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Beyond Separatism, Dysfunction, and the Left As We Know It

The left, strangely like a Hollywood movie, has yet to figure out what it might mean to act publicly on a personal sense of injustice or oppression.
Annalee Newitz and Jillian Sandell

Issue #14, May 1994

Writing this article together, we would take breaks after working to see movies. Interested as we are in contemporary gender issues, in the past few weeks we saw Serial Mom and Bad Girls, two Hollywood movies which are about women who turn to violence as a solution to their problems. Aimed at different audiences and working in different genres (camp comedy and the Western respectively), both movies attempt to explain what drives women who are dissatisfied with their personal lives to seek public recognition through violent action or revenge. These movies seemed familiar with the idea that women might wish to protest their social roles — as housewives in Serial Mom and as prostitutes in Bad Girls. But the forms of protest available to women, according to these examples of popular culture, involve forming separatist communities (the gun-toting gang of prostitutes in Bad Girls) or retreating into individual anti-social acts (serial murders in Serial Mom).

These ways of resolving social problems reminded us of the kinds of political action recommended in certain segments of contemporary leftist culture. As leftists, we are encouraged to feel bad together privately, and then act out our rage publicly in ways that are often more destructive than helpful. The left, strangely like a Hollywood movie in this respect, has yet to figure out what it might mean to act publicly on a personal sense of injustice or oppression.

Therefore, if the left wishes to ensure its survival, we believe it must address the kinds of problems people confront in their private lives and interpersonal relationships. Traditionally, leftist movements have been organized around a critique of generalized social hierarchy. They call attention to the way ruling classes benefit by maintaining various oppressed classes, especially the economic underclass. For the most part, the left has concentrated upon power imbalances and the unequal distribution of material goods in the public sphere, and has neglected to understand how these problems are reproduced and reinforced at the individual level in people's experiences of everyday life. In the mid-1990s, this failing of the left is especially acute. Fewer and fewer people these days are willing to affiliate themselves with leftist causes, in part because they do not seem to find leftist politics relevant to the kinds of social relationships they encounter on a daily basis.

By contrast, the popularity of a kind of politics which calls attention to the injustices associated with gendered and family relationships indicates that the critique of inequality can and does capture public attention. A particular kind of feminist analysis, coupled with a therapeutic sensibility, continues to speak to a large audience. The New York Times bestseller list regularly includes titles which address the difficulties people face negotiating interpersonal relationships in a male-dominated society. We would argue that if the left wishes to forge a consensus with a majority of the population, it must offer a form of social critique which, like popular feminist and therapeutic texts, touches upon concerns shared by a mass audience. We are not, of course, suggesting that buying books from the New York Times bestseller list is in any way a stand-in for political action, but the fact that books dealing with gender inequalities from a therapeutic and feminist perspective continue to be so popular indicates the broad level of interest in these kinds of social inequalities.

These texts also encourage individual actions that go beyond merely buying the book, such as tackling one's personal relationship problems head-on. One of the things that the left can learn from the popularity of these texts is that people do indeed respond to critiques that take their personal problems seriously and offer concrete solutions. Clearly the left needs to do more than publish a few bestsellers, but by addressing both personal and social problems in a way that acknowledges the agency of the individual the left can share the kind of popularity that feminist and therapeutic texts currently enjoy. Popular feminism, coupled with a leftist politics, might offer a way in which the majority of people can translate abstract notions of social justice into their everyday practices.

But these types of popular critiques of social injustice could use the kind of radicalization we associate with an explicitly leftist politics. What these movements frequently ignore is the potential for revolutionary social change. This is precisely what radical leftist politics promote. A revolutionary strategy, in order to be successful today, might combine popular criticism of the interpersonal realm with a model for widespread social changes. This strategy would question the separation between private and public forms of oppression. What we propose here is a way of thinking through the popularity of contemporary issues associated with interpersonal relationships from a leftist perspective. Ultimately, what we hope to suggest is a way feminist and therapeutic movements might be synthesized with leftist movements to form a new political consensus among people who wish to end social and economic class warfare.

In a conversation about feminist issues, we found that we shared a sense that the future of any socialist feminism must involve men. We often joke with our friends that we are 'male identified' because we do not dress in a traditionally feminine manner and we prefer entertainment — like action movies — aimed at a male audience. Our male identification, we agreed, is partly our way of attempting to be men's social equals. But we could only conceive of ourselves as men's equals if we became, at least in our own minds, 'male.' Somewhat taken aback by what we were saying to each other, we tried to puzzle out why we might need to reject our gender in order to feel good.

Our question seems to be what many women are asking in the early 90s. Popular feminist works published recently such as Gloria Steinem's Revolution from Within and Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth deal with women who suffer from poor self-esteem as a result of the 80s conservative backlash against feminism. These books have obviously hit a nerve with their female audience — both have been controversial bestsellers, and Wolf's book received so much notoriety that she wrote Fire with Fire as a partial response to critics and supporters of The Beauty Myth. Steinem and Wolf call for women to pay more attention to ways gendered culture affects them psychologically, undermining their self-confidence and hindering their relationships with other women. Both authors, but especially Steinem, assert that the problems women face today are mainly in their own minds. Women, like ourselves, are not so much angry with a culture that subjugates them, but are unhappy with themselves because they are beginning to believe that male-dominated culture is right.

In some ways, it would appear feminism has regressed. The issues addressed by high-profile feminists currently do not concern how women might act to become men's equals, but rather how women might learn to believe that they deserve equality in the first place. Popular spiritualist Marianne Williamson writes in A Woman's Worth that women's power 'is not evil but good...[women] must reclaim [their] goodness as well as [their] power.' Her comment implies that women need to be convinced that there is something right or 'good' about wanting power. In the 60s and 70s, during the so-called Second Wave of feminism, women's 'consciousness raising' in groups or individually addressed a similar issue. A slogan developed by Second Wave feminism — 'the personal is political' — underscored the need for women to change themselves personally in order to be effective politically. Reading Williamson or Wolf, one might be tempted to ask whether anything has changed at all since the 70s. Certainly there are more women in the workforce than ever before. Nevertheless, they are asking themselves questions quite similar to ones they asked when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1962. Do I deserve to have what men have? Am I worthy of the same public respect men receive? Will I cease to be attractive if I desire social power?

What has changed since the 70s is that men are now asking questions that sound like echoes of these — and they are encouraging each other to engage in something like consciousness raising about their masculinity. Robert Bly's Iron John is a kind of manifesto for the 'men's movement.' His blend of mysticism and angry social criticism are directed solely at a male audience who feel weak, neglected, and lonely because they are men. What Bly suggests, sounding not unlike Steinem and Wolf, is collective therapeutic myth-making so that men can learn to feel good about themselves and their male peers. Along with his fellow men's movement spokesperson Sam Keen (Fire in the Belly), Bly asserts that men can only regain a sense of worth in the company of other men. Ultimately, Bly and Keen both understand the male problem to stem from problems men have with themselves and other men, and getting away from women to be with men is therefore necessary.

In the 90s, both men and women seem to lack self-esteem as a result of cultural myths about both genders. And each gender, turning to experts, finds that the 'solution' to their gender problem will come from segregating the genders for some separate-but-equal consciousness raising. Bly and Keen, wrestling with manhood, promote masculinity and male bonding. Steinem, Wolf, and Williamson, in response to women who feel belittled by male-dominated culture, recommend that women learn to value themselves as 'real' women and form relationships with other women. The men's and women's movements operate under the assumption that there is something unjust — even unnatural — about the way social categories such as 'masculine' and 'feminine' divide human emotions and behaviors up arbitrarily into separate, binary spheres. And yet the only solution these movements seem to offer is more of the same. Men and women retreat into separate camps to lick their wounds, bond, raise consciousness, and escape the demands of the opposite sex. If indeed we are in the midst of a class war between the genders, the early 90s would appear to be a time of retrenchment, when each side retreats in order to prepare for another round of fighting.

Separatist thinking is the dead end of social movements based upon gender. These movements have become constrained by their own organizing principles, which depend upon understanding gender as a problem men and women experience separately and differently. It is for this reason that they propose people learn to feel better by forging alliances with members of their own sex. But the most common complaint of men, according to Keen, is that they do not feel 'whole.' His point sounds much like that made by feminists who protest the way women are made to feel incomplete unless they are beautiful, bearing children, and performing any number of other 'feminine' tasks. Feeling 'incomplete,' or 'not whole' would seem to imply that one misses something, or has been separated from something in oneself. In response to this problem, the men's and women's movements propose separatism — men or women join communities of their own gender and 'become whole.' What these movements do not take into account is the possibility that men and women feel incomplete because they live in a culture which sets up boundaries between them on the basis of gender. Might it not be the case that men miss actual women and the 'woman' in themselves? And that women miss men in a similar fashion? That we feel 'incomplete' because we live in a culture which divides us up into gendered halves?

As a response to people's unhappiness with gender, separatist consciousness raising succeeds only in calling attention to the problem — and might even serve to reinforce it. Furthermore, it encourages people to understand gender as a source of solidarity with others, when in fact gender is a system predicated upon social division. We called this kind of thinking the dead end of social movements based on gender in part because ultimately these are movements which will alienate people rather than bring them together as a 'whole.' In part, this alienation comes from being separated into gendered camps. Separatism is not generally a social arrangement which leads to peace, but rather leads to continued divisiveness on a number of levels. Most noticeably, it affects the way people view their personal identities and their bonds with others.

If a woman is asked to gain self-esteem and a sense of 'wholeness' by concentrating on what is 'good' about her gender, she is engaging in a form of personal alienation. What this means is that she comes to define herself, her identity, in terms of one aspect of that identity — her femaleness. Indeed, she is asked to draw strength from an aspect of herself over which she has no control. She did not request or choose her gender, and yet this unchosen aspect of her identity is what she is told defines her and her community. We call this personal alienation because she is experiencing a kind of separatism in her consciousness. Of all the fascinating and intriguing aspects of her personality, she has separated out gender as that which is the most important, and the most indicative of who she really is. She is a woman before she is a worker, a friend, a guardian, even a player of video games. We worry that she will soon find this definition constraining, and therefore alienating, and perhaps her sense of alienation will persuade her to abandon those aspects of the feminist project which go beyond gender identification and attempt to correct the problems of social hierarchy and domination.

Understanding the drawbacks of separatism in gender-based movements provides a jumping-off point for looking at a similar trend in leftist social movements. Many of us at Bad Subjects have argued that the left tends to marginalize itself, creating a community that resembles a 'men's retreat' or a 'woman's space' in that it only has room for people who share a single identity — that of the 'leftist.' What this promotes is a sense that the left is 'at war' with mainstream and right-wing politics and therefore has no need to address or speak to a non-leftist audience. Just as 'woman-identification' might become a source of personal alienation, left-identification of this sort is a form of social alienation. 'Leftist' becomes a personal description rather than a category of actions one wishes to perform collectively, that is, as a social movement. Furthermore, converting 'leftist' into a separatist identity works against the left's stated goal: challenging unfair social authority by organizing disenfranchised groups into politically active communities. Rather than joining with various kinds of protest movements (such as feminist and men's movements), the left sets up boundaries between itself and other groups. The left alienates itself from possible allies.

One result of this division is that an opposition gets set up between personal and social action. Gendered movements 'take care of' personal politics, while leftists attend to public — often called 'hard' — politics. We believe that this division of labor leads to what therapeutic culture calls 'dysfunction.' In short, the left could use some therapy. Separatism leads to feelings of isolation and low self-esteem. The way the left deals with these feelings is dysfunctional precisely because leftists have no sense of how to translate feelings of anger and oppression into coherent social actions. Specifically, political action on the left is often misdirected; rather than targeting the groups responsible for their feelings, left social movements have been known to destroy the property and lives of their allies. For example, when inner city dwellers in Los Angeles burned down their own neighborhoods, many leftists championed their actions as 'revolutionary' and politically effective. But in fact, the LA riots were a demonstration of profound dysfunction — rioters hurt themselves and their own social class, rather than challenging the authorities whose attention they wanted. But it is this model of social action the left continues to follow.

Some tactics the left employs in demonstrations involve destroying the property of small business owners or stopping traffic. Both gestures, while perhaps personally cathartic for the demonstrators, ultimately are not directed at social change and forging public consensus. In fact, these actions intensify conflict and alienate people who might otherwise be sympathetic to leftist causes. It would seem the left is addicted to conflict, and to perpetuating its own sense of isolation, at least if we let their actions speak for them. Therapeutic culture might offer the left a possible solution to misdirected, destructive acting out. This would involve coming out of separatist thinking and into a new model of communication and cooperation; it would also teach individuals how to cope with anger in a socially productive manner. Ultimately, it would begin to build a bridge between personal rage and collective political action.

This issue of getting beyond separatism is explored in two groups of books that have recently become popular which deal with the way men and women might avoid separatism and instead forge alliances with one another. One group deals with communication between men and women (such as Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand and John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus), and the second offers a way out of codependent relationships (the most popular being Robin Norwood's Women Who Love Too Much and Melody Beattie's Codependent No More). While these books are ostensibly about communication between the genders, the solutions they offer could be adopted in the service of a progressive political movement. They suggest a way to get beyond separatist thinking generally, although they focus entirely upon gendered separatism. But more is needed than communication and therapy; to suggest that the left merely communicate freely with other groups would be something like recommending liberal pluralism. One must, in other words, read these texts critically in order to make them relevant to a leftist project.

You Just Don't Understand and Men are from Mars have been hailed as 'rosetta stones' that guide men and women through the language and customs of the opposite sex. In the sense that they accurately describe the current situation, much of what Tannen and Gray have to say certainly rings true, but their books are ultimately unsatisfying because of their 'this is just the way it is' approach. They have endless examples of interactions between men and women, in public and private situations, from literature, from history and from other cultures, all of which 'demonstrate' that men and women have different, but equally valid, styles of communicating. Indeed, Gray's central premise is that the differences between men and women are so great that it is as if we were born on separate planets. Since both Tannen and Gray see all gender inequalities as being reducible to the level of personal interactions it makes perfect sense that they see communication as being so important, but even here they have no investment in changing the situation, only in working within it.

Tannen and Gray both suggest that there are no power imbalances between women and men and that all we need is a bit more understanding from everyone so that larger social issues, such as men dominating in the public sphere, will change accordingly. There is never any possibility for real intimacy between women and men, because they will never completely understand each other. Yet their books are aimed at men and women in heterosexual relationships, and in this sense they end up valorizing the very asymmetry they seeks to redress. However, as we know, gender inequalities are also more than 'misunderstandings' between the sexes and are the result of larger social and institutional practices that reinforce and perpetuate sexism and discrimination, and that have very real social and material effects. In other words, they require a politicization of the personal, something that Tannen and Gray explicitly avoid.

By contrast, Robin Norwood and Melody Beattie are completely aware that personal problems like codependency are the result of larger social factors, but even so neither have any interest in changing society, only individuals. Norwood and Beattie have, without a doubt, cornered the market for popular books on codependency (a term for people — usually women — who stay with abusive and/or unreliable partners) and, once again, there is a shock of recognition in reading about the relationships and interactions Norwood and Beattie describe. From a feminist perspective, they are also more satisfying because of the implicit critique they offer of the institution of the family and of patriarchal society. Indeed, if you replace 'social construction' where they talk about 'conditioning' you have a version of the kind of 1970s feminism that first connected personal problems with larger social structures. But here the similarity with feminism ends and Norwood and Beattie's advocation of accepting one's powerlessness over a situation is an implicit undermining of the power of political action.

For Norwood and Beattie, the kinds of 'asymmetrical' relations that Tannen and Gray discuss are examples of 'codependent' interactions where one person abuses and manipulates the other. They also address how inequalities of gender lie beyond the realm of language, discussing problems such as overspending, overeating, alcoholism and relationship dependency. In a sense, therefore, you might expect that their solutions would be less personalized than those of Tannen and Gray. But, they too focus only on individual transformations, arguing that in fact trying to change people and situations is actually part of the problem of codependency. As they both argue, 'you can only change yourself!'

Codependents are people (mostly women) who are addicted to being needed; needing to be caretakers, listeners, sex providers, rescuers, whatever it is that they can provide. Not surprisingly, codependents are also people with very low self-esteem, so low that they need to feel needed to feel good about themselves. What is so great about these books is the way both Norwood and Beattie argue so emphatically that women deserve to feel good about themselves without being surrounded by, and looking after, abusive, alcoholic, battering, drug-taking or otherwise needy and manipulative partners. This is certainly important, but it is not enough. While books about codependency acknowledge that women deserve mutuality and equality in their relationships with men, they also say that women have to do the work of changing, and that healing society must always be postponed until after the individual is healed — which she never will be.

Popular feminist and therapeutic texts take seriously the private and domestic sphere, a sphere traditionally coded as feminine and unimportant. They urge us to take our feelings, emotions and personal communications seriously, and to suggest ways in which we can improve such personal interactions. Indeed, as a coping strategy for the pains and struggles of everyday life their suggestions are both well intentioned and very necessary, but it is only a coping strategy and this is their downfall, for they see change as only being possible at the level of individual inter-personal relationships. Such a position is analogous to perpetuating class inequalities within capitalism. Just as individual solutions for gender inequalities are the coping strategy of life within patriarchy, similarly separatism is the coping strategy of capitalism. In other words, capitalism says that it is not the fault of society that some people are poor, live in sub-standard housing, are badly educated, or sick, or otherwise oppressed, but it is the fault of specific social classes and groups. Capitalism simultaneously encourages an attitude that class relations are inevitable ('that's just the way it is') while also suggesting that class mobility is possible if you just try hard enough.

Therapeutic culture encourages us to embrace our victim status and make changes at an individual level. The assumption seems to be that if every individual made these changes (a kind of mass therapy combined with mass linguistic transformation) society as a whole would automatically change. What this position fails to acknowledge is that by all focusing on our separate transformative efforts we are ignoring the potential for larger collective transformations. It also ignores the material inequalities that women experience everyday that lie beyond the realm of personal relationships. Indeed, it is no coincidence that books such as these should be so popular at a time of economic and social recession because they discourage political action and instead place all of the responsibility onto the individual. We are all oppressed by capitalism, and it is profoundly liberating to have one's pain and suffering validated, but validation is not enough — unlike Robin Norwood we believe collective changes are necessary.

The kinds of changes we imagine entail moving the left out of its current relationship of codependence both with the ruling classes and other social movements. A relationship of dependency becomes pathological when the victim enables the victimizer to carry out oppression. Separatist social movements, because they remain isolated from each other, contribute to their own victimization. They engage in conflict with one another, and leave themselves vulnerable to exploitation by the ruling classes they hope to depose. Economic and social inequalities therefore remain stable. However, the solution is not, as Norwood and Beattie would suggest, to make individual changes, but instead changes must be made on a collective and widespread level. The ruling classes only survive because the underclasses frequently accept the status quo and fight among each other. Right now, the left still does not have a map which will lead us out of this kind of problem. What we suggest here is a partial solution, a way of reimagining leftist politics by synthesizing them with social movements far more successful than the left is at present. Focusing on interpersonal politics is not the answer, but it is certainly one place the left might look in order to overcome its own problems — for as we learn in therapy, one must confront one's own problems before helping others confront theirs. Before fixing society, the left must fix itself.

Annalee Newitz is senior editor of Bad Subjects and a Ph.D candidate in English at UC-Berkeley currently writing her dissertation on monsters and psychopaths in American popular culture. Her article 'The Incest Monster: Sexual Allegory in the Popular Fiction of Anne Rice' will be appearing in the forthcoming anthology Women's Writing as Creation of Safe Space (edited by Tomoko Kuribayashi and Julie Tharp). She can be reached at the following Internet address:

Jillian Sandell is a member of the Bad Subjects collective and will be joining the graduate program in English at UC-Berkeley in the Fall. She can be reached at the following Internet address:

Copyright © 1994 by Annalee Newitz and Jillian Sandell. All rights reserved.