The Political Logic of Militant Feminism

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On February 3, 2024, Rishika Singh wrote a report for Indian Express entitled “Indian men are facing a loneliness epidemic and we’re not talking about it enough”. The very title of the article suggests that it is focused upon the oppressors’ perspective. Patriarchy is criticized for creating rigid gender norms that force men to behave in an unemotional and macho way. Young men are said to be as burdened by patriarchy as women are “since they are expected to take the role of the provider and work towards it from a young age, even in the modern world”. The imposition of muscular independence upon men prevents them from expressing their vulnerability and bonding with others. In order to cure the resultant isolation, it is suggested that, instead of frontally confronting their patriarchal attitudes, we build a sympathetic rapport with them. Any direct challenge to the hegemonic identity of men can lead to their alienation. That’s why we should approach men with a sense of understanding, letting them know that we are there to listen to them. After all, “men, too, need connection and support”.

The logical chain of the aforementioned article operates in the following way: first there are free human beings with emotional needs, then there are distorting gender relations, and finally there is the movement to recover the original pristine state. The validity of the argument is put into question by the fact that there is no untainted human condition where we are all a-historical beings with equal emotional capacities and needs. From the very beginning, we are born into deeply hierarchical class societies where various forms of inequality shape the inner content of our personality. As Kate Manne notes, “agents in a dominant social position often don’t start out with…a neutral or salutary view of things. They are perpetually mired in certain kinds of delusions about their own social positions relative to other people, and their respective obligations, permissions, and entitlements”. As long as men are entrenched within the bounds of patriarchy, they don’t know what emotional connection really means; they have no exposure to a way of living that stands opposed to masculinity. This is why it is foolish to invoke a common emotional need in a patriarchal society. Under patriarchy, we only have a concrete distribution of emotions in a hierarchical framework, wherein women exist to service the emotional ego of men. Men can beyond this narrow ego not through a heartfelt talk with empathetic people but through a women’s movement that shatters their hermetic masculine identity. Any exposure to the multiform rhythm of emotional connection arises from the feminist struggle against male power, which disrupts the egocentricity of masculinity and centers the perspective of women. Misandry performs a critical function in this disruptive act by expressing women’s anger towards men. Anger repudiates any prospect of reconciliation with men. There is no common moral standard between men and women. There is only a highly polarized hierarchy that needs to be destroyed. Any new morality will emerge after this furious demolition of what men stand for in a patriarchal society. Thus, the horizon of freedom, whether it be social, cultural, emotional etc. is rooted in the practical struggle of women.

If we elide the centrality of practical struggle, we are left with an abstract morality that waxes eloquent about how all human beings – whether they be men or women – have an equal need for emotional connection. This view regards human nature as an invariant moral essence. Against this moralism, we need to understand that human nature is just a form of potentiality that enables us to interact with the world. What is common among humans is the socio-natural metabolism and reproduction that they undergo through the construction of diverse structures of interaction. That’s why human nature can be regarded as an amoral potentiality, devoid of any trans-historic guidelines for interaction. The extent of this potentiality’s freedom or lack thereof is determined only ex post facto, following its realization in concrete social formations. Only retrospectively do we become able to measure our current degree of freedom through its comparison with previous structures of practices. So, for instance, only the centering of women’s experience of subjugation enables us to construct a new morality of freedom. As a group that is oppressed by patriarchy, women know what a free alternative to this order would look like. This is not the case for men, who enjoy a privileged position in the patriarchal system. The moral enlightenment of men can only come retrospectively through the positing of the feminist standpoint, which enables men to relate themselves critically vis-à-vis the patriarchy. Masculinity can be felt as oppressive, can be relegated as a relic of the past, only if we have a new feminist present where the struggle of women constantly destroys the integrity of male privilege. Karl Marx generalized this point as a theoretical principle when he wrote that “the anatomy of the human is the key to the anatomy of the ape.” The present moment, as the product of the unfolding of past events, allows us to comprehend the level of freedom that we enjoy. Any narrative of freedom is rooted in the linking together of different historical moments. Only through this interlinkage, this series of concrete social relations, can we build standards of freedom. Freedom is an immanent product of history, not a transcendental essence that we are born with.

Once we dispense with an essentialist conception of human nature, we can no longer invoke a moral essence that is common to humanity. The mere fact that both men and women are affected by patriarchy doesn’t prove that the emotional needs of both of them are being violated. On the contrary, it is in the nature of human beings to be individuated through social systems. We are not first human beings who are subsequently related to a definite system of interaction. Rather, we are socially situated from the very beginning. Our existence is inseparable from specific modes of social structuration. Marx clarifies: “It is above all necessary to avoid once more establishing ‘society’ as an abstraction over against the individual. The individual is the social being. His vital expression – even when it does not appear in the direct form of a communal expression, conceived in association with other men – is therefore an expression and confirmation of social life. Man’s individual and species-life are not two distinct things.”

Since it is in the inherent character of any social system to provide a position for all the members, patriarchy can’t be criticized for being an overbearing script of interaction that forces men into particular roles. On the contrary, this very systematicity of patriarchy – its structuring impact on both men and women – is the way in which women are materially exploited. Instead of being seen as a burdensome symbolic code, patriarchy needs to be understood as a system of oppression in which women are kept in a subordinate place. The logic of this system operates differently according to different modes of production. That’s why it is necessary examine the social ontology of pre-capitalist and capitalist social formations.

Social Ontology

In pre-capitalist societies, the laboring masses have a certain degree of access to the means of production and subsistence. Consequently, the ruling class has to externally intervene in the labor process through violence so that the laborer can be terrorized into submission. Given the centrality of ruling class violence, production becomes organized around apparatuses of coercion. This coercion, in turn, is propped up by ideological narratives, which include patriarchy. These apparatuses of ideologically sanctioned violence ensure that the individual labor of the toiler is directed towards the pattern of total social labor that is demanded by the ruling class. The laborers come into contact as laborers due to the conscious recognition of the ideological discourses that divide total social labor. Andrea Ricci comments: “Under these historical conditions, the labour of individuals was always and exclusively concrete labour, the producer of specific use values corresponding to the socially assigned task to each individual worker and intended for socially pre-determined specific consumers. The division of social labour coincided with the pre-determined distribution of concrete working activities and use values between individuals.”

In capitalist societies, the laborer is completely separated from the means of production. Since the laboring masses no longer have the capacity to organize the labor process on their own, there is no need for the ruling class to set up external mechanisms of coercion. The penury of the dispossessed laborer is sufficient for forcing them into the capitalist workplace, which is the only place where they can earn a living. In this way, economic necessity replaces the extra-economic power of ideologically naturalized violence. There is no pre-existing traditional community that lays down the norms for the coordination of individual labors. This coordination now occurs after the production process has taken place in the individual capitalist units. The name for this coordination is competition. Through competition among capitalist productive units for a larger market share, there emerges socially determined averages of production that have to be fulfilled by capitalists if they want to retain their market position. As Ricci remarks, “[i]n a society of private producers, the division of social labour is no longer determined ex ante, before production, according to the political, religious, and cultural order of past traditional societies, but is the ex post result of the commodity circulation and market exchange.” The external coercion of pre-capitalist ruling elites is overturned by “a new idol, immanent but always subtracted from the conscious human will, which reigns supreme over capitalist society, the value.”

This immanent power of value is qualitatively different from pre-capitalist social systems. In pre-capitalist social formations, the position of laborers and rulers is dependent upon the specific planning of total social labor that the latter direct. This plan is prepared before the initiation of the production process by the needs of the elites. What is distinctive about capitalism is that there is no such unitary production plan that determines the organization of social labor. Any such organization emerges through the atomistic acts of market exchange conducted through competitive dynamics. David McNally astutely observes, “[h]uman beings first labour, and, then, through the media of money and the market, discover the match between their productive activity and social need”. Thus, the specificity of capitalist sociality can be summarized thus: even though both pre-capitalist and capitalist modes of production embed human beings in social relations, the definite shape of these relations in capitalism is not a pre-determined result but an emergent outcome of chaotic market exchanges. This is the essential spontaneity of bourgeois society, which eludes the grasp of any single class.

The spontaneity of capitalism means that class dominance is organized through vast networks of material interdependency. Socially necessary labor times – the average labor times to which capitalists have to confirm – are formed through participation of numerous of numerous individual productive units in the dynamic of market competition. These social averages compel capitalists to deploy a variety of methods to extract greater surplus value from the workers and thus defeat others in the arena of market competition. In pre-capitalist social formations, class domination is more localized, arising out of the ability of the rulers to use coercion against the laborers. If the subaltern masses want to change pre-capitalist domination, they need to target the apparatuses of violence through which the ruling class enforces tradition, community, patriarchy etc. On the other hand, if the proletariat wants to overturn capitalist class domination, it needs to challenge the way in which production is carried out privately in separate units and is then socialized through market exchange. The social averages of production emerge only through the fluctuations of market prices, which give signals to the capitalists to adjust their productive goals. Producers have to keep adjusting to these fluctuations if they want to maintain their position. This a posteriori socialization through chaotic market exchange would be eliminated “if each person knew the time socially necessary to produce each product. For producer A would then know the conditions under which she confronted competitors within her branch, and the conditions in which producers in other branches produced the objects that they offered in exchange for those that cost A the time that she knew.” The elimination of capitalist chaos thus takes place through the democratization of production, whereby decisions about total social labor are taken through discussions among people.

Man’s World

In the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist social formations, there occurs an essential change in patriarchy. In pre-capitalist societies, the private patriarchal household is the domain of production, the locus of women’s oppression. The planned political violence of traditional ideology confines women to the realm of the private household. Gendered oppression is therefore localized in terms of its material underpinnings: it depends upon the coercive authority of the patriarch in the private household. Under capitalism, the private arena of the patriarchal household is replaced by chaotic market exchanges, which create social averages of production. The market becomes a secularized god, forcing capitalists to extract greater surplus-value from the workers. Capitalists exploit workers not for their personal consumption but because they are compelled to do so by the pressure of competition. Whereas pre-capitalist profit-making is based upon the personal relations of dependence created by ruling class violence, capitalist profit-making is rooted in the market dynamics of competition that implicate numerous other capitalists. Personal relations of dependence have pre-determined rules of exploitation in the form of the traditional community. No such pre-determined rules exist in a capitalist society. Such rules are created through competition among capitalists. Capitalist society demands the continuous reproduction of rules of exploitation through market exchanges. Class dominance can’t be crystallized in the sedimented grammar of traditions. It has to emerge through the chaos of the market. This is why individual capitalists are always unsure about their dominance in the market (unlike pre-capitalist rulers whose dominance is founded upon the strength of ideologized violence). The market dependency of capitalists– their structural insecurity in the face of competition – forces them to intensify the exploitation of laborers. This includes the oppression of women as inferior human beings, who are expected to perform domestic labor and are paid lower wages when they work outside the home. Capitalist patriarchy, thus, depends on the formation of a “gendered average” – a set of ideological codes materially embedded in the competitive pressure to increase surplus-value. Whereas pre-capitalist patriarchy was formed by the fixity of tradition, capitalist patriarchy knows no such tradition. The exploitation of women is dictated not by specific, geographically limited traditions but by the drive for surplus-value that arises from the competitive dynamics of global capitalism.

The distinctiveness of capitalist patriarchy – its embeddedness in the expansive drive for surplus-value – means that it is a system that exercises great impact upon the society that it brings into being. Given its local nature, pre-capitalist patriarchy is composed of far lesser networks of material interdependency. The grammar of tradition suffices to enforce violence upon the laborer who is still connected with the means of production. In contrast, the modern dispossessed laborer is a mere unit in the large-scale processes of market exchange. Proletarians are subjected not to the shackles of tradition that they recognize but to the operations of the market that they don’t understand. Circumscribed by this capitalist logic, patriarchy operates not through the rules of tradition but through the anarchy of competition-driven profit-making. None of this means that both men and women are equally burdened by patriarchy. It only means that now the causal forces behind the patriarchal oppression of women are far more powerful and vast than the one that prevailed in local pre-capitalist communities. I believe this allow us to understand the full import of Manne’s statement that “misogyny primarily targets women because they are women in a man’s world”. The world of patriarchy becomes more expansive as the need for profit-maximization forces the bourgeoisie to interweave the entire globe in the nexus of market exchange and thus utilize gendered averages for the exploitation of subalterns.

Insofar as patriarchy is implemented through the construction of a man’s world, the struggle against male interests becomes crucial if the stability of the world is to be broken apart. In normal conditions, women are supposed to occupy subordinate positions wherein their job is to perform domestic, social, emotional, and sexual services. In this state of normality, the divergence of male and female interests is minimal. The interests of women are said to be in consonance with the exclusionary privileges of men. Feminism consists in the destruction of this semblance of unity. A frontier of antagonistic separation is erected between men and women. The cultivation of hatred against the privileges of men becomes crucial. In this sense, misandry is an absolutely indispensable moment of the feminist struggle. The unity of purpose that has been historically preached by patriarchy has to be annihilated through women’s exploration of the extent of their oppression. This exploration can’t be carried out unless intense hatred is directed against the male oppressors. Hatred enables one to burn down the moral pedestal on which men have been placed. The spiritual shell of men is thrown away to reveal the eminently historical creatures that they inherently are. As Periyar declares: “If a man has the right to kill women, a woman should also have the right to kill men. If there is a compulsion that women should fall at men’s feet, then men should also fall at women’s feet. This is equal rights for men and women.” The avoidance of this militant strategy is possible only if one posits an abstract moral essence that can be invoked in the struggle against patriarchy. However, as we have seen, there is no such essence. Men under patriarchy have no moral conscience that can be appealed to. They have been trained from their very birth to degrade women. That’s why it is women themselves who have to foist their reality of oppression upon men. This foisting is not a liberal dialogue. It is a struggle between two groups whose interests are opposed. Only this struggle can envision a new future where men and women have common interests.

Yanis Iqbal is studying at Aligarh Muslim University, India. He has published more than 300 articles in different magazines and websites on imperialism, social movements, political theory, educational philosophy, and cultural criticism. He is the author of the forthcoming book Education in the Age of Neoliberal Dystopia.

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