The feet should set perpendicular to the ground, the knees almost together. It would be uncivil to stretch out the legs, or place one foot on top of the other. If you are in special company, do not cross your legs. Among friends of the same level, it is normal to do so.
from “A Catholic Manual of Civility,” a primer used to educate Brazilian boys (many of them indigenous) how to act like Christians. [emphasis mine]
Picture with me a man I’ve seen quite often. He’s large and sits on a bus, taking up several seats. He’s got his legs spread out, one completely into the aisle. Also, to one side of him are several bags and a backpack. He’s taking up a lot of room and doesn’t seem to notice or care that others could be sitting in those spots. Worse, he’s clipping his fingernails, and he’s listening to loud music.
This man is engaged in manspreading. You’re maybe aware of the concept—it’s in the Oxford Dictionary now:
The practice whereby a man, especially one traveling on public transportation, adopts a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat or seats.
And the problem of ‘manspreading’ was significant enough to lead the MTA in New York to being levying fines to men for spreading their legs, as well as posting signs stating, “Dude…Stop The Spread, Please.”
If you ride public transit, you’re probably recalling all the times you’ve sat next to some ass who’s taken up too much space, or found yourself standing because there’s no room. And maybe you agree with certain Tumblr blogs and internet memes that his callous disregard of others is an obvious display of The Patriarchy, because women either can’t, don’t, or wouldn’t do such things.
Before we go on, though, I should tell you two things. The man I mentioned? He’s Black and homeless. The bags he carries contain all of his human possessions. And he smells a bit different from the rest of the folks on the bus, ‘unpleasant’ to most people. And he mutters to himself. And he grooms himself, all things which are considered rude to do in public spaces. And we’ll talk more about him later.
The second thing I should tell you? I ‘manspread’ too.
Why? It’s not, as some ridiculous Men’s Rights Advocates have suggested–and popular anti-manspreading Tumblr accounts have asserted–that I’m attempting to give more space to my genitals. Any man with testicles so large (and fragile) that sitting upright would crush them probably shouldn’t be sitting at all. Nor is it because I think I deserve more space than others in cramped quarters.
There are actually two reasons I ‘manspread.’ The first reason may elicit a bit of sympathy from you and make you hate me a little less, and the second reason may give you a crucial key to understanding how Capitalism shapes all of our existences, creates social conflict, feeds racism, establishes the patriarchy, and ensures we fight each other rather than the rich.
Bear with me, yeah? And I’ll try to give you a little more room here.
Work is Anti-Yoga
Mechanisation–the turning of the body, male and female, into a machine–has been one of capitalism’s most relentless pursuits.
Silvia Federici–In Praise of the Dancing Body
I was a chef for several years, working in quite a few restaurants in Seattle. Restaurants are Capitalist enterprises, and they’re one of the best ways to see how the imperative for profit is always at war against the lives, desires, and bodies of workers.
At one of them, I fucked up my knee in the walk-in refrigerator. It was a very busy Friday night, and one of our servers asked me to move a keg for her. It wasn’t ‘my job,’ but she was small-framed and didn’t have the strength to move it, so I moved it for her. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed that someone had spilled some water on the floor, and I slipped, contorting my leg so badly in the fall that my ACL (one of the ligaments which keeps the knee attached to the leg) snapped.
That hurt, by the way. A lot. And my bosses tried to fight my worker’s compensation claim, which anyway wouldn’t have paid for the $18,000 surgery I needed to replace the ligament. Fortunately, my partner at the time had just gotten a full-ride scholarship to grad school in Canada and I was able to come with him and get it fixed for free.
That surgery didn’t fix the other problems that came along with the injury. I walk with a swagger now, my right foot is always askew from my left foot. The inclination of my body, when sitting in any sort of chair (except a straight-backed, wooden chair) is to slump forward to reduce the pressure on my lower back with my legs splayed. That is, I ‘manspread,’ but not because I’m a jerk: I’m actually trying not to experience significant pain.
I still try to compress myself as much as possible in tight situations, aware the experience of being in crowded spaces is uncomfortable for everyone. There’s a calculus involved; is my pain likely greater or less than the discomfort someone sitting next to me might feel?
Most people can’t claim this injury as an excuse, though. But plenty of people (mostly men) still do this, apparently clueless (or worse, unconcerned) about the experiences of others around them. Are there so many assholes in the world?
Maybe. But the language and ethics we use to understand and judge ‘manspreading’ or other ‘anti-social behaviors’ is pretty insufficient. For instance, it certainly can’t be said that having ones knees spread open is “The Patriarchy” in action when we consider documents like the Catholic Manual of Civility (quoted at the beginning of this essay) or other Christian primers which were used to do ‘educate’ poor and indigenous peoples into acting ‘Civilized.’ After all, the Catholic Church is pretty much synonymous with Patriarchy.
So, what’s going on with manspreading and our generally angry reactions to it? Let’s go back to the kitchen where I hurt my knee, and I’ll tell you another reason why I think most men ‘manspread,’
That kitchen was poorly designed, like almost every restaurant in which I’ve ever worked. When building a restaurant, an owner is faced with a calculus the customers rarely see. Space is always a premium, especially in an urban setting, and because an owner wants to maximize profit, the dining area receives priority when deciding how the space will be set up.
The more tables available in a restaurant, the more customers can eat at once. More customers equals more profit in the mind of a restaurant owner, and under capitalism, profit is the primary imperative. Thus, the more space devoted to customers, the more potential profit.
But the more space devoted to dining, the less space can be devoted to the kitchen and server-stations. Obviously, a restaurant requires a kitchen in order to operate, but more often than not, the kitchen is quite small. I’ve worked in quite a few of excruciatingly small spaces, and applied for two jobs where, at 6 foot 1 inch and 200 pounds, I was told “You’re too big to work in our kitchen.”
Another thing about many of these kitchens—the counters are often a little too short if you’re of above-average height. Counters on ‘the line’ (where most of the preparation was done) are often slightly too short to work without slouching over, something my tall co-workers often complained about but something my shorter co-workers claimed never to notice. Shorter co-workers experienced other problems in these kitchens, though. Many shelves were often placed very high in order to maximize the use of space (sometimes so high that even I had trouble reaching them). One liked to think that the inconveniences, body-aches, posture problems, and other difficulties the taller workers experienced balanced out the same problems experienced by the shorter of us.
Besides, work is anti-yoga, right?
In all these cases, though, we workers needed to contort, squeeze, stretch or bend our bodies to fit the space allotted us. We had no control over the design of the kitchens (and definitely not the size), but ultimately faced the choice: transform our bodies to fit the work, or hope to find a place our bodies fit better.
Cramped, Crowded, and Capitalist
My experience in kitchens initiated me into an understanding of the conflict between space and profit-imperative. And my experience with my knee injury led me to understand a bit more about the design of public spaces, particularly in transportation.
In Capitalist societies, public transit operates under the same profit-imperative that affects work-spaces, even if there’s no money being made. Costs must be kept to a minimum, revenue must be maximized, and accommodation of human bodies are often an afterthought (if thought about at all). Calculations are made to ensure the least amount of buses or trains are run on routes to move the most amount of people, keeping labor cost (bus-drivers, mechanics, etc.) down, and human difference is an unfortunate problem to be overcome, not a primary logic.
The seats in public transit are standardized–that is, the same seat is available to a person who is 6’5″ as someone 4’10”. In a situation where all seats were built large enough to accommodate a very tall person, everyone would be likely quite comfortable (particularly those for whom such seats would mean a lot of extra room). But, of course, this is not the case. Designing such spaces for very tall people would reduce the amount of available space, increasing the overall cost while decreasing the potential profit (excess revenue) from transit riders.
If you are tall and find yourself sitting in a seat too short for you, your knees either hit the seat in front of you or are a little higher than your waist. The first problem is quite painful after just a minute or two (try pressing your kneecap against a wall for a couple of minutes and describe the feeling), while the second situation puts quite a bit of pressure on your lower back and spine (try this by sitting in a chair, putting a few books under your feet so your knees are slightly higher than your waist, and feel where it starts to hurt).
In both cases, widening the distance between your knees relieves the pain. That is, splaying your legs (‘manspreading’) is one way the body tries to fit in a space not designed to fit it. In fact, this position could be said to be the body attempting to act like a body, rather than a machine.
But let’s consider what else the Capitalist logic of standardization of space and disregard for human difference does. The situation for those in wheelchairs is awful. On most buses in the cities where I’ve lived, there’s often only 2 spots available for them. These spots are also the same spaces allotted to the elderly, blind, or otherwise impaired. On top of this, women with children in strollers, homeless folk with hand-carts, or travelers with luggage must compete for these same spots, and a hierarchy arises to determine who is most “deserving” of the space.
I’ve watched a tragic number of fights between harried single mothers with children and elderly folks over that last remaining seat, and unsuprisingly, they are often of different skin colour. Worse, support and intervention from other passengers tends to fall along racial and class lines, too, a pitched social battle to determine which vulnerable person should be favored over another.
The scarcity of space and disregard for human difference generates strife and conflict, as is the potential for all scarcity. But let’s look at another aspect of this scarcity of space to find the answer to a question very few ever seem to ask.
There’s Only One Thing Between Us
I recently returned from a week visiting my sisters, and had the delightful pleasure of sitting in between two financial managers who were taller–and wider–than I was on a flight with an ultra-low-cost airline.
You can perhaps imagine the experience. Middle-seats are already uncomfortable, whether you’re tall or not. Add to this my posture issues from the aforementioned knee problems and the fact that all three of us were too large for the seats in which we sat. Figure in to this the fact that airlines have increasingly reduced the distance between rows of seat, and you’ve got an unpleasant experience altogether.
Airplanes, particularly, seem to generate their own realms of conflict. On a flight to Ireland from Orlando a year ago, I watched a woman hit an older man repeatedly with her carry-on luggage and shout at him when he asked her to be more careful. It looked almost like it’d come to fists, the woman becoming increasingly belligerent and threatening, her antagonism increasing the more the old man insisted she stop hitting him. And others were starting to take sides, and it was awful.
Of course, we were all cramped. We had all passed through intrusive security measures in an airport which treats humans less like people and more like cattle being led to market. We all had an impending 8-hour flight in an enclosed steel tube. The seats were small, the overhead compartments hardly designed to ensure it was easy to put things in and take things out. Though the woman was being quite awful to the old man, I couldn’t deny she was reacting to the stress of the space and the utter lack-of-control any human must endure when traveling by air.
Put a bunch of people in a tiny cage for 8 hours and they’re likely to act out, yes? But since we’re talking about standardized space and the Capitalist profit-motive, it’s particularly worth looking at the cold war that occurs in every seat over the arm rest. If you’re in the middle, you’ve got it worst—the person on your left and your right are likely to dominate the armrest to either side of you, and you are faced with the choice—force your way to a little more comfort, or stew for the duration about the assholes on either side of you?
But wait—there’s an obvious problem here we take for granted (if we even notice at all):
Why is there only one arm-rest between two seats???
It’s certainly not that chairs come with only one arm rest, nor that it’s impossible for seat-makers to make them large enough that two people could put their arms there.
The reason, again, is Capital. To give each person enough room to move and to rest their arms without struggling against another person would require larger seats, and gaps between them. Doing so would run directly counter to the imperative of the Capitalists who profit from air-travel. In fact, to sit in comfortable seats where you are not compelled to battle in a long war of ‘micro-aggressions’ with the people next to you requires paying an extreme premium to sit in ‘first class.’
Here we can finally see the crux of the problems we face in public places. All those petty conflicts, all those micro-agressions, and all the hierarchies which arise between people in crowded theatres, airplanes, public transit, and elsewhere arise in response to the conditions created by Capital.
The Body Is a Very Rude Thing
Rude: late 13c., “coarse, rough” (of surfaces), from Old French ruide (13c.) or directly from Latin rudis “rough, crude, unlearned.”adj. perhaps related to rudus “rubble.” Sense of “ill-mannered, uncultured; uneducated, uncivilized” is from mid-14c.
Pagan: late 14c., from Late Latin paganus “pagan,” in classical Latin “villager, rustic; civilian, non-combatant” noun use of adjective meaning “of the country, of a village,” from pagus “country people; province, rural district,” by extension, pejorative) Savage, immoral, uncivilized, wild.
The imperative to profit leads an airline to cram as many people into as small a space as possible, just as business owners and other capitalists expect workers to adapt their bodies in order to earn a living. The imperative to keep costs down means seats in public transit and other places are not large enough to accommodate the wide range of human size and mobility difference.
None of this is to excuse wretched behavior in public spaces: there’s rarely any good reason to hit an old man with your valise, nor to prevent others from sitting by splaying your legs and laying out your bags. We still have expectations of public behavior and preferences against people being rude to us, strangers or otherwise.
But what passes for morality and civics (either amongst the codes of social justice or traditionalism) will always meet a dead end if the very conditions which create the conflict are ignored, dismissed, or denied. Worse, many of these concepts of morality and civics aren’t even our own, anyway, but have been shaped by the constant need of the rich to have better-behaved and better self-disciplined workers.
The Birth of Bourgeois Morality & The War on The Rustic
“…the violence of the ruling class was not confined to the repression of transgressors. It also aimed at a radical transformation of the person, intended to eradicate from the proletariat any form of behavior not conducive to the imposition of a stricter work discipline. The dimensions of this attack are apparent in the social legislation that, by the
middle of the 16th century was introduced in England and France…”
Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch
Since the birth of Capitalism, humans have been increasingly compressed together into urban spaces because that is where most work is to be found. We should remember, though, that the people who filled the cities were often displaced people unaccustomed both to city life and particularly to factory life. In fact, it’s taken centuries for those factory owners (capitalists) to train rural, peasant and ‘uncivilized’ peoples to endure the conditions of those factories.
On top of this, the peasants who came to the cities had been otherwise ungoverned. They were literally un-civilized and un-disciplined, and this made them very difficult to rule. The process of turning those people into what we have become now (that is, workers) was long, bloody, and involved altering the conditions of society itself so that the behaviors, patterns, manners–basically, civilization–required of those uncultured, unwrought, undisciplined people became not just part of the requirements of employment, but the actual basis of society.
The class of owners who needed disciplined workers? They’re called the Bourgeoisie (‘those in the city,’). That Class Struggle that Marx wrote about between the workers and the Bourgeoisie wasn’t just pitched-battle, strikes, and police murder, but also a long period of shaping the behaviour of the poor (through laws, education, punishment, and public shaming) until the poor finally internalized that behaviour that would make them good workers.
This is the process Silvia Federici wrote about in Caliban & The Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, and it included the eradication of the belief in magic:
Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action. “Magic kills industry,” lamented Francis Bacon, admitting that nothing repelled him so much as the assumption that one could obtain results with a few idle expedients, rather than with the sweat of one’s brow (Bacon 1870: 381)
Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the labor process. How could the new entrepreneurs impose regular work patterns on a proletariat anchored in the belief that there are lucky and unlucky days, that is, days on which one can travel and others on which one should not move from home, days on which to marry and others on which every enterprise should be cautiously avoided?” (p. 142)
…as well as a complete change in the relationship of humans to the body:
It was in the attempt to form a new type of individual that the bourgeoisie engaged in that battle against the body that has become its historic mark. According to Max Weber, the reform of the body is at the core of the bourgeois ethic because capitalism makes acquisition “the ultimate purpose of life,” instead of treating it as a means of the satisfaction of our needs; thus, it requires that we forfeit all spontaneous enjoyment of life (Weber 1958: 53). Capitalism also attempts to overcome our “natural state,” by breaking the barriers of our natural state by lengthening the working day beyond the limits set b y the sun, the seasonal cycles, and the body itself, as is constituted in pre-industrial society.(p.135)
That is, the process of creating the working class involved disciplining, taming, and civilising people, stripping them both of their relationship to magic and particularly their relationship to the natural world and from their bodies, including the enjoyment of the body. Or put another way, Capitalists required workers who had lost their rustic, rude, and rural qualities, which included their Pagan tendencies.
To do this, they got plenty of help from Christian leaders (John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was one of their primary weapons in England) and other moralists who would help inculcate new social codes and norms into the unwashed, uncultured, rude poor. And as the Bourgeoisie continued to gain power, the scourge of rudeness, uncivilized behavior, and ‘immorality’ amongst the poor became an increasing topic of discussion. Primers of all sorts arose, aimed primarily at women and the poor to teach them how to act better, more polite, more like them.
Bourgeois Morality & Social Policing
While the war between the upper classes and the unwashed masses upon whom they relied was always being waged in Europe since the beginning of Capitalism, it got particularly intense in the early 20th century as very rich industrialists needed to find even more disciplined workers for their assembly lines. Henry Ford instituted a ‘morality police’ to monitor the personal lives of his workers, and John D. Rockefeller created an educational foundation to shape and advise government in creating better workers. The stated philosophy for it is revealing:
“In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions of intellectual and character education fade from their minds, and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk.We shall not try to make these people, or any of their children, into philosophers, or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen — of whom we have an ample supply. The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.”
What’s particularly important in this quote is the tension between parent and child, and the direct attempt to break behavioral patterns passed through tradition. Though many of these efforts took on the shape of benevolence (or paternalism), taken together they show that our actions, our self-discipline, and much of our morality has been shaped by the rich, not by our own self-generated ideas of what makes one a ‘moral’ person.
Again, what we should also give attention to here is that this is the same logic that comprised the ‘white man’s burden’ or the mission civilatrice of European missionaries, entrepreneurs, and civil servants in colonies on the African, Asian, and South American continents. The rhetoric used by wealthy industrialists towards ‘white’ poor people echoes exactly the rhetoric of paternalistic education of the ‘uncivilized’ peoples an earlier generation of Bourgeois needed to shape and mould through education and punishment.
We have inherited a system of morality that is not our own, but rather those of our rulers. We’ve been shaped and moulded into a class of people who have internalized the morality of the Bourgeoisie and made it our own, while being alienated from our own bodies, the cycles of nature, and older beliefs in magic. This is, at least partially, the unacknowledged and rotten root of much of our tendencies to belittle and even hate those with disabilities (they are not ‘good workers’), the very poor (they are rude, unhygenic, lazy–all anti-bourgeois traits), the messy (consider the popularity of voyeuristic shows about ‘hoarders’ in US television), and all manner of other ‘anti-social’ behaviours.
Moralism has quite the history of creating social conflict. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out in The Burden of Our Times, many moral codes and associated ideologies are rarely adopted by the powerful unless they are useful for governing. Race-theory (a relatively new ideology–there was no real notion of racial difference before the Enlightenment, and certainly not one inhabiting the general opinions of commoners) became useful as a governing ideology only when the rich needed to keep slaves and former slaves from uniting with European-immigrant workers against their bosses. Anti-Semitism is another such (im)moral code: rulers and the rich in Europe whipped up anti-Jewish sentiment amongst the poor and workers in the 1800’s most often when they found themselves unable to pay the substantial amounts of money they’d borrowed from Jewish lenders to fund their own wars and colonial exploits.
In all these cases, it’s quite difficult for us to see what is actually shaping our own morality, standards, and ideologies. This is hardly any excuse for being awful to people, of course, only a reminder that our ethical systems are too often inhabited by an almost invisible, almost Archonic, spirit of morality.
Let’s return to the question of the so-called manspreader now. The person taking up too much space on a bus is not playing along with the rules of the space, but what are those rules, and who sets them?
We experience those spaces as ‘community’ spaces, but they aren’t actually created by us, nor do we actually have control over them. This is more obvious in an airplane where it’s easier to see that the passengers are not a community, but only temporarily stuck in the same space together. Public transit seems more like a communal space, but who actually controls them? Not the people who ride them or use them, except in very, very indirect ways like voting. And voting, anyway, only gives the illusion of influence, not actual say in any matter.
Someone who takes up several seats in a public bus when there are others who could sit there is being certainly awful. But what they are doing is not much different from many of the other anti-social behaviours which have been criticized in the past by the rich. Rustic, rude, uncivilized, ‘low-class’ qualities: being loud, eating in public, grooming, having ‘unruly’ children, breastfeeding in public–all of these are the sorts of activities the poor and ‘undisciplined’ traditionally engage in, activities they have not been disciplined, educated, and socialised against.
That last aspect is most relevant to the question of ‘manspreading’ and other misplaced ‘social-justice’ crusades, because socialisation against unacceptable behaviors is most effective when it’s performed by people within the same economic class as the offender. If the rich were to be going about telling women or men how to act in public spaces, disobedience of these standards would approach open revolt. But fortunately for then, we police each other, particularly through public shaming.
Since manspreading has been taken up as part of a Bourgeois Feminist critique and prescribed a heavy-dose of public shaming, we should recall two previous social menaces which attempted to bring men in line with proper social behavior: Prohibition, and the public shaming of war-resisters by women–including Suffragists–during World War I with white feathers.
The Order of the White Feather, supported by prominent early feminists and suffragists, which publicly shamed men for not volunteering to fight in World War I
Lest anyone misunderstand my point (and missed my heavy reliance on Federici here), let me be clear: the metrics and narratives of Feminism are crucial to any revolutionary understanding of our social conditions. Patriarchal forms persist and are the dominant ruling ideology within Capitalism, and none of this should be used an excuse to undermine truly radical Feminism.
But we should be particularly wary of the tendency to adopt Bourgeois Morality within our attempts to right the systemic wrongs caused by Capitalism, particularly when we find ourselves suddenly taking positions on questions that further oppress people whose very bodies stand as resistance to Bourgeois demands. Thus, Feminist leaders (for instance) who find themselves employing violent anti-trans rhetoric as part of their hopes to eradicate the Patriarchy are only helping Capitalism: the transperson, if anything, embodies a physical resistance to the Bourgeois need to divide the working classes into easily-managed categories.
Moreso, we must remember that a great many of the complaints about anti-social or ‘rude’ behaviours are directed toward the poor, homeless, people-of-colour, immigrants, and others who are traditionally the enemies of Capital and the Bourgeoisie, and precisely whom any revolutionary project must not only include, but be led by. Anything which polices their behaviour and re-inforces ‘respectability,’ work-discipline, and Bourgeois moral standards must be rejected.
The Revolt of the Rude
None of this is to say that there is no place for morality or standards of social behavior. Nor is this to assert Patriarchal attitudes do not persist in the behavior of men in public spaces. On the contrary, I’d argue that we actually cannot attack the Patriarchy, nor create community standards, without first attacking the problem of Bourgeois Morality and the illusory society it creates.
When someone’s actions prevent us from using or enjoying a space, we feel wronged. This is an essential feeling, and one we need to cultivate. In fact, it’s precisely the feeling which fueled widespread resistance to Capitalism, Enclosure, and the creation of private property (land).
Before Capitalism, land was shared by a community who could use it as they saw fit, but custom, tradition, and social pressures kept them from over-using it. Overhunting or overharvesting in a forest, over-grazing or over-fishing in fields and streams meant the entire community suffered. The logic of The Commons was one of shared resources and shared obligations, and those who tried to ‘squat’ or ‘enclose’ shared spaces for themselves would be ostracized by the community.
But that older, rustic morality has been replaced by Bourgeois Morality in which we castigate the woman with too many shopping bags or the man with splayed legs on a subway while ignoring or even rewarding and praising the developer who turns open fields or run-down buildings into condos.
A person with their legs splayed, or their shopping bags filling the seats next to them, or the person apparently callous and indifferent to the needs of others in public spaces is violating the same sorts of societal standards which once held together The Commons, except for one difference: these are not The Commons. Our sense of fairness, of charitable social interactions, and our expectation that others around us will not ‘take too much’ linger, but the social spaces where such morals matter actually don’t exist.
An airplane, a restaurant, a park, and even public transit in a Capitalist society are nothing like The Commons, because there is no real or direct community control over the size, shape, design, or use of those spaces. Instead, we have become like caged and severely disciplined animals punishing each other for taking up too much space in an increasingly Enclosed world, believing the illusion of our jailers, parroting their moral codes, mistaking proximity to community.
We should consider the man I mentioned at the beginning of this essay again. The Black homeless man on the bus, with his legs spread apart and his bags on the seat next to him, unshowered, cleaning his nails, talking loudly to himself and listening to a radio without headphones: is his behavior on account of poor upbringing (the conservative answer), male privilege (the pseudo-feminist answer), systemic injustice (the ‘Social Justice’ answer), his Blackness (the racist answer), or his homelessness (the Liberal and Capitalist answer)?
Or do we rush to judgment specifically because he reflects back to us our own imprisonment in the Capitalist work-ethic and Bourgeois Moralism? What if it’s only our own submission to the centuries-long moralistic training of the Capitalist classes that makes us think we have the right to police his behaviour in the first place, or even that there’s anything wrong at all with what he’s doing in a public space?
And what if he is actually showing us the gate to our own liberation?
I should here admit: it is hardly an easy journey through that gate. My own reactions to this man I mentioned embarrass me to no end, but I’ll admit them, because you’ve probably felt some version of them, too. I’d often encounter him on days I really didn’t want to go to work. He’d slow the bus down, take a long time to get on and an even longer time to disembark. He had a broken, swollen foot which extended far into the aisle, and it was never easy for people to get past him. And he smelled. It was evident he rarely showered, rarely washed his clothes. And despite being a social worker who regularly worked amongst people with poor hygeine, his existence frustrated me.
No. He didn’t just frustrate me, he annoyed me, and I obsessed over him. I’d blame him for making me late. I’d be irritated by his music. The sound of him clipping his nails pissed me off. When it was cold or raining, his body odor really made me angry, because I couldn’t open the windows.
I wasn’t the only one, either. An awful camraderie develops between people sharing a mutual annoyance at ‘anti-social’ behavior. Women and men, all of them white and well-dressed, rolled their eyes and held their nose and made other signs to each other, sharing an imagined solidarity of suffering in the presence of this human. You’ve seen this, I know. You’ve been part of it. We all have.
If anything, though, I almost hated him, because he made me confront the very real conditions of my own life. He and I are both subjects of Capitalism, but I’m luckier. I had a job, had a home, could go to a bar or buy a latte as my reward for being a good worker, for doing what I’m supposed to do. He had no home or job, no place to shower, no place to store his stuff, no private place to clip his nails or listen to music without anyone judging it.
He was me, or me if I didn’t obey.
More than that, though, he didn’t have to worry about all the internalized fear about his public presence. He didn’t bother compressing his body into a tiny space, he gave no regard to how much stuff he was carrying in public. He was free to enjoy music in public without giving a shit what other people thought, and he’d laugh off (or sometimes just say ‘fuck you’) to anyone who’d ask him to turn it down. I think I was a little envious of him—not his poverty or homelessness, but his freedom from the regime of Bourgeois respectability and hatred of his body in all its rustic, unwrought, uncivilized, and unapologetic glory.
But more than anything, he reminded me that all the freedoms and luxuries and comforts that I ‘earned’ as a good worker came with the sacrifice of my soul and the internalization of the very logic which causes him to be homeless. And then I’d start thinking about how much I’d rather not be going to work, and how uncomfortable the tiny seat into which I’d crammed myself, with my knees pressed hard against the seat back in front of me, was.
And I’d start thinking about my illusion of control and the false ‘community’ I’d let myself believe I was a part of. I didn’t know anyone on these buses, and they weren’t created with people my size in mind, nor were they really ‘socialist.’ They existed to help ensure workers could get to their jobs, because without them Capitalists would have no one to exploit.
The man before me was the Abyss into which any of us must stare, if we are ever to hope to lose our chains and become free. He (and not I) was the true Pagan, the rustic, rural, rude remainder of Capitalist civilisation, and the price he paid for his freedom was homelessness, poverty, and the hatred of the rest of us on the bus.
Manifesto of the Rude
We can, of course, allow things to remain as they are, instituting increasing rules and public-shaming crusades against people who don’t act civilized. The rewards for doing so are waged out in hours and shiny products, evenings at restaurants and weekends at bars.
We can even convince ourselves that we are doing some good, fighting ‘the patriarchy’ or making a more ‘socially just’ society by policing each other, making sure we act in-line, keep our heads down, and never let our bodies be anything but efficient machines to be tucked-away and put out of sight after use.
Or, we can revolt, re-claiming the rudeness of our bodies, refusing to apologize for the amount of space we take up, our difference in size and shape and ability. But to do so requires a sort of de-colonization and an overthrow of the Bourgeois Morality which has shaped what we believe to be polite, civil, and good.
What would such a morality look like? What would be our demands?
We could start by refusing the easy answers in uncomfortable situations. Instead of demanding that others follow the rules we’ve internalised, we should interrogate those rules and our reactions to the bodies of others. Are they really doing us harm, or are we actually struggling against our own desires for liberation?
We could also start by demanding an end to the Capitalist logic of standardization. If a body doesn’t fit in a space created by Capitalist logic, it’s not the fault of the body. We should stop demanding others squeeze themselves into such spaces, and demand there be more room to be human. This is particularly essential in regards to those with disabilities
Likewise, we should stop pretending that public spaces are anything like The Commons. It is not the person taking up too much space in a bus or train who is the enemy, it is the rich who own the land under our feet. This would be the first step to reclaiming actually-existing Commons, land shared by communities where the poorest amongst us can subsist outside the imperative of Capitalist work.
And finally, we must embrace all that is rude and rustic about others in order to liberate our own bodies. As noted by Federici in her reference to Max Weber, Capitalism requires us to see our bodies as means to gain wealth while forfeiting spontaneous enjoyment. Therefore, leisure, frivolity, and celebration must not only be part of our resistance, but the foundation of our morality. Rather than shame (or worse—report) the person brushing their hair or eating food in a bus, shouldn’t we rather delight in such things? Are they not caring for their body the way the rest of us do? Couples engaged in public displays of affection—is there not something beautiful—and Pagan–about people expressing love? Or the rude person playing loud music on a bus, what if we danced to that music or sang along? Is there anything more Pagan than music in a public space?
If anything, such a revolt of the Rude would also be a revolt of love. Love would cause us to demand more space for ourselves, more enjoyment of our bodies. Love would stand against the logic of the machine and the shaming of the stranger. Love would claim the right to live outside the demands of profit.
Love would make us bodies again, rather than workers.
Love is a very, very rude thing.
Let’s be in love.
Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of the first A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals, author of Your Face Is a Forest, and A Kindness of Ravens, and a columnist for The Wild Hunt.
He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love.
He worships Welsh gods, drinks a lot of tea, and dreams of forests, revolution, and men. His words can be found at Paganarch.com and can be supported on Patreon.com/Paganarch.