Helen Razer Fires Back On The Powerlessness Of Persuasion, And #metoo


If you want change, you have to demand it, writes Helen Razer. You can’t just say #metoo.

This past weekend, Dr Liz Conor published her thoughts on #metoo, an awareness hashtag still trending in corporate if no longer social media. I read these with interest as I am a marvellous and selfless person eager for the marginal perspectives provided here at New Matilda. Oh. Okay. You got me. I read these thoughts because I am a very vain lady who has a Google alert on her name.

Conor, I should point out, was not particularly unpleasant about me. Which is to say: don’t get your hopes up for a lady-fight. The brief description was, in fact, cheekily agreeable. Helen may have been depicted as some sort of “erm” Marxist mother-hen so brutally obsessed by material conditions, she consigns the abuse of her sisters, as per the hashtag, to the cultural bin while clucking on about the banks and their profit and the workers and their pain.

Shop-Sparkke_Banner_300x250(GB)Note, this would not have been the most unflattering picture of my thought painted by other minds last week. I am not terribly upset.

I will say, however, that I am a bit jack of Marxism being misrepresented, even if humorously, as a totalising sermon that cannot brook cultural matters like sexism, and is concerned only with the material, or the “mode of production”. Actually, I am so fucking jack of this misunderstanding and the widespread belief that Marxism “failed” or has nothing to offer beyond the 19th century factory, I just wrote a fucking book about it. (You could buy it. Or, you know, you could just read Marx and pals at no cost.)

Okay. Now I’ve started. Let me just say, largely because the NM editor is foolishly permitting this expression, that the “superstructure” and the “base” formulation, or the brute materialism Liz hints at, was of much greater concern to Stalin than it has been to Marxists, still eager to fail at communism, try again, and then fail better. (Rather than try and fail worse, as is the late and inevitable tendency of capitalism.)

In a work that is both scholarly and passionate, the recently deceased Ellen Meiksins Wood argues that Marx himself, who rarely used the terms “superstructure” and “base”, is at risk from being excluded by this “it’s all about the base” argument. Marxism is the attempt to assess social relations as they change and arise and change again under capitalism. This doesn’t mean Marxists are interested only in assessing capitalism. (It also does not mean that Marxists explain gender purely as the product of capitalism. But, that’s a story for another time. Or, read it in chapter five of my marvellous book.)

If you have never heard the terms “superstructure” and “base” before and have no idea what I am banging on about (1) read yourself some fucking Marxist texts before you start saying all Marxists are crap, as two venerable Australians who could not recall if they had read any Marx recently did to me on TV, and/or (2) just believe me when I tell you that many people understand Marxist thinking as narrow and confined to the economy. Which it is not.

Back to the matter at hand, Comrades.

I understand that it is likely that Liz wanted to make a point about myopic anxiety, a quality that also happens to be often attributed by liberals to the Marxist. The writer wanted to say that there were those who worried too much about the negative outcome of disclosing one’s story of abuse on social media, and I guess that I was handy. Liz argues that my concerns, which she derived from a small part of my Twitter feed, for those disclosing were unnecessary, as abused persons tend to experience the trauma of abuse over and again.

Of course, I know that this is true. Even if I had not myself undergone a period of abuse — 20 years and many psychiatrists ago — I would still know it. I also know that trauma can stick around in any individual, no matter the kind of society they inhabit. My interest is not in denying the grave consequences of abuse, but, like Liz, it is in diminishing them wherever possible.

Liz names juridical and other institutional processes as inimical to recovery, as she should. That she brings to our attention the damage done by the “emergency response”, an atrocity which claimed abuse as its alibi, must be applauded. (Sidebar: I actually do read New Matilda often, even when I am not being trashed in it, in part because it is one of a very few Australian outlets that will not let us forget this ongoing horror.)

Liz is a proper doctor, and, I surmise, one with institutional processes as her area of expertise. I am, by contrast, just some lady who never properly finished her degree. But, media processes are something I feel I can write about critically, at least in a practical way. I have worked in media for more than 20 years, and when I say that I believe that vulnerable people can be exploited by this sector, I know a little of what I speak.

Shop-Sparkke_Banner_300x250(HL)Liz is largely upbeat about this hashtag, which permits (I would say coerces) people into disclosing their abuse experiences. She says it goes much further in raising awareness of a problem than her own pre-internet attempts. I say, or I said in two published pieces last week unreferenced in Liz’s post, that #metoo occurred, as many things in the Marxist view tend to, in accidental service to ruling ideas.

Let’s even set aside that the act alone of “raising awareness” on a broad scale may diminish the motivation victims of abuse and their allies have for action. Let’s set aside that it is deluded for us Westerners to believe that our liberal democracies retain the will, or even the means, to respond to popular opinion. Forget that raising awareness, an act of persuasion, comes a pretty distant second to making a demand. We must know that some will never believe that we have been abused; that there are those who will think of us as are snowflakes who can’t tell the difference between flattery and rape. We do not ask these people or our governments to truly understand us. We simply demand change. (Demand is the Marxist recommendation. Persuasion is for liberals, who still believe their democracies can be made good by compassion.)

I was making two chief points about #metoo, both in tweets and in longer articles, that Liz did not see. And these were (1) #metoo should not be understood as something everyone did join freely or can join freely, but that the disclosures are generally going to be both safer and more possible for the people who already have the best resources to manage their experiences of abuse — in other words, I was urging people to remember that social media, like most spaces, is not free, but mediated and moderated and freest for those with the greatest wealth — and (2) traditional corporate media was taking these #metoo experiences of abuse and turning them into profit.

Abuse is something I wish upon no being. This does not mean that many firms, including Facebook and Twitter and much mainstream press, don’t reap benefits from it — they did, and they do; some media outlets even ask novice writers to fill out a “trauma questionnaire”, presumably to stockpile sad, cheap stories. And, this does not mean that a handful of people who write or speak of their abuse experiences should not profit. It is not to say such popular communicators, largely women, are hypocrites. It is to say that there’s a world of difference between one who gets paid a dollar a word for her disclosure and is hailed as brave, and one who is met with silence, or, worse, the antagonism of trolls.

Just as Liz can see some abuses play out in their institutional context, I believe I can, too. I do not believe that #metoo, a campaign begun by a famous actor then maintained by corporate media, was ever grassroots.

To be gracelessly clear: yes, the pain disclosed by many was real and heartbreaking and awful. It was entirely grassroots in this sense. However, I do think we who have knowledge of how corporate and mainstream media function, including those managed in Silicon Valley, have a responsibility to tell users: your pain may be pressed into the service of profit. Your username and your disclosure may be forever preserved by a news outlet. And, your hope that persuasion is an effective democratic tool is, perhaps, misguided.

Do not persuade comrades. Instead, make your demands.


Helen Razer in an Australian writer, author and avowed Marxist. She is based in Melbourne and writes regularly for Crikey.com