1. Gustave de Molinari, 1849.
2. Leslie Garis, 1991.
3. Elisa Perez-Selsky, 2013
4. Jim Hickey, 2015.
Numero Uno—“There are two ways of considering society. According to some, the development of human associations is not subject to providential, unchangeable laws. Rather, these associations, having originally been organized in a purely artificial manner by primeval legislators, can later be modified or remade by other legislators, in step with the progress of social science. In this system, the government plays a pre-eminent role, because it is upon it, the custodian of the principle of authority, that the daily task of modifying and remaking society devolves.
According to others, on the contrary, society is a purely natural fact. Like the earth on which it stands, society moves in accordance with general, pre-existing laws. In this system, there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as social science; there is only economic science, which studies the natural organism of society and shows how this organism works.
We propose to examine, within the latter system, the function and natural organization of government.
In order to define and delimit the function of government, it is first necessary to investigate the essence and object of society itself.
What natural impulse do men obey when they combine into society? They are obeying the impulse, or, to speak more exactly, the instinct of sociability. The human race is essentially sociable. Like beavers and the higher animal species in general, human beings have an instinctive inclination to live in society.
Why did this instinct come into being?
The human being experiences a multitude of needs, on whose satisfaction his happiness depends, and whose non-satisfaction entails suffering. Alone and isolated, he could only provide in an incomplete, insufficient manner for these incessant needs. The instinct of sociability brings him together with similar persons, and drives him into communication with them. Therefore, impelled by the self-interest of the individuals thus brought together, a certain division of labour is established, necessarily followed by exchanges. In brief, we see an organization emerge, by means of which the human being can more completely satisfy his needs than he could living in isolation.
This natural organization is called society.
The object of society is therefore the most complete satisfaction of human beings’ needs. The division of labour and exchange are the means by which this is accomplished.
Among the needs of man, there is one particular type which plays an immense role in the history of humanity, namely the need for security.
What is this need?
Whether they live in isolation or in society, human beings are, above all, interested in preserving their existence and the fruits of their labour. If the sense of justice were universally prevalent on earth; if, consequently, each human being confined himself to labouring and exchanging the fruits of his labour, without wishing to take away, by violence or fraud, the fruits of other’s labour; if everyone had, in one word, an instinctive horror of any act harmful to another person, it is certain that security would exist naturally on earth, and that no artificial institution would be necessary to establish it. Unfortunately this is not the way things are. The sense of justice seems to be the perquisite of only a few eminent and exceptional temperaments. Among the inferior races, it exists only in a rudimentary state. Hence the innumerable criminal attempts, ever since the beginning of the world, since the days of Cain and Abel, against the lives and property of individuals.
Hence also the creation of establishments whose object is to guarantee to everyone the peaceful possession of his person and his goods.
These establishments were called governments.
Everywhere, even among the least enlightened tribes, one encounters a government, so universal and urgent is the need for security provided by government.
Everywhere, men resign themselves to the most extreme sacrifices rather than do without government and hence security, without realizing that in so doing, they misjudge their alternatives.
Suppose that somebody found his person and his means of survival incessantly menaced; wouldn’t his first and constant preoccupation be to protect himself from the dangers that surround him? This preoccupation, these efforts, this labour, would necessarily absorb the greater portion of his time, as well as the most energetic and active faculties of his intelligence. In consequence, he could only devote insufficient and uncertain efforts, and his divided attention, to the satisfaction of his other needs.
Even though this individual might be asked to surrender a very considerable portion of his time and of his labour to someone who takes it upon himself to guarantee the peaceful possession of his person and his goods, wouldn’t it be to his advantage to conclude this bargain?
Still, it would obviously be no less in his self-interest to procure his security at the lowest price possible.
If there is one well-established truth in political economy, it is this:
That in all cases, for all commodities that serve to provide for the tangible or intangible needs of the consumer, it is in the consumer’s best interest that labour and trade remain free, because the freedom of labour and of trade have as their necessary and permanent result the maximum reduction of price.
That the interests of the consumer of any commodity whatsoever should always prevail over the interests of the producer.
Now in pursuing these principles, one arrives at this rigorous conclusion:
That the production of security should, in the interests of the consumers of this intangible commodity, remain subject to the law of free competition.
Whence it follows:
That no government should have the right to prevent another government from going into competition with it, or to require consumers of security to come exclusively to it for this commodity.
Nevertheless, I must admit that, up until the present, one recoiled before this rigorous implication of the principle of free competition.
One economist who has done as much as anyone to extend the application of the principle of liberty, M. Charles Dunoyer, thinks “that the functions of government will never be able to fall into the domain of private activity.” 
Now here is a citation of a clear and obvious exception to the principle of free competition.
This exception is all the more remarkable for being unique.
Undoubtedly, one can find economists who establish more numerous exceptions to this principle; but we may emphatically affirm that these are not pure economists. True economists are generally in agreement, on the one hand, that the government should restrict itself to guaranteeing the security of its citizens, and on the other hand, that the freedom of labour and of trade should otherwise be whole and absolute.
But why should there be an exception relative to security? What special reason is there that the production of security cannot be relegated to free competition? Why should it be subjected to a different principle and organized according to a different system?
On this point, the masters of the science are silent, and M. Dunoyer, who has clearly noted this exception, does not investigate the grounds on which it is based.
We are consequently led to ask ourselves whether this exception is well founded, even in the eyes of the economist.
It offends reason to believe that a well-established natural law can admit of exceptions. A natural law must hold everywhere and always, or be invalid. I cannot believe, for example, that the universal law of gravitation, which governs the physical world, is ever suspended in any instance or at any point of the universe. Now I consider economic laws comparable to natural laws, and I have just as much faith in the principle of the division of labor as I have in the universal law of gravitation. I believe that while these principles can be disturbed, they admit of no exceptions.
But, if this is the case, the production of security should not be removed from the jurisdiction of free competition; and if it is removed, society as a whole suffers a loss.
Either this is logical and true, or else the principles on which economic science is based are invalid.
It thus has been demonstrated a priori, to those of us who have faith in the principles of economic science, that the exception indicated above is not justified, and that the production of security, like anything else, should be subject to the law of free competition.
Once we have acquired this conviction, what remains for us to do? It remains for us to investigate how it has come about that the production of security has not been subjected to the law of free competition, but rather has been subjected to different principles.
What are those principles?
Those of monopoly and communism.
In the entire world, there is not a single establishment of the security industry that is not based on monopoly or on communism.
In this connection, we add, in passing, a simple remark.
Political economy has disapproved equally of monopoly and communism in the various branches of human activity, wherever it has found them. Is it not then strange and unreasonable that it accepts them in the security industry?
Let us now examine how it is that all known governments have either been subjected to the law of monopoly, or else organized according to the communistic principle.
First let us investigate what is understood by the words monopoly and communism.
It is an observable truth that the more urgent and necessary are human being’s needs, the greater will be the sacrifices he will be willing to endure in order to satisfy them. Now, there are some things that are found abundantly in nature, and whose production does not require a great expenditure of labour, but which, since they satisfy these urgent and necessary wants, can consequently acquire an exchange value all out of proportion with their natural value. Take salt for example. Suppose that a man or a group of people succeed in having the exclusive production and sale of salt assigned to themselves. It is apparent that this man or group could raise the price of this commodity well above its value, well above the price it would have under the regime of free competition.
One will then say that this man or this group possesses a monopoly, and that the price of salt is a monopoly price.
But it is obvious that the consumers will not consent freely to paying the abusive monopoly surtax. It will be necessary to compel them to pay it, and in order to compel them, the employment of force will be necessary.
Every monopoly necessarily rests on force.
When the monopolists are no longer as strong as the consumers they exploit, what happens?
In every instance, the monopoly finally disappears either violently or as the outcome of an amicable transaction. What is it replaced with?
If the roused and insurgent consumers secure the means of production of the salt industry, in all probability they will confiscate this industry for their own profit, and their first thought will be, not to leave it to free competition, but rather to exploit it, in common, for their own account. They will then name a director or a committee of directors to operate the salt-works, to whom they will allocate the funds necessary to defray the costs of salt production. Then, since the experience of the past will have made them suspicious and distrustful, since they will be afraid that the director named by them will seize production for his own benefit, and simply reconstitute by open or hidden means the old monopoly for his own profit, they will elect delegates, representatives entrusted with appropriating the funds necessary for production, with watching over their use, and with making sure that the salt produced is equally distributed to those entitled to it. The production of salt will be organized in this manner.
This form of the organization of production has been named communism.
When this organization is applied to a single commodity, the communism is said to be partial.
When it is applied to all commodities, the communism is said to be complete.
But whether communism is partial or complete, political economy is no more tolerant of it than it is of monopoly, of which it is merely a different type.
Isn’t what has just been said about salt applicable to security? Isn’t this the history of all monarchies and all republics?
Everywhere, the production of security began by being organized as a monopoly, and everywhere, nowadays, it tends to be organized communistically.
Here is why.
Among the tangible and intangible commodities necessary to man, none, with the possible exception of wheat, is more indispensable, and therefore none can support quite so large a monopoly duty.
Nor is any quite so prone to monopolization.
What, indeed, is the situation of human beings who need security? Weakness. What is the situation of those who undertake to provide them with this necessary security? Strength. If it were otherwise, if the consumers of security were stronger than the producers, they obviously would dispense with their assistance.
Now, if the producers of security are originally stronger than the consumers, won’t it be easy for the former to impose a monopoly on the latter?
Everywhere, when societies originate, we see the strongest, most warlike races seizing the exclusive government of the society. Everywhere we see these races seizing a monopoly on security within certain more or less extensive boundaries, depending on their number and strength.
And, this monopoly being, by its very nature, extraordinarily profitable, everywhere we see the races invested with the monopoly on security devoting themselves to bitter struggles, in order to add to the extent of their market, the number of their forced consumers, and hence the amount of their gains.
War has been the necessary and inevitable consequence of the establishment of a monopoly on security.
Another inevitable consequence has been that this monopoly has engendered all other monopolies.
When they saw the situation of the monopolizers of security, the producers of other commodities could not help but notice that nothing in the world is more advantageous than monopoly. They, in turn, were consequently tempted to add to the gains from their own industry by the same process. But what did they require in order to monopolize, to the detriment of the consumers, the commodity they produced? They required force. However, they did not possess the force necessary to constrain the consumers in question. What did they do? They borrowed it, for a consideration, from those who had it. They petitioned and obtained, at the price of an agreed upon fee, the exclusive privilege of carrying on their industry within certain determined boundaries. Since the fees for these privileges brought the producers of security a goodly sum of money, the world was soon covered with monopolies. Labour and trade were everywhere shackled, enchained, and the condition of the masses remained as miserable as possible.
Nevertheless, after long centuries of suffering, as enlightenment spread through the world little by little, the masses who had been smothered under this nexus of privileges began to rebel against the privileged, and to demand liberty, that is to say, the suppression of monopolies.
This process took many forms. What happened in England, for example? Originally, the race which governed the country and which was militarily organized (the aristocracy), having at its head a hereditary leader (the king), and an equally hereditary administrative council (the House of Lords), set the price of security, which it had monopolized, at whatever rate it pleased. There was no negotiation between the producers of security and the consumers. This was the régime of arbitrary rule. But as time passed, the consumers, having become aware of their numbers and strength, arose against the purely arbitrary regime, and they obtained the right to negotiate with the producers over the price of the commodity. For this purpose, they sent delegates to the House of Commons to discuss the level of taxes, i.e. the price of security. They were thus able to improve their lot somewhat. Nevertheless, the producers of security had a direct say in the naming of the members of the House of Commons, so the debate was not entirely open, and the price of the commodity remained above its natural value.
One day the exploited consumers rose against the producers and dispossessed them of their industry. They then undertook to carry on this industry by themselves and chose for this purpose a director of operations assisted by a Council. Thus communism replaced monopoly. But the scheme did not work, and twenty years later, primitive monopoly was re-established. Only this time the monopolists were wise enough not to restore the arbitrary rule; they accepted free debate over taxes, being careful, all the while, incessantly to corrupt the delegates of the opposition party. They gave these delegates control over various posts in the administration of security, and they even went so far as to allow the most influential into the bosom of their superior Council. Nothing could have been more clever than this behaviour. Nevertheless, the consumers of security finally became aware of these abuses, and demanded the reform of Parliament. This long-contested reform was finally achieved, and since that time, the consumers have won a significant lightening of their burdens.
In France, the monopoly on security, after having similarly undergone frequent vicissitudes and various modifications, has just been overthrown for the second time. [Note: Molinari refers to the uprisings of 1848.] As once happened in England, monopoly for the benefit of one caste, and then in the name of a certain class of society, was finally replaced by communal production. The consumers as a whole, behaving like shareholders, named a director responsible for supervising the actions of the director and of his administration.
We will content ourselves with making one simple observation on the subject of this new regime.
Just as the monopoly on security logically had to spawn universal monopoly, so communistic security must logically spawn universal communism.
In reality, we have a choice of two things:
Either communistic production is superior to free production, or it is not.
If it is, then it must be for all things, not just for security.
If not, progress requires that it be replaced by free production.
Complete communism or complete liberty: that is the alternative!
But is it conceivable that the production of security could be organized other than as a monopoly or communistically? Could it conceivably be left to free competition?
The response to this question on the part of political writers is unanimous: No.
Why? We will tell you why.
Because these writers, who are concerned especially with governments, know nothing about society. They regard it as an artificial fabrication, and believe that the mission of government is to modify and remake it constantly.
Now in order to modify or remake society, it is necessary to be empowered with an authority superior to that of the various individuals of which it is composed.
Monopolistic governments claim to have obtained from God himself this authority which gives them the right to modify or remake society according to their fancy, and to dispose of persons and property however they please. Communistic governments appeal to human reason, as manifested in the majority of the sovereign people.
But do monopolistic governments and communistic governments truly possess this superior, irresistible authority? Do they in reality have a higher authority than that which a free government could have? This is what we must investigate.
If it were true that society were not naturally organized, if it were true that the laws which govern its motion were to be constantly modified or remade, the legislators would necessarily have to have an immutable, sacred authority. Being the continuators of Providence on earth, they would have to be regarded as almost equal to God. If it were otherwise, would it not be impossible for them to fulfil their mission? Indeed, one cannot intervene in human affairs, one cannot attempt to direct and regulate them, without daily offending a multitude of interests. Unless those in power are believed to have a mandate from a superior entity, the injured interests will resist.
Whence the fiction of divine right.
This fiction was certainly the best imaginable. If you succeed in persuading the multitude that God himself has chosen certain men or certain races to give laws to society and to govern it, no one will dream of revolting against these appointees of Providence, and everything the government does will be accepted. A government based on divine right is imperishable.
On one condition only, namely that divine right is believed in.
If one takes the thought into one’s head that the leaders of the people do not receive their inspirations directly from providence itself, that they obey purely human impulses, the prestige that surrounds them will disappear. One will then irreverently resist their sovereign decisions, as one resists anything manmade whose utility has not been clearly demonstrated.
It is accordingly fascinating to see the pains theoreticians of the divine right take to establish the super-humanity of the races in possession of human government.
Let us listen, for example, to M. Joseph de Maistre:
“Man does not make sovereigns. At the very most he can serve as an instrument for dispossessing one sovereign and handing his State over to another sovereign, himself already a prince. Moreover, there has never existed a sovereign family traceable to plebeian origins. If this phenomenon were to appear, it would mark a new epoch on earth.
“… It is written: I am the Maker of sovereigns. This is not just a religious slogan, a preacher’s metaphor; it is the literal truth pure and simple. It is a law of the political world. God makes kings, word for word. He prepares royal races, nurtures them at the centre of a cloud which hides their origins. Finally they appear, crowned with glory and honour; they take their places.“ 
According to this system, which embodies the will of Providence in certain men and which invests these chosen ones, these anointed ones with a quasi-divine authority, the subjects evidently have no rights at all. They must submit, without question, to the decrees of the sovereign authority, as if they were the decrees of Providence itself.
According to Plutarch, the body is the instrument of the soul, and the soul is the instrument of God. According to the divine right school, God selects certain souls and uses them as instruments for governing the world.
If men had faith in this theory, surely nothing could unsettle a government based on divine right.
Unfortunately, they have completely lost faith.
Because one fine day they took it into their heads to question and to reason, and in questioning, in reasoning, they discovered that their rulers governed them no better than they, simply mortals out of communication with Providence, could have done themselves.
It was free inquiry that demonetized the fiction of divine right, to the point where the subjects of monarchs or of aristocracies based on divine right obey them only insofar as they think it in their own self-interest to obey them.
Has the communist fiction fared any better?
According to the communist theory, of which Rousseau is the high-priest, authority does not descend from on high, but rather comes up from below. The government no longer looks to Providence for its authority, it looks to united mankind, to the one, indivisible, and sovereign nation.
Here is what the communists, the partisans of popular sovereignty, assume. They assume that human reason has the power to discover the best laws and the organization which most perfectly suits society; and that, in practice, these laws reveal themselves at the conclusion of a free debate between conflicting opinions. If there is no unanimity, if there is still dissension after the debate, the majority is in the right, since it comprises the larger number of reasonable individuals. (These individuals are, of course, assumed to be equal, otherwise the whole structure collapses.) Consequently, they insist that the decisions of the majority must become law, and that the minority is obliged to submit to it, even if it is contrary to its most deeply rooted convictions and injures its most precious interests.
That is the theory; but, in practice, does the authority of the decisions of the majority really have this irresistible, absolute character as assumed? Does the minority always, in every instance, respect it? Could it be?
Let us take an example.
Let us suppose that socialism succeeds in propagating itself among the working classes in the countryside as it has already among the working classes in the cities; that it consequently becomes the majority in the country and that, profiting from this situation, it sends a socialist majority to the Legislative Assembly and names a socialist president. Suppose that this majority and this president, invested with sovereign authority, decrees the imposition of a tax on the rich of three billion, in order to organize the labor of the poor, as demanded by a famous socialist. Is it probable that the minority would submit peacefully to his iniquitous and absurd, yet legal, yet constitutional plunder?
No, without a doubt it would not hesitate to disown the authority of the majority and to defend its property.
Under this regime, as under the preceding, one obeys the custodians of authority only insofar as one thinks it in one’s self-interest to obey them.
This leads us to affirm that the moral foundation of authority is neither as solid nor as wide, under a regime of monopoly or of communism, as it could be under a regime of liberty.
Suppose nevertheless that the partisans of an artificial organization, either the monopolists or the communists, are right; that society is not naturally organized, and that the task of making and unmaking the laws that regulate society continuously devolves upon men, look in what a lamentable situation the world would find itself. The moral authority of governors rests, in reality, on the self-interest of the governed. The latter having a natural tendency to resist anything harmful to their self-interest, unacknowledged authority would continually require the help of physical force.
The monopolist and the communists, by the way, completely understand this necessity.
If anyone, says M. de Maistre, attempts to detract from the authority of God’s chosen ones, let him be turned over to the secular power, let the hangman perform his office.
If anyone does not recognize the authority of those chosen by the people, say the theoreticians of the school of Rousseau, if he resists any decision whatsoever of the majority, let him be punished as an enemy of the sovereign people, let the guillotine perform justice.
These two schools, which both take artificial organization as their point of departure, necessarily lead to the same conclusion: TERROR.
Allow us now to formulate a simple hypothetical situation.
Let us imagine a new-born society: the men who compose it are busy working and exchanging the fruits of their labour. A natural instinct reveals to these men that their persons, the land they occupy and cultivate, the fruits of their labour, are their property, and that no one, except themselves, has the right to dispose of or touch this property. This instinct is not hypothetical; it exists. But man being an imperfect creature, this awareness of the right of everyone to his person and his goods will not be found to the same degree in every soul, and certain individuals will make criminal attempts, by violence or by fraud, against the persons or the property of others.
Hence, the need for an industry that prevents or suppresses these forcible or fraudulent aggressions.
Let us suppose that a man or a combination of men comes and says:
For a fee, I will undertake to prevent or suppress criminal attempts against persons and property.
Let those who wish their persons and property to be sheltered from all aggression apply to me.
Before striking a bargain with this producer of security, what will the consumers do?
In the first place, they will check if he is really strong enough to protect them.
In the second place, whether his character is such that they will not have to worry about his instigating the very aggressions he is supposed to suppress.
In the third place, whether any other producer of security, offering equal guarantees, is disposed to provide them this commodity on better terms.
These terms are of various kinds.
In order to be able to guarantee the consumers full security of their persons and property, and, in case of damage, to give them a compensation proportioned to the loss suffered, it would be necessary, indeed:
That the producer establish certain penalties against the offenders of persons and the violators of property, and that the consumers agree to submit to these penalties, in case they themselves commit offences;
That he impose certain inconveniences on the consumers, with the object of facilitating the discovery of the authors of offences;
That he regularly gather, in order to cover his costs of production as well as an appropriate return for his efforts, a certain sum, variable according to the situation of the consumers, the particular occupations they engage in, and the extent, value, and nature of their properties.
If these terms, necessary for carrying on this industry, are agreeable to the consumers, a bargain will be struck. Otherwise the consumers will either do without security, or else apply to another producer.
Now if we consider the particular nature of the security industry, it is apparent that the producers will necessarily restrict their clientele to certain territorial boundaries. They would be unable to cover their costs if they tried to provide police services in localities comprising only a few clients. Their clientele will naturally be clustered around the center of their activities. They would nevertheless be unable to abuse this situation by dictating to the consumers. In the event of an abusive rise in the price of security, the consumers would always have the option of giving their patronage to a new entrepreneur, or to a neighbouring entrepreneur.
This option the consumer retains, of being able to buy security wherever he pleases, brings about a constant emulation among all the producers, each producer striving to maintain or augment his clientele with the attraction of cheapness or of faster, more complete and better justice. 
If, on the contrary, the consumer is not free to buy security wherever he pleases, you forthwith see open up a large profession dedicated to arbitrariness and bad management. Justice becomes slow and costly, the police vexatious, individual liberty is no longer respected, and the price of security is abusively inflated and inequitably apportioned, according to the power and influence of this or that class of consumers. The protectors engage in bitter struggles to wrest customers from one another. In a word, all the abuses inherent in monopoly or in communism crop up.
Under the rule of free competition, war between the producers of security entirely loses its justification. Why would they make war? To conquer consumers? But the consumers would not allow themselves to be conquered. They would be careful not to allow themselves to be protected by men who would unscrupulously attack the persons and property of their rivals. If some audacious conqueror tried to become dictator, they would immediately call to their aid all the free consumers menaced by this aggression, and they would treat him as he deserved. Just as war is the natural consequence of monopoly, peace is the natural consequence of liberty.
Under a regime of liberty, the natural organization of the security industry would not be different from that of other industries. In small districts a single entrepreneur could suffice. This entrepreneur might leave his business to his son, or sell it to another entrepreneur. In larger districts, one company by itself would bring together enough resources adequately to carry on this important and difficult business. If it were well managed, this company could easily last, and security would last with it. In the security industry, just as in most of the other branches of production, the latter mode of organization will probably replace the former, in the end.
On the one side there would be a monarchy, on the other side there would be a republic; but it would be a monarchy without monopoly and a republic without communism.
On either side, this authority would be accepted and respected in the name of utility, and would not be an authority imposed by terror.
It will undoubtedly be disputed whether such a hypothetical situation is realizable. But, at the risk of being considered utopian, we affirm that this is not disputable, that a careful examination of the facts will decide the problem of government more and more in favor of liberty, just as it does all other economic problems. We are convinced, in the matters that concern us, that one day associations will be set up to claim the freedom of government, as they have already been established to claim the freedom of commerce.
And we do not hesitate to add that after this reform has been achieved, and all artificial obstacles to the free action of the natural laws that govern the economic world have disappeared, the situation of the various members of society will become the best possible.” Gustave de Molinari, On the Production of Security; 1849
Numero Dos—“NOVELIST, PLAYWRIGHT, FILM MAKER, COMMUNIST, outrageous social commentator, Marguerite Duras has awed and maddened the French public for more than 40 years. Considering her impoverished childhood in Vietnam, her participation in the French Resistance, her Communism and ultimate disaffection with the Party, her two marriages and many liaisons, the near-fatal cure she underwent for alcoholism in 1982, and, especially, her miraculous recovery from a five-month coma induced by complications from emphysema in 1988, it is reasonable to suggest that Marguerite Duras is a force of nature.
Her 48th work, The Lover, published in 1984 when she was 70, was a best seller not only in France and throughout Europe, but in the United States as well. According to the French publisher Jerome Lindon, whose Les Editions de Minuit brought out The Lover, it is one of the few contemporary French books to have an international impact. He knows of at least 29 foreign editions, including 3 in separate Chinese dialects. It won France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt.
Set in prewar Indochina, where Duras spent her childhood, “The Lover” is a despairing, sensuous novel about an affair between a 15-year-old French girl and a 27-year-old Chinese man. The consuming infatuation and brutal shifts of power between the lovers echo many issues of modern colonialism. Although Duras’s work is avidly followed by a coterie of intellectuals, and her 1960 film script of Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour” has become a cult classic, it wasn’t until “The Lover” that she reached a mass audience. Duras stated publicly that it was completely autobiographical — an assertion that made her a media star.
Now, at 77, she has again captured center stage by publishing “L’Amant de la Chine du Nord” (“The North Chinese Lover”), a book the newspaper Le Point calls “stunning and diabolical.” With the audacity for which she is famous, this book is an end run around the film director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who has shot his version of “The Lover,” scheduled for European release in January. Until she and Annaud argued, Duras was the screenwriter; eventually Gerard Brach, whose credits include the screenplays for “The Name of the Rose” and “The Bear,” adapted the novel with Annaud. (Annaud will not speak to the press about the film.) Meanwhile, Duras recast her best seller into a new version, which is a fuller telling of the original, including many new shocking details, and — always mischievous — camera angles and directions for the soundtrack. Duras says her new book is more true than “The Lover.”
Truth, in the Durasian universe, is a slippery entity. After “The Lover,” Duras said, in Le Nouvel Observateur, that the story of her life did not exist. Only the novel of a life was real, not historical facts. “It’s in the imaginative memory of time that it is rendered into life.”
Between “The Lover” and “The North Chinese Lover,” Duras has written and directed her 18th film and published a collection of essays, three novels and “The War,” a vivid account of waiting for her husband, Robert Antelme, to return from Dachau during the Liberation, then nursing him back to health from near starvation.
Keeping in mind her special relationship to truth, I visited her in her apartment in Paris to talk about her work and her long life. At that time she had almost completed “The North Chinese Lover.” Monique Gonthier, a bilingual French journalist, accompanied me for linguistic emergencies.
IN THE DARK, CRAMPED HALLWAY OF THEIR apartment stand a tiny woman bent with age and a handsome, middle-aged man — Marguerite Duras and her companion of 11 years, Yann Andrea. She wears a plaid skirt and green stockings, he wears leather pants and has a mustache; together they evince images of whimsy, intellect and danger.
We walk into a small, dusty room filled with strange objects: a broken candleholder that is a model of the Eiffel Tower, a box of old postcards, little tins of tea next to a piece of curled red ribbon. There are piles and piles of paperback books and a round table in the middle of the room where Duras seats herself in front of some blank pages and three pens.
Her head is so large that her cheeks spread out toward her narrow shoulders. She must be less than five feet tall. She wears many rings and bracelets.
“Let me tell you something,” she says. Her voice is gruff, energetic and frank. “I am finishing a book. I am going to pick up the story of ‘The Lover’ without any literature in it. The fault I have found with ‘The Lover’ was its literariness, which comes very easily to me because it’s my style. But you won’t understand that.”
“Even I am struggling to understand,” says Yann, smiling. “Another version of ‘The Lover’ without the style of ‘The Lover’? It’s the same story.”
“Not exactly. Another novel. It is between the little girl and the Chinese.”
“Why go over the material again?” I ask.
“Because there is a film maker who is one of the greatest in the world, whose name is Jean-Jacques Annaud, who took on ‘The Lover.’ He told a story that I didn’t recognize, so I said: ‘Now you’re going home, it’s finished. I don’t want to work with you anymore.’ I was a little nasty.”
The film is being made in English with two unknowns playing the leads: an English girl and a man from Hong Kong. Duras waves her hand in dismissal when I ask her if she will watch the shooting. “It doesn’t interest me,” she says. But, of course, she has her new book, which more or less throws down the gauntlet to Annaud.
As Yann plays with a piece of ribbon like the one on the table, twisting it through his fingers, she looks at me expectantly, and I begin by asking about early literary influences. She denies having any. “My mother was a farmer,” she says bluntly. “She had no idea what literature was all about.”
“Did you know you were a writer when you were young?”
“I never doubted. I wrote when I was 10. Very bad poems. Many children start out writing like that, with the most difficult form.”
The form of a typical Duras novel is minimal, with no character description, and much dialogue, often unattributed and without quotation marks. The novel is not driven by narrative, but by a detached psychological probing, which, with its complexity and contradictory emotions, has its own urgency.
I ask her why she has said in interviews she feels suffocated by the classical novel, especially Balzac.
“Balzac describes everything, everything. It’s exhaustive. It’s an inventory. His books are indigestible. There’s no place for the reader.”
Yann says gently: “There is pleasure too, in reading Balzac. You’re very reassured.”
“If you read it at 14,” Duras barks back. “Balzac was my earliest nourishment. But I am a part of my own time, you have to be a part of your own time. One can no longer write as Balzac does. And Balzac could never have written ‘Lol Stein.’ ”
“THE RAVISHING OF LOL STEIN” (1964) IS ONE OF DURAS’S seminal works. Nineteen-year-old Lol Stein is engaged to Michael Richardson. They go to a ball in S. Tahla, an imagined town on the north French coast, similar to Trouville, where Duras owns a house. Anne-Marie Stretter, a glamorous older woman, arrives and steals away Michael Richardson. Lol Stein goes mad. Ten years later she is back in S. Tahla as a married woman. She walks incessantly, seldom talking. One day she follows a man who has a clandestine meeting with a woman from Lol Stein’s youth. Later, the three of them meet socially, and eventually Lol Stein lies in a field outside a hotel in which the man and woman are making love. She occasionally sees her woman friend, naked, cross in front of the window, oblivious of being watched. The man, however, knows, which heightens Lol Stein’s pleasure. An odd, obsessive longing she had felt to follow Michael Richardson and Anne-Marie Stretter when they left the dance is now fulfilled by this act of voyeurism.
I ask her what sort of state she was in when she wrote “Lol Stein,” and she tells me a curious story.
“With ‘Lol Stein,’ I screamed. I was by the sea, in a house in Trouville. I was in the living room, and at a little distance was my lover. I heard a cry. I leaped up. I went to see the young man. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said: ‘What are you talking about? I’m the one who should ask why you screamed.’ I’d cried out, without even . . . it’s funny.”
“Have you ever known someone like Lol Stein?”
She picks up the papers before her, stands them upright and taps the edges to align them. She is so small that her face disappears behind the pages. I hear a deep sigh.
“One day I took care of a madwoman. I went to a psychiatric hospital and asked for a young woman who had attracted me. She was very beautiful, very elegant. I took her out in the car. She didn’t say anything. We simply went to a cafe. She ate and ate and ate — like a clochard , crudely, with her hands. At her core she was very sick. I wanted to see it physically. I saw it in her. The gaze. That’s Lol Stein.
“I’ve been thinking about this character for 10 years. I have an image. Not another book. Maybe a film. She is on the beach at Trouville. She is in a rickshaw. There’s no roof, she’s exposed. She is very made up, like a whore. She’s wearing dirty dresses, and it’s as if she grew old in an asylum. And you know where she’s going? She’s going to the dance.”
“Terrific!” says Yann. “You have to do it! Write it!” She turns to him with a distant look in her eyes and a faint smile. Silence prevails.
MARGUERITE DURAS WAS born in Giadinh, near Saigon, in 1914. Her father, Henri Donnadieu, was a professor of mathematics at a school in what was then French Indochina. He died in 1918, leaving Marguerite, two brothers and her mother practically destitute.
Until she went to the Sorbonne in France in 1932, Duras lived like an Asian child and spoke fluent Vietnamese.
In 1924 her family moved to Sadec, then to Vinhlong, villages on the Mekong River. In Vinhlong a new French governor arrived from Laos with his wife, a pale beauty named Elizabeth Striedter. It was rumored that the wife had a young lover in Laos who killed himself when she went away. The news of this suicide had a searing effect on the imagination of Duras, for whom the woman came to represent a dark, mythic feminine power. She was the model for Anne-Marie Stretter (who reappears in “The North Chinese Lover”). “Many times I have said to myself,” Duras told the critic Michelle Porte, “that I am a writer because of her.”
There was another event in Vinhlong that changed Duras forever. Her mother, the daughter of poor French farmers, had saved for 20 years to buy arable land in Indochina. At last she purchased a farm from the French colonial government, not realizing that without a bribe she would be cheated. With the help of her children, she built a bungalow and planted rice. But as soon as the rainy season started, the sea rose to the house, flooding the fields, ruining the crops. Every penny of her savings was lost. She fought against the sea for years, building dikes that washed away, until finally her health was broken. Marguerite, herself, at age 12, had an emotional crisis serious enough to be called madness. After that, for the rest of her life, she was preoccupied by insanity and convinced that the world was fundamentally unjust.
Her childhood was also full of a wild freedom. With no supervision she played in the rain forest and hunted for birds and small game that, in her extreme poverty, she brought home to eat.
IN A 1974 booklength interview with Xaviere Gauthier, Duras said: “I have a bedazzled memory . . . of the night in the forest when we’d walk barefoot, barefoot while everywhere it was teeming with snakes! . . . I wasn’t afraid at 12, and then, as an adult, I’ve said to myself, ‘But how did we get out alive?’ We would go to see the monkeys, and there were black panthers too. I saw a black panther fly by a hundred meters away. Nothing in the world is more ferocious than that.”
Thinking about that panther, I ask her: “There seems to be a chronic underlying panic in your books. Did that come from your childhood?”
“Who can say? It’s true that it exists. Endemic, as they say.”
During another long silence I gaze at a strange tableau on a table. A mirror with dried flowers drooping from the top is propped against the wall. In its reflection is a poster of “Destroy She Said,” her first independent movie. Leaning against the mirror is another, smaller mirror.
“There was a sexual fear, fear of men, because I didn’t have a father. I wasn’t raped, but I sensed rape, like all little girls. And then afterwards I had a Chinese lover. That was love.”
Yann serves us grenadine. I remember French friends telling me, with eyebrows raised, that between them is un vrai amour , even though he is a homosexual.
“Do you think most people live with continual fear?”
“Only the stupid are not afraid.”
FEAR, DESPAIR, alienation are themes that seized her in her childhood; later Duras became fascinated with crimes of passion. In the 1958 novel “Moderato Cantabile” — Duras’s first major success — a crime is committed: lying on the woman he has just killed, a man sobs: “Darling. My darling.” Two witnesses, a man and a woman, later drink together and reconstruct in repetitious and incantatory dialogue a passion so intense that its climax was murder. This mix of eroticism and death runs through her work like a river that feeds everything it passes. Certainly one of its sources was the French governor’s wife, but an even stronger one was a savage conflict within her family circle.
Duras passionately loved Paulo, the younger of her two older brothers (both of whom are now dead). Paulo was slightly retarded and was deathly afraid of Pierre, the older brother, who tormented and physically battered Paulo. One of the most jarring revelations in “The North Chinese Lover” is that Duras had sex with Paulo. In the book he begins to crawl into her bed when they were both very young, precipitating terrifying rages from Pierre. That intimacy eventually leads to consummation, just before the family leaves Vietnam. This new slant on her childhood might explain why she hated Pierre so much that she wanted to kill him.
“I should have,” she cries today. “There was only one solution. That was murder. And one didn’t adopt that solution. And it went on throughout my whole childhood. Hate grows. It’s like a fire that doesn’t go out. When he was 17 and I was 13, during a nap one day I got a knife to kill him.”
“For everything, for the sake of killing him. So he wouldn’t beat the little one anymore. I can’t talk about the little one because I’m going to cry.”
“Why didn’t you kill the older one?”
“He woke up. He laughed.” She imitates horrible laughter. It’s a bizarre moment.”He got hold of the knife. He flung it away. I picked it up. He called my mother. He told her. They laughed uproariously. And I cried, I cried.”
“What did your mother do?”
“She was very hard on me. She didn’t love us, the little one and me. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, my mother’s preference for my older brother. She was proud of me because I did well in school. My little brother wasn’t altogether normal, and that’s why my older brother persecuted him. And as for me, I was going mad with pain because above all I loved my little brother. I wanted to kill myself when he died.”
Self-destruction for love is a particularly Durasian obsession. “You destroy me. You’re so good for me,” repeats the woman in “Hiroshima Mon Amour” to her lover. I ask her today why sex and death are always entwined for her.
“It’s difficult to articulate. It’s erotic.” She takes a deep breath. “I had a lover with whom I drank a lot of alcohol.” She pauses, staring straight at me. Her face is expressionless, her dark eyes are absolutely still. “I’m acquainted with it, the desire to be killed. I know it exists.”
In “Practicalities,” a 1987 book of essays, Duras writes about a violent affair. “We took a room by the river. We made love again. We couldn’t speak to one another any more. We drank. He struck me . . . in cold blood. We couldn’t be near one another now without fear and trembling. . . . We were both faced with the same strange desire.” It was after that experience that she wrote “Moderato Cantabile.”
Is Duras’s attitude toward eroticism an anomaly, or is it particularly French? Jennifer Wicke, an associate professor of comparative literature at New York University, told me that while the English may write about a languid conversation in front of a fire, the French are entirely different.
“Duras’s writing is always at an extremity, and that is quite French,” she said. “I see her as carrying on the tradition of l’amour fou, the crazed love. It’s a bleak world view, the opposite of a lyrical text. It proposes a tragic end, because desire can’t be sustained. It will either turn into obsession and, thus, ultimately destroy its object, or it will see itself be deflated by the very cruel contingencies of history, or death.”
Duras is associated with the Nouveau Roman (literally “new novel”), a movement born in the 50’s, whose members include Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor and Claude Simon. The Nouveau Roman rejects the classical novel as an inappropriate medium to express the chaotic, morally ambiguous postwar world. Although Duras shares many of the movement’s stylistic hallmarks — the free flow of time and the use of silence — she is the least obsessed with literary principles, and the most inspired by her own inimitable sensibility.
Peter Brooks, the Tripp Professor of Humanities at Yale University, commented to me that the other Nouveau Roman writers got more attention than Duras when the movement began because there was “something more technicolor about their technique. Their theorizing and their break with the traditional novel were overt and total. But Duras is the one from that whole generation who really is going to last.”
DURAS LOOKS AT YANN, and he takes her hand. During our conversation he has been shuffling around, walking in and out of the room, one hand on his hip, flipping his hair back with a toss of his head — a movement that must be, in other circumstances, flirtatious. I ask how they like to spend their time.
“The thing we like most in life is to be in a car together,” she says, “to go in bistros, cafes, and make stories from what we see.”
“Do you ask a lot of questions?”
“All the time. People talk to us. I go out every day in the car.” Then she adds: “I had chronic bronchitis. You can hear my voice very well, even so. I still have vocal cords. I was in a coma for five months.”
In October 1988, Duras fell into a coma from which she miraculously awoke intact. She now has a tracheostomy and wears a necklace of wire with a silver button in the middle. At times she adjusts it, which seems to alter the force of her voice.
The most difficult storm Duras weathered was her cure from alcohol in 1982. Yann wrote a harrowing account, which has not yet been translated into English, called simply “M.D.” She tells me Yann’s book is “magnificent.”
“I drank because I was an alcoholic. I was a real one — like a writer. I’m a real writer, I was a real alcoholic. I drank red wine to fall asleep. Afterwards, Cognac in the night. Every hour a glass of wine and in the morning Cognac after coffee, and afterwards I wrote. What is astonishing when I look back is how I managed to write.”
Her small, bejeweled hands lie on the table before her, one resting on the blank paper.
THE NEXT DAY, WE talk about criminals. Duras has never shunned conflict — as a Resistance fighter, as a Communist or as a woman who speaks out in defense of murderers if she imagines the killer is an anti-establishment figure.
“I became great friends with Georges Figon,” she tells me. “He had stolen diamonds and he had killed people. And afterwards he had kidnapped people, with ransom. He was a dear friend. I got him a television interview. He was amazingly intelligent. I even went away for the weekend with him.”
“A romantic weekend?” Monique immediately asks.
“No. We never slept with each other. Never. And he never tried to sleep with me.”
What is the allure of a criminal for her?
“It exerts a fascination for me — all the people who abandon the golden rule of good conduct. Criminals are heroes for me.”
In 1985 Duras wrote an article about Christine Villemin, who was accused of murdering her child. Although conceding Villemin’s guilt under the law, she justified the murder as a natural result of social injustice. The article caused a furor.
Duras’s pronouncements in the press have given her a notorious reputation. In 1988 she was interviewed on television for some four hours. Duras alternately spoke and stared speechlessly into the camera. Very little of it was comprehensible to the general public. It was just before her coma.
During my interview I was disconcerted by her habit of jumping disconnectedly from subject to subject, and it wasn’t until I was back in America and spent many weeks studying the transcript of the interview (which Nancy K. Kline, of Barnard College, translated for this article) that I gradually understood the connections she was making. In New York I spoke to Tom Bishop, chairman of the French department at New York University, a Beckett scholar and a friend of Duras’s for 25 years. It had occurred to me that she had sustained brain damage in the coma.
“She was always like this,” he declared. “I don’t think she was ever any different. I would doubt that it’s the coma.” He described the scattershot exchanges of ordinary friendship, which often went something like this:
Bishop: “Let’s have lunch.”
Duras: “I never have lunch.”
Duras: “Where would you want to have lunch if we had lunch?”
Bishop: “I was thinking of the Rue de Dragon.”
Duras: “Well, O.K., fine, let’s do that.”
“I think she’s a fabulous writer who should just write and not talk about what she’s thinking,” Bishop said. Like her talk, her work doesn’t make “a lot of sense,” but it does “something else. It allows me to have an insight into the human psyche that I have found unique. I have learned things about humanity through her that others don’t teach me.”
A good example of meaning in ambiguity is Duras’s work in the cinema, where she is almost as important to 20th-century experimental film as she is to literature. Annette Michelson, a professor of cinema studies at New York University, told me that one of Duras’s most important contributions is her realization that “the cinema is made of relations.” “And when you change the relations between sound and image,” she says, “you have something new.”
In “India Song” (1975), the actress Delphine Seyrig and various men walk through a room furnished only with a grand piano. They dance, lie down, sleep, weep, while off-screen voices comment on the unbearable heat, a man shrieks and sobs, a woman chants in Cambodian and jazz melodies pulse. Sounds never emanate from the actors. And yet the audience feels despair, longing, sensuality, the presence of death, colonialism, the impossibility of human communication — a welter of specific impulses that elude verbal definition.
Of course, a writer who concerns herself with disjunction and alienation is difficult to pin down in conversation. She used to say that as a film maker she wanted to “murder the writer,” and recently she said she wants to “kill the image.” I wonder how it is possible to make a film without image.
She answers: “With words. To kill the writer that I was.”
All right. Suddenly she picks up the pen that has been in front of her for two days and begins to write on the paper. “I’m thinking of something.” She looks up. “Sensitivity depends on intelligence. It’s completely connected. There’s an innocence also. Luckily.” She puts down the pen. I record it as it happened. I do not fully understand.
To ground us a little, I introduce the subject of politics. Her hatred of de Gaulle springs to the surface.
“When de Gaulle arrived in France, I became an anti-Gaullist instantly. I saw through his power game. I saw he was an arriviste, with a special gift for language. And at just that moment they opened the camps, and my husband had been deported. I never got over it, the Jews, Auschwitz. When I die, I’ll think about that, and about who’s forgotten it.”
“De Gaulle never said a word on the Jews and the camps,” Yann adds quietly. “If de Gaulle had not been as big as he was,” Duras says angrily, “no one would have noticed him. Because he was taller than everyone, he was boss. But why this arrogance? As far as I’m concerned, he’s a deserter. He’s horrible, horrible.”
In “The War,” Duras describes her days in the Resistance, working with Francois Mitterrand, keeping records of deportees, trying to coax information from Germans stationed in Paris. It was Mitterrand who went to Germany with Dionys Mascolo, the man who would be her second husband and the father of her son, Jean. They rescued Antelme from Dachau in the first days after the German surrender. Antelme, nearly unconscious, was consigned to a quarantined section for hopeless cases. Mitterrand and Mascolo smuggled him out.
“MITTERRAND IS wonderful. I worked with him in the Resistance. I protected him in the street. We never met in a house or a cafe. We liked each other so much we could certainly have slept with each other, but it was impossible. You can’t do that on bicycles!” She laughs.
“Are you still a Communist?”
“I’m a Communist. There’s something in me that’s incurable.”
“But you left the Party.”
“The Party is not Communism.” Her mouth hardens into a straight line across her wide face.
“Has there been any true Communist government over the years?”
“Not one. There was one Communist year: 1917.”
“Do you hope to see that sort of Communism return to the world?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I am a Communist within myself. I no longer have hope in the world.”
Yann begins to laugh. “And the other?” he asks. “Do you have hope for the next world?”
She is not amused by his question. “Zero. Zero.” A DURAS SAMPLER
She says, I’d rather you didn’t love me. But if you do, I’d like you to do as you usually do with women. He looks at her in horror, asks, Is that what you want? She says it is. He’s started to suffer here in this room, for the first time, he’s no longer lying about it. He says he knows already she’ll never love him. She lets him say it. At first she says she doesn’t know. Then she lets him say it.
He says he’s lonely, horribly lonely because of this love he feels for her. She says she’s lonely too. She doesn’t say why. He says, You’ve come here with me as you might have gone anywhere with anyone. She says she can’t say, so far she’s never gone into a bedroom with anyone. She tells him she doesn’t want him to talk, what she wants is for him to do as he usually does with the women he brings to his flat. She begs him to do that. — The Lover (1984)
The sound of the violin ceases. We stop talking. It starts in again.
‘The light went on in your room, and I saw Tatiana walk in front of the light. She was naked beneath her black hair.’
She does not move, her eyes staring out into the garden, waiting. She has just said that Tatiana is naked beneath her dark hair. That sentence is the last to have been uttered. I hear: ‘naked beneath her dark hair, naked, naked, dark hair.’ The last two words especially strike with a strange and equal intensity. . . . The intensity of the sentence suddenly increases, the air around it has been rent, the sentence explodes, it blows the meaning apart. I hear it with a deafening roar, and I fail to understand it, I no longer even understand that it means nothing.–
Numero Tres—“On May 10, 1872, Victoria C. Woodhull became the first female candidate for the Presidency of the United States. A mere two years after becoming the first woman to open a brokerage firm on Wall Street, Victoria Woodull established herself as a force to be reckoned with, advocating on behalf of abolition, women’s suffrage, and a slew of other liberal agendas. That same year, Anthony Comstock, a man devoted to preserving the legacy of Victorian morality, arranged for Woodhull’s arrest on charges of obscenity following her publication of an article regarding an adulterous affair between Elizabeth Tilton and a Protestant minister. Anthony Comstock’s tireless crusade against obscenity would continue into 1873, when his influence and political pull would result in the enactment of the Comstock Act, which made it illegal to proliferate information ‘for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion,’ through the mail. Comstock would then found the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, continuing his work as a self-appointed custodian for the morality of the public in New York and, ideally, in the larger United States.
With the rise of Comstock’s popularity in the religious and upper class circles of New York also came the growing prominence among activists and progressives of his ideological foe, Victoria Woodhull. In addition to being a fiery and progressive pioneer for women’s suffrage and economic freedom, Woodhull held another conviction central to her identity as an activist of the Gilded Age. ‘The condition of the parents at the time of the conception is a matter of prime importance, since the life principle with which the new organism is to begin its growth should be of the highest order,’ Woodhull stated, revealing her belief in a newfound science supported by many of her contemporaneous progressives: the science of eugenics. As defined by Francis Galton, one of her contemporaries as well as a pioneer of this science, ‘eugenics is the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the upmost advantage.’ Advocates of eugenics desired to regulate the reproductive habits of certain groups of people, mainly minorities, in order to improve the genetic makeup of new humans. Woodhull was a strong proponent of eugenics, believing that each ‘human failure adds a considerable item to the burden, already large, put upon the healthy useful citizens,’ and advocating for ‘the care and culture of offspring by new and better methods.’ For Woodhull, the targets of such eugenic thought were often the poor and the mentally and physically disabled, whose possible reproductive habits were deemed harmful, or even dangerous, as they threatened the well-being of the greater society.
Both Victoria C. Woodhull and Anthony Comstock were prominent social and political figures whose rhetoric dominated social discourse before the turn of the century. However, while Woodhull and Comstock were seemingly worlds apart in their political orientation, there was an important common thread between them that reveals much about both progressive and conservative discourse in the United States. While Victoria Woodhull was extremely liberal compared to many of her political peers, her support and advocacy for eugenics aligned her in a nuanced but significant way with social purists such as Anthony Comstock. With Anthony Comstock attempting to limit public access to “obscene” materials, and with Victoria Woodhull promoting mandatory birth control among the poor and other “unfit” members of society, both, somewhat unknowingly, became advocates of a social engineering platform aimed at preserving privilege, maintaining innocence, and censoring human bodies and actions. This paper seeks to explore this significant ideological relationship as it relates to Gilded Age and contemporary perpetuations of white, upper class, able-bodied privilege.
Biographies and Background
Despite this important similarity, Comstock and Woodhull were indeed very different figures with very different backgrounds. Woodhull was born in 1838 in Homer, Ohio, as the seventh child of a conman for a father and a religious zealot for a mother. She originally gained notoriety as a Spiritualist magnetic healer along with her sister, Tennessee C. Claflin. They later used this notoriety to help them set up the first firm run by women on the New York Stock Exchange. They also established a weekly newspaper publication by the name of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, in which issues such as Marxism, free-love, spiritualism, and suffrage often made the headlines. Woodhull also took part in the early women’s suffrage movement, having quietly attended the Washington convention of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association. It was here that she first heard the argument that the Constitution already granted women the right to vote, and thus the proposed 16th Amendment was unnecessary. Woodhull quickly made this argument her own, boldly declaring that women “are entitled to the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and thus in the right to pursue happiness also have a right to have “a voice in that government to which I am accountable.”
It was not just advocacy for suffrage, however, that made Woodhull such a controversial and divisive figure. In 1871, rumors and scandal began to circulate around her, especially regarding the rather unusual domestic setup of her home on Murray Hill in New York City. She lived there with her sister, her second husband Colonel James Harvey Blood, her parents, her first (alcoholic) husband Dr. Channing Woodhull, anarchist and author Stephen Pearl Andrews, and a horde of children. The sensationalized media coverage surrounding such an odd arrangement finally compelled Woodhull to declare herself a Free Lover:
Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love
whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day
if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to
Woodhull defied the stigma of her lifestyle, a stigma perpetuated by the press. She even went so far as to declare marriages of convenience as “legalized prostitution,” and that marriages without real love should not exist at all. Woodhull’s rather unconventional conviction regarding her beliefs quickly set her apart as a prominent figure in New York politics and the social sphere.
Woodhull’s fame attracted the disapproving glower of Anthony Comstock, whose austere Victorian ideals of sexual restraint would come into direct conflict with Woodhull’s radical notions of sexual freedom. Born on a small farm in New Canaan, he attended school intermittently before having to work as a clerk in a county store in Winnebark. Comstock eventually enlisted in the army in December 1863, only to be disgusted with the salacious lifestyles of other soldiers. It was in the army that Comstock’s humble crusade for righteousness began, though hostility towards him would eventually force him to return home to Connecticut. Eventually, however, Anthony Comstock would find himself in New York, surrounded by the erotic vice that his evangelical Christianity had so warned him against. Comstock began his righteous movement first by campaigning against saloons in the Brooklyn neighborhood, appealing to the mayor and police chief for help. He then began to focus his efforts on the banning of obscene books, the largest fight of this nature being that with publisher William Haynes. Haynes, along with his wife Mary, “continued publishing erotic books until Comstock got close.” Comstock turned to the YMCA to buy the plate engravings for these books for $650, setting the precedent for their support for his efforts for years to come.
Comstock and Woodhull even came into direct conflict with each other, mainly after a scandalous article publication in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly was charged with libel against Luther Challis, as it claimed that he boasted of engaging in sexual activity with young girls. After a failed attempt to indict Woodhull and her sister for this sordid report, Comstock requested that the issue of the weekly containing this story be sent to him through the mail and turned over to federal marshals so that he could arrest the sisters under the federal postal code. Woodhull and Claflin were thus arrested and arraigned by federal marshals on November 2nd, 1873 at 23rd Irving Place. Woodhull, in a histrionic attempt to elude arrest, disguised “herself as an old lady in a pearl-colored bonnet, with a veil and a black and white shawl,” only to eventually throw off her disguise and commence “a tirade against the law officers.” The offense, as put in the official New York Society for the Suppression of Vice Records, was for “mailing obscene papers.”
Comstock had much to gain from going after Woodhull, as she was becoming a famously controversial figure in New York City by this time. He saw an opportunity to gain repute in his movement, but he was not successful in the trial. Woodhull had a very effective defense for the obscenity trial, and ultimately got off on a technicality. Such a disappointment for Comstock, however, would only continue to fuel the dispute between them, as well as catalyze his future endeavors to regulate obscenity. What can be gleaned from this dramatic interaction is that both Comstock and Woodhull had a propensity for celebrity, and their theatrical figures would cast large feuding shadows on the city of New York and the reform movement for years to come.
Most scholarship on Anthony Comstock, the NYSSV, and Victoria C. Woodhull mainly seeks to explore the stratification between various discourses on sex in society, and for obvious reasons. Comstock and Woodhull had completely different world views, but any possible similarities they might have shared are simply not discussed in most scholarship. Even direct comparisons between the two are not that common, but by far the leading scholar on such material would be Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, specifically in her text Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America. She argues that there were four frameworks through which American discourse on sexuality took place; these four being American vernacular sexual culture, Evangelical Christianity, a “new consciousness” linked to biological functions of the body, and a new sensibility that regarded sex as the center of life. Comstock obviously belongs in the Evangelical Christianity camp while Woodhull is argued to be one of those who saw sex as central to human existence. Such dramatic polarity defined the discourse not only in New York, but in the United States as a whole.
While one might assume that other scholarship that explores solely Comstock or Woodhull as public figures in pre-turn of the century New York would exacerbate the differences between them, it is interesting to note that when dealt with separately, scholars seem to unknowingly agree on their similarities. For example, in her text, Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America, Nicola Beisel argues that efforts to suppress sexuality and obscenity were actually attempts to preserve the exclusive privilege of the upper middle class and ensure upper class reproduction. Beisel explains that Comstock received much of his popularity from concerned upper and middle class parents who worried that their children would fall victim to various vices, and thus imperil that family’s ability to advance in class status. This motive, ensuring the quality of reproduction, is the exact same motive for the advocacy of eugenics, of which Victoria C. Woodhull took part. In Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought, he argues that at the turn of the century, more attention was paid to the social significance of hereditary characteristics, especially when it came to issues of poverty. This hereditarian approach to social theory often resulted in attacks on new immigrant groups in America, trade unionism, and social legislation/programs. They were blamed for lessening the quality of the racial stock and preventing the improvement and advancement of American society.
In her text, Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth Century: Rational Reproduction and the New Woman, Angelique Richardson explores a feminist discourse of eugenics, to which Victoria C. Woodhull subscribed, arguing that eugenics was a class-based application of new Darwinian theories. The Victorian Era was a time of competition and individualism, and thus ideas of social Darwinism and eugenics, deemed credible and of a “scientific” authority, were able to proliferate easily in such a hostile environment. Richardson examines the intersection between the early feminist idea of the New Woman and eugenics, and ultimately argues that many of these New Women subscribed to a brand of eugenic feminism that was most prominent in their works of fiction. She explores the growing concern in the late Victorian era of the growing number of urban poor, and how this concern led to widespread fear regarding the degeneration of upstanding British society. Poverty was “biologized,” and the poor were thought to have their own biological makeup that caused them to dwell and permanently remain in such destitution.
Eugenics was thus seen as a way to improve the reproductive stock of society, just as censorship was seen as a way to protect it. Ultimately, eugenics is not merely related to censorship, it is censorship. It is censorship of a human’s ability to create something, in this case another human being, just as Comstock’s efforts to block obscenity also censored human creations. This distinction lessens the ideological gap between these mammoth figures, and suggests that both eugenic discourse and censorship policy were tools used to execute discipline on individuals and on society as a whole. Such censorship will be interpreted in this paper as a Foucaultian disciplining of bodies, as eugenics sought to create the ultimate docility in the bodies of the poor, minorities, and the biologically unfit, and austere Victorian morality worked to discipline the bodies of the white upper class, while alienating the disenfranchised.
Though Michel Foucault’s famous work discusses the birth and development of the physical prison, it has been used by many scholars to exemplify the ways in which society creates methods of discipline and punishment in order to inflict hegemony among its members. These methods have thus become more implicit, for “the body… is caught up in a system of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions.” This paper explores ideas of punishment, imprisonment, and discipline on this more implicit and figurative level, with special regard for how society disciplines bodies. Such discipline creates a docile body, which is a body that “may be subjected, used, transformed and improved.” Subjugation is an important aspect to such docility, as it no doubt had a role in the lives of minorities in the Gilded Age. But what is especially important to note for the purposes of this paper is the utilitarian framework through which the body is perceived. The goal of eugenics is not only to subjugate and alienate bodies of lesser biological value, but to transform white, able-bodied and upper-class bodies into effective reproducers of a superior humanity, thus transforming bodies into tools.
To fully embrace the idea of a Foucaultian framework for this paper, the definition of a prison must also be expanded to include policies, ways of thinking, and societal bias. Racial and eugenic discourses, as well as the severity of Victorian morals, were such a prison, creating physical confines where actual policy was enacted and environmental discrimination took hold, and figurative confines where concepts of propriety controlled human sexual behavior and where perceptions of certain groups of people were changed to perceive them as “other.” Subjugation of the body can thus be both “direct, physical, pitting force against force, bearing on material elements” as well as “subtle, [making] use neither of weapons nor of terror and yet [remaining] of a physical order.” To advocate for eugenics or a refined Victorian lifestyle was to alienate, and thereby discipline, certain groups. Bodies and actions of the white and upper-middle class were thus disciplined to adhere to strict moral structures, while bodies of the mentally unfit, non-white immigrants, economically poor, or disabled were disciplined by the perpetuation of eugenic thought, putting them at odds with the rest of society.
Gilded Age methods of disciplining and punishing can also be interpreted in the Foucaultian exercise of hierarchical observation, which “coerces by means of observation.” Again, the definition of this must be expanded to encapsulate more figurative measures, beyond that of a physical Foucaultian panopticon, a prison system in which a central tower allows a watchman to observe the inmates of a surrounding prison without them being able to know whether or not they are being monitored, thereby enacting a system of self-monitoring. Societal structures emphasized by racial and classist thought coupled with the stratification of classes the fact that these structures functioned in now over-crowded cities created an environment by which others, particularly those of the dominated paradigm, could be observed by the dominators and thus regulated in their actions, thereby assuring “the automatic functioning of power.”
This framework of censorship is one way to encapsulate the similarities between Anthony Comstock and Victoria C. Woodhull. The other framework is that of preserving privilege, manifested in both Comstock’s and Woodhull’s desire to protect the innocence of children. The reality is that the larger sentiment of preserving privilege was merely couched in the argument of protecting children, for in their censored and eugenic thought, they were not concerned for actual children, but rather for “potential offspring” and the impact of “negative eugenics” (i.e., irresponsible or “bad” reproductive choices) on families. Such a framework reveals a foible in the liberalism of early feminism because it was unable to factor in intersections of racism, classism, and ableism into the formula for oppression. It also reveals motives for the advocacy of Victorian moralism beyond that of a mere fear of sex. It suggests that such a fear was perhaps a cover for deeper, more nuanced class warfare. Foucault notes that creating docile bodies was not merely a method of “illustrating an organism,” but it was also a function of creating “small-scale models of power” that could act as “political puppets.” The same can be said for the advocacy of Victorian morality and the regulation of obscenity, for through these efforts, a model of power was created that worked to maintain the upper class as the sole reapers of industrial wealth.
Acknowledgement of the moral blind spots of early social activists is not an attempt to disrespect the very important progress that they made. This paper is not an attempt to make the perfect the enemy of the good. It should be noted that this author writes from the perspective of third wave feminism, which had its advent in the 1990s, and therefore of which Woodhull knew nothing about. Third wave feminism functions on the idea of intersectionality, which emphasizes the importance of the interactions between multiple systems of oppression or discrimination. Woodhull was an extremely important figure in her day, who in many ways set the stage for first wave feminism and inspired the suffragettes who would eventually lobby for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Her candidacy for the Presidency of the United States, with running mate Frederick Douglass, challenged the growing fear of miscegenation, or race mixing. Her fearless entrance into the male-dominated worlds of business and politics showed that she did indeed intend to “speak for the unenfranchised woman of the country.” However, it is important to acknowledge the areas in which historic progressives failed. This acknowledgement is not meant to punish these figures nor to condemn everything they stood for, but to rather use them as an example for progressive movements today. It is only through the recognition of these blind spots and the identification of white, upper-class, able-bodied privilege that activists can ensure the progress of future social justice movements.
The Gilded Age Backdrop
The societal tumult of the late 19th century facilitated the ideal environment for the perpetuation of Comstock and Woodhull’s radical beliefs. Both conservative and progressive ideas were embraced as solutions to the escalation in societal, political, and economic problems. The year of 1845 began a decade of exponential growth in North America. Everything from transportation to the national economy expanded in a very dramatic way, giving rise to “complex movements of peoples and [bringing] momentous changes in the lives of people involved.” Industrialization was an enormous part of this change sweeping America’s northern cities, as it was intrinsically tied to “science and technology, urbanization, labor, immigration, the changes in rural America, and politics and issues of public policy.” The US population grew by 7 million, with a disproportionate percentage living in ever-growing and ever-expanding cities. Both Comstock and Woodhull achieved prominence in New York City, which by 1850 had grown from a small provincial port into a crowded metropolis, mostly because of foreign immigration. The momentum of foreign emigration that poured into America’s cities provided a horde of problems that would plague the immigrant working poor and threaten the well-being of the upper middle class. Late nineteenth century society would come to be known as the Gilded Age, because despite sweeping economic growth, it was a gold plate that masked larger systemic issues hidden underneath.
In many ways, urbanization defined the historical narrative of pre-turn-of-the-century America, for it catalyzed the shift from an agrarian society to a heavily industrialized and urbanized one. Although the United States’ rural population also grew in the Postbellum period, the rate of urban population growth was significantly greater than the rate of growth for rural residents. And though small cities were expanding, what stipulated urban growth in this period was the growth of big cities, those with a population of over 100,000. While white-collar workers and the upper class occupied the residencies of banking and financing districts or newly-found suburban neighborhoods, the working-class urban poor inhabited the infamous tenements. The expansion of these tenements and slums were “directly linked to the combined impact of industrialization and immigration, and they were frequently described as a social ‘abyss.'” A typical tenement was “25 by 90 feet…stood about four to six stories tall… [and] each building was intended to house sixteen to twenty-four families.” The conditions of these tenements were often dilapidated, if not downright dangerous. Urban society thus became a landscape of extremities, of “sunshine and shadow” as Matthew Hale Smith would deem the city of New York in 1868; extreme wealth and extreme poverty coexisting within the same inner city. The closeness of affluence and economic disenfranchisement worsened the acute disillusionment of the lower classes, often resulting in unrest but with no tangible outlet for progress.
The influx of city populations in the late 19th century can mostly be attributed to net migration. By the 1880s, due to American prosperity and relative political stability, 5 million immigrants came to the United States, with a greater number heralding from Southern and Eastern Europe. Between the years of 1866 and 1900, over thirteen million immigrants were recorded entering the United States. “Close to half of all immigrants lived in the Northeast,” and according to the 1870 census, more than forty percent of the population in New York City was composed of immigrants. Immigrants mostly came to find work, though they would find upon arrival that such work would be found in urban and industrial occupations. This work was fairly diverse, but by and large, it was economically deficient. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who transformed the previously western European migrant landscape, were met with just such deficiency, often coming into “the very bottom of American urban industrial society.” Thus, most Gilded Age immigrants were left with very little capital or skills by which they could improve their standard of living.
In addition to the struggle against oppressive structural conditions, immigrants also faced social biases and racial discourses that aggravated their struggle. Anti-immigrant sentiment in the Gilded Age was fueled by a variety of issues, from criminality to religious assimilation. Many urban social problems, despite their intrinsically systemic nature, were attributed to unrestricted immigration, and thus to immigrants themselves, which prominent and respected figures like Protestant clergyman Josiah Strong vehemently opposed. Such opposition to immigration cultivated strong nativist attitudes, with the majority of anti-immigrant complaints centering on criminality and pauperism. It was widely thought that “the typical immigrant [was] a European peasant, whose horizon has been narrow, whose moral and religious training has been meager or false, and whose ideas of life are low,” thus leading to an increase of “hoodlums and roughs of our cities.” In addition to a fear of crime, it was largely held that “every wave of foreign immigration lessens the dry land of religious observance,” with such an ebb of piety attributed to “the infidel German [and] the undevout Jew.” Perhaps more worrying than even these factors, however, was the sentiment that immigration was contributing to a demoralization of the American identity. So complained the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor in 1868:
They no longer as formerly melt away, or so blend with the native stocks as to become incorporated
whom with it. So large are the aggregations of different foreign nationalities, that they no longer conform to
if our habits, opinions and manners, but, on the contrary, create for themselves distinct communities,
if almost as impervious to American sentiments and influences as are the inhabitants of Dublin or Hamburg.
The fact that immigrants were no longer assimilating to typical American cultural aesthetics was a huge sticking point for nativists, who began to believe that these groups would undermine the societal structures that had come to benefit the dominant paradigms.
The influx of poor men and women from Europe overcrowded the already teeming tenements and cellar dwellings of New York City, exacerbating the poverty in the area. As New York shippers and financiers began to dominate the American economy, local craftsmen and respectable artisans became victim to sweat trades and a casual labor market. Such sources of labor created a poverty from which many families could not pull themselves out of. While the conditions of the city, especially the slums, became further dilapidated, “pilfering, along with huckstering, begging and rag picking, became one of the poor family’s chief means to make a living.” Such petty crime was rampant in America’s larger cities, with children being the usual thieves. However, New York city was also the center of larger crimes such as counterfeiters and sellers of illicit goods, made possible because of New York’s easy access via ship, canal, or rail. Stolen goods passed through the city’s pawnshops, and eventually surveillance of the shops became the norm. Poverty also led to the formation of gangs, who would mediate between City Hall and the poor of the city, often through violence or voter intimidation. Not only did this lead to even more violence, but it culminated in an extremely corrupt government in New York City. The police force would often accept bribes and rewards, often leading in a lack of true justice.
Stratification between groups of people existed not only on societal and cultural levels, but labor levels as well. With the advent of industrialization, the labor landscape changed drastically in the late nineteenth century. By 1870, for the first time, America became “a nation of employees,” meaning laborers worked for somebody else and were dependent upon them for their livelihood. Though the standard of living improved for most American workers, these improvements were largely shared by those at the top of the hierarchy, usually native-born workers or white immigrants from England and Germany. Those who worked as unskilled laborers, usually non-whites and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, lived “precariously close to the prospect of poverty.” The conditions of work were usually deplorable, from abusive managers to high accident rates, and catalyzed recurrent protests at places of employment across the nation. While such protests were couched in the tangible issues of wages, work hours, union recognition, and working conditions, they represented a slew of macrocosmic questions that challenged “the morality of capitalist industrialization, the compatibility of political democracy and economic concentration, and the very fate of the Republic.” While unrest was extremely common, laborers often shared no common goals, as they were divided along racial, religious, and gender lines. Thus labor in the Gilded Age was characterized by constant turmoil not just from a top-down power struggle, but from an internal struggle between laborers as well.
To further compound the tensions present within the close confines of the American city, American politics were also filled with rivalry and dissension. Politicians of the late nineteenth century were often intensely partisan, and there was a large philosophical gulf between Republicans and Democrats. Contrary to the current political environment, Republicans of the Gilded Age believed that “the authority and strength of the government could be used to broaden the nation’s wealth,” while Democrats “asserted that the role of the government should be confined and minimal.” Even beyond partisanship, there were issues that divided people, whether Democrats or Republicans, the most infamous one being the issue of leaving the gold standard. The polarizing nature of many of these issues left many citizens feeling under-served by their elected officials. This fueled several third-party campaigns of the era, such as those of the Liberal Republicans, the Prohibitionists, and the Greenback Labor party. The largest and most influential third party, however, was the People’s party, or the Populists, who reached prevalence in the 1890s, especially among farmers who felt particularly disenfranchised in a “world market structure with volatile prices for farm commodities.”
Industrialization not only changed the working, urban, and political makeup of the United States, but its cultural disposition as well. The Gilded Age saw the advent of an American popular culture, which could be easily proliferated thanks to the capital provided by industrialization. Those with the money and the leisure time could afford to indulge in various venues for entertainment, including popular theater, popular music, popular reading, and sports. Most popular in the line of theater works were saloon-based variety shows, “often with off-color content, performed for a rowdy drinking male audience,” of which New York City became the capital. Following the theme of entertainment with relatively little substance, popular reading was characterized by a focus on scandals, crimes, sensationalized news stories, and graphic illustrations. Such sensationalism was a popular hallmark in the popular dime novels, which often contained stories of brave cowboys, wily criminals, and savage Indians of the Wild West. These materials would eventually become exactly the type of content that Anthony Comstock would deem morally unfit, and spend his entire career attempting to censor.
The volatility and political conflict embedded in every detail of the Gilded Age meant that “American society saw its own image in the tooth-and-claw version of natural selection,” validating notions of biological competition and ruthlessness among the dominant paradigms of the time. Social Darwinism was thus able to grow strong roots in the United States, leading to the belief in a natural and biological inequality between certain groups of people. It was Herbert Spencer, infamous coiner of the “survival of the fittest” expression, whose theories the American people latched onto, for they were “admirably suited to the American scene” and reassured notions of progress. Social Darwinism facilitated a sort of number-crunching empiricism, by which anti-immigrant attacks or hateful attacks against African Americans could be justified and sustained. This allowed people and institutions to ignore socioeconomically generated inequities as the cause of various problems, and instead focus on biologism. In other words, the status quo could be preserved, and with that the privilege of those who benefited from it.
Social Darwinism also functioned as a lens through which subjugated groups could be seen. This is exemplified in Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, where he depicted images of tenement living with descriptions such as, “A tramp’s nest in Ludlow street” or “in her own den.” The rhetoric here draws clear parallels between poverty and primitivism, and as a result dehumanizes those of lesser socioeconomic status. In the Gilded Age, poverty and mental/physical illness were closely linked, as poverty was deemed as “either the avoidable result of individual laziness or intemperance or, if unavoidable, the empirical proof of chronic incapacity.” The term “pauperism” was widely used among policy makers who had to cope with the spread of poverty. Pauperism referred to the ingrained condition of being impoverished; an inherited state of being much like a disease. Dehumanizing the subjects of Social Darwinism and biologizing poverty paved the road for the agenda to regulate the reproduction of the poor and mentally ill, thus catalyzing the advent of eugenic thought and practice.
It is important to note that Social Darwinism was a school of thought for progressives and liberals of the Gilded Age. Anthony Comstock and other Victorian conservatives were not Social Darwinists, as their religious convictions would have hindered them from buying into the scientific theory that served as its foundation. That is not to say that conservatives did not believe in the superiority of the white upper class, but most did not feel compelled to give their prejudices any kind of academic empiricism. Social Darwinism and its later manifestation of eugenics was a way for progressives to justify underlying prejudices, while still advocating for a “better” society. Social Darwinism was a defense against degeneracy, or the idea that society was beholden to a tendency to devolve into a lower, simpler, and less civilized state. Degeneration emphasized the fact that “society was a kind of body, a network in which a diseased member could infect the whole.” Consequently, heredity had dominance over the environment. Though this line of thinking is incredibly flawed, one can see how such conclusions could have been logically reached, even with good intention. The problem lies in its victim-blaming nature, holding victims of an oppressive system responsible for their own misfortune.
Social Darwinism had a deep and lasting influence on the field of eugenics in America, where it “revolved around imagining the nation: what it was (now threatened) and what it might be (with and without government and medical intervention).” Eugenics gave racism, ableism and nationalism credibility by couching them in a pseudoscience rationale. Faulty scientific thought led to such conclusions that “the civilized man has also a more complex or heterogeneous nervous system that the uncivilized man” and the “barbarous races.” Races that displayed such “flatness of the alæ of the nose [and] the divergence and forward opening of the nostrils” thus became the main victims of eugenic discourse and practices, as well as those who perhaps belonged to the dominant paradigm, but still displayed weaker characteristics (i.e., physical and mental disability) By the 1870s, theorists proposed preventing the marriages of inferior people. Eugenic thought had even embedded itself in American policy, for the 1891 Immigration Act banned “all idiots, insane persons, [and] paupers or persons likely to become a public charge,” from emigrating to the U.S. And while eugenics truly came to prominence after the 1900s as an actual problem-solving policy, the seeds for such prominence were planted in the Gilded Age.
Amid all uncertainty, turbulence, and change, the stage was set for strong, radical characters to set afoot. Enter Woodhull and Comstock. People belonging to the influential upper classes longed for an individual who could protect their interests in an increasingly volatile world in which such interests were no longer guaranteed. Comstock, with his no-nonsense approach to regulating obscenity and his constant appeals to family, fit this description perfectly. And while Woodhull advocated for more progressive policies and ways of thinking, most of her audiences still belonged to the dominant paradigm. Woodhull’s progressivism was not for the minority immigrant classes who wished to enhance their quality of life.
Rather, it was for middle class white women who wanted sexual, political, and economic liberation. Such a progressivism is completely valid and important, but it needs to be called exactly what it is. It only seeks to challenge the status quo insofar that systemic, socioeconomic structures remain in place. Both Comstock and Woodhull sought to enact societal engineering programs that affected the poor, immigrant, disabled, working-class, and thus kept them at bay from threatening the well-being of those who already had a quality of life to protect to begin with.
Comstock and Censorship
For Anthony Comstock, obscenity was the ultimate vice, the ultimate corrupter. Obscenity and corruption included, but was certainly not limited to, materials such as newspapers, half-dime novels, advertisements, gambling, and art. The rather recent formation of a popular culture fueled this fight against all things lewd. The need to quantify the obscenity of such things, as well as Comstock’s desire to see that they not find themselves in the hands of the impressionable youth, led him to create the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the vehicle by which he carried out many arrests. Comstock created the NYSSV out of the YMCA, which Comstock was actively involved in, but believed that another organization needed to be founded in order to pursue his goals with greater freedom and fervor. The NYSSV was incorporated on May 16, 1873, and though it was a privately funded organization, the society was “assured of the assistance of the police in New York City and elsewhere in the state… for the suppression of obscene literature and articles of immoral use.” Thus, the NYSSV became a strong arm of justice and policy-making. Creating the NYSSV allowed Comstock a vehicle by which to combat the inadequacy of the laws, and a “public sentiment worse than dead, because of an appetite that had been formed for salacious reading.”
Comstock explicitly stated that “the suppression of obscene literature and articles of indecent immoral use is the one great object for which the Society was created.” He was not shy in his advocacy for censorship, untethered by appeals to human expression and creativity. By 1902, the organization boasted of destroying “about eighty-two tons of contraband matter,” including 904,440 obscene pictures and photos and a staggering 1,679,941 circulars, catalogues, songs, poems, etc. They had also arrested over 2,000 persons affiliated with either consuming or proliferating obscene materials. The NYSSV often touted these accomplishments in order to receive more funding from private donors, usually white, upper middle-class men and women of families.
Terms such as “obscene” and “lewd,” were strewn all over the rhetoric of Comstock and the NYSSV, but it is hard to quantify exactly what materials these encompass. Luckily, Comstock published many works detailing exactly the kinds of materials he found to be dangerous, such as his rather extensive texts Frauds Exposed (1880) and Traps for the Young (1883). It turns out that Comstock did not discriminate much when it came to offensive materials. As such, his main concern was involved in how to stop the circulation of seemingly infinite lewd items. Comstock found his main solution in his own line of work. Having been a postal worker for much of his life, Anthony Comstock not only advocated for the censorship of published materials, but also for the termination of obscene transactions through the mail. Comstock saw the mail of the United States as particularly vulnerable to this corruption, since it was “the great thoroughfare of communication leading up into all our homes, schools and colleges” and therefore “the most powerful agent, to assist this nefarious business.”
Using the 1868 New York State legislature bill to regulate obscenity that the YMCA had proposed as a model, Comstock went forth to formulate a federal equivalent. With the support of the New York YMCA, Comstock conducted a very smart campaign at a lucrative time. He got Justice William Strong of the Supreme Court to draft the bill, thus adding the upstanding moral credibility that was needed. After much confusion in the legislative process due to their being many anti-obscenity bills seeking passage, Comstock’s law passed the Senate and the House, and “President Grant signed it on March 3, 1873.” This law authorized the position of a special agent in the United States Post Office with power to confiscate immoral matter in the mails and arrest perpetrators, and office that was assumed to be filled by Comstock. The immoral matter in question covered several kinds of material, including “any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure, or image on or of paper or other material, or any cast, instrument, or other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion.”
With the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873, Comstock assured that lewd materials would be far less likely to fall into the hands of the impressionable youth and inspire that most sinful of all feelings: lust. Comstock antagonized lust to the nth degree, declaring it to be “the boon companion of all other crimes.” However, in passing the Comstock Law, he did not only bar lust-inspiring materials from passing through the mail, but Comstock assured that birth control materials and information could not be disseminated to women. With the arrest of “over sixty abortionists” with “all but a few convicted and sentenced,” Comstock and the NYSSV also participated in a Foucaultian disciplining and docility of (female) bodies, for the material in question was not merely a lewd novel or newspaper, but rather information and devices by which women could control their bodies. Comstock’s efforts regarding birth control and abortion were not just couched in barring women from exposure to obscenity, but also maintaining a power structure that “insist[s] on absolute male supremacy… since Comstockism makes male will, passion and power absolute to impose conception.” The law was extremely effective in bringing those who Comstock regarded as wicked to justice. Such justice was felt even beyond Comstock’s lifetime, as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Comstock Law up into the 1960s. And though male abortionist doctors were among those prosecuted, it was ultimately women who suffered the ultimate subjugation: the disciplining and regulation of their own bodies.
Woodhull and Eugenic Censorship
Given the fact that Victoria C. Woodhull published many articles in her weekly newspaper that would definitely be considered obscene by Comstock’s standards, it is clear that they had completely different opinions on what is degenerate and what should be censored. For Woodhull, this was not newspapers or novels or paintings, but rather human bodies, particularly those of the biologically and socially poor. Though Woodhull had no medical experience other than her stint as a Spiritualist healer, she was quite forthright and confident in her assessments regarding certain biological processes in humans. “Certain poisons in the blood… have a depressing influence on the central nervous system; imbecility, stupidity, dullness…” and those thus afflicted with such a nervous system “must be dealt with harshly or firmly.” Woodhull argued that these persons of unfit health and the offspring they produce present an unnecessary burden on healthy, hard-working members of society. The defective and deficient nervous systems of the lower classes manifest themselves in “irregular habits, bad training, or diseases” that threaten the well-being of all, as well as the advancement of society. She supported the idea of a difference between races, arguing that “some are more richly endowed with more highly evolved nervous systems,” and used such an argument as an impetus for an advocacy of eugenics.
Woodhull was a strong advocate for the improvement of the quality of human stock, an endeavor upon which she saw women as having the most profound effect. She made it abundantly clear that “no advance could be made until the co-operation of woman was properly understood and insisted upon as essential to any deal society.” Woodhull’s feminist perspective produced a rather interesting point of view, shared by many early feminists in the Victorian era: that women, via their choice of a romantic partner, controlled the fate of the human race:
Women by nature, are appointed to the holy mission of motherhood, and by this mission,
are directly charged with the care of the embryonic life, upon which so much of future
good or ill depends.
Eugenic feminists thus began to emphasize rational over romantic reproduction. In this sense, eugenic feminists were very different from their New Women contemporaries, as they actually bought into the biological imperative of marriage and motherhood for women. Eugenic feminists saw such an imperative as a unique and powerful opportunity for women to shape the health and standing of their race and/or class. While on the surface, such a view seems to be empowering to women, it is actually just another example of a Foucaultian discipling of bodies. Women’s bodies became tools of society, of the state, transformed into a utilitarian entity whose main purpose was to produce biologically fit stock. Woodhull bought into such a paradigm, emphasizing that “men are what their mothers make them.” This is truly ironic considering that Victoria stood against locking women into what she referred to as “sexual slavery,” and yet insisted that a woman’s sex should be used not for her own welfare, but for the welfare of humanity.
Though Woodhull does not go into explicit detail into how to prevent unsuitable people from procreating, she does suggest that government should enforce laws “that would teach the people how not to contribute to these over-crowded receptacles of human misery [i.e., prisons, asylums, etc.].” Woodhull attributes social problems to the “paupers, tramps, and professional beggars [that] are largely on the increase,” and thus advocates for their reproductive regulation. This attempt to rob agency from people regarding their own relationships and bodies illuminates the subtle similarities between Woodhull and Comstock. While Comstock focused on robbing people from being able to create, read, or buy any materials that he considered to be lewd, Woodhull wanted to rob people of another outlet of creation: the ability to create another human being. Woodhull and Comstock even share a similarity in their use of rhetoric, for neither did Woodhull shrink from alluding to the bible in her many arguments favoring eugenics. She also adopted a “hellfire” kind of rhetoric, which she used to emphasize that “man is an animal,” and must therefore be limited in some way in terms of their actions and allowances.
Youthful Innocence and Privilege
While Victoria Woodhull was giving speeches to emphasize women’s new role in the determination of biologically sound offspring, Anthony Comstock held firm in his agenda to protect the innocence of the youth and keep them unexposed to various vices and corruptions. The rhetoric employed in the texts of both Anthony Comstock and the NYSSV is a clear appeal to the pathos of concerned Gilded Age audiences. In addition to fiery language, various anecdotes about young men falling into traps of vice and thereby destroying themselves and the reputations of their families were commonplace. There was constant warning against such obscenity that corrupts by “familiarizing the mind with evil and leading thought down to the sinks and slums.” One such anecdote was that of a young fourteen-year-old boy “of respectable parentage” who was caught “stealing twenty dollars from his brother.” Upon further investigation, it is discovered that he had “in his pocket one of these papers,” these being the licentious half-dime novels and story papers that Comstock so vehemently warns against. In another example, a seventeen-year-old boy “attending one of the best public schools in Brooklyn” was found in possession of some obscene material, and though he had “respectable parents… [he] ran away and married a servant girl.”
It is clear by the utilization of the dichotomy between a successful family and a poor servant girl that the efforts to preserve youthful innocence were not just an effort to protect youthful virtue in itself, but to protect the upper class privilege that these boys and their families possessed. Comstock warned that “this cursed business of obscene literature works beneath the surface, and like a canker worm, secretly eats out the moral life and purity of our youth, and they droop and fade before their parents’ eyes,” emphasizing that association with lewd publications harmed not only the youth but their families as well. The anecdotes Comstock utilized were not the stories of minorities or lower class youth living in an age of corruption exacerbated by poverty, but rather of victimized rich white males who ran away from “respectable homes.” As the latter anecdote exemplifies, these young men often ran away from upper class environments to those of servants and lower class workers. The rhetoric implies that such a fate is a tragedy, and therefore suggests that to be of the lower class is to have less moral worth as a human being. And although Comstock did on occasion chronicle the suffering of the poor, noting the “pitiful” manner in which the “poor starving creature, as he or she… deposits the last half-dime, which should be used to buy bread with” for one last try at a lottery, it is clear that the audience for which he wrote and the policies for which he advocated were not for the poor. The poor were merely a cautionary tale, used to emphasize a compromised standard of living that the upper middle class should avoid at any and all costs.
To further emphasize the importance of a privileged family, and to warn against how obscenity can make upstanding families fall apart, Comstock also connected obscenity to infidelity. He argued that the infidel could be identified through his “unbridles sway of his desires” and his opposition “to all legal restraint,” meaning infidels were the ones opposing Comstock’s censorship laws. Threatening that anyone defying his efforts was a person who would in all likelihood violate the trust of his marriage allowed Comstock to emotionally manipulate his reader. An upper class family knew how important marriage was, and for Comstock to suggest that to oppose censorship was to endanger their marriage created a large impetus for them to support his endeavors. The strength of a marriage was intrinsically tied to the family’s well-being, both in wealth and in social standing. Preserving a marriage was thus another way of preserving a family’s privilege.
Even though young boys were often the characters at the center of these Comstock anecdotes, girls often made an appearance as well. However, the means by which these girls could be corrupted were almost always of a sexual nature. Comstock warned against such sexual devices, such as acquaintance cards, which were meant to serve “as a means of introduction,” but often led to the exploitation of young people by securing their address, and “by this means an innocent girl may be drawn into the meshes of the net of the veriest scoundrel.” In another instance, a young girl of thirteen “stole wearing apparel from her parents in order to obtain the means” to go to bawdy playhouses. When confronted by her mother about this, she replied that “if she was only a little older she could earn all the money she wanted.” Although this latter story is perhaps not inherently sexual, it does suggest a precociousness that implies an early route to matters of a mature nature, such as promiscuity. For Comstock, sexual purity, especially in girls, was directly tied to both their upper class privilege as well as their worth as a human being. To lose this purity is to lose the comfortable lifestyle by which their class has afforded them, the respect with which they are treated, and the value they have in society. Comstock’s goals of protecting purity, as opposed to helping those who have already lost it, affirms his role as a custodian for the privileged.
Though Comstock’s rhetoric was used to capitalize on the fear of parents in the Gilded Age over the corruptibility of their children, he and the NYSSV did not necessarily make it secret that they were also advocating on behalf of maintaining the social order. It is often acknowledged that “by the wholesale corruption of our youth, through the blasting influences of the devil’s printing press, character is being undermined, and society degraded.” This is an important distinction. Crusader though he was, Comstock was not attempting to pull the lowly and the already corrupted up from their station. At a meeting for the NYSSV, a man by the name of Mr. William E. Dodge gave an address, declaring that “the men who are willing to continue in this traffic in evil… should be treated as outcasts an unfit to live in civilized and Christian communities” (emphasis mine). This reveals that Comstock and the NYSSV were set on maintaining the status quo for the upper classes. Their “plea” was for “the young; for the future welfare of our beloved country” and for “the uplifting of society.”
A parallel between Victoria Woodhull’s advocacy for eugenics and Comstock’s defending of upper class youth can be drawn here. Comstock’s sole focus on the wealthy, when he was certainly in a position to have influence over all facets of the social hierarchy, is like a selective social breeding. By advocating for the upper class, Comstock knowingly alienated lower classes and immigrant communities, and such advocacy for the success and strength of the wealthy while ignoring the plight of the poor is similar to the advocacy for limiting reproductive rights to them as well. Comstock thus used the bodies of white upper-class people as political machines by which he could perpetuate an acceptable hegemony that was free of the criminality, pauperism, and obscenity of the lower classes. Poor and minority bodies were used as a political deterrent; an example of what going against the paradigm could lead to.
Victoria Woodhull also relied on the pathos of children in order to add credibility to her arguments in favor of eugenics. In her speeches, she emphasized the importance of children, noting that all of humanity held a stake in their welfare:
In the terrible fight for existence, they [the poor] are obliged to work hard all day…
having no time to… consider the terrible evil that they are daily making greater by
this crime of reproducing in their offspring their own debilitated condition of body
and mind… and these children have not only the hereditary instincts of crime to
contend against, but are made familiar from their infancy with vice of every description.
Woodhull used her interest in the health and security of children to justify her claims about the poor and their inherent degeneracy. It is clear by this particular excerpt that Woodhull bought into the Gilded Age idea of pauperism, as a state that could be inherited. It is also interesting to note that Woodhull talked of “vice,” a facet of lower-class life that Comstock also warned against and wished to protect the youth from.
Woodhull saw children as another opportunity for reform, making her a great deal more pragmatic in her assessments and noting that “a perfected humanity must come of perfect children.” To justify this notion, she makes constant allusion to “deep scientific research,” since “science is eminently progressive.” Woodhull further added to this scientific approach by asserting that “by study and care out most celebrated breeds of horses and other stocks of domesticated animals have been obtained,” and it thus follows that such efforts must be made in the way of human stock as well. But Woodhull’s efforts were not merely propelled by her subscription to the popular scientific thoughts of the time. Woodhull was by far the most visible parent of a child with a developmental disability. Her son Byron was born in 1854, and Woodhull was thoroughly convinced that his disability could be attributed to his father’s alcoholism. Woodhull would thus insist that drunkards not reproduce, not necessarily because alcoholism could lead to abuse or neglect, but because drunkenness was similar to poverty in that it was an inherited trait.
Woodhull argued that the rights of children begin while they are still fetuses (which is interesting to note since anti-abortionists like Comstock would have agreed whole-heartedly with that notion) and thus deserve the best human breeding possible. Children born to degenerate parents are thus not entirely to blame for their own dissipation, but should rather be seen as victims of outside factors. Comstock and the NYSSV would not necessarily disagree with this notion either, having published that “heredity is responsible in the life of many a child, for a weakened constitution, criminal instincts, and appetites and tendencies to wrong doing.” Also like the NYSSV and Comstock, Woodhull seemed not so much concerned about the plight of the poor and downtrodden itself, but rather with using them as a cautionary tale to warn against the foolishness of putting no thought into reproducing. From “cases of partial and total idiocy” to “the irritable and nervously disagreeable condition of… children,” the rhetoric clearly implied that such cases were meant to be avoided and prevented, not solved and helped in their present state.
Another factor of Woodhull’s works and speeches that point to a clear white, middle/upper-class privileged bias is the audience to which many of them were delivered. Though Woodhull sometimes delivered her speeches to general, non-specific audiences, more often than not, she delivered them to an audience of Spiritualists. Woodhull herself was a prominent Spiritualist, having gained prominence as a Spiritualist healer in her younger days. Thus, Woodhull had quite a lot of credibility among other Spiritualists, and she knew her words would hold more weight with them. For example, Woodhull’s speech “Children- their rights and privileges,” (originally titled “The Training of Children- Good Advice to Mothers”) was delivered at the Eighth National Convention of The America Association of Spiritualists on September 12, 1871. “The Scare-crows of Sexual Slavery” was given at a Spiritualist meeting in Silver Lake, MA on August 17, 1873, and “The Elixir of Life” was given at another National Association of Spiritualist Convention on September 18, 1873. Though it is hard to characterize exactly who Spiritualists were, mainly because it is difficult to quantify exactly what Spiritualism was, those who were actively involved in creating discourse in the movement tended to be white, mostly Ango-Saxon, middle and upper-middle class former Protestants. And though in some aspects, Spiritualism sought to challenge certain societal structures, “they also displayed a profoundly conservative middle-class concern for order.”
In insisting that children should only be created by the socially and biologically fit among society, it is painfully obvious that Victoria Woodhull is blind to her white, middle class, able-bodied privilege, perhaps even more so than Comstock was. For at least Comstock was completely aware of the privilege he wanted to protect, as well as the communities he wanted to alienate. Woodhull spoke on behalf of justice and rights but alienated those disproportionately affected by discrimination. Furthermore, it can be argued that Woodhull’s intentions were not to further disenfranchise the poor or the mentally disabled. She was merely reacting (albeit shortsightedly) to the overwhelming poverty and suffering she observed in the crowded tenements of New York City. Her beliefs were also a reflection of her own experiences as a young woman having been married off from a very young age to a drunkard and bearing the pain of raising a mentally challenged child. She did not intend to make women’s bodies docile by assigning to them the utilitarian duty of creating fit offspring. She wanted to give women’s bodies the power she felt she did not have. However, the reality is that Woodhull did participate in eugenic thinking, and it is imperative that modern progressives come to terms with this historical reality.
In concluding this paper, it should again be noted that any critique of Victoria C. Woodhull’s eugenic thought is not an attempt to invalidate the progress she undoubtedly contributed to. Nor is it meant to strip such things as abortion and birth control of their validity because of their perhaps misguided origins. Such a debate continues today, as American partisans attempt to couch the issue of women’s choice regarding their reproductive rights in its murky beginnings. That kind of discourse merely seeks to elicit an emotional response from its audiences and misrepresent the progress that has been made over the past two hundred years. It is entirely reductionist. This paper does not come from a place of such divisive simplicity, but rather from a place of a desire to understand and embrace complexity. It is important to critique social and political movements of the past, not to discredit them, but to allow them to inform policy and movements today.
The argument that Victoria C. Woodhull and Anthony Comstock were not on opposite sides of the spectrum, but rather on opposite sides of the same coin is an important distinction to make, and one that has not yet been made in scholarship on these two mammoth figures in pre-turn of the century U.S. history. It reveals the rather curious way in which extremism can often yield similar results, no matter from which extremity, liberal or otherwise, it comes. Perhaps its greatest significance, however, lies in how it can affect the evolution of social justice movements and feminism throughout history. Revealing the garish blind spots of the advocates for social justice who came before us informs the movements today and ensures progress in the way of inclusiveness. It ensures that mistakes be not repeated, and that we continue to move forward in the truest way possible.” Elisa Perez-Selsky, “Policing Privilege and Disciplining Bodies: Victoria C. Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and the Platform for Social Engineering;” Chapman University Historical Review, 2013
Numero Cuatro—“12 SHINY NEW EXEMPLARS
Along similar lines, in the limelight of the ‘sharing’ and caring of supposedly up-to-the-minute instantiation of super, ultra-CSR efforts, Uber at once reveals the erstwhile epitome of ‘sharing success’ and, as is visible below, offers a cautionary tale in how exploitative and inequitable such arrangements actually are in day-to-day reality. In one of the few credible, if not ‘rags-to-riches’ at least Ford-to-Ferrari, success tales in the ‘new economy,’ Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp—not ‘trust-funded’ fellows, these, seemingly—managed to turn a modest investment of venture capital millions into untold billions of ‘shareholder value’ that has as a result ‘transformed current relationships in positive and far-reaching fashion.’
Or so the story goes. In an explanation that shows greater ‘critical distance,’ Internet Is Not the Answer author Andrew Keen makes the argument like this.
“Kalanick’s $18 billion venture is certainly a badass company, with customers accusing its drivers of every imaginable crime from kidnapping to sexual harassment. Since its creation, the unregulated Uber has not only been in a constant legal fight with (urban areas) and federal regulators, but has been picketed by its own nonunionized drivers demanding collective bargaining rights and health care benefits. …
With 7.5 million Americans working in part-time jobs in July 2014…(this) ‘revolutionizing’ of the world’s workforce is, in truth, a reflection of the new poorly paid class of peer-to-peer project workers, dubbed the ‘precariat’ by the labor economist Guy Standing. ‘With piecemeal gigs easier to obtain than long-term employment,’ warns the New York Times’ Natasha Singer, this highly insecure labor model, the dark underbelly of DIY capitalism, is becoming an increasingly important part of the new networked economy.”
Nor does this monograph single out Uber as ‘exceptional’ in this regard. The entire Silicon Valley miracle machine comes in for equally skeptical, if not scathing, treatment. “Class War” is its operational heart, its spiritual core. Destruction is its economic foundation, though the attendant mayhem and carnage is always ‘creative’ and ‘efficient’ from the POV of wealthy venture funds that seek a cashout from their routine functioning and success.
“If poor people and unions are the problem for Silicon Valley’s tech elite, then technology, and the Internet in particular, is always the answer. …(T)his delusional ‘thinking’ … has infected San Francisco, transforming one of the world’s most diverse cities…into a laboratory for an outsourced, networked economy that wants to feed people Soylent and employ them to wait in lines.
…(T)here is no role for unions, no place for anything protecting the rights of the laborer, no collective sense of identity, no dignity to work. …It’s a two-tier system of overlords and the unemployed and the underemployed and the occasionally employed. An economy in which menial tasks are handled by an outsourced underclass who will do anything for an hourly rate on labor networks… . commodifying life itself so that everything—from buying a rose to waiting in line—can be bought and sold.”
Another documentary item delineates very well the pros and cons of this ‘disruptive’ development and how it relates to both the whole realm of ‘sharing’ and corporate responsibility. In the end, everything bourgeois that succeeds becomes a vehicle for monopoly, for taking over everything and pulverizing any operation that competes into ruin.
This sort of new-age entrepreneurial “vision is much more than a better taxi service or nifty town cars for the masses… .(It contains) the potential for a smoothly functioning instant-gratification economy, powered by the smartphone as the remote control for life. ‘If we can get you a car in five minutes, we can get you anything in five minutes,… .’ But the desire to enter and dominate the ‘everything economy’ echoes the ambitions of much bigger and more established companies such as Google, Amazon, eBay, and Walmart.”
A recent assessment in Naked Capitalism, meanwhile, illustrates political economic underpinnings of the inequality that is inescapable in such a context as in part a result of ‘rent-seeking’ in relation to already extant embodiments of value. This clearly applies to such phenomena as Uber and Lyft and other sharing archetypes, which in turn tout their more equitable and responsible corporate imprints and footprints and so forth. Unfortunately, among the multiple drawbacks of social relations and political economy that incarnate a rentier’s attitude are two especially onerous difficulties.
The first concerns the centrality of the agendas and protocols and property and pocketbooks of those who already own most of the planet. That is the implication of renting, taking what those who hold the title have, and simultaneously breaking it up into tinier and tinier pieces and charging people for any sort of access to those pieces. The ‘sharing’ that takes place is the right to gain access, for a fee in which one’s bargaining power is minimal or less, to some piece of the pie that already exists in our midst.
The second shortcoming flows ineluctably from the monopolists’ sated feeding on everything that they permit to contain value. What the world needs in this regard—affordable housing, adequate food, income-producing options for the majority who have nothing to rent but their sweat and their backs and their brains, environmental restoration, cultural rejuvenation, educational flourishing, and almost infinitely more—decidedly does not have ‘permission to contain value,’ although, arguably, such largesse ought to be part of what a democratic society stands for and offers to citizens.
The essence of living in a world where rent is the basis of capital and hence production, therefore, ends up characterizing exactly the opposite of social responsibility. Because such a fact is, to say the least, highly troubling, those who own all and want to be able to charge for doing anything in relation to what is under their control, see fit to beat their breasts with the promises of CSR, even though they not only never intend to deliver on those vows but also cannot possibly make good on such oaths without fundamentally altering the social relations of production and distribution.
In a more and more fully ‘capitalized’ global marketplace, such parsing of goods, an ‘outsourcing of everything’ in essence, is one response by wealthy stakeholders who want more than anything else to garner the percentage that guarantees that they’ll never have to work for a living or lose the ‘equity’ that they almost always inherited in the first place. But this ‘response’ is no more inherently responsible than the occasional aberration in Victorian times, as when John Stuart Mill argued that his eureka discovery of the ability to maximize utility promised a real expression of social justice and social equity, a nineteenth century articulation of CSR about which we’ll hear more in the fullness of time.
Another CSR leviathan, in any case, Amazon, has recently encountered a few bumps and lumps in its celebration of its dearly-beloved patina of responsibility in the markets that it dominates, in the event establishing almost a monopolist’s stranglehold on a particular realm of ‘rentals,’ which is to say the resale of used goods of all sorts, in the context of management tools that promise efficient and reliable exchanges for almost anything at all. A veritable shitstorm erupted from New York Times reportage that, accompanying its leviathan’s reach, it crushed its workers in every conceivable way, milking from them its small percentage but giant volume of profit in such a fashion as to break their bodies and depress their psyches and leave many as so much alienated, depressed wreckage in the process.
That Amazon has intended to posture as a truly responsible corporate entity is incontrovertible. Whereas the average Fortune 500 company, when one searches for its name plus “corporate social responsibility” OR csr, elicits plus or minus half a million hits, the following string brought forth thirteen-and-a-half million results: <amazon “corporate social responsibility” OR csr>.
Jeff Bezos’ clever acquisition and disruptive transformation of the Washington Post is in a general or overall way instructive in this regard as well. It returns readers to revelations that the Australian undergraduate just above made plain. These matters, more often than not—and perhaps almost universally—are about appearances much more so than they concern reality, ongoing practice, or actual performance. Mediation will always represent a critical component of making an appearance seem a manifestation of a preferred representation rather than a verifiable aspect of reality itself.
Thus, when WaPo seeks to expand internationally, to integrate more and more local publications into its operating nexus, and purports to position itself so as to flourish, even predominate, in regard to networking freelance writers as a labor pool and source of value, citizens and scribes both better beware. The promise of ‘sharing’ and ‘efficiency’ are quite likely to be another case of self-serving propaganda propagation, on the one hand, and soul-sucking drudgery for small change in return, on the other hand; at absolute best.
Just as with more venerable archetypes of bourgeois legerdemain, in the previous section, so too here then, the proposition is easy to demonstrate that not a single ‘major player’ in this ambit is capable of evincing more than a public-relations front of Corporate Social Responsibility. Should anyone want to challenge this idea, the only thing that needs to happen is a willingness of the naysayer to go to Nevada and put up enough of a wager to make the effort worthwhile. CSR as a purported attribute of the so-called “unicorn” successes among ‘Siliconic’ disruptors is, charitably, an absurd assertion.
The Spindoctor’s personal experience, on multiple fronts, further evidences the points here. In one instance, a must to ponder, he worked for the Corporate Social Responsibility website,Justmeans, as a blogger. In sixteen weeks there, he created well over half a million words, at the rate of four roughly ten-thousand research-based articles every seven days.
The ‘pay’ was plus-or-minus two hundred dollars a month. The plaudits were thick to start. But his ‘beat,’ energy, included multiple reports on matters nuclear as an inherent abrogation of CSR in any shape or form, including various stories—and at least one or two ‘scoops’—about Depleted Uranium.
Despite the fact that his contractual agreement was that he could write what he wanted, since the ‘pay’ was, stating the point generously, paltry, he soon enough received a ‘cease and desist’ order about anything that mentioned DU. Apparently, the business plan—to cash out with a purchase of the site by AOL—was looking problematic with his articles on view; so much, then, for CSR.
A bit later along the temporal arc, he produced for an already-established division of America Online, the Patch brand. He warned his soon-to-be assignment editor that any lengthy relationship with an AOL ‘brand’ was approximately as likely as a snowball’s longevity in the fieriest depths of hell, which received chortles and vows of eternal support.
Within five weeks, the Spindoctor’s head was in a sack, and checks from AOL no longer issued, especially at twice the standard rate that Jimbo negotiated measly recompense for the work that he did. Apparently, his predilection for looking askance at Walmart’s wondrous marvels and his desire to report about daily criminal incidents as social matters instead of as blameworthy moral lapses alienated the overlords on high in Manhattan—again, so much for even a pretense of a responsible corporate entity that wanted to serve its communities with diverse, accurate, and useful information.
Such personal encounters with the more or less total fraud of CSR do not give him ‘an ax to grind.’ He loved producing the materials that he did, on which he still owns a copyright, even though the remuneration for his work was either laughable or grotesque, depending on whether one’s bent at the moment of observation is comic or tragic. However, these very real and deeply felt cases of peonage and exploitation and dismissal do give him a perch from which to view other cases, all too similar, that reveal the reality beneath the veneer of Corporate Social Responsibility.
Without noticeable exception, therefore, the expressions of CSR that deal with individual cases as such are inseparable from the public relations and propaganda and outright buncombe that present these happenings to the public and thereby hope to increase shareholder equity and profits as a result of such characterizations. These SOP methods work hand in glove with the propagation of Corporate Social Responsibility as a pretend entity that means little more than “We want you to like, or at least accept, us enough to buy lots of our stuff or services, so we hope to convince you that we’ve got soul and ethics and really care about consumers and workers and communities and competitors and critics and such as much as, or even more than, we care about maximizing our profits.”
In terms of large outfits, therefore, enterprises of “size and heft,” so to speak, CSR is at best a façade and quite likely simply a falsehood. Whether the company in question is an old-line or new-school operation makes no difference. Profit still rules the roost, or other ‘bottom-line’ considerations necessitate that Corporate Social Responsibility is no more than an advertising slogan, of no greater substance than a cleverly-crafted PR campaign.
Certainly near the heart of this assessment lie a series of observations and appraisals of what we might term ‘monopoly finance capital.’ Through loans, control of equity, and generally holding the reins of political oversight, banks, venture capitalists, and clever ‘investors’ of various stripes—who in aggregate control if not out and out own almost every dollar in the stream of commerce—act as arbiters, gatekeepers, and boards of directors of everything that the ‘Western’ sphere proffers to the world and most everything that emanates from elsewhere as well.
The tentacles of big-money’s ‘Octopus,’ as Frank Norris titled the matter, run the show, own the tent, pocket the gate, and call the tune: top to bottom. No enterprise escapes this net.
Anyone who believes he can enter a brief that invalidates this point of view is welcome to speak up. I’m a wagering man. Let’s go to Nevada and talk about the details of a big bet: nothing even resembling a large corporation fulfills the requirements or delineates the rubric of a socially responsible entity.
In the second place then, one could expand the scope of this mainly clinical examination, as it were, to include entire industrial or other arenas. While an even lengthier effort at documentation than that which this report provides might go into as much detail here as has appeared in relation to individual firms just above, or even more digging might transpire, this is not necessary at this juncture.
An example, or a few, will do. Churches; Internet; steel; insurance; banking; retail: the possible organizational categories are numerous, but far from innumerable. The very idea that a sector of ‘production and society’ such as churches, in general, were exemplary of CSR would bring a smile to the lips of those who think subjunctively, to put the matter in grammatical terms. More mundanely, holding such a belief is, at a minimum, counterfactual.
One might merely assert, based on long experience monitoring such matters, that of all the sectors of society’s socioeconomic sphere that intersect with corporations, exactly one has a minimally plausible basis to survive a summary judgment motion, so to speak, against it in this CSR suit. That would be the non-profit or philanthropic region of modern bourgeois life.
After all, the conceptualization that great wealth ‘naturally’ wants to give back is as easy to ‘prove’ as the names of great foundations: Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Kellogg, MacArthur; for those who prefer their generous plutocrats’ exhibiting more currency, Gates or Soros are some of the recent comers. The idea, in other words, almost demonstrates itself.
Unfortunately, a thorough investigation of this topic would discern more complexity and contradiction than the standard story would contain. One might readily, after significant time and effort, come to the conclusion that this sector also does not live up to its ‘bill of goods.’” Jim Hickey, “An Incisive Lesson in Political Economy: ‘Sharing,’ ‘Corporate Social Responsibility,’ & ‘Free Markets’ Themselves Require Social Democracy;” a selection that emphasizes such plutocrats as John D. Rockefeller