Human freedom is everywhere touted as an ideal, but has never anywhere been achieved as a reality.
We live in a society in which privation sprawls amidst abundance. We are dazzled by reports of the marvelous capabilities of modern technology, and we cannot afford to visit the doctor. The actual lags pitifully behind that which is now Possible. Why?
Because our society is governed by the logic of capital – value restlessly, remorselessly driven to turn itself into more value. We’re objects caught up in a historical process the subject of which is capital. Human history has not yet begun.
What would it mean to become human? to commence human history?
It would mean to arise from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. So long as we are subject to historical necessity as constituted by capital, so long as we are separated from the means to freely reproduce ourselves and to develop our human potentials, so long as we are dispossessed, having no alternative but to sell our labor-power to survive, forced by this bare necessity to submit to the wage relation, to be reified, reduced to a thing, a mere moment of capital, bought to turn money into more money, value into more value, so long as we are all trapped in this seething contradictory process, this bad infinity, spiraling hellishly toward ecological catastrophe, we cannot be free. What’s more, we cannot be human, for we are split up, vivisected by the division of labor, turned into mere hands operating machines, washing dishes, fingers punching keys, arms swinging hammers, legs running the boss’s errands, breasts presented as advertising, brains pilfered of ideas, thoughts swallowed by the void of ‘social media,’ affects drained, mouths moved mechanically to utter the platitudes of ‘customer service.’ We look upon our labors as alien to us, our very powers are outside of us, stolen, transformed into capital’s power over us. We look in the mirror and see not a human being, but a mere tool, the tool of an inhuman relation, the relation that is capital.
Capital, as a self-moving logic, makes these relations appear inevitable, eternal, natural: it has made a second nature, an ecosystem of exploitation of which we are a part, that is a part of us, but also explicitly against us. Capital’s second nature, governed by its logic’s necessity, makes all kinds of bizarre historically-determined fictions and fantasies, husks, roles, manners, categories, and pigeonholes appear natural and eternal and inevitable – ‘race,’ ‘gender,’ ‘sexuality,’ the list goes on. Are these reified so-called identities ‘natural?’ Yes, in a sense, but not in the sense invoked by their apologists. They are objective abstractions, fictions with real effects, socio-economic categories (like worker and consumer) that have developed historically, but appear as natural necessities of capital’s alienated second nature. But they have no place in that open, unknown condition – a human nature, if you will — which we’ve never yet enjoyed, because it belongs to the realm of freedom that lies beyond the realm of necessity.
If we want to move toward the realm of freedom, to become human, how could such an aim be pursued by further fixing these categories, nailing ourselves to these shells, doubling-down on the states of ‘Being’ we’ve been slotted into? But we cannot simply wish them away, or talk them away, or theorize or equivocate them away in a fantasy of ‘fluidity.’ They have concrete bases that must be overcome and transcended concretely. This is Possible, but only if we overcome and transcend the motive logics and laws of capital, and replace as the engine of history the Becoming of capital with the Becoming of humanity.
Fifty years ago, Shulamith Firestone recognized that the foundational division of labor is the sexual division of labor. It turns mute somatic facts into determinants of stratified social and economic functions, and, eventually, into the towering fetishistic edifices of sex-roles that, as Simone de Beauvoir clearly saw, must be reproduced and reinforced in a perpetual constitutive process of becoming woman, the negative imprint of male domination, which disappears in the constituted appearance of simple being. The social sex distinction specializes the labor of the reproduction of the species: it turns those unburdened by wombs into man (thus required to fill the ‘masculine’ role, constituted as default), and those with wombs into woman (thus required to fill the ‘feminine’ role, constituted as other), one privileged, the other subjugated, but both inhuman objects whose bodies are broken up and assigned specific tasks, much of the labor of women confined to the unwaged domestic sphere (and if woman is thus determined as less than man, the sterile female is less than woman, the lumpen of her sex-caste, unworthy even of her lot as birthing-slave, a purposeless suspect creature of nonprocreative sensuality, probably a witch). Like all imposed divisions of labor, the sexual one is an alienation, a splitting up and impoverishment of our total human potential. The ongoing revolt against sex-roles and sexual norms we have witnessed in recent decades at least attests to the affective truth of this alienation, much as rampant anxiety, depression, and neurosis attest to the truth that all the divisions and privations of life under capitalism are alienating. This crude sexual division belongs to the realm of necessity, to what Theodor Adorno termed the needless prolongation of “natural history.” The realm of freedom lies beyond the tyranny of sex.
If we can devastate the earth a thousand times over with nuclear warheads, transplant a heart, 3D-print a house, and walk on the moon, it is Possible to concretely transcend the dichotomous and hierarchical sex distinction. It is not a technical problem, but a problem of class struggle to overcome the logic of capital (which has sexual diremption and sexist domination embedded at its very core) and all its forms of unfreedom. It is madness that in a handful of years we’ve learned to think it natural to see the world through a smartphone, to socialize via Zoom, to speak in memes and 280 characters, but we still cling to the metaphysical naturalness of the sexual dichotomy, to our precious, unassailable ‘identities’ as our property.
A discursive profusion and dispersion of differentiated Being, a mere multiplication of claimed identities – i.e. 57 flavors of ‘gender’ and endless bespoke pronouns – is not only easily accommodated by capital, but it’s a veritable boon, as it opens up myriad new niche consumer markets. This clutter of reified Being will get us no closer to the realm of freedom. To paraphrase Marx, to be radical is to go to the root of the matter, but for man and woman, the root of the matter is being carved up into man and woman.
Perhaps the most famous Marxian category is the proletariat – that vast dispossessed class forced by material necessity to sell its labor-power for wages, forced into exploitation and alienation. But the most famous 20th century misunderstanding of communism is that the goal of class struggle is to sing the glories of toil, to exalt the proletariat, to further fix and reify the proletariat as socio-economic category, as an identity, to turn all the world into proletarians working in one big, happy factory.No. Communism is nothing but the real self-abolition of the proletariat, throwing off the shackles of necessity and stepping for the first time into the realm of human freedom, in which alienated, exploited labor is no more, no person is another’s tool, and the great abundance capitalism has created is appropriated by human needs and desires, not trapped within the value-form. In the same fashion, the self-abolition of the socio-economic categories of man and woman will be immanent in the movement into the realm of freedom. This shall entail a concrete transcendence of the basis of the sexual division of labor.
The overcoming of capitalist relations will not be an end, but a beginning. Becoming does not just refer to a dynamic ontological model in abstracto, or the progressive struggle to overcome class society; it is also the great reward, the great possibility that awaits us beyond the realm of necessity. Imagine a world in which the ideology of destiny, economic or biological, is obsolete and unknown. Where the salient question is never what am I? or what do the traditions of dead generations tell me I am? or what am I expected to be to compete in the labor market? but what do I want to do? to think about? to create? to act like? A world in which the noun has given way to the verb. A world where we have the material basis and the real freedom to experiment endlessly with new ways of living and creating and interacting, a world happy to move with the impermanent, transitory flux of all that is ever coming into existence and passing away like the river of Heraclitus, willing and able to ceaselessly overturn what Is to allow the flourishing of what’s Possible. This is a world freed from the sex distinction, and freed from the capitalist economic necessity with which this age-old repressive institution is integrally bound up.
There is already no longer any technically necessary reason the reproduction of the species must remain tied to somatic traits, social sex-roles, the acts of erotic pleasure, or the socio-economic unit of the nuclear family. Universal vasectomization can decouple from procreation those sorts of erotic congress that still risk it. It’s easy to imagine in the very near future the abolition of the brutal burden of gestational labor, children conceived and carried to term under extra-uterine conditions, children that would not then be considered any father’s property or mother’s job, but the responsibility of the community entrusted to those with the genuine desire, aptitude, and skills to care for them, regardless of sex or genetics. There are any number of ways to organize communized childrearing beyond the dyadic family form, thus undermining the monogamous monosexual telos that constrains free love and human bisexuality. Polymorphous eros would no longer need be exclusively fixated on ‘productive’ genital intercourse, thus dissolving the heterosexual norm, and the oedipal neuroses by which it’s reproduced. Somatic traits can be surgically and hormonally altered as needed, the tremendous overlap of sex-characteristics recognized as a continuum (as it once was by the European sexological view that all humans are somatically and psychically bi-sexual to one degree or another – in the words of Magnus Hirschfeld, “taken very strictly scientifically, one should speak...only of people who are mostly male or mostly female”) rather than suppressed and beaten into a mutually-exclusive, antagonistic dichotomy, “the traditional biology of sex difference” thus transformed “into the radical biology of sex similarity” (Dworkin). And under such conditions absent the domination, coercion, and exploitation that they mask and mediate, sex-polarized roles, stereotypes, and accoutrements would lose all meaning, and adornment and presentation would have a purely aesthetic and expressive function, manner, hairstyles, attire, even the shapes of bodies a matter of taste. But as always in a world produced by the logic of capital rather than of human Becoming, the actual continues to lag behind the Possible.
It is not enough to pretend we live in such utopian historical conditions now, nor that we can make them so with the fetish of discourse. We do not and cannot, just as quitting your job will not save you, let alone the rest of us, from the exigencies of the labor market. The logic of capital still reigns, and we must fight collectively to overcome it across all moments of the social totality, culturally, technologically, organizationally, in everyday life, social relations, and the labor process. It is dangerous and deeply dispiriting to try to live as if we were already free. This is not to say that we should stop trying, but we cannot simply remain in a defensive crouch, pleading for our fragile right of Being wedged painfully in a capitalist world. To be a ‘woman’ or ‘man’ or ‘trans’ or ‘queer’ or this-or-that race or ethnicity or nationality or whathaveyou is not an ‘identity’ worth fighting to preserve any more than ‘proletarian’ is. All that exists deserves to perish. We are not what we ‘are,’ but the potential energy of what we could be. We must fight for our self-abolition, for the end of ‘identity,’ for conditions that make border skirmishes over Being irrelevant because they have no bearing on our social fate, we must fight for the universal freedom of human Becoming, and in the process become human – for, as the great theorist of hope Ernst Bloch reminds us, “the process is made by those who are made by the process.”
Bloch also taught us about the ‘utopian surplus’ – the glimmers of what could be amidst the darkness of what Is, and has been. The women’s liberation movement of the early 1970s revolted against imprisonment by narrow, dichotomous, heteronomous sex roles, pointing toward a utopia it called androgynous community – this notion of androgyny was a universal one, not something a self-appointed enlightened minority could opt into as an identity, but naming the revolutionary process by which all humans would combine into themselves traits that had been heretofore socially sorted as either ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ While the clarity of this conception has been lost in the intervening decades’ jumble of fetishistic ‘gender identity’ jargon, the very chaotic and conflictual character of recent social developments clearly indicates that the historical crisis of the once-immutable-seeming sex distinction continues unabated. There have long been presentiments of androgynous community scattered throughout philosophy, myth, art, and the social interstices, faint Not-Yet-Conscious longings for the real transcendence of the fundamental alienation of the social sex distinction. From the transformations of Tiresias to Aristophanes’s speech at the Symposium to the many hermaphroditic and sexless deities the world over, from the alchemists’ androgyne as resolution of the Great Work to the romantics’ androgyne as sublime state of true humanity, luminous morning star, angel of liberty, from Claude Cahun, Toyen, Prince, Patti Smith, David Bowie, and Genesis P-Orridge to all the soft butches and tough queens: in these we see anticipatory visions of the Total Human, long-sought sublation of the pre-historic dialectic of sex, freed from the privations, divisions, contradictions, and alienations of the realm of capitalist necessity to develop our integral potential in an integral way, that end-in-itself that is just the beginning of Becoming.