Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Pre-Eminent Rights of Man

At some point in very early human history, there was a shift away from matrilineal and matrilocal family arrangements to patrilineality and/or patrilocality, and from intra-group cooperation and mutuality to competitive and stratified arrangements. The groundworks for the emergence of the patriarchal arrangements which have predominated throughout recorded history, were laid when men took physical and psychological control of women's productive and reproductive capacities.

The reasons for that are too complex to go into in this article in any depth but, despite all the evidence of the greater efficiency and effectiveness of matrilineal/matrilocal family forms within balanced and essentially cooperative wider social arrangements, human social arrangements became dominated by descent (and transmission of wealth and position) via the male line and with that, came the need to control female fertility.

The more importance that was placed on the fact of paternity, the greater the need was to sequestrate  and control women - either physically or, more practically, through the use of a combination of religious ideology and secular law. The most common form of that is monogamous, religiously proscribed and legally sanctioned, heterosexual marriage in which the man's conjugal RIGHTS are, at times, absolute and at least, take precedence over the woman's.

In patriarchal religious lore, the husband was deemed to have 'divinely ordained' conjugal RIGHTS over his wife's person and property, and she was deemed to have 'divinely ordained' conjugal DUTIES of chastity, modesty and obedience. If she had any rights at all, they flowed from, and were subordinate to those, first of her father, and then of her husband.  Even today, in the formal Christian tradition, a bride is shielded from the eyes of men by a veil; she wears white to symbolise her virginity; she is 'given away' by her father; she vows to be obedient and chaste within marriage; she and her children take her husband's name.

This is all to do with the need to guarantee paternity - to protect the male line. The dominance of patrilineal descent and patrilocality laid the foundations of the full blown patriarchy that has dominated human recorded history. It was the first and the most fundamental clash of interests.

The most blatant and stubbornly resistant manifestation of this is in the fact that a man could not be charged with the rape of his wife because the principle of consent on which rape law hinges, was clouded by the religious notion of patriarchal conjugal rights.  It was the same 'problem' that the law had with wife beating - and its ugly sibling, the beating of one's offspring.

A husband's RIGHT to have sex with his wife when he chose, and her DUTY to be obedient to him meant that, in the eyes of the law, she could not withhold her consent - ergo, rape could not occur in marriage. Similarly, a man's right to chastise his wife and his children meant the law was slow to intervene in cases of domestic violence.

The contradiction and conflict between the emerging formal rights of women and patriarchal relations in marriage sharpened until eventually the law makers in many countries (but far from all) have had to accept that the legal right of a woman to say 'no' to sex was greater than the ideological right of her husband to demand it  - which meant the crime of rape could occur in marriage.

The first country ever to criminalise spousal rape was the Soviet Union - in 1922. It took until close to the end of the 20th century for this to be accepted in British and related law. NZ recognised marital rape in 1985 and the UK did not end the marital rape exemption until 1991. The Australian state of New South Wales was the first to criminalise spousal rape but it took until 1993 for all the Australian states to follow suit.

It was not until 1993 that marital rape was criminalised throughout the USA and even today in some states, marital rape is treated differently from other rape e.g.  shorter penalties, or excluding situations where no violence is used, or shorter reporting periods.  To understand why this is so we need to consider the fact that the power of the conservative religious Right in the USA has ensured that there still is not an Equal Rights Amendment to the US constitution 90 years after it was first tabled in 1923. And today Russia is dominated by right wing and patriarchal financial and religious oligarchs.

The problem with the idea of human and legal rights is that invariably those who are denied them start to question why that should be.  Men who were wealthy, or thought they had the right to become wealthy, resented the old orders whose authority rested on the notion that their power was a divine right - devolved to them from god. This acted as a barrier to the advancement of those who were assigned a lower place in the 'god-given' order of things. They may have had a formal right to own property but that right was devolved from those with the divine right to rule and they could (and did) seize that property if and when it suited.

Who got to control wealth and to wield the power that wealth buys became a battle field between the old feudal order and the newly emerging capitalist class. The American War of independence was the quintessential expression of this struggle.

With the triumph of capitalism, the old notion of the divinely ordained rights of the ruling class with its patriarchal underpinnings, simply changed clothes.  The new order had demanded the right of economic freedom and access to political power and, once it achieved it, the doors were slammed shut on all others. The Rights of Man - were actually the rights of those men who owned property.

In early capitalist economics and jurisprudence, the RIGHTS of the property owner were starkly pre-eminent.  The Capitalist was not seen as committing the economic equivalent of rape when he expropriated the products of people's labour and enclosed commonly owned lands because the ideology of capitalism ensured the RIGHT to exploit other humans and the natural world for PROFIT was granted an a priori ascendance over all other rights.

As with patriarchal marital rights - which granted the male head of household legal and moral authority over his wife, children and servants - the property owner was regarded as having an equally absolute RIGHT to extract profit by whatever means possible and this RIGHT to make profit preceded and was greater than any rights of those he extracted profit from.

Creatures in the natural world had no rights because religious lore (written by older patriarchs) decreed that God had granted men complete 'dominion' over the natural world. The labouring humans who were the means by which the natural world was exploited, had no or few rights and also were deemed to have a divinely ordained DUTY to accept their lot and to labour for the property-owner.  This DUTY to labour and accept one's lot in life, like the marital duty of the wife, was enshrined both ideologically and legally. 

The Capitalist needed to be legally free to invest his capital and to utilise that capital, he needed to be able to 'buy'  labour either in the form of slaves or in the form of people who lacked the means of producing their own subsistence and who had to sell their labour in order to live.  Neither had any control over the conditions in which they exercised their labour nor the products which resulted from it. Their lives, and the lives of their families, were moulded to fit the needs of the machine. When the machine no longer needed them, if they could not be remoulded, they were discarded. 

The situation led inexorably to workers combining to improve legal status and wages and conditions and it also led to Capitalists combining to deny and depress them.  The intersection of the RIGHTS of Capitalists to exploit maximally and the RIGHTS of Labour to resist exploitation always have been and always will be a battleground. 

At various points in time and place the balance of power evens out enough that Capitalists are forced to accept that their RIGHT to extract profit is not PRE-EMINENT, that they too have legal and moral DUTIES - the prime one being to acknowledge and respect the legal and moral RIGHTS of other people - and other creatures.

But they, and those who support them, are driven by a rigid belief in the immutable, PRE-EMINENT RIGHT to make as much profit as possible, by whatever means possible. It is their literal raison d'ĂȘtre, and in defence of that right, they will always try to undermine or rescind the rights that have been gained by those they need to exploit.  

The triumph of neo-liberal economic theory saw the mushrooming of finance Capitalism and the rise of mammoth global Corporations run by powerful 'technocrats'. The fatuous theory was that they would generate so much 'wealth' that even the poor would be sustained by the' trickle down'. The situation became more opaque, so much so that to some it seemed to some as though the class struggle was over.  But that was all smoke and mirrors. The capital has simply been moved to places where greater real profits can be extracted by a more intensive exploitation of people and the environment, and the profit makers found new and more devious ways to make false profits out of such contrivances as trading in currency and debt.

It's so obvious that it is hard to know how anyone can be fooled by it. But, just as the crime of marital rape was clouded by the ideology that underpins patriarchal relations of reproduction, corporate wrong-doing is clouded by the ideology that underpins capitalist relations of production - the business of business is to maximise profits by whatever means necessary.  If those means stray into areas that are in conflict with the current law or public opinion - the end is usually judged to have justified the means.

Even when the means and/or the ends are simply too harmful to be justified, the sanctions that are applied to the wrong doers are different in type and scale from those applied to ordinary citizens and they do not fundamentally interfere with the exercise of the PRE-EMINENT RIGHT. 

This is exemplified by the US  Supreme Court which has demonstrated its role as the creature of Corporate Capitalism by creating the legal fiction that Corporations are people. Not just the technocrats who run the Corporations, but the legal / economic entity itself is considered to have legal and human rights.  The Corporations use that legal fiction to further strengthen their PRE-EMINENT RIGHT to exploit people and things for maximum profit.

A surreal and terrifying expression of this is in the fact that under the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement a Corporation may sue a Government if that Government refuses to allow the Corporation to extract profit - because of the legal fiction that the Government is denying the Corporation its right to make profit. 

"If you steal $25, you’re a thief. If you steal $250,000, you’re an embezzler. If you steal $2,500,000, you’re a financier.” A quote from the Nation magazine, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

The Profiteers quite literally get to have their cake and eat it. Unfortunately, their cake is the world and they are intent upon consuming it.

Patriarchy - the male control of the means of reproduction, and Capitalism - the private ownership and control of the means of production, are inextricably linked. It doesn't matter that some women scrabble to the top or are born into and able to exercise privilege - just as it doesn't matter that some people of colour or poor people achieve wealth, power and status.

The world is still divided on ancient lines, arguably more divided, more unequal and more unstable than at any point in human history. At the bottom of the social order are the ranks of the Poor and the Utterly Poor - amongst whom the notion of a god-given superiority over women or over people of another skin colour or religious belief - acts as an illusory compensation for their own powerlessness.

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