Saturday, February 19, 2005

Review: The Twilight of Equality?

Last week while L was napping I received an email from my partner that practically jumped off the screen, the enthusiasm illustrated by the numerous words in ALL CAPS and the creative and positive use of profanity. She had just returned to the lab from a seminar by a woman called Lisa Duggan, which included discussion of state regulation of relationships, neoliberalism, and gay marriage.

I also received this article by Duggan published by The Nation, which is about a year old but covers those same themes. She explores the ways in which a reinforcement of traditional marriage is part of the neoliberal agenda. She writes:

Republicans and Democrats are by and large in agreement that as social programs are whittled away, gender-differentiated marriage (heterosexual, with different expectations for women and men) should take up the slack. ... So there is an economic agenda, as well as surface moralism, attached to calls for the preservation of traditional marriage. The campaign to save gendered marriage has some rational basis, for neoliberals in both parties, as a politics of privatization.

She goes on to point out that some of the rhetoric around same-sex marriage produced by some of the more mainstream gay and lesbian groups may tweak the noses of those with moralistic interest in keeping "traditional" marriage other-sex only, but it also serves to give a progressive gloss to a vision of marriage that reinforces its utility for neoliberal privatization of social costs.

She argues for a progressive agenda that recognizes longstanding feminist critiques of marriage and begins to give more flexibility for people to define their own households, and to apportion the various state-sponsored privileges lumped together as marriage in more flexible ways. Obviously this would include same-sex marriage, but could include a whole lot more. Frankly, her agenda in the article linked above feels a bit limited to my way of thinking but I suppose you've got to start based on where the world is actually at. Anyway, this progressive nudging of state interference in relationships is not some elitist, culture-wars-only agenda, but can and should be intimately integrated into a more general resistance to the economic and cultural outcomes of neoliberalism.

And that brings me to The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democray (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003). This is a neat little book that feels incredibly obvious but at the same time makes a point that is incredibly important and really needs to be made: economic/class politics are often treated as separate from identity/culture politics but they're not; because class is not experienced separately from gender, race, sexuality, ability, and so on, struggles based on class are not distinct from struggles based in those other identity markers and vice versa, whether we recognize that or not.

The book

argues that neoliberalism has a shifting cultural politics that the progressive-left must understand in order to constitute an effective opposition. But rather than focus on neoliberalism's cultural project, sectors of the progressive-left reproduce, within their own debates, Liberalism's rhetorical separation of economic/class from identity/cultural politics. This separation seriously disables political analysis and activism.

For example, she traces in some detail how the agenda of eviscerating New York's public university funding was deliberately advanced by the creation of a propaganda storm against a conference on women's sexuality that included a small number of sex-positive demonstrations among a large menu of academic seminars. This campaign included calls for the head of the president of that campus, who had nothing to do with the conference but who happened to be a politically moderate but stubborn block to the neocon restructuring of the state university system. And there were lots of other prongs to the attack around funding and governance and so on that had little directly to do with the conference itself. (In fact, this use of deliberately generated controversy to impose a neocon remodelling of universities is very relevant to the ongoing Churchill controversy.) But the progressive response to this attack was largely unable to get beyond a fairly empty vision of academic freedom to really connect the dots between this front in the "culture wars" and bread-and-butter issues like accessible, publically funded, and emancipatory post-secondary education.

The book looks at other examples as well, of course, including a quite detailed exploration of the shifts in the gay and lesbian movement as a result of the fracturing of social movements and the neoliberal infiltration of equality discourse, which connects back to the issue of state interference in interpersonal relationships that I started the post with.

Like I said, this basic point about the interconnectedness between economic/class issues and culture/identity issues is at the same time both obvious and in dire need of being made. The audience Duggan targets is the mainstream of U.S. progressives, which is the site at which this artificial divide has been the most institutionalized. But in thinking about spaces and activists that I'm familiar with which try to operate from some version of anti-oppression politics, even though the intersecting and interrelated nature of race and class and gender and sexuality and so on is basic rhetoric for that worldview it's not always clear how that gets operationalized. There are lots of us (I say "us" because it has often been me) who know that there are these interconnections and support (rhetorically or practically) struggles on a number of different fronts, but we often don't take the time (or perhaps always have the conceptual tools) to really figure out how these different things work together. For example, my recent introduction to the regulation of sexuality as one factor in all of this prompted me to start conceptualizing queer, gender, sexuality, and relationship issues in new ways, including their connection to social regulation as a whole.

The real value of this book is that it is a kick in the pants to get us to start thinking about that in practical, straightforward ways in whatever struggles we happen to be engaged in.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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