Exclusion or differentiated treatment that is suffered by individuals for presenting a series of arbitrary characteristics, unrelated to the group from which they are excluded, or which, not being so, are attributed to them by association with a demographic profile as arbitrary as any other.
Incentives at the root of discrimination
Despite the praise of the virtues of “free competition”, capitalism has never known competition like that taught in economics classrooms. As we witness every day during the trade war, mercantile laws, taxes… capitalist competition is a total war that only partially happens in the “language of prices”. Creating monopolies to blackmail millions to death, imposing commercial advantages through military force, subjecting the weakest capital to greater burdens… these are the day-to-day realities of competition between capitalists. Even the most wretched petty bourgeois knows that “good margins” and “big business” are born from positions of strength normally endorsed by the state or sustained by the ownership of large masses of capital; not from competition in price and quality, but from the possibility of using the market to impose exactions rigged outside it. So however much “equal opportunity” is sold to us as the very essence of the system, it is the system itself which constantly recreates the incentives for discrimination.
When the left tells us that this or that discrimination must be confronted and pursued with all the force of the state, it is taking the point of view of big capital. It is in the interest of big capital, which runs state capitalism, to harmonize as much as possible the conditions of exploitation in order to guarantee the mobility and fluidity of big capital among its possible placements.
But competing capital, like the gigantic social parasite that it is, will not hesitate to use any means at its disposal to survive and reproduce. If there is a possibility of discrimination, there is a possibility of increasing exploitation and with it, profits. Moreover, many times, from the point of view of individual capitals, it is the only way to do so. The equalizing tendency of big capital will clash again and again with the needs of real competition, especially for the petty bourgeoisie, but also between big capitals. If one discrimination ceases to be useful, another old one will re-emerge or a new one will appear. For capital, there is nothing essential in the supposed “identities” themselves upon which it hits with all the force of discrimination at one time, they are only a roster of demographic profiles that can be usefully discriminated against. The existence of any pre-capitalist remnants or prejudices and of any situation of marginality – prisoners, irregular migrants, etc. – will be encouraged then and again by the new competitors who aspire to an accelerated accumulation by scraping profit margins. And if there are no prejudices at hand, others will be invented anew.
Such is real competition. So brutal that the state itself must moderate it because of its subversive potential against the bourgeoisie itself and its state. Discrimination in capitalism is systematic, necessary for the system and universal. Not even the state can go further than the persecution of excesses without eliminating the incentive game of the capitalist competition.
The inculturation of discrimination
Thus, for example, the social values that condemned women of all social classes to a subordinate place within the class of each one of them were, in principle, inherited by capitalism. Capitalism did not need a sexual division of labor, nor is it in its logic to establish a differentiated and separate mode of exploitation of men and women. However, it accepted and reproduced it from the very beginning as a way of directly increasing the exploitation of female workers. The temporary incorporation of even greater numbers of women into industrial production during the two great imperialist wars removed much of the remaining legal restrictions on women in the countries of the capitalist center, although it was not enough to change the culture.
For cultural change to take place to the point of social condemnation of a certain form of discrimination, a change in the needs of accumulation is required, so that it permeates the state and moves it first to release accumulation from the obstacles it faces, materially, the structures arising from discrimination of a general nature, and secondly to face the transformation of culture. Culture is by definition “national” and when the values and prejudices that give rise to a certain amount of discrimination become counterproductive or harmful to accumulation, the state or simply to social peace, the state will attempt to “reform culture”, “purify” it or “modernize” it. A certain ideological contradiction will then be established, which will inevitably generate supporters and detractors from all social classes. True fireworks, these conflicts can be perpetuated in the form of “culture wars”, strengthening around them the state’s capacity to control the situation.
The example of Spanish machismo
If the world wars did not permanently change the role of women in the productive apparatus, one of their outcomes did: the development of state capitalism. With the proliferation of bureaucratic structures both in the state and in enterprises around the world, the early 1960s saw the incorporation of a generation of women from the petty bourgeoisie into wage labor. The development of the service sector that accompanied the process during the second post-war period – the expression of increasingly insufficient markets – and the loss of the share of wages in national income as a result of the development of accumulation, extended the process during the 1970s to affect the working class as a whole. Families were transformed from more or less extended families in which adult males and only some women worked to earn “supplementary income”, into “nuclear families” in which, in order to maintain consumption capacity, both parents had to have a full-time job.
Let’s look an example from Spain. Between 1978 and 2017 the female working population grew by 177% and the activity rate of women went from 27.75% to 53.13%. In the same period, the male activity rate fell from 74.63% to 65.04%. The bulk of this transformation of the labor market took place in the eighties, the period in which the Spanish bourgeoisie undertook its “modernizing” project that included industrial restructuring and the primacy of the service sector. The working women of the time therefore joined an economy that demanded qualified workers. They would be found in the new generations of university graduates, where change had already begun in the 1960s. When the Constitution was adopted in 1978, nearly 40 per cent of students were women. By the mid-1980s, more women than men were receiving higher education. In other words, the women who experienced first-hand the structural change in the Spanish labor market, those who had to fight “for real” against macho bosses and vile selection processes, are the ones who are 60 years old or older today.
The economic change was accompanied by a series of cultural changes driven by legal change. In 1981, the Suárez government introduced and managed to pass a divorce law, and in 1985 the Felipe González government passed the first abortion law. Since the 1979 municipal elections, which produced a majority of PSOE-PCE town halls, “family planning” centers have been providing basic sex education and facilitating access to contraceptives for a new generation. The values linked to sex have changed, they have been “modernized” and in general personal, family and work relations have become – not without friction – more egalitarian according to the sex of each person. A tendency that goes hand in hand with the collapse of the Catholic Church as a reference and model creator in Spanish society. Spain has gone from almost 70% of practicing Catholics to 12%. The change in sexual morals and customs is still going on.
When the Zapatero government approved same-sex marriage in 2004, 56% of the population would already be supportive and only a little more than 20% would be against it. Of course, machismo continued, continues and will continue as long as social relations as a whole are based on violence and exclusion, but that unbearable and crude Spanish machismo that had been hegemonic until the end of the 80s had already become the most stubborn right-wing subculture, a reproachable twitch in politicians, arguing why the “trash television” that had taken off since the arrival of Berlusconi and his “Tele5” was unbearable.
Cultural change, surprisingly fast in historical terms, also generated its resistances and victims. However, it is significant that the first government to recognize this, mobilizing the sympathetic media to establish the problem and passing the first law on violence against women was Aznar’s in 2001, the year the euro was introduced. That is to say, the bulk of cultural change, the generation that imposed at home the need for male brothers to do the dishes and not just the daughters, those who normalized for women the same sexual practices and emotional relationships as men, those who experienced the passage of gender violence from an intimate shame to a social scourge, is that of women who are now over 45 years old. Or, in other words, the generation before feminism was consecrated as a state ideology.
The end of machismo as a defining and characteristic element of Spanish culture was driven by the tertiary sector application of capital from the 1960s onwards. It was accompanied from the beginning by the state, which provided higher education to more and more women and transformed the legal apparatus that consecrated anti-discrimination laws from 1978.
The absence of a feminist movement with the capacity to mobilize throughout this whole process is significant. Only from 2015, a decade after the consummation of the socio-economic transformation, will feminism appear as a form of massive political framing. It will do so either directly from the state or with the strong support of the state. Of course it will rewrite the social history of the 60s, 70s and 80s as if the material transformations had been pushed by a non-existent feminist mobilization. The new feminism, state ideology, was in fact the product, and not the cause or the motor, of a cultural change that had already taken place and that the state was now claiming as a defining element of the country’s social culture.