Capitalism and Heterosexism: Butler & Fraser

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sat Jul 11 02:00:38 PDT 1998

Have you guys read the exchange between Judith Butler ("Merely Cultural") and Nancy Fraser ("Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism: A Response to Judith Butler") in _New Left Review_ (227 + 228) and _Social Text_ (Fall/Winter 1997)? When Doug posted on the exchange, here and on other lists, only the question of 'what is left conservatism?' got addressed. However, their essays pose what seems to me to be equally (if not more) important questions: what is the nature of heterosexism? How is it linked to capitalism? How do we 'synergize' struggles for anti-heterosexism and socialism?

To clarify the common ground between Butler and Fraser, both argue for the importance of fighting both capitalism and heterosexism. Both are critical of the left conservative drift. For instance, Butler writes:

In Fraser's recent book _Justice Interruptus, she rightly notes that "in the United States today, the expression 'identity politics' is increasingly used as a derogatory term for feminism, anti-racism, and anti-heterosexism. She insists that such movements have everything to do with social justice and argues that any leftist movement must respond to their challenges. (P. 39 in NLR; p. 270 in ST)

What they disagree on is how to conceptualize the linkage between capitalism and heterosexism. Butler argues:

Nevertheless, she [Fraser] reproduces the division that locates certain oppressions as part of political economy and relegates others to the exclusively cultural sphere. Positing a spectrum that spans political economy and culture, she situates lesbian and gay struggles at the cultural end of this political spectrum. Homophobia, she argues, has no roots in political economy, because homosexuals occupy no distinctive position in the division of labor, are distributed throughout the class structure, and do not constitute an exploited class. "[T]he injustice they suffer is quintessentially a matter of recognition" (17-18), she claims.... (P. 39 in NLR; p. 270 in ST)

Drawing on Marx (e.g. _The German Ideology_), Engels (_The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State_), and socialist feminists, Butler argues for an expansive conception of the material that includes reproduction of persons, genders, and the 'heterosexual normative family":

many of the feminist arguments during that time [the 70s and the 80s] sought not only to identify the family as part of the mode of production, but to show how the very production of gender had to be understood as part of the "production of human beings themselves [in Engels's words]," according to norms that reproduced the heterosexually normative family....[Socialist feminists] maintained that a specifically social account of the family was needed to explain the sexual division of labor and the gendered reproduction of the worker. Essential to the socialist-feminist position of the time was precisely the view that the family is not a natural given and that, as a specific social arrangement of kin functions, it remained historically contingent and, in principle, transformable.... (39-40 in NLR; 271-272 in ST)

With regard to the separation of the cultural and the economic, Butler reminds us of Marx' account of "how the cultural and the economic themselves became established as separable the institution of the economic as a separate sphere is the consequence of an operation of abstraction initiated by capital itself" (42 in NLR; 274 in ST).

In response to Butler, Fraser says that in her view, the aspects of socialist feminist scholarship Butler ressurects are "the overtotalized view of capitalist society as a monolithic 'system' of interlocking structures of oppression that seamlessly reinforce one another. This view misses 'gaps'" (147 in NLR; 285-286 in ST). Fraser also criticizes Butler for being 'functionalist' and argues that "[e]mpirically...contemporary capitalism seems not to require heterosexism. With its gaps between the economic order and the kinship order, and between the family and personal life, capitalist society now permits significant numbers of individuals to live through wage labor outside of heterosexual families. It could permit many more to do so--provided the relations of recognition were changed" (149 in NLR; 285 in ST).

Instead, adopting a "quasi-Weberian dualism of status and class," Fraser defines the oppression of homosexuals as "status injury" inflicted by "misrecognition: the _material_ construction through the institutionalization of cultural norms of a class of devalued persons who are impeded from participatory parity" (144 in NLR; 283 in ST).

While Fraser's argument that it is important to look for gaps in what may look like a seamless monolith appears sound, it seems to me that her 'quasi-Weberian' approach forgets the best insights of feminism, queer theory, and social history: heterosexism is _more than_ a matter of the oppression of gays and lesbians, urgent issue though it in itself is. Critique of heterosexism involves larger questions of how genders are produced, how the 'family' gets naturalized, how the 'nuclear family' gets held up as ideal, how sexuality becomes dehistoricized, how reproductive labor gets privatized, how the division of labor gets gendered and sexualized, and so on, all of which are intimately connected to the reproduction of social relations of capitalism. Also, Fraser (at least in this essay) has little to say about how + why the "pattern of interpretation that constructs heterosexuality as normative and homosexuaity as deviant" has become institutionalized, "denying participatory parity to gays and lesbians" (144 in NLR; 283 in ST). Finally, when she says, "Change the relations of recognition and the maldistribution [for gays and lesbians] would disappear" (144 in NLR; 283 in ST), it begs more questions. How do we change the "relations of recognition"? Isn't there a material base for the current "relations of recognition" that needs to be changed?

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