What happens when elite women get what they want? Mary Harrington’s Feminism against Progress is in part a tale of a dream fulfilled: a feminism of pure freedom, driven by the ideals of progress, achieving its goal of unfettered self-actualization. However, viewed up close, the promised utopia is not as Edenic as it seems. In fact, it’s an anti-Eden: a rootless, borderless realm of liquidated social bonds, populated by atomized, disembodied selves, and the only deity walking amidst them is the devouring Spirit of the Market.
Harrington, erstwhile citizen of this anti-Eden, takes on the role of Virgil, a prophetic guide through our purgatorial present, regaling us, her readers, with an account of where feminism went wrong, and what can be done about it. The book unfolds in three parts, which can loosely be described as a glance backward at where we’ve come from, a hard look around at where we are now, and a glimpse of where we might go from here.
First, Harrington treats us to feminism’s origin story as a response to the situation of women in the era of industrialization. She describes modernity as a great disembedding, an uprooting of the productive, gendered household, in which work was once centered for both men and women. In this premodern model, the sexes were not seen as interchangeable units of production; rather, their distinct spheres of influence and activity were complementary and interdependent, as well as conducive to childrearing and family life. Their shared economic life was grounded in a “web of relationships,” and gendered asymmetries were sources of synergy, rather than exploitation.
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According to Harrington, industrialization shifted the center of productivity from the household to the factory, thus introducing a schism between “work” and “home.” Under this new model, in order to engage in economic activity, women had to be estranged from their children and labor in cruel conditions. Families who had the option would send the men out to work and keep the women at home, in a newly narrowed domestic sphere centered on consumption rather than production. Harrington argues, with help from Illich and Marx, that industrialization “reduced women’s economic agency,” opening an era of separate spheres, where “women were to a far greater extent at the mercy of their legally and financially all-powerful husbands.” It is in this context that the first feminist movement emerged—not in response to the bogeyman of patriarchy, but to the effects of industrialization. As Harrington puts it, the “challenges addressed by feminism are less evidence of eternal male animus than effects of material changes.”
This nascent women’s movement, from the outset, was marked by a tension between what Harrington calls a “feminism of care,” which resisted the logic of the market, emphasizing interdependence and the domestic realm, and a “feminism of freedom,” which “embraced the individualist market logic, and sought women’s entry into that market on the same terms as men.” The movement, Harrington contends, was more or less balanced in an “ambivalent tension” until the mid-twentieth century, when feminism’s embrace of contraception and abortion tipped the movement decidedly toward the market. From this point on, “feminism largely abandoned the question of how men and women can best live together, and instead embraced a tech-enabled drive to liberate humans altogether from the confines of biology.”
In the book’s second arc, Harrington provides a dizzying and dismal tour of the impact of feminism’s alliance with transhumanism, which has wrought a “cyborg age.” Here, she shows her writerly knack for coinage: Bio-libertarianism, Cyborg Theocracy, Progress Theology, Meat Lego Gnosticism. “Bio-libertarianism” is a particularly helpful term that captures the gist of what freedom feminism has become—a worldview that “focuses on extending individual freedom and self-fashioning as far as possible, into the realm of the body,” in order to pursue “self-created ‘human’ autonomy.”
Harrington argues that what is cast as moral advancement—i.e., progress—is the “revolutionary destruction of previously immutable-seeming limits.” Those limits, as it turns out, are difficult to dismantle. Much easier to destroy are the social practices and codes we have “developed over millennia” to help us navigate those limits. What gets dissolved along with those norms are bonds: the bonds between the sexes, the bond between mother and child, and the bond with one’s own body. Bonds inhibit freedom. Love calls for sacrifice; even, at times, suffering. And so, in the name of freedom, bonds must go.
What, then, can provide social cohesion in the wake of widespread dissolution? The market. This is the central claim of Harrington’s critique, the sharpest point in her skewer: “Whatever has been smashed in the pursuit of progress ends up reordered to the atomised laws of the market.” The downstream effects of this “liquefaction” of bonds—and the commodification of what remains—are numerous and bleak. The sexes use one another, forgoing covenant and commitment; the female body is subjected to “biomedical mastery”; the innate bond between mother and child is pathologized and replaced by “impersonal, tech-mediated care”; and, with the advent of the “trans kid,” even children are now invited to dissociate from their bodies and pursue Meat Lego customization. Every aspect of human personhood that is accessible by tech, down to our secondary sexual characteristics, has been commodified.
As a critic of progressivism, Harrington will probably get mislabeled “conservative,” because we are increasingly unable to think beyond that bifurcation. But thinking beyond it is exactly what Harrington is trying to do. One of the strengths of her analysis is its resistance to easy political categorization. She relies heavily on Marx and Engels in her account of industrialization and its effects, and maintains steady suspicion toward the demiurge of the market. She also exposes the flaws of flimsy conservative narratives that scapegoat feminism for social ills that originate in the disembedding of industrialization and the transition to a market society. The conservative nostalgia for “traditional” gender roles, she aptly points out, is actually a nostalgia for “industrial” sex roles, not traditional at all, but peculiarly modern. While conservatism looks naively backward toward an idealized past and progressivism gazes deludedly toward a Meat Lego future, Harrington, in the final part of her book, offers a positive proposal grounded in the here and now, in the complexity of our bonds and the boundaries of our nature.
In this third section, Harrington successfully avoids two common pitfalls of the culture critic: maintaining a purely critical mode, which is always easier than making a positive proposal, and hovering safely in the theoretical and the abstract. Harrington does neither, instead focusing the final part of her book on what an alternative to bio-libertarian feminism could look like. In doing so, she takes what might be called an approach of subsidiarity, emphasizing the need to “think concretely as possible” within the smaller sphere of interpersonal relationships, rather than sweeping, top-down policies.
This positive program depends on reclaiming the notion that the well-being of women depends on the well-being of men, and vice versa. In sketch form, Harrington’s practical strategies are, first, to reinvigorate marriage and an interdependent, productive solidarity that is centered in the home—a twenty-first-century take on the premodern model. Second, to roll back the beige-ification of society, i.e., mandated gender neutrality. This would mean allowing men and women to form separate social clubs, as well as reestablishing sex realism in any sphere where sex dimorphism is salient, like prisons and military combat units. Third, Harrington makes a bold, pro-embodiment, pro-desire case for “rewilding” sex by ditching the birth control pill—that first transhumanist technology that sets women at war with their own bodies, and displaces sex from a context of trust, commitment, intimacy, and the thrilling risk of new life.
Harrington offers her proposal under the banner of Reactionary Feminism—a feminism that positions itself against the bio-libertarianism of progressive feminism. This framing is provocative, and appeals to the rebel spirit that has animated, in one form or another, the various waves of the women’s movement. It also highlights an uncomfortable truth: the delusions of Progress Theology have proven to be destructive to both men and women, but it is undeniably women who are the guardians—or as Harrington puts it, the “priestesses”—of this quasi-religion. According to Harrington, it is the “majority-female mid-tier knowledge class” that most benefits from and currently curates the alliance between feminism and bio-libertarianism, to the detriment of almost everyone else. This means that Harrington’s heretical feminists are not warring with an amorphous patriarchy, but with other women. It is elite women who “have always been the guardians of moral and cultural norms,” as Harrington puts it, and so it is elite women who must now rise up as reactionaries.
I’m all but ready to sign up and join Harrington’s army of feminist heretics—if there is one point to quibble over, it would be that this re-envisioned feminism has to be more than reactionary; it can’t simply remain locked in unending mimetic rivalry with Progress. I want to shift the terms slightly to emphasize that this reformulated feminism needs to have a reactionary phase, but must also be proactive.
This is a rhetorical quibble, because Harrington’s articulation of reactionary feminism gives a clear sense of what it offers, not merely what it rejects. “It is not enough just to resist,” she writes near the end of the book; “reactionary feminists need to take positive steps to institutionalize a worldview capable of supporting men and women as we are.” I emphasize those last three words, because here Harrington gets to the heart of the matter: a reclaimed feminism has to offer a coherent and abiding account of human nature—specifically human nature as sexual. This is something feminism, in all its forms, has never done. The entire trajectory of bio-libertarian feminism, to put it simply, has been an ongoing project of denaturalization, a flight from the very idea that we have a nature. Feminism has thus assumed an empty, atomistic anthropology, one easily shaped and co-opted by consumerism. On her penultimate page, Harrington calls for a “positive restatement of human nature” in the face of cyborg theocracy, and her book as a whole reveals the contours of that nature: embodied, generative, sexual, interdependent, relational, prudential, capable of love, commitment, and sacrifice. And as relational, this is a nature that must be formed and cultivated through healthy social bonds: we have a nature that requires nurture.
This new feminism must be realist, rather than utopian, grounded in the muck and magic of the real, even as it offers ideals to be pursued and enculturated. Those ideals, however, must be grounded in the contours of our nature—not in a transhumanist fantasy, but in a vision of what our nature looks like in a state of flourishing. Progress theology divorces human flourishing from human nature, and thus the flourishing it offers can only ever be inhuman.
In contrast, Harrington offers a rich and complex social vision, one that, in my opinion, is not adequately captured by the word “reactionary.” Yet Harrington is right that in our cultural moment, an embodied, relational feminism—one that does not see sexual difference as a threat—has to be reactionary; it is countercultural by default. Those hoping to realize that vision need to be against progress, but also for something more stable and enduring: a feminist movement that recognizes and embraces the limits of our nature, as well as norms that steward that nature; that guard it from pathological excess and enervation. It’s time to reject the utopian lie that we can “be anything we want to be.” Instead, we must learn to become what we are.