Capitalism and Patriarchy: Two Systems that Feed off Each Other

7 July 2020 by Christine Vanden Daelen , Camille Bruneau

In other articles, we have seen that patriarchy, a social order based on the holding of power and privileges by men, is not a fatality but a socially constructed reality, so powerful that it constitutes a way of thinking deeply rooted in our cultures, ordinary reflexes and institutions. Violence, discourse and stereotypes naturalize and justify unequal gender relations in the face of justice, at work and in everyday life. The sexual division of labour, whether salaried or domestic, is one of the bases for the construction of gender identities that force individuals to correspond to pre-established roles that hinder all perspectives of freedom and real equality. This is why it is illusory to believe that gender equality will be achieved through rights and reforms, however progressive they may be. Only a systemic change accompanied by a profound change in mentalities will put an end to the internalization of women’s inferiority serving patriarchal logics. It is not equality between “men” and “women” that must be defended above all, but rather equality between each person, which necessarily involves an understanding and deconstruction of gender identities, but also of their interrelationships with other social relations, race, class, North-South, and a fundamental questioning of power structures. Feminists have understood this! In addition to their struggle against sexism and patriarchy, many of them are opposed to another equally internalized and naturalized system of domination: capitalism.

The oppression of women is ancient and has manifested itself in different ways over the centuries. It is one thing to see this, it is another to ask how, when it is so deeply unnatural, it has been maintained.

Having previously identified the socialization and naturalization of inequalities, we now look at the influence of capitalism. Although patriarchy pre-existed it - many societies were already characterized by a sexual division of labour, gender-based violence, or gender norms often privileging the male - the specific contribution of capitalism was undoubtedly the institutionalization of the devaluation Devaluation A lowering of the exchange rate of one currency as regards others. of women and their work. The devalued or even unpaid domestic work, the concept of the “housewife” that accompanies it, as well as professional segregation, have their origins in the era when capitalism gradually replaced the medieval feudal system. They are thus not, as we often hear, the remnants of a dark and barbaric medieval era, but rather constitutive of the first phase of capitalist accumulation which, as we shall see, led to a phenomenal regression in the status of women.

The role and image of women is historically transformed in relation to the economic developments that have prevailed, particularly in Western Europe, the cradle of capitalism and so-called human rights. Through economic and social transformations, capitalism and patriarchy end up reinforcing each other. Capitalism is not the only factor, but by establishing unequal social relations (as a consequence but also as a condition for its existence), capitalism explicitly serves patriarchy by facilitating the oppression of women. Patriarchy, on the other hand, is useful to capitalism as it provides a devalued population from which it will be able to derive maximum benefit.

The first considers gender and sex relations as constituting an autonomous system and that the same applies to race or class relations. Since patriarchy preceded capitalism and persisted during it, it would therefore reproduce itself independently. However, this hypothesis does not exclude the possibility that the two systems influence each other: capitalism is sometimes useful to patriarchy and vice versa. This theoretical current influenced by Marxism tends to analyze the oppression of women according to the same methodology as class oppression: it defines women as composing a patriarchal class exploited by the dominant class of men appropriating their surplus labour. Despite the importance of Christine Delphy’s reflections developed in the book The Main Enemy - Political Economy of Patriarchy which demonstrate that all women, regardless of their status, are victims of oppression, this analysis minimizes the importance of other dynamics and is insufficiently based on a more economic analysis of domination. According to this logic, it could be argued that the housewife of an immigrant worker would belong to the same class as Silvio Berlusconi’s ex-wife, Veronica Lario. Proponents of this hypothesis consider the anti-patriarchal struggle to be predominant: there must be greater solidarity among all women than between men and women of the working class. As Cinzia Arruzza claims, we believe it is necessary to add capitalism to the equation. Not all members of the same “patriarchal class” live the same realities and oppressions and are therefore not immediately in solidarity with each other. One cannot compare the experience of immigrant (working class) women with that of wealthy women, as the latter can exploit the former. Thinking only of the gender class (even if it does exist) while ignoring the socio-economic aspects inherent in capitalism blurs the understanding of patriarchy as it is and ? actually helps to its perpetuation?

The second hypothesis, embodied in the neoliberal discourse, sees capitalism as indifferent to patriarchy, having even eroded it: thanks to capitalism, they claim, women have experienced a degree of liberation through access to salaried work, credit, consumption, etc... For these theorists (generally represented by liberal feminists), capitalism could do without gender oppression because the market is indifferent to the identity of workers. Yet it is obvious that capitalism benefits from reproductive services performed by women. It also benefits from the fact that part of the population is devalued (and therefore more flexible, less paid). This theory implies that capitalism is not only be independent of patriarchy, but even to be glorified when it comes to gender equality! To consider patriarchy as a residue eroding in contact with capitalism is a fundamental error, highly detrimental to any dynamics of women’s emancipation, as we see in this section.

The third hypothesis, which we support, argues that patriarchy cannot be regarded as an independent system. Women and feminists in the colonies understood this well through the various structural and physical violence they faced, whereas very few Western feminists were just beginning to address the issue. Cinzia Arruzza insists "on the need to consider capitalism not as a set of purely economic laws and mechanisms, but rather as a complex and articulated social order that contains within it relations of exploitation, domination and alienation. From this point of view, the attempt is to understand how capitalist accumulation continues to produce, reproduce, transform, renew and maintain relations of hierarchy and oppression. It is a question of analyzing and understanding gender oppressions in a comprehensive way, without turning a blind eye to the diversity of mechanisms that participate in them, and avoiding falling into simplifications that would exclude certain realities.

 An historic alliance

In the forthcoming book on debt and feminism, we will devote a whole section to deconstructing historical myths about the place of women. We see how the devaluation of women is not a coincidence of history - the time when their position changed coincided with the commodification of the world. The advance of capitalism has profoundly transformed their role within family and society while modifying and amplifying their oppression. Many of the discourses and stereotypes explored above have their origins in the historical stages of capitalism. At the same time as capitalism was taking root at the expense of the feudal system - where sex and gender were not the first criteria for discrimination - a wave of expropriation, privatization and monetarization of life laid the essential foundations of male domination as we know it today. By accentuating the worst features of already existing marginalization and thus formalizing a status of “inferior” to a number of activities, capitalist accumulation formalizes the separation between so-called productive and reproductive work. Domestic work becomes a woman’s affair, a private affair, cut off from the collective, from remuneration, from social recognition. Yet it is necessary and essential to life, to well-being, to the reproduction of social conditions... and ultimately to capitalism. The elites have understood this: the idealization of the housewife and the persecution of all the others are proof of this.

The devaluation of women and their work - in the broadest sense of the word - in the same way as colonial expansion, the plundering of resources or slavery, is thus not simply a consequence but a condition for capitalist expansion. This is not to say that capitalism by definition needs gender oppression in order to reproduce itself, but we can see that it has never existed without gender oppression. Capitalism and patriarchy are therefore today simply inseparable: the former establishes social relations that facilitate the exploitation of women, the latter provides the justifications for it.

Capitalism in its current form is thus structurally patriarchal: it fundamentally needs the appropriation of women (of their work, their bodies, their knowledge, etc.), but also of other groups categorized as inferior during the great moments of capitalist expansion (nature, animals, racialized people, etc.), in order to make profits and therefore to reproduce.

This system is extremely dynamic and opportunistic, capable of adapting, finding gaps and new opportunities for profit Profit The positive gain yielded from a company’s activity. Net profit is profit after tax. Distributable profit is the part of the net profit which can be distributed to the shareholders. . Crises feed it; current social relations are opportunities for commodification and profits. In essence, capitalism will never be able to contribute to a reduction of inequalities. It is therefore completely illusory to believe that gender inequalities can be fought without fighting capitalism and other social relations that are intimately linked to it such as racism and extractivism. They are consubstantial and clearly manifest themselves in the current realities of women’s work.

Christine Vanden Daelen

chercheuse en sciences politique

Other articles in English by Christine Vanden Daelen (4)



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