Broken Record

In an interview published today in Jacobin, David Harvey, a theorist of neoliberalism and one of my favorite vulgar Marxists, asks a controversial question:

“Here’s a proposition to think over. What if every dominant mode of production, with its particular political configuration, creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image to itself?

During the era of Fordist organization of the production process, the mirror image was a large centralized trade union movement and democratically centralist political parties.

The reorganization of the production process and turn to flexible accumulation during neoliberal times has produced a Left that is also, in many ways, its mirror: networking, decentralized, non-hierarchical.”

Harvey poses this as a provocation, one based on his analysis of the neoliberal organization of production but not explored at length in the interview. But what would such an exploration look like?

Rather than critique the horizontalist mode of organizing Harvey’s referring to, I think there’s another, related, sense in which the substance of politics on the broadly defined Left today mirrors neoliberalism. While Harvey’s focus is on the material organization of the political project of neoliberalism, the ideological current that follows from the organization of what Harvey calls the “new capitalist class” – the tech capitalists of Silicon Valley – also shapes this “mirror image.” After all, if the ruling ideas of every age are those of the ruling class, we should expect these ideas to influence the Left in a powerful way.

Driven by a decentralized entrepreneurialism that fetishizes the individual and the bootstrapping do-it-yourselfism of lean-in feminism, these ideas emphasize an assumed chain of individuals, identity, and language, with the latter two elements part of the self-expressive empowerment so central to project-based start-up culture.

How does this trickle-down to progressive politics? While some call the political current that constitutes the mirror image of these ideas “identity politics,” I prefer Carl Beijer’s phrase “liberal identitarianism.” A clunky mouthful to be sure, “liberal identitarianism” is helpful in its ability to differentiate this current from a left identitarianism.

As Beijer distinguishes the two, left identitarians have  “maintained their commitment understanding power and oppression thoroughly by including class identity in their analysis, as all of the great identitarian scholars have always done – whereas liberals, by definition, neglect it.” In other words, while liberal identitarians may acknowledge class in the sense of individual wealth, they refuse the left analysis of oppressions as present to reinforce class exploitation. By taking class as one static element among many axes of oppression, rather than a relational process reinforced and perpetuated by oppression, liberal identitarians come to a fundamentally different definition of liberation. For liberal identitarians, gaining equal representation and voice within a class society is the – often unspoken – goal.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in theory: it does make for a less hostile environment for oppressed groups, offering breathing room at the symbolic level of society. While it’s true that these aims can’t achieve liberation as understood by the Left – the end of oppression and with it, exploitation – and instead, fit snugly into neoliberal ideologies of self-expression, that’s no reason for us to pay more than passing attention to these politics. But what follows from these ideas is a focus on who you are and what you say rather than what you do combined with a claiming of the mantle of progressivism, and this is where the problem lies for Left critics.

By placing language and identity as primary determinants of political standing, liberal identitarians open the door to cynical cooptation of our movements by elites. If identity and language are the central markers of one’s legitimacy, rather than organizational ties or policy positions, a person with the ‘right’ identity – say, a person of color and/or woman – can learn the magic words needed to gain entrance into the charmed circle of progressive politics and use her elevated position to further oppression.

And that’s exactly what we see. It’s why the RNC featured black men leading the crowd in “all lives matter” chants, emphasizing their Blackness throughout their speeches despite supporting policies that further the oppression of their fellow African-Americans. Their identities serve as a shield, enabling them to go further in their racism than their white counterparts.

It’s why Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech as the Republican Presidential nominee, claimed he’d look out for “the people of Ferguson,” even if his policy positions assure the opposite. As Beijer points out, Trump added a “Q” to his invocation of the LGBTQ community, one that wasn’t even in the draft remarks, going a step further than even Clinton in his incorporation of progressive political terminology to support reactionary policy, as in this case, where he insisted his Islamophobic policies are enacted “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful ideology.”

If language is a key element of political practice, Trump at the moment of his enunciation of that “LGBTQ” is good. Which is patently absurd – one only needs to read the rest of the sentence to see this terminology is being mobilized to legitimize Islamophobia.

This is the basis of the left critique of a liberal identitarianism that implicitly imbues a homogeneity to identity groups. It’s a criticism of the “shut up and listen” approach to multi-racial or all-gender organizing. Left unspecified in this approach is which oppressed leadership ‘allies’ are to listen to, as the internal class division within oppressed groups is ignored in favor of a liberal essentialism that assumes everyone of X identity shares political views. In the case of black leadership in the anti-police brutality movement, should white people listen to David Clarke, the black sheriff who insists that the movement is “the enemy?” Or in my city, to the black clergy who organize pro-police rallies? If not, on what basis can we deny their standing?

The obvious answer is that what Clarke does – and what these clergy are doing – furthers the oppression of working class black people, whether or not they themselves happen to be black. This is the basis for rejecting their political legitimacy. Truthfully, only the most hardcore liberal identitarians would disagree with this, but it requires breaking with the logic of their analysis to condemn Clarke or these clergy. Similarly, a concern with what she does is our basis for rejecting Hillary Clinton as a feminist: she may be a woman, but what she does is oppress other, poorer, women, both at home and abroad. We can only reject Clarke, the clergy, or Clinton’s right to speak as members of the oppressed if we admit a primacy to what they do, not who they are or what they say.

We live in a world where, as R.L. Stephens puts it in a recent essay, “a Latino and an Asian-American crafted the Bush torture memos, which were then carried forward by the nation’s first Black president.” Diversity at the top doesn’t mean progress for us at the bottom – far from it. Trump mentioning Ferguson doesn’t make him any less of a white supremacist. Clinton claiming the mantle of feminism doesn’t make it true. When anyone claims political legitimacy, we should always respond with the question Stephens raises in his essay: What exactly is it that you do?

Always On

 

By the time Carol Hanisch’s essay “The Personal is Political” appeared in the 1970 anthology Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, that slogan had become a feminist rallying cry. A response to the era’s view of politics as concerned with a narrowly defined set of issues differentiated from the private domestic world, it challenged this divide.

That was the context and in it, ‘the personal is political’ was revolutionary. It resituated women’s experiences – of domestic and sexual violence, of relegation to the home, etcetera – as political problems rather than personal failings. Consciousness-raising groups provided space for women to measure their experiences against those of others, with analytical rigor transforming these stories into a collective understanding of the issues facing women. This overlapped with street work – marches, demonstrations, politicking, and strikes. In short, praxis: the feminist movement, a power bloc forcing change in the country’s institutions and social relations. That era was far from perfect – its racial, class, and sexual biases are familiar territory – but it had a movement, one that came up with theories of change through collective political practice.

Conditions are different today. “The personal is political” is mainstream. Entire publications run on a hot take profit model where think pieces proliferate over the latest ‘problematic’ celebrity, the ethical qualms of cultural appropriation, and the morality of interracial dating (I wish I was kidding about that last one).

Which isn’t to say we erred – after all, who could have seen this coming? But the congruity of these politics and neoliberalism should alert us to the stakes. If we understand neoliberalism as a class project of upward redistribution, a withdrawal of the welfare state alongside an expansion of the state’s repressive functions, our turn to the personal starts to look like a means of coping with rather than reversing the damage.

Take the discourse around “self-care” as an example. It takes an existing reality – we can hardly make it through each day – and offers it back to us wrapped in a language that insists we celebrate the actions we need to undertake to survive. Responsibility for social reproduction falls on our shoulders once again. Whereas we once sought collective solutions to our personal problems, we now live the outcome of the neoliberal counter-revolution which, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, may have taken economics as the method, but its object was our souls. That self-care is more therapy than politics should then come as no surprise. Which is not to minimize the need for therapy! But so long as we conflate politics with what we do to get by, we’ll forever be keeping ourselves healthy enough to hold a shit underpaid job and calling that politics.

The stick has shifted too far in the opposite direction of where it was when feminists came up with “the personal is political.” Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the thinking behind the slogan has been forgotten in this undoubtedly improved world. Today we need an off switch, a limit beyond which we understand ourselves to be living as individuals. What if we recognise that, to paraphrase a refrain of Freddie DeBoer’s, the culture you prefer is not your politics, that while the personal is surely political, it is not politics? A politics that emphasizes winning collective gains over manipulating symbols and language as if material progress flows from better ideas rather than the reverse. If we can’t agree on this, we doom ourselves to a navel-gazing that walls us off from those not yet part of our movements.

In a recent post, I wrote about the people immersed in the political culture I’m describing. As I put it,

“These are people who want progress but are being sucked into the morass of conflations of identity and politics. This is concerning not only because of its lack of strategic efficacy but also because it burns people out. To be always on, to have your identity, your cultural preferences, your social circle and your dating life all bound up with and signifying your politics is a recipe for exhaustion.”

I received a lot of feedback on this. People told me they knew exactly what I meant about the exhaustion. And I’m not surprised: I lived these politics too, where cultural preferences, relationships, language choice, and social circles were scrutinized for political imperfections, which then reflected back my worth or failings as a political actor. It was gutting.

But as I pulled away from this understanding of politics, I breathed easier. While identitarians, social justice activists, radicals, Woke Olympians, or whatever else you want to call them may not incorporate class analysis as often as socialists do – a relic of the what Carl Beijer calls “liberal identitarianism” – most of them are radicals. They can be won over and if some of us don’t engage them, we cede further ground to the Democrats, the neoliberals, the non-profits, to anyone but the left.

Storytelling

In a review for The Baffler, Amber A’Lee Frost takes a recent anthology on college sexual assault as a jumping off point to touch upon some concerning weaknesses in “the conversation” about sexual assault. Frost’s piece addresses a few issues I want to emphasize.

First, focusing on campus sexual assault without mentioning, as Frost puts it, the existence of “an outside world that’s even less safe” than campus is a problem. It’s one that stems from the class bias that comes with a focus on college campuses, particularly elite university campuses. Life at these institutions is far from representative of the average college student’s experience, much less the average sexual assault survivor’s. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But if we want to improve women’s conditions in society at large – and I believe we do – feminist movements on campus need to perpetually push back against this distorted focus, as the media, courts, police, etc will always privilege certain voices over others – this much we know.

I say ‘we’ because I’m part of these movements – on my campus as both a mentor to undergraduates and someone dealing with a university that’s inadequately addressing sexual harassment and assault  (boy could I tell you some horror stories). While we have the most power to force change in our own institutions, we need a more effective strategy of leveraging the spotlight on campuses to agitate for more resources in society at large for addressing sexual assault. That means increasing the options available to those who have been raped or assaulted other than going to the police (who are a source of violence against women in a number of ways), arguing for universal health care, rolling back the attack on women’s reproductive rights, and fighting for affordable housing so people can more easily leave those abusing them.

Second, the packaging and delivery of survivors’ stories deserves criticism. I don’t mean criticism of survivors but of the publications profiting off their pain. Frost writes expertly on this and its connection to the economics of the online publishing industry, and her piece made me think of this one from last year. It’s about how some women can only get published by writing about their trauma. As a young woman toying around with writing myself, it’s clear I could get published writing about being sexually assaulted. But that would entail committing myself to a future where anyone can learn intimate details of my life with a quick Google search rather than when I’m ready to tell them. I admire anyone who writes such stories but I can’t help wanting to burn down the outlets that greedily churn that shit out for clicks without concern for the women offering up their trauma.

Which brings up a related point: that the debate around sexual assault is overwhelmingly about stories from survivors can be both a) an improvement from when we ignored this problem completely as a society and b) a serious issue when it comes to my dude’s eternal question: what is to be done? As Frost writes “while these acts of public testimony are crucial, and therapeutic, for survivors, readers of We Believe You are curiously left asking much the same question that one of the victims here raises: ‘What am I supposed to do?'” She describes the anthology as leaving its reader directionless, and my years as a feminist in Boston – a college campus-centric city if there ever was one – feel similar. A lot of smart people write about why it is that a focus on the individual rises to the fore in the age of neoliberalism, which can accommodate – and sell! – individuals’ stories but not structural change, so I won’t try my hand at it. Instead, I’ll point out that this focus on the individual is pervasive when it comes to just about any feminist issue: abortion? Shout it! Sex work? Tell us whether you feel empowered!

I don’t want to disparage the people who support these strategies – fighting stigmas is good and I support them as people – but I am concerned with the strategic power of a focus on stories. I think it’s a shaky foundation for a movement. If all is predicated on what survivors want, what do we do when survivors disagree? It’s a bizarre parallel to the essentialized view of oppressed groups I wrote about the other day, where differential claims within “the black community” or “the trans community” become impossible to parse. I agree that it’s unproductive to judge the way any particular individual handles their assault; where I disagree is with the idea that this means we can’t discuss the efficacy of movements against sexual assault and the solutions they propose. It’s exactly this sort of critical analysis that Frost is doing in her review. People interpret their experiences differently, be these experiences as a woman, a person of color, a rape survivor, any combination of these identities, or anything else. What we as a movement must do is analyze the problems we’re facing and work out the best way forward.

A good friend of mine, one of the hardest working feminist organizers I know, has lately taken to saying that it’s wrong to say there is a feminist movement today, because there isn’t. I think she’s referring to the absence of collective feminist struggle – we have feminists, but not a feminist movement. I don’t think she’s entirely wrong. I don’t know what we do about that – I’m thinking out loud here – but we need to take her provocation, and Frost’s, seriously.

The Abortion Debate

“Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’ “

GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina stated on national television during the most recent GOP debate that the above scene was from the controversial (and highly edited) videos of Planned Parenthood offices filmed by the conservative Center for Medical Progress.

The scene Fiorina described never appears in the videos.

But as anyone who watched Fiorina deliver this lie during the debate might have noticed, the description of the scene and the assertion of facts work on two different registers. By vividly describing a gruesome scene, Fiorina kept our focus on the morality of abortion. While leading feminist organizations put the bulk of their efforts into building the Democratic Party instead of a movement, the Christian right has spent decades building a veritable ecology of movement actors. This is why the right now controls the terms of debate, posing the question of abortion as one of morality and thereby allowing anti-choice activists to present themselves as morally-enlightened even as they stalk, threaten, harass, and assault abortion providers and the women seeking their services. These leaders claim to be ‘defenders of (fetal) life’ while endangering real women’s lives with anti-choice restrictions, of which there were 205 from 2011-2013, more than in the entire decade prior.

The greatest evidence of the right’s dominance over the abortion debate comes from Planned Parenthood’s Democratic Party defenders. While Hillary Clinton continues to position herself as a supporter of women’s reproductive rights, her description of abortion as a “sad, often tragic choice” cedes ground to the anti-choice frame, qualifying women’s demands for equality with a moralizing that can only strengthen the right. Meanwhile, Martin O’Malley minimized Planned Parenthood’s role as an abortion provider, emphasizing that 97% of its services have nothing to do with abortion. Even Bernie Sanders minced words, rightly stating that federal funds don’t go toward abortions but failing to defend abortion as such from conservatives’ ruthless attacks. By hedging their defenses of Planned Parenthood, Democrats have accepted the right’s terms of debate. In doing so, Democrats are gambling that anti-choice forces support women’s access to less controversial reproductive health services. In this, they are mistaken.

That the funds currently being held hostage as a mark of allegiance to anti-choice fervor by conservatives have nothing to do with abortion is unfortunate proof of the wrongheadedness of Democrats’ wager. These are Title X funds, which go toward family planning centers, many of which are administered by Planned Parenthood. The federal funds, as Sanders noted, cannot go toward abortions. To tie them up in political posturing is to knowingly deny poor and working class women the right to basic health services, including cancer screenings, STD tests, and annual check ups.

The numbers on what happens when poor women lack access to health services are definitive. According to the Guttmacher Institute, without family planning services, poor women have higher rates of unintended pregnancy, which in 2008, occurred at five times the rate as among higher-income women.* What follows from here is predictable: higher rates of abortion and higher rates of unplanned birth, with poor women enduring the latter at six times the rate of higher-income women.

These numbers suggest that if abortion was actually what conservative leaders opposed, they would increase funding for reproductive health services and family planning. Add to this that 48% of women who underwent late-term abortions explained the delay as stemming from difficulty in making travel, work, and childcare arrangements for the time spent traveling to a provider, and it’s clear that the continued rollback of providers and flood of state mandated waiting periods for women seeking abortions guarantees that more women will get late-term abortions in the future.

Anti-choice activists and their leaders in Congress aren’t stupid: they have think tanks and journalists crunching these numbers. They know these laws will result in more abortions. We cannot simply ‘speak truth to power,’ repeat this data, and expect people like Fiorina to change their minds. We similarly cannot wait on Democrats to admit that in 2015, Roe v. Wade is almost non-existent for working-class, rural, and disportionately black and brown women across this country.

For those of us who would take up the unapologetic call for ‘free abortion on demand,’ we must refuse the right’s framing. We should instead argue for the right to abortion as central to the broader fight for women’s equality, which cannot be achieved without control over our reproductive choices, but also without free child care, a living wage, and paid maternity leave. The demand for control over our bodies was a cornerstone in the broader feminist struggle for full equality. To deny women this right is to attempt to reverse the gains won by feminists and call for a return to conditions of even greater inequality.

It’s important to note that when we argue for free abortion, this is based on a recognition of the race and class determinants behind a woman’s ability to choose. In 1970, before abortion was legalized in New York, over three-quarters of the women who died from illegal abortions were black and Puerto Rican. Today, poverty continues to be the most common reason women cite for getting abortion. And with women on average paying nearly $500 out-of-pocket for abortions, along with forfeiting hundreds of dollars in wages thanks to the obscene distance they must travel to access an abortion provider, we must emphasize the ways anti-choice restrictions disproportionately impact working class women of color, and strategize accordingly.

When the anti-choice movement’s actions ensure higher rates of abortion, we cannot respond effectively if we take them at their word that what they oppose is abortion, not the threat of women’s equality that comes with bodily autonomy. Instead, we should recognize their embrace of women’s oppression in every cynical invocation of ‘family values,’ an ideology where women are never queer, never trans, never lesbian, and always in the home. We should hear it when they condemn single mothers for using government assistance to raise their children while simultaneously criticizing working mothers for neglecting their kids. We should hear it in their continued denials that rape is ‘real’ rape if the woman was friends with, dating, or married to the man who raped her.

For the anti-choice movement, women, and women’s bodies, belong to men, and are of value to the extent that we perform the unpaid domestic labor this economy relies upon. Free abortion on demand is a threat to that control, providing a route for women to make their own choices in the meaningful sense of the word.

This is why we must recast the fight for abortion access as a fight for women’s full equality. If those morally opposed to abortion want to reduce its frequency, they should join the fight for a living wage, free child care, and paid maternity leave. The majority of Americans continue to support the legality of abortions, but with Democrats and Republicans eroding the conditions necessary for women to access this right, we cannot look to these political leaders for help. We must instead build a movement that shifts the terms of debate to focus on women’s right to reproductive justice, unapologetically affirming women’s right to choose to have or not have children, to give birth unshackled, to access good schools and livable housing, along with securing access to reproductive health services, including, yes, abortion.

*Higher-income was defined in the data as women making 200% the federal poverty rate

Women’s Rights, from Boston to Gaza

Gaza and Clinic Defense
Gaza and Women’s Self-Determination

This was my favorite of the photos I took at a clinic defense action last week in Boston, MA.  It was directed at the anti-abortion protestors whom we were at the clinic to counter, though more broadly addressed the entire Boston community, drawing the connections between these conflicts. For analyses of this connection, I recommend this Electronic Intifada article, as well as this piece by INCITE!

The action was a response to the effects of the US Supreme Court striking down the buffer zone law, which had required that protesters (specifically, it was enacted with respect to anti-abortion protesters outside of abortion clinics) remain thirty-five feet away from the clinic being targeted.

Since its nullification, anti-abortion protestors have returned to hovering around the front of the Planned Parenthood building.  As long as they are not physically blocking entry, they are considered to be exercising their right to free speech.  However, the very real effects of their presence is an end to freedom of movement, as a patient must suffer their entreaties and company as she enters the building, and then wonder about how non-violent these anti-abortionists truly are as she passes through Planned Parenthood’s heavy security precautions.

At the action, I watched one of these anti-abortionists pace back and forth in front of the building, anti-woman literature in his hand, scanning passers by so as not to miss an opportunity to harass any who might have been entering the clinic.

The history of violence associated with these anti-abortion protestors is very recent.  The following is from the National Abortion Federation’s website:

“This foundation of harassment [outside of clinics] led to violence with the first reported clinic arson in 1976 and a series of bombings in 1978. Arsons and bombings have continued until this day. Anti-abortion extremists have also used chemicals to block women’s access to abortion employing butyric acid to vandalize clinics and sending anthrax threat letters to frighten clinic staff.

In the early 1990s, anti-abortion extremists concluded that murdering providers was the only way to stop abortion. The first provider was murdered in 1993. Since then, there have been seven subsequent murders and numerous attempted murders of clinic staff and physicians, several of which occurred in their own homes. In 2009, NAF member Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed in his church in Wichita, Kansas.”

This history was viscerally present as I watched the anti-abortion protester pacing back and forth on the sidewalk.  While this event was a controversial action in the feminist community here in Boston, it ultimately allowed women and Planned Parenthood patients, including those who attended the event but most importantly those who didn’t and instead happened upon it, to see that there are others willing to push back against the monopoly on space that has long been held by the anti-abortionists. Two of those involved in planning the action argued for it here.  They are members of Boston Feminists for Liberation, the independent feminist organization that organized the event.

The action went as I imagined it would: it was low-key, with twenty-five or so (mostly) women holding signs and speaking out on the edge of the sidewalk nearest the street.  Dozens of the neighborhood’s residents joined in on the action upon seeing it, and we succeeded in causing a few of the anti-abortionists to pack up their signs and head home early. We also became the focus of their video camera, allowing a brief reprieve for Planned Parenthood’s patients, who would otherwise have been the focus of their filming.

And, as my second favorite sign, also directed at the anti-abortionists, read:

“Life begins when you stand up to right-wing fascists.”

Who can argue with that?