Thursday, 29 March 2007

Foucault, Power, and Sex

Just a few words on Michel Foucault’s understanding of power and his first volume of the History of Sexuality before I write a post on the second, The Use of Pleasure (1984).

According to his celebrated Two Lectures (1976) political theory has traditionally concerned itself with questions of sovereignty, power, and rights. In this model the sovereign-state has been treated as the source and repository of power. As it has the monopoly over the means of (legitimate) violence, in the final analysis its subjects obey under the threat of the use of officially sanctioned coercion. Here, the rights of the citizen are conceived as checks on the power of the sovereign, to prevent it from arbitrarily exercising its power.

Foucault however thinks this is too rigid, too narrow. His microphysics of power is very different because his concern is with a politics of how masses of human bodies are regulated, leading him to ask radical questions about the conventional model of power.
There are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterise, and constitute the social body and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated or implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse. There can be no exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth. (Power/Knowledge (1980), p.93)
Take the contemporary understanding of sexuality for example. Whether we’re gay, straight or bi, sexuality is something that defines who we are. This isn’t because it’s an expression of an essential nature. It just so happens to be an effect of how human bodies have come to be regulated over the last couple of centuries. As we’ll see in a future post, an ancient Greek freeman who preferred sex with young men didn’t have any conception of being different to other freemen who preferred sex with women, and neither was he seen as different. Set this against our modern understanding of sex. Who we are attracted to and who we sleep with defines our being in ways incomprehensible to the ancient Greeks.

Power for Foucault is bound up with “knowing” its object so it can be transformed into its subject. It is complex in its scope and specific in its operation. Because of its fluid-like character and ability to generate so many different kinds of subjects, power cannot reflect the will of the state, the operation of the economy, or any idea of human nature. In fact Foucault reaches a radically opposed conclusion: notions of an essential nature, rights, or bourgeois interests are effects of power.

Foucault’s method (what he, following Nietzsche calls a genealogical approach) is to study power from the bottom up, to trace the lines of descent of political technologies of the body to illustrate the emergence of particular kinds of subjects and the passing of others.

This is Foucault’s concern in his unfinished project, The History of Sexuality (1976-84). In the first volume his objective is
to define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world. The central issue is … to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. (History of Sexuality: An Introduction, p.11)
Foucault’s discussion begins with the immediate pre-modern era. He argues that the regulation of sexual practices were the responsibility of ecclesiastical and legislative discourses and institutions. The married couple was located as the primary site of sexual behaviour. Sex was about procreation and marriage functioned as a reproductive pact between allied families. Sex outside of marriage was outside the purview of sexual regulation in the case of infants, and punished if it took place between men. This pattern of regulation underwent a significant mutation at the beginning of the 18th century, linked to the emergence of ‘population’ as an economic and political problem that had to be managed. It was in the interest of emerging nation-states had to know about sex in terms of its citizen’s capacity to reproduce and ability to be disciplined in all matters sexual.

As the problematic of population management grew, the 19th century saw an explosion of discourses around sex. The centrality of the married couple in the old discursive regime was repositioned as the unspoken norm of sexual behaviour. In contrast all other behaviours that didn’t conform became marked by the discourses of sexuality. The ‘margins’ of sex were labelled and regulated by seizing hold of the body and learning (constructing) its sexual truths. For example the discovery of ‘the homosexual’ was the same moment of its invention. Prior to this moment, familial, legislative and religious practices proscribed same-sex relations, but it was only in the Victorian era when the person who engaged in such acts was positioned as a homosexual subject.

In this move from sex acts to sexuality-as-identity, the metaphor of ‘the confessional’ as a technology to extract/produce the truth of bodies assumes central importance. This “scientific” practice was characterised by five devices.

1. The confession was wedded to scientific methods of data collection and psychological techniques.

2. The belief that sex is the root of all psychological maladies and that talking over one’s sexual behaviour to an expert was essential if the problems were to be overcome.

3. Every act committed and each sentence uttered is potentially symptomatic, rendering the interpretation of the confession problematic and decipherable only by especially trained experts.

4. The aim of providing useful knowledge that could fit the received paradigm shaped the discourse between analyst and analysand. Together they produce a truth.

5. To provide raw material for knowledge. Any cathartic effects are ultimately secondary.

In sum, these devices produce sexuality as a viable object for scientific investigation, and feed the object and its associated knowledges back into the ensemble of power. Truth is not uncovered by the operation of knowledge; it is an effect of power.

As socialists this understanding of power has a number of implications for our political practice, but that will have to be left for another time. What does come out from Foucault’s genealogies, (including Discipline and Punish (1975), his immediately preceding work on the birth of the prison) is the utterly powerless position of the subject. In both these books the body is subjected to so many disciplining technologies that it appears to passively accept them. This is strange because Foucault makes it quite clear that power begets resistance. Without resistance or the potential for resistance, we cannot speak of power. Unfortunately resistance is merely asserted as an essential property of his approach and is not explored with reference to either punishment or sexuality. Perhaps this lacuna in his thought partially explains why there was an eight year gap between the publishing of the first and second volume, because the change in emphasis is striking. The passive bodies of the Introduction give way to matters of individual ethics and management of self in The Use of Pleasure. A post discussing the main aspects and emphases of the latter will appear in the next few days.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Early Morning Barbecue

I awoke in the early hours of Saturday morning to find the bedroom bathed in pulsating blue light. Cat leaped from the sack to peer out the window - it was a fire engine! How exciting! We both hurried to the back bedroom and was greeted by a crappy old van happily blazing away. How we oooed as the front tyres exploded, and aaahed as the flames yielded to the smothering embrace of foam. After a short scuffle with the firefighters the fire flickered and died and the good people of my block of terraces could retire to their mushrooms to resume their nocturnal forays into dream land. But eager to record the aftermath for posterity (and to prove I have a real existence outside the internet), atop this post you will find one of my photos.

Frequent visitors will notice a few subtle changes to AVPS in the links department. First up are various sociology blogs I've managed to turn up in my internet wanderings. This list of links will I hope bolster AVPS's tenuous claim to be a sociology blog.

I've also taken time out to compile a list of establishment blogs, comprising sundry Blairites, Tories, LibDems and other fellow travellers of the bourgeoisie. Here you'll find people like Iain Dale, apparently the left's pet Tory; the increasingly unhinged Guido; David Miliband - one of the few Blairites I actually like; the freaks of Harry's Place and much else besides.

Counter-hegemonies have had some attention lavished upon them too. I welcome John Angliss, Labour of Love, Leanne Wood, Leftwing Criminologist, Mike Marqusee, Never Trust a Hippy, Red Squirrel's Lair, Renegade Eye, The Pleasures of the Popular, and The Soul of Man Under Capitalism to the AVPS blog roll. Also, applying the Norman Geras rule of bumping off blogs that have remained quiet for a couple of months, it's goodbye to Bolshevichka and JJB Fightback (the latter having ceased trading completely). I hereby serve warning to Air Pollution and The Revolution Decides - you're for the chop if you don't post soon!

Lastly on the links front, I've added the new site of the CWI Scotland to the socialist websites section.

And that's your lot! This week you can expect posts on Michel Foucault, the Third Way, and Paul Virilio along with the usual supply of incisive commentary, reportage and polemic ;)

PS Forgot to add the Obsolete blog to the above roll call. Sorry comrade!

Sunday, 25 March 2007

"Fighting" the BNP

Ever fell like you've been wasting your time? Earlier today I spent a knackering couple of hours pounding the streets of Fenton and Longton delivering Unite Against Fascism leaflets.

Just a bit of background about Longton North. This was the BNP's breakthrough ward in 2003 when Steve Batkin got himself elected to the council. He was joined the following year by Mark Leat, and in 2006 the ward was the BNP's primary target in the council election. Nick Griffin himself turned up at the count to oversee what would be the first ward in the country to have total BNP representation. Unfortunately for them it was not to be and Labour's hapless Denver Tolley managed to retain his seat.

So now it's Batkin's turn again. Since being elected he's become known as something of a dullard in the council chamber, barely turning up to votes or committees, and only speaking twice in chambers since his election! Nevertheless he retains his popularity in his Longton stronghold for his frequent populist gestures. Inbetween putting out leaflets blaming foreigners and Marxists for the woes of Stoke, he's been known go litter picking, lawn mowing, and helping out locals with their problems. That he's dismissively known as 'bin bag Batkin' for being seen about the ward says more about his mainstream critics inability to connect with voters than Batkin's.

You would think that anti-fascist literature targeting Batkin would have to be right on the money. Perhaps attacking his abysmal record on the council would be a good place to begin, which sits rather uneasily with the community councillor image he's attempted to cultivate. Or attack the BNP on their claims to represent the white working class when their pro-cuts position on the council, such as withdrawal of funds from the city's Citizens Advice Bureau, is a kick in the teeth. Sadly not.

The UAF leaflet attacks Batkin on three counts:

1) Batkin's holocaust denial.
2) The BNP's hate-mongering over plans for Stoke's only purpose-built mosque.
3) Batkin not paying his council tax.

That is it! Given everyone in Longton is well aware of Batkin's far right lunacy (not least because his ward has been plastered with UAF and Searchlight material in the past) and his support remains undiminished, highlighting his and the BNP's racism and Islamophobia just won't cut it. And as for not paying his council tax, given its relentless rise to pay for council mismanagement, is a failure to pay likely to count against him?

But the introductory blurb was even worse:
The BNP is a fascist organisation. Fascists stand for the total annihilation of sections of society. When fascists came to power in Nazi Germany a total of 15 million people were murdered in the 1930s.
A more politically illiterate statement is seldom seen. When were fascists not in power in Nazi Germany? And were 15 million people killed by the Nazis before 1940? Hmmm, I think not.

Would the BNP have any trouble batting away these attacks? Of course not. Do these leaflets challenge the BNP's ideas in any meaningful way? They come nowhere near.

What I find really depressing is this approach to anti-fascism hasn't moved on since the height of the National Front in the late 70s. Whereas pointing out the Nazi connection may have done the trick in conjunction with concerted labour movement action against them then, it is woefully inadequate now, especially without the backing of the latter. But then this liberal approach to anti-fascism is more about mobilising the non-BNP vote rather than tackling the reasons why people support the fascists in the first place, and even on these terms it fails to get out the 'anti-fascist' vote, as the low turn out figures consistently testify.

UAF, its Anti-Nazi League predecessor and the rest have got their heads in the sand. Whatever the result of the local elections in May, the same old literature will be churned out next year and the year after that while the BNP continues its steady advance.

Time for a serious rethink.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Culture as Conspiracy

No, this is not a post about the reptilean-illuminati shadow government. This is about the culture industry, or rather what a clutch of Keele academics at a reading group had to say about Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's influential piece, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.

For those of you not familiar with these Frankfurt School theorists, their thesis on culture was simple but deeply pessimistic:
Culture now impresses the same stamp on everything. Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part (Dialectic Of Enlightenment, p.120).
Popular culture in all its manifestations is qualitatively the same thing, there is an undifferentiated unity that sinks into the consciousness of the consuming masses and ties them to capitalist production.
The consumers are the workers and employees, the farmers and the lower middle class. Capitalist production so confines them, body and soul, that they fall helpless victims to what is offered them. As naturally as the ruled always took the morality imposed upon them more seriously than did the rulers themselves, the deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them (p.133-4).
The cultural bonds of capitalism hold the working class firmly in place. There can be no opposition because the media brainwashes and seduces the class into believing there is nothing wrong. Instead of nurturing a desire for capitalism's violent overthrow, workers are far more likely to be worrying about Dot and Jim from EastEnders.

The discussion revolved around a number of themes. The most obvious of observations is how Adorno and Horkheimer believed mass culture left no room for liberatory potential. This begs the question of how seemingly everyone is deceived by the system, and yet they themselves are able to take a critical stance from the outside. What makes this doubly difficult is not just the question of their unique position vis a vis the rest of the population, but how they are able to use Marxism - that theoretical condensation of working class experience - to critique the culture industry, but apparently the working class itself cannot.

An answer is implied in their reflections on bourgeois art. In a number of passages they wax lyrical about the style of Beethoven, and how artists were able to take their suffering and give it form. This was not just an existential statement, it is a way of transgressing bourgeois society by manifesting its structural violence through paints and scores. Unlike the samey safe fare of mass culture, high art is the stuff of anti-capitalist critique.

How useful is this position today? The temptation is to dismiss it out of hand. People are not (and never were) simple dupes that capitalism can push around by filling our heads with on-message culture. For instance how can one explain the explosion of youth culture from the 60s onwards without any impulse from below. Was punk just a cynical marketing ploy by the culture industry? Adorno and Horkheimer massively underestimate the dialectical interplay that mediates and mutually constitutes audiences and industries.

Another problem is with their totalitarian view of the culture industry. They assume a perfect fit between capitalism's drive for profit and a mass culture with no room for critique or alternatives. But this is not how capitalism works. Just as capitalism is only capable of meeting market requirements, leaving vast swathes of our class condemned to poverty and privation; so it is true of culture. Because the culture industry produces commodities to be consumed on a market, capitalism can never fully meet its own ideological needs. For example, the works of Marx remain in print because of the market for them. Capital as such is indifferent to the weapons they contain as long as there is money to be made. I think it was Lenin who said a capitalist would be quite happy to sell you the rope you hang them with.

Is there anything of value left in this essay? Yes. Though they overegged the cultural industry pudding, popular culture is for the most part pre-packaged and standardised. Boy and girl bands roll off well established production lines, soaps regurgitate the same universal story lines over and over, Hollywood blockbusters tend to adhere to a standard set of formulas. Where they fall down is that despite standardisation, the content can and often is more complex than they ever supposed.

The second insight concerns commodification. Radical ideas, modes of dress, lifestyles can all be commodified regardless of how explicitly anti-capitalist they are, and with it comes the danger of decontextualisation by the market and being sold on as any other commodity. The iconic image of Che Guevara being the ultimate in empty revolutionary signifiers.

Ultimately what Adorno and Horkheimer have shown us is that despite their shortcomings, an effective challenge to commodity production cannot proceed solely from the domain of cultural production. They may have favoured the radical potential of high art, but they overlooked the grim realities of everyday life faced by our class. This is our most powerful resource for socialist change.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Morality Wars in the USA

It was a sunny afternoon in March when a group of lecturers, postgrads and ne'er-do-wells descended upon the David Bruce Centre at Keele Uni. The occasion? A paper punctuating the myth of the US morality wars.

Like many on the revolutionary left I did not support John Kerry's bid for the presidency. Nevertheless when election day went and left George W. in power, I was pretty depressed by the result. Like many others sucked into the media maelstrom surrounding the contest, I bought the line that this was a civil war at the ballot box. Progressives and anyone with common sense would be voting Democrat to get Bush out. On the other hand the evangelicals, the fundamentalists, the gun nuts and the rest were hell bent on rolling back women's rights, gay rights and transforming the USA into some sort of theocracy. It follows that Bush's victory was a victory for the loony right. It implied their reactionary agenda had mass support and that America stood at the threshold of a new medievalist dark age.

According to Prof Chris Bailey, this was not the case. The first question he asked was how abortion and homosexuality specifically came to be regarded as major issues? Bailey pointed to two broad processes: the trajectory of post-war social change has made identity a salient issue for nearly everyone, and as such has spilled over into debates around values; and second, the change in the structures of the two parties have favoured a more participatory democracy where movements can use party platforms to get over their message.

Turning first to social processes, post-war USA (like much of the western world) has seen the frequency of the nuclear family give way to a variety of family forms. The number of marriages fell by half over the 1970-2004 period. The birth rate went into decline, divorces increased, pre-marital cohabitation became more common place and the figures for female-headed households rose. For the traditionalists of the religious right these changes signalled the USA's slide into depravity and hedonism. For progressives they reflected the increasing empowerment of women and US citizens more generally making use of their rights. With such polarised perceptions of change, small wonder the conflict between the camps has been so bitter.

For Bailey the religious right broke with its splendid isolation from politics after the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment gathered momentum after 1971, and particularly the enshrining of abortion as a constitutional right in 1973 in the aftermath of Roe vs Wade. As the evangelicals and fundamentalists believed life begins at conception, to abort a fetus is to kill an innocent. However direct legal challenges on the supreme court decision went no where, so the anti-abortionists changed tack and pursued their objectives through state legislatures. Here their struggle has succeeded in restricting access to abortion by cutting off public funding to clinics, introducing compulsory "counselling", and the requirement to obtain parental or spousal consent, across a number of states. The most ludicrous examples of bureaucratic harassment cited by Bailey is the specification of what chemicals can be used on lawns outside clinics, on pain of closure! Throughout the 80s more states withdrew their funding and at the federal level access was nibbled away by Reagan's appointees to the courts. As it stands today organisations "promoting" abortions overseas were denied federal money in 2001, a federal law against partial birth abortion (an extreme and seldom-practiced method) enacted in 2003, and the passing of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (where the unborn are legally identified as a US citizen from conception and therefore counted as a muder victim if the mother is murdered), and 32 states refuse to fund abortions. The religious right's guerilla struggle has made some serious advances.

On homosexuality the fundamentalists initially hailed AIDS as divine retribution, and some, including Jerry Falwell, notoriously blamed the attacks of Sept. 11th on lesbians and gays, as well as other familiar targets of the traditionalists. But what really mobilised them were the movement to recognise same sex partnerships, which broke through in 1993 after the Hawaii supreme court decided homosexual couples were entitled to the same protection as heterosexual married couples. The religious right branded the move anti-family and have since been pursuing their attack on gay and lesbian couples through the courts. Again their actions have paid off. The Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996 defines marriage as a union between a man and woman, and allows states not to recognise same sex unions that have taken place in other states. Also, the federal government may not recognise any same sex union. As of 2006 only Massachusetts allows for same sex marriage and five others recognise forms of union short of marriage whereas 12 ban any kind of recognition. Furthermore 26 states have accepted amendments to their constitutions that defines marriage according to the heterosexual norm.

Undoubtedly these issues generate enormous controversy and can lead to heightened passions. But, argues Bailey, in reality this is only the case for a minority. Despite their prominence in the media and the time devoted to them by mainstream and not-so-mainstream political figures, the morality war is only really between activists and elites from either side. Polling evidence shows that this battle for the soul of America is very much a minority concern. According to his research, only 4% of the sample thought moral questions were the most pressing issues facing the USA today. This is congruent with annual polls produced by Gallup, where the saliency of abortion ranges between 1-8%. This is further backed by a Washington Post poll from last May, where 2% of respondants reportedly voted according to a candidate's views on abortion. Again, a Gallup poll from January 2006 found only 26% of Americans were for overturning Roe vs Wade. Meanwhile, Bailey showed 87% believed LGBT people should have equal employment rights and a plurality favoured adoption by gay and lesbian couples.

These figures demonstrate a lack of polarisation among Americans at large, if anything taken over time Bailey's figures show a growing consensus in the middle ground. Ultimately political elite's concerns with these issues, especially in the Republican party, is a response to the colonisation of the apparatuses by pressure groups. That they are more pliable to the agenda of a tiny minority of Americans underlines how out of touch politicians are with the mainstream.

Perhaps the USA isn't the vast reservoir of reaction we were led to believe it was. Nevertheless, the ease with which the religious right have been able to play the system to attack women's rights and the rights of LGBT people shows how far America has to go before it truly becomes the land of the free.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Thirty

I awoke yesterday morning to find my life had changed forever.

Gone are the days when I could describe myself as being a dashing young fellow in his mid to late 20s, for this was the day I entered my 30s.

Yes, 30.

Thirty,
thirty, THIRTY.

OMG, I'm thirty.

What kind of age is thirty? What the hell does it mean to be thirty? Am I in the decade where I'm supposed to make good the promise I showed as a fresh-faced youth? Will it mean the debauchery I left behind at the start of my twenties will come back as the big four-zero approaches? Are my boyish good looks going to melt away? How much longer will my hair remain?

And what about my views? Seeking older and wiser counsel last week from people who have two more decades on me, they said the person you are at 30 is who you will be from here on in. Okay, I guess I'll be a revolutionary socialist into my 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. What that unfortunately means is if I ever do sell out, I can look forward to an eternity of torment at the hands of my guilty conscience.

Whatever my thirties have in store for the good ship Phil BC I'll take it on the chin, and then run to my blog to winge about it.

And lastly many happy returns for yesterday for my fellow SP comrade and British Fash pin-up, Duncan Money. It pains me to know he's 11 years younger than me, sob!

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Symbolic Exchange and Death: A Farewell to Baudrillard

A more up to date, and to my mind more accurate reflection on Baudrillard can be found at this later article I wrote here

Jean Baudrillard died a week ago today. As someone who was nominally a sociologist and has been feted as one of the fashionable French big hitters, something would be amiss if AVPS didn’t comment on his passing.

Unsurprisingly most obituaries have tended to focus on the pronouncements he’s famous for, such as his declaration that the Gulf War didn’t take place, or that we live in a situation where we can no longer speak of the real. Baudrillard may have deliberately been courting controversy, but there were theoretical underpinnings to these apparent absurdities. He argued that because the production and circulation of signs had reached such a tempo that signs themselves are self-replicating and are effectively a (hyper)reality unto themselves. In this world it is meaningless to speak of the true and the false: all there is are simulacra and simulations. As Marxists make the distinction between appearance and essence, the visible and the hidden; we would argue Baudrillard’s social theory is but one of many approaches that take the appearance of things as they are. That is society only appears as an immense collection of simulations; signs only appear to self-replicate. Marxists also note that appearances have an affectivity all of their own, but maintain that their disembodied life can be explained with recourse to the far from hyperreal processes of capital accumulation and commodity circulation.

It may come as a surprise that Baudrillard began his career as something of a Marxist. His early works, The System of Objects, The Consumer Society, and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign bring together elements of Marx (alienation/commodity fetishism), psychoanalysis and semiology in an attempt to generate a materialist theory of the symbolic order, sign production and consumption in advanced capitalist societies. He initially did this by attempting to supplement Marx’s concepts of use value and exchange value with that of sign value, which is to say whereas commodities have functions (they fulfil a need) and can be exchanged for money, they possess a logic of symbolic exchange peculiar to a couple, or a unique group of people; and a sign exchange value people wear as a sign to others and which may be exchanged for other signs. This was the basis of his (essentially romantic) critique of consumption: symbolic exchange was imminent in each commodity. In other words the potential for bearers of commodities to enter into mutually beneficial relationships of gift exchange and social obligation without profit or alienation was smothered by the compulsion of economic and sign exchange imposed by the market.

Fair enough. But then Baudrillard began to take a step away from this critique by critiquing the category of use value. He argues that Marx “privileged” use value over exchange value, claiming that commodity exchange (capitalism) prevented production for use. By positioning his critique on this terrain, Marx falls for bourgeois ideology. That is use value, the myth of function, is as much an alibi of commodity production as the most sophisticated marketing campaign. In other words, use value is a sign like any other - it does the dirty work of capital by acting as an agent of abstraction, reducing the qualities of meaning to a particular referent and offering it up as something easily exchangeable. The circulation of signs semiotically performs the reduction of all to exchange value, thus in all essentials exchange and sign value are one and the same.

Marx and Marxism therefore do not so much as offer a critique of political economy as mirror its assumptions. For the early Baudrillard symbolic exchange offers the only truly radical position. Furthermore just as capitalism seeks to universalise commodity exchange and wage labour, so Marxism universalises its categories. The concepts Marx generated in his analysis of capital are historical and only really appropriate to the analysis of capital – to project them backwards into history can distort the investigation of pre-capitalist civilisations, justify metaphysical assumptions about their worth, and serve the interests of capital by suppressing the history of societies organised around the principle of symbolic exchange.

The problem with Baudrillard is that his critique of Marx was set against a straw man. Marx did not privilege use value over exchange value, rather he pointed out that in capitalism use value is incidental; in the sense that commodities are but means by which more capital is accumulated (of course capitalism cannot be blind to use value, a commodity has to do what it says on the tin or no one will buy it) . But take a copy of Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production for example – whether one reads it, allows it to gather dust, or uses it to get a fire going, capital doesn’t care as long as it was exchanged for money.

On the “critical imperialism” of Marxist categories, Marx and Marxists are well aware of the historicity of our categories: for example when we speak of imperialism today, we know that it is a different phenomena to that exhibited by ancient Rome. When we speak of labour, we know labour in hunter-gatherer bands is fundamentally different from today’s wage labour. It is true there have been a tendency among some Marxists, including Marx himself at times, to read pre-capitalist societies in terms of capitalism just waiting in the historical wings to break asunder their particular relations of production, but this trend has been decisively critiqued from within Marxism by Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. The final issue is with the standpoint of symbolic exchange adopted by Baudrillard: if we base our critique of capitalism on the view that commodity exchange falls short of symbolic exchange, we’re essentially offering an ethical critique, of measuring capitalism against a romantic ideal. Baudrillard’s position therefore can be used to justify political strategies that aim to restore a symbolic dimension to commodity exchange, such as fair trade or environmentally friendly consumption. In the moment he denounces Marxism for providing capital with an alibi, his radical alternative succeeds only in prettifying it.

It seems Baudrillard quickly realised he was on a hiding to nothing and gave up on his critique of political economy of the sign and spent the remainder of his career describing the contours of a reality that no longer existed because of its subsumption by the sign. In this world opposition can only be limited to a refusal to participate or, somewhat paradoxically, by pursuing a ‘fatal strategy’, where one consciously/unconsciously shows the absurdity of things by moving them to extremes. Hence we have the simulacrum of Jean Baudrillard, showing up the absurdity of himself and the system that made him through claims that mad cow disease was the vengeance extracted from humans by long suffering bovines, or writing ill-formed travelogues (America, Cool Memories) and having them passed off as profound meditations.

At least there is one thing we can be sure of. Baudrillard really is nothing more than a sign now.

Monday, 12 March 2007

A Modern Profession?

A few feathers have been ruffled down in Newcastle-under-Lyme lately. At the beginning of the month, a new lap dance club opened on one of the main approaches to the town centre, just off a popular open and less that 150 yards from one of the local infant schools. Ever keen to promote closer links between Keele academics and progressive movements and organisations in the North Staffs environs, Keele Alternative Globalisations Forum in conjunction with the Centre for Law, Gender and Sexuality organised an afternoon symposium on sex work this last Thursday to mark International Women’s Day.

Organised into three sections, the first addressed the local lap dance debate directly. Suzanne Jenkins opened the session by presenting her research on young women’s attitudes toward the sex industry (based on a series of one-on-one interviews with 20 third year undergrads). The aim was to explore why students are over-represented among exotic dancers and glamour models. She found most of her sample were okay with this level of involvement in the sex industry; indeed two of the respondents had previously sent off pictures to a glamour agency. On lap dancing some of the students felt it had been promoted in women’s magazines as the new keep fit – a few thought it could be liberating and esteem-boosting. As sex work goes most believed there is a distinction between exotic dancing and prostitution, the difference turning on physical contact. A minority felt there was no real difference: in both cases it was essentially men paying women for a sexual service.

The next speaker, Emma Cheadles, was an interesting choice. She is the manager/house mother of Lace, the club at the centre of the controversy. Her time was taken up with questions and answers. From her responses we were painted a wonderful picture. Lace does not discriminate in terms of the women who work there, they can earn good money (£10 for a three minute dance in which all clothes are removed), there is no physical contact between the woman and the man (for it is overwhelmingly men who go there), there is intensive security inside and outside and everyone is watched. The women who work there do so at the time of their choosing and for however many hours they wish to perform. And lastly, all the women are self-employed. The men pay them directly for a dance. In return each worker pays the club £20 a night rental space. Summing up, she argued Lace was a clean, safe and modern workplace that was instep with contemporary trends.

It is unfortunate Cheadles and her boss (who was in the audience) didn’t stick around as local protester, Leslie Foulkes, and Louise Rogers from Rape Crisis made the case against. Foulkes looked at how Lace was granted planning permission. There was no public consultation prior to the licensing application; the first anyone heard of it was when Lace filed the relevant paper work. Furthermore instead of being overseen by the full licensing committee, an all-male sub committee of councillors more or less granted the application on the nod. To compound matters the license granted Lace only allows it to operate as a pub, whereas it is in fact a club. Rogers argued that aside from the planning shenanigans, the opening of Lace evoked issues of power, equality and sexuality. The dancers are the young, the working, and the pleasure-givers. The men on the other hand are the older, the consumers, and the pleasured. This is in contrast to the image sold by Cheadles earlier, who tried to portray lap dancing as empowering. In fact the cash nexus ensures their sexual service is one of performance over mutual pleasure and authenticity. In conclusion; lap dance venues essentially boil down to men (and nearly all the owners are men) making money out of sex and the sexual objectification of women. Therefore in what sense could they be described as “modern”?

After a short break we moved to the national dimensions of the debate. Bernadette from Stoke Citizens Advice Bureau talked about its befriending initiative to assist the increasing number of female asylum seekers settling in North Staffs. Part of this is to help them overcome obstacles of language and local prejudice, another is to ensure loneliness, isolation and economic compulsion does not drive them into prostitution.

Isabel Robson of the London-based Lileth Project presented the research the group has done on lap dance clubs and sexual attitudes. They estimate there are between 270 to 320 lap dance clubs in the UK, of which there are about 70 in London alone. Typically the average age of a customer is 25 (a massive drop from the figures of a decade ago) whereas that of a dancer is 19. In the opinion of the group and herself, lap dancing is far from harmless fun: it is fundamentally a human rights issue. One such “harmless” effect is the creation of an illusion of sexual availability. If we take as gospel the claims by club owners that their dancers are not harmed by the punters, the same cannot be said of women living in the immediate vicinity. Robson reports an increase on average of 50% in reported rapes and sexual assaults, increased attacks on local prostitutes and an increase in danger as perceived by women wherever a club opens. On the workers themselves, the project found they had few rights. As self-employed workers, dancers have little or no recourse to workplace legislation. Also because women rent their space from the club, they can fall into the trap where they haven't earned enough money in an evening to pay and so can end up in debt to the club. This need to cover the rent and earn enough to live encourages competition among the women to offer an edge vis a vis the others. The tendency is to offer ever more extreme performances, some going beyond the 'no touching' rule.

Gill Brown from Brighter Futures Housing Association spoke next. As someone who was active in the womens' liberation movement 30 years ago, she expressed amazement that there are still issues around sex and women's control of their own fertility. She cited a study of 3,200 girl guides, which found young women still perceived inequalities. Brown then moved on to lap dance clubs and reiterated many of the points raised by the previous speaker. She added that workers are often pressurised by the clubs to accept any drinks offered by punters to boost sales, regardless of the vulnerablities this exposes them too. Citing other research on dancers themselves, the main dangers perceived by them concern regular threats of violence, masturbating customers and actual assaults. If there was no contact, she asked, why is it clubs almost without exception have private booths? In sum, she concluded the clubs are not about girl power they're about abuse.

Mandy Screen was up next from Stoke's Women's Project, an organisation that works with 'at risk' women. She offered up some pretty shocking statistics: local prostitutes tend to be busier when it comes to kicking out time at the lap dancing clubs. 98% of Stoke's prostitutes have a drug habit, which can range from £70-80/day for heroin up to £170 if addicted to crack as well. These figures leave out the cost of supporting addicted partners. 90% of the women have been homeless at some point in the last 12 months and 85% suffered some form of childhood abuse. In response to those who argue prostitution is a choice, she asked what kind of choice is it for these women? The work of the project then is to provide help and advice to women involved in prostitution as well as support for those wishing to exit it.

The days final session heard from Sameena Dalwai and her study of the closure of lap dancing bars in Mumbai, India. This case study was particularly interesting because whereas here, all the feminist panel speakers were against their establishment, government moves in India to ban them has workers, owners and feminists lining up together against the state. The reason for doing so lies within the balance of contending forces. The government ban is dressed up in very patriarchal modes of discourse: here exotic dancers threatened to corrupt “the youth” (i.e. young men). Furthermore these “loose women” are an affront to the middle class morality that tightly regulates women’s sexuality: there is no sex outside of marriage and to speak of it in any context is taboo. The feminists in this case study felt the ban impinged on all women’s sexual freedom. Therefore at this point it was this that was the greater stake, that both the dancers in particular and all women in general had a common interest against the state’s moral policing.

All in all the afternoon was an excellent event. It was a pity there was little room for debate, except for a heated five minutes on whether prostitution should be decriminalised, and the image conveyed by panellists of sex workers as “victims” rather than agents potentially capable of liberating themselves. This is unfortunate as more heat than light was generated in the truncated time frame, though more lengthy debates on the left around prostitution and sex work has also had this tendency. Another point of concern was that despite the numbers attracted, men in the audience were a distinct minority: for the most part the male 'usual suspects' had given the meeting a wide berth. More's the pity: the fight for women's liberation is the fight for the liberation of all. To paraphrase a famous bearded German, a gender that oppresses another will never be free.

As for myself the symposium did challenge the way I thought about sex work and related issues. I am not convinced that prostitution can be eradicated by the present set up or criminalising the buyers of sex (as in Sweden and as adopted by the SSP as policy). Decriminalisation linked to a simultaneous decriminalisation of drugs offers the best way forward in my opinion, but ultimately this has to be linked with the struggle for a socialist transformation of society. On lap dance clubs and their ilk, this is more difficult. Personally I think socialists should have no truck with these establishments given the anti-social effects they have on their immediate surroundings, but neither do I think the left and feminists should be setting up pickets outside them. Our job is to find a middle way that empowers the workers while discouraging the growth of the industry. However, beginning to explore such a strategy is beyond the scope of this post.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Branch Meeting: Backing the Burslem Posties

The weather may have been shite but it didn't pose a problem for the solid Bolsheviks of Stoke Socialist Party.

Unfortunately tonight's lead off on the Indian caste system had to be postponed as the comrade in question had fallen victim to the lurgy. Instead comrade A stepped into the breach with a discussion of the Burslem postal dispute, which has undergone a significant escalation in the last 48 hours.

In recent months the Burslem depot has seen action over management's attempt to ride roughshod over previous agreements around workplace regulations, sickness, overtime and moves to replace full time with part time workers. During the last dispute, management alleged one postal worker, Dave Condliffe, engaged in abusive behaviour toward a couple of managers who'd asked him where to put some mail while he was on strike. On this point the union rule book is clear: striking members do not have to provide assistance to those still working in any way.


Given the local defeats inflicted on Royal Mail management they seized upon this as a pathetic attempt at vengeance. Dave was suspended for nine weeks and finally sacked yesterday. Their vindictiveness is demonstrated by the fact that he's worked for Royal Mail for 13 years, possesses an exemplary record, has not had one day off sick in that time and finally, management refused to hear evidence from two young lads who witnessed the scene. Dave and the CWU are appealing the sacking, and in the meantime the depot has come out on a six-day strike for his reinstatement.

A was on the picket line at 4:30 this morning and reported there was a buoyant mood and a determination to win. The rest of the branch discussion then was on what we can do to assist the strike. This is not an academic issue for us: we have members and supporters who are posties. I'm sure readers will forgive me if I don't spell them all out on here, except to say we will be promoting the internet petition and trying to get messages of support sent from all over the world. Already the messages Dave and the rest of his comrades have received have gone down very well, so the more the merrier!

NB It has been pointed out there have been problems with the online petition on Stoke SP's website. People who sign up will get an error message. I'm told that if a signatory tries again it will get through, so try, try, and try again! The problem should be fixed very soon. Sign the petition against Royal Mail bullying here and send messages of support to CWU. Midland No 7, Lindsay Street Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent ST1 4EP. Fax 01782 272978. Telephone 01782 285833. E-mail area.delivery@NOSPAMcwumid7.org.uk with a copy to
andybentley3@NOSPAMtiscali.co.uk (remove the NOSPAMs).

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Birmingham: NHS Day of Action

Around this time last March the University Hospital of North Staffordshire announced 1,100 job losses, encompassing porters, office staff, nurses, doctors, consultants and research scientists. In response Stoke SP called for and built a successful public meeting at very short notice, out of which emerged the North Staffs NHS SOS campaign. At the beginning activists from the SP, SWP, Greens, Unison, Royal College of Nursing and those of no fixed political abode managed to work together, often fractiously but quite effectively, and their hard work bore fruit in the 2,500-strong demo that marched from UHNS to Hanley. Unfortunately since then the unions have done nothing. Both refused to countenance the idea of building anything bigger than local opposition, and both boycotted a regional demo in Birmingham last summer to oppose the cuts.

What has happened in Stoke has been repeated elsewhere. Cuts are announced, a local demo of staff and patients called by the health service unions/union-backed campaign group takes place, and then nothing.

Today’s day of action organised under the aegis of NHS Together has then been a long time coming. but the whole thing was marked by union leadership's (particularly Unison’s leadership) to keep the incipient movement firmly under their control. Instead of one united demo our strength has been dissipated among several regional mobilisations. This just isn't good enough. It really makes you wonder, who does the Unison leadership value more; the interests of the government, or the interests of the members being attacked by this self-same government?

Despite the half-arsed nature of the union initiative, SP members from around the country mobilised to critically support the action and use the opportunity to make the case for a national demonstration backed by industrial action against the cuts. In the West Midlands we are particularly fortuitous to have been an integral part of the movement from the beginning, and this was reflected with the warmth and friendliness with which we were received on the Birmingham rally. We had comrades down from Coventry, Leicester, Derby, Nottingham, Worcester, Stoke and, of course, Brum itself, and our intervention was very successful (350-plus papers, hundreds of pounds raised, a good number of contacts). But aside from success in the conventional sense of papers and money, more important were the discussions we had with the assembled health staff. Of the dozens I spoke to virtually all were in agreement with our proposals on how to take the movement forward. No one thought the union leadership were up to the task, and even fewer held out the belief that things would be any better under Gordon Brown.

Two events stood out from the rally. First was the lack of direction offered by the trade union worthies and bureaucrats who spoke – pretty appalling considering Dave Prentis was one of them! As if to compound their bankruptcy they refused to allow a speaker from People United to Save Hospitals to say a few words from the stage, who instead addressed the rally from a megaphone after the speechifying was over. The second was the decision of around 50 health workers to go on an impromptu march around Birmingham, seeing as the unions couldn’t even bring themselves to organise a demo. Sticking my neck out, I think this shows a section of workers are alienated by Unison’s deliberate do-nothing stance and are increasingly willing to take matters into their own hands.

For the more sectarian AVPS readers out there, the WestMids left were all there. Keen spotters like me and Larry Cain of Cov observed comrades from Workers’ Power, Permanent Revolution, AWL, ISG, the Morning Star’s CPB and the tankie-dominated Campaign against Euro-Federalism(!). The SWP were there too with a normal party stall and one for Respect. Comrades more inclined toward a spot of sect-Kremlinology will be interested to learn Salma Yaqoob was nowhere to be seen. But the main thing that struck me was how disorientated non-SP comrades seemed. It was as if comrades used to campaigning on issues like the war in Iraq and other related concerns were left all at sea when it came to engaging with a bread and butter issue like NHS cuts, an observation backed up by many a comrade in the pub afterwards.

In summary can the day be regarded as a success? In a way, yes. Despite NHS Together’s bungling (and I mean serious bungling, the 52 seater coach from UHNS for instance, only carried nine down because of a lack of a campaign in the hospital to fill it!) there were about 500 health workers present. As I’ve already said there were encouraging signs among these workers too concerning the direction the movement needs to go in and a healthy willingness to take what the bureaucrats say with a pinch of salt. On the other hand all this could have been accomplished eight or nine months ago if the unions had been more interested in protecting their members rather than the government. Their failure to do so condemns them and also means the anti-cuts movement still has a long way to go.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Support the Burslem Posties!

Please send messages of support! (Just remove NOSPAM from the addresses below)

Cheers,
Phil

Burslem Posties stand firm against victimisation.

Since before Christmas, postal bosses in North and Mid Staffordshire have attempted to replace full time jobs with part time ones. But after 6 days of strike action by 700 posties across 11 depots, managers have been forced to back down.

Despite continuous intimidation by management, posties at the Burslem depot have been at the forefront of this fight to defend jobs, pay and conditions.

In a pathetic attempt to save face, management wrongly accused and suspended 62 year old Burslem postie, Dave Condliffe, of abusive behaviour. In response, Burslem posties walked out for four days unofficial action and because of management’s continued intransigence have now voted in favour of further strike action by 67 votes to 8. If the victimised postie is not reinstated strike action will take place on the 8/9/10 of March followed by a further 3 days on 12/13/14 of March.

This action will be supported by many other workers across the area who also have to put up with management intimidation on a daily basis. Victimisation is a familiar tool used by bosses to try to isolate and divide workers. It must be fought by maximum unity among all workers.

· No to management intimidation
· No to victimisation
· Reinstate Dave Condliffe now

Send messages of support to CWU. Midland No 7, Lindsay Street Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent ST1 4EP. Fax 01782 272978. Telephone 01782 285833. E-mail area.delivery@NOSPAMcwumid7.org.uk with a copy to andybentley3@NOSPAMtiscali.co.uk

Andy Bentley, Stoke Socialist Party