So long as capitalism has depended on the nuclear family, the institution of marriage has been at the forefront of oppression. This institution has become a powerful tool in the hands of the capitalist system, allowing it much control over the working class, including inheritance, social norms and definitions of relationships. Forthcoming legalisation on same sex marriage in England, Wales and Scotland is a breakthrough; but whilst some may hail this as a milestone in the long path to equality, we as Marxists must not allow ourselves to become complacent.
So long as capitalism has depended on the nuclear family, the institution of marriage has been at the forefront of oppression. This institution has become a powerful tool in the hands of the capitalist system, allowing it much control over the working class, including inheritance, social norms and definitions of relationships.
Every social breakthrough has taken time and effort to achieve; interracial marriage only became legal in the whole of the USA in 1967 and marital rape was only criminalised in 1982 in Scotland, 1991 in England. It is not idealistic to say that the forthcoming legalisation on same sex marriage in England, Wales and Scotland is one of these breakthroughs. Whilst some may hail this as a milestone in the long path to equality, we as Marxists must not allow ourselves to become complacent.
The issue of same sex marriage has become Tory-fied. Civil partnerships, the legal equivalent to marriage offered to same sex couples, will continue to exist without being extended to mixed sex couples, despite what was initially wanted (and promised, if that matters) by the Liberal Democrats. There was heavy emphasis, particularly by Cameron himself, on how the plans would “strengthen the institution of marriage”, reiterating what appears to be the belief that this is less about allowing greater freedom of expression and definition of relationships, but making same sex relationships more “straight” in essence.
Same sex relationships have always existed; marriage only strengthens the family of those who choose to define themselves in that way. In a way, this only serves to promote the conservative view of the family, lead solely by two individuals joined together in matrimony, to which nothing else can seemingly compare. The identities and issues of the LGBT+ (an umbrella campaigning term used in the labour and student movements to refer to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans, and other gender or sexual minorities) community have been shrunk to fit into the pockets of those in power. And while many individuals will benefit from this legislation, the media has failed to show any of those who refuse to settle for this and will continue to fight for true equality, as opposed to the extension of conservative ideals into same sex relationships. In addition, it was always clear that this would be an opt-in scheme for religious organisations; however, it is stated in the bill that the Church of England and the Church of Wales will be banned from conducting these ceremonies, protecting these organisations “from legal claims that as the Established Church it is bound to marry anyone who requests it”. What we are seeing is really anything but an attempt to socially liberalise society.
As far as the Con-Dem coalition is concerned, legalising same sex marriage appears to be an easy way to pander to public pressure, gaining popularity through a seemingly progressive act. However, in the real scope of issues faced by gay and lesbian individuals or couples marriage shrinks to a minor formality. And while optimists may believe that the open discussion of this issue in society and the media may pave the way to wider reforms, there has been no such indication of this.
Instead of the genuine impact of this legislation on the lives of LGBT+ people, the public are shown two camps: the exuberant campaigners and allies announcing “full equality at last” and the outraged religious organisations and even less affected individuals. It’s as if no one in the media knows, or wants to say, that what does it really matter to gay or lesbian individual to be able to walk down the aisle when you’re still sleeping on the streets?
LGBT+ individuals, particularly youth, continue to be at a far greater risk of being made homeless or suffering from mental health problems, verbal/physical/sexual assault and abuse or addictions, as well as facing a disparity in wages and frequent disadvantages and problems within education, the police, the legal system and the medical profession, whilst not forgetting that their representation in the media is at the mercy of capitalist owners.
As we know both through statistics and Marxist analysis, this only combines with the oppressions faced by people of colour and the disabled within broader class oppression. In terms of further government action, what good will Education Secretary Michael Gove’s promises of a clampdown on homophobic language and behaviour in schools do in a class society, which in itself necessitates divisions and oppression? And while we may hope that gaining the chance to marry improves these statistics, it is no substitute for action, though the government hopes to “settle” these issues once and for all with a gesture that fails to address ingrained problems.
It is, however, not only this relatively easy solution that has pushed this issue into government. It is not cynical to note that more weddings mean more profit for the relevant businesses. Ministers even boasted about a potential £18 million which could be gained from allowing same sex marriage. It should also be noted that campaigning groups on both sides are surely benefitting financially from such a controversial and widely discussed topic. The majority of such campaigning groups are explicitly ran as businesses, working in conjunction with charities and/or religious organisations, running events, publishing adverts and materials and selling slogan-adorned campaign clothes, accessories and car bumper stickers, to name a few.
Although this may only be a small achievement, some big capitalists, particularly in the USA where companies often have opinions and political views, have already prophetically claimed that this is the fall of the family, the destruction of righteous society, and denouncing the “moral bankruptcy” that now threatens our economy and civilisation. But what have they got to fear from the so called fall of the nuclear family? It no longer holds the revered place it once did as the number of single parent families has grown significantly. You do not even require a straight couple to procreate; it is possible for same sex couples to have children in a number of different ways. And there is no scientifically credible reason, whether psychological or biological, why they could not raise those children, or those they have adopted, as well as a straight couple could. In the eyes of this oppressive capitalist system, one is simply “more natural” than the other, and already complete with social roles reinforced throughout society for the benefit of the capitalist.
As Marxists we must stand for the rights and freedom of people of all sexualities and genders, within all consensual relationships. Full equality can only be reached with the fall of capitalism and the destruction of all its forms of oppression, with a full programme of social reforms to overcome the brutal, dehumanising effects of class society. We must continue to fight for a socialist transformation of society for all, while providing a safe space for discussion, without the fear of rejection or homophobia/transphobia towards LGBT+ comrades. The experiences and knowledge of LGBT+ comrades are invaluable in fighting yet another form of oppression used by capitalism to divide the working class and distract from the real enemy – the capitalists.
In a true workers’ state each individual, regardless of their gender, race, disability or sexual orientation, will receive adequate housing, respectful and inclusive healthcare, accurate representation in the media and education system and protection within society; as well as guaranteed fair and decent work, free from discrimination and ill treatment.