The Reproduction of Social Domination: A Socialist-Feminist Perspective
Is human society unalterably fated to reproduce in each generation inequalities, hierarchies, and domination? Is there a drive within each of us to both be dominated and to dominate others? On this most basic question, the radical left has tended to assert that “human nature” is not inherently competitive, aggressive, or domineering. Such traits are considered by many to be constructed by social processes or conditioning.
I’m currently taking a course on the sociology of inequality and the readings so far have focused on social class as a political, economic, and cultural category. Humans are sorted into various niches in society that either give us advantages or disadvantages, usually some mixture of both. Wealth, politics, race, and other systems confine most of humanity into conditions of subordination.
Throughout modern history especially, a recurring resistance and challenge to existing power-structures has emerged, most effectively in the overthrow of monarchies during the Western Enlightenment. The “Divine Right of Kings” was rejected forcefully after ages of some form of unaccountable political power ruling nearly all humanity. Democracy, the rule of the people, became the new standard of political authority.
However, this victory over monarchy and feudalism seems incomplete. It has only succeeded in a limited range of nations, notably Europe, North America, and a few other places. Even where democracy is in force, the social order still depends on a strict division of power between the electorate and the government. Democracy does not mean direct empowerment in contemporary politics. Further, in most democratic nations, the economic system is still very undemocratic with a clear top-down polity. Why can workers not vote together to fire their bosses?
While I am passionately committed to overcoming political and economic domination, there seems to me not enough commitment on the left to overcoming gender hierarchies. Look at a list of speakers for political panel discussions arranged by left-wing organizations, nearly every panelist is male. The most common exception to this pattern is when the panel topic is on women’s issues. Having to point this out in 2012 after decades of feminist agitation on the left seems ludicrous. Women are fifty percent of the population, they should be fifty percent of the panelists for any public forum on politics.
Some may raise the concern that setting a 50% standard for women’s participation will result in tokenism. I would prefer to risk tokenism than to keep attending male-dominated left events. Michael Albert in his 2006 memoir, Remembering Tomorrow, worries out loud about the lack of submissions to his Z Magazine and Znet sites from minorities and women. He points out that law school admissions are now very close to equality by gender, yet month after month as Z Magazine decides on its articles, women and non-whites submit only a fraction of the article volume that white males do. I admit that I have had to make a deliberate effort to include women’s voices in my political reading.
I am convinced that a critical component of the reproduction of social domination is the suppression of women. While Marx favored the working-class as the revolutionary agent to go beyond capitalist democracy, I believe that women play perhaps an even more crucial role in transforming society. We’ve had almost two centuries of fomenting workers’ revolutions and precious little has come of it, in my estimation.
That said, I do not take a radical feminist view that all men are oppressors or exploiters. A socialist-feminist merger of class struggle with gender struggle seems a most promising political strategy and analysis. This gives a somewhat elevated role to working-class women as leaders of revolutionary struggle over either bourgeois women or working-class men. Ideally, a partnership of equals is the goal, yet the means to the end seems to me to explicitly favor working-class women’s revolutionary leadership.
The socialist-feminist analysis of the opening question, “are human beings inherently aggressive and competitive?” takes on a different answer than the conventional wisdom. From socialism, the analysis is that competitiveness and aggression are responses to economic class struggle. From feminism, male competitiveness is also about maintaining control of women’s lives for male advantage. For the wealthy to maintain social and economic dominance they must restrict resources and encourage competition among the workers, often using race and gender to divide workers.
Going even further, the reproduction of social domination seems intimately bound up with the way children are raised in our society. From birth to early childhood, both boys and girls are primarily cared for by women. Men put in far fewer hours of effort and care for small children. This division of labor isn’t lost on the children’s formative experiences. Females are caregivers, males are distant in the experience of children. This lack of emotional intimacy provokes an identity crisis in boys especially. They generally lack a rich interaction with a male that can flesh out male identity for them. Male inattentiveness to children’s early lives results in boys who repress their early sense of intimacy and fusion with their female caregivers. This repression works itself out as aggression, reinforced both by the unsatisfied desire for an older male’s affirmation and caring, and from the sheer difficulty of repressing one’s feminine identification.
Most adult men interact at a very externalized level. They don’t talk about how much they desire to be loved, to be affirmed, to feel safe in the arms of a woman. The male “world” is harsh and unsafe, while retreat to the arms of a female lover provides a singular solace to most men. When men do discuss “love” it is almost entirely in terms of lust and sexual conquest.
This hyper-masculine pathology isn’t uniform for all men, certainly not along the divides of class and other privileges. Some few men did have caring involved men in their early childhoods and later on that have mitigated the damage that the exploitation of women’s childcare work typically does. In some liberal subcultures, such as Quakers, feminism has penetrated deeply and an equality in childcare duties is almost commonplace. Quaker youth typically grow up with much more accepting and flexible gender identities.
Even if a man didn’t grow up with an involved healthy adult male caregiver, simply recognizing that this is part of what one really desires is a major realization. Every male I’ve ever known can recount stories of their father or other older male wounding their ego. Rather than attend to such wounding and healing it, most men “shake it off” and put forward their chins to face more male aggression and to give as good as they’ve gotten.
Healing masculine wounding isn’t easy work. I spent years in psychotherapy working on my father issues and in some sense am still working on them. However, I wouldn’t trade all those years of work for living the unhappy and confused life I lived before feminism and psychotherapy began to heal me.
That we live in a male-dominated competitive and aggressive social system is undeniable. Transforming society involves first of all empowering women to share power with men in all arenas of life. It also involves men doing the hard work of recovery and healing from the effects of male domination.