The state is not your friend

So Chris Brown has just been refused a visa to Australia on the basis of his “character” and his criminal record. Chris Brown is a shitbag. I saw that without any reservation. But this is the nth time I’ve seen Australian feminists petition the state for a visa refusal on the basis of character, mostly regarding pick up artists and other MRA shitheels, and jeez but it makes me uncomfortable.

Freddie deBoer wrote in the NY Times recently about his discomfort at seeing student activists turn to university administrations to enforce their political desires. This kind of thing seems to be really common both in the US and the UK – rather than stage a protest or run a talk of your own, just try to get a talk or a speaker banned. DeBoer writes that he wishes these students would realise the administration is not their friend. I wish Australian feminists would realise the state is not our friend.

And this is much harder in the sphere of domestic violence because so often the state is the only means of protection women have from violent men, even as it fails us regularly and catastrophically. The state is the only thing that can protect us from men like Adrian Bailey, unless we want to live like prisoners ourselves. But the state is not our friend.

I see this again and again – other feminists advocate for the invention or application of specific laws as resolutions to specific feminist problems without regard for how those laws will actually be applied by conservative governments. A law that allows refusal of visas on the basis of character will be used to exclude people with histories of political activism. A law that allows the restriction of movement on the basis of criminal history will be used to oppress people with criminal histories relating to drugs. A law that recognises fetal personhood will be used, eventually, inevitably, to imperil women’s access to safe abortion. A law that places the burden of proof on the accused in sexual assault cases will be used disproportionately against men of colour. The state is not our friend.

There’s some kind of mistake that I think arises from a failure to appreciate what the state is, what laws are, and how they differ in nature fundamentally from other forms of regulation of the relationships between people. Because you don’t have to think this way about social exclusion, right? When you say “I won’t remain friends with people who have physically abused their partners”, you don’t need to think about whether that logically implies you can’t be friends with people who have broken other laws or engaged in other antisocial behaviour, because you’re a person, and you can make those decisions on a case by case basis.

Law does not work this way. Laws are not applied logically and critically on a case-by-case basis. They’re not even applied mindlessly and dispassionately. They are applied, consistently, at the expense of marginalised people. Criminal law does not get applied the same way to black men as to white men. Visa exclusion laws do not get applied the same way to millionaires as to political activists. If your feminism fits into a broader left-wing political framework, you need to grapple with this. By invoking a state power in specific cases you legitimise the use of that same state power in all cases – you can believe all you want that the law should be applied fairly and always in favour of the left’s priorities, but it isn’t. More often than not it is applied in the opposite way, because governments are conservative, and the state is not our friend.

We rightly recognise that we need feminism because there are problems liberalism and anarchism can’t deal with effectively. I feel like we’re more and more forgetting that we need to retain liberalism and anarchist scepticism because there are problems that feminism can’t deal with effectively. It’s hard to be an anarchist feminist in a world where women are frequently dependent on others for protection, and it’s hard to be a liberal feminist in a world where formal equality alone will never lead to substantive equality for women. I don’t have the answer to those problems. But the answer is not to throw our lot in with the state, celebrating when it exercises its power in our favour and turning a blind eye to the daily abuse of that power for regressive ends. There are cases where we are forced to turn to the state for protection because there is genuinely no other option – but denying visas to Chris Brown or some MRA shitheel are not those cases. And the state is not our friend.