Remarks on Gender


I. Patriarchy and/or Capitalism: Reopening the Debate

It is stan­dard to find ref­er­ences to “patri­archy” and “patri­ar­chal rela­tions” in fem­i­nist texts, tracts, or doc­u­ments.1 Patri­archy is often used to show how gen­der oppres­sion and inequal­i­ty are not spo­radic or excep­tion­al occur­rences. On the con­trary, these are issues that tra­verse all of soci­ety, and are fun­da­men­tal­ly repro­duced through mech­a­nisms that can­not be explained at the indi­vid­ual lev­el.

In short, we often use the term patri­archy to under­score that gen­der oppres­sion is a phe­nom­e­non not reducible to inter­per­son­al rela­tions, but rather has a more soci­etal char­ac­ter and con­sis­ten­cy. How­ev­er, things become a bit more com­pli­cat­ed if we want to be more pre­cise about what exact­ly is meant by “patri­archy” and “patri­ar­chal sys­tem.” And this move becomes even more com­plex when we begin to ask about the pre­cise rela­tion­ship between patri­archy and cap­i­tal­ism.

The Question

For a brief peri­od, from the 1970s to the mid-1980s, the ques­tion of the struc­tur­al rela­tion­ship between patri­archy and cap­i­tal­ism was the sub­ject of a heat­ed debate among the­o­rists and par­ti­sans of a mate­ri­al­ist cur­rent of thought as well as Marx­ist-fem­i­nists. The fun­da­men­tal ques­tions which were posed revolved around two axes: 1) is patri­archy an autonomous sys­tem in rela­tion to cap­i­tal­ism? 2) is it cor­rect to use the term “patri­archy” to des­ig­nate gen­der oppres­sion and inequal­i­ty?

Although it pro­duced very inter­est­ing work, this debate grad­u­al­ly became more and more unfash­ion­able. This occurred in tan­dem with the retreat of cri­tiques of cap­i­tal­ism, while oth­er cur­rents of fem­i­nist thought assert­ed them­selves. These new modes of thought often did not go beyond the lib­er­al hori­zon of the times – they some­times essen­tial­ized rela­tions between men and women and de-his­tori­cized gen­der, or they avoid­ed ques­tions of cap­i­tal­ism and class – but at the same time, they devel­oped use­ful con­cepts for the decon­struc­tion of gen­der (such as queer the­o­ry in the 1990s).

Of course, to go out of fash­ion does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean to dis­ap­pear. In the past decade, many fem­i­nist the­o­rists have con­tin­ued to work on these ques­tions, at the risk of seem­ing out of touch with the times, ves­tiges of a tedious past. They were cer­tain­ly right to per­se­vere: dur­ing a time of eco­nom­ic and social cri­sis, we are cur­rent­ly bring­ing par­tial but much-need­ed atten­tion back to the struc­tur­al rela­tion between gen­der oppres­sion and cap­i­tal­ism.

Over these last few years, empir­i­cal analy­ses or descrip­tions of phe­nom­e­na or spe­cif­ic ques­tions have cer­tain­ly not been lack­ing, such as the fem­i­niza­tion of work; the impact of neolib­er­al pol­i­tics on women’s liv­ing and work­place con­di­tions; the inter­sec­tion of gen­der, racial, and class oppres­sion; or the rela­tion between the dif­fer­ent con­struc­tions of sex­u­al iden­ti­ty and cap­i­tal­ist regimes of accu­mu­la­tion. How­ev­er, it is one thing to “describe” a phe­nom­e­non or a group of social phe­nom­e­na, where the link between cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion is more or less evi­dent. It is anoth­er to give a “the­o­ret­i­cal” expla­na­tion of the rea­son for this struc­tur­al rela­tion that can be iden­ti­fied with­in these phe­nom­e­na and their mode of func­tion­ing. It is there­fore cru­cial to ask if there is an “orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple” which explains this link.

In order to be both clear and con­cise on this point, I will try to sum­ma­rize the most inter­est­ing the­ses on these mat­ters that have been sug­gest­ed until now. In the fol­low­ing remarks, I will ana­lyze and ques­tion these dif­fer­ent the­ses sep­a­rate­ly. To uphold a degree of intel­lec­tu­al hon­esty and to avoid any mis­un­der­stand­ings, I stress that my recon­struc­tion of dif­fer­ent points of view is not impar­tial. My own view is found in the third the­sis below.

Three Theses

First The­sis: “Dual or Triple Sys­tems The­o­ry.” We can put the orig­i­nal ver­sion of this the­sis in the fol­low­ing terms: Gen­der and sex­u­al rela­tions con­sti­tute an autonomous sys­tem which com­bines with cap­i­tal­ism and reshapes class rela­tions, while being at the same time mod­i­fied by cap­i­tal­ism in a process of rec­i­p­ro­cal inter­ac­tion. The most up-to-date ver­sion of this the­o­ry includes racial rela­tions, also con­sid­ered as a sys­tem of autonomous social rela­tions inter­con­nect­ed with gen­der and class rela­tions.

With­in mate­ri­al­ist fem­i­nist cir­cles, these reflec­tions are usu­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the notion that gen­der and racial rela­tions are sys­tems of oppres­sion as much as rela­tions of exploita­tion. In gen­er­al, these the­ses have an under­stand­ing of class rela­tions as defined sole­ly in eco­nom­ic terms. It is only via the inter­ac­tion with patri­archy and the sys­tem of racial dom­i­na­tion that they acquire an extra-eco­nom­ic char­ac­ter as well. A vari­a­tion of this the­sis is to see gen­der rela­tions as a sys­tem of ide­o­log­i­cal and cul­tur­al rela­tions derived from old­er modes of pro­duc­tion and social for­ma­tions, inde­pen­dent of cap­i­tal­ism. These old­er rela­tions then inter­act with cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions, giv­ing the lat­ter their gen­dered dimen­sion.

Sec­ond The­sis: “Indif­fer­ent Cap­i­tal­ism.” Gen­der oppres­sion and inequal­i­ty are the rem­nants of pre­vi­ous social for­ma­tions and modes of pro­duc­tion, when patri­archy direct­ly orga­nized pro­duc­tion and deter­mined a strict sex­u­al divi­sion of labor. Cap­i­tal­ism is itself indif­fer­ent to gen­der rela­tions and can over­come them to such a degree that patri­archy as a sys­tem has been dis­solved in the advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, while fam­i­ly rela­tions have been restruc­tured in quite rad­i­cal ways. In sum, cap­i­tal­ism has an essen­tial­ly oppor­tunis­tic rela­tion with gen­der inequal­i­ty: it uti­lizes what it finds to be ben­e­fi­cial in exist­ing gen­der rela­tions, and destroys what becomes an obsta­cle. This view is artic­u­lat­ed in var­i­ous ver­sions. Some claim that with­in cap­i­tal­ism women have ben­e­fit­ed from a degree of eman­ci­pa­tion unknown in oth­er kinds of soci­ety, and this would demon­strate that cap­i­tal­ism as such is not a struc­tur­al obsta­cle to women’s lib­er­a­tion. Oth­ers main­tain that we should care­ful­ly dis­tin­guish between the log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal lev­els: log­i­cal­ly, cap­i­tal­ism does not specif­i­cal­ly need gen­der inequal­i­ty, and could get rid of it; his­tor­i­cal­ly, things are not so sim­ple.

Third The­sis: The “Uni­tary The­sis.” Accord­ing to this the­o­ry, in cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, a patri­ar­chal sys­tem that is autonomous from cap­i­tal­ism no longer exists. Patri­ar­chal rela­tions con­tin­ue to exist, but with­out being part of a sep­a­rate sys­tem. To deny that patri­archy is an autonomous sys­tem under cap­i­tal­ism is not to deny that gen­der oppres­sion real­ly exists, per­me­at­ing both social and inter­per­son­al rela­tions. In oth­er words, this the­sis does not reduce every aspect of oppres­sion to sim­ply a mech­a­nis­tic or direct con­se­quence of cap­i­tal­ism, nor does it seek to offer an expla­na­tion sole­ly in eco­nom­ic terms.

In short, uni­tary the­o­ry is not reduc­tion­ist or econ­o­mistic, and it does not under­es­ti­mate the cen­tral­i­ty of gen­der oppres­sion. Pro­po­nents of the “uni­tary the­o­ry” dis­agree with the idea that today patri­archy would be a sys­tem of rules and mech­a­nisms that autonomous­ly repro­duce them­selves. At the same time, they insist on the need to con­sid­er cap­i­tal­ism not as a set of pure­ly eco­nom­ic laws, but rather as a com­plex and artic­u­lat­ed social order, an order that at its core con­sists of rela­tions of exploita­tion, dom­i­na­tion, and alien­ation.

From this point of view, the task today is to under­stand how the dynam­ic of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion con­tin­ues to pro­duce, repro­duce, trans­form, and renew hier­ar­chi­cal and oppres­sive rela­tions, with­out express­ing these mech­a­nisms in strict­ly eco­nom­ic or auto­mat­ic terms.

II. One, Two, or Three Systems?

In 1970, Chris­tine Del­phy wrote an arti­cle called “The Main Ene­my,” in which she the­o­rized the exis­tence of a patri­ar­chal mode of pro­duc­tion, its rela­tion to, as well as its non-cor­re­spon­dence with, the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, and the def­i­n­i­tion of house­wives as a class, in the strict­ly eco­nom­ic sense of the term.

Nine years lat­er, Hei­di Hart­mann pub­lished her own arti­cle, “The Unhap­py Mar­riages of Marx­ism and Fem­i­nism,” in which she argued for the the­sis that patri­archy and cap­i­tal­ism are two autonomous sys­tems, but also his­tor­i­cal­ly inter­con­nect­ed. For Hart­mann, cap­i­tal­ist laws of accu­mu­la­tion are indif­fer­ent to the sex of labor-pow­er, and if there aris­es a need for cap­i­tal­ism to cre­ate hier­ar­chi­cal rela­tions in the divi­sion of labor, racism and patri­archy deter­mine the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the hier­ar­chi­cal posi­tions and the spe­cif­ic way these are uti­lized.

This the­sis even­tu­al­ly took on the name of “Dual Sys­tems The­o­ry.” In her 1990 book The­o­riz­ing Patri­archy, Sylvia Wal­by refor­mu­lat­ed the dual sys­tems the­o­ry by adding a third, the racial sys­tem, and also sought to under­stand patri­archy as a vari­able sys­tem of social rela­tions com­posed of six struc­tures: the patri­ar­chal mode of pro­duc­tion, patri­ar­chal rela­tions in wage labor and salaried labor, patri­ar­chal rela­tions in the State, male vio­lence, patri­ar­chal rela­tions in the sphere of sex­u­al­i­ty, and patri­ar­chal rela­tions in cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions. These six struc­tures rec­i­p­ro­cal­ly con­di­tion each oth­er while remain­ing autonomous: they can also be either pri­vate or pub­lic. More recent­ly, Danièle Ker­goat has the­o­rized the “con­sub­stan­tial­i­ty” of patri­ar­chal, race, and class rela­tions; these are three sys­tems of rela­tions based on exploita­tion and dom­i­na­tion which inter­sect and are of the same sub­stance (exploita­tion and dom­i­na­tion), while being dis­tinct, like the three per­sons of the Holy Trin­i­ty.

This brief sur­vey of authors and essays is only one exam­ple of the dif­fer­ent ways in which the inter­sec­tion of the patri­ar­chal sys­tem and cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem has been the­o­rized, and the ways in which one sys­tem is dis­tin­guished from the oth­er. There are oth­ers, too, but for lim­its of space I am forced to lim­it my analy­sis to these exam­ples, which are among the most clear while remain­ing the most sys­tem­at­ic and com­plex. As I have already shown, the dif­fi­cul­ty with this debate con­cerns the def­i­n­i­tion of patri­archy. There is not a uni­form def­i­n­i­tion, but more of a set of propo­si­tions, some of which are com­pat­i­ble with each oth­er, while oth­ers are con­tra­dic­to­ry. Since I can­not ana­lyze all of these def­i­n­i­tions, I pro­pose, for now, to focus on the con­cept of the patri­ar­chal sys­tem, under­stood as a sys­tem of rela­tions, both mate­r­i­al and cul­tur­al, of dom­i­na­tion and exploita­tion of women by men. This is a sys­tem with its own log­ic that is at same time mal­leable to his­tor­i­cal changes, in an ongo­ing rela­tion with cap­i­tal­ism.

Before ana­lyz­ing the prob­lems pre­sent­ed by this the­o­ret­i­cal approach, we should define exploita­tion and make some dis­tinc­tions. From the point of view of class rela­tions, exploita­tion is defined as a process or mech­a­nism of the expro­pri­a­tion of a sur­plus pro­duced by a pro­duc­ing class for the ben­e­fit of anoth­er class. This can hap­pen either through auto­mat­ic mech­a­nisms such as the wage, or the vio­lent expro­pri­a­tion of the oth­ers’ labor – this was the case with the corvée, by which the feu­dal lords con­strained the serfs through imposed author­i­ty and vio­lent coer­cion. Cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion, in the Marx­ist sense, is a spe­cif­ic form of exploita­tion that con­sists in the extrac­tion of the sur­plus-val­ue pro­duced by the work­er for the ben­e­fit of the cap­i­tal­ist. Gen­er­al­ly, in order to talk about cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion, there must exist gen­er­al­ized com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­tion, abstract labor, social­ly nec­es­sary labor time, val­ue, and the wage-form.

I am clear­ly leav­ing out oth­er hypothe­ses, such as those based on the real sub­sump­tion of soci­ety in its total­i­ty, as defend­ed by the work­erist and post-work­erist tra­di­tions. Con­fronting this view and its con­se­quences for under­stand­ing gen­der rela­tions would take up anoth­er arti­cle. In loose­ly defined terms: the extrac­tion of sur­plus-val­ue for Marx is the secret of cap­i­tal, in the sense that it con­sti­tutes the ori­gin of social­ly pro­duced wealth and its modes of dis­tri­b­u­tion.

Exploita­tion as the extrac­tion of sur­plus-val­ue is not the only form of exploita­tion with­in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety: to be sim­plis­tic, we can say that an employ­ee in an unpro­duc­tive sec­tor (in val­ue terms) is also exploit­ed through the extrac­tion of sur­plus-labor. And the wage-rate, liv­ing con­di­tions, and work­place con­di­tions of a shop­keep­er can of course be worse than that of a fac­to­ry work­er. In addi­tion, beyond the slight­ly econ­o­mistic ten­den­cies of past mis­un­der­stand­ings and debates, it is impor­tant to note that from a polit­i­cal point of view, the dis­tinc­tion between pro­duc­tive and unpro­duc­tive work­ers (in terms of val­ue or sur­plus-val­ue pro­duc­tion) is prac­ti­cal­ly irrel­e­vant. Strict­ly speak­ing, the mech­a­nisms and forms of orga­ni­za­tion and divi­sion of the labor process are much more impor­tant.

Let us return now to the dual sys­tems the­o­ry and to the prob­lem of patri­archy.

First Prob­lem

If we define patri­archy as a sys­tem of exploita­tion, it log­i­cal­ly fol­lows that there is an exploit­ing group and an exploit­ed group or, bet­ter, an expro­pri­at­ing class and an expro­pri­at­ed class. Who makes up these class­es? The answers can be: all women and all men, or only some women and some men (in the exam­ple cit­ed by Del­phy, house­wives and the adult male mem­bers of their fam­i­lies). If we talk about patri­archy as a sys­tem of exploita­tion in the “pub­lic” sphere, the notion can arise in which the State is the exploiter or expro­pri­a­tor. The “work­erist fem­i­nists” applied the notion of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion to domes­tic labor, but accord­ing to their view, the true expro­pri­a­tor of domes­tic labor is cap­i­tal, which would imply that patri­archy is not in fact an autonomous sys­tem of exploita­tion.

In the case of Delphy’s work, the the­sis that house­wives are a class and their imme­di­ate male fam­i­ly mem­bers (in par­tic­u­lar their hus­bands) are the exploit­ing class is not ful­ly artic­u­lat­ed, but also tak­en to its most far-reach­ing con­se­quences. In log­i­cal terms, the con­se­quence of her posi­tion would be that the spouse of a migrant work­er belongs to the same social class as the wife of a cap­i­tal­ist: they both pro­duce use-val­ues (in one case care work pure and sim­ple, in the oth­er, the work of “rep­re­sen­ta­tion” of a cer­tain social sta­tus, orga­niz­ing meet­ings and recep­tions, for exam­ple) and are both in an exploita­tive rela­tion of a servile nature, that is to say, work­ing in exchange for the finan­cial secu­ri­ty pro­vid­ed by their hus­bands.

In “The Main Ene­my,” Del­phy insists that being a mem­ber of the patri­ar­chal class is a more impor­tant fact than being part of the cap­i­tal­ist class. It would fol­low that the sol­i­dar­i­ty between the wife of a cap­i­tal­ist and the wife of the migrant work­er must take prece­dence over the class sol­i­dar­i­ty between the wife of the migrant work­er and the oth­er mem­bers of her husband’s class (or, and this is more opti­mism than any­thing else, it must take prece­dence over the class sol­i­dar­i­ty of the wife of the cap­i­tal­ist and her coun­try club friends). In the end, Delphy’s actu­al polit­i­cal prac­tice stands in con­tra­dic­tion with the log­i­cal con­se­quences of her the­o­ry, which makes its ana­lyt­i­cal lim­its even more appar­ent.

Fur­ther­more, if we define men and women (in one ver­sion or anoth­er) as two class­es — one the exploiters, the oth­er the exploit­ed — we inevitably come to the con­clu­sion that there is an irrec­on­cil­able antag­o­nism between class­es whose inter­ests are in rec­i­p­ro­cal con­tra­dic­tion. But, if Del­phy is wrong, should we then deny that men prof­it and take advan­tage of women’s unpaid work? No, because this would be a sym­met­ri­cal error, unfor­tu­nate­ly made by many Marx­ists who have tak­en this rea­son­ing to the oppo­site extreme. It is clear­ly bet­ter and more con­ve­nient to have some­one cook you a hot meal in the evening than to have to deal with the dish­es your­self after a long day of work. It is quite “nat­ur­al,” then, that men tend to try and hold on to this priv­i­lege. In short, it is unde­ni­able that there are rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion and social hier­ar­chy based on gen­der and that men, includ­ing those of low­er class­es, ben­e­fit from them.

How­ev­er, this should not be tak­en to mean that there is a class antag­o­nism. We could rather make the fol­low­ing hypoth­e­sis: in a cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, the com­plete or par­tial “pri­va­ti­za­tion” of care work, that is, its con­cen­tra­tion with­in the fam­i­ly (what­ev­er the type of fam­i­ly, and includ­ing sin­gle-par­ent house­holds), the lack of large-scale social­iza­tion of this care work, through the state or oth­er forms, all this deter­mines the work­load that must be main­tained with­in the pri­vate sphere, out­side of both the mar­ket and insti­tu­tions. The rela­tions of gen­der oppres­sion and dom­i­na­tion deter­mine the mode and scale in which this work­load is to be dis­trib­uted, giv­ing way to an unequal divi­sion: women work more while men work less. But there is no appro­pri­a­tion of a “sur­plus.”

Is there evi­dence to the con­trary? A sim­ple thought exper­i­ment will do. A man would lose noth­ing, in terms of work­load, if the dis­tri­b­u­tion of care work were com­plete­ly social­ized instead of being per­formed by his wife. In struc­tur­al terms, there would be no antag­o­nis­tic or irrec­on­cil­able inter­ests. Of course, this does not mean that he is con­scious of this prob­lem, as it may well be that he is so inte­grat­ed into sex­ist cul­ture that he has devel­oped some severe form of nar­cis­sism based on his pre­sumed male supe­ri­or­i­ty, which leads him to nat­u­ral­ly oppose any attempts to social­ize care work, or the eman­ci­pa­tion of his wife. The cap­i­tal­ist, on the oth­er hand, has some­thing to lose in the social­iza­tion of the means of pro­duc­tion; it is not just about his con­vic­tions about the way the world works and his place in it, but also the mas­sive prof­its he hap­pi­ly expro­pri­ates from the work­ers.

Sec­ond Prob­lem

The sec­ond prob­lem con­cerns the fact that those who insist that patri­ar­chal rela­tions today make up an inde­pen­dent sys­tem with­in advanced cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties must face the thorny prob­lem of deter­min­ing its dri­ving force: why does this sys­tem con­tin­u­al­ly repro­duce itself? Why does it per­sist? If it is an inde­pen­dent sys­tem, the rea­son must be inter­nal and not exter­nal. Cap­i­tal­ism, for exam­ple, is a mode of pro­duc­tion and a sys­tem of social rela­tions, with an iden­ti­fi­able log­ic: accord­ing to Marx, it is a process of the val­oriza­tion of val­ue. Cer­tain­ly, to have iden­ti­fied this process as the dri­ving force or motor of cap­i­tal­ism does not say every­thing that needs to be said about cap­i­tal­ism: this would be anal­o­gous to think­ing that the expla­na­tion of the anato­my of the heart and its func­tions would suf­fice to explain the whole anato­my of the human body. Cap­i­tal­ism is an ensem­ble of com­plex process­es and rela­tions. How­ev­er, under­stand­ing what its heart is and how it works is a fun­da­men­tal ana­lyt­ic neces­si­ty.

Where patri­ar­chal rela­tions play a direct role in the orga­ni­za­tion of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion (who pro­duces and how, who appro­pri­ates, how the repro­duc­tion of these con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion is orga­nized), iden­ti­fy­ing the dri­ving force of the patri­ar­chal sys­tem is sim­pler. This is the case with agrar­i­an soci­eties, for exam­ple, where the patri­ar­chal fam­i­ly direct­ly forms the uni­ty of the pro­duc­tion with the means of sub­sis­tence. Yet this is more com­pli­cat­ed in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, where patri­ar­chal rela­tions do not direct­ly orga­nize pro­duc­tion, but play a role in the divi­sion of labor, and the fam­i­ly is rel­e­gat­ed to the pri­vate sphere of repro­duc­tion.

Faced with this ques­tion, either one agrees with Del­phy and oth­er mate­ri­al­ist fem­i­nists in see­ing con­tem­po­rary patri­archy as a spe­cif­ic mode of pro­duc­tion, but would then have to face all the chal­lenges I not­ed above, espe­cial­ly the intractable prob­lem of who, in this con­cep­tion, would make up the exploit­ing and exploit­ed class­es; or one sim­ply has to aban­don the view that patri­archy is a dis­tinct mode of pro­duc­tion, at least in the con­ven­tion­al sense of that term.

A hypoth­e­sis that has already been sug­gest­ed in the past is that patri­archy is an inde­pen­dent ide­o­log­i­cal sys­tem, whose motor resides in the process of the pro­duc­tion of sig­ni­fiers and inter­pre­ta­tions of the world. But here, we run into oth­er prob­lems: if ide­ol­o­gy is the way in which we inter­pret our con­di­tions of exis­tence and our rela­tions to them, a link must exist between ide­ol­o­gy and these social con­di­tions of exis­tence; a link that is def­i­nite­ly not mech­a­nis­tic, or auto­mat­ic, or any­thing like that. But it would still be a mat­ter of a cer­tain form of con­nec­tion, oth­er­wise we would risk hav­ing a fetishis­tic and ahis­tor­i­cal con­cep­tion of cul­ture and ide­ol­o­gy. Now the idea that the patri­ar­chal sys­tem is an ide­o­log­i­cal sys­tem that con­stant­ly repro­duces itself, despite the incred­i­ble changes intro­duced by cap­i­tal­ism in social life and rela­tions of pro­duc­tion these last two cen­turies, is even less con­vinc­ing. Anoth­er hypoth­e­sis could be that the motor is psy­cho­log­i­cal, but this also risks falling into a fetishis­tic and ahis­tor­i­cal con­cep­tion of the human psy­che.

Last Prob­lem

Let us admit for a moment that patri­archy, racial rela­tions, and cap­i­tal­ism are three inde­pen­dent sys­tems, but also inter­sect and rec­i­p­ro­cal­ly rein­force each oth­er. In this case, the ques­tion is of know­ing the orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple and log­ic of this “holy alliance.” In Kergoat’s texts, for exam­ple, the def­i­n­i­tion of this rela­tion in con­sub­stan­tial terms remains a descrip­tive image, which does not suc­ceed in explain­ing much. The caus­es for the inter­sec­tion between these sys­tems of exploita­tion and dom­i­na­tion remain mys­te­ri­ous, just like with the Holy Trin­i­ty!

Despite these prob­lems, the dual or triple sys­tems the­o­ries, in their dif­fer­ent forms, remain implic­it influ­ences in many recent fem­i­nist the­o­ries. In my opin­ion, this is because these seem to be the most imme­di­ate and intu­itive kinds of expla­na­tion. In oth­er words, these are expla­na­tions that reflect how real­i­ty as such is man­i­fest­ed. It is evi­dent that social rela­tions include rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion and hier­ar­chy based on gen­der and race that per­me­ate both  the social whole and dai­ly life. The more imme­di­ate expla­na­tion is that these rela­tions all cor­re­spond to spe­cif­ic sys­tems, because this is the way they man­i­fest them­selves. How­ev­er, the most intu­itive expla­na­tions are not always the most cor­rect.

III. Is It All Capitalism’s Fault?

In the last sec­tion, I wrote that the con­cep­tion of patri­archy as an inde­pen­dent sys­tem with­in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety is the most wide­spread not only among fem­i­nist the­o­rists but also activists. This is because it is an inter­pre­ta­tion that reflects real­i­ty in the way this appears to us. To speak of modes of appear­ance does not mean to describe an illu­so­ry phe­nom­e­non that is to be put in oppo­si­tion to real­i­ty with a cap­i­tal R. “Appear­ance” here refers to the spe­cif­ic way in which the rela­tions of alien­ation and dom­i­na­tion pro­duced and repro­duced by cap­i­tal are expe­ri­enced by peo­ple because of their very same log­ic.  As Daniel Ben­saïd has remarked, the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my is first and fore­most a cri­tique of eco­nom­ic fetishism and ide­ol­o­gy, which forces us to think in the shad­ow of cap­i­tal.2 This is not a mat­ter of “false con­scious­ness,” but of a mode of expe­ri­ence deter­mined by cap­i­tal itself: the frag­men­ta­tion of our per­cep­tion of real­i­ty. This is a com­plex dis­course, but in order to have an idea of what is to be under­stood by “a mode of expe­ri­ence deter­mined by cap­i­tal,” we have to refer, for exam­ple, to the sec­tion in the first vol­ume of Marx’s Cap­i­tal on com­mod­i­ty fetishism.

Since our per­cep­tion is frag­men­tary and those who have devel­oped an aware­ness of gen­der inequal­i­ty usu­al­ly expe­ri­ence and per­ceive it as deter­mined by a log­ic that is dif­fer­ent and sep­a­rate from that of cap­i­tal, any denial of the view that patri­archy is an inde­pen­dent sys­tem with­in cap­i­tal­ism inevitably encoun­ters rejec­tions and doubts.

The Transformation of the Family

The most com­mon objec­tion has to do with the his­toric dimen­sion: how can one affirm that patri­archy is not an inde­pen­dent sys­tem when the oppres­sion of women exist­ed before cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety? Now, to say that with­in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety women’s oppres­sion and pow­er rela­tions are a nec­es­sary con­se­quence of cap­i­tal­ism, and that these phe­nom­e­na do not have their own inde­pen­dent and prop­er log­ic, is not to sup­port the absurd argu­ment that holds that gen­der oppres­sion orig­i­nates with cap­i­tal­ism. What is being defend­ed here is a dif­fer­ent argu­ment, tied to the par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics of cap­i­tal­ism. Soci­eties in which cap­i­tal­ism has sup­plant­ed the pre­ced­ing mode of pro­duc­tion are char­ac­ter­ized by a pro­found and rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of the fam­i­ly.

The trans­for­ma­tion of the fam­i­ly is above all the result of the expro­pri­a­tion of the land, or prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, which sep­a­rat­ed large por­tions of the pop­u­la­tion from their means of pro­duc­tion and sub­sis­tence (the land), pro­vok­ing on the one hand the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the patri­ar­chal peas­ant fam­i­ly, and on the oth­er a his­tor­i­cal­ly unprece­dent­ed process of urban­iza­tion. The result was that the fam­i­ly no longer rep­re­sent­ed the uni­ty of pro­duc­tion with a spe­cif­ic pro­duc­tive role, gen­er­al­ly orga­nized through the spe­cif­ic patri­ar­chal rela­tions that pre­vailed in the pre­vi­ous agrar­i­an soci­ety.

This process began at dif­fer­ent moments and took dif­fer­ent forms in all the coun­tries in which cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions took hold. With the sep­a­ra­tion between the fam­i­ly and the site of pro­duc­tion, the rela­tion between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion (in the sense of bio­log­i­cal, gen­er­a­tional, and social repro­duc­tion) was also rad­i­cal­ly trans­formed.

And here is the point: although the rela­tions of gen­der dom­i­na­tion were main­tained, they have, on the oth­er hand, ceased being an inde­pen­dent sys­tem fol­low­ing an autonomous log­ic because of this trans­for­ma­tion of the fam­i­ly from a unit of pro­duc­tion to a pri­vate place out­side com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­tion and the mar­ket. More­over, these rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion have under­gone a sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tion.

For exam­ple, one of these trans­for­ma­tions is tied to a direct link between sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, rei­fied into an iden­ti­ty, and gen­der (we can con­sult on this mat­ter the work of Fou­cault in The His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, works by Judith But­ler, or, more recent­ly, the writ­ings of Kevin Floyd and Rose­mary Hen­nessy). While it is cer­tain­ly true that gen­der oppres­sion exist­ed well before the advent of cap­i­tal­ism, this does not mean that the forms it takes remained the same after­wards.

More­over, one could ques­tion the idea that gen­der oppres­sion is a tran­shis­tor­i­cal fact, an idea defend­ed force­ful­ly by a num­ber of “sec­ond wave” fem­i­nists but which must be revised in light of recent anthro­po­log­i­cal research. In fact, not only has the oppres­sion of women not always exist­ed, but it did not exist in var­i­ous class­less soci­eties, where gen­der oppres­sion was intro­duced only with colo­nial­ism. In order to have a bet­ter idea of the link between the class rela­tion and the pow­er rela­tions between gen­ders, we can take the exam­ple of slav­ery in the Unit­ed States.

Race and Class

In her book Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis high­lights the way in which the destruc­tion of the fam­i­ly and all the rela­tions of kin­ship between African-Amer­i­can slaves, as well as the spe­cif­ic form of slave labor, gave rise to a sub­stan­tial over­turn­ing of gen­dered pow­er rela­tions between slaves. This does not mean that the female slaves did not under­go a spe­cif­ic form of oppres­sion as women, quite the oppo­site: they severe­ly suf­fered, but at the hands of the white slave­own­ers, not their fel­low slaves. In oth­er words, the per­sis­tence and artic­u­la­tion of gen­der rela­tions are linked in com­plex ways to social con­di­tions, class rela­tions, and rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion. An abstract and tran­shis­tor­i­cal vision of women’s oppres­sion does not allow for an under­stand­ing of these artic­u­la­tions and dif­fer­ences, and there­fore can­not explain them.

Persistence of the Domestic Mode of Production

As I wrote above, in the coun­tries where the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion sup­plant­ed the pre­ced­ing mode of pro­duc­tion, rad­i­cal­ly trans­form­ing the fam­i­ly and its role, the rela­tions of pow­er between gen­ders ceased to form an inde­pen­dent sys­tem. This does not hold for coun­tries with struc­tures of pro­duc­tion that are not entire­ly trans­formed and that remain on the periph­ery of the glob­al cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my. Claude Meil­las­soux doc­u­ment­ed on this point the per­sis­tence of a “domes­tic mode of pro­duc­tion” in many African coun­tries, in which the process of pro­le­tar­i­an­iza­tion (that is, the sep­a­ra­tion of the peas­antry from the land) remained quite lim­it­ed.3

How­ev­er, even in places where the domes­tic mode of pro­duc­tion remains in place, it is sub­ject­ed to intense pres­sure by the country’s inte­gra­tion into the world cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem. The effects of colo­nial­ism, impe­ri­al­ism, the pil­lag­ing of nat­ur­al resources on the part of the advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, the objec­tive pres­sures of the glob­al mar­ket econ­o­my, etc., have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the social and famil­ial rela­tions which orga­nize the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of goods, often exac­er­bat­ing the exploita­tion of women and gen­der vio­lence.

A Contradictory Totality

Let’s return now to the advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries. A clas­sic objec­tion to the the­sis that patri­archy does not con­sti­tute an inde­pen­dent sys­tem is that Marx­ist fem­i­nism is fun­da­men­tal­ly reduc­tion­ist. In oth­er words, it tries to reduce the plur­al com­plex­i­ty of soci­ety to mere eco­nom­ic laws with­out cor­rect­ly grasp­ing the irre­ducibil­i­ty of pow­er rela­tions. This objec­tion would make sense under two con­di­tions: the first would be that cap­i­tal­ism is under­stood only as a strict­ly eco­nom­ic process of the extrac­tion of sur­plus-val­ue, and thus as an ensem­ble of eco­nom­ic rules that deter­mines this process; the sec­ond would be to under­stand pow­er rela­tions as the mech­a­nis­tic and auto­mat­ic result of the process of sur­plus-val­ue extrac­tion. The truth is that this type of reduc­tion­ism does not cor­re­spond in the least to the rich­ness and com­plex­i­ty of Marx’s thought, and even less to the extra­or­di­nary sophis­ti­ca­tion of a large part of the Marx­ist the­o­ret­i­cal tra­di­tion.

As I already said above, to try to explain what cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety is only in terms of sur­plus-val­ue extrac­tion is like try­ing to explain the anato­my of the human body by explain­ing only how the heart works.

Cap­i­tal­ism is a ver­sa­tile, con­tra­dic­to­ry total­i­ty, con­tin­u­al­ly in move­ment, with rela­tions of exploita­tion and alien­ation that are con­stant­ly in a process of trans­for­ma­tion. Even though Marx attrib­uted an appar­ent­ly auto­mat­ic char­ac­ter to the val­oriza­tion of val­ue in the first vol­ume of Cap­i­tal – a process in which val­ue is the real sub­ject, while cap­i­tal­ists and indi­vid­u­als are reduced to the role of emis­saries or bear­ers of a struc­ture – “Mon­sieur le Cap­i­tal” does not real­ly exist, except as a log­i­cal cat­e­go­ry. It is not until the third vol­ume of Cap­i­tal that this becomes clear. Cap­i­tal­ism is not a Moloch, a hid­den god, a pup­peteer or a machine: it is a liv­ing total­i­ty of social rela­tions, in which class rela­tions trace lines of demar­ca­tion and impose con­straints that affect all oth­er forms of rela­tions. Among these, we also find pow­er rela­tions con­nect­ed to gen­der, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, race, nation­al­i­ty, and reli­gion, and all are put into the ser­vice of the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal and its repro­duc­tion, but often in vary­ing, unpre­dictable, and con­tra­dic­to­ry ways.

Is Capitalism “Indifferent” to the Oppression of Women?

A wide­ly held opin­ion among Marx­ist the­o­rists is to con­sid­er gen­der oppres­sion as unnec­es­sary to cap­i­tal­ism. This is not to say that cap­i­tal­ism doesn’t exploit or prof­it from the forms of gen­der inequal­i­ty pro­duced by pre­vi­ous social con­fig­u­ra­tions; it is, how­ev­er, a con­tin­gent and oppor­tunis­tic rela­tion­ship. In actu­al­i­ty, cap­i­tal­ism does not real­ly depend on gen­der oppres­sion, and women have attained an unprece­dent­ed lev­el of free­dom and eman­ci­pa­tion under cap­i­tal­ism in com­par­i­son to oth­er his­tor­i­cal epochs. In short, there is not an antag­o­nis­tic rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal­ism and the project of women’s lib­er­a­tion.

This point of view has been favor­ably received among Marx­ist the­o­rists from many dif­fer­ent schools of thought, so it is worth­while to ana­lyze it. We can use an arti­cle writ­ten by Ellen Meiksins Wood as a start­ing point. In her arti­cle “Cap­i­tal­ism and Human Eman­ci­pa­tion: Race, Gen­der, and Democ­ra­cy,” Wood begins by explain­ing the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between cap­i­tal­ism and the modes of pro­duc­tion that pre­ced­ed it. Cap­i­tal­ism has no intrin­sic ties to par­tic­u­lar iden­ti­ties, inequal­i­ties, or extra-eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, or juridi­cal dif­fer­ences. Quite the oppo­site: the extrac­tion of sur­plus-val­ue takes place in the rela­tions between for­mal­ly free and equal indi­vid­u­als, with­out any dif­fer­ences in juridi­cal or polit­i­cal sta­tus. Cap­i­tal­ism is thus not struc­tural­ly dis­posed to the cre­ation of gen­der inequal­i­ties, and it even has a nat­ur­al ten­den­cy to put such dif­fer­ences into ques­tion and dilute racial and gen­der iden­ti­ties.

An Internal or an Opportunistic Relationship?

Cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment also cre­at­ed the social con­di­tions con­ducive to the cri­tique of these inequal­i­ties, and to the facil­i­ta­tion of social pres­sure against them. This has no prece­dent in pre­vi­ous his­tor­i­cal epochs; one only needs to think back to Gre­co-Roman lit­er­a­ture in which abo­li­tion­ist posi­tions are prac­ti­cal­ly absent, despite the uni­ver­sal pres­ence of slav­ery for pro­duc­tive ends.

At the same time, cap­i­tal­ism tends to use pre-exist­ing dif­fer­ences inher­it­ed from pre­vi­ous soci­eties in an oppor­tunis­tic man­ner. For exam­ple, gen­der and racial dif­fer­ence are uti­lized in order to cre­ate hier­ar­chies between the more and less advan­taged sec­tors of the exploit­ed class. These hier­ar­chies are passed off as con­se­quences of nat­ur­al dif­fer­ences, mask­ing their real nature, name­ly that they are prod­ucts of the log­ic of cap­i­tal­ist com­pe­ti­tion.

This should not be under­stood as a con­scious plan that cap­i­tal­ism fol­lows, but as the con­ver­gence of a series of prac­tices and poli­cies which fol­low from the fact that gen­der and racial equal­i­ties are advan­ta­geous from the point of view of the cap­i­tal­ists. Cap­i­tal­ism does indeed instru­men­tal­ize gen­der oppres­sion for its own ends, but it would be able to sur­vive just fine with­out it. On the oth­er hand, cap­i­tal­ism would not be able to exist with­out class exploita­tion.

It is cru­cial to note that the frame­work of Wood’s arti­cle is a series of basic polit­i­cal ques­tions about the type of extra-eco­nom­ic gains and ben­e­fits that can – and can­not – be obtained in a cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. Her start­ing point is the shift in atten­tion of social strug­gles from the eco­nom­ic ter­rain to non-eco­nom­ic ques­tions (racial and gen­der eman­ci­pa­tion, peace, envi­ron­men­tal health, cit­i­zen­ship). And there’s the rub. I men­tion Wood’s frame­work because on the one hand, her arti­cle is based on a sharp sep­a­ra­tion between the log­i­cal struc­ture of cap­i­tal and its his­tor­i­cal dimen­sions; but, on the oth­er hand, it ends up con­flat­ing these very same lev­els, thus repro­duc­ing a clas­sic con­fu­sion that is unfor­tu­nate­ly com­mon in the work of many Marx­ist the­o­rists who would sub­scribe to the the­ses of Wood’s arti­cle.

To put this point more clear­ly: as soon as we accept this dis­tinc­tion between the log­i­cal struc­ture of cap­i­tal and its his­tor­i­cal dimen­sions, we can then accept the idea that the extrac­tion of sur­plus-val­ue takes place with­in the frame­work of rela­tions between for­mal­ly free and equal indi­vid­u­als with­out pre­sup­pos­ing dif­fer­ences in juridi­cal and polit­i­cal sta­tus. But we can do this only at a very high lev­el of abstraction–that is to say, at the lev­el of the log­i­cal struc­ture. From the point of view of con­crete his­to­ry, things change rad­i­cal­ly. Let’s take this issue point by point.

1. Let’s start from a fact: a cap­i­tal­ist social for­ma­tion devoid of gen­der oppres­sion (in its var­i­ous forms) has nev­er exist­ed. That cap­i­tal­ism was lim­it­ed to the use of pre-exist­ing inequal­i­ties in this process remains debat­able: impe­ri­al­ism and colo­nial­ism con­tributed to the intro­duc­tion of gen­der hier­ar­chies in soci­eties where they did not exist before, or exist­ed in a much more nuanced way. The process of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion was accom­pa­nied by the equal­ly impor­tant expro­pri­a­tion of women from dif­fer­ent forms of prop­er­ty to which they had access, and pro­fes­sions that they had been able to hold through­out the High Mid­dle Ages; the alter­na­tion of process­es of the fem­i­niza­tion and defem­i­niza­tion of labor con­tributed to the con­tin­u­al recon­fig­u­ra­tion of fam­i­ly rela­tions, cre­at­ing new forms of oppres­sion based on gen­der. The advent of the reifi­ca­tion of gen­der iden­ti­ty start­ing from the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry con­tributed to the rein­force­ment of a het­ero­nor­ma­tive matrix that had oppres­sive con­se­quences for women, but not only them.

Oth­er exam­ples could be cit­ed. To say that women obtained for­mal free­doms and polit­i­cal rights, until then unimag­in­able, only under cap­i­tal­ism, because this sys­tem had cre­at­ed the social con­di­tions allow­ing for this process of eman­ci­pa­tion, is an argu­ment of ques­tion­able valid­i­ty. One could, in fact, say the exact same thing for the work­ing class as a whole: it is only with­in cap­i­tal­ism that the con­di­tions were cre­at­ed allow­ing for the polit­i­cal eman­ci­pa­tion of the sub­al­tern stra­ta and that this class became a sub­ject capa­ble of attain­ing impor­tant demo­c­ra­t­ic vic­to­ries. So what? Would this demon­strate that cap­i­tal­ism could eas­i­ly do with­out the exploita­tion of the work­ing class? I don’t think so. It is bet­ter to drop the ref­er­ence to what women have or have not obtained: if women have obtained some­thing, it is both because they have strug­gled for it, and because with cap­i­tal­ism, the social con­di­tions have been favor­able to the birth of mass social move­ments and mod­ern pol­i­tics. But this is true for the work­ing class as well.

2. It is impor­tant to dis­tin­guish what is func­tion­al to cap­i­tal­ism and what is a nec­es­sary con­se­quence of it. The two con­cepts are dif­fer­ent.  It is per­haps dif­fi­cult to show at a high lev­el of abstrac­tion that gen­der oppres­sion is essen­tial to the inner work­ings of cap­i­tal­ism. It is true that cap­i­tal­ist com­pe­ti­tion con­tin­u­al­ly cre­ates dif­fer­ences and inequal­i­ties, but these inequal­i­ties, from an abstract point of view, are not nec­es­sar­i­ly gen­der-relat­ed. If we were to think of cap­i­tal­ism as “pure,” that is, ana­lyze it on the basis of its essen­tial mech­a­nisms, then maybe Wood would be right. How­ev­er, this does not prove that cap­i­tal­ism would not nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­duce, as a result of its con­crete func­tion­ing, the con­stant repro­duc­tion of gen­der oppres­sion, often under diverse forms.

3. Last­ly, we must return to the dis­tinc­tion between the log­i­cal lev­el and the his­tor­i­cal lev­el. What is pos­si­ble from log­i­cal view­point and what hap­pens at the lev­el of his­tor­i­cal process­es are two pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent things. Cap­i­tal­ism always exists in con­crete social for­ma­tions that each have their own spe­cif­ic his­to­ry. As I have already said, these social for­ma­tions are char­ac­ter­ized by the con­stant and per­va­sive pres­ence of gen­der oppres­sion. Let us sup­pose, as a thought exper­i­ment, that these hier­ar­chies in the divi­sion of labor were based upon oth­er forms of inequal­i­ty (large and small, old and young, fat and skin­ny, those who speak an Indo-Euro­pean lan­guage ver­sus those who speak oth­er lan­guages, etc.). Let’s sup­pose as well that preg­nan­cy and birth are com­plete­ly mech­a­nized and that the whole sphere of emo­tion­al rela­tion­ships can be com­mod­i­fied and man­aged by pri­vate ser­vices… briefly, let’s sup­pose all of this. Is this a plau­si­ble vision from a his­tor­i­cal point of view? Can gen­der oppres­sion be so eas­i­ly replaced by oth­er types of hier­ar­chi­cal rela­tions, which would appear as nat­ur­al and be as deeply root­ed in the psy­che? These sce­nar­ios seem legit­i­mate­ly doubt­ful.

Towards Concrete Historical Analysis

To con­clude: in order to respond to the ques­tion of whether it is pos­si­ble for women’s eman­ci­pa­tion and lib­er­a­tion to be attained under the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, we must look for the answer at the lev­el of con­crete his­tor­i­cal analy­sis, not at the lev­el of a high­ly abstract analy­sis of cap­i­tal.

It is indeed here where we find not only Wood’s mis­step, but also the error of many Marx­ist the­o­rists who remain fierce­ly attached to the idea of a hier­ar­chy between (prin­ci­pal) exploita­tion and (sec­ondary) oppres­sion. If we want to pose the polit­i­cal aspect of this ques­tion and also be in a posi­tion to respond to it, we must have a his­tor­i­cal con­cep­tion of what cap­i­tal­ism is today and what it has been his­tor­i­cal­ly. This is one of the points of depar­ture for a Marx­ist fem­i­nism where the notion of social repro­duc­tion occu­pies a cen­tral role.

IV. Rethinking Capital, Rethinking Gender

In the pre­vi­ous sec­tion, I tried to clar­i­fy the lim­its of the “frag­ment­ed thought” which presents the dif­fer­ent types of oppres­sion and dom­i­na­tion as each being con­nect­ed to an autonomous sys­tem, with­out under­stand­ing their intrin­sic uni­ty. More­over, I crit­i­cized the read­ing of the rela­tion between cap­i­tal and gen­der oppres­sion that relies on what I called an “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism.” It is time now to approach “uni­tary the­o­ry,” as well as the con­cept of “social repro­duc­tion.”

Reconceptualizing Capital

The dual­ist posi­tions often begin from the idea that the Marx­ist cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my only ana­lyzes the eco­nom­ic laws of cap­i­tal­ism, through sole­ly eco­nom­ic cat­e­gories. This approach would be inad­e­quate to under­stand such com­plex phe­nom­e­na as the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of pow­er rela­tions, or the dis­cur­sive prac­tices that con­sti­tute us as sub­jects. This is why alter­na­tive epis­te­mo­log­i­cal approach­es are deemed to be more capa­ble of see­ing caus­es that lie out­side the domain of eco­nom­ics, and more ade­quate for under­stand­ing the speci­fici­ty and irre­ducible nature of these social rela­tions.

This posi­tion is shared across a broad spec­trum of fem­i­nist the­o­rists. Some of them have sug­gest­ed that we need a “mar­riage” or eclec­tic com­bi­na­tion between dif­fer­ent types of crit­i­cal analy­ses, some devot­ed to the “pure” eco­nom­ic laws of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion, and oth­ers address­ing oth­er forms of social rela­tions. On the oth­er hand, oth­er the­o­rists have embraced what is called the “lin­guis­tic turn” in fem­i­nist the­o­ry, which sep­a­rates the cri­tique of gen­der oppres­sion from the cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism. In both cas­es, there is the com­mon assump­tion that “pure eco­nom­ic laws” exist, inde­pen­dent from spe­cif­ic rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion and alien­ation. It is pre­cise­ly this assump­tion that must be crit­i­cal­ly ques­tioned. For rea­sons of space, I will lim­it myself to high­light­ing two aspects of the Marx­i­an cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my.

1. A rela­tion of exploita­tion always implies a rela­tion of dom­i­na­tion and alien­ation.

These three aspects are nev­er tru­ly sep­a­rat­ed in the Marx­i­an cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my. The work­er is before every­thing else a liv­ing and think­ing body and is sub­mit­ted to spe­cif­ic forms of dis­ci­pline that remold her. As Marx writes, the pro­duc­tive process “pro­duces” the work­er to the same extent that it repro­duces the work-cap­i­tal­ist rela­tion. Since each process of pro­duc­tion is always con­crete – that is to say, char­ac­ter­ized by aspects that are his­tor­i­cal­ly and geo­graph­i­cal­ly deter­mined – it is pos­si­ble to con­ceive of each pro­duc­tive process as being linked to a dis­ci­pli­nary process, which par­tial­ly con­structs the type of sub­ject the work­er becomes.

We can say the same thing for the con­sump­tion of com­modi­ties: as Kevin Floyd has shown in his analy­sis of the for­ma­tion of sex­u­al iden­ti­ty, com­mod­i­ty con­sump­tion entails a dis­ci­pli­nary aspect and par­tic­i­pates in the reifi­ca­tion of sex­u­al iden­ti­ty. Con­sump­tion thus takes part in the process of sub­ject-for­ma­tion.

2. For Marx, pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion form an indi­vis­i­ble uni­ty.

In oth­er words, while they are dis­tinct and sep­a­rate and have spe­cif­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics, pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion are nec­es­sar­i­ly com­bined as con­crete moments of an artic­u­lat­ed total­i­ty. Repro­duc­tion is under­stood here as the process of the repro­duc­tion of a soci­ety as a whole, or in Althusser­ian terms, the repro­duc­tion of the con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion: edu­ca­tion, the cul­ture indus­try, the Church, the police, the army, the health­care sys­tem, sci­ence, gen­der dis­cours­es, con­sump­tion habits…  all these aspects play a cru­cial role in the repro­duc­tion of spe­cif­ic rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. Althuss­er not­ed in “Ide­ol­o­gy and Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tus­es” that with­out the repro­duc­tion of the con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion, a social for­ma­tion would not be able to hold togeth­er for even one year.

It is essen­tial, how­ev­er, not to under­stand the rela­tion between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion in a mech­a­nis­tic or deter­min­is­tic man­ner. In fact, if Marx under­stands cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety as a total­i­ty, he nonethe­less does not under­stand it as an “expres­sive” total­i­ty: put oth­er­wise, there is no auto­mat­ic or direct “reflec­tion” between the dif­fer­ent moments of this total­i­ty (art, cul­ture, eco­nom­ic struc­ture, etc.), or between one par­tic­u­lar moment and the total­i­ty as a whole.

At the same time, an analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism that does not under­stand this uni­ty between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion will fall back into a vul­gar mate­ri­al­ism or economism, and Marx does not make this mis­take. Beyond his polit­i­cal writ­ings, Cap­i­tal itself is proof of this, for exam­ple in the sec­tions on the strug­gle over the work­ing day or on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion. In these pas­sages, one can clear­ly see that coer­cion, the active inter­ven­tion of the State, and class strug­gle are in fact con­sti­tu­tive com­po­nents of a rela­tion of exploita­tion that is not deter­mined by pure­ly eco­nom­ic or mechan­i­cal laws.

These obser­va­tions allow us to high­light how this idea that Marx con­ceives cap­i­tal­ism sole­ly in eco­nom­ic terms is unten­able. This is not to say that there have not been reduc­tion­ist or vul­gar mate­ri­al­ist ten­den­cies with­in the Marx­ist tra­di­tion. This means, how­ev­er, that these ten­den­cies relied on a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of the nature of the Marx­i­an cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my and a fetishiza­tion of eco­nom­ic laws, the lat­ter con­ceived as sta­t­ic things or as abstract struc­tures rather than as forms of activ­i­ty or human rela­tions.

An alter­na­tive, opposed assump­tion to the sep­a­ra­tion between the pure­ly eco­nom­ic laws of cap­i­tal­ism and oth­er sys­tems of dom­i­na­tion amounts to con­ceiv­ing the uni­ty between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion as a direct iden­ti­ty. This point of view char­ac­ter­izes a sec­tion of Marx­ist-fem­i­nist thought, in par­tic­u­lar the work­erist tra­di­tion, which insist­ed on see­ing repro­duc­tive labor as direct­ly pro­duc­tive of sur­plus-val­ue, and thus gov­erned by the same laws.

Again, for rea­sons of space, I will lim­it myself to the obser­va­tion that such a point of view returns to a form of reduc­tion­ism, which obscures the dif­fer­ence between var­i­ous social rela­tions and does not help us under­stand the spe­cif­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics of diverse rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion that are not only con­stant­ly repro­duced but also trans­formed with­in each cap­i­tal­ist social for­ma­tion. More­over, it does not help us to ana­lyze the spe­cif­ic way in which cer­tain rela­tions of pow­er are locat­ed out­side of the labor mar­ket, while still being indi­rect­ly influ­enced by this mar­ket: for exam­ple, through dif­fer­ent forms of com­mod­i­ty con­sump­tion, or through the objec­tive con­straints that wage labor (or its equiv­a­lent, unem­ploy­ment) impos­es on per­son­al life and inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships.

To con­clude, I pro­pose to rethink the Marx­i­an cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism as a cri­tique of an artic­u­lat­ed and con­tra­dic­to­ry total­i­ty of rela­tions of exploita­tion, dom­i­na­tion, and alien­ation.

Social Reproduction and “Unitary Theory”

In light of this method­olog­i­cal clar­i­fi­ca­tion, we now have to under­stand what is meant by “social repro­duc­tion” with­in what is gen­er­al­ly called “uni­tary the­o­ry.” The term social repro­duc­tion, in the Marx­ist tra­di­tion, usu­al­ly indi­cates the process of repro­duc­tion of a soci­ety in its total­i­ty, as already men­tioned. In the fem­i­nist Marx­ist tra­di­tion, how­ev­er, social repro­duc­tion means some­thing more pre­cise: the main­te­nance and repro­duc­tion of life, at the dai­ly or gen­er­a­tional lev­el. In this con­text, social repro­duc­tion des­ig­nates the way in which the phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al, and men­tal labor nec­es­sary for the pro­duc­tion of the pop­u­la­tion is social­ly orga­nized: for exam­ple, food prepa­ra­tion, youth edu­ca­tion, care for the elder­ly and the sick, as well as ques­tions of hous­ing and all the way to ques­tions of sex­u­al­i­ty…

The con­cept of social repro­duc­tion has the advan­tage of enlarg­ing our vision of what was pre­vi­ous­ly called domes­tic labor, and which a large part of Marx­ist-fem­i­nism has focused on. In fact, social repro­duc­tion includes with­in its con­cept a series of social prac­tices and types of labor that go well beyond only domes­tic labor. It also makes it pos­si­ble to extend analy­sis out­side the walls of the home, since the labor of social repro­duc­tion is not always found in the same forms: what part of the lat­ter comes from the mar­ket, the wel­fare state, and fam­i­ly rela­tions, remains a con­tin­gent ques­tion that depends on spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal dynam­ics and fem­i­nist strug­gles.

The con­cept of social repro­duc­tion, then, allows us to locate more pre­cise­ly the mobile and porous qual­i­ty of the walls of the home: in oth­er words, the rela­tion between, on the one hand, domes­tic life with­in the home, and the phe­nom­e­na of com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion, the sex­u­al­iza­tion of the divi­sion of labor, and the poli­cies of the wel­fare-state on the oth­er. Social repro­duc­tion also enables us to more effec­tive­ly ana­lyze phe­nom­e­na like the rela­tion between the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of care-work and its “racial­iza­tion” by repres­sive migra­tion poli­cies, such as those that aim to low­er the costs of immi­grant labor and force them to accept slave-like work­ing con­di­tions.

Final­ly, and this is the cru­cial point, the way social repro­duc­tion func­tions with­in a giv­en social for­ma­tion has an intrin­sic rela­tion to the way the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of soci­eties are orga­nized in their total­i­ty, and there­fore to class rela­tions. Once again, these rela­tions can­not be con­ceived as pure­ly acci­den­tal and con­tin­gent inter­sec­tions: view­ing them through the lens of social repro­duc­tion allows us to iden­ti­fy the orga­niz­ing log­ic of these inter­sec­tions with­out for this rea­son exclud­ing the role played by strug­gle, and the exis­tence of con­tin­gent phe­nom­e­na and prac­tices in gen­er­al.

We must keep in mind that the sphere of social repro­duc­tion is also deter­mi­nant in the for­ma­tion of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, and thus rela­tions of pow­er. If we take into account the rela­tions that exist in each cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety between social repro­duc­tion, the pro­duc­tion of the soci­ety as a whole, and the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, we can say that these rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion and pow­er are not sep­a­rate struc­tures or lev­els: they do not inter­sect in a pure­ly exter­nal man­ner and do not main­tain a sole­ly con­tin­gent rela­tion with the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion.

The mul­ti­ple rela­tions of pow­er and dom­i­na­tion there­fore appear as con­crete expres­sions of the artic­u­lat­ed and con­tra­dic­to­ry uni­ty that is cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. This process should not be under­stood in an auto­mat­ic or mech­a­nis­tic man­ner. As not­ed before, we must not for­get the dimen­sion of human prax­is: cap­i­tal­ism is not a machine or automa­ton but a social rela­tion, and as such, is sub­ject to con­tin­gen­cies, acci­dents, and con­flicts. How­ev­er, con­tin­gen­cies and con­flicts do not rule out the exis­tence of a log­ic – name­ly, cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion – that impos­es objec­tive con­straints not only on our prax­is or lived expe­ri­ence but also on our abil­i­ty to pro­duce and artic­u­late rela­tions with oth­ers, our place in the world, and our rela­tions with our con­di­tions of exis­tence.

This is exact­ly what “uni­tary the­o­ry” tries to grasp: to be able to read rela­tions of pow­er based on gen­der or sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion as con­crete moments of the artic­u­lat­ed, com­plex, and con­tra­dic­to­ry total­i­ty that is con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism. From this point of view, these con­crete moments cer­tain­ly pos­sess their own spe­cif­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics, and thus must be ana­lyzed with ade­quate and spe­cif­ic the­o­ret­i­cal tools (from psy­cho­analy­sis to lit­er­ary the­o­ry…), but they also main­tain an inter­nal rela­tion with this larg­er total­i­ty and with the process of soci­etal repro­duc­tion that pro­ceeds accord­ing to the log­ic of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion.

The essen­tial the­sis of “uni­tary the­o­ry” is that for Marx­ist fem­i­nism, gen­der oppres­sion and racial oppres­sion do not cor­re­spond to two autonomous sys­tems which have their own par­tic­u­lar caus­es: they have become an inte­gral part of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety through a long his­tor­i­cal process that has dis­solved pre­ced­ing forms of social life.

From this point of view, it would be mis­tak­en to see both as mere residues of past social for­ma­tions that con­tin­ue to exist with­in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety for rea­sons per­tain­ing to their anchor­ing in the human psy­che or in the antag­o­nism between sexed “class­es,” etc. This is not to under­es­ti­mate the psy­cho­log­i­cal dimen­sion of gen­der and sex­u­al oppres­sion or the con­tra­dic­tions between oppres­sors and oppressed. It is, how­ev­er, a mat­ter of iden­ti­fy­ing the social con­di­tions and frame­work pro­vid­ed by class rela­tions that impact, repro­duce, and influ­ence our per­cep­tions of our­selves and of our rela­tions to oth­ers, our behav­iors, and our prac­tices.

This frame­work is the log­ic of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion, which impos­es fun­da­men­tal lim­its and con­straints on our lived expe­ri­ences and how we inter­pret them. The fact that such a large num­ber of fem­i­nist the­o­ret­i­cal cur­rents over the last few decades have been able to avoid ana­lyz­ing this process, and the cru­cial role played by cap­i­tal in gen­der oppres­sion in its var­i­ous forms, attests to the pow­er of cap­i­tal to co-opt our ideas and influ­ence our modes of think­ing.

This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled Gen­der and Cap­i­tal­ism: Debat­ing Cinzia Arruzza’s “Remarks on Gen­der.”

  1. This is a trans­la­tion of a series of remarks that were orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Ital­ian for the Com­mu­nia Net­work web­site as “rif­lessoni degeneri,” and sub­se­quent­ly in French (trans­lat­ed by Sylvia Ner­i­na) for Avan­ti. The four install­ments appeared over the course of a few months for a pri­mar­i­ly Ital­ian audi­ence. The indi­vid­ual remarks have been com­bined into one arti­cle, and the author has made some nec­es­sary changes to the text for the Eng­lish-lan­guage ver­sion. It was trans­lat­ed from the French by Patrick King with assis­tance from the author. 

  2. See Daniel Ben­saïd, Marx for Our Times, trans. Gre­go­ry Elliott (Lon­don, New York: Ver­so, 2002), 227-228. 

  3. Claude Meil­las­soux, Maid­ens, Meal and Mon­ey: Cap­i­tal­ism and the Domes­tic Com­mu­ni­ty (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1981). 

Author of the article

is a member of the editorial collective at Viewpoint Magazine and an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York and a feminist and socialist activist. She is the author of the author of Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism.