ParEcon Questions & Answers

Next Entry: Generations

Parecon and Kinship

cWhat is the connection between parecon and desirable kinship or gender relations?

What altered or new institutions will organize procreation, nurturance, and socialization? How will will the structures and social roles we fill to accomplish upbringing and home life change?

For example will there be families as we now know them? And whatever families we have, what else will exist? Will upbringing diverge greatly from what we know now? What about courting and sexual coupling? How will the old and young interact with what we now call adults and vice versa?

Presumably good kinship structures will liberate women and men rather than causing the former to be subordinate to the latter, and likewise for other hierarchical or degrading relations.

In these matters we are talking about liberating a side of life where the gain will be removing the features that produce systematic sexism, homophobia, and ageism, plus gaining an array of positive improvements that we can only guess at until we have experimented with more complete proposals for visionary kinship institutions.

It isn’t that all problems associated with gender will disappear, of course, or that all unmet desires or un-manifested capacities will be righted. Even in a wonderful society, we can confidently predict that there will still be unrequited love. Sex will not lack turmoil. Rape and other violent acts will occur, though far less often than now. Social change can’t remove the pain of losing friends and relatives to premature death. It can’t make all adults equally adept at relating positively with children or with the elderly or vice versa.

What we can reasonably expect and demand, however, is not some kind of utopian elimination of all conflict and pain but rather that new forms of engagement will eliminate the systematic violation of women, gays, children, and the elderly which causes these whole groups to suffer material or social deprivations.

We can demand that innovations eliminate the structural coercion of men and women, of hetero and homosexuals, and of all adults and children into patterns preserving such violations.

ffHow will all this happen? Not how will we get to this better future, which is a derivative and even more difficult question, but what will the institutions defining a vastly better kinship future look like?

I can find barely an inkling of a proposed answer in the contemporary literature of the left, though in the past people, mainly women, have attempted to provide some visionary sex-gender insights and I would like to mention some of those attempts as being worth trying to elaborate into a gender related vision.

In contemporary societies that elevate men by consigning women to less empowering and fulfilling options, what are the defining structures that intrinsically produce a sexist ordering and therefore need to be profoundly altered to remove that ordering?

By sexist ordering we of course mean men dominating women in income and circumstance, in opportunities and quality of life, and in control over social outcomes.

Sexism takes overt form in men having dominant and wealthier conditions. It takes more subtle form via long standing habits of communication and behavioral assumptions. It is produced and reproduced by institutions that differentiate men and women, including coercively as in rape and battering, but also more subtly via what seem to be mutually accepted role differences in home life, work, and celebration as well as by the cumulative impact of past sexist experiences on what people think, desire, and feel, and on what people habitually or even self consciously do.

If we want to find the source of gender injustice it stands to reason that we need to determine which social institutions give men and women roles that impose on them conditions and circumstances, motivations, consciousness, and preferences that elevate men above women.

One structure we find in all societies that have sexist hierarchies is that men father but women mother children. That is, we find two quite dissimilar roles which men and women play vis a vis the next generation, each role socially defined and in only a very minor sense biologically fixed.

One conceptually simple structural change in kinship relations would be to eliminate this mothering/fathering differentiation between men and women.

What if instead of women mothering and men fathering, women and men each parented children. What if men and women each related to children in the same fashion, with the same mix of responsibilities and behaviors (called parenting), rather than one gender having almost all the nurturing as well as tending, cleaning, and other maintenance tasks (called mothering), and the other having many more decision-based tasks, with one gender being more involved and the other more aloof – and so on?

I am certainly not sure that replacing gender defined mothering and fathering with gender blind parenting would alone eliminate all the defining roots of sexism, but I do think this might be a key innovation critical to removing the underlying causes of sexist hierarchies.

This particular idea emerged, or at least I first encountered it in the work of Nancy Chodorow, most prominently in a book titled, “The Reproduction of Mothering” (University of California Press). The book made a case that mothering is a role that is socially and not biologically defined and that as mothers women produce daughters who in turn not only have mothering capacities but desire to mother. “These capacities and needs,” Chodorow continues, “are built into and grow out of the mother-daughter relationship itself. By contrast, women as mothers (and men as not mothers) produce sons whose nurturant capacities and needs have been systematically curtailed and repressed.”

For Chodorow, the implication was that “the sexual and familial division of labor in which women mother and are more involved in interpersonal affective relationships than men produces in daughters and sons a division of psychological capacities which leads them to reproduce this sexual and familial division of labor.”

Chodorow summarized by claiming that “all sex-gender systems organize sex, gender, and babies. A sexual division of labor in which women mother organizes babies and separates domestic and public spheres. Heterosexual marriage, which usually gives men rights in women’s sexual and reproductive capacities, and formal rights in children, organizes sex. Both together organize and reproduce gender as an unequal social relation.”

So perhaps one feature of a vastly improved society vis a vis gender relations will be that men and women will both parent, with no division between mothering and fathering.

Another very typical structure that comes into question for many feminists thinking about improved sex-gender relations is the nuclear family. This is hard to even define, I think, but has to do with whether the locus of child care and familial involvement is very narrow, such as resting with only two biological parents or instead involves many more people – perhaps an extended family but also perhaps friends, community members, etc.

It seems highly unlikely that a good society would have for its gender relations any rules that required a few typical household organizations and family structures. We wouldn’t expect that adults would have to live alone or in pairs or in groups in any single or even in any few patterns. The key point is likely to be diversity, on the one hand, and that whatever multiple and diverse patterns exist, each frequently chosen option embodies features that impose gender equity rather than imposing gender hierarchy.

While I don’t feel equipped to describe such possible features, I can say that the men and women that are born, brought up, and then themselves bear and bring up new generations in a new and much better society will be full and capable and confident in their demeanor and also lack differentiations that limit and confine the personality or the life trajectories of either – whether to some kind of narrow feminine or masculine mold.

The same can be said, broadly, about sexuality and intergenerational relations. I don’t think we know, or arguably even as yet have a very loose picture of what fully liberated sexuality will be like in all its multitude of preferences and practices or what diverse forms of intergenerational relations adults and their children and elders will enter into. What I think we can say, however, is that in future desirable societies no few patterns will be elevated above all others though all widely chosen options will preclude producing in people a proclivity to dominate or to rule, or to subordinate or to obey, based either on sexual orientation or on age (or on any other social or biological characteristic, for that matter).

We have very little idea what specific sex-gender patterns will emerge, multiply, and continually develop in a better future–for example, monogamous and not, hetero, homo, or bi-sexual, and involving transformed care giving institutions, families, schools, and perhaps other political and social spaces for children as well as for adults and the elderly. But we can guess with confidence that actors of all ages, genders, and engaging in non oppressive consensual sexual relations will be free from stigma.

All the above is vague and modestly formulated. Will renovated kinship include the broad structural features intimated above? I don’t know. I certainly believe future kinship will be very diverse, at any rate. But even without knowing the inner attributes of new institutions for family life and related interactions and while waiting for kinship vision to emerge more fully from feminist thought and practice, I think we can still say some useful things about these domains relations to economics.

Kinship institutions are necessary for people to develop and fulfill their sexual and emotional needs, to organize daily life, and to raise new generations of children. But current kinship relations elevate men above women and children, oppress homosexuals, and warp human sexual and emotional potentials.

In a humanist society we will eliminate oppressive socially imposed definitions so that everyone can pursue their lives as they choose, whatever their sex, sexual preference, and age. There will be no non-biologically imposed sexual division of labor with men doing one kind of work and women doing another simply by virtue of their being men and women, nor will there be any hierarchical role demarcation of individuals according to sexual preference. We will have gender relations that respect the social contributions of women as well as men, and that promote sexuality that is physically rich and emotionally fulfilling.

It is likely, for example, that new kinship forms will overcome the possessive narrowness of monogamy while also allowing preservation of the depth and continuity that comes from lasting relationships. New forms will likely destroy arbitrary divisions of roles between men and women so that both sexes are free to nurture and initiate. They will likely also give children room for self-management even as they also provide the support and structure that children need.

But what will make all this possible? My own limited views, as they currently stand, pending more learning and experience, follow.

Obviously women must have reproductive freedom—the freedom to have children without fear of sterilization or economic deprivation, and the freedom not to have children through unhindered access to birth control and abortion. There can be no more compromising on this issue than we can have compromising about private ownership of the means of production. Just as private ownership abrogates the rights of employees to control and direct their laboring capacities, denial of birth control and abortion abrogates the rights of women to control and manage their reproductive capacities and thereby their lives in general.

But feminist kinship relations must also ensure that child-rearing roles do not segregate tasks by gender and that there is support for traditional couples, single parents, lesbian and gay parenting, and more complex, multiple parenting arrangements. All parents must have easy access to high quality day-care, flexible work hours, and parental leave options. The point is not to absolve parents of child-rearing by turning over the next generation to uncaring agencies staffed mainly by women (or even women and men) who are accorded low social esteem. The idea is to elevate the status of child rearing, encourage highly personalized interaction between children and adults, and distribute responsibilities for these interactions equitably between men and women and throughout society.

After all, what social task could be more important than rearing the coming generation of citizens? So what could be more irrational than patriarchal ideologies that deny those who fill this critical social role the status they merit? In a desirable society, kinship activity must not only be arranged more equitably, but the social evaluation of this activity must be corrected as well.

Feminism should also embrace a liberated vision of sexuality respectful of individual’s inclinations and choices, whether homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, monogamous, or non-monogamous. Beyond respecting human rights, the exercise and exploration of different forms of sexuality by consenting partners provides a variety of experiences that can benefit all. In a humanist society that has eliminated oppressive hierarchies, sex can be pursued solely for emotional, physical, and spiritual pleasure and development, or, of course, as part of loving relationships. Experimentation to these ends will likely not merely be tolerated, but appreciated.

We need a vision of gender relations in which women are no longer subordinate and the talents and intelligence of half the species is free at last. We need a vision in which men are free to nurture, childhood is a time of play and increasing responsibility with opportunity for independent learning but not fear, and in which loneliness does not grip as a vice whose handle turns as each year passes.

A worthy kinship vision will reclaim living from the realm of habit and necessity to make it an art form we are all capable of practicing and refining. But there is no pretense that all this can be achieved over night. Nor is there reason to think a single kind of partner-parenting institution is best for all. While the contemporary nuclear family, particularly if it is the overwhelmingly present living pattern or at least the most admired, has proven all too compatible with patriarchal norms, a different kind of nuclear family will no doubt evolve along with a host of other kinship forms as people experiment with how to achieve the goals of feminism.

vWhat is the impact and relation between economics and women and men?

Capitalist economics is more subtle than some critical analysts think vis a vis women and men. There is, in fact, nothing in the defining institutions of capitalism–private ownership of productive property, corporate divisions of labor, authoritative decision making, and markets–that even notices much less differentiates and hierarchically arrays men and women due to a strictly economic dynamic and logic. On the other hand, if a society’s sex gender system produces a differentiation between men and women, capitalist economy will not ignore that reality but will, indeed, exploit it.

Thus, if men and women are arrayed by familial and other kinship relations so that the former have expectations of relative dominance vis a vis the latter, capitalist economy will operate in light of this situation.

Suppose an employer seeks to hire a manager. Even if the workforce is male and a woman and a man apply, and the woman has better credentials and is more suited to the actual tasks involved, nonetheless in a sexist society the man is far more likely to get the job–and this is true even if the employer has no gender biases at all.

The reason is because the employer needs the workforce to feel obedient and subordinate to the manager, and needs the manager to feel authoritative and superior to the workforce and it is far less likely for this pattern to emerge against the preconceived sexual orderings of society than it is for the sought pattern to emerge in accord with those orderings.

In other words, the corporate division of labor utilizes rather than trying to run against the gender hierarchy established by familial and kinship relations. It places men above women rather than ignoring the instructions emanating from kinship.

Similarly, pay patterns will reflect the differential bargaining power that sexism imposes on men and women. Men, all other things equal, will be able to extract more pay for the same work than women, due to owners exploiting the subordinate position and lesser bargaining power of women.

These are the minimal accommodations of capitalist economies to sexist kinship relations. Capitalism’s hierarchies don’t challenge and largely incorporate gender hierarchies. Women disproportionately occupy subordinate positions. Women earn less. There emerge the distressing details including the tremendous incidence of female poverty, ill health, and rape and other violence that we all by now know about.

It is important to realize that there is, however, a deeper impact of the field of force of sexist hierarchy on economic relations. The styles and patterns of male and female behavior produced by a patriarchal sex gender system can impose on economic roles so that the latter begin to literally incorporate the features of the former rather than only accommodating or exploiting them.

In other words, women’s economic jobs can take on attributes of nurturance and care giving and maintenance which are in no sense required by or even entirely logical in light of only economic dictates, and similarly for men’s roles taking on male patterns also imposed by kinship definitions even contrary to purely economic logic.

In this case we will see jobs in the economy that both reflect and very importantly actively reproduce male and female behavior imposed by a patriarchal sex gender system. The economy then becomes complicit in reproducing sexism. Thus, as Batya Weinbaum points out in the book Curious Courtship of Women’s Liberation and Socialism, “

What about parecon and gender/kinhip?

In parecon, however, reproduction of sexist relations emanating from a patriarchal sex gender system disappears. It isn’t just that a participatory economy works nicely alongside a liberated kinship sphere. It is that a parecon precludes or at least militates against non-liberated relations among men and women. Parecon is in contradiction to sexism.

A parecon will not give men relatively more empowering work or more income than women because it cannot provide such advantages to any group relative to any other.

Balanced job complexes and self management need and seek adults able to engage in decisions and to undertake creative empowering labor, regardless of gender or any other biological or social attribution.

There is no process of a parecon abiding hierarchies born in gender relations because there are no hierarchies in a parecon that can abide it. Women cannot earn less than men, nor have jobs that are less empowering, nor have less say over decisions.

But what about household labor? Many feminists will at this point wonder, “parecon claims to remove the differentiation at work and in income required by contemporary sexism, but is household labor part of the economy? Why or why not?”

My inclination is to say that there is no one right answer to this question, just as for most other questions beyond issues of the defining economic relations.

In other words, I can imagine a society that treats household labor of diverse types as part of its participatory economy and I can imagine one that doesn’t. With my current state of understanding, I would prefer, myself, the latter type, for a few reasons. But neither choice is ruled out or made inevitable, I think, purely by the logic of parecon.

Beyond that narrow logic, I tend to think household labor shouldn’t be considered part of the economy to be subject to the norms of productive labor with remuneration for effort and sacrifice, etc.

First I think this because I just don’t think nurturing and raising the next generation is like producing a shirt, stereo, scalpel, or spyglass. There is something fundamentally distorting, to my thinking, about conceptualizing child care and work place production as being the same type of social activity.

The second main reason I think household labor should not be counted as part of economic production is that the fruits of household labor are largely enjoyed by the producer him or herself. Should I be able to spend more time on household design and maintenance and receive more remuneration as a result? If so, I get the output of the work and I then get more income too. This is different than other work and it seems to me that changing the design of my living room or keeping up my garden is more like consumption rather than it is like production.

Suppose I like to play the piano, or to build model airplanes, or whatever. The activity I engage in for my hobby has much in common with work but we call it consumption because I do it under my own auspices and for myself. What we call work, in contrast, is what we do under the auspices of workers councils to produce outputs that are enjoyed by people other than just ourselves.

Is there a problem in saying that because caring for and raising children is fundamentally different in kind than producing cars or screwdrivers and in saying that maintaining a household is different in its social relations and benefits than working in a factory, and deducing that on these bases we shouldn’t count household labor as work to be remunerated and occur under the auspices of parecon’s workplace institutions?

I guess if we think it is impossible to have a transformation of sex-gender relations themselves then there is a problem, yes. If the norms and structures of households and living units are highly sexist, and if a parecon doesn’t incorporate household labor as part of the economy and subject to its norms, then household labor will be done overwhelmingly by women and will as a result reduce their leisure or their time for other pursuits relative to men.

But why assume that? Why shouldn’t it be that transformed norms for household labor are produced by a transformation of sex gender relations themselves, rather than by calling household labor part of the economy?

Take it in reverse. If this were a book about feminism and the rest of society and if I had mapped out a feminist sex-gender vision, I don’t think many people would ask whether we can count the workplace as a household so that it gets the benefits of the innovative relations that new families and living units have. We would assume, instead, that there would need to be a revolution in the economy, not just in kinship, and we would rely on the former for the chief redefinitions of life at work even as we also anticipated and required that the economy abide and even abet the gains in kinship.

In any event, clearly a parecon militates against sexism because on the one hand it would have no reason to and even could not incorporate sexist hierarchies, and on the other hand it empowers and remunerates women in a manner that precludes there being easily subordinated in any other realm.


Here is an excerpt from an interview by Barbara Ehrenreich on the above, as well…

Ehrenreich: In the book Parecon, you make no mention, that I can find anyway, of remuneration for the work of “caring” in the home – child raising, caring for the elderly, etc. This is a big issue with feminists: how do you address it?

Albert: I talk about this in various places, but perhaps at less length than you might desire. What is the relation between parecon and issues of gender is the broad matter, and the specific matter is what is done vis a vis work in the home.

For the former issue, a parecon would have to respect goals implemented for kinship and gender relations. I don’t know what those goals will be. Perhaps changes in the nuclear family and living units more broadly will be important. Perhaps changes from mothering and fathering — which are now gender-defined roles — to parenting which could in the future be a genderless role. Maybe other changes will be critical, and obviously there will be much diversity.

The key claim for parecon is that it won’t contradict innovations sought by feminist activism. Men can’t have disproportionate economic control or inflated income in parecon because no one can. In fact, if the gender and household sphere of a society imposed a hierarchy of men over women, an accompanying parecon would contradict it because a parecon would disrupt any gender hierarchy by treating men and women equally. So in this sense, not only does parecon have to respect a desirable approach to home life and gender and sex issues more broadly, but also vice versa. Nurturance and socialization and relations among people in their living units and regarding sex, has to yield citizens able to hold balanced jobs, able to participate in self managed decision making, able to partner in work with all kinds of other people, etc.

But what about household work? I think the answer is that there may not be a single answer. I can imagine a society which says that household work is part of the economy so that all such work would be in balanced job complexes and remunerated for effort. But I can also imagine, and I would prefer and also think it more likely, a society in which household work wasn’t thought of that way.

For example, I don’t think the nurturing and upbringing of a child is the same broad type of activity as building a bicycle or a computer, or even teaching school or staffing a daycare center. Both child rearing and workplace production take time and energy. They both have important outcomes. But I think rearing the next generation inside households is so qualitatively different than producing outputs in workplaces that it shouldn’t be thought of under the same rubric. That doesn’t mean it should be apportioned unjustly, of course. It just means the norms that would govern housework would be part of what we might call the kinship sphere, not the economy.

I guess I don’t like thinking about household labor in a way that makes a child and family life analogous to a product of a workplace and work, though I realize others might disagree. However, to disagree out of concern that in a parecon women would be exploited by having to do household labor on top of their remunerated workplace labor seems to me to say that we can have goals regarding economics that improve workplace conditions, but we can’t have goals regarding kinship that improve household conditions and I see no reason to think that. Also, this is all separate from daycare facilities, schools, etc., that presumably would exist in a parecon, and would employ people doing their socially valued labor in accord with parecon norms.

There is another issue, bearing on other parts of household labor, that makes it problematic to think of homes as a workplace in the economy. Suppose you like to work a whole lot on designing and redesigning your living room, your whole residence, or your lawn. That could be a lot of activity but should it count as part of your contribution to the social output? The problem is, you are the main beneficiary. I think it is more accurately termed consumption and not seen as part of your balanced job complex. Could parecon treat it as work? Yes, I guess it could. Should it? I don’t think so, but again others might disagree. And again, this is different from a landscaping industry, which does work for households, neighborhoods, etc.

What parecon says is that workplaces and industries should remunerate for effort and sacrifice, should feature councils as venues of negotiation and decision making, should use self management methods for arriving at choices, and should employ balanced job complexes. Consumption should occur in accord with budgets and via participatory planning. But beyond these broad features, and the infrastructure of participatory planning, there is tremendous room for variation (just as there is lot of variation among different instances of capitalism, or any other type of economy). I have my own preferences about lots of aspects of a future society, like housework, or the interface between economics and religion, or what is consumption rather than work, and so on. Others will differ, and various patterns will emerge, perhaps differently in different countries. There is much more to life than economics, and parecon is just an economic goal.

Next Entry: Generations


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