#MeToo proves need for structural change

#MeToo is sensational, gimmicky and mainly focused on Hollywood and other elite hierarchies, but much of what it has uncovered is recognisable to women everywhere.

Sexual harassment, ranging from assault at the extreme through to everyday unwanted sexual attention, is both common and normalised. It is a good thing that more women are confident to assert that it shouldn’t be.

The emphasis of #MeToo has been on how the rich and powerful use sexist abuse to cement their economic and social control. Men such as Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump offer the most ostentatious examples of this.

But more general and insidious are the abusive relationships between bosses and workers everywhere. One of the most positive things to come out of #MeToo is the way it has been used by labour organisations, such as the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas in the USA, to gain a wider reach for their campaigns against the exploitation and sexual harassment suffered by working class women in low paid industries at the hands of their bosses.

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But even though it is positive that links have been drawn between the Hollywood campaign and the experiences of working class women, less has been said about the chasm that separates them.

The realm of the rich and famous is a hothouse environment for the sexism and abuse widespread in society. But it is simultaneously a bubble profoundly disconnected from the lives and experiences of ordinary people. Most women sexually harassed by their boss will find it difficult to translate standing ovations at the Golden Globes into meaningful redress for their experiences. As the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas pointed out:

“We do not work under bright stage lights or on the big screen. We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country.”

Time may be up for the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Craig McLachlan; things are considerably more difficult for millions of working class women who want to confront those who victimise them.

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn v Nafissatou Diallo case of 2011 is a good example of this. Diallo, a 32-year-old New York hotel maid, alleged that Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted her when she went to clean his room. Despite Strauss-Kahn’s association with prostitution rings, that other women claim to have been assaulted by him and lots of physical evidence, the case was dropped before trial and Diallo’s name was dragged through the mud.

The other way this double standard operates to the disadvantage of working class people is in how the favourable treatment of men like Strauss-Kahn is often inverted with poor men, particularly if they are Black or Muslim. The wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five (five Black men) for a rape they did not commit was not overturned for 12 years despite there being no hard evidence against them.

Therefore, left wing people should strongly oppose calls for all men accused of sexual assault or harassment to be punished without trial. We cannot rely on the authorities, within either our industries or the state, to provide justice.

The most victimised women will be attacked for tarnishing the reputations of ruling class men, while the most victimised men will be punished under the guise of protecting women.

To take on the abuse that women experience at work and throughout society, we must confront the structures that breed it. Unfortunately, many of the key spokespeople for #MeToo are not striving for structural change, either because it is not part of their world view or because they actively benefit from the structures.

Film Industry heads have come out backing #MeToo because they don’t want to be on the wrong side of the scandal, but they remain responsible for purveying demeaning portrayals of women.

Meanwhile billionaires such as Oprah Winfrey enthusiastically embrace the campaign because they hope to keep it at the level of tokenism and individualism and also because liberal feminism has become a key part of how they justify their privilege.

Their main call is for women to “speak up”, and they celebrate that a “conversation has been started”. But the millions of women who reside in the shadows cannot individually challenge their situation by speaking up, adopting a hashtag or buying an expensive black dress.

We need to rebuild unions that are strong enough to take on bosses (and backward colleagues) who target individual women, and are also prepared to challenge the broader structures of inequality and injustice of the workplace.

History shows us that workers struggling collectively win better wages and conditions, but also the confidence to demand respect and dignity.

We need a political challenge to the widespread sexism in our society, one that recognises that sexism is a product of entrenched material inequalities and degrading stereotypes of women.

Ultimately we must get rid of the parasitic layer at the top of our society who benefit from the subjugation of women and of the working class. The window into the lives of the ruling class opened by the #MeToo phenomenon demonstrates the utter depravity and misogyny they cultivate. It’s not just a few bad apples; it’s a system of abuse.