Has capitalism done as much for gays as Pride?


Today the fortieth Gay Pride march takes place in London. I have a natural sympathy with protest movements and as a particularly striking and long-lived one, the gay pride movement has much to be proud of. It has, at the very least, encouraged millions of people in the West to feel comfortable about expressing sexual feelings that were, for most of the last century, subject to legal and cultural restrictions of a kind that now seem all but unimaginable. Reflecting on early chants from marches in the 1970s, Peter Tatchell says today in the Guardian:

Some of the slogans we shouted were particularly memorable: “2, 4, 6, 8! Gay is just as good as straight! 3, 5, 7, 9! Lesbians are mighty fine!” These were revolutions in consciousness, which went against the grain of virtually all of human history that designated queers as bad, sad and mad.

Let’s pass over the extravagant claim that ‘virtually all of human history’ has demonized homosexuals – a concept that only emerged in human history in the late nineteenth century. What I am more interested to wonder about is the extent to which Gay Pride has genuinely contributed to a ‘revolution in consciousness’.

I remember being a kid of about 10 or 11 in County Durham (this was the late 1980s), with regular appearances of Julian Clary on telly, reports of annual pride marches, and so on, all attracting the same conservative response from the adults around me: ‘these people are not simply not normal: they’re wicked, corrupting, horrible people’. This was a society in which it was perfectly normal for a family friend to say to me ‘You can bring home whoever you like, as long as it’s not a man!’, and there can be little doubt that the presence of openly gay figures in the mass media posed a challenge to that consciousness. But its effect on me, and I am sure many thousands of others, was not to liberate but to oppress. The freedom on show at Gay Pride events was, and to a much lesser extent these days remains, the freedom of people who are already pretty free.

I could not march in London. I could not live in London. I could not live, in economic and cultural independence, anywhere. The freedom I saw expressed in news reports seemed to me not unlike a huge list of economic and cultural freedoms enjoyed by people in other (more southerly, richer) parts of the country, who went to different (private, better achieving, better connected) schools than mine, who spoke with (posher, less comical) accents than mine, and so on. As I wondered about where I fitted on the approved list of sexualities (a list I still thought made some sense, at the time), I did not feel welcomed or encouraged at all by the state of gay protest in the 1980s. Quite the contrary: by making the expression of a non-heteronormative sexuality even more toxic, and making the people around me express their disapproval of it in such forceful terms, it seemed to me that the gay pride movement’s most striking achievement was to wake up my local surroundings to forms of human subjectivity that they weren’t aware of before, but might have been more likely to accept if they simply saw it expressed in me. The freedom of the marchers or the camp telly personalities seemed to redouble the pressure on me to conform. I was a nice boy; I would never be accepted if I became one of these monstrous individuals.

The same East Durham town I grew up in has a different feel these days. I’m not sure it’s possible for two men to walk down the street holding hands, and if it is possible for women it is only because it plays into the misogynist–heteronormative fantasy of ‘lesbians putting on a show for men’s pleasure’. Yet there is more acceptance. Same-sex couples cohabit visibly. There are gay nights in pubs in towns only a dozen miles away (not just only, as it used to be, in bigger cities like Newcastle). It certainly isn’t Shangri-La but a lot of the culturally conservative attitudes about sexuality have been moderated. Consciousness has been, to an extent, revolutionized. Did Gay Pride do that?

Actually, I think not. Elsewhere in the Guardian intervew I’ve already mentioned, Julie Bindel says some reflective things. In response to the interviewer’s question ‘Do you see Pride as a fundamentally conservative and mainstream event now, Julie? This is the criticism levelled at the movement for gay marriage, too.’, she says:

David Cameron said: ‘I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative, I support it because I’m a conservative’ – never a truer word has been said. It is the most conservative struggle we could adopt. But while I’m critical of us wasting time on it – hasn’t it brought the nasty, bigoted homophobes out of the woodwork, too? I think Pride has become both wildly hedonistic and a deeply conservative movement, with its message of “please tolerate us”. I don’t want tolerance, I want liberation.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the conservatism of gay marriage. But this tension Bindel pinpoints between tolerance and liberation reveals something of the complexity of what has brought about an improvement in conditions for gay people in the West. She is right to observe not only that the drive for gay marriage contributes to the maintenance of heterosexual marriage, and is thus anti-feminist, but also that the desire to become part of a ‘normal’, stable, legalized, even religiously blessed once-for-ever romantic union is a deeply conservative thing for politically active gay people – once paragons of resistance and protest – to strive for. Tatchell too bemoans the ‘commercialization’ of Gay Pride in recent years, though it’s a commercialization he thinks can be counteracted.

But the welding together of this thing called ‘gay identity’ – the monstrous social excrescence that made my early teenage years such a secretive hell – and the need to express it through the mediation of certain specially selected commodities is the thing that, by bringing together Gay Pride and the inventiveness of capitalism, has, I suggest, produced the most significant change in consciousness. Except, of course, that it is no change in consciousness at all, ultimately: it is just an expansion of an already existing consciousness.

What Gay Pride offered at first was indeed a provocation. ‘Yes, we’re repellent, but we’re not going away, and nor need we. Your society of good manners and people knowing their place is intolerable and intolerant. It must pass. We will destroy you.’ Such truly revolutionary sentiments, a faithful response to the truth claims of emancipation for people who wish to express non-normative sexuality (whatever that might mean), were inevitably met by a strong reaction. The movement for gay marriage removes in a single gesture any claim that gay rights activists might have for seeking a revolution of the social order. The call instead is a reactive response: ‘We don’t want to overturn the dependence on traditional marriage as the basis for human social organization. We just want to slightly change the definition so that two women or two men can form such units. This will be a slightly different world but still recognizably the old one. People now have even less choice about joining in the marriage system, since whether they want to do it with the same or the other sex, they must do it.’

But Gay Pride, and the increased visibility of openly gay entertainers and public figures, also generated something of much more immediate use to capital: the association of the sexuality, and particularly I think gay male sexuality (though gay female sexuality too is partly governed by the same forces), with certain commodified expressions. Somehow it became accepted as incontrovertible fact that gay men must shop more, preen themselves more, be more sensitive about colours and fabrics, about what they eat, how they gym-tone their bodies, and so on, than straight men. The sexual identity, whose only distinguishing feature from normative sexuality is its preference for different sexual acts, has become entirely mediated by what individuals must eat or wear, what music they must buy, and so on. Homosexuality has, in short, become a marketing possibility. Hence the commercialization of Gay Pride that Tatchell disdains.

Yet by creating an economic space in which gay people can perform their ‘normal’ function as consumers, and indeed show their sophisticated understanding of the West’s dependence on senseless accumulation by buying more, and more discerningly than their straight compatriots, the commodification of sexuality has arguably done more to detoxify homosexuality than Gay Pride could ever do alone. Being gay is a new ‘normal’ not only in the sense that one of its most pressing contemporary calls is for a new form of conservative marriage, but in the sense that, as shoppers, gay people have found a way to become what Capital wants them to become: comfortably interpellated as a novelty space within the totality of commodity production and consumption. Society understands and approves purchase and the aspiration to own goods that ‘express oneself’ – i.e. do our subjective formation for us. By finding a niche, even boys and girls growing up in County Durham surely have a lifeline today that is more helpful to them than Gay Pride alone could offer.

But the sad conclusion is that the new freedom, based on endless consumption, is merely a new oppression, albeit to a slightly different master, the judgement of Capital rather than just cultural attitudes. To fight against this oppression, the gay rights movement needs some radical new ideas.

Killing Margaret Thatcher twice

Mrs Thatcher leaving Downing Street

I can’t be the first person to think that Margaret Thatcher is a bit like Caesar. Both greatly exceeded the acceptable limits of personal political power and both ultimately got it in the neck – Caesar fatally, Thatcher only insofar as she was ousted from no. 10. But what happened next is, in both cases, the really interesting part. The result of the murder of Caesar was the institution of caesarism (with the first caesar, i.e. Roman emperor, Augustus); the result of the eviction of Thatcher was the institution of Thatcherism, a politico-economic system we have endured since 1990 and which will deal its fiercest ever blows in 2011, thanks to Cameron and Osborne, who are proud to call themselves her children. We might call this theory of the dialectical progress of history the Obi-Wan Kenobi Principle, expressed in his maxim:

If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine. Continue reading Killing Margaret Thatcher twice

Violence against women, protestors, and the poor (we’re all in this together)

The ‘peace’ of our society in Great Britain is sustained by immediately obvious but psychologically suppressed violence. Although this violence manifests itself in various ways, the link between its different forms is in the structure of the violence itself, which is a support for the fantasy of the very ‘peace’ we fetishize. One form that the ongoing investigation into the murder of Jo Yeates brings into focus is violence against women. In the wake of the release without charge of a suspect in that case, Chief Superintendent John Stratford of Avon and Somerset Police issued a statement.

I can understand why the public in the local and wider Bristol area have concerns for their safety at the current time. Whoever killed Joanna remains at large. However, I want to reassure the public that at this time there is no specific intelligence or information to suggest an increased threat to their safety. Naturally, we ask the public to take the usual safety precautions. Women should avoid walking home alone after dark, householders should try to keep their premises secure and just take care when answering the door to strangers.

Continue reading Violence against women, protestors, and the poor (we’re all in this together)

Snow, Santa, Topshop, UKuncut, and capital

UKUncut by Avril Kelly

The latest UKuncut protests have been going on this afternoon, closing Topshops and other malfeasants in 50 or so cities across the UK. The liberal left is of course entirely supportive both in print and in person. On the first weekend in December even Polly Toynbee turned up to protest at Topshop for the first time, and wrote approvingly of the quality of the targeting in the Guardian a few days later. Continue reading Snow, Santa, Topshop, UKuncut, and capital

The impossibility of defending police terror

The first comment anyone contributed to this blog is a useful demonstration of the poverty of imagination in our public conversation. I had suggested that police on horses terrified quivering civilians.

Are these the same ‘quivering civilians’ that broke that police woman’s arm? Or the ones that decimated a police van? The police were keeping a distance until the vandalism started, weren’t they? And I have to say that I’m not surprised that they were a little more heavy-handed, given what happened at Millbank two weeks ago. Continue reading The impossibility of defending police terror

Police violence and horses

Laurie Penny’s blogpost on yesterday’s police kettling in Whitehall, and even more the video of a moment when police horses advanced on peaceful crowds who showed no visible signs of being about to riot, focus the issue of police violence, the obscene complement of our politics. The violence of the police, horrible as it is, is nothing more than the hidden, disavowed obverse of government by the band of self-supporting cutthroats we elected in May.

The natural response in the light of this police violence, voiced by many people on Twitter, in blogs, and elsewhere, is shock and revulsion. The tactic of moving huge, powerful, and forbidding animals at crowds of kettled civilians, is an outrage. Griping comments like the following, posted on the Liberal Conspiracy webpage that is hosting the video, utterly miss the point: Continue reading Police violence and horses

Student occupations, John Lewis, and the externalization of belief

I heard earlier today that a student I teach is occupying the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford (the student website is here). I was driving a car at the time I heard, so I couldn’t jump for joy, but my heart swelled with pride. In the university at which I teach full-time, they’ve been occupying the Founder’s Building and set up a webcam to display their peaceful protest (see their website).

These excellent students stand in solidarity with thousands at more than a dozen universities across the country who are protesting not just against the proposed rise in tuition fees, the cutting of the Education Maintenance Allowance, and the evisceration of the funding model for higher education, but in general against all the cuts that the ConDem government is visiting on the country – cuts that disproportionately hit the poor, sick, and otherwise vulnerable. There is no economic case for the cuts; they are simply being pushed through as a continuing consequence of an ideological shift that took place a generation ago, when the fall of Communism brought with it, mostly unacknowledged, the death of social democracy. (David Wearing provides a nice analysis here; Žižek’s New Left Review piece from this August is a more substantial piece: read it here.) Continue reading Student occupations, John Lewis, and the externalization of belief