As one observes the political rise of right-wing populists across the world, it is hard not to notice a certain similarity in their outlook of women. Yogi Adityanath, the hardline priest recently elected as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in India, has long railed against women’s equality, declaring that ‘women don’t need freedom, they need protection’, and Western-style freedoms are destructive to the Indian family structure’. Pakistanis are more than familiar with such sentiments — just last year, a law trying to empower women against domestic violence prompted a pitched street movement by the entire religious right on the grounds that it would destroy Pakistan’s family structure and Islamic values.
In Turkey, the aspiring autocrat Erdogan has waged a consistent ideological onslaught on ideas of gender equality, terming it ‘against nature itself’ and calling women who failed to reproduce ‘deficient’ and ‘incomplete’. The election of Donald Trump as US President too came on the back of a platform that included legal punishments for abortions, while fanning the racialised fears of his Far Right (and white nationalist) base about the ‘threat’ posed to American women by non-white immigrants.
Why is there such common ground in the anti-women discourses of these fascist movements across the world? After all, it is not as if Hindutva majoritarianism, Political Islamism, or White Nationalism — belief systems often violently opposed to each other — share any common cultural ancestry. Yet, in their obsession with the need to ‘control and protect’ women, they appear to echo a seemingly-primordial discourse that is immediately recognizable in multiple sociopolitical contexts.
The works of Maria Mies, a socialist-feminist theorist of patriarchal evolution, offer a compelling explanatory framework that explains the material basis underlying these commonalities. Mies, a sociologist by profession, is known for her study of the relationship between patriarchy and accumulation, which helped explain how the historical development of various systems of production — from feudalism to primitive accumulation to industrial capitalism — was rooted in the imposition of a hierarchical division of labour within the family.
Most primitive hunter-gatherer societies, Mies explains, were subsistence-based and much more gender-equal than the systems that followed them. It was only with the emergence of technology which made accumulation possible, that inequalities emerged. As men developed the tools to appropriate food and resources from nature, they began to see nature as separate and subordinate to them, as a resource to be exploited. In order to ensure control over the means of reproduction, women also came to be defined simply as part of nature — as a resource that had to be tamed and exploited through the ‘truly productive ‘and ‘fully human’ labour of men. While initially established through violence, these patriarchal relations were kept in place through the development of institutions like marriage, the family and patriarchal religious beliefs. Over time this led to patriarchal property relations — whereby the exercise of men’s productive labour on nature entitled them to possess its products — which included the possession of women by definition.
Mies contends that it is the creation of this unequal and predatory patriarchal separation — of man from nature, of man from woman and, later, of one’s ‘own’ group — that becomes the basis for the development of all further systems of exploitative economic production. Under feudal agriculture, land became the principal natural resource, which women and peasants were held in bondage to. As capitalism and colonialism expanded, large parts of the world came to be defined and divided as part of ‘nature’ — as savage and uncontrolled — and hence, open for colonisation and exploitation. The control of women and their reproductive function — essential to produce labour power for resource accumulation — has remained intricately linked to all systems of predatory production and accumulation.
Patriarchal relations of production have been in place in much of the world for centuries, yet as economic systems change and enter crisis, such relationships come under pressure. Mies describes how the reassertion of patriarchal and class power in that period (the 12th to 17th century) took the form of Witch Hunts, a phenomenon in which capitalists, the state and the church collaborated to violently persecute independent women of productive skill and influence and eventually, re-establish men’s control over their reproductive functions, albeit this time under capitalism.
For centuries hence, the patriarchal, bourgeois nuclear family remained the central social component of capitalist development the world over, with men as the providers and women as reproductive caregivers geared for the production and sustenance of workers for mass capitalist production.
Three recent factors over the past decades, however, have again brought the system to crisis. For one, capital’s tendency for accumulation, as well the rise of organised feminist movements, have increasingly brought more women into the ‘productive’ (and paid) labour force the world over, enhancing (marginally) their economic power relative to men. Secondly and more recently, the prolonged global economic crisis, characterised by falling real wages, volatile food price inflation and a rollback of state services and employment have increasingly degraded the capacity of a large proportion of middle class men to fulfil their social role as ‘providers’. In much of the developed world, this psychologically-traumatising regression of male power has also been exacerbated by technological change and automation, particularly through the relocation and loss of manufacturing jobs. As global economic, social and climate transformation weaken the material basis for patriarchal power, right-wing populism is the primal cry that seeks to re-establish patriarchal subordination through a call for a return to the old ideological certainties.
As they call for a futile return to the old world, today’s rightwing populisms are all convinced of the distinctive greatness of their respective cultural identities. In truth, they are all mirror images of each other, the proponents of a decaying order desperately clinging on to patriarchal ideologies. Unable and unwilling to deal with the loss of patriarchal power in the way that is necessary; by reimagining social roles and the division of labour in a way that corresponds to the economic needs and capacities of today.
Rashid, Ammar. Crisis of rightwing populism and patriarchy. Daily Times, April 4, 2017.