Monday, July 30, 2012

Initial thoughts on patriarchy and the status of the workplace

     I've been thinking about feminist critiques of the concepts of the private and the public for the past few months, coming out of some of the framework offered by the last class that I worked as a teaching assistant for.  The main text of that class framed the house within the context of the private and places such as work as the public.  However, the more I think about this, the more problematic it becomes, particularly in regards to the notion of categorizing the workplace squarely within the public sphere.  Corey Robin has done a pretty good job spelling out the fact that one abandons one's rights when one goes into the workplace, rights that are only partially reinstated by the collective bargaining process.  When one goes farther into the origins of the industrial revolution, it becomes abundantly clear that the forms of paternalism and patriarchal control that Robin identifies in the present have ample precedence in the long history of capitalist accumulation.  Within this context, I want to pose an alternative argument.  Instead of posing the workplace as a public space, the categorization of the workplace as either public or private is matter of contestation, or to put it more polemically, a matter of class struggle.  Secondly, with the exception of a brief period between 1948 and 1975, the brief period of the labor peace, the workplace has largely stayed out of the public sphere, with the gains of that period quickly being lost in the present.

     To spell this out, we need to think about the concept of patriarchy.  Classical patriarchy was never limited to the control of women, by men, although it certainly an aspect of the social structure.  Instead, classical patriarchy was a structure of propertied men controlling women, children, and propertyless men under their control.  Sylvia Federici amongst others have argued that the primitive accumulation of capitalism was achieved in part by offering women as a commons as an alternative to the common property that was destroyed in the process.  In effect, propertyless men were, in part, induced to break out of what Federici calls the 'anti-feudal alliance' through the creation of a cross-class alliance of men on the basis of the common control of women, marking the proletariat as a deeply divided (Federici and most other contemporary radical thinkers would also recognize the importance of the structures of racialization created through that other engine of 'primitive accumulation', colonialism, as a structural determinant.)  While I largely agree with Federici's intervention, the continued patriarchal structures of a variety of workplaces complicates this perspective.  Within this context, workingman's associations simultaneously challenges the patriarchal structures of the capitalist workplace, while accepting or even reinforcing the patriarchal structures of the households that they benefit from.  (There are notable exceptions to this, for instance the Voice of Industry's support of the demands of the Lowell factory girls, but these have largely been exceptions until recently.)

      So what is the significance of this?  To be honest, I'm not sure, but it might allow for another avenue for thinking through structures of social oppression if followed through on.  We might be able to link the limitations of a variety of workingman's organizations to challenge the patriarchal structures of the workplace with their broad acceptance of the public/private division of production and consumption, and production and reproduction.  At the same time, it offers a possibility of rethinking the patriarchal structures of capitalist accumulation, of re-imagining feminist alliances.  Obviously, it would take a lot of theoretical, empirical, and practical work to follow up on this, but it strikes me as an interesting prospect.  (To avoid hubris, obviously this sort of work has been taken up by feminist, marxist, and other radical thinkers, but the question of the public, private, and the workplace seems to remain relatively unthought within a lot of basic work, from both the feminist and the labor studies perspective.  I'm going to be spending most of my time on the dissertation, but I'm hoping to work through this question a bit more.

No comments:

Post a Comment