Dorothy Day Caucus of the American Solidarity Party A Revolution of the Heart
by Chris Travers
For some time I have been thinking about problems developing in the US regarding cultural shifts in how gender, marriage, etc. are framed, and how innovations in these areas are often pushed on the rest of the world. In this context, we see increasing pressure on private and public schools in the US to conform to new ways of approaching childhood and gender, and parallel efforts to spread these views to other peoples across the planet.
During this process I have had many interesting conversations with friends around the world and across the political spectrum. I have come to understand these changes, ranging from same-sex marriage, to a purported right by children to decide their gender, as efforts to struggle with the inhuman nature of the American social and economic order.
At the outset I must say I believe that, being human, we must treat others in a humane way even if they don’t conform to whatever social norms a society holds. Questions like whether to extend the protections the state offers to married couples to same-sex couples are deeply contextual. But that does not amount to a specific formulation of policy, nor does it mean that the basic functions of social institutions should be undermined to accommodate those outside the norm. This essence of humanity and pooling of common interest is what I consider solidarity, and it comes from a belief that we build common culture by engaging in common cause, rather than the other way around.
What I have observed among my American friends is a very particular mentality. The argument over school showers and gender identity, or same-sex marriage, becomes pitted as an argument about morality vs equality, or some abstraction of liberty. This is thus a piece which attempts to explain why I am not on board with the efforts to rethink gender identity, and why I remain largely on the fence about the appropriate role of state involvement in the question of same-sex marriage.
An enormous part of the argument revolves around basic values. The US today is a place where republican liberalism (and the idea of ordered liberty secured by a representative republic governed by centralised power) is the only political philosophy permitted in the public sphere regarding the direction of the country. Personal choice is the sole metric by which we measure human flourishing. Our main parties are in disagreement about the best path to take, but are in lock-step agreement as to the overall goal.
While some on the left are aware of the issues regarding economic inequality, others are unable to do so. The belief that we live at the apex of history makes it hard to see or grasp the causes of economic inequality. Our problems are not new problems, and the solutions of old-school conservatives such as Benjamin Disraeli and Otto von Bismarck are quite a bit ahead of where even progressives in the US today are willing to tread.
A part of why I am writing this is because I think the relationship between the shifts in how we look at gender and marriage in the US today are actually a product of the structures that enforce economic inequality. I believe we are moving in the wrong direction if solving economic inequality concerns us, because economic inequality is not a problem which can be solved as long as we retain a framework that thinks most problems are a matter of consumer choice.
Contrary to an outlook which reduces the world to a set of consumer choices, choice is not the true metric of human flourishing. Rather, that is measured by two more important concerns: economic security made possible by mutual support, and the health of the private domain, which lies outside the public concern. Concepts like honour are important because they provide a way of decoupling the public concerns from the private means of addressing them. These concerns must support access to economic production instead of economic consumption. An economy where anyone can be a business owner (and has family and social support to make that successful) is fundamentally better at providing security and equity in the economic order than one where everyone crosses their fingers and goes out hoping to find a benefactor (employer).
The real problem behind the shifts in how the country sees gender, transgenderism, same-sex marriage, etc. is not the idea that we should be humane to others or offer a set of functional social protections around whatever marriage has become, but a longer, deeper pattern here which aims squarely at how we think of the human condition as it relates to economic production and to reproduction.
In the US, marriage has long become something where children are an optional choice. As John Médaille has pointed out, the GOP tends to treat family values as consumer choices. In the US the discussion in this area is so thoroughly permeated with liberalism that it is hard to see an alternative.
We have seen capitalism reduce people from producers to consumers. We think about getting a job as we think about getting a car. We no longer think of economic production as a human birthright. And we no longer think about reproduction as a human birthright either.
In the various places I have lived which were most traditional and provided the best economic security for their members, the economy was mostly organised into small family businesses which were inherited by children. Marriage was closely tied to having the children necessary for the business to continue, and also towards the care of elders. Parents get a strong say in marriage in such a place because they literally have to live with the spouses of their children when they grow old. Such an economic and social order, where marriage is closely connected to procreation, to family business, and to care of the elderly, supports a kind of economic security we have been robbed of by Capitalism. Much of our marriage law in the US assumes the same social order exists now, even though over the last century or so we have moved away from this structure.
Such a view of marriage is traditional. It is supportive of traditions because three or more generations often share the same same house, children learn from grandparents and the experience and practical assistance that the elderly have to offer is often appreciated. Far from being a burden, elders are a fundamental asset, allowing children to work harder to keep family businesses going without sacrificing our most fundamental of social bonds — the bond between parents and their children.
What has replaced this traditional organization of generational families and marriage is quite different. With the coming of industrialism, the family businesses was disrupted permanently. First men, then women were forced to work outside the home if they wanted to survive. Children went from being a necessity to a personal hindrance, culminating in our time where the cost of caring for children is the most common explanation given for aborting them. In particular, women were forced from economic roles as joint business producers. They were pushed into either seeking employment, or into a newly-limited domestic realm which had been stripped of productive power.
Culturally we have gone from seeing ourselves as owners of our work and of our tools, of our deeds and the things we create, to seeing ourselves as consumers of everything from jobs to foreign food. This new consumerism is so deeply baked into our way of thinking about the economy that we talk about wanting the rich to create more jobs rather than asking how people can create their own jobs. And we look at marriage as another consumer choice, finding someone to share leisure time with, rather than someone with whom we will raise children, care for parents, and build a beautiful, complicated structure which reflects a shared work and vision. Children become the mere accessory to a marriage, one more consumer choice, not something integral to the social foundations of society or the work of building a productive home.
Thus we are stripped of our access to production. Thus self-dependence of families is replaced by individual dependence on employers. The productive home where generations thrived in unity withers away. When our ability to take pride in making and creating things collapses, then the only domain left to us is that of consumer choice.
In an economic order where marriage becomes the primary source of companionship in old age, it is hard to say something like same-sex marriage shouldn't be allowed. But we fail to ask what the primary source of companionship in old age should be, and I am reminded of Dorothy Day's argument that social security was a theft of responsibility. To this I might add it is also a theft of human contact because it supports loneliness in old age. In my view we should support offering an additional thank-you benefit to people who take in their parents or parents-in-law in retirement. The question which must be front and center is why the choice of a marriage partner shouldn't be a consumer choice, but a reflection of our inherent need and desire to be more than dependent consumers.
The same applies to gender transitioning. This has tremendous implications, ones that last for life, that a child is simply incapable of grasping. It has significant implications for reproduction as well. But instead of considering the intentions and ramifications,every effort is made to gender into another consumer choice. Where gender used to be a social construct based on the intersection of economic production and biological concerns regarding reproduction, today every effort is made separate those concerns. But if feminism therefore rejects this intersection, then we are left in a world where the interests of biological women in reproduction cannot be met or advocated for, where biological women are treated as defective humans to the extent they want children, and where children become the sole prerogative of the wealthy. The wealthy retain the ability to make such a "choice."
After all, it is always against the employer’s interest for employees to take time off for family, and women have less flexibility in maternity leave than men have in paternity leave. An economic economy which leaves little room for procreative families thus insists that biological women pay a higher price in economic production for having children than biological men do. It is for this reason that equal pay for equal work will never bring about economic equality between biological men and biological women as long as reproduction is separated from the economic order, and it can only be justly integrated in a case where it is primarily about the continuity of small household businesses.
At some point we have to ask why our ideas of rights in the US are solely about consumer rights, and why we don't see rights to economic production as bound with our rights in other areas. Why is freedom from reproduction seen as more important than freedom for reproduction? These views of rights cut against the interests of many women and minorities because they standardise a model of normality which is white, male, Protestant, and happy to have a job outside the home.
But this isn’t just limited to the US. It never ceases to amaze me how blind Americans are to the colonial overtones of Google’s “legalise gay love” campaigns in Singapore and Poland. Backlashes against efforts to internationalise these issues often undermine the overall goal of people treating each other humanely. People in many of these countries do not want to follow us into the loneliness of our nursing homes. They do not want to follow us into a world where young people are told to make it on their own and must delay marriage and children. They do not want governments to take over the role of raising children or sharing a community. They are justifiably afraid, and all too often the objects of their fear are not the foreign corporations pushing the issue but the groups the corporations are purporting to protect and defend.
Instead, I think we have as much or more to learn from such countries as they do from us, and perhaps we should seek to reverse the consumerism in sexuality, family, and economic production which has occurred in the West. All too often we have maintained an imperialism of ideas without recognizing what we are doing, and all too often we have been unwilling to connect those ideas to the economic structure to which they are tied. This is not to pick on same-sex couples or trans folk, but rather to point out real problems which affect us all, down to the most basic structure of our daily existence. We can create a society where we can prosper together rather than being rich or poor alone, or grow old in communities of the dying with, at most, the company of one's spouse during a part of that journey.
In the end I am reminded of the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.’
Tara Ann Thieke