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Göran Therborn’s speech to Kajsa Ekis Ekman

Speech to the 2020 Lenin Award laureate, Kajsa Ekis Ekman

This is the twelfth time the prize has been awarded. It has rewarded socially and culturally critical efforts in a wide range of fields of activity, film, music, science, theatre, and literature. But the award has so far been a memorial to a generation of critics and insurgents, the “’68 generation”. They were all defined by the Vietnam War and anti-imperialism, and they all – except the baby Mikael Nyberg, born in 1953 and subsequently the executioner of late capitalist working life, – had their critical breakthrough in the 1960s-1970s. Nine of the first eleven laureates fit that description.

The very first laureate, the historian of religion and expert on Islam Mattias Gardell (born in 1959), was a bit odd. While the rest of us fought against imperialism and its accomplices, Mattias wrestled with God, according to his own account. By all accounts, he was more successful than the rest of us. It was a well-deserved choice, continuing the tradition of the Soviet Lenin Peace Prize, out of respect for cultural and social engagement and creation outside Marxist-Leninist party lines.

“’68”, in symbolic quotes for a decade (at least), was a creative period of transition, so it is natural that the subsequent awards were directed to that generation. After 1980, the world went downhill, finance capital took power, and social divides widened again. The political dreams of the left were crushed, while cultural achievements were partly preserved, sex and gender relations, anti-racism. But around 2000, neoliberal post-1980 capitalism began to crash, in East Asia 1997-98, in Latin America in the early 2000s, in the United States and Europe in 2008. With the stepchildren of failed neoliberalism, a new, international left-wing generation grew up.

In sluggish Sweden, its growth so far has not had the same breaking power as in England or the United States with the large youthful support for radical movements and anti-systemic politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

But it exists here, and today we celebrate the new left-wing generation’s foremost intellectual representative, Kajsa Ekis Ekman. Kajsa has a combination of empirical overview and intellectual sharpness and depth that I think is unique in Sweden today. The only comparisons I can think of are the slightly older international sisters Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy. Internationally, one could call the new generation the Jacobin generation, after the wise and challenging radical American left-wing magazine Jacobin. As a former Robespierre prize recipient, Kajsa is a highly qualified representative.

With a quote from Peps Persson, Kajsa herself has called it the “the deceived generation”: “We thought we had all the opportunities… but… we did not get any first-hand contracts and we did not get any permanent jobs. The years go by, and we continue to be loose. Half of all people in Sweden between the ages of 20-27 do not have their own home and half of all employees under the age of 26 have a fixed-term job.” It is the generation of neoliberal exclusion, the one that reintroduced socialism into the political debate in Spain, Greece, England, and the United States.

Kajsa’s most common writing form is the catchy article, also the building block in her books. The articles can be about most things in life and society. Many are fortunately collected in a large volume, Texts 1998-2015, grouped by different genres; debate, essay, literary criticism, economics, foreign affairs, portraits, activism and youthful sins. Such is good advice for stealing from the capital, together with big sister warnings about the risks.

She has also written three brilliant, acclaimed and translated books, Being and Being Bought (2010), Stolen Spring (2013) and the prize posthumous On the Existence of Gender from 2021. All are driven by a fiery personal commitment turned into exhaustive and in-depth critical studies.

Being and Being Bought is Ekis’ examination for the master. A brilliant Marxian – more than Marxist in the traditional sense – analysis of the commodification and reification of the female gender during late capitalism in far-reaching and penetrating studies of the basically similar social ecosystems of sex trafficking and uterus trade, surrogacy. The contemporary sex and uterus industry is analysed from many different points of view on both actual conditions and ideological draperies, and with different methods, with an almost totalitarian reading of all relevant material and with revealing key interviews in several countries. “Our goal is to teach them to become better prostitutes”, said a representative of an EU-funded organization in Amsterdam. The surveys are delivered with a sharp thoroughness that required 456 footnotes, to research reports, testimonies, slimy pimps and to apologetic sayings from both philosophical scatterbrains and slick PR types, as well as to an intellectual framework from Aeschylus’ Oresteia to Marx’ Paris Manuscripts and Sartre’s L’Être et le Néant.

Stolen Spring is a hard-hitting and unbeatable, well-woven combination of versatile report, multicultural diary, national economical information (about the financial crisis) and accurate, devastating critique of the northern European, including right-wing Swedish, myth of the “lazy” and overpaid Greeks.

In the first sentences of the preface, the reader gets the situation in Greece summarized in a flash: “Imagine that one day your salary will stop coming. The months go by. The boss says keep working or you will be fired. At the same time, imagine that everyone you know gets their wages halved or becomes unemployed. That public broadcasting is shut down overnight and that the private radio stations have replaced the employees with a playlist. That DN, SvD, Sydsvenskan and Aftonbladet go bankrupt within six months. That the archipelago is sold to speculators. That the health care is cut down so much that you are encouraged to bring syringes and bandages to the hospital yourself. That one day you will see your friend’s grandmother lying outside the supermarket.”

With its wingspan from domestic and international media coverage and penetrating medical journalism to history of ideas and dialectical materialism and with its 625 footnotes, On the Existence of Gender is a typical, masterful Ekis Ekman work. It dissects the so-called trans issue, a mined field of debate on sex change and the importance of gender, from above all two sides. One is the rapidly emerging market for children’s gender reassignment, mainly among girls just before or just at the beginning of puberty. It is a market that for its profitability is very dependent on taxpayers paying, and Kajsa brings to light the postmodernist ecosystem that has developed, internationally and in Sweden, similar to what she found around prostitution and surrogacy: an ecosystem of very small, articulated personal interest groups, healthcare professionals, idealists, liberal ideologues, specialized media sites, for-profit companies and government money.

Like the target women in Being and Being Bought, the gender insecure young girls, often with other mental problems, are vulnerable and exposed. They are tempted to block their puberty and then move on to hormone treatment and operations, with the risk of severe side effects to an unexplored extent, e.g. sterility. Like prostitution and surrogacy, gender reassignment is presented as increased freedom of choice for children, who should not be hindered by parents’ fears.

The ideological basis for this activity is a new definition of gender, which has gained official status in several countries: a person’s gender is what the person wants it to be. If you feel insecure or uncomfortable with the gender you were born in, you can and should change gender, as early as possible. This is where the market for gender reassignment of children comes from. But freedom of choice of gender also provides another opportunity, more exploited after puberty and by men. You can simply say that from now on I am a woman. Gender is in the head and not in the genitals. That right is now sanctioned in several countries.

What this trans possibility includes is Kajsa’s second perspective. She points to problems with female spaces opened to male trans women, such as locker rooms, women’s classes in elite sports, women’s prisons, and above all to how the logical consequence of gender idealism makes the oppression and discrimination of women invisible and impossible to talk about. The material existence of sex is dissolved. “Avoid the word woman”, it says in the Swedish Care Guide “to describe that bodies look in certain ways.” The book’s critical sharpness ends in a minor chord from a feminist nightmare: “When we try to fight for our rights, we notice that our group no longer exists. The number you have dialled has expired.”

As a reporter, Kajsa has her own distinctive style. She is fearless and both participatory and observant. In Barcelona, she lives in a house where prostitutes live. In Caracas, she lives with a Chavista militant in an “abandoned warehouse occupied by poor people and being converted into housing”. She takes part in the climate demonstrations in Copenhagen and on Ship to Gaza, where a Mossad officer informs her that the Israeli police know which school her son goes to. “Are you not worried that something will happen to him when you are away?”

She flows into all environments, in Athens she has friends along the entire social ladder, from the precariat to the upper class. Both in Athens and in 2019 in Caracas, she interviews businessmen and right-wing politicians as well as left-wing activists. Commitment and involvement are regularly joined with gazes far away and deep into documentary sources.

She is a writer with a linguistic ear, who, for example, unravels the concepts of the personal, the private and their relation to politics, and of the new confusing turns between sex and gender, and the conceptual shifts that unite “homophobic traditionalists and ultraliberal progressive postmodernists”.

The fervent commitment that drives Kajsa’s writing is feminist and humanistic. “What worries me,” she writes of surrogacy, “is the commodification of the human, woman and child.” “Isn’t that the very principle of feminism itself – that women should not be tools for others…?” As she is very aware, it is also the basic principle of Marxist humanism and anti-capitalism. That is why she is on the left in a broad and belligerent sense without joining any of the left’s different political variants.

For me, it is an honour and a great joy to, as perhaps the last laureate of the ’68 generation, be involved in presenting the Lenin Award to a brilliant social and cultural critic from a new international generation, of the rebellious stepchildren of neoliberalism. A critic who is always broadly and deeply prepared, with an analytical hawk eye, and a razor in the computer. Therefore, as in Aftonbladet’s left-wing series a couple of years ago, she can see capitalism as a beard.