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Where have all the radicals gone?

I sometimes imagine a long-ago unicorn moment when a path appeared that, had it been taken, may have dramatically altered the lives of America’s working class, or what we now call the 99 percent.

In the mid- to late-part of the 20th century, the labor, civil rights, environmental and feminist movements were at an apogee, an emerging counterweight to the wealth extraction and concentration grinder of capitalism. Looking back, the potential was breathtaking.

Each group had their own issues, but beating in a collective heart was a vision of social justice, equality, workers rights, and economic security, a vision of a society in which capitalism and democracy worked hand in hand to provide opportunities for success and happiness to the maximum number of people and communities.

And then it all fell apart.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty and rose-colored and I was barely alive in those years, and unquestionable progress was made on several fronts, but in light of today’s continuing violence, discrimination, near total weakness of labor, and the parallel extreme and ever-growing disparity of wealth and privilege, I look at the past wistfully and wonder, what might have been. 

What happened? Why did such magnificent potential fail to fundamentally alter the oppressive structures and thwart the means by which the powerful game the systems of capitalism to favor a few?

Taking on this question from the perspective of the feminist movement, Jessa Crispin sets out to provide answers along with a few prescriptions in her book Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto.

Crispin first reviews the history. Here is a little taste of Crispin's thoughtful perspective, colored around the edges by my own experiences. 

The feminist movement initially coalesced organically around gender and worked hard to break down legal and regulatory constraints that limited financial and professional choices. (Remember not that long when women could not even get credit cards in their own name? Think Mad Men era.)

As barriers fell, women entered the workforce in droves, celebrating this as a major achievement while looking away from the parallel economic reality that real wages were declining and single-income families were becoming increasingly unviable. Instead of demanding change, working to dismantle oppressive systems that funnel wealth to the top and to create accessible social programs focused on education, child care, income sharing, health care access, decentralized authority, and the like, we persuaded ourselves that accommodation and “leaning-in” to the existing system was somehow the same as changing the system. We reverted to our culturally-programmed desire to please.

"In order to make feminism palatable to everyone, they have to make sure no one is made uncomfortable by feminism’s goals…feminism has become fashionable, the actual feminist work of creating a more equal society is as unfashionable as it has ever been," Crispin writes. 

The movement has now evolved into one in which ensuring a woman’s choices are not overtly constrained is measured as progress. Some women have been very successful in this establishment model, enabling them to live lives that not so long ago were open only to men. In other words, they have opportunities to accumulate wealth and real choices. But the vast majority of women (and men) do not. Is there value in being allowed to work a low-wage job with no health insurance? Is this really a choice? 

“By fighting for your own way to inclusion, you are not improving the system, you are simply joining the ranks of those included and benefiting. You are doing your own excluding and exploiting. In other words: you, a woman, are also the patriarchy,” Crispin observes of women hovering around — or even above — the glass ceiling.

In later chapters, Crispin takes issue with the outrage culture of feminism, amplified by social media, in which an often-unintended insult can ruin a man’s life — referring specifically to the Tim Hunt saga that shook the scientific landscape a few years back. She goes on to provides a devastatingly illuminating critique of an outdated culture in which marriage and children still define a women's worth. "Romantic love isn’t just how we give meaning to our lives, it’s how we organize society.”

Like many books that seek to re-imagine the future, Crispin presents a strong critique of the past and the present, but the prescriptive sections are less compelling. I did not find much of a manifesto here in any pragmatic terms. But that’s okay. The answers to counterbalancing the current dysfunction of capitalist structures are not obvious. And it's not really a job solely for feminism. Crispin has made a big enough contribution to identify the failures, to remind and inspire us of what the radical end of feminism can — and should — still achieve.

The prose is clear and strong, and appropriately — in my view — acerbic. However, a taunting tone aimed at, in essence, collaborators with the patriarchy, pervades some parts of the discussion, and the revolutionary fervor and associated language, could turn off many people, including women who might otherwise be engaged. For women on the inside, opportunities do exist to foster change. Does this tone relegate the book into the category of preaching-to-the-choir? Perhaps. Does that matter? Probably not. The choir could use some reinforcements right about now.

While I don’t agree with everything Crispin puts forward, I don’t need to agree with everything to find this book a powerful catalyst for the debate and discussion so deeply needed by feminists as we reconsider our individual actions and goals in the wake of widening divides across this country. Is it time to renew and reinvigorate the original visions of the glory unicorn days? Crispin is clear on this point.

"Radical change is scary. It’s terrifying, actually. And the feminism I support is a full-on revolution. Where women are not simply allowed to participate in the world as it already exists—an inherently corrupt world, designed by a patriarchy to subjugate and control and destroy all challengers—but are actively able to re-shape it. Where women do not simply knock on the doors of churches, of governments, of capitalist marketplaces and politely ask for admittance, but create their own religious systems, governments, and economies. My feminism is not one of incremental change, revealed in the end to be The Same As Ever, But More So. It is a cleansing fire."

Bold words and certainly more than words are needed. But we have to start somewhere. I encourage others to read this thought-provoking book.