Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Feminism is not finished

'Feminism is not finished'
After years of derision, feminism is finding its voice again, from grassroots protests to a flurry of books, websites and even a summer school. But will it lead to real change?
Kira Cochrane The Guardian, Saturday 24 July 2010

If you want to gauge the energy in the current British feminist movement, you have to speak to the young campaigners. Alex Corwin has defined herself as a feminist since she started reading avidly about women's issues a few years ago, aged 19. It made her "SO ANGRY", she had to become an activist.

Corwin joined a local grassroots group – Sheffield Fems– and since then she has taken part in campaigns that run the gamut: local, international, political, cultural. She could recently be found in a high-street newsagent, armed with Post-it notes to stick on the half-clad women in men's magazines, inscribed with the words "What if she was your daughter?" Once a month she and the group set up a stall in their local shopping centre, campaigning on issues including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and how climate change affects women worldwide. Last year the group helped organise a well-attended conference; in 2008, they ran a campaign to stop a branch of US restaurant chain Hooters (where lightly clothed women serve up the burgers) opening in Sheffield. They're also working on a Feminist Survival Guide, to answer questions including "Do you burn your bra?" and "What can I do about lads' mags?" If she could achieve one lasting change, what would it be? "A total overhaul of the way society sees women," she says.

She is exactly the type of feminist who Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune are celebrating in Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement. The book's title isn't supposed to suggest feminism ever went away – groups as disparate as Justice for Women, The Fawcett Society, Southall Black Sisters and Karma Nirvana have been working for women's rights for decades now. But when Redfern started feminist website The F Word, in 2001, she felt there was a general perception that young women weren't interested, and that the movement was therefore gasping its last. "People in the media kept saying that feminism was dead," says Redfern, "and deriding it year after year". As a young lecturer, Aune noticed the same problem in academia.she met plenty of young feminist students, "but a lot of older academic feminists didn't seem to believe it". The idea of the book, says Redfern, was to "try and present a snapshot of the movement, and bring it into the mainstream". The reader they had in mind, Aune continues, was "someone who's vaguely interested in gender issues, but hasn't had something that really makes the connections for them". Each chapter focuses on a different area of current feminist thought and action, including arguments around violence against women, equality in the home and workplace, and sexism in popular culture.

The book ends with the results of an extensive survey. Redfern and Aune aimed at feminist groups that was started in 2000. Initially they sent it to 50 organisations, but the long, complicated questionnaire was eventually passed around 80 to 100 groups. 1,265 newly committed, newly inspired feminist campaigners responded, and Aune says they could easily have tripled that number if necessary. Three-quarters of the respondents were under 35.

It's just one of many signs that we seem to be entering a new heyday for British feminism. Another is the sudden burst of British feminist publishing, after an extensive drought. Along with Redfern and Aune's book, the past 12 months has seen the publication of Ellie Levenson's The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism, Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman, Natasha Walter's Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, Sheila Rowbotham's Dreamers of a New Day, and Kat Banyard's The Equality Illusion: The Truth About Men and Women Today. There are more books in the pipeline – Caitlin Moran, the Times journalist, who won Columnist of the Year at the British Press Awards is apparently hard at work on a book about the future of feminism, and the young feminist writer, Laurie Penny, has her own take coming out soon. And published next month in the UK, after achieving bestseller status and causing quite a stir in the US, is Half the Sky,: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by husband and wife Pulitzer-prizewinning journalists Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, which reports on the plight of women in the developing world.

Walter has been speaking at events around the country, and says the feedback has been phenomenal. Her talk at the Brighton Festival completely sold out, in quite a big venue: "I think there's a real hunger to talk about feminism". The mood is very different, she says, to 10 years ago, when she published The New Feminism, and was met with a bruising response from many female journalists. "People are ready to debate this seriously again."

Kat Banyard agrees. Earlier this year she set up social networking website, UK Feminista, where local grassroots groups can meet, debate and build strong, supportive ties. Banyard, who is in her late 20s, has been running successful annual feminist conferences for the past six years and has also decided to run a UK Feminista summer school, taking place next weekend, where activists will learn how to campaign more effectively. She has been stunned by the response. "In the first 24 hours 100 people registered," she says, "and three days on we had a couple of hundred. I've never seen anything like it. I'm used to spending six to nine months building up that kind of attendance at feminist events."

When I ask what explains this surge of interest, Banyard says that significant triggers arise almost every week. "Over the last few months, we've had the actor Danny Dyer inciting readers [of Zoo magazine] to cut their ex's face, we've had news of padded bras for seven-year-olds, we've had an absence of women on the election campaign trail, the announcement of anonymity for rape defendants. With headline after headline we're seeing a continuing need for feminism. And with each new incident, people are getting involved."

The movement is well-represented across the country. Aune says she was surprised by the huge amount of activity in Scotland, and Banyard points out that new groups include the Belfast Feminist Network, Newcastle Feminist Book Group, Fawcett Essex group, and Cardiff Feminist Network. This last group was set up by Hannah Austin earlier this year – within a week, she says, there were around 300 members.

Suswati Basu, a 22-year-old who is currently studying Mandarin at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, embodies the movement's drive and excitement. She has been a feminist activist for four years now, in which time she has campaigned against student beauty pageants and been involved with the London Feminist Network's annual Reclaim the Night marches – large-scale protests against male violence, which started in the 1970s, died out in the 1990s, and were successfully revived in 2004. Basu has also taken part in protests with the activist group, Object, which many of the feminists I speak to describe as the most inspiring campaign around. Object has been challenging the sexual objectification of women since forming in 2003, and they scored their two biggest successes last year, securing changes in the laws surrounding lapdancing clubs and prostitution.

The young feminists who are spearheading this new activism clearly have enormous energy, ambition and idealism, and in many cases are doing brilliant work. But the question of where the movement goes next, of what its prime focus should be, remains to be answered.The current burst of feminist publishing is promising, but much of it repackages longstanding arguments. The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism is, as its title suggests, a lighthearted look at the topic; Reclaiming the F Word is a useful book for its expected audience - women discovering feminism for the first time - but doesn't set out to present unexpected new arguments. Dreamers of a New Day is a fascinating look at the women who were fighting for social justice in the late 19th and early 20th century, but its context is historical. Nina Power's book, One Dimensional Woman, lays claim to new ground but, at 20,000 words, is an opening gambit in a bigger battle.

There's a need for new thinking and more publishing then - as well as more focus.If, as Corwin suggests, the aim of today's activists is to completely change society, then questions remain about where to channel their energy. Should the focus be on getting more women into parliament? Getting more women out of prostitution? Does having more women at the top help all the women further down the ladder? Should activists focus on the sex industry, equal pay, violence against women, international issues – and if individuals and groups choose to tackle all of these, how much change can they achieve? If inequality between men and women is structural, a web of discrimination in which the dearth of women in politics intersects with the portrayal of women in pornography, which intersects with the tendency for women to be paid less than men, the depiction of women as obsessed with shoes, the likelihood that female plaintiffs will be disbelieved in rape cases, the attempts to undermine women's abortion rights; if the situation of women in Britain has an impact on women in France, the US, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, then which threads do we pull to make the most impact in bringing the whole web down?

"It feels as though there's so much interest," says Walter, "from so many different areas, that something positive has to happen, but whether it will, it's hard to know. "I'm heartened by the rise in activism," says Walter, "but the questions we'll all be asking ourselves over the next year are: how wide is this new wave? Will it touch people beyond the usual suspects? Will it galvanise energy more widely in the grassroots – bring in other classes, women of other backgrounds? And will it also touch women who have the power and influence to change things? I'm not saying that women aren't asking these questions. So it's not a criticism of what's going on, but it's the challenge. I feel that we're beginning to see more happening, but at the moment it's still quite focused in narrow areas. We need to see it spread".

Banyard is equally aware of the challenges. "At the moment, while feminist organising is growing and really exciting, it's quite disparate and unconnected," she says. UK Feminista is an attempt to address that issue. "For me, what's absolutely crucial," she continues, "is that we translate this excitement, this energy, into real gains for women's rights - because it's not an automatic translation. We need fundamental shifts in our culture, in our laws, in business practices. It's not a simple process. We're very much at the stage now of creating a mass base of people. What's crucial is that we then use that".

What's heartening is that feminism does seem to be reaching beyond the ivory towers of academe to a broad range of women. Redfern points out that there have recently been feminist articles in Elle and Company magazines, while Walter says she was surprised to see pieces debating the importance of feminism in The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph this year. Power says that, even just a year and a half ago, when she wrote One Dimensional Woman "the situation didn't seem remotely as optimistic, but so much has been happening, and there just seems to be a mainstream acceptance that feminism's still around, that it's not finished, it's not uncool, and it's not depressing. It suddenly has a contemporary sheen that makes it exciting, which wasn't really true in the 80s or 90s at all".

Shahida Choudhry, a 40-year-old mother, who lives in Birmingham and has worked in the domestic violence sector throughout her career, says that although a lot of her work "has been driven by feminism, it's only recently that I've started to frame it like that". In the past few years, she has been heavily involved with the Fawcett Society in Birmingham, and is also the founder of the locally based Women's Networking Hub, which brings grassroots women's organisations together with those who need their support. In January she held an event at a library in central Birmingham, "which I pulled together, on my own, in a couple of weeks". She was only expecting a handful of women "twenty at most, but three hundred turned up. It was mind blowing."

Choudry is also involved with the Million Women Rise marches – protests against violence against women – which have been taking place in London around International Women's Day for the past three years and are among the most successful of all the current feminist campaigns. An estimated 8,000 women turned out this year. "It was absolutely amazing," says Choudry, "the feeling of marching through the streets, shoulder to shoulder. It really shows that there are women who want to speak out".

UK Feminista summer school runs from 31 July to 1 August. For details, go to ukfeminista.org.uk

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Hugo Radice on the Austerity Budget

Hugo Radice 7 July 2010
The June budget

Following the inconclusive outcome of the British general election on May 6th, the ‘centrist’ Liberal Democratic Party decided to turn sharply to the right by agreeing to join the Tories in a coalition government. In the run-up to the election, the Tories had argued strongly that Britain faced the prospect of a fiscal crisis unless the government’s deficit was brought down further and faster than the outgoing Labour government intended (see The Bullet no. 345).

The new government quickly cranked up the volume over the deficit, with fresh scare stories about the risk of contagion from the Greek sovereign debt crisis and the subsequent disarray across the Eurozone. Although Labour and the left at once warned of the danger that sharp cuts would risk a new recession, the coalition insisted on pursuing their austerity agenda – and none more so than the Lib Dem ministers, who before the election had sided firmly with Labour on the issue.

The Chancellor George Osborne announced the coalition’s emergency budget to the House of Commons on June 22nd. The key elements were:
Public sector borrowing to fall from £149b in 2010-11 to £37b in 2015-16.
Three-quarters of the reduction will come from spending cuts, and only a quarter from tax rises.
‘Unprotected’ areas of public spending – all bar health and aid – will face 25% cuts.
Government capital spending (investment) to fall by 60%.
VAT raised from 17.5% to 20% from January 2011.

It rapidly became clear what the impact of these cuts would mean:
Forecast job cuts by 2015-6 of 600,000 in the public sector, with 700,000 further in the private sector; to be offset by 2m expected new private sector jobs.
While the richest 10% will lose the biggest share of their income (2%), otherwise the burden will fall most heavily on the poorest, especially due to cuts in welfare.
Postponement of many projects for renewing schools, hospitals and transport infrastructure.

The response
Among politicians, the media and professional economists two camps immediately emerged.

On the one hand, supporters of the budget argue that the government had to announce rapid reductions in the deficit, in order to allay the concerns of the financial markets. By cutting government spending more quickly, they argue, resources of money, goods and labour will be freed up sooner to feed the expected recovery in the private sector. It will also ensure that interest rates remain low, which will stimulate borrowing by businesses. Furthermore, 77% of the projected fall in the deficit will come from spending cuts, and only 23% from tax rises; this is seen as an appropriate balance, since the spending cuts will be focused on waste and red tape, and any shift towards more tax rises would directly hit private sector spending.

The coalition’s critics disagree on all these points. The threat from the bond market has been greatly exaggerated to justify a deliberate attack on the public sector. Far from freeing resources for private sector growth, the cuts will reduce household incomes and spending, making the private sector even less likely to invest and take on new staff. A return to recession could also make the deficit even worse. What is more, the impact of the budget will fall most heavily on the poor, since higher tax allowances will not offset the effect of job losses and benefit cuts.

Key issues include the state of the bond markets; the effects of the cuts; the continued problems of the banking sector; the role of the property market; and the long-term impact on workers’ living standards.

The bond market bogeymen
Despite the continuing jitters in financial markets, the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis has abated somewhat. The UK’s own sovereign debt is well outside the danger zone: there has been no difficulty in finding ready buyers for newly-issued debt, and the maturity profile – that is, the average period before the various debt issues must be repaid – remains far better than those of other countries. In addition, the extent of foreign ownership of UK government bonds (around 30%) is much lower than for other large economies (e.g. 50% for the USA). But we have to look in more detail at the global picture.

First, although it may seem paradoxical, quite a few City economists (and the IMF and the OECD) now agree with the budget’s critics, arguing that the impact of simultaneous public sector cuts across Europe and elsewhere threatens to bring the global economic recovery to a halt.[1] This may well account for the worldwide slump in stock markets after the G8/G20 summit at the end of June in Toronto: the assembled leaders gave no indication of having an agreed approach, with the Obama administration apparently arguing that European deficit-cutting was too soon and too deep.

Second, too little attention is given to the global savings glut. Big non-financial businesses are awash with cash, as are the sovereign wealth funds of oil-producer states and the high-growth Asian governments, as well as the global super-rich. In the current conditions of chronic uncertainty about growth and government policies, all these types of investor are looking for safe havens, and after gold, government bonds remain the main ‘safe haven’.

The double-dip risk
The critics also argue that rapid cuts in government spending will directly lead to increases in unemployment through the loss of public sector jobs. This will increase the government deficit as taxes fall and benefit payments rise; it will also hit the recovery in consumer spending, both through lower total household income and through a resulting fall in consumer confidence. Because the private sector will be hit not only by the fall in household spending, but also by the loss of sales to the public sector, they will postpone investment plans and either cut staff numbers, or at best delay hiring or re-hiring.

The coalition argues that quicker and deeper cuts in the government’s borrowing requirement will free up resources for private sector investment, and keep the cost of borrowing low. But recent surveys of business confidence in many countries show that businesses are unwilling to start investing again because of the huge uncertainties they face in terms of demand and costs. In any case, the all-important small & medium enterprises (SMEs), which are supposed to be the backbone of the recovery, are currently paying interest rates of around 10% on bank borrowing, despite the Bank of England holding its own 0.5% rate. As long as commercial banks are under pressure to build up their reserves against future losses, they are unlikely to reduce the rates they charge to the private sector.

However, it is still possible that the double-dip will be avoided. There are two reasons for this. First, despite the very slow pace of recovery, especially in terms of employment and especially in the US, UK and the Eurozone fringes, growth of 4-5% is currently forecast for 2010 in the world economy as a whole. China, India and other ‘emerging’ economies are forecast to account for 70% of demand growth this year, and are now sufficiently large to have a real impact on demand for goods and services from Europe and North America. This may be sufficient to cancel out the depressing effects of public spending cuts, especially since the cuts are going to take some time to implement.

Second, while Keynesian and other critics argue that business confidence is vulnerable to fears of recession, they do not recognise that it is also boosted by any signs of continued recovery. Big businesses, especially transnationals whose production is diversified by country and product, have the cash reserves to respond quickly to market growth wherever it occurs.

The banking sector
The Eurozone sovereign debt crisis has brought to light the continuing fragility of many banks, especially across Europe (including the UK) and the USA. This is mainly because so many banks are holders are large amounts of government debt. The short-term response of bank regulators has been to introduce ‘stress testing’ of banks, which means examining their balance sheets to see the likely impact of events such as large-scale public debt defaults.

The longer-term response is to develop agreed rules for banking regulation across the world. This is taking much longer than originally hoped, for example at the 2008 London G20 meeting. Partly this is because of the resistance of the biggest (and therefore most powerful) banks to stricter regulation of their activities, and partly it’s because of the technical difficulties of reconciling the very different systems of regulation in different countries – even within the Eurozone countries, where the European Central Bank has to deal with 16 different national regulators.

But the real problem concerns much more fundamental issues of what we want banks to do. Most of the political centre and left held the banks responsible for the crisis right from its origins in 2007. Wanting to avoid any recurrence of the crisis, they support renewed segregation of ‘bread and butter’ banking based on deposits from and loans to households and businesses, from the ‘speculative’ activities of investment banking, referring notably to the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act in the US, which was repealed by the Clinton administration in 1999. There is considerable support for this move among international organisations and even bankers, but this is really only an issue for the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economies, and for a small number of European and Japanese banks that have followed the Wall Street / City of London model. Interestingly it is strongly opposed by the government of Canada, whose large but conservative banks avoiding getting involved in the more risky activities that brought down Lehman Brothers or Royal Bank of Scotland.

While these issues are still so far from resolution, banks everywhere face great uncertainty. Many continue to carry a lot of potentially ‘toxic’ lending in their balance sheets. They are urged on the one hand to build up their reserves of capital, but on the other hand to expand their lending to help the recovery, and to pay special levies to governments to provide funds which can be deployed to avoid future crises.

Property and profits
The continued uncertainty about both the global economic recovery, and about the reform of financial sector regulation, are sufficient reason for the volatility of global bond, stock and currency markets. They also explain the tensions between the great powers, old and new, over international coordination of responses to the crisis. In these circumstances, the most likely outcome remains a drift towards ‘business as usual’.

A major part of ‘business as usual’ in the case of Britain (and the US, Ireland and Spain) was the boom in residential property prices in the 15 years after the end of the recession of the early 1990s. By the time the crash came, house prices in Britain were way out of line with household incomes, compared with all historical experience; while the method of financing the boom (by lenders raising money through the sale of short-dated securities) was a major factor in the 2007 credit freeze that initiated the global crisis.

A little-noticed feature of the budget is that it assumes that the recovery of house prices back towards pre-crash levels will continue. This is clear from the assumption that revenues from the stamp duty payable on house transactions will over four years recover to the pre-crash level. Yet it is hard to see how this will happen, unless the economic forces behind the boom are restored. In particular, households will have to revert to debt-fuelled property speculation, and the money markets will have to restore the flow of funds into household mortgages.

A declaration of class war
First of all, with regard to the effects of spending cuts, it is hard to see how the coalition can implement their pledge to maintain ‘front line services’, since their existing commitment to level spending in some areas (particularly health) apparently means that other government departments will have to cut their spending by up to 25% (or – according to the latest leak – anything up to 40%) over the next five years. In addition, much of the supposedly dispensable ‘back room’ work is in fact absolutely necessary for the support of the front line services.

The critics argue also that the tax rises are inequitable, despite the retention of the 50% tax rate for incomes over £150,000; the VAT rise in particular is not progressive, except as a result of the fact that poor households spend a higher share of their income on zero-rated foodstuffs. Given that the impact of spending cuts, especially in benefits, will fall more heavily on poor households, the overall impact of the budget on households will favour the rich at the expense of the poor.

For Keynesian liberals and the centre-left, this makes no sense at all, because the primary need is to expand effective demand for goods and services (and thus expand employment). Poorer households are much more likely to spend their incomes, it is argued, while richer households will be concerned to reduce their debts to manageable levels.

Of course, as I have already argued, businesses will only invest and grow if they anticipate growth in demand for the goods and services they produce. But the Keynesians ignore the other key objective for employers: to reduce costs, and especially labour costs, including not only wages but also the deferred wages that provide our pensions. In the US, the average earnings of individual workers peaked in the 1970s; in Germany there has been no wage growth in the last decade. This places strong pressure on businesses in other countries to cut labour costs in order to remain competitive.

The emergency budget includes not only the prospect of pay freezes in the public sector, but also an assault on pension costs, through raising the retirement age, raising our share of pension contributions, and tying pension levels to contribution levels rather than salaries. The message is clear: regardless of economic growth, lifetime earnings for working people are set to fall in the long term, after several generations in which rising living standards were a central feature of our acceptance of the capitalist order.

Just how important this issue is has been shown by two news items in the days since the budget. First, British Airways management’s proposed deal to settle their dispute with cabin crew includes the introduction of a two-tier workforce, with new recruits on worse pay and conditions. Second, selected Tories and their business supporters have begun to talk of the need to restrict the right to strike even further than the Thatcher legislation - none of which, incidentally, was repealed by New Labour.

We are in for a long, hard struggle – that is the clear message from this budget.

Hugo Radice

[to appear in The Bullet, http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/]

[1] See Martin Wolf, ‘A demand fall casts doubt on early austerity’, Financial Times 7 July 2010.