Letters on “On Repressive Sentimentalism”
When you and I read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or this spring, in a group that met in the cafeteria of the Houston Street Whole Foods, we had many arguments about the nature of marriage. Now I seem to be joining you in another, though our private conversation has become, in something like the ambiguous transformation wrought by marriage itself, public. Either/Or, as you know, is divided into two parts, the first written by a Seducer, who approaches the problem of human relations aesthetically, and the second by a Judge, who approaches it ethically. Neither approach proves satisfactory; a better title for the book would be Neither/Nor. To the surprise of those of us who know you personally, your essay has caused some in the blogosphere to mistake you for a figure like Kierkegaard’s Seducer. In disagreeing with you, I suppose I run the parallel risk of sounding like the Judge, who is, I believe, in somewhat greater danger of losing his soul, because in order to preserve decorum, he seems willing to smother the spark that makes human relations possible at all. Keeping the danger in mind, I will risk answering you.
I dissent from many of the claims in your essay, but I feel my resistance most strongly to the following sentence: “Opposing gay marriage is like denying the wishes of people who want to feed your pets or take out your garbage.”
If you believe that gays who marry resemble people offering to take out the trash, then you believe that gays who marry are offering a service. I presume you mean that they are surrendering their sexual wildness for the sake of social approbation and in the process are making a gift of sexual orderliness to the common weal. If that is all marriage is—a bargain wherein autonomy is traded for status—then it is indeed a ridiculous bargain for any sexually potent adult to make. (Lurking behind the cartoon figure of the promiscuous gay man, whom your essay eulogizes, is his inevitable twin, the gay eunuch.) But surely it’s possible to imagine marriage as something else, something that our Kierkegaard reading group tried to investigate, as did the reading group that followed it, which tackled Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness. Would it be mere rhetoric to suggest that marriage is itself a form of wildness?
Your claim in the sentence quoted above, which is a sort of joke, has two lemmas. First, you imply that marriage is a surrender of sexual liberty. I don’t think that’s accurate. Marriage is Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell standing side by side in the closing scene of His Girl Friday, nattering on with the same jollity when handcuffed to each other as when not handcuffed. Marriage is indifference to handcuffs. There are always opportunities to escape. The strange discovery that makes marriage possible is that one has the liberty not to—the liberty to make the same choice, day after day—and that one happens to want to make a consistent choice. It is a paradox, at least. Will one happen to want to make the same choice forever? Maybe not. Separation and divorce are always possible, in our world, and maybe they give marriage its poignancy. The possibility of separation proves that no two people stay chained to each other unless they want to. It even seems to be the case that people who want to stay chained to each other sometimes can’t manage to. It is at any rate an error to think that marriage is a surrender of liberty. It is an exercise of it.
The second lemma of your joke is less seemly. It is mockery of anyone—in this case, gays—who wants the general social approbation implied by marriage. I suspect that you yourself will find this indigestible if you stop and think about it. Do you really intend to mock homosexuals, who have long been considered and in some circles still are considered pariahs, for wishing to have proof that they are no longer so thought of, at least as a matter of law? Your joke will only seem funny to readers who have taken social approbation for granted for so long that they now see only its conformist aspect and no longer its psychological and social benefits. Yes, yes, society bestows its approval conservatively; do you really think that people who have gone without it for most of their adult lives are unaware of that? You are somewhat in the position, here, of a millionaire who styles himself a radical and makes fun of the lengths that other people will go to in order to become rich. The radical thing would be to share the wealth, or to campaign for a more equitable economic system.
I’m not denying, by the way, that people in a marriage customarily agree to forgo sexual opportunities outside it. I’m saying merely that they agree to because they realize that they want to forgo them. Such a realization cannot happen to a Foucauldian motley of pleasures and bodies. Bodies have no free will; left to their own devices, they say yes to every pleasure they can obtain. Such a realization can only happen to a self, or to something you might even denominate a soul. Selves and souls, you might reply, are fictions, and I agree that they are not a given but are something people make in the course of living. I believe, nonetheless, that they are worth making. Keats called the world a “vale of soul-making,” and on that understanding, a refusal to make a soul is a denial of incarnation—a refusal of one of the world’s highest pleasures and deepest experiences. I am not of course saying that only married people have souls. I am saying that it’s worthwhile to have a soul, in part so as to have the capacity to make a choice like marriage, but mostly because it would be a shame to go through life without ever thinking about what Hopkins would call the sakes of it. This is diving rather deep in order to answer a relatively shallow question, I admit, but this way of arguing about marriage seems to require it.
I dissent from any deprecation of the self, and a fortiori of the soul, in the name of liberating the body. A liberated body is merely an animal, and there are stark limits to the liberty that an animal is capable of. Human liberty goes further—it involves something else—and to exclude that something else from a human life is sort of to miss the whole point, frankly.
What exactly that something else is, in a marriage or in a life, is hard to say without misrepresenting it. Emerson recommends modesty on the subject, and I wonder if your error has been to show such an excessive modesty that in your essay you pretend, as a conceit, that this something else does not even exist. But it does, I believe, even if it has to be invented.
Let me begin by saying that I’m an openly non-straight guy (in a relationship of 10+ years) who is very much in favor of gay marriage rights, not because I have ever favored the institution of marriage, a bourgeois construct, but because I think that any two people (regardless of sexual orientation) should be able to avail themselves of the same rights as any other two people; anything less is a fundamental inequality that frankly harms straights as much as gays.
Unfortunately, in the piece in question, the author seemed to make no effort to hold the mirror up to himself, and say, “As a straight man, what have I done to rectify this situation?” Rather, he seemed to ask: “Why do you gays want marriage? Don’t you understand that it’s really taking a step backward to want this horrible thing?” It would be like a white person who grew up in the suburbs with every financial advantage going into the inner city and saying, “Why do you minorities want material things? Don’t you understand that it will erode your soul?” Which is not to say that the white person is necessarily wrong, but he has to proceed with extreme sensitivity, and ideally even live in the inner city, before he can make the case with any kind of credibility. This is why I found the tone of the article somewhat offensive—not wrong, necessarily, but rather insensitive to what it really means to be gay in our society at this juncture. (And trust me, it’s not a pretty picture, as anyone who has spent a few hours in any junior high—or an average YouTube comments section—can attest; the level of fear and hatred directed toward gays is staggering, and possibly unprecedented, for reasons relating to increased exposure in the media, right-wing political tactics, misogyny, stereotyping in mainstream movies and advertising, and other factors that are beyond the scope of this letter.)
All of this raises the question of how the author could have made the same point with more sensitivity. The answer is certainly not that he (or any straight person) needs to experience gay sex or “gay life”; rather, a sense of empathy and identification is required. I.e., had the author said, “We should all be fighting against marriage—I know that I have done so (and here’s how/why)!” there would have been no backlash, at least from me. Maybe this was implicit in his argument, but he could have helped himself a lot by making it explicit.
On a related note, I would point out that AIDS cannot be summed up in a sentence or two in which the author describes it in terms of a philosophical emancipation without sounding incredibly (and to me, naively and offensively) detached from what was essentially a holocaust that wiped out an entire generation—many of its members younger than you or I—less than twenty years ago. Again, I’m not saying that the author was necessarily wrong in his analysis, but his tone lacked tact and empathy, and thus seemed almost glib, at least to someone like me who will never stop grieving over a tragedy that is/was incomprehensible on some emotional level (and has still not really been acknowledged as such, at least in the US). It would be like going up to someone a week after his entire family was killed and saying, “Well, at least they died nobly, and you know what? You could really learn a thing or two from them.”
Obviously we—by which I mean people of a “liberal” or “left-wing” persuasion—have a lot to learn from each other, and if nothing else, the author should be commended for broaching the subject of gay rights. However misguided his execution, to address the topic at all requires a certain courage that is obviously lacking in too many others. I hope that we will continue to learn going forward.
I have followed the increasingly heated discourse [on the internet] surrounding “On Repressive Sentimentalism” with fascination. Not least because I think it’s the piece’s bloodlessness that has aroused such passion. The accusations have ranged from high-handedness to self-absorption to white-hunterism to heteronormativism to watered-down Jessie Bernard–ism. My own objections, and the reflexive wave of defensiveness the piece provoked in me, were less reasoned. When I began to try to think about them logically, I realized that they were, in point of fact, pure sentimental drivel. And therein, for me, lies the piece’s central problem: dismiss “sentimentalism” as an unworthy construct, a sop to the masses, an ill-judged concession, and still it persists. And isn’t rhetoric devoid of sentiment as potentially destructive as that which springs from pure emotion? If the theoretical were this easy, Philosophy would be a far more practical major than it is, and I wish I didn’t speak from bitter experience.
I’m apparently the very worst sort of sentimentalist myself. I want, for instance, to get married. Tell me this is retrograde and socially irresponsible, a product of media and 500 years of degradation; I might hang my head, I might feel ashamed, I might get mad, but the desire remains, and arguing against it is as futile as it is gratuitous. And what progressive doesn’t resent the implication that her personal is not only political, but reactionary? This is, as the piece points out, a central tenet of the abortion debates. But the concession of abortion as a “necessary evil,” which the essay characterizes as a frustrating bit of rote soft-pedaling, is far more than this. As a friend emailed me, “I felt pain and regret after my abortion that has nothing to do with political convictions or my theoretical ideas about ‘choice’ and I was angry at myself for it.” But that anger, at oneself and at those who’d seek to deny it—which, while not universal, is also far from isolated—can’t be conveniently swept under the rug, and I can’t help wondering if demonizing, or dismissing, the very real reactions of a very significant population isn’t irresponsible as well as cold-blooded.
And that brings me to another niggling concern the piece awoke in me. Let’s face it: “sentimental” has always been a pretty legible code-pink for “feminine.” I couldn’t help but think, repeatedly, of the title of the nursing-history documentary Sentimental Women Need Not Apply, and it seems to me pretty disingenuous to ignore the implicit connection between the two. And to jump wildly between historical eras (sentimentalist’s prerogative!) these dichotomies, in deep primitive ways, manage to hearken back to the days when university faculty were forced to live celibate and cloistered like monks, keeping the flame of reason safe from the sop of my sentimentality. Sentiment has long scared those who are “objective,” who’ve sought to de-claw and re-scent and soften and demonize it, dismissing it first as the purview of inferior intellect and later, perhaps, of inferior conviction. But if Ruskin and his cohorts saw sentiment as a necessary balance to the harsh reason of men, now we’ve stripped the notion, not just of its retrograde teeth but also its moral authority. Perhaps the idea that sentimentalism can have a moral authority needs to be reexamined, if only because denying its validity apparently results in anger.
A person doesn’t have to be married to sink into a nonself-actualizing miasma. She can do this effectively with a different partner every night of the week, or with a longtime lover, or by herself. Marriage, in a reasonable argument against it, would not be conflated with relationship or, as this essay would have it, with nonrelationship. Legal marriage today, because of the sexual revolution and feminism, is most importantly, from a political perspective, a contract that guarantees certain rights and privileges (along with some serious inconveniences) to some people and denies them to others, and this is the basis on which it should be, in my view, vigorously attacked, in the way one should attack the structures in society that create a few wealthy people at the literal expense of many poor.
However, for the time being, marriage is a means by which many people, gay and straight, have a chance of (this is not yet fully true for same-sex marriages) effectively and inexpensively securing for themselves crucial protection for their persons and their assets, protections including citizenship/asylum, health care, hospital visitation, child guardianship, a stay against interference by horrifying relatives, the right to leave an estate to a particular loved one, and I’m sure I’m missing a bunch. I feel the one rather flippant acknowledgment of this reality (“Add to that some oddities . . .”) was insufficient—and, really, pretty darn sick. One cannot rationally argue against marriage as a lifestyle choice, a retardataire power struggle, or an emotional crutch, when it’s possible to fully replicate these scenarios without a license, nor should any person or publication who claims a “left” orientation argue against marriage as status seeking when the “status” sought by so many is full personhood in the eyes of the state. Especially not someone who is himself recently married. “If marriage is cute . . . ,” Mark posits. I simply refuse to grant this premise—I have not been convinced by Mark, let alone by the world I see around me. Mark, please write about why you got married. Tell us how your marriage is or is not cute. That piece would be more appropriate for the Politics section. I think this one, in all its truly compelling, provocative ugliness, belongs under fiction or drama. Or did the editors imagine it wouldn’t be discussed if so billed?
Mark Greif has admirably demolished the personal and political pieties surrounding gay marriage and abortion, but I was disappointed and disturbed by his vision of what should replace them. Greif has merely exchanged one form of sentimentality for another: a sentimentality about choice. In place of the rigid patriarchy, he imagines a limitless landscape of autonomous potential experience. This is neither responsible nor desirable. Perhaps Greif will not consider the charge of irresponsibility serious, since his piece either ignores, diminishes, or mocks responsibility, at one point suggesting that being responsible—excuse me, “responsible”—is another term for “fitting in.” Certainly, though, Greif will want to defend himself against the charge of undesirability, since he seems to care very much about desire. So what does desire desire, in Greif’s view? “New choices.” Freedom. Spontaneity. Multiplicity. Liberation from the biological and bourgeois. “Sex without consequences.” No consequences, period! It all sounds very nice (who likes coercion?), but it’s all very wrong. Greif seems to confuse freedom with unbounded choice. No one has ever been free in that way, and no one ever will. In my experience, someone who claims that sex without consequences is a utopian project is just trying to get a girl into bed.
Meaningful experience—a bourgeois notion to begin with—does not depend upon “passionate feeling,” as Greif (following Sontag) suggests, nor does it depend upon novelty. Meaningful experience needs constraints. It requires consequence. Marriage and children, in this sense, can help to settle the issue: one can openly acknowledge how necessary and (dare I say?) wonderful codependency is. We should be encouraging codependency, not denigrating it. (I should declare my own interest: I, like Greif, am recently and happily married.)
Marriage, of course, can be deadening. No one would deny it. And an unwanted pregnancy can be a real tragedy. But to claim that the better—the ideal—alternative is some phantasmagoria of choice is silly. However imperfect, marriage is as close to a social utopia as we’ve ever come. It is the only durable arrangement which encourages reciprocity, and reciprocity—not freedom—is the crux of any utopia.
I am not arguing that any stigma should be attached to sex out of marriage or abortion. I do object, however, to the argument that these should be taken as good because they represent the proliferation of choice. Technological advances and the expansion of civil rights have given us all new choices. At the same time, we are left with fewer and fewer ways to understand how to make those choices. As Greif knows, not all choices are equal. But knowing which are right requires an ethical vocabulary that is now denuded, if not dead altogether, sacrificed to that dumb god, choice. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the way we talk about abortions. Greif suggests that the label “pro-choice” is a sop to conservatives, but pro-choice seems pretty well to describe his version of freedom. He’s right to say that it’s lame to call abortions a “tragedy,” but I’d say that’s his fault as much as anyone’s. Abortions are a “tragedy” because we don’t want to call them wrong, and yet the felt experience of so many suggests there’s something undesirable and, yes, consequential about them. They cause harm. Safe, legal abortions may cause less harm than illegal procedures, but that doesn’t make them like the polio vaccine. I am not anti-abortion, but I don’t like being called pro-choice, either. Left with choice, we are thrown back on our own desires. Desire is a tyrant. It doesn’t care a whit for other people. Where’s the utopia in that?
Mark Greif replies:
First things first. “On Repressive Sentimentalism” wasn’t an argument against winning gay marriage. It said that marriage rights are an important step and not a political endpoint. “We” should be getting gay marriage, without believing marriage is the final basis for a good society.
The essay’s point is summarized in the last lines. “Gay marriage is a preparation for institutions beyond marriage; abortion a means to life beyond patriarchy. So we want the beyond . . . but we’ll take the steps before it, first.” (The ellipsis is in the original.)
I made four arguments:
(1) The fight for gay marriage, while necessary, isn’t the end, and ought to be thought of as a means to lead America to better rights than the special limited rights of married people.
(2) Safe, legal abortion doesn’t exist for a minimal right to “choice”; it exists for the purpose of women’s freedom and equality to shape a life as men do.
(3) Both an overestimation of the beauty of marriage as opposed to other modes of relationship, and an overestimation of the ugliness of abortions, accept sentimental values that limit human happiness.
(4) The opposition to gay marriage rights and abortion rights, from the political right, may still come down to control of sex as a uniquely charged domain of life—and a conservative will to control the social order by means of both the gay and straight sexual relation. The right isn’t anti-sexual, but pro-sexual: you just have to do it their way. And if that’s so, what should the left do? Abandon sex as a sphere of freedom, because the right co-opts it, and because sex has often seemed, since 1968, to have produced some new crudity or crassness for every advance of the human good? Or keep faith with the long tradition that—slightly mysteriously, somewhat embarrassingly—always held “free love” and free association between lovers near the core of all aspirations to social reform?
I stress the last argument because that’s the one that seems to have made people decide I’m a Casanova. My answer in “On Repressive Sentimentalism” was to keep faith with the liberatory tradition, alongside critique of the liberalization of sex. (The critique is more front and center, for example, in “Afternoon of the Sex Children,” n+1 Issue 4.) If there’s a right place for a risky left sentimentalism, it may reside in sentimentalizing about sex. That’s because, freed from constraints and presented to those still open to education by others, I think the “sexual relation,” or call it physical love (embarrassing, I know), may specially and uniquely incarnate the freedom, equality, and respect the left has always advocated. Repression is certainly alienating, and porn may be alienating, but I think actual sex produces solidarity.
I knew when I was trying to articulate my first argument, about an indirect gay “should,” that it’s offensive to generalize about any group you don’t belong to, and worse to place a burden of improving society on a segment of society that has burdens enough. So I anticipated I might seem like a jerk. I asked myself: Is there, in fact, enough stability and goodwill within the American situation right now, that one could do what otherwise would be presumptuous, and would gay and lesbian readers say something like the following?
I don’t like being generalized about by a straight man, or told I’m his “hero” and part of the class of people who are now the bearers of history, and who ought to reform and improve straights. But, well, I agree with parts of this; it’s nice to be somebody’s hero, other than one’s own; and it must have a different rhetorical effect when a straight person makes these arguments, speaking forcefully also to straights, and that could be useful. If liberal straight people could actually come to think in this way, rather than having to believe that queer people should all be coupled off and married; and if liberals were able to make common cause also with the less visible parts of gay rights, rather than those parts remodeled on heterosexual society—maybe it would give us all more freedom of action.
I may have misjudged, and things certainly seem worse now that we’ve seen the defeats in Maine and in the New York state legislature. Especially because of the overconfident style, I regret publishing the article in the form in which it saw print.
I also think I made conceptual errors. A major error lay in my complacent sense that gay marriage is really about rights rather than about an underlying affection for marriage—this is a blindness that these letters, from both gay and straight readers, bring home very forcefully. We aren’t just talking about rights, as Caleb Crain, for example, helps me to see, but also rest from strain. A just society is also one that lets people blend in when they like. It shouldn’t mandate difference, even in the interest of liberal uplift, and I don’t want to be taken to suggest that to be gay is to be required to maintain difference, political “resistance,” or identity. This matches a fundamental principle of the just state, that it let citizens be free to ignore politics and be unpolitical when they please.
I took it that the same-sex couples I know who live in long-term relationships that look like marriages, and don’t go to nearby states where they can marry (until recently I lived in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal), understand themselves to be married insofar as that relation matters, as I’d hope others understand them to be. Yet straight people in long-term relationships are always unexpectedly marrying, even the least likely-seeming ones. They do it for sentimental reasons, not for the set of unique judicial rights that we now know marriage confers because of their deprivation to gay couples (hospital visitation, inheritance, tax breaks). Gay couples should also want to marry for sentimental reasons—that’s true even if a better political system would safeguard all of those rights for any citizens’ relationships, freely chosen, subject to no state test and no set pattern, and certainly not dependent on marriage.
This isn’t to say that I endorse the objections of all of the letter writers represented here.
Caleb Crain, for example, who is, as he says, a good friend and someone I admire, and also an essential n+1 writer, mischaracterizes my argument almost entirely, mostly in harmful and unfair ways, though with a residue of thoughtfulness and eloquence. As many times as I’ve read his letter, I still can’t understand why he takes as his starting points gay promiscuity, pagan pleasure, and erasing the self for the sake of the “beast,” none of which were at stake. Then, too, I was surprised to feel this careless undertow at my feet that would drag me out to sea as a homophobe, which I hope is something Crain doesn’t really think.
The line he quotes first—“Opposing gay marriage is like denying the wishes of people who want to feed your pets or take out the garbage”—certainly sounds bad. It sounds as if I am saying gay people associate with ignoble things. Then, when he deduces a “claim” from this odd statement, I am made to say that gay marriage is something done for the benefit of straight people. But this sentence is plucked from a passage of hostile apostrophe to straight bigots. That’s clear from the longer previous sentence which this short joke glosses: “How can you refuse these sweet-natured, utterly ordinary and gentle people—gay marriageists—who want to sacrifice themselves to this really rather miserably difficult institution, one which doesn’t even work well for straights, who have it so easy?” It’s not just a “sort of joke”; it’s a joke, and maybe Crain didn’t find it funny, but it was directed at bigots, not gay couples; and the plain sense of what I wrote, here inverted, is that people who oppose gay marriage are denying others’ requests to do what they themselves say is most important—be married—but don’t live up to themselves, which is hypocrisy.
Crain’s really is a formidable letter, containing a kind of condemnation that is difficult to meet. What am I to do when Crain thinks I “mock” sufferers, pariahs, victims, for wanting the social approbation of marriage? Rather than admit that my point is that society shouldn’t need marriage to acknowledge the worth of relationships? I think society has less reason than ever, today, to say that marriage is more virtuous than friendship and the thick web of non-marriage relations that came out of feminism and gay liberation. For that matter, I understand Stanley Cavell, too, contrary to Crain’s reading, to be saying in Pursuits of Happiness that when people are married, it’s because they know they are married, whether others recognize it or not, regardless of judges or clergy. There are many marriages in Cavell’s set of Hollywood remarriage comedies, but almost never a wedding. That’s partly why his category is “remarriage” (indifferent to whether the partners have ever literally been married before), since to this existential relation society cannot set a right and upon it there can be no law.
Crain’s truly prejudicial remark is this: “(Lurking behind the cartoon figure of the promiscuous gay man, whom your essay eulogizes, is his inevitable twin, the gay eunuch.)” This is the alien importation. The essay does not eulogize gay sexual “promiscuity.” It speaks of three things by name, in its sections about the historical benefits of gay liberation: love, households, and friendship. This isn’t code. Love is love, and the “sexual household” is the way you live with someone, and whom you live with. My sentimental material about the long left tradition of free love may have been stupid (or old-school, or hippy-dippy), but it isn’t Crain’s “animal” licentiousness, and it isn’t portrayed as a gay phenomenon, either. These visions of promiscuity and eunuchs are someone else’s preoccupations about the good things that gay heroism has added to the store of modern life—not mine.
Matthew Gallaway’s letter is a relief, because at least I recognize my failings in it. Gallaway issues a reproof without insinuation. It seems heartfelt and makes me ashamed of the lapses of tone in my essay. I’m particularly sorry that he hears a failure to acknowledge the magnitude of the tragedy of the death of a generation from AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. That sentence was something I labored over—the moment passes very quickly in the essay, and I worked hard to tune it right—and I regret that I blew it.
Sadie Stein eloquently defends sentimentality for its significance to the expression of people’s real feelings. I’d simply say that we’re entitled to apply our sentimentality to the things we do believe in, do want to convince people of, and do feel, and that it’s not unkind or thoughtless to be on guard against taking one’s sentimentalisms from elsewhere. This doesn’t require you to be guilty for your feelings. We just don’t need to bow down before the idols of those who want to restrict our lives, even if their votaries say they feel very strongly or sentimentally about it. And, of course, in the essay, the pleas for anti-sentimentalism on two topics was followed by my sentimentalization of sex in the last; so I’m not trying to throw out feelings for the sake of chilly reason.
As for my charges against the over-sentimentalization of marriage, I really can’t share the upset at reservations voiced about marriage, titanically steady and eternal as it is. I don’t think desentimentalizing it a bit in its public manifestations, or peering into its backstage, will harm it, nor keep us from marrying, nor diminish the intimate sentiment between married partners. I think it is like saying bad things about the Yankees or God.
Which points toward the dispute in Emily Votruba’s letter. She, like Caleb Crain, is a contributor to this magazine, and also n+1’s longtime copy editor. If I understand her correctly, she and I share the same views but she objects to my emphasis, and my inadequate sympathy toward marriage, at a time of strife. I can see that I may have been inadequately forceful in saying why I do think gay marriage is a necessary struggle now—but that’s partly because I feel certain that it will be achieved, bigots be damned (because our legal system won’t stand for anything less), and I was trying to turn attention to what comes after we get it.
I’m afraid, with Louisa Thomas’s letter, I’m just left in the position of respectfully saying, No. “Consumer choice”—I’ve happily denounced that Moloch myself, and that’s not what’s at stake here. Abortions “cause harm.” No, they don’t. “Desire is a tyrant. It doesn’t care a whit for other people.” No, not mine. To believe in the freedom to settle the terms of your own diverse relationships just doesn’t entail a kaleidoscopic dystopia of choices without values. All it takes to know this is a bit of introspection. Do you really not care a whit for the people you desire until you’re safely harbored in marriage—and that, suddenly, is when you learn what caring is? This is a Christian holdover in which desire is always corrupting and anti-relational, nearly Manichaean.
Most importantly, it’s not the case that abortions get called “a ‘tragedy’” as a sign of our shrinking or reluctance “because we don’t want to call them ‘wrong.’” Thomas’s implication is that our morality isn’t strong or wise enough to cope with the sadness that can come with a major life choice or life-turning, and this sorrow is proof of an unacknowledged moral flaw. No. We don’t think to call abortions “wrong” because they’re not wrong. Personal sadness is separate.
The conceit that there are “fewer and fewer ways to understand how to make choices” is a bone we should all probably stop gnawing. Our moral systems are pretty well intact, in a secular and partly egalitarian age. I have a religious background, most of my friends don’t, and I find next to no predictive difference between us on points of judgment, moral probity, or social respect. “Wrong” hasn’t gone out of the language in any common situation, except when one is teasing “moral relativist” professors who have not been seen on campuses in twenty years, if they existed. What has really emerged in the past forty years isn’t the loss of systems of judgment but the coexistence of good, multiple, equally binding systems, and the gain of some empirical facts about a plurality of ultimate ends, or of “the good,” among different people. Feminism and gay liberation were essential to that proof. It turns out women didn’t want only what men had told them they wanted, and gay people held ends other than reassembling a heterosexual nuclear family. This leaves me, personally, with a strong sense of “responsibility” to a different end, to try to hew to a secular, democratic morality that respects these truths of plural ends which we are all always breaking our skulls upon—because it is so difficult to accept that other minds are both like and unlike ours.
Finally, it’s important to both Votruba and Thomas that I talk about my being married. I don’t think I was hiding something by not speaking of the basis of the essay in experience. I try not to criticize, in print, things in which I’m not implicated, or that I have not tried, or do not do. Nor for that matter do I usually need to puzzle out situations in print where I’m not to some degree in the wrong. It’s a limited view of writing to think an author isn’t the object or target of his own critique, almost before anybody else. And I did want to protect the people and incidents in my life from being pawed over, first of all by me.
When I got married, shortly before I wrote the essay, the person I married was to me the reason, and our long relationship was to me the essential thing. I learned the degree to which people treated us differently, and more sentimentally, as a married couple, a change that didn’t do us any good and also didn’t seem justified. Had our relationship been worth less before? Not to me. Was marriage really the source of the values we wanted, or didn’t we already possess those values first? I had never believed people who said formal marriage constituted assent to the social order as it stands, until I experienced it. That was the personal dimension of my thinking.
Vectors of Marx
In 1999, the New Yorker’s “Next” issue, published ten years after the collapse of actually existing socialism in Eastern Europe, sketched the cultural future by doing a highbrow version of Faith Popcorn’s trend tracking. The New Yorker’s “Next Big Thinker” was Karl Marx, and he was recommended by way of a penurious writer’s conversation with an unnamed trader at a party in the Hamptons; the occasion was the dot-com boom. Ten years later, you formally recapitulate that conversation in a Midtown interview with an anonymous hedge fund manager, in an exchange surrounded by more pointed recommendations of Marx as the indispensable analyst of the current economic crisis. Kondratiev’s Long Waves have their impalpable “superstructural” analogue, it seems, in the imperatives of intellectual life.
I certainly agree that “it is only from a Marxian standpoint that the recent credit bubble can be understood.” But n+1’s Marxs seem to multiply indefinitely, so that we’re presented with the Marx of volume 1 as against volume 3 of Capital, the Marx who appears in the work of David Harvey and Robert Brenner, the Marx who emphasizes the “internal contradictions” of capitalism as opposed to the external, “natural limits” of growth, the Marx who presides over the “orthodox story” of postwar capitalism, and the Marx who anticipates Hobson and Keynes by explaining economic crises in terms of underconsumption.
Which Marx do we want to believe? Or can we believe them all? “There is always more than one of them,” as Derrida insists in Specters of Marx (1993). I prefer the whole lot, and my preference is determined by the notion that Marxism is just the arguments we’ve had over what he and his interlocutors can tell us about the real world. The point is not to get right with Marx; the point is to change that world.
As I read it, the important difference between volume 1 and volume 3 of Capital is that Marx revised his periodization of capitalism as he shifted his attention from a theoretical analysis of the commodity form to a study of the historical evidence (a move already underway in the last third of volume 1). In volume 3, he studied the new corporate forms of business enterprise and their adjunct in the banking system (“modern credit”), and decided that between them they had socialized property by separating ownership and control—the “transformation of the actually functioning capitalist into a mere manager, an administrator of other people’s capital,” signified the “abolition of capital as private property within the boundaries of capitalist production itself.”
So modern credit and modern corporations created what Marx called a “socialised mode of production.” This new periodization of capitalism—this sense of a legible ending—is indispensable in explaining the current crisis. At any rate it is more useful than the explanations on offer in n+1 Issues 7 and 8, where the root cause of the crisis, the priority of “financial speculation over longer-term productive investment,” gets traced to (a) floating currencies (“On Your Marx”), (b) excessive consumption (“Growth Outgrown”), or (c) the “natural limits” of accumulation (Harvey interview). For the new periodization residing in volume 3 lets us see what Keynes saw, that the real problem we face is surplus capital—what Ben Bernanke used to call the “global savings glut,” what your anonymous HFM calls “the demand for that paper,” and what “On Your Marx” calls “vast quantities of over-accumulated capital.”
Let me try to connect these dots. The rise of the modern-industrial corporation in the early 20th century changed everything by permitting the increase of output without a corresponding increase of inputs, whether of labor or capital. In the 1920s, for example, there was a net loss of 1 million manufacturing jobs as non-farm labor productivity rose 60 percent and industrial output rose 40 percent. Meanwhile, as profits and dividends doubled, net investment declined 20 percent. Less socially necessary labor, less capital invested, and yet unprecedented economic growth: how is that possible? Electrification of industrial plant helped by reducing energy costs, but the crucial cause of the increase in total-factor productivity—of both capital and labor—was the reconstruction of the labor process within the new social matrix of the corporation.
As a result—and for the first time in human history—growth happened without net additions to the capital stock or to the labor force. But when that happens, profits become pointless, redundant, ornamental; as so much surplus capital, all they can do is haunt the system. They no longer have an economic function because net investment in new plant and equipment becomes unnecessary—the mere replacement and maintenance of the existing capital stock (out of depreciation funds) is more than enough to increase productivity and output. So corporate profits since the 1920s have inevitably flowed into “financial speculation” as against “productive investment” because when the latter is unnecessary to drive growth, the former becomes their only remaining receptacle—it’s not even a choice, because if you want a return on the income you don’t need, you put it in the bank and hope the bankers know what they’re doing.
The insignia of this fundamental reality reside in the stock market bubble of the late 1920s, the “junk bonds” and merger mania of the 1980s, the “emerging markets” and dot-com bubble of the 1990s, and finally the crazed housing market of the early 21st century. You might well ask what happened between 1933 and 1973, but the short answer is already available in “On Your Marx”—it’s Keynes dynamized, which, as the Harrod-Domar model demonstrated in the 1940s, is a distant echo of Marx’s reproduction schemes in volume 2 of Capital.
So what is to be done? If growth happens without net investment, and therefore corporate profits function only as fuel for the next bubble, then the programmatic future of the left is clear—it must insist on the redistribution of income away from profits/saving, toward wages/consumption, as the condition of balanced economic growth. The intellectual corollary, however, is that it must embrace consumer culture as the condition of moral progress and environmental integrity. The economic and the ecological imperatives of the left converge at this unlikely intersection; for if our purposes are to manage the crisis, to establish the groundwork for sustainable growth, to protect the environment, and to create a more perfect, equitable union, then a decline of consumption is precisely what we do not need.
Here’s why. If we don’t tax corporate profits and high-end incomes in the name of equality—that is, if we don’t redistribute national income toward consumers—we’ll never escape the cycle of more bubbles and more crises and more misery. And if we don’t take Marx’s distinction between use value and exchange value seriously, we’ll never understand that consumer preferences might work as a practical limit on growth as it is determined by what he designated the “formula for capital” (M-C-M΄).
The use value of a commodity, the man argued, is the purpose it serves in your life—the shoes you buy protect and adorn your feet, for example (and notice that one of your purposes already goes beyond mere need), toward the artful excess that is desire for attractive adornment—while the exchange value is its price, its value in money, the “universal commodity.” Use values are local, particular, material, and, unless they’re parts of a tradition (an heirloom, say), typically short-lived. In any event, they’re finite.
Exchange values are by contrast unlimited because, in the absence of inflation, the universal commodity doesn’t decay or depreciate—money in the bank doesn’t have to be worn to be of value to its owner, and it stays valuable only by getting bigger. The “grope of wealth,” as Henry James called our “reiterated sacrifice to pecuniary profit,” is inherently infinite because the unique purposes of particular, material things—even living things—are only means to its abstract, monetary ends.
In this sense, the use values consumers want are actually existing limits on the “formula for capital,” on the exchange values CEOs, bankers, traders, and fund managers need. At any rate we could treat them as practical limits, real constraints, on growth as it is now conceived by these Masters of the Universe—as an endless search for higher returns, greater profits.
So why don’t we treat them as such? Is it because we have a built-in bias toward the manly virtues of production? Well, yes, just ask Matthew Crawford, the best-selling author of Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009). Is it because we associate consumption with tuberculosis, decay, passivity, femininity, and dread? Well, yes, just ask Tyler Durden, the founder of Fight Club, or his prosaic double, David Brooks. Do these answers explain why we avoid the obvious conclusion—that consumer culture is good for the economy, the environment, and our souls?
More to the point, is the “old mole” standing in the way of this conclusion? Or is Marx the original, indispensable theorist of underconsumption as both the proximate cause of every economic crisis and the moral index of exploitation under capitalism? Well, yes, of course, to both questions.
The editors reply:
n+1 is grateful for Jim Livingston’s letter, intellectually one of the richest and politically one of the most sympathetic we’ve received. “Full Employment” (page 19) wasn’t conceived of as a reply, but can serve as a complementary argument to Livingston’s. As for the multiplication of Marxs in our pages, this mainly reflects the different authorship of various pieces. But it’s easy for all of us to agree with Livington’s call for “the redistribution of income away from profits/saving, toward wages/consumption, as the condition of balanced economic growth.” Harder to see is how he can reconcile the imperatives of increased consumption and environmental sustainability; for that we may have to wait for the book he is preparing.
We vs. Me
I don’t like the editorial “we” in the opening sections. Is it supposed to be an homage to the old New Yorker “Talk of the Town” pieces? In any case, I find it gets tiresome and sounds affected. That’s probably in part because I’m rather older than you all, so “we” probably doesn’t include me (in your heads) and certainly doesn’t include me, judging by the tired, cynical tone. (I keep thinking you’re all too young to be so tired.)
I like what you’re doing. I would renew if I hadn’t lost my job . . . editing a magazine. The publisher killed me off, then hired a freelancer half my age, for half my salary, and with no benefits. Sound familiar?
NLR Still Kicking
I would like to thank Nikil Saval for judging the NLR by its record [“New Left Review, 1962–Present,” n+1 Issue 8]. The secrets of the NLR are hidden in plain sight in those back issues, not in the minutiae of confidential documents. Internal discussions were vital—but generally verbal, with minutes laconically registering decisions.
One factual observation is not right, to the effect that the review “betrays no sign of a generational renewal, with nearly all of its editorial committee over the age of 60.” The editorial committee plus editor comprise fifteen people of whom six are over 60. The editor is in her mid-50s and six members are under 50 years (three in their 40s and two in their 30s and one in her 20s). The younger members of the committee, together with the editor, write quite a bit and do more of the commissioning and editing than the old guard. While this is a bit middle-aged compared with the ’60s there are real signs of generational renewal—something even more marked among the contributors.