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Manifestos for our times II

by Sujatha Fernandes on October 24, 2018
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A manifesto is a statement or declaration that describes the injustices of the world and outlines a program of the kinds of changes that should take place within it. People throughout history have written manifestos, from the Cartagena Manifesto by South American independence leader Simón Bolívar in 1812, Marx’s Communist Manifesto in 1848, the radical feminist SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting up Men), written in 1968, and the socialist-feminist, high-tech Manifesto for Cyborgs, written in 1985.

Marx’s Communist Manifesto was one of the most important manifestos ever written. The manifesto talked about class exploitation of the lower classes and it outlined a program for the proletariat (working class) to overthrow the bourgeoisie (ruling classes) and establish a just and equal society without class distinction. The manifesto inspired revolutions and radical social change around the world and its language and passion continue to inspire those who dream of an alternative and just world.

For twelve years, I have been asking students in my classes to write manifestos about the issues that are relevant for them today. This year, students in my course, ECOP2911, Class: Exploring Theory and Method, within the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, read Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and they wrote their own manifestos.

Now more than ever before I noticed a deep concern from young people about the state of the world – especially the dire crisis facing the planet due to global warming, and the rise of the ultra nationalist right wing and its racist and Islamophobic policies. Other issues remain constant, from my former students at the City University of New York to my current students, including employment exploitation and insecurity, the instability of the future for young people, sexual violence, gender discrimination, and drugs.

Here are two of the manifestos from the class this year.

De-Commodify Housing Now!

Jemimah Cooper

(This manifesto was written after having worked in real-estate earlier this year, and becoming acutely aware of just how hyper-commodified the Sydney housing market is. Though I can’t remember a time in which this market was not considered to be in ‘crisis’, I’ve equally never experienced it quite so explicitly as a site of investment— one totally disembedded from any notion of ‘home’. This is of course in a context in which 1.3 million Australian households are ‘in a state of housing need… unable to access market housing or in a position of rental stress’.

Of this number, 373,000 are within NSW.

Nation-wide, 200,000 Australians are on a waiting list for social housing).

A HOUSING ‘CRISIS’?

‘For the oppressed, housing is always in crisis’

— (In Defence of Housing, Madden & Marcuse 2016).

To state that Sydney, or Australia more broadly, is in the midst of a housing crisis is misleading. The twentieth century has already been punctuated by a series of so-called housing ‘crises’—from the crisis of the 1940s, through various ‘boom’ and ‘bust’ periods to the present. Housing prices both rose and fell from the early to late 1970s, before escalating in the late 1980s, by nearly 20% each year.

Simultaneously, the Australian state moved away from a Keynesian style of regulation, to one governed by the dominant ideals of neoliberalism. As Hayward writes in The Reluctant Landlords? A History of Public Housing in Australia, under post-war Keynesianism/the attached Fordist regime of accumulation ‘housing… (had been) considered too important to be regulated and controlled solely by markets’. This ideology was expressed through the creation of the Commonwealth Housing Commission (CHC), asserting that:

We consider that a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen – whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profit

— CHC, 1944.

The CHC allowed citizens to rent housing from the State, with the expectation that this would primarily benefit low-income earners. Between 1947 and 1961, 24% of new housing was public.

The growing adherence of the Australian state to a neoliberal policy suite throughout the 1980s dramatically reduced the power of the CHC. The State employed techniques of deregulation, financialisation and privatisation to allow housing to become increasingly commodified and embedded in systems of accumulation. Consequently, by 2016, Australian social housing represented only 4.2% of all dwellings. In Sydney, house prices have risen 99.4% since 2009.

The treatment of the housing market as a site of financialisation is hardly specific to Australia. Throughout capitalist states, housing has become both increasingly inaccessible, and simultaneously totally integral to circuits of accumulation. That is, its embodiment as a commodity has come to take absolute precedence over any use it may have possessed as a home. The issue is not simply that there is not enough public housing, or that rent is too high. Rather, the issue is that housing is treated as a commodity, rather than a right. This commodification of housing ties in to David Harvey’s (1973) explanation of the economic function of the modern city: whereby rather than functioning as the homes of millions, they exist foremost as geographical and social sites, within which surplus product may be stored. The ‘social’ aspect of this process becomes obvious if we consider the ongoing fetishisation of home-ownership in (particularly) Australian culture. In this, citizens are strongly encouraged to implicate themselves within the accumulative processes of capital represented by the ‘liquid asset’ of a house; engaging in various processes of financialisation (the deregulated mortgage market, negative gearing, capital gains exemptions, etc), in order to secure a strong ‘investment’ — rather than simply a home.

In In Defence of Housing: The Politics of Crisis, David Madden and Peter Marcuse identify how this process of commodification is self-reproducing: operating simultaneously at different scales — not just within singular homes, but also in buildings, neighbourhoods and whole cities. Consider how ever-smaller spaces have been commodified in global metropolises: the practice of subletting spare rooms or even couches, for example. This endlessly commodifying process also ties in to Neil Smith’s notion of a ‘rent gap’ (1987) — whereby processes of gentrification will be driven by the desire of landlords to maximise returns on a given property; prioritising the ‘potential’ rent of land, rather than the capacities or needs of its inhabitants.

Note: this extreme tendency toward commodification should not be taken to suggest that the current housing ‘crisis’ is a result of free-market domination, ruling in the total absence of the state. Rather, the state has always been central to the process of housing commodification — from original state-driven processes of primitive accumulation (the violently redistributive function of the Australian ‘settler state’), the protection and fetishisation of private property, the provision of infrastructure which makes housing possible, aggressive moves of deregulation, and so on. Private home ownership is heavily subsidised and facilitated by the State (for example through processes of deregulating the mortgage market, or policies of negative gearing) — often to a greater degree than ‘public’ housing initiatives. As Bourdieu (2005) wrote, ‘There are, no doubt, few markets that are not only so controlled as the housing market is by the state, but indeed so truly constructed by the state, particularly through the financial assistance given to private individuals…’. With this in mind, we must move beyond perennial questions of the degree to which markets and states should interact in determining housing policy. Rather, we should remove housing from market forces entirely.

WHAT SHOULD WE DO?

The housing shortage is no accident; it is a necessary institution.

— (The Housing Question, Engels 1872).

Is housing an area which is worthy of agitating for? Or is its crisis, as Engels proposes, simply one of the ‘smaller, secondary evils which result from the present-day capitalist mode of production’?

Though I agree with Engels that issues of housing are inextricably linked to the exploitative tendencies of a capitalist modes of production/are reflective of class struggle, I don’t believe that this alone means we cannot fight for accessible housing as an isolated issue.

If anything, housing is one of the most important areas in which we can fight for change. In the same way that we can have universal education and health care within a capitalist system (non-withstanding their failings), we can also demand universal housing — at least until the revolution.

That is, change can exist in the housing market, even if we fail to immediately revolutionise that of the labour.

HOW?

Comrades,

Foremost, we need to de-commodify the housing system. That is to say, housing must be dis-embedded from the circuits of financialisation within which it currently functions. The processes of deregulation and privatisation should equally be stopped and reversed. The implication of the global financial market (for example through foreign investment) in Australian housing should be totally prohibited.

Following this, all urban housing should be re-appropriated by the state, and totally socialised. In urban centres, private home-ownership will be prohibited. Particularly, the 11.2% of Australian dwellings, which are currently unoccupied should be seized, and reallocated according to need. Rent should be set as a percentage of inhabitants’ income: say, 20% — with the State subsidising the remainder if needed. Any housing shortages should be met by the construction of public housing, and its unconditional provision — so that any citizen unable to pay rent will still be provided with a home.

More broadly, there are issues which require the deconstruction of the capitalist state. Returning land seized from Indigenous Australians from 1788 onward, for example, can only occur in a world where corporate mining interests are not inextricably tied to the aims of ruling government. Similarly, returning rural land to commons, permitting total self-management, and considering the environment, culture and history in housing policy— are all impossible aims under the conceptual and material constraints of our neoliberal present. In this Engels is correct: housing struggle is reflective of the greater working-class struggle, and a consequence of exploitative capitalist tendencies. Ultimately however, we can fight for both a class revolution, and demand universal housing — immediately. As DeFilippis and Wyly note in their 2010 article ‘Mapping Public Housing: The Case of New York City’: public housing is (already) everywhere — if we only consider the degree to which the government is willing to subsidise middle and upper-class home ownership, as well as processes of speculative investment.

Reseize the commons!

Decommodify housing!

Revolutionize the State!

Beyond Consent – A Marxist Feminist Manifesto on Alleviating Sexual Violence and The Fight for Better Sex.

Lara Sonnenschein

The #metoo movement has brought the topic of sexual violence within our institutions and communities to the fore. Survivors have taken to varying forms of media from personal social media accounts to the corporate mainstream media, sharing their stories and shining a light on the sexual abuse they’ve experienced, and the deliberate concealment of their stories by those more powerful than them. The conversation around sexual violence is a necessary one, and I believe the #metoo movement to be well intentioned, but it is one that has so far lacked a radical politics, failing to adequately address how to tangibly alleviate sexual violence within our communities. Various oft repeated mantras such as ‘yes means yes’, ‘no means no’ and ‘consent is sexy’ fail to offer a genuine and emancipatory approach to quelling intimate gendered and sexual violence. Indeed, they offer a superficial quick-fix non-solution, which fails to prick below the surface and interrogate the very nature of sex and sexual violence in our society. Ultimately, what is currently the normative or hegemonic model pertaining to sex – the consent model is not the answer when it comes to both eradicating sexual violence in our spaces or the vision of a better, more pleasurable sex for everyone.

I. Consent as liberalism

Consent is a legal concept derived from liberal contract theory, and at it’s legal root is not a reciprocal term or concept, but rather is concerned with one person allowing another person to do something to them, whether that entails saying yes or saying no. Classic consent theory is applicable to acts which are unpleasant, dangerous or unsafe, with it’s classical legal function being to make something that would otherwise be harmful or illegal into something okay, like injecting a needle with toxic ink into somebody, or what is more commonly known as tattooing. The idea that the legal system should be our arbiter of sex and sexual violence too, is in and of itself problematic, with courts as patriarchal bodies operating under sexist stereotypes. Moreover, as Marxist feminists we should advocate for a sexual violence framework that seeks to abolish prisons, opposing the criminal justice system. The legal system is an institution which contributes to an unjust world via reproducing the gendered power dynamics that contribute to sexual violence. We need to reject the turn to the state, which advocates for increased incarceration. As Marxists, and as feminists our politics cannot be tied to one that is carceral in nature.

The recent shift from the idea of ‘no means no’ to ‘yes means yes’ does not actually mark a fundamental shift within the politics of consent. Functionally, there is no reason that the same social pressures that would lead me in a sexual situation not to say no, are not going to be the same social pressures that would lead me in a sexual situation to say yes. Indeed, I, and many of my female friends (on top of more overt instances of sexual assault) have said yes to having sex we didn’t really want to have out of a perceived obligation. Further, the recent trend from pop media sites comparing consent to wanting and drinking tea is as dubious as it is dangerous. I’ve said yes to tea many times that I didn’t want to drink, and I’ve accepted mugs of milk, when I can’t stand the taste, struggling to fake a smile in between gulps, drinking out of politeness. This model does not address, let alone eradicate power in sexual relationships.

Moreover, the marketisation of consent is also reflected in our modern era, with the introduction of numerous apps and online contracts where sexually active people can download and sign on the touch screen line, before they engage in sexual encounters. Our vision of a better sexuality cannot be one that is modelled on market or contractual logic.

II. Consent reinforcing patriarchal social relations and heteronormativity.

The contractual idea of sex is indeed neoliberal in nature, seeing individuals as atomistic units which operate solely in their self interest, separate from a society that socially conditions us to act in a certain way. In what interpersonal communication do we, especially as women, know exactly what we want, say exactly what we want, and express ourselves with confidence – why would sex be any different?

Slogans such as ‘no means no’ and ‘yes means yes’, and indeed the consent model more broadly do, I think, come from a well intentioned place. However, practically they serve to reinforce moments in which we, as women grant permission to men using our bodies for their own sexual gratification. Our sexual pleasure is divorced from any framework other than us merely, consenting. As such, working within this dominant framework of sex, we, as women are simultaneously expected to not enjoy ourselves during sex, and yet, our very enjoyment of sex hinges on consent.

The current preoccupation with the consent model functionally denies the opportunity to contest the biggest problem with sex in it’s current framework as something that a man (active) wants and something that a woman (passive) accepts or consents to. As such, our role within the sexual sphere as articulated via the consent model is to act as being the ‘gatekeeper’ to male sexual desire, and ultimately, the path to male ejaculation. Is this not a practice which reinforces a culture of sexual violence or rape culture, where male sexual entitlement is contingent on us, as women? Is this not a model with further entrenches patriarchy and heteronormativity, rather than one that dissolves power relations?

Recently, there has been an upsurge in support for the model of ‘enthusiastic consent’, a sexual ethics premised on asking for a ‘yes’ before engaging in any form of sexual activity. However, the model still sees consent as given, and superficially tinkers with existing problems, rather than confronting them. Indeed, it still offers us a liberal illusion of freedom in contractual relations, arguing that a verbal contract between individuals in regards to sex constitutes a mutual agreement or free exchange, whilst dismissing the power differences between men and women and how we interact with one another on an interpersonal level.

III. The failure of the consent model & fight for better sex.

Many might agree with critiques of consent, however, presumably a significant amount of support for the model stems from a noticeable lack of alternatives in alleviating sexual violence and promoting a culture of better sex. It seems as if many have given up. Consent is the superior model for sexual politics, and it is the best approach that we can hope and advocate for. Certainly these arguments are at least in part premised on the idea that to critique or confront consent as a model for sexual politics will indeed challenge one of our only existing strategies for opposing problematic sexual behaviour.

But, we cannot let the fear blind us. Ultimately, our current model has not on both a cultural or legal level worked in alleviating situations of unwanted sex, nor has it benefitted survivors. Operating as a contractual and legal arrangement, consent is something that is retroactively applied to sexual encounters, at the expense of what survivors say. Consent does not offer us what it promises us, and our refusal to come to terms with that only impinges progress in the field of sexual politics.

At it’s heart, the issue of sexual violence is a political one. It is concretely weaved into histories of gendered power, heteronormativity and the regulation and suppression of human sexual behaviour. Accordingly, any solution to the problem of sexual violence needs to be a political one which addresses power. It is crucial to acknowledge that the option is not consent or nothing, or consent or risk, but rather what we are presented with is the quasi simple liberal ‘solutions’ and an emancipatory, radical political project that aims to target the root causes of sexual violence in our world. These issues stem from capitalist-patriarchy, which as a system, dictates the uneven dissemination of power along gendered lines in every area of life.

Prevailing gender norms, heterosexuality and the false binary that views our public and private lives as separate all need to be dissolved. The idea that all we can an aspire to is ‘consensual’ sex, is one that we, as feminists should wholeheartedly reject. We should advocate for a sex that is wanted and gratifying, and not merely something we tick a box to. It is only by challenging consent that we can begin to consider a radical sexual vision that is premised on pleasure and joy.

Consent is the lowest rung on the ladder. We want the view from the top.

Sujatha Fernandes
Sujatha Fernandes is Professor of Political Economy and Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.

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