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.

Friday, July 5, 2013

LGBT Pride, Gay Marriage, and the Reproduction of the Center

Pride is a magical time of year when progressive organizations unite to celebrate diversity and demand full equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters. I intended to make this post a carefree field report about the parade and festival including colorful pictures of topless gay guys and elegant drag queens, with a dash of commentary on the revolutionary potential of the LGBT community. I would have playfully mocked my Trotskyist comrades for hawking newspapers and my liberal feminist friends for their petitions.

This year promised to be an especially jubilant event due to the Supreme Court's rulings last week declaring DOMA unconstitutional and destabilizing California's Proposition 8. Finally, gays and lesbians can get married! At least, the federal government can't stop them, although Michigan and Virginia might try. But, alas, that was not meant to be. 

As Mercy for Animals was summoned by event staff to join the parade, a torrential downpour ensued. Anyone who has spent substantial time in Florida is aware that downpours of this kind typically last 10-20 minutes, then the relentless sun reclaims his throne and a rainbow or two emerges. This was not the case last Saturday. The gutters overflowed with glitter, feathers, and false eyelashes. Disgruntled drag queens must have been pouting into consolatory cocktails in bars all down Central Avenue

Even once we had distributed 2,000 anti-cruelty leaflets over the course of two hours while wading through ankle-deep puddles, even once the Wolfe and I were downtown at a vegetarian bistro, even once we relocated to the best build-your-own-Bloody-Mary bar in the Bay Area, even three bars into our hopping, the rain persisted. No pictures were taken; my camera (i.e. phone) spent the day in various more prepared folks' backpacks. So much for a lighthearted rundown of a glorious celebration of diversity. Back to standard ranting...

Now for clarification. For those who don't know me personally, my activism functions on the hypothesis that progressive social advancements help make capitalism more tolerable until we overthrow it. I have fought for marriage equality alongside activists of all stripes despite suspicions that marriage is a fundamentally bourgeois institution that fortifies capitalist patriarchy. My instinct is to promote the abolition of marriage due to its misogynistic history and failure to subvert normative bourgeois family structures in favor of something similar to Utah's Common Ground Initiative, which is far more inclusive of radical types of kinship bonds, communities, and non-conjugal relationships. However, none of this has deterred me from participating in activism to support others who perceive marriage equality as the struggle of our time. Mainstream LGBT organizations' focus on marriage as a fundamental human right has paid off with the recent SCOTUS rulings, so who am I to begrudge so many individuals a legitimate reason to celebrate?* All power to those fighting for equality: you know how to reach me to participate in direct action and demonstrations. 

With that said, inclusion of LGBT couples in the institution of marriage does not weaken but strengthens it. Legalization of gay marriage at the federal level preserves cultural hegemony by strategically including an element that is widely perceived as radical. This strategic inclusion of marginal elements occurs throughout the superstructure, from token women in powerful government positions to the one black friend in sitcoms.** By periodically including ostensibly heterogeneous elements in the socially-accepted norm, the norm is stabilized.

In "Explanation and Culture: Marginalia," (In Other Worlds,*** 1987)--a playful and incisive essay--Gayatri Spivak, drawing on Adrienne Rich, argues that to maintain its dominance the (white, bourgeois, heterosexual, male) center strategically includes (of color, working class, LGBT, female) marginalized cultural elements, stating "The putative center welcomes selective inhabitants of the margin in order better to exclude the margin" (145). She uses her own participation in an academic conference and her position in academia as examples. She is a woman of Indian descent, while her peers were white Anglo-Saxon men, the traditional demography of the academy. She challenges their "masculist centralism" in several spirited confrontations, which they condemn as "unfair." (Did I mention that this is a really fun read? What else is to be expected from a disciple of Derrida?) 



The state has historically encouraged women to marry in order to rely financially on men and thereby lessen reliance on the state. When women began obtaining higher education levels and pursuing careers, marriage rates plummeted. Individuals are waiting longer to marry, and alternate types of kinship provide alternatives to marriage. Plummeting marriage rates threaten the very institution of marriage, which is a key element of capitalist patriarchy. In order to sustain that dying and outdated institution, the center has included its margins, LGBT couples, to sustain and reproduce itself. 

Prior to this SCOTUS ruling, LGBT civil unions were excluded from federal benefits and protections, placing them squarely in the margins of the bourgeois institution of marriage, notion of love, and nuclear family. However, these relationships are not inherently radical or heterogeneous. This is not to say that LGBT couples are not stigmatized or oppressed; they are. And homosexuality might be radical under certain historical conditions, but monogamous gay marriage mimics the bourgeois nuclear family. The sexual orientation of those in normative relationships does not automatically radicalize those relationships or the individuals in them.

Spivak claims that marginal elements allowed into the center must behave in an certain manner in order to be tolerated (149). LGBT folks can only be tolerated if they behave in a specific way, in this case by conforming to bourgeois notions of love and family, for which marriage is the official cultural explanation. She notes, "The strongest brand of centralization is to allow in only the terms that would be consistent anyway" (155). Gay marriage functions similarly enough to heterosexual marriage that is does not disrupt the "consistency loop" required to sustain and reproduce the center. The center can "risk" embracing these previously marginal elements because they pose no threat to its dominance. In fact, the center must admit certain marginal elements to sustain and reproduce itself.

She goes on to claim that the margin can never be erased, only tamed to "exclude the possibility of the radically heterogenous" (143). By including the LGBT community in the institution of marriage, the "radically heterogeneous" elements--expressions of love and family that offer alternatives to marriage--are relegated to the margins and the center is stabilized, sustained, and reproduced.

While some see the federal recognition of gay marriage as a momentous leap forward for individual rights and equality, and they might be correct, it is (also?) a strategic move by capitalist patriarchy to exclude radical communities from official cultural explanations of love and family. Radical communities still exist--the margin is irreducible--but BDSM adherents, polygymous arrangements, unmarried partnerships, multi-generational households, single-parent families, intentional communities, and other alternate kinship models are excluded from and marginalized by current official cultural explanations,**** keeping the center firmly intact. Let us congratulate our comrades whose relationships are now recognized by the state but never uncritically accept such recognition and its implications.

*Disclaimer: I reserve the right to criticize any and all bourgeois institutions at any time.
** pp. 101-114
*** The essay is on pages 139-160 in my edition. 
**** Spivak notes that the lines between margin and center are ever changing and constantly negotiated, so currently marginalized elements might eventually be incorporated into the center under different material conditions. Predicting the future does not seem helpful here, only recognition that the location of the boundaries between center and margin are impermanent.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Green Scare, Prism, and the Rise of the Surveillance of Women

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?       
  And how should I presume?
--TS Eliot, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock
For most of the history of US domestic surveillance, efforts have been focused on those who seek to undermine hegemonic power, particularly communists, socialists, black nationalists, civil rights activists, union organizers, peace activists, political opponents of the reigning administration, and, to a predictably lesser extent, white hate groups. Of 92 total confirmed targets of COINTELPRO, 31 were organizations, 44 were men, and 17 were women. Of the 31 organizations, only one was explicitly dedicated to advancing women's rights. Considering that sexism is alive and well in the left even today, it was certainly exponentially more pervasive before Roe v. Wade and Title IX. Women who belonged to the 31 organizations monitored by COINTELPRO were relegated to subordinate roles; the leaders, officers, and most influential contributors were men. Consequently, men were the primary targets of COINTELPRO and its predecessors, and, I posit, its antecendents until roughly 2001, which ushered in the rise of the surveillance of women. 
 

The Green Scare

Between 2001 and 2006, the FBI improperly monitored several groups, including PETA and Greenpeace, as part of the Green Scare, a propaganda program that includes the labeling and prosecution of activists as terrorists. In animal rights and environmental activism, women occupy prominent positions and have achieved a gender equity previously unrealized in other social justice movements.(1)(2) Women are twice as likely as men to support animal rights and tend to be more sympathetic than men to environmental causes. As suppression of green activists became a state priority, an unprecedented number of women became targets of state surveillance. However, targeted surveillance of female green activists is only one aspect of the increased surveillance of women since 2001.
Thanks to radicalrationale.wordpress.com for designing the logo and to those who suggested that I have one. Now to discover whether or not it acts as a thumbnail when the blog is shared...

Prism

Because women have historically been and still are largely locked out of official positions of power, our communication has been considered to consist of idle gossip and old wives' tales. Until recently, the communication of women has been dismissed as inconsequential; we have worn a metaphorical veil that has allowed us to remain invisible to the surveillance gaze. With the Green Scare and the implementation of the all-encompassing Prism program, for the first time in history female communication has been deemed worthy of state surveillance.(3) The surveillance gaze has determined it is interested in our previously disregarded communication; it has stripped the veil from us.
 

Invisibility and Subversion

In Algeria Unveiled, Frantz Fanon conceived the veil as a revolutionary tool that allowed women to use invisibility as a weapon of resistance within the Casbah during the Algerian War. When Algerian women wore the veil, they were invisible to the French colonizers, who resented their absence from the otherwise omniscient colonizing gaze. Algerian women became the focus of campaigns by the French to impose on them cultural hegemony, including (unveiled) women as objects of male observation. The concerted efforts of the French colonizers to unveil Algerian women serves as an apt metaphor for the ripping away of the veil that prior to 2001 protected women's communication from state surveillance.(4)

The US government, in its secret interpretation and application of the Patriot Act, is acting as a colonizing force upon the entirety of human communication. The hegemonic gaze seeks out individual subversives, as well as organized efforts to undermine the dominant power structure. Historically, women's participation in resistance has been minimized. However, the recent ascent of women within the animal rights and environmentalism movements has transformed us into dangerously veiled unknowables who must be exposed to the surveillance gaze in order to be catalogued and controlled. The implementation of the Prism program rends the veil from the communication of women, ostensibly neutralizing our potential threat to the dominant capitalist power structure.

We are controlled and coerced by this new pervasive surveillance, as we meticulously ensure our actions on behalf of animals, the environment, and other social justice causes could in no way be construed as threatening to the capitalist state. Because we are being watched, we go to great lengths not to raise any red flags, thereby distracting us and possibly weakening our revolutionary potential. This is a risk we cannot take. We must resist the urge to cease or constrain our organizing and social justice work. Comrades must download and properly use TOR, communicate with other organizers and activists in person or through anonymous email accounts and servers, and consistently practice Security Culture

Fanon also notes the duality of the revolutionary potential of the veil. Not only was it an invisibility cloak of sorts within the Casbah, but it was also something that could be shed to allow Algerian women to appear sympathetic and nonthreatening to colonizing forces and, therefore, to complete subversive tasks undetected within European cities after 1955 (174-7). We must transform the loss of the veil over women's communication into a revolutionary tool that allows us to effectively maneuver the channels of capitalist patriarchy. Programs such as the Green Scare and Prism make it clear that the state perceives us as threats to its power. Let us prove it right.


(1) The recent allegations of transphobia in Deep Green Resistance is beyond the scope of this post although I am open to addressing it in future.
(2) Perhaps with the exception of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s. 
(3) There have been a few exceptions to this, consisting of social justice activists. One prominent example is Assata Shakur, the first woman to make the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, whose communications were undoubtedly monitored before her expatriation. Bernadine Dohrn has been a target of government surveillance for most of her life as well. 
(4) The reasons given by the French colonizers for wishing to impose European culture on the Algerians resemble the justifications of the Obama administration and the NSA for the Prism program: this is for our own protection, our own good.