- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
Across the political spectrum, it has become somewhat of a bromide to argue that sexuality is socially constructed. Leftists defend social constructivism in order to undermine essentializing ideas about sexuality, and reactionaries do so in order to wage a war on what they view as gender ideology. Rarely do people take this fact as an opportunity to develop an understanding of sexuality as something shaped by the transformation of economic and social relations.
Before dying tragically at age thirty-two, Christopher Chitty, a PhD student in the History of Consciousness Department at University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote a brilliantly original but unfinished book, Sexual Hegemony. In it he produced an imaginative fusion of the epoch-stretching world systems theory of the historical sociologists Giovanni Arrighi and the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s ideas about sexuality to ask a fundamental question: How has capitalism shaped the emergence of both homophobia and homosexuality? For Jacobin’s The Dig podcast, editor Max Fox and contributor Chris Nealson spoke to Daniel Denvir about these complex issues. You can find the episode here.
We should start this interview by talking about Christopher Chitty, the author of the remarkable book we’re discussing. Who was Chris and what was his project?
Christopher Chitty was a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz in the History of Consciousness Department. He died in 2015. He was a thinker who was engaged in revisiting the tradition of sexual liberation from Marxist premises with an aim at illuminating both poles in a new way. And he was working on this extremely ambitious project for his PhD dissertation that ended up becoming this book that I edited called Sexual Hegemony. It provides a narrative that seeks to explain the development of the category of the male homosexual through a history of the capitalist world system. And kind of vice versa.
Max got to know Chris quite well at Santa Cruz, but he and I only met once in person at Berkeley, where at the time I was still teaching, to discuss the possibility of my working with him. His project was, as Max explains, to rethink both the history of capitalism and that of sexuality. And I got super excited and signed on, kind of on the spot, and got to know Chris primarily through him sending me drafts of what would finally become this book.
I understand that Chris was also a committed organizer in social movements, particularly those around the University of California and also in Oakland. He may have been one of the anonymous authors of Communique From an Absent Future, which announced this new period of student struggle from both graduates and undergraduates and put the language of Occupy really in an activist circulation two years before Occupy Wall Street. Can you say a little bit about his politics and how his activism frames this project?
I mean, obviously he was not only a brilliant scholar, but he was a fairly committed militant. He showed up in Santa Cruz in, I think, 2008 right before the start of the financial crisis.
He was part of a student movement against unprecedented tuition hikes. Fees rose by over 30 percent in a single year. All of a sudden, the state claimed they didn’t have the revenue to support higher education at the levels that they once had. And so he and comrades and friends assemble this statewide mobilization with a very sophisticated analysis of the relationship between the university and the function of education in the capitalist state. Practically, this resistance took the form of building occupations.
The explicit aim at the time was to put occupation back on the table as a tactic. In that sense, it was certainly successful, because a couple of years later, it became this global practice. I remember, I was in one building occupation and we had a Zoom with students who were engaged in similar struggles in Switzerland, perhaps, or Vienna or something. We made these international connections, to the point where there was a violent crackdown on one of the occupations in, I think, Berkeley and these people who we had just been video chatting with marched on the American embassy in Vienna to protest our treatment at the hands of the Berkeley police department, which I was really moved by. It’s a really touching but also slightly funny gesture that the American embassy would have anything to do with such a decision.
So that was the context in which I met him and that he became this beloved figure in Santa Cruz political struggle. And then he moved up to Oakland after the Occupy Oakland struggles that took place a couple of years after this university struggle.
Turning to the book, Sexual Hegemony asks a really big question: What’s the relationship between sexual practices and identity and the social form of capitalist rule? But before we get to Chris’s argument, can you sketch out for us what the prevailing ideas among Marxists have been on this question?
In terms of homosexuality and capitalism, I think there’s a set of arguments that were made by activists in early liberationist days, about whether and in what sense homosexuality or homosexuals could be considered a class, literally or in analogy with the working class. There is another set of arguments that emerge later in the first semiprofessional and then professional practice of writing gay history. These projects have more to do with making sense of the ways in which the kind of male homosexuality and in some sense lesbianism we know today, emerged out of capitalism.
Famous arguments were made about, say, military service in World War II sifting people into same-sex environments and then familiarizing them with the pleasures of those environments as they returned to civilian life and congregated in places like San Francisco or New York. So making more or less direct arguments about the relationship between capitalism and aspects of capitalists like serving in the military during a time of war lead to claiming an identity that wasn’t available before. Another tradition claimed that homosexuality was part of a way of thinking about yourself as an outsider to capital, a renegade, a deviant, unincorporated and therefore resistant to doing all that capitalism asks of us.
There’s also a less sympathetic way that some Marxists have thought about homosexuality, famously imagining it as a sort of bourgeois decadence and a pernicious deviation that healthy proletarian society would be able to eliminate. It’s obviously not solely the purview of Marxists or communists to think this way, but these arguments have existed on the Left.
Most concretely Sexual Hegemony is about how to think about the regulation of sexuality as a technique of bourgeois rule. Chris seems to reach for hegemony to make sense of how sexuality is managed beyond mere repression of deviant sexual practices and through the construction and manipulation of morals and mores. But is it also about the role of sexuality in any given hegemonic project, or does the notion of sexual hegemony relate to something particular to bourgeois rule?
My immediate answer is, yes, it is bourgeois. Chris makes a pretty clear claim that the decoupling of biological reproduction from the reproduction of ownership is one of the preconditions for sexuality to be a free-floating thing that requires both direct and indirect ways of being managed and manipulated. That’s just not a germane category of pre-bourgeois societies. Before its inception, sexuality just wasn’t free-floating enough yet.
At the same time in this study that he’s doing, he’s very deliberately looking at premodern, early modern, pre-bourgeois social formations. There he looked for evidence of their various attempts at intervening in sexual conduct. So he sort of historicized the emergence of sexuality as an object that’s somehow separate from forms of direct domination, let’s say.
It’s one of those tricky or contradictory elements of his study, because he’s looking at dynamics of capitalist accumulation, that are at one end of a fairly coherent chain of historical processes that lead to the present, but importantly, are not part of the social dynamic that predominates now. Essentially, he’s trying to allow the historicity of these practices to come into relief by looking at things that are both stable across heterogeneous social formations and which undergo significant change.
Part of what’s so interesting is that the historical scope of the book, which we’ll be talking about a little bit, is so wide — it ends in the contemporary and begins pretty early on in the history of capitalism. You can see the weaponization of sodomy, as a political tool, as a tool of scale, as a tool of management of people. It looks different when an emergent bourgeoisie is weaponizing sodomy against its rivals, the aristocracy, than it does later when it’s mobilizing the specter of sodomy against working populations to regulate them in various ways.
At the same time, and Chris makes this point early on in his book, there’s this important historical struggle; it’s a three-way struggle that facilitates the emergence of the bourgeoisie where it has to establish victory over the aristocracy for domination of what we might now call working people or proletarians. That three-way tug looks different at various moments in the manuscript.
Chris points out that male homosexuality is this constant site of cross-class contact as well as intraclass potential for scandal. And so what you might do to weaponize sexuality, to weaponize sodomy accusations, to nudge a rival out of competition for resources or to position the class against another class more advantageously could look different in different scenarios and different historical moments.
So accusations against vagrancy early in the period that Chris is studying are all intertwined with sodomy prosecutions. Later on, of course, modern versions of public health become intertwined with the desire to make sure that there’s no homosexual activity taking place within or close to the working nuclear family. So what it means to weaponize sodomy proves advantageous differently for an emergent and later a dominant bourgeoisie that’s looking to maintain its dominance at different times. It’s a very mobile tool. I think that fact is partly what allows Chris to investigate such a huge range of historical material, because it’s this changing, but actually strangely constant, through line for the bourgeoisie.
What sort of questions was Chitty trying to answer about the operation of power that commonsense understandings of bourgeois normativity cannot answer? Earlier, we discussed where Chitty fits into Marxist scholarship, what sort of intervention did Sexual Hegemony mark out in the field of queer theory?
I think for Chitty, normativity is a little free-floating, like where do norms come from? I know that can sound sort of anti-intellectual, but that’s the last thing Chris was. I think he had a pretty rigorous analysis of how normativity is kind of a free-floating punt if you’re being really materialist about who’s creating the situation in which something gets even to be normative or considered normative in the first place. By punting that question, you can lose track of different aspects of a class struggle and how that struggle looks different in different times and places. I think what he was partly doing is trying to get away from that dynamic for those reasons, because it didn’t seem to have a really good cause-and-effect story.
But also, the thing about normativity is that it divides the world into the normal and the queer, or the normal and the abnormal. And though that is a rhetorical thing, throughout say the late nineteenth and into the twentieth century, that rhetorical story isn’t necessarily the same as what’s going on on the ground. Late in the game, in the use of the word normative in queer theory, there have been attempts to acknowledge that there might be populations of homosexuals who feel quite happy and who even aspire to normalcy, for instance.
The language of homonormativity tries to rescue the analytic utility of the concept of the normative by saying, “Well, it’s not so simple as saying there are the normies and the queers. There are a lot of queers who want to be normies, or maybe a lot of normies who wish they were queer.” And so you end up, as you can see, with this kind of like circular thing, where not only historical cause and effect slip out of the picture, but it also sort of ends up being about categories, as opposed to actual social dynamics of struggle. I think Chris was really conscious of trying to do the second thing more than the first. Whatever utility normativity, homo or otherwise, might have had really depends on local contexts at one time or another.
In the introduction, he talks about the normal as a kind of status property that frees you from a condescension toward the people who would feel that the acquisition of such status properties is necessary for them. Sometimes you need to appeal to a certain kind of stability or whatever, because you and your world is under attack by the state, for example. And so the attainment of a kind of normativity, or status property, can still then be conceptualized as maybe not being totally in your revolutionary interests. But it’s not the object of false consciousness.
Sure, we can acknowledge that sexuality and gender are socially constructed, which is at some level the big achievement of certain kinds of queer theory. But you need a critical approach to capitalist society to understand the means of constructing it, otherwise shaping sexuality becomes something completely out of our hands, right?
Unless you’re sort of attached to a slightly liberal voluntarist idea of society as the concord of contracting powers, you need to have some sense of the social as class society. Otherwise, you’re kind of still lost in the confusion that you were hoping to get out of by saying it’s all social anyway.
For Chitty what you really need is political economic context. And critical to that context is the separation of producers from control over the means of production, which is, from a Marxist perspective, critical to the rise of capitalism.
It’s also critical, Chitty argues, in the creation of modern forms of sexuality. What is the relationship as Chitty sees it between the separation of producers and the means of production? What Marxists called primitive accumulation, on the one hand, and on the other, the separation of biological reproduction and the reproduction of ownership? And what then did that all mean for sexuality in general and male same-sex sex in particular?
If by ownership you mean the ownership of the things that would allow you to reproduce your own existence, a separation from that, not bourgeois property ownership, it becomes a very interesting story. It is a story about migration out of family structures and into places like cities.
I think that there’s something really interesting there in Chris’s work about how the homosexuality that we either see or project onto the past — see in it our own projection onto the past — is like a vector for actual and potential forms of life and ways of building community that have anti-capitalist potential, almost less than the fact of the sexuality itself. But the way that those migrants see that within the family they are superfluous, capitalist production means they are no longer needed to maintain the farm, and that they must go survive some other way in the city, leads to a life where you encounter other people in a similar situation and experience forms of intimacy that, whatever sexual acts they may entail with other men, create the possibility of envisioning or living, in small ways, differently to the dominant ideal.
Chris’s word was de-dramatize. He sort of thought of male homosexuality as having afforded these interesting opportunities across time for thinking outside the box, the capitalist box. Nothing innate to homosexuality affords that, but the questions those experiences raise are actually quite deep, and possibly deeper to flash forward a little bit than maybe somebody even like Foucault wanted to think about.
That phrase, the decoupling of biological reproduction from the reproduction of ownership, for me the meaning of that lies in the liquidation of peasant ownership that took place during the transition to capitalist society. So if you think about peasant families, title in property is contingent on being married and having viable offspring to whom you can pass down the plot. This was very clearly regulated, legally and ecclesiastically, as well as on the other pole.
Noble right is obviously a biologically produced political property as well. As the transition to capitalist society begins to disrupt these patterns of reproduction of property transmission, you start to see the out migration or expulsion of landless peasants who show up in the cities or show up in the countryside as vagrants as this historically new population. If you think about the sort of legal regulatory structure of the time, that population doesn’t really have a legible mode of reproducing itself sexually, or materially.
So, former peasants are working in all kinds of informal labor markets, which are at this moment, mostly controlled by the guild. The guilds find this new population to be disruptive, they’re not really capable of forming families because the Church won’t marry people unless they have title to property, which you can’t get because you’re displaced from your parish of origin. So that’s the context for me to understand that as a decoupling that has a historical, political, economic meaning that’s not just, like, people started thinking a little bit differently about these things.
Evidence of male-male eroticism exists throughout history, I think virtually everywhere, but Chitty argues that homosexuality, as we conceive it today, has not. And so homosexuality as we understand it emerges only under historically determinate conditions. He also argues that homophobia is not some eternal or constant feature of history since time immemorial. And in fact, making sense of the policing and punishment of homosexuality requires a different historical tool kit than the theory of recurring phobias or panics over deviant practices or other identities.
For Chitty, the policing of homosexuality intensifies at these particular political economic moments of crisis. What are those moments? And what function does the policing of homosexuality serve at those moments?
I think, if we pause for a moment and acknowledge that capitalism is never not in crisis in one sense or another, which is to say that it takes a whole lot of activity to maintain accumulation, then you could say that partly what’s interesting about Chris’s study is that there are moments where what you’re looking at historically is the consolidation of certain kinds of capitalist or protocapitalist responses to crises of profitability in which things are on the upswing.
In those contexts, sodomy accusations or homophobia are weaponizable in certain ways to help people gain access to increasing spoils. But in other circumstances where a form of profitable pursuit or accumulation is on the decline or in disarray, perhaps dragging with it a form of governance that used to help facilitate that kind of accumulation, this leads to circumstances in which homophobia is weaponized to police populations around access to diminishing spoils or social surpluses. Of course, you could say that contemporary homophobia and transphobia looks like case number two. But crisis could mean different things. It’s related to how Chris uses some broad histories and sociologies of capitalism to build his historical story and how that can take a cyclical form.
The architecture of the book is organized around these periods of crises at the closing of a systemic cycle of accumulation, which is a term that he adopts from the Marxist historian Giovanni Arrighi.
Arrighi was a member of the world systems expanded universe, central one. Following the French annals school historian Fernand Braudel, he adopted a longue durée approach, which means taking an extremely long historical time frame and using it to trace historical processes that in a given moment would be imperceptible. Looked at from this perspective, these phenomena reveal themselves to be the product of trends.
And Marx also is someone who makes this observation that the history of capitalism has a series of hegemonic centers that seem to sort of pass off a particular role of organizing, first material expansion, and then kind of financialization as they undergo this flip to the next cycle. Arrighi really develops this in quite remarkable detail in a book called The Long Twentieth Century that traces this history of systemic cycles of accumulation from Genoa to Amsterdam to London and then to the United States as sort of increasingly comprehensive and intensive systems of war, trade, and production. These processes exhibit regular two-phase cycles of the expansion of trade and material production and then a switch to financialization, which he says is the sign of the autumn of given historical centers of hegemony.
In a period of financialization, sort of behind its back, the hegemonic center is laying the groundwork for literally financing the expansion of the next hegemon. So, according to Arrighi, Genoa ends up basically paying for Amsterdam to supplant it. Amsterdam does the same at some level for London, which does the same for the United States or New York. Chitty takes this as a kind of historical rubric for looking at what he discovers are kind of regular moments of state repression of cultures of male same-sex activity. He’s very careful not to call it homosexuality at the beginning, because the categories for that to be meaningful aren’t there yet. But he’s looking at moments of financial crisis, basically as providing a backdrop for these periods of state repression.
I think one of the things about Chris’s interest in the Arrighi model is that he was writing in the aftermath of a financial crisis. That, for Arrighi himself, led to a real conundrum. Arrighi was very careful about saying, I don’t know what comes next because each cycle of accumulation has a wider arc geopolitically than the previous one. And the US’s was the briefest and the most globally encompassing, which leads to tough questions about who or what is next. China was often the answer, except a subsequent book of Arrighi’s, which argued that China couldn’t be the answer, per se; you had to start to think about the whole system.
Arrighi wrote a book called Adam Smith in Beijing, which suggests that China does emerge at the end of this process as a place of strangely very pure capitalist experimentation, because the Chinese state can afford to back that kind of capitalist experimentation because they have a state-controlled economy. But the full title of that book, in some ways, would be something like Adam Smith in Beijing, James Boggs in Detroit because he’s looking at the perfect and the shattered conditions of profitability in the same book. So there can’t be a single answer after this. And that’s the moment in which Chris was writing about this great perplexity, about the extendibility of this cycles of accumulation model that Arrighi himself was puzzling just before his death.
Let’s turn to the more specific history beginning with the ascent of capitalist social relations in the early modern Mediterranean world, particularly northern Italian cities, and why it was that that political economic context was conducive in the way that it was to just sex between men. But before we get to that, let’s start with the basic political economy. What was going on in roughly the fifteenth and sixteenth century during that period in northern Italy, and where in retrospect, does that fit within the development of the capitalist world system?
In northern Italy, let’s say in the twelfth or thirteenth century, emerging from the infamously non-dynamic Middle Ages, there’s a Eurasia-wide increase in economic activity. So all these towns are being re-founded and trade routes are getting reconnected. And this actually happens across the entire Eurasian continent. There’s evidence of this from England to China. This seems like you could attribute that to the sort of establishment of the Mongol Empire as a political intermediary that wasn’t there before. The northern Italian city-states are in a particularly lucky position because they are at the terminus of the trans-Mediterranean shipping routes and the trade across the Mediterranean with goods that are coming in from Asia, as well as the peninsula to Northern Europe, and so they become intermediaries for these two continental-sized economic regions.
What that results in is the fairly early development within the European context of sophisticated trading networks, accounting practices, production techniques, and early capitalist classes in a handful of these northern Italian city-states — Venice, Milan, Genoa, and Florence. In Florence, in particular, you have a ruling class that very early on specialized and invested in wool production, weaving textiles, which was at the time a high technology sector, and banking. They become the bankers to Rome, which means they’re able to develop all of these business relationships with cities all throughout Europe. They are happy to take payment on behalf of Rome in wool because that’s their other line. The wool guild also mostly turns into bankers at a certain point.
What this also means is that, as Arrighi argues, Florence deindustrialized really early on. And so you have a weirdly modern situation in Florence, where you have a population of financiers, and you have a population of wage laborers. The financiers are no longer invested in productive activity because it’s more lucrative for them to do money lending and the wage laborers are trapped in this city with no way of reproducing their lives. It’s a very politically volatile situation.
All of this is to say, Florence in the early 1300s and 1400s, is an extremely class-polarized city, anomalously, in the context of Europe at the time. It has a bunch of proletarians in the sense that these are people who have nothing but their labor power to sell. And so they are the sort of substratum with which the ruling class, the Medicis, who are wool merchants turned money lenders, come in and start building these famous Florentine Renaissance architectural building projects that we are familiar with.
I think Chitty points out that in the center of the period he’s interested in, Florence is downstream from what he called, I think without anachronism, labor struggles. After the Black Death, there’s this huge demographic shift. The Black Death has this interesting role to play in the story, just like the cholera epidemic or HIV does toward the other manuscript. I mean, Chris is actually very attentive to what a huge biological event does to sexuality. But just sticking with Florence for a moment, after the Black Death, there’s this tilt in favor of laboring populations. He points out at one point that at least in England, and I think elsewhere, vagrancy laws were used to help prevent young men wandering the countryside looking for higher wages.
Chitty also points out that there’s like a kind of three-way struggle there, too. There are financiers, there’s the artisan class, and the class that extends from apprentices all the way down to truly surplus populations. And that three-way tug, like the cycle of first profitability and then its loss or its decline as expressed through deindustrialization, is part of the story very early on. There are all these moving parts: profitability that leads to the construction of certain forms of governance and the physical shape of the city, and then people whose labor it needs to perform that shaping very quickly become extra to it, and then policing for that reason. That’s a recurring motif.
What then did same-sex male eroticism look like at the time in the city-states, in Florence in particular? Chitty identifies a key tension. This is that, on the one hand, the sexual freedoms of this life world were constrained by the relations of mastery essential to the functioning of these economies, which were based on direct domination and handicraft production, and most other specialized trades, as well as on the loosely feudal ownership of land. On the other hand, dramatic new vistas of sexual freedom opened up as older relations based on domination and a family-centered model of peasant production were dissolved.
What were the forces that shaped the actual practices of sex between men in northern Italy, both within and across classes?
So what Chitty is looking at in this premodern era is something that he calls Mediterranean sexuality, which he says is an expression of basically geological factors. The social form of the cities and the societies around the Mediterranean all share certain features that are the result of the constraints of a lack of arable land; most of the economic activity has to at some level take place through maritime trade. And this takes a particular form, for whatever reason, of the seclusion of women to the home, which leads to the emergence of sex-segregated public space. As a result, the cities, he says, become highly male spaces.
What that means is that sex between men is a fairly regular occurrence because heterosexual sex would require entering into marriage or prostitution, neither of which are highly available because the direct domination, the relations with mastery, where the apprentice is under this effectively picked patriarchal power of the master, led to patterns of extremely late marriage. And so what you get across the board historically and geographically is the creation of a culture out of which sodomy and same-sex relations could emerge.
I think Chris, in addition to that, is also thinking about very particular ways of moving bodies around in the world that produce displacements, create new opportunities, and require new forms of policing at the same time. It’s a different way to think about the contradiction of an unruly population that served its purpose and may no longer be needed shunted off someplace and keep it moving, or do you want to police it and keep it in one place?
Turning to that very question of the state regulation in policing of male same-sex sex. Chitty writes about the particular case of Florence: “Many northern Italian city-states established municipal offices for the policing of public morals in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and these offices inevitably wound up policing homosexual activity, in addition to prostitution, gambling, and other moral offenses. Florence, however, was exceptional in its lenient convictions and punishments.”
So he compares Medici’s Florence’s extensive, but relatively moderate, policing system to the more frequent and brutal punishments that happened in city-states like Venice, where the norm was to burn men at the stake for sodomy. What did these different approaches to regulating or repressing or punishing sodomy across the city-states reveal about those states and how they were navigating the economic crisis in Chitty’s argument? And also, what were those economic crises that this policing was attempting to provisionally resolve?
Venice is supposed to have more successfully weathered this shift from productive activity to financialization than Florence did, but it had a much blunter approach to the policing of sodomy. It developed a reputation for being a particularly dangerous place for a sailor to be, for example, which led this highly mobile population that basically controlled the sort of fortunes of a trading city like Venice, to consider just not sailing there. They were like, “This is not a safe place for me and my crew, so we’re going to take our shipping business to Livorno instead.” So there’s this perhaps more medieval or more punitive mode of regulating the same-sex activity in Venice that kind of backfires on their ultimate economic interests as a merchant state.
In Florence, there is the establishment of a secular office called Officers of the Night that was specifically tasked with regulating sodomy — receiving accusations and hearing cases against people who had been accused. It was in session for eighty years or something in exactly this period of political tumult after the deindustrialization and financialization I was speaking about earlier. Chitty discovers that it’s a much more effective tool of regulation to hold back on terrifying punishment, and instead try to draw out people’s accusations and even self-accusations.
As a political strategy, it’s much more effective if what you want is to gain a tighter grip on an unruly and restive population than to use this terrifying force. Through the establishment of this office, they get a regular stream of information about who’s linked up with whom. It allows the state to issue pardons and become this merciful and even just arbiter of stability. It provides a kind of outlet for what otherwise might become frustrations that could lead to conspiracies that could lead to the overthrow of the city.
In fact, once they abolish the office in the 1500s or early 1600s, Chris has this very masterful reading of certain hints that Machiavelli drops in a series of letters that he’s writing to his friend about his patron, who was sort of chased out of the city after a revolt by some youths who supposedly were upset that one of their friends was prosecuted for sodomy, after the office was abolished, and so received a much harsher punishment than he otherwise would have. The argument is that the father of political rationality in European thought was capable of exercising the right when it came to regulating sodomy in the city.
Chitty points out that Florence deindustrialized or certainly faced losses in profitability earlier than Venice — and Venice achieves this transition to all-out-finance capital more smoothly. Chris also makes a remark about these rentiers continuing to ruthlessly prosecute sodomites. But what he also says is the spectacular and vicious nature of the punishment led to nobody saying anything and thus far fewer such prosecutions, which leads us back to this thing that Max was talking about where sailors would avoid Venice. So they’re kicking themselves by the middle of the fifteenth century, and they start to dial it back in Venice.
But there are seeds of a materialist analysis about the viciousness of punishment and the ideological backdrop for why one course happens in one place and a different course taken in another, and also about how ruling classes realize that they may have miscalculated. Essentially, what it means to successfully police a population is a moving target. Capitalists always figured this out — they figured out too late they are in the rearview mirror and they adjust accordingly.
Chitty writes that a fascination with sodomy in the ancient world loomed large in early modern Italy: “There can be little doubt that the cultural rediscovery and veneration of antiquity in Renaissance Italy played no small role in aesthetically authorizing the practice of love for boys and male youths.” He writes, “The homosexuality of ancient Greece must themselves be considered the contingent outcome of a history of class struggle, or in the first Democratic and Republican polities.”
What was the ancient Greek practice of pederasty? And then how did its rediscovery shape Renaissance Italy, and how northern Italians interpreted and explained sex between men?
He says that this isn’t a timeless cultural feature of ancient Greek society, that it’s in fact, a result of a transformation into a class society. In the sixth century, I think, the Dorian invasions, the adoption of iron, which democratizes war making, and the rise of craft production results in these social institutions that have sort of erotic love between men at their center.
So that sort of gymnasia and pederasty in Greece involves a sort of erotic valorization of the beauty of youths before the beard comes in. That’s like the ideal age. And he says that this is sort of a feature of Greek polities, only after this sort of transformation into a type of class society that is present in the Mediterranean type of sexuality that he identifies as persisting since that time around the Mediterranean basin.
Chitty, following Arrighi, then turned to the United Provinces — a rising economic, colonial, and naval power, whose Protestant leaders had broken the northern half of their two for Spanish Netherlands free from Habsburg control. Before we get to homosexuality, what accounted for the rise to economic and military power of this geographically and demographically small Dutch polity beginning in the sixteenth century? What is the Dutch role in this grand sweep of capitalist history?
They’re the successor to what Arrighi identifies as the Genoese cycle of accumulation. When Genoa financialized, they became the backers of the Iberian kingdoms. And so the United Provinces are engaged in the struggle for independence against Spain, which means against Genoese capital basically. And the loss of control over the interstate market and mobile capital that the Genoese held reestablishes itself in Amsterdam. Basically Amsterdam becomes the entrepreneurial center of all the commodities of the inter-European trade, as well as the world market that the Iberian empires have just cracked open in their voyages of discovery.
Amsterdam is now the kind of beneficiary of the conquests that the Genoese-Iberian cycle of accumulation set in motion. And the basis of this for Amsterdam is shipbuilding and military discipline. They take over the trade routes the Portuguese and the Spanish have in the Indies and the West Indies. They innovate a form of disciplined standing army that is fairly unprecedented in European, if not world history. And they have the first stock market that’s constantly in session in Amsterdam, as well. So they have all these features of capitalist modernity fairly early on in the 1600s.
One aspect of what’s special about Chris’s account is that he observes that, following the War of the Spanish Succession, working conditions “deteriorated rapidly in the merchant shipping industry and Seaman joined pirate ships by the thousands.” They’re looking for different working conditions. And the more renegade character of those working conditions also seems to produce different kinds of political arrangements.
Pirates briefly figured out that they’re sort of like a class. They are conscious of themselves, and they start to do all these things. They show up at public executions, they rally for lowering the prices of the commodities that they need to survive like foodstuffs, etc. A displacement of the labor force and different shifts in the condition of their labor began to produce political activity.
We’re getting closer to the modern end of the story. We’re further away from the displacement of peasant populations at the beginning of the book and more toward something like a protomodern understanding by a group of people that they might, in some funny way, constitute a political force and maybe even a fraction of a class.
Sailors engaged in dirty passions across lines of class and race, raising the specter of those forms of solidarity that were utterly anathema to the government of ships, not to mention a slave trade based on the fiction that some humans were less than human. The concern for homosexuality cannot be due to those famously Protestant concerns for moral decency and uprightness, despite whatever pieties were pronounced around the gallows. Prostitution existed at the Cape of Good Hope and was organized out of the company’s slave Lodge. Authority seemed to have encouraged such iniquities to guard against others.
How did that homosexuality, a particularly cosmopolitan homosexuality, become possible given the polyglot cruise aboard every ship? How did that fit within and challenge this Dutch political and economic order? An order where power over both these chartered companies that were so important and government were both often dependent on these particular family forms that passed on control from father to son?
Relatedly, what was the economic crisis that occasioned this wave of persecution of sodomy? This wave was, as Chitty observes, occasioned by the emergence of these new kind of protoproletarian formations of men, particularly sailors.
The pattern has to do with a deep dynamic that Chitty is tracking around how the history of capitalism creates displaced populations in order to absorb them into its rhythms. As Marx points out, you need to separate people from their ability to survive on their own to get them to survive and align with the rhythms of accumulation. But at the same time, just like Marx points out late in volume one of Capital, what you end up doing is creating these surplus populations that then pose a constant problem for the accumulation of capital in various ways.
In the Dutch case, which is also in the chapter that addresses the English case, you see a certain moment, not unlike the one in Venice, where the elites have to walk it back. Because there’s always this contradictory question in the disciplining of proletarian and laboring populations, which is you want to maybe use spectacle to keep people in line. In particular, when you’re using spectacle, not a public hanging of a random sodomite, but hanging someone from mutiny on a ship or hanging a bunch of people, the threat of a solidaristic backlash looms large.
There’s a moment you know, in Chitty’s text where he says fifteen men are hanged and it’s just seen as excessive, because demoralizes and possibly creates a backlash among the sailors, even mutinous sailors. It’s a moment in the text, in other words, where the violence of an anti-sodomy prosecution linked to the possibility of mutiny just doesn’t seem worth it after a while. Authorities essentially say, let them have their buggery because we need them to be a disciplined workforce.
Chitty is willing to be open to the possibility that homophobia and the setting aside of homophobia both have a role to play at different times and places in the history of both homosexuality and capitalism. That’s the realest part. Like, rather than being a primal loathing homophobia, it’s something that can be leveraged, and something that needs to be set aside.
It’s one of those things that you see resonate in our contemporary period. Rainbow corporations are rainbow because it’s in their interest, just like in other contexts the opposite would have been in their interest. That’s Chitty’s realism about homophobia; it’s his Machiavellianism. It’s part of the source of his interest in Machiavelli, who I think besides Marx is, honestly, even more than Foucault, one of the key thinkers informing his thinking. That realism, that clear-eyed, anti-sentimental view allows him to see that homosexuality and homophobia have been both impediments to and in service of capitalist accumulation. Both of these developments need to be tracked. You can’t be sentimental if you want to track them both.
He has a very anti-sentimental approach. At the same time, what he’s looking at is a slightly fanciful or even hysterical response on behalf of the capitalist state to these specters of these threats of sodomy. Piracy is a problem not simply because pirates steal certain shipments or impose shipping costs on the Dutch East India Company, but because you don’t know whether your labor force is going to be taken with them because they think it’s a much more appealing lifestyle not to get punished for doing what any man would do when you’re stuck on a boat with a bunch of other men.
On the one hand, there’s a calculating rationality to this repression, and on the other hand, it does seem a bit overstated on the part of these authorities. The fact that you have this floating population of people who you need who are available precisely because they aren’t stable and can’t reproduce themselves. And so the way that you need them is in their instability. When you don’t need them, where are they going to go? They’re going to show up in the port cities and start living in this unruly fashion.
One of the triggers of these Dutch waves of executions is gangs of teen boys in Amsterdam who go around harassing men, by the bridges of Amsterdam or whatever, and come on to them and then extort them whether or not there was actually going to be any kind of sexual contact. They’re really hard to eradicate because whenever they get worried that the state’s coming after them, they just like hop on the next ship and go to Batavia or whatever because there’s this constant need for interchangeable bodies in the slavery force.
Amongst some Marxists we hear that Foucault was the secret agent of some sort of counterrevolutionary project, the person directing some cultural turn that demolished the welfare state from his lectern at the College of France in Paris. And while Chitty definitely disagreed with that assessment — he believed Foucault’s work was essential — he did critique Foucault from another direction.
Max, you write in the foreword, “But Foucault’s history of sexuality omitted most of what was necessary for modern bourgeois sexuality to consolidate itself historically.” You argue:
In much of the texts published here represents Chitty’s long effort to correct the errors that Foucault had wittingly or not allowed to stabilize into something like a dogma, both within the study of sexuality and negatively, within more Marxian treatments of bourgeois rule that failed to address sexuality as one of its key components.
What is Foucault’s famous critique of the so-called repressive hypothesis and what does Chitty argue that Foucault gets wrong?
One of the things that Chitty says that I think is really interesting is that Foucault wants to use class struggle as a metanarrative for the birth of modern sexuality, but that he really only thinks about the machinations of the emergent bourgeoisie and doesn’t think about or spend much scholarly attention on, or look deeply into, the archives of working communities or proletarian communities, thinking about how and whether their sexuality had meanings before it was supposedly manipulated by the bourgeoisie. So that’s what he partly means by this comparative historical engagement and how if you only look at one side of the story, you’re going to tell a lopsided story.
But there’s another thing actually that Chitty says that is quite interesting and takes us just for a moment into philosophical territory. He says, perhaps due to his professed Kantian leanings, Foucault cultivated an indifference toward de-differentiating the ontological from the epistemic. I think that Chitty is saying something concrete and important about Foucault, which is that he wanted to think about knowledge, not about being, and he wanted to think about, of course, knowledge and the creation of knowledge and the stylizing of knowledge as a tool of power. And he wanted to avoid what seems like more potentially essentializing questions like who are we, who could we be, and those questions in twentieth-century France at mid-century, especially the province of [Jean-Paul] Sartre.
Chitty says Foucault pays a price for sticking to just past homology, like what is known and said to be known about sexuality and what knowledge of sexuality can do to make people. What is lost is a question that fertility can’t but be a question about our being. And it’s the question of freedom. There in the passages that follow on that distinction between Foucault and Sartre, Chitty says, given the history of homophobia, in the United States especially, there’s an element of choice involved in laying claim to a certain sexual identity.
Now, that is a delicate thing to say, because of course, right-wing evangelicals have for a long time wanted to eliminate the possibility of certain kinds of sexual liberation on the basis saying you chose this and everything you get, because of your choice — homophobia, discrimination, HIV — that’s on you. So for Chitty to say at some deep level, let’s call it ontological, you want to affiliate yourself with people, the people who make you feel alive, the people who make you feel comfortable, the people with whom you feel safe being sexual, that’s something like a choice.
And Foucault doesn’t go there. And so that’s the other thing besides the absence of a proletarian archive in Foucault that actually, though it sounds philosophical, is pretty crucial for today’s understanding of some of the limits of the Foucauldian model.
Gay and more recently trans activists have reacted to these right-wing attacks by insisting that the basis for the right to be gay or trans is that it’s biological and not a choice, something that Andrea Long Chu wrote about a few years ago in n+1.
That is a conversation that still has lots of potential room to grow and move and get some more oxygen in it. What’s biology? What’s your conscious or unconscious relation to biology? What does it mean to choose something under compulsion? Freely? That’s why I think she’s interested in this language of not just choice, but freedom, and under what conditions do we even get to make our choices. So there’s more to think about there.
Let’s turn to twentieth-century capitalism and its epicenter, the United States, the period that will also allow us to reexamine modern gay rights, politics, and the order that it was rebelling against. To start, what sort of order was the Fordist twentieth century and to what end was it operating? Part of the answer Chitty writes is:
To be found in [Antonio] Gramsci’s analysis of Fordist capitalism and capitalists knew attention to worker sobriety and sexual morality exemplified by none other than the Ford Motor Company’s Department of Sociology, which intervened into the most intimate aspects of workers lives to ensure the reproduction of a very particular type of worker.
Why did the rise of mass production occasion this universalization of middle-class norms among workers in a way that had not been true in earlier phases of industrial capitalism? Why did the lives of workers become so important to capitalists in the radically new ways that they did?
It is really an American story, or at least an American and European story, about that care for the whole life conditions of workers. You could look at other parts of the world at this time and see much of what you would see today, which is a lack of that care. But inasmuch as the US takes the helm, in terms of leading the drumbeat of the rhythms of capital in this moment in history — early twentieth century to mid-twentieth century — it does matter.
I think that the Ford Sociological Department is a great example. Chitty talks about it at the beginning of the book. This dominant form of production — production of what will be a universal mass transportation technology in a dominant part of the world — serves as a model for maximum efficiency across all possible contingencies of the labor process, extending to the reproduction of a stable workforce.
That is something that is and isn’t a dynamic that capital cares to take on for itself at different times. Sometimes it wants to offload that and sometimes it wants to take that on. The importance is simply that this was a moment when both the ideology and the real material dynamics of efficiency, in this emergent technology of automotive production, were of the utmost importance.
Does the contemporary auto industry practice such care anymore around its workers? Well, no. It’s like a double dynamic, actually. It’s certainly part of the history of developing a certain kind of sexual morality, but it’s also a reminder of the historical contingencies of such developments. What I mean is there are times when capital does care about certain technological sectors or certain places, and then there are times when it doesn’t.
Taking the Ford Motor Company as a paradigmatic model of capitalist relations globally, is not an uncontroversial move. However, I think it’s interesting, you have a highly advanced, highly capitalized production process that therefore requires an extremely highly attuned labor force to match it. The idea that that would simultaneously as it produces new, technically advanced commodities, produce new technically attuned people is a very suggestive concept, and I think helps explain a lot of what is otherwise a bit atmospheric about these histories of change in sexuality.
What then does that Fordist moment, and it’s a generalization of bourgeois sexual morality, mean for Chitty, for how we understand modern homophobia, and also how we understand the struggle against that homophobia, the modern gay rights movement?
There’s one story that a lot of gay historians rely on, which is intuitively quite satisfying, which is that the expansion of commodity production loosens restrictive, precapitalist peasant family ways, and effectively increases sexual freedom — and Chitty says that’s true to some extent. He does trace the liquidation of peasant sexualities and the rise of proletarian and visual sexual hegemonies in the cities and things like that.
But you then don’t have a way of accounting for whether it’s this positive relationship where more capitalism means more sexual freedom, because then you don’t really have a way of accounting for the fact that this new advance in the techniques of production lead to unprecedented level of state repression.
Let’s say Fordist sexuality is characterized by a pretty anomalous level of state visibility into and control over the sexual behavior of the working class. That’s not what you would expect if there’s a flourishing of sexual freedom alongside the commodity production model.
In my twenties, I was an ardent student of the gay and lesbian history that Chitty is describing and providing helpful critiques of. That scholarship always gave me occasion to reflect once I got a little bit of historical education on the difference between an ancient world or early modern homophobia that’s just like a superior sneering at someone, maybe a political rival — “Oh, that fairy” — versus the mortal violence of the homophobia that I would get news of by reading the queer press when I was coming of age. We hear about that level of violence these days more and more because it’s better documented in trans communities and trans communities of color — it was also really spectacularly covered in the days of the Matthew Shepard assaults and murder in the late 1990s when it was mostly assaults on white cis gay men that were being taken note of.
That more mortal kind of violence, compared to that earlier form of let’s say trivialistic sneering, quietly ran against what I had been told was the Foucauldian model, where an earlier brutality had been aerosolized to localizable forms of discipline like psychology exams and questions of normalcy. That was always a little bit of an interesting question mark for me. So that years later, when I got to Chitty, I found myself feeling like I could have some tools to think about this.
One pang, I guess, I feel about what Chitty would have made of this phenomenon? Right. It’s about what his analysis might have been of McCarthy Era, anti-communism, and homophobia in their entailments at mid-century; that’s not something that this manuscript addresses. But in a way, it seems like a perfect or culminating example of exactly the argument of this book, about the mobilization of homophobia when it serves the needs of capital. Because the alibi of US homophobia was a certain kind of anti-communism. Rather than like, “Oh, my rival, here, medieval Florence is a fairy and you should give me the position in the state apparatus,” it’s like, “That little sissy over there will never be a soldier. And if he were a soldier, he would probably betray our country, and then we’d lose a nuclear war. So, of course, we should beat him up.”
That intertwinement or entailment is discursive. And therefore, I suppose, susceptible to or friendly to a coding unit analysis. But it also is a bunch of other things that are quite material about the fear of different forms of social organization — of actual communism.
The tools of this book afford the opportunity for thinking about something like mid-century American homophobic, anti-communism, or anti-communist homophobia, in tandem.
Chris, you write:
What makes Chitty’s scholarship so interesting is his willingness to let go of the possibility of desire based on either an identarian communitarian homosexuality or an abstractly anti normative queerness. This is because he sees the vicissitudes of capital accumulation as analytically and historically prior to the formation and deformation classes, and he views those processes as themselves prior to any identitarian experience of sexuality. It is also because he sees homosexuality as identarian expressions only barely masking a class conflict with homosexuals on both sides, a conflict that runs deeper than individual identity and that obviates any attempt to make gay people or queer people, an anti-capitalist identity category two core.
If Chitty does not think the emancipatory promise of queer liberation derives from a specific identity or even a specific sexual practice then what is its promise? His friend and comrade Evan Calder Williams thought that it was its attention to “the messy terrain of friendship and intimacy and class, inseparable from the spaces of capital and the attempts to make them our own.”
One of the things that I felt was so powerful about Chitty’s book was a way of being realist about homosexuality and the different guises it is worn: a gay identity as well as an anti-normative queerness which Chitty embodied himself. And I think he saw that, among other things, the history of male homosexuality was a great example of the openings and foreclosures afforded by different kinds of intimacy, friendships, sexual contact, community on the fly, community more stabilized and then deformed, all those things.
But it is an example of one thing that has served people who are outside accumulation, sometimes dragged into it and kicked back out of it, to give shape and meaning to their lives, including potentially a shape and meaning that was about not wanting the world to be a capitalist one anymore.
But I think what’s so powerful is that there’s no innate sense that in the 2070s, if for some reason we’re still fighting to overthrow capitalism in the 2070s, there’s gonna be something innately anti-capitalist about queerness or about gayness or whatever it’s going to be called then, per se. I think he saw that really clearly, that that doesn’t add up to pooh-poohing the potentials that accrue to different life ways. Maybe your anti-capitalism begins with your queerness and it’s all the more powerful because of that, and maybe it doesn’t.
So I don’t think he’s throwing up his hands on homosexuality, per se. I just think he’s not making too much of it while trying to tell a better story of all that could be and has been made of it.