At a personal growth seminar I attended in Chicago, we were invited to find a stranger and hug them. I crossed the room and wrapped my arms around a U.S. Marine Corps officer. As I gently pulled him towards me, instead of relaxing into the hug, he became rigid and kept repeating “man hug, man hug.” After the hugging exercise ended, he let out a barely audible sigh of relief.
Later in the program, I “came out” to my small group. The Marine stared past me. I was too afraid to hug other men at the seminar after that. It was the same fear of holding a boyfriend’s hand in public — always doing mental calculations about who might be watching with disgust or violence in their hearts.
Very few queer people feel safe in public with their affection.
The hug between the Marine and me should have been innocent. Instead it was charged with reactions conditioned by abstract ideas like “real men are not supposed to act like women and be intimate with other men” and “intimate touch always leads to an erotic conclusion.”
We learn the habits of abstraction in the capitalist division of labor where we create and reproduce our material life. As workers we don’t create the things we need to live for people we actually know and love. Instead, we sell our labor to enrich the owners of private property by producing commodities for sale on abstract marketplaces. The commodities we produce travel far beyond our community and other commodities return to us abstracted from the people who made them. We’re abstracted away from directly experiencing our human, social existence in labor. As a mediation of commodities pours into our senses, we are constantly oriented to having and unconsciously yield our social wealth to participate in an abstraction of private property that confronts us with hostility. Private property creates an abstract way of being in the world that multiplies throughout human life and prevents us from making other human beings the end of all our activity. Karl Marx saw freedom from private property as the positive transcendence of all estrangement.
The positive transcendence of private property as the appropriation of human [essence], is therefore the positive transcendence of all estrangement – that is to say, the return of man from religion, family, state, etc., to his human, i.e., social, existence. [i]
Human essence, appropriated and estranged by private property, is the assemblage of our social interactions with other human beings. The phrase “social flesh” in the work of Wendy Harcourt and Arturo Escobar provides a good way to conceive of human essence:
We need to understand the body not as bound to the private or to the self — the western idea of the autonomous individual — but as being linked integrally to material expressions of community and public space. In this sense there is no neat divide between the corporeal and the social; there is instead what has been called a “social flesh.” [ii]
As Marx observed Capitalism emerging on the world scene, the cost of private property to our ability to mediate adequately as a species concerned him so deeply that he devoted his life to deconstructing the abstractional mechanisms of the economic system. We are ultrasocial mammals whose brains are wired to respond to others. He wanted to understand how Capitalism would block our natural human capacity to adequately exchange love, trust and other human qualities integral to our being as a species. In a beautiful passage in the 1844 Manuscripts Marx writes:
Let us assume man to be man, and his relation to the world to be a human one. Then love can only be exchanged for love, trust for trust, etc. …if you wish to influence other people you must be a person who really has a stimulating and encouraging effect upon others…If you love without evoking love in return, i.e., if you are not able, by the manifestation of yourself as a loving person, to make yourself a beloved person, then your love is impotent and a misfortune. [iii]
Instead of ‘subject-subject consciousness’ where our being as loving persons mediates with others to make us beloved persons, the economic system produces ‘subject-object consciousness.’ In ‘subject-object consciousness’ people are seen as a means to an end instead of ends in themselves and all human relationships become relationships between things. Love, trust and other human qualities essential to our being as a species cease to flow adequately in the social flesh.
In the first abstractional habit that carved borders in the social flesh between the Marine and me, human beings are divided into two genders, men are privileged over women and the “feminine” is devalued. The Marine’s conditioned reaction during the hug was rooted in the idea that “real men are not supposed to act like women and be intimate with other men.” The socialization of “real men” starts when the doctor slaps a gender into a baby and declares, “You have a boy.” All kinds of roles grow out of assignment to the male side of the gender binary. If you want to hug another boy, arrange flowers or express your emotions, bullies are often available on the playground to shame you physically or emotionally. Often we internalize gender norms enough to simply bully ourselves into conformity with the boy code. We learn at a very young age that boys are not allowed to be like girls.
In contrast to my experience with the U.S. Marine Corps officer, I disappear into the Rocky Mountains several times a year to participate in the intimacy of heart circles with other gay, bisexual, trans* and queer men. We sit together in a large circle and speak from our hearts, and listen to one another through our hearts. Usually a stone is used to identify the man who is speaking and the other men listen without interruption or feedback with as much attention and compassion as can be mustered. The stone is then passed on and the process is repeated. The intimacy shared between men results in some of the most deeply emotional, healing and transformative experiences in our lives. So much of the trauma we bring to the heart circle as queer men originates in the policing of the “feminine” between men, and much of the healing we bring to one another grows from opening our hearts to the “feminine” being of the circle.
The devaluation of the “feminine” in this abstraction presents in a different way in the male supremacist family which was the root of the capitalist division of labor discussed above. In the early stages of the development of the family, when the state was weak and the family was one of the few sources of authority, women were the slaves of men in the family. In Marx on Gender and the Family, Heather Brown writes that women “became slaves of the men of the family, since men are the ones to acquire property, including the women and children. The male head of household has the power to dispose of the labor-power of the other members of his family. This will be the germ of development for class-antagonisms in the future.”[iv]
In the second abstractional habit that carved borders in the social flesh between the Marine and me, there was fear that intimate touch always leads to an erotic conclusion. The Marine’s conditioned reaction during the hug also revealed this border carved in the social flesh. Intimacy expressed between people who are not part of the same family or in a romantic relationship is “subjected to intense scrutiny, constraint and speculation — both internally and externally.”[v] Corporations use sex and sexual attractiveness in advertising to drive us to consumption and to encode messages directly in our sexuality with ubiquitous porn. We’re encouraged to market ourselves as sexual commodities in bars, on hookup sites and online dating services, made confident by anti-wrinkle cream, Viagra and cosmetic surgery. “As we’re sold the narrative that we’re ‘free’ to have sex how, when, where and with whom we choose, it becomes the only conduit through which we are permitted to experience intimacy.”[vi] As our desires become optimized in a hyper-sexualized marketplace, it creates an impoverished affective range between us, a lost terrain of intimacy between those who are neither family nor lovers.
“A lonely society is a more controllable society.” [vii]
Our sexuality is vulnerable to commodification because it often functions as an opiate for alienation in labor. Work in capitalist societies does not belong to our intrinsic nature, affirm us, content us or allow us to freely develop our physical and mental energies. “The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work,” writes Karl Marx, “and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home.” Sexuality “taken abstractly, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into sole and ultimate ends,” functions in alienated ways. [viii]
In contrast to my experience with the U.S. Marine Corps officer, my trips into the Rocky Mountains also include the intimacy of touch with other gay, bisexual, trans* and queer men. In a room perfumed with soft light, cedar and music, we undress and take turns pouring oil into our hands and giving one another massages. This is not about men having sex together, but about intimacy and touch that recovers that lost terrain of intimacy between those who are neither family nor lovers. Younger men touch older men, older men touch younger men, HIV-positive men touch HIV-negative men, HIV-negative men touch HIV-positive men, white men touch black men, Asian men touch Latino men, cisgender men touch transgender men, transgender men touch cisgender men and people with different economic realities embrace one another.
Heart circles and intimate touch flow from Radical Faerie culture, “a desire to escape and counter the rapid commodification of urban gay culture in the wake of early gay liberation politics.” Harry Hay, deeply influenced by Marx, founded the Radical Faeries. He also founded the Mattachine Society, the first sustained queer rights organization in the United States.
Harry Hay promoted an ethics of developing ‘subject-subject consciousness’ on the basis that ‘one must always treat others a subjects like themselves, never as objects, or as a means to some instrumental end.’ For Hay, subject-object relations amongst gay men were a product of the increasing ‘hetero-normative’ focus of urban gay life that accompanied the growing commodification of the gay scene. He hoped that the rural retreats, gatherings and communal ‘sanctuaries’ developed by men inspired by the Faeries would create space where queer men could collectively build new relationships with each other based on intimacy and an ethics of speaking from the heart. [ix]
The space of appearance in the Rocky Mountains transforms many of us because we experience our species-being beyond abstraction. For a weekend we experience what it might feel like to live in a post-capitalist society, to move from subject-object to subject-subject consciousness. Marx described this full emancipation of human senses and qualities in the 1844 Manuscripts:
The transcendence of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human. The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object — an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians. They relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man, and vica versa…the senses and minds of other men have become my own appropriation. Besides these direct organs, therefore, social organs develop in the form of society; thus, for instance, activity in direct association with others, etc, has become an organ for expressing my own life; and the mode of appropriating human life…man is not lost in his object only when the object becomes for him a human object…This is possible only when the object becomes for him a social object, he himself for himself a social being, just as society becomes a being for his in this object. [x]
The two abstractional habits that carved borders in the social flesh between the Marine and me are interlocked with the larger abstractions including private property, religion, family, and the state. Mainstream LGBT politics has sought to create a world free of trauma by constructing gender and sexual identities to challenge hetero-masculinity — counter-abstractions to challenge the dominant abstraction. The strategy in mainstream LGBT politics after the 1980s has been to extend the abstractions of private property, religion, family, and the state to embrace these identities. The problem with this strategy, while understandable in the existing material conditions, is that it continues to reproduce the abstractions between us that prevent us from adequately mediating as a species and returning to a fully human, social existence.
The abstractions of private property, religion, family and the state allow partial interest to dominate the whole of society. This is possible because our human essence gets objectified in the production of these abstractions instead of in natural species-connection. In the core abstraction, the owners of private property (partial) dominate workers who have to sell their labor to survive (whole). The other abstractions follow this general law. The state (partial) dominates the people (whole) with representation, laws and police to protect the interests of the owners of private property. Religion (partial) dominates the people (whole) by constructing a “‘picture’ for contemplation and an organization that cultivates our captivity to that ‘picture’…We can no longer see and hear [the] contours of our [human] existence as we only apprehend that which is indicated in a free-floating matrix of an imposed interpretation.” [xi] Marx applied this same critique to Atheism and to other forms of reified ideology. He connects the abstractions of private property and religion in the first volume of Capital. The way human beings are captured by private property (commodity fetishism) functions in a similar way to how we are captured by religion. “In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and the human race.” [xii] Men (partial), the privileged captains of private property, dominate women and children in the family and exclude other forms of love and relationship (whole). Children are removed from adequate nurture in the community. The family becomes an architecture for reducing wages for the profit of the owners of private property and containing their wealth through inheritance.
Most importantly, when the partial dominates the whole, the polis or “space of appearance” is stolen from the people. The polis is a metaphor constantly used by Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jewish American political theorist. In the The Human Condition she writes, “The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.” The polis is the space of appearance “where I appear to others and others appear to me…wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action.” [xiii]
The space of appearance must be continually recreated by action; its existence is secured whenever actors gather together for the purpose of discussing and deliberating about matters of public concern, and it disappears the moment these activities cease. It is always a potential space that finds its actualization in the actions and speeches of individuals who have come together to undertake some common project…It is a product of action because it arises out of the concerted activities of a plurality of agents, and it rests on persuasion because it consists in the ability to secure the consent of others through unconstrained discussion and debate. [xiv]
As an example, take the state (partial) which dominates the people (whole) with representation, laws and police to protect the interests of the owners of private property. Voting for political representation is ultimately a trick where we surrender our space of appearance to another, who in our day and age will serve the interests of the corporations. Without adequate space of appearance, the world shatters into abstractions preventing us from adequately mediating as a species.
The strategy of assimilation in mainstream LGBT politics results in an expanded reproduction of the same contradiction between partiality and universality, and shores up the top-down structures of male supremacy essential to Capitalism’s survival. Assimilation pink washes partial interest to obtain a particular set of abstract rights and bypasses the struggle necessary to help society internalize “feminine” being in the space of appearance and to overthrow the structures of male supremacy. “Marx’s solution consisted in defining the problem in terms of the concrete dialectical concept of ‘partiality prevailing as universality’,” writes renowned Marxist philosopher István Mészáros, “in opposition to genuine universality which alone could embrace the manifold interests of society as a whole and of man as a ‘species-being’ (Gattungswesen — i.e. man liberated form the domination of crude, individualistic self-interest).” [xv]
Queer history is filled with stories about hiding at our workplaces, being cast out by our religious traditions and families, and even police raiding our bars. The violence of hetero-masculinity can help us to see how the abstractions of private property, religion, family and the state operate in concrete ways to prevent us from being adequately mediating as a species. Our goal should not simply be assimilation with abstractions (lives depend on it — abstractions are really that dangerous), but adequate separation from the abstractions that carve borders in the social flesh.
The return to an authentic species-being beyond abstraction begins with labor, “an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.” [xvi]
The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e. the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control.” [xvii]
From production by freely associated people, society can be reorganized from the bottom up in a way that preserves the polis, the space of appearance where we can return to a human, i.e. social, existence. Mikhail Bakunin wrote:
The future social organization should be carried out from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, starting with the associations, then going on to the communes, the regions, the nations, and, finally, culminating in a great international and universal federation. It is only then that the true, life-giving social order of liberty and general welfare will come into being, a social order which, far from restricting, will affirm and reconcile the interests of individuals and of society. [xviii]
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[i] Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
[ii] Wendy Harcourt and Arturo Escobar. 2002. “Women and the politics of place.” Development 45 (1): 7–14. Karl Marx described it this way in the Theses on Feuerbach, VI: “The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” French Philosopher Etienne Balibar elaborates on the thesis by describing human essence as “the multiple and active relations which individuals establish with each other…and the fact that it is these relations which define what they have in common, the ‘genus’. They define this because they constitute it at each moment in multiple forms…Not what is ideally ‘in’ each individual (as a form or a substance), or what would serve, from outside, to classify that individual, but what exists between individuals by dint of their multiple interactions.” See Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, Verso 2007, p. 30 and 32.
[iii] Karl Marx, “The Power of Money,” The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
[iv] Heather A. Brown, Marx on Gender and the Family: A Critical Study, Haymarket Books 2012, p. 42.
[v] Jenny Alexander, “Alexander Berkman: Sexual dissidence in the first wave anarchist movement and its subsequent narratives,” Anarchism & Sexuality: Ethics, Relationships and Power, Routledge, 2012, p. 38
[vi] Alexander, p. 37
[vii] Alexander, p. 40
[viii] Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor,” The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.
[ix] Gavin Brown, “The creation of autonomous queer spaces,” Anarchism & Sexuality: Ethics, Relationships and Power, Routledge, 2012, p. 209.
[x] Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
[xi] James Lochte, “Marx and the Sacred,” Journal of Church and State.
[xii] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Penguin Classics, p. 165.
[xiii] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 198–199.
[xiv] “Hannah Arendt,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
[xv] István Mészáros. Marx’s Theory of Alienation. Merlin Press, 2005, p. 32.
[xvi] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Penguin Classics, p. 14
[xvii] Marx, p. 15
[xviii] Mikhail Bakunin, “The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State,” 1871