“I Would Prefer Not To”

Herman Melville - I Would Prefer Not ToThe next morning came.

“Bartleby,” said I, gently calling to him behind his screen.

No reply.

“Bartleby,” said I, in a still gentler tone, “come here; I am not going to ask you to do any thing you would prefer not to do — I simply wish to speak to you.”

Upon this he noiselessly slid into view.

“Will you tell me, Bartleby, where you were born?”

“I would prefer not to.”

“Will you tell me any thing about yourself?”

“I would prefer not to.”

“But what reasonable objection can you have to speak to me? I feel friendly towards you.”

He did not look at me while I spoke, but kept his glance fixed upon my bust of Cicero, which as I then sat, was directly behind me, some six inches above my head.

“What is your answer, Bartleby?” said I, after waiting a considerable time for a reply, during which his countenance remained immovable, only there was the faintest conceivable tremor of the white attenuated mouth.

“At present I prefer to give no answer,” he said, and retired into his hermitage.

It was rather weak in me I confess, but his manner on this occasion nettled me. Not only did there seem to lurk in it a certain calm disdain, but his perverseness seemed ungrateful, considering the undeniable good usage and indulgence he had received from me.

Again I sat ruminating what I should do. Mortified as I was at his behavior, and resolved as I had been to dismiss him when I entered my offices, nevertheless I strangely felt something superstitious knocking at my heart, and forbidding me to carry out my purpose, and denouncing me for a villain if I dared to breathe one bitter word against this forlornest of mankind. At last, familiarly drawing my chair behind his screen, I sat down and said: “Bartleby, never mind then about revealing your history; but let me entreat you, as a friend, to comply as far as may be with the usages of this office. Say now you will help to examine papers tomorrow or next day: in short, say now that in a day or two you will begin to be a little reasonable; say so, Bartleby.”

“At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.

—Herman Melville
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street

Radical Feminism Versus the Gauzy Apple Pie Version

Caliban and the Witch - FeminismI was chatting with Elizabeth last night on Facebook. The subject of feminism came up and I wrote, “I’m not exactly sure what a feminist is. I guess I’m one because I like women. Equality, sure…” And the conversation went on to different subjects from there. But today, I started reading Silvia Federici’s book, Caliban and the Witch. And it got me thinking about feminism in a deeper sense.

Many years ago, I was on the blog of a friend of a friend. She had written something about the subjugation of women. And I posted what I thought was an encouraging comment. But I used the phrase “radical feminism” to discuss what she had been talking about. She went ballistic. It was pretty clear to me that my use of the phrase was tantamount to calling her a “feminazi.”

Indeed, entering “feminazi” into Google causes it to spit out: “a radical feminist.” But this is wrong, as I will get to in a moment. I had two reasons for using the term. The first was that the woman responsible for my intellectual and political awakening was a radical feminist. The second was that the word “feminism” has largely lost its power.

What Does “Feminism” Mean?

At this point, what does it mean to say you are a feminist? Nothing really. It says something about you if you aren’t a feminist. But feminism itself has fallen into the “mom and apple pie” category of something so nonthreatening that only psychopaths are against it. And what is the point of that?

Caliban and the Witch is an explicitly Marxist look at sexual politics. Marx, understandably, saw things from a male perspective. He saw capitalism as a transitory system between feudalism and socialism. Thus it was a good thing. This is something most people miss about Marx: he was one of capitalism’s greatest admirers. Federici is not convinced, since she looks at the subject from a female perspective. She’s particularly interested in witch trials that became much more common during the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

I’m very much with her on that, although I come at it from a different perspective. The move from feudalism to capitalism just changed the way that we divided up private land property. There has never been a serious attack on what is, ultimately, an absurd system. Federici’s feminism is in the service of answering a question, “Why are women subjugated?” In fact, in the preface of her book, she discusses the two dominant feminist theories: Radical Feminism and Socialist Feminism. The former focuses on patriarchy whereas the latter on systemic oppression of all people.

Making Feminism Radical Again

I find this far more satisfying than gauzy notions that eventually we will get sexual equality through laws and norms. And that’s because when you have an unjust, unequal society, it’s always going to be bigoted against women, racist, and so much more. It reminds me of Nicole Aschoff’s great book, The New Prophets of Capital. As I described it, “The fundamental idea with all of [the ideas of these titans of industry] is that the problems that capitalism creates can be fixed by capitalism itself.”

And I don’t believe that. Yes, I will vote for the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate because that is the system that we have. But I am fundamentally at odds with the vast majority of my fellow Americans about the system itself. What’s more, I think we have DNA problems that make us naturally hierarchical. We need to get past that.

So where am I on the issue of feminism? Am I a feminist? Sure — in the same way I’m a Democrat. But I’m also a Radical Feminist. And a Socialist Feminist. We must fix ourselves. And we must fix the system. If we don’t, Homo sapiens probably don’t have but a few thousand years left.