In his brilliant blog post on purity leftism, Matt Bruenig describes a group of activists whose “interest is not in reducing oppression as much as it is in reducing their own participation in it”
Above all else, they want to be able to say that they are not oppressing, not that oppression has ended.[…] A purity leftist that carries out some action or campaign does not care whether it achieves anything. Just participating in the action, although a meaningless gesture, is a gesture nonetheless.
We all know the type: someone who boasts loudly of their revolutionary credentials but who avoids all practical commitments for the simple reason that the moment you start doing something, you are tainted. It might be that your organisation has to ask the wrong people for money; perhaps you’ll need to use products that aren’t ethically sourced; maybe your resources are limited and you’ll need to choose whom you can and can’t help. For whatever reason, the moment an idea becomes a deed, it’s never as pure as it once was and for some people, the damage this would do to their self-perception is just too much.
You can admire purity leftists as people who stick to their principles and never compromise or you can see purity leftism for what it is: privilege in action. People not getting their hands dirty because they simply don’t have to. It has much in common with choice feminism, described by Michaele L. Ferguson as a feminism that is “motivated by a fear of politics”:
It arises in response to three common criticisms of feminism: that feminism is too radical, too exclusionary, and too judgmental. In response, choice feminism offers a worldview that does not challenge the status quo, that promises to include all women regardless of their choices, and that abstains from judgment altogether.
Way-hey! A feminism that enables you to see yourself as the most principled, inclusive person while never, ever having to lay your own neck on the line. You never have to make a decision about who can be admitted to a shelter, or whether or not certain forms of work have a negative impact on women as a class. You just get to sit in judgment on those who do and that in itself can be your “activism”.
Becky, who founded the ethical clothing company Who Made Your Pants?, is neither a purity leftist nor a choice feminist. In a country with horrendously weak employment laws, in which employers are well within their rights to do the bare minimum for their employees – and in which most do — she founded a business that does more than that. She employs women who desperately need jobs to make clothing from recycled materials. The conditions in her factory are excellent. That said, it is not a perfect business. It is based in the UK, not on a fluffy cloud in Perfectland where nobody ever has to make compromises. It is a business which, on the spectrum of “never good enough”, strives to do as much as possible rather than as little as one can get away with. For this Becky deserves admiration.
And yet, for the likes of Brooke Magnanti, writing in the Telegraph, this is not good enough. To Magnanti, Becky’s project deserves not applause but derision. For how can it ever be free from the taint of capitalism? Isn’t everything, when you think about it – as first-year politics students often do, after several pints down the student bar – just all part of the same fucked up process? As Magnanti notes,
I can claim to be wearing an ethical jumper that I knitted myself, but where was the wool from? Shorn from what animals, in what conditions? What’s the dye? I can’t buy local wool; everything produced in the part of Scotland where I live goes off to stuff mattresses in Italy. And don’t even get started on the environmental wreckage of cotton crops. Ethical consumerism can’t be assessed on a single metric, and those who do so are laughable. It also does not mean the same thing to everyone in every circumstance.
She’s right, isn’t she? It’s complicated, oh so complicated. So complicated, in fact, that we might as well all sit on our privileged arses and do fuck all. Or better still, get paid to write about how complicated it is. At least then we’re not lowering ourselves by making pants that lack the requisite level of ideological purity.
Still, in a world that is so, so complicated it’s a good job there are still some occupations that aren’t complicated at all. Take sex work, Magnanti’s previous profession. In this case, one transaction between two (hopefully) consenting adults has no impact whatsoever on anything else in the entire world. It has no impact whatsoever on the extent to which all women’s bodies are objectified, commoditised and dehumanised. For some magic reason, upon which Magnanti never expounds, sex work is totally self-contained. Here, ethical consumerism can indeed be assessed on a single metric, despite the enormous power imbalances between men and women, and between clients and sex workers. It’s only when we’re dealing with pants and jumpers that being immersed in the capitalist-patriarchal mire happens to be of any relevance, or so we’re meant to think.
Do you know what? I am struggling to buy this bullshit, based as it is on a merging together of choice feminism, purity leftism and pure, naked spite. I would rather, a million times over, support someone who exploits people’s anxiety over capitalism than someone who exploits men’s anxiety over female sexual autonomy. I would rather, a million times over, support someone like Becky, who changes the material conditions of other women’s lives, than support someone who feeds off the fear of judgement that allows individualism to masquerade as feminism.
So, go ahead, Brooke. Choose your non-ethical pants, choose your column in the right-wing press, choose to believe you’ve fucked your way out of being privileged, white, and middle class. Choose all of these things but don’t ever, ever choose to try to make a difference. You’ll never meet the requirements of your own prudish politics so you might as well not try.