Books for changing the world

Queer Anti-Capitalism

While victories for LGBTQ rights have proceeded more quickly than most people imagined possible, they are under increasing attack from the Right. And the accompanying rise of gay 'normality' has been disconcerting for activists with radical sympathies. In Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism, Peter Drucker shows how the successive 'same-sex formations' of the past century and a half have led both to the emergence of today's 'homonormativity' and 'homonationalism' and to ongoing queer resistance.

Here we present an excerpt from the book's introduction:

Over the past forty years, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) movements over much of the world have gone from strength to strength, victory to victory, to an extent that would have seemed almost unimaginable at the time of the 1969 Stonewall rebellion. The fact that same-sex sexual acts are now legal in all but a minority of countries may not seem out of line with global trends since the Second World War. But given the furious opposition that the first anti-discrimination laws provoked only a few short decades ago, the fact that the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 by majority vote endorsed protection of sexual minorities is a milestone. The fact that legal recognition of same-sex partnerships has been won or is being seriously considered not only in Denmark, post-apartheid South Africa and Argentina, but even in Britain, Iowa and Nepal, and that federal benefits have been won by same-sex married couples in the US, surely exceeds almost anyone’s expectations. By comparison with the 1960s and 1970s, when gay liberation ‘touched very few’, as John D’Emilio has observed, beginning in the 1990s ‘the world turned’ for millions of LGBT people.

While many factors have contributed to these victories, the power of LGBT mobilisation is definitely one of them. Almost no one is born into an LGBT community; this makes it all the more remarkable that strong movements, in which self-organisation and distinctive LGBT identities play a central role, have emerged from these communities…Yet many LGBT activists, and ordinary LGBT people, are not entirely happy with the movements they have built and the world that has been won. Admittedly, the development of same-sex politics has never been a smooth process. The history of movements for sexual freedom is not a narrative of steady process, but rather one of ‘recurrent backlashes’. LGBT movements in particular have certainly faced many backlashes; almost every victory has provoked one, sometimes a massive one. But that is not the main problem faced by the movement now. In fact, the backlashes, however intense, usually seem remarkably short-lived; a single electoral cycle is often enough to make the anti-gay right resign themselves to LGBT advances and give up on rolling back reforms when they return to office. The problem is not so much holding on to victories, as the form the victories take and the context within which they are embedded.

Perhaps some activists in 1968 or 1969 could have imagined that openly gay men would one day be allowed to serve in the US military; but living as they were at the height of the movement against the Vietnam War, they would probably not have been thrilled at the prospect – or at the use of arguments for sexual freedom to justify wars in western Asia. Even if they could have foreseen legal recognition of same-sex partnerships and welcomed it as a step towards full equality, they would probably not have given high priority to the estate and tax planning for affluent same-sex couples that it has made possible – and still less favoured cutting poor and low-income LGBT people’s social benefits on the grounds of their relationship with someone slightly less poor. And given the inspiration those activists drew from black and immigrant struggles, they would presumably have been distressed, if not appalled, to see how LGBT people and immigrants are being pitted against each other today in much of Europe, or how LGBT people are being pitted against Africans and Arabs on a global scale.

The paradoxes surrounding LGBT victories are due in part to the defeats that other movements have suffered in the same years, notably labour and poor people’s movements, anti-war movements and the political left. A victory like partnership recognition would take a different shape if it were won in more egalitarian and peaceful societies. Since in reality LGBT victories have been and are being won in an increasingly unequal, polarised and violent world, the victories have taken on a disturbing colouration. LGBT communities and lives are the worse for this.

LGBT people may in a sense be freer today in much of the world than they once were. But whatever freedom they enjoy is increasingly dependent on and constrained by a commercial scene and marketplace that are much more hospitable to people with money, whatever their sexuality, than to those without. What activists in the US civil rights movement once referred to as their ‘beloved community’ existed, though small, conflict-ridden and fragile, in early post-Stonewall LGBT communities as well, complete with non-commercial gathering places, music, literature, and an ethos of their own. Today, much less of that is available, and it often comes with a price tag. And because especially in the sexual realm the personal is political, LGBT relationships and lives have also been affected. To the extent that they can rely less for emotional and practical support on their families of origin, LGBT people are particularly dependent on friends, and are therefore particularly harmed by what Alan Sears has described and documented as the ‘falling rate of friendship’ in contemporary capitalism.

Connections between societal change and individual lives are rarely direct or simple. But when community and friendship can be counted on less, sexual passion and partnerships tend to be counted on more – and this is not good for them. As Dagmar Herzog has cautioned, ‘the relationships between sex and love – their connections and disconnections – are not obvious, and never have been’. Certainly under capitalism, almost no human connection fits the norm of loving relationships free of any conflict.

Ninety years ago, Bolshevik commissar of social affairs Alexandra Kollontai warned, as the first flush of an earlier period of radicalisation began to subside, of the growing hold of what she considered the bourgeois, possessive ideal of ‘all-embracing love’, which extended ‘the concept of property rights to include the right to the other person’s whole spiritual and emotional world’. ‘People “in love” are unbelievably insensitive’, she warned. People cling ‘in a predatory and unhealthy way to illusions about finding a “soul mate” . . . as the only way of charming away, if only for a time, the gloom of inescapable loneliness’ – the loneliness they feel ‘even in towns full of shouting, noise and people, even in a crowd of close friends and work-mates’. Across a long century of hopes crushed and hopes realised, Kollontai’s words speak eloquently today to the condition of LGBT people (and, of course, others too) in today’s ever-more-capitalist world.

This book is meant as a contribution to an alternative vision of LGBT life and struggle: of loving same-sex relationships, of ways of fighting for LGBT demands like partnership equality, and of queer politics. It is aimed at helping to rebuild a radical LGBT movement freed of the growing commercialism, middle-class assimilationism, prejudice and complicity in imperial projects that have increasingly characterised LGBT scenes and organisations in recent decades. Such a renewed LGBT radicalism should combine the best of the early lesbian/gay liberation of the 1960s and 1970s with the most valuable impulses of the queer rebellions that have grown up since the 1990s.

As a theoretical foundation for a renewed LGBT radicalism, Warped draws on the insights of left feminism, radical Freudianism, queer theory, transgender liberation, anti-racist critiques by radical queers of colour, and the transnational turn in queer studies. At the same time, I draw especially and centrally on the Marxist tradition. In doing so, I buck the trend of the turn away from Marxism that predominated in LGBT studies from the late 1980s to the early twenty-first century. Joining in a tentative reassessment of Marxism in queer studies that has been taking place in the last few years, I hope to show that Marxist analyses are indispensable to radical queer responses to (specifically) neoliberalism, capitalism, racism, imperialism, gender oppression and the heteronormative order itself.

My argument for a coherent revolutionary vision – centrally grounded in historical materialism but integrating key contributions from other paradigms as well – cannot be confined to politics narrowly defined. It demands a fresh look at LGBT life as a whole…The challenge of developing a genuinely radical queer politics, presented in this way in the full extent of its different dimensions, is a daunting one. It is not enough simply to assert the necessity of tackling many different tasks. For political activists, the temptations are great to dismiss one task or another as peripheral. LGBT trade unionists, for example, can be tempted to dismiss small queer activist groups as marginal, irrelevant and unhelpful. Radical queer activists can be quick to dismiss trade unions, traditional social movements and political parties as hopelessly old-fashioned and in thrall to hetero- and/or homonormativity. This book tries to make the case that a comprehensive understanding of the class, racial, gender and sexual dynamics of today’s neoliberalism, including their structural anchoring in capitalism and their complex imbrication with forms thrown up by centuries of historical development, leaves us no alternative but to accept the full complexity and diversity of queer struggles.

We can see now that ‘heterosexual hegemony’ is both stubbornly persistent and strikingly diverse in the forms it takes. As Antonio Gramsci saw, hegemony has always relied not only on ‘consent, legitimation, and “common sense” ’, but also on ‘denial, silencing, and coercion’. Today we see, as with bourgeois hegemony in capitalist societies generally, how variable the mix of consent and coercion in heterosexual hegemony can be. In Zimbabwe, coercion is still very much foregrounded. In Denmark, ‘common sense’ is more effective today in identifying same-sex desire as something ‘perfectly normal’ and yet not the norm, that is, as the domain of a protected but permanent minority.

A broad queer resistance to neoliberalism and gay normality will have to take widely different forms as it grows up in different places and circumstances in the course of different fights. No one identity, ideology or political current can or should dominate it. It should have room for people who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex or queer, for anarchists, greens, militant social democrats, left-wing feminists and anti-racists, and more. Leslie Feinberg has observed that like rivers, ‘movements are driven by many political currents. Which currents determine the course of the river for a time is also affected by external factors, like prevailing winds, storms, the inexorable pull of the moon and the resulting tides’.

Increasingly, however, queer radicalism is defining itself as not only antineoliberal, but also anti-capitalist. This does not imply subscribing to any blueprint of a socialist alternative, much less following the lead of any organisation. Rather, it entails accepting the growing weight of evidence that neoliberal policies are not simply mistaken or the result of a temporary advantage enjoyed by right-wing forces; rather, in this prolonged time of crisis, they are the result of the inherent, systemic logic of global capitalism. Moreover, queer anti-capitalism implies a commitment by queers to join with others to resist the tremendous power that the system confers on capital.

One can be anti-capitalist in this way without being Marxist. One can even make use of the helpful analytical tools that historical materialism offers without identifying politically as a Marxist. Within the emerging array of queer anti-capitalist currents, however, I believe that queer Marxists – as long as they devote themselves to working within and building broader frameworks, without trying to impose any sectarian agenda or separate group interests – have a special and key contribution to make...

For further reading, check out Stonewall Was A Riot: A Pride Month Reading List.

  • Warped

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