Capitalism and liberal attitudes on sex, race, etc.
Jim heartfield wrote:
> On the pomo elite
> There has - it seems unassailable to
> me - been a transformation of the political class in the period
> following the End of the Cold War.
How so? It was Harold Wilson who gave the Beatles the MBE in the
'Swinging Sixties'. Homosexual and abortion rights arrived in 1967
in the UK. John Profumo, a Tory War Minister, employed Christine Keeler
and allegedly smoked dope before that; and let's face it, homosexuality,
sexual freedom, polygamy and monogamy, recreational drugs, and any other
hallmark you can apply to pomo swingers like Bill and (maybe) Tony, have
been the preogatives of the ruling class in Britain and elsewhere since
before Byron, Swinburne, the Restorationists, John Donne, Chaucer--
hell, you can go back to Richard The Lionheart, whose crusaders bought
hashish off the Arabs...
It is much more useful to examine the construction of mass sexual psychology,
to find clues to the historical fluxes between alternately more permissive and
more austere moral climates. And a key question this century anyway
is control of fertility.
Fertility and mortality rates are obviously important determinants of female
participation in the labour force. A majority of American women did
outwork in the C19; ditto Chinese and English women for a millenium before that;
the Chinese used herbal oral contraceptives, with some degree of efficacy in
the C17; Chinese and Persian WOMEN controlled much of the silk trade and often
owned the workshops (their Mongol conquerors accorded women still more
equality; they rode alongside their men). But 19th C England was the first
society to escape Malthusian balance -- and to put women en masse into
Falling mortality rates produced a population explosion, which however began
to abate early this century. The reasons why bear examination. What led to
the declining fertility rates which complement declining mortality
and morbidity rates?
Contraception is the usual answer, but it is wrong. It was not available.
That's the difference with today. By the 1890s controlling fertility
had become a vital question, and a dramatic and often traumatic question,
of great importance to individuals as well as whole classes. It was
directly related to rising or declining social opportunity, and
the chance of self-betterment.A powerful explanation of 'Victorian' repressive
sexuality is that it was the product of perceived new opportunities,
in the absence of effective contraception. There were strong
incentives for working and lower middle class people to
internalise Victorian values. I'll say more on that in a moment.
The changes which brought 'permissiveness' in the Sixties were based on the
Pill not on any mysterious transformation in elite
consciousness. It went with the upsurge of postwar literacy and the advent of
near-universal accessibility to further and higher education, which did give
some of the socially-subaltern cohorts more opportunity to progress into
political and buisness elites; that and the disintegration of Fordism and
decompositon of mass blue collar production cycles/working classes.
Social co-optation of the lower classes was a significant underlying reason
for 'permissiveness', but paradoxically the same desire to cross class
boundaries was at work in the moral auterity of the late 19th C.
The introjection of Victorian Sam Smiles values into the English w/c, previously
renowned for its Hogarthian shiftless, feckless, morally-dissolute, licentious,
drunken and brawling nature, was not merely the enforced substitution of
Methodism for booze, but was also an adaptive response to perceived greater
social possibilities resulting from restraint. Where a century before, more
children was a key to security in later life, by the end of the last century the
opposite was clearly true. But the mechanisms of birth control were poor or
absent, thus placing a premium on abstinence as the most reliable way to keep
family size down.
A pathbreaking study of the whys and wherefores of fertility change in Britain
is Simon Szreter's "Fertility, class and gender in Britain 1860-1940" (Cambridge
U.P. 1996). Szreter shows that rubber and chemicals do not explain much of the
early falls in the birthrate. You have to look elsewhere, at conditioned and
internalised forms of psychosexual repression and control. These mechanisms also
underpinned not only the cult of property-acquisition and consumerism which
defines the repressive desublimation of western libido, but also and just as
conveniently, which powered its machismatic inversion: the assumption of the
'White Man's Burden', so essential to victorian imperialism. Thus trends
originating in the Reformation reached their climacteric in the half century
before WW2, and thus did Victorian capitalism construct sexuality;
unbundling that construct has been the work of the entire postwar period.
"The English census of 1911 is often called the 'fertility census', because
the census-forms contained special additional questions. Households had to
report on how many children had so far been born into unions. Over the next
decade or so Dr T.H.C. Stevenson, superintendent of statistics at the General
Register Office, worked on the answers to these special questions, seeking to
analyse the figures according to a particular categorisation of English
social classes. This class scheme was to prove momentous beyond anything
Stevenson could have foreseen: for him at the time its relation to fertility
was simply a very pleasing confirmation of what
he had already believed about the nation's sex-life.
Stevenson's scheme was nothing less than the five-tier, one-dimensional,
occupation-based division of classes which remains, in essence, orthodox and
official in the present day, eighty years later. Stevenson's version went as
follows: I Professional, II Intermediate, III Skilled Manual, IV Intermediate,
V Unskilled Manual. There have been lots of complaints from historians over
the years about the inadequacy of this list, but with slight revisions it
remains ascendant. Stevenson's emphasis on occupation and skills had at
first been a response to the agenda set by eugenicists, whose hereditarian
theories were being increasingly resisted, according to Szreter, by a
'confident, revitalized and more comprehensive environmentalist analysis'
in institutions of social policy such as the GRO. The eugenicists said
that low skills and high fertility were linked, leading to
Given his environmentalist views, Stevenson may have been dismayed when he
saw that the linkage predicted by the eugenicists in fact held. But he also saw
an alternative line of argument, which accepted the linkage but overtrumped the
hereditarian explanation with an impeccably environmentalist one. Birth-control
was the key. It was 'diffusing' slowly from the educated and prosperous in a
gradient through the less educated and poorer ranks." (from a review of
Szreter by Michael Mason).
Now, the question is, was Stevenson right, as generations of policy-makers,
historians and sociologists have all assumed? Was it birth control
techniques which were being diffused -- or something else? Mason summarises
Szreter's argument like this:
"Szreter is confident that Stevenson was wrong, even on his own showing.
The argument involved here is somewhat elaborate. Stevenson, and
demographers ever since, have held that true birth-control - in the
sense of full sexual relations between partners performed with the
deliberate adjunct of devices and substances believed to prevent
conception - will most clearly show up in the statistics in the
'stopping' rather than 'spacing' of births. Large numbers of couples
will be detectable as at first producing children at something like the
biologically maximum rate - and then producing no more. Stevenson
claimed that stopping behaviour was discernible as 'diffusing' in
the English social classes across time. The published data of 1911
do not permit Szreter to check this claim for couples who through
ageing or death had finished having families by this date (the
larger category), but he is able to perform the neat trick of
checking it for the smaller category of younger couples who
were still producing children. We can work out if this group,
at least, was 'spacing' or 'stopping'.
The answer is that "They were spacing. They do not exhibit the hallmark
of birth-control required by Stevenson. There is an obvious way to rescue
Stevenson at this point, in his own despite. Why can't spacing be a token
of artefactually controlled conception, just as much as stopping? Szreter
does not rest his case only on a refutation of Stevenson, on his own terms.
He agrees that spacing of births could in principle be the result of
birth-control. But he has drawn a further and more profound observation
from the publish ed tables of the 1911 census. This is that low fertility
achieved by spacing correlates with late marriage. Couples of child-bearing
age who were conceiving rather infrequently were also likely to have
postponed getting married."
Mason adds: "This is probably the most important single result to emerge from
Szreter's research, and it paves the way for his own general theory of family
sexuality in the years around and after 1911, which occupies the final third of
his book. It was, according t o Szreter, a 'culture of abstinence', influential
right through to Philip Larkin's 1963 ('Sexual intercourse began'), which
mainly drove down the fertility of England and Wales. On this account,
diffusionism is out of the window. There was no wisdom about obtaining
and using certain devices and substances which needed to percolate down
from the privileged to the less privileged. Moreover, the thinking
which impelled couples to resort to birth-control via 'abstinence'
was, according to Szreter, one which wouldn't yield a simple correlation
with social rank. Couples took steps to reduce numbers of conceptions
in response to the 'perceived relative cost' of childbearing."
It is the subsequent availability of cheap and effective female contraception
which has transformed matters by relieving the psychological burden placed
on couples earlier in the century.
The process of dissolution of the family is also not linear and straightforward,
as we now even from Laslett's 'World We Have Lost'. Small 'nuclear' families
have been normative in England since the 14th C. And to speak of
the 'explosion of the nuclear family' as Jim Heartfield does is to
exaggerate a phenomenon which is not yet universal and may never be
altho it is true that in some parts of England and Wales, more children
are born out of wedlock than in wedlock, that is still a large minority)
and secondly to misstate the causes, which are material, and are bound up
with the restructuring of the working class which goes in tandem with
the retructuring of production itself.
Female labour is more congenial for many modern assembly line processes,
while the demand for heavy manual labour has almost completely
disappeared. Changes in sexuality, in the empowerment of women,
in the female image and self-imaging, in the growth of third-sexing
and androgyny as powerful subliminal messages
in mass market advertising, Hollywood and culture generally, all have
their origins in this constellation of historically-mediated factors which
together constitute sexuality and its mass psychology. Undoubtedly the process
has much further to go, and an all-out asssault by capital upon human sexual
reproduction is just now gathering pace (the Times today reports the first
successful cloning of mice, which apparently much more than with Dolly the
sheep is an indicator that human cloning is close at hand).
There is obviously some relevance in Jim Heartfield's assertion about:
> the exhaustion of the old political and
> cultural framework that was put together in the Cold War.
But the general context is what counts, not the vanishingly small differences
between one set of 'democratic' leaders and another. Clinton/Blair,
Bush/Major, Reagan/Thatcher, do inhabit the same moral and political
universe. A few details seem challengable: Jim says that
> Military service was a near universal rite of passage in the
> first half of the C20, and where people were not actually under military
> discipline it was nonetheless the model of workplace discipline.
In Britain (and from memory) conscription only applied during 19 of the years
between 1900-1957. In fact, the boot is on the other foot: 20th C military
organisation and disicipline has always been based on Fordism/Taylorism (nowhere
more so than in those floating factories, naval ships). And th notion that there
> what Fred Halliday called a Second Cold war -
> both abroad, and at home in the return of 'Victorian Values' (ie sexism
> and heterosexism), imperial war-mongering, and a re-emphasis upon
seems the complete opposite of what has actually happened, which is a further
loosening of those traditional ties.
Before we all get too carried away by this idea that the current bourgeois
elite has abandoned all those old racist, anti-choice, bigoted concerns -
and, yes, I'm writing to myself as well as to the rest of this list -
maybe we should take a deep breath and ask ourselves what they are
actually talking about when they are among themselves. I recommend that
people read the 1995 book "Member of the Club" by Lawrence Otis Graham, an
African-American attorney with an income in the six figures. It's a
volume of essays, some originally published in New York magazine. Of
course he's not a Marxist or anything like it, but he reminds the white
reader (the Black reader already knows it I guess) that the reports of the
death of Jim Crow among the upscale have been "greatly exaggerated". One
of his essays is entitled "My Dinner with Mr. Charlie: A Black Man's
Undercover Guide to Dining with Dignity at Ten Top New York Restaurants."
1057 Lexington Ave.
New York City
Besides the dark wood and red-brick walls adorning the eating area,
one thing you'll immediately appreciate about Mortimer's is its
cozy, familiar feeling. These people are so familiar, in fact, the
maitre d' and wait staff instantly knew we didn't belong here - in
spite of our eight o'clock dinner reservation.
"How can we help you?" greeted the apathetic maitre d' as we stepped
through the front door of the dim but inviting foyer. It was 8:00
p.m., and the restaurant was 25 percent full because of a raging
I smiled. "We have reservations for a party of three."
"Are you sure, here -- at Mortimer's?"
But all right, that's not the ruling elite. Although it does undercut the
thesis held by the ISO that wealthy Blacks are not subject to
national oppression. However, Graham's prize
essay, worth the price of the book, is the one that describes his
undercover experiences in the Greenwich (CT) Country Club:
I'm a thirty-year-old corporate lawyer at a Midtown Manhattan
firm, and I make $105,000 a year. I'm a graduate of Princeton
University (1983) and Harvard Law School (1988) and I've written
ten nonfiction books. Although these might seem like impressive
credentials, they're not the ones that brought me here. Quite
frankly, I got into this country club the only way that a black
man like me could - as a $7-an-hour busboy.
Yes, he went under cover to spy on the inner workings of an all-white
country club. Actually he tried for a waiter's position, but neither
Greenwich nor the several other places he applied would hire a Black as a
"Busboy? Over the phone, you said you needed a waiter," I argued.
"Yes, I know I said that, but you seem very alert, and I think you'd
make an excellent busboy indeed."
Yes, there is still plain old fashioned shit racism in hiring, in case you
thought otherwise. But how about the ruling elite? Here are some quotes,
overheard while busing tables:
(On the subject of Clinton's apologizing for belonging to an all-white
club): "These Negroes wouldn't even be thinking about golf. They
can't afford to join a club anyway." "My big problem with this Clinton
fellow is that he apologized."
(On Greenwich resident Leona Helmsley): "She should be in those other
places like Beverly Hills or Scarsdale or Long Island with the
rest of them. What's she doing here?" "Well, you know, HE's not
Jewish." "Really?" "So that explains it."
(On Arthur Ashe): "It's a shame that poor man has to be humiliated
like this. He's been such a good example for his people." "Well,
quite frankly, I always knew he was gay. There was something about
him that just seemed too perfect."
(On anti-Operation Rescue protests in Buffalo): "Someone's gotta
keep these women reined in. A good hard law that forces them to have
those babies when they get pregnant will teach them to be
(On au pairs:): "[I]f you ever have to choose between a Negro and one
of these Spanish people, always go for the Negro ... Even though you
can't trust either one, at least the Negroes can speak English
and follow your directions."
SORT OF UNDERCUTS THIS POMO ELITE BUSINESS A BIT, no?
Of course the real lesson of it all is that there are millions of workers
in these country clubs, elite restaurants, etc., who can provide us full
knowledge of what the ruling elite is doing and saying from one day to the
next - if we get the information from them. We shouldn't really have to
count on undercover lawyers, right?