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Women, abstracted: The political performativity of indignation

The Women's March on Washington was scheduled well in advance, to take place on January 21, right after the inauguration of the new American president. The idea was for all women to rally in solidarity for health and safety rights, at a time when the overall society marginalizes women and discursively regularizes interpretations of sexual violence.

Several cities followed suit and a March in Toronto was also organized. According to the event's Facebook page, about 13,000 attended. People gathered at Queen's Park, marched towards the U.S. Consulate and later to the City Hall, at Nathan Philip Square.

Numbers were indeed impressive. I have not been to anything comparable since the education workers' rally at the Ontario Liberal Leadership Convention held on January 2013. The Women's March was larger by far. Quite a stark comparison with most protests I attended, usually deemed successful if 50 people show up.

It feels good to be surround by like-minded folks, in terms of building a sense of community and symbolically standing against oppressive public rhetoric. The issue is however, that such demonstrative efforts are rather performative by nature, somewhat watered down, mainstreamed and de-politicized, lacking in any sense and form a radical potential of systemic emancipatory action.

While "action" can hardly be universally defined, there is the question of what is actually achieved when forms of resistance get publically shaped. We can all think of various practices of political action which triggered radical changes (either positive or negative).

For instance, the 2008 climate of political discontent in Greece prompted the rise of Syriza (despite the illusion of what Syriza proved to be), the Occupy movement introduced the one per cent versus the 99 per cent rhetoric in discussing inequality trends, and the Arab Spring protests challenged many of the former Western-backed governments. Never mind that several countries from the Global South (Cuba, Ecuador) led strong resistance efforts positioned against globalization and U.S. imperialism.

It is too early to know if this march will prompt radicalized forms of political action, yet such prospects are limited, given its open support by many proponents of the status quo (including major media outlets). Oftentimes, once a discourse or an act gets co-opted by the normative and hegemonic institutional order, it loses its emancipatory potential. The march was already criticized for cultural appropriation -- it was initially named after the 1997 Million Woman March for Black Women -- and for not attending to intersectional issues of class and race.

My main criticism is vis-à-vis the inclusion of "women" within a universal system of American-ness in terms of defining and conceding citizenship. Demonstrations on identity structures constitute the norm nowadays: on topics of class (i.e. labour movements), race (i.e. Black Lives Matter), hence why not protest on gender alone (i.e. women rallies)?

Yet what is problematic with such identitary logic is that an abstract concept of "women" cannot just simply be imported as essentialized. Many racialized, poor or immigrant women will have nothing in common with Scarlett Johansen, for example, who spoke at the Washington rally, in her role of a Hollywood persona, since Johansen is not socially marginalized, nor at risk from ever being excluded from the nation.

Unquestionably, hearing Donald Trump's comment of "grabbing women by the pussy" is offensive, and would definitely trigger indignation in anyone that self-identifies as female. Yet indignation can hardly be practiced in lieu of a political fight.

While unpleasant to hear such comments, Trump's hate inflicted rhetoric against immigrants, Islam and the Muslim population is of a greater concern. Ideologically, we are not in an era where "pussy grabbing" could ever get institutionalized. Yet aggressive immigration enforcement and a registry of Muslim residents could easily be written into the law.

A march of all (abstract) women is a privileged way of demonstrating citizenship, starting from the a priori perceived threat of an anticipated privilege loss, yet speaking in Arendtian terms, not all are entitled to claim rights, since only the included have the right to rights. While women still struggle with pay levels below those of men, women, esentialized as a group, as an abstract category, represent the societally included.

As a whole, women are able to access entitlements that usually come attached with belonging to the community of value defined by a nation or a state, hence they are not excluded from citizenship, unlike the 11.7 million undocumented people in the U.S. (about 30 per cent of all immigrants into the country), who lack the prerogative to claim subsequent health and safety related human rights.

During his years in office, Obama deported more than two million immigrants, surpassing by far the number of deportations directed by George Bush. Ideologically, this is a political statement: of denying citizenship and refusing access into the nation. Hungarian philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás argues that hostility against universal citizenship is the first trait of fascism.

While citizenship used to represent a privilege held inside nations, nowadays it constitutes a privilege exercised by the majority of people from within capitalist nations, while parts of the global population are losing their relative safe forms of social protection and are kept out from the wealthier and more privileged communities of values.

It is all about the dialectic of the "normative state," which represents those located at the capitalist centre, versus the "prerogative state," which only restrictively and arbitrarily welcomes non-citizens. The prerogative state, Tamás argues, is hardly noticed by those obeying to the normative state. Women as an all-encompassing universalized category, represent the interests of the normative state, a community to which they clearly belong yet others are excluded from.

Plus, how can we show outrage that Trump got elected yet we are not equally outraged about the global U.S. dominance, militarily, technologically and ideologically? About America's foreign policy (Obama authorized over ten times more drone strikes than George Bush), its levels of poverty (according to the 2010 Census, one in seven Americans is living below the poverty line), and its increased economic inequality (U.S. holds the second-last place of all developed nations)?

Trump's rhetoric openly borders a neo-fascist ideology but then again, the U.S. policies were already rooted in neo-fascist and neo-liberal trajectories, nevertheless masked under a 'Democrat' progressive label, in what Tariq Ali has called the ideology of the extreme centre, whereas the extremes are not at the 'extremes' of the political spectrum, but rather in the centre, sustaining the market in a fundamentalist way, beyond partisan beliefs.

We became accustomed with a normative and limited view of progressiveness, with the empty symbolism of such progressiveness; falling onto what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has called 'the automatism of the critical language': We take sine qua non as progressive what we discursively label in language as progressive.

If we criticize the "event" of the Trump election, we also need to query what has led to his election: Obama's administration. Or to import the overused Žižekian cliché of applying Horkheimer's thought: if you kept quiet about Obama, you should also keep quiet about Trump. By promoting militarist Hillary Clinton as a progressive choice and by placing Obama's mishaps under the rug, the U.S. will never create a heterodoxical political movement that could at least closely parallel those of Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. 

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