Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wave a white flag: On “left” support for the Democratic Party

Wave a white flag: On “left” support for the Democratic Party:
Activists are told by liberals, so-called progressives and other pundits to stop what we are doing in terms of developing independent politics and building our organizations, and to “get out the vote” for the candidates of the Democratic Party. “Leftists” who argue that we need to support the Democrats say, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that electing the lesser evil will give us more space to organize and advance our agenda. Yet this “left” cover for the Democrats, under whatever rationale, is not about building an independent revolutionary movement, but it is about switching our flag and hoisting up those of the Democrats. What it really means is surrender.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Marx on Alienation

In his early writing, Karl Marx analyzes the concept of alienation. Marx adopts a Hegelian methodology in his analysis. To both Hegel and Marx, history is a dynamic dialectical process. A dialectical stage begins with a negation, a contradiction, and then proceeds to a resolution of the contradiction, i.e. the sublation, transcendence, or, from Feuerbach, “the negation of the negation” (Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” 108). The original negation is not erased, but instead transformed (Tucker, Notes xli). Marx theorizes that alienation, especially the alienation of the worker (and capitalist) from the social activity of production, constitutes a negation, one which Marx believes will be sublated or transcended by the advent of communism. In his analysis, Marx claims, contra Hegel and others, the material basis of alienation, explores the specific material character of alienation, and locates the potential sublation of alienation in the sphere of practice.

Marx argues that Hegel’s account of the dialectical process must be transformed from an idealistic basis to a materialistic basis. Marx holds that Hegel has the dialectic “standing on its head [and] must be turned right side up again” (Marx, Afterword 302). Marx reads Hegel as saying that an actual idea creates the material reality of, e.g., family and civil society. Instead, Marx argues that Hegel inverts subject and object: actual material human beings create the ideas of family and civil society (“Contribution” 17-18). Marx holds that our social relations are not fundamentally in the human mind but in the material world. Dialectical contradictions arise when the material economic conditions conflict with the social institutions apropos to earlier economic conditions (“Marx on the History” 2). Although Marx follows Feuerbach’s lead in inverting this reading of Hegel, Marx extends Feuerbach’s materialism. In “Theses on Feuerbach,” of Marx claims that Feuerbach does not conceive of human activity itself as material (143). Marx argues instead that human activities, including thought and social relations, are also material (145). Richard J. Bernstein argues that Hegel unifies the material and the ideal in Geist (29-30), so too does Marx unify the physical and the ideal in the material.

After locating the dialectic in the material, Marx characterizes the specific nature of alienation in the material social relations of production under capitalism. In “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” Marx argues that capitalism inverts the relationship of humanity to labor, from the existence of worker for his or her fulfillment in labor, to the use of labor for the existence of the worker. Because of this inversion, labor under capitalism becomes institutionally alienated in four distinct ways. First, the product of labor becomes not merely objectified – Marx argues that it is humanity’s intrinsic nature, our species being, to produce objects, to exert our will on the natural world (75-76) – and not only expropriated, but taken to become actively hostile to the worker, not fulfilling but diminishing her- or himself, sometimes to the point of loss of reality, literal starvation, and death (71-72, 74). Second, capitalism alienates the worker from the labor process itself. Not just the product but the activity of producing no longer belongs to the worker; the worker becomes essentially a machine programmed by those who have purchased his or her labor power (75). Third, because, as mentioned above, it is our species being to be active, engaged, producers, Marx argues that by alienating workers from their product and process of production, capitalism thus alienates workers from their species being (76-77). Finally, capitalism alienates individual people from each other (77). When producing for a wage, the workers and the consumers of the workers’ products no longer interact with each other – they no longer create a social relationship. Marx argues that if labor were not alienated, one who produces for another would have “the direct and conscious satisfaction that [his or her] work satisfied a human need” (qtd. in Bernstein 48). By alienating labor, capitalism transforms production, the most intimate and personal relationship between human beings and nature, other human beings, and humanity itself, into an impersonal, bestial activity.

Marx argues that alienation must be resolved in the material, practical world, not merely the world of ideas. Marx asserts that “Social life is essentially practical,” not ideal, and that labor’s alienation, the contradiction between humanity’s actual practice of production under capitalism and production’s essential human purpose, must be resolved in practice (“Theses” 145). Marx opposes his views specifically to those of Proudhon: in “Society and Economy in History,” Marx condemns Proudhon for invoking mystical, nonsensical phrases to explain history and its development (136). Instead, Marx asserts that our ideas follow, not precede, our actual social relations: the “whole inner organization of nations [and] their international relations” are just “the expression of a particular division of labor” (139-140). Marx argues that our ideas are not eternal; they are always tied to material reality: “economic categories are only abstract expressions of . . . actual relations” (140). Marx concludes that Proudhon believes that only the categories, the “isolated thoughts,” need be changed to revolutionize society (140-141). In his condemnation of Proudhon, Marx implies that the opposite must be true: to change our ideas, we must change the physical reality. As Marx describes in “The German Ideology,” we must proceed from the “first premise of human history,” which is not the existence of eternal categories or ideas in the mind of God, but “the existence of living human individuals” and their physical, material nature. According to Tucker, Marx does not condemn ideas per se, but believes that ideas, theory, can “assist” changes in practice (Introduction xxxii). But, for Marx, physical existence and physical practice, what we actually do, remains primary. It is therefore practice – guided by theory – that must change to sublate the alienation of labor, to negate the negation constituted by alienation.

The focus on the alienation of labor makes clear that the conflict between capitalism and communism is not one of pragmatic efficiency but of the essential nature of humanity. Marx is not arguing here that communism or socialism is a way to produce more stuff than capitalism. Instead, Marx proceeds from a radically different view of the essence of humanity than does capitalism. Capitalism proceeds from the view of humanity as isolated individuals, whose relations are necessarily hostile, e.g. Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” or Rand’s fundamental “precondition of civilized society” as the “right to self-defense” (qtd. in “Civilization”) which can only blunt natural human hostility. Marx instead proceeds from the view of humanity as still individuals, but as social individuals, whose relations are ideally communal and mutually beneficial. The isolated individual is the negation of social humanity; the negation of negation will happen only when the negation of isolation is sublated into social production.

Works Cited

“Civilization.” The Ayn Rand Lexicon. The Ayn Rand Institute. 2014. Web. 17 Sep. 2014.
Bernstein, Richard J. “Praxis: Marx and the Hegelian Background.” Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1971. 11-83. Print.
Marx, Karl. Afterword to the Second German Edition. Capital. Vol. 1. By Marx. Tucker 299-302.
---. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Tucker 16-25.
---. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1877.” Tucker 66-125.
---. “Marx on the History of His Opinions.” Tucker 3-5.
---. “Society and Economy in History.” Tucker 136-142.
---. “Theses on Feuerbach.” Tucker 143-145.
Tucker, Robert C. Ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. Print.
---. Note on Text and Terminology. Tucker xxxix-xlii.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Affirmative consent

In Sex Is Serious, Christian (presumably liberal) philosopher and theologian Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig parallels the politics of affirmative consent and conservative Christian, especially Catholic, sanctification of sex. Bruenig highlights a perspicacious, crucial element of conservative sexual ideology: fertility is, in their view, the essential, ineluctable component of sex; to withhold fertility is to render whatever physical acts ensue as not sex. Indeed, by withholding fertility, people corrupt the physical act, rendering the act something not just irrelevant but deeply and perhaps permanently harmful. Critically examining the ethics of affirmative consent, with the recent passage of California's SB 967 as a paradigmatic example, Bruenig notes that advocates of affirmative consent hold that consent, in the strongest form, is the essential, ineluctable component of sex; without consent, whatever physical acts ensue are not not sex, and deeply harmful. Bruenig juxtaposes affirmative consent with the general feminist complaint against pornography to draw the conclusion that like conservative Christianity, "consent feminism" seeks to use state power to impose normative sexuality, a vision of what sex ought to be: "The law makes a statement about the nature of the right kind of sex in general, and also claims that the right kind of sex is serious enough to merit legal intervention." While Bruenig accurately notes a similarity, the similarity is trivial and misses the truly important question: who decides what kind of sexuality is right or wrong?

The juxtaposition of consent and pornography is specious. The feminist critique of pornography has never been that viewing sexual activity for the purpose of arousal is by itself inherently bad. The critique is, and always has been, that in a patriarchal society, pornography is predominately a tool used to culturally normalize the inferior and subordinate status of women. As Gloria Steinem says in the interview Bruenig links to, "We have to say pornography is not erotica, porn means female slavery. It means the depiction of female slavery." There are exceptions, but pornography as normalization of subordination is so pervasive that it deserves general condemnation; the exceptions truly are exceptional. A good analogy, perhaps, is with the police: in theory, the police serve an important, perhaps necessary social role; in practice, however, in a misogynist, racist, capitalist society, the police so predominantly serve as an instrument of oppression of women, people of color, and the poor and working class that they deserve general condemnation. The practical critique does not necessarily negate the theoretically positive value. Pornography is not about sex at all; it is about subordination. But pornography is a side issue.

Because sex happens between (at least) two people, sex is an inherently social act. The frequent use of erotica (and perhaps pornography in the feminist sense) in masturbation makes even this apparently individual act deeply social. Thus, the question is not whether we construct social norms and customs about sex; the question is what kind of social norms and customs we construct. Even the idea that people should have nothing at all to say about others' sexuality would be a social norm, in need of construction. And even then, we would still have to socially negotiate what are appropriate and inappropriate ways, places, and times that people get into sexual relationships. Advocates can unreservedly admit to the charge that we are trying to use the law not to codify existing standards but to change the culture. [ETA] Bruenig herself is trying to advocate her own vision of what sex should be - fluid, spontaneous, without a lot of niggling worries about consent. [/ETA] If Bruenig were just trying to draw and deep parallels between conservative Christians and consent feminists just on the basis of participating in the social construction of sexual norms, she would be making a completely trivial point: social people are social.

To my knowledge, no one believes that sex is unimportant or trivial. Affirmative consent ethics are not at all hypocritical or contradictory. Sex-positive feminism is not dedicated, as Bruenig claims, to "everyone having fun"; sex is not "little more than a silly pastime." The "SlutWalk moment" was not about affirming the value of "frivolous no-strings-attached" sex. It was about establishing women unapologetically as sexual beings, who want sex, and, more importantly who get to choose and consent themselves to expression of their own sexuality on their own terms. If that happens to be casual sex, well, that's their own choice, not mine. Consent is not necessary to protect casual sex; the fundamental point of SlutWalk is that sex is not something that must be pushed onto categorically sex-averse or -ashamed women; women can and do consent to sex, for their own enjoyment and fulfillment. Again, were Bruenig simply saying that affirmative consent ethics upholds the importance of sex, she would be making another trivial point.

But Bruenig has a deeper point: affirmative consent takes something important away from sex. Bruenig argues first that the law has always required consent; new laws change only the "expression of consent, which is an intervention into the way sex is [emphasis original]." According to Bruenig, affirmative consent ethics promote
a particular kind of sex, specifically that which is marked by mutual concern, unreserved enthusiasm, and ongoing mutual engagement—a shared focus on body language and verbal cues, refreshed step-by-step, underscored by an honest concern for the other person’s mental and emotional state with regard to the sex act
but ignore "bored sex, disinterested sex, or sex with reservations [emphasis original]." Affirmative consent ethics make women fundamentally mysterious: "women are essentially unknowable, that the usual ways of reading us can’t be trusted, and that our minds must be constantly probed for affirmative signals." Affirmative consent ethics, according to Bruenig, change how we have sex, but do not address sex as it actually is.

Bruenig, however, massively overstates her case. Even in a perfect world, without a hegemonic patriarchy, and even if affirmative consent laws were applicable generally instead of just to higher education institutions in California, affirmative consent does not change how sex is except to exclude rape. First, Bruenig unaccountably asserts that according to SB-967 excludes body language as a form of consent. Antioch College's 1993 sexual assault policy does require verbal consent (which in context is not a terrible idea; see below), but SB-967 says nothing of the sort; it mandates that agreement must be "affirmative, conscious, and voluntary" as well as ongoing. I've been sexually active for around thirty years, from one night stands to marriage, and I have never had a problem interpreting body language as unequivocally granting or withholding consent. Consequently, I have never had a problem with a woman later asserting that I had unconsciously or inadvertently violated her consent. Establishment and maintenance of consent has never caused a lack of passion, spontaneity, fluidity or any other positive aspect of sex.

The only thing that affirmative consent ethics establish is that "I didn't know he or she did not consent" is no longer a defense against sexual assault. SB-967 says that the only legitimate defense to sexual assault is "I had good reason to know he or she did consent." Indeed, SB-967 does not change the legal theory of sexual assault that much. In edge cases, such as statutory rape above a particular age, consent been an affirmative defense against charges of sexual assault: the defendant has the burden of proof, not the prosecution. Fundamentally, I would never defend myself against a charge of sexual assault by saying only that I didn't know a woman did not consent; if I do not know — and have good reason to know — a woman really does consent, I don't have sex. I have been at every stage of sexual activity when a woman has subtly or obviously indicated that she wants to stop. I stop. Period. I do not proceed unless and until I am absolutely clear that she wants to stop. Period. This is not rocket science. Affirmative consent places zero additional boundaries on my own sexuality.

I am personally a relatively sophisticated, perceptive middle-aged man. Not every college student, however, has the benefit of my upbringing and experience. It is critically important to understand that SB-967, as well as the Antioch College policy are aimed not at sophisticated, independent, self-confident adults, but at college students. These are typically young men and women, both sexually and socially inexperienced. Yes, we want to let them experiment, we need to allow them, as the 1993 New York Times article, 'Ask First' at Antioch,, that Bruenig cites, to make mistakes. But only some mistakes. Although no longer acting in loco parentis, college administrators need to help young people avoid catastrophic mistakes. We do not, for example, want to blithely allow young women to mistakenly become pregnant. We do not want to allow young people to mistakenly get sexually transmitted infections. And we do not want young people (indeed anyone) to "mistakenly" violate the personal autonomy and integrity of another person. Hence colleges prohibit bullying and fraternity hazing. And they should also take steps not ordinarily necessary for adults to prevent non-consensual sex. Even the Antioch College policy is reasonable. There are, of course, sexually and socially sophisticated eighteen year olds, who will largely take care of themselves, but if you're become sexually active with an inexperienced eighteen year old, especially if you yourself are more experienced and sophisticated, you could do a hell of a lot worse than establishing explicit verbal consent at every stage. That's how a person becomes sophisticated and experienced, and can move on to more subtle forms of communication.

Fundamentally, consent is first of all complex, and it is not about only sex: consent is the fundamental virtue of liberalism. (The Marxist critique of liberalism and capitalism does not deny the value consent; we claim that consent is necessary but not sufficient, especially in cases of indirect economic pressure.) Even a world without patriarchy, establishment of affirmative consent just brings this fundamental liberal value to the realm of sexuality.

But of course we do not live in a perfect world: we live in a world where patriarchy, although compromised, still retains considerable power. Men do get raped, and violation of consent for men, especially young homosexual men, is an important issue. But rape and sexual assault is a special problem for women. As Susan Brownmiller argues extensively in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, for centuries, perhaps millennia, the patriarchy has used rape (among other means) to exert its power and domination over women. Rape is not an isolated criminal act; rape has been, and still is, a tool to maintain the subordination of women. Even overt, forcible rape is still inadequately prosecuted, especially on college campuses when committed by high status male students such as athletes and fraternity members. (e.g. here, here, here, here, and an attempt at a depressingly long comprehensive list of just college rapes football players). A frequent defense in these overt rapes is that the perpetrators believed the victim had consented, placing the burden of proof on the victim to show she unequivocally did not consent. Shifting the burden of proof to the perpetrators can help shut down this legal strategy.

[ETA (forgot to pay off my thesis statement!] It's unclear why Bruenig tries to compare conservative Christians. If she were writing a college "common ground" essay, she would argue that the common ground between conservative Christians and consent feminists was a good thing (if it were to exist; I'm unconvinced that conservative Christians really have the temporal fulfillment of human beings at the forefront). Instead, she seems to take more of a "pox on both your houses" view, an Eric Hoffer communists-and-fascists-are-the-same view that people who are genuinely concerned about sex and its place in society are both trying to ruin it, or at least subordinate sex to a political agenda. But the question is not about what sex should be, it's about who decides how sex should be.

There are really only three possibilities about who should decide. First, morally privileged authorities such as the church. If you think you're enjoying sex, but it's not procreative, then they know, because they have privileged information about what God thinks about sex, that you're just fooling yourself, and you need to be protected from your own stupidity and moral ignorance. Second, the powerful (with, obviously, some overlap with authority). Men are typically stronger and more powerful than women; the mob is more powerful than the individual. Whatever men can get by force, overtly or subtly, is by definition good. Third and finally, the individual. It is the great paradox of liberalism* that the rights and privileges of the individual can be guaranteed only by the state; otherwise, the individual is always subject to the mob. Fundamentally, that's what feminist affirmative consent ethics do: make sex whatever each individual wants it to be, irrespective of what anyone else might think, necessarily using state power to protect the weaker from the stronger, and the individual from the mob. Intentionally or not (probably unintentionally), Bruenig regrettably comes down on the side of the stronger against the weaker.

*Socialism expands and does not resolve this paradox; communism (hopefully) resolves the paradox by securing to each individual sufficient economic power to truly make the state wither away.

The message that affirmative consent gives to women, especially young women, is that their sexuality is their own, no one else's, and they are free to consent, and free to withhold consent, at their pleasure, not anyone else's. This is the basis not only of modern liberal virtue but of the empowerment and freedom of every woman. These standards deserve our unequivocal, uncompromising assent.