Feminism and Libertarianism

Saturday, Sep 03, 2011

Libertarian temptations to the contrary notwithstanding, it makes no sense to regard the state as the root of all social evil, for there is at least one social evil that cannot be blamed on the state — and that is the state itself. If no social evil can arise or be sustained except by the state, how does the state arise, and how is it sustained? As libertarians from La Boétie to Rothbard have rightly insisted, since rulers are generally outnumbered by those they rule, the state itself cannot survive except through popular acceptance which the state lacks the power to compel; hence state power is always part of an interlocking system of mutually reinforcing social practices and structures, not all of which are violations of the nonaggression axiom. There is nothing un-libertarian, then, in recognizing the existence of economic and/or cultural forms of oppression which, while they may draw sustenance from the state (and vice versa), are not reducible to state power. One can see statism and patriarchy as mutually reinforcing systems (thus ruling out both the option of fighting statism while leaving patriarchy intact, and the option of fighting patriarchy by means of statism) without being thereby committed to seeing either as a mere epiphenomenon of the other (thus ruling out the option of fighting patriarchy solely indirectly by fighting statism)...

The relationship between libertarianism and feminism has not always been so chilly... For Dunoyer, primitive patriarchy constituted a system in which a parasitic governmental élite, the men, made their living primarily by taxing, regulating, and conscripting a productive and industrious laboring class, the women. Herbert Spencer concurred:

The slave-class in a primitive society consists of the women; and the earliest division of labour is that which arises between them and their masters. For a long time no other division of labour exists.

Moreover, Spencer saw an intimate connection between the rise of patriarchy and the rise of militarism... Accordingly, Spencer likewise saw the replacement of militarized hierarchical societies by more market-oriented societies based on commerce and mutual exchange as closely allied with the decline of patriarchy in favor of increasing sexual equality; changing power relations within the family and changing power relations within the broader society stood in relations of interdependence.

To the same extent that the triumph of might over right is seen in a nation’s political institutions, it is seen in its domestic ones. Despotism in the state is necessarily associated with despotism in the family.

[I]n as far as our laws and customs violate the rights of humanity by giving the richer classes power over the poorer, in so far do they similarly violate those rights by giving the stronger sex power over the weaker... To the same extent that the old leaven of tyranny shows itself in the transactions of the senate, it will creep out in the doings of the household. If injustice sways men’s public acts, it will inevitably sway their private ones also. The mere fact, therefore, that oppression marks the relationships of out-door life, is ample proof that it exists in the relationships of the fireside.

Spencer, for his part, did not confine attention to those forms of patriarchal oppression that were literally violent or coercive in the sense of violating libertarian rights; he denounced not only the legal provision that “a husband may justly take possession of his wife’s earnings against her will” or the “statute, which permits a man to beat his wife in moderation and to imprison her in any room in his house,” but the entire system of economic and cultural expectations and institutions within which violent forms of oppression were embedded. He complained, for example, of a variety of factors—more often cultural than legal—that systematically stunted women’s education and intellectual development, including such facts as that women “are not admissible to the academies and universities in which men get their training,” that “the kind of life they have to look forward to, does not present so great a range of ambitions,” that “they are rarely exposed to that most powerful of all stimuli — necessity,” that “the education custom dictates for them is one that leaves uncultivated many of the higher faculties,” and that “the prejudice against blue-stockings, hitherto so prevalent amongst men, has greatly tended to deter women from the pursuit of literary honours.” In the same way he protested against the obstacles to women’s physical health and well-being deriving from patriarchal norms of feminine attractiveness and propriety that promoted in the training of girls “a certain delicacy, a strength not competent to more than a mile or two’s walk, an appetite fastidious and easily satisfied, joined with that timidity which commonly accompanies feebleness.”

The 19th-century libertarians’ attitude toward (what was called) the “woman question” has much in common with their attitude toward the (analogously labeled) “labor question.” 19th-century libertarians generally saw the existing capitalist order as a denial, rather than as an expression, of the free market. For most of these thinkers, “capitalism” meant, not economic laissez-faire (which as libertarians they favored), but rather government intervention in the marketplace on behalf of capitalists at the expense of laborers and consumers, and they condemned it accordingly as the chief prop of plutocratic class oppression. But rather than simply calling for an end to pro-business legislation, they also favored private cooperative action by workers to improve their bargaining power vis-à-vis employers or indeed to transcend the wage system altogether; hence their support for the labor movement, workers’ cooperatives, and the like. Similarly, while calling for an end to legislation that discriminated against women, 19th-century libertarians like Spencer did not confine themselves to that task, but also, as we’ve seen, addressed the economic and cultural barriers to gender equality, “private” barriers which they saw as operating in coordination with the governmental barriers...

As historians of second-wave feminism such as Susan Brownmiller have shown, many of radical feminism’s most striking achievements were brought about through efforts that were both clearly political in nature but also independent of State political processes—such as consciousness-raising groups, “ogle-ins” and WITCH “hexes” against street harassment and sexist businesses, and the creation of autonomous women-run institutions such as cooperative day-care centers, women’s health collectives, and the first battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centers.

The 19th-century libertarians would thus not have been surprised to learn that, in our day, anti-pornography law written with feminist intentions has been applied by male police and male judges to censor feminist publications, or that sex discrimination law has, in the hands of male legislators and judges, been used to reverse 19th century feminist gains in custody and divorce law. Hand the he-ist state a club, and you can be sure the club will be used in a he-ist manner.

Since the 19th century, libertarianism and feminism have largely parted ways — perhaps, in part, because libertarians allowed the advance of state socialism in the early 20th century to drive them into an alliance with conservatives, an alliance from which libertarians could not hope to emerge unmarked. (Few libertarians today even remember that their 19th-century predecessors often called their position “voluntary socialism” — “socialism” to contrast it, not with the free market, but with actually existing capitalism, and “voluntary” to contrast it both with state socialism and with anti-market versions of anarchist socialism.)

Since this parting of ways, feminists have developed increasingly sophisticated analyses and demystifications of patriarchy, but their understanding of statism has grown correspondingly blurred; libertarians have developed increasingly sophisticated analyses and demystifications of statism, but their understanding of patriarchy has grown correspondingly blurred. A 19th-century libertarian feminist, if resurrected today, might thus have much to learn from today’s libertarians about how statism works, and from today’s feminists about how patriarchy works; but she or he would doubtless also see present-day feminists as, all too often, extraordinarily insensitive to the pervasive and inherently destructive effects of state hegemony per se, and present-day libertarians as, all too often, extraordinarily insensitive to the pervasive and inherently destructive effects of male hegemony per se. A contemporary marriage, or remarriage, of feminism with libertarianism thus seems a consummation devoutly to be wished — but not if it is now to be a patriarchal marriage, one in which the feminism is subordinated to or absorbed into or muffled by the libertarianism, a marriage in which one party retains, while the other renounces, its radical edge. Our concern about the nature of libertarian feminism in its contemporary form is precisely that it tends to represent this sort of unequal union.

Why not follow the 19th-century libertarians, who neither denied the existence and importance of private discrimination, nor assimilated it to legal compulsion? There is nothing inconsistent or un-libertarian in holding that women’s choices under patriarchal social structures can be sufficiently “voluntary,” in the libertarian sense, to be entitled to immunity from coercive legislative interference, while at the same time being sufficiently “involuntary,” in a broader sense, to be recognized as morally problematic and as a legitimate target of social activism.

Libertarianism and feminism are, then, two traditions—and, at their best, two radical traditions—with much in common, and much to offer one another. We applaud the efforts of those who have sought to bring them back together; but too often, in our judgment, such efforts have proceeded on the assumption that the libertarian tradition has everything to teach the feminist tradition and nothing to learn from it. Feminists have no reason to embrace a union on such unequal terms. Happily, they need not. If libertarian feminists have resisted some of the central insights of the feminist tradition, it is in large part because they have feared that acknowledging those insights would mean abandoning some of the central insights of the libertarian tradition. But what the example of the 19th century libertarian feminists should show us—and should help to illuminate (to both libertarians and feminists) in the history of Second Wave feminism—is that the libertarian critique of state power and the feminist critique of patriarchy are complementary, not contradictory. The desire to bring together libertarianism and feminism need not, and should not, involve calling on either movement to surrender its identity for the sake of decorum. This marriage can be saved: as it should be, a marriage of self-confident, strong-willed, compassionate equals.

Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved?, Roderick Long and Charles Johnson, May 1st, 2005, http://charleswjohnson.name/essays/libertarian-feminism/.

The things the men's movement has wanted are things worth having. Intimacy is worth having. Tenderness is worth having. Cooperation is worth having. A real emotional life is worth having. But you can't have them in a world with rape. Ending homophobia is worth doing. But you can't do it in a world with rape. Rape stands in the way of each and every one of those things you say you want. And by rape you know what I mean. A judge does not have to walk into this room and say that according to statute such and such these are the elements of proof. We're talking about any kind of coerced sex, including sex coerced by poverty.

I Want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce, During Which There Is No Rape, Andrea Dworkin, 1983, http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIIIE.html.