Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review: Meat Market by Laurie Penny

Meat Market, Female Flesh under Capitalism, by Laurie Penny
Zero Books. RRP: £6.99, Amazon £4.95.

You may recall that some time back, commenting on a particularly nasty barrage of attacks on Laurie Penny, I reflected that jealousy was a motivating factor. It seems that her critics have plenty to be jealous of. Her new book is very good indeed.

Published in the Zero series, Meat Market, as its subtitle suggests, explores the place of women in contemporary capitalist societies. It doesn't paint a flattering picture of the system's capacity to live up to its promise of emancipation. As both consumers and workers, women are the objects of oppression, their very bodies becoming just another commodity. It seems that even womens' own sense of identity is transformed into a commodity of an especially abstract sort. As Penny puts it:
Femininity itself has become a brand, a narrow and shrinking formula of commoditised identity which can be sold back to women who have become alienated from their own power as living, loving, labouring beings.
The argument is developed by attention to a series of cases. In turn, Penny discusses sexuality, the diet industry, the situation of trans women, and the gender dynamics of the workplace. In each case, she sheds useful theoretical light on concrete situations and uses the results of her investigations to reinforce the book's central claims. The book is short - readable in one session - and consistently well-written.

There is much to admire in the case which unfolds as one reads Meat Market. A welcome theme is the importance of class. Absent from the routine liberal moralising that passes for feminism in the broadsheets and lecture halls, the reality of a society premised on class exploitation is explicitly acknowledged by Penny, and used to shed light on how patriarchy manifests itself in this society. This is particularly fruitful during the discussion of sex work. Penny writes that, "the main element missing from the contemporary conversation about prostitution, as ever, is class". She's not wrong, nor is she mistaken in her description of mainstream portrayals of prostitution, epitomised by the TV adaptation of The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, as "a deodorised husk of middle-class male fantasy". Consistent with her socialist feminism, Penny sees the self-organisation of sex workers as a necessary step towards a fightback in this area.

Other highlights for this reviewer included the insistence on the importance of the body and the explicit articulation of the view the patriarchy is bad for men, a truth in desperate need of more airtime.

The book, of course, is not perfect. Some of the borrowings from the dizzy heights of poststructuralist theory fail to convince. There are also occasional hints that Penny has failed fully to escape herself the clutches of the liberal false dichotomies she critiques in such a devastating fashion. We read at one point that "sex work is an economic question, not a moral one".

The major criticism I would make is of Penny's eclectic Marxism, and the over-use it makes of the category of work. In recent decades there has been a movement to view work, in a sense of that word synonymous with Marx's use of 'labour', as broadly as possible. This gains paradigmatic expression in Cleaver's classic Reading Capital Politically. It is a position Penny inhabits, intentionally or otherwise. For example, we are told:
What many of us understand quite profoundly is that sexual performance and self-objectification are forms of work: duties that must be undertaken and perfected if we are to advance ourselves.

Again (emphasis mine),

The sexual sell is real labour, propping up a socially mandated measure of erotic capital. From the working hours devoted to the purchase and strategic application of clothes and hair and beauty products, to the actual labour of dieting and exercise, to the creation and maintenance of sexual persona, self-objectification is work, first and foremost.
It is one thing to say that the activities Penny details have much in common with work - certainly from an experiential perspective this is true. It is another thing entirely to claim that they are work. This latter move, in my view, is a theoretical mistake.

What is most definitely true, and is a point well-made by socialist feminists, is that the oppression of women is non-accidentally related to capitalist exploitation of labour. The system needs the reproductive efforts of women to reproduce its most essential commodity, human labour-power. "Women in labour keep capital in power" as the old slogan has it. And, as Penny documents brilliantly, sexualised and gendered imagery, is integral to ensuring the circulation of commodities in contemporary capitalism. All of this can be said, however, without making the further claim that swathes of human activity just are work. To say which is not to belittle their importance, nor to deny their reality as loci of human suffering. The dominated and battered housewife is in a far worse state than the comfortable advertising executive. It's just that this claim can be maintained whilst also insisting that there is a relevant sense in which producing adverts for market consumption is work, whereas domestic chores aren't.

This may sound pedantic. Certainly if you read Marx's dissections in Capitalof work, qua expenditure of labour-power, and his sub-categorisations of this (between work which creates value, and that which doesn't, for example) it can seem pedantic. The Marxist worry is that these economic distinctions are of political importance. Marx didn't feel the need to delineate economic categories as precisely as possible solely for intellectual fulfillment. He did so in order to understand the world and how it might be changed for the better. My present concern is that a loss of subtlety in theory might find reflection in politics. I don't want to argue the point at length, but I draw your attention to a passage in Meat Market which fuels my suspicions here,

If all women on earth woke up tomorrow feeling truly positive and powerful in their own bodies, the economies of the globe would collapse overnight.

To which I reply, "if only".

Panic on the streets of Oxbridge

The universities are up in arms. Again. Sort of.

Dons at both Oxford and Cambridge are threatening votes of no confidence in the Government's universities policy. Moves are afoot to secure votes of no confidence from faculty and students throughout the UK.

This blog supports these initiatives. As remarked here many times, higher education is at the forefront of the ConDem spending cuts, and is a key battleground against the government. Your host endorses the No Confidence campaign, and encourages readers to do what they can to support it.

Exalted claims are already being made about these developments. Writing at Labourlist earlier, David Barclay heralded the Oxford vote as an opportunity to challenge the ConDems. Comparing the Dons' potential vote to the recent votes of no confidence in healthcare policy by nurses and doctors' organisations, Barclay concluded,
When the Dons of Oxford process into the historic Sheldonian Theatre next Tuesday then, they should surely be watched very closely by Labour supporters all over the country. Should the No Confidence campaigners emerge victorious it could be a late but nonetheless very valuable wedding present from Ed’s alma mater.
Things are far less straightforward than this suggests. One of the great strengths of the Thatcher government was its ability to play to a right-wing populist crowd, presenting itself as challenged entrenched interests and handed-down privilege - in the civil service, say, or in academia.

The spectacle of the faculties of ancient universities taking on the government could provide Cameron with an opportunity to revive the Thatcher anti-elitist show. Academia is widely misunderstood and mistrusted. It is not particularly difficult to portray the very real concerns of people working in universities as the whining of a pampered profession.

The antidote to this is a broad-based anti-cuts movement, that links together various issues - bringing education workers into contact with pensioners, workers in both public and private sectors, and benefit claimants - broadly based and with a meaningful presence in communities. The truth is that we are not where we should be in terms of building this. The anti-austerity message is not being communicated effectively. Large numbers of people still subscribe to the 'there is no alternative' position. We have to step up our game, and in the absence of us doing so, there is little point in getting over-excited about simmerings of academic discontent.

Justice for Ian Tomlinson : A trial is good, but not enough

 Just over two years ago, Ian Tomlinson was killed. Today it was announced that PC Simon Harwood will face trial for his manslaughter.

According to the Guardian:
The director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, had announced in July last year that he did not believe there was sufficient evidence for a prosecution due to complications relating to medical evidence.

However, he said in a statement today that new information had emerged during the inquest and, while difficulties remained, he now believed there was sufficient evidence to bring criminal proceedings.
This is positive, and raises the prospect of Ian Tomlinson's family finally getting justice. There are, however, wider issues that need addressing.

For as long as deaths at the hands of the police are seen as a simply the work of 'bad apples', adequately responded to by the prosecution of individual officers, the wider picture will remain ignored. The truth is that there is a systematic and structural tendency for the police to adopt an attitude of hostility, easily spilling over into physical violence, towards certain sections of the public. Demonstrators are a case in point. And the normalised aggression towards the G20 protestors in April 2009 no doubt contributed to the circumstances of Ian Tomlinson's death, even though he was not himself protesting. Members of minority ethnic communities are another group over-represented amongst the victims of police violence, years after the MacPherson report.

Unless this issue is tackled, there will be many more Ian Tomlinsons.

Mrs Windsor's summer break

We've recently enjoyed the kitsch-fest that is the Eurovision Song Contest. No less important is a more occasional competition, the Eurovision Sycophancy contest, which has taken place over the past few weeks. London's entry was strong:

Never to be outdone, however, the Celtic Tiger came good. Dublin's entry combined naffness with a good dose of emotional saccharine to claim the prize:

Yes, the Queen is taking her summer hols in the twenty six counties. The papers were full of this being an historic moment: this was a time for moving on from the imperial past. Today's i bore the headline: "Queen Lays History to Rest". As Lizzie herself put it in a speech: "so much of this visit reminds us of the complexity of our history; its many layers and traditions, but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it." Conciliation, on any sensible account, has reparation as a prior condition. We'll come back to that.

Exactly the same line is forthcoming from Mary McAleese and the rest of the south's ruling class, enthusiastically backed up by their cheerleaders in the media and Ireland's burgeoning culture industry. Republican protesters have been shouted down from a great height, like so many rednecked thugs. It should be conceded that in some cases the verdict is not without a certain truth. 

None the less, there are perfectly good reasons to oppose the visit of a British monarch to Ireland. The southern state is in dire fiscal straits, and it is difficult to see how the outlay of millions of Euros on protecting and entertaining a London-based aristocrat, can be justified at a time when ordinary Irish people are suffering the effects of austerity measures. The counter-argument will be put that the UK is a key economic partner of the south, and that good relations are worth a bit of outlay. This simply lacks credibility. Are we to suppose that London wouldn't have helped bail Dublin out if the Queen wasn't offered a few vol-aux-vents as a sweetener?

Then there is the north. Much as though it isn't done to mention the matter in fashionable circles in either London or Dublin, part of the island of Ireland remains in British hands. This, in itself, is of little importance for those who can avail themselves of the cheap cosmopolitan faux-internationalism. It is always easy for history's victors to counsel moving on from history. 

Aside from the continued British presence in Ireland, there is the means by which that has been maintained. For all the culture of amnesty, a necessary part of a welcome peace process in the north, there is a striking asymmetry between the treatment of paramilitaries and state forces. Rarely have British military personnel received anything approaching justice. Frequently families whose children were killed by the bullets of Queen Elizabeth's forces remain without the answers that would bring some kind of closure. Many questions remain about collusion between British agencies and loyalist paramilitaries, including - it should be emphasised - with respect to the bombing of Dublin.

For these and many other reasons, for the sake of lives all over Ireland, whether the still-grieving parents in Derry, or the unemployed worker eeking out a living in Dublin, the claim that Britain's imperial history in Ireland is a thing of the past should be exposed as a lie.

But it is a lie that the south's rulers are quite happy to go along with.

The present state of affairs suits the interests of the southern bourgeoisie quite nicely. They have no economic interest in the north: in fact the incorporation of the six counties, long maintained as an economic periphery to the UK and still feeling the structural aftershocks of conflict, would be an economic millstone around Dublin's already feeble neck. By the same token, positive political and economic relations are eminently desirable. Add to this the cultural inclinations of a growing urban élite, who see republicanism as passé and frankly an embarrassment, and you get a situation where neither of the two civil war parties, nor the lacklustre 'Labour' party whose job it is to prop one or other of them up in coalition, has any incentive to make the north an issue. On the contrary, the priority is the consolidation of the southern state (and therefore of partition) and the strengthening of ties with London.

In itself, this is surely no bad thing. Anything that damages the illusion that the southern government is any ally against partition should be given a qualified welcome. Likewise it is all for the good if patriotic waffle and talk of the 'national interest' disappears from anti-partition politics in Ireland. There is no more shared interest between rulers and ruled in Ireland than in any other capitalist country. Too much romantic republicanism, often claiming an alliance with the left, misses this elementary point.

The only sort of politics which can bring the history of partition in Ireland to a happy conclusion is one that appeals to the majority of the island's inhabitants, north and south, Catholic and Protestant, on the basis that they have more in common with each other than any of them do with the likes of the Queen or President McAleese. The problem at this point is that this sounds hopelessly naive, and not without reason. Successful socialist politics organised on a class basis is a long way off in Ireland.

The only choice is not between a politics of partition, of mutually back-slapping, national élites, on the one hand, and the politics of the balaclava and the armalite on the other. The politics of a mass movement in the cause of the majority is an untried option. Sadly, it's looking none-too-healthy in contemporary Ireland. The least the British left can do is give all the encouragement at our disposal to those lonely voices of a genuine socialist politics across the Irish Sea.