Loving Exclusions: Marriage, Emotional Attachments and Global Inequalities

A guest post from V. Spike Peterson. Spike is Professor of International Relations at the University of Arizona. She is a critical social theorist whose research interests stem from anti-war, civil rights and feminist activism in the US and many years of work/travel/residence ‘outside’ of the West. Background studies in anthropology, historical sociology and communications inform her work in IR, which queries how structural hierarchies of gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity/race and nation are historically produced, ideologically normalized, continuously intersecting, and potentially transformed. Her publications span genealogies of sex, family, science and state formation; critiques of informalization, global political economy and its in/securities; intimate-global relations, racial logics, citizenship regimes, alt-right nationalisms, and the politics of im/migration in our fraught neoliberal, neo-imperial present. Her most recent work aims to raise critical awareness of how power relations of privilege operate to reproduce intentional and – surprisingly and importantly – unintentional resistance to transformative social change.

Ah, love! Fairy tales and romantic comedies promote living the quest for love and its idealized consummation in the ‘happily ever after’ of married life. What could be better than love? The ‘sanctity of marriage’ and ‘love of family’ are touted by conservatives, love of god by religious believers, love of one’s nation by patriots, love of oneself by self-help manuals and consumerist advertising, and love of prosperity by economists. Academics too are on board, urging closer attention to emotional investments and erotic practices in studies of social life, and asking how institutions idealizing love also foster inequalities and exclusions. I explore here the loving exclusions of marriage: the state-sanctioned institution widely presumed to epitomize love, its passionate commitments, and its importance for happy couples, healthy families, thriving communities, and stable nations.

Lauren Berlant observes that ‘intimacy builds worlds,’1 and I argue that the intimacy of marriage has built a world of inequalities. The heteropatriarchal premises of marriage are deeply ingrained, not only in laws but in hearts and minds worldwide. Given these premises, it is no surprise that feminists and queers have developed trenchant critiques of the institution. I endorse these critiques but argue that even more is at stake: that the institution of marriage produces not only inequalities of gender and sexuality but also, and inextricably, of race, class and national prosperity. That these inequalities are geopolitically problematic is readily acknowledged, but how marriage figures in producing, exacerbating or complicating them is rarely addressed. The point is not to judge individuals – who have varying reasons for supporting and/or participating in marriage – but to critically assess the political work that institutions do.

I recap several entwined inquiries: how marriage matters constitutively to the intergenerational continuity of states/nations; how Eurocentric manipulation of marriage figures in producing modernity’s ‘race difference’; and how fluid, ‘mobile essentialisms’ of race matter affectively, culturally and materially in our colonial present of increasing global inequalities, migration pressures, nationalist populisms and xenophobic hostilities. The hope is to illuminate unfamiliar terrain: how marriage historically and currently re/produces inequalities through the state/nation’s regulation of sexual practices, ethnic/racial relations, resource distributions, and citizenship (hence, im/migration) options.2

Early states make sex difference, marital law and structural inequalities

Historical contextualization is essential in the study of marriage where so many myths prevail. Particularly resilient are sexual and familial assumptions embedded in ‘origin stories’ of human evolution. The familiar narrative tells us that what’s natural (pre-political) is a binary of sexual differentiation, sexually divided activities, male dominance, exclusively heterosexual attraction, and ‘family’ as the source and bedrock of social formations. From these primitive beginnings, humans expanded kinship networks, domesticated plants and animals, and extended settlements and centralizing processes to form early states – famously acclaimed as the ‘rise of civilization.’ Versions of this celebratory tale appear in ancient texts, Christian theology, and especially in Eurocentric tenets, their elaboration in developmental and liberal paradigms of ‘human progress,’ and their materialization in social Darwinist practices. This powerful story is a self-serving tale promulgated by elites, and its flawed representations of sex, family, states and civilization mask even as they fortify normalizations of inequality. That these certain and essentializing claims continue to inform a global ‘common sense’ is immeasurably problematic.

Cumulative studies in archeology, anthropology and related disciplines present a quite different picture of our human past. In particular, and especially in the absence of textual evidence, critical epistemologies disavow any claim to knowwhat varying embodiments, activities, ages or abilities ‘meant’ for the 200,000 years of homo sapiens life prior to writing technologies. Moreover, we do know that humans in no way welcomed but actively resisted coercive processes of state-formation, and even more remarkably, did so for four millennia after the domestication of plants and animals. Clearly, the standard tale overrates states and civilization.

Joseph Keppler, “From the Cape to Cairo,” Puck, 12/2/1902. Source: Creative Commons Media. Public domain.

I write a different story here. I assume a definition of state-making processes that is conventional in IR, but I focus on features that IR scholars fail to scrutinize: the regulation of sexual reproduction and the development of writing that marks ‘the beginning of History.’ Additional state features include centralization of political, military and juridical rule, sustained surplus production, and ideological legitimation of emerging stratifications. I agree that state-making transforms societal relations, but I emphasize its coercive, regulatory and stratifying dynamics and hence the imperative of legitimation strategies. And I begin with the earliest states because the changes entailed are unprecedented and the state’s constitutive features are more readily, and starkly, revealed.3

My ‘deep history’ of state-making traces the earliest codification of marriage and how states – through coercion, regulation and legitimation – produce and sustainthe social violence of structural inequalities. Theorists assume that state success entails inter-generational continuity, yet few seriously investigate the implications of this for managing both social reproduction and the allocation of substantive (material goods) and symbolic (social status) resources. Doing so foregrounds the state’s paramount interest in legislating marriage as the primary mechanism for regulating reproductive sexual activities and the distribution of inheritable resource claims.

The revolutionary technology of writing is central to these processes: it affords new modes of power and alters social relations. By materializing communication writing endures across time and space, it stabilizes and standardizes meanings, which enables unprecedented codification of social categories, regulatory practices and political rule. Yet the world-transforming and enduring implications of writing are rarely investigated in IR theories of state power. As a telling example, in contrast to relatively flexible, informal ‘customary rule’ and cross-cutting networks of authority, writing enabled states to impose an abstract, fixed, formal ‘rule of law’ that was enforced by the coercive power of state elites. Ancient law codes presumably reflect what elites thought needed legislating, and what predominates is the control of slaves, the regulation of marriage, sexual relations, and property (including women and slaves), as well as harsh punishments in relation to sexual and property-related crimes.

Equally vital for state success is minimizing resistance by securing cultural legitimation of and identification with the state’s internal hierarchies and strategic objectives. The recurring strategy is state elites promoting ‘in-group’ allegiance by creating Insider-Outsider distinctions that stigmatize actual or fabricated features of ‘out-groups.’ As evidenced in celebratory fables, states also generate self-serving narratives to mask their coercive power and render emergent inequalities ‘natural’ and even desirable. In early states of the Near East, the speech and customs of Outsiders were stigmatized and cosmologies were revised: replacing reproductive female-identified fertility and deities with male-identified ‘procreative’ power and patriarchal principles. Writing matters here by ‘authorizing’ and materially sedimenting sexual, social and political status categories as well as patriarchal and hierarchical principles that naturalize social inequalities and continue to shape our present. In short, if elites and victors always write history, they write it for the first time in early states.

While unfamiliar in IR, a genealogy informed by interdisciplinary research and intersectional analytics reveals how states – through processes of coercion, regulation and legitimation – produce and sustainmutually constituted structural inequalities. In effect, the early state’s legislated, enforceable regulation of reproductive sexual activities (through marriage) produced a hierarchy of ‘sex difference’; its management of resources produced stratifications of property and social status; and its justificatory ideologies produced differential valorizations of Insider-Outsider cultures and populations. Moreover, I emphasize that these inequalities are not, as generally assumed, separate or coincidental developments but constitutively intersecting as the state’s definitive stratifications. This means that structural inequalities of sex difference, property/status, and Insider-Outsider operate inextricably in making successful states – then and now – and states (by conventional definition) are not made successfully without these inequalities simultaneously operating. However much the particular manifestations of each vector or modality vary – and they do – they are structurally entwined as definitive features of state-making success. This recognition informs a critical understanding of inequalities in modern state/nation formation, and especially, the colonial racialization of sexual/marital/familial arrangements and its multiple effects.

Modern states make heteronormative marriage, race difference and national inequalities

I apply the conventional definition of states to situate marriage in the quite different context of modern state formation. Early states were typically short-lived, but writing technologies enabled elite-authored ideologies to have lasting, indeed world-transforming significance. Of relevance here, principles of patriarchal authority and hierarchical rule were increasingly stabilized and naturalized by elite male domination of writing and rule-making and the global expansion of religious belief systems privileging masculinist, hierarchical principles. Modern state-making proceeded under the influence of these principles and in the larger context of Europe’s invasive explorations, exploitations, rising economic and military power, ruthless imperial and colonizing practices, and self-promoting philosophical, political and religious ideologies.

As one strategy of biopolitical management, governing elites instituted, both culturally and juridically, more restrictive sexual, marital and familial practices. As in early states, this was a mechanism of regulation: legally codifying and enforcing licit and illicit sexual liaisons to secure state-sanctioned lines of descent and inheritance and hence, effectively manage resource distribution. Moreover, in modern states marriage was also a mechanism of ideological legitimation, as Europe’s overweening power exposed a blatant contradiction: between liberal, humanist, Christian ideals and unjust, inhumane and ruthless practices of slavery, imperialism and colonization. Direct coercion alone could not ensure consolidation of sovereign states or continuity of Eurocentric power. Cultural legitimation of new rules, rulers and inequalities was also necessary. And as evolutionary tales of ‘human progress’ gained currency, these and other Eurocentric narratives were deployed to naturalize inequalities and justify both patronizing and pernicious practices of domination.

Specifically, Europeans formalized an idealized model of marriage – heteronormative, patriarchal, monogamous Christian matrimony – that signaled European superiority. This was projected as a stark contrast to the actual array of erotic, sexual, marital and familial practices encountered outside of Europe (and within it). ‘Other’ practices – especially ‘promiscuity,’ polygamy, and non-heterosexual relations – were deemed primitive (inferior, uncivilized) and explicitly characterized as markers of ‘race difference.’ As postcolonial scholars argue, drawing a categorical distinction between superior (‘white,’ European, Insider) and inferior (‘Other,’ non-European, Outsider) sexual/marital relations effectively racializes both the stigmatized practices and the groups practicing them, which I note in the modern era maps on to Insider-Outsider distinctions of nationalism. Recall that states seek to legitimize the inequalities they constitute by valorizing Insiders, understood as the imagined national community of ‘Us,’ while vilifying Outsiders, understood as essentially ‘Other,’ necessarily inferior and inherently threatening.

The co-production of sexual, racial and national inequalities has enduring effects in our ostensibly post-racial present, Whereas referencing biological ‘race difference’ is discredited, subjective, cultural and material investments in racial distinctions are sustained by vilifying ‘Other’ (non-European, non-white, non-Christian) marital/familial practices. In other words, one can avoid appearing explicitly racist – yet perpetuate systemic racism – by culturally demonizing marital/familial customs associated with stigmatized populations: as maintaining backward traditions, denying ‘love marriages,’ treating females unequally, lacking liberal, democratic values and hence, threatening ‘civilized’ societies.

Reclaim Australia launched protests country-wide in July. Nationalist demonstrators protest in Sydney on July 19, 2015. Source: Peter Parks/Getty Images. Non-commercial use permitted.

Key points: By conventional definition, the success (intergenerational continuity) of states constitutes structural inequalities of sex difference, status/resources, and Insider-Outsider . In modernity these manifest as inequalities of ‘sex’ (now heteronormative, heterogendered), status/resources (now within and between states/nations) and Insider-Outsider (now racialized, nationalized differentiations and citizenship claims). Modern state-making formalized marriage as both a regulatory mechanism (as in early states) and – by claiming the racialized superiority of white/European marriage – a social Darwinist legitimation of Insider-Outsider inequalities produced by imperial, colonial power. These points reveal marriage as neither a ‘natural’ nor necessarily ‘loving’ institution; it is a political creation of state-making and a paramount site of power relations. As the fulcrum of sexual/familial/household relations, state-sanctioned marriage figures in intersecting and consequential ways: it literally reproduces the state/nation through the unpaid labor of biological and social reproduction and cultural indoctrination; it coordinates household production, pooling and re/distribution of human capital and material resources; it affords predictability of property and status transmission through inheritance principles; and in modernity it produced and ‘legitimated’ (by naturalizing) structurally entwined inequalities of sex, race and nation.

Linking racialized marriage, global inequalities and im/migration politics

Eurocentric power instituted a state-based system and established rules and practices that continue to shape personal, national and inter-national politics, including gendered, racialized hierarchies and recurring crises. While appraisals vary, few doubt that the global North’s domination of political and economic policies produced and variously exacerbates increasingly stark gaps between poor and prosperous nations. Global inequalities, nationalist populisms and racialized hostilities frame our colonial present, and state-sanctioned marriage is a romanticized institution linking these exclusionary practices and their material effects.

Consider how virtually all human lives are affected by (marriage-based) inheritance principles: they promote intergenerational continuity and tend over time to entrench and amplify resource disparities and social stratifications. I note as well that inheritance skews resource distribution without reference to merit; it is self-evidently, and unapologetically, ‘undemocratic,’ and its extremes of resource accumulation and control rarely serve majority interests. Enduring inequalities are also shaped by state policies regarding who can marry whom and how resources are accumulated and re/distributed through taxation, welfare and family law – all of which are marked by racial logics. While their details may vary, legislatively codified rules of inheritance matter because they are mandatory and backed by the powers of the state; they specify ‘legitimate’ marital, familial relations that determine both lines of descent and how inheritable resources are lawfully transmitted; and in effect, citizenship is ‘inherited’ in birthright regimes that are currently the global norm.

The crucial point is that states/nations regulate marriage to regulate property (which shapes within and between-nation inequalities) and citizenship (which exacerbates between-nation inequalities and affects migration options). To clarify: with very few exceptions, citizenship worldwide is determined by birthright: being born on a nation’s soil or of a citizen parent. While ‘being born’ may seem obvious, the state alone determines the legitimacy of a birth or a parental citizenship claim, one of which is required to qualify for citizenship status. In this sense, birthright renders citizenship an inherited and hence morally arbitrary entitlement with immense yet rarely examined global consequences. Birthright not only shapes access to the significant advantages of citizenship status (few desire being ‘stateless’). It also distributes resources and life options on a global scale, because inheriting citizenship means inheriting the prevailing socio-cultural, environmental, political and economic conditions in a particular (racialized) state/nation – including its mean national income.4

For the fortunate minority, inheriting citizenship in an affluent state/nation ‘carries with it an immensely valuable bundle of rights, benefits and opportunities’ that is effectively denied to the global majority.5 Economic data confirm a harsh reality: the top-to-bottom ratio of mean national incomes is today so extreme (more than 100:1) that approximately 80% of inequality among global individuals is determined by national location (read: birthright citizenship) alone.6 This unprecedented inequality has myriad and mostly toxic implications, especially for those who are ‘located’ in poorly resourced nations. Not least, economic crises spur increasingly desperate attempts to migrate, even as prosperous nations are increasingly selective about who (which citizens) and how many are welcome. This selectivity reflects both entrenched (racial, ethnic, economic) biases and emerging (cultural, religious, security) concerns. But whatever the justification, constraints on im/migration that restrict population movements effectively exacerbate inequalities between nations, as well as the insecurities, harms, resentments, conflicts and amplified migration pressures they engender. Most critics of global inequality focus on restrictive im/migration policies. But as argued here, the enduring and more consequential problem is the structure of the state/nation system: how states determine citizenship (based on marriage and racialized national territories) and how birthright citizenship (based on marriage) shapes global resource distribution and migration options.

And so I conclude that…

If national, racialized citizenship (Milanovic’s ‘location’) determines 80% of one’s life options, and marriage-based birthright determines citizenship, then marriage is an enormously consequential site of critical inquiry in the context of global, racialized inequalities and their problematic effects. Far more than conventionally recognized, the institution of marriage and the marital conditions of one’s birth structurally shape intimtate and inter-national realities. Not least, birthright citizenship locks individuals and their life chances into the conditions of one and only one – racially differentiated and geopolitically stratified – state/nation, with immense implications for virtually everyone’s life options and likely trajectories in our fraught colonial present.

My unfamiliar story reveals the state’s paramount interest in legislating marriage – as a mechanism of power that disciplines ‘unruly sex’ and regulates property and citizenship claims. It suggests how personal investments – in sexual, marital, racial, cultural and national ‘identities’ – shape the emotional landscape of racial logics in world politics. At the same time, situating marriage in state/nation formation, citizenship regimes, and political-economic frames advances structural understanding of how racial logics reproduce inequalities, insecurities and conflicts that are of disciplinary concern. This account undercuts celebratory claims regarding (Western) ‘civilization’ and arguably all state/nation formations, with more and less obvious implications for analyzing the production and practice of structural inequalities and not least, the foundational premises of disciplinary IR.


1. Berlant 1998, p. 282.

2. Mine is a necessarily condensed and selective depiction of complex processes and wide-ranging accounts. For elaboration and references supporting arguments herein see especially Peterson 2014 and 2020. I write ‘state/nation’ to emphasize the state’s juridical power and how its formation precedes and producesnational ‘identifications.’ To be clear, my interest is not in arguing ‘for or against’ institutions that serve multiple purposes and engender deep attachments, but to illuminate processes, practices and patterned effects of their historically contingent manifestations, especially those relevant to but less familiar in IR.

3. Scott (2018) offers the most current research and comprehensive critique of ‘celebratory’ state narratives, especially documenting the extent of coerced labor in early states. See Levy (2006, pp. 219-246), Maisels (2010) and especially Stanish (2017) for distinguishing complexstateless societies – where non-coercive hierarchical relations exist and enable large-scale co-operative projects – from states, where coercive/militarized mechanisms of rule and the dominance of hierarchical relations are institutionalized.

4. See especially Stevens 1999 and 2010; Shachar 2009; Shachar and Hirschl 2007; Isin 2012; Milanovic 2012 and 2016; Brubaker 2017.

5. Shachar 2009, p.5.

6. Milanovic 2012, p. 129.

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