Neoliberal neopatriarchy: the case for gender revolution

We are living in a distinctive moment when neoliberal capitalism and neopatriarchy converge. Male dominance is no mere footnote to this new historic settlement. It is central. And feminism is decisive in the resistance.

Beatrix Campbell
6 January 2014
Photo of spectacled, curly-haired woman talking

Beatrix Campbell. Photo: Cynthia Cockburn.

Cynthia Cockburn:  When I see Christine Lagarde presiding serenely up there over the International Monetary Fund it makes me wonder whether capitalism might be delivering on sex equality. But you're telling a different story. 'The equality moment's over,' you say.

Beatrix Campbell:  It is! We have to ask ourselves: what's new about our moment? After the Second World War, capital struck a historic compromise with labour, in a partnership with the unions and commitment to a welfare state. With it came a new sexual contract. Neoliberal neopatriarchy is a riposte to both. Of course, in those postwar decades patriarchy never disappeared, but the welfare state created conditions for what we could call the 'equality paradigm'. With the expansion of social care, some of the labours of love historically performed by women became professionalised and paid. We won new laws on equal pay, marital status, reproduction, sexuality. The idea of equality between men and women was inscribed into international law.  Feminism was creating new political terrain. When Margaret Thatcher and the neoliberal Conservatives won the election of 1979 all that was threatened. And then New Labour under Tony Blair, when it replaced the Tories in 1997, continued this double counter-revolution. As Stuart Hall has put it, New Labour was 'a neoliberal project wrapped in social democracy'. And equality stalled. Electorally, Blair was the beneficiary of feminists' stalwart efforts to increase women's representation in the party. But it was macho politics rampant.

CC: And today?

BC: What we have is a symbiotic convergence of neoliberal capitalism and a neopatriarchal gender order. The 'structural adjustment' the financial institutions have been imposing on states all over the world is an attack on social solidarity, on welfare statism and trade unions, the institutions that intervene between men and women, that democratize gender relations and mitigate patriarchy by alleviating women's poverty and overwork.

CC: Since the banking crisis in 2008, 'austerity' policies seem to be intensifying that attack on women?

BC: Yes, if there was any doubt before, we can see quite clearly now how gender is more than just a footnote in the neoliberal project. It's central. Take Osborne's austerity budget of 2010. Labour's front bench MP, Yvette Cooper, who's been described by one of her colleagues as 'seriously good' at maths, scrutinized every detail of that budget. She calculated the consequences for women and men. What she found was so simple, but so startling! Seventy-four percent, almost three-quarters, of the burden of the austerity measures would be borne by women, barely a quarter by men. At the same time, men as tax-payers are valorized and soothed by Osborne's budgets. It's obvious. The neoliberal project can't work and doesn't work except in relation to another political project: male domination. What we have today is a neoliberal neopatriarchy. And you see that expressed most clearly in its dependence on two ancient patriarchal practices: the sexual division of labour, and violence.

CC: When you say 'the sexual division of labour', you see both capital and men-as-men benefitting from the economics of women's work?

BC: Sure. Women do unpaid work in the home, and underpaid work in employment. Men and their children are cared for by the women in their lives, or by other women whose labour they buy for a pittance. And it's not just men and children - it's care of the elderly, the disabled, the maintenance of everyday life. Research by the Centre for Time Use Studies shows a similar pattern across most developed countries between the 1970s and 2000s: men's core housework activities rose from an average 20 minutes to just 40 minutes a day; and their participation in dedicated child care rose to a meagre 15 or 20 minutes a day - a rate of increase of about 30 seconds a day per year over three decades. With changing patterns in paid work, women have adapted massively, men have changed marginally. That's what we learn from time use research. New Labour contributed to this by repudiating European law on the shorter working week. British fathers work the longest hours in Europe. And the trade union movement hasn't campaigned during this time for shorter working hours in employment. Why? Because it's struggling with its own history as what I've called a 'men's movement'. Today the conditions that might have enabled us to even imagine such a demand no longer exist.

CC:  And equal pay?

BC: The movement for equal pay is over. It's stuck. It is unable to withstand the new regimes of remuneration, the 'new dynamics of undervaluation' that are inaccessible to radical collective challenge. We have equal pay in name, but the actual gap between men and women has stabilized. In the European Union the gender pay gap - that's the average difference between men’s and women’s rate of pay - is 26%. The gap between the hourly earnings of women part-time workers and men full-time workers is a massive 65%. Men's pensions are 50% higher than women's.

CC:  You said just now that the violence of neoliberalism is a second thing that shows its patriarchal nature. I can see the structural violence involved in neoliberalism, driving poor people, poor classes, poor countries deeper into poverty. Do you mean physical violence too?

BC: From the end of the Cold War we've seen new regimes of violence, armed conflicts like those in Rwanda, Somalia, the Congo. Mary Kaldor has written of these as the 'new wars', in which criminal interests in a war economy have an interest in keeping them forever on the boil. Rape and pillage are part of the modus operandi. In some countries that are supposedly at 'peace', criminality is terrorizing whole terrains. Take Brazil, the drug trade in Mexico, South African townships. It's the mobilization of violent masculinities. And everywhere sexual violence against women meets with impunity. Violence - and that means violent masculinity - is part of neoliberalism's way of doing business. States are spending fortunes on the management of violence, on the security industry.

CC: And on both sides, it's men?

BC: Yes. Think back to the riots of 1991-2 in the UK, in Bristol and Luton and a lot of northern cities. It was young men, stealing and driving cars, disorganized coteries of criminals. I talked to a lot of people in those neighbourhoods, and what became clear was that chaos, mayhem and menace worked for some young men as a way of making and asserting their masculinity, and controlling social space. Women who were trying to make life liveable in these communities, in 'credit unions' and so on, were seen as a problem by the men (and by the police) who thrived on menacing the neighbourhoods. Menace produced power.

CC:  Did masculinity get problematized at the time? Did they talk about it in those terms?

BC: No. It was virtually impossible to convert that collective knowledge into political discourse. People might observe that it was 'lads wrecking the place' but it was somehow unthinkable to add 'and we've got to do something about them'. I remember a senior civil servant saying after the riots, 'You can't say we've got to address masculinity. You just can't'. But, soon afterwards, feminist writers like Raewyn Connell and James Messerschmidt began writing about violence as a factor in the social shaping of men. This moment marked a new step, a kind of shift in criminology, sociology and feminist political science. It became possible for the first time to see the central problem the criminal justice system has to deal with. Which is - masculinity!

CC:  Even now it hasn't penetrated into public life. Masculinity isn't on anyone's policy agenda.

BC:  It's the problem that has no name. The crime statistics aren't read at the political level as a measure of masculine domination, or as a way of 'doing masculinity'  - though that's universally understood at the level of common sense.

CC: You're saying that neopatriarchy is more than just an unfortunate by-product of neoliberalism?

BC:  Precisely. We shouldn't see the gender consequences of the neoliberal assault as being 'collateral damage'. It's not an appendix, the 'and women' chapter. It's cause and effect. We have to put together what we know as women, as feminists, about patriarchy and ask what it tells us about the neoliberal project. Gender is being re-made, and polarized afresh. If you don't bring this into the picture you miss something vital. We don't get close to imagining alternative ways of living if we don't revolt against neoliberalism as a new gender settlement. The revolution against neoliberalism has to be a gender revolution.

CC:  Revolution?

BC:  I don't mean a storming of the Bastille - even though moments when people hit the streets are important and pleasurable. I'm saying there's no thinkable release from the horrors of neoliberalism without a revolt against neopatriarchy. What I love about this moment we're living in is that so many women are thinking about all this, finding the fissures, the contradictions, the instabilities in this new hegemony. Feminism was set back, it was assailed, but it hasn't died. It lives!

Beatrix Campbell's latest book, End of Equality is published by Seagull Books 15th January 2014








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