Logic or History? The Political Stakes of Marxist-Feminist Theory

Han­nah Hoch, “Indus­trial Land­scape” (1967)

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

When I first started writ­ing this series of remarks in Ital­ian (Rif­les­sioni degeneri), sub­se­quently col­lected into a sin­gle piece for the Eng­lish ver­sion, my aim was twofold. The first was to make a com­plex debate – one that has unfolded over the course of sev­eral decades – acces­si­ble to a pub­lic of activists and peo­ple inter­ested in gen­der, race, and class pol­i­tics. The sec­ond was to con­tribute toward reopen­ing this cru­cial debate about how we should con­cep­tu­al­ize the struc­tural rela­tion­ship between gen­der oppres­sion and cap­i­tal­ism. This is why I am deeply grate­ful to Oksala, Far­ris, and Man­ning for accept­ing to respond to my piece and for artic­u­lat­ing pow­er­ful and illu­mi­nat­ing cri­tiques, and which have helped me think through these com­pli­cated mat­ters more care­fully and rig­or­ously. Spec­i­fy­ing the rela­tion­ship between the log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal dimen­sions of cap­i­tal­ism is one of the most con­tro­ver­sial prob­lems in Marx­ist the­ory, and one about which I am very uncer­tain. But, as this is the point of con­tention between Oksala, Far­ris, Man­ning and myself, I will address a set of con­cerns per­tain­ing to this prob­lem which is rel­e­vant to the cen­tral issues at stake: whether or not we can claim that gen­der oppres­sion is a nec­es­sary fea­ture of cap­i­tal­ism and, if so, at what level of abstrac­tion can we make that claim. While there is an array of fur­ther crit­i­cisms in their responses to my essay, this issue is the focus of all three. Hence I will spend most of the lim­ited space at my dis­posal address­ing it. In the appen­dix, I will respond to two of Manning’s mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions of my posi­tion. It is likely that these mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions are mis­un­der­stand­ings caused by the ambi­gu­ity of some of my ini­tial for­mu­la­tions. How­ever, as they are con­nected to polit­i­cal issues, it is impor­tant to clar­ify them for the sake of advanc­ing our dis­cus­sion and mark­ing the real points of dis­sent.

From alto­gether dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, Oksala, Far­ris, and Man­ning share a sim­i­lar objec­tion to my cri­tique of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s 1988 New Left Review arti­cle, “Cap­i­tal­ism and Human Eman­ci­pa­tion.”1 All three observe that I have con­ceded to Meiksins Wood both the dis­tinc­tion between the log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal dimen­sions of cap­i­tal­ism, and her claim that gen­der and racial oppres­sion can­not be shown to be nec­es­sary to cap­i­tal­ism in a log­i­cal sense. Cru­cially, all three con­clude that these con­ces­sions viti­ate any com­pelling basis for dis­tin­guish­ing my account of the uni­tary the­ory from what I have called an “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” approach. Thus, all three authors assume that the fail­ure to show that gen­der oppres­sion is a log­i­cal pre­con­di­tion for cap­i­tal­ism entails that the rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal­ism and gen­der oppres­sion is merely con­tin­gent and oppor­tunis­tic.2

Man­ning and Far­ris con­clude that we must demon­strate the log­i­cal neces­sity of gen­der oppres­sion and of racial oppres­sion for cap­i­tal­ism. Con­versely, Oksala reaches the oppo­site con­clu­sion, that we should be wary of total­i­ties and epis­temic cer­tain­ties and fully endorse his­tor­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tions as con­tin­gent, vari­able and oppor­tunis­tic com­bi­na­tions of dis­tinct frag­ments. While their con­clu­sions pull me in oppo­site direc­tions, this dilemma is based on a shared pre­sup­po­si­tion: all three seem to pre­sup­pose that there is noth­ing between log­i­cal neces­sity and arbi­trary con­tin­gency; that one either demon­strates the first or fully endorses the sec­ond; and that gen­der oppres­sion and racial oppres­sion are either log­i­cal pre­con­di­tions for cap­i­tal­ism or that their rela­tion­ship to it is oppor­tunis­tic, highly vari­able and, ulti­mately, dis­pens­able. In other words, all three accept the pre­sup­po­si­tion of a the­ory of “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” endorsed by Meiksins Woods and other Marx­ists. It is pre­cisely this pre­sup­po­si­tion that I reject and that I tried to ques­tion in my piece.

Farris’s and Manning’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with prov­ing the log­i­cal neces­sity of gen­der oppres­sion for cap­i­tal­ism arises from an under­stand­able polit­i­cal con­cern, i.e., the worry that fail­ing to demon­strate this log­i­cal depen­dence would mean that gen­der oppres­sion is polit­i­cally sec­ondary to class pol­i­tics. Unfor­tu­nately, this con­cern is moti­vated by the wide­spread (and, in my view, mis­taken) ten­dency among Marx­ist authors to directly derive polit­i­cal con­clu­sions or the­ses from the­o­ret­i­cal argu­ments devel­oped at a high level of abstrac­tion. This ten­dency lies behind the polit­i­cal con­clu­sions Meiksins Wood draws in her own piece. Faced with this ten­dency, it is per­fectly under­stand­able that Far­ris, Man­ning, and other Marx­ist fem­i­nist authors have been pre­oc­cu­pied with show­ing the req­ui­site log­i­cal neces­sity so as to grant women’s strug­gle the appro­pri­ate atten­tion and cen­tral­ity. A sim­i­lar pre­oc­cu­pa­tion arises regard­ing the log­i­cal neces­sity of racial oppres­sion. While I under­stand and share this con­cern, I think that we should reject rather than answer this inter­pel­la­tion, given that it rests on a mis­taken pre­sup­po­si­tion: the dynam­ics of polit­i­cal strug­gle can­not be directly deduced from the­o­ret­i­cal obser­va­tions at this level of abstrac­tion.

In fact, this ten­dency has led some Marx­ists or activists within class pol­i­tics to elab­o­rate hier­ar­chies of processes of polit­i­cal sub­ject for­ma­tion, strug­gles, and prac­tices based on abstract logic – hier­ar­chies within which racial and gen­der oppres­sion would be sec­ondary due to capitalism’s log­i­cal inde­pen­dence from them. This approach, how­ever,  only reveals a book­ish under­stand­ing of polit­i­cal strug­gle. It is an approach that neglects the lived expe­ri­ence of exploited and oppressed peo­ple, the con­crete and con­junc­tural processes through which they come to acquire polit­i­cal agency and sub­jec­tiv­ity, the way they per­ceive them­selves and their con­di­tions of exis­tence, the sed­i­men­ta­tion of their past strug­gles, the actual his­tory of the coun­try they live in or they come from, and a num­ber of other fac­tors that are cru­cial to the effec­tive con­struc­tion of polit­i­cal strate­gies and projects.3 Once I have decou­pled the issue at stake from this under­ly­ing polit­i­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, I can address it for what it is: a the­o­ret­i­cal and ana­lyt­i­cal con­cern. While this con­cern may or may not have some polit­i­cal con­se­quences, we cer­tainly can­not directly deduce the kind of rel­e­vant polit­i­cal con­se­quences that have been drawn in the past by a num­ber of authors and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions.

Gender Oppression and Historical Causality

Before I restate my main argu­ments against “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” more clearly,  I think some points raised by Man­ning and Far­ris need to be clar­i­fied. Man­ning claims that I (like many other Marx­ist fem­i­nist authors) “do not even feel the need to argue against”… the pos­si­bil­ity that we can “locate gen­der or race in the essen­tial log­i­cal struc­ture of cap­i­tal­ism.” While my main claim – i.e., that cap­i­tal­ism is not indif­fer­ent to gen­der oppres­sion – does not, in my view, depend on demon­strat­ing that gen­der oppres­sion is a log­i­cal pre­con­di­tion to cap­i­tal­ism, it also does not depend on argu­ing for the impos­si­bil­ity of such a demon­stra­tion. Thus, I do not argue that such a demon­stra­tion is impos­si­ble because I am actu­ally agnos­tic regard­ing its pos­si­bil­ity, and because my cen­tral claim does not require that I take a posi­tion on this issue. Despite my agnos­ti­cism in regards to its pos­si­bil­ity, it is clear to me that I have not man­aged to actu­ally demon­strate it myself, and that I find the other attempts so far, (includ­ing both Far­ris’ ten­ta­tive attempt, and Maya Gon­za­lez and Jeanne Neton’s attempt cited by Man­ning) unper­sua­sive.4 While I am open to the pos­si­bil­ity of locat­ing gen­der and race as nec­es­sary pre­con­di­tions of cap­i­tal­ism at the log­i­cal level, this posi­tion is very dif­fi­cult to prove. Unlike Man­ning, I think that the atti­tude of sev­eral Marx­ist fem­i­nist authors is a symp­tom of a real the­o­ret­i­cal dif­fi­culty rather than an out-of-hand or prej­u­di­cial dis­missal.

In light of these con­cerns, I wish to clar­ify a sec­ond point, raised by Far­ris. Far­ris dis­agrees with my claim that logic and his­tory are sep­a­rate, and then sug­gests that they have a dialec­ti­cal rela­tion­ship. I sus­pect that Far­ris took my claim to sug­gest that logic and his­tory are sep­a­rate in the sense that they are unre­lated. But, of course, I reject this claim as it entails that log­i­cal analy­ses of cap­i­tal­ism tell us noth­ing about con­crete cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties. Such a posi­tion would make our the­o­ret­i­cal efforts mean­ing­less and ster­ile exer­cises of intel­li­gence. My claim about logic and his­tory is much more banal than the one Far­ris attrib­utes to me, as I only meant that they are dis­tinct. Although she ques­tions this dis­tinc­tion, the non-iden­tity of logic and his­tory is con­sis­tent with Far­ris’ view that logic and his­tory have a dialec­ti­cal rela­tion­ship, given that such a rela­tion­ship pre­cludes their iden­tity: a “dialec­ti­cal rela­tion­ship” can entail oppo­si­tion, but cer­tainly not unmedi­ated iden­tity and, con­se­quently, hold­ing that logic and his­tory are iden­ti­cal (i.e. deny­ing the dis­tinc­tion between them) is equiv­a­lent to deny­ing the dialec­ti­cal rela­tion­ship between them.

While I may agree with Far­ris that there is a dialec­ti­cal rela­tion­ship between logic and his­tory, it is still unclear to me what we actu­ally mean by “dialec­ti­cal.” The quote pro­vided by Far­ris from Mészáros, accord­ing to whom the social struc­ture is unthink­able with­out its his­tor­i­cal dimen­sion and vice versa, sim­ply re-artic­u­lates the prob­lem with­out clar­i­fy­ing it. While I obvi­ously agree with this point, it still leaves open the the­o­ret­i­cal task of spec­i­fy­ing how we con­cretely think the two aspects together and the exact rela­tion­ship between them. As I have already said, I can­not offer a com­plete solu­tion to this larger prob­lem. How­ever, by address­ing the more rel­e­vant dis­tinc­tion between log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties and prac­ti­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties, I will provide some ele­ments towards clar­i­fy­ing the rela­tion­ship between logic and his­tory.

Since I have clar­i­fied these two points – first, that I am not prej­u­di­cially dis­miss­ing attempts to demon­strate that gen­der is a log­i­cal pre­con­di­tion to cap­i­tal­ism and, sec­ond, that I do not deny the rela­tion­ship between the log­i­cal dimen­sion and his­tor­i­cal dimen­sion of cap­i­tal­ism – I can now refor­mu­late my main argu­ment against the “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” the­sis. My argu­ment is for­mu­lated as an “imma­nent cri­tique” of Meiksins Wood’s argu­ment: I pro­vi­sion­ally accept her pre­sup­po­si­tion that demon­strat­ing the log­i­cal depen­dence of cap­i­tal­ism on gen­der oppres­sion is not pos­si­ble (a point I am myself agnos­tic about), and I then pro­ceed to show that this premise does not license the con­clu­sions she draws. My argu­ment has two parts: the first method­olog­i­cal part argues that we must dis­tin­guish between log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties and his­tor­i­cal (or, alter­na­tively, prac­ti­cal) pos­si­bil­i­ties; the sec­ond con­cerns the dis­tinc­tion between a log­i­cal pre­con­di­tion to cap­i­tal­ism and a “nec­es­sary” con­se­quence of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. In artic­u­lat­ing my argu­ment again, I will also answer some of Oksala’s objec­tions by restat­ing the neces­sity to think of cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties as mov­ing total­i­ties; in con­trast to expres­sive total­i­ties in which each part reflects and cor­re­sponds to the oth­ers, or where each part is “func­tional” to the whole, this mov­ing total­ity is a set of social prac­tices, rela­tion­ships, and insti­tu­tions which are all sub­ject to the deter­min­ing con­straints and pres­sures posed by the logic of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion.

As I will expand upon fur­ther, such a con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion entails refin­ing and dis­tin­guish­ing the dif­fer­ent senses in which we use the words “neces­sity,” “nec­es­sary,” as well as “laws.” When speak­ing of his­tor­i­cally sit­u­ated social prac­tices and phe­nom­ena, terms such as “neces­sity” and “laws” should always be taken in a looser sense than what is gen­er­ally under­stood. Even the so-called cap­i­tal­ist “laws of motion” are “ten­den­cies” in that, qua social prac­tices and rela­tions, they do not oper­ate with the neces­sity per­tain­ing to cer­tain phys­i­cal laws. In other words, we can speak of “neces­sity” and “laws” in a weaker sense than our usage of those terms in the nat­u­ral sci­ences. They are also weaker than log­i­cal neces­sity and log­i­cal laws, and per­haps part of the con­fu­sion on this point lies in the con­fla­tion between the neces­sity per­tain­ing to logic (to our log­i­cal think­ing) and that per­tain­ing to his­tory, social prac­tices, and social rela­tions – which is a dif­fer­ent and weaker kind. This applies to both the rela­tion­ship between gen­der and racial oppres­sion and cap­i­tal­ism as well as to the unfold­ing of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion itself. In using the term “nec­es­sary con­se­quences,” I am refer­ring to the con­se­quences that will tend to be pro­duced by cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion, which should not pro­voke the the­o­ret­i­cal anx­i­eties evi­denced by my respon­dents.

Practical Plausibility and Concrete History

When work­ing with log­i­cal cat­e­gories or with the analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism at a high level of abstrac­tion, we should rec­og­nize that we are refer­ring to a the­o­ret­i­cal model used to describe some aspect of real­ity. While I do not deny that this the­o­ret­i­cal model has undoubt­edly been con­structed through the for­mal­iza­tion of actual, his­tor­i­cally-pro­duced con­straints, it is still a the­o­ret­i­cal model that refers to – while remain­ing non-iden­ti­cal with – the real­ity it describes. When think­ing at this level of abstrac­tion we oper­ate with speci­fic kinds of pos­si­bil­ity, which I would define as either log­i­cal or nomo­log­i­cal. Log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties denote what is think­able with­out con­tra­dict­ing the given def­i­n­i­tion of the object at stake. If, in my def­i­n­i­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, the core of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion is the val­oriza­tion of value (and hence the extrac­tion of sur­plus-value through exploita­tion), then I can­not con­ceive of a cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety sans exploita­tion with­out log­i­cally con­tra­dict­ing my given def­i­n­i­tion. But I can think any con­fig­u­ra­tion that does not con­tra­dict it as being pos­si­ble.

Put sim­ply, log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties con­cern the coher­ence of our thoughts toward objects. As such, the range of log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties is as a gen­eral rule both wider and more rigid than that of real pos­si­bil­i­ties, which have to account for con­straints other than log­i­cal coher­ence and thus, to a lim­ited extent, allow for the exis­tence of con­tra­dic­tory processes. A nomo­log­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity has to do with sets of laws: it cir­cum­scribes as pos­si­ble every­thing that does not con­tra­dict those given laws. Now, coher­ence in thought does not exhaust the range of con­straints that limit the set of pos­si­bil­i­ties on a prac­ti­cal or his­tor­i­cal level. Nomo­log­i­cal coher­ence, in its turn, would be able to express the entire range of con­straints that either limit or rank pos­si­bil­i­ties on a his­tor­i­cal or prac­ti­cal level, if and only if we assumed that all prac­ti­cal neces­si­tat­ing con­straints can be for­mal­ized into laws. I am deeply skep­ti­cal that this is the case. This is not to sug­gest an irra­tional­ist approach to parts of real­ity; I only mean to sug­gest that log­i­cal for­mal­iza­tion is not the sole ratio­nal means of grasp­ing real­ity at our dis­posal, and that not all neces­si­tat­ing con­straints are grasped in this way or for­mal­ized at that level. The cog­ni­tive map­ping of cer­tain con­straints demands con­crete his­tor­i­cal analy­sis or other heuris­tic tools.

To make this point clearer, the con­crete his­tory of cap­i­tal­ism involves sev­eral prac­ti­cal con­straints. For exam­ple, given the origin and devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism in the United States, I think that we can make a plau­si­ble case that racial oppres­sion, in vary­ing and his­tor­i­cally speci­fic forms, not only is but will likely remain a con­sti­tu­tive part of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism and Amer­i­can soci­ety. It is likely that this prac­ti­cal con­straint can­not be for­mal­ized in the same way that the extrac­tion of sur­plus-value can. Nonethe­less, it is a neces­si­tat­ing con­straint that sig­nif­i­cantly qual­i­fies pos­si­bil­i­ties accord­ing to degrees of prob­a­bil­ity. We may, of course, con­ceive of a ver­sion of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism with­out racism, as such a pos­si­bil­ity does not con­tra­dict either a given def­i­n­i­tion of cap­i­tal­ism or its for­mal­ized laws of motion. How­ever, this sce­nario is his­tor­i­cally implau­si­ble. Prac­ti­cal plau­si­bil­ity is what should really mat­ter for polit­i­cal con­cerns, because we do not do pol­i­tics, or at least we should not do it, by means of mere thought exper­i­ments whose only rule is  log­i­cal coher­ence. To sum up, the unmedi­ated jump between dif­fer­ent forms of pos­si­bil­ity is a mis­take; we should reject this mis­take rather than tak­ing it as the guid­ing premise of our the­o­ret­i­cal efforts.

Precondition or Consequence?

To con­tinue with the sec­ond part of this re-artic­u­la­tion of my cri­tique of “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism,” pro­po­nents of this approach such as Meiksins Wood fail to dis­tin­guish between the sta­tus of deter­mi­nants that are log­i­cal pre­con­di­tions to cap­i­tal­ism, and the sta­tus of deter­mi­nants that are nec­es­sary con­se­quences of cap­i­tal­ism. Far­ris observes that my dis­tinc­tion between these two terms is unclear, argu­ing that “if we say that cap­i­tal­ism pro­duces oppres­sion by neces­sity, we are in fact still putting for­ward an argu­ment that requires expla­na­tion at the log­i­cal struc­tural level, and not only at the his­tor­i­cal level.” Far­ris is cer­tainly cor­rect in claim­ing that this neces­sity can­not be proved only at the his­tor­i­cal level with­out some expla­na­tion at the log­i­cal struc­tural level. How­ever, as I have hoped to show in the pre­ced­ing para­graphs, I have not denied this. Farris’s cri­tique is fair given that the for­mu­la­tion and struc­ture of my argu­ment was unclear and poten­tially mis­lead­ing. Hence her crit­i­cism has, thank­fully, allowed me to refor­mu­late my point in more robust terms.

The dis­tinc­tion between a log­i­cal pre­con­di­tion and a nec­es­sary con­se­quence of a social dynamic is war­ranted given that a set of social phe­nom­ena can be nec­es­sar­ily and con­stantly pro­duced by the logic of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion with­out being a log­i­cal pre­con­di­tion for it. So, even if we were com­pelled to con­cede that gen­der oppres­sion or racial oppres­sion are not log­i­cal pre­con­di­tions for cap­i­tal­ism, this con­ces­sion would still not entail the con­clu­sion that the rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal­ism and these forms of oppres­sion is only an oppor­tunis­tic and con­tin­gent one, and that cap­i­tal­ism is “indif­fer­ent” to them. In order to demon­strate the indif­fer­ence of cap­i­tal­ism to gen­der and racial oppres­sion, a pro­po­nent of the “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” approach would have to argue that gen­der and racial oppres­sion are not “nec­es­sar­ily” pro­duced and repro­duced by the logic of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. In other words, the def­i­n­i­tion of cap­i­tal­ism as essen­tially “indif­fer­ent” to women’s and racial­ized people’s oppres­sion – exploit­ing them in merely oppor­tunis­tic terms – fails to take into account the fact that cap­i­tal­ism does not just “use” pre-exist­ing oppres­sions, but also pro­duces them as a bypro­duct of accu­mu­la­tion. To quote Martha Gimenez on gen­der inequal­ity:

Gen­der inequal­ity thus con­cep­tu­al­ized, as a struc­tural char­ac­ter­is­tic of cap­i­tal­ist social for­ma­tions, is irre­ducible to micro­foun­da­tions; i.e., it can­not be solely or pri­mar­ily explained on the basis of either men’s or women’s inten­tions, biol­ogy, psy­cho­sex­ual devel­op­ment, etc. because it is the struc­tural effect of a com­plex net­work of macrolevel processes through which pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion are inex­tri­ca­bly con­nected. This net­work sets lim­its to the oppor­tu­nity struc­tures of prop­erty­less men and women, allo­cat­ing women pri­mar­ily to the sphere of domestic/reproductive labor and only sec­on­dar­ily to paid (waged or salaried) labor, thus estab­lish­ing the objec­tive basis for dif­fer­ences in their rel­a­tive eco­nomic, social and polit­i­cal power. How­ever, analy­sis of con­crete or speci­fic instances of gen­der inequal­ity within house­holds, enter­prises, bureau­cra­cies, etc. is not only amenable to study at the level of micro­foun­da­tions, but requires this. We can­not fully explain oppres­sive prac­tices in a given insti­tu­tion with­out tak­ing into account the agency of the major social actors; these actors’ inten­tions, atti­tudes, beliefs, and prac­tices have to be explained in terms of the struc­tural con­di­tions that made them pos­si­ble.5

Claim­ing that gen­der oppres­sion is a nec­es­sary con­se­quence of cap­i­tal­ism entails relat­ing an analy­sis of the logic of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion to his­tor­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions con­cern­ing the role of gen­der dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion in repro­duc­tive activ­i­ties. As it should appear clear by now, there is no real dis­agree­ment between Far­ris and myself on this point: the only real dis­agree­ment con­cerns both her insis­tence on the neces­sity to demon­strate that gen­der and racial oppres­sion are log­i­cal pre­con­di­tions for cap­i­tal­ism, and her attempt to prove this point by means of an analy­sis of the neces­sity of the nation-state for cap­i­tal­ism.

To sum­ma­rize my above response, I chal­lenge the notion that cap­i­tal­ism has a merely oppor­tunis­tic and con­tin­gent rela­tion­ship to gen­der oppres­sion on two counts: the first is that the “indif­fer­ent cap­i­tal­ism” approach is based on a con­fla­tion between dif­fer­ent kinds of pos­si­bil­ity and fails to take into account forms of prac­ti­cal neces­sity or con­straints that can­not be for­mal­ized into laws of motion; the sec­ond is that it fails to take into account that sets of social phe­nom­ena can be nec­es­sary con­se­quences of the logic of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion, even if they are not a log­i­cal pre­con­di­tions for it, and that, more­over, these nec­es­sary con­se­quences can be ana­lyzed, at least to some extent, in abstract terms.   

What is Unitary in “Unitary Theory?”

These two points allow me to answer part of Oksala’s objec­tions. Some of her acute objec­tions stem from my ill-advised use of the term “orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple” to dis­cuss the link between gen­der oppres­sion and cap­i­tal­ism. “Orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple” is a mis­lead­ing term for the social dynam­ics I am describ­ing, as I rec­og­nized only too late. I am will­ing to drop it alto­gether, as it fails to prop­erly account for my claim that cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion is the shared frame­work of var­i­ous forms of oppres­sion, and because it may imply func­tion­al­ist con­cep­tu­al­iza­tions of the dynam­ics of cap­i­tal or sug­gest the exis­tence of a “plan of cap­i­tal.”

Another dif­fi­culty has to do with the term “uni­tary the­ory,” which raised some prob­lems from two oppos­ing view­points: both for Oksala and for Man­ning. The fault here is not entirely mine, as I inherited the label from Vogel’s book, Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women, where, in my inter­pre­ta­tion, the term “uni­tary” was only meant to demar­cate her posi­tion from dual or triple sys­tems the­o­ries.6 (The term “uni­tary,” how­ever, may once again be mis­lead­ing since it can be inter­preted as indi­cat­ing that all sets of social phe­nom­ena exam­ined – hence the var­i­ous forms of oppres­sion at stake – are orga­nized accord­ing to a sin­gle logic that can be stud­ied with a sin­gle the­o­ret­i­cal tool or mode of crit­i­cal analy­sis. Under­stood in this way, it clearly raises a seri­ous prob­lem for my own posi­tion, as I want to avoid a func­tion­al­ist account as much as I want to avoid a merely con­tin­gent account of the rela­tion­ship between var­i­ous forms of oppres­sion and cap­i­tal­ism. Given that drop­ping this label may be more com­pli­cated because of the his­tory of the debate on these issues, I wish to clar­ify once again what my posi­tion on these points is.

I argue that cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion pro­duces, or con­tributes to the pro­duc­tion of, vary­ing forms of social hier­ar­chy and oppres­sions as its nec­es­sary con­se­quences. More­over, I argue that it has a greater con­se­quen­tial and deter­min­ing power than other forms of social hier­ar­chy, and that it poses neces­si­tat­ing con­straints that deter­mine all other forms of social rela­tions. Thus, my claims are more robust than sim­ply stat­ing that in a total social for­ma­tion some­thing “is con­nected to some­thing else.” How­ever, my claim is weaker than argu­ing that cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion orga­nizes other social hier­ar­chies accord­ing to a sin­gle logic. More­over, it is my con­tention that the logic of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion is per­va­sive (that is, that it has the capac­ity of col­or­ing all other social rela­tion­ships), which is one of the grounds for speak­ing of a con­tra­dic­tory and artic­u­lated mov­ing total­ity.

I am aware that this restate­ment of my posi­tion can and prob­a­bly will be unsat­is­fy­ing to many. The dif­fi­culty lies in the fact that I am try­ing to carve a dif­fer­ent path between the oppo­site direc­tions in which Oksala, on the one hand, and Man­ning and Far­ris, on the other, would like to pull my argu­ment. Mak­ing this path com­pelling neces­si­tates addi­tional work on artic­u­lat­ing the notions of his­tor­i­cal neces­sity and pos­si­bil­ity, of total­ity and of deter­mi­na­tion, as well as recon­sid­er­a­tions of the rela­tion­ship between logic and his­tory, and of the nature of Marx’s method of expo­si­tion. Clearly, being an even more dif­fi­cult task, such work would require a com­bi­na­tion of robust empir­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal reflec­tion and the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion. It is work to be done in the years to come.


In Manning’s piece there are two mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions of some of my argu­ments that seem the­o­ret­i­cally or polit­i­cally rel­e­vant enough to require a clar­i­fi­ca­tion. This clar­i­fi­ca­tion is not intended as polem­i­cal, but as a nec­es­sary step to clear the ground from pos­si­ble mis­un­der­stand­ings and fur­ther the debate. More­over, it is quite pos­si­ble that I bear some respon­si­bil­ity for these mis­un­der­stand­ings.

The first of these mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions con­cerns the issue of the ben­e­fits to men afforded by gen­der oppres­sion. My con­cern with this mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of my argu­ment is both the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal, because whether we con­sider men and women as two antag­o­nis­tic classes obvi­ously has rel­e­vant polit­i­cal con­se­quences. Man­ning writes that “it is impor­tant to chal­lenge Arruzza’s state­ments about the neg­li­gi­ble ben­e­fits of patri­archy to men”; then, to coun­ter my argu­ment, she goes on mak­ing a list of activ­i­ties and prac­tices that can­not be social­ized, includ­ing sex­ual abuse and vio­lence.7

I am puz­zled by Manning’s inter­pre­ta­tion of my posi­tion, and I must admit that I am frus­trated by her impli­ca­tion that I deny that men sig­nif­i­cantly ben­e­fit from women’s oppres­sion. Such a posi­tion is basi­cally an antifem­i­nist one that I have always been antipa­thetic to. My argu­ment was quite sim­ple and con­cerned the def­i­n­i­tion of class rela­tion­ships as based on exploita­tion, under­stood as the extrac­tion of sur­plus. My intent was to show that men and women can­not be con­sid­ered as two classes in this tech­ni­cal sense due to the absence of extrac­tion and appro­pri­a­tion of a sur­plus: in this sense, and only in this sense, men would lose noth­ing from the social­iza­tion of care work. More­over, I have never claimed that gen­der inequality’s ben­e­fits to men are neg­li­gi­ble. I have only claimed that they are not an ade­quate ground for speak­ing of a class antag­o­nism between men and women or for defin­ing men and women as two classes. This does not make these ben­e­fits neg­li­gi­ble: occu­py­ing a higher hier­ar­chi­cal place in the social order, work­ing less than those who are in a sub­al­tern posi­tion, hav­ing greater social recog­ni­tion, and hav­ing a priv­i­leged access to vio­lence and dom­i­na­tion over oth­ers are not neg­li­gi­ble ben­e­fits at all. As a mat­ter of fact they are a pow­er­ful device of divi­sion and con­flict among exploited and oppressed peo­ple and within a class. They would not be so pow­er­ful, if they were neg­li­gi­ble. Still, within the the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work I tried to elu­ci­date, these ele­ments alone do not define what a class rela­tion­ship is, and can­not be taken as a ground for defin­ing gen­der oppres­sion as a class antag­o­nism involv­ing two classes - men and women. As my argu­ment con­cerned the class sta­tus of gen­der inequal­ity, it is unclear to me how Manning’s reminder of sex­ual abuse and vio­lence, for exam­ple, may chal­lenge it, unless what is a stake is the sug­ges­tion of a dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of class and class rela­tion­ship. If this is the case, then there is indeed a the­o­ret­i­cal dis­agree­ment between Man­ning and me.

Finally, Manning’s mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of my argu­ment may be con­nected to another sub­stan­tive the­o­ret­i­cal dis­agree­ment with my posi­tion: Man­ning claims that there always will be a sphere of unso­cial­ized work, and that women or fem­i­nized peo­ple will do it for the most part. Based on these premises, Man­ning con­cludes that there is as lit­tle rea­son for men to let go of the ben­e­fits they draw from women’s oppres­sion as there is for cap­i­tal­ists to social­ize their prof­its. Since the the­o­ret­i­cal bases for these obser­va­tions – whether Manning’s argu­ment is a psy­cho­log­i­cal, anthro­po­log­i­cal or onto­log­i­cal one, whether it refers to only cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties or is a more gen­eral claim – are unclear to me, I will forego fur­ther debate on this issue.

The rea­son why I deemed nec­es­sary to clar­ify this point is the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the gen­der oppres­sion of women by men with class antag­o­nism would entail that mixed-gen­der pol­i­tics is a self-under­min­ing polit­i­cal strat­egy for women inso­far as such inter-class coop­er­a­tion would, ulti­mately, be detri­men­tal to women. Antag­o­nis­tic class inter­ests, indeed, can­not be rec­on­ciled in the long term. As a mat­ter of fact, the def­i­n­i­tion of gen­der oppres­sion as a class antag­o­nism has led, more often than not, to sep­a­ratism. Per­haps one of the rea­sons for con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing gen­der oppres­sion as a class rela­tion­ship is that we want to con­sider unpaid repro­duc­tive work as exploited work. How­ever, we do not really need to define women as a class in order to achieve this out­come. Work­erist fem­i­nists, for exam­ple, have con­cep­tu­al­ized unpaid care work as exploited pro­duc­tive work with­out con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing the rela­tion­ship between men and women as a class rela­tion­ship; oth­ers, while deny­ing that repro­duc­tive work pro­duces value, have argued that it con­tributes to both the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety and the pro­duc­tion and extrac­tion of value, hence it is exploited.

The sec­ond point con­cerns race. I have never writ­ten that the cat­e­gory of social repro­duc­tion cir­cum­scribes the essen­tial racial­iz­ing processes within cap­i­tal. As a mat­ter of fact, it does not. We can­not ade­quately ana­lyze race with­out address­ing numer­ous deter­mi­nants includ­ing the inter­na­tional divi­sion of labor, colo­nial­ism, impe­ri­al­ism, migra­tion, and com­bined and uneven devel­op­ment; these deter­mi­nants can­not be exhaus­tively con­cep­tu­al­ized through the notion of social repro­duc­tion as used by Marx­ist fem­i­nists. While there may and should be impor­tant over­lap­ping aspects, social repro­duc­tion the­ory can­not ade­quately address these mat­ters on its own. Con­se­quently, I am skep­ti­cal of the fash­ion­able ten­dency to the­o­ret­i­cally con­flate dis­cus­sions on race and gen­der: while it is true that racial and gen­der oppres­sion are strongly inter­twined at some level of analy­sis, and while it is often the case that one can­not under­stand the one with­out the other, at the level of the the­o­ret­i­cal analy­sis of the con­se­quences of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion and their deter­mi­na­tion of the repro­duc­tion of forms of hier­ar­chy and oppres­sion, there are sev­eral fac­tors that play a fun­da­men­tal role for one form of oppres­sion but not for another.

  1. Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Cap­i­tal­ism and Human Eman­ci­pa­tion,” New Left Review I/88 (1988), 3-20. 

  2. This point of crit­i­cism, that I don’t have any per­sua­sive the­o­ret­i­cal basis for a dis­tinct uni­tary the­ory left, seems to me more explic­itly artic­u­lated in Oksala and Man­ning, but I sus­pect that Far­ris may agree with them given her insis­tence on the neces­sity to have a log­i­cal demon­stra­tion of the fact that gen­der and racial oppres­sion are pre­con­di­tions to cap­i­tal­ism. 

  3. From this view­point, Meiksins Wood’s polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions on gen­der are quite at odds with the more sophis­ti­cated stance she takes on Thompson’s the­ory of class expe­ri­ence. See Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Pol­i­tics of The­ory and the Con­cept of Class: E. P. Thomp­son and His Crit­ics,” Stud­ies in Polit­i­cal Econ­omy 9 (1982), 45-75. 

  4. Farris’s attempt draws on Davidson’s the­ory of the nation-state: this is an extremely com­plex and con­tro­ver­sial issue that I can­not fully address here. I will con­fine myself to note that Davidson’s expla­na­tion of nation­al­ism leans toward a func­tion­al­ist expla­na­tion that raises an array of seri­ous dif­fi­cul­ties: see Neil David­son, “The Neces­sity of Mul­ti­ple Nation-States for Cap­i­tal­ism,” Rethink­ing Marx­ism 24.1 (2011), 26-46. This is why, while I find Farris’s con­sid­er­a­tions on inter­sec­tion­al­ity illu­mi­nat­ing, I am more skep­ti­cal about her out­line con­cern­ing the log­i­cal neces­sity of gen­der and race based on capital’s need for a mul­ti­plic­ity of nation states. 

    I agree with much of Gonzalez’s and Neton’s piece. How­ever, a key point of their argu­ment is the assump­tion that “for labour to exist and serve as the mea­sure of value, there must be an exte­rior to labour” and that “for labour-power to have a value, some of these activ­i­ties [the ones that repro­duce labor-power] have to be cut off or dis­so­ci­ated from the sphere of value pro­duc­tion.” Unfor­tu­nately, in my view their piece does not really suc­ceed in demon­strat­ing on a log­i­cal level that this is the case, hence I do not think that they have demon­strated that gen­der is log­i­cal pre­con­di­tion to cap­i­tal­ism. I will write about this point more on a dif­fer­ent occa­sion. See Maya Gon­za­lez and Jeanne Neton, “The Logic of Gen­der,” End­notes, Vol. 3 (2013).  

  5. Martha Gimenez, “Cap­i­tal­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women: Marx Revis­ited,” Sci­ence & Soci­ety, 69.1 (2005), pp. 11-32, 24. 

  6. Lise Vogel, Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket, 2014 [1983]). 

  7. This is the con­tentious sen­tence: “A man would lose noth­ing, in terms of work­load, if the dis­tri­b­u­tion of care work were com­pletely social­ized instead of being per­formed by his wife.” 

Author of the article

is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York and a feminist and socialist activist. She is the author of the author of Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism.