Saturday, September 26, 2015

Toward a New Abortion Rights Rhetorical Strategy and Lexicon

There is a vacuum of relevant leftist rhetoric about abortion. The left has no cohesive abortion stance.

We call for more militant feminism, we hold safer spaces workshops, we volunteer at abortion clinics, we contact legislators, we wave signs, we share our abortion stories, we do what we can in a climate in which even the words that we use to describe abortion are empty husks referring to a battle we are constantly chasing, never initiating, never advancing, never winning. When it comes to abortion rights and access, the left - and I mean you, comrades - is severely lacking a unified, cohesive, effective rhetorical strategy. Patriarchal state control over reproductive power and the degradation of women is fundamental to the accumulation of capital and necessary to the proliferation of neoliberalism (Federici, Caliban), yet we can't seem to agree on how to talk about, much less mobilize around, abortion rights. This is a problem that must be remedied.

"Abortion" is an imprecise term that obscures various situations, numerous definitions, and individual stories. It's an abstract concept, alienated from the individual physical body and the social body.

We use the term "abortion" to refer to an an elective* medical procedure that ends 21% of pregnancies in the U.S. However, medically and practically, "abortion" refers to numerous ways of ending a pregnancy, intentionally or unintentionally. Most people are unaware of the term's vagueness. Here I will list a few types of abortion to illustrate of the vast number of procedures covered by one vague term. 

A "medication abortion" or "medical abortion" involves taking two pills that terminate a pregnancy that is less than 49 to 63 days along with what can be compared to a heavy menstrual period. The first pill is taken at the clinic and the second at home (or wherever one may be). It is simple, safe, and relatively painless. Then there is suction curettage or, in common parlance, "surgical abortion," which involves anesthesia and suction and is usually used to end pregnancies 6 to 14 weeks along. Induction abortion was applied to later pregnancies with great skill and compassion by the late Patron Saint of Abortion Rights Dr. George Tiller, so much so that doctors from around the country sent their patients to him. Then there is IDX or DNX, which was outlawed in the U.S. in 2003 thanks to Rick Santorum, George Bush II, and a bunch of other misogynists. Of course, since the procedure is occasionally necessary, doctors must find loopholes for those who can't afford to hop a plane to get the health care they need.** 

Another type of abortion that can be elective or non-elective is miscarriage. Miscarriage, or "spontaneous abortion," often happens automatically before the twentieth week and usually before anyone is aware of the pregnancy. "Stillbirth" refers to this phenomenon after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Other times, unctions and herbal concoctions are used to cause miscarriages and stillbirths when abortion is culturally, financially, or otherwise inaccessible. Miscarriages and stillbirths can also happen when the pregnant person is brutalized or poisoned. There are many other politically-loaded terms that refer to nothing, to an idea, or to something that means something else (e.g. "partial birth abortion," a phrase invented by a man in the National Right to Life Committee in 1995, "back alley abortion," and "feticide"). It is impractical to identify all possible applications of the term "abortion" in this article due to my limited knowledge, your presumed ability to perform research online, and self-imposed length limitations. And this is the point. The word "abortion" contains so many variances that its fullness becomes emptiness. The term "abortion" hides the reality of numerous, varied, and complex realities, obfuscating what is actually at stake: women's control over their own reproductive labor power and state enforcement of gender (and obviously always other) hierarchies.

"Abortion" and "Work": A Brief Interlude

Like capitalism uses the term "work" to cover up many different types of work (e.g. forced labor, indentured servitude, debt slavery, work done by undocumented immigrants, child labor, "consensual" work, sex work, etc.) to make the large-scale inequalities and abuses within "work" tolerable, acceptable, and ostensibly necessary, the broad, inaccurate term "abortion" obscures complicated realities surrounding the numerous methods and situations causing the end of pregnancies in order to strategically decontextualize "abortion," making it seem simple and abstract, an act to be accepted or rejected, judged right or wrong, in toto. The term "abortion" hides all of these nuances so that the utter necessity of state control over women's reproductive ability and the enforcement of gender hierarchies to the functioning of capitalism, as argued by Federici in Caliban and the Witch, remains hidden and therefore unexamined. 

While pregnancy and birth always seem to be part of a story - a single working woman struggling to raise her child alone, the immature 20-something man who suddenly becomes a responsible father, the heart-warming adoption story of a heterosexual couple who could not procreate but ended up with a houseful of children, the accidental teenage pregnancy from prom night, the urbane lesbian couple who used a friend as a sperm donor, even the virgin who is impregnated by God himself and bears the child who will save us all from a fiery eternity - abortion is an isolated event meant to be forgotten and written out of history for all involved, personally and socially.

Because the terms "abortion" and "work" have been so often drastically contorted and misused by everyone who uses either term, we now tacitly accept them at face value. 
This is a critical strategic error."Abortion is wrong," "I have to go to work," "Abortion should be the woman's choice," "Work is boring," etc. It is not possible for any of these statements to be true because of the vagueness of the terms "abortion" and "work." 

The right is winning the battle for control over reproductive labor, women's bodies, and gender hierarchies with domestic terrorism and successful use of rhetoric.

We could all take notes from anti-abortion propagandists. These people are savants. From "partial birth abortion" (not a medical term) to "personhood" to "fetal pain," these wizards know how to persuade an audience. They have succeeded in manipulating search results to the point that anyone seeking facts about abortion can become confused. They have polluted the main point of access for working class people seeking information about abortion - the Internet. The imprecise umbrella term "abortion" and its toothless cousin "pro-choice" are perfect accomplices in this muddled mess.

"Pro-choice" is an empty phrase that is rhetorically weak, outdated, and useless.

Like "abortion," "pro-choice" means so many things to so many people that it ends up meaning nothing. Some believe it means "pro-abortion," others believe it means "whatever a pregnant person wants to do is none of my business." I suspect the mainstream understanding of the phrase is something akin to: "It's up to the woman if she wants to carry the pregnancy to term or have an abortion. It's none of my business or yours. Plus, the Supreme Court said so." As the most widely-recognized term that signifies acceptance of a person's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, "pro-choice" (like "abortion") is the term I will use throughout this article and elsewhere until the discourse around abortion rights and access are re-evaluated, reframed, and reinvigorated/reinvented.

The liberal stance on abortion is apologetic at best, which is a concession to anti-choicers' moralistic condemnation of abortion and campaign of terror on abortion providers and seekers.

We expect liberals to be reactionary. Planned Parenthood is defunded; Obama will veto the bill. The last clinic in a rural state is attacked; donations are made. Hillary's view that abortion should be legal, safe, and rare is accepted. Some powerful, disgusting misogynist says yet another degrading thing about women, rape, and/or abortion, and memes are shared and scathing Facebook rants are written. Sexism is called out on Tumblr. It is not enough. The current abortion lexicon is useless, outdated, weak, and reactionary. It is our duty to remedy this.

Liberals are immeasurably more visible than leftists. They have an identifiably cohesive "pro-choice" stance. Therefore, theirs is the default "leftist" stance on abortion rights and access.

Most of the U.S. thinks "the left" means liberals; we don't even enter the public consciousness when they think of "leftists." Therefore, for all practical purposes, the liberal stance on abortion rights is the leftist stance. Their dominance in this narrative space has resulted in relentless usage of terms that have not been critically re-evaluated in decades, at least not in a mainstream or effective manner.*** 

This must be redressed, which is possible with a cohesive, united abortion rights rhetorical strategy and a revamped abortion lexicon. We cannot continue to hide behind the outdated, apologetic "pro-choice" stance. However, the failure of leftists to have clearly differentiated ourselves from liberals in the U.S. may be advantageous when reframing abortion rights discourse and introducing a new abortion lexicon because if a whole new set of terms were rolled out, it would follow that it would be by a wholly different kind of left. 

Everyone supporting current reproductive power relations accepts the current stagnation of abortion rights discourse. All feminists and leftists should be calling for free, safe abortion on demand, as well as working toward a new abortion rights rhetorical strategy and lexicon.

By the important but necessarily limited criteria discussed in this post, European women may have had more control of contraception, reproduction, obstetrics, and abortion in the Middle Ages before the loss of the commons and consequent Church and state imposition and enforcement of gender and racial hierarchies than (U.S.) women do today (Federici, Caliban). Because capitalism requires constant accumulation and new sources of labor power and because control of the reproduction of labor is a necessary element of capitalist accumulation and expansion (Federici, Caliban), failing to actively challenge the existing state restrictions on abortion is compliance with and approval of the entire capitalist system. If you support the destruction of gender hierarchies, access to free healthcare for all, dismantlement of the patriarchy, and, dare I say, abolishment of private property, you must support safe, free abortion on demand, no excuses, no shame, no harassment, no guilt, no barriers.**** 

I will think about and attempt to develop some accurate, meaningful, relevant terminology to potentially replace the outdated "pro-choice" "abortion" discourse in use today. I challenge you to do the same. As always, feel free to point me toward something potentially productive. All suggestions for terms, as well as references to other feminists, theorists, philosophers, and linguists working on a similar project, would be greatly appreciated. 

• Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch.

• Statistics cited in this article are accurate as of the posting date. I highly discourage readers from consulting for any abortion-related information unless you're going to edit the articles for accuracy; every entry on abortion I could find on that site are biased and sexist, and many are inaccurate. This is unsurprising but disappointing because readers know I often refer to Wikipedia for information on other topics.

*I'm using the term "elective" due to the limitations of abortion rights rhetoric at present. Many women's "elective" procedures do not involve much of a choice. Socioeconomic circumstances and systemic misogyny often force women into situations and decisions. Low wages, sexual assault, must I continue? 

**Rich women will always be able to obtain any type of abortion since they are not restricted by the financial barriers of travel, time off work, babysitters, and so on. Access to free, safe abortion is a class issue, a racial issue, and an LGBTQ issue, which always bears repeating.

***One can contrast this to the success of anti-choicers, who have had PR blitzes with unparalleled success. One can also contrast it to the success of the LGBTQ community's largely grassroots and surging online movement to reframe and address outdated issues surrounding the notion of sex vs. gender and many other issues. Both groups (lumping together here disparate groups that have had notable successes in reframing the discourse around dissimilar causes) have been adept at developing and implementing rhetorical strategies that have entered mainstream U.S. culture, and both groups are winning battles every day, as the "pro-choice" camp continues to stagnate and decay. This is not to suggest there is no important pro-abortion work occurring. However, I have not seen any concerted attempts at a large-scale assessment and overhaul of existing assumptions about and terminology used for abortion rights (from those who support access to "abortion"--I hear plenty coming from those against "abortion" access). Here I also would like to differentiate and applaud the success of transgender rights activists in creating an entirely new lexicon (e.g. CAFAB, CAMAB, etc.) that make thoughtful, nuanced differentiations and express very specific concerns. I encourage comments from my trans rights activist readers directing others to reliable resources so that they may educate themselves. For the purposes of this article I, as usual, use the term "woman/women" to refer to those who identify as such. This is not an attempt at erasure of those who do not identify as women but may still become pregnant, or women who need access to clinics for hormone replacement therapy. My post is an attempt to confront the current stale state of abortion rights discourse and to challenge the surrounding accepted rhetoric, without co-opting but while admiring the transgender rights activist community's successes in an often overlapping struggle. I hope I have achieved this goal as gracefully as intended.

****Also, abortion is a social good, which should perhaps be addressed in a future post and should further prompt leftists and feminists to act now in support of my pleas.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Bernie Sanders Sucks — Now Love Him

Another guest post by John Wolfe, the theoretician behind the post that has been trending on Reddit since it was first published, and reigns as the second-most read BAMF post (behind my response to Federici) of all time. From the philosopher you love to love: 

Some Things We Know

Leftists usually display three personality traits: a certain romanticism, a deep cynicism, and boundless anger. Every time major elections roll around, the last two are deployed against the first. We all know the reasons—that elections in a capitalist republic amount to choosing which member of the ruling class will represent and oppress us, and that the choices involved are largely illusory and a poor way to affect real change. Further, simply participating in this tiresome ritual of the ballot box lends legitimacy to the illusion.

This cynicism has found a new target in Bernie Sanders. A number of articles devoted to informing leftists that Sanders is not one of us and his campaign promises no real change have been circulating lately. Given that the contemporary left has such a problem with overcoming sectarian bickering, it is almost a hopeful sign when the Ortho-Trots of the World Socialist Web Site, and the...whatever they are at Jacobin...can unite in denouncing the genial little socialist.

Of course, they are correct. Sanders is from the right flank of the Democratic Socialists of America. He is a card-carrying follower of the Socialist International. Who would expect this man could be anything other than a U.S. version of Hollande? Anybody who has looked into his stance on Israel knows that he is no anti-imperialist. The remarkable thing about the anti-Sanders commentary from the left is that people feel the need to so stridently point out the glaringly obvious.

Elections as Desire-Forming Events

Yet, I still think we have good reason to stump for Sanders. This is the case even though he is little more than a pre-Clintonian Democrat. This is the case even though he will most certainly lose the primary. This is the case even though, if by some miracle he wins the general election, he would most likely continue his party-line Democrat ways. This is the case even though, if by some greater miracle he becomes a radical, the political establishment would prevent him from doing much good. This is because elections should not be conceived as being about the candidates at all, but as about the people.

Presidential elections are marked events in the psychic life of the U.S. Elections of all sorts are frequent in the mess that is the U.S. political system. Local and state elections form the background noise of U.S. political life. However, no one cares much about these—and who can blame them? There is nothing in a school board or soil commissioner race that promises anything different. These elections are, for the most part, the equivalent of changing the oil in your car or flossing, and are neglected* in the same way.

But when presidential elections roll around, there is a real shift in the consciousness of the U.S. population. People become politicized. They feel a sense of agency and ownership over the political process. They begin looking to the future and thinking in terms of what a desirable society might be. The political imagination gets fired up, and new possibilities are disclosed. In short, they feel the intoxication of democracy.

This is, of course, largely an illusion. However nothing whets the appetite for the real thing like a good simulation.

Candidates succeed in elections, insofar as they do, by generating a vision of a possible future society which appeals to the public. Barack Obama did an excellent job of this. His 
half-African identity betokened an end to the traditional power structure. His vaguely progressive talk of change allowed people to see the possibility of a future without endless wars and assaults on the poor. The election of Obama legitimated a certain set of expectations for the future. He did not deliver, but the expectations remain entrenched in the public consciousness to such a degree that Hillary Rodham Clinton now has to unconvincingly attempt to portray herself as a populist who will uphold Obama's "legacy." 

But it is not the case that presidential campaigns merely appeal to existing voter preferences—presidential campaigns are rather desire forming. In this way they are much like advertising. No one wanted an iPhone until Steve Jobs unveiled them in a glitzy press conference; then half the population “discovered” that they had always wanted one. Likewise, as left-liberal as Seattle is, very few people there would have wanted an openly Leninist on the city council until Kshama Sawant mounted her effort and they discovered that they did. The visions presented by advertisers and politicians reveal new possibilities for the future which verify and reshape people's pre-existing desires.

Presidential elections are pure theater, it is true. But one of the main functions of this theater is to set the boundaries of what people can legitimately expect of their future. Between Clinton and the various Republican contenders, the boundaries are currently set at life under the boot of neoliberalism with a patriarchal and religious flavor, or a return to the days of Clintonian neoliberalism. 

Directive: Stump for Sanders, then for Stein

It is in this context that we can see the significance of a Sanders candidacy. He has the ability to portray a future outside the neoliberal consensus as both achievable and sensible, and he has the position and the funding to reach more people than a thousand Marxist bloggers. It is not much, but it pushes the political horizon further left. The anti-Sanders crowd seems to think that support for Sanders will transform genuine leftists into tepid reformists while there is very little, if any, actual danger of this. There is, however, a very real possibility that support for Sanders will cause the population as a whole to begin to accept some leftist goals as desirable and, more importantly, as achievable. More liberals will discover that they are actually socialists, a precondition to building any kind of mass movement in this country.

So support Sanders.

Then, when he loses the primary, stump for Jill Stein.

Then smash the bourgeois state. 

*BAMF fully supports flossing and does it regularly. Oral health affects total health, and we need our health optimized for the struggle. However, we do not disregard or discount the worth of those with poor dental or overall health.
**As always, this submission has been slightly altered stylistically by BAMF; this includes the addition of headers and links, among other slight changes. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Theory and Gains of Excess, Expanded

There has been a long pause in my posts; life has interfered with my writing, as it tends to with the less disciplined of scribes. I will spare you the details and leave it to your collective imagination. Shall I jump right in and address the topic that has been my foremost preoccupation for the past many months, the area in which I've been organizing feminists in the trenches, building community, and protecting women from self-righteous bullies? I'll cease waxing grandiose and explain.

This post is a follow up to my theory of excess, at the request of exactly two readers (the masses!) who asked me to expound upon one passage in particular. The idea has now ripened in my head long enough to make an attempt, and my nearly year-long and seemingly never-ending, never-improving battle with religious extremists in my own neighborhood lends me what might be considered some kind of authority on the matter.

Now for the original quote and post in question. The original example, Abortion Barbie's purportedly successful filibuster, was a socially acceptable procedural strategy that - although the media labeled it successful - in fact, ultimately failed. Only the excessive actions on that particular evening arguably accomplished anything for women's rights and pro-choice activism. Using that example, I claim that gains are made on the margins of socially acceptable behavior, beyond the boundaries of hegemonic political activism, in a space I deem excessive, saying:

Gains are made at the point at which activism exceeds accepted and acceptable standards of procedure. Excess destabilizes the boundaries of patriarchy. Religious fundamentalists consistently attempt to expand and fortify patriarchy by challenging its (constitutionally-based and judicially-enforced) boundaries. Anti-capitalists must challenge those same boundaries in order to destabilize them and undermine patriarchy. I am not promoting constitutional lawsuits or an ALEC of the Left; I am suggesting a distinctly Leftist activism of excess.

Zone of Acceptable Practices

The fundamental idea of my theory of excess is that there is an understood zone of acceptable practices for any given political situation. This zone varies constantly. The boundaries of the zone differ with each issue, circumstance, and set of conditions. The end caps of the zone might not even be identifiable, and if they are identified in a specific instance, they will likely change when applied elsewhere. I suspect that attempts to identify the specific bookends of the acceptable zone of a particular issue is not essential to our understanding of the role of the zone and the theory of excess. The importance, for now, lies in the acknowledgement of the existence of an acceptable zone, not necessarily its exact borders.

One may wonder if there are no identifiable boundaries (or even if there are, they might not matter very much), how we are to determine which activities fall outside, or exceed, the zone. This is a question each activist, each comrade, each feminist, each anticapitalist must ask herself about a given set of circumstances. Perhaps we can approach ways to identify and mark the boundaries in a future post. For now, let's agree that the location of the boundaries doesn't matter as much as recognizing their existence. Now let me suggest that we all attempt to exceed these amorphous boundaries at every opportunity. 

To illustrate the zone of acceptable practices, let's take anti-choice activism. On one end of the acceptable zone (or point on the spectrum, circle, or however you envision it) there might be group discussion and prayer, volunteerism at anti-choice non-profit organizations, and soliciting elected officials to support anti-choice legislation. On the other end of the acceptable zone lies disruptive street preaching in high-traffic areas, displaying enormous gory photos of questionable veracity and unidentified origin on college campuses, and verbally abusing patients and clinicians entering abortion clinics.

Most people occasionally, or even routinely, encounter activism from the acceptable zone as they attend church, pass a clinic, or cross a campus. The general public is aware of and tacitly accepts the range of tactics in the acceptable zone (on "both sides" of a given issue, here abortion, which are fundamentally inevitably similar). They accept it as a matter of free speech, freedom of religion, freedom to peaceably assemble, someone else's business, and so on. Occasionally, they might participate on one end of the zone to adhere to cultural norms or appease their social circle. For example, they might happen to be in church when a prayer for murdered fetuses is said, or they might "like" a relative's anti-choice post on Facebook. However, they are ultimately disinterested in entering the fray; this aloof collective awareness in some ways determines and shapes the acceptable zone. 

Beyond the Zone, Into Excess 


Actions taken within the acceptable zone may or may not be effective, may or may not make a difference, may or may not "count." Roe v. Wade falls within the zone and made abortion more accessible for many women; the Hyde Amendment is also within the zone and denies many women access to abortion. Praying and picketing abortion clinics falls within the zone and happens regularly, yet patients and staff come and go and abortions are performed unhindered; religious conversion also falls within the zone and has undoubtedly caused unwanted pregnancies to be carried to term. I have not yet devised a reliable method of determining whether actions taken within the zone are consistently successful or not.

What happens outside of the zone, on the margins, beyond the boundaries, in the periphery, or however might describe a kind of uncharted no-man's-land of activity is vastly more interesting and has the potential to have far more impact. Sure, religious conversion may stop a medical student from becoming an abortion provider, but assassinating Dr. George Tiller gave many more potential providers pause. And while praying outside of an abortion clinic may bring the occasional patient to tears, mailing defamatory flyers to the neighbors of the OB/GYN and staff and informing their children's school teachers and administrators of the parents' profession causes high turnover, resulting in understaffed clinics, thereby lowering the number of potential abortion providers. Anti-choice activists have gained impressive ground by exceeding the limits of the acceptable zone and entering the land of excess. To protect women's right to safe, accessible, legal, affordable abortion care, the pro-choice movement must learn from these masters of excess and transcend the boundaries of the acceptable zone.

Since the fundamental justification for anti-choice activism is the religious belief that life begins at conception paired with a moral opposition to murder, then their primary motivation would seem to be to convert everyone to their belief system and secondarily to prevent these perceived murders. However, in practice at the clinics, they make no effort to convert anyone. In fact, only two of the usual ten or so weekly protestors at my community clinic will provide the name of their church when asked. Their collective prime concerns seem to be 1.) creating a spectacle to draw the public's attention to the clinic, "outing" it, in a way; 2.) shouting guilt-invoking insults at and intimidating staff and patients as they walk from the parking lot to the door; 3.) gathering information about the doctor's and clinic owner's personal lives in order to harass them in other spaces. They spend little to no time converting anyone or preventing conception. Their actions do not match their motivations; they exceed them. This makes me wonder why our actions simply meet our motivations. A woman needs an abortion, so we make sure she gets from her car to the door, we make sure Roe v. Wade doesn't fall (although it does not guarantee much in these days due to its basis in privacy rights), we make sure Planned Parenthood can give her a discount. The pro-choice position at present is well within the acceptable zone and matches our presumable motivations - safe and accessible abortion care.

Changing Our Demand: Back to Basics


After much thought, I now think access to safe, affordable abortion should is not a sufficient demand. Our primary demand must meet the extremity of their demand--that uninformed, selfish, myopic demand that no one have an abortion no matter what the circumstance. Our demand would preferably exceed their demand, as well as exceed our motivation. After weeks and weeks of reflection, I have tossed around several ideas, ranging from themed abortion trucks (like food trucks, but for abortion) to imposing strict restrictions in an attempt to criminalize childbirth, and time and again as I weigh potential pro-choice excess demands, a powerful and vivid memory returns to me.

During Occupy, it was nearly impossible to find a camp free of sexism, even free of sexual harassment and assault, and took a minor miracle to bring feminist concerns to the group's collective agenda. Women's caucuses popped up around the world in response to this. Those who know me know my role in Occupy Women of Tampa (I have written of transphobia and misogyny in Occupy several times; perhaps I will repost some of those pieces on BAMF someday). Progressive stack was developed to create a space for women's and people of color's voices to be heard over the booming anger of the young, white, able-bodied, hetero men who showed up in Guy Fawkes masks ranting about the New World Order.

Nevermind all of the things that went so terribly wrong in our beautiful historical moment. Something that went right stays with me to this day. There was a march planned through downtown Tampa. Some media representatives were in attendance. Members of the International Socialist Organization were in town from Gainesville and elsewhere to show solidarity with the Tampa camp. Freedom Road Socialist Organization members were also present. Trots and tankies marching shoulder to shoulder. It was an impressive gathering of people. Chants ranged from "Chop from the Top," to "End the War, Tax the Rich, That's How You Fix the Deficit" to "Whose streets? Our streets!" and so on. Someone would start a chant and others would catch on, suddenly several hundred people were speaking in one voice, demanding the same thing: a glorious tableau that many of my readers have surely experienced at some point in their activism.

The moment that continues to preoccupy me occurred about at the intersection of Ashley Drive and Kennedy (SR 60), when we turned onto Kennedy to cross the bridge over the Hillsborough River and approached University of Tampa. I started chanting "Free abortion on demand. Can we do it? Yes, we can!" And someone from ISO with a megaphone near me started chanting it. And then FRSO started chanting it. And then the liberals started chanting it. And then the libertarians, whose positions on abortion were generally uninformed at best and outright anti-choice at worst, began chanting it. It was a simple, classic, timeless demand. And everything was perfect at its core. We chanted it a few blocks, then faded into an anti-war chant.

Every time I attempt to formulate an excessive pro-choice position, my mind returns to that elegant and concise demand. It summarizes my particular brand of pro-choice activism. And I have, for now, decided that this demand is my new focus. Free abortion on demand. No questions. No bills. No picketers. No waiting. No shame. No danger. No guilt.

The political and cultural climate surrounding abortion (in the US) at present is so stymied in disingenuous rhetoric, so clouded by unspoken religious assumptions, so tainted by outdated gender roles, so stagnant with excuses, so muddied with partisanship, that it is easy to exceed the acceptable zone. Even suggesting that a woman have access to 24-hour free abortion is excessive. I am deeply hopeful that someday it will seem silly to consider free abortion on demand excessive, for it will be commonplace. Until then, let us rally.

In the spirit of this newfound clarity, I urge us to spend less time sign-waving, less time tracking anti-choice bullies, less time promoting toothless legislation, less time in meetings about "health care" that don't involve realistic, honest discussions about abortion, less time forming superior rhetorical strategies, less time signing petitions, less time campaigning and lobbying, less time making excuses and concessions ("Obviously, in the case of rape and incest abortion is okay, but..." and "I would never have one, but..."). Let's spend our time collecting money for those who need abortions. Let's present fiery, heartfelt speeches to potential medical schools about the desperate need for numerous quality abortion providers. Let's organize internships at clinics. Let's donate to free abortion funds. Let's approach OB/GYNs and ask them to become abortion providers. Let's donate to clinics to pay for an anonymous patient's abortion. Let's approach abortion doctors and ask them to perform free abortions. Let's reach out to communities and ask women how we can help them get free abortions on demand. 

Embrace the chant, fully understand it and all of its implications, then take action however and as often as you can. Free abortion on demand. Can we do it? Yes, we can.      

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Scattered Observations on Orange Is the New Black

Surveillance of Women

The most important revelation in my blog so far has been the observation that the rise of the surveillance state, as embodied by the Prism program, has resulted in the first comprehensive, constant monitoring of women in the history of the world. The Netflix original series, Orange Is the New Black, addresses this new surveillance of women by examining it within the closed world of prison life, thereby revealing to a wide audience some troubling aspects of surveillance state capitalist patriarchy. 

Persecution of Dissidents

The inmates in OITNB who challenge the state quickly find themselves in either the psych ward or solitary confinement (i.e. "the SHU"), sometimes never reentering the general population, other times returning psychologically decimated. No justification is typically necessary and only because Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) comes from a wealthy family with access to a public forum does she avoid indefinite detention under inhumane conditions. This is a nod to the growing presence of the surveillance state persecution of dissidents, such as Glenn Greenwald, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange,* as well as the legislation and prosecutions stemming from the Green Scare. The extended detention in a London airport of Greenwald's partner, Chelsea Manning's public tarring and feathering, Julian Assange's extended exile in the Ecuadorian embassy, and the prosecution of animal rights and environmental activists as terrorists are all useful examples of the persecution of dissidents. 

Token Women

The state, embodied by men, rules the world. In OITNB the female inmates are constantly monitored by men and a few token women. The women in power within the prison system do not automatically side with the powerless inmates. Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), the warden's direct subordinate, is only interested in personal gain, as depicted in episode 12 when a journalist inquires about budgetary discrepancies as the camera zooms in on her new Mercedes. The continual failure of token women in power to automatically improve the lot of working class women should serve as a reminder that other women are not automatically feminists or allies in class struggle, something to keep in mind as the Hillary worship begins in a couple of weeks.
Although "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) appears to be a powerful woman** siding with the powerless by protecting the inmates from narcotic use, her rule against drugs allows the men to control the flow of drugs, causing addicts to deal with power hungry, inevitably underpaid and overworked guards. It also harms vulnerable transwoman, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), who experiences a stoppage of hormones through legitimate channels due to alleged budget cuts. Austerity always harms the most vulnerable populations first in surveillance state capitalist patriarchy. Red forbids the smuggling in of estrogen for Sophia--thereby forcing her to desperate measures--under a sweeping War on Drugs. And we all know how effective those are, especially for already marginalized folks.

Susan Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) is a female guard ostensibly on the side of the women inmates, perceiving them as similar to herself. She allows them to sneak out food and socialize during work hours. She tells Piper she perceives them as the same and reopens the running track. However, we will see her "power" decline and her position become precarious since Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) learned she has a boyfriend and isn't interested in him. Inevitably, when women fall out of favor with men, their lives become hellish.  

Sexual Violence

Women live under constant threat of sexual violence. The most poignant example of the constant threat of rape in OITNB is in episode 8 when George Mendez (Pablo Schreiber)  threatens to rape Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) unless she gives him information about Red's importing methods. The threat is not an explicit one, but everyone knows what he's implying. His next step won't be any fun, for her.

In an omnipotent, omniscient surveillance state, powerless women use rape as a tool of power, of manipulation, in order to control their own destinies and protect their loved ones. In episode 7, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) threatens to rape "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning) if she won't leave Piper alone and kisses her against her will a couple of episodes later. Daya attempts to frame Mendez for rape to protect the baby she wants to have and her love interest, who would otherwise be blamed for the pregnancy and incarcerated as a sex offender due to the fact that inmates cannot legally give consent.  

Compulsory Heterosexuality

The structure of sexual relations between guards and inmates mirrors a Dworkinian critique of heterosexual intercourse under patriarchy as always coerced due to the imbalance of power between the sexes. This critique reflects a radical feminist perception of the inherent subordinate status of women and the corresponding impossibility of consent in heterosexual relations. Within the world of OITNB, inmates cannot legally give consent. Within capitalist patriarchy, says Dworkin and implies OITNB, women cannot genuinely give consent; they are always a lower class, occupying a subordinate position, unable to make free choices.

OITNB and the Evolution of TV

OITNB displays a structural as well as thematic rejection of consumerism. It is part of a recent tide of well-written, often beautifully produced shows structured to omit advertisements, thereby changing the narrative structure--cadence, rhythm--of TV, which has historically been designed around strategically-placed commercial breaks. This new wave recognizes the shift toward streaming-based programs and ad omission through DVR devices, and challenges the ideological status of TV as a tool of consumerism. 

OITNB's accepts existing narrative conventions while expanding and pushing the boundaries of structure and genre, including casting. The show features the first trans* person with a leading role. In Theory of the Film, Bela Balazs, writing about the development of film (and later sound in film), posited that when a new genre is emerging, for it to revolutionize art, for Art History to be made, existing forms are torn asunder. In OITNB is the evolution and perhaps the death knell of traditional television.

Part of OITNB's rejection of ads is inherent in its streaming-only format, which I predict we will see much more of in the near future, and part is in its subversion of the traditional role of TV as modeling consumerism, not only in commercials between programming segments, but also within itself in the form of product placement, the strategic appearance of products to influence viewers to desire and purchase them. The characters in OITNB wear only the barest makeup, a bit of eyeliner here, a dab of smuggled lipstick there; there is no designer clothing, not much clothing at all beyond jumpsuits; no trendsetting purses; no Spanx; and feminine pads serve as shoes. There is no place for selling in the narrative of OITNB. This is a drastic deviation from traditional TV.     

It is worth noting when a genre begins to shift and evolve, especially one as widely consumed as TV. Marxists should always be prepared to observe new developments and changes to the superstructure not only because they reflect shifts in the base, but also because a keen understanding of cultural phenomena allows us to more effectively communicate with fellow and potential anticapitalists and adapt our organizing strategies.  

*This is not an uncritical endorsement of Assange, who may or may not be a rapist.

** I would even challenge the assertion that Red was ever in an actual position of power. Within the inmate population, she indeed held some influence due to her position as head chef and her ability to withhold food and control the drug supply. However, this power was granted only at the whim of the guards and administrators. As soon as she angers them, she is quickly replaced and finds herself being starved out by the new head chef, further depicting that women's lives become wretched once they displease men/the state

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Abortion Barbie, Neutralizing Radicals, and the Gains of Excess

Typically, I don't pay much attention to the remarks and activities of partisan hacks, but the Abortion Barbie kerfuffle caught my interest. When Erick Erickson referred to Wendy Davis as "Abortion Barbie" after her 11-hour filibuster to prevent the Texas legislature from passing restrictions that would shut down most abortion clinics in the state, he insinuated that her work for reproductive rights is her primary defining trait, that beyond that particular fight she fades into anonymity with the rest of the blonde bimbos of the world. But this jab holds more significance than the usual catty partisan insult. In Erickson's comment, I perceive an accurate identification of the marginalized status of women in US politics, the commodified status of women under capital, the objectified status of women under patriarchy, and the charade of the US partisan duopoly. It is the latter on which I will primarily focus in this post. 

Abortion Barbie

On the surface, Davis's filibuster appeared to pose resistance to the Texas legislature's attempts to restrict women's access to safe and affordable abortion, but her efforts never could have been successful. Abortion Barbie was a plaything to capital, which already knew that Davis could not halt passage of the legislation. The filibuster was temporary, a plastic gesture against a system that cannot be stopped by its own processes and procedures. A system that was founded and continues to rely on the exploitation of women's reproductive systems* does not have a self-destruct button. Although thousands of protestors caused a ruckus for a while, they could not sustain their protest long enough to prevent the bill's passage.** After all, even paid organizers must return to the office at some point. And once everyone left, Governor Rick Perry simply reconvened the legislature in a special session to pass the bill. 

So why is the most visible resistance to the encroachment upon women's rights unsustainable? We make our stand, then someone pops off our head, melts us, makes us make out with Skeletor. Are we Abortion Barbie?

Neutralizing Potential Radicals

Capital conveniently seized upon Davis's highly-publicized opposition in order to propagate the Myth of Effective Liberal Resistance, which prevents the radicalization of feminists. The media indicated that the bill was successfully defeated. Although they differed in tone, liberal and conservative media alike depicted the filibuster as effective pro-choice activism. If outlets covered the second special session in which the bill was easily passed, the coverage certainly didn't garner the type of attention as the initial "successful filibuster" story.

An event that had the potential to radicalize feminists was neutralized by media coverage that suggested feminists and their magnanimous liberal lady leader had won the fight, implying that there is sufficient resistance to the encroachment upon women's rights. If liberal feminists have it under control, why risk getting involved? If Davis and thousands in Texas were successful, we don't have to build grassroots resistance to prevent further attacks on women or preempt ALEC-based legislation. Media portrayals gave the false impression that someone else is handling the problem, that there is sufficient opposition to anti-woman legislation, that there is no dire need to get involved because everything is Under Control.

The Gains of Excess

Gains are made at the point at which activism exceeds accepted and acceptable standards of procedure. Excess destabilizes the boundaries of patriarchy. Religious fundamentalists consistently attempt to expand and fortify patriarchy by challenging its (constitutionally-based and judicially-enforced) boundaries. Anti-capitalists must challenge those same boundaries in order to destabilize them and undermine patriarchy. I am not promoting constitutional lawsuits or an ALEC of the Left; I am suggesting a distinctly Leftist activism of excess.

The most effective tactics of the night were the aggressive ones that exceeded acceptable limits of Senate decorum: they were radical. When Davis's rule-abiding filibuster faltered, the establishment feminists unleashed the previously-restrained fringe, including the ISO and Occupy, resulting in the People's Filibuster and allowing liberal feminists to join in the fray without risking their seats in the Senate gallery. Views differ about who played the dirtiest, the unwashed masses of rowdy protestors or sneaky Republican legislators. In either case, the bill was not passed that night, but was passed shortly thereafter with little hassle for the self-righteous Christians in charge, as Democrats registered voters outside

As they historically do, liberals claimed credit for an anti-capitalist victory while missing an opportunity for sustained resistance. The radicals had served their purpose--to sustain the Myth of Effective Liberal Resistance--and were sent on their way. The Democrats maintained their base without moving to the Left, as usual. The two-party duopoly and accompanying fallacy that Democrats pose effective resistance to patriarchy and capitalism was perpetuated. 

While Davis champions reproductive rights, she also undoubtedly supports the broader Democratic platform--including drone strikes, imperialist expansion, and small business fetishization--which harms women around the world. Until the feminism Davis symbolizes consistently includes a radicalism that defends all women from the poisonous grip of capitalist patriarchy, it is doomed to be Abortion Barbie: a stilted performance of something important, a dead-eyed ideology that preserves the anti-woman agenda that it ostensibly opposes. 

I used to be convinced that being a pro-choice liberal was better than being an anti-choice anything for the overall destabilization of capital and patriarchy. Now I recognize that plastic stances I once thought teetered on the edge of frivolity as Barbie teeters on her impossibly-pointed toes diminish the radical politics necessary to overthrow capitalist patriarchy. It's not better to be Abortion Barbie than a tin soldier: one must become the toymaker.
If we fight legislative battles by the rules of the establishment and only become temporarily radicalized once all other options are exhausted, then we are Abortion Barbie. In order to pose sustained resistance to patriarchal backlash against reproductive rights, our activism must be excessive. We must be radical at all times, in any given circumstance, and actively refuse to be lulled into a sense of passivity by media messages that a feisty Abortion Barbie is somewhere defending our right to safe, affordable abortion.

*Especially women of color. Additionally, it is built on the exploitation of female non-human animals' reproductive systems. 
 ** The crowd gathered around the filibuster itself, in real time, was positive. There is value in the mobilization of thousands of activists: to raise awareness of women's rights, to foster class unity, to practice mass organizing, to empower folks, to recruit comrades to fight against capital. These on-the-ground benefits aside, remote impact was negative. I deeply appreciate everyone who hit the streets. My point is the futility of two-party politics in the US today, and the damage these politics do to radical organizing. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How to Disappoint Kathi Weeks

Kathi Weeks's The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011) is a well-written, insightful text that caused me to critically examine my position on productivity and the Protestant (and laborist) work ethic; it provoked me--just as Weeks intends--into reflecting on and questioning my own post-capitalism vision. Never had it occurred to me that there would come a day after the fall of capitalism during which we could simply not work. Don't mistake me: I understand the refusal of work as a political strategy under capital to display the power of the working class,* but I had always conceived these displays as having the end goal of less or better work, not no work

Weeks accurately highlights that Marxian post-capitalism is heavy on pull-your-own weight rhetoric, even though I suspect one would be substantially less alienated from that weight under socialism than one is under capitalism. Although I would likely gain great personal satisfaction from a full rejection of the Protestant work ethic, I'm not prepared to entirely disavow the necessity of work, as a practice or as a concept. The concept of "work" allows us to appeal to a wide swath of the population, a swath that takes great pride in its work ethic, whether as the long-suffering earthly worker awaiting that heavenly reward or as the blue collar laborer who pulled him/herself up by the bootstraps. In other words, organizing around the axiom of "work" allows a wide sampling of individuals to relate to our struggle for control of the means of production, for only when we control those can we begin to truly allocate work equitably, resulting in far less and better work for all.

The value of Weeks's text as an effective challenge to one's worldview aside, upon finishing it, I had the distinct feeling that someone with an illogical vested interest in me had been deeply disappointed: I felt as though I had just visited my father. Weeks chastises the reader for failing to imagine a  satisfactory post-work, post-capitalism future. When her admonishments are not quite adequate, she invokes Jameson to further chide us (212). Weeks reminds us--as the reader reaches an unprecedented level of self-loathing for our utter failure to envision a proper post-capitalism utopia--that it is much more important that we imagine than what we imagine (207).

Despite her condescending tone, Weeks's point is well taken: Marxists have not been imaginative enough, and we should spend more time thinking about the potential of a post-work world, not limiting ourselves to imagining one that involves different, better or less work. After all, I frequently daydream about winning the lottery, and the starting point for those musings is always quitting my job. Admittedly, my post-work fantasy isn't very exciting: beach house on the West Coast, condo in Caracas, apartment in Paris, travel to Laos with the Wolfe, buying off a bunch of folks' student debt via Rolling Jubilee. Yawn.

Kathi Weeks is right: my revolution and my socialism involve work. But not some uncritical, blindly accepted glorification of work, but necessary drudgery based on material conditions. Who will do the cleaning? Robots can only do so much. Maybe we should all become slobs and shake off the shackles of bourgeois notions of cleanliness. After all, we undeniably clean and groom more than is necessary for health and hygiene, some of us shouldering more of the burden than others. It is interesting to watch even the brightest men make arguments about creased slacks and ironed collars, but can I speak for everyone I know? Of course we won't be ironing under socialism. But the tubs will still need scrubbing. Sure, if someone devises a better way to take out the trash, re-shelve the books, unload the dishwasher, de-ice the streets, and weed the garden, I'll take it. In the meantime, there is much work to be done to overthrow capitalism, as well as to install a society based on full equality. Let's get busy.

*Which on BAMF always includes domestic laborers

Friday, July 19, 2013

On Left Unity

A guest post by John Wolfe. 

One of the most fraught topics on the Marxist left is the ideal of “left unity.” We have all heard it called for more than once, and most hope for it in some form or other. However, it again and again fails to materialize. The factionalism of the left remains fodder for bitter jokes within and amusement from without. Further, we all know whose fault it is—those other people. “Sectarian,” like “hipster,” is a label that is never self-applied. This problem is so endemic it is worth analyzing in some detail, and here I will take a feeble stab at beginning such an analysis.

Once, in the not-so-distant past, there was a country known as the USSR heading up a block of nations experimenting with socialism in one form or another. Sometimes, as with much of what went on in the Twentieth Century, it is hard to believe that this actually happened, that a worker's revolution ushered in a situation where half the world was busily engaged in trying to build an alternative to capitalism. These experiments had mixed results to be sure, but at least they were happening, and happening on a grand scale. 

When the USSR existed, one's choice of party was truly significant. To join an official communist party was to literally ally oneself with Moscow and follow their dictates. It was to take a definite side in a war that was far from cold. Even as Eurocommunism and like developments made this relationship slightly more distant, the connection with Moscow remained essential. To join a Trotskyist party, on the other hand, was to take a stand against the USSR, to join a conspiracy to either undermine or radically transform (depending on how one looks at it) the state socialist counties. To join one of the “Marxist-Leninist” parties that blossomed in the US In the Seventies was to side with neither Moscow nor its would-be saviors, but rather to side with a China that was still recognizably anti-capitalist.

In Republic of Silence Sartre famously states that “We were never more free than under the German occupation.” This superficially odd statement simply indicates that substantial freedom requires that one's choices be recognized as meaningful, that they have real consequences. Under Nazi occupation the choice to support the resistance or become a collaborator carried with it life or death consequences for oneself, one's family, and one's associates. This is the ultimate validation of political activity.

Before 1991, a leftist's choice of party had such significance. It represented a substantive commitment to one or another international movement and, in many times and places, carried with it a real risk of imprisonment, death, loss of employment, or any number of bad consequences. Things were very real indeed.

The situation now, twenty some years after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, is unrecognizable by comparison. Despite the recent popular insurrections throughout Europe, despite the continued existence of many, largely stalled, guerrilla movements, and despite even the stunningly vibrant and heartening activities of the Bolivarians, a harsh neoliberal capitalism reigns throughout the world. The power of labor is in retreat, and what victories we win are largely Pyrrhic. In this situation, our activities and theoretical positions have been robbed of consequences and significance. These days, a communist can't even get arrested.

In this depressing situation, in developed nations like the US, leftism becomes more of a lifestyle than anything else. It is a posture one adopts, of little more meaning than becoming a goth, listening to dubstep, or shopping at Whole Foods. Despite one's best intentions, choosing a side in sectarian debate becomes little more than a way of carving out a personal identity. For, let's face it, whatever your opinion on the NEP, the particular historical situation that gave rise to it is not going to repeat itself, and nothing remotely like that situation will arise, until we are well into a revolutionary process. Until then, all activists on the Marxist left are engaged in nearly identical objectively reformist issue advocacy and labor organization efforts.

At this point, sectarian “enemies” come to the rescue. They keep the left alive by convincing its members that their choices are significant. Without that vocal sectarian opponent attacking everything you hold dear, you would have to face the harsh fact that no one gives a damn what you think of the Kronstadt rebellion, and frankly that it does not matter. However, deep down, we need that—and this is the problem. Just as Marcuse observed that modern society sustains itself by creating false needs, I would maintain the left sustains itself by creating false disputes. We need a way forward that minimizes this. I hope we can find this way, but all I have seen so far indicates that that this hope has little foundation.

Sectarian disputes then are both a pernicious phenomenon self-cannabalizing the left and stunting its effectiveness and a vital means by which the left sustains itself and avoids absorption into liberalism. We cannot hope to overcome petty squabbling until such time as we begin to score real victories. Until then, the best solution is to realize that there is little harm in embracing a diversity of tactics, gritting our teeth, and enduring the unstable mutually-sustaining antagonism we now have.