Imagine for a moment that you join a large multinational company, which we shall call Global Inc. Nobody is quite sure who owns the company, indeed no individual really does own it. Ownership and profits are spread across disparate stock markets, investment funds, banks, even governments.
You are recruited to a specific department. It might be the board of directors or senior management team. It might be IT support, the manufacturing production line, cleaning or maintenance. On your first day you are handed your induction pack. This contains all the strict rules and regulations of the company along with some softer policies, codes of practice, descriptions of your entitlements and even helpful tips on how to use the canteen. Much of it is devoted to your specific job description, what you will be expected to do in your role. Your first week is spent learning every page in the binder.
Then, when you settle into your department, you quickly learn that your new team also has its own unique, unwritten culture and ways of doing things. It is dynamic, evolving, it doesn’t quite match the descriptions in the binder. But so long as the department is doing well enough, meeting its targets and making profits, the hierarchy at Global Inc doesn’t really mind too much, and doesn’t interfere.
Members of some departments have much more power, influence and prestige than others, and of course some are paid much better than others. The power relationships between departments don’t need to be spelled out, they are universally understood. Someone in the IT department can insist that a cleaner scrubs the bathroom window, but the cleaners can’t suddenly demand some SQL subscript code in return. Nowhere does it say that IT outranks sanitation, but everyone understands. However, woe betide the SQL programmer who starts scrubbing the office floor, s/he will find him/herself angrily berated by a cleaner for overstepping accepted lines of demarcation - and probably using the wrong detergent or missing a bit.
Within each department there are one or two eccentric individuals. There’s old Chunders Charlie who works in his underpants at his desk every day and Mystic Mary who dangles feathery dreamcatchers over the kettle in the kitchen. Again, so long as Charlie and Mary are hitting their targets and making profits, they’re allowed to get on with it. However occasionally there will be an employee who deviates so far from the departmental culture that it starts to interfere with the departmental culture, causing upheaval, stress and damaging attainment. Let’s call him Awkward Ollie. When Ollie’s corrosive idiosyncrasies first emerge, the rest of the department react with social disapproval, gossiping and sniping behind his back, using group psychology to try to enforce conformity. If that doesn’t work Ollie will soon find himself being yelled at, bullied, socially ostracised and eventually booted out of the department. The easiest thing for Ollie to do is to fall into line with the demands of his department, and usually he will.
So each individual has a vested interest in maintaining their own role within their department. Each department has a vested interest in protecting its own position within the company and maintaining mutually supportive (if unequal) relationships with other departments with which they network and interact.
I said Global Inc. was a large company. I didn’t say quite how large. It has thousands of departments within it, perhaps millions. In fact Global Inc. employs seven billion people – every single one of us. The binder full of policies and procedures is written into laws, into religious books and moral codes, into the myriad threads of social systems and culture that teach us how we are meant to behave if we are born male or female, black or white, British or Bangladeshi or any combination. The induction period happens not over a week, but across the early years of our childhood and beyond.
The company is clever enough to evolve constantly, to incorporate the changing cultures within each department. Until recently, in much of the world (and still in many parts of the world), someone deviating from the strict policy on heterosexuality would be considered Awkward Ollie and be punished. But increasingly, Global Inc has been able to create entire new departments with their own culture, economy (“the pink pound” as we call it in the UK) and latterly the ultimate symbol of conformity to the company – licensed marriage. Even active counter-cultures can be co-opted. As the Clash once sang: “haha, ain’t it funny – turning rebellion into money.” Naomi Klein’s brilliant anti-capitalist tracts are published by Rupert Murdoch, remember.
Occasionally people can move from one department to another. A mixed-heritage Euro-Kenyan boy, born in relative poverty in Hawaii, can rise to become chairman of the board. However the system has evolved in such a way that such cases will always be exceptions, not the norm. Indeed, such an exception acts as a pressure valve to prevent the whole edifice exploding. “If one person can do it, anyone can do it” says one page in the binder, and it may be true, but that is entirely different to saying “if one person can do it, everyone can do it.”
I have concocted this grand and rather clumsy analogy to illustrate a key point of my political views, which underpins everything I write on this blog and elsewhere. Socialised gender roles are not there by accident. They are functional. Oppressive acts of sexism, misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, class prejudice and the rest do not arise from individual weakness or venality but because we have all been induced to retain and reinforce them as essential components of our role within the company. Necessary social progress in emancipation, liberation and human rights will be indulged by Global Inc when it can be turned to the company’s advantage – the welcoming of women into the professions, for example – and fiercely resisted when it challenges the bottom line, such as union rights or decent parental leave entitlements.
It is simplistic nonsense to think of patriarchy, in particular, as a system in which men oppress women by choice and for our own interests. Patriarchy often requires men to do horrible things to ourselves, to each other and to women. Patriarchy imposes dominant roles on men whether we want them or not, and punishes us when we fail to fulfil them adequately. It’s all there in the job description. It is equally simplistic nonsense to imagine that male suffering (on the battlefield and in homelessness, suicide rates, alienation and loneliness) is a consequence of women’s behaviour, choices or social liberation.
Perhaps one day Global Inc. will collapse under the weight of its own internal strains. There may be a few things we can do to help hasten that day, if we are so inclined, but I’ll agree it is a dauntingly big challenge, and it is easier to criticise the company we have than agree on what we would like in its place.
What we can do, every one of us, is work on the culture of our own immediate departments, think of how our own behaviour is influencing or indeed oppressing others, and remember that ultimately the company is made up of innumerable smaller units, each of which can be changed. Above all, we can consider what exactly is in the binders that we hand on to the next generation of new employees and what we can do to improve them.
This blog is my own small contribution to making that happen.