Capitalism, Socialism, and Mental Illness (delivered as talk to Socialism 2014)

Capitalism, Socialism, and Mental Health

Dana L. Cloud

Socialism 2014

In the days after Eliot Rodger murdered six students of the University of California, Santa Barbara, commentators rushed to attribute the violence to “angry, resentful, mentally ill individuals” (Time) or “deep and puzzling psychological problems” (NYT). The problem could not lie in the ominpresence of misogynistic messages and attitudes that teach young men that they are entitled to the bodies of women, by force if necessary.

Another example: The New York Times ran a series called “Mothers’ Mind,” about the common experience of post-partum depression and even psychosis among new mothers. The series calls for greater attention to the mental health effects of changing hormones—but not for greater attention to women’s oppression in the family as a potential contributor to anxiety and desperation. One of the mothers interviewed in the series, however, makes the point clear. She wanted to have an abortion. But delays prevented her seeking that option. She comments, “When Benjamin was born, six weeks premature, Ms. Guillermo recalled thinking, “You’re not supposed to be mine. You were not supposed to be made.” After experiencing thoughts of harming her child, she was offered a solution: new medication.

There are many other examples that I could give where our society frames the results of social problems as individual illness. In this talk, I argue that capitalism creates and uses psychiatric problems in other ways as well. In addition to denying social causes to suffering and violence, capitalism’s pressures create the conditions—exploitation, oppression, and alienation—that lead to symptoms of mental illness. Then capitalism attempts to sell individualized cures to social problems in the form of dangerous pharmaceuticals, limited therapy, and rationed urgent care. In the broader political society, the ideas of psychotherapy—that suffering is a matter of individual biology or experience, of private life rather than produced socially—suffuse discourse from self-help books to advertising to political speeches.

I should say at the outset that I am neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, and so will not attempt to address diagnosis and treatments specific to particular disorders. I am talking about serious mental illness generall, including disorders from Axes 1(major mood disorders, psychosis) and 2 (personality disorders) from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) V. However, Axis 4, Environmental and Social Probems (including natural environment, social obstacles, and occupation), is misleadingly separated from the mood disorders and psychoses of Axis 1. The upshot of Axis 4 is, “It’s capitalism, stupid!”

Marxist psychologists tie the experience of illness and popular discourses about it to historical and social contexts. From such a perpsective, as Peter Sedgwick argues, mental should be understood as a kind of social failure, by which he means failure to adjust to society as it exists or failure to function ideally on its terms. Mental illness only has meaning in contrast to the dominant forms of social life. Perversly, capitalism drives workers so hard that they break down and become maladjusted. It is by meeting the imperatives of the existing society that continuing to conform is impossible. Thus R.D. Laing famously observed that what we label as mental illnesses are often adaptive or necessary responses to paradoxical social situations. The most obvious example here would be the suffering of PTSD by military veterans. Behavior that was adaptive in one setting is disordered in another.

Psychiatry and other treatments are sometimes instances of discipline or social control, but those of us living under the diagnosis of one or more mood disorders, personality disorders, psychosis, or other mental illnesses have to survive here and now, and no one should fault others for seeking out and using whatever resources there are available to make it through this day and the day after. Mental illness is real even if it has systemic origins and conservative uses. We have to live to fight for a better world in which caretaking is a social process and shared responsibility, where rest and solitude are not pathologized, where anyone can afford to be taken care of in an unalienated way.

As I continue, I will first sketch a historical overview of cultural approaches to madness. Then, I will describe contemporary depictions of and treatments for mental illness. The experience of patients varies profoundly by class, race, and gender, and the ruling class cultivates racial and gendered “sick” identities for patients. On the whole, the picture is bleak in neoliberal capitalism for people with mental illnesses today due to deinstitutionalization and lack of access to insurance and medications. I will turn at the end of my talk to a discussion of the kind of world socialists seek to implement and the standards for humane, useful, and collective remedies.

Madness in the Enlightenment

First, historical evidence shows that mental illness—its existence, definitions, explanations, and treatments—are historically and culturally specific in ways that are dialectically related to the economic system. Illnesses that are rampant today did not even exist as such before the 20th century, and many appeared during the Industrial Revolution. Madness emerged as an explanation in Enlightenment society for uncontrollable actions and desires in contrast to prior explanations focusing on demonic possession. As social historian and theorist Michel Foucault argues, the conception of madness as unreason originates in the period of the Renaissance and comes into fullness during the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was itself the product of a revolutionary shift in how the necessities of life were produced and distributed, the transition from feudalism to mercantile capitalism. Peter Sedgwick notes that the category of “neurosis” was not invented until this time period, in the middle of the 18th century. Enlightenment ideals constituted the ideology of the rising bourgeoisie. The dominant philosophy of the period was a distinct improvement on what came before, with its emphasis on human reason, progress, and freedom. Yet Descartes’ famous proclamation of the superiority of reason born of the mind over and above anything having to do with the body (labor, and, not incidentally, women) served to deny those deemed to be unreasonable the benefits of full citizenship.

The transition to industrial capitalism required and produced a philosophy of self-determination and the free exchange of goods and ideas; of course, this free exchange depended on the hidden labor of slaves, indentured servants, and women who, when rebellious, were defined as “mad” and disciplined accordingly. Rather than eliminating social control, as its founders claimed, the Enlightenment and the Bourgeois revolutions in France and elsewhere that produced it instituted new forms of control, one in which exclusion from society is justified by madness, newly defined as “unreason.”

The Enlightenment did bring with it some desire to humanize the treatment of the mad. It was Philippe Pinel who, along with the lesser-known Jean-Baptiste Pussin, abolished the brual repression of the deranged at the French hospitals Biecetre and Salpetriere in order to replace the system with a humanitarian medical approach. However, new modes of treatment operated as a different form of control. At this historical moment, places of confinement were created in which the mad were locked up with the poor and the unemployed, prostitutes, and other deviants on the basis that they had all chosen unreason. However, madness was also becoming the subject of scientific study and medical intervention in the lives of persons whose “selves” were incoherent.

Conservatism of Mental Illness Approaches Under Capitalism

Industrial capitalism made explicit what its forbears did not: The definition of an “incoherent” self is one who cannot labor. In the United States in the 1920s, organizational consultants led by psychologist Elton Mayo, aiming for maxium productivity among the industrial workforce, interviewed workers at the Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant. The idea was to provide workers a sense of compunity and participation and to meet workers’ needs in a time of rapid social change. Most workers complained of fatigue, boredom, and “feeling low.”

The solution proposed by the consultants? Better lighting. Interviewers seemed deliberately blind to the source of workers’ suffering in the fast-paced, Taylorized labor they were made to perform. One wrote of a worker who had compalined that his pay was too low and htat his supervisor treated him badly. The interviewer concludes that the worker was having “hard luck at home,” and “feeling dumpy many a day.” The interviewer offered encouraging words and working overtime as a solution—quite the opposite of what the worker really needed. For these psychologists, he problem could not be industry itself; nor did the company bear any responsibility for the alienation and injury of the workforce.

During this same time period, depression emerged as an experience, but more importantly, as a clearly defined illness. According to Michael Denning and Emily Martin, mood-tracking charts began appearing in the 1920s, whereby doctors and patients could peform the empirical and tedious labor of marking down every symptom, defining oneself as “ill” every step of the way. Depression itself was defined as an illness in 1921. Its major diagnostic criterion was the inability to get up and go to work. It is also not surprising that major therapeutic interventions occur in reaction to major labor strikes. As I have argued in previous work, therapeutic discourse as always positioned itself as an alternative to class-consciousness, prescribing medication and self-help over and above a critique of exploitation, oppression, and awareness of common cause.

Although the ideas surrounding of mental illness are socially constructed, it is the case that capitalism makes us literally sick with diseases caused by environmental toxins, the stress of overwork, difficulties in supporting a family, hunger and malnutrition, substance abuse, and so on. Capitalism also makes us sick of it, leading to protest and rebellion. A hallmark of militant social movements is to turn around the definitions of mental illness and describe the system itself as irrational and harmful.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of racism. The Protest Psychosis by Jonathan Metzl. details the incarceration of angry Black men at an asylum outside of Detroit under the diagnosis of schizophrenia. It was no coincidence that these efforts way corrolated to the eruption of anti-racist urban rebellions and prison prostests among Black inmates.

The establishment was none too slow in response to label Black men, especially angry Black men, as schizophrenics. In the 1960s and 1970s, schizophrenia basically became a Black disease. The FBI diagnosed Malcolm X with pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia by virtue of his membership in radical organizations. They diagnosed Robert Williams, head of a North Carolina chapter of the NAACP as schizophrenic because he fled from false kidnapping charges. In his influential book Negroes with Guns, Williams turned the diagnosis around and defined racism itself as a “mass psychosis.” However, labeling angry Black men as schizophrenic justified the confinement and drugging of those who refused to adjust. The DSM-II identified masculinized hostitliy, violence, and agression as key components of the illness, along with the tendency to blame others for one’s illness. Advertisements for anti-psychotic drugs like Haldol and Thorazine featured images of raging Black men out of control.

However, theorists like Frantz Fanon and WEB Dubois had long been identifying the psyche as a battleground for equality, noting the deep psychological scarring of colonization, slavery, poverty, prejudice, and segregation. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and other militants turned the rhetortic around to label the oppressive, racist system itself as sick. Jonathan Metzl writes, “In this context, the language of paranois, psychosis, and schizoprhenia became a means of pathologizing white society while justifying aggressive self-defense.”

The same mode of psychological discipline has long been applied to women, defined in terms of their bodies as “hysterical” from the get-go. I do not have time to review the entire history of the psychiatric persecution of women. I am not an expert on Freud, although I know that he attributed the discontent of women to their infatuation with their fathers and envy of the penis. However, I would recall what I said earlier about the Enlightenment imposing a new set of dualisms on society; prime among them is the mind-body split. Reason and the mind were the province of men; women became only bodies and by definition, unreasonable. And so it was that white women in the Victorian era whose complaint was their confinement in the domestic sphere, were prescribed futher confinement as a treatment (hence my reference to Perkins-Gilman, above). Today poor women are disproportionately represented in mental hospitals, and are the majority of people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, whose main symptom is difficulty in appropriately regulating one’s emotions.

Mezl documents contemporary efforts to discipline women with diagnoses of depression. Arguing for continuity in the misogynistic assumptions of psychoanalysis and pharmacological psychiatry, he calls attention to how criteria for wellness are shaped by culture and used by the powerful to designate a particular group as a “problem” for society. He writes, “Psychotropic medications are imbued with expectation, desire, gender, race, sexuality, power, time, reputation, contertransference, metaphor, and a host of important factors”—that the idea of psychiatry as a medical science obscures.

Mezl examines American print culture over the latter half of the 20th Century to show how the implementation of psychiatric medication reinscribes sexist and heterosexist Freudian beliefs. New tranquilizers were advertised as “mother’s little helpers” and advertisements depicted mad feminists being “tamed” by Valium. He links efforts at gender discipline to material and ideological challenges to the idea of the nuclear family and a fragile paternal order. This edition of the manual defined menstruation and pregnancy, features simply of being female, as disorders. In the 1980s and 1990s century, Prozac came to be associated with liberation for women—defined as unmitigated happiness. Among the fascinating observations Mezl makes about the transition to pharmapsychology is that it minimizes human contact and community responsibility for wellness. This element is characteristic of more than psychiatry. It is the modus operandi for neoliberalism.

Psychiatry and Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is the intensification of privatization and austerity around the world in a system governed to a significant extent by corporations and their unelected organizations like the World Trade Organization. Naomi Klein has called the neoliberal approach to crisis the “shock doctrine,” that is, to replace all that is slow, broken, inefficient, and less than optimally profitable with corporate control. In the United States, neoliberalism has meant the disappearance of full-time skilled jobs as fewer workers are made to do the tasks that many had done and the erosion of what meager social safety nets we have. Neoliberalism is what has left the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry in charge of health care.

If capitalism makes us sick, we would expect neoliberal capitalism to intensify that suffering and capitalize on it more effectively. And indeed, this is what we find. Neoliberalism breaks people down. According to the World Health Organization, there are at least 450 million people with diagnosed mental health issues. In the United States, the numbers of those disabled by mental disorders as indicated in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (sSDI) increased two and a half times between 1987 and 2007, from one in 184 in Americans to one in 76. The United States’ rate of mental illness is higher than that of any other country, at nearly 30 percent. (Just after the US is Ukraine.) Historical statistics are difficult to come by, since most studies count only hospital admissions, excluding many millions who do not become hospitalized. Another statistical complication is that neoliberal capitalism works puts increasingly brutal pressure on the working class and the poor and has radically decreased the numbers of hospitalized mental ill patients.

James Petras notes that neoliberalism in crisis is even more prone to adversely affect the personality and the person, amplifying “the socio-psychological damage inflicted on salaried and waged workers, . . . including unemployment, job insecurity, and degrading work; high rates of chronic depression, family breakup, suicide, family violence child abuse, anti-social behavior particularly where the unemployed are isolated an unable to exteriorize their hostility and anger via collective social action.” Neoliberalism has reduced living standards and income, forcing wokers to seek lower paying jobs or fall below the poverty line. The unemployed face, along with the inability to pay bills, “deep and perpetual anxiety and a loss of self-respect.”

James Petras notes that neoliberalism in crisis is even more prone to adversely affect the personality and the person, amplifying “the socio-psychological damage inflicted on salaried and waged workers, . . . including unemployment, job insecurity, and degrading work; high rates of chronic depression, family breakup, suicide, family violence child abuse, anti-social behavior particularly where the unemployed are isolated an unable to exteriorize their hostility and anger via collective social action.” Neoliberalism has reduced living standards and income, forcing wokers to seek lower paying jobs or fall below the poverty line. The unemployed face, along with the inability to pay bills, “deep and perpetual anxiety and a loss of self-respect.”

Deinstitutionalization is the most significant neoliberal experiment in the treatment of the mentally ill. Although efforts to move patients out of hospitals and into homes and communities becan in 1955 (as soon as medications were available to make patients “manageable”, it became clear that it was anything but humane. PBS reported that the magnitude of deinstitutionalization of the severely mentally ill qualifies it as one of the largest social experiments in American history. In 1955, there were 558,239 severely mentally ill patients in the nation’s public psychiatric hospitals. In 1994, this number had been reduced by 486,620 patients, to 71,619. In effect, approximately 92 percent of the people who would have been living in public psychiatric hospitals in 1955 were not living there in 1994. Most of those who were deinstitutionalized from the nation’s public psychiatric hospitals were severely mentally ill.

Thus deinstitutionalization helped to create the mental illness crisis by discharging people from public psychiatric hospitals without ensuring that they received the medication and rehabilitation services necessary for them to live successfully in the community. Deinstitutionalization further exacerbated the situation because, once the public psychiatric beds had been closed, they were not available for people who later became mentally ill, and this situation continues up to the present. In 1997, approximately 2.2 million severely mentally ill people did not receive any psychiatric treatment. That number is much greater today. Approximately 200,000 individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are homeless, constituting one-third of the estimated 600,000 homeless population. Nearly 300,000 individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or 16 percent of the total inmate population, are in jails and prisons (“More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons Than Hospitals: A Survey of the States,” Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs’ Assn., May 2010). The World Health Organization estimates that in the US, only 41 percent of people with mental health dorders receive treatment.

Sedgwick writes, “It is not the therapuetic spirit of Hippocrates, but the capital-accounting ethos denounced by Marx and hymned by Weber, which in different phases of capitalist development herds the multitudes inside asylum walls and expels them again when the operation becomes too costly for a fiscally overextended social order.”

Over the past two decades, governments in the industrialized West have pursued policy agendas that reflect several characteristic elements of neoliberalism including a normative privileging of the individual; a preference for private sector funding for, and provision of, services, and the integration of corporate management practices into the work of government. During the same period there has been increasing attention – within the business community, among researchers, in the media, and by governments and international organizations – to the problem of depression, particularly among adults in the paid labor force. In addition over this time, many of the social and economic policies adopted by governments in these jurisdictions have reflected neoliberal goals and orientations. This approach, as described by Canadian scholar Katherine Teghtsoonian, is one of “responsibilization,” or locating responsibility for distress with the distressed, all couched in a language of helping.

However, neoliberal capitalism has jettisoned the stated humanitarian goal of “helping.” Other scholars, for example Australian legal scholar Terry Carney, have documented the rapid shift toward pharmaceutical intervention and “community-based” care, which, although it sounds humane, means, “You are on your own.”

In Mad in America, Robert Whitaker sketches the history of treatments for mental illness from bedlam to progessivism, then through eugenics, torture, brain surgery, electroshock, and dangerous but profitable neuroleptic medications hailed as miraculous. Sedating the mentally ill became the standard treatment. The reliance on medications prescribed by physicians grew as the interests of physicians and pharmaceutical companies converged in the 1950s.

Whitaker’s second book takes on the behemoth pharmaceutical industry as the key beneficiary of the explosion of medication-based treatment. Whitaker states that US patients spent $25 billion on anti-depressants and antipsychotics in 2007. The explosion of diagnoses and disability due to mental illness since 1987 has brought millions of children into treatment for newly diagnosed disorders such as ADHD. Likewise, in The Emperor’s New Drugs, Irving Kirsch reviews dozens of clinical trials and discovered that anti-depressant medications were hardly more effective than placebos.

Whitaker questions the validity of attributing mental illness to imbalances of chemicals in the brain and raises a number of alarms about medications designed to address those imbalances. For example, in the 1980s, the National Institute for Mental Health concluded that there is no research affirming a causal relationship between low serotonin levels and depression. Likewise, the theory that schizoprenia was caused by high dopamine levels was also discredited. Many antipsychotic drugs carry the risk of permanent tardive dyskinesia and increased risk for dementia later in life. Moreover, since the introduction of psychoactive medications, there has been an increase in chronic disabling mental illness. Anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Klonopin cultivate dependency to drugs that in the long term do not alleviate anxiety. Despite numerous studies indicating that neuroleptics create significant changes in the brain but do not affect the rate or incidence of recovery from major mental illness, the prescription of medications like Prozac, Lamictal, Risperdal, and Klonopin is still the front line of treatment.

I believe that Whitaker is wrong to attribute the increase in mental illness rates largely to the selling of and dependence on psychotropic medications. Many of us probably know someone whose life was improved or saved due to psychopharmacological intervention. In addition, Whitaker does not consider social and economic factors that could affect the number of people in mental and emotional distress in neoliberal capitalism. The “bipolar boom” he describes could as easily be attributable to neoliberalism’s appreciation for sped-up productivity and uncontrollable consumer spending—adaptive, as Emily Martin explains, until the patient becomes profoundly depressed. In addition, it could be, as I am suggesting, that the intensification of austerity and the decimation of working class strength around the world has created ever greater numbers of actual cases of mental illness. However, the studies Whitaker cites warrant careful attention if the majority of people benefiting from pharmapsychology are (pharmaceutical company-backed) physicians and pharmaceutical companies.

Causality is difficult to assess, as three trends originated in the early 1970s: a neoliberal capitalism that met economic crisis with ruthless austerity; a dramatic rise in the incidence of reported mental illness; and the medicalization of mental illness such that a physician can treat the symptoms of workers in distress with a quick and efficient pill. The government at this time withdrew research support for long-term psychotherapy in favor of the biological model which dominates neoliberal health care. In corporate health care, time with doctors is rationed and expensive, and psychiatry relies heavily on “medication check” appointments; fewer and fewer offer any talk therapy or even conversation. Medications can be prohibitively costly and uncovered by insurance, especially before the brand-name patents expire.

Capitalism is distressing but incapable of remedying its subjects’ distress. This contradiction stands as an analogue to Marx’s observation that capitalism creates its own gravediggers and:

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

Proponents of an oppressive psychiatry and of the capitalist system itself are terrified of the madness of crowds—of Black people and women and workers and the poor whose anger appears to bourgeois society to be “unreasonable.” And well they should be because there are millions of people around the world who are sickened by the neoliberal social order. But it is that order that is malignant and disordered.

Toward a Healthy Species-Being

What are we maladjusted socialists to do? We can look to the history of mental health reform for inspiration. There have been important movements, many growing out of the 1960s and 1970s, to improve the conditions and access to care of mentally ill Americans. One important example is the movement that forced the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders catalogued in the DSM in 1973. It is clear that the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, including the movement for LGBTQ liberation, were instrumental in achieving this victory.

A commemorative panel at the APA in 2013 brought together psychiatrists who played crucial roles in the fight to end the stigma attached to homosexuality both within and outside the mental health field. According to one account, Melvin Sabshin, M.D., a member of the APA Board of Trustees in the early 1970s and chair of the Scientific Program Committee at that time, credited the gay liberation movement as the impetus for change. He recalled the 1970 annual meeting in San Francisco where Gay Liberation Front activists along with political protesters in support of other social and political causes disrupted the meeting. “It was guerilla theater” at that meeting and the one held in Washington, D.C., the next year, he said.

In 1972, for the first time, the annual meeting featured exhibits and discussions spotlighting positive aspects of the lives of gay individuals.

In a key vote in December 1973, the Board of Trustees overwhelmingly endorsed psychiatrist Robert Spitzer’s recommendation to delete homosexuality from the DSM. A small group of gay psychiatrists was holding informal meetings to explore forming an organization that would heighten their visibility and that of gay patients. This organization eventually became the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists (AGLP), now comprised of more than 600 members.

Building movements for social justice, including defending the lives and rights of the mentally ill, is the only way forward. Granted, can be very difficult while suffering as an individual from mental illness to participate fully in social movements and socialist organizing. Our political organization cannot take up the tasks of group therapy. However, political action can become a site of agency, a position from which to diagnose the system as irrational and to claim our own collective power.

We have to survive in order to fight, and that survival sometimes means availing ourselves of the meager and dangerous tools of coping that capitalism has afforded us. As Emily Martin explains, one can be both a patient with a diagnosis doing whatever it takes in the everyday setting—including staying on one’s meds—and an anthropologist, a critic of the hegemonic functions that psychiatry has played throughout modern times. There is no contradiction between filling your prescription for Lamictal at the pharmacy while seeking to bring big pharma down. There is nothing counter-revolutionary in surviving.

Capitalism grinds us down. In the past, it allowed for some meager remedies in the name of Enlightenment, but neoliberalism has shed even the veneer of civilization and reason. We cannot know what health looks like until we make a society built to meet our needs, one where caretaking is a social priority and where our jobs do not make us sick. We aim to create a society where misogyny is a thing of the past not a reason for violence, and where women and men are no longer disciplined to bear the burdens of society in the private family.

At the nexus of biology and culture, mental illness will persist beyond a socialist revolution. But can we not envision a world of abundance not austerity, one of social provisioning of basic needs not isolation and self-blame? There, health will be a matter of collective striving to foster a society built to achieve the well being of the human race.


Happy Birthday, You’re Not a Person

Today is my birthday. North Carolina voters just decided I’m not fully human. Here is a response.

Whereas miscegenation
queered the rite’s unstable battle,
today another state banned endogamy,
the joining of like to like, ironically
as ever calling difference into being.
Not so much for domestication
but facing inhumanity ratified
by popular declaim,
I become monstrous in public,
skin peeling back to reveal
the fat melting off muscle
as my joints fail I topple first in
supplication then prostration
limbs spread apart in the face of
you who vote on the humanity of others.
My heart lands beating on the dry desert floor
and my parts strive for each other and on the way
find random dessicated limbs
a horned bony mask,
auto parts, twisted gutters,
railroad ties
odd ends
of rusted steel dragged through the dust to
fabricate a new miscegenated body
an unnatural cyborg warrior
the aftermarket subject.

Didn’t we always wish that
in the movie
Linda Hamilton were the one with the forbidden microchip
the indestructible frame and hardened heart
to save her self and the world?
A postapocalyptic mutation,
my arms and hands rattle with ugly vengeance.
If you think that I am less than fully human
I will show you how
very right you are.

Why Marry at all? A poem by Marge Piercy

Why marry at all?

By Marge Piercy

Why mar what has grown up between the cracks
and flourished like a weed
that discovers itself to bear rugged
spikes of magenta blossoms in August,
ironweed sturdy and bold,
a perennial that endures winters to persist?

Why register with the state?
Why enlist in the legions of the respectable?
Why risk the whole apparatus of roles
and rules, of laws and liabilities?
Why license our bed at the foot
like our Datsun truck: will the mileage improve?

Why encumber our love with patriarchal
word stones, with the old armor
of husband and the corset stays
and the chains of wife? Marriage
meant buying a breeding womb
and sole claim to enforced sexual service.

Marriage has built boxes in which women
have burst their hearts sooner
than those walls; boxes of private
slow murder and the fading of the bloom
in the blood; boxes in which secret
bruises appear like toadstools in the morning.

But we cannot invent a language
of new grunts. We start where we find
ourselves, at this time and place.

Which is always the crossing of roads
that began beyond the earth’s curve
but whose destination we can now alter.

This is a public saying to all our friends
that we want to stay together. We want
to share our lives. We mean to pledge
ourselves through times of broken stone
and seasons of rose and ripe plum;
we have found out, we know, we want to continue.

Speech by Silky Shoemaker to Queerbomb (alternative pride gathering) June 4

Loved this–political, funny, celebratory all at once.

This night has been a long time coming. Im so glad we’re all here to celebrate our wild and beautiful queer identities. Tonight we proclaim who we are and what we love, without shame or apology or beer commercials.

Pride is strength in what we love and it is what we make it, together. And now we show Austin that we can make it without money or corporate sponsors or exclusionary tactics or billboards. Without fear of sex or bodies, of filth or poor people, without fear of speaking the truth.

As “the Gays”, we have an incredible lineage of radical, courageous ancestors who literally put their lives on the line to exist in this world. To exist in flaming, exuberant queerness. Their struggles have paved the road we walk tonight. And when we take to the streets for pride, we carry their torches in honor of the work they have done, the lives we have lost, and the work we still have left to do!

41 years ago when Stonewall Riots lit up the lower east side of Manhattan, no one apologized to their board of trustees afterwards.
They did not consider themselves “too freaky” or “too vulgar” or “unsuitable for families”. Even though that is exactly what the world wanted them to think. They were queers of color, they were trannies, they were activists and organizers. They were sex workers and drag queens and passing butches. They were backroom cocksuckers and bitter old queens and underage twinks. They were drunks, loudmouths, and perverts— tired, disappointed, and angry. And they fought for their right to exist in just these ways, and more! (So every time you see a bitter old queen at Charlie’s, you can thank Sylvia Rivera.) They fought to be unapologetically extravagant in their queerness and irrepressible in their demands!

We will be told again and again to make ourselves presentable, to hide behind closed doors, to button up, butch up, hush up, pay up— to sell out our values for mainstream acceptance. BUT this is wrong! and its also BORING!

They will say we should do it in the name of normalcy or decency or that its the only way to get it done. And especially they will say “Do it in the name of families.”

But my family is right here. Im reclaiming that word. (Again!) Because my family is built around respecting and honoring each other in our many facets, in the beauty and dignity of our varied experiences. And in this shared family we inherit a responsibility from the faggots and bulldaggers of yore, our flaming foremothers and forefathers:
To remember that the freedoms we have were built on the radical activism of others. When they took to the streets with broken bottles and high heels in hand they made room for pissed off transsexuals in bad wigs, (and more!)

When ACTUP members chained themselves to the walls of the NYStock Exchange they demanded the world see us: as living, breathing, fucking, dying human beings in need of affordable medicine and basic compassion.

When we pass out free condoms its not just to say “Be safe,” its also saying “We’re not ashamed” “We will still find power in how we make love.”
When i think of Queerbomb, I think of us all making love. BIG GAY LOVE out on the streets! And i think its heroic. Im so proud to march with you all tonight. To honor our history and build a future. To bridge and overlap movements for freedom and justice and good looks.

In the words of Sylvester, “You make me feel mighty real!”
Lets march!!

The quiet desperation of academic women

This study came as no surprise to me!
It resonates with my experience as a faculty member; although none of my male colleagues, Chair, or Dean is intentionally sexist, there are broader institution and cultural patterns that make some barriers to women’s accomplishments seem like common sense. The discussion of how women bear a disproportionate burden (as do faculty of color and queer faculty, in my view) of the service work at research universities,  the  perennial problem of work-family balance  (because women, even professional women, still do 70% of housework and childrearing labor), and the significance of micropractices and inequities that most people would not automatically recognize as sexist are important lessons for faculty, administrators, and students. (At UT, there is no maternity leave–like the woman whose story appears below, women must “schedule” their pregnancies to coincide with research leaves–during which one is still required to do research–or semester breaks.) Read on!

June 12

‘Quiet Desperation’ of Academic Women

Interviews with 80 female faculty members at a research university – the largest qualitative study of its kind – have found that many women in careers are deeply frustrated by a system that they believe undervalues their work and denies them opportunities for a balanced life. While the study found some overt discrimination in the form of harassment or explicitly sexist remarks, many of the concerns involved more subtle “deeply entrenched inequities.”

While the study was conducted, with support from the National Science Foundation, at the University of California at Irvine, the report’s authors and most of those who were interviewed for the research state that they don’t believe the problems discussed are unique to Irvine. The women interviewed who had worked elsewhere or discussed such issues with colleagues elsewhere portrayed their concerns as entirely typical of what goes on at research universities. And the authors – also at Irvine – stress that they don’t view the campus as exceptional.

While some issues in the report mirror concerns raised in other venues (such as the difficulty for women in particular of balancing work and family responsibilities), others receive more attention here than elsewhere. For example, service responsibilities are seen as a significant source of both sexism (women receive more of the assignments) and career roadblocks (the service work doesn’t count for tenure).

Those interviewed in the report even go so far as to criticize the NSF program that sponsored the research because it also urged Irvine to create “equity” positions in which faculty members – typically women – helped to review searches to be sure that diverse pools and perspectives were being sought. “To paraphrase one participant who wished anonymity: ‘They’ll not get the next promotion, or the next raise. And it also made them lightening rods for all the frustration on campus that women are getting special treatment. So it was a perfect example of service that helps the institution but really hurts the individual.'”
The article, “Gender Equity in Academia: Bad News From the Trenches, and Some Possible Solutions,” appears in the new issue of Perspectives on Politics (abstract available here <; ). The authors are Kristen Monroe, a professor of political science and philosophy at Irvine and director of its Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality, along with three graduate students in political science at Irvine: Saba Ozyurt, Ted Wrigley and Amy Alexander.

The analysis opens with a review of the national statistics in which women’s gains in the graduate student population are gradually diminished as academics advance to first jobs, to tenure, and to senior positions. Most of the analysis focuses on summaries of the in-depth interviews conducts with the women at Irvine, who came from a range of disciplines and seniority levels. Here are some of the highlights:

Unintended bias and outdated attitudes: Many of the women in the study described a steady stream of comments, some of them ostensibly offering support, that suggested that the older men who made them didn’t really understand how to interact with women in a professional manner. These men generally had no clue that their attitudes were either patronizing, sexist or both, the report says. One woman is quoted as describing a job interview in a top department in which an African American scholar took her aside and said, “This is a great place for people like you and me, if you know what I mean, honey.” The report quoted the woman as noting the irony that “he simply did not realize that it might be as inappropriate to call a 26-year-old woman ‘honey’ as it would be to jovially slap a black man on the back and call him ‘boy.’ ”

Devaluing positions once women hold them: At Irvine, as at most research universities, the last decade has seen a significant change in the number of women serving as committee chairs, department chairs, deans and administrators in a variety of capacities. And the women interviewed for the study praised this development, crediting women in various senior positions for being mentors or going to bat for their younger counterparts. But the women – across disciplines – described a pattern in which once a woman was named to a more senior position, others treated it as more service-oriented and less substantive. The paper dubs this trend “gender devaluation,” saying: “When a man is department chair, the position confers status, respect and power. When a woman becomes department chair, the power and status seems diminished.”

Service and gender: Those interviewed reported some protection for junior faculty women, but said that among the senior faculty ranks, women were picked disproportionately for service assignments, especially those that are time-consuming. Then those same women are criticized for not doing more research, and the theoretical credit awarded service is never to be found.

Family vs. career: As in similar reports, women reported intense pressure – well beyond that faced by their male colleagues – with regard to having children, raising them, and also caring for aging parents. Many women reported strong reluctance to take advantage of policy options that might be helpful, fearful of how they would appear to male colleagues, and women reported regret and some dismay over choices they made to avoid confronting colleagues with their needs for more flexibility. One woman interviewed described having a child this way: “I was determined that I would drop that baby on Friday, teach on Monday, and nobody would ever know. That’s what I had to do. That was just how I felt like life had to be. Indeed, my first child was born ten days after I submitted my final grades. I did have the summer off. I went back to teach in the fall, but by that September my first book was due at the publisher, and it all got done. That’s what one had to do. That’s what I felt. I was a competitive bitch, and that was what I felt I had to do in order to make as statement about who I was.” (She added that she took a different attitude with her second child’s arrival four years later.)

Activism vs. making it work: Generally, the women interviewed described the offices and services designed to help them as places that were focused on legal and technical issues, and given that many of their frustrations weren’t legal, they didn’t rely on these services. In addition, the women interviewed – citing in part a desire not to have their careers hurt – tended to focus on figuring out informal ways to deal with problems, rather than seeking policy changes. Women are “extremely adept at detecting the academy’s cues,” the study says. “Many feared backlash and retribution if they agitated openly for change.”

While these women themselves focused on individual solutions, the overall theme of the report – in considering how to improve the situation of women at research universities – is a call for much more flexibility. Career paths are needed, the report says, that do not presume that the quality of work is based on hours in the lab or office, or time to tenure, or time finishing various projects. In addition, the report calls on universities to assign tasks in a more gender-neutral way, so that service activities aren’t presumed female, and to credit work performed equally – even if women are more likely than men to do that work.

Asked for a reaction to the study, Irvine released a statement criticizing it. “Professor Monroe’s article draws attention to the persistence and toll of sex discrimination on women faculty. Unfortunately, the article cannot to be said to offer original insight into the promise and challenge of gender equity in higher education. The formulation of the problem overlooks research in a host of related issues, such as gender schemas, work-life balance, and leadership development among others,” the statement said.

The Irvine statement went on to cite progress for women on a number of fronts, noting that women on the campus hold such positions as vice chancellor of research and deans of the graduate division and of undergraduate education. Women account for 43 percent of assistant professors, 37 percent of associate professors, and 22 percent of full professors. Those figures are going up in science and technology fields too, Irvine noted, and women now are 37 percent of assistant professors, 31 percent of associate professors and 18 percent of full professors in those disciplines.

The statement added that “Professor Monroe does not appear to be informed about campus and university engagement with gender equity or for that matter family-friendly accommodation policies and procedures.”

In an interview (prior to when Irvine released its statement), Monroe said that she would be interested to see how the university responded and that she hoped it would be positive. She noted – as the reported noted – that many of the concerns expressed in the study didn’t have to do with official policies or programs, but with more subtle questions.

In her career she was helped by good advice she received early on from mentors. She was urged to agree to serve on one universitywide committee and one departmental committee and never more. She was also urged to work from home in the mornings, so she couldn’t be drafted into other meetings, and would always have focused time for research. Monroe said that as a political scientist, she had that option in a way that a lab scientist would not. While Monroe said she was able to have a family while succeeding in academe (in part because of choices her husband made), she said that talking to women about their choices was in many cases “heartbreaking.”
– Scott Jaschik

Russian Cement Workers on Strike:

 This from my beloved in Moscow.


On Tuesday, June 26, workers at Mikhailov Cement (a Eurocement company) are going on strike over wage demands. These workers are undertaking one of the first labor campaigns in the construction industry devoted to raising wages and improving workers’ living conditions.  Making an average of 3800 to 7500 rubles a month (around $150 to just under $300), working weekends and holidays, and facing constant increases in the cost of living, these workers have decided to demand more. Against them stands an employer who has a monopoly on cement production in European Russia.

Workers at Mikhailov Cement have been struggling for better conditions now for a month. They conducted a one-hour work stoppage in May, completely ignored by local media and scoffed at by their employer. Living in a company village, they have endured pressure from all sides, including the harassment of their children at school and a temporary lockout under the guise of making repairs to the factory. Yet workers are standing strong, having decided that as the price of cement has gone up, and profits with it, it is time for them to stand up and demand fair pay for their work.

What you can do:

1) Send a fax to M.A. Skorokhod, president of Mikhailov Cement’s parent company, Eurocement, at 011-7-495-737-5510 or 011-495-795-2581 (24 hours); or to the Office of Community Relations at 011-7-495-737-5776 (business hours). Tell Eurocement that you support the workers at Mikhailov Cement and their demands for better pay, and that you condemn any retaliation against workers who have participated in the dispute. (It is all right to send messages in English.)

2) Send workers your messages of encouragement and support. For messages in English, send to <>  (for translation and forwarding). For messages in Russian, send to or