Extrinsic Theories: From ‘Class First’ through ‘Social. Reproduction’ to ‘Dual Systems’
Chapter 2 noted the divergence between feminist theories that saw direct power relations between men and women as the main determinant of women’s oppression, and those that looked else
where. The most influential extrinsic theories (apart from biological determinism, which will be discussed in chapter 4 and is not a form of social theory) have been Marxist analyses that locate the fundamental determinants of women’s oppression in class relations, the capitalist system, or the ‘relations of production’ understood in class terms.
The simplest version of this idea is the view that ‘women’s liberation depends on the class struggle’ because capitalism is the root cause of all social inequalities and class struggle against capitalists is therefore primary. In Women’s Liberation, Class Struggle, an American booklet circulated in the early 1970s, Karen Miles summarized a widespread view of how women’s oppression serves the ruling class. Capitalists get higher profits because women workers get lower wages; sexism divides the working class; women’s oppression maintains the family, which in turn maintains capitalism. This simple synthesis of socialist and feminist ideas proved too much for more orthodox Marxists to digest. Recent evidence is the rousing restatement of the class-first view by the British Trotskyite Tony Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation. At remarkable length (the book is one of the longest analyses of modern feminism yet published by a man) Cliff argues that there can be ‘no compromise’ between Marxism and feminism: the latter is a bourgeois deception of honest working women. Essentially similar views are official doctrine in the Soviet Union and China, one of the few points on which these regimes still agree. In China the regime has tried to break women free from the extended patriarchal family by substituting the ideal of a harmonious nuclear family, with the sexual division of labour remaining unchallenged. The Soviet regime is equally complacent about women shouldering the social burden of childcare and other work in the home. Policy on sexual politics has been consistently subordinated to the twists and turns of the class line.
As theory, these views give little to bite on. The priority of class struggle is, as Christine Delphy comments on similar arguments in France, ‘a postulate, a dogma’. There is an obvious objection: the subordination of women started long before capitalism, occurs in all classes under capitalism, and has continued in countries that have ceased to be capitalist. The fact that women of different classes have different interests is of great importance. But it does not need a dogma of the theoretical priority of class to recognize this.
Nevertheless; the seeds of a much more powerful analysis were present in Miles’s remarks about the family. In the middle and later 1970s this was developed by a number of theorists, particularly in Britain, under the influence of structuralist Marxism.
The central idea was that the family, sexuality or gender relations at large were the site of the reproduction of ‘relations of production’. A particular pattern of relations of production (which mainly means class relations in industry) is taken in Marxist theory to define a ‘mode of production’ (capitalist, feudal, etc.). A mode of production provides, so to speak, the backbone of a whole historical epoch. These relations of production could not exist without being reproduced, from day to day, year to year, generation to generation. This need calls into existence social processes centering on the family, domestic life and the raising of children. Different theorists gave somewhat different accounts of these processes. Juliet Mitchell saw patriarchy as the sphere of ideology, inserting people_jnto their slots iriUh£_world of production. Other English theorists traced a whole new set of social relations here, the ‘relations of reproduction’. There was‘agreement, nevertheless, that these processes or this sphere was the main determinant of the subordination of women.
Social reproduction theory in this form represented a major advance over simple cTassmrterest theories of patriarchy and offered a synthesis of several important lines of thought. ‘Reproduction’ could be understood as bearing children to fill places in production and servicing the tired worker at the day’s end. Here theory could connect with the basic facts of life documented by working-class women themselves, in autobiographical writings from Margaret Llewelyn Davies’s Life As We Have Known It to Gwen Wesson’s Brian’s Wife, Jenny’s Mum. Alternatively ‘reproduction’ could be seen as a matter of culture and psychology, of ‘socialization’, making square people to fit square holes in capitalist industry. This picked up themes that were familiar in socialist critiques of the ways education and culture were distorted to fit the needs of capitalism. When Andrew Tolson argued a connection between competitive masculinity and the functional requirements of capitalism, the material was new but the form of argument was very familiar to socialists.
Above all, reproduction theory argued a systemic connection between the subordination"of \ю^т1апгГ^тг7отіc exploitation in capitalism. The link was seen as embedded in a whole integrated structure of social organization, not in particular interests or groups. The bourgeoisie-as-devil faded from the picture. This allowed the tremendous complexity of the issues to be recognized; some subtle and important researches resulted. But it also made the target of reform seem much more formidable and less vulnerable than the politics of the early 1970s had assumed. There was more than a flavour of pessimism about social reproduction theory.
As this is true of reproduction approaches in other fields of social analysis, such as Bourdieu’s work on education and Althusserian class theory, it is likely that it flows from some general feature of the approach. It is, I think, inherent in the concept of ‘social reproduction’ itself, which makes sense only if an invariant structure is postulated at the start. History enters the theory as something added on to the basic cycle of structural reproduction. For history to become organic to theory, social structure must be seen as constantly constituted rather than constantly reproduced. And that makes sense only if theory acknowledges the constant possibility that structure will be constituted in a different way. Groups that hold power do try to reproduce the structure that gives them their privilege. But it is always an open question whether, and how, they will succeed.
‘Social reproduction,’ therefore, is an object of strategy. When it occurs, as it often does, it is an achievement by a particular alliance of social forces over others. It cannot be made a postulate or presupposition of theory. And the concept cannot take the explanatory weight that reproduction theories of gender place on it.
The second major difficulty in these approaches is making a convincing connection between the needs of capitalism and what is specific about gender. It is clear enough that if capitalism is to continue, its dominant groups must succeed with some kind of reproduction strategy. But it is not at all obvious that doing this must produce sexual hierarchy and oppression. Much the same might be argued (and sometimes is) about racial and ethnic hierarchies or about hierarchies of age. There is historical evidence, known to early socialists like Engels and Bebel, that in some respects capitalism has broken down existing patriarchal customs and given women greater personal freedoms and more chances for equality. Recent experience in countries like the United States and Australia shows that the feminist attack on the restrictions on women’s lives and careers may unlock their talents for capitalist purposes. Witness the co-optations not only documented but celebrated in magazines like Ms and Portfolio. Clearly the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy is not simply functional. The fit is looser, the relationship more contradictory, than reproduction theory has supposed.
In trying to bridge this gap, Marxist-feminist reproduction theory sought explanatory principles mainly in cultural theory: Lacan’s reworking of psychoanalysis, Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology and various developments of semiotics. A consequence of this was a strong tendency to treat gender relations as a truncated structure by comparison with class relations. In some versions, social reproduction and patriarchy were regarded as occurring entirely in the realm of ideology, and not part of the sphere of production at all. In other versions ‘reproduction’ was connected with a social division of labour, but only one kind of labour, housework. This sense of gender relations as being less comprehensive than class relations underpinned a view of the history of gender which saw its major turning-points in terms of a class periodization of history. For in ‘Marxist theory it is the history of class relations in production that defines the ‘modes of production’ and the transitions between them.
In this tendency to truncate the concept of patriarchy the logic of reproduction theory led steadily away from the developing practical concerns of socialist feminists. In Australia and Britain at least there was increasing involvement in the late 1970s and early 1980s with issues that were very much about the material world and the sphere of production: women’s employment, wage rates, unionism, health care, state regulation and like matters. At the same time there was an increasing flow of research studies, inspired by socialist-feminist concerns but not by reproduction theory, into women’s experience in factories and labour markets. Studies like Claire Williams’s work on open-cut mining towns in Australia and Ruth Cavendish’s work on a motor vehicle components factory in Britain, rapidly demonstrated that gender relations and sexual divisions were deeply embedded in the production system of advanced capitalism – the traditional heartland of class theory. The clear implication is that gender relations are not a truncated structure. Gender is part of the ‘relations of production’, and has been from the start; it is not just mixed up in their reproduction.
Along this track lay a different answer to the question of how capitalism and patriarchy were connected. Socialist feminists in
several countries in the 1970s pointed in this direction. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James wrote that ‘class exploitation has been built upon the specific mediation of women’s exploitation’. JBarbara Ehrenreich argued that socialists must see women at the heart of the working class. Anja Meulenbelt contested the idea that the class struggle was the ‘general’ struggle and feminist organizing was a diversion. Nancy Hartsock argued for a fundamental rethinking of the category of class in the light of gender issues.
To start with, these arguments were unrelated; but they had in common the implication that gender relations are parallel to, interacting with, and in some sense constitutive of, class relations. Heidi Hartmann’s paper ‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism’ and Zillah Eisenstein’s collection Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, both published in 1979, crystallized an approach that came to be called (dual systems theory! The basic idea is that capitalism and patriaxcKyare distinct and equally comprehensive systems of social relations which meet and interact. The present form of their interaction is the social order which Eisenstein calls (capitalist patriarchy^ Understanding the contemporary world requires the simultaneous analysis of its class and gender structures. The analysis of gender requires in principle an intrinsic theory logically independent of the theory of class.
In terms of our present knowledge of gender, this is better founded than social reproduction theories. It is consistent with the fact that gender relations appear in all domains of social practice and pre-date capitalism and possibly class societies of all kinds. The approach meets Meulenbelt’s practical criterion of giving full weight to women’s experience of sexual politics, without abandoning the politics of class. Yet it has two considerable difficulties. One is the idea of a ‘system’. It is not immediately clear what makes the patriarchal ‘system’ systematic, and in what sense capitalism and patriarchy are the same kind of thing. The other difficulty is how to understand the ‘interaction’ between capitalism and patriarchy. The link may be seen as a boundary exchange (in the sense of Parson’s systems theory), or as a more – or-less chance intersection of structures. Neither idea gives much grip on the task that socialist-feminist theory is presumably for, that is, explaining oppression and developing a strategy of liberation.
These difficulties are substantial. It is unlikely that formulations of the class and gender problem like Hartmann’s and Eisenstein’s can stand in their present terms. Yet the overall direction they are taking does seem right. If we regard them as first approximations within a general type of theory their potential can be developed in new ways. The first thing required is an adequate intrinsic theory of gender. Accordingly the rest of the chapter considers the main versions of intrinsic theory.