Since discovering the term kyriarchy earlier this year, I’ve become a big fan.
I’ve always been quite uncomfortable about the inter-relationship between feminism and race, not only with the temptation to “rank the oppressions” (as one wit said on twitter – being feminist and anti-racist is all very well, but who wins when Julie Bindel meets Louis Farrakan?) but also the tolerence of racism inherent in some feminist discourses and the tolerance of sexism inherent in some anti-racist activism. As the Lesbian and Gay movement has expanded over the years to include various other “deviant” sexualities and gender identities, landing us in the alphabet soup of LGBTQIA, the relationship between gender and sexuality based oppression has become ever more confused.
Furthermore going beyond the “big three” of gender, race and sexuality, it is clear that there are a number of different oppressions and prejudices which affect people, frequently only situationally, the list of discovered oppressions has expanded beyond all reasonable dimensions to the extent that listing them seems almost to trivialise, but none the less they exist and affect people. Kyriarchy gives us new way to look at oppression which can encompass the unseen power structures without reification of their modes and manners.
Kyriarchy, for all of these reasons and more is rapidly becoming adopted within third wave feminism as an alternative to the second wave theory of patriarchy. Patriarchy literally translates as the “rule of the father”. In second wave radfem ideology, patriarchy is the original gender based oppression on which all other oppressions are based. I’ve always been rather unhappy at that interpretation, preferring to consider patriarchy as the gender based power structure which supports and justifies the exploitation of labour. The radfem definition doesn’t translate well over to the more inclusive kyriarchy, however if patriarchy is a system for justifying the exploitation of labour, if anything kyriarchy fits far better.
My one difficulty with kyriarchy and its adherants, however is that it frequently includes discrimination on the basis of class or “classism”. As a Marxist, I find this jarring. Class is the relationship to the means of production – there are those who own – either directly or through financial instruments (the ruling class); those who sell their labour to those who own (the working class) and those who own to some degree but are nevertheless required to sell their labour to survive (the middle class). Class lies outside the kyriarchial framework. When people talk of “class” or “classism” in this context, what they quite often mean is really culture – do people have lunch or dinner; eat pork scratchings or parma ham, go to the casino or the bingo.
The kyriarchy supports the class structure – it justifies why some are owners and some are workers and why it is that those in group A can be exploited for the benefit of those in group B. Sometimes elements of the kyriarchy and labour exploitation are is transparent: racism in 19th Century Southern USA justified slavery and ensured that there was no need to pay wages to workers ( a practice that echoes in the domestic servitude of many undocumented Latino workers in the US today); the sexist assumptions of “a woman’s place” provided free domestic labour to male workers, helping keep wage demands lower as needs could be met by working class men increasing the exploitation of their wives rather than demanding higher wages. Sometimes the relationship is more subtle. The taboos against male homosexuality encouraged all men to have an exploitable resource which would act as a break on wage demands; while the female homosexuality taboo encouraged women to look to the marriage market rather than the labour market for sustainance.
Class is fundamentally different from kyriarchy. Kyriarchy is a hidden structure of power and domination – the discrimination, prejudice and stigma may all be explicit in some cases, but its fundamental exploitative purpose – even in its most extreme form of race justified slavery – is hidden behind false justification. Kyriarchy works to obscure exploitation as much as possible. Class on the other is explicitly the system of exploitation laid bare. There are owners and there are workers; workers work for owners and the owners provide workers with wages less than the value of the work done, skimming the surplus value of their labour as their reward for ownership.
The call from feminists has long been that without women’s liberation there can be no socialism; while socialists insist that without socialism there can be no liberation of women. Both are correct. Liberation from the economic system involves and includes liberation from the power structures which act to support and maintain it. Any attempt to change the economic structure without challenging its supporting paradigms is not a revolution, but a change in management; while any attempt at challenging kyriarchical oppressions without looking at what their purpose is and why those narratives are sustained is to ignore the fundamental root of power, quite often shifting it offshore and out of sight.