Upwards & Onwards
Winnie Wong and Martha Rosler answer some questions
around this election season

In preparation for the 2016 Presidential election on November 8, artist Martha Rosler and activist Winnie Wong take stock of the state of politics and society along the campaign trail and talk about what can be learned from it in blazing the trail ahead.

Courtesy Martha Rosler.

May Day march, New York City, May 1, 2012. © Martha Rosler

Looking at this election campaign, what disparities do you see between 2nd and 3rd wave feminism?

Martha Rosler It must be a good sign that this discussion begins with a question about feminism. Nevertheless, your question rests on a division, presumably because Winnie and I are of different generations. But the terms “second wave” and “third wave,” while useful as generational markers, can overemphasize the political differences between the two. In fact, a variety of feminisms exist in every era. And in my experience, every generation of feminists tries to differentiate itself from the previous one and distance itself from its goals. This is probably because of the fact that all postwar feminisms and womanisms are young women’s movements. When second-wave feminism named itself, it did so in part to honor previous generations, which we hardly knew about. And although we gained from acquainting ourselves with feminism and a wider political history, and from working with activists in previous generations, we did so without looking to them to drive our agendas or tactics.

The political differences that I find most interesting have to do with which class, broadly speaking, and its goals you identify with, and whether they are useful in struggle. A range of political distinctions flow out of these, including ones dramatically affecting identity and power. Our political situation demands that we pay heightened attention to race, as institutional racism persists and persists, while overt racism is courted by Trump and the movement he has pumped oxygen into. The election won’t end this. Nevertheless, activists seek allies. It is no surprise that the arguments of white Trump supporters often mirror those of people of color, who suffer the same predations of capitalist systems but with the added and quite considerable burden of racism. Looking at this election, bourgeois feminists—at least the ones who are not hopelessly Republican—support Hillary, a quintessential bourgeois feminist of her era. But so do black women and LGBTQ people, and in large numbers. Younger women/womyn in these groups, as well as young, ‘left-leaning” political activists who call themselves feminists/womanists, are, I’m guessing, supporting Clinton in lower numbers than are older ones. Doctrinal struggles and factioning occur in any movement—including ones as long-enduring as the women’s movements—and require some degree of good faith and solidarity to avoid rupture. But when we are discussing today’s electoral politics, that is hardly relevant. Trump’s aggressively patriarchal misognyny implies that men, and rich and powerful men in particular, have rightful domain over women’s bodies, with the implication that for men to actually be powerful, women must be contained, and this cannot stand.

But women on the left have been criticizing Hillary Clinton for decades in private, in public lectures, in policy meetings, and in print. When she ran for senator from New York, many of us supported her, but we all demonstrated against her, literally on the day she took office, and of course thereafter. Still, I think that if they/we have any sense, we’ll be voting for her in the coming election. The other choices—from third-party voting to abstaining— don’t make tactical sense to me this time around. I admit that I personally am generally disinclined to vote, but it seems like a basic requirement for this election—but not as an expression of self. “Voting your conscience,” or voting as self-expression, is not a political act but perhaps a theological one, and certainly an expression of desire. Trump is an authoritarian bully, a racist, a liar, a cheat, and a womanizer, a proud prince of the 1% and his fellow rich parasites and rentiers. He has helped shore up absurd conspiracist bullshit and scapegoating and has successfully deflected attention away from serious policy goals and demands. He needs to be broadly repudiated.

The worst outcome of this election would be the silencing of criticism or agitation during or (especially) after it. We should never mistake ourselves for stooges. Since this question is focused on the election, I will just mention here the burning questions of intersectionality and the undeniable blindness that some (more likely, many) bourgeois feminists and white leftists have repeatedly shown toward race and class. I’d be happy to stand next to or behind young women of color in struggle.

Courtesy Martha Rosler.

Black Lives Matter march (Millions March NYC), New York City, Dec. 13, 2014. © Martha Rosler

Winnie Wong I am uncompromisingly anti-authoritarian and identify 1st as an Anarchist. I guess you could call me an Anarcho-Feminist.

Hillary Clinton’s brutal statist feminism is at extreme odds to the political philosophy of Anarchism which I believe is inherently feminist, because it opposes all relationships of power.

Involuntary coercive hierarchies is the definition of neoliberal feminism. Another way of looking at it is to say that our permanent war economy has been sustained from the decades long politicization of women and in particular women of color in this country. As the feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser writes: The state-managed capitalism of the postwar era has given way to a new form of capitalism – “disorganised”, globalising, neoliberal. Second-wave feminism emerged as a critique of the first but has become the handmaiden of the second.

Unpacking “Wealth” and “Power” as women’s issues reveals that the neoliberal economic policies of austerity impact women and women of color 1st and worst. These are women who are most often the lowest paid and the most likely to be the family breadwinner. Domestic and sexual violence, homelessness, and mental illness are intensified by poverty brought on by extractive capitalism.

The Feminist spectrum is extremely complex because the systems of Capitalism are complex. But what it boils down to is very simple: if you are a pro-war feminist with neoliberal authoritarian politics, you and I are not going to find much proximity in the pedagogy of the feminist movement.

Hillary Clinton: I see you.

What kind of activism is necessary in current American politics?

Martha Rosler A movement agitating for change in our collective life is necessary and urgent, and its way has been paved for by movements on the left, which I am interpreting broadly to include the new social movements of the era. Occupy, with its ubiquitous energy, outrage, righteous spirit, and unspoken but enacted demands, has led to a moment of manifestation in electoral politics. This is a movement boiling over for a better deal than neoliberalism can offer. There’s no arguing that young people have little reason to support politics as usual (assuming there is such a thing) when their future prospects range from somewhat-poor to terrible—and for the first time in a long time, that includes the so-called millennials among the college-educated middle class. (Cancel student debt!—it’s a minimum demand.)

People of all generations, races, and identities (whether professed or ascribed) have been shafted. The power of the right among the grassroots, the unsung and impoverished, the unemployed and underemployed, the unorganized, and the auxiliary institutions—including talk radio and secretive oligarchic institutions—has made it possible for the challenger of the cautious, establishmentarian, neoliberal candidate, Hillary Clinton, to be a national Chaos candidate. Donald Trump repeats many of the economic grievances of the left, but his slender array of policy proposals utterly fail to address them, or even the demands of most of his supporters.

Trump needs to be defeated to avoid chaos in both domestic and foreign politics that would set back or even paralyze the pursuit of a left agenda. Bernie Sanders has rightly said that the left needs an organized movement to continue agitating for serious political change. What is notable, nevertheless, is the degree to which our entry into electoral politics was spearheaded by people like Winnie, who is straight outta Occupy, the putatively neo-anarchist bulwark of left-populist agitation.

When I was one of a large cohort of student radicals at my university in San Diego, the professor and Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse—refugee from Hitler— used to visit us near the close of our cafeteria meetings. In 1972, he would regularly leave us with the admonition, “Just remember to vote.” We always laughed, saying, “Herbert, you know we’re not gonna vote.” And we didn’t. We believed world revolution was right around the bend—and total revolution doesn’t generally include voting. That was the election that brought the country Richard Nixon, a perpetrator of crimes high and low, and domestic and foreign, and an immediate threat to constitutional governance. Now, I will take the opportunity to channel Marcuse and say, “Just remember to vote.” It doesn’t preclude engaging in uncompromising radical agitation.

Courtesy Martha Rosler.

Occupy Wall Street S17, New York City, Sep. 17, 2012. © Martha Rosler

To reiterate: we need consistency of oppositional events and expressed points of view. We need people to remain committed to struggle but also to continue to inform themselves. The good news is that there are a whole bunch of serious political organs on the left that have been hashing out theory, critique, and policy and which now have many writers and activists whose focus is on the new social movements. Here’s where I would argue that intersectionality is producing necessarily different subject positions and points of contention in a movement that needs to encompass them all.

We need to educate ourselves; no socialist movement can succeed without becoming educated on policy and goals, not to mention traditions of thought (and not just via comedians and celebrities, ya?) A good place to start might be developing a conversation about the difference between domestic and foreign policies and why we must judge and push presidential candidates in regard to both areas. But we also need to acknowledge that the US is presently the world superpower, the hegemon. This means that the US still overthrows governments and repeatedly kills people—people who are either bystanders or who are denied any benefit of trial—or aids and abets foreign forces to do so. We can’t help redirect national policies and intervene in or drive the national conversation without having a sophisticated understanding of this, and of the pernicious role of nationalism—of various nationalisms, in fact.

Winnie Wong Given the unchecked influence of money and power over our political system, I often find it very difficult to meaningfully speak of activism and American politics in the same breath.

I would say that the best case scenario politically speaking for the United States is a government with more women and specifically more women of color holding elected office. Throughout most of our Senate’s history, the legislative chamber has been almost entirely male, There have only been 46 female Senators in office since 1789 (when the body of the Senate was established) It wasn’t until the 1990’s during the heyday of the 3rd wave when women started running, and winning.

In hindsight, I wish more women from the various factions of the 90’s radical feminist movement had seized electoral power. It would have, I think, significantly moved the needle in dismantling the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”

It’s not too late to course correct now. We are a week out from the 2016 Presidential elections.

On the menu are two deplorables from marginally different binders:

Hillary Clinton, a pro-war, neoliberal, corporatist and Donald Trump, whom we can reasonably label an orange colored neo-fascist piece of shouting sewage currently campaigning on a canned script his minions co-opted from what is essentially the best of Bernie Sanders’ social media sound bites meets Mein Kampf. Hitler may have been very prescient and speaking of Donald Trump’s campaign when said: “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”

Courtesy Martha Rosler.

May Day march, New York City, May 1, 2012. © Martha Rosler

If you’re with her, you know today what you are getting in January: a pro-war, pro-Wall Street President who will govern far to the right of Obama. A small glimmer of hope lies in the immutable fact that she will have to contend with a well-organized opposition from an ever expanding cohort of extraordinary Bernie-era revolutionaries. These will be among the 13 million radical femmes, disruptors, lovers, brothers, sisters, your normcore neighbors, trans-folk and black, brown, red and yellow millennials who enthusiastically cast their vote for a democratic socialist.

And on the frontlines of every single issue battle, you’ll find an on-message Bernie Sanders calling on all of us to stand up and fight back, to remember that real change can never be derived from trickle-down policies created by politicians with questionable morals. That there can be no revolution unless that revolution is also a rhizome.

If Bernie gets a gavel and we (Bernie activists) commit to taking on the task of educating the American electorate to rise up against Hillary to push for and win some of the things that Bernie advocated for during the campaign: free public college, single-payer healthcare, ending our dependency on fossil fuels, expanding social security, ending mass incarceration, criminal justice reform, a national $15 dollar minimum wage etc…we’d effectively be buying humanity a little bit of time.

History will not look kindly upon Donald Trump. He has succeeded in normalizing the concept that a better America is a whiter America. He is a toupee hair shy away from advocating for the ethnic cleansing of entire Muslim-American and Mexican-American communities and his most ardent supporters are calling for the abolishment of the 19th amendment. The idea that there could be widespread support for any of his xenophobic and misogynistic ‘ideas’ is dangerous for the people of this country, and for the people of the world. A Supreme Court with Trump appointed justices is unimaginable and we can not let it happen. A Trump Presidency will imperil millions of lives, primarily the lives of working women of color. Like it or not, his campaign of fear has divided the country and set the tone and narrative which will lead to further deterioration of civil society. Trump and his followers really do not believe that black lives matter. Like, at all.

This is why the REAL work begins on November 9th.

We need activists, artists, academics and everyday working people willing to engage with deep, long lasting commitment to social justice work. Praxis makes perfect and participation and tactics must come in multitudes. If 15 people run for local office, then I want to see 15,000 people participate in the occupation at Standing Rock or in a #BlackLivesMatter NVDA (non-violent direct action).

Dare to walk together in struggle right to the edge of the map.

Do all things with loving intention.

Develop strategies that are broad, deep and inclusive.

Unpack your privilege. Analyze of Race, Gender and Class.

Feminism without intersectionality is just white supremacy.

Courtesy Martha Rosler.

Occupy Wall Street S17, New York City, Sep. 17, 2012. © Martha Rosler

What are your thoughts on the emergence of technological platforms for community activism; how do you envision the future of that unfolding?

Martha Rosler What Occupy and, before it, such effects of new communications technologies as flash mobs demonstrated is that technology provides the possibility of communicative networks but does not preclude robust encounters, meetings, planning and strategy sessions, confabs, parties, dinners, and ruckuses in the flesh… nor does it impede parading (and running) through the streets. The power of the assembly is that it reminds us that struggles are grounded in face-to-face communities-in-formation and are not confected by elites—and they are finally based in seizing territory in both the real world and in those ethereal spaces online.

Facebook—despite it’s owners’ intentions to restrict the platform to the private world of the personal (a domain that may no longer even exist)—has become a news medium and aggregator of stories, righteous outrage, and the occasional, glancingly serious conversation. Twitter has been useful for on-the-ground observations and for strategic regroupings during street actions, but in its everyday use it can become a toxic swamp of denunciation and piling on, in a context of no-context, infiltrated by trolls and bots. It allows no nuance but demands a thumbs up or thumbs down. Who knows? It could be appealing to old-brain responses that we’ve spent millennia trying to damp down. Maybe not, but you get the point. Take the bait or get out on the street and make a difference.

Winnie Wong This is a particularly tricky question for me to answer, given the organizing work I’ve done utilizing technology on a free and open internet over the course of this election cycle. There is no question that the tactical use of the hashtag #FeelTheBern is partially responsible for having turned Bernie Sanders into a global MEME. It confirmed for me that the internet could be used as a force for good when young children in Hong Kong began feeling that bern.

Conversely, real time images/videos on Facebook and Twitter of protest, dissent and the states militarized response to quell revolt from the social movements of The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Climate Justice, and Black Lives Matter have jiggered our universal consciousness.

At best, we can and should opt-in to these constructions if they are construed to be something akin to a temporal public education project.

At worst: Donald Trump’s new media empire will succeed at normalizing a popular culture of Anglo-ethno-nationalism which will create deeper divides and catalyze tensions between poor working people of all colors and ethnicities in the USA.

Courtesy Martha Rosler.

Flood Wall Street, New York City, Sep. 22, 2012. © Martha Rosler

The whole world may have started watching during Occupy Wall Street, but this has not DIMINISHED in the slightest, the States ability to militarize police departments. This is their MANDATE from their above: maintain order by any means necessary. As long as there is the influence of corporate money over our political systems, there will be a surplus supply of cops riding around in tanks, aided by wild dogs and LRAD weapons to suppress all forms of peaceful protest. They are just following orders.

The algorithm shows you what you want to see. Like Trump, it divides. It does not unite.

In short: Pitchforks not Platforms. Occupy the ballot box.

What are your hopes and fears moving forward, given the contentious and polemical state this country is in (regardless of the election outcome)?

Martha Rosler First, I fear the effects of a loss of will on the part of millions of enthusiastic Bernie activists, wishers, and dreamers after the national election. Speaking personally, I wasn’t just an ardent Bernie supporter, I identified with him; we are from the same place and almost the same time. After his presidential campaign ended, I grieved…and then I moved on. But I continue to honor his leadership and his passionate advocacy for democratic socialism (or social democracy) and the reintroduction of these magical words into public discourse. I support his further strategy of organizing for down-ballot wins, and working legislatively— by joining or supporting grassroots campaigns like Black Lives Matter, Dreamers, Standing Rock and for wage and housing justice. We need to unceasingly agitate in the streets, for sure—but also to organize for electoral wins at the local level as the right did after the Goldwater debacle, way back when. From dogcatcher and school board on up. It is crucial to change the composition of state and local governments and authorities, not to mention party functionaries.

Second, I fear the widespread tendency to repeat, retweet, and post nonsensical and decontextualized lies and slanders on social media—political disinformation, dirty tricks, simple online trolling, what have you. In this election, this has been a potent line of attack by the right against Hillary Clinton and her neoliberal cohort. But, so much of this has been picked up by the left as well, as though any statement can be usefully repeated as a “gotcha,” sometimes with more than a whiff of the post-truth delirium we’ve heard so much about. I don’t care about her damn emails! We need to recognize and move past the misogyny—even the internalized variety. Misogyny allows people to attack Clinton for her actions, despite the fact that she acts pretty much like any politician, including Barack Obama. Astonishingly, Clinton is damned in the most ferocious terms for not caring about the fates of women and children abroad, although it is President Obama who is directing a drone war, not she. Political stances and imaginary traits like “lying” are taken as proof that she suffers from an inherent evil, which would make any effort to influence policy essentially irrelevant. Let’s forget the personal accusations and go after dangerous and despicable policies wherever they originate, exposing and dismantling domestic structures from local to national levels and keeping up the pressure on foreign policy.

Grassroots campaigns, electoral campaigns, and symbolic actions can be run simultaneously.

Courtesy Martha Rosler.

Occupy Times Square as part of Occupy Wall Street S17, New York City, Sep. 18, 2012. © Martha Rosler

Winnie Wong My greatest fear is that people are beginning to lose their empathy just when they are awakening. We are becoming increasingly desensitized to late Capitalism’s blitzkrieg of pornographic blight. We have become a nation of people addicted to consuming unending uncurated digital content of police brutality, racism, ISIS, violence against trans-folk, organized genocide against Native People, rape of women and the Earth and war without end.

We’re really kinda fucked if the counter to all of this darkness are viral MEMEs of Bernie Sanders occupying middle seats on airplane rides. However, I do applaud athletes refusing to pledge their allegiance to military industrial complex. That is great and we need more of these types of direct actions.

What power do artists have in this political climate? What kind of art do you see as having the greatest impact?

Martha Rosler The art of showing up; a kind of street pageant of protest; a panoply of representing, dancing, and singing (but please, can we limit the drumming?); clever, angry slogans on beautiful banners; bat signals; Overpass Light Brigades; disruptions of traffic and the opposition; readings and solidarity events; videos, performances, and plays from the various artistic elites; the inevitable celebrity interventions…we got this; we know how to do it.

Winnie Wong Set it ALL on FIRE. Also, what Martha said.

How do you find balance between idealism and realism? When to play which hand?

Martha Rosler We need to have dreams and strategies as well as action and reason. There is no political movement without a horizon—ours ought to be socialism + democracy. Tactical efforts require a degree of hardheadedness as to choices. That’s what Bernie has been telling us in forming Our Revolution/OURRevolution.com.

Winnie Wong We would lose all the battles without pragmatism, strategy and vision. The grunt work and mechanics of the more obvious strands of politics i.e. elections, is incredibly unromantic and clinical. What we feel in our hearts should be what we imagine on the horizon.

Courtesy Martha Rosler.

Black Lives Matter march (Millions March NYC), New York City, Dec. 13, 2014. © Martha Rosler

What would be your top policy change, from a feminist (or any other) perspective?

Martha Rosler Makes no sense to choose one or even ten. But there is in fact a top, that is, overarching, choice: We need to get serious about climate change! Right now.

– From a general perspective, getting huge inflows of money, especially unattributed large contributions, out of politics will help in every way. Overturn Citizens United! But making it illegal for media networks to accept money to promote political initiatives and campaigns is a good goal to fight for: so much of those funds go to support political advertising.

– Locking reproductive rights and their support in our healthcare systems into permanent policy is a major goal (and Catholic organizations should be prevented from taking over hospitals).

– Cancel student debt, make all education free, and open a discussion on guaranteed basic income, its pros and cons.

– Get rid of anti-union, right-to-work policies everywhere. Join with grass-roots, self-generated, activist, and union efforts that organize the unorganized.

– Stop the wars—at home and abroad.

– Stand with people of color or stand down.

Winnie Wong I’m working on getting rid of of all the shitty old white dudes in government and replacing them with democratically elected women and in particular women of color. It’s all happening with a little help from everyone’s favorite cranky old socialist: Bernie Fucking Sanders.

Are there radical political methods that exist, in theory or in practice, that you would advocate implementing?

Martha Rosler I suppose I’ve already spelled out my answers to this, short of taking over the Bastille/ Pentagon—and the banks.

Winnie Wong Set. It. All. On. Fire.

DIS Magazine logo, small