Okategoriserade Feminism as left-wing populism

The contributions to this issue (2020: 1) of Baltic Worlds aptly show that in country after country the representatives of the right-wing parties join ultraconservative groups and religious authorities in attempts to limit women’s reproductive rights, undermine the legitimacy of gender studies as a field of scientific inquiry, and viciously attack sexual or ethnic minorities.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:1 pp 92
Published on balticworlds.com on May 24, 2020

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The contributions to this issue (2020: 1) of Baltic Worlds aptly show that in country after country the representatives of the right-wing parties join ultraconservative groups and religious authorities in attempts to limit women’s reproductive rights, undermine the legitimacy of gender studies as a field of scientific inquiry, and viciously attack sexual or ethnic minorities. Taken together these analyses demonstrate that a new of opposition to “gender” cannot be explained as specific to post-transitional societies, as in the case of Poland, or troubled democracies, such as the Turkish one, but is a global phenomenon, highly dependent on geo-political shifts and transnational political alliances between different national and transnational political parties, non-governmental organizations, business leaders, intellectuals and religious authorities.

Whereas in public debate the socially conservative agenda of right-wing populist parties is often taken for granted (these are, after all, right-wing actors), we still lack detailed analyses and new conceptualizations of the relation between right-wing populism and “gender” understood broadly as a constructionist view on gender identity, gender equality measures and sexual democracy policies. Should we interpret the collaboration of right-wing populists and ultraconservative, often religious, organizations as a sign of deep ideological convergence between the two or is this rather an expression of opportunistic nature of populism, which tends to draw on existing ideologies in order to mobilize supporters? Or perhaps what unites the two types of actors are their enemies: liberal elites who allegedly achieved total hegemony in today’s world in the sphere of values, culture and knowledge production, and who are often depicted as feminist activists, gender studies scholars, gay men and femocrats working in state administration.

Articles included in this special issues suggest that what ails the two political forces is the political logic of right-wing populism, which tends to strengthen social polarization by dividing society into two antagonistic camps: the corrupt elites and the common people. Jenny Gunnarsson Payne asserts that “the rise of right-wing populism and the development towards illiberalism and authoritarianism and anti-gender mobilization exist in a ‘happy marriage’, where the former reinforces the latter and the latter provides further substance to their idea of ‘a national people’”. As Ruth Wodak famously out it, right-wing populism is “the politics of fear” and politicians tend to construct monsters that are scary enough to mobilize and unite people in the fight against it. In many contexts gender became such a monster, even if its face differs from country to country.

In Sweden the focus is on gender studies as quasi-religious sect allegedly taking over universities, in Poland and Argentina the right-wing politicians and ultraconservative organizations aim to outlaw abortions even in cases when pregnancy results from rape and the women’s health is in danger, whereas in Turkey the main field of contention concerns gender equality policies targeting violence against women. Moreover, not everywhere gender issues come to the fore. Whereas in Poland and other European countries the critique of the gender agenda has functioned as a symbolic glue bringing together nationalists across borders and enabling cooperation between ultraconservatives and right-wing populists, in Turkey, as shown by Alev Özkazanç, a similar coalition of right-wing and religious actors is cemented by “an ideology of lslamo-Turkism framed in an anti-colonial discourse together with an acute condemnation of human rights discourse”. However, the political logic behind such discourses in different countries remains strikingly similar. Right-wing populist and authoritarian regimes define the people as an organic whole, morally superior in comparison to corrupt, usually foreign elites and in need of protection from the representatives of these elites, who aim to spread moral decay, foreign life-style and individualism.

When analyzed in the context of the right-wing conservative trend, it becomes clear that mass women’s movements, which emerged in recent years in countries such as Poland, Argentina and Italy, challenge not only gender conservative policies and discourses, but also the political logic that drives right-wing populists and autocrats. As Margaret Canovan argued, over the last two centuries the belief that people’s consent is the only legitimate basis of power has become commonplace, but the question of who are the people and who can represent them have remained open. Feminist actors propose radically different definitions of the people than their opponents. Instead of highlighting homogeneity, morality and the need for national sovereignty, women’s movements embrace plurality, intersectionality and global solidarity. Graciela de Marco and other authors in the special issue conceptualize the strategy of contemporary women’s movements in terms of a left-wing populist challenge to nationalist, misogynic and xenophobic vision of political community. Whether we believe, following Chantal Mouffe, that left-wing populism is the only effective response to the current ultraconservative, illiberal trend, or not, the analyses of contemporary struggles around gender show that they are, in fact, struggles over the definition of democracy, representation and political community.

  • by Elzbieta Korolczuk

    Is a sociologist, an activist and commentator, working at Södertörn University, Sweden, and teaching at the Institute for Advanced Study, Political Critique in Warsaw. She has published on social movements, civil society and gender (especially motherhing/fatherhing and assisted reproductive technologies). Between 2001-2014 she was a member of Warsaw based informal feminist group Women’s 8 of March Alliance. She is also engaged in the activities of the Association “For Our Children” fighting for the changes in the Polish child support system and serves as a board member of “Akcja Demokracja” Foundation.

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