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Sexuality and Subcultures in the Wake of Welfare Capitalism

COMMENTARY
Sexuality and Subcultures in the
Wake of Welfare Capitalism
A/an Sinfie/d
When the British Parliament eventually debated the Gulf
War – journalists had earnestly demanded this, pretending
to believe that it might somehow make a difference; when
we finally got this debate, just two new ideas were produced. One, from an Ulster Unionist, was that we should
have a day of prayer and repentance. I admit, I hadn’t
thought of that. The other, from an old leftist, was that we
wouldn’t have this trouble if we still had the good old Cold
War.

Well, the Cold War perhaps did restrain US militarism,
but it is over and the collapse of the Russian empire proves,
we hear, that socialism is not the way forward. This begs a
fascinating question: who, on the European Left in recent
times, has believed that a centralised, command economy
and a Soviet-style political system are the way to socialism?

Virtually no one. What we have called ‘1968’ amounted, as
much as anything else, to the decisive arrival of a generation
of leftists who did not feel obliged even to consider the
proposition that the Soviet Union was a model for socialism. So why is it said that we are so taken aback by the
collapse of the Russian empire?

Closet Keynesians
There have been two broad approaches on the Western
European Left in the 1970s and 1980s. Some of us have
looked for radical new possibilities. These were envisaged,
most often, as a kind of immediate local autonomy; we
might think of this as the spirit of Greenham Common.

Others of us, the larger part, stayed with the mode that had
prevailed since 1945: attempting to develop the progressive
potential of the mixed economy as it emerged from the postwar settlement. Let’s locate that, briskly. In the 1930s, there
had seemed to be three kinds of future: fascism, communism and a rejigging of capitalism to make it fairer welfare-capitalism. These three fought it out between 1939
and 1945 . Welfare-capitalism won in Western Europe; on
the Right as well as the Left, it was agreed that there should
be no return to pre-war conditions. Now all the people were
to have a stake in society, an adequate share of its resources
as of right – a job, a pension or social security, a roof over

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your head, health care, education. These promises were to
be sustained by government management of the economy in
the manner proposed by Keynes (not by Soviet-style bureaucracy). That is the consensus which broke down conclusively in the late 1970s, allowing Thatcherism to confront it and to take us back, in theory and in effect, to the
1930s.

It is my contention that, whatever we were saying on the
Left, we hadn’t really worked out a system that might
supersede welfare-capitalism. This is because, actually, we
envisaged it continuing, though with vastly more of its
promises realised. To be sure, we often used a revolutionary
rhetoric – and with justification, when we protested about
nuclear weaponry, racism, unemployment an.d poverty, the
Vietnam War; any number of imperial wars. But what did
we really mean – when we cried ‘America Out’, for instance? We pushed and shoved at the line of police, in
Grosvenor Square in 1968 and thereabouts, with the evident
goal of breaking through and reaching the US Embassy. But
what were we going to do when we got there? Scratch at the
walls with our fingernails, perhaps. Most of us hadn’t
thought about it. I know this is not true of everyone; I mean
to be provocative. But for the most part, through diverse,
more and less promising modes – trades unions, the Labour
Party, the courts, the left-liberal press, canvassing, lobbying, demonstrating, infiltrating – we were looking for a
delivery, within welfare-capitalism, on the promises of
1945.

Consider three significant movements. The Greater
London Council when Ken Livingstone was its leader
aspired to combine the two main kinds ofleftism that I have
identified – an immediate, local autonomy and a more
humane welfare-capitalism: the idea was to redistribute
wealth and power through relatively democratic municipal
structures. But how was this to be sustained, in the medium
term, within the capitalist world order? If socialism in one
country was tricky, how could there be socialism in one
city? Perhaps it would be the lever for a greater change, but
how would that develop? I don’t think we thought very hard
about it. Of course, the capitalist world order asserted itself:

the GLC was abolished.

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

Remember Bennism. Joint planning of the economy was
the initial idea – the government and the multinationals
were to get together, to make planning agreements. And
there was to be an extension of nationalisation – to perhaps
twenty-five manufacturing companies. The ambition was
to shift the culture of business towards industrial democracy, and that perhaps might have been achieved: here too,
there was an idea of local autonomy within a more benign
state. But the project was simultaneously too weak and too
strong: too weak to challenge the framework of capital, too
strong to have been tolerated by international corporations.

Even the great industrial disputes … The mode is epitomised by my own union, the Association of University
Teachers. At one moment – one of many moments – our pay
had fallen out of line with that of others with whom we
thought it strategic to compare ourselves. The slogan we
produced, with all the intellectual resources at our command, was: ‘Rectify our anomaly’. A potent challenge to
capital, if there ever was one. But that has been the general
project in trades unionism: putting things into better proportion within capitalism.

In the 1970s it became apparent that welfare-capitalism
cannot pay its way. First, as Beveridge said at the start, it
must depend on popular commitment. Unless people really
believe that the system can produce social justice and fair
shares for all, the removal of the traditional threat of poverty
licenses wage inflation. This may have been the crucial
failure: the system didn’t change sufficiently to engage
most of us to the point where we were prepared to sacrifice
sectional interests. Everyone had to grab for themselves,
because you couldn’t rely on the system. Whether it could
have been otherwise is a question. Perhaps the framing
ethos of competitive capitalism made fair shares impossible; perhaps the Attlee administration lost its opportunity
when it went into Korea, and after 1951 the Tories shrivelled the scope of aspiration to keeping up with the Joneses.

Now the Labour Party has lost the nerve to campaign on the
idea of fairness, and we may never know whether it could
have worked.

Second, while the post-war/Vietnam War boom continued, and while the oil-rich territories could be dominated,
there was usually more money to push round the system, so
that diverse interests could be bought off, piecemeal. But
the boom ended, and suddenly the Keynesian mechanisms
for holding the economy steady were revealed as emperor’s
new clothes. A moment of truth was when Denis Healey
was forced to capitulate to the International Monetary Fund
in 1976 (the Labour administrations were packed with
moments of truth). This is the flaw: welfare-capitalism
raises expectations, with a view to maintaining popular
enthusiasm; but only for a while can the system produce
enough wealth to keep pace with those expectations. In
Sweden and New Zealand, even, they have found this.

Welfare-capitalism, to legitimate itself, arouses aspirations, but cannot produce the wealth to meet them.

Leftist attempts to work within welfare-capitalism have
not been in bad faith. We did believe, very many of us, that
1945 was a breakthrough, that we were pursuing important
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

campaigns, that there was potential for a slow and uneven,
but steady movement towards equality and social justice.

And it hasn’t been all bad – especially if you overlook the
fact that our relative wealth is premised on the poverty of
most of the world. But, overall, it is dawning upon us now
that welfare-capitalism is not going to deliver. That is the
failure that has distressed us, not the failure of Soviet-style
centralised direction. Short of the barely-imaginable revolution, things are not going to get much better. And this is
so stunning that we cannot afford to recognise it. We prefer
to allow the notion that it is Eastern Europe that has blown
us off course; otherwise we will have to acknowledge the
real poverty of our theories.

Homosexuality and the problematic
of the problem
Commentators have often observed that during the twentieth century homosexuality came to be considered less an
evil or a sin, and more a medical or psychological condition.

That is true; but it came to be regarded also, increasingly, as
a social problem. A Church of England pamphlet, published
in 1954, was called The Problem of Homosexuality. The
W olfenden Committee on homosexual offences (and prostitution) was set up in 1954 after a minister for home affairs
declared: ‘Quite clearly, this is a problem which calls for
very careful consideration on the part of those responsible
for the welfare of the nation.’ In 1952 writer Gordon
Westwood conceived an objective: to bring ‘the problem of
homosexuality … out into the open where it can be discussed
and reconsidered’. By the end of the decade he felt this had
been achieved.

. .

The social problem is a welfare-capitalist formation. It
goes back, of course, to Chadwick, Rowntree, the Webbs,
but it is central to the post-war settlement – accompanying
the rise of sociology as a discipline and social work as a
profession. Juvenile delinquency, unmarried mothers, the
colour bar, the housing shortage, latch-key children … there
was suddenly a swathe of them. The social problem has a
standard aetiology. The state encourages discussion by the
press, the public and the wise and the good, and then passes
laws to improve matters. It is the social equivalent of the
mixed economy: the state intervenes to smooth over injustices and secure steady general progress. We can see the
extent to which this formation has organised our thinking,
to which we have lived inside it, now that it has been
repudiated under Thatcher and Reagan; they declare that
there are no social problems, only personal and family
difficulties.

As with socialism, we have used a revolutionary rhetoric
to talk about homosexuality. Especially in the immediate
enthusiasm of Stonewall, in the spirit of 1968, it was
asserted that gay liberation constitutes a broad and deep
challenge to patriarchal society – for instance, by Guy
Hocquenhem and Mario Mieli, but many of us have said it.

And it is not a manifestly foolish idea if you consider, on the
one hand, the actual wide occurrence of same-sex practices,
and, on the other, the virulence of the hostility towards
them. There are people out there who will kill because the
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state tells them to, or for love, or for money; but among those
who will kill out of hatred, there are few targets so favoured
as homosexuals. Something so disturbing might really
threaten the prevailing power arrangements. Parents disown their children for it. Look how irrational the laws are,
how bizarrely they are drafted. Lesbians and gay men don’t
hurt anyone, don’t cost anything; we are consumers, Christians, royalists, conservatives, employers, trades unionists;
we love our mothers – sometimes even our fathers. There
must be something deeply upsetting about us.

Be this as it may, if we have believed that homosexuality
has a revolutionary potential, we have also, overwhelmingly, proceeded as if we expect the social-problem approach to work. The language of sexual revolution, like that
of political and economic revolution, has accompanied
actual welfare-capitalist assumptions. The pink economy,
indeed, is a micro-version of the mixed economy. Commercial organisation is taken for granted, but to ameliorate its
drawbacks we have worked for publicly funded interventions – gay centres, theatre companies, courses in education, campaigns about safer sex. We demand that the state
protect us, even though it is the state that has been victimising us. We know, surely enough, that the problem of
homosexuality is not lesbians and gay men but homophobia,
just as the problem of race is not immigrants but racism. But

us. Section 28 was provoked by gay artistic and other
municipal ventures: we expected these as our share of
public resources and public legitimation – as promised in
1945, however belated. The campaign against Section 28
made much of the contributions, through the ages, of gay
men to the arts. It was a good campaign, and well-enough
reported. But the votes in the Lords and the Commons at the
end – and this was as important for me as the collapse of the
Russian empire – were the same as at the beginning.

Nothing changed. We said: Look, we have made all this art
for you. They replied: Yes, we know, that’s what poofters
are supposed to do, but don’t think it means you can flaunt
yourselves.

Precisely because artistic culture is associated with
queers, it is relatively easy, when push comes to shove, to
set aside its pretensions. Mainstream achievement does not
make us respected and liked; it feeds into the pattern
through which we may be despised. Gay men have been
accepted as purveyors of posh culture only on condition that
we be discreet, thereby acknowledging our own unspeakableness. The centre takes what it wants, and under pressure
will abuse and abandon the subcultures it has plundered.

Blacks, it seems to me, have reason to know this. Decoding
the work of closeted homosexual artists discovers not a
ground for congratulation, but a record of oppression and
humiliation. What we celebrated in the Section 28 campaign was not our culture, but our contribution to their
culture.

Subcultural production

this doesn’t overthrow the social-problem problematic. It
still allows the assumption that there will be room for us if
we get the analysis right, organise, push hard enough, and
catch the right moment – just as pensions for the elderly
will, in welfare-capitalist ideology, be made adequate as
soon as the economy settles into growth. Of course, that
moment doesn’t come. What we get instead is cuts in social
security, the tabloid press and Section 28. We campaign
against it all. Rectify our anomaly.

The contribution of gay men to quality culture may stand
as a test case for the welfare-capitalist proposition that
everyone will eventually be accommodated within a cleanedup version of capitalism. The Section 28 legislation, making
it illegal for local authorities to ‘promote homosexuality’

‘Yas, for me, another moment of truth. Just when
postmodernists were claiming that cultural hierarchies have
collapsed, so that we can move in an effortless bricolage
among diverse cultures, Parliament legislated to control the
dissemination of my subculture; not because it involves the
infringement of any law, but simply because they don’t like

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OK, so Soviet-style communism didn’t work very well;
now let’s see the evidence that capitalism works. Welfarecapitalism was a response to the 1930s. When it led to the
IMF and the winter of discontent, Thatcher tried a return to
unfettered capitalism. That has now led to where it led in the
1930s: to a slump and a growth in fascism. It isn’t even the
fault of the poor, said John Major – a yes-person promoted
beyond his capacities if ever there was one. The fact is, the
system doesn’t work whatever they do. The 1930s weren’t
that special: there was an even bigger slump in the last
quarter of the nineteenth century. Capitalism produces
booms and slumps, just as it produces extremes of wealth
and poverty. It is not a matter, as the press and the Labour
leadership seem to imagine, of discovering a ‘new policy’.

All the policies have been tried. The system is inherently
cruel and inefficient. And socialists, whatever our confusions through the decades, are people who know this.

Looked at squarely, three quarters of the world has been
in continuous distress since 1945. A sleight of hand leads
people to believe that being fully committed to the world
capitalist order produces a ‘successful’ economy, such as
that attributed until recently to West Germany. But what
about, say, Zaire? That has been in the capitalist orbit
throughout (for a brief moment there was a socialist leader,
Patrice Lumumba, but he was assassinated by Western
interests). We are invited to ascribe ‘unsuccessful’ economies to particular circumstances, or to an uninspected
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

‘third-world’ -ness. But countries like Zaire are, in fact,
more capitalist than the UK – because the IMF won’t allow
them even to attempt welfare programmes. They are in
poverty because that is what happens to most people in
capitalism, as it always did. Even the East European states
were not insulated from the world system. It is usually
alleged that they collapsed out of internal weakness, but
they too took loans from Western banks on the promise of
world economic growth, and then hit a world slump. It will
be interesting to see for how long it can be maintained that
instability in Eastern Europe derives from the former system, rather than from market economies. If you like socialism so much, they used to say, why don’t you go to Russia?

Now we may turn it round: if you want to experience the
dominance of market forces, go to Russia and see how you
like that.

But if capitalism is cruel, it is also victorious – and there
should be nothing intrinsically surprising about that. The
attraction of welfare-capitalism was that we might humanise the system without having to go to the improbable length
of overthrowing it. But, for very many people, welfarecapitalism is not going to become adequate. The UK state
retirement pension stands at 15 per cent of average earnings; that is intolerable. But bringing it merely up to 30 per
cent would put about 15 pence on income tax. That is not
going to happen, and nor are innumerable other urgent
reforms, and we all know it.

Since I am arguing that the failure of welfare-capitalism
is a disaster that we can hardly bear, collectively, to contemplate, I will hardly be expected to come up with a comprehensive new answer. Until someone does, I think lesbian
and gay activists, including intellectuals, have a special
responsibility to our immediate constituencies. The danger,
always, is that those who lose out are persuaded to blame
themselves – for instance, for unemployment. For gays,
self-oppression has been a great difficulty. As a salaried
bourgeois intellectual, I am well defended against tabloid
newspapers. I shudder to contemplate how other men and
women cope with exposure to a sustained hate campaign,
directed not just at our ideas, or actions even, but at our very
selfhood. ‘If he were a dog he’d have been put down five
years ago’ – thus the Daily Sport on Freddie Mercury. It
should be astonishing that any public organ could write like
that about someone the day after he died; never mind the rest
of us – what about his family and friends? But no one is
surprised. Or the Daily Star on prominent people who
support AIDS causes: ‘It seems to me Princess Diana’s
morbid fascination with AIDS has hung a Royal Warrant
over the disease and endorsed it as an acceptable and
fashionable way of dying.’

I want a resuscitation of a broad and substantial socialist
project; in fact, I think young people will reinvent it in a
while, since it is still the most plausible alternative. But, at
the moment, millions of lesbians and gay men outside the
privileged enclaves are in a lot of trouble – subject to daily
insult, deprivation of civil rights, and the threat and actuality of violence. Until the next revolutionary conjuncture, we
have to prioritise self-defence.

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

That may be done, partly at least, through subcultural
consolidation. We have to work to develop the selfunderstandings of lesbians and gay men, on our terms.

Instead of offering our efforts and talents to a disdainful
mainstream, we should commit ourselves to lesbian and gay
writing, histories, art, institutions, political and cultural
commentary. One proposal in my book Faultlines (1992) is
that the Althusserian conception of interpellation may be
applied to subcultures (thus correcting the leaning towards
totalisation in Althusser’ s formulation). The dominant ideology tends to constitute subjectivities that will find ‘natural’ its view of the world; this happens in subcultures also
– but in ways that may validate partly dissident subjectivities.

The project, therefore, is to reinforce subcultural identities.

‘In acquiring one’s conception of the world one belongs to
a particular grouping which is that of all the social elements
which share the same mode of thinking and acting,’ Gramsci
declared. It is through such subcultural sharing that we may
learn to inhabit plausible dissident subjectivities. By establishing sufficiently vigorous and comprehensive lesbian
and gay milieux – attitudes, texts, institutions – we can
counteract the tabloids, and begin to produce the conditions
for a pride so substantial that it will last all year round.

I’ve presented my case in a determined way; in conclusion, I anticipate two questions. All right, we should exploit
welfare-capitalist arguments and opportunities where we
can, and that may produce some results. For some subordinated groups – women with children, for instance – it is hard
to see how any significant alleviation of the situation can be
achieved without public resources. Nevertheless, we can’t
allow ourselves to rely on them. While AIDS was thought
to affect only gay men, governments did almost nothing
about it; but for gay subculture, thousands more would be
dying now. A second question: we should, to be sure, work
with other subordinated groups, seeking coalitions of interest. It is not a matter of separatism; rather, it is because
separatism is impossible – because gayness is so inextricably involved with heterosexuality – that subcultural priority
needs asserting. Also, we have important work to do among
ourselves before we can expect other groups to take us very
seriously. We have a fearful legacy of self-oppression,
deriving from decades of victimisation and passing; it
produces misogyny, class deference, racism, ageism. Only
by dealing with those issues within our communities will
we develop the potential for a lesbian and gay left – one with
the capacity to combine with other groups.

As I have said, subcultural consolidation is not an
answer to the global topics I have raised. It is a defensive
strategy for a distinctively beleaguered group in bad times;
others will say how far they recognise its relevance to them.

It may sound like a single-issue politics. Perhaps it is; I
would like to hear of a better way for the groups that the
centre, quite systematically, positions as its others. I ask
only that those who think they have it engage, seriously,
with my contentions that revolutionary rhetoric is unrealistic and welfare-capitalism is not going to deliver, for their
failures render otiose many of our traditional assumptions
about the scope for activism.

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