U.S.A.: Routledge. ISBN: 041592426X
The Political Economy of Sex
In the political retrenchment of a pious and sentimental ‘identity politics’, emerging from a disturbing post-radicalism, the key Marxist social category of ‘class’ has receded in importance as a factor in the understanding of sexuality. Repressive power relations and the ‘political economy of the sign’ are increasingly held culpable for the persistence of heteronormativity, but class has been discarded as a factor in this process; it is too radical, associated with apparently defunct political struggles, in short, a humanist atavism. In the book Profit and Pleasure. Rosemary Hennessey has attempted to reinvigorate feminist theory by renewing a commitment to Marxist feminism and its central notion of class, citing capital as the main culprit of patriarchy. For Hennessey, capital is penetrating culture to an increasing degree, and a Taylorized capitalism can assimilate isolated localities of resistance far more easily than before, meaning that the classic argument of ‘false needs’ becomes ever more important. Rejecting Foucaultian views of power and sexuality in favour of historical materialism, Hennessey has taken a risk, but the rapprochement between Marxism and feminism has always been a somewhat incomplete project. Perhaps this is because the Enlightenment ideology of egalitarianism has sat uneasily with the Marxist conception of disparate social needs. Another possibility is that the post-Marxist critique of the ‘productive Eros’ meant that the two disciplines became mutually exclusive. But Hennessey believes that the class war is still with us, pointing out that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing. I would agree with the latter point, but whether this is class struggle or merely a form of status seeking is another matter; as Baudrillard has pointed out, social struggle today takes place within the semiotic regime, and involves the battle for recognition through the differential play of signs. Rather than Revolution, the acquisition of a ‘differential mark’ becomes important. The problem with Hennessey’s argument is that she castigates the search for profit as the source of exploitation, whereas Baudrillard has argued that what capitalism really wanted was endless commutability. There have been numerous critiques of Marx, but I suggest the most rigorous one is that launched by Baudrillard, due to his criticism of the notion of ‘sexuality’ itself. Hennessey’s argument, though timely, involves a degree of ‘let’s pretend’ on the part of the reader, in the sense that one must almost suppress Baudrillard’s critique of Marx. This will be discussed further at the conclusion of this review.
However, Hennessey has inadvertently responded to this criticism with her deployment of E.P .Thompson’s notion of ‘experience’ as a counter-hegemonic force. She suggests that behind social experiences lurk class experiences, even though they cannot be apprehended directly. In turn, this enables her to criticize ‘identity politics’ and return the focus to Marxist theories of alienation and ‘species needs’. This leads Hennessey to make the radical statement ‘heterosexuality is integral to patriarchy’ (P&P, 24). True, repressive power relations operate in heterosexuality, but this is also true of homosexual relationships; homosexuals can have sex for the same negative reasons as heterosexuals. Patriarchy is historically determined, but it is worth considering that our subjectivity consists of both ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ elements, and the ‘perversions’ cannot be posited as an ideal natural state. However, to her credit, Hennessey addresses this point in a later chapter. Hennessey goes on to remark: ‘capitalism is progressive in the sense that it breaks down oppressive and at times brutally constraining traditional social structures and ways of life’ (P&P, 29). This occurs in the transition from serf to worker, where the serf is liberated in order to produce exchange-value, but capitalism is not revolutionary because resources are not shared out in an equitable fashion. Despite the potential freedoms, women have had traditional roles appointed to them in political economy. Some forms of feminism today overlook the exploitation that the disadvantaged suffer, since the discourse of heteronormativity imbricated in production tends not to impact directly on the lives of middle-class professionals. Hennessey’s stance is remarkably similar to that of Zygmunt Bauman’s, who recognized that social control is split by repression for the underprivileged and seduction for the affluent– the two forms of social control overlap but generally these distinctions hold true (Bauman, 1992: 98). The full force of political economy effects the poor the most, while the affluent are subject to more insidious regimes of control that may even attack heteronormativity as a consumer strategy.
In the chapter ‘The Material of Sex’ Hennessey looks at how classical Marxism has rarely engaged directly with the issue of sexuality, limiting its usefulness to feminist critiques of patriarchy. The problem was that Marx envisioned the home as a refuge from work, little realizing that alienation extended beyond the limited sphere of production and the factory. For many Marxist theorists Freud has been the necessary link in understanding how this process is important in the production of sexuality. Theorists such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse began to introduce sexuality into the Marxist canon, but Hennessey explains how their work was contaminated by biological determinism. However, I would take issue with this point– many feminists reject Freud’s hydrostatic model of sexual drives because this is perceived as being too pessimistic in tone and so is less useful as a theory of social change. Christopher Lasch has pointed out how Freudian revisionists often purge what is radical in Freud’s work, which was the essential irresolvable contradiction between nature and culture. The acceptance of the primacy of drives was important in the Frankfurt School’s attempt to explain how ideology operates at an unconscious level, and by rejecting this, Hennessey has lost a useful tool of argument against theories of ‘performative sexuality’. This emphasis on culture, which Hennessey paradoxically attacks and supports, is often part of an attempt to show that men and women are fundamentally identical, leading to less emphasis on sex. I think Hennessey has too much ideologically invested in the notion that human beings are essentially rational to accept the Freudian theory of drives.
Following this Hennessey sketches out the appropriation of Marxist theory by persecuted groups, leading to the formation of the gay Marxist left. Hennessey points out how theories of capitalist exploitation are conventionally absent from contemporary queer theory. This is best exemplified in Judith Butler’s work on performative sexuality, which seeks to explain the phenomena discursively, almost dropping capitalism out of the equation. Ultimately Butler substitutes political economy with kinship relations in an anthropological turn, producing a critique that is overly cultural. This is a stance that dispenses with detailed work or acknowledgement of the social relations of production. Hennessey feels this ‘cultural turn’ in theories of sexuality has had a deleterious effect on the study of gender, leading to the mutual estrangement of Marxism and feminism. However, changes in society itself have reinforced these post-Marxist views: ‘In the past few decades, changes in the international sexual division of labour, in marriage law, and in the ideologies of gender suggest that there is no necessary relation between a domestic economy organized in terms of the heterosexual marital contract and capital’s drive to accumulate wealth for the few’ (P&P, 66).
Hennessey goes on to suggest that postmodernity has helped to incorporate homosexuality, through the release of desire in a consumer culture. But this flow of desire, conceived of as a kind of Dionysian vitalism by theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari, is a kind of ahistorical pleasure, since it is divorced from the early Marx’s concepts of ‘species being’ and ‘sociality’. Pleasure can issue from ideological structures, such as romantic ideologies, and can be a means of naturalizing the social relations of production. Hennessey is making an important point here, and is restating the basic Marxist tenet on production: ‘it’s not what you do that is important, but the reasons why you do it’. Physically, sex can involve the same practices, but true needs differentiate consumerist discharge from a form of radical praxis.
In Chapter Three, Hennessey attacks the current reigning ideology of neoliberalism, which involves an increasing drive for profits, globalization, and a general cultural turn in theory, leading to the assimilation of critical theory by the academy. This has lead to the abandonment of Marxism and its substitution by cultural materialism. Hennessey tries to turn the argument back to theories of exploitation, ultimately rejecting overdetermination in favour of commodity fetishism. She explicitly links heteronormativity to the emergence of the commodity form, since it is the division of labour that has allowed the formation of new sexual subjectivities in the consumer society. This liberation of productive forces has enabled the emergence of new desiring subjects that escape the heterosexual norm, but this development is underpinned by a new patriarchal hierarchy ushering in a renascent form of heteronormativity. Hennessey points out how in the nineteenth century sexology and psychoanalytic discourses allowed for new divergent sexual identities that were swiftly reterritorialized under the ‘perversions’. Heteronormative paradigms have gone on to manage desire by restricting queer desire to the perversions. Basically Hennessey is trying to historicize Cixous’ ideas of a ‘patriarchal binary logic’ and the persistence of gendered active/passive roles of sexuality. Hennessey links sexual liberation to economic imperatives and the division of labour in addition to the conventional cultural explanations, and suggests that desire has been managed and moved away from procreative norms due to the demands of the new productive forces found in mass consumption. Hennessey’s stance shows a critical understanding of sexual liberation, by the introduction of the theory of class. Hennessey points out: ‘capitalism does not require heteronormative families or even a gendered division of labour. What it does require is an unequal division of labour’ (P&P, 105). Some gay men have adopted the ideology of the family, but this ideology is generally compulsory for the disadvantaged. At bottom, what is needed is commodity exchange and surplus value for the few not many. Capitalism still relies on heterosexuality for the poor, and the new non-normative forms of sexuality are generally reserved for the affluent consumer subjectivities. These emergent ‘postmodern sexualities’ are compatible with the new liquescent forms of the commodity, possessing a fluidity that has an affinity with the new consumer ethos.
This leads Hennessey to question forms of queer visibility in commodity culture. She uses drag as an example, which for Judith Butler is a ludic form of sexuality which through theatricality and parody exposes discursive forms of sexuality that shape identity. However, Hennessey points out ‘even the option of drag as a flexible sexual identity depends on the availability not only of certain discourses of sexuality, aesthetics, style, and glamour but also of a global circuit of commodity production, exchange, and consumption specific to industrialized economies’ (P&P, 120). Drag is not enabling for everybody, and since this sexual identity is severed from general historical processes, Hennessey feels Butler has merely fetishized an emergent postmodern sexuality. However, it is worth pointing out that Hennessey is not suggesting Butler is wrong in celebrating drag, but that she has overlooked how productive forces underpin such developments, and how discourses of sexual liberation may merely be a source of ‘relative deprivation’ for the less affluent. Hennessey’s theoretical stance is interesting, because she is explicitly trying to link theories of commodification with sexuality, and has resisted an uncritical celebration of the new postmodern sexualities. Similarly, Hennessey displays scepticism for Foucaultian technologies of the self, since not everybody has the money or consumer finesse to indulge in this process. In fact, the discourse of heteronormativity that is subverted in film and fashion can be linked to a less gendered professional workplace that has emerged through an aestheticization of everyday life, as opposed to a more general form of liberation desired by Hennessey. The new postmodern sexualities can be a means of disguising relations of production through a spurious egalitarianism; such a process occludes the issue of class. A good example of this is the contemporary exploitation of the ‘pink pound’, since middle-class homosexuals tend to have a high disposable income.
In order to illustrate this point, and to oppose a historical approach to cultural materialism, Hennessey examines the film The Crying Game. The way she has addressed this point is by attempting to show how both sexual and political themes have featured in representations of the empire — Hennessey contends that cinema has a mythic function because the political subtext of the film is repressed. The Crying Game is one of these postmodern myths that suggests sexual identity is a masquerade, but undercuts this radical suggestion by turning the film into a simple ‘unveiling of a secret’; the putative radical stance of the film emerges through the heterosexual imaginary, that is, heterosexual forms of meaning making. Through a Lacanian reading of desire Hennessey suggests that a fascination for transvestism is due to its exposure of the illusory status of the phallus (i.e. sexual difference emerges through the cultural matrix of language). The Crying Game suggests that womanhood may not be determined biologically, but is predicated on the presence/absence of the phallus. However, because the film disapproves of and punishes the phallic woman and valorizes the man who is in essence a woman (more woman than the phallic woman), the film remains loyal to the heterosexual imaginary and gendered sex roles. Hennessey deepens the analysis by linking this sexual ambivalence to the aestheticization of everyday life — in a commodified lifeworld the phallus may circulate more freely. This also uncovers a political subtext, where postcolonial anxieties about lost phallic power are displaced onto a sexual ambivalence encoded by the heterosexual imaginary. In turn, the issue of race is repressed. Overall, Hennessey’s reading of this film points out how the issue of class and race has receded in the face of the twin hegemonies of postmodern sexuality and postcolonial discourse, and The Crying Game offers an essentialist and conservative view of the ‘real woman’.
In the final two chapters, Hennessey turns to the subject of desire and revolutionary love. Critical analysis of sexuality in political economy has been subsumed by an overly cultural approach, shifting the area of thought from class to desire. An example provided is the work of Gayle Rubin, who switched focus from commodity production to the role kinship relations play in the formation of sexuality. Hennessey points out how kinship relations are in fact mediated by political economy, and cannot be examined in isolation. In the work of Dorothy Allison we see a move from Marxist positions to a ‘sex-radical’ stance, that tends to equate lust with desire. It is in a similar vein that Hennessey criticizes the work of Teresa de Lauretis and Elizabeth Grosz, where desire is valorized as a revolutionary force that makes connections, which unfortunately seems to share many of the aims of late capitalism. This conception of queer desire is ultimately complicit with contemporary consumerist objectives. Hennessey’s work has interesting parallels with the work of Baudrillard, by uncovering a mirror of production beneath ostensibly radical feminist theory. Also, these new desiring bodies have emerged outside the historical generation of the needs of the majority of women, and so have little connection with genuine everyday experience. This can be seen in American welfare reform, where the sexuality of the poor is targeted by ideologies of ‘personal responsibility’. Hennessey has exposed an implicit hierarchy of discrimination within bourgeois ideologies of sexual liberation; the poor are seen as being promiscuous and a welfare state burden, while the rich are merely ‘experimenting’ or enjoying themselves. When applied to deprived groups, promiscuity may be recognized as an imputed characteristic employed for the social legitimation of bourgeois sexual mores.
Hennessey’s solution is to relate back the concept of human needs to a regenerated notion of ‘love’ and a critique of ‘animal appetites’ derived from the work of the early Marx of the ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)’. This is achieved by examining Marx’s argument on sociality, and linking true needs to human, sensuous affective capacities. This was always one of the problems with Baudrillard’s critique of Marxism– he thought that production always had to involve the creation of a material product. Hennessey’s call for a ‘revolutionary love’ has interesting connections with Henri Lefebvre’s Marxist theory, by suggesting that love can be a form of sexual praxis enabling humans to objectify their ‘species being’. Following Wendy Brown, Hennessey feels these affective potentialities have been overlooked in the linguistic turn that had occurred in social theory, and that instead these energies have been channelled into a bilious ressentiment. This leads to the valorization of what Hennessey calls ‘dead identities’. Hennessey’s alternative is to encourage a process of ‘disidentification’, whereby individuals make visible the ways in which their sexuality is historically contingent. Marx’s theory of alienation has been long overlooked in the field of cultural studies, and has begun to ossify into an academic blindspot. And yet, some cultural theorists would criticize the assumptions she has made here, that intellectuals may in some sense evade alienation, and that their role is to designate one social group as ‘dispossessed’. However, Marx objects to capitalism because it interrupts how we cope with the Hegelian ‘basic’ alienation that derives from our mediations as subjects with objects. For Marx, the second order mediations that derive from institutions (e.g. political economy) introduce alienating potentials of their own, adding another layer for us to cope with. István Mészáros explains: ‘What Marx opposes as alienation is not mediation in general but a set of second order mediationsÂ…a ‘mediation of the mediation’, i.e. a historically specific mediation of the ontologically fundamental self-mediation of man with nature’ (79).
Marx has never suggested that any group or individual is free of alienation; we are all alienated, it is just that the affluent enjoys the fruits of the worker’s labours. Marx points out that productive labour is fundamentally a social act, and that the worker, through praxis, is in the best position to realize this. He is not suggesting that the proletariat have an innate potential for revolutionary behaviour, and is opposed to the traditional role of intellectuals since theory can ultimately only be valid through the dialectical interplay with practice. The historical non-correspondence of theory and practice has largely been down to the interference of intellectuals. So overall, Hennessey’s latest work constitutes a salutary resurrection of this basic theoretical concept, but also presents us with a novel attempt to radicalize feminism, by moving its focus from a bourgeois lifestyle option back on to the persecuted for whom it was originally developed.
However, it is Baudrillard’s contention that in precapitalist societies that practice symbolic exchange, the body is merely a social relation. The body is an epi epiphenomenon of propitiatory rituals, and as a result the Law of the Father is symbolically exchanged within the group. With no phallus mediating exchange, primitive societies have no repression, and sexuality (certainly as we understand the term) does not exist. This has always been one of the problems with the feminist critique of ritual mutilation; there is a tendency to suspect a patriarchal motive where in fact one may not exist. Hennessey’s appeal to a radical revolutionary sexuality could be considered to be an attempt to draw the study of sexuality back into conventional Marxist eschatology, whereas the truly radical forms of sexuality may not exist within this trajectory. Through her appeal to a ‘use-value’ of sexuality in the political economy of sex, these radical forms of sexuality linked to symbolic exchange may be suppressed. For Baudrillard, the problem with Marxist conceptions of ‘use-value’ is that it is always deferred until a chimerical future point; ‘use-value’ recedes infinitely into the distance, functioning as an alibi for repression. Baudrillard’s theories are not above criticism, but I think that in order to understand how historically women have been subjugated, Hennessey needs to critically analyse the work of Marxist anthropologists such as Baudrillard and Godelier.
1 Hereafter cited as PP.
2 Baudrillard says: ‘alienation’ remains the imaginary of the subject, even of the subject of history. The subject will not become again a total man; he will not rediscover himself; today he has lost himself… each man is totally there at each instant. Society also is totally there at each instant’ (166). Following Bataille, Baudrillard sees society as ‘always already’ there, and the dialectical notion of human development as a ruse of the social. This leads him to repudiate the notion of specific human powers of creativity and sociality.
3 See Dennis Altman, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, 21, 106-109.
4 Lasch explains how Freud is falsely accused of biological determinism by pointing out how the girl also desires the mother, but cannot penetrate her, so therefore must shift the object of love from the mother to the father, involving the acceptance of a passive rather than phallic sexuality. For Freud, the formation of the Oedipus complex is very different in girls, since castration occurs before this point is reached — in boys the Oedipus complex occurs before symbolic castration takes place. So Freud’s theory of sexuality is inherently bisexual, since through socialization a woman must repress the phallic side of her sexuality, while a man must renounce his passive side. See Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World — The Family Besieged, 76-84.
5 See Maurice Godelier, The Mental and the Material. In this work, Godelier comments that the economic base, the site of the reproduction of the social relations of production, is distinguished not by activity (e.g. work) but by function. In other words, in precapitalist societies, religion or kinship relations may serve as the social infrastructure, whereas in our own society they occupy the superstructure. This reconfiguration of the classic base/superstructure argument would probably have been useful for Hennessey to criticize Butler.
6 See Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’.
7 See Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life.
8 Consider the ressentiment-fuelled opinions of Andrea Dworkin.
9 For example, see Maurice Godelier, The Enigma of the Gift, 108-70. Godelier departs from Baudrillard in seeing these societies as patriarchal, but he believes that social phenomena we perceive as being sexual may simply play a role in the reproduction of the social relations of production. For Baudrillard, sex is indivisible from symbolic exchange. However, the problem with Baudrillard’s position is that it lacks ethnographic detail, but he would argue this was merely a form of simulation.
See Victoria Grace, Baudrillard’s Challenge for a lucid introduction to these ideas.
Altman, D. (1971) Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. New York: New York University Press.
Baudrillard, J. (1975) The Mirror of Production. St Louis: Telos Press.
Bauman, Z. (1992) Intimations of Postmodernity. London: Routledge.
Cixous, H. (1985) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ in Marks, E. and Courtivron, I. (eds) New French Feminisms: An Anthology. Brighton: The Harvester Press Limited, 245-64.
Godelier, M. (1986) The Mental and the Material: Thought Economy and Society. London: Verso.
Godelier, M. (1999) The Enigma of the Gift. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Grace, V. (2000) Baudrillard’s Challenge: A Feminist Reading. London and New York: Routledge.
Lasch, C. (1995) Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged. U.S.A.: W.W. Norton & Company.
Lefebvre, H. (1991) Critique of Everyday Life Volume 1: Introduction. London: Verso.
Marx, K. (1975) ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)’. Early Writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 279-400.
Mészáros, I. (1970) Marx’s Theory of Alienation. London: The Merlin Press Ltd.
Liam McNamara is a PhD student in English Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK.