On Patriarchy (Part 1): the Left’s new feminist ideologues

International Women’s Day on Friday 8th March was quite an interesting 24 hours to be a man on the Left.

I found it mostly depressing and demoralising though.

I used to support the broad feminist agenda, but have become increasingly concerned by the particularly strident, strict and aggressive brand of feminist politics that has taken over: almost exclusively confined to the Left of course.

Sexism is a serious, continuing and pressing concern in our society, but the kind of treatment it is getting from feminists threatens to distract from and undermine any effective attempts to address it.

This treatment is now overwhelmingly ideological, focusing on sexism as something systemic; indeed sometimes known as ‘patriarchy’. The divisive brand of politics that comes with this should be familiar to us from the Culture Wars between Left and Right in North America: it is highly emotive in its language, quick to cast blame and careless about where the blame lands.

The Labour feminist and Guardian contributor Emma Burnell is one of the most forthright exponents of this tendency. In her article for Shifting Grounds marking International Women’s Day, she wrote of how female politicians in Britain, including Hazel Blears, Harriet Harman, Nadine Dorries and Baroness Warsi, are sometimes talked about in pejorative and specifically gendered terms.

Unfortunately she did not make any attempt to analyse these ways and lay down some principles of decency around which we might gather. Instead she subsumes her argument in an ideological, stereotypical mush of extreme rhetoric, of which a few examples here:

1)      “Politics is overwhelmingly male. Political appraisal, success and failures are set by terms that are increasingly macho.”
2)      “Women in politics are required to be just as tough, just as domineering and just as fierce and full of bravado as their male counterparts. They are equally, perhaps even more unlikely, to have the freedom to explore better ways of engaging politically with opponents and allies. If they show what the dominant culture view as “weakness” they are seen as either a typical woman or as letting down their sex.”
3)      “Panels at political events are, more frequently than ever, men only affairs.”
4)      “Everyone in politics and political journalism has got where they are by learning and playing by the rules.”

We can see that these passages each express some pretty categorical opinions without qualification. Despite this, the author does not provide a shred of evidence – anecdotal, publicly-available or statistical – to back up all the hair-raising rhetoric.  Words like ‘macho’, and ‘fierce’, ‘increasingly’, and categorical statements of how things are, are thrown around with abandon, but with no supporting illustrations or evidence.

Elsewhere in the article however, Emma does refer to the “laddism” of discussions with political colleagues, plus three comments of David Cameron’s in Parliament: that Nadine Dorries might be “frustrated”, that Labour’s Angela Eagle should “calm down Dear” and a joke that Ed Miliband wasn’t “butch” enough because he fetched Ed Balls a coffee.

Is this evidence of an overwhelmingly macho, male culture? I am not convinced.

Also on International Women’s Day, Rosie Rogers, the National Coordinator of the pressure group Compass (of which I am also a member) wrote an article for the New Statesman entitled ‘Ten ways to survive as a woman on the left’. In it, she said: “I could just crumble under the weight of everyday sexism and patriarchy on the left.”

She added: “It's because of the institution of the left and that many people may believe in democracy and equality but often don’t know or accept that they are pushing the opposite agenda.”

Now, to suggest that people who say they believe in democracy and equality are actually pushing the opposite agenda is a serious accusation. However it is not matched to anyone or anything, and is therefore left standing as a blanket accusation against men of the Left.

Rosie said: “Holding grudges, shaming people into corners won't help create allies and will only alienate people.” I agree with that sentiment generally, but not completely in this instance. Either people’s actions are not that important and not that bad really (which would render her argument redundant) or they should be held to account and allowed right of reply.

Rosie also makes a number of other accusations against men she comes across daily on the Left for general everyday behaviours. We are expected to trust her interpretation that the men she is referring to but not mentioning are being sexist and patriarchal. But the only realistic way of showing whether this is true or not would be to compare like for like with a male in her position.

I know that some men can be obnoxious and overbearing, interrupt and not listen. I say that not just because I am like that myself sometimes, but because others have been all those things to me. Yet last time I looked I was not a woman.

This sort of thought when reading and hearing of such complaints makes me wary. It is as if no man is ever rude to another man; as if no man gets nervous and apprehensive when entering a room full of important people who are mostly men; as if no man is ever outnumbered and patronised in the presence of other men. It is indeed as if only men are ever unfair and unkind, and they are only ever unfair and unkind to women.

These are basic arguments that should be obvious; yet they are relevant and necessary here. They suggest to me how little trust some of us have in basic understanding between people across the gender divide. It would seem that the Left’s ideologies of difference are shaping how we view each other and our common humanity, as not very common at all. This is a real shame.

Patriarchy versus Capitalism

The term ‘patriarchy’ that Rosie Rogers uses is where this powerful brand of feminism has its ideological centre. Emma Burnell and other feminist ideologues like Laurie Penny use the term extensively, referring to it as a ‘fact’, and something that needs to be fought, attacked and defeated.

The practicalities and consequences of trying to fight something that does not exist in any tangible form is something I will address in Part 2. Here though, we will interrogate patriarchy - defining a system structured so that social and political power lies in male but not female hands - against reality.

Let’s first compare it with capitalism: a system that can be clearly demonstrated in the workings of institutions, corporations and people through their daily consumer habits.

In terms of institutional support, what does capitalism have? 

We could start with the World Bank, the IMF, WTO, the Davos forum, the European Single Market, countless trade agreements between nations and regional blocs, Central Banks. Moving down to national and local levels in Britain we have the Treasury, BIS and other government departments, council licensing regimes, numerous free market think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute – all catering and administering to the capitalist system.

Now what does patriarchy have?

Certainly we can see that in the major religions including Christianity and Islam there are certain seats of power from which women are excluded. But other than that, what is there?

We can point to plenty of things in the past that strongly suggest at least an approximation to patriarchy for British and wider Western society: a male-only voting franchise, male-only public institutions and other Rights of Man that only applied to men.

However, nowadays women are free to do and be pretty much what they want, just like men. The only law I am aware of that institutionalises gender discrimination is the one which legalised All Women’s Shortlists in elections for office – brought in by Labour in 2002.

To see where sexism resides in practice though (and to read a little about this, check out the EverydaySexism site), we should take one step back into the hazy realm of culture where customs and attitudes are passed from person to person and through the generations.

Customs and attitudes can run through institutions in day-to-day practice of course. But when these everyday practices are not institutionalised and legally protected, they cannot possibly be systemic, at least in any demonstrable sense. The path is clear and well-prepared for them to be challenged and defeated in the eyes of public opinion and the law.

People also have choices in everyday life and culture of course. Many choose not to go along with sexist attitudes and practices, and the better among us seek to challenge them.

But patriarchy as an idea is much too flimsy and vague. It is also potentially counter-productive, for by ascribing sexism to an impersonal and universal social system, you strip actions of responsibility: you view them not as actions of people doing wrong but as representations of patriarchy.

In Part 2, to follow in a few days, I will move on to examine this ideology’s fundamentally authoritarian tendencies and its uncanny resemblances to Marxism-Leninism. I will also explore a little its astonishing success, particularly in the Labour Party, and how ideologies of this sort (not just feminist) threaten to consume the current political Left from within, by suppressing free speech, institutionalising privilege and reducing democratic culture even further from the sorry state it is in now.

Postscript,19th March: I am afraid Part 2 is taking rather more than 'a few days' to arrange and reduce down to a decent-sized blog post. It shall follow though, in time.


  1. Ben, I am trying to write a considered response to this but its taking longer than expected.

  2. I'm really sorry that I can't flesh out some of these ideas, I simply don't have the time, but I have tried to clarify some terms and draw out some issues with your post. I hope this helps.


    At the risk of simply contributing to an echo chamber and in the interest of evolving ideas and avoiding oppression, some notes for Part 1 are necessary. I will write them despite an acknowledgement of my privilege, as those who are constantly under fire from privileged men might not mind sometimes to have some of the load taken off.

    First let’s say where you’ve got it right, or at least have a valid preference. You prefer not to have ‘highly emotive…language’; fair enough, but then again you don’t have sexist shit shouted at you, are not sexually assaulted and don’t generally have a world set up to exclude you from its workings so you might understand why your preferences aren’t always catered for on this topic.

    I also think you have touched on something when you say: ‘It would seem that the Left’s ideologies of difference are shaping how we view each other and our common humanity, as not very common at all. This is a real shame.’ It is a real shame that people don’t recognise a common humanity, but I would say that it is on those with the privilege to increase access to this commonality to open the doors that are closed to so many others.

    Second let’s problematize some terms that you’ve used or, I think, misunderstood. One term is: ‘the broad feminist agenda’. It’s not clear what you believe this to be, but as you are trying to question rhetoric this language seems out of place.

    Another term – or phrase really – is: ‘the particularly strident, strict and aggressive brand of feminist politics’. I’m left struggling to see how this can be a bad thing, but then again I think my definition of feminism is somewhat different to yours. So often the issue, shared definitions are vital to our thinking and help us work through differences.

    I go with the bell hooks definition of feminism: ‘a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.’

    hooks takes this definition and expands on it:

    ‘[this] clearly states that the movement is not about being anti-male. It makes it clear that the problem is sexism. And that clarity helps us remember that all of us, female and male, have been socialized from birth on to accept sexist thought and action.’
    Source: http://excoradfeminisms.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/bell_hooks-feminism_is_for_everybody.pdf

    A third term it is important to have a shared understanding of is the word ‘systemic’. As you use it (‘overwhelmingly ideological, focusing on sexism as something systemic’ and ‘But when these everyday practices are not institutionalised and legally protected, they cannot possibly be systemic, at least in any demonstrable sense.’) it seems you have got it mistaken for the word ‘institutionalised’ or ‘state-sanctioned’ or maybe even ‘legislated’.

    A fourth term is ‘sexism’. It seems that you think sexism is a matter of interpretation, an interpretation that can either be trusted or doubted. Sexism is not something I can give you a quote on, but I would just suggest that when someone experiences sexism, whether it be the preference of a man’s idea over a women’s, the pay gap or physical violence, none of these are open to interpretation.

    Equally I don’t think that sexism is simply the comparison of ‘whether it would be bad if the same thing happened to a man’ or ‘does that also happen to men’. If something also happens to men (eg being objectified) that does not make it less sexist when it happens to women in a systemic fashion.

    Sexism is also not the experience of unfairness or unkindness as you also seem to suggest.

    Finally I think that there is a fair amount of ‘moving-of-the-goal-posts’ here. Women in your post are either not specific enough or the examples they give don’t indicate a general pattern. They are too dogmatic, divisive and use too much rhetoric, but they also don’t name names and attack people individually.

  3. Hi Sol, thanks for taking the time and effort to write your comments - some interesting stuff.

    Your first paragraph actually had my 'patriarchy' radar making screeching noises with the mention of 'avoiding oppression' and 'privilege' and the like.

    Since I've started looking at this area I've come across this sort of language everywhere in phrases such as 'checking your privilege at the door'. It is a world of its own, having its roots I presume in university gender studies departments, probably in America. It suggests a strictly defined hierarchy of privilege and oppression that I think is just too complicated and fiddly to make sense as anything systemic - and like I said in the article, the concrete institutional support for it is just not there.

    If you think of capitalism, you have the profit motive - a simple means through which the system reproduces itself and that people are fed into and adjust to. You could talk about men trying to reproduce their own dominance through a patriarchal system, and I think you would be right about individual men. But you would also be right about individual women fighting the same games of power and dominance, and then there are the social changes that mean discrimination against women is now generally regarded in public life at least as completely unacceptable. This does not seem to me to be a patriarchal system reproducing itself - indeed it seems that things are going in the other direction, which we should welcome for the most part.

    Your views do seem to be rather dogmatic in this way: a strict determinism going down the gender axis that certainly doesn't fit from what I see day-to-day in my own life and through the media.

    This is most obvious in you saying that 'the preference of a man’s idea over a women’s, the pay gap or physical violence, none of these are open to interpretation.' I'm sorry, but they are. The man's idea may actually be better than the woman's rather than it being chosen as a matter of sexism. On the pay gap, only the other day I saw Catherine Hakim (a bit of a bete-noir it seems) saying how the stats are often presented in a highly biased way, and that is indeed what I have found when I've looked at many feminists' treatment of stats (this is a general failing of people though).

    Sexual violence is precisely that. It is awful and mostly affects women, but is it something systemic? I say it is wrong, and blaming it on the system is a cop-out. People should be held responsible for their actions.

    Many of your other criticisms below that are I think partly down to me only having written 1,500 words rather than a book's-worth. The final para is a bit curious though. Hopefully in Part 2 I'll be able to clarify a few of these things.

    Best wishes, and thanks again for engaging

  4. So equally, part of my dogmatism is down to shortness of time and space, but I would have hoped that the few things I picked out were emblematic enough of what I see as a problem in your post and therefore wider thought.
    Especially those of ‘systemic’ and ‘sexism’ seem to be misinterpreted and the definition of feminism I provided I hoped would provide a new angle from which to approach the issue.
    Your comparison of sexism to capitalism is problematic as sexism is enforced reproduced, not on an individual basis or in legislation/institutional policy (as you rightly point out), but it is nonetheless a concrete and present issue that does continue to dog society. When you say that: ’You could talk about men trying to reproduce their own dominance through a patriarchal system, and I think you would be right about individual men.’ I would ask why can we not say that about society (not men as individuals or a distinct group)?.
    I think the idea of privilege is one well worth engaging with, even outside US Gender Studies departments. I do take your point that it is fiddly, but seeing as we’re dealing with the oppression of half the world I think it might be worth it. That you don’t see this played out in your own day-to-day life should be no reason to abandon the concept of privilege as that is the exact basis of the idea itself which would basically state: as a man your privilege is invisible to you.
    When I said those things are not open to interpretation I am referring to, get this, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The French philosopher, as far as I understand, said that it’s not just ideas that govern the body, but that the body is a central part of those ideas. The way I explain this to others is that when you get hit (or experience sexism) you don’t first interpret it and then claim to have experienced it. The first thing is the experience.
    My point is that when someone tells a woman to ‘calm down dear’, that woman’s first experience is the oppressive thump of sexism, not an interpretation of it.

    Once again, hope this is of some use.

  5. Hi Sol, yes I think what you said about sexism is fine to an extent, though this whole 'all of us, female and male, have been socialized from birth on to accept sexist thought and action' is not something I really accept, at least in the sense of seeing inferiority and superiority. As for 'systemic', I don't think it's really responsible and intellectually honest to be speaking of systemic stuff that you cannot demonstrate. Systems have moving parts; if we can't see any of these, we are indulging in speculation. This is fine to an extent, but we're not talking about fact, and when we build ideologies on top of stuff that is not fact, we get into difficult and potentially dangerous situations.

    In this latest comment of yours there's some stuff that I don't much like which again shows off the severe determinism and reductionism inherent to these theories; in a way I'm glad I've touched a nerve to provoke them. Talking of half the world being 'oppressed' (which infers the other half as 'oppressor' is one such example.

    The worst though is 'as a man your privilege is invisible to you'. This is just basically offensive: telling someone you don't even know that you know them better than they know themselves. This is prettty bad 'false consciousness' territory, saying that only you and your fellow ideologues know the truth which is not accessible to the rest of us mere mortals. If we are talking of power relationships here, there's only one way this thinking goes, and it is not in a patriarchal direction.

    This is something I am looking at in Part 2.

    On a lighter note, it's funny you mention Merleau-Ponty, because a book of his is on my birthday present list. I've read Being and Time so I'm familar with the primacy of experience over thought/interpretation, though without much talk of the body in Heidegger.

    Thanks for the thoughts again.

  6. Just finally, I was worried that your reply this time would show a bit of finalist rejection of what I was saying.

    I think that there's just a bit more of a misunderstanding, though only a bit.

    I agree that socialisation isn't as simple as just being told 'girls bad, boys good'.

    As for 'systemic', I think we need more space to come to an intellectually honest definition. As far as I understand the term it is often in opposition to pointing out individual cases, claiming rather that a problem is fundamental to a system. I think that if you have a different understanding of this term, then your writing on a different track to what most people understand when they say 'sexism is systemic in our culture' or 'the police are institutionally racist' (ie, there are no harsher punishments for people who are not white, but there is a culture of racism). So you can demonstrate a systemic thing, but maybe a better term would be culture, ie sexism is within the fabric of our culture.

    OK so on the determinism, I am not denying it. I agree it does not make for good material on the 'commonality of humanity' front. Yes I think that oppression is an acceptable term to use. Yes I think privilege is invisible to the person who holds it. On the topic of privilege and 'false consciousness' I think that privilege is a much more down-to-earth thing. It is not too controversial to say that someone who is very intelligent can't compare their own intelligent to a less intelligent version of themselves, making the realisation 'I have more intelligence than that other person and therefore getting a job is more easy for me' difficult. Equally seeing how life is easier for men, white people, young vs middle-aged etc. is not necessarily that visible. I don't mean to cause offense or claim some all-seeing power brought on by having friends who've told me how much easier my life is than theres.

    Hope that clarifies some stuff but it is 7:30am so its not a guarantee. If not, I think that my word shouldn't be taken for definitions of either sexism or privilege, I'm just trying to problematise the way you have understood them in the hope that you can find more definitive definitions.

    On Merleau-Ponty, the body is the best, I think he's the best. Except bell hooks, she really is the best.



    1. Thanks for the thoughts. It's good how we've worked our way to some sort of understanding, especially on this 'systemic' issue.

      I agree that my understanding of the word is different to what many others' is but this is not a misunderstanding on my part. Frankly, I don't think talking of systems without any concrete evidence of them is sustainable or responsible. This is pseudo-science.

      Cultural norms are mutable and people have free will (albeit most don't use it much); being deterministic and dogmatic denies both of these things. As such it denies the possibility of change through the only meaningful source of change possible - the way people think and feel. It is a great irony of this patriarchy idea that it is essentially an ideology of hopelessness: either the system is brought down (how?) or you are stuck with unchanging oppression. Thankfully life isn't as simple or as bad as that, and people's attitudes do change over time and in many cases aren't as unsympathetic as is painted.

      On privilege, I have no problem when it is a down-to-earth concept, in which case it is pretty obvious, but this is not the way it is treated in these identity politics discourses, as structurally essential. In my view it plays a more interesting role amongst the ideologues: on one hand acting as a straight concept of 'better than' but also enabling people to wash their hands of any guilt about their own 'privilege' while attacking others'. I don't see what other purpose it serves. Some people are luckier, more privileged and better at different things: that's life and I can't see how those who are less privileged are helped by being told how less privileged they are all the time.

      I thoroughly recommend reading a bit of Karl Popper on ideologies: I've just read The Open Society and Its Enemies (which is brilliant on Marx and Marxism and also straightforwardly-written).

      I like my dialectics and dialogics, but also (as Popper is very keen on) it is important to test ideas and criticise them: which is what I do in this article for the most part. Creating these huge systemic edifices opens up plenty of space for criticism, but I certainly deserve my share too.

      Cheers and thanks for the thoughts again.


  7. 'Talking of systems without any concrete evidence' - I am suggesting that there is a reason we speak about systemic or cultural norms in opposition to providing individual examples. Zizek has a useful example of distinguishing between subjective, objective and systemic violence, in his book 'Violence'.

    Your paragraph on cultural norms I think I agree with, I don't think its useful to see things as unchanging, hopeless etc.

    On the recommendations you make, I will have a look.

    On 'Creating these huge systemic edifices opens up plenty of space for criticism, but I certainly deserve my share too.' - you certainly have your share, but I say that from within a conception of your privilege that you (and I) have due to the position we hold in our society. So that's a double-edged sword for you I guess.

    I think finally that at the very least your original post needs to be carefully re-thought if only simply because you seem to be suggesting that there is not an inequality between genders, races, abilities etc. propogated by a culture that values certain views from certain individuals more than others.


  8. Hi Sol, nice thoughts. You mention systemic or cultural norms in the same breath - these are different things though for me. Systems change through changing the system, but cultural norms change through people changing their minds - a democratic process if you like rather than an authority-driven process as with systems.

    As for equality, I never said anything about denying inequality.

    Equality and its opposite are open to so much interpretation. My version is that every person (and indeed the rest of nature beyond that) are deserving of equal respect on a fundamental level - all are of equal importance. We should only judge actions. A person who acts is of course acting within a bordered world with constraints and norms which he or she can never completely get beyond - it is an impossibility. But we do have a lot of freedom within that world.

    My beef is with these conceptions that seek to pin down people in different ways, according to 'identity'. Identity is something you can never achieve (it means literally being equal to an idea), but us on the Left seek to enshrine it and institionalise it by a form of cultural mind control. Especially in the diverse world we live in, I think this is a big mistake. It denies the power to change.

    I also don't see how anyone can or rather should be criticised for 'privilege', as it is a passive concept - again, something over which you have little or no control. It doesn't include choices and decisions and is therefore lacking in ethics. If there is no ethics, there is no criticism - of people anyway. You have to fall back on methodological collectivism, which I think is essentially nonsense because it makes us responsible for things over which we as individual people have very little or no control. We do have rather more control over the institutions in our society though, and I think this is where we should focus our attention.

    Best wishes


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