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".

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