Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Patriarchy and the capitalist state

I have recently had cause to invoke the concept of 'patriarchy' a few times, in the context of the Saville scandal, and the Iowa supreme court's decision to back sexist employers. At first, I suggested that marxists should annexe the concept of patriarchy as a regional theory of which historical materialism is a general theory. Subsequently, I modified the concept by referring to 'capitalist patriarchy'. This is in the spirit of bell hooks' coining of the concept of 'white supremacist capitalist patriarchy', which is a way of acknowledging the tremendous variety of historical forms that patriarchy has taken, and the fact that it is already articulated with, intersecting with and overdetermined by the other types of social relationship that it emerges alongside. In this case of the Iowa Supreme Court, I was indicating that the relationship between traditional patriarchal types of authority, in the church and family, and capitalist and state power, was not merely incidental. I want to take this process of refining and modifying the concept further still, to some extent prompted by the 'Damina' case.

For in the extensive coverage, a couple of prominent factors have been the prevalent cultural forms that legitimise rape ('rape culture') and the entrenched attitudes of cops, courts and politicians. In the latter case, to borrow a phrase from Paul Gilroy, the filaments of sexist ideology are seen to disappear into (or obtrude from) the material institutions of the state. And I think the subject of gender and patriarchy is one where the particular role of the state and its active role in the organisation of the material practices of ideology repays attention. I therefore want to say a few things about what Bob Jessop called 'the gender selectivities of the state'.

Before going any further, I have to clarify that last turn of phrase. The state theorist Clause Offe coined the term 'structural selectivity' to account for the ways in which the state's capacities and institutions differentially enabled specific groups of actors to exercise political power in specific ways. Thus, in a simple form, one might say that it is structurally selective in favour of the capitalist class versus labour, that it works to organise the ruling class and disorganise the working class. Or perhaps, taking another example, it is structurally selective in favour of heteronormative, patriarchal sexual relationships, as opposed to polymorphous, polyamorous, queer, gender- and sex-egalitarian relationships. However, while this grasps something very important, the shortcoming of such an approach is that it appears to decide such questions at a high level of abstraction, irrespective of the conjuncture - implying that there are pre-given interests of capital, (or patriarchs, etc.) whose consequences are then simply worked out with particular consequences in certain given situations.

Jessop argued that this was a mistaken approach: specific interests and objectives are only decided in a given conjuncture with a given horizon of possibilities. They are articulated by actors (be they class actors or otherwise) with incomplete knowledge and only tendential unity. Furthermore, the state itself is not reducible to a structure or limitable to its institutional ensemble, but is rather a social relationship in which are involved a variety of contesting, contingently mobilised actors. Its selectivities are therefore strategic in that they have to be continually reproduced or altered by actors with certain capacities who are in struggle with others. Such selectivities may be stabilised over a very long period of time, as the recursive logic of selectivity is such that those who exercise state power continually reproduce the same selectivities in struggle with those who would try to alter them. They can be institutionalised in ways that make them extremely difficult to shift. Likewise, inasmuch as the capitalist state is always-already articulated with capitalist production, and is dependent upon its particular laws of motion and tendencies, its selectivities will be consistently responsive to those laws and tendencies. But there is nonetheless a degree of contingency, insofar as the state's selectivities depend on the provisional outcomes of open-ended struggles. The Poulantzian thesis, that the state is the material condensation of the balance of class forces, can thus be extended to: the state is the material condensation of the balance of political forces of all types.

A consequence of this approach for the analysis of 'the gender selectivities of the state' is that it would be profoundly mistaken to see these as conforming to a single systemic logic. It would make no sense to see patriarchy as a system in which the state is the patriarch-general, or a committee for the management of the common affairs of patriarchs. It is one thing to use patriarchy as a commonsense synonym for male domination in families, politics, 'business', religion, and so on. But if patriarchy as an analytic is conceived as a transhistorical structure of male domination, which can subsume all mechanisms and relations in which the subordination of women has historically been secured under a single logic, then clearly it is inadequate. At most, we can speak of a particular, localised, historically produced type of gendered regime which can survive through various modulations and appears in quite diverse forms across modes of production and social formations.

If the marxist thesis is correct, and class is the central antagonism in any society around which other antagonisms then become articulated, one can see how forms that originally developed in a pre-capitalist system, such as the patriarchal family, can be subsumed and transformed by the dynamics of an emerging capitalist system. In much the same way that pre-feudal forms such as the fyrd militias were incorporated into the Norman feudal state and thus transformed, so the feudal family form was incorporated into the capitalist state and transformed. Whereas patriarchy in the feudal system was centred on the feudal lord and his control of the manor and its associated productive apparatuses, in the early phase of capitalism it was increasingly privatised and based on a sexual division of labour that confined women to domesticity and unwaged labour. In the later development of capitalism, however, patriarchy has experience a secular and probably irreversible decline in several of its traditional sites (family, job and church). The dissolution of the patriarchal family is at the centre of this: in all of the core capitalist states, marriage rates are falling, divorce rates are rising dramatically, fertility is declining, single parent households are rising, and employment within each household is becoming more evenly distributed between men and women. As a consequence, all the bases for male authority and female subordination in households are eroding. Indeed, some of the culture of violence against women can probably be attributed to the backlash over this breakdown of traditional patriarchy. This is not to say that patriarchy is no longer important, far from it, but it is to say that it is only one of a repertoire of gender regimes which can be reproduced by the state, and that several such regimes, based on conflicting masculine and feminine constructs, may be produced simultaneously and even inconsistently.

Two obvious consequences seem to follow from this. One is that it isn't possible to speak of an irreducible antagonism between all women and all men. Such antagonisms exist where a successful gender regime is launched and maintained, but just as racial formations do not imply a pervasive antagonism between all white and black people, so gender antagonisms need not and do not apply uniformly and universally.

Second, the decline of some forms of patriarchy does not preclude worsening conditions for women in some respects, nor does it preclude a strategic shift to different forms of patriarchy. For example, a rise in female employment can erode male exclusivity and dominance in the workplace, but coupled with a rise in single parent households it can also increase the burden of work that women have to bear, since jobs, childcare and household management effectively gives them a three shift work day.

This could be argued to involve not the persistence of women's oppression beyond patriarchy, but a shifting modality of patriarchy: from privatised to more public modes. For example, whereas traditional male breadwinner types of welfare regime buttressed the male's authority in the household, neoliberal welfare regimes attempt to subject both women and men to the whip of the market, coercing mothers into taking waged work (on a subordinate and often precarious basis) while removing the social wage for their work in raising children as far as possible, and compelling them to pay for private childcare (usually carried out by women) where possible. Even though the authority of husbands and fathers in this situation is greatly diminished, one might argue that this reorganisation of the sexual division of labour involves state capacities being activated by groups of politicians and civil servants in such a way that it appears precisely as a patriarch-general, using its coercive and incentive power to increase the exploitation of women.

Were we to accept this argument, however, we would immediately have to qualify it to near-extinction. First of all, we would be hard pressed to specify a single dynamic or logic that drives these two forms of women's oppression ('male breadwinner' and 'neoliberal') and that one could adequately call patriarchy. Second we would have to recognise the highly provisional, contested nature of such neoliberal state action, the fact that it is a partially improvised praxis in response to workers rebellions and social movements by a faction operating in and through the state, the fact that it necessarily made use of immanent developments in the capitalist world economy that didn't have to do with patriarchy, and that it necessarily incorporated elements of contesting projects, and so on. In short, I think we would be guilty of concept-stretching if we just said that patriarchy has shapeshifted. There are certainly forms of state action today which reinforce patriarchal forms: the Iowa supreme court's decision was of this type. And in fact, I think there is no patriarchal or gendered form in which the state is not involved as a positive, constituting factor. But there are gendered projects other than patriarchy, based on other conceived roles for men and women, in which women also suffer oppression and exploitation; just as there are egalitarian gender projects that impede those.

My suggestion is that as an analytic, patriarchy must be treated as one type of the more general phenomena of gender projects which in certain conjunctures form gender formations. What is a gender formation? I am drawing a direct analogy with Omi and Winant's conception of racial formations, which comprises "the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed ... historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized." This is connected "to the evolution of hegemony, the way in which society is organized and ruled," in the sense that racial projects are linked up with wider repertoires of hegemonic practices, either enabling or disrupting the formation of broad ruling or resistant alliances. A gender formation would thus be a 'sociohistorical process' in which gender categories are 'created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed' through the interplay and struggle of rival gender projects. From my perspective, this has the advantage of grasping the relational, partially contingent and partially representational nature of gendered forms of power, and providing a means by which patriarchy can indeed be grasped in relation to historical materialism.