The Capitalist Law of the Conservation of Gendered Oppression
Or, Why Queer, Internationalist, Proletarian Feminism is still Revolutionary in 2022.
A common position among leftists of the 60s-80s was that Women’s Liberation and Queer Liberation struggles are revolutionary struggles against capitalism. The argument went that capitalism needs to constantly reproduce itself on an extended scale, including an ever-expanding workforce, and it does this by pairing every adult male worker with a housewife, bonded to the home by domestic labour with very limited reproductive choices. If women were able to refuse marriage, motherhood and heterosexuality, they would do so en masse and cause a terminal crisis in social reproduction. This made struggles against gender oppression not just a moral necessity but an act of revolutionary sabotage. If capitalism cannot exist without gendered oppression, resistance to gendered oppression becomes a fulcrum by which capital can be toppled.
This line of argument has largely fallen out of favour: quietly shuffled into the background, dropped entirely by most 21st century leftists, or simply treated as a faintly embarrassing artefact of a more optimistic time. Any worthwhile leftist will (correctly) insist that queer and women’s liberation have yet to be won and cannot be completed while capital still lives. Still, the conventional wisdom is that these struggles are long-since exhausted as a means of making inroads against capital. The predictions of their efficacy were refuted by history: the Second Wave facilitated a jailbreak from domestic servitude, motherhood, and housewifery, yet the terminal crisis never came. With every generation since more women walk away; birth rates have now fallen below replacement. How then, does capitalism seem stronger than ever?
These causes have a moral weight that fully justifies them as sites of struggle in themselves but capitalism has completely metabolised these movements’ demands and used them to manufacture consent for itself all the more effectively. Girlboss-inflected rainbow capitalism is everywhere. International corporations scramble over each other to show how many women are on their board or to superimpose the pride flag on their logos in June. These gestures are cynical but ultimately a reflection of the fact that queer and feminist politics have largely become hegemonic - a bittersweet success tainted by the realisation that these politics were never as revolutionary as was once hoped.
Or so the narrative goes.
This narrative is blinkered in the extreme and fails to look beyond the imperial core and semicore. It is a narrative based on an idealist conception of sexual politics disconnected from the interests that drive it. The case for liberation from gendered oppression, applied as a universal demand across borders, has never been more self-evidently revolutionary.
A Theory of Reproductive Imperialism
For decades now, the nations of the imperial core have been in the midst of a demographic collapse. Birth rates have fallen near-universally below the replacement rate. People are waiting longer and longer to have kids and when they do have kids they have fewer - to say nothing of those refusing all together. The Second Wave of Feminism, while badly incomplete and defeated on many of its more radical demands, successfully dismantled many of the instruments through which women have been coerced into unpaid reproductive labour. A woman with access to contraception, abortion on demand, no-fault divorce and a viable career is one who can refuse marriage and child-rearing. Given the option, many women have chosen to do just that. Adding to this, the increased normalisation of queer identities has further reduced the number of people who are willing to submit to uncompensated reproductive labour, both by intensifying scrutiny on gendered assumptions about what women are supposed to do and by expanding the proportion of relationships in which accidental conceptions are impossible.
A huge amount of the psychosexual madness of modern politics can be put down to the mass realisation by women that they do not need to submit themselves to a man in order to be happy. For a certain class of mediocre men who have been conditioned to expect a wife, the discovery that no woman will tolerate them without the threats of poverty, social ostracism and spinsterhood has driven them insane.
The flow of women into the workforce and the reduction in the number of children per household has massively boosted the absolute and relative rates of surplus value in the imperial core. As Marxists we know that wages are determined by the average cost of reproducing a worker at a certain standard of living, determined by historical factors and class struggle. When the social norm was for single breadwinner households with many children, full-time wages were set to cover the cost of supporting two adults and several children. When the norm became almost all adults working full-time jobs with a below-replacement birth rate, full-time wages fell to the cost of supporting one adult and a fractional child.
As women increasingly refused the reproductive labour required to maintain society, a rift opened up. Unpaid labour-hours are the raw material of profit and profit must grow endlessly for capital to live; the next generation of workers being smaller than the last is an existential threat to capital. However, international capital has found a means to work around this problem.
In recent decades, the insufficient replenishment of native-born workers has been supplemented by a flow of workers migrating from the periphery. These have largely been split into two groups: manual labourers to do agricultural and app-based gig work and highly skilled professionals to fill the ranks of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other highly-educated roles.
The benefit of such migration to the imperial core is obvious: these are workers who arrive ready-made with all the costs of their upbringing and education already paid, and by the nature of the risks and challenges involved they are self-selected to be more ambitious and disciplined than the average worker. Their precarious legal status (and nativist rhetoric about the suspicious Other) means they can be subjected to intensities of labour discipline that native workers would refuse. Furthermore, they are usually without savings or legal entitlement to welfare benefits that might give them the ability to refuse poor working conditions. Some portion of them who clear every hurdle can be granted citizenship and all that entails, while the rest can be deported back as soon as they cease to be useful.
So far, so familiar. This is a well-documented phenomenon by which rates of relative and absolute surplus have been maintained in the core. However, western leftists’ analysis often stops there and fails to consider the implications: the states of the periphery also require a constantly growing workforce for all the same reasons listed above. Yet, due to the aforementioned migration, they are also compelled to bear a significant portion of the reproductive costs of the imperial core. Under the intense conditions of interstate competition to lower taxes and labour standards, combined with the low rates of profit per worker characteristic of labour-intensive industries, such states have very little ability to subsidise social reproduction in the ways the states of the core and semicore do. The imperial core and semicore may directly subsidise through welfare tax breaks and public schooling, or indirectly through mandated maternity/paternity leave - the periphery cannot.
The survival of the social order requires enormous volumes of reproductive work to be done, but neither capital nor the state will pay for it. The only solution available is that women must be forced to bear the costs of raising large numbers of children, uncompensated. This is only possible by the complete destruction of whatever reproductive rights they may previously have had, along with the destruction of their civil rights, and public campaigns of terror against those who are perceived to have shirked these duties by abortion, birth control, homosexuality, or other deviances.
This analysis demystifies the broad failure of queer and feminist campaigns to secure even minimal liberal demands in much of the global south (and the rise of fascist and theocratic movements rolling any successes back) without idealist - and racist - condescention about the mental and cultural backwardness of the populations. Sexual counterrevolution in the periphery happens because of, not despite, the relative freedoms in the core.
Under capitalism, every queer childless polycule in the core is subsidised by the coerced servitude of a tradwife in the periphery.
Seen in this light, the rainbow capitalism of the imperial core takes on a distinctly more sinister tone - rather than a token acknowledgement of hard-won rights, it becomes a victory lap of international capital, having recuperated yet another liberation struggle into a vector of intensified exploitation.
But if international capital has taken the side of women and queers against patriarchy within the core, why are the patriarchs still able to put up a fight and even roll back hard-won freedoms? What (other than an organised, militant proletariat) could possibly stand at war with international capital?
Culture wars as Intra-Capitalist Civil War
Within the countries of the imperial core where class consciousness is at an historically low ebb, electoral politics represents little more than a dramatisation of power struggles between different sectors of capital. Typically, the more “conservative” party represents the interests of small business and the more rural, geographically-fixed, extractive forms of large capital (e.g. agribusiness, mining, forestry, etc.) and the more “progressive” party represents the interests of large international capital (finance, tech, etc) as well as the sections of capital more directly dependant on local ecologies (e.g. tourism). This can explain most of the spectacle of electoral politics quite neatly - fights over environmental policy, education, infrastructure, and the like are little more than contests for power where the sectional interests of capital are at odds. Yet at first glance it seems to totally fail to explain culture war as a phenomenon.
It’s not immediately obvious why sections of capital would concern themselves with defending racist statues in public squares, limiting reproductive options, or passing laws to persecute trans people. The easiest response is that it’s a distraction - a vast, pointless spectacle of cruelty against the marginalised, in which the energy of politically engaged people invested in liberatory politics can be harmlessly discharged far from the issues that capital actually cares about. All the while providing a legitimising illusion of democratic efficacy. While there is an element of truth here, it’s an inadequate view that cannot explain the specifics and intensity of culture war politics.
Examples from North America spring to mind: people whipped up into a fury by the supposedly epiphenomenal spectacle have orchestrated widespread boycotts of major corporations and entire states, intentionally intensified and extended a devastating pandemic, performed quixotic attempts at insurrection, and successfully pulled off extended blockages of vital commercial arteries which further exacerbated an extant global logistical crisis. All of this for no apparent end beyond spite. When these activities directly and significantly impede the activities of capital as they increasingly do, we need a structural explanation that not only explains the cause of culture war, but also why it is tolerated.
If the expansion of bourgoise rights to women and queer people in the core has been such a boon to capital, why would there be such a concerted, well-funded campaign to roll it back? As I write this, there is an orgiastic carnival of cruelty sweeping the state governments of the US attempting to repeal every gain made by women and queer people in the last 60 years, including ones that seemed settled (like the legality of same-sex marriage and the prohibition on adults marrying children). Note: since this was written in early April, the repeal of Roe v Wade has opened vastly more possibilities for state violence against women, the scope of which is still unknown. I believe this implicit declaration of a judicial counterrevolution has only made the analysis of this piece more urgent and relevant.
These fights are manifestations of power struggles between the interests of large international capitals and small local capitals, interests which significantly contradict each other in the realm of social reproduction.
As stated above, international capital has found the partial dissolution of traditional patriarchal structures in core and semi-core countries to be convenient - it has created a higher rate of labour force participation and reduced wages per worker. International (read also: highly financialised) capital’s power is exerted primarily through the market: they will lobby for changes in law that benefit them, but it’s typically through legislation that will further streamline and lubricate their cycle of M-C-M’. They need no other source of authority than their purchasing power (which gives them vast capacity to command labour and resources) and their low per-unit costs of producing demanded commodities. International capital is a purer, more mature form of capital, functioning on its own terms for its own purposes and answerable to no human need. As its power is exerted primarily through the market, it is in its interest to see the dissolution of all other power structures and the expansion of market logic into every aspect of life. This international capital is the motive force behind neoliberalism and all that entails.
Small and geographically fixed capital is instantiated within a more mixed ecosystem of power in which capital cannot operate independent of the person of the capitalist. The power of the capitalist in this world is not primarily exercised through his ownership of capital, but through a symbiotic web of parochial institutions of ideological and repressive power. His (almost always his) status as local entrepreneur is intertwined with his roles as member of an influential local family, as respected churchgoer granted the podium to channel god for his own purposes, as political figure elected to decision-making positions within the community, as a nexus of contacts who always knows a guy. These forms of power are not only essential to shaping political decisions in ways that aid him in accumulation, but grant the status of a trusted authority who can stretch the tolerance of workers, residents and governments well beyond what is possible for impersonal international capital. Here he can convince workers that they are family and they should sacrifice in his interest, he is the most trusted voice in every dispute, he can bend the ear of a family of abused employees, of law enforcement, of the judiciary, of local governments to make excuses and exceptions and understandings in his favour and always come off as the magnanimous pillar of the community. This is the power of the highest tier of the local petty bourgeoisie: the so-called “Gentry”.
Fundamentally, property has a different meaning to the Gentry and other petty bourgeois than it does to the haute bourgeoisie - for the haute bourgeoisie property exists purely as capital, the means for accumulation. Its role is to act as an income stream and that income can purchase whatever goods or status one wishes. For the petty bourgeoisie, property is power and authority - it is the space in which you can act as absolute dictator and it is your status within your community. The exercise of this discretionary power necessarily requires deviations from the optimal choice of accumulation but this is worthwhile in pursuit of a larger set of personal goals. This is, for example, why anti-discrimination laws are such a point of friction - they restrict the power of the petty bourgeois over their domain by binding them to the logic of the profit-maximising agent that finance capital wishes everyone to be.
This power-ecology in which the Gentry thrive is structured by specific sets of social institutions and customs, constantly threatened by the logic of financial capital in its drive to mediate every interaction through market logic and dissolve all that is solid into air. In response, the Gentry fight a constant defensive war to preserve the networks in which their power is instantiated.
The Gentry typically requires the overwhelming majority of social reproduction in their domain to be done locally within the institutions they control. This requires strong patriarchal authority enforced consistently on many fronts to foreclose life choices that don’t include a nuclear family with at least 3 kids. There must be constant and ongoing social, legal, economic and logistical friction to make abortion, contraception, divorce, and queerness anywhere between difficult and unthinkable, as all of these undermine social reproduction.
Their authority also requires that travel in and out be limited and controlled by these non-market institutions of social life. It would be disastrous if any more than a small proportion of young adults leave for the city, as this would mean the Gentry losing out on the benefits of the labour power of workers whose reproduction costs have already been borne locally. It is important that those who leave do not undermine the legitimacy of the local social order: in every case the situation must either be framed as Local Boy Made Good in the Big City, or a sinner cast out from Eden. The former re-enforces the local order ideologically by affirming the superiority of people who grow up with their values, and economically through the pressure to bring their money back into the community via remittances or returning later in life (so long as they don’t bring back too many of the wrong ideas). The latter re-enforces the social order by intensifying the terror of corrupting outside influences and justifies more intensive crackdowns on any deviation or rebellion against these institutions.
Another survival mechanism by the Gentry is ensuring that people who enter the community from outside are required to say certain shibboleths, pledge loyalty to certain institutions, and demonstrate that they are no threat to the ideological status quo.
At their core, the Gentry requires hostility to attempted entrances by corporate capital, primarily by appealing to the idea that they will undermine these beloved “community values”, that they are impersonal and cruel, and above all that they are a trojan horse for socially progressive politics. When performative anti-corporate furies are whipped up over a company turning their logo rainbow-coloured in June or making some statement about racial injustice, this is almost always the driving motive behind it. If you believe corporate capital is an infiltrator trying to make your kids trans, you’ll boycott them in favour of the local small business who otherwise couldn’t compete.
Against “Polycules in One Country”
As is so common for liberation struggles under capitalism, women’s and queer liberation is a revolution only half-done. Its victories are real, worth defending and currently under threat. That said, we must not be blind to the reality that in defending basic bourgeois rights of women and queer people in the imperial core (and in acting to make them a reality in areas of the imperial core where they are suppressed by the hegemony of the Gentry) we are necessarily having the secondary effect of acting as insurgents for international finance capital against the bastions of small capital.
We should have no sympathy for the small capitalist, appeals to the moral superiority of the small local capitalist to the faceless corporate monolith have always been the romantic fantasies of sycophants. The petty bourgeoisie has historically always been the social base of fascism and it is playing out that role prodigiously in this current wave of reaction, their proletarianisation is an unambiguous good. Large monopoly capital has historically been easier to unionise against, easier to fight and squeeze concessions from, and ultimately is likely to be easier to expropriate and repurpose for a planned economy beyond the value form.
Nonetheless, having J. P. Morgan as a fellow traveller is grounds for some serious soul-searching, and every conscience should be troubled by the thought that one’s own sexual freedom is bought with the intensified sexual servitude of others. This brings us back to our original question: are women’s and queer liberation struggles revolutionary in the 21st century?
From the above analysis I think the answer is definitive yes, but only when applied to the imperial periphery. Winning the practical freedom to refuse social reproductive labour at every level without fear of violence or penalty (legal, economic or social) across the majority of the globe would go beyond its manifest liberatory content and induce a rupture in capitalism as an international system. This redoubles the importance of these demands as not just liberatory but revolutionary.
The means by which such a victory could be achieved are beyond the scope of this essay, but a few comments on this are in order. Such struggles must take seriously the differing cultural, historical and economic contours of gendered oppression in different populations and be vigilant against the tendency to simply universalise the experience and assumptions of western feminism. International solidarity in these struggles and tight coordination of strategy across borders in pursuit of these interests must be features of any serious revolutionary movement against capitalism, and organising women against reproductive labour is among the prime tasks of any communist party in the global periphery.
The struggle against gendered oppression is of immense importance, so immense that to say it is the project to liberate billions from lives of reproductive servitude is an understatement. The global victory of women and queer people over our oppressors is the victory of all humanity over the abstractions which enslave us and a precondition for humankind to finally take conscious control of its own destiny.
About the Author
Cassie Barnes is a teacher and member of the Revolutionary Communist Organisation living in Meanjin. She has an interest in history, political economy and gender.