Neoliberalism and the commodification of experience

The personal is political, that revolutionary phrase which illuminated the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and after, was originally coined in response to claims that consciousness-raising was navel-gazing with no coherent programme for social change. It posed a direct challenge to the idea that ‘personal problems’ and especially so-called ‘body issues’ should not be brought into the public arena, an assumption which feminism has done an excellent job of destabilising. Politicising the personal through the production of research on gendered bodies has fed the development of epistemologies based on the validity of experiential knowledge, and this, in turn, has brought to light the impossibility of objective analysis.

However, more than 30 years on, it is time to ask questions about what has befallen the personal in a neoliberal political context. Neoliberalism individualises, interiorises and neutralises – within this framework the political uses of the personal have shrunk as difference has transformed into ‘diversity’, and experience and emotion have become part of a broader ‘tabloidisation’ and ‘testimonialism’ in which popular culture and politics have been saturated with feeling. As Ahmed (citing hooks) reminds us, this narcissistic and therapeutic moment and movement can easily co-opt and depoliticise our personal pain (although she cautions that this does not mean it should be ignored). In the current political climate, affect and emotion often serve to detract from structural critique: as Pedwell argues, inequality is frequently seen as a failure of understanding rather than a product of neoliberal and neo-colonial governmentality. Furthermore, the pain which has always been (justifiably) central to feminist politics can accumulate and stagnate in what Wendy Brown calls ‘wounded identities’ which both legitimate and depend upon state power.

We are currently doing feminism in amongst a commodification of distress. Moreover, this transforms experience into currency with which to buy into broader ideologies or ‘gazump’ potential political opponents. This is revealed by the frequency with experience is ventriloquised by politicians and privileged ‘experts’, who use empathy as a technology of access to marginalised lives, often upstaging grassroots communities who may be able to claim ownership of their stories but lack a political platform. Neo-imperialist agendas strategically centre ‘native informants’, often women, whose narratives of oppression are used to constitute Other cultures, usually those of Muslim-majority societies or communities, as uniquely and inherently misogynist and homophobic. Domestic and international politicking around the sex industry is characterised by a fight for experiential authenticity, which in the mainstream media is often transmuted into a ‘debate’ between the extremes of the ‘victimised survivor’ central to abolitionist agendas and the ’happy hooker’ who often materialises as a rebuttal to that type of feminist politics. As part of its resurgence, anti-choice politics has recently undergone a shift away from its sanctification of the foetus, towards advocating the idea of abortion as a deep personal trauma which is contrary to women’s best interests.

Within a lexicon in which experience is frequently and increasingly used (often second-hand) in the service of particular political agendas, personal stories begin to lose their humanity. Complex and varied narratives are simplified and homogenised for ideological ends and can then be dismissed by those in opposition as apocryphal or even corrupt. As debates become more heated, we tend to fixate on the first-person and discredit the experience when we ought to be questioning the surrounding politics. The relationships between particular experiences and powerful and often repressive political agendas have begun to define the narratives themselves and to rob them of legitimacy. Muslim women who speak out against gender inequality become unreliable because they must be stooges of the imperial West. Sex workers who acknowledge pain have been procured and perhaps coached by moralistic, prudish abolitionists who wish to strengthen the police state. In response, those with privilege and political power tend to defend themselves with attributions of false consciousness: Muslim women who choose to cover their bodies, hair and/or faces, and sex workers who declare choice and discuss self-expression, can both emerge as patriarchy’s dupes. In this politics of positionality, experiences are always already marked by ideology and the first question we ask (consciously or not) when someone shares their experience is, ‘whose side are you on?’

The ideologisation of experience has produced a flattening out of lived realities for fear they will be converted into foreign currency. In much the same way as the complexities of ending a pregnancy may be underplayed by pro-choice individuals and groups for fear of reinforcing pro-life agendas, sex workers may de-emphasise, hide or even deny difficult experiences within a politics of respectability which operates in opposition to the radical feminist rescue industry and in a dynamic in which ‘excited’ and ‘exited’ are the only positions available. As neoliberalism turns debates into bidding wars, experience is valuable only in the right currency, which polarises and renders invisible the possibilities in between. Those with differing experiences of the same phenomenon are unable to co-exist, as one person’s experience may outbid and ultimately annihilate another’s. This also creates little space within the individual for mixed or ambivalent feelings to endure: multiplex subjectivities must become less so in order to be intelligible within the dominant phraseology of concepts such as ‘objectification’, ‘victimisation’ and ‘empowerment’.

Such compelling but essentially meaningless universalisms hide the operation of structural and historical dynamics. These include the impact of successive waves of colonisation on religious institutions and their relationships with both state and mass forms of political action in many Muslim-majority countries and communities, the links between migration flows and identities, the ways in which repressive immigration policies and criminal justice systems encourage individuals to narrate themselves in particular ways, and the situating of commercial sexualities within a post-Fordist capitalist system with a service-based consumer culture, high unemployment and shrinking social welfare. Furthermore, attempts at structural analysis often themselves inevitably collapse into appeals to experience: for instance, the radical feminist idea of patriarchy is frequently reduced to a homogenous experience of ‘male violence’, with little attention paid to the ways in which intersecting structures of oppression might produce varied encounters with this phenomenon and/or give rise to disparate analyses and forms of activism.

The contemporary politics of the personal prevents us from co-situating and productively analysing different experiences within such intersecting analytical frameworks, instead creating an anecdotal flow which is transmuted into a competitive deployment of one-dimensional stories and serves to create and widen gulfs between us. The fetishisation of experience also serves to restrict or conceal discussions based on other evidence, such as the compelling case against the criminalisation of sex workers and/or their clients, in which the figure of the victimised prostitute who must be rescued has made way for data pertaining to police and community harassment and repression, susceptibility to infectious diseases, risk of violence and access to health and social services.

This does not mean, of course, that we should not theorise from experience – indeed, the ‘view from nowhere’ with its attendant ‘voice of reason’ can also be that of the oppressor and reeks of entitlement and privilege (I say this with an awareness that in writing this piece, I may reasonably be read that way myself). Neither does it mean that all experiences, while valid, can be regarded as in themselves equally reliable sources of knowledge – what Haraway would term knowledge as an ‘act of faith’. Rather, we need to be able to translate experiences between situated, heterogeneous and power-differentiated communities, and use these as data to create knowledge informed by many types of evidence and frameworks of intersecting structures. We must also walk the fine line between respecting varied experiences, while critically appraising the uses to which particular experiences or technologies of empathy are put. Adding to our existing questions about ‘whose personal’ is political, we must be mindful of what it means to use the personal in the contemporary political context, ask whose experience counts within both dominant and marginalised thought and activism, and understand how neoliberalism depoliticises the personal and suppresses resistance by alienating us from each other.

Why feminism needs trans people and sex workers

There are several stories circulating about what happened at this year’s London Reclaim the Night march. The Sex Worker Open University have criticised the organisers for including a speaker from Object, a campaign group they claim oppresses those in the sex industry by picketing their workplaces and attempting to put them out of jobs. The SWOU have also alleged the distribution of transphobic leaflets by some march attendees. This has been corroborated from the other side of the political divide, with a group of radical feminists confirming that they carried a banner stating “Reclaim the Night is for WOMEN” and distributed leaflets “to raise awareness of violence perpetrated by male transgenders” [sic]. This group has also reprimanded RTN organisers for reiterating that trans women were welcome on the march.

What both accounts acknowledge is that many women at Reclaim the Night London spoke out and marched in solidarity with trans and sex-working sisters. They were right to do so. Feminist events must not make the most marginalised women among us feel unsafe. But over and above ideas about inclusion, we also need to recognise that trans people and sex workers* have much to offer feminist thought and activism.

What can trans people tell us about gender? Well, they do a pretty good jobdivesting it from what our culture calls biological sex.** Trans feminists – indeed, all trans people – share with cis feminists the desire to live lives that challenge gender essentialism, and the spectrum of trans and gender-fluid identities shows us a variety of ways of being which split apart our cultural binaries of male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine. Trans people are under no obligation to share their personal journeys with the world at large, but when they do they crystallise the ways in which gender oppresses all of us.

Sex workers are part of an industry which, although diverse, is profoundly gendered and based on the commodification of sex and desire. From this position they have unique insights into how gendered power relations and sexual scripts work. Some sex workers may tell us how these can be reworked and resisted, perhaps more easily when an explicit transaction is taking place. Others may have harrowing stories about being the target of the worst misogynist impulses of our culture, compounded by social stigma. Or we may very likely hear from sex workers who have experienced both.

Contemporary feminists can be quite neoliberal in their emphasis on identity and choice, partly in answer to the co-option of 1970s radical feminism by reactionary forces. We need to hold on to the best of radical feminist thought – in particular, its analysis of gender as a structural and discursive hierarchy between “man” and “woman” (which, of course, doesn’t stop it also being a spectrum in terms of individual identities). But the gendered structures that radical feminism identified in the 1970s may have already become more complex and slippery in our postmodern world.

Surely, those most likely to understand these present-day structures are those oppressed by them the most. Feminists have long argued that due to their marginalised position, women have an unique perspective on how the world works. But feminists who are more privileged need to listen to others within our ranks when they tell us our own mindset is partial.

How can we appreciate the social construction of the gender binary without listening to people who live in the spaces in-between? And conversely, how can we fathom how deeply felt the binary can be without the help of those who know they have been assigned to the wrong side? How can we understand gendered objectification in isolation from those who handle it, in various ways, as part of their jobs? How can we debate how the sex industry should be regulated while ignoring people who work in it? And crucially, how can we understand and organise against gendered violence in isolation from those who are most at risk?

I have yet to come across a feminist who doesn’t have good intentions. Although our theories and methods differ, feminists of all stripes share a desire to make women’s lives better. But in order to do that, we need to listen to what all women have to say. Experience is not an end in itself – but we cannot theorise or organise in a vacuum or only in relation to our own personal stories, because in the eyes of the world some narratives – and some lives – matter more. This means that those of us who enjoy privilege have a lot to learn and a duty to refuse to see our own experience as universal.

Of course, it’s almost impossible to control or predict events sufficiently to guarantee completely safe spaces, and perhaps it would be dangerous to try. But it’s certainly possible – indeed essential – to create a welcoming atmosphere and a culture of zero tolerance around discrimination and abuse. A good place to start is to ensure that we centre and accept leadership from the women who can teach feminism the most. Trans women and sex workers should be marching at the front of the feminist bloc.

Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. You can follow her on Twitter at @alisonphipps

* of course, there are many trans people working in the sex industry so the separation of these two categories is in some ways arbitrary.

** intersex people, of course, call this term into question – which could be the subject of a whole article in itself.

Originally published in the New Statesman, 24th November 2014