On the Russian Steppe.
Engels 1884:“As regards the legal equality of husband and wife in marriage, the position is no better. The legal inequality of the two partners, bequeathed to us from earlier social conditions, is not the cause but the effect of the economic oppression of the woman. In the old communistic household, which comprised many couples and their children, the task entrusted to the women of managing the household was as much a public and socially necessary industry as the procuring of food by the men. With the patriarchal family, and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production. Not until the coming of modern large-scale industry was the road to social production opened to her again – and then only to the proletarian wife. But it was opened in such a manner that, if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out family duties. And the wife’s position in the factory is the position of women in all branches of business, right up to medicine and the law. The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.
“In the great majority of cases today, at least in the possessing classes, the husband is obliged to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself gives him a position of supremacy, without any need for special legal titles and privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat. In the industrial world, the specific character of the economic oppression burdening the proletariat is visible in all its sharpness only when all special legal privileges of the capitalist class have been abolished and complete legal equality of both classes established. The democratic republic does not do away with the opposition of the two classes; on the contrary, it provides the clear field on which the fight can be fought out. And in the same way, the peculiar character of the supremacy of the husband over the wife in the modern family, the necessity of creating real social equality between them, and the way to do it, will only be seen in the clear light of day when both possess legally complete equality of rights. Then it will be plain that the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry, and that this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society” (Engels, Origin of the Family, my emphasis).
The material conditions of our lives are always several steps ahead of our awareness of them, and when we take up a cause the process we support has already begun. So, for example, ‘the environmental cause’ was a part of the strategy of BP long before the political activists took it up. Governments and big corporations were working on solutions to the problems of dwindling resources and environmental destruction long before the activists showed up with their placards. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is an anthropologist who has studied shared parenting in early hominins and hunter gatherers and has pointed out how important cooperative breeding was for the development of altruism and the human brain. She now favours the extension of childcare through affordability in Western society. Her call comes after childcare has already taken over aged-care as one of the big entrepreneurial money-spinners and government funded initiatives of our time. Capitalism has beaten her to it. Hrdy has made some nice observations which tell us things about how we live now. But once she has done that she feels obliged to mount a campaign, to saddle the horses and gather some troops and head forever East into the Russian Steppe.
Engels looked at the egalitarianism of ancient societies and, using a line from Morgan to end ‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’, he calls for: “a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes [clans]”. Prior to this, of course, as we see above, he asks for the reconfiguration of society so that women can re-enter the world of public social production. This was already happening in reality. But Engels, all those years ago, was not content just to observe, he saddled his horses and gathered some troops for his eternal journey into the Russian Steppe.
In the Interview you refer to, Nina says:
“I think there is in this marxist-feminist dismissal of the domestic sphere, a residue of contempt for women and what they actually do.”
I think this is mainly true, I found the text from Engels after I had read again your piece. But what exactly is ‘the domestic sphere’? I am always unnerved when advised as to what my or others’ function should be, or what is necessary. As you ask, what do such apparent imperatives have to do with us, or, ‘who are we to make those arguments?’
The anthropological debate I obliquely refer to here is about this casting back of the nuclear family to the origin of humanity – the timeless (human nature) notion that women do the chores around the house and look after the children while the men go out and get the high energy food. One study suggests – on the evidence that hunting is/was often not very productive, and that catching small animals in traps is much more productive than going for big animals, and that most food consumed is/was gathered anyway – that men only go/went off hunting for big game because it makes/made them sexually attractive – like the work of a peacock. Who knows? Maybe women convince them that they should go off and hunt big game for other reasons, which may be more obvious and more prosaic?
There is evidence of at least one band/tribe where women also hunt. I enjoy the fact that the presumption of hunting and gathering as the first sexual division of labour (gathering including childcare of course) is shaky. There is, of course, a strategy within the proposition of ‘we are not going to war’, of navigating ourselves around the map, and this is through the mechanism which demands that all certainties should be uncertainised, for, as you have so beautifully said elsewhere: whenever a solution is offered, whenever an answer is given, an angel loses its wings.
I also enjoy thinking that if a form of social organisation which was egalitarian to a significant degree lasted for millennia then it must have been the easiest way to live. I therefore think that it is deliciously reasonable that women, at least, decided that they should spread the demands of childcare and established egalitarianism in the process.
Another thing that attracts me to these ideas is that I experience the control of ‘upstartism’ (from Christopher Boehm’s investigations into feuding tribes in Montenegro) in my family from my wife and daughter almost daily, as I think the majority of men do (not from my own wife and daughter, of course, but it actually wouldn’t surprise me…). I also saw it with my parents, and such evidence is all around us. There is a theory that it was women who invented language, and that their often supposed greater awareness of social complexity is related to that. These are great ideas to play around with. But, because other ideas I have about the world control how I use these ideas, I am not going to saddle up my horses and ride onto the Russian Steppe.
I am concerned that Nina is defending what ‘woman actually do’ in the domestic sphere? Is she saddling up her horses? Are we perhaps required to think this through and then saddle our own horses in defence of a presumed women’s ‘function’ in the domestic sphere against the sallies of Engels and the marxist-feminists? If you put your ear to the wind you can sometimes hear the ghostly echoes of the clash of swords all the way from the Russian Steppe.
I think that what women actually ‘do’ which is of any interest or importance is not a ‘function’ and is not related to production at all, whether it be production of children and childhood or production of soup, but is fluid and dynamic and entirely socio-political or socio-cultural, often expressed, counter-intuitively perhaps, in what is taken to be modern-day domesticity but is in fact a socio-political strategy for enabling an easier life: making sandwiches, or making the bed, or sorting out other stuff that apparently needs to be sorted out, on a general plane of resignation. Thus women have a perspective which is based in immediacy whereas men and all those who act like men, which we all do from time to time, do not see the stuff around them, are unaware, and have their eye on some battle on the Russian Steppe, which is why men fuck up so much.
But what am I to do with these conjectures, apart from get them off my chest? My horse is in the paddock and I have awkwardly carted the saddle down to the lake and swung it off a rickety jetty, it will sink in time, perhaps I should have sold it instead? Everything that happens occurs on a level above or below that level in which our thinking takes place. Even so, thinking is a very rewarding pastime for some, despite the trouble it can get you into. You can’t, for example, say that the perspective of women is, in general terms, one of resignation, even when by that term one means intelligence. I have, of course, made all this up in the way I am meant to, product, as I am, of the time and the environment.