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Raj Patel © 2000

 

 
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This is a story about a photo taken by Christina Glavis. It shows an encounter between a group of hapless Boy Scouts visiting Washington DC on April 18, during the World Bank protests, and the riot police there to defend the Bank. It's a story about boys in suits. But in order to tell a story about suits, about how power operates by making domination "normal", and about how we can interrupt everyday performances of hegemony, we need to talk a little about feminism.

Our story begins in the 1980s, when observers noted a curious change in the high temples of development capitalism. From the inner sancta of project planning departments at the World Bank and USAID, memos began to trickle out, demanding that all future Bank and AID programme proposals include a "gender dimension". Women, they argued, matter too, and by including them in policy initiatives, there was the hope that these development projects would be more successful. Many Bankwatchers saw this as a great leap forward. Women, while providing the majority of the work that makes the fiction of free markets tenable, had been erased from the tales about the market spun by the Bank. "Adding them back in", for instance by directing educational initiatives to reduce their fertility, was seen as a way of redressing this imbalance, and addressing the concerns raised by feminists who complained that the Bank was entirely gender-blind.

Some feminists were pleased by the Bank's "add women and stir" approach. But others weren't. There are many feminisms, and many have agendas more radical than just wanting to see women counted. There are those, and I am among them, who see in the Bank's "gender dimension" not liberation, but a more sophisticated kind of domination over certain kinds of people. It's important to remember that gender is not the same as "women". Gender is a relational process, one in which bodies are constructed in certain ways, where bodies are read and decoded. This is a process through which people come to live and understand their bodies and lives in particular ways. In other words, gender is a great deal more complex, and political, than just "women". A little too complex. It's infinitely easier to just add women into the mix and stir than to ask who's doing the cooking, who gets to eat the cake, and who gets burned. (This ought to sound familiar to those who saw the "sustainability" category flourish and die in the rhetoric of development institutions.) Nowadays these institutions can, in the main, claim that they're being sensitive to gender and the environment by having a box or two for them in project evaluation forms.

But let's be fair. International development institutions aren't the only places where you'll find this kind of approach to feminism. Much of the resistance to international capitalism, at Seattle, in DC, and elsewhere, has suffered a similar myopia. EarthFirst!ers who climb trees while their womenfolk cook the food are just as guilty of sexism as the institutions they hope to overthrow. Indeed, the fact that gender, race and class issues featured only peripherally at DC has prompted some soul-searching within some of the groups and activists who see themselves challenging international capitalism.

The photo gives us a clue as to why it is so much easier to see injustice, domination, and the brute operation of power when the World Bank is involved than when we ourselves are implicated -- even, or perhaps especially, when we consider ourselves progressive. Recall that one of the great rallying cries of the powerful is "There is No Alternative!" Different approaches to politics, diversity of thought, opinion, action, behaviour, dress, and identity are threats to established order. An effective strategy for those in power has been to delegitimise these differences, trying to make them seem ridiculous. This approach creates a binary of "normal" on the one hand and "alternative" on the other. It is in the creation of normality that power is at its most subtle, and hence most potent.

In the picture, the photographer makes this visible. The Boy Scouts and the police are two everyday institutions. But looking again, there's something faintly eerie about these suited bodies. The ambiguous grin on the riot policeman's face -- why does he look quite so approving? The gaggle of boy scouts looks nothing if not malign. They just don't look normal. And when you think about it, what's normal about the Boy Scouts? Or the police? This photo reminds us that we need to learn to see more critically. We can be curiously cross-eyed when it comes to our activism, shouting angrily at the barricades at DC, and missing the prison system in front of our faces where our comrades are incarcerated. Or seeing the prison system and missing the institutionalised racism that puts such an obscenely high number of people of colour behind bars. Or seeing institutionalised racism and missing sexism and violence within the home. These are all sites of struggle. And the more quotidian the site, the more likely we are to overlook it.

The phenomena we take for granted everyday, in other words, are subject to the influence of groups both here and elsewhere. The WTO, the IMF, the World Bank and the Fed don't just operate in DC, New York and Geneva. They work right here. In our town. On our bodies. Shaping what we consider normal to be doing, what good and bad work is, what work gets paid, and what work is expected to be done unpaid.

And there's nothing more "normal" than the ways in which we are constructed as women and men. Yet our bodies, our desires, feelings, loyalties, strength, intellect, dexterity, love, sex and compassion are precisely what we're fighting for when we mobilise for global justice. Politics doesn't even just start at home. It starts right here, with our bodies, and our ability to reclaim them, to do the work we want, to love whom we want, how we want, to grow and share what we want.

There's a lot to fight against, though. Take the boys in the photo, for instance. You couldn't really want for a better image of masculinity in training. The dictionary is usually the last refuge of debating scoundrels, but this time the Oxford English Dictionary delivers very telling goods: "manly" is defined as "Possessing the virtues proper to a man as distinguished from a woman or child; chiefly, courageous, independent in spirit, frank, upright". Being manly is all about not being womanly or childish, all about not being something else. Of course, the same is true about womanly and childish -- these are all relational concepts, which we've filled with baggage of various sorts, so that men come to experience their bodies and lives in certain ways. And the trick to being a "good man" is to live more one way than another.

So, what do we do? Does this mean that collective action against globalisation is regressive? If the Bank is as much a symptom of power as a source of it, and if our bodies and minds are the stake in this struggle, should we retreat from the streets, go home and begin therapy? No. On the contrary, it is through collective action that we become who were are everyday. (Look at the photo again. Wearing uniforms has long been recognised by the state, and others, as a useful prop in the obedient performance of subjugated roles.) Only through reimagining from where we are now, by changing collective space so that it becomes normal to tolerate, recognizing the ways in which our lives are dominated by racist, heteronormative, divisive and unkind practices that we can reclaim our rights over our bodies. Reimagination will take work but, for example, through progressive queer politics, there,s a fighting chance that we'll have a more liberated future than we ever thought possible. And with any luck, we won,t have to dress up for it.

[To learn more about queer theory and radical feminism visit theory.org.uk, which does a splendid job of introducing the ideas in a non-technical way, simplifying without making things dumber than they can be.]

An almost identical version of this article was published in Ithaca's The Cobbler magazine.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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