Abortion and Bad Critique
July 11, 2022
On May 17, 2022, I wrote an article for Sublation Magazine, “Abortion, Capitalism and Demographic Control.” In it, I argued that — while the abortion debate is often framed moralistically, pitting advocates of “choice” against advocates of “life” — this obscures its economic function. The extensive regulation of reproduction is no older than capitalism; its origins can be traced back to attempts to augment the birth rate in the wake of the Black Death, so as to diminish the value of labor power. Later, in the industrial era, reproductive control was subject to a de facto loosening. While laws remained in place in Western Europe, abortion became increasingly normalized due to the ability of machines to generate (relative) surplus value as well as the related entry of women en masse into the workforce. Finally, I conclude by offering a summary of the twentieth century, in which the inexorable decline of the birth rate was staved off through recourse to either pro-natality programs (in the USSR, after 1953) or mass immigration (the U.S., after 1965). I then put forth a somewhat “delicate” thesis: that the decision of the Republican majority of the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Roe v. Wade may be related to the dramatic decline of immigration to the U.S. under Trump, as well as the ability of newly-minted cyber-surveillance techniques to ensure that anti-abortion laws are not transgressed.
As this summary suffices to demonstrate, “Abortion, Capitalism, and Demographic Control” does quite a bit. In the span of 4,500 words, it attempts to trace the history of abortion within capitalism, shifting quickly from the late Middle Ages to industrial Western Europe to the Cold War, as well as to shed light on causes of the overturning of Roe. Given this, there are certainly plenty of criticisms of it one could make. I do not think, for instance, that a survey of abortion which restricts itself to elaborating capitalist imperatives cannot fully elucidate the issue in question. To understand the role religion plays in these debates, for instance, one has to also look at the history of religion, a history that sometimes abets and sometimes jostles uneasily against the demands of capital. Nor do I think an article that dwells upon the changes to reproductive cultures in the most economically advanced regions of the world can really purport to be a work of global history. Indeed, the article I wrote only touches passingly on the status of reproductive control as a world-system: the way that, if the birth rate has fallen in the Global North, this is supplemented by flows of labor from regions of the Global South in which, due to desperate conditions, the birth rate remains strikingly high.
The article I wrote, then, is not perfect. But I am still a little surprised by the uncharitable interpretation of it embraced by Ethan Linehan in his response piece for Sublation Magazine, “Wrong Life and Abortion.” While Linehan’s rejoinder is a bit scattershot, his critique of what I wrote can be boiled down to two essential points. First, that it is oversimplistic to see the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade as a consequence as an attempt to raise the birth rate, so as to counteract reduced immigration. And second, that my call for policy changes to facilitate access to abortion as well as to reduce the cost of having children is tantamount to an unprincipled endorsement of the management of society by the “capitalist state.”
The Anti-Materialist Ideology of Judicial Independence
Linehan’s first point—about the complexity of the motives underlying the SCOTUS decision—is not wrong. Yet it also represents a questionable reading of my article. Though Linehan omits these passages from his précis of my position, I do not claim that one can draw a direct causal line between the decline of immigration in the U.S. under Trump and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Clearly, a number of contingencies are involved — the use of abortion as a means of galvanizing voters by the Republicans from the 1980s onward, as civil rights became de rigueur; the lowering of the threshold for Supreme Court confirmation in 2017 to a simple majority, so that more divisive judges could be appointed; the climate of relatively unvarnished reaction ushered in by the Trump presidency, etc., etc.
Many of these issues are dealt with in my article. Why then — fully acknowledging the complexity of the situation — would I contend that we should not dismiss the possibility of a higher-order economic reasoning? Partly, I put forth this line of reasoning because it is important to try to understand why this has happened now. After all, party polarization around the issue of abortion has been a staple of American politics since the election of Reagan in 1980, and the Republicans have held unbroken control of the Supreme Court since even earlier than this, in 1970. Thus, technically speaking at least, the Republicans have for several decades now been able to overturn Roe v. Wade. Why didn’t they?
One obvious reason is that, while the Republicans have had a Supreme Court majority since the Nixon era, they did not have a pro-life majority until 2020, after the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett. Part of this has to do with the slow turning of its gears. While Reagan, for instance, took a stridently anti-Roe position, the Supreme Court was still largely padded with appointees from earlier Republican and Democrat administrations who did not feel the need to upset consensus. Yet this hardly explains why, even after the party made campaigning against Roe its cause célèbre, justices were repeatedly appointed who could not be reliably expected to vote against it. After following the siren of anti-abortion fanaticism during his 1980 campaign, the first judge Reagan nominated was Sandra Day O’Connor — a woman who had voted to repeal Arizona’s criminal abortion statute in 1970 and who later sided with liberal justices in upholding the rights established by Roe. Far from being an isolated incident, this was the start of a pattern: From 1980 to 2005, when George W. Bush made his final Supreme Court nomination, only four of the eight Republican Supreme Court appointees opposed Roe (Alito, Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas). Combined with rolling Democratic appointments, this wavering on the part of the Republicans all but ensured that Roe remained the law of the land.
Linehan is quite right, then, to suggest that the status quo of abortion — as legal but precarious — has long been subject to a gentleman’s agreement between the two parties. The Republicans avoided creating a genuine pro-life majority on the Supreme Court, thereby alienating pro-life voters. And the Democrats avoided codifying Roe into law, ensuring they could use it as a basis for “urgent” fundraising calls. What Linehan completely misses, however, is that this status quo was completely upended by Trump. Prior to 2017, when the Republican-controlled Senate reduced the threshold to move on a nomination to a simple majority, three of the five Republican judges sitting were staunchly anti-Roe. The replacement of Scalia by Gorsuch that year did nothing to alter this composition. Both were opposed to the judicial enshrinement of abortion rights by the Supreme Court. What did make a difference was the Trump administration’s subsequent decision to replace two outgoing pro-choice judges—Kennedy and Ginsburg—with two pro-life replacements, Kavanaugh and Barrett. With veterans Thomas and Alito being joined now by the Trumpian trio of Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, the pro-life side finally gained its long sought-for majority. Within twenty months of Barrett’s confirmation, it did what one would expect it to do: It overturned Roe v. Wade.
There can thus be no ambiguity: Trump knew that there was a good chance his Supreme Court nominations would result in the overturning of Roe, and he did it anyway. Why? Linehan can’t answer this question as — in spite of clear evidence to the contrary — he rejects the idea of a link between the Republican Party’s agenda and the decision of the Supreme Court. Instead, he offers no explanation. The Supreme Court, he tells us elliptically, “operat[es] outside of this political dog-and-pony show” of two-party politics. This is a strange thing to say about any Supreme Court, let alone one intentionally constructed to have a pro-life majority.
In truth one needn’t resort to the mystifying character of judicial independence to understand our current impasse. If the Reagan or Bush administrations didn’t seriously attempt to overturn Roe, this is connected to the fact they didn’t seriously attempt to reverse the accelerated diversification of American society ushered in by the Immigration Act of 1965 (an act that removed longstanding strictures on non-white immigration). Reagan declared amnesty for most illegal immigrants who arrived prior to 1982. George H.W. Bush boasted that his 1990 Immigration Act “facilitates immigration, not just in numerical terms but also in terms of basic entry rights of those beyond our borders.” George Bush Jr., in spite of launching the reign of terror of ICE, oversaw a significant increase in immigration. He also attempted to pass comprehensive legislation which, among other things, eased the naturalization process for undocumented workers. Despite garnering the support of most Democratic senators, this measure was defeated because 37 Republicans voted against it.
The failure of Bush Jr.’s immigration reform offered the most conclusive proof yet that there existed a rift between the Republican presidency and rank-and-file on the question of immigration. But while sufficient to scuttle his designs, this rift was unable to exert an influence on the upper echelons of U.S. politics at the time. For, prior to the 2010s, there was no generalized model which existed that permitted the rejection of the political consensus according to which a declining birth rate was to be supplemented with elevated immigration. In the next few years, this changed. Aided by efforts by Marine Le Pen to soften its image, support for the virulently anti-immigrant and strongly pro-natalist National Front in France rapidly ticked upward in the nation’s presidential election — from 10.44% in 2007 to 17.9% in 2012 to 33.9% in 2017. The United Kingdom Independence Party won more seats than any other British Party in the 2014 European elections, the first time a party other than Labour or the Tories had won a general election since 1906. Even more instructive were the upheavals in Central Europe, where several parties that sought to reduce immigration while boosting the birth rate took government. Vowing to provide five hundred złoty for every child after the first as well as to fight the European Union’s efforts to resettle refugees there, the Law and Justice Party cruised to victory in both Poland’s presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, a trouncing that culminated in the outlawing of abortion in the country. That same year, Viktor Orbán took an even more sharply anti-migration turn in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, constructing a barrier on the Serbian border to block illegals. Styling himself as a champion of a nuclear family under attack from the left, he then began offering generous housing subsidies that scaled up based on the number of children one has.
With Steve Bannon advising him, the Trump campaign heeded these developments. In the 2015–16 primary, Republicans like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush tenuously tiptoed around norms of political correctness, pledging to crack down on illegals while praising the diversity of American society. Playing to the party base, Trump opted for a different strategy, launching a vitriolic frontal assault on the border-hopping “bad hombres” who pose a threat to the nation. Openly embracing the far-right thesis according to which Western civilization is under threat due to demographic replacement, as president he proceeded to do what many thought unthinkable, nearly halving the immigration rate. While this arguably owed less to tangible measures, such as the lowering of the refugee cap and the reduction in the issuance of green cards as to the chill instilled by his rhetoric, the result was efficacious all the same: From 2015 to 2019, the number of immigrants to the U.S. declined from 678,000 to 389,000 per year.
From a demographic standpoint, such a drastic a reduction in immigration is essentially untenable. If immigration levels inaugurated by Trump stabilize, the U.S. population will only grow by 50 or so million by 2060. The US will also experience a sharp decline in the relative size of the working-age population. So it’s no surprise that, as immigration declined, the Trump administration continued to pay close attention to the changes afoot in Europe. In March 2019, Republican members of Congress and evangelicals attended the “Make Families Great Again” conference at the Library of Congress. Hosted by the Hungarian Embassy, the event championed the benefits of Orbán’s “Family Protection Action Policy,” and included a number of speakers who exhorted women to have more children. Later that year, administration officials were dispatched to the International Conference on Family Policy. At the event Joe Grogan, an assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council, praised the “courage and creativity” of Hungary’s “procreation, not immigration” policies. Tellingly, he also affirmed the Trump administration’s commitment to outlawing abortion.
All of these events culminated in the elimination of the federal protection of abortion in the United States on June 24. If one does not understand this through the prism of the global far right, they are unlikely to understand it at all. In October 2020, the same month that Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal found abortion unconstitutional on the grounds that, of all things, it is tantamount to eugenics. They achieved this result the same way the Trump administration did: by stacking the court with pro-Law and Justice nominees. Meanwhile in Hungary, the ruling Fidesz has—possibly due to the relative weakness of organized religion in the country, when compared with the U.S. or Poland—stopped short of illegalizing abortion. Still, they have still taken tangible steps in this direction, declaring that human life will be protected from the moment of conception in the nation’s 2012 constitution, as well as making it so cumbersome to access that hundreds of Hungarian women now undergo abortions in Vienna every year.
Does it follow that the Republican Party will — with abortion now sure to be illegal across more than twenty states — follow the model of Law and Justice and Fidesz by embracing pro-natality policies? To some extent, Trump already has gone in this direction. At the urging of his daughter Ivanka, he proposed two major policies intended to ease costs for families. First, to guarantee six weeks of paid maternity leave (strikingly the United States is the only high-income nation in the world with no paid parental leave). Second, to double the child tax credit to $2,000 for each qualifying child. The slipshod implementation of both these policies, though, speaks volumes about the way Trump’s right-populist agenda is inhibited by the de facto coalition he was forced to form with Chamber-of-Commerce style Republicans in order to secure his position within the party. While twelve weeks of parental leave was approved in 2019, it was ultimately only provided to a relatively privileged professional stratum: federal civilian employees, of which there are just 2.1 million in the United States. And, while Trump did double the child tax credit, this did nothing for the 26 million children from low-and moderate-income families that pay little or no federal tax. (This had been the case with the child tax credit since its bipartisan implementation in 1997.) Should the Republican rearguard continue to carefully guard the nation’s purse strings, the U.S. is likely to–going forward—have the worst of both worlds: severely restricted reproductive rights without the financial support for families that European far-right governments have embraced.
In terms of raising the birth rate, this may be a significant stumbling block. If history has shown us anything, it’s that criminalizing abortion rarely suffices to increase births in of itself. Take the USSR, where the rate of abortion actually increased after its 1936 illegalization. The Republicans will thus need to pursue other measures if they wish to significantly elevate the birth rate, such as using cyber-surveillance to ruthlessly prosecute women who violate these laws as well as providing family allowances.
None of these complexities, however, disprove the idea that there exists a link between the Trump administration’s anti-immigration stance and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The law, as Marx observed, is part of the superstructure — while it is capable of playing a determinant role in some cases, for the most part it reflects the economic relations of productions in a given society. In this case, what is being reflected is the desire of the Trump administration to forcibly alter U.S. demographics —a desire likely rooted in the tensions between domestic and transnational branches of U.S. capital (which I have delved into elsewhere). Of course, if one looks for a perfect example of economic determination, they will never find it, any more than they will find a perfect circle in nature. But this does not alter its value as a heuristic. Does Linehan adhere to this heuristic? That is, does he cut through the dross of our dominant discourse, situating the crisis in the United States within the contradictions of material life? No: instead, he takes refuge in the paper-thin premise of judicial independence. In doing so, he has produced a response that is not just strikingly un-Marxist. It is also strikingly uninformed.
Did Somebody Say Policies?
In the second part of his essay, Linehan takes a different tack. In my essay, I suggest certain “policies” and “measures” that could be applied to ease our current reproductive impasse, namely guaranteeing the right to abortion while simultaneously providing increased support for families. Therefore, on no other basis than this technocratic language, “one must assume” my ideas are intended to be “instituted by the capitalist state.” On this account, I’m guilty of a deficit of imagination. Whereas the socialists of the past “fund[ed] abortions or sex education” themselves, my position is symptomatic of the inability of the left to advocate “for anything other than top-down policies in accordance with capitalist exigencies.”
It is somewhat bizarre that Linehan thinks that the changes to reproductive policies that I advocate for necessarily entail an endorsement of capitalist governance. For even if the sort of “mass socialist party” he envisions were to take power in the United States, it would still be left to contend with a society in which exploitative immigration practices have come to substitute for a birth rate inadequate to achieve the expansion of the working-age population. Pending more radical (and from the current vantage point extremely futuristic) changes—abolishing the family as the fundamental unit of society, as Kollontai proposed, or conspiring with other socialist movements worldwide to do away with borders—society would still be compelled to cultivate demographic policies that addressed present needs. On this score, it is hard to see what would be better than increasing support for families as well as—without embracing nativism—establishing immigration quotas intended to curb the brain drain of skilled workers from the Global South.
These remarks alone suffice to defuse the thrust of Linehan’s argument. But I would like to go a little further in contesting his premises. Overall, Linehan expounds a very simple, binary worldview. There are good and bad socialists. The good ones are the socialists who, like those “of old,” sought to implement policies—such as those intended to facilitate reproductive freedom—“themselves.” (So ambiguous is Linehan’s phrasing that one may imagine Lenin in the clinic with a suction device). The bad are those who, like so many socialists today, have been relegated to the position of pleading with capitalist politicians to implement reforms, which only forestalls or distracts from the realization of socialism. Given that Linehan appears opposed to any change to the status quo which is implemented by “the capitalist state,” one must assume that he would not be satisfied with reforms successfully advanced by socialists within a capitalist state and administered, in turn, by its bureaucracy: For these measures to be acceptable requires them to be undertaken directly by socialists, either via their own organizations or a state they govern.
To justify this assertion — socialist states or militants, good; socialist advocacy, bad — Linehan resorts partly to an appeal to (historical) authority. The socialists of the past, we are told — though not which — understood that relying on the capitalist state to bring about sought-for reforms could only lead to the undermining of their cause. Whether one agrees with Linehan, this is—strictly speaking—untrue. The legalization of abortion has been achieved in literally dozens of capitalist states with the support of socialist or communist political parties, from Italy to France to Nepal. One supposes that, for Linehan, the fact that none of these parties succeeded in creating the communism of the twenty-third century suffices to prove that their backing of reforms was misguided. But while co-optation of socialist ideas is always a risk, where is the proof that the ‘direct’ organization of political changes by socialists will necessarily yield better results?
One can take the example of Italy. It is all too easy to say that Italian communists should’ve attempted to seize power directly in 1944, rather than accepting integration into the U.S.-backed government of Marshall Badoglio. Without the support of the USSR, however, and with American troops thoroughly ensconced in the European Mediterranean, the likely result would’ve been the extermination of the partisans and the establishment of a fascist dictatorship, akin to what happened in Greece (indeed, as Molotov wryly noted, the PCI was “in no position” to win an armed conflict in Italy). I don’t propose to offer an incisive judgment on this historical situation. I merely wish to point out that, absent attention to the contradictions at work in any given situation, Linehan’s generalities about strategy amount to little more than a tautology: that if any left movement should lose, it’s because it wasn’t left enough.
There are, of course, many other examples we could provide of past socialists, even great ones, who would not pass muster for Linehan. Marx lauded legislation mandating a 10-hour day in Britain as a “great practical success” and the “victory of a principle.” He also evinced enthusiasm for, or even outright supported, bourgeois leaders such as Garibaldi and Lincoln, whom he saw as bringing about transformative changes germane to the final success of socialism. Lenin harshly chided Rosa Luxemburg for rejecting the role of parliaments, having repeatedly used the Russian State Duma as a platform from which to support radical legislative overhauls. Linehan’s position is, as such, more of a break with past socialists than an affirmation of them—or, at best, a dogmatic reification of socialist strategies that succeeded in certain specific conjunctures.
From Strategy to Identity (And Back?)
Why is the socialist left so saturated by individuals like Linehan today? Individuals who — to be blunt — fail so completely to think the complexity of politics? There are many reasons: the increasing consignment of socialist thinkers to cultural and educational spaces from which they have little contact with the outside world, a lack of engagement with the masses due to the collapse of organized labor, etc. Each of these causes, though, can be traced back to a more general one: the failure of socialism in the twentieth century (or at least European socialism — Asia is another matter). Removed from the conditions which gave rise to — or, perhaps, had been given rise to by — strategic flexibility, socialists in the West thereafter adopted, for the most part, one of three inadequate positions: a sort of impotent reformism, perhaps capable of preparing the ground for more significant changes, but certainly not overturning the status quo; a messianic ultra-leftism, which condemns any institutional intervention as contaminated by capitalism from the get-go; or a sclerotic Marxist-Leninism, which blares the need for a revival of the party form into the void. Linehan is so afraid of the first position that — in conformance with the Platypus line of Postone plus Lenin — he freely blends elements of the latter two, arguing for either takeover by a “mass socialist party” or, barring that, direct action from socialists. But the result is parodic, as — instead of attempting to grasp the strategic spectrum upon which past socialists operated and bringing it into the present — he repeats the dominant tendency to turn strategy into identity, as if we need to read recipes aloud from a revolutionary cookbook.
Linehan’s response is deeply confused. What else could it be in the current climate? It’s hard to know exactly how socialists in the West should go about advancing beyond this sort of political sloganism. Intellectually, perhaps the solution lies in devoting renewed attention to the philosophical origins of Marx’s work. For Hegel, God is very generous and gives you all you need— a notion Marx would later apply when he wrote that communism must proceed from the premises of the present. In which case, Linehan’s attempts to circumscribe the strategic pathways through which socialism can succeed in advance of it having taken the first step is analogous to Kant, for whom the conditions of thought could be known in advance of thinking. Maybe we should be grateful: This is better than an unvarnished ultra-leftism, which — like the Romantic thought of the late-period Schelling — circles endlessly around the impossibility of a purified praxis. But the least we can say of the socialists of the past, reformist or no, is this: they were able to fail.
 Agosti, Aldo. Palmiro Togliatti: A Biography, trans. Vanna Derosas and Jane Ennis. 1996. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 189.