False choices: the faux feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton ed Liza Featherstone, Verso, London & New York 2016
No one wants to see a fascistic, racist, misogynist blowhard in the White House – no one, that is, except some dangerous groups of right-wing fanatics, half the Republican Party and some millions of deluded, uneducated (not “deplorable”) American citizens. But does that make Hillary Clinton a good alternative candidate? According to the American feminists who have contributed essays to False Choices, the answer is a resounding NO.
Clinton is milking her feminist image for all it’s worth – which with Trump as an opponent is a lot – but as editor Liza Featherstone writes in her introduction, “Clinton’s feminism is the sort that only benefits a handful of wealthy, white Americans – most saliently Hillary Clinton herself.”
Three weeks out from the election, after Trump has repeatedly shot himself in the foot with his comments about women, she should be much further ahead in the polls than she is, and that’s a reflection of the suspicion in which voters hold her. False Choices explains their dissatisfaction. Its writers – 15 women and one man – reject the argument that criticising Clinton is helping the Republicans. She is probably about to become the most powerful individual on earth, they say, and we need to know what we’re in for.
There’s a lot here that’s already common knowledge: her early support for the 1964 racist Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, her role on the board of Walmart that has some of the worst-paid women workers in the country, the $250 million personal wealth she and Bill have accumulated since leaving the White House, her support for the invasion of Iraq, her $225,000-average speaker fees from Wall Street, the massive favours done during her time at the State Department in return for contributions to the Clinton Foundation.
But some of the analysis is eye-opening. Social scientists Frances Fox Piven and Fred Block document how Hillary Clinton, as a key advisor during her husband’s presidency, was instrumental in adopting the Republican policy of ending welfare in the name of “personal responsibility”. This accelerated the slide into mass poverty that afflicts 45 million Americans today, among them three million children living in extreme poverty.
Many of the impoverished are African Americans, and their communities have suffered most from the war on drugs which the Clintons also took over from the Reagan administration. Under Bill Clinton the prison population rose at a faster rate than during any other presidency, from 1.4 million to more than 2 million (today 2.4 million, with a further 4.6 million caught up in the criminal justice and parole systems). A third of African American men have now spent time in prison.
History professor Donna Murch, herself African American, cites Hillary’s response when confronted during her campaign by Black Lives Matter protestors: she deflected the responsibility for mass incarceration policies back onto black communities. In fact, Murch shows, the Clintons’ “strident anti-crime policies, like their assault on welfare, reflected a cynical attempt to win back centrist white voters”. It was a deliberate electoral strategy.
Class war at home is the other side of the coin to war waged abroad. Writer Belén Fernández relates a little-remarked episode from Clinton’s first year as Secretary of State, when Honduran President Zelaya was ousted in a military coup for daring to raise the rural minimum wage to $213 a month and conduct a survey on whether to convene a national assembly to revise the country’s notoriously undemocratic constitution. Clinton refused to characterise the overthrow as a coup and demonised Zelaya as a “strongman”. The new regime proceeded to murder protestors, many young women among them. In the same year, as WikiLeaks has revealed, the State Department collaborated with US clothing firms to oppose a minimum wage increase for Haitian workers.
It’s of course in the Middle East that Clinton’s role as Secretary of State has done the most damage. On Libya, writes Jewish American peace activist Medea Benjamin, she “outhawked” the Republicans; on Afghanistan, she backed the most aggressive of the military in a troop surge; she expanded the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen, and from 2012 she joined CIA director General David Petraeus in creating a US-supplied proxy army in Syria.
And notoriously, she unconditionally backed every repressive action by Israel. When 2,251 Palestinians, mainly civilians were killed in the assault on Gaza in 2012, she said: “I think Israel did what it had to do.” Her pro-Israel stance, writes feminist theoretician Zillah Eisenstein, “seeps” into her policies throughout the region. Eisenstein goes on to make a key connection between foreign and domestic policies: “Clinton has long said that women’s rights, and more recently, sexual violence is a key indicator of the security for any state. But sexual violence, and all forms of gender violence, increase in times of war.”
Hillary Clinton’s record makes a mockery of the populist rhetoric that she has been obliged to adopt in the course of her presidential campaign. Hers is the right-wing feminist face of neoliberalism.
It’s not the liberal-sounding words that count, but the deeds – the consistent support for private wealth at the expense of the public good and at enormous cost to working people and especially working women. It is remarkably similar to the role of Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership, which devastated communities throughout Britain. Clinton is, in Eisenstein’s telling phrase, an “equal opportunity warmonger”.
This book was published before the Democratic Party convention in July when Clinton beat her rival for the nomination, self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders. Some of the contributors were undoubtedly Sanders supporters, but not all. Tressie McMillan Cottom writes that if she votes for Clinton, “it will be with the same resignation with which black voters, especially black women, have been voting for Democrats for years”.
But False Choices does not end on a pessimistic note. It looks to a future in which the cruel neoliberalism Clinton represents will be rejected in favour of what its editor calls “a left feminism rooted in an understanding of women’s material conditions”, and feminism and socialism will no longer be seen as antithetical. – JH