Wendy Brown. Feminist Studies. Volume 18, Issue 1. Spring 1992.
Amid postmodernist circumspection about definitive or comprehensive accounts, the absence of a comprehensive theory of the masculinist powers of the state is an admittedly ambiguous lack. However, there are two overlapping sets of political developments in the United States which suggest the need for as full, complex, and nuanced reading of state powers as purveyors and mediators of male dominance as feminist theorists can achieve. First, the state figures prominently in a number of issues currently occupying and often dividing North American feminists, including campaigns for state regulation of pornography and reproductive technologies; contradictory agendas for reforms in labor, insurance, and parental leave legislation (the “difference-equality” debate in the public policy domain); and appeals to the state, at times crosscut by appeals to the private sector, for pay equity, child support and daycare funding. Second, an unprecedented and growing number of women in the United States are today directly dependent upon the state for survival. Through the dramatic increase in impoverished “mother-headed households” produced by the socially fragmenting and dislocating forces of late-twentieth-century capitalism, and through the proliferation of state policies and services addressing the effects of these forces, the state has acquired a historically unparalleled prominence—political and economic, social and cultural—in millions of women’s lives.
State-centered feminist politics, and feminist hesitations about such politics, are hardly new. Nineteenth-century feminist appeals to the state included campaigns for suffrage, protective labor legislation, temperance, birth control, and marriage law reform. In the twentieth century, the list expanded to campaigns for equal opportunity, equal pay, equal rights, and comparable worth; reproductive rights and public daycare; reform of rape, abuse, marriage, and harassment laws; and in the last decade, labor legislation concerned with maternity, as well as state regulation of pornography, surrogacy, and new reproductive technologies. In North American feminism’s more militant recent past, arguments about the appropriateness of turning to the state with such appeals frequently focused on the value of “reform politics” (a Left skepticism) or on the appropriateness of state “intervention” in familial and sexual issues (a liberal nervousness). Less often raised and what I want to pose centrally here is the question of whether the state is a specifically problematic instrument or arena of feminist political change. If the institutions, practices, and discourses of the state are as inextricably, however differently, bound up with the prerogatives of manhood in a male-dominant society, as they are with capital and class in a capitalist society and white supremacy in a racist society, what are the implications for feminist politics?
A subset of this question about feminist appeals to the state concerns the politics of protection and regulation, the inescapable politics of most state-centered social policy. Although minimal levels of protection may be an essential prerequisite to freedom, freedom in the barest sense of participating in the conditions and choices shaping a life, let alone in a richer sense of shaping a common world with others, is also in profound tension with externally provided protection. Whether one is dealing with the state, the Mafia, parents, pimps, police, or husbands, the heavy, dual price of institutionalized protection is always a measure of dependence and agreement to abide by the protector’s rules. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s elegant critique of “civil slavery” made so clear, institutionalized political protection necessarily entails surrendering individual and collective power to legislate and adjudicate for ourselves in exchange for external guarantees of physical security, including security in one’s property. Indeed, within liberalism, paternalism and institutionalized protection are interdependent parts of the heritage of social contract theory in which “natural liberty” is traded for the individual and collective security ostensibly guaranteed by the state.
If those attached to the political value of freedom as self-legislation or direct democracy thus have reason to be wary of the politics of protection, women have particular cause for greeting such politics with caution. Historically, the argument that women require protection by and from men has been critical in legitimating women’s exclusion from some spheres of human endeavor and confinement within others. Operating simultaneously to link “femininity” to the privileged races and classes, protection codes are also markers and vehicles of such divisions among women, distinguishing those women constructed as violable and hence protectable from those women who are their violation, logically unviolable because marked sexually available, marked as sexuality. Protection codes are thus key technologies in regulating privileged women as well as in intensifying the vulnerability and degradation of those on the unprotected side of the constructed divide between light and dark, wives and prostitutes, good girls and bad ones. Finally, if the politics of protection are generically problematic for women and for feminism, still more so are the specific politics of sexual protection, such as those inherent in feminist antipornography legislation. Legally codifying and thereby ontologizing a cultural construction of male sexual rapaciousness and female powerlessness, this appeal for protection both desexualizes and depowers women in its assignment of responsibility to the state for women’s fate as objects of sexist sexual construction. Moreover, if, as I will argue, state powers are no more gender-neutral than they are neutral with regard to class and race, such an appeal involves seeking protection against men from masculinist institutions, a move more in keeping with the politics of feudalism than freedom. Indeed, to be “protected” by the very power whose violation one fears perpetuates the specific modality of dependence and powerlessness marking much of women’s experience across widely diverse cultures and epochs.
As potentially pernicious but more subtle in operation than the politics of protection inherent in state-centered feminist reforms are the politics of regulation entailed by many such reforms. Michel Foucault, and before him, Max Weber and Herbert Marcuse, mapped in meticulous theoretical and empirical detail “the increasing organization of everything as the central issue of our time” and illuminated the evisceration of human depths and connection, as well as the violent structures of discipline and normalization achieved by this process. Yet with few exceptions, feminist political thinkers and activists eschew this assessment, pursuing various political reforms without apparent concern for the intensification of regulation—the pervasively disciplining and dominating effects—consequent to them. Comparable worth policy, for example, involves extraordinary new levels of rationalization of labor and the workplace: the techniques and instruments of job measurement, classification, and job description required for its implementation make Taylorism look like child’s play. Similarly, state-assisted child support guarantees, including but not only those utilizing wage attachments, invite extensive state surveillance of women’s and men’s daily lives, work activities, sexual and parental practices, as well as rationalization of their relationships and expectations. Given a choice between rationalized, procedural unfreedom, on one hand, and arbitrary deprivation, discrimination, and violence, on the other, some, perhaps even most, women might opt to inhabit a bureaucratized domain over a “state of nature” suffused with male dominance. So also would most of us choose wage work over slavery, but such choices feature nowhere a meaningful politics of freedom.
The second historical development suggesting a need for the illuminative powers of a feminist theory of the state—the dramatic increase in impoverished, woman-supported households over the last two decades—raises a related set of issues about dependence and autonomy, domination and freedom. The statistics are familiar: today, approximately one-fifth of all women are officially poor and two out of three poor adults are women; women literally replaced men on the poverty rolls over the last twenty years. The poverty rate for children under six is approximately 25 percent—47 percent for African American children, and 40 percent for Hispanic children. Nearly one-fifth of U.S. families are officially “headed by women,” but this fifth accounts for one-half of all poor families and harbors almost one-third of all children between three and thirteen. Approximately one-half of poor “female-headed” households are on welfare; over 10 percent of all U.S. families thus fit the profile of being headed by women, impoverished, and directly dependent on the state for survival.
An appreciation of the gendered characteristics of the institutions now figuring so largely in the lives of millions of U.S. poor women and children is surely critical to formulating intelligent feminist strategies for dealing with the state. Indeed, quietly paralleling the controversial feminist advocacy of state regulation of pornography is an equally questionable but less hotly debated feminist insistence upon state solutions to female poverty. Although Linda Gordon, Mimi Abramovitz, and a handful of other feminist welfare state critics do work to problematize this insistence, the dominant position in feminist political discourse is typified by Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven who began arguing in the early 1980s that Left and radical feminists must overcome their “categorical antipathy to the state.” In Ehrenreich’s and Piven’s view, such indiscriminate (and implicitly unfounded) mistrust of authority and institutions obscures how potentially empowering for the women’s movement is the considerable and growing involvement of women with the state—mostly as clients and workers but also as constituents and politicians. Largely on the basis of hypothetical alliances (between middle-class women in the welfare state infrastructure and their clients) and imagined possibilities for militant collective action (in the vein of welfare rights actions of the 1960s), Piven and Ehrenreich argue that the welfare state is not merely a necessary holding action for millions of women but constitutes the base for a progressive mass movement. “The emergence of women as active political subjects on a mass scale is due to the new consciousness and new capacities yielded women by their expanding relationships to state institutions.”
Ehrenreich and Piven are sanguine about precisely what I want to place in question, that U.S. women’s “expanding relationships to state institutions” unambiguously opens and enriches the domain of feminist political possibilities. Do these expanding relationships produce only “active political subjects,” or do they also produce regulated, subordinated, and disciplined state subjects? Does the late-twentieth-century configuration of the welfare state help to emancipate women from compulsory motherhood or help to administer it? Is the state eroding or intensifying the isolation of women in reproductive work and the ghettoization of women in service work? Do female staff and clients of state bureaucracies—a critical population in Ehrenreich’s and Piven’s vision of a militant worker-client coalition—transform the masculinism of bureaucracy or do they become servants of it, disciplined and produced by it? Considering these questions in a more ecumenical register, in what ways might women’s deepening involvement with the state entail exchanging dependence upon individual men for regulation by contemporary institutionalized processes of male domination? And how might the abstractness, the ostensible neutrality, and the lack of a body and face in the latter, help to disguise these processes, inhibiting or diluting women’s consciousness of their situation qua women, thereby circumscribing prospects of substantive feminist political change?
In the interest of addressing—developing more than answering—these questions, this essay offers a contour sketch of the specifically masculinist powers of the late modern U.S. state. Although it does not build toward policy recommendations or a specific political program, it issues from and develops two political hunches: First, domination, dependence, discipline, and protection, the terms marking the itinerary of women’s subordination in vastly different cultures and epochs, are also characteristic effects of state power and therefore cast state-centered feminist politics under extreme suspicion for the possibility of reiterating rather than reworking subordinate conditions and constructions of women. Second, insofar as state power is, inter alia, a historical product and expression of male predominance in public life and male dominance generally, state power itself is surely and problematically gendered; as such, it gives a specifically masculinist spin to the generic problematic of the high tension and possible incompatibility between prospects for radical democracy and the increasingly unattenuated powers of the state in the late twentieth century.
Theorizing the State
Discerning the socially masculine dimensions of the state requires coming to terms with the theoretical problematic of the state itself, specifically the paradox that what we call the state is at once an incoherent, multifaceted ensemble of power relations and an apparent vehicle if not agent of massive domination. The contemporary U.S. state is both modern and postmodern, highly concrete and an elaborate fiction; powerful and intangible; rigid and protean; potent and boundaryless; centralizing and decentered; without agency, eschewing personification, yet capable of tremendous economic, political, and ecological effects. Despite the almost unavoidable tendency to speak of the state as an “it,” the domain we call the state is not a thing, system, or subject but a significantly unbounded terrain of powers and techniques, an ensemble of discourses, rules, and practices, cohabiting in limited, tension-ridden, often contradictory relation with one another.
Insofar as “the state” is not an entity or a unity, it does not harbor and deploy only one kind of political power or, to start the story a bit earlier, political power does not come in only one variety. Any attempt to reduce or define power as such, and political thinkers from Machiavelli to Morgenthau to MacKinnon have regularly made such attempts, obscures for example, that social workers, the Pentagon, and the police are not simply different faces of the state in an indigent woman’s life but different kinds of power. Each works differently as power, produces different effects, engenders different kinds of possible resistance, and requires a different analytical frame; at the same time, each emerges and operates in specific historical, political, and economic relation with the others and thus also demands an analysis which can nonreductively capture this relation.
For purposes of this essay, I want to consider four specific modalities of contemporary U.S. state power. These four are not exhaustive of the state’s powers, but each carries a feature of the state’s masculinism and each has been articulated in traditional as well as feminist political thought. The juridical-legislative or liberal dimension of the state encompasses the state’s formal, constitutional aspects. It is the dimension Marx, in his early writings, criticized as bourgeois, it is central to Catharine MacKinnon’s and Carole Pateman’s theorization of the state’s masculinism, and it is the focus of the rapidly developing field of feminist jurisprudence. The capitalist dimension of the state includes provision of capitalism’s moorings in private property rights as well as active involvement in capitalist production, distribution, consumption, and legitimation. Sketched by Marx in his later writings, exhaustively theorized by twentieth-century neo-Marxist scholars, a number of European and North American Marxist feminists have analyzed aspects of masculine privilege inscribed in this dimension of the state. The prerogative dimension of the state pertains to that which marks the state as a state: legitimate arbitrary power in policy making and legitimate monopolies of internal and external violence in the police and military. As the overt power-political dimension of the state, prerogative includes expressions of national purpose and national security as well as the whole range of legitimate arbitrary state action, from fiscal regulation to incarceration procedures. Machiavelli and Hobbes are prerogative power’s classic theorists; the analyses of war and militarism undertaken by Judith Steihm, Nancy Hartsock, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Cynthia Enloe, and Carol Cohn, as well as by nonacademic cultural and ecofeminists, have opened the terrain of prerogative state power to feminist theoretical critique. The bureaucratic dimension of the state, like the others, is expressed in institutional arrangements and discourse: bureaucracy’s hierarchalism, proceduralism, and cult of expertise constitute one of several state “voices” and the organizational structure of state processes and activities. Classically theorized by Weber, cast in a narrower frame by Foucault as the problematic of “disciplinary” power, this dimension of state power has been subjected to feminist critique by Kathy Ferguson.
Before elaborating each of these dimensions of state power, I want to offer three prefatory notes about male dominance and state power. First, the argument I am here advancing is that all dimensions of state power, and not merely some overtly “patriarchal” aspect, figure in the gendering of the state. The state can be masculinist without intentionally or overtly pursuing the “interests” of men precisely because the multiple dimensions of socially constructed masculinity have historically shaped the multiple modes of power circulating through the domain called the state—this is what it means to talk about masculinist power rather than the power of men. On the other hand, although all state power is marked with gender, the same aspects of masculinism do not appear in each modality of state power. Thus, a feminist theory of the state requires simultaneously articulating, deconstructing, and relating the multiple strands of power comprising both masculinity and the state. The fact that neither state power nor male dominance are unitary or systematic means that a feminist theory of the state will be less a linear argument than the mapping of an intricate grid of often conflicting strategies, technologies, and discourses of power.
A second significant feature of state and male domination and the quality of their interpenetration pertains to the characterological homology between them—their similarly multiple, diverse, unsystematic composition and dynamics. Perceiving and productively working this homology entails recognizing—for some this will be conceding—that male dominance is not rooted, as domination by capital is, in a single mechanism that makes possible a large and complex system of social relations. What links together the diverse forms or “stages” of the economic system called capitalism—the liberal or competitive stage, the monopoly or organized stage, the postindustrial or disorganized stage—is its continuous linchpin in “private,” profit-oriented ownership and control of the means of production. Thus, however deeply and variously involved the state may be with capitalist accumulation and legitimation, the state’s capitalist basis remains its guarantee of private ownership as private property rights. There is no parallel way in which the state is “male” because male dominance does not devolve upon a single or essential principle, which is why it is so hard to circumscribe and absolutely inappropriate to systematize. In most cultures, male dominance includes the regularized production of men’s access to women as unpaid servants, reproducers, sex partners, and cheap labor, as well as the production of men’s monopolies of intellectual, political, cultural, and economic power. But the masculinity and hence the power of men is developed and expressed differently as fathers, as political rulers or members of a political brotherhood, as owners and controllers in the economy, as sexual subjects, as producers of particular kinds of knowledges and rationality, and as relative nonparticipants in reproductive work and other activities widely designated as women’s purview. The diversity and diffuseness of male power results in parallel diversity across women’s experience inside the family and out, as mothers and prostitutes, scholars and secretaries, janitors and fashion models. These differences cannot be reduced entirely to the intersection of gender with class, race, and sexuality; they pertain as well to the different effects of the multiple dimensions and domains of male power and female subordination.
A related feature of the homology between male dominance and state power pertains to the ubiquitous quality of the dominance. State and masculine domination both work through this ubiquitousness rather than through tight, coherent strategies. Neither has a single source or terrain of power; for both, the power producing and controlling its subjects is unsystematic, multidimensional, generally “unconscious,” and without a center. Male power, like state power, is real but largely intangible except for the occasions when it is expressed as violence, physical coercion, or outright discrimination—all of which are important but not essential features of either kind of domination, especially in their postmodern incarnations. The hegemonic effect of both modes of dominance lies in the combination of strategies and arenas in which power is exercised. Concretely, if men do not maintain some control over relations of reproduction, they cannot as easily control women’s labor and if they do not monopolize the norms and discourse of political life, they exercise much less effective sexual and economic control over women. But these strategies buttress and at times even contradict each other; they are not indissolubly linked to one another. Women’s subordination is the wide effect of all these modes of control, which is why no single feminist reform—in pay equity, reproductive rights, institutional access, childcare arrangements, or sexual freedom—even theoretically topples the whole arrangement. The same is true of the state—its multiple dimensions make state power difficult to circumscribe and nearly impossible to injure. There is no single thread which, when snapped, unravels the whole of state or masculine dominance.
One final prefatory note on the discernment of gender in the state: in the U.S. context, as well as that of other historically colonial or slave-based political economies, state power is inevitably racialized as well as gendered and bourgeois. But the white supremacist nature of contemporary state power—the specific mores and mechanisms through which state power is systematically rather than incidentally racist—are only beginning to be theorized by scholars investigating the inscription of race and race supremacy in political power, and I do not develop their speculations here. What can be argued with some certainty is that the racialized, gendered, and class elements of state power are mutually constitutive as well as contradictory, but the specific mechanisms and narratives of the racialized state have some distinctiveness, just as the gendered aspects of state power are analytically isolatable from those of class, even as they mingle with them historically and culturally. In other words, however these various modes of social, political, and economic domination intersect with each other in the daily constitution and regulation of subjects, as modes of political power they require initially separate genealogical and analytic study. To do otherwise is to reiterate the totalizing, reductionist moves of Marxist theories of power and society, in which analysis of one vector of social power—class—is tendered to enframe all modes of domination.
Finding the Man in the State: Four Modalities of Power
The Liberal Dimension. Liberal ideology, legislation, and adjudication are predicated upon a division of the polity into the ostensibly autonomous spheres of family, civil society (economy), and state. In classical as well as much contemporary liberal discourse, the family is cast as the “natural” or divinely given—thus prepolitical and ahistorical—part of the human world. Civil society is also formulated as “natural” in the sense of arising out of “human nature,” although the civility of civil society is acknowledged by liberal theorists to be politically “achieved” and it is also within civil society that the rights guaranteed by the (nonnatural) state are exercised. In classic liberal accounts, the state is the one conventional and hence fully malleable part of this tripartite arrangement; it is constructed both to protect citizens from external danger and to guarantee the rights necessary for commodious commerce with one another.
The problem with this discourse for women is familiar and has been extensively rehearsed by feminist political theorists such as Carole Pateman, Catharine MacKinnon, Lorenne Clark, and Lynda Lange. First, because the family is cast as natural and prepolitical, so also is woman, the primary worker within and crucial signifier of the family, constructed in these terms. In this discourse, women are “naturally” suited for the family, the reproductive work women do is “natural,” the family is a “natural” entity—everywhere nature greets nature and the historical constructedness and plasticity of both women and the family is nowhere in sight. As the family is depoliticized, so is women’s situation and women’s work within it; recognized neither politically nor economically as labor, this work has a discursively shadowy, invisible character. Second, because much of women’s work and life transpires in the “private” or familial realm, women’s involvement with the place where rights are conferred and exercised—civil society—is substantially limited by comparison with men. Thus, even when women acquire civil rights, they acquire something that is at best partially relevant to their daily lives and the main domain of their unfreedom. Third, historically, the “private sphere” is not actually a realm of privacy for women insofar as it is a place of nearly unlimited access to a woman by her husband and children. “Privacy is everything women…have never been allowed to have; at the same time the private is everything women have been equated with and defined in terms of men’s ability to have.” Insofar as it arises as a realm of privacy from other men for men, the private sphere may be the last place on earth women experience either privacy or safety—hence the feminist longing for a “room of one’s own” within men’s “haven in a heartless world.” For the most part, rights do not apply in this sphere; rather this realm is formally governed by norms of duty, love, and custom, and until quite recently, has been largely shielded from the reach of law. Indeed, the difficulties of establishing marital rape as rape, wife battering as battery, or child abuse as abuse, pertain, inter alia, to the liberal resistance to recognizing personhood inside the household; in the liberal formulation, persons are rights-bearing individuals pursuing their interests in civil society. Thus James Tyrell in the seventeenth century, and Immanuel Kant and William Blackstone in the eighteenth, argued that it was reasonable for women to be “concluded” (politically represented) by their husbands because “women have no civil personality”—they exist only as members of households while personhood is achieved in civil society. Within liberalism, the nonpersonhood of women, the extralegal status of household relations, and ontological association of both with nature are all mutually reinforcing.
According to the origin myths of liberalism, men come out of the “state of nature” to procure rights for themselves in society; they do not establish the state to protect or empower individuals inside families. The relevance of this for contemporary analysis lies in its revelation of the masculinist perspective at the heart of the liberal formulation of political and civil rights: the liberal subject is a man who moves freely between family and civil society, bearing prerogative in the former and rights in the latter. This person is male rather than generic because his enjoyment of his civil rights is buttressed rather than limited by his relations in the private sphere while the opposite is the case for women: within the standard sexual division of labor, women’s access to civil society and its liberties is limited by household labor and responsibility. Liberalism’s discursive construction of the “private” sphere as neither a realm of work nor of power but of nature, comfort, and regeneration is inherently bound to the male position in the private sphere and parallels the privileging of class entailed in bourgeois characterizations of civil society as a place of universal freedom and equality.
One problem with liberal state power for women, then, is that those persons recognized and granted rights by the state are walking freely about civil society, not contained in the family. Women doing primary labor and achieving primary identity inside the family are thus inherently constrained in their prospects for recognition as persons insofar as they lack the stuff of liberal personhood—legal, economic, or “civil personality.” They are derivative of their households and husbands, subsumed in identity to their maternal activity as mothers, sequestered from the place where rights are exercised, wages are earned, and political power is wielded. Moreover, because the liberal state does not recognize the family as a political entity or reproduction as a social relation, women’s situation as unpaid workers within the family is depoliticized. Finally, although women have now been accorded roughly the same panoply of civil and political rights accorded men, these rights are of more limited use to most women and have different substantive meaning in women’s lives. It is as gratuitous to dwell upon an impoverished single mother’s freedom to pursue her own individual interests in society as it is to carry on about the private property rights of the homeless.
This last point raises a final consideration about the liberal state’s maleness, one suggested by the work of thinkers as diverse and respectively problematic as Carol Gilligan and Luce Irigaray. The liberal subject—the abstract individual constituted and addressed by liberal political and legal codes—may be masculine not only because his primary domain of operations is civil society rather than the family, but because he is presumed to be morally if not ontologically oriented toward autonomy, autarky, and individual power. Gilligan’s work suggests that social constructions of gender in this culture produce women who do not think or act like liberal subjects, that is, in terms of abstract rights and duties. For Gilligan, insofar as women develop much of their thinking and codes of action within and for the comparatively nonliberal domain of the family, relationships and needs rather than self-interest and rights comprise the basis for female identity formation and decision-making processes. Although Irigaray moves in the domain of psychoanalysis rather than empirical social science, her insistence that “the subject is always masculine” is predicated upon a convergent account of the repudiation of dependency entailed in the psychic construction of the male subject.
Incorporation of selected insights from these thinkers is not meant to suggest that there is something essentially masculine about the liberal subject or state; supplementing either the psychoanalytic or empirical accounts with historical, cultural, and political-economic components, one could plausibly argue that liberal discourse and practices are the basis for the social construction of bourgeois masculinity rather than the other way around. But causation is a poor analytical modality for appreciating the genealogical relationship between masculinity and liberalism, a relationship which is complexly interconstitutive, or better, interconstructive. One effect of this genealogy is that the liberal state not only adjudicates for subjects whose primary activities transpire in civil society rather than the family, but it does so in a discourse featuring and buttressing the interests of individualistic men against the mandatory relational situation of women situated in sequestered domains of caretaking. Similarly, not only does the liberal state grant men access to women in the private sphere by marking the private sphere as a rightless realm largely beyond the state’s purview, it requires that women enter civil society on socially male terms. Recognition as liberal subjects requires that women abstract from their daily lives in the household and repudiate or transcend the social construction of femaleness consequent to this dailiness, requirements which in addition to being normatively problematic, are—as every working woman knows—never fully realizable. Thus, not merely the structure and discourse but the ethos of the liberal state appears to be socially masculine: its discursive currencies are rights rather than needs, individuals rather than relations, autogenesis rather than interdependence, interests rather than shared circumstances.
The Capitalist Dimension. The masculinism of the capitalist dimension of the state, like that of the liberal dimension, is also moored in a public/private division but one which moves along a somewhat different axis from that constructed by liberalism. In this division, men do paid “productive” work and keep women in exchange for women’s unpaid work of reproducing the male laborers (housework) and the species (childcare) and caring for the elderly or infirm. The sexual division of labor historically developed by capitalism is one in which almost all women do unpaid reproductive work, almost all men do wage work, and the majority of women do both.
A large portion of the welfare state is rooted in capitalist development’s erosion of the interdependent household aspect of this division of labor; in the collapse of the exchange between wage work in the economy and unpaid work in the family; and in the provision of household care for children, old, and disabled people that this exchange secured. But as feminist scholars of the welfare state Mimi Abramovitz, Nancy Fraser, and Linda Gordon make clear, the fact that the familial exchange process has broken down does not mean that capitalism and the capitalist state are no longer structured along gender lines. First, these arrangements, on which the “family wage” and unequal pay systems were based, leave their legacy in women’s sixty-four-cents-on-the-dollar earning capacity and ghettoization in low-paying jobs. Second, unpaid reproductive work continues, and continues being performed primarily by women, even though this work is increasingly (under)-suppported by the welfare state rather than by a male wage. Consequently, ever-larger numbers of working- and middle-class women are doing all of life’s work—wage work, childcare, domestic labor, sustenance, and repair of community ties—within an economy that remains organizationally and normatively structured for male wage earning and privilege and assumes unpaid female labor in the home.
In Capital, Marx speaks ironically of the double sense in which the worker within capitalism is “free”: “he is free to dispose of his own labor as a commodity and he is free from any other means of sustaining himself, i.e., property.” Women, of course, do not bear the first kind of “freedom” when they are engaged in reproductive work—they cannot “freely” dispose of their labor as a commodity nor “freely” compete in the labor market. This is one of the mechanisms by which capitalism is fundamentally rather than incidentally gendered. Indeed, as long as significant parts of domestic labor remain outside the wage economy and women bear primary responsibility for this work, women will be economically dependent on someone or something other than their own income-earning capacities when they are engaged in it. The social transformation we are currently witnessing is one in which, on the one hand, for increasing numbers of women, this dependence is on the state rather than individual men; and, on the other, the state and economy, rather than individual men, are accorded the service work of women. Although much work historically undertaken in the household is now available for purchase in the market, women follow this work out into the economy—the labor force of the service sector is overwhelmingly female. Thus, as capitalism has irreversibly commodified most elements of the formerly private sphere, the domain and character of “exchange” in the sexual division of labor has been transformed and transported from private and individualized to public and socialized. The twin consequence is that much of what used to be women’s work in the home is now women’s work in the economy; and the state and economy, rather than husbands, now sustain many women at minimal levels when women are engaged in bearing and caring for children.
In stun, the capitalist dimension of the state entails women’s subordination on two levels. First, women perform unremunerated reproductive labor; and because it is both unremunerated and sequestered from wage work, most women are dependent upon men or the state for survival when they are engaged in it. Second, women serve as a reserve army of wage labor and are easily retained as such because of the reproductive work which interrupts their prospects for a more competitive status in the labor force. The state’s role in these arrangements lies in securing, via private property rights, capitalist relations of production in the first place; buttressing and mediating, through production subsidies, contracts, bailouts, and fiscal regulation, these relations of production; maintaining, through legal and political regulation of marriage, sexuality, contraception, and abortion, control of women’s reproductive work; and perpetuating, through a gendered welfare and unemployment benefits system and the absence of quality public daycare, the specifically capitalist sexual division of labor.
The Prerogative Dimension. Prerogative power, the state’s “legitimate” arbitrary aspect, is easily recognized in the domain of international state action. Here, as Hegel reminds us, “the Idea of the state is actualized”—the state expresses itself as a state and is recognized as such by other states. For John Locke, the occasional imperative of maximum efficiency and flexibility of state action in both the domestic and international arena justifies the cultivation and deployment of prerogative power. Among political theory’s canonical figures, however, it is not Hegel or Locke but Machiavelli who treats most extensively the dynamics and configurations of prerogative power—its heavily extralegal, adventurous, violent, and sexual characteristics. Machiavelli theorizes political power in a register where violence, sexuality, and political purpose are thoroughly entwined, precisely the entwining which signals the presence of prerogative power.
That an early-sixteenth-century Florentine could offer illumination about this feature of the postmodern U.S. state suggests that unlike liberal, capitalist, and bureaucratic modalities of state power, prerogative power is not specific to modernity. Indeed, for liberals, prerogative power is the liberal state’s expressly nonliberal dimension, and classical liberal thought depicts princely prerogative as precisely what liberalism promises to diminish if not cancel: historically, monarchical power is dethroned and mythically, the state of nature (in which everyone has unlimited prerogative power) is suppressed. In this regard, the emergence of liberalism is conventionally conceived as the advent of an epoch in which political organization bound to the privileges of the few is usurped by the needs of the many, in which raison d’état shifts from power to welfare, in which the night watchman replaces the prince. But there is another way of reading the origins of the liberal state, in which the arbitrary and concentrated powers of monarchy are not demolished but dissimulated and redeployed by liberalism as prerogative power that extends from war making to budget making. In this reading, the violence of the “state of nature” is not overcome but reorganized and resituated in, on the one hand, the state itself as the police and the military, and, on the other, the zone marked “private” where the state may not tread and where a good deal of women’s subordination and violation transpires.
Max Weber’s tale of origins about the state is quite suggestive for mapping the connection between the obvious masculinism of international state action (the posturing, dominating, conquering motif in such action) and the internal values and structure of stateruled societies. According to Weber, the state has a double set of origins. On the one hand, organized political institutions are prefigured in the formation of bands of marauding warriors, “men’s leagues,” who live off of a particular territorial population without being integrated into it and who randomly terrorize their own as well as neighboring populations. On the other, institutionalized political authority is prefigured in the earliest household formations, where male or “patrimonial” authority is rooted in the physical capacity to defend the household against the pillaging warrior leagues. The first set of origins, which features a combination of predatory sexuality, territoriality, violence, and brotherhood in warrior league activity, certainly adduces a familiar face of prerogative power—egregious in the ways of street gangs, ostensibly modulated, rationalized, and legitimated in international state activity. In this vein, what Charles Tilly calls “war making and state making as organized crime,” José Ortega y Gasset conjures as the “sportive origins of the state,” and Norman O. Brown anoints “the origins of politics in juvenile delinquency…politics as gang rape” all posit, contra Marx, a gendered and sexual rather than economic underpinning to the political formations prefiguring states. But if we add to this picture the second strain of Weber’s origins story, that concerned with the foundations of male household authority, it becomes clear how contemporary prerogative power constructs and reinforces male dominance across the social order—and not only through overtly masculinist displays of power by the Pentagon or the police.
In Weber’s account, although warrior leagues are initially consociated “beyond and above the everyday round of life,” they are eventually “fitted into a territorial community,” at which point a recognizable “political association is formed.” This association presumably retains many of the characteristics it had as a more mobile enterprise, especially its foundation in organized violence, which, for Weber, is the identifying characteristic of the state. During this transition, the social structure of the territorial population shifts from one of mother-children groups to father-headed households. The authority of the adult male, Weber suggests, derives not from his place in the division of labor but from his capacity to physically dominate and defend his household, a significant capacity only because of the omnipresent threat to household security posed by the warrior leagues. On this account, male household authority is rooted in its provision of protection from institutionalized male violence. In other words, the patriarchal household and its legitimate structure of authority arises not merely as an economic unit but also as a barrier between vulnerable individuals and the sometimes brutal demands or incursions of the state’s prefigurative associations. This arrangement is codified and entrenched through asymmetrical legal privileges and an asymmetrical sexual division of labor: household patriarchs “protect” dependent and rightless women from the violence of male political organization. In this respect, the state operates as an insignia of the extent to which politics between men are always already also the politics of exchanging, violating, protecting, and dominating women; the one constitutes the imperatives of the other.
According to Weber, the character of political power concerned with security, protection, or welfare is always shaped by the ultimate power purposes of a political organization. This suggests that the gendered structure of liberalism is partly determined by the gendered character of prerogative power in which women are cast as requiring protection from the world of male violence while the superior status of men is secured by their supposed ability to offer such protection. For Weber, the modern legacy of the warrior leagues lies in the state’s telos of domination, realized through a territorial monopoly of physical violence and resulting in a “legitimate authority” predicated upon this domination. This reading of state origins also leads Weber to formulate politics and the state as appropriately concerned with matters other than “life,” especially what he terms the “prestige of domination.” The legitimacy of prerogative power is rooted in the state’s pursuit of values other than the welfare of the citizenry; its aim is self-affirmation through displays of power and prestige and not in protection or sustenance of mortal life.
The problem here is one most feminists could recite in their sleep. Historically, women have been culturally constructed and positioned as the creatures to whom this pursuit of power and glory for its own sake stand in contrast: women preserve life while men risk it; women tend the mundane and the necessary while men and the state pursue larger-than-life concerns; men seek immortality while women look after mortal affairs; men discount or with their activities threaten the realm of everyday life while women nurture and protect it. The problem, then, lies not in women’s exclusion from the domain of prerogative state power but in its problematically gendered character. The distinction between daily existence preserved by women and the male pursuit of power or prestige through organized violence is both what gives such a predatory, rapacious, conquering ethos to prerogative power and what disenfranchises women from this kind of power. Conventional constructions of masculine sexuality (as opposed to masculine rationality, interests, or privileges) are most heavily featured in this domain because this dimension of state power is more immediately visceral and corporeal than, for example, bureaucratic or juridical power, both of which tend to organize and work on bodies without touching them so directly.
The masculinism of state prerogative power inheres in both its violent and its transcendent (above-”life”) features, as well as in their relation: women are the “other” of both these moments of prerogative power as well as the conduit between them. Yet because prerogative power appears to its subjects as not just the power to violate but also the power to protect—quintessentially the power of the police—it is quite difficult to challenge from a feminist perspective. The prerogative of the state, whether expressed as the intervention of the police or as incessantly changing criteria for welfare benefits, is often all that stands between women and rape, women and starvation, women and dependence upon brutal mates, in short, women and unattenuated male prerogative.
The Bureaucratic Dimension. Weber and Foucault formulate bureaucratization and its normalizing, disciplining effects as the distinct and ubiquitous domination of our age. Neither limits this mode of domination to the state; to the contrary, they regard the modern filtration of bureaucracy or disciplinary institutions across the social order as precisely what permits a decrease in the overt exercise of state power without a corresponding decline in political and social control. Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of bureaucratization is its erosion of a clear line between state and civil society. Consider the proliferating social services bureaucracies, regulative bureaucracies, and military-(post)industrial complexes: the purview of each involves institutionalized penetration and fusion of formerly honored boundaries between the domain of political power, the household, and private enterprise.
In The Feminist Case against Bureaucracy, Kathy Ferguson employs the insights of Foucault and Weber to explore two different moments of masculinism in bureaucratic power. She argues, first, that bureaucratic power “feminizes” bureaucratic staff and clientele by rendering them dependent and submissive and by forcing them into strategies of impression management that “protect them from the worst aspects of domination while simultaneously perpetuating that domination.” Second, she insists that bureaucratic discourse is masculinist insofar as it bears what Gilligan, Chodorow, Hartsock, and others have identified as socially male values of abstract rationality, formal proceduralism, rights-orientation, and hierarchy, while opposing or colonizing socially female values of substantive rationality, need-based decision making, relationality, and responsibility. For Ferguson, the masculinism of bureaucratic discourse thus lies in a dual production: it creates feminized subjects and it excludes or colonizes female subjects.
Ferguson’s distinction between “femininity” and “femaleness” is drawn from the complexity of women’s experience as subordinates (the site of production of “femininity”) and as caregivers (the site of production of “femaleness”), but insofar as these are not separate sites of activity and women do not actually have these experiences separately, the distinction between the feminine and the female is rooted in a false essentializing of femaleness as caregiving. Moreover, if bureaucracy’s creation of subordinates is the process of feminization, then bureaucratic domination and male domination each lose their singularity; in assimilating them to each other, gender and bureaucracy both disappear as specifiable kinds of power—domination in Ferguson’s analysis begins to appear flatly generic. More persuasive than Ferguson’s argument about bureaucracy’s feminization of subjects is her account of the way the structures and values of bureaucracy—hierarchy, separation, abstract right, proceduralism—stand in relation to what she posits as women’s socially constructed experience as caregivers. When measured by the norms of bureaucratic discourse, the values of a caregiving milieu appear immature or irrational—this is the political face of Gilligan’s insights into the norms of Lawrence Kohlberg’s development psychology. Not only does bureaucratic discourse perpetuate the devaluation of practices oriented toward need and care, it is also a direct medium of the state’s masculinism in agencies dealing with women as caregivers insofar as this discourse both judges its female clients in masculine terms and constructs them as feminized dependents.
Ferguson’s critique of bureaucracy by no means exhausts the possible range of bureaucratic power’s masculinist features. I have argued elsewhere that the instrumental rationality comprising both the foundation of bureaucratic order and the process of bureaucratic rationalization is grounded in the social valorization of maximized power through maximized technocratic control. This particular expression of a will to power—domination through regimes of predictability, calculability, and control—appears to be socially masculine in the West insofar as the ultimate value is control, and the uncontrollable as well as that which is to be controlled (external nature or the body politic) are gendered female in these discourses. Finally, bureaucratic power quite obviously “serves” male-dominant interests through its disciplinary function: state agencies of every variety create disciplined, obedient, ruleabiding subjects. This aspect of bureaucracy’s involvement with masculine dominance does not require that bureaucratic power itself be masculinist, only that it be an effective instrument of domination and that the policies it executes are gendered, whether they be HUD, IRS, or military regulations. In this mode, bureaucracy’s regulatory and disciplining capacities enable and mask maledominant interests external to bureaucracy, much as Foucault casts the disciplinary organization of schools and hospitals as auxiliaries of a generalized aim of social control. The fact that bureaucracy as discipline is both an end and an instrument, and thereby operates as power as well as in the service of other powers, all the while presenting itself as extrinsic to or neutral with regard to power, making it especially potent in shaping the lives of women who are clients of the state.
Political Implications and Possibilities
As the sites and registers of women’s relationships to the state expand in late- and post-modernity, both the characteristics and the meaning of the state’s maleness transmogrify. Ceasing to be primarily a domain of masculinist powers and an instrument of male privilege and hegemony, albeit continuing to function in these ways, the state increasingly takes over and transforms the project of male dominance. However, as it moves in this direction, the state’s masculinism becomes more diffuse and subtle even as it becomes more potent and pervasive in women’s lives. Indeed, although the state is replacing the man for many women, its jurisprudential and legislative powers, its welfare apparatus, and even its police powers often appear as leading vehicles of sex equality or female protection. In this regard, the late modern state bears an eerie resemblance to the “new man” of pseudofeminist infamy. Beneath a thin exterior of transformed/reformed gender identity and concern for women, the state bears all the familiar elements of male dominance. Through its police and military, the state monopolizes the institutionalized physical power of society. Through its welfare function, the state wields economic power over indigent women, arbitrarily sets the terms of their economic survival, and keeps them “dangling’ and submissive by providing neither dependable, adequate income levels nor quality public daycare. Through age-of-consent laws on contraception, regulation of abortion and other reproductive technologies, and heterosexual stipulations on motherhood, the state controls and regulates the sexual and reproductive construction and condition of women. Through its monopoly of political authority and discourse, the state mediates the discursive, semiotic, and spatial terms of women’s political practices. Thus, the state is neither hegemonic nor monolithic, but it mediates or deploys almost all the powers shaping women’s lives—physical, economic, sexual, reproductive, and political—powers wielded in previous epochs directly by men. In short, in precise contrast to Foucault’s argument about the declining importance of the state in the disciplinary age, male social power and the production of female subjects appears to be increasingly concentrated in the state. Yet like the “new man,” the postmodern state also represents itself as pervasively hamstrung, quasiimpotent, unable to come through on many of its commitments, because “it is no longer the solution to social problems,” because it is “but one player on a global chessboard,” because it is decentralizing (decentering) itself, or because it has forgone much of its power in order to become “kinder, gentler.” The central paradox of the postmodern state thus resembles a central paradox of postmodern masculinity: its power and privilege operate increasingly through disavowal of potency, repudiation of responsibility, diffusion of sites and operations of control.
We may now return to Piven’s and Ehrenreich’s claim, rehearsed in the early pages of this essay, about the ostensibly radical potential inherent in women’s growing involvement with the state. Such an argument depends upon a Marxist conviction about the inevitably radicalizing effects of collectivizing subjects previously isolated and dispersed in their oppression. This conviction in turn presumes a transcendental subject, a subject who simply moves from isolated to collectivized conditions, as opposed to a subject who is differentially produced by these respective conditions. In this regard, Piven’s and Ehrenreich’s analysis is impervious to the effects of the discursive and spatial disciplinary strategies of the (post)modern workplace and the state on workers or state clients. Just as microelectronics assembly plants in Third World “Free Trade Zones” do not simply employ women workers but produce them—their bodies, social relations, sexualities, life conditions, genders, psyches, consciousnesses—the state does not simply handle clients or employ staff but produces state subjects, inter alia, bureaucratized, dependent, disciplined, and gendered ones. Put another way, capitalism’s steady erosion of the liberal boundary between public and private, its late-twentieth-century disruption of the boundary between household and economy, and the politicization of heretofore private activities such as reproduction and sexuality achieved by these developments, do not automatically generate political consciousness or struggles for freedom any more than the state’s increasing entanglement with the economy automatically generates working-class consciousness or militance. Again, this is because the state does not simply address private needs or issues but configures, administers, and produces them. Although Piven speaks of women as “partly liberated from the overweening power of men by the `breakdown’ of the family,” what is “liberated” from the private sphere may in fact be immediately colonized and administered by one or more dimensions of masculinist state power. Indeed, the state may even assist in separating individuals and issues from the “private” sphere in order to effectively administer them: this is certainly one way of reading the workings of birth control legislation in the nineteenth century and “squeal laws” and surrogacy legislation in the late twentieth.
However important “the family” remains, even in its absence or disintegration, in constructing the gendered unconscious, it is decreasingly the vehicle or the daily superintendent of masculine dominance in postmodern culture. Today, women’s struggles for social, political, and economic freedom in the United States more often transpire in or near the domain of the state, whether these struggles are focused on the problem of poverty, welfare benefits and regulations, reproductive technologies (including abortion), daycare, teenage reproductive rights, sexual freedom (including lesbian rights and the rights and claims of sex workers), affirmative action, education, or employment. From what I have argued about the historical legacies and contemporary figuring of masculinism in state powers, feminists might wisely be wary of surrendering control over the codification of these issues to the state and of approaching the state as provider, equalizer, protector, or liberator. Yet like male dominance itself, masculinist state power, in part due to its multiple and contradictory composition, is not monolithic but deconstructible; it is something feminists may be able to exploit and subvert if we comprehend in order to strategically outmaneuver its contemporary ruses.