Mary Harrington, Feminism Against Progress (Forum, 2023). A review.
“Anybody who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex (the ugly ones included).”
Karl Marx, letter to Ludwig Kugelman, 12 December 1868. Translated by Donna Torr.
Most historians view the 1960s as a decade that changed women’s lives. In those years, women began to enter the labour market in far greater numbers than ever before and gain political representation on a new scale. The advent of the contraceptive pill gave women unprecedented autonomy over their fertility. Changes to the law made divorce easier. All these things decreased the authority of the patriarchal family and gave the lie to old prejudices about what women were capable of and notions about their proper place in society. Most liberal and progressive feminists view all these developments as important gains that should be preserved.
But are women’s interests really best served by modernity?
This is the central question Mary Harrington raises in her bizarre but fascinating reactionary screed, Feminism Against Progress. According to her Cassandra-like account, modernity has redefined both motherhood and the relations between the sexes in a way that will inevitably lead to a “howlingly dystopian scenario” in which “the machine” will seek to “deregulate all of human nature.” In the coming “cyborg era,” humans will be reduced to little more than “Lego bricks made of meat.”
Harrington relates that she herself was once a card-carrying member of “Team Progress,” but the after-effects of the 2008 financial crash “punctured” her liberalism and initiated her gradual transformation into a “reactionary feminist.” She is now, she writes, a “survivor of the End of History,” no longer beholden to “progress theology.” Indeed, she now regards the idea of “Progress” as a false theology, derived from Enlightenment rationalism and the idea of human perfectibility.
The history of the modern epoch, she argues, is one of titanic “disembodiment”—a concern that forms a constant leitmotiv in the book. Industrial capitalism has ‘disembedded’ us from the oikos through the advent of labour outside the home and intense urbanisation. The self-sufficient homestead—in which both husband and wife laboured on the land, growing their own food and raising their own livestock—was eradicated to make way for the wage slavery of the factory. Traditional bonds and “relational” solidarities were eroded by bourgeois individualism, which replaced “interdependent social relations with abstract economic and technological ones.”
In Harrington’s view, reproductive technologies like the Pill untethered sexuality from its natural, biological limits, turning it into an unregulated commodity. Sexual relations now follow the laws of the marketplace. Modernity has unsettled the traditional tacit agreement in which women control men’s access to sex, while men control women’s access to money, laments Harrington, and “erotic individualism is now the default.” While most self-proclaimed conservatives who eulogise traditional family values idealise the bourgeois nuclear family, which they see as having been eroded by the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Harrington is nostalgic for a more distant historical epoch, before the advent of modern society altogether: she yearns for an agricultural society, before the nuclear family became the main social unit.
Harrington is particularly alarmed at the idea that we may be able to use technology to liberate ourselves from the constraints of our own biology and, in particular, that we might delude ourselves that we can use science to erase the fundamental differences between the sexes. She refers to this kind of techno-optimism as “cyborg theology.” Its end goal, she believes, is to deny human nature altogether.
In order to avoid the coming ultra-liberal, technophilic, transhumanist dystopia, Harrington recommends turning to a form of proudly “reactionary feminism,” which is “anti-universalist” in its belief that human beings have a fixed, unalterable sexed nature and that there are natural limits which we must operate within and which it would be hubris to attempt to overcome.
Under reactionary feminism, Harrington writes, women will make sex “properly consequential again,” small-scale home-based production will become more important than large-scale industry and the resulting “beneficial constraints” will enable a more “relational” society. She is not joking when she describes this as a reactionary view: for Harrington, the solution to present-day alienation, atomisation and the atrophy of the family entails “lifelong solidarity between the sexes that owes more to the 1450s than the 1950s.”
Now, of course, Harrington is not vulgar enough to claim that all premodern societies were idyllic or that the technological sophistication of modern society has no benefits. She readily admits that she’s very fond of the Internet. Her reactionary feminism seeks to take advantage of digital advances such as remote work to reconnect the spheres of home and labour. Yet, her disaffection with modernity is clearly fuelled by her fear that we might collectively defy natural constraints, including those of our human nature. She seems to take visceral offence at the human capacity to overcome obstacles—for her, it is an affront to how things ought to be, a freedom we humans don’t deserve.
According to Harrington, in the premodern age, women enjoyed a kind of sexual equality with men. Medieval household economy was run based on a practical “interdependence of the sexes”—the housewife’s labour was vital to the economic prosperity of the family—and this provided a check on male supremacy. Industrialisation forced women into “greater dependence” on men, who went out to work while their wives stayed at home, placing middle class women in an increasingly ornamental role. But this vision is indebted to a sentimental view of what life was like for women in precapitalist patriarchal societies and ignores the oppression and second-class status women endured in such societies and the omnipresence of illiteracy, poverty and back-breaking labour. Just because women had “informal power” and could contribute to the household earnings by tending crops or spinning cloth while keeping their children in tow does not mean that the sex relations of the Middle Ages should be a model for us to emulate.
Harrington’s objection to birth control in favour of what she calls “rewilding sex” is also premised on an idealisation of what sex was like in premodern times, when its primary function was procreation. Women were enslaved to the animal rhythms of their bodies, often enduring many pregnancies to compensate for the high rates of infant mortality and still provide enough offspring to furnish the labour that was needed to sustain the homestead. Indeed, the whole idea of a “sex life”—the notion that people can have sex for purely recreational purposes—arises from the bourgeois individualism and the separation of public and private spheres that she decries. Her complaint that sex is not risky enough—and must therefore be made more hazardous in order to disincentivise casual sex and encourage marriage— seems perverse. Most people—including married couples—are not going to give up the benefits birth control allows—benefits Harrington seems coy about even alluding to—and go back to a mode of sexuality that entailed unwanted pregnancies and diseases whose sufferers were often communally shamed. A regression to those days would not enhance people’s pleasure or further what she calls “true sensuality.” In addition, Harrington is wrong to assume that all the changes to the way we view and practise sexuality today are due to technology—rather than shaped by cultural and social trends.
Behind Harrington’s reactionary feminism is a reactionary anti-capitalism. For Harrington, modern industrial capitalism is an almost demonic force that destroys nature and traditional ways of life. In one way, she’s right. Capitalist modernity has a thoroughly demonic element—and it’s an aspect of modernity that the progressives she rails against rarely acknowledge. It is personified by Mephistopheles, the villain of Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust:
I am the spirit of perpetual negation;
And rightly so, for all things that exist
Deserve to perish, and would not be missed.
Much better it would be if nothing were
Brought into being, Thus, what you men call
Destruction, sin, evil in short, is all
My sphere, the element I most prefer.
This “spirit of perpetual negation” is the Mephistophelian ethos of capitalism: a system of economic and intellectual dynamism, yet of social disintegration; of combined and uneven development; of the destabilisation of naturalistic and religious illusions; of a world constantly in flux, which has no respect for tradition or national boundaries; a world in which social relations are subject to perpetual upheaval. Yet, it is precisely this destructive quality that made capitalism a revolutionary system. We can’t separate its good from its bad qualities: you can’t have one without the other. By destroying old conditions, capital creates new ones and these in turn facilitate new possibilities.
Harrington’s reactionary feminism is fundamentally an expression of discontent with contemporary capitalist society. Her remedy is that we should regress to the economic model of an earlier age. She favours the sort of utopia that appeals to alienated bourgeois romantics who live where land is plentiful and have the financial security to lead a bucolic existence. Yet a return to minimalist, small scale, homestead-based production would be a disaster: such a system could never sustain a complex, interdependent civilisation of billions.
Progress certainly has consequences, and these are sometimes profound and longstanding and throw up new challenges. Progress always has a tragic dimension, too. Yet the destruction of the cherished old ways it inevitably entails also brings new opportunities for men and women to realise their potential. The genie can’t be put back in the bottle, nor would it be desirable to try. It is through modernity, through greater mastery of nature, that a better, more humane world will arise. I for one embrace it.