Getting started: Feminism, patriarchy, capitalism, neoliberalism, Marxism and the family in 1,500 words

I’m starting this series about my quest for a work “thing” with a discussion about my cultural and familial context.

I’m always interested in the implicit and unspoken parts of people's dreams and desires, decision making, and goal setting. Lots of discussions about work jump past all this and go straight to a recipe (mix 1 part this, 2 parts that) of values, skills, experience, education, etc…, like somehow these ingredients exist ex nihilo.

Over the years I’ve watched many women that I follow online launch businesses, writing careers, subscriber-model products and services, become coaches, etc…

I get that not everyone needs to peel back as many layers as I do to understand themselves and the world, and just as likely, they don’t feel the need to share that part of the journey or self-awareness in discussing their work. After all, what they want to talk about is the work. That’s totally fair.

But I want to talk about the context in which the work exists and from which our work decisions are made. Maybe that’s my role as a writer. I’m especially interested in the economic context since this is a huge determinant for the the kind of work people want and feel compelled to do.

What kind of responsibilities do you have in your household economy? If you’re partnered, does one partner do more of the income earning? How much, and for what part(s) of the family budget - the bare necessities, savings and security, fun and leisure, etc... - does your income provide for?

I’m starting this series with an exploration of my cultural and familial context because it helps answer those household economy questions.

Work is bound to economics, in both the broadest and specific understandings of the word. Economics is bound up with politics (again, broadly and specifically), and politics to philosophy. And so this is where we start.


In his essay Feminism, The Body, and The Machine, Wendell Berry talks about “marriage as a state of mutual help, and the household as an economy.”

I agree with this perspective.

That a marriage/long-term relationship is an economic partnership goes largely unrecognized or unmentioned in cultural discourses that idealize romantic love, say for example reality TV dating shows, while being criticized in feminist discourses that idealize the emancipation of women from familial obligations and interdependence.

Although I have deep appreciation for feminist critique and the hard-won cultural battles that have sought to overturn patriarchy I take exception to the emancipation of individuals from interdependence.

Patriarchy

I’m going to use the word patriarchy a few times in this series (it also pops up elsewhere in my writing) so I want to be clear what I mean by it. I define patriarchy as any system, institution, social relation, “way of doing things/seeing the world” that centers or privileges a masculine or male viewpoint, experience, knowledge, or embodiment (the male body).

Is the male the norm, or the standard against which all others are compared? And relatedly, does this kind of person, the male, or group of persons, males, have more systemic power? By systemic I mean spread through whatever system we’re looking at, whether it's institutional, familial, religious or cultural.

This is how I define patriarchy. I am just as opposed to matriarchy as I am patriarchy. I don’t agree with having power over others based on gender or sex. I am adverse to power over others, period, and give a lot of mental space to theories that consider the conditions under which power over others is justified. Which explains my interest in anarchy. But I digress.

Neoliberal capitalism

In our capitalist economic system a person’s worth is denoted by the remuneration they can demand for their labor, skillset, cognitive abilities, etc... in the marketplace. Operating within these systems of patriarchy, capitalism, and political and philosophical liberalism, women’s individualized economic independence was and is a necessary advancement.

However, I disagree with the underlying value system of capitalism, particularly neoliberal capitalism which commodifies and instrumentalizes human life and behavior in service of the market, at the cost of all else. Here’s how Norman Wirzba defines neoliberalism (referencing McCarraher and Harvey).

One way to characterize neoliberalism is to see it as ‘an attempt to remakes all of human life in the crucible of capital accumulation, right down to the recesses of personal identity. In the neoliberal imagination, a human being is… a package of vendible talents and qualities’. People and places matter not because they embody sacred value but insofar as they grow the Market…. neoliberalism has meant ‘the financialization of everything’. (p. 237)

In neoliberalism, the Market is God. It’s what humans are meant to serve, worship, or orient ourselves around. Since the implosion of western Christendom concomitant with the modern era this is our God now. The Market defines our value and worth. And capitalism is the religion that is organized around this God, informing our behaviours and decision-making.

The fact that I had to learn all this in a very secular, often anti-religious context of academia and was not taught all this in the actual religious context of the Christian church speaks to the reality that the Church has been so infused by this false religion as to be gutted of any prophetic voice against this idolatry and ideology. That more churches are concerned about adult mutual consenting sexual behaviours, for example, than they are this false religion would be laughable if it wasn’t so damning.

This understanding of humanity and value runs completely counter to my belief and Christian teaching in inherent sacredness, interconnectedness, and interdependence. And so while I appreciate feminist advancement in equal pay for equal work, etc... I don’t agree that women’s liberation, or any kind of emancipation, comes about by rising to the top of system of exploitation and inequality.

Liberation, if that’s what we’re after, is about dismantling and subverting systems of oppression, not becoming the boss (or girl boss) within that system.

An argument can, and has often been made by revolutionaries, that by becoming the boss you can change the system. Unfortunately many (most?) of the actions or means taken in the scramble for the top do not justify the ends.

To be very clear, women should be present in all social, economic, and political positions of authority and influence.

I just disagree with the underlying values and worldviews that have sorted and determined the existing “important” positions in our society. And to loop back to my earlier point, if you want to know what our society deems as important you simply need to follow the money. Who gets paid the most is a reflection of our societal values. Or maybe more accurately a reflection of the values of those with societal decision-making power.

Human existence is contingent and needy. Consider how much we depend on our gut bacteria, for example. We are evolutionarily, relationally, and spiritually dependant upon each other and other-than-human connections. This means our relationships are economic, as much as anything else. We depend upon each other’s resources and contributions, material and immaterial. It’s just that capitalism’s ledger only recognizes labour contributions that yield or contribute to monetary value.

A wee bit of Marxism

Taking this into a more political realm, in spite of the left’s historic criticism of capitalism (I say historic because contemporary identitarian leftist politics has largely lost the plot) and supposedly communitarian ethic, economic dependency within a community or family is considered regressive by the left. (Whereas dependency on the state is progressive. Ha!)

Although most leftist politics abandoned Marx somewhere back at intersectionality (or earlier), this disdain for familial economic dependency is rooted in the Marxist critique of the family as a mechanism for transmitting property and wealth and for reinforcing class divisions and inequality across generations.

The Marxist ideal is that familial relations are based on principles of equality and mutual support rather than economic necessity.

The reason I bring up Marxism is not because of its prevalence in our culture. Contrary to the reactionary right that assigns a Marxist label to any far-left position (regardless of the fact that most leftist positions abandoned a classic Marxist material condition, class-based analysis a long time ago), Marxism has very little influence in culture or the culture wars. The misinformation of what constitutes a Marxist position is part of why I am bringing it up here.

We live under neoliberal capitalism and this ideology underwrites most of the politically palatable positions from left to right. I bring up Marxism because it was a foundational theory for the secular leftist position in western culture which informed a lot of feminist theory, particularly as related to the emancipation from family.

At its surface, familial relations based on principles of equality and mutual support rather than economic necessity seems like a good ideal. Equality and mutual support, I’m down for it.

However, wherever ideologies (left, right or other) fail to recognize our human contingency, neediness, and dependence upon one another through all stages of life, as our actual state of being, and not just an economic situation, I am skeptical of both means and ends for achieving “independence”.

We are economically dependant upon our relations not just because we live under capitalism and the inequalities that generates, but because we are fundamentally dependent beings.

Ironically, the ideal of humans forming economically autonomous unions in which they can remain fundamentally independent of one another is both Marxist in origin but also very neoliberal. So no matter which way you turn you can't seem to escape it. Which helps explain the dominance of this position within certain feminist discourse.

My own position is that our neediness, dependencies, and shared household and familial economies are not the problem. Systems, which can include familial systems, that exploit people are the problem.

I am in agreement with Freddie DeBoer.

As a leftist, my core political assumption is that we are all responsible for each other’s material well-being, that we have a duty to build the kind of society where everyone’s basic needs are met, where everyone enjoys a certain degree of material comfort, and where our rights are respected equally regardless of race, religious, sexual and gender identity, ethnicity, or creed.

I am also in agreement with Rhyd Wildermuth.

The family is not just a factory for bourgeois subjects. It is also an independent realm of social life, distinct from the state. Looked at this way, the family is a human relationship that capitalists and the state are always trying to capture and control - through tax policy* and family courts as well as marketing and media propaganda. But there is always a dimension of our relations with our kin, both unchosen and chosen, that can escape these encroachments.

(*I would also add education policy.)

Family is a human social relation that can resist both the state and market as god ideology, which is why powerful interests aligned with both seek to undermine it.

To be continued…

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References

Harvey, D. (2007). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press.

McCarraher, E. (2019). The enchantments of mammon: How capitalism became the religion of modernity. Harvard University Press.

Wirzba, N. (2021). This sacred life: Humanity’s place in a wounded world. Cambridge University Press.


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