This post is a continuation of a line of thought I was hashing out here.
It occurred to me recently how the process of economic ‘proletarianisation’, that communists described in the transition from ‘feudalism’ to capitalism, resembles much of what’s happening nowadays in gender relations.
Where previously workers were tied to a specific position, a specific master, a specific trade, and in so doing separated from each other, capitalism ‘freed’ them of every constraint except the most basic one, the compulsion to work. No longer would they be confined and given meaning through their relationship with a particular lord or a particular guild, or separated by their individual work as small farmers of artisans. Instead, they were free to go where they wanted, choose their own job, even in a few cases rise to the upper classes. But this was enabled precisely by the fact that their basic exploitation, their compulsion to work for another’s benefit, could be imposed on them flexibly, across society, independently of their various individual ups and downs.
Correspondingly, women (and men) have largely been freed from the strict compulsion to marry a certain person and stay with them and do nothing else. They can choose who to marry, they can stay single, they can get divorces, they can get a job, they can live with someone of the same sex, etc. This freedom should not be overstated, or falsely universalised across the world. But hopefully we may permit ourselves to look ahead and, like Marx, try to identify current trends that will become more and more determining in the future.
But at the same time there no exist a great wealth of new structures which function to impose the gender binary, and with it sexual oppression, in a manner independent of a personal relationship. Largely these are provided by the media:
-the beauty industry can pump out images to conform to;
-the diet industry can explain how disgusting it is when women let themselves ‘go’;
-pornography can tutor growing men in what sex is really all about;
-unclimbable mountains of consumer goods can be cunningly customised with the colour pink to remind everyone that pink means women and every other colour means normal people men.
Another such structure is the vastly expanded global trade in sex, which, even where it does involve actually kidnapping a raping anyone, often means that the most financially rewarding option for many women is sex work of whatever form. Possibly, though my confidence regarding statistical issues of actual change vs. change in reportage is little, the rape rate may be involved here too – the freedom to do things like go out alone and get drunk with strange men may be providing some men with an ideological excuse to avoid conviction for sexual crimes that would have been rarer and more forcibly repressed when each woman was the cloistered protectorate of some man.
It may be that the new technologies of culture and information provide the conditions for women be ‘liberated’ from individual possession through providing ways to maintain different sexual roles and statuses in a more fluid society – just as the new technologies of industry and manufacturing provided the conditions for male workers to be ‘liberated’ from feudalism into wage-slavery.
But that has a very important consequence. Just as, according to traditional socialist theory, the proletarianisation of the workers laid the groundwork for their self-emancipation, so might this change in the status of women. It did this in two ways: firstly, it brought workers together and provided them with the means to organise themselves and work collectively, and secondly, by freeing them of their mystified bond to a particular master, it allowed them a better chance to see the contours of the overall system to which they were subordinated.
Could the change in gender-roles that we’ve seen over the last couple of centuries do something similar? Traditionally, women have been held back from struggling for their liberation by the fact that, each ensconced within a particular family unit, they are separated from each other and instead of identifying with their shared womanhood, they identify with ‘their’ man. If however they are thrown into social atomisation, indelibly marked with a sexual identity but not enforced into it by any individual, then this impediment is likely to slowly disappear.
The contours of the sexual system, the double standards and prejudiced reactions, can be seen more clearly because they are no longer obscured by one specific particular person; and as they enter into the public sphere, the possibility of organising with those whose experience resembles one’s own becomes ever more real.
The implications are both optimistic and pessimistic. They are optimistic because they suggest that however we might despair at the co-opting of the feminist movement by dudely pornocrats, it is a decisive and definite step taken towards eventual equality.
But they are pessimistic because they suggest that we stand now where Marx stood 150 years ago – observing the new system finding its feet, and realising that only when it has, with all its flaws, developed fully, will it produce a movement genuinely capable of ending not just one type of sexist society, but sexist society itself. We may have to wait for as long as Marx has had to wait – that is, at least 150 years, and longer than that.