Over the last few days I’ve been talking about why the apparently sound premises of the revolutionary equation (1. the proletariat has the capacity to revolutionise society, 2. the proletariat has an immediate motive to revolutionise society, 3. a proletarian revolution will bring about socialism) have not produced their conclusion.
The answer I had been working on was concerned that the motive mentioned in point 2., the resistance produced by the frustrations and antagonisms of capitalist society, might take the form not of a desire simply for more power (which would include power over one’s own circumstances, i.e. ‘freedom’) but specifically for the satisfactions of exerting power over others, what I have called ‘domination’. To the extent that this happens, it will conflict directly with point 3., since an equal society doesn’t offer much opportunity for even vicarious domination. The result is various forms of ‘deflection’ of rebelliousness into dead-ends.
But what I want to discuss now is why this problem might arise.
To put it another way – when a human mind encounters the stimulus of frustration, subordination, and the general experience of being part of an oppressed group, and a range of responses are possible, – including forming a desire to exert power over its own circumstances, forming a desire to exert power over others, hoping that some external force appears to offer a solution, getting drunk – what factors determine the response?
What I want to focus on is self-concept. It seems like a very plausible working assumption that how that mind thinks of itself, what constitutes and enables it to think of itself at all as an enduring distinct entity, will play a big role in which response wins out.
If our interest is particularly in responses involving power, then the logical question is about the extent to which someone’s self-concept involves the exercise of power. Any self-concept, I think, will involve it to an extent – the basic experience of acting so as to change some part of the world is about as fundamental an experience as you can get, and I would think it impossible to see yourself as a person at all without seeing yourself as exerting some influence on your surroundings.
But beyond this baseline I think there is much more room for variation. Let’s imagine hypothetically that perhaps a person’s self-concept could be formed from birth to actually exclude exercising power – that all of that person’s sense of their own value came from things other than acting, e.g. being desired by others, being loved by others, being pursued by others, being admired by others, etc. That is, perhaps someone’s self-concept could be centred abound objecthood – they have deeply absorbed the feeling that they are essentially and ideally an object for others.
This would have two results. Firstly, of course, it will dispose that person to respond to the experience of oppression not by struggling either for freedom or for domination, but in some passive or indirect way, religiously say, or by seeking some more powerful protector.
But secondly, it may have an effect on others in that society. Since self-concepts tend to be defined relative to each other, we might anticipate the presence of a group of other people whose self-concept does explicitly affirm that they are persons and they exert power, and who define themselves as such in opposition to the first group. That is, they affirm their agency by distinguishing themselves from those who they regard as objects.
Might this give their identification with having power a ‘competitive’ character, as something naturally opposed to the power of others? Might it lead to an identity based not just on exerting power, but on doing so against others, i.e. over others? Might it produce a whole class of people imbued with a deep need to aggress?
Might this whole affair result in two groups of people, one that conceives of themselves as fit by nature to be dominated, and one that conceives of themselves as fit by nature to dominate?
I should drop the pretence, of course – this isn’t a hypothetical situation, but is, I believe, the essential mechanism of gender division. (More discussion here) The short answer to my question ‘what to blame for the failure of revolutions so far’ is thus ‘blame the patriarchy’.
Returning to our original question, it seems obvious that both of these are liable to encourage responses to oppression other than the ideal one, that of forming a desire for personal freedom. If I am fit by nature to dominate, then my response to frustration and subordination will be to seek to re-affirm my agency through finding someone to dominate (directly or indirectly). If I am fit by nature to be dominated, then my response will be, if anything, to hope for some more benevolent master to deliver me.
Then perhaps the answer to our even more original question – what has held back socialism – is: the proletarian movement has been too masculinised. Filled with men, and encouraged to identify as men, its emotional constitution has disposed it to follow blind alleys.
To put it another way, the gender system has made an economically revolutionary class into a sexually conservative class – these two features then cancel out, because both economic and sexual politics are at bottom about the same thing, power.
1) I’m talking about the extent to which people identify as men, not their simply being men. How far people act in accordance with the masculine identity can be somewhat independent of how many of them have actual testicles.
2) I’m making only a relative claim – identifying more with masculinity makes people more likely to seek domination than they would be if they didn’t so identify. That difference may be small – it may only be 10% more, or 5% more, or 1% more. But in a complex system like society, with lots of feedback, that difference could easily have big effects.
3) I’m not suggesting that a masculinised proletariat should be replaced with a feminised one. The feminine identity is just as bad – being ladylike is hardly a recipe for militancy.
So what is to be done? If I’m right (and I think I am) then the success of the proletarian revolution depends upon the weakness of gender-identification. More people, and fewer men and women, is the recipe for socialism. That doesn’t necessarily mean people explicitly identifying as ‘I’m not a woman, I’m genderqueer’, although how normal that is may be important. It means how much people are happy to tolerate gender-violations, able to identify with ideals independent of gender, able to mix and match gender attributes, and fragment the binary system into more, but less salient, categories.
A lot of progress has been made in this direction in the last century or so – feminism has hit the gender system hard. But it’s still there and it retains a lot of strength.
Perhaps the damage inflicted in the 20th century is sufficient – once we recover from a century of backlash to the Russian revolution, a second run at the goal will succeed where the 19th century failed.
Or perhaps more needs to be done, and a situation of substantial genderlessness acheived first.
But in practice the question is somewhat moot: we can expect the fight against gender and the fight against capitalism to progress together, and reinforce each other in a single process. This process will produce, as revolutionary agent, not just a proletariat – not just an international proletariat – but a genderqueer proletariat.