Bill Crane reviews Holly Lewis’ standout book on the relationship between capitalism and oppression.
One of the most promising trends on the intellectual left in recent years is the emergence of a strong and sophisticated Marxist-feminist current of academics and activists. The identification of the social reproduction of the working class as the root of women’s oppression under capitalism has become increasingly accepted. (Editor’s note: you can read an introduction to social reproduction by Tithi Bhattacharrya here.) Social reproduction is beginning to develop a coherent and compelling framework for analysing developments as far apart as the increase in violence against women in the global North and the outsourcing of reproduction to an army of ‘disposable’ domestic workers, to the double or triple burdens on women workers in countries such as India and China.
While the current of Marxist engagement with queer theory has not been as strong as with feminism, the relative dearth of Marxist analysis of queer oppression has been noted and is beginning to be remedied, with the appearance of work by authors such as Sherry Wolf, Peter Drucker, David Camfield and Colin Wilson.
In this field, Holly Lewis strikes me as the immediate standout. Her 2016 book, The Politics of Everybody, is every bit as audacious as its title suggests. It is a landmark work of engaged revolutionary politics striving for a left in which ‘Marxist-feminism’ or ‘queer Marxism’ is redundant because it is self-evident, while sharpening the razor of criticism our tradition has provided us going back to Lenin and Marx. It demands to be closely read by everyone dedicated to revolutionary Marxist, feminist and queer politics alike.
Social reproduction feminism has its origins in the domestic labour debates of the 1970s. Its most comprehensive statement came in 1983 with Lise Vogel’s book Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory, a text that was forgotten for some years until republished as part of the Historical Materialism Book Series in 2013.
Vogel’s book attempted to overcome two barriers in Marxist-feminist politics: (1) the relative silence of the classical Marxist tradition on the sources of women’s oppression under capitalism and (2) the preponderance of ‘dual systems theory’ that had come to dominate the debates on domestic labour, with many Marxist-feminists proposing that the home was a centre of a transhistorical patriarchal mode of production operating alongside the other surplus-extracting modes of production such as slavery, feudalism and capitalism.
Marxism and the Oppression of Women takes as its point of departure some suggestive remarks in volume one of Marx’s Capital relating to how the labour-power of each worker must be reproduced anew before each shift by means of the subsistence wage. The working day is thus divided into a part in which the worker reproduces their own labour-power, for which they earn a wage, and a surplus part spent for the profit of their employer. This applies to all members of the working class, regardless of what body parts they have.
But the ruling class takes advantage of the sexual reproduction of human beings. Those with body parts coded as female are set apart by their presumed ability to bear children. During the period of pregnancy and afterwards, the amount which they work (and hence produce surplus-value for the boss) must be limited. These biological facts of reproduction, while they may not interfere with production in pre-capitalist kinship and tributary societies, are not readily compatible with capitalist production because of the need to maximise surplus-value. On this basis arises sex discrimination in employment and a gendered division of labour.
This basic contradiction within capitalism, Vogel writes, results in ‘a class struggle’ resulting in ‘a variety of forms of reproduction of labour.’ While the generational reproduction of the working class by its female-bodied members has come to be the norm under developed capitalism, other methods have been seen throughout history. In the eighteenth-century Caribbean, it was commonplace to work slaves to death and replace them with new ones imported from Africa, and today in many parts of East Asia capitalism relies on a ‘dormitory labour regime’ in which women workers reside and work for set periods under extreme conditions, returning periodically to their home villages to reproduce their own and the next generation’s labour-power. At the same time, social reproduction of the working class in the North is increasingly dependent on guest-workers from the South.
It was the class struggle in England, the US and other parts of the developed capitalist world during the late nineteenth century that resulted the nuclear family as the standard form for the social reproduction of the working class. On the one hand, workers’ struggles resulted in a larger family wage in which (some) adult males as ‘heads of their households’ could afford to keep their whole family, but on the other, the ruling class succeeded in the imposition of Victorian morality and the acceptance of women’s ‘natural role’ being in the home, working to reproduce current and the future generations of labour-power.
Yet the same process of the Industrial Revolution, by concentrating workers of all backgrounds together away from their families and village norms, gave play to freer expressions of same-sex attraction. Thus, at around the same time early homosexual identity was in formation, capitalism was coming to depend on a form of reproduction which was, in the fullest sense, heteronormative. In The Politics of Everybody, Holly Lewis writes:
Economics is the origin of the ‘normativity’ in heteronormativity: not intolerance of difference or the other, not a pure desire for power or an abstract need to control, not a lack of sexual creativity or dullness, not a Eurocentric racial spirit. It is the fact that the generational replacement of the labour force requires sexually active people with certain body parts to go through extended periods of non-activity. The capitalist class benefits from this generational replacement, but it does not want to make any concessions to the people who make it happen. Social gender and the management of sexuality under capitalism are shaped according to the struggle over who pays for what is necessary to socially reproduce the working class (pp. 182-3).
There are many ways in which the boundaries of social gender are violated under capitalism. Some (cisgendered, heterosexual) women refuse to marry or have children, and work on their own account. Some (cisgendered men and women) openly express their same-sex attraction in relationships that cannot contribute to the biological reproduction of the next generation of workers. Trans women, from the capitalist point of view, shirk their obligations of working and providing for a family by openly expressing their identity as women, while trans men reject their assignment as women, and of their supposed role as carers and nurturers.
Lewis thus explains the root of queer oppression as violations of gender boundaries deeply enmeshed with the reproduction of the labour force. This abstract treatment, as with Vogel’s account of women’s oppression, only points to the possibility of queer oppression as we know it under a heteronormative system of capitalist social reproduction. The form that oppression of women and queers takes in any given capitalist social formation must be related to contingent historical circumstances, especially the class struggle cited by Vogel over exploitation and reproduction. And then there are struggles based around what Lewis refers to as ‘schematic politics where… oppression is detached from theories of exploitation’—identity politics (p. 190).
Lewis’ treatment of identity politics is what is likely to prove most controversial among radical intellectuals and the broader activist left. Yet, for my money, it is not only the most provocative, but one of the most theoretically astute of such engagements thus far. Leftists of any ideological background will find that even if they disagree vehemently with her arguments, they must raise their theoretical game in response.
Her arguments against intersectionality theory are a case in point. Since its popularisation by Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s, terms of intersecting oppressions have been subject to a vast range of uses and abuses. On the one hand, when most refer to Flavia Dzodan’s dictum, ‘my feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit,’ they mean, as Lewis acknowledges, to call to task those feminisms which have represented the experience of the white, Western, middle-class woman as the universal and rightful representative of all women. In and of itself, intersectionality has proven a valuable contribution to feminist and queer struggles.
But on the other hand, it has become clear just how far the terms of intersectionality can be stretched. Last year during the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton in response to the Sanders campaign’s forceful attacks on poverty and economic inequality and Clinton’s own record in enforcing a massive wealth transfer from poor to rich in the nineties, said ‘We face a complex set of economic, social, and political challenges. They are intersectional, they are reinforcing, and we have got to take them all on.’ Later, she took to Twitter to announce ‘It’s not enough to talk only about economics. We have to tackle racial, economic, & environmental justice—together.’
Neither Kimberlé Crenshaw, nor the Black lesbian feminists of the Combahee River Collective who early in the 1970s articulated the concept we call intersectionality today, should bear any blame for the Clinton campaign’s ghoulish misuse of the term to deflect criticisms of her neoliberal record. However, in The Politics of Everybody, Lewis finds that even Marxist incorporation and defence of intersectionality (for example, that of Sharon Smith) is fundamentally lacking.
Why? Lewis conceives of identity politics as theory that sets different kinds of oppression apart from exploitation—the process of extraction of surplus value which undergirds every human society. And if one specific process of oppression—for instance, the history of anti-Black racism in the US from seventeenth-century slave ships to twenty-first-century police cruisers—is understood as having a dynamic that is separable from the mode of surplus extraction (though proponents of intersectionality do not usually insist they are historically separate), it makes sense that different ‘modes of oppression’ can each be understood as a separate dynamic understandable in reference to itself, even where they jostle and scrape against each other in history. Therefore, as she writes, in the intersectional model, ‘each oppression is a vector with a nebulous origin intersecting with the individual subject: race, gender, class, sexuality, appearance, ability and so on cut through at various angles,’ which cross at the body of each individual subject (p. 273).
Lewis notes two flaws which make the metaphor of intersection weak and confusing. The first, as I have hinted, is that oppression is neither theoretically nor historically separable from exploitation. Racism, sexism and other forms of oppression do not collide with the body out of the blue. They emerge and are perpetuated within a material matrix. To paraphrase Barbara Jeanne Fields, racism did not pre-exist American slavery. The ideological construction known today as race emerged out of the need to justify the expanding and immensely profitable system of plantation slavery in a country claiming legitimacy based on radical and egalitarian democracy.
We should not be content to consider ways where exploitation and different kinds of oppression coincide, which intersectionality at its best allows us to do. We must deal in terms of concrete historical processes in which the specific process of the extraction of economic surplus holds the key to all forms of the production and reproduction of life that grow out of this basic relationship.
Lewis’ call to replace the ‘vector model of oppression’ with ‘a unitary, relational model’ therefore strikes me as compelling. ‘Class,’ she argues, ‘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 centrality of class is tactical, not moral’ (pp. 274-5).
Class-based critique of the intersectional model is frequently ridiculed as an attempt by white cishet men to evade responsibility for the inequalities they perpetuate in maintenance of their privilege. Conceived this way, the argument that class rises above oppression erases other kinds of oppression. But Marxists of any worth do not say class is more important than race, sexuality, gender identity, or ability. We say merely that it sets the rules of the game within which they play out as moments in a mediated but differentiated historical totality.
Both myself and Holly Lewis argue in favour of unitary class analysis over the unmoored, reified oppressions of the vector model. And yet, arguing will not always entail the ability to persuade. Lewis’ clear and frequently dazzling arguments will, I am sure, enable many who are already on their way from identity politics to class politics to hasten their progress. But to those who are deeply committed to the various frameworks, whether that is Afro-pessimism, trans-exclusive radical feminism, queer nihilism or something else entirely, neither what she says nor my own substandard interpretation of her words will very likely count for much.
Some wonder whether the division between class politics and identity politics need be so sharp. Peter Drucker, in his review of the book, believes that her sharp critiques of queer theory seem overly offensive, and that a more conciliatory approach would allow Marxists like Lewis to achieve a higher level of nuance and greater power of persuasion. But where the rubber hits the road, as I am sure Lewis would agree, is at the point of putting ideas into practice.
Take her discussion of homonormativity. Lisa Duggan coined this term in 2002 as a label for those practices in queer life which do not ‘contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but uphold and sustain them.’ The debate in queer communities over gay marriage in the US is a case in point, with many radicals arguing against pursuing marriage equality as a goal because it assimilates queer relationships into the heteronormative standard of marriage and the bourgeois property relations that it makes official.
Lewis explores various faults in the concept of homonormativity through the Christopher Street Pier controversy in Greenwich Village, a neighbourhood on the Lower West Side of Manhattan that has been an historic centre of LGBTQ culture. In the early 00s, a group of older, white, wealthy gays who owned businesses and rented homes in the area campaigned for the expulsion of poor, working-class and homeless, mostly Black and Latinx queer youth who congregated at night around the Christopher Street Pier. They went as far as to establish a community patrol named after a product for delousing.
Should we see this as a gay elite policing queer identity to uphold and sustain heteronormative institutions? Lewis argues that this conceals a fundamentally mistaken assumption—that business- and home-owners on the one hand and working-class, poor and surplus people on the other ever were, or could ever be, part of a single community in the first place:
I find it difficult to imagine that these upper-class gays and the gay city officials who support them would be less likely to push Black youth off their property if their presentation confirmed to gender norms. I see no evidence that this is a case of a gay elite patrolling queer identity. Instead, I see business owners expelling non-customers. I see landlords concerned with property values. I see the racist assumption that Black youth are dangerous (p. 228).
Conversely, from the perspective of class politics, ‘it would have been clear from the beginning that a cabal of property owners worried about the bottom line would conspire against the poor regardless of gender presentation.’ To be intelligible to a queer nationalist logic, ‘class dynamics are rewritten as a problem of affect, resulting in community betrayal.’
Rewriting class as a problem of affect bears a direct practical consequence: it confuses politics with presentation. Thus, radical queer communities which vote by consensus, eat vegan, practice free love and share music are coded as radical-oppositional, while monogamous gay partners and families are coded as bourgeois-normative, in both cases regardless of the actual position they have within the capitalist system or the politics they express. The child of a banker who lives in a commune and performs spoken-word poetry becomes in every instance more radical than the working-class lesbian mother who shops at Lidl.
Drucker objects to this formulation on the basis that ‘Marxists understand… no subject position guarantees revolutionary consciousness,’ and that ‘We need to support anti-capitalist struggles, whoever wages them, in all their complexity.’
No subject position guarantees revolutionary consciousness. Precisely. As Gregory Myerson writes, ‘good theories of racism are not equivalent by definition to what its primary victims think.’ Good theories of queer oppression, also, are not reducible to what people defining themselves as radical queers think.
Lewis’ answer to the dilemma Drucker sets up cuts as fine as a razor: ‘Being queer/trans is neither reactionary nor radical.’ What follows is worth quoting at length:
The argument that capitalism thrives off normativity ignores the fact that it also thrives off diversity, pluralism, fashion and market segments. While the heteronormative family is productive for capital, queer urban individualists and drop-out counter-culturalists are also productive for capital—the former as ‘creatives’ in the labor market, the latter as a surplus population (or, in the US, low-cost service industry labor). Queers without children are also not entirely outside the family matrix in that unmarried and childless family members are often taxed with eldercare. It is romantic to think that you can change the world through diverse sexuality, creative self-expression, and communal bonding. But you can’t…
Thus, those who are gender non-conforming are not necessarily poor; those who are gay and lesbian are not necessarily middle class. Opposing normativity is a politically empty gesture. Queer culture is not anti-capitalist. And neither is queering culture (pp. 275-6).
How effective Lewis’ forceful, indeed combative, restatement of class politics is against the politics of queer identity will depend on the reader. However, I came away from The Politics of Everybody fully persuaded that the problem is the real gulf between the perspectives of class politics and identity politics, not that she has called attention to it. By clearing the deck in such a forceful way, she has done us a great service no matter what side of her arguments readers fall on.
Bill Crane is a member of the International Socialist Organization currently living in South Carolina.
You can buy The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory and Marxism at the Intersection from Zed Books for £16.99/$29.95US by clicking here.