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.


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

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.


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)


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:

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 life.

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:

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:

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 sensitivity change. 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 !


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 - 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.

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