| For a Queer Feminist Class Politics of Shame

Oktober 2017  Druckansicht    Druckansicht
by Volker Woltersdorff

It’s rather curious. A book in which the author, Didier Eribon (2013a), vehemently demonstrates that we always also experience class relations sexually, and that there is a class dimension inherent to every form of sexuality – indeed, that without this interrelation, one is not able to consider one thing nor the other – unexpectedly becomes a bestseller. The enthusiastic German reviews – with the exception of that by Dirck Linck (2016) in Merkur – overwhelmingly act once again as if one can be separated from the other. Often enough, they degrade the author’s homosexuality to the status of a footnote to a class analysis untouched by it. Yet the author himself asserts that shame is the mode of functioning of both sexual and class-specific stigmatization.[1] Why does that not lead to sounding out the sexual dimension of shaming in the countless professions of class-specific shaming following the publication of the book? Why are, initiated by Mark Lilla’s (2016) intervention, the “social question” and “identity politics” once again treated as two separate political issues that are either regarded as equally valid, or subordinated one to the other, according to the assessment of each respective review? Whose identity politics are being understood here as a legitimate social and economic interest, and whose social and economic needs are considered special wishes for a particular lifestyle? To put it another way: shouldn’t it have long been made clear that the point cannot be struggling for either bread or roses, but rather that we want bread and roses?

Historically, the mutual disinterest between sexual and gender emancipation struggles and class politics was not as pronounced as it is today. “Bread and roses” was the demand raised during a strike by textile workers from various immigrant communities at the beginning of the last century in the USA. It was later set to music as a protest song, whereby the roses stood for all those needs that weren’t limited to securing material survival, including the desire for dignity, recognition, and (joie de vivre) lust for life. That’s why this song is sung in a scene of the film Pride (GB 2014), which commemorates the common struggles of striking mine workers and gays and lesbians in Great Britain during the Thatcher era of the 1980s.

Brüder & Schwestern warm oder nicht, Kapitalismus bekämpfen ist unsere Pflicht!” – “Brothers and sisters, queer or not, fighting capitalism is our obligation!” This slogan was emblazoned on a cardboard sign held by the sexologist and pioneer of the gay movement, Martin Dannecker, at the first nationwide demonstration by homosexuals in Münster on April 29th, 1972. The then-emerging second (West) German gay movement engaged in many discussions concerning the correct interpretation of Marxism with regard to the homosexual question, but remained stewing in its own, rather student-influenced, bourgeois juices. It’s therefore hardly surprising that it lost sight of the class question when the spirit of the times no longer hit it over the head with it. At most, proletarians remained present as icons of gay desire, and as such became increasingly distant from the reality of class relations, because their being fetishized in the sexuality of bourgeois gays is often enough not only an expression of fascination, but also of contempt, similar to the fetishization of racist clichés.

Coming Together in a Different Way: Crossover – Classover?

Of course there were always people who brought their own class experiences into the movements for sexual emancipation, such as the “Homosexuelle Arbeiteraktion Westberlin”, HAAW (“Homosexual Workers’ Action, West Berlin), in the 1970s, the self-assertion of “Prolo-Lesbos” in the FRG of the 1980s, or the group “Queers for Economic Justice” in the USA of the 2010s. Their marginal position within the movement as a whole shows, however, that even there, the reigning class relations were those of society as a whole.

But at least subcultures of sexual and gender non-conformists, which used to be much less differentiated, allowed people to encounter each other beyond the limits of class much more than is the case today. I also probably wouldn’t have stepped out of my own educated middle-class bubble if I hadn’t one day perforce set foot in the gay subculture, just as Eribon in turn describes how this subculture paved his way into the bourgeoisie. But in contrast to Eribon, for me it took quite a while until I was able to interpret this experience of social differences as the expression of a structural relation of domination. My erotic desire was not a hindrance in that regard. The difficulties began elsewhere, for example, in trying to find a common language. I had to learn that my language, my being-in-the-world, had something intimidating, something alien, that caused our distance to increase. I had to learn to call my standards and expectations into question and to accept that class is a structural category that cannot be dissolved or transcended individually.

If the gay subculture contained for me and others a special possibility of experiencing class antagonisms, that doesn’t mean that sexuality otherwise plays no role in the experience of class. One need only think of the close connection between labor union struggles and working class masculinity and therefore also of the interests of those who best embody the latter. Or the link between notions of femininity and the role of the bourgeois housewife. But family and kinship are also magnitudes that do not remain untouched by class domination in capitalism. Friedrich Engels, as the heir of a factory who lived in a love triangle with two female workers, had already asserted this in his treatise on the family and private property, and this estimation has been refined ever since in many feminist analyses. Struggles for the equality of unmarried with married relationships have also always been struggles around inheritance and wealth, not just for recognition.

Sexual and Gender Diversity in Neoliberalism

Whereas class antagonisms have multiplied and intensified under neoliberal capitalism, during the same period policies for sexual and gender emancipation have had considerable success. This has led to a further widening of the rift between sexual and class politics. After initial difficulties, it has started to look like sexual and gender diversity were well-served within capitalism after 1968. Their emancipation was the result of struggle, not merely given, but they found forms that were able to be well-integrated into the “new spirit of capitalism” (Boltanski/Chiapello 2005) and presumably for that reason were so successful. The neoliberal transformation of society promoted namely “more risky” lifestyles, which were pushed to the margins in the Fordist welfare state, with its rigid gender and sexual order, and which could now be instrumentalized as models of individual private risk management. Those who could afford it profited from the flexibilization and precarization of conditions of work and life, and could implement more idiosyncratic lifestyles. In contrast, the rigidity of heteronormative identities can guarantee an alleged security for some, if they experience their flexibilization exclusively as insecurity and the loss of privileges. Thus Christine Wimbauer, Mona Motakef, and Julia Teschlade (2015) have observed that precisely those adversely affected or threatened by precarization nurture a strong affinity for hostile attitudes toward equal oportunities. This constellation favors a perception in broad swathes of the population that tolerance of sexual and gender diversity is a project of neoliberal elites.

So under neoliberalism, inequality and insecurity co-opt diversity, which means that differences legitimize and naturalize unequal treatment. This is demonstrated in an exemplary manner by so-called diversity management. Under this label, many large international corporations have among other things made the agenda of sexual diversity their own. There is nothing objectionable about the recognition of diversity among co-workers and customers, but this pluralism of identities does not occur in a space empty of power relations. Diversity management becomes problematic when difference legitimizes inequality, an inequality shown when difference is reified, misused, and exploited. Usually that amounts to the reproduction of clichés that are praised when they pay off.

That these victories of the LGBTIQ movement were victories poisoned by neoliberalism is demonstrated precisely now, when within the queer community and feminism new lines of conflicts have broken out concerning social privileges around the status of racialization, gender conformity, citizenship, or cultural belonging. The beneficiaries of the politics of emancipation of the last few decades have primarily been those who were already privileged. New Right discourses attempt to defend this inequality by deploying the (supposed) tolerance of homosexuals as a defense against attacks upon the privileges of the majority society. In conflicts over privileges, however, class privileges are hardly focused upon. Correspondingly, class as a category is not even present in neoliberal human resource management concepts of “managing diversity”. This social difference can namely only be valorized through exploitation, not recognition. In the future, our concern should therefore be clearly naming and, where appropriate, intensifying class conflicts within equality policies, movements for emancipation, and minorities such as the queer community. Although the critique of power inequalities is currently being denounced as an attack upon the unity of the community in increasingly difficult times, urgent questions must be posed: which material and social inequalities are being normalized in the predominant sexual and gender politics of emancipation, if private property and educational privileges drive access to new emancipatory achievements? Why are only neoliberal success stories of media interest when reporting on gays, lesbians, and trans*? The questions directed at the predominant strategies of social struggles should not be any less uncomfortable: how much is sexual and gender idiosyncrasy regarded as a (decadent) luxury that should not play any role in these struggles? Which relations of domination remain unconsidered in the nostalgic desire for a return to an earlier welfare state?

Seeing Differently: Multi-Dimensional Analysis

In order to avoid these mutual omissions, queer-feminist scholars and activists have developed various perspectives on gender and sexuality with which relations of class, labor, and exploitation can be recognized and described as belonging together. With the concepts of “emotional”, “sexual”, or “gender” labor, they’ve expanded the view of the demands of labor and the spectrum of exploitation. Although the sphere of labor is regarded as de-emotionalized and sober, we are nonetheless involved in labor with our entire personality, and that includes intimacy and sexuality and our feelings. For example, Arlie Hochschild (1983) and Rosemary Pringle (1989) have shown how flight attendants and secretaries are expected to bring a certain notion of heterosexual femininity to their labor, the surplus value of which can be siphoned off: the willingness to engage in discreet flirtation, emotional sensitivity and endurance, and all of this together with a splendid appearance. But less traditional sexual and gender identities can also be part of a more or less openly stated assignment profile, precisely where workers are expected to involve themselves with their entire personality. Brigitta Kuster and Renate Lorenz (2007) therefore speak of “sexual labor” in order to mark this particular labor expenditure, which is otherwise invisible as a personal contribution, since it’s regarded as a “private matter” which supposedly has nothing to do with the world of work.

The keyword “precarization” has been tossed into the discussion about new phenomena in class relations by various political and intellectual movements. In its intersectional usage, this term describes the unequal distribution of insecurity and vulnerability, which can have very different reasons and dimensions, whether those are, for example, employment contracts, living conditions, or residency status. This multi-dimensionality opens up many points of access and could and can therefore – in the past and in the future – spur broad social alliances. An understanding of class politics complicated in this way is in my view appropriate in order to react to the contemporary situation of class relations, in which it is increasingly difficult and politically decreasingly desirable to establish the “unity” of the working class, since this unity would distort the underlying diversity. Not least against the background of the global division of labor and labor migration, Western states exhibit a contradictory simultaneity of privileging and de-privileging.

Most intersectional approaches repeat the mantra of “race, class, gender”, but the examination of class in most analyses remains rather thin. That’s all the more astonishing given that racist and sexist relations go hand-in-hand with the exploitation and reproduction of subalternity and social downgrading. So what could a class politics look like in which other struggles against domination are concurrent and coequal?

Struggling Another Way: For a Queer-Feminist Class Politics of Shame

Alongside fear and anger, which currently motivate political protest across the political spectrum, shame could be a driving force for an intersectional class politics, a class politics that describes class not just abstractly, but as the concrete experience of sexualized, gendered, racialized, handicapped, stigmatized, used, discarded, or even still abled beings. The reason being, shame is the feeling with which individuals react to the experience of social exclusion and devaluation, with which they are all too often left alone. Transforming shame into anger and pride was the goal of various movements of emancipation – from the women’s movement to the Black movement as well as the gay and disabled movements, including the labor movement. Shame is the reaction to poverty as well as the experience of not meeting expectations, and is therefore the lived reality of many people affected by discrimination. Shame cuts so much to the quick that it inevitably touches upon sexuality, even if its occasion perhaps has nothing to do with sexuality. We have to approach this shame, since it prevents us from changing conditions. Shame robs us of the language with which we can name and judge the violence of these conditions. That’s why the feeling of shame makes a political reaction so difficult, because shame leads to breaking off social contacts, whereas on the contrary, it’s precisely a new commonality that’s needed in order to organize a counter-power. A class politics of shame must therefore first of all enable speaking about shame, creating inviting conditions that don’t, as is usually the case, make a repetition of shaming probable, or which seek to prematurely abandon shame in favor of anger and pride, as often occurred in traditional class struggles. Part of this is the readiness to recognize our own shaming in the shame of others, or at least recognizing the latter and allowing ourselves to be infected by it. Otherwise, we risk dividing possible commonalities once again along the lines of imposed domination, just like Eribon’s gay shame and class shame were separated.

Translation by Alexander Locascio

References

Boltanski, Luc/Chiapello, Ève, 2005: The New Spirit of Capitalism, London/New York (French 1999)

Eribon, Didier, 2013a: Returning to Reims, Los Angeles (French 2009)

Eribon, Didier, 2013b: La Société comme verdict: Classes, identités, trajectoires, Paris

Hochschild, Arlie Russell, 1983: The Managed Heart. Commercialization of Human Feeling, Berkeley

Kuster, Brigitta/Lorenz, Renate, 2007: sexuell arbeiten. eine queere perspektive auf arbeit und prekäres leben, Berlin

Lilla, Mark, 2016: The End of Identity Liberalism, in: The New York Times, Nov. 18, www. nytimes.com/2016//11/20/opinion/Sunday/the-end-of-identity-liberalism.html

Linck, Dirck, 2016: Die Politisierung der Scham. Didier Eribons “Rückkehr nach Reims”, in: Merkur 9, www.merkur-zeitschrift.de/2016/09/01/die-politisierung-der-scham-didier-eribons-rueckkehr-nach-reims/

Pringle, Rosemary, 1989: Secretaries talk – Sexuality, Power, and Work, New York/London

Wimbauer, Christine et al., 2015: Neun prekarisierungstheoretische Thesen zu Diskursen gegen Gleichstellungspolitik und Geschlechterforschung, in: Hark, Sabine/Villa, Paula-Irene (Hg.), Anti-Genderismus: Sexualität und Geschlecht als Schauplätze aktueller politischer Auseinandersetzungen, Bielefeld, pp.41–57

Note

[1]    In his two volumes of essay following Returning to Reims, not yet published in English or German, Eribon further develops this analysis (see Eribon 2013b, pp.15-92).