This is a collaborative article with our comrades at the Revolutionary Socialist League in Kenya. The piece discusses the recent crimes perpetrated by serving British military stationed in the country, and considerations of broader human and ecological impacts from modern British neo-colonialism.
In the fourth installment of our ‘Capitalism 101’ series, we will be discussing Gender. What is gender, where does it come from, and what does it do? What is the relationship between capitalism and Gender?
You can read the previous installment of our Capitalist 101 series, ‘Race’, here.
In order to take practical steps towards gender liberation, we must have a theory of gender. In this article, we will introduce a Marxist feminist framework for understanding gender and how it fits into capitalism. We understand gender as a tool capitalism uses for social organisation and for reproducing capitalist ideology. As Monique Wittig says, we have to destroy the idea that women are a “natural group”.
Capitalism and Gender
Marxist feminism helps us to understand how the development of capitalism produces gender as a social structure. People being classified as “women” or “men” is not something that happens for no reason but is a result of economic and material conditions.
Oppression of women and gender non-conforming people did not start with capitalism - these oppressions existed in pre-capitalist society too. It’s also important to note that gender and sexuality are constructed within a given society so, when we think about gender and sexuality under capitalism we must also think about class (and, by extension, race and ableism and other oppressions).
Whereas pre-capitalist societies also relied on the reproductive role of women, capitalism strengthened and reinforced this system. Marxist feminists help us to understand that the disproportionate burden of domestic labour (cooking, cleaning, child-rearing) faced by women is not an accident or left over from feudalism but rather integral and necessary to the modern system of economics.
As capitalism developed (during the period of primary accumulation where the capitalists were trying to get hold of as much capital as possible), there were attacks made on women’s attempts to control their reproductive life. The newly formed capitalist class were trying to control the resistance to capitalism and one of the ways they achieved this was by making women a new, more easily exploitable group. Silvia Federici points out that the witch hunts took place at this time: abortion and infanticide were strongly associated with “witchcraft” as were “deviant” sexualities.
Through this process, characterised by violence against women, women’s work was devalued and degraded and made to seem as if it was natural (think of those descriptions of women as caring and sensitive). This meant that the only work that was valued (or paid) was work that could be done for the capitalist class, the type of work that produces value for the bourgeoisie. The “reproduction of the worker” was considered valueless.
What this means is that all the work that is done in the home, feeding, cleaning, cooking, looking after the house, having and raising children was not considered economically valuable work and was not paid. The gender “woman” was used to describe the person responsible for this work and the gender “man” was the person who went out to work and did wage labour. The woman’s job was to support the man in this role so that all his productive power could be used by the capitalist to create greater value and profit for them. As we know, however, this is not always the case. Globally, people of all genders perform both reproductive and productive labour in the households and working-class women often become the person earning the wage for their family.
The Gender Binary
CW: violence against intersex people
We can see that in this system there are two genders, man and woman. This is known as the gender binary. This gender binary is entrenched into absolutely all parts of western capitalist society. Humans are socialised from before birth into one of these two genders. Which gender you are is determined by a doctor or nurse looking at your genitals when you are born and telling your caregivers into which gender they should raise you. This creates a particular violence for intersex people who often have completely unnecessary surgeries performed on them as babies in order to make them fit better in to the category “man” or “woman”. These surgeries are unjustifiable in all cases.
Once we have a socially and economically reinforced gender binary we have the possibility of gender-based oppression. Capitalist societies are patriarchal which means that men hold primary power and women are secondary to men. We can see this through the over-representation of men in roles of leadership, property ownership and business and in the relative social privilege that men have. There are countless studies showing that women are listened to less than men or treated more harshly for the same social transgressions, or find it harder to advance in the workplace. These are all examples of misogyny, an oppression of women which results from the gender binary.
It is also from this gender binary that the concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” emerges. Although the concept of heterosexuality is fairly new, the idea that men should pair only with women and that they should have children is as old as capitalism.
The family is also a useful tool for the reproduction of capitalist ideology: wealth and property can be passed down through generations. We can see that families that don’t look like the capitalist mummy, daddy and children are often disparaged and considered unsafe. They are given a lower place within society and not valued. A clear example of this is during the British response to the coronavirus pandemic which, through insisting that people work, stay inside and look after their children at home indicated that the government thought the only type of family structure was one with one house, two parents (one to work, one to look after the children) and no requirements for outside help. The heteronormative nuclear family was held up as a public health measure: staying home saves lives.
Capitalism is very invested in the gender binary and the nuclear family. It ensures the reproduction of the labour force (babies will become workers), the maintenance of discipline and a moral order (settle down, work hard, find a wife) and even perpetuates capitalist ideas of self-sufficiency, private property and individualism. Think about how keen the government is for people to try to “get on the property ladder” however unrealistic that may be.
Anyone who threatens this gender system is punished by capitalism and by society. The existence of the LGBT+ community, who reject the gender binary and compulsory heterosexuality are treated as “different” and “dangerous” and are punished by homophobia and transphobia. The threat to the capitalist system is the motivation for this oppression. If people can thrive outside the nuclear family and the gender binary, what does that mean for capitalism? We can see that historically, neoliberal politics worked very hard to separate queer rights movements from their anti-capitalist, anti-racists origins. White gay men, for example, have now been largely able to integrate into capitalist society through marriage, adoption, public roles in media and in politics. However, this only serves to undermine the more radical and anti-capitalist sections of the community.
We can also consider how the capitalist system of gender has racist, colonial origins. Maria Lugones says that the colonisation of the Americas required the destruction of indigenous gender systems. Central to this was a reduction of indigenous people to “biological sex” whereas the Europeans were allowed “gender”. Part of the goal of the colonisers was to force indigenous people to take part in the roles of “woman” and “man” which they achieved by killing those who would not. White supremacy also relies heavily on gender to justify violence and to establish hierarchies. Only white bourgeois women were allowed “womanhood”, Black women were seen as “female” but were not allowed “femininity”. As such this justified the sexual violence perpetrated by white people on colonised and racialised populations. Feminist movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth century virtually only fought for white women. The implication was clear; womanhood belongs to whiteness. As we can see from the disproportionate numbers of trans women of colour murdered each year, this logic continues today.
To end gender-based discrimination and violence we must end the white supremacist, capitalist, colonial system that creates, upholds and supports it. The communist movement must have the abolition of the nuclear family as a goal if we are to truly stop the economic exploitation of women and the oppression of all people of marginalised genders.
Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici
The next article in our Capitalism 101 series, ‘Disability’, will explore the relationship between capitalism and disability.