Debate on patriarchy & the capitalist mode of production

by · January 15, 2013

For ease of reference I have copied and pasted a debate on the connections between women’s oppression and the capitalist mode of production that started with a blog post by Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb. I have copied that opening post as well as my reply, Richard’s rejoinder and a further reply from myself. The debate ranged more widely on some Facebook threads, with some fascinating contributions, but I’ve limited myself to mine and Richard’s direct exchange here.

Seymour: Patriarchy and the capitalist state

I have recently had cause to invoke the concept of ‘patriarchy’ a few times, in the context of the Saville scandal, and the Iowa supreme court’s decision to back sexist employers. At first, I suggested that marxists should annexe the concept of patriarchy as a regional theory of which historical materialism is a general theory. Subsequently, I modified the concept by referring to ‘capitalist patriarchy’. This is in the spirit of bell hooks’ coining of the concept of ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’, which is a way of acknowledging the tremendous variety of historical forms that patriarchy has taken, and the fact that it is already articulated with, intersecting with and overdetermined by the other types of social relationship that it emerges alongside. In this case of the Iowa Supreme Court, I was indicating that the relationship between traditional patriarchal types of authority, in the church and family, and capitalist and state power, was not merely incidental. I want to take this process of refining and modifying the concept further still, to some extent prompted by the ‘Damina’ case.

For in the extensive coverage, a couple of prominent factors have been the prevalent cultural forms that legitimise rape (‘rape culture’) and the entrenched attitudes of cops, courts and politicians. In the latter case, to borrow a phrase from Paul Gilroy, the filaments of sexist ideology are seen to disappear into (or obtrude from) the material institutions of the state. And I think the subject of gender and patriarchy is one where the particular role of the state and its active role in the organisation of the material practices of ideology repays attention. I therefore want to say a few things about what Bob Jessop called ‘the gender selectivities of the state’.

Before going any further, I have to clarify that last turn of phrase. The state theorist Clause Offe coined the term ‘structural selectivity’ to account for the ways in which the state’s capacities and institutions differentially enabled specific groups of actors to exercise political power in specific ways. Thus, in a simple form, one might say that it is structurally selective in favour of the capitalist class versus labour, that it works to organise the ruling class and disorganise the working class. Or perhaps, taking another example, it is structurally selective in favour of heteronormative, patriarchal sexual relationships, as opposed to polymorphous, polyamorous, queer, gender- and sex-egalitarian relationships. However, while this grasps something very important, the shortcoming of such an approach is that it appears to decide such questions at a high level of abstraction, irrespective of the conjuncture – implying that there are pre-given interests of capital, (or patriarchs, etc.) whose consequences are then simply worked out with particular consequences in certain given situations.

Jessop argued that this was a mistaken approach: specific interests and objectives are only decided in a given conjuncture with a given horizon of possibilities. They are articulated by actors (be they class actors or otherwise) with incomplete knowledge and only tendential unity. Furthermore, the state itself is not reducible to a structure or limitable to its institutional ensemble, but is rather a social relationship in which are involved a variety of contesting, contingently mobilised actors. Its selectivities are therefore strategic in that they have to be continually reproduced or altered by actors with certain capacities who are in struggle with others. Such selectivities may be stabilised over a very long period of time, as the recursive logic of selectivity is such that those who exercise state power continually reproduce the same selectivities in struggle with those who would try to alter them. They can be institutionalised in ways that make them extremely difficult to shift. Likewise, inasmuch as the capitalist state is always-already articulated with capitalist production, and is dependent upon its particular laws of motion and tendencies, its selectivities will be consistently responsive to those laws and tendencies. But there is nonetheless a degree of contingency, insofar as the state’s selectivities depend on the provisional outcomes of open-ended struggles. The Poulantzian thesis, that the state is the material condensation of the balance of class forces, can thus be extended to: the state is the material condensation of the balance of political forces of all types.

A consequence of this approach for the analysis of ‘the gender selectivities of the state’ is that it would be profoundly mistaken to see these as conforming to a single systemic logic. It would make no sense to see patriarchy as a system in which the state is the patriarch-general, or a committee for the management of the common affairs of patriarchs. It is one thing to use patriarchy as a commonsense synonym for male domination in families, politics, ‘business’, religion, and so on. But if patriarchy as an analytic is conceived as a transhistorical structure of male domination, which can subsume all mechanisms and relations in which the subordination of women has historically been secured under a single logic, then clearly it is inadequate. At most, we can speak of a particular, localised, historically produced type of gendered regime which can survive through various modulations and appears in quite diverse forms across modes of production and social formations.

If the marxist thesis is correct, and class is the central antagonism in any society around which other antagonisms then become articulated, one can see how forms that originally developed in a pre-capitalist system, such as the patriarchal family, can be subsumed and transformed by the dynamics of an emerging capitalist system. In much the same way that pre-feudal forms such as the fyrd militias were incorporated into the Norman feudal state and thus transformed, so the feudal family form was incorporated into the capitalist state and transformed. Whereas patriarchy in the feudal system was centred on the feudal lord and his control of the manor and its associated productive apparatuses, in the early phase of capitalism it was increasingly privatised and based on a sexual division of labour that confined women to domesticity and unwaged labour. In the later development of capitalism, however, patriarchy has experience a secular and probably irreversible decline in several of its traditional sites (family, job and church). The dissolution of the patriarchal family is at the centre of this: in all of the core capitalist states, marriage rates are falling, divorce rates are rising dramatically, fertility is declining, single parent households are rising, and employment within each household is becoming more evenly distributed between men and women. As a consequence, all the bases for male authority and female subordination in households are eroding. Indeed, some of the culture of violence against women can probably be attributed to the backlash over this breakdown of traditional patriarchy. This is not to say that patriarchy is no longer important, far from it, but it is to say that it is only one of a repertoire of gender regimes which can be reproduced by the state, and that several such regimes, based on conflicting masculine and feminine constructs, may be produced simultaneously and even inconsistently.

Two obvious consequences seem to follow from this. One is that it isn’t possible to speak of an irreducible antagonism between all women and all men. Such antagonisms exist where a successful gender regime is launched and maintained, but just as racial formations do not imply a pervasive antagonism between all white and black people, so gender antagonisms need not and do not apply uniformly and universally.

Second, the decline of some forms of patriarchy does not preclude worsening conditions for women in some respects, nor does it preclude a strategic shift to different forms of patriarchy. For example, a rise in female employment can erode male exclusivity and dominance in the workplace, but coupled with a rise in single parent households it can also increase the burden of work that women have to bear, since jobs, childcare and household management effectively gives them a three shift work day.

This could be argued to involve not the persistence of women’s oppression beyond patriarchy, but a shifting modality of patriarchy: from privatised to more public modes. For example, whereas traditional male breadwinner types of welfare regime buttressed the male’s authority in the household, neoliberal welfare regimes attempt to subject both women and men to the whip of the market, coercing mothers into taking waged work (on a subordinate and often precarious basis) while removing the social wage for their work in raising children as far as possible, and compelling them to pay for private childcare (usually carried out by women) where possible. Even though the authority of husbands and fathers in this situation is greatly diminished, one might argue that this reorganisation of the sexual division of labour involves state capacities being activated by groups of politicians and civil servants in such a way that it appears precisely as a patriarch-general, using its coercive and incentive power to increase the exploitation of women.

Were we to accept this argument, however, we would immediately have to qualify it to near-extinction. First of all, we would be hard pressed to specify a single dynamic or logic that drives these two forms of women’s oppression (‘male breadwinner’ and ‘neoliberal’) and that one could adequately call patriarchy. Second we would have to recognise the highly provisional, contested nature of such neoliberal state action, the fact that it is a partially improvised praxis in response to workers rebellions and social movements by a faction operating in and through the state, the fact that it necessarily made use of immanent developments in the capitalist world economy that didn’t have to do with patriarchy, and that it necessarily incorporated elements of contesting projects, and so on. In short, I think we would be guilty of concept-stretching if we just said that patriarchy has shapeshifted. There are certainly forms of state action today which reinforce patriarchal forms: the Iowa supreme court’s decision was of this type. And in fact, I think there is no patriarchal or gendered form in which the state is not involved as a positive, constituting factor. But there are gendered projects other than patriarchy, based on other conceived roles for men and women, in which women also suffer oppression and exploitation; just as there are egalitarian gender projects that impede those.

My suggestion is that as an analytic, patriarchy must be treated as one type of the more general phenomena of gender projects which in certain conjunctures form gender formations. What is a gender formation? I am drawing a direct analogy with Omi and Winant’s conception of racial formations, which comprises ”the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed … historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized.” This is connected “to the evolution of hegemony, the way in which society is organized and ruled,” in the sense that racial projects are linked up with wider repertoires of hegemonic practices, either enabling or disrupting the formation of broad ruling or resistant alliances. A gender formation would thus be a ‘sociohistorical process’ in which gender categories are ‘created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed’ through the interplay and struggle of rival gender projects. From my perspective, this has the advantage of grasping the relational, partially contingent and partially representational nature of gendered forms of power, and providing a means by which patriarchy can indeed be grasped in relation to historical materialism.


Tietze reply

The problem of how to integrate the material reality of women’s oppression into historical materialism is not a new one, having been the subject of a series of theoretical debates between feminists, Marxists and Marxist-feminists in the 1970s and 80s. Unfortunately I think your use of a (modified) patriarchy conceptualisation here doesn’t advance that project, if we are to retain the core of Marx’s method.

For Marx historical materialism meant examining the actual social relations between people that constitute any given social formation, in their historical specificity. While the centrepiece of his life’s work was an examination of the social relations at the heart of the capitalist mode of production (in Capital and elsewhere), he was clear that quite different ensembles of social relations existed in different modes of production. The point he was making was about the fundamental discontinuities between different types of society.

When it comes to women’s oppression, therefore, the problem with a concept such as patriarchy is not just that it is crudely transhistorical (which it is), but that it implies a single dynamic that is then merely modified by the logic of successive modes of production. So, when you write that, “At most, we can speak of a particular, localised, historically produced type of gendered regime which can survive through various modulations and appears in quite diverse forms across modes of production and social formations,” I think you look at the question the wrong way around, and fall into a more sophisticated transhistoricism where there is a continuity of a “gendered regime”, even with all the caveats you spell out.

Concretely this comes across in a historical sketch you relay: “Whereas patriarchy in the feudal system was centred on the feudal lord and his control of the manor and its associated productive apparatuses, in the early phase of capitalism it was increasingly privatised and based on a sexual division of labour that confined women to domesticity and unwaged labour.” This is actually wrong. In fact rising capitalism tended to destroy the feudal family (and patriarchal relations) of the subaltern classes by dragging entire families into capitalist production, severing them from the means to provide for their own subsistence, working them horrific hours and in terrible conditions, etc. It was this that led Marx and Engels to think that the family was doomed.

But of course, as we know, this created severe problems for the system’s ability to ensure the reproduction of the working class (both in terms of labour power on a daily and weekly basis, and the reliable production of new generations of proletarians). The capitalist family thus had to be consciously constructed, with all the coercive and consensual elements of that process — a process involving significant state and extra state mobilisation in terms of ideologies, laws, policies, regulations, work reorganisation, and industrial relations strategies, including settlements around the family wage, etc. Naturally this involved the repetition of various tropes and methods taken from previous forms of women’s oppression. There is nothing better when creating and enforcing new forms of oppression than to draw on past traditions of oppression in order to create the appearance that they have always been with us and always will be (to eternise and naturalise them). But to emphasise those continuities obscures the fundamentally different nature of women’s oppression under capitalism.

In a famous passage in the Grundrisse, Marx writes of how, “In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it.” Here he is talking of how aspects of pre-capitalist societies (e.g. ground rent, landed property) cannot be understood unless situated as part of the dominant social relations of production of any particular mode of production. I would argue that there is no conceptual stretch in applying this insight to forms of oppression.

If we return to starting with the social relations that constitute any particular mode of production, we can understand the shifting practices and ideologies of women’s oppression without having to get caught up in debates over whether patriarchy shape-shifts or whether we need a broader (similar, but also more flexible) concept like “gender projects” to explain what is happening. For instance, the gender effects of the restructuring of employment, the decline in the prominence of traditional nuclear families, etc., can be understood in terms of the way that the logic of capitalism constantly upsets and overturns social relations in its furtive drive to competitively accumulate at all costs, and in the way that the system’s rulers have to constantly find ways to disorganise subaltern resistance to this drive and its destabilising effects. Thus, the role of women’s oppression in terms of its cohering (pro-systemic) and disorganising (anti-subaltern) effects needs to be analysed through that frame. It’s here also that one can find a basis in the social substrate for the politics that develop and later become fetters on the processes of oppression and resistance to it.

I should say one last thing: My argument is not about downplaying the importance of women’s oppression to the capitalist system, but about locating it historically as part of that mode of production. This is important because we need greater analytic specificity about that oppression than concepts like patriarchy and its variants can give us. It allows us to understand how certain forms of oppression can be both contingent and yet become central to ruling class rule. It also allows us much more fine-grain examination of the variegated and shifting patterns of oppression — and resistance to it — within capitalist societies, without losing sight of the continuities that capitalist social relations impose within the current mode of production.


Seymour rejoinder

Tad, there are a few things about your comment.

The first thing to say is that your justification for calling the concept of patriarchy ‘crudely transhistorical’ is rather thin. You say that it implies a single dynamic or logic that is merely modified by the logic of successive modes of production. One could well say the same of the concepts of money, wage labour, slave labour, the state, etc. These are all concepts which can be made to apply across different modes of production and quite different social formations. Yet one would be hard-pressed to say that they obey the same logic in each case, or are merely ‘modified’ by the mode of production. They are fundamentally altered and reconfigured. Wage labour in antiquity is totally different from wage labour in feudalism, and that was fundamentally different from wage labour in the capitalist mode of production, but this doesn’t stop us from referring to a phenomenon called wage labour. I see no reason for dismissing the concept of patriarchy per se as ‘crudely transhistorical’; there are versions of patriarchy theory that do genuinely attempt to found a narrative of human history on a single continuous logic of male domination, but not every theoretical iteration of patriarchy works in that way. And it’s crude to pretend otherwise.

The second thing is that even in your rejection of my argument, you appear to concede some things that are actually central to it. For example, though you reject the language of gender projects and gender formations, you go on to articulate a Gramscian approach to the formation of gender roles and relations that is exactly the one that underpins the concept of gender formation. I really think that even if you can’t go along with a historically delimited notion of patriarchy of the kind I am advancing, you ought to think more carefully before rejecting the idea of gender formation. You might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Third, more significantly, when ‘correcting’ me on the transition from feudalism to capitalism and its effects on the family (more on this anon), you actually find yourself referring to patriarchal relations. The fact that you maintain that capitalism abruptly terminated these relations, and therefore presumably think the concept can be safely contained in the pre-capitalist past, doesn’t prevent this from posing problems for you. For the bases on which one asserts the existence of patriarchal relations in the feudal mode of production can lead you to asserting their existence in the capitalist mode of production. Feudal families were patriarchal because of: 1) masculine authority in households, linked to; 2) masculine control of property titles by means of primogeniture and other mechanisms, linked to; 3) the relationship of male authority within families to male authority within society as a
whole. There’s a lot more that one could say, but let’s just proceed with this in mind. Can one find types of social relations that pivot on male authority in households, linked to male property rights, linked to male authority within society as a whole in the capitalist mode of production? Certainly. Less and less is this a matter of legal prescription, both in the advanced capitalist core and beyond. But male authority in households under capitalism has definitely been linked to male access to the wage and thus to the disposal of certain property, in its turn linked to male political power. Obviously the logic and dynamics convoking these types of social power are profoundly different in different modes of production, but as I say this is also true of many other forms of social relations that appear across different modes of production. This is no reason to reject the concept.

On your ‘correction’. I find it rather strange in a way that you respond to a point about what happened to *patriarchy* in the shift from feudalism to capitalism, with a point about what happened to *families* during the transition. There is a subtle difference. Capitalism did destroy the old forms of patriarchal family – not all at once, and not without considerable resistance from the semi-proletarianized and small producers, but over the longue duree it did achieve this. But this is not inconsistent with saying that what happened to patriarchy as a consequence of this shift was that it reappeared in privatized forms based on a sexual division of labour.

Further, it’s odd that you refer to capitalist production relations demolishing the old families, without acknowledging the role of the law, ideology, culture and political coercion in achieving that demolition. In your analysis, you do pinpoint the role of the state, of cultural and political projects in the *reconstruction* of the family along new lines and out of new social materials. This is quite correct. But it’s almost as if you’re saying it does so *against the grain of capitalist social relations*, which only works to destroy families. I think, on the contrary, that capitalism has certain ‘contradictory’ tendencies in this respect. Certainly, it pulls families apart, but it also thrusts them closer together in some ways, as such kinship provides for certain needs that capitalism is unable to satisfy. Naturally, it falls to actors in the capitalist state to elaborate the specific family form that will prevail, as capitalists are in themselves neither willing nor able to directly bear the costs of the sexual or social reproduction of labour power, so it must be socialised. It falls to judges, politicians, civil servants, and so on, based on their understanding of marriage, property law, fertility rates, etc. They do so on the basis of specific ideological articulations, political objectives, what I would call gender projects, etc.

That leads me to what I think may be the crux of the matter. I think it is thoroughly mistaken to focus on the ostensible mobilisation of trace elements or residues of the precapitalist past in an ideologically opportunistic way in their reconstruction of families. I think the decision of most capitalist states in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth century to restrict women’s property rights and authority within households, as well as within society at large, and to create male-headed households based on the conception of male breadwinners, was a response to and specific organisation of contemporary antagonisms and struggles. That is to say, they developed new patriarchal institutions not as a means to naturalise or legitimise other forms of women’s oppression, but as a mechanism of political control and an apparatus of reproduction in its own right.


Tietze reply

Richard, to take your points in turn:

First: I was calling your variant concept of patriarchy “sophisticated” (not “crude”) transhistoricism. But transhistorical it is. Marx’s critique of political economy was precisely also a critique of categories like “money, wage labour, slave labour, the state,” etc. He argued that bourgeois political economists both failed to penetrate how these categories reflected fetishized forms of appearance of real social relations (his thoroughgoing materialism) and the way they that they failed to specify their radically different (incommensurable) content within different modes of production, thus naturalising and eternising them (his thoroughgoing historicism).

Second: I find your concept of gender formation even less specific and less historically embedded than “patriarchy” is. Again I think it accepts surface appearances without getting to the social relations underneath.

Third: I am not trying to limit the use of the word “patriarchy” to a pre-capitalist era. I used the term in that place as it makes sense in the very limited way I present it, because its use today is a clumsy appropriation of the word from the feudal era, when the rule of the father meant something real. What I object to is the attempt to extend the term across modes of production, even in the more nuanced way that you have. In your usage it effectively becomes a word to describe a mutating but continuous system of oppression (or gender relations construction) that traverses all class societies.

The point I am making is that the (patriarchal) family of the subaltern classes under feudalism was so drastically different to the working class nuclear family under capitalism that the descriptors you marshal — “1) masculine authority in households, linked to; 2) masculine control of property titles by means of primogeniture and other mechanisms, linked to; 3) the relationship of male authority within families to male authority within society as a whole” — are so generic that they tell us very little in comparative terms about social relations under the two modes of production in question. All they tell us is the banal fact that males were in a more powerful position than females in terms of authority and juridical property rights. They say nothing about the radically different relationship of feudal families to social production, and what effect this had on their internal relations. Indeed, to talk as you do about working class male property rights gives the game away because in fact the thing that distinguishes the working class is its actual (not just juridical) propertylessness in relation to production.

On my “correction”: Given I reject the notion of “patriarchy” as a useful concept to describe a mutating but continuous system, you can see why I don’t accept the idea that it “reappeared in privatised forms”. I’m saying rather that there had to be an active creation of an oppression of women that was distinct to the capitalist mode of production.

Further: I don’t deny “the role of the law, ideology, culture and political coercion” in instituting capitalist social relations of production. You should know by now from our debates on the state that I see those relations much more widely than simply an automatic (“economic”) process of the logic of capital playing out. But the conscious decisions that real people made to construct capitalism had consequences on the ability of the feudal-patriarchal family to survive. The contradiction between capitalism’s drive to extract maximal surplus value in the present and its ability to reproduce the workforce for the future — a contradiction that produced a real social crisis — was then also consciously addressed. The choice to coerce and convince workers into some kind of privatised family arrangement (with all the attendant gender effects) was, thus, not an inevitable one, but a contingent one, although one in part shaped by the option to draw on past ideas and practices. This is not just “the ostensible mobilisation of trace elements or residues of the precapitalist past in an ideologically opportunistic way in their reconstruction of families”, but the use of coercive and consensual strategies to create a new working class family. Kevin Ovenden described the paradigmatic British case well in the FB thread we have been debating on:

Far from automatic […] —at least seven Acts of parliament, an extension of the state through the employment of people to enforce the Acts (predating school inspectors and others), the systematic deployment of the early mass media, the intervention of a still powerful church, the creation of new national myth, the disciplining and punishing of transgression (including over same sex relations)…

This is the historical substrate of the argument I am putting, that there was no inbuilt necessity for capitalism to appropriate the oppression of women, and certainly not for it to continue (in reshaped form) a pre-existing system of oppression.

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