The immense importance of the black liberation movement gave it, inevitably, a kind of paradigmatic character; it became the theoretical template for all the others. Understandably, no doubt, but certain conceptual confusions have ensued.
Black people in the US were born to black parents, mostly married other black people, and had children who were by definition black. They mostly lived in black neighborhoods, prayed in black churches, worked in occupations that were open to black people, and so on. My own particular strain of Communist sectarianism, when I was a young man, identified the black liberation movement – rightly, I still think – as a national liberation movement; it saw American black people as a people, an ethnos, still in bondage after four hundred years. A people with its own speech, its own music, its own sense of humor, its own stories, its own internal history.
Now this is not the case with women, or with gay people. Though in both these cases, to be sure, there are plenty of inside jokes and zones of mutual understanding that aren’t obvious to the casual non-woman or non-gay observer. In fact, people sometimes speak of “gay culture” or “gay subculture”, and these phrases ring true – though nobody, as far as I know, speaks of “women’s culture” or subculture. So the distinction I’m trying to make here isn’t absolute. Nevertheless, I argue that it’s important.
Women, typically, don’t have all-women parents; there’s usually a dude in the picture. They may have men as siblings, and they are quite often married to men, and live with them on terms of intimacy, occasionally successful and reasonably happy, as human happiness goes. They have some children who will grow up to be women, and others who will grow up to be men. If they go to church, the pew-sitters beside them may be women or men. This is to say that women are not segregated, and don’t constitute an ethnos or a nation.
One does not seek, here, to minimize the relative harms that women (in general) endure, compared to men (in general). One suggests, rather, that a tempting analogy may only be serviceable up to a point. John Lennon famously observed that “woman is the nigger of the world.” It’s a catchy phrase, but not quite accurate.
Much the same can be said for gay people. Their parents, for the most part, were not gay; their siblings often aren’t; their children often aren’t; they often have close friends who aren’t.
There are of course occupations that are thought to be characteristically gay, and neighborhoods ditto, so that’s a bit different from the situation of women; women may be disproportionately represented in women’s occupations, but they don’t generally congregate in women’s neighborhoods. Of course, neither do gay people, necessarily or even generally; but the phrase “gay neighborhood” doesn’t sound preposterous, whereas the phrase “women’s neighborhood” certainly does. There are certainly gay churches, but as far as I know, there are no women’s churches.
In short: these three movements, while they may be able to learn from each other, and more than that, to draw encouragement from each other, are actually quite different, and it’s serious mistake to conceptualize them as three different instances of the same thing. Black nationalism is a political orientation that must be taken seriously, and can make a good case, whether you agree with it or not; but women’s nationalism and gay nationalism are manifestly non-starters (though Proust had some fun with the latter, and neatly skewered Zionism in the process).
The other problem with this master analogy is that it flattens all these struggles out onto the same level of significance, and this, I believe, is also seriously mistaken. With all respect to the women’s liberation movement and the gay liberation movement, neither of them, in the actual concrete American historical context, has anything like the heft of the black liberation movement. Chattel slavery in the US, and its successor institutions, are the rock on which our entire economic and social development was essentially founded, whether directly or at one remove (and never more than one).
At this point it is necessary to bring on stage an important member of our dramatis personae; the arch-villain, in fact. I am going to call him Capital, with a big ‘C’ – not “capitalism”, which sounds like an ideology or perhaps a condition, but not like an actor. Capital, I argue, is very much an actor; an alienated power, a sort of Golem, who has become independent of the human hands that created him, and indeed very largely independent of individual human “capitalists”. The latter may falter or fail, become eccentric or remorseful, give their money to good causes, or exhibit other symptoms of weak-mindedness, irresolution, and irrationality; but Capital, though blind, though insensate and without consciousness, is nevertheless purposeful. Indeed, his deficiencies, as a subject, are his strengths. Capital never falters or fails; he is never distracted; he has no vanity, no self-regard, and therefore doesn’t care what people think of him; he never suffers from feelings or from guilt, never entertains second thoughts; and when one capitalist retires from the management of his affairs, Capital will quickly find a replacement.
People often argue about whether racism is essential to Capital. This is obviously a hypothetical question, since actually existing Capital clearly has found ways to derive considerable benefit from the existence of racial categories, racialist ideology, and discriminatory treatment of various “races”. And in fact during its foundational phase, Capital seems to have invented the concept of “race” in the first place. So what we’re really asking is whether there is some conceivable cousin of our actually now-existing Capital who could exist without racism in this sense.
The only reasonable answer, of course, is “Who knows?” But it does seem pretty clear that actually now-existing Capital is fine with women, for example, entering the labor force – in fact, by increasing supply, it’s driven down the price of labor, relative to its productivity, which surely makes Capital very happy. As everyone knows, few families these days can get by on one wage-earner’s income; the expectation, now, is that Hubbie and Wifey both work at Wal-Mart, or the local slaughterhouse. – If they’re lucky, that is, and keep their noses clean, and pass the drug screen. One imagines Capital rubbing his ghostly hands together and chuckling, well, that worked out just fine, didn’t it?
And of course Capital has never had any problem with gay people, whatever the ambient culture at any given moment may think. Capital – credit where it’s due – is unprejudiced. He doesn’t care about sex, who has it or who doesn’t, or with whom, unless there’s money to be made from it.
But then, too, Capital is always happy to make distinctions, and arbitrage them – to have first- and second-tier labor, and a corresponding price differential. In that sense, Capital likes sex differentiation too, up to a point, or at least finds a way to derive some benefit from it.
It would be interesting and useful to examine in more detail the ways in which Capital seeks out fault lines and makes use of them, and on the other side of the dialectical coin, simultaneously needs to level everyone into an indistinguishable, interchangeable commodity. But for my present purposes it’s sufficient to observe that actually-existing Capital’s cradle was rocked, and his young manhood was fostered, by the enslavement of Africans and their children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. This was the matrix that molded our robust, handsome, modern, progressive, enlightened young Capital, much more significantly than the subaltern status of women or the stigma attached to same-sex sex, onerous as these often were.
Hence, I would argue, the uniqueness and primacy – in the immediate, concrete American context – of the black liberation struggle. This is not to minimize or dismiss the others. But the difference must be recognized.
(To be continued)