In light of hokumandhex’s previous post, which discussed the pervasive erasure of working class gays from public consciousness, I thought it might be interesting to continue a discussion about the relationship between economics and queer issues. Unfortunately, economics has long been ignored in queer theory circles, and Below the Belt has not been immune to this tendency (see, for example, the few posts that come up when searching for ‘capitalism’).

Nevertheless, given the huge impact of the global financial crisis, now might be the best time to begin a conversation about how different economic systems have impacted queer people around the world. Which type of economic order has been, or has the potential to be, most conducive to sexual and gender liberation? Is it some form of free market capitalism? A Keynesian social democratic economy? Socialism? Nationalist protectionism and mercantilism? Or is it communism?

At least one group of scholars has a ready answer to these questions. Among some of the most prominent contemporary U.S. conservatives and libertarians, it is an article of faith that the most unrestricted form of free market capitalism is inherently conducive to human rights and civil liberties. As Francis Fukuyama wrote in his notorious Cold War victory article, “The End of History”:

“…the spectacular abundance of advanced liberal economies and the infinitely diverse consumer culture made possible by them seem to both foster and preserve liberalism in the political sphere…that state of consciousness that permits the growth of liberalism seems to stabilize in the way one would expect at the end of history if it is underwritten by the abundance of a modern free market economy” (6).

Charilaos Peitsinis, a scholar of F.A. Hayek, has similar thoughts: “Free markets provide a successful counterweight to central planning and governmental decision-making, thus mobilizing uncontrolled social forces which tend to seize power from the ruling elites and distribute it to the masses.” Radical free market capitalism is thus a profoundly anti-authoritarian doctrine. If governments are less involved in economic life - if they own fewer companies, provide fewer services, abandon price controls, deregulate the market and open their countries up to free trade- then their capacity to control citizens’ lives will significantly reduced. Furthermore, as Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty website states, the free market “is the greatest engine of prosperity the world has ever known.” And as they become awash with money, societies will care less about ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual divisions. “Post-material” values - such as, individual autonomy, self-expression, and human rights - will finally be allowed to flourish.

These ideas have largely trickled down to some gay conservatives, who believe as an article of faith that unrestricted free market capitalism is the best promoter of the LGBT cause. Richard Tafel, a former executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, argues in his book, Party Crasher, that gay rights are inseparable from capitalism and free markets. Brian Miller of Outright Libertarians also takes a similar view in a series of blog posts titled, “Free Markets, Free Gay People.” He swoons at the “power of free markets to solve complex social and economic problems quickly and often ingeniously.” And, of course, the free market is definitely “far ahead of the pack” when it comes to LGBT issues, a claim that Miller backs up by providing information about how well gay people are treated by the U.S.’ biggest companies: by 2006, 80% of Fortune 500 companies banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, over one half of them provided health benefits for domestic partners, and many also allowed their gay employees bereavement leave, adoption assistance, and childcare benefits. As one glowing Fortune article puts it, “gay marriage – an idea that has been banned by all but one of 27 states that have voted on it – has become a fact of life inside many big companies.” Keeping productive workers at the workplace by satisfying their lifestyle needs is seen as leading to greater profits, while ejecting successful queer employees has the potential to seriously harm company profitability in the long run.

Andrew Sullivan, in many ways a figurehead of the gay conservative movement, is not immune to this kind of thinking either. Even though he adheres to a more pragmatic version of conservatism, which is skeptical of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, he has not hesitated to cite examples of LGBT successes within America’s biggest corporations as evidence of a connection between free markets and gay rights. Overall, much of the Gay Right is enthralled with the idea that unrestricted free market capitalism provides the best social context for the promotion of LGBT rights, and human rights as a whole: all around the world, “free markets mean free people.”

Naomi Klein’s Challenge

In her book, The Shock Doctrine, Canadian author and activist, Naomi Klein, provides a severe, scorching attack on this idea. Given the massive body of evidence she compiles, it is difficult to argue with her central contention: that radical free market reforms have, in many cases, been enabled by systematic human rights abuses. She essentially describes the fostering or creation of a [Carl] Schmittian “state of exception” as being absolutely pivotal to the success of core neoliberal economic policies, such as the privatization of state-owned companies, deregulation of financial markets, and opening up to unrestricted free trade. According to Klein, after World War II, most societies adopted different versions of regulated capitalism, Keynesian social democracy, Third World economic nationalism, socialism and communism. But since the 1970s, there has been a strong movement, led by Milton Friedman, Chicago School economists, the IMF, the World Bank, and large multinational corporations, to dismantle all of these economic systems and replace them with a “purer” model:

“In the U.S., and in all supposedly capitalist economies, the Chicagoans saw interferences everywhere. To make products more affordable, politicians fixed prices; to make workers less exploited, they kept minimum wages; to make sure everyone had access to education, they kept it in the hands of the state. These measures often seemed to help people, but [Milton] Friedman and his colleagues were convinced – and they “proved” it with their [mathematical] models – that [these policies] were actually doing untold harm to the equilibrium of the market and the ability of its various signals to communicate with each other. The mission of the Chicago School was thus one of purification – stripping the market of these interruptions so that the free market could sing” (Klein, 53).

Privatization, deregulation, and free trade were advised for all economies, regardless of the specific conditions prevailing in each country. And since the 1970s, these policies have been rammed down societies’ throats worldwide through a variety of mostly undemocratic methods. This thesis is definitely not deterministic: there have certainly been cases in which Chicago School-style reforms have been implemented peacefully and democratically. But the sheer number of countries in which that has not been the case clearly suggests that there is no necessary connection between human rights, civil liberties, and radical forms of capitalism. In my view, Klein basically destroys the notion that free markets inevitably lead to free people.

What examples does she provide to buttress her argument? There are far too many to discuss here, so I will focus on the following specific cases: Chile under Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, and George W. Bush’s America. In all three cases, major free market reforms were accompanied by massive human rights abuses, suspension of civil liberties, and the invoking of Schmittian “states of exception.” All these policies would be portrayed as a response to a shocking crisis or emergency, which justified all kinds of measures that would have not even been considered outside the normal spectrum of legal political action. While the relative scope and severity of human rights violations, repressions, and extra-legal political practices varied considerably in each of these three cases, there is no doubt that they figured prominently in each country’s attempts to privatize publicly-owned companies, outsource key government functions, deregulate financial markets, and open borders to unrestricted free trade.

Pinochet’s Chile is remembered in U.S. public discourse for its nasty torture chambers, mass extermination of political opponents, and tight-fisted rule over a cowed population. In fact, the depravity of the regime and its seemingly wanton blood-letting have been so overemphasized that it has become easy to forget the purposes behind the brutality. In The Shock Doctrine, Klein redresses this imbalance by showing that one of the goals of the disappearances, tortures, and mass exterminations was the need to pummel through a comprehensive economic program that “bore a striking resemblance to Milton Freedman’s Capitalism and Freedom: privatization, deregulation, and cuts to social spending – the free market trinity” (77). The “Chicago Boys,” a group of Chilean economists trained by Friedman at the University of Chicago, had tried to sell these ideas to various politicians and to the public at elections, but they had failed to gain traction: Keynesian, social democratic, nationalist, and socialist ideas were highly popular, which is one of the reasons why Salvador Allende was elected in 1970.

Nevertheless, with Allende deposed by a CIA-backed military coup, which had the stated aim of ridding Chile of alleged Marxists, the “Chicago Boys” finally had the opportunity to impose the so-called economic “shock therapy” that had proven so unpopular at the ballot box. Luckily for them, the military junta, some of Chile’s upper class elites, and multinational corporations were highly receptive to their ideas. Hence, during the 1970s, Chile underwent one of the first radical free market revolutions in the post-WWII era: Pinochet even received advice from Milton Friedman several times. And in sync with the "Chicago Boys," the purpose of the tortures and human rights abuses became to clear out “the people whom the juntas had identified as posing the most serious barrier to their economic program…the military government used the initial chaos of the coup to launch vicious attacks on the trade union movement,” leftist university students, and intellectuals (Klein, 106). Thus, in Chile, the implementation of free market capitalism was not accompanied by improvements in human rights. In fact, it depended on human rights abuses for its implementation and led to the creation of one of one of the most brutal right-wing dictatorships of the late 20th Century.

While Margaret Thatcher’s Britain was certainly nowhere near as brutal as the Pinochet regime, in a relative sense, her imposition of major free market reforms was also accompanied by human rights abuses. It was also made possible by the shock of a war that produced an emergency “state of exception” in the country. According to Klein, “it was the Falklands War that gave Thatcher the political cover she needed to bring a program of radical capitalist transformation to a Western liberal democracy for the first time” (137). With the UK swept up in a jingoistic fervor, and Thatcher’s popularity soaring as a result of the war victory, she finally gained sufficient political capital to privatize on a grand scale, break-up public housing, lay off workers, and downsize unprofitable public sectors, such as mining. Policies that were previously highly unpopular (Thatcher’s approval rating before the Falklands War was 25%) were now almost ignored by a public completely enthralled with the war-winning “Iron Lady.” It was in this context that the 1984-5 coal miners’ strike (in response to potential layoffs and closer of mines) was broken up. According to Klein, Thatcher “unleashed the full force of the state on the strikers…[including] eight thousand truncheon-wielding riot police in one confrontation” (Klein, 138). Thousands of people were injured in the violence. In parallel, Thatcher also launched what has been called “the most ambitious counter-surveillance operation ever mounted in Britain,” which featured major MI5 infiltration of the union, bugging of union members’ homes and places where they frequently met (Klein, 138). Clearly, in Thatcher’s Britain, radical free market reforms and respect for civil liberties did not exactly go hand in hand.

A much worse situation was created by the George W. Bush administration in the United States. It implemented one of the most sweeping privatizations of core government functions in U.S. history, buying crucial state functions, such as defense and disaster management, from private companies. The outsourcing of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to companies such as Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Halliburton is the most infamous case of the government privatizing its key functions. To fight its wars, it is now wholly dependent on private contractors:

“During the first Gulf War in 1991, there was one contractor for every hundred soldiers. At the start of the 2003 Iraq invasion, the ratio had jumped to one contractor for every ten soldiers. Three years into the U.S. occupation, the ratio had reached one to three… [Four years into the occupation], there was one contractor every 1.4 U.S. soldiers” (Klein, 380).

The results were similar in disaster management. FEMA outsourced its hurricane contingency planning for New Orleans to a private contractor. And while the contractor came up with detailed plans for how to address a potential flooding of the city, the government ended up not having enough money to put the plan into action. And thus, very little was done to prepare New Orleans pre-Hurricane Katrina, since the FEMA simply did not have the money to pay the contractor (Klein, 409).

Overall, the Bush administration engaged in a major privatization drive of some of the government’s core functions, and if given a free hand, it would have also completely marketized social security. This puts it in the position of being one of the U.S. administrations most committed to the free market in history. But contrary to the expectations of some conservatives, this has not translated into a positive human rights and civil liberties record for the Bush administration. In fact, it performed abysmally in that department. The USA Patriot Act allowed for unprecedented levels of spying on American citizens, the CIA set up clandestine torture camps (“black sites”) for proven and suspected terrorists, and a whole new category of persons was invented in international law (“enemy combatants”) so that captured suspected terrorists would not have to be treated according to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. A state of de facto emergency was invoked after the September 11th attacks, which allowed all of this to happen. Overall, under the Bush administration, radical free market reforms went directly along with human rights abuses and the invoking of a "state of exception."

Klein’s thesis is, of course, not absolutely watertight. She definitely does not prove that free markets inherently come with restrictions to civil liberties, or that they always require the invoking of a national emergency or extralegal political action to put them into place. She also does not address Milton Friedman’s economic and social theories in a very detailed way, but at the same time, she excoriates them for being responsible for the impoverishment of millions of people. Furthermore, she does not even mention the numerous abuses and extralegal political activities that have been committed in the name of other economic doctrines – communism, socialism, fascism and mercantilism. Nevertheless, The Shock Doctrine is convincing in simply putting to rest the myth that radical free market capitalism, human rights, civil liberties, and democratic processes necessarily go together, as some conservatives would have us believe. In many cases around the world, “free markets [have not meant] free people,” and Klein is highly adept at proving this point.

Free Market Revolutions & LGBT Rights

To what extent is it possible to adapt Klein’s thesis to queer issues? Does the gay conservatives’ and libertarians’ contention that a free market ideology is more likely to lead to successes for LGBT rights hold up? How has the LGBT community been dealt with in Thatcher’s United Kingdom, Bush’s United States and Pinochet’s Chile? Has these leaders’ commitment to the free-marketization of society fostered concrete successes for queer people?

At least in the case of Thatcher’s Britain and Bush’s America, the answer is definitely “No.” Aside from some who ridiculously embrace her as a camp gay icon, she is mostly remembered for her staunch opposition to gay rights and her government’s passing of Section 28. A clause within the Local Government Act of 1988, it states that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any [government funded] school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” This nasty clause characterized the relation of mainstream heteronormative society to homosexuality during the Thatcher years. And as we all know, George Bush’s America was similarly hostile. Throughout the 2000s, Bush’s party supported a Federal Amendment to ban same-sex marriage and managed to pass bans on gay marriage in more than 20 states. The marriage issue can be seen as a proxy for the general disdain with which his party and his administration viewed gay issues and sexuality in general (abstinence only sexual education programs, for example). The mantra of the 2000s can be summed up with the following Bush quote:

“I believe marriage has served society well, and I believe it is important to affirm that — that marriage between a man and a woman is the ideal…And the job of the president is to drive policy toward the ideal.”

Chile’s Pinochet is a somewhat more complex case. There was, of course, no chance of an organized LGBT movement emerging under his rule, since the military regime did not accept any kind of organized campaigning or opposition. However, the free market reforms did allow for the establishment of gay clubs and for the development of a gay community in the capital, Santiago. As Victor Hugo Robles writes:

“The heavy regulation of sexuality that has always existed in Chile intensified during the Pinochet dictatorship as society became increasingly militarized. At the same time, however, the rise of free market ideology allowed for the emergence of the first gay dance clubs” (38).

Nevertheless, this was definitely not a reflection of “official tolerance towards homosexuality, but [only] the tacit recognition of homosexuals as a potential economic market” (Robles, 38). In this sense, capitalism does provide queers with an opportunity: if they provide an economic demand, and if having venues and enterprises that cater to them has the potential to be profitable, then it is likely that gay-friendly night clubs and gay-friendly stores will flourish. Hence, people will be forced by the profit motive to at least tolerate the existence of alternative sexualities and genders. Queers can effectively use the lack of morality embedded in the market to stake a place in society.

This was one of the strategies employed by Harvey Milk, who managed to convince homophobic storeowners and business people in the Castro to tolerate the homosexuals simply by reminding them of how well their businesses were doing in the increasingly gay-populated neighborhood. The businesses that accepted gays as costumers flourished, while those that did not suffered and had to shut down (see these two previous posts for more details on Milk’s approach to gay activism). Nevertheless, there are huge problems with encouraging tolerance/acceptance of queers solely on the basis of the profit motive – it sets the stage for marriages of convenience based on common economic interests, but completely ignores the need for wholesale transformation of the dominant sexual and gender order. It promotes begrudging tolerance by those who profit from gays, but does very little to foster acceptance by society at large. It also makes queers vulnerable to future economic shocks – what if their community stops being profitable? And what if business owners find some other means of making a profit? The risk that society would revert to full-on homophobia would certainly be palpable.

If not the radical free market…?

Overall, it seems that the gay conservatives and libertarians are wrong in simply assuming that “free markets mean free gay people.” Many governments committed to radical forms of free market capitalism have not adopted gay-friendly policies. And while their championing of marketization may have facilitated the opening of gay-friendly clubs and enterprises, this purely lays a foundation for tolerance based on economic interests, not for major transformations of values about sexuality. The point that has to be made about the disconnect between free markets and gay rights, though, is that the same probably applies to every economic ideology. Indeed, if we look at the track record of socialist and communist regimes around the world, they fare quite poorly on LGBT issues as well. For example, take a look at the abysmal situation for LGBT individuals in Castro’s Cuba and in other communist-in-name regimes around the world, or for example, the fact that Chile under Allende was more-or-less the same for homosexuals as Pinochet’s regime (Robles, 38).

It seems to me that progress for queers may not be linked to any specific economic ideology, that it is possible under a variety of economic regimes, and largely influenced by a variety of other cultural and political factors. Or is it? As a crude experiment, I looked up the history of gay marriage legislation and found that all of them had been most fiercely promoted (and usually implemented) by left-of-center political parties, who at least nominally profess a social democratic or Keynesian ideology: the Social Party in Belgium, the Democratic Party in some U.S. states, the Canadian Liberals, the Socialist Left Party in Norway, Spain’s Socialist Party, the Social Democrats in Sweden, and South Africa’s ANC. Perhaps there is something then about Keynesian social democracy that is particularly amenable to supporting LGBT rights? Perhaps its ideological vision of cooperation between different strata in society, and of social solidarity, is inherently the most favorable context for the promotion of the queer agenda? It is extremely difficult to provide answers to these questions, but it would be very interesting to look into them.

***For More Information***
You can purchase Naomi Klein’s book here. Also have a look at the following gay conservative books: Richard Tafel’s Party Crasher, Bruce Bawer’s A Place at the Table, and Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal. For more details on gay conservatives’ economic views, see Paul Robinson’s Queer Wars: The New Gay Right and its Critics, Richard Goldstein – Homocons: The Rise of the Gay Right, and Michael Warner’s, The Trouble with Normal. For more on Milton Friedman and Chicago School economics, see this wikipedia page and the book, Capitalism and Freedom.

Creative Commons License