Defend Truth


Dare we disturb the Universe? First thoughts for 2018


Mark Heywood is a social justice activist and former Editor of Maverick Citizen, a section of Daily Maverick. He is the former Executive Director of SECTION27 and has been a human rights activist most of his life.

For the minority of us lucky enough to have jobs and an income, our annual summer holidays promise time for friends and family, time for a return to nature, time for the picking up the hobbies and real-life passions that so often get squeezed out of daily living. Hours, no longer allocated to an endless line of often futile meetings, are suddenly full of minutes. There is time to extricate your mind from its prisons – prisons far more deadening to thought than the proverbial box.

What a relief.

In these short windows of plentiful time, a book often chooses me – despite being a materialist and atheist I am prepared to consider that there is some intangible spirit behind this!

Reading is re-thinking – and when you are not at work, there is time to follow the thoughts that meander out of concentrated reading.

In 2016 I stumbled on Andrew Marr’s We British, The Poetry of a People – the thoughts it gave rise to were tentatively pinned down into an essay I wrote entitled Towards a Government of the Poets. It probably wasn’t much read because political people stick to surfaces these days. But I stand by the ideas germinating in it. I wish there was more time to explore them.

This year fate threw me a copy of Lyndall Gordon’s Outsiders, Five Women Writers Who Changed the World. It’s a beautiful book, evocatively bringing to life one female line in literature (of course there are many others), running between Mary Shelly, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf. Society owes a great deal to the art of literary biography and Lyndall Gordon’s contribution in her latest book is to show that below the male dominated canons of literature there has always been a female underbelly; suppressed but more sensitive, often more questioning and penetrating of our societies.

Reading Five Women Writers caused me to examine my beliefs and prompted a few thoughts on history and contemporary social justice activism.

Social justice activists spend a lot of time, about 350 days a year to be precise, asserting and advocating for our beliefs in human rights. On a daily basis we are required to summon all our conviction to rail continually against political and economic systems (call it neo-liberalism if you prefer) that work harder and harder to squeeze morality, empathy, solidarity and history out of human society.

We are captive to a proselyte passion.

We use our time to keep a little hope alive.

But there are pitfalls to endless advocacy and argument. One is that in being continually reactive and crisis-driven, activists risk closing down our own opportunity to think more deeply, to puzzle about what caused humanity to end up in its current peril-filled cul-de-sac of un-civilization.

Of necessity, activists must be believers. Unfortunately, though, belief is a double-edged sword.

Belief is energizing. But belief – any belief – can be a dangerous thing. Belief nails things to the wall of history, it makes complex matter black and white and allows of very little grey.

The danger with modern politics (including South Africa’s) is that we are all captives in a macabre dance of beliefs, slipping and sliding on surfaces, doomed to endless repetition of error. So, when deep-reading catalyses deep-thought, one can’t but wonder whether activists should not be doing more to find new ways to penetrate and disrupt the beliefs that we have all grown up with.

Beliefs about ‘the natural order of things.’ Beliefs about government. Beliefs about relations between men and women. Beliefs about the directions taken by human history.

As TS Eliot said, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

Back to reading. There are approximately 100 years between the writings of Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf. I’m an internationalist and a lover of many nation’s literatures, including our own. Yet Outsiders drew me once more back to an eclectic line of English writers (novelist, poets, playwrights and essayists), whose works were published between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century. This group encompasses Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Coleridge, Keats, Mary and Percy Shelly, Wordsworth, Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte.

In each of these writers the tragedy in their tales often parallels their own lives’ tragedy – for theirs was a time of disease, persecution, rigid silencing – a time long before hygiene and the notion of fundamental human rights had started to lengthen lives.

But apart from a love of their art, I realise now that a deeper reason underlies their magnetism (at least for me). The years 1750 – 1850 (or you could say the years between Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Marx’s Communist Manifesto .. but I’ll come back to the issue of patriarchal historical framing later!) were roughly the time – and England the crucible – in human history where our modern destinies were shaped.

This was the century that gave birth to modern capitalism, to colonialism, to institutionalised racism and to the shaping and entrenching of the immoral ‘morals’ we now believe to be ‘the natural order of things’.

And during this century, this non-exclusive group of writers, perched on the frontline of industrialisation and a new world order, were expressing through their art an individualised and inchoate anguish about and resistance to the shape of society being forged by the emergent capitalism.

Their senses feel child-like because much of what they encountered was new. They were unable yet to ‘normalise the abnormal’. They were still – in the famous words of Martin Luther King – “proudly maladjusted”. Their books, poems and lives express their non-conformism with gender inequality and ‘norms’, religion and the false moralities capitalism (it hadn’t acquired that name by then) was trying to sanction as God-given.

And they did so in the deepest, most probing, and most personally painful of ways.

If, as Anne Bronte is reputed to have said, our poets ought to be our legislators, theirs was a Parliament par excellence.

But at the end of this poets’ equivalent of a hundred-year war, men – and men’s ways of being and doing – won. The next century, with all its carnage and deepening inequality, became our history. By the late nineteenth century this loose school of literary Resistance had lost their battle over human values to a now rampant capitalism and colonialism. The moralities advanced by the poets became a marginal concern, made abstract and obtuse, lost as ‘literature’, a subject for university study.

And thus to my question.

In a chapter discussing George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) in Five Women Writers, Lyndall Gordon refers to “humanism” and “evolution” as being the two leading ideas of Eliot’s time. Strangely, she overlooks the immense intellectual and political energy being given over to developing ideas about socialism and ‘the Women’s Question’ (feminism).

Socialism and feminism both envisaged a world order different to that being fought by the poets. Yet, in this battle of ideas, it was to be ‘Marxism’ that arose as the pre-eminent alternative, a resistance that prioritised overcoming class – rather than gender – inequality.

Although the two were/are inextricably connected the struggle for Marxism and socialism was largely appropriated and led by men.

Socialists envisaged a world still led by men. For the next hundred years, socialists suppressed the deeper questions about governance and patriarchy that were being probed by women writers. Socialists entrenched masculine behaviours as ‘norms’, rather than seeking to understand what Olive Schreiner termed the “innate endowments” of femininity.

What are these endowments? Empathy, sympathy, solidarity; a tendency towards pacifism and non-violence, something that grows out of women’s unique experience of giving birth, her “life-dispensing power”. For, as Olive Schreiner said as she watched the British-led slaughter that occurred during the Anglo-Boer war, “Men’s bodies are our works of art.” And who would want to so recklessly destroy something she has created?

Significantly, the feminism envisaged by the likes of Schreiner was not about seeking women’s equality with a male order. It was, they said, about a new order of values and being, a realignment of human life and labour on a different track to “prevent it from scoring the same rut repeatedly.”

As it has done.

Virginia Woolf called ‘politics an “elaborate men’s game”’. A century later it is this men’s game that we are trapped in, a game which now threatens civilization.

Can we put the genie back in the bottle?

Piece out this imperfection with your thoughts … imagine if something different had happened in the 1840s. Imagine if, instead of the picking out Marx’s Capital, people who believed in social justice had chosen to organise around Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women and, much later, Olive Schreiner’s Woman and Labour rather than Lenin’s What is to be Done?

Imagine if the first revolutions that seized state power in the twentieth century had been revolutions led by women rather than worker’s revolutions? What different course might history have followed?

I ask these questions not just for speculative fun, but because reimagining our present requires a reimagining and questioning of our past.

In every attempt at organising a society that counters the logic of capitalism over the last 200 years, it has been men who have seeded the new social order.

And they have failed every time.

There must be an objective reason for this. Dare we consider it might have something to do with patriarchy and the normalisation of abnormal gender norms?

So, in conclusion, back to 2018.

In recent years Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be?’ has become a civilizational question. As we square up with a mounting civilizational crisis – a risk of a perfect storm of nuclear and ‘traditional’ war, femicide, disease, climate change and environmental degradation – it is time that social justice activists meaningfully connected our struggles with a substantive feminism and revived and reexamined the values and arguments being developed by the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, Olive Schreiner and, since then, a league of feminist writers and activists who have also been made marginal in a patriarchal world.

Doing that would definitely disturb the universe. DM


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