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Patriarchy theory and capitalism

To argue that gender ideology oppresses women you first need a more general explanation of how and why women are oppressed. For the great majority of people this means some form of patriarchy theory.

Among liberal feminists “patriarchy” often seems to be just a vague common-sense idea that men are to blame for women’s second class status. One effect of this is to shield capitalism from overall blame for sexism, and for this reason the liberal corporate media, like The Guardian, are very comfortable with “patriarchy”.

Radical feminists have elaborated more serious and systematic theories of patriarchy as a system of male domination which is separate from capitalism which requires a separate struggle by women to overthrow it. Many rad fems are hostile to capitalism, especially its neoliberal variant.

As a Marxist I reject any concept of patriarchy and see capitalism as the central and decisive factor in maintaining women’s oppression in the modern world. This includes forms of oppression that are far removed from the economy, such as men’s physical violence to women as well as subtle forms of sexism embedded in culture and language. The road to liberation involves a united struggle, based in a political workers’ movement, in which all forms of sexism are confronted.

Making a Marxist case against patriarchy theory has not been helped by the capitulation to gender sexism seen among so many of my fellow-thinkers on the far Left. However this capitulation does not stem from the logic of Marxism itself, but rather from the demoralising impact of decades of neoliberalism. See this and other posts on this blog.

The disagreement over patriarchy theory is not the focus of Freer Lives. I want to work with other gender-critical progressives rather than zero in on ideological differences.  This page has been written simply to show where the blog is coming from on this issue, and to offer an alternative starting point for challenging gender sexism.

My understanding of the Marxist critique of patriarchy theory has been greatly assisted by a range of articles from the International Socialist Tendency. They include Lindsey German’s Theories of patriarchy  (1981); two pieces by Chris Harman, Women’s liberation and revolutionary socialism (1984) and Engels and the origins of human society (1994); Sheila McGregor’s Sexuality, alienation and capitalism (2011); and, from an Australian perspective, The poverty of patriarchy theory by Sandra Bloodworth (1990). Apart from its coverage of transgender issues, I have also gained a great deal from Judith Orr’s book Marxism and Women’s Liberation (2015).

The page is organised under these headings:

  • Capitalism is more than an economic system
  • Employment patterns as evidence against the existence of a patriarchy
  • The survival of women’s oppression across different class epochs
  • The emergence of women’s oppression: Engels and the world-historic defeat of the female sex
  • Women as a “sex class”
  • Marxism, radical feminism, and gender ideology.

Capitalism is more than an economic system

Capitalism pervades all aspects of culture and personal life, in two ways. Firstly it creates a set of everyday experiences in the work process, and life more generally, which shape the way we think. For instance, the hierarchical workplace naturalises hierarchy; competition for jobs, promotions, scholarships etc naturalises competition. Faceless bureaucracies, gridlocked traffic, the remote oil tanker that releases effluent onto your beach, all inspire individual rage but also a sense of helplessness. People’s everyday experience of seeing women as drudges, sex objects etc. encourages both women and men to accept this as simple natural eternal realities.

Secondly the capitalist class uses its propaganda machine (from the pulpit to modern mass media) to encourage trends useful to it and stifle those that hinder it. Through propaganda they frame working people’s everyday experiences in a way that justifies the status quo. The bosses go to all this trouble because they’re well aware that culture reacts back on the economic processes vital to their profits.

For instance, after the first major capitalist revolution, in England, the bosses encouraged puritanical and self-denying values among the middle and working classes in order to drive the economy forward, so that every spare penny went on reinvestment, and every spare moment went on work. This in turn generated particularly austere social relations and cramped individuals’ personal psychology in ways that lived on long after the original economic rationale for them dwindled. Modern neoliberal capitalism, by contrast, has been bent on destroying the welfare state and social infrastructure built up under the post-war boom era, hobbling unions and reducing individual workers to helplessness before market forces, all under the banners of liberalism and freedom. As part of this, it talks of sexual freedom. But at the same time, it makes working life ever more harsh and degrading, in jobs where personality is either crushed or warped into a fake persona; personal expression for the mass of ordinary individuals is replaced by self-cultivation for a small minority of consultants, managers and high-level networkers, for whom charm and prettiness now have a cash value. All this gives the new sexual “freedom” a sleazy quality.

Modern capitalism benefits economically from the oppression of women in many ways, but especially from women’s unpaid labour in the home, maintaining today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves. So capitalism needs women to retain a sense of their inferiority. At the same time, however, it needs to exploit them in the paid workforce, where women get to see that they are equal to men. So the message sent to working women is messy and mixed – the bosses accommodate women’s concerns where necessary, hold them back wherever possible. So the mainstream media still treats women as sex objects even while it decries the glass ceiling and offers token support for women’s rights.

Employment patterns as evidence against the existence of a patriarchy

If there is a patriarchy it is hard to see why so many men have been tossed onto the economic scrapheap over the last few decades. As Lindsey German put it in 1981: “The question the theorists of patriarchy have to answer is this – if capital and men are indeed in alliance why are women not being thrown out of work and replaced by unemployed miners, steelworkers and dockers?” The patriarchy analysis would lead you to expect a massive and successful campaign to push women out of the workplace and higher education, and the wholesale retraining of men to take their places. This has not happened.

By contrast, political formations based on racism or bigotry have at times been very successful in uniting sections of the working class with the bosses and defending some workers’ jobs at the expense of other workers – eg Orangeism in Northern Ireland, apartheid, and the racist campaigns against immigrant labour that laid the foundations for the White Australia policy. None of this is to deny that women are brutally disadvantaged in the workplace and labour market, but this can be fully explained by women’s oppression under capitalism.

The survival of women’s oppression across different class epochs

It is sometimes argued that the persistence of women’s oppression across different epochs demonstrates the existence of a system of patriarchy separate from economic systems such as capitalism. I think it’s more accurate to say that each new form of ruling class has found reasons to preserve women’s oppression, in new ways, heavily adapted to suit its own needs.

As the capitalist class struggled for and then took power, it inherited a range of institutions, beliefs, and traditions left over from feudalism, including Christianity, royalty, and women’s oppression (just as feudalism had inherited these same phenomena from the ruins of the ancient slave states). But whenever particular forms of Christianity and royalty served as rallying points for the old order they were smashed or tamed. Nothing from the old order could be tolerated, unless transformed.  The divine right of kings was replaced by the Protestant work ethic.

As capitalism developed, a woman became first a subordinate part of her husband’s farm or workshop; later she was factory fodder or prostitute in places like England where the working class family was falling apart; later again, she was the stay at home mother and wife, and today, she is the wage slave who “naturally” notices household dirt, loves self-decoration, nurtures children, and helps everyone get along.

Women’s oppression, then, has continued between epochs because it remains useful to every new oppressing class. But it is not a rigid, continuous system running in parallel to different systems of economic production.

The emergence of women’s oppression: Engels and the world-historic defeat of the female sex

The emergence of women’s oppression is bound up with the emergence of class societies. These intertwined processes are described in Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. A clear and succinct summary of Engels’ explanation is provided by Chris Harman, “Engels and the Origins of Human SocietyInternational Socialism 2:65, Winter 1994. Here is my summary of some of its key ideas.

For the great bulk of its history humanity lived in hunter-gatherer societies, based on subsistence economies in which small bands of people loosely related to each moved from place to place. To survive they had to consume all that they killed or gathered, so nothing much was stored and there was no scope for any kind of elite to live off the labour of others. They produced their food and other necessities collectively. The only division of labour was between men and women: for the common good, women could not be exposed to the dangers of the hunt while pregnant or breastfeeding, so they gathered food and thus provided more steady and reliable food than the men, ensuring high status for women, reflected in the worship of a mother goddess.

With the emergence of horticulture production was no longer communal, it was now based in individual households. Food and other essentials were redistributed from those who had most to those in most need. Over time, this practice worked for the common good. It also maintained an ethos of sharing. Those best able to give gained prestige rather than material assets. But there was now the potential for households to hold back food, so managing this redistribution now required more formal, structured social mechanisms than before. Kinship ties became more important as the basis of more defined roles about who had to help who in times of need.

The practice and ethos of redistribution came under pressure in several ways. Firstly, the prestige attained by those best able to give sometimes became formalised into chieftain roles. “Hierarchy becomes more pronounced,” Harman states, “even if it remains hierarchy associated with the ability to give things to others.” Secondly, in times of hardship, a household might prioritise its own needs over those of the clan. Thirdly, the surplus production created under horticulture was stored, and stored food could be stolen by other groups, creating the basis for inter-group warfare, which greatly intensified the development of chieftains and the material assets of victorious leaders.

Also, “in most [horticultural] societies – although not all – men are the only warriors.” This was because warfare risked the childbearing potential of women.

So a potential was beginning to emerge for systematic social and sexual inequality. But as yet there was no systematic oppression of women. In fact a man getting married often moved into the woman’s house (matrilocal societies), and descent was sometimes reckoned down the female line (matrilineal societies). “It is a world in which everyone, male or females, is tied into a network of mutual rights and responsibilities which vary from one stage in life to another, delimiting people’s freedom in various ways, but still leaving them with more autonomy than is general in class societies.”

The introduction of more advanced agriculture produced fundamental changes. Far more wealth was created and accumulated, allowing for development of social hierarchies, encouraged by higher-stakes warfare. The layer of chieftains moved from being distributors of surplus to a layer that lived off the work of others, the first ruling classes. And for the first time women became systematically subordinate: just as social hierarchies were deepening, women were excluded from new agricultural techniques (eg the plough, irrigation works), as well as long distance trade and warfare: all the most wealth-producing activities: “It is in the interests of the whole society (including its women) for women not to take part in activities (such as warfare, long distance travel and heavy agricultural tasks) which expose them to the greatest risks of death, infertility or abortion – or which expose to danger infants dependent on their mother’s milk for food.”

Harman also points out that “the new forms of production encouraged the breakdown of the old lineage based communal forms of organisation”:

So long as much of food production was carried out by women it made sense to everyone for land and other means of production to be under the control of lineages running through the female line. This guaranteed a continuity of cultivation across generations. A woman, her sisters and their spouse would be able to look forward to their daughters cultivating the lineage’s land and so providing for them in their old age. The fact that land did not pass to the son did not matter to either the mother or the father, since he [the son] would not be responsible for the main burden of food production.

Once, however, the main food producers became the men, the situation changed. A couple became dependent on the production of the next generation of males to keep them once they were no longer physically able to provide fully for themselves. The survival of any particular household came to depend much more on the relationship between the males in one generation and the next than between the females. Relying on the father’s sisters sons, who would themselves work on land controlled by other lineages (that of their wives) was much less dependable than trying to keep the couple’s sons attached to the parental household. Patrilineality and patrilocality began to fit in with the logic of production much more than matrilineality and matrilocality.

The replacement of shifting (or slash and burn) agriculture by continual cultivation of the same land encouraged this development. It necessitated measures to improve the land over more than one generation, measures which would be carried through mainly by the men and would therefore be encouraged by a new stress on relations between successive generations of male cultivators, tied to the same piece of land.

Finally, the rise of classes and the state at the expense of the lineages encouraged male dominance among the lower classes once men were the main producers of the surplus. It was on them that the newly emerging authorities would place responsibility for handing over part of the crop. And they would then have to impose these demands on the household unit as a whole, beginning to direct its work and control its consumption.

This formed the basis for what Engels famously called “the world historic defeat of the female sex”.

Women as a “sex class”

It is sometimes argued that women and men constitute oppressed and oppressor classes and that women need to launch a revolution against the male “sex class”.

One major thing wrong with this approach is that it provides no means for women to free themselves. This is in contrast to the Marxist concept of class. Marxism sees that the working class is organized by its own enemy, the capitalists, into workplaces. This provides the seeds of workers’ self-organisation in their own interests against the bosses. These seeds exist even in when the workers are politically undeveloped, or demoralized after shattering defeats. The bosses organize their own nemesis.

Capitalism continually disturbs itself through boom and bust economic cycles and through major economic restructuring. These changes hit workers hard, and periodically force even the most apolitical or conservative working classes into action to defend themselves. Once they are in motion they discover that they have power, that other workers are their allies, and that bosses are their enemies. These struggles also tend to generate workers’ revolutionary parties that remember lessons from previous disputes, coordinate workers’ campaigns and provide organizational centres by which the working class can take power.

In other words a dynamic is at work within capitalism and within its working class, which provides a roadmap to escape from its oppression. Patriarchy theory offers no comparable roadmap leading women out their oppression – it cannot, because the oppression of women does not have the same motor driving it. Women’s oppression can only be ended by workers’ revolution. This will certainly involve self-organisation by working women and politically aware men against sexism within the working class: the more the class is divided by sexism the less likely that there will ever be a successful workers’ revolution. And time and time again, workers’ revolutions have challenged the subordinate position of women.

Marxism, radical feminism, and gender ideology

Serious Marxists are strategically committed to engagement with the workers’ movement. They call on workers’ organisations to champion a host of progressive causes, and urge progressive campaigns to orient themselves towards the workers movement. So Marxists have been very hard hit by the ebb of working class struggle during the last four decades. Even the best far Left groups have been demoralised and fractured – and dependent for recruitment and engagement on left-wing and LGB milieux where gender ideology have intense support. I think this explains their capitulation to gender sexism. Adherence to gender ideology does not proceed from Marxism – quite the contrary: in order to support “gender”, Marxists have to ignore or distort large parts of their belief system. But they have done so in the attempt to engage with other progressive forces as best they can.

Radical feminists have held out against the sexism of gender ideology. In part, this reflects radical feminism’s two great strengths: it is relentlessly pro-woman and it adheres to the idea of liberation – the possibility of a qualitatively better world beyond the horizon of our current society. This has inoculated radical feminism against neoliberal sleaze and postmodern contempt for the idea of freedom. But I think radical feminism’s resistance to gender sexism also reflects its separatist traditions.

Obviously rad fems want to build support, but they are not strategically committed to a vision of “one struggle, one fight” based around the workers movement. I think this creates two negative consequences. One is that they are quick to pull up the drawbridge: liberal feminists, for example, can be dismissed outright as “handmaids” to patriarchy, not “real” feminists at all, whereas in truth many working class women who regard themselves as liberal feminists are very angry indeed about discrimination and are potential allies. The other, opposite danger is that, in the effort to escape isolation (and disgusting abuse from the Left), radical feminists look across the barricades to sections of the political Right, which have their own reasons to oppose the transgender trend, sex work and pornography, and which are ultimately anti-woman.


This page was updated 16 September 2019 to include a section on women as a “sex class”.

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