Tag Archives: Feminism

Wolff in Sheep’s Clothing

by Anne Archist, who apologises for the terrible pun in the title.

Lately I’ve been following Professor Richard D. Wolff’s “online classes” on Marxian economics (I’d recommend that people who follow The Great Unrest should skip over the “intensive introduction” course, because the applied course basically covers the same things anyway, and unless you’ve never encountered Marxist thought before, you’ll probably find he moves slowly a lot of the time even in the latter course).

He’s an interesting figure, and probably one of a handful of Marxists in history to have been educated at Harvard, Stanford and Yale (although he says his teachers, with the exception of one Marxist, never had any interest in or knowledge of Marx’s ideas, and that he essentially studied Marx in his own time). Wolff makes several points that set him apart from standard ‘Marxist’ academics – some of which are more significant or original than others – which I’ll summarise and address here; please do look into his work if you’re interested in hearing his own words or taking the ideas further. A side note: apparently his interpretation of Marx comes via Reading Capital – a book which is only partially available in English, though Wolff is fluent in French, so may have read the original – and many of the following ideas may therefore have come from Althusser or his students, for all I know.

Labour-Centric Analysis

The major point of departure that separates Wolff from a lot of other Marxist theorists or Marxian-influenced economists is that he conceives of class in terms of relations to surplus-labour rather than relations to the means of production. Rather than building up an analysis which includes concepts like the social relations to the means of production, or the labour theory of value, he uses an arguably simpler conceptualisation: “‘productive’ labour is required to live but it also produces a surplus; in our society many people carry out ‘productive’ labour but do not distribute the surplus themselves, allowing those who do distribute it to appropriate a portion of it for themselves without carrying out any labour”.

When I first heard this I thought it was just a strange and idiosyncratic way of explaining classical Marxist economic theory (particularly the critique of ‘bourgeois economics’ in Capital). After thinking about it some more and seeing how the analysis was applied, I realised that it actually has some major conceptual differences (even if they can be shown only to be differences of emphasis or explaining the same thing in different terms, which I’m not sure of). For instance, Marx’s theory of exploitation is generally taken to rest on the labour theory of value, whereas Wolff’s version of exploitation doesn’t even seem to require asking the question of what causes things to have the value they do; this question was a concern for bourgeois economics but shouldn’t necessarily be one for someone criticising capitalism (remember: Capital was Marx’s critique of already-existing economics, not a critique of capitalism).

Another example: the concept of economic democracy is quite widespread among socialists (to the point that Peter Tatchell, who nowadays tends to steer clear of socialistic language, issued a call for economic democracy), but the link between it and the labour-theory-of-value construction of Marxist theory has often been tenuous or indirect; the steps from demands about the distribution of property to demands about economic decision-making processes have rarely been well articulated. Wolff’s presentation of Marx’s argument makes this immediate and obvious – economic democracy is equivalent to the demand that the surplus should be distributed by those who produce it, an issue directly addressed by Wolff’s notion of class.

Exploitation and Surplus Production

According to Wolff, exploitation is merely what happens when one person labours so as to produce a surplus – that is, produces more than the labourer needs to sustain themselves – enough, in fact, to sustain other people too – and someone else appropriates and distributes that surplus rather than the worker distributing it themselves. Exploitation, then, is not about someone receiving more than they have contributed, as Roemer would have it (Roemer has offered different definitions of exploitation, but at least one of them amounts to “consuming more than you produce”). This is important because it heads off a serious problem with Roemer-style definitions, which is that they identify children, disabled people, pensioners and others who do not work as exploiters; on the contrary, Wolff identifies them neither as exploiters nor as exploited.

On Wolff’s view of things, these people are allocated (and consume) a portion of the surplus, but the important factor is not that they are consuming it but that someone else is allocating it. This seems to fit with a relatively superficial and intuitive exploration of human emotional and moral reaction – namely, we begrudge people who take things (that we have not offered) from us and give them to others, even if we believe that the others receiving them should have them. An example: If you were planning on buying someone a book as a present and someone else stole some of your money, bought the book with it, and then gave it to the person, you would be justifiably upset and morally offended by the thief’s behaviour, even though the endgame is the same.

Another advantage of this way of looking at things is that it illustrates an important continuity between capitalists and government officials which is often assumed by Marxists but rarely explained; both take part in the appropriation and distribution of surplus they have not themselves produced. Capitalists appropriate surplus in the form of profit (in fact, capitalists can appropriate surplus without making any profit, since  on Wolff’s view surplus must also be used to pay for ‘unproductive’ labour such as that performed by security guards), and the government (at all levels) makes decisions about taxation and spending which represent a further form of appropriated surplus. The state retains a unique position within the economy, however, in that it is capable of extracting surplus from more than just workers within capitalist relations – as well as ‘productive’ employed workers, it also claims taxes from capitalists, self-employed workers, ‘unproductive’ employed workers, etc.

The Feudal Home

Following on from the above points, Wolff also identifies husbands in the traditional family structure as exploiters within the home (whether or not they are exploited outside the home). Production takes place within the home as well as outside it (for instance, the wife transforms raw food into cooked food), and the wife produces a surplus for the husband (she cooks dinner for both of them, not just herself).  Specifically, he argues that the class structure within the traditional family household is essentially a feudal one, for two reasons.

Firstly,  the wife is not owned by the husband like a slave, does not contract her labour for pay like a capitalist worker, and does not distribute the surplus herself as in the communist and ancient modes. Wolff seems to function on the assumption that there are only five modes of production, so if you eliminate four then whatever you are analysing must be the fifth. Secondly, the marriage ceremony is apparently itself derived from a feudal ceremony in which the serf and the lord pledged to ‘love, honour and obey’ one another (I haven’t been able to verify this, and would be interested to see a source and read more).

Now, personally I’m not entirely convinced by this. That one ceremony grew out of another is an interesting and potentially informative historical fact, but it certainly doesn’t establish that both ceremonies establish the same ‘surplus relations’ (if you’re not convinced by that, consider the fact that Wolff has to refer specifically to “traditional” marriage because other modes of production exist within married households – therefore the exact same ceremony can be used to set up multiple different class structures). As for the other reason Wolff gives, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that there can only be the five modes of production that Marx discusses, and even if you do so, you could eliminate feudalism first on the basis that the woman is not ‘tied to the house’, or something similar, and therefore conclude by elimination that it was another mode of production.

The Revolution on the Home Front

I don’t have a concrete suggestion at the moment for what kind of class structure we should consider traditional families to have, but it seems to me that it may be more enlightening to identify it as a patriarchal mode distinct from the others, as some socialist-feminists such as Delphy have done. At any rate we can conclude that the family unit, though it operates in a society we consider to be ‘capitalist’, actually traditionally operates according to another economic model (and very rarely, if ever, operates according to the capitalist one – modern exceptions generally operate on the communist or ‘ancient’ modes). What is of great historical importance regarding this analysis, as far as Wolff is concerned, is not necessarily what the mode of production within the family should be called, but rather that it has changed and is continuing to change.

The ‘traditional’ marriage or family was much more common two centuries ago (though other forms existed even then), but the USA (and many countries) has seen a solid and consistent decline in the number of people living under this kind of arrangement for the last half-century. Some of this has been in the form of rising demands for sharing the burden of housework within marriages, but it has also taken the form of rising numbers of ‘single-person families’, groups of friends sharing houses (and the housework), etc.

In addition to this change, the labour force and the person-hours at the command of the market has swelled with increasing numbers of women who traditionally would not have worked, or would have worked less, or would have been self-employed, etc – this has taken place over a longer period, of course, and is perhaps more of a varied and complex picture, but it is a real change nonetheless. Wolff argues that these changes are important historical shifts – a class revolution, according to Marxian analysis – that have passed the left by, and that the political fallout of this is that the (religious) right have seized on them and used the negative aspects (like increasing levels of social alienation and isolation, or women’s low pay and harassment at work) to push their own agendas.

Immediate Alternatives

What should the left be doing? Wolff is less precise on this point, as are so many academics. His strong point is analysing what has happened and what is happening, not what should happen next. Nevertheless he has some comments on this topic, which tend to contradict or bypass much accepted Marxist doctrine; rather than dealing with demands on the state and suchlike, he harkens back to early socialist and classical Marxist ideas.

The first suggestion is that the left should aim to make explicit to people the class shift that has taken place within the home, and that Marxist theory can understand both what was going on before and what happened to get to where we are now (and perhaps why it happened); this, he argues, would put us in a much stronger position to argue to working women that they should oppose exploitation (in the Wolffian sense) on the job as well as in the home. This would raise class consciousness and have a kind of detoxifying effect concerning people’s fears around Marxist theory and concepts like class struggle or revolution.

Wolff’s other major suggestion is that the left should take a more sustained and pro-active interest in cooperatives (and presumably communes). Rather than seeing a society which has an essentially monolithic capitalist culture and structure, he sees a world in which many class relations co-exist, intertwine, intermingle and contradict either other (such as the working-class husband who is an exploiter at home despite being exploited on the job); therefore he places less of an emphasis on ‘overthrowing’ or ‘abolishing’ capitalism in the sense that is common in the Marxist left today. This also links back to some criticisms he makes of Marxist figureheads such as Lenin and Trotsky with regard to their Marxian economic analysis, which he considers to have been poor at best due to their failure to properly change relations to the surplus (he considers the USSR to have been a kind of state capitalism because the state extracted and distributed surplus in basically the same way as private capitalists do).

A specific consequence of this is that he considers it a high priority to relate to forms of producing (at home and at work, presumably) which avoid the extraction and distribution of the surplus by another party or a minority of producers. His proposals are vague at best, and shouldn’t be taken as a solid political programme, but he seems to suggest that socialists and the labour movement should get behind cooperative enterprises partially for obvious reasons that this would be free of exploitation and show that it is possible to produce without capitalist arrangements and so forth.

An interesting elaboration on his thoughts on cooperatives involves an argument that attributes at least a portion of capitalist hegemony to the extraction of the surplus; specifically, if private companies can extract a surplus from their labourers and accumulate vast amounts of wealth in this way, they gain more control over the media, political campaigns, lobbying, etc. If, on the other hand, workers enter into cooperative enterprises and deny capitalists this surplus, that surplus stays within the working class, both diminishing the wealth available to the capitalists to carry out a programme of class struggle against workers and increasing the wealth available to the workers to carry out a programme of class struggle against capitalists.

Conclusion

In short, Wolff has some original ideas, an interesting spin on old ideas and some interesting analysis gained by applying old methods to current and historical events. I’d recommend that people interested in Marxist class analysis, whether or not you are a Marxist yourself, take a look at him and his interpretation of Marx. It’s certainly made me re-think my understanding of Marxian economics and given me a useful new tool to my belt of Marxian interpretations, analyses and concepts.

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Filed under Economics, Liberation issues, Marxism, Political Strategy, Reviews, Uncategorized

We should not have to read this crap on International Women’s Day

*This article will, unavoidably, feature potentially upsetting material relating to rape, victim-blaming, etc.*

by Anne Archist

Phil Sheppard’s article, published on page 14 of The Cambridge Student today, might easily have been a scorecard for ‘patronising bingo’. First he sets the tone by telling us that “discussion of sexual offences is marred by miscommunication”; presumably he believes that nobody could possibly agree with them, if only they understood! Next, his opponents in the debate are told to “cease taking offence”. After all, we all know how emotional women are, right? And they do get “offended” at the silliest things like men pointing out that if they didn’t want to get raped then they shouldn’t have worn that skirt! I’m going to try to deconstruct most of what’s wrong with this particular article, but it’s part of a wider attitude towards rape and personal responsibility, and many of the same arguments could be applied to other examples of this general attitude. Note: I’m assuming Sheppard’s article is only supposed to address a contemporary Western audience, so I’m pretty much responding in kind.

The article’s argument is basically that although victims should not be morally blamed for any actions that may figure in their being raped, such as walking around late at night on their own, they are still causally responsible in a non-moral sense, and therefore more rapes could be avoided if we focused more on encouraging people to take precautions against being raped. It prominently features equivocation; this means using multiple meanings of the same term in an argument as if they were interchangeable. For instance: “All rivers have banks. All banks have cash-points. Therefore all rivers have cash-points.” This example plays on the multiple meanings of the word ‘bank’ in order to reach a clearly false conclusion. It should be evident this is a logical fallacy, meaning that all arguments of this form are invalid.

Sheppard’s equivocation is between two meanings of ‘responsibility’. First, he tells us that by ‘responsibility’ he means “situations in which … a person is a factual cause” (similar to what is known as ‘causal responsibility’ in the philosophical literature). He uses it accordingly when he writes that “If a homeowner leaves his house unlocked in a neighbourhood of renowned burglars, he is partly responsible for his losses”. However, he later writes that “Potential victims must be made aware that they have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent being affected by crime”; here he uses ‘responsibility’ in the sense of an obligation or expectation laid on an individual to act in a certain way. He has therefore smuggled in the idea that women have some kind of behavioural obligations without attempting to justify this claim. After telling us he is using a narrow technical sense of the word at the start, he slips into a broader usage later on with no comment and no distinction maintained.

The claim of obligation looks justified, because the author seems to have followed a very rigorous, logical argument through to its conclusion. What he has actually done is use the same word in different contexts to make it sound like a logical argument, when in fact it is an illogical one. Being intellectually scrupulous, I should point out that his conclusion isn’t automatically false just because his argument is illogical. To illustrate: “My house is made of cats, therefore I have two eyes” is not a logically valid argument, but its conclusion is still true.

The article doesn’t rely entirely on this elision of meanings to reach its conclusion – Sheppard doesn’t just say that women have a “responsibility” to take precautions, but also (more reasonably) that perhaps it would be a good idea, purely from a practical point of view. There is certainly a difference here. To say that you are obliged to take precautions implies that you are held liable if you do not (i.e. that you will be considered “at fault” and therefore “blamed”, in Sheppard’s use of the word), and may justify less sympathy towards you, greater leniency towards the perpetrator, etc. To say that it would be a good idea to take precautions anyway is not necessarily to imply these things, in theory. This is the crux of the article – it says, in effect, “we won’t think any less of you if you don’t, but we’d prefer it if you wore a longer skirt”, etc.

There’s one obvious objection to this, which is more or less a recognition of the complexity of causality, the ‘butterfly effect’ model of causation. Yes, if the victim hadn’t walked down that alley, they wouldn’t have been raped. But similarly, if they had eaten a badly-preserved curry they found in the fridge the day before rather than throwing it away, they would have been suffering from food poisoning and not left the house at all that night. Or, if they had left the club an hour earlier they would have walked down the alley before the attacker arrived. Or…

The point here is not to be a smartass. The point is to say that responsibility in the sense of factual cause, which Sheppard says he is talking about, is highly dispersive – as you examine it, more agents become involved, more acts become involved, individual agents’ links become more tenuous and individual actions’ effects become harder to trace, etc. Even with a relatively limited frame of reference we can identify many potential agents and acts that could have changed the outcome in many cases.

Suppose someone takes a taxi to a party and rapes someone there. Is the taxi driver responsible for the rape? In the ordinary sense of the word, clearly not. In the technical sense Sheppard claims to be using, though, they are – their acts formed part of a chain of events that caused the rape. Of course the taxi driver has no idea that their actions will result in a rape, but this is irrelevant to their being a “factual cause”. The moment we start introducing judgements about whether someone knew or could have guessed the consequences of their actions,  we have gone beyond the type of responsibility Sheppard is addressing; frankly, we are starting to draw a line between merely being a part of a causal chain and having some moral significance in the causal chain, which is precisely what we have agreed we are not doing when we say a victim’s actions may be preconditions for their being raped.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Sheppard comes back with a response that goes something like this: “I’m not saying there’s any moral blame attached to the victim knowing their actions make their being raped more likely, I’m just saying that if they can see the consequences then they probably should act differently” – not in the sense of a moral ‘should’, just in the sense that you ‘should’ go to the gym if you want to lose weight (what Kant called “the hypothetical imperative”). This is the only way out of the dilemma that I can see.

This is where I really part ways with the article’s author. He comes across as entirely ignorant of the realities of rape and women’s lives. This isn’t necessarily his fault, as such, and it’s often difficult to know how little you know, so I don’t blame him for thinking he could write a well-informed and well-argued article. Perhaps he has actually studied rape statistics in depth and so on, but we can only go on the article, which puts across an impression of someone who still thinks that rape is something that happens only when a drunk woman in a short skirt walks down a dark alley on her own and a man leaps from a dustbin to violently assault her.

Among Sheppard’s paternalistic pronouncements is the exhortation to women to “begin taking care”. I get the impression that he, like many men, has never considered what he has never had to consider – what might a woman’s life be like? By that I mean both the events that take place in her life, objectively, and her own subjective experience and internalisation of those events. I’m sure Sheppard means well, but perhaps he should think before he puts pen to paper about how much sexual harassment women may have to deal with on a weekly basis, how many women have survived sexual violence and desperately want not to go through it again, how much more attention women may pay to their drinks in clubs, etc. The fact that he literally tells women to be more careful is perhaps the most patronising aspect of the article – but don’t get offended, remember!

Still, people could always take more care, right? Nobody’s perfect. I should re-state Sheppard’s advice as clearly as possible: “[There is] a risk known to, and avoidable by, the victim [who therefore should] take reasonable steps to prevent being affected by crime”. There are several problems with this thesis: firstly, sexual violence is not as easily avoided as he implies; secondly, it is not as easy to determine the reasonability of steps as he implies; thirdly, regardless of the author’s protestations, it puts the emphasis on the wrong party.

Certainly, we know that there is a risk of rape. Some women feel this as practically ever-present, at least in the back of their minds.  But the more you know about rape, the more you realise it isn’t something you can expect to protect yourself against. Multiple studies have confirmed that the majority of perpetrators are known by their victims, most commonly as a husband or partner. Around a third of girls have been sexually assaulted, often by relatives or other trusted adults. How exactly does one avoid these attacks? Should women stop entering romantic relationships? Should young girls lock their doors from the inside when they go to bed at night?

I know both men and women who have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. One took the “precaution” of getting a (licensed) cab home and was harassed by the driver, who then tried to attack her. One was an adolescent boy attacked by a trusted older male. One was attacked by a stranger in a supposedly very safe environment. There are more, in varied circumstances. The vast majority of these were in supposedly safe circumstances, with supposedly trustworthy people; in fact, I know of only one person who was attacked while walking around in public on their own.

So what would Phil Sheppard have women do? It also seems strange that he doesn’t suggest that men take any precautions – most victims of rape are women, but not all, and apparently we all have a “responsibility” to avoid being raped… And what exactly counts as a reasonable precaution? Once we confront the real trends in rape, rather than the ‘stranger in the bushes’ mirage, should women avoid relationships with men, going outside their own home at all, letting men into their home, etc?

Chastity belts might be some help, but even they have their limits. I’m inclined to think all of these things fall outside the “reasonable” camp. I take it then, that Sheppard is just encouraging women not to dress too sexily, get too drunk, or walk around alone at night, and hoping this will be enough to avert sexual attacks. I hope it’s evident by now why this is basically useless advice. In fact, the advice may be worse than useless.

By writing an entire comment piece about how women are really – after all – partially responsible for their own victimisation by rapists, Sheppard focuses the spotlight squarely on the victim themselves. Sheppard contributes to the overall culture of questioning women’s consent or non-consent in an accusatory manner. In other words, if you didn’t take reasonable precautions, then maybe you really secretly wanted it. This is akin to reprimanding women for not crying out loud enough (as Deuteronomy 22:24 does, condemning raped women to stoning to death as a result).

Sheppard says quite explicitly that the focus should not be on reducing men’s willingness to rape, but on increasing women’s fear: “Educating men about rape is laudable, but only insofar as it does not detract from personal risk-aversion”; women should act more afraid than they currently do, in other words. This renders the argument amenable to those who use rape as a tool of power, whether husband, father, soldier, teacher, politician or priest. Note the wording of the comment (surely not intentionally phrased this way). It would be one thing to say that it would be unfortunate if the focus on men’s responsibility led to women letting down their guard and then being raped. Instead, the wording used states that educating men about rape ceases to be laudable the moment it in any way detracts from (women’s) risk-averse behaviour.

Women’s fictional “responsibility” to take precautions (established only through equivocation) is given priority over men’s real responsibility not to rape (easily established by basic moral reasoning: rape is wrong and one has a responsibility not to do things that are wrong).Similarly, in a singularly unfortunate choice of words, Sheppard writes: “The continued drive against victim-blaming is having a detrimental effect”; in other words, all this feminist noise about how a victim shouldn’t be made to feel responsible for their own rape is distracting us from the Real Issue, which is that women just aren’t trying hard enough to avoid being raped. The implicit trade-off here is having a relatively full life versus the threat of being raped, particularly for women; know that you run the risk of sexual violence if you want to go out alone at night, if you want to have close relationships with men, if you want to travel, etc.

For the record, I don’t think Phil Sheppard is an unreconstructed misogynist victim-blaming rape apologist. I think he’s a relatively intelligent person who’s trying to take an ‘objective’, ‘academic’ stance on a question of power politics that exists in the real world without letting the real world inform that stance. I think he’s got people’s best interests at heart, but I think his article is dreadfully-argued and counterproductive. It tells us nothing we can actually use – it has no actual suggestions of what people could do to take reasonable precautions. It doesn’t even acknowledge the areas that might be problematic, like how small the impact of “precautions” on rape may be, or the contested nature of “reasonable” precautions. This is compounded by the fact that he has worded some things very badly and adopted an air of patronising academia that has been abused to veil an invalid argument towards an empirically-ill-supported conclusion. Phil, I’m sure you’re not trying to blame rape survivors – I understand that, you haven’t miscommunicated it – but I do think you’re going the wrong way about supporting them and fighting rape.

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Filed under Liberation issues, Philosophy, Student Issues, Uncategorized

Diane Abbott and “Black community”

by Anne Archist

In an unexpected turn of events, my writer’s block seems to be getting better, so here’s a post about Diane Abbott’s latest controversy. I should have known that something would have to happen, at some time and place, to compensate for the fact that Diane Abbott actually said something really sensible the other day. I didn’t realise that the balance of the universe would be restored quite so quickly, but there you have it.

So, for the benefit of those who haven’t clicked the second link above, Abbott tweeted that “white people love divide and rule”, in the context of discussing the Stephen Lawrence case and the media coverage of it with some fellow twitter users. This was apparently meant to be a sophisticated comment about the history of race relations and specifically applicable to colonial power structures. To a lot of people it just sound like cracker-hating. This prompted a debate across the blogosphere and all seven seas of social networking (not forgetting that weird domain called Real Life too) as to whether it was possible for Black people to be racist to White people.  I’ll give you my thoughts on that as quickly as possible and then move on to the main point of this post.

Whether you call things aimed at White people ‘racism’ is a question of definitions, and definitions (like dialectics) cannot break bricks – defining and redefining words will never in itself change the reality they refer to (yes, words play a role in constituting ideologies and social norms and so forth, but I mean here that something doesn’t change bad to good just because you use a different word to refer to it). So you can choose to define ‘racism’ as referring only to acts backed up by institutions or systems or sheer weight of number, and you can even try to convince other people to use your definition, but that merely leaves an unresolved question: do other forms of racially-based prejudice, discrimination, hate or violence that don’t count as ‘racism’ under this definition matter?

I’d argue pretty strongly that these things do matter and they are bad – generally speaking they might not be ‘as bad’, perhaps, but they certainly shouldn’t be excused or encouraged. I’d like to hear the reasoning of anyone who thinks that racially-motivated violence, in particular, should be ignored just because it happens to White people – obviously generalisations and stereotypes are not on the same level as attacks, but the principle still stands that it is fundamentally bad for people to be acting on the basis of prejudice or hatred rather than an open mind. Having said that, I d o think the debate around Abbott’s remarks are a storm in a thimble – yes, she said “white people”, which is bound to be interpreted to mean “all white people”, and racialised a generic tactic used by powerful people of all colours. However, she was talking on twitter in the context of a conversation about institutional racism within power structures like the police and referring to colonialism, not tweeting ‘honky’ at unsuspecting members of the public and suggesting that The White Man Is The Devil.

The real problem with what she said, I think, is precisely what she was intending to say, not the poor and controversial phrasing she chose. One Black woman tweeted that she was fed up of the “Black Community” myth – sick of seeing “Black leaders” who didn’t listen to the people they supposedly represented, speaking as if the community was monolithic. Abbott replied that Black people should put up an image of unity to the media and not ‘wash dirty linen in public’ (as she suggested in a #hashtag multiple times).  This is not an argument I expected to hear from a Black feminist woman representing a poor constituency, especially since it was used to dismiss feminists within the Civil Rights movement and Black activists within the feminist movement, not to mention time and time again since (lesbian separatists within the LGBT community, etc).

Abbott defended herself one the grounds that she was talking about “political tactics” while acknowledging that there were cultural differences within the community/ies, but knowing that she once owned the Black feminist reader ‘All the women are White, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave‘, it’s difficult to know quite what to think about this advice. Putting Abbott’s mentality into practice most often means the loudest voice in the group winning out and the others being silenced; this is also clearly manifested not only in the history of Black feminism but also in certain modern and historical political parties, etc. Open debate is a good thing, and there is no reason why it cannot be carried out in public. I find it slightly worrying that nobody else seems to be picking up on this point so far.

This isn’t just a question of silencing less powerful or numerous voices and preventing the expression of certain opinions or experiences. The “Black Community” being represented by a single voice with a single viewpoint also makes it easier to stereotype and undermine. The feminist movement has been noticeably impeded by precisely the notion that all feminists think alike – despite more recent attempts to acknowledge diversity of opinion within the feminist movement, the old attitude of “if you don’t agree, keep quiet and we’ll have it out later” seems to have influenced the public imagination a great deal.

This affects ‘recruitment’ into movements – there are quite a few women out there who refuse to call themselves feminists, would go to great lengths to avoid being labelled as feminists, avoid feminist books, etc purely because they didn’t want to be put in the same camp as anti-porn activists or people more concerned with woman CEOs than working class women, etc. It also affects the way that the movement can engage in public discourse, since it is compelled to state single definitive position (often a poorly-thought-out one, because often the people in a position to speak for the whole group are not in a position to know what is happening on the ground, or have more extensive bias or more simplistic or blinkered ideas than a lot of other people who might try to offer a view as part of the community). It probably has other negative consequences that I’ve not mentioned in this article, and the same sort of problems apply within communities.

To suggest that the “Black Community” should, despite its heterogeneous nature, project a single voice in public is to suggest that every other voice within the community should be silenced; being afforded the luxury to speak within your own community on the terms of those with more power is hardly the same as an open exchange of ideas and experiences as part of the wider public  discourse. It suggests, among other things, that Black women should put up and shut up while White women and Black men attempt to speak for them in most cases, and it certainly suggests that minority communities, women, less mainstream political tendencies and so on should be contributing to the debate from the perspective of somebody who is a part of wider society rather than marginalised by it. Let’s wash our dirty misogyny, our dirty racism, our dirty exploitation, our dirty violence in public, where everyone can see it and the perpetrators cannot sweep it under the carpet.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Liberation issues, Political Strategy, Uncategorized

Marx doesn’t have all the answers

by Anne Archist

There is a tendency on the left towards reductive theories and models; this is most pronounced in Marxism, versions of which often place massive emphasis on the development of technology, or imbue one form of oppression with strategic and ontological primacy, etc. Other ideas that can be strictly or broadly said to be on the ‘left’ are guilty of this on occasion too, to varying ideas – some anarchists are highly materialist, some feminists think that the lot of women in life can be understood from the standpoint of one particular factor such as the belief that women are made vulnerable by their potential for pregnancy, or whatever it may be. In this post I’ll talk specifically about Marxism, although much of it is applicable to other movements and theories to some extent.

This kind of analysis leaves much to be desired, however, as it lacks the subtle nuances and detailed models that have been developed often within liberal discourse. Materialist analysis should not be based on totally superseding the pre-existing explanations we have available, but on correcting, refining and supplementing them as appropriate. Obviously large sections of liberal theory are ‘ideological’ in the Marxist sense – they are flawed ways of understanding the world perpetuated because they serve certain interests and perhaps contain some ‘partial truth’ or ‘mirror’ something real.

But this approach of throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a totally unjustifiable approach that it itself ideological – it begins with the true proposition that liberal theory is flawed, and promotes the myth that Marxism is holistic and ‘scientific’ and so can explain everything. It is important to note that this approach is not that taken by Marx himself or people like Althusser, Cohen or Gramsci. For these theorists, the method was to adjust and expand prior ideas about the world; Marx began with classical economics and produced his own take on it while later writers aimed to expand the scope of Marx’s methods, refine his claims to render them consistent, etc.

There are often things to be learnt from non-materialist analysis and disciplines other than history or economics. It is interesting to note, for instance, how few Marxists seem to take social psychology seriously, despite the fact that it has provided a great deal of insight into the (re)production of racism in society, military discipline and other forms of proletarian obedience, etc. Another example is the distaste of some Marxists towards philosophy (and particularly logic) as if philosophers expected to be able to explain the whole world from the comfort of their armchair; I have heard people seriously express the notion that logic is bourgeois and is the philosophical antithesis of materialism, an idea which is totally wrong-headed to say the least.

If we want to understand the world in order to change it, we will need to keep our minds open about different disciplines, theories, models and propositions. The world cannot be changed by someone who understands only economics and has no concept of history outside of this. The world cannot be changed by someone who understands only history and has no notion of the complexities involved in ‘democracy’ as a concept and a goal. Any revolutionary or even reformist ‘progressive’ movement must be polymathic if it is to achieve its goals; we have to be able, for instance, to look at the social-psychological, philosophical, historical, economic, political and practical aspects of a question like how to achieve industrial democracy.

If we’re blind to the dangers and flaws of our strategies then we will screw up all over again, just as many movements have in the past. The failure of the USSR or Cuba cannot be put down solely to grand historical factors like the Cold War, however vital these are to understanding the context in which they existed and the pressures that shaped them. They took the shapes they did partly also as a result of decisions that were made by individuals and groups – decisions that may have been influenced by individuals personalities, incorrect theories or predictions, one-off historical events, logical fallacies, and conformity or fear.

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Why Social Mobility is Shit (II)

by Anne Archist

The second lesson from our analysis of the concept of social mobility, which is much less significant but worth pointing out in the absence of its acknowledgement by the political mainstream, is that people can move down as well as up the social hierarchy. Not only this, but (in relative terms at least) every movement up is accompanied by (a) movement(s) down, and vice versa. Marx talked about one-sided ways of understanding a concept, and this is certainly something that most commentators are guilty of – social mobility is a good thing, right? After all, it allows people to end up better off than they started in life. But, of course, it also means that people might end up worse off than they started too. For everyone who wins the lottery, someone’s business collapses. For every child of a mining family that became a professor, a child of the bourgeoisie was forced to seek wages by an inheritance squandered by their parents.

Basically, social mobility is generally conceived as a matter of relations – the generally increasing wealth of society as a whole, even when distributed around the population to some extent, is not termed social mobility. People’s position improving relative to their barest physical needs is not, therefore, social mobility (on this normal interpretation of the term, at least). Rather, it is improvement relative to other people in our society that counts as mobility. I leapfrog you, leaving you no better off. Someone else takes my place, sending me crashing back to where I was before. None of this makes any overall improvement – social mobility, conceptually speaking, is a zero-sum game.

If we all move together, we are not moving within the hierarchy but shifting the whole hierarchy onto different ground, still intact. John MacLean said “Rise with your class, not out of it” – the working class can improve their position as a class, and can eventually abolish the very social relations that make them the working class. This should be their focus, rather than the language of social mobility that implores workers to leave their class behind them and enter the ranks of small capital or the self-employed.

It’s interesting also to reflect on the way that social mobility is measured and conceptualised by the right. This is a methodological issue that threatens to slip into the analysis of those on the left, as methodologies and underlying analytical assumptions have been known to do in the past. Here’s an example: David Willetts is concerned about the effect feminism has had on social mobility. His reasoning is that many women have been able to take opportunities that would otherwise gone to men and improved their social positions. Of course, the reason that Willetts sees this as a threat to social mobility is that he conceives of the family unit as a single, indivisible economic entity, represented largely by the ‘male breadwinner’.

If Willetts conceived of social mobility on an individual level, the improvements in women’s social mobility would neutralise the damage done to men’s social mobility, as we’ve already seen. The reason that women pose a problem in this way of looking at things is that they themselves aren’t seen as worthy of assessing individually for their own social standing. Their social standing is, largely, that of their husband. Families are becoming less socially mobile due to the fact that generally families now consist of either two people who are well off and well educated or two people who are not particularly economically prosperous and averagely educated at best.

This means that there is increasing polarisation between family units in terms of, say, education, when you average out between the husband and wife. Before you could have relied upon well-educated men marrying poorly-educated women in order to create a tendency towards the mean. It also means that families are less likely to change dramatically in terms of income and so on – if the family’s income depends almost entirely on the man’s income, then the loss of his job will affect them much more than if his income only makes up half or a third of the income.

None of this has anything to do with individual people’s chances in life, their incomes or levels of education, their class membership, or whatever. It has to do with the way that these people come together into family units, and that is what Willetts is blind to; by taking the basic economic unit to be the male-headed family, he obscures inequalities within families and the social mobility of women (other than single women, perhaps, who may appear in his metrics as a kind of abberation). Willetts also seems to confuse inequality in household income with lack of social mobility, though it’s unclear as to what exactly his reasoning is from the way he’s been quoted in the press.

Why, then, do some on the left promote this apparently right-wing goal? Arguments over what will best promote social mobility abound, claims that the cuts to education will harm social mobility come even from hardline SWPers and so forth. It makes perfect sense that David Willetts should be concerned with social mobility – presumably he thinks there’s some link between meritocracy and social mobility (which, of course, isn’t logically the case since people’s position could change due to luck, as when workers win lottery jackpots), and that meritocracy is good.

But surely the left should be making the more politically explosive points against this agenda? When tories talk about social mobility they’re talking merely about: shuffling around who’s rich and who’s poor, not eliminating poverty; increasing competition for good educational opportunities, not improving educational opportunities for all; pitting ordinary working people against each other, not building cooperation and solidarity among them.

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Why Social Mobility is Shit (I)

by Anne Archist

Everyone’s talking about it. David Willetts has kicked the hornet’s nest most recently by arguing that feminism is to blame for reduced social mobility over the last few decades, but the concept itself is in widespread usage these days, from the left through to the government. Social mobility is good, we’re told; it gives people a chance to get on in life, to do better than the generations before them. That all sounds nice, but today I’m going to tear the whole concept apart like only a philosopher can.

The kind of social mobility we’re talking about here (and that most people are talking about elsewhere) is ‘vertical social mobility’. This is the idea that people can move up or down the social hierarchy. Some people are at the ‘top’ of society (generally those who are best educated, have the highest incomes, have the most political/economic power, know the most powerful people, etc) and others are at the ‘bottom’ (the opposite), with people in various layers in between, or a spectrum stretching from one to the other. To talk about (vertical) social mobility without imagining society in this hierarchical and unequal way renders it nonsense.

So the first lesson we can take from our analysis of social mobility as a concept is that it’s incompatible with an equal, classless society. Social mobility presupposes a class divide or a spectrum of inequality; equality and classlessness makes ‘mobility’ impossible because mobility means (the capability for) movement from one point to another, and an equal, classless society is one in which everyone occupies the same social position – everyone is at the same point because there is only one point. Next time people imply that equality and social mobility go hand in hand, remember that while higher degrees of equality may correlate with higher measures of social mobility, real equality is incompatible with real social mobility.

Some people will be confused by the previous paragraph – generally more equality means more mobility, but the most equality means the least mobility? How can that be the case? Something that might illuminate the previous paragraph is the idea of multiple-peakedness; this is important in understanding certain aspects of politics. The idea is that not everything works as a linear improvement in a particular direction. It’s not true, for instance, that everyone who votes for the most right-wing party would vote for the second most right-wing party as their second preference (an assumption, incidentally, that seems to be underlying much of the AV debate at the moment; maybe I’ll talk about this more in a further post).

Suppose that a working-class voter is minimally class-conscious; they realise that free markets are just a route to the rich getting richer at their expense, and they know that they have a certain common interest with fellow workers in a similar position to themselves. They may also be racist or generally nationalist and short-sighted, however. That is, they may not be internationalist and may not understand their common interest with immigrant workers. They vote BNP because they see the BNP as a party that will fight for the native working class, will oppose free market profiteering, etc. Ignoring the question of how accurate this perception is, it doesn’t therefore follow that they would vote for UKIP or the tories as their second preference. Perhaps they’d vote Labour or even support the Socialist Party or something of the sort.

This is multiple-peakedness – the line on a graph that represents their preferences doesn’t have just one peak and descend in a straight line from there, but actually has a peak at each end. In this instance it’s probably double-peaked, with a gradual descent down from the far left towards the tories but then a big peak at the end representing the far right. In other instances there may be more than two peaks separated by troughs of varying heights, etc. Now we can apply this idea to the relationship between equality and social mobility; it may be that in, e.g. conditions present in Western European style broadly social democracies, equality and social mobility are correlated. This doesn’t imply that they will correlate in other conditions (other sections of the graph, as it were). After all, if a society is too polarised, mobility will be all but impossible too – social mobility is going to be low for slaves, for instance! – but if a society is equal enough then social mobility is going to be conceptually impossible altogether because there is no room to ‘move’.

While we’re on the subject, don’t forget the transformation of quantity into quality in terms of understanding the relationship here… This is the thing that Engels repeatedly explained in terms of water changing states – as water heats up (a change in quantity of energy), it eventually reaches a point where it boils (a change in quality of state). It could be that social mobility improves up to the point that it just becomes a socially/politically meaningless concept because there is little relevance to moving within the narrow constrains that a society that is basically equal. I’m not concerned here with laying out a strict analysis of the relationship between the two variables across the whole range of possibilities, but it seems pretty clear that at the extreme of total equality, social mobility is utterly non-existent. As I’ve said, social mobility presupposes an unequal, class-divided society.

Part II coming tomorrow…

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The case for women’s self-organisation

This is a guest post by Jordan.

We are thinking about setting up/ re-launching an anti-capitalist feminist reading and discussion group in Cambridge. Something similar has existed in the past, in a couple of different incarnations – the Socialist-Feminist reading group of 2008-9, and Education Not For Sale Women in 2009-10. Every time one of these projects is launched, the debate is raised: should these spaces be open to all sexes? This usually develops (although seldom in an organised arena) to a discussion around what the idea is behind women-only, or women and trans people-only spaces and self organisation.

One of my friends has a tendency to make very strong, simple statements that, more often than not, I find resonate very strongly with me. She said to me recently, “I love women. I love woman-time.” She was, in part, urging me to take advantage of changes in my personal life to embrace the opportunity to have more “woman-time” – by which she means quite simply, time spent in the company of other women.

Why does that sound so good to me? Surely we should be gender-blind in our personal relationships, and the sex and gender of my friends should be neither here nor there… But there is something quite compelling about having the opportunity talk to people who share an experience of the world with you – who might face the same social frustrations, or simply habitually do the same little things that you do. At its most superficial, this might be talking about hairstyles (which she and I did in the same conversation) or, more profoundly, sharing experiences of sexism, personal or institutional, and so on.

So that’s one thing: it’s important to find spaces where you can identify people sharing your experiences, not only so that you can arm each other against shared oppressions, although of course that is important, but also so that we can simply break down some of the odd-one-out-ism, and stop people from feeling quite so lonely and weird – which we all feel, to different extents and at different times. I can hear the criticisms being levelled already: surely we should talk to our friends about things that make us feel lonely and weird, that’s not a reason to advocate a particular form of political space. I could respond to that with a slogan, “the personal is political” but that’s not an argument without justification.

Women have been delegated, socially, to the position of Custodians of Feelings. Some women are about as suited to this as a badger is to driving a bus. Some women are happy with it. Some women – like me – are happy with it to an extent, and then no further. I feel extremely frustrated when I find myself trying to be what I term the “smiling auntie” of the revolution, talking to all of the stressed out and strung out people around me, helping to solve their problems, diffusing personal elements of arguments and keeping things on a respectful, political and intellectual track – in a word, facilitating; not only meetings, but whole environments. Temperamentally I’m quite well suited to this position, but it’s not right that I should play this role all of the time. We need strong facilitation, it’s true, but it should be a collective responsibility and not that of certain individuals. It’s not fair that I or others should do it all the time not because it isn’t important, but because it is passive, and it doesn’t require much from our brains. And it’s often been commented upon, how often those facilitating meetings, or simply cooling tempers in formal or informal discussion, are female.

To relate this to my original point: we are delegated the roles of Custodians of Feelings, and then we are told that this is not political. And yet it is, socially, what we are asked to do with our lives. Look at statistics on people in the caring professions, stay-at-home parents, distribution of child care within families etc. I hope I have illustrated here a way in which this is true in radical circles as well as in “mainstream” society.

I don’t think that the answer to this fencing-off of women from the political arena should be for women to entirely abandon that emotion-driven niche and learn to engage in Capital-P-Political discourse of a kind that might be characterised as being typically “masculine”. I do not wish to suggest for a second that women are not equally capable of this kind of debating or that some women don’t favour it. I don’t favour it though, and I don’t think that I, we, anybody, should be asked to.

The first reason for this is that, as a sector of society even in this country alone, we’d be making ourselves play catch-up against generations of sexist training. Dispassionate, logical debate isn’t a skill that it takes an individual long to learn but it takes a long time to pass that skill on to the millions of people who haven’t been taught it and who don’t, at present, have the confidence to get up and use it anyway.

Furthermore, I think that it is dishonest of anyone to try to leave their personal, perhaps anecdotal, experience out of their political discourse, and pretend that they are a voice in a vacuum. We are not activists for reasons of pure, cold logic – or at least, I don’t know anybody who is. We are activists because the suffering of others hurts us. I feel very strongly that our arguments are strengthened by that admission; look at the way we interact with our opponents on the right (I don’t just mean what people conceive of as the right wing of leftwing activism, I mean the proper Right). We call them heartless, inhuman. At least behind their backs. We believe that essential to being human is being empathetic and compassionate, and yet we try to remove every trace of that emotion from our arguments. That’s a falsehood. Of course we must be articulate, logical and rational too: we wouldn’t get anything done if all we said of an act of oppression was “it makes me sad”. But we must allow that sadness to motivate us; own up to it, champion it and fight to make it go away.

This is an argument against the “masculine” (also often arrogant, point-scoring and competitive) way that much political organising is conducted at present, but how does it contribute to advocating women’s self-organisation? What I hope I have explained is that we feel stronger if we know that we are not the only ones sharing certain experiences, and that I think our personal experiences are an important political tool.

Women-only spaces, or women and trans-only spaces, should not be defined by the absence of men. For me, it isn’t just about being “allowed” the opportunity to organise and debate away from male domination. Building a space where everybody feels confident enough to speak, and helping to build each other’s confidence to export outside of that space, is only one element – and so is the practical, fighting aspect, the argument that goes, “the emancipation of women must be the work of women themselves”. It’s also about community, commonality, solidarity there are ways in which we are the same as each other, and as people around the world, that we don’t even stop to think about. Ways that we act like each other – without thinking about whether that’s by nature, by custom or by force. Things that we know that we never say aloud, and that, actually, a lot of other people know, too, but have never spoken. We need our spaces not just because we want to fight, but because we want to know who each other are, and that we are not alone.

This argument is only a tiny fraction of things to be thought and said, one argument among many that I hold to be true myself. I feel like I should mention that I have not addressed, here, and important problem – the need to engage everybody, including cis-gendered, heterosexual men, in discussion around sex, gender and sexism. That need is great because, as the most privileged group, they are also the most oppressing group – inadvertently or against the will and actions of individuals as this may be. And this is where we see, once again, how much the capitalist society we inhabit is organised against us. If you have found the time to set up a regularly organised, political space for women and trans people to meet and discuss, in addition to your job, your education, your family, your social life and all of the different groups and campaigns that you are involved with as an activist, you have already achieved a lot. Where, in all of that, is the time and space to have the same conversations again with men?

Firstly, I think we should share the articles we share with our sisters, the ones we read and the ones we write, with men too. We should raise questions of gender and sexism in all of the groups we work in. We should advocate new organising and debating methods on the grounds that they are more gender inclusive, and more inclusive of the less confident in general. We talk to individuals, we push for debates in large groups. I can’t give a satisfactory answer to this problem, except to exhort everybody to engage in this debate and to give it real time and thought.

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Facebook – come clean on censorship!

by Anne Archist

“Although the page and its contents are clearly distasteful to some, users are expressing how they feel about a public figure, or in the comments relating to the police, a public institution, so it is within the terms of use of the site as it is an expression of personal opinion.”

This was the statement Facebook made about a tribute to Raoul Moat, implying that the site champions free speech, resists censorship, and supports controversial or minority viewpoints under fire. However, the reality is quite different – Facebook is hardly the Wikileaks of social networking! Using excuses like “technical errors”, facebook has repeatedly closed “anti-establishment” groups and suspended the accounts of their admins; examples are ‘Solidarity With The People Of Greece’ based in the UK and ‘Free Ricardo Palmera!’ based in the US (http://www.fightbacknews.org/2010/7/2/facebook-shuts-down-free-ricardo-palmera-group).

These are not the only instances of facebook hiding behind policies and systems errors to silence left-wing or otherwise ‘subversive’/’countercultural’ groups (while notably leaving hundreds, if not thousands of racist and sexist groups open despite far worse transgressions of the code of conduct). The latest in the series is ‘Our Porn, Our Selves’, a pro-porn feminist group (if I may call their stated aims feminist – I don’t think it’s unreasonable).  It appears to have been shut down after a campaign of falsely flagging the group as inappropriate and/or in violation of the code of conduct in some other way. The group was based in America, but the campaign against it was conducted in part by the same kind of people I’ve blogged about before, although in the American context this is even more likely to have been in conjunction with reactionary and conservative (probably religious) groups.

Our Porn, Our Selves questioned the “feminist” orthodoxy on porn and sex work, asked difficult questions of the “leaders” of the mainstream stateside feminist movement and opened up a space for women in particular to confront and explore their sexuality – they posted links about female porn directors, introductory advice for women interested in consuming porn, etc. Sadly the (religious and “feminist”) right chose to resist this and chose censorship as their weapon of choice. It’s about time people realised that Facebook doesn’t act benignly in the face of these confrontations and that their record on censorship is not as spotless as they would have us believe. Of course the censorship is not all-pervasive, and Facebook is still a useful tool for organising, debating, etc; on the other hand, if we don’t resist and question the rise of social networking censorship we may see the problem seriously worsen.

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