Revolutionary Feminisms: Gail Lewis


The following is an extract from Revolutionary Feminisms: Conversations on Collective Action and Radical Thought, now available from Verso. 

A psychotherapist and long-standing member of Brixton Black Women’s Group and a cofounder of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, Gail Lewis has written extensively on feminism, intersectionality, the welfare state and gendered, racialised experience. She is a former faculty member of the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, and has taught at the Open University and Lancaster University. According to Lewis, her political subjectivity was formed in the intensities of Black feminist and anti-racist struggle and emerges from a socialist, anti-imperialist lens. Among her political and intellectual concerns, she notes, are the formation of and resistance to gendered and racialised social formation, including the lived experience of inequality within organisations, as well as bringing psychoanalytic and sociological understandings of subjectivity into creative dialogue in an effort to generate what she calls a ‘practice against the grain’. 

Lewis has been a member of the editorial collectives of the European Journal of Women’s Studies and Feminist Review. She is the author of Expanding the Social Policy Imaginary (2000) and Citizenship: Personal Lives and Social Policy (2004), among other volumes, and has published articles in numerous journals, including Race & Class, Cultural Studies, Feminist Review and Feminist Theory


BB/RZ Throughout much of your work, you explicitly draw on your own life experience as part of your theorisation of a problem. How do you articulate the relationship between one’s experiences in the world and one’s intellectual and political work? How do you describe this method as you’ve developed it in your work? 

GL You see, I don’t really know the answer to that question. If I were to choose where to start this whole conversation, I would begin with something I said during analysis. 

As I was explaining to my analyst, throughout my adult life, I’ve felt impelled to understand the world through lots of political and analytical frameworks – I’ve felt I really need to understand Marxism, imperialism and anti-imperialism, feminism, post-structuralism and all of these things, right across the board. But everything I’ve done to try and grasp this complexity, and every framework I’ve tried to think though – in the end, it’s all because I’ve been trying to understand my mum. So that’s why I don’t know how to begin. To say I’ve been trying to understand my mum means that I’ve been trying to understand what it means to be a gendered subject in a particular nation-state formation, through different times and in the context of transgressive cross-racial sex and yet to still inhabit whiteness at those moments when she felt intense despair, pressure, fear. What does that mean? How does one understand the structure of their household through lenses of racism, and watching, experiencing, an ebb and flow in which she moved nearer and farther away from whiteness when she’d also been, as mum was, positioned as a transgressive, bad girl?

In a way, that’s what I’ve been trying to understand: the dynamics of a working-class household of multiraciality, living in the mid-to-late twentieth century, and why my granddad – my white granddad – was committed to working-class politics, an absolute socialist, but racist as fuck, excuse me, when it came to his daughter and me. And how do you understand that? What did it mean? So, I suppose, I’ve slowly come to more understanding across a life course; that statement to my analyst came not too long ago, when I could reflect back on my life and what shaped it. But it wasn’t that I was aware of what I was trying to understand; it was generated by the possibilities and the pains of that kind of household formation.

It was possibilities, as well: the possibilities of what can happen when jazz is played, and how all that has a connection. I mean, what do I know about jazz as a musical form? Other than that it provided the soundscape of my childhood and adolescent life. But for me, that language seems to capture so much of what it felt like. On one level, carrying the exciting energy of change and possibility, bouncing out of and yet in excess of a given script, against the odds. On another level, capturing the sudden eruption of the unexpected – drawing you up short or propelling you on – that seemed to make the unarticulated, the disorienting somehow intelligible. Sort of announcing the expected/known right alongside or interwoven with the eruptive/unknown. And that’s how I think it felt; it was like what happens when you walk outside and you’re assaulted with racist abuse and the intimate connections just collapse. I think jazz is a sort of biography of a particular generation, in a particular space with languages of trade unionism, anti-imperialism and class politics around the household. And yet, one where all of the things that we were supposed to be opposing were being enacted. Not just in school, not just on the street, but at home in the living room, too.

Although sometimes, when I’ve written stuff like the ‘Birthing Racial Difference’ article, [1] people have said: ‘Oh, you work autoethnographically, don’t you?’ ‘You use an autoethnographic position as a kind of a case study of the now, in order to apprehend wider social and cultural patterns?’ I didn’t know what that was – autoethnography – but I did want to capture something about a life as constituted socioculturally. Again it links to this question of the household, of its generative side and as the motor of my intellectual journey . . . And I was concerned with the lies that were being told, in the early 2000s, about where Britain was in relation to itself as a racial and racist formation. They were saying: ‘Look, the fastest-growing demographic in the population are those called mixed, isn’t that good? We had a bit of a tricky moment in terms of being racist, or thinking that some people were racist. But we’re not a racist formation, and it will sort itself out – and we’re certainly not the United States of America.’ And it’s true: Britain is not the United States, but it is itself, with a long colonial, imperialist history and deep implication in enslavement and indenture!

And I thought, on one register, it was just lies, absolute lies; on the other, I thought, what are these disavowals? Where do these lies come from? And, let us tell the stories of how such households are not immune from the dynamics of racism; and how, in its articulation with class, they’re also totally imbricated in that racial formation – and might even be implicated in the reproduction of racism at the level of the everyday, you know, just the ordinary, ‘going about life’ kind of way. And it wasn’t as if I was going to get Economic and Social Research Council, or other research grant money, to interview people to tell me about that kind of dynamic; I didn’t believe I would get money to do that kind of research. But, I thought, I can tell my story.

So in a sense, I decided to use myself as an example, a case study. But don’t forget, I was very much schooled by Ambalavaner Sivanandan in a politics of linking the individual to the collective – that brilliant phrase of his: ‘making an individual/local case into an issue, turning issues into causes and causes into movements and building in the process a new political culture’. [2] But another part of me is saying: this is also lived experience; you don’t just need to present this sociologically, but also psychologically – through one frame you could call affect, or through another we could call emotions and interiority, and think about the way that stuff gets ‘in’ us and forms, in part, our subjectivity. So I was saying, let us hold on to the ways in which this is emotional life, too, and could tell us something about the social culture.

Hence ‘Birthing Racial Difference’ is written in that form; it is a kind of letter from the position of a child that says: ‘I don’t understand – this happened and that happened, and it felt like this, didn’t it?’ And everywhere you look, the story of the reproduction of race is there, including in the music that we love so much. The music both speaks about, shows us, what racism means, and shows us its constant reproduction; of course, in the Foucauldian sense, we can see the idea about discourse constituting that of which it speaks in action. The music speaks of us and we identify with it. The first version of that ‘Birthing Racial Difference’ article was for a small conference called ‘The Cultural Politics of Reproduction’, organised by Imogen Tyler, a sociologist at Lancaster University. I was trying to think about the cultural politics of reproduction, and domestic life in that sense.

So what is it called? It has to do with the constant, iterative co-constitution of the systemic, the structural, the psychically interior, the affective, the emotional, the experiential – trying to capture something of that. This increasingly felt to me to be a really important project because sociology was, in my opinion, increasingly denuding itself of living people. Where are the people it speaks about? By then, I was gesturing towards self-analysis, psychoanalysis, but I also needed to be able to grasp something about a lived demonstration of the sociostructural culture.

BB/RZ How were you able to identify, write and make connections between specific emotions and emotional states, and the sociocultural and the political-economic? How did you draw the connections between gender and race as social relations and forms of power, and these very strong emotional states?

GL I don’t think that’s what I thought I was doing, even if that’s what I deliver. In a way, I don’t really know what I thought I was doing. I wrote From Deepest Kilburn in the early eighties, not too long after my mum died, and I think of that now as my ‘love’ piece – ‘let’s make it all pretty, sort of happy, in the end’ kind of thing. But of course, it was in the face of an unbearable loss. My mum is this person who you think you know through the ‘Birthing’ piece and its narrative of her strengths, her pains, her bravery, and her retreats into whiteness. I adored my mum. But as I came to recall her more honestly, more fully, in what I guess we could call all her humanness, I came to understand that adoration is also a way of defending against the negative – hers and mine. And if I’m going to really be true to her, I need to be able to begin to dig around and see: Where does the negative develop? For me, to be angry about things she did that warrant anger and that I should be able to show my pain about is difficult. I mean I did seven years of the first analysis, and still, my analyst said at the end, ‘One day you will be able to be angry with me’ – in other words, one day I’ll be able to acknowledge my ambivalence. But for so long, I just couldn’t do it.

The analytic categories available to us (here I’m thinking about those generated by feminism) lacked the capacity to help us to understand that. We needed to try to think about what happens when we’re face-to-face, knowing that the battle is around the importance, the centrality of the legacies of imperialism for the making of our lives as women in Britain at that time. But actually, what it means is asking, who are we facing? We need to know that stuff; we need to have ways of understanding that colonialism transcends, even in neocolonial times, apparently, formal independence. It ricochets down through the generations, but also down into the interactions between one constituency and another. At the Birmingham National Women’s Liberation conference, [3] there was a big fight in the plenary session around imperialism. (It was also around sexuality and all sorts of other things.) We said, ‘You cannot begin to move forward unless we can grasp Britain as a neoimperial power.’ Its links with Israel and Palestine, and Ireland at the time – those old modes of imperial/colonial power – were part of the ‘nowness’ of empire. Women stood up in that great big hall screaming at each other. This wasn’t just a battle between an ideological position that said to understand Britain now we need an anti-imperial lens, and another that said we need to form around gender; it wasn’t just those ideological positions confronting each other, but groups of actual women saying, ‘You are this, that, or the other’ – abusing each other, in one way or another. So who is facing who then? Who have we become?

It’s no longer Gail Chester and Gail Lewis on opposing sides of that ideological argument; it’s a phalanx of white women facing us, and from her perspective, probably a phalanx of Black women (and I am aware of the imagery of that language!). If we’re going to make an intervention to expose the limits of white feminism in whichever political frame – its limits, its incapacity to really grasp what it might mean to be a gendered subject in South Africa, a Black woman in Brixton, in Gaza, in Toronto – what might that mean, actually?

The feminist project did not and does not have the capacity to engage that; it needed something, and yet there we were: feminist subjects facing each other in battle. Everyone running away feeling wrecked. Everyone going home feeling like, ‘Well, I’m never going to go to a feminist conference again.’ With us being blamed for wrecking the conference, or the plenary at least. So in part, I want to understand how there can be such explosions, and I want to understand them psychically, affectively and emotionally, not only structurally, because I think politics needs an emotional understanding too. In that I’m totally influenced by my social, cultural and psychological biography, alongside theoretical approaches of people like Raymond Williams and his ‘structure of feeling’ concept; Wilfred Bion and his theory of thinking; Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter, with the sociogenic principle; or Audre Lorde and notions about anger, the ‘master’s tools’ and silence. These are all part of an intellectual inheritance available to me.

There is something to ‘everyday racism’, or what we now call everyday racism, though of course, Philomena Essed coined that term back in 1991. [4] To take that lead from Williams, with that acutely observant eye he had for everyday interaction, and that idea of a ‘structure of feeling’: not as hard as the structure, not as soft as a feeling, not the individual feeling. To ask: If we can describe moments of interaction, can we get something from it? Can we understand something beyond the parties to the interaction? I was really captivated by that concept, and that requires an attention to building your capacity to observe and to listen, but to listen to yourself in the interaction as well. And to see what can happen from paying attention. Again, I don’t have funded research that somehow gives great ‘authority’ to my ideas, but I do have life experience, and I can bring examples from there. So, in ‘Racialising Culture Is Ordinary’, there are examples from observation of the everyday, and I think when you use those as ethnographic moments and then try and think about them, that’s okay. [5]

But that contrasts so much with the kind of training of whichever academic disciplines we come from, where the message is that we should not use Black experience as a point of departure; we should not use an ‘I’, or the so-called personal, in order to get at something that’s supposed to be beyond the personal. It just feels like such rubbish that I also wanted to make work intimating I think it’s nonsense. And not just nonsense, but also a power play because it disauthorises experience; it means that people can’t draw on a whole range of experiences and theorisation, all sorts of stuff that they might bring to the party of knowledge production, where we try to get a hold of this, these, our lives!

BB/RZ Maybe this is a good moment for us to ask you about the genesis of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, in this general context and also bearing in mind your article reflecting on twenty-five years of Feminist Review, [6] which assays efforts by feminist theory and politics to grapple with class alongside imperialism and race.

GL When I joined Brixton Black Women’s Group, it had been in existence for several years, but it started as a reading group in the Sabaar Bookshop. [7] I think it was women who were involved in Race Today who started it. [8] For the activism I came from, reading, especially work that came out from Third World scholars, was a requirement; you had to do it. Whether you understood it or not, you were supposed to read, and we’d meet together to discuss. So they got together in the Sabaar Bookshop, and at first really trying to develop frameworks for understanding, theorising I guess we’d call it, the position of Black and Third World – the term we used then – women. In BWG, we’d talk about women, but we’d always mean Black women, in the wider sense of the word; we didn’t mean all women, and we weren’t really including white women in that phrase.

So the point was to understand women’s position and how to really take up the battle with brothers in local groups or the national liberation movements. Gerlin Bean was such an important figure for so many of us. She was also always active at the local level in terms of the attempt to develop services, resources, for Black women. So they were involved in the campaign to set up a nursery for mums to be able to put their kids in safe care. So there was also that kind of local work going on, in terms of challenging the racism of the local authority – not only in terms of the distribution of public goods, but also the lack of provision.

Then it became much more a kind of women’s group – not just a reading group that took up questions, but organising around services, around the distribution of and access to services. But because the reading group had been based on issues of anti-imperialism from the beginning, the two kind of came together in BWG, where our agenda was to be in alliance with anti-imperialist struggles and take on the gendered racism of the state locally, but also to join anti-racist campaigns around the country – whether that be taking the anti-racist agenda into feminist politics more broadly, or confronting racism particularly in terms of the state, especially in immigration, women’s reproductive rights and health, and policing.

BB/RZ What is your view on intergenerational shifts in organising, the nature of the claims being made and, in particular, the demands being made of the state? How do these claims sit with ever-changing patterns of migration and mutating forms of racism?

GL My generation is the product of postwar migration – though we absolutely need to acknowledge that we were not the first. We didn’t just arrive then, you know. But in that particular moment of migration – which took place through recruitment from the Caribbean and South Asia and elsewhere, and was at the point, of course, of the formation of the welfare state – there was some structure of feeling (perhaps that is the word again), a sense of belonging to collectives. And that was organised through a state-citizen relation.

It’s interesting because the notion of collective belonging that permeated the idea of a welfare state was that of ‘blood’, with the Blood Transfusion Service, which was and is organised on an unpaid volunteer basis, being symbolic of the welfare state. It showed that strangers were connected through something, an exchange of an intimate part of oneself, but also a symbol that carries both the idea of the universality of ‘the human’ – we all have and need blood – and the idea that the human is in fact divided into subunits which break up and organise ‘belonging’ into hierarchies of legitimate membership and claim. So there was that sense of connectivity, and therefore a kind of collective state of mind that came from the migrations and all the struggles that people had been in.

Then, there was complete disorientation that suddenly they were black and brown, whereas they had thought they were British subjects. And then they reasoned, ‘Well, we’ll make a demand on the state as citizens’ – thus buying into this idea that the collective is the citizenry that is subject to the state, but that the state organises the connections, the connectivity. What I mean is both that the state organised the production and delivery of services (whether via a private provider or a public sector one) and benefits, and that it determined the criteria by which users were (and are) accorded legitimate entitlement. And these criteria are normative and normalising in so many ways, often linked to symbolic notions of blood as the basis of legitimate claim and belonging. At the same time, this implicates the state in fostering a sensibility of connection among ‘strangers’ convened under the sign of the nation/al but also, and maybe increasingly in these post-Brexit times, the sign of the regional: for instance, the ‘North’ versus ‘London and the southern elite’. So our campaigns were aimed at advancing our citizenship rights for access to better terms with public goods – not just benefits as such, not just labour relations, but rights to the public good as members of a public, as citizens.

And some of the basis of those claims was the notion that we’re owed it because of imperialism: ‘You told us to come as your people; now you’re telling us, “Oh, you can’t live here, there or anywhere, and you can only work there.”’ So structuring our experiences in that way, demarcating us into particular locations, into particular employment sectors. For Caribbean people, this was into the public sector, in particular; for South Asian people, it was much more into the private sector – but in either case, it was still a gendered-racial labour market and distribution of employment opportunity.

Nevertheless, there were some legacies of that collective claim that were then carried on by my generation – the children of that first generation of post–Second World War immigrants. And I think that was informed, in part, by the legitimacy of their claims about the legacies of imperialism, so there was a continuation of the anti-imperial demand in that sense. As we’ve gone through these generations and the move from ‘immigrants’ who must be assimilated; to ‘immigrants’ who must be integrated and not ‘flattened out’; [9] to ‘ethnic minorities’, who still bring cultural diversity but are no longer immigrants as such, but minorities. Now we have the ‘settled minorities’ pitched against the ‘newcomers’ up to post-Brexit, who were often, but by no means exclusively, European. And the settled minorities seem to have a responsibility to translate for the new ones the terms of really being here and aligning to Britain and its values. It’s just staggering because, in my hearing, it says: ‘You are settled; now here are the terms in which you can remain settled.’ It does not so much support the English cricket team, but discipline the ‘newcomers’ into the correct ‘values’ as the basis of their, and your, subordinated inclusion.

So, the settled immigrants will have a job to do, and if you don’t do it there will be problems. But even if you do – as we see so bitterly obviously with the ‘Go Home’ vans, the so-called hostile environment, the ‘Windrush scandal’ and the other daily scandals that are part of the same logics of violence and abuse, but not in the headlines – there will be trouble. And racialised people will still have to sing for their supper of belonging and still be subject to the state’s patrolling of its actual and symbolic boundaries of the national, citizenship and belonging. And then we see this logic moving into and becoming part of a logic of the self-actualising neoliberal subject, who in a racialised/ethnicised structure and discourse may mobilise their ‘ethnic capital’ – a notion that goes all the way back to a sociology of migration and assimilation associated with the Chicago School in the 1940s (which Rod Ferguson critiques so compellingly). [10] And I think that what we see among the younger generation is that even when they do organise collectively, it’s to gain a capacity to be more self-actualising in a neoliberal individual sense rather than actualising in a collective sense, where your sense of being a subject who can self-actualise, who has some degree of agency, will flow from the collective.

I think there’s been a transformation across the generations – from my old age, that’s what I see. And so often when I talk to the younger ones, I try to point this out a bit and say: ‘You want to organise collectively, but for what? The task before you is for what purpose?’ It’s not that I try to lecture them too much, but to ask, for what purpose? And let’s know the difference.

BB/RZ From your vantage point, what does this generational shift look like?

GL Well, for example, I recently attended a gathering for African women who are from the continent, but who live in Britain. And they give awards for exceptional achievement in your particular field. The reason for the gathering was to pay tribute to around ten women who had become successful in their field of work and had done it on their own – yes, against the odds, but on their own.

So, it is a collective tribute for a capacity to individually self-actualise, to advance in terms of career, absolutely. Now, in the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD), say, the idea that we would have gotten together in order to applaud the fact that someone got a job as a senior lecturer, or got a promotion, or to applaud the work that people did in the schools with changing the curriculum and all that kind of stuff – to applaud the work of one individual, say they were awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) or something, was not plausible. That was not the political horizon; that was not the thing to pay tribute to. The tribute was how much of the curriculum is going to be changed? Was more money going to the supplementary schools that were for all the different racialised communities in need of it? How were we getting the resources out? How was the collective going to advance, and on the back the individual?

And that shift that seems to me to be such a profound marker in relation to the racialised population – one that shows itself generationally a bit, but is such a marker of the success of the Thatcherite project, and of the success of ‘integration’ at one level, ideological integration, even though they’re still minoritised, still othered, still deemed – what was it? Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), as it’s become known. But in terms of the indices of tribute, applaud, success, failure, they’re just transformed. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that’s what happens more and more.

Once, our politics was aimed at the state – the state as oppressive and the state as welfare. That’s why I did the social policy work, which was about investigating the terms of inclusion or subordination, I think it became a subordinated inclusion [11] through its recognition as being in, but not of (blood again!), here – the nation. So the object of protest and claim and contestation was the state, whether that be policing or the National Health Service. Some things we needed and others we didn’t; that’s where you made your claim for recognition, inclusion, transformation. It was about trying to leverage something in the interests of making something different, not about trying to expand the existing state to make it more capacious, so as to include ‘you’/‘me’/‘us’ but without fundamental change – like gay marriage! Though I must say that now I think, in terms of policing and criminal justice, that it’s still the state, absolutely.

But the other things seem to have fallen off the agenda. I don’t know if I’m right, but let’s think about it together. When people make claims about decolonising the curriculum, are they about the state organisation of education that’s really become private education? It’s private education; students have to get a loan and pay it back, you know. It’s not a grant, it’s not a state-facilitated education. The state ranks the universities and all that kind of stuff, but it’s really private. If mum and dad can’t pay for you, you get a loan and then you pay it back for the next thirty years of your life, you know, when you’re earning X amount. [12]

Is there a conception in the decolonising agenda about that move from higher education being state-provided to private? When we make a play for decolonising the curriculum, is it about an imperial state, or is it about the modules of the tutors? I don’t know, I really don’t, but I just feel like so much of the idea has evaporated that it is via the collective that the individual grows/develops – at the risk of being crass, the notion that it takes a village to grow a child – and not the other way round.

BB/RZ I want to go back to this shift that you were talking about, from a collective idea of feminist politics to a more contemporary one that valorises individual accomplishment. I want to ask you how you would read that psychoanalytically. Can you tell us more about how a different subject is actually being produced through this mode of politics?

GL Well, I suppose it would be partly in terms of the ways and contexts which organise how we live – the sociostructural, cultural formations in which we live – do have a kind of psychic life or effect in terms of how we can imagine ourselves to be – a kind of ontology of possibility of selfhood. Thinking psychoanalytically, one of the key ideas within the British object relations approach is always the struggle: a narcissistic one where the maintenance of yourself – your ego, the maintenance of your own individuality, protection of self and what’s yours – is in constant conflict with the desire and need to have connection with others. These pulls are in constant conflict because, you must remember, psychoanalysis is a model of conflict, just as Marxism is.

Part of psychic life is this battle between a pull towards individuation and separation, on the one hand, and a pull towards connection and dependence, on the other. In the context of an attack on welfare, social relations were imagined in the welfare state as connections between strangers; of course, these were national strangers, but strangers nevertheless, and we didn’t want ‘outsiders’. Where that discourse of the national is rubbished as promoting a ‘nanny-state’ dependency, this notion so easily travels into psychic life, where it causes an increased conflict: a pull between individuation and autonomy, a fantasised omnipotence.

So there can be a kind of mirroring between the pulls and contradictions within and between psychic structures and social structures, if you like, and the ideologies that are brought to bear and the way in which the social structures are organised. The extent to which social structures and discourses promote (or don’t promote) ideas of collective responsibility for each other – not for something called British values, but for each other. So I think that’s one way in which a psychoanalytic reading kind of really gives a life to that.

The push back into self-reliance, self-actualisation, on one hand can feel good, and dependency can feel like a narcissistic wound that leaves us saying: ‘Yes, please, I’ll have some of that fantasy of omnipotence, of independence in an era of Brexit in which we can delude ourselves about some return to greatness. Yes, I’ll have some of that.’ But it collapses because there isn’t enough affordable, decent housing, and you are on a zero-hour contract that doesn’t guarantee regular income, but is okay because it means you can balance the thousand demands you have on your time and emotional resources each week. And the banks are not going to help, because after the 2008 financial crisis, finance capital is regrouping and those guys who have actually been playing with it all, have got it all. They’ve been playing with your life and suddenly here again in the world beyond you, there’s the collapse of the capacity to be independent; suddenly you need a welfare state that’s gone, and the pressure that imposes via a sense of failure mobilises feelings of shame; and, in psychoanalytic thinking, there’s a real sense of a fear of annihilation, especially in the Kleinian school, where there’s a sense that’s what the death drive is. (It’s a bit different in the Freudian school, and in the Winnicottian, there is not a conception of the death drive.)

But you know, there is a constant fear that I’m going to be eradicated if I’m not independent, if I’m not strong enough in terms of my ego, if my sense of self is threatened or if I’m so dependent that I’m going to disappear. And that means I can start mobilising psychic defences to try and ward off those feelings that are unbearable and unintelligible. So everything can tap into that and promote feelings of hatred, the feeling of being threatened, that somebody has come and taken what’s mine and gone. ‘Look, there are no jobs, and even though there are no immigrants round here, the immigrants have taken the jobs and I don’t fucking understand what’s going on anymore.’ And psychically, in unconscious fantasy, that makes sense because I can’t be independent; I can’t get a job; I can’t do what I’m supposed to do as a proper adult, especially if I’m a man – look after my family, that kind of stuff. I think there can be a play between those kinds of psychic pulls and the dominant ideological frames that valorise narcissistic independence, a travel between psychic reality and a social world that has become unintelligible. The task of academic enquiry is, of course, to expose the conditions that support and valorise that kind of play between psychic and social processes; but often it does exactly the opposite, producing work that legitimates white – often masculine – supremacy and then claims it as and gets applauded as ‘explanation’. It’s outrageous!

BB/RZ How might this help us understand Brexit, and its race and class dynamics?

GL In some senses what I’ve presented to you is the struggle between the life and the death drives. At the extreme, if and when they’re really separate, it can mean that the death drive – the destructive force, the tendency that human beings have to lash out and try to psychically (or actually) annihilate others – also risks, in the process, annihilating oneself. But psychoanalytic thinking also says that they fuse, that there’s a fusion of the death and life drives, and so what happens, is that there’s still the struggle, but it does not, as it were, inevitably lead to destruction.

There’s a struggle that allows for ordinary human ups-and-downs and aggressions, in some moments, and love and care, in another moment. But the fusion happens because of being in an environment of care, whether that be the care provided to the infant, or collective care provided to the collective through something we might call welfare – or, indeed, through activism! And that can, therefore, mediate between the more destructive and the more loving, caring aspects of relations with others. Alongside a psychic process of splitting (a complete separation in one’s psyche) between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, the idealised and the disparaged, together with a context where the value given to collective care and the possibilities for collective care are eroded, this can produce more violence – verbal, emotional and psychic violence as well as physical – especially at the level of everyday interaction and talk. Just think about all the trolling and uninhibited hatred and violent abuse on social media.

In a context where there’s much more of a capacity to care, and with that care to acknowledge there is a fear of dependency, we’re frightened of being reliant, and for good reason. But when one feels that ‘it’s okay, I can manage it,’ that collectively we can manage it, that’s when it doesn’t become unbearable. So psychoanalysis has a way of thinking about the stuff that mediates these two forces, and it’s called fusion. This is fostered in and through relationships and structures that facilitate containment and this capacity for containment – the ability to sit with feelings that are unbearable and unintelligible, and hold them until they can be processed and made sense of, can give rise to what Wilfred Bion calls ‘thinking’. And this capacity is something that we take into ourselves, so we can do it too – for ourselves and for others. It was what no one could do at that feminist conference I spoke about; the challenge is to be able to do that and still be able to work and think politically about minoritisation, violence and degradation of certain segments of the population here and globally. It’s a real challenge in my view, but a necessary one.

BB/RZ Through very detailed interview work, you exposed how state processes of social welfare provision are complicit in fabricating relations of power and race and gender norms when it comes to family forms, kinship, and so on. Do you believe that the social welfare state could have created the conditions for collective care that challenged racist and sexist social relations?

GL I suppose my work itself was an intervention aimed at exposing the ways in which the welfare state produced racialised gendered subjects as subordinated, and at saying that this was not just happening at the hands of the coercive state apparatus. Changes needed to be made that were more welfare minded, if you like, by which I mean more minded to the idea of the collective care of each other – to recognise the full humanity of those different from me, even though our relationality is structured in and through hierarchy, and that we have a responsibility to pay attention to each other, without requiring people to assimilate or become normative subjects.

And to think about how to change each policy area and practice area, and how that might be done; that was the intervention. But it was also an intervention into the academic or scholarly discipline called social policy, to say, ‘Look, it’s no good just going with all these equal opportunities agendas or diversity; that’s all irrelevant.’ Something much more fundamental goes on, and we need, as scholars, to pay attention to how the inequalities of subjecthood are produced. In fact, we produce them through the very terms of welfare provision: access, quality of good provision, of service delivery and all those kinds of things.

And we can’t do this kind of analysis, even if we lean to the left politically, by thinking about the welfare state only as a class state. It is a class state, but attending to the questions of the ways in which it is involved in producing a disciplined, pacified working class will not eradicate the ways in which it’s also about the production of subordinated, racialised, gendered subjects. But I still get very absorbed in welfare issues in the news and keep shouting at the news. I think it is a generational thing, in a way; I am a child of the welfare state, and when I first started off, I was trying to understand why these things that are supposed to be good, like mums and households and welfare services and all that, are also not so good.

As I said, a lot of the politics – across the range, not just in terms of anti-racist politics – was about addressing the state and what it did to reproduce structures and experiences of inequality. So I was part of that moment as well. And on the other side, the question of how we might have a society that can take care of each other feels more vital now than ever. And whether we can get there – I mean, now it really feels so bad – given this dismantling that began in the 1980s. It wasn’t just dismantling, it was a rearticulation that Thatcher introduced, and one that has been taken so much further since. Indeed, she started something, but both Labour under Blair and the coalition government of the Tories and Liberal Democrats have really deepened it. It’s a long narrative, to do it real justice, but I guess I am thinking about the ways in which a market logic was positioned as the primary one through which to organise welfare. This was not just by privatising services and bringing in private capital, but ensuring the logic of private capital and the market would be privileged over a logic of meeting needs. And so this needed exactly a breakdown of the state–citizen settlement that framed the idea of collective belonging I was talking about earlier. The Thatcherite project also reorganised and devalorised modes of working within welfare organisations and attacked many of the groups of professionals within it, all in the name of ‘choice’. But this was the choice of the market, rather than involvement in decisions about packages of care – it was precisely not the implementation of the idea of ‘nothing about us without us’ as a basis for the organisation of services. And that was followed by a sustained ideological attack on the challenges and claims that had been advanced by activists in anti-racist, disability rights and feminist campaigns – challenging the welfare state’s discriminations, normativities and normalisations.

But also, the effort to resurrect and embed the idea that the state provides welfare and benefits is aimed at providing residual services and benefits for only the most needy – those who, in being ‘most needy’, are positioned as having failed, as a kind of welfare ‘scum’ who lack the capacity to be independent and provide for themselves and family, and who have been feckless and maybe even chosen to do so. So they become what for a while was expressly referred to as ‘the underclass’. And that’s where we’ve gotten to: meanwhile, homelessness has rocketed, kids go to school hungry, and food bank use and referrals are sky high. I don’t know how we come back from that. I think the project is to begin to establish emergent formations, which must take place at local levels – that they gather in such a way that we can imagine something. And I do believe it will happen, but I’ll be long, long dead.

I think the work that needs to happen is an effort to map and understand the emergent formations in their localities – in their specific sites and forms – and ask, ‘What is happening?’ It might be the germ of another kind of welfare state or collective organisation of welfare that might exist. And that wouldn’t just be in Britain; the idea would be to understand it around the world, internationally. Part of that would also include understanding the sorts of ecological activity that go on, and I don’t mean necessarily the ones that are rolled out in the developed First World or the West, or the global North (or whatever it’s called). But also the local, ecological activisms that happen all across the global South – attending to the question of the environment, and land, how land is thought of differently and lived differently, as a relationship, not a domination. All of those things must be gathered.

This is how we look after each other, because we attend to this land which we do not ‘own’ or dominate, but tend, relate to and live in harmony with. I imagine that must happen. Do I know enough about it? No. But I think that’s where the seeds of something different may lie. And just as the seeds of the welfare state in Britain were a result of activism, real activism on the ground. It was not led by academics; William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes (both Liberals by the way) didn’t just decide, ‘Oh, okay, we’ll give it to them’!

Going back to that question about changes over the decades, I suppose what Cedric Robinson told us about racial capitalism was that part of the way in which it reproduces itself is to change, not just in the sense of the drive towards ever-expanding accumulation, but beyond that, even. And that propensity to change involves the reconfiguration of ‘insides’ and ‘outsides’ and statuses of populations and their relations to one another and their capacities to move. This raises the question of mobility.

In speaking about the terminological moves from ‘immigrant’ status through to being considered ‘settled’, we’re talking about reconfigurations of what’s ‘inside’ and what’s ‘outside’ – the relative positions within a hierarchy of subordination. I don’t mean hierarchies of oppression; I mean the ways in which the subordinated inclusions work to configure a terrain of the nation/al and relations among differentiated constituencies. Women are marginalised and oppressed, of course; but white women don’t occupy a position of subordinated inclusion in the way that racialised populations do.

In thinking about the way in which racial capital figures now, very much under the preeminence of finance capital and the effects of the financial crisis of 2008, we might try to map the geographical or spatial effects of finance capital on areas and regions. For example, to see how relative ‘desirability’, to make recourse to estate agents’ talk, impacts the local economy, housing market, leisure infrastructure, transport links and so on. And then to see how that looks when overlaid by a similar mapping of the distribution and concentration of specific racialised populations and their relative mobilities and social value. Then, in that context, what role Brexit plays as cause and effect of the movements of racial capital.

In terms of grasping the changes that have happened in our political terrain over the past few decades, I’d be trying to think, with Robinson, about the importance of tracking how racial regimes’ practices work in the context of these reconfigurations. What are they now? And how do they layer into – or what are the tensions between – an ever-increasing, strengthening and deepening neoliberal agenda and the ideological impacts of racial (and racist) discourse? For example, young Black and brown people talk about themselves as black or brown British without the least shiver, at least seemingly. We didn’t claim Britishness in that way; we are in Britain, but we didn’t really claim Britishness. It was Black feminism in Britain, facing the constraints and the demands and the stuff that was here, because we were here; it was our responsibility to get to work here because that links to the work that’s going on there. But not because we really bought into this idea of a nation-state, to which we belonged; we didn’t, and didn’t want to. But we knew our job was to address it as part of anti-imperialist, international social justice politics.

BB/RZ Finally, can you speak to your work on psychoanalysis – a field where the theory seems rooted in the experiences and worldview of the white male European subject?

GL Oh gosh! Well I guess I can think of two ways. In terms of the theories, reading Freud, or Klein or Winnicott (I’ve not read enough Lacan to say anything about that approach), can be incredibly frustrating and offensive, yeah. But frankly, for me, that’s certainly not been worse than reading anthropology, or specifically, social anthropology at the London School of Economics. It has not been worse than reading a lot of white feminist stuff, for sure. It’s not been worse than reading a lot of Marxist stuff. So actually, I don’t really buy that it’s worse than any of the other disciplines that rose up out of the same formation, in which the discourse of ‘the human’ and ‘progress’ was the foundation or pivot, even for the highly sophisticated and compelling theory of Marxism.

But then, in terms of learning to be in a consulting room, it’s been much more complex, actually. Because what you’re learning is how to be with that person in the room; and you have to be informed by theory, but it’s outside the door a bit. It should be evermore in your mind, really, through your own experience of being in analysis, and being able to mobilise that. What’s it like to be a patient, as it were? But what you’re focusing on is what the person with you brings. So in that, there’s more space to allow whatever comes into the room, the psychic manifestations of the social in that person’s life, because you’re attending to it. And indeed, this means being attentive to and able to respond to the traces of the overspill I just talked about. And it is more difficult, because the theory doesn’t give you the tools through which to analyse that difficulty as it’s manifested.

So then what I do – not in an explicit way, because you talk in the terms of the language that’s in the room – is to draw on all the other things that I know the world through: my own experience, but also the other theoretical resources. And when I have to write my process notes, I seem to get away with it, in terms of my supervisor; they don’t say, ‘Oh that was not appropriate.’ I mean, they might say ‘I think you missed a beat here’, because there’s always a moment of heat that is key to the session (usually at the very beginning), or there’s a shift that you might miss.

For me, there’s a paradox in that you’re taught how to sit with someone – really sit with someone – and listen and do the work that you’re there to do, which is to do something with what you feel you’ve heard. And at the same time, you hit the limits; that’s where you hit the limits of the theoretical frame, I think. And you just have to do what you can do with it, and it can be very frustrating. It’s frustrating because of how it can draw boundaries around its ‘house’ (to refer to the idea of scale again) and barricade itself in theoretically and in the interests of purity and what’s considered to be the proper object of practice.

And that’s why I say that for me, the difficulty is more when I feel I’ve got something – and often, for a lot of the session you think, ‘I don’t really know what’s going on here at all.’ But then you can use your own countertransference, and then you think – even if you have some sort of a sense of a theory in which you might be able to get a grasp of what’s being communicated. But I guess what I’m saying is that if you have your suite of ideas and theories about conflict and emotional pain as constituted socially as well as psychically, I mean in terms of psychic conflict, then you’re more equipped; and if you miss it in one session, you have other opportunities.


1 Gail Lewis, ‘Birthing Racial Difference: Conversations with My Mother and Others’, Studies in the Maternal 1:1 (2009), 1–21.

2 Ambalavaner Sivanandan, Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism (London: Verso, 1990), 58.

3 The Women’s Liberation Movement held a series of eight national conferences beginning in 1970. In 1978 it was held in Birmingham. See ‘Women’s Liberation: A National Movement’, British Library, Sisterhood and After, 8 March 2013,

4 Philomena Essed, Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory (London: Sage, 1991).

5 Gail Lewis, ‘Racialising Culture Is Ordinary’, in Contemporary Culture and Everyday Life, ed. Elizabeth B. Silva and Tony Bennett (Durham: Sociology Press, 2004).

6 Gail Lewis, ‘Feminist Review: 25 Years and Beyond,’ Feminist Review 81:1 (2005), 5–11.

7 Some people think that Sabaar Bookshop was the first Black bookstore in London. See Lopez de la Torre, ‘Sabaar Bookshop’, 27 September 2007, Remembering Olive Collective,

8 Race Today was a monthly (and later, bimonthly) magazine that was first launched in 1969 by the Institute for Race Relations. From 1973, it was published by the Race Today collective and published its last issue in 1988.

9 A reference to a 1966 speech by Roy Jenkins, then Labour home secretary, in which he said, ‘I define integration . . . not as a flattening process of assimilation but as an equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.’ 

10 Roderick Ferguson, Aberrations in Black: Towards a Queer of Colour Critique (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

11 See, for example, Gordon Hughes and Gail Lewis, eds., Unsettling Welfare: The Reconstruction of Social Policy, vol. 4 (London: Psychology Press, 1998).

12 At the time of writing, the annual income threshold for the repayment of student loans taken after September 2012, for an undergraduate degree, is £25,000. For more information, see ‘Repaying Your Student Loan’,

Selected Writings

Lewis, Gail. Expanding the Social Policy Imaginary. London: Sage, 2000.

———. ‘Race’, Gender, Social Welfare: Encounters in a Postcolonial Society. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.

———. Citizenship: Personal Lives and Social Policy. Cambridge: Policy Press, 2004.

———.‘Birthing Racial Difference: Conversations with My Mother and Others’. Studies in the Maternal 1:1 (2009).

———. ‘Unsafe Travel: Experiencing Intersectionality and Feminist Displacements’. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 38:4 (2013), 869–92.

———. ‘Not by Criticality Alone’. Feminist Theory 15:1 (2014), 31–8.

———. ‘Questions of Presence’. Feminist Review 117 (2017), 1–19.

Lewis, Gail, in conversation with Clare Hemmings. ‘“Where Might We Go if We Dare”’: Moving beyond the “Thick, Suffocating Fog of Whiteness” in Feminism’. Feminist Theory 21:4 (2019).