On “Male Benefit”

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In terms of male benefit and what it says about the IS tradition. I am increasingly exasperated by comrades talking about men “not benefiting” from women’s oppression. This is for a number of reasons. As Tom Walker has pointed out, we are the only people in Britain using this language of “benefit”. That means that our discussions have a weird, “straw woman” character. It would be like if we suddenly started chiding unnamed “African nationalists” for saying that black people in Britain should emigrate to Africa. If we said that, we would look weird. Everyone in our periphery would know that we were “refuting” an argument that no-one was making outside our very own fevered imagination. The same logic applies; by banging on repeatedly about the non-existence of male benefits, we make ourselves look weird.

This weirdness is accentuated by looking at the basis upon which we say that there is no such thing as male benefit. Up to the mid-80s, IS authors were willing to acknowledge that men might receive “marginal” benefits from women’s oppression. Somewhere around the mid-80s, for a reason which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with women’s oppression, but to do with some shift in IS politics, we suddenly decided that was wrong to even acknowledge the possibility that men might benefit.

If you read SW’s most recent article, it argues that “Our rulers … encourage the idea that men benefit from the system”. It says in effect that men don’t really benefit from women’s oppression, because if we accepted that they benefited from women’s oppression this would make a united struggle against capitalism harder to win. But in this context, “non-benefit” is not an empirical analysis (eg are men paid more than women? Is pay equality getting further or nearer? These are things we could count), but a restatement of a circular truth that by definition could never be disproven. We have morphed into saying that oppression never benefits anyone save for the capitalist class.

Compare Marx: when he talked about the oppression of the Irish in Britain, he said that the English saw themselves as oppressors in relation to the Irish, and would only be free if they rejected their oppressor consciousness.

We have decided to reject that approach when it comes to women’s oppression, but not on an analysis of what the actual power relations are or where “male” or “female” consciousness is, we reject it rather on the basis of the logic that stories of liberation are more likely to end happier if they have as a middle section “and then the oppressed realised that they were in no worse position than those who were not oppressed”. That method, of prioritising in principle the desired outcome of eventual unity over a practical analysis of whether disunity has any real basis or not – is not impressive.

I don’t have a fixed view on whether men benefit from women’s oppression. But my best guess is that if anyone wanted to talk analytically about whether men benefitted from a) the inequality of contribution to childcare under the conditions of the privatised family, b) pay inequality, and c) sexual violence, probably, there would be a different answer to each of these questions. I want people to systematically analyse the problem rather than to engage in apolitical straw-womanery.

If you’re going to say “some socialist feminists” believe that “men benefit from women’s oppression”, then you have to say – who, and on what basis. If you can’t do that, then you drift into a kind of intellectual assassination by ignorance (I never liked X’s politics, so I’m sure that she shared this heresy, even if she always said very loudly that she didn’t) or a kind of “false flag” argument (I don’t like Y so I’ll accept that Y didn’t agree with Z, but I’ll say that she is almost as bad as Z because her arguments open the way to Z’s). This is always risky when you ascribe to a political tradition a set of views which most of its holders didn’t think they had. And it is particularly uninspiring when you recall that the whole point of socialist feminism as a tradition is that it navigates against other feminist traditions, which it rejects because it rejects the very positions that IST authors now ascribe to it.

Finally, when people write that feminists (socialists or otherwise) had an ambition of “emancipating themselves from working class men”, I have to ask in this context, what does “emancipation” mean? In Tony Cliff’s book on Women, he at least had a negative “other” against which he could frame the negative project of feminism. His “other” was political lesbianism (mentioned more than 12 times in his book): under which women could emancipate themselves from men by determinedly living without men. In 2013, however, there are no longer any “political lesbians”. There are barely even any “radical feminists” any more. So what is this ambition of emancipation from men, which my comrades in the IST, insist on repeatedly ascribing to the very different tradition of socialist feminism? And which you keep on ascribing to them, without being able to name a socialist writer who argues for it?

(Originally published on Facebook, with thread, here)

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