The false debate on gay marriage: Personal emancipation impossible under capitalism

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The clamor over gay marriage has become a virtual obsession of the bourgeois media in the United States over the past several months. Television talk shows have been replete with impassioned debate between liberal reformers and conservative Christians arguing the pros and cons of granting same-sex couples the right to a legally sanctioned marriage. From the Marxist perspective, while the often bigoted and hate-inspired arguments of the conservative foes of gay marriage-which claim that homosexuality is a perverse lifestyle whose legal recognition will further erode the moral fiber of the nation-are easy to reject, the often inspired and passionate arguments of liberal reformers for granting the right to same sex marriage are not so simple to evaluate

Many radicals, and even some self-described Marxists, have been at the forefront of the movement advocating for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Sometimes, their arguments have been couched in a certain class language. For instance, some argue that by obtaining the right to legal marriage, same-sex couples could improve their standard of living and overall piece of mind as it would be easier to share a partner's health insurance benefits, obtain hospital visitation privileges, ensure child custody rights, and obtain legal title to common property in the event of death or injury. Ultimately, they argue, same-sex couples could obtain the right to a certain legally determined portioning out of property in the event that the relationship comes to an end (legal divorce). By granting same-sex couples the right to marry, so the argument goes, they can achieve these very important legal rights and economic benefits presently available only to heterosexual couples, and thus gays will take a tremendous step towards full equality, a better life and the human dignity that capitalist-patriarchy and heterosexism deny them.

So what should Marxists, those concerned with the total emancipation of the human species through proletarian revolution, make of these arguments? Well for one, we must respond on the terrain set out by Marx and Engels and recognize that if the social and economic circumstances in capitalist society are such that married couple enjoy certain legal benefits that non-married ones do not, this does not mean that the "right to marry" is, or can be, an appropriate proletarian class demand. On the contrary, as Engels pointed out in On the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the family-predicated, as we know it on a legally sanctioned marriage-is inherently an institution of class society based on economic scarcity and the existence of antagonistic social classes. In its capitalist form, the "nuclear family"-and all the Christian moralizing that has accompanied it throughout history-provides a whole plethora of benefits for the bourgeoisie. From providing a mechanism for the class inheritance of the means of production to ensuring the steady supply of labor power, the "legal family"-in the sense of the institution recognized by bourgeois law-has always been intimately tied up with the exploitation of the proletariat and thus human suffering. In this sense then, as Marx and Engels argued in the Communist Manifesto, the communist society of the future will be a society beyond the family in which human relationships will be regulated by mutual love and respect and not the state sanction of law.

While Marx and Engels never dealt directly with the issue of homosexuality, Marx nevertheless provides us with the method to approach such questions as gay marriage today. In the early 1840s, as the debate over the political emancipation of German Jewry was heating up, Marx intervened with one of his earliest, yet most profound political criticisms of bourgeois society. In On the Jewish Question (1844), Marx rails against the faulty method of the Young Hegelian philosophers who addressed Jewish emancipation strictly in political terms, as the right to full protection of the law and unfettered participation in civil society. For Marx, while political emancipation was an important first step toward ultimate human emancipation, legal equality was nevertheless a self-limiting partial emancipation that-in its very success-tended to strengthen the ideological veneer of equality that always obscures the real degradation and dehumanization of bourgeois civil society. With its universal tendency to submit all human relationships to its iron law of commodification and monetarization, the real problem with bourgeois society would be left unaddressed by simple political reforms. For the Marx of 1844 then, true human emancipation could come only from a total reconstruction of society on a fundamentally new basis, one that puts human need before capitalist profit. Only this revolutionary transformation of society could allow one to live a truly fulfilling and emancipated existence.

Using the methodology developed by Marx to analyze the Jewish question in 1844, one can conclude that same-sex couples gain nothing from obtaining the right to legal marriage other than the same institutionalized oppression that married heterosexual couples receive in the dehumanizing social world of capitalist society, including "the right" to such things as domestic violence, brutal divorce, sexual frustration, economic insecurity and personal alienation. While it is indeed true that many couples are able to construct meaningful and satisfying lives together, it is doubtful that the legal status of their relationships has anything to do with this, a legal status that really only ends up legitimizing many of the more negative aspects of marriage and the family that often dominate these relationships in the context of capitalist dehumanization. In short the demand for the "right to marry" is a demand within capitalist social relations that does not challenge capitalism in any fundamental way. It is really a demand to be recognized by capital through its state.

However, isn't it possible, it might be argued, to use Marx's method in On the Jewish Question to justify the contemporary campaign for gay marriage as a necessary "first-step"? After all, didn't Marx argue there that Jewish emancipation, even if it was only a partial emancipation, was nevertheless to be welcomed as paving the way forward? That is indeed true, however, one must also keep in mind the context in which Marx was writing. In the 1840s, capitalism was in its epoch of ascendance as a mode of production, in which real tangible reforms were possible. And indeed in most countries that became dominated by capitalism in the 19th century, Jews did achieve considerable levels of equality and were more and more integrated into society as a whole. Many Jews even shed their religious identities along the way and entered the burgeoning workers' movement. Nevertheless, today, such historical reforms are impossible to obtain from a capitalist system that has entered its epoch of decadence in which it no longer serves the need of the human species to develop the productive forces and instead acts as a break on this very process.

So, while Marx's method remains valid today, we must be very careful not to confuse the tasks facing the proletariat in the 1840s with the situation it faces in a capitalist system that is literally rotting on its feet. On the contrary, what we are seeing today in the U.S. is the bourgeoisie shamelessly appropriating the debate on gay marriage to its own ends of ideologically confusing the working class and distracting it from its historic task to destroy capitalism, the only task of the proletariat today. It is in this context that we have seen President Bush call for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, while the Massachusetts Supreme Court argues that nothing short of full and equal marriage rights would be constitutional and the "liberal" Mayor of San Francisco openly flaunts his state's law to issue gay couples marriage licenses. This "debate" is proving very valuable to the bourgeoisie in confusing and distracting working-class people from true class issues by politicizing private life.

Nevertheless, while the current subordinated legal status of gay couples in the United States is perhaps due to certain historical and cultural specificities of American capitalism, in other countries the bourgeois state has seen no problem in granting gay couples the right to get married. In Canada, The Netherlands and certain other "progressive countries," gay marriage seems not to be a problem for the bourgeoisie. In fact, it has often been championed by certain bourgeois politicians as a way of cutting back on unnecessary social expenditures such as "double insurance," etc. Nevertheless, one must ask what do gay couples really get out of the state officially recognizing their partnerships? What has really changed in their lives? These legally married gay couples continue to suffer the same fate as heterosexual couples under capitalism. While many are able to construct meaningful personal partnerships, the same conditions of capitalist alienation and dehumanization continue to prevail in general. The fundamental basis of the capitalist system that produces such personal misery has been left untouched. For working class families, legally married gay couples would face the same threat to their living standards as heterosexual ones, as the growing crisis of the capitalist system forces the state to enact ever more brutal austerity measures. In this context, the legality of one's marriage proves no defense to the imperative of the capitalist system to attack the working class.

The seemingly endless "culture wars" that dominate American politics today on this and other issues are evidence of two features of the period of capitalism's decomposition. First, is the skillful use by factions of the bourgeoisie of such "cultural issues" to distract the working class from class demands: the struggle at the shop floor against the ruthless attacks on wages and benefits underway in many sectors of the economy, as well as keep them distracted from the continuing horrors of the war in Iraq where the body count of mostly working-class youth keeps adding up. Second, is the shear inability of decomposing capitalism to pose any real tangible solution to the oppression of minority groups, be they gays, women, ethnic and religious minorities, etc. With religious fundamentalism on the rise, often deliberately stoked by factions of the bourgeoisie for their own purposes, gay couples-no matter their legal status-will likely never be admitted as full members of the human community as long as capitalism continues to exist; if for no other reason than the simple fact that the human community itself does not yet exist.

Moreover, the ideological distraction offered up by the subordinated status of gays, and the quest to either emancipate them from it or keep in that state is just too valuable to a capitalist system in utter decomposition. From the Marxist perspective then, today emancipation for gays-as well as any other oppressed group-is synonomous with the emancipation of labor from capitalism itself and the construction of the truly human communist society. This necessarily entails a society in which one's personal life needs no legal sanction, wherein the law itself has been made obsolete and individuals are free to choose the intimate relationships that suit them the best.

Henk, 04/18/04.