Harvey Weinstein and the authoritarianism of violence

As the revelations about Harvey Weinstein grow ever more miserable and appalling, so too does the state of commentary on the case.

Whether firing off a 140-character tweet or 800 words of editorial, the main game in town seems to be finding someone to blame. A vast army of Twitter dullards seem determined to blame the women who are speaking out now for not speaking out sooner. Fleet Street Fox wants to blame the men. Piers Morgan, for reasons best known to himself, is determined to blame Meryl Streep. Almost no one seems to have noticed that this blizzard of finger-pointing and recrimination is doing a marvellous job of diverting responsibility and blame from where it belongs, four square on the head of Harvey Weinstein, holed up in some Alpine clinic and begging for “a second chance.”

But amid this flowing tide of slurry there has been the occasional gem. Yesterday the Guardian published a piece by Rebecca Solnit which deserves everyone’s attention. I began reading with heavy heart, it looked as if it was going to be a retread of Julie Bindel’s notoriously terrible screed ‘Why I Hate Men.’

From the opening: “This past week was not a good week for women,” Solnit proceeds with a litany of male violence, situating Weinstein’s obscenities alongside the murder of Kim Wall, and everything from the Las Vegas massacre to the complicity of liberal journalists with the misogynistic white supremacist conspirators of Breitbart.

Intellectually, however, Solnit’s piece does not go in the direction one might expect. Where Bindel drove down a radfem cul-de-sac and quickly crashed into the bins of gender essentialism, Solnit goes somewhere much, much more interesting. I’d urge you to read it fully and carefully, but if I may risk a clumsy synopsis, her principal argument seems to be that male violence is rooted in a (psychopathic?) deficiency in empathy, and that this in turn is rooted in an “authoritarianism of violence,” a pervasive ideology of “cultural terrorism” that spans not only individual brutality and criminality but also the shared political culture which helped to put Donald Trump in the White House and brought Nazis marching on the streets of Charlottesville,  a culture “of self-aggrandisement, cruelty, the embrace of violence, and hate.”

What Solnit is really describing here is brute power, and a culture that continues to pursue and celebrate power as an end in itself as well as a strategy for personal gain and advancement. Philosophers could make hay placing this in the context of Nietzsche or Foucault, but I’ll skip ahead to a couple of areas where I think Solnit is not so much wrong in what she writes as incomplete.

On this side of the Atlantic at least, there has been another major news story this week which in many respects fits perfectly into Solnit’s analysis. The Public Inquiry into institutional child abuse has been hearing about how senior politician “Sir” Cyril Smith was able to rape and molest his way across decades, unhampered by reports to police or rumours in high places. His victims were helpless, powerless, vulnerable, disbelieved and discounted against the presence and raw power of their abuser. And, just like the majority of victims of institutional child abuse in children’s homes, within the Catholic church, within football clubs and beyond,  they were boys.

If that news passed Solnit by, surely she was aware that those disclosing their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault from Hollywood this week included male stars James Van Der Beek and Terry Crews. One might also recall it is not so long ago that Corey Feldman made serious disclosures about Hollywood paedophile abusers, allegations which have yet to be exposed to the full disinfectant of sunlight, and one strongly suspects are just advance glimpses of major scandals to come.

Acknowledging that boys and men are also victimised does not mean dropping the ball on gender. It remains inescapable that every case mentioned so far has involved male perpetrators. When we are talking about crimes of abuse of power, it is incontrovertible that those with the greatest relative power at all levels of society are disproportionately likely to be male. Does the exploitative and bullying behaviour emerge as a consequence of the extant power, or is the power attained as a consequence of the exploitative and bullying behaviour? That, perhaps, is the great unanswered question of Solnit’s piece.

It is also important to note that Solnit doesn’t seem to believe there is anything inevitable or eternal to this. She notes that the men concerned appear to have had these attitudes instilled upon them by culture and socialisation, and (movingly, I thought) reflects upon how this leaves those men as wretched, pitiable specimens themselves.

And yes, as I’m sure several readers are now itching to tell me in the comments, when women are in positions of power (whether on a large scale within corporations or organisations or merely in localised power over their own classroom or household) some of them will exploit that power sexually or emotionally in very similar ways to men. The difference is that far, far fewer women across society wield the kinds of power that rests with a Weinstein or a Trump. This is one key reason why I’ll never be fully on board with a liberal, representational feminism which advocates replacing men with women in positions of power while leaving economic and social structures intact.

In that sense, I think Solnit’s essay is very useful in separating patriarchy from broader power structures. I only wish she’d gone further, because there is another aspect to power, alongside gender, racialism and politics, which remains the proverbial elephant in this room, and that is wealth. Money. Economics. Call it what you like. One of the reasons I found the Weinstein-related finger-pointing at individuals or groups of people so frustrating is that in these contexts individuals and their choices are largely irrelevant. What gave Weinstein his power to abuse was his wealth and economic influence over the lives and careers of others.

Weinstein, like all rich and powerful men, threw his money around. The right-wing US media are very aerated about the fact he threw some of it the way of Clinton and the Democrats, but that barely scrapes the surface. He and his company were throwing money at media moguls, at newspaper proprietors, at Hollywood stars, at opinion-formers across the board. Of course this wasn’t hush money or bribes (as best we know) it was all above board, advertising contracts, commercial relationships etc, etc. But the end result is the same. Weinstein was pulling a very lucrative apple-cart and no one of influence wanted to tip  it over.

Of course there are prolific sexual abusers, harassers and criminals at all strata of society, from the homeless street drinker to the billionaire. One does not need wealth and power to exploit others. However when one combines the will to abuse with the wealth and power to get away with it for decades, it creates a horrifically dangerous cocktail.

The Weinstein scandal gives us many lessons to learn. Rebecca Solnit has given us a good place to start thinking.


  1. That Guy says

    I read this piece yesterday, and I felt it absolutely nailed it. Admittedly, it was kind of solution light, but it’s the most incisive thing I’ve read in a while.

    This is the issue with men, or with what men are told to be, it’s this power thirst at the expense of empathy or compassion. I’d say all the other ills that fall to ‘men’ are different heads of the same hydra. Violence? It’s a means to exert power in it’s rawest format. Bigotry and prejudice? It’s a means of entrenching and re-enforcing that existing power. High risk behaviour? a reckless means to obtain power. Emotional lack of self-awareness and mental health problems? Inability to confirm a loss of power.

    Desire for Power, and it’s exertion over others at the expense of others, is common to all of these I’d say. I feel like the fish only just realising what water is.

    All this said, I’m still largely not sure how this power lust comes about, or what the clearest strategy to turn us to a more compassionate, happier people is.

    tl:dr, I agree.

  2. Carnation says

    This story has taken on a new dimension.

    #MeToo is appearing everywhere. This morning, four Facebook friends have shared their stories. I was startled to realise that I already knew one of them, and was surprised that a few others, whose stories I also know, weren’t sharing theirs.

    An interesting spin-off is a few Tweets and articles challenging men, in fairly non-accusatory ways, to do more to help.

    What does everyone make of this?

    And getting back to Heteronormative Patriarchy, why is it simply impossible to imagine men feeling comfortable acknowledging #MeToo?

  3. Ally Fogg says

    Carnation, I am literally writing another blog post on that right this moment, so hold those thoughts and watch this space!

  4. Marduk says

    2. Depends what it is really. If its non-accusatory I don’t have a problem with it and I cannot image who would. The problem, should it arise, will be using the opportunity to advance other agendas and whacky theories as usual. Collective blame isn’t cool, I fail to see what a roofer in Sunderland could have done about Harvey Weinstein for example. And then there is the matter of the article in The Tablet, are some forms of collective blame more acceptable than others? It was clearly hateful but the non-hateful could consider distinguishing themselves by making different arguments.

    Its a bit like when the next terrorist outrage occurs, nobody will have a problem blaming ISIS and the men of violence, but you know as well as I do that for some people that won’t go far enough either and people who dissent will be called appeasers and apologists.

  5. redpesto says

    Ally Fogg:

    It is also important to note that Solnit doesn’t seem to believe there is anything inevitable or eternal to this. She notes that the men concerned appear to have had these attitudes instilled upon them by culture and socialisation, and (movingly, I thought) reflects upon how this leaves those men as wretched, pitiable specimens themselves.

    I’ll be honest and admit that wasn’t how I read it at first: it felt more like an attempt to salvage something from the harm such men cause; a possible comforting thought that they were ‘suffering’ somehow. Was/is the abuse/harassment/assault an attempt to assuage such feelings, or the feelings a consequence of their behaviour? I suspect abusers neither know, care, nor would admit as much to themselves (and if they did, maybe the pain would be too much, as in Bryony Lavery’s play Frozen). Or they just go to ‘rehab’ because they have the money and status to ‘frame’ their behaviour in in terms of mental health than criminality.

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