Friday, October 16, 2015

Without distinction of sex (1979)

From the December 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

If women's bodies are used to sell everything from mustard to motor cars, this is an expression of their peculiar oppression under capitalism. Whether we examine the family, women's sexuality or women's employment opportunities, we find the same kind of story.

Young girls are systematically trained for the role of wife and mother, with dolls and toy Hoovers as playthings. Throughout their school years too they are conditioned to accept that the highest - indeed only - calling for a woman is the servicing of a man's needs and the bearing of "his" children. By the time such girls enter the employment market as young women, they are less qualified than their male peers and are taken less seriously by their employers, who see them as a pool of cheap and docile labour. Their comparatively low wages and even lower prospects at work then serve as yet another inducement to leave the labour force and take up the role they have in fact been prepared for from birth.

And so, under capitalism, a woman has become the biggest-bargain-ever package-deal to hit the market. With an attractive wrapper to please its owner, this package-deal includes sexual services, baby production line, household servant and general comforter-cum-ego-booster for a bargain price of board and lodging only, with the occasional lipstick thrown in to smarten up the weary wrapping paper.

But it is not only capitalism that has oppressed women; the history of women's oppression is also the history of property society in all its forms. In property society a woman's sexuality and child-bearing are not under her control or subject to the widest interests of the community, but must be subordinated to the needs of the patriarchal family and ensure "legitimate" heirs. The nature and extent of women's oppression in different phases of property society can vary a great deal, but can be understood only when seen as part of the development of the system of social relations of production, together with the ideological forms of that society, such as religion. So, for example, to understand the position of women in Iran today, we have to look both at the development of the social relations of production of that country and the religious teachings of the established Muslim church.

In linking women's oppression to property society, we differ from those who argue that women's enemies are men. This view has led some sections within the Women's Liberation Movement to dissociate themselves from men both in personal life style (for example women's communes and political lesbianism) and, in political activities (women-only demonstrations and "consciousness-raising" meetings.)

But the force behind women's oppression is given ultimately by the property basis of society. Under capitalism, women's oppression can be understood in terms in the needs of capital and the amassing of profits. And where profits are made by selling commodities on the market, there will be a tendency to also put a price on all those goods and services traditionally located outside the market. Consequently, sex itself has become a marketable commodity on an enormous scale.

Sometimes it is in capitalism's interest to bring about reforms which are also in women's short-term interests. In periods of labour shortage, for example in times of war, positive steps are taken to encourage women to enter the labour force through provision of child care facilities. When capitalist planners feel that the population is growing too swiftly, contraception is more readily available and may even be provided free of charge. As industry requires a more skilled workforce, so women too may have greater access to increased educational facilities. However, there are other ways in which the interests of capital run counter to women's interests. Commercial exploitation of women's sexuality has been increasing over a number of years and it is difficult to conceive of personal relations not being exploited in some way as a result. Access to the employment market and the economic need for married women to take a job outside the home has resulted in double shift working for many, who effectively have two jobs to run.

Hence we come to the question of whether it is possible to put an end to women's oppression within the framework of property society and whether the aims of the WLM can be achieved within a capitalist framework. On the one hand, women are being drawn increasingly into the labour force and some women (and some men) are questioning the validity of gender-based roles. But on the other hand, more subtle forces of sexual exploitation are resulting from the increased commercialisation of all aspects of our lives.

But there is one aspect of women's position under capitalism that we have not yet considered. So far, only women's oppression as women has been discussed; but the majority of women are also members of the working class and are therefore dependent on the sale of labour-power, their own and their husband's, in order to buy food, clothing, housing - the things they need to live. And, as workers under capitalism, there is no way that women's (or men's) problems can be solved within a capitalist framework. Even with adequate childcare facilities (are any facilities adequate under capitalism?) and abortion on demand (what standard of care under a creaking National Health Service even without harsh Tory cuts?), women would still be subject to all the pressures and material deprivations of working or housekeeping under capitalism. This is the reason why it is in all our interests—as women and as men and as workers—to struggle for socialism where human needs will be put first.

This may seem an attitude similar to the "socialist feminist" within the Women's Liberation Movement. However, the "socialist feminists", in spite of their recognition of the role of capitalist and property society in the oppression of women, focus their energies on trying to secure improvements for women within capitalism, rather than struggling to achieve a socialist consciousness among the entire working class in order to overthrow capitalism now. In this they are representative of the left-wing generally who, in spite of their revolutionary rhetoric, dissipate their energies in pursuing ameliorative measures within capitalism, and, in so doing, reinforce both capitalist ideology and capitalism itself.

Instead of equal or "fair" pay, socialists emphasise the necessity to abolish exchange relations altogether. Socialism will institute free access to the goods we need, in the complete absence of commodity or property relations. This is the only guarantee that every individual, as part of a caring community and irrespective of gender, age or colour, will have the  means to live freely and fully. Thus the answer to the charge that women are still oppressed in countries such as Russia and China is that, yes, women are oppressed there, but this is because these countries are state capitalist.

Socialists share the WLM's distrust of leaders and rejection of hierarchical political structures, but for quite different reasons. While their objection to hierarchical structures is based on their perception of them as patriarchal forms of oppression, we argue that they are the result of the power relations deriving from the property basis of society, and as such are antithetical to a socialist organisation and a socialist society.

But if capitalism is to be overthrown then the working class must be united. Women and men, whatever their age or colour, have to work together in the fight for socialism. This is where we cannot agree with the Women's Liberation Movement; they are struggling for the liberation of women only, whereas the socialist struggle is aiming at the liberation of all, regardless of gender , age or colour.
Viv Brown 


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