Monday, March 9, 2015

Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of patriarchy’s genesis (part I): a synopsis

Considering that yesterday was International Women’s Day, I believe it is fitting that I write a post concerning a left-leaning intellectual’s discourse on woman’s subjugation. I find that Simon de Beauvoir’s historical prominence as a feminist theorist is somewhat related to the revolutionary socialist movements that engendered what we know as International Women’s Day.

As a side note, which I believe is worth making because it is almost never made, International Woman’s Day is the product of the revolutionary outbursts of the early twentieth century. The earliest Woman’s Day observance was held on February 28, 1909, in New York; it was organized by the Socialist Party of America in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union. In 1917, demonstrations in Saint Petersburg commemorating International Woman’s Day inaugurated Russia’s February Revolution. Thus, following the October Revolution, the newly established Soviet Union made Woman’s Day a national holiday in 1917. It was not until 1977 that the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as a day commemorating woman’s rights.

In relation to all this, as stated above, the following is my assessment of book one, chapter three of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The chapter is entitled “The Point of View of Historical Materialism.” In the chapter, de Beauvoir critiques historical materialism, as delineated by Friedrich Engels in his treatise The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. De Beauvoir asserts that Engels’ historical materialism is fundamentally incapable of accounting for the origin of woman’s subjugation.

As de Beauvoir puts it, historical materialism is a Marxist conceptual framework based on the premise—at this point, it is axiomatic—that humanity is more a historical reality than an animal species. In other words, the human condition is contingent “upon the economic organization of society, which in turn indicates what stage of technical evolution man has attained.” As Karl Marx famously puts it in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

This is a rudimentary explanation of the concept, but for the purposes of this post it will suffice.

De Beauvoir explicates that Engels in his treatise employs historical materialism to explain the origin of man’s primacy. As she recounts, Engels proposes that humanity, in its earliest historical stages, was embryonically egalitarian. The land belonged to all members of the tribe. The primitive nature of the tools of survival, spears and hoes, limited agricultural development, so that woman’s strength was sufficient for gardening. While man hunted and fished, woman remained at home tending to the tasks of domestic labor, which was productive labor—e.g. making pottery, weaving, and gardening. Consequently, woman played an integral part in economic life. Gender equality naturally sprung from this equal relationship of production.

However, this egalitarian division of labor was upset with the discovery of various metals, which would be used in the invention of new, more sophisticated tools. Men were thus capable of enlarging the scope of agricultural production and clearing vast expanses of wild land. As Engels puts it: 

The same cause which had assured to woman the prime authority in the house— namely, her restriction to domestic duties—this same cause now assured the domination there of the man; for woman’s housework henceforth sank into insignificance in comparison with man’s productive labor—the latter as everything, the former a trifling auxiliary.

As a result of the increased production, which these new-fangled tools allowed, man began to accumulate more than he required for survival. This became his private property; a wholly new concept made its way to the core of the human condition. Man began to trade the surplus, and he began to enslave other men and women.

Thousands of years pass, men and women, on account of the advancement of thoroughly technologized industry, become equal in terms of their capacity for productive labor. However, according to de Beauvoir, the Marxists clamor that it is the resistance of ancient capitalist patriarchy that prevents the materialization of this equality.

De Beauvoir’s criticism of Engels’ account is actually quite simple. She takes to task Engels for what she calls the slurring over of the passage from the regime of community ownership to that of private ownership. She writes, “Engels assumes without discussion the bond of interest which ties man to property; but where does this interest, the source of social institutions, have its own source?” Moreover, she asserts that it is not clear that the institution of private property must have necessarily involved the enslavement of women. She criticizes Engels for not having even attempted to offer his interpretation of this paradigm shift.

In response to what she sees as a conceptual vacuum, de Beauvoir posits that private property can only be understood with reference to the original condition of the existent. That is to say that man’s latent cognitive proclivity toward autonomy and individuality enabled private ownership. Without the advent of technology, man thought of himself as a passive element at the mercy of the natural world. With the birth of complex tools, man became a creator, a manipulator of the forces of nature. Thus, because of new inventions, man lost his feeling of inferiority and fear, and he found within himself the courage to live sovereignly and individually.

De Beauvoir adds—prototypical of contemporary critical theory—that man innately possesses an ontological substructure, a foundation in the nature of his being, which was kept dormant until the creation of new tools. This fundamental quality, as it were, is the drive to possess the Other. According to de Beauvoir, each individual finds life’s meaning through alienation; we seek to find ourselves in something outside of ourselves, an Other, by making it our own. To the collective hunter-gatherer tribe, the Other was the land. And, once the individual man becomes detangled from the tribe, he needs a personal incarnation, an Other, over which to take mastery. To him, the Other is the plot of land and the various trinkets he begins to appropriate, private property. The Other, to man, is also woman.

De Beauvoir continues by explaining that woman’s physical limitations for hard labor constituted a disadvantage only from the perspective of man’s inherent need for transcendence. Effectively, woman was not able to keep up with man. Thus, she became inferior. However, she concedes that this need for transcendence did not really engender inequality, as man could have easily had a relationship of friendship with woman throughout his voyage of transcendence. The phenomenon of subjugation was ultimately “the result of the imperialism of the human consciousness, seeking always to exercise its sovereignty in objective fashion.”


Jessica S. said...

I think you're correct in wanting to see a more complete explanation in Simone de Beauvoir's analysis. I also have doubts about whether the traits of women are accurately presented. Patriarchy isn't exactly difficult to detect by a group oppressed continually by it. There has to be another reason women cannot overcome it. The dominating part of man is also in woman (but our society tells us otherwise), and perhaps this inclination in both sexes leads to maintaining economic and social structures that obviously exacerbate stratification and othering. But what this is, how it develops in humans- that is where i think it gets unpleasant for anyone to guess or resign themselves. Even with theories primarily concerned with economic events/behaviors, I find it difficult to understand what inclinations they are assessing, and how they place their importance within the overall theories. I don't know- I suppose it's frustrating for me to see emphasis placed on the system and not acknowledge various problems with humans' thought processes and emotions.

Damon Alimouri said...

@ Jessica S: Yes, I do believe that their is a dominance drive in both genders. I believe this is a socially and historically contingent fact. That is to say that it is not innate. Indeed, this drive, which is motivated by pecuniary gain, maintains gender inequality, as it is highly profitable. Ergo, even some women, those who are in the so-called 1%, actively seek to maintain the social and political structures that maintain and cultivate gender inequality. These privileged women are only concerned with gender equality insofar as it concerns their own economic and political parity with their wealthy male counterparts. They don't care about the plight of the overwhelming majority of women, poor women.