Kosambi Circle meeting 17 notes

23 August 2020

Meeting notes


This was the seventeenth meeting of the KRAC and the second meeting of the Gender and Marxism month at KRAC. It was attended by 199 circle members (153 peak at a time) on Zoom.


The readings discussed in the meeting, broadly covered the relations between sexuality, procreation, gender, and the role that the development of capitalist mode of production has played in mediating said relations.


The first reading was an essay by Michele Barrett, from a book titled Women's Oppression Today. This was linked to the reading by Heidi Hartmann discussed last week of the same ideological tradition, which looked into the unhappy marriage between feminism and Marxism.


The crux of this section was that insofar as women's oppression is based on biological differences, our job as socialists is to resist them. The notion that sex is only useful as a procreative act has laid down many of the roles we take as normative or standard today. It is one specific ideology of sexuality that penalises sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage and “legitimate” procreation.


She goes on to poke holes in her own idea. She writes that while we understand Victorians to have repressed female sexual pleasure and as banishing the mention or understanding of it, before the Victorian era, women's orgasms were seen as important to procreation and therefore desirable. From the Victorian era onward, women's sexuality was policed much more strongly than men's sexuality. This was done partly as a control over succession and inheritance of property. These are thus essentially social maneuvers by the bourgeois.

She questions, if a woman is pregnant, shouldn’t she be free to pursue adulterous affairs? This, according to her, was not explained by the bourgeois justifications on why women's sexuality needs to be policed. It was also noted that lesbianism was also not policed as much as male homosexual behaviour has been.


Although the material links between procreation and sex have weakened by the availability of contraceptives, greater individual freedoms etc., the attitudes still persist.


The second argument she makes is that, while it is assumed that heterosexuality is seen as normative, and though this is harmful, it is important to understand the power that these normative ideas still carry. She examines the double standard that women are excluded from workplace, society, and polity because of their roles in childbirth and menstruation, which were seen as debilitating, whereas heart attacks or other non-gender specific material medical conditions are not seen as debilitating enough for men to be excluded from the workforce or society or polity.


She observes that male orgasms are necessary for procreation but women's orgasms are not seen as necessary because of which women's pleasure is deprioritized. There is also no biological need for women to be sole or primary caregivers, and yet the trope persists and exerts pernicious harm and deprives women of opportunities in the sociopolitical arena and the workforce.


The discussion that followed the reading summary by the convenor raised the question that the readings had a European/Victorian perspective. A member noted that in Japanese societies, polygyny was prevalent, and women and their siblings raised children. They asked – given that the social construct of patriarchy is constant throughout all cultures, how do we account for modes of production/reproduction that exist in paradigms beyond those covered by these readings?


The convenor responded to the question by referring to Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women”. They noted that Gayle looks at ways of childrearing different from the Eurocentric model, but even in her work, the essential relationship between the sexes is quite constant, it is inherently an unequal power differential. They also noted that Tithi Bhattacharya has also written about the issue of the reproduction of these power differentials in non-Eurocentric contexts, particularly India.


The second reading discussed was John D'Emelio’s ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’. He states that a Marxist analysis does not fully explain the creation of social roles. D'Emelio uses a predominantly material analysis of how non-heterosexual sexualities emerged and how it was being mediated through the capitalist mode of production. D'Emelio focusses on strategies for gay liberation and argues for community to replace the family as a unit of social organisation/solidarity.


Narratives that gay people have always existed ignores the role that capitalism has played in creating or helping to create, not homosexuality itself, but homosexual culture and community and political identities. Homosexual behaviour has always existed but homosexual identities are a product of history.


Within the household economy, the husband, wife, and children produced what they consumed. With the advent of mercantile capitalism, more men and women opted into wage labor. The capitalist free labor system by removing the independent family system of production/household economy, allowed people to become somewhat atomized individual workers. Thus their livelihoods no longer depended immediately upon family cooperation, as the family was no longer the basic productive unit. The family took on new significance as a new emotional support and social reproductive unit. A sharp divide therefore emerged between work and social life.


The spread of this free labor freed sex from procreation (because people didn't need babies to carry on productive activities, as production was organized on a much larger scale). It allowed people to form their own communities based on interest and sexuality and affinity, rather than by biological family units. By the 1930s, gay communities started to organize around the same time. The way they organized varied with gender, race, and education. The psychiatric community began to develop theories about homosexuality as an ideological response to the Gay community organizing.


He observed that white gay men are more visible than lesbians. John argues capitalism drew more men into wage labour at higher wages, enabling them to construct a personal life detached from heterosexuality unlike many women, who remained economically dependent on men.


The Second World War helped coalesce and stabilize gay identities, because millions were put into highly sex-segregated communities (army/factories). Many found economic freedom as well as the freedom to experiment with like minded people in a space away from their families and local communities. This carried forth post war as they returned to cities and formed established visible sub culture that fed into the grassroot movements built on the pre-war fostering of gay identity.


The state responded to this ideologically by purging gay men and women from the army, government jobs; inflicting police brutality, carrying out raids on gay congregations.

The takeaway for us was that capitalism, while helping the formation of gay communities, also needs the family unit for reproduction, and therefore capitalism also reproduces heterosexism. But capitalism also weakens the family bond, because there is less economic imperative now for families to stay together. And with the increasing socialization of childrearing though childcare and education, the next step would be to further deconstruct the idea of the family as a necessary unit of social organization or the sanctuary of affinity and affection. We can create our own intentional solidarity networks and community.

There is a need to heighten personal autonomy, increase access to a social safety net (eg – medical care, housing etc) and accept that the size of LGBTQ communities will keep increasing. This should be done by making the choice of who to love and be with and who we are attracted to less economically debilitating, and by providing social networks outside of the regressive/repressive family unit.


The discussion following the article noted that the reading is very specific to the American social context. In the context of India, social processes and caste endogamy put different restrictions on procreation and marriage. We referred to Marx’s point on how capitalism does not always demolish previous social formations, but often subsumes and appropriates them. It was emphasized that capitalism is not necessarily a progressive force that D'Emilio makes it out to be in the paper.


A member noted that D’Emilio suggests a shift away from securing rights for a static group, and towards the liberation of all sexuality, of the sexual mores of the society. This take is perhaps similar to Butler’s requirement of a representational politics without a subject.

Another member queried, “Would you say in India, the “western” forms of Identity differ in either form or demands from “indigenous” ones? Could we say that the former is more situated in larger cities, and the indigenous ones elsewhere?” The convenors responded that there is maybe more of a class divide than geographical urban-rural divide, as opportunities for migration as well as solidarity outside your immediate local community increase with higher class position. They referred to Akhil Katyal's book, “The Doubleness of Sexuality” and said it may provide some insight into this question too. He argues that western notions of homosexuality do not capture the array of same-sex desires in India, and also talks about how lived experiences and conceptualisations of same sex-desire inherently differ.

We then moved on to the third and last reading to be discussed in the meeting, Jules Gleeson’s ‘Transition and Abolition’. The convenors pointed out that it was a recent work, published in 2017.


This reading speaks of the existence of a transgender moment and acknowledges that there is greater trans acceptance. It is written in a context where trans identity is not universally seen with hostility, but is still being Othered, and members of the community do face violence and discrimination in many areas and contexts. There is an ambiguous construction of the closet for trans people. One may be out to their friend, but not to their workplace, and then there is the way in which trans people are seen and received by the state. For eg – How prison assignments are given by biological gender?


The convenors noted that most hijras live in self-created communities, and not blood-tie networks, but suffer institutional violence and invisibilisation. Trans people violate the socially constructed gender order. The order is created on the basis of assigned sex/gender and both of these categories are necessary to capitalist succession/inheritance and ownership of property.


The author notes that while we are not seeing an extreme attack on capitalism per se, we are still living in times where trans people have managed to win for themselves a space to express themselves, to exist, thrive and flourish without the larger transphobic society outside to destroy their life prospects. The internet has helped with it, but it is mainly the organizational labour that has gone into this movement, that has created this space.

But greater trans visibility could cause greater reprisals against trans people. Transphobia may be on the increase. Trans visibility is seen as a challenge to the established sexual/gender order. This calls for greater trans visibility and acceptance, which again produces a violent counterpoint – an Ouroboros.


The way to really get out of this rut is by attacking the root cause – capitalism. The author invokes Julia Serrano who posits that traditional sexism (valuing male over female gender), and oppositional sexism (that there are only two rigid gender expressions and gender roles) combine to produce trans misogyny. This results in trans women getting the worst of all sexism/misogyny.


Core sex does not determine behaviour, but it causes dysphoria. As per the author, Gleeson says that gender abolition is like freckle abolition. According to Gleeson, gender is simply a variation of a natural trait amongst human beings, and cannot be abolished by political organization. Gender performance is not gender performativity as Judith Butler tends to say.

Trans liberalism is the idea that you can get away from transphobia by simply changing certain aspects of how the state or society engages with trans people. That is either through bathroom laws or by instituting laws against trans discrimination in the workplace. It ignores however that the family is essentially transphobic. The family essentially works on the basis of reproducing itself and it cannot work without the heteronormative gendered bodies of man and woman. You can't fix the family or the state into being less transphobic. A liberal resistance to transphobia therefore does not work. The only way is to abolish the family, the state, and to engage in Marxist struggle so as to reshape the world and society we live in.

There was some discussion on how to counter Hindutva ideas such as: capitalism is a western ideal while Indian society is communitarian a return to theocracy or creation of a Hindu Rashtra would lead to greater gains in gender rights and more varied gender expression without appropriation.


The meeting ended on this note.