When, as happened recently in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burka rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it’s not about liberating her but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. Coercing a woman out of her burka is as bad as coercing her into one. It’s not about the burka. It’s about the coercion.
Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story.
One of the things I think is really striking about this quote is how illustrative it is of dialectical thinking. When faced with a phenomenon (coercing women into burkas), the initial temptation is to reach for the opposite (coercing women out of burkas), but this opposite is just as bad as the initial phenomenon, and so a “negative” space is opened up for a further move, to transcend both these opposites into a new situation, which at least moves us forward onto new terrain, rather than simply reinscribing the prior terms of the debate simply by changing the signs, moving to the opposite pole.
Very often, the problems with the initial position are framed as being ones of knowledge: if we simply knew more or thought differently then the problem would be overcome. This is the problem of idealism, where “problems” are seen purely as one of knowledge. In the racist colonialist case, this failure of knowledge is often attributed to religious mysticism, lack of education, or (in the worst cases) racial inability to understand. Sometimes a (white) saviour can get people to think and understand better/differently (through example or education), though sometimes the racist structures are so strong that even this is written off as impossible, and the colonized subjects dismissed as ignorant beasts. Again, following Roy, the issue is not intelligence or knowledge, but the material power of racist social structures.
However, there is another, more “scientific” version of this idealism, which posits that the problems with the initial position are due to a lack of empirical data, that a solution to the contradiction is available if only we can discover more “evidence”. Georg Lukacs, in his History and Class Consciousness describes this in general terms:
The methodology of the natural sciences… rejects the idea of contradiction and antagonism in its subject matter. If, despite the contradictions that do spring up between particular theories, this only proves that our knowledge is as yet imperfect. Contradictions between theories show that these theories have reached their natural limits; they must therefore be transformed and subsumed under even wider theories in which the contradictions finally disappear. […] But we maintain that in the case of social reality these contradictions are not a sign of the imperfect understanding of society; on the contrary, they belong to the nature of reality itself and to the nature of capitalism.
Contradictions, such as those between coercing women into burkas and coercing women out of burkas, cannot be resolved by “better knowledge”, but by changing the world which requires the coercion of women in the first place.
The other day I was tagged into a discussion on the publisher’s lawsuit against the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library initiative. It took me a while to clarify my thinking, and in the end I decided it was too much to try to fit into the constraints of a Twitter debate. There are many problems with Internet Archive, and there are many problems in publishing, but the debate around the NEL tends to boil down to a single main contradiction. On the one hand, there is the ability of writers to support themselves through fair (or at least adequate) compensation; on the other hand, there is the view that in an emergency, there should be no barrier to access to information. (This “information wants to be free” perspective is informed by IA’s capitalist libertarianism, but it doesn’t have to be; there are other reasons to support the position). Given these two antagonistic positions, the debate often comes down to how to balance the livelihood of authors and the information needs of a society. Authors feel they are being coerced into losing a revenue stream through piracy, while “society” (unfortunately in this case taking the form of private Carnegie-esque “philanthropy”) feels resources are being held for ransom. The debates around balance suggest that, as in Lukacs’ description, if we just “figure it out”, if we have better arguments, more imagination, or more empirical data, then we can get this right. Lawsuits themselves are often seen - especially in Supreme Court cases - as the way for this information and knowledge to be attained in order to make the “right” decision. (Interestingly enough, this process is itself meant to be dialectical, through the adversarial nature of court proceedings).
However, the contradiction between author livelihood and the needs of society is not simply resolvable through better thinking. Rather, this antagonism “belongs to the nature of reality itself and the nature of capitalism”. Resources necessary to the social good are held to ransom because commodities only realize their value through sale. Author’s livelihood’s are put at risk because they must sell their labour in order to survive. Both the books in the NEL and the author’s labour-power are commodities under capitalism (whether we think they should be or not), and so under capitalism we are forced to think in terms of commodity exchange and prices. There is no resolution to this problem within the terms of capitalist economics. Authors are workers just like all other workers: capital will reduce their compensation to the lowest possible level, no matter what. Making society/Internet Archive appear as the enemy mystifies the exploitative relationship between author and publisher. There is nothing sacred about being an author that protects it from the vagaries of the market and the inexorable logic of commodity exchange.
Furthermore, the individualism foundational to capitalism forces authors into seeing themselves as independent beings in an antagonistic relationship with a separate thing called “society”, rather than both individuals and society only being coherent concepts with respect to each other. In his remarks about intellectuals in the prison notebooks, Gramsci writes that “the whole of idealist philosophy can easily be connected with this position assumed by the social complex of intellectuals and can be defined as the expression of that social utopia by which intellectuals think of themselves as ‘independent’, autonomous, endowed with a character of their own, etc.” (As an aside, I should point out that this underpins the hegemonic understanding of intellectual and academic freedom as well).
By the same token, IA’s machinations around Controlled Digital Lending and the NEL simply serve to reinscribe commodity logic under the guise of philanthropic libertarianism, making legal reform or social change the field of action of powerful private individuals, rather than of social movements working in collectivity and solidarity. Neither “author rights” nor “free information” destroys the social relations of private capital and labour under capitalism. And the IA doesn’t even have the benefit of the outright rejection of commodity models claimed by Alexandra Elbakyan (though even here the power to make change becomes closely identified with an individual with too much arbitrary power, and even SciHub is implicated in the politics of security and access to a large extent).
We see these issues crop up in all kinds of areas - for example in the current controversies around race-shifting - precisely because racial, heteropatriarchal capitalism is riddled with contradictions. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to find “the right solution” when in fact there can’t be a solution within the network of social relations that constitute the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism will have to end for any real solution to some (not all!) of these problems to be uncovered. Until then, we might as well avoid the trap of trying to think ourselves into a solution (idealism), which can only lead to half-measures and reformism, and focus instead on material ways to challenge the social relations themselves. Defunding/abolishing the police is a good thing, but creating autonomous zones and mutual aid groups that do not respect the social hierarchies of capital and labour are even better. But they are not the “right answer”, they are only the first steps on the road to a real solution, a real transformation of society.