Queering Everybody I

Review, Holly Lewis, 'The Politics of Everybody', part one. By Rowan Fortune.


I write this in the hope of bringing four groups into dialogue: Marxist theorists who are trying to understand where gender fits into the schema of Marxist practice; feminist theorists who wish to incorporate Marxism in their work; Marxist practitioners unfamiliar with the politics and origins of third-wave feminist, queer, and trans politics; and finally, queer and trans feminist activists unfamiliar with Marxist political economy.

‘The title’ of Holly Lewis’s The Politics of Everybody is foremost a provocation. For the word everybody ‘is particularly politically provocative because we live in an age where the way we produce things—the mode of production called capitalism—requires ideological individualism.’ That is, Lewis’s thesis is that the left must contend with the sometimes reactionary problematics of everybody by owning—but crucially expanding—the term’s meaning. Lewis achieves that by zeroing in at one of those groups often excluded from the remit of the word: people at the boundaries and margins of gender politics.

In this two part critical assessment of the book, I will assess the arguments that Lewis makes. In large part I concur with her major points, but along the way I will also raise some contentions and questions. To begin, Lewis takes on the forms of the term everybody that she rejects.

under capitalism, the term everybody is a political euphemism used by capitalists (and those who believe them) to deflect responsibility for systemic processes onto consumers who cannot control them. But beneath the gloss, there is a deep hatred of ‘the everybody’ (the faceless masses, other people’s kids, other people’s nations, other people’s religions) combined with a sense of collective ownership of other people’s achievements (multiculturalism). Everybody exists to sacrifice for the few.

To stress this point, Lewis further contrasts the fascist politics of everybody, i.e. ‘the ecstasy of communal harmony made possible only be expelling foreign bodies’, with a prosed marxist one:

Marxism requires a group from everywhere—which is also to say from nowhere in particular—to end a foundational historical injustice. In Marxist terms, everybody is a somebody and everybody belongs everywhere. Marxists do not seek to eradicate a people or even a group of individual persons named capitalists. Marxism seeks to eradicate a social relationship: the relation between the forces who create and sustain the world, and those who expropriate that creativity—be it for personal gain, familial gain, the gain of their particular social stratum, or the gain of a culture or nation. State apparatuses are necessary to maintain this social relationship. But the uneven development of states and the inconsistency of legal practices are not barriers to capital; rather, such disparities afford capital a wider playing field. The history of liberal thought likes to use the language of universalism, but the truth is that it thrives on leveraging difference.

To start this undertaking, Lewis tackles the messy discussions of gender that have taken place between second-wave radical feminism and third-wave/queer theory approaches. Especially as the latter interact with both trans and intersex experiences.

She argues that while radical feminism defined gender as a tool of the patriarchy to control women, in turn defined by biology, ‘Queer theory flipped the switch: it was sex that was constructed by gender, the latter being inscribed into social reality through repetition.’ While an improvement this move, she argues, far from resolved the thorny subject of gender. And to that most of the rest of the book is dedicated.

Feminisms and Queerness

While avoiding the problem of trans exclusion that became the Achilles’ heel of radical feminism, Lewis argues that queer theory nonetheless still failed to sit comfortably with all trans self-conceptions. Citing a 2014 study, she notes that trans advocates ‘do not necessarily root their experience of womanhood outside biology; instead, some maintain that there are invisible biological factors at work—neurological differences or exposure to hormones in the womb.’ A sort of born this way argument for trans people.

However, she also contends that since ‘intersex bodies fall somewhere along a sexual spectrum, the assertion of the truth of sexual dimorphism that emerges within certain sections of the trans movement erases the complex embodied experience of intersex persons.’ It is into this space, that between intersex, queer theory, and trans ideas, that she then seeks to add her marxist analysis.

Book Cover

Queer theory, Lewis acknowledges, has marxist (and particularly Hegelian) roots, but as a form of poststructuralism she also argues that it collapses into Cartesian dualism so as to avoid the economic implications of marxist thought. What she argues is that this evasion is entirely to the detriment of queer theory, as the mistakes of some traditional marxists should not be seen as a problem inherent to marxism itself.

Epistemology is at the core of how Lewis separates non-marxist feminist and marxist traditions. Whereas what she dubs (chiefly western) ‘cultural feminism’ stresses a phenomenology of lived experience, she contends that the marxist insistence of the gap between truth and appearance, while ‘not necessarily at odds with feminist epistemology’, diverges from such a phenomenology. This is because Marx did not insist ‘that working people necessarily misinterpret their own experience due to a false understanding of themselves.’

This is the first hint of a particular version of marxism put forward by the book, one that explains why Lewis is so critical of views that foreground consciousness in understanding struggles. It will become more relevant again when I offer some criticisms of Lewis’s own interpretative lens.

Marxism Enters Stage Left

But it is not only feminists who are concerned with women’s ‘false consciousness’. The image of the dreaded childlike dupe, the working-class high femme, has sometimes found her way into the imagination of the American Marxist left as well.

Lewis’ sees in both the mistakes of feminism and of queer theory the errors of revisionist marxism and orthodox marxism, but also errors taken on by Lukács and the New Left. She argues that these mistakes then persist through the work of the marxist existentialists, and poststructuralists. All of which is compounded by the confusion brought about in the neoliberal period, when labour movements—the lifeblood of any marxism—fell into defeat after defeat.

In all of these traditions of thought (marxist and non-marxist), Lewis sees a tendency to separate subjectivity from what she takes to be the centrality of economic (i.e., material) conditions, ‘a critique of everyday life and a resistance to imposed norms, a conception that only glances at capitalism.’ And all of this finally ends, according to her, in a utopian voluntarism resting atop a critique of only abstract hierarchy.

Political and social philosophy has now strayed so far from objective economic analysis that capitalism is discussed as if it were a collective essence, less an economic system and more a spiritual sickness born out of the ur-explanation of all social ills: the hierarchical power structure.

Conversely, Lewis’ waxes lyrical about the structuralist marxism of Althusser, set out here as a philosophical equivalent of the Copernican Revolution, a paradigm shifting critique of conceptual frameworks, one decentering ‘Man’ but also concurring with de Beauvoir against liberal feminism that ‘what made and unmade women would always be structural law and not personal development.’ That is, centering women in its very displacing of a male humanism.

Against this, the attempt to replace structuralism with poststructuralism or postmodernism, while potentially insightful in certain aspects, always lacks political relevancy. That is, it obscures the marxist understanding of the world in material terms behind a distrust for the conceptual tools needed to understand, and therefore to change, the world. In this account of the development of radical ideas, objective economic analysis is forever being displaced by imprecise philosophy.

Having taken up this side of the argument within marxism, Lewis aims to integrate queer theory into a (unacknowledged) structuralist marxism. She is clear that between the second and third waves of feminism, only the latter is compatible with such a marxism. This is because second wave feminism is fundamentally rooted in a moralistic anti-consumerism. However, to be made fully compatible, queer theory still must embrace that marxian view of political economy and its place in the subjugation of women (cis and trans), while ditching its poststructuralist inheritance.

[I]t is not reductive to analyze the economic; reductive thinking comes from confusing the moral with the political and substituting habits of consumption with analyses of the conditions of labor within a mode of production. It also comes from the failure to distinguish between practical and theoretical reason

I propose a queer, trans-inclusive reading of Marxist-feminist social reproduction theory, an anti-capitalist critique that goes beyond simply criticizing the consumption habits of the gay middle class.

This will be the bedrock of her marxist approach to women’s oppression, and therefore also the oppression of queer people.

Marx’s Gender Theory

To further set up this fresh departure for an analysis and politics, Lewis also offers a defense of Marx’s own engagements with, and analyses of ,the world and gender. She notes that, in ‘placing material and embodied reality above abstract rumination, Marx opens up a space within the history of philosophy where woman’s existence can be considered.’ Moreover, Lewis’ notes that Marx’s ideas are further borne out in his political activities, which evidence a concern for women’s liberation outside narrow class horizons.

This demonstrates that Marx ‘saw that capitalism had ill effects on oppressed groups, whether or not they benefited from capital accumulation and expropriation.’ But while Marx and Engels championed women’s liberation, Lewis sees Engels as less exemplary, especially on queer liberation. She accuses him of injecting ‘heterosexism into twentieth-century Marxist politics: unnecessary because[…] other early socialists had no problem getting the question right.’ And just as damningly, Lewis draws from two Marxist-feminist critiques of Engel’s work.

Throughout the book Lewis makes use of the concept of oppositional sexism, one developed by Julia Serano in her book Whipping Girl and defined on Serano’s website as describing ‘instances of sexism that are rooted in the presumption that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive, “opposite” sexes, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires.’

Both heterosexism (the denaturalisation of homosexual sex) and cissexism (discrimination and prejudice against trans people) emerge out of such oppositional sexism. And transmisogyny combines both traditional and oppositional sexism in a hatred of trans women.

Concurring with feminist theorist Lise Vogel, Lewis’ notes that Engels’ oppositional sexism limits his entire account of women’s oppression. This is, by omitting women’s positions within different classes, he ignores male supremacy in the working class, and offers no examination of psychological and ideological factors in working class men’s domination over women.

Drawing from another theorist, Heather Brown, Lewis’ notes that Engels reading of the development of gender is infected with an abstracting tendency towards a stagist and overly deterministic interpretation of history. The later Marx, however, is shown by Brown to have developed a nuanced account of the diversity within class, including across gender lines.

Such criticisms of Engels are justified, but expecting a nineteenth century cishet man to be ahead of marginalised people in articulating their liberatory struggle is stretched too far. Moreover, the contrasting of Engels and Marx does a disservice to the former and offers undue excuses to the latter. While the two had their own strengths and weaknesses (e.g., Marx often fails to articulate his methodological assumptions), the interpretative tradition that blames on Engels all or many of the faults of marxism is spurious.

A Queer Marxist Feminism

[T]he norms used to read and socially interpret physical characteristics change over time, and that interpretation is partially influenced not only by previous social gender norms, but by the subtle shifts in social meaning surrounding assumptions about the body inflected by a given society’s level of material development: the way it creates race, its class relations, and the gendering required for the maintenance of those classes and races.

Next Lewis observes (through the work of Anne Fausto-Sterling and Thomas Laqueur) the historicity of the sex-gender dyad, the interplay between them and the ahistorical assumptions then read back from today’s categories into historical ones. (I.e., the demonstrably false idea that our way of categorizing sex today has always been historically stable.) In this, she accuses the arguments of radicals feminists and their marxist fellow-travellers of circularity, using their own categorical assumptions to ‘evidence’ themselves.

Lewis charts how socialism has dealt with sex through its past. The utopians were defined by a mix of progressive insights and reactionary impositions, extremes of heterosexism contrasting with hypersexualised fantasies. The Second International saw the beginnings of a critique of Engels’ errors, but with a tendency for economism and a romanticisisation of peasant life that often strengthened sexist and heterosexist norms.

When the Soviet Union emerged, it took faltering steps to organise women and educate men on gender equality. However, these were limited by Lenin’s opposition to women’s caucuses (excused as necessary for party unity during the civil war, but persisting afterward). And this mixed picture was to later give way to the vicious reactionary turn under Stalin. From this combined history, Lewis derives six key questions facing socialism. This is in fact a great list, and worthwhile quoting in full despite its length.

1) should there be a unitary theory of gender oppression or does the problem of gender oppression stem from two sources: historically given class-based social structures on the one hand and ahistorical patriarchal repression on the other?; 2) what is the value, if any, in visions of liberation divorced from concrete experience, especially liberation that takes place only ‘after the revolution’?; 3) can utopian enclaves outside of the capitalist economy function as experiments in gender liberation?; 4) is the family form a base of solidarity and social power for the working class that needs to be protected or is it a source of women’s oppression that needs to be abolished?; 5) does the abolition of the family pose a challenge to the survival of capitalism, or will the abolition of the family be a consequence of the abolition of capitalism?; and 6) do women, gays, and gender non-conforming people have a specific role to play in the abolition of capitalism as women, gays, and gender non-conforming people?

Lewis proposes that her project undertake to examine the fifth and sixth questions, which she contends tie most directly into assumptions made by the more politically active cohort of queer theorists. In short, she wishes to challenge the idea that queer people are inherently a threat to capitalism because they are an inherent threat to the family, and that a threat to the family structure is necessarily a threat to capitalism.

One System, One Structure

But first, Lewis turns to the great innovation of marxist feminism in rethinking women’s material condition: social reproduction theory, and the double day. That is, the ways in which working class women make the reproduction of workers possible, and often do so as well as being themselves salaried workers.

The combination of uncompensated reproductive labour and keeping women in the reserve army of labour, while producing new innovations and goods that ease the task of social reproduction and thereby raise costs for capitalists, creates many contradictions. The result, elaborated for Lewis most fully in Vogel’s work, is that capitalism maintains those engaged in social reproduction (predominantly women and immigrants) in a limbo, ‘both completely mobile and completely stuck’.

The devaluing of care work becomes a key tool in capital’s ideological belt; it results in workers willingness to cheapen their social existence (by pitting many male workers against women and queer people). Moreover, it means that working class men often even act as enforces against those, predominantly cis women, engaged in such labour.

The American philosopher Angela Davis both critiqued and advanced Vogel’s theory. She argued that a consequence of the industrial revolution’s separation of domestic and public economies was in excluding housework from capitalist reproduction. This explains why racialised labour has been considered to be more profitable by excluding women’s social reproductive roles, for example in South Africa where Black men were often separated from Black women in urban work.

Both Vogel and Davis, by locating women’s oppression in the realities of class society, undermine the radical feminist insistence on an oppressed sex ‘class’ that possesses a universal sisterhood. This view is not only class blind, but as Davis shows, also race blind. A race blindness that has sometimes found its way into white queer culture and its more moralistic politics, too.

The alternative to this view, a marxist one system analysis, can be found in the two system work of radical feminists such as Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millet, and Heidi Hartmann. They place women’s oppression either as an ur- or equal but separate oppression from class. In Marxism and the Oppression of Women, Lisa Vogel differentiates between dual-system and social reproduction approaches; the former, which finds justification in Engels, sees male (sex-based) supremacy and class divisions as autonomous. The latter, drawing on Marx’s Capital, sees social reproduction as the driver of women’s oppression, necessitated by the appropriation of surplus labour requiring the perpetual generational replacement of the working class.

Lewis, however, sidesteps that Vogel does see social reproduction as an issue unique to biological women’s reproduction, and therefore her approach is redolent with oppositional sexism (and therefore also heterosexism and transphobia). Moreover, Lewis’ claim that queer theory has inherited the dual-systems error, seeing in queering gender itself a way out from oppression, contains a truth but is very overstated.

Queering gender can be rooted in seeing nature itself as the problem, as Firestone’s influence on the pro-trans xenofeminist goal of abolishing nature exemplifies. However, it can also aim at the overcoming the naturalisation of gender and sex, a vital goal in class struggle and one with which Lewis strongly agrees. In part two of this review, I will explore a little more a tendency Lewis’ has to shoehorn diverse currents of thought into a single schema.

The key difference on this question is precisely in whether queering assumes a single-system, a social totality embedded in history. Lewis’s own queer marxism shows that queer can rest on this marxist foundation. However, even where this is not done explicitly, it is a leap to therefore read a two-system theory into queer theory. It could simply be the case that with many non-marxist queer theories, there is no worked out answer to the questions marxism poses.

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Rowan Fortune is an editor and revolutionary socialist. On their weekly blog, they write on utopian literature and imagination, why grimdark is the dystopian fiction of our time and more. They wrote Writing Nowhere: A Beginner's Guide to Utopia; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the multi-authored System Crash: An activist guide to making revolution.

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