Michel Foucault, Homosexuality, and Capitalism

Michel Foucault is a famous French postmodernist. He is derided by opponents as a thorough-going Marxist. He is derided by Marxists for not being a Marxist. He started out on the revolutionary left, politically, but pivoted to being the godfather of the sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s before dying of AIDS. What few people know about Foucault, apart from orthodox leftists, is that Foucault became an apologist for capitalism precisely on account of his homosexuality.

Foucault’s most important work is his multivolume History of Sexuality. Foucault’s magnum opus earned him the ire of the Marxist Left for doing several things. First, he rejected the thesis of sexual repression under the capitalist economy. Second, he came to embrace capitalism (and its emphasis on technological progress) to advance the cause of sexual liberality. As Foucault openly states early in his book, “it is not a matter of saying that sexuality, far from being repressed in capitalist and bourgeois societies, has on the contrary benefitted from a regime of unchanging liberty, nor is it a matter of saying that power in society such as ours is more tolerant than repressive.”[1]

Setting the stage, Foucault openly rebuts the Marxist argument that capitalism leads to sexual repression. On the contrary, it is exhaustive labor and the formation of civilization which controls—not so much “represses”—sexuality. According to Foucault, sexuality is a danger to social order, the exhaustive demands of agrarian labor, and is something that is enjoyed during leisure time. Thus sexuality, and in Foucault’s case homosexuality, are elite enterprises dependent upon leisure time. While Foucault recognizes that capitalism brought in a new era of labor, he also laid to rest the classical Marxist critique by studying the role of technology in capitalism, leisure, and the liberation of sexual control because of technology and wealth.

John D’Emilio, one of the most prominent Foucault scholars and himself a gay activist, explained Foucault’s insights this way:

In divesting the household of its economic independence and fostering the separation of sexuality from procreation, capitalism has created conditions that allow some men and women to organize a personal life around their erotic/emotional attraction to their own sex. It has made possible the formation of urban communities of lesbians and gay men and, more recently, of a politics based on a sexual identity.[2]

Foucault was not alone in this “discovery” among gay, trans, and feminist activists and “scholars.” Shulamith Firestone, in her work The Dialectic of Sex (1970), also saw the rise of capitalism and technology as leading to women’s sexual independence, “In the case of feminism the problem is a moral one: the biological family unit has always oppressed women and children, but now, for the first time in history, technology has created real preconditions for overthrowing these oppressive ‘natural’ conditions, along with their cultural reinforcements.  In the case of the new ecology, we find that independent of any moral stance, for pragmatic—survival—reasons alone, it has become necessary to free humanity from the tyranny of its biology.”[3] For Firestone, and even Marx (in The German Ideology), it was never “capitalism” that repressed sexuality but biology itself. It was the sexual division of labor, according to Marx, which was the first instantiation of sexual control under the male family household. Add in the demands of civilization and agricultural labor (both in its slave and feudal epochs), and sexuality was not part of the consciousness of the common person who was toiling away his life and retiring to bed to have sex mostly for the end of children to aid in labor and take care of the family heads in old age.

Capitalism and the Industrial, or Technological, Revolution changed all of that according to Foucault. The growth of wealth and the rise of technology making labor easier meant that humans now had greater time to indulge in leisure activities, especially pleasure activities. Sexuality was, and remains, for Foucault, all about pleasure. So only in an epoch of wealth, technology, and transition, could sexuality truly be “liberated.” The repression of wealth, technology, and the movement back toward an agrarian ideal—which orthodox Marxism entails in the dissolution of the material dialectic—was therefore harmful to sexual liberality. In the bath houses of San Francisco, Foucault had this epiphany. Like the sodomites in Mesopotamia and the aristocratic pederasts in ancient Athens and Rome, it was the urban, wealthy, and technological centered environments and people who were always free to express and indulge in their sexuality. Anything that threatened this reality would prove harmful to homosexuals and to women (according to Firestone).

Paradoxically, Foucault looks to the Victorian age to prove his point. He acknowledges that there were conservative sexual mores in place. However, he also uncovered the great degree of sexual licentiousness during the Victorian era. Nineteenth century Britain was a sexually decadent island precisely because it was wealthy and capitalist. However, the Christian mores and revivalism of the nineteenth century also meant that the sexual edifice could not be tossed away (as of that time). Therefore, the Victorian age gave the impression of sexual repression but was, in reality, an age of tremendous sexual decadence and “exploration.”

While there was great concern over sexuality, the reason for this concern over sexuality was because sexuality was entering a new era wrought by political radicalism, capitalism, and the technological revolution. There was, in Foucault’s words, a “steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex – a discursive ferment that gathered momentum from the eighteenth century onwards…an institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more: a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endless accumulated detail.”[4] The end result of this new species of sexuality was the homosexual man, “The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case study, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle… The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”[5]

In his study of the history of sexuality and the birth of the new species of human: the homosexual, Foucault concluded several things which ring true for the educated and prescient observer of today. First, the homosexual is a product of modernity. More specifically, the homosexual is a product of capitalism and technology. Second, homosexuality and other forms of alternative sexualities flourish in wealthy cities where leisure is readily accessible. Third, homosexuality and other forms of sexual liberality are dependent on high degrees of wealth and technological transformation making labor easier and, therefore, leading to greater leisure time. Fourth, homosexuality emerged in the upper and middle classes which benefited from the economic and technological revolution.

What is implied in Foucault’s thought is that upward mobility would lead to greater sexual liberality. In this he has undeniably been proven right. The vast majority of LGBTQI+ persons are of middle-class or upper-class backgrounds. Moreover, the LGBTQI+ lifestyle requires wealth.

Toward the end of his life, Foucault put his sexuality first. His politics followed from his sexuality. Foucault made a Faustian bargain with Wall Street and the San Francisco techies. Since homosexuality and sexual liberality required wealth, urbanization, and technologization, Foucault abandoned the vestiges of his tepid anti-capitalism and embraced capitalism whole-heartedly. The true revolution was never going to be proletarian. It was going to be sexual. When we look at the Left today we see this reality. The Left has all but abandoned traditional working-class economic politics. It has immersed itself in sexual politics and sexual liberality instead.

 

[1] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 (New York: Penguin, 1978), p. 8

[2] John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (Monthly Review Press, 1983), pp. 100-101.

[3] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), p. 175.

[4] Foucault, p. 18.

[5] Ibid., pp. 42-43.

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