In previous posts I’ve talked about the similar processes by which sexual and other actions are constructed into ownership, and how this generates structural antagonisms, class struggles, within society.
It’s a truism that ideologies will reflect these antagonisms. What I particularly want to talk about now is how ideologies can be traced across both sex classes and economic classes. This post will focus on ‘asceticism’ as a shared feature of both sexual puritanism and economic nationalism/fascism, what could broadly be called ‘conservative’ ideologies.
Imagine you’re rich. You have a lot – of something, some resource. What then is your most pressing interest, in a conflict-ridden society? To defend what you’ve got – to stop others from trying to take it. That might mean others like you taking it and owning it just as you do, but though this will be your individual interest, it won’t be one you share with those others like you – it won’t be a class interest, it will ‘cancel out’ when each member’s divergent interests are added up.
But it also might mean, not simply taking what’s yours and making it someone else’s, but de-stabilising the social arrangements according to which you have it. That might mean revolutionising the whole of society, but usually it won’t – it will just mean de-stabilising some bit, some particular section or institution. The interest of you and those like you is principally in stability and ‘order’.
The problem with this, of course, is that if you want to extend this beyond you and your self-interested companions, you need to express it in a way that can appeal to humans more broadly – you need to turn it into an ideology. Now the key message of such an ideology will be a prohibitive one: when you feel like doing something disruptive, don’t. Thou shalt not, thou shalt not, etc. etc.
But that’s not very inspiring. Who’s going to get enthusiastic about ‘thou shalt not’? You might, but only because it’s transparent to you whose interests it serves. But the point of ideologies is to not be transparent – to cloak an interest in high-sounding phrases. But how to make those phrases appealing?
The general form that the solution must take is a psychic mechanism whereby the refraining, the self-sacrifice, becomes itself a source of gratification – where denying yourself pleasure can provide pleasure.
This general observation can be applied both to those rich in money and to those rich in sex(ual resources), whose typical class ideology is in both cases ‘conservatism’ – the appeal of which is largely ascetic.
The mechanism involved in the latter is easier to see, so I’ll discuss it first. The basic set-up is that in a patriarchal society, men compete with each other for women, and so those men who ‘have’ women (most obviously through being married to one or more, but also sometimes through fatherhood and owning their daughters’ sexuality as a resource to trade with other men) have an interest in restricting access to women, since this guards their ‘wealth’ against the ‘sex-poor’ – younger unmarried horny men.
So their ideology is to be generally ‘anti-sex’: to try to deploy the forces of law and public opinion against fornication, adultery, pornography, prostitution, contraception, abortion, and everything else that lets the young and horny get some action – even extending to creating new sexual resources so as to restrict access to them, e.g. by making the very act of looking at a woman’s face or hair a sexual one, and then forcing them to cover up in public.
But to make this a coherent and motivating ideology, the denied gratification from having sex (with ‘sex’ including whatever acts are sexualised, like looking at hair) must be replaced with ascetic gratification from not-having-sex.
How does this work? Well, what is the gratification of having sex, to a patriarchal man? The sensations feel nice, of course, but then so does relaxing in a comfortable chair and nobody risks life and limb to get that. The gratification of sex in a patriarchy is the sense of power – the triumph of having ‘conquered’ the woman who represents the world, the not-self, the not-person. This triumph is always latently sadistic, though it often expresses this sadism, paradoxically, through the desire to give pleasure (to make her come), because ‘imposing’ intense pain and intense pleasure can both symbolise ‘mastery’.
So if this is to be replaced with an ascetic gratification, that asceticism must be a similar ‘sado-altruistic’ triumph over what represents the not-self. The difference is simply that the not-self is now not simply the woman, but the woman and, as symbolised by her, the man’s own sexual desire. That is, his self is split in half, and the sensual side, the desiring side, is perceived as alien, as ‘the flesh’, as a not-self to be defeated and mastered.
Note that this typically involves a major mystification of that desire itself. The desire is represented as ‘material’ – soft, mindless, bodily (in fact, feminised and animalised), thoughtless, fleshy. But though everyone’s desires fit this a bit, the dominant theme of male sexual desire under patriarchy is not passionate, or overwhelming, or uncontrollable – it is the desire for control, it is deliberate self-assertion, not a ‘giving up’ of one’s self.
Note also that this asceticism was always implicit in masculinity. The whole basis of (adult human) masculine identity is to take the ‘self’ and the ‘everything else’ and turn them into rigid pure absolutes, in the process cutting off the ‘man’ from much of himself (e.g. from accepting being an evolved animal with instincts). This identity is rich with violence, not just towards others but towards those bits of the self that are identified as ‘other’, contrasted with the ever-shrinking ‘real self’.
And finally note that asceticism leans much more the sado- part of sado-altruism: you can’t express dominance over your own desires or your own body by being nice to them and taking care of them, since as soon as you did so the supposed division would fade away and you’d just be taking care of yourself. So asceticism is liable to be more openly sadistic, and this will be expressed outwards also onto all those real people who come to symbolise ‘the flesh’, and I don’t need to tell you who that’s likely to be.
How this plays out though is instructive. Asceticism serves the interests of men-who-already-have-women. But because they already have women, they have no need to really get into it. The most vocal and vitriolic defenders of their interests will typically be in fact celibate. Often these will be old, crusted-over priests (liable to be preferred by the non-celibate old men because they are more reliable and can be trained longer). Sometimes they will be women, snatching at whatever scraps of power and agency they can get, but in a traditional patriarchy their public role won’t typically be too huge.
But sometimes they’re actually the youngest, the most ‘sex-poor’ men, filled with surging hormones, but for whatever reason unable to get the sense of power that they long for. Perhaps there are not enough women, or they are too tightly controlled; perhaps there are plenty, but they have politically asserted themselves to the point where the sexual relation is too egalitarian to really satisfy some men. Perhaps these men are just awkward around women.
Asceticism offers some a much more appealing prospect. As well as the social approval that they may get from the ruling sex-class, there is the ‘doubling’ of their gratification if they can get a role as ‘enforcers’ or ‘punishers’. Thrashing a woman is much like fucking her as far as power-psychology goes, except that as well as the initial gratification of thrashing/fucking her, of successfully ‘making contact’ with the desired object, there’s the secondary gratification that by replacing fucking with thrashing you dominate your own feminised, animalised ‘lower nature’ as well.
(Probably will be no surprise to say that a certain organisation is before my mind as I write this; the Iranian basij paramilitaries)
Anyway, so the overall picture is that this sort of ideology divides the self so that people can get the satisfaction of dominating their own ‘lower nature’ in place of more conventional satisfactions; this serves the interests principally of those who have a lot, but is paradoxically liable to find its most fanatical adherents in those who have little, who seize upon this substitute.
What I want to suggest now is that this analysis applies in a very similar way to certain varieties of more openly political ‘conservatism’ – I’ll focus on fascism and radical nationalism because I think they make this clearest.
Whose interests are served by a pulling together of the ‘nation’, a suppression of internal conflicts in the name of a united stand against some designated national enemy? Whose interests are served, in particular, by the root-and-branch destruction of the labour movement? The grande bourgeoisie, big business, those who have a lot to defend and a lot to lose from internal instability.
But what is the psychic mechanism of national identification? The nation is something other than the individual – and yet the point of identification is that it is part of the individual’s self. Hence the conditions are set up for an inner split, and if we assume there was a reason for this nationalism to arise, we must suppose that to some extent, the merely individual side of that split contains desires that conflict with the supposed interests of the nation. That is, as a social being, the individual replicates social conflicts as internal conflicts.
And let us suppose the individual wants power-gratification, such as they might get from political office or property-ownership. But they can’t get that – but now they are offered an alternative. Have the nation-self dominate and destroy the individual-self: first, of course, feminise and animalise that individual self, construct it as weak, flabby, cowardly, decadent, material, fleshy. Then attack it in the name of the nation: the nation is strong, forceful, glorious, in control, and so if you identify with the nation, so are you.
Note of course that just as before, 1) this self-attacking will go hand in hand with attacking those others who are identified with that fleshy ‘decadence’, and 2) because the violent nature of this dominating is what maintains the divided self as divided, it is liable to be severely aggressive and sadistic.
And just as before, those who most enthusiastically embrace this self-overcoming won’t be the same as those who most benefit from it. Why would the rich need to substitute a traumatic and slightly mad sort of asceticism for the direct enjoyment of everything they possess? They just need someone else to – and that’s often likely to be those with nothing to defend, nothing to enjoy. Alongside the basij you thus find the fascisti – which is not to say that the basij are ‘fascist’ in the economic sense.
And of course there are differences. In particular, the frustrated and desperate man who can be expected to form the average paramilitary organisation may be very poor economically, even proletarian, but will rarely be on the bottom rung of the sex-class hierarchy, i.e. female. Historically, women’s engagement with politics has taken quite different, and less noticeable, forms than direct violence.
A final note is to point out the obvious: religion is deeply connected with both – for how better to persuade people to sacrifice themselves than to tell them about their fictional rewards for doing so, and how better to express the most radical kind of hostility to the world (because the world must be subjugated to the self) than with a theology of the other-worldly?
So that’s fascism/puritanism – both conservative, both ascetic, both representing the interests of the richest, while drawing enthusiastic supporters from the poor.
In the next post I’ll look at the other side – the ideology of ‘unmarried’ men and the petite bourgeoisie, those who are part of the ruling class broadly conceived, but not wealthy within it.