In perspective: Judith Butler

Issue: 103

Rachel Aldred

Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, first published in 1990, made her the star of a new feminism linked to poststructuralism and queer theory. Butler’s work also produced massive controversy. Feminist writer Martha Nussbaum damned Butler’s ‘hip defeatism’ in the right wing magazine New Republic.1 Nussbaum interpreted Butler’s work as a sexualised spin on Baudrillard’s celebration of stupidity as the only possible postmodern revolt:

For Butler, the act of subversion is so riveting, so sexy, that it is a bad dream to think that the world will actually get better. What a bore equality is! No bondage, no delight. In this way, her pessimistic erotic anthropology offers support to an amoral anarchist politics.

But in the wake of the second Gulf War, the ‘hip defeatist’ is a key intellectual spokesperson for another America. Butler, who is Jewish, has long defended Palestinian rights. In a recent article she defends the right of Jews and non-Jews to criticise Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism.2 She wants to preserve and build on Jewish critiques of the Israeli state, against those Zionists for whom this tradition is illegitimate and impossible. Citing Primo Levi’s condemnation of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, she says, ‘Precisely from within the moral framework derived from the Holocaust, an opposition to the Israeli state is not only possible, but necessary’.3 Last year, as the US and Britain invaded Iraq, she wrote a front-page article in Il Manifesto entitled ‘We, the Anti-Patriots’, where she insisted, ‘It’s important to know that millions of Americans are against this war, without “ifs” or “buts”’.4 She upsets the conservative establishment by speaking out for peace and against racism in public lectures. Like the late Pierre Bourdieu, she has consistently used her academic privilege to debate political issues that the rich and powerful would like hushed up.

Judith Butler is not a Marxist, but many of her concerns are ours too. She has often said she is a feminist, not a postmodernist. She certainly isn’t a ‘postfeminist’, which mainly seems to be certain hacks’ justification for why, now they’re earning serious money, they aren’t interested in equality for the rest of us. She’s also a long way from the smug apologists for neo-liberalism who conveniently believe political action is inherently futile. Nor does she simply focus on the linguistic quirks of academia. She writes:

I worry that many people focus on injurious language, on racist or homophobic speech, thinking that the language is the source of the injury when the source of the injury is actually in racism or homophobia—which is much more profound and much more complicated. To single out language seems to me to single out one mode of its conveyance (and an arbitrary one at that) and probably to miss the larger struggle at stake.5

She pressed Amnesty to report on the terrible situation of gays and lesbians in Jamaica, against those in the organisation who argued that homophobia was part of Jamaican culture and thus should not be examined by Amnesty.

She is a poststructuralist, which continues to be an important trend in feminism. Many Marxists have interpreted the rise of poststructuralism as part of an intellectuals’ retreat from politics, after the movements of the 1960s waned.6 A useful broad analysis, it doesn’t fit feminism so well. In the philosophical and sociological mainstream, many academics who had embraced Marxism in the 1960s converted to poststructuralism at the end of the 1970s. But in feminism it was different. Even in Britain, where socialist feminism was relatively strong, by the 1970s ‘as the movement progressed, it was clear that the socialist ideas were losing out’.7 They were replaced by radical feminism, which insisted on a rigid patriarchy theory dividing men and women, with class struggle a boring quarrel between men. So poststructuralist feminism, which developed in the 1980s, should be seen as primarily reacting against radical feminism rather than Marxism. Because of this, Butler continues to stress that she is ‘absolutely not’ interested in separation.

What does this mean for the ideas? I’ll look briefly at a couple of important poststructuralist arguments. One key poststructuralist theme is a critique of theories assuming a coherent and unified political subject. Within feminism, such theories might argue that women’s common biology means they share key experiences, which give them the same political interests in overthrowing male power. In mainstream philosophy and sociology, this critique was often aimed at the Marxist concept of class. By this poststructuralists usually meant some Stalinist formulation that they themselves had adhered to several years before. As Colin Barker and Gareth Dale argue,8 Marxists don’t need to assume that (a) the working class is already united or (b) that class is the only possible basis for unification. Creating a coherent, working class political subject is a political project which can succeed or fail: we can lose out to nationalism, for example—or it can be a factor in building a class subject, as with black nationalism among US Detroit auto workers in the 1960s.

A second poststructuralist line of attack is against theories that privilege ‘experience’ and see it as a realm outside ideology that provides direct access to truth. Poststructuralists have often here confused two types of theory. In strong form, this concept of experience implies that ideology is only imposed on us from outside, and is completely opposed to our experiences of life—in which case, why does anyone believe the ideology? But in a weaker form, it surely only implies that people can change their minds after surprising events—like many initially optimistic Windrush immigrants did on discovering a mean and racist ‘mother country’. However, many versions of radical feminism did and do rely on the stronger claim, as if we have experiences that are separate from interpretations, which are imposed over the top from outside. This is a dualist picture in which thought appears separate from actions, and is linked to the Enlightenment concept of the person (see later). But Marxists don’t need to agree with this: we can accept that many people do believe at least some bourgeois ideology, because often it does make some kind of limited and contradictory sense of their lives. Better interpretations must be linked to attempts to change the world, so experience and interpretation are not separate but interconnected.

This two-pronged attack can easily be criticised for its lack of relevance to non-Stalinist Marxism. However, poststructuralist feminists did not generally focus on Marxists; instead they used these ideas as an internal critique of feminism, responding to the radical feminist view of ‘women’ as united by biology, experience and political interests. They argued that assuming universal female experiences and interests had buried and perpetuated other forms of power based on ‘race’, class, sexuality and disability. They attacked radical feminism’s sometimes lurid portrayal of all women as passive victims,9 and argued that this actually helped to silence women’s struggles, particularly women who did not agree with the radical feminist manifesto and who might be fighting racism, poverty or homophobia. Despite our differences with them, authors in this tradition, like bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde and Butler herself, represent an attempt to keep hope alive faced with a crumbling movement.

Given this history, I think Marxists should be particularly interested in contemporary feminist writers. As Daniel Bensaïd recently argued in Marx for our Times,10 many current scientific and philosophical ideas have affinities with anti-Stalinist Marxism. Within feminism, writers are rediscovering themes which had been ignored for decades, and trying to link them to current movement issues. For example, feminist-standpoint epistemology seeks to justify knowledge produced ‘from below’; more economically-inclined feminists currently debate the globalisation and commodification of ‘caring’ labour, and writers on science like Vicki Kirby and Lydia Birke are trying to think about biology beyond the negative critique of biological knowledge. Debates about global institutions and the corporatisation of knowledge, pushed forward by the growing anti-capitalist movement, are also politicising a new generation of academics (who often see their labour conditions deteriorate as part of the corporatisation of knowledge).

These new developments in ideas, as Bensaïd argues, often move onto Marxist terrain. I would see Butler’s critique of identity politics and her search for political strategies as part of this. To label it negatively as postmodernist can hinder understanding how we could relate to a new layer of academics and activists. Butler’s work is often dense and difficult, which is frustrating, since she is quite capable of clarity.11 When, in the middle of a difficult theoretical piece, she uses an example like the politics of the struggle for gay marriage, she immediately becomes accessible to activists. Her instincts are usually correct. She appreciates why many people want the right to gay marriage and agrees it’s important to counter the bigots’ arguments. But she recognises that the right to marriage is also the right to normalisation in a repressive institution, and that it pathologises those who feel they do not belong there.

This nuanced view is typical of Butler’s approach to political questions. While lacking a critique anchored in political economy, she often walks a similar tightrope to Marxists, debunking reformism while accepting that often we must struggle for very limited gains. But how do movements fight for reforms without falling back into reformism? Marxists argue that struggles contain the possibility of challenging the limits of their original premises. People are not just prisoners of received ideas, however strong these seem when the world is quiet: when we try to change the world we often start to see it differently. History does not follow a preordained path, but neither is it random or completely unpredictable—there are always possibilities present in contradictory situations. A strike over pay may spread to question management’s right to manage, or a college women’s group may extend its analysis and link local student issues with the global peace movement. As the slogan has it, resistance is fertile—it spreads from Porto Alegre to Mumbai. With the possibility of political action back on the agenda, a theoretical debate about ‘groundings’ (the basis for solidarity and political action) has reappeared too. Many writers agree that the search for foundations is back—not the postmodernist straw man of ‘Absolute Truth’, but as a basis for how we understand society and how we could go about joining together to change it. As Judith Butler argues, this is not about getting rid of foundations, but about reinvigorating them and asking what they could mean.12

Judith Butler’s interest in the dialectics of social change is possibly related to her original area of study, Hegel, who is the subject of her first book. It certainly contrasts with other ‘postmodernist’ thinkers for whom politics stops with the deconstruction of postmodernist bogeymen like the dreaded ‘universal’—as if demonstrating that ‘race’ is socially constructed (as even liberals know these days) causes it to disappear. It’s true that sometimes, as her critics argue, Butler’s analysis of how the power structure manages to incorporate attempts at resistance does become a pessimism that all resistance is already hopelessly compromised. But as an activist as well as a theorist, she is ambivalent on this question, and also believes that social movements can and should make a difference to people’s lives. If she was not politically active, this tension over the question of agency might not be there and her work would probably be much less interesting.

In her article ‘Guantánamo Limbo’ Butler writes, ‘While it is important to insist that international law ought to be followed in this case, we also need a critique and expansion of this law’.13 The article shows the development of her thought on the question of universals. She seems to be moving towards Paul Gilroy’s recent arguments that despite the atrocities perpetuated under the name of universal rights (like ‘humanitarian war’) we still need them—not as a philosophical tenet but as an urgent response to global neo-liberalism and the failure of identity politics.14 Butler now thinks ‘universality’ has ‘important strategic use precisely as a non-substantial and open-ended category’.15 In plain English, this means that universal rights are not guaranteed by philosophy, but are created by people working with resources ‘not of our making’, struggling to make things better and, among other things, to question definitions of what it means to be human.

In another article, published during the first Gulf War,16 Butler predicted the war had already initiated ‘a massive and violent contestation of the Western subject’s self-construction’. Contingent Foundations is interesting because it moves beyond Butler’s often rather abstract presentation of the self to consider the relationship between ways we think about ourselves and how the Gulf War was staged. It’s clear her motivation is anger and incredulity that our rulers were able to get away with this. She comments on the dehumanisation of others encouraged by technologies placing a camera at the end of a ‘smart bomb’. This permitted viewers to ‘see’ and vicariously experience the fantasy that warfare could consist of ‘the seamless realisation of intention through instrumental action’. The obliteration of vision when the bomb explodes seems to ‘destroy the very possibility of a reverse strike’, reinforcing the viewer’s illusion of impermeability. The systematic destruction of a population beyond the camera is erased, as when you watch this video game, it appears that they could never have existed. This calls into question Rageh Omaar’s simplistic assertion that ‘it is better to tell one side of the story than none’—what if telling one side systematically obliterates the other?

Butler thinks that the ‘Enlightenment’ concept of the person has contributed to the lethal intensity of the current mode of destruction. This concept of the person—liberating and shocking when first developed, and contested from Marx to Freud and beyond—implies a self-sufficient rational actor, whose thoughts are private mental events which precede acting in the world, and which are obvious to the thinker alone. With the mind separated and prioritised, the ‘normal’ body became one which seemed unproblematic and invisible, uncomplainingly following the mind’s commands. This became a justification for oppression, as the oppressed were seen as lacking full personhood because of their faulty and interfering bodies. It formed a basis for the sexist views which said that women were second class citizens because they were prisoners of their biology, unable to break free from their wombs and enter the realm of pure thought.17 (Meanwhile, defining the male body as invisible and unproblematic implied men should not worry about their health, especially their reproductive health—and doctors still have difficulty getting men to talk about such problems.) The concept also laid the foundations for economic liberalism and neo-liberalism. Enlightenment person became ‘economic man’ in bourgeois economic theory: an asocial individual with irreducibly subjective desires, pursuing his or her private satisfaction through objects purchased in the free market.

But I think Butler’s focus on the continuing force of this ideology downplays its relationship to people’s everyday lives under capitalism, and the possibility of change and resistance. ‘Enlightenment person’ and ‘economic man’ are not just lies or abstract forces—they are also stories about how people are forced to relate to each other under capitalism (but never the whole story). So when quasi-markets in education are introduced (‘parental choice’) even parents who believe in community education often end up ducking and diving to get their kids into a higher-ranked (and thus better-resourced) state school. They fear that not participating in this bogus ‘choice’ will mean their kids end up at a ‘failing’ school (ie under-resourced and under constant threat of closure or privatisation). Yet there are other ways people react to these institutions: collective action can be aimed at a variety of levels, from one school to the whole education system. ‘Economic man’ is constantly under threat from other logics of living which put people before profit and which offer more empowering conceptions of the self. People often realise marketisation aims to change their behaviour, and often resent it. And if they are seduced by neo-liberalism’s false promise of omnipotence (the ‘sovereign consumer’) it is because of their sense of a fundamental lack of agency. The capitalist market produces the giddy fantasy of consumer power and the nightmare of complete powerlessness under the unchallengeable ‘invisible hand’ which decrees that wages and benefits are always too high.18 People are offered too many expensive and meaningless ‘lifestyle choices’, and no choice at all over how society is run.

The fissure between popular political culture and official politics means these contradictions are now sharper than ever. Many people still feel powerless and pessimistic—even the incredible experience of historically huge demonstrations can be interpreted as the failure of popular protest to touch a free-floating political realm. Under these circumstances, as Butler acknowledges (unlike some less critical poststructuralists), we should not blithely celebrate the ‘death of the self’. But there are positive alternatives to merely deconstructing the capitalist self, which could help us to understand how we can nurture and build resistance. In 1920s Soviet Russia, Lev Vygotsky pioneered a social psychology which sees socially structured relations to others as driving the development of the child’s inner existence as an individual.19 Of course, this isn’t just a better theory of the self but also a glimpse of the better world we’re fighting for, where an ethic of care for others would be central.

While many of Butler’s more recent articles relate to the contemporary anti-war movement, she is rooted in the feminist and gay movements, deeply concerned by the influence of identity politics. The debates are ongoing and identity politics come up time and time again—in the 2003 European Social Forum women’s day school in Paris many participants argued for the position that all women had a common interest. In 1999 Judith Butler said, ‘As I wrote [Gender Trouble] I understood myself to be in an embattled and oppositional relationship to certain forms of feminism, even as I understood the text to be part of feminism itself’.20 Here she is criticising the ‘politics of everyday life’ pushed by some radical feminist and lesbian feminist groups. This politics, defended as a more feminist and radical conception of revolutionary change,21 has often ended up policing other stigmatised groups like bisexuals, transgender people and those involved in sado-masochism. Biology, choice of partner, choice of relationship(s), choice of sexual acts, all became ways of excluding people from the movement. Nicola Field describes how in 1991 people attending a bisexual conference were allowed to party at a London gay club—on the condition that there would be no heterosexual behaviour: ‘The organisers spent the evening watching the dance floor nervously, hoping that none of the conference participants would disgrace themselves and snog with someone of the other sex’.22

Butler wants to fight this tendency to impose norms of desire and gender upon others in a movement that emerged precisely to resist the policing of ‘deviant desires’. She is writing against, for example, the tendency in some feminist thought to attack gay sexualities that involve feminine ‘drag’. In Gender Trouble Butler reclaims drag for feminists as the possibility of subverting gender performances. For Butler, drag is democratic. Anyone can do it, and everyone does, as gender performances are parodies from the outset.23 Masculinity and femininity are fake, whatever the sex of the person who is acting masculine or feminine, because types of behaviour do not naturally belong to either sex. The tendency to see them as natural runs deep, as we learn gendered behaviour all our lives. ‘Sensitive’ men and ‘assertive’ women are still often assumed to be gay. In this way homophobia works to enforce oppressive sex-gender roles. From a very young age children often aim homophobic abuse at other children not seen as fitting gender-role stereotypes. The first thing a girl may learn about lesbianism is that it means not being a proper girl.

So in Gender Trouble drag is important because it disrupts this deeply-rooted assumption that a ‘natural’ sex causes a person’s gender, which then results in their sexuality. Drag makes sex, gender and sexuality appear incoherent, opening up the possibility of understanding that they can never be coherent. This is because all gender performances are already ‘false’—they are what they appear to express, concealing their genesis. Butler argues that although we think that acting in a way defined as masculine or feminine expresses a person’s inner-sexed-essence, gender exists only in the performance of it. The act creates the illusion of a person behaving in accordance with their true nature; the behaviour itself constructs the fiction of a true nature. Butler’s argument is quite abstract here, but if we look more historically we can see that sex, which seems like a natural fact, has a social history. For example, Stephen Jay Gould comments that the birth of women’s sport marked the passage from a unisex concept of bodily excellence (although with men usually nearer the top of the continuum) to a dual one with different physical standards for men and women.24

Butler’s argument about gendered behaviour creating the fiction of a gendered identity is connected to the Marxist concept of reification, or how people attribute ‘thinghood’ to social relationships. Money is a social relation between people, but appears as a thing with its own natural properties. Gender, a social relation between men and women producing and reproducing in a capitalist world, appears as a natural result of the biological thing ‘sex’. Butler develops her argument by extending the feminist conception of gender as socially constructed to include this biological ‘fact’ of sex. When we examine this fact—the ‘obvious’ difference between men and women—it boils down to the ability to have children. This is not as obvious or unideological as it seems: some women cannot have children and some do not want to. Women can only reproduce for perhaps a minority of their lives. Feminists have rightly criticised the overuse of high-tech medical procedures on women giving birth, yet often the critique relies on asserting that ‘pregnancy and birth are natural for women’.25 For Butler, such an association of gender with reproduction—however well-meaning—normalises heterosexuality as (potentially or ideally) leading to reproduction. It particularly stigmatises women who do not or cannot bear children. She argues that feminist acceptance of such definitions of women ‘produced a similar factionalisation and even a disavowal of feminism altogether’.26

Historical and cross-cultural variations support the thesis that sexual classifications are constructed. The Navaho have traditionally viewed people born with both male and female genitals as blessed with complete personhood, rather than cursed with an abnormal genetic make-up. As intersex activists argue, this is a stark contrast to the way that doctors measure babies’ genitalia and operate when they discover ‘too small’ penises, ‘too large’ clitorises, or other abnormalities. Heterosexual penetrative sex is the gold standard to which bodies must be seen to conform, even if the operation will reduce a person’s ability to experience sexual pleasure. Butler’s analysis also suggests reasons for so many people’s deep-felt attachment to genetic parenthood—or the nearest approximation—within many advanced capitalist cultures (although she does not historicise her account). While British women travel to poor countries in the desperate hope of adopting babies, older children wait desperately here for fostering or adoption. When a child is older, adoptive parents cannot so easily act out a version of genetic parenthood. The acts do not fit; they fail to create the illusion of that ideal parent-child relationship.

When this ideal relation appears threatened, disruptions often follow, with the adult-child feeling a deep sense of loss and often searching for their ‘real’, ‘biological’ parent. There may well be a clash between how a sperm donor and his genetic offspring view their relationship to each other. Alongside the development of family forms and reproductive technologies that seem to threaten dominant ideologies, we see laws and definitions twisted to incorporate these new technologies. But as Butler places the argument on primarily philosophical and psychoanalytic levels, she limits it. Reproductive technologies have already enabled women to bear a female partner’s child; recently a foetus with three parents was created. Artificial incubation of foetuses is no longer pure science fiction, and would literally separate women from child-bearing. What effects will these technologies, developed under capitalism, have on sex, gender and sexualities? This is still being fought over and fragile links are being made between movements previously suspicious of each other.27

Gender Trouble’s feminist revaluation of drag also promotes unity between feminist and gay movements. Some feminists have argued that drag and camp belittle women or at best celebrate victimhood. Well-known camp icon Marilyn Monroe was also a victim of powerful men who dragged her up in their image of femininity: busty, blonde and stupid.28 In the repressive climate of 1950s Hollywood, there was no space for this clever woman who escaped a desperately poor upbringing, read avidly and supported civil rights. But Mae West is a camp icon of quite a different kind, shocking rather than simpering. As Butler argues, parodying gender cannot simply be read as oppressive. She would ask, why are you defending femininity anyway?

Butler’s theories encourage ideas about the place of parody in art and music. This can prompt new ways of designing different activist interventions—art and politics aren’t the same, but neither should they be separate. Radical artist Jo Spence produced pictures of herself parodying ‘the ideal housewife’29 but also—and in my view more interestingly—turned the meanings attached to her breast cancer into a work of art and, by doing so, questioned medical treatments for the disease as well as the audience’s expected experience of art. Cindy Sherman’s work is celebrated as postmodern feminist parody, but Claude Cahun’s work pioneered such manipulation of an artist’s own photographic image in the 1920s. Cahun has been written out of official surrealist history; her work, clearly connected to her gender and her lesbian desires, maybe presupposes a rather different unconscious to Dali’s or Magritte’s. (It also doesn’t assume that revealing one’s deepest desires necessarily challenges oppressive social conventions, an assumption undermined by the images of women produced by many male surrealists.) More recently, Chris Ofili’s colourful ‘elephant dung’ paintings ironically commemorate images of black hyper-sexuality, and other racialised myths.

These parodic pictures highlight, as Butler would say, the constructed nature of all gender performances. They comment on whether identity

construction starts from an attributed or a natural identity. As Michel Foucault argued, the construction of homosexuality as an attribute of people rather than acts is culturally and historically specific.30 But we are still caught in the trap of identity, as Butler recognises. The example of one musician, Kurt Cobain, suggests the limits of artistic parody: a self-described feminist who identified with victimised women, he used outrageous costumes (appearing onstage in a wheelchair and wedding dress) trying to alienate fans who drastically misinterpreted songs like ‘Polly’ and ‘Rape Me’. But such fans saw these performances as just a bona fide male Rock God’s druggy follies—not, as Cobain wished, as a challenge to sexism and homophobia. This failure to have his performances generally interpreted as challenging oppressive gender norms, rather than reinforcing them, led to a Rape Crisis Centre refusing the profits from ‘Rape Me’, a song whose lyrics clearly intend to attack violence against women. The centre understandably prioritised interpretation over intention, and his failure to reconcile the two ultimately proved fatal to Cobain.

So how do we know whether our actions will shore up the system or challenge it? Plenty of advertising uses parody and incorporates subversive street styles, but most critical theorists would analyse this as them colonising us, rather than vice versa. But on this crucial question Butler has little to say, arguing that she doesn’t want to attempt to lay down ‘rules of subversion’. But without more political analysis (not the rigid rules Butler implies), we can’t develop strategy and tactics at all.31 This just means that those who shout the loudest end up putting forward their strategy, which is undemocratic and perhaps ineffective or damaging to the movement. To predict the likely outcome of a strategy of resistance, we need to examine who is involved in the actions, under what banner they are gathered together, their demands, the broader political context and what links they are developing to other groups.

Many activists, looking for guidance in difficult times, did think Gender Trouble was advocating drag as a political strategy. But here the problem of agency appears again. A poststructuralist framework suggests that intentional subjects do not exist, except as an imaginary side-effect of discourse—the language and practices that give us the impression that we are active agents in the world. This is the approach that Butler takes in her follow-up Bodies That Matter.32 She argues that she is only showing the ways that ‘slippages’ take place—where gender performances through failure subvert themselves. People do not ‘act’ gender, rather gendered performances create our impressions of coherent, gendered people. This however always fails, producing visible subversion—failed gender performance, incoherent subjects.

Here Butler builds on Althusser’s example of interpellation or hailing as the way that identities are created. Althusser argued that capitalist ideology, through treating us as if we are freely acting subjects, binds us into the system and ensures that we perpetuate it. But if human subjectivity itself (rather than particular versions of it) is already so complicit in the service of power and domination, change seems impossible. If resistance is merely a ‘slippage’ in the smooth operation of power relations, rather than ways people can change these relations, how can we even discuss (as Butler does) political strategies? Here Althusser’s anti-humanist vision of history as a process without a subject is at its most theoretically disabling. Butler, even more than Althusser’s old student Foucault, is caught between libertarian anarchism (which attracts activists) and strict poststructuralism (popular with academics). Yet poststructuralism cannot solve the problem of agency. While Butler critiques the intentional subject, seemingly under the impression that Enlightenment person is the only one out there, it comes back to haunt her. In much of her writing, power appears every bit as controlling and intentional as the Enlightenment person, but even more metaphysical and even less satisfactory.33

Butler does, however, improve on Foucault’s analysis of power. He insisted power was productive rather than repressive, constructing new ways of being rather than stopping people acting in certain ways. This was an argument against the hippie-inspired belief that lifting censorship and repression would necessarily bring liberation.34 Yet contrary to to this belief, sexism today doesn’t work so much by stopping women talking about sex, but by encouraging them to talk freely about it in ways that do not threaten the sexist power structure. While Foucault’s approach has the virtue of emphasising ideology as positive rather than just negative, it has easily degenerated into a bogus neutrality which ignores the everyday coercion capitalism inflicts on people. By contrast, Butler understands power as both productive and repressive. When neo-liberalism constructs people as rational economic agents in every aspect of life, it also forbids us to see ourselves as social citizens in the old Keynesian sense—and, I would stress, it opens up opportunities for collective challenges which can reach beyond nostalgia for the past. If we get rid of the unhelpful, all-encompassing concept of ‘power’, this insight could be part of a Marxist theory of how social relations work ideologically—and how they are always prone to breakdown.

However, Butler does not do this, so despite greater theoretical consistency her later reformulation continues not to satisfy activists inspired by her arguments who want to retain political agency. Other writers insist on the importance of the historical context in which multiple sexual identities appear. For Marxists, the context is the cancer stage of capitalism, in which corporations force open ever more areas to be commodified. The new commons they are enclosing include our bodies and souls. Biotech makers learn from ‘alternative’ purveyors of vitamins to the healthy, and manufacture ever more pills for new treatable yet non-curable pathologies (which they also promote, from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to social shyness disorder). When women won greater participation in the labour force, this undermined the traditional family and allowed some sections of capital to profit from their independent spending power and their desire to define their own lives free from the old patriarchal conventions. This is a double-edged process, which acknowledges greater tolerance of difference even as it turns difference into profit for its own agenda (and as other capitalists sponsor a reactionary backlash).

As Cathy Griggs argues, ‘The cultural space for contemporary lesbian identities to exist—economic freedom from dependence on a man—is a historical outcome of late industrial capitalism’s commodity logic in its total war phase in the first half of the 20th century’.35 Marxists, just like Butler, want to move beyond ‘identity politics’ like radical feminism, and share with her a dissatisfaction with merely deconstructing identity. Where we differ is in locating identity and anti-identity in the context of capitalism, seeing the beginnings of an answer in the unity in diversity produced by class struggles.

Advanced capitalism’s commodification of identities collides with another feature of contemporary political economy—the continued importance of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and the nuclear family in reproducing the labour force, in a climate of increasing neo-liberalism and the re-privatisation of care. The different ‘spheres’ carved out by the welfare state are marked by internal and external contradictions and fissures; as socialised care in the US falls apart, affluent women employ immigrant women to care for their kids, who then employ women back home to care for theirs.36 The interpenetration—and yet continued separation—of the cultural and the economic is not only a painful fact of life for groups defined as marginal to the reproduction of capitalism, but for everybody.

Such symbolic and material links are not ignored by activists in various campaigns. Gender parody and other forms of parody are often part of protests (for example, anti-war or anti-capitalist) where sexuality or identity is not a central target. When parody appears in this context, it can link the cultural and the political, potentially making it harder for spectators to interpret the images as a ‘natural identity’ bringing demonstrators together. Controversy often follows. The New Internationalist magazine’s front cover illustrating ‘The Other America’ showed a woman protester dressed in a stars and stripes bikini, holding giant inflatable missiles.37 The letters page filled up: was this humorous creativity parodying gender and the military, or the re-creation of sexist norms?

Political parody draws on 1960s street theatre, Caribbean carnival, ACT-UP38 and other traditions. These are still strong: when people dressed as fairies asked cops to dance at an anti arms fair protest, the cops did not share the joke. Although last year’s Notting Hill Carnival was more corporate and smaller than in previous years, the expressions on the faces of the police show that they still hate people having the freedom to celebrate black culture, politics and history in the streets. Yet queer theorist Andrew Parker accuses the left of stigmatising theatricality (and thus homosexuality) when we talk about appearance concealing reality.39 But theatricality has long been part of left wing history—revolution as the festival of the oppressed! Moreover the distinction between appearance and reality is complex, as Gramsci argued, rather than simple binary opposites of true and false. All critical theorists who want to criticise received ideas rely on some such distinction—in Judith Butler’s theory of gender she argues that people read off a false ‘essence’ from appearance. Of course (and this is perhaps Parker’s real target) Marxists do argue against the prioritisation of a narrowly conceived ‘cultural’ struggle. We can instead agree with Judith Butler when she says that struggles against heterosexism are linked to workers’ struggles to halt the smooth reproduction of capitalism. The family structure that reproduces capitalism also produces oppressed genders and sexualities.40

When Butler characterises queer politics as a radical critique which transcends boundaries between culture and economics, she is implicitly putting forward an inspiring vision of what queer politics could be like. No wonder that she receives thousands of e-mails from the new generation of activists. Identity politics had offered gays ‘10%’41 minority status, but many activists had never seen that as their aim, just as Sheila Rowbotham said that 1960s feminists ‘didn’t want to be like our mothers, but we didn’t want to be like our fathers either’. Becoming a minority meant getting on the list for a ticket to the fight for ever-diminishing crumbs from the municipal table. While this may have paid for much-needed culturally appropriate services, it encouraged bitter divisions. In the US many people now talk of ‘people of colour’ as a sign that they want to unite and move beyond these painful rows. Becoming a minority means respectability: not to be lightly dismissed given the extent of oppression, but problematic if the state is part of the problem.

In this political climate (aggravated in the US and Britain by major trade union defeats) queer theory has appealed to many who were turned off by mainstream lesbian and gay organisations’ quest for normality. Instead of quiet lobbying, the movement was to go out onto the streets shouting ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!’ As Rosemary Hennessy comments:

Claiming a queer identity is an effort to speak from and to the differences that have been suppressed both by heteronorms and the homo-hetero binary: the transsexual, bisexual, and any other ways of ‘experiencing’ and expressing sensuality and affect that do not conform to the prevailing organisation of sexuality.42

Queer was conceived as an anti-identity: you were in if you wanted to be. Queer theory said, borrowing Foucault’s insistence on the contingent and constructed nature of all identities and of ‘identity’ itself, no one’s really anything—get used to it! How useful ‘queer’ is as an anti-identity strategy has been much debated since.

Some feel ‘queer’ has now come to mean an affluent, white gay man. All radical activists constantly have to contend with this congealing of a sign of liberation into an unsatisfactory closure. For example, class shouldn’t imply any personal characteristics, apart from a social relationship to capital (living by the sale of one’s labour power). This is why Marxists argue that changes in the kind of jobs people do, and in working class culture, don’t imply the end of class. But there’s still a constant struggle against ‘class’ hardening and being used to mean a particular type of person. We are still fighting against the idea of the ‘typical’ working class person being a white male (presumed heterosexual) manual worker. Class becomes a reified cultural product, a matter of status—and that awful academic concept of ‘classism’, meaning being rude to people with regional accents.

Statistically, identifying the working class with white, straight, male manual workers isn’t true internationally or even nationally. To make this assumption (as many Stalinists and ex-Stalinists have done) binds class up with a dominant gender, nation, ‘race’ and sexuality, excluding the majority of people who could actually come together as working class. Thinking of class in terms of daily experiences—resenting and defying the boss—is positive and unavoidable. But it does mean a constant tension over who is meant by ‘working class’. Who do we imagine when we imagine other working class people? We need to assert the many similarities among workers’ experiences without denying differences between workers in, for example, the global North and South. The Marxist project should be to use class to connect people with different identities and experiences, in fighting for a socialist society without exploitation and oppression. We want to make class an open, bridging and dynamic sign, which levers open ‘economics’ to include and reveal wider social relations, including sexuality. In the Bolton Seven case (gay men prosecuted for consensual sado-masochism), the comrade who persuaded the local branch of construction union UCATT to send a banner in support of the men was proving in practice that this can work.

So Marxists believe that we can keep ‘class’ inclusive and at the same time radically challenge capitalism. On the other hand, to the extent that queer politics succeeds in keeping its sign open, it risks colluding with the commodity logic that has embraced the buying and selling of identities like tourist goods. Queer Nation (a US group formed out of ACT-UP) has targeted shopping malls, using tactics like kiss-ins to scandalise moral majorities, presenting homosexuality as another consumer product.43 But by distancing their politics from a critique of capitalism, these activists are in danger of exchanging one problematic myth (the ‘inner essence’ as the authentic truth of the person) for another (liberation through accepting the commodification of identities). Both these myths can be used to bolster the capitalist system, and to derail and split movements. The commodified, fragmented self propped up by targeted pharmaceutical maintenance is no solution, but—like the autonomous subject—is a creation of capitalism that limits what we could be. While many Foucauldian analyses see the coherent, self-contained subject as the myth of our time, acute writers like Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak recognise that politics without identity is just as impossible as politics based on fixed, naturalised identities. What class politics should offer is a move beyond both these chimeras, to construct class solidarities that accept, celebrate and practically develop diversity from below. In theoretical terms we could examine the changes in wage labour and commodity production that are driving shifts in sexual identity, even as these revamped identities then affect the kinds of commodities produced.

Still, Judith Butler’s work demonstrates a welcome political turn in poststructuralism, particularly apparent among feminists. While it remains partial when there is a failure to link its critique with the political economy of capitalism, there are nevertheless many interesting starting points for analysing sexuality, gender and other issues under advanced capitalism. I have particularly focused on her links to gay, feminist and anti-war movements, as these are crucial to understanding her ideas. Her vision of transcending deconstruction to focus on building solidarities and even universal goals shares much with Marxism, and her earlier writing on parody helps us think about biology, gender and artistic-political intervention. As the activist in Butler realises, we can’t stop talking about agency if we believe that it’s possible to change the world. As Marxists, we have an answer to the question of agency and we now have big movements, which include many people influenced by writers like Butler, within which we can argue this.


  1. M Nussbaum, ‘The Professor of Parody: The Hip Defeatism of Judith Butler’, New Republic, February 1999.

  2. ‘No, It’s Not Anti-Semitic’, 2003,

  3. ‘Jews and the Bi-National Vision’, 2004,

  4. J Butler, ‘We the Anti-Patriots’, Il Manifesto, March 2003.

  5. ‘Changing the Subject: Judith Butler’s Politics of Radical Resignification’, in S Salih and J Butler (eds), The Judith Butler Reader (Blackwell, 2004).

  6. Alex Callinicos’s Against Postmodernism (Polity Press, 1989) uses this framework to accurately skewer Lyotard, Baudrillard and their then-fashionable milieu.

  7. L German, Sex, Class and Socialism (Bookmarks, 1989).

  8. C Barker and G Dale, ‘Protest Waves in Western Europe: A Critique of “New Social Movement” Theory’, Critical Sociology, vol 24, no 1/2 (1999), pp65-104.

  9. I’m thinking particularly of Andrea Dworkin’s novels, which are presumably intended to raise awareness of victimisation but end up resembling the sadist pornography they attack.

  10. D Bensaïd, Marx for our Times (Verso, 2002).

  11. Best advice is to start with articles and selections rather than her full-length books: a recent collection by Verso (2004) is entitled Precarious Life, and this year also saw Blackwell’s publication of The Judith Butler Reader.

  12. Left Conservatism II (conference at the University of California, Santa Cruz), 1998,

  13. In The Nation, 1 April 2002.

  14. P Gilroy, Between Camps: Nations, Cultures and the Allure of Race (Penguin, 2001).

  15. In the preface to the 1999 edition of Gender Trouble.

  16. ‘Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of Postmodernism’, in J Butler and J W Scott (eds), Feminists Theorize the Political (Routledge, 1992), pp3-21.

  17. Writings from the women’s health movement provide fascinating—and terrifying—contemporary and historical examples of these sexist views. See, for example, B Ehrenreich and D English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (Pluto, 1979).

  18. D Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Blackwell, 1989).

  19. L Vygotsky, Thought and Language (MIT Press, 1962).

  20. Introduction to the 2nd edition of Gender Trouble, 1999.

  21. See S Rowbotham et al, Beyond the Fragments (Consortium, 1981).

  22. N Field, Over the Rainbow: Money, Class and Homophobia (Pluto Press, 1995), p138.

  23. Butler sometimes argues that heterosexual performances more easily hide their falseness, but at the same time, she wants to resist prescribing a politically correct form of drag.

  24. S J Gould, The Lying Stones of Marrakech (Vintage, 2001).

  25. G Scambler and P Higgs, Medicine, Modernity and Health (Routledge, 1998).

  26. ‘Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of Postmodernism’, in J Butler and J W Scott (eds), as above, pp3-21.

  27. Such as between feminist and disability movements on the question of aborting disabled foetuses. Activists on both sides are starting to argue that while defending women’s right to choose, we also need to attack the way Big Pharma runs medical research, and demand control and choice over that too.

  28. A Bakan, ‘The Legend of Marilyn Monroe’, International Socialism 11, (Winter 1981), pp73-83.

  29. J Walker, Art in the Age of Mass Media (Pluto, 2001).

  30. The men who went to molly houses in Georgian Britain to find male prostitutes and transvestites were not homosexual as we know it, as that category did not exist then.

  31. See the articles collected in C Barker et al, Leadership and Social Movements (Manchester University Press, 2001).

  32. J Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (Routledge, 1993).

  33. Butler often refers to a ‘ruse of power’ or a ‘ruse of authority’ showing that, as she has acknowledged, one cannot just write out agency. So what are the effects of writing agency in this way? A Callinicos, as above, critiques this.

  34. M Foucault, The History of Sexuality 1: The Will to Knowledge (Penguin, 1998).

  35. C Griggs, ‘Lesbian Bodies in the Age of (Post)mechanical Reproduction’, in M Warner (ed), Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp178-192.

  36. B Ehrenreich and A Russell Hochschild (eds), Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy (Granta, 2003).

  37. New Internationalist 351, November 2002.

  38. The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, particularly active in the US in the late 1980s.

  39. A Parker, ‘Unthinking Sex: Marx, Engels and the Scene of Writing’, in M Warner (ed), as above, pp28-45.

  40. J Butler, ‘Merely Cultural’, Social Text 52/53, 1997, pp265-277.

  41. The title of a mainstream gay magazine in the US.

  42. R Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism (Routledge, 2000), p52.

  43. SHOP—the Suburban Homosexual Outreach Project.