Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gender, Sexuality and Capitalism

On the face of it, it is easier to make the argument that class and race are intertwined than it is to make the case for a close link between class struggle and the politics of LGBT liberation. Race—a specifically modern notion—comes into being in the context of European expansion and conquest, the expropriation of indigenous peoples in the Americas and, of course, the African slave trade. Modern racism, then, emerges as an ideology meant to stabilize and justify the accumulation-driven imperialist projects of colonial expansion and slavery. Racism has developed and changed a lot since then, but its entanglement in processes of exploitation, accumulation and class domination remains.

The case of sexuality is less clear at first glance. As radical theorist Nancy Fraser observes, "homosexuals are distributed throughout the entire class structure of capitalist society, [and therefore] occupy no distinctive position in the division of labor, and do not constitute an exploited class." This leads her to conclude that "the social division between heterosexuals and homosexuals is not grounded in political economy... but rather in the status order of society, as institutionalized patterns of cultural value construct heterosexuality as natural and normative, heterosexuality as perverse and despised." In short, the oppression of LGBT people is, for Fraser, fundamentally a problem of mis-recognition.

For those unfamiliar with the politics of recognition, the idea is that I suffer misrecognition when I am not seen as an equal by others—because, for example, I am systematically disrespected or devalued by them, or because I'm subject to cultural patterns of interpretation which are alien or hostile to me, or, perhaps because I'm simply rendered indivisible by dominant "authoritative" communicative/interpretive practices. The oppression of LGBT people is fundamentally one of mis-recognition, Fraser argues, because they suffer injustices such as "shaming and assault, exclusion from the rights and privileges of marriage and parenthood, curbs on rights of expression and association, demeaning stereotypical depictions in the media, harassment and disparagement in everyday life, and the denial of the full rights and equal protections of citizenship."

To be sure, Fraser acknowledges that there are political-economic dimensions to this oppression—e.g. she notes that LGBT people "can be summarily dismissed from civilian employment and military service, they may be denied a broad range of family-based social-welfare benefits, and face major tax and inheritance liabilities". But, sociologically speaking, her argument is that the root of LGBT oppression lies in patterns of misrecognition—not in the economic structure of society. This form of oppression derives from the "status order of society", not the economic structure. Any political-economic disadvantages flow from this subordinate status (and not the other way around).

Incidentally, Fraser would agree with me about racial oppression that it is fundamentally entangled with questions of political economy. Interestingly, she also thinks—and I fully agree with her here—that gender oppression is also fundamentally entangled in the economic structure of society. But, she suggests, sexuality is different.

Gender, Fraser argues, "serves as a basic organizing principle of the economic structure of capitalist society. On the one hand, it structures the fundamental division between paid "productive" labor and unpaid "reproductive" and domestic labor... On the other hand, gender also structures the division within paid labor and higher-paid occupations... The result is an economic structure that generates... gender-based exploitation, economic marginalization and deprivation."

This, in turn, generates problems of mis-recognition or status subordination, such as "sexual assault and domestic violence, trivializing, objectifying and demeaning stereotypical depictions in the media; harassment and disparagement in everyday life; exclusion or marginalization in public spheres and deliberative bodies" and so forth. But, unlike sexuality, Fraser doesn't see these problems of gender-based mis-recognition as the fundamental cause of the political-economic dimensions of the oppression of women. With gender, her analysis is more conventionally historical materialist.

In an interesting—if slightly unfair in certain respects—response to Fraser, Judith Butler argues against the idea that the oppression of LGBT people is "merely cultural". Of course, Fraser never said it was "merely cultural"—she acknowledges the fact that it has economic dimensions while arguing that its sociological root cause is cultural or recognition-based. That aside, Butler's critique does raise important questions about the relationship between capitalism and sexuality.  

Butler points out that Marx and Engels insisted that their notion of a "mode of production" includes forms of social association involved in reproduction. She quotes a well-known passage from Engels to make her point: "According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This, again, is of a twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence...on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species." The key to understanding human reproduction in capitalist societies is, of course, is the nuclear family. And, as Marxist-feminists have long argued, what's needed is a "socially-contingent and socially transformable account of kinship."

As Butler points out, traditional Marxist scholarship has tended to view kinship relations in terms of how they serve the interest of capital accumulation. They tended to maintain that "a specifically social account of the family was needed to explain the sexual division of labor and the gendered reproduction of the worker." These thinkers examined the sphere of sexual reproduction as a " part of the material conditions of life... a constitutive feature of political economy."

Of course, for the family to play this role in the reproduction of the workforce, it requires the reproduction of gendered persons, of "men" and "women". But—and this is Butler's central point—to be a "man" or a "woman" in this sense is, precisely, to be a heterosexual man or a woman. Gender always was sexuality and vice versa—to be a traditional "man" is, precisely, to be heterosexual. Condensed, the argument is that the family structure is crucial to the social reproduction of the working class, and this reproductive function requires gendered persons and a sexual division of labor, but it then follows that heterosexuality must have been built into this family/gender formation from the beginning (because otherwise it would not have been able to fulfill its economic function).

The key link between gender and sexuality is the family and the social regulation of sexual reproduction. Inasmuch as we can tell a materialist story about the formation and development of the family structure, we can tell a materialist story about formation an development of sexuality. The result is that Butler's argument undermines Fraser's hypothesis that LGBT oppression has no fundamental roots in political economy. If heteronormativity is a constitutive feature of gender which, as we've seen, has roots in the economic structure of society, it follows that sexuality, too, is just as entangled in material economic conditions. If gender
"serves as a basic organizing principle of the economic structure of capitalist society", then, a fortiori, so does sexuality.


Anonymous said...

One issue I have with focusing on identities like LGBT is that it seems as if the categories under consideration are infinitely expandable. That is, there is evidence that short people "overweight" people, people with certain facial structures etc all suffer forms of "discrimination," especially in the workplace, that lead to inegalitarian outcomes. While I sympathize very much with a radical left perspective, I have yet to understand its perspective on discrimination. I discriminate in my music and food taste for instance. How do we draw the line at human forms of association?

t said...

I see the worry, but there are a couple of things to say. First of all, I wouldn't frame things here in terms of identity. I think the obsession with identity and the tendency to reduce political struggles for liberation to identitarian concerns is largely what generates the worry. The radical Left approach, rather than focusing on identity, looks at how the social relations among persons are structured, and how theses relations are socially regulated (by laws, informal norms, social practices, economic forces, etc.). In general, the Left approach is to examine these relations to criticize social oppression--not mere discrimination or "intolerance".

Sexuality isn't just some piece of individual person's identities--it is a terribly important part of how our society is structured. It is an essential feature of family and kinship relations, gendered social interactions, sexual desire, etc. Nothing similar could be said about people's music or food tastes--which, as far as I'm aware, aren't bases on which people are subordinated or oppressed. See the examples I list above that detail the material forms of oppression endured by LGBT people--that is, people who don't conform to compulsory heterosexuality.

The problem isn't just that non-heterosexuals are despised or maligned--it's also that heterosexuality is imposed upon them and enforced violently.

The Marxist perspective looks at how the needs of the economic structure shapes other spheres of society. It looks at how sexuality is socially regulated by the need to reproduce class societies over time. If you're not participating in the traditional heterosexual family there if often a sense in which you're looked down upon or denied basic rights--"why the hell aren't you marrying and reproducing?" In capitalism, these pressures lead dominant ideas about sexuality--in medical/psychological practice, in media/culture, in law, in the domestic/family sphere, etc.--to take on a certain form.

The idea is that the dominant norms, ideas, laws, and so forth that regulate sexuality in capitalist societies are oppressive. They pummel people into submitting to expectations and requirements that are alien to them. They produce asymmetrical social relations in which non-heterosexual people are maligned, despised, marginalized, subject to violence, denied rights, and exploited. The Marxist remedy would be to radically change the basic structure of social institutions in society so that we could free ourselves from the shackles of compulsory heterosexuality.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for your response!