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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Bourgeois Imagination and Freedom from Gender Crimes – Limits of a Social Category

- Sanjay Kumar

(This is an expanded version of the article that has appeared in Stree Mukti, February, 2014)

There is a reason crime fiction is one of the most popular genres in bourgeois societies. Nowhere else, except in the equally fictitious assumptions of the Neo-Classical economic theory, is a human being made to appear an isolated individual in her motives and abilities, as completely as in crime fiction. Borrowing from a famous Ibsen play, in crime fiction, ‘a criminal stands most alone at the moment of crime’. Only her/his motives and acts determine the crime. Bourgeois law also assumes the same about criminal guilt, though punishment is often given under the light of ‘mitigating circumstances’, which mostly is a back door for all kinds of class and social prejudices. Among the ideologies that inhabit a society’s discursive world there often is a dominant ideology which mainly reflects imperatives of the prevailing economic and political order. The feudal ideological world is dominated by notions of loyalty, honour, and community, all of which are the essential ideological glue, as well the felt reality of the hierarchical web of a feudal society. Bourgeois society is founded upon private property. Even though their consciousness is socially formed, its members see themselves as formed and ready prior to their social engagements. Their attributes appear to them as their own, inherent qualities. This gives a moral boost to the enjoyment of fruits of private property; that is the charm of bourgeois consciousness. In crime fiction, criminals as sole proprietors of their motives and abilities thrust themselves against social prohibitions in diabolically creative ways. That is its (hidden) charm.


India is passing through a season of gender crimes. An year ago the country was convulsed by a brutal rape on roads of the national capital, and perpetrators have been sentenced to death. A rich and popular godman and his son have been accused of rape by their erstwhile followers, and were arrested only after prolonged drama. A high profile editor is in custody on rape charges. An ex-judge of the Supreme Court is in dock over charges of harassment by a law intern. And most recently, the highest court of the country has declared criminal anybody having the so called ‘un-natural’ sex. While the criminal justice system of the country goes after criminals at its own pace, and in many cases there is a justifiable popular demand for punishment, is it sufficient to focus only on the crime and the criminal, as the mainstream media and legal system do? Are renderings of gender crimes in bourgeois imagination and law, all light, with no shadows and silences? Doubts are not misplaced, because few other kinds of crimes are as social as gender crimes.

There are gender crimes, like homosexuality now in India, that actually are defined and determined solely by social prejudice and legal blindness. The entire spectrum of crimes against women, from unsolicited gestures to rape occur in a patriarchal social context that tells both men and women not only what their normalised roles are, but also what transgressions are permitted and are to be tolerated. It is highly unlikely that Mr Tarun Tejpal would decide to assault a woman solely on the spur of the moment. His motives must have had a history. Decades of his interactions with women and men, in social circles he moved and ascended, must also be behind his decision to assault. We have to ask what kind of schools, colleges, and professional institutions create and encourage men like Mr Tejpal, or Justice Ganguly. What kind of gendered life do these institutions inculcate? And, since it so often happens in the case of socially powerful men accused of sexual assault, that their wife and daughters turn out to be their most strident defendants, we need to explore the nature of Indian family too for their bizarre response.

After the December 2012 rape many journalists had visited the slum in South Delhi where rapists lived. They interviewed their families and neighbours. Many commentators from the left and left-liberal perspectives attempted to make sense of that ghastly crime through an understanding of the alienation and everyday violence of Delhi slums. No one has tried doing that in the case of Mr Tejpal or Justice Ganguly. Is it only because the Decemeber 2013 rape was a shocker, while we feel that the alleged crimes of these two gentlemen are not so ‘big’. Or, is there a class prejudice at work here? We need to ponder over it. In terms of the dominant bourgeois ideology, the influence, affluence and social power of these gentlemen are what we all should respect and aspire for. Is the reluctance to explore the social bases of their crimes related to uncomfortable questions it may force us to face about the social world we inhabit? When we pass through posh localities of the rich and the powerful in Indian cities, or stand facing portals of powers like the Supreme Court, what are our thoughts? Are we ready to ask what kind of lives men and women behind those high walls and pillars lead that breed gender crimes? Bourgeois ideology and law structurally discourage us from asking such questions when they limit their curiosity to sleazy personal details, the singularity of the crime, and individual culpability. It is okay to ask similar questions regarding criminals and their social base about Others of the bourgeois ideology; the poor slum dwellers who are petty criminals, rapists or become mafia dons, the adivasis who become Maoists, or young Muslim men who become terrorists. The same exercise regarding the rich and the powerful is an excluded territory. Are transformative ideologies and practices like Feminism, going to ignore, or worse show discrete respect to the shut doors and windows of bourgeois ideology and law? Are we ready to explore the uncharted terrain of disruptive questions?

New Incubators of Gender Crimes

Consider the moral economy of the neo-liberal socio economic order and its possible linkages to gender crimes. Neo liberalism has brought about a fundamental and irreversible change in India. Outside the narrow patriarchal and feudal environs of their families and communities, the worlds of education, employment, professional work, leisure and travel are drawing large number of women in public domain. Women from working classes, or dalit castes have always been spending a significant part of their daily lives in work spaces outside their households. What is different about recent changes is that one, now more and more women from the middle strata of the society are also coming out, and two, whereas the public work space of working class women was largely gender segregated earlier, the environs women are joining now are mixed gendered. There are more possibilities of across gender interactions which were strictly prohibited by Indian families and communities. When describing the new Indian woman, the media often presents English medium educated affluent women clothed in Western attire as its symbol. Actually, the physiotherapy student from a working class neighbourhood, who was raped and murdered in national capital last December while returning home after watching a movie with a male friend, more accurately describes the new Indian woman, both demographically and the kind of challenges she faces.

The neo-liberal political economy has entailed extension and deepening of market relations. Competition, valorization of success and aggression are its important impacts on human subjectivity. Another dimension is the contradictory process of commodification, which leads to both desire and alienation. A very visible arena here is the commodification of human appearance, particularly of young womens’ bodies. Another aspect of neo-liberalism in India is that competitive aggression and commodification of women’s bodies are occurring in a social context which has severely lacked even the elementary democratic norm of respecting other humans’ individuality and rights. Hence, it is not surprising that the mix of aggression, celebration of instant gratification, increased public presence of the female body as an object of male desire, and the absence of respect for others’ rights, is proving to be a dangerous cocktail feeding directly into violence against women. Other effects of neo-liberalism result from the changing nature of work spaces. While the absence of employment security in neo-liberal work spaces is widely recognised, it is little appreciated that these also actively discourage development of a feeling of association among workers due to very individuated monitoring and reward systems. While the system exerts its brute power on every employee, it also selectively extracts consent through the lure of success.

Now, consider the possible impact of neo-liberal tendencies on something as fundamentally human as romance. Flirtation is an integral part of romance. Here, between a clear No and a clear Yes, there is a significant gray zone. When the context is purely of two individuals, perhaps this zone is a necessity for as complex and deep an emotion as sexual love. It is here that transgressions with uncertain outcomes occur, which create novelty in the relationship and contribute to emotional bonding. However, when there is agential asymmetry between men and women, men being the ones who take the initiative, and women being ones who just agree, or disagree, or scheme behind the scene, then the gray zone between a clear yes and a clear no is also a breeding ground for harassment and crime. Further, when the context of flirtation is not just two individuals, but a neo-liberal work space, gender asymmetry is exacerbated due to the structural threat of unemployment, professional ambitions, and a competitive environment. Here, the condition faced by most women is intensely conflictual in the absence of clarity regarding what is permitted and what is to be tolerated. When the law intern in Justice Ganguly case, or the young journalist in Mr Tejpal’s case files a complaint, only then the bourgeois media and legal justice system notice a crime. However, the social context of the behaviour of these two men is precisely this, that for one woman who files a complaint against harassment, there are perhaps ten who do not. Are we to accept the line that as long as there is no complaint, transgressions are individual details, fit for work place gossip, nothing more? Bourgeois morality and law make the decision of clear refusal to a transgression an individual choice. Which in fact is a very clever way of passing on the burden of taking a decision to an individual worker for pressures that essentially emanate from the neo-liberal work space. For, the very fact that only one among ten women files a complaint is related to the intrinsic nature of neo-liberal work space, its push for commodification of human body (make up, appearance, dress), its insecurity, discouragement of any association among workers, and its insidious system of individual monitoring and rewards.

Feminist understandings developed in response to patriarchal social control in family, community, and state, are insufficient to confront the core thrust of neo-liberalism. Neo liberal patriarchy is not strait jacketed. It offers multiple avenues of professional success and achievement, even sexual freedom. Indra Nooyi, Serena Williams, or Madonna would not have been possible earlier. In a way they have all ridden on the achievements of the feminist struggles of the earlier era. Neo liberalism has well digested the message of individual freedom, and has opened up many places of personal choice. Then, what is left for feminism? A mop up job, to help percolate advances in women’s rights and opportunities accessible in affluent societies and classes to the badlands of the Third World! Or, is there something off with the very nature of freedoms offered by neo-liberalism? And, what of the bondage, like that of an air hostess expected to smile at every passenger, or of a sales woman working at minimum wage at the cosmetic counter of an expensive shopping mall? Are we to buy the neo-liberal claim that her condition ultimately is a matter of her choice? Like crime fiction and bourgeois law, neo-liberal moral world suppresses the social; even while its freedoms are socially structured, to its inhabitants they appear socially neutral. All ideologies play such tricks. It is impossible to imagine the world of neo-liberal freedoms from the vantage points of feudal ideology. Yet the neo-liberal world is very much here. Can we imagine an alternate world, consciously built upon the recognition of the social among human relations, which is as difficult to imagine from bourgeois locations, as is the latter from feudal locations?

A Peek into the Beyond

While discussing the morality of sexual relations in nascent socialism, Lenin in a conversation with Klara Zetkin uses a gem of a dialectical comment that goes like: "Don’t be a Don Juan, nor a monk, not also anything else in between like a German philistine." An evolved, organic and well functioning social system offers humans a welter of possibilities, not only the two extremes in apparent contradiction but also every possibility in between. Yet, that precisely is the key to the structure of freedom on offer. What is common to a Don Juan, a monk and ‘anything else in between’ whose negation Lenin sees as essential to imagine love in socialism? Taking the cue from another direction, if Sartre’s claim from the center of the bourgeois civilisation in Paris, ‘Hell is other people’ is even half way on the mark, then what is the point of love (under bourgeois order)?

Try to imagine a work space where men and women are not employees, competing for boss’ favour, but a group of associated producers (a phrase from Communist Manifesto) who form their own work rules . Romance and flirtation will occur in such work spaces too. But their nature would be different. Romance here won’t be forced, induced or simulated, because nobody is on anybody’s beck and call, and the lure of success in a profession would not come along with the threat of unemployment. Such a place may or may not have hideaways for lovers, but certainly there would be no cabins for bosses, or hotel rooms (as in Justice Ganguly’s case) where a boss could call a young woman employee, simply because there would be no bosses. More subtle differences from the neo-liberal work places would be in the nature of inter personal relationships. When co-workers are not competitors, and there is little threat of unemployment, actions felt as harassment will be readily brought to everyone’s notice. The line between flirtation and harassment will not be interpreted flexibly according to individual convenience, but will be a matter of common concern. Entirely new avenues of inter-personal relationships open up in a society where other humans are not mere means, or adversaries. Aggression, humiliation, and shame, very common in bourgeois environment will be rare; perhaps even the feeling of possession. Others will be sought not because of what they can provide, or what can be extracted from them. The social would appear very different when viewed as flows across humans, rather than from the point of view of self-maximising individuated centers. In such a world, romance or love would be conscious ventures in conjoined freedoms.
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Sanjay Kumar is associated with New Socialist Initiative (NSI). He teaches Physics at St. Stephens' College, University of Delhi.

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