On Patriarchy (Part 2): Context and Consequences
In a survey last year by Netmums, just one in seven of the British women questioned described themselves as ‘feminist’. The report concluded, “modern women feel traditional Feminism is no longer a label they feel proud to wear - it is seen as aggressive, divisive and doesn't take into account their personal circumstances”.
Meanwhile, over at Huff Post UK, Lucy Sheriff has said: “As much as I hate to admit, this is still a man's world. But I don't think feminism is going to change it.
“It's no longer a dirty word, it's the punchline of a joke.”
What Lucy described as ‘feminism’ is surely more a reflection of what I called in Part 1: “the particularly strident, strict and aggressive brand of feminist politics that has taken over: almost exclusively confined to the Left of course”. Feminism is much broader and richer than this, but as with most things, those people who get the best hearing tend to be those who shout the loudest and offer the most convenient explanations for people’s problems.
As I said in the previous article, this version of feminism that is currently dominant has some fundamentally authoritarian tendencies and uncanny resemblances to Marxism-Leninism.
The term ‘patriarchy’ is where it has its ideological centre. But what is this patriarchy?
Wikipedia has a decent summary of different interpretations. It says, ‘patriarchy literally means "the rule of the father”...However, in modern times, it more generally refers to social systems in which power is primarily held by adult men.’
This latter description is surely incontrovertible when applied to most contemporary Western societies, in which men occupy a clear majority of senior political, corporate and other institutional positions. In practice though, currently-prevalent ideologies of patriarchy make much wider claims.
The British feminist political theorist Carole Pateman for example has written: "The patriarchal construction of the difference between masculinity and femininity is the political difference between freedom and subjection."
If we infer from this that our patriarchal society works directly to ensure freedom for men and subjection for women, we are talking about something very different from a mere state of things which can change (and in my view is changing, partly due to pressure from feminists).
In Part 1, I analysed the lack of concrete institutional backing for a system of patriarchy as spoken of by influential feminist writers, and compared it to the vast network of official, organised support for our economic system, which is demonstrably capitalist.
The systemic aspect to this theory and its associated ideas is crucial. It provides an all-encompassing framework in which everything happening in society can be interpreted; a ready-made explanation for any problem. If the fundamental nature of society is patriarchy, then by definition everything in it is touched on, affected and coloured by patriarchy: whatever we don’t like can be laid at its door.
Feminism; Marxism; Leninism
There is a pretty severe determinism to this which is heavily reminiscent of the cruder versions of Marxism.
We can see this by cross-referencing it to some of the major aspects of Marxist-Leninist theory: patriarchy takes the place of capitalism; women play the role of the proletariat; men are the bourgeoisie; and in place of the revolutionary vanguard, we have the feminist ideologues themselves. In the Labour Party this ‘vanguard’ has institutional form in the powerful Labour Women’s Network (LWN); but more about Labour later.
The similarities to Marxism are extensive, including:
· The idea of systemic oppression of one class/gender by another.
· A strictly deterministic and inflexible account of human societies and people. By this account, meaningful change can only occur through capturing and changing the system from the top.
· False consciousness and unconscious oppression. A person’s behaviour and opinions is set by their objective position in the class/gender system; their consciousness is the consciousness of their class/gender (at this point other oppressed minorities are often brought in to provide extra layering to the system, but gender stands foremost in the hierarchy of oppression). Freedom of conscience and a person’s potential to form and shape their own life and the world around them is denied, unless they possess an objective understanding of the situation, in which case they can form part of the elite vanguard.
· The elite vanguard, which possesses the right ideology, fights for the oppressed on their behalf, focusing on capturing centralised power.
· An attitude to democracy which is ambivalent at best and contemptuous at worst (because democracy is part of the system of oppression). Where democracy exists, it needs to be controlled to ensure acceptable outcomes.
· Lack of ethics. How you behave is decided by your class/gender and assigned place in the bourgeois/patriarchal social structure. A person’s actions can be judged objectively according to how they might be attacking or defending oppression, but personal ethics are a distraction and an irrelevance.
· Attempts to change reality by grafting a new, acceptable version on top of it, as if a new surface layer will change what lies beneath for the better. This leap of faith and the philosophical investment made with it encourages wilful blindness to some consequences and a tendency to suppress and destroy unsatisfactory elements.
Both crude Marxism and the ideology of patriarchy are essentially philosophies of hopelessness: either the system changes or nothing changes. By this way of thinking, incremental changes like the universal right to vote, unemployment insurance, free health services and state pensions, do not change anything fundamentally.
Also, as I said in Part 1: “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.”
Depersonalising bad behaviour like this lets perpetrators off the hook while tarring every man with the same brush.
The destruction of ethics involved also justifies bad behaviour in return. Since patriarchy cannot be seen, let alone attacked directly, the only practical way of taking action against it is to seek out surrogates as targets; and conveniently there is a sizeable part of the population who serve pretty nicely as representatives of male domination. Women are not immune though: they can represent the patriarchy as well as men, with the added bonus of being seen as traitors. Twitter is the favoured hunting ground here for the wolf packs which circle and attack those who dare to be different.
The use of false consciousness and the unconscious to explain why most women and men do not see themselves respectively as oppressed and oppressor has some especially troubling implications. For it necessitates judging people’s everyday non-harmful habits and choices as objectively ‘wrong’, while the person making the judgement is objectively ‘right’. This is a fundamentally authoritarian and elitist way of looking at people. It has the underlying message: “You are not who you should be. You should be someone else. I know who you should be, and because I am right I can say and do what I want to you [especially on Twitter].”
The part-capture of the Labour Party
As I inferred earlier, elements of this narrative are institutionalised into the Labour Party, primarily through the Labour Women’s Network (LWN), the members of which one of its organisers Kirsty MacNeill openly refers to as a “cadre”. (Cadre is the word used by Marxist-Leninists for the elite vanguard of revolutionaries meant to lead the Communist Party towards a workers’ revolution).
The LWN was formed in 1988 with the righteous aspiration of increasing the number of Labour women elected to Parliament. It has had astonishing success, with All-Women’s Shortlists (AWS) for candidate selection getting introduced as part of John Smith’s party reforms of 1993 and maintained to this day (with a brief hiatus after a tribunal ruled them illegal). As with previous elections, for the next one Labour has given an AWS instruction to half of the constituencies that it sees as winnable without a sitting Labour MP seeking re-election. (For more on AWS, see this article I wrote here).
This sort of positive action using exclusivity and quotas is a form of land grab: a reservation of protected territory for sole use. It is a version of equality which relies on exclusion and discrimination rather than inclusion and equality in practice, and it has had a major and lasting impact on how Labour goes about its business.
Territorial reservations have seen the cordoning off of certain things like childcare and tax credits as ‘women’s issues’ that only Labour’s women should be talking about and deciding on. The reservations policy has had a broader impact though, with Labour now routinely responding to Government initiatives with an exclusive focus on their impacts on women and often ‘calling out’ the Government for deliberately attacking women.
For an example, check out this 2013 Budget response press release from Yvette Cooper, who serves as Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities as well as Shadow Home Secretary. It is a rather misleading document, talking of women ‘paying’ four times more than men, when what is actually happening is disproportionate benefit payments made to women and services that families rely on are being cut.
This now-common focus in Labour communications presents women as effectively a separate interest group with entirely distinctive needs and wants that can only be understood and provided for by women, and specifically only by Labour women. It is surely no co-incidence that this demarcation replicates the demarcation established between women and men within Labour itself, where women are firmly established as a separate interest group, controlled and corralled by the LWN.
The LWN is now a powerful interest group, explicitly committed to controlling and administering a system of privilege and patronage for women within the party, and up there with the major trade unions in its clout and influence.
This progression has perhaps been unavoidable in order for women to gain genuine and reasonably proportionate power within Labour, since as an institution Labour is highly centralised, with negotiations over power taking place largely behind closed doors at that central level. A genuinely bottom-up, from-the-people, by-the-people, grassroots organisation it is not for the most part.
But the LWN plays in to that system: its success has been in capturing a part of the system rather than changing it.
There are some discomforting implications of this. As Karl Popper wrote in The Open Society and its Enemies, “The apologists of Marxism...do not see that it is the danger of any movement like Marxism that it soon comes to represent all kinds of vested interests, and that there are intellectual investments, as well as material ones.”
This point stands for Labour’s women now. They form a dedicated interest group practising and promoting double standards that favour themselves. Is this really what equality looks like? And are women as a whole being genuinely ‘represented’ by these practices? I am doubtful on both counts, and think some research needs to be done to find out how ordinary folk respond to these exclusivist narratives and practices. Given the intellectual and material investments that Popper speaks of, I wonder though: would Labour be able to conduct that research in a suitably open and unbiased fashion?
Seeking Better Ways
At the beginning of this article I highlighted a few examples of how current feminist practices are not meeting with unadulterated approval from most women: indeed, quite the opposite.
There is potentially a disconcerting thought here for the stricter, more ideological feminists and for Labour too: that, far from helping women as a whole onwards and upwards in public life, their current practices might just be deterring those who most need encouragement. If this currently dominant strain of feminism is so off-putting to most women, why would they wish to enter an environment where they will find it so loudly and continuously propagated?
A recent worldwide study on gender quotas showed women elected to legislative office tend to have large networks in political and government sectors, just like men – and that quotas do little to bring other women in. Meanwhile Sadie Smith has said of AWS in Britain, "In its practical realisation...it tends to be used to crow-bar in the female friends of the party’s elite, the sort of north London barrister or well-known personality, who would have no problem getting on anyway."
But what are the alternatives to these systemic approaches to combating sexism?
I am no expert on the wider literature [since then I have done some more reading], but think that when addressing undoubted widespread sexism we should be targeting people who clearly display it and making them accountable for their actions rather than ascribing what they do to a vague ideology.
On Twitter, the Labour MP Stella Creasy has laid down a trail, dealing with offensive ‘trolls’ by retweeting their nasty messages and making them visible to a wider public. This is the way to go: naming and shaming and making people accountable for their actions on the basis of clear evidence.
I also think we should approach the democratic deficit in women’s ‘representation’ (currently only 1 in 5 MPs are women) by seeing it as part of a wider democratic deficit, rather than as a reason to shut down and pre-empt democratic practices (as is the case with AWS). If local Labour parties are not representing their communities in the Parliamentary candidates they select, then the community should be invited in to help them: broadening participation rather than reducing it.
On the ideological point, we can see that ‘patriarchy’ is used as a blanket term that defines the society we live in, wrapped up in convoluted conceptual structures of ‘oppression’ and ‘privilege’ (including the ubiquitous phrase ‘checking your privilege’). In practice these definitions work against human freedom, by ossifying people into structures which define how free (or not) they are without even considering their personal circumstances or what Martin Luther King called “the content of their character". Such things are not relevant: men and women alike are defined by the system.
These ideas claim to grasp the fundamental nature of human life in a way that is inherently problematic. Some of the greatest philosophers like David Hume and Immanuel Kant have denied that grasping systemic fundamentals in such a way is even possible. As Karen Armstrong, the nun-turned-philosopher, said last year, “Uncertainty [and] unknowing is built into the human condition.”
We draw these great dividing lines between each other on account of differences like gender and skin colour, attributes which are trivial compared to our shared humanity.
The sexists and racists have little sight of the way we are fundamentally one; that we came from the same place, and we will all return there when we are done.
We should be better than them.