The Power Of The Ideology: Feminism And Its Critical Examination

Speech held by the philosopher and psychoanalyst Nicole-Edith Thevenin at the public meeting on 9 November 2013 in Capannori, Italy, during the FAE’s European meeting.

What is the appeal that I want to make here? What appeal could take into account the political, ideological and economic situation so that that situation could be an opportunity for us to bounce back from amidst political decline and social calamity? The appeal to revive a movement: the women’s liberation movement. What does that mean? A movement can go around and around in circles without ever changing its orbit. It seems to me that that is where we are now. We make noise; we make a lot of demands; always travelling down the same tracks, and within certain limits, within a restricted panorama. We are missing the drive which would allow us, not only to resist from within the prevailing current but to resist the current itself and to change the current, to put a halt to it, to go in another direction which might make sense and pull us out of the surrounding sadness. 

Because a movement can also take from, remove from, force a way. Forcing a way is fashioning an opening where one was not expected, where everything is against it happening, opening up new horizons. That means having intelligence over a situation. Having intelligence over a situation is being able to understand it through a way of thinking, a point of view which is outside that of the dominant way of thinking , that comes from a stance which is not static but a flexible stance which offers, along with an objective, the means to achieve that objective.

The women’s liberation movement prioritises political and ideological positions to gain traction. In relation to what? And for what? There can be no movement without a practice based in theory, a practice which can look inward, examine itself, self-criticise. Because without theory, it is not a route being constructed but a dangerous pathway which leaves one unaware, attracted by the dominant discourse. Without theory, which gives understanding to the whole and therefore sets boundaries and escape routes, we just go around in circles, thinking we are making progress while this repetition becomes the invisible form of our impotence.

The feminist movement cannot be reduced to associations or parties. Neither can it be reduced to demands made in a given context, even if it includes all of these. However, it includes them on the basis that it is the vehicle that carries them, that allows them be more than they could alone. The feminist movement emerged as a movement when it gave itself a political strategy and entered the ideological battle. When, below the law and above the law, it adopted the stance of calling into question not only places within the structure but the structure itself; the patriarchal structure. To put it in one term: when it equipped itself with “the intelligence of things”. We lost this “intelligence of things” with the ebbing away of social and political struggles, with the crisis in the workers’ movement and with the still keenly-felt demise of Marx and Freud.

So the legal ideology and economism which accompanied it became predominant. And with this we also had what I call the fetishism of the State and of democracy. We are fighting more for integration into the existing structures than to challenge the structure itself. The latter would promote a realisation of the conflicts and contradictions that are at play. In this regard we are following the general trajectory of all the parties and movements of “the Left”. The balance of power is not in our favour since we tend to submit to that which seems impossible to break, even if we want to “transform” it. That which we continually demand, “the extension” of democracy, “restored” democracy, does not change the nature of democracy as it is wielded in the bourgeois system, nor does it change the patriarchal structure in the way that it operates as a structure. Fighting to have your rightful place, for your rights, for legal recognition, thereby wanting to expand the democratic space, is necessary, vital: it is linked to our daily lives.  But when that creates the illusion that we have gained ground and that the system will change, even though the entire State apparatus, and the institutions that go with it, remain in place, then it means that we have lost the ideological battle and the battles we won made us lose the war. This is demonstrated to us by the rowing back of womens’ rights and their political and social importance.

Because the characteristic of bourgeois democracy is its vacillating of the foundation of the balance of power in the class struggle, and this vacillating, based on tendencies and counter-tendencies, is always seized at the last minute and put to the benefit of the ruling class and the process of capital. That is to say: to the benefit of exploitation and commercialisation of human beings, to the destruction of the world. Let’s not forget that democracy was born in Greece on the back of class relations (slavery). Analysing the reproduction of capitalism is not about sticking to the economic sphere but involves thinking at the same time about the function and functioning of democracy as an ideological and political apparatus which ensures the reproduction of patterns of submission, concealing the real interests at play.

So how do we begin another democratic process? To think about this we need to go back in history to a genuine example which overcame and broke this legal and State fetishism to establish itself in a completely different place; the Paris Commune. The Paris Commune, taking the lessons from the defeats of the working classes who, in each revolution, were used as doormats by the bourgeoisie class whose legality they observed, established itself elsewhere, forming, through its very existence, an alternative political space, a split with the political space of the bourgeoisie. Since then, it has given direction to proletarian revolutions. Marx reminds us of this in The Class Struggles in France. The meaning of proletarian revolutions is not to seize power to put the State machinery to the benefit of the proletarian class, but rather to break the State machinery, to change the relations of production and create an alternative way for social organisation to function which would put an end to class warfare and equality would lead to true liberty. This is what he theorises in the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The word “dictatorship” scares people nowadays after the experiences of the so-called “socialist” countries. But we need to remember its meaning (thereby overcoming the intellectual terrorism perpetrated on Marxist theory) when it is included in the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”: not the seizing of power to be used as a tool of repression, but the destruction of all power, and extending true democracy from this new position. So let there be exacerbated conflict between the classes and demands to deal with its resolution in a people-led balance of power. In this sense, communism is the name of this movement which does not give power to one class, the proletarian class, but favours social organisation based on pooling, constituting new means of production.

“Proletariat” is the name given to this mobilising power. In this sense, it is a people-led movement as it calls on all social classes, who have their own experience of domination and exploitation, to unite in shared process of liberation. In the same way, feminism does not involve women taking power to reverse a system of domination but rather the formation of a power to destroy all power-grabs by one sex over another which is the founding basis of all powers. This is how it constitutes a liberation movement. The feminist movement and the communist movement are linked. They are both committed to a revolutionary process which cannot content itself with improving the structures of subjugation. Can we truly emancipate ourselves if we don’t, at the same time; liberate ourselves from that which keeps us in a minority and in servitude? That is why, in politics, sticking to the issue of “parity” by demanding “power” be shared will never resolve the issue of equality or the issue of emancipation.

There have always been several schools of thought within the feminist movement. But it is the most radical strands which influence a movement at the time of its creation. This is because it is they who shake the whole group, break it, who force a way for it to be created. Then as it is established, integrates into institutions, withstands the test of time and counter-movements, it is then the most reformist strands, the most tepid strands, which hold sway. Such is the power of the dominant ideology and the apparatus through which it is created and spreads. It establishes itself unbeknownst to us, through all the small concessions we make until ultimately we concede what is most important. And yet the most radical strands, which were born through the emergence of so-called “minority” movements, were also linked to Marx and Freud, even if they didn’t make a direct connection. Because all social and political critiques draw on this for their renewal and theoretical foundation. Outside of parties and against parties, linked with the class struggle.

It was because the social and political revolution was the shared horizon that relations between men and women were thought of as “social relations of the sexes”: this was the thinking behind the concept of the patriarchal structure. This concept gives us the means to understand how this structure is the basis of all social forms of domination because it is the main form, and the fundamental form, of private appropriation; that of the body, the sexual body. This sexual division as a specific mode of production is found in, and gives structure to, all other modes of production (the State apparatus, political parties, trade unions, all institutions etc). As a result of its universality we can say that it makes women an exploited “class”. The dominance of capitalism also fits into the patriarchal structure in order to reproduce itself. However, because of its need for exploitation it liberated (from the patriarchal structure) the entire work force, women and children included, thereby initiating the universality of its extension. But the sexual division of work allows it to undermine the forces which could be opposed to it, exacerbating conflicts between men and women. The system takes maximum profit from a cheap workforce which is responsible for looking after the male workforce.

To theorise the “specific link” between the class struggle and the struggle against patriarchy, we (the group “Women seeing red”) had put forward in Feminism and Marxism[i], the concept of “overdetermination” to show how, in every revolutionary process, the struggle against patriarchy creates and gives meaning to the class struggle. This link cannot then be thought of in the form of exteriority but in the form of the “ultimate” determination (meaning the most determining factor even if it is not the direct cause) because it provides an outline for the destiny of the revolution: that a domination of men over women be maintained and it is the entire hierarchy and system of the the domination which is maintained and rebuilt, undoing the process of the revolution. In posing the question of the relations between men and women as representative of the revolutionary future of the revolution, we allow it to be understood that this cannot be separated from the “revolutionary future of people” (G.Deleuze), from the transformation of subjectivity (of both men and women). But it also means highlighting the fact that the struggle against the patriarchy cannot unfold by itself, only in the sense of the end of social classes and all systems of “secure power”. That means in the future destroying the entirety of a system and a process, and questioning the ideological machinery and the machinery of the State. Theorising about the patriarchal system calls for thinking about its destruction in a communist future. Only Marxist thought allowed us, and still allows us today, to be so bold and radical. In Feminism and Marxism, we wrote that the “historical stunting” of women imposed by the structure “at the same time gives them a viewpoint that is outside the system, which is a revolutionary viewpoint.

And yet the feminist movement has lost this overarching analysis, this political position of moving into more identity-based, more “local” spheres, where condemning discrimination, inequalities, and violence against women; that is to say, the claiming of rights, prevails. The movement has dropped the analysis of the production and reproduction of the system as well as all revolutionary aims. Rather, we fight to link ourselves to the system even though the system has never treated us so badly! It is necessary to take into account the construction of identities and subjects, it re-examines Marxist theory and allows us to re-think the subjective dialectic of the revolution. It is also part of the question of the reproduction of a mode of production, the reproduction of the dominant ideology which Gramsci theorises under the concept of “Hegemony”, Althusser under the concept of “Ideological state apparatus”, Bourdieu under the concept of “Habitus” and which part of the feminist movement wanted to make visible under the “gender constructs” social category. But the hegemonic “identity-based” ideology of today eliminates the structure and social relations of power, to the benefit of the sole analysis of relations between individuals or groups or communities or gender constructs, with the political question falling by the wayside to the benefit of adjustments in spaces of recognition. Feminism, while still keeping a certain subversive strength, forcing thought and practice to confront a shocking question repudiated at every turn, is losing its revolutionary dimension.

In a study she conducted with female students on “the representations of feminism”, Sandrine Moeschler noted that when asked “What is feminism?”[ii], the majority of the students responded: “recognising or defending women’s’ rights”, “to ensure women are valued”, “to advance the cause of women”, “not starting from the viewpoint of subordination of women to men or the common oppression women share”. As well as the fact that the “equal pay for equal work” demand, for them, does not necessarily involve “an awareness of the sexual division of work”. So we focus on what concerns women as a group, a “disadvantaged” category, without understanding the social relations which define their role and their identity as well as their status, without seeing the link to the whole. So the women question remains confined to certain problems. And yet when we speak of “social relations”, we are not speaking about interindividual relations but relations of production in the Marxist sense of the term, based on specific production relationships which determine interindividual relations.

Referring to a structure also allows us to avoid lashing out at men as individuals – even if every woman, in private and in her thoughts, is faced with a man from whom she must liberate herself and not just someone she must blame! – to show how men and women are assigned their respective places. The fact that men gain and take enjoyment from this because they occupy positions of power is down to the strength of subjective constitution of a mode of production which makes men reproduce this mode by themselves thereby dodging the reality of their own condition: their submission to the domination of class. The fact that women also gain and take enjoyment from this shows how the system is able to mobilise the psyches of individuals in the form of “self-deception” and forms of desire. Feminism, as a movement, must also confront this and must analyse, to grasp the process of a form of reproduction which cannot be reduced to simple inequalities or legal shortcomings, but question the entire dialectic between the social sphere and the psychological sphere, with their mutual grip. In analysing the process of subjugation, we can conduct the ideological and political struggle at all levels, connecting the specific to the general. And as we can see, this struggle cannot be reduced to “condemnations” but must include a critical analysis of a system of production and representation, to begin with. It also requires the Freudian theory of the unconscious that gender theory sometimes tends to leave out, getting rid of the question of the differences between sexes in favour of a social construction. It remains the case that the “difference” cannot be thought of in terms of attributed roles but as a possibility to find the irreducible other.

That women have to emancipate themselves and rise up against all forms of power, beginning with the patriarchal form of their own exploitation and domination, does not mean that there are “goodies” on one side and “baddies” on the other. Every issue is divided between her desire to liberate herself and her acceptance of the dominant order as a form of integrating recognition. This is the effectiveness of a cultural and social hegemony which calls not only for submission and repression, but constructs individuals in their identity, the identity which they claim (see Michel Foucault). We cannot therefore ignore the contradictory and symbolic instinctive constitution of every issue. I would immediately add that the struggle against a system of domination cannot be conducted under the childish illusion that one day humanity will be at peace with itself and we will live “happily”, that is to say pacified forever, in a society without conflict and with complete transparency. That is to say death to desire and to discovery, turned into robots, reduced solely to our needs (which the structure will have planned). Liberty and equality will always be there to be achieved in any mode of production and, by contrast, happiness is just as a state-of-mind. There will be a true other, in the form of the unconscious as a limit to the all-powerful me, itself set in the materiality of social relations. Unless dreaming of use of a small ego, who dreams of equality, except to reject all subjugation, even in its language and its relaying?! Let’s not confuse social equality and the calming of tensions and contradictions…life, like the Eros, cannot be thought of without destruction and death, that is why it is alive. Psychoanalysis teaches us this disillusion.

We can’t conceive of women solely as victims, but as desired subjects who, in their suffering, unwittingly reproduce the power which subjugates them. They put in place compensatory power systems which are just as threatening and, at the same time, systems of avoidance and invention. Because those who subjugate us also give us identifying references and constituent places so we hold on to them, play with them, subvert them. That is why the ideological battle goes beyond simple opposition to something or “resistance to…”. Acting as a movement towards something, beyond accusations and efforts to obtain rights, means putting into play a way of thinking which is supported by the practice of “maximal differentiation” (D.Sibony).

A way of thinking is put into play when it is supported by desire. And the desire (to think) arises only where that creates a distance to norms in which the individual moves, where something unknown is at stake, which separates us from ourselves, bringing into play a split and therefore, impetus. Desire goes beyond needs, even if requires them (there are some “vital” needs which are not always perceptible). It is an addition to needs and lowering the subject to ones “needs” is to lower it to its animality and Marx would even say “bestiality” (on a reality reduced to a crude body). Because it delves further, desire is far-reaching, it forces a route, picks apart what is necessary, while in needs we find we are tied to the immediate, tied to manipulation, we have urgent matters to satisfy, to the detriment of any strategy supported by a political future. That is why capitalism seeks to reduce us to needs, by putting together objects of desire which seem to respond to a fundamental desire for creativity and liberty while they are acting in favour of a process of subjugation (in the cult of infinite appropriation). But capitalism has understood something about desire while the “Left”, right-thinking and wise (petty bourgeois), sees nothing. Even though we are speaking about a more fundamental desire, this desire which expresses this vital need, specific to the human condition, to be able always to question everything, up to life itself in order to liberate life. So it is not so much about something to possess in satisfying an urge to have (an object, a space, a place) but a movement which divides us, a “chance to take”.

Thus, we have the calls from the Left to fight against “austerity” which reduce the perception of individuals to their so-called “material needs”. We drown out desire with complaints, demands, the simple narrative of unhappiness which is given to us in the form of a “removal”, a “theft”, an “abuse”. It is an illusion to think that we can mobilise people on economic (even though the notion of austerity is so vague as to reside in consumerist language) or legal demands alone. On the contrary, it requires the support of a political, ideological perspective which does not limit itself to wanting to re-arrange or improve the system but which, resting on the contradictions of the system, carries the movement of struggles to the outermost edge of the crossing point. Within the scope of a split, of a life-giving destruction in which one constructs oneself, where we see the creation of the strength of a movement which can’t develop without enthusiasm (Let’s remember Kant and his verdict on the French Revolution). This is how the Paris Commune and the key revolutions of the 20th century (1917, the Spanish Revolution etc) were. This is the “appearance” of an autonomous movement, of a movement creating its own power, where it was not expected, which has placed feminism in the public and private space. And this power was, at the same time, linked to the power of a social and political movement which pulled back, throughout history, from the possibility of crossing a revolutionary threshold. This is the source of our despair, and not just at the triumph of capitalism. Because capitalism was victorious only as it was swept to victory by consistent concessions by the so-called opposition parties of the Left. The opposition knowingly played the integration card, pushing the masses to despair when, faced with an extreme situation, the suggestion was made to contain and not to dismantle (rupture being apparent in the discourse). Hence, at least in part, the rise of the National Front Party today.

Creating a force cannot happen without ferocity, that is to say without the ability to confront what is real as it is in all its violence, without a clear analysis of the class struggle for which we ourselves are responsible, without, then, an appraisal of the feminist movement. An appraisal does not mean an accounting exercise of listing gains and losses, but rather an analysis of our common strategy in relation to the current balance of power. This means being able to think of an articulation for the different spheres of the social reality: economic/political/ideological and the way in which we have gone into battle on all these fronts. Analysing the situation does not mean taking the different elements and making a list (this is the laziness of a mind which allows the spontaneous language of ideology to lead the dance because its function, functioning and impact on us is not analysed), but as Althusser wrote, understanding “their contradictory system which raises the political problem and crafts its historic solution is actually ipso facto a political objective, a practical task (‘Machiavelli and Us’, p62). Analysing their system is clearing out what is at stake and therefore, defining our strategy. Our daily action can take meaning from that and can be built towards the long-term. So we can specify, each time there is a dialectic between struggles for immediate reforms, participation in demonstrations and political struggle and revolutionary ideology.

What is the balance of power in which we must construct this movement? I have already said, in a balance of power which is clearly to our disadvantage, in noting our defeats and the vigourous taking in hand by capital (with it being understood that they never lost control). We are visible only on the margins, with the consequence that we have to struggle to maintain the status quo which itself is dwindling. Economics have taken the upper hand and our integration into state and European institutions smothered us in the dominant discourse of the Left, who do their utmost to believe that by remaining on the opponent’s territory, they could increase their room for manoeuvre. Thus we have the illusion of being able to change the founding principles of Europe! Even though we have no influence over our own States – at least not from the margins, which changes nothing in the general process – and the European Union, as we can see, remains unmoved by our demonstrations, locking itself into the opposite viewpoint more and more, and accelerating reforms. The Left’s reformism does not scare it but exacerbates the feeling of impotence, with democracy being called into question only in relation to what it is lacking and not in relation to its foundations.

This impotence is matched only by our belief, perpetually renewed, in the imminence of the final crisis which we analyse as the end of the road for liberal capitalism (which, on the contrary is doing very well), and in the strength of popular uprisings. And yet the popular movements themselves are smothered and imprisoned by the integration strategy of parties and trade unions and by their own rejection of all revolutionary processes which raise the question of communism as the current form of a rupture to abolish the existing State. This clearly shows us how we remain enslaved by being forbidden “to think”, we are under the decree of the “single” way of thinking (which is therefore no longer a way of thinking). As feminism itself is cited only as a reference or, in the best case scenario, through recognition of its struggles for “women’s rights”, there is no overarching reflection initiated. We can say that the dominant ideology has been successfully implanted and we support it by wanting to know nothing about it. For the time being, we are locked in an ideological landscape imposed by the bourgeoisie and capitalism. However, the State of economic and social contradictions, with their extreme consequences for the people, push us to ask in the most radical way the question of franchise. It is at this border that we hesitate, turning back once again.

Let’s learn lessons: we cannot simply respond to matters of urgency and support such and such a battle haphazardly without having an overarching analysis which would allow us to focus our efforts on the weakest link: our lack of analysis (our “harping on” about austerity, the state of the economy, the rowing back of rights won etc…are more like a boring an ordinary report than a real analysis of the balance of power….). For making demands, demonstrating, without understanding what is at stake politically and ideologically in a given situation, and clearing a route, that is merely deepening the depression of people. Nowadays, demonstrating is pointless without a radical position which, beyond the demand made to the Other, creates power.

What are we missing? A theorisation of the political and ideological stakes on the national and international scene linked to the strategy of capital. This theorisation includes analysing the link between: the economic process, the future of States and institutions, the international balance of power, ideological discourse and practices….thereby connecting the different strands of the capitalist mode of production, in order to understand the “force of its expansion” (and not just being content to say it is in crisis!). But to undertake this analysis we need to clarify our positions and analyse the ideology which we support. Which field of thought are we speaking about here? How are we going to define our action? If it is, above all else, as a movement, then they are the ideas to pass on, to support whoever realises the importance and defines the way in which we participate in demonstrations arising from struggles on the ground, the type of alliance to engage in with such and such an organisation. If it is a revolutionary perspective then it is up to us to develop a practice, to construct this movement by giving it impetus.

Highlighting participation in institutions as a key strategy leads us to a deadlock on the ideological question and mass mobilisation. As the balance of power is not favourable to us, this perspective requires an exhausting amount of energy for few results. It weakens our ability to think out the bases of our strategy and the real objectives we are setting ourselves. That does not mean that we should not participate in political institutions. At least we can make ourselves heard and make the most of observing and having contacts, remaining in the struggle at all levels. It is a necessary relay. But we will be more and more inaudible and discouraged if we do not subordinate our participation to theory work, to the ideological battle and to bringing people together on the ground which aims to create a movement independent of national, and European, state bodies. Our work will be a long process. So we must change the way we think of time, the temporality in which we live, remove ourselves from the stress of having always to meet objectives in the immediate. There is an activism which is harmful even to the causes we support. The time for reflection and construction is now a time which is impossible to bypass. Unless, of course, you want to continue full steam ahead towards disaster still believing “it’s sufficient!”

One more thing. Wanting to carry out the struggle in the European space alone is missing the point. The European Union was, and will remain, a construction of big powers and the Americans. It is a geopolitical space defined for the capitalist market and to carry weight in the balance of power with the rest of the world. It is a divvying up which blinds us to the real extension of struggles. And yet a revolutionary fight can be only international, because capitalism and the patriarchal system are international with a specific layout in each country – (the notion of globalisation is a capital point of view and reflects its strategy. It unifies, under one system, where it should distinguish, divide and connect according to the balance of power) – and what is at stake in the political sphere can be understood only on an international level. Internationalism defines a strategy of relations with peoples; with all those who are oppressed, exploited and excluded from the nations of the world. It forces us to analyse specific situations: development inequalities, the contradictions and conflicts at work. It is from this starting point that we can displace the balance of power, integrate and conceive of the construction of a power. Europe itself is a part of the world made up of very different people, where each State plays a very specific role in relation to the domination that the European Union wants to impose. We therefore need to understand this overarching strategy and move towards creating a new force by connecting with those who struggle and create on the ground, without daring, however, to once again suggest clearing that ground.

Translation from French: Veronika Peterseil


[i] Feminism and Marxism, “women seeing red” days, 29 and 30 November1980, Ed. Tierce, 1981. This book transcribes the debates which took place over the 2 days of a symposium between different strands of the women’s liberation movement. It is an exceptional work which keeps the memory of these rich discussions alive and has kept all its relevance and then some.

[ii] Sandrine Moeschler: Representations of Feminism, University of Geneva, 2007 final project in General Studies Certificate.