Friday, September 28, 2018

Sex is natural sex is fun . . .

. . . goes the old song. Bringing me back to a pet peeve in popular culture, even on the left . . . the aphorism that “rape is about power, not sex.” The Ford-Kavanaugh sham hearing tells us something a good deal more difficult. Rape is sexual, and sex is always inflected with power. I know it’s passé to truck out a fossil-phrase like “patriarchy,” but it does stand for a form of systematic power that is still with us, as we saw in bold relief on September 27th.

Even the left has been captured by the naturalistic fallacy on sex, first because the left is still dominated by men who are all for sexual liberation as long as it increases male access to female bodies, or it plugs into the post-critical narratives of hedonism disguised as intellection. I went to a big DSA meeting some time back, where women were well represented in the front of the room, but the men still outnumbered the women in the rest of the room, and of fifteen people who spoke up during the meeting, twelve were males.
I’m not lumping DSA (with whom I affiliate) in with the white-male gerontocracy that is the Republican fraction of the Senate Judiciary Committee; but note how patriarchy (or andrarchy, as I’ll explain further down) is still the elephant in the room, with the Lindsey Graham assholes planted on one side of male power as its defenders and the postmodern, “post-feminist” erasure of women as a class of political subjects on the other. Women, as women, can never catch a break, never say no, never stand their ground.
First of all, sex is anything but natural. We don’t even get around to it, barring sexual exploitation during childhood, until we’ve had a decade and a half, more or less, of intense gender socialization combined with each person trying to find her or his accommodation to the actually-existing gender order as it is expressed in particular lives.
“Natural” evokes something quasi-sacred, like the picture of a bucolic farm on the side of packaged, manufactured food that assures potential buyers the product is “all natural.” Gamma rays are natural. Everything that “obeys” physical laws is natural. Even our species-nature as an animal that requires a highly plastic, closely-nurtured enculturation to survive is . . . natural. But not in the way that divides nature and nurture, merely two interpretive frameworks imposed on the same phenomena.
Sex has not been the same thing to different people in different times. Even if the procreative act responsible for each of us who are reading this now involves (natural) sexual dimorphism all the way down to the gametes, a uniquely modern understanding of procreation that didn’t exist for most people in most times. Sex didn’t bear the same meanings in different times and places, and likewise, sex has never borne the same consequences for men and women. Ever. Which is why I find it curious how so many people on the left have been so quick to adopt an approach of puerile rebellion against the white patriarchy/andrachy—a kind of in-yo-face hedonistic celebration of “sex” that finds the critique of, say, Andrea Dworkin, “feminist, not the fun kind,” terribly inconvenient to this fundamentally libertarian account.
“A commitment to sexual equality with men,” she noted, “is a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered.”
Sex has always been transmogrified by the power of biological men over biological women (and the demonization of sexual minorities), which in many ways is a more fundamental, persistent, and intractable form of power than class. (Sit back down and rest your nerves, as Mom used to say. Class is important, and sex and class are inextricable. Thank you, Captain Obvious.)
But Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Ford both went to the same elite prep school, and guess what? The creepy frat-boy sexual aggression there is extremely similar to the same kind of aggression among the less privileged. What makes class and sex different is not that class trumps gender (a system dividing power based on compulsory heterosexuality). What makes class and sex different is that sex involves both biologically-sourced desire and the complexity of males and females being in otherwise intimate relations. The class-boss does not live in the same home as the class-worker. The class-worker does not experience physical attraction (even desire is learned) for the class-boss. The strength and limitation of radical feminism—to which I owe a great intellectual debt—is how it has taken the Marxian account of class and applied to gender.
At least, they historicize it.

What was all that above about “andrarchy”? Heterosex for women was once associated with the likelihood of maternal death, e.g. Not for men. Widely available birth control helped with that. But something funny happened on the way to the Sexual Revolution of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, beginning with the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century. First, white Atlantic patriarchy was overthrown by andrarchy. Patriarchy was rule of the fathers, which figuratively applied even to kings. In a kind of Oedipal twist, the republican revolutions (United States, Haiti, France) explicitly called itself a band of brothers (fraternité) rebelling against their political fathers. Women, of course, were still defined into nature (the ultimate object of masculine conquest), but their status changed. From being the ward of a father, then husband who becomes a father (patriarch), women became hypothetically available to all sibling-men, the solution for which (from the men’s point of view) was protective ownership. Men wouldn’t fight over women if each respected the proprietary rights of other men. And so women were tossed out of the frying pan of patriarchy into the fire of andrarchy, the rule of fathers transformed into the rule of men, where their best accommodation was often to submit to one man in exchange for protection from all other men (the sexual protection racket). Some women, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, began demanding “equality” with men, and as time marched on, women began to filter into fields of endeavor previously closed to them. This was particularly pronounced in professional arenas (medicine, law, etc.) and with the introduction of every more sophisticated business machines (computers) that women could operate as easily as men. White gender—the prevailing white sex hierarchies and norms—transitioned from the “separate spheres” framework of the nineteenth century to a system in the metropolitan states where the public distinctions between masculine and feminine work were being erased, whereupon male power over women within compulsory heterosexuality became increasingly sexualized—that is, focusing the domination of women by men more and more within sexuality itself. Associated with the generally felt need for revenge among many men for their loss of power elsewhere, men came to eroticize women’s humiliation and degradation. Male prerogative was increasingly focused on sex itself. If women were going to become honorary men, the thought goes, then we needn’t afford them the formal “respect” of yesteryear. This was one major factor in the development of modern (now postmodern?) rape culture.
The libertarian account of sex, differentiating sex from power in order to exonerate all “consensual” sex as just harmless fun reminds me of what one fella I knew writing during the disastrous Duke Lacrosse episode who described strip shows as “playing with the erotic.” Zero account of objectification. Zero account of gendered power. Zero account of how dangerous and humiliating this “job” might be, or the forces that pressure a woman to take off her clothes to be ogled by drunken men. And yet now, in this historical moment that includes Bill Clinton and Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore and Bill Cosby and Brett Kavanaugh, women are resurrecting that insight from the past—the personal is the political. Politics is about power; and for many women, their worst experiences of power have been intensely personal: pressure for sex, unwanted sex to maintain bad but inescapable relationships, coerced sex, sexual harassment, sexual humiliation, sexual assault, and rape. #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport are a watershed in American politics; and one that will be met (even sometimes on the left, when it is less tactically convenient) with baleful, writhing backlash like the outburst from Lindsey Graham and the whining outrage of Brett Kavanaugh.

Gender is a keystone of power. These nascent movements, growing up around women simply comparing experiences, are threatening that power by giving the lie to the notion that sex and rape are not the same thing. Even “consent” cannot take on a fulsome meaning so long as there is a power gradient between men and women. Sex is not always rape; but rape is always about sex. I heard a Democrat man once say to his workmates, “I want to hate-fuck Sarah Palin.” I would now invite readers with the emotional endurance or the detachment required, to look at the comments sections on articles about women and sex and review this highly sexualized ways in which men—protected by the anonymity of the web—attack women.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Threat of Suburbia

In 2016, Donald Trump received 62,980,160 votes in the General Election. We often hear that Trump voters correspond to education levels, but that is on true in that aggregate. Forty-two percent of Trump voters, that is 26,451, 667 in the United States in 2016 . . . which is 13 percent of registered US voters, when voter turnout was 61 percent (200 million are registered). If we claim that lack of education is what leads to reaction, then these numbers are hardly convincing. One might discount a million college graduates voting for Trump as anomalous, but twenty-six-and-half million is something much bigger than a mere anomaly. People often forget, based in part on the influence of a media commentariat that is constantly spinning some “working class” theory about Trump and the Trump cult, that the majority of Trump’s votes, raw votes, came out of the suburbs.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Calling All Lawyers—Toward a New Constituent Assembly

Climate change and peak-everything have moved the clock up on capitalism, outrunning those more abstract contradictions of old. Mark Jones, attending well to these heretofore secondary environmental matters, called the final stage of imperialism “exterminism.” For good reason. People are going to get killed or left to die in great numbers, along with every other form of life. It has already begun. We are living in a dangerous pre-interregnum in which the existing powers are too entrenched to remove and increasingly too ineffectual to govern. We begin to sense that something long and hard and ugly may be coming that will last for generations after things fall apart, and we feel the pull of the tempo task—Eisenstein’s film convention when the direness of an emergency calls for a suspension of all the civilized rules for its resolution.

Every day, the Lenin question comes to the fore: What is to be done? And with each day, the answer becomes: A hell of a lot more than what needed doing yesterday. Over, under, around, and through every order of existence and practice there is self-organization. The mind of a person is self-organized, each aspect relating particularly with each other aspect, and that mind is likewise self-organized with other minds, other bodies, other things and happenstances, knitted together in a kaleidoscope of semiospheres, social structures, buildings and roads and power lines, institutions, enterprises, layers of management and governance, and so it goes. Even in that realm where practice theorists dwell—between personhood and culture, combining them—there is self-organization. Different practices and combinations are tried until entire systems become cyclic and comparatively stable, each individual practice demonstrating agency, but agency constrained, and within those constraints is self-organization . . . which remains until it doesn’t, but until it doesn’t it resists change by wrapping the status quo in layer upon layer of self-organized protection. Resistance need not be crushed. More easily, resistance is swallowed.

Some of us are pretty sure that whatever people do as this “exterminist” phase in global governance plays out, it will require tremendous change precisely because self-organized systems are full of micro-articulations that relate to and ramify through many more micro-articulations. No “system” can be corrected superficially, or the deeper secular stability of self-organization will simply swallow it. We can’t even talk about these things, because the conversation leads us down a very hard path.

Let’s pretend, then, that in a few years, one of the least bad scenarios plays out, and that is one where a re-energized and environmentally literate left gains sufficient political power to actually effect policy changes. If I didn’t think this was at least possible, I wouldn’t bother writing this down in the first place. My optimism about that, of course, is tempered by my conviction that this re-energized left will inherit a massive, broken system for which no one can honestly promise the perennial “better future” of 1950s US white capitalist boosterism, as well as an absurd claim made by every political campaign on record. There is no better future. That is disappearing at the same rate as non-extinct species, ocean-side real estate, and fresh water aquifers. I hope we heed that caution and not make silly promises like this, because political enterprises can get pretty tangled up by failing to deliver. The choice is between nose dive and controlled crash landing, and about that I hope we remain honest. Progress is a blood-drenched cannibalistic myth.

Pretending as we are that we have been democratically seated to deliberate on and develop policy, we confront in every potential policy its likely effects, the likely responses it will draw, and a whole host of unintended consequences. At a national level, this process is even more fraught, even if every single elected official is on board for the common good (f’real), because the greater the scope of any policy or practice, the more unforeseen exceptions that disrupt the reason for the rule (lack of granularity), the more layers of management and administration (which tend to become the tail that wags the dog), and the more unintended (and potentially problematic) consequences, from whence come unintended responses, and so forth. We are going to talk about the Constitution in a bit, because that’s where this post is headed, but for the time being, just consider all the unintended consequences of our current Constitution, because every consistent failure of compassionate humanity in the history of the US is failure unfolding beneath the overarching legal edifice of the US Constitution. The potential for unintended consequences at these grand scales demands that we observe some version of the precautionary principle: “an expression of a need by decision-makers to anticipate harm before it occurs. Within this element lies an implicit reversal of the onus of proof: under the precautionary principle it is the responsibility of an activity-proponent to establish that the proposed activity will not (or is very unlikely to) result in significant harm.”

When we talk about emergency transformation, then, and contextualize that in a self-organized system that is riding its mass and inertia into the abyss, then any restructuring in one aspect will have to anticipate how that restructuring will interact with every other aspect. What happens when you decide to abandon one transportation grid and begin development of an alternative? How do we most effectively organize a public work force that attends to the most critical needs in redesign of the built environment and rehabilitation of biomes? What happens to Los Angeles as the water dries up? How do you redesign a food system? This stuff doesn’t happen using existing models with simple redistribution.

Key among those legal challenges that will accompany redesign challenges—let’s be clear, leaving capitalism will require dramatic redesign of pretty much everything—will be the definition of property. And property—along with every other legal question—takes us to the Constitution. Which in turn brings us to the main point: We’ll need a new Constitution. The old one won’t work, because the Divine Judge at the center of American law is a seventeenth century white male bourgeois notion of property.

Backing up a little here, big stuff that will have to change to have a prayer of mitigating the misery of billions for a century and salvaging enough of the biosphere to eventually recalibrate its climate systems . . . includes watershed restoration and management, the development of regional and local sustainable food systems, topsoil replenishment, reforestation, nationalization of all critical enterprises as public utilities (beginning with banks), the transformation of the Department of Defense into a Department of National Service overseeing a national public works jobs program (aimed at biospheric remediation), free public health care, free public reskilling training, and a power-down strategy that moves toward dramatic energy conservation as well as conservation-as-principle (old fashioned supply economy . . . thrift) being incorporated into the new constitutional ethos. (For reasons outlined in Mammon’s Ecology, I think we also need a multicentric money economy, but I’ll point readers to that little book for the details.) Any reader who’s stayed with this so far is already thinking about other things that have to change so the people you see every day around you can go through what you might imagine without ever being terrified or further immiserated in the process. When you redesign a transportation grid, without its raison d’etre being business, what does it look like? If you had fifty really smart people on many of these issues and how they relate to one another, within a few days you might begin to be able to map out what a new constitution might require to escape the errors of the past and minimize the new errors in the future.

That’s where you might need some lawyers whose job it is to listen to the fifty smart people and begin to design a legal constitutional edifice that most closely approximates the combined wisdom of your fifty smart people and some smart lawyers. Put together fifty more of these groups of fifty smart people and some smart lawyers, and you have the beginnings of a New Constituent Assembly. By smart people, I don’t mean academics and experts. I mean practitioners of many kinds. Small farmers, designers, doctors, builders, craftspeople, parents, students, people who have practical insight about how things are done where they live and about how people might best begin to change the way things are done. Local, local, local, local.

I know what I’d want to see, based on one conviction—if you disagree with this conviction, then you can throw out everything else I say.

Conviction: For socialism to succeed, it must be the basis upon which several dramatic changes are made in policy and practice to be as proactive as possible in dealing with the emerging reality of a simultaneous climate and economic crisis. For reasons governed by unshakable physical laws, the regime of global capitalism cannot be sustained, but for those same reasons capitalist practices that rely on high flows of energy and materials across long distances cannot be sustained. Redistribution does not solve this problem, when people are utterly dependent on those flows. Practical economies quite simply must be re-localized as far as is possible in any given period. If you want to summarize the practical problem, think of production and consumption. No matter what kind. Re-localization is the process of systematically moving every form of production as spatially close as possible to those who consume it. Move production and consumption closer together in space.

We need this restated by a bright legal mind into a constitutional principle that guides all other decisions, not as a Kantian imperative (can we get this guy out of the law, please), but as a telos that assumes there are (there are, demonstrably) a host of social, economic, cultural, and ecological benefits that accrue from re-localization alone. Relocalizing is not The Silver Bullet to slay the monster; but it makes a pretty handy compass.

Other thoughts on a New Constitution developed by a New Constituent Assembly (would that we had a water group, a food sovereignty group, an energy group, a home economy group, etc etc etc etc…..).

Something else suggested in Mammon’s Ecology comes to mind—watersheds. Constitutions draw lines, but those lines once drawn—think US states, counties, municipalities—create their own reality. For ecologic concerns to be integrated into a new Constitution, it seems somehow essential that those older lines be allowed to languish and new lines be drawn for local governance along the boundaries of watersheds. In my state, iirc, we have 83 counties, and 63 major watersheds. Somehow, over time, through a series of policies, portions of responsibility and jurisdiction between the old and the new would have to be transferred, but the end result would be an actual integrated geographic feature that has the most direct impact on its residents. All politics comes down to water in the end. There’s a reason for that. Water is life.

Inviting others to think about it, a bluesky exercise.

What are the problems we might see eight years from now? What would we want to see if the left won? There’s a better chance they will succeed after they win if there’s already some thought put into it.