Saturday, December 27, 2014

Not the Post-Gender Society

"Marxism and the Oppression of Women – Toward a Unitary Theory,” by Lise Vogel, 1983

The U.S. women’s liberation movement, which was strong in the 1960s and 1970s, became ‘domesticated’ and dominated by corporate feminists in the 1980s or ‘radical’ feminists, who blame men and the ‘patriarchy’ for all problems.  The main concerns of the former became formal legal equality, 'leaning in,' the ‘glass ceiling’ and now, electing Hillary Clinton as President.  The latter were unable to take a systemic approach to oppression, and pursued a personal version of a cultural and 'sexual politics' regarding identity.  In the U.S. abortion rights are disappearing in many states, rape is an epidemic in certain areas, the ERA was never passed and women still do not have adequate child care, wages, legal protections or equal jobs.  Women all over the world, and even in the U.S., are still second-class citizens.  Why?

Vogel senses that corporate feminism has exhausted itself and that middle-class ‘radical’ feminism is losing theoretical traction too, which is why this book has been republished.  The book was written in the early 1980s when neo-liberalism and post-modernism were becoming dominant world-wide, putting an end to more radical perspectives among the feminists of the day – i.e. revolutionary and Marxist perspectives.  Vogel wants to bring back this kind of feminism, which looks at the material structure of society.

In this book Vogel carefully goes through socialist-feminists from the 1960s and 1970s who attempted to combine the various views of more modern feminism with the struggle against capitalism.  This also meant trying to theoretically analyze and absorb the issue of the ‘patriarchy’ and ‘sexual politics’ – a task which was impossible as Vogel found out, as they refer to two different sources of oppression.  Vogel in this volume comes up with what she considers to be a unitary theory of women’s oppression, thoroughly rooted in the writings of Marx (and Engels).  She says: “…his work provides the foundation for a theory of the relationship of women and the family to social reproduction in general and the capitalist mode of production in particular.”

As a consequence, Vogel locates ‘patriarchy’ in its proper historical place - ultimately an early stage of historical development, not a modern mode or relation of production, and later as a structure within families in capitalist society. Patriarchy overthrew ‘mother right’ - the matriarchy based on genetic inheritance - at the moment that property surpluses became inheritable and early class society began.  Engels called this the “world historic defeat of the female sex.”

What is perceptive about Marxism is that ‘the family’ or marriage – so wrapped up with personal, psychological and emotional meanings – is seen for what it is at bottom, an economic construct.  Vogel’s key insight is that under capitalism it is many times the site of the literal reproduction and maintenance of labor power, unpaid work mostly by women  The working-class family structure – starting with the birth of children, which can only be carried out by females at this point – provides a locus for new generations of workers to grow up to work in the offices, factories, farm fields, mines, transport, schools, warehouses and shops of modern capital.  Without an institution like this, capitalism would crumble.  Vogel takes basic insights of Marx and Engels on women and the family and fleshes them out, or corrects them.  Marxism to Vogel is not a static theory to be studied like the Talmud and memorized.  It is a living theory based on a method – like learning to read, practicing the scientific method, or learning to ride a bicycle.  She calls it 'lens' with which to view the world.
Many bourgeois feminists look down on Marx and Engels, claiming they have little to say about modern issues.  In Vogel’s long review of Marx, Engels, August Babel, Eleanor Marx, Clara Zetkin and Lenin’s writings on women – worth the price of the book alone - she tracks some of their errors and omissions, perhaps reflecting a nearly all-male Victorian labor movement.  She especially targets the standard formulation of the “women’s question’ among socialists.  Her left-criticism of Engel’s ‘The Family, Private Property and the State’ is especially lucid.  She cites statements that reflect a ‘biology is destiny’ view about women regarding their ability to work outside the home or the division of labor – while being silent on some key specifics of the family.  In addition Marx and Engels both thought that capitalism was destroying the working-class family by employing women and children.  This process might not be halted by working-class action - which was one reason they saw the family structure ending.  This clearly did not come to pass so quickly, though family dislocation is still more common among the working class than other classes.  

Vogel points out that the poverty of most workers in those days created a marriage based on sexual love and self-help, not inheritance as in bourgeois families. Prostitution oddly enough plays a role in the narrative, as the bourgeoisie of the time accused the communists of wanting to legalize it, while the Marxists accused the bourgeoisie of making it inevitable – within the family!  The socialists understood that death-do-us-part monogamy itself was a product of property transmission.  They understood the importance of women escaping the isolation of family life to work in the public world. The First International of the 1870s called for protective legislation against the horrible conditions endured by women and children workers, the latter being ‘robbed of their youth,’ and the former, of having no protections during gestation, child birth or after. 

Vogel elucidates the ‘emancipatory’ thread in Marx & Engels.  They emphatically championed women’s rights, repeating the utopian-socialist Fourier’s comment that the treatment of women is the measure of a society. As Marx put it in ‘The Holy Family,’ “The change in an epoch can always be measured by women’s progress towards freedom.”  Contrast this with recent statements by the present Muslim president of Turkey, Erdogan, who said women are not equal to men – this more than 150 years later!  In what condition do the women of Turkey exist in then?  In 1871 the International adopted a new rule allowing the establishment of female branches. Marx & Engels put forward a program for the Second International that said, ‘The emancipation of the producing class involves all human beings without distinction of sex or race.” 

Vogel’s own contribution to socialist feminism is in drawing out Marx’s insights about the ‘reproduction’ of the working classes.  She expands on the concept of the domestic labor carried out by women – the second shift and women's absolutely unique ability to have and nurse babies. Or as you might cynically call them, future wage slaves.

Some of her salient points, in no particular order:   
  1. The socialists of the day did not pay enough attention to the conditions of peasants and farm women. 
  2. Labor power (the ability to work) is split into two categories by Marx – necessary labor and surplus labor.  Necessary labor leads to individual consumption by workers.  Necessary labor involves what a worker needs to live for him or herself and any dependents.  Surplus labor is work done for the bosses’ profit. 
  3. Domestic labor is unpaid, and is part of the necessary labor used to maintain workers, children, the aged, the sick, the unemployed, etc. Having babies and nursing is ‘necessary labor.' 
  4. Unpaid domestic labor is mostly performed by women, and is the main material root of women’s oppression under capitalism.
  5. Migrant labor, prison & slave labor, off-shoring and the various stratas of the reserve army of the unemployed allow a substitute for population growth.  So the family is not the only modern locus for gaining a new workforce.  However, overall, population growth is central to capitalist production. 
  6. The tendency in modern society is for domestic labor to be privatized (restaurants!) and hence for wage work to increase for all.  There is also a tendency for all labor to be completely mobile, which also leads to the system extracting women from unpaid domestic work.
  7. Domestic labor is not a ‘pre-capitalist’ or a separate form of production.
  8. The capitalists do not like women taking time off work for child bearing or rearing, as it impedes their immediate profitability.  However, they also need to have workers in the future, so for them it is a contradiction.
  9. Equality between the sexes under capitalism is a product of the commodity exchange of labor power for a wage, which disappears as soon as the bargain is struck. As Lenin put it, ‘formal equality and social inequality.’  It is rooted in the material relations of production.  But this right is not purely formal as it begins to affect the way women view themselves, which is why struggling for democratic rights for women is not a diversion. 
  10. Vogel feels women’s organizations should involve all women, not just those of the working class.  She understands that women of each strata of society have different demands, so this might lead to a quite strange organization.
  11. There is tension between the necessary, supplementary work done at home and that given to the capitalist. 
The more chauvinist a society is, the more the working man can sit in a coffee shop or bar while the woman ‘invisibly’ toils at home.  Male chauvinism and the ‘patriarchy at home’ is a gift that capital gives to some men as a consolation prize for their insignificance, and as a result, splits the working class and makes it weaker and more easily exploitable.  As she puts it, the ‘ruling class encourages male supremacy within the exploited class.’

Vogel does not address the gender difference of physical force, but I think the strength of most men allows them to use physical intimidation and recklessness as a trump card.  Younger women are becoming stronger, more physically skilled and even good at self-defense.  However the majority of women, especially older ones or those who are in more chauvinist cultures, are more vulnerable.  This imbalance in strength and skills is certainly partly due to culture, but it also frequently exists as a biological fact. 

This somewhat dry theoretical material is nevertheless rich in accidental insights into life in the U.S.  Ours is a period where marriage and the birth-rate are both in decline, divorces more common, where most women work outside the home, where it takes two incomes – or more - to maintain a household.  Gay rights are growing and pro-family religious dogma weakening, men are taking on more home responsibilities, reproduction has become a choice, abortion partially legal.  Struggling single parents or couples without children are more common, sexual relations are more free.  Formerly private tasks of a household like child-care, growing food, education, care of the aged and cooking have been partially or fully outsourced. Of course, for wealthier families, nearly everything is outsourced.  Unemployment and precarious employment afflict the various strata of the reserve army of the unemployed, especially women.  

 All of these contradictory issues impact the essential ‘reproduction of labor power.’ This is the reason why ‘culture war’ issues have become so important, as the traditional capitalist family and a woman's traditional role is crumbling and something ‘new’ is arriving.  Something that can perhaps be called the 'neo-liberal family" and at the same time, presaging another kind of social unit.  Marx called the goal to be a ‘higher form of the family and relations between the sexes.’  When women across the globe come to full liberation, the closer we all come to a socialist society, which will remove class & property as the gauge of humanity and human relations. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
December 27, 2014

No comments: