Readings on social movements

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Chapter 4 A queer union between Marxism and feminism?


4.1.One theory for dual systems

In 1979, Heidi Hartmann published an essay titled “The unhappy marriage of Marxism and Feminism”. There were several criticisms of her article from Marxist feminists and radical feminists alike, giving rise to a debate compiled afterwards in the anthology edited by Lydia Sargent and published in 1981: Women and revolution: a discussion of the unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism. In this long article Hartmann develops the so-called dual systems theory, patriarchy and capitalism, starting out from the unsuccessful encounter of Marxism and feminism. Marxism missed the opportunity the new feminist wave provided to renew itself thoroughly. Instead, it tended to view gender oppression as an oppression of secondary importance and substantially subordinated to class exploitation. The marriage of Marxism and feminism was analogous to marriage of a man and a woman as institutionalized under English law: like husband and wife, Marxism and feminism were one thing, and that thing was Marxism. Engels’ intuition in The Origin of the Family that production and reproduction of immediate life, as a determining factor in history, consisted of two aspects; production of the means of existence and production of human beings themselves was not examined in greater depth by Engels himself or by subsequent Marxists. This has contributed to Marxist categories remaining “sex-blind”, with consequences not only in terms of underestimating women’s condition of oppression, but also the capacity to understand the complex reality of capitalism. Marxist categories such as “class”, “reserve army”, “labour force” are “sex-blind” as they are patterned after the “sex-blind” nature of the laws of capitalist development. According to Hartmann, capitalism creates hierarchies within the labour force, but its laws of development cannot determine who will be destined to occupy the different ranks within this hierarchy. From the standpoint of capital’s pure “laws of movement”, whether men or women, white or black workers occupy a subordinate position is utterly indifferent. As long as the categories of the criticism of political economy reflect the laws of capitalist development, even these cannot explain who will fit into which rank within the various hierarchies. The concept of class alone is not sufficient in this case and must be integrated with the concepts of gender, race, nationality and religion. In other words, the factor allowing capitalism to confine women to the lower steps in the internal labour force hierarchy is not the logic of capitalism’s internal functioning itself, but that of another system of oppression. This patriarchal system is intertwined with capitalism; it has a life of its own and its own autonomy. Thus the subordination of women created by the patriarchal system, whose origins are pre-capitalist, is used by capitalism for its own purposes. Hartmann’s definition of patriarchy attempts to avoid the pitfall of imagining a universal and invariable structure, rather taking into account its historicity and thus the transformations it has undergone. From this standpoint it is not possible to speak of pure patriarchy, as its material structures are always rooted within determined relations of production and this inextricable relation modifies their characteristics and nature. Instead, one must speak rather of slaveholding patriarchy, feudal patriarchy, capitalist patriarchy and so on. Insisting on the historical nature of patriarchy and its transformation, Hartmann developed an outlook concerning relations between capitalism and patriarchy different from the one Juliet Mitchell put forth in Psychoanalysis and Feminism. According to Mitchell, patriarchal structures have a universal and ahistorical psychological and ideological nature, which persists from one mode of production to the next. Interaction between these structures and a given mode of production then produces variations in the way these universal structures are articulated and differentiated. Based on these, female oppression takes different forms and expresses itself in different ways, depending on this historical moment, location and class affiliation. Instead, Hartmann emphasizes the historical transformations that patriarchal structures undergo themselves, not merely their expressions. Despite this close correlation between mode of production and patriarchal system, each of these operates according to an internal logic and specific laws that can be on the same wavelength but also in conflict. Despite the fact that capitalism has used and continues to use the patriarchy to shore up its own rule and articulate exploitation, in certain circumstances the “sex-blind” laws of capital movement can come into contradiction with those of the patriarchal system. A failure to grasp the laws proper to the two systems cannot allow us to understand the nature of these contradictions. Based on these considerations, the happy marriage Hartmann hopes for should give way to a unified theory able to read and interpret the internal operational laws of the dual capitalist and patriarchal systems and the way in which these relate to one another, without seeking to reduce one to the other. In the first chapter of her book Justice Interruptus, published in 1997, Nancy Fraser developed a theoretical proposal that some critics have also defined as a dual-system theory. However – as we shall see – Fraser’s approach is a rather particular dual-system theory, very different from Hartmann’s outlook. Starting out from the observation that demands for recognition have become almost a paradigmatic form of political conflict at the end of the 20th Century and a fulcrum of struggles relating to nationality, gender, race and sexuality, Fraser proposes a conceptual schema making it possible to take into consideration both the specific differences between demands for justice based on “redistribution” and those based on “recognition” as well as the possibility of linking these. This schema is based on a distinction between injustice with economic roots (exploitation, dispossession, economic marginalization) and injustice of a symbolic and cultural nature (cultural domination, non-recognition, contempt). In analytical terms, disregarding the fact that in reality both forms of oppression are almost always closely intertwined, class exploitation represents a case of “pure” economic injustice, while the oppression of gays and lesbians is a case of cultural injustice: the former case of injustice gives rise to demands for “redistribution”; the latter to demands for “recognition”. Asserting that in analytical terms economic and cultural injustice require distinction does not at all equal failure to recognize their correlation in real life and the circumstance that, for example, the oppression of gays, lesbians, trans and intersexuals exerts leverage on material structures and institutions and has economic consequences and aspects, such as discrimination in the labour market and the healthcare system. However, for example cultural injustices are not a cornerstone of production relations, do not structure the division of labour or require a symbolic or cultural change to be overcome. Between these two poles there is a range of injustices that encompass both of these aspects: this is the case of women’s and racial oppression. Both have economic roots and are determinant in the division of labour in different ways. In the case of women, this involves a division both of reproductive and of productive work, assigning the former as an unpaid task for women, and to a hierarchy within the labour force, where gender is used to distinguished between predominantly male, better-paid job sectors and lower-paid, predominantly female work sectors. However, this is only one aspect of oppression, as women are also subject to depreciation of a symbolic and cultural nature, which gives rise to many forms of discrimination and violence: domestic and sexual violence, sexual exploitation, commoditisation of women’s bodies in communications and information, molestation… Thus, oppression of women, like racial oppression, calls for both types of response, namely demands for redistributive justice and for recognition. Fraser does emphasize how this bivalent situation produces contradictions. The logic of demands for redistributive justice, in fact, would lead to doing away with gender or racial distinctions. Calling for economic changes that would entail the end of discrimination on a gender or racial basis in the division of labour, for example, puts the accent on surpassing these identities and differentiation on the basis of these identities. On the other hand, the demand for recognition tends to put a premium on difference and identity, demanding that these be valued positively, instead of as sources of discrimination. How can these two different logics be reconciled? Fraser’s response consists in counterpoising an “affirmative” approach to a “transformative” one, to the question of redistribution and recognition. Affirmative approaches involve a series of measures in response to economic and social injustices that do not challenge the structure at their roots. This approach would include for example welfare state policies, based on redistributing existing goods to existing groups (for example, social assistance policies in relation to the poor), actually sustaining differentiation between groups. Or multiculturalism, which tends to highlight differences and different identities, demanding respect for these. On the other hand, the transformative approach tends to question the structure generating the injustices, as in the case for socialism in terms of the question of deep transformation of production relations and surpassing class divisions, or deconstruction aiming to restructure relations of recognition on a cultural level, playing down or abolishing the differentiations among groups. Queer theory belongs to the latter category. It does not raise the demand for homosexual, trans or intersexual identity as an objective, but rather deconstruction of the homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy, destabilizing all fixed sexual identities. Queer theory seeks to deconstruct gender, as socialism seeks to deconstruct class: both do not aim to maintain or affirm gender and class identity, although in political praxis the problem of identity is raised for both, but rather finally surpassing gender, as of class divisions. Based on this common transformative and deconstructionist nature, it is possible to hypothesize a combination of socialism and deconstruction, able to launch a common attack on economic and cultural injustice alike, offering responses in terms of redistribution and in terms of recognition. This combination is all the more necessary; the more gender and racial oppression cannot be reduced to either of these forms of injustice, but encompasses both.


4.2. One theory for a single system Iris Young has criticized both Fraser’s theory and Hartman’s, in two articles: “Beyond the unhappy marriage: a critique of the dual systems theory” and “Unruly Categories: a critique of Nancy Fraser’s Dual System Theory”. According to Young, Hartmann’s attempt does have the merit of providing an alternative to an ahistorical concept of the patriarchy, but raises other problems. Of course, the oppression of women goes back much further than the advent of capitalism, so its cause cannot be found within the capitalist mode of production. However, the same discourse is applicable to class divisions and exploitation: they are not an original invention of capitalism and indeed also constituted the basis of the functioning of the economy within slaveholding and feudal modes of production. We must deduct from this that class division and exploitation represent a freestanding structure changing historically with the succession of modes of production, but nevertheless maintaining autonomy from the mode of production itself. In this sense could class division constitute a system apart form capitalism, but intertwined with it afterwards? Considering the fact that there is no “pure” division into classes, separated from a specific mode of production determining it, generally leads to the idea that class division does not constitute a system in itself that endures, although changing over the course of centuries. Why would the same not apply also to patriarchy? Moreover, the dual system theory enables traditional Marxism to continue to build its theory of production relations and social changes and analyse capitalism in an unchanged way, applying “sex-blind” categories, and to leave the task of analysing the patriarchal system up to feminism. Against this option, Young proposes instead to integrate Marxism by developing a theory of gender division of labour, referring to all differentiations of labour by gender within society, from reproductive labour within the family to gender hierarchy within the labour force in the productive sphere. One of the reasons motivating Young’s critique of Hartmann , and that recurs in the case of the critique of Fraser’s dual system theory, is the refusal to assign only the categories of the criticism of political economy to Marxism, and not those pertaining to cultural criticism. Making Marxism coincide with the economic analysis of capitalism, actually means a reductive concept of it. In the same way, it is an error to counterpoise the economic and cultural spheres as if they were two completely autonomous spheres that come to interact in a reciprocal relationship. And yet we must say, contrary to Young’s critique, Fraser’s writing was and remains guided by an diametrically opposite objective, surpassing the separation between the cultural and economic spheres and building a theoretical framework susceptible of highlighting how they entwine. From this standpoint, it is difficult to consider her position as a version of the dual system theory, or if so, it is an utterly specific version. According to Young, when one moves from an abstractly analytical environment to examining how oppressions and exploitation function concretely and the dynamics of different struggles, one can see how a binary opposition between redistribution and recognition does not fully express the complexity of the processes of developing subjectivities that spur on the community or groups to struggle. The logic of demands for recognition does not necessarily contradict the logic of demands for redistribution, to the extent that they both contribute to building identities able to struggle for economic justice and social equality: this is the case with Zapatism and Black Power. As long as cultural oppression of specific groups plays a part in their economic oppression, the two struggles are not in conflict, but rather contiguous. According to Young, politics of affirming identity (of race, gender, ethnic group or religion), come into contradiction with the struggle for social justice only where instead of contributing to the process of subjectivisation, it puts the cultural expression in the forefront as an end in itself, so as to overshadow the role of culture in the production of structural economic oppressions.


The discussion on the dual system’s credibility or lack thereof is also present to some extent, embedded in another debate that took place in the 1980s among Marxist and socialist feminists in the pages of two journals, New Left Review and Studies in Political Economy. Central to the debate in which authors such as Johanna Brenner, Maria Ramas, Michèle Barrett, Patricia Connelly have participated has been whether or not it is possible to combine Marxism and feminism, to develop a Marxist feminist theory, confronting the various problems raised by such an attempt. If all the participants in this debate tended to negate the validity of a dual system, while recognizing that women’s oppression precedes capitalism, they had different ways of seeking to show how and in what sense this oppression links up with capitalism. Many questions were raised: are there patriarchal structures independent of capitalism’s own? What role does ideology play in gender oppression? What relation is there between gender ideology and the material bases of women’s oppression? Does the material and economic oppression of women also produce patriarchal ideology or on the contrary, does the latter also exert an influence on the economic level, for example on sexual division of labour? In Women’s Oppression Today, Michèle Barrett sought to show the role played by ideology in constructing the economy, emphasizing how many of the categories we refer to as economic have been constructed historically in ideological terms, In the same way, in ideological and historical terms, the reasons for which the ideology of the typically bourgeois family has been and continues to be shared even by the working class warrant investigation. Barrett’s attempt proceeds from the consideration that it is not possible to oppose women’s economic situation and ideology, since such a distinction not make it possible to grasp how these facets are intertwined. On the contrary, it is necessary to explore the complex dynamics of how gender and class ideology relate to one another. Brenner and Ramas have criticized Michèle Barrett’s essay in an article published in New Left Review, as have Pat and Hugh Armstrong in the pages of Studies in Political Economy. According to her critics, Michèle Barrett had fallen back into the dual system theory trap, while on the contrary it is necessary to recognize that, despite the fact that the patriarchy did not originate with capitalism, but preceded it, it has become completely integrated by capitalism, to the extent that by now they act together, not constituting two systems, but a same and single system. In support of this position, Brenner and Ramas have insisted on the role biology plays in the sexual division of labour that took place in the course of nineteenth-century capitalist development. Women’s reproductive role, the lack of effective contraception, and lack of alternatives to breastfeeding came into contradiction with full participation in productive factory work. As breastfeeding and childrearing were incompatible with factory work, this combination of a biological factor and a specific type of economic development produced the specific oppression of women under capitalism, based on the family home system. The crux of the matter consisted in how capitalist class productive system incorporated biological reproductive facts and how biological differences in this specific situation became an obstacle to women’s participation in production. Insisting on the weight of the biological factor viewed in relation to the social factor and the historical modifications of this relation is tantamount to downplaying the role of patriarchal ideology in the determination of the sexual division of labour. As Michèle Barrett noted in her response to this criticism (Rethinking Women’s Oppression: A Reply to Brenner and Ramas), responses given to biological limits are always social. Women of the aristocracy and the grand bourgeoisie were quick to resolve the need to feed newborns through the use of wet-nurses. Moreover, in some societies, the problem of breastfeeding is partially socialized so as to relieve the burden falling upon the mother alone. For working-class women in countries undergoing capitalist development, the response has been marginalizing women from productive work. In other terms, the type of response given to a biological limitation (for example the need to breastfeed babies) is a question of social choices and processes. But what do these choices and processes call upon, without taking into account gender ideology and how it influences the division of labour?

4.3. From unhappy marriage to queer union The various versions of feminist theory have often, if not always, been attempts to provide answers to the major problems facing women on the political level, and in particular those pertaining to constructing a female and/or feminist subjectivity able to struggle for women’s own liberation. Questions such as valuing or deconstructing gender difference, the social or biological origin of the oppression of women, to what extent there is a current patriarchal system autonomous from capitalism, the role of gender ideology with respect to the sexual division of labour, or whether or not sexual classes exist are the reflexion of concrete political challenges to which the feminist movement has had to attempt to provide answers. These responses, in turn, have had a decisive influence on the movement’s development, its fragmentation and its articulation. The brief reconstruction of some of these debates provided in these pages has attempted to follow a logic and classifications not generally used in the feminist debate, seeking instead to attempt to circle round an unresolved political problem that is nevertheless all the more urgent. Namely, the historical, political and theoretical relationship between gender and class and the possibility of developing a theory that reconciles Marxism and feminism without forcing them into a marriage of convenience. Addressing this problem has become all the more urgent if we consider the developments in the feminist movement in recent decades and the impact of capitalist globalization on women’s lives.

Faced with the monumental process of feminization of labour underway, produced by capitalist globalization, the substantial divorce between Marxism and feminism has given rise to still more major problems. On the one hand, analysis of the sexual division of labour, of the role of reproduction for capitalism, and the way patriarchal ideology is interwoven with the dynamics of capitalist accumulation continues to not be fully integrated either in Marxist theory or in the actions of organizations of the political left and social movements. This greatly limits both understanding and the capacity to intervene in reality. On the other, the fact that a consistent part of feminist movements and theory disregards class determinations in the name of a universal sisterhood or qualities that are essential female characteristics make it more difficult to build political and social alliances between the feminist movement and the workers’ movement and does not even render a good service to the feminist movement itself and its capacity to transform reality. As early as the end of the 1980s, the theory of intersectionality (term coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw), for example, has attempted rather to put the emphasis on interaction between gender, class and race and on how this complex interaction acted in turn on subjects. This interaction must not be understood as a simple addition or summing up of oppressions. Due to this very intersection, women cannot be viewed as a homogenous subject experiencing gender oppression as primary and sexism as their main relation to power, given their diversity in racial, class, ethnic and status terms and how this diversification and interaction of elements play a part in forming their subjectivity. The question of the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy must be examined just as thoroughly. Contrary to theories that attempt to conceive of the relationship between men and women in terms of exploitation, as a form of organisation of a share of production patriarchy has long ceased its function: what remained of it has been overtaken by capitalism. The process has been anything but linear. On the one hand, capitalism has broken economic ties based on patriarchy, on the other, however, it has conserved and used patriarchal power relations and ideology in many ways. It has broken up the family as a productive unit, but it has used the latter and transformed it profoundly to ensure the task of reproducing the labour force for it gets done. Here patriarchal power relations have played their part: capitalism needed to offload reproductive tasks onto the family – and subordination of women guaranteed the outcome – aggravating the burden on women and the oppressive relations between men and women. Recognizing that in this context men, including working-class men, enjoyed and continue to enjoy a relative benefit from gender oppression does not mean viewing men as an exploiter class, but understanding the complexity with which capitalism integrates and employs pre-capitalist power relations to create hierarchies of exploited and oppressed, digging trenches and raising barriers. The same applies to the relationship between women and work, a question that has become central with the continual growth in female employment and which also raises the need for deepening the theory of sexual division of labour that does not concentrate only or above all on reproductive labour. Race and gender have been and continue to be powerful instruments in the division of labour. “Feminization of labour” has a dual meaning at the least. That women take an ever-greater part in productive labour, a fact that cannot help but modify their condition and the forms that oppression takes. But also that the use of a female labour force plays an essential role from capital’s standpoint as it has done in the past: it is used to deskill productive sectors and lower labour costs, to worsen working conditions and implement casualised work. Once again, understanding how this is possible is impossible without reference to the fundamental role of patriarchal ideology and patriarchal power relations. This is a role that not only moves towards an implicit or explicit devaluation of female labour, invariably viewed as secondary, as an adjunct to male labour, but which has effects and creates problems also in terms of class subjectivity, often making it more difficult for women to mobilize and speak out. Underevaluating or not dealing with the interweave of economic conditions and cultural and ideological oppressions entails the risk of losing sight of the complexity the task of building a new workers’ movement of men and women alike will increasingly confront, faced with an ever more female working class. Feminism has developed instruments essential to the understanding of gender reality, how it functions and its mechanisms. In its contradictory relationship with psychoanalysis, nevertheless it has shed light on the psychological component of women’s oppression and on the role of the family and family relations as an essential locus for reproducing sexual division of roles, of the construction of gender and the consolidation and perpetuation of normative heterosexuality. Fully assuming these aspects does not necessarily mean abandoning a materialist approach to go back to the “clouds of idealism”. Rather, it means grasping the way patriarchal power is internalized, even by women themselves, acting on a level that is not economic, and in such this internalization also has decisive effects from a political standpoint. Anyone who has an experience of political activism has seen up close the problems women have speaking out, voicing their initiative, becoming politicized, as they are crushed between interiorized gender oppression and the doubt in one’s abilities this entails and how oppression mechanisms come into play in power relations on the part of male members of their organizations. Disregarding these elements not only does a disservice to women, it also does a disservice to Marxism and to a political project aimed at radical transformation of society. Developing an outlook that can make sense of intersections and decipher the complex relationship between patriarchal holdovers that drift like spirits with no more home in the globalized capitalist world and patriarchal structures that, on the contrary, have been integrated, used and transformed by capitalism calls for a renewal of Marxism capable of going beyond counterpoising cultural and economic, material and ideological categories. A political project aiming to rebuild a new workers’ movement requires serious reflection on how gender and race influence the composition of the labour force as in terms of processes of developing subjectivity. Moreover, it also means an end to the contest over primary oppression. The point is not whether class comes before gender or gender before class, the point is rather how gender and class intertwine in capitalist production and power relations to give rise to a complex reality, and it makes little sense and is not very useful to attempt to reduce these to a simple formula. And also how these can become components of a political project able to take action on the difficult limits of the temptation of mashing the two realities together and making gender a class or class a gender and the temptation to pulverize relations, power and exploitative relations to see nothing but a series of single oppressions lined up beside each other and reluctant to understand these within a comprehensive liberation project.


Extract from the code of conduct of the ICS (Indian Section of the Fourth International)

Apart from the aforementioned considerations, we now need to lay down certain additional conditions. A person is deemed to be a revolutionary not only by the political beliefs that he/she adheres to, but also by the "personal" life that he/she has. A comrade might be a staunch supporter of the Party's position on "Women". And yet, in his personal life he might be extremely opressive as far as his relations with his wife are concerned. Should we remain silent spectators to this and satisfy ourselves with the fact that at least his "public" image is in consonance with that of the Party position? In so far as his relations with his wife, daughter and women comrades are concerned, it becomes as much a partu concern as his political beliefs.
And it needs to be openly discussed in the Party even at the cost of alienating the comrade. A comrade's political image cannot be different from his/her personal life. There arte certain comrades who have extremely conservative and traditional views regarding women, and yet may go along with the majority position for fear of being branded "conservative". Beliefs which have become ingrained over a period of years might be difficult to charge. Yet, it does not mean that the question should not be discussed. It becomes even more imperative that we bring these problems, however, "minor", into the open and thrash them out .
Similarly, a comrade might publicly oppose any form of communalism/casteism, and yet in his/her personal relations with either comrades or persons outside the Party he/she might adopt a communalist or casteistattitude. A singular communalist and/or casteist incident on the part of the comrade may recessitate that strict action be taken. It cannot be taken lightly and must be discussed in the Party, and if it is a serious incident it might even necessitate the expulsion of the comrade concerned . As far as Religion is concerned we might be strong believers in atheism, yet practically spaking, we might be faced with a real contradiction in wh at we believe in and what actually happens. A worker whom we recruit, for example, might be a militant and yet in his/her personal life might be extremely religious. Should we recruit the worker or should we first ask him/her to shed his/her religious beliefs before recruiting him/her?
A worker will lose his/her faith in religion only through his/her practical experience and no amount of lecturing will ever change views which have been embedded since childhood. Our approach instead should be that we should take up and discuss these issues and other similar issues which are closely interwo ven with the personal lives of new recruits and comrades.


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