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Saturday, 19 April 2014

Censorship isn't the whole story.


The debate on the issue of pornography has long been framed in terms of censorship, a simple dichotomy, one person for it, another against it, and no other possibilities in sight. It long has been this way since the video nasties scare which swept the UK in the 80s and the American culture wars of the 90s. Prohibitionism has its conveniences in a narrow spectrum of discourse. It is simple: aye or nay. It is the common ground set for liberals and conservatives to strike blows against one another. After all if there were no such ground how could they wage such battles. Feminists have been split over this question going back decades. It was always a last ditch argument given that the ban on pornography would fail just as the bans on drugs (not forgetting alcohol) and gambling have failed. This was true decades ago and it is even more true today.
 
The issue still rears its head from time to time. Last year there were Conservative proposals to set limits on internet porn, albeit with through the means of consent. David Cameron wants an opt-in system instead of the opt-out status quo (a perfectly fine system) we currently have. So, of course, at The GuardianLaurie Penny comes out against the opt-out system and reiterated her position on censorship. Likewise, back in August 2013 Richard Seymour produced a polemic attacking Cameron's proposal at the New Left Project. It is very easy to find such articles and the arguments are wearily predictable. This is the case because it is hardly a matter of serious contention. Whether or not we have an opt-in or opt-out system really doesn't matter. In any case there are bigger and tougher questions to ask ourselves. For those of us who love ideas, the real game in the hunt is still out there.

Back in March Autostraddle reported the beginning of Porn Studies, the first peer-reviewed academic journal on porn, which I found to be a welcome development. About a dozen days earlier the Huffington Post ran an article on the campaign to legislate against pornography. Predictably, feminist critics of porn like Gail Dines and Julie Bindel were on the chop block. It wasn't long ago that Caroline Lucas, a politician of tremendous fortitude, appeared on the BBC to bemoan the low-shelved soft porn of lad mags. As much as I respect Lucas I found the debate to be at the level of futile gesture. It doesn't amount to a radical commitment to argue that the magazines be shelved slightly higher to be out of the way of children. We are in dire need of a serious discussion on pornography outside of these comfortable and incestuous oscillations.

Even that famously feminist journal Cosmopolitan waded in last year with an interview with feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino. The commitments of feminist pornographers, such as Taormino, extend to gender equality and social justice. The pitch is certainly appealing: "Feminist porn is ethically produced porn, which means that performers are paid a fair wage and they are treated with care and respect; their consent, safety, and well-being are critical, and what they bring to the production is valued." Yet there is room for criticism here if we prod deeper. She says feminist porn "seeks to empower the performers who make it and the people who watch it." Note how progressives have ceased to speak of 'taking power' and now prefer to talk about 'empowerment'. This relates to a key issue (one of many) overlooked all too often.

When asked about sites such as RedTube and YouPorn Taormino said "What most people don't realise is that most so-called 'free' porn on the internet is not really free, its blatant copyright infringement illegally uploaded on tube and bit torrent sites." This is where we realise that this particular approach really only confirms property relations and doesn't challenge them. For all the niceties of Taormino's progressive comments, it would seem she has no time for the potentials of decommodification online. She even demonstrates nostalgia, at one point, "I don't really consider [YouPorn and RedTube] amateur sites because most of the content isn't actually amateur. They are basically destroying the old economic model of the adult industry." Yet the next moment she heaps praise on the internet for its roll in allowing a space "for people to control the means of porn production" and refers the reader to MeetTheMayhems.com, LiandraDahl.com, and MakeLoveNotPorn.tv.

These sites practice profit-sharing in a cooperative model which stands in contrast to the bog-standard method of cranking out dollar bills. The extraction of surplus value in pornography comes down to the production of footage, which used to be potentially without limit, until the advent of the internet, and as long as willing performers can be found. The pay grade for successful pornstars may dwarf the wages of waitresses, but it is still exploitation. The creation of spaces within the market for alternative forms of production is not to be dismissed as an aim. Much like fair trade goods and organic food, feminist pornographers pledge to contest the forces of the market on their own terms. Unlike other goods, pornography has the capacity to reproduce a certain form of sexual relations endlessly. In other words, there is no guarantee of feminist pornography prevailing over its competitors. It boils down to free-choice and this is a problem for the Left.

Cockburn on Spain.


I've just been flicking through the pages of The Devil's Decade (1973) by Claud Cockburn, in which he has a chapter on the Spanish Civil War, entitled The Battle for Spain: Triumph of the Right. This is not so surprising as Cockburn was a Communist agitator in the 1930s and covered the Spanish revolution and its fight for survival. He was not totally exceptional as a British aristo abroad fighting for a cause which seemed insane to the ruling-classes of the day. Here's an excerpt I quite like:
 
Outside Spain, the event was noted with generally calm incomprehension. A general election had taken place, a shift to the Left had been registered. 
Europe north of the Pyrenes was in the main ignorant of the state of mind of the Spanish working people; was indifferent to it; and would in any case have found it unintelligible. 
Those whose business it was to observe the course of events found it impossible to convey their nature and significance to populations cocooned in their political habits. Some tried to translate Spanish into French or English by seeking comparisons with the mood of revolutionary Europe in 1848 or of the Paris Commune of 1871. The translation was rough indeed, the analogy distant. 
It was justified in one sense only: in Spain now, as in those great European explosions of the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of people - in Spain millions - were motivated and propelled by a good hope that the moment had come when man could remake his world; that he could master his circumstances; that liberty could cease to be an empty word, and work be no longer a dreary one. They did not accept that Utopia must be a sick delusion. 

These words must have been bittersweet for Cockburn who had seen the defeat of Spain's revolutionaries by Fascism first hand. It was a defeat which the Western powers had colluded in (along with Stalin) to stomp out an alternative vision of society. It would be four decades until Spain was emancipated from the jackboot of Franco's regime. It's an important lesson in the dark times in which we as leftists live. Many years later in the final years of the twentieth century Claud's eldest son Alexander Cockburn would write: "These days we're shy imaginers of Utopia. We know we live in the age of iron, lamented by Hesiod and Ovid. All the more reason not to lose heart. There is abundance, if we arrange things differently. The world can be turned upside down; that is, the right way up. The Golden Age is in us, if we know where to look, and what to think."

Orwell on Private Property.

 
In August of 1944 one correspondent asked a famous English journalist "Are the squares to which you refer public or private properties? If private, I suggest that your comments in plain language advocate nothing less than theft and should be classed as such." The journalist was none other than George Orwell. When faced with such bourgeois casuistry Orwell had just the right response.
 
If giving the land of England back to the people of England is theft, I am quite happy to call it theft. In his zeal to defend private property, my correspondent does not stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so. 
Except for the few surviving commons, the high roads, the lands of the National Trust, a certain number of parks, and the sea shore below high-tide mark, every square inch of England is "owned" by a few thousand families. These people are just about as useful as so many tapeworms. It is desirable that people should own their own dwelling-houses, and it is probably desirable that a farmer should own as much land as he can actually farm. But the ground landlord in at own area has no function and no excuse for existence. He is merely a person who has found out a way of milking the public while giving nothing in return. He causes rents to be higher, he makes town planning more difficult, and he excludes children from green spaces: that is literally all that he does, except to draw his income. The removal of the railings in the squares was a first step against him. It was a very small step, and yet an appreciable one, as the present move to restore the railings shows. For three years or so the squares lay open, and their sacred turf was trodden by the feet of working-class children, a sight to make dividend-drawers gnash their false teeth. If that is theft, all I can say is, so much the better for theft.
 
It's an admirable response precisely because it accepts the premises of the question and rolls them upside down. Orwell's pen left behind cutting sentences with the historical perspective so neglected in English society: where intuition and common-sense are the prime virtues. Class is the unspoken reality we all live with and here Orwell cuts to the bone and to the marrow. This is not the same gent fetishized and sanitised by the liberal intelligentsia and conservative commentariat alike.