The Agonist Journal

It is one of the great ironies of the post-modern era that women’s liberation has resulted not in liberty for women, but in a new and insidious enslavement to the neoliberal corporate state. How this revolution occurred—revolutionary, that is, in its long-term impact on women and the family, on traditional communities, and on men, as well—and how it may play out in the decades ahead, is the concern of this essay.

"It is one of the great ironies of the post-modern era that women’s liberation has resulted not in liberty for women, but in a new and insidious enslavement to the neoliberal corporate state."

That mainstream feminism and corporate America are increasingly engaged in a process of symbiotic fusion is undeniable. Despite the innumerable reports of how women still struggle to shatter the mythical glass ceiling and enter the upper echelons of corporate power, in reality the number of educated women who have successfully made that transition has risen steadily over the last two decades; and there is every reason to believe that their presence and influence in the business world (putting aside for the moment the realm of political power) will be dominant by the end of the next decade. There are a number of reasons for this, but two of them are noteworthy here. Corporate employers are more likely to promote those who are adept at “team building” and “networking,” who bring to the table at least the appearance of a “nurturing” and “collaborative” style. According to a January 2019 piece in Forbes (“How Women Leaders Change Dynamics”), “companies like Johnson and Johnson have established Chairmen/CEO initiatives to recruit, promote, and retain women, and it’s working—45% of their 38,000 U.S. employees are women, and 40% of their female employees are senior managers.”

Now this is hardly a rare story; the trade and management literature is full of similar company initiatives. Other changes in the corporate world clearly favor female ambitions, as well. The #MeToo culture, for example, is essentially a system of blackmail aimed at men who refuse to adopt the program of women’s empowerment in its current irresponsible form, or who just get in the way through no fault of their own. Meanwhile, if, amid all the hysteria, there are some valid accusations of sexual harassment on the job, that’s hardly surprising, since sexual attraction between the sexes has yet to be eliminated.

The fusion between the aims of feminism and corporate America has been the subject of some controversy within the ranks of the feminists themselves, a minority of whom still adhere to an anti-capitalist position that was more typical 50 years ago. As contemporary radical feminist Nancy Fraser argued in a New Left Review article called “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History” (2006), “second-wave” feminists in the 1960s and ’70s believed that the valorized image of the New Woman in the pre-World War II era was a patriarchal ruse, a device whereby women were flattered and cajoled to remain in the home and to assume a more influential role in the community, while representing no real threat to the masculine monopoly of power in the economic and political realms. Hence, feminists like Betty Friedan and a host of activists associated with the National Organization for Women began to challenge this masculine monopoly, seeking a broader array of rights and privileges for women, including the right to full participation in the workplace.

However, as Fraser notes, most of these women were politically allied with the New Left, and shared its radically egalitarian goals, which included an attack upon the capitalist state itself, though not the socialist elements that it had absorbed during the years of the New Deal: “Acting from a critique that was at once radical and immanent, early second-wave feminists sought less to dismantle the welfare state than to transform it into a force that could help to overcome male domination.” But that alliance would be fractured by the rise of “identity politics.” Fraser’s lament is that identity politics, with its often-exclusive focus on gender and race, has abandoned the anti-capitalist politics of class. Identity feminism, in this Marxist view, was all too easily hijacked by the capitalist order. Women and “people of color” were rapidly assimilated into the corporate world, seduced by a false sense of independence and lucrative career paths—all for the price of their loyalty to the capitalist hierarchy, which remains at the highest levels a power monopoly of men, usually white.

To a significant extent, Fraser’s argument is correct, at least insofar as it grasps the irony of the transformation of mainstream feminism into an adjunct of the economic system it had once indicted as irredeemably patriarchal and sexist. In greater detail in her 2012 book (with the same title as noted), she argues that this transformation was essentially a second iteration of the scenario that led to the betrayal of first-wave feminism, though the plot has been slightly altered. In this case the villain was still capitalism, but capitalism stripped of its Keynesian social-democratic elements and wedded to a globalist economic agenda. This confluence of factors she calls “neoliberalism.” As before, feminists were duped by “the cunning of history.”

But there are deeper historical reasons for the transformation we are considering, reasons closely tied to the emergence of consumer capitalism and the disappearance of the extended family. One of the great economic shifts in the late nineteenth century involved the “labor theory of value.” Heretofore, political economists had assumed that the value of a product was directly related to the number of labor hours required to produce that good. The emergent view shifted the weight of opinion toward a psychological, and thus subjective, theory of value. As economic historian James Livingston has argued, the advocates of this new perspective, known as the “marginalists,” claimed that “subjective or particular desires of consumers were more significant than quantities of social labor time in the determination of any commodity’s value.” In short, consumer demand was to become the essential determinant of real value in the new market economy.

While this may sound at first like dismal economic history, in fact the shift toward desire and demand was a potent indicator of things to come. For by the end of the century, and increasingly thereafter, the self-sufficient producers of the old subsistence economy had fallen under the sway of a massive advertising industry designed to reshape their identities by manipulating and creating new desires, rendering them passive and compliant—traditionally feminine qualities. Hence the term “consumer demand,” which we still employ today, is charged with historical irony.

Closely tied to these economic changes was the disappearance of the “extended family,” which had been the traditional family configuration in America since colonial times. The transition from the extended family (several generations in one household) to what we call the “nuclear family” was the result of many factors, but the gradual movement from a predominantly agrarian economy to one centered in factory towns and cities, combined with higher rates of mobility, was undoubtedly the crucial one. Today, when single-parent families are rapidly becoming the most typical family arrangement, we can see retrospectively that the nuclear family was transitional. It was merely the economic unit which remained when generational ties were stripped away.

For present purposes, the extended family can be understood as a cooperative web of (usually) consanguineous relations—that is, an extensive economic and psychological support group. Pared down to its nucleus, the replacement family that emerged in the late nineteenth century became more dependent upon the marketplace, upon state bureaucracies, and upon the medical and psychiatric professions. In addition to these there were the more traditional community associations and religious organizations of various kinds, but over the course of the twentieth century these would become more attenuated.

Perhaps the nuclear family should best be understood as an arrangement that best suited the demands of the “surplus” economy, meaning the corporate and consumption economy that by the 1920s had transformed the old patriarchal hierarchy. Most adult males were no longer independent agents or autonomous producers, but wage earners or salaried middlemen. Their authority in the home was by now a carefully cultivated façade. Their authority outside the home was entirely dependent on the vagaries of the “invisible hand.” Most importantly, until the 1970s, the ideal middle-class household consisted of a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home wife and mother. Her relative idleness (as compared to the agricultural wives that preceded her) left her free for more extensive community involvement—charitable works, the arts—but, most crucially, for shopping.

Even early in the century, astute observers of the American scene like Walter Lippman saw women and their desires as a promissory note on a future that would lead Americans beyond class struggle into a paradise of human emancipation. “We hear a great deal about the class consciousness of labor,” he wrote in Drift and Mastery (1914), “[but] my own observation is that in America today consumers’ consciousness is growing very much faster.” Lippman along with William James saw women as the subjective principle of consumerism—that is, the embodiment of a new ethos that pointed away from submissive want, balked impulse and unquestioned obedience.”

As the above quotation suggests, Lippman understood first-wave feminism as something that would not have been possible without the culture of surplus. The word “consumer” had not yet become attached to its pejorative “ism,” and the predominant opinion-makers within the regnant liberalism of the “progressive era,” while they were not without apprehensions, viewed the new affluence as, overall, a force for good. Lippman was not expressing an eccentric position in looking forward to a day when “the accumulation of a great surplus of wealth” would lead to a happy marriage of “industry and housekeeping.” Within the household and beyond, women would become the true carriers of a great egalitarian process of socialization. (Lippman was then a socialist but would not remain so.)

Lippman believed that the old individualism, tied to the idea of private property, would give way to a new subjectivity linked to an emerging corporate understanding of ownership. Neither Lippman nor the early feminists (typically) sought the entrance of women into the corporate world. Rather, the exalted role of the “New Woman” required that she preside over the home and spread her moral influence into the wider community, offsetting the effects of the depersonalized and competitive realm of business. It is also true, however, that Lippman and many other reform-minded theorists of the progressive era, such as John Dewey, thought that over time the new feminine principle of the social self would spread into the corporate realm of production.

What happened in actuality was more complex. The “feminine principle of the social self” has indeed penetrated the corporate world, but only after women themselves began to abandon their traditional role as homemakers and enter into professional careers in massive numbers. After 10 years of the Great Depression, many young women were only too happy to flock into the factories for jobs that paid better than secretarial work, and full mobilization during World War II made this both possible and necessary. Equally attractive was the independence of a life lived (usually in cities) outside the repressive grasp of family or the moralism of small towns. By the late 1960s, middle-class women were attending universities in droves and entering into corporate-level jobs in direct competition with men.

As Hollywood depicted it, such a life was glamorous, promising vistas of choice and self-fashioning that were intoxicating. Moreover, the prospect of marriage, babies and a life in the suburbs no longer seemed … well, fulfilling—especially in a society in which self-fulfillment had become a therapeutic project. Marriage requires sacrifice, and with the waning of the influence of religion, sacrifice seemed a high price to pay, particularly when young men were no longer dependable. After all, birth control and abortion, both pushed fanatically by feminists, freed young men for sexual irresponsibility without consequence. Feminists also proselytized endlessly for an end to “fault” divorce laws, and thus played the leading role in creating a massive divorce industry.

Little surprise, then, that millions of women then and now, many of them single moms or single women without children, seek out corporate careers and vote for “feminists” like Hillary Clinton, who promise to shatter glass ceilings and provide on-site daycare and extended paid maternity leave for the women who want to “have it all.” If Marxist feminists like Fraser wish to argue consistently, they would have to concede that corporate capitalism has enslaved women and men equally; if men remain at the very top of the corporate ladder in greater numbers, this is probably due to the naturally more competitive drive of men. It has nothing to do with patriarchal conspiracy or oppression.

The “patriarchy,” in any case, is as extinct as the Great Auk, and has been for some time. Capitalism killed it. Radical feminists should be celebrating capitalism, or at least that entity which we persist in calling capitalism, even though it is really a system of theft which results from a fusion of incorporation and the disappearance of genuine private property—a system which some, like James Burnham, have termed the “managerial revolution.” The managerial regime under which we live today is neither capitalist nor socialist, but a hybrid of the two which, though it has not and will not abolish class distinctions, is nonetheless a collectivist enterprise that can be adapted to satisfy most of the demands made by even radical feminists.

Ronald W. Dworkin, in “Why Big Business Loves Gender Neutrality” (American Interest, July 2019), provides some fascinating glimpses into the corporate endgame. Dworkin’s argument, in a nutshell, is that “gender equality” will soon cease to have much “surplus value.” When women began flocking into the workplace in the 1960s, capitalists doubled surplus value. (Here the term “surplus” refers to the production costs of commodities or services rather than the broader notion of economic surplus that fed the growth of consumerism.) Businesses need a certain “surplus” before they can re-invest in capital goods or expansion. Their surplus increases as wages are driven down, or as new technological developments allow them to extract more surplus per “man hour.”

When women entered the labor force by the millions, male wages dropped. Wages for both men and women have been in a slump for decades, though this is also due to the decline of labor unions and the convenience of off-shoring. During this period—from the late 1960s down to the present—the gender equality regime has required a relentless downgrading of the most distinctive gender characteristics. Moreover, men and women in the corporate world have become increasingly similar, at least outwardly. They compensate for this in their private lives by “enhancing” their masculinity or femininity artificially (think of the breast augmentation industry or the popularity of pumping iron during the ’80s and ’90s).

But Dworkin suggests that the era of the gender equality surplus may be turning the corner toward diminishing returns. What will replace it, he argues, is “gender neutrality,” and that seems to be already well in view. From the capitalist perspective, if gender equality provided a new source of surplus value, gender neutrality will prove to be even more lucrative. Gender neutral language (“What are your pronouns?”) is rapidly becoming the new normal, not only in the business world but in virtually all our institutional life. Gender neutral fashion has for years been, to some extent, the expected attire in business, and is becoming more so. Perhaps most importantly, gender neutrality, says Dworkin, “will reduce sexual tension in the workplace … since segregating the genders is no longer an option.”

Feminists may well welcome gender neutrality in the first instance, since it would in theory relieve them of anxieties about unwanted sexual attention (even if that unwanted attention is often imaginary). But some feminists, like Camille Paglia, have already expressed grave reservations about such developments and one suspects that many more have largely repressed doubts about the new regime. Is this the world that women want? Is this liberation? Sexual tension exists at the very heart of human existence. Eliminate it, and we become something less than human, and we take a giant leap toward a frightening and totalitarian future, under the rule of sexless managers.

One intriguing variation on this motif has recently been discussed by Costin Vlad Alamariu in his article “Rule of the Global Eunuch.” Our managerial bureaucracies, Alamariu suggests, are breeding grounds for a new class of eunuchs, not unlike those desexed individuals who served as administrators in the courts of ancient empires:

Eunuchs, devoid of an identity and posterity of their own, were seen as the perfect loyal functionaries to carry out the will of a centralized bureaucratic tyranny. This is the distillation of meritocracy, and the modern total State apparently has plenty of virtual eunuchs … and seems eager to promote many more.

While Alamariu is speaking of both male and female functionaries, his article implies that women are especially suited for this role, and for reasons I have already touched on above, he may be right. He offers the example of Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan, a woman elevated by a rigged meritocracy to a role of eminence, though devoid of any “significant intellectual achievements” and lacking any “original ideas.”

One does not need to look hard for additional examples. Such eunuchs are prominent not only in government but in the media and in the corporate world, and move effortlessly from one bureaucratic realm to the other. Over a century ago, the sociologist Max Weber famously introduced the metaphor of the “iron cage” of bureaucracy. Those who inhabited the iron cage (the bureaucrats) were in his view a modern type of the “ascetic,” like the medieval monks whose lives were marked by self-denial and spiritual devotion. But Weber’s bureaucrats served no religious purpose; rather they served the gods of economic rationality, becoming themselves the prisoners of that rationality. Our post-modern eunuchs, however hedonistic they may be in their private lives, practice a similar form of self-denial in their professional lives. Within the confines of their iron cage, they, as Alamariu argues, must rigidly conform to standards of behavior that permanently repress the development of individuality.

For the masters they serve require that they be essentially interchangeable, and essentially “feminine” in their willingness to submit to the collective identity that serves the purposes of global neoliberalism—the regime which seeks ultimately to destroy all traditional sources of identity and all genuine individuality (for the obvious purpose of enhanced control). In the end, such a regime must fail. First, because the bureaucratic hierarchy too often selects for mediocrity, and thus becomes increasingly incompetent and blind to the currents of life outside the iron cage. Second, because it has dangerously suppressed the “masculine principle,” and has thus rendered itself weak and incapable of effective self-defense against enemies who are ruthless or determined. Therefore, provided that we, both men and women, are determined to salvage what remains of our traditional culture and to pass that moral foundation along to our children, we have every reason to be hopeful. Of course, in order to accomplish our goal, we must have children, and we must ensure that those children are raised in tight-knit communities of shared beliefs and customs. Indeed, we must recreate the extended, patriarchal family.