[Marxism] Gender and marriage

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Fri May 28 13:09:20 MDT 2004

Melvin, it's just ridiculous to reduce marriage to an ownership
relationship, as a social relation it's a human bond which implies a
reciprocal moral obligation and conjugal rights under the law, which is
socially recognised and legally validated. There is an anecdote about Rosa
Luxemburg according to which a worker went up to her at a meeting, and asked
her whether marrying his girlfriend would be compatible with Marxism. And
she replied that it is a "personal matter", a personal choice, which is
quite correct. After all, Marx himself married his wife after seven years

>From a political point of view, all you can say is that some relationship
forms will not wash in public opinion or in workingclass opinion. It would
be unlikely for a partner in a transvestite couple to be elected to a
position of political responsibility, for example (although I've mentioned
the case of Cicci on the list, i.e. pornstars can become politicians, so
it's not inconceivable, but just how seriously they are taken beyond the
humor or attraction involved, is a moot point). As a rule, social classes
and peoples have their own idea about morally sound relationship forms, and
perhaps the most important criterion is that you live in a way that is
consistent with your beliefs, within the framework of civil law. Marx's
critique of marriage concerned (1) the treatment of people, particularly
women, as property, as chattel or sex slave and (2) the imposition of a
power relation on the personal relationship from the outside in a way which
is oppressive.

Whatever we may take human freedom to be about, it is minimally about the
desire of people to be autonomous and self-acting and the desire to develop
their potential in a way that makes this possible. The dispute concerns the
moral framework in which they do this, i.e. the rights, duties, claims,
responsibilities and obligations involved. It so happens that interpersonal
relationships become mixed up with relations of ownership, power and
control, where individuals, genders, ethnic groups and social classes seek
to impose or assert their own norms. In part this is to be expected, since
people must agree on their obligations about private and common ownership of
assets, custody of children and so forth. But in part all sorts of factors
are imposed on the relation which are not intrinsic to it but reflect
sectional interests from others. That is what makes it so complicated.

At the end of Cap. Vol. 1, Marx remarks wrily that the propagation of the
species is as aspect of social reproduction which can be "safely left to the
working classes themselves", but while it is true that capital theoretically
requires no particular mode of sexual reproduction, the ruling power elites
have always sought to intervene in the moral life of the working classes,
and capital seeks to subordinate human relationships to its own modus
operandi, yet fails to do so successfully in a way which can contain
conflict about it. Which is to say that the power inhering in human
relationships is an important source of the revolt against the domination of
property and things over people. I cannot say that my own stance, though
consistent, has been particularly successful, but then you can get bombed a
bit too often, you can get injured in ways that are difficult to overcome
quickly, everybody has his limit.

The whole problem with capitalism as regards relationships is, that
capitalism is about universalising trade, which means that anything can
exchange for anything via money, with the wellknown reifying consequences,
yet the anthropological core of human beings formed in the course of the
evolution of the species is in part simply not compatible with commercial
trade, because commercial trade itself implies no other obligations than are
necessary to engage in transactions - some human characteristics are
inalienable, i.e. they cannot be appropriated through a transaction, and
thus alienated from a person, or alternatively the transaction escapes from
legal control. Martin Luther, whom Marx mentions, already knew this.

The astounding academic discovery since 1989 has been that if you deregulate
markets with a Smithian vision of an open market society, this does not
automatically mean that the markets will function efficiently, because one
has culture, legalities and moralities to contend with. If the market
requires legal regulation to exist at all, this also requires the ability to
enforce legal rules, but if it is not possible to enforce those rules
because people invent ways of getting around them, then this can create
problems for the functioning of markets.  And the response to that is then
to try an intervene more and more directly into the interpersonal
relationships people have, regulate that, and pressure people into certain
models of human development, based on the power that private ownership of
wealth and political influence gives. In which case a lot depends on
personal strength, and the moral debate can get quite byzantine (for example
whether Muslim women are allowed to choose what clothes to wear, or not).

Already in the German Ideology, Marx noted that the ruling classes decry
relationships as "inhuman" if they threaten their position, and as "human"
if they promote their own position and culture. That can make interpersonal
relationships directly political, insofar as power is asserted to force
people into a certain pattern of relationships, which occasions conflicts
and struggles. Hence the struggles of people who seek to assert the validity
of their own way of relating can be revolutionary - they don't necessarily
need to have anything to do with sexuality as such, but with issues
concerning personal autonomy and the ability to negotiate their own
relationships in the way they want.

That is incidentally, one of the sources of the "autonomist" movement which
seeks to assert a pattern of individual development which escapes from the
ruling mores. Then it is discovered that in the final analysis, market
functioning requires a stable pattern of meaning in order to know what
trades against what, and that means that appropriation through exploitation,
crime and oppression depends more and more on gaining access to what
somebody actually knows and doesn't know, and it creates numerous moral
dillemmas and semantic battles.

The main principle of propaganda, repeated by Hitler, is that if you repeat
a message often enough people will start to believe it, but psychological
studies of persuasion also show, apart from the propensity for gullibility,
how very resistant people are to messages which are not consistent with
their real, lived experience in practice. And that explains part of the
depoliticisation in modern times, and the legitimation crisis which modern
capitalism has, because there exists no incontestable morality of
entitlement to goods and services anymore, it's become much more directly
and clearly a question of power and property ownership.

In dealing with these questions, christianism, in its attempt to resist
nihilism, paganism, anarchy, decadence and hedonism, does not intellectually
get much further than the biblical question of "what is the benefit of
gaining the world and losing your soul", i.e. the problem of the corrosive
effect of a universal market is that it relativises all previous moral
absolutes, as Marx says, "all that is solid melts into air." The whole
problem there is, that market-negotiation nevertheless presupposes a
functioning morality, but as soon as you admit that, then markets are no
longer simply "economic" phenomena. The identification of "economic" with
"commercial" turned out to be false.


More information about the Marxism mailing list