NOTES on: Adlam, D.  (1979) 'The Case Against Capitalist Patriarchy', m/f 3

Dave Harris

The term appears in two recent books: Eisenstein (Ed) Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, and Kuhn, A. and A-M. Wolpe (Eds) (1978). Feminism and Materialism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. The argument in both is that we require a definite analysis of capitalist patriarchy, but this is both difficult and unwarranted.

Engels and the marxian tradition are appropriated differently in these two books, with Eisenstein focusing on the early Marx, while Kuhn and Wolpe are Althusserians.  Yet the forms of argument are very similar and the theoretical differences are really only 'rhetorical'.  The inadequacies of Marxism are seen in both in terms of not explaining the history or specifics of patriarchy.  Engels' Origins of the Family sees the sexual division of labour only in terms of a class division of labour, and makes monogamy dependent on private property.  Patriarchy and capitalism are separated, for the critics, requiring a new theory.  Other feminist theories need criticizing too—for example radical feminism is biologistic and transhistorical, Mitchell's work overdoes the psychological and ideological dimensions and is also transhistorical.  What we need is a theory of 'the unconscious in history', the way in which the subject gets constructed as both inside a class and as sexed.  The recognized danger is this will result in 'eclectic' and 'confused' analysis (86).  Specifically, we need to reread Engels to show that patriarchy is historically specific, and we need to reread theories of patriarchy to show that women's oppression is 'not simply contingent'.  For the critics,  synthesis should be possible leading to a proper theory of patriarchy.

However there can be no synthesis of patriarchy and capitalism, and no understanding of particularly capitalist forms of patriarchy.  The concept of patriarchy involves an essence being realized in different forms according to relations of production.  This essence of patriarchy lies in a primeval domination of women by men, through the biology and institution of childbirth.  K and W follow Engels in saying there is first a need for surplus, but this still assumes that men's desire to oppress women is latent, or even 'natural' . McDonagh returns to economism, arguing that middle class women reproduce the bourgeoisie, while working class women reproduce labour power, and this essentially economic function becomes gendered, which makes reproduction function in the interest of male capitalists (87).  This is really a functionalist analysis throughout, where the needs of the capitalist economy condition forms of appearance of patriarchy.

There is always a danger of the reduction of the specifics of sex to the economy, corresponding after all to the 'economism of the male left' (88) [so are the effects of sexual division of labour to be seen as an overdetermination?].  There is another view that says that the sexual division of labour is a matter of a precapitalist mode of production, but then there would be no logical need for patriarchy in capitalism after all.  The idea that we need a combination of Engels' Origins and Marx's Capital would be incoherent and produce only a danger of oscillation between economic reductionism and sexual essentialism [Adlam reveals her allegiance is to Hindess and Hirst here?].  The same goes if the combination is reversed, and capitalism becomes essential—but then why does it always benefit men?  The analysis seems to require a dualist model, with two essences.  In practice, we find a certain sleight of hand in these discussions, where concepts are seen as problematic, say in introductions, and then just straightforwardly used in subsequent analyses.  There is a strong suspicion that concepts of patriarchy and of capitalism are actually incompatible, and this appears in the contribution by Cousins [in K and W, I think].  In practice, most writers have to opt for one or the other as the most important in the end.

Kuhn's article specifically talks of 'jamming together' semiotics, psychoanalysis, Marxism and sociology, to produce the notion of patriarchy as a structure which unites property relations and psychic relations.  She refers to Lacan on the role of the family, where the family is itself conditioned by forms of economic organization.  The unconscious is seen as either eternal or at least relatively autonomous, yet it takes specific forms.  Classic psychoanalysis can only theorize within patriarchy, and this is supported by Mitchell who argues that Freudian accounts of sexual difference means in practice the theory of sexual division.  However, sexual differences do remain, and must, even if we have non authoritarian fathers. 

The cultural significance of sexual differences is explicable using Lacanian psychology, but irrelevant, logically unnecessary for Marxism.  The two analyses can't just be added together.  The notion of the Symbolic in Lacan and the account of ideology in Marx relies on different discourses and are really 'incommensurable': Marxism operates with categories like illusion/reality, psychoanalysis with sexual differences and role.  They are not both aspects of the same object 'society': they are different conceptions of the social.

K and W tried to work through Althusser's discussion of Lacan in order to get to the general theory of ideology as Imaginary.  Kuhn uses the Imaginary as the foundation in Lacan of the Symbolic, and brings in Althusser on the mode of production, seeing both as aspects of 'culture'.  The Symbolic is a mere content for the more general form of ideology, in this case, content referring to sex.  But in Lacan, the Symbolic is a precultural level, the condition of language and difference, the origin of the ability to represent (92).  Althusser is wrong in his reading.  The Symbolic is not just a matter of details or contents.

Similarly, psychoanalysis is about differences rather than divisions, about male and female positions, not about the concrete subjects 'men' and 'women'.  It is not just a theory of socialization, a matter of filling empty vessels with stereotypes, as in conventional social psychology.  Yet this approach can be detected even in Kuhn, despite her denials, as, for example, in the debates on domestic labour in Smith's chapter, the results of which are then assumed and used for support in Kuhn's chapter!

We find eclecticism in both of these texts, rather than an argument for necessary connections between psychoanalysis, patriarchy or Marxism.  We often find 'sophisticated economic functionalism' being added to some concept of ideology which can 'take care of the residue'.  This is, for example why we find monogamy in working class families, even though it is 'logically redundant'.  There are a number of lapses into a sociological analysis of variables—patriarchy and capitalism become clusters of vectors which together explain particular variants, say in the particular oppression suffered by different groups of women.  This is not Marxism, but multivariate empirical analysis of relations, not a dialectical synthesis of any kind as claimed.  There is often a conventional deployment of this analysis, ending in having to opt for different possibilities, maintaining a position of 'balance' or arguing for double determination.  Their particular analyses are better, however.

So do we need a general theory, a master theory which helps us to read all the specific affects?  The problem is that the specificity of sexual difference is not the same as the effects of property relations.  Sexual divisions are political as well as theoretical in importance.  Theory has been produced by the new [political] feminism on the left.  Is common to assume that theory and politics are different fields, but the politics of calculating effects is theory, and we must introduce such calculations to avoid reductionism and foundationalism [classic Hindess and Hirst] and the question is why feminists are so prone to see an apparent need to combine theory and politics in classic Marxist ways? 

The search for combination has had specific effects, on neglecting the specificity of sex.  For example the different forms of oppression and emerging class formations are not reducible to the economy or indeed anything else except at the risk of essentialism.  The notion that there is some internal unity is circular—the clear signs of patriarchy are only signs because we already know what to look for.  The empirical generality of sexual divisions cannot be taken as evidence for the generality of patriarchy, since they show sexual differences not some ultimate underlying antagonism featuring male dominance.  Adding in a mode of production as a way of structuring these differences still leads to problems—'duality can't be stretched into diversity' (99).  The categories of men and women function differently at different points in society and are not unitary, not always in opposition, and not lined up in some fundamental single opposition.  The specificities cannot be grasped if we are asking about why women are oppressed in general.

They can't be grasped using the usual approaches from the traditional social sciences either, which and lurk in the analysis despite claims of having made a radical break into feminism.  These writings are still traditional in their desire to elaborate a set of concepts to capture the whole problem, leaving only irrelevant loose ends.  There is a danger of an ontology that sees reality as something logical or rational.  Concrete specific analysis of women could be used to disrupt that ontology instead.  This would be the challenge offered by feminism, not its interdisciplinary claims, which can only add dimensions, rounding out social science rather than radicalizing it.  Here they are, looking for unity and parsimonious concepts!  They are prepared to split theory and politics and see theory as a mediator of politics, despite their earlier rhetorical installation of politics as the base for their efforts!  (100).

A grasp of real complexities, specifics, calculations and alliances is what is needed, rather than some unified theory separated from politics as in 'socialist feminism'.  The real role for these hybrids is to offer comfort and unity when faced with failure.  Would accepting diversity subvert the supposed unity of the feminist movement?  The risk is essentialism.  Feminists can often see flaws in the supposed unity of the working class, but not in the unity of women.  Specifically, working class conservatives are now accepted as an adequate category, why not conservative women?  Why are these only 'honorary men'?

Unity is a political matter, an ideological matter.  We do not need a unified theory.

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