Theorizing the Web, Day 1: cache flow & code queering & racial standpoints & magic & music & concrete dust

April 18, 2015 § 1 Comment

'The concrete is great here' - @craigdesson

‘The concrete is great here’ – @craigdesson

Theorizing the Web has been fascinating, but a bit of a shock to the system after AdaCamp. TtW is gloriously DIY, which has a lot of benefits: it’s particularly great to see an academic(ish) conference that’s open to activists and artists, and not hideously expensive to attend. I did miss the efforts AdaCamp went to in building a safe and inclusive space (including having a clear photo policy, pronouns on badges, and marked walkways for accessibility) – TtW has an anti-harassment policy, which is a great start, but I’d love to see a few more active steps around publicising and extending this policy.

As usual with events like this, I’ve tried to summarise a few of my notes for those who couldn’t make it (and Future Me), but I strongly suggest you check out the program, tweets, and livestream for the conference: there were so many great sessions I couldn’t go to, and of course my notes have been edited down (and tend to get shorter and shorter as the conference progresses).

The first session I went to, Cache Flow, kicked off with Zac Zimmer’s historical perspective on Bitcoin, linking the economic, environmental, and social impacts of sixteenth-century silver mining in the South American region of Potosí with Bitcoin. Zimmer pointed out that the ideology behind Bitcoin reveals a very particular (and circular) understanding of currency: Bitcoin is modelled on gold (and therefore scarce, and increasingly difficult to mine) because gold is seen as an archetypical currency, and gold is seen as an archetypical currency because it is scarce and increasingly difficult to mine. At the same time, this model demonstrates a lack of awareness of the environmental and social externalities involved in mining, which was horrifically destructive in Potosí.

Tardigrades: remarkably well-adapted to capitalism, unlike humans.

Trebor Scholz lightened the mood briefly by opening his talk, “Okay, tardigrades”, and pointing out that these microscopic animals are much more well-suited to the rigours of capitalism than us unsteady, exhausted humans. Scholz outlined some of the ways in which digital technologies are allowing for increasing surveillance and atomisation of workers, from Amazon warehouse workers fired for spending a few minutes standing ‘inactive’ to the Mechanical Turk. Online platforms become digital bottlenecks for insecure and precarious workers. Scholz ended by outlining some of the ways in which we might “rip out the algorithmic model” at the heart of the ‘sharing economy’ and make something different, taking the corporate mediation out of the picture and using apps or other digital technologies to build worker-run and/or unionised alternatives. Examples to check out include: Turkopticon and the Transunion car service in NYC.

Next up, Andrea Hunter talked about crowdfunding, Crackstarter, and changing journalistic norms. She argued that while many journalists are trying out crowdfunding, this isn’t a sustainable alternative to funding problems in the long term. Crowdfunding requires negotiating new ways of engaging with funders/audiences, and new ways of trying to preserve autonomy while building this engagement. Many journalists currently using crowdfunding are hoping to use it as a step towards setting up new arrangements with advertisers (based on crowdfunding as evidence of a substantial audience).

Finally, Reubenn Binns explored the idea of selling our own data as the answer to our privacy concerns. This talk raised some thought-provoking ideas about how we respond to and resist the incredible levels of data-gathering taking place today, often with the goal of more effectively marketing at us. He argued that while selling our data ourselves can be tempting, doing so undermines our autonomy (as it gives marketers tools with which to more effectively manipulate our desires). However, in doing so he referred to a set of goods and services which it is ‘inherently morally problematic’ to exchange, citing sex work along with voting, indentured labour, selling organs, and other examples – this reference to sex work as inherently problematic (and particularly the reference to sex work as ‘prostitution’) wasn’t necessary for the argument, and has many fierce critics.

The second session, Code Queering, open with Dorian Adams and Steven Losco‘s discussion of ‘Viral Martyrs: Gender Identity, Race, and the Digital Construction of Victimhood’. They argued that allies and media brought attention to the 2014 suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn while violence against so many trans people of colour is largely ignored in part because she was white, young, middle-class, and from the suburbs, and her parents could afford conversion therapy. This mean coverage and support for Alcorn “did not require acknowledging existing networks of domination beyond a bounded notion of transphobia”. In contrast, despite the fact that trans people of colour (and particularly Black women) make up 70% of LGBT-related murders in the US, public attention to these victims limited, with media coverage frequently misgendered them, and either implying or explicitly referring to a real or imagined history of sex work.

Max Thorntorn continued the discussion of trans issues, beginning by noting that Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note talked about being isolated from her online communities by her parents’ confiscation of her devices. The Web, Thornton argues, can become a prosthesis for trans people, not just in the sense of extending or supplementing the self, but also in a more transformative way. Social media accounts and online communities can offer trans people who are not able to safely come out a space in which they can explore their identity, and be recognised by others. The web doesn’t just extend the borders of the self, it dissipates them (we are all cyborgs now). This encourages us to divest ourselves of the fallacy of the discrete, atomised, individual self. Thornton argues that this isn’t just theoretical: we need to take trans people’s gender identities seriously, which means recognising that a laptop and wifi can keep people alive.

Next, Chelsea Summers (standing in for Fuck Theory) talked about gay cruising apps. She/they argued that while common understandings of cruising apps tend to create a binary between cruising online and cruising in person, the actual shift is from a mode of cruising in specific times and places to constantly and ever-presently cruising.

Hatsune Miku, who appears in an Oculus Rift game as a live-in girlfriend.

Hatsune Miku, who appears as a live-in girlfriend experience using Oculus Rift.

Finally, Dorothy Howard talked about gynoids and geminoid: falling in love with machines. She asked why, when we think about robots and AI, we’re usually asking questions about whether we’ll lose our humanity, rather than about the new forms of intimacy we might be creating? How do algorithms change love? And how, when we think about loving machines, might we explore issue of intimacy, social function, and alienation. (For those interested in these issues, I also recommend my colleague Eleanor Sandry’s Robots and Communication.)

The Racial Standpoints panel was in one of the upper rooms with pretty poor acoustics, so please excuse brevity/errors in my notes. Kyra Gaunt opened by dedicating her work on ‘The Bottomlines Project: YouTube, Segregation and Black Girls’ to Jaime Adedro Moore, who was involved in one of the original YouTube twerk teams and was murdered in 2014. Gaunt and her students have found and watched over 800 hours of twerking videos by black girls on YouTube. She notes that as twerking (which comes out of a number of different African-American and African dance traditions) has become more popular, there are more white girls sharing twerking videos online. Videos by white girls tend to get more views, and more supportive comments, than those by black girls. Perhaps most worryingly, videos by black girls are often posted by older white male users, and/or might share identifying information or receive comments from men trying to make contact with the dancers. Gaunt notes that there are some important ethical issues with this research, including how to present it without revealing information about the girls themselves.

In the next presentation Julia Michiko Hori discussed the ways in which TripAdvisor reveals (or conceals) the relationship between tourism and traumatic histories. Reviews on the site unmask both an anxiety about, and the banality of, systemic historical erasure. Even those who are engaging in ‘cultural heritage tourism’ often post about their experiences within a colonialist framework, in which they are explorers overcoming the challenges of mosquito bites, uncovered food, and overpriced gift shops. These reviews reveal a desire for all places to be welcoming to (Western) tourists, no matter how historically hunted they are.

The Facebook Demon, @lpromeranthro

The Facebook Demon, @lpromeranthro

Louis Philippe Römer‘s Caribbean Visions of Digital Dystopia looked at Facebook demons and trickster prostitutes. He opened by reviewing the history of the Caribbean as the ground-zero of european colonisation, and talking about the ways in which this has shaped ICT infrastructures in the Caribbean today: telegraph networks integral to colonial trade have been replaced by internet cable networks. This
has enabled rapid adoption of internet and other ICTs in the Caribbean. However, at the same time there’s often little support for, or recognition of, a local manifestation of Web communities: Facebook, for example, doesn’t even recognise Curaçao as a location.

Mikhel Proulx closed the session talking about ‘Digital Natives: Indigenous Cultures on the Early Web’. He opened with an acknowledgement of the Native history of Manhattan (the only acknowledgement of country I’ve heard at a North American conference, as far as I can remember). Proulx spoke both about the colonialism embedded in many Internet spaces (such as the resonances in browsers ‘Explorer’ and ‘Navigator’), and of early attempts by Native artists in particular to make room for indigenous perspectives online, including on CyberPowWow and the Zapatista’s Internet presence.

"five golden seals engraved with astrology charts for spy agencies, if you are into that" - @lifewinning

“five golden seals engraved with astrology charts for spy agencies, if you are into that” – @lifewinning

I was quite curious to see what Magic, Machines, and Metaphors would be about, and it turned out to be a fascinating exploration of the overlaps and disjunctures between how we think about (and practice?) magic and technology. I really can’t do justice to the beautiful, rambling, conversation here, and I recommend checking out the tweets from the session. Participants Ingrid Burrington, Melissa Gira Grant, Karen Gregory, Damien Williams, and Deb Chachra invoked magic as a metaphor for structures of power, but also for resistance. Williams spoke of both magic and technology as systems that are unknown to us, unworkable to us, unless we take the time to become initiated, and Chachra pointed out that for technology, that process of initiation is often made pointlessly difficult in ways that exclude many people.

Chachra has no interest in making technology seem like magic, making it more arcane and inaccessible than it already is. Burrington talked about how this technology-as-magic frame is simultaneously criticised by the crypto community (“crypto’s not magic, why don’t people use it properly?”) at the same time as many people imply that they’re wizards in the area. She also did a cool project looking at the NSA and the occult after seeing an astrology magazine doing star charts for Snowden and the NSA as a lens to talk about surveillance. “What does it mean to make a star chart for an institution? You have to give it a birthday for a start.” That might seem ridiculous, she says, but at the same time it makes about as much sense as killing people based on metadata.

I also liked the efforts to think through relationships between magic and capitalism. Karen Gregory’s work on Tarot practitioners tracked ways in which this was often a response to being pushed out of a precarious economy, with Tarot becoming a means of survival. Magic as a means of survival and resistance can take many forms – Burrington’s mention of bots as a way of conjuring familiars made me think of this recent anti-troll campaign, or heartbot. At the same time, we can’t forget that capital is always seeking expansion and enclosure, so talking about magic (or otherwise exposing our spaces of resistance) is always risking their commodification.

This linked in with discussions about anglocentrism and appropriation: what does it mean that many of the magical traditions that we draw on are so Western? What does it mean that when tech culture draws on other spiritual traditions, it often does it in ways that are appropriative, or about turning them into tools for productivity?

The keynote to wrap day one focused on Music and the Web. I admit I was a little exhausted at this stage and so I’m not going to try to draw on my rather-incoherent notes too much: again, I highly recommend checking out tweets from the session. Participants Sasha Geffen, Gavin Mueller, Robin James, Reggie Ugwu, and Naomi Zeichner brought up some great points about the changing nature of celebrity and fan labour, and about how social media is shifting practices around not just the sharing of music, but also how it’s composed and produced.

A panelist's view of Theorizing The Web - @mollycrabapple

A panelist’s view of Theorizing The Web – @mollycrabapple

If you’re just tuning in, don’t forget that you can follow Theorizing the Web on twitter, and the  livestream. There’s a bunch more cool stuff in the program, too!

Anarchist and anti-capitalist approaches to feminism

April 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

At the first AdaCamp, I noticed that quite a few participants were talking about a politics of openness, drawing on their experiences of ‘open stuff’ (primarily free and open source software politics), but without necessarily having the background to connect this to other political threads that might be relevant.

This is understandable: not only are a lot of people attending AdaCamp coming from a technical (rather than humanities) background, but even my post-graduate degree in political science frankly did little to connect me to political traditions that felt useful to me, and I’m trying to learn for myself now. People are looking for these traditions, though, and so we need to help each other find them.

Lucy Parsons

Anticapitalist approaches to feminism are vitally important. Capitalism is inherently exploitative. It relies on workers making a profit for others within workplaces in which they often have little control over what they produce or the conditions under which it’s producedand on the unpaid or vastly-underpaid labour of marginalised groups (particularly women, and most especially women of colour). It’s also an economic system which relies on constant and hugely-damaging expansion, which we cannot sustain environmentally.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should condemn everyone working within the capitalist system: there is no ‘outside’ to capitalism. But we should be thinking carefully about the tactics and strategies that we employ in our feminisms. It’s easy to fall for the rhetoric of leaning in: to push for more women CEOs and other highly-valued positions, and individualistic solutions which require women to work alone to push back against sexism in their workplaces.

Instead, we need to be thinking about how to change or build alternatives to existing structures where we can. Co-ops and other worker-run organisations are one approach. We can also think carefully about payscales (what’s the ratio between the pay of the highest and lowest paid worker at your workplace? and what is it if you include work that’s contracted out?), and about building solidarity between people in different roles within an industry. We should recognise the importance of caring work and other forms of unpaid labour, and build structures which distribute this labour more evenly.

IMG_5294We also need to more consciously build the skills that allow us to organise and cooperate. I’ve been seeing ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness‘ by Jo Freeman mentioned quite often, sometimes with the unspoken assumption that the problems Freeman discusses (which are significant) mean horizontal organising is inevitably doomed. But as Freeman says herself in the closing section of her essay, there are specific steps we can take to ensure that horizontally-organised spaces aren’t structureless.

This requires learning new skills, and often building new cultures. One aspect of John Restakis’ work that I found interesting was his discussion of the difference between places with a culture of cooperative work (like Emilia Romagna in Italy and Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain) and places which have rapidly collectivised in response to crisis (he discusses Argentina in particular). It takes time to learn to be patient with long meetings and to interact with others in good faith to build collaboration rather than competition.

We also need to do more, I think, to recognise and help develop the emotional skills necessary for effective organising, which requires active reflection on the invisible work in our spaces: including people’s efforts to smooth conflict and help others feel valued. Anarchism (and specifically anarchafeminism) is one framework for this that I find useful, because it focuses heavily on processes (rather than end goals). It also offers an alternative to the libertarian* approach with its focus entirely on individual freedom, instead understanding individual autonomy as always being embedded within community.

Anarchist feminists have also been dealing with some of the same issues that have affected women in open stuff: how to deal with harassment or abuse in a supposedly-decentralised, supposedly-liberatory community; how to develop processes of self-governance that don’t reinforce existing oppressions; how to build change within (frequently) male-dominated communities. Drawing on these experiences, and the praxis that has come out of them, can help enrich our approaches.

Hopefully that’s provided a useful 101 for people who wanted a little more information after the AdaCamp Montreal session on this. There are a lot of directions for additional reading and discussion, and I’ve linked to a few of them here: feel free to leave helpful links in the comments also. I also highly recommend checking out the report (and more detailed notes) from the Femhack gathering on autonomous feminist infrastructures, which was on just before AdaCamp.


* I use ‘libertarian’ here in the sense it’s used in the US, and particularly in tech communities, to mean an ideology that’s focused on individual freedoms without challenging the market as the main way of organising distribution of resources. In Europe, ‘libertarian’ (and especially ‘libertarian socialist’) often means something different and more in line with anarchism.

AdaCamp Montreal

April 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Colour-coded lanyards, by @evablue

Colour-coded lanyards, by @evablue

It’s been a long time since AdaCamp Melbourne, so I was looking forward to seeing how AdaCamp has changed since 2012. AdaCamp Montreal was lovely! It still had the supportive community feel that I’d enjoyed about AdaCamp Melbourne, but running over two days instead of one felt more relaxed, and it’s clear that the experience of running previous AdaCamps is being reflected in the organisational details.

The event started with an induction that laid out diversity and inclusivity policies, including appropriate language and content, accessibility around the space, all genders bathrooms, and name badges with preferred pronouns and colour-and-stripe codes for photography guides. It was also reassuring to see these policies followed up with reminders where necessary. (I’m on the advisory board for the Ada Initiative, but I’m not directly involved in the running of AdaCamps or discussion around them, so all of this was a pleasant discovery.)

Photo by @EvoNeuro

Photo by @EvoNeuro

AdaCamp is an unconference, which means that the sessions that are going to run aren’t fixed ahead of time. I liked the structure for setting up sessions: people proposed talks, briefly explained them, and then organisers put them into the available slots based on how loud the audience response was, consolidating sessions in a few places. Each session also came with role cards (facilitator, gatekeeper, timekeeper, notekeeper) to help them run more smoothly.

Image from edna_million on Flickr

On the first day I started off in a session on zines and independent publishing. Participants came from very different backgrounds: some weren’t sure what a zine was, others had been making and swapping zines in high school, and there were also a few people with experience publishing on other independent platforms. I liked the exploration of the history of zines (apparently in the UK zines were not just a punk/queer/feminist thing but also a really big part of the football fanclub scene?), and discussion of zine-like digital stuff (zines that used to come on diskettes, online zines, zines on USB sticks, podcasts). Recommendations to check out:

  • reveal.js as a tool for creating nifty bundles of digital content,
  • Twine to create and share text-based choose-your-own-adventure-ish games.
  • The pressbooks WordPress plugin.
  • biyuti publishing for buying/publishing work by marginalised authors.
  • Audacity for editing audio files.

Tamika Flynn fanart, by Peppermint Monster

I also went to a session on the gender gap on Wikipedia. One speaker* noted that a lot of the claims made about women (and other marginalised groups, but there’s little data available beyond gender) online are demonstrably not true of online fan communities. For example, claims that, “women don’t have time to participate in Wikipedia”, “women aren’t interested in producing content for the Web”, or even “women think Wikipedia is too trivial and focus on more serious pursuits” are all undermined by the huge participation of women in fan communities. So what’s the difference between fandom and Wikipedia that leads to that reversal? Part of it is that the culture around fandom is so much more encouraging: when you contribute, you usually get a lot of positive feedback and only get negative feedback if you solicit it. So how can we make Wikipedia (or spaces outside of Wikipedia, but contributing to it) more like that?

After lunch, and lightning talks (which I coordinated slightly clumsily, it being my first effort at it), I helped facilitate a shared session on anarchist approaches to feminism, and working collectively/cooperatively in tech (and other ‘open stuff’). There’s a longer, separate post on this for people chasing up further resources, and I’m hoping my co-presenter will also post something about her experience working in a tech workers’ co-op.

‘Dirty Sexist Ad’ by Toban B.

On the second day, I started by going to a talk on fundraising by Mary Gardiner, one of the Ada Initiative co-founders. It’s generally useful to me to know more about how the Ada Initiative approaches fundraising, but I’m also curious about different approaches to sustaining our lives and work. Fundraising has its limits, but so does everything else. There was a lot of good advice from Mary and other participants, but the strongest recurring piece of advice seemed to be: don’t ever do t-shirts. Really, no t-shirts.

The final session I went to was on editing Wikipedia and the Geek Feminism wiki. There were a lot of good ideas for where to start: for Wikipedia, finding stubs can help expand on topics that are already considered ‘notable’ but clearly need work. Countering the bias in Wikipedia can also be done by paying attention to the sources you draw on: where possible, it’s helpful to cite academic (or otherwise reputable sources) by women, people of colour, and people from marginalised groups discussed in articles (for example, an article on trans issues should cite trans authors).

The Geek Feminism wiki also has plenty of stubs, and a handy community portal to help people start contributing. The editorial guidelines are quite different from Wikipedia’s: the site is actively feminism in its perspective and approach (in contrast to the ‘neutral’ point of view Wikipedia attempts to build), and as such allows primary research and anecdotal evidence.

Wall of compliments, by @SVMelton

Wall of compliments, by @SVMelton

These notes are missing a lot: the detailed discussion in sessions, conversations I had over lunch, new things I’m thinking and planning, processes that worked well and that I’ll end up re-using. There were so many interesting and important sessions I didn’t get a chance to check out, including the Cryptoparty and the session on dealing with online harassment. I’m sure there’ll be plenty more notes and blog posts (and perhaps a section on the Geek Feminism wiki) around the place over coming days, happily.

For those looking for more information, check out the #AdaCamp hashtag on Twitter. There’ll also be a report coming out from the Ada Initiative in a while.

Report from the Autonomous Infrastructures As Feminist Practices gathering

April 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

I won’t share extensive notes here about the Femhack gathering on Autonomous Infrastructures as Feminist Practices, because I contributed to the more detailed piratepad notes. You can also read a shorter report on the gathering on the Femhack wiki.

It was an interesting event which drew some important connections between feminist hacking practices, anti-capitalism, and different conceptions of infrastructure, so I highly recommend checking out the notes.

Upcoming events: Femhack Montreal, AdaCamp, Theorizing the Web, and Circuits of Struggle

April 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve got a few (un)conferences coming up, and I’m looking forward to opportunities to connect with academics, activists, and others working at the intersection of politics and technology.

Global Justice and the Politics of InformationMy presentations for Theorizing the Web and the Union of Democratic Communications conference, Circuits of Struggle, are focusing on some of the challenges that geek feminism raises to mainstream digital liberties activism. I’m very proud of my book, and think it makes important arguments about how the struggle for democratic control of digital technologies contributes to broader social justice projects (you should read it! If you can’t afford to buy it, let me know and I can give you a copy in exchange for a review). But at the same time, I think there are some key gaps in it.

I began writing about the digital liberties movement a long time ago, and my analysis has shifted in important ways over the last few years. In my book, and this article, I noted the limitations of the movement’s politics, which tend to be reformist, with a liberal or libertarian (in the US sense of the word) focus. Geek feminism is making interesting and important challenges to that perspective, and I want to do more to highlight those challenges.

FemHackFor the Femhack Montreal workshop on ‘Autonomous Infrastructures as feminist hacker practices’ I’m going to be revisiting some of our Mapping Movements work, in this case looking at how Greek activists are resisting online surveillance and censorship by building their own networks and communication structures.

AdaCamp is an unconference, so I have no idea what I’ll be talking about (if anything), but I loved the last AdaCamp I went to so I’m sure it’ll be thought-provoking. I’m helping out running the lightning talks, so if you’re going please consider giving one!

On (re)reading bell hooks

March 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been trying, lately, to fill the terrible holes in my knowledge that were left by my degree. I studied political science and international relations at a pretty conservative department. This has given me a strong grounding in stuff like, ‘classical liberal thinkers who happen to be mostly white men (and Mary Wollestonecraft for ‘diversity’) who I find deeply unsatisfying’, and a very poor grounding in more radical theories.

I’ve been reading bell hooks, and Sandra Harding, and anarchafeminist authors, and trying to find theories and frameworks that both mesh with my experiences of the world and challenge me to think more deeply about structures of oppression, and possibilities for liberation.

The problem is, I’m still reading within the framework I’ve been trained in. I was reading bell hooks’ Where we stand: class matters, and taking notes for a paper I’m working on. Then I realised there was a pattern to my note-taking. I was marking, for example, passages like this:

From the onset, there has been a struggle within feminist movement between the reformist model of liberation, which basically demands equal rights for women within the existing class struggle, and more radical and/or revolutionary models, which call for fundamental change in the existing structure so that models of mutuality and equality can replace old paradigms. (101)

Passages that are abstract and theoretical, that I can take and apply neatly to the writing I’m currently doing, bolstering the argument I want to make about the need for something beyond liberal feminism.

At the same time, I caught myself skimming over hooks’ descriptions of her own experiences as a Black woman within the feminist movement. I skipped over her descriptions of having white women talk over her in women’s studies classes or feminist spaces, being patronised, and being shouted over during discussions. I took the parts of her argument that felt like they fit (the need to talk about class, the need to mention race at least in passing, the need to call for more revolutionary forms of feminism) and discarded the parts that didn’t seem relevant (most importantly, hooks’ centering of her experiences as a Black woman as a grounding for her theory).

This is just what I was taught to do at university: to discard the personal in favour of abstract theory, and in particular to marginalise the perspectives of women and people of colour. Of course, this was never done overtly: we would take about race and class, but then get back to reading the works of white men who wrote ‘objectively’, as if their own experiences were irrelevant (and, at the same time, universal).

At times, this tendency towards taking parts of a theory while discarding others has been a form of resistance. In a space where most of the theoretical frameworks I was provided with felt terribly broken, I learned to cobble together the bits and pieces that seemed least broken to try to make something I could live with and use. That strategy has been important to me in the past, and will continue to be when I’m dealing with theory built on the experiences of privileged people. But it’s a form of erasure when it means sidelining racism and other forms of oppression I don’t experience.

It will take work to undo this. It will take work to find theorists who shift me in new directions. It will take work to notice, and undo, habits of reading and writing and research that reinforce the status quo. I’m noticing, more, how often white feminist academic and activist writing seems to mention intersectionality without acknowleding the foundational work by Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, the Combahee River Collective. I’m noting how often white feminists talk about ‘intersectionality’ while continuing to centre the experiences of white, middle-class (or elite) women, sometimes not even mentioning race at all. I am noticing more the ways in which I do this myself.

I am, of course, not the only person noticing these issues. Bell hooks’ writing makes it very clear that she has been seeing this process of erasure for decades; Sirma Bilge has published on the depoliticization of intersectionality; Black, Afroindigenous and women of colour have challenged the ways their theorising and organising are attacked online; and frankly I am probably missing a whole bunch of excellent writing on this topic because I am still working to find it.

This process of realisation I’m going through has happened in large part because of social media. I’m learning from the frequently-unwaged labour referred to in #thistweetcalledmyback, work by women of colour who engage in debates that are often incredibly wearing and destructive for them. And, in writing about this here, I’m hoping to make a small contribution to other people’s (particularly white, university-educated people’s) process of learning also: to notice our research processes, to do better, to try to centre experiences beyond our own.

Our collaborative feminist organisations should be critical of capitalism or they will probably be bullshit

February 9, 2015 § 5 Comments

This is a response, kind of, to Amelia Greenhall’s excellent post on Starting your own b(r)and, an incredibly detailed and useful outline of Greenhall’s experience working with Model View Culture. This isn’t meant to be a critique. Greenhall has been generous in sharing her knowledge, and I mostly just want to expand on the first couple of thoughts I had in response:

1coops2alternatives

I’m writing these thoughts not as an expert, but as someone who is still trying to think more and learn more about what it might mean to be a feminist, how to be an effective activist, and how to build alternatives to the very broken system that is currently available to us.

As the title of this post suggests, I’m drawing very tentatively on the important work of women, particularly Flavia Dzodan, in expanding the discussion of intersectionality. Intersectionality, originally developed in parallel by Black feminists Kimberlé Crenshaw and the Combahee River Collective, is a term that’s increasingly used in different feminist communities to discuss the ways in which different forms of oppression overlap.

Dzodan is one of the many writers who are emphasising the role that capitalism plays in these intersecting forms of oppression. In particular it’s useful to read her critique of choice, neoliberal, and libertarian feminism, in which she writes about the problems with seeing a form of feminism which sits easily with capitalism as the default. She argues that this,

“has also led to a sense of “amplified agency”. We are told to “maximize our freedom”, we should “brand ourselves better”, we should “choose our choices” and demand a better distribution of the resources. In the process, we are left with a feminism that imposes on us the moral task of maximizing our own value. This is a feminism of the individual with an inflated sense of the self that is devoted to the creation and administration of individual business opportunities in detriment of systemic change or, at the very least, in detriment of an analytical approach that examines our individual relations as part of a whole and our interactions and participation in a system of inequalities we cannot escape.”

I don’t think that Greenhall’s post neglects the idea of solidarity, or talks only about individual benefits; for example, she writes carefully and thoughtfully about how to ensure that authors are properly paid and retain control of their work.

But I do think that the section on ‘What kind of corporation should you become?’ needs deeper examination. Greenhall opens by noting that, “The first question many people ask is: should I be a for-profit or a non-profit?” As she points out, there are a lot of problems with the non-profit format, including the ways that the need for funding can distort an organisation’s work (outlined in more detail by Sue Gardner). Greenhall cautions that, “You can choose to focus all your energy on selling one thing – a thing that is good, for a profit – and still be a feminist.”

There are two issues I want to raise here. Firstly, like Dzodan, I think it’s important to question what it means to accept that feminism can sit easily within capitalism and to assume that we can focus on simply running companies that sell a ‘good product’ (feminist content). We accept a particular model of workplace in which there are bosses and workers, in which some people control the company and others work for it. We accept that we can fulfill our personal goals through making and selling good products. We accept that we can work against gender inequality (and for diversity in other more nebulous senses) without working against the capitalist system. But capitalism requires inequality and always will. It is build on the unpaid or vastly-underpaid labour of social reproduction, which is usually relegated to women and people of colour.

Secondly, I want to question the idea that our only choice of organisational forms is between for-profit and non-profit models. Both of these, especially in the context of formal US incorporation, are built on the same hierarchical model. They both assume that for an organisation to function properly, there must a division between those who control the direction and those who are merely workers. The non-profit sector doesn’t offer alternative models for organisation, and in many cases it merely means an intensification of the exploitation that workers face.

We need to, at the very least, be considering options beyond the for-profit/non-profit divide. We need to be thinking about organisational forms that create real challenges to the current capitalist system, including cooperatives and collectives. These forms have their own contradictions and problems, but we can learn from them and build on them. There’s a bunch of good writing on this, from the vast body of work on areas with a long history of collectives (including Mondragon and Reggio Emilio); more recent work on how workers in Argentina reclaimed their workplaces; activist zines on feminist collectives; writing reflecting on the experiences of current workers’ cooperatives; and histories of the collective movement in different places (including Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, which I just found out about and really want to read).

This is not to say that I think it’s somehow inexcusable or fundamentally unfeminist to end up deciding to run a for-profit or non-profit organisation. We all make our own uneasy compromises with the system, myself included. In many cases it may not be viable to attempt radical new forms of organisation. But at the very least we need to be thinking carefully about how feminism and capitalism relate to each other, and what the alternatives might be. We should be careful about restricting our vision to a set of possibilities that all exist within the system as it is, and instead be at the very least considering organisational forms that offer us hopes of a more fundamental restructuring of the world.

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