Thoughts on masculine (de) construction and anti-capitalist activism
A few more reflections on the usefulness of men-only groups as a tool to struggle against patriarchy and oppressive masculinity
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This text was first written in the context of the European People's Global Action conference, late August 2002 in Leiden, which over the course of a week brought together a few hundred anti-capitalist activists from all over Europe. Patriarchy was supposed to be a topic relevant to all issues and therefore more or less addressed in every debate. Finally, it turned out to be mostly absent. This text was first aimed at men involved in anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist spaces and struggles. I hope that it can be of interest for others. This text refers to a ‘we’ in which I include myself, and if it sometimes poses difficult questions, its primarily aimed at questioning myself. It's inspired by various discussions in mixed and non-mixed groups inside the ‘Sans-Titre’ non-network (a French anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian experiment). I hope that it won't be understood as a moralist diatribe, but as a hopeful invitation to constructive self-reflection and action on the basis of this.
‘Prealable’: To those who believe that patriarchal oppression in our society is a thing of the past (others can skip directly to the next paragraph):
During the past century in ‘rich’ countries, capitalism has grudgingly allowed women (up until then virtually slaves) to have access to the ‘freedoms’ of paid work and consumerism. Apart from this, we can also acknowledge several undeniable changes in the rights and status of women over the course of the past few centuries which have been the result of years of underground resistance and collective feminist struggles for more freedom and autonomy: the right to financial autonomy, birth control, the recognition of the right to have a fulfilling sexuality, increased participation in social and political life, and the start of men's contribution to household tasks. These gains and theoretical changes of status remain few and insufficient. The fundamental structures of patriarchal domination and gender differentiation remain largely unchanged :- housework is still largely considered to be the woman's responsibility, and the ‘double shift’ of job + housekeeping is the common reality in a majority of families. inside the public sphere (be it in workplaces, leftist collectives, companies or political institutions) organisational and decision-making roles are distributed mainly amongst men. women are still generally thought of and educated as weak creatures, short-sighted, irrational and ruled by their feelings and emotions. This is in contrast to men, who are rational creatures with the power to reason and change the world (with their technical capacities). men are still viewed as the norm and women as the ‘deviation’ from this norm. since the beginning of courtship and the construction of western culture in the 12th century, man has had prove his valour by accomplishing feats, while the woman's role is generally restricted to being passively seduced and appearing by the man's side like a trophy. women are depicted as objects of sexual consumption, selling points, before ever being credited with speech and reason. women are still the first victims of rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, intimidation, threats, fear of going out alone and of all the associated trauma that these experiences bring. the right for women to derive pleasure from their bodies is often contested, or accepted so long as it comes from submission to men's sexuality. women still, under social pressure, must obey to alienating beauty norms.
Alright, I'll stop the list...This isn't the purpose of this text. Thankfully, exceptions to this norm are more and more frequent in certain contexts. Nonetheless they still remain facts. For statistics, info, and analysis, a small bibliography can be found at the end of this text.
Patriarchy and the capitalist system within us
Let's start with two definitions to understand the meanings of these words in the text. These are fairly personal since I find the dictionary to be quite patriarchal and capitalist regarding such matters.
Patriarchy : The economical, political, social, sexual and legal system historically founded on the authority of the father from the private sphere (the family) to the public sphere, and characterized by men's domination over women. (see examples above)
Capitalism : The economical, political and social system founded on the private property of means of production and exchanges. In the capitalist system, the primary dynamic is the quest for profit and competition between companies. According to Marxist theory, capitalism is based on the search for profit derived from exploitation of workers by those who retain the means of production and exchange. I might add that the distinction between these two classes is not always as simple as one might think. More generally capitalism implies the domination of the most powerful over the less powerful at every level of the social ladder.
The aim of this text is not to merge patriarchy and capitalism into one problem, but to link certain aspects of both. Theoretically, we could imagine a large number of women appropriating values and privileges currently held by men and specific to capitalism, which would mean a hypothetical capitalist society with a much lesser degree of gender based oppression. We could also imagine capitalism to disappear and patriarchal oppression to remain just as present, as would have been the case in many of pre-capitalist societies. Nevertheless, these two systems of oppression often rest on a set of complementary and common values. A huge difference is that in patriarchy, men are for the most part oppressors and beneficiaries, whereas a majority of both men and women are victims in the capitalist system.... This doesn't mean that all women are victims of patriarchy to the same extent, nor that all men equal in the extent of their participation in patriarchal oppression. There are also of course men who are oppressed because they don't want to/can not correspond to masculine values: ‘shy’, unsure of themselves, ‘weak’, ‘sweet’, ‘gentle’...The specificity of women in regard to these oppressions is that these diverse traits which are automatically attributed to them as belonging to a category, and considered as natural, which makes it harder for them to escape from. The patriarchal culture which has characterised our societies for the past few millennia, is a culture based on competition, power and domination. In this society , educational and infra-structural capacities are first awarded to men to be competitive, to gain power and to dominate others, starting with women. These values of power and domination are promoted as positive values and judgement criteria. These are deeply rooted within each of us and define our self-esteem, our sensitivity and our relationships, whether sexual, friendly, inside the family or at work...
They are driving forces of capitalist and state social relations:
economic and political competition between corporations and parties, competition at every level of the social ladder between individuals, the will to accumulate and centralise power and riches. We could also underline the parallel between economical and practical dependency of women inside the traditional family structure, and the growing dependency of a large part of the population on the elite's technological knowledge and tools.
Both of these systems, the former rooted in the private sphere, the latter in the public sphere, are complementary and mutually reinforce each other. Logically, a coherent critical analysis of one can help us to better understand and criticize the other. It may even be vain to want to change the values of any one these spheres if we continue to accept them in the other. This doesn't necessarily condemn the legitimacy and/or the strategic interest of steps in specific struggles in one or the other of these issues.
We can also highlight various cases in which the very foundations of capitalist society relies on patriarchal structures: The free maintenance of salaried production tools (housekeeping, food, child care, emotional support) The creation of a category of under-paid workers The separation of individuals into families instead of collective or communitarian structures potentially harder to subjugate The exploitation of sexual frustration and using women as objects to create and maintain consumerist impulses.
These few examples show us that by confronting patriarchy, we have a chance of undermining some of the structural underpinnings of capitalism. The problem of anti-capitalist critique is that it constantly targets external power structures. The interest of feminist critique, more centred on the individual, is that it offers the tools necessary to understand the mechanisms of oppression from inside and the way we integrate and personally reproduce these systems of power and domination in our social, intimate and daily relations, ranging from the manner in which we express ourselves to our relation to technology. This doesn't exclude the accuracy of class analysis (men/women or proletariat/bourgeois) but enriches it with an indispensable self-questioning (a process that we still have great difficulties to accept and which surely explains, at least in part, systematic anger rushes caused by feminist theories). The enemy which we usually try to confront in the street is in fact also inside of everyone of us. Without confronting patriarchal culture, we can destroy as many G8, world bank, corporations and state summits as we want, we'll surely end up creating all over again exactly the same types of social relations. You can't change society without changing the individual, just as you can't start a revolution without having already experienced different ways of life.
The emancipation of men?
The problem of patriarchy doesn't only relate to women's oppression and anti-capitalist struggles. As men we can also analyse how much patriarchal culture can also make us suffer and is in opposition to our emancipation and the construction of different social relationships. We're obviously actors/agents, but also often victims of constantly needing to stay competitive, strong, of feeling the need to dominate others even in our own ‘alternative’ spaces and collectives. But we're usually afraid to question these attitudes, as they constitute our male sense of selfworth and give us roles of power. We also suffer from a sexual culture of inevitable masculine domination that is generally a safeguard for the complementary structure of couples/family/state. To do so, this culture bases our sexuality on violence, frustration, extremely restrictive norms, and repression. To this regard, Reich and his book ‘Sexual Revolution’ still has some relevance. On this particular issue, he shows that a deconstruction of masculinity could bring a great potential to destroy capitalist society.
Activism for men
Many of us, European activists, involved in various collectives, are white, heterosexual, middle-class men. We've been educated to feel strong, self-confident with our ideas and analyses, to be able to speak loud and to fight to show that we're better than others. It makes us skilled in the art of ‘meeting warfare’. We are capable in various highly valued areas and specific technical fields such as building, repairing, computer work. Other people, and especially women, generally suffer from a cultural and educational background – even sometimes in left middle-class intellectual families - which have prevented them from acquiring these nice patriarchal tools. Some often feel disempowered in the activist culture and it's ways of doing things that are supposed to be so different. Many of them are quickly sick of it, others have great difficulties to assert themselves inside it. Let's only give a few examples of this patriarchal activism:
In our actions and the mythology that we build around, we keep on glorifying the most spectacular/confrontational aspects and the situations in which male heroes can rise on the stage of activism. To take a common example, we'll pay a lot more attention to the one who has dropped the banner than to anyone who painted it. More care to the stones thrown at cops than to the time spent talking about new repressive laws with people in the street (which doesn't mean that we shouldn't drop banner or throw more stones at cops, men and women together... it's another debate). In many situations, we can feel a constant pressure to show how courageous we are, how much we don’t give a shit about repression and are ready for revenge, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I'm pro-direct action and I'm not against various strategies that include what some would consider to be ‘violent,’ but not when it turns in a contest of testosterone, that sometimes strategically blind us, and can also quickly exclude many. Even if some types of methodologies are useful in their efficiency (if taken as reaching our goal with positive and equalitarian political methods and without alienating collectives and individuals), we should also be conscious that a typically masculine understanding of efficiency (meaning doing things as fast as possible by those who know best how to do them) disempowers and excludes many, especially women. We could say the same of our tendencies to compile as many spectacular events as we can instead of giving time for long-term and sometimes more efficient campaigns. The justifications that we always have to keep on doing things instead of others (“it will be less tiring, safer, better done”) often hide old sexist gallantry, be it in activist or more personal environments. We often give priority to technical discussions and fellowship between specialists without facilitating the participation of others (but rather to stay spectators). We're constantly developing relations of the type ‘ I know better, I do better...’ where we mostly try to show that we are more radical, stronger, that we're right or that we were there, that we've been listened to, that we’ve been involved since a long time, that we made great sacrifices for the cause. Regarding the relationships in the anti-capitalist radical scene, I often wonder whether we're happy to see people doing good things and changing the world together through various ways, or if we're in fact sometimes secretly or openly eager to see other groups or collectives stagnate or have difficulties. Do we sincerely want other people to do cool things and help them to do so, or do we want to be seen as the most prestigious? We sometimes end up reproducing party type politics (‘I agree with him because he's my friend’) hiding important and needed political debates (often pushed by oppressed minorities) for the sake of unity.
The examples described here could seem to be excessively negative and critical, but many situations have shown how greatly they can paralyse our movements on a large scale.
The pseudo-importance of gender questions in our collectives
We have all experienced meetings in which premises of debates end with this sad joke - “Yes, gender issues are really important, but let's reach a decision/organise this debate/plan this action first. We'll deal with it next time...’ Efficiency is always a good excuse. It's an example among many others of the, often conveniently ignored, way in which we give priority to certain struggles and wait for the day of revolution and the end of capitalism to deal seriously with patriarchy (or power structures in our collectives, or incoherencies between our ideas and practices...). We always consider ourselves as anti-sexist, but how much time do we truly take to work on the issue of patriarchy? When we address this issue in a mixed context, it's generally restrained to what's happening far from us, or to a depressing list along the lines of ‘men do/don't do this; women do/don't do that’(see the first paragraph of this text) without any more analysis and/or real potential to move towards concrete changes. If we only count the initiatives taken by straight/hetero men, anti-sexism in the radical, anti-capitalist movements, mainly appears to be a superficial folklore. We sometimes debate but let women take real initiatives on the issue. And the women who do it are often judged and condemned, as some accuse them of acting in too confrontational a manner (when they disturb the great consensus of masculine fellowship, or point to the inconsistencies between theory and individual practices. Just think about the extremely tense reactions that arise when non-mixed spaces or meetings are suggested during meetings, debates, action camps...). The result is that many women who have a will to struggle against patriarchal society end up by giving up actions, collectives and mixed movements such as PGA.
Changing...a few specific ideas.
Gender issues should be a major focus in every one of our collectives and every action - why is this action generally organised by white middle-class men? What can we concretely do to change this situation and to create a comfortable frame for others? Are we ready to take time for all this? Here are a few ideas: Allocate time and space for non-mixed meetings between men and between women inside each collective. Intervene every time we perceive the habitual division between tasks taken care of by women or men in our collectives, places, meetings and activities. . Clearly formalised structures for meetings (for example by way of hand signals/gestures, clear agendas, turns of speech, clear reports, moderators, a fluid decision-making process to reach consensus, giving priority to people who don't usually express themselves, etc.) help at the very least to feel at ease during meetings, and to break the monopoly of the big mouths Often, women who take care of children must reduce the time they might want to spend on militant activities. Political groups should take concrete measures to collectively take care of children at times when their mothers wish to take part in activities. At the PGA conference, some activists from London described how they had occupied a nursery that was on the verge of closing down after having been privatised. These people tried to self-manage the nursery and turned it into a social centre for the neighbourhood with baby-sitting services. One should also take time to think about ostentatious pro-feminist attitudes that can easily hide a superficial strategy of acknowledgement, seduction, maybe even paternalist attitudes and re-appropriation of feminist struggles. To my mind, this doesn't mean that one shouldn't discuss patriarchal themes with women, but rather that we should question a minimum our reasons and ways of doing it.
If you know how to make a bomb... Other basic and funny strategies to subvert patriarchal culture starting with ourselves and ultimately ending up with (why not?) the whole world.
We assume that most of the differences between men and women are neither essential, nor permanent, neither rooted in any natural or religious transcendental order. For the most part, these differences are the result of our socialization and of cultural and economical circumstances throughout history. It is still possible for us to intervene freely on these differences and to modify them as we please (even if it's hard work that can take generations...). I modestly present here a paradigm for this process of change. A paradigm that can be freely recycled, changed or developed.
=== 1) Ingredients and goals ===
Our first task is to try to define and analyse methodically what, in our patriarchal culture, is more often attributed to men on one side, and to women on the other. We should then attempt to perceive the various ways in which these differences are used by some to dominate others. We can assume that there are presently good and bad things, to keep or to reject, in both masculine and feminine specific social attributes. Therefore, a potential aim would be to build a society in which, what we believe as fulfilling could be equally shared on an egalitarian basis, such as self-confidence, technical/practical capacities, the care given to others, communication skills, creating beautiful things, practical things, cooking, growing vegetables, repairing a computer or building a wall...
2) Pastry-making theory and the re-composition of the ingredients
A second step would be to evaluate our various capacities, what they can offer us in both positive and negative aspects, what we would like to keep and transform for a society that would be less ugly. None of these qualities are intrinsically good or wrong. It all depends on our use of it, and of our capacities to transform it: for example, masculine self-confidence as it is presently expressed often oppresses others. But it also potentially offers fulfilling potentials to individuals. It can initiate huge dynamics, the will to surpass oneself and to change things. This step should bring us many theoretical questions, both profound and instructive, such as: how to keep the will to change things without competition, how to keep sexual desire without domination, the capacity to talk and to argue without predominantly using it to win people over... Pastry theory is a process that needs to be constantly renewed.
3) Practice and pastry mix
We should then develop practices through which men and women could acquire positive social benefits of each gender. Aim to exchange knowledge (skill-sharing), slow the pace of what we usually do and take the time to explain it to others. Increase the value of some things that are usually discredited (house cleaning for example) and explore new activities. We mainly define our social role, even in the activist world, by our activities (be they cooking, flyer writing, meeting, cleaning, painting, communicating with others..). We are more than often too afraid to give up this rôle. We are afraid to loose some of the privileges it gives us. We are also often afraid to try to do something new when there's already someone that does it well. We should nevertheless take time to get out of our shell, to do things that we aren't used to, and to offer space for others in the activities that we usually monopolise (which can take time before working efficiently). This process should be guided by the will to get away from our usual foci in order to feel things from new perspectives, to find new beautiful things... An important tool for this can be to have spaces at our disposal that are protected enough for us to feel comfortable to experiment within them. It is important that these spaces (like some squats, autonomous places, collective housings) are not just spaces of public activities but also of collective daily life: living spaces!
4) Incorporating exotic ingredients
Freeing ourselves from patriarchal culture means starting with what we have in terms of redistributing and recreating our old gender habits, but it also means doing something new: creating new words (because our language structures our relationship to the world - I've used in this text, quite paradoxically, a certain amount of typically manly and warlike language concepts in order to subvert others), inventing new feelings, new couples or non-couples relationships, inventing qualities and styles that don't exist yet, spaces and actions that make us live differently. All the stories, pictures, movies, situations that we have lived with, especially as kids, have slowly constructed our sensitivity, our ways of having sex, what we find as beautiful, exciting, what make us cry or make us stronger. We have all felt how difficult it can be to combine newly learnt theoretical ideas and analysis with our sensitivity. Renewed debate and thought, rational will to change our feelings toward things can help us, little by little, to make sensitivity change. Nevertheless, it's often difficult, as pictures and fictions constantly push us back to a standardized sensitivity. Moreover, even if we change individually or in communities, these pictures and fictions will continue to shape the desires and frustrations of the generations that will follow us. Sensitivity needs to be fed on dreams and stories, our theoretical ideas need a new imaginary world. A struggle aimed at deconstructing masculinity should therefore spend time building a new subversive culture (be it through books, music, painting, theatre, movies) which would give us pictures and feelings of de-gendered society and of the necessary struggles and tensions to reach it.
Beware ! The repetition of these operations could make us compose a new world where everybody could be free to live diverse and fulfilling feelings, practices and sexualities, without having one's desires and potentials determined by being born male or female. So... LET'S DREAM !
PS : This text predominantly proposes ideas and actions for men in the frame of mind to question patriarchy and masculinity. However, in the last part ‘how to make a bomb’, I've considered mixed dynamics as I state only really general ideas. But I have to say that I find it really problematic, profiting in many aspects from this oppressive system, to give my opinion on whatever women should or should not do. The fact that this text is addressed to men doesn't imply that men are the only actors of this system and the only one who have to question and change. Patriarchy, as with every oppressive system, is often accepted and maintained from both sides, so initiatives and a will to emancipate ourselves are needed from both sides. But to start with, many women have struggled for ages with these issues without much support. Moreover, as a man, it seems to me really counter-productive and dangerous to focus on what women should or should not do and what they do well or wrong. We'll never act instead of them and should never wish to do so... So instead of taking the rôle of external judges, let's first take care of what we can do ourselves. As oppressors, it could even be easier for us, in many regards, to break this system, with a little bit of good will.
Nicolu - dijon -janvier 03 - firstname.lastname@example.org– with the great help of juules and others for the still unsatisfaying english translation To be read :... As most of my documentations was in french, I'll have to find english ressources and you'll have to wait a little bit for that.
A few more reflections on the usefulness of men-only groups as a tool to struggle against patriarchy and oppressive masculinity
The idea of women-only and men-only groups, practices and actions is often rejected and badly mistaken as a segregationist strategy or a way to reproduce gender differences. Most of the anti-authoritarian feminist groups I know, in European countries at least, use women-only groups as one of the best ways they have to understand the oppressions they suffer from, and to emancipate and empower themselves. Most of these feminist, as far as I know, don't do it on a seperationist basis and still develope mixed lives, activities and discussions. Throughout history, groups of oppressed people (be it proletarians, slaves, black people, colonised people, indigenous people, GLBTQIs...) made the choice to have some times and spaces specifically between themselves to organise against their oppression and oppressorsEven if many men and anarchists, feeling threatened, criticize without taking the time to try to understand the positive aspects of women's groups, it's women's perfectly legitimate choice to do so. It's not really for me to explain it more and I'd rather focus on something different in many regards but that I've experienced as really useful and a great tool to positively and collectively confront masculinity: men-only groups. Let's make it clear that I don't see men-only group as an aim in itself. It's a means to help building the mixed and degendered society that we can dream of. I would also add that, in my experiences, men-only groups didn't look like a popular tribunal/court, puritan confessional or collective therapy where men would have to judge themselves or to compete to be the best pro-feminist. They're on the contrary aimed at being a place where men share a common goal of feeling comfortable to talk and to change themselves and help others. We are also taking care not to end by just reinforcing the usual masculine solidarity against women (some men-only movements, especially in the US are just conservative, essentialists and pro-masculinists and have nothing to do with what we fight for).
Anti-patriarchal male groups do not work by the fact it's a men-only group. Society is full of men-only discussions and spaces (bars, sport clubs, groups of friends, some collectives) that often just reflect patriarchal and virile relationships between men. Anti-patriarchal men´s groups work when some men choose to do something that rarely happens - taking some formal and organised time to discuss and struggle against patriarchy. If we seriously want to confront masculinity, we need deep and serious talks about a lot of personal, intimate and difficult issues. We can consider ourselves anti-sexist and struggle with it for years, our mixed collectives/discussions/groups will still sometimes reflect a lot of oppression, focus on seduction, fears, frustrations, angers that make us feel secure in disclosing ourselves and showing emotional vulnerability.
Non-mixed groups give the possibility to get out of the usual competitive arena. I've seen myself and many other men addressing personal issues that they would never have talked about (at least before) in mixed groups and debates. One of the basic reasons for men’s groups to work sometimes so efficiently is that a discussion is always easier when you share a common experience with people around, and can sometimes be uncomfortable when you have to speak of something that doesn't necessarily give you the role of the good guy in front of people who could feel oppressed in that situation. It's good to go beyond this, but men-only groups offer a way to question ourselves, perceive that we share problems and feelings with others, and feel more confident to change. It can help to develop, step by step, more sincere and productive discussions in mixed groups.
In my experience we usually, collectively don't take much time and initiative as men to speak about patriarchy. We often follow feminists and at the best say they're right. There are a lot of ‘uneasy issues’ that we usually skip in informal situations. Men´s groups are a way to do our part of the job as men and to try to change ourselves while women use women´s groups to do so... It can help us reach better relations and understandings of oppression when we go back to our mixed groups, discussions and lives. Our relations between men are, to me at least, really frustrating, with constant competition and pressure to be the strongest, smartest, funniest, the one who knows the most and acts and speaks the best. While those who are not so good at whatever it is, can just shut up and listen. These relationships are often enclosed inside rigid norms that prevent us from many great feelings, discussions, physical exchanges. Changing our relations to women is therefore only part of the job, changing our relations to other men is one of the most important things that we can start doing through men-only groups.