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Towards a queer Marxism

by Brett Heino on November 14, 2018
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… Here lies in ruin

The masterpiece of gods, the tower of Asia.

To her defence allies had come from far,

From the nine mouths of frozen Tanäis,

And from the birthplace of the dawn, where Tigris

Pours his hot stream into the ruby sea;

Hither had come the queen of virgin tribes

Whose frontiers face the nomad Scythians

And threaten foemen on the Pontic shore.

Yet she was vanquished; yet she was destroyed;

Great Pergamum lies low; her massive walls,

With all their towering beauty, are brought down,

Her house all in ashes. — Seneca, The Trojan Women

When one is feeling pessimistic, Seneca’s vivid description of the fall and ruin of Troy seems to capture the demise of the working-class movement since the 1980s. Like Ilium, this social force also had allies, including people within the movements for women’s liberation, anti-colonialism and civil rights. Like Ilium, these allies could not prevent the essential destruction of a particular form and method of working-class power.

The results of this process of degradation have revealed two truths, one historic and the other prospective. First, at least part of the cause of the fracturing of Left unity can be attributed to the dissonance of its component parts. Despite the fact that Marxists, feminists, queer theorists and critical race scholars all shared an overall dedication to a fairer society, it became clear that the theoretical and practical terms of their cooperation were often at cross-purposes, with each favouring ‘their’ experience and conception of oppression. Second, it has become clear that the corrosive capacity of neoliberalism to foster division and alienation between citizens can only be combatted by a redoubled effort to build a united and cohesive anti-capitalist movement.

Providing some theoretical prerequisites of such a movement is the main task Holly Lewis tackles in The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Marxism at the Intersection. She begins her analysis by noting that the term ‘everybody’ is ‘politically unsettling’ and can assume different meanings depending upon the political proclivities of those using it. Whereas the everybody of liberal pluralism is the desiring, individualised consumer-subject, the everybody of fascism is ‘everyone in their place’. Reacting against the tyranny of these usages, there is a tendency on the part of some ostensible progressives to treat the term as synonymous with totalitarianism, with the only answer being a retreat into parochialism and ‘a paranoid individualism’. Lewis tries to rescue the term ‘everybody’ from such a binary, instead seeking to construct it on the basis of a ‘universalism from below’.

At the outset, Lewis states that she is attempting to bring into dialogue four distinct groups: Marxists interested in incorporating gender within Marxist practice; feminist theorists wishing to use the insights of Marxism to sharpen analyses of female oppression; Marxist theorists unfamiliar with the currents of third-wave feminism and queer theory; and queer theorists not cognisant of Marxist political economy. The breadth of this task explains the lengthy yet necessary Chapter 1 outlining the terms of the debate. This chapter does exactly what it means to: providing a working understanding of the theoretical concepts and history of the various camps. Given the breadth of the terms she has set herself, this analysis is perforce of a somewhat sweeping character, trying to distil the essential concepts and character of the Marxist analysis and critique of capitalism, poststructuralism (and its attendant techniques like deconstruction) and postmodernism. There is little here that is novel, but the chapter clears the ground for Chapters 2 and 3, dealing with Marxism and gender and Marxism and queer politics, respectively.

The central contention of both of these chapters, and indeed the golden thread running through the whole book, is that the prerequisite to a ‘politics of everybody’ is a unified, coherent and relational theory of exploitation, rather than the schematic, ahistorical and intrinsically individualistic notion of ‘intersectionality’. The latter, informed by poststructuralist theory and grounded on Foucault’s notion of power, ‘separates and reifies oppressions instead of viewing them as the outcome of material social relations’. Seeing power as eternal and rooted in an inherent lust for domination, people influenced by this model of oppression set their political ambitions at the level of the individual, revolving often around the mistaken notion that developing new languages around oppressive practices can somehow destroy the practice itself. A truly revolutionary theory of oppression must focus on material relations, particularly those rooted in the dynamics of exploitation.

Marxism, with its emphasis on the social totality and material life, is admirably suited to this holistic theory of exploitation. A good deal of Chapter 2 is devoted to tackling a typical concern of feminist theory; that Marxism, through its concentration on the economic exploitation on the worker, conceptually sidelines the oppression of women. Lewis demonstrates how this notion is not strictly true. Citing works of Marx, Engels, Bebel and Zetkin, Lewis shows how early socialists recognized the importance of ‘the woman question’ and recognized its intrinsic link to the structures of capitalist production. Even if, as Lewis argues, Engels’ key text The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State mistakenly sought female oppression purely in the realm of property relations as opposed to production, it introduced the key nexus point between the Marxist and feminist camps by maintaining that the determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of material life. It is in this expanded realm of social reproduction that Marxism, feminism and queer theory can meet.

Lewis’ focus on exploitation as a material practice leads her to what is a necessary conceptual concession on the part of feminists and queer theorists – that class is in a sense ‘primary’ precisely because the exploitation on which it is founded is a mathematical fact that does not need to register as oppression felt at the individual level. She goes on to say that ‘[c]lass is primary – not in the sense of more important, but in the sense of being the limit, the foundation, the point where profit is extracted and the point where it can be challenged’. The upshot, an integrated and relational theory of exploitation, adds something to each theoretical tradition that makes it more than the sum of its parts. Marxism is forced rigorously to address the exploitation of women and queers as foundational, compared with epiphenomenal; third-wave feminism (Lewis takes issue with the concept of trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFS, which have arisen from the second-wave tradition) and queer theory are forced to redress the inadequacies of their often nebulous opposition to capitalism as a vague system of oppression lurking in the background.

Lewis concludes with 10 axioms of the resultant ‘queer Marxism’, including:

  • ‘Being queer/trans is neither reactionary nor revolutionary’;
  • ‘Queer communitarianism should be replaced with queer political demands’;
  • ‘Queer Marxism is not the analysis of queer consumption habits’;
  • ‘Marxists must stand against trans-exclusionary radical feminism’; and
  • ‘The politics of the fragment should be replaced by an inclusive politics of everybody’.

These maxims, as well as others, are sure to ruffle some feathers among ‘classical’ Marxism and the more liberal, petty-bourgeois currents within feminism and queer theory, but are necessary if the last-mentioned axiom of Lewis is to become meaningful.

There is much to commend The Politics of Everybody. Lewis has constructed a coherent and lucid book that is deeply impressive in terms of the breadth of its vision. She has managed to knit together a veritable smorgasbord of theorists (Marx, Engels, Zetkin, Bebel, de Beauvoir, Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard to name a few) and historical events (the Erfurt Programme, the Russian Revolution, the activities of Queers for Economic Justice and the neoliberal turn, for example) into a compelling narrative that, by and large, possesses a unity of purpose. The main achievement of the book lies in theoretical synthesis and the force with which it is put, as opposed to the generation of new concepts per se. In terms of her stated desire to bring into dialogue Marxists, feminists and queer theorists, Lewis is undoubtedly successful, and The Politics of Everybody represents a very substantial effort to clear the ground and ensure each tradition is not talking at cross-purposes.

The book is not without shortcomings. Given the breadth of the task Lewis sets, there are moments when the analysis is spread a little thin, such as the discussion of the significance of the Russian Revolution for women and the family unit. More troubling is a black hole regarding the oppression of women and queers in terms of whether or not it is compatible with a capitalist society. Lewis explores in considerable detail the fact that capitalism by its nature externalises the costs of reproducing the proletariat on which its existence depends, and that this unpaid labour is inherently sexed. The traditional family structure which has historically undergirded this process goes a long way to explaining the differential position of men and women within capitalism. On this score, the oppression of women is inseparable from, and intrinsic to, capitalism. However, partly as a corrective to the idea that being queer is an inherently revolutionary disturbance of traditional power structures, she notes correctly ‘that capitalist expansion can do quite well without the family – and much of the time it does’. The separation of Black male workers from females during the Apartheid era, the American prison labour system, Mexican women working in single-sex dormitories at maquiladoras – all are examples of where capitalism flourishes despite the disruption of traditional kinship groups. This raises an interesting obverse question which Lewis doesn’t really address herself to – could capitalism, premised as it is on abstract equality, continue to flourish in a society that has eliminated gender-based oppression? This is obviously an open historical question, but it would have been useful for Lewis to pose it. Finally, and perhaps as a personal quibble, the term ‘everybody’ remains problematic. While I understand Lewis’ reasons for utilising the term, it is obvious that it must necessarily serve a rhetorical function, as opposed to a conceptual one. The idea of ‘everybody’ that Lewis presents shares too much with the Maoist notion of ‘the people’, where ‘the people’ includes everyone who is not an enemy. While forgivable as political tools, such terms have limited usefulness as analytical frames.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Lewis has produced an invaluable work that will undoubtedly become a key text in the development of queer Marxism. Around the world, new movements combatting exploitation and oppression in its various forms are developing and starting to feel out their collective strength. Lest these actual and potential allies repeat the failures of the 1970s–1990s and once again see the house laid low and in ashes, it is imperative that they act in concert in a universal and solidaristic struggle. In The Politics of Everybody, Holly Lewis has made an important contribution to the framework necessary for this struggle to take place and triumph.

This review first appeared in Capital & Class

Brett Heino
Brett Heino is a Lecturer in the University Technology of Sydney (UTS) Faculty of Law. His research interests include the political economy of law (with a focus on labour law), the structure of post-World War II Australian capitalism and regulation theory

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