- Feminism for the 99%: towards a populist feminism?Can Feminism for the 99% succeed as a new kind of populism?
As they seek to find a place in and/or confront the contemporary populist zeitgeist, feminists supporting intersectional justice-claims face very real, destabilising and contradictory challenges. Intersectional feminists recognise race, class, gender, sexuality, disability and legal status as interlocking systems of oppression, and pay attention to the ways in which these particular intersections generate agency and solidarity for different kinds of women. Populism, on the other hand, is a political strategy that seeks to articulate popular grievances in a way that can unify a 'sovereign people' against corrupt and self-serving political, economic and cultural elites. It is less interested in recognising difference within its construction of the people.
The new wave of populist politics that is sweeping across both Europe and the United States-from Britain's vote to leave the European Union, to Donald Trump's successful US presidential campaign, to Viktor Orban's brutal and illiberal democratic practices in Hungary-is currently destabilising 'politics as usual' and ushering in a new political order, and this has had disastrous consequences for the most marginalised, particularly women of colour.
Recently, however, a new movement has emerged, Feminism for the 99%, which seeks to co-opt the languages and practices of populist politics. In this short [End Page 63] article, I briefly look at the ways in which this new mobilisation attempts to connect feminism and populism, in its attempt to build transnational solidarity for racial and gender justice.
As I have previously argued, populism is poison for feminist politics.1 In both theory and practice it is anathema to the aims and goals of a feminism that seeks redistributive and intersectional justice. Its discursive construction of a homogenised and reified 'people', its promotion of a crude majoritarianism, and its (mostly) uncritical support for popular belief systems, means that it is incredibly difficult to build feminist politics and a feminist collective identity with and through traditional populist practices. For example, in our project on minority women's activism in anti-austerity movements in Britain and France (which often also operated as populist spaces), Leah Bassel and I found that minority women activists were excluded from these protest spaces when they sought to advance anti-austerity critiques that took seriously the racialised and gendered effects of the cuts and privatisations of the welfare states in each country.2 There could be no space for analyses and actions that centred race and gender since these supposedly 'controversial issues' could potentially fracture the unified 'people'.3 Bice Maiguashca, Jonathan Dean and Dan Keith found similar issues at play in Occupy in Britain, where feminist and anti-racist politics were allocated a supporting role in affirming an affective disposition for interpersonal relations in protest spaces, but did not seem to inform either protest strategy or the political education of activists.4
The hostility of populism to intersectional ideas and practices (or to merely single-strand issues of racial or gender justice) is unsurprising given that there is an unacknowledged ethno-nationalism embedded in many populist movements, whether or not they are consciously based on xenophobic sentiments. 'The people' in populist politics are constituted as stewards of the nation, defending themselves and their institutions from destructive and treasonous elite power. The familiar political slogans of 'Taking Back Control', 'I Want My Country Back' and 'Make America Great Again' position the people as true patriots seeking to restore past national glories and build a brighter future for 'us'. The populist project cannot accommodate subversive intersectional positions that undermine these national mythologies and spotlight the imperial, white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal foundations of the nation. [End Page 64]
A feminist politics that ignores white supremacy and imperialism can, however, quite easily be put to work for populist ends. A feminism that simply seeks equality between women and men, and not the transformation of the social and economic order, can be encompassed within a populist politics. For example, in the name of 'liberty' and the 'will of the people', we have seen white feminists in France supporting the hijab and the (now overturned) burkini...