Capitalism and Gender Oppression: Remarks on Cinzia Arruzza’s “Remarks on Gender”

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic, 1919.
Han­nah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Bel­ly of the Weimar Repub­lic, 1919.

Fem­i­nist the­o­rists today are increas­ing­ly return­ing to the insight that cap­i­tal­ism must con­sti­tute the crit­i­cal frame for under­stand­ing con­tem­po­rary forms of gen­der oppres­sion. Inves­ti­gat­ing the rela­tion­ship between fem­i­nism and cap­i­tal­ism rais­es a host of dif­fi­cult ques­tions, how­ev­er, which Cinzia Arruz­za faces head on in her lucid essay. She gives an illu­mi­na­tive roadmap of the ter­rain in which this issue was debat­ed in the 1970s and 1980s by lay­ing out three dif­fer­ent the­ses on how cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion are relat­ed: dual or triple sys­tems the­o­ry, indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism, and the uni­tary the­sis. She begins by assess­ing care­ful­ly the prob­lems of the first two posi­tions and con­cludes by defend­ing the third, the uni­tary the­sis: in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties, a patri­ar­chal sys­tem that would be autonomous and dis­tinct from cap­i­tal­ism no longer exists. Instead of treat­ing gen­der and sex­u­al oppres­sion as sep­a­rate forms of dom­i­na­tion, a uni­tary Marx­ist-fem­i­nist the­o­ry must incor­po­rate them in the total frame­work of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion.

Sim­i­lar to Marx him­self, Arruzza’s argu­ment is both his­tor­i­cal as well as philo­soph­i­cal. She con­tends that gen­der oppres­sion and racial oppres­sion have become “an inte­gral part of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety through a long his­tor­i­cal process that has dis­solved pre­ced­ing forms of social life.” The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, she insists that we have to under­stand cap­i­tal­ism not mere­ly as an eco­nom­ic sys­tem or a dis­tinct mode of pro­duc­tion, but as a com­plex and artic­u­lat­ed social order that essen­tial­ly con­sists of rela­tions of exploita­tion, dom­i­na­tion, and alien­ation. Such an enlarged con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism allows us to rec­og­nize the irre­place­able role of social repro­duc­tion in it – the dai­ly and inter­gen­er­a­tional main­te­nance and repro­duc­tion of social life. From such an expand­ed the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tive, patri­ar­chal gen­der rela­tions appear intrin­sic, rather than mere­ly con­tin­gent or instru­men­tal for the way that social repro­duc­tion is orga­nized in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties.

I strong­ly agree with Arruz­za on sev­er­al points of her argu­ment, start­ing with the impor­tance and the urgen­cy of the top­ic she rais­es: a crit­i­cal analy­sis of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism is a press­ing task for fem­i­nist the­o­ry today. I am in full agree­ment with her on the need to rec­og­nize that social repro­duc­tion forms an essen­tial con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ty for con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ist economies. I also find her cri­tique of the first the­sis – the dual sys­tems the­o­ries – astute and con­vinc­ing. Arruz­za inci­sive­ly sum­ma­rizes the prob­lems that Marx­ist-fem­i­nists faced in try­ing to mod­el gen­der oppres­sion on class exploita­tion by the­o­riz­ing patri­archy and cap­i­tal­ism as sim­i­lar, yet dis­tinct sys­tems of oppres­sion. While men clear­ly ben­e­fit­ted from a sex­ist divi­sion of labor, there was no “sur­plus” in the strict­ly Marx­ist sense that men were able to appro­pri­ate from women’s unpaid work at home. Nei­ther did wom­en form a uni­fied, tran­shis­tor­i­cal class with essen­tial­ly the same inter­ests; instead the inter­sec­tions of class, gen­der, and racial oppres­sion called for more speci­fic and his­tor­i­cal­ly var­ied analy­ses.

How­ev­er, I have some prob­lems with Arruzza’s dis­missal of the sec­ond posi­tion, indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism, as well as her endorse­ment of the third, the uni­tary the­sis. But before I turn to exam­ine them more close­ly, I want to make a more gen­er­al remark that under­lies my con­cerns here. Arruz­za notes at the begin­ning of her essay that the debate on the struc­tural rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal­ism and patri­archy became increas­ing­ly unfash­ion­able in the 1980s. She com­mends the many fem­i­nists who have nev­er­the­less con­tin­ued to work on the ques­tion at the risk of seem­ing out of touch with the times. In the mid­st of our cur­rent eco­nom­ic and social cri­sis, we are now well advised to return to their analy­ses.

I want to insist that returns are nev­er easy: some­thing more than intel­lec­tu­al fash­ion changed in the 1980s and 1990s. Empir­i­cal­ly, neolib­er­al­ism and glob­al­iza­tion hap­pened; the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, post-struc­tural­ism hap­pened. Both of the­se changes mean that the ter­rain upon which the ques­tions about cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion have to be posed has rad­i­cal­ly changed, too. Hence, it may not be enough to find new answers to the old ques­tion of what is the “orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple” con­nect­ing patri­archy and cap­i­tal­ism. We may have to pose com­plete­ly new ques­tions.

*

The prob­lem the ear­ly Marx­ist-fem­i­nist projects faced was eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism. The moti­va­tion behind devel­op­ing so-called dual sys­tems the­o­ries was the real­iza­tion that gen­der oppres­sion was not mere­ly an eco­nom­ic phe­nom­e­non, but some­thing that tra­versed all aspects of social life. It was not only cap­i­tal­ists who were ben­e­fit­ting from gen­der oppres­sion, but all men. As Hei­di Hart­man not­ed sharply in her defin­i­tive essay: “Men have more to lose than their chains.”1 In oth­er words, if fem­i­nists were going to ana­lyze women’s sub­or­di­na­tion through the the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work of cap­i­tal­ism, and to avoid eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism, it seemed appar­ent that they had to either sup­ple­ment the exist­ing eco­nom­ic analy­ses of cap­i­tal­ism with their own analy­ses of oth­er, com­ple­men­tary or inter­sect­ing forms of oppres­sion, or they need­ed to adopt a broad­er, “non-eco­nom­ic” con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. The uni­tary the­o­ries that Arruz­za defends opt­ed for the lat­ter alter­na­tive.

The prob­lem that uni­tary the­o­ries face, how­ev­er, is that while they forge con­nec­tions between seem­ing­ly frag­ment­ed and iso­lat­ed phe­nom­e­na, they do so at the cost of hid­ing con­tra­dic­tions, his­tor­i­cal con­tin­gen­cies and sin­gu­lar­i­ties under gen­er­al­i­ty. They inevitably risk solid­i­fy­ing diver­si­ty and the­o­ret­i­cal speci­fici­ty into a total­i­ty. Arruz­za is very aware of this prob­lem and tries to avoid it by insist­ing that we need a rad­i­cal­ly his­tori­cized analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism. She empha­sizes that while sur­plus-val­ue extrac­tion is a dis­tinc­tive and defin­ing fea­ture of cap­i­tal­ism, try­ing to explain cap­i­tal­ism by this process alone 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.” Instead of only con­sid­er­ing the heart, we have to under­stand cap­i­tal­ism as “a ver­sa­tile, con­tra­dic­to­ry total­i­ty, con­tin­u­al­ly in move­ment, with rela­tions of exploita­tion and alien­ation that are con­stant­ly in a process of trans­for­ma­tion.” She sounds very Fou­cauldian when she empha­sizes that cap­i­tal­ism con­sists of var­ied and dif­fuse pow­er rela­tions: “pow­er rela­tions con­nect­ed to gen­der, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, race, nation­al­i­ty, and reli­gion.” More­over, there is no uni­di­rec­tion­al and over­ar­ch­ing ratio­nal­i­ty that explains them all. Although she insists that all the­se pow­er rela­tions “are put in the ser­vice of the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal and its repro­duc­tion,” this often hap­pens “in vary­ing, unpre­dictable, and con­tra­dic­to­ry ways.”

Once we insist that cap­i­tal­ism is in fact ver­sa­tile, adapt­able, his­tor­i­cal­ly dynam­ic and that it con­tains con­tra­dic­to­ry ten­den­cies, dif­fuse pow­er rela­tions and pro­duces unpre­dictable effects, how­ev­er, we seem to be rapid­ly emp­ty­ing the notion out of its explana­to­ry force. If every­thing is cap­i­tal­ism, then noth­ing is. In oth­er words, if we give up the idea that the func­tion­ing of the heart can explain the func­tion­ing of the whole human body, then we seem to have given up the idea that we can find one “orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple” that explains gen­der oppres­sion in cap­i­tal­ism. We can still grant that the eco­nom­ic log­ic of cap­i­tal­ism explains some­thing, or even a great deal about gen­der oppres­sion, but we nev­er­the­less need a vari­ety of oth­er crit­i­cal analy­ses that are linked with the analy­sis of class exploita­tion, and with each oth­er, in com­plex and his­tor­i­cal­ly con­tin­gent ways. In oth­er words, it seems to me that a rad­i­cal­ly his­tori­cized and com­plex ver­sion of the uni­tary the­o­ry in fact makes it more or less indis­tin­guish­able from a his­tori­cized ver­sion of the sec­ond the­sis, which Arruz­za calls “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” – the the­sis that the rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion is oppor­tunis­tic and his­tor­i­cal­ly con­tin­gent.

When dis­cussing this sec­ond “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” the­sis Arruz­za switch­es back to a more nar­row, essen­tial­ly eco­nom­ic under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism as a dis­tinct mode of pro­duc­tion and high­lights one of its key defin­ing fea­tures: in cap­i­tal­ist mod­es of pro­duc­tion, pro­duc­tion aims at cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion – the max­i­miza­tion of prof­its. All oth­er nor­ma­tiv­i­ties are sub­servient to this over­rid­ing goal. When we focus on its eco­nom­ic log­ic, cap­i­tal­ism now appears to have a mere­ly con­tin­gent and oppor­tunis­tic rela­tion­ship to gen­der oppres­sion. When women’s sub­or­di­na­tion and gen­dered divi­sion of labor are ben­e­fi­cial for the goal of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion, cap­i­tal­ism works in tandem with mech­a­nisms of gen­der oppres­sion. In geo­graph­i­cal loca­tions and his­tor­i­cal peri­ods in which the reverse is true, how­ev­er, it is com­plete­ly con­ceiv­able that cap­i­tal­ism and fem­i­nism are in fact allies. In oth­er words, there is no intrin­sic or essen­tial rela­tion­ship between them. Arruz­za notes that those fem­i­nists who argue that cap­i­tal­ism is good for wom­en have read­i­ly appro­pri­at­ed this the­sis: cap­i­tal­ism has no intrin­sic ties to par­tic­u­lar iden­ti­ties, inequal­i­ties, or extra-eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, or juridi­cal dif­fer­ences.

Just because a the­sis can be appro­pri­at­ed to defend cap­i­tal­ism does not mean that it is false, how­ev­er. As Arruz­za notes at the begin­ning of her arti­cle, we have to care­ful­ly dis­tin­guish between log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal ver­sions of this the­sis and there­fore between log­i­cal or meta­phys­i­cal neces­si­ty on the one hand, and empir­i­cal or his­tor­i­cal neces­si­ty, on the oth­er. Even if we accept that cap­i­tal­ism, now under­stood as a dis­tinct eco­nom­ic sys­tem of pro­duc­tion, does not log­i­cal­ly need gen­der inequal­i­ty, his­tor­i­cal­ly things are not so sim­ple. Arruz­za admits her­self that it is “per­haps dif­fi­cult to show at a high lev­el of abstrac­tion that gen­der oppres­sion is essen­tial to the inner work­ings of cap­i­tal­ism,” but insists that her argu­ment con­cerns the way things are now, in our lived, his­tor­i­cal real­i­ty.

In oth­er words, what I take her to be argu­ing is that if we oper­ate with an abstract, eco­nom­ic def­i­n­i­tion of cap­i­tal­ism that iden­ti­fies it through its eco­nom­ic log­ic, then it is impos­si­ble to make a nec­es­sary, log­i­cal con­nec­tion between cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion. The rela­tion­ship is his­tor­i­cal­ly con­tin­gent and oppor­tunis­tic. How­ev­er, if we move to the lev­el of lived real­i­ty where cap­i­tal­ism denotes a total­i­ty – a his­tor­i­cal­ly speci­fic social for­ma­tion con­sist­ing of all the myr­i­ad social prac­tices in which we are involved dai­ly – then the two become indis­tin­guish­able. Here Arruz­za and I are again in full agree­ment: I think that both of the­se claims are valid and onto­log­i­cal­ly true at the same time.

How­ev­er, my prob­lem is method­olog­i­cal. Once we have moved on to the lev­el of a total­i­ty, the lev­el of our lived real­i­ty, there is not much else that can be sig­nif­i­cant­ly stat­ed about the con­nec­tion between cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion than that they are inter­twined or inher­ent­ly con­nect­ed. The propo­si­tion becomes non-fal­si­fi­able. Stat­ing that some­thing in a total social for­ma­tion is con­nect­ed to some­thing else in it is obvi­ous­ly true in a triv­ial sense. But on this lev­el it seems dif­fi­cult to explain the link between cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion through a sin­gle orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple. To explain any­thing at all about their con­nec­tion, we have move back to some form of “frag­ment­ed thought”: retrieve a more pre­cise def­i­n­i­tion of cap­i­tal­ism and then study the myr­i­ad and often con­tra­dic­to­ry ways in which the eco­nom­ic log­ic of cap­i­tal­ism deter­mi­nes, inter­sects or shapes his­tor­i­cal­ly speci­fic, gen­dered social prac­tices.

*

It is my con­tention that today we can iden­ti­fy at least two dif­fer­ent and oppos­ing ways that the cap­i­tal­ist log­ic of accu­mu­la­tion – the imper­a­tive of eco­nom­ic growth – inter­sects with gen­der oppres­sion. On the one hand, the rapid neolib­er­al­iza­tion of our economies in recent decades has result­ed in a con­stant dri­ve to extend the reach of the mar­ket. Accord­ing to neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic the­o­ry, com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion and pri­va­ti­za­tion are par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive means of speed­ing up eco­nom­ic growth given that the GDP is mea­sured in terms of mar­ket trans­ac­tions. This doc­trine is con­sis­tent with the attempts to com­mod­i­fy both the pri­vate and the pub­lic realms and to turn wom­en into wage-labor­ers. As the mar­ke­ti­za­tion of every­day life expands, peo­ple have come to increas­ing­ly rely on the affec­tive and care ser­vices that they now buy and which used to be pro­vid­ed main­ly by wom­en in the pri­vate realm. This has result­ed in new forms of gen­der oppres­sion, as it is often poor, immi­grant and third-world wom­en who end up pro­vid­ing the­se com­mod­i­fied ser­vices. The so-called “glob­al care chains” and the enor­mous growth in the traf­fick­ing of wom­en have become some of the gen­dered effects of glob­al­iza­tion.2

On the oth­er hand, it is also clear­ly ben­e­fi­cial for cap­i­tal­ism in the cur­rent his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture to rely on women’s unpaid repro­duc­tive labor in the pri­vate sphere. Even though it is pos­si­ble to con­struct eco­nom­ic thought exper­i­ments and to imag­ine, log­i­cal­ly, cap­i­tal­ist forms of pro­duc­tion that have com­plete­ly com­mod­i­fied social repro­duc­tion, his­tor­i­cal­ly we are still far from achiev­ing that. Attempts to com­mod­i­fy bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion and affec­tive rela­tion­ships, such as sex and love, encoun­ter both tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties as well as moral objec­tions in our cur­rent forms of life. The social pro­vi­sion of child­care and domes­tic labor, on the oth­er, is an obvi­ous hin­drance to the log­ic of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion because it requires pub­lic invest­ment. This must be count­ed as at least part of the expla­na­tion for why the fem­i­nist move­ment, despite decades of polit­i­cal strug­gle by now, has had very lit­tle suc­cess in social­iz­ing and ungen­der­ing repro­duc­tion. Wom­en are still expect­ed to take the main respon­si­bil­i­ty for the ear­ly pro­vi­sion­ing of child­care, as well as for most of the house­work.

Hence, we can iden­ti­fy oppos­ing ways to relate cap­i­tal­ist eco­nom­ic log­ic and gen­der oppres­sion – cap­i­tal­ism wants wom­en to both work and to stay at home –and we can find exam­ples of both incen­tives today. Wom­en are increas­ing­ly torn between the con­flict­ing demands of fem­i­nin­i­ty in neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties.3

A con­tra­dic­tion char­ac­ter­izes the gen­dered con­se­quences of recent eco­nom­ic crises too. The insta­bil­i­ty of cap­i­tal­ist economies has been nego­ti­at­ed in recent decades through neolib­er­al forms of gov­ern­men­tal­i­ty – new polit­i­cal tech­nolo­gies of pow­er and social reg­u­la­tion that empha­sise indi­vid­u­al respon­si­bil­i­ty in risk man­age­ment. While a sta­ble nuclear fam­i­ly was pre­vi­ous­ly under­stood to provide the nec­es­sary coun­ter­weight to com­pet­i­tive and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties, today social volatil­i­ty and eco­nom­ic risks have become increas­ing­ly cen­tral for prof­it mak­ing. It is espe­cial­ly the poor and the most vul­ner­a­ble seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion, for exam­ple, who have been forced into unprece­dent­ed lev­els of debt in recent decades, and whose indebt­ed­ness has there­by made pos­si­ble the growth of the lucra­tive cred­it mar­kets and the rapid finan­cial­iza­tion of West­ern economies. In oth­er words, the break­ing up of the sta­ble nuclear fam­i­ly and the col­lapse of the tra­di­tion­al gen­der order based on the idea of fam­i­ly-wage can be under­stood as both use­ful and harm­ful for cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion: on the one hand the dis­so­lu­tion of social cohe­sion and the grow­ing num­ber of poor, sin­gle-par­ent house­holds has pro­vid­ed new lucra­tive oppor­tu­ni­ties for cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion in the form of sub­prime lend­ing, for exam­ple; on the oth­er hand, the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the tra­di­tion­al gen­der order has result­ed in an inten­si­fied cri­sis of care in West­ern soci­eties and made the ques­tions con­cern­ing social repro­duc­tion appear as acute prob­lems in cap­i­tal­ism.

*

We should be mind­ful of Nietzsche’s asser­tion that only that which is with­out his­to­ry can be defined. Our con­cep­tions and the­o­ret­i­cal under­stand­ings of real­i­ty are pro­duced through polit­i­cal strug­gle and are thus always con­tin­gent and con­testable. All def­i­n­i­tions of cap­i­tal­ism must be under­stood as polit­i­cal acts, and their exten­sion and valid­i­ty remains open to con­stant con­tes­ta­tion. In oth­er words, cap­i­tal­ism does not “essen­tial­ly” mean any­thing. It is a the­o­ret­i­cal tool, or per­haps even a weapon, that I believe can be suc­cess­ful­ly deployed in sev­er­al con­texts.

Depend­ing on the the­o­ret­i­cal or polit­i­cal con­text in which it is deployed and the way it is defined there, we can do dif­fer­ent things with it. In polit­i­cal econ­o­my, it denotes a dis­tinc­tive mode of pro­duc­tion, which can be iden­ti­fied through a list of key fea­tures – pri­vate prop­er­ty, the dom­i­nance of wage labor, the allo­ca­tion of goods and ser­vices through mar­kets and so on – and use­ful­ly dis­tin­guished from oth­er types of eco­nom­ic sys­tems. In much of crit­i­cal social the­o­ry, on the oth­er hand, it denotes some­thing broad­er, usu­al­ly framed in terms of a total­i­ty or a com­pre­hen­sive social for­ma­tion. The clear advan­tage of such a total­iz­ing per­spec­tive is that it is capa­ble of the­o­ret­i­cal­ly con­nect­ing seem­ing­ly dis­parate phe­nom­e­na and there­fore polit­i­cal­ly unit­ing peo­ple who are able to rec­og­nize that their indi­vid­u­al prob­lems are not mere­ly local, psy­cho­log­i­cal or acci­den­tal.

How­ev­er, as I have tried to argue, there are also costs and risks involved in such total­is­tic think­ing. When cap­i­tal­ism is ana­lyzed as a mega-struc­ture or an all-encom­pass­ing explana­to­ry back­ground again­st which all oth­er things are under­stood, we risk los­ing a clear the­o­ret­i­cal focus and polit­i­cal aim. Not only do var­ied forms of gen­der oppres­sion have his­tor­i­cal­ly con­tin­gent rela­tion­ships to the dis­tinct and con­tra­dic­to­ry eco­nom­ic log­ics char­ac­ter­iz­ing con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism – fem­i­nist polit­i­cal strug­gles do too. In oth­er words, I want to cast our dis­agree­ment as ulti­mate­ly strate­gic: whilst Arruz­za defends a uni­tary the­o­ry based on an enlarged def­i­n­i­tion of cap­i­tal­ism because it can provide fem­i­nists with an effec­tive and cut­ting con­cep­tu­al weapon, I want to defend a more pre­cise def­i­n­i­tion and more var­ie­gat­ed his­tor­i­cal analy­ses – for the very same rea­son.


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


  1. Hei­di Hart­mann, “The Unhap­py Mar­riage of Patri­archy and Cap­i­tal­ism: Toward a More Pro­gres­sive Union,” Cap­i­tal & Class 3.2 (1979), 24. 

  2. The term “glob­al care chain” was first used by Arlie Hochschild to describe the links between peo­ple across the globe based on their roles in the transna­tion­al divi­sion of care work. See, Arlie Hochschild, “Glob­al Care Chains and Emo­tion­al Sur­plus Val­ue”, in On The Edge: Liv­ing with Glob­al Cap­i­tal­ism, eds. William Hut­ton and Antho­ny Gid­dens (Lon­don: Jonathan Cape, 2000), 131. 

  3. Cf. Johan­na Oksala, “The Neolib­er­al Sub­ject of Fem­i­nism,” Jour­nal of the British Soci­ety for Phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy 42.1 (2011), 104–120. 

Author of the article

is Academy of Finland Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and Visiting Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research, New York (2013-2015). Her research interests include political philosophy, feminist philosophy, 20th Century and Contemporary Continental Philosophy, Foucault, and phenomenology. She is the author of Feminist Experiences: Foucauldian and Phenomenological Investigations (forthcoming, Northwestern UP, 2015).