Ending the Neoliberal Neopatriarchy

What if neoliberalism is unavoidably patriarchal?

In 2013, a time when capitalism ruled the world, the former British Library precinct within the British Museum − where Karl Marx once spent many productive years calculating this outcome − hosted an exhibition of the earliest evidence of human imagination. Ice Age Art assembled a cornucopia of figurative objets d'art created up to 40,000 years ago (or more), depicting humans and the other animals with whom they shared space.

The audience was greeted by voluptuous fecundity: ripe, round female figures, with reindeers in flight, fish, birds, mammoths, lions, flutes, fish hooks, needles, and an occasional male. I trust that Marx would have been awed.

T.J. Clark, a distinguished art critic, was not so much awed as affronted by the sheer, surprising woman-ness of this universe. Writing in the London Review of Books he catches himself out for assuming that the image-makers were men, and concedes the prevailing inference that it is "more likely" that the creators were women. He speculates on pregnancy not as the moment when women's bodies are home to another, but as a kind of alienation, "a body becoming other to itself." It is also "fearful, astonishing, ominous", he mutters, and the figurines "fat, fat, fat". He acknowledges what many of his readers, no doubt, will have already guessed: "I know I am lost." No willies, few weapons, no bodies whose raison d'être is to be desired.

But during my three visits there, I sensed not estrangement but wonder, whispered joy, the intoxicated rustle of spectators fascinated by imagination that appeared to be − as the children's illustrator Maurice Sendak said of himself before he died in 2012 − "in love with the world". But who knows? Who knows what or how they were thinking, these Ice Age humans? Who knows what they intended their audience to see and feel, and what they wanted their creations to mean?

That said, this art does seems to enunciate a challenge to an Enlightenment notion − recently reiterated by Steven Pinker in his grand theoretical work of 2012, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined − that our ancestors were brutal and brutalized (and blokes), making their way in the world savagely; that they are strangers to us because we, their refined descendents, are uniquely rational, prosperous, democratic and pacific.

From three (yes, three) corpses of men who lived a mere 5000 years ago, Pinker is able to deduce the existence of general homicidal tendencies that, through evolution and enlightenment, have now been tamed. I would be much more cautious about inferring anything so definite about life in the era of Ice Age, whether from their art or indeed their cadavers. We surely cannot claim that it was either peaceful or violent: we don't know. But whatever else it is, Ice Age art is a forensic riposte to fantasies of liberal, capitalist modernity as progress to prosperity, democracy, peace and love.

Ice Age imagination reminds us that war and peace have histories, they are social practices; that violence between humans is not universal, eternal, inevitable and valorised. And what's more, violence and crime are specialisms − almost exclusively associated with specific cultures that create masculinity-as-domination. Feminism insists that violence is not biological or hormonal, but social; that crime, violence and war are productive of power; that they are − as theorists in second-wave feminism ventured − "resources" in the "achievement" or "doing" or "performance" of masculinities.

Drilled to kill, doomed to die: mastery and martyrdom is the heart-breaking dialectic of the manufacture of militarised, violent masculinity. Pinker's evolutionism cannot help us understand either the astounding, industrialised violence of the twentieth century or the contagious armed conflicts of the twenty-first.

In the post-cold-war era the world is not at peace, it is plagued by what Mary Kaldor calls "new wars" − and in this context gender hierarchy and oppression is renewed. The making and maintaining of militarised masculinities is vital to these new modes of armed conflict that are proliferating across the flexible frontiers of globalised capitalism, between and within states. Violence is franchised out to auxiliary militias, security corporations and freelancing warlords: gangs, guerrillas, police, death squads and vigilantes prosper; their networks of criminal free trade and spatial domination overpower the best efforts of 'new democracies' from Soweto to Sao Paulo. As Kaldor insists, rape and pillage are the modus operandi of 'new wars': they should not be seen as collateral damage. Neoliberal capitalism radiates violence. The richest society on the planet is armed. And it invests in one of the largest prison systems in the world. Violence circulates between state and citizen. In 2011, the US locked up one in every 107 people, and one in 50 were on probation. Half a million people are "correctional" officers, not to mention the many thousands of others who service and supply the system of incarceration. 

Violence is not unthinking, visceral, primitive; it is produced by, and is productive of, power and control over land, riches and people. Violent hypermasculinities and concomitant gender polarisation are, therefore, not residual: they are remade in civil society and in state apparatuses. Indeed the violence that neoliberal capital and its accomplices generate is an integral part of its evolving gender settlement − which I call neo-patriarchy.

The end of the equality paradigm

In spite of this increased violence, and the inequality that is inherent in neoliberalism, in the last quarter of the twentieth century the world's institutions reached a consensus: they joined together in hailing the goal of gender equality. Ironically, this was at the very moment when we were witnessing the limits, the exhaustion, of the equality paradigm.

The notion of equal opportunity was, in any case, incapable of withstanding the structures of gender: the sexual division of labour, and violence as a resource in the making and doing of masculinity. But with the collapse of the post-war consensus on welfare states and the mixed economy, the equality paradigm is now being defeated by the counter-revolutionary neoliberal priorities of the world's financial institutions.

They preach equal opportunity, but in practice produce a "regressive modernisation" that reshapes but continues the patriarchal division of labour, and of traditional masculinities and femininities.

So, beware the liberation language of global capitalism: it rules the world, and it deploys the language of freedom, choice and competition to oust solidarity, co-operative creativity and equality. After the deluge of state communisms, the world is quivering with resistance but struggles to find new ideological and institutional forms for those great values of solidarity, co-operation, creativity and equality − values that are crucial for gender equality. In this moment of capitalism's hegemony − its apparent inevitability, invincibility and normality − the language of the marketplace appears not only to govern the economy, but life itself.

It is a lie, of course. Capitalism does not do life. And that lie is never more exposed in the twenty-first century than when we bring to it the light of gender and the unsaid − the silences and secrets that are knotted in the articulation of capitalism and patriarchy.

"Woman" as commodity, as carer, as producer and reproducer (though rarely hailed, it appears, as taxpayer and never as citizen) is positioned anew as Other; the sovereignty of ideologies of masculinity is simultaneously rattled and reinstated. Gender, uniquely, exposes the limits of this articulation, its contradictions and − most important − its unsustainability. The old sexual contract is recognised as unsustainable but retained in modernised form. Neoliberal neo-patriarchy is the new articulation of male domination.

Though neoliberal neopatriarchy is hegemonic, it is an unstable site of torrid angst, complaint and trouble − and radical alternatives. As Leonard Cohen saw:

There is a crack in everything

There's a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in (Anthem).

Although gender remains an often invisible, or at best marginal, theme in radical and party-political discourses, it takes us to the fissures and fault-lines, to the unsustainabilities, of the new, global capitalist settlement. For gender, like nature, is omni-relevant: it is everywhere, in everything. The new global settlement is nothing if not a new sexual settlement. Global capitalism works with patriarchal principles, institutions, cultures and psyches. So, our liberation from this tragedy is inconceivable − it is, literally, unthinkable − without feminism.

Post-colonial violence

Force is the accomplice of neoliberalism across the world. In New and Old Wars, Mary Kaldor argues that mayhem and predation are designed to terrify populations and lay waste to territory by the commission of "conspicuous atrocity". At the beginning of the twentieth century around 85% of casualties of war were military (almost all men) rather than civilian (often women and children), but by the end of the century that ratio had "almost exactly reversed". Looting, pillage, population displacement and rape are not so much occupational hazards as central to their modus operandi.

In Latin America, from Brazil to Mexico, Columbia and Venezuela, organized crime and violence plague these societies emerging from dictatorship and struggling to survive the impact of neoliberal economic policies. Millions of people live in toxic, unplanned, unprotected urban landscapes, where emaciated local states have little or no jurisdiction or powers of intervention; where the violence of dictatorships or civil wars continues to discipline relationships between political and police apparatuses enfeebled by neoliberal policies; where boundaries between politics and legal and illegal 'free trade' are fluid and patrolled by hyper-masculinities.

Their experience confirms what is well established in South Africa − not to mention Europe − that poverty alone does not generate violence. The poorest people on earth are women. But they are not the perpetrators of violence, they are the victims. (So, too, of course, are boys and men who become "the killables", whose life expectancy is foreshortened by their peers in gangs, criminal networks, police, militias and vigilante death squads.)

Latin America's "new democracies" are ill-equipped to confront, let alone control, the drugs and guns "industrialists" who migrate more or less unhindered across borders, whose local foot soldiers service global operations. Brazil's profound inequalities have been seriously mitigated by the government's efforts to address poverty. But men's violence undermines public peace and sustainability. Homicide rates (per 100,000) soar in Brazil (21), Columbia (31), Venezuela (45), El Salvador (69), Honduras (91). The most unprotected neighbourhoods live in a state of "endless war", where murder rates are multiplied by muertes legales − extra-judicial executions. In the Dominican Republic, for example, according to Lilian Bobea, the murder rate quadrupled from 6 per 100,000 in the 1980s to 26 per 100,000 in the 2000s, overpowering community organisations and local and national state apparatuses. The penetration of public institutions by criminal networks sometimes means that violence indicates not so much a failure on the part of democratic institutions, more the basis on which they function. Despite the best intentions of the new democracies, men's violence is "fragmenting social space, fostering fear and creating distrust in institutions".

The articulation of apartheid and patriarchy produced South Africa as one of the most violent societies on earth: it had the highest homicide and rape rates in the world. Its remarkably peaceful liberation from apartheid was then swiftly captured by neoliberal neo-patriarchy: fiscal austerity, privatisation, export-oriented production − and violence. Twenty years after liberationthere are more police and security guards than nurses: 400,000 private security guards and 190,000 police officers to 212,000 nurses. Every month the security industry registers 20,000 new members − men patrolling other men are stationed everywhere − whilst over 40% of nursing posts remain unfilled.

Stephen Pinker, who likes to position societies in relation to notions of European enlightenment, evolution and civilization, categorizes South Africa as a society undergoing "de-civilizing processes". But it would be more accurate to conclude that the violence of the apartheid era has been modified and enhanced by the violence of its neoliberal present.

There is undoubtedly a strongly gendered element within the general levels of violence. Rachel Jewkes's research for the Medical Research Institute found that a third of men admitted to raping a girl or woman. Two cases in particular opened a window on South African society in 2013.

Guns and a bloodied cricket bat were discovered in the fortified home of South Africa's great white paralympian Oscar Pistorius after he shot his lover Reeva Steenkamp (white) through the bathroom door one February night. "Afrikaaner men are very patriarchal, and within that, gun ownership is seen as part of masculinity", commented Jewkes. In another shocking incident, seventeen-year-old Anene Booysen (black) was found dumped and dying on a construction site in a small town in Western Cape on 2 February 2013. Her intestines were discarded beside her raped and sliced body − mutilated not by strangers but by a group of friends with whom she had enjoyed a drink the night before. "It was her vagina and her breasts they wanted to destroy. It was her walk and her talk. It was her girl-ness...", wrote the feminist activist Sisonke Msimang.

Nowhere exposes more eloquently than these societies that there is no necessary correlation between industrial sophistication, democracy, peace and socio−sexual equality.

Gender in Asian capitalism

Asian capitalisms tend to be prototypes of strong states, weak welfare provision, and modernised male domination. Home to almost half of the human population they (as much, if not more than, Europe or North America) are defining the twenty-first century's sexual settlement.

In the post-socialist society of China, the chasm between men and women's time and money represents a counter-revolutionary reprise of a patriarchal division of labour. The state-sponsored Confucian capitalism of China is creating inequalities faster than in any other transitional society; traditional masculinities and femininities are being reinstated as if the revolution was a transgressive anomaly.

Before the turn to economic liberalism, China's workers were poor, but they were equally poor. The transition to capitalism released 200 million people from poverty, but accelerating inequalities and the demolition of the welfare system also sponsored the "mother of all redistributions". Unprecedented migration to the cities located millions of workers in urban dormitories − so that, while producing commodities that find their way into homes everywhere in the world, they themselves have neither homes nor money nor time for children. Millions of their children are raised thousands of miles away by relatives in the countryside.

After capitalism was introduced at the end of the 1970s, the gender pay gap grew: in 1988 women's pay was 86% of men's; by 2011 it was only 67%. Before capitalism, parenthood had little impact on pay. After capitalism, the parenthood penalty rose to 40%. Privatisation and cuts scythed public child care provision − a massive redistribution away from children and women. China's transition can thus be seen as a transition to state-sponsored neo-patriarchy. In China, most women, like men, do paid work full-time. But most men, unlike women, do little domestic labour: women work 86 hours a week, but men only 58. That time differential explains almost a third of China's stout gender pay gap. This is China's bequest to the new gender settlement.

In India, the rush to urban industrialisation, following the government's embrace of neoliberal fiscal reform in 1991, has modernised the patriarchal values that had already fatally defeated the egalitarian proclamation of its 1947 constitution. As Jayati Ghosh has shown, far from feminising the paid labour force, neoliberalism has generated a form of "jobless growth": a rise in GDP without expanding employment − and a defeminised labour force. Women's share of the labour market has plunged from around half to a quarter, and the gender pay gap has increased in every category of work.

Technology has also been enlisted to further intensify the masculinisation of the population: the introduction of ultra-sound technology to determine the sex of embryos in the early 1980s has facilitated foeticide. This is an entirely new refinement of the boy preference (and femicide) that has been apparent in India since the first census in 1901. It will shape gender, generation, social welfare, migration and violence for this century.

In South Korea, a paragon Asian tiger, and perhaps the most techno-savvy society on the planet, men do least housework, and women's labour force participation is the lowest in the OECD countries. The gender pay gap is the highest: 38%. Among employed women it has one of the highest levels of "precariousness" − 70% (precarity is spreading fast).


The future will be shaped by the "new" capitalisms of Asia, Latin America and the post-socialist societies. They are defining − as much, if not more than Europe and North America − the twenty-first century sexual settlement.

Whether in its Asian forms, or the Anglo-American model, or the post-dictatorship democracies of Latin America, capital may employ women but it does not emancipate them. If the world's proletariat is growing, so too is the precariat − capital's favoured form of labour market, in which all the risks and responsibilities of life are transferred to the worker − the part of the labour market where women predominate.

Since the 1970s we have learned that social solidarity through the medium of welfare states is the minimum necessary condition for society to take the side of women. This is not to say that social-democratic or socialist states were feminist − their tragedy is that they weren't. But the economic regimes forced on states by the World Bank and the IMF have waged war on the public good; and their neoliberal imperative is also the articulation of neo-patriarchy in global governance. This is a historic defeat. For the moment, "the long march through the institutions" − a vision of non-violent radical transformation − struggles for breath.

It is not surprising, therefore, that, with few exceptions, the response to the economic havoc wrought by the banking system has been becalmed − or that some of the most spectacular challenges to sexism appear in do-able improvisations within popular culture.

In no society or system are women paid the same as men for a day, a week, or a lifetime's work. In no society do men share equally the work of care with women. Sexism finds new cultures and contexts; violence and sexual aggression attract impunity.

And in a world dominated by neoliberal neo-patriarchy there is little indication that this will change in favour of women − without a gender revolution.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Soundings magazine.

Image credit: Kheel Center

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