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Social Text 19.2 (2001) 103-125

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Missing Poststructuralism, Missing Foucault
Butler and Fraser on Capitalism and the Regulation of Sexuality

Anna Marie Smith

When American liberals think about the politics of sexuality, their ideas are usually framed in individualistic and narrow terms. Many defenders of Roe v. Wade aggressively oppose the bans on late-term abortions, mandatory parental consent, and compulsory waiting-period laws, but for all their important work on these issues, they often tend to neglect the economic dimension of reproductive rights. Less attention is given to the legislation that prohibits Medicaid funding for abortion and the welfare policies that severely violate the privacy rights of poor single mothers. In another domain, liberal homosexual activists often champion reforms such as same-sex marriage in exclusively bourgeois terms. They insist that lesbian and gay couples should be able to share their employee benefits just like their heterosexual counterparts, but they rarely discuss the fact that many lesbians and gays--and many Americans, for that matter--do not have access to adequate benefit packages in the first place, and they tend to ignore the fact that homophobia contributes to the over-representation of sexual minorities within the lowest income bracket. As for issues such as the privatization of health care and the elimination of welfare rights, 1 liberal homosexual leaders either remain completely silent or, worse, express their enthusiastic support for the neoconservative agenda. Indeed, the differences between such organizations as the Log Cabin Republicans, the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, and the Human Rights Campaign Fund on the one hand and the much more progressive National Lesbian and Gay Task Force on the other became much more sharply drawn when Clinton dragged the political center to the right in the 1990s. Given this tendency within liberal circles to compartmentalize and depoliticize social problems, it is absolutely crucial to the radical democratic project that we consistently emphasize a multisectoral approach to human rights. We need to refuse, in explicit terms, the liberal tactic of bracketing questions relating to economic justice, and we need to situate our cultural analyses of "identity politics" within political economy contexts, through references to issues such as the distribution of wealth, employment trends, urban planning, and welfare policies.

One alternative to the liberal depoliticization strategy is of course provided by orthodox leftist thinkers. However, their solution is hardly promising, for they simply remove cultural phenomena from the political [End Page 103] agenda altogether. As Judith Butler points out in her article "Merely Cultural," economistic leftists have aggressively attacked cultural studies scholars on the grounds that the latter have virtually abandoned the terrain of economic justice in favor of "identity politics." 2 While privileging the economic as a distinct and foundational sphere and hailing class-based struggles as primary, economistic leftists have relegated the new social movements to what they regard as the largely irrelevant cultural sphere. Further, they have attacked cultural politics as "factionalizing, identitarian and particularistic"(MC, 265).

The leftist class-centric critique of identity politics was particularly prominent in the work of Gitlin, Hobsbawm, and Rorty during the mid-1990s. 3 It is not clear, however, that their polarizing view--one that constructs two distinct and opposed spheres, the new social movements versus class politics--would have as much credibility in the American Left today. We are currently witnessing a paradigm shift as American leftists work across the labor-new social movement divide in projects as diverse as service worker organizing drives, international workers' solidarity initiatives, living wage campaigns, the students' anti-sweatshop movement, and the anti-World Trade Organization and the anti-World Bank protests. 4

The exchange between Butler (MC) and Nancy Fraser 5 on the relationship between capitalism and the regulation of sexuality is extremely valuable, for it presents two other alternatives to the liberal approach. Their texts not only return our attention to the challenge of combining the perspectives of cultural studies and political economy, they also contain important proposals for moving beyond the orthodox leftist impasse. Furthermore, the Butler-Fraser debate is deeply informed...


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pp. 103-125
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Archived 2005
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