This blog is partially the product of ongoing discussions within the Solidarity Federation over the relationship of 'Anarchy, Sex and Freedom,' but also the reliance among the wider left on dated theories from the 1960s whenever the question of sexuality is raised. The following is a speculative attempt to fill in some of the gaps.
The practical everyday activity of wage-workers reproduces wage labor and capital. Through their daily activities, "modern" men, like tribesmen and slaves, reproduce the inhabitants, the social relations and the ideas of their society; they reproduce the social form of daily life. Like the tribe and the slave system, the capitalist system is neither the natural nor the final form of human society; like the earlier social forms, capitalism is a specific response to material and historical conditions .
- Fredy Perlman
Workers are human beings, and human beings are sexual beings. Thus sexuality forms an aspect of social reproduction. Yet frequently when sexuality is discussed on the left, recourse is made to theories which date, at best, from the 1960s, as if there have been no historical developments in the intervening decades.
The repression thesis: Reich, and Brinton
Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was a psychoanalyst who fused Freud with Marx, before going a bit batshit and claiming to have discovered a 'primordial cosmic energy' called 'orgone' that caused weather events, the colour of the sky, gravity and the formation of galaxies. And orgasms. Reich's earlier work was repopularised during the 1960s, primarily by Solidarity member Maurice Brinton's pamphlet 'The Irrational in Politics' (I'm using '60s' figuratively here in the colloquial sense for the period 1968-72, rather than literally. This pamphlet was published in 1970). Solidarity's introduction to the pamphlet describes its central thesis as follows:
...an attempt to analyse the various mechanisms whereby modern society manipulates its slaves into accepting their slavery and - at least in the short term - seems to succeed. It does not deal with 'police' and 'jails' as ordinarily conceived but with those internalised patterns of repression and coercion, and with those intellectual prisons in which the 'mass individual' is today entrapped (...) It looks at the family as the locus of reproduction of the dominant ideology, and at sexual repression as an important determinant of social conditioning, resulting in the mass production of individuals perpetually craving authority and leadership and forever afraid of walking on their own or of thinking for themselves.
Consequently Reich linked the predominant sexuality with the predominant social relations, and saw the mechanism for this linkage as being sexual repression; the behaviours promoted by traditional Judeo-Christian morality - monogamous marriage, kids disciplined for wanking etc. The prevailing material relations of society - in particular the family - were seen to produce certain ideas - in particular craving authority - which in turn reproduced authoritarian society in a dialectical interaction. This idea had an obvious resonance with libertarians, who saw a clear political implication; the Man doesn't want you to have fun, so fun is subversive in itself and you can fuck your way out of capitalist society. The most hilarious contemporary example of this comes from the lifestyle anarchist group CrimethInc, who in their article "washing... and brainwashing" list the first of "eight reasons why capitalists want to sell you deoderant" as:
Body smells are erotic and sexual. Capitalists don't like that because they are impotent and opposed to all manifestations of sensuality and sexuality. Sexually awakened people are potentially dangerous to capitalists and their rigid, asexual system.
While this is only the most ridiculous example, these sentiments are not restricted to lifestylist muppets, and crop up during many discussions with class struggle anarchists too, attracted by the libertine slogan 'it is forbidden to forbid.' For example an article by the Anarchist Federation concludes that:
When people are really being sexually honest, some weird shit can start to happen. And that, in its own way, can be quite revolutionary.
There are two reasons this is problematic; the first is the speculative nature of Reich's theories in the first place, the second is the massive social changes that have taken place since 1960s which would render them of primarily historical interest even if the theories themselves were shown to be sound. However, for the purpose of this blog there is one thing we can take from Brinton; the thesis that prevailing sexuality and prevailing social relations are not independent phenomena. Before leaving the 60s, we should consider the theories of Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, who addressed this question from the point of view of housewives.
The power of women... and the subversion of the community?
Dalla Costa and James adopted a similar framework to Brinton, writing that:
The women's movement has gone into greater detail about the capitalist family. After describing how women are conditioned to be subordinated to men, it has described the family as that institution where the young are repressed from birth to accept the discipline of capitalist relations-which in Marxist terms begins with the discipline of capitalist work.
For Dalla Costa and James, it is "worth pointing out that women for whom sexual exploitation is the basic social contradiction provide an extremely important index of the degree of our own frustration, experienced by millions of women." Unlike the prevailing (Althusserian) Marxist orthodoxy of the day, they did not set up an a priori privileging of the economic 'base' over the socio-cultural 'superstructure,' but instead set out to critically investigate the prevailing structures of gender and class from the starting point of the experience of proletarian women.
This led them to describe a growing rejection of sexual relations that were at once power relations - typified by the lesbian movement which rejected relations with men altogether as inherently hierarchical, at least under prevailing social relations. They continue that:
In order to understand the frustrations of women expressing themselves in ever-increasing forms, we must be clear what in the nature of the family under capitalism precipitates a crisis on this scale. The oppression of women, after all, did not begin with capitalism. What began with capitalism was the more intense exploitation of women as women and the possibility at last of their liberation.
Consequently, the experiences of women increasingly challenging the prevailing 'womans place' in society were situated historically within the framework of capitalist social relations. Overwhelmingly at the time, this was the experiences of housewives, long-ignored by Marxist theorists busy fetishising their blue-collar husbands in the vast car factories that formed the backbone of global value production for most of the 20th century (see Beverly Silver's 'Forces of Labour'). From this point of departure they go on to describe in much more detail the way in which the hidden reproductive labour of housewives (cooking, washing, childcare...) is indispensible to the reproduction of labour power, and thus capitalist production, since without it their husbands could not return refreshed and ready to work the next day and there wouldn't be a new generation of workers to replace them once capital had exhausted their productive capacities. They conclude that:
The housewife's situation as a pre-capitalist mode of labor and consequently this "femininity" imposed upon her (...) So when we say that women must overthrow the relation of domestic-work-time to non-domestic-time and must begin to move out of the home, we mean their point of departure must be precisely this willingness to destroy the role of housewife.
Leaving the 60s...
Reich/Brinton's thesis is not entirely historical, nor entirely speculative; one only need consider Iran where homosexuality is punishable by death and all sexual relations outside marriage are prohibited to see that sexual repression can be used as a form of social control. It's not just Iran either; abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland. Similarly, Dalla Costa/James' exposition of the indispensibility of unwaged, domestic labour to the reproduction of industrial workers remains a compelling argument. But what stands out about Iran (and only slighly less so for Northern Ireland ) is precisely its status as a reactionary, religiously backwards anachronism in relation to the contemporary liberal west (which is my point of reference for this discussion). Similarly, the arguments about the housewife-factory worker dyad are a victim of their own insistence that the role of women can only be understood in its historical context; the very societies at which the critique was aimed have since moved from 70% male-dominated, primary and secondary industries to over 70% tertiary sector with an increasingly causalised, mixed-sex workforce.
To a certain extent, this shift can be seen as a success of the very rejection of the role of the housewife Dalla Costa and James called for. Women have struggled for legal equality and to a large extent this has been achieved de jure, although rarely yet de facto. On the other hand it can be seen as a reflection of the economic restructuring required to maintain capital accumlation in the face of militant workforces in the mines and factories of the first world; these industries were outsourced overseas (recreating the same contradicitons there - again Beverly Silver's book is instructive), and consequently the role of the housewife became expendable and womens demands to leave the home could be accomodated within the new 'post-industrial' mode of accumulation (the term 'post-industrial' is problematic because industry has only gone away in a geographic sense, but it's workable for dealing with societies such as our own as entities in their own right, although their global interconnection can't be forgotten). Thus the relation between family structures and class composition is a dialectical one - there's a feedback loop, but unpicking causality even retrospectively is a matter of chicken and egg.
The important thing for the discussion at hand however is that this shift has occured, both in the mode of accumulation and the prevailing family and sexual norms. Conservatives lament the decline of 'family values' by which they mean the marriage as a patriarchal, proprietory institution in much the same way as leftists lament the 'disappearance' of the blue collar working class to whom their affirmative fetishes of social change were so closely tied. Consequently, attacking conservative, repressed religious morality misses the boat - by several decades. After all I'd wager far more people queue for clubs on a Saturday night in the hope of a casual fuck with a stranger than roll into church the next day to be lectured about such behaviour. The lesson of the past decades is there's nothing subversive about who or how you fuck. In fact promiscuous sexuality provides the perfect foil to 'tolerant' post-industrial liberal multicultural consumer capitalism, in much the same way as conservative religious morality complimented a society of factory discipline and nuclear families with its roles of the breadwinner and the housewife.
...And arriving in the present
Just think of the proliferation of gay pride marches, the pink pound etc. Demographics. Target markets. Far from being a "rigid, asexual system", if going out on the weekend and engaging in whatever sexual activity floats our boat helps us distract/recharge ourselves ready to return to work on Monday morning, then capital's all for it. I think the most useful theorist for the post-60s context is Slavoj Žižek. Žižek argues that sexual repression has largely been replaced by 'jouissance' ('excess enjoyment') in consumer capitalism. Capital has fully endorsed the slogan 'it is forbidden to forbid', and the injunction is now to indulge to excess (for Žižek the commodity that epitomises this is chocolate laxatives).
Under the dictum 'sex sells' the universal commodification that characterises capitalist development is accompanied by a universal sexualisation. So we read articles perving about the 15 year-old Charlotte Church's tits opposite an article decrying satire of paedophile hysteria as 'sick'; jouissance overleaf from repression. In fact arguably anti-paedophile hysteria can only be understood as a product of a society that pervasively sexualises its pre-pubescents (Bratz etc); spectacle aghast at its own reflection?
Žižek would argue todays 'sexual revolutionaries' are the 'Silver Ring Thing' kids, since they defy todays injunction to 'be sexual' in much the same way as 60s sexual rebels defied prudish 'square' society. Of course such knee-jerk opposition to social norms is another example of the slave morality I like to bang on about on the pages of this blog. And here's the twist in Žižek. He argues that the permissiveness of modern society in many ways represents a more autocratic mode than good old fashioned prohibition, which was at least honest about it. He uses the example of US Amish communities, who raise their kids in rural isolation for 18 years then let them loose in the cities with the flurry of drugs, sex and rock'n'roll that entails. But the 'permissiveness' of the community towards its new adults represents a hidden autocracy; unprepared for urban society, after a few years of excess most kids return to the comfort of the rural community, to raise their kids the same way in turn. for Žižek this is an allegory of the empty freedom of consumer capitalism.
Does the allegory hold for contemporary 'liberated' sexuality? Certainly the patriarchal family seems to have declined in utility to capital, as mothers are coerced back into the labour market - where they have become an essential part of the waged labour force - as soon as possible. However, government plans to cement this tendency by extending school hours have so far come to nothing. It would appear capital cannot afford to supplant the family as the basic unit of child-raising, for the time being at least. Consequently, contemporary sexuality does bear some resemblance to Žižek's allegory; caught between sexual freedom and the necessities of child-raising, the nuclear, patriarchal family no longer occupies as central a role as it once did as a plethora of roles proliferate, but yet neither are gender roles abolished altogether in a movement to make all concrete labour abstract.
Some further speculations
In light of this discussion, certain theoretical speculations come to mind. The lesson seems to be that the prevailing sexualities of industrial and post-industrial capitalism - repressive and permissive respectively - are mirror images of one another. Both appear to be based on a separation of physical and emotional intimacy. Whilst the repressive/industrial mode, via religious morality frames sex as simply a procreative necessity, the permissive/post-industrial mode presents it as a pleasurable end in itself. Both separate sex from emotional content, but in different ways. Whilst under the repressive mode, sex becomes a proprietory right of the husband (marital rape in the UK was only criminalised in 1991), under the permissive mode casually fucking strangers is best practiced in the manner Žižek describes as "only masturbation with a real partner."
Of course it must be stressed that to reduce the breadth of contemporary sexuality to these two mirrored poles would be to gravely misrepresent reality. Pre-60s sexual life wasn't uniformly functional and monogamous, and post-1960s there hasn't been one long orgy of promiscuity (at least outside the deluded nightmares of social conservatives). It should also be stressed that none of these categories are making moral judgements, merely analytical ones. I don't particularly care who or how you like to fuck, I'm more concerned with how the construction of dominant sexualities reflects and is reflected in the social relations of which they form a part. Furthermore, the posited separation of emotional and physical intimacy on which I speculate these repressive/permissive modes are based is far more conceptual than actual, as anyone with a reasonably active sex life will tell you. More what I'm describing is two ideal types that exist as real tendencies and to some extent express the dialectical relationship between sexuality and social reproduction.
So to try and conclude things; this blog is necessarily speculative, But it does beg several questions theoretical and empirical. How does this cultural reproduction take place, if not by Reichian repression of childhood sexuality centred on the family? By what means are sexual norms reproduced, and by what means do they come to reflect - or indeed be reflected by - the prevailing regime of accumulation? Empirically, do attitudes to sex and sexual practices (which are not the same thing) actually reflect the prevailing mode of accumulation? If hegemonic sexuality does reflect the needs of the prevailing mode of accumulation, do sexual counter-cultures therefore have revolutionary potential after all? On this last point I feel confident enough to answer: No. Such counter-cultures simply signify the inadequacy of the prevailing mode of social reproduction to guarantee social stability; they'd need to be a reflection of class struggle to imply revolutionary potential. For example a massive growth of the 'Silver Ring Thing' would signify social production based on norms of sexual promiscuity is breaking down, but would pose no threat to capital per se unless the birth rate fell so low as to threaten the future reproduction of labour power. In any case abstinance-only programs don't tend to reduce the pregnancy rate, for example according to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ teen pregnancy policy:
Even though there is great enthusiasm in some circles for abstinence-only interventions, the evidence does not support abstinence-only interventions as the best way to keep young people from unintended pregnancy.
Consequently, the lesson of the past decades is that who or how you fuck is in the final analysis apolitical. While open homosexuality is a political (and perhaps suicidal) act in Iran, this is because it is in contradiction to a particular mode of accumulation, not capital accumulation per se. At most, changes in attitudes to sexuality will accompany upsurges in class struggle - indeed they must. But it's only in connection with class struggle that such struggles can take on a revolutionary aspect rather than altering the configuration of capitalist reproduction (not necessarily a bad thing as Iranian gays will be the first to tell you); you can't fuck - or abstain - your way out of social relation based on material dispossession. Equally, fun doesn't have to be revolutionary, and like most things sex is more fun when you leave the politics out of it.