Helen Razer’s broadside against ‘the Left’s’ obsession with symbolic politic – dumb articles on newsreaders, rainbow-painted street crossings – got a strong vote of support when it appeared on Crikey last week. It was difficult not to join in. These mini-debates that flare up around gestures or dumb remarks, frequently related to gender and sexuality, sometimes seem to have become the only thing that resembles politics in a society where, more than perhaps anywhere in the world, the material/economic question has been written out of daily discussion and struggle.
But there was also an irritation at a familiar move – identify a monolithic thing called the Left and denounce it entire.
It’s reasonable to, as Lizzie O’Shea notes, to distinguish between a cultural Left and a material Left, and also to make the point that symbolic and media events are not merely sometimes important in their own right but also materially formative. In the comments string, Jeff Sparrow and others emphasised that successful symbolic struggles make the possibility of political success visible to people – to establish that ‘is’ is not ‘must be’.
Fair enough, but I think the replies to Razer are missing three points: one she makes explicitly (insofar as Razer and ‘explicit’ go together), one implicit, and one that exists at a level beneath the debate, and its shared assumptions.
The explicit point Razer makes is not that politics around symbolic or one off-cultural moments distracts from other, more material, struggles, but that it actually supplants them: the more you engage in argy-bargy about a rainbow street crossing or a dumb misogynist article by a curmudgeonly Age grandee, the more you seal off material questions, whether of class, gender or other divisions.
Such fights – including for Razer (and for myself), the same-sex marriage/marriage equality campaign – actively steer away from the deeper engagement that it’s suggested they will encourage.
Furthermore, Razer’s piece also leaned on arguments she’s made elsewhere: that same-sex marriage is essentially a conservative campaign, one in which an appeal is made for something more than the full legal equality of civil partnering that has been largely achieved. The same-sex marriage campaign wants the distinctive form of modern marriage: the state’s co-option of a social ceremony, with the state taking the role once played by the witnessing community (that is, ‘those gathered here …’), or, after the twelfth century, by God, when the church got in on the act.
Marriage, as it stands, is panoptic, with the state’s witnessing making it real. In that respect, extending it, via a claim of ‘marriage equality’, is to advance state enforcement of identity over difference, and a state takeover of what was hitherto an area of autonomous social meaning.
That makes the same-sex marriage campaign an enormously conservative one, a direct reversal of liberation.
Yet at another level, the ‘marriage equality’ push has a liberal, and even a neoliberal, tenor: the idea that social meaning is no more than a series of contracts between individuals. That’s one explanation of the rapid process by which it went from obscure cause to majority position in the space of a decade.
If that’s the case, then ‘marriage equality’ is not the harbinger of a wider notion of social equality that many on the Left (both of them) want it to be, but part of a social process whereby any collective limit on individual contracting comes to be seen as inexplicable. The on-the-street reaction to opposition to same-sex marriage has become ‘well, why shouldn’t they?’ – and that may be the subset of a reasoning process whereby people believe they should be individually free to make whatever contracts they like. For instance, in the workplace: trading away conditions, working for less than minimum wage (‘why shouldn’t they, if they want to,’ etc etc).
Emphatically, I’m not saying that the marriage equality campaign would cause that attitude. But there is no accurate way to read off a surge in support for progressive politics from symbolic or cultural struggles. To do that is to assume an ensemble of progressive causes – gender/race/etc liberation and economic social equality – that only obtained from the mid-60s through to the 80s, and which has now broken down. In that respect, the belief that successes act as inspiration for other progressive struggles is too formal and abstract. Should we take encouragement from the sudden rise of legalistic anti-porn movements, or from Femen? They show that social campaigns are possible, but they mix progressive and reactionary themes together in a new ensemble in such a way as to make it impossible to tell whether their rise is a sign of things moving leftward, or getting rather worse.
That point segues to the third, and more ground level material contradiction of the symbolic/material debate. It is not unreasonable for Razer to slate the whole ‘Left’ for substituting cultural for material politics, since many of the wellsprings of material politics were all too eager to do so. It may not be coincidental that the last campaign of the DSP, before it more or less winked out of existence, was for marriage equality, since the extension of state licensing of relationships is about as far from a liberationist Marxist perspective as you could get: indeed, one of the DSP/SWP’s big campaign in the old Red Planet/80s era was against marriage. Had it retained the courage of its convictions, it would have campaigned for the disestablishment of marriage. State marriage would have been replaced by gender-blind civil union, and marriage as a ceremony of public witnessing returned to the social sphere. You would then be civilly committed in a five minute appointment and be free to be married by George Pell in St Peter’s or by the RRR Breakfasters in the front-bar of the Tote, as you saw fit.
Yet elements of the material Left have steered ever more to symbolic/cultural politics because they have almost no presence or purchase in the material/physical working class, and are now entirely based in the information/cultural producing class. For that class, the symbolic is the material, since their production of alienated value involves exclusively the manipulation of ideas, images, concepts. Manual production is a locked-off black box, managed by technocrats. The presence or absence of a rainbow street or the way female newsreaders are discussed thus becomes as material as the rate of surplus value was to a manual/industrial proletariat.
By contrast, it becomes very difficult to lift material questions from the technocratic and managerial realm, and make them political. Even people that Razer approvingly quotes and cites – such as Eva Cox – politic within this realm.
The dilemma for many on the materialist Left, in that respect, is that they are reluctant to re-enter material politics, because much of would mean arguing policy within a capitalist framework. The raw deal that the mass of Australians get in a very rich country – squeezed prices, ludicrous housing prices, large student debt – should be fodder for a material politics capable of gaining wide support. But that means advocating reform and abandoning what has now become a McGuffin, the notion of a comprehensive socialist revolution. In the gap between now and then, the materialist Left has decided to use cultural struggles to recruit, and to keep progressive politics going. They may well have been too clever-by-half, turning themselves into a de facto cultural Left, and rendering the whole spectrum ‘culturalised’. This interpretation – and I’m offering it as no more than that – would be one explanation as to why the Occupy movement faded as quickly as it arose. It would rather make Razer’s point but also cast doubt on her solution. In a post-industrial Left, material politics cannot simply be revived by individual acts of will.