Musings on sex, capitalism and the same-sex marriage referendum

Ireland will vote on same-sex marriage in a referendum in May.

I’ve been re-reading Daniel Bell’s excellent The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 2012).

What have these two rather random things to do with each other? Well, while Bell’s analysis of capitalism isn’t focused on sex, reading him with the upcoming referendum in mind opens up what I think is an often overlooked angle on how we think about sex and sexuality. Namely: how deeply and profoundly contemporary our attitudes are shaped by the beliefs and values of free-market capitalism.

Some of these unacknowledged assumptions are rising to the surface in the same-sex marriage debate. Assumptions shaped by the ubiquitous, pervasive and ‘normalised’ nature of capitalism in our culture. Since it’s the air we breathe, we don’t notice it. It’s such a natural and assumed part of everyday life that it just ‘is’.

The purpose of this post is to suggest, and invite discussion on the idea, that the culture in which we live is deeply shaped by a capitalist and consumerist view of human relationships. More specifically, it is to suggest that the reason that the same-sex argument for equality of treatment of gay couples with heterosexual couples is so ‘obvious’ and powerful (and unstoppable) is because if fits perfectly into the assumptions and beliefs of contemporary capitalism.

Just to be clear – this post is making no comment at all on the rights and wrongs of same-sex marriage. That’s another topic entirely. These are musings on why the same-sex marriage argument is going to win the referendum.

Nor am I proposing that it is ‘only’ proponents of same-sex marriage (or sexual equality and freedom in general) who are shaped by the beliefs, assumptions and values of capitalism and consumerism – just take a look at the disintegration of traditional marriage in Irish and many western societies (and Christians are far from exempt).

So, to Daniel Bell. He sketches various characteristics of what he calls ‘HOMO ECONOMICUS’: an anthropology shaped and moulded by capitalism. I’m loosely linking to just some of his ideas.

  1. The Individual

The freedom of the individual will benefit society. Limits on the expression of individualism will harm society in terms of freedom and prosperity. Individual autonomy comes before any form of collectivist control (state or religious).

This means that there is little expectation or vision for what society ought to be. Indeed, there is no ‘ought’ in capitalism apart from the market being free.

In terms of human identity, each one of us becomes our ‘own’ manager: creators of our own ‘brand’. We alone are owners of ourselves: our bodies; our possessions; our lives. We are free to dispose of and do with them as we wish. No-one has a right to tell us otherwise.

At the top of O’Connell St in Dublin you can go the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. At its base there is a quote from him saying this

No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation

In his day, nationalism was the unquestioned good shaping the direction of Ireland. Today, we could paraphrase Parnell to say

No man or woman (or anyone on the gender spectrum in between the two) has a right to fix a boundary to the onward march of the individual.

To question unfettered individualism is a very modern heresy.

Links to current debates about sex and sexuality are not hard to see. The 1937 Irish Constitution was written in a different world: a culture where the individual’s rights were circumscribed by family, faith and nation. Some arguments opposing same-sex marriage are functioning from (or wishing we could go back to) that framework. Some argue that the big issue is what form of marriage is best for children. But such is the unquestioned good of individualism within capitalism such arguments will gain little or no traction.

For it’s the unfettered imagination, creativity and entrepreneurial power of the free individual that drives capitalism. In terms of sexual identity the individual must be allowed and encouraged to pursue his or her own authentic identity – whatever form it takes: bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender or queer or ….

  1. Freedom for freedom’s sake

It’s important to understand capitalist freedom. It is freedom for freedom’s sake. What matters is that the individual is free to choose. What the individual chooses is virtually irrelevant because capitalism has no logical internal ethic or moral core. It has no teleology – no ultimate goal or end result in sight. It is freedom from restriction of choice rather than freedom for something in particular.

So, when capitalist freedom is applied to sexual ethics, it is obvious that the individual should have a right to choose whatever sexual identity and practice they wish. Human dignity derives from the individual’s right to choose. To deny such freedom is to deny human dignity and identity. Free choice is a virtue to be defended.

Opponents of same-sex marriage (and various other restrictions on freedom of sexual expression) are therefore not defenders of morality but deniers of virtue.

  1. Self Interest

Bell uses the term ‘interest maximizer’ but this really means self-interest. Let me clarify here – I’m not proposing that somehow all proponents of sexual freedom for the individual are motivated by selfishness. Self-interest is not the same as selfishness. It is self-interest that is a vital factor that drives the success of capitalism.

For example, Adam Smith saw human life as being shaped by self-interest and this to him was a very good thing. It is the way the world works. Self interest drives the market: it is a powerful source of reform, renewal, market efficiency, creativity and liberty.

Apply capitalist thinking to sexual ethics and you end up with no particular moral or ethical boundaries to sexual relationships. If two (or more – there is no logical boundary to formalising polyamorous relationships) people enter into freely chosen behaviours that are in their mutual self-interest, this is what the market allows and should not be restricted but rather facilitated.

Therefore, those that would put boundaries on the individual right to pursue their own self-interest are seeking to control freely chosen acts of autonomous individuals and should be resisted.

  1. An invisible God

A final characteristic of capitalism is the irrelevance of God and / or religious belief. The ‘god’ of the free market is invisible and impersonal; a hand of providence that ensures that the individual pursuit of self-interest ends up (supposedly) benefitting the whole. The system does not need God, or any form of particularly Christian ethics to function. It believes that most good is done when most individuals pursue maximal gain.

Again, apply this to modern debates about sexual ethics and it becomes apparent that this sort of capitalist thinking well describes the zeitgeist. Religious beliefs should be kept invisible; they have no place in the public square. They are actually a hindrance to the wider good. Most good is done when most individuals have the free choice to live as they please. No particular ethical or moral framework should be allowed to dictate to free individuals. God, if he exists, is in the far background out of sight and mind.



The virtue of self-interest

 An invisible God (no particular moral or ethical framework)

These are powerful forces in western contemporary culture that when combined provide a formidable cultural wave that will wash opposition in Ireland to same-sex marriage aside.

What do you think? How does this description make you feel?

If capitalism reinforces and affirms individual freedom and sexual identity above all, what are the implications for Christians living in such a culture?

Do you agree that much conservative and Christian opposition to liberalising law around sexual ethics tends to concentrate on the symptoms and not the cause? In other words, conservative and Christian opposition to same-sex marriage tends to ignore how capitalism has reformed and deformed human relationships. Neither does it tend to be self-critical of how Christian practice of marriage and sexuality has also been debased by capitalist consumerism.  This is because capitalism is either seen as a good thing or it is such a ‘natural’ everyday presence that it is not even noticed.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

4 thoughts on “Musings on sex, capitalism and the same-sex marriage referendum

  1. It seems that here, in the U.S., a lot of conservative Christians are embracing libertarianism, which might be the political expression of economic capitalism (Do you agree?). They think libertarianism is the best political system in which Christianity can thrive and be preserved, against, in their minds, State efforts to curtail religious liberty.

    But libertarianism also promotes a virtue of self-interest, and seems to push God upstairs.

    Do you see any parallels or have any advice on how to speak with other Christians about the pros and cons of libertarianism?

    • Thanks Jean.

      I’m going to sound very Stanley Hauerwas-ian: I think it’s a mistake to think that Christian faith depends on or can be better preserved by a commitment to a particular political system. I think it leads to putting our trust in the wrong things. We follow a crucified Messiah first before all. Persecution and suffering should not be a surprise to Christians.

      These are big generalisations I know (that would need supported in proper argument), but if today the majority of Christians are in the global south and are poor and are often excluded, marginalised and persecuted – what does this say to rich western Christians whose churches are closing?

      What I’d say to the people you mention is that nothing is neutral. Don’t imagine that politicial libertarianism is by default your friend. In the post I was trying to unpack some of the assumptions and beliefs inherent in capitalism and how they can work out ethically. It becomes clear to me anyway how deeply opposed capitalism is to a Christian way of being.

      This isn’t to support an opposing collectivist political philosophy, it is just a plea to think hard and critically about any system.

      It also seems to me that there is a curious and growing alliance between the unfettered freedom of the individiual and an increasing state intolerance of those who dissent from that vision. Political libertarianism may become a stern taskmaster in days ahead. While another point – one of the ironies of free-market capitalism is how ‘unfree’ it makes many many workers. We need to keep asking what sort of freedom is in mind?.

  2. Hi Patrick,
    It is good to read a piece that reflects on the underlying ideological trends and not just their outworking. While the individualizing of ethical values/commitments does indeed parallel capitalism it seems clear from Scripture that the root cause is much deeper than the influence of a capitalist worldview. Apostasy from God is the ultimate source of human autonomy and its expression in the sexual realm (Romans 1:18-32).

    To say that “Political libertarianism may become a stern taskmaster in days ahead” is to fail to recognise its current effects. Those who dissent from the state’s vision of unfettered freedom, by wanting for example to opt out of participating, through their business, in a same-sex ceremony, face a €25,000 fine and up to two years in prison under The Equal Status Act 2000.

    While academic discussion about the background to the prevailing thinking is important for Christians, preachers and those in theological education, I think that in this hour we need to sound a much clearer call on this issue.

    Christians need to find ways to challenge and deconstruct the ideological assumptions underpinning this campaign in the public square. While not optimistic, I am not convinced that it cannot be won. We should not give up.

    Kind regards,

    • Thanks Ian, good ‘push-backs’ make for more robust discussion.

      I was keeping the focus fairly narrow and deliberately wasn’t getting into moral / ethical judgements on the same-sex marriage question. Topic for another post(s) ….

      Yes, I’m no expert at all, but it seems to me that the Equal Status Act is the most significant piece of legislation in terms of potential erosion of freedom of conscience.

      However, I would still want to say that this sort of possible state encroachment on individual liberty is very mild compared to real persecution elsewhere in the world. Current legislation does give religious bodies latitude in employment (for jobs that require a faith commitment) and churches are not being required to offer their buildings and services for same-sex marriages. The Beulah Print case that hit the news last week will likely go against the company since they are a business open to all and can’t discriminate in terms of goods and services? – if it goes to court that is.

      I’m not complacent or assuming that this represents a status quo – things are changing fast. But if the state does begin to tell the church what to believe, who to employ and insist that they act against conscience then it will be a case of obeying God not man and take the consequences. May well happen in future … I could see churches lose charity status and other forms of state recognition.

      I don’t agree that the post is just academic disussion of background issues – it actually is deconstructing the ideological assumptions behind contemporary sexual politics. Assumptions that are mostly never articulated but are submerged under the trump card of equality.

      I’m not sure what the clear call is that you refer to? Saying what to whom? Sure Christians can and should articulate what they believe but the reality is that they are increasingly in a minority in a post-Christendom culture.

      I do think we need to argue robustly for freedom of conscience (for religious and non-religious) as a bedrock of a civil society. It should not be just a case of protecting our own rights – what we want for ourselves we will need to want for others even if we disagree with them.

      The work of Os Guinness is good here – his charter for religious freedom and other work

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