While campaigners for changes to the Marriage Act are rallying behind the slogan of ‘equal love’, the media headline ‘gay marriage’. This article poses objections to both notions from a socialist perspective. Equality before bourgeois law is never equality and state-sanctioned marriage is no path to liberation. ‘Equal love’ cannot exist for as long as James Packer has million-dollar weddings and other couples have to consummate their love on a second-hand mattress from Vinnies.
In a class society, nothing can be equal, neither love nor hate. Class consciousness expresses love through proletarian solidarity buttressed by hatred for the exploiters and their apologists, whether gay or straight. Socialists draw no distinction between Roy Kohn, the gay aide to Red-baiting US Senator Joe McCarthy, and the poofta-bashing NSW Liberal Senator Heffernan.
Socialists start from the recognition that equality before the law is no equality. As Anatole France put it: ‘The poor have to labour in the face of the majestic impartiality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.’ The following instances flesh out the implications of that truth for political practice, turning attention back onto what social equality involves at the ballot box, on the job, in education and for indigenous Australians.
In the realm of parliamentary politics, social equality requires that a Karajarri woman get 100 votes to Rinehart’s one. As bourgeois liberals, Whitlam and Dunstan campaigned from the 1960s for ‘one person one vote, one vote one value’. Those changes were steps up from the property qualifications needed to vote. But equality at the ballot box did little to even up the power that the owners of productive property exercise over election results, indeed, throughout every aspect of life. As a non-Australian for many years, Mass Murdoch still had more political power than 99.99 percent of those of us who could vote here but who has not traded our citizenship for TV licences in the US of A. When I was silly enough to point this out in my column for the Weekend Australian (10 October 1994), editor Paul Kelly gave me my marching orders.
‘One law for all’ was the slogan promoted by leaders of the CFMEU to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. However, once construction workers fell under Killard’s un-Fair Work Australia, ‘one law for all’ resulted in all workers being repressed equally. For starters, no Australian unionist has the right to strike, a violation of International Labour Organisation Conventions. As leader of the remnant Left, Senator Doug Cameron made same-sex marriage the divisive issue at the 2011 ALP Conference, sounding progressive while squibbing the hard battle for the right to strike.
Those who push ‘one law for all’ have learnt nothing from Workchoices under which a non-unionised cleaner was treated as equal to a corporation when negotiating wages and conditions despite the boss’s deploying a team of Freehill lawyers. ‘One law for all’ might sound noble but it is impossible within capitalism since the system is built on there being one law for capital and another for us wage-slaves. To establish ‘one law for all’ means abolishing capitalist relations of production.
ALP leader Mark Latham advocated a ladder of equal opportunity in education rather than equality of outcomes. The latter requires much more than a Gonski-Review style shift of funding towards students from the lower social-economic status and away from the posh tax-funded non-government schools. Socialist pediatrician and Australian of the Year, Perth-based professor Fiona Stanley has demonstrated that the real brain-drain happens before children get to school. Improving their chances depends on starting interventions before they are conceived.
Pauline Hanson twisted the appeal of equality into a call to treat everyone the same, as if indigenous disadvantage were not institutionalized, as class bias is for most of their fellow Australians. The Left lost ground by not pointing out that a façade of legal equality over unequal structures blights most other Australians, notably rural white labourers.
Let’s fight by every means for as much equality as is possible within the system of bourgeois law. But let’s never surrender the socialist critique of the inequalities inherent in capitalism. In every area of life, socialists pursue the policies that are most likely to enhance social equality across generations.
Meanwhile, legal reforms are welcome since they often give a lead to opinion and against prejudice. For example, once sodomy ceased to be a crime it became harder to get support for its recriminalisation. Other discriminations have been removed, starting with decriminalisation of same-sex acts between consenting males, and onto parenting, property and monetary arrangements, notably the right to share Superannuation pay-outs.
Here is another hurdle for socialists. Why support superannuation rather than tax-funded pensions that guarantee a decent retirement for everyone? Twenty-five years after so-called universal Super, four ill-effects are obvious. First, the funds have fueled the flames of financial speculation. Secondly, everyday contributors lost out in the consequent collapse of the share market and they are not going to retrieve those returns anytime this decade. Thirdly, the tax system has transferred more wealth to the richest. Fourthly, Super is unfair to most women and to the lowest paid, many of whom have next-to-nothing in their accounts. So, instead of crowing over the ability to inherit Super as a win for gender equality, socialists should be uncomfortable about endorsing one more device for transferring wealth up the ladder. A socialist program would restore death duties, end negative gearing and Super tax dodges, and impose punitive tax rates on the super-rich while stripping billions from their schools and health funds.
Inequalities in housing, medical services, employment and education take their toll of love, irrespective of sexual orientation. ‘The Prince Phillip Blues’ is the concluding story in Gary Dunne’s If blood should stain the lino (1983), that Fraser-era riff on Walter Greenwood’s Love on the dole (1933). For the present discussion, it is apt to reflect on the humorous way in which Dunne presents a relationship between two young unemployed, one of whom has had his dole suspended. They make ends meet by theft, busking and turning tricks with ‘some bored husband’. When the one who is still getting his cheques asks: ‘What’s the matter?, the other responds: ‘It’s what comes from living off a relatively rich queen. It’ll pass.’ But it doesn’t, and it won’t of its own accord. For it to do so requires an economy-wide program for social equity.
Writing in the 1880s, Frederick Engels drew parallels between inequalities in the workplace and within the family, both are now papered over by legal niceties:
This typical lawyer’s reasoning is exactly the same as that with which the radical republican bourgeois dismisses the proletarian. The labour contract is supposed to be voluntarily entered into by both parties. But it is taken to be voluntarily entered into as soon as the law has put both parties on an equal footing on paper. The power given to one party by its different class position, the pressure it exercises on the other – the real economic position of both – all this is no concern of the law.
Engels goes on to compare the legal relations between labour and capital with those of husband and wife:
Our jurists, to be sure, hold that the progress of legislation to an increasing degree removes all cause for complaint on the part of the woman. Modern civilised systems of law are recognising more and more, first, that, in order to be effective, marriage must be an agreement voluntarily entered into by both parties; and secondly, that during marriage, too, both parties must be on an equal footing in respect to rights and obligations. If, however, these two demands were consistently carried into effect, women would have all that they could ask for.
Engels then has a merry time showing why that claim was far from the case, and remains so.
The insight of socialist feminists that marriage is legalised prostitution has faded. That characterisation is no longer as true in countries like Australia because of the victories that allowed women to sue for divorce, to own property and to have custody of their children. More recently, no-fault divorce and the criminalisation of rape in marriage have gone some way further. The most influential change has been the explosion of wives and mothers into paid employment. Women are less financially dependent on men than they were even fifty years ago, despite the multitude of disadvantages that women suffer in the workplace, from lower lifetime earnings to harassment.
By all means, rethink the grounds for rejecting marriage, yet, in doing so, historical materialists should start from Engels on The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State and then engage with Alexsandra Kollontai’s Marriage Under Bolshevism.
In a distortion of the historical record, the Right pretends that marriage is a ritual to sanctify the uniting of one man and one woman for the promotion of the family as the bedrock of society and civilisation. It is truer to say that marriage has been a property contract.
The use of ‘partner’ in place of husband, wife or even the gender-neutral ‘spouse’ is a giveaway. A ‘partner’ is what you have in business, not in bed. When did you last hear someone introduced as ‘the love of my life’ – or – quel horreur – as ‘my favourite fuck’? The commercial nature of ‘partnership’ is being exposed in the property battle by divorcing gay Melbourne art dealers.
Overshadowing legal discriminations about access to marriage are the social and economic inequalities among GLBT. Socialists promote the redistribution of productive property to ensure its equalisation through social ownership. We are against its accumulation in the hands of families or households, however constituted. Here, we distinguish between personal possessions and productive property. It is okay to own your own condoms but not the factory making them. Any GLBT who runs productive property is exploitative because that business requires the expropriation of surplus value.
Church and State
If people want to get into drag and squander tens of thousands of dollars on white weddings, paying $10 a slice for ‘cake-age’, that daffiness is a private matter. They can ask men in silly hats and funny frocks to perform at those ceremonies. It is a puzzle why any queer wants to have anything to do with the Vatican, which is waiting for the chance to demonstrate once again it calls us faggots.
The US American novelist and self-described Calvinist Marilynne Robinson finds the Fundamentalist campaigns against same-sex marriage ‘absolutely bizarre’, pointing out that the Bible makes a couple of objections to male homosexual acts but hundreds condemning the exploitation of the poor:
Now, how does it happen that huge religious establishments are hung up on two or three verses, while the status of the poor declines and declines? It seems to me a perfect illustration of the tendency of religion to discredit itself by finding small opportunities to be mean when there are large opportunities to be generous.
It will take more than a Calvinist like Robinson to disentangle the mind-set that conceives same-sex practices and Obama-care as Satanic rituals.
Nonetheless, every endorsement of marriage weakens the separation of church and state. Dennis Altman’s recognition of The Americanisation of the Homosexual (1982) stressed the commodification of sex as one more instance of a triumph of capitalist ideology. That piece of cultural imperialism is now subverting Australia’s more secular way of life in favour of marriage from a polity besotted with religiosity.
In the process, the culture wars have seduced socialists into accepting marriage and away from its replacement by as many forms of relationship as we are capable of conceiving. Anarchists have not surrendered and cling to the notion of queer households.
Socialists should campaign for the abolition of marriage and for universal civil unions for any couples or threesomes who care to register their relationships. Slip down to the registry office during your lunch-hour – if the time-poverty exacted by capital’s need to expand means that you still get a break long enough to do so.
One objection to such root-and-branch reform is that we should no longer call for the abolition of marriage because that demand is too extreme to be achieved. On those grounds, perhaps we should abandon the struggle for socialism – as indeed so many promoters of equal love and same-sex marriage have in their political practice.
From the 1950s, sexual liberationists fought to get the state out of our bedrooms. Why are lapsed radicals anxious to let it back in? Part of the explanation is that the left grouplets are up to their usual game of political tail-ism. The Alternative to Socialism, for instance, is following the largest demonstrations in the hope of flogging their papers and recruiting.
Christopher Lasch drew criticism for pointing out that the removal of male power does not, by itself, establish equality in a household. Without wider changes, the state and market forces will occupy the space left by the absent patriarch. For confirmation, look at the rates of incarceration and obesity among Afro-Americans.
Anyway, it is not at all clear that the relegation of lasting relationships to a non-state sphere lacks support. Many GLBT-ers who want civic equality mutter against the pro-marriage line but tag along because we are not offered the alternative. At the same time, plenty of straights shake their heads in puzzlement at why anyone would be anxious to bear the costs, trappings and entanglements of marriage.
Engels as homophobe
There is no skating around the fact that on the question of same-sex love, Engels was as much a product of his time as he accused the German Philistines of being in regard to all sexual matters. Here he is on the Ancient Greeks:
But the degradation of the women recoiled on the men themselves and degraded them too, until they sank into the perversion of boy-love, degrading both themselves and their gods by the myth of Ganymede.
He and Marx followed Heine in always referring to Frederick the Great as the Great Sodomite.
Nonetheless, we can allow Engels the last word to the hope that he voiced, utopian in the finest sense:
Thus, what we can conjecture at present about the regulation of sex relationship after the impeding effacement of capitalist production is, in the main, of a negative character, limited mostly to what will vanish. But what will be added? That will be settled after a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in all their lives have had occasion to purchase a woman’s surrender either with money or with any other means of social power, and of women who have never been obliged to surrender to any man out of any consideration other than that of real love, or to refrain from giving themselves to their beloved for fear of the economic consequences. Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion, comfortable therewith, on the practice of each individual – and that’s the end to it.
The best we can say for Engels’s attitude towards same-sex behaviours is that he left the closet door ajar for those who will be brought up in different times. For us, that’s not ‘the end to it’ but is a call to reinvigorate the struggle for a political and economic order which installs social equality throughout every realm of our being. From those struggles, new-fangled lovers and fuckers will appear.
revised 30 May 2015
[For extracts from Engel’s ‘Origin of the family…’ see Marxism folder in www.surplusvalue.org.au ]