Exactly one century ago Carl Schmitt in Political Theology proposed to us that “[A]ll significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts”. He understood politics in its various epochs, from absolute monarchy through to the modern liberal state, as mirroring the respective theologies of each period. For the pessimistic Schmitt, he saw the modern liberal state as one of declining, fragmentary authority which reflected a degraded religious authority, pushed ever further into the private, individual sphere.
Men had no direct stake in women’s reproduction
Today in a contradictory America, the “conservative” leaning Supreme Court has overturned Roe vs. Wade and “liberals” protesting chant “abortion on demand” and “my body, my choice”. The Supreme Court’s decisions has sprung an anxious liberal reaction, prompting the Democrats to bring forward a new “Transgender Bill of Rights” they want implementing at Federal level. There are shades here of a larger fight between the institutions of a weakening fragmenting liberal-democratic state and a new “body sovereignty” championed by a liberal left obsessed with the concept of “bodily autonomy”. The theological adjunct of body sovereignty is transhumanism. It is the next step as the liberal state disintegrates beyond repair into complete depoliticisation, leaving each individual as their own polity and God.
Radically-aligned feminists are right to think something is amiss when trans-activists say that women (or, “cervix-havers”) should align with them to defend their respective bodily autonomy, in the same way they are suspicious of Matt Walsh’s intentions are when he asks “what is a woman?” They suspect both of a dehumanising misogyny. To that end, they are not wrong, but here they have an unlikely ally in another sceptic of the modern state: Ivan Illich.
Illich’s Gender published in 1982 was not loved by feminists; his defence of a complementarian, gendered life as a benefit to women was anathema to those who believed they were liberating women from domestic servitude. Whether he is right or not regarding the loss of gendered life and its impact upon women is a separate question, for now it is sufficient to observe Illich’s disdain for how the modern state came to police the bodies of women.
Prior to the 1780s ,which saw the combining of the new modern state with early industrial capitalism, the realm of women’s reproduction from periods, menopause, fertility, childbirth and abortion existed in an entirely gendered fashion. That is, men had no direct stake in women’s reproduction, so matters of abortion or infanticide were, as Illich says, of little concern to them. Rather, this new male “overstep” into the domain of the vulva, Illich marks as a product of the new medico-legal order of the late eighteenth century. From this period onwards women became marked as the “birthing” class.
Much of what Illich mentions in Gender regarding the vulnerability of poor women being suspected of procuring abortions could have come from the “pro-choice” advocates today in the 2020s, but perhaps unlike many of them, Illich was staunch in his understanding that our sexed bodies were linked in reproduction to our gendered lives. The notion of “womb carriers” as an author for the (allegedly) radical publisher Verso put it recently would have made Illich baulk. Meanwhile the religious right would likely be be indignant towards Illich’s suggestion that the notion of a foetus as a person, is in fact, an artificial creation of the modern liberal state.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve “normal” markers of adulthood
Far from freeing us from the shackles of medico-legal bureaucracy, the bodily autonomy advocates want to transfer this onto the individual. For many on the liberal left, individuals becoming centres for commodity exchanges, be it for surrogacy, sex, or body altering surgery, is presented in almost completely positive “affirming” terms. We should rightly criticise forced sterilisation, birth and adoption, but from an Illichian perspective, making “choice” the defining axis upon which it is “good” or “bad” is just consigning this same bureaucracy onto the individual. To take an example: trans liberationists demanding direct access to hormone therapies, by-passing doctors, establishes individuals as direct dispensers, responsible for tracking and monitoring our respective health needs.
Entirely missing from these advocates is any serious discussion of whether these “services” actually liberate women. Rather, they seem to create new democratised forms of dependencies on pharmaceuticals while bureaucratising otherwise naturally occurring relationships. Ultimately whether it is rightist womb bounty-hunters hacking into the apps of women tracking their menstrual cycles or “inclusive” leftist activists referring to women as “birthing bodies” they both fall equally foul, of enforcing the sexist regime created by the liberal state.
The tragedy of the leftist obsession with making bodily autonomy the political goal vis-a-vis autonomy “proper” which Illich understood as freedom from medical and state bureaucracy, is ultimately how unambitious it is. Perhaps in a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve “normal” markers of adulthood, control over our bodies seems to be the paradigm in which many leftists are now stuck within. It is a left which seems to be resigning itself to a pessimistic future of political decay that Schmitt forewarned. Needless to say, I am extremely sceptical that their offer of “bodily autonomy” could be of much emancipatory benefit.
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