Throw Away the Stick
Last month’s headlines were dominated, to the surprise of many, by the revelation that a Hollywood producer was in the habit of using his position of power and influence to get aspiring young hopefuls to have sex with him.
This can’t have been news to anyone but the naive. Theatre like everything else in capitalism has been reduced to a squalid money business where the rich exploit the efforts, and sometimes the bodies, of young people desperate for advancement and not rich enough to say no. Actors are workers and workers have to sell themselves as commodities on the labour market. That labour market is nearly always a buyer’s market, and when the buyer is a man who has sex instead of scruples on the brain, it’s not hard to grasp what is likely to happen.
Some of the online comments from readers of these news stories accused the women who had spoken up of being prostitutes who had been willing to sleep their way to riches and were now hypocritically whingeing about it. Many of these comments were from women. The anger and bitterness behind such trolling is all too obvious. To poor people, there’s no such thing as a rich victim. The fact that male actors can get ahead without supposedly resorting to prostitution didn’t enter the debate.
What became plain, as the story grew, was how widespread the problem is. Women often experience harassment in some form, whether it’s being whistled at, groped, or inappropriately chatted up. They generally keep silent because they feel powerless. Society generally keeps silent because it doesn’t care. And this is just the everyday stuff. Underneath this culture of silence lies a nightmarish landscape which includes rape, domestic abuse and murder. Any woman living in this terrifying landscape is almost bound to think that the world is primarily defined by male power and dominance.
Historically there’s no question that this has been true, and still is in many parts of the world where the hangover of the pre-capitalist past still hangs heaviest. In advanced capitalist countries the trend has been more towards political, legal and economic parity, partly so that employers can cherry-pick exploitable workers from the largest possible bowl. But these limited freedoms have been offset by an intensifying commodification of women through advertising, the media, and the film and music industry, a commodification now also turning its attention to men. We are not even human beings anymore, just products with a package and a price and a sell-by date.
If society is primarily patriarchal, as some think, then most men are doing astonishingly badly out of it. This is really because they, along with women, are ultimately in thrall to a higher power, a tiny fraction of people who own and control all of society and most of the world. What is decisively important about this power elite is not actually their gender at all but their property portfolio.
To socialists, it doesn’t matter what colour or gender you are. What matters is that you are a worker. The politicisation of gender, like ethnicity, helps keep the working class divided and thus too weak to break out of its own misery. Capitalism is a master at instilling its oppressive and divisive structures at an early age. The task of revolutionaries is to identify and break those structures. And we can do it, so long as workers are willing to try to understand each other. Women have been speaking out, and must continue to do so in order to lift the veil of silence. For their part, men need to understand that ignoring women’s subjective experience of patriarchy is the same as perpetuating it. Either you are fighting oppression or you are complicit in it. When a man suffers rage, helplessness and frustration, he is experiencing what it means to be a worker. But when he takes his rage out on a woman he is doing the bosses’ dirty work for them and he is a class traitor. A class that wants to be free also has to know how to take responsibility. Socialism is not possible otherwise.
There is, incidentally, nothing in the rules of capitalism that forbids it from being gender-neutral. In a gender-neutral capitalism, workers would still be poor, overworked, exploited, powerless and bitter. And capitalism would still be hell-bent on self-destruction through war and environmental damage. The identity of the oppressor can and has changed among and between cultures and over time. What hasn’t changed, and what will never change in capitalism, is the ability of some to oppress others. This is one reason why socialists call for the abolition of the property-owning principle. Private ownership is a big stick, whoever wields it. If you don’t want to be beaten, you need to throw away the stick.