Victims of their own oppression

After completing 3 final exams for my sociology modules, I finally have time to document 4 theories I found most fascinating in these modules. Interestingly, even though the modules span across 3 different fields of sociology, namely Social Thought, Education, and Gender Studies, the three of them have something in common- that the oppressed are victims of their own oppression.

Gender Studies – “The cyclical fluctuations of their power position, combined with status considerations, result in their active collusion in the reproduction of their own subordination.” (Bargain with Patriarchy by Deniz Kandiyoti)

Patriarchy refers to the domination of men over women in all aspects of social life, including economics, politics and family life. Classical patriarchy refers to societies that are both patrilineal (inheritance passed down to women) and patrilocal (women live in husband’s family residences).

While some women under the patriarchal system respond by fighting back e.g. women in sub-saharan Africa because of their autonomy in other fields such as trading, other women respond with subservience. This is common in countries such as China. But why?

This is because women learn that they can survive in such a system by gaining power over other women as they become mother-in-laws. It is in their immediate interest to gain the favour of their husbands and their sons. But ironically, as they resist complete male domination in the household, instead of uniting with all women to resist the patriarchal system, they become “participants with vested interests in the system that oppressed them.” (Wolf, 1974)

Gender Studies – “Paid domestic labour has often been interpreted as complicity on the part of female employers in ‘simply perpetuating the sexist division of labour by passing on the most devalued work in their lives to another woman’ and ‘escaping the stigma of “women’s work” by laying the burden on working women of colour’ (Romero, 1992)

This quote is pretty much self-explanatory, but it sure tells a lot. When working women hire domestic maids to lighten their burden of housework, so that they can focus on their work, on the surface it appears as it women have achieved equality in the workplace, but in reality, that is only made possible by the subjugation of other women of lower classes, of other races, of other nationalities.

Both do not realise that despite this arrangement, they have not been freed from the ‘cage’ of domesticity. The domestic worker leaves her home, only to find herself immersed in the domestic sphere of another home in another country. The female employer hires a maid to replace her role in doing domestic chores, but is still the person who is expected to train and supervise her at home.

That is why it is said that the third wave of feminism is stalled because women are not united by their gender, but divided by their class and race.

Education – “Insofar as they succeed (in converting institutional opposition in schools into a more resonant working class form), and become influenced by processes discussed in the rest of the book, so does their future ‘suffer’.” (Learning to labour: how working class kids get working class jobs by Paul Willis)

In the Marxist interpretation of education, the capitalist class who owns means of production, also owns the means of mental production, which is education. Hence, education is a tool used by the capitalist class to perpetuate their interests as universal interests by promoting values such as efficiency and meritocracy. This results in hegemony in which the working class aligns themselves with the dominant interests and this explains the persistence of capitalist class’ domination over the working class.

However, Paul Willis’ work brings a new twist to this interpretation of education. Instead of aligning themselves with the interests of the dominant class, working class children (known as the lads) embrace their working class culture and express them through a counter-school culture. Not only do the lads feel that they are different from middle class children (known as the earholes for their passivity and submissiveness), they feel superior to them. They feel more masculine, and that they are exposed to the adult world of “real work” which requires real practical knowledge, instead of theoretical knowledge. Even though working class jobs pay less, they do not feel any less inferior, because these jobs distinguish them from the earholes and are jobs that the earholes will presumably perform poorly in.

Their alignment towards and embracing of the working class culture indicates the inversion of dominant ideology. But ironically, it is the rejection of theoretical knowledge and school culture that prevents the lads from gaining social mobility through education, and result in them working in working class jobs.

Social thought and theory – “The labour-time necessary for the production of labour-power is the same as that necessary for the production of those means of the subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner.” (Capital by Karl Marx)

This last one would require a lot more thought and no one explained it better than Prof Emily Chua did in her answer key for our essay.

The Bourgeoisie owns the means of production, while Proletariat does not and must sell her labor to make a living. It is on this basis that the Bourgeoisie is able to oppress the Proletariat.

Exploitation occurs when a certain quantity of the Proletariat’s labour-power goes to the Bourgeoisie for free, and becomes Bourgeoisie’ private property. Bourgeoisie’s continued power over the Proletariat comes from Bourgeoisie’s exploitation of Proletariat.

This surplus labour arises from the fact that the use-value of labor-power is higher than its exchange-value: The use-value (value which measures the usefulness of an object) of labour-power is 24 hours. The exchange value (value of an object determined by market forces of demand and supply) of labour power, which is the labour-time necessary to produce the means of subsistence for a labourer is however possibly 6 – 8 hours.

Surplus labour creates surplus value for the Bourgeoisie, or turns the Bourgeoisie’s money into capital, self- valorizing value. In other words, it is the Proletariat’s labour that becomes Bourgeoisie’s capital, enabling Bourgeoisie to oppress and exploit Proletariat.

Thus, while the Bourgeois mode of production produces Proletariat by maintaining a class of people who must sell their labour to survive, at the same time, it is also Proletariat who ‘produces’ Bourgeoisie by labouring, and making the commodities that constitute Bourgeoisie’s property.

In essence, the Proletariat is a class that reproduces itself, and also reproduces the Bourgeoisie class which oppresses it.


 

These theories are the most fascinating ones I have encountered this semester because they are the best evidences to prove that the world is not always black and white. There aren’t always devils and angels. Relations between the oppressed and the oppressor are not always so clear, because one may not even know that he or she is part of the oppressed class and may only be conscious of his or her own existence (and benefits) in the most immediate aspects of life, and it could happen to any one, myself included.

In Gender, it could be to get a job that I like or to be the most powerful women at home. In Education, it could be to align myself with a particular culture so that I survive best when I eventually form a part of that culture. In Class, it could be to get a job for a living.

How can we free ourselves if we do not see ourselves and each other as one unified oppressed class?

I believe all these would be part of what Marx would call false consciousness- that we continue to perpetuate the system that oppresses us. This is a theory that is immensely tragic, but also immensely enlightening.


 

So this marks the end of 3 intensive modules. Even though the journey has been incredibly difficult, but at the end of the day, I always remind myself how privileged I am to be able to learn all these fascinating theories in university, that I have never ever encountered before.

I may not have grasped all concepts to their fullest, but as Prof Emily Chua said, “After exams, I want you to learn one thing: that everything you learnt in this module is wrong.” Concepts need to be learnt, and relearnt, learnt, and relearnt. So I suppose the learning process has just begun.

Here’s to more 🙂

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How may the Capitalist System lead to exploitation of workers?

SC3101 Social Thought and Social Theory is by far the most insightful and enjoyable module I am taking this semester.

During a make up tutorial with Dr. George Radic’s class today, he explained Karl Marx’s reading, “Capital” so well, and I finally understood a glimpse of why Marx thinks that the Capitalist system may lead to exploitation. Let me attempt to explain his fascinating idea:

First, commodity is defined as any product that satisfies the needs of humans, and is in turn traded for something else. Each commodity has two types of values: use-value and exchange-value. Use-value expresses how much a commodity is of value to the needs or preferences of somebody. A pen may be of immense use-value to someone who prefers writing on paper, but of no value to someone who types in the computer instead. As use-value is subjective to individuals, it is not important in the discussion here. On the other hand, exchange value is the value of a product as determined by market supply and demand. If the demand of gold increases or the supply of gold decreases so much that there is a higher demand, the value of gold increases. If the demand of gold decreases or the supply of gold increases so much that there is no more demand, then the value of gold decreases.

(** Just a side note, this is also a common criticism of the Capitalist system. You may wonder, when supply is too much for the demand available, shouldn’t producers simply cut down the supply to prevent overproduction? In reality, that is not true. Instead, products, especially perishable goods such as milk, will be thrown away to lower the supply supplied to consumers, creating major wastage of products. Another way producers can earn profit is to artificially restrict the production or supply of goods, even if they have the means to do produce more to meet the demands of consumers, so as to raise the price of the products they sell. )

So where does the exploitation of workers come in this picture?

In the Capitalist system, the working class are people with no property, and are hence made to sell their labour power as means of survival. Labour-power is commoditised and the labour time that is necessary to create a product is exchanged for the creation of a product. Here comes the problem.

Are the value of products determined by how much labour time was invested into the products? The simple answer is no. Because the value of products are determined by how the market values them, a worker can spend 1000h in a pair of shoes, and the pair of shoes is sold for a meagre sum of $0.50. The sums just do not add up. Workers are exploited as the value of the products they create does not take into the account of their labour time and effort.

So this is Marx theory of labour in essence. Of course this may be a huge simplification of Marx’s theories and there are also plenty of assumptions made on the part of Marx as well (e.g. value of a product may determined by more factors than just demand and supply), but it does also help to explain why humans are so obsessed with money as well.

Money is the measure of the value of commodity as determined by market forces. (*Note that money can also be a commodity in the context of foreign exchange market) But while money can be equivalent to the commodity, commodities are not important to the Capitalists. Only money is important because only money can be exchanged for something else. That is when money becomes the sole definition of everything and people start to fetishise over money. An example is Education. We do not go to school to get a job and buy a car. We go to school to get a job and earn money. With this money we can exchange it for many commodities such as a car. Marx terms this phenomenon “the fetishism of money”.

And that’s all I learnt that I wanted to share today. 🙂