In her important article, ‘Thinking Sex’ (1987), Gayle Rubin made a powerful case for sexuality as a distinct field of study. Her argument was polemical, aiming to ‘identify, describe, explain and denounce erotic injustice and sexual oppression’. In doing so, though, she lent support to the expansion of commercial sexual goods and services. As a means of reassuring her presumptively leftist readership that such an argument was one they too should support, she pointed out that ‘Marx himself considered the capitalist market a revolutionary, if limited, force. He argued that capitalism was progressive in its dissolution of pre-capitalist superstition, prejudice, and the bonds of traditional modes of life.’ Clearly, she anticipated objections from those who were not convinced that sexual freedoms should be underwritten by market ones: ‘keeping sex from the positive laws of the market economy hardly makes it socialist,’ she suggested.
There is greater agreement between Marx and Hayek, however, on one aspect of the progressiveness of capitalism. As Terry Lovell observes, ‘there is no suggestion to be found in Marx’s writings that commodities are … second-rate goods, nor that the wants which they satisfy are not “real” wants. For Marx there is no such category, essential to left pessimism, as “false needs”.’9 It was left to the Frankfurt School, then, to argue that capitalist mass production produced a degenerate culture that rendered critical consciousness virtually impossible.
A specific instance of the kind of progressiveness Rubin talks about is offered by Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant in their critique of the normalizing effects of the zoning law of former New York mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, in the nineties, which sought to regulate the location and density of sex-related commerce. Warner and Berlant’s complaint was that the law aimed ‘to restrict any counterpublic sexual culture by regulating its economic conditions’, and thereby threatened to undermine the diverse and substantial culture that had been consolidated on Christopher Street over the years. ‘The point here,’ they write, ‘is not that queer politics needs more free-market ideology but that heteronormative forms, so central to the accumulation and reproduction of capital, also depend on heavy interventions in the regulation of capital.’ Berlant and Warner thus appear more anxious than Rubin about advancing the case, but they nonetheless claim that policing heteronormativity distorts the market. The difference between Giuliani, on the one hand, and Berlant and Warner, on the other, maps on to distinctions I explore later in Sex Needs and Queer Culture whereas Giuliani’s was a neoconservative measure, relying on the interventionist power of the state to enforce traditional morality, theirs is ultimately compatible with a neoliberal perspective on the side of non-regulation. This is obviously not to suggest that they (or, indeed, Rubin) are neoliberals: many of us who would reject that label are frequently thrown back on such arguments. Effectively, I am concerned here with why this should be the case and with what effects. Ultimately, we must interrogate what it means to be ‘progressive’ in the first place: is this only ever a question of breaking with traditions and norms, of always needing to be more and yet more ‘modern’? Why, ultimately, must progress be conceived and experienced as something that is done to us (by capitalism)?
We might first clarify Marx’s perspective. Rubin cites the Grundrisse to support her case, but Marx there seeks to demonstrate both that it is the circulation of exchange value (money, the universal form of value) that underwrites bourgeois equality and freedom, and that this is also the basis of a distinctive form of inequality and unfreedom through money’s transformation into capital, realized exploitatively in the workplace. Thus, equality and inequality, freedom and unfreedom are identical with each other – they are dialectically inseparable – within bourgeois society. It was Marx’s specific contribution – the thing that really did make him ‘Marx himself’ by distinguishing him from bourgeois economists – to recognize this. Merely to stress capitalism’s progressiveness is to overlook the central contradiction that he insisted was constitutive of it, and demanded its supersession.
Moreover, this sense of capitalism as contradictory was bound up with Marx’s specific understanding of the temporal logic of progress. Bourgeois society was progressive for him, not in the sense that it represented a gradual improvement on feudal or neofeudal orders, but that it revolutionized them. Similarly, though communism is made possible by the advances in productivity generated by technological developments under capitalism, it would be discontinuous with capitalism, qualitatively quite different in its collectivism. Famously, the untranslatable Hegelian term, Aufhebung, which Marx uses in various places, including the Grundrisse, signals this dual quality of preservation and annulment, immanence and transcendence, to give definition to the kind of transformation he had in mind.
For Marx, then, progress was not strictly speaking a linear process, as is sometimes misleadingly claimed, or an intensification of existing trends. One result of his thinking in this respect, though, was a tendency in his writing to neglect further consideration of the possibilities for progress within capitalism, as well as to take for granted the improvements that communism would bring. Hence a key problem within Marxist theory: the tendency to disavow utopian speculation and rather to assume that the specific advances of bourgeois society – not only the expansion of the productive forces, but the freedoms it had produced through greater subjective autonomy – would be preserved and extended in a non-capitalist future, at the same time as they would be reconciled with a renewed appreciation of our necessary interdependence and equality.
This possibility, of course, is precisely what those such as Friedrich Hayek would deny: for them, collectivism, at least in the form of state planning, was necessarily the enemy of freedom and prosperity because it sought to prescribe individual wants and set limits to aspiration. Hence, the emphasis on historical regression signalled in the title of Hayek’s polemic against such planning, The Road to Serfdom (1944). Moreover, from the perspective of this chapter at least, it may be considered no mere linguistic accident that among the virtues Hayek praised in the admirably market-loving British were ‘non-interference with one’s neighbour and tolerance of the different and queer … a healthy suspicion of power and authority,’ qualities he felt were being threatened by the expansion of the state.6 As if to confirm Hayek’s arguments – but writing from positions on the left – Alan Sinfield demonstrates that postwar welfare capitalism in Britain suppressed and discriminated against various marginal groups even as it claimed to be inclusive, and a recent account of this period by Richard Hornsey celebrates the queer possibilities opened up by the popular and commercial by contrast with the heteronormativity sponsored by the state.
Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of false needs.
There is no suggestion here that false needs are not actually relaxing or even, in a sense, fun (a category I return to below); they are not false in any crudely naturalistic or immediate sense of being merely unnecessary. Marcuse speaks of superimposition, but he isn’t only highlighting the fact that my need for a can of Coke, let’s say, is the result of the propaganda of the advertisers (a social constructionist argument). It goes beyond this, since ‘false’ is used here in the teleological, Hegelian sense of inhibiting the realization of that freedom that exists as a potentiality in the present. False needs are prioritized as such by the system: we ‘need’ them because they satisfy the performance principle by perpetuating and intensifying it. Indeed, it is a relatively trivial point to suggest that that I don’t really need this can of Coke, that I have been persuaded by the marketing people to believe I need it, and actually a glass of water would probably serve me better. On that level, the unanswerable response is: ‘So what? I like Coke.’ The far more substantive point is that such a need is false in the larger scheme of things, in which needs are not simply about what would satisfy me in the moment. The category therefore serves to draw attention both to the relation between individual and collective needs, and to the fact that the recognition and pursuit of true needs may entail the suppression of immediate urges prompted by a consumerist society that both relies on ‘toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice’, and – as Marcuse also knew – is ecologically unsustainable.
There is also a qualitative claim being made in Marcuse’s account, though, since he suggests that false needs enforce conformity by virtue of having been mass-produced, sinisterly thereby determining what all will love and hate. The obvious rejoinder from neoliberals to Marcuse’s critique in this respect would be that, in a socialist society, it would be the collective, or even the state, that directed people’s needs. Moreover, the claim about conformity is historically problematized by the fact that flexible accumulation has facilitated an extraordinary diversity of production that contrasts with the Fordist standardization Marcuse clearly had in mind. Now, the range of choices we face is often bewildering, and even self-defeating.
Some, indeed, have discerned in Frankfurt School Marxism a complicity with reactionary and elitist critique through an alleged appeal to non- or pre-industrial modes of life and art. If, as Marcuse accepts, capitalism has generated an expansion in productive capabilities that hold the potential to eliminate scarcity, then it becomes difficult to despise its efficiencies. When he disparages frozen food at one point, for instance, suggesting it as a synecdoche for standardization not only of products but of consciousness, what exactly does he have in mind as an alternative, and how widely available might it be? What sort of social order does he imply, and what level of material transformation would be necessary to bring it about? Is there a tacit romanticism in Frankfurtian perspectives, in spite of their consciousness of this danger? Sinfield pointedly suggests that Adorno shared with the obviously reactionary F. R. Leavis a conviction that he could distinguish real art from commercial culture, and regards this kind of assumption on the left as a key mistake for reasons I return to in chapter four of Sex Needs and Queer Culture.
These questions are relevant to a concern with the supposed progressiveness of the market in relation to sexuality because a different way of expressing the argument that capitalism challenges tradition is to suggest that it profanes the higher values of heterosacramentalism, just as it is said to hollow out aesthetic value (this is merely another way of putting Rubin’s argument). Berlant and Warner imply that the family’s value to capital resides in its largely unremunerated reproduction of the labour force, but the family’s continuing importance cannot simply be explained on grounds of its utility in this respect, otherwise surely no one would fall for it. The family is also the centre of affective life for many, perhaps most, people not only because of those profound feelings, for as long as they last, of ‘belonging’ to another person, but also because reproduction is ‘miraculous’ and further testifies to, by blessing, that fusion of spirit and matter that distinguishes sacramental love. Moreover, ‘having a family’ – and precisely because it is unpaid and entails sacrifices – simultaneously evinces the responsibility of the couple, given that societies and communities are conceived as extending across time as well as space, and that the family remains for most the primary unit of socialization, despite pervasive deprivatization.
Thus, the family is both private and public at the same time, though the way in which that distinction is constituted has varied socially and historically, along with the sense of what it means to belong to a society or a community. People who have been told all their lives not only that they will find fulfilment, but that they are doing the right thing by getting married and having children feel understandably angry when they find it difficult or impossible to sustain their life together because of material hardship, especially when surrounded by images of plenty. They are rightly perplexed or outraged by those who say that their plight is no one else’s business, and certainly not the state’s.
This is the awkwardness of Margaret Thatcher’s notorious claim in 1987 that ‘there is no such thing [as society]! There are only individual men and women, and there are families.’ She went on in the same speech to make a series of incoherent, yet moralistic, statements about ‘lifestyles’ in respect of AIDS, claiming that ‘a nation of free people will only continue to be a great nation if your family life continues and the structure of that nation is a family structure’. There is no precise sense to be made of all this. Rather, it goes to the heart of the contradictions of Thatcherism itself; the suggestion seems to be that AIDS is a consequence of the failure (but on whose part?) magically to resolve the tension between being a free people (individuals) and a great nation (family).
This places the family, too, in a complex position in relation to our understanding of progress. Lawrence Stone claims that the modern family is one product of what he calls an ‘affective individualism’ attendant on historical shifts towards a greater sense of personal autonomy, and the sense that family life should be personally fulfilling informed the middle-class principle that marriage be predicated on love, by contrast with the aristocratic one that it was about consolidating connections, wealth and status. Moreover, love is still seen to be winning out today. Prince William’s choice of the ‘commoner’ Kate Middleton for his bride represents a further ‘democratization’ of the Royal Family after the disastrous (and typically aristocratic) match of Charles and Diana, royal propagandists tell us. More significantly, arranged marriages tend to be viewed as pre-modern and an affront to individuals’ human rights.
Hence, the western, bourgeois ideal of marriage is both advocated as something that might be progressively extended, at the same time as it is defended as a conservative institution by some of those, such as Andrew Sullivan or David Cameron, who have promoted that extension.
All of this, however, must be understood as taking place in the context of a continuing neoliberalization that sees the family and the dependencies it fosters as the appropriate alternative to the state provision that is being attacked.21 In addition to being both public and private, then, the family is simultaneously reinforced by marketization and represented as a haven from it, the repository of truly non-commercial values otherwise under threat. Hence, a temporal paradox: the family binds us to a human future distinguished from the progress that is visited on us as an alien, implacable force by the market. It is because the family supposedly underwrites the possibility of an unalienated future, or at least offers relative alleviation from that alienation, that non-normative forms of gender and sexuality are perceived as such powerful threats to it, especially when they appear conspicuously marketized.
In the reflections on these complex dynamics that follow, I shall trace and retrace aspects of the history already touched on in chapter one, where I noted the transition from patriarchal familialism to an uneven, incomplete and even contradictory diversified dominant that has accompanied the shift to neoliberalism and flexible accumulation, since the innovations of the latter have renewed the identification of capitalism with progress as such. First, however, it is necessary to turn to more general historical dynamics, and also to the socialist tradition’s entanglement in them in ways that have determined its historic (and often continuing) anti-queer sentiments.
This is an extract from Chapter 2 of Sex, Needs and Queer Culture by David Alderson.