What do Radical Politics have to do with it?

From my experience in poly circles and communities, it seems there’s often a reluctance to talk about politics. There’s something to be said, perhaps, for having politically-neutral spaces where folks can come together for personal advice on dealing with poly issues. But even when conversations turn to poly activism, it seems to me that there’s often a hesitation to link our cause with any bigger socio-political picture, let alone to actually endorse or argue for any specific political position. But I’m going to go ahead and stick my neck out here and talk a bit about why for me, my polyamorous identity and my radical left politics are inseparable.

I have heard a lot of people say things like “I don’t want to politicize my personal relationships.” I get that. I really do. I think it’s a very natural impulse to want our intimate relationships to exist outside of a realm of rational, ideological thought. But here’s the thing: our relationships are already politicized. Whether we’re gay, straight, bi, queer, monogamous, polyamorous, asexual, or whatever nuanced combination of those identities, how we form intimate relationships—and to what degree those relationships are accepted and validated by the society we live in—is hugely shaped by the socio-political context in which we exist.

Making the transition to living polyamrously played a huge role in my personal radicalization. I’d always had socialist leanings and was aware that my opinions were far left of liberal Democrats, but to a certain degree I was comfortable with writing my own ideologies off as extremes that would likely never be reflected or represented by a majority. At the same time, I’d spent years trying to find contentment in monogamy, knowing all along that it wasn’t authentic for me but seeing no other viable alternative. I didn’t see a problem with society for presenting monogamy as the only option, I instead saw flaws within myself for being unsatisfied. When I was finally living in a poly relationship, feeling free to actually be myself for the first time in my life, I couldn’t help but look back and wonder what had taken me so long, and why this had seemed so incredibly impossible. And the answer, of course, was that my life and my choices had been circumscribed by society. I thought of myself as someone who was reasonably comfortable going against the status quo, but even I had some social constructs—like monogamy—that were so deeply internalized, I couldn’t even think to seriously question them, even when they were causing me to suffer. It became incredibly disturbing to me that we are so indoctrinated into the set of norms we live with, we are more prepared to criticize our own inner desires than to criticize the constructs which make those desires shameful. And that realization played a huge role in opening my eyes to just how severely society limits us.

The real crux of all this, of course, is that these limitations exist for a reason. Social norms don’t just happen spontaneously with no larger connection to the structure of the world we live in. These norms serve a purpose, a purpose that almost always has something to do with upholding the current hierarchy. Social constructs are not merely about “tradition,” they’re about protecting the interests of the rich, straight, white men in power. And any social change that didn’t threaten that power structure would be met with little resistance.

Let’s look for just a moment specifically at patriarchy. This is an extremely simplified breakdown, because I don’t want this post to become thesis-length. But to summarize: we live in a patriarchal society. And patriarchy relies on the subordinate position of women. Upholding the dominance of men requires upholding traditional gender roles. And traditional gender roles rely to some degree on traditional relationship structures. Both compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory monogamy, then, help to uphold the patriarchal order. And so on, and so forth, with every intersecting system of oppression we live with.

Now, I want to be clear when addressing these things that I am not suggesting that all leftists reject the institution of monogamy as part of their political position. I don’t believe that something as personal and emotional as our intimate relationships should ever be chosen as a political stance. The aim of radical leftists should be to create a world in which we are all granted the freedom to form intimate relationships authentically, whatever that means for each of us. But I do call on radical leftists to challenge the institution of compulsory monogamy, and to consider the ways that institution both supports and is supported by the other oppressive structures we dedicate ourselves to fighting against.

On the other side of that coin, I call on poly folks to consider the way our struggles to live authentically and to be accepted connect with the bigger hierarchical picture of our society. When I talk about solidarity, I don’t just mean that we sympathize with and support the struggles of other people because we understand what it’s like to be looked down on, too. And I’m not just talking about some kind of reciprocal “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” way of looking at various fights for social justice. I’m talking about actually recognizing the complex system of oppressive social norms that are actually interconnected and are actively working to uphold one another. If you want to fight for poly acceptance but are not also interested in dismantling structures of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism, then I don’t believe you’re seeing the whole picture of society as it actually exists.

I realize this is brief for a discussion of such complex and deep-rooted problems, and I’m sure that some of it probably seems a bit vague and over-simplified. But the bottom line is, I think we need to start a dialogue. If we want to really challenge the status quo, to really disrupt social norms, then we need to start by thinking about where those norms came from, and whose interests they serve.

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3 thoughts on “What do Radical Politics have to do with it?

  1. flamingfoxtale

    Very nice post.

    I loved the way you made this point: “I have heard a lot of people say things like “I don’t want to politicize my personal relationships.” I get that. I really do. I think it’s a very natural impulse to want our intimate relationships to exist outside of a realm of rational, ideological thought. But here’s the thing: our relationships are already politicized.”

    I’ve struggled a lot with trying to get discussions about politics (both the politics of intimacy and the way intimacy relates to the larger political picture) up and running in polyamorous communities. Often, it seems there are a few folks who are really excited to connect the dots, followed by pushback from a lot of people who feel uncomfortable with political discussions in general or with the implications of the specific political discussions we’re trying to have, and then burnout (and often dropping out of poly community entirely) on the parts of the people who are trying to do the work. It’s a frustrating cycle. So, thank you for writing this from a polyamorous perspective and towards a poly audience. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Angi Post author

      Thank you!

      It’s interesting that you mention burnout, because this is sort of a tangent from your point, but I think one of the issues people have with really looking at things intersectionally is that they feel overwhelmed by this idea that we have to be fighting all injustices equally. People want to say “you fight your battle, I’ll fight mine.” But I think there’s definitely still space for more specifically-focused organizing, so long as it’s done with an awareness of the intersections. I engage in a lot of feminist-specific organizing, for example, and I think that kind of organizing is totally necessary. But I think it has to be done in a way that really looks at the big picture, that’s aware of the ways queer women and poor women and women of color are impacted by patriarchy in unique and specific ways and that we don’t just have a homogenous experience as women, and especially that’s done in a way that doesn’t actively uphold some forms of oppression in the name of fighting against another. You can’t just go into a single issue with blinders on and fail to see the way it connects to the big picture. Or you can, but I don’t think it ultimately achieves much for anyone in the long run.

      I understand the desire for people to have these politically-neutral places to come together as poly-folks, but I really want to see some poly organizing that goes beyond just the support-group type nature of a lot of poly community. And when people say “I’m poly and I’m frustrated by how society treats me, but I’m politically conservative (or, hell, even moderate),” then that’s definitely something I do want to push back against and challenge people to see a bigger picture of the society we live in.

      Reply
  2. Pete Schult

    I liked this post a lot, and I agree with what you say. As I’ve been learning more and more about intersectionality, I’ve begun to conclude that all oppressed people and allies may need to move away from what might be characterized as “working within the power structure to make it so that the Republican Party sees us as part of its constituency” to a place where the power structure is greatly reduced and not based on arbitrary factors like gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, sexual valence, economic class, and so on.

    Reply

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