Capitalism, (Re)Production, and Bread and Circuses

The other day, I came across this part of this essay by Marlene Dixon, and you can guess what it prompted some thoughts about.

If we conceptualize human reproduction as “production” in the capitalistic sense (that is, production of future labor), and if we conceptualize bodies that are capable of conceiving as the “means of production”, and if we conceptualize bodily autonomy, consequently, as a threat to oligarchical control over the means of production, then some of the classic objections to asexuality — while still irrational — begin to make a little more sense.

For example, consider the accusation that asexual people are “just lazy”.  This line of argument isn’t that asexual people are afraid of sex or just haven’t realized that a sex is fun yet; it’s that we’re slacking on the job, failing at our duty, our required labor.  Here, sex and sexual relationships are conceptualized as work, as an obligation one might avoid out of laziness, despite cultural myths that tout sex as universally pleasurable.  Why?  Because the issue taken is not about sex itself, it’s about putting in your mandated hours to contribute to (re)production.

Likewise, consider the irrelevant objection “We need sex to reproduce.”  We don’t, actually, but that’s beside the point.  So what?  Is a small percentage of people choosing celibacy really going to put a dent in our population?  And if so, who cares?

The only answer I can come up with is this: mass employers care.  In economic terms, an increase in supply drives down value, meaning that the market sets a lower equilibrium price and buyers can pay less for more.  The labor pool (people who want employment) is a type of supply, and the bigger it is, the less the suppliers can demand as wages, all else being equal.  Therefore, “we” need more reproduction in order to buy cheaper labor.

I don’t think any anti-ace whiners think through this consciously, but it’s the one explanation I’ve found for it that makes any sense within its own framework, and even if it doesn’t instruct it directly, capitalistic culture certainly would encourage this as a concern.

Mulling over the relationship between reproduction and capitalism led me to thinking about Snowpiercer as well, and if you haven’t seen the movie (and you really should, as long as you don’t have triggers related to gore), be warned there’s spoilers ahead.

In Snowpiercer, human reproduction is literally key to fueling the capitalist machine (see here for some further writing on its general symbolism).  There are many scenes in the movie that are visceral and jarring, and for me, several of those are concentrated around the ending, when we see Wilford’s utter nonchalance and his quiet disdain for Curtis’ strong emotion.  “Don’t be so melodramatic,” he calmly says as Curtis attempts to save a child.  It is chilling, but all too familiar.

One of these lines, and the other half of how I see sex as potentially appropriated by capitalist logics, is a line that stung me all the more due to an association with the first time I’d heard something like it.  While sitting at his dinner table, Wilford remarks that Curtis is “always so tense,” and then says, “You need to get laid.”

Within the context of the film, it’s obvious that the reason Curtis is so tense has more to do with being hungry and oppressed and bearing witness to violent atrocities over the years, but Wilford, as the villain and chief proponent of the current system, ignores all that.  Instead, he suggests that Curtis’ tension, his anger, his radical inclinations, could all be “fixed” if he simply has sex.  Here, sex is being proposed as an emotional and ideological cure-all.  It functions as a distraction, as mood repair, as neutralizing, as settling the radical.  You’re tense because you haven’t maintained your health regimen and just need to relax, he implies, not because there’s an actual systematic evil at hand.  The paradigm not only states that having sex would eliminate an individual’s need for revolutionary change, but that the politics thusly invalidated — the assertions that threaten the status-quo — only come into being because someone isn’t getting laid.  Here, as in other places I’ve seen, it’s as if sex is being prescribed as a political pacifier and means of silencing.

But you know, sure, tell me again how prudes are the source of sexual oppression.

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21 responses to “Capitalism, (Re)Production, and Bread and Circuses

  • Siggy

    Oh, that reminds me of another analysis: “Children aren’t worth very much–that’s why we no longer make many“. They argue that the flow of resources used to be from children to parents, but is now from parents to children. Children only become productive after they grow up, and then they provide value to society at large, rather than to their parents.

    A corollary is that when people refuse to produce children, it’s like defecting from a prisoner’s dilemma.

    • Coyote

      Oh, interesting point. Thanks for the link.

    • Siggy

      After looking a bit over the Marlene Dixon essay, I think it’s making the same core argument, although my link attributes it to education, and Dixon attributes it to a reification of “capital”. I don’t think much of the Marxist buzzwords, but on the plus side Dixon goes into greater detail about potential consequences.

      • Coyote

        Formal education is what some academics call “cultural capital”, so they’re pretty close to overlapping.

        • Siggy

          I think the specificity is worth an awful lot.

          Looking at it again, I see that Dixon and Perry made opposite arguments regarding women. Dixon sees the trend as associated with the control of women, where Perry sees it as associated with increasing women’s equality.

  • caelesti

    Anyone who thinks American style capitalism encourages people to reproduce hasn’t taken a close look at company’s policies for maternity leave, the lack of quality & affordability of childcare. I am totally cool with anyone’s choice to not have kids, for whatever reason, but even more so if they expressed solidarity with working parents. I don’t think capitalism as a system, really cares about people’s sexuality. If it can sell stuff related to sexuality, if it can use sex to sell things then great, it is quite “happy” to do so whether its vanilla or kinky, hetero or gay. Asexual people, at least single ones, are great as far as capitalists are concerned, because they can be totally dedicated to their job without the “distraction” of family members. (Of course I realize y’all often have other sorts of relationships that are important, but that’s how The Boss will see it)

    • Coyote

      Did you read the excerpt of the essay I linked to? Here’s part of it:

      “The bourgeoisie is not interested in sexual behavior or the family as such. Capital’s interest is in population, the production of human labor power in proportion to its needs. The ruling bourgeoisie is very aware that capitalism could not exist without its ultimate producer and most fundamental commodity, human labor power. Capital’s need to exert population control and to supervise human reproduction, and the contradictions that this entails, are sharply revealed not only in an obsession with the rate of reproduction in the poor and developing countries, but also in the abortion, birth control, sterilization and social assistance laws in North America.”

      I think that addresses most of what you were saying.

      “Asexual people, at least single ones, are great as far as capitalists are concerned”

      …I don’t even know where to start with this.

    • Siggy

      Taking a different perspective from Coyote, children cost money. And to the extent that children are valuable, they do not provide that value to the same people who bear the costs. So while it might be vaguely beneficial to a company to have a greater population in the future, it is not actually worthwhile for them to personally bear the costs of getting there.

      But if you take this to its conclusion, we have a tragedy of the commons. Why should anyone want to pay for children? Therefore, we’ve erected a bunch of social values: Motherhood is noble, babies provide some intangible value to parents, socially progressive companies should have more family-friendly policies, gay people should at least adopt children, etc. For better or for worse.

      (I think your comment also illustrates why I don’t like the reified notion of “capitalism”. You talk as if capitalism has a coherent set of motives (rather than conflicting motives), and that these motives are represented in the actions of some companies, and not in the actions of individuals.)

  • caelesti

    Maybe I should’ve just said that while Marxist analysis has its uses, I don’t think analysis of sexuality & gender is its best use! I just don’t really see how asexuality would matter economically. If we had like, mandatory group marriage or something then it would matter, but otherwise an asexual can get married & have a companionate or just not that sexual marriage,or be single, have important friendships etc. The employer only cares if you have a spouse that they need to cover for benefits, they don’t care about your sex life unless they are stuck on certain social prejudices. The main difference is that married men are often favored as more “stable” and loyal employees, whereas married women are feared to have children in the future, (how annoyingly untidy) I just don’t think a capitalist conspiracy to make sure everyone is heterosexual is really a thing.

    • Coyote

      “I just don’t really see how asexuality would matter economically.”

      I can’t figure out if you don’t have the context necessary to understand my post or if you just didn’t read it carefully. Familiarity with the ways asexual people are typically harassed, and why that matters, is kind of a prerequisite here.

      “they don’t care about your sex life unless they are stuck on certain social prejudices.”

      What you just told me is that employers aren’t prejudiced unless they’re prejudiced.

  • siphilemon

    I think looking at is as just an issue of capitalism is too narrow. It’s certainly true- capitalism needs a future labor force and the way is you get that is for people to have children- but for a paper I had to write for university I took some theory from Berlant and Warner’s “Sex in Public” and Foucault’s biopower where I said that prejudice against asexuality was rooted in a social fear of the disruption of the passage of culture from parent to child. Combined with what you said about capitalism and using the “just lazy” dismissal, it becomes about the failure of duty to supply not only a labor force but also the membership of one country/society/race/ethnicity.

    Asexuality becomes a threat to all other identity categories, if you will, because if everyone in the category dies off and there aren’t the potential of new children/adults to fill the vacuum, then the category is just extinct. You’re weakening the position of the community in relation to other communities because if they have more people, they have more opportunity to get and use resources, and therefore more power- it’s a recipe for destruction and/or domination. The emphasis on sexual reproduction to secure the future of a group is something that I’ve only really seen analyzed in relationship mperialist rhetoric- where such a high cultural value was placed on motherhood because mothers had children and children where what continued the empire; and the more people you had in the ruling class the more control you could exert over your colonial subjects and their labor/resources- but I think it deserves an important place in talking about asexuality, too.

    • Coyote

      “I think looking at is as just an issue of capitalism is too narrow.”

      Well, as always, yes.

      “prejudice against asexuality was rooted in a social fear of the disruption of the passage of culture from parent to child.”
      “it becomes about the failure of duty to supply not only a labor force but also the membership of one country/society/race/ethnicity. ”

      And where do those ideas come from, I wonder? That is, the notion of the nuclear family as one’s only true family. It’s not a universal value, after all.

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  • Sara K.

    I delayed commenting until I saw Snowpiercer (I saw it last night).

    I think the “you need to get laid” line is a rationalization on Wilford’s part. Wilford does not want to mentally process that he might be evil, so he needs to find some other way to explain to himself why Curtis is so tense. Notice that Curtis is 0% convinced by the argument that he is so tense just because he needs to get laid.

    Yep, ‘they need to get laid’ is a common way to rationalize other people’s behaviors, but I don’t see compulsory sexuality supporting capitalism (or an entrenched socio-economic elite, since Wilford is not exactly a capitalist – he’s not making money from the Snowpiercer) this way. If compulsory sexuality were an effective way to control masses who would otherwise try to change the socio-economic order, then I’d expect to see a lot more compulsory sexuality in oppressive/highly-unequal societies than in relatively open/tolerant/egalitarian societies … and I just don’t see that kind of correlation. Drugs are much more effective for that sort of thing – I can think of historical examples (*cough* opium wars *cough*), and even in Snowpiercer drugs are depicted as being a more effective form of social control.

    In other words, if Wilford actually wanted to subdue Curtis, he’d be better off putting some Kronole under his nose.

    That’s not to say that there is no connection between capitalism and sexual normativity, I just don’t think *this* is the connection.

    • Coyote

      “I think the ‘you need to get laid’ line is a rationalization on Wilford’s part.”

      Certainly. And its usage as a rationalization is what worries me.

      “I don’t see compulsory sexuality supporting capitalism”

      I was trying to argue the other way around, but okay.

      “then I’d expect to see a lot more compulsory sexuality in oppressive/highly-unequal societies than in relatively open/tolerant/egalitarian societies”

      Do you have examples in mind? For which societies are which, I mean. I’m not sure exactly how we would assess that sort of thing.

      • Sara K.

        Yes, it is tricky to assess, and I wouldn’t want to compare societies which I didn’t have a certain degree of familiarity with.

        The example which comes to mind is China and the United States. The United States has more than its share of oppression, but I would say that China is worse. I can go into the middle of the street and hold up a giant sign that says Obama is a total scumbag and not expect to be arrested/forced aside/assaulted/etc. – I can’t run out into a major street in China and hold a sign saying that of Xi Jinping with the same kind of confidence. Furthermore, I can move to any part of the USA I wish, but Chinese citizens cannot move to another town without permission of the government (or if they do anyway, they will lose a lot of their rights, for example, their children will not be able to attend school).

        As far as I can tell, compulsory sexuality isn’t any stronger in China than in the United States.

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