art of resistance

(Interview) Adrienne Roberts: A Woman’s Work Is Never Done.

red_women_copy55291/Photo: See Red Woman’s Workshop/

Adrienne Roberts is a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester since 2012. Her research and teaching interests are in the areas of international political economy, feminist political economy, debt and debt-driven development, and gendered dimensions of the carceral state and the criminalization of poverty.

Her work has been published in journals such as Third World Quarterly, International Feminist Journal of Politics, New Political Economy and Critical Sociology. Her book Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare: Feminist Political Economy, Primitive Accumulation and the Law (Routledge) was published in 2016. Roberts was a guest of the 10th Subversive Festival – European Left Against New World (Dis)order in Zagreb.

How is gender equality used as a stratgey of corporate business growth and a way of legitimizing capitalist exploitation?

It’s not only the corporations, but also a lot of the neoliberal government instutions, that have latched on the idea of gender equality as being smart economics. The idea is that it makes good economic sense to empower women. The problem here is how the empowering of women is understood, which is empowering women as workers and as consumers.

There’s been a lot of talk about the need to indrease women’s “human capital”, so that they can be integrated into the work force. What gets left out of those types of arguments is any attention to all the work that women already do, whether it’s dometic labour or home based work or various forms of the so-called informal labour. That is largely ignored in the debate that is positioned in a way that says that including women into the capitalist labour market leads to empowering.

What is the risk in enforcing such visions of empowerment?

The risk is that in ingoniring all of the other work that women are already engaged in, we risk further increasing the burden placed on women. It’s also important to talk about the power of women as consumers.

Different national economies and global economy in general haven’t recovered from the crisis of 2007/8, and we’re seeing stagnating levels of economic growth. Women are meant to be the real miracle workers, they are the ones that are going to get us out of it – empowered as workers and consumers. Valuing women as consumers risks obscuring all sorts of other inherent aspects of gender equality. Gender equality is underminded by the view that inequality is best solved by the integration into the capitalist market.

In connection to what you said about women as consumers, could we talk about feminism as a brand, the way it is often used as a marketing strategy, particularly in the Western countries, and then there are growing industries for empowering through “feminist” products?

There are many examples of how that’s done, and it depends on the type of feminism we’re talking about. This type of feminism is liberal feminism that isn’t challenging enough on a whole range of norms associated with femininty and capitalism.

All of the attempts to sell Dove products because they are somehow more natural and allow women to express their beauty naturally, but at the same time featuring images of women who are still being commodified and valued because they are attractive women, is a bad attempt to reconcile feminism with cosmetic industry. You see it in fashion magazines, like Vogue and Elle, which have explicitly adopted the feminist stance but don’t see any contradiction between that and continuously creating unrealistic and unachieveable standards of beauty.

How does this type of work contribute to feminism and does it at all?

There’s a lot of debates around that. I think it does. It’s obvious that feminism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In the USA, another example of this would be around Beyonce and her type of feminism, feminism of the famous, powerful and rich. They do have a message of empowerment and it does speak to a lot of people. Is that limited understanding of feminism? It is.

But this is a tricky question because it’s important for feminism not to alienate people and cause more separation, but there’s also danger in supporting feminism that is so inoffensive to the capitalist system, a system which is detrimental for women in so many ways. In such a narrow view of feminism, possibilities for major social changes are extremely limited.

Thinking about feminism globally, how can the feminism in the “developed countries” affect women elsewhere – like the “third world” labour, which now greatly depends on underpaid female wrokers? We can think about the relation of female workers and consumers of the garment industry as an example.

This is where the allegiance of different feminist organizations is important, and there are feminist groups that work on that. There are different feminist campaigns that have emerged globally, largely as respones to the corporate driven feminist agenda, and they are precisely about trying to draw attention to ways corporations exploit women through various industries, such as the garment industry, which is not well regulated.

This cannot only be tied to campaigns on consumption and western-based feminist movements by fair trade clothing, because that’s still too simplistic and too indvidualistic and not transformative enough. There are other ways consciousness can be raised among feminists in the West by linking up with the very people involved in making the products we consume. There are many venues where these sorts of discussions are happening now, around the world, like social forums. It’s an ongoing project and its future is yet to be determined.

WOMANKIND_Posters_RGB3 /Photo: For All Womankind/

You’ve wrritten a lot about the role of the state in forcing women to adhere to the historically shaped roles and categories, including those of paid and unpaid work. How crucial is the role of the state?

It’s essential. There are so many ways we can think about the involvment of the state historically and in the present moment, in producing and securing gender norms, inculding gender norms around paid and unpaid labour. In the book Gendered states of Punishment and Welfare, I am looking historically, up to neo-liberalism, at how the state is involved in creating specific gender norms.

Before the transition to capitalism you have the family working together for the most part, as an integrated unit, you don’t have the separation of what we now call productive and reproductive labour. Through a whole host of state policies in the early stages of transition to capitalism, a change is happening.

I am talking about state policies in England to create private property, done through different laws, and then the private property being regulated in a way that criminalizes peasantry, and says they are no longer able to collect food, fish, etc. All of these laws lead to creating wage labour, and people not involved in wage labour are to be punished. As we get further along the capitalist development, closer to the Industrial revolution and particularly after the Industrial revolution – these laws take on a more gendered form.

They are not just trying to create a class of wage labourers, they also say women need to behave in very particular ways if they want to be considered deserving of any sort of state support. If you are unmarried, if you have “bastard” children, you’re considered to be undeserving. There are similiar types of practices now, but with the move from the welfare state to work state, there is a disregard for all sorts of reponsilibilites women tend to have, and there is a rise of equality with the vengance within the criminal system.

Talking about equality with vengance – a big part of your research focuses on the carceral state and gendered forms of poverty, especially in connection to the criminalisation of poverty.

With the criminal system during the welfare state, which was still highly gendered and problematic on many levels, women used to be thrown in reformatories, and now you have women who are treated increasingly harshly, who are thrown into prisons similar to men’s. You’re not seeing the disciplining of women in a gender specific way, as it was seen in the welfare state era.

This has horrifiying results because when we stop paying attention to reasons why people end up committing criminal acitvity, we lose sight of the fact that women who are in jail are almost always there either for drug related crimes or for property related crimes, petty thefts, etc. If they are there for violence it is normally for violence committed against an abusive partner.

The reasons for those crimes are rooted in women’s socio-economic position and gendered forms of precariousness that are produced by neoliberalism. To ignore that and assume that women have made a cost-benefit calculation and a rational choice to engage in crime and that the way we need to deal with that isn’t through social support and social services, but through a harsh state that will be punitive in its reaction to crime is a really wrong approach.

You also look at debt-development a lot, but unlike many researchers, you analyze it on a micro-level, on the level of households.

What’s been going on since 1990’s through the microcredit projects is that so-called development in the so-called Third world is presumed to be something that can happen and that can be enabled by providing loans at the small scale to indviduals and increasingly to women. Somehow the provisioning of these loans is magically going to enable them to start sustainable businesses to bring themselves and their communities out of poverty. The microcredit project has been discredited over the years, we have several decades of studies that have shown it has failed to deliver on its intended outcome.

But the idea behind it hasn’t disappeared by any means, we’re seeing it reinvented right now in the interest that the development agencies and states have in supporting small to medium enterprises, as well as the focus on enterprenourship and women particularly. Even when they’re not talking about microcredit as much, there is still this assumption to provide small amounts of loans and business training to women and that is how we will achieve development. That bypasses all of the existing issues around underdevelopment and it doesn’t address the role of the state in supporting and working towards the reduction of poverty.

And finally – how is it possible to develop deeply transformative feminism in a capitalist system, if gender inequality was so essential in the development of capitalism?

That is why feminism needs to be anti-capitalist. There are inherent limits to forms of gender equality we can attain in a capitalist system because it is historically founded on gender inequality and it always enables to continue to profit and accumulate by reproducing gender inequality. I don’t see a time where we can have gender equality in capitalism. This is still not a widely recognized feminist position, but it’s also important to fight battles as they come up.

One big problem of Marxist feminists is that their critique is of such great proportions, on a structural level, and it risks taking away the sense from the small battles within the capitalist system, which are all necessary and important for the immediate needs and everyday lives of so many people.

We need to hold on to the analytical understanding of the roots of the gender inequality, but that isn’t meant to be a demobilising approach that says that anything that’s not directly undermining the system is useless.

• • •

This interview was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

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art of resistance

In Defence Of M.I.A.

mia borders video/photo: ytb-prtsc, Borders video/

There has always been a lot of controversy about M.I.A. and her music, and most of the time for the wrong reasons. I wouldn’t usually take time to write about it, but I feel it’s important to write something because it just doesn’t stop – by it I mean the shitstorm M.I.A. is facing.

Like it was nicely explained on Backwithpowerpower, it really doesn’t stop – from the dislikes she gets for posting photos of refugees and conditions they live in on Instagram, to debates about her headlining Afropunk. Sure, some of the criticism she has faced over the years is justified and it opened up space for conversations  that were much needed (I think Afropunk is in that category), but it’s also important to note that there was a lot of criticism over the years that wasn’t aimed to be constructive, but rather destructive (in relation to M.I.A.).

It wasn’t really about engaging with her, it wasn’t about having a discussion, it was about silencing her, discrediting her – in one fast move, usually. Of course, M.I.A. is a not a one-trick pony and cannot be discarded just like that. Her message resonates with many people, although they might not be the ones having the power in their hands and setting the course of mainstream conversations.

The first thing that comes to mind and is necessary to go back to again, is the famous article published in The New York Times six years ago, written by Lynn Hirschberg, titled M.I.A.’s Agitprop PopIt was the article that made M.I.A. say “fuck the New York Times” and that sentiment was not without a reason.

After it was published, M.I.A. posted two audio recordings from her interview, that she secretly taped. Hirschberg suerly didn’t expect that. In the published piece, M.I.A. is described as “eating a truffle-flavored French fry” as she mused about what type of artist she is. To be precise, here is the quote:

“‘I kind of want to be an outsider’, she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. ‘I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.'”

Now, if you are an observant reader, truffle-flavoured French fry is not just a small detail, it might tell you a lot about M.I.A.’s personality, it might tell you how she is, well, one of the fancy rich folks, pretending while talking about being an outsider and all.

The thing is, according to the tape M.I.A. posted after the interview was published, it was Hirschberg who introduced the concept of fry-ordering, and proposed the idea of a fancy treat. M.I.A. also tweeted Hirschberg’s phone number in response to the piece. Hirschberg said that was an unethical thing to do, but didn’t think it was surprising. “She’s a provocateur, and provocateurs want to be provocative”, she said about M.I.A.

But M.I.A. was just angry, because she felt that she was cheated on, that her story was distorted. Hirschberg’s own opinions and desire for a strong angle got in the way of her piece’s veracity. All the way through the nine page piece, it feels like she wants to discredit M.I.A., in a subtle way, writing things like:

“But many of her fans didn’t listen too closely to her lyrics, concentrating instead on the beat, the newness of the sound and her own multiculti, many-layered appeal. She was an instant indie darling (although Arular sold only 190,000 copies in the United States). Her songs were creative and abrasive in an intoxicating way, and it didn’t hurt that Maya was absolutely great looking. She quickly became a style icon: like that of all great pop stars, her anger and spirit of revolution was mitigated by sex.”

Now, that is what I am talking about. Hirschberg, whose main issues with M.I.A. are precisely her political lyrics, tries to downplay the importance of that part of M.I.A.’s work – saying how her fans don’t even listen closely to the lyrics. She also says how it’s basically all about her great looks. Sure, M.I.A. is beautiful, she has a unique style and there’s a cool vibe about it, but, her anger wasn’t and isn’t mitigated by sex (that is exactly why many people have issues with her).  In a song 20 dollar, from her second album Kala, M.I.A. raps:

People judge me so hard

’cause I don’t floss my titty set

I was born out of dirt like I’m porn in a skirt

I was a little girl who made good with all that I blurt

I put people on the map that never seen a map

I show ’em something they ain’t never seen

And hope they make it back

Saying M.I.A.’s politics don’t matter means being dismissive about the absolute core of her work, from day one. It’s also totally dishonest, as it is obvious in the part of the article where Hirschberg writes about the Born Free video:

“Seemingly designed to be banned on YouTube, which it was instantly, the video is set in Los Angeles where a vague but apparently American militia forcibly search out red-headed men and one particularly beautiful red-headed child. The gingers, as Maya called them, using British slang, are taken to the desert, where they are beaten and killed. The first to die is the child, who is shot in the head. While ‘Born Free’ is heard in the background throughout, the song is lost in the carnage. As a meditation on prejudice and senseless persecution, the video is, at best, politically naïve.”

So, first we will say that M.I.A.’s political message is not important at all, and then we will discard her on the basis of that political message. Hirschberg was not the only one to do that. In an article on Flavorwire, titled Is It Time To Give Up On M.I.A.? Judy Berman writes:

“The (ultraviolent, NSFW) music video (if you can call it that) for ‘Born Free’ brought M.I.A.’s political posturing to a new low. In case you’ve somehow managed to miss the flap over the seemingly endless clip, it features military types rounding up and shooting redheads, including some particularly adorable children. While some were impressed with M.I.A. and director Romain-Gavras’ messaging, all we got out of the extreme visuals was this: ‘Genocide happens! And it’s bad! What if it happened to you?’ Next time, try telling us something we didn’t know… or at least leaving shocked viewers with some opportunity to get involved in efforts to stop mass murder around the world.”

So, many of the critics got on the bandwagon, saying M.I.A. is just superficial and provocative, and her work is pure political posturing – she’s not really informed, she doesn’t really care, she just wants attention. Now, this definition “she’s not really informed, she doesn’t really care, she just wants attention” can be applied to a great majority of pop stars today (although they will never be nailed to a cross, or even questioned for it), but it cannot be applied to M.I.A.

You don’t see a lot of pop stars doing what she’s doing to “get attention”, do you? You don’t see a lot of mainstream musicians making bold statements and taking a stand on various issues, through their music and their public appearance, do you? Sure, little moments happen from time to time, but they seem very calculated and thought out in order not to shake things up too much. So, why aren’t their PR experts telling them to do what M.I.A. does, if that has been working out so well for her?

Simply because – it’s risky, it will get you in trouble, it upsets the status quo (and status quo is good for business, and business is all that matters). But M.I.A. won’t stick to the rules of business. In Born Free, she raps:

Yeah I don’t wanna live for tomorrow

I push my life today

I throw this in your face when I see ya

I got something to say

I throw this shit in your face when I see ya

Cause I got something to say

We really ought to ask ourselves what we want from our public figures. Should we really aim all the criticism towards the ones who are trying to open up the debate, who are giving space to new voices, who offer us new and different perspectives, who make us think, or make us feel uncomfortable? Are we really going to analyze them in detail, tear them apart, make them disposable? Do we really want to magnify their flaws, present them as the main thing about their work?

And at the same time, we will not say anything about all of those who create music that supports the system, that questions nothing, music that is just a nice sound and nothing else, music that is one long lullaby to our brain. They are ok, the damage that they are doing we do not see and do not question. But from M.I.A. we will demand consistency, adherence to principles all the time, in everything she does. And if she makes one mistake, we will call her a fake and say it’s time to give up on her?

Sure, that doesn’t mean we shloudn’t talk about the issues that exist. I don’t like the fact that M.I.A. decided to be fronting a recycling campaign for H&M, a company that relies on sweatshops and cheap third world labour. Even if you want to say they are making an effort (recycling and all) there’s an issue there too – those who recycle their clothes at H&M, which allows you to turn in garments at its stores year round, get a voucher for a discount on their next purchase, giving them incentive to buy more clothes. So yeah, it’s an issue.

Also, criticism of M.I.A.’s headlining of Afropunk have some truth to them – it is an event conceived by Black people, for Black people. But is it really just her fault, or was it also the organizers, who invited her in the first place? Aren’t they also complicit in erasing Black talent in this case? Those questions also need to be asked and we need to think about them, the same way we need to think about the importance of Black-Brown solidarity.

Now, back to that interview published in The New York Times. In it, it was also emphasized how M.I.A. said that instead of giving peace a chance we should maybe give war a chance, a stance then connected to her “militaristic and rebelious character”. I think this could be discussed on so many levels. For example, watching the Democratic National Convention (!) last week, you could hear much more horrifying things than what M.I.A. has (ever?) said.

General John Allen went out to say (yell might be a better word for it), among other things: “To our enemies, we will pursue you as only America can. You will fear us, we will defeat you”. I didn’t see much uproar about his and many other similar views expressed that night. If Hassan Rouhani yelled out something like that, it would be welcomed with terror. Because, you see, from the position of world dominance fueled with the (out of reality) idea of the “greatest nation in the world” it’s hard to recognize your own violent rethoric, your own exclusivity and aggression. That’s why it’s troubling to many when they hear lyrics like the ones in Bucky Done Gone from M.I.A.’s first album Arular:

Can I get control

Do you like me vulnerable

I’m armed and I’m equal

More fun for the people

Recently, M.I.A. has been criticised for her comments about Beyoncé and the Black Lives Matter movement, expressed in the interview in the Evening Standard. “It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter. It’s not a new thing to me – it’s what Lauryn Hill was saying in the 1990s, or Public Enemy in the 1980s”, she said.

She later added: “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That’s a more interesting question. And you cannot ask it on a song that’s on Apple, you cannot ask it on an American TV programme, you cannot create that tag on Twitter, Michelle Obama is not going to hump you back.” Since the piece was published M.I.A. has clarified her position, saying she wasn’t criticising Beyoncé directly, or BLM, and that her point was that only certain issues are allowed to be discussed on “American platforms”.

What she is really questioning is American exception and hegemony, the larger American imperialist structure. Now, this is where we need to talk about unity, about the way the oppressed people can recognize each other’s struggles and the way their struggles are connected. It’s a chance to talk about the multiple layers of oppression that make up the complex realities we live in. Because it’s not only about racism, it’s not only about imperialism, it’s not only about capitalism, it’s not only about patriarchy. It’s about all of it combined. That is the struggle. Neither one of those alone can serve as a lens to understand all forms of power and all the issues we face – it is just not that simple. We need to recognize that in order to develop true solidarity.

As Akiba Solomon writes in Yes! Magazine, “My lips, so accustomed to spitting out ‘White supremacy’ and ‘racism,’ never once considered ‘patriarchy’ as a way to explain why things were so fucked up for people who were not White, heterosexual, able-bodied, traditionally masculine, cisgender males with money. This was true even as I saw the women closest to me doing feminist work.”

And finally, when it comes to M.I.A., I think one of the most important things about her is (one) that she is holding a mirror and (two) she is trying to own her story. And she won’t be silenced, she won’t play the game politely, she won’t be a puppet. Yeah, she’s flawed, and who isn’t? Unlike many, I think she’s actually willing to talk about it. You may not like what she has to say, and so what? That’s Karmageddon, baby.

Things do change and change can have range

System shouldn’t operate by sticking me in a cage

Ain’t Dalai Lama

Ain’t Sai Baba

My words are my armour and you’re about to meet your karma

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