11 October 2016

Women in Capitalism in the 19th Century

"Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal [as 'mere instruments of production'], not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other's wives." 
"Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an open legalized community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from the system, i.e. of prostitution both public and private" - The Communist Manifesto, 1848. 

Apparently the Communists were already controversial in 1848 when the manifesto was written and one of the protests was that they would destroy the structure of society. Indeed where Communism was imposed on societies, they often did this on purpose. Marx and Engels seem to have seen it as a natural consequence of changing the system of production however. 

We have to remember that pre-industrial revolution women worked mainly in and around the household - not as "housewives", but as members of a team that produced enough food for the family to live on. Men spent time away from the household in order to bring in what the women could not grow or collect. Common lands made it possible to survive lean times. On industrialisation women and children began to be employed in factories on much smaller wages than men. This is one of the changes that the Communists were reacting to. Also, as now, people had to move to where the factories were built and this fragmented traditional communities. The enclosure of common land meant that women and often children had to seek industrial work to survive. The Bourgeoisie happily put the children of the proletarians to work, while pampering their own children. In a sense they still do this, though it is far more subtle. 

Prostitution was certainly not new to this time, but a growing number of women were unable to rely on community support or to support themselves if they became detached from a man. Meanwhile the bourgeoisie were newly rich and indolent. They increasingly felt that the rules of propriety did not apply to them - the English Romantic poets epitomise this attitude. They were a bunch of toffs with no need to work, too much money, and free access to drugs. 

The Communists saw the irony in a bed-hopping high society, who viewed women as property, units of production, or sexual objects, complaining that abolition of private (i.e. bourgeois) property would result in the abolition of the ownership of women and allow women to (re)emerge as a power in society in their own right. The bourgeoisie were afraid of losing property, power, and control. They still are. 

Since 1848 the power of the bourgeoisie has been consolidated and internalised. State education is aimed at creating obedient workers and greedy consumers. Mass-media has replaced religion as the opium of the masses and has the advantage of not making any claims on the morality of the viewer. So-called democracy has been set up so that the bourgeoisie always win - they even won the global financial crisis that destroyed the homes, savings, and jobs of many workers. 

Unfortunately the solutions to the problems identified by the Communists are not obviously workable. Communism as enacted by various regimes (usually in the form of Stalinism or Maoism) have been brutal and disastrous. As my landlady recently quipped, the communists under-estimated the aspiration of the middle-classes. 

So what works? The places with the best overall living standards and happiness are the smaller socialist democracies, even after a few decades of the Neoliberal wrecking ball: New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands. Britain has a variable record, but has done best when it was more obviously socialist - public health, education, broadcasting, etc. A well regulated and supervised capitalist economy, and a government with the well-being of the people as it's main goal seems to be the least worst option in the present. The capture of democracy by business interests is an ongoing disaster. 

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