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MacKinnon’s post-Marxism

Feminism thus stands in relation to marxism as marxism does to classical political economy: its final conclusion and ultimate critique.

I think this may be MacKinnon’s most exciting suggestion in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. The idea of a critique of politics which would also in part be a critique of marxism seems to be animating a lot of people right now: Žižek (so I hear); Wendy Brown’s work on sovereignty; or Enrique Dussell’s 20 Theses on Politics. Interesting, then, that MacKinnon was making the suggestion 20 years ago; unfortunately, though, this attempt to use feminism to move beyond marxism brings into particularly sharp relief the limitations of MacKinnon’s use of marxism.

MacKinnon begins by drawing an analogy between marxism and feminism. As marxism gives us a theory of history as the history of class struggle, (MacKinnon’s) feminism gives us a theory of gender struggle, of the division of the world into contending genders. This analogy with marxism seems to be central to MacKinnon’s account; at crucial points in her argument she will draw an analogy between the appearance of gender oppression she is studying and some particular marxist analysis of economic domination. I take it these analogies are supposed to have argumentative weight, to show us the mechanism by which sexist oppression works. The problem is that the analogies, from what I can see, work entirely at the level of appearances. While quite specific features of sexism to indeed look like specific features of capitalism, and the range of cases MacKinnon puts before us is remarkable, what she doesn’t show is how these analogies work at a depper level that would explain why sexism functions the way it does.

I worry that MacKinnon draws these connections to marxism in an attempt to fill in this explanatory gap in her theory, but ultimately the lack on a connection at the explanatory level undermines the analogies. The problem is that marxism is not just a theory of conflict between two arbitrarily chosen groups, and so one cannot produce a feminist theory just by mapping “bourgeois” to “man” and “proletarian” to “woman.” MacKinnon doesn’t quite do this, perhaps, but her use of marxism is an attempt to transpose the theory wholesale from production relations to gender relations. However, the centrality of production for Marx is not, as this attempt would imply, just a matter of choice. Production is central to marxism because marxism is materialism. Human consciousness is a production of human material activity, and so the world (in a phenomenological sense) is a human product. That this idea of production has often been interpreted in a narrowly economic sense is a problem of much marxism, and one that has clearly had anti-feminist effects. Nonetheless, a “marxism” in which production in the broadest sense was not the fundamental category would be incoherent (in passing, I wonder if this would be an interesting angle from which to look at Baudrillard’s supposed correction of Marx in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign).

To build a theory of sexuality on the basis of the marxist theory of the economy, as MacKinnon wants to do, would thus depend on showing that sexuality was inseperably involved in the production of the world. MacKinnon sometimes begins to provide such an account but, as for instance in the case of the connection between sexual objectification and scientific objectivity, this remains underdeveloped. Much of the time MacKinnon seems uninterested in what, as I’ve argued, ought to be a central part of her dialog with marxism. I wonder if the culprit isn’t, again, the sex/gender distinction, as MacKinnon’s use of it prevents her from being properly materialist. She criticizes attempts to naturalize gender by positing the socially constructed as autonomous from the material, that gender is not given by biology. The materialist position, on the other hand, is to show how the socially constructed is intertwined with the natural, that society constructs by constructing biology.

This underlying idealism shows up in a couple of ways in MacKinnon’s work, I think. One would be the discussion of the state, which oscillates uneasily between a rejection of the state as masculine per se and an attempt to employ the state against masculinism. Because the account of the masculine bias of formal legal neutrality isn’t anchored by a fully worked out theory of why the law is as it is, MacKinnon seems to frequently forget that this is, on her theory, an inherent property of the law, and the state starts to be taken instead as something transcendent, something that could be employed equally in the pursuit of a substantively feminist justice. In this, MacKinnon’s critiqe of politics actually seems significantly less compelling than the one we find in the early Marx. I think this might help to explain the surprisingly liberal cast of a lot of work that later radical feminists such as MacKinnon were involved with.

The other way in which the missing materialist basis makes itself felt in MacKinnon’s work is in the lip-service she pays to ideas of intersectionality, particularly the role of race and class alongside gender. While she explicitly disclaims a kind of feminist totalism, an attempt to make gender the primary contradiction, it’s difficult to see how her theory could actually address issues of race and class. As bell hooks points out, we can’t understand race, sex, and class as orthogonal to one another, separate but equal axes of discrimination; rather, we need to understand the way in which forms of oppression employ one another. Because MacKinnon doesn’t provide us with an account of the material basis of sexism, we can’t see how sexism interacts with other forms of oppression; all we can see are the effects, which can lead activism to a disastrous attempt to rank different oppressions, rather than to approach them tactically.

Indeed, this is the fundamental reason why we need to be materialists. Without an account of where oppression comes from, I don’t see how we can hope to come up with a strategy for resistance