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. 

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I hadn't been following this story that closely, but it sounds like a familiar story line. It reminds me of how the Democrats in Wisconsin were praised before they squandered the rebellion against Scott Walker. I think everyone's expectations are so low that if a politician does anything at all to stand up for people, they are worshiped. The idea of actually winning struggles though has become an idealistic notion.
    I'd like to hear more about your idea of "excess." It's not a term I've heard before. It reminds me of the last time I was at an anti-war demonstration in DC. Some people got arrested in front of the White House. It was completely choreographed. The police even had a tent on Pennsylvania Ave to process and release them. The problem isn't with the act of demonstrating or getting arrested, but the fact that it is predictable and not threatening. It's like a re-enactment of the real thing. The cops and politicians must feel like things could get out of control or else there's no pressure.