The capitalist culture of male supremacy and misogyny

BY:Michelle Kern| March 25, 2018
The capitalist culture of male supremacy and misogyny

Editor’s note: This piece was given as the opening report to a CPUSA conference, Against Male Supremacy and Misogyny, held in Chicago and online, March 3, 2018.

In discussions of capitalism, often our analysis is centered around the economic mechanisms and less on the social factors that go into supporting the ideology of capitalism.  In Marx’s notebooks, and in Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, space was given to discussion on the importance of looking at the history of human society, the changing nature of family relationships over centuries, and the role that humans have as creatures of the natural world.  The development of the concepts of rank and status in early history led not just to class stratification, but also to gender stratification, with women reduced to a lower position in society as the economy began to change from that of hunter-gatherer to agricultural.

Before much of what we think of as the dawn of civilization, humans lived as social and communal beings in societies that were matrilineal.  This male-led family unit was a later invention, which developed with the rise of the concept of private property, and the forming of states.  Historical developments and economic changes led to power accruing to the male head of family, and the necessity for male offspring to pass that power down to— in the form of property.  Women were stripped of their authority, and were kept from having any meaningful role in economic, social, or political life. Instead, they were forced into the role of creating those male offspring.

Historian Mary Beard, speaking on the subjugation of women in ancient Greece, points out that one of the very first scenes in The Odyssey is that of Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope, telling his mother to be quiet and return to her weaving.  Beard quotes:  ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’  The silence required of women was part of a life that also had no political or economic rights.  Her role was simply to bear children in enforced seclusion.

Heather Brown, in her book Marx on Gender and the Family, points out that historians thought that women were required to stay in silent isolation to enforce monogamy: to ensure legitimacy of children, especially male offspring who would inherit the estate of the husband.  Marx thought there was more nuance than that—that there was a social and political effort to assert power over women “through an enforced constraint upon wives” (161-162). The laws that dealt with women were to enforce their subjugation, implying that women did not suffer their fate quietly in the transition to a patriarchal society. In fact, “it is likely that they made efforts to regain their power, otherwise such strict laws would not be necessary” (194).

Eleanor Marx wrote that “women…have been expropriated as to their rights as human beings, just as the laborers were expropriated as to their rights as producers. The method in each case is the only one that makes expropriation at any time and under any circumstances possible—and that method is force.”

Women, it was thought, were too inferior both biologically and mentally to be granted any power over their lives, or over property. There was a concerted effort to erase all of human history before the rise of Greco-Roman civilization, and to mandate the patriarchal social order and the concept of individual private property, with the authority of a law of nature.   As Marx wrote, “the modern family contains a germ not only of servitas (slavery) but also serfdom—it contains in itself in miniature all the antagonisms that later develop widely in society and its state.”

The concept of the male-headed pairing family became enshrined in ruling class ideology, largely unchanged from the aristocratic to the bourgeois ruling class.  This subjugation of women exists as a multi-class subjugation, and the wealth expropriated into the ruling class went not into the hands of the class as a whole, but into the hands of a capitalist class that is largely male, because of the historical tradition of denying women any access to property or wages of their own. Naturally, this class is invested in keeping up this tradition.

It is the right wing in the United States, the reactionary wing of monopoly capital, that is the most heavily invested in this bourgeois ideology of the male-headed household pairing family, with a wife in the role of household caretaker in charge of the children. Issues that still rage today in U.S. politics, like stripping the protection of laws to prevent domestic violence, restricting women’s control of reproduction, the refusal to socialize childcare, education, etc.–all are laws put into place to reduce the power of women, to confine her role to that of homemaker, and to keep her isolated economically.

This family model is held up as the model passed down by God himself, with the authority of the father over his family seen as a reflection of the authority of God over humanity. Anxiety over the preservation of this so-called traditional family has been showcased in right-wing rhetoric for several decades.

As David Plotke remarked, “In the US, anti-feminism has seemingly played a greater direct role in building the Right in the last few years than in most other countries. Perhaps this is because the women’s movement, proportionate to other progressive forces, is stronger in the US than elsewhere; perhaps it has to do with the particular manner in which family-related issues have intersected those involving the expansion of the state. Whatever the reason, struggles over defending the gains of the women’s movement in the last two decades may soon be central to national politics, especially in shaping the prospects of a left opposition, of helping to redefine the Left in a period of transition (Marxism Today, February 1981). 

 Plotke wrote these lines a year into Reagan’s first term, but the quote could have been written at any time in the last couple of years.  The election of Donald Trump, a rapist and racist, steeped in upholding the privileges of capitalism, has clearly brought this anti-feminist ideology of the Right to the highest office in the United States. This quote though, as it happens, was not written in the last few years—it is actually from an article from Marxism Today, a British journal, and it was published in 1981.  The title of the article is “Reagan, is it as bad as it sounds?”

The election of Donald Trump is the perfect distillation of fifty years of reaction against women’s attempts to assert social and economic power in the United States.  The era of Ronald Reagan was a harbinger of modern attempts to strip away agency and power from women who had recently won a few reforms.  Even before the advent of this contemporary phase of anti-woman and anti-feminist reaction, the foundation of U.S. capitalism was itself deeply rooted in misogyny, and especially racist and misogynistic oppression of Black women.  Added to this was the theft of land from indigenous peoples, who lived in a social order where women actually had power and agency.

This class ideology today is controlling all the levers of national power. The religious leaders that previously espoused this ideology on the fringes are now represented by power on the Supreme Court, with Justice Neil Gorsuch. This also includes Betsy DeVos, the Education Secretary, a member of a family with deep roots in the reactionary theology known as Dominionism, a form of patriarchal ultra-right Christianity.  Several members of Congress are also steeped in this ideology, which also has an economic component that styles itself as “Biblical capitalism,” a kind of free-market gospel, with references to scripture to support libertarian economic principles.  Vice-President Mike Pence is also deeply rooted in this theocratic vision.

In this ideology, all forms of state intervention are seen as a perversion of the patriarchal nuclear family, which sees this family unit as the cornerstone of American capitalism.  The people who hold this ideology see any attempt to expand the social safety net as an attempt to subvert and replace the pairing family with the state, which is regarded as against the will of God and natural law.  But despite this ideology’s libertarian economic principles, it is deeply committed to turning state power into a vehicle to impose its theocratic vision of patriarchy.

The right-wing used to couch some of its more radical ideas in the more euphemistic language of “family values,” but since the election of Trump, they are more apt to simply say what they think–such as the Wisconsin lawmaker who opined just in November of 2017 that abortion should be illegal because women need to replenish the workforce with new children.

A month later, Speaker Paul Ryan said that women in the United States need to have more babies, or else the social safety net would be in peril, ironic words from a man who has vowed to dismantle the social safety net in his lifetime.

Furthermore, laws attempting to prevent gay couples from adopting children and legislating hateful bathroom restrictions on transgender men and women, have also seen a rise in the last year.  Men in the Trump administration have attacked women from the White House, such as John Kelly’s vicious and personal attack on Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.  The #MeToo movement, however, has uncovered men in power from many different industries, and from all over the political spectrum, who have abused their positions to oppress women via threats and sexual harassment. This is a form of discrimination that attempts to keep women from any social or economic equity.  Attacks on voting laws create damage that falls hardest on Black women voters, who are otherwise the most progressive voters in the United States.

Therefore, we can also say that capitalist culture is very much steeped in white male supremacy, specifically. The United States, founded by white male slaveholders, was cast in the retrograde patriarchal vision of an agricultural landowner surrounded by his family, his property, and his slaves which could have been ripped straight from ancient Roman society.

Thomas Jefferson, famous for shaping our concepts of liberty, should be more famous for his role in shaping the contours of capitalism and the destructive path it would wreak in fomenting unspeakable subjugation of Black women. Henry Wiencek’s article The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson reports the stark details:

“As Jefferson was counting up the agricultural profits and losses of his plantation in a letter to President Washington that year, it occurred to him that there was a phenomenon he had perceived at Monticello but never actually measured. … What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a four percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest.”

“A startling statistic emerged in the 1970s, when economists taking a hardheaded look at slavery found that on the eve of the Civil War enslaved black people, in the aggregate, formed the second most valuable capital asset in the United States. ‘In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads nationwide.’ …The only asset more valuable than the black people was the land itself.”

When we take into account that the value of the land was based on the availability of enslaved labor to make it profitable, we begin to get a sense of how central slavery was to American capitalism.

Activist and artist Bree Newsome outlined how family laws in the U.S. were changed to accommodate the creation of slaves by the male, and usually white, head of the household—mandating that any children, the product of rape, would take the status of the mother. And today, “The rigid legal structures of chattel slavery are gone but the cultural norms it established remain in place. Society is organized around a racialized gender binary & hierarchy that mimics slave society: white man is top, Black woman is bottom, everyone else falls in between,” writes Newsome.

The white male supremacy of capitalist culture is just as much the foundation of our country as our founding documents, if not more so.  To make those aspirational founding documents mean something will mean leaning hard into undoing centuries of misogyny and racism used by the capitalist class to accumulate vast wealth.  Reducing the power of white male supremacy by even a small part created a backlash that crested fiercely in the results of the 2016 election.  Sixty-three percent of white men voted for Donald Trump.  Fifty-three percent of white women also voted for him, choosing to align with white male supremacy.

Women who do try to improve our status in this country, just like women of ancient times, have been forced to stay silent on these topics and many others, and are punished when they do speak up.  Efforts to gain power are met with derision and doubt.  Similar to Penelope, women who make the effort are told to abandon attempts at public life and go and knit.  Others are threatened, killed, shot, beaten, raped, fired, and sexually harassed.  More laws are coming into effect every year, continuing to erode any gains made by women.  If the Supreme Court decision Janus vs. AFSCME, creates right to work for public workers, women, especially Black women, will bear the brunt of this damaging blow to labor.

Women’s inferior status, passed down through history, and enshrined in our laws (or lack of them), is institutionalized and structural.  Laws that reduce our social status are not distractions from class politics and struggle, but are central to class oppression.  Gender oppression and misogyny are a form of bigotry and discrimination.  It is just now, in 2018, that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated two anti-women’s men’s groups as hate groups.

Male supremacy is a deep problem that has taken centuries to develop, and will take a lot of will to tackle, but we have to, because it is actually damaging not only our society, but the planet that we all live on.  It has permeated all levels of society, down to the interpersonal relationships in our lives and into our families.  Women from all classes struggle together to resist the attempts to strip us of our agency, because it threatens the foundations of our existence, and our lives.  The women’s marches in January of 2017 were the largest demonstration in American history, and women are banding together more than ever to face down misogyny.

And facing the problem is going to take more than women working on it alone.



    Michelle Kern has worked as part-time faculty in the Bay Area as a ceramics teacher for seven years. She has lived and worked primarily in the East Bay in the arts, including work at the Richmond Art Center and helping to found the independent art gallery Cricket Engine in Oakland. She relocated back to her native Peninsula four years ago to be closer to work, and now is beginning art, activism and union activity here in Silicon Valley.

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