Speaking Out

Pluto's 'Outspoken' series of polemical books starts out with short, sharp texts on class and feminism – and aims to help an emergent generation of radicals find their way beyond the limits of mainstream politics.

Pluto Press’s “Outspoken” series is aimed at young readers looking for an introduction to activism. Its two new books push beyond the limitations of an introduction and function more as accompaniments to action, rather than summaries of a theory. As Lola Olufemi writes in Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power, ‘Theory does not only mean reading dense academic texts. Theory can be lived, held, shared.’

Olufemi’s book begins with exasperation at the popularity of neo-liberal or ‘boss girl’ feminism. ‘The neo-liberal model of feminism,’ she writes, ‘argues that ‘inequality’ is a state that can be overcome in corporate environments without overhauling the system.’ This approach foregrounds the individual and her continued participation in the state, ignoring the state’s own involvement in misogyny and the historical creation of the competitive “individual” as the foundation of modern patriarchy. Ben Tippet’s Split: Class Divides Uncovered is equally as dedicated to radical action. It begins with an adapted fable from Aesop – unlike Billy Elliott and the neo-liberal individualism that leads him to personal success, away from his protesting peers, we need to be an unbreakable bundle of sticks, stronger together.

Tippet is at heart a storyteller, and his concise, pithy book is so full of entertaining narratives and satirical quips that it’s easy to forget the force of its message. Split explains how the drive to expand the neo-liberal ethic of individual competition against all community required the end of class as a narrative. Instead, those in power had to formulate a story that sets metropolitan elites against a nostalgic grouping of industrial, white male workers. The class split was disguised in xenophobia and racism. Tippet implores us to retrace the loss of class and discover how the real divide has been covered up – the divide between capitalists and workers, the Marxist ‘capital-labour relation.’

This ‘imploring’, though, is a slight downfall in both books. In between the sections of narrative, leftist jibes and careful Marxist politics, Tippet regularly commands: ‘We need to,’ ‘we must.’ The obligations risk taking on the self-assured position of the book’s antagonists. Olufemi’s work is even more critical of any notion of centralized power. However, there are still moments of rule-making, telling us that we must rise to the challenge, and we must do it urgently.

The point of Tippet’s work is that ‘class is global.’ It does not only exist ‘on the playing fields of Eton, in the corridors of Buckingham Palace, and down the back alleys of inner-city estates.’ The middle class is not a coherent group, but the force that maintains their power is the same. The middle classes benefit from a system reliant on the underpaid and those on stagnant wages. The most interesting parts are when Tippet draws out the role of class in seemingly disconnected world problems. The $60 million home of the West/Kardashian family was protected by private firefighters during the disastrous 2018 California fires. The gradual privatization of crucial government services and the use of 4,000 prisoners as firefighters on $1 a day are revealed to be the cogs in a machine of classist violence at work behind the private protection of Kanye’s mega-mansion.

The chapter on race follows a neat chronology from pre-racists arriving in America with pre-enslaved Africans, who were able to work for their eventual freedom, before the late seventeenth century ‘invention of whiteness.’ However, this misses the complexity of racism’s long history. Aristotle claimed the superiority of whiteness using “climate theory” – that those from extreme climates, like Africa or Scandinavia, were inferior. Renaissance and early Enlightenment thinkers desperately sought ways of justifying the enslavement of Africans, and colonial expansion was the goal of going to America. While Tippet interestingly brings a discussion of class to antiracism, the chapter on race attempts to tell an overly simplified story – a story that ultimately inverts history. For Tippet, America is the creation of racism. But, as race theorist Ibram Kendi writes, it would be more accurate to say that racism is the creation of America.

Olufemi’s Feminism Interrupted also centres on one theme in every chapter, each with a paradigmatic example. Pinpointing the work that activists have done to change the particular situation makes her text feel more alive and hopeful than the careful historical analyses of Tippet’s Split. The possibility of further activism breaking the current violence of neo-liberal capitalism and its bourgeois state is the fresh, revolutionary air that pumps through Olufemi’s book. Split feels more like a long article, with everything covered, though none of it in detail. Basic Marxist economics is laid out with wit and comforting narration, but it falls a little short of a total reawakening that sends us all out to march and fight. Olufemi’s book is focused on breaking impossible futures more than misinterpreted pasts. Like Tippet in Split, she speaks directly to young activists, but her message is that everything is left to do: the project of radical feminism has not yet begun. As she says to burgeoning feminists: ‘you are making a commitment to a world that has not yet been built.’

A limitation of many introductory texts to political theory is that they rely on the mediation of the institution. Every activist movement is spoken through an idolized figure, usually a white, bourgeois and male European philosopher. Both Olufemi’s and Tippet’s books are exemplary in focusing on the actual practice of radicalism, without mediating radical politics through Derrida or Foucault. They are not ignorant of the philosophical accompaniment to activism, but they remain dedicated in their writing to the people practising radical emancipation daily. So Olufemi’s chapter on reproductive justice begins with the movements that brought about reproductive reform in Ireland in 2018. She applauds and closely examines the work of groups that led to the abolition of the brutally violent law that had banned abortions for decades. It is only then that she brings in the academic discourse of Angela Davis and the eugenicist tradition in liberal feminism that Davis campaigned against. Davis’ argument is then applied to current activism in the USA, culminating in a complex and powerful chapter that pushes every liberal creed to its dead end, and then opens up a space for radical activism. ‘If the decision to have a child is simply a woman’s ‘choice’, the responsibility for the well-being of children is shifted onto mothers instead of the society in which children are raised. Women can be blamed for their bad ‘choices’; single mothers with multiple children become the target for policy makers who view them as a scourge on society. Sexist logics are reaffirmed.’ It is not enough to achieve ‘choice’ and then fail to ask what ‘choice’ means. 

This dedication to activist voices and practices makes Olufemi’s Feminism Interrupted a significant indictment of liberal politics and neo-liberal economics, providing a relentlessly readable and critical push for young feminists towards radical action. While some of its criticism is more journalistic, Tippet’s Split offers plentiful interesting examples of capitalist violence, and a strong call to fight back. A generation of radicals is ready for revolution, and these books can help to formulate the plan.

The ‘Outspoken’ series is now out from Pluto Press.

About the Author

Elliot C Mason is a poet, playwright, essayist and founder of Penny Drops Collective. His works have been widely published, including in Magma, 3:AM and SPAM. His first collection of poetry/essays, City Embers, is coming out in June.