Women on the verge: the essence of feminist struggle

  • January 24, 2017

Equality & Empowerment

The women’s march against Trump is not an exception. It signals an evolving tendency in feminist struggle and hints at what will come in the following decades.

On January 21, hundreds of thousands of women marched on Washington against Donald Trump — a nobody in the history of resistance who will nevertheless make a contribution to the history of oppression. A nobody whose archaic rhetoric and retrograde policy we must now fight against.

This impressive demonstration of women’s resistance to power is not an exception. It signals a tendency that has been emerging in recent years and hints at what will come in the following decades. We foresee another future of resistance where women will feature prominently. Another because women have been at the forefront of revolutionary resistance many times already, both as engines and enablers of movements and as visible leaders on the front lines.

Women are mobilizing not just because we have decided to resist massively and publicly. We are mobilizing also because the explicit attacks now being made on women from so many angles and throughout so many aspects of women’s lives have left liberal feminism incapable of mustering an adequate response. The argument for equality of the sexes is flawed, not only because men and women are clearly different, but also because it hides the real struggle of the sexes: the struggle to control the female body to the point of its obliteration.

There is a lack of appreciation that struggles surrounding social reproduction, understood in a broad sense, are struggles for the reproduction of society itself. As a recent headline in The Guardian put it, “violence against women harms us all.” It is a global health emergency. The possibility of life on this planet depends on the real eradication of this violence, which is not an anomaly but a defining feature of capitalist, colonial and patriarchal society.

In July 2016, Argentine women decided to politicize breast feeding. The removal of a mother for nursing her baby quietly in a public square by two policewomen provoked the organization of several mass breast feeding protests. Similar demonstrations have been organized in Australia, Denmark, England, Hong Kong and the United States. These are actions of embodied critique, both rejecting oppression and reconciling life with politics against the privatization of this essential tenet of social reproduction.

Women are on the verge. Not on the “verge of a nervous breakdown,” as they have been ironically caricatured in Almodovar’s hilarious film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. In a society that is not completely ours, we are always verging, walking on the edge, practicing arts of resistance, finding balance without falling. We are on the verge of discovering, criticizing, decolonizing, fighting, theorizing — as usual — and more in order to open new possibilities. Today, women’s edge-walking practices strengthen the capacity to stand against power and do life differently with others.

The idea of being women on the verge is a practical one. It is an intuited position, a feeling — the essence of feminist struggle that any woman in the world can understand but will find difficult to explain. This is always the case with intuition and emotional knowledge, and it is how it should be, for words so easily reduce meaning to what can be rationalized. Through intuition, on the other hand, we can liberate ourselves from absolute dependence on familiar categories of analysis and struggle. Intuitions can help us know beyond what it is possible to “say.”

In October 2015, 6,000 women who work as tea pickers for Kanan Devan Hills tea plantations in Kerala blocked the main road to the company’s headquarters. The company is part-owned but controlled by Tata, an Indian multinational and owner of Tetley Tea. Women organized the blockage themselves. They had no experience in union agitation, but defying all odds, they struggled against both the company and the union that was believed to represent them. Pempilai Orumai (Women’s Unity) stayed put for nine days. After endless negotiations overseen by the state, they won the 20 percent bonus they were demanding.

At a time when the conditions for the reproduction of life on the planet are deteriorating at unimaginable speed and levels, women thinking and living on the verge of what is not yet possible provide embodied and practical critiques of capital, coloniality and patriarchy. Our critique is not contained by the words we have learned to speak under these conditions, but is attuned with life, affect, commonality, denaturalizing and nature, utopia, storytelling, possibility and prefiguring.

Women on the verge fly towards the future without parachutes. Our ways of practical, embodied and loving critique strive towards the discovery of a constant opening of possibilities that rejects the present state of affairs, and a reconciliation with humanity. Uncertainty, ambivalence and not-yet-articulation are met with intuition and determination to create. In this way, we struggle with, against and beyond capital, the law, the state. We search and find comfort in the spaces opened by seeing and feeling the not-yet reality. This is our starting point.

Women on the verge are key to the present formation of a new radical political subject that cannot be recognized with old analytical tools. This radical subject-in-the-making is plural, prefigurative, decolonial, ethical, ecological, communal and democratic. Many theorizations about struggles for life today are not sufficiently interrogating their “too” familiar concepts, methodologies and epistemologies, and as a result they contribute to making this new subject of radical change invisible. In addition to the sciences’ obsession with facticity and policy, which takes them far away from recognizing and contributing to the prefiguration of new realities, there is another “obsession” that comes from critical theory itself: negative praxis.

Women on the verge are producing a critique that negates the given by affirming life. This must not be confused — as it often is — with “positive” thinking or affirmationism, for affirmation requires a rejection of what it is. Affirmation is driven by “NO!” and hope and, in practice, ventures beyond what appears to exist, thus offering an epistemological opening that coincides with the determination to live a good life.

Yet this prefigurative and “experiential” critique that is already developed at the grassroots of resistance has not been understood by critical theorists, in part because it requires that we approach life and practical theorizing about life without parachutes. Parachutes are helpful and life savers, but they make the jump safe. Safe is what is threatening women and society today.

We must seriously consider that the task of this present captivating moment in radical politics is to venture beyond the given — that is, beyond the expanding horrors of our time: war, death, violence, rape, hunger and despair. Doing so shows us that the notion of “utopia” has returned in subtler forms. We have seen a major transformation in grassroots movements’ politics, which prioritizes the ongoing struggle to create and protect breathing space from which to conceive and organize social life alternatively.

A myriad of knowledges and practices is developing towards this goal in urban and rural territories across the world today, led mainly but not exclusively by women. From projects in cooperative production to anti-oppressive education, from radical ecologies and pedagogies to experimentation with new economic possibilities, concrete processes of prefiguration now clearly anticipate a better future in the present. This is not wishful thinking, but part of reality today.

Yet power is not interested in exploring and developing these alternatives further, and nor, it seems, are the many social scientists who actively ignore or dismiss the theoretical and practical potency of these concrete utopias. Is this an option? We argue that it is not, for the material conditions of this world have fostered this rise of “an other politics” that thinks and speaks and seeks to understand the language of possibility. This language is not “utopian” but eutopian (which is perhaps the correct translation of Thomas More’s masterpiece Utopia). It does not build castles in the air but articulates a potentially better life through concrete and intuited praxis.

The main problem with mainstream social science is that it naturalizes capitalist and colonial social forms as “our society,” as “the world we live in.” Women’s experiential critique stands against this naturalization, which contradicts our intuition and diminishes possibilities for life itself. The naturalization of capitalist colonial and patriarchal society as the only viable model of collective human life leaves us in a state of fear and despair, for we know deeply that this is not possible, that it is wrong, that we are not-yet, that there has to be something more and better, that these alternatives are already real.

By normalizing the violence which is inherent in capitalist, colonial and patriarchal society, the social sciences confirm a (real) illusion: that reality is only what appears in front of us. For once the “not-yet” is eliminated from the horizon of possibility, scientists can only operate within the very partial and limited scope of either fantasy or probability. This creates self-limitation and self-repression in our views of the world.

Probability is not the same as possibility. Probability, paraphrasing Ernst Bloch, is something that can be expected, something that cannot be completely discarded. But the realm of possibility refers to things that are not-yet, things whose becoming lurk in the darkness of the present, ready to be activated, enacted, anticipated, made real — real-ized, in the words of Anna Stetsenko.

But we don’t know. We cannot be certain whether they will become in this time and place or not. Working to realize such possibilities, women on the verge are producing real change: we are throwing ourselves into future possibilities without fear, with hope, without parachutes. Risky? Yes. But worthy.


 

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Ana C. Dinerstein

Ana Cecilia Dinerstein is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Bath, UK. She is creator of the scholar-activists group Women on the Verge, author of The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: The Art of Organising Hope (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and editor of Social Sciences for An Other Politics: Women Theorising without Parachutes (Palgrave Macmillan, January 2017).

 

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Sarah Amsler

Sarah Amsler is Reader in Education at the University of Lincoln, UK. She is a member of the Women on the Verge scholar-activist group and author of The Education of Radical Democracy (Routledge, 2015) and ‘Epistemologies of Post-Capitalist Possibility’ in Ana C. Dinerstein’s Social Sciences for An Other Politics: Women Theorizing without Parachutes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

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