Django's thoughts on Gilles Dauvé's For a world without moral order.
Though I can’t help feeling somewhat decadent in writing a blog post about a theoretical article written a quarter of a century ago at a time when severe economic crisis is presenting the opportunity to drive home the anti-capitalist perspective as never before, I find myself with free time in which to write some thoughts on a re-reading of Gilles Dauvé’s For A World Without Moral Order. Intervening in current events will have to live alongside radical theoretical nerdery.
Dauvé’s article is a fascinating one, if written in the thin style which can be frustrating to those without a knowledge of his theoretical origins,as much French radical theory is. Dauvé is interesting for the range of his writings, and in his status as a Marxist and anti-state communist who wasn’t afraid of words like “freedom” on the grounds that they are supposedly anarchist swearwords, as some others are.
The text wouldn’t be very interesting if it wasn’t controversial – and it fact in storms into controversy with all guns blazing. Dauvé’s discussion of feminism and its approach to sex is one such instance. He writes:
Faced with a world where old religious artifacts and mercantile banalization coexist, the communist critique is two-pronged - it must desacralize, i.e., smoke all the old taboos out of their hiding places, and it must prepare to supercede the sacred where capitalism has only degraded it.
Desacralization then, of areas where old goblins have gone to hide - like the pubis, for example. Against penis worship, against the penis' conquering imperialism, feminists have found nothing better than the fetishization of the vagina. Backed up with piles of literature and pathos, they have made it the seat of their difference, the dark fold wherein their very being is to be found. Rape then becomes the crime of crimes, an ontological assault. As if a penis penetrating a woman by violence were more disgusting than forcing a woman into wage slavery by economic pressure. True, in the first case the guilty party is easily found - he is an individual - whereas in the latter case the guilty party is a social relationship. It's easier to exorcize one's fears by making rape into blasphemy, an intrusion into the holiest of holies. As if being manipulated by advertising, constantly physically abused at work, numbered and filed by government agencies were less profoundly violent in their assault on a person than imposed intercourse.
On first reading, Dauvé seems to be minimising rape in an obnoxious manner – ignoring the violence and damage rape entails. I can’t agree with the tone, but ultimately he is making an interesting point. Bourgeois ideology will fetishise rape as the ultimate denial of consent – the individual forced into the ultimate act without consent. The fact that societies fogged by Judeo-Christianity or experiencing a severe hangover from it do not deny sex, but become obsessed with it and ritualise it, means that rape becomes a tool of humiliation, and that humiliation has often been used to discipline unruly women. Its role can be seen in a horrific way in its use against civilian populations during wartime. But this is part and parcel of a society with an unhealthy approach to sexuality, which itself is a fetishisation of an integral part of human existence. As Dauvé writes, "sexuality, like economy or work, is an historical and cultural product”. The horror of rape is not mysterious, but due to its role in enforcing a total social relationship – the sexism which still pervades our society.
But the essential content of the rape act – the denial of consent – becomes the ultimate horror because it is coupled to the ultimate act, sex, which is still enmeshed in a web of moral superstitions. Modern Britain might on one level be obsessed with sex, its packaging and deployment to sell commodities, but this is as an intersection between the abject alienation which constitutes the fabric of our society, and the traditional morality of a dead age. Its separate role remains, given new form. Liberal capitalist societies will assign a role to rape which is characteristic of the entire society. And this is where Dauvé’s point comes in. In bourgeois (capitalist) ideology, work is seen to be a contractual agreement between two formally equal partners. They agree a price for which the employer will pay the employed for their labour. It is seen to be a free and healthy exchange. But there is nothing free about it. We, those who do not own or control our economy must approach those who do – capitalists or the collective capitalist, the state – for work in order to gain the money necessary to live. If we do not, we claim dole, which as anyone who has knows is no free lunch, or steal, or else we starve. If we are coerced by material necessity into renting ourselves, our time and energy, to those who control the society, then there is no free relation, there is only coercion. This is the reality of wage slavery. There is nothing consensual about it. Sure, employers and their apologists will always say we can go find a better boss if we don’t like it. But contrary to their worldview, there are classes which have a material existence, and they are bound by necessity to fight in their interests. The interest of the employer is to get us to work longer for less, our interest is precisely the opposite. Those who argue that class doesn’t exist often ignore quite how organised employers are, and how vigorously they will fight for their interests.
Dauvé’s point then, which is valid and important, is that the characteristics of rape – being forced into activity irrelevant to us, our interests, our desires through material coercion – are fundamental to our society.
I’m usually wary of talking about “feminism” and making any categorical statements about it. “Feminism” as a political ideology doesn’t really exist. There are so many different positions, perspectives, directions and programmes which disagree with each other fundamentally but which define themselves as “feminist” that it is nigh on impossible to talk about “feminism” without a list of qualifications. But if we apply his arguments to liberal feminism, then he is opening a line of critique which is accurate and fruitful. Liberal feminists –i.e. – those who see the path for the emancipation of women being through bourgeois reformism and who seek an equal place at the capitalist table for women as workers and capitalists, often share the bizarre morality of their male comrades. “Radical feminists” are, practically, liberal feminists who totalise the gender relationships as one fundamental to society, and ignore everything else. The example of discussion around sex work is instructive.
For instance, when the GMB union attempted to unionise sex workers (where organisational attempts already existed at a grassroots level, e.g., the ECP), there were criticised by Julie Bindell on the grounds that “prostitution is different”:
Rather than society pretending it is a career choice, prostitution needs to be exposed for what it is - violence against women. Unionisation cannot protect the women in this vile industry. The GMB would far better serve these women by campaigning for the end of commercial sexual exploitation. Women in the sex industry need human rights, not workers' rights.
Though the point that the legal, bureaucratic unions integrated into the state apparatus are unlikely to do much for incredibly precarious, subterranean work is valid, her argument is ultimately a moral one. She argues that the conditions – violence, coercion – are the essence and that prostitutes fighting for their interests “legitimises prostitution as a career choice.” This is clearly nonsense. One could argue, using the same confusion, that because garment workers in Bangladesh are abused by paramilitary thugs in their factories and forced to work until they hallucinate from starvation and exhaustion, supporting their ability to fight to improve their conditions only legitimises this situation. We do want to abolish work, of course, but saying that because of this we don’t support their attempts to make demands and improve their conditions only leaves them in the shit, and is typical of stilted moral thinking. Clearly, she thinks that work involving sexuality is fundamentally abhorrent, but that the normal career choices are just fine. That “violence in the "workplace" is a daily issue for many prostitutes, not the extraordinary event it is for others”, is a result of its criminalisation and subterranean nature, and re-enforcing the moral superstitions which lead to this situation only implicates the proponent within it as a pillar of the “traditional moral order” Dauvé criticises.
But this only focuses on one section of an interesting text. More, time permitting, to follow later.