Political Nonmonogamy: challenges to an anticapitalist stand

What does politicising the personal mean? Where are we when it comes to complying with the 70s-feminist slogan that the personal is political? Have anticapitalist social movements taken into consideration this feminist claim? Does Anticapitalism promote resistance in the personal arena? Is the personal seen as politically mobilisable? Or is it shut away as non-political? What is a site of resistance? What does or does not constitute an issue worth politicising? And also, who is engaged in the debate? Who is self-rewarded with the privilege to say what counts and does not count as political? With neoliberalism advancing sharply as a totalising framework of life working subliminally on consensus and co-optation, it is crucial to ask these questions if we are to conceive anticapitalist resistance broadly and exhaustively, without leaving loose ends.

In the context of 60s and 70s USA political movements, the slogan the personal is political was popularised by Radical Second Wave Feminism. The key messages were that personal issues have a structural basis; that the micro is politically conditioned and subject to power relations; and that by politics we should understand all those strategies aimed at maintaining a dominant system. The private vs public divide was strategically used as a means to broaden the field of political struggle, since the slogan offered a platform for aspects that were not included in the traditional notion of the political. The starting point was recognising that the distinction between the personal (what is intrinsic to the personal realm and our own life) and the public (what is intrinsic to the community) is a conventional, historical and culturally contingent distinction.

As a central notion of Liberal and Capitalist nation states, the private vs public divide has remained relatively consistent as the hegemonic cosmovision in a way that it does not merely describe the world, but also offers a perspective to analyse social life. In assessing the impact of this distinction it is important to remember what feminists have coined as the “patriarchal adscription system of physical and symbolic spaces”. The fact that women were secluded to the private space, as it was known according to Liberalism, and were excluded from the liberal promises of freedom, and that men gave a superior and more prestigious meaning and value to the space they kept for themselves, known as the public space, is crucial to understanding which issues are regarded as politically important, and therefore liable to political interest and political activity. It is this spacial allocation of value that I draw on to examine whether the personal (made synonymous with the feminine and the private space) is given political significance. That is, to what extent are personal matters such as sexuality, relationships and family arrangements included in the political agenda?

And here we get to (non)monogamy. Understanding monogamy as a hegemonic and compulsory sex-affective structure with deep political implications seems to be widely accepted among critics of capitalism, highlighting consequently the inseparability of sexuality and the political economy. This means acknowledging that monogamy includes sex-affectiveness but that it is not reduced to it. The connection between monogamy and other issues such as the sexual division of labour and the heteropatriarcal-nuclear family indicates, indeed, that within anticapitalist environments monogamy is also equated with socio-political organisation. The link between private property and monogamy’s privatisation of life, care and work, for example, is discursively present among anticapitalist activists, showing very clearly how the liberally demarcated private vs public spheres are connected. In this sense, one would expect that understanding monogamy this way would lead to, at least, question it politically as some sort of pro-capital sex-affectiveness intertwined with aspects that are institutional, structural and relational and therefore, to articulate nonmonogamy as an alternative societal arrangement that does not follow capital demands. However, it seems that within anticapitalist political groups, the personal remains out of the political debate, at least when it comes to challenging the normative power of social conventions on sexuality and relationships.

It is against this backdrop that I frame my argument to conceptualise anticapitalist resistance at its broadest by including the personal realm as political, in which individual lives are considered as sites of struggle to challenge wider hierarchies of power. This is framed within a larger motivation to recover the Feminist slogan the personal is political that, despite some of its alleged historical failures on reducing the political to only the personal, is still a very valuable yet neglected strategy to challenge the liberal and sexist ontology of private vs public that brackets social life and political activity. In contributing to what Feminists claimed back in the 60s and 70s, I propose to explore nonmonogamy as a site of resistance and critical thinking that offers positive and productive ways to organise anticapitalist activism.

Nevertheless, to understand nonmonogamy as a political stance does not mean taking it blindly and simplistically as anticapitalist and subversive. It does not imply equating nonmonogamy to subversion and monogamy to conformity in an essentialist and naïve way, nor denying multiplicity in affective human arrangements and socio-political organisation. Nor is it the purpose of this reflection to respond to a naturalisation of monogamy with a naturalisation of nonmonogamy, in which sexuality is regarded as the truth of the self and the main societal organising principle. And it goes without saying that asking each and every person to become nonmonogamous is not what would make nonmonogamy politically relevant. It is, however, thinking about life in nonmonogamous terms: exploring what new political and social scenarios emerge when looking for alternatives to monogamy as a life organising principle. For example, one can imagine the ways in which nonmonogamy could suggest mechanisms to share resources, to collectivise care, to reduce consumerism or to promote values of solidarity.

In advocating for nonmonogamy to be framed as political in these terms there are, nonetheless, a number of challenges that prevent its mobilisation as anticapitalist resistance.

  1. Marxism, the personal and feminism

Firstly, it is important to consider to what extent Marxist theory and practice has included feminist issues on the political agenda, since it has been Feminism (together with the LGBTIQ Movement) that has been the movement reclaiming the politisation of the personal realm. In general, there is a shared conclusion that, in practice, Marxist Movements have historically marginalised feminist issues (the so-called women question) by prioritising class over gender and by sidelining feminist concerns as concerns to be dealt with in the future. I believe it is unquestionable that Marxism was formulated in masculinist ways as was the case regarding many other schools of thought (regardless of women’s actual participation and role) and, in fact, what enabled the emergence of Marxist (and Materialist) Feminism in the USA back in the 70s, was precisely the The Left’s disregard for feminist concerns, including topics such as personal life and sexuality. This led Marxist and Materialist Feminists to engage in debates such as where exactly emancipation occurs according to Marxist Theory and what is understood by the material. These debates were very productive in bringing feminism into the spotlight and they paved the way towards new theoretical perspectives able to overcome the dual systems theory, such as Social Reproduction Theory and Intersectionality.

But the question is theoretical as much as practical: would these new perspectives marrying Feminism and Marxism reshape anticapitalist political activity, for real? Would they allow for new, positive and constructive ways to avoid committing politically through a class-grand theory perspective? What should be asked in particular is, what other issues are to be emphasised to make anticapitalism more permeable to feminist and LGBTIQ concerns? Indeed, we must not lose sight of sexism and LGBTIQ phobia in anticapitalist environments and political groups. Discrimination and gender injustice is not only exercised by marginalising certain political subjects or by relegating them to administrative and organisational activities (as is the case with women in some political groups), but also by denying the legitimate political exercise of deciding, collectively, at the grassroots level and with a humble approach, what issues are worth politicising. That is to say, it is important to assess to what extent an anticapitalist space is open to people’s demands that respond to different, unexpected and less common political locations. These demands do not have in all cases a well-defined class orientation and therefore require new tools, perspectives and political will to be fulfilled.

  1. The downsizing of everyday politics

Secondly, another challenge is the way that political activity organised around aspects of the private realm is portrayed within the larger social movements debate, and this refers to so-called Everyday Politics, which is a kind of political activity that consciously and actively promotes a lifestyle, or way of life, as the primary means to foster social change. Some researchers have claimed that there is a conceptual wall between lifestyles and social movements that has created a theoretical blind spot at the intersection of private action and movement participation, personal and social change, and personal and collective identity. This has resulted in a debate on whether individual everyday life practices are political and whether they bring social change, with some researchers criticising Everyday Politics for retrieving the strategy the personal is political in an individualistic way that dismisses the power of traditional political strategies and activity that are organised in a collective fashion.

In response to the question some of these researchers pose about the possibility to instigate significant change through embodied politics, some rightly argue that neither the institutional nor the embodied can promote change in isolation, but a combination of both. However, this problematically suggests that when criticising Everyday Politics for engaging in individual (yet) political acts, or in any act altering an individual’s life, these researchers are accusing Everyday Activists for not pursuing collective impact and change. It also suggests that both the public and the private are seen as completely disconnected and that what individuals do in the private realm stays there. This debate is important as it might hinder the politisation of nonmonogamy especially when those willing to make a political statement out of their antinormative sexual behaviours are mistakenly seen as subjects engaging in mere private options and not as political subjects with an interest in developing strategies with a potential to change life organisation.

Further to this, what seems to be at the heart of criticisms regarding Everyday Politics is that this strategy supports not only conducting politics at the individual level on private-everyday life matters but also exercising politics without immediate recourse to collective organisation. In addition to the fact that there is no evidence supporting the claim that individual resistance has replaced collective and more conventional mobilisation, this statement seems to lump collective organisation and structural analysis together. That is, one can decide not to engage in face-to-face politics in coordination with others while at the same time seeking collective impact and engaging with structural analyses. Least but not last, it is important to remember that not all subjects feel at ease in public and collective political spaces and that some might even feel socially scrutinised as outsiders.

  1. The problem with identity politics

Thirdly, another challenge is the Left’s accusation towards political activity which mobilises around cultural categories (such as gender, sexuality, disability, etc) at the expense of more structural and more universal categories that are very often made synonymous with the class issue. Movements on culture are accused of engaging in identity politics and blamed for breaking with the necessary economic based synergy as this is allegedly the only strategy capable of challenging Capitalism. While acknowledging that the debate on identity politics is somehow flawed and while sharing the view that some identity-based movements may be divorced from any critique of Global Capitalism, I suggest that these accusations are in reality an argument against mobilising narrow claims that are not seen as relevant, structural and universal such as the class issue, insofar as they draw attention to, precisely, personal life aspects.

Nonetheless, if we work on the basis that the separation of economic/class politics from identity/cultural politics seriously disables political analysis and activism, as it overlooks the fact that the political economy actually lives through aspects of culture, sexuality and everyday life, these debates and their theoretical underpinnings are very problematic. They are also annoying, as they are sometimes raised in the absence of empirical work and from a pedagogical-moralising perspective that links mobilising identities politically with issues such as (badly managed and unresolved) resentment. It seems debates on social activity are on some occasions flawed and privilege-blind. The definition of a legitimate cause of struggle cannot be judged a priori and from the outside, and to defend the fact that each person is entitled to decide what the most pervasive axes of power are that affect them, is not to defend an essentialist, recognition-based and redistribution-blind approach to political activity. So yes, sexuality and relationships are political, whether activism messiahs see it or not.

4 .A privatised and apolitical approach to polyamory

Fourthly, recently-emerging writing has not yet framed polyamory as a radical politics alternative, and this might hinder a discussion on polyamory from a power analysis perspective. A significant proportion of this writing is found within self-help manuals on how to develop successful polyamorous relationships, largely based on white, middle class people’s needs and experiences, overlooking the class awareness and analysis. Whilst these texts are valuable as they broaden the debate on antinormative sexualities, the strategic potential of polyamory has been called into question for endorsing an apolitical and privatised reasoning, portraying it as a mere sexual option and as a “does it all” panacea disconnected from the political economy.

In particular, critics of this approach have claimed that polyamory has been reduced to a mere private sexual preference, as it focuses essentially on intimate and personal issues, consequently denying the rejection of monogamy as a political act. They have also criticised the lack of debate on power when discussing polyamory, which undermines its subversive potential and leaves the centrality of oppression-related issues unchallenged. Likewise, a pervasive focus on individual choice and agency has been criticised for hindering an analytical connection of polyamory to other political struggles and to the creation of strategic alliances. Prescriptive texts for polyamorous behaviour are likewise criticised for portraying a liberal government mentality that embeds regulation into the subjectivity of individuals through processes of normalisation.

  1. The risk of the political agendas of antinormative sexualities being subjected to neoliberal co-optation Lastly, there is evidence showing that the political agendas of social movements working around antinormative sexualities have been neoliberalised, falling often into an assimilationist agenda that ultimately reproduces monogamist principles, and fails to question Capitalism. This line of work has focused on the cultural aspects of neoliberalism and their effects on everyday life, including sexuality and sex. Neoliberalism is understood here no longer as a political program, but as new framework of human nature and social existence that operates on interests, desires, and aspirations rather than through rights and obligations, becoming therefore less corporeal and restrictive yet more intense. As Wendy Brown puts it, Neoliberalism means that homo economicus leaves behind homo politicus, seeing political activity as an enemy, radically constraining political choices and therefore the power to alter the conditions of life.

It is this conceptualisation of Neoliberalism that should be understood when analysing work invested in showing how neoliberalism co-opts, assimilates and absorbs principles from political activity on antinormative sexualities that results not only in a de-radicalisation of movements but also in a worrying alignment with neoliberal interests. Faced therefore with the risk of mobilising nonmonogamy in neoliberal terms, it is realistic and honest to take a cautious stand. It is fundamental to develop an ever-present anticapitalist awareness knowledgeable of the sibylline ways in which Neoliberalism advances the interests of Capital through aspects that might be overlooked.

To conclude, in order to subvert the compulsory and hegemonic system of monogamy from an anticapitalist standpoint to find alternative and antisystem sex-affective arrangements, it is crucial to consider sexuality, relationships and family arrangements as intrinsically political and therefore as issues with a legitimate right to be mobilised politically. This will also help to blur the boundaries between the private vs the public, overcoming the patriarchal adscription system of physical and symbolic spaces and avoiding the prioritisation of public political acts. In doing all this, it is important to consider how the anticapitalist struggle works, how current debates on social movements portray personal and identity issues, and how political activity and research on polyamory is evolving in light of rising neoliberalism. These challenges are just some of the issues that should accompany the debate on political nonmonogamy but they are by no means the only ones. That the nonmonogamy debate sometimes overlooks feminism and power relationships through an excessive and eclipsing celebration of openness, visibility and consensus has to be left for another issue/occasion.