In my last post I argued that the ideology typical of those with the most to lose, those dominant within the dominant class, was some version of conservatism, which is in psychological terms ‘ascetic’ by replacing actual life-based enjoyments with the sadistic enjoyment of conquering one’s own ‘lower nature’, whether in the name of purity, religion, or the nation.
I now want to argue that the ideology typical of those who are within the dominant class but not well-off within it, i.e. those who are male/bourgeois but ‘poor’ in the resource those classes seek (sexual conquest of women, private ownership of capital), is liberalism.
‘Liberalism’ has a number of meanings, and whereas I see almost nothing admirable in conservative ideology, things are different for liberalism, which can be understood in a broad way, a narrow way, or an American way (which I will set aside, because if the US don’t want to speak English properly then that’s up to them).
In the broad sense, ‘liberalism’ means simply that philosophy which takes personal freedom as the highest value and personal equality as the most basic premise. It’s ideological dominance since the enlightenment (though mainly in words more than actions) shouldn’t blind us to how progressive it is and how many ideologies there are which directly contradict it. In this sense, socialism, communism, anarchism and feminism are all varieties of liberalism.
But it’s in the narrow sense that liberalism becomes an ideology specifically fit to cloak the interests of an exploiting class. As would-be exploiters, such people face two sorts of restriction – those thrown up by the established elites to protect their privileges, and those established by the exploited to give them some measure of self-defense. Broad liberalism would attack only the former, while supporting the latter in the name of the freedom of the exploited, while narrow liberalism attacks both.
In the economic sphere, for instance, an aspiring capitalist may find that their ability to do business, amass capital, and ‘make it’ is impaired both by the fact that established big businesses own the government and use it to require expensive licenses for various actions, which raises operating costs, and also by the fact that working-class movements have forced the implementation of a minimum wage, which drives up employment costs. Liberalism tells them that both of these are alike ‘restrictions on freedom’, and should both by done away with, to be replaced by individual self-reliance and ‘small government’.
‘Broad liberalism’, taken to its logical conclusion in communism, argues on the contrary that ‘freedom to act as you want’ is not a single or simple thing, because certain actions – including the ownership of property and the employment of labour – are intrinsically actions that subordinate the freedom of others. Buying and selling the various parts of the community, on which hundreds of other people depend for their everyday lives, is not simply a personal act of the trader but a way of exerting power over that community. The limitation of liberalism as a class ideology is to misrepresent such acts as part of the capitalist’s ‘freedom’, and to let capitalists exert their class power to defeat any impediment to that freedom.
Similar remarks apply to sexual liberalism. In its broad form it is simply recommends the fullest freedom for people to express themselves sexually and bodily. But as the class ideology of sex-poor men, it subverts this through treating something which in fact involves the assertion of power over others as a personal choice – that something being hard to define precisely but perhaps best expressed through the word ‘fucking’, i.e. any kind of sex as the fulfillment of patriarchal narratives of male power and female passivity.
For example, consider the expansion of porn into the media. I want to stay neutral on ‘porn wars’ topics, so I’m not talking about actual pornography, sought out and found by people looking specifically for porn. I mean the way that every day, on magazines, billboards, tv adverts, even political posters, you can see sexualised images of half-naked women. You have no choice about it, it’s everywhere. Narrow liberalism as a class ideology for sex-poor men is perfectly happy with this: it’s people freely choosing to express their sexuality in a certain way, and it pays off because sufficient consumers freely choose to express their sexuality by buying the things that had the sexiness draped on them.
Conversely, feminism, as the ideology that at least claims to represent the interests of the female sex-class, sees that what is being freely chosen here is itself an act suffused with power: the power differential involved in display and viewing (if someone bares themselves to you and you don’t do the same, the power balance skews towards you), and the power involved in defining and controlling the public space (advertisers and horny consumers thus define what is perceived as normal and everyday by each person growing up).
Conservatism, meanwhile, as the ideology of men with established access to women, is also unhappy with this rampant objectification – not out of any problem with objectification itself, but because they want to protect their ‘monopoly’ of women and stop the young and horny from ‘devaluing’ that resource.
A final note might be made about ‘commodification’. This is a particular form of objectification, in which what might previously have been two incomparable objects, each different and desired (and possessed) in its own way, become two objects possessing the exact same sort of value, differing only in quantity. The desire for symbolic completion through the possession of such objects thus passes from a specific, contingent form associated with unique objects, to a general, rationalising form: the desire to amass the greatest possible amount of that single resource.
No longer can one be satisfied to have, on the one hand, an estate, a castle, labouring serfs, a life of luxury – and, on the other hand, a single woman who is entirely and completely yours and no-one else’s – and let that be that: rather, there must always be more, more money squandered on ever more absurd conspicuous consumption, and more women, more prostitutes and girlfriends and pornography, possessed in ever more extreme ways (e.g. to the extent of being able to make them degrade themselves).
Commodification of ever greater areas of life is a characteristic of the modern, capitalist, sexually-liberated world, though it may have also manifested itself to some extent in other historical cultures (perhaps the later Roman empire?) and it follows naturally from the successes of sex-poor men, the fratboy class, in battering down all restrictions that might impede them in getting their end away.
And it seems to have the same paradoxical potential for crisis as capitalism – that is, it might be argued that we are living through a sexual ‘crisis of overproduction’. The right to sexual gratification is affirmed, and such gratification starts to appear everywhere; yet in doing so, it removes much of the interest of sex, leaves people jaded. So to get a response, more extensive and extreme sexualisation must be pushed – which produces even greater de-sensitisation.
This produces a situation where everything is sexualised, but nothing is sexy – a description which surely captures something of what modern society is like. What the eventual result will be, what problems or reactions it might produce, we can’t know for sure yet, but we are doubtless going to find out soon enough.