[Breakingthesilence] edited version of nico's text
kevin.smith at gmx.net
Mer 14 Avr 19:00:41 CEST 2004
here's an edited version of nico's text.
Are we ready to send out the questionnaire to different lists now?
Thoughts on masculine (de) construction and anti-capitalist activism.
This text was first written in the context of the European People's Global
Action conference, late August 2002 in Leiden, which over the course of a
week brought together a few hundred anti-capitalist activists from all over
Europe. Patriarchy was supposed to be a topic relevant to all issues and
therefore more or less addressed in every debate. Finally, it turned out to
be mostly absent. This text was first aimed at men involved in
anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist spaces and struggles. I hope that it
can be of interest for others. This text refers to a ‘we’ in which I include
myself, and if it sometimes poses difficult questions, its primarily aimed
at questioning myself. It's inspired by various discussions in mixed and
non-mixed groups inside the ‘Sans-Titre’ non-network (a French
anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian experiment). I hope that it won't be
understood as a moralist diatribe, but as a hopeful invitation to
constructive self-reflection and action on the basis of this.
‘Prealable’: To those who believe that patriarchal oppression in our soceity
is a thing of the past (others can skip directly to the next paragraph):
During the past century in ‘rich’ countries, capitalism has grudgingly
allowed women (up until then virtually slaves) to have access to the
‘freedoms’ of paid work and consumerism. Apart from this, we can also
acknowledge several undeniable changes in the rights and status of women
over the course of the past few centuries which have been the result of
years of underground resistance and collective feminist struggles for more
freedom and autonomy: the right to financial autonomy, birth control, the
recognition of the right to have a fulfilling sexuality, increased
participation in social and political life, and the start of men's
contribution to household tasks. These gains and theoretical changes of
status remain few and insufficient. The fundamental structures of
patriarchal domination and gender differentiation remain largely unchanged
· housework is still largely considered to be the woman's responsibility,
and the ‘double shift’ of job + housekeeping is the common reality in a
majority of families.
· inside the public sphere (be it in workplaces, leftist collectives,
companies or political institutions) organisational and decision-making
roles are distributed mainly amongst men.
· women are still generally thought of and educated as weak creatures,
short-sighted, irrational and ruled by their feelings and emotions. This is
in contrast to men, who are rational creatures with the power to reason and
change the world (with their technical capacities).
· men are still viewed as the norm and women as the ‘deviation’ from this
· since the beginning of courtship and the construction of western culture
in the 12th century, man has had prove his valour by accomplishing feats,
while the woman's role is generally restricted to being passively seduced
and appearing by the man's side like a trophy.
· women are depicted as objects of sexual consumption, selling points,
before ever being credited with speech and reason.
· women are still the first victims of rape, sexual harassment, domestic
violence, intimidation, threats, fear of going out alone and of all the
associated trauma that these experiences bring.
· the right for women to derive pleasure from their bodies is often
· accepted so long as it comes from submission to men's sexuality.
· women still, under social pressure, must obey to alienating beauty norms.
Alright, I'll stop the list...This isn't the purpose of this text.
Thankfully, exceptions to this norm are more and more frequent in certain
contexts. Nonetheless they still remain facts. For statistics, info, and
analysis, a small bibliography can be found at the end of this text.
Patriarchy and the capitalist system within us
Let's start with two definitions to understand the meanings of these words
in the text. These are fairly personal since I find the dictionary to be
quite patriarchal and capitalist regarding such matters.
Patriarchy : The economical, political, social, sexual and legal system
historically founded on the authority of the father from the private sphere
(the family) to the public sphere, and characterized by men's domination
over women. (see examples above)
Capitalism : The economical, political and social system founded on the
private property of means of production and exchanges. In the capitalist
system, the primary dynamic is the quest for profit and competition between
companies. According to Marxist theory, capitalism is based on the search
for profit derived from exploitation of workers by those who retain the
means of production and exchange. I might add that the distinction between
these two classes is not always as simple as one might think. More generally
capitalism implies the domination of the most powerful over the less
powerful at every level of the social ladder.
The aim of this text is not to merge patriarchy and capitalism into one
problem, but to link certain aspects of both. Theoretically, we could
imagine a large number of women appropriating values and privileges
currently held by men and specific to capitalism, which would mean a
hypothetical capitalist society with a much lesser degree of gender based
oppression. We could also imagine capitalism to disappear and patriarchal
oppression to remain just as present, as would have been the case in many of
pre-capitalist societies. Nevertheless, these two systems of oppression
often rest on a set of complementary and common values. A huge difference is
that in patriarchy, men are for the most part oppressors and beneficiaries,
whereas a majority of both men and women are victims in the capitalist
system.... This doesn't mean that all women are victims of patriarchy to the
same extent, nor that all men equal in the extent of their participation in
patriarchal oppression. There are also of course men who are oppressed
because they don't want to/can not correspond to masculine values: ‘shy’,
unsure of themselves, ‘weak’, ‘sweet’, ‘gentle’...The specificity of women
in regard to these oppressions is that these diverse traits which are
automatically attributed to them as belonging to a category, and considered
as natural, which makes it harder for them to escape from.
The patriarchal culture which has characterised our societies for the past
few millennia, is a culture based on competition, power and domination. In
this society , educational and infra-structural capacities are first awarded
to men to be competitive, to gain power and to dominate others, starting
with women. These values of power and domination are promoted as positive
values and judgement criteria. These are deeply rooted within each of us and
define our self-esteem, our sensitivity and our
relationships, whether sexual, friendly, inside the family or at work...
They are driving forces of capitalist and state social relations:
economic and political competition between corporations and parties,
competition at every level of the social ladder between individuals, the
will to accumulate and centralise power and riches. We could also underline
the parallel between economical and practical dependency of women inside the
traditional family structure, and the growing dependency of a large part of
the population on the elite's technological knowledge and tools.
Both of these systems, the former rooted in the private sphere, the latter
in the public sphere, are complementary and mutually reinforce each other.
Logically, a coherent critical analysis of one can help us to better
understand and criticize the other. It may even be vain to want to change
the values of any one these spheres if we continue to accept them in the
other. This doesn't necessarily condemn the legitimacy and/or the strategic
interest of steps in specific struggles in one or the other of these issues.
We can also highlight various cases in which the very foundations of
capitalist society relies on patriarchal structures:
· The free maintenance of salaried production tools (housekeeping, food,
child care, emotional support)
· The creation of a category of under-paid workers
· The separation of individuals into families instead of collective or
communitarian structures potentially harder to subjugate
· The exploitation of sexual frustration and using women as objects to
create and maintain consumerist impulses.
These few examples show us that by confronting patriarchy, we have a chance
of undermining some of the structural underpinnings of capitalism. The
problem of anti-capitalist critique is that it constantly targets external
power structures. The interest of feminist critique, more centred on the
individual, is that it offers the tools necessary to understand the
mechanisms of oppression from inside and the way we integrate and personally
reproduce these systems of power and domination in our social, intimate and
daily relations, ranging from the manner in which we express ourselves to
our relation to technology. This doesn't exclude the accuracy of class
analysis (men/women or proletariat/bourgeois) but enriches it with an
indispensable self-questioning (a process that we still have great
difficulties to accept and which surely explains, at least in part,
systematic anger rushes caused by feminist theories). The enemy which we
usually try to confront in the street is in fact also inside of everyone of
us. Without confronting patriarchal culture, we can destroy as many G8,
world bank, corporations and state summits as we want, we'll surely end up
creating all over again exactly the same types of social relations. You
can't change society without changing the individual, just as you can't
start a revolution without having already experienced different ways of
The emancipation of men?
The problem of patriarchy doesn't only relate to women's oppression and
anti-capitalist struggles. As men we can also analyse how much patriarchal
culture can also make us suffer and is in opposition to our emancipation and
the construction of different social relationships. We're obviously
actors/agents, but also often victims of constantly needing to stay
competitive, strong, of feeling the need to dominate others even in our own
‘alternative’ spaces and collectives. But we're usually afraid to question
these attitudes, as they constitute our male sense of selfworth and give us
roles of power. We also suffer from a sexual culture of inevitable masculine
domination that is generally a safeguard for the complementary structure of
couples/family/state. To do so, this culture bases our sexuality on
violence, frustration, extremely restrictive norms, and repression. To this
regard, Reich and his book ‘Sexual Revolution’ still has some relevance. On
this particular issue, he shows that a deconstruction of masculinity could
bring a great potential to destroy capitalist society.
Activism for men
Many of us, European activists, involved in various collectives, are white,
heterosexual, middle-class men. We've been educated to feel strong,
self-confident with our ideas and analyses, to be able to speak loud and to
fight to show that we're better than others. It makes us skilled in the art
of ‘meeting warfare’. We are capable in various highly valued areas and
specific technical fields such as building, repairing, computer work. Other
people, and especially women, generally suffer from a cultural and
educational background – even sometimes in left middle-class intellectual
families - which have prevented them from acquiring these nice patriarchal
tools. Some often feel disempowered in the activist culture and it's ways of
doing things that are supposed to be so different. Many of them are quickly
sick of it, others have great difficulties to assert themselves inside it.
Let's only give a few examples of this patriarchal activism:
· In our actions and the mythology that we build around, we keep on
glorifying the most spectacular/confrontational aspects and the situations
in which male heroes can rise on the stage of activism. To take a common
example, we'll pay a lot more attention to the one who has dropped the
banner than to anyone who painted it. More care to the stones thrown at cops
than to the time spent talking about new repressive laws with people in the
street (which doesn't mean that we shouldn't drop banner or throw more
stones at cops, men and women together... it's another debate).
· In many situations, we can feel a constant pressure to show how courageous
we are, how much we don’t give a shit about repression and are ready for
revenge, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I'm pro-direct action
and I'm not against various strategies that include what some would consider
to be ‘violent,’ but not when it turns in a contest of testosterone, that
sometimes strategically blind us, and can also quickly exclude many.
· Even if some types of methodologies are useful in their efficiency (if
taken as reaching our goal with positive and equalitarian political methods
and without alienating collectives and individuals), we should also be
conscious that a typically masculine understanding of efficiency (meaning
doing things as fast as possible by those who know best how to do them)
disempowers and excludes many, especially women. We could say the same of
our tendencies to compile as many spectacular events as we can instead of
giving time for long-term and sometimes more efficient campaigns.
· The justifications that we always have to keep on doing things instead of
others (“it will be less tiring, safer, better done”) often hide old sexist
gallantry, be it in activist or more personal environments. We often give
priority to technical discussions and fellowship between specialists without
facilitating the participation of others (but rather to stay spectators).
· We're constantly developing relations of the type ‘ I know better, I do
better...’ where we mostly try to show that we are more radical, stronger,
that we're right or that we were there, that we've been listened to, that
we’ve been involved since a long time, that we made great sacrifices for the
· Regarding the relationships in the anti-capitalist radical scene, I often
wonder whether we're happy to see people doing good things and changing the
world together through various ways, or if we're in fact sometimes secretly
or openly eager to see other groups or collectives stagnate or have
difficulties. Do we sincerely want other people to do cool things and help
them to do so, or do we want to be seen as the most prestigious?
· We sometimes end up reproducing party type politics (‘I agree with him
because he's my friend’) hiding important and needed political debates
(often pushed by oppressed minorities) for the sake of unity.
The examples described here could seem to be excessively negative and
critical, but many situations have shown how greatly they can paralyse our
movements on a large scale.
The pseudo-importance of gender questions in our collectives
We have all experienced meetings in which premises of debates end with this
sad joke - “Yes, gender issues are really important, but let's reach a
decision/organise this debate/plan this action first. We'll deal with it
next time...’ Efficiency is always a good excuse. It's an example among many
others of the, often conveniently ignored, way in which we give priority to
certain struggles and wait for the day of revolution and the end of
capitalism to deal seriously with patriarchy (or power structures in our
collectives, or incoherencies between our ideas and practices...). We always
consider ourselves as anti-sexist, but how much time do we truly take to
work on the issue of patriarchy? When we address this issue in a mixed
context, it's generally restrained to what's happening far from us, or to a
depressing list along the lines of ‘men do/don't do this; women do/don't do
that’(see the first paragraph of this text) without any more analysis and/or
real potential to move towards concrete changes. If we only count the
initiatives taken by straight/hetero men, anti-sexism in the radical,
anti-capitalist movements, mainly appears to be a superficial folklore. We
sometimes debate but let women take real initiatives on the issue. And the
women who do it are often judged and condemned, as some accuse them of
acting in too confrontational a manner (when they disturb the great
consensus of masculine fellowship, or point to the inconsistencies between
theory and individual practices. Just think about the extremely tense
reactions that arise when non-mixed spaces or meetings are suggested during
meetings, debates, action camps...). The result is that many women who have
a will to struggle against patriarchal society end up by giving up actions,
collectives and mixed movements such as PGA.
Changing...a few specific ideas.
· Gender issues should be a major focus in every one of our collectives and
every action - why is this action generally organised by white middle-class
men? What can we concretely do to change this situation and to create a
comfortable frame for others? Are we ready to take time for all this? Here
are a few ideas:
· Allocate time and space for non-mixed meetings between men and between
women inside each collective.
· Intervene every time we perceive the habitual division between tasks taken
care of by women or men in our collectives, places, meetings and activities.
· Clearly formalised structures for meetings (for example by way of hand
signals/gestures, clear agendas, turns of speech, clear reports, moderators,
a fluid decision-making process to reach consensus, giving priority to
people who don't usually express themselves, etc.) help at the very least to
feel at ease during meetings, and to break the monopoly of the big mouths
· Often, women who take care of children must reduce the time they might
want to spend on militant activities. Political groups should take concrete
measures to collectively take care of children at times when their mothers
wish to take part in activities. At the PGA conference, some activists from
London described how they had occupied a nursery that was on the verge of
closing down after having been privatised. These people tried to self-manage
the nursery and turned it into a social centre for the neighbourhood with
· One should also take time to think about ostentatious pro-feminist
attitudes that can easily hide a superficial strategy of acknowledgement,
seduction, maybe even paternalist attitudes and re-appropriation of feminist
struggles. To my mind, this doesn't mean that one shouldn't discuss
patriarchal themes with women, but rather that we should question a
minimum our reasons and ways of doing it.
If you know how to make a bomb... Other basic and funny strategies to
subvert patriarchal culture starting with ourselves and ultimately ending up
with (why not?) the whole world.
We assume that most of the differences between men and women are neither
essential, nor permanent, neither rooted in any natural or religious
transcendental order. For the most part, these differences are the result of
our socialization and of cultural and economical circumstances throughout
history. It is still possible for us to intervene freely on these
differences and to modify them as we please (even if it's hard work that can
take generations...). I modestly present here a paradigm for this process
of change. A paradigm that can be freely recycled, changed or developed.
1) Ingredients and goals
Our first task is to try to define and analyse methodically what, in our
patriarchal culture, is more often attributed to men on one side, and to
women on the other. We should then attempt to perceive the various ways in
which these differences are used by some to dominate others. We can assume
that there are presently good and bad things, to keep or to reject, in both
masculine and feminine specific social attributes. Therefore, a potential
aim would be to build a society in which, what we believe as fulfilling
could be equally shared on an egalitarian basis, such as self-confidence,
technical/practical capacities, the care given to others, communication
skills, creating beautiful things, practical things, cooking, growing
vegetables, repairing a computer or building a wall...
2) Pastry-making theory and the re-composition of the ingredients
A second step would be to evaluate our various capacities, what they can
offer us in both positive and negative aspects, what we would like to keep
and transform for a society that would be less ugly. None of these qualities
are intrinsically good or wrong. It all depends on our use of it, and of our
capacities to transform it: for example, masculine self-confidence as it is
presently expressed often oppresses others. But it also potentially offers
fulfilling potentials to individuals. It can initiate huge dynamics, the
will to surpass oneself and to change things.
This step should bring us many theoretical questions, both profound and
instructive, such as: how to keep the will to change things without
competition, how to keep sexual desire without domination, the capacity to
talk and to argue without predominantly using it to win people over...
Pastry theory is a process that needs to be constantly renewed.
3) Practice and pastry mix
We should then develop practices through which men and women could acquire
positive social benefits of each gender. Aim to exchange knowledge
(skill-sharing), slow the pace of what we usually do and take the time to
explain it to others. Increase the value of some things that are usually
discredited (house cleaning for example) and explore new activities. We
mainly define our social role, even in the activist world, by our activities
(be they cooking, flyer writing, meeting, cleaning, painting, communicating
with others..). We are more than often too afraid to give up this rôle. We
are afraid to loose some of the privileges it gives us. We are also often
afraid to try to do something new when there's already someone that does it
well. We should nevertheless take time to get out of our shell, to do things
that we aren't used to, and to offer space for others in the activities that
we usually monopolise (which can take time before working efficiently). This
process should be guided by the will to get away from our usual foci in
order to feel things from new perspectives, to find new beautiful things...
An important tool for this can be to have spaces at our disposal that are
protected enough for us to feel comfortable to experiment within them. It is
important that these spaces (like some squats, autonomous places, collective
housings) are not just spaces of public activities but also of collective
daily life: living spaces!
4) Incorporating exotic ingredients
Freeing ourselves from patriarchal culture means starting with what we have
in terms of redistributing and recreating our old gender habits, but it also
means doing something new: creating new words (because our language
structures our relationship to the world - I've used in this text, quite
paradoxically, a certain amount of typically manly and warlike language
concepts in order to subvert others), inventing new feelings, new couples or
non-couples relationships, inventing qualities and styles that don't exist
yet, spaces and actions that make us live differently. All the stories,
pictures, movies, situations that we have lived with, especially as kids,
have slowly constructed our sensitivity, our ways of having sex, what we
find as beautiful, exciting, what make us cry or make us stronger. We have
all felt how difficult it can be to combine newly learnt theoretical ideas
and analysis with our sensitivity. Renewed debate and thought, rational will
to change our feelings toward things can help us, little by little, to make
Nevertheless, it's often difficult, as pictures and fictions constantly push
us back to a standardized sensitivity. Moreover, even if we change
individually or in communities, these pictures and fictions will continue to
shape the desires and frustrations of the generations that will follow us.
Sensitivity needs to be fed on dreams and stories, our theoretical ideas
need a new imaginary world. A struggle aimed at deconstructing masculinity
should therefore spend time building a new subversive culture (be it through
books, music, painting, theatre, movies) which would give us pictures and
feelings of de-gendered society and of the necessary struggles and tensions
to reach it.
The repetition of these operations could make us compose a new world where
everybody could be free to live diverse and fulfilling feelings, practices
and sexualities, without having one's desires and potentials determined by
being born male or female. So...
LET'S DREAM !
PS : This text predominantly proposes ideas and actions for men in the frame
of mind to question patriarchy and masculinity. However, in the last part
‘how to make a bomb’, I've considered mixed dynamics as I state only really
general ideas. But I have to say that I find it really problematic,
profiting in many aspects from this oppressive system, to give my opinion on
whatever women should or should not do. The fact that this text is addressed
to men doesn't imply that men are the only actors of this system and the
only one who have to question and change. Patriarchy, as with every
oppressive system, is often accepted and maintained from both sides, so
initiatives and a will to emancipate ourselves are needed from both sides.
But to start with, many women have struggled for ages with these issues
without much support. Moreover, as a man, it seems to me really
counter-productive and dangerous to focus on what women should or should not
do and what they do well or wrong. We'll never act instead of them and
should never wish to do so... So instead of taking the rôle of external
judges, let's first take care of what we can do ourselves. As oppressors, it
could even be easier for us, in many regards, to break this system, with a
little bit of good will.
Nicolu - dijon -janvier 03 - nicolu at chutelibre.org – with the great help
of juules and others for the still unsatisfaying english translation
To be read :... As most of my documentations was in french, I'll have to
find english ressources and you'll have to wait a little bit for that.
A few more reflections on the usefulness of men-only groups as a tool to
struggle against patriarchy and oppressive masculinity.
The idea of women-only and men-only groups, practices and actions is often
rejected and badly mistaken as a segregationist strategy or a way to
reproduce gender differences. Most of the anti-authoritarian feminist groups
I know, in European countries at least, use women-only groups as one of the
best ways they have to understand the oppressions they suffer from, and to
emancipate and empower themselves. Most of these feminist, as far as I know,
don't do it on a seperationist basis and still develope mixed lives,
activities and discussions. Throughout history, groups of oppressed people
(be it proletarians, slaves, black people, colonised people, indigenous
people, GLBTQIs...) made the choice to have some times and spaces
specifically between themselves to organise against their oppression and
Even if many men and anarchists, feeling threatened, criticize without
taking the time to try to understand the positive aspects of women's groups,
it's women's perfectly legitimate choice to do so. It's not really for me to
explain it more and I'd rather focus on something different in many regards
but that I've experienced as really useful and a great tool to positively
and collectively confront masculinity: men-only groups.
Let's make it clear that I don't see men-only group as an aim in itself.
It's a means to help building the mixed and degendered society that we can
dream of. I would also add that, in my experiences, men-only groups didn't
look like a popular tribunal/court, puritan confessional or collective
therapy where men would have to judge themselves or to compete to be the
best pro-feminist. They're on the contrary aimed at being a place where men
share a common goal of feeling comfortable to talk and to change themselves
and help others. We are also taking care not to end by just reinforcing the
usual masculine solidarity against women (some men-only movements,
especially in the US are just conservative, essentialists and
pro-masculinists and have nothing to do with what we fight for).
Anti-patriarchal male groups do not work by the fact it's a men-only group.
Society is full of men-only discussions and spaces (bars, sport clubs,
groups of friends, some collectives) that often just reflect patriarchal and
virile relationships between men. Anti-patriarchal men´s groups work when
some men choose to do something that rarely happens - taking some formal and
organised time to discuss and struggle against patriarchy.
If we seriously want to confront masculinity, we need deep and serious talks
about a lot of personal, intimate and difficult issues. We can consider
ourselves anti-sexist and struggle with it for years, our mixed
collectives/discussions/groups will still sometimes reflect a lot of
oppression, focus on seduction, fears, frustrations, angers that make us
feel secure in disclosing ourselves and showing emotional vulnerability.
Non-mixed groups give the possibility to get out of the usual competitive
arena. I've seen myself and many other men addressing personal issues that
they would never have talked about (at least before) in mixed groups and
One of the basic reasons for men’s groups to work sometimes so efficiently
is that a discussion is always easier when you share a common experience
with people around, and can sometimes be uncomfortable when you have to
speak of something that doesn't necessarily give you the role of the good
guy in front of people who could feel oppressed in that situation. It's good
to go beyond this, but men-only groups offer a way to question ourselves,
perceive that we share problems and feelings with others, and feel more
confident to change. It can help to develop, step by step, more sincere and
productive discussions in mixed groups.
In my experience we usually, collectively don't take much time and
initiative as men to speak about patriarchy. We often follow feminists and
at the best say they're right. There are a lot of ‘uneasy issues’ that we
usually skip in informal situations. Men´s groups are a way to do our part
of the job as men and to try to change ourselves while women use women´s
groups to do so... It can help us reach better relations and understandings
of oppression when we go back to our mixed groups, discussions and lives.
Our relations between men are, to me at least, really frustrating, with
constant competition and pressure to be the strongest, smartest, funniest,
the one who knows the most and acts and speaks the best. While those who are
not so good at whatever it is, can just shut up and listen. These
relationships are often enclosed inside rigid norms that prevent us from
many great feelings, discussions, physical exchanges. Changing our relations
to women is therefore only part of the job, changing our relations to other
men is one of the most important things that we can start doing through
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