Protest, Desire, and Cheap DildosA Q&A with Laurie Penny

Image via @PennyRed

Laurie Penny is an British journalist and blogger who came to prominence with her riveting frontline coverage of the student protests in London in 2010 in The New StatesmanThe Guardian, and other outlets. After releasing her first book, Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism (Zero Books) in April 2011, the prolific Penny recently followed up with a collection of her journalistic work, Penny Red: Notes from the New Age of Dissent (Pluto Press). Her third book will be published by Bloomsbury in 2013.

Give us Penny Red in a nutshell.  What was the idea behind compiling your columns?

What I have wanted to do most of all, with journalism, is to create a space for political discussion where women's issues were part of a larger discourse of radicalism. That was the original idea behind the Penny Red blog, which I started in 2007, and that's really the point of collecting these columns and reports in one place: to have a book that speaks to, and about women as a natural part of radical political and cultural critique. There's probably at least one article in there which will make every person who reads it want to throw the book across the room, but the beauty of long-form journalism is that it'll be a different one every time. I'm not claiming to be the only person who's ever done this—Ellen Willis, for example, is one of the greatest, most incisive writers about the culture and politics of 1960s and 1970s America, and for her feminism is just a natural part of the discussion, and not a small part. But I rather feel that's been lost, recently, and that too much feminist writing speaks only to itself, and too much cultural and political writing speaks to, for and about men, and only men.

In your introduction, you state your intention to “make it clear that one cannot properly question patriarchy without questioning profit—and vice versa.” Why is that? What do liberal feminism and male-dominant socialists leave out?

I could talk about this for ages, but essentially I feel that the fight for sexual and economic freedom and the fight against prejudice and discrimination are part of the same fight, and as people begin to question neoliberalism in a sustained way for the first time in 30 years, the most important hurdle to get over is people's belief that they're already free, or at least as free as they can be. Look at what female empowerment has become—a [thing] we use to sell shoes, chocolate and overpriced dildos.

Well, we wouldn't want cheap dildos. But do you think we've failed to grasp the entirety of how sexism is very often transmitted through economic exploitation?

The freedom that's offered to everyone under the terms of neoliberalism [is] freedom for a few to self-actualize in an extremely narrow, homogenous way by shopping and consuming, whilst the rest of us work long hours for low wages or no wages. Freedom from economic exploitation isn't the sexy kind of female empowerment, but without it we won't be moving forward. And the way in which women's labour is used and abused—the concentration of women in low-paid or unpaid caring and domestic roles, for example, is not only one of the things that sustains patriarchy, it also sustains capitalism. Without the work that women do for free, the markets would be on their knees in a day. And yet, it just goes to show that there is, in fact, plenty of work out there, it's just that most of it is being done by women, for free. There used to be a serious campaign for wages for housework—imagine if we had that kind of economic analysis of feminism today! And no, you wouldn't want a cheap dildo, the paint rubs off in places you don't want paint. At least, that's what I've heard.

A bit like a DIY vajazzle, then.

Oh god. Vajazzles are a good example, actually—my column about them is included in the book. If even the most private, intimate parts of us are being neutered and colonized by capitalism—stripped and shaved and made to sparkle like a chicken fillet covered in glitter—how are we possibly supposed to lead healthy emotional lives? If the surveillance of patriarchy and profit has now reached inside our knickers, we could be forgiven for not having the space or energy to fight back. But the wonderful thing is, people do have that energy, and they're starting to pool it to fight the power.

If we've reached such a saturation point in the commodification of women's sexuality, how do we carve out more space for the honest exploration of our desires?

It's a difficult one, but we can and must begin to see our desires as powerful, especially as women. Not just our desire for sex, but for food, love, power, work, fair wages, safe homes, personal and political emancipation, and yes, dildos, presuming we've got the energy to use them after all that. I truly think that a big, important cultural change is happening, and it's about desire, and it's not just about women's desire. It's a reaction to the kind of neoliberalism that promises to give us, as workers and as consumers, everything we could possibly want if only we behave and fit in and buy the right thing and don't rebel, but at the same time makes it impossible to want anything else but the narrow range of choices it has to offer. People are fighting back. The spell is broken.

Do you think that anticapitalist feminism is growing in things like the Occupy movement, or the student protests you've covered in the UK? Is there a politics of desire there? Or maybe a better question is: where is the politics of desire there?

I think the Occupy movement is still waiting to articulate its politics of desire—to be honest, I think about half of them are working out whether it's feasible and advisable to shag in a tent in the middle of winter night feet away from a camera crew. There's hardly a lot of space to experiment. Although I did recently get contacted by a group calling themselves the “sex-positive gender anarchists” of OWS, which made me smile.

As nice as it would be, you can't fuck your way to freedom. Didn't work in the '60s, won't work now. Sexual liberation and economic liberation go hand in hand, because as women, as workers, our bodies are colonized by capitalism.

The first section of Penny Red, “This is Actually Happening,” is series of quite grueling reports from the UK student protests, with police violence a constant. Do you agree with Slavoj Zizek's comment that the marriage of democracy and capitalism is over?

I don't think it was ever a happy marriage. There have, for many decades, been people making policy in the West who believe that democracy is dangerous, and that human beings needed to be controlled for our own good, cajoled and threatened into being obedient workers, good consumers, scared of losing our jobs, scared to question a system which might one day reward us if we're good enough. Now, however, we're all being forced to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. We've realized that free market capitalism in its current form—if a system of feudal finance where ordinary people are forced to pay for the risk-taking of the elite with their jobs, homes, and lives can truly be called capitalism—is not only undemocratic, it is anti-democratic. Its purpose is to concentrate power in the hands of a few, and to manufacture consent for that concentration of power.

When I was in New York recently, reporting on Occupy Wall Street, I found it very interesting to watch the protesters begin to realize that perhaps, just perhaps, the police are not there to protect them, but to protect the elite and their assets from anyone who threatens them. That was always was [what] police forces were for, right from the start, when Robert Peel set up the Metropolitan police. Of course, it doesn't come as such a shock to protesters who aren't white and middle class.

In his foreword to the book, Warren Ellis describes you as a having “all the self-preservation of a lemming dipped in vodka and balanced on top of a step-ladder.” What's the hairiest situation you've been in?

On the 9th of December 2010, in the huge police kettle in Parliament Square, I was in the front of the protest when the horse charge came through. It was unbelievably dangerous: The police were driving the horses through a crush of unarmed kids who had absolutely nowhere to go. Everyone at the front fell down on top of each other, underneath a toppling metal barrier, and I really did think for a few minutes that I might die, or be seriously injured. That was scary.

Frontline reporting has historically been considered quite a macho thing. Have you had resistance from editors in taking those pieces? At one point, you suggest that young women are pushed toward writing confessional, identity-driven pieces. 

Well, the first two articles I ever had commissioned by a major newspaper were about my experience of anorexia as a teenager and my brief stint as a burlesque dancer. [These came] after pitching any number of serious political pieces which didn't have anything to do with me or my arse. Young women in particular have to work very hard to get into this industry, and it's often a toss-up, at least at first, between getting work and being taken seriously. On the other hand, things are changing—not only are there more and more female frontline reporters like Lara Logan, it's becoming recognized that going to dangerous places to get the story has never just been a boys' club. From Victorian female travel diarists to pioneering investigative journalists like Nellie Bly and Djuna Barnes in the early 20th century, right through Martha Gellhorn and Ann Leslie to today, when we have Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein and so many other brave, intrepid women reporters, frontline journalism has always been a woman's job as much as a man's. I suspect that the stereotype of the hard-drinking, macho foreign correspondent will take some time to shift, though.

One of the things that strikes me throughout the book is how very politically clued-in the young people you talk to are. Wasn't this generation supposed to be post-political?

I believe that we are going through a seismic change in the way people of all generations talk and think about politics. When we speak about “generations,” we are really speaking about the unique set of political circumstances that shape the mentality of a particular cohort. For people my age, that's being born after or just before the fall of communism, growing up after the “end of history,” in Frances Fukuyama's terminology, without any conceivable alternative to thrusting, numbing free-market capitalism and individual striving. We were supposed to be post-political because politics itself offered no alternatives to the status quo. The crash of 2008 showed us that there are and indeed must be viable economic and social alternatives to perpetual growth predicated on exploitation, alternatives to the rich profiting at the expense of the poor. This year and last year, all over the world, young people with no future have done what young people do best: they have learned, and fast. I have been astonished by how quickly and how well we've all educated ourselves. Even my own politics have changed profoundly—I feel I've read and learned a lot more in one year than I ever did in three years at university. 

You're working on a third book. What's it about?

My writing schedule keeps being interrupted by reporting work. I suppose you could say it's about sex, feminism, and neoliberalism, and it looks like it's going to be pretty smutty and angry. Really, though, I have to stop running around the place chasing the revolution and actually keep my arse on a chair long enough to write the thing.


This article was published in Frontier Issue #54 | Spring 2012
by Emily McAvan
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9 Comments Have Been Posted

Some times I think Laurie has

Some times I think Laurie has only one thing on her mind.

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As do you, apparently, if that's all you gleaned from this interview.

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