Here I use the word civilised not in its literal sense of citified, urbanised but in the other common sense of respectful of others, having a sense of politeness and control over one's greedy and violent whims. In this sense, as has often been pointed out, the !Kung of the Kalahari - without metallurgy, roads, the wheel, agriculture, writing, or much in the way of law - are far more civilised than industrialised Westerners: murder and rape are foreign to them, and they walk where they please without fear of each other.
I write in the assumption that we wish we were civilised (you and I) - that we wish to live without fear of violence or insult, that we try to avoid hurting or insulting other people, that we would rather not live among cheats, liars and bullies, no matter what pretty costumes they may wear for us or what pretty words they may find for their aggression and greed. I write in the tradition of those who would rather see well-fed children than waving flags, clean air and water than a falsely inflated GNP.
We are engaged, here at fin de siÉecle , in a radical alteration of the concept of social contract. The raw terms and conditions of laissez-faire capitalism and libertarianism, based exclusively on property rights and direct interpersonal harm, are obsolete (though many cling to them desperately out of self-interest). The idea that burger-consuming Americans are in some way answerable to South American indios for the devastation of their forests and villages is new, strange, and unpalatable. We are used to defining our responsibilities only at arm's (or fist's) length.
The idea that corporate CEO's are answerable to the public for the environmental damage they do is new, strange, and threatening. The idea that the producers and consumers of art that demeans and insults women or gays or people of colour are answerable to those people for that insult, is very new and still a minority viewpoint. The idea that producers and consumers of art that glamorises and eroticises slavery, rape, or other brutality are answerable in some way to the victims of real abuse - that idea is very uncomfortable, new and strange. It offends deeply against the comforting libertarian principle, I have a right to consume whatever I can afford to buy. In our world, the right to own and consume (and be entertained) is primary, like the right to drive.
The struggle we are engaged in is about the nature of individual rights and social accountability. This entails a bitter warfare over the boundaries between private action (nobody's business but my own) and ethical obligation to others (It wasn't his driving that sank the Exxon Valdez. It was yours. - Greenpeace) Increasing numbers of people are questioning what they and others eat, drink, wear, watch, read, buy, and sell, trying to track down the hidden costs of the way we live. But America has a strong, even mythical, individualist tradition: advocates of social responsibility have chosen an uphill fight.
The conflict of values can be represented as a struggle between ethics of excess and moderation. The US (and most of the industrialised world) enjoyed an unprecedented expansion in the years since the Industrial Revolution: massive exploitation of resources at home and colonies abroad made possible a tremendous wave of growth in technological expertise, manufacturing and agricultural potential, and economic well-being. By various methods, some innocent and some less so, the economies of the West were able to overproduce on a scale never before imagined.
Large numbers of ordinary people, whether or not they managed to win for themselves the benefits they saw accruing to others all around them, had their expectations and desires expanded. Resources and pleasures which were only accessible to the aristocracy a short time before were suddenly within the reach of - if not everyone - very large numbers of people. The Engelian idea that the privileges of the wealthy should be extended to everyone seemed to be coming true.
In the long term, though, it turns out that this brave new world of prosperity and democracy-through-consumption was built on a shaky foundation: hidden costs and deferred payments. The cheap oil that fueled the boom economies of the forties through the sixties is running out, and its producers are taking control over its consumers. The improved health care that has made us live longer and raise more healthy children has increased our numbers, and they are increasing alarmingly fast still. The improved and streamlined agribusiness that manufactured mountains of food to feed us all is running out of petrochemical resources, being forced to admit the unwanted side-effects of its miracle pesticides and fertilisers; the debts incurred by third world nations trying to buy into that big agribusiness are turning bad and threatening the economies of the lenders. The aging nuclear power plants of the sixties and seventies, and the tons of hot waste that we have no idea how to deal with, are a fitting metaphor for the boom years as a whole: we dreamed big and we built big, but we didn't look ahead, and we bought more than we could pay for.
To many people of my generation it is as if we had found ourselves living in the dreary tail end of an enormous frat house party: the house is a mess, there are people throwing up in the front yard, two car accidents to resolve, and the landlord is on the phone€but the guys who threw the party are still staggering about in drunken bonhomie, telling everyone to go ahead and have a good time. They don't seem to have realised what the rest of us are waking up to find: the bills are coming due.
But to say these things marks me in many people's eyes as some kind of Puritan, not just another humourless bitch of a feminist but worse: a religious nut or a Communist or something. Would I deny that the majority of people are better off now than they were at the turn of the last century, that we live longer and work fewer hours, that women's lives in particular are infinitely improved in terms of freedom and opportunity? Don't I believe in Progress? I would not deny these things, particularly if we remember to restrict our commentary to the industrialised nations. But these improvements were not the result of loving-kindness and a sharing of resources. They were the accidental byproduct of an era of general excess and abundance, and that era is now closing.
We have two ways to proceed from here. One is to follow the traditional path of failing empires: diminished prosperity, increasing disparity between rich and poor, a tendency for the nation and the world to fragment into warring cliques defined by race, culture, or religion. This path brings us to the dystopian futures of many of our best science fiction writers, the world not of Luke Skywalker and his lovable droids but of Soylent Green, Mad Max, Blade Runner : the Depression years, but with niftier technology.
Another is to practise moderation, and search soon and desperately for sustainable ways to live: and here I will return to specifically feminist concerns, hoping you will pardon this last long digression. The model of conspicuous consumption, of ruthless capitalism, of waste and excess, cannot be overturned without a major change in more than our shopping habits.
To accept that the costs borne by strangers in far-off lands make our way of life unaffordable implies that we learn to respect those people and that we become ashamed of living at their expense; to accept that we are responsible for the damage that we do to our soil, water, and air means that we learn to clean up after ourselves; to accept that resources are precious and should not be wasted is to learn that the world is not a consumable, an expendable - and neither are its people. To accept that our way of life is costing too much means accepting less: giving up excess, resolving to live within our means. Shoving off the costs of your behaviour onto others, expecting someone else to clean up your mess, blowing away the household economy with irresponsible spending, treating other people as objects to be used and discarded: are these not some of the traits for which feminists have persistently criticised and confronted men, the habits of privilege and arrogance?
Grabbing all you can while you can get it is an expensive way to live. It may turn out to be an expensive way to die. A generation which took this lesson to heart would be less likely to use up, despise, abuse and discard women and children as sexual toys.
Unfortunately, the lesbian and gay community today is subscribing whole-heartedly to the frat-party ethic: live it up and get what you can while the getting's good. Excess, self-indulgence, obsession with fashion and sexual entertainment and with Self are by no means limited to the two-income Yuppie families caricatured by our cartoonists. I think many of us have an uneasy feeling that the Titanic is sinking; the sensible and responsible thing to do might be to bail like hell, or throw a few things overboard to lighten the load, or take a crash course in small-craft navigation. But most of us just have a couple more drinks and ask the band to play louder.
Emulating and adoring the behaviours that have brought us to this pass will not get us out of it. The symbols, language and style of lesbian sm chic are the symbols and language and style of male supremacy: violation, ruthlessness, intimidation, humiliation, force, mockery, consumerism. Words like respect, tenderness, gentleness , are boring and passe, according to our new fashion leaders. What we want is excess, and lots of it: extreme experiences of every kind, a great bazaar of fantasy for our shopping pleasure.
And this is why I have lost my faith in gay liberation and in gay community, and why I am unmoved at this point by Gay Pride. What seemed to me twelve years ago to be the most exciting challenge imaginable to male power, female subservience, and the foundations of the capitalist state has now been fitted into the machinery of the marketplace and is standing in line with VISA cards in hand, patiently awaiting admission to the Theatre of Dreams.
Ruthlessness, hardness, force and intimidation have characterised the successful businessman, soldier, gangster, politician and pimp from the very beginning. If we admire those qualities, we implicitly endorse the world these men have created - perhaps we subscribe to the fantasy that women can become hard enough and mean enough to compete with men on their own turf. Suppose we do so, and suppose some of us win: will a world that contains a token handful of lesbian aristocrats among its ruling class be a better world?
Now suppose for a moment that an ethic of mutual respect or common decency might gain popular support, that slogans like Nice guys finish last, and Never give a sucker an even break, might become anachronisms of a barbarous past, like the Iron Maidens and chastity belts in our museums. Suspend your disbelief for one moment and suppose: women and children would fare better in a world that despised arrogant exploitation, a world which idealised thoughtfulness, truthfulness, moderation and gentleness. In essence, the less aggressively and traditionally masculine, warlike, and brutally market-based we can make our public and private ethics, aesthetics, practises and beliefs, the better off we will all be.
We might begin modestly, as we do with recycling and phasing toxic products out of our homes. We might begin by refusing to play-act in other people's fantasies, or to ask others to play-act for us. We might begin by refusing to buy or sell sex, by boycotting those businesses which buy, sell, or rent women or sexualised images of women, by phasing toxic media out of our homes. We might begin by refusing to defend pornographers and pimps, and by confronting - regardless of their gender or sexual affinity - those who do. The challenge to pornography, prostitution and sadomasochism is like the challenge to the nuclear plant, the bomb factory, and the styrofoam cup: a necessary first step, if we are ever to achieve a livable world.