Hegemony Is Not Repression: A Conversation on Christopher Chitty’s Work

Interview With Max Fox

February 12, 2021

In Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System (Duke University Press, 2020), edited by Max Fox and with an introduction by Christopher Nealon, the late Christopher Chitty follows the politicization of male homosexuality over several centuries and across multiple geographies through the lens of the bourgeoisie’s attempts to regulate it. In addition to Sexual Hegemony, Fox is an editor at Pinko Magazine and the translator of Guy Hocquenghem’s The Amphitheater of the Dead.

In this interview, freelance writer M. Buna asks him about the political and historical implications of the concepts developed in Chitty’s book.

What does sexual hegemony entail? What’s the nature of its link to socially dominant groups who have practiced sexual regulation to advance their own class interests?

Chitty defines “sexual hegemony” as a relation where the sexual conduct of one group shapes the sexual conduct and self-understanding of other groups to the point that its particular modes of conduct are taken on as common sense, as if they were natural. It’s an analytic that lets him restore the history of class struggle to the long archive of political thought about sexual conduct, primarily in the Mediterranean basin and northwest Europe and identify what was distinctive about sexuality’s development during the transition to capitalism there.

He argues that as local bourgeoisies began to displace peasant communities from the countryside and compelled them to seek their livelihoods through wage labor, the sexual conduct of these newly uprooted classes became a problem. Where and how could they reproduce themselves with no stable relation to land or family structures? When they did stabilize their situations, how could they still be compelled to return to the workplace day after day? This problem required a new kind of political management.

The term Chitty uses to describe their solution is “hegemony,” drawing from two sources: Antonio Gramsci’s analysis of how capitalists obtain political assent from the classes they rule; and Giovanni Arrighi, an economic sociologist whose wrote about the growth of the capitalist world. In Arrighi, the history of capitalism is essentially a sequence of 4 hegemonic centers (Florence, Amsterdam, London, and New York) whose rising and falling fortunes are punctuated by a shift from productive expansion to financialization. Chitty focuses on what happens to sex during this second period, when global hegemony is swinging from one center to the next.

He looks at the specific case of male sodomy and traces the bourgeoisie’s attempts to manage political crisis during periods of financialization by increasing its repression of these sexual practices as part of a larger bid to restore their faltering hegemony. So for example, in the opening stages of this transition to capitalism in Northern Italy, it was extremely common for men to have sex with other men and sodomy wasn’t pursued as a crime very closely. How this changed included extending vagrancy laws to prosecute men for using public space for sex, the establishment of new police powers to investigate accusations and enforce these laws, and then later on, investments in sanitation and hygiene to address public scourges like cruising, urination, STIs, and so forth. In this you can see the extension of the capitalist order into new arenas. So far so good.

Why it changed is another question. Instead of assuming some kind of transhistorical impulse toward homophobia, Chitty looks carefully at the documents people left behind on both sides of this struggle and finds that interest in regulation of sodomy mostly deals with public cross-class sexual contact (cruising and prostitution, paradigmatically), which can be a matter of state indifference during periods of expansion but are maybe more troublesome when the ruling class is encountering a challenge to its search for profit, which bears on its hold over the proletarian population. When this new state form took up regulation or repression of homosexual behavior, it was as a way to secure public space for the rule of private property. Proletarian sexual behavior offered a way into private conduct more generally. As always, the law offered the state a weapon against its enemies – that is, the classes it ruled.

Obviously, people’s sexual practices can be extremely potent matters, and Chitty finds that over the next 500 years, efforts to control sex often risked political unrest. Because the stakes of this conflict involved the reproduction of class society, capitalists intervened to make sure that struggles over people’s sexual behavior never won any challenge to their political rule. But hegemony is not repression — it works through assent, pleasure, concessions, common sense, and so forth. Its aim is that a certain rule is experienced as freedom. Capitalists were able to achieve hegemony over proletarians in many ways — including through this struggle over sexuality to the point where we all often take it for granted that norms like having a stable orientation tied to the gender of our object of desire, expecting privacy, consent, and so forth are only the natural expressions of our free sexual nature. This also means that when we seek to fulfill our sexual desires, we aren’t driven past the limits of capitalist society.

Arguing that sexuality has been a crucial element of the primitive accumulation of capital, and that “each mode of production has been associated with its own garden varieties of ‘homosexuality’,” Chitty endeavors to rethink homosexuality in terms of property relations, and not as a marker of identity that’s inherently anti-capitalist or even leftist. What kind of (anti-)politics does he propose instead?

I’m not sure he goes so far as to totally dismiss it — he’s clearly still attached to the category as a kind of historical aperture that opens up some useful perspectives on the present. But you’re right that he’s extremely ambivalent about the liberatory possibilities left in affirming any kind of sexuality as the basis of an anti-capitalist struggle on its own. He follows the theorist Raymond Williams in differentiating what he calls counterhegemonic   forces or positions from forces that are simply oppositional. He does say that there were counterhegemonic elements in the struggles to turn homosexuality into a collective political identity, though they may have been tied to a hegemonic order that has now begun to collapse.

I would say the alternative he proposes is an approach he calls “queer realism,” which invokes the “real” of “let’s be real, honey” rather than some kind of positivism. He wants to deflate the connection between sexual and political practice, which involves the historical  approach you reference. To give an example, while the demands raised in the sexual liberation era may have required imagining a community of homosexuals that was somehow akin to a colonized people with an unbroken history of oppression, a more clear-eyed view is needed to grasp how the idea of such a unity was produced in the first place if we want to achieve anything like emancipation or liberation.

His political contribution is less prescriptive than clarifying. One of his best writerly personas was the critic who sweeps away confused ideas. The chapter that touches on the present mainly diagnoses the contradictions that the liberation movement seems now to have left itself in. I find it compelling. While the historic intensity around sexuality seems to have subsided, it is still often where people seek out certainty about themselves, if not the world. This sense of things being settled might explain the more recent explosion of contention around trans people, which he doesn’t anticipate or address very directly. I do wish he left us with something more like a coherent program or politics. But subjecting that certainty to a critique in light of the long history of capitalist sexual relations is a productive place to start.

As shown by historical capitalism, various degrees of sexual freedom developed alongside commodity production. How did the modern/capitalist homosexual subject arise?

Chitty’s narrative of the emergence of a coherent, free homosexual subject as capitalist social relations take hold is not 1-to-1. Its background is the story of what happens when people who are superfluous to agrarian production are thrown off the land and have to reproduce themselves as wage laborers, while the bourgeoisie takes greater interest in their private conduct and family structures as a site for the reproduction of class society as a whole. I’m condensing centuries of conflict and development here for brevity, but that’s the overall arc.

The economic story, very broadly, is that the dynamics of expansion and crisis that are part of any capitalist power’s period of hegemony are visible through the history of these crackdowns on sodomy that align with moments of financialization. His story about the homosexual subject takes it as somewhat given that people in sex-segregated spaces like workshops, ships, workhouses, armies, resource colonies, etc. — that is, the paradigmatic institutions of capitalist development — will end up having sex with each other. And on the other side of the wage, masses of vagrants, unemployed workers, or sailors on leave are also likely to seek pleasure or profit in cross-class cultures of homosexual contact given that they’re excluded from the forms of household belonging that are now routed through property. In segregating the labor process by gender, capitalists undermine proletarian access to the family structures they themselves inhabit. So capital produces homosexuality in that limited sense, first of all. But this isn’t enough to create a subject, let alone a free one.

In Giovanni Arrighi’s work, financialization is a sign of the “autumn” of a given hegemon’s tenure, during which time it is slowly transferring its commanding position in the capitalist world-system to a larger/more comprehensive successor. This transfer appears in the political structure as a crisis of its capacity to rule. A given ruling order is produced in and through these institutions, and Chitty suggests that male homosexuality regularly appears as a figure of this crisis because it reflects the “structure of political-economic power itself” in a system ruled by men.  That leads him to the claim that periods of greater regulation or at least state attention to homosexual practices are opportunities for people to struggle over or rework the meaning of these practices in a political space opened up by capitalist crisis and hegemonic transfer.

He also makes the point that “increasing sexual repression only ever indexes the growth and penetration of state apparatuses into the social tissue of everyday life.” So the struggle against repression that characterized the classical homosexual liberation movement often took the concrete form of a struggle for access to or freedom from the state. That means that comparing moments across the history of homosexuality needs to be undertaken very carefully to avoid mistaking transformations in one area as contributing cumulatively to the unbroken meaning of a homosexual subject rather than state development. When you speak of a homosexual subject, you’re speaking of a certain kind of state, a certain configuration of work along gendered and racialized lines, a certain level of profit, a certain political settlement between the classes, and so on. And while he places an emphasis on the history of repression for what it can illuminate, giving too much explanatory power to homophobia can risk naturalizing it and missing what makes it effective.

What I find interesting about his theory is that it doesn’t make either a moral or a mechanical claim. That is, if you’re a particular kind of queer or Marxist, you might come looking for a way to argue that, say, homophobia is simply reducible to class domination, or that class struggle is secretly fought over sexual liberation. This would be too simple for him. It’s an incomplete text, but he lets us think about these questions in a much richer way than is often the case.

Every time a non-normative sexuality is criminalized, the state machine indexes and increases its power over everyday life. Could Chitty’s “queer realism” maintain an ultimately anti-statist feature?

So one thing that’s striking is that he doesn’t make an argument about a linear progression of greater sexual repression leading to greater freedom. His attention to both the dialectical relation between the two and the irregular structure of this history lets him diagnose the present as experiencing a “waning of sexual affect.” I suppose you could compare this to the secular stagnation that has characterized the global economy over the past few decades, where growth is increasingly hard to come by. Chitty makes it clear that the story of state–sexuality interplay is not simply one of repression but also of liberation. His position is that the state isn’t banished from sexuality when liberation takes place; in fact, it’s the opposite.

That is also when it indexes and increases its power over everyday life, to echo your terms. This will be familiar to readers of Foucault. And despite the somewhat dated nature of Foucault’s intervention, it still seems to be a widespread belief that sexual liberation is always and everywhere an anti-state undertaking. One of the merits of this book is to step back from the desire to use this history of non-normative sexualities’ conflict with the state for political ends in the present, because that lets him see how risky the assumption is that we can rely on these histories or traditions to do the work of opposing the state’s power over everyday life.

There are obviously thrilling, rich, alluring traditions of outlaw sexual cultures that evade control by the capitalist state (even as it brings them into being). This book collects histories of a handful of them, and there are many more. I love reading them, personally. But it’s his sort of disabused perspective on their political meaning that I think makes this work valuable. And again, to use your terms, that I think is what allows him to hold onto the more anti-statist position that he was trying to develop. If he’d been attached to a prescriptive view of these traditions, like the liberationist historians who needed a history to anchor their struggle for recognition in the present, then he might have recruited them into the role of some kind of heroic antagonist of capitalist social relations, whose recent ambivalent victories would then be harder to explain.

I think you’re not wrong to detect that he’s taking a swing at some of the certainties that we still hold around the political meaning of sexuality. But I think in terms of “maintaining an ultimately anti-statist feature,” that’s what is needed. You can take his insight that questions of sexual conduct are sites for struggle over the reproduction of capitalist society and develop your own politics from there without the tenuous assumption that inhabiting a particular sexual subject or even taking part in class struggle guarantees a particular kind of anti-capitalist or anti-state position. I think for him, class struggle is simply what capitalism is. It only becomes revolution under certain circumstances. That’s what he was trying to tease out from this history.

What role did the regulation of the sexuality of women play in the history of sexual hegemony?

Oh, a huge role. Chitty draws from a tradition going back to Aristotle’s commentary on the Spartan “family cult” where Aristotle claims excluding women from civic life by secluding them in the family produces unstable, class-polarized polities, as opposed to the supposedly more egalitarian warrior societies which institutionalized homosexuality (at least this is his particular reading of Aristotle). This seclusion is detectable in the Mediterranean basin until at least the 17thcentury, when a Scottish traveler in Florence notes the absence of women from the marketplace as the reasons for the widespread presence of young proletarian boys who ran errands, port goods, purchase food, etc., and who were the object of sexual assault by patrician men. Machiavelli spends time in his letters describing the political reverberationsof these assaults in relation to conspiracies against the state, which goes to show how socially potent they were.

This seclusion of women in the household is the politico-economic basis for a male public sphere, and obviously that’s its own long, contradictory history of struggle. But the public presence of women is central to this history too, of course. As the European countryside is shaken out into its cities and then across the globe, new proletarian cultures emerge within the irregular housing and work conditions available to them which generate irregular patterns of sex and intimacy — casual prostitution, illegitimate births, sex in public, etc., as well as homosexuality. When bourgeois reformers take notice of it, they call it sexual anarchy, and the professed concern for women’s decency is the motive for various investigations into prostitution and venereal disease among working class women that precipitates the scientific “discovery” of male homosexuality in the 19th and early 20th centuries. So this whole archive he’s working with is in that sense derivative of this other history of women’s sexuality.

In fact, throughout this historical period, sex work and homosexuality are conjoined social phenomena. Chitty finds an incredible document from the French Revolution, a series of satirical declarations set in the royal gardens that the pederasts and prostitutes of Paris have occupied and turned into a cruising ground and workplace. In one, married women deliver a complaint on behalf of prostitutes and heterosexual women calling for increased policing of homosexual menbecause they’re supposedly stealing their husbands and clients! In another, “tribade” or lesbian women declare their solidarity with pederasts and denounce the calls for more policing. In any case, there is a rich history of this interplay.

One limitation of this particular work is the fact that it was drawn from Chitty’s dissertation, which for disciplinary reasons restricted itself to the figure of the male sodomite to make a relatively narrow historical claim (though over an extremely ambitious span of time). Another oversight, which I mention in my foreword, and Nealon addresses in his introduction, is not giving as much attention to how gender and race make up this story. While Chitty spends time with the history of colonialism that produces race, he is telling the story of male sodomy in metropolitan Europe more than anything else. This also has to do with organizing it along Arrighi’s schema that dictates a focus on four or five cities.

But he himself writes that any “account of male homosexuality remains not only incomplete but essentially damaged to the extent that it does not grasp how women’s entry into public spaces and institutions has transformed the basic coordinates” of its object of study, and the same holds for the long process of colonial violence that was necessary for race to produce the categories of gender as we live them now, too. These stories are present in his materials, but as things stand now, others will have to incorporate his story into the rich tradition of thinking these categories as well.

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M. Buna is a freelance writer.

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