Conservatives who rail against ‘Marxist cultural relativism’ need to watch Bruce LaBruce’s The Raspberry Reich. This unabashedly queer film follows the Baader-Meinhof gang, a far-left terrorist group, in its mission to kidnap the son of a wealthy industrialist. After a series of mishaps and bombastic speeches by its fanatical leader the group eventually disbands, but not before all of its members are forced to have several bouts of gay sex with each other. Heterosexual gang members become homosexuals in pornographic detail, while agitprop slogans such as ‘heterosexuality is the opiate of the masses’ strobe across the screen. Such an unholy alliance of sexually explicit imagery and communist propaganda is probably close to what right-wingers imagine is the end point of something like Safe Schools.
Has an educational resource intended to combat bullying in schools ever gained this much ire? A long-time bugbear of Senator Cory Bernardi, Safe Schools garnered more controversy early in 2016 when certain opinions of one of its co-founders, Roz Ward, were revealed. She claimed the Australian flag was racist and expressed her hope that one day a red communist flag would fly above Parliament House. Those comments, made on a private social media account and leaked to the media, were a gift to Bernardi and certain journalists looking for confirmation of the program’s ‘real’ purpose: left-wing indoctrination. Ward was suspended from her job at La Trobe University, and later reinstated after significant backlash. But not before a barrage of criticism and comment whirled about print, online and social media. The common refrain, at least in the right-wing media, was that teaching children about gender fluidity and some basic tenets of queer theory was a sign of a Marxist conspiracy. If you know a bit about Marxism and a bit about queer theory, this accusation might seem utterly bizarre. Well, it is.
Despite what someone like Bernardi might claim, Marxism and queer theory aren’t exactly bedfellows, but they did share a brief flirtation. It was a flirtation that left more of a mark on queer theory than on Marxism, but barely defines either as they exist today. Generally, the suite of gay rights movements that emerged after the Stonewall Riots were driven more by a will to recognition and representation than by Marx’s thoughts on capital. It is in this context that the origin of the political act of ‘coming out’ to friends, family and wider society emerged. But liberation is almost never unidirectional, it’s often radial. In the mid 1970s, groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Left collective in London organised and produced work attempting to establish the links between sexual oppression and capitalism. Around this time, lesbian separatism gained some traction. An offshoot of feminist separatism, the idea was that patriarchy and heterosexuality were explicitly about the domination of women, and to partake in it was thus endorsing such domination, so lesbian women should socially segregate themselves from straight society, as well as from the gay liberation movement more generally. While some gay activist groups were informed by Marxism, quite a few were varying shades of anarchism, still others were heavily influenced by the remnant counterculture of the 1960s, with its opposition to the ‘squareness’ of mainstream society.
Enter Michel Foucault. In The History of Sexuality, the French philosopher insists the idea of ‘the homosexual’ came into being in the nineteenth century, when medical discourses pathologised homosexual acts into homosexual types:
The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into this total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away … the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.
Foucault suggests medical and psychiatric diagnoses of homosexuality in individuals came to be embraced by those individuals as constituting their being. This, coupled with a variety of social forces, including the widespread urbanisation occurring in the nineteenth century, gradually coalesced into the ‘gay identity’. Though Foucault studied under the influential Marxist–structuralist Louis Althusser, his account in The History of Sexuality is more a response to structuralism than it is to Marxism—to the extent that it’s a response to either. He retains a concern with power relations and how they operate in and structure society, with scant reference to capitalism. The crucial ‘insight’ taken from this influential work was that homosexuality as a state of being did not exist prior to the word entering discourse.
Too bad it’s historically inaccurate. There’s something of a cottage industry in publishing books about the history of homosexuality in art, culture, science and so forth. Many of these extend back further than the nineteenth century, some even go as far back as the ancient world. A Foucauldian would contend that such an imposition of modern ideas of homosexuality onto the past is ahistorical, that while some men and women had sexual relationships with the same gender prior to the nineteenth century’s categorisations, such people would not identify as gay. The mistake they make is to glide conceptually from an idea that categorisations regulate identity to an assertion that they completely define identity. Does anyone truly believe that a so-called ‘sodomite’ or a ‘buggerer’ in the Middle Ages didn’t think of themselves at least partially in such terms? Of course they wouldn’t think of themselves as gay in the modern sense, but their sexual predilections would indeed be part of their self-perception. Not only that, social perceptions of character and personality also attached themselves to certain acts long before the mid nineteenth century.
Consider John Vanbrugh’s play The Relapse (1696), where an obviously homosexual male character comes onto a heterosexual male character. ‘Stand off, old Sodom,’ says the straight character. The gay character replies: ‘Has thou been a year in Italy, and brought home a fool at last? By my conscience, the young fellows of this age profit no more by their going abroad than they do by their going to church.’ This is a clear suggestion of the stereotype of homosexual identity being connected to decadence and cosmopolitanism, long before the ‘homosexual’ entered discourse. It’s not just individuals either. Prior to the nineteenth century, there were many communities of what we’d now consider queer people. The molly-houses of eighteenth-century London were places where men met other men for debauched fun and where a distinctive subculture developed around such practices. Nevertheless, despite these and other examples, the idea that homosexuality as a kind of identity did not exist prior to medical pathologisation persists in queer theory to this day.
This discourse-based approach to sexuality pollinated feminist thinking around gender, notably with Judith Butler’s 1989 book Gender Trouble. For Butler and others, gender is not innate but socially constructed: actions, behaviours, gestures and the clothes we wear are all elements of a performance to maintain a stable gender identity. While Butler has been given credit for popularising this view, it’s an idea that’s been around for centuries. In his 1869 book The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill makes his case against gender as an unfair social force subordinating women in society. Feminists such as Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin and Nancy Chodorow, and biologist Anne Fausto Sterling all came to similar conclusions long before Butler.
Even Plato expressed scepticism about gender as a natural phenomenon. Butler’s rehash of these ideas was different because it was, for want of a better word, cool. Written at the height of postmodernism, Gender Trouble’s prose is allusive, difficult, intertextual. If you can parse the often turgid writing, you come to understand that it’s not what she’s saying that’s revolutionary, but how she’s saying it. In short, it’s all style. And the style is almost unreadable, even for someone accustomed to academic writing. Many of her defenders suggest it’s written this way to deconstruct normative notions of comprehension. How convenient. Butler quotes, paraphrases and alludes to scores of different authors (including Foucault) to come to a conclusion many have made before: gender is a social artifice.
These two streams of thought join together in queer theory’s central contention: that there is no innate sexual or gender identity, they have been imposed on us by social forces. American theorist David Halperin, in what he calls his ‘hagiography’, Saint Foucault, provides one of the most helpful definitions of queer:
As the very word implies, queer does not name some natural kind or refer to some determinate object; it acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. Queer, then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative.
As both an identity category and a critique of identity categories, queer was meant to highlight the contingency of identity itself. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s, groups such as ActUp and OutRage liberally deployed queer as an identifier. It was clear to these activists that static conceptions of sexual and gender identity were not practical in the treatment of and consciousness-raising about HIV. Incidentally, it’s quite ironic that queer theory has since gained a reputation—deserved, in my view—for political ambivalence, given the use of queer as an identifier was popularised in the crucible of such pragmatism.
In academia, queer studies grew increasingly detached from these activist elements, focusing instead on the ways in which art, literature, film and television deconstruct certain stable elements of texts such as genre, narrative and composition. That this sort of scholarship was almost always conducted with recourse to cultural texts is telling. Theorists could complicate notions of a stable, unchanging identity by mapping this persuasion onto the creative industries, which—conveniently enough—are generally quite protean, predisposed constantly to destabilise norms of style and genre. If art didn’t already do this, it would never have progressed from cave paintings.
In his recent essay on Safe Schools and how ‘radical gender theory’ has ‘hijacked’ Marxism, Guy Rundle likens the political myopia of queer theorists who work with texts and ideas to the ‘bourgeois who employs 80 people and calls himself a “self-made man”’. While containing many such delightfully pointed jabs, this essay drew significant criticism, the most constructive of which was Benjamin Riley and Simon Copland’s response in Overland. The crux of their disagreement with Rundle is that he conflates queer theory with identity politics, and that on the contrary, queer theory is about deconstructing the idea of identity itself. This is in line with Halperin’s position and that of most queer theorists, if not all of them.
The problem with this line of thought is queer theory has never properly rid itself of identity politics. It can’t, because queerness is an identity category and queer theory is the official hermeneutics for this identity category. As we’ve seen, queerness is positioned as anti-normative and anti-essentialist; it denies deterministic or biological notions of identity. Sexuality and gender are always already capitulating to social power and discourse because we can’t express them in any other way but socially and communicatively. Hence there are no essential characteristics of sexual and gender identity. Let us leave aside the growing body of research that might contradict this doctrine, and recognise the fact that it is a doctrine. And that in such a doctrine we have an unintentional admission of the essence of queerness.
So while queer theory is certainly incoherent and paradoxical, it is not anti-essentialist. Nor is it quite essentialist in the same way as other fields of enquiry: queer theorists are ardently uninterested in genetic, endocrinological, anthropological or neuroscientific research, probably because such knowledge would complicate their own doctrinal ideas about sex and gender. Rundle and other critics are probably confusing queer theory with identity politics because queer theory is confused about its own capitulation to the logic of identity politics.
By now you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with Marxism. Intellectually, queer theory is some distance from Capital or The Communist Manifesto. You may quibble with the idea that capitalism and its class structures are inherently unstable and will eventually have to be replaced with a system that is more equitable for all, but how does such an idea mesh up with queer theory? Not easily. We can see a shadow of Marx in the commitment to address oppressive power relations (transmitted through the structuralist training that informed Foucault), but that’s about it. So why does this association persist in the unhinged fever dreams of our conservatariat? The answer is a conspiracy theory called ‘cultural Marxism’.
The term ‘cultural Marxism’ has recently proliferated in the aftermath of the ‘Gamergate’ controversy, but it’s been around for a while. The concept underpins much post–Cold War conservative commentary. In Australia and abroad, it binds grievances about ‘political correctness’, feminism, ethnic minority rights and gay rights into a coherent narrative of left-wing subversion. Like most conspiracy theories, historical and social realities are cherry picked and framed in such a way as to buttress its own conclusions. And like most conspiracy theories, its adherents exist on a spectrum of paranoia. At the lower end of the spectrum, we have bloggers, journalists or commentators content merely to ‘ask questions’ of ‘liberal elites’ (apparently these people are unaware of the theoretical distinctions between liberalism and Marxism), while more deranged adherents truly believe a shadowy group of communist illuminati is undermining social norms in a concerted effort to obliterate Western civilisation.
This evil plot is attributed to the Frankfurt School, a group of (mostly Jewish) Marxist thinkers who fled Europe for the United States in the interwar period. Scholars such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Hebert Marcuse pursued different interests and topics, but most of them were critical of both Western capitalist society and Soviet Communism. Much of their research sought to explain why the working classes in Western society had failed to overthrow capitalism, as prophesied by Marx. The answer was usually culture. Much of what came to be known as ‘critical theory’ suggested that capitalist class structures maintain their hold on Western society because of cultural forces such as the mass media. In simple terms: popular culture is dumb and keeps us distracted so we don’t revolt against the way things are.
It was a distinctly anti-utopian Marxism, suggesting Western culture had been far too entangled with capitalist economic structures for a revolution ever to arrive. In a way, they anticipated Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’, albeit approaching the subject from a different vector. While some of their arguments were insightful, a lot of these Marxists were very gloomy and resigned. As philosopher Karl Popper writes in his stinging critique of the Frankfurt School’s fatalism, ‘Marx’s theory contains the promise of a better future. But the theory becomes vacuous and irresponsible if this promise is withdrawn.’
The Frankfurt School’s pessimistic view that revolution is impossible is one of many factors that makes the cultural Marxism conspiracy so laughable. If the alleged architects of a plot to bring down Western civilisation don’t believe in Marx’s promise to reshape civilisation, why are they employing Marx to bring about this radical reshaping of civilisation? Perhaps their negativity about the possibility of revolution was an act? Or perhaps, like the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, they just ‘want to watch the world burn’? Of course, we should never expect a conspiracy theory to make complete sense. If it did make complete sense, it would probably be true. Nevertheless, it caught on, pushed along mostly by ultra-right-wing figures in the United States such as Walter S. Lind and Pat Buchanan. For them, the rise of political correctness, gay characters on television and a general subversion of traditional values is all attributable to these cultural Marxists. The disintegration of US (and broadly Western) society is the aim. It all has a whiff of the fabricated anti-Semitic tract the Protocols of the Elders of Zion about it; both this and the cultural Marxism theory depict Jewish elites planning to undermine the culture so they can take over the world. The anti-Jewish factor is not always apparent in cultural Marxism, but it definitely had a formative influence on the theory.
Cultural Marxism is a bogeyman, a catch-all for disparate social phenomena that apparently undermine conservative values. That obscure Marxist thinkers are blamed for the disintegration of conservative family values and not, say, rampant capitalism and its cultural and economic effects, helps illustrate some of the dynamics at play in conservatism’s contemporary fractures. We’ve seen it in Brexit in Britain, Trump’s ascendancy in the United States, and in Australia’s recent election, where Malcolm Turnbull is caught in a pincer movement between Cory Bernardi’s much threatened separatism from the LNP and Pauline Hanson’s re-emergence.
Culture wars are helpful in papering over the contradictions in political movements and groups. Cory Bernardi’s brand of conservatism sees an enemy in someone like Roz Ward, who, for all her dreams of a sickle-and-hammer flag flying above Parliament House, developed a program in line with the orthodoxies of liberalism. The idea of the autonomous, self-defining individual is a cornerstone of conservative thinking until it clashes with other, more traditional ideas about family and children, then it is ‘culturally relativist Marxist identity politics’. Funny how the conservatives who take this line fail to realise that in doing so they’re often engaging in their own brand of identity politics. From this perspective, conservatives are everywhere under siege by left-wing elites in the media, schools and in our august institutions.
What conservatives and queer theorists have in common is a hypocritical dismissal of identity politics even as they engage vigorously in the politics of identity. Queer theory might be a bit more equivocal and intellectual about it, but it’s just as wedded to identity as conservatism. Maybe they could both do with a bit more thinking in the vein of Marx. Or at least more consideration of history, structural dynamics and intellectual honesty.
The late queer thinker José Esteban Muñoz formulated probably the best description of queerness. By his estimation, ‘we have never been queer’. What he means is queerness is always to come, since as soon as we describe it, we attribute essential characteristics to it. But if we think about it as a horizon of possibility, we can work towards a world that will one day be queer. Muñoz reconsiders queer as a utopian project, and there’s wisdom in that.
Politics must necessarily be about hope for a future, whether or not that future will arrive. Both conservative and queer identity politics seem fixated on the past, what’s been done by their adherents and to them. This kind of political thinking seems so hollow because it has no guiding idea of the future it wants to create. Conservatives think the best future is a return to the past; queer theorists think the best future is an illusion. We lose something crucial when we give up the aspiration for a better world. Even if you don’t buy into the specifics of his analysis, Marx was onto something quite primordial, and it wasn’t relativism. It was hope.