Why Gender? Part 2
Now that weâ€™ve seen what the masculinization of eros looks like, letâ€™s return to the â€œrational man.â€
I still own my weathered and ancient â€œRiverside Shakespeare,â€ a book big enough to use as a cornerstone on a public library. In addition to most of Shakespeareâ€™s work (written in script so tiny I now need special optics to read it), it has several sections of glossy paper illustrations.
I want to thank my English professor from 30 years ago, Dr. Frank Reuter, who midwifed my understanding of these meanings.
One of them includes Robert Recordâ€™s 1556 â€œThe Castle of Knowledge,â€ Robert Floodâ€™s 1619 â€œUtriusque Cosmi Historia,â€ an Andrew Borde diagram of the Ptolemaic universe (1542), an excerpted Flood diagram of concentric cosmos from Historia, and another Flood out-take diagram called Sphaera Civitas. The Borde diagram represents a macrocosm/microcosm, and there is a nude man splayed across its inner circles (microcosm), with his genitals exactly at the center. Bodily humors radiate out from that center, whereupon the outstretched limbs of the man reach exactly to the edge of the mocrocosm spheres, which embrace Civitas. Historia shows, literally, a Great Chain of Being extending from the hand of an intermediate angel to the outer edges of the celestial spheres, and another extending inward to a man, squatting atop a miniature Earth. These are all representations of a medieval cosmology, which had persisted into the Renaissance and were being remapped in Shakespeareâ€™s day onto Elizabethan proto-capitalism.
â€œThe Castle of Knowledgeâ€ is flanked by two figures, a goddess on the left (Urania â€“ or Heavenly Wisdom) and a goddess on the right (Fortuna). Along the lateral zones of this illustration, extending through each standing figure, are a series of symbols contrasting obedience and stability with capriciousness and instability. It is apparent that this diagram is a didactic device designed to instruct Recordâ€™s contemporaries on how the world works, and what are the responsibilities of men within this schema.
Urania is standing on a box â€“ stable platform â€“ gazing at a geometry compass in one hand, with the other hand holding aloft a rod supporting a sphere with some elegant designs inside. The sphere is labeled Destiny, and is overseen by the sun, ruler of the planets and symbol of Reason. Written under Uraniaâ€™s sphere is â€œWhole governour in Knowledgeâ€. Fortune, on the other hand, stands atop a ball (unstable); she is blindfolded (unable to see light [Reason]), holding aloft a kind of cycling contraption that spins a wheel in the Sphere of Fortune (and this medieval notion is the real origin of the game show, â€œWheel of Fortuneâ€). Fortune stands under the moon (representing inconstancy and caprice â€“ lunacy); and the words are written, â€œWhole ruler is Ignorance.â€
In the middle of these two goddesses and all their accoutrements, sitting on a throne high above them, is a king (God â€“ we canâ€™t have two females there without male supervision), holding a scepter out to his right side to bless the column of Urania â€“ the domain of Reason, which in this cosmology meant internalizing the epistemology represented in all these diagrams.
One basic presumption in this schema was that â€œGod is the head of Man, and Man is the head of Woman. â€œReasonâ€ was the capacity to know the will of God, and Reason was the exclusive domain of men. Virtue was to be found in stability, in maintaining correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm, the mind-body duality itself (expresses as Reasonâ€™s maintenance of control over a Beast) defining the individual is reflected in a stable political order (Civitas), with the monarch, sanctioned by God Almighty, acting as the â€œheadâ€ (Reason) of state, and this Order corresponding to cosmic order, the Great Chain of Being. Political order was to prevent social chaos (according to this ideology), and Spiritual Order was overseen by the Church.
One constant theme in both European medieval literature as well as Renaissance literature (and still today in some instances) is the notion that failure to dominate and control women will break the Chain of Being and introduce chaos into the soul, the body politic, and even the cosmos. Women were a danger that had to be controlled; the female force is a force for instability. How many echoes do were hear in this notion of that primal male revenge on the mother as part of achieving masculine identity?
Before I elaborate on the Reason as Male notion, it is interesting to note that social developments were running head of ideology. The monarch was Elizabeth, a woman (though ruthless and deeply conservative, a kind of Margaret Thatcher of her day, who never challenged gendered â€œknowledgeâ€), presiding over an epoch where colonization and its associated genocide and plunder were laying down the runway for a European capitalist takeoff.
Old ideologies do not disappear with new epochs. They are re-fitted to preserve continuity. The reactionary Christianity of Republican evangelism in the US today has managed to retain references to the archaic pastoral-feudal political organization of the cosmos (God is King) while re-tooling Christianity to support such worthy projects as capitalist-core consumerism, the restoration of a mythical patriarchal nuclear family, ecocide, and Zionism.
The war on women by this tendency is legendary, though it is important to understand that this is not the only tendency that is struggling to protect male supremacy from challengers. At any rate, the Renaissance was morphing into early capitalism, and it was carrying many cultural norms with it.
Emblematic of the bridge between the Renaissance and capitalist modernity are the ideas of Thomas Hobbes.
Political scientist Christine Di Stephano, writing in her essay â€œMasculinity as Ideology in Political Theory â€“ Hobbesian Man Considered,â€ summarizes Hobbes nicely.
â€œHobbes is most famousâ€¦ for his â€˜Leviathan,â€™ the grand masterwork in which he sought to provide a comprehensive scientific theory of civil society for a radically changing time (1651). He is probably best know for his notorious yet compelling description of the state of nature, in which life is grimly portrayed as a war of all against all, where insecurity and fear are the primary constants. Hobbesâ€™ effort was to deduce a theory of legitimate, uncontested and stable [thereâ€™s that word again â€“SG] civil authority from what he saw as the dismal facts of the human condition. In doing so, he rejected both divine right and majority choice theories of authority, arguing instead for a secular political authority capable of withstanding the vagaries of competing and always private interests. The legitimacy of Hobbesâ€™ sovereign authority was based on the quasi-democratic hypothetical consent of all rational and right-thinking individuals who, according to Hobbes, would freely agree to such authority on the basis of their rational recognition of their desires for life and security. This initially democratic basis of civil authority could not, however, be renegotiated, since menâ€™s (and Hobbes did mean â€˜menâ€™) unruly passions were untrustworthy. Hence, Hobbes civil authority is fully sovereign and self-generating over time. It must be, since it rules over an unsteadily harnessed state of nature.â€
Hobbes was not only prefiguring the capitalist state and remapping Medieval-Renaissance European dualism (Male-Reason-Stability vs. Female-Nature-Instability) onto a newly emerging class reality (an ascending bourgeoisie about to overturn the feudal aristocracies), he was describing how to achieve stable continuity by adapting religious notions of masculine Reason to the new topography of a nascent secular political regime.
Nature is female. The female is natural (capricious, emotional, unstable). Man rules over natureâ€¦ with Reason.
Upon these gendered axioms, Hobbes constructs the atomized individual suitable for the emerging order.
â€œObjects of desire derive only from individual will. Commonality of desire â€“ for example the universal fear and avoidance of death â€“ figures only as the sum total of individual desires bound in external allegiance to a shared object.
â€œWhat is markedly absent here is the notion of types of desire constituted socially or intersubjectively [like the mother-child relation, or erotic fusion â€“SG]. Objects of desire for Hobbes can only pertain to individual yearnings for satisfaction. And those of us who might invoke persuasion, as a counter-example of Hobbes ultra-individualized conception of desire, which might open the way towards a recognition of intersubjectively secured values and desires, will have to content with the Hobbesian retort that persuasion, after all, is nothing but the displacement of one will by another.â€ (Di Stefano)
Here is the origin of the distinction that Whitbeck makes between â€œpatriarchy,â€ the pre-Hobbesian form of male power, and â€œindividualism,â€ the philosophical underpinnings of bourgeois rule â€“ where womenâ€™s oppression is concealed within the edifice of liberal abstraction.
The epitome of the Hobbesian individual operating under this secular civil authority as a â€œrationalâ€ (self-interested, calculating, but controlled within that civil authority) man is The Citizen. The notion of citizenship was destined to become a central ideological organizing principle for the next three centuries. The citizen is a man. The citizen is a rational man. The citizen is a public man. The citizen has perfectly rigid ego boundaries. He is The Subject; and the rest are Objectsâ€¦ the diametric opposite of fusion. The citizen is an adult with no developmental (intersubjective) history, his only affect those passions which civil society and his own calculating will can suppress; and he has no mother. In fact, there are no women at all in Hobbes conception, and so the origins of the Rational Man are unisexed. Virtue is control, and nature with all her aspects (including apparently ALL women) is to be subjugated.
This is a world of fully developed men, operating in a market.
â€œLike Hobbesâ€™ state of nature, a frightening and awesome spectacle, the immortal hero is self-made and lives in a motherless worldâ€¦
â€œAbstract man thus bears the tell-tale signs of a masculinity in extremis; identity through opposition, denial of reciprocity, repudiation of the mother in oneself, a constitutional inability/refusal to recognize what might be termed dialectical connectedness.â€ (Di Stefano)
The liberal project that this account presciently reflects is based on a fundamental abstraction â€“ the universal human being. But as we can see in Hobbes (and every other liberal theorists afterwards, including a fair number of socialists) very clearly is that this abstracted being is a male. And so with the systematic extension of this citizenship, propelled by social struggles against dominant classes, to more and more people â€“ womenâ€™s suffrage and Civil Rights, for example â€“ we see movement of people into a bourgeois masculine norm that is characterized as neutral. Rational Man becomes Rational Actor, but in this universalizing legerdemain the plural realities of history and social power are disappeared.
Equality and Rights
Formal, legal equality is granted in a manner, which forbids political intervention by the state between abstractly equal citizens â€“ defined as free-standing individuals, dehistoricized, de-classed, de-gendered â€“ and leaves concrete systems of social domination intactâ€¦ in fact, protected behind the veil of abstract equality.
It is analogous to Black people the franchise voting in a winner-takes-all election where there is a voting white-bloc majority. The exercise of abstract citizenship equality does nothing to shift power, and in fact serves to legitimate existing power inequalities.
It is curious to me that the Left embraces civil libertarianism with such vigor, when history shows that we have more power and influence in periods when there is heavy political repression. This represents a fundamental failure to appreciate the power-legitimizing aspect of liberal social organization. An examination of liberal law in the US illustrates this; and a way to understand this clearly is by examining the liberal state and rape.
This examination also highlights the difference in a right-based ethic (liberal) and a responsibilities-based one.
I will use some of the philosophical insights into liberal state law gleaned from reading two legal scholars â€“ Dr. Catharine A. MacKinnon, law professor at the University of Michigan Law School, and Dr. Patricia Williams, law professor at the University of Wisconsin. I commend the work of both these activists and law professors to anyone interested in a deep critique of liberal law.
They begin with the question of the state itself. What is it? What is its nature? How do we characterize it? Those who have spent much time in the thickets of state theory are far more qualified than me to sort out the intricacies of Locke, Marx, Weber, Dahl, Miliband, Poulantzas, Gramsci, and the rest (all men!). This can be an important if arcane debate, but what is more interesting is the U.S. state in its particularity and how it relates to women. (These thinkers were all emerging out of the same humanist philosophical tradition â€“ which made male the norm, as in Man standing for humanity â€“ and which was based on the gender-dualism discussed above.)
The best measure of what that state is, in its particularity, is to be found in what it does. The reason I cite the two aforementioned women at length is that they have both â€“ unlike male state-theorists â€“ examined the state from the standpoint of women, and both have addressed the issue of rape extensively in their work, which is not theorized by males, either capitalist or socialist.
Why not? In 2002-2003, in the US alone there were an average of 223,280 victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault. These were reported, which means the real number is, conservatively, almost three times this.
The liberal state is an institution of power, but it is not the sole source of power. It can send police to your door to arrest you if you violate the law, and they are legally entitled to use all necessary force, up to and including killing you, to ensure your compliance. It can send the armed forces to Iraq to occupy it, or order the bombing of an aspirin factory in Sudan, or sign allegedly-binding treaties with other states.
It makes the laws that we are then bound to follow, and even has courts to interpret the laws â€“ because as we have seen these laws can never anticipate the complexity of real life nor the kinds of social pressures that emerge during the constant evolution of society â€“ and this interpretive process in the courts is designed to ensure the stability of the (white male bourgeois) state. This judicial motivation is an important point.
But there are obviously many other systems of power operating in society that are not state power. The power a boss exercises over an employee, the power a parent exercises over a child, the power (social and economic) that many men exercise over many women. (I already anticipate the argument that women actually exercise power over men, but that is adaptive, defensive, and negotiated power that is not borne out by or reflected in any empirical indices of actual social, economic, or political power.) The question of what the state is, and does, cannot be answered without figuring out how the liberal state relates to these other forms of non-state power.
When I refer to the state, I mean the organization that exercises political power within the nation-state, a geographically-defined political territory. The state is constituted by a government (not the same as a state, but the transient personnel who run a state) that consists mainly of members of the dominant class(es), an administrative staff, generally organized as a bureaucracy, armed bodies designed to enforce laws and control populations internally and respond to â€˜external threatsâ€™ and-or militarily pursue its extra-territorial interests. The state has the power to make and interpret laws, force its citizens and residents to comply with those laws, and the power to collect taxes in order to reproduce itself as an organization.
A political regime is not a reference to a specific government â€“ like the â€˜Bush regime,â€™ or â€˜the Saudi regime.â€™ It refers to the definition of regime as a set of agreed-upon principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures, which govern the actions of the state. When I refer to the â€˜liberal state,â€™ that is a reference to a particular regime in this sense. When Peter Gowan described globalization, in the same way, he specified it as a Dollar-Wall Street Regime. It is a reference not to the actors, but to the norms.
Government is a constituent part of the state, specifically the clique who is currently running the US state. The Bush government is now in control of the US state. Governments â€“ even exceptionally reckless and incompetent ones â€“ can change without disrupting the essential organizational stability of the state.
That brings us to â€˜civil society.â€™
â€œCivil societyâ€™ must be differentiated from society at large. Civil society encompasses all social relations that are outside the state but that influence itâ€¦ Civil society is not to be confused with the people. The people can be considered as all citizens having [abstractly â€“SG] equal rights; civil society is citizens organized and weighted according to the power of the groups and organizations they are part of. The state formally exerts its power over civil society and over the people. Actually civil society is the real source of power for the state, as it establishes the limits and conditions for the exercise of state power.â€ (â€œState, Civil Society and Democratic Legitimacy,â€ Lua Nova â€“ Revista de Cultura y Politica, #36, 1995.)
MacKinnon writes that â€œGender is a social system that divides power.â€
This is absolutely basic to understanding the law and rape.
Gender is a social system of power division that has the notion of difference at its core. Here is the subtlety.
In many societies, the state still puts this gender DIFFERENCE at the center of its legal edifice, but in ours, where the struggle by women for legal EQUALITY has gone on for some time, this question of difference has been challenged â€“ not with absolute success, but with some significant changes â€“ by the notion of equality in the abstract for all people, including women, who are assumed by the liberal state in many cases, to be the same as menâ€¦ in fact, an abstract person, genderless in the eyes of the law.
There are several problems with this. The law in other respects is anything but genderless. Moreover, when it is â€˜genderless,â€™ the law of the abstractly equal person does not recognize a pre-existing history of material social inequality.
The old Anatole France quote that puts this idea in bold class relief is, â€œThe law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich as well as poor from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets, and stealing bread.â€
So we are left, regarding gender, with LEGAL ABSTRACT EQUALITY that refuses to see this historically-evolved SOCIAL INEQUALITY it overlays, and which existed PRIOR TO the operation of the law.
(Not just chronologically prior (though this is true, too), but prior in terms of this inequalityâ€™s proximity to the day-to-day reality of our lives, in the realms where the rules of behavior are determined without state intervention.)
Women in the U.S. were regarded as chattel in the 19th Century, prevented from full control over themselves and their property by marriage coverture (which denied them full CITIZENship) well into the 20th Century, denied the right to vote until after World War I, didnâ€™t achieve legal control over their own reproductive capacity until the 1960s (this is now under attack again), and tried for ten years to get a simple equality amendment for women into the Constitution, finally failing ratification in 1982. On average, women still make only three quarters of what men do in the US. (These numbers become dramatically more stratified when race-nationality is introduced into the calculations.)
My point is, without running out ten pages of statistics that consistently demonstrate inequality of social power between men and women, the social reality of perceived difference and material inequality is reflected inaccurately by the liberal stateâ€™s legal assumption (in selective instances) of abstract sameness and equality. As in all forms of Jeffersonian liberalism, including libertarianism, it is intentionally ahistorical.
This is, in fact, a characteristic of the American liberal state since its inception. The US Constitution is written in such a way that it REFLECTED EXISTING CONDITIONS AS NATURAL, and largely described the systems of power in which the state was prohibited to intervene. Male power was assumed. White power was assumed. Propertied power was assumed. Every incursion against those power systems by the state itself was propelled not from within the state, but from without, by social movements.
MacKinnon calls this the neutral, or â€˜negativeâ€™ state, which is part of the liberal (white male bourgeois) regime.
â€œUnlike the ways in which men systematically enslave, violate, dehumanize, and exterminate other men [as in Southwest Asia now, for example â€“SG], menâ€™s forms of dominance over women have been accomplished socially as well as economically prior to the operation of law, without express state acts, often in intimate contexts, as everyday life.â€ (MacKinnon, p. 161)
Since state power is erected upon pre-existing (prior to the law) social power, just as we can call the U.S. liberal state a capitalist state, we can call it male. (We can also call it white nationalist.) The â€˜neutralâ€™ state professes neutrality, a corollary of OBJECTIVITY. It claims to be a neutral arbiter of abstract equality, and thus sidesteps the issue of concrete inequality â€“ assuming inequality out of existence and assuming itself out of any prerogative to intervene and change that inequality. The negative state is the liberal state that says what the state shall not do â€“ no laws shall be made abridging this freedom or that freedom â€“ which can then only meaningfully apply to those who already have the material means to exercise these freedoms meaningfully. This is at the heart of law built on the ideas of a rights-based ethic, even though in some instances the struggle over equal rights has been temporarily progressive, even necessary.
Black attorney and social critic Patricia Williams tells a story in “The Alchemy of Race and Rights” (pp. 85-89) about her experience in law school, about how law students are trained to assume inequality out of existence with a parade of hypothetical situations that â€œset themselves up as instructional mirrors of real life.â€ The majority of these â€˜situationsâ€™ indulge grotesque stereotypes about women, gays, and people of color that are designed to provoke students to a sense of protest against these stereotypes for the express purpose of calling righteous outrage to the surface and suppressing it. In these hypotheticals, Williams showed how law students are directed to ignore as legally irrelevant white racism, histories of domestic battering, and homophobic violence. In one example, a brutally battered wife strikes her husband, and law students are supposed to defend the husband by excluding the â€˜irrelevantâ€™ issue of â€˜provocation.â€™
These situations are not anomalous or infrequent forays into the subtleties of law, but a consistent, frequent, and relentless effort on the part of law schools â€“ with the student under the grading gun â€“ to force students to â€œindulge the imaginative flowering of their most insidious rationalizationsâ€¦ [requiring them] to suppress any sense of social conscience.â€
The purpose of this seemingly gratuitous and often voyeuristic (Williamsâ€™ term) exercise in ignoring existing inequality is to habituate the future purveyors of the law to the â€˜negativeâ€™ conservatism of the liberal state.
The liberal stateâ€™s legal episteme is neutral in its reflection of actual inequality, reflecting that concrete inequality back into society and renaming it abstract equality.
This, of course, requires that we are all complicit in maintaining this fiction, which we generally do. Itâ€™s fictional quality has been rendered invisible by ideology.
The reason rape is so important in this regard is more than the fact that it is exemplary of the sexualization of violence and of the violence inhering in hegemonic male sexuality. Rape is an unofficial means of social control exercised against all women â€“ a standing threat that closes women in and silences them â€“ that attempts to compel women to seek the refuge of the male-centered household as a refuge, to rely on men for protection fromâ€¦ men.
We have to ask ourselves, how is it that this violent assault on womenâ€™s bodily and psychic integrity and its creation of a ubiquitous socially controlling threat to all women, who are supposed to be equal before the law, not only escapes the notice of liberal law as a form of systemic intimidation, but how it reverses the roles of aggressor and victim when it is put under juridical review? When women are the plaintiffs in rape cases before the courts, the burden to prove guilt against the defendant is transformed into the burden to prove innocence by the plaintiff. They must prove that they did not consent.
By turning liberal law â€“ designed to protect and conceal power â€“ on a critical system of power, feminists who have made rape and its abolition their cause, who have worked to strengthen and protect plaintiffs, and who have struck at the contradictions and loopholes in rape law, have done more than defend women; they create an epistemological crisis for liberal law.
If the liberal state is prohibited from intervention in affairs declared private (the basis for tacit state support for domestic abuse until well into the 20th Century â€“ â€œa manâ€™s home is his castle,â€ after all), and if the private, or civil sphere is the sphere in which male power is most directly exercised, then the state simply forecloses a political solution to that system of unequal power, and therein supports it. This is the contradiction in the liberal state and the liberal conception of law that allows white men to sue for â€˜reverse discrimination,â€™ and that equates corporate campaign spending during elections with â€˜free speech.â€™ Actually existing power inequality is accepted by the state as a background, as part of nature, into which it cannot, and will not, interfere.
The crime of rape and the threat of rape bring the gendered power system hidden behind the ostensible neutrality of liberal law, and this danger is met head-on by forcing he plaintiff to do what is impossible â€“ prove a negative. Prove that you did not consent.
The brazen impunity of liberal legal and judicial edifices in protecting male prerogative becomes crystal clear in the case of rape, and in doing so exposes the fundamental fraudulence of liberal law in general. Thatâ€™s why it is amazing that the Left has not mounted campaign after campaign against rape and its treatment in law and juridical process.
With the exposure of liberal fraudulence, we pull back the curtain on rights and equality, as opposed to responsibilities and self-determination.
Rights and equality both, however, cannot be the bases for challenging white, male, bourgeois power. They are the very ideological and legal edifices of that power, and their force arises from our failure to examine the dangers of abstraction.
Eurocentrism â€“ Core-privilege – Whiteness
â€œMy most simple goal was to make clear that cross-cultural feminist work must be attentive to the micropolitics of context, subjectivity, and struggle, as well as to the macropolitics of global economic and political systems and processes.â€
– Chandra Talpade Mohanty
In following this meandering thread, with which I only mean to evoke â€“ not prove or â€œwinâ€ â€“ I have skipped along from one relatively familiar stone to the next: motherhood, politics, statistics, sex, philosophy, history, and so forth. While Iâ€™ve tried to expose both connections and concealments in each of these areas, I have to some degree â€“ based on my own position as a metropolitan white male â€“ allowed my own standpoint to be â€œnormedâ€ by virtue of what is not acknowledged outside that standpoint. It is always a difficult dance not to.
But there are some important issues that have created contradictions in both the socialist movement and feminism that have to be addressed even to complete an admittedly incomplete and intentionally evocative â€“ not prima facie â€“ account.
Just as the Marxist project has proven myopic on the question of gender, the white Western feminist project has been forced to struggle with its unexamined colonial assumptions which, even in this account, tend to appear as axiomatic, or normal. On the one hand, I am writing this with the metropolitan Left in mind â€“ thatâ€™s the assumed demographic for this weblog. So it is important that I connect at some level where there is mutual recognition at all, a challenge in itself given that part of the goal of that is to privilege new terms and categories and defamiliarize others. So combining that with a vicarious Black feminist, or Latina feminist, women-of-color feminist, or â€œthird-worldâ€ feminist account â€“ vicarious, because I cannot assume that standpoint out of my own experience â€“ is doubly challenging, to say the least.
I am relying on Chandra Mohanty and others, then, who have been engaged in the process of identifying the contradictions between Western feminism and the experiences of non-Western women. Two key contradictions have been (1) the presumption of normalcy for the white metropolitan womanâ€™s standpoint, and (2) the presumption of a privileged position in the interpretation of non-white, colonized womenâ€™s standpoints.
Part of this tendency toward white normalcy and Eurocentrism has been manifested among the Left, as well. I very tentatively add the notion of core-privilege â€“ with no pretense that I have given it enough critical attention â€“ to place these forms of ideological myopia into a world systems framework.
I will not belabor here what has been done in depth by theorists like Ted Allen and David Roediger to describe the construction of whiteness. In one interview, Allen summed up his argument thus:
â€œThe invention of the white race at the beginning of the eighteenth century was the solution to the problem of the participation of the bond-laborers and the poor free in Bacon’s Rebellion, namely, how to maintain social control while continuing to base the economy on chattel bond-labor. Since the great majority of the free men could not become employers or even secure long-term leaseholders, they were to be enlisted in the system of social control, not by a class interests, but by being â€˜promotedâ€™ to the â€˜white race.â€™ This arrangement was implemented by conferring on the poor European-Americans a set of white-skin privileges; privileges that did not require their promotion to the class of property owners. Such were the civil rights to possess arms, to plead and testify in legal proceedings, and to move about freely with the presumption of liberty. Thus, rights that were the birthright of every man in England, were passed off as privileges in America, but privileges that, by the principle of racial oppression, necessarily excluded any person, free or bond, of any perceptible degree of African ancestry (the â€˜one-dropâ€™ rule).
â€œAmong these â€˜white raceâ€™ rights, was the right to marry. (The diminishing proportion or European-American bond-laborers, being bound for a limited term of years, had marriage as a prospective right.) This right, however was denied to the African-American hereditary bond-laborers who, in the eighteenth century, became the main labor force in the plantation colonies. The denial of â€˜covertureâ€™ to African-American females, contributed to the creation of the absolutely unique American form of male supremacism, the white-male privilege of any European-American male to assume familiarity with any African-American woman or girl. Men of the employing classes have customarily always exercised this privilege with regard to women of the laboring classes. What the â€˜white raceâ€™ did that was unique was to confer that privilege on an entire set of laboring-class men over the women of another set of laboring people, and underwrote the privilege by making it a capital offense for any African-American man to raise his had against any white man. This privilege was exercised not only with regard to African-American bond-laborers, but to free African-Americans, who lived under general writs of proscription of racial oppression.â€
This passage from Allen is rich not only in the political economy of whiteness â€“ which needs to be emphasized as â€œan inventionâ€ â€“ but in gender as well. The right to marry is a right of CITIZENship â€“ a male prerogative in a world divided between the public and private spheres. And couverture â€“ the right of a man to be his wifeâ€™s public representative, but also affording her protection (as his quasi-property) from the depredations of men generally. This is a direct account of why it was legally impossible for a white man to â€œrapeâ€ a Black woman.
This points to a critique of my own critique of liberal law with regard to rape â€“ which is still valid, if not universalizable â€“ because the issue of rape for white women does not have the added complication that Black women experience in solidarity against white supremacy with their brothers, who were routinely subjected to false accusations of rape as a pretext to lynch them.
This paper is not intended to defeat points of view that may have contradictions, but to assess the potential for synthesis.
For the purpose of this monologue, and at the risk of over-simplification, I want to use a concept that describes the contradictions arising from unexamined whiteness and core-privilege in the most general way possible, not only to make the subject manageable, but to suggest the possibilities for what Mohanty calls cross-cultural solidarities. That concept is colonization.
The women of the white core are privileged in a world system directly at the expense of colonized women â€“ and I include oppressed nationalities inside the US in this category. This does not mean white core women are consciously oppressing colonized women; but it does mean that the assumption of the white core womanâ€™s standpoint as normative or universal conceals the forms of power under which the majority of the worldâ€™s women live. Failure of white core women to critique their own standpoint in this system has led them to adopt an imperial attitude toward colonized women in the past.
In the same way that the phenomenon of the oppressed nation in imperialism complicates the analysis of class, imperialism presents the notion of gender as class â€“ which I have used here â€“ with some challenges. Imperialism does not erase economic class; and neither does the gendered dimension of imperialism erase gender-as-class. But it becomes very nuanced; and just as with class, the assumption of the unexamined metropolitan standpoint with regard to gender is an exercise of imperial privilege.
Mohanty (from â€œFeminism Without Borders,â€ 2003):
â€œFeminist discourse on the Third World that assumes a homogeneous category â€“ or group â€“ called women necessarily operates through the setting up of originary power divisions. Power relations are structured in terms of a unilateral and undifferentiated source of power and a cumulative reaction to power. Opposition is a generalized phenomenon created as a group response to power â€“ which, in turn, is possessed by certain groups of people.
â€œThe major problem with such a definition of power is that it locks all revolutionary struggles into binary structures â€“ possessing power versus being powerless. Women are powerless, unified groups. If the struggle for a just society is seen in terms of the move from powerlessness to power for women as a group, and this is the implication of feminist discourse that structures sexual difference in terms of the difference between the sexes, the new society would be structurally identical to the existing organization of power relations, constituting itself as a simple inversion of what exists. If relations of domination and exploitation are defined in terms of binary divisions â€“ groups that dominate and groups that are dominated â€“ then surely the implication is that the accession to power of women as a group is sufficient to dismantle the existing organization of relations. But women as a group are not in some sense superior or infallible. The crux of the problem lies in that initial assumption of women as a homogeneous group or category (â€œthe oppressedâ€), a familiar assumption in Western radical and liberal feminisms.
â€œWhile radical and liberal feminist assumptions of women as a sex class might elucidateâ€¦ the autonomy of particular womenâ€™s struggle in the West, the application of the notion of women as a homogeneous category to women in the Third World colonizes and appropriates the pluralities of the simultaneous location of different groups of women in social class and ethnic frameworks; in doing so it ultimately robs them of their historical and political agencyâ€¦ [those] who ground themselves in the basic analytic strategies of traditional Marxism also implicitly create a â€˜unityâ€™ of women by substituting â€˜womenâ€™s activityâ€™ for â€˜laborâ€™ as the primary theoretical determinant of womenâ€™s situation. Here again, women are constituted as a coherent group not on the basis of â€˜naturalâ€™ qualities or needs but on the basis of the â€˜sociologicalâ€™ unity of their role in domestic production and wage labor. In other words, Western feminist discourse, by assuming women as a coherent , already constituted group that is place in kinship, legal, and other structures, defines Third World women as subjects outside social relations, instead of looking at the way women are constituted through these very structures.â€ (pp. 39-40)
Failure examine colonization as a political and economic reality leads to the colonization of cultural representation and discourse.
We have seen the grimmest results of this when some feminists were co-opted into support for US military aggression in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
â€œUniversal images of the Third World woman (the veiled woman, the chaste virgin, etc.), images constructed from adding â€˜the Third World differenceâ€™ to â€˜sexual difference,â€™ are predicated upon (and hence obviously bring into sharper focus) assumptions about Western women as secular, liberated, and having control over their own lives. This is not to suggest that Western women are secular, liberated, and in control of their own lives. I am referring to a discursive self-presentation, not necessarily to material reality. If this were material reality, there would be no need for political movements in the West.â€
The economic class analog to this might be the notion among American workers that they are the norm, leading them to accept their domination, and even to fight for the interests of their oppressors.
My claims for universality are timid. All women are structurally dominated by men. The forms vary. The answer to Mohantyâ€™s quest for points of inter-national solidarities is that we need to identify why this one generalization holds true.
Embeddedness, Abstraction, and Modernity
The history of humanism has become the history of normative-male humanism, with all its dualities, and both bourgeois ideology and Marxism emerge from the same humanist traditions, with the same baggage of unacknowledged gender. When male power â€“ constructed out of humanismâ€™s basic gendered dualism â€“ is unacknowledged, it continues to function as a default setting, ideologically protected by naturalization and invisibility. This accounts to a substantial degree for the failure of Marxism so far to confront gender in the liberal system except on liberalismâ€™s terms.
The figurative takeoff point for both global capitalism and the great socialist efforts of the 20th Century was modernity; and modernity was characterized by gendered dualism.
â€œ[I]n realizing his own projects of identity construction, the modern person was required to redefine his or her relations to places and people. These could no longer constitute a definitive platform for identity construction as particulars, only as categories. This disembedding of social relations and of perceived selfhood in intertwined with the decontextualization of discourse on society and on the self. The self-definition of the professional goes hand in hand with decontextualization of discourse on â€˜labor,â€™ â€˜production,â€™ and â€˜economics.â€ Objectification of self and objectification of social relations (i.e., alienation and fetishization) are part and parcel of the same phenomenon of modernity.â€ (Hornborg, p.225)
Some of the terms and categories used by Hornborg will cause many Marxists a great deal of anxiety, though Hornborg himself says more than once that when we get to the end of the road, it may be Marx we meet there. I mention this only to encourage my comrades to relax and let go of the side of the pool. The idiom we know is valuable, and the new idioms we need to learn should not be seen as threatening. Further up, I tried to make the connections between material conditions, constructions of personhood, signs and meanings, our cognitive-affective realities, social organization, and ideology. Many on the Left will already be familiar with some of the notions surfaced in Hornborgâ€™s work (which I use for this section).
Modernity here is an analytical category, combined for that purpose with two other general categories â€“ pre-modernity and post-modernity. It is not an economic category, except tangentially, but a semiotic and epistemological one, with a curious anthropological dimension â€“ the relation of humans to place. So it is not meant to replace or displace other categories related to social development.
Modernity is generally identified here with the Cartesian version of dualism (though Hornborg seems to associate dualism with Descartes â€“ an error in my view), and the objectification of nature that went with it. Epistemologically, the shift was from the symbolism of the religious version of Reason vs. the Beast and its association of reason with scholasticism (pre-modernity) to the dawn of the Enlightenment. Modernity is characterized by a rapid development of new technology, as well, and with the beginnings of disembeddedness. Hornborg describes disembeddedness as:
â€œAbstract language, universalizing knowledge, general-purpose money, globalized commodities, and cosmopolitan personalities all share one fundamental feature: they are free to tanscend specific, local contexts. They are not committed to place. There is thus an inverse relation between experiential depth and spatial expansion, between meaning investment and market shares. McDonaldâ€™s is testament to the ecology of cultural diffusion.â€
Another way to look at the meaning of embeddedness, which was an important idea for Marxist state-theorist Karl Polanyi, is to look at a neighborhood. To the degree that the neighborhood has been constructed by local labor, maintained by long-term residents, and has small enterprises owned and run by local people, then it displays embeddedness. The degree to which it is made of prefab slap-it-up housing that is sold and resold every five years, that it has few residents who come from there or intend to stay, and that it is littered with giant multinational chain stores an strip malls, it is displaying disembeddedness.
Kristen Nordhaug, associate professor of International Development Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark, has written a good piece on Polanyi for anyone who is interested, available at www.tik.uio.no/globalisation/Pdf/0103Nordhaug_forside.pdf.
Further down, I will talk about what I believe to be the political significance of this.
Semiotically, the abstraction of meaning is the basis of liberal ideology and law. C. S. Pierce described this semiotic â€œtranscendenceâ€ as â€œfirstness,â€ secondness,â€ and thirdnessâ€:
â€œThe first is that whose being is simply in itself, not referring to anything nor lying behind it. The second is that which is what it is by force of something to which it is second. The third is that which is what it is owing to things between which it mediates an which it brings into relation to each other.â€ (Pierce, â€œCollected Papersâ€, 1931-1958)
This notion is very close to the Marxist account of commodity fetishism. Hornborg performs the money declension to illustrate this: gold, paper money backed by gold, money that represent merely a claim of one human being on another.
What is remarkable about men like Polanyi and Hornborg, who have plumbed deep into the intersections of politics and philosophy, is that they locate the source of this abstraction in modernity alone, and have failed to identify its progenitor in the male-female gender duality. Hornborg actually identifies the beginning of dualism with Descartes, which not only ignores the dualism that informed earlier Western society but which is also an epistemological principle in Eastern society. Yin-Yang is an abstract representation of male-female complimentarity.
Iris Marion Young, in her essay â€œHumanism, Gynocentrism, and Feminist Politics,â€ (referring to the estimable Nancy Hartsock, again):
â€œBased on Chodorowâ€™s theory of the development of gender personalities, Hartsock argues that men experience the relation of self and other as one of hostility and struggle. The sexual division of labor also removes men from the needs of the body, from the vulnerability and basic demands of children and the aged, and provides men with an instrumentally calculative relation to nature. This division of labor, she argues, produces a way of thinking about the world Hartsock calls abstract masculinity, which organizes experience and social relations into binary oppositions in which one term carries greater value than the other. This standpoint of abstract masculinity has determined the primary structure of Western [another bit of Eurocentrism] social relations and culture.â€
Dualizing is the first abstraction, and its roots are in the sexual division of labor.
Just as abstraction in liberal law and ideology serves to conceal and protect existing power, the abstractions of the male polis have always made women invisible.
The real philosophical current that has corresponded to modernity has been humanism. The metastatic process that continually disembeds cultures and alienates people is capital accumulation, and the most basic episteme has been male normacy.
It is almost impossible to find any culture in history or the present that has left us a record that does not define something called human nature, which on closer inspection is a description of the male norm in the societyâ€™s division of labor.
Accelerated disembedding is an outcome of this male normalcy in its more recent economic forms â€“ especially capitalism. Even the tendency to adopt â€œmodernityâ€ by the socialist garrison states of the 20th Century was an adaptation to the world capitalist system in which they themselves were embedded; and its vision was something called development.
Development itself, as a goal and ideology, can be tied to the masculine dualism that pitted Man (the subject) against Nature (the object). And opposition to â€œdevelopment,â€ which is now unveiling itself as an unsustainable ecological catastrophe, was dismissed by capitalist and socialist theorists alike as sentimentality â€“ a highly gendered characterization that conjures the man-reason-woman-emotion polarity.
If and when we pull out this root of dualizing abstraction, we will find, attached to it, liberal law and the rights-based ethic. These are only progressive in times of reaction, and they will be abandoned in revolutionary conjunctures. As long as the Left clings to them, we will be clinging to the pants leg of the Father.
The saddest irony of continual patriarchal restoration in the Marxist movement, which has seemed merely content to stay one reformist step ahead of mainstream society on gender questions, is that the same movement is based on a body of theory that constituted a devastating critique of biological determinism with regard to labor in its identification of naturalization fallacies hidden inside bourgeois economics. The very spirit of Marxism is infused with the liberatory impulse to expose ideology as something that conceals and protects power.
It is that spirit of Marxism, in opposition to the letter of Marxism (invoked as a catechism), that I am appealing when I say that Marxism must find its way to a world historic fusion with the feminist project, as well as the environmental justice movement, in the same way that Marxism dropped its schematicism to unite with the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the struggles for national independence in Congo, Cuba, Vietnam, and now places like Venezuela and Bolivia.
Organizing by socialist and progressive formations around the world right now cannot be assessed only in reference to other actual organizing, or we are engaging in a mere comparative exercise, and leaving untouched the assumption that what we are doing is the best that we can do in the current â€œobjective conditions.â€ (smile) The danger of that unexamined assumption is that it will lead to a further assumption that confuses correlation with causation.
Socialist organizing that is working right now may not be effective solely or even predominantly because of the application of past formulae â€“ this correlation may not be causation. The most effective organizing is happening where there is a high degree of embeddedness â€“ for example, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, the Respect Coalition in UK, and Iraqâ€¦ we have to examine the relation between successful resistance and embeddedness, the latter of which mobilizes organic local culture and personal, accountable relationship/kinship networks.
When the Soviet Union was defeated and collapsed, there were multiple theories on the Left â€“ mostly based on the extrapolation of the hoary Tralin-Stotsky debate â€“ about what happened. This has really devolved into competing shibboleths, just as the debate now about capitalist restoration in China. The question needs to be asked what role sheer scale played in these retrenchments and defeats, and if development itself may not have been the poison pill within the socialist experiments. The cultural solvents of abstraction, disembeddedness, monoculture, and general purpose (abstract) money in a system of dollar hegemony, dissolve the bonds of community, and tend toward the atomization of human beings â€“ which is anathema to the socialist project, yet consistent with the needs of a capital accumulation regime that must continually find new expansionary niches through the deeper and deeper commodification of life.
How is it that the Soviet Union, with its nuclear arsenal, collapsed, and little Cuba survives a stoneâ€™s throw away from a hostile Imperium? What makes Cuba like Venezuela, and like the Respect Coalition in UK? Is it the so-called democratic centralism of some formations that provide leadership? If so, then why does this organizational schema fail in so many other places?
I would only suggest that we should examine the role of embeddedness, of cultural homogeneity, of the fusion between political networks and the deep relationships of community, that give these liberatory efforts their strength, durability, and agility. I would further suggest that these kinship networks are contributing in very substantial way to the current imposition of military defeat against the US occupation in Iraq.
Just as the embedded workers who were organized in the Fordist factory system were constructed by their standpoint of exploitation and fusion in community were able to mount effective strikes (which they can seldom now do, given the breakdown of this production system), we have to learn to appreciate the power of embeddedness in developing a new politics of resistance. The question will always be concrete in strategic evaluation. Where and how do the people share a common grievance as well as a common sense of place? And in almost every case, given the development of gendered division of labor that sends deracinated males roaming across the wastelands of imperial abstraction in search of survival, the mass of women may be more well positioned across the world than any other category of human being to build campaigns and movements rooted in genuine embedded community.
The old socialist shibboleth that the â€œmainâ€ point of struggle must be in the point of production workplaces cannot be immune to a re-examination. Our goal is not to be right according to our existing beliefs; it is to accomplish a revolution
Unconscious embeddedness carries with it the danger of reaction, and certainly misogyny, one of the practical issues that need to be resolved is how to remove the barriers to womenâ€™s self-organization as women without resorting to sectoral strategies the move women to rely further on male-controlled state power for intervention. Disseminating key general strategies like this is the province of international formations and campaigns â€“ like the effort against the Iraq war. The larger, more disembedded formations must begin to see themselves in a facilitative and supportive, and not a directive role.
Rather than Comintern-like formations that direct from the top, international formations will need to function as communication clearinghouses for summing up experience, and for facilitating strategic alliances around the most universal efforts: opposition to neoliberalism, environmental justice, anti-militarism, and aiding without directing the self-organization of women.
I would even further suggest that we have already seen the tactical outlines of a new resurgence of liberation struggle. The politics of the community strike. This may include in specific instances labor strikes like the massive strike recently in India
Embeddedness and the politics of the strike may be the key to moving social movements forward in the next period of struggle against exterminist imperialism and capitalist patriarchy, as well as ecocide.
As part of my conclusion, let me just say that Marxism is critical to the feminist project, and feminism is critical to the Marxist project. And the environmental justice movement is critical to both.
Another key reason to promote womenâ€™s leadership is that the polarized socialization of men as men is directly related to the direction that has been taken in social development, in political structures, and in past models for politics of resistance. Women likewise have been socialized into one half of a dual hierarchy. It is precisely the assertion of embeddedness, concreteness, the reclamation of the body, and most of all resistance â€“ paradoxically â€“ to the agonal ontology of men.
This does not minimize the dangers of both biological essentialism and postmodern nihilism. I am not saying that we have to release the Sacred Feminine, but asserting the standpoint of the oppressed. And I am not saying that this can be limited to changes in â€œdiscourse.â€ Let there be no doubt, the struggle against male rule is a struggle for womenâ€™s political power, and I am convinced that this is not an outcome for the revolution, but its prerequisite.
â€œThe masterâ€™s tools will never be used to dismantle the masterâ€™s house.â€
– Audre Lorde
Afterword: There are a number of key topics that I have not covered in this: Women and the environment, that is, the connection between the destruction of the biosphere through the objectification of nature and the expansion of carcinoma-capitalism, and the conceptualization of women as being â€œof natureâ€: the questions surrounding sexual orientation, which I believe is subsumable within the gender paradigm because compulsory heterosexuality is central to the oppression of women: and perhaps most importantly, a deeper discussion of the public-private duality with all its implication, which were just touched on here. These are rather stream of consciousness notes here, and again, my design is not to present some prima facie case for a position, but to answer the more general question of â€œWhy Gender?â€ with enough clarity and provocation to open the door on what I think is a much needed conversation to begin the reconciliation of two great social movements.