The original intention for writing this was to clarify my reasons for withdrawing from the HM conference in Sydney this year. However, what has actually been written has grown broader than the original intention, and the following may not clarify things as much as I would have liked. My sense is that this is the case due to the nature of the question at hand. Nonetheless, given that I have been struggling to find the time to get any of these thoughts down, and that writing about this could feasibly go on for a long time, these incomplete ideas are put here as they are, to be put aside for now, and so that conversations may continue more openly.
On the 24th of April I signed a short letter[i] stating my withdrawal from the HM conference in Sydney this year. Others also signed it that day, and more have since. The people who signed have different reasons and concerns for doing so. As such, the following is only my unfinished thoughts, reflections and reasons, and not at all intended to be representative of the perspective of other signatories. I expect many people will disagree with some or all of the following, possibly including the other signatories to the letter.
Some not-so specifics
As the brief statement I signed makes clear, the particular point that lead to the withdrawal from HM was the response by the Socialist Workers Party to an allegation of rape against one of its leading members, and the statement by the National Committee of their affiliated organisation here in Australia, Solidarity, of uncritical support for such handling.[ii] I am not going to go into any of the intricacies of the specific case in the SWP, except to say that after having read the transcripts from the proceedings within the SWP, many subsequent letters of resignation from the Party, as well as articles defending the Party, it seemed clear to me that not only had the handling of the allegation been terrible, but that the attempt to close ranks around it only contributed to the disaster. At this point, the only public record from Solidarity remains the statement of unequivocal support for the SWP. So, unfortunately, thus far it seems the National Committee of Solidarity here in Australia is also interested in closing ranks. This is not without implications.
The closing of ranks insists that this remain a private concern to be dealt with privately. That is, it implicitly insists that the occurrence of sexual violence and its disciplinary effects is a private question removed from broader social relations. It stifles discussion and debate about what should be clear to anyone is a central problem that has always challenged political movements and organisations of whatever orientation. The presumption that this could be insisted on as private also misplaces or misunderstands sexual and gendered violence as a constitutive element of the reproduction of the relations of capital, and the imposition and management of the productive and reproductive spheres of activity foundational to such. The failure to recognise the implications of this insistence is ultimately detrimental to any attempt to develop better responses to the occurrence of sexual violence within political and social movements and left organisations, as well as to developing a critique of gender, class and re-/production and a politics adequate to the critique.
At a second level, I should clarify that my reasons for deciding to withdraw from the conference are ultimately broader than the particularities of Solidarity or HM. The key issue at stake is the pervasiveness and recurrence of sexual violence, not only within broader social relations, but also within ‘the left’, and social and political movements. The thing that is difficult to look past is the frequency with which stories of sexual assault taking place on the left are heard, and the many stories about the limitations of the responses to these occurrences, basically across all variations of the left. Whilst many people undoubtedly share a perspective that would seek to change this, often we never get round to talking about it. In fact, it appears that we often do our best not to talk about it; whilst in other instances organisations discourage and discipline those who would talk about it. I think this is all apparent in the current example in the SWP, and now also Solidarity in their response. So whilst I don’t want to punish Solidarity as such, nor even to really imply that as an organisation here in Australia they are necessarily any worse than other organisations or milieus (though I do think they ought to think hard about their position, what it implies, and ultimately change this), it seems clear to me that this whole situation ought to challenge us to think harder about the conditions of gendered and sexual violence, as well as the problems with how it is dealt with. This requires that we unpack the implications of closing ranks around this question and that we consider it an issue of priority and not one to be swept aside. One thing that seems clear enough is that Solidarity’s loyalty to the SWP has limited its criticism and response in this instance.
To be clear, my argument here is not coming from a position of righteousness – I don’t claim to know exactly what to have done or exactly what to do in such situations. But I don’t think this should prevent us from raising this issue critically. My own experience of trying to deal with these things has been fraught with difficulty, contradictions, and limitations. It also goes without saying that other examples of trying to deal with this sort of problem have also either failed and/or come up against serious limitations. But rather than this being a reason to avoid the issue, ie because none of us really know exactly what to do or haven’t acted perfectly in the past that therefor we can’t talk about it, it actually shows again why it is important for us to not let this issue pass over in silence. I see the decision to withdraw as simply one way to make one noise to break such silence.
Certain criticisms have been made that the decision to withdraw effectively silences debate. If this were true then obviously this would be the complete opposite of what was intended, but I am not convinced that this is true. I do think it strange that people find it offensive that we would withdraw from a conference, that is decide not to participate, provide reasons and say so publicly. Of course, other people will make their own decisions about going to the conference, which is fine with me, whatever they decide. Quite frankly, the decision of others regarding this is not my concern, nor is attempting to mobilise certain decisions by others my concern. I made a decision based only upon what was in front of me.
Putting some things to the side: sectarianism, moralism, politics, friendship …
Some have argued that withdrawing from the conference is a sectarian decision. Generally I have always sought to reject sectarianism, to work in common as much as is possible and to argue that open and public debate should decide key questions. For these reasons I thought a lot about the issue of sectarianism in relation to this decision to withdraw. However, what kept recurring in my thinking on this was that ultimately what constitutes sectarianism is placing the interests of a sect or organisation above the interests of ‘the class’, and that often moralism is a defence of this prioritisation of organisational interest. Given that such an overwhelmingly vast proportion of the class experiences sexual and gendered violence, it seems to me that refusing to talk about it, or insisting on its continual relegation to the private sphere, would be even more sectarian than withdrawing from a conference. So, whilst it troubled me, I thought it legitimate to reject the charge of sectarianism and moralism concerning the decision to withdraw from the conference.
Some people have written to me, either challenging my decision to withdraw or otherwise seeking clarification on the reasons. Whilst I have appreciated people writing to me, even those that are critical, I think it is important to resist reproducing the public/private distinction whenever possible in all of this. For example, in the immediate context, whilst I am sure there must be individual members of Solidarity who disagree with the statement issued by the National Committee (indeed I know for a fact that there is), as it stands there is no other public record as far as Solidarity is concerned. In the absence of any other public record, there is no way to see Solidarity’s position other than what is available publicly.
A friend once wrote to me and said that she would prefer ‘to have friendships with comrades that could survive us offending or pissing each other off or being really wrong about important things. I would prefer my disagreements with comrades to be publicly addressed, I would always prefer to be publicly criticised for political mistakes, even if that actually would feel horrible at the time. I don’t want friendship to get in the way of that. I don’t want to pick a side based on how many of my comrades are already on it, as much as I trust and respect those people’. This is a perspective with a lot of validity and one I have tried to keep in mind concerning this decision to withdraw. Now, of course it could be that I am the one who is ‘really wrong about important things’ in this case, but for the moment, I am not yet convinced that HM, or the risk of upsetting people I know in Solidarity, is more important than the other discussions about the role of sexual violence.
Some broader (if clunky) considerations of what might be at stake
I think there are also some broader considerations involved here, beyond those above. In a word, our understanding and critique of the role of sexual violence in the reproduction of the relations of capital, and how this informs our practice. That is, a key question to be taken up, and evidently so given the example above, is the demonstrable lack of ability on the left to place gendered and sexual violence within the context of the relations of capital, as part of the critique of labour and the imposition of work, and how this occurs with regard to particular bodies – and how this plays out within our own organisations, spaces, movements etc. Beyond this there are broader questions of tensions between democratic practice and authoritarianism within the left. But the immediate concern in my decision was the former issue. There are two elements to this: that of how we acknowledge, discuss and try to act on the times when this violence occurs within our political milieus, organisations and movements; and that of how we understand gendered and sexual violence as an expression of the totality of the relations capital.
I would think that any political perspective or organization that wants to lay some claim to materialist politics needs to at least consider the following: that gendered violence is a constitutive dimension of class and gender relations, and reproduction. And further, that this shit pervades the ‘left’ as well, the left is not immune to this – how could it be? What needs to be considered are the practical implications for how we understand gendered and sexual violence in both its specific forms of manifestation and how this specificity expresses and is an expression of the imposition of, and foundations for, reproduction of capital. This is precisely the challenge of generating a critique of gender and sexual violence as specific instance of power as well as generalized relation within the social totality of capital.
Carrying out the above means situating our understanding of sexual violence within our critique of the reproduction of capital, and the spheres (production, reproduction, and circulation) of activity necessary for this. In other words, analysing the role of gendered and sexual violence in the reproduction of these spheres of activity and how this is pivotal to both gender distinction and the reproduction and accumulation of capital. The work of Angela Mitropoulos, most recently here, provides the most sophisticated perspective I am aware of through which to carry this out, and in doing so forces us to consider with greater precision and clarity that to speak of class is to speak of gender, sexuality and race as well, and that this is organized not only through wage differentials, of who works where doing what for how much if anything (though it is this too), but also the forms of violence that continue to impose such distinctions. So whilst it is straightforward enough to see exploitation as an inherently violent relationship, it is also necessary to identify the concrete forms that animate this more general relation of violence. It is, of course, difficult to construct a critique, as well as a practice, adequate to this problem. Nonetheless, this is a challenge that we need to take up. Moreover, there are examples of where and how we might begin to extract ourselves from our present inability to do so.
Perhaps the beginning point here is that of the critique of the separation, however blurred and porous these can be, of our creative activity into the spheres of production and reproduction. That is, whilst in day-to-day living these spheres are overcome, struggled against, reconfigured in various ways etc, at a fundamental level for capital there is always recourse to the imposition of this distinction when conditions demand it.
There are people who have I think outlined useful frameworks for thinking this question better than I can, so I will for now just continue to flag their work and quote at length. As P. Valentine has argued, ‘it is impossible to accurately theorise the feminised ‘sphere’ without referring to sexual violence…Sexual violence is not an unfortunate side effect in the appropriation of women – it is a necessary element of that appropriation. Sexual and domestic violence (‘private’ violence within intimate family or friend relations) are the types of violence that are constitutive of the gender relation.’ Further, ‘the neglect of rape and sexual violence as structural elements of the gender distinction, and thus of the capitalist totality, leads to an account of gender that cannot make sense of an enormous amount of gendered social relations.’ And finally, in the same piece, Valentine also writes that ‘to ignore sexual violence…in an account of structurally gendered capitalist social relations is equivalent to ignoring the way in which the threat of unemployment and the growth of unemployed populations structures the relation between labour and capital.’[iii] I think these arguments from Valentine help to clarify a couple of things, or at least to problematise our orientation to this question.
Firstly I think these comments help to frame the actual, albeit broader, problem at hand: thinking the relationship between class, gender, capital and violence, not as something external to an otherwise primary relation between labour and capital, but rather constitutive of it, enmeshed with it. That is, following Mitropoulos again, you cannot think labour, class and capital without gender, race, sexuality and violence, in which ‘property and labour mesh with an inseparable complex of gender, sexuality, class and race’ [iv]. Secondly, I think these comments help to come to terms with the fact that gendered violence is not a separate question to the critique of political economy, or from work, nor the intimacies of reproduction, but assumes particular forms within it. That is, this violence is pivotal to the extraction of surplus labour, and thus surplus value, and to the reproduction of the conditions that allow for the provision of such,indeed ‘far from being marginal to the extraction of surplus labour, this expectation of a labour freely given has always been central to capitalist re/production’. [v] Valentine, making a similar point puts it like this: ‘if we consider sexual violence as an essential material ground in the production of hierarchised gender relations, then we can begin to see how such patterns relate to the production of the categories women and man and the distinction between the spheres of waged/unwaged; social/non-social; public/private.’ While the critique of gender and class needs to proceed by more than way of analogy, Valentine’s argument helps to bring the at times seemingly abstract violence of exploitation into one particularly clear and corporeal expression. The effects of gendered violence are not just over there, not simply aberrant moments of men being shit manifest on individual bodies (though in some sense it is this as well), but also a determinant relation in the organisation of our lives, particularly in terms of gender relations and how this plays out in dynamics of re-/production.
And so, whilst perhaps raising all the above seems disproportionate or even disconnected in relation to withdrawing from a conference, catalysed by a crisis in the SWP and the response of their affiliate organisation here in Australia, I think it is better to begin with situating this form of violence as pivotal to the normative conditions of reproduction, and work from there, rather than see this violence as exceptional to otherwise purified political spaces, which of course do not exist. In this sense the behaviour and acts of some leading member on the Central Committee of the British SWP is directly connected to the generalised relation of violence that imposes and reproduces the above distinctions. Going further, approaching the question this way focuses our perspective not on these examples as aberrant, but rather as moments or processes that continue to police and manage any effort or force that would seek to break down and fight against the ongoing imposition of such boundaries and distinctions.
The above may all sound too abstract, and removed from the “real and actual struggles” on the ground, but I think it is worth insisting that this is all a very concrete question for both political movements and critiques of capital.
I remain unsure as to whether withdrawing from the conference was the best way to achieve any of the aims I had in doing so. However, I am more or less comfortable with this uncertainty, in that it is not so great that it would prevent me from making a decision. If one thing is clear, it is the fact that dealing with the stakes of this question is difficult, and that finding the best way to do so is decidedly unclear. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this lack of clarity is itself pervasive. But this does not detract from the seriousness of the question, and the necessity of dealing with it. It also should not prevent us from raising it, and doing so critically. Perhaps there would have been better ways to approach this. Perhaps the hope that any of this could possibly end up in a constructive discussion was shortsighted. I hope not. If so, and to the degree that I am in some way responsible for that, I am of course willing to hear the criticisms.
Fail again. Fail better.
[ii] Solidarity’s statement was leaked, and so not intended to be read publicly, however, once it has become public and been read, it is impossible to unread it.
[iv] Contract and Contagion p 185
[v] Contract and Contagion, p 164
Also on HM Sydney: http://xterrafirma.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/holding-on/