The Means of Reproduction: The Evolution of Women’s Oppression and Exploitation

Marxist have long held that the working classes would find their way out of a life of exploitation by seizing the means of production. Only this would lead to the revolution and true workers’ liberation. In The Dialectic of Sex Shulamith Firestone adapted Marxist arguments to speak of women, and how we would find our way to the revolution and true women’s liberation. Her discussion of the means of reproduction speaks to the very nature of our oppression and exploitation: the ability to bear children. That is, our biological nature.

Many people argue that speaking of women’s oppression in these terms is limiting and exclusionary. The claim that it leaves out those women who are unable to bear children, for whatever reason. They claim it leaves out transwomen. I would argue that neither of these arguments are relevant. The nature of women’s oppression and exploitation has evolved over the millennia, but it is rooted in one simple truth: the idea that all women are assumed to be child-bearers, and those children and the women who bear them are assumed to be the property of men. It does not matter whether an individual woman has a child, wants to have a child, or can have a child; it is assumed that she is capable of doing so, and that she inevitably will do so. It is assumed that the woman’s children will take the names of their father, because that is the only heritage that matters.

As I have written previously, and as many other historians and thinkers of the past have written, the original family unit of the human being is mother and her offspring. This is true of most mammals—indeed, most animals, in general. The mother and her offspring are the primary unit. The larger clan is made up of female relatives. Males are with the group until they reach sexual maturity, then they leave and join an unrelated group of females for procreative purposes. In this social set-up, there is no lifelong pair bonding of male and female. They procreate, but the father is not considered integral. In fact, the father may be unknown, since the female may have had sexual relations with more than one male.

Most Socialist thinkers, along with many anthropologists and historians, believe this set-up began to change when humans began to settle into permanent or semi-permanent societies. Although it has some historical weaknesses, Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State explores this from a Marxist perspective. The idea is that the social status of women was destroyed when humans began what we now call “civilization”. This was often based upon agriculture and landowning. Under earlier socioeconomic arrangements, there was little surplus. Hunter-gatherer societies, for example, gathered the food they needed for the present moment and a short time in the future (e.g. the winter months). In these societies, women were often actively engaged in the accumulation of food, not just in its preparation. They could do this, while also bearing and rearing children; the physical drain was not too great for this to be possible. This gave them much more freedom in their personal lives. To know you can subsist without the aid or protection of another is a primary requirement for personal freedom.

It was only after the invention of agriculture that surplus was gathered and that food production became a physically difficult task. It was no longer as easy for a woman to engage in food accumulation and childbearing. This change in food production also led to a sense of ownership over the land, hoarding of goods, and trading of this surplus. All of these things required a female to have a long term, stable tie to a single man. The man’s primary (or exclusive) role in food production meant that the means of this production came to be seen as his sole property and his sole domain. This was property that he wanted to remain in “his” family, to follow a patrilineal inheritance path. As a result, he needed a guarantee that the children borne by “his” woman were, in fact, his biological children. Hence, the desire to control female reproduction and sexuality. That is, the drive to control the “means of reproduction”.

The growth of patriarchy can be seen as based upon the drive to control the means of reproduction. As such, the exploitation and oppression of women are direct outgrowths of our ability to bear children. The myths, methods and excuses for exploiting and oppressing women took on lives of their own, but were and remain rooted in this fact. Patriarchy would become entrenched, but was borne out of socioeconomic arrangements. Social organizations and belief systems would arise to reinforce the patriarchy. All lived together in one incestuous relationship.

As the socioeconomic reality changed, women became more and more tied to the one thing that we did that was different from men: our childbearing capabilities. The various manifestations of patriarchy are built around this. We see this in the view of women’s sexuality, in the social requirement of marriage, in sexualized and other male violence towards women, in the battle against reproductive choice, and in the discrimination against women in the political and economic arenas.

In order to keep control over their property, assuring it passed to their male heirs only, men had to control the sexuality of women. This was accomplished in a number of ways. First, female sexuality had to be shown as dangerous. Women had to be convinced that sex was not desired by a virtuous woman. We had to feel in our very bones that it was something we did as a duty to men, but not ever for our own enjoyment. Sex would be based upon what brought pleasure to men. It would reinforce the overall social dictates of dominance and submission, teaching women that everything in our lives—up to and including our sexual interactions—should illustrate our submission to men.

To keep control over our sexuality, we had to be taught that it belonged to a single man—our husband. The demand of female chastity outside marriage was put into place. The demand that marriage be our one and only goal in life became integral to the very definition of “woman”. We were to provide men our bodies and the fruit of them (i.e. children). In return, men were to provide us with the very material means of survival. If we were not tied to one man, we would be forced to serve many men in order to meet our material needs. This might mean prostitution, or it might mean serving patriarchal religion. Regardless, we were not allowed the means to survive without ties to men.

In addition to the means of survival, men were to provide us something else: protection. Protection from whom and from what? Well, other men, of course. The threat of sexualized and other male violence is a very effective tool for keeping women tied to “good” men. We know all too well that we are vulnerable to attack. This is based purely on our biological nature as women. When we are victimized, it is almost always by men. That victimization is then turned on us; we are blamed for the violent actions of these men. It may mean being married off to a rapist. It may mean being put on trial for “adultery”, if we are married or the rapist is married. It may mean being asked why we were in that place at that time doing whatever we were doing. It may mean having someone demand to know what we did to provoke this man. And what is the fix for this? The protection of “good” men—fathers, husbands, brothers, sons.

Since all of these things tie into the control of women’s reproductive capabilities, it stands to reason that reproductive choice would be the enemy of patriarchy. Giving women the right to control when we have children and how many children we have negates the male control over our bodies. It implies that we are full human beings. It says that our bodies and our children belong to us. It also denies the essential nature that patriarchy has assigned us: the means of reproduction. The means of creating new workers, new bureaucrats, new warriors, new power brokers, new captains of industry. This is why the “old maid”, the childless woman, is the most hated person in patriarchal society. We have but one purpose under patriarchy: to give men more men. This has been true whether the economic structure was feudalist or capitalist, whether the political structure was monarchic or pseudo-democratic.

Keeping women from the spheres of political, social or economic influence was both a function of the control over our reproduction and a means to perpetuate that control. Our biological capability to give birth has been used as an excuse to keep us from the means to economically support ourselves. We have been told that some jobs are just too physically difficult for us. We have been told that other jobs are dangerous for us due to our childbearing capacity. We have been told that, as mothers and nurturers, we do not have the “nature” to perform some jobs. We have been told that our biological nature and hormones make us emotional and unstable, thereby unsuited for some jobs. We have been told that taking time off to give birth and rear our children is an undue economic burden on potential employers; that we will eventually want time off to marry and to have children.

Of course, this is a vicious circle. Women have been cut out of the means to succeed or even to survive in society, regardless of the socioeconomic system of that society. Then, the fact that we have not enjoyed success at the same rate as men is considered proof that we aren’t capable; that patriarchal attitudes and practices were right all along. With the advent of technological means of production, that has subsided to a degree, but it still exists. We are still told that women don’t get to the highest levels of government or business because we take too much time off to bear or rear children.

An even more insidious practice is to relate our biological nature with socially constructed gender and the physical expression of gender norms. The concept of femininity is culturally tied to submission, physical representations of our biology (i.e. accentuation of breasts and the “feminine” form are what makes us worthwhile human beings), expressions of nurturing behavior, and a willingness to sacrifice Self for the benefit of others, among other things. All of these concepts which are tied to the feminine gender are based upon the patriarchal requirements placed upon us because of our biological nature as child bearers. Gender is yet one more tool in the patriarchal toolbox of our oppression and exploitation.

Some have adopted a misguided notion that gender is integral to the fight for women’s liberation. The historical record and years of fighting for political rights has proven that our oppression and exploitation is rooted in our perceived child bearing capabilities, so a fight based upon gender will never liberate women. We will continue to be oppressed based upon this capacity–whether or now we, as individual women, want or can have children–so such a tactic is doomed from the start. We must recognize that the roots of our oppression lie in our biology, and the attempts to control that biology. We will not become free or safe by being more or less feminine, since femininity is something created in attempt to justify and reinforce our oppression. We will only become free by taking control over our own biology, by attacking the ideology that gives men a say in controlling our sexuality and our reproduction. To tear down the structures that allow men to use our biology as an excuse for keeping us from the places of power, whether that power is economic, social or political. That means attacking the deeply entrenched cultural biases about what it means to be a potential bearer of children.

To rid us of exploitation and oppression is not an easy task. It is not about just ending patriarchy. It is not just about ending capitalism. We must end both at the same time. We must demand that the means of reproduction be seized and controlled by those of us who do the labor. We must dismantle the structures in place that seek to allow men and the societies built on patriarchal philosophies to control our reproduction. Only Socialism can allow for this. Only in a society where women and their children are guaranteed the right and the ability to survive and to thrive—whether or not they are attached to a man—will females be free of exploitation and oppression.

Meanwhile, we must tear down the supporting structures that have taken on lives of their own. Patriarchal religion, the concept of gender, male violence against females—all of this and more serve to keep us entrenched in a world where the female is not valued. Where Socialism has failed in the past is that it has focused solely on the economic structures and philosophies of a society. The rise of patriarchy may be linked to socioeconomic evolution, but it has taken on a life of its own. It has developed its own ideology and social structures that are apart from government and economics. These ideologies and structures, which are based upon our biology, must be attacked and destroyed.

Reflections on Feminism: Gale Dines on “Neo-Liberalism and the Defanging of Feminism”

Reading a Gail Dines piece or watching her speak always makes me feel a little bit more sane.  Her radical feminism is more akin to my own, with its focus on women’s liberation that includes a Marxist critique of capitalism.  She also uses the concept of intersectionality in the proper way:  to show how women of color are fighting two battles, and that we are ill-served when we ignore that fact.  She doesn’t let that damage her focus on women-as-a-class, as so many Third Wave feminists do, but she does understand the importance it plays if we truly want to liberate all women.  She’s an academic who’s not afraid to speak like a human being, about real human problems and in real human language.  I smile every time she throws in a “fuck” or “shit” in one of her presentations, because it reminds me of the way I speak and write.  In fact, Gail is the woman who made me find relevance in Counterpunch again.  It had become the dregs of the male-dominated Left for so long.  When her writing began appearing there, a site I had abandoned four years ago became a site I checked on a daily basis again.  Gail Dines, more than any other “famous” feminist of our time, makes me feel like someone else sees the world as I do.  I can’t thank her enough for that.

Now that I’ve gotten my personal heroine-worship out of the way, I want to reflect on Gail’s lecture “Neo-Liberalism and the Defanging of Feminism”.  It was brought to my attention by one of the members on The Left Side of Feminism’s Facebook page.  While this member and I disagree on a lot, I was very happy that he brought it to the page for discussion.  It made my day a little brighter.

In this lecture, Gail hits on all the main points that make her worldview appealing to me:

  1. The idea that Marx laid the foundation for understanding and defining radical or revolutionary movements, as well as understanding how to fight for the rights of oppressed or exploited classes.  His ideas, both on economics and on social movements, are valuable to all radicals–including radical feminists.
  2. The idea that individualism will not lead women’s liberation any more than it could lead to Black liberation or workers’ rights.
  3. The idea that feminism isn’t about the “agency” or “choice” of  a privileged few, but rather about the real liberation of all women.
  4. The idea that intersectionality is important, but not int he ways that Third Wavers and other liberal feminists claim.
  5. The idea that feminism isn’t about “me”; it’s about “us”.
  6. The idea that judgement is not only acceptable, but it is required.
  7. The idea that men must be addressed when we speak of pornography.
  8. The idea that pornography, as it exists today, is a problem not because it increases rape or sexual violence.  It is a problem because of the ideas behind it and the ideas it pushes into the social consciousness.  It is a problem because of what it does to women within the industry, but also because of how it influences the minds of those who consume it.

I’m going to take each point above and expound on Gail’s feelings about it, as well as my own.  I’ve written on many of these issues before, but this presentation inspired me to think about them again.

As is custom, let’s start with point number one, the idea that Marxist analysis of classes of people is invaluable to building any radical or revolutionary movement.  This is an idea that was also central to Lierre Keith’s discussion of radicals vs. liberals.  However, there are some within radical feminism who reject any positive discussion of Marx, because he was male and didn’t evaluate the world from a radical feminist perspective.  I just don’t have much use for such a position.  Radical philosophy of any kind didn’t spring from the head of Zeus fully formed.  I also rate some views held by (most) radical feminists to be of great importance, and others to be of very little importance.  As with any philosophy, I don’t find radical feminism perfect.  I also believe there are philosophies that fall outside radical feminism that are very important to women’s liberation.  There are other philosophies that fall outside radical feminism that I find to be very important to the future of the entire human race.

As Gail points out, Marx introduced the idea that the world is made up of classes of individuals, not individuals themselves.  These classes have common problems, common goals, and common needs.  Some of his followers, like Lenin, articulated that women were a class unto themselves, and were responsible for deciding their own futures as members of that class.  Yes, in essence, Lenin argued for “women-only spaces”, where women themselves politically came together and made the important decisions about what women needed.  Sadly, it didn’t fully develop as it should, because the tough work of tearing down the patriarchy was never addressed.  That’s where both Marxism and Leninism fail.  However, there are a lot of places where both succeed, and not using or respecting the tools they provide is self-defeating and foolish.

The liberals ignore Marxist concepts of movement-building and collectivism, and that’s where they fail.  That’s where they reveal their foolish, self-defeating ways.  As Gail discusses, the Oppressor class certainly acts collectively for their collective benefit.  They don’t rely on individualism; they meet, plan and strategize as a class for the benefit of that class.  All oppressed classes must also do this, rather than cling to concepts of “agency” and “choice”.  For feminists, this means coming together as women working for women.  It can also mean coming together with what few allied men are willing to give up their male privilege and fight alongside us.  Other liberation movements have worked with some of the oppressor class, but only when those individuals were willing to truly recognize and completely reject their privilege.  If they are unwilling to fully evaluate how they have benefited from that privilege and utterly renounce it, they are not allies.  They are full-blown Oppressors, and must be treated as such.

Liberal feminists are willing to accept these Oppressors as “allies”, while some radical feminists believe that no man can ever be an ally.  I fall closer to those radical feminists in viewpoint, although I am not on-board with mandatory political separatism.  I do believe that some men can be true allies.  However, I don’t believe that men who refuse to completely reject their privilege can ever be allies, even if they speak the flowery language of radicalism when it comes to economics or racism.  These men will speak of social justice and collective action until it comes to misogyny and women’s liberation.  At that point, they insist on clinging to liberal individualism and “choice” arguments.  These are not and can never be allies.  They are all-out Oppressors.

The second point–the rejection of the individual as the focus of movements–flows from the first.  Gail spoke of how liberal feminists have attempted to redefine feminism as “whatever a woman says it is”.  There’s nothing more ridiculous.  Feminism is a movement.  In its true form, it is a radical, revolutionary movement that seeks to tear down the patriarchal father and its monstrous sons, such as capitalism and racism.  Women can be corrupted by living under the thumb of patriarchy, just as Blacks can be corrupted living under the thumb of institutional racism and the poor can be corrupted by living under the thumb of capitalism.  In the U.S., it is astonishing when members of the working class align themselves with conservative, capitalist movements.  They have been indoctrinated to believe that, if they just work hard enough, they can become part of that Oppressor class (even if they don’t identify it as an Oppressor class).  Instead of identifying with other workers or the poor, they look down on these people and look up to those on the upper rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.  That the male-dominated Left can recognize that, but don’t recognize that individual women can be corrupted by patriarchal indoctrination, reveals an ethical void in their very souls.  That liberal feminists can speak about patriarchal concepts like body image or rape culture, but don’t recognize other ways that women can be influenced by patriarchal indoctrination, reveals that they are themselves thoroughly indoctrinated.

Points three, four and five illustrate Gail’s position that radical feminists aren’t fighting for their own personal comfort.  They are fighting for the liberation of all women everywhere.  Here is where she brings in the concept of intersectionality as a radical viewpoint.  She discusses how the agency of a well-educated, wealthy, white woman who lives in the Western Hemisphere is far different than the (lack of agency) of a woman of color, a poor white woman who works multiple jobs to keep food on the table, or a woman suffering persecution in a society controlled by patriarchal religion.  When you refuse to recognize the lack of agency these women deal with in their everyday lives, you are turning your backs on anyone who isn’t just like you, who isn’t a rich, white, young Western woman running a Third Wave website.  Women aren’t entering prostitution or stripping because they have real choices.  They are entering those lines of “work” because of a lack of real choices.  They are constrained by financial difficulties, lack of education, drug addiction, and the like.  Instead of celebrating and insisting upon the “agency” and “choices” of these women, why don’t Third Wavers actually fight to increase real opportunities for women?  The importance of personal stories is to better analyze our plight as a class.  The fact that a few among us have gotten to the proverbial promised land does not mean that women are liberated, and does not mean that we don’t continue pushing for the utter destruction of patriarchy.

Point six flows out of the “choice” argument–specifically judging the choices of others.  The proponents of individualism and choice have a corollary that goes along with this, a corollary strongly built on ethical relativism.  This is the idea that you’re not allowed to judge the choices of others.  Just saying, “It’s my choice,” is supposed to be some magical shield from  being judged for your actions.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  One of the many times I literally laughed out loud and clapped my hands was when Gail recounted her story of the Las Vegas porn convention.  When she asked a man who was there selling set lights whether he had daughters, and how he felt about working with an industry that made their world more dangerous, he defensively demanded, “Are you judging me?”  Her reply was that she was absolutely judging him.  Loved it.

The last two points have to do with dealing with pornography, that exhibition of the patriarchal conception of masculinity.  Gail makes an important point about how and whom we should be addressing when it comes to porn.  It’s not women.  We should evaluate how women are treated within the industry, and the ideas about women that are perpetuated by porn.  However, when we attack porn, the way it depicts women, and how it shapes heterosexual males’ sexuality, it’s men we should be discussing.  It’s men who primarily consume it.  It’s men who primarily make money off of it.  It’s men who primarily write, direct and produce it.  It’s men who like to see a woman on her knees with cum running down her face.  It’s men who go to sites like “Gag on my cock bitch”.  It’s men who like to see a woman’s anus shown to the camera, to prove that it’s stretched out of shape from forceful anal sex.  It’s men who like to see porn where women are verbally abused, called “bitch”, “slut”, “whore”.  It’s men.  It’s men.  It’s men.  And they need to be named as the perpetrators, just as they should be when it comes to rape and to beating women.

The final thing I have to say about Gail’s lecture is that the comments section on YouTube should be avoided.  It’s overrun by the poor little white boys of the Internet.  The highest-rated comment when I was there simply stated, “Stupid cunt.”  The second-highest-rated was someone whining about Gail’s legitimate statement that whites are the ones who are racist.  I wasn’t surprised, but it still made me want to punch someone in the face.

As a note, I wanted to explain why I use Gail’s first name throughout this piece.  Some people consider that disrespectful, but it’s not meant that way.  First, I often do that when I have both affection and respect for the person about whom I’m writing; when it’s simply respect, but no affection, I usually go with the last name.  Also, when someone’s last name ends in an “s”, I’ll often default to their first names.  It’s so much easier and less clunky when you’re writing possessives.

Where Do You Draw the Line: Free Speech and Hate Speech

As I have navigated political life, developing, rethinking and redeveloping my political philosophies, the obstacle over which I have stumbled the most has been free speech. Should it be absolute? Should it be limited? Who gets to decide the limits? Who keeps the decision-makers in check, keeping them from trampling unpopular opinion and dissent? Does accepting free speech mean that we have to let the purveyors of misogyny and other hatred to put their ideas out there? What happens if we try to limit them? Even now, after years of thought on the issue, I am still as confused as ever.

When I was younger, I often adopted the hardline.  I agreed with those who favored bans on hate speech.  Misogyny and racism have no place in civil society, anyway, right?  Why does the marketplace of ideas need to include the abhorrent, the ideas that seek to make others less than human?  My young mind felt that it didn’t.  I believed we would never have a truly just society if we didn’t ban certain kinds of speech or expression:  rape apologia, the racist justifications and rationalizations of the U.S. South, pornography, and other hatred aimed at women.  Laws like the European laws against “inciting racial hatred” made sense to me.  I just felt they should be used to protect more groups, especially women.

As I aged, I began to question that position.  As I became more acquainted with historical moves to suppress speech, I did an about face.  My belief that misogyny, racism, and other hate-based expressions didn’t change, but my opinions about how to confront those expressions did.  I learned how so many regimes have killed, oppressed and ostracized those who expressed unpopular opinions.  The problem?  Many of those unpopular opinions were ones I actually supported.  It was the U.S. government suppressing Socialists, Communists and anarchists via deportation, incarceration, or ostracism.  It was the U.S. government using anti-obscenity laws to suppress information about birth control and abortion, to keep women from making pamphlets and giving speeches explaining basic female anatomy and reproduction to the uneducated.  People had even been executed based on their political beliefs, although the charges were usually framed as something else.  So, history told me that the shoe had been and could be on the other foot.

History and the experiences of others weren’t my only teachers.  I also learned first hand the dangers of suppressing certain types of speech based upon content.  Many of the opinions I currently hold are very unpopular–even among those on the Left.  I have been accused more than once of “hate speech” for the statement that I don’t believe anything called “transgender” exists.  I’ve never claimed that people should be ostracized for believing they are transgendered.  In fact, I think radical feminists are overly obsessed with this issue, which I believe to be tangential.  I just don’t believe the phenomenon is anything like its proponents claim.  I don’t believe in essential femininity or essential masculinity.  I don’t believe there is a “female” way to experience the world that is essentially different from a “male” way of experiencing the world.  While those who support the transgender concept claim they are against the gender binary, the very core of the concept is in opposition to this claim.  The concept of transgender says that some people are born with the gender that is “wrong”, which actually reinforces the idea that there are two separate and distinct genders.  It doesn’t smash the concept of gender binary; it simply states that people may be born with a gender different from their biological sex.  To truly smash the concept of binary gender, the very concept of gender must be destroyed.  Human experience must be recognized as a continuum.  Just because a woman doesn’t fit with the stereotype of “feminine” doesn’t make her a man; it makes her a woman who doesn’t fit the stereotype of “feminine”.  The same with men who don’t fit stereotypes of “masculine”.  They are simply men who don’t fit the cultural stereotypes of what it means to be a man.  That does not make them women.  I applaud and support men and women who refuse to conform to stereotypes of gender; I just don’t think it changes their sex.

The Left Side of Feminism’s Facebook page has been reported for “hate speech” when I express this belief.  Nothing has ever become of it, because it is a patently stupid claim to make.  However, there are those who come out of the woodwork to label this view an expression of “hate”.  My comments on some liberal feminist sites are moderated because I have expressed this opinion.  That the statements above could be twisted into the concept of “hate speech” is ludicrous, but it happens all the time.

On a similar note, I have been accused more than once of “Islamophobia” for daring to critique Islam in the same way I critique Christianity, Judaism or any other patriarchal religion.  While the Left will applaud when one criticizes fundamentalist Christians for their misogynistic beliefs and practices, Leftists will come out in droves to condemn those who apply the same standard to fundamentalist Muslims.  In my view, holding Muslims to a different standard is condescending.  It assumes that they are not smart or moral enough to treat women as full human beings.  Again, that so many twist this opinion, calling it “hate speech”, is absolutely ludicrous.  It’s simply a way to shut down the opposition without careful consideration of what is being said.

Eventually, I arrived at a position of a free speech absolutist.  My stance was that no speech, no matter how offensive or hateful, should be banned.  To do so is to risk that the ban someday be turned on me or those with whom I agree.  If it can be used against speech I disagree with, it can certainly be used against speech I agree with.  There is nothing that keeps the opponents of justice and equality from using such bans to meet their own ends.  History tells us this is true.  My own experience does, as well.

In addition, banning speech doesn’t ban the ideas behind the speech.  One may make the speech unheard and the expression invisible, but that doesn’t mean the hate isn’t still there.  If the ideas persist and grow out of sight, how do we know what we must fight?  How do we keep the hateful from exploding in violence that we didn’t even know was coming?  How do we educate?

This position of absolutism was a comfortable place for me for a very long time.  Recently, it has become less and less comfortable.  The argument that we will never have justice when marginalized groups can be publicly degraded and targeted makes sense.  The argument that we must fight for good of the whole, not just the rights of the individual, also make sense.  After all, isn’t that at the heart of Communism?  Doesn’t it seek to destroy a system that benefits a few in order to better the lives of the majority?  Shouldn’t that be at the heart of feminism?  The betterment of the lives of women, as a group, rather than slavish devotion to the individual (i.e. the misguided “choice” doctrine of liberal feminism)?  I can’t argue with those positions, so I arrive at a place of discomfort, of uncertainty.

I haven’t resolved this conflict within my heart and my mind.  I stay along the course of absolutism, because I can’t resolve the questions of what happens to the unpopular opinion.  Communism, feminism, anarchism are all unpopular opinions to many.  Do we risk those social justice movements being targeted by limiting free speech?  I just can’t support anything that leads to that possibility.  So, I uneasily sit in the chair of free speech absolutism…and wonder if there’s a better way.

The French Answer to “Austerity”

I originally posted this piece on Righteous Anger.

“Austerity measures” have become the European Union’s phrase of the moment.  In France, the Socialist government transfers the responsibility onto the class that is largely responsible for the economic crisis:  the wealthy.  Instead of the slashing of social programs that many European nations have engaged in, the French government is raising taxes on the wealthy and big businesses.

According to the Guardian article “French government targets rich with tax rises”:

The raid on the wealthy is in line with François Hollande’s election promise: “If there are sacrifices to be made – and there will be – then it will be for the wealthiest to make them.”

More than half the measures target households, mainly the country’s richest, and just under half target big business. They include lowering France’s wealth tax threshold, which had been raised by Nicolas Sarkozy. France’s wealth tax is unique in the EU and Hollande will now add a one-off higher levy on those with net wealth of more than €1.3m.

While in the U.S., the right-wingers demand that social programs be cut and attempt to point fingers at undocumented immigrants for draining the coffers, the French are actually moving to retain the funding of their vast social programs with money from those who caused the problems.  It was the wealthy who ran the financial sector into the ground by speculating and running amok.  That was not done by the poor, the middle class, or undocumented immigrants.  In the U.S., the rich were given bailouts, while the working classes were told to take pay cuts.  Unions were blamed.  Social programs were blamed.  The French, being the inscrutable French, have decided maybe the sacrifice should be made by those who benefited from and created the mess.

Where Do You Draw the Line?

  The title of this piece is taken from an old Dead Kennedy’s song of the same title.

  It includes the following lyrics:

“Seems like the more I think I know
The more I find I don’t.Every answer opens up so many questions.
Anarchy sounds good to me,
Then someone asks, “Who’d fix the sewers?”
“Would the rednecks just play king
Of the neighborhood?”
How many liberators
Really want to be dictators?
Every theory has its holes
When real life steps in…”

This is probably the biggest reason I refuse to give myself a hard label–whether that concerns my feminism or my Socialism.  The questions about liberators vs. dictators also hangs heavy on my mind.  The question becomes for me how to judge movements that have attempted to make things “better”, revolutionary movements that have taken power with the best of intentions, only to quickly devolve into the Next Big Dictator.  Specifically, what of those movements that have sought to radically change the way society is constituted, only to fall back on the oppression and exploitation of women.  What causes this to happen?  Is it that these society’s are not far enough removed from the most barbaric practices of patriarchal misogyny, so they quickly fall back on what they know best?  Or is it that they were flawed from their very conception?  The most important of these movements to me are the Communist revolutions of the 20th century.

  The first country to discuss when one discusses Communism always has to be Russia.  It was an integral belief of Russian Communism that men and women must have the same freedoms and rights for Communism to work.*  Women and men from all over the world returned to this concept over and over.  In her book Six Months in Russia, Louise Bryant wrote about how the leaders of the Revolution spoke, wrote and took action to actively engage women in the political life and future of Russia.  Of Maria Spirodonova, she wrote:

No other woman in Russia has quite the worship from the masses of the people that Spirodonova has. Soldiers and sailors address her as “dear comrade” instead of just ordinary “tavarish.” She was elected president of the first two Ah-Russian Peasant Congresses held in Petrograd and she swayed those congresses largely to her will. Later she was chairman of the executive committee of the Peasants’ Soviets and she is an extremely influential leader in the Left Socialist Revolutionist party.

  Bryant praised Alexandra Kollontai for “being a feminist” and “exalt[ing] women”:

As champion of her sex, she cries to the women of Russia: “Cast off your chains! Do not be slaves to religion, to marriage, to children. Break these old ties, the state is your home, the world is your country!”

  Lenin also wrote about the importance of women to the future of Russia.  And they were not to be important as mother’s and wives; they were to be important as leaders and active participants in the future of the world.

“[T]he building of socialism will begin only when we have achieved the complete equality of women and undertake the new work together with women who have been emancipated from that petty, stultifying, unproductive work…
“We say that the emancipation of workers must be effected by the workers themselves, and in exactly the same way the emancipation of working women is a matter for the working women themselves.”

Women were not supposed to be “beneficiaries” of male ideas for their emancipation.  Under the model Lenin proposed, women were to decide their own futures within the Communist society.  Even in today’s so-called “liberal” feminist view, women often look to male leaders to “free” them.  For all of Lenin’s faults (and they were considerable), he argued that women must be the goddesses of their own fates.  That is far closer to modern radical feminist concepts than it is to modern liberal feminist concepts.

  It’s all well and good to talk about the great Russians and their commitment to women’s active participation in public life.  If that’s all we look at, we could praise most of the leaders of the Revolution and the U.S.S.R.  But there’s the rub:  how do we turn a blind eye to so many of the things that did not go right in Russia?  Can we take a morally supportable stand that it’s acceptable to do that?  To ignore the banning of dissent?  To ignore the “temporary” ban on journalistic freedom that eventually became a permanent ban?

  Many people–women and men–who had supported the Revolution eventually said, “No, I cannot turn a blind eye to this.”  Emma Goldman was one of them.  Her disillusionment was tied to the Kronstadt rebellion and the subsequent arrests of Anarchists, but many of her underlying criticisms of the U.S.S.R. were absolutely valid without any of those of-the-times political conflicts.  But, although valid, are they complete?  I would argue that they are not.

  Some people have compared Kollontai’s actions in Russia and Goldman’s actions in Russia to Kollontai’s detriment.  Do we reject Kollontai,who fought for women and took the pragmatic approach by joining with the Bolsheviks when they finally gained the upper hand?  Or for accepting a diplomatic post under Stalin–a post some believe was Stalin’s way of excluding her from the day-to-day governance of the U.S.S.R.?  (While exclusionary it may have been, it also helped her live longer than most of her contemporaries.)  Some have said that Kollontai never formally allied with either the Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks, but simply moved back and forth as it suited her.  Others have said that she had formal alliances with both, but broke them at various times. In fact, some of her early demands for a focus on women in the new Russia appeared in Menshevik publications.

  In the end, I don’t think Kollontai cared which male faction “won”; her focus was on women.  In many, many scenarios, that is exactly the view women should take.  In most scenarios, men are not going to look out for women’s interests; women must do the work themselves.  Men are all too willing to look out for the interests of other men, while trampling the very lives of women underfoot.  When a woman looks out for other women–while also keeping a wider view of what she believes to be a more just world for everyone–why is she the unassailable evil?  I would argue that Kollontai did care about a just world for both women and men, but she was unwilling to leave women completely at the mercy of a male-dominated government.

  Do we understand that, unlike Goldman, Kollontai was a Russian woman with concerns for a Russian future for Russian women?   Goldman was, at heart, an American ex-patriate living in Russia.  (Yes, she was Lithuanian-born, but the U.S. was her home and most of her friends were Americans.)  It’s easier to leave a country if your only ties to it are theoretical and practical, like Goldman’s were; Kollontai’s were historical and familial.  Standing and fighting for those women had more meaning to Kollontai than it did for Goldman, who had taken some rather harsh stances against women at various times in her past, anyway.  (For example, I don’t see Kollontai ever calling another woman an “economic parasite” for providing unpaid domestic services for her husband.)    Do we stand at our point in history and condemn Kollontai?  Just as I can’t condemn Goldman for some of the arguments she made, I can’t do that to Kollontai, either. She stood and fought for the women of her country.  Far too often, we are willing to allow women to suffer in the name of “the people”.  Unlike many women, Kollontai didn’t turn her back on her sisters.  Whatever one has to say about the larger political landscape of the U.S.S.R. under its male leaders, I refuse to hold Kollontai guilty for her struggle and her commitment to the lives of women.

  On the other hand, we have another Revolution to speak of, and I can’t be so generous to that one.  What to make of China?  Many American feminists and radical women have praised Mao as an inspiration.  In 1996, Carol Hanisch presented a speech entitled, “Impact of the Chinese Cultural Revolution on the Women’s Liberation Movement.”  In it, she praises the writings of Mao as instrumental to the development of consciousness-raising.  She praises Mao as more “accessible” than Marx, Engels or Lenin.  Hanisch–she of “the personal is political” feminist motto–was a founding member of New York Radical Women.  She has fought the good fight.  However, in the year 1996, would you honestly be able to say a feminist figure should or would be praising China?  The country that has aborted and murdered its daughters to the point that it now faces a “woman shortage”?  Do we hold up a country as a beacon when a fact of life is that those women who do make it to adulthood are forced to have abortions or risk running afoul of the “one child per couple” law.  Forced abortion is no better than prohibition of abortion; both deny women the autonomy over their own bodies and reproduction.  China may have called itself Communist, and it may have had women’s emancipation as part of its principles, but it has quickly engaged itself into controlling the lives and bodies of women.  Same as it ever was.

  I can appreciate the words of Hanisch, as they pertain to Women’s Liberation.  I can look back historically and see where she came by her ideas.  I can read Mao’s words, and see that he, too, argued for women’s freedom under Communism.  I can even praise the Chinese women who fought to bring about that hoped-for Communism, believing that it would better their lives.  After all, these women had grown up with grandmothers who suffered footbinding.  They knew the horrors of women’s lives under the old ways.  The problem, for Hanisch or any other woman who would today praise China, is that China did not march too far from patriarchy in its move to Revolution.  Russia may not have come close to meeting its goals, but Russian females haven’t been annihilated under the watchful eye of the Party for the explicit reason that they are females.

  China kept the attitudes of the superiority of the male firmly ingrained, despite their flavor of socialistic totalitarianism.  (This is a prime example of how capitalism and patriarchy are not one-and-the same; China was never a capitalist country, but it was patriarchal is the most oppressive, obscene ways.)  When it tried to get a hold of the overpopulation issues, the “fix” was to eradicate generations of girls and women.  Today, their “fix” for economic issues is to turn towards capitalism, and its peculiar ways of exploiting women.  Part and parcel of that is the “mail order bride” phenomenon, which is growing in China.  Why?  Because China did not remove patriarchy effectively; it merely grafted socialism atop it.  As it stands, the courage of Chinese women touches me.  The result of the Chinese Revolution disgusts me.

  When we discuss the women of yesterday, we have to determine where each of us draws her or his line.  To do so, it is important to judge them on several criteria:

  1. Did they fight for justice, safety and freedom for their sisters?
  2. Did they do this–while doing the best they could within male-defined movements and governments–with an eye towards the greater good for all of society?
  3. How much power did they have to change the more unjust elements of their society without leaving women in ever deeper suffering?
  When I answer those questions, I can comfortably feel incredible admiration and gratitude for Kollontai.  I can feel deep adoration for Goldman.  And I can cry for the women and girls of China.

*I will not discuss whether Russia was ever actually “Communist” in this piece.  I do not believe it was, but addressing that in this piece is superfluous to the issues being discussed.

The French answer to "austerity"

“Austerity measures” have become the European Union’s phrase of the moment.  In France, the Socialist government transfers the responsibility onto the class that is largely responsible for the economic crisis:  the wealthy.  Instead of the slashing of social programs that many European nations have engaged in, the French government is raising taxes on the wealthy and big businesses.

According to the Guardian article “French government targets rich with tax rises”:

The raid on the wealthy is in line with François Hollande’s election promise: “If there are sacrifices to be made – and there will be – then it will be for the wealthiest to make them.”
More than half the measures target households, mainly the country’s richest, and just under half target big business. They include lowering France’s wealth tax threshold, which had been raised by Nicolas Sarkozy. France’s wealth tax is unique in the EU and Hollande will now add a one-off higher levy on those with net wealth of more than €1.3m.

While in the U.S., the right-wingers demand that social programs be cut and attempt to point fingers at undocumented immigrants for draining the coffers, the French are actually moving to retain the funding of their vast social programs with money from those who caused the problems.  It was the wealthy who ran the financial sector into the ground by speculating and running amok.  That was not done by the poor, the middle class, or undocumented immigrants.  In the U.S., the rich were given bailouts, while the working classes were told to take pay cuts.  Unions were blamed.  Social programs were blamed.  The French, being the inscrutable French, have decided maybe the sacrifice should be made by those who benefited from and created the mess.