Opinion //

Gender and capitalism

April Holcombe advocates for the destruction of both

Family sitting around dinner table. Family sitting around dinner table.
Before we take our first breath of air, society sets out a path that we must follow. Before we know our own name, others presume to know a whole lot about us. The rigid gender binary is everywhere, and transgression is punished through social exclusion and institutional discrimination.

Gender is a category (like race, nationality, sexual desire) which is constructed and shaped by the way people interact with each other. As people organise their societies and their economies in different ways at different times, their familial and sexual relations change with them.

So how is our society organised?

Capitalist society is predicated on a tiny minority owning and controlling the vast wealth of the world. Production is geared towards what will create the most profits for this minority, not what the mass of people actually needs. The rich throw these products onto an unplanned market, hoping to sell them for the highest possible return. Profits rule the world: to maximize them, the bosses must squeeze every last drop of work out of us at the lowest possible cost. Making workers work harder for less is a central concern of the employing class. All of this requires iron discipline and subordination in the workplace. Workers must have their every movement controlled for efficiency. They must be made dependent on their wage for survival.

With such intense and inhuman social relations, the nuclear family glues us to the capitalist
project. A private place cut off from 9-to-5 industrial servitude can feel like a sanctuary – husbands might feel more powerful directing wives and children than they do following orders – but they are also disciplined by dependents at home who rely on their wage to live.

Then there’s the work conducted inside the home. Cooking, washing, raising children and
caring for the sick is essential for a society to exist. Under capitalism, it keeps workers replenished each day for another round of labour, and children prepared for the discipline of school and work. Rather than being a social responsibility, these tasks are part of the
private, unpaid labour that is done overwhelmingly by women in the home. The Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated the value of this domestic labour as equivalent to half of Australia’s GDP. This is not a bill that the bosses and politicians want to pay.

Such a profitable institution requires extreme socialisation into the expected roles from day one. By the time young people enter the workforce, years of intense gendering has steered them towards certain industries and work-patterns. Once in the workforce, they find that women are paid significantly less than their male counterparts, which in turn reinforces the gendered nature of social and family life.

The mass social movements for sexual liberation of the 60s and 70s have changed this situation considerably. Though still unequal, men do more housework and childcare than they once did. The stigma surrounding single mothers and divorce has lessened. LGBTI rights have internationally made enormous gains on marriage equality and adoption rights. All of this is positive, but it also demonstrates that when social pressure threatens to blow the lid off the status quo, the system can accommodate alternative family arrangements. These are fitted around the nuclear norm and in so doing adapt oppression to new circumstances. For all the changes, the private family continues to be a closed-off unit that throws the cost of keeping a healthy, exploitable workforce onto workers themselves. For the individuals in it, updated gender stereotypes and expectations that fit with this reality are no less oppressive.
The family simultaneously limits our horizons and too often denies us a genuinely fulfilling
existence. We work in order to support family members, but then work prevents us from developing these relationships satisfactorily. Rather than liberating and pleasurable sex lives, we are tired and bitter after work, too busy cooking or fixing the washing machine to enjoy our bodies. The market turns our desires into products it can sell for a buck: the $50 billion pornography and sex industry are about attaining the idealised, commodified experience of pleasure. Sexual repression for working class people is necessary to prove – as sexist advertising does from every billboard – that our bodies are not our own.

Only in a society in which human satisfaction comes before the profits of a tiny few can there
be genuine liberation and freedom from the pressure to conform to gender roles. That means overthrowing the class of parasites who demand our subordination in every area of life. Sex is a basic human need for which consent should be the only rule, not the ability to buy it, find time for it, or any other consideration. Similarly, raising children is a social good that should be the collective responsibility of all, rather than the private, unpaid duty of exhausted parents.