Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Simone de Beauvoir's analysis of patriarchy's genesis (part II): a critique

Before I evaluate de Beauvoir’s work, I should say that, since my undergraduate studies, I have been drawn to the provocative appeal of French existentialism. However, that appeal is actually very superficial. Existentialism as a philosophy postures as something radical and new-fangled, but in reality it is simply another—certainly more poetic—articulation of prevailing modes of thought. At best, it is beautifully written prose, and nothing more—a sort of prose we do not really see in academia today because of the rise of tedious empiricism, positivism, and citation based research literature. For instance, there is something to be said about the way de Beauvoir describes sex as “a revolt of the instant against time, of the individual against the universal,” or in how she writes, “marriage finds its natural fulfillment in adultery.”

Style is no substitute for substance. De Beauvoir’s critique of Engels falls far short of cogency. First of all, her account of the historical materialist perspective of woman’s subjugation is incorrect. She writes that her Marxist contemporaries claim that modern gender inequality is the product of vestigial capitalist patriarchy. The claim of her contemporaries was not that woman’s subjugation remained, without any material foundation within capitalism, because of the backwards sentiments of a few privileged men. It was that the economic substructure, which conditions the ideological and political, necessitates and reproduces woman’s subjugation. Capitalism ineludibly maintains patriarchy, sexism, or gender inequality—whatever one desires to call it—because it is highly profitable and politically advantageous. On one hand, individual captains of industry, men and women included, profit from the spurious, socially constructed division of gender because, on account of its cultural pervasiveness, they can justifiably pay women laborers at a lower rate than men. This disparity in remuneration allows an increased accrual of profit revenue. On the other hand, spurious divisions between common women and men cripplingly alienate the two, and thus they are prevented from engaging in effective political action.

De Beauvoir’s alternative to what she considers Engels’ conceptual vacuum is not only implausible on its own terms and at a theoretical level, but also—and, more importantly—it suggests absurd consequences at the practical level. De Beauvoir attributes certain unsavory essential features to woman. She writes that woman is “more closely enslaved to the species,” is servile, and is complacent. To de Beauvoir, it is man’s natural inclination to view himself as an autonomous being in opposition to woman’s weakness that led to woman’s decline. De Beauvoir provides no explanation as to why woman lacks man’s intrinsic yearning for individuality; she merely asserts it as if it were self-evident. She paints a necessarily submissive portrait of woman. This coupled with the assertion that woman is more animal than man, as it were, is actually quite deprecating toward woman. Not only is it disparaging, but also de Beauvoir’s propositions cannot account for the fact that a substantial amount of women have attained a great deal of individuality and autonomy by having controlling positions in industry, finance, and politics. To argue that a woman like Margaret Thatcher or Condoleezza Rice does not possess a drive for autonomy and individuality is odd, to say the least.

Moreover, de Beauvoir claims that man’s need to personally incarnate the other requires that he enslave woman. This, at a practical level, implies a very bleak outlook for the future. If the advent of sophisticated tools opened up man’s domineering nature to the world, and that nature leads to the enslavement of woman, how is woman to break the centuries-long pattern of oppression? Are woman to somehow change man’s nature so that he can live peacefully with woman? The very meaning of nature is that it is immutable, thus woman would not be able to change man. The only alternative would be for woman to either turn the tables on man, or to decimate every man. But, from de Beauvoir’s perspective that is impossible because woman would not be capable of such a thing on account of her complacency and innate lack of self. Moreover, de Beauvoir admits that such an alternative is bizarre. In effect, de Beauvoir provides only nihilism for woman, which, of course, she answers with her own brand of existentialism, a thoroughly individualistic philosophy not aimed at social change.

On a theoretical level and on its own terms, de Beauvoir’s interpretation of history leaves much unanswered. Indeed, because she posits an ontological framework separate from what she calls the economic monism of historical materialism, she begs many new questions, which Engel’s theory did not, as he hesitated to speculate. De Beauvoir posits that the advent of tools unlocked man’s latent desire to be autonomous, but she does not elucidate why man possessed a hidden drive for autonomy. From where did that desire originate? Are we to believe that it simply exists? In a word, her assertion only functions as an empty conceptual placeholder, as it cannot clarify what accounts for man’s “nature of his being.”

Moreover, de Beauvoir’s theory uncannily resembles the polemical propaganda uttered everyday by the many exponents of inequality, both sophisticated and unlettered. Her concept, even within its historical context, is not original. It can be boiled down, without adulteration, to the platitudes regarding humanity’s wicked nature uttered by every drugstore political scientist and philosopher opposed to progressive change. This is not say that de Beauvoir was a reactionary, but, regardless of her intentions, her logic is retrogressive as it ultimately substitutes real emancipation, a sweeping social undertaking, with the illusory emancipation of atomization, existentialism.

In addition, de Beauvoir’s assertion that man possesses an innate drive to enslave an Other is problematic. Again, she conjures this concept out of thin air. From where does this despotism originate? She provides no answer. And, again, this sort of description of man and humanity is identical to the verbiage of thousands of political obscurantists, vulgar charlatans, and their ignorant victims. But, assuming for the sake of argument that man possesses an impulse to dominate, de Beauvoir’s conception does not answer why man chose to dominate woman in particular. Is it because woman is somehow physically weaker? That does not seem to answer much, for a party’s relative weakness does not imply that the stronger party will seek to dominate the weaker party. In actuality, de Beauvoir’s account of history does not clear up the haze that frustrates her; it simply makes things cloudier.

Finally, de Beauvoir writes that capitalism has equalized the labor capacity of man and woman, thus resolving the contradiction—strong versus weak—that led to the decline of woman. However, she argues that patriarchal customs have kept women from fully realizing this equality. As I wrote above, it is not antiquated customs that have kept woman back, but rather it is the system of production, capitalism, which maintains those backward customs, that shackles woman. As Marx wrote in the preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.

Today, the world bears witness to a contradiction between an equalized work capacity between the sexes on account of technology and the vile framework of capitalist patriarchy. This contradiction in order to be resolved requires “an era of social revolution,” not a stunting, alienating cult of self founded on the baseless premise that “hell is other people.”

However, in conclusion, de Beauvoir makes a worthy point: any future venture into comprehensive transformation requires that we should not “be blind to [woman’s] particular situation.” As I see it, one of the tragedies of twentieth century projects of change was that they did not fully integrate women within the ranks of leadership. The list of male leaders is endless (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eugene V. Debs, Che Guevara, etc.), but the list of women is shamefully small. However, women must not be integrated because they offer some inherent, softer qualities that men do not possess, but rather because, in practice and through example, the contradiction between mental labor being of man and drudgery being of woman must be erased.

De Beauvoir’s place as feminist vanguard may be well established, but it appears that the premises upon which her particular philosophy rests are taken for granted. In the end, she is guilty of the same offense of which she claims Engels and Marx are culpable. I am certain she was well aware of this. So, why did she bother to propose this conceptual placeholder, which is far too reminiscent for comfort of reactionary modes of thought?

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