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Monthly Archives: April 2012

(Figuratively of course. Ideas are difficult to literally smash.)

So on Saturday I had a rather interesting drunk conversation with a (gay) friend of mine about a bunch of stuff relating to the queer struggle. The main thing I’m going to focus on is the following set of arguments, which I’m paraphrasing from my very imperfect memory (so apologies if this ends up looking like a mischaracterisation).

You seem to think that the existence of a norm in society is inherently oppressive, and I don’t think that’s true.

Straight people will always be seen as the norm in society simply because most people in society will always be straight, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as LGBT people aren’t discriminated against.

Kids learn most of their ideas about relationships from observing their parents before anyone ever sits them down and has the sex-talk with them, and since most parents will be straight couples, kids will naturally infer that straight-monogamous relationships are the norm.

Predictably, Drunk Me wasn’t particularly effective at arguing against this, but there’s a lot of important ideas in what I should have said, and this is a pretty decent argument to hang an exposition of those ideas around.

I’m gonna break it down into two sections.

Will the majority of people always be straight?

I doubt it, although there’s a limit to how much I can say about the subjectivities of others. Particularly it would be wrong to merely dismiss those who experience their sexuality as innate and natural to them. But the fact that most people experience sexuality this way is almost certainly coloured by the fact that they live in a society that constantly tells them that this is the only way to experience sexuality and entirely erases the voices of anyone who experiences things differently.

Who we’re attracted to is definitely influenced by physiological factors (to deny this would turn queer theory into an anti-materialist abstraction). But it’s also influenced by all kinds of other material forces – most significantly the ideas we’re exposed to about sexuality and the social and economic consequences for the individual if they believe those ideas or not, but also things like the geographies and ecologies of the spaces we inhabit.

Socialisation plays a huge role in forming identities and determining behaviours. To argue from analogy: the reason why the vast majority of people wear clothes for the vast majority of their lives is not because humans are biologically determined to be clothes-wearing animals, but because it’s socially unacceptable for people do be naked in most social settings, because there are certain culturally created ideas about people who are inappropriately naked (they’re assumed to be mentally ill, or sexual predators, or weird hippies, or something like that) and about the human body more generally and the genitalia specifically, and because there are pretty significant negative consequences for people who are inappropriately naked and not a huge amount of pluses.

It’s hard to say with certainty how people would think and feel and behave in a radically different society. It’s hard to determine how much of a role biology has in shaping sexuality because we can’t extract people from their social reality and run controlled experiments in a culture-free vacuum (and even if we could, studying the sexuality of someone who has never interacted with another human being probably doesn’t tell us a whole lot when they only have themselves or the Void to be attracted to). But we can say with certainty that humans do all kinds of things all the time that couldn’t possibly be merely acting out a script written by genes and hormones. We have more agency than that.

Which categories of people you feel attracted to probably has a lot more to do with which categories of people you allow yourself to think about feeling attracted to than it does with some primal urge to fuck someone because your genes are telling you they’d be a good person to put bits of your DNA in (or whatever evolutionary psychology bullshit is trendy at the moment).

For more on this issue, check out my post here and this post by another blog on the same topic. And also Significant Othering, which is pretty great and somewhat related.

Is a ‘norm’ inherently oppressive?

Um, maybe…

I think one of the key points here is actually semantic: we need to draw a distinction between a (socially enforced) norm and merely a majority sexuality.

The former is what exists under the discursive power structure of heteronormativity. Under heteronormativity, heterosexuality is not merely the sexual preference of the majority of people in society – it’s a privileged identity. It’s an identity whose legitimacy is beyond question. It’s an identity which is seen as the default, and which you are assumed to identify with unless you indicate otherwise. It’s an identity that is associated with notions of belonging in society. It’s an identity that allows you greater access to power within society.

This is not something that just happens because 9 out of 10 people in society are heterosexual. It requires the continual propagation and continual enforcement of a mutually supporting and reinforcing set of ideas about sex, sexuality and gender. It requires all of the cultural institutions of society to continually pump out ideas about what kind of sex you can have, who you can have it with, what kind of relationships you can have, and what genders you can be. It requires policing of those who step outside the margins of normalcy or acceptability; the kinds of policing action that take place range from being made to feel weird, or dirty or anxious, to ostracisation, bullying, abuse and violence. (Policing can disguise itself as inclusion by including queer people in a way that emphasises their otherness, or which emphasises the power of straight people to decide who gets included, or by making the inclusion contingent on being queer in a way that’s palatable to straight people.)

The fact that it’s not something that just happens and must be actively reinforced is key here, because it implies that heteronormativity is something that can be fought against by stopping the processes that reinforce it. Even if we accept (for the sake of argument) that only 10% of people in society will ever experience attraction to someone of the same gender, it’s entirely possible for the majority of people to be straight and for society not to make any kind of assumptions about those who aren’t. But that does require us to dismantle the institutions (capitalism, the state, etc.) which propagate those ideas in the interests of the ruling class.

Still: 10% is not enough. Recruit!*

*Not a joke.

This post was written for the Workers Solidarity Movement site in October 2011 when the Occupy movement was just kicking off. It attracted quite a lot of attention at the time, because I think it echoed a lot of the frustrations leftists were feeling towards the movement. It was even picked up and republished by the IWW in the Industrial Worker newspaper.

I’m mainly reposting this because I want to copy some of the better stuff I’ve written for activist publications over to this blog, but it is interesting to read over this in retrospect and see how some of these dynamics played out in different contexts around the world.

Occupy Dame Street

What are we to make of the global ‘Occupy X’ movement which has exploded onto the streets of cities across the world, turning public spaces into campsites of opposition? Certain things are obvious: Firstly, the fact that there are thousands of people across the world taking over public spaces to express their anger at the financial system is undeniably a good thing. Having camped out outside the Central Bank on Dame Street on Saturday night, I can also say that these protests exude a positivity and hopefulness that is so often lacking from the ritualistic parades of anger that make up most protest marches. But there are also, in my view, serious political problems that prevent the movement from moving beyond a ‘radical sleepover’ and becoming a genuine anti-austerity grassroots resistance movement.

The analysis below is based in my own particular experience of the Dame St. protest on the ground and of the US protests as a media event. Obviously any attempt to discuss a diverse and fluid movement like this as a whole can only ever be approximate and reductive. This account is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather to sketch what I see as the major trends and tendencies emerging within the movement, and should be read with that in mind.

Non-politics, incoherence, (neo)liberalism

The ‘Occupy X’ movement has since its inception shown an extreme aversion to being seen as political. Some aspects of this, such as banning political party banners, are an understandable pragmatic reaction to the tendency of various Leninist parties to hijack these kinds of events by swamping them with flags, banners and paper-sellers. But the anti-politics of the movement, at least on the part of the organising core and the Adbusters collective who issued the call for the original Wall St. protest, is also ideological: an odd synthesis of post-leftist anti-organisationalism (which sees formal political organisations, trade unions, etc. as being necessarily oppressive) and neoliberal post-politicism (which sees a Left vs. Right contest of ideas as being largely irrelevant after the fall of the Berlin Wall). After decades of neoliberal governance and media spin attempting to drive ideology and politics out of public discourse in order to enshrine the liberal-capitalist consensus as being ‘above politics’ and to reduce political questions to technical ones best dealt with by ‘experts’, it is perhaps unsurprising, but nonetheless disheartening, to see this depoliticisation reflected in contemporary forms of resistance.

Most obviously, this has been expressed in the movement’s unwillingness to attempt to agree on a coherent set of positions beyond some very basic points of unity with no underlying analysis of society. Instead, the occupied space is used by individuals to express a range of incoherent and often mutually contradictory ideas which are related only by being in some sense opposed to the status quo and the political and financial elites. On Saturday, I spoke to individuals who believe in everything from Rawlsian social democracy, to anarchism, to paranoid crypto-anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (the New World Order, etc.), to Stalinism. Of course, the advantage of this is that it’s extremely inclusive – the only requirement to participate is a sense that things are not as they should be and that the financial sector and the state are in some way to blame – but this also means that reactionary ideas are treated the same as progressive ones rather than being robustly challenged. In practice, this means that the ideas that come to the fore tend to be those that are already dominant in society: the ideas of the ruling class. In the US context, the dominant messages from Occupy Wall Street have been liberal, reformist and nationalistic: those that posed the least threat to the establishment. For example, a call to “make Wall Street work for America” amounts to little more than a call for increased exploitation of the Third World as an alternative to imposing austerity. A call to reform banking practice to constrain “corporate greed” is merely a call to stabilise capitalism so that the course of exploitation runs more smoothly. The problem is capitalism, not regulatory failure, or corporate greed or a lack of economic patriotism, and the inadequacies of these analyses need to be exposed rather than uncritically welcomed. The Irish protest seems to be following a similar pattern, with a particular anti-IMF/EU flavour.

The theory underlying this anti-politics, so far as I can gather, is this: no two people experience oppression in the same way, and thus any attempt to unite people under a political programme inevitably ends up erasing some people’s perspectives. This is superficially quite a pleasing analysis, since it creates a framework under which all ideas can be understood as equally valid, since they all derive from lived-experience, but it’s extremely problematic. Implicitly, it denies the possibility of coming to an inter-subjective understanding (i.e. one based in mutual recognition of shared experiences and understanding of differing ones) of oppression through collective discussion and compromise, and instead collapses into a naive relativism that produces a vague and weak politics, which plays into the hands of those who wish to dismiss the protesters as ‘hippies’ who don’t understand the complexities of capitalism. In any case, it’s easy to overstate the case for subjective perspectives and ignore the objective factors that shape experiences: the processes and structures of capitalist domination.

Bring back the working-class!

One of the major victories of neoliberalism is the eradication of the working-class from the popular consciousness. One of the results of this is the prevalence of the idea among certain sections of the left that the working-class is no longer relevant to understanding power in the modern world – an outdated idea clung to by old-left dinosaurs. This is reflected in the idea of ‘the 99%’ which has become the slogan of the ‘Occupy X’ movement, which expresses a very crude understanding of class, where the ruling class are an arbitrarily defined proportion of the wealthiest people in society. This makes for some great chanting – “we are the 99%!” – but is a poor criterion for membership of an anti-capitalist or anti-austerity movement. Put bluntly: there are an awful lot of capitalists, bosses, managers, bankers, CEOs, politicians, police, prison wardens, pimps, heroin dealers, etc. in the 99%.

Properly understood, class is not a classification system of individuals based on how much money they have, it’s a social relation between people that derives from the organisation of labour under capitalism. In other words, it’s the way people are forced to relate to one another in order to participate in capitalist society. Class oppression is not a small cabal of the ultra-rich in Wall Street or Washington or Leinster House, it’s in every workplace, every police station, every dole queue, every courtroom, every prison and every territory occupied by Western militaries, and can only be sensibly understood as such.

Conclusion

The radically democratic nature of the occupations creates the potential for the movement to evolve in any number of possible directions. Whether or not they become genuine resistance movements depends largely on how much the radical left are willing to engage with them, and re-assert the importance of class politics in understanding and countering oppression, by participating in the actions, discussions, and assemblies. A key hurdle has already been overcome: people are on the streets, expressing their dissent, reclaiming public spaces; it remains to be seen what comes of it.