Sex, work, and Gilles Dauvé

Sex, work, and Gilles Dauvé

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.


Oct 12 2008 11:05

Yo, quick thing, I did some subbing of this blog post which mirrored the initial article. See my recent thread in the feedback forum for more information. Cheers!

Oct 12 2008 12:43

Sure, noted.

Updated some links.

Oct 16 2008 19:31

Totally logical argument and better presented than the inspiration for it. Try arguing the case at the feminist meeting at the anarchist bookfair if you dare though! Wouldn't fancy my chances as a weak fella.

Oct 21 2008 17:56

I am very sympathetic to lots of feminism though! Cheers for the comment anyway.

Jan 11 2010 00:09

Have to comment on this, because I actually didn't realize this until quite recently- but it seems, from drifting around some blogs, that the term "radical feminism" has become misconstrued to the point of being considered synonymous with the ideas of the anti-porn crowd. This seems like an accepted idea, looking at the discussions taking place on many of the feminist blogs I've been looking at recently, where some people have been talking about the debate that- in their view- divides feminists along the lines of the "radical" vs. the "sex-positive". It seems like you might be accepting these definitions since, when you criticize Julie Bindell's ideas, you talk as though they're definitive of radical feminism. But in the 80s, during the time of the Barnard sex wars, the publishing of The Handmaid's Tale, and all that, it was the anti-porn crowd who made alliances with right-wing Christians. The ideas of their less-moralizing opponents seem much more in line with a broader vision of liberation. When Bindell says "Women in the sex industry need human rights, not workers' rights," she certainly doesn't sound like she's talking with any "radical" understanding of... anything.

As I understand it, feminism is the belief that women and men should be equal, and radical feminism is the school of though that takes issue with how many prominent feminists, being white and middle-class, haven't really addressed issues like poverty and racism- and so they take their theory and work beyond equality of the genders, to push for the transformation of society in other ways, taking issue with racism, other forms of inequality, and sometimes the whole of capitalism, economic class, and wage labor. Nothing in this is *inherently* anti-pornography, anti-prostitution, or anti-sadomasochism or whatever. (For instance, I think Gayle Rubin could be called a radical feminist- no?)

I fully agree with you that we should support the decriminalizing of prostitution and the self-organization of women involved- as well as any other measures that empower people and give them measured of control over their own lives. Keeping this shit subterranian, treating it as shameful and immoral, helps no one. The ideas about shamefulness ultimatley wind up centering around archaic sexual mores, not around the violence, coercion, and disease risks involved- and this kind of moralizing is counterproductive. I say that the only rational thing to do, the only radical thing to do- hell, the only moral thing to do- is make the safety and self-determination of the involved sex-workers the only concern in our treatment of prostitution, that it is their voices that must be brought to the forefront of the discussion, that we have to support whatever measures they feel will make them safer, freer, etc, and that to do otherwise is oppressive and disempowering. And I say this as a feminist.

And the Bangladesh thing- good Christ, that's horrible. o_o

May 4 2012 09:13

Sorry, but Dauvé's essay strikes me as a gloriously un-self-aware attempt to define a spunky, orgiastic model of communism - one that doesn't threaten the preconceptions and institutionalised conventions that defined conventional heterosexual male identity circa 1983.

The notion that autonomy = property in oneself is the low point. The unequal relationship between men and women long pre-dates any bourgeois notions of property. It's part power, part assumption that the relationship itself is a sort of natural right - and that male identity, and the rights it entails, properly include elements of the world around it. (In itself, an impeccably bourgeois attitude.)

His 1998 afterword, in which he casts a sceptical eye on gayness, but seems to want to redeem pederasty, at least partially or contingently, seems to make all this even clearer.

He decries autonomy, but is ready to accept wilful, active solipsism. But autonomy is the price we pay for critical engagement with the world. And that critical engagement is the only way we prevent freedom from sliding back under the tyranny of convention – if we've ever even escaped it (which we won't have, if Dauvé has his way).

I'd even go so far as to say that this is a sort of sexed-up, Hegelian version of arguments you'll find in Isaiah Berlin, which see (the right sort of!) freedom as necessarily encompassing power and embracing unexamined convention.

(Note: if you haven't guessed, I'm a gay woman. Hopefully there's a place for us as well, after capitalism.)

May 4 2012 11:23

Liberal and radical feminism are pretty easy targets (armillaria, I too refer to the 'anti-porn crowd' such as Bindel, Dworken, Jeffreys, (not Gayle Rubin) etc as radical feminists - I would use the same description as Django gives above - because that's how the territories within feminism seems to have developed - it's unfortunate because I dont' think they are very radical and don't deserve to have colonised the name. These feminist taxonomies are very messy though and I wouldn't use the term without explanation in forums where I didn't think people shared the same schema).
I don't think Dauve really has much to offer. What he wrote about rape just provoked the same reaction of xtreme annoyance as when I read it years ago. "As if a penis penetrating a woman by violence were more disgusting than forcing a woman into wage slavery by economic pressure". The point is, a woman can be forced into wage slavery by economic pressure AND be forcibly penetrated with violence by a penis...(the fact that men are also raped doesn't alter the gendered character of sexual violence overall - the fact that men are also sex workers doesn't alter the gendered nature of the sex industry overall though this is a different matter).
Anyway, liberal and radical feminism are easy targets and have been much more interestingly criticised by other feminists than by Gilles Dauve. Jerk.

May 5 2012 22:43

Armillaria, as far as I understand it, radical feminism isn't feminism which is radical but refers to a specific area of feminist theory originating in the second wave. Rad fems refer to themselves as such and specifically rad fem groups are unapologetically anti-porn, so I don't think anything is being misconstrued. Third wave feminists, though in some ways more radical, still refer to second wave feminists as radical feminists for this reason. It's a shame though as it makes it look like radical feminism is radical when it's not necessarily.

As to the post, I think there are some fair points about the possibility that the only thing (apart from the risk) that makes sex work more problematic than other work is the feelings we have about sex as a social construct. I also argue this in the absence of any rational reason to believe there is something inherently special about sex. In spite of this, while I seem to be happy enough to go to a pub and be served beer by people who don't want to be there, I'd feel absolutely awful if someone had sex with me when they didn't want to but felt coerced into it to survive. I could be just a product of a prudish society but I'm not convinced there isn't something more to it. I'd also rather pull a pint for someone I hate than suck them off. I think it could be there are more factors involved that give sex meaning and value, not all of which are are part of an unhealthy relationship to sexuality.

So I think it's possible that for some reason "prostitution is different" as are many jobs in one way or another, but Bindell's conclusion that campaigning for an end to prostitution should be prioritised over organising for better conditions is completely unrealistic. Also it being different doesn't mean that sex workers shouldn't organise, and they are unlikely to organise a mass exit.

But Dauve isn't comparing sex work to other work anyway, he's comparing rape to work, and I think it's pretty vital that we don't confuse the two. While being “forced into wage slavery by economic pressure” is of course not consensual, it is also not the same as slavery. Our freedom under capitalism to sell our labour to the highest bidder is a poor substitute for real freedom but the differences between it and serfdom or slavery aren't superficial. If the amount of control we have over our situation were insignificant then sex workers wouldn't fear rape as much as they do.

If what he is trying to do is point out how horrific the violation of our consent is in other aspects of our lives, then he makes a good, if insensitively expressed point. He's not just doing this though. He is minimising the horror of rape and implying it is only experienced as particularly horrific due to prudishness and the “fetishization of the vagina”. He should consider whether he has a preference for working in an office over being gang raped for 35 hours a week, and if so whether this makes him a prude or means he's fetishised his arsehole.