Brief thoughts on Lily Allen

Lily Allen’s ‘feminist’ video ‘Hard Out Here’ is old news, a couple of months old, but I’m behind the times and I’ve just encountered it, and its critical responses, today. Its flaws have already been amply pointed out, with particular attention paid to the video’s exploitative attitude towards black women, who are merely sexual objects here. But so far I haven’t seen anyone critiquing the music.

I don’t think that the video, shown below, is remotely critical of the sexist ideological universe it is ostensibly critiquing. The lyrics do, it’s true, give us a sarcastic view of pop videos and popular cultural attitudes to women, but the video still provides the ideologically necessary titillation. The music contributes powerfully to this. In form (the way verse and chorus alternate conventionally) and content (the shape of the melody and the song’s harmonic features) it is extremely simple and digestible: the music is bright, perky, pleasant, unchallenging, and so readily accessible that its essential musical point can be grasped by many millions of people within a few seconds (the YouTube video has had nearly 16 million views to date).

This simplicity of form and content, the catchiness of pop music, its immediacy and appeal, is what makes it the favoured commodity form for music in advanced capitalism. Really Lily Allen’s song is just like everything else in this regard. Pop music seems to offer the instant gratification that we are taught that we desire from music, without being ultimately satisfying (because if it satisfied us, we’d stop consuming it). For much of the time, when songs have any evident content, it is, as a first-year student of mine noted in a presentation last term, some more or less bland statement about love, money, sex, or drugs. These bland statements tend to meander around a narrow space bounded by a conservative ideological frame. We should all pursue the One; we should want money but not too much, because that makes us nasty, shallow people, when instead we should be pursuing the One; we can be terribly liberal about sex, and even allow it between persons of any age or race or sex, because we’re so liberal, but ultimately the One is the person we should focus our sexual interest on; and drugs are our permitted transgression, the thing that gives us edge, but without posing a real challenge to convention. The simple appeal of the music that presents this network of messages serves the purpose of sugaring the ideological pill: it’s a positive pleasure to internalize these ideological messages.

Back, finally, to the specifics of Lily Allen’s song, which presents itself as being antagonistic to modern forms of pop-culture sexism. Overall, the interaction of music and video does little more than provide the ideologically normal objectification of women with a nice reassurance that it’s ironic, so we can feel good about ourselves while nothing at all is changed. The catchy nature of the tune absolutely contributes to this: it says ‘Look, it’s really easy and pleasurable to be a feminist: not only will the experience be perky and pleasurable, but you don’t even have to change the materials you consume – you can still look at close-ups of women’s backsides being sprayed with champagne as they mock-fellate a bottle, because it’s all a joke. If it gives you a hardon, it’s OK: it’s a feminist hardon!’. It’s as cynical as a major corporation saying that the purchase of their goods is somehow a way of giving to charity, a way of making us feel good about preserving the status quo. Yet I suspect you’re unlikely to read a critique of ‘Hard Out Here’, or Jessie J’s ‘Do It Like a Dude’, or any other ‘critical’ pop that targets the musical materials in the same way, because there is an unquestioned assumption that because pop appeals to millions, it must be ‘democratic’. I think instead we need to return to the old Marxist position, nicely developed by Adorno, that what we’re mistaking for democratic reach is the poisonous and anti-progressive narcotic effect of a musical opiate for the masses.

Brain scans prove there is no difference between male and female brains

Neural map of a typical man's brain. Photograph: National Academy of Sciences/PA
Neural map of a typical man’s brain. Photograph: National Academy of Sciences/PA

There is nothing a science journalist likes more than research which seems to prove an unexamined cultural prejudice. Today’s big story  on the ‘proof’ of the difference between observable connexions in male and female brains is a case in point. After studying over 1,000 brains from people covering a range of ages, scientists have discovered, as the Guardian reports it, ‘what many had surely concluded long ago: that stark differences exist in the wiring of male and female brains’.

Two things should immediately give pause here. First, there are no wires in human brains. The centuries-old popular reliance on the metaphor of the machine, now more usually imagined specifically as a computer, is no doubt heuristically useful, but it produces an intellectually sloppy short circuit (to keep the metaphor going): if the brain is wired, then it’s fixed, it has an essential form aligned to its function  – it is, in short, natural. (The wiring metaphor is not the Guardian columnist’s invention, incidentally: one of the study’s authors is quoted talking about the ‘hardwiring’ of women’s brains. And it’s an extremely common metaphor in scientific discourse.)

Second, when science ‘proves’ something that ‘many had surely concluded long ago’, it is fair to ask whether this is because the scientists have proceeded on the basis of an untested assumption, which their badly constructed experiment and fallacious inferences then ‘prove’. That is a central argument of Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, and it is easy to see how the present study could be open to similar criticisms. In this case, as so often, the prejudice follows this syllogistic pattern:

  1. Men and women are essentially different
  2. Men and women are natural
  3. Therefore the differences between men and women must be natural

The conclusion of the present bit of research – that male and female brains are ‘wired’ differently – circularly establishes (1) above. But it is a contention of a differently motivated body of knowledge, which questions prejudices rather than trying to find proof for them (namely gender studies), that while there are unquestionably differences in the behaviour and patterns of thought, etc., in adult men and women, those differences are not natural but constructed by highly complex and largely invisible social pressures. The gender-studies syllogism is something more like this:

  1. Men and women appear to be different
  2. Men and women are a product of their experience as well as of their genetic inheritance; they are the products of a culture acting on nature
  3. Therefore the apparent difference between men and women must be constructed

The most significant line in the Guardian report is one which is not picked up, in the report, by the authors of the study:

Male and female brains showed few differences in connectivity up to the age of 13, but became more differentiated in 14- to 17-year-olds.

Neural map of a typical woman's brain. Photograph: National Academy of Sciences/PA
Neural map of a typical woman’s brain. Photograph: National Academy of Sciences/PA

That really is very interesting, to anyone willing to pause for thought. Let us allow that the observed differences in adult brains are significant, and that brain science is capable of communicating details of value (though there is considerable scientific scepticism on this point). Those differences are not manifested until the age of 14–17. It follows that the assumption that girls and boys below that age are ‘essentially’ different, ‘because their brains are wired differently’ is unsupported by the evidence. It is wrong to suggest that boys and girls have a ‘natural’ difference, which can be traced to brain design, because the study does not support such a claim. On the contrary, if we think that gendered difference is explicable only by brain design, we ought to conclude from this study that there should be no difference, at least no difference occasioned by brain design, between boys and girls. We should expect boys and girls up to the age of 14–17 to behave the same way as each other, want to wear the same clothes and do the same activities, etc. – i.e. not to exhibit stereotypical gendered behaviours. Those stereotyped behaviours (‘logical thinking’ for boys, ‘intuitive thinking’ for girls, in the words of the study’s authors) simply should not manifest themselves until puberty. So let’s end talk about boys and girls being differently gendered at all.

But it is also necessary to ask why the difference observable in adult brains starts to manifest in the 14–17 age bracket. One answer is that the hormonal changes of puberty ‘must influence it’. That ‘must’ is quite a considerable assumption, and without extensive evidence, it cannot be sustained. The gender-studies assumption would be that it is only by the age of 14–17 that the cultural pressures to conform to certain gendered behaviours can start to have their effect – maybe in profitable interaction with the hormonal changes of puberty. Perhaps the state of puberty enables the brain to refashion itself in order to fix these observable adult differences. But there is no reason to suppose that it is the biological experience of puberty alone which causes those changes to take place. But of course for a scientist desperate to show that gendered differences are ‘natural’, a purely natural explanation of this change will be sought. And yet their own study is fighting against them.

If – as I am sure is the case – the scientists believe that boys and girls exhibit different gender behaviours, they can find no explanation for this in the brain science in their study. That is to say that the brain science of this study does not explain the difference they observe, and that anyone can observe, in the gendered behaviours of boys and girls. Let us generalize that statement just a little bit: the brain science of this study does not explain the observable difference between gendered behaviours at all. Boys and girls do exhibit differences in gendered behaviour, after a while (certainly by the age of 13 it is pronounced), but the brain science does not have an explanation for that. And yet the scientists assume that their brain science does explain the difference between the gendered behaviours of adult men and women. Reports on this study therefore hold, unwittingly, to two irreconcilable claims, which can only be explained by a refusal to acknowledge the prejudice that is absolutely driving the inferences from the study: first, that the brain science doesn’t prove gendered difference, and second that the brain science does prove gendered difference.

The majority of reports on scientific studies of human behaviour and culture suggest that science has ‘proven’ an orthodox cultural assumption. This provides good copy because it’s nice for the layperson, who shares these orthodox cultural assumptions, to feel that someone clever has spent a few million quid investigating the matter with expensive machines and a research team of other very clever people. It allows people to say ‘Well I could have told you that!’ in the pub, and feel very contented. Good public ‘impact’, no doubt. But when the assumptions underlying the study in general, the specifics of its design, and the science’s blindness to its own internal contradictions are so patently dubious, there is no reason at all to be persuaded by its claims. Yet again, I’m left feeling that, brushing aside the collegial pieties about humanities scholars respecting scientific research (when there is no expectation that this respect should be returned), the old ‘two cultures’ argument has some legs left. A major part of humanities research and teaching continues to depend on a thoughtful critique of the cultural assumptions, hugely invidious, which science of this sort unquestioningly bolsters.

‘Impact’ as surplus value

Hegel teaching

Universities are increasingly treated like businesses, and most people seem to think that this is a good thing. According to the general prejudice, public-sector organizations like universities tend towards considerable economic wastage, while private-sector businesses are economically efficient, making the most out of the money they invest. Since the money that pays for universities comes from taxes levied on the citizens of the country in which they exist, it seems reasonable to require universities to demonstrate that the money is being well spent. One of the latest means that the government and funding councils like the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have settled on is to measure the ‘impact’ of research, i.e. the ‘impact’ of the books and articles that scholars write. (Their definition of what this ‘impact’ might be is quite surprising; I shall explain it later.)

Much has been written about the dangers of the ‘impact’ agenda, which seems essentially to require universities to defend their very existence in terms of the economic (as opposed to civilizing) benefit they bring to society, and a Council for the Defence of British Universities has been founded partly to resist this pressure. But in this blogpost I want to make a different and simpler point. The forced comparison to business distorts the investigation, irrespective of the merits of the idea of ‘impact’, because it focuses attention not on what might be considered the proper activity of universities, their teaching and research, but on an alchemical byproduct of their normal activity, a ‘surplus value’ that can potentially be sold into private hands in a direct transfer of public money into the private sector. As strange as it may seem, I want to suggest that acquiescing in or supporting the drive to assess ‘impact’ is therefore at the same time to acquiesce in or to support the privatization of universities.

The production of surplus value

Business operates according to a simple model under capitalism. Suppose that it costs the owner of a trouser factory £5 to pay a worker and £5 for the raw materials, associated factory costs (electricity, upkeep of the machinery, etc.), distribution costs, and so on, so that his total outlay is £10. He asks the worker to make him a pair of trousers that he can sell for £12. The value of the pair of trousers is £10, which is the cost the businessman paid for the materials (etc.) and the labour. That additional £2 is ‘surplus value’ that has been created by the worker in manufacturing the pair of trousers for the businessman, and it is taken away for profit. There is, therefore, a kind of alchemy in capitalism: the businessman pays £10 and gets £12 back.

In essence, the current idea of ‘impact’ in universities works in the same way. It costs a certain amount to fund the teaching and research that goes on in universities (call that the £5 labour cost of the trouser-making example I’ve just given: it includes the wages of the administrative and support staff as well as academics) and a certain amount to maintain the buildings and libraries and invest in the raw materials (books, journal subscriptions, accommodation blocks, etc.) that are essential to the running of a university, the second £5 in my earlier example. Universities then ‘produce’ teaching and research, and students come away having had a certain intensity of intellectual training that is reflected partly in their degree certificate. But none of those things, as we shall see, count as ‘impact’, which does not focus on the things ‘produced’ within the ‘factory’ of the university (the teaching and research), but instead is focused on a surplus. The model is somewhat similar to healthcare, a comparison I shall return to. In a healthcare system like the NHS the costs of wages, buildings, means of treatment, and machinery, and so on, are incurred in the ‘production’ of healthcare, i.e. the treatment of illness in the patients who present to the NHS. It may seem that the most sensible measure of whether the money was well spent would be to assess the teaching and research that emerges from the universities (or the health treatments that emerge from the NHS). But ‘impact’, as I say, looks for something else.

Definitions of impact

For the purposes of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the latest manifestation of the government’s periodic research-monitoring scheme, ‘impact’ is defined in the following terms. (‘Impact’ is also assessed as part of research grant applications to bodies such as the AHRC, and is often slightly nuanced in its definitions in each particular context, but the broad outlines of all conceptions of ‘impact’ match this.)

Impact is defined as an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia (as set out below).


  • Impacts on research or the advancement of academic knowledge within the higher education sector (whether in the UK or internationally) are excluded. […]
  • Impacts on students, teaching or other activities within the submitting HEI are excluded
  • Other impacts within the higher education sector, including on teaching or students, are included where they extend significantly beyond the submitting H[igher] E[ducation] I[nstitution]

In a certain sense the language sounds reasonable, the demands fair: surely universities should have an effect on society or culture. But as can be seen from the emphases I have added, ‘impact’ specifically does not measure the teaching and research that is being paid for actually within universities: that means that ‘impact’ does not include the changes a scholar makes on the lives of the students they teach or the colleagues they interact with, through their research, around the world. ‘Impact’ measures instead the surplus value generated in the process of producing teaching and research, some uses of which I will elaborate below.

The unreasonable nature of this demand can be seen clearly if we translate the process into healthcare terms. In the ordinary sense of the word, we might measure the impact of a heart surgeon’s work by the number of people whose lives she saves by carrying out heart surgery. But this is work for which the surgeon is paid, and for which the facilities are maintained: this is the value of the surgeon’s work (the £10 of the original calculation), but what ‘impact’ is looking for is the surplus-value of that work, an unforeseen, additional £2. The definition of a surgeon’s ‘impact’ would be, to translate the REF’s terms, ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, the environment or quality of life, beyond the healthcare profession’. So, the surgeon might have to demonstrate that her work inspired a television company to film her operations (and so made a profit, as a television production company), or led to a major exhibition at a museum of the history of medicine (which, again, made a profit through ticket sales), and so on.

There are only two obvious reasons why anyone in the higher education system could possibly support the assessment of ‘impact’. The first is that they haven’t thought it through to see how ludicrous its definition is (in fact, many people have criticized it, in print and in public speeches, in precisely these terms). The second reason is that they support the economic model that it exemplifies and helps to drive.

The ideological logic of impact

The assessment of ‘impact’ should, I think, be understood for what it is: the imposition of a capitalist productive logic on the working lives of universities, as a necessary background to their privatization. For one last time a glance at the NHS can help to clarify this development. What started, decades ago, as the private-sector outsourcing of cleaning, cooking, and other non-medical services has become, under the latest legislation, the compulsory putting out to tender (i.e. giving to private hands) of core medical services (read this). Similarly, the non-academic services of universities are in a long process of transition into public/private ‘partnership’, more advanced in some universities than in others; and the front-line academic service provision – the teaching of students – is taking baby steps into the private sector, as the BSc in Business and Enterprise taught by the gigantic education business Pearson and validated as a degree by Royal Holloway, University of London, exemplifies.

There is no ostensible link between the assessment of ‘impact’ and the development of private degree programmes, except at this one crucial theoretical level: the ‘impact’ agenda requires universities to generate surplus value, which is then measured. If surplus value falls below a certain acceptable level, the universities are penalized. And this surplus value is an alchemical byproduct of the academic ‘production’ of universities, a possibility either for spin-off industries – such as private research labs that stand to make a profit from the development of drugs or technology – or indeed for private education companies to use the brand identity of a university to sell a degree. In the case of the Pearson degree, RHUL does no teaching but the surplus value of RHUL’s own teaching and research activity creates a bonus, the aura of a piece of paper, a degree certificate, which can be sold for private profit. Expertise paid for in the public sector is then leeched off by the private sector, which does not invest in the perpetuation of the expertise but merely benefits from its surplus value.[1]

I have made several comparisons to the NHS in this post, but there is one significant difference between universities and the healthcare profession, which should worry academics, who should do something about it, and the general public, who should demand that we do. In the health service, professional bodies are fighting the government, while in universities the voices of individuals, which are often eloquent (Stefan Collini is one of the most vocal: see this LRB piece and his book), are ignored by their vice chancellors and the directors of research funding councils, both of whom are almost (not entirely, but almost) entirely complicit with the government’s agenda.

It seems like a reasonable, moderate, realistic response to current political pressures (‘We simply have to explain how we are providing value-for-money: it is economically and politically naive, in a time of general austerity, to refuse to justify our existence economically.’). In reality it is nothing of the sort. The ‘impact’ agenda is not merely a crass annoyance. We academics are not being asked to justify the economic value of the work we do. We are asked to demonstrate the surplus value of the work we do. And we would be fooling ourselves to think that our universities – the universities, I mean, that are owned by the citizens of this country – will have any control over that surplus value once it is produced. Not just because it is unreasonable and wrong-headed but because it proceeds according to a logic of economic exploitation and the transfer of public funds into private hands, we should oppose the ‘impact’ agenda by main force.

  1. The economic model of scholarly presses is, incidentally, the same: they do not pay for the writing, reviewing, or editing of the books and journals they publish. Universities pay for that first through the salaries of their scholars. And they pay a second time, through the cost of the books and journal subscriptions. The publishers sit in a blessed middle ground, feeding off the surplus value, without having to invest anything in the production of their goods. It is unsurprising that the current favoured model for making scholarship ‘open access’, i.e. freely available to all on the internet, is to provide a means of maintaining the publishers’ profit, by charging scholars for the honour of having their work published at all. Once again, the economic system is left unquestioned.

Is opera really all that expensive?

La Scala opera house, Milan

The Proms season has begun, so it’s time for the media to laud and damn high culture all at once. I didn’t get far in a little Guardian discussion between Roger Wright, the director of the BBC Proms, and Laura Barton, a writer on rock music before this little nugget popped up (from Barton):

Away from the Proms, the problem I have with classical music is the lack of democracy – not just to do with how much it costs to go to the opera.

The cost of opera tickets is a kind of totemic measure of ‘elitism’, so casually invoked that it is seldom enquired into. Hundreds of people are involved in every opera performance. There are likely to be between 150 and 200 musicians if it’s a large orchestra with a hefty chorus and a decent number of soloists. There are also backstage people managing the scenery, props, and lighting. These people have to be present at every performance, and they have to be paid each time. There is, then, an inescapable labour cost in opera that far exceeds that required in theatre, or – a more interesting comparison, I think – football. It’s a comparison that Wright makes, and which Barton acknowledges, but it is passed over as a small point not worth examining in their discussion. Yet the figures are interesting.

A BBC sports blogpost from last year investigates the ticket price costs for football matches. The argument is specious.

It’s the football fans’ favourite anecdote to bemoan the price of tickets. But expensive or not, 16 million people watched Football Leagues games last season. Not all of them could have been the wealthy middle classes, munching on prawn sandwiches from the corporate boxes.

That football is expensive is relative. Head to Iron Maiden (remember them) at the Manchester Evening News Arena recently, and the cheapest price was £43. At Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium this season – to watch the Premier League champions and the world’s richest club – it could cost you as little as £28 or £25.

Even at Arsenal where the most expensive ticket will cost you £100 – just 1% of tickets available – they hardly struggle to sell seats.

The measure, then, of whether football tickets cost too much is simply whether they sell. Absent here is any awareness of the sense that for many people, football is the most important or cherished form of entertainment and that they would happily compromise on other things – holidays, quality of housing, nutrition – in order to attend matches. Absent, too, is any measure of the true cost of putting on football, and the extraordinarily level of naked capital generation – the direct transfer of money from many of the poorest in our society (football’s fan base, numerically) to the very richest. There is in short no political analysis of the economics. If the football clubs can get away with it, the ticket price is OK, on this view.

So what are the football and opera ticket prices that people allude to but never really focus on? Here is a snapshot of ticket prices for Arsenal games, taken from their website. They range from £10 to £123.50.

Maybe those are London prices. Here, then, are ticket prices at Manchester United (£16 to £52):

The Old Vic theatre in London has prices ranging from £11 to £58:

And here are Welsh National Opera’s ticket prices at their Cardiff home for a popular (and therefore more than usually expensive) opera:

£5 to £40 for a world-class opera performance, by a company that tours widely round the country, where its ticket prices may be even lower. Ticket prices at Covent Garden are higher – to attend an opera of the Ring you will have to pay between £15 for a standby ticket on the day to about £200 for the best seat in the house – but at English National Opera I’ve never seen a production with a ticket price over £90-odd, and seats in the massive Coliseum balcony range between £12 and £25 for their current production of The Magic Flute.

I wouldn’t make the fatuous argument that as long as tickets are being sold there is nothing wrong with the price of opera tickets. The Royal Opera House in particular – in fact, here it is pretty much out on its own – has scandalously high ticket prices, and often stages very boring productions. But ENO and WNO, and a range of fantastic regional or touring opera companies present interesting, original, and high-quality – Premier League, if you like – opera performances at prices that are often lower than for theatre (which has far fewer people to employ for every performance) or football (which employs a couple of dozen people on pitch). Only Covent Garden can rival the prices of Arsenal ticket prices.

Barton notes that the working-class interest in classical music seemed to drop off ‘probably’ around the birth of rock. The implication is that this is because the working class found a medium that spoke to them more vitally than classical music, and even that the new form was essentially more democratic, morally better, not tainted by ‘elitism’.

Elitism is, of course, the word used to mean ‘The cultural form in which the power of a privileged few is maintained.’ It is a deeply dubious designation. But if we change one word in that definition, so we have ‘The economic form in which the power of the privileged few is maintained’, not only do we have a concern that is infinitely more pressing – because economics exert a much more total control over human beings than cultural entertainments – but we find quite different targets for scrutiny, and football and rock music would be rather higher up the list than classical music.

One of the most important reasons why rock music is more popular than classical is that it is more immediately enjoyable and is therefore more saleable. Classical music, even really freakish stuff like Schoenberg or Birtwistle – is certainly not immune to the pressures of commodification, and CDs sell in their millions, with a few artists, and even fewer record company chief executives, becoming very rich as a result. But the commodification of popular musical forms is in a different league altogether. And again, plenty of pop music (I use that term to include every sub-genre, for brevity) resists its commodity form, and has lyrics and performers who strongly oppose the politico–economic order. Pop isn’t monolithic, and certainly isn’t uniformly a mere tool of capital, generating easily digestible and instantly discardable pap commodities that must be replaced within five minutes. But its greater amenability to commodity exploitation is a characteristic that clearly marks it out from classical music, and it is that, not just questions of taste, that gives it its cultural position today.

According to Marx, the difference between the capitalist and the worker depends on the different cyclical relations they have between money and commodities. The worker has a commodity, their body, which can be sold for money (through paid work) in order that they can buy more commodities: the worker’s cycle is C–M–C. The capitalist, however, has money, which is used to buy commodities (the work of workers), which in turn generates more money. Although the capitalist also buys commodities, he or she doesn’t spend anywhere near as much of their available resources on them. Bill Gates could buy a hundred yachts quicker than a Sainsbury’s checkout operator could buy a nice barbecue. The capitalist’s cycle is therefore M–C–M.

Cultural products like pop and football, which are immensely popular among the working class, demonstrate with uncomfortable clarity the differences between these two cycles, and the way in which these cultural forms can exert economic control over the majority on behalf of the very few.

But in this case it is football, whose real costs are or should be low, that seems to exert the most nakedly unreasonable economic force here, yet it escapes the obloquy customarily hurled at classical music. Ticket prices paid for opera compare extremely favourably to those paid for football. The fact that opera tickets are often (not always) subsidized doesn’t make much difference: anyone can buy them and benefit from the subsidy (though, again, at the Royal Opera House, unless you’re a very expensive category of ‘Friend’, and so capable of buying tickets during the privileged period before they are open to the general public who haven’t paid hundreds or thousands of pounds to show their ‘friendship’, you might not be able to buy any tickets at all).

Opera companies aren’t run by saints and are just as capable of exploitation as anybody else, but can we drop the easy supposition that opera tickets are somehow expensive? Even relative to football they are not. And their costs can quite easily be justified by the costs of staging. Not so with football. When we’re faced with a cultural form that so obviously extracts money so cruelly from millions of people who could do without the exploitation, it’s time for liberals to start thinking a bit more about the positions they hold. Stop making ‘elitism’ the principal cultural target. Attack the thing that really hurts people economically. Attack football.

Has capitalism done as much for gays as Pride?


Today the fortieth Gay Pride march takes place in London. I have a natural sympathy with protest movements and as a particularly striking and long-lived one, the gay pride movement has much to be proud of. It has, at the very least, encouraged millions of people in the West to feel comfortable about expressing sexual feelings that were, for most of the last century, subject to legal and cultural restrictions of a kind that now seem all but unimaginable. Reflecting on early chants from marches in the 1970s, Peter Tatchell says today in the Guardian:

Some of the slogans we shouted were particularly memorable: “2, 4, 6, 8! Gay is just as good as straight! 3, 5, 7, 9! Lesbians are mighty fine!” These were revolutions in consciousness, which went against the grain of virtually all of human history that designated queers as bad, sad and mad.

Let’s pass over the extravagant claim that ‘virtually all of human history’ has demonized homosexuals – a concept that only emerged in human history in the late nineteenth century. What I am more interested to wonder about is the extent to which Gay Pride has genuinely contributed to a ‘revolution in consciousness’.

I remember being a kid of about 10 or 11 in County Durham (this was the late 1980s), with regular appearances of Julian Clary on telly, reports of annual pride marches, and so on, all attracting the same conservative response from the adults around me: ‘these people are not simply not normal: they’re wicked, corrupting, horrible people’. This was a society in which it was perfectly normal for a family friend to say to me ‘You can bring home whoever you like, as long as it’s not a man!’, and there can be little doubt that the presence of openly gay figures in the mass media posed a challenge to that consciousness. But its effect on me, and I am sure many thousands of others, was not to liberate but to oppress. The freedom on show at Gay Pride events was, and to a much lesser extent these days remains, the freedom of people who are already pretty free.

I could not march in London. I could not live in London. I could not live, in economic and cultural independence, anywhere. The freedom I saw expressed in news reports seemed to me not unlike a huge list of economic and cultural freedoms enjoyed by people in other (more southerly, richer) parts of the country, who went to different (private, better achieving, better connected) schools than mine, who spoke with (posher, less comical) accents than mine, and so on. As I wondered about where I fitted on the approved list of sexualities (a list I still thought made some sense, at the time), I did not feel welcomed or encouraged at all by the state of gay protest in the 1980s. Quite the contrary: by making the expression of a non-heteronormative sexuality even more toxic, and making the people around me express their disapproval of it in such forceful terms, it seemed to me that the gay pride movement’s most striking achievement was to wake up my local surroundings to forms of human subjectivity that they weren’t aware of before, but might have been more likely to accept if they simply saw it expressed in me. The freedom of the marchers or the camp telly personalities seemed to redouble the pressure on me to conform. I was a nice boy; I would never be accepted if I became one of these monstrous individuals.

The same East Durham town I grew up in has a different feel these days. I’m not sure it’s possible for two men to walk down the street holding hands, and if it is possible for women it is only because it plays into the misogynist–heteronormative fantasy of ‘lesbians putting on a show for men’s pleasure’. Yet there is more acceptance. Same-sex couples cohabit visibly. There are gay nights in pubs in towns only a dozen miles away (not just only, as it used to be, in bigger cities like Newcastle). It certainly isn’t Shangri-La but a lot of the culturally conservative attitudes about sexuality have been moderated. Consciousness has been, to an extent, revolutionized. Did Gay Pride do that?

Actually, I think not. Elsewhere in the Guardian intervew I’ve already mentioned, Julie Bindel says some reflective things. In response to the interviewer’s question ‘Do you see Pride as a fundamentally conservative and mainstream event now, Julie? This is the criticism levelled at the movement for gay marriage, too.’, she says:

David Cameron said: ‘I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative, I support it because I’m a conservative’ – never a truer word has been said. It is the most conservative struggle we could adopt. But while I’m critical of us wasting time on it – hasn’t it brought the nasty, bigoted homophobes out of the woodwork, too? I think Pride has become both wildly hedonistic and a deeply conservative movement, with its message of “please tolerate us”. I don’t want tolerance, I want liberation.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the conservatism of gay marriage. But this tension Bindel pinpoints between tolerance and liberation reveals something of the complexity of what has brought about an improvement in conditions for gay people in the West. She is right to observe not only that the drive for gay marriage contributes to the maintenance of heterosexual marriage, and is thus anti-feminist, but also that the desire to become part of a ‘normal’, stable, legalized, even religiously blessed once-for-ever romantic union is a deeply conservative thing for politically active gay people – once paragons of resistance and protest – to strive for. Tatchell too bemoans the ‘commercialization’ of Gay Pride in recent years, though it’s a commercialization he thinks can be counteracted.

But the welding together of this thing called ‘gay identity’ – the monstrous social excrescence that made my early teenage years such a secretive hell – and the need to express it through the mediation of certain specially selected commodities is the thing that, by bringing together Gay Pride and the inventiveness of capitalism, has, I suggest, produced the most significant change in consciousness. Except, of course, that it is no change in consciousness at all, ultimately: it is just an expansion of an already existing consciousness.

What Gay Pride offered at first was indeed a provocation. ‘Yes, we’re repellent, but we’re not going away, and nor need we. Your society of good manners and people knowing their place is intolerable and intolerant. It must pass. We will destroy you.’ Such truly revolutionary sentiments, a faithful response to the truth claims of emancipation for people who wish to express non-normative sexuality (whatever that might mean), were inevitably met by a strong reaction. The movement for gay marriage removes in a single gesture any claim that gay rights activists might have for seeking a revolution of the social order. The call instead is a reactive response: ‘We don’t want to overturn the dependence on traditional marriage as the basis for human social organization. We just want to slightly change the definition so that two women or two men can form such units. This will be a slightly different world but still recognizably the old one. People now have even less choice about joining in the marriage system, since whether they want to do it with the same or the other sex, they must do it.’

But Gay Pride, and the increased visibility of openly gay entertainers and public figures, also generated something of much more immediate use to capital: the association of the sexuality, and particularly I think gay male sexuality (though gay female sexuality too is partly governed by the same forces), with certain commodified expressions. Somehow it became accepted as incontrovertible fact that gay men must shop more, preen themselves more, be more sensitive about colours and fabrics, about what they eat, how they gym-tone their bodies, and so on, than straight men. The sexual identity, whose only distinguishing feature from normative sexuality is its preference for different sexual acts, has become entirely mediated by what individuals must eat or wear, what music they must buy, and so on. Homosexuality has, in short, become a marketing possibility. Hence the commercialization of Gay Pride that Tatchell disdains.

Yet by creating an economic space in which gay people can perform their ‘normal’ function as consumers, and indeed show their sophisticated understanding of the West’s dependence on senseless accumulation by buying more, and more discerningly than their straight compatriots, the commodification of sexuality has arguably done more to detoxify homosexuality than Gay Pride could ever do alone. Being gay is a new ‘normal’ not only in the sense that one of its most pressing contemporary calls is for a new form of conservative marriage, but in the sense that, as shoppers, gay people have found a way to become what Capital wants them to become: comfortably interpellated as a novelty space within the totality of commodity production and consumption. Society understands and approves purchase and the aspiration to own goods that ‘express oneself’ – i.e. do our subjective formation for us. By finding a niche, even boys and girls growing up in County Durham surely have a lifeline today that is more helpful to them than Gay Pride alone could offer.

But the sad conclusion is that the new freedom, based on endless consumption, is merely a new oppression, albeit to a slightly different master, the judgement of Capital rather than just cultural attitudes. To fight against this oppression, the gay rights movement needs some radical new ideas.

Black tie, reactive feminism, and gay marriage

The uniform of the imperial ruling classes

Last year I was invited to a dinner at which the dress code was black tie. It was the first time in about a decade that I’d been to one and I had a major freakout before the event. I first wore black tie when I was at university, and in that social context it was marked as something fun, just a bit of dressing up while getting ludicrously drunk. But it isn’t just fun, and I was so concerned about having to wear it last year that I vowed never to do it again.

Black tie – the coming together of a black suit with silk lapels and a black bow tie – is the uniform of the imperial ruling classes. It was formalized by the Edwardians, in a dark period of bloody imperial overreach (rather like the one we live in now, under the American empire). When we read those two words, ‘black tie’, on an invitation, we should be aware of its undertones: only men count (women’s dress isn’t specified, though they’re expected to wear something that emphasizes their bodies), and the rigid separation of men and women is to be insisted on with full ideological force in a performance of separation into intellect (men, all blandly and identically dressed, so that the qualities of their mind in their conversation can be observed the more keenly) and body (women, there to simper, delight, and arouse). It is no more politically neutral to slip into black tie than it is to have a Brits-and-Zulus party with pith helmets. Continue reading Black tie, reactive feminism, and gay marriage

Curiosity killed the anti-capitalist, or, why you should drink more Starbucks coffee

The principal reason we are led to buy and consume one commodity rather than another is the promise that it will offer more than we strictly desire, and certainly more than the alternative. Why drink Coca-cola rather than Co-op own brand? Because ‘Coca-cola is it!’ We won’t get ‘it’ with the Co-op cola. Why buy Nike rather than any other brand? ‘Just do it’, then you’ll see. The ‘something extra’ that commodities offer isn’t always quantifiable, and it’s certainly not consumable. You can’t taste Coke’s ‘it’, can’t feel the just-doing-it-ness of Nike as you lunge around a tennis court. There is simply a satisfaction in the promise, the sense that you’re consuming the best example of whatever it is you’re consuming. Continue reading Curiosity killed the anti-capitalist, or, why you should drink more Starbucks coffee