The rise of ideological feminism (Part III on Karl Popper and contemporary ideologies)

This is the third part of a four-part essay applying the ideas of Karl Popper to ideologies that have secured particular social power in our contemporary world.

Part I presents a context in which Popper has been widely misappropriated by the right, and argues that he should be reclaimed by the liberal-left – not least because he was liberal and of the left.

Part II builds up the substance of his critique of Hegelian and Marxist ideologies and explores how contemporary political Islamism is largely based on these theories.

Part III here explores the rise of ideological feminism, with a particular focus on Laurie Penny’s writings and the strong feminist movement within the Labour Party.

As Islamism takes the Muslim, feminism takes the woman as a centre of importance and basis for political action.

There is nothing wrong with this; indeed there is nothing necessarily wrong with politicising any identity group. It is clearly necessary in situations where we need to defend ourselves against being politicised negatively by others. Also, identity often simply reflects our normal everyday attachments. Identity politics is by no means always a bad thing.

Our problems arise when the single identity marker – the woman or the Muslim for example – is universalised as fundamental to all situations and all reality. This is where it takes on a wholly different character, and is also where we can start seeing the inherent authoritarianism that comes with playing the politics of identity.

Laurie Penny, a contributing editor at the New Statesman and one of our most prominent feminists, demonstrates this sort of fundamentalist high theory as well as anyone. Her big idea, common in feminism, is that of ‘patriarchy’, which she refers to as a ‘system’, ‘structure and a ‘fact’, propagated through slogans like ‘Destroy the Patriarchy’.

Patriarchy literally means rule by fathers, but in political writings it tends to refer to the dominance of social and political institutions by men and the existence of male hegemony in public and private life.

In support of this idea, we can see that men still occupy a clear majority of senior political, corporate and other institutional positions in most contemporary Western societies. We can also point to plenty of things from the past that might suggest at least an approximation to patriarchy for British and wider Western society: male-only voting franchises, male-only public institutions and other Rights of Man that only applied to men.

However, with these restrictions gone and women free to do and be pretty much what they choose along with men, the idea there is a system perpetuating male privilege seems strange: indeed any movement going on seems to be in the opposite direction. There is also little evidence of the moving parts that go into making up and maintaining systems.

By contrast, capitalism, a similar systemic concept, has a raft of institutions that serve to maintain it: starting on an international level with the World Bank, IMF, WTO, Davos forum, the European Single Market, countless trade agreements between nations and regional blocs, Central Banks. Moving down to national and local levels in Britain we have the Treasury, BIS and other government departments, council licensing regimes, and numerous free market think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute – all catering and administering to the capitalist system.

This theory of patriarchy would be an almost perfect example of what Karl Popper called ‘pseudo-science’ if only its advocates claimed any sort of scientific backing. Instead feminists use the term as a free-standing fact that does not need serious evidential or logical support. The existence of patriarchy and the structures and systems which support it have to be taken on trust, on account of the ‘experience’ of the theorists (in other words, their authority, as women, or as feminists). We must entrust them with our faith just as we might trust in the existence of God.

Determined by culture

In an article explaining her politics to male critics, Penny says:

Culture hates women, so men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to. We aren’t judging you for who you are but that doesn’t mean we’re not asking you to change your behaviour”.

To this, we can ask how ‘culture’, a something which, like ‘patriarchy’, has no form or agency, ‘hate’ anything? People hate; abstract concepts by their nature do not.

Penny also says she is withdrawing from judgement of men because she sees them as determined by sexist culture. However she also asks them to change their behaviour, which contradicts her determinism. This can only make sense if she has special powers to reach into the system and unmake the sexist culture.

She clarifies her point on this by saying,

While you, individual man...may not hate and hurt women, men as a group – men as a structure – certainly do. I do not believe the majority of men are too stupid to understand this distinction, and if they are we need to step up our efforts to stop them running almost every global government”.

The claim that men do not hate women as individuals but do ‘certainly’ hate them ‘as a group’ is baffling enough on its own; it means that when I do not hate someone I actually do hate them on some higher plain of reality, and that Laurie Penny has access to this while I do not. But the argument as a whole is more or less a carbon copy of conventional revolutionary Marxism. Penny and her fellow travellers are working to banish men from power, and indeed are willing to step up those efforts if she gets the impression most men do not agree with what she says. The proletariat in conventional Marxism is replaced by women, and the ‘vanguard’ of revolutionary Marxists is replaced with Penny and her feminist colleagues. Meanwhile the rest of us live in a state of false consciousness.

Karl Popper has argued that this sort of argument has its roots in Plato’s idea of the ‘elect’. Manifested through the Marxist-style vanguard or ‘cadre’ of activists, it is common to feminist practice just like it is to Islamism.

In mainstream politics, feminist versions of ideas like the vanguard and Gramsci’s focus on hegemony are having a significant impact– primarily on left-wing politics and institutions but also increasingly in the wider public sphere.

Systems have already been introduced in the Labour Party and other institutions including the Guardian by which women are favoured as of right. Labour has even rewritten its rules so a minimum half of internal party posts down to a micro-local level are held by women; the same with potential new members of Parliament. Not so long ago its deputy leader Harriet Harman proclaimed Labour as nothing less than “the political wing of the women’s movement”. Meanwhile efforts are being made to transplant Labour’s systems of ‘positive action’ on to the rest of society through female, racial and class quotas in the civil service, boardrooms, judiciary and maybe science labs too.

This is where the politics of identity usually ends up – in a basic preference of one identity over another, whether of gender, religious group, ethnicity, racial group, or even social class. The authoritarian mindset is ingrained into this type of politics, with claims to authority, legitimacy and even goodness tied to group membership rather than behaviour or ethics.

Among Labour feminists, the language used to justify this sort of thing is broadly the same as that used by Laurie Penny: “patriarchal society” as Stella Creasy MP calls it, “the male-dominated patriarchy in which we live” and the “cadre” of female activists (Labour Women’s Network board members Emma Burnell and Kirsty MacNeill respectively); and, according to Bex Bailey of Labour’s governing body the NEC, the structural oppression of women in society”.

The systemic aspect to this theory and its associated ideas is crucial. It provides an all-encompassing framework in which everything happening in society can be interpreted; a ready-made explanation for any problem. If the fundamental nature of society is patriarchy, then by definition everything in it is touched on, affected and coloured by patriarchy: whatever we don’t like can be laid at its door.

By ascribing sexism to an impersonal and universal social system, this ideology also strips sexist actions of personal responsibility, viewing them not as actions of people doing wrong but as representations of a patriarchal social structure. Either the system changes or nothing changes. By this way of thinking, incremental changes like the universal right to vote, unemployment insurance, free health services and state pensions, have not changed society fundamentally.

Better ways

Thankfully, not all feminism is like this.

Even back in 1992, some feminist writers were having problems with this model of universal structural female disadvantage and male misogyny (a word which literally means ‘hatred of women’). In an article, ‘Feminism and Antiracism: An Exploration of the Political Possibilities’, Caroline Knowles and Shamila Mercer say, “there are no inevitable or permanent relationships between groups of people organized in political discourse (constituencies) and political interests and positions. Women are not inevitably oppressed by men or capitalism. Oppression is not inevitable. It is a set of detailed practices which can be challenged by feminist politics.”

They add:

 “A feminist position, at a most general level, is one which enhances or defends the interests of women. Those who defend patriarchy as a theoretical explanation of the position of women are stuck with the idea that all women share a common set of interests at some general level.”

We do not wish to participate simply in the elaboration of accounts of our own oppression. Neither do we wish to celebrate that oppression with meetings and rallies. We prefer a mode of politics which engages with the details of the oppression and which is capable of ending it.”

A mode of politics engaging with the details of oppression would attempt to target specific instances of it from institutions, groups and individuals based on clear evidence, and target action on them.

This would be about addressing the ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘When’ and ‘Why?’ rather than sitting back and blaming everything on society.

It is a very different way of approaching things to that expressed in dominant feminist and wider identity-based narratives nowadays. One aspect of these narratives is the way the language of group ‘representation’ – of women having to be represented by women and darker-skinned people having to be represented by darker-skinned people – has become pre-eminent. There are some uncomfortable aspects to this, including the interests of those claiming to represent the oppressed being tied to the oppression. They need oppression to justify their existence, and achieving their object would remove their own reason for being. This is not a healthy type of politics.

As Popper puts it: 

the apologists of not see that it is the danger of any movement like Marxism that it soon comes to represent all kinds of vested interests, and that there are intellectual investments, as well as material ones.” 

We can see this with the Communist identity in the Soviet Union – once it became a pre-requisite for career advancement and entry to the nomenklatura, it lost its idealistic basis and became a malign force that stifled criticism and progress. It is not a dissimilar situation today with political feminism and the other forms of identity politics that are so integrated into the practices of the liberal-left.

Surveying the scene, the cultural sociologist Tiffany Jenkins says:

We have come a long way. But feminism has lost its way. Most of its energy is spent on demonising men, overstating our differences and neglecting what we have in common. And it has got into some fairly illiberal tangles of late, such as the witch-hunt against trolls on the internet; calls for banning lads’ mags; the Page 3 campaign; and calls for the banning of pop songs, policing everyday language as if it’s a major threat.

An alarmist mind-set is taking hold which suggests that women are too frail to deal with nasty words, and that our natural state is to need protection. It’s not quite Mary Wollstonecraft, more Mary Whitehouse. It is this that could impede further progress.” 
[End of Part III]

The fourth and final part of this essay, now up, seeks to explain Popper’s ideas on knowledge and ignorance, which have framed a lot of the arguments I have made in the first three parts. It also addresses what his legacy should be for us here and now, and points out a few problems with his work.


  1. I think you need to rewrite this so that it's clear you're not dismissing the notion of emergent systems. As it stands it reads as confused and not very realistic.

    1. Do you care to explain a bit more? I don't get how I can be dismissing 'the notion of emergent systems' when I've never even heard of them until today.

  2. I can't read people's minds, but I wonder if they inflate sexism into misogyny and patriarchy because it makes things more exciting? People want to believe they're in some sort of life or death struggle, even when, as with Laurie Penny, they demonstrably aren't.

  3. N.B. Chris Dillow has written a critique of this article on his fine blog Stumbling and Mumbling:

    For what it's worth I don't think it addresses the argument here about patriarchy being a 'system' of society, which would mean it having form by which we can examine it. As it is the idea of patriarchy has nothing of the sort, despite the huge claims made for it.

  4. Even if a system was emergent, surely it would need maintenance or adaptation over time if was not to atrophy and fail? So I wonder where I would see artefacts of that happening?

    I dunno, say for example we didn't want women to understand misogyny, so we don't have a spell-correct option for it in our word processor. But of course we would have full recognition of the concept of misandry, so that would definitely be in the auto-correct.

    Would that be an example? Or something else? I know we probably couldn't see it directly, but there must be some trail of behaviour from someone with agency?

    PS. I just noticed one of the words in this comment is not recognised by my computer - can you guess which word it is?

  5. Hi. I found your paper interesting. Here is a paper by another, looking at feminism from a different perspective but I thought perhaps you might find it of interest: Cheers. Crusty

  6. Jonathan Lindsell from the Civitas think-tank has written a lengthy critique of this piece. See here:

  7. I think this is very interesting but I don't accept that patriarchy is dead and gone. Christian Aid have done some recent work on gender equality as linked to poverty and it is alive and well still sadly. I share your hesitancy in embracing the metanarrative of patriarchy though, for I suspect slightly different reasons. I read this today after posting on the subject myself, on the back of the recently launched #HeforShe campaign. Thanks.

  8. Great series of articles, which I've just re-read.

    A belated response to Claire Alcock. I don't think it's a question of patriarchy being dead and gone. It's a question of it never having existed. The 'patriarchy' like 'God', is a product of culture, not the other way round. It is a simple way of avoiding or (not) explaining the daunting complexity of reality.


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