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by Jocelyn Cohn and Eve Mitchell

Many months ago, the two of us began writing a piece on dealing with patriarchy on the left.  In the process of writing we began to realize that we did not have 100% agreement on the question.  To us, this is very telling:  no one has the answer and perhaps there is no one answer.  We have thus decided to go forward in writing separate pieces on patriarchy on the left.  This project was inspired by the combination of difficulties we have faced in our organizing, accountability processes we have been part of, as well as the attempts we have witnessed to address patriarchy on the left.  We agree that the primary challenge facing many people in dealing with conflicts—especially those about gender—in left organizations and milieus is the confusion of the particular situation of individuals with the general conditions, creating situations where one person’s situation is taken to characterize all of society, thus leading to a solution which attempts to abolish a total social relation through a particular case.  Similarly, we agree that none of us are able to deal with patriarchy as individuals, or as small groups of people operating outside of the transformation of total society.

Although there are certainly a wide variety of attempts to address patriarchy, this conflation of the particular and the universal is the most consistent thread that we have identified in both practical and theoretical traditions in the United States in the last decade. While we will discuss this further in all four parts of this project, we see our first task as clarifying the relationship between patriarchy as a total social relation.  Following this part, we will co-publish a piece describing the individual forms of sexism in our political formations.  Finally, having clarified the categories and objective material conditions, we will examine how we can reasonably expect to respond.  Our third and fourth installments will be separate pieces delving deeper into dealing with patriarchy on the left.

“It is a baby,” she said.  “A baby is being born.  The midwife is taking trips from the shack to the yard where the pot is boiling.  Soon we will know whether it is a boy or a girl.”

“How will we know that?”

“If it is a boy, the light will stay on.  If there is a man, he will stay awake all night with the new child.”

“What if it is a girl?”

“If it is a girl, the midwife will cut the child’s cord and go home.  The mother will be left in darkness to hold her daughter.  There will be no lamps, no candles, no more light.”

We waited.  The light went out in the house about an hour later.  By that time, my grandmother had dozed off.  Another little girl had come into the world.

-Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory, p. 146



Image Credit: Litter Box


Any woman, queer, or gender nonconforming person can describe in detail, based on their daily lives, the myriad of ways that patriarchy is alive and well.[1]  But while many of us can share similar stories, our experiences also vary greatly based on our geographic location, age, race, class, and even within the span of our individual lives.  Patriarchy is not an easily identifiable or discrete problem that affects everyone equally, that always takes the same form, or that we can extricate from the rest of society. In 2015 alone there have been over 20 documented murders of transpeople, the vast majority being black transwomen, while gay marriage was officially deemed legal by the United States Supreme Court.  In recent years black women have been sterilized in prison, while working class women of all races are denied access to abortions in much of the country.  Hillary Clinton can be a head of state, responsible for killing women of color all over the world, while working class women of color in the US earn as little as 54 cents for every dollar men make.  Patriarchy is a total social relation, meaning it is an amalgamation of many varying social relationships that humans create and recreate on a daily basis.  It transcends our current moment, our ways of doing things, to before and beyond where we are now, and what we do as individuals.  But patriarchy can only be understood through the form of organization of our labor; it is historically and logically developed, rooted in the capitalist division of labor.  As a total social relation, it is a process that contains many elements, moments, and forms, many of which appear to contradict one another.  Patriarchy is part of the production and reproduction of current society, and cannot be abolished separate from the abolition of capitalism itself.

Faced with daily reminders of our special exploitation in society, we have to ask ourselves: what are the historical conditions that produced the organization of society that pits us against one another?  The following section will look at the relationship between gender, patriarchy and sexism as part of the historical and logical development of capitalism.


It is easy to agree on what patriarchy is not.  It is not discrete.  It is not just a series of actions performed by individuals against other individuals.  It is not just an idea or attitude that some people have and force upon others.  But what is it?  To answer this question, we have to first understand a little bit about the way our world is organized; how we as humans produce and reproduce the world around us, and how this mode of production is historically particular.  Then, we can look closer at gender and patriarchy as a social relation.

Although accounts vary about the origin of domination rooted in perceived sexual differentiation, and about the origin of gender itself, what is clear is that our particular way of experiencing gender is rooted in the capitalist mode of production.  Capitalism works through a dialectic of differentiation and homogenization. Just as capitalism requires an untold amount of different kinds of specific labor (shoemaking, sex work, bread baking, etc.), it also functions by abstracting from this differentiation, and making all forms of labor equal to each other through the wage, and also through the production process itself.  While this process can literally destroy humans’ bodies and minds, it also creates the grounds for cooperation in struggle.

This dialectic is rooted in the capitalist mode of production, which is characterized by the value-form and its alienated social relations of labor.  Labor, Marx writes in Capital, “as the creator of use-values, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself” (133).  Labor’s essence, useful labor, is a multi-sided activity.  It is our ability to create anything we wish, from cooking to writing poetry to woodworking to having sex.  However, under capitalism, our labor gets turned against us and we become one-sided producers fixed into one particular position within the global division of labor.  Labor has an internally contradictory nature: human labor in all its creativity, difference, and universality is necessary for production, yet in capitalism this labor must be homogenized, de-personalized, and used to create products whose sole purpose is to be sold.  

Because of this schism between our labor and our conscious will, our labor under capitalism is alienated, meaning it is not used for our own enrichment; instead, we offer up our creative capacities in order to produce value for someone else.  In “The German Ideology,” Marx writes, “as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.  He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood” (53).  We are not fully enriched human beings, engaging in all forms of labor we wish to engage in, we are relegated into one form of labor in order to exchange to meet our needs.  We are call center workers, hair stylists, nurses, teachers, etc.  In this sense, “the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful the alien objective world becomes which he creates over-against himself, the poorer he himself—his inner world—becomes, the less belongs to him as his own” (Marx, “Estranged Labour,” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, 71-72).  The more we labor, the more capitalism is able to exponentially accumulate value while our own capacities distort and diminish our very lives, turning our own self-activity against us—both as individuals and as the whole of humanity.

Of course, inequities in human society existed prior to capitalism.  However, it is only in capitalism that gender becomes something that takes on a deeply alienated character along with an ossified social division of labor.  Under feudalism, there was a hierarchal gendered division of labor but women controlled their bodies and reproduction and had free access to forms of labor outside of the home.  As capitalism developed out of European feudalism around the 16th century, it seized on the gendered differentiations and seemingly wielded them for value accumulation.  This is an ongoing process; capitalism continually subsumes gender hierarchies as it unfolds its tentacles globally.  



Image Credit:  Elizabeth via Flickr Creative Commons

In order to secure its hold in feudal Europe, capitalism had to divorce workers from the means of production, creating a compulsion for people to work for the capitalist instead of for themselves.  This meant that some labor would be carried out for a wage if profitable, and some would remain unwaged and thus understood differently.  Pre-existing gender hierarchies[2] were reworked to facilitate the resulting division of between productive (waged) and reproductive (mostly unwaged) labor and the contradictory development of the nuclear family.  We have discussed each of these relations in detail elsewhere.  For our purposes here, suffice it to say that capitalism developed a highly complex gendered division of labor based on perceived bodily differences. Some were gendered as female as they were pushed out of certain kinds of labor, like medicine, and into other kinds, like housework.  Therefore, although women have historically performed all sorts of labors, the capitalist mode of production forced women out of some areas of work and made others characteristic of a gender, thereby creating the very category of “woman” in the first place.[3]  In this sense, Edwidge Danticat’s new mother left in darkness to hold her daughter is a telling metaphor—women under capitalism are cut off from their whole development as human beings, their human creative potential, and exist as mere sex objects, babymakers and care workers.

Since gender is a social form of organization of our labor, in analyzing it we must look toward other categories Marx describes as social, such as value, money and price.  Marx describes these social forms as developing both historically and logically within capitalist development.  The historical arguments are based on material “preconditions” as they develop into new forms (and new “preconditions” for future forms).  The logical arguments are based on the form’s technical function in the mode of production and how that develops and further proliferates capitalist development.  For example, Marx explains that over time, as commodity exchange became more and more generalized, it became necessary for one commodity to rise above the rest and be THE commodity that lubricates exchange.  This is the historical function of the money-form.  On the other hand, money’s logical function in capitalist accumulation is to give the appearance of a material relation between people and a social relation between things.  Under capitalism, we come together in moments of isolated and alienated exchange; we exchange money.   Money appears to be the mover of commodities and not the human beings who create and use those commodities.  This is a logical development from earlier forms of exchange.  We move from asking “what can I get for x commodity?” to “how much is x commodity worth (in dollars)?”

So far we have discussed gender in its historical function but we also need to explore the ways in which gender unfolds logically within capitalist relations.  This idea is underdeveloped, though some marxist-feminists are making headway on the question.  In their attempt, Endnotes offers the following definition of gender: “[gender] is the anchoring of a certain group of individuals in a specific sphere of social activities.  The result of this anchoring process is at the same time the continuous reproduction of two separate genders.”  Gender is a one-sided expression of our labor that anchors us as a specific category of people, not unlike the one-sidedness we experience and perpetuate when we go to work every day.  We are women, we are black; we are bus drivers, we are teachers.  Another way of understanding this dynamic is to say that under capitalism, gender mediates value, or our position in the value-production process is mediated by this gendering process.  In the home it means women are like Danticat’s mother in darkness—she alone bears the burden of caring for her child.  In the workplace, women are a natural resource—expected to work harder for less and expected to provide emotional support, sexual labor and other care work as-needed.

And, like all social relations under capitalism, this gendering appears as natural and spontaneous.  The gendered division of labor becomes materially rooted in the notion that these differences can be found deep within the biology of each individual; certain groups of people are just better suited to certain kinds of work.  How often have you heard the argument that women are just natural caregivers?  Or that men are really the only ones capable of lifting boxes? These are the same kinds of arguments used to justify racialized divisions of labor; an entire field of science, eugenics, was built around these theories, and books were written describing the “natural” qualities of people suited to different forms of racialized activity based on their race:  in the 19th century a black man was considered naturally suited for fieldwork, today he is considered naturally suited for unemployment/prison.  This “natural” anchoring based on a one-sided activity is part of the logic of capital:  unemployment and reproductive labor are necessary for capitalist accumulation, increasingly so under the current crisis of social reproduction.


Gender and the gendered division of labor are intrinsically related to patriarchy.  One way to think about the relationship between patriarchy and the gendered division of labor is that patriarchy is the system of structural relationships, interpersonal actions, and social ideologies throughout history that have reinforced gender binaries and hierarchies, and thus the gendered division of labor.  Because patriarchy, capitalism, and gender itself are parts of the same process, it is impossible to get rid of one without the others.

However, there are contradictions in this process. For example, in Capital Marx describes that in the early development of factories, women and children were able to do the same work as men because of the technological advances that made it seem appropriate to demand kinds of labor typically reserved for men.  This was because, despite the fact that women had been performing manual labor for centuries, during the early stages of the development of capitalism it was important to relegate women’s bodies to passive work, in part to destroy their power in the mode of production and enforce a division of labor in society that was based on a nuclear family and division of labor in the household.



Image Credit:  Teresa Avellanosa via Flickr Creative Commons

In other words, women were gendered as non-value producers and therefore unwaged natural reproductive workers, at the same time, they were expected to do value-producing labor directly for capitalists.  It is precisely these types of contradictions that created ripe conditions for capitalist exploitation.  Workers who aren’t supposed to be making a wage should obviously be paid much less; their wage is considered “supplementary” to a household, all the while they are only working because the wages of men were not enough for families, and because many women and children were living outside of a nuclear family household.  This contradiction is extremely profitable for individual bosses, but also for capitalism in general, and happens over and over again.  This process was repeated during both world wars in the United States, and is being repeated now.  One manifestation of this process is gay marriage; gay marriage replicates the nuclear family and maintains a feminized division of labor.  If the masculinized “producer” partner works a job with benefits, the feminized “reproducer” partner is able reap those benefits without working full time, or by working several low-wage part time jobs without benefits, etc.  In short, capitalist social relations tend to repeat the same divisions, but in new and expanding ways that subsume the class struggles of the past.

The subjugation of one layer of workers by another means there will always be competition forcing down wages and a readily available subset of workers who can be paid less.  But these relations of production are only possible because we actively participate in them.  We produce and reproduce our own exploitation every day because capital cannot exist without workers and our labor.  Specifically, capitalist production relies on workers working together, whether on a line at a factory, picking up our co-workers shifts at the call center, or being part of a large pool of nannies who can share knowledge and work.  The capitalist mode of production is based on the contradiction between the necessity to work cooperatively to produce, and an alienation from this cooperation; our cooperation, our society, our humanity exists as our own enemy.

Related to gender, this manifests in contradictory particular expressions in the form of self-expression on the one hand, and sexism on the other.  Gendered people strive to engage positively in our gender as a way of affirming the sense of belonging that is often denied to us, and in this process we inadvertently reinforce the divisions in gender that shape the conditions of our exploitation.  This manifests in many different forms, from claiming the mantle of “slut” in a positive way, to embracing a “female identity,” by dressing in certain clothes, to hosting moon parties, to wearing the veil, and even to rejecting a gender binary all together.  The reality is these are all (equally valid, in our perspective) ways of engaging with an “identity” that is simultaneously external and alienated, and materially created by our everyday activity.  Attempts to positively claim our identity and gender are often responses to the multitude of negative ways we feel our gender is reinforced: catcalling, rape, popular images of women in the media, and even individual sex acts.  Similarly, particular manifestations of patriarchy develop between gendered people interpersonally in a form we call sexism.


Because capitalism is not a natural mode of production, people all over the world had to be forced to participate.  The history of this forced wage slavery is the history of the estrangement of a mass of people from the means of production, thus creating the working class.  This division between the owning class and the working class has been maintained by divisions within the working class which serves to keep people socially divided, in competition, and working for the owning class. This was largely accomplished by exploiting any existing differences (race, language, gender, sexuality, etc.), thereby ossifying these differences and placing people in direct antagonism with one another.  These antagonisms were reinforced at times through brute force.  Silvia Federici describes how this process happened as the abolition of the slave trade became a sobering reality for southern plantation owners, as maintaining slaves meant a shift toward a breeding policy, making women more vulnerable to sexual assault.  Federici claims that rape was enforced among black slaves, creating racial and gender fissures that continue to exist today.  Women of color today are seen as a sexual natural resource and experience rape at higher rates than other racial groups.  Consider, for example, the 2014 #JadaPose phenomenon that had thousands of mostly male social media users laughing at a 16 year old’s experience of being drugged and raped.  Similarly, an estimated 60-80% of women crossing the U.S.-Mexico border experience some sort of sexual assault in their travels.  Rather than being the result of thousands of “bad men,” or of a mere “culture” of rape, these phenomena are part of the broader structure of capitalist social relations that rely on the enforcement of gender and racial boundaries within the working class itself.

In addition to these horrific examples of rape and assault, all women and gender nonconforming people face, at some points in their lives, other more “subtle” expressions of sexism.  What characterizes all expressions of sexism, however, is the work that these expressions do to flatten women’s subjectivity, and make them appear as merely objects; it doesn’t matter whether that object is for derision, desire, or disgust—just that the person loses their dynamic subjectivity in the act of the sexist behavior.



Image credit:  Jane Fox via Flickr Creative Commons

Sexist expression exist neither as a hierarchy, where catcalling is a minor offense and rape is the worst, nor as equal transgressions in a broader “culture” of rape, these expressions are different, particular, and unique expressions of the same underlying social relations.  In the pamphlet “The American Worker,” Paul Romano makes a similar analysis to the way workers feel after leaving work. Romano, an auto worker, describes how men want to stay out of work as much as possible but at the same time it is psychologically impossible to see oneself anywhere else but work.

“Now and then, the plant has a fire drill. The workers march out of the plant for five minutes. Everyone seizes the opportunity to smoke. Remarks of this kind can be heard: ‘I’d like to go right home,’ or ‘I wish we would stay out till quitting time.’… On the other hand, there is at certain times in the worker a psychological drive to remain in the plant. As we know, a worker spends most of his waking hours in the plant or at his labor. His life, therefore, revolves around this activity. His subconscious becomes overwhelmed with facts and thoughts concerning machine, workers, bosses, regularity of work hours, and incessant repetition.”

Similarly, responses to sexism are inherently contradictory.  Women’s bodies can be used to promote the carceral state when men are locked up for rape, even while rape is still an essential and accepted (if informal) part of US military operations.  Furthermore, these expressions can be contradictory within themselves.  Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English discuss in their pamphlet Complaints and Disorders that at the turn of the century poor women were treated as hearty and dangerous carriers of disease, while rich women were weak and vulnerable patients.  Although these are apparently opposite descriptions, both processes pathologize women in ways particular to the needs of their class relation—rich women’s roles are to be passive objects of beauty to be consumed by men, while poor women’s roles were to work day in and day out, while existing as sub-humans who could be cast out of society on a whim and easily replaced.  Rather than being seen as whole human beings, experiencing a multitude of social relations, sometimes experiencing symptoms of broader systemic abuse, and other times resisting these, both poor and wealthy women are reduced in appearance to objects.

Although all women are hurt by sexism regardless of their individual class position, patriarchy as a system always reinforces class dynamics in broader society.  While sexist remarks made about Hillary Clinton’s ability to lead will no doubt have no greater effect on her capacity to gain state power and exploit other women, those remarks are rooted in the a hegemonic ideology that women are different, inferior, and worthless as a whole, which in turn is rooted in a gendered division of labor.  Changing individual ideas about Hillary Clinton will similarly bear no impact on poor women of color, but the attitudes towards her only make sense because a gendered division of labor assigns certain (inferior) traits to women and others (superior) to men.

Every catcall, too-long stare, unsolicited offer to help a woman carry something, or claim to a woman’s ignorance is an expression of the gendered division of labor, and every expression helps to reinforce these dynamics in the minds and souls of people of all genders.  However, they are not the same thing.  A catcall is not equal to the conditions that women face crossing the border.  The death of women working in maquiladoras because of lack of proper food, light, and ventilation is not the result of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.  Rather, sexism is the way of expressing ourselves in accordance with an inherently antagonistic mode of production.

Interpersonal expressions of sexism are furthermore part of the obfuscation of the total structure of inequality, a structure that is inherent to capitalism.  In their 1972 piece, “The Power of Women and Subversion of Community,” marxist-feminists Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa describe their attempts to deal with exploitation and sexism: “The woman seemed only to be suffering from male chauvinism, being pushed around because capitalism meant general ‘injustice’ and ‘bad and unreasonable behavior;’ the few (men) who noticed convinced us that this was ‘oppression’ but not exploitation.”  Sexism (including its expressions as “male chauvinism” or “bad behavior”) plays a role in masking the inherently unequal social relations of production, appearing as antagonisms between genders, sexualities, and individuals; sexism is material, but it is also a spectre.  In the same way that the “bossiness” of an individual employer is real, this is an insufficient expression of the overall social division between bosses and workers.  Sexism is a manifestation of antagonisms that are specific to a capitalist mode of production, which presents itself as “natural,” “personal,” and “independent” of capitalism.  By providing a simple explanation for inequality (society is sexist, men are pigs, etc.), the underlying assumption is that it is behaviors and ideas about the world that create inequality in an otherwise equal society.  It ends the possibility for looking at the roots of sexism, and instead assumes it exists by itself, and it can be destroyed by changing a multitude of individual behaviors and attitudes.  This view exchanges the creative vision of a new society based on a totally different way of engaging with one another in favor of one that assumes we can have equality within an alienated mode of existence.  The reason people have yet to come up with a strategy for defeating sexism is because it does not in fact stand on its own.

This interconnectedness, or totality, is something that feminized people intuitively understand.  This is why artists and writers such as Edwidge Danticat are able to describe in mere fleeting moments the interconnectedness of women’s particular exploitation as one-sided caregivers and flattened sex-beings to a total social relationship.  We are at once the midwife, the mother and the newborn baby, sitting among the darkness—a historical darkness that represents an amalgamation of traditions, collective choices and acts, from-above force, etc.  Unfortunately, what is easily described in literature and art is not always articulated into gender theory and analysis, and is many times ignored or enflamed by sexism within the Left.  Our next section will explore this dynamic.



Image Credit: Luisa Uribe via Flickr Creative Commons


[1] In this piece we will use the terms “women” and “feminized people” interchangeably.  This is based on our agreement with marxist-feminists such as FTC Manning who argue that “the category woman is insufficient, and that a more dynamic concept such as ‘feminized people’ may serve to both emphasize the fact that it is a process and a relationship, and that the people in question are not always women.”

[2] Note that these hierarchies were based on social relationships.  We agree with Kate Bornstein and other queer and transfeminist theorists who argue that both “gender” and “sex” are social constructs.  The only static, natural, or essentialist aspect of our “gender,” “sex,” and more broadly our bodies is that they change.  Not only is difference and diversity imminent to Marx’s conception of human nature as self-activity (or labor), it is our very essence as human beings to interact with and change the world around us, including our bodies, “sex,” and “gender.”  Therefore, these categories are not static, biological/natural or essential – they are ever-changing and creative.  So we can assume that in all forms of society, including feudalism and capitalism, when we discuss gender, we are collapsing this category with “sex” and pointing to a social relationship.  Judith Grant provides some really excellent arguments around these ideas.

[3] Note that there is no moral judgement attached to the particulars of this gendered division of labor.  For example, it is a potentially positive thing that women are socialized to care for others, yet as a form of alienated labor, women become nothing more than care workers, oftentimes putting others’ care, development (both personal and political) and needs before their own.


Read Part Two.

7 thoughts on “No Lamps, No Candles, No More Light: Patriarchy on the Left Part 1 of 4

  1. I was a part of a really dynamic and interesting discussion on this piece yesterday and something came up that I wanted to note here so it doesn’t get lost.

    There is a bit of a slippage in the piece toward a functionalist argument––that all the particular expressions of patriarchy are functional to capital, which is why they are done. But a comrade is working on a longer piece to describe why in a society with a gendered division of labor, and gendered alienation, there are conditions that allow for extreme manifestations of gender relations, like serial rape or murder or women, for example. These extremes are a motivation point fo struggle (excessive police brutality, hyper violent rape or murder or torture, etc.) I would add (and I think my comrade would agree) that these “extremes” are historical. In my mind, this is more of an extension of the foundation Jocelyn and I have laid here but I agree that fleshing these ideas out more is a really important and useful endeavor.

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