FEMINISM: BEYOND PATRIARCHY
AN ESSAY BY KOTRAVAI
To politicise the oppressed is to engage them in dialogue, to raise awareness and provide them with the knowledge necessary for them to emancipate themselves and society as a whole. The process of fighting for gender equality is commonly termed feminism. Yet unlike the other freedom movements of caste, race and class, in which the respective populace often agree that they are oppressed, women’s rights movement must contend with dismantling internalized beliefs that women’s subjugation is natural.
Heterosexual and familial relationships often command great social control. The replication of wider gender oppression within these smaller units is rife. Thus women are subjected to a ‘dual-oppression’: one domestic and the other social. This duality leads women to endure intra-antagonisms beyond those experienced by other oppressed groups. Sexism in many heterosexual domestic relationships is so naturalized that many women often dismiss or overlook it. One could even term this situation ‘tamed slavery’. Women are tamed through societal insistence on submissiveness as a desirable feminine trait, a process that privileges men and disempowers women.
Feminist movements have long put forward the theory of patriarchy as a structural method of analyzing gender oppression. The 1980s saw mainstream feminism’s increasing shift from this theory towards the concept of intersectionality. Crenshaw’s theory argues that the systemic oppression of women is multilayered, interrelated, and influenced by intersecting systems of race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity. Yet often missing from this broader analysis of oppression is an acknowledgement of the role of class. This approach allows for greater structural analysis of the present and provides a stronger framework on which a future egalitarian society might be based.
Oppression operates on both ideological and material levels. Gender, race, religion, caste, ability, nationality, sexuality and cultural oppressions have ideological origins while the roots of class oppression are material. Yet in practice both these categories overlap, as ideology cannot be enforced without material effects. Hegemony, the standardization of ruling class norms and the ensuing entrenchment of ruling class power, comes about through lived experience.
Feminism cannot afford to ignore the material conditions that give rise to the spectrum of gender oppression. A blinkered focus only on ideological factors results in too narrow an approach. Casting feminism as an isolated issue belies its strong links with other freedom movements and results in conflicts and hostility with other liberation struggles.
Let me ask this: would the abolition of patriarchy—the male domination structure—lead to the abolition of racial, religious, caste-based, sexuality-based, and ability-based oppression?
No. Not at all. Furthermore, with an atomized approach we cannot identify the root cause of this social discrimination. If we have to choose to eliminate one oppression after the other, it will again have its own consequences and antagonisms. Moreover, when the base is not altered, different variations of hegemony will manifest and emerge again over a period of time.
Oppression, an agent of hegemony, cannot have existed from time immemorial. We therefore need to probe into the historical evolution of the issue. In the case of women, we can see from historical studies that human beings lived in groups, as in communes, and, according to some studies, biological paternity was not considered an important issue. “It was long thought – and it still is believed in certain primitive matriarchal societies – that the father plays no part in conception…”
In a matriarchal society women held higher positions to men, gathered food, went hunting, led the clan and people were not subjected to any form of oppression. We may call it primitive communism. “The communistic household implies the supremacy of women in the house… because of the impossibility of determining the natural father with certainty, signifies high esteem for women…”
A study of the past society reveals that production did not happen for the accumulation of wealth; there were no ‘goods’, there was no money and essentially there was no buying of labour. Subsequently there was also no exploitation and no hegemony. “Production at all former stages of society were essentially collective, and, likewise, consumption took place by the direct distribution of the products within larger or smaller communistic communities.”
Production of ‘things’ is necessary for human survival. It requires the use of raw materials, tools and auxiliary materials. Even if these are all available, production is not going to take place just by placing them next to each other: somebody has to work on it. Therefore, we require labour. We need both the means of production and labour in order to produce ‘things’. Developments in the production process led to division of labour and formation of classes. The conditions that contributed to the growth of the prevailing economic system became the social order of the society. Social scientists have codified various types of society as primitive (more or less communal), slave, feudal and capitalist. We shall deal with capitalist production that currently dominates the world economy and the feminist theory advocated by capitalism.
Under capitalism, production for survival turned into production for accumulation of wealth. Profit is not a natural mandate. It is harnessed by capitalists for accumulation of wealth, for which workers are subjected to ruthless working hours, under brutal working conditions. Marxists call this new value created by excess labour power ‘surplus value’ and this is appropriated by capitalists as profit. This appropriation of surplus value is the basis for the hegemonic social relations and its manifestations.
Karl Marx delineates the division of labour in the earlier modes of production and under capitalism, summarized below:
Under capitalism, division of labour is based on private property and thus the owner–wage labourer relationship that emerges in this system is hierarchical. The labour relationship under capitalism saw the emergence of new mode of compensation for the labourer in the form of wages [money]; things became ‘goods’, means of production became capital, and the exploitative formula was termed ‘profit’. This system of purchasing labour power by the owner of the means of production and the appropriation of surplus as profit is called exploitation of labour. This mode of production and the economic system based on private property is called capitalism.
Let us first briefly analyse social relations and then probe into personal relations at household level, as the division of labour is visible in both.
We as humans have to produce and consume in order to survive. Production is an economic activity, and a determinant of human life. Thus, human beings on both an individual and social level are subjected to product and labour relations. If labour relations are exploitative and unfair, it is very apparent that the resultant social relations will also be exploitative and unfair.
If a mode of production and the resultant hegemonic social order are materially based, limiting the feminist struggle to only patriarchy or any such ideological forms would be deficient. For argument’s sake, if we agree that by eliminating patriarchy we manage to establish gender equality,
- How do we stop war and famine?
- How do we eliminate poverty?
- How do we eliminate the commodification of women’s bodies?
Manmade social order underpinned by unchecked desire for wealth engenders conflicts and it does not allow fair distribution. Karl Marx defines this as class antagonism in relation to property. He categorizes antagonistic groups as: 1) bourgeoisie (who own the means of production and whose source of income is profit), 2) land owners (whose income is rent from tenancy), 3) proletariat (who own labour and sell it for wages).
With an isolated approach on antagonisms and formation of state we appeal to the state to demand political reforms, ignorant of the fact that state is directly and indirectly ruled by those who control the means of production and that the state apparatuses only exist to support the existing hierarchies of power:
“As the state arose from the need to keep class antagonisms in check, but also arose in the thick of the fight between the classes, it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class, which by its means becomes also the politically ruling class, and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class….”
Engels here demonstrates that the state and its legislative, judiciary, and military apparatuses will only work for the benefit of the ruling classes. Constant struggle may yield piecemeal reform. Yet as long as the economic system remains capitalist, we will not achieve equality: the internal logic of capitalism demands divide and rule to ensure a permanent disadvantaged, low-waged underclass.
To those who may argue that this argument is economically deterministic, and that patriarchy and other forms of oppression existed before class conflict arose, this denies the interrelatedness of social and economic disempowerment. Women, people of colour, LGBT folks, and people with disabilities comprise the lowest-paid members of the workforce, while many others are also homebound, drowning in poverty or pushed into sex work because of unemployment.
From the above discussion, it is clear that the evolution of society from communal living, to slavery, feudalism, and capitalism led to the creation of a modern system intent on producing profit and accumulating private property.The laws of commodity production and increase in wealth by those who possess of means of production further reduced any equality between men and women. The family became an economic unit of the society, in which sexual division of labour developed in line with the tools and mode of production. “According to the division of labor then prevailing in the family, the procuring of food and the implements necessary thereto, and therefore, also the ownership of the latter, fell to the man.”
With developments in stages of production, a third division of labour was introduced in which the means of production were plundered and acquired by groups that took no part in production. “Here a class appears for the first time which, without taking part in production, captures the management of production as a whole and economically subjugates the producers to its rule … and exploits them both.” Thus it is clear that working men, the owners of the means of production, were denuded of those means, and were subjugated into slave-labour under feudalism and later as wage-labour under capitalism. “The process, therefore, that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be none other than the process which takes away from the laborer the possession of his means of production; a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage laborers”.
The pursuit of profit by the owners of the means of production established hegemonic dependency through the process of appropriation, enslavement, and institutionalisation of the domesticated women living with the male breadwinners, while increasing the dependency of the breadwinner on the owner of the means of production for their living requirements.
Once again, it becomes evident that economic conditions and the consequent social order form the root cause of enslavement, in this context the enslavement of women, and the consequent ideological-social categorisation. This categorisation—the valuation and devaluation of different categories of labour power—allows for cheap labour and thus for profit accumulation. Further, under manifested power relations as patriarchy and capitalism,Woman, with her reproductive capacity, is devalued as a commodity of labour and is looked upon as a reproductive unit responsible for sustenance of labour power through maintenance of the labourer, as well as the reproduction of new labour power through procreation.
Thus, now that we have examined a root cause, or at least a catalyst, of patriarchy, we must ask, what process will eliminate the hegemony that perpetuates gender discrimination for cheap labour and control over women’s reproductive capacity?
Answer: The end of capitalism—that which appropriated the means of production, that which enslaved us and subjugated us for the sake of attaining wealth, and made us dependent, even for basic survival; that which estranged labour; that which exploits the entire human race irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, and even religion. Capitalism must be overthrown and a new mode of production based upon collective ownership over means of production established.
It is not in my aim to replace feminism with Marxism, yet the Marxist approach aims to liberate far more women than does bourgeois feminism, which is concerned primarily with eliminating patriarchy. The bourgeoisie feminist flock (of any gender and sexuality) that demands economic empowerment based on the female accumulation of private property is not egalitarian. What must be remembered here is that
“The granting of political equality to women does not change the actual balance of power. The proletarian woman ends up in the proletarian, the bourgeois woman in the bourgeois camp. We must not let ourselves be fooled by Socialist trends in the bourgeois women’s movement which last only as long as bourgeois women feel oppressed”.
However, though the bourgeoisie is the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie feminist ideology, the ideology of the ruling class, often influences and embraces all classes of women, including the proletariat. Working class women, ignorant of the self-interested nature of bourgeois politics, are frequently seduced by its ideology and fall into libertarian camps.
It is from this understanding and position of solidarity on humanitarian basis, Marxists express solidarity to all women’s movements:
“.. this movement also contains a more profound spiritual and moral aspect. The bourgeois woman not only demands her own bread but she also requests spiritual nourishment and wants to develop her individuality… The economic as well as the intellectual and moral endeavors of bourgeois women’s rights advocates are completely justified”.
Furthermore, Marx says:
“In short, the communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these Movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time”.
In conclusion, patriarchy, though it may be a quasi-independent, as argued by bourgeoisie, in the present historical condition, it is comprised in or is absorbed by capitalism. Oppression is an exploitative mechanism and thus sex-based oppression is also found in capitalism with the motive providing cheap labour and higher profit. In the Indian context, this is further intensified by caste—another form of division of labour. Thus, patriarchy has become constituent of capitalism. Hence it is obvious that when the exploitation of labour based on private property is abolished and a socialist division of labour is established, patriarchy will also wither away in the state, because under such equitable conditions, relationships between men and women will be more natural, as family will no longer be the economic unity of profit-oriented production.
“Men and women will not be bound together by pre-determined roles and notions of what is or is not ‘natural’, or out of economic necessity. Rather they will be free to enter into relationships which are suited to the emotional needs of the particular individuals concerned”.
It is in this context that Marxist feminists suggest that the feminist struggle should be directed in the line of class struggle, alongside fighting the patriarchy. Such revolutionary struggles will carry the fight for: 1) equal division of household labour, 2) property rights 3) decision-making rights 4) fight for physical, cultural, and economic rights 5) fight for equal social division of labour of all and abolition of private property.
The eruption of the feminist self and of feminist politics if not anchored by class politics, if not brought into dialogue with socialist class struggle, will lose the at the emancipation of proletariat women. So, if feminism intends to be all-encompassing, then socialism is its guiding light. The new type of socialist society following the dictatorship of the Proletariat will not only be gender balanced, but also free of exploitation of labour, thus eliminating the encumbrance and conflicts arising out of dual labour. Such an existence will truly be a higher form of living.
 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Vintage, 1977, pg. 39
 F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Progress Publishers, pg. 49
 F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Progress Publishers, pg 170
 Simplified and generalized for the sake of briefing, natural resources and labour have been included in it, but labour is autonomous.
 Karl Marx explains it in detail in his works.
 F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Progress Publishers, pg 55
 F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Progress Publishers, pg 162
 Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, pg.668
 “Bourgeoisie: Engels described the Bourgeoisie as the class of great Capitalists, who in all developed Countries are now almost exclusively in possession of all the means of Consumption, and of the raw materials and instruments (machines, factories), necessary for their production (Principles of Communism, 1847); and as ‘the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour’…. The Bourgeoisie, as in this sense the Economically dominant class, which also controls the State apparatus and Cultural production, stands in opposition to, and in conflict with, the working class….”, Tom Bottomore, A dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, A Maya Blackwell book, 2nd edition. P. 36.
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, combined edition with Economic and Philosphic Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx, translated by Martin Milligan, Prometheus Books, New York, 1988. P. 243
 F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Progress Publishers, pg. 162
 As defined by Marx and Lenin, Socialism is essentially a transitional stage on the road to communism.
 Being a transitional stage it will be, as called by Marx ‘the higher stage of communist society’, under which the state will wither away, a totally different attitude to work will prevail, and society will be able to inscribe on its banner the motto ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. Tom Bottomore, A dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, A Maya Blackwell book, 2nd edition. P. 500,501.