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Paul Dundon © 2002


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The Swamp Agenda

If SWAMP stands for Straight White Anglo-Saxon Male Protestant [1], then, as we learned in Activism 101, we can make the following broad claims about the post-WW2 world order:

  • The legal system serves the interests, and protects the values, of SWAMPs. Non-SWAMPs may be explicitly disadvantaged by the legislature, statistically disadvantaged by the judiciary, and victimised by law enforcement agencies.
  • Our moral notions are perverted to justify the fact that SWAMPs own most of the wealth. The notion that white people ought to be better off than blacks, for example, is normalised.
  • Exploitation and domination of non-SWAMPs by SWAMPs is normalised, so that it seems okay for men to exploit the labour of their wives, for straights to beat up queers and whites to lynch blacks.

All these mechanisms work so as to support partial SWAMPness, so that one’s level of advantage in the system varies proportionally to the number of the five key attributes one shares. This means that for any factor unifying a group against the SWAMP agenda, there are four factors which will work against the group’s unity – non-straights might unify against straights, for example, only to end up fighting over the men in the group oppressing the women, the whites excluding other ethnic minorities…

Of course, this has not prevented some successful anti-SWAMP activism; although SWAMPs are still in ascendance, the picture is at least better than it was fifty years ago. Most of this activism has had an asymptotic quality – each increment in social justice serves to halve the degree of radical fervour. In the late eighties and early nineties, however, a new kind of political theory came into activism consciousness, one that promised to radically reproblematise the SWAMP agenda and, in identifying its domination of our conceptual space, undermine its capacity to fragment opposition.

The Social Constructivist Agenda

This position is social constructivism, which found its most vigorous expression (perhaps) in Queer Theory and Queer Activism. Social constructivism can, I think, fairly be characterised as the application of anti-essentialism to social categories. Anti-essentialism generally holds that the nature of the world is not revealed to us in the way we name it; that the structure of reality, in other words, does not cause our way of talking about it. Rather, our naming practices are an invention that serves us in our engagement with – and largely, domination of – the world. We see the objects we see because that it the way of describing the world which best allows us to survive in it and manipulate it to our advantage.

In the social arena, this implies that our labels for persons – woman, man, gay, straight, black, white – do not pick out natural “kinds” of person which reality has delivered but rather are part of a practice of ordering society so as to make it less threatening and easier to control.

Now the consequences of anti-essentialism are far reaching, since non-SWAMPs are able to see how the labels straight, white, and male and the clusters of labels around Anglo-Saxon and protestant are part of the SWAMPs’ oppressive practice; and they can see that, in so far as they buy into any of the evaluations which SWAMPs encode into these labels, they support the SWAMP agenda. This enables a unified anti-SWAMP position which does not ask for more rights for non-straight, non-white… persons but rather undermines the claim to coherence of the very distinctions which define these groups and reveals it as an oppressive fiction.

Activism driven by anti-essentialism has had some success, although belief in these oppressive fictions is so widespread that it often faces an uphill struggle. Anti-essentialism does not deny the value of nomination as a means to prima facie political unity, so it is not uncommon for the groups defined by SWAMPs to adopt a new nomination (as occurred in the case of Queer) rather than being reduced to a finger-wagging scepticism when it comes to the question of how to describe their particular interest group. Despite the persistence of nominative practice, however, the basic move of anti-essentialism, which is to undermine the dichotomy of value which is encoded into SWAMP naming practices, remains, and challenges the SWAMP agenda in familiar ways:

  • The law must respect all persons equally regardless of their nominations, and should work positively to redress the injustices perpetrated so far.
  • Wealth should be distributed in accordance with the principles of a justice which ignores nomination. This includes access to jobs, access to welfare, access to advancement and security in property.
  • Exploitation and oppression motivated by differences in nomination must be exposed and eliminated.

The Neoliberal Agenda

Neoliberalism, I take it, has as its main aim the perpetuation and propagation of existing modes of exploitative property relationship. To understand what this might involve we need to review the basics of that exploitation. This will be familiar to many readers but there are some points I would like to draw out.

Let us define productive property as property owned by A but used by B in return for some form of rent. Then we can see that if money were iron filings, productive property would be the magnet towards which it would be attracted. In every financial transaction, some money moves towards the owners of productive property. We go for a meal in a restaurant: some of what we pay goes towards the ground rent; some goes to the electricity company; some goes to buy the food, and of this, some goes to pay rent on the farm. Of course, some also goes to the waiter, the cook and the farmer – who maybe go out for a meal in a restaurant, where some of the money they pay goes towards the ground rent…

Of course, owners of property use some of the money they receive to pay wages to the de-propertied to secure their labour; the circulation of money does not, unlike the iron filings, halt in one place. Yet the privileged position of the property owner in our analysis is justified by the fact that the property owner can exclude the de-propertied from the system at will (which gives us the phenomenon of unemployment[2]) which is a power the de-propertied lack entirely.

This imbalance of dependence creates a position in which the de-propertied individual must form a contract with the property owner to secure a wage. Such a contract is necessarily unfair (since the de-propertied individual has no choice but to enter into it) and de facto exploitative (since the property owner can retain pretty much what he wants out of the products of the de-propertied individual’s labour).

Now of course, describing what we are coerced into doing for the property owner as ‘labour’ quite fails to capture its complex nature. The property owner does not merely give us a shovel and tell us to dig. Rather he wants us to be smart, to know what we have to do next and come up with new ideas about how he can exploit us; he wants us to be strong, and healthy, so that we can work long hours when he requires it; he wants us to be young, so that we lack the experience to ask difficult questions and disagree; sober, so that we are able to give his tasks our fullest attention; and most importantly, of course, he wants us to be docile.

So the property owner pays for colleges and universities that are machines for creating smart people, and hospitals that are machines for maintaining healthy people. He uses the legal system to prevent access to addictive drugs just if those drugs are likely to impair our performance or on balance reduce our docility; he promulgates images that celebrate youth and strength; and pays for a chain of institutions, from nursery school through prison to retirement home, which instil docility and punish activity as crime, delinquency or behavioural disorder. It is quite a mistake to think that the property owner resents paying his taxes. He is doing nothing more than handing over money which will come back to him as surely as iron filings to a magnet; and in the intervening period, it will help shape the world in his interests.

There are therefore two obvious points of conceptual weakness in this system: property rights and rights arising out of contract. If we can undermine the coherence of the concept of property, or can convince ourselves that, whatever a contract says, there are standards of justice which nonetheless apply, we can undermine the property owner’s power. Of course, the property owner is smart enough to know this; so in academia he adopts the following agenda

  • Conceptualise law and social order as fundamentally a contract, so that threats to the primacy of contract are threats to all law and social order
  • Conceptualise rights as property rights, so that threats to property are threats to all rights

These ideas, of course, are not new (although it is no coincidence that they date back to the time at which capitalism first emerged); the question, however, is not what ideas there are but which ideas are reproduced through teaching, publication, and public argument. I would like to argue that the primacy of these concepts is a relatively modern phenomenon, probably about 20-25 years old. I draw attention to it because I believe there is an important task at hand here, to which I will return later. Before examining that, however, let’s consider the neoliberal agenda in the familiar domains of law, moral values and orders of exploitation:

  • Reduce the role of the law to the protection of property (where persons count as a kind of property)
  • Develop moral values as prizing intelligence, strength, health, youth, sobriety and docility as the attributes deserving of high wages (promote the idea that wealth=consumption-of-wage rather than wealth=property)
  • Normalize (possibly exploitative) contract as the exclusive basis for interpersonal relationships; repudiate any attempt to attach moral concerns to conduct in relationships.

My Agenda

This allows me to characterise what I would like to call the anti-essentialist problem. You can probably see where I’m going with this, but let me say it clearly.

As anti-essentialism defeats the SWAMP agenda in the law, in our moral values, and in our concept of legitimised exploitation, it creates a vacuum into which the neoliberal agenda is ready and eager to step. We fight the law’s tendency to support SWAMP values, and it repositions as a protector of property rights and liberties. We teach ourselves not to prize maleness, or whiteness, or heterosexuality and instead end up prizing intelligence, strength, and docility. We rebel against SWAMP invasion into our personal relationships and are left with nothing against which to judge any relationship – including that between the property owner and the de-propertied individual – other than the contract which the parties entered into as “free” “individuals”.

In other words, where anti-essentialism fails to replace that which it undermines, it is unwittingly pressed into the service of neoliberalism:

  • The law will respect the right of all persons equally, regardless of nomination, to own property and to have property in themselves. It respects everyone’s right to access to wage labour and, where such rights have been denied, will take positive action to redress this.
  • Access to jobs and advancement should accrue to those most deserving of them – those most able to do the jobs (the smart, the strong, the sober…) – regardless of nomination. Access to welfare (which should provide enough money to avoid hardship, but should not support property acquisition) should be available to all regardless of nomination.
  • Oppressive stereotypical relationships are rejected in favour of styles of relationship we create ourselves. What goes on between two (or more) individuals is nobody’s business but theirs.

So we have a law which is impotent in redistributing property; a meritocracy in which the disadvantaged have no-one to speak for them; and no room to criticise any agreement we are not party to, however exploitative, unjust and downright wrong it might be.

Future Agendas

Having understood this, how do we change it?

Let me be quite clear that I am not suggesting for a moment that we be any less vigorous in our pursuit of the anti-essentialist agenda in the face of SWAMP domination. The weapon is too powerful, and the fight much too urgent, for such a course to be permissible. Yet as we sweep away the old order, we must fill the void it leaves with something of our own creation, or we risk losing it once more to our oppressors.

Exploring the possibilities for this creation is the task which I hinted at earlier. No one philosophy or point of view can fulfil this role without itself becoming a mode of domination. What is required instead is an inclusive and creative exchange of ideas about the sort of world we want in place of the one we do not. We must of course always be wary of adopting a totalising perspective which hinders activism by recontextualising individual acts of resistance in such a way as to undermine their value or urgency – local fights with local objectives remain as important and urgent as they ever were, and our theorising must support and respect this. It seems to me (for what it’s worth) that there are a number of directions worth pursuing initially.

One of these is to make a case for a new foundation for our understanding of rights. Perhaps there is a way to rethink property rights in such a way as to give higher priority to responsibility to persons. Certainly, we can make a case that there is no route, either in historical fact or logical possibility, from an egalitarian state of nature to the contemporary capitalist conception of property which does not involve violence and coercion.

Another is to re-examine the primacy of contract. Again, the historical and logical routes from an egalitarian condition to the emergence of the coercive state are far from unproblematic where they depend on contract alone. We should work to show how a wider range of concerns – from the regulation of coercive power, through the interests of specific groups, to a broader set of instincts about what is right – have played their part. In particular, we need to show how it is the emergence of the state which has made it possible to speak meaningfully of “contracts between free agents” and not the other way around.

A third avenue is to re-evaluate our instincts about moral relativism in the light of what we know about cultural domination. It would be quite wrong to say that everyone in the US accepts, unproblematically, anything we might characterise as being the dominant moral position of US culture. Yet our instincts about moral relativism spring from our experience of difference in such dominant positions. Perhaps these differences evidence not a fundamental moral ambivalence in human nature but rather a limitless ingenuity in creating modes of oppression. If we look (with a deep humility and a real openness to our own error) beneath the dominant positions to the ways in which these are resisted and problematised, we may find that there really is an ethical perspective from which law and social order can legitimately be criticised.

I should clarify the claim I am making here. I don’t suppose that there is anything which amounts to “essentially human morality” because, well, I’m an anti-essentialist. I think, though, that if everyone in the world were to set out their personal utopia, there would be some common themes. War, famine and pestilence might be what some consider an acceptable means or reasonable price for their projects; but I don’t believe anyone would think of them as goods.

Finally (in the very limited sense that this is where I personally run out of ideas) we should examine the idea of care ethics, that is, of ethical values based not around objectivity, impartiality and independence but on feeling, attachment and recognition of our deep interdependence. This is dangerous ground since the neoliberal project seems to find advantage in sentimentalising moral debate and we must be clear that this is not what we are about. Rather, we are expanding the conceptual ground on which our notions of justice, as we apply them in the state and in law, are based.

These are only ideas, mere hints of suggestions of directions for exploration, and their poverty could not be in starker contrast to the difficulty of the task at hand. But we should not underestimate the urgency of the task of addressing the anti-essentialist problem. As things stand one of the most potent weapons we have against oppression is being pressed into the service of our enemies.

[1] Any essay on social constructivism is of necessity self-conscious in its choice of nominative terms. Since much of this essay concerns the SWAMP “project” I have on occasion used the oppressive terminology of that project, since my aim has been to delineate a group as seen from that project’s perspective. On other occasions I have used nominations chosen by groups themselves. On yet others, I have failed to find a good solution.

[2] And note, of course, that support for the unemployed is provided more by taking a slice out of money paid to the de-propertied as wages that it is by taking a slice out of money headed towards the property owner.




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