Thursday, 15 December 2011

I, Commodity

"Free Market" - free for whom? (Amnesty International)
Yesterday, the British National Union of Students highlighted cases where students in England are increasingly turning to prostitution to make ends meet as their course fees and living costs rocket. The Government suitably wrung its grasping hands, claiming all sorts of measures of support are in place, but the evidence seems pretty incontrovertible. And, regardless of your views on prostitution itself, how surprising is it? In any recession in history, desperate people have turned to desperate means to survive.

The evidence of this and other research on prostitution does show that it is rarely a voluntary choice and it is a dangerous field to work in for all manner of reasons - violent clients, health risks, persecution by the police, and exploitation by pimps.

But it is the ultimate and logical outcome of free market capitalism. An economy that commodifies, prices and profits from any resource at all is hardly likely to stop at the exploitation of the human body. It very happily harvests the brainpower and physical abilities of employees in every walk of working life - capitalism rests on creaming off as large a premium on the value of employee labour over the cost of paying for it. So, if you are ready to squeeze excess value from people's brains, why would you refrain when it comes to the sex organs?

Angela Merkel's Germany, which in spite of its EU-philia remains an example to all neoliberal right wingers around the world, has taken this view of profit before people a step further.

Germany has legalised prostitution - brothels are now legitimate businesses. To the schlock horror concern of the ultra-capitalist Daily Telegraph, this normalisation of the sex industry has included threatening to withdraw unemployment benefits from unemployed women under 55 years of age who turn down the offer of a job working as a prostitute.

Back in 2005, a woman sent for interview by the local Job Centre faceshas her unemployment benefit after she refused a job providing sexual services in what turned out to be a brothel - although German legislators originally considered exempting prostitution from the benefit rules, they apparently concluded that it would be too difficult to determine the difference between brothels and pubs. Similarly, women who have worked in call centres in the past are being pressured into working on sex chat lines as some twisted form of suitable alternative employment.

No kidding, here is the story.

More recently, the avowedly right wing government has even made an exception to its normal tax-phobic beliefs to introduce sex-tax meters in Bonn streets, a sort of pay-as-you-earn scheme for prostitutes - as long as they keep feeding the meter, they won't be arrested for touting for business. On top of that, there is a slew of evidence and testimony that since it has been legalised, the use of prostitutes has become a not infrequent form of staff benefit for higher paid management in many German companies. Corporate orgies for meeting sales targets and as an additional bonus for the guys at the top are, according to Der Spiegel, now a common place event, no different to the traditional company golf tournament or booze-trip to the races - prostitutes or ponies, either are bought up as disposable entertainment.

How far are we from this German scenario in the UK?

Not far really - as noted above, every other part of the body is used economically, so it is only the legal status and practices around prostitution that stops this scenario arising in Britain. But things often just short of or even a cover for prostitution, like the chance to be a pole dancer or an escort, are already used as evidence for people proving whether or not they are genuinely looking for work while on benefits.

Prostitution itself  remains in a legal tangle which frequently leads to already victimised women being victimised even further while their clients and pimps are ignored by the authorities. But the libertarian right wing are among the most ardent proponents of legalising prostitution - for precisely the argument that sex workers should be able to use their assets - their bodies - to earn profit. In their world, any resource, service or product should be able to be exchanged for money.

What it often means in practice with prostitution is that it legitimises a sector which remains one of coercion, both physical and economic. As many surveys have shown, it is at the heart of the modern slave trade and legalising it does little if anything to protect the workers - arguably it can make their lot even worse. After all, if the Government  is keen to deregulate safety laws for factories and shops, it is doubtful brothels will even get a look-in. Perhaps one answer might be some form of licencing through a body like the English Collective of Prostitutes, which would give sex workers more ability to have some small degree of control over their lives as well as safer working conditions.

The capitalist economy sees humans as just one other factor of production, bought and owned by the holders of capital, and exploited for every last copper of profit possible. Women especially, but often men too, are commodified and objectified in thousands of ways by the media and the advertising industry: whether from selling the right clothes, the right perfume, the right size, through to the blatant exploitation to be found in increasingly "hard porn" on the internet and elsewhere. So why, in capitalist thinking, would you eschew the opportunity to be had from selling sexual intercourse?

The sad tales from Germany, while shocking, are not in the least surprising. By one stream of capitalist thought, our unique personalities, our amazing skills and our hard labour make us nothing more than "Human capital" - just one other segment of the system, one more cog in the wheel. No job is too degrading, no work too demanding, no wage too low, when there's money to be made - and you, your flesh and blood, are just one more commodity to be bought and sold.

The apotheosis of the  free market.


  1. How far are we from this German scenario in the UK? Well there is one political party callling for "complete decriminalisation of sex work" - the Green Party. The Green Party of Canada now supports the legalisation of prostitution.

  2. Well, Greens are certainly against criminalising women (and men) who work in the sex industry - criminalisation clearly does not work, but brings a huge range of problems with it, including drug addiction, organised crime and violence.

    But there is a big difference between decriminalising and even regulating it and the scenario where society either directly or indirectly forces people into the trade. Green proposals for the Citizens Income as well as a raft of other measures to provide effective social support to all adults (including students) would help avoid the economic trap that many who are in prostitution are stuck in.

    Other proposals on promoting self-respect and tackling the grossly sexualised imagery of the marketing industry would also help to foster attitudes where the extreme scenarios of corporate excess and forced prostitution set out in the article would be reduced if not eliminated.