Peter Drucker, Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism (forthcoming from Brill/Historical Materialism, 2015)
Excerpts from the Introduction
I start from the understanding that there no longer exists (if there ever did) a single, unified Marxist politics. In almost every one of the fiercest debates that have divided LGBT movements since the 1970s, people have claimed the authority of Marxism for opposite positions. This reflects in part the deep divisions between different Marxisms over the past century: between advocates of reform and of revolution, between partisans of grassroots democracy and of top-down guidance by a supposedly scientifically informed vanguard, between those who have embraced movements like feminism and those who have tended to suspect movements other than labour of petty-bourgeois deviations.
The dominant trend within the Marxist left – not only during the heyday of Stalinist homophobia from the 1930s to the 1950s but well beyond it – has been heteronormative. Even in many Marxist organisations today whose positions on LGBT liberation are good on paper, and whose leaders’ personal opposition to heterosexism is clear and sincere, the heterosexuality of their members tends to be assumed and the heteronormativity of their internal culture persists.
In the rest of this introduction, therefore, I try to set out the theoretical foundations of the specific kind of Marxism that I believe LGBT movements need. This Marxism can never be a monolith; it will remain what Bensaïd has called it, an ‘archipelago of controversies, conjectures, refutations and experiences’. But at a minimum, it can and must be non-reductionist, non-Eurocentrist and anti-economistic, and founded on the basic imperative of self-organisation of all the oppressed. I believe that this Marxism is indispensable in particular to an understanding of sexual and gender oppression and dissent, and that a sexual dimension has to be integrated into other progressive movements as well if they are to be effective. We need a way ‘to imagine and form collective class agency that does not reify “the proletariat”, foreclose sexuality, or relegate it to a secondary status’.
I especially want to contribute to renewing the socialist feminist debates of the 1970s and ‘80s, in support of socialist feminists who have continued to insist that capitalism is in its essence a gendered mode of social production and reproduction that needs to be combated as such. I also support the integration into Marxist politics of key insights from other paradigms that have been important for queer politics, such as the radical Freudianism pioneered by Marcuse among others, the radical libertarianism of Foucault, and the queer activism (especially anti-racist queer activism) linked to some extent to recent queer theory.
Merely to outline this very full agenda is to push against the limits of queer studies’ still tentative return to engagement with Marxism. For some of us, the renewed openness to discussions of Marxism among some queer currents is the fulfilment of a dream that we cherished for many lonely years. Yet our enthusiasm has to be tempered by an awareness of the limits of the openings there have been so far. The tide may be rising, but even if it is, so far it is hardly halfway up the beach.
Too often even today, ‘the relationship between sexual identities and capitalism remains for the most part … unexplored – even unspeakable’. Perhaps the taboo on Marxism has been weakened. And the critical tone of queer discussions of Marxism is fully justified; the tradition’s weaknesses on sexual politics are undeniable. Those Marxists who have tried to link capitalism to sexual identities have too often failed to acknowledge just how ‘complex, indirect, and historically variable’ the relationship is. Many critics have justifiably ‘interrogated the historical lapses of political economy and Marxism in thinking gender, race, and sexuality’. As one Marxist has sourly commented, some Marxists treat ‘Capital as if it were a lemon, as if by squeezing it hard enough all the categories of social life would come dripping out’. Even some LGBT Marxists have been ‘seduced into an essentially heterosexist project where gay issues are sidelined’.
Marxism’s unique strength is its understanding of the dynamics of capitalism, and of the key role the working class can play (and sometimes does play) in resisting the power of capital. But its special claim to LGBT activists’ and theorists’ attention hinges on its effectiveness in creating a multidimensional, radical sexual analysis and politics that addresses nationalism, race and gender as well as class and capital. And critical Marxists have been working for decades to hone its effectiveness, not only in the heady years of the 1970s and early 1980s but in the more difficult decades since. Particularly since the 1980s, the increasingly clear inefficacy of earlier forms of working-class organisation has spurred them to pay attention to other potential agencies of social transformation, such as indigenous peoples, women and LGBT people. This book is aimed at showing that the reinvention of a class-based politics of anti-capitalist transformation can only take place in interaction with non-class-based currents like radical queers.
Historical experience – not only in Russia in 1917 and France in 1968, but more recently labour’s role in toppling dictatorships from Brazil to Poland to South Korea to Tunisia and other countries – has demonstrated the working class’s tremendous potential power. But we see today that neoliberalism has increasingly fragmented and weakened labour movements. Consequently, many of the strongest forms of resistance to neoliberalism have had non-class bases. Anti-neoliberal movements organised around non-class identities have not always taken progressive forms. The parallel crises of capitalism and of non-capitalist alternatives have favoured the development of ‘non-rational (sometimes irrational) reactions’ in the shape of religious, national and other identity-based movements.
In the English-speaking world, left-wing activists describe such movements, more or less pejoratively, as ‘identity politics’. Some Marxists are totally dismissive of it, describing identity-based movements as ‘cries for help rather than carriers of programmes’, ‘calls for ‘some “community” to belong to in a world of social isolates; some refuge in the jungle’. Even LGBT Marxists sometimes apply this dismissal to LGBT identity politics. It can in fact be a ‘barrier to solving class-based injustices’ by fostering ‘group loyalty across class lines’ and mostly benefiting middle-class leaderships. And ultimately attempts to ‘live sexually liberated lives under the current material circumstances will always come up against the real limitations of people’s daily existence.’
But the ‘current material circumstances’ are not reducible to capitalism or class oppression alone. Non-class identities need to be analysed concretely, case by case, particularly distinguishing imposed identities from freely chosen ones, fixed identities from fluid, monolithic identities from crosscutting. Identities’ potential as sources of strength and sites of resistance needs to be acknowledged. The possibility needs to be held open of deploying them in ways that do not petrify them but rather seizes on whatever in them is most dynamic and open-ended. And non-class identities cannot be fully grasped if seen only as divisions sown by the ruling class in the interests of perpetuating its rule. While employers and right-wing politicians can and do take advantage of every kind of prejudice, this is not an adequate explanation of the power of the heterosexual norm, or of the persistence of anti-LGBT prejudice even in the absence of direct or visible ruling-class influence.
As Hennessy has argued, unmet affective and sexual needs are only part of a much larger domain of ‘outlawed needs’, which are ‘the monstrous outside to capitalism that haunts it’. A major challenge in building a movement against capitalism is thus to intervene at the points where ‘labor and desire meet’. This means recognising that ‘a politics without sexuality is doomed to failure or deformation’.
Culture, class, community and desire have in fact always been key to working-class organising itself. Class politics is also fundamentally about culture and community, about working people as ‘full members and sharers in collective life’. Every serious study of working-class movements and politics has demonstrated that class is ‘lived through race and gender’. Identity politics has often enriched people’s understanding of class rather than displacing it. So class organising is impossible without taking account of the way class is actually lived, through race, gender, and sexuality in particular – including issues like family life that queer politics addresses. This is no easy task. The whole second part of this book is devoted to figuring out how to meet this challenge, in a number of ways. But no left that fails to confront it can succeed today.
Failure to recognise the interdependence of class and other identities exacerbates the trend of ‘identity-based political formations drifting rightward into neoliberalism’s embrace, while being denigrated and dismissed’ on the left: ‘a self-propelling, self-defeating, utterly antiproductive spiral of political schism’. The neglect of class in identity politics is paralleled by the tendency of economism – a single-minded focus on class and other economic factors – to neglect everything else. The ferocity of the clash between economism and identity politics often conceals the fact that each of them is peddling a rival brand of reformism, each resisting in its own way the radical potential that a synthesis of class-based and other movements could yield.
Non-Marxist queers too should ask themselves some hard questions. For example: after decades of a retreat from class in the academy in the midst of intensified class conflict, is it possible now in LGBT circles to talk seriously about the labour movement and left-wing parties? To tackle head-on and consistently the barriers to participation in queer activism by working-class people and by the poorer fourth-fifths of the earth’s population? To suggest that Lenin, whatever he did wrong, nonetheless made significant contributions to anti-racism, national liberation and fights against non-class forms of oppression in general? To discuss socialist feminism and a possible world beyond gendered capitalism? The publication of this book is meant to help pry open debate on these questions. Time will tell, of course, how much and what sort of discussion will be forthcoming.
There is resistance to such discussions even among radical queers. While queer studies has increasingly foregrounded a critique of neoliberalism, even taking an anti-capitalist position and using Marxian analytic categories, it still often shuns the historical tradition of the left ‘as a model [even a critically reshaped model] for new political engagement’.
Even if Marxists can offer a critically reshaped model of engagement, they have no legitimate claim to a monopoly of queer radicalism. Just as resistance to neoliberalism is and must be far broader than the ranks of those committed to overthrowing capitalism, Marxists should hope only to be accepted as one tendency among several trying to build a global, mass, class-conscious, anti-racist, feminist queer politics. They can show they have useful insights to contribute without winning everyone over to their full perspective. Marxists can however try to play the role of the backbone of a new queer politics, in two ways. On the one hand, starting from an appreciation of the vital importance of broad outreach to LGBT working people, Marxists can help guard against queer radicals’ tendency to sub-cultural self-isolation. On the other hand, starting from an appreciation of the harm done by centre-left versions of neoliberalism with a human face, Marxists can help guard against leftists’ strong temptation (whatever their sexualities or ideologies) to join in a kinder, gentler form of accommodation.
Closer attention to capitalism might ‘return “queer” to … some of the political promise from which it has in recent years become unmoored’. And who knows, despite the seriousness of the challenge we face, perhaps restoring broader horizons to ‘the politics of pleasure will serve to deepen the pleasures, as well as to widen the possibilities, of politics’.
[F]eminists today are increasingly ‘attuned to the intersections of race, class and sexuality within gender’. Black feminists focused on the struggle against racist discrimination and violence in particular, like Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins, have pioneered the ‘intersectional analysis’ that insists on the inextricable enmeshment of power structures and oppressions founded on class, ‘race’, gender and sexuality. Socialist feminists had already warned against assuming that all women have ‘a common and unified situation’, specifically urging analysis of racial tensions among women and workers and in the society at large. In the ensuing years non-white feminists ‘exposed the assumptions of universality in feminist theory’, so that intersectional analysis could continue where early feminists left off. They explored their own situation in ‘a location that resists telling’, showing how the tools of feminism and anti-racism were inadequate in isolation from one another, even in addressing the oppressions that were central for them.
There are ‘multiple and intersecting systems of power that largely dictate our life chances’ and ‘regulate and police the lives of most people’. This insight has important implications for sexual politics. Sexual deviance has been used in a host of ways for example to demonise women, including ‘promiscuous’ straight non-white women – a demonisation that also works as a ‘“controlling image” for white working-class women’. Recognising such dynamics can provide the basis for a sophisticated analysis of ‘who and what the enemy is and where our potential allies can be found’, and a new political identity that is ‘truly liberating, transformative, and inclusive’. The ‘multiplicity and interconnectedness of our identities’, Cohen has written, ‘provide the most promising avenue for the destabilization and radical politicization’ of all identity categories.
A truly intersectional approach goes beyond acknowledging that important links among gender, racism, class and sexualities exist; it insists on the need for a full-fledged transversal politics revolving around new, liberating ‘ties that bind’. Gloria Wekker has for example preferred not to use the word ‘lesbian’ at all as an all-embracing category for women loving women because of its ‘Euro-American situatedness’, ‘unwanted baggage’ and neglect of the many ways in which ‘black female sexuality has historically been maligned and vilified’. This is only one example of the new light that intersectional politics can shed on seemingly old issues. In Duggan’s words, LGBT people have to go beyond single-issue politics: ‘We don’t lead single-issue lives.’
Unsurprisingly in view of its origin among black feminists, intersectional analysis has so far focused mainly on the intersection of ‘race’ and gender in imperialist countries. Integrating Marxist insights could help expand its reach further. Marxists can help (and are helping) turn class and economics from the neglected stepchild of intersectional analysis to a fully equal dimension, adding in crucial links like the racialised reserve army of labour. While intersectional analysis has been making headway in what is today called ‘post-colonial studies’, a Marxist understanding of imperialism and commitment to fighting it can help spread intersectional politics more broadly in mass movements in the dependent world. The result should be an internationalist class politics that is also a global rainbow politics.
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