dual systems and adaptation in general

Malcolm.MacLean at vuw.ac.nz Malcolm.MacLean at vuw.ac.nz
Wed Nov 9 17:22:57 MST 1994

I've been following this debate with some interest, as that it is an area
in which I work.  There are two broad themse I wish to raise/comment on.


I'm a little concerned at this on-going base/superstructure distinction.
It seems, even with the admission of a sense of relative autonomy, that
there is a on-going belief in a mono-causal explanation for all
identifiable forms a social organization, or if we admit a sense of many
systems then within them there is still a sense of mono-causality.  Lulu
made reference to this in her excellent discussion of exploitation, but
took it no further and applied a base/superstructure model with respect to
capitalism questioning only its application to other systems.

This perpetuation of a base/superstructure dichotomy seems to also
perpetuate the domination of particular systems of organization and
oppression.  A more profitable approach is to recognize and work from a the
idea of systematic interconnectedness and independence.  The debate so far
almost (but not quite) seems to assume that oppression/exploitation derived
from both capitalism and 'patriarchy' (for want of a better word) are
static.  Surely not!  They must take historically and spatially specific
forms.  The culture of male domination and its sytematic basis is specific.
 Capitalism and patriarchy exist independently of each other, operate
independently, but maintain an interconnectedness that is mutually
reinforcing.  The characteristics of these three factors may be held to
systematic, but in their presentations and outcomes, they are historically
and spatially specific.  'Capitalist patriarchy' takes a specific form here
in New Zealand that is, in some respects, subtly different, in others
significantly different from the forms manifest in the US or Mexico or
Zaire while still being recognizable as the same system as exists

The systematic base/superstructure dichotomy, and its totalizing
application does not allow for these variables and subtlties in analysis or
action.  More to the point, the continuing rigid application of
base/superstructure binaries, negates the dialectical interrelations
between all elements of each social formation and, again, undermines the
historical and spatial specificity needed for a clear analysis.  Lest I get
jumped on for this (and I'm sure I will), I am *not* arguing against
systematic analysis, but I am arguing *for* a systematic analysis that
allows sufficient flexibility for the specific conditions of any formation
to be admitted and recognized.  The rigid application of
base/superstructure binaries does not allow this specificity to be


Conventional Marxist analyses of, arising from this rejection of
mono-causality, are therefore flawed in their analyses of the economic and
class position of women.

Women, as domestic workers, are usually simply placed in the reserve army
of labour in that a gender-blind Marxist analysis tends to see them as
potential members of the paid workforce, but currently serving no
productive role.  This, at least, implicitly contradicts the ideological
argument that women's domestic role is an extension of their biological
role and therefore is their natural and proper social function, yet this
contradiction is seldom developed or exposed.  Meanwhile, Marxist-feminist
criticism tends to hold that Marx's analytical tradition informs our
understanding of paid work while feminism is the tool that allows an
analysis of the family.  Ironically, this perspective maintains the
public/private dichotomy at the centre of much feminist criticism of
Marxism.  This weakness, then, actively prevents the exposure of the
problems inherent in position that holds, however implicitly that the
'woman's place is in the home'.

It is the nature of the wage form that confuses the situation and means
that it is not valid to assume that women occupy the same class location as
the male breadwinner in the household.  For men, who sell their labour
power to any employer who will purchase it as a commodity for exchange in a
market, the wage is compensation for, or a share of, production in the
workplace.  For women, whose labour power is not, on the whole, commodified
in the same way as men's but used in the domestic arena, the wage is a
means of funding reproduction of the family and therefore of the working
class.  For the employer it is both, although most only recognise the
former.  The commodification of labour power that lies at the centre of
capitalist social relations of production means that the reproduction of
the working class, so essential to capitalism, is obscured by the
fetishized wage form.  Seccombe takes this further and argues that while
pre-capitalist modes of production actively supported particular family
forms, capitalism is merely less hostile to some than others in that the
payment for a job is determined by the sale of an individual's labour power
rather than being influenced by the pool of labour power that a worker may
be able to muster at particular times by including other family members in
the workforce.  His case is that capitalism blocks other types of family
forms and admits the nuclear family, but unlike pre-capitalist modes of
production does not positively nurture any particular family formation.

{Reference alert - these ideas are developed from:
Wally Seccombe _Weathering the Storm: Working-Class Families from the
Industrial Revolution to the Fertility Decline_ Verso, 1993. esp pp 5-20;
Seccombe 'Patriarchy Stabilized: the Construction ofthe Male Breadwinner
Wage Norm in 19th century Britain' _Social History_ vol 11 #1, 1986, pp
53-76; Ellen Ross 'Survival Networks: Women's Neighbourhood Sharing in
London beofre World War One' _History Workshop Journal_ 15, 1983, pp 4-27;
and Jane Humphries and Jill Rubery 'The Reconstruction of the Supply Side
of the Labour market: the Relative Autonomy of Social Reproduction'
_Cambridge Journal of Economics_ 8, 1084, pp 331-346)  Sorry if this is
turning into a bit of an essay.

Given that the standard marxist analysis is based on the relationship to
control of the means of production, that it differentiates between
fractions of the working class, that there is usually only limited reliable
information regarding women's paid work (and that women tend to have a
different cultural relationship with paid work as well as a more erratic
pattern of paid work), and that women and men seem to have a fundamentally
different relationship to work within the capitalist nuclear family,  it is
not valid to assume that men and women in the same household occupy the
same class location.  What can be assumed is that men's class culture was
significantly different from women's, not because they occupy different
class locations, but because they have a different relationship to their
workplace, and as a result to their family and work.  Men tend to sojourn
while women live in their workplace.  To an extent, women's workplaces have
more fluid boundaries and include the street, the house, the store, as well
as the neighbours and their children as well as their site(s) of paid work
- which in many cases is also the family home.  The balance between these
characteristics will, of course, change in different family formations -
single parent, extended, as so on.

Analyses of working class life and living standards tend to assume a common
existence and series of relationships for men and women.  More often than
not this seems to be by the exclusion of working women from the discussion
as they are discursively absorbed into a male working class.  As indicated
above, it is ironic that many critics of this seem to implicitly accept the
separate spheres distinction that lies behind this exclusion.  This
discursive absorption seems to be common place in this debate, as does the
separate spheres approach.

I am not arguing for dual systems, nor am I advocating the primacy of one
form of oppression over another.  Instead I am arguing that we need to be
more historically and spatially specific in our analyses, and that we need
to move well beyond the functional separation of analyses derived from both
marxism and feminism in favour of an analysis that recognizes the relative
autonomy of capitalist and patriarchal oppression while noting the specific
ways they interconnect in specific contexts.

Malcolm MacLean
malcolm.maclean at vuw.ac.nz

Everyone talks of freedom, but there are few that act for freedom, and the
actors for freedom are oppressed by the talkers.
                                                 Gerard Winstanley
To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call
on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.
                                                 Karl Marx
A revolutionary organization must always remember that its objective is not
getting people to listen to speeches by expert leaders, but getting them to
speak for themselves.
                                                 Guy Debord


More information about the Marxism mailing list