Tutorial Essay Ciaran Hagan

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Tutorial Essay

Ciaran Hagan

Week 6: What is missing from Marxist critiques of the economy? Answer with reference to feminist political economy and/or theories of biopolitics.

Marxism has offered important and insightful critiques of the economy, however there are areas that Marxism overlooks. These areas can be brought to the fore if we incorporate feminist political economy and theories of biopolitics into our critical analysis. This essay will explore how a feminist perspective and a biopolitical perspective can expand Marxist critiques of the economy. Finally a series of conclusions will be drawn.

In Capital Marx analyses the workings of the capitalist system. He argues that the extraction of surplus value (profit for the capitalists) from the labourer is inherently dehumanizing—a form of alienation. At the heart of his critique is class struggle with the wealthy bourgeois, who control the means of production, exploiting the working class, or Proletariat, in the pursuit of profit. However an analysis focused solely on economic production has raised concerns and criticisms from feminists and proponents of biopolitics.

The main feminist critique of Marx is that his work is gender-blind; he does not acknowledge how class exploitation and gender subordination are intertwined (Hartsock, 1983; Rubin 1976). Marx overlooks women's reproductive labour in the home and the exploitation of this labour in capitalist modes of production. Berg (1991) for example shows the importance of women’s work during the industrial revolution with women being associated with the more progressive and productive areas of the economy. As a result of this gender-blindness, socialist feminists have argued that Marx's analysis of class domination must be supplemented with a radical feminist critique of patriarchy in order to yield a satisfactory account of women's oppression; the resulting theory is referred to as dual systems theory (Hartmann 1980). According to Young (1990, p.21):

[D]ual systems theory says that women's oppression arises from two distinct and relatively autonomous systems. The system of male domination, most often called ‘patriarchy’, produces the specific gender oppression of women; the system of the mode of production and class relations produces the class oppression and work alienation of most women.

However Young is critical of dual systems theory because “...it allows Marxism to retain in basically unchanged form its theory of economic and social relations, on to which it merely grafts a theory of gender relations” (Young, 1990, p.24). Instead there is a need for a more unified theory, a truly feminist historical materialism that would offer a critique of society and social relations of power as a whole. This involves identifying areas of oppression such as economic exploitation, as well as areas that cannot be well explained in economic terms such as cultural imperialism (Allen, 2005).

Hartsock (1983) is concerned with “(1) how relations of domination along lines of gender are constructed and maintained and (2) whether social understandings of domination itself have been distorted by men's domination of women (Hartsock, 1983, p.1).” She maintains that the prevailing ideas and theories of a time period are rooted in the material, economic relations of that society; applying to theories of power as well. Thus, she criticizes theories of power in mainstream political science for presupposing a market model that understands the economy primarily in terms of exchange, which is how it appears from the perspective of the ruling class rather than in terms of production, which is how it appears from the perspective of the worker (Allen, 2005). She argues that power and domination have consistently been associated with masculinity. Because power has been understood from the position of the socially dominant—the ruling class and men—the feminist task, she says, is to reconceptualise power from a feminist standpoint, one that is rooted in women's life experience, specifically, their role in reproduction (Allen, 2009). Hartsock says that conceptualising power from this standpoint can, “point beyond understandings of power as power over others (Hartsock, 1983, p.12).”

The concept of Foucauldian power relations has heavily influenced new poststructuralist feminist perspectives on women’s subordination in society; many of these power relations exist in, and are being reproduced by, the economic system. Indeed a Foucauldian perspective contests the Marxist conception of power as inherently repressive, such as in class division, and instead sees power as largely productive; producing resistance to dominant and subordinate power relations such as feminist social movements (Vacchelli, 2008). The rest of this essay will explore how Foucault’s notion of biopolitics can expand on Marx’s critique of the economy.

Foucault presents a way of reading capitalism unique from Marxist or feminist political economy perspectives. Lazzarato (2006) traces a genealogy of liberalism and concentrates on the analysis of the relation between the economy and politics developed by Foucault. He says, “The functioning, the efficacy and the force of politics and the economy, as we all know today, are not derived from forms of rationality that are internal to these logics, but from a rationality that is exterior and that Foucault names “the government of men (Lazzarato, 2006)”. Liberalism, emerging from the work of Adam Smith, invented techniques of government that created civil society; it is a product that belongs to the modern technology of governmentality. Lazzarato (2006), drawing from the work of Foucault says:

Society is not a reality in itself or something that does not exist, but a reality of transactions, just like sexuality or madness. At the crossing of these relations of power and those which continue to escape them emerge some realities of transaction that constitute in a way an interface between the governing and the governed. At this junction and in the management of this interface liberalism is constituted as an art of government and biopolitics is born.

Liberalism, seen as an act of government, instils the notion into the population that the market is the truth and the measure of society. For Foucault the juridical, economic and social apparatuses are not contradictory, they are heterogeneous; a politics of multiplicity rather than Marx’s primacy of the economy. Whereas Marx considered the market a natural mechanism at the foundation of society, Foucault’s governmentality perspective considers market mechanisms as fragile with the role of government intervention to sustain the system itself; In order for the market to be possible, the general framework must be acted upon: demography, techniques, property rights, social and cultural conditions, education, juridical regulations etc (Lazzarato, 2006).

“Liberal macro-governmentality is only possible because it exerts its micro-powers upon a multiplicity (Lazzarato, 2006).” This multiplicity that government acts on is population. This is informed by new regimes of knowledge that have emerged since the Enlightenment, such as evolutionary biology. These knowledges treat the population as a mass of living and coexisting beings that present similar biological and pathological traits and are usually represented in a statistical manner. The idea that people and their societies can be statistically measured is a fundamental tenet of liberalism—all about the good of the collective.

The emergence of biopolitics marks a shift from a politics of death to a politics for life; it attempts to take hold of life and to secure it. Power was now more managerial and vitalising rather than disciplining and controlling. Discipline, an earlier concept from Foucault, and biopolitics work in harmony together, with discipline imposing order that rationalises bodies in space, and biopolitics which seeks to manage these already ordered and rationalised bodies. This form of power operates through a process of empowerment, such as how we should raise our children, in order to create subjects that can integrate with, and reproduce the current order of things; subjugating a labour force. Marx limits his lens to the mechanisms of production, exchange and consumption thus neutralising labour. He neglects human capital which is shaped by society from birth; this is a move away from the study of structure and economic processes in Marxist critiques of the economy and instead concentrates on the individual and subjectivity. Biopolitics aims to constitute subjectivity through a soliciting of choices and individual decisions.

The neoliberal era goes a step further by questioning the already questionable role of government in the liberal mindset. Neoliberalism is about making people work in the system and this is done by imposing new techniques that generate self-interest, educational changes and economic institutions. These changes impact not just economic relations but, as noted earlier, because we consider civil society as a multiplicity of relations, all aspects—economic, social and political—are affected. This is exemplified by Waldby & Cooper (2008) who state than neoliberal policies have changed the Fordist model of family life due to the deregulation of wages and the need for the two-wage family.

This essay has highlighted the failings of Marx’s critique of the economy. From a feminist perspective Marx has been gender-blind and from a biopolitical perspective he has concentrated on only one aspect of society—the economy. These new perspectives have given us a better understanding of our position in the world and in doing so have revealed the roots of important issues such as the subordination of women and class struggle. An understanding of the origins of these issues can help foster resistance that challenges the dominant discourses that reproduce them.


Allen, A. (2005, 10 19). Feminist Perspectives on Power. Retrieved 03 01, 2010, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-power/.

Allen, A. (2009). Gender and Power. In S. Clegg, & M. Haugaard, The Sage Handbook of Power (pp. 293-309). London: Sage.

Hartsock, N. (1983). Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Lazzarato, M. (2005). Biopolitics/Bioeconomics : a politics of Multiplicity. Retrieved 03 2010, 02, from http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/IMG/pdf/0401-LAZZARATO-GB-2.pdf.

Rubin, G. (1976). The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex. In R. R. (Ed), Toward an Anthropology of Women (pp. 157-210). New York: Monthly Review Press.

Vacchelli, E. (2008). Milan 1970-1980: Women's Place in Urban Theory. In J. DeSena, Gender in an Urban World (pp. 29-52). Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Waldby, C., & Cooper, M. (2008). The Biopolitics of Reproduction: Post-Fordist Biotechnology and Women’s and Clinical Labour. Australian Feminist Studies 23(55), 57-73.

Young, I. (1990). Throwing Like a Girl And Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


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