Capitalism and Gay Identity: God’s Two Greatest Enemies

I recently read an article in this anthology on the emergence of gay identity in the United States and its connection to capitalism. I was particularly delighted to read it after the author, John D’Emilio, admits the following in the abstract:

Using Marxist analyses of capitalism, I argue that two aspects of capitalism – wage labor and commodity production – created the social conditions that made possible the emergence of a distinctive gay and lesbian identity.

Before I continue I should mention that the article was published in 1983 – a whole six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall – so my initial stance going in to the reading was one of condescension. In my head I was thinking:

Oh really? A Marxist analysis of gay identity and how it relates to capitalism? I can’t WAIT to see what interesting charges will follow. Private prisons for homosexuals? Exploited homosexual labor for meager wages? I am soooo glad that my critical thinking skills are respected by the academic community.

Alas, the article in question is very, very good (but for all the wrong reasons, of course!).

The article is good for three important reasons.

1) it explicitly shows how capitalism, or more precisely the market, has indeed provided more freedom for homosexuals.

2) it inadvertently shows how the state has been used by factions to impose their will upon other factions in society.

3) it illustrates just how utterly childish Leftism in general and 1980’s American Marxism in particular really is.

D’Emilio, an academic historian (lest you question his very good credentials), begins by explaining how the gay and lesbian identity as it is understood today began to emerge in the 1960’s. The key aspect here is that a number of myths about homosexuality were created and adopted by the gay movement in response to state-sponsored oppression. It would be pertinent to keep these myths in mind when we think about other movements that have worked to eliminate oppressive laws (which are always and everywhere created and enforced by our enemy: the state) since the 1960’s. D’Emilio writes:

[…] we constructed a myth of silence, invisibility, and isolation as the essential characteristics of gay life in the past as well as the present. Moreover, because we faced so many oppressive laws, pubic policies, and cultural beliefs, we projected this image into an image of an abysmal past

[…] There is another historical myth that enjoys nearly universal acceptance in the gay movement, the myth of the ‘eternal homosexual.’ The argument runs something like this: Gay men and lesbians always were and always will be. We are everywhere; not just now, but throughout history, in all societies and in all periods. This myth served as a political function in the first years of gay liberation.

It is important to note here that myths among minority groups are often created by the intellectual class to help give such groups a base with which to launch their “resistance” campaigns from. While liberal democracies are much better for minority groups than are other types of governments, there is still oppression to be found. Again, this oppression is always and everywhere created and enforced by the state at the behest of factions. The marketplace, which is made up of billions of individuals pursuing their own self-interests, has no place for systematic rules of oppressing potential customers and business partners. This is not to say that some business interests don’t try to eliminate competition through laws based on irrational, xenophobic or racist views, but only that if the market is allowed sufficient room to operate freely then individual freedom and prosperity will ensue.

When D’Emilio writes about the myth of the eternal homosexual, he is not denying that homosexuality has been absent from human societies since time immemorial. What he stating here is that homosexuality as American society now understands it is a new phenomenon. Got that? So, 200 years ago homosexual acts weren’t considered homosexual. They were something else entirely and dependent upon the cultural interpretations for homosexual acts of a given society. This is what scholars mean when they refer to “identity.”* D’Emilio continues to elaborate his point:

Here I wish to challenge this myth. I want to argue that gay men and lesbians have not always existed. Instead, they are a product of history, and have come into existence in a specific historical era [stay with me here, outdated Marxist frameworks can often be useful – bc]. Their emergence is associated with the relations of capitalism; it has been the historical development of capitalism – more specifically its free-labor system – that has allowed large numbers of men and women in the late twentieth century to call themselves gay, to see themselves as part of a community of similar men and women, and to organize politically on the basis of that identity.

D’Emilio is admitting here, in an anthology published by the Monthly Review, that capitalism has created the space necessary for homosexuals to live their lives as freely and as independently as possible, something that has never been accomplished before**. What’s more, D’Emilio is correct and for all the right reasons. More flexibility and mobility among individuals is one of the hallmarks of capitalism, as is the emergence of more choices for just about anything. Without capitalism, the gay and lesbian movement would have never existed. There would always be people living in the closet, to be sure, but it was the institutions aimed at creating freedom of association and choice – the hallmarks of the market-based economy, or capitalism – that was developed by American society that has led to emergence of a vibrant, proud, and now-successful gay and lesbian movement.

Although the gay and lesbian movement began to flourish in the 1970’s as a result of liberalized markets and the re-emergence of globalization (which creates even more choices and more prosperity for those who participate), D’Emilio notes that in the 1950’s and 60’s “oppression by the state intensified, becoming more systematic and inclusive.” Again, D’Emilio is correct. The state has always been a useful tool by which one faction aims to oppress another faction. Conservatives have always loathed homosexuality (the closet conservatives most of all!), and their attempts to equate homosexuality with communism in the 1950’s and 1960’s falls neatly in line with their demagogic attacks on homosexuality over the course of the American republic’s history.

So how is it that capitalism, which has led to the flourishing of gay identity in the West, can be condemned by Marxists of the 1980’s (and probably today as well) for the very same oppression that it has undone if the state has been the ultimate oppressor of this flourishing?

Here is where we can find the childishness of the Left.

D’Emilio answers the first half of my question:

The answers, I think, can be found in the contradictory relationship of capitalism to the family. On the one hand […] capitalism has gradually undermined the material basis of the nuclear family by taking away the economic functions that cemented the ties between family members. As more adults have been drawn into the free-labor system, and as capital has expanded its sphere until it produces as commodities most goods and services we need for our survival, the forces that propelled men and women into families and kept them there have weakened. On the other hand, the ideology of capitalist society has enshrined the family as a source of love, affection, and emotional security, the place where our need for stable, intimate human relationships is satisfied.

This elevation of the nuclear family to preeminence in the sphere of personal life is not accidental. Every society needs structures for reproduction and childrearing, but the possibilities are not limited to the nuclear family. Yet the privatized family fits in well with capitalist relations of production […] Ideologically, capitalism drives people into heterosexual families […] Materially, capitalism weakens the bonds that once kept families together so that their members experience a growing instability in the place they have come to expect happiness and security. Thus, while capitalism has knocked the material foundation away from family life, lesbians, gay men, and heterosexual feminists have become scapegoats for the social instability of the system.

NNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! How can I be reading this? How does something that has been so brilliant up to this point become so childish and immature? Why am I going to school again? To learn critical thinking skills? Let me get this straight:

1) instead of acknowledging the ability of capitalism to provide more choices and better lives for individuals in society, or

2) acknowledging that the state is the actual oppressor of liberty, the author decides to

3) blame homosexual oppression on the “contradictory relationship of capitalism to the family” due to ideology?

Can it get any more childish and immature than this? The author is basically stating the following: Capitalism helped alter family life in a fundamental way in the 19th and 20th centuries, so families adapted themselves accordingly.

I think the inability of the author to give credit where credit is due (because of ideological reasons, ironically enough) does enough to discredit the “Marxist analyses” we are dissecting, but there is one piece that I would like to hone in on, if only to more fully discredit the dying, reactionary school of thought known as Marxism:

“Ideologically, capitalism drives people into heterosexual families”

First of all, I didn’t realize that capitalism had an ideology. I am fairly certain that the Marxists of the 1980’s did (do?) not know what capitalism’s ideology was either. Reality tells a different story than the one depicted in the two paragraphs above. What capitalism has done, and continues to do, is provide more choices to individuals (including homosexuals). Just as the family continued to adapt to changes in the past, so too will they continue to adapt in the present and the future. Gay marriage is a big topic these days, and – guess what? – it the state that is to blame for the oppression of individual choice, not capitalism.

I and others here at Notes On Liberty are well-aware that conservatives are behind the efforts to hamper choice in the market for marriages. Warren Gibson, Jacques Delacroix, and Fred Foldvary have all blogged about this before. If Leftists are truly interested in equality they would do well to heed the facts concerning gay life in the West: Capitalism has brought about the movement’s flourishing, and the government is holding it back. This fact is true not just in the realm of gay identity, but in the realm of all other social, political, and economic aspects of as well. Leftists would also do well to remember that their movement, as it stands now, as it stood three decades ago, is, for all intents and purposes, one of conservatism, obstinate ignorance, and embarrassing causality.

*Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the horrors of the centrally-planned economy became exposed to all, the Left has been trying its hardest to avoid using the term “individualism” in its theoretical frameworks. Thus it has concocted a bunch of somewhat-useful terms like “identity” to explain what libertarians have been trying to get across to everybody for centuries: that individuals are best-able to choose for themselves, and therefore it would be best to go about molding social institutions like laws and political structures to play an accommodating role in individual choices by reducing (or outright eliminating) the size and scope of the state.

**In Native American societies, homosexuals had a large amount of personal freedom and were often revered for their shamanistic qualities, but such a social status worked both ways: if there was a problem of some kind that was viewed as supernatural then guess which shaman’s feet the blame often fell to? Shamans were often murdered quickly rather than put on trial due to the fears of witchcraft that Native American tribes harbored.

PS I don’t think I’ve ever used the term “homosexual” in a conversation before. If anybody out there has a term that gay people like to refer to themselves as I would be grateful for the heads up. Otherwise I will just continue to call everybody “dude.”

PPS Inevitable disclaimer: no I am not a homosexual. I like boobs and big juicy female butts. I like ’em a lot! Ladies: send me dirty messages to my Twitter account!

PPPS I have a lot of respect for Karl Marx. Go here for details.

6 thoughts on “Capitalism and Gay Identity: God’s Two Greatest Enemies

  1. As an existential phenomenologist who happens to be gay, I like where you are going with this. As Bergson pointed out with physics and the sciences, analysis must radically seize & stop a phenomenon in order to accomplish a circumscribing explanation. h

    So historians & culture critics often fail to see the always on-going shifts that make a society a living entity. E.g. Industrial capitalism morphed into global corporate capitalism. How we use the skills & tools of techno-economic progress keeps evolving. Communism became passe not because capitalism trounced it but because it never evolved. Gorbachev tried to force it too late and Mao had even regressed the process.

    This is the problem with dogmatic ideology: because Marx was mostly talking about capitalism of the industrial variety, the USSR was already falling behind as capitalism morphed to become corporate finance. That is, we moved from a productive metaphysics in which disciplinary enclosures like the factory or local soviet were paramount to a process metaphysics in which constantly modulating control networks offered solutions unheard of before.

    I see this as the real cause of why neo-liberals–either conservatives or progressives–cannot get a grip on how things are changing so fast. They are locked in the dogmatism of productive metaphysics. They scream for the family or for the class not realizing that their own children have already progressed past these things.

    If we properly comprehend the process of open networks like the Occupy movements, we would see that the core is the dynamic possibilities offered by techno-economic progress which have been forwarded by global corporate finance. But it is the techno-economic assembly of networks that is driving the system. We just call it capitalism. It is not capital which is being exchanged, however: it is the human & the world as information. Some will merely make a profit off of this. Others will make a life out of it.

    • Karl,

      Thanks for the kind words. I’d just add a couple of things:

      1) Markets are open networks, too.

      2a) As long as there is a set of well-defined property rights (notice I didn’t say private property rights), then progress occurs fairly often.

      2b) Private property is a bit more efficient than other types of property rights, but not necessarily as popular. As long as property rights are well-defined, I say “go for it!”

      2c) Sometimes transitioning from a well-defined set of communal property rights to private property rights can actually cause more uncertainty and kinks than is anticipated. In today’s world this transition from one set of property rights to another is undertaken by central planners rather than local factions (as it was done in the West and Japan). This is why property rights are held sacrosanct by libertarians.

      3) I like your last couple of sentences a lot.

    • Thanks Brandon. Indeed, markets are networks. They are the original nodes of exchange going all the way back to the earliest societies. The term market derives from an old Etruscan word for trading exchange. Trade was the original economic action before advanced commerce allowed a more mercenary turn to become ascendent. (No accident that commerce & mercenary have the same root). But my point is that markets have always been nets catching this & that and sending it here & there into new avenues or novel works. Markets are where we discover the properties of our own society meeting the properties of other societies. Markets are where we see the properties of our own person in conjunction with those of others.

      The need for comprehending the property as process is the key I think. If we see property as key for engaging in any exchange or refraining from any exchange, we can get a handle on how the notion is far more broad than we have heretofore understood it. Socrates famously spent his time in the marketplace (agora) of ancient Athens. And the most famous of Plato’s Socratic dialogs takes place in Pireaus, the port of Athens. In the ebb & flow of exchange, they discovered that there is a good life has certain properties, that the person shares properties with the group & vice versa, that judgment & reason work by highlighting the properties of ideas, that societies must protect necessary property while not frittering away life on the accumulation of bad properties.

      Real property (land & anything to which we give a “title”) is an expression of how we think of these myriad of properties which make up the process of exchange. I agree that more should be done at the local level whenever possible. And I think paradoxically that the interconnections of global networks is forcing us to think more locally in order to not lose the “neighborhood” properties that make us distinct from other locals. Some of my friends call this glocalization. I know… obviously one of those academic terms. But it starts to roll of the tongue in a nice way when you see how it keeps us looking at the properties at work in our exchanges… how the world backgrounds the neighborhood or the neighborhood backgrounds the world. And we learn how others treat not only their real property but their very bodies and minds… the only properties every human being gets.

      I am suddenly reminded of an old parable that Tolstoy revamped. There is a competition in small part of Russia. All the young men come to this. They run against each other trying to cover the most land that they can run. Some just go for a small bit. Others for a tad larger. But one fellow, call him Dimitri, decides he is going to run around the county. But another fellow, call him Nikolas, is doing the same. This is Dimitri’s real competition. So they are off… running and running and running for hours and hours and hours. Dimitri is always ahead but Nikolas is just behind him, sometimes almost catching up. Well, to make this long comment shorter (sorry for being so longwinded)… Dimitri circles all the way back around to the starting line before Nikolas. Yea… he won!!! But then everyone sees him clutch at his heart. And fall to the ground. Nikolas starts laughing. And as he laughs, he begins to get an evil look on his face. He saunters over to Dimitri who breathing his last breath. “O…tsk tsk tsk Dimitri,” the Enemy says as his face grows horns & vicious fang filled smile. “Do you not know, old boy? The only property you pathetic humans will ever own is the six feet of ground in which you are buried.”

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