[This is the eighteenth essay in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for socialism, what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]
In discussing visions for gender relations we have in mind a good society’s procreation, nurturance, education/socialization, sexuality, and organization of daily home life with a special eye on three dimensions of implications: gender, sexuality, and age.
The values guiding these essays imply that accomplishing kinship functions should enhance solidarity among all involved actors, preserve diversity of options and outcomes, apportion benefits and responsibilities fairly, and convey appropriate self managing influence.
With that set of broad desires, will participatory socialism or participatory society still have families as we now know them? Will upbringing diverge greatly from what we now know? What about courting and sexual coupling? How will the old and young interact?
Fulfilling our favored values will require removing features that produce systematic sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ageism, plus gaining an array of positive improvements we can only guess at until we have experimented with more complete proposals for visionary kinship institutions.
Even in a wonderful society, we can confidently predict that there will still be unrequited love. Sex will not lack turmoil. Rape and other violent acts will sometimes occur, albeit far less often than now. Similarly, social change can’t remove the pain of losing friends and relatives to premature death or make all adults equally adept at relating positively with children or with the elderly or vice versa.
Perhaps we can reasonably require, however, that innovations eliminate structural coercion based on gender, sexuality, or age that have for so long preserved systematic violations of solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management.
But what will the institutions defining vastly better kinship look like? In contemporary societies, sexism takes overt form in men having dominant and wealthier conditions. It takes more subtle form via longstanding habits of communication and behavioral assumptions. It is produced and reproduced by institutions that differentiate men and women, including coercively as in rape and battering, but also more subtly via what seem to be mutually accepted role differences in home life, work, and celebration. It also includes the cumulative impact of past sexist experiences on what people think, desire, and feel, and on what people habitually or even self consciously do.
If we want to find the source of gender injustice, we need to determine which social institutions – and which roles within those institutions – give men and women responsibilities, conditions, and circumstances that engender motivations, consciousness, and preferences that elevate men above women.
One structure we find in all societies that have sexist hierarchies is that men father but women mother. That is, we find two dissimilar roles which men and women fill vis a vis the next generation, with each role socially defined and in only a very minor sense biologically fixed. One conceptually simple structural change in kinship relations would therefore be to eliminate this mothering/fathering differentiation between men and women so that instead of women mothering and men fathering, women and men each parent children. In other words, what if men and women each related to children in the same fashion, with the same mix of responsibilities and behaviors (called parenting), rather than one gender having almost all the nurturing as well as tending, cleaning, and other maintenance tasks (called mothering), and the other gender having many more decision-based tasks, with one gender being more involved and the other more aloof?
This particular idea comes from the work of Nancy Chodorow, most prominently in a book titled, The Reproduction of Mothering (University of California Press). The book made a case that mothering is a role that is socially, not biologically, defined and that as mothers, women produce daughters who, in turn, not only have mothering capacities but a desire to mother. “These capacities and needs,” Chodorow continues, “are built into and grow out of the mother-daughter relationship itself. By contrast, women as mothers (and men as not mothers) produce sons whose nurturant capacities and needs have been systematically curtailed and repressed.” For Chodorow, the implication was that: “The sexual and familial division of labor in which women mother and are more involved in interpersonal affective relationships than men produces in daughters and sons a division of psychological capacities which leads them to reproduce this sexual and familial division of labor.”
So perhaps one feature of a vastly improved society regarding gender relations will be that men and women will both parent, with no division between mothering and fathering.
Another structure that comes into question when thinking about improved sex-gender relations is the nuclear family. This has to do with whether the locus of child care and familial involvement is very narrow, such as resting with only one or two biological parents, or instead involves many more people, perhaps an extended family or also friends, community members, etc.
It seems highly unlikely that a good society would require people to live alone, in pairs, in groups, or in any single or even in any few patterns. The key point is likely to be diversity, on the one hand, and that whatever diverse patterns exist, each frequently chosen option embodies features that impose gender equity rather than gender hierarchy.
While I don’t feel equipped to describe such possible features, perhaps we can say that the men and women that are born, brought up, and then themselves bear and bring up new generations in a new and much better society will need to be full, capable, and confident in their demeanor and also lack differentiations that limit and confine the personality or the life trajectories of either.
And perhaps we can also say broadly the same about sexuality and intergenerational relations. We don’t now know or, arguably, even have a very loose picture of what fully liberated sexuality will be like in all its multitude of preferences and practices, or what diverse forms of intergenerational relations adults and their children and elders will enter into. But perhaps we can say that in future desirable societies no few patterns will be elevated above all others as mandatory, but that all widely chosen options will preclude producing in people a proclivity to dominate or obey based either on gender, sexual orientation, age, or any other social or biological characteristic.
A good society will eliminate oppressive socially imposed definitions so that everyone can pursue their lives as they choose, whatever their sex, sexual preference, and age. There will be no non-biologically imposed sexual division of activity with men doing one kind of work and women doing another simply by virtue of their being men and women, nor will there be any hierarchical role demarcation of individuals according to sexual preference. We will have gender relations that respect the social contributions of women as well as men, and that promote sexuality that is physically rich and emotionally fulfilling.
It is likely, for example, that new kinship forms will overcome the possessive narrowness of monogamy while also allowing preservation of the depth and continuity that comes from lasting relationships. New forms will likely destroy arbitrary divisions of roles between men and women so that both sexes are free to nurture and initiate. They will likely also give children room for self-management even as they also provide the support and structure that children need.
Obviously women must have reproductive freedom – the freedom to have children without fear of sterilization or economic deprivation, and the freedom not to have children through unhindered access to birth control and abortion. But feminist kinship relations must also ensure that child-rearing roles do not segregate tasks by gender and that there is support for traditional couples, single parents, lesbian and gay parenting, and more complex, multiple parenting arrangements. All parents must have easy access to high quality day-care, flexible work hours, and parental leave options. The point is not to absolve parents of child-rearing by turning over the next generation to uncaring agencies staffed mainly by women (or even by women and men) who are accorded low social esteem. The idea is to elevate the status of child rearing, encourage highly personalized interaction between children and adults, and distribute responsibilities for these interactions equitably between men and women and throughout society.
Feminism should also embrace a liberated vision of sexuality respectful of individual’s inclinations and choices, whether homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, monogamous, or non-monogamous. Beyond respecting human rights, the exercise and exploration of different forms of sexuality by consenting partners provides a variety of experiences that can benefit all. In a desirable society that has eliminated oppressive hierarchies, sex can be pursued solely for emotional, physical, and spiritual pleasure and development, or, of course, as part of loving relationships. Experimentation to these ends will likely not merely be tolerated, but appreciated.
We need a vision of gender relations in which women are no longer subordinate and the talents and intelligence of half the species is free at last. We need a vision in which men are free to nurture, childhood is a time of play and increasing responsibility with opportunity for independent learning but not fear, and in which loneliness does not grip as a vice whose handle turns as each year passes.
A worthy kinship vision will reclaim living from the realm of habit and necessity to make it an art form we are all capable of practicing and refining. But there is no pretense that all this can be achieved overnight. Nor is there reason to think a single kind of partner-parenting institution is best for all. While the contemporary nuclear family has proven all too compatible with patriarchal norms, a different kind of nuclear family will no doubt evolve along with a host of other kinship forms as people experiment with how to achieve the goals of feminism.
Participatory Economy, Polity, and Culture’s Impact
In participatory economy, reproduction of sexist relations emanating from a patriarchal sex gender system is obstructed. It isn’t just that a participatory economy works nicely alongside a liberated kinship sphere. It is that a participatory economy also precludes or at least militates against non-liberated relations among men and women. Participatory economic relations help unravel sexism.
A participatory economy will not give men relatively more empowering work or more income than women because it cannot provide such advantages to any group relative to any other.
Balanced job complexes and self management need and seek adults able to engage in decisions and to undertake creative empowering labor regardless of gender or any other biological or social attribution. If kinship relations press for other results, there is a contradiction and either kinship or economy must give way to the other.
There is no process of a participatory economy that is functioning properly that would abide hierarchies born in gender relations because there are no hierarchies in a participatory economy that can abide it. Women cannot earn less than men, nor have jobs that are less empowering, nor have less say over decisions.
But what about household labor? Many feminists will ask, “participatory economy claims to remove the differentiation at work and in income required by contemporary sexism, but is household labor part of the economy?”
We can imagine a society that treats household labor of diverse types as part of its participatory economy and we can imagine one that doesn’t. Neither choice is ruled out or made inevitable purely by the logic of participatory economy. Beyond that logical openness, however, there are some good reasons to think household labor shouldn’t be organized as mainly part of the economy.
First, nurturing and raising the next generation is not like producing a shirt, stereo, scalpel, or spyglass. There is something fundamentally distorting and demeaning to conceptualizing child care and workplace production as the same type of social activity.
Second, the fruits of household labor are largely enjoyed by the producer him/herself. Should I be able to spend more time on household design and maintenance and receive more income as a result? If so, I would get the output of the work and I would get more income, too. This is different than other work and it seems to us that changing the design of my living room or keeping up my garden is in these regards far more like consumption than production.
Suppose I like to play the piano, build model airplanes, or work on my car. The activity I engage in for my hobby has much in common with work, but we call it consumption because I do it solely under my own auspices and most importantly, for myself. What we call work, in contrast, is in a participatory economy what we do under the auspices of workers councils to produce outputs that are enjoyed by people other than just ourselves.
Is there a problem with saying that because caring for and raising children is fundamentally different in kind than producing cars or screwdrivers, or saying that maintaining a household is different in its social relations and benefits than working in a factory, and in deducing that on these bases we shouldn’t count household labor as work to be remunerated and to occur under the auspices of participatory economy’s workplace institutions?
If we think it is impossible to have a transformation of sex-gender relations themselves, then yes, there is a problem. If the norms and structures of households and living units are highly sexist, and if a participatory economy doesn’t incorporate household labor as part of the economy and subject it to participatory norms, then household labor may be done overwhelmingly by women and will, as a result, reduce their leisure or their time for other pursuits relative to men.
But why assume that? Why shouldn’t transformed norms for household labor be produced by a transformation of sex gender relations themselves, rather than by calling household labor part of the economy?
Take it in reverse. Consider we had first mapped out a feminist sex-gender vision. I don’t think many people would then ask whether we can count the workplace as a household so that it gets the benefits of the specific innovative relations that new families and living units have. We would assume, instead, that there would need to be a revolution in the economy, not just in kinship, and we would rely on the former for the chief redefinitions of life at work, even as we also anticipated and required that the economy abide and even abet the gains in kinship and even as we worked to ensure that the gains of each meshed compatibly with the other.
In any event, clearly a participatory economy mitigates sexism because on the one hand it would have no reason to and even could not incorporate sexist hierarchies, and on the other hand it empowers and remunerates women in a manner that precludes their being easily subordinated in any other realm. The difference from capitalism in this respect is that if kinship patterns generate a sexist hierarchy, profit-seeking economics will use that hierarchy to pay less to women, and to saddle them with longer hours and worse conditions.
The situation with polity is even more simple and straightforward. Of course participatory legislative and other structures would not favor one gender versus another. And participatory laws would comply with the implications of feminist kinship, as feminist kinship would nurture and socialize people capable of abiding participatory self managing political relations. So the participatory polity will have norms, or laws, constitutional and otherwise, guaranteeing that political relations are consistent with and even reproductive of the feminist benefits of new kinship relations, and vice versa.
The situation is similar for participatory culture, or intercommunalism, and kinship. The latter would exert pressure on the former by way of the kinds of feminist men and women that it delivers. The former would exert pressure on the ladder by way of the kinds of mutually respected celebrations, language, and personal identifications and values it delivers.
Perhaps it reflects the paucity of our understanding, but other than in direct analogy to the above discussion, we honestly don’t see a deeper relation of economics, politics, or intercommunalism and sexuality. If there is homophobia or other sexual hierarchies in a society, and if the economy is capitalist, then the economy will – to the extent owners are able to do so – exploit whatever differentials in bargaining power they are handed. A typically top-down polity or hierarchical culture will also at least reflect and often exacerbate those differentials. Beyond this, however, the capitalist economy and any authoritarian polity and culture may also incorporate gay and straight behavior patterns into economic roles and consumption patterns. With participatory economy and participatory polity, however, no exploitation of sexual difference is even possible – much less abetted in the economy – because there is one norm of remuneration and one logic of labor definition that applies to everyone and which, by their very definition, foreclose options of hierarchy, while the polity derives from and thus reflects and protects the will of men and women schooled by feminist relations.
What about intergenerational conflict? Capitalism will always exploit age differentials for profit via diminished remuneration for the young and old due to these constituencies’ reduced bargaining power. It will take advantage of different capacities related to age for exploitative divisions of labor and will rush premature labor entry or slower than warranted labor withdrawal, for exploitative reasons. A participatory economy, however, will not only promote humane behaviors as being in every participant’s interests – and, in any event, the only effective way of being – but will make violations impossible due to being contrary to defining participatory economic norms and structures. In a participatory economy, there is no way to exploit age-based differences because there is no way to accrue advantage to any group relative to any other. Similarly a participatory polity will likewise protect and incorporate the will of people of all ages, as self management permits nothing less.
Societies will decide the role of the elderly including retirement age, and likewise for young people’s entry into economic and political responsibility as part of participatory decision making. While familiar and other extra-economic intergenerational relations will certainly not be governed solely by economic or political structures and will arise, instead, due to a host of variables including especially new kinship and gender relations, the fact that a participatory economy and a participatory polity require developed and fully participatory and self managing actors imposes on life more generally a respect for all actors and gives all actors material equality and behavioral wherewithal and habits contrary to any kind of subordination emanating from any other of society’s institutions.
Participatory socialism, or participatory society, turns out to be, in this view, and at its foundation, a combination of new economic, political, cultural, and kinship relations, each designed to further preferred values, and each operating in entwined, compatible concert with the rest. The vision can hopefully provide hope, inspire commitment, and inform strategy, or, if it falls short, inspire improvements.