Posted by: Dan | August 15, 2008

Capitalism and Homosexuality

In certain Left-leaning Christian circles, it is not uncommon to hear the claim that the current attention being given to homosexuality, is due to the ways in which capitalism impacts our self-perception. Capitalism, so this argument goes, leads us to treat our bodies as yet another commodity. Consequently, forms of sexuality that were previously considered immoral are now treated as amoral markets open for consumers. To quote Žižek once again (a frequent dialogue partner these days), the assertion is made that ‘capitalism tends to replace standard normative heterosexuality with a proliferation of unstable shifting identities and/or orientations’ (In Defense of Lost Causes, 435). Of course, the conclusion that is drawn by the Christians who make this sort of argument is that resisting homosexuality is part and parcel of our resistance to capitalism.

I would like to challenge this argument, for I believe that it is overly simplistic and, therefore, misconstrues the relationship between capitalism and homosexuality.

What is we need in order to understand the relationship between capitalism and homosexuality is a more complex understanding of capitalism itself. Specifically, we need to ensure that we retain the tensions inherent to capitalism that are posited by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

About a year ago, not knowing much about Deleuze and Guattari (except that they were quoted by some of my favourite contemporary theologians), I decided to sit down and work my way through Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus (in retrospect, this probably wasn’t the easiest way to become familiar with these authors, and I found a great deal of assistance in Brian Massumi’s ‘user’s guide’ to this series). As I fought to understand what Deleuze and Guattari were talking about, one of the things I struggled with the most was their understanding of capitalism. In some passages, they seemed to speak very highly of it, in other passages they seemed totally opposed to it. It was only after some time that I realised that this was because Deleuze and Guattari were expressing a view of capitalism that was more nuanced that a good many on the left (take Naomi Klein as an example) and a good many on the right (say Friedman and Fukuyama).

Thus, on the one hand, Deleuze and Guattari argue that capitalism is a positive development because it reveals that a good many things that were previously considered ‘natural’ were, in actuality, ideological constructs that were used (amongst other things) to sustain unequal distributions of power within society. Hence, capitalism demystifies a good many of the ‘norms’ we take for granted, and demonstrates that they are exploitative human constructs (what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as ‘overcodings’).

However, on the other hand, Deleuze and Guattari demonstrate the ways in which capitalism betrays itself, and functions as an hegemonic movement, which forcefully inscribes a monetary form of ‘overcoding’ into all aspects of life and transforms desire into a reactive, disciplined force (rather than allowing it to continue on as the productive and creative force that it truly is). Consequently, while noting the positive aspects of capitalism — which demonstrate, in a properly Marxist fashion, that the seeds for the destruction of capitalism are inherent to capitalism itself — Deleuze and Guattari are ultimately interested in moving beyond capitalism (for, as Deleuze once said in an interview on this topic: ‘Capital, or money, is at such a level of insanity that psychiatry has but one clinical equivalent: the terminal stage’).

Now, the significance of this more nuanced understanding of capitalism is that it prevents us from being able to simply relate something to capitalism, and then brush it off as negative, immoral, or perverse. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, many Left-leaning Christians do precisely this (this is especially evident amongst the new-ish Christian Left that is emerging from Evangelicalism). Stated simply, they argue: (1) contemporary homosexuality is connected to capitalism; (2) capitalism is bad; therefore, (3) homosexuality is bad.

However, the counter-argument could be made that homosexuality, and the heightened attention currently being given to this subject, is actually one of the positive outworkings of capitalism. Thus, rather than reading the heightened attention being given to homosexuality as a sign of the commodification of our bodies and the loss of a stable identity, the current attention being given to homosexuality can be read as a manifestation of the ways in which capitalism has revealed the artificial ideological aspect of prior ‘norms’ and judgements regarding that which is said to be ‘natural’. It reveals how prior standards of heterosexuality were simply an exploitative power-play rooted, not in nature, but in the desire to dominate others.

The lesson to be learned in all of this is that those of us who wish to resist capitalism must ensure that we have a properly nuanced understanding thereof, lest we end up rejecting that which we should be affirming, or affirming that which we should be rejecting.

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