Sexuality and gender in capital

On Juliet Mitchell, “Women: The Longest Revolution” (1966)

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the University of Chicago, May 18, 2010.

In my presentation, I will be drawing from but not citing a variety of readings we do in Platypus, including Georg Lukács’s book History and Class Consciousness (1923), Theodor W. Adorno’s essay “Sexual Taboos and the Law Today” (1963) and John D’Emilio’s essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1983), as well as University of Chicago Professor Moishe Postone’s interpretation of Marx’s critique of capital (in Time, Labor, and Social Domination, 1993).

I want to start with a quotation from Juliet Mitchell’s groundbreaking essay “Women: The Longest Revolution,” published in the New Left Review in 1966, that will establish some categories I wish to explore in considering a Marxist approach to problems of sexuality and gender in capital:

Socialism will be a process of change, of becoming.  A fixed image of the future is in the worst sense ahistorical. . . .  As Marx wrote (in Precapitalist Economic Formations): “What is progress if not the absolute elaboration of humanity’s creative dispositions . . . unmeasured by any previously established yardstick[,] an end in itself . . . the absolute movement of becoming?” . . .  The liberation of women under socialism will [be] . . . a human achievement, in the long passage from Nature to Culture which is the definition of history and society. (37)

Here, Mitchell concludes her essay with an emphasis on the issue of “becoming,” or the open-ended transformation of gender and sexuality that capital makes possible but constrains.

To illustrate the problem regarding the history of the Left, including Marxism, on issues of gender and sexuality, it should suffice to address a poorly registered shift that occurred in the 20th century in the social imagination and ideology of discontents with capital between two crucial periods, the early 20th century “Old Left” of the 1930s and ’40s, and the “New Left” of the 1960s and ’70s.  In the earlier period, of the “Old” Left, the predominant form of discontent and grievance regarding capitalism, which had some continuity with similar forms of the 19th century workers’ movement, was how capitalism undermined the working class family and sexual life, breaking up the “hearth and home,” and denying the benefits of the bourgeois family to the workers, in exploiting not only men but also women and children.  In the late 20th century “New Left,” by contrast, there was a reversal of the discontent and grievance with capitalism, in that it made women and children (and men) prisoners of the “bourgeois” family.  Where once capitalism was seen as barring the family life of the workers, now capitalism was seen as depending upon and thus keeping workers constrained in the conventional family.  Where once the demand was to have the freedom to have a family, there arose the demand to abolish the family along with capitalism.  Where once, in supposed “Marxism-Leninism,” that is, Stalinist, Maoist, and Guevarist, etc., Communism, the family was regarded as the “fighting unit of socialism,” for “New Left” Marxists, the family was seen as a bulwark of capitalism.  Similarly, where once, in such supposed “Marxism,” homosexuality and other “deviance” was seen as the result of “bourgeois decadence,” for the “New Left,” sexual liberation found pride of place.  What accounts for this shift?

As shown by the fact that today, paradoxically, a central concern of politics around homosexuality is the demand for equal rights to marital and “family” status, it is not a simple matter of “progress,” in which at one time Marxists had been unaware of the depth of issues of gender and sexual oppression, and then came to be aware, trying to incorporate issues of gender and sexuality into their critiques of capital.  For, as Mitchell points out, not only Marx and Engels themselves, but also later Marxists, such as the German Social-Democratic Party leader August Bebel, as well as younger Marxist political activists, such as Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Trotsky, were very much aware of how gender and sexual liberation were central concerns for overcoming capital.  For instance, in the late 19th century, August Bebel was the first modern parliamentarian to call for the decriminalization of homosexuality.  When Bebel’s party later inherited power in the Weimar Republic after the German Revolution of 1918 at the end of the First World War, it became the first modern democratic state to decriminalize homosexuality, but only after the Bolsheviks had already done so in the Russian Revolution of 1917.  It was the demise of the Weimar Republic with the 1933 Nazi seizure of power that recriminalized homosexuality (and, incidentally, this was one of very few laws implemented by the Nazis that was not repealed with their defeat at the end of World War II).  In the Soviet Union, it was only in the process of conservatization that occurred through Stalinism, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, that homosexuality was recriminalized, and the conventional heterosexual family was reinforced (for instance through the recriminalization of abortion and the restoration of legal obstacles to divorce) around the same time, in the 1930s.  As a result, subsequent “Marxists” took as axiomatic the celebration of heterosexuality and the family, and the pathologization of homosexuality, neither of which had been the case for earlier Marxist radicals.

Thus, conventional but false “Marxist” accounts that came later have posed the issue of “gender vs. class,” or, in “socialist feminist” versions, have tried to demonstrate the “interconnectedness” of “gender, sexuality and class,” where what needed to be addressed was how gender or sexuality could, equally as well as socioeconomic “class” accounts could do, describe the problem of capital, in terms of the problem of emancipatory transformation.  To do so it would be necessary to show how gender and sexuality are in themselves issues of class, or, perhaps more importantly, how class is an issue of sexuality and gender. For gender and sexuality are capital. That is, they comprise its conditions of reproduction, as much as socioeconomic classes do. And, like modern classes, gender and sexuality have themselves been formed by the history of capital.

One way to disentangle the problems that have usually beset and confounded purported “Marxist” anticapitalist approaches to gender and sexual liberation is to recognize that a Marxian account of capital is concerned with conditions of possibility and not causal-deterministic explanations for oppression.  So, the question would not be how capitalism causes sexual and gender oppression, which could indeed be shown, but, rather, how capital could be grasped as the historically specific social condition of possibility for forms of sexual and gender constraint and oppression.  This is especially important with regard to how, in the modern era, sexuality and gender roles have taken a variety of forms, but all nonetheless remained problematical and ultimately constraining of social possibilities for developing greater human potential.

The modern era of capital, beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, has demonstrated a great deal of potential, in a variety of different forms, for sexual life and gender relations.  Such potential has been inherent in the overcoming of traditional ways of life in capital.  Conservatives have responded to such changes as the dangerous break-down of traditional values, but, from the beginning, Marxists, among other bohemian socialists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, had been interested in how to push such potential further, in an open-ended way.  They regarded capital as a constraint, an obstacle to this.  At the same time, however, they regarded capital as the inevitable condition of possibility for emancipatory transformation.  As regards changes already underway, Marxists found them expressing potential capital already embodied.  Marxists thus distinguished themselves sharply from conservative responses to capital’s dynamic of change.  Capital undermined traditional ways of life, but not nearly enough, according to Marxism, because modern capitalist society allowed for the reproduction of (new forms of) gender and sexual oppression.  Capital not only undermined, but allowed the recrudescence of the worst forms of supposed “traditional” ways of life.

An example I’d like to raise is the phenomenon of the return of the traditional sexual prostitution of boys in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led NATO coalition ousted the Taliban.  This has been chronicled in a recent PBS Frontline documentary.  Whereas the former Soviet client regime and the Taliban radical Islamic fundamentalists, each in their own ways and for their own reasons, had suppressed the practice of the “dancing boys” in Afghanistan, the post-U.S. invasion and occupation regime, while formally outlawing it, has largely tolerated its return.  This is because the Mujahideen fighters (for instance of the Russian- and Indian- and then U.S.-backed Northern Alliance) that had fought the Soviet-backed regime and then had been ousted in turn by the Taliban, but now form pillars of the new, post-NATO intervention regime, had cultivated the practice of “dancing boy” prostitution among themselves over the course of the past 30 years.  Indeed, their opposition to Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet regime in the 1970s and ’80s could be attributed almost as much to their adherence to this “traditional” sexual practice as to their opposition to the unveiling, education, public life and rights of women.  As one adherent put it in the Frontline documentary, “Women are for children, but boys are for pleasure.”  In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, the nexus of pressure of a money economy with conditions of wretched, abject poverty, massive social dislocation, including conditions of far-ranging migrant labor markets, and some dubious “traditional” cultural values, results in the worst of both modern and traditional forms of social life.  How would a Marxist approach address a phenomenon like the Afghan “dancing boys?”

While there is no simple, straightforward answer, it is clear that “dancing boy” prostitution in Afghanistan today bears only superficial resemblance to anything that was practiced traditionally in a prior historical era, itself nothing to celebrate.  So the practice can and should be condemned, as in the liberal sensibility of the Frontline documentary, directed at scandalizing a Western audience towards opposing present U.S. and NATO/European policy in Afghanistan that tolerates such abuses by the regime they have fostered there.  But opposing the prostitution of the “dancing boys” on the basis of some “hetero-normative” (and hence homophobic) assumption of conventional sexual and gender life elsewhere, such as found in America and Europe, is problematic, to say the least, however much it may appear to be a possible improvement, as advocates in Afghanistan seeking to put an end to the “dancing boys” may imagine.

Such supposed “traditional” practices of male inter-generational, pederastic homosexuality that finds grotesque expression today in Afghanistan can obviously in no way be found to express the full potential of male homosexuality — or of child sexuality, for that matter.  So, the solution is not to try to get Afghan men to adopt a more “normal” sexual orientation towards relations with (adult) women and the modern (Western) marriage based on love and (heterosexual) intimacy, which is highly unlikely under present social conditions in a place like Afghanistan, anyway.  And, as anyone concerned with sexual and gender emancipation in places like America and Europe would point out, not only the conventional forms of intimate life and family practices that take place hegemonically “here,” but also those found in the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender subcultures, are hardly the final word in terms of sexual and gender emancipation.  And, just as importantly, as can be observed in the society of “law and order” such as practiced in places like the U.S., criminalization of sexual practices of any kind offers no solution.

Another example I’d raise is female genital mutilation, as “traditionally” practiced in parts of Africa and the Middle East and also among immigrant communities from such places in North America and Europe.  While socio-biologists have desperately tried to find a biological-evolutionary “reason” for female orgasm, it turns out to be entirely extraneous from survival imperatives of natural selection.  As one writer put it, female orgasm, unlike the male orgasm, seems to exist naturally just “for fun.”  Biology is a condition, and not a “destiny.”  There is nothing simply “natural” about human biological conditions.  But these can indeed play out in a variety of different ways, depending on society.  It can also, for instance, allow whole cultures to practice the sexual mutilation of — the excising of sexual pleasure from — female children, as occurs routinely for millions of girls around the world each year.  It is a “voluntary” practice, by and among women.  But this is only an extreme example of how “culture” shapes “nature,” or, how society forms “sexuality,” through gender roles, among other practices, all of which, to one degree or another, could be understood as forms of “mutilation,” including psychologically, when seen from the standpoint of potential emancipation.  How would Marxists respond? — Especially, as regards female genital mutilation, when what is at stake concerns marital eligibility, and, hence, a whole host of life-chances for women, if the “traditional” practice is abrogated.  We could broaden this concern in addressing the phenomenon of “honor killings” of women for sexual infractions, including involuntary ones such as being raped, in the Arab world and elsewhere.  Even more broadly, sex work, especially as a global phenomenon, for instance among millions of migrant workers, points to problems of life chances, for the men who are clients no less than for the women who are prostituted.  It is not merely a matter of gender oppression, although gender oppression as a condition certainly plays a key role.  Clearly, as in the case of the Afghan “dancing boys,” what is required is some kind of increased scope for both individual and collective possibilities.  The task is to grasp capital, the social-historical moment of the present in a process of becoming, as a matter of economics, politics and culture, including gender and sexuality, as embodying both potential and constraint for such possibilities.  How could a less destructive way for humanity be opened?

Addressing capital as the fundamental and global context for such phenomena is a challenging but necessary requirement for even beginning to approach the question and problem of what it would take to open possibilities for gender and sexual practices for the vast majority, if not simply the totality of humanity in our modern epoch.  In the forms of purportedly “inhuman” practices as can be found in the phenomena of gender and sexuality with which the present world is rife, can be seen, in however distorted form, potential possibilities for becoming human, in ways that can only be barely imagined today.  As Mitchell warned in her essay more than 40 years ago, we need to attend to the problem of our present discontents taking static, hypostatized forms, and beware of the normative principles we may be tempted to offer against manifest destructive practices we face and want to overcome.  For what is necessary is to grasp the “movement of becoming” in capital that must be transformed, from the break-down of tradition, as well as the specious re-positing of “tradition” in the face of the onslaught of modernity, into a truly “human achievement” of emancipation. | §

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