Mention, PM Press Blog

Sexuality and capitalism—

By Angus Reid
The Morning Star

ANGUS REID recommends an exhilarating essay that describes the evolution of (same) sexuality in Western democracies

Like a homo-Marxist Montaigne (the great French essayist of the Enlightenment) Gilles Dauve opens his seminal account of “the modern invention of homosexuality”, Your Place or Mine, with two questions:

“How did homosexuality… a human practice usually repressed or ignored… become socially visible and accepted towards the end of the twentieth century? And how did it come to define an identity?”

At the conclusion of what he calls a “fragmented historical narrative” he returns to his questions to give the reader a sense of the overarching shape of the history that has led to the present day.

It has been an exhilarating survey of attitudes from Marx and Engels’s homophobia, via the drag balls of late 19th-century New York, Harry Whyte’s remarkable protest to Stalin, Magnus Hirshfeld’s sexological research in Berlin, Stonewall, and a remarkable study of being lesbian or gay in the US industrial workplace all the way to the invention of “queer” and identity politics.

Almost no-one in this field of study argues so coherently or from a point of view that consistently recognises the fundamental way that class relations and class confrontations structure modern society.

Homosexual identity, argues Dauve, is so deeply intertwined with the development of capitalism that, like most subjects of capitalism, its supposed freedoms depend on a social totality that is inherently unequal and based on social exploitation, and that it neither controls nor understands.

The bare bones of the story – famous riots, parties and protests apart – lie in the way that capitalism has “dismantled the family, to rebuild it as an association of individuals”.

The family, that was the bulwalk of 19th-century capitalist exploitation, and was justly criticised by Engels as the site of women’s subjugation, has been gradually dissolved through the mechanism of individualised wage labour, and where independent income (mostly in the hands of men) could be spent outside the family, “sexuality followed”.

“The creation of a working class ‘free’ to come onto the market… introduced a novelty: the advent of the individual.”

This process, that belongs exclusively to developed capitalist economies, develops into a society of “nominally equal egos” wherein it is no longer homosexuality that it punishable, but homophobia, discrimination between individuals. This is the new normality because: “‘Normality’ is what contributes to value-creating labour and the interests of the class that profits from it”.

In other words, what Dauve is doing is to take us on an evolutionary journey through capitalism from an early version that imposes a unique lifestyle, the family with its attendant moral prescriptions, to one that “potentially liberates all possibilities… [provided that they] do not impede its functioning.”

This is an open-eyed and persuasive depiction of the invisible cage within which the newfound sexual freedoms cavort.

En route to this bleak destination he narrates the destinies of many “revolutionary” gay rights movements – Stonewall, the GLF, FHAR (Front Homosexuael d’Action Revolutionnaire), and ACT UP – whose socially transformative agendas petered out into reformism and pleas for equality within the status quo.

Particularly convincing is his analysis of the term “Queer”, which began in the US as a “bad girl” black lesbian aspiration to create an oppositional community in opposition to the tame conformism of “gay”, and was adopted by academia as “ideological unifier that helped to avoid reflection on a double defeat”, namely: the absence of social revolution in the 1970s, and demise of homosexuality as a subversive tool.

Queer is a helpfully vague, all-embracing non-position of dissidence whose adoption of “foucauldian” domination displaces class from its position as fundamental structure to simply one element among many, and whose radical activism is inevitably limited to verbal violence.

In contrast, through the entirety of Dauve’s analysis, like lettering through rock, lies the theme that sexuality cannot constitute a community or a revolutionary agenda in the way that class can.

There are some notable absences from the argument: the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s were a period of intense persecution of gay minorities without compare in human history, and the distortion this applied to the development of the capitalist individual is unexplored; and the example of communist-led gay rights movements such as LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) that directly influenced the policies of unions and the labour movement is unacknowledged and a serious omission.

And although too recent for inclusion in Dauve’s essay, Cuba’s new Family Code provides a missing perspective — a comprehensive and socialist alternative.

But that’s just me. Dauve’s advice on how to remain alert to the conditions as we find them is very memorable:

“The challenge is to grasp at the same time how labour/capital relations determine the world, and by which forms of domination this relation exerts itself. In other words, to understand what links domination with exploitation, as well as what makes them diverge.”

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Pride books: Your Place or Mine