Prostitution, Puritanism, Commodification and Wage Labour

A little while ago the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws as unconstitutional. While this act by the Supreme Court never suggested that prostitution should be legal, it did argue that Canada’s current laws needed to be replaced as the current laws endangered the health and safety of sex trade workers. As a result of this the whole issue of prostitution’s status under the law has become a topic for public discussion.

The interesting element of these discussions of prostitution is the earnest piety with which both left leaning and right leaning politicians condemn prostitution as necessarily exploitative and immoral. I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that currently sex trade workers are exploited, victims of violence and subject to being connected with human trafficking, and I am not sure if the connection between these criminal activities and prostitution can easily be cut. But, the fact that currently sex trade workers tend to be subject to these dangers, does not necessarily show that prostitution is exploitative, but only that prostitution is exploitative under the particular conditions under which it exists within the contemporary Canadian context. And yet the partisans of both left and right seem to act as if the current state of prostitution in Canada means that sex trade work is necessarily exploitative and needs to be condemned by means of law. There are of course some contrasting voices that want to reform the sex trade industry such that it becomes a legitimate form of economic activity, but these are a very small minority. Thus, the Canadian public discussion of this issue is dominated by a very broad condemnation of prostitution.

I suspect that this condemnation of prostitution is due to the idea that there is something particularly degrading about prostitution such that even under the most perfect egalitarian conditions engaging in prostitution would be a sign that someone was mentally ill or depraved. This idea is rarely expressed clearly, but it seems to fit with the fact that we are the heirs to a tradition of thought and practise in which sexual purity was a central element of morality, and the fact that many people will say that they cannot see any reasons for engaging in prostitution other than poverty, desperation or mental illness. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that there is a strand of thought in Canada about prostitution which sees prostitution as necessarily degrading. Let us call this perspective `Pious Puritanism.` For the remainder of this entry I will argue that the ideas underlying pious puritanism are valid, but that they imply a broader critique of commodification and wage labour itself.

Pious Puritanism suggests that prostitution is deeply degrading under any condition. This raises the question of why prostitution is degrading, One reason to think that prostitution is degrading is that it represents the infiltration of norms of economic activity into a sphere in which norms of romantic affection ought to dominate, and economic norms should be barred entry. Just as it would be absurd and degrading for someone to treat their romantic partner as someone who they exchange goods and services with on the basis of a binding commercial contract, so too it is absurd and degrading to sell sex to another. Underlying this thought process is the idea that our sexual and romantic capacities should not be rendered into commodities that can be traded for money. Let us call this objection to prostitution the romantic criticism.

One other reason why someone might object to prostitution in principle is that prostitution treats a person merely as a sexual object to be bought and paid for. The problem with this form of objectification is that it renders the sex trade worker into an instrument of another`s pleasure, to be used. Even though this form of objectification does not actively coerce the sex trade worker it fails to positively appreciate that the sex trade worker is more than somebody to be paid and used. Let us call this objection the sexual objectification criticism.

While I find both of these criticisms compelling they point beyond the target of prostitution. In the case of the romantic critique it might seem as though prostitution is unique in that it commodifies aspects of us that should not be commodified. But it seems equally degrading to commodify one`s character traits such as loyalty, leadership or amicability, and yet when people apply for jobs they typically have a list of traits on their resume that they intend to sell to their prospective employer in order to get a job. In this way those who apply for jobs and work in the mainstream post-industrial economy are not merely selling their labour, they are selling themselves. Consequently, just as the sexual aspect of persons should not be commodified, so too it seems that the virtues that people have should not be commodified. It seems deeply demeaning to have to sell traits that are fundamental to who you are in order to get a job. As a result, the romantic critique seems to point to powerful reasons to be suspicious of prostitution, but it also point to the fact that there are other problematic forms of commodification within post-industrial societies like Canada.

The sexual objectification critique also properly sheds light on some of the problematic aspects of prostitution, but it doing so it also points to a broader critique of wage labour. If there is a problem with failing to positively appreciate that sex trade workers are more than sexual objects, than isn`t it also problematic for employers to fail to properly appreciate that their employees are more than a mere paid resource with particular capacities? This latter case seems to be a case of objectification as much as the former case does, and thus it is hard to see why objectifying someone as a sexual object is problematic, while objectifying them as a technical IT resource for instance would not be. We tend to be more comfortable with the latter form of objectification as we actively participate in it, simply by calling someone for IT support, but that does not render it any less of a form of objectification unless we treat the IT worker as more than just a resource that we have to pay. Thus, it seems that the sexual objectification critique points to the fact that wage labour itself is problematic. Thus, it seems that the romantic critique and sexual objectification critique of prostitution actually point towards a broader critique of practises of commodification and wage labour.

If the two critiques elaborated above point towards a broader critique of commodification and wage labour this means that anyone who finds prostitution problematic for the reasons associated with these critiques should also find certain elements of the economic systems of post-industrial society deeply problematic. I am certainly someone who finds both prostitution and many elements of the economic systems of post-industrial societies problematic, but it seems that within our culture there is a general tendency to have disdain for prostitution, while ignoring the fact that many of the reasons behind people’s condemnation of prostitution point to a broader critique of commodification and wage labour. It is important for us to recognize that this perspective is deeply in tension, if not contradictory, and thus problematic.

Advertisements

The Appeal of Amon Amarth – Violence, Independence and Domination

As I was listening to Amon Amarth this past week I began to ponder why a significant portion of the population of post-industrial societies are fascinated by, and drawn to, the brutal way of life of the Vikings, the Huns, and other conquering peoples. The norms of these people are absolutely opposed to our own, in many regards, but yet people seem to be attracted to the way of life that they lead, and furthermore, it does not seem that we simply see it as a manifestation of evil. We might see their way of life as cruel and inhumane, but there is something that we esteem in their way of life.

For those who are unaware Amon Amarth is a melodic death metal band whose lyrics revolve around Norse mythology and the Viking age. In Amon Amarth’s song “Gods of War Arise” they offer a fictional chronicle of Viking raids. At one point in the song the lyrics say:

“Some seek shelter in the church
A refuge for those with faith
But we know how to smoke them out
A pyre will be raised

But those who choose to stand and fight
Will die with dignity
For the unfortunate few who survived
Waits a life in slavery”

This is a very stark statement of the notion that the pursuit of survival for its own sake lacks dignity and that the real “man” is someone who takes what he can get and will fight to the death rather than accept a servile existence.

To some degree it is difficult to take Amon Amarth seriously as their lyrics seem to espouse a “Viking” perspective with such candour, that it is hard to imagine any member of the band actually is endorsing this perspective. Nonetheless, there must be some reason why they chose this topic and why many find their lyrics fascinating. It seems to me that the appeal of their lyrics is a result of a couple of factors.

The first factor seems to be that despite the fact that we are all civilized, polite people we value elements of the brutal way of life that was manifested in the Viking age. One element of the Viking way of life we value might be colloquially known as the value of the “badass.” The badass takes whatever he or she wants and does not cow to anyone’s commands. They are truly self-directing, and because of this they need to have no regard for the claims of justice or public morality. Likewise the Vikings as a people took what they desired to have and did not bow down to anyone. The badass is very spirited and so are the Vikings. The point of this is not necessarily to gather riches or material goods, but rather to be a person or a people whose will does not bend to the will of others. We may not endorse the activities of the badass, but secretly part of us wishes we could be like them. Consequently, the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to at least partially lie in our appreciation of the value of the “badass” as it is manifested through the images of the Vikings that Amon Amarth presents.

However, our appreciation of the value of the “badass” is at odds with the very social norms of our own society. Most people will necessarily have to work within a hierarchical structure, and working in a hierarchical structure encourages compromise and servility. One can only be so authentic when working with superiors who control one’s ability to support oneself. To some degree, we must placate our superiors and censor ourselves to ensure that we have a stable income and a comfortable life. In a sense, the significant group who accept this compromise are like the person who chooses the life of slavery over fighting to the death. They choose survival and existence over independence. In this sense, the value of independence stands in stark contrast to much of life in postindustrial society. This is further supported by the fact that in postindustrial society we acquire goods through commerce and trade, rather than force.

However, while this factor explains part of the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics it does not necessarily explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. For example, in “Gods of War Arise” the vocalist roars

“The day draws to an end
The night comes dark and cold
We return to our ships
With silver, slaves and gold
We gave them agony, as they fell and die
The gods have granted victory
For our sacrifice”

Spiritedness and independence need not take on the violent form that they do in Amon Amarth lyrics. So, we are still are left to explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. These lyrics not only seem to see violence as an important means of the acquisition of property for the Vikings, rather they suggest a kind of glorification of violent conquest as something that is to be valued for its own sake.

While I am not entirely sure why people find the the violent elements of Amon Amarth’s lyrics fascinating it seems to me that the best explanation is provided by the fact that we have an unrecognized desire to dominate over others. This desire is not the dominant desire of humanity, but to deny its existence in the face of human history seems to be questionable. The desire to master others and be a little tyrant whose every wish is obeyed seems to be a natural desire for all human beings. This is evident when we witness the tantrum of a two year old. The two year old who has a tantrum does so because their parents are not obeying them as good subjects should obey a tyrant. In a sense we can overcome the desire to dominate others by discouraging them and encouraging the desire to be seen as an equal rather than a master, but I do not think we can completely escape our desire to dominate over others. Consequently, there is a part of us that will always be attracted to violent domination. There is a reason that video games, films and literature that portray violent domination are often more popular than those that portray ordinary civilized human relationships. Thus, the appeal of the violence of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to lie in this deep seated desire to dominate others. Once again we do not endorse the Vikings brutal domination of others, but on some level we cannot help but being impressed by their ability to dominate their enemies.

The preceding analysis points to a problem for post-industrial societies. That problem is how to deal with our desire for a fierce form of independence and our desire to dominate over others. To some degree we sometimes pretend that these desires don’t exist, but our art and our entertainment seem to suggest that they are very real. Consequently, we cannot simply ignore these desires. Some may wish to try to rid society of these desires, others may want to try to direct them towards something useful, but we must recognize that we have these desires and cautiously consider the dangers these desires pose and how they are best dealt with. It is unclear to me what the best course of action is, but we must begin to think and talk about this side of our nature.

Do businesspeople make good political representatives?

In the context of liberal democratic politics, a candidate running for election often suggests that they are qualified to be a political representative because of their experience as a businessperson. This idea is problematic as the qualities required to be effective in business are distinct from those required to be an effective representative. Similarly, the fact that many people think that the qualities that ensure success in business will ensure that one is an effective political representative is problematic, as it embodies a failure to understand the differences between the purposes and practise of politics and the purposes and practises of business.

The qualities of an effective businessperson and an effective representative differ greatly. The businessperson must work with others, but their goal is singular, given and not amenable to differences of interpretation. That goal is to make the greatest profit that they possibly can for the company that they own, or work for. The goal is singular as there is only one goal. The goal is given as the goal of business is not something that is up for debate; it is inherent to the practise of business itself that its fundamental goal is profit.  The goal is not amenable to differences of interpretation as profit has a single meaning, and it would be bizarre if someone said they disagreed with another person’s interpretation of profit. Consequently, the businessperson is someone who must work to figure out the best means to maximize a goal that is singular, given and not amenable to interpretation.

Contrastingly, the activity of the representative consists in participating in self-government and what the goals of self-government are is up for debate, and the goals of self-government tend to open to differences of interpretation. That the goals of self-government are up for debate becomes clear in that, within a democratic context, different groups contest what goals the government should be promoting. Some tend to favour the promotion of economic growth, while others wish to promote social equity, and other wish to promote individual self-development. There is no obvious, unquestionable goal, or set of goals, that can be taken as the only thing that government should pursue.  Likewise, even the nature of the goals of government themselves are up for debate. Parties of the right and parties of the left in post-industrial countries tend to both see themselves as supporting the goal of ensuring equality of opportunity. But those on the right see equality of opportunity as involving ensuring that there are no legal blockages that prevent people from accessing an opportunity, whereas those on the left tend to see equality of opportunity as requiring a more substantive redistribution of wealth to ensure that the life chances of the less well-off are equivalent to the life chances of the affluent.  In this sense being a political representative requires not only speaking with others about the means to a given end, but also conversing about which particular interpretation of a particular end it makes sense for government to pursue.

It should be noted that while it is plausible to think that self-government has a single goal; it is also plausible to think that self-government has several goals. For example, we might be concerned with fostering social solidarity and community, as well as supporting economic growth. But for the purposes of this blog, I will be agnostic as to whether self-government has one goal or many.

Taking the preceding into account it seems deeply implausible to think that someone who is an effective businessperson will also necessarily be an effective political representative. The goals of business and the goals of self-government differ in quality, and thus in order to be an effective representative one must be able to work with others to make salient points in favour of ends that serve one’s consituent’s interest, and be able to work with one’s equals to come up with a fair compromises to deal with pressing problems. Unfortunately, businesspeople often have neither of these abilities as working in business often does not require one to work with one’s equals as the chain of command in business tends to negate the possibility of having to work with someone who is not one’s inferior or superior. Likewise, businesspeople are not used to articulating why a particular end should be pursued, as this requires a deeply refined understanding of goods (values) and the ability to persuade others of what ends should be pursued, and working in business does not develop these traits. A business person might be able to tell us how to most efficiently bill people for use of public transit, but they have no privilege in claiming that they have a better understanding of the degree to which public transit should be endorsed and supported, than those who are not businesspeople.

What does it say about liberal democracies that if a candidate claims to be a businessperson they are automatically viewed as more qualified to be a political representative by many? It says that the many in this case have failed to understand the difference between politics and business, and are reducing politics to economics, or that the many think that businesspeople will be more effective at getting the government to do what they want. In the former case we have a problem because if politics is reduced to economics in the popular consciousness than we fail to understand that political decisions can undermine certain goods, or give certain goods a preeminence they have never seen before, and if we lose our understanding of this than we cannot adequately take account of all that is at stake in political decision making. If we do not take account of all that is at stake in political decisions than we cannot effectively reflect upon and take responsibility for the decisions that are being made.  In the latter case, we still have a problem because if we merely see our representatives as those that can get the government to do what we want, than we have reduced politics to a war by other means, in which case the common interest could never be adequately served.