Queering Everybody Part II

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


The goal of this book is the development of an internationalist and materialist feminist, queer, and trans-inclusive politics grounded in the fundamental insight of Marx’s political economy: that capitalism operates through the exponentiation of surplus value from labor.

Much of Holly Lewis’ The Politics of Everybody is focused on a critique of the errors of non-marxists and traditional marxists, but there is a positive project too. Before she can fully work that out, however, she must examine something else: identity, and especially its role in queer theory.

Two Queer Theories

Out of the messiness of the twentieth-century linguistic turn in philosophy, and its move away from marxist materialist analyses (be that in an analytic or poststructuralist form), Lewis sees the emergence of identity politics as rooted in a mistake. That is, because ‘it detaches oppression from exploitation and separates each oppression from every other’. She calls this the vector model, a name rooted in Foucault’s notion of vectors of power (although the model itself is applied more broadly).

The result is that the solutions proposed all come to assume a left neoliberal individualism, one grounded in a virtue ethics that goes back to Aristotle. Alternatively to this, Lewis argues that marxism stresses a unitary theory, and rejects the vector viewpoint as one that ‘separates and reifies oppressions instead of viewing them as the outcome of material social relations.’ Marxism here is a universal monism, a one world model.

But how should such a model interpret gender and sex? Lewis partially concurs with Judith Butler’s performative understanding of gender as ‘an iteration, a repetition of the body that becomes normalised.’ Other attempts to understand gender as inscribed by sex are, she argues, circular, e.g., ‘delicateness should be cultivated in those we categorise as women because it is a feminine characteristic as evidenced by the delicateness of those we categorize as women.’ Building on this, she argues that seeing gender performance in terms of historically situated positions within class society overcomes circularity.

The need for race, class, and gender to appear as natural sets of innate biological characteristics rather than as historically situated positions is perhaps more obvious when we look at the search for a third sex in England where scientists considered the possibility that prostitutes weren’t really women after all.

How marxism and the vector model conceive class is crucial. Whereas the latter sees it as another vector, and a suspicious one (when not substantiated into caste, it is loose and alterable in every individual), marxism prioritizes it not as a moral category, but as the sole basis for the possibility of radical social change. Of workers combining to alter conditions for everyone.

This can be seen in the development of queer liberatory demands themselves, as an inevitable consequence of the development of workers’ struggles and broader emancipatory demands (not hampered by the minority and geographically dispersed nature of queer demands).

The modern gay and trans liberation movements emerged at the high-water mark of the mid-century left politics inspired by May 1968 and the protests against the war in Vietnam (and later protests against Pinochet in Chile), as well as the struggle for Black rights, Puerto Rican rights, and women’s rights.

However, over time liberal society allowed for a coopting of the movement for gay rights, and ‘a movement away from radicalism towards a more modest homophilia.’ This then laid the grounds for an anti-marxist queer nationalism (most visibly manifesting in the group Queer Nation) that demanded acceptance, but abhorred straightness and could not allow for interactions of oppressions—harming those at the movement’s margins.

The marxist reaction to queer theory, and especially its more radical (least ‘nationalist’) demands to de-construct and deregulate identities, often fell into a general conservative marxist opposition to capitalism’s tendency to do the same. That is, to de-construct and deregulate. Citing the marxist anti-queer theorist Donald Morton, but also the conservativism of marxists like Clara Zetkin and Christopher Lasch, Lewis asks pointed questions:

if capitalism undermines identity, and the celebration of the destruction of identity is a celebration of capitalism, then does anti-capitalism imply a return to stable identities? And, if so, why do the twentieth-century Marxist opponents of queer theory also denounce identity politics?

The clear answer is to acknowledge a reactionary tendency within the marxist tradition. It then is left to a new articulation of a queer marxism to steer a course between this confused classical approach to marxism, and the queer nationalism that represents its mirror.

Through its errors, queer nationalism extends from concerns with homonormativity and transnormativity (the need to adapt to straight and cis cultural expectations, respectively), to homonationalism, whereby queer demands begin to display biases along lines of citizenship and imperialism. Exclusive concerns with demands such as marriage equality as well as military service is typical of this approach.

However, both Lewis and Jasbir Puar, who coined homonationalism, stress that it is not a moralistic critique of individual actors, but an assessment of how modern nation-states treat some bodies relative to others. The point is not to oppose, for instance, marriage equality, but to see why this one aim is furthered while other goals, such as abolishing gay homelessness, are not.

Lewis is especially keen to stress the limits of the concept of homonationalism itself in a world riven by various marginalities. And marginalities themselves are underscored by the needs of class society. It is not a moral critique that will reground queer theory in something stable and useful, but only class analysis.

I see no evidence[…] a gay elite patrolling queer identity. Instead, I see business owners expelling non-customers. I see landlords concerned with property value. I see the racist assumption that Black youth are dangerous. Part of the shock at the behavior of these properties gays is based on a prior assumption of community harmony. Certainly, wouldn’t the white, propertied gays be supportive of queer youth of color? We’re all in one community, aren’t we? From a Marxist perspective, 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 the logic of queer nationalism, class dynamics are rewritten as a problem of affect resulting in intra-community betrayal.

For Lewis, the move from the problem of heteronormativity (a society excluding queer people) to homonormativity (those in the movement conceding to society) represents a failure of ambition under the crisis of neoliberalism. Even in its radical forms, queer nationalism assumes the possibility of a stable cross-class queer community, taking it as a given that because capitalist social relations shape sexuality and gender identity, the reverse is true.

On the other hand, Lewis warns: ‘The everybody cannot be ignored.’ Class, solidarity, and exposure to those outside of queer categories are needed within the queer movement for it to achieve its emancipatory goals. What she proposes is a queer, working-class internationalism, one that thereby avoids homogenizing the global diversity of gender along the contours of gender in the global north, but one that can also make effective alliances.

Structuralism & Beyond

There is a tendency in Lewis’ work to fit everything into the Procrustes’ bed of her structuralist schema. Did the whole of the New Left, early Lukács, and existentialist marxists reject Marx’s economic insights in a way comparable to the revisionists and orthodox marxists of the second international, let alone the poststructuralists? Or is this a convenient analysis to bear out the ‘truth’ of structuralist marxism against more serious rivals?

Moreover, are the New Left or queer theory really single bodies of thought (or at least so related as to be interchangeable) with only one view on all of the matters Lewis’ discusses (as broad as internationalism and as specific as marriage equality and gays in the military)? Or are these diverse currents, both in relation to one another but internal to themselves?

Lewis is better at taking on postmodern ideas than rival marxist ones. A very specific question that is unaddressed, which could have gone some way to mitigating this problem in the book, would be to address how well Althusser’s claims to represent a coherent reading of Marx stack up. That his interpretations of Marx are sound is an implicit assumption of much of the praise for him. Indeed, more petulantly I want to ask: what of his Stalinism, a viewpoint Lewis (to her credit) doesn’t share?

Convenient omissions bolster an implicit story in which Lewis’ version of marxism appears as the obvious truth (even a neutral truth, encompassing all other ‘good’ marxisms) as set against both other ‘bad’ marxisms and vaguer traditions like queer theory. (I would argue second-wave feminism is not even wrong to say that queer theory lacks a unified body of thought, something Lewis even mentions but does not pick up on, but I would disagree with the second-wave that this incoherency, or diversity, of ideas, is not really a fault per se.)

The problem here is not a total lack of charity; Lewis is clear that marxism’s contemporary relegation in academia is ‘due, to some extent, to the failure of the Old Left to sufficiently incorporate New Left demands.’ She is willing to make concessions to those with whom she clearly partially disagrees. But fundamentally her account of the lines between ideas is one-sided, biassing less informed readers to uncritically adopting her perspective.

There is a fatally unacknowledged interpretative tradition underwriting Lewis’ marxist views, despite a surface presentation of her case as relying merely on a big tent marxism, ‘the skeletal points of the Marxian view of capitalism as a system of social relations.’ And while she goes to some effort to discredit poststructuralists and associated ideas such as post-colonialism, her thesis would be strengthened by also being upfront about the history of its structuralist presuppositions.

However, much of her thesis could still fit within a more limited big-tent marxism. Her critique of moralising consumption habits or hierarchical oppression might justly contradict the weaker claims made by vulgar marxists and many of the Frankfurt School theorists at their most pessimistic (and even then by no means every one of them), but would still fit comfortably within much of the marxist humanist tradition. And so, therefore, would her rejection of radical feminist errors and a project to build a new queer theory interpretation of marxian ideas about social reproduction.

If Lewis’s aim were to find common ground among (non-stalinist) marxists, this could be achieved explicitly. (A sensible course, considering Lewis draws positively on work such as that of American marxist humanist Raya Dunayevskaya). Alternatively, if she preferred to bolster the structuralist tradition by making a claim that it alone offers a valid course through the tricky politics of gender and sexuality, that should have been the explicit thesis.

However, that more explicit thesis would have involved a more thoroughgoing critique of other approaches without obscuring their thought’s many complexities and nuances. The former course would have made for a book not too distant from this one, while the latter would be a radically different work. But either would have been a better book.

Either way, I do not want to suggest that the book we have got is in any serious way deficient. Its core claim, the value of marxism in advancing queer theory, is well argued. Laura Miles’ Transgender Marxism makes a similar case, but while Miles’ more polemical sections are excellent at making the case for trans-inclusive marxism, her critique of postmodernism is not so well informed and devastating as that offered by Lewis.

Axiomatic Conclusions

In the conclusion Lewis usefully condenses her thinking into ten axioms. I will list each one and give my own thoughts on them. I will address axioms one and three at once, as I believe they are two parts of the same argument, and they are also where I raise the strongest (if still qualified) objection:

1. The politics of the fragment should be replaced by an inclusive politics of everybody

3. The intersectional model of oppression should be replaced with a unitary, relational model

This amounts to an understanding of totality through a marxist lens, as opposed to the ‘ossified totalities’ (to use Lewis’s term) put forward by traditional marxism, which gave rise to the politics of the fragment. The dynamic between the universal and the particular is paramount to any viable marxism, and Lewis is correct that ‘class cannot be understood as an additional vector of oppression. Material social organisation is the matrix of social injustice.’

My only caveat is that ‘ossified totalities’ remain an ever-present danger, and class is frequently reified primarily not by postmodernist and radical feminists, but by contemporary marxists of various stripes. This danger must be faced, and to some extent, for any marxist that involves looking into a mirror.

We cannot lose the forest for the trees (as Lewis rightly warns), but nor should we lose the trees for the forest. And indeed, an intersectional marxism, one that understands that class cannot be treated as one oppression among many and that marginalizations cannot be unmoored from their social-historical situation, is still valuable to this end. This need only acknowledges that intersections take place in class society itself, and are not static.

The metaphor of intersections, so abhorred by marxists, neither assumes that there is no context for oppression, nor that oppression is set in stone. The notion that intersectionality is essentially an expansion of the flawed dual-system theory merely assumes that intersections are necessarily not a part of a totality. Even allowing that many practitioners of intersectionality make that assumption, intersectionality is the lens through which many of the marginalised understand oppression, and it is one easily adapted to the robust marxist approach Lewis recommends.

2. Analyses of political economy should be concrete, dialectical, and gender/sex inclusive

There is nothing here to disagree with. It should indeed be required of any marxist organisation.

4. Being queer/trans is neither reactionary nor revolutionary

Attempts to moralise trans or queer existence as inherently radical go awry for all the reasons Lewis articulates. However, particular readings of the tradition of standpoint epistemology offer ways to understand that there are aspects to the social positionality of trans and queer people that could and should be usefully incorporated into a revolutionary perspective.

Indeed, most of Lewis’s book demonstrates as much. Merely being trans or queer in some static sense is neither reactionary nor revolutionary, and nothing about such a state automatically grants a person a reactionary or revolutionary consciousness. However, the forms of struggle such a person is likely to engage in shape consciousness. This is not so much a disagreement as a caveat.

5. The binary is not the problem and non-binary thinking is not the solution

Given that in her elucidation of this axiom Lewis freely admits that it depends on what specific problem/solution is being addressed, it is hard to disagree. There are instances in which clear binaries obtain, and some of them relate to marxist analysis (for example, the showing of solidarity). However, breaking the gender binary is clearly a vital undertaking, and the overall phrasing of this axiom strikes me as profoundly indifferent to the plight of nonbinary people.

6. Marxists must stand against trans-exclusionary feminism

Yes, and it is an indictment on any marxists who do not.

7. Queer communitarianism should be replaced with queer political demands

I strongly agree with the point, made here, that ‘queer and trans liberation depends on the liberation of heterosexual, cis working women’s reproductive rights and health.’ However, the inverse is true even if to a lesser extent; attacks on queer liberation genuinely harm women’s gains and, ultimately, hamper everyone’s liberation. Queer liberation is ultimately human liberation, including, even, of cis-gendered heterosexual men.

8. Queer Marxism is not the analysis of queer consumption habits

This point might seem trivially true, but much of the analysis of Lewis’s book shows that it is a well-made principle and one that should inform any kind of queer marxism. The moralistic trap of analysing consumption habits is a serious one, and easy to fall into. This is the least intuitive of Lewis’s best arguments, and highly worthwhile for that very reason.

9. Queer politics must oppose ‘imperialism with a queer face’

This is a matter of essential internationalism and solidarity. That it is a necessary axiom to state is a genuine problem with the queer movement.

10. Wherever there is solidarity with the goal towards eradicating expropriation, there is queer Marxism

This is essentially a hope that one-day marxism will not need any qualifying terms, that marxism will be assumed to show solidarity to queer people such that there is only the essential shared goal of revolutionary struggle. It is a good hope to sustain, and a final point of agreement that I have with Lewis. Buy and read this book.

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Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

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