Queering Capitalism

In addition to exposing capitalism as a social system based on exploitation of humans and nature, Karl Marx also pointed out that capitalist societies produce, and fundamentally rely on, a fetishism that is the veiled yet crucial effect of commodity production where social relationships among people are transformed into economic relationships. In this way, commodities are no longer perceived as embedded in social relations or as products made by people, but instead appear as objects that have an intrinsic exchange value. The “commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. […]. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.” (Marx 1867/1966, 165).

In this light, Marx’s analysis of capitalism can be read as an urging to fold political and epistemological dimensions of critique into one other. Inspiration can be taken from Marx’s critique of political economy to call attention to forms of knowledge and social relations that lie beyond what is assumed to be ‘truth’, ‘fact’ and ‘reality’. Marx’s encouragement to challenge these assumptions resonates with queer critiques. Applying a queer perspective holds the potential of deepening Marx’s critique by expanding this epistemological-political interrogation to include bodies, sexuality, subjectivity, and desire, which are realms Marx never addressed.

A queer perspective on capitalism brings to light that commodity fetishism is not the only fetish that capitalist societies are built upon. Commodity fetishism is accompanied by what one might call biopolitical fetishism. Michel Foucault has urged us to delve further than Marx and demonstrated in his own work that biopolitics is “an indispensable element” of capitalism (Foucault 2007, 140). Capitalism not only oppresses people, bodies and (certain) lifestyles, it also requires technologies of power that exert “a positive influence on life, endeavor[ing] to administer, optimize, and multiply it” (ibid., 137), and it also relies on technologies of power that incite and produce certain lifestyles, bodies, and subjectivities. A merit of queer theory is that it has fleshed out Foucault’s insights into capitalism and shown how sexuality and heteronormativity are crucial technologies for biopolitics. Queer theory has unpacked sexuality and heteronormativity showing how they enable – albeit in a very subtle way – subjects and bodies to be constituted, governed, normalized, and rendered ‘natural facts’ that, as such, play a key role in the (re-)production of capitalist society. Heteronormative social relations together with the heteronormative knowledge-power nexus create fictions of coherent identities and bodies that have a ‘natural’ sex. These fictions of ‘natural’, ‘coherent’ bodies, subjects, and identities are necessary for a capitalist mode of production, because this “imperative of coherence” is “infused in the needs of capitalist reproduction” (Cover 2004, 304). The wage worker not only has to be considered doubly ‘free’, but also be rendered a subject within the heteronormative knowledge-power nexus, which makes the ‘free wage worker’ intelligible in the first place. Wage work, the spheres of production and consumerism, require what Pauline Boudry, Brigitta Kuster and Renate Lorenz call “sexual labor” (1999), which produces coherent and intelligible, embodied and sexual subjects, and simultaneously allows the social character of bodies and subjects to disappear.

Furthermore, a queer critique of capitalism unmasks how sexual politics are deployed to organize consent to capitalism as a social system. Despite being a system of exploitation and domination, capitalism’s stability is not solely engendered by “the silent compulsion of economic relations” (Marx 1867, 899) but also by a consensus of the majority of the population, as Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci highlight. Desire and sexuality are key technologies of power for organizing such a consensus. The rigid heteronormative sexual politics of Fordism not only mirrored mass production and mass consumption, they also helped to organize consensus to an overarching social order built upon stability, orderliness, and predictability. In addition, the rigid sexual politics of Fordism brought forth a nation state with a strict heteronormative sexual regime that would supposedly set them apart from non-western nation states whose populations were framed as ‘backward’ and ascribed ‘perverse’ sexualities and gender roles. The neoliberalization of capitalism has made sexual politics more ‘open’, inclusive, and ‘tolerant’ by integrating individuals with certain non-heterosexual lifestyles who act in accordance with heteronormative normality. These transformations of sexual politics are key to organizing consensus to a social order based on a flexible mode of production, the precarization of wage-work and modes of living in general. Framing sexual plurality and diversity in terms of a society comprised of self-determined, free and self-responsible subjects is a technology of power that helps to make neoliberalism’s principles of “privatization and personal responsibility” (Duggan 2003, 12) desirable. Moreover, neoliberalized sexual politics incite a desire to belong to a national ‘we’ and to a nation state that now frames ‘sexual tolerance’ and ‘sexual diversity’ as hallmarks of western modernity, democracy and civilization, while simultaneously constructing non-western societies as ‘backward’ due to their assumed lack of tolerance toward non-heterosexual lifestyles (Puar 2007). Thus, sexual politics are not just ‘side-effects’ of political economy, they are fundamental technologies of power that secure the reproduction of capitalism. They do so in a subtle manner by deploying heteronormative and racialized phantasms of ‘sexual normality’ and by inciting a desire for organizing consensus to the capital mode of production and the state.

Queering Capitalism is a project that draws on Marx’s radicalism while offering decisive twists to his insights. It proposes that the economic sphere is inseparable from the sphere of sexuality, bodies, desires and that these do not constitute ‘the other’ of the capitalist mode of production. Instead they are key forces and “a motor of economy” (Dhawan et al. 2015, 3). Sexuality, desire, and bodies are infused with economic needs and conditions, while at the same time sexual politics are used to secure the reproduction of a capitalist mode of production, the sphere of consumption, labor relations, and the state. Consequently, Queering Capitalism shows that capitalism not only has an impact on sexual politics, but that sexual politics are technologies of power that help organize consensus and incite a desire for historically concrete modes of production and statehood.