That old-time patriarchy?

I likely am feverish, or am suffering from a disease in the water of California because I’m going to begin by quoting Hegel. Forgive me.

“The master relates himself to the bondsman mediately through independent existence, for that is precisely what keeps the bondsman in thrall; it is his chain, from which he could not in the struggle get away, and for that reason he proved himself to be dependent, to have his independence in the shape of thinghood. The master, however, is the power controlling this state of existence, for he has shown in the struggle that he holds it to be merely something negative. Since he is the power dominating existence, while this existence again is the power controlling the other [the bondsman], the master holds, par consequence, this other in subordination. In the same way the master relates himself to the thing mediately through the bondsman. The bondsman being a self-consciousness in the broad sense, also takes up a negative attitude to things and cancels them; but the thing is, at the same time, independent for him and, in consequence, he cannot, with all his negating, get so far as to annihilate it outright and be done with it; that is to say, he merely works on it. To the master, on the other hand, by means of this mediating process, belongs the immediate relation, in the sense of the pure negation of it, in other words he gets the enjoyment. What mere desire did not attain, he now succeeds in attaining, viz. to have done with the thing, and find satisfaction in enjoyment. Desire alone did not get the length of this, because of the independence of the thing. The master, however, who has interposed the bondsman between it and himself, thereby relates himself merely to the dependence of the thing, and enjoys it without qualification and without reserve. The aspect of its independence he leaves to the bondsman, who labours upon it.” -Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit

I’ve been thinking about Patriarchy, not as such, but in a specific form. Patriarchy that has been limited and beaten back by the feminist movement in the US and other places (as well as capitalist recompositions that dissolved the division of labor it was based upon, perhaps even to create a more repressive system). That is, the mode of patriarchy of mutual dependence for very survival.

By that I don’t mean survival in the sense of raw animalistic survival, but in the relationship between a man and a woman (or even other gender arrangements) wherein their relationship is mediated by a system of mutual dependence through a division of labor concerning caring work such as laundry, cooking, cleaning, knowledge of the functioning of the household, etc. In many cases, perhaps most?, this arrangement has been replaced in the US: by more egalitarian (de-gendering of such work in some households), more extractive (dissolution of the family and pushing of all work onto single individuals, usually women), and merely shifted (de-gendering of work with transformed hierarchies of gender around the management of work and household).

Seeing relationships in which old-time (TM) patriarchy dominates is striking for a number of reasons. First there is a pathetic inability which characterizes the patriarch. He (though I think examples exist where he is not male) is unable to do a number of things. It is not merely a matter of will, but rather he lacks the knowledge, ability, or both to carry out basic tasks necessary to his daily activity. Perhaps in a different situation he would be able to figure it out, but that is merely to think outside the arrangement towards what in effect is a different world, different power/culture/people. Though this is a power over an other (or others, daughters/aunts/grandmothers/etc), it is also a weakness. It is a form of organized dependency with associated coercive power, but importantly one not simply reducible to exercised violence. Just as the state governs mostly through organization, perceptions, and social relationships rather than the rather limited exercise of force, so patriarchy dominates through more subtle means. At the same time, the patriarch is oppressed by this arrangement through the effect this mediation has on his relation to himself and his partner. He cannot come into his own when bound to an imposed gender position, organized inabilities, and the compulsive nature of power which distorts and imprisons his soul.

The matriarch we should understand is not simply repressed by this situation, but herself is transformed and secured in a way. She experiences too a power over through her ability and strategic role in the maintenance of daily life (otherwise it’s likely such an arrangement would never have lasted). Patriarchy is not merely violence, but a way of organizing people so that the people themselves are changed and formed into the relationships constitutive of the relationship. So the matriarch in addition to experiencing repression, has an internalized form of repression arising from her relation to her own identity, her powers, and her desires beyond the imposition of the power and desires of another. While the patriarch is pathetic and appears a barbaric figure, the matriarch too is corrupted by the oppression much as workers turn against themselves and can become their own capitalists.

Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is instructive in drawing out these concepts, but patriarchy departs from it in several interesting ways. There’s an analogy here in showing the difference in power, ultimately resting with the slave, in such oppressive relationships. While the master owns the repressive apparatus, the dependence is his undoing. The master can be projected to wish the abolition of the slave through the projection of his own power, but can’t do so without abolition himself as well. The slave for his part too cannot attain a freedom simply becoming a slave freed of oppression, they must overcome the person they are and transform the social categories that emerge from their relationships. With patriarchy there is not merely a desire to abolish the dependence. A familial household is not merely love nor an economic running of things (oikos), it is both and more. There is no dialectic of patriarchy because the logic is not dialogic, there is a plurality of categories, an infinite spectrum of possibilities. Yet Hegel is interesting here for drawing out the way that dependency and power are not merely exercised, but internalized and made concrete. They change the people and (leaving Hegel) come into being through exercise of power against the self, more than against others. In exercising power (which the matriarch does as well of course), people’s desires are corrupted and repressed which provides fuel for the fires of such a wretched existence.

As this form of existence is rendered historical by changing people, victories of the feminist movement, and capitalist restructuring, it should push us to look again at the family. The nuclear family and the spectacle built around the rituals of family life constitute one of the primary sites of power within the capitalist system. As the state and capitalists attack many of the former positive elements within that arrangement, we need to look beyond not merely to preserving arrangements that mediate and harm us, but rupturing and seeking social transformations that allow a blossoming of people and desires.


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