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On Gender, Collapse, And Communities We Can All Abide - Part I: A ResponseTo Dmitry Orlov

By Katherine M Acosta

17 September, 2013

If everything collapsed tomorrow, what kind of society would you want to build on the rubble of the old one?

Talk of “collapse” has gone mainstream in recent years with numerous websites, blogs, articles and books devoted to analyzing and predicting looming economic, environmental, and fossil-fueled industrial collapse. Most sensationalized are the “doomsday preppers” featured on cable TV building homes in old missile silos, practicing their fire arms skills, and stockpiling freeze-dried foods. Other “doomers” plant gardens, reduce their energy consumption, write papers and books, and organize conferences.

One such conference, the Age of Limits , convened in rural Pennsylvania in late May.

Organized by Orren Whiddon of Four Quarters Inter-Faith, the conference aimed to “address our developing understanding of the core issues relating to the emerging decline of the Western industrial model and the practical adaptations and preparations that apply on the personal, family, and local levels.”

The conference featured presentations and workshops by long-time writers on various aspects of collapse such as Carolyn Baker, Gail Tverberg, John Michael Greer, Tom Whipple, and Dmitry Orlov . One of Orlov's two presentations featured his ongoing writing and research on “Communities that Abide.” Orlov's idea is that analysis of self-sufficient subcultures that have lasted at least a century may yield some commonalities, or a set of “best practices,” that may be adapted for successful post-collapse, small-scale communities.

His talk, however, didn't quite go as planned and sparked what he later described on his blog as a “shit storm” where “feminist rhetoric flew fast and furious” in the Q & A following his presentation. To make matters worse, an “ agent provocateur … decided to raise the temperature some more by asking me what I thought of Pussy Riot.” In Orlov's account, the event got so ugly that organizer Orren Whiddon referred to it as a “circular firing squad” and congratulated Orlov “on still having both my legs, having walked into a minefield.” His readers, Orlov hoped, would “appreciate just what a brave person I am for walking in this particular valley of the shadow of death.”

What the heck happened? Up to now, Orlov has been a popular writer, and his wit and trenchant critique of American culture and impending collapse, most especially in his book, Reinventing Collapse , almost universally praised (including by me, elsewhere ). What, exactly, did those feminist furies hurl at him and how did it all go down? In Part I of this two-part essay I examine the event and Orlov's response to it. In Part II I assess the content of his preliminary analysis of “communities that abide.” Not just some spat among doomers in the woods, the episode is worthy of serious discussion, given Orlov's prominence as a writer with a significant platform for his views and the contemporary political rhetoric about women in the public discourse.

The “Incident”

Apparently, all of the examples Orlov presented of “communities that abide” were patriarchal, and several of the women in the audience had the temerity to question his work. (There is no transcript of the talk, but through second-hand accounts I learned that his examples included the Hutterites, the Roma (sometimes called Gypsies), and Hasidic Jews.) The following partial transcript is from a video of the Q & A. It began, innocently enough, with a question about the Amish (who, like the Hutterites, are a branch of Anabaptists).

Woman: “I think you start off by saying these communities are characterized by nonviolence to gain behavioral conformity or whatever.” [She then describes going to horse auctions and observing well-behaved Amish kids. She jokes that she previously thought they beat them to get them to behave. Then she asks Orlov:]

“How do they get their kids to behave that way? Do you know?”

Orlov [matter-of-factly]: “They beat ‘em.”

Somewhat taken aback, she asks: “Do they?”

Orlov: “Yeah.”

[Unintelligible crosstalk.]

A woman asks: “That doesn't count as violence?”

“Yeah,” Orlov responds. He goes on to explain that the societies he's studying do not take up arms, refuse to serve in the military, and refuse to carry weapons.

A man says, “But they will beat their kids.”

“And their animals,” Orlov adds helpfully. Then he asserts that corporal punishment “is prevalent throughout the human species. It's just the liberal bias that it doesn't get practiced now.”

In some cases, Orlov explains, the whole community is so nonviolent that the violence is symbolic. “Basically, it's not about pain. It's about respect. So, if you want to be treated respectfully, you behave in a certain way. And being smacked or something like that is disrespect in return for disrespect.”

Next, a woman raises a question about the Roma, a community Orlov described in his presentation where women do not gain full membership until after they have a child.

Woman: “What happens if they choose not to have children?”

Orlov: “The marriage is dissolved.”

The woman continues: “What if it's the husband's fault that they can't have children?”

Orlov: “Doesn't matter. She goes back to her parents.”

[More crosstalk. Then a woman asks:]

“Were you not able to find any matrilineal societies to [unclear] emulate here? Were the only three societies you could point to male-dominated ones? It just seems…”

Orlov interrupts: “Well, there aren't that many examples and you have to dig pretty deep to find matriarchal societies.”

(Note here that the woman asks about matrilineal societies and Orlov responds about matriarchal societies. There's a difference we'll get to in Part II.)

The woman continues: “And why did you not do that?”

Orlov: “Because these are outliers. I was focusing on a core of commonalities.”

A woman responds: “As a woman, I would not try to emulate any society, at this point, that was totally male-dominated. No matter how non-violent or how many organic vegetables they grow. I just don't think that is an appropriate model for all of us, as sophisticated as we are in this group.”

Orlov responds drily: “Oh, absolutely, I agree. You should definitely opt out of any and all of them.” [With finality:] “That's my answer.”

Another woman speaks up: “Could we continue that a little bit? Because I think you made so many good points and there's so many potentially constructive things to emulate, or adopt or adapt… But, how do we get beyond this very limited, and internally violent, set of models?”

The discussion continued, with Albert Bates at one point sharing his sense that fundamentalist Mormon women he had spoken with “felt more empowered… than the women they talked to who were outside in the world.” The conversation never really left the topic of gender and eventually Orlov addressed the issue directly:

“Well, you know, I approach the whole subject of gender equality in the US from the perspective of my wife who is Russian and so, in effect, I'm channeling her here, to some limited extent. I hope she doesn't mind. But, you see, Russians have had gender equality for a lot longer than this country. They have just been much further ahead the entire time. They've gone through the whole gender equality experiment already. They consider it a failure. Russian women do not want to be like men because men are idiots.”

[Audience members laugh and clap].

Orlov continues: “And becoming like men makes women not women. Russians recognize that, so Russian women want to be feminine. They do not want to engage in these male practices of wielding power.”

A woman calls out: “What about Pussy Riot?”

Orlov: “They're idiots.”

Now a few people in the audience begin hissing. You can't see it in the video, but I heard that a few women walked out. It's the only point in the Q & A that could remotely be considered contentious. The questions were valid and the tone civil. (Judge for yourself – you can view the video here .) Unless the discussion took a 180 degree turn after the video camera was turned off, it's hard to understand the exaggeration and rage the normally mild-mannered Orlov subsequently expressed on his blog. Perhaps the bar for what counts as a “shit storm” in Russia is markedly lower than in the US. In any case, it's good to see that the redoubtable kollapsnik managed to survive it.

Orlov was further incensed by Gail Zawacki, the woman who asked about Pussy Riot, and later reported the event on her blog . Describing Orlov as “charmingly diffident” and “impossible to dislike,” she nevertheless offered a critical – but far from vitriolic - assessment of the conference as a whole. In her account, Orlov's presentation wasn't the only occasion “ where the cracks [among participants] turned into chasms… on the treacherous shoals of gender politics.” Again, judge for yourself, at the link above.

Orlov's Response

Orlov's post-conference rant on his blog didn't stop with melodramatic claims about feminist harpies hijacking his presentation. He had plenty more to say . He suggested that women who criticized the societies he studied were racists. Taking what he imagines to be the perspective of his critics, he wrote:

Of course we have the right to criticize; we are not like those other trashy/dark-skinned Americans! We are white, upper-middle-class, Ivy League-educated, we send our children to private schools and our outcomes are as perfect as our pearly-white teeth!

He attacked Gail Zawacki for her presumed classism, based on the fact that her daughter owns horses and her son-in-law owns a yacht:

For 99% of you, you need to know that Gail is not “your people…” [T]he 1%ers… main community-building principles seem to be “pay to join” and “pay as you go,” both of which would take too much money—which they won't give to us—so it seems like a waste of time to listen to them tell us how wonderful they are and how bad everyone else is.

He also accused critics of seeking to impose their values on other societies, an action he characterized as akin to persecution:

Their value systems are their own—not yours. Do you wish to “improve” these communities, bringing them more in line with your own value system? Well, there is a word for that sort of activity: persecution.

Never mind that these criticisms arose only in response to Orlov's using these communities as exemplars. He pointed to a myriad of social problems in the US, insinuated that feminism was at the root of many of these problems, and scolded those who would criticize other societies when their own were rife with problems:

Add to this the fact that in the US, as women joined the “workforce” (a term full of inane puffery), family incomes stagnated (women's wages have been subtracted from the men's) while family costs went up (because domestic services such as child care and food preparation now had to be paid for). The results of all this are plain to see: the US leads the world in the percentage of children brought up fatherless, many of them on public assistance that is becoming precarious…

To be able to criticize, one must first rise above that which you wish to criticize… America… does not work. Of all the developed nations, it has highest rates of spousal abuse, child fatalities from parental and other abuse and violence, highest divorce rate, highest teen pregnancy rate, highest rate of STD inflection among teenage girls, highest rates of depression among women, children who have to be medicated into submission to force them to cram for meaningless standardized tests... the list is very long. It is a case study in societal failure. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) Before you criticize others, you should first reflect on what your own people are like, and, if they are that bad, then perhaps you should just zip it [emphasis added].

Certainly we have serious and multiple social problems in the US, but here Orlov merely repeats mostly unsubstantiated right-wing talking points. A whole paper could be written in response – e.g. the large-scale movement of women into the paid labor force was more in response to stagnating wages in the late 1970s than feminist ideology, not the other way round. Working class and minority women participated in the paid labor force long before the emergence of second-wave feminism out of necessity. Blaming their workforce participation for social ills is ridiculous. And he's behind the times with the Reagan-esque rhetoric on teen pregnancy; those rates have been declining for two decades in almost all states.

More importantly, does Orlov really mean to suggest that because we have social problems in the US, we should shut up, stifle our criticisms, and listen to him about how we should organize our society? Russia has its own set of serious problems; there is an HIV/AIDS crisis in that country , which now has the “highest percentage of HIV-infected people in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa.” The epidemic is thought to have been precipitated by an upsurge in heroin use in the 1990s. The World Bank estimates that by 2020, 20,000 persons will die each month from AIDS in Russia. Alcoholism is also a serious problem in Russia, where consumption is 4 th highest in the world. The World Health Organization reports that the average Russian drinks more than twice the amount considered healthy. In recent years, Russian divorce rates have regularly topped those in the United States; in 2010, according to the United Nations Demographic Yearbook , Russia had the highest divorce rate in the world. Should these social ills disqualify Orlov from commentary and criticism about what constitutes a desirable and successful society?

Orlov goes on to claim that gender is a “fake” political class, that asserting gender as a class contributes to the oppression of working class men, and has the unintended consequence of high incarceration rates among men.

[T]here are numerous higher-class, educated women ensconced in various official positions who, while supposedly championing the rights of women and children, end up oppressing lower-class, uneducated men. To do so, they rely on the services of America's oversize criminal-industrial complex, which imprisons a larger share of the population than Stalin did during the height of his purges, with the majority of the inmates male, non-white, uneducated and poor…

Eventually “men's liberation” will come and all these inmates will be freed—once the system runs out of money and can no longer spend the $60-80k or so a year it costs to keep someone in jail. Since jail is a deeply dehumanizing experience, the role these freed inmates will play in society upon release is unlikely to be positive.

Here Orlov really goes off the rails – and reveals his true colors. Where to begin to unravel the misinformation and ignorance? It's true that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, it's true that the majority of those incarcerated (about 90%) are men, and it's also true that men from racial-ethnic minorities are incarcerated at much higher rates than white men.

But high incarceration rates are due primarily to mandatory minimum sentences and three strikes laws, mostly introduced with the “tough on crime” Reagan-era polices. Many of the people in prison are there for drug-related or other non-violent crimes. Moreover, the prison industrial complex , through privatization of some prison services and the use of prison labor, produces economic incentives to incarcerate more people. Rather than offer even a cursory economic or structural analysis, let alone cite any sources to support his claim, Orlov invokes the time-honored tactic of blaming uppity women for societal ills.

Finally, to assert that gender is a “fake” political class requires ignoring the economic dimension of gender inequality. To question whether women should work at paid labor is to assume that women do not have an inherent right to direct access to their means of subsistence, that they should marry and get their living through men, and that all women will be able to marry men who can command wages high enough to support them. While I agree with much of Orlov's critique of wage labor, industrial capitalism is the system in which we find ourselves; so for women and men their means of subsistence is likely to be wage labor.

Orlov's post-conference diatribe against women was wildly disproportionate to the response his presentation provoked at the Age of Limits conference and much of it was gratuitously offensive. As the whole edifice of fossil-fueled industrial capitalism and American empire slowly collapses, the public discourse will grow uglier as elites ratchet up divide and rule tactics to keep the 99% from banding together, taking up (metaphorical) torches and pitchforks, and going after the folks who engineered the disaster. Thus we are likely to see ever more divisive rhetoric, pitting men against women and whites against racial-ethnic minorities. However unintentionally, Orlov's inflammatory screed contributes to that river of abuse. It is unworthy of someone who has otherwise made useful and original contributions to the literature on collapse.

I'll review the content of Orlov's work on “communities that abide” in Part II of this essay later in the week.

Katherine M Acosta is freelance writer currently based in Madison, Wisconsin. She holds a PhD in Sociology and previously worked as a university lecturer and researcher. Contact her at kacosta at undisciplinedphd dot com.


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