Monday, June 13, 2011

Random thought on gender

Friends over at Advance the Struggle posted this piece on the Welsh Miners Strike back in the 1980s, and how gay, lesbians and straight workers and working class people united in a strike against austerity measures by the Thatcher government. I had read about this strike before and re-reading it brought up some insights. Alongside this whole Slutwalk debate (which I really need to just sit down and write about cos I am referencing it so much in my writings)...

I have been thinking alot about why freedom of sexuality and gender expression (from "sluttily"-dressed womyn, to trans people, to gays and lesbians) are often seen as some kind of "bourgeois deviation," or as some form of individualism. Why havent these forms of self expressions been acknowledged firmly, surely and definitively, as part of the textures of working class life among the left? Why has it been framed so much as counterposed to working class life? The efforts and works of Black feminists and working class queer peoples' rebellions (Stonewall, Compton Cafe rebellion etc)  have shown that these are working class lives, these are the emotions and struggles and expressions of working class people.Queer and Trans identities and lives are not middle class inventions.

I feel like the language of how race and sex etc are divisions within the working class do not sufficiently explain how queer and trans struggles are part of the class struggle. I think the way we understand race and its relationship to capitalism, should not just automatically be applied to how we understand gender and sexuality. Too often, the left makes this mistake -- and it is a product of under theorizing/sloppiness/not taking gender seriously, and is most easily exemplified in my mind by the "intersectionality" model. I am so critical of the intersectionality model is so boring!! I am not trying to be downplay the need to understand the multitude of peoples identities and experiences and to have solidarity around these different identities and experiences. But, what is the texture, the life, the changes, the experiences of living as a person with disabilities, as a person of color, as a trans person...what is the social relations of each of these groups to capitalism? To one another? The intersectionality model is so shoddy in explaining any of this. It just assumes one form of oppression fits into another, and precisely because of that, it doesnt explore the differentiated, though connected functions of gender, race, sexuality, disabilities in relation to capitalism.

But my point was, that while race is a specific identity category of capitalism --- Black, white, Asian, Latino, Native, etc that is specifically a creation (since we are all the human species), gender and sexuality are processes that are not confined by categories. They are processes that include all people. The same thing with disabilities. Gender, sexuality and disabilities are life processes that are not specifically creations of capitalism. They are human processes and desires that are...dare I say it, natural! They are historical to the extent that today we use certain terms and associations with them, and that these identities can be modern (ie. in the way that John D'Emilio discusses it, specifically a product of capitalism) and defining characteristics and identities of individuals rather than a set of behavior that doesnt necessarily define someone. They are also historical to the extent that we need to choose to accept that certain part of ourselves and have that be part of what defines us in this society.

I think there are 2 levels of struggle in queer and trans liberation. On the one hand, the ability of those who have chosen to express their gender or sexuality under these oppressive homophobic and transphobic patriarchal conditions, ie. against queer and trans oppression or violence targeted against queer and trans folks, and then there is another level of struggle for us as societies to open space for everyone to have space to accept, question, understand, experiment with our sexuality, gender and the like, which cannot happen under the context of capitalism.

I think by saying that queerness/genderqueerness/trans identity is a texture of working class life, I want to say that there are aspects of working class life that provide these spaces, choices for working class people. It is obviously fraught with contradiction, but peoples' self activity, desire for self expression, ability to be vulnerable to themselves and accepting of each other's transgression of social norms out of love, open up these spaces.

So many random ideas in my head. I am also thinking about disability, aging and the nursing home industrial complex too...


  1. I think gender and sexuality are such touchy subjects because they really get at the core of what it means to be human. Discussing gender immediately raises unresolved philosophical questions like: "what is natural and what is not, or does nature as a category even have any meaning?" Most of the answers given to these questions by the system are oppressive. Terms like nature, evolution, human nature, etc. have been defined in capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal, and heterosexist ways by white male dominated scientific establishments and philosophical trends that built off of the science these establishments produce. These institutions served to create categories like race and gender used to divide and conquer the working class, as Marxist feminists like Sylvia Federici rightfully point out. But that doesn't mean we should reject science or philosophy outright. If anything, they are tools that oppressed people have a right to reclaim and wield to understand and shape our own nature. Doing so sheds light on your hunch that struggles over gender go back earlier than capitalism and cut deeper than simply overcoming the divsions of labor that capitalism has violently imposed, color-coated, and gender-coated, to keep us all working for our masters the past 500 years.

    Recently, I've begun understanding Marx's materialism in this kind of way. It is a scientific tool that can help us situate this 500 year struggle against capitalism within a larger and longer saga of natural and social evolution. When Marx talked about matter he wasn't talking about dead material under a microscope cover slip in a lab. He was talking about nature. Not nature as some unchanging essence invented by a racist philosopher in an ivory tower. Nature as a living, breathing, sentient, multifaceted, fluid, constantly changing, interrelated process... nature as contemporary post-modern ecologists understand it. An ensemble of relations that is constantly evolving, sometimes in revolutionary leaps and bounds. There is a lot of room in that definition for the experiential content expressed in metaphors like "spirit", or even "God".

    Marxism is the study of how society emerges out of that ecology... it is the study of how human societies struggle to become nature rendered self-conscious. We are alienated from nature and from our own bodies by the capitalist system and it's white supremacy, patriarchy, abelism, and heterosexism. Our revolutioanry struggle is an attempt to overcome that aleination, and to resume the process of allowing our self-activity, our social action, our collective labor, to be a conscious, self-directed continuation of our natural evolution. As Murray Bookchin put it, the revolutionary process is one of social ecology. Marx himself approximated this concept when he suggested that his dialectical materialism is the study of how human beings shape our own ongoing evolution - that's why he almost dedicated his masterpeice Capital to Charles Darwin (Darwin's family didn't want his name associated with Communism so they refused).

  2. Gender and sexuality are social constructs but they are social constructs based on biological experiences, and hence based to some degree on nature (again, nature in a non-dualistic, constantly fluid process). Patriarchy and heterosexism freeze and murder the biodiverse realities of gender that we live and breeze. They force our complex bodies, hormones, social expression, desires, and cultures into a static, antiseptic, dead-end sexual and gender binary in order to service the mode of production known as capitalism. This is in many ways serves to suffocate our evolution. Stopping biodiversity = stopping evolutionary pathways, limiting possiblity. It is like replacing the complexity of a rainforest with the simplicity of a parking lot. So by confining us to two genders, one held up as dominant at the expense of the other, basically serves to block our evolution.

    Struggles over gender are our struggles to defend that biodiversity and all of its diverse social manifestations. They are attempts to develop a healthy social ecology, an embodied sensous practice, a way to shape our bodies and their social interactions in healthy ways, so we can flourish physically and ethically. They are attempts to once again take repsonsiblity for our evolution as a species. To shape the future evolution of our bodies into a multiplicity of possible forms instead of two narrow "sexes" performed socially as two narrow "genders." Embodied working class experience today is the ecosystem out of which these new forms are potentially evolving, but that ecosystem is constantly threatened by the pollution, the murder, and the exploitation performed by the capitalist rulers who claim to own it and who profit from exploiting it. Of course, it's not just the capitalists doing this, they've got us doing it to each other, saturating the working class itself with sexism, racism, ableism, and heterosexism so we kill off each others's possibilities and hence cut short our collective liberation, our collective (r)evolution.

    So in that sense, the struggle against capitalist patriarchy and its gender binaries is an echo of ancient longings that go back all the way to the moments when our ancestors lived in societies without gender binaries, before the state and class society first began the process of alientation. Struggles have continued ever since that alienation first began. (Note carefully, I am not making the racist move of identifying current-day indigenous societies with "our" past in a social darwinistic way. Some indigenous societies today may have less of a gender binary that the dominant white supremacist American system does, which is good... but they are not static ahistorical societies, they have also changed and evolved over thousands of years, for better or for worse. )

    We could say that the struggle against capitalist patriarchy and its gender binaries brings up even more ancient longings - it taps into the very core of who we are as embodied social animals, animals with the self-consciousness to shape our evolution, and, unfortunately, animals also with the self-consciousness to confine ourselves to suffocating binaries that kill our evolution. The struggle do de-alieanted our labor is our struggle to take our labor back as a means of shaping our bodies, together.... evolving them into new forms. We can't do that when capitalists require us to use our labor to produce commodities for their profit, or to reproduce workers for them to exploit, or to perform, and hence reproduce the gender binary in our day to day social interactions. Our ability to work, our creativity, is our species being, and it's squandered when its used in such alienated ways. Overcoming that alienation is not JUST about overcoming the racist, sexist divisions of labor under capitalism, it is also about reclaiming our creative capacity to shape our bodies in ways that build off of nature's fluid dynamism and diversity instead of destroying it.

  3. My friend Katie ( posted this comment but it didnt go through. Here it is!

    From Kloncke:

    Loving this train of thought and discussion. Thank you!

    while race is a specific identity category of capitalism --- Black, white, Asian, Latino, Native, etc that is specifically a creation (since we are all the human species), gender and sexuality are processes that are not confined by categories.

    I think I see the distinction you're drawing here, but I wonder what happens when we take a broader definition of "race" that gets at the underlying questions that race is trying to answer about human beings:

    "What kind of 'blood' do you have?"

    "Who gave birth to you? Who is your family?"

    In this way, I think that race, like gender and sexuality, is based on the "natural" or "biological" or "spiritual" (however one's era conceives of them) facts of blood lineage and human beings, like plants and animals, passing on traits to their offspring. Of course, class societies try to subdivide the human species by ancestry and/or phenotype in order to justify hierarchical social regimes. So when I imagine a classless society, similar to the way you discuss people having "space to accept, question, understand, experiment with our sexuality, gender and the like," I imagine people having space to accept, question, understand, relate to ancestry (a.k.a. race, and conceptions of family) free from the determining categories that (a) ruling classes use to divide labor and shore up their sense of superiority, and (b) working classes and the poor use to huddle together and survive in oppressive and traumatic conditions (sometimes in self-undermining ways, by feuding within the class). I envision these more liberated explorations as making room for both "chosen family" and "honoring tradition."

    As for valuing biodiversity, fluidity, and deliberate evolving choice over static categories and narrow, politically determined/deterministic boundary control, for me it's important to think about why we value those ways of being, or as you say Mamos, "our creative capacity to shape our bodies in ways that build off of nature's fluid dynamism and diversity instead of destroying it." To me, the fluidity and choice is useful not because it automatically leads to greater happiness or well-being, but insofar as it can encourage and help us to (1) explore the nature of "self" more deeply, (2) avoid harming others, and (3) promote the well being of ourselves and others. Sorry if that sounds vague . . . maybe I'll try it as a question. When we think of "how human societies struggle to become nature rendered self-conscious," what do we think is the purpose of this self-consciousness? Why are we compelled to struggle for it? Why do we seek to express ourselves through gender, sexuality, family/ancestry/culture?

    Thanks again for giving me so much food for thought!

  4. Hey Kloncke,
    I think you are right with what you are pointing out and maybe I was too flippant/uncritical in talking about the distinction b/w race and gender. It is not intentional and its more me trying to figure out how these categories that seem so static and rooted in the left, are undialectical and unreflective of actual life process and experience. This is my main critique of these "intersectionality" models.

    To clarify my earlier argument (it helps me think thru what I am trying to say, so bear with me:) ), race is a social construct that is imposed by capitalism and white supremacy, whereas I see gender and disabilities as a formation/process that isn't just encapsulated in categories of "male" "female" "queer", or "person with disabilities" or not. My point was that queerness and gender is a transformation and process over time, and that ability to engage in that process of self questioning, is an essential aspect of queer and trans liberation. Likewise, disabilities is not something static. People become disabled through the systematic oppression of ableism and ageism and class exploitation that exploits our bodies and refuses to regenerate or heal or accomodate us. A key part of disabilities justice is to reclaim the natural processes of aging, impairment, as important and valuable life processes and expressions of biodiversity that everyone goes through at some point or other.

    What I am understanding from what you are saying is that race, even tho it could be a social construct, plays itself out in ways that are mystified and proclaimed as biology (therefore the one blood rule, and the family origin being an indicator of one's social standing/role in society). And this engages w the idea of the family and how its form (nuclear ones for example) has been naturalized, essentialized in a way that shut out the options and validity of chosen families, queer families, and honoring forms of tradition and mutual aid that havent been valued or recognized.

    I need to think through this more -- particularly with how conceptions of legitimate family have such racial and class bias in their formations, and how it impacts the way kids are thought of as private property of parents justified by biological/blood relations. I feel like this is yet another form of hegemony under capitalism and another expression of how alienation is internalized in our deepest ways of inter-personal relations. I make a wild guess to say that these forms of biological family ties were less prevalent in pre-capitalist society, not to fetishize the latter but more to indicate how biological family is a historical construct...

    Anyways, hope to engage w this more:) thanks for your thoughts!