Beautiful Transgressions For the Love of Heretics

"It remains easy to find the great leader able to rouse the masses with his beautiful speeches... yet beats his wife when he arrived home". In her new column, Sara Motta further explores the case for why politicising the personal is urgent and necessary.

Beautiful Transgressions, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, July 26, 2011 10:09 - 0 Comments

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By Sara Motta

In an earlier column, I wrote about the need for a radical feminism for our times and how this would involve politicising the personal. Here I would like to continue the case for why politicising the personal is urgent and necessary.

We can no longer ignore and silence this discussion if our objectives are to re-capture everyday life from neoliberal elites and create communities of resistance that do not mirror the power practices of neoliberal society.

Traditionally, the left has understood politics to occur in the sphere of the public. Resistance is articulated by great politicians, defended by great intellectuals and implemented through changes in policy made at the level of the state. The private sphere of the subject, the family, emotions and the everyday are viewed as apolitical.

This results in a multiplicity of contradictions in our practice, in which the public struggle against oppression is often coupled with the private realities of oppressive social relationships.

Thus it remains easy to find the great leader able to rouse the masses with his beautiful speeches, standing firm against his political opponents yet beating his wife when he arrived home and expecting her to give the emotional comfort and nurturing to bring up his children and sooth the wounds from his political battles.

These realities have shaped and continue to shape many women’s experiences of the contradictions of radical politics.

Ironically, though, it is not the radical left that has politicised the personal in the last 20 years. Rather New Labour (and now the New Right of the Lib/Con Coalition) politicise the personal as a means of disciplining the poor and dividing communities against each other. New Labour elites articulated a discourse in which unemployment, crime, lack of education were the result of individual failure, lack and deviance.

These discourses gave rise to a demonization of the working class characterised by a new pejorative vocabulary developed in reference to a pathologicsed, illegitimate, undeserving poor, including terms such as Chav, Pramface, sink estate, bog-standard comprehensive, benefits cheats.

This justified the re-imposition of social disciplining, leading to the criminalisation of certain practices and the specific targeting of poor neighbourhoods as rife with anti-social behaviour.

Policy solutions became de-politicised and addressed through technocratic and therapeutic policies for example in parenting classes for young mothers, asbos for problematic neighbours or health controls for obese children.

Social policies thus involved ever greater penetration of disciplinary regimes into the everyday lives of the poor and marginalised. This also gave rise to significant communal tensions and fears in relation to an often pathologised ‘other’, be that the anti-social neighbour, undeserving single mother, or new immigrant.

Yet, much of the left has been slow to respond, often mirroring the disciplinary class moralising of new labour with calls for more interventions into impoverished families, more rankings, yet more ‘educational help’. Such interventions implicitly pathologise the marginalised albeit using a different terminology. This still leaves the relationship between public politics and personal practice (of the activist) unpoliticised.

Thus there are two problems. First, when the personal is politicised it is often a pathology of the ‘other’. Second, there is little self-reflexivity about the relationship between the personal and political in activist practices.

Traditions of feminist radical politics, of which there are many, can contribute to a critique of discourses that pathologise. They can also open up our political horizons to ways in which we might develop a politics of self-care that move us beyond the contradictions to be found in the radical ‘left’ between public politics and private realities.

One such tradition – autonomist Marxist feminism – begins by rejecting a separation between patriarchy and capitalism. They argue that such a division creates a binary which casts the former to the private (feminised) sphere of oppression and the latter to the public (masculinised) sphere of exploitation. This binary relegates struggles against patriarchy as secondary to, and separate from, struggles against capitalism.

Such a separation becomes a barrier to understanding and political action as it invisibilises the very relationships between the private and the public that are a necessary condition for capitalist reproduction. In so doing it misunderstands the nature of capitalism, thus limiting and devaluing women’s social power.

Autonomist Marxist feminists seek to transcend this binary by re-conceptualising the capital relation. This involves beginning from the female experience as a means to develop a critique of capitalist political economy and a basis for revolutionary and autonomous women’s struggles. The autonomous feminists did exactly this in their struggle to visibilise and build women’s social power and autonomy during the feminist struggles of the 1970s.

Their work proceeded through a critique of orthodox Marxist understandings which claimed that the capitalist family did not produce for capitalism and was not therefore value producing, whereby relegating women’s work as a secondary and often invisibilised site of anti-capitalist struggle. They argued that the family and community is a site of value constituted by the unpaid labour of the housewife. The commodity produced is unique to capitalism as it is the labourer himself.

The community and the family therefore become the other half of capitalist organisation – the hidden source of surplus value. Thus the different aspects of social reproduction such as health, education, housing, transport, childcare, the body, sexuality, fertility and the family are all sites of the construction of the capital relation.

Accordingly they are also key sites of struggle that can rupture the smooth flow of capitalist reproduction. This is what was meant by the feminist slogan that the private and the personal are political; the family, community and gendered subjectivities are not neutral, natural or transhistorical subjectivities and social relationships, but rather historically concrete forms of producing capitalist social relations.

Additionally alternative historiographies from below of poor women’s experiences and struggles demonstrate how over the ‘last four or five centuries, women…were externalised, declared to be outside civilized society, pushed down and thus made the invisible as the under-water part of an iceberg is invisible, yet constitute the basis of the whole.’

They show how the persecution and burning as witches of midwives, single women, ‘deviants’, healers, non-conformists and shamans in the middle ages was directly connected to the emergence of capitalism as a political and economic system, the professionalization of medicine and modern sciences and the with it, the disciplining and control of woman’s sexuality and bodies.

As Mies argues ‘The torture chambers of the witch-hunters were the laboratories where the texture, the anatomy, the resistance of the human body – mainly the female body – was studied. … torture through mechanical devices [was] a tool for the subjugation of disorder…[and] fundamental to the scientific method as power’.

Capitalism had a violent birth through the creation of the modern gendered subject and gendered social relations.

Thus, autonomist feminism makes visible the web of relations between men and women, masculine and feminine, mind and body, private and public and production and reproduction which are constitutive of capitalist social relationships. A web of inequalities is built into the body of the world proletariat that divides ourselves against ourselves and each other.

The self, extent norms of family, and the way that the community is organised are therefore inherent parts of the construction of an oppressive and alienated society.

This analysis enables us to interpret New Labour’s (and sections of the left’s) politicisation of the private as an extension and adaption of these processes. Processes whose aim is the construction of the ‘normal’ and depoliticised subject, disciplining of the poor, separation of communities from each other, and construction of self-disciplining subjugation.

However, such an analysis also opens up our understanding and practice of politics. It transforms that which is often perceived as secondary, non-political and private, into perhaps the essential site of politics and struggle for ways of being, creating, living and loving that are non-commodified and non-hierarchical. It politicises what happens behind closed doors and helps us to make links between structured violence and everyday violence.

Thus struggles over social reproduction (health, housing, food, childcare, family, fertility and sexuality) are core struggles against capitalism. This pushes us to transcend a politics of demand and public politics towards a politics of creating other ways of ensuring social reproduction and sustainability, other forms of knowing and living, and recuperating ‘other’ histories of self and family.

In transforming and politicising the private, ourselves and our social relationships, we truly disrupt politics as normal and open up the possibility of transgressing capitalism.

Embrace all that is heretical in us and each other!

Sara Motta is a mother, radical educator and writer.

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