Friday, November 09, 2012
This is, from a purely cynical point of view, understandable. If you thought Hackgate was toxic, and the follow-up Hillsborough revelations, this is potentially a career-killer for anyone within a short radius of suspicion. Forget about 'de-toxifying' the Tory party if Tom Watson is right, and there's an establishment conspiracy, and it all comes tumbling out. The Tories have tried various ways of deflecting this. Theresa May recently suggested that the scale of child abuse across Britain is shocking. Indeed it is. But we're talking about child rape at a very high level, with a sickening degree of institutional complicity. Now presumably the hope is, as Watson implies, that a series of localised investigations will slow up the pace of revelations, muddy the watters and prevent the whole truth from emerging.
This scandal began with a series of revelations about the late Jimmy Savile. He was a creepy right-wing sociopath, this much was obvious. He was a friend of Thatcher and the royals, and a pal of the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe (this reportedly led police to investigate any role he might have had in Sutcliffe's rape murders). And he was widely believed to be a child rapist. (If you will excuse me, I'm trying to exclude the term 'paedophile' entirely from this discussion. It is too enmeshed in the reactionary politics of moral panics and folk devils. It identifies the problem as a particular type of sexual desire which is then neatly confined to a small deviant subset, rather than as the rape of children. It avoids the reality of paedophilia in culture and marketing - what is what is usually referred to stupidly as the 'sexualisation' of children. It avoids the reality that most of those who rape children are not disturbed strangers, but people called Daddy, Uncle, Brother, and so on.) Journalists used to laugh when Savile answered the phone saying "she told me she was over sixteen". This is how rape culture works, is it not? People who make jokes about it often aren't entirely joking: they're telling you how they see the world, how they feel about things.
It turned out that not only was this belief widespread, and not only did Savile crack jokes about it, and boast about his power to damage anyone who acted on it, but that senior BBC personnel had good reason to hold this belief. People had witnessed some of his activities. People had reported his abuse. The BBC didn't just not listen to this. They suppressed the evidence. This was especially serious, since the BBC made Jimmy Savile's career, promoted him for decades, and paid lavish tribute to him on his death. He was treated as an eccentric royal, his funeral procession appropriately cultish and garish. His reputation in the corporation was so immense that Helen Boaden had felt compelled to eulogise him as the "great son of the north" in a BBC planning meeting devoted to organising wall-to-wall funeral coverage.
Soon the revelations became ever more bizarre, but not necessarily less plausible. Savile had access to care homes, to mental hospitals, even to mortuaries. The bodies he raped and defiled could be the bodies of the young, the mentally unwell, or the dead. But as the claims grew more gruesome, the net of suspicion began to spread. For there seems to have been institutional complicity with Savile right along the way. It wasn't just the BBC, and it wasn't just those running the care homes and schools. It was also the police, who refused to investigate allegations of rape. By the time they actually decided to act, there were four hundred lines of enquiry, 200 witnesses, and allegations reported to thirteen police forces. (Reportedly, similar cover-up tactics were deployed when it was alleged that Cyril Smith had raped at least seven boys at a care home that he himself set up. Special Branch stepped in and squashed the investigation.) Now there are a string of senior Conservatives who are alleged to have been somehow involved either in raping children or in assisting the rape of children.
Ken Clarke is supposedly implicated, having allegedly been somehow involved in granting Savile the keys to Broadmoor while he was in office. But the allegations come from the Murdoch press, and he is threatening to sue those who repeat these claims. The senior Tory Lord McAlpine was also implicated as someone who had repeatedly raped a boy at a Wrexham care home. He, though, is being put in the clear by the press today, and BBC Newsnight which broadcast the allegations but not the name of the person accused, has just grovelled and eaten dust. They got the victim on to apologise for mistaking the identity of his abuser. He states that when originally questioned by police about his abuse allegations, he was shown a picture of a man that the police led him to believe was Lord McAlpine and identified the man in the photo as his rapist, but that he now realises this was not in fact Lord McAlpine. McAlpine's statement, presumably drafted with the help of his solicitor who is interpreting it for the news, denies that he is "the senior Conservative party figure from the days of Margaret Thatcher's leadership who is guilty of sexually abusing young residents of a children's home in Wrexham, north Wales, in the 1970s and 1980s." Now, McAlpine is threatening a series of legal actions to deal with the spread of accusations on the internet, which can only involve targeting some of the more prominent sites and giving them a demonstrative going over.
The other alleged Tory child rapists are not being named in the papers, but anyone can find out who they are. Every single one of them might well be innocent of the charges made about them. We cannot afford to speculate about their guilt or innocence, and we should try to resist the allure of infotainment, of intriguing morsels of gossip, of the spectacle. The point is not to assume guilt and then spread it as far as it will go, but to take the allegations seriously enough not just to demand an inquiry, but to inquire as far as we can into the forms of power and culture that would make things like this possible.
The problem is that even legitimate self-defence by members of the ruling class and the Tory elite who might be falsely identified as child rapists can now not be disentangled from the organised fightback that is visibly being orchestrated by the government and its supporters. It seems quite likely at this point that the Tories will use Newsnight's blushes over McAlpine to deflect all the allegations, not just the ones that have been specifically rebutted. The counter-offensive against the websites and newspapers carrying damaging allegations about senior Conservatives will now be channelled through McAlpine, paraded in the guise of an elderly man's perfectly reasonable attempt to salvage what is left of his life.
Yet the lineaments of a terrible conspiracy remain in place. The clear indication of press reports is that there was an organised group of people at high levels of power, using that power to facilitate the rape of children and coopt or intimidate people into silence. And as people on the Left, we can't simply impose a self-denying ordinance, agreeing to 'responsibly' await the outcome of inquiries before reaching some conclusions. For one thing, no one else will. The issue is already politicised.
To satirise a familiar way of speaking, one might say there is a problem with the culture and values of a small minority of rich white men, whose habitus and socialization have inclined them to see preying on the vulnerable, children or the mentally ill, as simply a part of their way of life. It is a culture of entitlement, the ability to dispose of others simply a part of their birthright. This might even sound vaguely plausible, more so than when the pseuds were offering glib insights into the quirks of Pakistani culture to explain the Rochdale child abuse scandal. But it doesn't really tell us anything.
'Paedophile' scandals in this country are strangely both hysterical and complicit. By this I mean, they often add garish embellishments, target innocent people, totally mislead the public about the real nature of the problem, exaggerate, racialise, etc. And yet the real underlying problem, which is that most rape and other abuse of children takes place in the context of the family, is neglected or repressed, and thus perpetuated. The problem is presented as one of individual weirdos, Mac-wearing loners loitering outside school gates, strangers who persistently seek out and prey on vulnerable children. This has led to all sorts of real witch hunts, as people seek out this obscure figure: windows being smashed, people being hounded and burned out of their homes, or killed - anyone who seems a bit 'weird', whether because they're mentally ill or just seemingly a bit odd. It certainly wouldn't be out of character for people in this country to target gays under the self-righteous guise of purging nonces, beasts, paedos, and so on.
Moreover, there is a certain strand of right-wing politics in the UK, sometimes with a decidedly Ickean flavour, that is always bellowing about paedophile rings in the heights of power. They now stand 'vindicated' to a certain degree, like the proverbial stopped clock. The only social structure they are interested in is the network of conspiracy and, insofar as it segues into this, the institution. Institutions and networks of power are exactly what are most palpably collared here, so cases like this give these reactionaries a fresh wind. Of course, the details of illicit networks and institutional complicity must be investigated and understood, but this has to be distinguished from and articulated with structural causation.
The question then is whether, instead of hysterical and complicit, we can have an approach that is historical and literate. Instead of infotainment, which reinforces moral panic, repression and witch hunts, can this particular scandal be pushed toward a more adequate structural analysis, a focus on power relations - not just in their institutional embodiment but in their systemic logic?
Feminist analysis offers some ways forward here. I referred to the concept of 'rape culture'. This has always seemed to me quite nebulous, incorporating an incredibly diverse array of practices and significations that contribute to the normalisation, rationalisation, and implicitly justification of rape, under one indeterminate conceptual canopy. It is perhaps a concept 'under erasure'. It stands in for something else more definite, something for which we don't yet have a term, so we must use it. And the advantage of it is that it doesn't identify its problem as individuals or institutions, but by addressing practices governed by social structure, it adverts to social relations. It identifies rape, in this respect, not as an isolated moral offence, but as a form of terror within a systemic context of subordination and domination (in this respect it is "like lynching", Catherine Mackinnon suggested - albeit most rapes are not collective or public symbolic actions). It identifies the axis of domination as patriarchy, a concept that I think historical materialism is quite right to annexe.
Why patriarchy? We understand that classes are reproduced not only in workplaces, but in communities and homes. The domestic space is as critical to reproducing labour as the market place. The sexual reproduction of labour takes place in families. There, gender ideology is conveyed as the primary form of socialization. There, patriarchy is experienced in its most direct form as the political, economic and ideological control of women and children by husbands and fathers. I am not saying that this adequately characterises how all families work today. Molecular economic change, social democracy, neoliberalism, the feminist movement, and so on, have all transformed the nuclear family unit and relationships between men and women in various ways. And families look very different in different class contexts. Moreover, while capitalist production relations prohibit other family types, they do not actively encourage the traditional nuclear family. The wage system cannot provide the security needed to support such families. This is where political and ideological superstructures come in, and where the social wage is indispensable. The point is that patriarchy is a paradigm of sexist oppression (not the only type) rooted in the family forms and gender ideology of capitalism, and it is involved not only in sexist oppression but in the organisation of families as productive units and property forms, the formation of gender roles in children, and so on. The concept of patriarchy thus grasps conceptually the relationship between families and rape which the empirical data already supports.
The extended reproduction of gender roles, of gendered labour and gendered property, necessarily takes place outside of families, in what one might call the 'ideological state apparatuses' - schools, media, political parties - and to a lesser extent in the 'repressive state apparatuses' - police, courts, armed forces, etc. Each of these apparatuses are sites of struggle to different (very different) degrees, but the dominant ideology within them so far as women and children are concerned will reinforce and abut patriarchy. The social categories produced in official statistics, policy documents, media representations, court judgments, law statutes and so on would consistently reproduce the extant gender relations except to the extent that ongoing struggles inscribe their effects (which they constantly do).
Even within such a general way of talking about the subject, however, it would be a mistake to ascribe too much unity to state discourses. At a certain level, the state is a 'centralised unity', inasmuch as the executive is in a privileged position to unify and cohere fissiparous apparatuses. But a degree of relative disarticulation, and room for internal struggle (produced by the social division of labour within the state, by its hierarchies, and dysfunctions), localised initiative, illicit action and so on, must be included in this picture. Some apparatuses of the state, some 'social categories' working in it, (say police, judges, etc) will have quite a different role in the reproduction of gender, and the socialisation of children, than others (say nurses, teachers, etc). The upholding of a general discourse and ensemble of practices that subordinates women and children, then, allows for quite different implementations depending on the context.
But it also, in various sites of power (as we have seen, hospitals, schools and care homes), reproduces that subordination in such a way as to facilitate the organised sexual coercion and exploitation of those who are most vulnerable. And this vulnerability is not chiefly physical, though it may seem to be. It is not even mental, where the victims are cognitively out-matched by the predators. It is mostly a 'status' vulnerability. These are people who are accorded a low esteem in our society, whose word means little even when they can speak up, whose suffering is of little importance to those in charge of them. Their disadvantage is not just physical or mental, but based on class, gender, race, ability and so on. They lack social power, and this is what makes them potential victims. A corollary is that although most child rapists are not senior politicians or celebrities, with policemen and other politicians abetting them, or journalists indulging them - as I say, it is mostly family members using the social power over children at their disposal condensed within the family form - those who can systematically organise to rape children over a long period of time will tend to have a great deal of social power.
This social power would do a lot of their work already: yielding 'consent' where it is sought, ensuring the silence of the victims, gaining complicity from others who could have said something (one thinks of the family who have reacted so bitterly to one of their relatives complaining that 'Uncle Jimmy' was allowed to molest her in their presence), extracting purblind ignorance from some (the headmistress of the school who is now bitterly lambasting former students as troublemakers for alleging abuse at Savile's hands), gaining the benefit of the doubt or jovial indulgence from some, and so on. This social power is sometimes alluded to in the language of privilege. I have reservations about this - it doesn't seem remotely adequate on the one hand, and on the other doesn't seem sufficiently differentiated. Nonetheless, the concrete effects it is alluding to, the intersectionality of class, gender, racial and other power relations, are important and account for some of its resonance. And this is how we have to see the power of the rapist, and particularly the child rapist. The esteemed 'family man' may have patriarchy on his side, but you have to be Jimmy Savile or someone like him to have the police, journalists, politicians and others covering up your trail of sexual violence.
So, this is not just about 'paedophilia' and 'paedophiles'. That way of talking about the problem won't do any more; the language is too corrupted, even if it might mean something as a clinical category. Nor is it just about an elaborate (endlessly entertaining in its disclosure) conspiracy. It is about the organisation of society in ways that reproduce such subordination, that legitimise it, and that empower people to exploit it.