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.