Women on the verge: Melissa Benn on Beatrix Campbell and Laurie Penny

Prepare to be depressed. We are living through the “end of equality”, the once-celebrated advances of feminism going into dangerous reverse.

End of Equality
Beatrix Campbell
Seagull Books, 134pp, £6.50

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution
Laurie Penny
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £12.99

Beatrix Campbell, journalist and activist, working-class radical and feminist, now in her later sixties, is in many ways the quintessential British writer. She has brilliantly reimagined Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, turned a tough and tender eye on Tory women, dissected Britain’s dangerous places and Diana, Princess of Wales, and, more recently, investigated the Northern Ireland peace settlement through the eyes of women and “the coalition of the committed”.

That she is not defined, let alone deified, as the quintessential British writer may be, at least in part, due to her being a working-class radical, feminist and activist – and now in her later sixties. . . Radical men (unless they are patently ridiculous) mature; their reputations settle and expand. Uncompromising feminists are too often faded – note the passive verb – into the background.

There’s a definite sense of kickback in End of Equality, her latest book. At 92 pages with nearly half as many again in footnotes, this slim volume packs a concentrated punch. It turns out that a potentially boundless mass of information from around the globe works best in pocket-size form, particularly when allied to a clear message.

Prepare to be depressed. We are living through the “end of equality”, the once-celebrated advances of feminism going into dangerous reverse. In the UK the pay gap now seems permanent, the multiple blows of austerity have hit women far harder than men, and men’s involvement in engaged fatherhood, though greater than it was, has not brought about the domestic democracy once dreamt of by second-wave feminism. Over the past four decades, men’s core domestic work has “increased by a rate of about one minute per day per year . . . a pace of change both palpable and pitiful”.

In the UK, decades of legal and campaigning work on equal pay for work of equal value, one of the most imaginative political strategies of class-imbued feminism, has led to some historic successes in Birmingham, Cumbria and Scotland, but cash-strapped local councils are unable or unwilling to pay up. Central government is not going to underwrite local councils as it did the banks, and certainly not in order to pay thousands of dinner ladies, carers and nursery nurses backdated settlements worth billions.
If this book’s theme can be captured in a single word, then that word is impunity: “exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action”. It’s a powerful trope, but a little puzzling. Campbell is clearly pointing the finger at the evil genies of neoliberalism – the bankers, global corporate power in general and the politicians whose collective complicity and weakness have ushered in so many horrors – but does she really want to imply that all men have benefited from the uneasy post-feminist sexual settlement, in which equality has gone into reverse? Either way, by the end, impunity is consciously invoked like a mantra, its meaning amplified to signify a “crisis of politics [that] incubates pessimism about the means of making a difference and . . . reinstates the sovereignty of sexism”.

The best bits of the book (for me) are the least familiar and come in a central section made up of riveting accounts of women’s lives, and their acts of resistance, from South Korea and Mexico to India and China. Campbell invokes the creepy world of the Taiwanese-owned Foxconn, the single largest manufacturer of components, whose factory estates in China are “eerily empty of children . . . a monument to masculinist economics that promises everything except liveable social space”. But she also summons up the heroic female train attendants and shipyard workers of South Korea, who have scrambled to the tops of towers and cranes, from there to wage months’-long protests at lay-offs and the absence of the women workers’ collective voice, and who, amazingly, have won their battles.

In a final tumble through associative space on the multiple links between the female body and contemporary capitalism, Campbell takes us from The Wire’s terrifying beauty Omar and Tracey Emin’s celeb­rated Bed, through a brief history of the veil in France, to Katie Price, whose reputation as that “rare phenomenon, a woman at ease with herself”, was, it turns out, all propaganda. She never really loved her body: she couldn’t stop altering it. And anyway, “Class will out – Price couldn’t pass.”

For Laurie Penny, too, the female body is the conundrum modernity has not solved, but only made more problematic. Today’s women “grow up learning that . . . however brave and smart and accomplished we are, however many millions we earn or lives we save, none of it matters if we are not beautiful”. Actually, I would quarrel with that assertion. What I wouldn’t quarrel with is her argument that beautiful women are at constant risk of denigration, that all women fear being called ugly and that women in public life, especially feminists, are at particular risk of being labelled ugly.

Penny is one of the first feminist writers to grow up within, and so instinctively understand, both the possibilities and the dangers of this relatively new cyber world, where such women are too easily the targets of vicious abuse. Just as worrying are the new modes of “patriarchal surveillance”, in which “one slip can disgrace you for ever”, be it a naked shot, a compromising email exchange or any number of “furtive late-night search histories”.

No wonder Penny writes as if she is on the run. At 27 she is a forceful presence not just online but within feminism and in the mainstream media. (My daughters read her and Owen Jones.) At the same time, she announces herself a proud member of a society of “broken kids” fleeing mainstream culture and its expectations.

Openly avowed contradictions abound in this mix of pounding polemic and autobiographical sketches of Penny’s life so far, including her harrowing descriptions of being hospitalised for anorexia and the humiliations of romantic and sexual rejection, as well as funnier, if equally frank, accounts of how she got thrown out of a ballet class for teaching the other little girls how to masturbate and why her alleged lack of “emotional boundaries” and predilection for large grey knickers have precluded the possibility of ever selling her body for sex. Declaring herself “always more interested in fucking than being fuckable” she is forever searching for love – just not the kind to be found in “marriage, monogamy and a mortgage”. And, indeed, many a middle-aged divorcee would consider that a highly useful realisation to have banked so early on in life.

Unspeakable Things may be soaked in feminism’s rational and radical plaints, from the emptiness of most waged work to the continuing official compliance in “rape culture”, but Penny’s pessimism surely belongs as much to her generation as to her gender: to the legions of idealistic and vulnerable young people, graduating into unemployment, homelessness and new forms of official oppression.
For young men, many of the old forms of masculine privilege, be it a job in the City or an apprenticeship, have been swept away, and to have a baby early is considered more than ever a poor girl’s choice. Young people are saturated with images of sex but have as little credible knowledge of it as previous generations, while “what really gets social conservatives angry . . . happens not in swanky fetish clubs, but behind the closed doors of abortion clinics”.

Unlike most fourth-wave feminists, Penny displays a militant, if slightly uneasy agnosticism about pornography. She rejects the term “prostitution”, preferring to talk of “sex work”, a descriptor that permits agency and rejects the status of victimhood. “Instead of asking what it is about sex that is so bad for women, we can start asking what it is about work that is so bad for everyone,” she writes. This just doesn’t cut it for Campbell, who counters Penny’s stance on sex work directly, asking: “What can ‘choice’ and ‘rights’ mean, therefore, to a girl snared by men who want to control her body?” At the risk of sounding like a referee (or a mother), I would argue that surely no single term can encompass the experiences of both a trafficked teenager and Stoya, the confident feminist porn star whom Penny quotes at length.

For all their differences, these two writers share an aggressive lack of optimism. You will find here no cheerful reckoning of the tremendous gains made by women in education, politics or culture, nor, funnily enough, much recognition of the ways in which feminist activists and writers have changed, charged or recharged the culture. Setting Penny and Campbell next to a work such as Alison Wolf’s The XX Factor (2013), which takes a triumphalist view of the growing global female professional elite, shows how a clear divide has opened up in 21st-century feminist discourse. Everything’s getting better: everything’s getting worse. Take your pick.

Emotionally, I’m with the Pennys and the Campbells, spirited outsiders who refuse to be bought off with empty dreams of female empowerment. Forty years apart in age, they embody the fantasy of the writer as heroine/rebel, moving from place to place with suitcase and laptop, truthful about the pain that exile from the establishment causes the true nonconformist. Both books aroused conflicting emotions in me – one part thrilling to, and grateful for, their uncompromising boldness, another part resisting the urge to duck, and so evade the sometimes discomfiting velocity of their prose.

Gove’s departure – and what might follow

Below, my piece in today’s Guardian Comment page on the sudden demotion of Michael Gove.

One could hear the gasps echoing around the political world yesterday morning. Gove demoted to the whips’ office? Unthinkable.

Or was it? For experienced Gove watchers, there were a few signs in the air. At last month’s Wellington College festival of education, I sat with more than 1,000 people in a marquee waiting for the secretary of state. This was the minister’s natural habitus, an annual jamboree of new-right education reformers sponsored by his old employer the Sunday Times and hosted by a key Gove ally, Anthony Seldon.

But the minister was well over an hour late. And the crowd was getting restless. Gove was apparently stuck in traffic – a poor excuse for a man who is driven everywhere, but an indication perhaps of his less impressive qualities: accident-prone, a touch hapless, careless – even of his most loyal following.

It didn’t help that so many of Gove’s policies were beginning to fray at the edges. Once hailed as the democratic vehicle of parent power, too many free schools have got into a shabby sort of trouble over the last year. The evidence on sponsored academies, the supposed “silver bullet” for school improvement, has also worn thin, thanks largely to the diligent research of my Local Schools Network colleague Henry Stewart. Only this week, it was acknowledged in the high court that results at academies are frequently swollen by vocational equivalents that the minister himself long ago repudiated…

Red the rest of the piece here.

Austerity Bites

Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith and Austerity Bites by Mary O’Hara – my latest review in the Guardian.

Right now, some inventive literary festival programmer is probably trying to set up a staged discussion between Harry Leslie Smith and Mary O’Hara. If not, they should – it would be fascinating. Smith, a mere 91 years of age, is boiling with anger at what he sees as the UK’s return to the indignities of his Great Depression childhood. O’Hara, an experienced reporter, brings a cool head to her story of the impact of the cuts over the last four years.

Yet for all the difference in age, experience and literary voice, these writers, both of whom began their lives in poverty, speak of remarkably similar things. And both books add to a mounting body of work on the growing economic divide in modern Britain: “an emergency”, according to Smith, “as dire as the economic crisis of 1933”.

Only a few pages in, I decided that the best way to read his unusually structured book was to approach it as a kind of epic poem, one that moves in circular fashion from passionate denunciation to intense autobiographical reflection. Smith’s early childhood – he grew up in Yorkshire in the 1930s – was one of almost Dickensian deprivation: his older sister Marion died aged 10 of tuberculosis in Barnsley’s old workhouse, and his unemployed miner father of alcoholism and loneliness. Wartime service in the RAF at least brought Smith regular meals and a reliable wage, and he met his German wife, Friede, in the ravages of postwar Berlin. The couple moved to Canada where moderate economic prosperity and ordinary family contentment rescued him from the bitterness of his early years.

In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era, in particular the creation of the welfare state, as Britain’s finest moment, a compact between industry and labour, the middle and working classes, destroyed a half-century or more later by neoliberal economics and unrestrained finance capital. (Unlike Loach, he also puts a bit of the blame on what he sees as the over-mighty trade unionism of the 70s.) All hope of greater equality or genuine democracy is now being swept away, here and in the US, by greedy corporations, the heedless tax-evading rich and near-corrupt governments, who “act like acolytes from a cult who worship profits over common sense”. This has returned the UK to the landscape of his childhood, in which “food poverty, like a tidal flood, has begun to encroach upon both city and suburban dwellers”.

In one particularly depressing scene, he describes being picked up at the airport, on a return visit to Yorkshire, by a distant cousin who takes him on a tour of Halifax, where Smith spent his later childhood. As they drive the roads in drizzling rain, jet-lagged Smith is made gloomy by the dire economic plight of the town and his cousin’s Ukip-style rantings about immigrants.

Smith’s book may be more overtly political and emotional, but O’Hara’s lucid account of a year-long trip around austerity Britain left me reeling and somehow more ashamed. A reasonably well-informed citizen will have most of the jigsaw pieces to hand: the mean-spirited “bedroom tax”; the increased number of food banks; the dramatic reduction in local government budgets and public sector jobs; the punitive sanctions on job seekers in a labour market short even of insecure, poorly paid work; a battery of new tests for disabled people; and the erosion of legal aid.

O’Hara clarifies this jumble of privations in several significant ways. She never loses sight of human beings, too easily buried beneath the rubble of official acronyms and policy speak. There is a chapter devoted to the emotional fallout of austerity: the loss of identity, self-hatred, multiple suicide attempts and sheer hopelessness of those marooned without income or work – or any future prospect of either.

Petty applications of new benefit rules mean claimants risk losing already meagre sums for four weeks, 13 weeks or, “if it happens a third time”, for as long as three years. One job seeker tells O’Hara: “You’re five minutes late for your appointment, you show the adviser your watch, which is running late, but you still get sanctioned for a month.” Another says: “It’s Christmas Day and you don’t fill in your job search evidence form to show that you’ve looked for all the new jobs that are advertised on Christmas Day. You are sanctioned. Merry Christmas.” The devastation wreaked on the disabled, thousands of whom face up to six separate welfare cuts by 2015, has been, says the usually understated O’Hara, “jaw-dropping”.

By the end, she makes a convincing case that the coalition has in effect prosecuted a callous four-year “war on the weakest” in our society. You can’t help but share in her icy judgments of Cameron, Osborne, Gove and co, and particularly the hapless work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who didn’t even turn up for the parliamentary debate on the bedroom tax in November 2013. Tory high jinks during that same debate, with one MP pretending to nod off and another making jokes about the name of the tax, suggested too many MPs have become out of touch with common decency, let alone with vast parts of the country.

O’Hara also helpfully dissects the ways in which a Benefits Street-style political narrative has made welfare so much more publicly unpopular. Alarmist references to the size of the benefits bill fail to make clear that the figure also includes pensions and subsidies for the working poor; the extent of welfare fraud is vastly overstated; the much publicised, and apparently reasonable, “cap” of £26,000 punishes large families and saves relatively little money in overall terms; government press releases make continual use of emotive phrases such as “dependence”, “entrenched” and “addiction”.

Without robust enough challenge from either the compliant Liberal Democrats or the official opposition, the state has been slashed. Meanwhile, the official narrative has subtly shifted from deficit-cutting necessity and “We’re all in it together”, to a leaner, meaner state – oh, and let’s kick out the Romanian hordes.

What’s keeping people afloat are the remnants of the state and the real Big, but now Battered, Society: what’s left of voluntary and community action, and the numerous activist campaigns that have sprung up in recent years. Even so, such is the level of distrust and anger among large parts of the population, O’Hara warns, that a rerun of the 2011 riots is entirely possible.

Both books, but particularly O’Hara’s, should be required reading for every MP, peer, councillor, civil servant and commentator. The fury and sense of powerlessness that so many people feel at government policy beam out of every page.

• To order Harry’s Last Stand for £9.74 (RRP £12.99) and Austerity Bites for £15.99 (RRP £19.99) with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk