Two years ago, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, and then the Presidency of the United States, against all expectations. It was an unmistakable sign of the crisis gripping the twin parties of capitalist rule in the world’s greatest imperialist power. The Republican Party divided over accepting Trump as their candidate, since he was clearly not a product of the party machine but a Bonapartist personality appended to it. The Democratic Party was even more sharply divided and crisis-wracked – the outcome of the presidential election was Hillary Clinton’s loss rather than Trump’s win. While to some extent the Republican Party has come to accept Trump and rally behind him in the two years since then, the Democratic Party remains deeply divided. The twin parties of bourgeois rule – the solid rock on which electoral politics has rested since the rise of the Republican Party in the years leading up to the Civil War – have been shattered, and popular confidence in their ability to lead the nation irreparably eroded. Electoral stability is unlikely to be regained any time soon.
With the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, this crisis has spread to engulf another central institution of bourgeois political rule: the Supreme Court itself. The basis of the spreading crisis is that the Kavanaugh hearing unequivocally demonstrated the fact that the political and justice system at its highest levels is unable and unwilling to deal with the question of the pervasive violence against women in capitalist society. From the moment when Christine Blasey Ford made her highly credible accusation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, that was the question that gripped the nation: how was the Senate going to respond? Would there be a serious investigation of her accusations? Would it affect the vote on the Kavanaugh nomination?
The answer to all of those questions was: No. The practice that has prevailed up to now, where women who report sexual violence to the police and other authorities are routinely disparaged, ridiculed, mocked, blamed, humiliated, threatened, accused of lying, and above all, ignored – this practice would continue unchanged. To make that fact abundantly clear, the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, personally led the campaign of ridicule against the woman accuser, mocking her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee for the amusement of a large audience. A more contemptible instance of rightist, anti-woman demagogy in US politics would be hard to find.
Trump’s tirade against Blasey Ford brought to mind a memory of my own from around the same time. In the middle 1980s I was working at a factory where there was an unusually high proportion of young workers, the majority women, most about 18 to 25, with a smaller layer of older workers. This workforce had an active social life – frequent socials and private parties, with a lot of heavy drinking and associated sexual activity. I remember that at one of these parties a young woman drank so much she could hardly stand up, and her friend took her to a quiet room to lie down on a bed and sleep it off.
Some time later I heard the friend yelling at the top of her voice – she had gone to check on her comatose friend, and found a man lying on top of her with his hands under her clothing. The would-be rapist was told to leave the party, by general agreement, but it never occurred to anyone that this was a serious sexual assault and attempted rape that should be reported to the police. This is what I clearly remember: the identity of the would-be rapist and of the friend who interrupted the rape. They were both workmates and known to me already. I don’t think I ever knew the name of the woman who was assaulted; she was not already known to me at the time.
I remember some of the things people said as we discussed the incident after the would-be rapist had been thrown out. I particularly remember one woman saying “I can’t stand it when guys do that” (meaning, when they try to have sex with comatose women at parties.) I must have given the standard ‘not all guys’ response, because I also remember her politely insisting that this was something that ‘guys do.’
Where was the party? Somewhere in Wellington or the Hutt Valley. How did I get there? I don’t know. How did I get home? Don’t know. Where in the house did the assault take place – upstairs, downstairs? Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know. Of course I don’t remember those trivial and irrelevant details; what I remember was what mattered at the time.
The Supreme Court is one of the pillars of bourgeois rule in the United States. Every individual who serves on that Court, ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ alike, is without exception a member of the bourgeoisie with a proven record of loyalty to their class. The working class and the oppressed have no interest whatever in the question of which particular individuals get appointed to the Court, nor in the process, nor the criteria by which the ruling class decides who is a suitable candidate to defend their class interests. A working class government would sack all nine members – for life.
Yet liberal illusions persist that this institution rises ‘above politics’ as a kind of neutral arbiter and check on political power. These illusions, and the intense political campaigning that surrounds new nominations to the Court, commonly relate to the Court’s past ‘progressive’ rulings, sometimes described by opponents of these rulings as the Court’s ‘judicial activism.’ Examples of such rulings include the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling which struck down Jim Crow segregation in public education, and by implication all de jure segregation, as well as the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which ruled unconstitutional many federal and state laws criminalising or restricting women’s access to abortion. The argument goes that since these ‘landmark’ rulings of the Court established important rights by a majority vote of the Court, a conservative majority on the Court could overturn these rights. That fear was explicitly cited in relation to Roe v. Wade in the campaign to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination.
That argument turns on its head the true relation of the Court to political struggle and the class relationship of forces. The Court does not drive political change, but responds to it. Real political change begins in the streets and factories, in popular mobilisations and strike struggles. In 1954 the Court was responding to changes that were already afoot: battles waged by Black soldiers to desegregate the army during World War 2, the participation of Black workers in the massive post-World-War-2 strike wave (as a result of their integration into the industrial working class and the industrial unions through the great northward migration), and above all, to the colossal mobilisations of peoples of colour the world over in the greatest anti-colonial revolution in history. In making its ‘progressive’ ruling against Jim Crow segregation, the Court was both recognising the changed class relationship of forces and seeking to head off and demobilise these popular struggles. It was attempting to turn the working class and its allies to look toward the institutions of capitalist rule for change – unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
Likewise it was with the Roe v. Wade ruling, albeit a somewhat more pre-emptive move: the mobilisations of women fighting for reproductive rights were already in motion; the ruling of the Supreme Court simply registered that fact, and attempted – again, unsuccessfully – to head off further mobilisations. It was the great marches and battles of the civil rights movement that defeated Jim Crow, and the mass women’s mobilisations of the 1970s that won abortion rights, not the court rulings in either case. By the same token, the failure to mobilise in their defence, the fixation with electoral campaigns and court rulings in substitution for mobilisations, is what has permitted the erosion of these rights.
The lobbying against Kavanaugh in the Senate Judiciary Committee was entirely within the framework of that same Democratic-Party-led drive to pre-empt mobilisations of women fighting for their rights, and to convince them to pin their hopes to engineering a liberal majority on the Supreme Court and Democratic Party electoral victories.
As far as I can tell from this distance, the same is true of the demonstrations of frustration at the doors of these institutions that followed Kavanaugh’s appointment. Demonstrators chanting “November is coming” are once again heading up the blind alley of electoralism, following the false lead of the Democratic Party. Those carrying banners saying ‘Believe all women’ are joining a campaign which threatens the vital right of the presumption of innocence. (One need only recall the hideous 1993 frame-up of child-care worker Peter Ellis, carried out under the slogan ‘Believe the children,’ to see where that slogan could lead.)
Nor were the supporters of Kavanaugh any less hypocritical and false in their defence of the presumption of innocence. Trump shows little concern for the presumption of innocence when he leads chants of ‘Lock Her Up’ – referring to Hillary Clinton, who has never been convicted of a crime. We should also recall that Trump took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty to be used against the Central Park Five, Black teenagers who were framed in 1989 for the rape of a jogger in Central Park in New York. Even after the frame-up unraveled, and the five exonerated, Trump kept insisting that they were guilty.
Neither faction in this debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee merited working class support – neither the Democrats falsely and hypocritically posing as defenders of women (while actually attacking the presumption of innocence), nor the Republicans falsely and hypocritically posing as defenders of the presumption of innocence (while actually attacking women). It was their appointment, their crisis, their institutions broken and discredited, and it would be a mistake for us – the working class and the oppressed – to try to offer them advice on how to resolve it.
What is needed instead is a return to the movement in the streets. That hasn’t happened yet, but it may not be far off.
#MeToo is sometimes called a ‘movement,’ but that is inaccurate. It has not yet coalesced into anything that could rightly be called a social or political movement, and to call it that now only raises expectations that it could not possibly deliver. #MeToo is better described as an open and continuing discussion – a much-needed and long-overdue discussion on the pervasiveness of violence against women, and how it keeps all women in a state of terror and subjugation even in situations where there is no actual violence. (For an interesting example of how this works, see this Twitter thread about how the simple business of selling a household appliance on the internet turns out for one woman.) I don’t know if it is ever possible to measure such things – or whether such comparisons really matter – but it seems to me that #MeToo is both deeper and wider than any previous discussion of these matters in history, including during the period of the second wave of feminism. The Kavanaugh appointment deepens this discussion still further.
There are historical precedents, and one that comes to mind is the Abolitionist-led discussion on slavery, its brutally oppressive nature and fundamental immorality, that raged in the United States from the 1830s to the Civil War, a period long enough for the discussion to develop its own periodicals, printing presses, and literature (the single best-known piece being Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is still read today.) After some time this discussion did coalesce into a powerful revolutionary movement, but in the early stages the discussion was wide-ranging and disparate, giving voice to many contradictory class viewpoints, from the sentimental-reactionary aristocratic kind like that of Harriet Beecher Stowe, which appealed to Christian love against slavery, to those who looked to the courts of law and capitalist political parties for change, all the way through to the revolutionary-plebeian voices like those of former slave Frederick Douglass and the great revolutionary warrior John Brown. That discussion was the indispensable prelude to the revolutionary struggle that followed.
In 1857, as this discussion was intensifying, the United States Supreme Court was called upon to rule in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which Scott, a slave who had traveled with his owner to states where slavery was prohibited, sued his owner for his freedom in a series of courts over a period of ten years. The Supreme Court came down firmly on the side of slavery, ruling that all descendants of African slaves “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” It was the Supreme Court’s final word on the matter, and it cut the ground from under the feet of all who looked to the courts for an end to slavery. It would require a revolutionary war to overturn the decision; the Civil War opened six years later.
The events surrounding the Kavanaugh appointment signal in a similarly unequivocal fashion that the neither the Supreme Court, nor the Senate, nor the White House, nor either of the twin bourgeois parties have either the ability or the will to address the question of the pervasive violence against women. Quite the contrary. The conclusions drawn by those who seek to put an end to this violence, and the subjugation of women which it perpetuates, must be similar to those drawn by the abolitionists in the wake of the Dred Scott decision.