From the “Exchange of Women” to “Gendered Competition”

This is a collection of rudimentary thoughts from last night’s Feminist Philosophy class.
We read Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women” and Luce Irigaray’s “Women on the Market.” Both of these are decades-old analyses of the “exchange of women”. Rubin uses Levi-Strauss, Freud, and a bit of Marx, and Irigaray uses Marx, to argue that Western patriarchy works by treating women as the currency through which men transact relations among themselves as men. In more Marxist terms, women are the fetishized commodities in terms of which patriarchial social relations are performed and understood. As Irigaray explains, “Hence women’s role as fetish-objects, inasmuch as, in exchanges, theya re the manifestation and the circulation of a power of the Phallus, establishing relationships of men with each other.” “Women” are both circulated by masculine hegemony, and their circulation (re)produces masculine hegemony.
Rubin argues that “the traffic in women” is the system that organizes bodies into “male” and “female” types, transforms these bodies into “men” and “women,” and then situates men and women in relationship to one another: “If it is women who are being transacted, then, it is the men who give and take them who are linked, the woman being a conduit of a relationship rather than a partner to it” (Rubin). “Men” are exchanging subjects, “women” are exchanged objects. “Men” may be traded, but not as men—as black, maybe, or as labor, but never when their gender is the source of their value…because the structural position of currency/commodity is what confers femininity/feminized gender to someone or something. As Rubin explains, “the subordination of women can be seen as a product of the relationships by which sex and gender are organized and produced.” What makes one a “woman” is one’s position in exchange relationships—not one’s body, not one’s personal identity. In this way, then, men traded as, say, black, are also structurally feminized—and we see this feminization of black men play out in stereotypes about black masculinity, for example.
So, Rubin & Irigaray argue that the subordination of women is a product of the exchange-style relationships by which sex and gender are organized. However, in Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault argues that exchange is a classically liberal ideal, which neoliberalism replaces with the ideal of competition. Or: If the “exchange” model describes the organization of gender in industrial/Fordist political economy, how then does gender work in post-Fordist service/info/big data political economies?
Some of the students brought this question up, in more concrete terms and less Foucaultian ones. They asked, for example, about the changing nature of employment: more women in the workforce, the outsourcing/industrialization of domestic work, even changing kinship structures. Here, I want to use Foucault to help think through this question. I take Rubin & Irigaray’s general premise—that structures of political economy can tell us something about gender systems and the workings of white heteromasculine supremacy—and shift the level of analysis from exchange to competition. Basically, I want to see where this gets us.
For Foucault, “eighteenth century liberalism”—i.e., social contract theory—“was defined and described on the basis of free exchange between two partners who through this exchange establish the equivalence of two values” (BoB 118). I exchange a specified amount of my liberties for an equivalent degree or amount of protections, for example. “For the neol-liberals,” however, “the most important thing about the market is competition, that is to say, not equivalence but on the contrary inequality” (118-9). Trickle-down economics is the most well-known example of this ideal of “inequality” that I can think of: if you overly advantage the already advantaged, the benefits will spill over and “trickle down” the spectrum. Or, think more narrowly about competition: competition only works if partners are different and unequal (e.g., higher cost and quality vs lower cost and quality, Wal-Mart and Nieman’s competing on two fronts (cost and quality)).
From the perspective of neoliberalism, classically liberal exchange was grounded in a “naieve naturalism” in which the profits one makes from exchange are due to “a pre-existing nature, to a natural given that it brings with it” (120). In a way, the traditional sex/gender distinction is a version of this exchange-based “naieve naturalism.” There’s the “given” of sex, which is then labored upon (by individuals and by society), and transformed into “gender”—or, in Irigaray’s terms, the body’s sexed “use value” is transformed, by patriarchy, into “exchange value.” Gender is this “exchange value,” what is produced from the “raw material” of sex. Because it understands gender as “the result of a natural interplay of appetities, instincts, behavior, and so on” (BoB 120), the sex/gender distinction as commonly deployed in feminism/gender studies is a classically liberal way of understanding gender. For example, it is common to explain the sex/gender distinction as the separation between physiology and behavior; this way of framing the concept maps neatly onto Foucault’s description of exchange as “a natural game between individuals and behaviors” (120).
“Competition,” however, “is not the result of a natural interplay of appetites, instincts, behavior, and so on” (120). Competition is never given; it is produced. “Competition is,” as Foucault explains, “an historical objective of governmental art and not a natural given that must be respected” (120). Gender systems cannot be grounded in supposedly naturally given biological sex, nor is gender what society produces/extracts/refines from the raw material of biological sex. In a competition model, gender is a “logic” that “will only appear and produce its effects under certain conditions which have to be carefully and artificially constructed” (120). Gender is the effect of many interlocking, complicated material/social conditions. As a competitive system, gender is “a formal game between inequalities” (120).
OK so what does this mean? Here’s how we preliminarily broke it down in class:
1.    Gender privilege is not something assigned to individuals on the basis of their anatomy or visible identity. Your personal identity as masculine or feminine doesn’t necessarily or directly determine the degree of gender privilege you experience in society, or in a given situation. 
a.     Think, for example, of The Full Monty. Neoliberal economic restructuring meant that masculinity/maleness was no longer enough to guarantee the privileges that used to come with it (e.g., employment, fulfilling one’s gender identity through work (‘breadwinner)). Think also about “The End of Men” discourse. Men/masculine-presenting people increasingly occupy feminized social roles: domestic/service/care work, educational underattainment, sexual/scopophilic objectification, etc. Similarly, women/feminine-presenting people increasingly occupy masculinized social roles: breadwinner, educational attainment, sexual aggressors (e.g., “cougars”), etc.
2.    Masculine privilege is still hegemonic. In competitive gender systems, people of all sorts of gender identities get to “compete” for this masculine privilege. It’s no longer reserved strictly for people who obviously present as male/masculine. 
a.     What motivation does hegemony have to allow non-men to benefit from masculine privilege? 
                                      i.     Well, it gives oppressed groups some buy-in. Instead of having to actively manage the dissatisfaction and resistance of marginalized people who know the system is stacked against them, neoliberalism can get them to strive for “success”—which is of course defined in terms of privilege (masculinity, whiteness, etc.) This lets hegemony run more efficiently: it doesn’t have to waste energy policing dissidents; when people buy in to the mythology, they monitor themselves.
                                     ii.     It allows hegemony to co-opt the unruliness generated by “gender outlaws.” By allowing non-men to benefit from masculine privilege, this makes “gender privilege” a more flexible phenomenon. So you can have things like cis-privilege, femme-privilege, etc. Hegemony can also encourage narratives of gender-non-normativity that actually reinforce cis/het/patriarchal gender systems (think, for example, of how the “wrong body” narrative reinforces binary gender rather than undermining/queering it). Basically, competition renders gender more flexible so hegemony can have its cake and eat it too.
                                    iii.     It also gives neoliberal political economy more ways to extract surplus value from kinship systems.
3.    In “competition” frameworks, kinship systems are more diverse. Industrial society had a “mass-produced” kinship form: the nuclear family. But as the mainstream media constantly frets, this kinship system is no longer the most common one. Complicated, nontraditional kinship structures seem to be more common than uncommon, more “normal” than the nuclear norm.
a.     Industrial capitalism relied on the 9-5 work day to extract surplus value from laborers. This work day is tied to the nuclear family and the rearing of children in this way. If family forms are more flexible, then work schedules can be more flexible, and there are more ways for Capital to extract surplus value (both in the traditional and the ‘human capital’ forms) from workers.
b.    For example, neoliberalism is really, really good at turning what was formerly non-waged women’s work into either/both waged labor or/and ‘human capital.’
Like I said, these are just some preliminary thoughts from class last night. I’d love to hear your feedback, comments, suggestions, etc. I’ll bring it to my class, too.