All the president’s men
As the sexual harassment scandal continues to claim victims, Paul Demarty wonders how it will be brought back under control
As more and more people, institutions and inanimate objects are absorbed into the #MeToo affair, a couple of recent news items strike me as particularly illuminating.
The first comes from this side of the pond: the Financial Times took a novel decision, not within its usual ambit, to send journalists undercover as hostesses to the prestigious Presidents’ Club charity dinner. They discovered that the all-male clientele of this event was interested in more meat than was on their plates, and the evening brought an endless stream of lewd remarks, gropes and worse. Lead writer Madison Marriage chose not to make her excuses and leave, and caught the attention of wandering hands herself. When this was written up, there began an almighty shitstorm, which has ended a couple of political and business careers and bruised a few more. Truly, it was a night to remember.
Back in the United States, the New York Times gave us a most interesting morsel in the form of allegations against Burns Strider, a member of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential primary team (official faith advisor and provider of scriptural snippets to the senator) and subsequently a presence of some sort in pro-Hillary political action committees. The improbably named Strider is alleged to have serially harassed a woman colleague during the 2008 campaign, for which he was not fired, but given therapy, with the woman being moved elsewhere in Team Clinton. He reverted to this habit with another colleague in 2016, after which he was allowed to resign quietly. This narrative is, of course, deeply embarrassing to Clinton, the supposed great white hope for womankind.
I suppose we should start by looking a little deeper into the latter farrago, and note that the great paradox of the sexual harassment omni-scandal is how little has been made out of it politically in its country of birth. Oprah Winfrey was given the opportunity to set out her stall for future greatness, but that is about it - and it is purely speculative, a piece of wish fulfilment on the part of increasingly agitated identitarian liberals. Compare Britain - heads have rolled, factional wars have tilted this way and that in a flurry of score-settling.
The difficulty, of course, is that any attempt to make capital out of this in the American scene is laughable. The New York Times allegations about Burns Strider are a serious embarrassment to Hillary Clinton, but how much more serious is the fact that the man whose prolific campaign of harassment, sexual exploitation and rape triggered all this off - we speak of Harvey Weinstein - was also a man of impeccable Clintonite bona-fides. The whole affair got off to an impossible start for Hillary, as the candidate with the most star-studded, red-carpet-ready entourage of all time tried to splutter in denial that she had any idea that Weinstein had cajoled, harangued and forced his way into every bed in Hollywood. If this preposterous denial is sincere, it is evidence only of the bottomless human capacity for self-deception.
Hillary’s opponent in 2016 is hardly in a position to exploit these events either, however. Need we rehearse the details again - this man who openly brags about “grabbing ’em by the pussy”, whose political appeal is unashamedly macho and masculinist? Attempts were, of course, made to exploit the discomfort around Weinstein, but only a man as shameless as Donald Trump could have considered trying that on.
As for the leaders, so for the followers. The obvious cultural-conservative response to the Weinstein affair - this is what happens when you allow liberal values to run riot! - is precluded, since too many of the ‘conservatives’ are reconciled to the lecherous creature in the White House. When there was still the chance of swapping him out for someone ‘sensible’, like (god help us) Ted Cruz, one would find pompous god-fearing politicians claiming to be irreconcilable to someone as ‘immoral’ as Trump. The subsequent embarrassed silence of such characters proves that they have no other god before money and power.
Liberals among the Democrats, meanwhile, have placed much heavy emphasis on the ‘feminist’ explanation for Clinton’s defeat - she was just too female, and American society too misogynistic; she was harassed by supporters of the soi-disant socialist, Bernie Sanders, the ‘Bernie bros’ (except for the female ones, who, according to Gloria Steinem, of all people, were just empty-headed idiots trying to get off with the bros); and then Trump himself, whose victory confirms that the most toxic, self-parodic image of maleness is still preferable to a woman in the Oval Office.
This explanation of the world comes under severe strain when it turns out that Weinstein was up to no good; indeed, it is no end of a boon to the rightwing populists who claim that liberals are a dishonest, backscratching clique, with Hillary as their Queen Bee. Weinstein certainly found it easy to hide among his fellow New York elites. As for Strider, his misdemeanours demonstrate that Hillary’s political operation itself employed the ‘cover it up and move people around’ approach to sexual malfeasance, made so famous by the Catholic church hierarchy. It is thus directly hypocritical, and Clinton’s congratulations of the women who bravely came forward bizarrely tone-deaf. The gulf between her young staffers and her inner circle has never looked larger.
Change they can believe in
The Presidents’ Club affair is not proving so politically awkward for the ruling class, in spite of the prestigious names in attendance; and so the by now familiar pattern is in force, of vicious denunciations of all involved, and the wet, sticky sound of rolling heads. Not only are the perpetrators in the firing line, but also any who demur from the feeding frenzy - Tina Knight, a Tory councillor in Essex, has been forced to resign from a council committee for saying that the FT article was exaggerated on Radio 2.
We note here, inter alia, that among those frothing at the mouth about the Presidents’ Club are the journalists and editors on Socialist Worker: for their correspondent, Sadie Robinson, it exposes “the sexism of the rich”,1 and a leader piece makes the obvious pun with that other President - Donald Trump, who is America’s “sexist-in-chief”.2 It really does not seem to occur to the comrades that they are on very, very shaky ground here - a quick experiment typing the words “Socialist Workers Party” into Google’s search box gave me auto-complete suggestions like “rape crisis”, “sexism” and “comrade Delta”, and that is before we get to the 650-odd words on the subject of the SWP’s disastrous cover-up of rape allegations to be found on that little-known research tool, Wikipedia. Sack all members of the central committee who were in post in 2013, comrades - then we can talk about the “sexism of the rich”.
The thorny question emerges of what is to be done about all this. The FT presents the opinions of Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, and her thoughts are fairly typical: we need better ‘human resources’ reporting procedures; we need more women in the C-suite and the boardroom (only 4% of FTSE 350 chief executives are female); companies should set diversity targets and be held accountable to them; and so on. “Let us use [the scandals]”, she concludes, “to make sure every young woman can feel confident, safe and respected, especially in business.”3
Especially in business, indeed. Sadie Robinson in Socialist Worker declares that “the people at the top ... argue that men are somehow worth more than women, or that black people are naturally more likely to be lazy criminals”. Is Fairbairn not “at the top”, comrade?
The naked reality is that the hegemonic faction of the bourgeoisie in the imperialist metropoles is committed to exactly the opposite of this policy, instead supporting wherever possible within itself the artificial promotion of women, ethnic minorities and so on, in politics, culture, elite sport, and - ahem - especially in business. This phenomenon does not go unchallenged (the election of Trump is evidence enough of that, not to say the rise of religious and other social-reactionary movements to power in many parts of the world); yet to write as if it is somehow unreal is to radically misunderstand the culture at large.
The grain of truth, however, is that actually eradicating sexist buffoonery seems to be entirely beyond the power of the bourgeoisie. The very intensity of the discourse over sexual harassment at present testifies to the intractability of the problem. For if it were the case that diversity initiatives, combined with both-barrels-blasting of miscreants were adequate to circumvent male sexual malfeasance, how on earth is it the case that Hillary Clinton has come unstuck so repeatedly on this matter, from her serial-harasser husband to Weinstein, to Burns Strider?
The insurmountable obstacle is social hierarchy itself. The division of society into haves and have-nots and have-somes - classes, in other words - produces a limited but ‘spontaneous’ solidarity within those classes. Even in the case of the bourgeoisie, whose existence is marked at least in part by zero-sum competition between its members, exhibits - through bodies like Fairbairn’s CBI and (alas!) events like the Presidents’ Club charity grope-a-thon - a firm sense of common purpose, expressed perhaps as political rightism or philanthropy or whatever else, but always in a form in which the story of life has the wealthy and the powerful as its heroes.
It is striking that Fairbairn’s proposals have almost nothing in them that would help out the people who ostensibly occasioned her broadside - to wit, the hostesses of the Presidents’ Club. Wealthy men of a less reconstructed sort will continue to people their private gatherings with nubile young women, who will put up with it because they need the money. No number of female ‘role models’ in the senior layers of the machinery of British capitalism will change that; nor would a million Clinton presidencies make the difference for their American counterparts.
The real alternative is the class solidarity of the working class: the understanding that the attitude displayed to female flesh by the ‘Presidents’ (and, indeed, the president) is as much a matter of property as of gender - the enjoyment of a right conferred by wealth - and that there is more in common between the ‘hostess’ and the man taking out the bins at the back of the Dorchester than there is between her and Hillary. The struggle then would not be for more women in the boardroom, but the end of the boardroom altogether. But it would leave open the possibility that no man would be powerful enough to command sexual favours, nor expect to get away with this kind of lechery.