A new ship with a new crew
Behind the Brett Kavanaugh scandal Rex Dunn sees the decline of capitalism and a fragmented feminist movement that fails to recognise the necessity of socialism
By now everyone must know about Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. That was nearly four decades ago. Ford is currently professor of psychology at Palo Alto University in California and is also a registered Democrat. Kavanaugh just happens to be a conservative Republican judge - who Donald Trump nominated to fill a vacancy on the supreme court.
The president was anxious to get the nomination ratified as quickly as possible: ie, long before the midterm elections. But first the Republicans had to organise a Senate committee to interview the judge before the nomination could go through. Then out of the blue Ford lobbed her bombshell - hers was followed by two more complaints for good measure! Understandably, Kavanaugh vigorously denied the charges. As a result the Senate committee now had to be turned into a quasi-judicial hearing to allow both parties to testify, and to decide who was telling the truth - the hearing took place on September 27. There were, of course, vociferous protests by mainly Democratic women.
There was a lot riding on this, because Kavanaugh’s eventual appointment - confirmed by a 50-48 Senate vote on October 6 - tips the court further to the right. Moreover, this is a job for life. Therefore the defence of civil rights are at risk, such as those of women, as well as of the black minority and LGBT+ people.
But there is much more to this than a scandal about the sex abuse of women by a high-profile male figure. For me it is a symptom of capitalist decline, which is what this article is really about.
What is going on?
First of all, the Democrats are still smarting about Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections, which thwarted Hillary Clinton’s bid to become the first female president of the United States. In this regard, the timing of these allegations was important. It is now less than a month before the November 6 midterm elections. Clearly the Democrats hope to use the scandal surrounding Kavanaugh, which they initiated, in order to discredit Trump and win back control of Congress. But this is their only show in town. It has worked before, so why not now?
Unlike the Republicans, they are trying to get away with it under the cover of a liberal social agenda. But after years of Obama austerity that agenda began to wear thin; and the rightwing populist backlash will not go away. Having nothing to fall back on, the Democrat leaders are becoming desperate.
The women demonstrators on Congress Hill gained a victory in a certain sense, because they had the support of most of the Washington media. The establishment’s neoliberal values are deeply entrenched and, of course, it is deeply partisan, even though it claims to be unbiased. Consider this extract from one of scores of articles, which was syndicated to the world’s press:
We are talking about a boy allegedly restraining a 15-year-old girl against her will, trying to rip off her clothes and covering her mouth to stop her from screaming. When did such horrifying behaviour start to fall under the ‘boys will be boys’ defence?
That so many people are pushing for Mr Kavanaugh to be immediately confirmed to the supreme court, the most dignified institution in the United States, when he stands credibly accused of attempted rape, is disgusting.1
Trump had been forced to back down and order an FBI enquiry into the allegations against Kavanaugh (which he should have done in the first place). At this point the women demonstrators announced that they would take their campaign to the rest of the country. The events on Capitol Hill were no doubt aimed at boosting support for the Democratic Party in the midterms, but the only people who are likely to vote for their cause are educated women - and their male counterparts - who are already Democrat supporters. On the other hand, semi-skilled workers and the self-employed - along with their female counterparts - tend already to be Republican supporters, so we could see a replay of the 2016 presidential election. Whichever party wins, the margin of victory is likely to be small.
Whether Kavanaugh is guilty of the allegations against him or not, the scandal reveals a number of factors which cannot be refuted:
- Firstly, for the Democrats attacking your opponent ad hominem has become weapon of choice. Allegations of male sexual misconduct are at the top of the list.
- Secondly, paid investigators are used to dig up the dirt, linked to the traditional corporate media, such as TV networks and the press. Most of the latter is partisan: ie, it supports the Democratic narrative. Although Trump promised to drain the swamp, this is proving to be an almost impossible task. It might be able to drown him yet!
- Thirdly, smear tactics are needed to take the man down, even before the evidence is clear. Throw enough mud and it sticks, even if the target is innocent. But sometimes we will never know, given the fact that many of these allegations are historic. In the Kavanaugh case, they go back 36 years, which is a long time. Already we are seeing examples - on both sides - of memory loss and false-memory-syndrome.
- Fourthly, the danger here is that the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is being forgotten. Hype and hysteria about the nature of the charges is more important, because it is this which pushes up the TV ratings or sells more newspapers.
- Fifthly, sexual mores have changed over the past few decades. On this basis a precedent has been set, whereby people take it for granted that it is OK to judge a man by today’s standards of sexual conduct, which allows us to condemn him for things he might have done in the past. What was acceptable then is not acceptable now.
- Lastly, on the one side, this is a good thing, because male predatory behaviour needs to be stamped out. At least for Marxists and socialist feminists, patriarchy is not biologically determined: ie, it is not part and parcel of the male gender; rather it is a social construct, a hangover from earlier patriarchal society. On the other side, there is a danger of being too puritanical: bourgeois feminism wants to police sexual behaviour, whereas this should be a private matter between two people, based on mutual consent. In secular western societies, this is the norm for a majority of people, regardless of their sexual preference.
At a deeper level, the media circus that surrounds the Kavanaugh case provides more evidence that bourgeois politics in the United States - the world’s ‘greatest’ democracy - has reached a new low. The tactic of smearing your opponent, before evidence is produced, has replaced political argument. This is because both parties, as representatives of the ‘political class’, are the servants of the so-called ‘free market’. Hence it is they who are responsible for falling living standards and rising personal debt, whilst the rich are getting richer. Therefore today, even the quality media finds it expedient to resort to the standards of the gutter press. If the recent Senate hearing is anything to go by, then American politics is beginning to resemble something like a TV soap opera as well! Finally, we have the advent of fake news, which is confusing everyone!
At an even deeper level, all this is a reflection of capitalism in decline. According to Hillel Ticktin, “decline occurs when the poles of contradiction become more and more difficult to mediate”2 (eg, disproportionality between overproduction and underconsumption under the rule of private property relations and its market). Previously when one form of mediation breaks down, then the capitalist class was able to find another to replace it: eg, nationalism, colonialism, racism, imperialism, war, the cold war, finance capital - and neoliberalism. But now that the latter is faltering, there is nothing to replace it as a means to maintain the system in its present form. Rightwing populism and nationalism is a throwback to the past, which is not a solution to the problem.
Thus Ticktin asks: “What happens if there is no mediation possible between the poles of contradiction? Then disintegration ensues.” As I see it, this is right across the board. It is both economic and ideological in its effects; hence it also applies to philosophy, politics and culture.
Today we are living through a period wherein neoliberalism’s ability to mediate capitalism’s constitutive contradictions is under immense strain (because the latter have become more entrenched). So we are going through a period of very stormy weather, which is expressing itself at all levels of society.
Like its predecessors, neoliberalism straddles Marx’s economic base/superstructure model of society. But what makes it different is that it is tailor-made for late capitalism, based on the atomisation of the social metabolism. But it also has to cope with systemic crises, whereas a hundred years ago society was more cohesive, since it was propped up by traditional institutions, such as the family and the church, which cross class lines. Therefore today something different is needed to unite the masses. In this regard, neoliberalism has two agendas which dovetail each other.
Firstly, a vicious economic strategy based on the financialisation of global capital, deregulated markets, cuts in public services and low wages: in a word, permanent austerity. This has led to unprecedented and obscene levels of inequality in wealth between the richest 10% and the rest of society: ie, ordinary people, who are struggling to make ends meet. (But this does not prevent them from being increasingly addicted to the distractions of the culture industry, which is exacerbated further by the social media). This economic agenda is accompanied by the ubiquitous spread of the commodity form or the callous ‘cash-nexus’, with no adequate countervailing force (eg, the welfare state). As Marx wrote in his Economic and philosophical manuscripts (1844),
The quantity of money becomes more and more its sole important property. Just as it reduces everything to its own form of abstraction, so it reduces itself in the course of its own movement to something quantitative.3
In other words, reified consciousness, which today permeates almost every pore of our daily existence.
Secondly, neoliberalism’s economic agenda needs to be reinforced by a social one, which is based on political correctness and identity politics: women put themselves forward as the victims of patriarchy, which is everywhere. But, because we live in an atomised, digitalised, corporate mass media society, they organise themselves as a single group, which is able to divide society vertically: ie, it cuts across class lines. Hence the bourgeois media and the state which it serves are happy to embrace the women’s movement, such as it is today. Were it not for the rise of intersectionality, which creates divisions within the women’s movement itself via new forms of identity politics - such as rich versus poor women, black versus white, lesbians versus transgenders - the women’s movement would be a very powerful force, able to divide society along gender lines. That is the logic of its development. But, even without that, disintegration is occurring at the ideological and social level.
But it soon becomes clear that there is a higher cause than the rights of women: namely the rule of capital, which is gender-blind. For example, the pornography industry objectifies women and therefore degrades them. In the age of the internet, this extends far beyond Hollywood to the rest of the world. Now it includes gays, lesbians and even transgenders, as well as heterosexuals. But bourgeois feminism has yet to organise a campaign to force the state to regulate this or shut it down, because it is big business.
For all of these reasons, Marxists are marginalised in tiny groups. Therefore we are unable to advance the cause of socialist feminism: the idea that women can only achieve freedom and equality with men in a common struggle for socialism. This idea does not even register in the consciousness of the women’s movement today.
To use the analogy of an old sailing ship, it is in danger of disintegrating on the high seas, which are becoming increasingly stormy, whilst the crew is becoming increasingly mutinous - starting with the captain and working its way down to the lower ranks.
Apropos capitalism’s economic base, what appears to be a clear-cut struggle between neoliberalism and populism, be that on the right or left, is nothing of the sort. For the time being, those who make up the political class - whether they are on the right or the left, as well as those in the middle - are all in the same boat. But in the last few years, some of this motley crew have run up the sail of economic nationalism, which threatens to capsize the ship.
At the level of the economic base, both rightwing and leftwing populism want to have their cake and eat it: they want to throw some of neoliberalism’s policies overboard, whilst retaining some of the others. But it is only rightwing populism which wants a radical change of tack at the level of neoliberalism’s social agenda. This starts with the biggest crew member - ie, the USA under Trump - but also includes smaller shipmates: eg, the leaders of the European states to the east of Germany. Given that working class consciousness is at an all-time low, it is a mere passenger.
Populism, either on the right or the left, is a reaction to the financial crash of 2008 and its aftermath. On the one hand, austerity was supposed to restore capitalism to good health. The representatives of international capital (the managerial bureaucracy of late capitalism), together with the political class, decided to make the working class pay for the crisis, forcing it to bear the brunt of the banking bailout via the strategy of austerity, which is still in force, whatever Theresa May is now promising: ie, cuts in public services and welfare, along with a wage freeze.
Hence the working class and sections of the middle class have suffered a drastic decline in their living standards. This has led to the continued expansion in personal debt, because this is the only way in which millions of people - aka the working poor - can survive. Immigrants are made the scapegoat for the people’s misery - enter the ideas of rightwing populism, which led to Trump’s victory in America, along with the election of neo-fascist governments in Hungary and Austria (not forgetting the Brexit vote here in Britain). As a result, the world has lurched towards the right (although it is true there has also been a smaller turn towards leftwing populism).
Of course, rightwing populism has nothing to offer the working class. So what is the basis of its appeal? First and foremost, it appeals to ‘national sovereignty’ and patriotism. For Trump, this means ‘Make America great again’ - and to hell with the global economy! In concrete terms, he is threatening to break with international institutions in order to ‘take back control’ of the nation’s finances, such as the North American Free Trade Association, the International Monetary Fund (both of which would submit to Trump threats, since the dollar is the world’s reserve currency). Next in line are immigration controls. Then comes Trump’s own version of a stimulus package: ie, tax cuts for the rich, which is supposed to release funds for investment in new infrastructure (but in reality the rich would rather invest in financial services, which produce bigger profits in the short-term).
As leader of the world’s hegemon, Trump is also threatening a new trade war with China and Europe, which only America can win. Sooner or later, the latter will be forced to give way. But, with the economy already slowing, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party know that, once they take a hit, this could set off a major recession. Therefore global capitalism itself is in danger, because a recession in China could trigger the next financial crash.
Leftwing populism is more fragile than its rightwing counterpart. For example, in the United States this came to an abrupt halt with Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic candidate for the 2016 presidential election, after which Bernie Sanders threw in his lot behind Clinton and her neoliberal economic agenda, such as the ‘free market’, the downsizing of the state, deregulated labour relations, a low-wage economy, etc. But in Britain leftwing populism started with a bang when Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015. However, since then he has dissipated the support of his base (which is largely an online membership) by attempting to appease the Blairites and the Zionist lobby. But he is still flying the flag for a leftwing version of economic nationalism: ie, a stimulus package based on limited expansion in state spending, via a national investment bank, along with the nationalisation of British rail and the water companies (although the energy companies would be allowed to continue operating as a cartel, able to raise their prices at will).
At the same time the Corbyn leadership wants to control immigration, in order to keep traditional Labour voters on side. But this brings it into conflict with the European Union and its neoliberal economic agenda: ie, the idea of a global market based on multinational companies, which require the free movement of both capital and labour. It also means submission to the control of international institutions, such as the European Bank, which are opposed to Keynesian ideas. For all these reasons the Corbyn leadership, like the Tory leadership under May, would prefer a soft Brexit if that were possible. Then there is the problem of the Irish border. This is also linked to the concerns of big business about the economic cost of a post-Brexit Britain. So the idea that Britain could negotiate to remain within the EU is now back on the table. But if Labour were to become the next government, it would find it virtually impossible to stay in the EU and stick to its ‘socialist’ programme.
For their part, the Tories are torn between a soft and hard Brexit - ie, a soft or hard form of economic nationalism, Tory style. The Tory right wants to take back control of the economy and trade, especially with regard to immigration, even if this means no deal with the EU; whereas the EU and big business, along with the Bank of England, warn that this would lead to an economic catastrophe. Be that as it may, the Tories - along with rightwing populism around the world, starting with Trump in the US - are happy to pursue the rest of neoliberalism’s economic agenda.
Just as neoliberalism’s economic agenda based on globalisation is coming under attack from economic nationalism, so too is its social agenda. The rise of Jordan Peterson is a case in point. He is a clinical psychologist, author of several books, and has taught at Canadian and American universities, such as Harvard. Today he is described as an intellectual rock star with a following of 55 million online, who is putting the intellectual case for rightwing populism. Just turn to YouTube, as I did, and you will find scores of videos devoted to interviews with Peterson.
It is clear that he is basically an anti-feminist, because he espouses Jungian notions about the value of myth; in particular, the idea of logos, or the need for a father figure. He claims that this is one of the world’s ‘big ideas’, which is present in many cultures. But it was overthrown in the west as a result of the rise of atheism, Marxism and postmodernism. They are all lumped together as one. Therefore Peterson sees himself as the leader of a crusade to restore the ‘logos’ to its rightful place, so that humanity can emerge from ‘the void’. For him, the latter is a sort of Pandora’s box, out of which the current anarchy has ensued. He is a modern-day Billy Graham!
The worst thing about Peterson is that he uses pseudo-religion and an idealist methodology to promote the claim that radical feminism and Marxism are one and the same, and are responsible for various ‘nostrums’, such as the idea that matriarchal society was overthrown by patriarchy, which became the basis of western civilisation. The idea that gender is a social construct has replaced its biological basis. In order to defeat patriarchy and reaction, society has to be restructured from the bottom up. To this end, women’s studies are subsidised by the public purse, which means that the latter is subsidising revolution! It starts with ending the gender pay gap and a quota system for women in positions of responsibility, and ends with … the overthrow of capitalism!
But, as Peterson sees it, a new ideology is being imposed, which has led to the policing of language in some places. In Canada, for example, in order to create a more inclusive society vis-à-vis transgenders, it is now a legal requirement to address people as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. The tyranny of political correctness is also responsible for the policy of safe spaces in university education: ie, it is forbidden to offend your opponent in a debate. Apropos these last two points, I agree with Peterson.
On the other hand, according to him, it is Marxism and feminism which are responsible for the attack on free speech, which is a danger to ‘truth’ and reason. Therefore it is up to conservative intellectuals like himself to stand up for free speech. Whilst I would agree with him about the biological basis of gender (as opposed to sexual preference), I categorically reject his argument about hierarchy. For Peterson, this has nothing to do with capitalism, because it is part of nature; whereas Marx argues that capitalism naturalised the hierarchical division of labour - which began with the rise of patriarchy - in order to separate head from hand labour, because this is the most efficient means to accumulate capital, regardless of the fact that this leads to ‘mind-forged manacles’ for the many. On the other hand, for Peterson, a power structure is necessary to avoid conflict. Therefore the women’s movement is motivated by resentment, not the demand for equality! All women need to do to protect themselves is to be more assertive, not to play the victim game.
Finally, Stalinism was Marxism. Whilst Orwell was right to sympathise with the ‘proles’ in his 1984, he woke up when he wrote Animal farm!
Of course, the ideas of Marxism and today’s feminist movement are diametrically opposed. At a fundamental level, the antecedents of the latter’s ideas are to be found in the historical betrayal of Stalinism and social democracy - which opened the door to the rise of the American hegemon.
But this does not mean that things developed in a linear manner. Rather they developed dialectically, wherein ideology, culture and art, including cultural theory, develop semi-independently from changes in the political and economic spheres. For example, poststructuralism, which errs on the side of subjectivism, was a reaction to structuralism, which errs on the side of objectivism, and so on.
But developments in the intellectual sphere are not self-contained either. At some stage they interact with changes in the political and economic spheres. First came defeat in 1968, followed by the defeat of industrial labour 10 or so years later, which in turn led to the outsourcing of capital and industry. As a result, in the west, the economy has come to be based more and more on the service sector, including the entertainment industry. So we end up with an atomised society. At the same time, we see the decline of the Marxist movement, in the sense that many Marxists have embraced poststructuralist ideas, such as new theories about gender, along with the worst excesses of political correctness, as well as identity politics. But these ideas and practices are based on idealism and subjectivism, not dialectical materialism. In this sense Peterson might be right to lump women’s studies and Marxism altogether!
Likewise, the seed bed of neoliberalism’s social agenda, contrary to Peterson’s account, does not spring from the writings of Marx himself, but from the theory of poststructuralism and its offshoot, postmodernism. On the one hand, poststructuralism ends up on the side of an ontology based on idealism, which leads to subjectivism and relativism, because it claims that there will always be a non-identity between subject and object; hence the object or reality can never be apprehended by the senses, so reality can only be understood in relation to subjectivity. If human beings are “really model-building theorists of their own experience”, then we can create our own reality!4
As for postmodernism, originally this was centred on the reductive idea that modernism, as a movement within art, has been overthrown, thanks to the new technologies of mass reproducibility, along with new digital forms of communication (which combine image, text and sound). This led to a new ‘democratic’ epoch for art. Today anything can be art and anyone can be an artist. (But the second part of the statement is untrue, because you need to be accepted by the art institution before you can become the next Andy Warhol.) Today, however, for some, postmodernism stands for the theory that, for all of the above reasons, we have entered into a new historical epoch called the postmodern - which for others is synonymous with the idea of a post-capitalist society.
Unfortunately revolutionary Marxism was not immune to these ideas. For example today many self-proclaimed Marxists embrace the ideas of identity politics and political correctness. Then there are ex-Marxists, such as Paul Mason, who have moved on to proclaim a ‘Brave New World’, which they call post-capitalism, as exemplified in the following statement:
In 2013, two American academics, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, issued a Manifesto for an Accelerated Politics, affirming “mastery”, “technology and the liberator possibilities of capitalism if pushed beyond its limits”. This includes the “post-gender dreams of radical feminism” and even more: for example, the possibility of a “new kind of human being, … an interventionist approach to the human”, an “embrace of individual bodily experimentation” set “against restricted images of the human, … a new human with a new body”, in conjunction with the creation of a new society, whose agency is the “internet generation”.5
But how far can we push nature’s envelope? Far from acknowledging that capitalism is in decline, the post-capitalists argue that capitalism is capable of reconstituting itself as a higher form of society. In this regard, the rise of the transgender phenomenon is showing us that human freedom can be expanded. Such a view, of course, is diametrically opposed to Marx’s idea that “the freedom of each is the condition for the freedom of all”. Clearly this cannot be achieved under capitalism, because of an unequal relationship between the capitalist and the wage labourer: the latter, as the owner of the factory (or whatever), is able to keep most of the surplus value which is produced by the worker. This is the basic reason for the exponential increase in inequality of wealth today, exacerbated by the deregulated market, etc, and which has reached obscene levels.
Finally, let us not forget the way in which capitalism is destroying the environment, in terms of global warming, pollution, destruction of animal and plant habitats, etc.
Therefore it is no wonder that Peterson wants to push the stick back the other way towards the biological basis of gender, because this is objectively the case: male and female chromosomes are here to stay; whatever else biotechnology can achieve, it cannot change that. The only other alternative is to create androids. On the other hand, sexuality is socially determined. There is no need for men to be dominant; women can be more assertive, and so on.
On the basis of what is a very ‘mixed bag’, Peterson is able to attract some support from amongst the middle ground: ie, millions of ordinary people, who are profoundly disaffected by the current crisis and are seeking a way forward. Marxism seems unable to do that, even though it is far closer to the truth than Peterson can ever hope to get. Nevertheless, when one considers the size of the middle ground which Peterson is able to tap into, every effort should be made by Marxists in the United States to continue the struggle to build a new socialist party.
Meanwhile, after Kavanaugh there will be more scandals like this - we can be sure of that! Given that Peterson referred to Orwell, it is worth mentioning a key theme from 1984: “The past had to be … actually destroyed ... If there is hope … it lies with the proles ... [But] Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious” (his theory of spontaneism excepted!).
This is the challenge that Marxists have to overcome. Somehow we have to find a way to get around the various forms of false consciousness which led to the rule of neoliberalism, which in turn is now being challenged by rightwing populism and nationalism, despite the fact that the latter is a throwback to the past. We need to launch a new ship with a new crew!
2. H Ticktin, ‘Decline as a concept and its consequences’ Critique Vol 34, No2, August 2006.
4. See Stephen Mulhall’s ‘How complex is a lemon?’ (London Review of Books September 27), which is a review of Graham Harman’s book, Object-oriented ontology.
5. See Owen Hatherley’s article, ‘One click at a time’ (London Review of Books June 30 2016).