Hierarchies Of Punishment And Reward: Openly acknowledging its uneasy relationship with the values of patriarchy is becoming increasingly difficult for twenty-first century liberal capitalism. It is thus to the private – and domestic – sphere that capitalism is forced to turn to ensure that the cultural work of instilling the necessary habits of authority and subordination continues. It is no accident that the most effective translators of the realities of power, at the personal as well as the cultural level, are men.
WHAT PURPOSE does male violence serve? Is that an outrageous – or even an evil – question? Surely, no good purpose is served by the violent behaviour of men? No good purpose, perhaps. But, asserting that male violence serves no good purpose, is not quite the same as saying that it serves no purpose at all. With New Zealand now leading the developed world in the recorded incidence of domestic violence, the not-so-good purposes of male violence clearly merit some investigation.
Often, it is easier to understand the behaviour of one’s own culture by examining the behaviour of another.
Several recent cases of extreme male violence against women in India have roused passions all around the world – not excluding India itself. In every horrific instance, physical battery and sadistic cruelty have accompanied prolonged and violent sexual assault. The victims were from every strata of Indian society. From a young medical student in New Delhi, to teenage sisters from the lowest “untouchable” caste.
In every case, the men involved justified their actions in terms of redressing what they regarded as breaches in the natural order of things. The men who raped and murdered the New Delhi medical student, for example, were affronted by her assumption that she was free to go and do as she pleased without the sanction of the appropriate male authority figures. In their view, the unfortunate young woman had been ‘asking for it’ and ‘got what she deserved’.
Both phrases are highly illustrative of the way men raised in rigidly patriarchal societies interpret female behaviour. If a woman is at ease in the company of men, then, clearly, she considers herself to be their common sexual property. As such she may not only be raped with impunity, but also physically assaulted – as punishment for improperly inflaming the lust of her attackers. This deadly mixture of rage and desire fuels male violence all over the world.
To keep such extreme, socially disruptive behaviour in check (or, at least, to confine it strictly to the domestic sphere) patriarchal cultures have, over many centuries, erected structures of masculine power designed to control every aspect of women’s lives. When feminists insist that rape is not about sex, but power, this is what they mean. In an alarming number of men, the imperatives of masculine authority are internalised to the point where, in relation to “their” women, individual males take on (often unconsciously) the roles of policeman, prosecutor, judge and executioner.
It is tempting to relegate these extreme manifestations of patriarchy to the less-enlightened nations of the developing world. Liberal capitalism, with its proud record of emancipatory reform (the abolition of slavery; the introduction of universal suffrage) surely has no need for the rigid patriarchal power structures of India or Saudi Arabia?
Considering all the legislative effort devoted to making full sexual equality a reality throughout the developed world, one could be forgiven for regarding capitalism and patriarchy as natural antagonists. Absent from such consideration, however, would be how absolutely capitalism relies upon patriarchal thought-ways for its efficient functioning. Capitalists operate in top-down hierarchies, within which the social dynamics of authority and subordination determine economic outcomes every bit as ruthlessly as traditional patriarchies. In both systems there are winners and losers – and strong sanctions against challenging those above on behalf of those below.
The congruence of capitalist and patriarchal thought-ways largely explains the absence of women in the nation’s boardrooms. It also accounts for the vast discrepancy in remuneration between those engaged in male, as opposed to female, dominated industries. When it comes to consumption, capitalism strongly endorses the widest possible diversity. When it comes to exercising power, however, old habits die hard.
Openly acknowledging its uneasy relationship with the values of patriarchy is becoming increasingly difficult for twenty-first century liberal capitalism. It is thus to the private – and domestic – sphere that capitalism is forced to turn to ensure that the cultural work of instilling the necessary habits of authority and subordination continues. It is no accident that the most effective translators of the realities of power, at the personal as well as the cultural level, are men.
Obedience, diligence, loyalty, and conformity aren’t just the qualities of the perfect capitalist employee, they’re also the attributes of the perfect patriarchal daughter and/or wife. The purpose of male violence is to frighten both into existence.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 October 2015.