Posted in Book Reviews

Marxism and Feminism, by Shahrzad Mojab (ed)

As a man I usually get uncomfortable with asking myself the question, “Am I a feminist?”. Certainly in relation to my political activism I have no real right to call myself one – I simply haven’t done enough to earn that title. On the other hand, I do try to be as supportive as I possibly can of comrades who are pushing to further feminist goals, and I do take part in many discussions on the subject where I try to support and spread feminist ideas. So I guess it really depends on how the question is interpreted.

A related issue, one which arises when I take part in these discussions, is which feminist ideas should I try to support and spread? Feminism after all is not some sort of hive mind, there are many different schools of thought represented under the umbrella term “feminism”. I attended a feminist convention in Russia recently, for example, where there were speakers representing liberal feminism, anarchist feminism, socialist feminism, eco-feminism, radical feminism and so on. With such a diverse range of views within the subject, and often mutually exclusive views, which views should I take away with me as the ones to spread within my community of peers? And how do I, as a man, avoid simply picking and choosing the bits that sit most comfortably with me?

Marxism with its emphasis on the scientific method, and therefore objectivity, allows for those of us who are epistemically barred from the relevant lived experience to nevertheless gain insight. Putting any problem under a Marxists microscope will always illuminate more than it will hide. Now of course Marxism and Feminism have had a somewhat rocky relationship. Marxists haven’t always given enough focus to issues of sex or gender within the class struggle – but likewise feminists have often failed to acknowledge the class dimension to instances of oppression based on sex or gender. It is primarily for this reason that Mojab’s Marxism and Feminism is such an important addition to the literature of both Marxists and Feminists; Mojab is here offering a point of departure from the current way of doing Marxism and Feminism (separately) in favour of a unified Marxist Feminism or Feminist Marxism.

This will no doubt sound like blasphemy to many of today’s activists who promote a very middle class version of feminism – one more concerned with the balance of female CEOs to male CEOs and how much each is paid. But such a feminism fails to represent the vast majority of women, it only cares for the few women who are complicit with their male counterparts in the oppression of the vast majority of other women. Mojab is not afraid to say that today’s feminism is inadequate, and critiques Women’s and Gender Studies programmes in academia for failing to see the patriarchy as a political system that is firmly connected to capitalist social relations by seeing gender-inequality as only a ‘cultural’ issue.

The book itself is a step towards a revolution, a form of resistance written and practiced by Shahrzad Mojab and her allies, and a sound example of dialectical-materialism in action. It is split into three parts, the first of which serves as both an introduction to Marxism and Feminism and a sort of autobiography-cum-history of revolutionary leftism. It tracks Mojab’s own history through social and political movements in her native Iran through to her academic career in the USA. This introduction sets a challenge for the remainder of the book: to explain how and why Marxism and Feminism as two emancipatory projects and two political affinities should be converged despite all political and ideological projects that are committed to diverge them.

The book is ultimately successful in this endeavor, not least because in the second part of the book (which comprises three chapters) Mojab’s co-authors, in particular Bannerji in the third of these chapters, take some time to respond to these “political and ideological projects”. Being critiqued here are the likes of identity politics and intersectionality. Intersectional approaches to issues such as race or gender seem to be largely unquestioned outside of academia (where they are far from universally accepted). In a sense this is understandable, as intersectional approaches are very attractive to those who want to explain the oppression of white homosexual males or rich African-American females, for example. Intersectional approaches, by explaining people in terms of the social identities or where these identities “intersect” (their race “identity”, their gender “identity” etc) is able to make sense of homosexual white men or rich African-American women being oppressed: they are oppressed in some ways while being privileged in others. This just looks intuitively correct to most people.

After reading this section of Marxism and Feminism (especially the chapter by Himani Bannerji) I couldn’t help but feel that a convincing argument had been made against intersectional theories. They didn’t reject the conclusion that people can be privileged in one way but oppressed in others; they demonstrated that we don’t need to invoke intersectionality to arrive at that conclusion, a properly understood marxist feminism / feminist marxism can also account for this intuitively correct observation. Moreover, a feminist marxism avoids some of the problems that intersectional theory is plagued by, such as its almost “Lego” or “Mechano” explanation of human psychology as a mere construction of different social identities. It’s not that we shouldn’t de-construct into separate “social identities”, it’s that we can’t. An individual’s component social “identities” do not exist independently of each other, they are intertwined within that individual’s lived experience. To treat them as separable simply paints a false  and misleading picture.

The final section of the book applies a marxist feminism / feminist marxism to a range of issues which are normally discussed by feminists. Readers will decide for themselves which of these discussions of feminists key words resonates most strongly with themselves; I particularly enjoyed reading Sara Carpenter’s chapter on democracy. Other keywords which receive attention in this section include patriarchy, reproduction and revolution.

Overall, this is a book that deserves to be read. It strikes a good balance between established respected experts and exciting new voices. Shortly the Scottish Socialist Party will seek to put into place conference’s decision to create a political education for the party. I encourage those who will take responsibility for actualising this conference’s decision to consider this book as part of that political education. The ideas advanced in this book have the potential to lead both Feminism and Marxism into a (in this reader’s humble opinion) much needed revival; a revival that I hope the SSP can play a part in.  


Posted in Political Philosophy

On Arguing About Racism

My purpose in writing this piece is to try to offer a way to move beyond a current impasse in anti-racism dialogue. The problem arises when the question of whether or not white people can experience racism is asked. On one side are those who argue that white people can not experience racism because racism involves “power plus privilege”, and as we live in a “global white supremacist hegemony” then by definition it is impossible for white people to suffer racism. On the other side we have people pointing out fairly regular occurrences of white people being targeted for abuse simply for being white, which to them is ample evidence of white people actually suffering from racism. The two sides are locked in disagreement, which often descends into nonsensical arguments and accusations of the other side “being part of the problem” of racism. As a result, genuine action against racism is almost zero while student types control the discourse demanding that everyone else accept their definition of a word and verbally abusing anyone who disagrees with them.

I’ve experienced the arrogance of these (usually) white middle class anti-racists recently. The type who with no sense of irony demand that we adopt the definitions they learned on sociology degrees at white middle class first world universities, while simultaneously accusing anyone who rejects these definitions as being part of the “global white supremacist hegemony” problem. For full disclosure, I think white people can suffer from ‘racism’, but that is just because I recognise a rather mundane aspect of the English language – words can have more than one definition. So when we say a black person in America suffered from racism and then also say a white person in Scotland suffered racism, although we have used the same word (racism) we are not equating the two situations. Unfortunately this is not enough for some. I was previously told by members of the Executive Committee that I am no longer welcome in either the SSP or RISE because I identify as a Marxist. That has now been followed up with me being told by members of the Executive Committee that I am no longer welcome because I don’t share the stance that the “power plus privilege” definition of racism is the only acceptable definition. So as it stands I am currently in a state of limbo, I don’t actually know whether I’ve been expelled from SSP and/or RISE for not thinking in the way dictated that I should. I await an official communication from them to settle this one way or the other.

As I said above, I think white people can suffer racism. What usually happens when I say that is I’m then challenged to explain how this can be so, when white people have the privilege. This response misses the point, I tell them, I’m speaking from a different definition of racism. Call the “power plus privilege” definition racism-Φ, and call white people being abused for being white racism-Ψ. We can then see the mistake more clearly: I say “white people can suffer racism-Ψ”, to which it is argued “white people have privilege so can’t suffer racism-Φ”. It misses the point, they are talking passed what I said. When I point this out, that there is more than one definition in play here, they challenge me to explain why my definition should be used instead of theirs. Again, this misses the point. Words can have more than one meaning. These meanings don’t compete with each other, neither is independently more valid than the other. Competent users of a language can more often than not easily deduce what meaning of a word is being used based on the context. If we are talking about a black person in America we are using the racism-Φ meaning; the power plus privilege meaning. If we are talking about a white person in Scotland we are using the racism-Ψ meaning.

My hope here is that we can start to make progress, and get beyond this artificial barrier created by an inability of certain people to accept that others use language differently. Neither side is right or wrong in their usage of the language, they are just different. Certainly, if someone interrupts a discussion about police racism against the African-American population of the USA by saying something like, “yeah, but white people also suffer racism”, then that person is mistaken. Their mistake, however, was in the use of the word ‘also’ not in the use of the word ‘racism’. The word ‘also’ here conflates the different meanings of the word racism, it deliberately equivocates racism-Φ with racism-Ψ in order to shut down a discussion. These people need to be challenged, but it does not follow from this that every person who says that white people can suffer from racism also need to be challenged. To do so just leads to a situation where various injustices are competing with each other to demand our attention, with certain people claiming that only the genuinely ‘racist’ injustices should be tackled. We should reject this position, and to paraphrase Che, we should shake with indignation at EVERY injustice, not try to be clever about which ones deserve our attention and which ones don’t.

This problem finds it roots in the identity politics which currently infects most of the left. As with many modern feminists, the modern anti-racist movement has also lost any sense of class consciousness. This common problem between the two is most visible in the question of domestic labour, which is now largely understood in terms of “unpaid labour” and income for housework. Income is a matter of consumption; class is a question of production. Rarely do modern feminists or anti-racists struggle against the existing labour relations based on the hegemony of global capital. The few exceptions were the historical-materialist feminists and anti-racists of the 70’s and 80’s, who engaged the class consciousness of gender, race and sexuality. Unfortunately this work has largely been abandoned and cut off by the modern feminists and anti-racists due to the rise of identity politics amongst the left.

Racism, contrary to Foucauldian theory, is not simply a matter of asymmetrical power relations. Nor is gender, nor is sexuality. Racism (even understood as only racism-Φ) is not simply oppression, it is not simply the exercise of power by whites over blacks. There is a lot more going on here than simply white versus black. Power is the social and political manifestation of the ownership of the means of production. Clearly the means of production are overwhelmingly owned by whites, but it is a failure of logic to conclude from this that all white people are therefore part of the “global hegemony”. The vast majority of whites don’t own the means of production either. This gives the modern anti-racist a problem if they get this far: it appears that if they are intent on demanding the “power plus privilege” definition of racism be the only one permitted then they are going to have to accept that the vast majority of whites can not be racist, as they have neither the power nor the privilege that comes with ownership of the means of production.

At this stage they play what they believe to be their trump card. All dialogue, they claim, is created by the “global white hegemony” to protect itself, so by taking part in this dialogue all white people are in fact talking from a position of power and privilege as they are talking from the position of the white supremacists. Now I’m no stranger to the argument that the media and politicians use language in a certain way to protect the power of the ruling class, I made that very argument in a previous contribution to this site. However, in claiming that it’s not only the media and politicians but the population at large who take part in this sort of power preserving dialogue, the ‘white middle class-ness’ of these sorts is painfully apparent. Remember, the people I’m talking about here include EC members of the SSP and prominent members of RISE (Scotland’s Left Alliance). They are supposed to represent Scotland’s working class, but comments like these create the impression that they have never actually conversed with anyone from the lower classes. Our language in no way whatsoever resembles the language of the ruling class. If a Rupert Murdoch or Prince Charles were to find themselves in a housing estate in Glasgow or Inverclyde or Dundee they would find the locals totally incomprehensible. The language used by the working class has often evolved through conflict with the ruling class, not to protect it. The language of the working class is rooted in our working class communities, not in some hidden conspiracy to protect the capitalists. And this language which evolved independently and in conflict with the capital hegemony also includes the way many working class people use the term racism (i.e. racism-Ψ). Nothing could be more hegemony protecting than demanding we drop our working class usage of the language in favour of a usage supplied by first world white middle class university students.

Posted in Political Philosophy

Marxism, the Proletariat and the Working Class

“The proletariat is not the working class. All of Marxism has misinterpreted Marx in confusing the two”. (Bernard Steigler, 2010)

“The lower strata of the middle class – the small trades-people, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat…  Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto)

Marxism has a problem, and while many have noticed it Steigler addresses it in his 2010 work For a New Political Economy as part of his project of applying the Marxist method to the modern economy. Those who have held the mistaken belief that the proletariat is synonymous with the working class will be surprised by some of the conclusions Steigler (begins) to draw. In the short piece that follows I will try to sketch out the correct way to understand the proletariat, and think about what that means in today’s economic and social reality.

Now I don’t want to suggest that the entire history of Marxism is somehow redundant because of this common misunderstanding. It’s not. But to truly understand our reality it’s important to correct this misunderstanding. There are of course very good reasons why people have historically misinterpreted Marx in this way. Marx did at least two things. He gave us a scientific method with which to critique our society, and he applied that method to his own time and place. In Marx’s time and place, at the early stages of capitalism, it could have been correct that the proletariat was limited to the working class. That is just an observation, a snap shot if you will, of that particular moment in history. It should not mean that we forever use the terms working class and proletariat interchangeably. To do so would be to confuse Marx’s method with the particular results gained from that method at an arbitrary point in history. When we apply the Marxist method to the economies of today’s world we find that the processes of proletarianisation, the processes which act upon members of the proletariat, have acted upon a wider range of the society than in Marx’s day. This points to the simple fact that the proletariat is wider than merely the working class.

A very simple Marxist definition of “proletariat” is those who do not have ownership of the means of production and whose only means of subsistence is to sell their labour. There are some well known objections to this definition, such as pointing out certain groups of people who don’t seem to fit into either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. I am of the opinion that this simple definition is indeed inadequate, but can be salvaged by in some way making reference to the processes of proletarianisation. That is an intuitive feeling I have, I don’t pretend to have found an unproblematic way to solve the problem. Needless to say the existence of the proletariat is not in any doubt, the history of class struggle is ample evidence that the proletariat is a real aspect of our society. Although for the sake of philosophical completeness I would like to see a definition that truly captures the essence of the proletariat, and that is where I find the simple definition above to be lacking.

So what are these processes of proletarianisation? Most of us who have been taught Marxist thought (sadly not nearly enough of us) will probably have been taught about alienation. It’s quite a simple avenue by which to gain access to Marxism. Simply put, alienation is a sort of estrangement of people from aspects of their humanity. This is usually taught in regards a worker’s relation to his own labour.  In capitalist society each worker becomes an instrument or a thing, not a person. The advent of Fordian or “assembly line” production took this further. Each part of the production process was identified and delegated to different workers, with none of the workers knowing the full “beginning to end” of the production. In Steigler’s terminology, the workers had become separated from savoir-faire; literally “knowledge of how to do” although better understood as “skills”. The craftsmen of old had owned their own labour, had known their endeavours intimately and made a living by selling the products of those endeavours. Not so with the newly emerged working class. They didn’t own their own labour; they sold it to the capitalist class in return for just enough money to survive. Further, another process was becoming evident, one that removed knowledge from the workers and placed it in systems out with their control. The result is alienation, the processes that result in alienation can be thought of as proletarianisation. The proletariat are those upon whom the processes of proletarianisation act, regardless of whether or not they have resulted in some form of alienation yet.

That is the account of proletarianisation or alienation that is typically taught at schools and colleges. It is one very much rooted in Marx’s own experience of life in the Industrial Age. When we consider modern times, the Information Age, we see the same processes in action – but now in different ways. In the Industrial Age it was skilled workers who became estranged from their labour, in the Information Age we see this occurring with knowledgeable workers. Information technology has reached a stage whereby anything we could want to know is easily available at the touch of a few buttons (or a touchscreen). When we phone a company for specialist advice, often we find ourselves talking to someone in a call centre somewhere who merely inputs information you give them into a computer and then respond to you by following the on screen prompts. We no longer speak to experts. Once again, knowledge has been removed from the worker and placed in external systems (literally into the computer systems in this case). The result being workers who are estranged from the knowledge they are working with.

This is isn’t restricted to workers either. It extends into our lives away from work. How many of us shop online now? This probably involves simply buying whatever recommendation the system makes. I’m certainly not immune to this. I just bought flights to Russia. It was as simple as typing “Glasgow to St Petersburg” into Google on my iPhone, then purchasing one of the (cheaper) results. My knowledge of making travel arrangements is now reduced to knowledge of how to use my phone. All other aspects of that knowledge (such as knowledge of routes, which airlines fly where, etc) are contained in the IT systems. Knowledge of how to get myself from here to there has begun to be removed from me and put into the modern information systems. It’s not only travel arrangements where this is happening either. As more of our consumerist habits take place online, so more of our savoir-vivre (“knowledge of how to live”, to borrow another of Steigler’s phrases) is lost to us and relocated to external systems.  (Arguably this proletarianisation of consumers actually started with the advent of supermarkets.)The result, and one which Marx could not have predicted, is that it’s not just as workers that we find ourselves in the proletariat, it is also as consumers.

It is not just among members of the bourgeoisie that we find evidence of the spread of proletarianisation either. The 2008 economic crash suggests that these processes are now working on those many of us would consider to be the elites. Just think of the confusion when the crash happened. Many of the so called experts just didn’t see it coming. And in hindsight why would they have? Far from being experts, they are simply the assembly line equivalents of the financial industry. They may know their own little part of the gig inside out, but they lack that “beginning to end” knowledge that assembly line production removed from the factory worker. The financial elites, or at least the lower strata of those elites, have been deprived of the knowledge of their own financial industry, and without that bigger picture view they were unable to see the trends careering towards global financial catastrophe. Many bankers, simply responding to data and prompts much like the call centre worker, have become grossly overpaid proles!

Posted in Political Philosophy

Socialist Language (updated version)

I have noticed a rise in the number of articles recently that make an appeal for socialists to stop using socialist jargon. This has coincided with a large number of (mostly younger) socialists demanding that no “old language” be used at all as it (somehow) harms socialism. I have been accused personally of being harmful to the cause because of the language I use. I challenge those making the accusations to go through any of my writing or radio broadcasts, all of which are freely available, and point out to me the harmful language that I use and suggest what I replace it with. So far none of them have taken me up on this offer. I guess that’s because that while I write from a (post-)Marxist perspective I tend to use my normal daily language to do so. Sure I use the occasional “comrade” when greeting party members, but I’ve yet to be given a credible reason why I shouldn’t. If you don’t like it I won’t call you “comrade”, but don’t tell me I can’t use it at all!

This is almost always related to another problem, those who say things like “Marxism is irrelevant today”. It tends to be the same people saying these things. They will tell you quite freely that they don’t understand Marx, but without any sense of the irony will make grand sweeping statements about how irrelevant Marx is anyway. Now while it’s true that not all socialists self-identify as Marxists, since at least the First World War all socialism has to one extent or another been influenced by Marx. We may argue about the degree to which Marx is still relevant (I will do something approaching that below) but it is astounding ignorance to claim the entire history of Marxist thought is now irrelevant.

When writing about what sort of language socialists should be using, there is a risk of setting off quite a heated debate about what at first looks like a fairly mundane topic. There are bigger things to worry about surely? Privatisation of the NHS, low wages, zero hours contracts, illegal wars, nuclear weapons stored on our territory against our will, discrimination, racism, etc. With all of that going on, why worry so much about whether or not the proper way to greet a fellow socialist is a friendly, “Hi comrade”? Looks can be deceiving. Language is incredibly important to all of us; both at a personal level and at the level at which certain groups are able to control society.

At the personal level language is how we ‘interface’ with our environment; it is how we connect the inner workings of our own mind with the outside world. It is how we think, it is how we communicate our own thoughts with other people and it is how we assimilate what is being shared with us. There is of course a need, therefore, to find the best way to express our socialist arguments so that others are able to properly assimilate them into their own understanding of the world. That is the spirit in which the younger socialists I mentioned above have made their appeal that we avoid certain aspects of our socialist language.  We have to be careful, however, not to put up barriers to those who are already totally comfortable using the so-called obscure socialist terminology. If we tell them they are not allowed to use that language we are effectively stopping them from taking part in the debate. We are removing from them their own means of thinking about the issues and communicating their thoughts on those issues.

At the level of social control language is crucial, as those who control the language control the society. George Orwell was perhaps the first to recognise this, and his invented language of Newspeak in the novel 1984 was an attempt to display this thought. Recall that Newspeak consisted solely of jargon in which heretical ideas became impossible to express or even to think. In today’s world, real life examples of Newspeak are rife in the jargon laden languages of politicians, business leaders and media who limit language in order to preserve their own power and privilege. Their demand that any criticisms be translated into their own language before they’ll take them seriously is intended to crush the possibility of articulating ideas dangerous to the status quo. My concern with those on the left who demand that we translate our language in this way is that they have been naively convinced by the demands of these people. Their arguments about why we should change our language usually tend to centre round feelings of embarrassment and a belief that we’ll be taken seriously if our language were to mimic that found in the modern media. The demands of the powerful, however, were designed deliberately to invoke this sort of reaction in the knowledge that if we do give up enough of our language then we have essentially conceded control.

Before Orwell, Marx himself had understood that the “bourgeoisie” language had evolved in such a way as to obscure the realities of “real life” (although he never made the connection to social control that Orwell later would). During his engagement with the problem of democracy, Marx tackled the larger issue that he called “bourgeoisie categories of thought”, which are essentially ways in which the new capitalist states categorised their ideas of freedom, equality and liberty. In The German Ideology he explores how these categories actually obscure our understanding of the realities of social conditions and relations. The “bourgeoisie” language (or “modern” language in today’s debate) was therefore unsuitable for an account of life as it is actually lived under capitalism (Marx uses the term ‘civil society’ to refer to this reality).

So this debate about the language we use is not new; it has been hotly debated by socialists for well over one hundred years now. In the current incarnation of the debate it’s argued, “It’s not that we should attempt to “dumb down” our arguments so much as that we should be trying to make these arguments relevant to the day to day struggles of the working person.” When framed in this way the argument certainly has a sort of intuitive appeal to it, although it completely misses the point that this is exactly why socialists (Marxists in particular) have historically wanted to avoid the bourgeoisie/modern jargon (again, think of Marx and ‘civil society’). If we want people to agree with and accept our message then of course we have to present it to them in a way that they will understand it. However, I think this type of argument is in danger of becoming elitist and extremely dismissive of the working class. It is the type of argument made by champagne socialists, the sort who think they are superior to the “poor workers”. The working class do not generally struggle to understand complex ideas or language. Just go into Tesco, pick up a “hobby” magazine (about fishing or photography as an example) and look at the language in there. It is incredibly technical and complicated at times, but that’s no barrier to us down here in the working class from understanding it. If we don’t need to constantly translate fishing and photography magazines into a simpler language, why the constant demand we do so for our socialist arguments? The claim, I guess, is that by using language that is obscure we are behaving in a rather self defeating way. Our “obscure socialist language”, some have said, alienates us from the people we are trying to reach because it is just irrelevant to their day to day struggles.

The difference of opinion that this issue generates could be due to the issue is not actually being as straightforward as it first appears. Is the problem that socialist language is irrelevant, or is the problem that it is obscure? These are clearly two different problems, but I believe that most appeals to change our socialist language are guilty of conflating the two. If there are two different issues here, it could well be the case that they require two different solutions.

Consider for a moment an unrelated example: phlogiston. In the past, students of chemistry would talk of grand and complicated theories about phlogiston, which was believed to be an element stored in physical objects and that was released during combustion. Of course, talk of phlogiston must sound extremely obscure. How many people have ever heard it mentioned? It is also completely irrelevant as we now know that there is no such thing as phlogiston. The correct thing to do with regards phlogiston language was to stop using it.

The question seems to be, how much does socialist language resemble phlogiston language? Phlogiston language was both obscure and irrelevant. This does not seem to be the case with socialist language. No doubt contained within the millions of words written about socialism we will come across some aspects which are both obscure and irrelevant. The correct thing to do with those aspects is to stop using them (if anyone still does). That seems like an obvious truth, one that doesn’t really need to be argued for. The vast majority of socialist language is clearly not of this sort. It may be obscure, or it may be irrelevant, but it is rarely both.

Some famous quotes from Marx might help illuminate this point. Let’s start with, “In every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety” as found in Das Kapital. If you were to give this quote to people and ask them to explain it, most I’m sure would be extremely puzzled by it. Its meaning is quite obscure, at least to those not familiar with Marxist economics. Marx is talking about what today we would call Ponzi schemes. In fact, even putting it in today’s language and calling it a Ponzi scheme rather than stockjobbing doesn’t really make it any less obscure. It is however totally relevant. It is exactly these sorts of economic practices that can wreck national or global economies, and as such exactly the sort of thing socialists should be trying to warn the working class about. Its obscurity does not seem to translate into a reason to stop talking about it, and no-one seems to be suggesting that we stop using the phrase “Ponzi scheme”.

Contrast this with, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, the famous line found in Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), although first used as a slogan by Louis Blanc in 1851. There is no obscurity here; the meaning is blatantly obvious (hence why it makes a good slogan). It is, however, a slogan that we should probably stop using. If we are aiming to make life better for the masses then this quote is totally irrelevant, as a real life implementation of this would be no Utopia. Arguably the Soviet Gulags were organised on this principle, where prisoners were given the basic minimum of their needs while it was demanded that each work to their maximum ability, until such time as death intervened. A state of affairs that in no way would make the life of the masses any better were it to be implemented generally!

Even if we were to be generous to Marx, and grant that this principle would not result in an über-Gulag type society, it is still not clear that this principle bears any relevance to the modern worker. While Marx gave us a scientific critique of capitalism, which enabled him to predict many subsequent developments, one thing which he failed to predict was the rise of consumerism. Today workers do not work just to meet their needs. They also work to satisfy their desires, such as a holiday abroad every year, the latest gadgets, a nicer car, etc. (Without going into the details, Marx was of course aware of a difference between needs and desires. In fact, his account of the development of culture was based on desires. This sort of desire however has a different psychological explanation than consumerist desires.  Some post-Marxists differentiate between desires and drives to make a distinction.) While combating the excesses of consumerism is of course a battle that socialists should take on, to only promise people that their needs will be met in a socialist society seems to fundamentally misunderstand the psychology of the modern worker and is very unlikely to win much support. This seems like the sort of thing we should stop saying despite it not being obscure in the slightest, and despite it not being the type of language that those suggesting we make changes have in mind.

I don’t suggest that any of the above is conclusive. I do hope that it highlights that the issue is not as straight forward or as obvious as some have claimed. There does certainly seem to be a case to demand that we drop all “irrelevant” language from our discourse. It is not always obvious, however, which aspects of our socialist language are irrelevant, and when it is irrelevant its irrelevance is usually unrelated to whether or not it is obscure.

Now, after saying all that and after expressing how important I think this debate is, I want to suggest that we don’t overstate the importance of saving particular words from those who are intent on trimming our socialist vocabulary. Marxism is not akin to a religious doctrine, it is not something whose specific content is to be taken as a universal truth. Instead, Marxism is a method for understanding our social-economic reality. It is the tools rather than the finished product. So in this sense at least we don’t need to worry about saving every piece of jargon, so long as we have another ready to take its place. We should be wary, however, that nothing quite captures the meaning of a word like that word itself. When we stop ourselves from using certain words, we are left with words which only give us an approximation of the meaning we are trying to convey. If we use too many approximations it is unclear whether we can actually claim to be conveying our message at all. So if we are to make any changes to our socialist language, we had better be damn sure that the Marxist method can be properly understood and learned in our “new” language, whatever that may be.

Posted in Book Reviews, Political Philosophy

The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys

Below is a book review I wrote a few years ago, although I think the topic remains just as important now so decided to give it a share.

David Benatar; The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell 2012

For many, the idea that men and boys are (or even could be) the victims of sexism appears entirely wrong-headed, even preposterous. This is perhaps understandable. The vast majority of discourse on the subject of sex discrimination has been from the feminist perspective, which has served to bring to the public consciousness the unfair practices, policies and social norms that have obstructed women’s right to equality with their male counterparts, and where necessary to implement remedial action. From a position within this social discourse, it becomes natural to view males as the privileged sex and females as merely the ‘second sex’ or under-privileged gender. The fact that males are actually unfairly treated due to their sex, then, has become a sort of invisible discrimination, the “Second Sexism”.

What is excellent about this book is that David Benatar provides both the evidence for the existence of this hidden sexism and also an account of why it has been overlooked and largely unnoticed. Further, this is first and foremost a work of philosophy, liberating the topic of sex discrimination from the ideologies of social scientists and gender studies. As a work of philosophy, time is taken to clearly define the concepts utilized and to carefully and rigorously examine these concepts. For example, Benatar draws a very clear and important distinction between disadvantages as a result of one’s sex on the one hand and wrongful discrimination based on one’s sex on the other (discrimination lies somewhere between the two, as some discrimination may in fact not be wrong).

It is worth noting at this point that this book is not an attack on feminism, in fact Benatar believes himself to be an advocate of a feminism based on equality between the sexes. Benatar points out at various stages throughout the book that he would expect feminists (or at least those feminists whose primary concern is equality, ‘egalitarian feminists’ in Benatar’s vocabulary) to agree with the arguments he puts forward. If this is an attack on anyone, it is only towards ‘partisan feminists’ that it should be seen to be directed; towards those whose sole priority is advancing the interests and protecting the rights of females only.

It is also important to note that this text is only designed to be relevant within “the West”, i.e. the English speaking world and most of the European Union. This is important as acknowledging this early on will help to head off an obvious objection to the idea of a second sexism. This objection would point to cultures such as Saudi Arabia or India as apparent evidence that men are indeed the privileged sex and women merely subservient. By restricting the debate to an account of largely liberal and ‘enlightened’ societies, examples such as the ‘rape culture’ in India that has become headline news recently, while still an important issue that needs addressing, is not relevant in the context of the “Second Sexism”.

The book itself consists of seven chapters, and each chapter deals with its own issues related to the book’s central theme. The first chapter serves as an introduction, and Benatar uses it to clarify much of the terminology that he will use throughout the book. As well as distinguishing between disadvantages, discrimination and wrongful discrimination, Benatar also uses this chapter to define exactly what he means by sexism. For Benatar, sexism is simply wrongful discrimination on the basis of sex. He immediately considers and rejects an objection to this definition. The objection being that many will argue that sexism must be ‘systematic’; it must “involve the domination of one sex by another”. The force of this objection is felt when we note that any existing discrimination against males does not satisfy this stricter definition, and therefore males cannot be the victims of a second sexism at all. Benatar successfully dismisses such an objection. On such a definition, we would have to conclude that most Western democracies are ‘post-sexist’, and this is a position that no-one, let alone those raising the objection, would be prepared to endorse. Regardless, what is important for Benatar is to establish that males suffer from wrongful discrimination. Whether or not society is universally prepared to accept that this is ‘sexism’ is not of central importance to this endeavour. For Benatar, this discrimination is worthy of moral opposition whether it is labelled as ‘sexism’ or not.

Benatar uses chapter two to consider a (fairly extensive) variety of ways in which males are disadvantaged as a result of their sex. Importantly this chapter does not discuss discrimination, although many of the disadvantages of being male that Benatar identifies here will resurface again and again throughout the book as we move from disadvantages to discrimination and finally to wrongful discrimination. Some themes that continually re-emerge are combat and conscription (historically it has been almost exclusively males who have been forced to fight in wars due to conscription), and violence (males are much more likely to be the victims of violence). Obviously not every male suffers each of the disadvantages that Benatar lists, but as he points out, not every female suffers each of the well-known disadvantages associated with being female. What is important in this chapter is that Benatar establishes that there are substantial disadvantages in various important ways that males can suffer from in virtue of being male.

In the relatively short chapter three Benatar examines possible causes of male disadvantage as well as beliefs about males that have contributed to these disadvantages. Although short, there is a lot of interesting philosophy going on in this chapter. For example, Benatar distinguishes between descriptive beliefs (beliefs about the way males are) and normative beliefs (beliefs about the way males should be). Although there is undoubted overlap between the two (descriptive beliefs are often cited in support of normative ones) the distinction is often ignored and people simply slide between the two. Benatar uses the belief that female life is more valuable than male life as an example here. The apparent difference in value comes about because where a man may father thousands of children (provided an adequate supply of females) women can only produce roughly one child per year or so. In this sense, a society requires more women than men to ensure its survival into the next generation. Although this may explain why male life is believed to be less valuable than female life, it is far from an explanation of why we should believe this. After all, given the make-up of today’s societies, and the relatively small number of soldiers used in combat compared to the past, it is clear that our society could survive intact even if we were to increase the number of females used in combat.

In chapter four, Benatar hopes to show that differences between the sexes (including beliefs about the sexes) do not justify discrimination, and so any such discrimination must be seen as wrongful discrimination. This is perhaps the key chapter in the book, as Benatar uses it to revisit each of the cases of disadvantages he identified in chapter two and to show why and to what extent they should be understood as examples of wrongful discrimination. For each example, Benatar takes the time to respond to many possible views and replies, including positions held by many reputable scholars and positions found within western ‘pop-culture’.

In chapter five, Benatar responds to objections raised against his argument, and to this extent he groups the objections into three kinds. The first kind he calls the “inversion argument” which is a tactic used by some opponents whereby discrimination against males is ‘inverted’ to look like discrimination against females. He uses many of the examples first discussed in chapter two to show how the inversion argument works in relation to each, and provides convincing replies each time. The second kind of objection is the “cost of dominance argument”, which claims that the supposed disadvantages of being male are in fact just the costs of being the dominant sex. One strategy that Benatar successfully uses here is to show that given the concepts in play, even if men are the dominant sex it does not follow that they cannot also be discriminated against. Finally he considers what he calls the “distraction argument” which is held by those who while they accept that males can be the victim of wrongful discrimination are opposed to drawing attention to this fact as they believe it takes attention away from the supposedly more serious issue of discrimination against women. Amongst Benatar’s replies here is the convincing argument that wrongful sex discrimination is wrong irrespective of the victim’s sex and as such merits our attention.

Chapter six is devoted to a discussion of affirmative action and its justification. It is important to understand that what is being discussed here is the justification of sex-based affirmative action only, and not affirmative action in general. Benatar does not believe that affirmative action for either sex is justified, as what should be promoted is equality between the sexes rather than the advancement of one particular sex.

The final chapter serves as a conclusion which Benatar uses to summarise his position and to consider some questions about related issues. Such issues include the question of whether or not feminism causes wrongful discrimination against males (it doesn’t although may make matters worse according to Benatar), and whether males are worse off than females with regards sexual discrimination (it doesn’t matter, wrongful discrimination is wrong regardless of comparative claims).

Overall this is a piece of work that is hard to find genuine fault with. Certainly it will not be the final definitive word on the subject, but neither was it intended to be. Whereas there are thousands of articles and books regarding discrimination against women, Benatar’s book is one of a very few pieces of work that treat seriously the issue of discrimination against men. With this in mind it would asking too much for Benatar to have provided an exhaustive discussion of wrongful discrimination against men. Rather, Benatar has succeeded in the more modest goal of showing that the second sexism is real and that it deserves far more attention than it currently receives.

Bearing in mind the number of examples that he utilises, it is also worth noting that Benatar is not always successful in the transition from disadvantages to wrongful discrimination (chapter four). This is most pronounced when we consider his treatment of the fact that males are the most likely to be the victims of violence. While statistically this is correct, Benatar fails to show that this statistical difference is linked to wrongful discrimination of men. There is no evidence, for example, that upon examining non-gender related violent crime (such as murder) we will find the victim’s sex to be a factor in determining who will become a victim. In fact, in cases of violent crime that are gender related (such as rape) we find that it is women and not men who are more likely to be the victims. Although there are a number of strategies that Benatar might employ to explain away the statistical problem (such as claiming a link between non-gender related violence and indirect rather than direct discrimination) it is worth pointing out that Benatar does not need to be successful in establishing wrongful discrimination in every example that he uses. It is enough for his purposes to show only that some of the disadvantages that males suffer from are a result of wrongful discrimination, and he is successful on this more modest understanding of his project.

Throughout the book Benatar manages to build a well crafted philosophically sophisticated argument. The philosophical tasks of honestly and accurately understanding and representing the issues at hand, even if this is politically inconvenient, are undertaken in such a way that any reasonable reader couldn’t fail to see the importance of Benatar’s conclusions. Benatar’s argument therefore deserves to have as wide a readership as the Simone de Beauvoir work that the title echoes.