Power structures and the politics of knowledge production

With the publication of the updated Beyond the Fragments, Hilary Wainwright spoke to Rahila Gupta about the politics of knowledge and using her experience of the women’s movement to address the question of how to realise the capacities of each for the benefit of all as the basis for alternative, horizontal models of political organisation.

Rahila Gupta
8 July 2013

Rahila Gupta:  Could you start by clarifying the kinds of knowledge you’re talking about?

Hilary Wainwright: It’s about the power structures of the world and whose knowledge they take account of.  I remember being very struck by the significance of consciousness raising (CR) groups in the women’s movement in the 70s. Demands for women’s centres, refuges and nurseries emerged through that process. I was initially a little ambivalent, coming from a puritanical sort of background, wondering whether spending an evening discussing sexual matters was really politics.  Our male leftist friends in Britain were saying that the CR groups were mainly filled with middle class women but we were having the same discussions with working class women on the housing estates. When we were talking about setting up nurseries, they were talking about relationships with their blokes. You realised that what was going on in these private, apolitical gossip spheres was making sense of our lives, and in doing so we were gaining a knowledge of the structures constraining us, the contradictions and conditions of change - including both the psychological and social conditions - and the importance of autonomy from men. That led me to think about why conventional policy making institutions weren’t responsive to ideas that come from this experiential knowledge, and to recognise that traditional policy making in the 50s and 60s was scientistic. It had a very narrow notion of knowledge as being social scientific laws proved by statistics deriving from a pre-existing documented and codified body of knowledge. Experience was seen as illustrating these laws, but not seen as a source of innovation. The idea that those people could generate theories and new directions was invisible in policy making.

RG: Was that the first time that knowledge and experience were being shared?  Through women’s CR groups?

HW: In the 40s, Hayek argued in his essay on knowledge  that there is always tacit knowledge which the free market utilised, for him it was the basis of the importance of the market as against the state which for him represented totally codified, centralised knowledge. The market was where the people acted on their tacit knowledge, where the entrepreneur would see a gap in the market and develop a business.

RG:  That doesn’t seem to take account of the question of power. Businessmen are better placed than women in terms of power and markets.

HW: Yes, the lack of power of women on the whole meant that their way of acting on their knowledge was limited until the women’s movement began to emerge and give legitimacy to those insights, and showed another way of making policy that was experimental, uncertain and fuzzy, but it was about control of public resources.  The movements of the 1960s and 1970s developed in practice an understanding of power as transformative capacity, rather than seeing it solely in terms of domination.

RG:  The way you describe this process makes it sound unproblematic and benign.  As if all you need is for women to come forward and talk to a responsive state but the state can be paternalistic and patriarchal. Similarly the corporate sector: take women agricultural workers versus Monsanto in India, their knowledge will be discredited by Monsanto if their conclusions hurt Monsanto’s business interests.

HW: The reasons for the exclusion would vary from a systematic, almost inbuilt, exclusion in work contexts like the old Fordist relationships where the employer had no need to employ the tacit knowledge of the worker to make profit. Now the employer tries to make use of that tacit knowledge because the old system became unprofitable.  With the expansion of education, workers refused to accept the assembly line and give up their creativity and capacity for the bulk of the week to Fordist assembly lines, and it became unsustainable.

RG: If the profit motive drives employers to pay attention to their workers’ tacit knowledge, what would be the forces that influence the state to open up?

HW: Take the GLC (Greater London Council) and the women’s committees. I’m not romanticising that period, but there was a sort of humility about the politics of the GLC. It wasn’t like we’ve got into office and we’re going to do what is good for women or black people, we empowered them. There was a real risk taking. The radical politicians of the GLC knew they were there because of the power of the movement. The Women’s Committee mostly delegated resources: for example, the whole childcare programme wasn’t about setting up hundreds of GLC nurseries but providing public resources for existing childcare and women’s groups to expand according to agreed standards in the manifesto. Civil servants in the GLC couldn’t initially, at least, believe the extent to which ordinary people were being brought in. For these understandings of knowledge to be politically efficacious requires transformations of power. It was easier in the public sector because the framework is about public service.

RG: Today refuges and women’s services are being cut back although we know that these are vital for women. Tacit knowledge maybe a necessary condition for transformative power but is it sufficient? Material conditions can work against it.

HW:  No it’s not sufficient. It is important and necessary if an egalitarian politics committed to social justice is to achieve an institutional breakthrough. With these movements breaking out across the world (Occupy, Los Indignados, UK Uncut) we’re seeing a cultural shift: the discrediting of neo-liberalism but not new institutions. The contexts I’ve described are pre-internet. Many things have got worse – economic redistribution, reverse of egalitarianism – but the nature of the technology is a potential plus (potential because it can be turned against us in terms of surveillance)  for not just exchanging information, but co-ordinating decentralised projects and spreading what were scattered initiatives. The internet is good at connecting people across niches and friendship networks, and  to mobilise them, but that is different from sharing and developing knowledge; that raises issues of articulation and co-ordination of ideas. Knowledge producing requires trust, social interaction and collaboration to be lasting - and the internet facilitates that.

There has to be a massive redistribution of power and economic wealth – does this whole approach to knowledge provide a strategy for achieving that? On the one hand you have the possibility of much more responsive public services, much more fulfilling forms of work through institutions built on this recognition of pervasive creativity.  We need political parties which are more supportive about making that social creativity the basis of organising public services and  counterpose that creativity to the entirely finance driven nature of privatisation.

RG: But we’re living with a discredited state with its mass surveillance and infiltration of political movements. How do you control the state?

HW: There has to be transparency and accountability and rejection of the idea that the state has a legitimacy over and above the interest of the people. There’s some commitment to the idea of democratic controls, that’s why people express anger when the state acts like that because it is meant to be acting in the public interest.  That means a much more dense kind of democracy with consensus where appropriate and devolvement where it’s not.  Like Brazil, there’s a demand for the remaking of the constitution. Perhaps that will be replicated everywhere.

RG: Can you say something about the nexus of power and knowledge for gender relations and inequality in society as a whole rather than just in relation to the state?

HW: I’ll try to answer in terms of the situation we face now.

On the one hand women's consciousness of and refusal of subordination has persisted and become generalised. Neo-liberal capitalism has had to adapt to that and, up to a point, it found ways of turning this into a source of  market opportunities. One result has been that the understanding we had of the social conditions for individual fulfilment tended to give way to a possessive individualism unconcerned with inequalities of race and class.

At the same time the rampant market gave a licence to pornography, the commercialisation of sex and with this an exacerbation of misogyny and violence against women, alongside the decimation of the public services that women both need and many of them work for. But fortunately there has been a strong reaction amongst young women especially those who have been getting organised, often working with anti sexist men. They have what they call an 'intersectional ' approach linking gender with race and class. Also they are very clear that organising in a non-hierarchical way, sharing skills and developing mutual capacities is a condition of their involvement in politics. They emphasise pre-figuring now the social changes they want to see in the future but they are more practical about this than we were. Given the exhaustion of conventional party politics, I think this approach to social change will also be more influential now.

We in the women’s movement didn’t just put gender on the map; because of the way women had to struggle against subordination of their gender, they discovered lots of other features of our society that subordinate people and deny people’s creativity, like class or race.

RG: Surely that’s an idealised version of the women’s movement which was notoriously white and middle-class until they were challenged by black or working class women.

HW: Working class women in the mining communities discovered a capacity that they didn’t know that they had through their struggles. I don’t want to turn that into a description of how inclusive and emancipatory the women’s movement was in Britain, but point out that through struggle, an otherwise dormant capacity was discovered. As it was associated with a period of uprising, when that uprising fell away, that insight also got lost. We need to hold on to those insights as we rethink these new institutions. Organisations, like unions, have got locked into the old institutions.  At the local level, there are important initiatives like Unite setting up community branches and getting involved in campaigns to save local hospitals but at the national level the trade unions are working through the Labour party and not wanting to rock any boats. In Wales, the trade unions and the university are being drawn in to support a strong co-op sector. In order to reach people with new ideas you need new platforms and the traditional media are slow to recognise that. There’s not enough concerted support and collaboration. We need a coalition of forces, which could include the likes of openDemocracy, to provide platforms for these alternatives.

RG: How would you respond to the charge by Cynthia Cockburn in her article on openDemocracy 5050 "Beyond the fragments": I am a socialist feminist. Can I be a radical feminist too? that Beyond the Fragments has failed to challenge patriarchy in all its manifestations, that the issues addressed are mainly economic ones and issues of male violence, sexuality and women’s position in the domestic sphere have been mostly ignored?

HW: I disagree with this assessment. After all, the impetus for our focus on ways of organising and what could be learnt (self- critically) from feminism came at least in part from a sense of the inadequacy of organising on the traditional left with its tendency to understand all forms of oppression in economistic terms, reducing them to class, and a narrow understanding of class at that.  I found in my own experiences of the left that weaknesses came - and continue to come - from ignoring the implications of male power in capitalism today, including as this is reproduced and often reinforced in organisations of the left. So the implications for the making of socialism and how we organise, of women's circumstances and consciousness as mothers , as sisters, and in sexual relationships or as sexually exploited by men, have been vital to our thinking.

RG: However, there is a marked reluctance to theorise gender inequality in terms of patriarchy. In the debate on this issue which followed Cynthia’s article, Lynne Segal rejected the use of the term but I thought her arguments were particularly weak. Could I ask you, somewhat provocatively, if you have a more ‘masculine’ response to the charge?

HW: I don’t find the concept of 'patriarchy' to be the most useful conceptual tool for understanding these specific, structural and irreducible relations of oppression. I'm not 'against' it and I sometimes use it but I always find myself trying to understand the structures of male power in more specific terms including how they combine with, reinforcing and reinforced by other structures which subordinate women. These other structures act as resources and supports for male power, though they have their own distinct character. For example we've just been talking about the way the scientistic, positivistic understanding of science reinforced the dismissal of potential sources of knowledge arising from women’s experiences. Such dominant and domineering understandings of knowledge have also been a part of the cultural subordination of economically exploited men. But there is a specific dimension arising from the way they have reinforced the power of men and silenced the voices of women. Our struggles for liberation as women enabled us to see the political significance of these forms of knowledge. I'm not sure how important this conceptual difference is, as I find Cynthia's work very insightful indeed and it has had a great influence on me over the years.




Is it time to pay reparations?

The Black Lives Matter movement has renewed demands from activists in the US and around the world seeking compensation for the legacies of slavery and colonialism. But what would a reparative economic agenda practically entail and what models exist around the world?

Join us for this free live discussion at 5pm UK time (12pm EDT), Thursday 17 June.

Hear from:

  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership
  • Esther Stanford-Xosei: Jurisconsult, Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe (PARCOE).
  • Ronnie Galvin: Managing Director for Community Investment, Greater Washington Community Foundation and Senior Fellow, The Democracy Collaborative.
  • Chair, Aaron White: North American economics editor, openDemocracy
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