Towards a Queer Crisis: On Capitalism & Compulsory Heterosexuality

by Sophie Monk & Joni Pitt (Cohen)

23 October 2016

Gay Pride, Bologna / Roberto Taddeo / Flickr / CC
Gay Pride, Bologna / Roberto Taddeo / Flickr / CC

What is the role of compulsory heterosexuality in global capitalism? If we understand capitalism as a total system, we must also acknowledge the ways in which all aspects of our lives – including our desires, our romantic lives and our family units – are sculpted and engineered to give priority to the ceaseless accumulation of capital. If we understand this, we can perhaps glimpse a vision of how these processes might be disrupted.

Compulsory heterosexuality and the reproduction of the labour force.

Capitalism needs to produce a labour force in order to survive; as it depends on the continued availability of cheap, abundant labour. This means several things: first, that it must provide some kind of wages to allow its workers to subsist, and secondly that it must guarantee inter-generational reproduction to secure the future of its labour force. A certain rate of procreation is therefore a necessary for capitalism to flourish. Here we propose that compulsory heterosexuality is one of the techniques of bourgeois power deployed to secure this future, ensuring that the proletariat reproduces itself.

For this reason, the heterosexual household has taken pride of place in the history of capitalist societies, valorized as the only virtuous and tolerable form of romantic-sexual relationship. Historically, the political establishment has been nothing less than candid in admitting to this: Winston Churchill bragged “there is no doubt that it is around the family and the home that all the greatest virtues, the most dominating virtues of human, are created, strengthened and maintained.” Contained in this is the implicit directive that heterosexual procreation is natural and essential for the flourishing of society.

Looking back to the establishment of a capitalist order in Britain, we see compulsory heterosexuality – although by this stage, hardly a novel concept – assume its capitalist form in state legislation. Legally-mandated heterosexuality is retrenched around the same time that capitalism begins to take hold – therefore, when the modern terms of population-management become a key feature of wielding power. In the 16th century, huge swathes of British land that had previously been organised into unowned arable fields and small-holdings were combined and privatised, fenced off from the peasants who had previously enjoyed some rights to their use. This policy of ‘enclosure’ pushed peasants off the land on which they had communally subsisted, marking the birth of what Marx would name the vogelfrei (bird free): a class doubly freed of both their serfdom but also the means of their subsistence. Many thinkers have pointed to this as a key moment in the transition from feudalism to capitalism; deprived of the ability to survive off the land, more and more people were forced to depend upon wages. Thus, the modern proletariat was born.

Prior to this economic shift, peasant population levels only mattered to the feudal class as long as they were able to reproduce themselves and produce the surplus paid in taxes to their feudal masters. But this basic level of replacement isn’t enough to sustain capitalist growth: to survive, capitalism must constantly expand.While productivity levels in a feudal system did not need to increase, the capitalist mode of production demands an exponential rise in not only efficiency but overall productive capacity. This expansionary tendency of ceaseless production, requires that the working population must also be in a state of constant expansion. In the dogma of the Church towards the end of feudalism, heterosexual reproduction was the only permissible form of a generally disparaged element of human life: flesh was seen as base, and its weaknesses were the origin of original sin. With the birth of a capitalist economy, however, comes not simply stigma around sexuality per se – but legislation that enshrines a compulsory heterosexuality. Thus we see the procreative demands of capital departing from an anti-natalist ideal held up by the Church, to shape secular legislation.

If we look to what was happening in gay rights law around this time, we see the Buggery Act of 1533 emerge as a disciplinary and punitive legal force to manage the swathes of the dispossessed moving into the urban sphere. The historical definition of buggery has been sculpted over a long period of time by judicial precedents, generally understood to refer to anal intercourse or oral intercourse by a man with a man or a man with a woman, i.e. non-procreative sexual activity. Here we have one of the earliest examples of productivity becoming an issue for governance, and with this, procreation and population-management making its way into state discourse.

Up until a certain historical juncture, therefore, non-normative sexualities have been intolerable to the reproductive needs of capitalism, since they are not conducive to procreation. We can trace the criminalisation of homosexuality not to a rootless social conservatism that emerges out of the void, or an outdated hangover from the dogma of the Church, but to the material needs of capital. According to writer Paul Preciado, “heterosexuality must be understood as a politically assisted procreation technology”. The policing of sexuality is not simply a reactive repression of natural instincts; it is the mobilisation of certain behaviours which lead to the making of future workers.

Even the way in which children have historically been disciplined speaks to the same impulse of capitalism: to make and shape its workers so they can fulfil their destiny as part of the productive labour force. There is very little difference between the models of corporal punishment adopted in the schools of the earlier half of the 20th century, and the forms of discipline exercised in factories of the same epoch. The liberalisation of the school system and parenting techniques at large, however, presents us with a different picture of discipline today. Since the 1948 Criminal Justice Act, the use of corporal punishment has been illegal. Children’s bodies are no longer conditioned for work in the factory, but instead for the ceaseless labour of job-seeking, self-selling and the general state of life as a walking CV, more often between jobs than in them. Clearly disciplinary structures surrounding social reproduction are changing, but why?

Crisis and queer liberation.

Queer liberation began as a rebellion against laws designed to further procreation. The mid-late 1960s saw the the birth of gay liberation organisations and movements with a truly global reach, such as the birth of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966, and the popularisation of the picket as a political tactic amongst LGBT rights groups. We can see the beginning of gay liberation as a constellation of important, pivotal moments, going on to collectively produce legislative change and the exponential growth of LGBT movements, precipitating the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and in Britain, the formation of the Gay Liberation Front and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

While lesbianism has never been explicitly prohibited in British law, 1967 saw for the first time the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. This however seems unusually early for the decriminalization laws among the core capitalist countries, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the USA which followed suit in the early 1980s.

Clearly, one must understand the surge of gay liberation direct action around this time, as an essential driving force behind the enshrinement of LGBT rights in law. But if we accept the intimate link between the demands of capitalism and the policing of sexuality, we must ask how the state could afford to repeal legislation that had previously been so zealously enforced and essential to the procreative needs of capital? Our suggestion: crisis. We can take 1973 as our crisis moment in the productive capabilities of capitalism. The beginning of the long crisis, 1973 marked a global economic downturn from which the world-economy has never recovered. Joshua Clover notes some key events from this period: “the first in a series of oil shocks, the formal withdrawal of the US from its Southeast Asian adventure, and the final collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system setting the stage for increasing trade and current account imbalance.” With the decline of the Western manufacturing economy, financialization took hold of the British economy: whilst other sectors shrunk, the growing finance industry began to account for an ever-larger proportion of the country’s economy. Profit rates fell in manufacturing industries forcing individual capitalists to search elsewhere for means of profit-making. They managed to do so through increasing efficiency of transport and the circulation of commodities, and through speculation on future profits. This economic shift had a profound impact on the degree of labour required by capital, and therefore the need for state enforced compulsory heterosexual procreative relationships.

Further to this, as profits declined in labour-heavy industries, those industries were less able to pay wages whilst remaining competitive. With the hollowing out of capital’s ability to purchase labour power, a space for non-procreative and specifically homosexual relationships presented itself. The legal establishment responded to the twin forces of gay liberation movements and economic convenience by, tentatively allowing queer life to exist as part of mainstream society. In other words, the decriminalisation of homosexual relationships became amenable, or at least tolerable, to capital, not so that queer life could flourish, but to accelerate assimilation and make difference invisible. After the passing of the Sexual Offences Bill in 1967, Lord Arran asked queers to “show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity,” adding that “any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful.” We see here a shift in the techniques of control, from direct repression to an ostensible tolerance on the condition of cooperation.

Of course, compulsory heterosexuality and procreativity has not ceased to be in the interest of state power. We can look to Italy’s annual fertility celebration, with its accompanying imperative for procreation displayed in its propaganda. However, it seems that this serves a different purpose in the manipulation of Italy’s population. Instead of requiring an enlarged labour force for capital, the Italian state desires an increase in the ratio of white Italians to non-white populations, reflecting a turn towards nationalism as opposed to the bare propagation of market forces.

Neither can we say that homophobia in Britain – particularly state homophobia – by any means dissolved in the crisis of 1973. Virulent gay-bashing has remained at the heart of the socially conservative political consensus that developed through the Thatcher years, evolving into a reluctant permission of gay marriage under today’s Conservative government. And yet it seems beyond the realm of coincidence that it was at this particular historical moment that certain demands of queer liberation became amenable to capital’s ideologies of production. When capitalism thrives, heterosexual reproduction is needed. When capitalism enters crisis, its abilities to sustain a population diminish, providing a space within which queer liberation can be possible without antagonising the accumulation of capital. This helps us to recognise that this history of queer liberation, and the seemingly total co-option of LGBT life, as correlative with the rise of neoliberalism – an era marked by overlapping crises of production.

Assimilation and Pride.

Far from suggesting that queers have been liberated by capitalism, we want to examine which elements of queer life are tolerable and assimilable in the capitalist world-system, and which are not. The phenomenon of corporate pinkwashing can tell us a lot about the extent to which LGBT folk have been incorporated into the public face of capital. Last year, OUTstanding and the Financial Times collaborated on a “power list” of notable LGBT executives, including the CEO of Lloyds of London, Inga Beale, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook as a standout “ally”.

Similarly, the evolution of Pride into a purely celebratory event, voided of its original radical politics, is indicative of the way that ‘representation’ and ‘inclusion’ have become the foremost mainstream frontiers of queer “liberation”. Demanding ‘representation’ and ‘inclusion’ speaks of a desire not to change society, but to be unobtrusively included within it. Although Pride stemmed out of resistance to police brutality in the form of the Stonewall riots, contemporary Pride parades will routinely include floats of gay police officers celebrating themselves and, implicitly, this particular conduit of repressive state power. Rather than a celebration of gay lives and struggle, Pride seems little more than a celebration of gay peoples’ ability to assimilate and succeed under capitalism. This form of queer visibility conveniently conceals the intersecting histories of class and race which have traditionally problematized the ease of assimilation. Success under capitalism isn’t available to all. The truth of Pride is a parade of queer capitalism, and therefore the ability of one form of queer life – predominantly wealthy, predominantly white and predominantly male – to immiserate and exploit others.

Likewise, the preoccupation with gay marriage and right to adoption as the definitive queer civil rights issue of our generation, has not only distracted from the material needs and deprivations of queer people under neoliberalism, but also reflects a fundamental continuity between the heterosexual nuclear household and new, non-traditional family structures. The material advantages that the legalization of gay marriage has brought are undeniable, especially in the face of gentrification and increasingly draconian immigration laws that privilege married couples. Nevertheless, the political motivations behind this development are nakedly designed to encourage and reward participatory formations of relationships which aim at the reproduction of bourgeois property relations. Again, this is made possible by the shift in emphasis from production to circulation and consumption under the neoliberal economic order we find ourselves today. The gay married couple represents an ideal hard-working, managerial class of households, who – with no compulsory requirement to invest income in the reproduction of children – are left with a sizeable expendable income to be re-routed back into consumption and speculative investment. A strange reversal of values has taken place wherein the non-reproductive lesbian worker is even likely to earn more than her heterosexual counterpart for the same job, by virtue of not being expected to take maternity leave or need to reduce hours so as to be with children. A celebration of non-procreativity as a condition of a greater dedication of one’s life to work has entered the logic behind capital’s shifting attitude towards LGBT people.

Anti-capitalist queer liberation: a Pride we can be proud of. 

This July, Toronto’s annual gay Pride parade was shut down by Black Lives Matter activists occupying the route for approximately one and a half hours. Their primary contention was that Pride is failing LGBT communities – particularly of colour – for its platforming of the police, its reticence to fund minority communities, and its dearth of Black representation. The disruption was a success, ending with Toronto Pride organisers agreeing to meet the group’s demands. What is so remarkable about this particular act of protest is its refusal to accept that there is yet anything to celebrate: as the action obstructed the forward procession of the march, so did its demands complicate the notion of queer liberation as a progressive, forward-moving trajectory.

If we speak of queer liberation not as a horizon to aim for, but as an achievement of the history books, we betray the realities of queer life today. Queerness must not be seen as a floating, purely identitarian category. It is constituted through its fundamentally classed, raced and disabled intersections; people live not simply as queers, but as poor, as female as people of colour. We must strive not simply towards a liberation of people as queer, but a liberation of queer people. To simply eliminate queerness as an axis of oppression, would not constitute liberation for queers, since queer life is inevitably bound up with a variety of other oppressions. We do not consider it an achievement to raise queers to the same level of misery of straight people; we desire the eradication of the immiseration of queer people as a whole. As such, this requires the liberation of the queer dispossessed from capitalism, the queer of colour from racism, and the queer disabled from ableist society.

Our task now is to unleash the potentials inherent within queer communities for non-capitalist forms of life-making. It is significant that the forms of queer life that remain marginal and unassimilated are those that most closely resemble the communities from which the Stonewall and Compton riots erupted in the 1960s. Historically, the gay bar has functioned as a site of social reproduction, an internal outside, or space within capitalism that nonetheless refuses to reproduce the social relations required by it. We call, then, for the proliferation of queer liberation movements that, like these historical riots, emerge from community and prioritise the blocking of capitalist circulation, that bring the environment of the gay bar out into the streets and antagonize the forces that first drove them into sanctuary. While previously the cops would come to us to shut down our spaces and obliterate the formation of solidarities, we must now bring our fight to what they exist to protect: private property. We also call for queers to unite under the banner of the class of the immiserated and – while acknowledging the importance of privilege discourse to our own internal governings – resist disintegrating solidarities over political point-scoring and the subtle variations in the ease of our lives, as Everyday Feminism would have us do. We are unequally fucked, but we are all fucked nonetheless. Finally, we call for an anti-capitalist queer liberation movement that shifts its emphasis away from the accumulation of rights and privileges, and instead seeks the abolition of capital-guided state power, the most violent force in our lives. The history of compulsory heterosexuality shows us the absolute dependence of capitalism on its ability to reproduce a certain type of life. Through this, it shows us just how disruptive queer liberation could – indeed, must – be.


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