Friday, August 08, 2008

Petroleum, Patriarchy and Marx (Part 2)

Need another reason to help break our dependency on oil? How about- because petroleum perpetuates patriarchy.

In this post I continue, in more detail, the thoughts I first expressed here.

When we look at the world around us we see different patterns of patriarchy. Women in certain countries enjoy much greater access to things like employment, education and civil and political rights than women in other parts of the world. For example, women in Canada and the United States fare much better along these dimensions than women do in say, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Why is this?

Why does the world have the pattern of patriarchy it currently possesses? And why do patriarchal practices and institutions evolve and modify the way they have tended to over time in human societies? No doubt the answers to these important empirical questions will be complex and multifaceted. Insights from evolutionary biology, history, sociology and economics, for example, highlight different cultural features (like the family, religion, etc.) of human societies and the role they play in perpetuating oppression.

I believe that Marx, and more specifically Analytical Marxism, can help us diagnosis the patterns of patriarchy that we find in the world. Marx's theory of historical materialism attempts to provide us with a "bird's eye view" of human history, one that brings to the fore the things that really shape and determine the culture of our civilizations. My own position, argued for in this paper, is that Marx has two theories- synchronic and diachronic materialism. The former maintains that the superstructure supervenes naturally on the economic structure. Diachronic materialism maintains that the relations of production supervene naturally on the forces of production.

While I reject a great deal of Marx's theories (in particular his critique of capitalism, which I think thereby quickly disqualifies me from being labelled a "Marxist"!), I believe that Marx's technological deterministic account of history (especially when presented in terms of the supervenient interpretation) has a lot of explanatory potential. And here I will elaborate a little on how that account of history can help us diagnosis patriarchy.

I will not delve into all the details of how I think historical materialism can explain patriarchy for that is the subject of a full-length paper (which in fact is in the works). So please permit me to provide a skeletal outline of my thoughts here.

According to one particular account of Marx's theory of history- as characterised by GA Cohen, William Shaw and (more recently) myself- the superstructure of a society (e.g. legal and political institutions) is determined by the relations of production (that is, the relations of effective ownership between producers/nonproducers and productive forces); and the relations of production are in turn determined by the productive forces (e.g. raw materials, technology, etc.).

In order to incorporate an account of patriarchy, we need to supplement the traditional account of productive forces to include reproductive and caring labour. In other words, one important form of work that has sustained human civilization is reproduction and the raising and caring of offspring.

OK, here I will have to abbreviate things a great deal. When we consider Marx's sychronic materialism, say a feudal or slave society frozen in a snapshot of time, we see that various empirical theses must be true if the claim that the superstructure supervenes on the relations of production is true. And in my previous work I identified the following Marxist theses:

T1—Thesis of basic materialism: Humans have basic needs, the fulfillment of which is a precondition for any other form of life (e.g., social, political or intellectual life).

T2—Thesis of human collectivity: Humans have a distinctive history of acting to produce the means for meeting their material needs and they do so in classes.

T3—Scarcity thesis: The historical condition of humans is one of scarcity of goods.

T4—Superstructure stabilizing thesis: The superstructure stabilizes the economic structure.

These empirical theses, once supplemented with some insights concerning the importance of reproduction and “caring labor”, provide us with a powerful explanatory account of patriarchy.

Given our finite productive capacities and the fact of scarcity, human societies can only persist over time if we constantly create new offspring. The modes of production (e.g. agricultural, manufacturing, etc.) for satisfying the basic material needs of humans will dictate the rates of fertility required to sustain a society so that T1 will be satisfied. And thus reproductive labor- including not only the gestation and birth of offspring, but also feeding, caring and educating them (I shall refer to all of these as “caring labor”)- is an essential requirement of any human society. Let us call this T5- the reproduction thesis.

T5— Reproduction Thesis: To persist over time human societies must reproduce at a rate that meets the requirements of T1.

And we can also add to this T6, the Vulnerability Thesis.

T6— Vulnerability Thesis: As a species humans are intrinsically vulnerable to morbidity and mortality. Furthermore, the historical condition of humanity has been one of scarcity of goods and high child mortality

T5 and T6 have profound implications on the social conditions that will likely be imposed on females in any human society, especially those societies whose productive forces necessitate high fertility rates in order to satisfy T1.

The standard Marxist account of production (i.e. who makes material goods like food and other commodities) thus needs to be supplemented with an account of caring labor. For who bears and raises offspring has played an important role in shaping both the relations of production and the superstructures of human societies.

Once supplemented with T5 and T6, the account of the relations of production will be modified in significant ways. For who has effective ownership of their body and powers, especially the powers of reproduction, is one of the most important relations of production in human history. In order to satisfy T1 (at least historically), women themselves cannot have effective ownership of their body and powers, in much the same way that the broader class of the immediate producers could not have effective control over their labor power in slave societies. Slaves could not own their labor power when the only way of satisfying basic material needs was to have humans toil in the arduous way that slaves toiled. And that is why the relations of production of capitalism did not arise two thousand years ago.

Similarly, women (as a class) could not have effective control over their labor power if the requirements of T1 were to be met. And this explains why patriarchal superstructures were enacted. Such superstructures are determined by the relations of production. When women produce exclusively (or primarily) in the domestic sphere they are not able to make serious headway in terms of shaping the superstructure of society.

But how then, did things evolve over time? In particular, the capitalist system has witnessed significant changes to patriarchal institutions and practices, as women enjoy greater access to education and employment, divorce, birth control, etc. These have involved significant changes to the superstructure of society- the law, family and religion. Why did such changes occur? Why, for example, did the women’s rights movements of the twentieth century arise and flourish in some countries (but not in others)?

Much like Marx’s explanation of why the French Revolution occurred, the answer lies with the tendency of productive forces to develop and demolish relations of production that impede the development of those forces. Marx's diachronic materialism provides us with the vital details.

The crucial issue for this reading of historical materialism, in terms of the insights it can provide to help us diagnosis patriarchy, concerns why the relations of production of capitalism came into existence. The standard Marxist reading simply emphasises the effective control workers have over their labor power. But the feminist version of Analytical Marxism I have advanced here expands the relations of production to include the control over a woman’s reproductive capacities and caring labor. Capitalism is the first social system to place substantive control over a woman’s reproductive capacities in the hands of women themselves. Women in advanced capitalist societies have greater access to birth control, abortion, the right to divorce, etc. Why would these rights and opportunities arise in capitalist societies but not in slave or agrarian societies?

The development of the productive forces is the key to this answer. Before capitalism, all human societies were extremely vulnerable to failing to satisfy T1 (basic materialism) due to scarcity, disease and high child mortality rates. Thus the optimal trade-off, in terms of a society’s productive power, was to maximize the number of children women could bear and raise. This investment in reproductive and caring labor would best ensure the demands needed for the productive power of slave and agrarian societies could be met. And so the “ideology” of such societies (in terms of religion and political ideology, etc.) were ones that sought to ensure women satisfied this role.

But industrialization significantly altered this situation. New technologies, ranging from those in the manufacturing sector and the sanitation revolution, to medical advances in reducing child mortality and infectious diseases (e.g. immunizations), meant that the historical imperative to maximize the number of productive contributors a society could produce from birth was no longer essential. Women’s labor power could be better harnessed by contributing to the paid work force, rather than solely (or primarily) in the domestic arena. Thus, because the relations of production typical of more extreme patriarchal practices impeded this trade-off, they were replaced by the relations we see in today’s affluent capitalist societies- such as women having control over their reproductive freedom (e.g. access to contraception, abortion, etc.) and labor power (rights to education, work, etc.).

OK, so how does all this relate to petroleum and the "resource curse"? What it tells us is that we need to look at the productive forces of oppressive societies (rather than their religion, for example) if we really want to understand why patriarchy persists in a particular country. Recall Ross's findings in his recent study: petroleum perpetuates patriarchy. He claims:

This dynamic can help explain the surprisingly low influence of women in mineral-rich states in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Libya), as well as in Latin America (Chile), Sub-Saharan Africa (Botswana, Gabon, Mauritania, Nigeria), and the former Soviet Union (Azerbaijan, Russia)…. This study suggests that different types of economic growth can have different effects on gender relations. When economic growth is the result of industrialization—–particularly the type of export oriented manufacturing that draws women into the labor force—–it should also bring about the changes in gender relations that we associate with modernization. But income that comes from oil extraction often fails to produce industrialization. (2008, 120)

This is precisely the kind of finding we would expect if this account of Marx's theory was in fact correct. Oil producing countries should have roughly comparable relations of production and superstructures, including degrees of patriarchy. Furthermore, the unique raw materials of these countries mean that the development of productive forces was strained in ways that it was not in the countries that developed through industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The new relations of production typical of the industrial revolution, which involve granting women more control over their reproductive capacities as well as greater integration into the paid work force (and eventually political structure of society), have not taken hold (to the same degree) in countries that can reap large revenues through petroleum production without industrializing. This is so because they have not needed the relations of production that would be necessary for industrialization to flourish (e.g. such as large numbers of manufacturing workers, technological advances, etc.). And thus the trade-off between investing women’s labor in caring labor versus non-domestic paid labor has not arisen in such countries. There has been little reason to divert the labor of women away from the primary role of unpaid caring labor. Hence the reason why women in such countries are subject to more oppressive practices than women who live in countries that pursued the development more typical of industrialization (e.g. Canada and the United States).

If one wishes to replicate the progressive improvements witnessed in the world’s developed countries (like the right to vote, inclusion in employment and education, etc.) then one must understand why these superstructures have been created. Such transformation is not simply a matter of “political will”, but rather a complex story of economic development. Such developments can often take decades, even centuries, to develop to a level that brings significant benefits to women.

Superstructures are determined by the relations of production. And the relations of production are, in turn, determined by the productive forces of a society. And so the degree and form of patriarchy present in any particular society is determined by the productive forces that are (and have been) at the disposal of this society. And lasting improvements to patriarchy can only arise when particular kinds of productive forces are present and permitted to develop. The “resource curse” impedes the development of the productive forces typical of a diverse economy. And this impacts the social relations that persist in many of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

A diversified economy is not the only factor that helps integrate women in the paid labor force. The latter is aided by lower fertility rates, which only became feasible with improvements in nutrition, child mortality, birth control and a host of other public health measures. As female labor shifts from predominately caring labor, to the paid labor force, we see greater participation and the empowering of women. Hence the reason why women in affluent liberal democracies enjoy more freedom and autonomy than women in less developed countries.

Anyways, that is a quick rush job on a very complex and important issue. No doubt I will add some further points to this in the future. But that is all for now.