photo by SG

Monday, November 17, 2008

Winning the Battle to Lose the War

It seems sometimes (sometimes?) that the Left has everything upside-down. I've been thinking recently specifically of abortion rights, but these thoughts could apply to a variety of other issues.

Since Roe v. Wade was first passed down, the Left has been single-minded in its quest to save it. Note the difference between saving Roe v. Wade and pursuing abortion rights. Saving Roe v. Wade is a matter of electing presidents who will appoint Supreme Court justices who will continue to uphold abortion rights and putting pressure on right-wing presidents not to appoint anti-choice justices. Pursuing an abortion rights agenda is a far wider platform, embracing legal tactics as well as building structures to support abortion rights and consciousness building.

Everyone left of Dick Cheney believes, or pretends to believe, that power flows from "the people," or "the workers," or some variation of that old leftist cliche. So why is it that the Left, in fighting one of the most important battles in defense of women's rights in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond, has chosen to fight that battle on the terrain of 9 people? If power truly flows from below, why not spend all that money that they're lobbying and campaigning on encouraging pro-choice consciousness.?

Now, I can already hear the criticisms: "Brendan, this is ultraleftist and impossible." But is it? I think the example of the Civil Rights Movement which immediately preceded it is a powerful counterexample to the so-called Pro-Choice Movement. Black Americans used a variety of tactics, from, yes, lobbying the president, to direct action and armed self-defense to protect themselves from violence and to demand equal rights. Thousands probably died, but what was produced was a powerful black consciousness that threatened, and at times still does, to actually stand up to the racist power structure of our country. Every white leftist and his cousin fell all over themselves to fight that battle in the streets, yet after 1972, they simply forgot what they'd been doing in '68.

I'm not sure exactly why this happened, but I can think of a couple of reasons. One good one is plain old sexism. Sure, white straight men (TM) were willing to think that the descendants of slaves could constitute a force that could be radical and stand up to the system, but women? Good Lord, they should stay in the kitchen. (See the subsequent white leftist valorization of black men in the Civil Rights Movement and ignorance of women, except the cleaned-up, sanitized "tired, old" Rosa Parks)

Another is the fact that abortion rights aren't included in the Constitution and everybody knows it. Roe v. Wade is the most preposterous legal fiction that the Supreme Court has ever ruled on (okay, maybe not, there are some doozies) and it just happens to be the only one that's been ruled in favor of the Left. So all this energy has to be spent on convincing us that this ridiculous ruling is legitimate, instead of convincing us that abortion rights are essential regardless of what some fucking piece of paper says. The problem facing the Left after the end of the 60's was one that I've written on before, that we'd basically achieved the welfare state, (more or less, although Prop 8 stands as a pretty solid challenge) but we realized it wasn't good enough. Suddenly, every Harvard liberal and Popular Front commie realized, without saying it of course, that we dirty anarchists were right all along and that the problem wasn't that the state and capital weren't good enough, it was that they weren't good at all. Of course, we all know what happened next: the eventual decline of the Left into the intellectual abyss of postmodernism and the rise of neoliberalism and subsequent neoconservatism.

So why haven't we picked up on this? Is it because it's too hard to convince "stupid working class people" that a women's body is her own? I think underlying the rationale of the Left's abandonment of the issues of abortion rights on a mass scale is an indication of a strong elitist perspective that's also a tragic remnant of the New Left.

The fact is, we're going to lose Roe v. Wade one day. It's inevitable. In some places, it's already de facto happened. When that happens, we'll have to rebuild the abortion rights movement from below, with a populace largely hostile to it, because of what they see as government intervention. We don't have much time to refashion the debate about abortion rights, but I fear it's already too late.


Renegade Eye said...

We're not going to lose it.

It is a fake issue. I've lived through Reagan, two Bushes, Clinton etc. No abortion has been stopped. Reactionary women don't want to go to Mexico or Canada for an abortion.

If abortion was outlawed the Republicans would split, and never recover. They'll make a phony issue as third term abortion. Who has a third term abortion? Snitch laws don't usually pass constitutional muster.

Republicans use antiabortion rhetoric for votes from dumb people.

Dems use the fake threat that the Republicans are going to overturn Roe for $$ and votes.

McCain didn't mention overturning Roe.

William said...

Roe will never be overturned.

There are horrific injustices that the state does just because it can and then there are horrific injustices whose perpetuation underpins the continued existence of the state.

Nate said...

hey dude,
I think we very well could lose Roe, and I think you're point that it's been lost de facto in a lot of places despite its de jure existence is really important as well. That said, I think you underestimate the existence of abortion rights activism. For instance, resistance against Operation Rescue in the form of clinic defense and so on. I think a lot of the anti-capitalist left is often worse on this stuff than ostensibly (or genuinely) liberal feminist groups, who are willing to be quite militant and at least prioritize women's rights in their activities. I think another part of the problem is that the women's liberation wing of the feminist and radical movements back in the day failed to reproduce itself in the way that other radical groups did (at least somewhat) and in the way that liberal feminist groups did. Jo Freeman's essay The Tyranny Of Structurelessness (which should be required reading for lefty folk anyway) was written in response to some of these movement-hampering dynamics. A couple books on this that are good - Dear Sisters (collection mostly of primary documents); The Feminist Memoir Project; and Tidal Wave by Sara Evans. I forget which of those has it - maybe all three - but in one or more of those there's good stuff on the project Jane which performed abortions illegally prior to Roe. Jane was a project of the socialist-feminist group The Chicago Women's Liberation Union. (And the famous Our Bodies, Our Selves women's health book was produced by a socialist feminist group out east - sadly, socialist feminism falls off the radar a lot in accounts of both the anticapitalist left and feminism.)
take care,