The hell with modernity and progress

Modernity presents itself, ideologically, as freedom, and freedom in a negative sense: freedom-from, that is, more than freedom-to. Freedom from ignorance and superstition, because modernity is enlightened; and freedom from want, discomfort, and disease, because modernity has better tech than people formerly had. Freedom from history, because history is over.

More positively, modernity does offer freedoms-to: freedom to travel easily and quickly, because modernity has jet planes; freedom to post pictures of your lunch on the internet, because modernity has the internet; freedom to consume fresh avocados year-round, no matter where you live, because of the jet planes again, and because modernity has created a global economy; freedom to go to bed with whomever, whenever. Modernity makes us free to change our sex, or to become some sort of aetherial being who has no sex at all. To choose not to do any of these things is nevertheless also an exercise of freedom, the freedom conferred by modernity. Modernity compels us to be free – on its terms; to choose from the options it presents. And, to be fair, these options are many; the bewildering variety of footwear alone defies inventory.

Stephen Daedalus famously observed that “history is a nightmare from which I am striving to escape.” Modernity claims that this escape has been consummated. At some point in the relatively recent past, a line was drawn under history, and contingency, path-dependency, and material constraint were left behind with it; or at any rate, such remnants of these obsoleta as persist are merely vestigial, adventitious annoyances, like the vermiform appendix. Mankind, now collectively outfitted with godlike powers, confronts the material world as a blank slate on which we may write what we will. Elon Musk’s nutty project of colonizing Mars, or perhaps even the whole Galaxy, or the whole cosmos, is in fact the blurted-out, imbecile, but perfectly logical, conclusion of Modernity’s fundamental axioms.

Of course a look round the modern world – perhaps from the perspective of some dispassionate, analytical, though not malicious, space alien – paints a few shadows into this shining picture. For one thing, it seems clear that modernity, through the agency of climate disaster, is poised to exterminate a good part of the human species, if not all of it – not to mention all the other species lost to the world every day. And even before the looming extermination of mankind, modernity has already killed a lot of people, and maintains a good many more in a state of shocking – and ever-worsening – misery, deprivation, and oppression; a state in which modernity’s face looks more like a death squad than a well-stocked supermarket.

Everyone knows these things, of course, but still, to invert George Costanza on God, we believe in modernity for everything but the bad stuff. Modernity is the good stuff. The bad stuff comes from somewhere else.

But suppose history does not in fact offer us an a-la-carte menu. Suppose it’s a package deal. Suppose Voltaire is the grinning, mirthful face of the chainsaw in the Amazon basin.

In that case, modernity gives with one hand what it takes away with the other. The avocados in my supermarket owe their presence (and their amazingly low price) to the immiseration of the men and women who picked them. My freedom is their un-freedom; I can buy or not, but they must pick or die.

Is modernity, in fact, the specific social and cultural form of mature, full-blown, triumphant Capital? Not an escape from history at all, but merely the latest contingent, path-dependent turn of its screw? And if so, what are the implications for us modern people?

Consider the thirteenth century, an amazing period, when people were able to do lots of things that are utterly beyond our powers now. Even so, nobody, of course, including admirers like me, would want to bring it back, even if that were possible – and it’s not; every historical moment is unique and un-recoverable, un-reproducible, as is every human being and indeed every snowflake. So forward is the only way to the egress.

But forward needn’t mean “further motion in the same direction” – and in fact, in history it never does. I suppose most of us Lefties, on the intellectual plane, have given up on the grand narrative of progress, or think we have. But it remains foundational to our culture – the culture of liberal modernity – and I suspect it lurks unacknowledged in the background of much of our thinking. For example, people who think they’re Lefties are frequently to be heard using the term “progressive” – and in a positive sense, believe it or not.

On the other hand, those of us who try to embrace and practice dialectics also don’t believe that history is just a random walk; we believe that it has a logic, though a logic that emerges from within, rather than following some ascertainable or inferrable pre-existing frame, and emerges and exfoliates over time; a logic in which genuinely new categories emerge that aren’t simply novel combinations of what has gone before; a logic whose very axioms and premises and indeed rules of inference evolve.

And of course, we believe in the negation of the negation – the way forward is simultaneously, in a sense, the way back, and vice-versa. To move forward is to discover something entirely new, and also to recover old things that we had thought were lost.

On a more positive note

Nothing is more important to build than solidarity among the victims of Capital. With it, we are invincible (there are a lot more of us than there are of them). Without it, we are doomed. The outcome of what has come to be known as “identity politics” is the subversion of solidarity in favor of silos of oppression where each constituency is implicitly the competitor and perhaps even the enemy of the others: men are the problem for women, straights are the problem for gays, whites are the problem for blacks. (And recently, it seems, Boomers have been identified as the problem for Millennials.) But the fact of course is that Capital is the problem for everybody – or rather, just about everybody.

Nothing is more important to seek than equality. And the hell with merit. We saw earlier how inequality in general tends to perpetuate inequality along racial and gender lines. By the same token, every egalitarian development disproportionately benefits those at the bottom of the heap. Levelling up, even if it raises the fortunes of downtrodden white people, will raise the fortunes of black people even more, and tend to eliminate or at least reduce the invidious deltas that give rise to conceptual megrims like “white privilege”.

The liberal and the fascist should be friends

It’s conventional to view fascism and liberalism as antithetical, and to some extent this is true. Their respective social bases, and imagery, and language, seem very different, and their policy preferences seem to be opposed – Build A Wall, for example, versus… versus what? Are liberals for open borders? Not exactly. On closer examination, the liberal turns out to have a different, more tasteful design for the wall, and proposes a staff of civil-service clerks to sift those who seek to pass through it, and decide who’s meritorious and who’s not.

In fact, liberalism and fascism are like the two heads of that marvellous mythical beast, the amphisbaena, a serpent with a head at each end of its body, both equally venomous. In this case, the amphisbaena’s belly, and heart, and lungs, and spine, are our old foe Capital.

Of the two, perhaps the one whose fangs call for a bit more examination is the liberal one. After all, we already know what fascists are about, right?

The liberal believes in social hierarchy, as long as it’s meritocratic – that is, based on standardized tests and where you went to high school; and as long as misery is equally shared – it’s important that the bottom 10% of black people not be worse off than the bottom 10% of white people. Opulence and power, of course, must also be equally shared – there must be an even balance between the male and female mass murderers around the big table in the War Room, and ditto for the corporate boardroom.

Liberals believe in institutions and loathe what they call “populism” (a thing which might more accurately be termed “democracy”). They love the Supreme Court, as long as their guys have a majority, and don’t mind the Electoral College, except when they lose an election there. They tend to consider the US Constitution a remarkable achievement of the human intellect, and they think Hamilton was a great show (and what a brilliant stroke to blackwash the Founding Fathers!). The institutions are sublime and flawless in conception, except that the wrong people have the helm. If the libs themselves were in charge, all would be well.

For American libs and fascists alike, the history of the US is fundamentally a happy history of promise and progress and triumph, besmirched, to be sure, by a few regrettable episodes. And both libs and fascists postulate a recent decline, though the fascist says “Make America great again” and the lib says “Take back our country.”

Both liberalism and fascism are authoritarian, but fascists personalize authority – the Strong Man – and liberals impersonalize authority, which is to say they locate it in mechanical, supra-human, bureaucratic institutions.

The fascist is counter-oedipal – he protects himself from the monster-father by identifying with him; the liberal is oedipal – he wants to kill the monster-father and replace him. The leftist, I would argue, is neither oedipal nor counter-oedipal, but inimical: He wants to kill the monster-father and not replace him.

Liberals are great incarcerators, as are fascists. The history of mass incarceration in the US exhibits this identity of outlook very clearly: it’s been a solidly bipartisan project for the last forty years or more.

Libs are always complaining that somebody’s punishment wasn’t severe enough. And they love defining new crimes, or aggravated versions of old crimes – consider the odious concept of “hate crimes”. Assault and battery and murder have been crimes ever since there was law; why exactly does the motive make them worse? The answer, of course, is that libs want to discourage hatred of the Other by punishing it. Severely. The more severely you punish a thing the less of it there will be. Obvious, right?

Libs are great believers in due process, except when the offense in question is something they particularly dislike. In that case, accusation must always imply guilt. Fascists are more consistent; they have no use for due process at all.

Libs in the US and, even more, in Germany and France, are very happy to write laws defining advocacy for Palestinians as “hate speech” – and here again, the covert connection with fascism becomes rather overt, considering that the beneficiary of such initiatives is a manifestly fascist, but much-coddled, unpleasant little statelet in the Levant.

“Left” is not just farther in the same direction as liberal. The space is not one-dimensional. “Left” is orthogonal to the axis that connects liberal and fascist, in another dimension.

Both the liberal and the fascist are thoroughly modern. The liberal fictionalizes and abhors the past, the fascist fictionalizes it and appropriates the fiction. Both the liberal and the fascist see the outcome of history as the apotheosis of the state, though the liberal revels in this fact and the fascist denies it. The liberal and the fascist both adore technology and see it as the ultimate answer to all the questions history poses, though the liberal sees technology as the midwife of the post-biological trans-human and the fascist sees it as the means for conquest of the Galaxy.

It is not always easy to tell the liberal and the fascist apart. There’s an old Commie joke: Scratch a liberal and a fascist bleeds.

What things can do things?

The critique of categories brings us to another idea, that of collective agency. Obviously a non-thing can’t be an agent – there’s no them there, you might say. But even though men are a thing, and women are a thing, does either act as a collective entity?

“Men”, we were told by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was an important person and a judge, who wore a solemn black robe to remind us of the fact, and who every day had the fate of ordinary, unimportant men and women in her hands, and who was much admired by many – this important Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously told us that men “should take their foot off our necks.” Do we men have a collective foot? Do women have a collective neck for our collective male foot to be on?

Of course the averages speak for themselves, so there are feet on necks. But whose feet? There’s the notorious pay gap. Just how big this gap is depends strongly on how you measure it; but nobody doubts that it’s real. If median husband and median wife both work in a meat-packing plant, for example, the former on average pulls down a cool $30,576 per year, the latter $23,3761. When both can find work, of course.

But clearly the men meat-packers aren’t exactly rolling in dough. They’re not quite as impoverished as the women, to be sure. But do the men meat-packers have their collective foot on the collective neck of the women? Or is it the boss, exploiting some difference of situation, possibly even some contrived and arbitrary one, for his own advantage?

Bad abstractions, continued. Privilege

Now let’s consider “privilege”, in any of its avatars — white privilege or male privilege, for example. This may be the most obfuscatory concept, or pseudo-concept, of all we have considered. First of all, of course, in the case of “white privilege”, it is the reification of a negative: the fact that “white” people aren’t treated, on the average, quite so badly as black people is, as it were, multiplied by -1, and turned into some sort of fictitious accounting asset supposedly possessed by the former. (Actually it’s the doubled reification of a negative, since it builds on the reified negative of “white people” in the first place.)

Consider a thought experiment: A society in which some arbitrarily chosen group – tall people, let’s say – are able to become doctors and lawyers and short people are not.

Now it seems obvious that in any rational egalitarian society, anybody who wants to be a doctor or a lawyer and is willing to put in the time ought to be able to do so (assuming that you need lawyers, but that too is another essay). So what the Talls have is the capacities that everybody ought to have; and the Shorts are unjustly deprived of them.

In a case like this, to speak of “tall privilege” seems to turn the thing upside-down; what the Talls have is not something unearned and special; what they have is in fact the common birthright of mankind, a right and not a privilege at all. Rather, the problem is that the Shorts are unjustly deprived of this right – not this “privilege”; this right. In other words, the problem is a problem of deprivation, not a problem of privilege. And of course the solution is not to deprive the Talls of their “privilege”; the solution is to stop depriving the Shorts. Right?

Even on the purely lexical plane, it’s preposterous to speak of unemployed former miners, say, dwelling in the postindustrial hellscapes of North America, without means or hope or medical care or useful public services, as the possessors of “privilege”, however rarefied and abstract and relative. It makes nonsense of the word.

But as we know, every theory implies a praxis, and it’s the praxis implied by this very bad theory that constitutes its really disastrous aspect – going far beyond its intellectual incoherence. It subverts solidarity. So-called “white people”, however downtrodden, are in effect told that they have too much – that they possess an unearned privilege, which by implication ought to be stripped away. In other words, the clear entailment of “white privilege” is, quite simply, levelling down. White people may be downtrodden, but they are not as downtrodden as black people, so they need taking down a peg or two more. Especially the deplaaarable lower orders. It would be difficult to devise a more suicidal turn for any kind of Left politics worthy of the name.

Which is probably why it’s a notion greatly beloved by affluent liberals, who loathe the deplaaarables, and lose no sleep over their dismal situation. It also provides endless opportunities for virtue-signalling by means of privilege-checking, and, at the same time, slyly, complacently registering one’s possession of privilege in the first place. The human fact is that nobody minds having privilege, and nobody minds other people knowing that one has it. Checking one’s privilege doesn’t mean it goes away; at the end of the evening, one retrieves it from the checkroom, perhaps with a nice tip for the attendant.

Unreliable abstractions, continued. Racism & white supremacy

Armed with the canon of specificity, let’s look at “white supremacy”. This was certainly an explicit ideology (with an associated praxis, of course) at various times and places, including the American South during slavery and the Jim Crow era.

In recent years, however, the term has come to be used in a more broad-brush way, and the canon of specificity ought to make our Spidey sense tingle. For example, one sometimes now hears people say, or imply, that “white supremacy” is somehow foundational to our existing political and social order – as if the FBI and the cops were gunning people down, and the US war machine running around the world blowing people up, to maintain “white supremacy”.

This is, as they say, wrong in so many ways. First of course there is the posited existence, as a thing, of “white people”, and further, a posited collective agency attributed to this chimaera. But even worse, this formulation ushers our old arch-villain Capital out of the spotlight and into the wings: as if all this lead were flying because “white people” believe they’re better than non-white people, rather than because Capital is worried that the billions of people he exploits might come after him with torches and pitchforks, or because Capital wants to extend the sphere of his control, or because various factions within Capital’s managerial cadre are fighting among themselves.

Then let’s consider “racism”. Here again, the term has a perfectly clear, concrete, and useful core meaning, which might be summarized as the theory that there are such things as human “races”, and that some are better than others.

This theory has a history and, of course, a praxis. It constituted respectable science – the latest thing, in fact – in the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th, and there’s no question that though it’s been thoroughly debunked intellectually, it continues to haunt Western and particularly American culture and thought, not so much in the form of explicit ideological commitments, for most people, as in the form of unarticulated assumptions and unexamined conceptual categories. (In fact the only form of explicit, unapologetic, ideological and practical racism that’s still marginally respectable, in good society in Western Europe and North America, is Zionism; but that’s another essay.)

In its subliminal form, racism certainly continues to exist. It may be an unconscious theory for many people; but it still has a praxis, which operates in the material world. Among its more notable practitioners, of course, are cops – many of whom, it seems, also embrace it consciously as theory, though being un-respectable as such, this theoretical commitment mostly remains unexpressed, except perhaps en famille.

As with the other concepts we’ve discussed above, “racism” has been broad-brushed. It’s applied to everything from ethnic stereotyping (an absolutely universal human activity, and not entirely irrational) to ethnic jokes (which are often very funny, because as good jokes always do, they contain a kernel of scandalous unmentionable truth). Indeed, in some circles it’s simply become a signifier of disapproval, attached to anything execrable: one hears phrases like “America’s racist wars”.

Let’s be clear: The US doesn’t start wars for the sake of the “white race”, or because it dislikes other “races”, or even because it is institutionally racist (though there’s a good case that it is). It starts wars for the usual old geopolitical reasons, the kind of reasons which long antedate the invention of race theory. (Of course racism, conscious or unconscious, often does play a role in justifying wars, even when it has nothing to do with the real reasons why they are embarked upon.)

Any term too broadly applied loses all useful meaning and simply becomes a noise that people make when they’re angry, and most unfortunately, the terms “racist” and “racism” seem well on their way to this kenosis of significance. I say “unfortunately”, because, as noted, the thing itself, properly so called, survives, and continues to do harm, and needs a name.

Racism is also frequently deployed as an explanation for phenomena which can actually be accounted for by more general principles. In these cases Occam’s Razor might usefully be exhibited. Consider, for instance, the notorious income and wealth gaps between black and white households. Unquestionably, the creation of these gaps in the first place was the result of slavery and Jim Crow. But is it necessary to postulate ongoing racism as the reason these gaps endure? Or even widen?

Let’s do an exercise in arithmetic. Let’s say the average white (or rather, “white”) household brings in $100,000 a year (I’m making these numbers up). And let’s say the average black household brings in $50,000. That’s a $50,000 per year income gap. Now let’s say the country is prosperous and a couple of years later every household’s income has increased by 5%. The white households are now averaging $105,000 and the black households are now averaging $52,500, and the income gap has grown from $50,000 to $52,500. Just because average income has grown, on top of existing inequality, not because racism has become worse.

This is not of course to deny that as a matter of fact racism still exists and still plays a role; it surely does. It is, rather, to point out that other and larger forces are also at work. The implication, of course, is that even without racism the back-white income gap would not only endure, but widen, simply due to the “normal” workings of the great American inequality machine, absent some levelling mechanism. Let me repeat that: absent some levelling mechanism. This motif will recur.

The American ideology is, of, course, that the levelling mechanism is meritocracy (and its sidekick, “diversity”). Without racism, the smart black people would be as likely to become CEOs as the smart white people, and the dumb black people would be as likely to end up sleeping on heating grates, or shot by cops, as the dumb white people. Meritocracy is the great winnowing fan, the Sorting Hat, that ought to distribute misery and opulence equally across racial (and gender) lines. After a few generations, of course. Or maybe more than a few. But certainly in the long run. The long run, perhaps, in which as Lord Keynes dryly observed, “We’re all dead.”

But of course we know, as a matter of empirical fact, that the heritability of wealth and earning power from one generation of a family to the next is extraordinarily high. Here again, there’s no need to postulate a racial dimension; it operates across the board. So even without racism, the gentle breath of meritocracy’s winnowing fan may be working against a downright gale of inherited inequality.

This is not to deny that racism still exists and is practiced and affects events. But if, even without racism, the black/white income gap would predictably persevere and even widen, then if we want to do something about that gap, is it sufficient to decry, or even to do away with racism? Consideration of the other factors at work might suggest otherwise.

I don’t personally think these gaps will ever go away, in the foreseeable future, absent a levelling mechanism that actually works, unlike meritocracy – that is, absent a commitment to equality, defined much more generally and much more radically and much more immediately (no more of the Long Run, please). Of course this implies an activist, interventionist, political mechanism; we can’t rely on the laws of nature here. And it implies a levelling which has nothing to do with merit – a levelling which falls, like rain, on the just and the unjust alike.

(To be continued)

Bad abstractions, continued. Patriarchy

Let’s consider some other abstractions we often hear about. Take ‘patriarchy’. A great deal of feminist theory since the 70s has postulated the immemorial existence of patriarchy – dating, in the usual account, from the time when humans ceased to be hunter-gatherers. At this point, for some reason which does not clearly appear, the collective male foot was solidly placed on the collective female neck. A great deal of history then took place – Assyria, Persia, Athens, Rome, ancient slave society and mediaeval feudal society – but these were all just fiddly variations on the ground-bass of patriarchy. Finally, in the 1970s, this ancient and foundational institution was called out and taken on by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem et al. Of course patriarchy still survives, though under siege; Harvey Weinstein, on this view of the matter, is just a louche, déclassé version of Abraham.

Might one tentatively suggest that this is all a bit… broad-brush, and even a bit culturally provincial and grandiose? One important question, surely: If patriarchy has been an oppressive force for millennia, why was there never a women’s liberation movement until quite recently (and locally)? Even in the ancient world, where slavery was a normal and accepted institution, there were slave revolts, as there were in the American South and the Caribbean. But there has, so far as I know, never been a women’s revolt, or even a feminist movement, until we arrive at more or less the modern world. And in all the hunter-gatherer societies known to ethnography, specialization along sex lines is universal, though it takes interestingly different forms from place to place. (The “interestingly different” part, of course, rightly gives the visionary imagination a lot of wiggle room.)

Perhaps a more parsimonious view of the women’s movement in our time is that it is historically specific to a particular time and conjuncture of circumstances: it seeks an adjustment – quite in order, of course – of sex roles to the greatly changed conditions of life that have taken place recently in the so-called “developed world” (meaning, primarily, Western Europe and North America, with some extension of cultural and economic influence further afield). In that milieu, hardly any family scrapes out a living on the farm anymore, or spins its own thread, or weaves its own cloth, or cuts its own wood, or needs to have lots of children in order to survive; and people – considered as “human resources” – are pretty much interchangeable, like Lego blocks. In that milieu it becomes perfectly natural and obvious to ask why a woman shouldn’t be a doctor, or a judge, or a bishop, and there’s no justification whatsoever for answering in the negative.

Indeed, one wonders whether the contemporary women’s movement isn’t perhaps a bit more specific even than that. Is it inconceivable that the “second wave” feminism of the latter half of the last century wasn’t merely a matter of picking up where the first wave left off, but was, rather, at least in some important part, a specific pushback to a specific repression – namely, the bundling of women back into the home after World War II, accompanied, of course, by a heavy-handed apparatus of blockhead ideology and indoctrination, and the engineering, by the ad-biz, of adventitious wants, to be satisfied by consumption? If so, then perhaps we can detect a certain analogy between the historical specificities of the gay movement and those of the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s. To say that the latter was characterized and inflected by the immediate circumstances of the postwar period is not, of course, to deny its organic connection with the earlier phases of feminism, dating from the 18th century. That’s the larger context – the context of industrial revolution and bourgeois hegemony in general, and the consequent irrelevance of sexual differentiation.

The Communist movement came up with a term that might arguably be more useful than “patriarchy” – namely, “male chauvinism”. The nice thing about this idea is that it doesn’t wave vaguely at some vast, looming, ancient – perhaps innate? – reprobacy. Rather, it concentrates attention on how people act and think in the here and now, in their dealings with comrades and spouses and children; with their unexamined assumptions and sometimes oafish behavior. “Don’t be a chauvinist” is actually more helpful advice than “don’t be a patriarch” – because in fact few of us have the opportunity to be patriarchs, but anybody can be a chauvinist.

To speak of chauvinism focuses on the beliefs and perceptions and thoughts and behavior of actual human beings in their actual setting. To be a chauvinist, after all, is to believe one’s own group better, in some way, than everybody else, and to act on that belief. To convince a male chauvinist that he’s simply mistaken – that is, that men in general are not smarter or more resolute or more suited to the conduct of human affairs than women are, though on average they’re a bit bigger and stronger – must surely go far to undermine the praxis of male chauvinism. No praxis without theory, and no theory without practical implications.

Is it premature, at this point, to suggest, as a canon of method, that the starting point of our analysis ought always to be historically specific phenomena and structures, and that we should be slow to posit the immemorial and the global, and avoid the use of such broad-brush categories in the description of what is in the world and our program for changing it? I suggest that it’s not only not premature; it’s long overdue.

What’s a thing & what’s not. Bad abstractions, continued.

As noted, men and women are a thing, and always have been. But gay people are a pretty recent thing, and the creation of this category forms an interesting bit of social history.

There has always been same-sex sex; Leviticus notoriously takes a dim view of it, or at least, of some versions of it; Alcibiades not so much. Or maybe, on the other hand, there is more commonality than meets the eye between the two; a lot depends on just what specific activity or activities you think Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which contain essentially the same language, refer to – a matter which is by no means entirely clear, just from a textual point of view. Even among the Pericleans, some same-sex activities were okay and others, it seems, were shameful. The latter category seems to have mostly been defined by treating a man as if he were a woman, a thing seen as degrading and injurious to him. Which is, of course, just the thing that Leviticus, on the plain literal face of it, forbids – whatever particular practice or practices Leviticus had in mind, a thing now probably unknowable.

Leviticus, moreover, is solely concerned with things that might occur between men. He has nothing at all to say about sexual activity between women, and neither, so far as I know, has any other ancient moralist, though St Paul glances at it in Romans. (Even Sappho is pretty coy about just what happens when the lights are out.)

It is also worth noting that Leviticus casually drops his very brief and unspecific references to same-sex sex among men into a long list of things that you should and shouldn’t do, most of which have to do with the proper way to conduct animal sacrifice. It’s not exactly ‘foregrounded’ – quite the contrary. Leviticus is not preoccupied with gay-bashing. Nor is Paul, in Romans; his references to same-sex sex are made, as it were, in passing – “Once they started worshipping idols, then all bets were off. Why, they started having same-sex sex!” Clearly the ex-Pharisee from Tarsus took a dim view of such hijinx, but he doesn’t spend much time on the topic.

Any time you find a law against something, it’s because people are doing it. Same-sex sex, like other aspects of sex, has been variously regulated and regarded, interdicted and permitted, in human culture, across time and place. But the creation of ‘homosexuality’ and its positive inversion, ‘gayness’, is a modern Euro-American development. ‘Homosexuality’, as a category, seems to have arrived along with psychiatry – that is, it represents the medicalization and even the essentialization of what was previously regarded, at worst, as a vice, which anybody might fall into, like gambling or drinking too much. (It is interesting to reflect that the same latest-thing science which gave us ‘homosexuality’ in the latter 19th century also gave us, at more or less the same time, ‘race’.)

Policing and criminalization, along with medicalization, seem to have been important features of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century modernity in general. It wasn’t only same-sex sex that got criminalized; so were drugs and even, rather spectacularly in the US case, booze. One rather wonders whether the usual account – deviant behavior needs to be policed – isn’t topsy-turvy, and the fact is that police need deviant behavior to justify their budget. Certainly, police forces in the US and elsewhere have clearly, at this present point in history, gone well beyond the kind of instrumentalities of social control which Capital no doubt needs to keep the work force in line; they have unmistakably become constituencies in their own right, partially autonomous, self-directed, self-interested actors on the political plane. A modern police state, as an old comrade of mine once quipped, is run not only by the police, but for the police.

Perhaps this process of police autonomization is responsible for some phenomena which are otherwise rather challenging to explain – why, after all, should Capital care with whom its subjects go to bed, or what they drink or smoke? Is the normal, or at least normative, regimen of Capital laissez-faire, at least as regards matters which don’t impair Capital’s rule, and these episodes of autonomization a secondary, though clearly systematic, phenomenon – adventitious, perhaps, in a functional sense, though apparently somehow naturally implicit in the structures of control, as turbulence is implicit in the flow of fluids?

Perhaps indeed there is a systole and diastole of autonomization and re-normalization, where normalization is used in the sense above – i.e. reversion to the essential skeleton of social control under the reign of Capital. The great witch panic of the 16th and 17th centuries did – finally – end; so did Prohibition. There seems to be some indication that the drug war may finally be winding down. The demented Satanic child-abuse panic of the 80s and 90s collapsed rather quickly, as these things go, though a more general form of moral panic on the subject, without the lurid Halloween trimmings, continues to thrive. If some such pattern can reasonably be inferred, then Stonewall and its sequelae might represent a kind of homeostatic correction.

Boozers and potheads never developed into an “identity”, but gay did – perhaps partly because the undergrounding of same-sex sex, made necessary by criminalization, led to community formation; and then, of course, drinking and smoking are things one can do on one’s own, but sex requires meeting other people. The insurrectionary stance of people already stigmatized, and even reified, as ‘homosexual’ was, naturally enough, to embrace the identity (along with the reification) but reverse the sign into ‘gay’. Here as elsewhere one wonders whether it might not be time for the negation of the negation. The negation inverts stigmatized ‘homosexuality’ into fabulous ‘gayness’ – so far, so good. But what does the negation of the negation look like?

One can only dream. It’s a bit vulgar – just a matter of splitting the difference – to imagine it might be a world in which everybody is sorta gay and everybody is sorta straight. But perhaps it’s not unreasonable to imagine a world in which it doesn’t much matter. Nobody cares whether you like broccoli or not; why should anybody care whether you like guys or not? If that’s the way it turns out, then the curious triumph of the gay movement will have been the liquidation of gayness as a category.

Beyond gay and straight, people already recognize that not everybody is exclusively same-sex-oriented or other-sex-oriented. Hence the somewhat cobbled-together notion of “bisexual”, which always reminds me irresistibly of the Houyhnhnm’s puzzlement over Gulliver; he clearly wasn’t a rational being, but he also clearly wasn’t a Yahoo, either, so they came up with a new category for him: he was a lusus Naturae. Or we might remember Linnaeus, with his grab-bag category of Vermes, where he put everything that didn’t obviously fit anywhere else.

Of course there are people who practice the thing that the term “bisexual” describes – that is, they’re into guys and girls. And there are certainly people who “identify” as bisexual; if they must tick a box, that’s the one they tick. But I want to argue that the boxes box us in quite needlessly. ‘Bisexual’ is, in effect, needed to preserve ‘gayness’ and ‘straightness’ respectively from contamination: a kind of intermediary quarantine or buffer zone.

(To be continued)

What is a thing, and what is not. II. Bad abstractions

Black people are a thing. Gay people are a thing. Are straight white people a thing, or just the reification of a negative – the set of people who aren’t black or gay, whether or not they have anything else in common? Redheads are a thing. Are non-redheads a thing? Women are certainly a thing – but then, so are men.

It would seem we need to figure out what is and what is not a thing. Perhaps we can at least agree at the outset that a thing which is essentially a non-thing is not ipso facto a thing. Non-redheads, perhaps we can agree, are not a thing. But men are not just non-women, and vice versa. Are white people a thing, or are they just the intersection of the sets non-black, non-Asian, non-Latino, non-indigenous, etc. – a purely algebraic concept? This is actually a question of some importance.

One might as well drop the Socratic pose here, and come clean. I don’t believe “white people” are a thing, and I don’t believe “straight people” are a thing. There are people, of course, who are what is commonly called “white” – i.e., they aren’t categorized as anything else; and there are, of course, people who are “straight” – i.e., they don’t have same-sex sex, or not very often, anyway. But while “black” and “gay” are identities, as that term is commonly used and understood, “white” and “straight” are not. Identity, in the current social sense, is created by a sort of carving-off; it is conferred by distinction and separation, and in great part, as a matter of fact, by injury. These acts of carving-off don’t reflexively confer an identity on the people not carved off, however. They remain on the outside of identity, looking into it. They have no identity. They’re just ordinary Joes and Janes.

What is a thing, and what is not: I. Bad analogies

The immense importance of the black liberation movement gave it, inevitably, a kind of paradigmatic character; it became the theoretical template for all the others. Understandably, no doubt, but certain conceptual confusions have ensued.

Black people in the US were born to black parents, mostly married other black people, and had children who were by definition black. They mostly lived in black neighborhoods, prayed in black churches, worked in occupations that were open to black people, and so on. My own particular strain of Communist sectarianism, when I was a young man, identified the black liberation movement – rightly, I still think – as a national liberation movement; it saw American black people as a people, an ethnos, still in bondage after four hundred years. A people with its own speech, its own music, its own sense of humor, its own stories, its own internal history.

Now this is not the case with women, or with gay people. Though in both these cases, to be sure, there are plenty of inside jokes and zones of mutual understanding that aren’t obvious to the casual non-woman or non-gay observer. In fact, people sometimes speak of “gay culture” or “gay subculture”, and these phrases ring true – though nobody, as far as I know, speaks of “women’s culture” or subculture. So the distinction I’m trying to make here isn’t absolute. Nevertheless, I argue that it’s important.

Women, typically, don’t have all-women parents; there’s usually a dude in the picture. They may have men as siblings, and they are quite often married to men, and live with them on terms of intimacy, occasionally successful and reasonably happy, as human happiness goes. They have some children who will grow up to be women, and others who will grow up to be men. If they go to church, the pew-sitters beside them may be women or men. This is to say that women are not segregated, and don’t constitute an ethnos or a nation.

One does not seek, here, to minimize the relative harms that women (in general) endure, compared to men (in general). One suggests, rather, that a tempting analogy may only be serviceable up to a point. John Lennon famously observed that “woman is the nigger of the world.” It’s a catchy phrase, but not quite accurate.

Much the same can be said for gay people. Their parents, for the most part, were not gay; their siblings often aren’t; their children often aren’t; they often have close friends who aren’t.

There are of course occupations that are thought to be characteristically gay, and neighborhoods ditto, so that’s a bit different from the situation of women; women may be disproportionately represented in women’s occupations, but they don’t generally congregate in women’s neighborhoods. Of course, neither do gay people, necessarily or even generally; but the phrase “gay neighborhood” doesn’t sound preposterous, whereas the phrase “women’s neighborhood” certainly does. There are certainly gay churches, but as far as I know, there are no women’s churches.

In short: these three movements, while they may be able to learn from each other, and more than that, to draw encouragement from each other, are actually quite different, and it’s serious mistake to conceptualize them as three different instances of the same thing. Black nationalism is a political orientation that must be taken seriously, and can make a good case, whether you agree with it or not; but women’s nationalism and gay nationalism are manifestly non-starters (though Proust had some fun with the latter, and neatly skewered Zionism in the process).

The other problem with this master analogy is that it flattens all these struggles out onto the same level of significance, and this, I believe, is also seriously mistaken. With all respect to the women’s liberation movement and the gay liberation movement, neither of them, in the actual concrete American historical context, has anything like the heft of the black liberation movement. Chattel slavery in the US, and its successor institutions, are the rock on which our entire economic and social development was essentially founded, whether directly or at one remove (and never more than one).

At this point it is necessary to bring on stage an important member of our dramatis personae; the arch-villain, in fact. I am going to call him Capital, with a big ‘C’ – not “capitalism”, which sounds like an ideology or perhaps a condition, but not like an actor. Capital, I argue, is very much an actor; an alienated power, a sort of Golem, who has become independent of the human hands that created him, and indeed very largely independent of individual human “capitalists”. The latter may falter or fail, become eccentric or remorseful, give their money to good causes, or exhibit other symptoms of weak-mindedness, irresolution, and irrationality; but Capital, though blind, though insensate and without consciousness, is nevertheless purposeful. Indeed, his deficiencies, as a subject, are his strengths. Capital never falters or fails; he is never distracted; he has no vanity, no self-regard, and therefore doesn’t care what people think of him; he never suffers from feelings or from guilt, never entertains second thoughts; and when one capitalist retires from the management of his affairs, Capital will quickly find a replacement.

People often argue about whether racism is essential to Capital. This is obviously a hypothetical question, since actually existing Capital clearly has found ways to derive considerable benefit from the existence of racial categories, racialist ideology, and discriminatory treatment of various “races”. And in fact during its foundational phase, Capital seems to have invented the concept of “race” in the first place. So what we’re really asking is whether there is some conceivable cousin of our actually now-existing Capital who could exist without racism in this sense.

The only reasonable answer, of course, is “Who knows?” But it does seem pretty clear that actually now-existing Capital is fine with women, for example, entering the labor force – in fact, by increasing supply, it’s driven down the price of labor, relative to its productivity, which surely makes Capital very happy. As everyone knows, few families these days can get by on one wage-earner’s income; the expectation, now, is that Hubbie and Wifey both work at Wal-Mart, or the local slaughterhouse. – If they’re lucky, that is, and keep their noses clean, and pass the drug screen. One imagines Capital rubbing his ghostly hands together and chuckling, well, that worked out just fine, didn’t it?

And of course Capital has never had any problem with gay people, whatever the ambient culture at any given moment may think. Capital – credit where it’s due – is unprejudiced. He doesn’t care about sex, who has it or who doesn’t, or with whom, unless there’s money to be made from it.

But then, too, Capital is always happy to make distinctions, and arbitrage them – to have first- and second-tier labor, and a corresponding price differential. In that sense, Capital likes sex differentiation too, up to a point, or at least finds a way to derive some benefit from it.

It would be interesting and useful to examine in more detail the ways in which Capital seeks out fault lines and makes use of them, and on the other side of the dialectical coin, simultaneously needs to level everyone into an indistinguishable, interchangeable commodity. But for my present purposes it’s sufficient to observe that actually-existing Capital’s cradle was rocked, and his young manhood was fostered, by the enslavement of Africans and their children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. This was the matrix that molded our robust, handsome, modern, progressive, enlightened young Capital, much more significantly than the subaltern status of women or the stigma attached to same-sex sex, onerous as these often were.

Hence, I would argue, the uniqueness and primacy – in the immediate, concrete American context – of the black liberation struggle. This is not to minimize or dismiss the others. But the difference must be recognized.

(To be continued)