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.”

Marriage and Love – Emma Goldman

‘Good’

As people grow up it’s inevitable that thoughts of personal responsibility and morality will become more frequent (at least, you would hope so.) The choices we face are many and bewildering, with seemingly endless implications. Everyone wants to feel secure and satisfied in their personal narrative – almost no-one wants to believe that they are a bad person.

I keep returning to questions of what this means in practice, especially since Hari-gate last year. In the fall-out from that it became clear that many approached morality as a football match, believing themselves to be ‘the goodies’ and so largely above criticism. Any sense of a deeper consideration of their actions, even of the kind of person they wanted to actually be, was lost beneath the primary importance of how they were perceived to be. Every time I note this it seems trite, yet it was undoubtedly a big eye-opener for me.

These issues occupied my mind again last night after I watched the film ‘Good’. Released in 2008, it shows the inculcation of a literary Professor into the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany. As the title suggests, questions of what it means to be ‘good’ dominate the film – the Professor is explicitly told that he is a good man, a good father, a good husband, a good son, at several points during the film. Yet we are left in little doubt that his moral equivocacy (cowardice, even) leads him further and further down the ‘wrong’ path. Initially dismissive of Nazi ideas, he is seduced and flattered by the Party as they seek to exploit his academic status and, most notably, a novel he has written about euthanasia. While privately he remains distant from Nazism, as evidenced by his efforts to aid his Jewish best friend, he nonetheless silently acquiesces to its advance and its use of him. Finally, in in a concentration camp, he realises too late the full horror of what his actions and inactions have contributed to. “It’s real”, he exclaims, in recognition that his choices have had very concrete, very repugnant, repercussions.

While the film is far from perfect, I found its central stylistic tool (presumably surviving from the stage play on which the film is loosely based) to be very effective. In various circumstances over the years the Professor is torn from reality and hallucinates a group of men singing a particular piece of music to him. In the climactic scene at the concentration camp, as the Professor stumbles around increasingly repelled by what he sees, he finds himself facing a group of prisoners playing the same music. Suddenly it becomes clear that each time he has heard the music has been a moment when he has strayed further from moral notions of being ‘good’ – staying silent when he witnesses book burnings, cheating on his troubled wife, allowing the Nazis to turn his book into a propagandising film. In one of the most powerful scenes, he is called upon to partake in a pogrom after (we are told) ‘the Jews’ assassinate a high-ranking Nazi. He takes to the street in full Nazi regalia, trying to keep out of the mania around him, and attempts to find his Jewish friend in order to help him escape. Unable to find him, the Professor makes an impulsive decision to free a Jewish man with the same surname who is about to be taken to the camps. As he does this, the hallucination begins once again. Whereas you might expect such an act to be portrayed as undeniably ‘good’, this film seemed to argue that it was an ineffectual panacea for the Professor’s own troubled conscience, an act which did nothing to halt his path to the concentration camps.

In highlighting how the Professor’s choices led to his complicity in unimaginable horrors, the film concerns itself with the infamous ‘banality of evil’. He is not a wicked man, a fanatic or a bigot. Nonetheless, his ‘reasonableness’ leads to his rationalisation of inaction and passive co-operation with the great evil taking hold around him. In this way the film clearly pushes a message of personal responsibility and personal morality, even while acknowledging how difficult it can be in a society gone mad. It’s unsurprising then that, being released in 2008, the film’s marketing drew parallels with contemporary society and the ‘War on Terror’, describing it as “a film about then, which illuminates the terrors of now.”

Of course, few of us would accept that we are complicit in drone attacks on Pakistan or indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay. While Nazism is now almost universally accepted as an undeniable horror, these things seem complex, distant and certainly not present in our daily lives. Furthermore, questions of morality seem impossibly daunting in modern capitalist society. Our phones, laptops and trainers have more often than not been made by people on the other side of the world working in horrible conditions for almost no material benefit, yet we prefer to imagine that they have magically materialised in front of us. Many of our most successful businesses pay poverty wages while avoiding tax, and we tolerate this while our government continues to cut welfare for the most vulnerable in society. Our financial system masks a multitude of horrors, ranging from profiting off the back of arms sales to brutal regimes to profiting from hunger itself. Many find themselves working for morally dubious organisations in order to ‘put food on the table’. Truly it seems impossible to live a truly ‘moral’ life without becoming a hermit.

It is by fortuitous coincidence, then, that I am currently nearing the end of the autobiography of Emma Goldman. She was a tireless activist and towering intellect of the kind few of us could ever hope to emulate. Yet her constant struggle with her principles in the face of society, both Western and Soviet, is an inspiration. In perhaps the most famous quotation from the book, Goldman states:

I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.’ Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.

This sounds uncompromising and defiant, yet throughout the book we are privy to Goldman’s inner torment over the compromises and failures which face her in living her life. None loom larger than the betrayal that was the Russian Revolution, yet despite the condemnation of many peers and the damage to her own ego and self-image, Goldman’s principles ultimately led her to reject and condemn the brutal inhumanity of the ‘Communist’ regime. Despite the endless disappointments Goldman held tightly to her passionate belief in humanity and the possibility of a better society; she never lost faith in the power of human agency, whether her own or otherwise.

As I said, few of us can hope to emulate Goldman’s remarkable achievements. Yet in our daily lives we face choices which undoubtedly have wider moral implications. All too often we equivocate, rationalise and take the path of least resistance. All too often we make choices which flatter our egos and our sense of wanting to belong. If we accept, however, that we are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people but are instead the choices that we make in the world, and view ourselves accordingly, the need for guiding principles and ideals becomes paramount. It is these that we try to cling to in our lives, even as we fail and even as we are (inevitably) hypocritical. It’s important to guard against the all-too-easy trap that having these ideals in our heads means that we embody them – our actions, our words, our conduct in our personal relationships – these are where we must make them real. In this way, by clinging onto our sense of what society we want and trying our best to make it real in our own lives (accepting the inevitable failures) morality under capitalism becomes that bit less daunting and we can begin to find our way through very real issues like Guantanamo Bay. That is the only way to be ‘good’ – faltering step after faltering step, with each one doing our best to stay conscience and avoid being corrupted by degrees.