In this post I want to develop a radical feminist analogy to Marx’s stage-theory of class history. Marx’s account of successive stages (ancient slavery, feudalism, capitalism) has a lot of holes, but it gives one crucial contribution, namely the ability to understand how there can be simultaneously a change (capitalist society is not the same as medieval feudal society) while the crucial facts remain the same (it’s still a society run by an exploitative class in its own interests).
The dominant narrative regarding sexual oppression often seems to be “it went on for thousands of years, then it stopped in the 20th century”. When feminists protest that it hasn’t stopped, it is all too easy for this to come across as a simple adjustment of that story: “it went on for thousands of years, then it lessened in the 20th century.” I want to suggest “it went on in a variety of forms for thousands of years, then it shifted form decisively in the 20th century.”
Now one of the specific things that Marx says about the transition to capitalism is this: that while individual property ownership made some sense in the past, when most of the work that was done was individual, technological progress means that nowadays, property and work are in practice social, involving large numbers of people. Although the legal structure of individual ownership has remained, this co-existence with the fact of socialised labour gives it a new and different character.
To flesh that out with some examples: in the past, you might often be able to come to an area of wilderness and farm it, and reasonably claim that no person apart from you had made any contribution to the crops grown there. Nowadays, crops are grown on industrial farms with extensive use of chemical products. Similarly, in the past many items were made by individuals with their own tools, whereas now those things are made more efficiently on production lines (compare a solitary cobbler in his house with his hammer and nails, and a Nike shoe-factory). The spread of knowledge produced by others, of socialised provision of services, and so forth, all have the same effect. And the resultant property structure reflects this – look at stock markets and Public Limited Companies, government bailouts and nationalised industries. Compare with the way that a feudal aristocrat might own a specific area of land not just for their whole life but for centuries, through their family.
So that’s what Marx says about property in things. I want to suggest the same about property in women. In an earlier post I contrasted two stances both based on the idea that women’s bodies, as inherently sexual and hence objectual, are by nature owned by someone: the ‘prudish’ attitude that wants individual ownership of female bodies by husbands, fathers, or in some cases women themselves, and consequent restriction of access to them (modest clothing, chaste behaviour, not going out to disreputable areas, not going out at all, etc.) and the ‘dudish’ attitude that wants collective ownership of female bodies by the whole of society, expressed by endless titillating sexual availability ‘for the lads’ (prudish vs. dudish is a phrase I found at Rage Against the Man-Chine).
Now as I said, these two exist as dialectical partners – they co-exist and thus strengthen each other by their contrast. But I think there can also be changes in their relative weights. I think in particular that past societies have usually given greater weight and strength to the prudish restrictiveness side, while current western society gives greater weight and strength to the horny ‘get yer tits out’ side. This is, in fact, what I think has happened through the undeniable success of the women’s liberation movement.There has been an internal change from one version of patriarchy to another.
Another way to describe that change would be something like this: it is now explicitly accepted and even encouraged for women to express ‘masculine” traits (strength, competence, decisiveness, control) as long as they compensate by the expression of ‘feminine” traits (beauty, gentleness, nurturingness, delicacy). So we have less problem with women entering work and striving for success – as long as they still raise the children and do the housework. And we are endlessly surrounded by female superheroines, but they all almost without fail are gorgeous, well-endowed, and wearing ridiculously revealing outfits – even when they are meant to be medieval soldiers fighting and wearing armour, that armour still seems to be secondary to showing a bit of skin. This isn’t true without exception, certainly, but I think it is a major shift.
Aaaanyway. To complete the analogy with Marx, I’ll need to talk about how technological changes have powered this internal shift within patriarchy – not to the exclusion of human agency, but including that agency. So here’s five examples of ways that technological progress has made collective ownership of women more efficient than individual:
1) The development of birth control pills, condoms, and other such things meant that a relatively uncontrolled mass of sex no longer had major social consequences in terms of diseases or pregnancy. This meant that controls over who had sex with whom lost whatever function they had derived from that (I’m not entirely sure what function that was, I’m open to developments of analysis here). That one’s fairly obvious really.
2) The development of information technology and advances in printing technology provided the conditions for an explosive expansion of pornography and semi-pornography. Not only is there more actual porn than ever before, more easily available than ever before, but pornographic imagery is widespread in advertising, music videos, entertainment, all throughout the media. This meant that indirect sexual access to women’s bodies could be universalised on an unprecedented scale: where before many men might only have seen one or two naked women in their lives, they will now typically see thousands and thousands. This made a set of social norms that stigmatised sexual access to women’s bodies outside of the tight constraints of marriage stop fitting with people’s experience: although such norms have remained, they no longer have the hold and the influence they had over the majority of people.
3) Connected with this was what we might call the ‘crisis of scarcity’. Capitalistic economics is driven by a gap between what people need and what people have. As standards of living rise, this gap threatens to close: and with it, ‘demand’ dries up. A necessary response is to expand what people need: to manufacture desires and anxieties, so as to sell their satisfaction. The whole apparatus of advertising and consumerism sprang up, and it needed to make use of all available methods that would incite desire. An obvious method is sex: sex sells. Put sexualised images in your adverts for cars, for chocolate, for perfume or alcohol or kitchen roll or whatever – it will usually encourage people to buy. This kind of industrial-scale deployment of objectified women was, again, incompatible with the restriction of such access to ‘only within marriage’.
4) Coming alongside this need to use women to make men spend money is the need to make women spend money: once again, new needs must be created, and for those needs to be useful to the economy they must be backed up with spending power. Individual ownership of women’s bodies got in the way of this: firstly because as long as women were tied to a single man for decades at a time, they weren’t going to worry as much, and struggle as much, to ‘get’ and ‘attract’ that man, they weren’t going to be as desperate to buy clothes, make-up, deodorant, anti-wrinkle creams, plastic surgery, etc. Secondly because individual ownership of women’s bodies usually meant individual male control over women’s spending, and individual men don’t have the same incentives to encourage spending as the collective (principally male-controlled) economy, because they only see the loss of the money, not the gain for the person they give it to.
What this is bringing out is that collective ownership of women gives women more power, in just the same way that a third-world country will usually have more freedom of action if there are multiple competing imperial powers each trying to make it their puppet. By being shared among so many people, the power is dispersed and diffused. At the same time, power brings responsibility, and one example of this is that greater independence of particular men has been accompanied by greater responsibility to not ‘let oneself go’, to ‘look after your body’, which has little to do with health and is principally about attractiveness understood as health, i.e. as the essential virtue of the female body.
5) Accompanying this was technological changes in labour. Labour was no longer strength-intensive, and no longer easy to do in the home in isolation from the rest of society. As housework also became less time-consuming through things like washing machines, this meant that women could be taken out of the home and put to work – for lower pay, of course, with little prospect of high positions of power, but nevertheless out at work. This was now more useful for the power structure than before – but it required a greater degree of independence for women, which was provided by collective rather than individual ownership. This again relates to the fact that what is advantageous for society as a whole is often not advantageous for the individual male owner (husband).
6) Finally, there is the technological progress that has multiplied the means of communication, organisation, and education, and thereby allowed all groups to develop more consciousness of their social position. In the case of women, like in the case of many other groups, this has meant a Women’s Movement, demanding equality and freedom. The shift away from individual ownership towards collective ownership responds to this both by a real concession (individual women have more freedom now than before) and also by a mystification (the social domination of women is now harder to see, harder to identify and attack).
Now the final point of analogy is one where things fall down. Marx predicted that the legal and political structures of society would change to reflect the social nature of production, generating collective control of the economy, the dominance of the working class, socialism, and finally communism. This was going to be good. But that obviously can’t be taken and applied to women. For one thing, it’s not clear whether the current stage of patriarchy would be the analogy of socialism-as-opposed-to-capitalism, with social ownership now legally and politically established, or the analogy of capitalism-as-opposed-to-feudalism, with structures appropriate to individual ownership persisting together with factual conditions of collective ownership. That’s because the analogy isn’t perfect.
More to the point, we can’t simply “look forward to communism”, because the triumph of reason and freedom would not be perfect equality in ownership of female bodies but rather the abolition of women’s bodies as things-to-be-owned. The analogy with Marx doesn’t by itself provide any orientation towards future progress.
Nevertheless, hopefully it provides some illumination of the present: that the feminist movement, in spite of its own nobility and dedication, played the historical role not of abolishing patriarchy but of shifting patriarchy away from restrictive individual ownership-of-women towards fluid and flexible collective ownership-of-women. This movement was able to succeed because technological advances had established the conditions in which women could express themselves as a movement and in which the social power structure was receptive to the change.
PS: This isn’t to suggest that ‘feminism’ is a defunct ideology, any more than ‘egalitarianism’ is a defunct ideology because the French Revolution simply shifted from one sort of inequality to another. Some specific forms of feminism, I think, have revealed themselves as limited – the persistence of patriarchy in the face of equal-right legislation, for example, shows the inadequacy of liberal feminism. But this means simply that feminism must be pushed further and radicalised, just as the vague ‘egalitarianism’ that accompanied the rise of capitalism was pushed further and radicalised by communists.