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By Zillah Eisenstein
These are strange times. Rupert Murdoch and his media empire are finally exposed for hacking and deception and there is some accounting to be done. Yet, the final exposure of those who have formerly done the exposing seems a bit cheap to me. After all, the revelations of wrong-doing remain contained while much of this illegal activity was known before it was officially exposed. Strangely, the much feared Murdoch who supposedly runs this empire continually nodded off during the congressional hearings investigating his behavior. Looking quite old and enfeebled his wife, Wendi Deng, no-nonsense formidable sportswoman, businesswoman, and vegan, by the way, stole the day.
Exposing what is already known—like banks steal from ordinary people, and the U.S. Congress is truly broken and ineffectual, and Obama has no clothes so to speak, or more truly, there is no emperor, let alone clothes, barely seems all that significant, if significant assumes that the exposure of wrongful power means that there will be a shifting and formidable changing of it.
Julianne Assange and WikiLeaks also raise the question of the meaningfulness of total exposure or transparency. State secrets are revealed to the public, but the public already knew much of this horror. Slavoj Žižek says that WikiLeaks is revolutionary because they make “unknowability” and “deniability” impossible. This sounds poignant at first and then not. One can read this leaked/divulged info and still act as though they do not know, or worse yet, that they do not care. There are too many ways to know things today and too few ways to make knowing matter. Maybe the more we know, and the freer information is, the less there is that can be done. Freedom here both reveals and masks totalitarian regimes of power.
It is interesting that amidst this embrace of the new transparency and revelation that Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now program broadcast from London with Žižek and Assange, July 5, 2011, had nary a word about the sexual misconduct/rape charges against Assange. OK, I can maybe understand if Goodman does not want to give credence to the charges and thinks that what WikiLeaks is doing politically should not be impugned in this way. But then say that and do not push questions of rape and gender to the sidelines as if they are not intimately political in and of themselves, and with grave consequence. I assume that sex is always connected to racialized gendered systems of power and as such must be put in view, made transparent—in today’s parlance, as part of the story of power. Sex should not be reduced to an issue of private, individual indiscretion.
I do not think it makes sense to think of sex without gender; or gender without race. They are not the same thing. One’s body has a physiology of sex. There is the realm of desire that cannot be collapsed with one’s biology or one’s racialized gender. One’s gender is tied to the racial and physical body, and yet they are not the same thing. But any female body is already ensconced in the gendered and racialized notion of womanhood and femininity no matter what her individual inclinations might be. So our individual bodies are part of a bigger system that we inhabit and have little choice about in the initial moment of anything. There are constraints no matter how miraculous any individual female, whatever her color might be. And the constraints shift and change and are malleable which makes it all the harder to see and know genders in all their elasticity. (Boys and men suffer this too, but this is for another time.)
Where are the transparency and revelation and truth telling when it comes to females in terms of the political reality of patriarchy and misogyny alongside the racial and economic hierarchies that exist? Why the silence here? When the `exposure’ of so much else is demanded in these times it is a revelation of sorts that silences remain in revealing the racialized/gendered dimensions of the political field. It is newly troubling that these old silences remain despite the new commitments to full exposure and transparency of power relations. As part of this new obfuscation sexual scandal itself is used—from Dominique Strauss Kahn, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Anthony Weiner—to create great noise and fanfare but as simply understood as personal indiscretions rather than as part of larger structural systems of racialized male privilege.
Sex class is not an abstract political class but an actual one. It is made up of the huge variety of females in all colors, sizes, wealth, etc. that face into daily life and the world differentiated and othered as such. Put this power-filled reality in clear view.
Because this moment that we inhabit makes a progressive politics almost seem impossible it is more urgent than ever that the silenced/excluded sexed and raced underbelly of global capital be exposed and challenged. It is becoming clearer that Obama who is not incompetent is already a failed President, that Boehner revealed the “open secret” that politics as we have known it in the United States is done—that Congress and the President are side-stories to the global economy and its misogynist and racialized configurations. The pretense of power is most often located in decaying arenas that are in decline. And alongside this denial is the continued avoidance of the place of racialized misogyny in the old, and now the newest, configurations of global power.
On new proletariats
It is time to begin a new dialogue with the “left,” whoever they may be at this point in time, and progressives more generally, in the hopes of stemming the increasing crisis created by global capitalism today. I therefore turn to Žižek’s most recent writing in the hopes of opening new transparencies in order to encourage a new radical, anti-capitalist/imperialist activism which is as deeply anti-racist and anti-misogynist. Žižek provides some fabulous starting points for this politics and yet some huge stumbling blocks. What follows reflects this tension which is obviously not Žižek’s alone.
Žižek calls these “end times” and calls for a new proletariat and with it, a new communism that embraces the full universality of humanity. I look at these times and say that there is a new polyglot proletariat, or maybe many proletariats that are each polyglot, made up of more girls and women of all colors than ever before alongside the men who have already been there. I am hesitant to try and retrieve the term `proletariat’ because it exists with historical constraints. Yet, the idea of multiple, many, or plural proletariats undermines a static usage. I resuscitate `proletariat’, especially for women and girls, with the new and old forms of labor on the globe alongside the new transnational networks that imbibe from this.
The new proletariats are defined by any kind of labor primarily done by women, from sex workers in all their variety, to migrant female laborers crisscrossing the globe, to women and girls hauling water and gathering wood, to the dagonmei in China’s mind-numbing Ipad factories. There are various proletariats—and each is polyglot in race and gendered predominantly as female.
These are urgent times defined by suffocating poverty and desperation. If it is communism that might be an answer as Žižek thinks—a full sharing of the globe’s resources and the ability for all people to thrive—then I think it will have to be specified as an anti-racist, polyversal feminist in the plural, type of new communism. After all, the so-called enlightenment already posited the `universal’ thing and that did not work out all that well for most people on the globe.
When I read Žižek’s Living in the End Times I kept thinking about what he was not saying. That: food and daily sustenance is the realm relegated to women in most cultures in most histories, in most places today; that fire and with it cooking were necessary to the survival of human beings and yet this site of labor and with it women are almost silenced as such. It is no small point that so many of the women and girls in the Congo and Rwanda who have been brutally raped and murdered are/were out gathering firewood.
Girls and women do most of the labor across the globe of every sort—domestic, peasant, migrant, farming, reproductive, consumer, affective, slave, and waged. Birthing—actually called labor—is done exclusively by women. Most of this labor goes unrecognized, and poorly paid, if at all. And the other side of this enormous fountain of profit making and/or sustenance is sexual harassment, prostitution, rape, and violence. In sum: the sex class containing women in all their varieties in terms of both labor and sexual violence remains a silenced secret in the age of transparent open secrecy.
Yet, Žižek is on to something. He writes that global capitalism is unprecedented in unleashing the de-territorialization of new spaces across the globe creating new flows that seem unstoppable. He writes in a sense of the new normal: capitalism is the prevailing force; excess wealth is a new truth; the fantasy of endless youthfulness exists despite the rapid rise in Alzheimer’s disease. Hurricanes, global warning, volcanic eruptions are treated as though they were messages from the gods rather than at least in part `man’-made. As such, capitalism functions as a totality for Žižek. Everything is rearticulated in its form.[i]
But why reduce everything to the relations of capital? Such a reductionist move creates closure and a false unity that disallows a new proletariat or proletariats. Capital is not totalizing because there really exist multiple forms of labor that are not simply or fully articulated or captured by capital. Žižek disagrees with Dipesh Cahakrabarty who argues that universalism is not the answer because there is always a “patient” and particular translation that is needed. Žižek sees a “worldless universe” and rejects the “multi-centric world” which denies universal history.[ii]
Žižek wants to radicalize the notion of the proletariat beyond Marx’s imagination, beyond history to a new proletariat subject. I want to take this commitment but open it further to specify and contextualize and multiply the proletariats of global capital. Multiple proletariats constitute an incredible force because they share their exploitation and oppression in a punishing and unforgiving system with one another’s specific identities. Žižek says that the solution is not a multicultural tolerance but a shared struggle for universality. I agree that the answer is not a corporatist multiculturalism that serves capital rather than the polyglot of peoples of the proletariats, but it is not a universalism that operates in denial of existing misogynist and racist politics.[iii]
I agree with Žižek that the more capitalism is normalized a critical and progressive politics is de-normalized. But this is just as true, and maybe more the case for the normalized silencing of racism and patriarchy. For Žižek, capitalism can thrive easily anywhere in this “post-political setting.” Organic foods and green capitalism are proof of the pudding. He describes new centers of power as “multiple centers of global capitalism” establishing “an emerging multi-centric global order.”[iv] But this new order also produces new forms of racism and misogyny and with it new constructions of gender and race as well. Yet Žižek describes the European Union as having feminine qualities and the United States, masculine.[v] Instead he needs to wonder about the new gender constructions needed for the new multi-centric global order. Keep these processes silenced and they have no political efficacy. The silencing may just be a central reason for Žižek’s so-called “post-political moment.”
The global market economy continues to undermine what is left of neo-liberal democracies for Žižek, like for most leftist, progressive, anti-capitalists. With no theorization or recognition of the multiplicity and intersectionality of economic power systems it is easy to call for universalist remedies. This involves a rejection of the “multi-centric world” of capital, and an embrace of the secular universalist in its challenge. Žižek argues that we are more universal than we think, and are traversed by universalities more than particular identities.
I continue to suspect who Žižek’s “we” fully includes. I, along with most anti-racist progressive feminists, think that women of all colors and economic classes are particular and universal simultaneously; g/local in our practices and understanding; and a mixing always of the multiplicities of our polyversal humanity.[vi] Believing in a “bothness” that includes many parts seems key here, otherwise Žižek’s universalism because exclusionary and exclusive of the very identities that make us human.
My term polyversal speaks to the way each person is multiple—as in poly—and yet the differentness of each of us is shared across and through—through the versal—of humanity. There is a particularity to universality and therefore an intersectionality to both economic class and capitalism itself. Economic classes are polyglots of humanity as are sexual classes so we need a language for/of politics that is inclusive without the exclusivity of a singular, homogenous proletariat class, or capitalism for that matter. I do not want an exclusionary universal ism operating still today, especially, when transparency appears to be a pretense of progressive politics.
It might help that Žižek, along with many other radicals and progressives—male and female alike—imagine that bodies—the ones that make up the new proletariats—come in all sexes, genders, races, classes, sizes, ages, and so on. So when Žižek writes of the way that bodily functions are regularly silenced by daily discourses—be it sweating, or urination or defecation—I cannot help notice the exclusion of bleeding.[vii] Huge numbers of women bleed, every month. He obviously imagines male bodies as his universal here.
His obsession with the Freudian sexual unconscious is little help because instead of recognizing the structural and historical resonance of gender he relegates it to the realm of the sexual unconscious. He analyzes repression, rather than oppression when he discusses sexual encounters. It must be why he almost always uses raunchy sexual tales to make his otherwise political points.
Racialized misogyny as non-transparent
I love the idea that power-filled lives should be transparent—which means that we—the big `we’ should be able to see through geometrically to the other side; that there should not be hidden realities left to their own mischief; that silences and exclusions should be put in clear view. As a result life would become more knowable, accountable, and changeable.
Given this, I wonder why Žižek develops his endless dialogues primarily with dead white men in End Times? Kant, and Rousseau seem to get off Scot free–Kant for his racialized/racist beliefs and Rousseau for his patriarchal and misogynist ones. Rousseau’s notion of the general will is embraced by Žižek with no recognition that the will of all is made up of citizens, who happen to male and rational, and not female and passionate.
He discusses Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise and never once seems to recognize the gendered inequity that Julie must learn to tame her passion and follow her duty, which is to simply to be a wife and mother. Instead Žižek reads this as Julie’s move toward a sense of moral good, thinking beyond the individual self. Žižek treats marriage as though it is a renunciation of sexual passion for men and women alike, with no nod to the way sex defines gender, and gender sex in specifically patriarchal forms. Rousseau’s classic fear of women demands a western burqa for them. The renouncing of passion is about reifying gender, on the backs of women. Where is Žižek’s universal here?
No wonder Žižek believes that this is a post-patriarchal era; with a “post-feminist femininity.”[viii] I have trouble with the term “post”—it makes history and the present too linear and clear-cut. Instead, I see a political process that is always historical and connected and related. No moment is utterly left behind; no new moment is wholly new. But for most Marxist critiques of capitalism, patriarchy passed with feudalism, instead of recognizing that it is rethreaded and modernized alongside capitalism.
For Marx and Engels, and therefore Žižek and many leftists, the bourgeoisie ended patriarchy. Patriarchal phallogocentrism was supposedly swept away by market individualism and liberal rights. Patriarchy is then either simply law or ideology and erodes as such. Žižek privileges hedonistic hegemony and singularizes it. He writes of “post-patriarchal forms of authority.” [ix]
He adopts gendered language with no notion of the politics that this embraces. He refers to Maoism as feminine whereas Stalinism is masculine. For him, the “earth is a pale mother.” And liberal democrats act more feminine than non-liberal democrats who are more masculine. He criticizes France for its regulatory prohibitions of the wearing of the burqa in public, as an act of othering Islam. But nary a critical word of how often French politicians abide the sexual harassment of its women—by DSK and the like—while contradictorily speaking on behalf of women’s rights and against the misogyny of Islam.[x] Gender has no political standing.
Žižek discusses the war in the Congo. Coltan is the prized resource that the rest of the world wants for the production of cell phones and the like. Žižek is rightly sickened by the ethnic warfare while global capitalism is madly at work. Yet, Žižek is silent on the war rape of countless women and girls as a strategy of political terrorization. Rape has no political salience here for a progressive, leftist politics. It should. And, it does
Women are a backbone of every proletariat. Although Žižek notes the early feminist insight that saw the family as part of the mode of production and recognized that the very production of gender was part of the production of human beings themselves, he does not sustain or develop this insight. Instead he plays with women’s bodies and wonders whether rape or seduction is the more problematic. He decides seduction is. He also criticizes feminism for confusing male authority with violence. And, he does not bother to name or cite the particular referencing.[xi] Really, Žižek?
Žižek gives a quick nod to the complex sexual politics of the moment with Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.[xii] But what about some transparency here? These times that we inhabit demand that progressive male and white dominated politics and political theory needs anti-racist feminisms to mobilize against global capitalism in all its seductive forms. It is only because the times are so dire—and unforgiving— that I have re-entered this dialogue, again.[xiii]
[i] Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso Press, 2011), pp.265, 284.
[ii] Ibid., p. 285.
[iii] Ibid., pp. 241, 138
[iv] Ibid., pp. 166, 175, 390, 424.
[v] Ibid., pp. 168, 169.
[vi] For a full accounting of this term see my Against Empire (London: Zed Press, 2004); and Sexual Decoys (London: Zed Press, 2007).
[vii] Žižek, Living in the End Times, p. 260.
[viii] Ibid., p. 270.
[ix] Ibid., pp. 47, 50, 364.
[x] Ibid., p. 391, 17.
[xi] Ibid., pp. 194, 468.
[xii] Ibid., pp. 270, 271.
[xiii] See many of the earliest critiques of Marxism for its lack of feminist analysis in, Zillah Eisenstein, ed., Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979).
Zillah Eisenstein is Professor of Politics at Ithaca College in New York. Throughout her career her books have tracked the rise of neoliberalism both within the United States and across the globe. She has documented the demise of liberal democracy and scrutinized the growth of imperial and militarist globalization. She has also critically written about the attack on affirmative action in the United States, the masculinist bias of law, the crisis of breast cancer and AIDS, the racism of patriarchy and the patriarchal structuring of race, the new nationalisms, and corporatist multiculturalism. She has a fabulous daughter, sarah eisenstein stumbar, who is a fourth year medical student, suny stonybrook, applying for residencies and has been a leader in “Medical Student for Choice.”
Her most recent books include: The Audacity of Races and Genders: A Personal and Global Story of the Obama Election (Zed Books Ldt., 2009), Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy (Zed Books Ltd., 2007), Against Empire, London (Zed Books Ltd., 2004), Hatreds: Racialised and Sexualised Conflicts in the 21st Century (New York, Routledge, 1996), Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism and the Lure of Cyberfantasy (New York, NYU Press, 1998), ManMade Breast Cancers (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2001).