Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: "Sexuality & Socialism," by Sherry Wolf

Whether you are someone learning about the history of homosexuality and gender variance for the first time, or are an erudite student in the field, this book is a 'must-have' on your bookshelf. This book is NOT an academic/abstract/unintelligible book. Rather, it is a broad attempt to offer a uniquely-materialist understanding of the development, evolution, and repression of homosexuality (or, to use a more apt phrase, "non-heteronormative lifestyles") in the modern era.

Starting with the obliquely homosexual practices of the Ancient Greeks up through the present industrial/financial times, Wolf explains how sexual preference and identity have ever been a product of the social & economic conditions upon which a given society has rested. In other words, for an individual to break free of the constricting bonds of the "normal, nuclear family (1 father, 1 mother, and 2.5 children)" and live out a variant sexual existence, that individual must have a means of providing for themselves independently and in connection with other, similarly "independent" individuals.

It is for this reason that the modern notion of a "homosexual" person as a distinct "type" set apart from "heterosexual" people, is a phenomenon that first emerges with the advent of capitalism and the industrialization of society. Capitalism tore apart the old, static family life based in the countryside with its suffocating traditions and monotony, and replaced it with the buzz, fluidity, anonymity, and diversity of myriad strangers, crammed in together at work and at home, beckoned with the promise of individual advancement via the market nexus.

However, just as capitalism offers the promise of new, more liberated lifestyles, it stymies them at every turn. Capitalism has no use for the sedentary and static life of the peasant economy, far removed from commerce and industry. It does, however, seek to retain certain structures of the former feudal society and adapt them to modern uses. The nuclear family (an individual unit of privatized reproduction versus social reproduction) is one of these structures.

Capitalism does not abolish war when it overthrows the various warring fiefdoms and monarchies of the Middle Ages. Nor does it abolish religion when it seals the fate of the "Divine Kings" of Europe. To use an analogy, the eye of the human plays a very different role than does eye of the dog (which is color-blind), yet nature saw fit to pass this organ down from species to species, making only slight adaptations to render it more useful in the employ of the given animal.

In such way does capitalism treat what should otherwise be the vestigal organs of our more barbaric, ancient brethren. Insofar as capitalism remains a rigid society premised upon class division and inequality, it retains (albeit in adapted and newfangled forms) the blemishes of oppression, war, poverty, etc.

What is refreshing about Wolf's conclusion to this analysis is her point that sexual oppression can indeed be ended -- not just limited, tempered, avoided, or ignored. Oppression, being a product not of some intrinsic human fallacy, but rather the (at first) unintended product of the particular structures of society (some) humans have crafted over time, can be eradicated by likewise creating new structures and institutions for human coexistence.

Such a new structure would have to call into question the basis of a capitalistic society that necessarily is based upon class inequality and mutual competition. For this author, a truly democratic, socialist society is clearly a form of human existence more amenable to full equality and liberation for all of our species.

However, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this or other particular conclusions drawn by the author, you will nonetheless find this a remarkably insightful, if not life-changing, read.

(If you like this book, check out other similarly-written works such as:
Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation
Black Liberation and Socialism
Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States
The Meaning of Marxism
The Case for Socialism)

No comments:

Post a Comment