Reply to O’Shea and Razer on cultural politics and the Left

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.

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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  1. Part of what I’ve always liked about Guy, both as a person and a writer, is his willingness to debate ideas in a constructive and generous fashion. The post above serves as an illustration.
    That being said, I think he’s wrong on almost every point. Of course, being Guy, even when he’s wrong, he’s wrong in interesting ways.
    It’s best to discuss the same-sex marriage issue because that concretises the substance of the debate. Guy says that struggles around ‘symbolic’ or ‘cultural’ issues seals od f material questions such as class.
    But the term ‘symbolism’ in this context is not tremendously useful (and, yes, I employed it in the last post, too). Think about the US civil rights struggle. When blacks refused to sit at the back of the bus, it wasn’t because they thought seats at the front were materially better. The struggle centred on bussing as a concretization of discrimination. The seating policies were symbolic but they were also real. That’s why it wasn’t an answer to segregated restaurants to argue that blacks had their own restaurants of comparable caliber.
    That being said, the Left has always recognised the difference between formal and real equality. That’s the historic contradiction of capitalism: it simultaneously legitimises equality through exchange, even as mandates inequality through production. That’s Marx’s point in Capital when he talks about the market as ‘the very Eden of the innate rights of man’ and the sphere of ‘freedom, equality, property and Bentham’ – and then notes that matters become entirely different when you pass to the sphere of production, where none of those rights pertain.
    In other words, the contradiction between formal and real equality is inherent in capitalism – constitutive, even, since it stems from the very concept of labour power as a commodity. But that does not mean that formal equality is not a legitimate and important demand.
    As I said in the previous discussion, all the arguments about same-sex marriage – that it’s conservatizing, that it sows illusions, that it’s counterposed to radical positions – could have been made equally about other rights based campaigns, going back to so far as the right to vote (those terrible illusions in liberal democracy!).
    Guy suggests that matters are different now because of the neo-liberal turn, that the neoliberal fetishisation of market relationships normalized a notion of equality based around atomized individuals. Now, it’s certainly the case that, in their campaign to foster marketization, neoliberals make use of all sorts of slogans from the New Left, presenting the market’s struggle against any non-market structures as the triumph of freedom and democracy and accountability and so on. The most obvious instance is the ongoing rightwing attack on the Left as ‘elitist’, with every goose in the country who is able to peck at a typewriter producing a book in which a ‘radical’ and ‘democratic’ notion of anti-elitism gets deployed on behalf of neoliberal ideas.
    But it’s simply not correct to say that’s qualitatively new. Actually, the tension between formal and actual freedoms has always been deployed in that way. That’s the source of the very old, very traditional liberal response to radicals – ‘you have all kinds of freedom under capitalism and therefore you have nothing to complain about.’
    The radical rejoinder to that doesn’t consist of dismissing the real freedoms made possible by capitalism. Instead, it calls to deepen those freedoms, to insist that formal rights become real.
    Guy says that struggles around marriage foreclose other, material struggles. But that fails to acknowledge that the fight for same-sex marriage has fostered a genuine collective campaign, with some of the biggest demonstrations around any recent issue – demonstrations on which people have overcome the atomization of the neoliberal era (at least briefly). It’s simply empirically wrong to suggest that the activist orientation to winning marriage equality has someone weakened the possibility of struggle. I am not an activist myself but I would suggest that if you look at the organisers of the current campaign against Gillard’s cuts to higher education, you would find a lot of people who came into politics around the equal love campaign.
    Finally, there’s the question of marriage itself.
    I think Guy’s argument here is quite odd, actually.
    It’s become quite clear that many of the New Left’s arguments about sexuality, marriage and the state have not held up. During the sexual revolution, it was almost taken for granted that non-monogamous, non-heterosexual relations were inherently subversive, unable to be tolerated by the capitalist state because they disrupted the nuclear family.
    Actually, it’s become quite clear that’s not the case. The neoliberal state can cope, with only minimal disruption, with all sorts of arrangements, so long as the maintenance and replenishment of labour power (the modern family’s key function) continues.
    In that sense, it’s true, as Guy and Helen Razer argue, that many conservatives can accept same-sex marriage, after a certain amount of mental readjustment.
    But it’s also true that counterposing same-sex marriage with other kinds of allegedly more radical versions of sexuality or relationships is completely misguided, since the neoliberal state can also tolerate just about any model of sexuality you can imagine. Have a look at Sexpo – there’s almost no kind of sexuality that someone’s not already selling back to you. It’s naïve to think you can defeat capitalism by the way that you have sex.
    So does that mean the struggle for same-sex marriages is useless?
    Not at all.
    As Phil Ferguson puts it in an interesting post about the NZ reforms:

    The passage of this legislation is to be welcomed for three simple reasons. Basic social justice – people should have equal rights regardless of skin colour, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion and so on. Secondly, the granting of more formal legal equality indicates a greater liberality in social views in the wider society and the decline of narrow prejudices. That’s good. Thirdly, the more non-economic issues are solved, or partly solved, the more clearly issues of class exploitation can be posed. Capitalism is not built on denying legal equality to homosexuals, women, national minorities, indigenous peoples and so on; it is built on exploiting the working class and that is the one thing which is not up for abolition.

    I reckon that’s completely right.
    But I’d also put the question the other way around. If this reform is defeated in Australia, it won’t be on the basis of the (ultra) Left arguments raised here. It will be defeated on the basis of homophobia, with the various factional headkickers in the Liberal Party and the ALP convincing their parties that there’s more mileage appealing to utter reactionaries than those supporting equality. How can that possibly be a good result?
    As for Guy’s arguments about the unviability of socialism, well, I can remember us having this debate in about 1989 and I don’t think the arguments have changed much since then. So I think I’ll let that one go through to the keeper.

  2. The reason why the ‘Left’ obsesses about cultural nonsense is because it’s full of hyper-educated middle class tossers who aren’t subject to the material stresses experienced by those who live below the median wage, apart from perhaps keeping up the mortgage payments on their two million dollar terraces in Annandale and their ten thousand dollar bicycles.

  3. Very funny. Yes some who consider themselves on the Left may fit your description Nat but probably not most of us.

    Jeff, what do you mean your are not an activist? Just about everything you write or help get published in Overland in some contributes to social change, even if only at the level of public discourse. Still an important place to begin agitating, though not the only one.

    I think the demarcations we make between thinkers and ‘on the streets’ activists is sometimes a little too sharp and boxes people in. It is as though the two groups don’t or should not or can not overlap. What we need more of is a hybrid of thinking activists – and by that I do not mean the folks in Annandale with expensive bikes and degrees in cultural studies ranting on their blogs and tweeting into the stratosphere. But instead a more educated proletariat/activist or whatever you want to call them these days. Wouldn’t that help us avoid falling in line behind sometimes symbolic actions and conversations that Guy describes as supplanting the calls for the real changes we want to achieve? Wouldn’t it help if more of us recognised the need to think deeply and critique before formulating alternatives and building campaigns? I think that is the job of all of us on the Left.

    And for me it seems obvious that this raises deeper questions about education and the agenda to create a two-tiered system and dumb it down for the masses.

    1. I’ve made a similar mistake, myself- I have often conceived of the idea of “activism” as something which should be differentiated from “theory” because it is a feature of our culture to prioritize the sort of patriarchal, imperialist idea of “doing”, the active, and in that qualification, to necessarily construct a dualism between the thought which precedes it. I was literally just reading some Freire last night: “human activity consists of action and reflection: it is praxis; it is the transformation of the world. Human activity is theory and practice; it is reflection and action…” I don’t think it is helpful to distinguish between thought/theory and action- nor is it to value one over the other. There seems to be a tendency to value the content of things based on the mediums that they are channeled through; eg. “if you don’t have a website, you don’t exist” and other such examples. The hegemony of media dictates and regulates voices, and narratives- and creates a sort of culture which validates it’s own right to exist by, as Stephen argued in his supernaturally awesome article on the Emerging Writer, determining what things are “valuable” or worthy of being articulated to a wider audience (i.e. those things which fail to pose a threat or challenge the status quo- anything that radically interrogates the systems and institutions which permit it’s existence). And in the same way that you get dominant values and ideology, you also get dominant and hegemonic modes (again, perhaps not helpful to differentiate from content). Maybe it’s not the term “activism” that so many people have a problem with, perhaps it’s the implications or the adaption of the term to indicate that the absence of action or silence is an ineffectual means of bringing about social transformation.

  4. the irony of all this decrying leftist activism is that the Razer / Rundle approach is just to tweet and blogué about it. I’d take their arguments a bit more seriously if they actually did something other than moan. otherwise this cyclical negativity is just a waste of time.

  5. Critique and debate about symbolic moments is not without its charm. I am fond of it myself. However, if there is in fact any Left at all remaining, its only meaningful engagement would be taking back the Labor Party from careerist arseholes and mercenaries.

    Staking out claims to holier than thou positions on armchair causes is a luxury that can flow once existential necessities have been addressed.

    In that context Razer, and most of the points made here, don’t register.

    It used to be that the Left had people in it who had read a little bit, and not just from the self-help shelves. People who understood enough economics not to be absolutely bamboozled by its misuses. Now it seems it’s just about the use of politically correct pronouns.

    This is how Abbott and his barbarians will win.

  6. The problem with issues like equal marriage is not that they supplant other material activities – there are plenty going on as we speak. Union campaigns for improved safety on building sites, people agitating against the removal of the legal crisis hotline for Indigenous people in custody, the Environmental Defenders Office working in courts against legal changes that cause environmental destruction, countless people working in women’s shelters and detainment centres, etc etc etc. It’s work that goes on, mostly unnoticed, every day. The real problem is that these things are supplanted in the arena of media attention, and so can’t garner a wider public recognition, and therefore all these efforts seem to be splintered and alienated from each other.

    Does political action only exist in the mass media? I find that hard to believe, but it’s undeniable that the msm dominates political discourse and that contemporary politics often seems to operate wholly in the terrain of the hyperreal. It’s easy to make the claim that “the Left”, whatever it is, has substituted cultural politics for material change, but if political action only or mostly exists by virtue of its visibility in the media – and that often seems the assumption, since collective action requires a public – the Left has no choice but to participate in that arena at some level. To do otherwise is to leave it wholly to other interests. This is the “symbolic” or culturised activity that’s at issue. I think that the media landscape now pretty much ensures this dilemma, and it’s very hard to see a way around it. It seems to me that activism with an eye to notice in the mainstream media is very often a lose/lose situation: you can’t not participate, but participation only occurs according to the media’s established conventions. The most that can be hoped for – and this is what Jeff and Liz have been arguing – is a shift in the consciousness of the public that’s consuming this media, which organically can lead to wider thinking and action. And this does happen. Or at least it has happened. You can see the attraction of things like rainbow crossings: they garner some of this attention, however temporarily, and that seems better than no attention at all.

    Of course the privately owned msm has its own conditioned conventions which defend its own interests (John Pilger described this very well, I think (?) in Another Country). In the argument by the Right for “equal representation” on the ABC (while reserving to itself the right to be as biased as it likes) or the News Corp attacks on the BBC you can see how the corporate media insists its own values must be imposed on any alternative media. The thing is that this has mostly worked, by establishing a substrata of what’s assumed to be worthy of attention. This is why, e.g., Q&A depresses me so much: it’s just more of the same. What gets into the paper or on television is underwritten by notions of “news value”, which isn’t always as directly ideological as is often assumed, although of course it is ultimately ideological. News value is defined by conflict, but it’s conflict that operates in these narrowly defined ways which largely forbid wider debate (thoughtful discussion not defined by polarities lacks news value). I think the msm is way more amoral that most people realise… And this structure of the economy of attention trickles down all the way to things like social media. It’s not impossible to shift the conventions of attention, and to bring other kinds of thought to the fore, but you’re struggling upstream against the raging torrent that moves the other way, and appropriation does the rest. You’re left with symbols – apologies that assume things are better now, because we can apologise, while the government gets on with its intervention policies.

    And this aside from what the working class is. A lot of working class labour in Australia is in places like call centres or service industries, what used to be white collar. We’ve outsourced the humanly costly labour to places like Bangladesh, so the really pointy end of suffering under capital, and its potential for sparking action, is removed from the daily lives of most people. (And no, I’m not denying the presence of an underclass in Australia, it most certainly exists. But it’s an underclass that has minimal or very shaky access to work, and is marginal to the interests of the media, and so mostly ignored).

    So it’s not that the Left has been “too-clever-by-half”. It’s not been clever enough, and now there’s been a coup and nobody knows what to do about it. The problem with Razer’s argument is precisely that she’s operating on the same assumptions and values around attention that drive the msm. What about the activism that, unglamorously and quietly, is getting things done? Razer erases its very existence by claiming it isn’t there. But surely one of the questions is how to make it visible in ways that make that visibility a condition of possibility? I don’t have any solutions, and probably have said no more here than what’s bleedingly obvious, but it’s probably the question that most troubles me.

  7. I thank Jeff for his kind comments about my generosity and engagement. That said, smash the Sparrowite-Trotskyist wreckers.
    OK to business.
    Let me restate my position – some of which was a summary and perhaps extension/variation of points made by Helen Razer and others – succinctly as possible.
    There are a number of current political struggles that seem to act as vortices, sucking people and energy in beyond all utility. Overwhelmingly, these are either about gestural symbolic acts – such as painting a rainbow street crossing – or about minor media events, such as Geoffrey Barker’s silly and bitter article, ostensibly about content-free newsreaders, really about young female ones, which appeared to get into print due to Barker’s one-time seniority at The Age.
    There’s an argument that there should be some pushback on the Barker article, though it is barely worth a remark. The rainbow crossing appears to be as close to a zero degree moment. The street the crossing was put in – well, if it were any more LGBTQI, the asphelt would be singing ‘I’m Still Here’ and mixing cosmopolitans [all complaints re this quip should be addressed to the Producers, Will and Grace, Burbank California]. So the move had no progressive oppositional potential whatsoever – and quite possibly a regressive one, a form of explicit and state sanctioned representation of a process that has occurred through a mix of social activism and gradual cultural shift. If an inner-city suburb has become a LGBTQI-focused area, surely the ultimate victory is that it just be that, expressed as part of a city’s multiplicity, without civic badges? That’s one aspect of the potentially regressive character of symbolic politics, and I presume neither Jeff nor Lizzie would put them on a par with the civil rights movement.
    That brings us to the same-sex marriage push, a rather different beast. Razer has argued that the obsessive focus on it by sections of the Left obscures its potentially conservative character – the process by which social/sexual areas of difference are co-opted into a form of imposed cultural identity. The determination of same-sex marriage advocates to find for full marriage rights, rather than a universal civil union containing all the legal rights appears to indicate that what is wanted is a state witnessing of same-sex commitment.
    Jeff analogises that with the black civil rights movement, because it sits at the symbolic/material juncture. I don’t agree for several reasons:
    – first, I think Jeff’s version of the materiality of the civil rights movement is deficient. Black people didn’t have separate but equal bus seats or lunch counters in the Jim Crow South. Rosa Parks was ordered to get up from her seat, because, when a bus was full, white people could take the ‘coloured’ seats. Blacks had to stand , or even get out. Since they all lived on the outskirts of town, this often meant walking miles home from work. In town, Woolworths and other places, when they had ‘coloured’ lunch counters, often left them permanently unattended. That made it impossible for coloured people to do anything in town other than work and shop. Race was both classed and spatialised, and the struggle was based on that fact. The civil rights movement, for example, never spent much time on trying to have the US Constitution revised to remove its racist remnant clauses. That would have been symbolic. The bus/lunch counter campaign segued to a Southern-wide bus boycott, which brought southern white businesses to their knees – and ultimately had them petitioning local govts to loosen off Jim Crow laws. A more material campaign – sparked by the involvement of Communist Party USA members in many cases – it would be harder to find.
    Nothing in the same-sex marriage campaign seems to be analogous to this. The analogy in sexuality politics, if you want it, is Peter Tatchell getting the shit beaten out of him by Mugabe’s goons, when he attempts a citizens’ arrest on him for the persecution of homosexuals in Africa. The wave of homophobia in Africa – sparked by decades of American missionaries, combined with a feeling by tradittional cultural powers that their power is threatened by modernity – is surely the main game here. To be a bit forward, the absence of an active, bodily LGBTQI campaign on this in the West, has been as remiss as the absence of a similar solidarity campaign on third-world AIDS in the 90s. As Razer has noted elsewhere, 99% of the rights people want from same-sex marriage have been achieved by quiet, humdrum change in regulation on civil unions. So something else is being asked for. That ‘something else’ resides in the realm of the purely symbolic.
    Three arguments can be made about that:
    1) at the simplest level, the same-sex marriage campaign draws energy away from other campaigns. That’s a choice, but if it’s presented as one between materialist alternatives, it’s a counterfeit one
    2) at a symbolic level, same-sex marriage, if presented as equally material to something like a global homophobia campaign, actively defers the necessary moral question: is the most important thing currently a global anti-homophobia campaign? The answer is yes, but if same-sex marriage is presented as the principal cause, then symbolism has triumphed over materiality.
    3) at a material-psychic level, campaigns like same-sex marriage actively displace any engagement with a more challenging politics. In that respect, it does not segue onto a more radical politics – instead it feeds the hyperindividualist narcissism of the era. From pink ribbons to Sprint-tithing to same-sex marriage we live in an era where the small gesture within systemic boundaries substitutes for challenging the systemic framework itself. There is no evidence that same-sex marriage campaigns segue onto greater involvement into wider equality campaigns of a more material nature. It may 1) satisfy a psychological need for moral action, thus permitting a neutral attitude to more basic processes (who makes your trainers, for example) , 2) obscure any deeper involvement with a reflection on basic global economic/political processes. Jeff marshalls a question of the two types of freedom – positive and negative in the old money, formal and real in Marxist terms – but my point is not that these are contradictory, but that there is a perfect fit between same-sex marriage and classical-liberal ideals of freedom. Poll the people on a same-sex marriage and I suspect you will find that many of them think that membership of a trade union is akin to a membership of Rotary, or the Rechabites – something so archaic and nostalgic as an episode of Mad Men. If some research suggests that same-sex marriage campaigns roll over into more material campaigns, I’m happy to be corrected. Absent of that, I suspect it’s wishful thinking and projection.

    So, for Jeff, the argument that a same-sex marriage campaign is regresssive is ‘odd’. But if it’s odd, there’s a lot of people who believe odd things. I suspect many readers of this comment chain will realise that, in giving a cod version of the identity/difference argument over same-sex marriage, I’m simply staging and repeating a debate that has been had over recent decades. It’s not necessarily an argument I agree with – it’s highly discursively/socially constructionist – but it’s not exactly unusual. From Wilhelm Reich through Shulamith Firestone to Donna Harraway and Judith Butler, the tradition that suggests that folding over the monogamous possesiveness that comes with a heterosexual framework to a same-sex context is the ultimate metaphysical takeover is not new. The argument is one from difference – that homosexuality has a character independent of heterosexual norms. Jeff suggests that same-sex marriage is a response to the failure of a radical new-left idea of polyamorous free-for-all. It isn’t. At some point everyone realised that this was a piece of 60s/70s Rousseauist idealism, and that jealousy, commitment, exclusiveness were real factors. But LG people long since incorporated that into their life choices, as a social process. Same-sex marriage does not solve the problems raised by the 70s – it bespeaks an appetite to have the state be their official, God like witness above and beyond that. That is something going far beyond the pretty early recognition that coupledom is a deep, and genderblind, structure of human existence – it is a yearning for a metaphysical structure rolled over from heterosexuality, aping its form. The argument – made for decades now in Paris, Santa Cruz and Macquarie among others – is that such a takeover limits human possibilities and imagination, and co-opts the fundamental difference of non-heterosexuality. If that’s odd, there’s a lot of odd – or perhaps queer – theorists around.
    There is no reason to read off support for same-sex marriage as a positive sign of support for a Left agenda – unless you require it for purposes of morale. Go into any workplace etc, ask people what they believe, and you will most likely get a distinctly Australian ensemble – a support for same-sex marriage as ‘the obvious solution’, for a harsh refugee policy as ‘the obvious solution’, for, overall, a pretty individualist, liberal bourgeois conception of life. This isn’t about the contradiction between real and formal freedom – it’s about the fact that the contemporary period offers an entirely new political ensemble, in which a commitment to hyper individual freedom can be, perhaps must be, undergirded by increasingly brutal collective policies. Surely it should not surprise anyone that these things go together? The politics we are heading towards is in the spirit of Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch gay-Leninist-Foucaltian , arguing for cultural/racial curbs on immigration so that the libertarian playground of the Netherlands could be preserved against Islamist immigrants from former colonies. That lofi libertarian fascism is where many people are at. To mistake their enthusiasm for same-sex marriage as a prelude to a socialist radicalism is a foolishness akin to the eternal nineteenth century expectation of a religious revelation. Folks want same-sex marriage, threesomes, legal party drugs and the Oz Navy to bomb the boats, and they sure as hell dont give a fuck about things like Bangladesh factory collapses.

    The harshest thing you can say about any Marxist approach to the relation between cultural and material politics – everywhere but very much in Australia – is that it has become an ideology itself, a way in which people ground their lives within a post-material production sphere, with a metaphysics of physical labour. The forms of labour – a metabolic exchange between humanity and nature – that undergirded the Marxist theory of value have all but disappeared from the West – and thus so too has the working class constituted by them. The hybrid forms of value that result from the globalisation of physical production, and the extension of service/affective/intellectual/cultural labour in the West cannot be assimilated to a Marxist base/superstructure/ideology model, without such Procrustean violence to the evidence as to render them a self-serving metaphysic. So, any reading of some glorious revival of the Left from a sequence of same-sex marriage, followed by traditional Leftist demonstrations, is a self-serving assumption.

    That goes to the heart of the argument that I (and Razer, and others) are making – that cultural left, symbolic struggles actively defer a real encounter with the material dilemmas we face today, and which compelled Marx to spend two decades in the British Library Reading Room. What we need to do is reconstruct the whole structure of radical materialist politics, to take account of the way in which automotive/scientific/cultural/affective labour creates value in the first world, rather than subjecting everything to the juicefast blender of base/superstructure/ideology. There I diverge from Razer – because I think that symbolic struggles have become real struggles for a class for whom the symbolic – image, text, culture – is the real substance of their lives. There is no point in going to grim quantitative notions such as ‘feminised poverty’ when searching for a new materialist feminist politics, because it remains utterly abstract and altruistic for women of the West. Every Western woman benefits from the low cost base of third world textiles, and so any outrage about, say, the death of a thousand people in a factory collapse, has limited appeal. For a cheap outfit the mass of white women will always drive brown women into the death-factory. So will brown women as regards black women. And so on.

    Both m’comrade Sparrow and Razer touch on a sort of gold standard, which purports to be materialist, but is actually physicalistic – that production of physical necessities determines higher things. It doesn’t when, in the West, the costs of production of necessities approaches zero. Politics then becomes about, well, almost anything else. Such politics – cultural overwhelmingly – is a preoccupation of a very specific class, oriented to the production of policy/culture/ideology . They’re about as distant from a physical.metabolic proletariat as could be imagined – but will yet invoke it as a guarnator of their own lives.

    The importance of this should be obvious. Emancipatory politics should emerge from the failure of more limited versions of it. Labourism emerged from liberalism, as its bourgeois affiliations became dominant. Mass Marxism emerged from Labourism as its untransformative nature became clear. Over the last few decades various post-Marxist theories of power flows -some of them unflattering to an intellectual class – have become persuasive.
    But the particular appeal of Marxism is its physicalist bias. The base/superstructure/ideology triad mirrors the father/son/holy ghost triad. Its function mirrors that of religion. Those who still profess Marxism – cultural producers, radical lawyers, academics – need its physicalist basis to anchor their efforts. With that framework, same-sex marriage becomes, not a process whereby human connection is drawn into recognition via state witnessing, but a harbinger of the next radical ursprung. Precisely because all of its supporters are in the culture/knowledge sectors, full of bullshit and psuedo-activity, the idea of a model of value based on physical production becomes all the more compelling. Jeff, in his comment, suggests that the debate about socialism has been going on since 1989. So it has, but at that time the far left parties numbered in the thousands of members, and were regularly seen outside of Australian factories (remember Australian factories?) handing out leaflets. By the 90s, the working contingent had disappeared. By the 2000s, there was almost no rank-and-file whatsoever. For the left parties, collapsing into each other, these are end times, the conclusion of a paradigm. That means that not accurately understanding things like the cultural/material split, can be fatal. Getting tangled up in cultural struggles which are as individualist as they are collectivist is thus no more than denying a fundamental confrontation that needs to be had. To look out on a demonstration by workers, and see it as a positive thing, may be to blank out a content that is essentially fascist, and celebrate the energy on display. Energy, of itself, is not a necessary positive.
    Why does all this matter? Because we are heading towards a ‘system-reproduction crisis’ that does and does not follow the traditional forecasts of Marxism. In some respects its global form follows Marxist aligneamonts more than people would like to admit. As that crisis gets nearer, it is all the more imperative to get beyond simplistic models of production, social life and culture that do not reflect reality. There is nothing guaranteed about a mass enthusiasm for same-sex marriage, and Jeff’s attempt to align it with reforms in material relations – universal suffrage, etc – which were seen at the time, as potentially regressive, doesn’t really work. The argument I and others are making is that to try and translate an enthusiastic support for same-sex marriage laws into wider support a left programme – by suggesting that formal (negative) freedom is subordinate to real (positive) freedom – is a self-serving fantasy. We now live in an age of hybrid political ensembles – neo-atheism, Hezbollah, Femen – who are undecidably left/right, and cannot be shoehorned into either camp without significant violence to their message, or wilful blindness on behalf of the, erm, horners. Same-sex marriage gains such mass support because its atomised notion of marriage as a contract without content is a feature of the neoliberal age. That’s quite unlike the examples Jeff suggests, of positive collective measures that were seen at the time as regressive because they delayed full socialism through reform. I’m suggesting that current political shifts tell us nothing, absolutely nothing, about the political direction of travel, and to invest a leftist meaning to them is an act of desperation rather than strategy.

    To have a new left politics, is to acknowledge certain things:

    – Marxism is not a bad theory of global economic development, but, in its prophetic mode, a hopeless political one. China has the largest working class ever, and nothing resembling class solidarity is emerging. If Marxism is a long form theory of human development, it’s a bloody long long-form one.

    – The base/superstructure/ideology triad works only for 19th century European capitalism. Any other mix of manual and intellectual production needs a new framework of value calculus, one that gives less tidy results

    – the simplistic, prophetic, physicalist Marxism that prioritises physical labour as the master value-form, appeals now, almost exclusively to culture workers, the value-form of whose work is unquantifiable. Marxism thus becomes a gold-standard of leftist ideological production, a guarantee that their work, by being tied to a physicalist production-value system, is somehow meaningful.

    – for an elite ideological production class, to see same–sex marriage as a harbinger of more material social change, amounts to a necessary move. That’s why it’ so important to scrutinise such claims and make sure they are not the mildly desperate measures of an ideological production elite.

    – for the majority of symbolic workers, cultural politics is more material than ‘material’ (ie physical-economic) politics. The mind is material, so policy, cultural etc workers exist in the material realm. For them, ‘real’ – ie less abstract – materiality is a black box, a given, untransformable, on top of which lies the world of cultural choice.
    To appeal to complex economic processes may be both valiant, and stupid (and a little self-serving). If cultural/symbolic processes are where people find meaning, for the moment, the fight has to be had there.

    – In Australia, and in Melbourne, this political-economic ensemble has been frozen into place by an overlap of federal and state government grants and the lack of challenge from right-wing forces (Kennett, in leaving culture alone, and boosting it, emptied it of contestation). Thus there, the assumption remains that any political development will conform to the ensembles that arose in the 60s – the combination of new left culturalism and Marxism – even as reality diverges. This creates a powerful and self-interested ideological engine for the conforming of new political phenomena to old and inherited ensembles – a process which, if an error, markedly slows progress. In that context the assumption that a largely/symbolic cultural campaign will not actually displace more material struggles, and give people a sense of narcissistic completeness to their lives, seems hopelessly rationalistic.

    All the more reason, as the contradictory movements pile up, to try and assess the new political material framework and modify praxis, rather than conform reality to deadening theories.

    1. If I didn’t make it clear, I agree that there’s all kinds of problems with the perpetual outrage expressed by the social media Left about whatever pop culture skirmish currently sits on the front page of Gawker, as Mark Fisher expressed very well in this piece.
      So maybe on that point we agree.
      But on the SSM stuff, well, with the greatest respect, Comrade Rundle has the wrong end of the stick.
      To reiterate, it’s entirely legitimate to fight for equality, and we should not dismiss such struggles as ‘mere’ symbolism. As I said last time around, of course we should point out the difference between formal equality and substantive equality – but that doesn’t negate the value of the former.
      Guy’s discussion of the civil rights struggle actually illustrates my point.
      He writes:

      Black people didn’t have separate but equal bus seats or lunch counters in the Jim Crow South. Rosa Parks was ordered to get up from her seat, because, when a bus was full, white people could take the ‘coloured’ seats. Blacks had to stand , or even get out. Since they all lived on the outskirts of town, this often meant walking miles home from work. In town, Woolworths and other places, when they had ‘coloured’ lunch counters, often left them permanently unattended. That made it impossible for coloured people to do anything in town other than work and shop. Race was both classed and spatialised, and the struggle was based on that fact.

      But, of course, ‘separate but equal’ was an official slogan both in the segregated South and in apartheid South Africa. And the logic of Guy’s position is to suggest that if the racist regimes had fulfilled that promise, then there’d have been nothing to fight about. If, say, in one particular area of Birmingham, the black lunch counters were actually quite good, would anyone really say, well, in that case, segregation was fine?
      Now, in reality, the cry ‘separate but equal’ always means discrimination, precisely because it’s only a slogan that gets raised in the context of oppression. But that’s exactly the point. That’s why it’s perfectly legitimate (even necessary) to fight for the abstract right of equality, whatever the circumstances.
      Guy says a better analogy with civil rights can be found in Peter Thatchell’s victimisation at the hands of Mugabe’s goons, and that a campaign in the West against homophobia in Africa provides an example of the kind of ‘material’ struggle he’d like to see.
      Again, I think that highlights the differences between us. Actually, despite the endorsements of a few conservatives, the struggle for SSM brings people into direct conflict with the leaders of both major political parties and the heads of the biggest churches. The demand for SSM is not going to bring down the state but it does involve genuine social conflict. Guy overstates the symbolism here: SSM is causing major ructions, for instance, within what remains of the ALP’s membership, a very old fashioned political conflict between the Left of the party and the Right.
      By contrast, a campaign against homophobia in Africa would involve almost no struggle whatsoever, since there’s no social force in Australia with a stake in it. If anything, that’s an issue that the Right’s likely to jump all over, since it easily segues into the always popular trope about enlightened liberals rescuing darkest Africa.
      Guy says SSM ‘draws energy away from other campaigns’. There’s no evidence for this. Indeed, all the facts point in quite the opposite direction. As I said before, the student activists involved in the current fight about education cuts (about as material an issue as you can get) seem, judging from my FB feed, to be precisely the same people also campaigning about SSM.
      Which is what you would expect. Activism does not work in the way Guy describes. There’s not a set amount of agitational energy that then gets distributed like pocket money. Actually, the more people on the streets about any issue, the more energy exists for a variety of other campaigns. Conversely, surely no-one believes that if the SSM campaign gets defeated, a great wave of enthusiasm will build for other, more radical actions. Actually, a defeat for SSM will almost certainly foster mass demoralisation – if we can’t even win that, well, what’s the fucking point?
      Guy’s substantive point relates to how the neoliberal moment has reconfigured attitudes to make individual freedoms seem acceptable, without those freedoms challenging the status quo in any serious way. As I said last time, I agree to this up to a point but I think Guy overeggs his pudding, much in the way that Frank Furedi’s crazy cult did on precisely the same point, turning a partial insight into something like a iron law.
      Yes, there are reasons why struggles about sexual choices (or at least some of them) are easier to express than, say, issues over workplace pay and conditions. Precisely because, if you think SSM matters, you’re placed in an attitude of opposition to both Gillard and Abbott, it’s an issue that’s driving people (particularly young people) away from the major parties. You only have to hear the response Adam Bandt gets when he speaks on the subject to see the effect that Gillard and Abbott’s unwillingness to face down the homophobes (or, perhaps better, their willingness to pander to them) has.
      Guy says:

      To mistake their enthusiasm for same-sex marriage as a prelude to a socialist radicalism is a foolishness akin to the eternal nineteenth century expectation of a religious revelation. Folks want same-sex marriage, threesomes, legal party drugs and the Oz Navy to bomb the boats, and they sure as hell dont give a fuck about things like Bangladesh factory collapses.

      That’s a little unfair, I think. I’m not suggesting this is a prelude to socialist revolution. But I do think it’s an issue around which some people are radicalising – and that’s a good thing.
      As for the arguments about Marxism, Guy’s simply wrong. You can say all kinds of things about Marx but the idea that he’s concerned with ‘the metaphysics of physical labour’ grotesquely misunderstands the argument. Yes, materialism depends on ‘a metabolic exchange between humanity and nature’ but unless we have all stopped eating and breathing, that’s still taking place. But the processes Marx analyses in Capital are emphatically not about ‘physical labour’ in the way Guy seems to think. The whole point about the commodity is that it’s a social relationship, not an object. It’s entirely possible for commodities to be immaterial – to be, for instance, services. What makes them a commodity is not their physical form but their social form. That’s the entire point.
      Likewise, the whole point about Marx’s argument about socially necessary labour time is that it’s a social measure, not a physical one. That’s why one of his examples illustrating productive labour involves a singer engaged by an entrepreneur to perform to make money – her work is ‘immaterial’ but it still produces value. The claim that the transition from a ‘material’ to an ‘immaterial’ economy invalidates Marxism only holds if you entirely misread Marx, as Guy does, with his claim that Marxism rests ‘on a model of value based on physical production’.
      That’s why I don’t buy much of Guy’s conclusion. He writes:

      the simplistic, prophetic, physicalist Marxism that prioritises physical labour as the master value-form, appeals now, almost exclusively to culture workers, the value-form of whose work is unquantifiable. Marxism thus becomes a gold-standard of leftist ideological production, a guarantee that their work, by being tied to a physicalist production-value system, is somehow meaningful.

      Again, that’s a spectacular, almost wilful, misreading of Marx, with almost no relation to any of his key concepts. Most of what follows is then based on this theoretically untenable distinction between the material and the immaterial, which I don’t think is at all helpful.
      Really, the nub of the argument here seems to be that the socialist movement is in a dire state – and, Guy says, will not recover. I don’t deny that the kind of Left I’d like to see exists almost nowhere. But I don’t really know where that gets us. After all, almost all the Left alternatives are in equally, if not worse, conditions and I think Guy would be struggling to identify a movement that expresses his ideals, either.
      That being the case, all we can do is make an argument for the kind of Left we think is necessary.
      In any case, as I said the first time around, from my perspective, this seems a kinda different debate, precisely because I never suggested that the SSM campaign was going to culminate in a mass revival of Marxism. On the contrary, I think it’s a quite modest reform but a reform none the less. And its achievement will play a small but not insignificant role in reviving a sense of possibility for the Left.

  8. So what then is ultimate goal of same-sex marriage? To suggest it is a mere private contract casts the field too narrow. SSM has become a de-facto anti-homophobia campaign, it is not merely about a same-sex couple becoming integrated into “a form of imposed
    cultural identity”.

    Opposition to SSM within the GLBIT or ‘queer’ worlds is not a new or uncommon, although it is increasingly becoming sidelined.

    The blog “Queer Kids of Queer Parents Against Gay Marriage” is a place where the internal arguments against SSM are well articulated;

    “As young queer people raised in queer families and communities, we reject the liberal gay agenda that gives top priority to the fight for marriage equality. The queer families and communities we are proud to have been raised in are nothing like the ones transformed by marriage equality. This agenda fractures our communities, pits us against natural allies, supports unequal power structures, obscures urgent queer concerns, abandons struggle for mutual sustainability inside queer communities and disregards our awesomely fabulous queer history”

    In effect, they are saying a relationship between two people is morally transformed by the institution of marriage which results in partners in this relationship becoming normalised and conforming to certain ways of behaving and thinking. In effect it heightens the legal obligations between the parties – though it does not necessarily mandate domestication, ownership, religion, domination, a mortgage, kids or monogamy; though historically this has been the case.
    If ending the misery, oppression and suffering of GLBITs should be the aim of the gay-rights agenda, then SSM is a symbolic movement which will create result in real material gains for GLBITs.

    Dealing with homophobia is complex and almost certainly involves ingrained beliefs about what are and are not acceptable ways to use your body. The act of a SScouple marrying might be merely symbolic and its integration into cultural norms is worth questioning – its effect of normalising and recognising their legitimacy has less to with reinforcing conservative values than introducing a new generation of people to the idea that same sex relationships are not taboo; a trend which will undoubtedly create a dividend for gay and lesbian students at high schools.

    The SSM campaign has exposed the futility and bigotry of those who are not just opposed to SSM, but those who are anti-gay more generally. It has spotlighted some of the deeply ignorant and illogical religious arguments which underpin homophobia – this is a discussion which has spread across many lounge-rooms across the world and made people question why it is still okay to stigmatise SSM – leaving many, including many conservatives, to conclude there is no good reason to discriminate. This will, hopefully, in-turn improve the plight of gays and lesbians around the nation – making them less likely to be vilified, bashed, sacked or excluded.

    I also fail to see the link between SSM and the culture of narcissism; except that rights – individualistic as they may be are a consequence and the flip-side of our individualised culture. The fact that many advocates of SSM do not stand to gain materially (or lose for that matter) should be taken as a sign the campaign – a social justice campaign – has the potential to shake people out of their little caves.

    But Rundle and Razor make some very thought provoking points (and have on occasion written about actual material problems not just how we should critique them).

    I guess it does raise the question why has a “We Want Affordable Housing” campaign not taken off in the same way as a “yes for same sex marriage” campaign has.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that the left is failing to engage on bigger economic questions, do we feel defeated? Or are we just out of ideas? are we yearning to find something to unite us? Is the main critique of SSM support that it fails to address some of underlying problems and inequities of liberal capitalism and the society it has created.

    I don’t think SSM and the like are to blame for the fragmentation and confusion of the left, although it may be a symptom of a larger problem. The current policy vacuum left by loss of faith in the free-market has created a space for ideas which the left has yet to fill.

    Take for instance the welfare debate which has become preoccupied with a small amount of dollars for Newstart recipients without engaging deeper questions about unemployment, globalisation and the welfare state. The Right remains convinced of the need to toughen conditions and lower wages – the Left’s answer is “don’t do that” without offering a viable alternative.

    Rundle makes the very astute observation that our means of production are cultural rather than physical and thus we have become intoxicated by symbols. The symbolic left as they have been categorised in these articles and comments are not necessarily divorced from the material stresses. Almost anyone under 40 regardless of their political ideology has to deal with the cost of housing, poor investment in infrastructure, insecure work and the privatisation of the employment contract. But these are more complex issues – same-sex marriage and the like have the ability to unite people because they are simple yes/no, fair/unfair positions; as Rundle suggests “at a material-psychic level, campaigns like same-sex marriage actively displace any engagement with a more challenging politics”.

    The left are not cultural elites simply because they do not engage in manual labour. The younger generation remains boxed-in and largely defeated by rampant inequity, greed, privatisation and profit-making – we just feel disempowered, atomised and fresh out of ideas to deal with it.

  9. Based on the dubious proposition that anyone is still reading, I’ll make a final reply, but simply confine myself to recording points of dissent with Jeff, as succinctly as possible [note after full draft – that didnt really happen]:

    – ‘separate but equal’ – I pointed out that almost everything that the civil rights movement did in the US had a material dimension. Jeff concedes that, but then points out that the slogan was ‘separate but equal’ and asks whether there would have been a campaign had that been lived up to. Well the first thing is to say that that’s a hypothetical about what didn’t happen. The fact that ‘seprate but equal’ doctrines usually cover inequality seems to prove my point.
    But going deeper, there were points at which blacks didnt campaign for non-separateness. For example, though black people campaigned for the integration of urban neighbourhoods, they never did for rural ones. Why? Because in urban areas, whites got the best areas. But in the country, there was no desire to integrate black villages with white villages. Why? Because people wanted to stay in their close knit communities (they wanted them improved, to be sure). To this day, those communities remain substantially separate. It’s also worth remembering that by the late 1950s, Malcolm X had appeared on the scene – and his movement until the mid-60s, was separatist.
    It’s also worth noting that there have been places where a genuine separate but equal process of sorts applied – Constantinople before WW1 is one example.
    So I dont think I need to reply to a hypothetical. Jim Crow was a material imposition above all. MLK and the mainstream civil rights movement replied to it through a campaign for a universal and equal society. But that wasnt the only path, and others took another one.

    – I’m surprised by Jeff’s overly tactical idea of what struggles to choose – SSM vs african homophobia – and deciding between them on local usefulness. That’s not how I sort out political campaigns. The way I see it, pretty much the whole of Africa has been consumed in a wave of violent homophobia. Much of that has been fuelled by the actions of US missionaries, so there is a global dimension to it. Nor do I think a solidarity campaign can be led by any other than the LGBT community. Surely, when you compare something to the US civil rights campaign, the more accurate comparison to the bridge at Selma, is something that involves life and death, and taking a few bodily risks? Tatchell concluded that African homophobia was sufficiently serious to risk both bodily damage, and the charge of condescion, to protests against him. More power to him. There is a point at which getting mealy-mouthed about global homophobia is to suggest that race is a more important or real form of social being than sexuality. Solidarity campaigns, led by people with affinity are risky, but also necessary. The risk that it gives ammunition to the Right has to be dealt with as you go.

    Jeff’s remark:

    “By contrast, a campaign against homophobia in Africa would involve almost no struggle whatsoever, since there’s no social force in Australia with a stake in it. If anything, that’s an issue that the Right’s likely to jump all over, since it easily segues into the always popular trope about enlightened liberals rescuing darkest Africa.”
    – seems to me to have a 1920s air to it. Witnessing and solidarity count for nothing, local strategy for everything. I think that’s demoralising to many people. I know Jeff means its strategically, but I suspect to many it feels like cynicism. It does rather make clear the degree to which a social/cultural campaign like SSM is a means to an end, and I’m not sure that’s how many of its passionate supporters think of it.
    – SSM draws away energy from other campaigns. Actually I meant that in terms of psychic/ideological energy. Jeff puts it in more material terms:

    “Which is what you would expect. Activism does not work in the way Guy describes. There’s not a set amount of agitational energy that then gets distributed like pocket money. Actually, the more people on the streets about any issue, the more energy exists for a variety of other campaigns. Conversely, surely no-one believes that if the SSM campaign gets defeated, a great wave of enthusiasm will build for other, more radical actions. Actually, a defeat for SSM will almost certainly foster mass demoralisation – if we can’t even win that, well, what’s the fucking point?”

    Well, actually I think there is a finite (but elastic) amount of energy – especially in the current period – for campaigns. The only way there couldnt be is if SSM or similar acted as a recruiter of full-time activists. Maybe it is, but I doubt it. All I see is a steady decline in the ability of the far-left groups to turn occasional protestors into steady activists. That’s why all the far-left groups are declining and slowly folding into Salt. They can’t reproduce through recruitment, and that is a new moment of crisis for the far-left. Jeff notes that the energy is there if his Facebook feed is anything to go by…and, yeah, that’s the problem. It’s one thing to like something on Facebook. Getting to the next level is a lot more. Surely the fact that Facebook is now the measure of enthusiasm of a clue about categorical change.
    Jeff’s point about the failure of SSM marriage doesn’t refute me – I dont think it’s a left campaign, there is near zero grassroots activism in the wider LGBT community, and I think it was chosen off the rack for a generic ‘equality’ campaign. So to have it shot down is an unnecessary loss. If by contrast, fashion/work/sweatshops/production chains/right to organise globally had been a focus, then I think the hideous Bangladesh factory moment, could have been more of a political rallying point than it was.
    As to Marxism, I think Jeff’s simply not uptodate about criticisms of the Marxist framework, from both within and without Marxism. It’s not enough to say that alienated labour power is a social relationship. Marx argued that it was a quantitative social relationship, and that averages of labour-power across a whole economy could be made, that this would involve certain consequences in terms of the long-term systemic prospects of capitalism – and budding off from that, of class being and conflict. My argument – and it draws from Sraffa, Steedman, from the autonomists, from Resnick and Wolff, not least from the ‘fragment on machines’, and – is that Marx’s idea of labour power and alienated value was based on a labour as a quantifiable input. So, though he created a notion of abstract labour power, it was always, inherently, physical. When immaterial labour is marginal to a mass accumulation process, that doesn’t matter. When whole regions become regions of mixed symbolic-physical labour, and when in sub-regions, the symbolic/admin/ideological form dominates, then a Marxist schema cannot be read off. Marx’s argument in the ‘fragment’ that with automation, the form of value would shift from labour to time, is crucial here. Marx was a post-marxist before Capital had been published.
    Why does this matter? Because the far-left groups have steered their strategy on a basis that still honours the base/superstructure/ideology triad, and believes that people can somehow be transferred from a social/cultural struggle to a socialist, or even resistant, economic one. The idea that that is a homology is based on that structure. It imputes a certain residual content to SSM, and that is based, several iterations below, on a an idea of labour. My argument is that wide support for SSM means very little. It is simultaneously neoliberal, conservative and radical. Its supporters include Joe Biden, David Cameron and writers at the nativist American Conservative. Seriously, this is pretty thin confort, and a pretty meagre result. Is it possible that more material, economic, slower bore campaigns, would have yielded a much better political result? Looking at, say, the anti-global capitalism movement of the 90s, can’t we surmise that a big part of it was the gradual shift away from the symbolic and image politics of the 80s? Wasnt it necessary – a la Klein’s No Logo ­ that people be confronted about the narcissistic and self-satisfied dimension of cultural activism? And wasnt Klein’s analysis of the way in which such activism had obscured material relations essential to that?
    My argument is that this is not being done. SSM campaigns are false comfort, the far-left doing postmodern liberalism’s work, for little return. That the belief that SSM flows onto other things is a product of the powerful ideological machine of classic Marxism.

    In a week or so, there’ll be two conferences in London. One will be the SWP’s Socialism 2013, a dour affair by a diminished group, populated by minor unionists and activists, its main draw Samir Amin, the Maoisant economist whom the SWP would once have steered clear of. Around the same time, there’s the gathering of Counterfire, the regrouping of leading intellectuals expelled from the SWP. It’s got a hell of a line-up, from Ziizek on down, sexy as hell. And if I give you the title…’Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times’…do you recognise the approach? Yep, it’s the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, up-over, as it were, commodified naughtiness. The SWP conference will have the activists, the Counterfire thing will have the superstars. No-one from the latter will ever darken a trestle table, no-one from the former will have a post-1946 thought. This is over, it is over, over at its epicentre. The one advantage of Australian backwardness would be to jump forward, and skip the several years of agony that’s happened here, even if it was mediated by a bungled process around sex-crime allegations within a party. The worst thing that was done was to select SSM as a major campaign – I still think it finished off the DSP, and I suspect it could still finish off the whole Australian far-left. Helen Razer’s arguments, that it is a conservative and bogus campaign, are worth considering. It may yet prove the sharpest line on this debate.

  10. Well, I’m still reading, and so here’s my final reply.

    ‘Separate but equal’
    To me, Guy’s got himself into a hole with that stuff, cos his position does not allow him to accept the legitimacy of ‘equality’ as an abstract slogan. Guy’s insistence that only struggles for the directly material are legitimate would, if applied consistently, lead you into all sorts of weird cul-de-sacs – you could not, for instance, support the cultural demands that inevitably arise in a national struggle. There’s no material benefit, in and of itself, in being able to fly a particular flag – but the West Papuans are still willing to face fifteen year’s gaol for raising the morning star.
    That’s because you cannot separate the symbolic and the material in the way that Guy suggests. To give an example directly from the SSM issue, if the reactionaries in the Liberal and Labor Party succeed in scuppering the equal love campaign, this will give an immediate boost to homophobes all over the country, homophobes who will make their presence felt quite materially through the kind of gay bashings that still persist across the country. Equally, the cultural shift in relation to homosexuality that has manifested in the recent discussions of SSM (where, for the first time ever, making homophobic comments has started to become politically unpalatable) will have a real, material impact on the lives of kids who will be less inclined to internalise the kind of loathing accepted by the generations that went before them.

    ‘SSM and African homophobia’
    It’s not a question of deciding between these on the basis of ‘local usefulness’. It’s a question of politics. The struggle for SSM brings us into conflict with large elements of the political class here. That’s why it has a radicalising effect, and that’s why it actually makes a difference.
    What would a local campaign about homophobia overseas achieve? As it happens, I’ve actually followed Tatchell’s efforts in Jamaica quite closely, where violent homophobia is intense and mainstream. Predictably, they have been quite disastrous. Yes, homophobia in Jamaica was fostered by Western missionaries but it’s now increasingly articulated as a key element of national identity, in opposition to the sexual mores of the old colonial rulers. The Tatchell campaign against various dancehall artistes had the consequence of intensifying the tendency of those artistes to regard unabashed homophobia as a signifier of militancy, a refusal to compromise with the commercial pressures imposed by rich Westerners. By contrast, the more successful approach came from those within the country – indeed, within the ghetto – who were thus able to undercut the sense that homophobia was somehow radical.
    Politics is not simply about ends. It’s also about the dialectical relationship of those ends to the means by which they are pursued.
    ‘psychic/ideological energy’
    Not really sure where to go with this. To me, as I said, the notion that a collapse of the SSM campaign would foster an explosion of militancy just seems prima facie silly. Guy says there’s no grass roots support for it, and the energy that exists is simply on FB. Well, here, after five seconds with Mr Google, we have a rally of a thousand people from a few weeks ago.
    OK, a thousand people is scarcely the revolution but it’s nothing to be sneezed at. There have been rallies of that size and larger on that issue for years now. IMO, Guy’s argument here is simply at variance with the facts.

    Um, with respect, there’s one of us who is not up to date about criticisms of the Marxist framework – and it’s not me. I don’t know how to say this but Guy’s version of Marxism turns Marx back into the very people who was critiquing, particularly Ricardo. It confuses the distinction Marx makes between concrete and abstract labour, and entirely misunderstands the meaning of socially necessary labour time.
    I mean, it’s fine to critique Marxism but if that critique’s of any worth, it has to grasp the concepts with which it’s dealing. It’s simply not true that, in Capital, abstract labor (not abstract labor power, which would be a tautology) is somehow physical. The description Guy gives completely misstates the Marxist conception of value, so much so that I don’t even think we can argue about it. FFS, Marx explicitly explains how schoolteachers are productive workers. How does that even fit into Guy’s schema? In any case, that’s got nothing to do with the base and superstructure metaphor.

    To be honest, the more I think about this, the more it seems to me that Guy’s confusing himself with his own concepts. He writes:
    ‘The idea that that is a homology is based on that structure. It imputes a certain residual content to SSM, and that is based, several iterations below, on a an idea of labour. My argument is that wide support for SSM means very little. It is simultaneously neoliberal, conservative and radical. Its supporters include Joe Biden, David Cameron and writers at the nativist American Conservative. Seriously, this is pretty thin confort, and a pretty meagre result.’
    Well, we could say exactly the same thing about, say, the struggle against the Iraq war, which was surely a ‘material’ struggle (though I’m increasingly unclear what Guy means by that). God, as I said before, the particular issue he’s advocating – opposition to homophobia in Africa – would be embraced by just about every conservative politician in the country, outside a few fringe Pentecostals.
    Guy says: ‘That the belief that SSM flows onto other things is a product of the powerful ideological machine of classic Marxism.’
    This, I would submit, is a very long bow. Indeed, the usual critique is that classical Marxists are not interested in such things, that they spend all their time yearning for doughty proletarians in blue overalls who concern themselves with nothing other than their wage packets.
    Finally, as to what all of this means for the far Left, well, that all seems quite odd, too.
    Yes, the SWP crisis has damaged the British Left. But the notion that the ruction there might have been avoided by the leadership taking -less_ of an interest in equality as abstraction is downright perverse. On the contrary, without claiming a great insight into the ins and outs of that particular schism, one certainly gets the sense that a little more sensitivity to abstract notions of justice might have gone a long away in that particular fight.
    As for Counterfire as the way forward, well, to quote John McEnroe, you cannot be serious.
    The problem for the DDP was not SSM but rather the whole unity caper encapsulated in the Alliance project – at least, that was what provoked the recent split.
    Guy here is sounding like a man with a hammer, for whom all the left’s problems look like the same nail. And it just ain’t so.

  11. I’m still reading too! But I have to say Guy lost me in his critique of Marxism. It seems odd that one should launch such a critique(“deadening theory”, “over,over,over “etc) at a juncture in time when Marx appears to be coming back into vogue globally via it being the only really comprehensive tool for understanding the GFC , austerity and capitalist crisis in general; or at the very least a time when the pendulum is swinging the other way after decades of being the one philosophical framework which became “untouchable “at all levels of public and academic thinking. But maybe its more the style of politics that’s being criticised –the trestle-tables versus the superstars? I don’t really see the contradiction between the two but mostly I think Zizek can talk at conferences till the cows come home but if the left has no base in the working class there will be no way forward. Which brings me to my main point: it strikes me, not for the first time, how class is seriously under-theorised and often misunderstood in Australia. We’ve outsourced our manufacturing industry, not exported our working class. Clearly there’s been a seismic increase in service jobs, retail, health etc since manufacturing went offshore but it doesn’t follow that these workers are somehow not working class or that Marxist theorists are busy clinging to outdated 19th Century definitions of the industrial proletariat and ignoring the effects of the changing labour process and globalisation. Forty years ago Marxists like Braverman( in Labor and Monopoly Capitalism) explained how this kind of labour is part of capitalist social relations, how it becomes dominant as financial capital becomes dominant; how the exploitation of such labour services the extraction of surplus value, and how it involves the same degree of alienation /lack of control over the labour process as those workers who directly create commodities. In Australia there seems to be great resistance to understanding the proletarianising of “white collar” work for some reason? But seriously, you can’t tell me that the nursing, office, clerical , retail , hospitality , aged care, childcare, cleaning , teaching and etc workers who make up my friends and neighbours aren’t working class or that their labour is “immaterial”, “symbolic” or a symptom of their own imaginary…..
    Because here in prole land….wages have been effectively frozen for years, people are working longer hours or working in more unstable, casual jobs, the level of personal debt is unprecedented, social services are run down, welfare gutted, education and health systems operating in crisis loops, the cost of living increasing, decent and affordable housing beyond reach …… many, many people are struggling. And we haven’t even experienced the brunt of the capitalist crisis yet! There also seems to be much more fluidity between the poor, the working poor and those who would generally be considered “average workers” (some of whom, in good ole American tradition, may consider themselves middle class) than public discourse generally allows. In other words the slippery slope between poverty and comfortable is far more gradual than we usually acknowledge.
    I think the neoliberal era has led to a sharpening of contradictions within the social movements and I do share the frustrations expressed here about some of the left’s priorities. Having said that , two things: the best argument for the emphasis on the SSM campaign is that the normalising process will hopefully make a difference in the lives of kids in the suburbs ,and particularly the regions, who suffer hideous degrees of oppression, social and internalised. And, Jeff is entirely right to point out that historically all broad fronts have embodied diverse and contradictory positions in dialectical relationship to eachother (ie heightening in unresolveable opposition or merging to be one and continuing to create it’s opposite etc) The problem as I see it is not the overabundance of symbolic or culturalised campaigns (and I am aware of the post-structural frame of such lurking in the background of this discussion)but the lack of those based in the political economy. I tend to think the social movements were more effective, dynamic and filled with more liberatory potential when they developed in tandem and tension to a strong working class movement. Rebuilding that movement seems to me to be the main task of the left-and by that I mean the anti-capitalist left. Not sure if that’s sexy.

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