pismo poświęcone studiom queer

Neoliberalism and its Homophobic Discontents [1]

Volker Woltersdorff aka Lore Logorrhöe


ABSTRACT: The article "Neoliberalism as a Source of Homophobic Suffering" draws attention to an important gap that characterizes political criticism practiced from both queer and anti-neoliberal positions: on the one hand, queer approaches ignore questions of production and class, and on the other hand, economic analyses all too often ignore the question of sexuality. The author argues that this "blind spot" is symptomatic of the current regime that determines the construction of sexual identities and asks why it is so difficult to change this state of affairs. While religious fundamentalists, nationalists and racists unanimously reject both homosexuality and neoliberalism, the official neoliberal discourse in the European Union counts tolerance of homosexuality among its set of supposedly European values. Thus, in Germany and the Netherlands, right-wing liberal politics gives anti-homophobic battles nationalistic and racist overtones, forcing them to embrace neoliberalism, consumerism, nationalism, and racism. The author also wonders whether the concept of the precariat could link economic and sexual issues in such a way as to illustrate the dialectic of individuality and risk in neoliberalism.

Keywords: Germany, Netherlands, neoliberalism, homosexuality, queer, economics, precariat

Neoliberalizm jako źródło homofobicznego cierpienia

STRESZCZENIE: Artykuł „Neoliberalizm jako źródło homofobicznego cierpienia” zwraca uwagę na istotną lukę, która charakteryzuje krytykę polityczną uprawianą zarówno z pozycji queer, jak i z pozycji anty-neoliberalnej: z jednej strony ujęcia queerowe pomijają kwestie produkcji i klasy, a z drugiej strony analizy ekonomiczne nazbyt często ignorują kwestię seksualności. Autor dowodzi, że ta „ślepa plamka” jest symptomatyczna dla obecnego reżimu, który determinuje konstrukcję tożsamości seksualnych i stawia pytanie, dlaczego tak trudno jest zmienić ten stan rzeczy. Podczas gdy fundamentaliści religijni, nacjonaliści i rasiści jednogłośnie odrzucają zarówno homoseksualizm, jak i neoliberalizm, oficjalny neoliberalny dyskurs w Unii Europejskiej zalicza tolerancję homoseksualizmu do zbioru swoich rzekomo europejskich wartości. Tym sposobem w Niemczech i Holandii prawicowa polityka liberalna nadaje anty-homofobicznym bataliom wydźwięk nacjonalistyczny i rasistowski, zmuszając je do przyjęcia neoliberalizmu, konsumeryzmu, nacjonalizmu i rasizmu. Autor zastanawia się także, czy pojęcie prekariatu mogłoby powiązać kwestie ekonomiczne i seksualne w taki sposób, by zilustrować dialektykę indywidualności i ryzyka w neoliberalizmie.

Kluczowe słowa: Niemcy, Holandia, neoliberalizm, homoseksualizm, queer, ekonomia, prekariat

By the following reflexions, I'd like to address the question of coalition building between sexual and social politics. The very conceptual distinction between "sexual” and "social” might well be contested because sexuality is an entirely social phenomenon. Though, for lack of a better term, when saying "social,” I mean politics that are centred on issues of labour, exploitation and redistribution. Most frequently, that kind of politics is considered to as traditional left wing politics. However, I'd also like to take into account resistance against neoliberal working conditions from the right.

Let me start with an observation: It is striking that global resistance against neoliberalism is mostly homophobic or, at best, leaves the critique of heteronormativity completely out of its political agenda. For instance, left wing opposition to neoliberalism all too often neglects issues of gender and sexuality.[2]

Moreover, religious fundamentalists of all kinds as much as nationalists and racists ally in perfect harmony around their rejection of both homosexuality and neoliberalism. On a global scale, resistance to neoliberalism is very often connected to a critique of Western societies' immoralism, as it includes sexual emancipation, calling instead for family values, piety and patriotism (as we know all too well from the Polish example). Gay men, lesbians and (other) emancipated women are depicted as the winners or even the agents of capital's globalisation, of the precarisation of labour, and of "the corrosion of character” (Sennett 1998) that culturally goes along with it. Here the homophobic imaginary deeply intersects with anti-Semitic clichés. Of course this view is incorrect as soon as we consider not only a privileged minority of white middle class (male) homosexuals living in metropolitan areas. However, this particular group does exist and it is equally true that there is a strong involvement of gay and lesbian lobby groups with the neoliberal bare agenda. Some activists and theorists have therefore fostered the term "queer” as a counter-term to "gay,” which to their minds stands for the co-optation of the gay and lesbian movement with neoliberalism and consumerism.

The case might be slightly different in the US where Christian fundamentalists, neocons and neoliberals have forged a very peculiar coalition. Yet, this only proves that queer communities can apparently be positioned in various ways within different "makings” of modernity and that neoliberalism does not necessarily conflate with gay, lesbian and transgender emancipation. Rather, queer communities can get instrumentalised for different political goals. In Europe they currently symbolise for modernity. Thus, the former German coalition between the Green Party and the Social Democrats depicted the same sex partnership bill as a national project of modernisation though only a small minority has so far made use of it. Furthermore, official neoliberal discourse in the European Union includes tolerance towards homosexuality within its list of allegedly European values. As a result, in Germany and in the Netherlands right wing liberal policies give anti-homophobic struggles a nationalist and racist stance, constraining them to co-opt neoliberalism, consumerism, nationalism and racism, whereas queer alliances around sexuality, class, and migration are rather disarticulated.[3]

In the Netherlands Pim Fortuyn forged an anti-multicultural coalition around the issue of homophobic discrimination. After Fortuyn's killing in 2002 the Dutch government drafted one of the strictest immigration policies in Europe. A film produced by the Dutch government explains the demands of the new entrance examination to potential immigrants and therefore shows two men kissing in a meadow explaining that heterosexuals and homosexuals have the same rights in the Netherlands. Some observers have convincingly argued that footage of gay marriage in Dutch immigration videos serves the purpose to deter Muslims from immigrating to Holland.

In Germany the dispute on immigration and integration has adopted a similar course. A local section of the Christian Democrats has suggested a questionnaire that ought to be filled in by applicants for naturalisation. One of the questions should have been how the applicants would react if they knew that their son was gay. It is astonishing that deputies of a party that opposed gay marriage in the German parliament now want to include tolerance of homosexuality in its catalogue of anti-Islamic values. Strangely enough, these guidelines for immigration were welcomed by the local section of a major gay and lesbian lobby group while almost all other political parties condemned them. The lobbyists argued that when a major German Party acknowledges sexual self-determination as part of the national cultural identity that should definitely be approved. But at the same time they were foreclosing the connection to anti-immigration policy. Similarly, in the new member countries of the European Union the claim for sexual rights is made with recourse to Europeanness and to the institutions of the European Union and their policy.

On a global scale sexual emancipation is frequently linked to the profusion of neoliberalism, for example in Latin America, India and Southeast Asia. Very often queer people prefer neoliberal working conditions to more traditional ones because they enable them to live untraditional lives even if they don't earn more money. They therefore, even unwillingly, often represent indeed a kind of vanguard of neoliberal transformation.[4]

Neoliberal management has understood that condition and addresses queer people in their concept of "diversity management”. Neoliberal management strategies acknowledge and encourage difference among employees.[5] Identity difference is used as a resource of motivation and exploitation. As a result, queer identities are both essentialised and exploited, for it is the "othered,” "deviant” identities that represent diversity while the norm stays unmarked. Power difference is disarticulated as cultural diversity. In the economic logics of diversity management, tolerance by the dominant is exchanged with extra exploitation of the subordinated.

Neoliberal state administrations pursue a similar logic and include same sex couples in their welfare policy. Responsibility for social care is delegated from the state to so called "rainbow families”. Long before gay marriage was achieved in Germany, homosexual relationships had already been acknowledged by the state when alimony had to be paid to the jobless partner. As a result, neoliberalism's neo-familiarisation includes also gay men and lesbians into its notion of family. This may be considered as an historical break with the former fordist isolation of queer individuals from their families of origin.

Would the alliance of queer politics and neoliberalism therefore be the call of the day? I would like to problematise this view by highlighting the price of this coalition. Moreover, I aim at understanding why issues of queer and feminist politics are so successfully disarticulated within a political critique of economy and labour and why affirmative approaches to the neoliberal system include sexual diversity and gender equality.

In political coalition building, a certain unity is expected in order to allow political agency. However, this very need for unity very often censures possible fault lines of dissent out of the agenda. Addressing questions of power difference is suspected to undermine the unity and power of political organization. This objection has been very common among the traditional left referring to the Marxist distinction of main and subordinate social contradictions. According to that, the contradiction between labour and capital is the main one whereas any other contradiction, such as sexuality and gender, is regarded as merely epiphenomenal of capitalism.

But I do not think either that it is right to distinguish, as does for example Nancy Fraser (Fraser and Honneth 2003), between politics of recognition on the one hand and politics of redistribution on the other hand. Sexual emancipation, Fraser argues, is politics of recognition while she considers labour dispute as the latter. Yet, sexual politics are as much politics of recognition as they are politics of redistribution.[6] Capitalist economy relies thoroughly on sexuality and gender, and sexuality and gender are deeply entangled in it from within their very hearts. Gender and sexual identity are not added as a further source of exploitation to an otherwise sex- and genderless form of labour. Rather, workforce is provided with a gendered body and sexual desires that are regulated and systematically exploited by capitalism. As queer scholars like Ann McClintock (1995) and Renate Lorenz (2007) have illustrated, desire is not only gendered but also thoroughly racialised and classed.

Various scholars, such as Donald Lowe (1995), have argued that in so called late capitalism sexuality has been transformed from constituting a sexual identity to representing a sexual lifestyle. By consequence, sexuality is now figuring as an individual consumer choice at the free market of lifestyles. This very consumerist perspective creates a strong bias for the white male middle class experience. Ann Pellegrini (2002) has pointed out that there is a narrative that conflates capitalism and homosexual identity. However, she objects, this is only true for a very reductive view of homosexual identity, especially a white and male one that can economically and culturally afford to live the "gay lifestyle”. Precisely, Rosemary Hennessy (2000) has repeatedly put under scrutiny how, within capitalism, consumption often seems coextensive with visibility. That's why on the other hand sexuality's involvement with labour stays in the dark.

In the early nineties, one of the impulses of queer politics in the West came precisely out of the fact that queer people didn't feel represented by the gay and lesbian communities because they could not or were not willing to afford the so called "gay lifestyle”. Gayness was so much entangled in commodity capitalism that the very concept had become unacceptable for a considerable part of the younger generation.[7] Nonetheless, growing queer visibility in advertising continues to be mistaken as a realistic picture of society. As a consequence, political discourse draws the image of people getting the straighter the poorer they are. According to that, homosexuality seems to be a kind of luxury that only wealthy people can afford.

On the occasion of a public discussion in Berlin in May 2006 with Tomasz Bączkowski, one of the organisers of the Warsaw Parada Równości, he said about the presence of German sympathisers in Poland that Polish people had the impression that all Germans were rich. If they saw that so many Germans were not only rich but also gay, that could only help the gay and lesbian cause because people would associate gayness with richness, and that would advance their acceptance. Analogically, the art critic Paweł Leszkowicz argued at a queer conference in Warsaw in May 2007 that Polish homosexuals should embrace consumerism as their only trusted ally. I'm wondering why they are so sure about this assumption. Isn't there also clear evidence that, at the same time, a strange mixture of homophobic and anti-Semitic clichés is revitalised, one that binds sexual, racial and religious difference to the excesses of capitalism?

Interestingly, in Germany it was precisely a radical leftwing newspaper (Die junge Welt) that reported about the participation of German activists at the Warsaw parade of 2006 in an utterly homophobic way. It criticised the German lobby groups for not being left enough, for arrogantly exporting neoliberal EU supremacy and not addressing the real problems of Polish people. I think that this critique can be very legitimate but I'm very worried about how sexual rights issues become a claim of second scale that can only be put forward when more "substantia" struggles of redistribution have been accomplished. When talking about poverty in the context of global labour division, the call for queer rights is then perceived as an indecent claim that is inappropriate for the people in question, as if sexuality wasn't a basic need for all and necessary for survival. Homophobia within the left movement can by such arguments be disguised as advocacy for the people most in need.

In conclusion, I'd like to discuss how to link economic and sexual concerns such a way that the dialectics of individuality and risk taking in neoliberalism are adequately addressed. I'd thus suggest to consider a recent, yet incomplete coalition that is built under the umbrella term of "precarity” or "precarisation” and that tries to highlight the diversity of social insecurity: insecurity that results from queerness, from gender, from race, from migration and from neoliberal working conditions. To my knowledge, there are activists in German and English speaking countries, in France, Italy and Spain who use the term. This concept tries to illustrate the multiple and often contradictory ways in which individuals get subjected to neoliberal working conditions. But "precarisation” does not only mean the worsening of working conditions but also growing individualisation of professional biographies.[8]

As a political term, it aims at assuring political agency without homogeneity. Whereas labour struggles formerly relied on the resemblance of biographies and were organised according to the traditional trade union model, precarisation can have very different biographic effects.

Neoliberal ideology promises individual self-fulfilment if only individuals assume whole responsibility for the risks that they are running. Queer individuals, as I have argued, can profit, to a certain degree, from the new social paradigm of postfordist flexibility. Queer identities are especially well prepared for the precarisation of labour and the professional identities which result from it. Because of their choice of lifestyle they have always had to cope with precarity and now can make use of this experience (Volkmar 1998). That's why queer people often accept to live and work under neoliberal conditions because they are preferable to traditional ones. This, I would suggest, is precisely the reason why gay men and lesbians have been depicted as vanguard of neoliberal transformation. Of course, those who can profit most are still white male and affluent gay men who represent the cultural hegemony of the "gay lifestyle”. But it is equally true that other queer individuals live under precarious conditions because of their very queerness. Gays and lesbians can such get instrumentalised for the purpose of neoliberal transformation. But they can also show us the dialectics of fordism and postfordism.

In Europe, anti-neoliberal struggles predominantly go along with nostalgia for the welfare state, be it the capitalist or the socialist one. However, we must not forget that the welfare state has precisely been criticised for being paternalistic and disciplinatory, privileging the heteronormative nuclear family. Thus, the call for a return to the welfare state suggests a homogeneous subject of emancipation that is not differentiated by any other power categories. Moreover, it is normatively shaped. However, this homogeneity is definitely lost in neoliberalism if at all it had ever existed before, for I would argue that it has only existed for a minority of the world's working population.

I'd like to end by considering some critical aspects about the term of precarisation that have repeatedly been put forward by political activists. For instance, there is a certain threat of assembling too many forms of neoliberal phenomena under the notion of precarity. In particular, it has been argued that flexibilisation and instability in the creative services sector cannot be compared to deregulation of labour of the working and lower classes. Moreover, a distinction between Western and postsocialist countries and the so called Third World - in other words: between the neoliberal boom towns and its periphery - ought to be made. Whereas flexibilisation can have certain improvements for highly educated middle class people - for example, a way of life that fits more to their individual needs - there are rather no advantages for lower educated workers for whom flexibilisation simply means more insecurity. Does it then politically and analytically make sense to compare the working conditions of highly educated young queer urban professionals in the creative industries with those of illegalised migrants or low paid unskilled workers? Isn't there a considerable difference that is disarticulated by using the same notion of precarisation? We should bear this question in mind if we want to preserve the critique of neoliberalism from once more becoming homophobic.

Works cited::
  • Fraser, Nancy and Axel Honneth. Redistribution or recognition?: a political-philosophical exchange, London 2003.
  • Hennessy, Rosemary. Queer Visibility in Commodity Culture, In: Profit and Pleasure. Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism, ed. Rosemary Hennessy, New York 2000 [1994], pp. 111-142.
  • Lorenz, Renate. Long Working Hours of Normal Love. Hannah Cullwick's Photographs and Diaries, In: Normal Love. Precarious Sex. Precarious Work, ed. Renate Lorenz, Berlin 2007, pp. 104-125.
  • Lowe, Donald M. The body in late-capitalist USA. (= Post-contemporary interventions), Durham 1995.
  • McClintock, Anne. Imperial leather. Race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest, New York 1995.
  • Pellegrini, Ann. Consuming Lifestyle: Commodity Capitalism and Transformations in Gay Identity, In: Cruze-Malavé, Arnaldo and Martin F. Manalansan, eds., Queer Globalizations: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism, New York 2002, pp. 134-145.
  • Sennett, Richard. The Corrosion of Character. The Culture of New Capitalism, New York 1998.
  • Sigusch, Volkmar. The Neosexual Revolution. In: "Archives of Sexual Behavior", 27.4 (1998), pp. 331-359.

[1] The following article is based on a paper presented at the conference „Seeking Queer Alliances" in Warsaw on 30th of August 2006.
[2] Of course, this observation is very general and ought to be differentiated more in detail, as the extent of this disregard may differ from one political group to another.
[3] For the Netherlands cf. e.g. Loenen, Gerbert van: Islam und Homosexualität in den Niederlanden - ein Jahr nach Pim Fortuyn. In: LSVD (ed.): Muslime unter dem Regenbogen. Homosexualität, Migration und Islami./i Berlin 2004, pp. 98-109; for Germany cf. e.g. Heidenreich, Nanna: "Der Kampf der Subkulturen" - Homophobie vs. Rassismus? In: Yekani, Elahe Haschemi/Beatrice Michaelis (eds.): Quer durch die Geisteswissenschaften. Perspektiven der Queer Theoryi./i Berlin 2005, pp. 203-215.
[4] For a very insightful analysis of this relation cf. Hennessy, Rosemary, iProfit and Pleasure. Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism/i, New York 2000.
[5] The change of management strategies from fordism to postfordism is very well deployed in: Boltanski, Luc and Eve Chiapello, iThe new spirit of capitalism/i, London 2005.
[6] For a critique of this conceptualisation equally see Butler, Judith: Merely Cultural. In: New Left Review 227 (1998), pp. 33-44.
[7] Consider e.g. John Weir's statement in the influential collection of political essays, deliberately intitled iAnti-Gay/i: "The true division in the gay community is between the entrenched, privileged, politically active urban and suburban trend-setters and policy makers, and the mass of people with homosexual urges [...]” Weir, John: Going In. In: Simpson, Mark (ed.): Anti-Gayi./i London 1996, pp. 26-34.
[8] For such an approach see Rodríguez, Encarnación Gutiérrez: "Sexuelle Multitude und prekäre Subjektivitäten - Queers, Präkarisierung und transnationaler Feminismus. In: Pieper, Marianne (ed.): Empire und die biopolitische Wende. Die internationale Diskussion im Anschluss an Hardt und Negrii./i Frankfurt u. a. 2007, pp. 125-139.
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