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May 21, 2015

Equality does not trickle down, no matter what Girl Power feminists say

The philosophy underpinning She Leads, a new feminist conference to "inspire" women leaders, is total pants. It ignores the basic truth about inequality and supply-side economics.

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If the GFC produced anything of genuine use-value, it was the gift of Thomas Piketty. A French social democrat whose work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, remains a best seller, Piketty gave popular new life to the old view of the “fundamental inequality of capitalism”.  The critique he has received from economic calculists, the centre right (usually that he is too utopian in his disdain for capitalism) and the hard left (usually that he is too utopian in his love for capitalism) notwithstanding, this newly celebrity thinker revived the discussion of an important idea. Namely, that we are all Thatcherites who have come to erroneously believe that wealth concentrated in the hands of a few is of eventual economic benefit to the many.

After holidaying for decades in the matter of the culture, progressives have been newly coaxed into reconsidering the value of a dollar. Many progressive readers, thanks in substantial part to Piketty and his rich data, have turned on the Cultural Turn to think about the stuff of wealth inequality and to finally concede that financial capital simply doesn’t trickle down.

But many of us still seem to believe that social and cultural capital comes down to the bottom from the top. We can see the illogic of concentrated financial power as a tool for liberation, yet we retain a supply-side view of those other forms of power. We believe that the business leader, the politician or the star who “raises awareness” has the power to give us all the power; we can all get culturally rich on inspiration. Perhaps nowhere is this unreasoned “progressive” belief in a social equality that comes down from the top more evident than in current popular feminism.

This week, the She Leads conference in Canberra reaffirmed the faith in equality as something that must derive from an unequal concentration of power. Of course, if read only as a primer on personal success for women, this conference, organised by the YWCA, would merit no special mention. Seminars on the secrets of success are common and there can be no balanced argument against attendance by women at any cult-gathering for Personal Power. Such events are, depending on your perspective, either equally empowering or equally toxic to attendees of any gender.

But that such a conference promoting personal gain and the acquisition of power is seen, as it inevitably has been in media accounts, as progressive begins to become more curious in our post-Piketty landscape. This is not just curious because of the uncritical view of capital so common to the “More Women on Boards!” brand of faux-empowerment, nor is it to the naive view that more women leaders will make the world a better place. Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson reformed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the same way that Thatcher reformed capitalism. Which is to say, both women revved the engines of destruction and were tempered in their proficient efforts by no trace of their gender’s supposed compassion. Women don’t reform power by the mere fact of their presence. Power tends to reform even its female participants.

Feminism of this popular Girl Power type wants its equal rights to inequality, but it is not this fact alone that makes it so antagonistic to a Piketty kind of progress. Rather it is the ardent belief that power of the personal kind can trickle down, just like fiscal capital is believed to, and reward its recipients. Here, personal stories of thriving against the odds and financial redemption emit a reassuring trickle of warmth down the leg of the culture.

It is not, of course, just at women’s leadership conferences that we see the inspiring figure give us This One Moving Story That Will Change Your Life Forever. Liberal feminism may have started the irksome trend of a “Lived Experience” retold to an audience hungry for a saccharine narrative, but those dicks at TED Talks finessed it. We hear moving stories of personal success, fiscal and otherwise, but the wealth of such wisdom cannot truly reach those at the bottom.

The “role model” is to the culture as the corporation has long been understood to the economy: a source of capital from which we will all eventually benefit. It could turn out that inspirational capital works just as financial capital tends to, in that it depletes those who have less of it in the first place.

This is not to say that proximity to good ideas cannot transform an individual’s understanding of the world. Certainly, Piketty has reheated interest in some good ideas and might just nourish a movement. But there’s a difference between a good idea and a good personal story. The former has the potential to legitimately transform the world, and the latter can only serve to delude the individual that they can transform the world. Individuals don’t transform the world, not even with 10 TED Talks worth of thrilling inspiration. A world whose least functional complexes are maintained by the perverse creed of the inspired individual is not going to be fixed through moments of individual inspiration.

Piketty is powerful not because of who he is but because he has clearly articulated a critique of You Can Make It If You Try. Rather, he tells us that You Can Make It If You’re Already the CEO of Lockheed. He has shown us how four decades of concessions to the wealthy have resulted in a burden to the poor.

Perhaps it is time to tax those rich in inspirational assets. Perhaps it is time for the growth of empowerment wealth to be checked. Perhaps peppy role models can be seen less as champions of the You Go Girl underclass and more as uncritical performers who increase our debt of guilt that we are not as “inspiring” as they.

Thrilling and apparently redemptive as personal stories can be, they are ultimately hostile to the more tedious business of upturning an economic system based on a top-down untruth. We do not emulate the powerful to change the conditions of power. We do not give and receive stories of hope. We might remember that inspiration is as fundamentally unequal as the system of economic organisation that we have begun, for the first time in years, to broadly identify.

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13 comments

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13 thoughts on “Equality does not trickle down, no matter what Girl Power feminists say

  1. Norman Hanscombe

    Helen, will it ever “trickle down” to you that as long as you pretend there aren’t relevant biological differences among the various sexes, not to mention among our species as a whole, repeating the same old sorts of waffle is as good as it will get with your ‘writings’?

  2. Helen Razer

    Norm. Even if your statement had any reliable basis in evidence, it doesn’t really have any place in this argument. How would a biological case for sexual difference change a word of what I have written? Why do you feel the need to mention your hypothesis in a site where it has no place?

  3. Norman Hanscombe

    Helen, as I pointed out to you recently in Glebe, you really don’t understand very much about logical arguments or scientific methods; but I post because I live in hope you’ll see the light one day, and in the meantime it’s not unreasonable to hope there are Crikey subscribers who think about these issues more carefully than do you, and see the relevance.

  4. Peter Shaw

    The Female CEO of MetLife insurance Au (2) is currently presiding over what i consider to be the sickening treatment of injured police in NSW (1). MetLife can’t deny their legitimate insurance claims and they don’t want to approve them so they stall. they stall for four years!
    Talk about capitalism. Take the money, keep the money, refuse to pay the claims. But hey, their blimp has its own twitter @metlifeblimp!

    (1)http://www.illawarramercury.com.au/story/2954287/minister-pushes-metlife-to-settle-claims/
    (2)http://www.metlife.com.au/about/leaders/index.html#executives

  5. Barnino

    Rather late to reply Helen, but I enjoyed your article.
    I’m reading Piketty, or at least the summaries which he kindly provides, and reveling in it.
    I found your analogy between inspirational assets and economic assets, and the failure of either to trickle down, both entertaining and convincing.

  6. Helen Razer

    Norman, perhaps you could indulge my repeated failure of logic and spell out how the idea of biological sex difference is relevant to this piece? I’d be most grateful.

  7. Helen Razer

    Hi Peter. I can’t speak to the case to which you refer but rather generally I agree, as I have made plain, that women are no more inclined to be generous or fair as leaders than their male counterparts.

  8. Helen Razer

    Thanks, Barnino. The current primacy of the idea of a “role model” is one I find odd. That people can or even should be redeemed through inspiration seems quite religious to me and not very practical.

  9. Norman Hanscombe

    Helen, you wrote a long meandering piece which (in a manner that frequently helps create the intellectual quagmires where rational analysis perishes) which ignores the fact that many — of course not all — unequal outcomes derive from genetic endowments. As I’ve said at Glebe, not to mention many times on Crikey threads, rambling on about the ‘evils’ of Capitalism, Communism, Tree Hugging or any other theistic or non-theistic religious belief doesn’t explain adequately the different outcomes found every day in modern Western Society.
    The bright successful Sydney Uni Honours Graduates I surveyed in 1965 that had one failure only on their way to graduation tended to have encountered it in basic Philosophy/Logic I or Psychology I. Talking to them revealed it was a problem of putting aside firmly held prejudices of every flavour.
    Being an optimist, Helen, I hope that you [as happened with many of those students] not to mention some brighter less emotively blinkered readers will master [apologies if you feel I should have said mistress] the key aspects of basic logic, scientific method, and even Philosophy.
    There was no need, by the way, for you to mention being grateful.

  10. Helen Razer

    Sadly, Norman, we remain unimproved by your account of how a biological essentialist view would have changed what I have written. Perhaps when you feel inclined, you may choose to give a little more detail than “that’s the way it is”.
    I understand it is your belief than a state-of-nature informs human enterprise and that mass culture is, somehow, the necessary outcrop of an essential human ideal. I am asking you: even if this hypothesis is the case, how would it change what I have written here?

  11. Norman Hanscombe

    Helen:
    1. I’d never use a term such as “a state-of-nature” when talking about the role of nature, i.e. our genetic givens, and I’d be interested to learn what you meant by it.
    2. I don’t know what you are thinking when you say something, “informs (sic) human enterprise”. Please explain.
    3. Ditto that “mass culture is, somehow, the necessary outcrop of an essential (sic) human ideal.”
    4. Whether a “biological essentialist view would have changed what (you) have written” I can’t say because I don’t know what you had in mind with “biological essentialist”.
    5. You ask, “even if this hypothesis is the case, how would it change what (you) have written here.” Tell me what hypothesis you have in mind is and I shall be glad — once the Crikey Censor permits — to respond.

  12. Helen Razer

    NH: how does the view that there are or are not certain natural baheioural differences between men and women change the impact of this piece, as you suggest it can?

  13. lulu2503

    Excellent article, Helen – thank you. Certainly provided a lot to think about. I was one who believed having women as role models (e.g.Julia Gillard) was useful for achieving gender equality. To a certain degree, it does. But from my own observation, using your own terms, such ‘inspirational assets’ do not trickle down to many ordinary girls. I think of those whose mums and dads weren’t already successful professionals or businesspersons, girls who didn’t go to the best schools, those from broken and dysfunctional families.

    I think also of newly arrived immigrant and refugee girls and young women, particularly those with nil or insufficient skills in English, with little opportunity to further their education because of it. High-powered women role models will not necessarily inspire them to ‘break through the ceiling’ when all they want is a decent income enough to live on and enjoy life as they wish.

    As for the utility of ‘inspirational stories’ by role models: many years ago, I attended a national women’s conference organised by the Status of Women’s office of the PMO. There were keynote speakers, women who ‘made it’, so to speak, in the men’s world. One of those was the first female fighter jet pilot. She was indeed impressive, and kudos to her for breaking the male mould of Air Force pilots. She illustrated her ’inspirational story’ with Powerpoint images of the kind of capabilities she could handle flying the plane – this was at the height of the second War in Iraq – we saw precision bombing of buildings, purportedly with minimal human ‘collateral damage’. Among the audience was a group of hijab-clad Muslim women from the Middle East. I noted their distress; one left the hall. A role model for them? They would have been more impressed and inspired if they presented a woman who excelled in peace building in war-torn countries.

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