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Sexual Freedom in Capital

Audrey A. Crescenti

Platypus Review 133 | February 2021

Expanded version of remarks delivered on the “Sex and the Left” panel discussion at the Howard Zinn Book Fair in San Francisco, 8th December 2019.

1. Introduction

THE QUESTION OF HUMAN FREEDOM belongs to modernity, or to the epoch of becoming which gradually swept away the Old World’s static taxonomies of being. Marx, drawing inspiration from utopian socialist Charles Fourier, understood that the unprecedented emergence of civil society contained the potential for a true cultural awakening, or, for the humanization of every aspect of nature, of which relations between man and woman were the cornerstone metric for social progress.[1] That modern sexuality is inextricably tied to investigations into the “bourgeois”[2] nuclear family, reproductive norms, gender roles and women’s liberation more generally is, by now, uncontroversial. However, excepting necessary historical context, I will confine the present discussion to the relationship of struggles for sexual emancipation within the relatively short history of capital and therefore of the political left[3] which emerged simultaneously. The purpose of such a genealogical approach comes from the original impetus of critical theories of modern society: namely, to show that “it wasn’t always this way,” thus demonstrating how one’s view of history is a critical interpretation of the present. A left-centric view of history aligns with Hegel’s “philosophical” conception intended to illuminate, at times negatively, the conscious struggle for freedom in time.

Rousseau’s revolutionary dialectic of freedom—between subject and object, society and nature, self and other, reaching its formal zenith in Hegelian Geist—is fundamentally ambivalent, in the sense of harboring the simultaneity of opposing tendencies. For Hegel, society and nature, subject and object, are phenomena of the self-transformation of Nature in the activity of Spirit as self-differentiated aspects of the same unfolding process. The longue durée of modernity seems a tragic tale of revolution meeting unceremonious demise in Thermidorian reaction, where the latter has long since hardened as the fundament of the former. In capitalism, the productive dialectical relationship of conscious self-transformation between society and nature, or ideology and biology, disintegrates into antinomies—or “interpenetrated opposites”—which ossify and divide against themselves.[4] For instance, contemporary discourse on sexuality tends to divide between being “purely constructed” or “purely innate.” Even constructivist discourse tends to reify it as an expression of one’s authentic subjectivity, ironically echoing farcical attempts to locate a “gay gene”.[5] Juliet Mitchell traced the causal chain between the “atemporal fact” of the “biological function of maternity” to gendered sexual inequality through: “Family, Absence from Production and Public Life, Sexual Inequality.”[6] The ideology of the family is smuggled in through the biological function of maternity which bolsters the patriarchal division of women into either mother or lover. That men are simultaneously fathers and lovers is not, however, the paragon of liberation so much as its precondition. The bourgeois aspiration that sexuality and procreation are not only distinct needs but matters of personal choice is undermined by capitalist state management of mass unemployment (population regulation) which necessarily harnesses the former to the latter.

Historically, Marxists critiqued the self-contradiction of sexuality as unrealized emancipatory potential generated from within the crisis of industrial society. Echoing Marx in his 1843 “Letter to Ruge,” Mitchell warned against erecting a “fixed image of the future [which] is in the worst sense ahistorical,” emphasizing instead the dialectical critique of capital and its constitutive social phenomena.[7] To wit, she critiqued the puritan-bourgeois equality of sexes in the marital contract as both the “precondition to emancipation” as well as the site of “greatly intensified repression” in capitalism.[8] Subsequently, “like private property itself, [marriage] has become a brake on the further development of a free sexuality.”[9] Her point is that the full panoply of non-monogamous, non-procreative modes of sexual expression are generated in and through the dissolution of bourgeois property relations following the spread of industrial wage-labor. Meaning, the post-bourgeois content of capitalist society strains against its bourgeois form, delimiting the former’s ability to realize itself.

Capitalism as the contradiction between who we think we are and how we actually live conditions every emancipatory demand in such a way that obscures the relationship between progress and regress. Hence it becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain the distinction between conservative versus emancipatory demands, e.g., the “realization” of queer sexuality through monogamous marriage and the nuclear family, viz., “same-sex marriage.” In what follows, I will critically trace the dominant approaches on the socialist left to the “sexual question” from the Age of Revolution, through the “Old” and “New” Lefts of the 20th century to the present. Ultimately, I follow Marx and his Frankfurt School epigones that only the conscious mediation of the self-contradiction of sexuality in capitalism raised to the level of politics can point toward its potential overcoming.

2. Sex in the Age of Revolution

Kant and Hegel famously extended the radically modern “commodity form” of social mediation to erotic life through the secularized institution of monogamous marriage.[10] Introducing legal parity between the sexes, the novelty of two loving companions in mutual self-possession of one another’s “sexual faculties” overcame pre-modern forms of intimacy such as unromantic marriage, unconsummated romance (e.g., the “Chivalric Code” of courtly love), and unromantic, non-procreative sexual liaisons (e.g., courtesans). This new transactional basis for socially mediating romantic and erotic needs united eros, sex and fellowship while radically divorcing sexuality from procreation, laying the groundwork for novel forms of modern intimacy including homosexual romance. Analogous to the need for music, art and culture, generally, the universal exchange of sexual needs emerged through the modern subjectivity of productive individuals in the “Third Estate.”[11]

Initially, demands for sexual freedom were wholly integrated into early nineteenth-century socialist movements dedicated to enlightening a civilization still mired in the barbarism of chattel slavery, the oppression of women, and the increasing pauperization of the newly emergent industrial working class. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s 1840 pamphlet What is Property? was the radical response to the French Revolution’s What is the Third Estate? expressing the unfolding crisis of labor relations in the first Industrial Revolution. It was in this context that Charles Fourier reimagined early industrial society in the orgastic utopia of “Harmony” through a scathing satire of the Catholic Church in which “angels of virtue” ministered to the sexual needs of “the elderly, the poor, and the members of sexual minorities.”[12] In The New Amorous World, Fourier envisioned the transformation of sexuality, romance and property relations into “instrument[s] of human freedom and human self-expression” through the erasure of “every trace of coercion and constraint.”[13] With a nod to “Celadon,” the chaste protagonist and object of ridicule in Honore d’Urfe’s L’Astrie, Fourier imagined the blossoming of a new form of Platonic love, “L’amour celadonique,” in which the desperate “fear of sexual deprivation” no longer travestied romantic relations.[14]

The early 19th century labor radicalism of “utopian socialists” like Robert Owen, Étienne Cabet, George Sand, and Frances Wright, advocates of everything from birth control and divorce to the abolition of slavery, could not conceive of separating the sexual question from the broader historical question of freedom beyond private property. The failure of the 1848 revolutions dealt a massive blow to these sweeping visions of change, and their constitutive component parts shattered into separate political movements for distinct and competing programs within the framework of existing society. Following the political lessons of 1848, Marx’s mature arrival as a “Marxist”[15] provided a new, coherent foundation for socialist politics: the historical necessity of the global “dictatorship of the proletariat,” already underway in travestied form through increasing global consolidation of economic and political power. The June Days worker uprising in France, which literally crowned in the restoration of the second Empire through the Saint-Simonian socialist Louis Bonaparte, generated a new political archetype under capitalist politics: the modern welfare state. Rising above a paralyzed society to dominate from without, the increasingly centralized states of, e.g., Bonaparte, Bismarck, and Disraeli managed the unprecedented crisis of unemployment simultaneous to the rapid international growth of proletarian socialism. By the end of the 19th century, mass socialist parties led the fight to legalize homosexuality, divorce, and abortion, arguing for their necessity but ultimate inadequacy absent the full transformation of society beyond social relations of labor.

Following Adam Smith’s conception of capital or wealth as the “universality of needs, capacities, enjoyments [and] productive powers of individuals,” Marx historically registered the regression to “capital-ism” or, the pathological state of society pregnant with its own unrealized potential.[16] The aspiration to produce not for mere sustenance but for the “absolute elaboration of humanity’s creative dispositions. . . unmeasured by any previously established yardstick” had regressed to a new self-inflicted form of domination which rendered “not work but workers superfluous.”[17] The ideology of labor as one’s sole property, including its erotic form of marriage and sexual fidelity, was simply too narrow to socially appropriate the emancipatory potential of industrial society. The Marxists in the period of the socialist Second International, prior to and coinciding with the outbreak of World War I, did not have a moral critique of marriage or sexuality buttressed by sociological categories of oppression, but rather a historical critique of the ways in which the internal contradictions of sexuality and romance task society with its self-transformation. August Bebel, co-founder of the Marxist SPD (Social Democratic Party) in Germany was the first modern parliamentarian in the late 19th century to demand the legalization of homosexuality and unfettered sexual expression—or, to “get the state out of the bedroom!” —writing: “The satisfaction of the sexual instinct is as much a private concern as the satisfaction of any other natural instinct. None is therefore accountable to others, and no unsolicited judge may interfere.”[18] For Marxists like Bebel, the imagination of future freedom through the active struggle for socialism enabled a critique of our peculiar modern predicament, in which ostensibly emancipatory demands, whether for jobs or for sexual liberation in or from the family and marriage, cashed out in reality as new, brutish forms of coercion.

3. Sex after the revolution: The “Old Left”

Following the collapse of revolutionary socialism in the early 20th century, the Old Left (of the 30s–40s) extending through the New Left (of the 60s–70s) split antinomically on questions of sexuality, anchored as they were in the family’s gendered reproductive roles. Essentially tailing the state’s imperative to rapidly industrialize during the former and deindustrialize during the latter, communists in the 1930s celebrated the family as the “fighting unit for socialism,”[19] denouncing homosexuality as “bourgeois decadence,” while 1960s radicals excoriated the family as the site of “repression,” psycho-sexual pathologies, and reactionary attitudes which formed the nucleus of their political counterparts.[20]

Marxists like Clara Zetkin had historically understood that the limitless horizon of sexual needs beyond puritan-bourgeois marriage harbored great potential to demonstrate the transitory instability of our social relations as an organizing tactic of socialist politics.[21] However, detached from visions of a future liberation, sexual reforms (e.g., for abortion, divorce or sex-work) tend to reproduce new concrete expressions of the antinomical antithesis in patriarchal sexual morality between libertinism and puritanism: prostitutes or mothers, brothels or the home, common or private property. Following the world-historic failure of capital-transcending politics, the state became the sole recourse and lone alternative to civil-social inertia for discontents with capitalist society; whose demands for sexual reform only exacerbate self-contradiction and crisis. There are few more absurd and tragic examples of this predicament than in the Soviet Union and Germany after the SPD’s fated suppression of the German revolution (1918–1919) and subsequent self-immolation of international socialism. Marxism itself came into crisis—as “Stalinism” —degenerating from a critical tool of insight into an affirmative ideology of industrial development. Attempting to make good on the radical tradition of Fourier to Bebel, the Bolsheviks legalized homosexuality, abortion, and introduced civil marriage. In Germany, the SPD, by now a progressive-capitalist inheritor of the state, took control in 1919 ordering the police not to enforce “Paragraph 175,” the infamous law outlawing homosexuality which technically remained on the books until 1994. Vibrant gay and lesbian subcultures flourished in the liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic. Magnus Hirschfield, who advocated the legalization of cross-dressing, “coined the terms ‘transvestite,’ and ‘transsexual’ in their contemporary usage, and professionalized sex-reassignment surgery,” opened the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in July of 1919 which housed the educational Museum of Sex.[22]

The Soviet Union became a pariah state paradoxically saddled with claiming “victory” while managing the reality of defeat.[23] Following Lenin’s death in 1924, the spurious declaration that the social revolution was complete produced a “proletarian” sexual morality in which erotic needs were reduced to mere physiology while romance and reticence to sexually engage were castigated as “psychological” and therefore “bourgeois.”[24] This morality in which women and girls were forbidden—by their female comrades—to deny any sexual impulse by another was merely the libertine flip side of puritan-patriarchal morality and led to a kind of “sexual anarchy” in which the “rape of women [had] become a veritable plague.”[25] This miserable situation was seized upon by Fascist propagandists in Germany, who were by now gaining steam, to disabuse female voters of any sympathies for the Bolsheviks and to ultimately win them over to National Socialism, reliant as the party was upon women’s votes.[26] The two poles of the same morality, like Scylla or Charybdis, were a dystopian “sexual revolution”—during a rubber embargo, no less—or barren exaltation on the infantilizing pedestal of “motherhood.”[27] A curious incident played out in 1931 when the exact same women who supported the Wolf-Kienle campaign to legalize abortion and contraception voted simultaneously for the center and NSDAP parties which opposed legalization. At the time, Wilhelm Reich remarked that the German Communists’ inability to appreciate the “material force” of ideology coupled with the fascists’ shrewd exploitation of “sexual anxiety in women and girls” ultimately accounted for their electoral success.[28] That is to say, roughly a decade after German women were granted suffrage, their fear of sexual freedom played a major and perhaps decisive role in the political ascendance of German National Socialism. The Nazi seizure of power in 1933 not only sought to undo the meager social progress during the Weimar era but also to “[expunge] the year 1789... from the records of history.”[29] Setting off a process of “extreme cultural reaction,” the Nazis re-criminalized abortion and contraception, reopened brothels, excluded women from industry, forbade them to smoke or bob their hair, restored various antediluvian privileges for men, and proclaimed the family as the “basis of the nation and the state.”[30]

The forces of political reaction were by no means confined to Germany, as the premature celebration in the Soviet Union quickly collapsed under conservative backlash in the 1936 “Thermidor in the Family,” during which abortion, homosexuality, and divorce were re-criminalized and punitive enforcement of the hetero-patriarchal nuclear family reinstated.[31] Almost a century earlier, Marx critiqued undialectical opposition to property and marriage as “infected” by what it seeks to oppose, thus extending rather than overcoming them on a universal scale, tailing what is already underway in capitalism.[32] True to form, reproductive capacity was activated as the universal property of the state in rapidly industrializing countries during and after the global economic depression. As a site of the Second Industrial Revolution, the German Lebensborn facilities represented an extreme version of the pro-natalist policies of all rapidly industrializing nations, particularly the U.S., Japan, and the Soviet Union, replenishing populations decimated by war. Young mothers were awarded the “Cross of Honor” in Germany and the “Mother Heroine” in the USSR if they successfully carried to term children in the double digits, while a “softer” policy encouraging family size was famously pushed in the U.S. under a patriotic “baby boom.”[33] Inspired by Frankfurt School critiques of the “totally administered” or “authoritarian” state of advanced industrial society during the postwar boom from 1945 to 1973, sexual radicals in the 1960s–70s later rebelled against its particular romanticization of heteronormative family life and strict sexual norms.

4. Sex after the revolution: Psychoanalysis and the Frankfurt School

Postwar efforts to understand the apparent irrationality of workers who turned to fascism proliferated in social and political psychological research. Theorists at the Frankfurt School for Social Research came to understand all of society as indictable through their 1950 investigations into the “Authoritarian Personality.”[34] This psychology is characterized by the “decline of the individual [ego-psychology] and subsequent weakness;”[35] where ego strength, the uneven process of gaining self-consciousness in the classical liberal sense, is short-circuited through projective identification with the collective ego-ideal of a charismatic leader, or abstract authority itself, producing a “caricature of true, conscious solidarity.”[36] Sigmund Freud had analyzed the traditional process of socialization between child and parent as reflecting the tension between individual and society. Similarly, Theodor Adorno came to understand the “characteristic modern conflict [as] between a strongly developed rational, self-preserving ego agency and the continuous failure to satisfy their own ego demands.”[37] This conflict achieves a pseudo-resolution in the projective identification with totalizing power, exhibiting the extreme ambivalence of sadomasochism, or, what Anna Freud called “identification with the aggressor.”[38] The pliant accommodation to insuperable domination in adults, manifesting as regression to the pre-Oedipal elision between self and other, mirrors the passive inability to accept responsibility for society. Reich famously called this phenomenon the “fear of freedom”: psycho-sexual, and hence, civil-social, resignation after the disappearance of “grand passions”[39] or the “grand narrative”[40] of freedom in modernity.

The post-war period and the golden age of Hollywood seemed to usher in a post-Victorian liberalization of sexual and romantic norms. Adorno, looking at post-fascist Germany in the 1960s, prodded the illusion of “liberation” evinced in suggestive advertising, body culture, and premarital sex by pointing to the persistence of “sexual taboos” against homosexuality and prostitution—personifications of “forbidden” (nonprocreative) desire.[41] That the law against homosexuality in Germany was virtually immune to de-Nazification indicated that taboos were part of the same ideological and psychological spectrum of prejudice which enabled the rise of National Socialism, “whose manifest content lives on in a depoliticized form.”[42] He went on to examine how the “culture industry”[43] —or the standardized cultural products of an equally standardized mass society—actively cultivates an infantilized erotic ideal through homosexual[44] and prepubescent beauty standards while severely punishing homosexual or prepubescent attraction.[45] Stereotypical thinking and an “intolerance to ambiguity” is the “mark” of the authoritarian personality possessing an “infantile wish for endless, unaltered repetition.”[46] Standardized mass culture provides an unending reflection of itself through taboos which become “all the stronger the more its adherents themselves unconsciously desire what is proscribed and punished.”[47] That this homosexualization of androcentric society, and the emergence of the “gay identity” and urban queer subcultures, coincided with the increased persecution of queers and “sexual deviants” in the postwar era was no coincidence.[48] Society was totally oblivious to itself in the libidinous exhibitionism of military uniforms in “rhythmically perfect” parades and the charged eroticism of all-male professional sports adorned with fat-less, hair-less cheer squads.[49]

The flashy libertinism of the “healthy sex life” conceived on Madison Avenue, with its proscriptive enforcement of “heterosexual genitality,”[50] was merely the old patriarchal compulsive morality cleverly disguised. Adorno noted how the ostensible toleration of sexuality amounted to its managed attenuation as merely sex. This “desexualization of sexuality” reduced it to the banality of “mere sport” while inculcating allergies to that which is different or “perverse.”[51] Herbert Marcuse termed this paradoxical integration through an evacuation of its content: “repressive desublimation,”[52] where the content is defined as impervious to integration.[53] Ultimately, however, for Adorno and Horkheimer, the turn to Freud as a potential tool of social critique was itself symptomatic of the political failure of Marxism. They would argue that even Freud would concur: it was politics that explained psychoanalysis and not vice versa.[54] This astute observation went unheeded by later thinkers in the 1960s desperately looking for a radical alternative to the fraught project of socialism.

5. Sex after the revolution: the “New Left”

In 1960, C. Wright Mills drafted his “Letter to the New Left” and in London the first issue of the “New Left Review” was published thus auguring the decade’s potential for the rebirth of a Marxian critique of society.[55] The “New Left” periodization tends to include women’s and gay liberation movements despite their emerging largely as a response to the collapse of the largest, student-led socialist organization in the US, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969. Galvanized by the ostensible social conservatism of the twice-failed socialist project—particularly after 1968—movements for sexual freedom tended to center on a critique of heteronormativity, the family, and post-Freudian psychiatry in their attempts to locate a new “revolutionary subject” of oppression beyond the Stalinized, or sociological, working class. These questions tended to congeal around the popular slogan of second-wave feminism, that the “personal is political,”[56] as a potential new framework for emancipatory politics.

The movement for queer liberation emerged in tandem with a critique of the heterosexual family as the unique site of intimacy, purpose and sexual satisfaction; the romanticization of which grew with the decline of its economic raison d’être through industrialization.[57] According to John D’Emilio, the vast expansion of proletarianized labor in the postwar era coincided with a kind of nationwide coming-out party in major metro areas of the U.S.[58] D’Emilio argued that the gay liberation movement “invented a mythology” of the “eternal homosexual,” extending to antiquity as a political consequence of the urgent necessity to mobilize for civil rights. Conversely, he located the advent of a “gay identity” —versus homosexual behavior, per se—as the relatively recent product of becoming materially liberated from the family while desiring to reproduce the sense of purpose it provides in one’s “private life.”[59] The need for such mooring in a clear sense of self is motivated by the modern crisis of agency, or alienation, meaning the loss of subjectivity in public, productive life.[60] However, the hetero-nuclear family not only bridles full expression of queer sexuality but also indicates the relative instability of increased toleration during periods of economic recession.[61]

The protagonists of the Women’s Liberation Movement critiqued the inadequate examination of sexuality among male-dominated socialist tendencies, drawing inspiration from the paradigmatic forerunner of second-wave feminism: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.[62] The global economic recession in the early 1970s gave a shape and form to critiques of the family and traditional sexual mores.[63] Inspired by R.D. Laing’s humanist critique of the family as the site of all repression-induced psycho-sexual pathologies, Reich’s work on the political dimensions of neurosis, as well as Marcuse’s romantic reimagining of a sexually liberated society, radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer and Kate Millett placed gendered sexual inequality at the center of their critiques of patriarchy, psychiatry, the family, and the state.[64]

From social reproduction theory in Marxist-feminism to gender abolitionism in radical feminism, the resolution of sexual and gendered oppression tended to be problematized as preconditions to socialism. The Stalinist reification of class carried over to the reification of gender and sex, as if their crises were the causes rather than effects of capitalism. Such analysis ironically aligns with right-wing evangelicals of the 1980s-90s who blamed queers and feminists for the dissolution of the family.[65] Of course, there is eminent practical value for demands to remedy sexual violence against women and queers as well as the main thrust of social reproduction theory: to acknowledge the “invisible” domestic labor underpinning wage-labor which disproportionately burdens women and antagonizes efforts to disentangle reproduction from sex. That these issues demonstrate the brutality of capitalist society is without question. But Marxists historically distinguished between “oppression,” or “exploitation” —which has always existed—and the persistent phenomenal appearance of exploitation under conditions of ostensible freedom. This unprecedented dilemma necessitates an imminent dialectical critique of capital’s social crises as pointing beyond themselves to freedom and not merely to justice.[66] Righteous rage against the “oppressors” has historically been marshaled by capitalist politics itself and risks repeating the original crime in inverted conditions, in which the “abused become the abusers,” while the question of human emancipation is left unanswered.[67] While centering sexual oppression as the fulcrum of politics, rooted in undeniable suffering, no doubt appeared to be a viable path toward overcoming the failures of the Stalinized “Left,” its ultimate legacy is the persistence, if not the active facilitation, of new forms of both personal and political unfreedom in the neoliberal world order. While calling for basic liberal reforms to anchor the struggle for women’s rights, Juliet Mitchell also warned against problematizing sexual emancipation outside the broader horizon of freedom in capital, lest it merely recreate the preconditions for its failure, exacerbating what it sought to correct.[68]

In 1976, Michel Foucault released The History of Sexuality Vol. 1, opening with an insightful critique of the “repression hypothesis,” or, the humanist idea that repression of “natural” sexuality is the primary obstacle to an emancipated society.[69] However, his ahistorical, neo-Hobbesian elision of exploitation, or, direct power, with the peculiar dilemma of capitalist society, or, indirect social domination, flattens the crisis of self-contradiction and betrays an anti-Stalinist allergy to “Hegelian” philosophy. Or, according to a recent critic, his rejection of (the Stalinist travesty of) Hegelian, and therefore Marxian, dialectics, “throws the baby out with the bathwater,” severely undermining his critical intentions.[70] Taking the appearance (the hegemonic identity between the warring poles of the Cold War) as the essence (Marxism was a false alternative and therefore inadequate critique of society), he ahistoricized the Fordist-Keynesian state against which he rebelled particularly in his later years.[71] Despite mocking “repression” adherents’ naive, causal connection between sexual and political revolution, Foucault’s “microphysics of power” is the most acute manifestation of efforts to blur the distinction between politics and sexuality, between freedom and unfreedom, thus further liquidating the historical specificity of wage-labor to a critique of capital.

6. Concluding Remarks: The Present

Like the post-war era, we might be similarly lulled into a kind of complacency about the sexual question in an era which appears more tolerant than ever to sexual fluidity. When anyone can hypothetically procure a liaison at the swipe of an “app” and popular culture abounds with graphic depictions of sexual experience. But the hollowing out of sexuality as merely sex seems, today, more true than ever. A disfigured, anemic libido devoid of all spiciness rebels against ever-shifting notions of decency in mass pornography mostly depicting sterilized, mechanical penetration with careful suggestions of what is eo ipso proscribed.[72] Periodic moral panics alleging a purported over-sexing of today’s youth almost certainly mask the extent to which they suffer in impotent frustration. The so-called “sex recession” among younger generations reveals an epidemic of celibacy, both involuntary (mostly men) and voluntary (mostly women).[73] The paranoia surrounding consent obscures a profound ambivalence to the coercive edicts of “fun morality”[74] while an open war between “incels” and “volcels” somehow attains significance at the level of politics.[75] Anti-depressant use, up 400% since the 1980s, only adds fuel to an already volatile fire.[76]

Sexuality and procreation are politicized in the U.S. through the most resilient mainstay of modern culture wars: the issue of abortion. Current debates demonstrate the unmediated antinomical division of the bourgeois aspiration that procreation be a personal choice where Democrats defend the right to not procreate and Republicans, the right to procreate. Whether neo-Malthusian austerity—rationalized through Millennials’ nihilistic anti-natalism—or nostalgia for pre-recession family life, both, wittingly or not, reinforce the patriarchal division of women. Both positions one-sidedly avoid the radically modern notion of life, and therefore labor, as potential value in self-contradiction as the capitalist recrudescence of infanticide under the essentially permanent condition of unemployment.[77] In the erotic arena of politics, both parties summon unconscious fear and attraction in the maudlin phantasmagoria of pseudo-controversy which obscures the necessity of neoliberal austerity to which both are ultimately complicit. The ostensibly “progressive” position evinces what Reich called “conservative sexual reform” which makes a “slogan” of the “right of a woman to her own body” without “clearly and unmistakably… defending woman as a sexual being.”[78] The absence of the latter has been vociferously noted by critics of the #MeToo movement like Catherine Deneuve, who railed against its paternalistic “puritanism” in the name of “liberation.”[79] But Deneuve omits that, for many, the alternative appears like Amber Rose’s “slutwalk” celebrating “cam girls” or hook-up culture as true freedom. Absent from the moralizing discourse is a critique of the nonidentity between our apparent subjective freedom and the inability to objectify, or realize, it in present society.

Marxists, on the other hand, historically defended legal access to abortion, without making a virtue of it, while actively struggling to realize a world in which sexual expression transcends its bourgeois fetters and procreation is truly a personal choice.[80] History supplies us with more than enough material from which to break out of the endless loop between freedom-aspiring tendencies and conservative reaction as well as endless opportunities to stay mired in it for the conceivable future. There is no deus ex machina in experimental communal living “outside society,” as even the most unorthodox kinship relations are doomed to reflect social reality in toto.[81] Society must consciously transform itself in the direction of freedom or suffer like Oedipus, in which attempts to evade our fate merely accelerate its realization.[82] To quote Adorno: “In an unfree society, sexual freedom is hardly any more conceivable than any other form of freedom.”[83] There simply is no longer any serious or viable challenge to capitalist politics motivated by an imagination of freedom beyond capital. Any sense of social responsibility for realizing society’s latent potential for self-transformation, once shouldered by the Marxist Left, is, today, plainly absent. Any hope going forward relies on its eventual renewal. |P


[1] Charles Fourier, Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales, 1966–8, 132-133. Karl Marx: The Marx-Engels Reader: The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. 1971, 82-3.

[2] Any use of “bourgeois” heretofore refers to the original critical (and therefore historical) use of the term as citizen qua citizen in [classless] pre-industrial civil society versus later sociological or polemical uses more or less synonymous with “capitalist” or “property-owning.”

[3] “Left” here refers to the historical origins in the French Estates-General in which the representatives of the Third Estate sat to the “left” of monarchists who supported the ancien gime. Socialists considered themselves carriers of the torch of bourgeois freedom however in changed conditions of industrial production.

[4] For Hegel, individual thought reflects the universal character of society’s productive subjective-objective dynamic of self-liberation. Alienated labor enables social and therefore individual self-consciousness as an unfolding struggle for the emancipation of labor. The Marxian dialectic registers the disintegration and decomposition of this productive alienation in conditions of industrial production -- which undermine and negate the subject’s ability to become objectified (to realize labor as property). Interpenetrated opposites become merely “opposites” in capitalism requiring dialectical mediation of them as “necessary forms of appearance” of the self-contradiction of capital. See: Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1932).

[5] Both ignore the subjective-objective crisis of the “commodity form” of social mediation after industrialization.

[6] Mitchell, Juliet. “Women: The Longest Revolution,” New Left Rev., vol. 40, newleftreview.org, 1966: 11–37.

[7] Ibid. 93

[8] Ibid. 87

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kant famously defined marriage in the Rechtslehre in his “Metaphysics of Morals” as the “...lifelong possession of each other’s sexual attributes.” The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 353-604 (6:277). He was heavily influenced by Rousseau in Julie and Émile in his belief that eros, properly directed, furthers moral development. Cf. Hegel, G.W. F. 1991 Elements of the Philosophy of Right Trans. H. B. Nisbet. Ed. Allen Wood (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991). On the “commodity form” of consciousness, see: Georg [György] Lukács: “The Phenomenon of Reification,” in History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge, 1971), 83–222.

[11] See: Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, What is the Third Estate? (1789). Utopian socialist Henri de Saint-Simon called the revolt of “the Third Estate” a struggle between “workers and idlers.” Quoted in: Friedrich Engels: Socialism, Utopian And Scientific. New York: International Publishers, 1935.

[12] Jonathan Beecher, “Parody and Liberation in The New Amorous World of Charles Fourier” History Workshop Journal, Volume 20, Issue 1, Autumn 1985: 125–133.

[13] Ibid. 126: “Whatever his or her age and no matter how bizarre his or her desires, no Harmonian could go unsatisfied.”

[14] Ibid. In contemporary parlance, Celadon was frequently “friend-zoned.”

[15] Op cit. Marx 1971: 220. Marx only ever credited himself with one original insight or observation: The (historical) necessity of the international dictatorship of the proletariat -- or, the “political revolution” which would enable the “social revolution,” viz., the self-transformation of civil society.

[16] Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. International Publishers (New York 1964), 84–85.

[17] Respectively: Ibid. Marx; Max Horkheimer “The Authoritarian State,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader 1982, 95–117 (emphasis added).

[18] August Bebel, Woman and Socialism (1879) Trans. Meta L. Stern (Hebe) Socialist Literature Co. (New York, 1910), (emphasis in original).

[19] This view was most famously espoused by the Communist Party USA in the 1930s-40s which tailed the Stalinist regime in the USSR during the conservative turn. The Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and Revolutionary Union (RU) upheld this position contra New Left critics of the family in the 1960s.

[20] See: R. D. Laing, in Family and Individual Structure (1966) and feminist critics of Freud, e.g., Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Eva Figes, Betty Friedan, and Simone de Beauvoir. The critique of the family as the nucleus of political reaction extends back to Wilhelm Reich, in The Sexual Revolution (1936), and the Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933/1945).

[21] Clara Zetkin and Vladimir Lenin, “Lenin On the Women’s Question.,” in The Emancipation of Women: From the Writings of V.I. Lenin (International Publishers; Transcribed: Sally Ryan) Marxists.org. 1920.

[22] David Faes, “Transgender liberation? A movement whose time has passed” (2018) Online: <https://platypus1917.org/2018/11/02/transgender-liberation-a-movement-whose-time-has-passed/>

[23] Alexandra Kollontai, director of the Women’s Department of the Communist Party [Zhenotdel], expressing the exuberant if misguided optimism of 1920 declared: “The family is withering away not because it is being forcibly destroyed by the state, but because the family is ceasing to be a necessity.” “Communism and the Family,” Komunistka, No. 2, 1920. Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (London: Allison & Busby, 1977).

[24] Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970).Reich p. 113: “Pravda wrote quite openly: ‘Love is to be looked down upon as something psychological. Among us only physiology has a right to exist.’”

[25] Ibid. 112.

[26] Ibid. 107

[27] Ibid. pp. 114-115: Reich quotes a letter to the editor from a female voter in Germany who supported socialism -- in the context of the ramping up of fascist propaganda in the late 1920s: “I admit that. . . there is only one way out of the present misery, and that way is socialism. . . [However,] complete freedom, complete licentiousness, is being demanded, to a certain extent sexual Bolshevism. . . Thus, as beautiful as the socialist theory is. . . I don’t follow you when it comes to sexual matters, and because of this I often have doubts about the whole thing.”

[28] Ibid. 112

[29] Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, during a radio address on Bastille Day, 1933. Quoted in Alon Confino: Foundational Pasts: The Holocaust as Historical Understanding, Cambridge University Press, 2012: 6.

[30] Wilhelm Reich, “What is Class Consciousness?” (1934), 22.

[31] Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Ch. 7: Family, Youth and Culture (1936). This development was largely encouraged by women workers themselves seeking, e.g., alimony and who generally preferred the stability of family life to the anarchic alternative.

[32] Op Cit. Marx 1971: 82: “[T]his movement of counterposing universal private property to private property finds expression in the bestial form of counterposing to marriage (certainly a form of exclusive private property) the community of women, in which a woman becomes a piece of communal and common property. It may be said that this idea of the community of women gives away the secret of this as yet completely crude and thoughtless communism” (emphasis supplied).

[33] The history of “Mother’s Day” is linked to pro-natalist policies in countries affected by massive losses during WWI and WWII.

[34] “The four authors involved (T.W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford) later to become known as the “Berkeley group,” first assembled to start the interdisciplinary project in 1945. . . The American Jewish Committee sponsored the entire series with hopes that it would enable their mission of countering discrimination, particularly anti-Semitism.” Chris Mansour, “Introduction to ‘Remarks on the Authoritarian Personality,’” November 2016, Platypus Review no. 91, < https://platypus1917.org/2016/11/08/introduction-remarks-authoritarian-personality/>.

[35] T.A. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (1982), 130.

[36] Op cit. Adorno (1982), 126. Cf. Max Horkheimer, “The End of Reason,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader 1982, 37: “Concern for property under orderly competition and the rule of law has always been constitutive of the ego.”

[37] Op cit. Adorno (1982). Cf. Sigmund Freud’s Group Psychology and an Analysis of the Ego (1921).Many of Freud’s translators have noted that “group” is a weak translation of the German “Masse” evidenced by Freud himself often using the English words “mass” and “crowd” in the “slightly perjorative sense.” Peter Gay, The Freud Reader, (London, W.W. Norton & Co., 1989), 627.

[38] Anna Freud, “Identification with the aggressor” from The ego and the mechanisms of defence. (New York: International Universities Press, 1966).

[39] Theodore Adorno, “Sexual Taboos and the Law Today” in Critical Models (1963), 75.

[40] Cf. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (1979): xxiii–xxiv:“I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse … making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit...the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth … I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”

[41] Op cit. Adorno 1963: 77–79.

[42] Ibid. p. 74: “Immanent to the system and yet also imperceptible, today [sexual taboos] [are] more dangerous to democracy than are the neofascist groups, which for the time being find far less resonance and have far fewer material and psychic resources at their disposal.”

[43] This uniform cultural production reflects the standardized passive consumption of mass society in music, film, media, advertising, etc. Pace Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936): There has been a dual process of the pseudo-politicization of art and the aestheticization of politics. Also see: “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” (1944) by Max Horkheimer and T.A. Adorno.

[44] In the Freudian sense of androgyny or the pre-Oedipal identification with pre-gendered authority.

[45] The metastasis of film and photography similarly cultivates voyeurism and scopophilia as explicitly proscribed sexual “kinks” -- today perhaps perpetuated through the popularity of customized pornography and podcasts.

[46] Op cit. Adorno 1982: 33. Supra fn. 35.

[47] Op cit. Adorno 1963: 80.

[48] John D'Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity” from Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, eds. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, Sharon Thompson (New York, 1983), 102–104. The spread of wage-labor during World War II dramatically contributed to the rise of modern queer subcultures in major cities today.

[49] Op cit. Reich (1933), 26.

[50] Op cit. Adorno (1963): The primary drive emerged through the exclusion of partial drives: oral, anal, etc.

[51] Or, to that which arouses the pre-genital partial drives. Hence the dual phenomenon of subcultures owning the perverse label through affinity groups for “kinky” or “perverse” attractions.

[52] Marcuse describes a process of total integration of any forms of negativity or transgression which might threaten the stability of the system as a consequence of "the progress of technological rationality [which] is liquidating the oppositional and transcending elements in the “higher culture.” Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (London, 2002), 75–8.

[53] Freud: “Of course, the sexual is the indecent, which we must not talk about.” From: “The Sexual Life of Human Beings” in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1920).

[54] Op cit. Horkheimer (1985), 98: “Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable.”

[55] The “New Left” tends to refer to a renewed interest in Marxism among university students who became radicalized through their criticism of the Soviet Union following, among many major events, the invasion of Hungary in 1956.

[56] Or, alternately, “the private is political” was a call to arms for second-wave feminists attempting to compensate for the apparent inadequacy of the classical liberal distinction, thereby highlighting the social and political implications of the nuclear family and social relations of sex, intimacy and romance more generally.

[57] Op cit. D’Emilio (1983), 105–106. The influence of material reliance on the family to one’s sexual identity was plainly evident by the fact that gay men tended to outnumber gay women relative to the extent to which women remained as economic dependents.

[58] Ibid. 103

[59] Ibid. 102–104.

[60] Family, hobbies or an exciting sex life become a haven from drudgery or, perhaps, from the relative comfort of sheer boredom. To wit: “The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself.” Op cit. Marx (1971), 74.

[61] See: Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion, Ryan Conrad, Yasmin Nair, et al. (Chico CA, 2014).

[62] Op cit. Mitchell (1966): “For it is against the inadequacy of classical socialist theory that both radical feminists and socialist women in the movement have alike reacted. It is against the background of the far cruder practices of contemporary socialist groups that the Women’s Liberation Movement has been founded.” Rebecca Solnit “Three who made revolution” in The Nation, 2006: "What’s more, the standard-issue socialism of the era was far less radical than the ostensible “reformism” of [second-wave feminism], insofar as it accepted the premises of a civilization that was flawed from birth.”

[63] Abortion was legalized in East Germany (1972), West Germany (1974), the U.S. (1973), France (1975), England (1968), and in the Soviet Union through fits and starts between 1955 and 1988, owing to inconsistent access to contraceptives, while increased demands for birth control, alimony reform and the criminalization of spousal rape went hand in hand with women’s demands for equal access to gainful employment and subsidized childcare.

[64] While rightfully blaming the medicalizing discourse of decadent post-Freudian psychiatry for perpetuating norms of sexual perversion many feminists after De Beauvoir unfairly indicted Freud, who was steadfastly critical of patriarchal heteronormativity even as he acknowledged their reality for his patients. See: Juliet Mitchell Psychoanalysis and Feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing and Women, (New York: Random House, Vintage) 1975.

[65] Ironically Marxist-feminist Andrea Dworkin found common cause with such right-wing groups in her anti-porn activism. Anti- and pro-sex tendencies on the political left are indicative of an ideological, rather than critical, approach to sexuality as a straightforward problem of gendered exploitation.

[66] The so-called “capitalists” only appear to be responsible for existing social and political conditions. Hence Marx called them the “character-masks” of capital—effects rather than causes, or, phenomenal manifestations of crisis. The Nazis, for example, picked up the insurrectionary mantle of the self-immolating socialists by rallying people against the injustice of Jewish bankers—or “economic royalists” in FDR’s parlance.

[67] Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 5.

[68] Op cit. Mitchell (1966), 15: “The current wave of sexual liberalization, in the present context, could become conducive to the greater general freedom of women. Equally it could presage new forms of oppression.”

[69] See: R.D. Laing’s Family and Individual Structure (1966), Wilhelm Reich Op cit. (1933) and (1936), Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955). The idea that culture is the neurotic result of childhood represssion comes from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents; however, it is a mistake to lump in Freud with romantic idealizations of unmediated sexuality.

[70] Jensen Suther, “The Necessity of Freedom: A Critique of Michel Foucault” (2020), 3.

[71] The “administered state” of the inter-war period through to the early 1970s. Cf. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1990), and Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[72] Op. cit. Adorno (1963).

[73] Kate Julian, “Why are young people having so little sex?” in The Atlantic (December 2018).

[74] Op. Cit. Adorno (1963), 72–73. See also: Martha Wolfenstein, “The Emergence of Fun Morality,” The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (Fall 1951): 15.

[75] “Incel” is a truncated form of “involuntary celibate” and “volcel” is a truncated form of “voluntary celibate.”

[76] Debbie Herbenick, “Americans are having less sex. And that’s just fine.” Washington Post (16 March. 2017).

[77] In Book 1 Chapter 8 of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith considered infanticide a pre-bourgeois practice in economically stagnant countries, e.g., 18th century China, and contrasted it with the high premium placed on children in the US as embodiments of the limitless expansion of social value.

[78] Op cit. Reich 1933: 111.

[79] The French Anti-#metoo Manifesto signed by Catherine Deneuve (10 Jan. 2018), Online: <https://www.worldcrunch.com/opinion-analysis/full-translation-of-french-anti-metoo-manifesto-signed-by-catherine-deneuve>

[80] Trotsky, on the recriminalization of abortion in the Soviet Union: “These gentlemen have… completely forgotten that socialism was to remove the cause which impels woman to abortion, and not force her into the ‘joys of motherhood’ with the help of a foul police interference in what is to every woman the most intimate sphere of life.” Op cit. Trotsky (1936).

[81] Or as Juliet Mitchell put it, “The family as refuge in a bourgeois society inevitably becomes a reflection of it.” Op cit. (1966): 32.

[82] Cf. Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944 [2002]): 29: “The powerlessness of the workers is not merely a ruse of the rulers but the logical consequence of industrial society, into which the efforts to escape it have finally transformed the ancient concept of fate.”

[83] Op. cit. Adorno 1963: 73.

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