RFE: Philosopher Nina Power
| Mat Callahan interviews Philosopher Nina Power |
Philosopher and activist Nina Power talks Alain Badiou, the Student Protests, her involvement in Defend the Right to Protest and her book One-Dimensional Woman.
Episode 2: Interview with Philosopher Nina Power
Matt Callahan: Welcome everybody. My guest today is Dr Nina Power, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University. She is the co-editor of Alain Badiou’s ‘On Beckett’ and the author of many articles on European philosophy, atomism, pedagogy, art and politics. She is also the author of the book “One Dimensional Woman”. Welcome Nina, did I get that right?
Nina Power: Yeah! MC: The introduction, is there anything else that you’d like to add to that?
NP: No. [Laughs]
MC: Ok, that’s sufficient. Well then, let’s go right into this, the first question that I wanted to ask you is how do you distinguish philosophy from science, art and politics?
NP: Ok, well I think, well the way you pose the question is obviously very Badiouian, in the sense that these are his distinctions, although you missed out love. [Laughs]
MC: That’s true.
NP: But yeah, in that sense I would say to Badiou when he says that philosophy in a sense is empty, and actually what distinguishes philosophy is not it’s particular subject matter or its content, but its function in the way that it sort of weaves all these other disciplines and talks about them in a certain kind of meta-way. You know, that it can hold together certain kinds of abstractions or truths that are generated by these other disciplines, but it doesn’t generate any truths of its own. So in a way, for me, philosophy is not a particular method or a particular set of questions as you might be taught as an undergraduate, you know, let’s say it’s all these different ways of thinking about ethics or politics or epistemology or metaphysics or something like that. I think it seems to be more humble or more interesting to say that philosophy has no content of its own, it generates no questions that are specific to it, but it can, nevertheless, have this sort of capturing or compossibilizing function, you know, that it can draw things out of other disciplines.
MC: How does that relate to Marx’s famous statement that philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however it is to change it? Is Badiou’s use of the term or what you are referring to as the Badiouian view of philosophy related to that?
NP: You can’t force something, you can’t say, well alright, we’ve got to stop thinking, let’s just do something, ok, without knowing what you’re doing. Obviously there’s lots of kind of wasted action, if you like, there’s no sense in wasting time either, thinking through problems that are irrelevant, but at the same time it’s also, you’ve got to know what you are doing, you’ve got to understand enough of the situation in order to be able to act. When Badiou talks about the event and there are lots of questions that follow from this but it’s about saying something happened that you may not be able to exactly describe in the political situation but what truth might be is your fidelity to whatever’s happened. So, let’s say you’re involved in a political action and something is revealed about the relationship between the state and the way in which, people figured in this state and you see something and you don’t know what to call it, you see something that seems to you true, but isn’t what the state generally tells you is true and you hold true to this so you think about the way in which immigrants are excluded from the way in which the state figures itself or a certain way of seeing the world differently in terms of how you can organise it or maybe without money or something and you hold true to that.
MC: I was asking it more, you might say, rhetorically it seems that Badiou is responding to a number of different contradictions. One of which is the original critique of philosophy as such by in Marx’s thesis on Feurbach and on the other hand, he was referring to the fact that all through the 20th century he talks about the destitution of philosophy, referring to Heidegger’s The End of Philosophy of 1969, where he’s offering over philosophy to science on the one hand, and the poet on the other. I mean you can look as these figures as just philosophers or whatever name you want to give them, but there’s really a question of well, does philosophy really have a role at all?
NP: Yeah, I mean this is why the emptiness of philosophy’s really important. So, with ontology, Badiou basically hands over ontological questions concerning multiplicity and so on to mathematics. He says, look, I mean why is philosophy still trying to answer these with this useless language, that mathematics does far better? And that’s to say, well if we can pass that over to mathematics then philosophy has more time, if you like, to think about how we combine events, how we discuss subjects, so what are the subjects of these events? So, instead of spending all of our time coming up with yet another ontology you actually try to think much more about precisely the more practical questions. So what are the truths that are generated in these other areas, in politics, in love, you know, and what philosophy do to put them together to think through different kinds of subjects: the faithful subjects, the loyal subjects, the loving subject, the scientific subject, the collective subject. So in that way, I think he’s paring down philosophy, so although there’s something rather grandiose about Badiou’s system, I think at the end of the day it’s actually really minimal in a certain sense and quite humble, oddly.
MC: The last few years, renewed inquiry into what Badiou called the communist hypothesis and really whether or not this was just because of the financial crisis. Is this only amongst philosophers and what does it have to do with communist parties and so on and so forth?
NP: Well, I guess that I think the communist hypothesis idea and the return of it was actually floated before the economic crisis so I don’t think it was really responding to that just chronologically. But, I think there is something slightly problematic about it for me because it retains this kind of idealist element. I think on the one hand it’s very brave how people want to be talking about communism again-”have we left enough time after the horrors etc.” But, I think that it’s a very interesting kind of project, let’s say there’s this idea of invariance so that certain kinds of movements and certain kinds of political situations retain or maintain a kind of similarity that you can point to across the ages. Say, this is where in the Paris commune, May ’68, there’s something similar about that kind of…
MC: Well, he starts with Spartacus, right?
NP: Yeah, that’s true, he goes all the way back, he got really into the Greeks lately so yeah- of course he was always a Platonist-So yeah that’s right it’s all the way back. So how do you set up a question about what communism is and find historical moments in which you think that it’s present. It’s interesting with something like Occupy because, in a way, what you see is a kind of emergence of post-capitalist forms of self-organisation, but it’s not described in these terms of communism generally. It refuses that language, often it’s a kind of attack on corporations and capitalism, but not in a kind of communist way. They’re not proposing communism as a solution.
MC: I think that’s why part of the reason the question is, I’m putting the question to you as a philosopher “a teacher of philosophy” specifically because there is, it seems to me, there are two real distinctions here, one is that there is a concept of communism in common which actually has nothing to do with any particular political party or group and that this is the invariant you are speaking about and you might say corresponds to what Marx calls primitive communism. The idea of people sharing the wealth that they produce and living together in common. And that’s a concept, I would call that philosophically a concept, as opposed to even political. But there’s that dimension of the communist hypothesis is, it seems to me, and then there’s the question with Badiou himself and perhaps you too and others being very critical of actual communist parties, actual groups that came from Marxism, Leninism, soviet union, china and so on.
NP: Ok. I think that the question of communist parties, socialist parties or any kind of left organisation, I think that part of Badiou’s critique stems from his own personal experience in which he ends up with this sort of very minimal philosophical conceptual kind of thing and suggests what really we need to do is take distance from the state that actually it’s all too easy to replicate the form and the function of the state and that parties will often kind of mimic that approach. Certainly, historically there’s always that problem about sectarianism and leftist parties disintegrating, we see it time and time again, particularly when we’re on the back-foot politically and parties will just descend into in-fighting and it happens over and over again. And I suppose in a way for the communist hypothesis is about a way of getting back to something, you know, I want to say purer but [laughs], something more fundamental that avoids the immersion of parties, the way in which parties get tied up way too quickly with the same kind of questions that the state is pushing and try to take a distance, in a way, to isolate and locate something that historically underlies, goes far beyond the integration of parties and their usual structure.
MC: Well, let me further the question a little bit because I think that this gets quite complicated in the context of today’s situation. Meaning, with occupy or with, for example, the Greek people rising up against the government. You have a whole new generation with a whole new attitude about capitalism and about changing the world and on the other hand, the Greek communist party is involved in the leadership of the Greek people. I’m sure that there are people in England who are associated with different political parties that are involved and so on. Is there a general interest in redefining or at least, reconvening a discussion about communism as a new society or a model for a transformation of the world?
NP: I don’t really want to talk so much about Greece, as it’s very complicated. Although, I know many Greek communists. I mean, at the moment what’s happening is the angry response to these measures is, first and foremost, a kind of effect, if you like. And then, perhaps only secondarily, questions about how would we organise differently, although I do think that that’s happening in a practical sense with things like Occupy where people are genuinely relating to one another in ways that are not mediated through exchange and outside of the usual capitalist model, in so far as that’s possible. But I think that, for me, the disillusionment with parties is key, essential because once enough people think or realise that elected parties and those in power really have this incredibly narrow range of interests and they’re all really the same and we used to be told that this was apathy and this was a terrible thing, but actually I think that it’s a positive thing. In a sense that, once you kind of give up completely, you know, in your belief in mainstream political parties you can actually start to do something and think about alternatives, which are real. So that, you’re not constantly hoping that the labour party will somehow remember its socialist roots and give you a scrap when we know that they won’t. I think that Badiou and others are very useful in thinking about that, in fact, this distance from the state, ideas of communist invariancy that have nothing to do with elections and nothing to do with parties in power. As long as we give back to concrete situations.
MC: Getting back to the concrete, you’re involved in Defend The Right To Protest and not only would I like you to say something about that, but how do you see that connecting with this question of philosophy?
NP: I’ll talk about the campaign in very straightforward terms first of all and then I’ll try to answer the second question about how to situate it. Defend the Right to Protest was a campaign that was set up really in the wake of the mass prosecution of students and protesters that began happening on a fairly heavy scale at the end of 2010 after the major student protests where they stormed the Tory Party headquarters and then there were various other protests, including trade union protests, in which lots of people were arrested. It’s also thinking about the way protests are managed increasingly violently so the Metropolitan Police in London will use horses to charge the crowd, they constantly demand that they need water cannons and rubber bullets. There’s this real sense in which the sentences for protesters, which have been very high, so a long time in jail, are serving as a kind of deterrent, to put people off protesting, so although the government is saying it is a democratic right they are at the same time they’re removing it quite brutally in fact. This becoming increasingly important when we think about the Olympics which are coming soon; they’ve already preemptively banned all protests. When they had the royal wedding, this great spectacle, lots of people were pre-arrested; they arrested people in their homes who hadn’t done anything, so people were talking about pre-crime, they pick off activists, they pick off people they think are organising or more involved in organising and charge them, people then have to live with this pressure of awaiting a court trial. People are being charged with a particular offence called Violent Disorder which has a maximum five year jail term which is very heavy, so people are really being sent to jail for throwing a placard stick or a plastic bottle, or not even that; looking menacingly at a cop or whatever. So part of the campaign is about reminding people that this is going on constantly, to tell them this is happening in their country and also to support the protesters, write to them in prison, I particularly work on how to get universities and colleges to accept people back when they’ve been in prison, because sometimes they want to kick them out. So I try to use moral pressure and work on other ways to get those institutions to take those prisoners back. In a way the campaign is defensive; we’re constantly responding to what’s happening, to what the state is doing. At the same time, I think in terms of relating it to philosophy or thinking about what the campaign means in more conceptual terms, I think what it reveals is that when we talk about the state, and sometimes we talk about it in a very abstract way, but you don’t have to go very far for the state to reveal it’s true self. For me personally, it’s about the way in which the police, courts, the government and prisons really work together.
MC: Let me ask you a very specific question about this. There’s a relationship here between history as a subject and philosophy as a subject, because obviously the British government has a long history of doing this; this is not the first time the British state has tried to suppress rebellions and opposition. A lot of the tactics themselves are not particularly novel, even though a younger generation may never have experienced them, this is really an old story. On the other hand philosophically it’s not exactly the same as a question of history. Like you said, actually they appear to be very strong and they’re repeating the tactics they’ve used historically (and quite effectively), but when they’re confronted by a philosophical question about their legitimacy or about their ‘right to rule’ it’s suddenly a new question again. Is that what I’m hearing you say?
NP: Yeah I think so. It’s a very clever setup, the British legal system in a way, even in comparison to many others, as we just don’t have a constitution, what we have is a set of laws on the books and the way the law works is always through precedent, so what you have is a situation of created empiricism as I like to call it, where every case is related to these other cases and that’s how the law develops, but what it means is there are no principles. If you go back and look at Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and his attack on principles, the principles of equality, universality and all of these radical metaphysical ideas that were coming over from France, what we have is what Burke wanted; a system that regards itself as pragmatic; anti-principled but in a good way. It doesn’t operate in terms of concepts so it’s very hard to have a conceptual critique of something that operates non-conceptually. So when we think about prisons and police, it doesn’t take long to think about prison abolition, police abolition and how can we conceive of a different way of organising society in which these things may not even exist. There’s actually very little discussion of these things, weirdly. These are things people think sometimes and anarchists talk about them but it’s actually repressed, and the way in which the law operates where people don’t really know anything about it. They know there’s this thing called the law and they may know bits of it, but it’s sort of this hidden monster, this hidden structure that you can’t see. We both need a conceptual description of how these things function and how the state functions, which can be, perhaps needs to be abstract but also to tie it to the concrete situation. As you said, this is not a new story what the states doing and if you start talking about police repression in Britain the first thing people say is ‘oh god it’s not as bad as it is somewhere else.’
MC: It’s not as bad as in America! And that’s the other side that you can always compare as you were saying, but I think that the question that keeps coming up, at least what I hear you say, in Defend The Right To Protest is that you literally confronted, this is no longer abstract, these are police baton at your forehead, you’re going to prison for speaking out, it’s obviously a sham and a delusion that democracy exists, this is clearly what you’re saying. But on the other hand, does that actually lead young people to today, I mean in your experience as a teacher and as an activist, there’s a generation of kids who are like 20 years old right now, does that lead them to then conclude that there has to be a revolution, that there has to be a transformation of society, whatever word you want to use? Or does it lead them into cynicism and despair?
NP: We always have this problem about lack of clear alternatives or what are people really demanding because anything that can’t be counted on or seen from the standpoint of the state seems to not exist. Think of infinite demand of occupy to make clear exactly what it wants, this kind of perpetual media and demand and critique, really. But, I think when I talk to my students or I talk to the protesters, many of them really young, I mean, 17 years old and going to prison for a long time, I think to be disaffected that young and to see how the state really works, obviously it has different effects on different people, some people maybe become depressed and understandably so. But, actually if you combine that realisation about what the state’s really up to and what prison really is and all of those things with a kind of feeling that there aren’t any jobs. I mean this can’t be thought of outside the question of mass unemployment, a kind of total punishment of young people really. In terms of money that they’re supposed to borrow to go to college, I mean obviously most of these protests were about the massive fee increase, the £9000 fee increase that a lot of people are not in the position to be able to borrow and you have that and a lack of jobs and this situation with Workfare now in the UK. And obviously, lots of these things we just borrow from America, right? I mean we just do what you guys do like 5 or 10 years later. I’m sure we’ll take on what happens to your prisons in terms of work that people do in those prisons for free, a kind of indentured labour. I think we’re getting on with privatisation of prisons and everything else, I think that you have a vast number of very young, highly educated, angry people who have a very early on experience of how wrong things are. Combined with this lack of future, I mean literally they have no future and I think that there are lots of different ways that that feeling could go, if anger turns inwards it’s just depression, if it turns outwards and its collective, I think that then it can be really creative and really important. I think that we’re seeing that with an emergence of new forms of protest, so something like UK Uncut, different tactics basically. We’re seeing a lot more occupation of old abandoned buildings, this kind of thing, people genuinely living otherwise and organising together. So I’m quite hopeful, I mean, of course every time these things happen the state responds and it just gets more and more violent and punitive. But I don’t think that they can take everyone out because we’re talking about people who don’t have a job, there’s nothing for them, and we have very little industry left in Britain. All there is are these kinds of information type jobs and if you don’t have those then you’ve got a bunch of highly pissed off people who are very smart and understand how these systems work, better than the people who are using them to repress.
MC: Right, one other dimension of this, I mean not to go backwards into cynicism and despair or hopelessness, but I’ve often wondered how young people who are just getting into being active politically, how they view my generation for example and organisations and tactics of the old schisms and splits between the anarchists and communists or between nationalism verses socialism or all these things that still exist. I mean, they didn’t actually end, they’re still out there.
NP: Yeah, I mean, I think this is something we’ve discussed a lot but I think generational politics, as such, is dangerous, you know, it’s not the way to go. In terms, of say, the baby boomers had it great and we should attack them. I mean, that just doesn’t seem very useful and it’s not a great economic category. I mean, generation is not an economic category. What we should be talking about is those people who are dispossessed, unemployed, feel like they have no future ever regardless of their age. At the same time, I think something interesting has happened in terms of the schisms and kind of entrenched oppositions which pre-exist someone being 20 years old. Actually they’re breaking down in a way, it seems to me very interesting that on a very small scale how anarchists and socialists and communists and, you know, liberals even, some radical liberals maybe, are actually working together on certain things in a way they wouldn’t have done maybe even 5 or 10 years ago because I think that there’s a realisation that there’s much more at stake than fighting amongst each other but I think there’s much more awareness about where people are coming from and I think that’s partly a function of social media and the internet and so on. So if you want to, instead of staring at someone that you have a vague idea about their politics from across the room, you can actually have a fight with them online and through that kind of conflict you actually have a much better sense of proximity of what your shared concerns really are. I think it can be a benefit- of course, there are all kinds of problems about gender and who dominates conversations and these kinds of things but these things are much more in the open now, so if you have a bunch of arrogant men dominating a conversation people will say ‘what are you doing? look at what you’re doing.’ I think people are much more willing to challenge things like sexism and racism in the name of a greater unity of co-operation because there is so much more at stake. People are better at doing that now and less interested in these entrenched positions and wars of position. I think they’re not into slamming older generations; there are unemployed and impoverished fifty-year-olds, it’s not like everyone was handed some block of gold and told ‘well done you were born at the right time.’
MC: I would like to take that one step further though, to me this brings up one function that philosophy has, as opposed to politics, art, science, love whatever categories you want to give the names of to thought, because actually in my experience (I’m sixty, I grew up in the sixties) the absence of philosophy was very sorely felt by my generation, and that precisely these schismatic lineages, descending from the Russian revolution to the Chinese revolution to the Cuban revolution, all these different schisms and splits used certain names like revisionist. I don’t want to reduce it to some childish game it’s not childish it’s very serious but the fact you have anarchists hating communists, communists hating Trotskyists and so on, that still continues, and as soon as there’s a mass struggle it seems to bring up these questions anew, and one of the functions I see for philosophy, this is my own view but it goes back to the original question of distinguishing philosophy from politics, is that there is a role for the universal, there is a role for the question of justice, of the common good, whether you call it communism or absence of the state or whatever, there’s a conceptual question there that was missing in my generation.
NP: Yeah I don’t know if it’s felt as widely as you might hope. There are problems talking about the universal ; does this negate difference? Does this remove all those entrenched forms of opposition and discrimination that are real and concrete? When we talk about the universal in philosophy, when Badiou says ‘look it’s not difference that’s interesting it’s sameness’, those moments where we have a shared project. Difference is not banal but it’s just what there is; I’m as different from you as this cup is to the curtain or whatever. Difference is not where we can have any kind of politics coming from, we can have a politics of difference but every great evolutionary movement has got to have this great shared project. It’s like Sartre in his late writings when he talks about the group infusion in The Critique of Dialectical Reason (this long book that no-one ever reads) where what unites the group is this shared sense of purpose and one of the words that’s come back in vogue these past few years is solidarity. It’s interesting that this word has come back out of all those that could have. It has a useful function in a way because it’s so open-ended, in the sense that you could have solidarity with anyone in any country, anywhere. Maybe that is one of the problems; it is quite gestural in a way.
What philosophy could do, and is already doing in some cases, is avoiding the purely reactive form of politics; the form of politics that’s always on the back foot, always responding to cuts, to repressive tactics, it points to something else. I agree with you, I think these questions are of the common good or the commons, words that have both a very abstract dimension and also a very concrete one. When we talk about the commons, is it what’s in our heads, our shared capacity for linguistic convention, is it land, the question of property? It is all those things at once, for me it’s always how do we think about philosophical concepts in a political mode without reducing one to the other. So when I think about the law I’m interested in the way the law tries to punish but fails on its own terms to punish collectives; it always has to punish individuals because its committed to a bourgeois notion of the person, but at the same time because you can’t punish collectives qua collectives it’ll always over punish individuals for their participation in collective action. So whether you’re designated rioter or designated protester from the standpoint of the state that distinction is relevant. There may be an additional dimension; if you’ve stolen something they’ll charge you with a public order offence plus burglary, but actually what’s really at stake is the fear of mass collective action of any kind that involves what little public space we have. I suppose it’s seeing things from the standpoint of different locations and then seeing it bigger than that even. So I can try and think about the collective from the standpoint of the law, but I can also think about the law from the standpoint of philosophy.
MC: I do have a couple of other questions which then might tie together, first, a little bit further in terms of what you were just speaking about, is that what you teach in your class? As a senior lecturer? This is just a point of information because I don’t actually know what that means, is that what you prescribe in the reading you give your students?
NP: Are you joking??!
MC: I don’t know, I honestly don’t know.
NP: No, a senior lecturer, it sounds quite highfalutin’ but really it’s a very basic, junior position despite appearances to the contrary. No, when I teach philosophy at Roehampton I teach an undergraduate degree with is very prescriptive, a classic undergraduate degree. I teach everything from Plato to Heidegger, but it’s classical, I don’t really get to teach whatever my own particular theoretical whims and fancies.
MC: In a certain sense it’s a history of philosophy; people are reading what has been called philosophy for the last 2000 years?
NP: Yes, it is that though it’s also encouraging certain types of critical thinking, but it’s only an undergraduate degree so we don’t have any postgraduate courses at Roehampton, so it’s pretty basic stuff in a way, but it is very interesting what happens when my students get politicised, which is quite often. I think I may be indoctrinating them somehow. When I go on protests I often see my students masked up and I have to pretend not to recognise them.
MC: Where the question leads, and it’s actually a rich discussion in it’s own right, is that in your actual life there is a connection between philosophy and politics, and its far from abstract, and at the same time there is this question that is constantly running through it which is ‘how do you think, how do you train people to think?’, because in a lot of ways what I was trying to say in the earlier question about the old left or the splits and schisms is that the substitution of certain words, name-calling, identifying somebody with whatever name you want to give it, is a substitution for thinking. In other words, what is the underlying concept and so one dimension of philosophy is ethics, and a lot of people will reduce it to ‘well its religion for atheists’ in fact it’s actually a method for thinking isn’t it, to train you how to think critically?
NP: The way I think about abstraction, I spend a great deal of time in that realm, but it has this very important function; we can’t think about concrete situations without abstraction. The problem is we’re immersed in a system or a set of relations where abstraction is a constitutive part of it, something like money, the real abstractions that confront us all the time, and in that sense you cannot but think through abstractions, but its the way in which you’re aware of doing it or not I guess. We are abstractions, we’re immersed in abstractions, we want to say no there’s the real world, this is all concrete, money’s just a thing I need, it’s all real and of course it’s real, but it’s also abstract. I think what abstracting and abstraction allows you to do, even when you’re thinking about ancient problems or reading philosophers that are perhaps not radical, reading conservative or socially fascist philosophers somehow allows you to take a step back but in order to see things more clearly, it gets you back to what’s really going on in front of you. That’s not to say that philosophy’s only function is to abstract so that we can become empirical but it’s to understand where the abstractions are by understanding in the first place what abstraction is.
MC: Well I think that answers the question. I’d like to ask you about ‘One Dimensional Woman.’ I’m not sure I can tie it together neatly. You mentioned something earlier about roughly speaking identity politics, or forms of behaviour: male chauvinism, people being arrogant toward women, racism or whatever, those sort of rough terms, but what you examined in One Dimensional Woman is actually more specific and more related to current issues regarding feminism and I’d like to go into that a little bit. I’ve read the book, you might have to say something briefly about what made you write the book for people who have not read it.
NP: Basically the book for me was a polemic intervention, I’m very interested in different modes of political address, so I’m interested in re-invigorating certain traditions of radical writing like the pamphlet, the screed, all these different kinds of terms and I think those are things that have dropped out or become marginalised, so I wanted to write something that was a polemic. I attempted to write in a form or a mode, a particular form of expression which carries with it a sense of urgency, that this a approach is what’s happening now, this is what’s wrong with it, so I’m going to diagnose it in this brutal way. Of course it’s hyperbolic, it exaggerates, it’s very caught up in its own mode, but at the time it stemmed from a real anger. Actually I don’t feel that anger in the same way, I’m angry about many more things now. The time I was writing was before the crisis, (the book was published in 2009) and I think what I was diagnosing was the end of a certain kind of era. So when I attack consumerist feminism and the reduction of feminism to lifestyle (and I’m not talking about all feminism of course, only very mainstream feminism), and this negation of politics from feminism, and a real concern about the right-wing takeover of the use feminism, like when Sarah Palin says ‘I’m a feminist.’, while wanting to deny abortion to rape victims.
MC: She’s disappeared.
NP: So it’s almost like this frustration with this term, what’s going on with it, it’s everywhere but it seems to mean nothing and shouldn’t it mean something. What’s interesting is that something that was intended to be an intervention but really something brief, this is now, I’m pissed about it, get it out quickly, that’s the publishing model, which is kind of unusual as well, which is about what Zero Books are, actually it’s had way more of an afterlife than I’d have imagined or hoped for. So it becomes a strangely static position, when actually it was momentary.
MC: As a subject I think it would be a subject for a whole interview and that’s why I reserved it for this point in the conversation. But the whole question of feminism, of women’s oppression and the struggle for human emancipation are so closely related, I had the reaction reading the book that it was focused on a particular kind of propaganda- as you put it the consumerist model of feminism that perfectly suited consumer capitalism. There is obviously the connection to One Dimensional Man by Marcuse, so you’re obviously making a link with an earlier criticism that wasn’t specifically feminist and therefore broadening the theme, and I think it’s still very relevant in that respect even if it becomes outmoded as people have moved beyond that question certainly feminism’s not outmoded and neither is the question of the relationship between women’s oppression and human oppression.
NP: Yeah, I agree. And one of things I wanted to point to and still stands up in the book is the discussion of work. Women’s mass entry into the workforce-obviously working class women have always worked, women have always produced and this is not a new thing. But there is something new about the kind of mass entry into the work force and for me since I have a problem with work and I’m very interested in critiques of work, at the same time we have to say that economic liberation is liberation-you can’t say economic independence for women is a bad idea. Obviously it’s not a bad idea, it’s a great idea. But you have to push the whole thing even further and ask, “Is it enough to be immersed in this system which exploits you and do we forget about a critique of work as exploitation?” Because if we say that feminism has achieved one of its goals, the question is how do we go beyond that? If we go beyond this notion that men and women compete equally in the work force, which obviously they don’t-leaving aside questions of race and geography. But it (the book) was trying to think about work and what we mean by work. These discussions about “the feminization of labor”, what do we mean by that? Is it the quantitative aspect-as in there are more women at work? Is it a qualitative claim about the type of work? Obviously the situation in Britain where you had a woman in power, Thatcher, basically destroying industry-vast parts of the country have never recovered from this and it has nothing to do with having a woman in power and everything to do with having a neoliberal bastard…
MC: When you said that the book is still kind of current and that people have taken it further than you even intended is that because they’re engaging with your text or is it simply that your text is still relevant? Is it because people are now reading the book or is it because it’s still relevant to what’s going on?
NP: I think this question about work and about how women’s work has historically been badly paid and that’s become the template for all work and that’s the point I’d really like to push. Thinking through the history of women in work provides us with clues about what’s actually happening with work today, in general for both men and women. So this is the thing I think most of after all this time, I think much less of the critique of consumer feminism, I think this is outmoded in an age of austerity when it’s really not about consumerism, I think I got the term wrong in some of these parts, so some it’s already outmoded and some of it isn’t. But when the book actually came out it corresponded to a massive upsurge in interest in feminism so I think there was something that was long overdue. There was something going on where it had reached a certain point-it had become irrelevant in some respects but it was just before the storm so now if you go to any feminist meeting in London there are hundreds of people there, men and women. Feminism has really come back on the agenda in a real way and the questions that are being asked in Occupy-brutal, honest questions about how sexism structures our relations-it’s changed, it’s a different situation even from four years ago-in a good way, in a better way, maybe. And one thing that’s definitely happened with my students or people who are younger is this kind of irony that I grew up with in the ’90′s where it was almost embarrassing to be political-it’s just not there any more. I think for students, politics in its combative, non-statist sense is what they want to do. It interests them, it engages them libidinally, they don’t have the ironic pose we were supposed to have in the ’90′s. And part of that is about feminism as well. Young people are much less afraid to say “I’m a feminist”-they might debate or quibble over the meaning but it’s that very act of saying, “Yeah, I’m a feminist. I’m an anti-capitalist. I’m a revolutionary.” People can say that now without irony, without embarrassment.