People often claim that abolishing capitalism would abolish patriarchy. This argument usually rests on a particular way of thinking about the relationship between the economy and the rest of society. I’ll call this way of thinking economic determinism.
According to economic determinism, society consists of two distinct and separate levels. The economic base and the superstructure. The economic base consists of forces of production, meaning a given society’s technology and particular human capacities to produce particular things, and relations of production, meaning the social relationships through which these processes of production occur, such as wage labour. The superstructure is all other aspects of society, which includes forms of consciousness and in certain societies a legal and political superstructure, that is, a state or government and the accompanying legal apparatus. The content of the superstructure is primarily determined by the content of the economic base in general and the dominant mode of production in particular. These determinations largely take the form of the economic base shaping the superstructure such that the superstructure enables the reproduction of the economic base. The superstructure does also determine the economic base but the economic base is nonetheless primary.
On this view, patriarchy is a component of the superstructure and therefore (a) is primarily determined by the economic base and (b) is constituted so as to enable the reproduction of the economic base. For example, women engage in unpaid domestic labour because it ensures the reproduction of the working class, such as husbands having food cooked for them, or children, who are future workers, being produced and raised. Since this work is unpaid it means that capitalists do not have to pay the full cost of the reproduction of the working class and so can make more profit. Or, working class men abuse their wives because they are alienated and oppressed under capitalism. They take out their frustration and anger on their wives, instead of on the bosses.
It is then thought that if patriarchy rests on the foundation of the capitalist economy, then removing capitalism will result in the abolition of patriarchy. After all, if patriarchy performs the function of reproducing capitalism, then removing capitalism will remove patriarchy because a socialist society won’t require patriarchy to reproduce itself. This usually goes alongside the narrative that patriarchy emerged from class society, therefore if we abolish class society we’ll abolish patriarchy.
There are several things wrong with economic determinism.
The economy is not a foundation for all other social relations such that removing the foundation gets rid of the other social relations. Instead it sets the parameters in which other social relations exist because social organisation is contingent upon what is compatible with the daily reproduction of human beings. The economic base’s primacy should therefore be understood in terms of the economic base simultaneously enabling superstructures to take particular forms and imposing boundaries on what forms superstructures can take.
The economic base enables the superstructure to take particular forms because certain degrees of development of the productive forces and certain forms of relations of production are required for any given institutional component of a superstructure to exist. For example, a modern state is historically contingent upon the forces and relations of production that render such a social institution possible in the first place, such as modern telecommunications or railways.
The boundaries that the economic base imposes on the superstructure consist in the scope of possible forms the superstructure can take without significantly impeding upon the reproduction of the economic base. The consequence of these boundaries is that the superstructure cannot alter past a certain point unless the economic base does. The economic base imposes these boundaries upon the superstructure because a pre-requisite for the reproduction of the superstructure is the reproduction of the economic base, since a society will not last long without the production of items such as food or clothing, or without the maintenance of its infrastructure. This is what Marx is referring to when he writes in volume 1 of Capital that, “the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world on politics. On the contrary it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why in one case politics, and in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part.” (Marx 1990, p176) A core boundary imposed on the superstructure is the requirement that the superstructure contain those elements which the economic base needs for its reproduction, such as capitalism requiring a superstructure that enforces private property rights.
As the economic base and the superstructure develop they come into conflict with one another. There are two primary kinds of conflict. Firstly, the economic base develops in a direction which creates a new configuration of boundaries. This in turn exerts pressure on the superstructure to change in order to guarantee its reproduction. Secondly, the superstructure develops in a manner that is incompatible with the existing boundaries imposed by the economic base and thereby impedes or prevents the reproduction of the economic base. The conflict between the superstructure and the economic base will result in either an alteration to the superstructure such that it fits within the boundaries imposed by the economic base, or an alteration to the economic base such that it no longer places limits on the superstructure’s present development. These changes can take the form of either a modification to an existing social structure, or a transition to a whole new social structure.
The question which socialists must be asking is therefore ‘is patriarchy compatible with the boundaries that a socialist society creates?’. My answer to this question is yes, patriarchy is compatible with socialism. There is nothing inherent to worker self-management or the collective ownership of the means of production which prevents the existence of sexism and the domination of women, trans and non-binary people. This can be seen in the fact that patriarchy continued to be a massive problem during the Russian and Spanish revolutions, despite them establishing workers control on a large scale. It can be seen today within left wing movements that are patriarchal despite the fact that they organise through direct democracy and so prefigure the organisational forms of a socialist society. Therefore, abolishing capitalism won’t force patriarchy to end. Instead patriarchy will be mediated through different economic relations. You’ll have worker self-management but women will still be raped and abused. You’ll have direct democracy but men will still do all the talking. You’ll have the people’s microphone but survivors of rape won’t be believed.
The fact that x performs the function of contributing to the reproduction of y, does not entail that removing y will remove x. X can contribute to the reproduction of y without the reproduction of x necessarily requiring the reproduction of y. X can have its own means for reproducing itself. Patriarchy is such a social structure. Its reproduction is not contingent upon the reproduction of capitalism, despite the role it plays in reproducing capitalism. Rather patriarchy is reproduced via such things as abusive relationships, socialisation into gender roles, sexist stereotypes, people mirroring sexist behaviour they see growing up, lack of positive representations of women in art and so on. There are of course certain elements of contemporary patriarchy which do require capitalism. Sexist advertising for example can only exist if you have advertising in the first place. But this is not true of countless other examples, such as women scientists not being covered in science documentaries, or women being excluded from gaming culture.
This same point also applies to the argument that since class society produced patriarchy it follows that ending class society will end patriarchy. Patriarchy can be initially produced by class society, but come to develop its own mechanisms of reproduction which are self-supporting and do not require the existence of class society to function. While certain features of contemporary patriarchy may require the existence of class society, such as the gender roles which are specific to the ruling class, patriarchy as a whole does not require the existence of class society. In short, patriarchy has, like Dr Frankenstein’s monster, taken on a life of its own.
In the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ Marx asks us to consider human life in terms of “sensuous human activity”. Marx is asking us to consider human beings concretely as real embodied people with consciousness who engage in activity, have experiences, and think about things. The danger of abstract models, such as the base/superstructure metaphor, is that we can get caught up with the model and lose sight of what the model was meant to be describing, namely, real human beings. We must therefore understand that social structures do not exist as real physical structures like buildings. They are just a conceptual tool for thinking about the web of social relations which real human beings produce and live within during the course of their existence.
To say that capitalism has been abolished is to say that social structures have been altered such that people now encounter one another through socialist social relations. This in turn translates to people’s real daily experiences having changed from experiences of capitalism to experiences of socialism. Therefore, if we are to imagine the abolition of capitalism we must do so not only from the point of view of an abstract model, but also from the point of view of real people and their first person conscious experience. A person who has been raised to be a sexist, lives in a sexist society, and engages in sexist behaviour, won’t magically stop being sexist because capitalism has been abolished. They won’t wake up the day after the revolution and suddenly find that they no longer think women are sex objects and no longer want to beat their wife. They won’t suddenly stop being condescending to women or stop shouting sexual harassment at strangers in the street. Rather they’ll wake up and go to their job at a worker controlled art gallery and pick up some food from the worker controlled supermarket during their lunch break. They’ll know how to make decisions democratically and be happy that they no longer have a boss. What won’t change from the end of capitalism is their sexism.
If abolishing capitalism won’t abolish patriarchy, what will? The answer is conscious feminist struggle against patriarchy, which is not reducible to the struggle against capitalism because we’re struggling against a distinct set of social structures. If we want to create a free world, we must struggle against all forms of domination simultaneously. What we need, in short, is intersectional class struggle.
Marx, Karl (1990). Capital Volume 1. Penguin
Marx, Karl. Theses on Feurbach