Recently (November 22), ‘Socialist Alternative’ published an article by Louise O’Shea titled ‘Jill Meagher, Reclaim the Night and the political right’. The article attempts to mount an argument, seemingly directed at other segments of the Australian left, regarding the public response to the rape and murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne in September. In essence, Louise argues that ‘the left’ must respond to such events by (re-)emphasising the centrality of class to understanding contemporary forms of oppression — rather than, as in this instance, capitulating to strictly feminist concerns over male violence.
There’s a good deal packed into Louise’s 3,000 word essay, and I’m not sure I’m able (or willing) to address all the points at which I believe her analysis falls down. Some of the points she makes are sensible and worthy. Nevertheless, the central thrust of her argument — that, contra ‘the left’, the mobilisations that took place in response to Jill’s death have not been a ‘positive’ political development — is badly flawed, and reflects errors in her general political perspective, as well as her understanding of the reaction to this horrible crime.
Accounts of Jill’s rape and murder are available elsewhere; with regards the subsequent reaction, to begin with, Louise identifies several areas of concern, and elaborates upon two in particular: first, the media treatment of Jill’s fate; secondly, the employment of the rhetoric of ‘community’. Below I respond to these concerns; discuss the notion of class collaboration Louise invokes; the relationship of class to gender and Marxism to feminism in this context; crime; and finally situate her critique within the organisational demands of the local Trotskyist milieu (of which SAlt is a major part).
According to Louise, because Jill fit a particular profile, the media was happy to publicise her case, and did so in a way that reinforced right-wing discourse.
In response, there’s very little to say — and also quite a lot. That is, the crucial role of the media in shaping public consciousness — and hence the reaction to the news first of Jill’s disappearance and then death — is hardly an obscure fact, and leftists are also hardly unaware of the difficulties this presents in terms of their ability to present alternative analyses, narratives and perspectives to the general public. In other words, the trivial fact that the media shapes public discourse, that politicians are happy to jump on a bandwagon if it suits them, or that the police seek to cultivate a positive public image, is indeed banal. For leftists and other political actors, what really matters is the fact that these forces are not wholly dominant, and on some occasions — especially when there are large numbers of people incensed enough to take to the streets in anger and shame at crimes such as these — it’s possible to articulate views which counter these forces, and act to subvert their appeal.
Well, theoretically, anyway.
Of course, the reality is, at the very least, disputed. Thus Louise argues that “interest in and mobilisations around street crime, especially that directed against white women and children, will always tend to lead in a pro-state, pro-authority direction”. Leaving aside the racial dimension of her claim for a moment, even if correct, this reliance upon Big Brother remains a political tendency, and therefore one which is not only vulnerable to challenge, but which is also able to be re-directed in an ‘anti-state, anti-authority’ direction. In any case, to point out that similar outrages (Louise refers specifically to the death of Aboriginal man Mr Briscoe in Alice Springs several days prior to Jill’s and attacks on Indian students in Melbourne in 2009) have not generated the same public outcry does not invalidate the response to Jill’s tragic fate, even if they may reveal something about the nature of the society in which we live, and the propensity of any one such incident to become politically significant (and how). Indeed the claim, often justified, that whichever atrocity one wishes to highlight may be rendered less monstrous by some other, even more horrific crime, is a trope deployed just as often, if not more frequently, by the same ‘right wing scum’ Louise wishes to excoriate in her article.
The second reactionary aspect of the hysteria around the Jill Meagher case was the endless lauding of the classless “community” and the enthusiasm for its coming together to unite against violence and for peace.
Regarding ‘community’, it’s fairly clear that it’s a concept deployed strategically and Louise is right to interrogate its precise meaning in this context, as well as the implications it has for political organising. But part of this political contestation lies precisely in recognising what it is that otherwise seemingly disparate groups and individuals have in common. Louise writes:
People uniting is … only real and progressive if it is based on shared material interests of exploitation, a shared experience of society and joint struggle to change it. Otherwise, “unity” within the “community” can only be a means by which the exploited and oppressed are encouraged to identify with their rulers.
At the risk of stating the obvious: contemporary Australian society is structured in various ways, including but not limited to class. In the context of the violent sexual exploitation of women by men, the fact that this abuse is systemic, and is accompanied and reinforced by other forms of exploitation and domination, suggests that gender is a crucial factor in understanding such patterns of behaviour. Bluntly put, this society is not only capitalist but patriarchal: it is dominated by men. What Louise is really addressing — or failing to address — I think, is the intersection between class and gender. Equally obviously, this relationship is: a) rarely straightforward and; b) hardly unexamined (see, for example, ‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a more Progressive Union’, Heidi I. Hartmann, Capital & Class, Vol.3, No.2, 1979).
With regards the fact that tens of thousands of people mobilised in order to protest Jill’s murder, it seems to me that this was based upon qualities other than those Louise highlights — Jill was an ‘educated, white, “attractive” woman with a good job and nice-looking husband’ — however much these may explain the reasons the media took a particular interest (note also that Jill was employed by the ABC). That is, the community of feeling that was generated in the wake of Jill’s disappearance can only be understood in terms of the extent to which her fate could have been shared by any number of other women, and as the most dramatic and violent confirmation of the otherwise mundane forms of sexual harassment that women confront on a daily basis. Certainly, Sydney Road, Brunswick is a very popular nightspot, in an area with a high concentration of young women like Jill, used by many thousands of women to socialise, and for whom her death struck a real nerve.
One of the more disturbing features of Louise’s article is her description of the reaction by ABC staff to the news that one of their colleagues had been murdered. What I can only assume was the heartfelt expression of grief and loss by presenter Jon Faine is for Louise transformed into ‘the most explicit expression of class collaboration’. The logic employed here by Louise is somewhat convoluted, but even if one concedes that ABC management does not exist in order to facilitate the expression of such sentiments or to provide succour for its employees — and indeed, can be more simply understood as constituting the upper layer of a workplace hierarchy, with all that that entails — the rather obvious proposition that genuine sentiment can, does and indeed must coexist alongside of other, managerial prerogatives seems to escape her entirely. To be precise, whatever political implications Louise believes accrues to such statements, it’s the case that sometimes the workplace is indeed “a place of belonging for people”, a site where caring for one another is real and human bonds of solidarity are formed. The task of a workplace radical, it seems to me, is to encourage such sentiment and its expression, and to allow for its capacity to challenge and to destroy inequality to extend to the whole of the social factory.
But that’s another story.
Throughout her article, Louise is at pains to spell out the ways in which Jill’s death, and fear of crime generally, have been used by state and other authorities to underpin their arguments for greater state control over society. Further, she highlights the ways in which this distorted view of reality serves to obscure numerous other injustices; ones for which these same institutions share the bulk of if not the sole responsibility. Exaggerated fear of crimes such as those committed against Jill Meagher, she argues, also corrode (working) class consciousness as they tend to “foster feelings of vulnerability [and] powerlessness” rather than (working class) solidarity.
As I see it, one of the essential problems (and there are many) with this approach is that it ignores the particular and justifiable concerns women have of being the victims of male violence; secondly, the idea that fear of victimisation must always and necessarily lead to support for and the adoption of authoritarian responses. According to Louise, “[i]n part because there is currently no organised mass working class force that can realistically prevent random anti-social behaviour, concern about violence leads virtually inevitably to greater identification with authority”. At this point, one might reasonably ask ‘what would such an organised mass working class force look like?’ and secondly ‘what actions might be taken here and now in order to help bring such a force about?’. It’s at this juncture, I think, that different conceptions of political priorities come into play, especially as these relate to the development of autonomous social movements and organisations. One might also note that women, including working class women, have a long history of mass organising to become a political force.
Reclaiming the Night
The attention dedicated to [Jill Meagher's] case had about as much to do with fighting women’s oppression as the invasion of Afghanistan did. Socialist Alternative’s central criticism of the Jill Meagher phenomenon and mobilisations around it was that they were a vehicle through which the rich and powerful could push an agenda, and which it was impossible given the level of class struggle and class consciousness in Australia today for the tiny forces of the left to intervene to change, so inherent is the right wing logic of the issue.
It’s a bit difficult to respond to this particular observation by Louise as it’s not only absurd but borders on the downright offensive. Partly, it’s necessary to first distinguish between the political economy of the mass media and its effects, on the one hand, and the justified outrage felt by many over injustice, whether on the streets of Melbourne or those of Kabul, on the other. That is, to acknowledge that the ways in which the media functions is one thing, and public sentiment another. Secondly, to understand, as indicated above, that in a class society the rich and powerful are always able to ‘push their agendas’. Thirdly, that SAlt’s collective opinion regarding the level of class struggle, class consciousness and the opportunities they believe this provides them to successfully intervene in any particular event or project — including, of course, “the Jill Meagher phenomenon and mobilisations around it” — is hardly the only factor determining the logic of struggle. Finally, that many of the thousands who took part in these mobilisations are in reality highly politically-conscious, and indifferent or impervious to the appeal of either right wing logic or SAlt.
At this stage it’s important to distinguish between the flaws in Louise’s analysis and its political significance, which as far as I can determine is actually fairly mundane: the need to differentiate and also justify the particular approach SAlt adopts towards feminist organising. So, as I see it, the last few years has witnessed, in Melbourne, the re-emergence or re-invigoration of a more ‘activist’ approach within the women’s movement (broadly understood) but especially insofar as young, University-educated women are concerned. That is, feminist organising has emerged as a rival to SAlt for the political loyalties of that cohort of women which constitute its niche market. Secondly, the recent movement towards incorporating the remains of the ‘Revolutionary Socialist Party’ (RSP) into SAlt may be relevant. Thus of the meaning of the article, SAlty blogger John Passant writes that its publication:
…may have more to do with a National Executive keen to show its differences with the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) in the forthcoming merger and/or to provoke ‘debate’ to show what an open organisation we are. Instead of picking state capitalism or socialism from below as the battle ground, because the NE has capitulated on these issues to the RSP, it has chosen ‘feminism’.
[As a final aside, Louise writes that In addition to helping win support for the invasion of Afghanistan, some feminists have contributed to anti-Muslim racism by advocating a ban on Islamic dress… and have opposed defending Julian Assange against the US government because he has been accused of rape. The mindset that much of the left has, that any attention to “women’s issues” must by definition be a good thing, is wholly inappropriate for the times. Curiously, back in December 2006, Julian Assange’s mother, Christine — who has been a prominent advocate on her son’s behalf — tried to organise a march on the Brunswick mosque by young women clad only in bikinis. #TrueStory]