Oh, for the inconsistency of respectability, that needs the marriage vow to turn something which is filthy into the purest and most sacred arrangement that none dare question or criticize. Yet that is exactly the attitude of the average upholder of marriage.
There is an irony of sorts in the fact that a woman born in 1869 is more radical in her feminism and understanding of equality than most of the vocal supporters of ‘equal marriage’ yesterday. Emma Goldman wrote the essay linked to above in 1911, referring to marriage as “that poor little State and Church-begotten weed” and comparing it to capitalism as something which:
…robs man of his birthright, stunts his growth, poisons his body, keeps him in ignorance, in poverty and dependence, and then institutes charities that thrive on the last vestige of man’s self-respect.
Goldman was openly hostile towards the state, viewing it as a violent and aggressive means of control, and argued that one of the primary means of freedom for women (and men) was to be found in “refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc.” She criticised the self-righteous and repressive morality which she believed lay behind marriage and was also an early supporter of “the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life” – her belief in the “freedom to love” meant that she was an advocate for contraception, for ‘free love’ and for what we now call ‘gay rights’.
How dismayed Goldman would have been, then, to witness the gloopy sanctimony of yesterday’s ‘debate’, where people of the left continually pushed the notion that we are horribly oppressed if the state doesn’t recognise our partnerships as ‘marriage’. This was an odd notion of ‘freedom’ with many sincerely (and offensively) comparing this legal wrangling for state approval to slavery, apartheid and the fight for universal suffrage. Hilariously, some sought to affect some radicalism by declaring that they were against the institution of marriage but believed in ‘equality’, the same kind of logic which sees people cheer-leading for society to be granted fuller access to the military while loudly declaiming militarism.
By coincidence I had read New Left Project’s piece on Foucault only the day before which featured this illuminating exchange:
It’s a peculiar form of narcissism, whereby a component of the self that is identified as problematic or troubling is effectively quarantined and separated off from the self. To a certain extent it now has an independent existence and one effect of this is to preserve the narcissistic conviction that the ‘core’ self is still intact and untroubled. This independent component also has a quasi-legal, and frequently litigious, existence: whose responsibility is it to deal with the perceived problems and deficits caused by a particular pathology? We are now quite comfortable with the idea that institutions should make accommodations and adjustments when confronted with a whole variety of diagnoses. In some ways this is undeniably progressive development, but in other ways it’s problematic. For one thing, it locks individuals and institutions into endless litigious wrangling, and perhaps that is symptomatic of a wider crisis of legitimacy.
Litigious wrangling that winds up reinforcing the logic of the system as a whole?
Yes. Particularly in his earlier work Foucault suggested that labels and categories that appear to be liberating might actually draw us into new circuits of power. We should not, he suggests, be fooled into thinking that these labels always serve to emancipate us: in some ways they might be as coercive as what went before.
It doesn’t take much elaboration to see how the idea of ‘litigious wrangling that winds up reinforcing the logic of the system as a whole’ could apply to ‘equal marriage’ and you don’t have to go as wide as the notion of state authority. This argument has reinforced the institution of marriage, the idea that certain relationships should be privileged over others. There are undoubtedly honest arguments to be made for this and many have been making them – the hilarity comes with the “narcissistic conviction that the ‘core’ self is still intact and untroubled” which was so evident yesterday from ‘radicals’ who found themselves puritanically attacking people for adultery, divorce, separation etc. Ostensibly these were attacks on the hypocrisy of people defending ‘traditional marriage’ yet they were so widespread and so vehement that they clearly drew on, and reinforced, very traditional and moralistic conceptions of relationships. Yet people were so convinced of their righteous superiority that they managed to push this judgmental morality while condemning others for their own variety of it – look no further than this simultaneously hilarious and depressing tweet from Stonewall which contrasted ‘loving, committed relationships’ with polygamy. This very obviously reinforces very traditional and very conservative ideas of what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ relationship and neatly encapsulates the dangers of tying your sense of ‘equality’ to state approval. As you can see from the responses beneath, some were rightly appalled by it and seemed to view equal marriage as a step towards exploding marriage itself open. An interesting idea, certainly, but it’s one which rather undermines the endless brickbats hurled at those who saw ‘equal marriage’ as a ‘slippery slope’ towards the dissolution of marriage itself and creates the odd position of two ‘groups’ of people arguing in favour of equal marriage while fundamentally disagreeing with what it means. This last point isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it highlights how concepts of relationships and morality cannot hope to be encapsulated in a single state institution and how marriage ‘equality’ can only ever be ‘equal’ for some.
While considering state authority it’s worth noting that this report was released yesterday highlighting the involvement of over a quarter of the world’s countries in torture and rendition. The report included a 5-page section detailing the United Kingdom’s own abhorrent involvement. This again rather underlines the problem of tying morality to the state (just as a myriad of other ‘policies’ do.) Yet the modern elevation of ‘identity politics’ above all else means that any wider (and more profound) sense of ‘equality’ and basic human rights is lost and we are even encouraged to reward the government for their ‘bravery’. Notice that this Telegraph piece once again treats politics as a check-list, with the author wearily and dismissively noting that equal marriage needs to be “weighed against the things that you don’t like” – the exact same argument which defenders of Obama use about drone attacks on children. I think this argument comes so easily as this approach is about how these things make you as an individual feel rather than any deeper reflection on what they actually mean (and an almost sociopathic inability to realise that real people are affected by them). This seemed very true yesterday where the worst aspects of our interaction with social media – “the desire to be right and the desire to be liked”, saw the ‘debate’ pursued with zero self-reflection and zero humility but instead an endless, loud stream of narcissism and mutual assurances of superiority. It became another thing to beat up ‘enemies’ with, another thing with which we could assure ourselves that we are that righteous person whom we think we ought to be. It’s difficult to see how anyone, at all, came out of it well.
I certainly don’t need the government to tell me that I’m ‘equal’. I absolutely don’t need a government which is furthering and cementing economic inequality, which is headed by a hereditary monarch, which can kidnap, torture, kill and wage war without consequence, which can cynically argue for an end to global hunger while actively exacerbating it, to tell me that I’m ‘equal’. So by all means support equal marriage, but let’s not pretend that it’s some ahistorical and self-evident right which has no wider meaning or implication, and let’s not pretend that it’s a step towards a substantive ‘equality’ which we should all be hysterically grateful for. As Goldman argued, our duty is surely “to plead for every victim, be it one of social wrong or of moral prejudice” and as Foucault warned, we must guard against that inside us which “causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”