Mary Harrington’s “Feminism Against Progress”: A Review
Reality, like God, will not be mocked. This is the core message of Mary Harrington’s excellent new work, Feminism Against Progress. In challenging and compelling fashion, Harrington shows how so-called feminism destroys women, body and soul. Unhinged worship of unfettered autonomy, the core demand of an insane ideology falsely sold as progress, powers this destruction. True enough, but Harrington’s aim is not mere complaint. Rather it is to tell us that both women and men can truly flourish, even in this age of liquid modernity, by building a new system — one informed by the wisdom, not of the 1950s, but of the pre-industrial age.
The frame of this book is the arc of Harrington’s own life, from a disordered youth aiming to atomize unchosen bonds, to a grounded adulthood as a fully-fledged woman and mother. This frame makes sense, because the ultimate touchstone of reality, most of all when you are drowning in unreality, is always that which you know yourself. In her approach, Harrington is like Samuel Johnson, who when told it was impossible to refute the claim that matter did not exist, kicked a boulder and said “I refute it thus!”
Harrington’s youth was formed by something we all recognize, but to which she gives one of the pithy names that fill her book — “Progress Theology,” the idea that mankind is progressing, through the adoption of principles of emancipation and egalitarianism, to an Omega Point of perfection. In pursuit of this goal, reality must and will be bent to our desires. The acolytes of Progress Theology believe that given utopia is just over the horizon, nothing can matter more than fueling the engine that will carry us to utopia — by forcing “the equal right to self-realization.” That is, every man and woman must live in a state of total autonomic individualism, the rejection of all bonds not continuously chosen. Then, and only then, we are assured, will mankind be happy.
Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the takeoff of the most destructive phase of Progress Theology, Harrington absorbed it all, and lived it all, as a typical modern feminist. To her, the core of feminism was Judith Butler’s enormously influential (among the powerful) and enormously corrosive (among all of us) claim, first broadcast in 1990, that both sex and gender are social constructs, infinitely moldable in pursuit of Progress. This fantasy took flight both because of the historical moment and because it coincided with the internet, where it became possible to convincingly present yourself as anybody you want, making Butler’s ludicrous rantings seem actually possible.
But none of it satisfied. All of it was fake, and led down paths ending in closed doors and darkness. The priests of Progress Theology, then and now, forbade noticing this problem, but being an independent thinker, the truth gradually dawned on Harrington. The proof is in the pudding, after all, and when she looked around, she saw that the pudding was very, very nasty. Then she married (whom, she does not say, nor describe him, which might have been interesting), and had a baby, very late and with difficulty. Her baby’s breath blew away the final mental cobwebs of feminist fantasy.
Harrington still identifies as a feminist. For her, being a feminist means “I care about women’s interests and think these are often sidelined.” That’s a very high level of generality in definition; it seems to me she, and her ideas, would be better served by using a different term, given what feminism has become. In any case, the problem for Harrington is that today Progress Theology is the chief sideliner of women. Feminism went wrong, long before Butler, when it decided to prioritize and maximize autonomy over women’s real interests. Harrington therefore demands “reactionary feminism,” meaning truly reactionary, reversing the errors introduced in the 1800s. It is not the 1950s we need back, but the 1700s.
We are offered a tour of history, and thinkers from Karl Marx to Karl Polanyi, to show that before the Industrial Revolution, all women outside the upper classes worked. But that work was very differently structured from today. It was, for both women and men, embedded within thick social relationships, both those of the marriage and of larger society. Work naturally divided along lines of competency, with a joint effort to build the family and home. Because it is biologically dictated both by capability and their own desire, women were primarily responsible for child care, although such work was also spread across generations and within the family web. For much the same reasons, men were the public-facing head of the family. This apparent hierarchy actually implied “service and sacrifice” by men, while women in practice had enormous less-formal power, creating a natural and effective balance, sometimes tilted too far in one direction or the other, perhaps, but nonetheless a working system. None of this was exploitation, rather a continual dance calculated to lead to the best chance of individual and societal flourishing.
The Industrial Revolution, the first widespread application of technology, destroyed this partnership by exalting the market as the talisman of every man and woman’s worth. The pre-existing roles that women occupied, with honor, in pre-industrial Western society were denigrated, because they were not market-oriented. This was not only a result of technology, however, but also of the ideology that grew like cancer during the Industrial Revolution, the so-called Enlightenment, which among other atomizing demands exalted autonomy-granting measurable economically-productive work, while denigrating the embedded work of care and community, of weaving a society together on every level.
Measurable production requires the erosion, or the abolition, of both marriage and the family, which absorb resources yet produce what cannot be measured. The vehicle for this abolition, sometimes deliberate, sometimes as a side effect, was the destruction of the long-standing and very successful partnership between men and women. Textile production, for example, which had always been the domain of women because the work could be fit around child care and other feminine work, became factory work, making children a burden and women unable to do anything else but trudge every day to the mills. As a result, women had far less agency and much more dependence on those from whom, unlike from husbands and family, they had no right to expect anything. To hide this, women were lectured that they were now free, and that their value now depended on what they measurably produced. Contrary to the myth we are fed today, most early feminists fought this reduction of women’s status, not some imaginary patriarchy. That is, industrialization called forth feminism, not because the patriarchy had oppressed women for endless ages, but because systematic oppression only arose with industrialization, and there was no need for organized feminism before that time.
Given the apparent inevitability of industrialization, a defensive reaction taking women in a new social direction emerged in the nineteenth century — “separate spheres.” This was a Band-Aid over the rupture of partnership, an attempt to preserve a feminine space. The world of Jane Austen, with women in search of Mr. Right, should be understood as an attempt to ameliorate the damage of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, not an objectively desirable social system. “Big Romance,” the idea that a woman’s goal in her youth is maximizing romantic appeal to a man with good economic prospects, is not necessary in a world of complementarity, where economic interdependence is the norm. But when the economic partnership that had been marriage largely disappeared, maintaining (or gaining) social position, or even any security, became a function of catching the right man, and then relying on him to maintain you, in order to avoid being cast to the market wolves.
This rearguard action ultimately failed, though it lived until the middle of the twentieth century, and still haunts our dreams. (The 1950s “tradwife” is merely a descendant, and just as artificial.) What ultimately destroyed this “new normal” of romantic marriage was chemical birth control. This disembedded sexuality from the marriage dance, which did not lead to freedom and joy, but commodification and the intrusion of market imperatives into every nook and cranny of how men and women interacted. It (along with its necessary handmaiden, abortion) made it possible to never be bound by unchosen bonds, until then only an aspiration of Progress Theology, and this has not led to solidarity between women and men, always the promised result of frictionless exchange, but disaster. Today, through technology advancing hand-in-hand with ideology, we have reached the logical end of Progress Theology — the treatment of women as “Meat Lego,” to be manipulated by the demands of “bio-libertarianism” in the service of ever-more atomization. Nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of Progress Theology, least of all our flesh.
Thus, we now have the “Cyborg Theocracy,” which “seeks to replace embodied men and women with the tech-enabled, self-fashioning, post-human ‘person’ ”. A few wealthy women might, in fact, benefit from this, but most women, and especially mothers, are greatly harmed. And Harrington offers us an unflinching look at the modern parade of horrors. She describes how so-called emancipation has led to a hellscape of relationships, where marriage, especially marriage at any age likely to lead to fecundity, is discouraged, both directly by propaganda and by the frictionless sexual marketplace of the internet. We don’t even get Austen-esque mutual respect and affection as an ideal; we get transactions as an ideal, with self-actualization as the goal of the transaction. We are not now a low-trust society as between women and men, we are a zero-trust society, at least among the younger generations. We have Hobbes’s “war of all against all.”
Women get the worst of it — sure, they are encouraged to walk away the instant a relationship is not totally fulfilling them, which feels like freedom, but mostly, they just get used and then thrown away, while they pursue hypergamy and end up with nothing. To any woman or man of an earlier generation, that would be no surprise at all; the wonder is that we are surprised, because we have been hoodwinked by lying twentieth-century feminists, who promised us paradise and gave us hell. Harrington, over and over, beats the drum that women simply don’t want the same things as men, in all the areas of life that truly matter. The iron core of this book is sex role realism. Women and men are not the same and they never will be, and until we acknowledge this, nothing can change. (Harrington does not ignore men, though they are supporting players in most of her thoughts. The exception is her full-throated endorsement of single-sex groupings and activities, especially for men, who socialize in very different ways from women, and she links the destruction of men-only spaces to deaths of despair.)
The epidemic of trannies, a tsunami of mental illness, is the inevitable result of “Meat Lego Gnosticism,” with all the force of any religion, here bio-libertarianism taken to its logical end, indulging in insane fantasies such as that a tranny is indistinguishable from a biological original, rather than what it really is, a carved-up walking nightmare. The tranny triumph is partly the internet, and partly the huge money thrown at, and to be earned as the result of, tranny propaganda, but more powerfully, it is the natural end of what feminism has become, cyborg theocracy, complete with a priest class of women who “predominate within the wider ecosystem of institutions that shapes the modern moral universe.” Those women are only a subset of women, but they are the most visible subset, and they have all the power, while the costs are borne by women lower down the social and economic scale. They are the “majority-female mid-tier knowledge class.” Progress Theology seems triumphant.
What to do? Certainly not more of the same. “Trying to squeeze a few more drops of freedom from the rotting carcass of the industrial era is not going to help us abolish human nature.” (Sometimes, reading this book, one wishes for a conversation between Harrington and Ted Kaczynski.) Rather, we need to learn to live with who we are, who we always have been, and always will be. We need to base our flourishing on reality. “You’ve been lied to, [but] another life is possible.” Thus, we need reactionary feminism.
This doesn’t mean we should go back to the ’50s, because that was an artificial world already poisoned. “Traditional” sex roles are in fact “industrial” sex roles. We should build a new world similar to an earlier age, where women and men “work together, in a productive household.” And, in fact, technology is not all bad; it actually makes this more possible, with work-from-home flexibility allowing freedom of location, for example. Marriage should be viewed not as romantic fulfillment, demanding emotional intensity with minimum commitment and the continual option of exit, but “an enabling condition for building a meaningful life,” with very limited options for exit. Children should be expected, desired, and celebrated. Fertility should not be an “optional extra”; the possibility of fertility is what makes sexual contact between men and women both worthwhile and exciting. This requires the rejection (and necessarily, the extreme stigmatization) of chemical birth control and abortion.
Whatever one might think of that, it sounds far, far better than what we have today. Accurately enough, Harrington, who is not utopian, does not claim there is a political solution — in fact, she specifically disclaims a discussion of political mechanics that might lead to a world of reactionary feminism. Instead, briefly, and with diffidence, she in essence calls for seizing and using power, by implication outside of current political limitations, an action which I wholeheartedly endorse. “There is very little left to conserve, but that in turn means there’s everything to build.” It sounds simple, though it won’t be. But it’ll be worth doing. A new thing, or rather a new old thing, for a new day.