The Life Imperative
In the forty-eight hours after Todd Akin, the current Republican Senate candidate from Missouri, made an international fool of himself by asserting, in response to an interviewer’s question about his opposition to abortion in the case of women who have become pregnant as a result of having been raped, that when the rape in question is a “legitimate rape the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” nearly every Republican of any importance on the national stage stepped forward to denounce him. Pundit types on the left were quick to determine that a plan was afoot. By denouncing Akin, they pointed out, the rest of the party was in reality only trying to make itself look comparatively moderate, comparatively sympathetic, comparatively not crazy, with regards to women’s health and reproductive rights, and in so doing perhaps win the votes of a potentially crucial bloc of undecided female voters in the upcoming presidential election (white female voters, I should say, as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is currently polling at 0% among likely black voters of either sex). Unwittingly, it seemed, Akin had offered himself up as something of a sacrificial lamb and the rest of his party, hoping to curry favor from the electoral gods (the swing voters), did not hesitate to let the killing blade fall.
The analysis is no doubt accurate, as was the observation of many of those same left leaning pundit types that the fatal flaw in the plan was that in denouncing him Akin’s fellow party members could not but call attention to the fact that to a man (and the occasional frightening woman) they all hold the same radical anti-abortion views Akin’s absurd anti-logic was intended to justify – that they are all in the same place as crazy Akin even if they had arrived by another path. Far from winning over that potentially deciding number of female voters, the television liberals therefore predicted, the coordinated Republican plan to publicly hang the “legitimate rape” guy from Missouri out to dry would only end up sending them scurrying in the other direction. From their lips to God’s ear and all that,and whatever it takes to keep a Democrat, however legislatively hamstrung, in the proverbial Oval Office, and here’s to hoping for the best. Lost in the flutter of optimism, however, was what strikes me as perhaps a very important question: Why, in a moment in which the party seems otherwise almost singularly dedicated to the economic project of, as New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait recently put it, “affecting the largest upward redistribution of wealth in American history,” would it attach itself so adamantly, and moreover so unanimously (a unanimity sealed into the party’s recently unveiled election year platform, which declares that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed”), to such a potentially damaging position with regards to a social issue?
One could of course argue that it is a question of appealing to the locust swarms of evangelical and non-denominational Christians – if not the biggest single component of the Republican electoral base certainly the most vocal – who hate abortion even more than they hate gay marriage and social welfare programs that interfere with God’s ability to carry out his agenda by way of the (not really) free market. The problem with such an argument, however, is that while appealing to that population may make a difference during, for example, a primary election, it is of virtually no use in the case of a general election. In the eyes of the praise-drunk sector of the electorate the Republican candidate will always appear the lesser of two evils when pitted against a Democrat, and even that doesn’t really matter since the pastors are all inevitably going to send their flocks out to vote Republican anyway, thus releasing them from the burden of having to decide for themselves whether or not they, in doing so, doing right by God. Simply put, opposition abortion in the extreme case of rape, incest, and danger to the mother’s life woos a vote that, looking ahead to the upcoming national and state level elections, Republican candidates and their allies simply do not need to woo, even as it will likely send in the other direction a potentially critical bloc of undecided female voters who might otherwise swung right when the time came.
Nor is it, regardless of what the highway billboards featuring fetuses plaintively requesting a chance tell us, and regardless of what clearly crazy people like Akin might in some unswept corner of their brains actually believe, a question of compassion. “Nature,” Tennyson famously wrote “is red in tooth and claw.” But alas it is not nature, which does not exist, that is red in tooth and claw, but life itself, which is, regardless of what the Republican party platform affirms, not individual but communal – social – and not necessarily in a nice kind of way. “Try as we might,” writes Donna Haraway, “there is no way of living that is not also a way of someone, not just something, else dying differentially.” Probability dictates that the axiom should hold more generally, as well: in the world in which we live (differentially) one person’s success comes at the cost of another’s failure, one’s joy at that of another’s sorrow, one’s prosperity at that of another’s hunger, and so on ad infinitum. If every death is, as Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “an unjustifiable violation,” then to wish that someone who must die in order to escape it remain caught in this circle of suffering may well be a form of compassion; to demand it on behalf of the unborn, on the other hand, is merely cruel.
As something other than simple sadism (which it surely is, at least in part), then, how might we make sense of the Republican party’s radical opposition to abortion despite the latter’s likely electoral costs? One place to begin scouring for an answer might be in the class whose interests the Republican party in its contemporary form for all intents and purposes exists to represent, that iron-fisted global plutocracy lately going by the name “the 1%.” No different than that of its predecessors, the primary interest of this contemporary ruling class is in profit, and from profit a particularly concentrated form of wealth. Where the situation doers differ, however, is that in the current stage of capitalism, in which the potential for profit is actualized not on the level of production but of finance, by way of the circulation of capital in the international financial markets, there can be no profit in the absence of an increase in profits – witness, as Exhibit A, the inevitable flight of investors when a corporation’s profits level out, regardless of how lucrative those profits may be. The problem, should one want to call it that, is that if, even when it must first be converted into finance capital in order to be thusly actualized, the basic substrate of profit is, as ever, expropriated labor power (keeping in mind that since at least World War II leisure and consumerism have become, in Theodor Adorno’s words, “nothing but a shadowy continuation of labor” rather than its social counterpart), and if labor power at bottom remains a property of life, then in a world in which, as Fredric Jameson argued more than two decades ago in his now iconic Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the last of the remaining “precapitalist enclaves,” those still untapped labor and consumer markets, have all already been used up, a class whose constitutive interest in profit is subject to this “growth imperative,” as it is known, finds itself in great peril. Absent such fresh sources of raw material, after all, how can profits possibly be expected to continue growing?
One obvious (if necessarily stopgap) solution to this problem, which seemed to come to something of a head with the financial crisis of 2008, is to simply increase the amount of labor power expropriated as profit from the working 99%, like scraping more ore from a mine, and therein the Republican party’s aggressive attacks, over the course of the past four years, on the tattered remains of the social welfare state and organized labor, both of which work to redistribute wealth ‘downward’ rather than allowing it to only further concentrate at the top. But perhaps it is also true that Jameson, despite his remarkable prescience in a text that in many ways continues to map more effectively than any other the contours of our own particular present, precipitated when he declared the last of the precapitalist enclaves colonized, and that the cold light of desperation has revealed, precisely in the vast but so easily overlooked realm of the inexistent, one more (and perhaps one final) hidden cache of untapped labor power. In this case we might understand the Republicans’ desire to legally ban abortion, even in the extreme cases of rape, incest, and high risk for the mother, in economic rather than social terms – as an effort to open that elusive market to the machinery of exploitation and expropriation by quite literally requiring to be born, and so enter the world of the living, as many people as possible who would otherwise have been spared.