Capitalism and Gender Oppression: Remarks on Cinzia Arruzza’s “Remarks on Gender”

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic, 1919.
Han­nah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Repub­lic, 1919.

Fem­i­nist the­o­rists today are increas­ingly return­ing to the insight that cap­i­tal­ism must con­sti­tute the crit­i­cal frame for under­stand­ing con­tem­po­rary forms of gen­der oppres­sion. Inves­ti­gat­ing the rela­tion­ship between fem­i­nism and cap­i­tal­ism raises a host of dif­fi­cult ques­tions, how­ever, which Cinzia Arruzza faces head on in her lucid essay. She gives an illu­mi­na­tive roadmap of the ter­rain in which this issue was debated in the 1970s and 1980s by lay­ing out three dif­fer­ent the­ses on how cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion are related: dual or triple sys­tems the­ory, indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism, and the uni­tary the­sis. She begins by assess­ing care­fully the prob­lems of the first two posi­tions and con­cludes by defend­ing the third, the uni­tary the­sis: in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties, a patri­ar­chal sys­tem that would be autonomous and dis­tinct from cap­i­tal­ism no longer exists. Instead of treat­ing gen­der and sex­ual oppres­sion as sep­a­rate forms of dom­i­na­tion, a uni­tary Marx­ist-fem­i­nist the­ory must incor­po­rate them in the total frame­work of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion.

Sim­i­lar to Marx him­self, Arruzza’s argu­ment is both his­tor­i­cal as well as philo­soph­i­cal. She con­tends that gen­der oppres­sion and racial oppres­sion have become “an inte­gral part of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety through a long his­tor­i­cal process that has dis­solved pre­ced­ing forms of social life.” The­o­ret­i­cally, she insists that we have to under­stand cap­i­tal­ism not merely as an eco­nomic sys­tem or a dis­tinct mode of pro­duc­tion, but as a com­plex and artic­u­lated social order that essen­tially con­sists of rela­tions of exploita­tion, dom­i­na­tion, and alien­ation. Such an enlarged con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism allows us to rec­og­nize the irre­place­able role of social repro­duc­tion in it – the daily and inter­gen­er­a­tional main­te­nance and repro­duc­tion of social life. From such an expanded the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tive, patri­ar­chal gen­der rela­tions appear intrin­sic, rather than merely con­tin­gent or instru­men­tal for the way that social repro­duc­tion is orga­nized in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties.

I strongly agree with Arruzza on sev­eral points of her argu­ment, start­ing with the impor­tance and the urgency of the topic she raises: a crit­i­cal analy­sis of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism is a press­ing task for fem­i­nist the­ory today. I am in full agree­ment with her on the need to rec­og­nize that social repro­duc­tion forms an essen­tial con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­ity for con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ist economies. I also find her cri­tique of the first the­sis – the dual sys­tems the­o­ries – astute and con­vinc­ing. Arruzza inci­sively sum­ma­rizes the prob­lems that Marx­ist-fem­i­nists faced in try­ing to model gen­der oppres­sion on class exploita­tion by the­o­riz­ing patri­archy and cap­i­tal­ism as sim­i­lar, yet dis­tinct sys­tems of oppres­sion. While men clearly ben­e­fit­ted from a sex­ist divi­sion of labor, there was no “sur­plus” in the strictly Marx­ist sense that men were able to appro­pri­ate from women’s unpaid work at home. Nei­ther did women form a uni­fied, tran­shis­tor­i­cal class with essen­tially the same inter­ests; instead the inter­sec­tions of class, gen­der, and racial oppres­sion called for more speci­fic and his­tor­i­cally var­ied analy­ses.

How­ever, I have some prob­lems with Arruzza’s dis­missal of the sec­ond posi­tion, indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism, as well as her endorse­ment of the third, the uni­tary the­sis. But before I turn to exam­ine them more closely, I want to make a more gen­eral remark that under­lies my con­cerns here. Arruzza notes at the begin­ning of her essay that the debate on the struc­tural rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal­ism and patri­archy became increas­ingly unfash­ion­able in the 1980s. She com­mends the many fem­i­nists who have nev­er­the­less con­tin­ued to work on the ques­tion at the risk of seem­ing out of touch with the times. In the midst of our cur­rent eco­nomic and social cri­sis, we are now well advised to return to their analy­ses.

I want to insist that returns are never easy: some­thing more than intel­lec­tual fash­ion changed in the 1980s and 1990s. Empir­i­cally, neolib­er­al­ism and glob­al­iza­tion hap­pened; the­o­ret­i­cally, post-struc­tural­ism hap­pened. Both of these changes mean that the ter­rain upon which the ques­tions about cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion have to be posed has rad­i­cally changed, too. Hence, it may not be enough to find new answers to the old ques­tion of what is the “orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple” con­nect­ing patri­archy and cap­i­tal­ism. We may have to pose com­pletely new ques­tions.


The prob­lem the early Marx­ist-fem­i­nist projects faced was eco­nomic reduc­tion­ism. The moti­va­tion behind devel­op­ing so-called dual sys­tems the­o­ries was the real­iza­tion that gen­der oppres­sion was not merely an eco­nomic phe­nom­e­non, but some­thing that tra­versed all aspects of social life. It was not only cap­i­tal­ists who were ben­e­fit­ting from gen­der oppres­sion, but all men. As Heidi Hart­man noted sharply in her defin­i­tive essay: “Men have more to lose than their chains.”1 In other words, if fem­i­nists were going to ana­lyze women’s sub­or­di­na­tion through the the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work of cap­i­tal­ism, and to avoid eco­nomic reduc­tion­ism, it seemed appar­ent that they had to either sup­ple­ment the exist­ing eco­nomic analy­ses of cap­i­tal­ism with their own analy­ses of other, com­ple­men­tary or inter­sect­ing forms of oppres­sion, or they needed to adopt a broader, “non-eco­nomic” con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. The uni­tary the­o­ries that Arruzza defends opted for the lat­ter alter­na­tive.

The prob­lem that uni­tary the­o­ries face, how­ever, is that while they forge con­nec­tions between seem­ingly frag­mented and iso­lated phe­nom­ena, they do so at the cost of hid­ing con­tra­dic­tions, his­tor­i­cal con­tin­gen­cies and sin­gu­lar­i­ties under gen­er­al­ity. They inevitably risk solid­i­fy­ing diver­sity and the­o­ret­i­cal speci­ficity into a total­ity. Arruzza is very aware of this prob­lem and tries to avoid it by insist­ing that we need a rad­i­cally his­tori­cized analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism. She empha­sizes that while sur­plus-value extrac­tion is a dis­tinc­tive and defin­ing fea­ture of cap­i­tal­ism, try­ing to explain cap­i­tal­ism by this process alone would be “anal­o­gous to think­ing that the expla­na­tion of the anatomy of the heart and its func­tions would suf­fice to explain the whole anatomy of the human body.” Instead of only con­sid­er­ing the heart, we have to under­stand cap­i­tal­ism as “a ver­sa­tile, con­tra­dic­tory total­ity, con­tin­u­ally in move­ment, with rela­tions of exploita­tion and alien­ation that are con­stantly in a process of trans­for­ma­tion.” She sounds very Fou­cauldian when she empha­sizes that cap­i­tal­ism con­sists of var­ied and dif­fuse power rela­tions: “power rela­tions con­nected to gen­der, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, race, nation­al­ity, and reli­gion.” More­over, there is no uni­di­rec­tional and over­ar­ch­ing ratio­nal­ity that explains them all. Although she insists that all these power rela­tions “are put in the ser­vice of the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal and its repro­duc­tion,” this often hap­pens “in vary­ing, unpre­dictable, and con­tra­dic­tory ways.”

Once we insist that cap­i­tal­ism is in fact ver­sa­tile, adapt­able, his­tor­i­cally dynamic and that it con­tains con­tra­dic­tory ten­den­cies, dif­fuse power rela­tions and pro­duces unpre­dictable effects, how­ever, we seem to be rapidly emp­ty­ing the notion out of its explana­tory force. If every­thing is cap­i­tal­ism, then noth­ing is. In other words, if we give up the idea that the func­tion­ing of the heart can explain the func­tion­ing of the whole human body, then we seem to have given up the idea that we can find one “orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple” that explains gen­der oppres­sion in cap­i­tal­ism. We can still grant that the eco­nomic logic of cap­i­tal­ism explains some­thing, or even a great deal about gen­der oppres­sion, but we nev­er­the­less need a vari­ety of other crit­i­cal analy­ses that are linked with the analy­sis of class exploita­tion, and with each other, in com­plex and his­tor­i­cally con­tin­gent ways. In other words, it seems to me that a rad­i­cally his­tori­cized and com­plex ver­sion of the uni­tary the­ory in fact makes it more or less indis­tin­guish­able from a his­tori­cized ver­sion of the sec­ond the­sis, which Arruzza calls “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” – the the­sis that the rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion is oppor­tunis­tic and his­tor­i­cally con­tin­gent.

When dis­cussing this sec­ond “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” the­sis Arruzza switches back to a more nar­row, essen­tially eco­nomic under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism as a dis­tinct mode of pro­duc­tion and high­lights one of its key defin­ing fea­tures: in cap­i­tal­ist modes of pro­duc­tion, pro­duc­tion aims at cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion – the max­i­miza­tion of prof­its. All other nor­ma­tiv­i­ties are sub­servient to this over­rid­ing goal. When we focus on its eco­nomic logic, cap­i­tal­ism now appears to have a merely con­tin­gent and oppor­tunis­tic rela­tion­ship to gen­der oppres­sion. When women’s sub­or­di­na­tion and gen­dered divi­sion of labor are ben­e­fi­cial for the goal of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion, cap­i­tal­ism works in tandem with mech­a­nisms of gen­der oppres­sion. In geo­graph­i­cal loca­tions and his­tor­i­cal peri­ods in which the reverse is true, how­ever, it is com­pletely con­ceiv­able that cap­i­tal­ism and fem­i­nism are in fact allies. In other words, there is no intrin­sic or essen­tial rela­tion­ship between them. Arruzza notes that those fem­i­nists who argue that cap­i­tal­ism is good for women have read­ily appro­pri­ated this the­sis: cap­i­tal­ism has no intrin­sic ties to par­tic­u­lar iden­ti­ties, inequal­i­ties, or extra-eco­nomic, polit­i­cal, or juridi­cal dif­fer­ences.

Just because a the­sis can be appro­pri­ated to defend cap­i­tal­ism does not mean that it is false, how­ever. As Arruzza notes at the begin­ning of her arti­cle, we have to care­fully dis­tin­guish between log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal ver­sions of this the­sis and there­fore between log­i­cal or meta­phys­i­cal neces­sity on the one hand, and empir­i­cal or his­tor­i­cal neces­sity, on the other. Even if we accept that cap­i­tal­ism, now under­stood as a dis­tinct eco­nomic sys­tem of pro­duc­tion, does not log­i­cally need gen­der inequal­ity, his­tor­i­cally things are not so sim­ple. Arruzza admits her­self that it is “per­haps dif­fi­cult to show at a high level of abstrac­tion that gen­der oppres­sion is essen­tial to the inner work­ings of cap­i­tal­ism,” but insists that her argu­ment con­cerns the way things are now, in our lived, his­tor­i­cal real­ity.

In other words, what I take her to be argu­ing is that if we oper­ate with an abstract, eco­nomic def­i­n­i­tion of cap­i­tal­ism that iden­ti­fies it through its eco­nomic logic, then it is impos­si­ble to make a nec­es­sary, log­i­cal con­nec­tion between cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion. The rela­tion­ship is his­tor­i­cally con­tin­gent and oppor­tunis­tic. How­ever, if we move to the level of lived real­ity where cap­i­tal­ism denotes a total­ity – a his­tor­i­cally speci­fic social for­ma­tion con­sist­ing of all the myr­iad social prac­tices in which we are involved daily – then the two become indis­tin­guish­able. Here Arruzza and I are again in full agree­ment: I think that both of these claims are valid and onto­log­i­cally true at the same time.

How­ever, my prob­lem is method­olog­i­cal. Once we have moved on to the level of a total­ity, the level of our lived real­ity, there is not much else that can be sig­nif­i­cantly stated about the con­nec­tion between cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion than that they are inter­twined or inher­ently con­nected. The propo­si­tion becomes non-fal­si­fi­able. Stat­ing that some­thing in a total social for­ma­tion is con­nected to some­thing else in it is obvi­ously true in a triv­ial sense. But on this level it seems dif­fi­cult to explain the link between cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion through a sin­gle orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple. To explain any­thing at all about their con­nec­tion, we have move back to some form of “frag­mented thought”: retrieve a more pre­cise def­i­n­i­tion of cap­i­tal­ism and then study the myr­iad and often con­tra­dic­tory ways in which the eco­nomic logic of cap­i­tal­ism deter­mi­nes, inter­sects or shapes his­tor­i­cally speci­fic, gen­dered social prac­tices.


It is my con­tention that today we can iden­tify at least two dif­fer­ent and oppos­ing ways that the cap­i­tal­ist logic of accu­mu­la­tion – the imper­a­tive of eco­nomic growth – inter­sects with gen­der oppres­sion. On the one hand, the rapid neolib­er­al­iza­tion of our economies in recent decades has resulted in a con­stant drive to extend the reach of the mar­ket. Accord­ing to neolib­eral eco­nomic the­ory, com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion and pri­va­ti­za­tion are par­tic­u­larly effec­tive means of speed­ing up eco­nomic growth given that the GDP is mea­sured in terms of mar­ket trans­ac­tions. This doc­trine is con­sis­tent with the attempts to com­mod­ify both the pri­vate and the pub­lic realms and to turn women into wage-labor­ers. As the mar­ke­ti­za­tion of every­day life expands, peo­ple have come to increas­ingly rely on the affec­tive and care ser­vices that they now buy and which used to be pro­vided mainly by women in the pri­vate realm. This has resulted in new forms of gen­der oppres­sion, as it is often poor, immi­grant and third-world women who end up pro­vid­ing these com­mod­i­fied ser­vices. The so-called “global care chains” and the enor­mous growth in the traf­fick­ing of women have become some of the gen­dered effects of glob­al­iza­tion.2

On the other hand, it is also clearly ben­e­fi­cial for cap­i­tal­ism in the cur­rent his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture to rely on women’s unpaid repro­duc­tive labor in the pri­vate sphere. Even though it is pos­si­ble to con­struct eco­nomic thought exper­i­ments and to imag­ine, log­i­cally, cap­i­tal­ist forms of pro­duc­tion that have com­pletely com­mod­i­fied social repro­duc­tion, his­tor­i­cally we are still far from achiev­ing that. Attempts to com­mod­ify bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion and affec­tive rela­tion­ships, such as sex and love, encoun­ter both tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties as well as moral objec­tions in our cur­rent forms of life. The social pro­vi­sion of child­care and domes­tic labor, on the other, is an obvi­ous hin­drance to the logic of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion because it requires pub­lic invest­ment. This must be counted as at least part of the expla­na­tion for why the fem­i­nist move­ment, despite decades of polit­i­cal strug­gle by now, has had very lit­tle suc­cess in social­iz­ing and ungen­der­ing repro­duc­tion. Women are still expected to take the main respon­si­bil­ity for the early pro­vi­sion­ing of child­care, as well as for most of the house­work.

Hence, we can iden­tify oppos­ing ways to relate cap­i­tal­ist eco­nomic logic and gen­der oppres­sion – cap­i­tal­ism wants women to both work and to stay at home –and we can find exam­ples of both incen­tives today. Women are increas­ingly torn between the con­flict­ing demands of fem­i­nin­ity in neolib­eral cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties.3

A con­tra­dic­tion char­ac­ter­izes the gen­dered con­se­quences of recent eco­nomic crises too. The insta­bil­ity of cap­i­tal­ist economies has been nego­ti­ated in recent decades through neolib­eral forms of gov­ern­men­tal­ity – new polit­i­cal tech­nolo­gies of power and social reg­u­la­tion that empha­sise indi­vid­ual respon­si­bil­ity in risk man­age­ment. While a sta­ble nuclear fam­ily was pre­vi­ously under­stood to provide the nec­es­sary coun­ter­weight to com­pet­i­tive and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties, today social volatil­ity and eco­nomic risks have become increas­ingly cen­tral for profit mak­ing. It is espe­cially the poor and the most vul­ner­a­ble seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion, for exam­ple, who have been forced into unprece­dented lev­els of debt in recent decades, and whose indebt­ed­ness has thereby made pos­si­ble the growth of the lucra­tive credit mar­kets and the rapid finan­cial­iza­tion of West­ern economies. In other words, the break­ing up of the sta­ble nuclear fam­ily and the col­lapse of the tra­di­tional gen­der order based on the idea of fam­ily-wage can be under­stood as both use­ful and harm­ful for cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion: on the one hand the dis­so­lu­tion of social cohe­sion and the grow­ing num­ber of poor, sin­gle-par­ent house­holds has pro­vided new lucra­tive oppor­tu­ni­ties for cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion in the form of sub­prime lend­ing, for exam­ple; on the other hand, the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the tra­di­tional gen­der order has resulted in an inten­si­fied cri­sis of care in West­ern soci­eties and made the ques­tions con­cern­ing social repro­duc­tion appear as acute prob­lems in cap­i­tal­ism.


We should be mind­ful of Nietzsche’s asser­tion that only that which is with­out his­tory can be defined. Our con­cep­tions and the­o­ret­i­cal under­stand­ings of real­ity are pro­duced through polit­i­cal strug­gle and are thus always con­tin­gent and con­testable. All def­i­n­i­tions of cap­i­tal­ism must be under­stood as polit­i­cal acts, and their exten­sion and valid­ity remains open to con­stant con­tes­ta­tion. In other words, cap­i­tal­ism does not “essen­tially” mean any­thing. It is a the­o­ret­i­cal tool, or per­haps even a weapon, that I believe can be suc­cess­fully deployed in sev­eral con­texts.

Depend­ing on the the­o­ret­i­cal or polit­i­cal con­text in which it is deployed and the way it is defined there, we can do dif­fer­ent things with it. In polit­i­cal econ­omy, it denotes a dis­tinc­tive mode of pro­duc­tion, which can be iden­ti­fied through a list of key fea­tures – pri­vate prop­erty, the dom­i­nance of wage labor, the allo­ca­tion of goods and ser­vices through mar­kets and so on – and use­fully dis­tin­guished from other types of eco­nomic sys­tems. In much of crit­i­cal social the­ory, on the other hand, it denotes some­thing broader, usu­ally framed in terms of a total­ity or a com­pre­hen­sive social for­ma­tion. The clear advan­tage of such a total­iz­ing per­spec­tive is that it is capa­ble of the­o­ret­i­cally con­nect­ing seem­ingly dis­parate phe­nom­ena and there­fore polit­i­cally unit­ing peo­ple who are able to rec­og­nize that their indi­vid­ual prob­lems are not merely local, psy­cho­log­i­cal or acci­den­tal.

How­ever, as I have tried to argue, there are also costs and risks involved in such total­is­tic think­ing. When cap­i­tal­ism is ana­lyzed as a mega-struc­ture or an all-encom­pass­ing explana­tory back­ground against which all other things are under­stood, we risk los­ing a clear the­o­ret­i­cal focus and polit­i­cal aim. Not only do var­ied forms of gen­der oppres­sion have his­tor­i­cally con­tin­gent rela­tion­ships to the dis­tinct and con­tra­dic­tory eco­nomic log­ics char­ac­ter­iz­ing con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism – fem­i­nist polit­i­cal strug­gles do too. In other words, I want to cast our dis­agree­ment as ulti­mately strate­gic: whilst Arruzza defends a uni­tary the­ory based on an enlarged def­i­n­i­tion of cap­i­tal­ism because it can provide fem­i­nists with an effec­tive and cut­ting con­cep­tual weapon, I want to defend a more pre­cise def­i­n­i­tion and more var­ie­gated his­tor­i­cal analy­ses – for the very same rea­son.

This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled Gen­der and Cap­i­tal­ism: Debat­ing Cinzia Arruzza’s “Remarks on Gen­der.”

  1. Heidi Hart­mann, “The Unhappy Mar­riage of Patri­archy and Cap­i­tal­ism: Toward a More Pro­gres­sive Union,” Cap­i­tal & Class 3.2 (1979), 24. 

  2. The term “global care chain” was first used by Arlie Hochschild to describe the links between peo­ple across the globe based on their roles in the transna­tional divi­sion of care work. See, Arlie Hochschild, “Global Care Chains and Emo­tional Sur­plus Value”, in On The Edge: Liv­ing with Global Cap­i­tal­ism, eds. William Hut­ton and Anthony Gid­dens (Lon­don: Jonathan Cape, 2000), 131. 

  3. Cf. Johanna Oksala, “The Neolib­eral Sub­ject of Fem­i­nism,” Jour­nal of the British Soci­ety for Phe­nom­e­nol­ogy 42.1 (2011), 104–120. 

Author of the article

is Academy of Finland Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and Visiting Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research, New York (2013-2015). Her research interests include political philosophy, feminist philosophy, 20th Century and Contemporary Continental Philosophy, Foucault, and phenomenology. She is the author of Feminist Experiences: Foucauldian and Phenomenological Investigations (forthcoming, Northwestern UP, 2015).