#MeToo and Class Struggle at Work

Rachel Maddow Friday night

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: Yesterday we tuned in to watch Rachel Maddow’s nightly one-hour show on the US cable news network, MSNBC. Something extraordinary happened. Twenty minutes into the show Maddow began to talk about the Harvey Weinstein case. Over the next forty minutes she set forth, in powerful and coherent detail, how her bosses had attempted to protect Weinstein from the exposure of his sexual harassment and rapes on NBC News. Maddow accused her bosses, her bosses’ bosses, and her bosses’ bosses’ bosses, of lying, and of actions that were illegal and immoral. On live TV.

[Watch the show here, from 19:00 on.]

Maddow attacked the management of her cable network MSNBC, their parent organisation NBC News, and their parent organisation NBC. She named managers – one of them, Noah Oppenheim, the head of NBC News, three times.

She based her coverage on the wonderful, and gripping, new book by Ronan Farrow, Catch and Kill. In that book Farrow lays out in forensic detail how he originally covered the Weinstein story as a reporter at NBC, how his management first slow walked his coverage, then refused to broadcast it, and then forbade him to do any more research. He eventually had to take his material to the New Yorker, which published it a few weeks later.

Farrow documents extensive phone calls and threats from Weinstein to several executives at NBC. Of equal importance, he documents how NBC News was firing abused female staff and paying out settlements in return for them signing gag orders. They knew that exposure of Weinstein could open the flood gates and expose what NBC had been doing too. As indeed it has.

In the second half of Maddow’s forty minutes, she had Farrow on the show. That interview was a powerful one-two assault on management.

There is no reason to believe that Maddow had cleared any of it with her line management. There was no warning it was coming. We had never seen anything like it. Neither, probably, have you.

The usual assumption would be that Maddow would lose her job immediately. That is the threat that holds everyone back. For three reasons this probably will not happen.

First, #MeToo has gone much further in the US than in most countries. Harvey Weinstein was the head of a major studio. The consequence of his exposure was that studio went bankrupt and the owners lost all their money. Since then, most US corporations dependent on advertising have moved quickly to fire offending executives. NBC could face the same fate if they take on Maddow.

Second, she has the highest viewing figures of any host on US cable television. If she is removed, the majority of viewers will desert MSNBC.

The third reason is the workers. Maddow said on air that there was no way to overstate the feeling over Farrow’s findings of the “rank and file” in “this building” – the workers of NBC at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, in New York.

But this is not to detract from the exemplary courage of Rachel Maddow in doing what she did. It was extraordinary. Yet it seems these are three factors that made it possible for her to be so brave.

When we say “exemplary”, we mean that she set an example for others to follow. Maddow herself referred to the effect she hoped she would have on people in the offices of US attorneys. Certainly what she did will encourage the staff of government departments coming forth to tell the truth to House Committees. And both Maddow and those staff are part of a much wider tide of revolt in the United States.

But Maddow’s emphasis on the rage of the rank and file inspired in us another reflection on class struggle and Marxist feminism. We are just finishing a book on The Roots of Sexual Violence. As part of the research, we have been following #MeToo and similar movements in several countries across the world. Doing that, we noticed something important. In the large majority of cases where abusers have been exposed, it comes as a result of four kinds of rank and file organisation.

The first kind of organisation happens in journalism. Anyone who has worked in journalism will know that exposures of abuse, like any politically explosive story, will only happen as the result of a struggle in the newsroom. This struggle may not be formal, but it will usually be intense.

The second kind of organisation is among workers in the workplace where the abuse has been happening. It is crucial how the other workers react to the first, tentative, exposure of abuse. A hero who makes the first accusation is essential, but those who follow her or him are equally important.

That “him” is important. This is a movement for abused and harassed men and boys too.

The third kind of organisation is among workers in the industry. This was crucial to the exposure of Weinstein. Hollywood is a company town, where most workers, even stars, are on casual contracts. Union organisation in Hollywood is almost always industry wide, rather than directed at particular employers.

Farrow’s book gives some idea of how this happens, and particularly of the workplace struggle at NBC. Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s recent book She Said gives a detailed picture of how the resistance to Weinstein was organised in Hollywood. Kantor and Twohey, the journalists who broke the story in the New York Times, show how Ashely Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow organised through a network of hundreds built over many years. That network had been developed informally by women who needed to warn each other of the many predators in the industry, how they operated, and how to dodge them. Now that collective defense could be used to go the offensive.

The fourth kind of organisation is among survivors. If you look carefully at the press coverage of Jimmy Saville’s abuse in the UK, you can the networks of survivors from different children’s homes, prisons, hospitals and workplaces talking to each other. All over the world, behind the exposure of abuse by Catholic priests, you can see the long struggles of both formal and informal organisations of survivors. In one sense these survivors were not workers. In another sense, they were spending their working lives as children in schools and homes.

These different forms of organisation often go together. In the exposure of Larry Nasser and Gymnastics USA, for example, you can see one hero and organiser, journalists in one newsroom, an informal network of two hundred survivors who had worked together, and a network of teenage girls still working in international gymnastics.

In short, #MeToo is class struggle, the workers against the management. One of the striking things that emerges from all the battles we have followed is that only a minority of men abuse. However, almost all senior managers, male and female, cover up and enable abuse.

In writing The Roots of Sexual Violence, we have been mainly concerned with the ways in which ruling classes try to restructure gendered oppression and gendered violence to fit with changing forms of class oppression. But we have also emphasized the constant ways in which people resist gendered inequality, and how that is at the same time resistance to class inequality. #MeToo in the USA is a good example of that.

The resistance to Trump and the white nationalist project began with the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration. That gave a national resistance the confidence that led to #MeToo, fundamentally a workplace resistance to management. That opened the space for hundreds of workplace strikes by high school students demanding gun control. And these together led to a marked swing to the Democrats among white women, both professional and working class, who had voted for Trump in 2016. And that, in turn, made it possible for the House of Representatives to begin impeachment.

That resistance has also made possible a wave of strikes across the US on a scale not seen for decades. Some on the left have described that as resistance finally moving into the workplace. But really, it is workplace resistance against abuse leading to workplace student strikes against guns leading to Christine Blaisie Ford defying Trump and her rapist leading to teachers’ strikes leading to auto workers strikes, and so on.

One thing that is a bit confusing, however, is the pervasive and systematic fear that means workplace organisation against abuse is usually informal and hidden. Crucially, the unions have been silent, or worse. The Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood is only one example among many. The absence of organisations of the mainstream left and the far left is important too. Many individuals involved in organising #MeToo would call themselves socialists or anarchists. But it is rare for militants of the Democratic Party, the Labour Party, the Green parties or the far left to turn up as leaders and organisers.

This is connected to another oddity. We are both feminists, and Marxists, and Marxist feminists. One of the central tasks of our book on sexual violence has been to develop a Marxism that puts sexual violence front and centre in the analysis, where it belongs. We have felt a bit odd doing this, because most Marxists are willing to start with exploitation, war and the state, but not with rape as fundamental to class inequality.

Still, it’s exciting work. It is gratifying, as lifelong rank and file workplace activists, to see that the resistance to sexual violence is strongest and most influential at work. It is also increasingly obvious that what is happening in the US is part of a growing global uprising against all established power. We are embarked on a voyage upon a sea on which we will see many more extraordinary things.

Finally, respect to Rachel Maddow, Ronan Farrow, Ashley  Judd, Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, Gwyneth Paltrow, all the actors, gymmasts, altar boys, journalists, children in care and the hundreds of thousands who have shown such courage in fighting for all of us.

Further reading: The Roots of Sexual Violence


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