Does Patriarchy Exist?
It is shocking that something as everyday and omnipresent as the oppression of women is argued in such far-fetched, often erroneous and often simply false or alienating ways. Why? If not so complicated. If it is before everyone’s eyes… and yet that, the invisibility of oppression even to those who seek to denounce it, is what shows that it is deeply embedded in the system of exploitation that articulates the society in which we live.
The problem is that feminism in the last third of the 20th century builds its discourse around “patriarchy”. The aim is to redefine the oppression of women as a form of exploitation prior to and simultaneous with capitalism. Thus patriarchy would be a system of co-exploitation. Only in this way can it propose a kind of permanent revolution in phases in which patriarchy should first be confronted, or in which, simply, the struggle against capitalism should be set aside because no overcoming of capitalism would produce anything other than exclusion if the sexual division of labor and the specific and systemic exploitation of women are not resolved first.
The operation is not easy because it requires a tremendous amount of historical leaps and the emptying of a few concepts. To begin with, patriarchy is a central part of the set of production relationships in slave production mode. It implied a form of material ownership over the whole of the productive unit – slaves, descendants, spouses – and a certain relationship with the territory. It can be argued that patriarchal relations were maintained, transformed, under feudalism and even survived with it in isolated and backward agrarian regions. But in the face of the old patriarchal relations, capitalism was not only revolutionary, but implacable, as the “Communist Manifesto” recalled. Why? Because in order for there to be surplus value, there must first be the possibility of converting money into capital, that is to say, the labor force must be a commodity that is freely bought and sold in the market. For this, the seller must be able to meet the buyer as people who exchange goods, to have -formally- “equal rights”. The worker must be “free”, that is, the owner of the merchandise he is going to sell and be willing to sell his labor force for a certain time as something separate from himself – if he sold himself he would be a slave and if his labor force did not belong to him by right he would be a servant. For all of which he must besides having no alternatives, be dispossessed of the means of production that would allow him to turn his labor force into commodities on his own.
Patriarchy or Capitalism?
How did feminism try to overcome this obviousness? By stating that the “housewives” of the different social classes carried out unpaid work under a specific patriarchal mode of exploitation. Capitalism would exist for men, patriarchy for women, in a sort of cumulative pyramid of systems of exploitation (modes of production), so that women did not have to attend to the class divisions and struggles of capitalism itself, but together – as women – regardless of the social class to which their families belonged, face patriarchy in order to liberate themselves by finally entering bourgeois society as equals.
For this they had to confuse human reproduction (having children), with the reproduction of the labor force in capitalism (maintaining the number, capacity and qualification of the labor force merchandise that is sold to capital) equalizing one and the other in order to make disquisitions on domestic labor from there that are deeply erroneous. Example: to defend that the oppression of women continues under capitalism so that capital can save itself from paying for domestic work. In reality, the total wage bill received by the proletariat is the reproduction cost of the labor force that capital employs. This cost of reproduction is independent of the sexual division of labour, it is simply the minimum that a state of technology, a cost structure and a correlation of forces between social classes can pay at any given time. In fact, historically, the incorporation of women into the salaried workforce, impelled by massive capitalization during post-war reconstruction in countries such as Spain, Portugal or Argentina, ended as it had begun: the total income of any working family arrived just enough to maintain the working capacity of its members of working age, including the cultural costs necessary to sustain a necessarily more skilled workforce.
Invisibilizing Oppression to Support the Idea of “Patriarchy”
The problem with the feminist approach is that the need to present as patriarchal the complex ideological fabric of women’s oppression leads it to invisibilize its most basic material consequences. An everyday example these days is the concept of “gender pay gap”. Originally it meant the wage difference for the same job between workers of different sexes. In other words, it was a measure of frank and direct discrimination… that state capitalism itself and its logic of grouping productive factors, especially labour, into monopolies, legally prohibited in all European countries. What is the wage gap now? The difference between the wage masses received by men and women taken as homogeneous groups over generations and classes. Although it serves to say that “women earn less than men”, most of the result is explained because the female workforce was incorporated later, is younger generationally and is therefore more precarious, in addition to the fact that in the cadres – the corporate petty bourgeoisie – and directors – the state bourgeoisie – there is still an evident sexification.
Recently Macron’s minister gave the headline that women earn 25% less than men in France. Why? Because class differences are not taken into account: in the high bureaucracy of the company and the state there are more men. If we compare salaries for similar positions and seniority, the difference is reduced to 9% in the French case. In Spain, when the type of work and seniority are taken into account, the average income has a gap of 13% which is mainly explained by the fact that after certain ages -which reflect the waves of incorporation of women into the work force and the cultural change- women work fewer hours even in similar jobs. If we look at workers under the age of 30, the difference in income is reduced to 4.7%, which corresponds to the difference, in favor of women, in postgraduate studies. It is not surprising that liberals join such feminism, it does not cost them anything to show that the more “flexibility”, that is to say, the more precarious working conditions suffer “equally”, the less “gender wage gap” there is going to be.
Does that mean everything’s okay? No, it just means that capitalism has intrinsically no need to sustain a specific exploitative regime for women. Patriarchy, as feminism defines it, is an empty ghost. And precisely because of this, it makes real oppression invisible.
Oppression without Patriarchy?
But if there is no specific system of exploitation of women, why does capitalism sustain persistent and undeniable discrimination? In order to understand it, we have to criticize -that is, demolish- some of the lies that capitalism tells about itself, what we call ideology.
Despite the chants to the virtues of “free competition,” capitalism has never known a competition such as that taught in secondary school economics and faculty. As we see every day in commercial warfare, trade laws, taxes… capitalist competition is a total war that only partially occurs in the “language of prices”. To create monopolies to blackmail millions to death, to impose commercial advantages through military force, to subject the weakest capital to greater burdens… are the day-to-day competition between capitalists. Of course, the same state capitalism that runs the chaotic and cruel daily global upsurge will teach us about wage competitiveness and how selfish and socially costly any of our protests are. But the truth is that even the poorest petty bourgeois know that “good margins” and “big business” are born of positions of strength normally endorsed by the state or sustained by the ownership of large masses of capital, not of competition in price and quality, but of the possibility of imposing exactions through the market. After all, capitalist freedom and equality are based not on competition but on those who only have the labor force having to sell it in the market, something that was not even originally “spontaneously” imposed. That is to say, real capitalism is a system of incentives to discrimination, without discrimination – let them tell it to migrant seasonal workers and their employers – there is no accumulation that allows the petty bourgeoisie to enter the game of big capital. That is real competition. So brutal that the state itself has to moderate it. That is why the existence of any pre-capitalist remnants or prejudices will be encouraged and adopted again and again to scratch an advantage by aspiring new entrants. That’s what the game is all about.
Capitalism “expands” by commodifying all social relations and all human activities; that total family income does not make it possible to make ends meet? that you can always make precarious your life a little more! Trade your “hospitality” through Airbnb and exchange your solidarity with neighbors in a time bank! That having children has become almost impossible for a generation of workers to sustain? No problem, having money that “outsources” its production by renting out the uterus of someone who has nothing more to offer in the market… Capitalism presents again and again the relations between classes as if they were relations between objects in the market, is in its essence as a total mercantile system. In that process, every facet of life is reified, commodified, reducing us in every dimension and moment of life to a thing, to an interchangeable and purely instrumental object. This is the essence of bourgeois morality, by the way: nothing in exchange for nothing, “there is no free breakfast”, the lives of others and with them one’s own, are reduced to mere instruments, to “goods”, goods to be possessed.
The essential in our species is social. Even in the most intimate -the perception- we are a construct, a product of the social relations that surround us. The supposed “identities” of all kinds are nothing more than expressions of the constrictions and conditioning factors with which the system disciplines us and makes us happy, discriminates against us and “privileges” us as an interested and malicious illusionist. “Identity” -national, racial, linguistic, sexual, gender or any other- is not what we are but the exaltation, positive or negative, of a categorization that only exists as glorification of an oppressive system. Identity is the oppression told by a seller of “experiences”.
Invisibilizing Women’s Oppression
For that system which is a real machine of excluding, commodifying, reifying and creating “identities”, effectively eliminating the oppression of women is strange, if not utopian. Why eliminate any concrete oppression when it is continually being created and is functional, even necessary as a whole, for the system? Oppression is so naturalized that it is otherwise insidious when it is not brutal. The idea of non-discriminatory capitalism is simply utopian and therefore reactionary.
On the other hand, the nucleus from which all oppression takes root is the creation of political identities from them, and it is difficult to think that a movement whose main objective is to convince us of our belonging to an inter-classist political subject (“women”) can ever question them. If ever asked why average female days are shorter, it will be to find again the ghost of the old patriarch preventing women from selling their labour force in the same quantity as men; if it denounces the absence of women in the artistic, literary and scientific pantheons with which the bourgeoisie epically relates its past, it is to vindicate an enlarged and “parity” pantheon, as if the creation and intellectual brilliance expressed by the interests and values of the dominant things had not been exclusive of the men of those same classes. The theory of patriarchy, pretending to be “more radical” than Marxism, makes exploitation invisible and trivializes the real oppression suffered by women throughout history. It is no coincidence that in the end the “anti-patriarchal” discourse, born to justify that “women”, regardless of the classes to which they belong, are part of an inter-classist political subject, reduces oppression to the terms in which the petty bourgeoisie feels it: asymmetry of sexes within corporate and political power and invisibilization of “talents”. Diluted, purified of its origin in the commodification and reification of each vital dimension, in feminist discourse sexual violence would appear in third place, related only as a final denial, murderous and humiliating, of “the feminine”. Thus, sexual violence slips to encompass any type of violence that a woman may suffer without the need to suffer it because she is a woman. Once again, it ends up being a true excuse for a capitalism whose daily life in all planes and dimensions -from war to commercial conflict to the exercise of political power and ending in the reality of labor- is one of daily and constant violence.