When is a car just like a man?

Gender on Planet Earth
April 11, 2003

Ann Oakley, a professor of sociology and social policy at the University of London, describes herself in this book as a "survivor of a revolutionary movement", which she now believes to have failed. Of all the utopian currents of thought circulating in the 1960s, it was feminism that offered her the most compelling vision of a new way of life, one that would eventually require all other social relations to fall equitably and rewardingly into place. She is the author of a number of admired works of sociology and fiction, and Gender on Planet Earth , her latest book, seems ambivalently located between being a long farewell to lost dreams and a renewed challenge to make environmentalism the new organising principle of radical political transformation.

If you want facts (especially "killer facts"), then this book has plenty of them, from car accident fatality rates across the world to gun ownership figures in North America, from the shrinking size of the male testes to the millions of cancer deaths caused by global levels of radiation. On many levels this is a timely and convincing gazetteer of contemporary human and political folly, and Oakley frequently turns a very neat phrase, as when she notes that "cars dominate public space in much the same way that men dominate public life".

In some chapters, she employs a barrage of statistics to illustrate the many social pathologies and forms of economic disturbance at large in the world, while in others she uses a more discursive style to challenge the "delusional systems" of psycho-analysis, rational-choice economics and evolutionary psychology. Whether the outcome is what was intended is questionable, however, since many readers might be tempted to retreat into quiet despair given the gathering storm of destructive forces she describes.

This powerlessness is likely to be compounded by Oakley's implied understanding that there is a "correct" and interrelated response to every issue. Whether it is the rights and wrongs of abortion, gun control, meat-eating, evolutionary psychology, car ownership, patterns of childcare, computer games, sexual relations, racism, intelligence testing, nationalism, carbon dioxide emissions and cross-dressing, it is assumed that only some political version of the Grand Unified Theory will bring about the political clarity necessary to change the world (once again).

Those who stray from adopting the full programme in such circumstances often end up being accused of backsliding and recusancy, though Oakley herself is not quite as single-minded as many who pursue this line.

Others have grown to understand, however, that new ideas and forms of political change increasingly emerge from the oddest of alliances, or admixtures of ostensibly incompatible beliefs. This is certainly the case argued by Padraic Kenney in his recent book, A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe . Kenney believes that it was the separate but related grievances of electro-pop fans, pro-market greens, ageing aristocrats, peace campaigners, punk feminists, dissident Lutherans and Catholics, geographical irredentists, and even renegade professors of sociology that created the current of popular unrest that swept the political authorities in former eastern Europe from power. Paradoxically, the efforts of system-building intellectuals actually acted as a brake on the "velvet revolution", Kenney suggests. In the final analysis, it proved to be the efforts of the konkretny (daily reality) activists that brought the system down, even though they often disagreed with each other about almost everything except getting rid of the political system that crushed them.

Though Oakley's book is strong on analysis, it is weak on this crucial issue of political agency. It is also unremittingly serious, typically so in the personal chapter on cycling in London, which, while detailing the statistical risks as well as the aggression encountered from motorists, says nothing of the occasional epiphanies and reveries that frequently come unbidden to others, both women and men, when pedalling through the backstreets, squares and lanes of 18th-century London, as I know they do.

Oakley anticipates and pre-empts the likely thrust of critical reviews by writing three fictional ones in her introduction, each very different. My own views coincide with none of them. This is an intriguing and challenging collection of disparate essays, written with commitment, yet at times they border on despair. It certainly tells it how it is, but not how it might be otherwise. There is still much to be learnt from the carnival revolutionaries who brought down communism, not only with texts and meetings, but by refusing to take their political masters seriously, as well as, in Vaclav Havel's great words, "living in the truth", as they went about their daily lives.

Ken Worpole is editor of the "Ecology and Place" strand at www.opendemocracy.net

Gender on Planet Earth

Author - Ann Oakley
ISBN - 0 7456 2963 6 and 2964 4
Publisher - Polity
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
Pages - 296

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