Since time immemorial, there have been Foucault gays and there have been Marx gays, and they do not get along. The two will on occasion meet: tapping shoes in the bathroom stall at the conference hotel, locking eyes between stacks at the anarchist bookstore, or evidenced by the stray half-read copies of the Grundrisse or “Society Must Be Defended” in the background of nude photos exchanged via Twitter dm, or—well, you know the rest. This has seemed to be an irreducible chasm in understanding world history—Foucault elides class, one says; Marx provides a stadial, deterministic view of history, the other replies—but as Christopher Chitty shows in his posthumously published Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System, there are uses to reading Foucault and Marx alongside each other. Whereas Foucault’s periodization is limited (bourgeois sexual science can hardly be understood as the origin for a discourse of sexuality), his account of biopower provides a useful corollary to Marx’s absolute general law of capitalist accumulation, explaining in specific contexts how capital produces excess populations and manages their worsening living situations Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony (Durham: Duke, 2020), 153-55.
. In order to think Marx and Foucault together, Chitty labors through Marxist historiographical debates, the finer points of queer theory, and—the stock and trade of gay history—court cases and legal records.
Taking us through five centuries of sodomy, spanning Florence, Amsterdam, Paris, the United States, and all the oceans and seas in between, Chitty remaps the history of homosexuality along shifts within the developing capitalist world system. He provides a new periodization for the history of sexuality, not dated from Foucault’s (in)famous situation of the year 1877Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. (New York: Vintage, 1990).
, but instead following scholars like Giovanni Arrighi through “earlier moments in which conservative, middle-class sexual norms and categories had not yet achieved dominance in the combined and uneven transition to capitalism” Chitty, Sexual Hegemony, 24.
. In early modern urban centers of developing capitalism, Chitty finds that sexuality was a flashpoint in struggles by the developing bourgeoisie to simultaneously overthrow the dominance of aristocratic regimes and manage the surplus labor populations of primarily young men whose labor they sought to exploit.
Homoexuality illuminates this struggle for hegemony because a significant portion of buggery was cross-class, specifically between aristocratic and lower-class homosexuals, with the nascent bourgeoisie in between. It’s not that sodomy was the primary driver of capitalism’s development, like some world-historical sugar daddy. Rather, “cultures of sex between men were politicized amid much wider forms of dispossession during periods of geopolitical instability and political-economic transition” Ibid, 35.
. Sexuality does not drive class struggle, but if you don’t account for class struggle, your understanding of sexuality is necessarily incomplete. When capitalist hegemony shifts from one center of control to another, there are broad forms of population control—Chitty names “vagrancy laws, forced labor, imprisonment, and impressment”—which, while they could serve a broad array of purposes, were “mobilized to criminalize homosexuality for most of the modern period” Ibid, 36.
. If you are targeting two classes at once, and these two classes turn out to be porking each other, persecuting sodomy kills two queens with one stone. In Chitty’s main theoretical formulation, “a relationship of sexual hegemony exists wherever sexual norms benefiting a dominant social group shape the sexual conduct and self-understandings of other groups, whether or not they also stand to benefit from such norms and whether or not they can achieve them” Ibid, 25.
. Following Chitty’s train of thought, I want to suggest a flipside to this: bourgeois sexuality needs its own fantasies of a working-class, criminal sexuality for its own coherence.
Sexuality, then, is something that happens to you, whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, male or female, and so it is more often organized around factors of dominance or hegemony, rather than identifications or essences. In most of the scenes that Chitty describes, persecuted homosexual intimacies are cross-class, as propertied men fuck propertyless men. In this view, homosexuals do not live in one stable point in relation to power but multiple, disseminated across different positions within society. For these reasons, Chitty critiques many of the predominant figures in what we can call queer theory—Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, and especially Michael Warner. Put briefly, Chitty claims that these theorists posit the “queer” as something that is at once dynamic and anti-essentialist but, however ironically, always defined by its abjection from the totally naturalized and essentialized “normative.” At the source of this “ontological prevarication,” Chitty identifies Foucault’s famous critique of the “repressive hypothesis,” which functioned as a “cipher” to posit a historical opposition between the normal and the abnormal individual: “Thus some of the most resolutely anti-essentialist writing of the intellectual formation—say, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble—must yet posit something extracitational in subversibly self-reflexive performances of gender, a surplus that always slips away from power’s grasp” Ibid, 144.
. By breaking from this repressed essentialism, Chitty provides a broader and more variable account of both queerness and the shifting sense of the hegemonic “normal” that the bourgeoisie has employed differently in different historical moments in order to persecute sexual minorities.
We can extend Chitty’s critique of these scholars to the work of Lee Edelman as well, especially his important introduction to No Future, “The Future is Kid Stuff.” In Edelman’s framework, queerness exists “outside the logic of reproductive futurism,”Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. (Durham: Duke, 2004), 17.
but Chitty’s broader historical frame suggests that we might consider how queerness has been called upon and forced to signal the reproduction not of the human body but of capitalist order as such. As male bodies are dispossessed of property and reorganized into manageable labor populations, queerness (and more specifically homosexuality) actually seems integral to the very function of capitalist futurity rather than its end as such.While it might seem like a cheap shot to take aim at Edelman’s early twenty-first-century framework that’s largely indebted to the insights of Lacanian psychoanalysis (a framework foreign to all of Chitty’s historical subjects), I am also sympathetic to Hortense Spillers’s insistence that psychoanalysis (and especially its understanding of the symbolic order) is largely limited by the patients and subjects that it studies and cares for. As Spillers revises psychoanalysis to understand Black and African subjectivities, I think there might be an analogous and allied revision to account for the poor, early modern subjects that Chitty studies and their continued bearing on our own present: Hortense Spillers. “‘All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother’: Psychoanalysis and Race.” Critical Inquiry 22 (Summer 1996): 732.
The poorer side of queer history has largely been occluded from historical memory because, as Chitty points out, “the homosexual desire for history is itself historical” Chitty, Sexual Hegemony, 150.
. Largely, this desire has been a bourgeois desire, practiced and developed by bourgeois historians interested in excavating a gay past to justify the queer presence on the world stage, showing that gay people could be good normative subjects with bourgeois rights. And largely, this strategy was successful. Queer people have seen great increases in rights and representation, especially in North America and Europe, but this victory seems to have just happened in the same moment that the whole world went to shit for gays and straights alike. “Gays and lesbians got a shot at dreams of the good life precisely at the moment of its political-economic dissolution,” Chitty writes Ibid, 173.
. So while we have had a seeming win for gay and lesbian rights, these rights didn’t really make a difference for most gays and lesbians (specifically the poorer, nonwhite gays and lesbians who don’t live in major urban centers). In what is surely a coincidence, the people who benefited from the recent gay rights movement tend to look a lot like the people who write and appear in the same homosexual histories that underwrote this same movement.
So, Chitty wants to instead re-tell the history of sexuality—from the bottom. But he cannot. The bourgeois writing of gay history and the corresponding movement for gay rights was premised on the destruction of the other, now forgotten, poorer side of gay history. “The oblivion faced by working-class homosexuals was an oblivion of historical memory,” Chitty writes, “by contrast, their elite counterparts left behind a labyrinthine wardrobe of tortured interiority, self-involvement, and coded references in which subsequent generations of queer readers have wandered” Ibid, 165.
. The smooth narrative written by the bourgeois historians, then, conceals irreparable fragments, wracked by class struggle.
Some readers of Sexual Hegemony may try to find some raison d’être for homosexuality and its history. But this essence always remains tantalizingly out of grasp. In one moment, sodomy is determined by the mode of production, in another it’s irreducible to it, in another, etc. etc..Compare Chitty’s account of early modern Mediterranean pederasty, in which “the relations of production and the patriarchal family form…contributed to the near-universal homosexuality of its men. … The mode of production was, in this way, directly responsible for pederasty” (82-83) to the account of Western European sexual history adopted from scholars like Wally Seccombe, in which “[m]arket expansion and increasing divisions of labor could not then, according to this view, be the primary driver of the history of sexuality because peasant production was never primarily about exchange” (129). Between these two accounts, we can see how the history of sexuality is neither the province of demographic studies of family life nor the domain of Marxist economic history, but rather the place where the two meet, showing us different interactions between the family form and the mode of production depending on the development of the world system in each context.
This is hardly a problem. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading history, it’s that sometimes things change! And ultimately it’s kind of uninteresting to find some essence of homosexuality, as tantalizing as it might be. Rather, the impossibility of straightforwardly understanding a fourteenth-century sodomite’s passions, hopes, and dreams might be the constitutive tragedy at the heart of Sexual Hegemony. Because he wasn’t just a homosexual: he was also poor, dispossessed of status and property, and spending his life hounded by a nascent police state that ensured his continued immiseration by persecuting and imprisoning him. Living a life like this, it makes sense that he wouldn’t capture his sensual or emotional experience of the world for subsequent homosexual historians—an opportunity that was, however, afforded to many of the richer aristocratic men that he would fuck.
Sexual Hegemony, then, is not a theory of sexuality but a history of it. It’s a history of the people who were left out of previous histories and who more closely resemble the same people left out of the modern, mainstream gay and lesbian movement. Chitty’s book closes with a description of the “cowardly spectacle of the San Francisco Pride board of directors” in 2013, as they refused to allow Chelsea Manning to serve as a Pride Grand Marshall, “stigmatizing [her] as a criminal” Chitty, Sexual Hegemony, 192.
. In Chitty’s history, queerness is criminality and vice versa, and until we undo the stigmatization of those working against the regime of property and its armed wing, the state, our gender and sexuality will be, in Chitty’s phrase, only “partially emancipated.”
In this regard, Chitty’s work shares an imperative with recent queer Marxist thinkers. There’s the invaluable work by folks like Endnotes, as Christopher Nealon notes in the book’s introduction, but also Sophie Lewis, who has centered “prison abolition, universal leisure, free abortion on demand, no borders, liberation from the wage relation, and ecological abundance” as central to our sexual lives, or Kay Gabriel, who situated gender as “an ideological scaffolding that sustains an unequal division of labour,” in a way that fits neatly with Chitty’s own account. But I also think that Chitty’s account works well with a book like Jules Gill-Peterson’s Histories of the Transgender Child, even as she follows a more overtly Foucauldian account of gender and its history. Both Chitty and Gill-Peterson are interested in leveraging historical recovery and revision to rethink our political motives in this moment, as we uncover different “historical precedents to the demands for recognition, dignity, and a livable life” that were just as overlooked and disavowed in the fifties, in the 1500s, as they are today.Jules Gill-Peterson, Histories of the Transgender Child. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2018), 195.
Chitty shows us that sexual liberation has been implicated in class struggle, and therefore history, from the start. Only through the latter can we hope to find real liberation for the former.
And so the implications of Chitty’s history are not just for those who study the broad movements of capitalism but also those who live within it now. He describes his methodology as a “queer realism,” noting that “‘Realness’ was initially queer slang for the face one had to wear in the straight world—less deception or disguise than a disengaged persona and form of comportment” Chitty, Sexual Hegemony, 29.
. Or, all those things that we homos have to do when we’re not committing sodomy. While Chitty trains this realness on the past, disengagement and alienation still bear on our own present. Many queers—those who aren’t rich, who aren’t white, who aren’t cis—still risk being written out of future histories. Near the end of his moving preface to Sexual Hegemony, the book’s editor (and friend of Chitty) Max Fox writes, “But Chris had the gift of Benjamin’s historian for ‘fanning the spark of hope in the past,’ and he convinced me that even the dead were not yet safe” Ibid, xi.
. As with the dead, so too with the living. In Benjamin’s next sentence, we find another important reminder: “And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations. (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 255.
ADAM FALES is a grad student, writer, and editor living in Chicago.