Posts from May 2004

Why We Marched

Minor updates 2004-06-02: typos fixed.

Well, it has been about a month since the March on Washington; and what better time, I ask you, than a month after the March, to post some photos? It’s also been about a month since I promised I would return to the topic of abortion, democracy, and the courts. And what better time to respond to an argument than a month after you have said you would?

Thus, I intend to do both. Let’s begin.


The day before: the barricades go up in front of the Capitol…

About a month ago, about 1.15 million of us marched to defend a woman’s right to abortion. Specifically, we marched–at least most of us did–to support the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade and to oppose the Bush administration’s on-going war to undermine, and perhaps eventually reverse, that landmark achievement in the government’s recognition of women’s rights.

One of the more weaselly rhetorical maneuvers that some anti-abortionists make is to complain about the centrality of Roe to our political demands. By relying on the Court’s nullification of nearly all state abortion laws in Roe, and by working to defend the decision from being overturned, we are–the argument goes–guilty of sanctioning and escalating something called judicial activism (or, more extravagantly, judicial tyranny). The pro-choice movement, it is claimed, is playing dirty pool by bypassing the democratic process in order to force our favored policy on abortion from the federal bench–rather than working through democratic procedures on a state-by-state basis. And that is, we are told, a dangerous compromise of both federalism and the separation of powers between the legislature and the judiciary.

Now, I say the argument is weaselly because it’s almost never put forward out of any principled concern for the separation of powers or political decentralization–as is well-demonstrated by the fact that the very same people who advance the argument rarely have any qualms about standing behind federal bans on specific abortion procedures, a Human Life Amendment to the federal Constitution that would impose an abortion ban on all 50 states, or judicial activism that happens to suit their policy prescriptions on abortion. It’s an argument almost always advanced out of sheer opportunism; anti-choicers want the abortion debate to devolve to the States only because, and to the degree that, devolving it ensures that they’ll pick up a few along the way (ie, most of the Deep South and the inland West, and probably Michigan and much of the Midwest, too). That said, being weaselly is not the same as being unsound; it’s a property of the arguer, not the argument. And so even a weaselly argument might be a good argument–although it cannot be a good argument for a weasel who advances it even though s/he is unwilling to own up consistently to its premises. So, in the spirit of interpretive charity, let’s look at the charge and what we ought to say about it now that we have sat down from the march and have some time to talk.


The morning of: preparing signs (that’s yours truly; photo by L.)

The signs we ended up with were: Pro-Life? If abortion is outlawed, women will die; Radical Feminism: because your body belongs to you, not to Jerry Falwell (or Randall Terry); and ABORTION ON DEMAND AND WITHOUT APOLOGY!.

What’s the charge of judicial activism supposed to mean? Well, the argument, apparently, is that abortion is a matter properly dealt with as it was before Roe–that is, to be regulated or left unregulated by the state legislatures–and that the justice’s decision to nullify state abortion laws in Roe exceeded any possible authority that they might have. The complaint, then, is that the pro-choice movement’s support for Roe means bypassing (1) the proper separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature, and (2) putting important policy decisions in the hands of appointed judges rather than in the hands of the democratically-accountable legislature. (I think that’s a fairly romanticized view of how the legislature actually relates to the electorate over a given single issue in a liberal republic. But let’s move on.)

The critical claim here is a claim about who has the authority to make law. If the argument succeeds, it has the attractive feature (for the anti-abortionists) of short-circuiting the political argument over abortion in favor of convicting pro-choice activism on a purely procedural point. The problem, however, is that the argument only can succeed by either (a) begging the question on the political debate over abortion, or (b) endorsing a totalitarian theory about the authority of elected legislatures. And doing (a) makes the argument premature until we have already come to an agreement on the debate over abortion on independent grounds, whereas (b) requires a premise so repugnant that no non-question-begging reasons can be given for it Why? Because given what pro-choicers believe about abortion, asking them to leave it up to the state legislatures is like demanding that slavery be put up for a vote state-by-state; it’s making the recognition of women’s fundamental rights to their own bodies contingent on the outcome of innumerable local legislative processes.


It begins: people feed into the rally (photo by L.)

Another way of getting to this point is by considering the short argument in defense of Roe-style court rulings that I offered in the comments on Alas. Thus:

  1. No government body has the legitimate authority to legalize slavery. (premise)
  2. A legislature can only successfully make a law if they have the legitimate authority to enact that law. (premise)
  3. Courts can only enforce such laws as have successfully been made by the legislature. (premise)
  4. Forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term against her will is a form of slavery. (premise)
  5. Courts can only enforce bills that the legislature has the legitimate authority to enact (from 2, 3)
  6. Courts cannot enforce bills that purport to legalize slavery (from 1, 5)
  7. Courts cannot enforce bills that purport to legalize forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term against her will. (from 4, 6)

Therefore, no court can rightly uphold, or make a ruling based on, a law that purports to criminalize abortion. Q.E.D.

So is there something wrong with this argument? If so, what? If not, then what’s the problem with overturning abortion laws in the courts?

(One interesting feature of the argument to note: it takes the separation of powers complaint and turns it on the anti-abortionist who advanced it. If the argument here is sound, then upholding any abortion law would be a brute act of judicial activism; it would be a ruling without basis in any law that the legislature had actually passed. Contrary to an all-too-common lament, it’s far from impossible to find common ground from which to argue abortion politics.)


Choosy Moms Choose Choice! (photo by L.)

The argument from premises (1), (2), (3), and (4) to (7) is, as far as I can tell, valid; so the only way to avoid the conclusion is to deny at least one of the premises. Now, of course, any anti-abortionist in his right mind is going to object to premise (4); the point of introducing this argument is not primarily to convince you that it is sound (although, in fact, it is). The main point here is to show why the charge of judicial activism is premature. Why? Because (1), (2), and (3) are completely reasonable premises on which both pro-choicers and anti-abortionists should agree. To deny (3) is to deny that you have any objection to judges making up law–which is just to give up on the original complaint of judicial activism against Roe. To deny either (1) or (2), on the other hand, is to endorse totalitarian powers for the representative legislatures–i.e., to claim that the worst crimes are legally O.K. as long as they are approved by an elective assembly. The only point at which the opponent of Roe can object to the argument is at step (4)–to deny that outlawing abortion is in fact a form of slavery.

But that is just to admit that any charge of judicial activism hinges on whether or not outlawing abortion means denying women the fundamental right to control over their own body–which in turn is to admit that it hinges on finding some independent resolution to the controversy between the pro-choice position and the anti-abortion position. Trying to weasel out of the abortion debate by accusing pro-choicers of supporting judicial activism just is to bypass the real debate and beg the question against the pro-choice position.


A marcher’s-eye view: a million set out to march…

So what about (4)? Is forcing a woman to carry her pregnancy to term against her will a form of slavery? Well, here is how Pangloss, my (apparently anti-abortion) interlocutor on Alas, objected to it:

(4) False. You trivialize the historical institution and current practice of slavery. BTW, who’s doing the forcing in your hypo?

Well, let’s start with the latter first: if you’re puzzled about where the forcing comes in in an anti-choice regime, then try get an abortion under one and see what happens to you. A very wise man, who probably did not realize the applicability of his thesis for radical feminism, once put it this way:

It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action. . . . Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.

Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, ch. XXVII, p. 719


L. shows off her Not-So-Subtle Tee (photo by me)

This doesn’t mean, of course, that nothing a government does can be worthwhile. More compulsion and less freedom is exactly what we want when it comes to the freedom to murder, torture, or pillage. But what it does mean is that you’d better be awfully sure that whatever you’re getting the government to do is worth forcing other people to do. Government decrees are not magical incantations; they are provisions for the use of violent force. And if you’re not willing to own up to using violent force against people trying to get an abortion, then you oughtn’t be asking the legislature to outlaw it.

So why categorize the forced completion of a pregnancy as slavery? Well, according to one common theory, what slavery means is a condition of involuntary servitude: to be enslaved is to be forced to give up the use of your body to another person, for a sustained period of time, whether you like it or not. And how else would you describe forcing a woman to turn her uterine lining over to the use of a fetus (or, rather, a bunch of grown men purporting to act on the fetus’s behalf)? The only thing that could make the use of force here legitimate would be for the fetus, or someone else other than the woman, to own the woman’s reproductive organs. And for anyone to claim that just is to claim ownership over the woman’s body–which is another quick elucidation of what it means to claim that someone is your slave.

Of course, an anti-abortionist will object that she doesn’t have the right to control her own internal organs when someone else’s life depends on it. Now, it’s tendentious enough to claim that a fetus is a political agent that could have a right to anything. But set that aside for the moment. The fact is that this is not a principle that nearly anyone would ever endorse if we weren’t talking about women and their wombs–it’s only because people have thought of women’s reproductive organs as the property of men for so long that the idea even gets a hearing. Don’t believe me? Try another hypothetical: Susan needs a kidney or she will die. John has two good kidneys; and it turns out that he’s the best match in town. One problem: John likes his kidneys and won’t undergo surgery. Now, some people might think that John’s action is cruel and selfish. Maybe so; but vanishingly few people would be inclined to suggest that Susan has the right to have John tied down and to cut out one of his kidneys against his will. That’s because John owns his own body, not Susan. Slavery is still slavery, even if the slaver can’t survive without it. When it comes to other people’s rights to control their own bodies, a need is not a claim.


[The marchers] will find themselves facing an ocean of signs and bannersRandall Terry

It might also be objected that being forced to carry a pregnancy to term is not slavery because the woman has tacitly forfeited control over her uterus when she consented to have sex. Let’s set aside the fact that the majority of pregnancies resulting from rape end in abortion; at least some anti-choicers are willing to allow for abortion in cases of rape and incest. Still, could a woman forfeit her rights to determine who makes use of her uterine lining by consenting to sex? No, of course not; the idea of tacit consent here is silly to begin with, but more importantly even if there were explicit consent the woman would still have the right to revoke it at any time. She could only fail to have that right if her right to control her own internal organs were alienable. But it’s not; she has (and so do you) the right to withdraw consent, at any time; claiming irrevocable, completely open-ended rights over her internal organs would, again, be claiming that she is your slave just as assuredly as claiming irrevocable, completely open-ended rights over the work of her arms and legs.

[photo: Stop the War on Women]

Amen. (photo by L.)

(What about the claim that the description of anti-choice politics as slavery trivializes the reality of slavery? That would only be true if saying this is slavery were the same as saying this is just as bad as American race slavery, or whatever other instance of the institution the interlocutor happens to have in mind. But it’s not. Any honest appraisal of historical evidence would show that the position of thralls in medieval Scandinavia was far, far better than that of field slaves in the Caribbean, or the forced laborers in Dachau or the gulag. But that does not mean that we shouldn’t categorize the thralls as slaves. And similarly, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t categorize forced pregnancy as a form of slavery, either.)

Is there some other basis for asserting that the government has a right to force a woman not to terminate a pregnancy? If there is, I’d be glad to hear it. But if there is not, then we are left to conclude that premise (4) is true. And if premise (4) is true, then no government could have the authority to outlaw abortion, and any judge which upheld a bill purporting to outlaw abortion would be engaging in the worst sort of judicial activism. And thus the Court made the right decision in Roe. Those who fight against that decision are fighting for a Court to uphold the government’s right to legalize slavery and enact reproductive tyranny.

[photo: Anarchists]

I love anarchists: We’re pro-choice—and we shoot back! (photo by L.)

That’s why I marched, anyway. What about you?

Bloody Hell

I hate to make this the third posts coming soon–no I really mean it this time post in a row. Unfortunately, it seems that I will have to.

We’ve been having short-lived storms and power fluctuations for the past few days; and the result is, apparently, that sometime during the morning a power surge proved too much for our wireless router’s delicate sensibilities. Until a new one arrives, this means that L. and I have to take turns on the Internet, and I can’t use it from anywhere further away than an Ethernet tether on my laptop. And that effectively means that I won’t have much of an opportunity to post at any length over the next several days. (If you’d like to speed the process of my getting back up to speed–or just like helping out a hardship case–a new router is going to cost us about US$50.00; feel free to toss a few coins in the hat here.)

Whenever I complain about the annual tribute exacted by the State, one of the first responses that I always get is that the State has every right to demand taxes, because of all the public infrastructure services–roads, water, electricity, and all the rest that the State gives me access to. Of course, that is not quite an answer in the first place: since I never asked the government to provide me these things, it seems a tad rude for them to come up and demand payment or else. But let’s grant, for the moment, the legitimacy of the reply: if tax burdens are justified by the degree to which the government supplies useful services, then what have I got? Thanks to the leisurely pace of monopolistic road maintenance, the street in front of my house has been reduced from pavement to muddy dunes for the past three weeks; in the course of the roadwork my water has been turned off at unpredictable intervals for hours at a time; and now the electrical service that my hard earned tax dollars were extorted to underwite has fried my router.

But since these are all government-provided or government-underwritten services in a liberal democratic polity, and since that means they are accountable to the public rather than to the bottom line, I’m sure that I can just take my complaints down to city hall and, as with any responsible service provider, they’ll handle all my concerns in a polite and timely fashion. The troubles will, no doubt, be dealt with soon and I will be given compensation for any damage or inconvenience that their screw-ups may have caused–because, hey, it’s the government, so the people call the shots, right?

(And if you believe that, I have an 802.11b wireless router in tip-top shape that you might be interested in buying…)

Stay Tuned

Well. I did say tomorrowish.

Due mostly to other projects that I’ve been devoting my time to, an ample amount of backlogged e-mail, and Internal Revenue’s excellent check-losing services, the posts around here have been flowing like molasses. This will change very shortly–specifically, this weekend. Tomorrow will bring a much-delayed post of some photos from the March, along with some discussion on abortion rights, the courts, and democracy that has been sitting on the To Do list for a couple of weeks now. Also in the works: some comments on the MovableType licensing fiasco and why this site will not be using MT for much longer; information on one of the projects that has been taking up much of my time–Southern Girls Convention 2004; and some thoughts on the latest version of Opera.

Some more may be forthcoming tonight. If not tonight, tomorrow. Stay tuned!

–The Management

I’m Not Dead Yet

For those who might be concerned, I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth; I’ve just been occupied with getting back from a visit to Auburn, cleaning house after bringing a load of my things up, and working on the website for Southern Girls Convention 2004 (more on that soon!). Photos and more from the March should be coming up soon (as in, tomorrowish). Talk to you again soon!

Free The Unions (and all political prisoners)

Today is May Day, or International Worker’s Day: an international day for celebrating the achievements of workers and the struggle for organized labor.

You might have thought that the proper day was Labor Day, as traditionally celebrated on the first Monday in September. Not so; the federal holiday known as Labor Day is actually a Gilded Age bait-and-switch from 1894. It was crafted and promoted in an effort to throw a bone to labor while erasing the radicalism implicit in May Day (a holiday declared by workers, in honor of the campaign for the eight hour day and in memory of the Haymarket martyrs). As a low-calorie substitute for workers’ struggle to come into their own, we get a celebration of labor … so long as it rigidly adheres to the AFL-line orthodoxy of collective bargaining, appeasement, and power to the union bosses and government bureaucrats. That this holiday emerged and solidified at exactly the same historical moment as the unholy alliance of conservative (statist, nativist, racist, and misogynist) unionism with corporate barons and the Progressive regulation movement is no coincidence. That AFL-line unions continue to use Labor Day as a chance to co-opt the historic successes of radical, libertarian unions in campaigns such as the fight for the eight-hour day or the five-day week is no coincidence, either.

Too many of my comrades on the Left fall into the trap of taking the Labor Day version of history for granted: modern unions are trumpeted as the main channel for the voice of workers; the institutionalization of the system through the Wagner Act and the National Labor Relations Board in 1935, and the ensuing spike in union membership during the New Deal period, are regarded as one of the great triumphs for workers of the past century.

You may not be surprised to find out that I don’t find this picture of history entirely persuasive. The Wagner Act was the capstone of years of government promotion of conservative, AFL-line unions in order to subvert the organizing efforts of decentralized, uncompromising, radical unions such as the IWW and to avoid the previous year’s tumultuous general strikes in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis. The labor movement as we know it today was created by government bureaucrats who effectively created a massive subsidy program for conservative unions which followed the AFL and CIO models of organizing–which emphatically did not include general strikes or demands for worker ownership of firms. Once the NRLB-recognized unions had swept over the workforce and co-opted most of the movement for organized labor, the second blow of the one-two punch fell: government benefits always mean government strings attached, and in this case it was the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which pulled the activities of the recognized unions firmly into the regulatory grip of the federal government. Both the internal culture of post-Wagner mainstream unions, and the external controls of the federal labor regulatory apparatus, have dramatically hamstrung the labor movement for the past half-century. Union methods are legally restricted to collective bargaining and limited strikes (which cannot legally be expanded to secondary strikes, and which can be, and have been, broken by arbitrary fiat of the President). Union hiring halls are banned. Union resources have been systematically sapped by banning closed shop contracts, and encouraging states to ban union shop contracts–thus forcing unions to represent free-riding employees who do not join them and do not contribute dues. Union demands are effectively constrained to modest (and easily revoked) improvements in wages and conditions. And, since modern unions can do so little to achieve their professed goals, and since their professed goals have been substantially lowered anyway, unionization of the workforce continues its decades-long slide.

May Day is a celebration of the original conception of the labor movement, as expressed by anarchist organizers such as Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons, Benjamin Tucker, and others: a movement for workers to come into their own, by banding together, supporting one another, and taking direct action in the form of boycotts, work stoppages, general strikes, and the creation of workers’ spaces such as local co-operatives and union hiring halls. The spirit was best expressed by John Brill’s famous exhortation to Dump the bosses off your back–by which he did not mean to go to a government mediator and get them to make the boss sit down with you and work out a slightly more beneficial arrangement. Dump the bosses off your back! meant: organize and create local institutions that let you bypass the bosses. Negotiate with them if it’ll do some good; ignore them if it won’t. The signal achievements of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th century were achievements in this spirit: the campaigns that won the 8 hour day and the weekend off in many workplaces, for example, emerged from a unilateral work stoppage by rank-and-file workers, declared by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, and organized especially by the explicitly anarchist International Working People’s Association, after legislative efforts by the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor failed. The stagnant, or even backsliding, state of organized labor over the past half century is the direct result of government colonization and the ascendency of government-subsidized unions.

Don’t get me wrong: the modern labor movement, for all its flaws and limitations, is the reflection (no matter how distorted) of an honorable effort; it deserves our support and does some good. Union bosses, corporate bosses, and government bureaucrats may work to co-opt organized labor to their own ends, but rank-and-file workers have perfectly good reasons to support AFL-style union organizing: modern unions may not be accountable enough to rank-and-file workers, but they are more accountable than corporate bureaucracy; modern unions bosses don’t care enough about giving workers direct control in their own workplace, but they care more than corporate bosses, who make most of their living by denying workers such control. The labor movement, like all too many other honorable movements for social justice in the 20th century, has become a prisoner of politics: a political situation has been created in which the most rational thing for most workers to do is to muddle through with a co-opted and carefully regulated labor movement that helps them in some ways but undermines their long-term prospects. It doesn’t make sense to respond to a situation like that with blanket denunciations of organized labor; the best thing to do is to support our fellow workers within the labor movement as it is constrained today, but also to work to change the political situation that constrains it, and to set it free. That means loosening the ties that bind the union bosses to the corporate and government bureaucrats, by working to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act, and abolish the apparatus of the NLRB, and working to build free, vibrant, militant unions once again.

Dump the bosses off your back. Free the unions, and all political prisoners!

Update (2007-04-19): For a long time this post incorrectly attributed the song Dump the Bosses Off Your Back to Joe Hill, the legendary songwriter and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Although it is very similar in style to Hill’s songs — it sets a radical message in simple language to the melody to a popular hymn — the song was actually written by John Brill, another Wobbly songwriter. The song first appeared in the Joe Hill Memorial (9th) edition of the IWW songbook, released in March 1916, four months after Joe Hill was hanged by the state of Utah. This error has been corrected in the post. –CJ