Yes, you’re right. In general, nostalgia is the first refuge of the political idiot. Whether it is uttered by a Trump proposing a return to a “great” America or a Tankie rewriting the crimes of Stalin, the claim that Things Were Better In The Olden Days is hardly ever to be trusted. To urge for a return to an old regime is nearly always deluded. To pick up old techniques of resistance, however, is not necessarily a rotten idea.

Across some nations where the sun is yet to set on International Women’s Day, activists are saluting the past. This is entirely appropriate in Poland where the ruling PiS imposes its medieval restrictions on the reproductive organs of women. In Ireland, too, there was a labour strike combined with what looked to be an immense rally to repeal that nation’s abortion laws. The Lysistratas of London were out, as were the Marxists of Manila. Actually, this last group, part of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan coalition, haven’t hushed up about female labour rights for 30 years. It’s just that this year, Western women are prepared to concede en masse that their dresses were made in the Global South. Now, we’re seeing the pictures.

This hot return to old forms of solidarity is enough to thaw even my cold heart. That there are so many accounts of strikes in the US is, frankly, astounding. Organisers of January’s Women’s March seem done with the donning of “pussy hats” and provide real instruction to those participating in the action they have called A Day Without Women.

There are accounts of courts, schools and other institutions forced to close across the US yesterday. That Western women are prepared to withhold their labour, paid or unpaid, means that they see work as something other than an opportunity to Lean In. They are beginning to see it as an unreasonable complex of conditions, and as something that links them to other workers of the world. In just over a month, this coalition has moved from attributing all of women’s everyday rage to Trump and returned to the “Don’t Iron While The Strike Is Hot” activist mode of the ’70s.

In short, the language of the glass ceiling has been cracked a little by the grassroots.

Elsewhere, it remains intact. On ABC News 24 yesterday, we were treated in one moment to a montage of cheery global female faces across which the image of Diane Smith-Gander was overlaid. The former chair of Broadspectrum, a company contracted to manage many of the services on Nauru, spoke warmly and typically of women’s lot. When she spoke of women’s labour, she did so only in the context of individual success. When she spoke of women’s unification, she did so only in the vague tongue of personal empowerment.

Across our nation yesterday, there were bank-sponsored brunches and fuzzy things said about the classless and universal female experience. Across all media channels, we heard pleas for more women on boards. But, the principles of inspiration and ascent seem to be shifting just a little. They are being replaced by those older hopes for solidarity and a basic living wage.

There is, of course, a growing gulf between that which is reported by the knowledge class and that which unfolds in the lives of everyday people. Just as much of US media continued to hold with Michelle Obama’s preposterous instruction to never let “anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great,” much of our media clings to the idea that the only hurdle for women is that they need to believe in themselves a little more. Like Diane!

The story on the ground, I suspect, is a little different. While there will still be nude selfies and arguments about positive representation on TV and tedious articles written about how having a bubble bath is a “revolutionary” act of “self-care” and whatever cardboard sign certain feminists wish to uphold, there is this other action.

You can’t go back to a political past simply by wishing it. You must find new techniques to approach a political future. With the dismantling of labour organisations, we cannot return entirely to old strike action and still hope to eat. But we can be informed by some of the best principles of the past.

 

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW