The Politics of Everybody: A Marxist-Queer View from the U.S.
On September 26, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas State University Holly Lewis inaugurated the 2017-2018 Truth and Democracy: Journalism, Politics, and Social Science conference series at the Concordia Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism Studies (CCBJS), an event co-organized by Le Centre de recherche interdisciplinaire sur la diversité et la démocratie (CRIDAQ). Addressing the recent intense debates in the U.S., the author of The Politics of Everybody, Feminism, Queer Theory and Marxism at the Intersection (2015) advocated for thoughtful activist work. Inscribed in the third wave of feminism and queer politics, her book was written in part in order to contribute to discussions about the relationship between feminism, queer politics and Marxist politics, in part to show “how capitalist social relations are structuring and producing sets of gendered relationships” and in part “to dissuade Marxist feminists from the ersatz materialism of trans-exclusionary radical feminism and give queer Marxists some tools to fight trans-exclusion”.
A “sense of emergency”: the alarming political, economic and social crisis in the U.S.
Talking about her book in the context of contemporary American politics, and listing the main contemporaneous issues in the American landscape, Lewis insisted on their common origin: capitalism, and its political companion, neoliberalism. According to her, the “invisible hand” has yet left very visible traces and the current political crisis is based upon a few ongoing realities: extreme economic liberalisation, the “use and abuse” of undocumented workers, the militarization of the police and an opioid crisis. Of course, all these issues are connected; the economic liberalisation was accompanied by an erosion of regulations and the decline of unions which also makes possible the abuse of undocumented workers; it also led to the emergence of for profit hospitals (which in turn led to precarious living condition, lack of access to healthcare and the opioid crisis) and for profit prisons resulting in the commodification of prisoners, as inmates are both regarded as commodities and used as labour (making 1$/hour when lucky, nothing when they are not), The militarisation of the police is also linked to the commodification of criminality as the “police are literally invested in an increase in crime--the more crime that exists, the more police get a cut of the tax money to use for futuristic military equipment”.
Another issue seen as fueling intense political debates is the fact that as soldiers returned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and an entire generation of warrior families is unclear on why they fought; assuming the fight was against Islam or Muslims, they continue the fight at home.
Despite all these issues and their causes being rooted in capitalism and neoliberalism, in the political spectrum, neoliberalism still seems to be the much desired answer, while its continuous flow brings about constant insecurity, thereby fueling identity politics. This climate of insecurity has empowered the alt-right, leading groups such as men’s rights advocates or the KKK to blame Jews, Muslims, Queers, Feminists, the Black Lives Matter movement, Mexicans and others for the American decline, instead of unleashed capitalism. Fighting conspiracy theories and fake news, scholars such as Lewis herself are also being targeted, leaving them in fear of expressing themselves, lest their words be manipulated.
Materialism for Everybody
In a period where the individual and the collective heavily question their mutual leverage in the realization of democracy and equal rights, materialism provides the keys to understanding the processes through which capitalist social relations produce identities as well as oppression. Although the anti-communist rhetoric moved away from the Manichean portrayal of communism and Marxism only to target feminism and queer theory, criticizing fascist morality, white supremacy and patriarchy can only take us so far. So can gender distinctions.
As an example of how a materialist perspective can help us not only understand what is currently happening but also explain it to others, Lewis analyzed the role of women in the capitalist economy. She argued that women were “demeaned and deskilled” and the concept of woman degraded during feudalism when a move from household production to the provision of cleaning and services took place. Later, in the 1970s, when women move en masse into the workforce, employers end the family wage practice, which means that more hours are worked per household and “more profit is being extracted from the labor force”. The fact that women are devalued leads to lower pay in feminized professions. Women are also “tasked with a double work day: both labor that’s productive for capital and reproductive labor in the home”. As now men are asked to contribute to household labor, gender roles are starting to be eroded and gendered divisions of labor make less sense. To quote Lewis,
“New generations ask new questions about the meaning of gender, sexuality, and family structure. So what we have here is that working people are split between those who are nostalgic for the old pre neoliberal order and who equate it with ‘a better time for America’ and on the other hand, the part of the labor force who embrace new questions about the meaning and possibilities of gender and sexuality and who identify their own problem as emanating from the neoliberal order itself and not the decline of family life; and those working people are keen to point out the problems with the way things used to be: the sexism and racism that formed the earlier social norms—which were also produced by capital.”
In order to efficiently grasp the problem holistically, neither identity nor Marxist theories are enough on their own. Calling for an approach based on “vector model of oppression” rather than intersectionality, Holly Lewis concluded her talk by inviting contemporaneous and future thinkers to explore Marxist-Queer analysis in the hope to find actual remedies to the current gangrenous obscurantism.