Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

19th Century Marxist Mantra in 21st Century Feminist Garb

In Book Review, Feminism, Marxism on August 15, 2014 at 4:06 PM

Book Review

Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, (Bloomsbury, 2014) 288pp.

Laurie Penny is a self-declared “political creature” who wants “mutiny.” She has a message for the “fucked-up girls” with eating disorders and the “lost boys” who do not “feel able to talk about their own suffering.” Unspeakable Things is a political manifesto filled with autobiographical detail. Penny is someone who was thrown out of ballet classes at an early age “for teaching the other girls how to masturbate,” spent nine months in a mental institution recovering from anorexia, has had friends in prison, once lived with porn stars, has been raped, and  enjoyed kissing a girl who was sleeping with the same boy that she was. She is someone with the effrontery to write “hairy cocks and cunts” and not only get away with it, but to get it published.  She knows what it is like to have her “arse grabbed in a bar,” to be on the receiving end of an online hate campaign, to be afraid of leaving her house as a result of fear from online stalkers and  to be blackmailed with pictures of her semi naked kissing another girl.

Penny becomes a heroine for the angst ridden, left-wing, teen and early twenties girl who stays at home “with a painted-on smile.” Penny tells them that it is okay to shave their armpits, wear lipstick, have a poster of a half-naked Justin Bieber on their bedroom wall, have sex with as many boys as they like, tell the world about it, and still be a feminist.  She is proud to “fly the flag for sex, for fucking and for love online.” The Pennyettes with their hands down their pants might be pleased to hear Penny tell them “sex online is real sex and love online is real love.”

The Pennyettes might well raise their eyebrows when she tells them that she does not have the kind of high-flying job that allows her “to think in terms of ‘having it all.’” Here is Laurie Penny, private school, Oxford, and soon to be Harvard educated, 27 years old, beautiful, an author of a number of published books and a blog that was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. She is a journalist for national newspapers, a contributing editor at New Statesman, has regular appearances on television and radio, and criss-crosses the Atlantic for work. She has a hundred thousand, many adoring, followers on Twitter, who tells her readers that she does not have it all. One wonders what a twenty year old, working-class woman stacking shelves in Tesco with cans of own brand baked beans would make of that. The truth is such a person is not really Penny’s natural constituency. Penny is the role model for the 18 year old female, unsure of where she is going in the world, or how she fits in, who, despite a firm belief that a thigh gap and a bikini bridge are necessities to succeed in life, has just obtained three grade As at ‘A’ level and entry to an elite university. Unspeakable Things was written by Penny for her own younger sisters.

And what about the male species? Men as a group “hate and hurt women.” But one must not accuse Penny of “reverse sexism” for saying so. That would be a cheap attempt to “shut down debate.” Patriarchy, she tells us, is violent. It has “oppressed and constrained men and boys as well as women.” “Desire,” she claims, “is socially constructed.”  Will the 19 year old male undergraduate with an erection because he is seated next to a hot girl in his sociology lecture believe that? At any rate, who cares if it is true? It sounds like a profound thing for a corduroy jacket wearing, satchel carrying, Foucault reading, Pennyette to say while seated cross legged and sipping a cappuccino in the student union.

After such an analysis of women and men, one might wonder who or what is at fault. It’s the “system” goddammit! All the problems in the “fucked-up world” boil down to one thing: neoliberalism. Penny retreats to the same old Marxist mantra: capitalism and the patriarchy that follows from it. Here is a Penny sentence: “The colonisation of love by capitalist patriarchy is a deeply painful thing.” Being a true Pennyette depends on whether you can 1) take that sentence seriously, and, 2) agree with it. I fail on both counts. Then there are Penny’s unsubstantiated claims. For example: “‘he said’ is almost always more credible than ‘she said’, unless she is white and he is not.” Perhaps Penny writing it makes it true.

According to Penny, there can be no faith in President Obama in the USA or in mainstream left leaning political parties in the UK. There is only one solution: revolution! And that revolution must be a shocking feminist revolution. If, for Penny, “plotting revolution” provides greater happiness than being in love, then so it should for the Pennyettes. Marx, Engels, and Penny. God help us all. It was a lot easier in the 1990s when Gerri Halliwell raised her right fist and said “Girl power.” Now we have Laurie Penny who wants to take a red pen, “annotate the world,” and “scrawl ‘slut power’ in letters too big to ignore.” She lives in a world where the personal is political and the political is personal. But despite all this she admits that she just wants “to be the kind of girl who gets taken in somebody’s arms.” One day she might get married. If so, she might desire a wedding cake inscribed with the words “Smash Monogamy!” It would not be original. Michael Lerner did it in 1971.

On Slave Reparations – A Response to Boonin 3 – The Individual Rights Based Objection.

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2014 at 3:57 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on  July 31st 2014, 6:58 pm

This is the third and final post in a series of posts responding to the arguments made in favour of slave reparations by David Boonin in his book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions.  The first post can be seen here and the second here.

A key reason why I think Boonin’s argument should be rejected is that he fails to treat people as individuals. He treats people as a part of a collective. And that collective is identified purely by the colour of someone’s skin.  If we accept the premise that coerced slavery was wrong, it follows that those coerced into slavery or the direct descendants of those slaves are entitled to compensation. This would be in line with Robert Nozick’s theory of entitlement that he outlined in the second section of his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  Boonin specifically rejects the idea that the compensation should be to descendants of slaves. For as he states:

[T]he compensation argument, it’s important to emphasize doesn’t operate according to bloodlines. It claims that currently living black Americans are owed reparations not because they’re biologically descended from the victims of slavery and its aftermath, but because they continue to suffer the negative consequences of slavery and its aftermath.

This means that Boonin is not looking at a particular black American as an individual citizen but as a black citizen. He is lumping all black Americans together. He is suggesting African Americans from the homeless guy in Detroit through to Tiger Woods and Barack Obama continue to suffer the negative consequences of slavery. Boonin has not explained exactly in what way Oprah Winfrey is suffering. The reason he has not done so is that he could not care less about Oprah Winfrey as a person in her own right. All he cares about, in relation to his reparations argument, is the colour of her skin. He classifies people by skin colour and judges them by skin colour when it comes to entitlement to reparations. He sees black Americans “on the whole” and not as individuals in their own right.

Elsewhere, Boonin argues that he defends his claim on reparations “without appealing to any kind of objectionable racial collectivism.”  This statement is patently false. He repeats in his book that he views black Americans as “a whole.” It is therefore, whether he likes it or not, as David Horowitz suggested, a racist argument and should be rejected.

On Slave Reparations: A response to Boonin: 2. Recipients and beneficiaries

In Philosophy, Racism, Slavery on August 15, 2014 at 3:51 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place July 30th 2014, 11:55 am

This is the second post in a series of three responding to the arguments made in favour of reparations for slavery by David Boonin in his book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions. The first post can be seen here.

As I commented in my last post, Boonin argues that “the U.S government has a moral obligation to benefit the current generation of African Americans because of the wrongful harms that were inflicted on past generations of Africans and African Americans by the institution of slavery and its aftermath.” One of David Horowitz’s objections to slave reparations is that “Most Living Americans Have No Connection (Direct or Indirect) to Slavery.” He explains “The two great waves of American Immigration occurred after 1880 and then after 1960. What logic would require Vietnamese boat people, Russian refuseniks, Iranian refugees, Armenian victims of Turkish persecution, Jews, Mexicans[,] Greeks, or Polish, Hungarian, Cambodian and Korean victims to Communism, to pay reparations to American blacks?”  Boonin answers this question with a valid point:

When you freely choose to become a citizen of a country, that is, you incur a duty to help your country fulfil all of its obligations, including those obligations that it occurred before you arrived. This includes having some of your tax money go to paying off a national debt that you had nothing to do with generating, paying to fund programmes that were adopted before you were born, and so on.

One could compare the idea of immigrating to a country to that of becoming a new shareholder of a corporation. When someone buys shares in a company he takes on, in his stake, his share of the liabilities of the company. If the company borrowed money for thirty years by issuing a bond five years earlier, the new shareholder cannot simply write off that debt: he takes on the obligation. This is a reasonable argument. If the US government does owe a debt to its black population then Boonin’s response to Horowitz’s objection as it stands seems valid. But Boonin creates a new problem for his argument.

I will assume that some immigrants into the United States since the end of slavery have not simply been the groups that Horowitz mentioned, but has also included, either in or out of those groups, some black people. By Boonin’s argument these new black immigrants should also pay their share of “the national debt.”  This is not a problem. What is the problem is that Boonin argues that “compensation is owed not to the biological offspring of particular victims of previous injustices, but rather to black Americans who continue to suffer the lingering effects of slavery and its aftermath.” Because Boonin argues this, he would have it that, as an example, a new black immigrant to America whose family had lived, as an example, in the United Kingdom for generations is due compensation. But this is a nonsense: not only is this black immigrant not descended from American slaves, neither he nor his family have suffered the effects of American slavery or racial separation – for the simple reason that they never lived in America.  In order for Boonin’s argument to hold water, he must explain why such an immigrant is entitled to reparations. He has not done so.

In my final post on this matter I shall discuss what I will call the individual rights based objection – the idea that an African American should not be treated as part of a collective of African Americans but as an individual.

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