.  He had done nothing else but stick to his prescribed duties. They did not, on pain of rational routing, call for idiosyncratic manipulations of the bus route on an ad-hoc basis by the bus’ passengers.

But hot-headed young men–perhaps uncertain of their futures, perhaps seething with resentment at the crushingly competitive futures that awaited them once they left campus, perhaps anticipating their domination by the economically privileged, and thus, perhaps seeking an outlet for their frustration–had been insulted. By a representative of those folks whose sole raison d’être seemed to be mindless chauffering them back and forth from the university; their only tasks, surely, were to take orders and execute them without complaint (and preferably with gratitude.) A lesson needed to be taught.

It was dispensed with remarkable efficiency. The driver was alone, not physically threatening in the slightest; the students were several and burly. A quick rain of kicks, slaps, and punches ensued; the driver, trapped in his seat and drivers cage, could not escape any of the blows; every one of them landed unerringly on his face, his jaw, his back. And then, his assailants were gone; we, the rest of the passengers on the bus, had been mere spectators. The driver was not incapacitated; somehow he composed and collected himself, and quietly drove on.

We rode on with him, silent in collective shame.