For an Anticapitalist Sexual Politics
There’s something the discussions around identities, whether they are driven by a critique of identitarianism or a defense of identity as a political category, reveal: the divisions within capitalism aren’t limited to class division. People don’t always feel identified with their class, or recognize their oppression by this paradigm. Divisions within society aren’t spontaneous or necessary: they obey an inner logic that serves capitalism. Differences are generated for the purposes of exploitation along with the justification of exploitation based on difference. Engels believed that the sexual division of labor precedes the division of classes, family and State. We must ask for what purpose these divisions and productions of difference occur. This is a point of convergence between discussions about recognition and those focused on exploitation, since those who are not recognized as fully human don’t even have their status as exploited recognized.
In the beginning was sexual difference.
According to Michel Foucault, the 16th century was marked by the creation of a science of sexuality focused on sexual practices in order to distinguish what would be considered normal or pathological. In this operation, the heterosexual couple assumed a central position as a regulatory ideal, in which all other subjects were expected to conform. There are, of course, limits to the argument of how this type of relationality climbed to such a height divorced from a critique and recognition of capitalism as a social relationship, in Foucault. As Silvia Federici emphasized, there’s a project that sustains the heterosexual mononuclear Family: it is the project of intensifying the exploitation of female work based on the sexual division of labor.
However, there’s something that the authors of French theory indicate: the importance of sexual difference when we think about recognition, especially as it takes part in the constitution of the subject. That’s not all; there is something in our sexual experiences that might blur the contours of our own bodies and the ways we see and present ourselves, beyond our individual personas. Furthermore, taking the sexual—and sexual difference—as a philosophical object has renewed a whole tradition of thought.
In the French Revolution, a perspective on the subject was deliberately built in order to justify and seize difference to satisfy bourgeois wishes. Since then, a succession of theoretical arguments and organized struggles have denounced the hypocrisy of the bourgeois ideals of equality, freedom and fraternity, at the expense of procedures of subjugation, colonization, punitivism, etc. In addition to presenting an irreconcilable internal contradiction between those ideals and the regime of exploitation on which they’re based, there was an attempt to break the alleged universality of what was supposed to be an abstract subject through the particulars of “women,” “Black,” “colonized,” etc. Feminist authors used a variety of disciplines, such as historical, sociological and anthropological approaches. However, I believe that the contribution of psychoanalysis—as developed through contemporary critical, feminist and French theories—helpfully focuses on singularities, and thereby assists in dismantling the expectations capitalism has of how subjects should behave.
Sigmund Freud unpacked the processes of the ego’s constitution, as well as those processes able to create a discontinuity in the subject. His psychoanalysis, revisited by Lacan, investigates how bodies become viable for culture, intelligible and, within a predatory system, useful, as well as, on the other hand, what deforms them: the experiences that testify against egoic unity, autonomy and authenticity.
If sexual difference and the patriarchal family produces the sexual bodies needed for their survival in the form of egoic individuals, good capitalist subjects, then there must be something in the sexual, erotic experience, libidinal excess and (dis)encounter with others, beyond any normative prescription. The discovery of the Unconscious strikes the subject precisely in its rational, volitional and contractual form, that is the subject needed by liberal democracy.
The sexual, the collapse of the subject and full democracy
A democratic project can’t be dissociated from subjectivity. In order to develop a real democracy, we need to collapse the subject and enact a radical turn in politics. If, on the one hand, a psychoanalytic understanding of the historical processes and material conditions necessary for the revolt is ambiguous and limited, on the other, it offers counter-hegemonic ways of understanding the subject and forms of relationality.
Sigmund Freud didn’t have any specific political agenda in mind. Unlike his former “disciple,” the anarchist psychoanalyst Otto Gross, the “father” of psychoanalysis limited himself to an alleged liberal skepticism. Gross, in his turn, aware of the malaise linked to the sexual morality of the time, and the way in which it overcame women, inciting a specific psychic illness over them, proposed the breaking of patriarchal, monogamous family relationships as a way of developing a truly emancipatory psychoanalysis.
Alexandra Kolontai, an important figure within soviet feminism, described the way sexual morality prevails in capitalism and proposed new forms of partnership between men and women, outside of mechanisms of exploitation. Capital produces and uses kinship relationships, love partnerships and fetishes, co-opting and emptying their political content. However, there is something within sexual experience that is capable of destabilizing capitalism and escaping from its domains.
Even in the most progressive debates of socialist experience on the female issue, the difficulty of overcoming the male vs. female dichotomy, linked to the distinction between the public vs. the private sphere, is evident. In an interview with Clara Zetkin, Lenin argues that full democracy will only happen when women will be freed from sexual and economic exploitation. To this end, he proposed the creation of daycare centers, popular restaurants and laundries, women’s suffrage, and the rights to abortion and divorce. Despite being enthusiastic about an international women’s movement, legal equality and representation in politics, Lenin nonetheless considered discussions about marriage, sex and sexuality inappropriate when compared to class struggle. This moralistic contradiction in his thinking fell back upon the modern assumption that everything that diverges minimally from a supposed universal project threatened to displace class struggle.
Wendy Goldman, studying the situation of women in the Soviet experience, points out that the argument in defense of “first overcoming class struggle to create material conditions for women’s liberation,” reveals the ways exploitation of women’s bodies was taken as a sacrifice made by women to the greater good.
Despite the undeniable advances in gender equality, there were a series of setbacks. The state, recognizing how expensive the caring, feeding and the education of children was, invested substantially in propaganda where an “appreciation” of family and motherhood served as an exploratory policy in unpaid female labor. In other words, the state presented unpaid female labor in propaganda as if it were also essential to socialism, or were key to its effective implementation. This excess of accumulation from unpaid work was anchored in exploitation based upon sexual difference.
That being said, I am not critical of social movements that use identity as a political tool, mostly because forging an identity is a huge part of the organization and agenda of one group, but not the only way of doing politics. The criticism of identitarianism is that it is the reduction of politics to the management of bodies and conflicts, and consequently pushes social movements in a direction that limits their political activity to the paths given by liberal democracy. To write this is not to devalue the left’s achievements in our current liberal democracies. Forcing social movements to adopt a specific grammar is also a way to keep things as they are. What can be incorporated by liberal democracy doesn’t change it and can be converted into a commodity.
Restricting political action to identity, unity and universality, and to institutionalized ways of doing politics, including political parties, unions and organizations affiliated to party projects for class conciliation, is a patriarchal way of doing politics. In the book Is Feminism Feminine? The Inexistence of Women and the Subversion of Identity, (Moreira, 2019), I argued that there are logical modalities behind political action linked to sexual difference. A masculine way of doing politics is one that is oriented around the myth of patriarchy and the gendered ordering of bodies. Patriarchy provides an identity as male/father that can be used as a tool to classify other gender identities in relation to it. The paternal figure here isn’t the actual father or the idea of such, but an empty place that works both as an exception able to generate a whole group by subtracting itself, but also as an element excluded from this universal. Conversely, a feminine way of doing politics starts from the recognition that “woman” does not exist (if not in relation to “man”), the absence of matriarchy as a structuring mythology, and the indeterminacy in the sexual beings that moves bodies beyond individualizing them and beyond fixed identities that come with the price of the bureaucratization of life and relationships.
Male and female correspond to discursive modalities that can be experienced by subjects, regardless of external or self-designation. These refer to both the processes of egoic constitution and recognition based on sexual difference, as well as the generative discontinuities in the sexual field, respectively.
There are practices of relationality beyond sexual difference that are unproductive and that oppose capitalism, interfering in the ways in which subjects present themselves and act politically. There is an affinity between the patriarchy myth and capitalism manifested in the ideals of the bourgeois revolution. According to Joan Scott, a North American historian of France and gender history, since the French Revolution there has been a conundrum of equality that guarantees not only the production of difference, but the institutionalization of exclusion – which serves the same logic as the proliferation of differences. Equals are the members of a fraternity united in patriarchy and free to trade: these equals are men, so women are produced as other.
Identity supported by sexual difference counts not only for gendered places in sexual division of labour, but also for society. It is valuable for the State’s economy that their subjects recognize each other and organize themselves as identities, that they claim access that was denied through protocol and that new and endless differences emerge. The many particularities and groups that are formed aren’t strong enough to destabilize the State: as an exception makes a rule, many exceptions also do so. Political action is then reduced to a prescription according to a masculinist telos that sustains the ideals of the French Revolution.
It’s clear that in order to think about a political program towards a full democracy, there’s a horizon of normativity based on concrete experiences, strategies and tactics outlined by a whole militant tradition. There is, indeed, a moment of transition towards the achievement of a full democracy in which, once class struggle is overcome, the need for the State apparatus is also overcome. However, there’s something important about the insurgencies, revolts and the revolution itself in terms of political imagination. It could be a feminine way of doing politics.
This being said, it doesn’t mean we intend to reduce politics to uprisings, or discard them because they sometimes fail to have lasting effects. Often, those who ignore the importance of uprisings fail to recognize the accumulation of knowledge generated by these events. They can even, when speaking of an anti-capitalist sexual policy, produce the reduction of politics to speech acts, as if the pronominal linguistic reform managed by nominalistic magic could overcome the arbitrariness of contemporary recognition regimes in which, as Althusser rightly points out, “it is evident, it is him or her.”
An anti-capitalist sexual politics, in which subjects don’t have a corporeal relationship with themselves and others through their officially recognized social markers, is more necessary than ever. Stripped of a relationship in which they presume both being and having a body, disposed of the identity principle they are accused of, another political action beyond the recipe for identity, unity and universality is possible. For that, it is necessary to propose new recognition modalities that go beyond sexual difference, and in which difference doesn’t generate exclusion, exploitation and violence, as is invariably the case in capitalist societies.
The politics we strive for is not a policy of multiplication of names and identities in the public sphere, but one of the contingent use of identities according to the ongoing demands, one capable of subverting the norm. Otherwise said, it’s not about occupying places of power, it’s about getting rid of those places. Mostly it is about a policy that has as its specific objective the rupture, the end of all and every identity according to the model of recognition imposed by the republic, allied to the dismantling of the liberal project, for the achievement of a full democracy. That way we can reason for new forms of embodiment, collectiveness, kinship, relationships and even universalism, capable of escaping identity and the conundrum of equality that sustains hierarchies and capitalism.
Maíra Marcondes Moreira is a PhD student from Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil and author of the book “O feminismo é feminino? A inexistência da Mulher e a subversão da identidade” (Is feminism feminine? The inexistence of women and the subversion of identity).