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Men, feminism and the patriarchal con


12:01 am - April 18th 2009

by Laurie Penny    


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In recent weeks, I’ve faced a lot of accusations of misandry for daring to point out that some bad things that happen are perpetrated almost exclusively by men, and for having the temerity to suggest that in some situations women get a raw deal simply because of their biological sex. I thought I’d respond to the critics with a few reasons why feminism and misandry are not synonymous, and why male and female feminists need to work together to break tired economic models of gender.

As feminists, the liberation of the y-chromosomed half of the human race has never been high on our list of priorities – historically speaking, we’ve had enough to worry about. However, it’s high time that we started a serious recruitment drive. Although the feminist movement has faced many obstacles and lost many battles, women have now won themselves enough social and economic capital that we can finally start to address the other half of the equation: the emancipation of men from capitalist patriarchy.

There are many urgent reasons why socialist feminists of all genders need to concern themselves with popular misandry and the subjugation of men, especially when we’re facing down the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. A recession is never a good time for women’s rights. Economic crisis moves economic equality from the agenda, and a great deal of women’s struggle in and out of the workplace revolves around the battle for equal economic status. Cuts to welfare benefits and part-time employment hit women with children hardest.

But most importantly of all, any recession creates a large body of justly angry, disenfranchised working men, men who are encouraged implicitly and sometimes explicitly to take that anger out where it will do least damage to capitalist hegemony: to whit, on women. It is a well-known and oft-repeated fact that domestic violence against women increases in times of economic crisis, usually, as is the case now, contiguously with a cut in state spending on women’s refuges. But another backlash against feminism itself is also to be expected – and as feminists, the fallacy that the problems that men face in a recession are the fault of feminism is something that we need to turn and face.

There is a very real crisis in masculinity occurring under late industrial capitalism, and the current economic downturn is exacerbating its symptoms: a residual lack of socialised identity for men outside the workplace is conspiring with rising unemployment and a lack of meaningful work in the middle tiers of the service and information economies to create a timebomb of mental ill health amongst working-age men, whose suicide rate is quadruple that of women and rising. Before women’s liberation, the status of head of the household and breadwinner was one of the few arenas in which disenfranchised men could wield influence.

However, the necessary erosion of men’s domination of the family and the movement of many women into the workplace has not been balanced by a commensurate sharing of the responsibilities of childcare and a liberation of men from mandatory drudgery, drudgery which is still too often phrased as payment for the disappearing right to patriarchal power within the confines of the home. As traditional masculinity continues to collapse, the once-valued ‘masculine’ attributes of craft, loyalty, strength, emotional resilience and capacity to physically defend people and property are no longer honoured and rarely rewarded. Feminism has worked hard to challenge the capitalist narrative of mandatory female domesticity – it must now work to challenge the capitalist cultural narrative in which the ideal male is an emotionless, efficient worker drone. The ‘working stiff’ is as damaging a stereotype as the angel, in the house and feminists must be the first to challenge it.

Men, too, are victims of a patriarchal con, a con which is intimately entangled with the machinations of capitalism. Working class men, young men, disabled men and men from racial and ethnic minorities are cheated most cruelly by this con. Raised, like all boys, to believe that they will inherit the earth if they behave in specific power-seeking, violent and rigidly heteronormative ways, as these men grow up they realise that they have been tricked into a set of behaviours that serve ends other than their own. Those whose ends are served are the same patriarchs whose ends are served by women behaving in gender-codified ways under capitalism. A great deal of men of all classes become justly angry at this treatment, and this anger escalates in times of recession, where the inbuilt inequalities in this economic equation are emphasised by inflation and rising unemployment.

This has been the problem with no name, for generations of men. Unfortunately, as prices and tempers rise, the anger of men is already being misdirected at women, and specifically at feminists, rather than at the more numinous industrial-capitalist socialisation model. In her seminal work Stiffed: the Betrayal of the Modern Man, Pulitzer-prize winning feminist journalist Susan Faludi explains that:

‘What women are challenging is something everyone can see. Men’s grievances, by contrast seem hyperbolic, almost hysterical; so many men seem to be doing battle with phantoms and witches that exist only in their own overheated imaginations. Women see men as guarding the fort, so they don’t see how the culture shapes men. Men don’t see how they are influenced by the culture either; in fact, they prefer not to. If they did, they would have to let go of the illusion of control.’

The misdirection of the valid anger of working men against the women who should be their allies has been one of the greatest coups of late-20th century capitalism. And unfortunately, the evidence of a new backlash against feminism, founded on the idea that women are depriving men of jobs, opportunities, dignity and status, is mounting both online, where the feminist resurgence of the 21st century began, and in the meatspace. The irony, of course, is that for a great many disenfranchised men feminism could be the solution, not the problem.

The great joke of the industrial capitalist model of masculinity is that in any given society millions of men fall automatically outside its boundaries: effeminate men, homosexual, bisexual and transsexual men, men with mental, physical and learning disabilities, men whose skill is in academia and learning, sensitive men, short men, very elderly men, young boys. However, all men, like all women, are worked over by outdated models of masculinity and femininity – and we must not allow men’s anger at the erosion of traditional masculinity to prevent them becoming allies in the struggle for personal fulfilment for all.

In a world they supposedly own and run, men are at the mercy of cultural forces that disfigure their lives and destroy their chance at happiness. If we are to face down the coming crisis as a society, we will need to stand together against the adversarial gender models handed down to us – and realise that the real cause of social disenfranchisement is bigger than gender. Under industrial capitalism, men and women share a common enemy: we must not let that enemy divide and conquer us any longer.

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About the author
Laurie Penny is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a journalist, blogger and feminist activist. She is Features Assistant at the Morning Star, and blogs at Penny Red and for Red Pepper magazine.
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Reader comments


In a wierd instance of synchonicity, I bought Faludi’s book whilst trawling an Oxfam in the Lake District about 12 days ago. Didn’t bother much with it whilst I was on holiday (I had cider to drink), but since coming home I’ve found that it’s a magnificent read, and certainly the most compelling document I’ve found for why feminism is important to – and can help – men.

Thanks for this, Laurie.

2. Shatterface

It’s not the view that society is sexist most men take issue with, it’s the concept of ‘patriarchy’ (the ‘Law of the Father’) with its risible psychoanalytical connotations and the fact that it ‘explains’ everything and therefore nothing.

Faludi’s work exemplifies this: according to Backlash feminism was attacked because of the successes of Reaganomics and American dominance on the world, yet in her book about America post 9-11 America’s loss of dominance has lead to the same result. The fact that she constantly ‘illustrates’ this with references to John Ford’s 1950’s Western, The Searchers, just shows how out of date she is.

Also the hitching of ‘patriarchy’ to Marxism to produce ‘patriarchal capitalism’ effectively reduces an economic critique which still has SOME value, to steam-aged fairy tales about perpetual cycles of Oedipal conflicts which have no value whatsoever. You have a Theory of Everything on the demented dribblings of a 19th C coke-fiend and his post-structuralist translators.

If feminism can save men folk from one day (metrosexual’s have a lot to answer for) having to buy insane amounts of comestic crap I’m all for it.

This article is pretty much why I’m a feminist.

@Shatterface:

It’s a little simplistic to dismiss the concept of patriarchy as ‘risible psychoanalysis’. It is descriptive of the historically pervasive situation of male rule at all levels in society, in which women’s liberty is safely consigned to well controlled social bubbles. Just as dictatorships are also bad for dictators, patriarchy is bad for men — in both situations, those in power are unable to be themselves. Is it no wonder that many men find themselves uncomfortable in social situations, and our TV ads portray us as bumbling clowns.

Yes Yes Yes!!

As a a man and a feminist I absolutely concur.

(although it is worth pointing out that men don’t ‘rule’ in capitalism – they are as much slaves of a system run by a few men).

Obviously there is no difference in the gender roles to be performed by men and women in a socialist society as natural reproduction will no longer be permitted.

If capitalism equates to biology, then, yes, we are slaves to our bodies.

And it is a good thing too – far better to be a slave to something real, than to be a slave to an idea.

I suspect the biggest obstacle to a radical feminist movement is the fact that many women in high-flying careers who have money and influence just don’t care. Start talking about the “patriarchy” and they’ll pick up the phone to the lunatic asylum.

8. Shatterface

Gareth (4): No it’s not ‘simplistic’ to dismiss ‘patriarchy’ as being based on ‘risible psychoalysis’ any more than it would be ‘simplistic’ to dismiss the equally bonkers ‘Marxism’ of Althusser.

Few here will argue that society remains – to some extent – sexist or that this also has negative consequences on men but that is different from swallowing the idea that sexual (or economic) inequalities reproduce themselves according to a psychodynamic model laughed out of the psychology departments in the 60’s and which found refuge in departments for gender, cultural and literary studies.

And you also dodged my charge that it is inferential, drawing ‘evidence’ of it’s eternal truths by a process which is little more than free association so that absolutely any situation can be used as ‘proof’: Women denied the right to work? Must be patriarchy. Women forced to earn a living? Patriarchy. Women forced to cover their bodies from head to foot? Patriarchy. Lapdance clubs? Patriarchy.

‘Patriarchy’ is irrefutable: the more contrary the evidence is, the more this ‘proves’ how devious and all-pervasive the system is. These forms of arguement are symptomatic of psychoanalysis where any evidence the subject supplies will merely ‘prove’ the narrative the analysis the analyst has already plucked out of his arse.

Radical feminism has also been astonishingly gullible where other forms of psychobable have been concerned (such as ‘recovered memories and ‘multiple personality disorders’) or, indeed conspiracy theories (ritual satanic abuse).

Just because we can recognize sexism in society doesn’t mean we should accept quack diagnoses.

“the emancipation of men from capitalist patriarchy.”

Giggles.

Capitalism is the only economic system which has ever produced a surplus large enough for the majority to actually choose how to live their lives.

This is something we need emancipation from?

‘Capitalism is the only economic system which has ever produced a surplus large enough for the majority to actually choose how to live their lives’

And Liberterians wonder why no-one on the Left takes them seriously . . . .

11. Laurie Penny

The Digger – ta!

‘although it is worth pointing out that men don’t ‘rule’ in capitalism – they are as much slaves of a system run by a few men’

I had hoped this would come across in the article, but I did have to cut a few paragraphs for space. You’re absolutely right. Under capitalism (as, indeed, under feudalism) it’s not all men who rule, but a tiny tiny handful. Men are trained to hate and fear other men who rank above or significantly below them in terms of social status – and hence, a lot of misandry actually does come from other men. A system of constant masculised competition turns men against each other just as surely as it keeps women apart.

12. Laurie Penny

@6 – thomas, I don’t understand why we need to be slaves to anything?

If we are to face down the coming crisis as a society, we will need to stand together against the adversarial gender models handed down to us – and realise that the real cause of social disenfranchisement is bigger than gender. Under industrial capitalism, men and women share a common enemy: we must not let that enemy divide and conquer us any longer.

Oh all right Laurie. I give up.

Pass me the pinny and the make up and we’ll bring the capitalist system to its knees.

Do you really believe this sort of stuff?

14. Laurie Penny

If you really want a pinny and make up, I suggest you visit London’s ‘transformations’ store, or, yknow, Boots. This is not about enforced feminisation or emasculation, but about fighting emasculation.

Hmm. I’m just not feeling it. I mean, I don’t feel particularly oppressed and I’m fairly sure that I’m not oppressing anyone else. I’m pretty relaxed about myself generally; to the extent that I have any anxieties these relate to the fact that life is inevitably too short to do all of the things that I want to do, and the world too big and inflexible to make way for my every whim. But these are things that one can come to an acceptance of, which I imagine I will do over time.

Maybe it’s the language or something, but try as I might I can’t really grasp hold of a sense of oppression. Yeah, I’ve certainly encountered plenty of men who thought it was in some way impressive to try to physically intimidate me or belittle me over the years, and the best strategy I’ve found for dealing with them is to ignore them. I suppose I would explain this by saying that I just don’t feel that I have to care about the opinions of idiots. My best stab at empathy with the position described in the post is that it assumes that I ought to care. I’d be interested to know more though, perhaps I’m missing something.

You know, just because capitalism and patriarchy grew-up together does not mean they are related. I do not see what stops there from being a capitalist matriarchy, all we’d need is a time-machine and a wicked sense of humour.

I’m new to this, are you using capitalism and socialism as substitutes for ‘hierarchy’ and ‘egalitarian’, or do you really believe that there is something fundamentally, um, biological, about how our economy is run? Please forgive my ignorance on this.

Anyway, just what is ‘Socialist Feminism’ and why is it so incompatible with capitalism? Capitalism itself is just a method of organising the economy, it can be linked with both oppression and liberty, why do you believe that it cannot be changed or used to further your aims?

Besides, all you’ve done it list grievances, what do you propose should be done about your problems?

Laurie@12
if that is the case why do you keep going on about it?

The kind of oppression you are talking about is self-imposed – either you choose to be oppressed or you choose to rise above it.

Try concentrating on some positive alternatives for a change – the problems with the world are just too many and too varied, so stick to what can be done.

Liberate thyself and the rest will follow your example.

BE the difference you seek.

‘Capitalism is the only economic system which has ever produced a surplus large enough for the majority to actually choose how to live their lives’

And Liberterians wonder why no-one on the Left takes them seriously . . . .

– well we do hate to go about it but as long as everyone choose to ignore or deny the historical evidence: http://tomgpalmer.com/2008/12/14/liberty-as-the-remedy-to-poverty-socialism-as-a-cause/

Also funny how these sort of account also refer to “late Wester capitalism”. How many decades have they been using that description? They’ve been convinced it has been just about to end for a century!

***

I general, I find this post interesting and yet, at the same time, surprisingly conservative, even within continental philosophy from which this sort of theory has emerged. This sort of hyper-structuralism has proved not really tenable even on its own terms. Foucault argues how power relationships are undetermined by the structure of societies, and that many of them are contingent, but can carry on because power is productive of itself. It would be perfectly possible for Western societies to have a different understanding of gender relations or sexuality and still function, in other ways, in a similar way.

According to Bourdieu, an awful lot of power relations are not even consistent with themselves, with forms of power varying from context to context (e.g. private to public) and a reliance on ad hoc explanations for their existence, difference and purpose. There is no overarching structure defining our relationships, just a number of fields of action with limits placed on individual actions by their own dispositions and those of others (actually not a bad description of opprobrium within the libertarian account of social relations).

It just seems that feminism was the last off the boat when it come to classical marxism, and now it is taking its time to leave these structuralist accounts, which never seem very convincing because everyone just goes “well that is all well and good, but its not how I see my relationships”. These argument need to make more room for diversity in terms of individual behaviour and relations because the world is just so much more complicated than they can account for.

19. Shatterface

Troika21(16): But capitalim an ‘patriarchy’ DIDN’T develop together: the concept of ‘patriarchy’ can encompass every society which has ever existed, anywhere. Where the slave-based ecinomies of the classical world anything other than ’emasculating’ – literally so in many cases? How about Feudalism? Was the Soviet Union a feminist utopia? How about the avowedly ‘anti-capitalist’ theocracies of the Middle East?

By compasison to ANY of these capitalism is a triumph for women.

As a concept ‘patriarchy’ is so universal as to be meaningless.

And Laurie still hasn’t answered my charge that radical feminism is essentially a post-structural strain of psychoanalysis clinging to a pseudo-Marxist theory like a genital wart.

radical feminism is essentially a post-structural strain of psychoanalysis clinging to a pseudo-Marxist theory like a genital wart.

I agree. I think….

And even if I don’t you get the simile of the week award. Congratulations.

I think I agree with Shatterface about patriarchy: it’s not that I disagree with you about the need for both men and women to combat discrimination and work for a better society for us all. I agree with you. But I think theories like “patriarchy” aren’t helpful. I think Shatterface’s comment 8 about its inferential nature is very well put, and pretty devastating, really.

What I’m more concerned about, though, is that you talk about capitalism as though you want it to be replaced by some other, entirely different economic model of society. If that’s the kind of socialism you want, it worries me: it’s been tried, it didn’t work and it caused large-scale misery. I find it difficult to believe that young lefty feminists in 2009 can buy in to an ideology that was utterly discredited last century!

Liberal democracy in open, market societies offers by far the best platform for achieving social reform, equality and sex equality, doesn’t it?

argggh!

Sorry, but every time someone says “replacing capitalism’s been tried and didn’t work” [ergo capitalism is the end point of history], I automatically discount everything else they say.

I tried replacing my diet of meat and no vegetables with a diet of rusted iron and petroleum. It didn’t work – turns out it was even less healthy. So I won’t try replacing it with a balanced diet including fruit and veg in case that makes me ill too.

[ergo capitalism is the end point of history]

OK, you go off and design that new economy. Have fun, prove it works and then when you have perhaps we’ll think about following you.

Until you have proved it of course, you might want to understand our hesitance.

Tim f – thats why libertarians aren’t called “capitalists” but “libertarians”. We think it is absolutely fine for you to try something new and experiment, and to gather as many like minded fellows as you like. If it works wonderful (e.g. those Israeli kibbutz, for a little while anyway). Just don’t force others to try something untested.

Tim F, decent point, but I do sometimes say sensible things so please don’t discount me by 100%! I agree with you about gradually improving our diet, or the world. I don’t believe in “the end of history”, or any aspect of Marxism, and I’m not saying society as it is is perfect. But I think experience shows us, as Tim W is arguing, that a market economy is the best system we have evolved for distributing resources reasonably an satisfying our needs, so I’m not in favour of any plan to abolish private enterprise, money, property or anything like that.

Nor do I want dramatic change to any new scheme of society. If you want gradual change by means of what Popper would call “piecemeal social engineering” – gradually better laws and policies on things like health and safety, pensions, welfare, housing and so on – then I’m with you. What I fear when people talk about replacing capitalism though is that they want what he calls “utopian social engineering” – revolution to install someone’s grand plan. If there is a radically better model of society then it’ll evolve gradually as a result of small changes. We’re not in “late capitalism” which is about to break because of some crisis.

To go back to your original analogy: I think talking about replacing capitalism is less like improving your diet, more like developing an unhealthy relationship with food and wanting an “alternative” involving fasting, dieting and detox… Incidentally, and not wholly flippantly, I think our diet is gradually getting better – in spite of junk food. And I remember what beer and sausages in the GDR were like compared to those in West Germany.

Do you think that’s how capitalism came about? A few people tried it on their own (whilst exercising no coercive force over their employees in any sense), then everyone else liked the idea and joined in?

Besides, I’m not a “revolution’s a-comin’ this Sunday” kind of socialist. I’m not claiming that I have all the answers, that I know how to replace capitalism or the exact forms that a post-capitalist society would take. (I think ideas come out of struggle, though, so without challenging capitalism we’ll never know how to replace it.) All I’m saying here is the fact that replacing capitalism with totalitarian dictatorship [albeit a slightly more redistributive dictatorship than most dictatorships] didn’t work doesn’t mean that it can’t be replaced at all.

I’m sure there were people in the 18th century saying that feudalism was the end point of history because absolutism didn’t work.

My last comment was a response to Nick.

I agree with Carl that we’re not in the last stages of capitalism, and replacing capitalism has to come from below – it can’t be a small elite’s grand plan. I also agree with reformism as a political strategy for achieving meaningful-if-limited change, building a movement and increasing political engagement. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t critique capitalism. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognise it as fundamentally injust and exploitative, or talk about replacing it.

“Do you think that’s how capitalism came about? A few people tried it on their own (whilst exercising no coercive force over their employees in any sense), then everyone else liked the idea and joined in?”

Err, yes actually. A few people got together in pin factories, a Scotchman wrote about it, a few more tried it out and then the system spread out in ripples from its founding point.

You may have noted this. The Midlands and parts of the North of England were the centre of the Industrial Revolution. Other places got rich as they adopted the same organisational structures. Those places which are still poor are those that did not.

I mean you have noted this, haven’t you? That there’s a pretty pbvious concurrence between the adoption of capitalism and the people in that place and time seeing their lives improve? Which is why they adopt it?

That’s a pretty rose-tinted and Anglo-centric view of the development of capitalism.

I’m happy to concede that capitalism is a better than slave-based or feudal economies. That doesn’t excuse it from the misery it has caused.

Carl Gardner @21 “Liberal democracy in open, market societies offers by far the best platform for achieving social reform, equality and sex equality, doesn’t it?”

Hear hear!

That is all.

Ooh, should also have said, Thomas @17, this is a great comment:

“BE the difference you seek.”

Sums up my philosophy 🙂

@Shatterface: Every time I’ve seen the word ‘patriarchy’ it has always seemed to be used to imply a conspiarcy to me, I think its the feminist equivalvent of the grassy knoll.

But as you say. ” ‘patriarchy’ can encompass every society which has ever existed” – which makes my point, most western societies have been run by men long before capitalism entered into it, and they continued to exclude women after it did.

***

I’m told that communist intellectuals, who wrote to promote the idea of a workers paradise, would typically list all the problems that existed within a capitalist system, and would also describe the paradise they planned to build. But when they came to explaining how to get from point A to point B, they could never describe it – simply threw their hands up and declared that there would need to be armed struggle and the workers would decide for themselves.

I thought of this reading the original post and tim f’s (26) recent remarks.

Does it occur to anyone that capitalism can modify itself to adapt to the needs of the public? Working-time Directives, maternity leave and overtime, are some examples, as well as trading standards regulations, are all capitalist responses to problems people have had.

“Liberal democracy in open, market societies offers by far the best platform for achieving social reform, equality and sex equality, doesn’t it?”

Ish, ish.

Best so far, perfectly willing to be open to the idea that there’s a better system yet to be invented. But it would have to be an open market society for us to see that it was, as people tried this new system and proved that it was better, and as people voluntarily adopted the new system on the basis of that evidence.

You know, a market in eonomic systems….rather like the one that we have currrently. I do like noting that John Lewis is a workers’ coop and it survives just fine in a market economy.

No one’s forcing the capitalist mode of organisation upon people now, are they?

Laurie, I’ve just been reading Richard Wilkinson’s “The impact of Inequality” and as a scientist he quotes research on our closest primate cousins which shows that when the the alpha male hits a subordinate male he goes on to hit a lower ranking male who in turn hits an even lower member – quite commonly a female – so there is very good scientific to suggest that the same will be in our species.

Having said that, I wonder if any of these noble theories – liberal, libertarian, communism actually take into account our human nature – biologically speaking? It just seems to me that life is about power as it gives greater access to limited resources

I think we need to work within that framework if anything is to change

35. Charlieman

Laurie Penny: “Men are trained to hate and fear other men who rank above or significantly below them in terms of social status – and hence, a lot of misandry actually does come from other men.”

Really? Is there evidence for this broad claim? If it is true that men hate and fear other men who rank above or significantly below them in terms of social status, is it a genetic condition or caused by social training?

What about the pub or sporting club scenes, where men of mixed backgrounds congregate? It is true that some men have contempt for idlers and envy for those who have succeeded in life. But that is not necessarily misandry (because the same opinions apply to women), and contempt/envy does not equal hatred/fear.

In the worst kind of boss/employee relationship, hatred and fear are elements on both sides, but it is not how men generally conduct themselves in civil society. Note also that in our enlightened times, women can be bosses and oppressors.

36. JustAsking

Laurie – I think the women of Afghanistan…SWAT region of Pakistan and many other countries worldwide deserve more of your valuable attention and writing.

Let’s not feel sorry for men under some hypothetical western ‘patriarchy’ – when Islamic male-dominated cultures around the world are so very oppressive of their women, (and also of their men) – in a very non-hypothetical real-world way.

“Let’s not feel sorry for men under some hypothetical western ‘patriarchy’ – when Islamic male-dominated cultures around the world are so very oppressive of their women, (and also of their men) – in a very non-hypothetical real-world way.”

Yes, and why worry about poverty in Britain? It’s much worse in Somalia…

And why care about authoritarianism? Hell, compared to North Korea this scepter’d isle would make Hayek drool in delight.

And, really, who gives a shit if they’re beaten, mugged and left for death? At least they didn’t die!

38. JustAsking

So Laurie invents a hypothetical oppression, which several people here say they don’t feel exists.

I mention an oppression not untypical of Islamic cultures, that I’d find it hard to imagine anyone here argue is mere hypothesis.

Your point however seems to be that it’s ok to talk about problems in the UK even if they are smaller scale than overseas…. fair enough.

But if the UK problems are merely hypothetical…then you’d maybe agree that it’s time to stop trying to construct something from nothing, and instead give attention to today’s real problems, overseas or not?

Tho’ I guess it’s not a big stretch to say that actually feminism vis-a-vis islamic values is a debate needed within the UK too.

@ Shatterface

Equating feminist theory with psychoanalytical theory is nothing better than anti-feminist spin. There is no way that patriarchy can be construed as a simple figment of feminist imagining. For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary, which cannot be accused of being a radical-feminist mouthpiece, defines patriarchy as “the predominance of men in positions of power and influence in society, with cultural values and norms being seen as favouring men. Freq. with pejorative connotation”. The low ratio of women to men in Parliament, in company boardrooms, religious leadership, the Association of Chief Police Officers or any other social group of significance is a physical representation of real and unimagined patriarchy. The lower mean economic leverage of women is another marker. There are plenty of other obvious signs of patriarchy for which one doesn’t need to be indoctrinated with any form of psychobabble to understand.

@ JustAsking:

It’s convenient to bellyache over the much-reported repressive nature of Islam and use that as an excuse to ignore repression in our own society. One can argue about differing levels of repression, but shouldn’t standing up to repression begin at home?

There is nothing ‘hypothetical’ about patriarchy as indicated in the above response. It is possible that a good few feel quite comfortable under patriarchy as under capitalism. However, I would urge a rejection of such individualism in favour of the common good, a common good that includes women as equal citizens in all decision making.

Gareth, dictionaries define words – they don’t provide authoritative evidence that things exist. The OED also also defines “God” and “unicorn”.

We all agree the discrimination you identify exists – but whether it’s evidence of something called patriarchy is another matter.

@ Carl Gardner

That’s a nice, easy thing to say, but the definitions are qualitatively different. OED says ‘god’ is “a superhuman person who is worshipped as having power over nature and the fortunes of mankind”, and ‘unicorn’ is “a fabulous and legendary animal usually regarded as having the body of a horse with a single horn projecting from its forehead”. I’ll let you decide on the existence or not of superhuman persons and fabulous and legendary animals, but I want to know whether you think that “the predominance of men in positions of power and influence in society” is also such a subjective matter. Feminists, like me, say that this latter thing is visible, lived fact all around us.

I agree, it is. I think you’re doing a rhetorical trick here, though, Gareth. If “patriarchy” is simply a label for sex discrimination and the predominance of men you describe, then okay; we’re simply using different words for the same thing. But I think you mean something beyond the mere fact of discrimination – some force or superstructure of which actual discrimination and inequality are merely instances – or to use your words, representations, markers or signs.

You’re hinting at something lying behind those signs, and then when people like me question that “move” or step, you’re suggesting patriarchy exists by definition and that to deny it is to deny discrimination. So you want it both ways – patriarchy’s a separate underlying force pointed at by social phenomena when it suits you, and simply a label for those same phenomena when that suits. I also think your recourse to the dictionary was a bit like the ontological argument, too: if we can imagine such a thing as patriarchy and define it, then it must exist.

Gosh, this is pretty involved for past 2 a.m.

“The lower mean economic leverage of women is another marker.”

Hmm. Given that women control more than 50% of the wealth of the society (largely through widows inheriting and living longer etc) doesn’t that mean that we’re in a matriarchy?

“doesn’t that mean that we’re in a matriarchy?”

Well, if by ‘we’ you mean yourself and your chum ‘Adam’, who live in Worstallworld.

On our planet the likes of Fred and Alastair and Mervyn and Gordon are all boy’s names.

45. Shatterface

Gareth (39): the definition of ‘patriarchy’ you use amounts to nothing more than saying men generally have more power than women, which nobody will deny.

However radical feminist theory draws heavily on psychoanalytical concepts (notably the theories of Lacan) to explain how ‘patriarchy’ reproduces itself, hence the psychosexual language used: where most of us would use the term ’emasculation’ as a metaphor for powerlessness they genuinely believe it is linked to psychodynamiic processes long dismissed by psychologists; or consider Faludi’s use of the term ‘hysterical men’ which would have met howls of protest if directed at women.

And I see no evidence that men’s rage is directed at women taking their place in the workplace as the major growth in womens’ employment has been in the service sector, traditionally dominated by women, not manufacturing.

1) I understand that references to “industrial capitalism” will always go down well on a left-leaning blog, but I don’t believe the article demonstrates any causal link between “industrial capitalism” and a “patriarchal con”. What is the link?

2) Are we even in “industrial capitalism”? In 2008 industry made up 23% of UK GDP.

3) Even if we accept that we’re under “industrial capitalism”, and we further accept that it has a causal link to the “patriarchal con”, would another economic system necessarily be better? In other words, is it fundamentally impossible to correct the con within a capitalist system?

A lot of people have said a lot of things about capitalism and patriarchy here, and many of them have been stated over and over and over again, so I’m not going to try to relate this to any given one of them.

1. Patriarchy

Two meanings in common usage, one technical, the other political. Patriarchy is an anthropological term describing societies in which property, lineage and social enforcement powers are assigned to males who have children, and limited or withheld from all other categories. This most certainly and absolutely does not apply to every human society ever. To claim it did would both display ignorance of history, and indicate that the claimant genuinely believed that in all cases, regardless of starting conditions, men will end up on top of any society; which seems to me to suggest an arrogant assumption that men are intrinsically more useful than women.

The second meaning has been quoted above. Due to the anthropological terminology (which was, indeed, in part influenced by Lacan) having been adopted by a political movement, and therefore turned into a soundbite, there is now a perfectly good usage of ‘patriarchy’ which means ‘cultures in which men are the politically, socially, economically and legally dominant sex’, or words to that effect.

This is also not universally true of human societies. For a start, not all cultures have property rights at all as the west would recognise them, so the criterion that men should dominate economically falls by the wayside. It is, however, overwhelmingly true of human cultures which do cities.

2. Capitalism

Where did this notion start that ‘industrial capitalism’, ‘free market capitalism’ and ‘capitalism’ are the same thing? If everyone can get their heads around the fact that Marx was wrong about who’d have the next communist revolution, and if people can accept that we have 150 years of hindsight to analyse that Marx didn’t, why can’t people accept that Kapital is not the arbiter of what makes a capitalist system? It was the first analytical attempt to take into account some of what I’m going to talk about below but it was by no means a fully developed or comprehensive historiographical model. It was also written at an era when my discipline was just gaining professional status, considerably later than the hard sciences did. The giants on whose shoulders Marx was standing weren’t very tall compared to the shoulders we can stand on today, including his.

Detailing this stuff properly is far too long for a comment, but; capitalism is any economic system in which it is possible, let alone likely, for accumulations of capital assets to occur. Let me say that again; it’s capitalism, if any force in society is capable of getting its hands on unused wealth which can then be exploited to generate more wealth. Capitalism is what happens if anyone has capital. Hopefully that’s clear enough. [1]

The argument is over how free the market for capital and other assets should be. Statist lefties think it should all be centrally controlled: statist righties think that only people who’re One of Us should be allowed to get any, anti-statist lefties think it should be taken off the rich and given to the poor (how?) and anti-statist righties think it should be taken from the rich and given to them, along with a load of guns (why?). [2]

Yes, any government which taxes is capitalist. The government is attempting to accumulate capital assets which it will then exploit. In practice, most governments these days only have fictional capital which is balanced against debt, but that’s still what they’re about. Capitalism has all kinds of massive advantages as a way of organising your economy. The second argument is about whether those things are a net gain for your society, or whether they promote social enforcement structures which are damaging to those who have to live in it.

If capital and economic success are totally divorced from political and personal autonomy, i.e. when you are not subject to the economics of scarcity, then completely free-market capitalism really is the best idea we’ve yet seen when it comes to creating a positive, autonomy-enabling society. Anyone who’s paying attention can see the problem with believing that this means it is necessarily the best option in all circumstances. As long as a given person having enough of the pie that they can have capital wealth requires many other people to have so little of the pie that they do not have sufficient for their needs, and as long as the system perpetuates capital concentrations beyond the life-span of the accumulator, free-market capitalism is not a good way of organising your society; though variations on it, quasi-free-market capitalisms, are still the best we’ve come up with so far.

The stuff about ‘go found your own economy and get back to us once it’s tested’ is just as ridiculous as the ‘capitalism is evil’ lines. We’re in a planet-sized petrie dish and the time for such experiments is when you’ve got somewhere to go that is completely autonomous, i.e. another planet [3]; which is part of why I’m so committed to the idea that to get human society working properly one of the requirements is getting out of this gravity well.

[1] A note on word use; the reason I say ‘unused wealth’ is that, for example, land in Anglo-Saxon England wasn’t capital. It was only owned if you farmed it, and could be taken off you legally if you didn’t. Therefore, anything unused was not owned; therefore (since capital assets are intrinsically unused) land was not capital under that legal system. Silver, iron, mercenary soldiers, horses and timber were all capital resources, though.

[2] Yes, I’m being facetious.

[3] Though had the US continent not been settled by Puritans and racists [4], we might have had a shot at this kind of thing over there. It was certainly big enough and isolated enough. Imagine if we’d not found the Americas until 1969, when the persecuted group analogous to the Pilgrim Fathers of the seventeenth century were the hippies and the Neo-Pagans.

[4] I make no judgement, merely an observation. The fact that Europe didn’t offer much opportunity for people not to be racists doesn’t change the fact that they were.

Hmm, self-checking:

it’s capitalism, if any force in society is capable of getting its hands on unused wealth which can then be exploited to generate more wealth. Capitalism is what happens if anyone has capital.

And yes, I am aware that this means that Soviet communism was arguably a ‘capitalist’ economy; it was just a planned one. They built up vast stocks of capital assets, including nuclear weapons, many of which were never used. Labelling what happened in Russia ‘communist’ has never been accurate, according to Marx or modern political thinking; but it’s just so damn useful to be able to claim that all non-capitalist systems are intrinsically doomed.

Brilliant, brilliant post. You’ve put so well what I’ve been trying to express but couldn’t find the words for, for years. Thanks! 🙂

“And Laurie still hasn’t answered my charge that radical feminism is essentially a post-structural strain of psychoanalysis clinging to a pseudo-Marxist theory like a genital wart.”

Psst, Shatterface: be a dove and send me an email at icanseethehillsfromhere ((@)) gmail.com, would you?

“Gareth, dictionaries define words – they don’t provide authoritative evidence that things exist. The OED also also defines “God” and “unicorn”.”

My God, Carl, you’re a genius! You’ve laid low his entire argument at one stroke!

Shame about Shatterface’s dumbness, but perhaps he’ll get it after he’s actually read some feminists instead of making vague allusions to summaries he’s read on the Internet.

Funnily enough j, it was reading some actual Dworkin that I lost all hope for radfeminism. That said, a lot of the Third Wavers are a good deal more reasonable. IMO though they still retain vast quantities of self-righteousness (which if you point out just gets them jabbering about “privilege”, as if a culture which has got itself into two World Wars is a great one to be male in…) which is a fantastic thing when that fury is chanelled into punk music (esp. Bikini Kill) but in terms of prose just makes for an eye-ball bruising read.

& there are calmer exceptions, obviously. But even Feministing run a rather forced “Friday Feminist Fuck-you” on YouTube, you know what I mean? There’s something about scheduling your outbursts of rage that just strikes me as a tad…Trite.


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