In recent weeks, the debate over the Safe Schools Coalition anti-bullying program has intensified, taking what is in many ways a bizarre turn. The brief suspension of program architect Roz Ward from her position at La Trobe University has reopened the debate about whether Safe Schools is ‘cultural Marxism’ by stealth, the program once again coming under fire from conservatives across the country. Even trans advocate and member of the ADF Catherine McGregor has weighed in.
One of the more interesting elements of this, however, has been the debate it has created about the role gender and sexual politics can and should play within Marxism. Here enters Guy Rundle. In the pages of Crikey, Rundle penned a treatise on the program and what he considers the failures of ‘queer theory’. Rundle believes Safe Schools (via queer theory) presents the view that ‘gender and sexuality are infinitely fluid’. He argues, however, that such a view denies the material realities of sexuality and gender, not to mention his view that ‘almost no-one really believes it – and they certainly do not let it shape their lives’.
Queer theory, he says, aims to push adolescents towards particular identities they wouldn’t arrive at by themselves. He states:
Most adolescents are on their way to plain old vanilla heterosexuality, with a few detours along the way. The queer identity approach would seek to solidify those detours and experimentations and explorations into queer identities.
This, he argues, is a clear diversion from the materialist principles of Marxist theory – a cultural turn that is not only a distraction, but a dangerous one at that.
But Rundle fundamentally misunderstands the nature of queer theory, in part confusing it with identity politics. That confusion leads him to disallow any relationship between queer theory and Marxism, and the real power such connections could create.
Rundle’s argument is part of a growing trend of left-wing commentators engaging with the inherent conservatism of ‘liberal’ approaches to identity – notably, LGBTI politics and feminism. This is a critique broadly shared by both of this article’s authors. But Rundle takes this further, disavowing an association between Marxism and ‘the queer, intersectional politics that Ward professes’. We’ll get back to that point in particular, but first we need to pull back a bit and look at the current state of LGBTI politics to see how – and perhaps why – Rundle has confused two very different ways of thinking about sexuality and gender.
Identity politics usually refers to a philosophy and practise of building political movements around identities based on race, gender, sexuality, sex, age – the list goes on. There is an implied essentialism to identity politics: you become defined by what you are, rather than what you do. Intersectionality, the idea that a person can ‘be’ many things at once (gay, trans, living with a disability, etc.), is sometimes used to rebut accusations of essentialism, but we would argue intersectionality is in fact identity politics par excellence. Far from freeing us of the shackles of identity, intersectionality simply gives us a more complex matrix to slot ourselves into. We still are; we are simply many things instead of one.
The past decade has seen a return to identity politics as the dominant way of thinking about sexuality and gender in public discourse. And we have been here before – in fact, when queer theory emerged in the early 1990s (though its roots go back further), it was explicitly in opposition to the essentialism of identity politics, which had come to dominate minority political movements.
While often confused with identity politics (as Rundle has done), queer theory functions in almost the opposite way. Instead of defining ourselves around essential ‘identities’, queer theory takes a post-structuralist approach, deconstructing those identities in and of themselves. Importantly, queer theory works to expose the construction of heterosexuality as a norm, or what some call ‘straight ideology’. This is the ideology in which we all live – one that defines not only our sexual lives, but our gender representations, and most importantly, the way we see ourselves as economic actors both in the workplace and the family.
The differences between these two theories could not be more stark. Identity politics aims to differentiate identities and provide ‘equality’ between the experiences of them all. Queer theory aims to deconstruct the very idea of identity, and ‘straight ideology’ in particular.
So how have we ended up back at identity politics? And why are we all talking about ‘queer’ when these things used to mean something different, even opposite? The second question is a little easier to answer: as is inevitable, language changes over time, and the word ‘queer’ has decoupled from ‘queer theory’ to become an identity category of its own. It’s commonly used as a catch-all term for LGBTI identities, as a way of identifying with the politics associated with queer theory, or even just as a way of identifying outside mainstream LGBTI politics and identities.
The question of how we’ve ended up back here is trickier to answer, and requires some speculation. It is likely a hangover from the dominance of neoliberal thought in the 80s and 90s. These economic ideologies have promoted the idea of the ‘subject as consumer’, which fits hand-in-glove with the idea of an essential identity. Being reshaped as ‘identities’ allowed us to be viewed as markets: both consumers and a potential pool of labour.
This has been coupled with a return to a form of respectability politics following the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Campaigns for same-sex marriage in particular have required a level of assimilation into capitalist society. To access these institutions we had to find ways to fit within straight ideology. The best way to do this was through reinforcing clear identifiers (gay, lesbian, trans, etc.) that allowed us to maintain a small level of difference, but one that was not enough to block our entry into these institutions.
The result is this unusual situation in which we have identity politics dressed up as queer theory.
But back to Rundle. His assertion of ‘a view of sexuality and gender as “fluid”, in a way that most of us do not believe it really is’ seems to miss the whole point of queer theory. It isn’t saying we can simply choose whatever we want to ‘be’; it is saying that we actively constitute our sexuality and gender through how we are in the world, and that is also shaped by our context. It is not saying the material world has nothing to do with sexuality and gender. It’s not that gender and sexuality aren’t real – their cultural and social construction is so complete that we experience them as material. Male bodies, for example, do not contain some ‘essential’ maleness. Queer theory would argue the reverse, that the constructions of maleness in the world, at a given historical place and time, determines our view of particular bodies as ‘male’.
But many of Rundle’s broad criticisms of identity politics, and of the current state of political movements to advance the position of marginalised groups, are valid. These criticisms have been made before, in pieces like Eleanor Robertson’s excellent essay in Meanjin, and pretty much every time Helen Razer writes about queer issues or feminism.
So, we’re left with the claim that queer theory is not compatible with Marxism. In fact, we believe queer theory can play an integral role in the politics of Marxism. In his article Rundle states:
The question of actual ‘socialism’ – of mass control of the means of production – has become secondary. Among what has become known as ‘the cultural left’, the question is barely discussed. Existing work relations – the eight- to 10-hour day, the endless squeeze on wage power, conditions, the debt loading – are assumed to be a given, an eternal.
This we agree with, but it is not the fault of attempts to connect queer theory with Marxist politics. Our capitalist economies require divisions in gender and sexuality in order to survive. The early system was developed on a basis of the devaluation of women’s labour and a focus on reproduction. This allowed for ongoing population growth, ensuring a growing working class to power the capitalist society. Those whose experience of sexuality did not support this system, were forced into institutions and medical facilities due to the threat they posed to this agenda. The spread of non-normative sexualities was seen as a threat to a growing population, and therefore needed to be crushed before it spread. The oppression of women and queers played, and continues to play, an integral role in capitalist economics.
Importantly for this discussion, this process also required cultural mechanisms – the development of social and ideological norms – in order to work. This is the ‘straight ideology’ that queer theorists talk about. The ruling classes have worked tirelessly to shape our understandings and norms of gender and sexuality to fit the needs of the system – defining women as ‘chaste’, ‘pure’ and ‘motherly’, and shaping the queer as ‘deviant’ and ‘dangerous’, for example. The very creation of these identifiable markers has been for the benefit of capitalism.
The struggle for queer and gender liberation is therefore inherently linked with the struggle against capitalism. Queer theory, alongside Marxist feminism, has fundamentally helped us understand this.
But many of Rundle’s criticisms of the Safe Schools program, if we imagine they pertain to identity politics, are valid. Safe Schools is not perfect. It is not a radical social engineering program, and very few are claiming it is. Which is fine. It’s an anti-bullying program, and a good one. It’s a shame part of it is rooted in identity politics, that’s true, but as has often been pointed out, to critique the philosophical underpinnings of the program is to follow a red herring – those underpinnings are not the program itself. For what Safe Schools is, it is good.
While Rundle makes some good points, in particular, his critiques of identity politics as it relates to Safe Schools, those points are lost in the confusion between identity politics with queer theory. In many ways this is understandable – this confusion is played out on a much larger scale in the ways we use the language of queer theory to talk about identity politics, even though the two are diametrically opposed. While it’s not perfect, queer theory can offer a lot to Marxist economics. That is something we need to embrace.