Voluntaryism is the belief that whatever people voluntarily agree to is inherently good, regardless of what that agreement actually is. People don’t tend to follow it to its logical conclusion, as few voluntaryists would say that, for instance, slave contracts should be allowed. Voluntaryists don’t usually identify as voluntaryists, but they follow various schools, most likely capitalists and “anarcho-capitalism,” Libertarianism, and sometimes liberals (although liberals tend to be voluntaryists only on social issues).
I have written numerous entries against voluntaryism and its logical consequences. This may seem like a strange, overly abstract target. The reason why I attack voluntaryism so much is because we need to strike at the roots that support the institutionalized evils around us, and voluntaryism is one of those roots.
I think radical feminism is an eloquent confirmation of that fact. When radical feminists address issues such as femininity, sexism, porn, prostitution, the rape culture, and so on, their opponents will without fail invoke some form of voluntaryism as a counter-argument. As I’ve seen it happen again and again, it usually goes something like this:
RF: “Pornography participates to the objectification of women and the molding of women’s sexuality to the requirements of men’s orgasms. It also contributes to the rape culture. Pornography is an obstacle to feminism as a whole.”
FF: “I watch pornography and I’m a feminist! How can you say that’s bad or anti-feminist? The pornography I like is the one where female sexuality is respected. So you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
RF: “I’m not saying what you should or should not do. I’m stating facts about pornography as an industry and as a force against women’s interests. The fact that you watch pornography is not anti-feminist, but you can’t claim it’s feminist, either.”
FF: “You’re trying to tell me what to do, you fascist! I can be a feminist and do whatever turns me on! Stop shaming me!”
Having read an innumerable number of comments threads on various radfem blogs, I can tell you that this is actually not much of an exaggeration. The same exact voluntaryist arguments are used than for capitalism, just in a different context. So it seems there is at least some connection. Nine Deuce, of Rage Against the Man-chine, operates under the thesis that there are three stages of reasoning about radfem issues:
1. Reactionary: People who have absorbed what the patriarchy has to teach about women’s sexual suboordination are frightened by women exercising their sexuality and voicing their desires, so they attempt to shame women who transgress patriarchal norms to force them back into line.
2. Libertarian: Anyone with a brain can see that’s bullshit, so many women have fought for our right to participate in and enjoy sex without the fear of recrimination. That’s a good thing, but women’s sexual liberation has yet to be achieved, and sexual libertarianism has led to some problematic ways of looking at things. Many women have absorbed the idea that women’s sexual liberation is the goal, and then have gone on to assume that any sex act a woman might want to participate in is liberating and thus unproblematic and/or unassailable.
3. Liberationist: It is taken for granted that women ought to be free to express and explore their sexuality, but that does not mean that sex is a sacred cow and that we have no right to question the morality of a sexual behavior. Does a sex act hinder the cause of women’s wholesale sexual liberation or the progress toward women’s legal, social, and cultural liberation? Does it pose the risk of harm to individual women? A sexual Liberationist would never argue that a sex act ought to be banned or that women ought to not be allowed to participate in whatever activities they deem appropriate, but she might question the choice to do so and the impact that choice has on women as a whole. With freedom comes responsibility, blah blah.
In political terms, “libertarian” is voluntaryism, and “Liberationist” is libsoc or libertarian in the Anarchist sense. Not much difference there, and the schemes of thinking are very similar. Egalitarian concerns as a bulwark against capitalistic voluntaryism is strongly analogous to radical feminist concerns as a bulwark against sexual voluntaryism.
My main criticism of voluntaryism is that it assumes actions exist in a vacuum. Like the political Libertarians, sexual libertarians can only arrive at their positive conclusions about “laissez-faire”/sexual liberation by completely omitting the institutions which embody past coercion and continue to exploit these “liberated” individuals and the energy they devote to “make the best out of it.”
There is of course a lot of intersection between sexual exploitation and economic exploitation. Many women enter prostitution because of the fact that women suffer more from unemployment, are paid less, and the fact that approximately one female child out of five is sexually abused in North America, making them more vulnerable to sex traffickers. These are all directly or indirectly the result of economic inequality.
So there is this personal/political dichotomy that we have to be very much aware of. Now granted, the personal is the political, and the political is the personal, and there’s not too much point in distinguishing the two as concepts. But there is clearly a difference between putting all the blame on a woman who works in pornography and putting the blame on pornography as an institution which exploits women, objectifies them, and reduces their sexuality to that of men. It’s more of a blame dichotomy, or a responsibility dichotomy, or a cause and effect dichotomy (“the political causes the personal”), than an ontological one (“the personal is not the political”).
There’s absolutely no point in blaming women who work for the interests of the patriarchy, as they usually have very good reasons for doing so. Those motives are constructed by the patriarchy itself, and their work serves to further bolster said motives for other women. But by far the most important cause and effect relations are between patriarchal institutions and incentive systems, and between incentive systems and individual decisions. Any given women only adds a tiny bit of credibility to the patriarchy, but the patriarchy is in a great part responsible for any given woman’s choice.
Anti-theist, socialist, antinatalist or feminist, every individual has to decide how best to deal with a corrupt society on a long-term basis. What we attack is that corruption, not the individual. This never stops people from claiming that we want to tell them what to do. This is based on the implicit belief that telling people what they shouldn’t do represents a real harm to those people. But this is a strange belief. If person A thinks person B shouldn’t do something, should A not tell B? If A is right, then ey is doing a service to B. If A is not right, or the issue is not an ethical one, then ey is merely expressing an opinion, which should be seen as such.
This is a point I seem to have to repeat over and over: we most certainly do want to tell people what they shouldn’t do. We definitely want to tell people not to kill each other, and we’ll go to great lengths to prevent them from doing so. We definitely want to tell people not to lie to each other for profit, or break someone’s legs, or stalk them and make them live in fear. To go towards more feminist topics, we also definitely want to tell people that they shouldn’t sexually harass women, sexually assault women, or rape women. So I don’t think any Libertarian “feminist” has a leg to stand on as regards to “not telling people what they shouldn’t do.”
One may argue that the things I listed are, in fact, illegal. So what? Laws are written by the power elite for the power elite. This can be somewhat reduced to saying that laws are written by men and for men, although they are written against men as well as against women (and no, I am not aiming for a “the patriarchy hurts men too” argument… no offense, but it’s just a laughable argument in my opinion). One should not see the rule of law as a feminist construct, especially when it’s always been used, and is still used, as a way for men to oppress women. That makes about as much sense as gay people defending organized Christianity or black people defending the Drug War; and before you start flaming me, note that the irony that these things actually happen does not escape me… and no, I am not blaming them for what they do, although I do blame them for deploying illogical or unethical arguments.
There is an even deeper problem with the voluntaryist argument, and that’s the confusion between voluntary and consensual. Here’s a discussion of this on Womononajourney:
In reality, consent is something people lower in the hierarchy give to people higher in the hierarchy all the time. For example, we may “consent” to the TSA screening system at the airports in Amerika, but that’s only because if we don’t go through them (or “consent” to be patted down by a stranger), we will not be able to fly.
Think about other times you have to give your consent. Just by being born in a specific location at a certain time, you are “consenting” to a specific legal system… one you did not create, and that may not have been created by anyone who resembled you in terms of sex, race, and/or ethnicity…
The people who having their homes taken out from under them because of an inability to pay, “consented,” to pay a certain amount over a specific period. yet, I don’t hear too many progressives faulting them for “consenting” to payment and not being able to follow through with it. Guess consent isn’t so sexy when the ones being fucked over are men.
This brings up again the point of the law being a tool of oppression used against women, which I think is very important. The age of consent draws a line beyond which anything that happens is your fault, making it possible for prostitution activists to draw a line between child trafficking and “normal” prostitution:
People chose though, before and after those in-between years, whether I was blameless or blameworthy. In the interim, while I existed in the in-between, each individual who looked at me or fucked me had the privilege of making up their own mind. Many did, and most chose the latter.
After that, when I was identifiably a woman, it was not a case of ‘most’ anymore, but ‘almost all’ – because almost all those who looked at me in my young adulthood decided that I’d chosen what was happening, and saw it as what I was doing rather than what was being done to me.
The ‘done to me’ aspect died, you see, along with my adolescence in the perspectives of other people. The problem was it didn’t die, and I was still alive, living the ‘done to me’ reality every day.
It also brings out the confusion between something being voluntary and something being consensual. As I’ve discussed before, consent is a much, much more specific criterion than voluntary agreement. To take one example from above:
by being born in a specific location at a certain time, you are “consenting” to a specific legal system
Note the quotes around “consenting” here, which are quite appropriate. At the most, we can be said to agree to a specific legal system by virtue of acquiescing to its representatives (cops, judges, jailers, etc), but consent with any such monopoloid legal system, one which we not only did not create but had absolutely no hand in and towards which we have no alternatives, is literally and completely impossible. The example of a justice system is perhaps not the best, since its legitimacy is said to derive from an ownership claim on us, not on agreement at all, but I hope you get the gist of what I am talking about here.
Capitalism works and adapts itself by commodifying (and thereby profiting from) everything it can, including that which initially opposes it. We can see this process of absorption and regurgitation all throughout the history of capitalism, including unions and labor in general, warmongering, fascism and patriotism, the free press, rebellious music styles, and nowadays environmentalism, the Internet, anti-sexism, “fair trade” and “organic foods,” just to name these.
So are love and sexuality. A loving relation and a healthy sexuality by themselves are threatening to the capitalist order because they form a closed, self-defining, self-sufficient circle. In order for capitalism to function, it must constantly penetrate closed systems (whether cultures, sub-cultures, or direct relations) and permeate them with material desires. The traditional ways to smash the circle of love and sexuality are through the institution of marriage and its association with material success, mandatory or strongly encoureged procreation, and by giving men an ownership claim over women. Nowadays the latter is no longer acceptable, but pornography, prostitution, the rape culture, and so on, reinforce men’s biological desire to objectify women and constitute a more implicit, but probably as powerful, ownership claim over women.
It is probable that these things would still exist in a socialist economy, but it’s hard to imagine that they would exist in the same form. Imagine, for instance, that the women who work in pornography get an equal say (or more say- after all, they are the ones actually doing it) in what gets filmed than the men behind the camera. Would we still see as many cumshots to the face, anal sex, sexual slurs against women, women getting dick-slapped, simulated rape, underage porn, etc etc? I really don’t think so.
Capitalism does, however, provide funfems with an argument, which is that some women do these things willingly and make a lot of money from it. As Mary Tracy pointed out, and I thought this was a great insight on her part, if someone was to argue with a group of Marxists by saying “well capitalism is great because it allows some workers to make a lot of money,” ey would rightly be laughed out of the room. The fact that an unethical and competitive system deigns to crown a few winners does not justify the existence of that system. Some fucked up, abused little six year old girl will win the pageant, but that doesn’t make the pageant wonderful.
In capitalist thought, this is related to the myth of the heroic entrepreneur who is “rewarded” by the market for eir downright ascetic self-denial in saving enough money and eir skillful exploitation of eir fellow humans by ever-increasing profit margins. The entrepreneur is the capitalist’s idea of a winner as well as a justification for the losers, who just weren’t ascetic or skillful enough. Social Darwinism ho!
When one pushes back on these “feminists” or any other person on the margins of an ideology, one is bound to get the inevitable backlash of “who are you to tell me what feminism is about?” They want feminism to be purely about allowing individual women’s choices. In my entry “Anomie is tyranny,” I point out that this can only lead to the rule of the most powerful, in this case, the most powerful institutions that have an effect on women’s choices. To flip the maxim around, what we refuse to see is what can most hurt us, because we have no defenses against it. Acting as if the patriarchy doesn’t exist makes you all the more vulnerable to its baleful effects.
There may be some connection between this and positive thinking/Panglossian thinking. It’s understandable that these women don’t want to think about how they are exploited and vilified on a daily basis, so they just ignore it and hope that there actually is equality and that there’s really nothing to worry about. Voluntaryism does slip rather easily into “the bliss of ignorance” and then further into outright Stockholm-like identification with our oppressors, and this happens in feminism as well.
The key word in our opponents’ arsenal is “agency.” Standard sociological theories define agency and structure as two countervailing forces, the former being the capacity of individuals to make their own “free choices” (free will), and the latter being the limits on those “free choices” imposed by social patterns. So the word “agency” is the banner behind which they rally.
There is no such thing as a “free choice,” and the residual of social patterns is not choice but rather genetics. So whatever is labeled “agency” can be more accurately described as the result of genetic diversity in humans. There is no fundamental opposition between these forces, as all social patterns are ultimately the product of the interactions of beings possessing human genetics. Where the opposition occurs is when the interests of people clash in a stratified class society (e.g. workers v property owners, slaves and abolitionists v slaveowners, women v misogynists, or, more individually, the clash between an inferior and a superior), and the issue is a solely structural one of class pitted against class.
So even in individual cases, agency is not relevant. All acts are political acts, all issues are structural, all personal problems are ultimately the result of institutional failures. To promote people’s agency is gibberish insofar as it does not designate an actual phenomenon. No one freely chooses anything. The “voluntaryist” attitude only serves to divert attention from the structures which provide negative incentives to people, and therefore perpetuate inequality, crime and slavery.
Also, concentrating solely on agency ultimately leads to blaming the victim. While, for example, funfems would vehemently deny that they are blaming the victims (and accusing people like me of doing so), this is a projection. And this can be seen in how they treat the prostitution issue: funfem believe that women who get raped in prostitution are not really being raped (but rather being not!raped) because they chose to become prostitutes, and we have to respect their choice (to get not!raped). Likewise, workers who have to take on dangerous or psychologically degrading jobs in order to survive are merely expressing their agency through the Almighty Free Market (Praise Be Upon It), which is merely an aggregate of choices. The victims, therefore, must be blamed for making choices which led to their not!rape or their psychological degradation. There is only one small step from that to blaming female rape victims for choosing to be drunk or choosing to wear short skirts, or blaming people for choosing to remain on welfare.
I’ve concentrated on feminism as one counterpoint, but voluntaryism is not just an opposition to feminism. It is also, for instance, an opposition to atheism. One of the claims made about God, and perhaps the most egregious example of religious insanity, is that whatever God declares good, in his subjective opinion, is good, regardless of what it is. But voluntaryists preach that whatever an individual wants to do should be permitted. I find it hard to see any difference between that and saying that the individual declares what is good for emself based on eir own subjective opinion.
It may be that when Christians accuse atheists of being autotheists (belief that one is god), this is what they have in mind. Well, I can’t speak for them. But I certainly think that voluntaryism comes dangerously close to autotheism. Insofar as voluntaryists claim that any person’s subjective opinion must be respected above and beyond the facts, they are putting that person in a God-like position. Granted, they are not saying that we should all obey everyone’s ideal of what morality is, which would be self-contradictory, but they are saying that the individual’s subjective evaluation of eir own actions trump the facts of the matter (some may argue that there are no “facts of the matter” when talking about morality, but this is a rather bizarre sort of statement which is easily disproven).
Arguing against voluntaryism within such a broad scope is difficult because the voluntaryist ideology is widely associated with self-ownership and freedom (“my body” -> “my choice” -> “freedom to act”). Therefore, anyone who argues against voluntaryism is believed to be arguing against freedom. But it should be clear to anyone who’s interested in freedom that voluntaryism clearly goes against said freedom when it sustains the existence of institutions which attack it. Free market capitalism is “voluntaryist” but it is not “freedom.” The patriarchy is “voluntaryist” but it is not “freedom,” at least not for women.
We see echoes here of the distinction between voluntary and consensual: the former is atomistic and the latter is systemic. This is not too surprising because consensus and freedom are necessary for each other. Voluntaryism presents itself as an ideology of freedom but, by removing systemic analysis from the ethical equation and only considering the individual’s actions faced with an abstracted context, supports the dominant worldview. Once again, my entry “Anomie is tyranny” gives a full explanation of this phenomenon.