Genders or sex stereotypes : Part 1

K. A. Cortes, W. P. Cockshott

1  Introduction

In the English speaking world today it is accepted that gender and genders exist. The term is used in news reports and official documents1. Law is passed that incorporates the notion of gender2. Old laws3which prohibited sex discrimination are reinterpreted as prohibiting gender discrimination.

This process has become controversial. Both conservatives and feminists have objected that laws, originally meant to protect women, are in danger of becoming ineffective; if men who claim to be women are treated as legally being women this not only goes beyond the intention of the original law, but it may place women at a disadvantage4. We have strong sympathies with these objections. In this article we will be arguing that genders, in the sense of sets of people, do not exist.

Prior to the late 1960s the word Gender was used in English to refer to sets of nouns and the rules for matching pronouns and adjectives to them in various, mainly foreign, languages. In this usage gender is a French loan, the Anglicization of genre meaning type or class, which the French grammarians had used to classify nouns. This in turn was a borrowing from the Latin grammarians who had used genus in the same sense, as a means of classifying nouns. If one looks at books that use the word gender before the 1970s they overwhelmingly use it in this grammatical sense.

From the end of the 1960s there is a dramatic change in usage. Genders were no longer categories of words but categories of people. Between 1968 and 2000 the usage of the word increased more than 30 fold(Figure 1). It was no longer a grammatical term but a psychological or sociological one. Gender, in its current usages, was a construct of specifically English academic literature. Where once the word sex had been used – the sexes, sex roles, sex differences – now authors wrote of genders, gender identities and gender differences.

The usefrequency of gender overtook sex in academic British English. French and Spanish culture though, seem to have remained more at ease with sex; genre and genero failed to increase relative to sexe and sexo (Figure 2).

If a new technology is invented, the word for it becomes much more common. It may take over an old word in the process. Think of the word computer, whose use grew 500 fold in 50 years. It originally meant a person whose job it was to calculate, and which came to mean a computing machine. The new meaning referred to something new in the world, something which now really existed.

The same thing happens with the words invented or adapted to refer to new scientific discoveries. Cultural fashions like Jazz or Punk, leave their own traces in word usage.

Sex is certainly not a recent discovery or invention, albeit that people did become less inhibited about mentioning it. But did the new use of gender designate a new invention, a scientific discovery, a cultural fashion?

So far we are just counting words. But it does tell us something. Because computers were used internationally, the corresponding word in French ordinateur also showed a similar increase. Similarly when the proton was discovered the word soon cropped up in books in many languages. Cultural fashions however are more nationally specific. This at least suggests that the specifically English use of gender says more about how Anglo-saxon culture interprets the world, than about underlying reality.

Figure 1: The relative frequency of occurrence of the words sex and gender in English language books in the 20th century. Data transcribed from a Google Ngram Viewer query and subsequently re-plotted. Note the phase change around 1970.

To go beyond suggestion we have to look at the actual usage of the word both in the research literature and in philosophy. If the new use of gender is a scientific concept designating something that exists in the world and is distinct from sex, then this would be apparent in research papers. They would show how gender is operationalised into something empirically measurable. In section 2 we examine how leading active researchers use the term gender. This section will show that genders distinct from sexes do not exist as operational concepts.

 Figure 2: French books show no increase in the popularity of genre, over the period the gender became popular in English. Data transcribed from a Google Ngram Viewer query and subsequently re-plotted.

Later we examine the work of Judith Butler who is arguably the leading philosophical advocate of the new usage of the term gender. We will demonstrate that she fails to establish a coherent scientific concept underlying her use of the term.

Finally we discuss the adverse social effect that is produced by a displacement of sex by gender.

Because of the amount of material we have prepared this is serialised over at least three blog posts.

2   Gender in empirical research

To see how the concepts of sex and gender are applied in practical research you have to look at the work of social scientists and psychologists. When do you this, it is problematic just what gender means. There is inconsistency in terminology used in published studies of differences between male and female participants as to whether these differences are called sex differences or gender differences. It does, however, become clear that empirical researchers do not talk of ‘genders’ or use ‘gender’ as a noun. In section 2.10 we will examine why this is the case.

2.1  Method

Search was performed on Google Scholar, for papers with an exact match in the title for the phrase “gender differences in” on the 27th May 2017. Out of the top 20 papers, which had been ranked by citations, downloads were made of all papers that had direct links to online copies. This yielded 13 papers: Blau and Kahn, [2000,Costa Jr et al., [2001,Gefen and Straub, [1997,Byrnes et al., [1999,Feingold, [1994,Croson and Gneezy, [2009,Hyde and Linn, [1988,Nolen-Hoeksema, [2001,Hankin et al., [1998,Piccinelli and Wilkinson, [2000,Venkatesh et al., [2000,Oliver and Hyde, [1993]. The most cited paper Croson and Gneezy, [2009] had at that date 2894 citations and leastVenkatesh et al., [2000] had 958.

Papers were read to determine if the studies they reported actually made any attempt to distinguish sex from gender in their experimental method and if so what approach they took; how they used the term gender; how their methodology and mode of argument compared with that of Butler examined in subsequent sections.

2.2  Gender differences in risk taking

Croson and Gneezy [2009] (2895 citations) present a meta-analysis or review study of 141 other papers. Nearly all of the papers they summarize, simply categorize the participants into into male female with no operational attempt to distinguish sex from gender. The focus of the whole papaer is on risk taking and examines the evolutionary hypothesis that males are less risk averse. If we take sex as being something biologically determined, then the basic hypothesis being tested is a biological one, so it is unclear why the authors chose to describe it in their title as a study of gender differences. Of the studies that Croson and Gneezy [2009] analyze, only a few a few, 3 out of 141, attempt to control for socialization by selecting children who hypothetically are less socialized. As such it is suggested that this method may make it easier to detect sex differences as opposed to socialized gender differences. Croson and Gneezy [2009] also mention cross cultural studies as another having some limited ability to control for nature versus nurture issues. That Croson and Gneezy [2009] explicitly point this out, indicates an awareness that there is an issue of separating out socialisation from biology. There is at least an awareness that some form of compensation should be carried out, but the language used to talk about the problem is not sex versus gender but nature versus nurture.

This is the most highly cited paper on Google Scholar about gender differences in specific domains. Rather than testing a hypothesis about gender differences in the specialized sense used in gender studies it is actually a paper testing a hypothesis about sex differences. In turn it reviews a 141 other papers of which only a small minority made even a partial attempt to compensate for socialization.

Another very big meta analysis of risk taking in men and women is given by Byrnes et al. [1999] (2204 citations ). The procedure was an initial search for papers the query : ( ‘risk’ or ‘risk taking’) and ( ‘gender differences’ or ‘sex differences’). They read over 300 publications and systematically coded and analyzed 150 of them. Overall they found

At a general level, our results clearly support the idea that male participants are more likely to take risks than female participants. In nearly every case, the mean effect size for a given type of risk taking was significantly greater than zero,

Although some of the papers they used referred to sex differences Byrnes et al consistently use the term gender difference. Gender is only used as an adjective as in ‘gender gap’ or ‘gender difference’. Neither gender nor sex are used as nouns except for when sex is used to mean sexual intercourse as in ‘unprotected sex’ is one of the risky activities coded for.

2.3  Gender differences in verbal skills – do they exist

It is widely believed that one difference between males and females is that girls and women have better verbal skills than boys and men. Hyde and Linn [1988] (2064 citations) present a large meta-analysis addressing this topic. They considered 165 studies representing a total sampled population of 1,418,899.

They report, that up to the time of their publication, the superior verbal ability of females, had, for decades been accepted as a fact in psychology. Hyde et al say that previous reviews of the experimental literature were too unsystematic and small – they covered too few studies – to allow definite conclusions to be drawn.

Unweighted averaging the measured gender difference across all studies using the d statistic5 showed a small positive d that is to say a small superiority in female verbal ability. If the results are weighted by sample size, so that larger studies weigh more, the result was a small male superiority. The difference was accounted for by the single largest study – with a sample size of 977,361. If this single large study is excluded, reducing the sample population to 441,538, the measured effect is d=0.11, a female superiority in verbal ability equal to one-tenth of the within-sex variations.

They then broke down the studies by a number of categories to see if this influenced the measured gender differences. The first category used was the selectivity of the sample – did it, for example, use the general population, did it use college students, did it use students at elite colleges. They find that unselective studies generally showed no significant effect, whereas more selective studies did show an effect. Looking at the year of publication, they found that older studies tended to show more gender difference than recent ones. The sex of the first author of a study also influenced the reported gender difference, with women authors tending to report greater differences.

Overall they conclude that :

We are prepared to assert that there are no gender differences in verbal ability, at least at this time, in this culture, in the standard ways that verbal ability has been measured. … A gender difference of one-tenth of a standard deviation is scarcely one that deserves continued attention in theory, research, or ,textbooks.

They argue that such a small effect has no meaningful educational or psychological implications. The absence of a significant female superiority in verbal ability undermines theories of a female brain left lateralised for verbal tasks. Overall they conclude that gender differences in cognitive abilities are nonexistent and that other explanations must be sought for the real gender differences in earnings.

Within the paper, the term gender is used only in the context of ‘gender difference’. Genders are not used as explanatory variables, and the categorisation of the samples is into male and female rather than the gender theory terms masculine and feminine.

2.4  Gender differences in personality and across cultures

Costa Jr et al. [2001] (2054 citations) are concerned to investigate whether gender differences are consistent across cultures. They point out that there are consistent and measurable differences in terms of mean personality traits between samples of men and women and that two broad types of explanation have been given for these.

Two classes of theories, biological and social psychological, have tried to explain these gender differences in personality traits. The biological theories consider sex-related differences as arising from innate temperamental differences between the sexes, evolved by natural selection.


Social psychological theorists argue for more proximal and direct causes of gender differences. The social role model [Eagly, 1987] explains that most gender differences result from the adoption of gender roles, which define appropriate conduct for men and women. Gender roles are shared expectations of men’s and women’s attributes and social behavior, and are internalized early in development. There is considerable controversy over whether gender roles are purely cultural creations or whether they reflect preexisting and natural differences between the sexes in abilities and predispositions [Eagly and Wood, 1999,Geary, 1999].

The authors argue that one could in principle use data on cross-cultural gender differences to distinguish between the two hypotheses. Biological explanations would predict that gendered personality traits would be consistent across cultures. A finding that gendered personality differences showed no consistency across cultures would undermine the plausibility of a biological cause.

The study involved measuring 30 personality traits for samples of men and women from 26 different countries, with over 11,000 participants. The original dimensions were sub traits of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Dimension reduction was performed from the 30 traits of the initial survey onto a 4-dimensional subspace, each dimension of which, when averaged across all cultures, polarized the sample between men and women.

It produced the striking finding that there was a indeed very large variation in gender differences between cultures. Among black Africans there was almost no measurable difference in mean personality between men and women in terms of these traits. For European and American populations there were strong differences between male and female personalities. For South and East Asian populations the differences, whilst detectable, were markedly less than those found in the West. Overall the authors report that their results are incompatible with gendered differences in personality being due to a mainly biological cause.

If we examine the variables used in Costa et al we see that sex and country are the independent variables, and personality traits the dependent ones. The authors consistently refer to the ‘two sexes’, not the two genders. Gender is only talked about in terms of gender differences in personality, which is operationally defined as the women’s average for a trait minus the men’s average for the same trait. Practically this makes a lot of sense. It is almost impossible to treat gender as an independent variable. To do so one would have to decide that a particular set of scores on personality traits would mark one of the experimental subjects as male, and another set of scores would mark them as female – presumably using Support Vector Machines or some other technique of linear discriminant analysis. But that would have put them in a position where they would have been unable to measure cross-cultural differences in these traits. The very attributes which may be specific to Western culture would then be used to attempt to discriminate male from female in Africa.

Costa et al not only provide strong evidence for the cultural production of gender differences, but also demonstrate the futility of assuming that gender itself can be used as an independently existing explanatory factor. Again researchers have to fall back on biological sex as the independent variable, even when demonstrating that gender differences cannot have a simple biological cause.

They do not use gender as a noun but consistently as an adjective: gender difference, gender role.

Feingold [1994](1954 citations) is also about gender differences in personality. Feingold goes deeper into theoretical explanations of gender differences in personality than Costa et al., distinguishing, biological, socio-cultural and bio-social theories. Among the socio-cultural theories discussed is the possibility that apparent gender differences may be an artefact of measurement techniques. Measurement is generally by self-reporting using standardised questionnaires.

The artifact model posits that sociocultural factors (e.g., gender stereotyping) result in men and women holding different values about the importance of possessing various traits and that these differences differentially bias self-reports of personality characteristics, engendering sex differences in scores on personality inventory traits that do not reflect corresponding sex differences in the personality constructs that the tests purport to measure.

One might argue that Feingold’s artefact theory since it attributes measure differences to bias in self-assessment, may fit in with Butler’s notion of gender being performative.

Feingold also discusses biosocial theories according to which current gender differences are historic relics of a pre-industrial economy in which the biological differences between the sexes had more of an impact:

The hypothesis that gender differences have both proximal and distal causes is plausible because social roles, based mainly on distribution of work tasks, may have evolved in preindustrial times as a consequence of physical differences between the sexes that were far more consequential then than in the current technological age.

Alternatively, another bio-social theory would be that there is an interaction between direct biological factors and social factors in shaping personality.

The method was a replication, using more sophisticated meta-analysis techniques of Maccoby and Jacklin, [1974], Hall, [1984] along with a meta-analysis of reported intercultural gender differences in personality traits using the same features as in Costa Jr et al., [2001]. The range of cultures studied was narrower than in the latter paper, with fewer Asian and no African studies reported. Unlike Costa et al. no conclusions are drawn about whether the results support biological or social origins of the differences shown. The word gender is only used as an adjective in conjunction with differences. Sex and gender are used as synonyms.

2.5  Gender differences in depression

Piccinelli and Wilkinson [2000] (1561 citations) and Nolen-Hoeksema [2001] (1201 citations)both address the issue of the greater prevalence of depression in women. The conclusions and material covered are similar in both cases. The explanation given is an integrative one in which a higher prevalence of stressors such as childhood sexual abuse and maternal responsibilities interact with dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which the paper claims may be physiologically more common in females. In Nolen-Hoeksema gender is only ever used as an adjective – for instance as ‘gender difference’ in this paper. It never appears as a noun. It uses the term gender consistently when referring to differences between women or men, it does not use the term sex differences, though it cites several papers with the term ‘sex difference’ in their titles. If gender difference is taken to refer to cultural effects, and sex differences to biological ones, then the paper, contra the title, is explaining differences in depression rates as being the result of both gender and sex. But there is no explicit theoretical distinction made between gender and sex. In contrast whilst the overall explanations given for gender differences in depression by Piccinelli and Wilkinson are the same, the latter do use the term gender as noun 12% of the time it occurs. They speak of ‘genders’, and once, use the term ‘gender identity’. There is thus some slight overlap with the language that Butler also uses. However, they are definite about sex being distinct gender identity.

  • Biological sex is an immutable socio-demographic variable not influenced by disease and thus is a useful starting point in the investigation of risk factors for depression.
  • The approach based on biological sex is rarely combined with the study of developmental processes underlying the acquisition of gender identity.

2.6  Gender differences in pay

Blau and Kahn [2000](1373 citations) reviews explanations of the gender difference in pay in the USA when compared to other countries. It has to explain why there are gender differences in pay, and why these differences declined over the period studied: from the late 1970s to the late 1990s. They also examine the narrowing of the gender pay gap in other countries and the extent to which it lower elsewhere. Overall they conclude

compared to women in the other countries, U.S. women are better qualified relative to men and/or encounter less discrimination. The mediocre ranking of the U.S. gender ratio in the face of these favorable gender-specific factors is a consequence of the higher level of wage inequality in the United States, which places a much higher penalty on being below average in the wage distribution.

Their justification for this is that the average female wage put them at the 37th percentile of male wages in the US as against the 32nd percentile for the group of other countries studied.

They examine human capital theory, unionization, having time off for children, and discrimination as explanatory factors. As they explain it is in practice difficult to fully separate out the weights to be assigned to these possible causal factors.

Whatever the adequacy of the explanation given by Blau and Kahn, we can surely agree that the topic is of great importance for the actual living conditions and social position of American women. They refer to these differences as a gender pay gap. This fits with a usage of gender as being anything to do with cultural differences between the sexes. There is no doubt that wages are a cultural institution. But within their argument, they never refer to genders. They do refer to ‘sex segregation of occupations’, ‘sex discrimination’, and ‘both sexes’. Gender itself is not used as an explanatory variable. Nor do the authors treat gender as meaning social classification into ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Insofar as they classify it is by sex. Gender is just used as an adjective when qualifying a difference between the sexes in some measured attribute – pay in this case.

2.7  Gender differences in activity

Trost et al. [2002] (1324 citations) report on a study that used accelerometers worn by children to measure their levels of activity. It produced a robust finding that boys engaged in significantly more Vigorous Personal Activity (VPA) than girls for all school age groups studied. No operational steps are taken to distinguish sex from gender, and there is no mention in the discussion of socialisation as opposed to biological sex being an issue at all. With regard to the procedure and content, the paper could equally well have been titled : Age and sex differences in objectively measured physical activity in youth.

2.8  Gender differences in sexuality

This topic substantially overlaps with that of Butler’s book. The leading paper on it Oliver and Hyde [1993] (1187 citations) gives a particularly clear contrast with Butler’s roughly contemporary book. Butler’s book came out in 1990 and Oliver and Hyde’s meta analysis three years later. The importance of this is that the overwhelming majority of the 177 published papers used by the pair, were extant at the time that Butler wrote her own book.

Oliver and Hyde start out by presenting what they take to be the five main contending theories of sexuality in the literature:

  1. Psychoanalytic theories.
  2. Theories deriving from sociobiology.
  3. Social learning theory.
  4. Social role theory.
  5. Script theory.

This is a much wider range of theories than Butler examines. Even allowing for differences in terminology, Butler looked at the only (1) and (2). Oliver and Hyde are careful, when examining each of these theories, to bring to the fore any testable predictions they make. This is in striking contrast with Butler, who never seems to concern herself with whether the theories she discusses are true, testable, or even meaningful. They say their study is not designed to discriminate between the five theories. This is, in part, because the empirical predictions they all make, are rather similar. The theories

are all in agreement in predicting that females will have a smaller number of sexual partners than will males and that females will have more negative attitudes toward casual, pre-marital sex.

The authors examined papers reporting on 239 samples with 128,363 respondents in all. Data from the studies were transformed into a uniform coding scheme covering 21 different topics ranging from attitudes to premarital sex, homosexuality, the double standard to the frequencies of a range of actual sexual activities. As with many of the other papers we examine, Oliver and Hyde use the d metric in their coding, with, in their case, a positive value indicating a greater frequency of the activity or attitude among males.

Aggregation over all the studies indicated:

  • Negligible gender differences in attitudes to homosexuality.
  • Positive d for the incidence of homosexual activity – meaning it was more frequent in males.
  • More permissive attitudes to premarital and extra-marital sex by males.
  • Men claimed to have heterosexual intercourse more frequently than women. Although Oliver and Hyde do not say so, this must reflect male boasting or female reticence.
  • Men claimed to have lost their virginity earlier. This is possible if a portion of teenage boys has their first intercourse with somewhat older women.
  • Women tended to endorse the double standard more than men did. They were significantly more lenient in their attitudes to male infidelity than men were in their own attitudes to it.
  • The biggest single difference was in the frequency of masturbation, it was a whole standard deviation higher in males.

There was a sufficient number of studies of enough time to allow conclusions to be drawn about changes in gender differences over time. In terms of attitudes, the differences all declined with time. In terms of numbers of sexual partners and frequency of sex, d values also fell. This must reflect more accurate self-reporting with time since real average numbers of partners and frequency must be the same for both genders. Gender difference in masturbation remained high but showed some decline over time. Gender differences in attitudes and reported incidences of sexual activities were more marked in older than younger respondents.

Many of the gender differences in sexuality were quite small, but those with respect to permissive attitudes and masturbation frequency stood out as large. Large, that is, compared to gender differences of other traits obtained by meta-analyses. They are much bigger than differences in verbal or mathematical ability. Whilst the difference in permissiveness aligns with all of the theories reviewed, the big gender difference in masturbation was not predicted by any of them.

As with most of the research papers reviewed here, gender is used exclusively as an adjective, not a noun. Operationally a gender difference is defined by the authors as a  d value defined over biological sex as the independent variable.

2.9  Gender differences in technology use

Venkatesh et al. [2000] (958 citations) explicitly recognise that there may be a conceptual distinction between gender and sex :

it is important to recognize that there are at least two commonly understood definitions of gender in psychology—the first is consistent with biological sex while the second views gender as more of a psychological construct

but go on to say that, in this study, they are working on the basis that gender is defined as biological sex.

The hypothesis that they are testing, that men will be more driven by attitude than women are when adopting new technology. They link the possible importance of attitude to what they call ” “masculine” traits (e.g., assertive), as identified by different inventories including Bem’s Sex Role Inventory[Bem, 1981]”. So the hypothesis is arguably driven by evidence of what would often be called gender traits. Participants were divided into men and women but an attempt was made to remove confounding variables which correlate with gender : income, education and position in the organisational hierarchy. Men are likely to have more money, more education and a higher organizational position. The aim was to test the effects of gender alone by explicitly controlling these variables. They find that after explicitly controlling these variables, the salience of gender as a predictive factor in technology uptake was still strong.

The authors although aware of ambiguity in the term gender treated it to mean biological sex, but did compensate for what could be called gendered social position and their causal model included and compensated for what are sometimes described as gendered personality traits. Although they describe what they term gender as emerging as a strong causative factor, it is arguable that what they are measuring here is biological sex, both because they say that is what they consider gender to be, and also because they are trying to control for typical gender traits or sex-differentiated social position.

The authors use gender both as a noun and as an adjective.

2.10  Discussion

Discussing the use of the terms sex and gender in then recent social science Delphy wrote:

What they never ask is why sex should give rise to any sort of social classification. Even the neutral question “we have here two variables, two distributions, which coincide totally. How can we explain this covariance?” does not get considered.

The response is always: sex comes first, chronologically and hence logically – although it is never explained why this should be so. [Delphy, 1993]

Examination of the actual research procedures used in studies of gender differences provides the answer as to why sex is a logically prior category.

In all of these studies, in order to discover gender differences, the experimental subjects first have to be categorized by sex in order to discover the gender differences in pay, personality etc. Sociologists, economists and psychologists would have been unable to investigate these differences any other way. They do not have any prior objective way of categorizing experimental populations by gender.

Suppose that experimentalists had some objective gender test which they could apply to people they enrol in an experiment or survey. How would this test be performed?

It would be no good asking the subjects if their gender was masculine or feminine. We have no guarantee that the subjects would not just interpret that the same way as asking them if their sex was male or female. Pryzgoda and Chrisler [2000] experimented with such questionnaires, using US college students and other educated Americans, populations exposed to modern gender theory. Whilst the definitions given by the students for sex and gender correlated reasonably well with the current academic use of the terms, there were sufficient inconsistencies in their use of language to indicate that, even with this highly educated group, many would interpret a question about their gender as being the same as a question about their sex.

Since simply asking would not differentiate between sex and gender, the only other way would be to use personality traits, pay rates etc, which we know to be gender differentiated to categorise subjects by gender. Besides being unreliable – given the overlap of personality traits, pay etc, this would not avoid the logical priority of sex. The statistical criteria that would have to be used to categorise by gender, have been established by earlier studies of gender difference that used sex as the independent variable.

It follows from the logic of investigation, that sex has to be prior. We could not even systematically study gender differences without a prior ability to categorise people by sex. Categorisation by gender is non-operational in the experimental sense, in consequence, the empirical studies fall back on categorisation by sex. It is still worth distinguishing differences in traits between male and female populations that are socially rather than biologically determined. In some cases this is easy – nobody doubts that differences in the incidence of dress wearing by women and men are social and not biological, or that height differences are biological. It may be convenient to label the former as a gender difference and the latter as a sex difference. In other cases, it is not so clear, for example, different rates of depression. Here, only extensive research can tease out the relative importance of social circumstance and biology. Until the research has reached a definitive result, calling different depression rates a gender not a sex difference, is more a matter of fashion and caution than rigour.

3  Butler: sex a social construct?

In section 2 have looked at a selection of the most highly cited research literature on gender differences to see how empirical social scientists and psychologists use the concept gender. But the contemporary debate on gender legislation is probably more influenced by philosophy than it is by these empirical studies of measurable differences between men and women. In this section we move on to the ideas of an influential philosopher who has written about gender: Judith Butler. One of the novel and ambitious hypotheses put forward by Butler is that not only gender, but sex itself is a social construct.

Does being female constitute a natural fact or a cultural performance, or is naturalness constituted through discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex? Butler, [1990,page xxviii]

She poses this as a question, with an implied answer that: no being female is not a natural fact. But it is unclear what it could mean to deny that femaleness is a natural fact. Are there not male and female animals?

Sexual dimorphism into male and female bodies is a conserved mammalian trait. So in a temporal sense, it is obviously prior to human society. Female animals existed before there were any humans. If Butler is just saying that being female acquires varying social representation over human history, that would be an uncontroversial point. The same could be said of childhood.

All primates have childhoods during with they grow, play and learn. In our species this is unusually long in purely physical terms – the time it takes to stop growing. But the social category of childhood has a variable duration based on the form of economy. The modern industrial economy is unique in having children as non-productive members of society and extends the duration of childhood as a social or legal category to the very limit of the physical growth period. Clearly, the social definition of child impinges on the social definition of man and woman, changes in the definition vary the number legally constituted women and men, affect age of marriage etc. But we don’t, on the basis of these social variations, decide that childhood is just a social construct. No change in the laws regarding child labour or the laws against paedophilia would be sufficient to make children actually the same as adults in strength or capacities.

Reading on, though, we find that Butler really does doubt that sex is, in both a temporal and ontological sense, pre-social. She asks:

what is sexanyway? Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses which purport to establish such facts for us? Does sex have a history? Does each sex have a different history, or histories? Is there a history of how the duality of sex was established, a genealogy that might expose the binary options as a variable construction? Are the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests?Butler, [1990,Page 10]

This comes close to conspiracy theory: the suggestion that sexes do not exist in nature, and that observations in the biological literature, or for that matter by farmers, that other animals reproduce sexually are just a conspiracy by political and social interests.

The rhetorical technique, asking a set of ‘bold’ questions without producing any evidence or argument to show that the questions are reasonable is certainly familiar. One encounters it among the more outlandish conspiracies propagated on the web, things like: Is Queen Elisabeth really a shape-changing alien? Do the royal family regularly drink the blood of small children sacrificed for them by jewish priests? Was this all foretold in secret scrolls buried beneath the Great Pyramid?

The rhetorical purpose of this technique is to suggest something absurd to the reader without an author having to be pinned down as having actually written it. It is the sort of stuff that fringe websites promote.

Butler then goes on to suggest slightly more strongly that sex is just a social construct:

If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called sex is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender Butler, [1990,Page 10]

Scientifically speaking, we know that sex is not culturally constructed. Beyond reproduction, we know that disease presents differently in women and men. This speaks to something other than construction. The thesis that sex is just a social construct is now expressed as a conditional, with the implication that the condition is true, without any attempt to assess the probability or plausibility of the claim. The logical form of her argument is no better than arguing: Since the theory of Darwin is contested, perhaps the whole theory of evolution is a Masonic project, indeed perhaps we should just accept the book of Genesis as literally true

Having thrown doubt on the existence of sex as a natural category Butler then goes on:

It would make no sense, then, to define gender as the cultural interpretation of sex, if sex itself is a gendered category. Gender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven sex (a juridical conception); gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established. As a result, gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which sexed nature or a natural sex is produced and established as prediscursive,prior to culture, Butler, [1990,Page 11] 

She goes from a conditional formulation “ if sex itself is a gendered category” to an unqualified conclusion that states that sex is the result of gender. Just what is meant by this is not spelled out.

The only way to interpret her text that is compatible with what we know from science would be as follows. Butler writes “gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established”. The ‘apparatus of production’ of the sexes is the set of genes whose differential activation produces sexual dimorphism during the growth of the individual, along with some triggering mechanism. The cascade may be triggered by among other things: the presence or absence of Y chromosomes in mammals; by temperature in crocodiles; being homozygous at the sex determining locus in bees[Gempe et al., 2009]. In this literal interpretation of the text, gender becomes the biological processes which give rise to adult males and females. Gender becomes nest temperature plus suchian genetics, Y chromosomes plus mammalian genetics. Gender = genotype, sex = phenotype. But from context, we can be sure that she did not mean this.

Was it cultural gender differences that have led biologists to say that all placental mammals share a set of defining characteristics which include reproduction by internal fertilization, gestation and lactation?

Was it gender ideology that led farmers to believe that cattle reproduce sexually?

Would cows, left to themselves without bulls, reproduce by parthenogenesis like aphids?

All of these are absurd questions, but they do no more than cast her own questions in a more concrete form. Butler comes close to suggesting that the entire corpus of the biological sciences insofar as they relate to sexual reproduction are a fabrication.

This is an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims, if they are to be plausible, need correspondingly strong evidence. If she has observations of, or experimental evidence for, the prevalence of asexual reproduction in mammals she should have cited it. Failing that, her hypothesis must be treated as a particularly outlandish conspiracy theory.

Insofar as she produces any support for sex being a social construct it is by citing not biologists, but by imputing it as the conclusion of the views of another philosopher:

Beauvoir is clear that one becomes a woman, but always under a cultural compulsion to become one. And clearly, the compulsion does not come from sex. There is nothing in her account that guarantees that the one who becomes a woman is necessarily female. If the body is a situation, as she claims, there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings; hence, sex could not qualify as a prediscursive anatomical facticity. Indeed, sex, by definition, will be shown to have been gender all along Butler, [1990,Page 12]

or earlier in Butler [1986] she wrote

if the distinction (sex to gender WPC & KDC) is consistently applied, it becomes unclear whether being a given sex has any necessary consequence for becoming a given gender. The presumption of a causal or mimetic relation between sex and gender is undermined. If being a woman is one cultural interpretation of being female, and if that interpretation is in no way necessitated by being female, then it appears that the female body is the arbitrary locus of the gender ‘woman’, and there is no reason to preclude the possibility of that body becoming the locus of other constructions of gender

Butler directly deduces female erasure in a few lines going from Beauvoir’s point about not being born a woman. But just taken by itself the sentence from Beauvoir would not logically allow this extension.

In that sequence, you certainly can not conclude that the set of women is disconnected from the set of female adults.

Butler grants that Beauvoir says that women become women under cultural compulsion. But de Beauvoir is assuming, reasonably enough that it is female children who are under this social compulsion. The fact that de Beauvoir does not provide a guarantee of this is irrelevant. De Beauvoir should not be obliged to prove obvious and uncontroversial points. Suppose, counterfactually, that social customs in late 19th century France were unchanged in all respects other than one thing, that gender was unconnected with sex. The chances of a baby boy being socialised, and legally categorised as a female would then be the same as that of a baby girl. Given that marriage was the predominant state of French adults, and that marriages would still have to be between legal men and legal women, half of all marriages would end up being same sex, even if legally they were classified as being between opposite genders. In consequence, the birthrate would have fallen by almost half, followed, in a couple of generations, by the extinction of the French nation at the hands of an Eastern neighbour. This is so obvious that de Beauvoir hardly needed to point it out. De Beauvoir was describing forms of cultural compulsion that had existed for centuries.

On ne naı̂t pas femme : on le devient. Aucun destin biologique, psychique,
économique ne définit la figure que revêt au sein de la société la femelle humaine
; c’est l’ensemble de la civilisation qui élabore ce produit intermédiaire entre le
mâle et le castrat qu’on qualifie de féminin. .6[Beauvoir, 1949]

Any long-standing cultural institution let alone, ” l’ensemble de la civilisation “7, has to be compatible with the survival and reproduction of that culture.

But even if we take Butler’s logic explicitly :

If being a woman is one cultural interpretation of being female, and if that interpretation is in no way necessitated by being female, then it appears that the female body is the arbitrary locus of the gender ‘woman’,

In formal logic we can write “If being a woman is one cultural interpretation of being female” as

(x ∈ F) & A → x ∈ W

In words If Judith is a female and some other fact A, the cultural interpretation, is true then Judith is a woman We  can formalise the second proposition  that interpretation is in no way necessitated by being female as

∃y 😦 y ∈ F) & (y ∉ W)

In words  there exists at least one female person, let us say Sheila, who is not a woman.

These conditions would be true if Sheila was aged 2. You certainly can not conclude that “the female body is the arbitrary locus of the gender ‘woman'”

∃z 😦 z ∈ W) & (z ∉ F)

Or in words, Butler implies: “There exists a person, let us call them Zebedee, who is a woman but who is not female.”

It remains an invalid argument. A formally equivalent argument would be to say that:”if being a whale is one evolutionary outcome of being a mammal, and if being a whale is in no way necessitated by being a mammal , then it appears that being a mammal is entirely arbitrary to being a whale, so sharks can also be whales.”

All that you can logically conclude from the premises she puts forward is the trivial point that women are a subset of females. This can be taken both in terms of ontogenesis and historical genesis. Women are a subset of females since baby girls are not women, and women in their current cultural role are historically a subset of all women who have existed since women in other societies had different cultural social roles.

Note the reference Butler makes to the impossibility of sex existing “pre-discursively”. This is part of a tendency she has to attribute considerable causal powers to language, and which involves something of a disregard for our other senses, particularly sight. It is, after all, mainly by looking at people that we tell what sex they are. It is only in contexts where sight does not apply, e.g. filling in official forms, that it is necessary to use language and ask someone what sex they are.

The claim, by Butler, that sex can not be known about or, even exist, prediscursively is testable. An elegant study [Lederberg et al., 1986] proves conclusively that Butler is wrong. Were the Butler hypothesis true, deaf children would be unable to distinguish boys from girls. The researchers monitored deaf and hearing children aged 3 to 5 in terms of their preferences for same sex versus opposite sex playmates. The children were observed at playgroups and the time spent playing with same and opposite gender children were recorded. Both hearing and deaf children showed a clear preference for same-sex play partners.

It may be objected that some of the deaf children may have had some sign language ability and this may have been a means by which information about sex or gender categories was communicated to the infants, in which case Butler’s theory that the perception of sex depends of language might still have some credibility, but no. First very few of the deaf children or their parents had any signing ability, and when this was tested for, it was found that sign language ability of the deaf children and their parents had no detectable influence on their preference for same-sex playmates.

So the ability to perceive sex differences and to identify one’s own sex must indeed be prediscursive and mediated by visual clues rather than by language.

There is a certain lack of caution in Butler’s claims. It is very risky indeed to make claims about the world, the only support for which are your own inferences from the work of another philosopher. It is somewhat safer to follow through the implications of your, hypotheses to see whether empirical data support or contradict them.

Other examples of incautiously stating speculative hypotheses as established facts:

It would be wrong to think that the discussion of identity ought to proceed prior to a discussion of gender identity for the simple reason that persons only become intelligible through becoming gendered in conformity with recognizable standards of gender intelligibility.

It is unclear how one could even formulate the claim in a way that was empirically testable. Perhaps one could run a variant of the Lederberg et al study in which one controlled for clothing and hairstyle as a possible “recognizable standard of gender intelligibility”. If Butler is right then having children play naked with short hair would blind the children to the sex of their playmates. Unless such an experiment, or a similarly controlled one has been done, we can not know if Butler’ claim is true or false, but it is rash to state it as a fact.

The body as a natural fact never really exists within human experience, but only has meaning as a state which has been overcome.

Tell that to the hungry! Has this woman never broken a bone?

Butler makes repeated reference to the premise that gender or sex are only recognisable as an effect of language, or discursive practice as she calls it. On page 24 we have:

If identity is an effect of discursive practices, to what extent is gender identity, construed as a relationship among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire, the effect of a regulatory practice that can be identified as compulsory heterosexuality?

Here we see the typical technique of asking a question in order to suggest a conclusion for which no supporting evidence is adduced with the whole shrouded in ambiguity and qualification. What is the purpose of the quotation marks?

They appear to be there to allow a carefully tailored ambiguity. But let us trace down the ambiguous meanings and see if they make sense.

Proposition :   Identity is an effect of language

(a) Identity as in a person’s name.

Well yes, language is necessary for naming someone.

(b) Identity as in gender identity.

No, Lederberg et al show that it is not dependent on language. The toddlers were able to match their own genders with those of their playmates even though they had no access to language.

Answers to the whole question  :

Taking meaning (a) the premise is true, no sensible answer can be given since there is no connection between the true proposition and the consequence allegedly drawn from it.

Taking meaning (b) since the premise is false, we can again draw no conclusion from it, though the fact that very young children with no language can identify their own gender we can rephrase it as: Given that gender identification including self-identification can occur a very young age, and without the use of language, is gender identification the effect of social regulations relating heterosexuality?

And the answer is that it would be very rash to conclude that it is.

The whole book is so shot through with these sorts of ambiguity, rhetoric, and logical errors that it would be tedious to reviewer and reader to list them all. In our next blog post we will go on to some implications of Butler’s philosophy.


[Beauvoir 1949]
Simone de Beauvoir. Le deuxième sexe ii, paris. Gallimard (coll.Folio Essais), page 13, 1949.

[Bem 1981]
SL Bem. A manual for the bem sex role inventory. Palo Alto, CA: Mind Garden. Blake, RR, & Mouton, JS (1978). The new managerial grid Houston: Gulf. Cann, A., & Siegfried, W D.(1987). Sex stereotypes and the leadership role. Sex Roles, 17: 401-408, 1981.

[Blau and Kahn 2000]
Francine D Blau and Lawrence M Kahn. Gender differences in pay. Technical report, National bureau of economic research, 2000.

[Butler 1986]
Judith Butler. Sex and gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. Yale French Studies, (72): 35-49, 1986.

[Butler 1990]
Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990.

[Byrnes et al. 1999]
James P Byrnes, David C Miller, and William D Schafer. Gender differences in risk taking: A meta-analysis., 1999.

[Costa Jr et al. 2001]
Paul Costa Jr, Antonio Terracciano, and Robert R McCrae. Gender differences in personality traits across cultures: robust and surprising findings. Journai of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (2): 322-331, 2001.

[Croson and Gneezy 2009]
Rachel Croson and Uri Gneezy. Gender differences in preferences. Journal of Economic literature, 47 (2): 448-474, 2009.

[Delphy 1993]
Christine Delphy. Rethinking sex and gender. In Women’s Studies International Forum, volume 16, pages 1-9. Elsevier, 1993.

[Eagly 1987]
Alice H Eagly. Sex differences in social behavior: A social-role interpretation. Lawrence Earlbaum, 1987.

[Eagly and Wood 1999]
Alice H Eagly and Wendy Wood. The origins of sex differences in human behavior: Evolved dispositions versus social roles. American psychologist, 54 (6): 408, 1999.

[Feingold 1994]
Alan Feingold. Gender differences in personality: a meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 116 (3): 429, 1994.

[Geary 1999]
David C Geary. Evolution and developmental sex differences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8 (4): 115-120, 1999.

[Gefen and Straub 1997]
David Gefen and Detmar W Straub. Gender differences in the perception and use of e-mail: An extension to the technology acceptance model. MIS quarterly, pages 389-400, 1997.

[Gempe et al. 2009]
Tanja Gempe, Martin Hasselmann, Morten Schiøtt, Gerd Hause, Marianne Otte, and Martin Beye. Sex determination in honeybees: two separate mechanisms induce and maintain the female pathway.PLoS biology, 7 (10): e1000222, 2009.

[Hall 1984]
JA Hall. Nonverbal sex differences: Communication accuracy and expressive style. Johns Hopkins Univ Press, Baltimore, 1984.

[Hankin et al. 1998]
Benjamin L Hankin, Lyn Y Abramson, Terrie E Moffitt, Phil A Silva, Rob McGee, and Kathryn E Angell. Development of depression from preadolescence to young adulthood: emerging gender differences in a 10-year longitudinal study. Journal of abnormal psychology, 107 (1): 128, 1998.

[Hyde and Linn 1988]
Janet S Hyde and Marcia C Linn. Gender differences in verbal ability: A meta-analysis., 1988.

[Lederberg et al. 1986]
Amy R Lederberg, Steven L Chapin, Victor Rosenblatt, and Deborah Lowe Vandell. Ethnic, gender, and age preferences among deaf and hearing preschool peers. Child Development, pages 375-386, 1986.

[Maccoby and Jacklin 1974]
Eleanor E Maccoby and Carol Nagy Jacklin. The psychology of sex differences, volume 1. Stanford University Press, 1974.

[Nolen-Hoeksema 2001]
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. Gender differences in depression. Current directions in psychological science, 10 (5): 173-176, 2001.

[Oliver and Hyde 1993]
Mary B Oliver and Janet S Hyde. Gender differences in sexuality: A meta-analysis., 1993.

[Piccinelli and Wilkinson 2000]
Marco Piccinelli and Greg Wilkinson. Gender differences in depression. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 177 (6): 486-492, 2000.

[Pryzgoda and Chrisler 2000]
Jayde Pryzgoda and Joan C Chrisler. Definitions of gender and sex: The subtleties of meaning. Sex Roles, 43 (7-8): 553-569, 2000.

[Restaut MDCCXLI]
Pierre Restaut. Principes généraux et raisonnés de la grammaire françoise. MDCCXLI.

[Trost et al. 2002]
Stewart G Trost, Russell R Pate, James F Sallis, Patty S Freedson, Wendell C Taylor, Marsha Dowda, and John Sirard. Age and gender differences in objectively measured physical activity in youth.Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 34 (2): 350-355, 2002.

[Venkatesh et al. 2000]
Viswanath Venkatesh, Michael G Morris, and Phillip L Ackerman. A longitudinal field investigation of gender differences in individual technology adoption decision-making processes. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 83 (1): 33-60, 2000.


1For example on the World Health Organisation website, we find a definition of gender as “the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men”. Attempts to get the equivalent pages in French or Spanish return the messages “Cette page n’est pas disponible en francais” and Ësta pagina no esta disponible en castellano”. we will return to this point later.

2 For example Statues of Canada, Chapter 13, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, Bill C-16, June 19, 2017

3For example Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964.

4Examples cited are the risk to women in prison if male sex-offenders are able to be reassigned to such prisons after taking on a female persona or unfair competition in women’s sports.

5 This is widely used in gender difference studies it is given by

d= ef −em

σf σm

where ef, em denote measured effect in females and males and σf, σm denote the within sex standard deviations of the effect.

6Öne is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine.”

7“civilization as a whole”

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 4.08.


Interview on workers’ control

Comrade G
I wanted to ask a few questions about how you think industry should be managed. Reading Towards a New Socialism and speaking to you it looks to me that you’d organize labor along cooperatives.
Firstly, do you know how labor was organized in ex-Yugoslavia?

Broadly yes, and it depends on what you mean by cooperatives when you talk about our book.

Comrade G
I am talking about cooperatives in a socialist organization, not cooperatives where you have a capitalist business but it is organized & owned by the people working there.

Yes, but there is still the question of whether the unit of production owns the resources it operates and whether it covers its costs including payments to workers out of its own revenues.

Comrade G
Anyways, there are some problems that came from Yugoslavian worker’s self-management and I don’t think that all of the problems can be attributed to the market economy of Yugoslavia. For an example nepotism often developed on a factory level between the workers. Since there was much comradery between factory workers under self-management they usually didn’t follow some formalities. An example is how this caused unemployment to a degree, with workers from the factory hiring their sons & daughters in an ad-hoc way, knowing that their co-workers would approve of it since they all know each other personally and know they could teach their children how to work fairly quickly.

The problem comes from the fact that usually, these professions required an education that took 5-6 years to complete, and these people usually went without employment when someone decided to hire their son un-formally. This was a well-known practice but it wasn’t so closely followed by statistics.

How would this be solved while still giving the laborers full control over the industry?
There are other larger problems but let’s start with this.

OK, I think I should start with how we envisage the budgetary process working since the employment is secondary to that.
Since we do not see the factories as economic subjects of right, ie, they do not own money or resources, nobody is employed by an individual factory in a communist system.
If you have a non-monetary economy, then a unit of production cannot be a cost center or a payer of wages.
Instead, all of the workers have to be employed by some higher body, which could either be a ministry of employment or alternatively guilds or trades unions.

The individual unit, whether it is a unit of production, or a service delivery unit like a hospital, is allocated a total budget in terms of labour time. This budget is divided into a part that is made up of goods supplied to the factory or hospital, and partly made up of the amortised trained cost of the labour allocated to the unit.

So people would not be employed by the local factory or hospital. They would join a union, and the union would negotiate with the state how many workers it would supply, and the individual units would then be allocated a certain number of workers. That does not mean that people would have no say where they worked, but they would only be able to apply for places that had been allocated to their union.

Comrade G
This existed in Yugoslavia as well. The laborers within that factory specifically didn’t really have the rights to employ somebody of their own volition, yet it happened anyway un-formally. Should there be a commissar of this employment agency to inspect workplaces for these discrepancies? It would certainly be easier if the workplaces were connected via internet or telephone connection and such things were more easily tracked.

Well since the payments of labour vouchers would all come from either the ministry of employment or the union, they would know where everyone is working. That, of course, would not prevent the interview panel at a given workplace favoring relatives.
That would have to be done by employment law and by people having the right to appeal to tribunals if they thought that they had been discriminated against.

Comrade G
Ah, I think I understand now. It worked a little differently in Yugoslavia. Wages were decided on & paid by the laborers of the individual workplace. The way it worked was that individual workplaces received a budget & the workers there organized locally and decided how much of the budget went to their pay. If the ministry of employment handled wages then this problem would be solved.

You need to have socialized decisionmaking on the division between surplus and consumption. In my view that is one of the distinguishing features of a socialized economy. Unless you have that it is very difficult to avoid unemployment of the sort Yugoslavia had.

Comrade G
Another problem from worker self-management was that workers, given their autonomy, would usually cut corners during production rather than calculate the exact amount of resources they needed from the state for production. You mentioned that the Soviet bureaucrats did similar things to make work easier for them. Basically, they asked for more resources than they really needed to produce a given product, and this surplus of the resource usually stayed at the factory and other factories had shortages. Another problem was factories not reporting broken/malfunctioning machinery to avoid having to take responsibility for it, lowering production overall, until the machine was in such a poor state that it had to be reported.

Regarding my first point, I think most of that would be solved through electronic planning & decision making at the workplace, still, I wanted your opinion on it.

Yes you are right but it also needs an incentive structure. In my view that can come from two sources. 1 would be what amounts to socialist competition. If the planners ensured that there were usually several plants making each kind of product, the planners then know which is the cheapest in terms of total labour – living and embodied. They can then threaten to shift workers from the less efficient plant to the more efficient one unless the less efficient one improves.

In those areas like power production or water supply where you have natural monopolies, there would have to be targeted to save total cost by perhaps 2% or 3% a year – in line with what we know is the long-term possibility in a developed industrial society.

Comrade G
Understandable, from what I know this is the way the Soviets handled such things. At least in the 50’s-60’s.

Not the first point, but yes for the 2nd. I don’t think that in practice they ever shifted people much from less efficient plants.

Comrade G
This is unrelated to the discussion but I was curious what you’d think about it. Working in various baker industry over the years I noticed that consistently lots of bread is thrown out daily to keep the market price of it the same, as well as because of competition with other firms they fail to put all of their stock onto the shelves. I am talking about a room full of bread being thrown out daily. Would it make sense with such large production to shift from production for exchange to production for use and to make bread ‘free’? Bread is not a good that is exported and we produce so much of it that even if somebody was greedy and took ten pieces there would still be some of it left. The same thing could be said for a few other commodities, especially food products.

We assume in our book that all goods produced are offered for sale by public shops and that the prices are reduced until all are sold. If the price they are sold for is below their labour value, then the planners reduce overall production.
With crops whose production is unpredictable because of weather, you would still have to plan to produce at least enough even allowing for bad weather, which means some waste in times of bumper harvests.

Comrade G
Our food industry is already functioning at a minimum. I don’t think production can get any lower actually, as I have told you we aren’t even exercising our agricultural potential due to destruction and selling off of civilian industry, as well as farmers being subjected to worse and worse conditions. I could see two alternatives
Diversification of production, as in mass-production of many kinds of pastry etc, which could all be done by the same basic machines. The other would be reducing the work hours of people in the food industry to very, very short hours.

I think your account of Serbian conditions would have considerable interest for comrades in Scotland.


Socialists can never support prostitution

Marxian socialists have long been opponents of prostitution aiming to eliminate it once they came to power. Kollontai[1]speaking well before the cant about sex work had been invented, and in an early socialist, rather than capitalist, economy understood very clearly why it exists in capitalist countries and why it was unproductive in a socialist economy.

The trade in women’s flesh is conducted quite openly, which is not surprising when you consider that the whole bourgeois way of life is based on buying and selling. There is an undeniable element of material and economic, considerations even the most legal of marriages. Prostitution is the way out for the woman who fails to find herself a permanent breadwinner. Prostitution, under capitalism provides men with the opportunity of having sexual relationships without having to take upon themselves the responsibility of caring materially for the women until the grave. …

And what, after all, is the professional prostitute? She is a person whose energy is not used for the collective; a person who lives off others, by taking from the rations of others. Can this sort of thing be allowed in a workers’ republic? No, it cannot. It cannot be allowed, because it reduces the reserves of energy and the number of working hands that are creating the national wealth and the general welfare, from the point of view of the national economy the professional prostitute is a labour deserter. For this reason we must ruthlessly oppose prostitution. In the interests of the economy we must start an immediate fight to reduce the number of prostitutes and eliminate prostitution in all its forms.

Similarly after the Chinese revolution, one of the policies of the government was the suppression of prostitution and the control of venereal disease[2]. The government claimed to have effectively eliminated it by 1955. More recently the reformist working class movement of Sweden has pioneered a policy of clamping down on prostitution by outlawing the buying of sex rather than the selling of sex. This policy, starting in Sweden with the support of the Social Democrats and feminists there, has been adopted in Norway, and to a lesser extent in Finland.

As against this socialist position stands the liberal one which defends prostititution on the grounds that:

  1. It is a private contract governed by consent on both sides and such private contracts are sacrosanct.
  2. It is a form of work and should enjoy the dignity associated with all work.
  3. It has always existed and any attempt to ban it will just drive it underground.
  4. Opposition to it is just a relic of outdated puritanism.

Well although liberals regard private contract as sacrosanct socialists do not. Contracts that appear private and voluntary are in reality often the result of very unequal power relations. For what does consent amount too other than, in many cases, selecting the least bad of bad options. A slave who girl ‘consented’ to the sexual advances of her master, showed what apologists for prostitution celebrate as ‘agency’. She could have chosen to be whipped rather than bear her masters children, so in submitting she was exercising free will. But nobody now would suggest that she was really free to chose. It was the social institution of slavery that presented her with only these options. The ‘free’ choice of a heroin addict to sell her body on the streets is a similar effect of social power.

The father of economics, Adam Smith wrote that money was power, the power to command others. Capitalist society dispenses with the direct power of command over bodies that past ruling classes had. Instead of the whip, cash that selective lash. A woman with a million in shares is in a very different position from a self employed prostitute. Legally both are free, but who is really the free woman?

But for a large section of prostitutes even the fiction of legal freedom does not exist. Brothels arose with slavery, and trafficked women are still abused in them accross the world. Liberal appologists claim that legalisation of prostitution will reduce trafficking, but the evidence is against them. Cho et al[3], in a statistical study covering 150 countries, show that legalising prostitution is correlated with an increase in human trafficking. They get a 0.66 correlation between the legality of prosititution in a country and the level of human trafficking into the country. This is similar to the 0.67 correlation that they get between GDP and human trafficking. Nobody doubts that people are trafficked into countries with high GDP, it is only the commercial interests of brothel owners that prevents an equal recognition that legal prostitution produces the same effect.

What about the claim that prostitution is work?

There is no doubt that sex involves time and effort, but is it really work?

If sex is work, was the dancing a couple did before they got off with one another also work?

If a cohabiting couple fuck, is it only her working, or are both working when they are at it?

If both work, both emerging sweating from effort, the justification for calling prostitution ‘work’ vanishes. Are we to call the clients too, sex ‘workers’?

What liberal appologists mean by work, is not the effort of making things, but being paid for doing things. So when a woman cooks a meal for her children is that work?

It is, and even most economist would not deny this, but it does not figure as work in the UK National Accounts. To liberal economics, to count as work it must exchange for money. Were mothers able to sell meals to their kids, liberal economics would then treat it as adding to national income.

Anything that brings in money counts for them as productive activity. So we have the nonsensical situation where things like gambling and brothel keeping are called industries. There is no doubt that these are all are businesses, but not all business is industry, and not all business is productive.

Take gambling, a moment’s thought is enough to see that it merely redistributes existing wealth, and produces nothing new of value. It is as foolish to talk of a gambling industry or sex industry as it would be to call pickpocketing or bank robbing industries.

In the Kollontai quote there is a commonsense obviousness, under the changed social conditions of Soviet Russia, about why prostitution is unproductive. In a society where goods were allocated on ration, a prostitute was seen to be taking the rations of others and not contributing to national wealth and general welfare. When economic relations were no longer disguised by money but seen in physical terms, this was a commonsense practical observation, and if it was obviously true in an unveiled economy, it must already have been true, behind the money veil, in the previous capitalist economy. Gilded by money, unproductive activities in a commercial economy appear productive, intercourse becomes `sex work’.

In two senses of course, sex is work, and productive. Both parties involved expend metabolic energy in the act, and the productive issue causes the mother to expend far more energy in the gestation and birthing. The labour of birth is, in reality, the foundation of all other production. But this is not what apologists for brothels mean. To them, work is where money changes hands. Never mind that since Roman times the aim of commercial sex had been for men to avoid any responsibility for the children who result. These could expect neither inheritance nor sustenance from the fathers. Exposure, abandonment or the dubious mercy of the foundling hospital was often their fate. Langer[4] reports:

The figures for this traffic, available for many cities, are truly shocking. In all of France fully 127,507 children were abandoned in the year 1833. Anywhere from 20 to 30 per cent of all children born were left to their fate. The figures for Paris suggest that in the years 18I7-1820 the “foundlings” comprised fully 36 per cent of all births. In some of the Italian hospitals the mortality (under one year of age) ran to 80 or 90 per cent. In, Paris, the Maison de la Couche reported that of 4,779 babies admitted in 1818, 2,370 died in the first three months and another 956 within the first year.

As an institution it was doubly destructive of labour power, not only did it condemn to an early death the prostitutes’ infants, the money that the patrons spent in the brothels was taken from the mouths of their `legitimate’ offspring.

What of the argument that prostitution has always existed and that any attempt to ban it will fail?

Well for a start, it has not always existed. It did not exist in pre-class societies. For it to emerge you needed several conditions:

  • the social subordination of women to men
  • the existence of money
  • the existence of class hierarchy

If these, its social causes, are removed, then prostitution would tend to die out, just as all other forms of crime decline as society becomes more equal. But that does not mean that it is pointless to ban it in today’s society. No state has yet been able to abolish murder or rape, but noboby would argue that laws against these crimes are pointless. If a criminal activity is driven underground, that is a good thing. It means that the activity is being curtailed. If fear of the police makes murderers feel compelled to bury their victims under garden patios rather than just throwing the body out on the street for the bin men to collect, that is surely to be welcomed.

The great thing about the Scandinavian approach to prostitution is that it treats buying sex as another sex crime. Buyers of sex are categorised along with rapists and paedophiles. We acknowledge that Sweden has not completely stopped Swedish men from buying sex. But that is to set an unreasonably high bar, the evidence is that the law has reduced the incidence of Swedish men buying sex[5], whereas the evidence of countries which legalise both sides of prostitution is that the practice increases.

But the liberal will respond that we should listen to the voices of those currently engaged in the business of selling sex. It is only to be expected that a policy like the Swedish one, which succeeds in reducing the number of their customers, will be against the immediate commercial interests of brothel keepers and of a section of self employed prostitutes. But why should we take any particular notice of a commercial special interest group like that?

Why should we ‘listen to the sex workers’?

Measures to combat smoking and alcoholism are against the commercial interests of cigarette firms and brewers and distilleries. Though the Scottish Government minimum price law on drinks will hit the interest of the monks of Buckfast Abbey, even liberals would hesitate to say in response that we must hold back and ‘listen to the monks’. Why then, are we to be so solicitous of the commercial interests of brothel keepers and whores?

Liberal common sense has made inroads into the socialist movement, so you get ‘left’ men dressing the liberal arguments in socialist garb. Granted, they say, that prostitutes are exploited but so are all workers, so why make a special thing about sex. Surely this is just an outdated puritan attitude.

The simplest response is for socialists to say that we want to abolish all exploitation. We would like a law that prohibited the employment of wage labour, just as Soviet law prohibited it. Until we can have that, we support any and every step to crack down on exploitation. We will never line up with commercial interests that want to open up new fields of exploitation.

Alternatively we can respond by questioning some of the deeper assumptions of the liberal argument. Liberals say sex is nothing special and that treating fucking differently from bus driving or cooking burgers is just puritan prejudice.

Well, for a start, sex is special.

It is objectively special, and legally special. It is special because the action of sex organs produces people, whereas the labour of hand and brain produces things. Post-slave societies treat people as different from things. The law treats sex organs and hands very differently. It says that if you grab someone by the pussy or the balls you are guilty of sexual assault and liable to a custodial sentence of up to 10 years. But you can, when meeting, shake a stranger’s hand with impunity.

Next, why should socialists accept puritanism as a term of abuse. The Puritans carried out the only sucessful revolution in Britain. They cut of the King’s head and put the fear of God into the upper classes: no mean achievement. They acted with determination against a licentious, debauched and corrupt aristocracy – all to the good. When liberals use the word puritan as a slur they are betraying the actual origins of liberalism and adopting the language of the old Tory opponents of the Puritans.

Left liberals say whores are exploited, so are cooks, so why treat brothels andy differnt from Burger Kings. Here, they are resting their argument on what amounts to no more than a pun on the word exploitation. The word exploitation has two meanings. One refers to sexual exploitation, the other to economic exploitation. The two are quite different.

A person is economically exploited if they get back in income less money for an hour of work than the value added by an hour of work. In this economic sense, self employed whores are no more exploited than a self employed electrician or plumber. They do not sell their labour power to an employer who then uses it to produce a commodity. Instead, the self employed sell their services directly to customers and collect the full value themselves. This is one reason why a prostitute earns more per hour than a cook preparing Big Macs.

Sexual exploitation is something quite different.

The UN Draft Convention Against Sexual Exploitation defines sexual exploitation as follows:

Article 1:

Definition of Sexual Exploitation:

Sexual exploitation is a practice by which person (s) achieve sexual gratification, or financial gain, or advancement, through the abuse of a person’s sexuality by abrogating that person’s human right to dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and mental well-being.

Article 2

Sexual exploitation takes the form of, but is not limited to:

  • The denial of life through female infanticide and the murder of women by reason of their gender, including wife and widow murder.
  • Subjection to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment through the following: battering, pornography, prostitution, genital mutilation, female seclusion, dowry and bride price, forced sterilization and forced child-bearing, surrogacy, restricting the reproductive freedom of women, the use of women’s reproductivity for third parties (the use of women’s reproductivity for the purpose of sexual or commercial exploitation), sexual harassment, rape, incest, sexual abuse, and human trafficking.
  • Subjection to sexual abuse and or torture whether perpetrated by State or non-State actors, overt or covert, including sadistic, mutilating practices.
  • Temporary marriage, child marriages, or marriage of convenience for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
  • Sex predetermination.


Where brothel keeping is illegal the majority of prostitutes are independent and are sexually but not economically exploited. Where brothel keeping is legalised, capitalist businesses come to dominate the trade, meaning that an economic exploitation becomes combined with an intensified sexual exploitation.


1Alexandra Kollontai. Prostitution and ways of fighting it. In speech to the third all-Russian conference if the heads of regional women’s departments,  ,1921.

2Ma, Hai-Teh. With Mao Tse-Tungs thought as the compass for action in the control of venereal diseases in China. Chinas Medicine 1 (1966): 52-68.

3Cho, Seo-Young, Axel Dreher, and Eric Neumayer. Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking?. World Development 41 (2013): 67-82.

4William L Langer. Europe’s initial population explosion. The American HistoricalReview,69(1):1’17,1963, page 9.

5Kuosmanen, Jari. Attitudes and perceptions about legislation prohibiting the purchase of sexual services in Sweden. European Journal of Social Work 14.2 (2011): 247-263.

Bitcoin is not what socialism needs.

Jan Philipp Dapprich, Paul Cockshot

In a recent paper Huckle and White (2016) argue that, while Bitcoin is often associated with right-wing libertarian political philosophy, the underlying technology – Blockchain – has properties that also make it applicable in a socialist economic framework. They cite Marx’ concept of labour credits and argue that credits created by Blockchain may take on the role of representing labour time. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme (Marx 1999), Marx discusses the idea of a communist society awarding labour credits to workers in correspondence with the labour time contributed by them. One hour of labour would yield a labour voucher representing one hour of work, minus taxes. Taxes are to be used for public expenditure, such as investment, education or the consumption needs of those unable to work. A one hour labour voucher can in turn be used to buy a consumption good that takes one hour to produce.

Huckle and White’s suggestion is that Bitcoins, created by blockchain cryptography could be used as digital labour vouchers. The price of consumption goods in Bitcoins, would be determined by their energy content, i.e. how much energy is needed to produce them:

“According to life-cycle analysis conducted by Aguirre et al. [92], an electric vehicle (EV) uses, over its lifetime (manufacturing, transportation, use, and disposal), 506,988 MJ, or 140.83 MWh [92]. Given that it requires 5.14 MWh to create a single BTC, the price of the Nissan Leaf EV is given by: 140.83 MWh/5.14 MWh per BTC _ 27.4 BTC” (Huckle and White 2016, p. 10)

It may well be argued that energy content should in some sense be reflected in pricing, but given that pricing purely based on energy does not take into account labour inputs at all, this would clearly not constitute a realisation of Marx’s labour voucher system as the authors suggest. Even if one accepts energy pricing of consumption goods, it is not clear how Huckle and White imagine workers compensation to be determined. In the case of Marx’s labour vouchers, they are directly linked to both the labour content of consumption goods and the labour contributed by the workers. The same can’t be said for Bitcoin. While it might be possible to calculate a bitcoin equivalent of products through the relative energy contents, the same is not possible for contributed labour. This means that Huckle and Whites’ proposal provides no answer to the essential question how long a worker will have to work to be able to afford the Nissan Leaf EV in their example.

But there is a more fundamental problem with their proposal. Marx’ labour vouchers don’t themselves require labour to produce. Or at least not as much as the labour they are meant to represent. They are simply tokens given out to confirm that a worker has contributed a certain amount of labour time. The vouchers don’t actually have to take the same amount of labour time to produce. In fact if they did, this would be a significant waste of labour which would not go towards producing objects that have direct use value. Labour vouchers are better compared to a theatre ticket. A theatre ticket represents the right to be able to see a performance. For this to be the case it is not necessary that the ticket itself takes any significant amount of effort or resources to produce at all. All that has to be ensured is that it can’t easily be forged, in order to prevent fraud.

Bitcoins in Huckle and White’s proposal on the other hand must actually take as much energy to produce as the products which can be acquired by them, energy which can’t be used to produce goods which actually satisfy some need. While labour vouchers can be compared to a theatre ticket, Bitcoins should be compared to a gold currency. Gold gets it exchange value, because it is difficult to come by or in terms of the Marxist Labour Theory of Value: it takes a significant socially necessary labour time to produce. This is what makes it a carrier of value and enables one to exchange it for other objects of value. The same can be said for Bitcoin, which takes a significant amount of energy (which in turn takes significant amount of labour from plant workers, coal miners etc.) to produce. The value of Bitcoins is ensured by the fact that they require an ever increasing amount of energy to produce. It is not a coincidence that the machines that produce bitcoins are referred to as Bitcoin mines.

Not only does Huckle and White’s proposal rest on a misunderstanding of the labour voucher proposal, it would also constitute a of waste of resources and labour and would unnecessarily contribute to carbon dioxide emissions, since fossil fuels continue to be one of the main sources of energy which would have to be used in the production of Bitcoins. Huckle and White are aware of this, as they themselves put forward a conservative estimate of 3.38TWh for the current annual energy consumption of Bitcoin mining (Huckle and White 2016).

The whole motivation of Bitcoin and similar systems is to create a digital substitute for gold, The aim is to break away, as the advocates see it, from a state monopoly of the issue of currency and a dependence on the international clearing bank system of payment. The idea that Bitcoin will replace the Dollar or Euro is based on a fundamental misconception of why state monies circulate (Knapp 1924, Wray 1998). State currencies circulate because they are the unit that must be used to pay taxes. So long as this continues their circulation will be primary and Bitcoin and its like will be remain at the level of speculative hedges, much as gold still is. In comparison with the existing clearing bank system it is horrendously energy inefficient. Malmo (2015) says that in 2015 it took 5000 times as much electricity to process a bitcoin transaction as a visa payment.  So as a technology to be used in day to day payments for cups of coffee or bags of rice it is non viable.  The great energy cost is a necessary consequence of decentralisation. The validation of the block chain has to be made computationally hard to prevent cheating, and that computational difficulty translates in energy use.

For people interested in money laundering, tax avoidance and illegal drug deals Bitcoin has its attractions, but as a model for  payment in a socialist system, the infrastructure provided by existing chip and pin cards and card readers is more promising. The essential difference between Marx’s proposed labour accounts and bank notes is that the labour accounts do not circulate. They are credited to people for work done and cancelled out when a worker purchases something from public shops. If you read Bellamy’s utopian socialist book Looking Backward (Bellamy 2003) you can find an account of how this was seen as working using 19th century technology.  Bellamy imagined a Socialist America in 2000. People had social credit cards, like the punched cards that had recently been invented by Hollerith for data processing. At the start of each month you got a new card with your credits marked on it. You went to public stores to buy stuff and the till physically punched the credits out from your card as it read them. The goods were then dispatched to your house by pneumatic tubes.

The very idea of the credit card actually derives from this utopian socialist literature.  But unlike the capitalist credit cards of the actual year 2000 in the USA, there would be no way to carry out private trading with Bellamy’s system. Your credits are non transferable since, the moment you use them they become useless little paper chads in the refuse shoot of the till. No private black market activity is possible without some form of circulating money.

A socialist economy in 2030 would not have to revert to paper credit cards. All that is necessary, once the banks, the means of production and distribution are publicly owned  is to alter the software that the banks use. Instead of Euros or Pounds being transfered from your account to Tesco’s account the software would simply cancel your labour credit. The shop, being publicly run would not be a business running for profit, so it would not need to be credited with money. The shop would not buy in goods from a wholesaler because the warehouses and factories that the goods came from would also be publicly run. In consequence there would be no transfer of ownership between factory, warehouse and supermarket, and thus no need for a chain of payments.

Statistics would still have to be collected to see how many hours of labour people were spending on cornflakes or wheat biscuits etc, to make sure that the public factories allocated corresponding amounts of resources to making these products. The same records, in conjunction with stock control would be used to detect pilfering. But there would be no money, and no need for the elaborate protection against mutual cheating that Bitcoin uses.  Bitcoin, far from being a model for a cooperative economy actually epitomises a dog eat dog capitalism where nobody cooperates and nobody trusts anyone else.

Bellamy, E. (2003 [1888]). Looking Backward: 2000-1887. Broadview Press.

Huckle, S. and White, M. (2016). ‘Socialism and the Blockchain’. Future Internet 2016, 8, 49.

Knapp, G. F. (1924). The state theory of money. History of Economic Thought Books.

Malmo, C. (2015). Bitcoin is unsustainable:

Marx, K. (1999). Critique of the Gotha Programme.

Wray, L. R. (1998). Understanding modern money (Vol. 11). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Reading material after Hanoi conference


Over the course of this week I attended a conference in Hanoi on the 100th anniversary of the October revolution. The conference had been jointly organised by VASS and byWARP .  It was evident that among the Vietnamese and Chinese Marxists attending there was both an acceptance of the prevailing market socialist lines of these countries – which was only to be expected given their circumstances. But there was also a prevailing doubt about the scientific status of Marxist theory. It tends to be seen as an ideology rather than as a hard science. This is partly a result of past dogmatism and partly a result of the real contradiction between Marxist theory and the actual policies that the economists feel they have to advocate. Thus what the WARP participants were saying came as something of a surprise to our Vietnamese colleagues at first. The initial response was simply to be dismissive of us, saying we lacked experience of socialism. Well, it is unclear to me that Vietnam or China since they adopted a mixed economy approach, are actually any more socialist than the UK was at the end of Wilson’s 4th government. Our positions also grew out of experience, just different ones.


By the second day, the novelty of what we were saying had gotten accross enough for us to convince at least some of our listeners that there might be some areas where international research into scientific Marxism should be listened to, and perhaps some works should be translated. I have, by email, send a number of publications that seem relevant to people with whom I spoke. It was suggested to me that I make the list more widely available by this blog.

Statistical Mechanics and political economy

The pioneering work on statistical mechanics of income is by Yakovenko see here .

For the application of statistical mechanics to the law of value see the book Laws of Chaos by Farjoun and Machover. An introduction to which is given here.

Ian Wright extends the work of Machover and Yakovenko to the case where wage labour exists.
I have published with Yakovenko, Wright and others a book called Classical Econophysics, this covers their work and that of Farjoun and Machover and also addresses issues of automation etc.
On the empirical statistics of the labour theory of value the pioneering work is was Empirical Strength by Shaikh.

For a slightly more philosophical information theoretic approach see our Scientific Status paper.

Cybernetic Communism

The book Towards a New Socialism by Cottrell and Cockshott was written as a reply to the claim by Margaret Thatcher that there was no economic alternative to capitalist market economy, and shows that with computer technology there is one.

The fiction work by the English Author Francis Spufford Red Plenty  covers ideas of cybernetic socialism in the USSR in the 50s.

There was an attempt by the Socialist government in Chile to set up a cybernetic economy .

A number of polemical papers of relevance are:
Calculation, Complexity and Planning: The Socialist Calculation Debate Once Again‘ (Review of Political Economy, July 1993). An analysis and response to the historic ‘socialist calculation debate’ involving Mises, Hayek, Lange and others is in
Socialist Planning After the Collapse of the Soviet Union‘ (Revue européene des sciences sociales, 1993) gives an analysis of what went wrong with central planning in the USSR, and implications for the socialist calculation debate.

Information and Economics: A Critique of Hayek‘ (Research in Political Economy, 1997) is a counter-argument to Hayek’s influential critique of socialist planning in his article `The Use of Knowledge in Society’.

Economic Planning, Computers and Labor Values‘ (working paper, 1999). Includes a detailed consideration of the argument of Samuelson and Weiszäcker on optimal pricing under socialism.

Computing science Philosophy

On computer science philosophy a good start is The Unknowable by Chaitin and his recent extension of information theory to
o biology. For a strict materialist approach to computability see Computation and its Limits.  You also get a materialist approach from the Churchlands in their defence of AI.  As  of course you do in  in Turing’s work on AI.

Turing’s biographer has  papers on Turing’s philosphical work. I also have an article on the Nature website on the philosophical implications of Turing.  The issues of computational complexity have been raised by Austrian school economists to attack the possibility of socialist planning. A refutation of this attack on socialism is given by Michaelson et al. This is part of the more general refutation of the anti-materialist doctrine of hypercomputation.

For a contrating Platonist idealist approach to computer philosophy one can read Penrose.

Response to Skypoet – guest contribution by John Lowrie

This is a response to a posting on the Symptomatic Comentatary Blog
which criticized the idea of using ideas from classical direct democracy.

” Only the the council of 500 and some several positions were selected by lottery, but positions of tactical importance were elected by general assemblies. Generals for example…”

Quite the contrary is true: only the generals and later financial officers were elected. All other magistrates were appointed by lot. It is sometimes argued that the generals in fact held supreme power, but the mere fact that the demos was able to put the most famous of all generals, Pericles, on trial shows this to be false. We should note in passing that there was no standing army in Athens and the police force consisted of slaves, a peculiarly ironic but not accidental institution in a slave owning society!

”While the Boule was selected by lot…severe limitations to the class and community composition were maintained.”

Without such limitations being specified, they are difficult to refute. The facts of the matter are that the Boule was chosen by lot, 50 citizens over the age of 30 from each of the 10 tribes to form the 500 members who served for a year , and each member might serve for another one year only at a later date. These are the only limitations of which we know.

”As Bob Black showed ….the records we have the assembly rarely if ever record evidence of votes consisting of more than 3000 participating.”

Bob then has misinterpreted the evidence. Thucydides ( 8.72) suggests that during the Peloponnesian War rarely more than 5000 attended, but this is a tendentious statement of some oligarchs! Further evidence is to the effect that for a foreigner to be granted Athenian citizenship a ballot was held twice, for which a quorum of 6000 was each time obligatory. ”Pay was used as an incentive.” But this proves the opposite of what comrade X supposes. Pay was only for the first 6000 to arrive, i.e. quickly to attain a quorum and get down to business!

”60,000 possible citizens.” There is no authority for a figure higher than 30,000 citizens. ”still excludes the vast majority…slaves, children, women…” This is a decidedly anachronistic comment : in France women did not get the vote till 1946, yet it still claimed to be a democracy!

”the courts served as a power check”. Yes, indeed! ”30 jurors could overturn or invalidate laws before proposal.” These 30 jurors are a figment of x’s imagination. Juries never had fewer than 201 members. Comrade x seems to confuse the dikasteria ( popular courts) with the nomothetai, a legislative body who voted by show of hands to pass or reject a a law. But it was a highly democratic body, being chosen by lot 1000 citizens being chosen by lot from the panel of 6000 jurors etc to serve for a day!

”archons could also effectively veto the assembly.” No evidence is presented for this most bizarre statement, nor is there any!

” direct democracy decided on by assemblies chosen by lot” Nonsense! Any citizen could attend the assembly or ekklesia, and had the right to speak and vote.

”there is a tendency to see oligarchy purely as rule of the rich… it is rule of the few.” This is true as far as it goes. The point is that for any modern oligarchy best to sustain its power it turns to the capitalist mode of production, the mode of production most appropriate to the rule of a modern oligarchy. As Deng Hsiao Ping put it: ‘to get rich is glorious’ and ‘some must get rich first.’ And was the Deng family among the first or the last? A Leninist party is of course an oligarchy. Thus Marx’s assertion that the working class must win the battle of democracy! The exercise of the right to vote is not the exercise of genuine power. Comrade X is utterly and dangerously misleading into claiming ”the original sense of of democracy.. the sense Marx was familiar with-its meaning is much closer to Lenin’s term, or the later Marxist term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ ” On the contrary, an extreme democracy ( what Aristotle denotes as a ‘monarchical’ democracy, the Latin term dictatorial being of course unknown to him) would be in the modern world most analogous to what Marx meant, and not Lenin’s misunderstanding. In the modern world an extreme democracy i.e. the rule of the unpropertied is, as history demonstrates, the only alternative to some form of oligarchy, and oligarchies in the modern world always sooner or later end up as capitalist ones. As Mao observed of China, ”the bourgeoisie sits in the central committee of the Communist party.” (and every other one for that matter!) Mao of course could not solve this paradox. The lessons to be gained from Athenian democracy suggest its solution. It is puzzling that as a socialist comrade X seems to have such a Platonic fear of the masses.

Class and the LGTB lobby

It is today taken as almost axiomatic that the left supports the LGTB cause. It came therefore, as a surprise to me to find a communist journalist Gearoid O Colmain arguing  that homosexuals, far from constituting a persecuted minority, are in fact key protagonists of the ruling class and bourgeois ideology.

He claims that

In the Soviet Union homosexuality was seen as one of the many perversions promoted by the bourgeoisie and their petty-bourgeois opponents– a ruling class phenomenon of social rather than biological origin. The communist understanding of sexuality has, since the counter-revolutions in Europe in 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR, been conveniently buried and forgotten.

My impression of his arguments is that they are very mixed with some stuff that is plausible and some stuff that is cranky, denying that HIV causes AIDS for example. But I think that a plausible economic argument can be made for one of his key arguments – that the political gay movement expresses middle class and upper class interests. I will in this post try to pull together an argument to this effect. I will focus on the mean class position of homosexual men, and show that this puts them in the top 10% of the population, and that this economic position is not incidental, but is closely connected with the gay male mode of life. Note the specificity, it does not apply to Lesbians.

1  Class

How do you define class position in Marxist terms? At its most basic the distinction between exploiting and exploited classes rests on whether a person  receives goods and services involving more labour than they contribute to society. This is a general definition that applies across all class societies, slave, feudal or capitalist. If you get back more than you put in in terms of labour then you, at least partially, benefit from exploitation.

It is important to realise that whether someone benefits from exploitation is not down to the legal form of their income. A person may formally be an employee and still benefit from exploitation. Obviously this applies to a manager on £250,000 a year. It is not always so evident where the cut-off comes. To work it out precisely you have to know what the monetary equivalent of an hour of labour is. I have not worked this out recently for the UK but before the recession I reckoned that it was about £20 an hour. As a first estimate anyone earning more than this in say 2008 would have been, at least partially, benefiting from the exploitation of others.

Just taking wage income into account is obviously too simple. People may have property income as well, and on the negative side they may be exploited by banks to whom they pay interest, or landlords to whom they pay rent. But simple income figures give you a first cut.

An alternative approach is to look at the share of wages in national income, then look at the mean wage. Someone on the mean wage will be exploited by the average amount. In 2009 for example the UK wage share was 53%1 and the average salary was £26,4502 which implies that the average employee generated a surplus value of £23,450 giving a total value created per employee of just under £50,000, so anyone earning above this was not exploited.

Because the distribution of income is uneven, the mean wage in 2009 was well above the median adult income which was only £16,400, and 67% of adults had an income of less than the average wage. About the top 10% of Britons, that year, had an income above the exploitation threshold of £50,000.

What does it mean to say someone is middle class?

Was a person on the median income of £16,000 – in the middle of the income range middle class?

In strict statistical terms it might seem so, but socially that makes no sense. A middle class status used to be associated with the self employed professions or small business people, who were not exploited, nor were they employers of labour. In terms of the current income distribution that would be people earning around the exploitation threshold say in the range £45,000 to £73,000, above which a person was receiving the value they create, plus the surplus value created by an average worker. Above that level they can reasonably be said to be upper class.

This comprised roughly the distribution from the 88th to the 96th percentile of the UK income distribution, or 8% of the population. If you are in the top 10% of the population then you are either comfortably middle class or upper class.

2  Economics and the gay lobby

You might initially think that economic class position had nothing to do with homosexuality, but it does not take long looking at the empirical sociological literature to come to the conclusion that this is mistaken. There is a connection, but it is that the interests of gays tend to be aligned with that of the propertied classes, rather than being independent of conflicting class interests. First, the literature on class attitudes to homosexuality shows that working class people are more likely to be hostile to it, and people from higher social classes more likely to be favourable or tolerant towards itAndersen and Fetner, [2008,Embrick et al., [2007]. Second, published data shows that gay couples are, on average, significantly better off than straight ones. On both attitudinal grounds and economic grounds therefore, the gay straight polarisation axis, rather than being independent of the class polarisation axis turns out to be tilted with respect to it.

There is a large body of data establishing that the gay population is disproportionately drawn from the middle and upper middle class, with, as a result, disproportionately small proportion being working class. In the UK a study showed that whereas only 16% of men had university degrees, 36% of gays had themArabsheibani et al., [2005]. Where only 5.5% of all men had professional or managerial jobs, the proportion among gay men in the UK was 9%. For the USA, where educational opportunities have traditional been better than the UK, a study of couples showed that 43% of gays and lesbians had college degrees, whereas only 28% of straight men and 26% of straight women had such degreesBlack et al., [2007]. Similar results come from Berg and Lien [2002],Billy et al. [1993]. Given this difference in jobs and education, one would expect that there would be a significant economic disparity between the position of gay and straight families. This is indeed what we find.

A large Swedish survey of 1,029,420 heterosexual and 940 gay and 968 lesbian couples found that gay couples had the highest incomesAhmed et al., [2011] . They show that gay couples earn more than heterosexual couples who in turn earn more than lesbian ones. This is unsurprising since male earnings are pretty consistently higher than female ones, so an all male household would be expected to earn the most and an all female one the least. No attempt is made in this survey to compute the per-capita incomes of different household types, i.e., to take into account non-earning dependents, principally children, but also potentially older relatives. To do this one would have to know the average family size for different households.

Black et al Black et al., [2000] give data on the proportion of heterosexual and homosexual couples with 1,2,or 3 or more children in their households, thought this is for the USA not Sweden. Nonetheless, it is possible to use their data to compute the mean household sizes for different types of couples (Table 1).

Table 1: US Family size by category, calculated from Black et al. [2000],table 11 .
married unmarried
children gay hetero hetero lesbian men women
couple couple couple couple single single
0 0.948 0.408 0.638 0.783 0.952 0.77
1 0.03 0.224 0.181 0.126 0.029 0.101
2 0.012 0.23 0.11 0.05 0.014 0.076
3 0.011 0.138 0.071 0.04 0.005 0.045
total 0.087 1.098 0.614 0.346 0.072 0.388
family size 2.087 3.098 2.614 2.346 1.072 1.388

ArabsheibaniArabsheibani et al., [2005] produces data for hourly rates of pay for men and women in the UK who are in either gay couples or married heterosexual couples. This broadly reproduces the results of Ahmed, Andersson and Hammarstedt for Sweden, in that he showed that the median wage of gay men in couples was higher than that of heterosexual married men, which in turn was slightly above that of lesbian women, who in turn earned more than married heterosexual women (Table 2). He does not estimate incomes of couples. This can not be done just by adding the hourly wage rates of married men and women, firstly because of the lower employment rate of married women 71% against 85% for women in Lesbian couples and 87.5% for men in gay couples, and secondly because married women have lower working hours. However if we did simply add the mean hourly pay of the married men and women scaled by activity rates and divide by an estimated family size we can get the an estimate of mean hourly pay per family member. Table 3 gives such an estimate for the UK and Table 4 corresponding estimates for Sweden. Both these tables depend on the use of family size estimates derived from Black et al. We can expect the relative family sizes of gay, lesbian and hetrosexual married couples to be similar accross countries at comparable stages of development. Although the exact divisors that should be used will vary from country to country, the ordering that we obtain of per capita income as being gay couples > lesbian couples > heterosexual couples will be robust.

Table 2: Comparision of median hourly wages of gay and heterosexual individuals in the UK, year 2000. From Arabsheibani et al. [2005]. Note that the figures in both cases are for cohabiting couples.
Same sex Heterosexual married
Men £10.10 £8.90
Women £8.70 £6.20

#1Estimate of percapita incomes in gay and straight couples in the UK. Mean pay rates and activity rates from Arabsheibani et al. [2005], family size estimates derived from Black et al. [2000].

Gays Lesbians Married men Married women
Mean pay rate £11.70 £10.10 £10.70 £7.60
Activity rate 0.87 0.85 0.84 0.71
Product £10.18 £8.58 £8.99 £5.40
Per couple £20.36 £17.17 £14.38 £14.38
Scaled by family size
Per capita hourly income £9.75 £7.32 £4.64 £4.64
Table 3: Incomes of Gay, Lesbian and Heterosexual couples in Sweden.
Type of couple Gay Lesbian Heterosexual
Mean income of couple SEKAhmed et al., [2011] 584,000 464,000 532,000
Per capita adjusted for family size Black et al., [2000] 280,000 197,000 190,000

For example we can derive figures for per-capita income for gay, lesbian and straight couples in the US from the data in Black et al. [2007] giving the same ordering. Again the per capita income of gay male couples is highest, followed by lesbian couples, followed by heterosexual couples (Table 5 ).

The figures for the UK in Table 3 show a two to one advantage in per capita incomes for gay as opposed to straight couples. If we combine this with Arabshebani’s figures for the distribution of wages by deciles, we see that this means that the median gay income is as high as the top decile of of heterosexual family incomes. Only the top 10% of straight families are as well of as a mid income range gay couple. This amounts to an appreciable socio economic class difference.

2.1  Unpaid social labour by couples

But the analysis so far has only dealt with the market economy and earnings obtained there. The family is also a place where work is done, the domestic economy. Indeed this is the original meaning of economy, managment of the household. This work does not assume monetary form, either because it is entirely private : a person cooking their own meal, or because, although it is social : looking after children, it occurs under non-capitalist relations of production. Even the ‘private’ work of a person feeding themself, is in a sense socially necessary labour, since, absent such cooking, the population would starve. But shopping, cooking, cleaning up, washing are all activities that take place whether the household has children or not and are thus not relevant in the comparison of different household types. On the other hand child care time will vary according to whether the household has children and depend also on the number of children they have. Since much of our data has come from North America let us look there. Statistics Canada give figures which show that in the average family with children the mother spends 2.55 hrs a day in childcare and the father 1.55 hours a day, to give a total per couple of 4.1 hours. On the assumption that Canadian and US household time budgets are similar we have computed the expected number of hours of childcare time in different categories of family, weighting 4.1 hrs a day by the probability that the household has children (Table 5).

Table 4: Estimates of gay, lesbian and straight couples incomes and contributions of unpaid labour for the US 2007. Incomes derived from Table 5 in Black et al. [2007], and family size is derived from Table 2 in the same paper. Bourgeois valuation of unpaid labour follows the valuation of Colman and Atlantic [1998] and is in 1998 $Can. Hours per year unpaid Socially Necessary Labour Time (SNLT) derived from figures for daily childcare by men and women couples in Canada [2011] weighted by the probability that a given family type has children (Table 1).
Gay Lesbian Straight
Mean couple income $82,000 $66,500 $65700
Mean family size 2.144 2.356 3.173
Per capita income $38259 $28234 $20700
Unpaid SNLT hrs/yr 74 329 882
Bourgeois value $567 $2495 $6692
Marxian valuation $2324 $10229 $27433

Derivation of Marxian valuation

US percapita GNP 2007 $46000
Participation rate 63%
GNP per participant $73000
Paid working week, hours 47
Hours per year 2350
Value created per hour of labour $31

From this we see that straight couples perform much more unpaid socially necessary labour time. But how much is this labour worth. One approach taken in Colman and Atlantic, [1998] was to value childcare labour at the rate of pay of childminders in private childcare businesses. From the standpoint of Marxist economics this is wrong, since that confuses the value of labour power with the value created by labour and from the standpointsome of orthodox economics it also underestimates the impact of withdrawing this much labour from the market economy. Workers are only paid a fraction of the value they create, so valuing unpaid labour at the prevailing wage rate is a serious underestimate of the value that that labour would have created were it deployed in the market sector. It amounts to the assumption that there would be no additional property income were the effective labour force to increase. Adding the equivalent of millions of additional full time workers to the market economy would generate additional value flows that would filter through to profit, interest, tax revenues etc.

A better procedure is to estimate the monetary equivalent of social labour time, as is done in the subsidiary table. This gives a figure of about $31 value created per hour by US labour in 2007. Scaling the unpaid childcare labour in families by this gives the bottom line of Table 5. We see that whereas the average gay couple did unpaid social labour with a value of about $2300 a year, the average straight couple did unpaid social labour to a value of over $27000 a year, more than 10 times as much. Of that labour about $17000 worth is done by the mother and $10000 worth by the father.

It could be argued that this is an unfair comparison; that having children is a private decision and it is nobody else’s business if a gay couple do not want to have children. Why should they work to create labour power for the capitalist system?

The reality is that having children is, in part, a private decision although social expectations play a huge role in the decision. However, things can be simultaneously private and social. Commodity production rests on this kind of duality: commodities are produced by private individuals and firms, but they are produced to meet social needs. Children are produced as a result of private actions but once they are grown up, they constitute the future society, and via their work, support that society. A person who, due to choice or circumstances, has no offspring, depends for their day to day existence on the offspring of others. It may appear that by saving for their old age they have provided for themselves. But this is a monetary illusion. You do not save for your old age by putting cans of beans and sacks of flour in a cellar to sustain you; instead you rely on freshly produced food, clothes etc, produced by the labour of the generation that follows you. If you rely on a state pension then the next generation will be taxed to support you. If you have a private pension it will be invested in government bonds to produce interest. That interest will again come from tomorrow’s tax payers. If it is invested in shares, then the pension will come from the employment of tomorrow’s workers.

The unpaid labour of raising children, labour predominantly done by mothers, is socially essential and all the current generation, whether they have children themselves or not, benefit indirectly from it. Gay activists are wont to identify their campaigns with campaigns against women’s oppression, but the economic analysis so far shows that this concept is fallacious. Not only are gay couples financially better off, they also, in the main, often opt out of the socially necessary unpaid labour that is at the root of the disadvantaged position of women/wives. The establishment and normalisation of gay marriage will tend to increase the inequality of men and women in this respect. Insofar as a portion of the male population were once covert homosexuals, who would have hidden their preferences, married women and helped to bring up children, they can now move directly into a respectable gay marriage where they are statistically very unlikely to do any unpaid child raising work. The net effect is obviously to accentuate the disparity between men and women, and shift even more of the burden of raising the next generation onto women.

The economic basis of marriage is not love. As both experience and the tradition of romantic literature tell us, you do not need to be married to love, and many marriages continue despite an absence of love. The legal institution of marriage regulates, on the one hand, rights and duties with respect to children, and on the other, the sharing of various juridical assets. These include both direct ownership of dwellings, instances where there are heritable tenancies, and personal rights to other public and private benefits: pensions, insurance, citizenship. In the early stages after the legalisation of homosexuality, gays were relatively uninterested in marriage, and, if anything, disdained it as a mark of respectability.

Two processes operating over the last decades may have made the juridical asset aspect of marriage more attractive. The first of these is just the cumulative result of the economic advantage that gay couples enjoy. It enables them to accumulate property faster than other couples, so they have more to share on the death of a partner. Gays are twice as likely to own dwellings in the highest property band as heterosexuals. Black et al., showed that over 34% of middle-aged gays owned houses in the highest property band as against under 16% of married men and women of the same age. We have been unable to find statistics on ownership of financial assets, but one would expect, from the big income disparity, to find a similar bias there. At the same time, the advance of privatisation, neo-liberalism and the undermining of universal health and social benefits increases the importance of heritable or shareable private insurance rights.

Couples seeking to protect their relationship and family through wills and other mechanisms in the absence of a marriage contract need significant resources, including knowledge and money. This is equally the case in the dissolution of a relationship not recognised by the state, where only those with these same resources can pursue an equitable distribution of joint assets.” Bhroin, [2009]

The conclusion from the evidence so far is that the gay marriage movement is fundamentally conservative, aimed at the securing of relatively privileged property ownership and it makes the relative position of women in society slightly worse3. The economic effects are small since the affected population segment is tiny, but the debate on gay marriage takes on a prominence way beyond any direct socioeconomic effect that it may have.

Reproductive Semi-reproductive Non-reproductive
Atomised nuclear family lesbian couple gay couple
Semi-communal extended family
Communal phalanstery/kibbutz nunnery/monastery
Table 5: Family forms on two axes.



[Ahmed et al. 2011]
Ali M Ahmed, Lina Andersson, and Mats Hammarstedt. Inter-and intra-household earnings differentials among homosexual and heterosexual couples. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 49 (s2): s258-s278, 2011.

[Andersen and Fetner 2008]
Robert Andersen and Tina Fetner. Economic inequality and intolerance: attitudes toward homosexuality in 35 democracies. American Journal of Political Science, 52 (4): 942-958, 2008.

[Arabsheibani et al. 2005]
G Reza Arabsheibani, Alan Marin, and Jonathan Wadsworth. Gay pay in the uk. Economica, 72 (286): 333-347, 2005.

[Berg and Lien 2002]
Nathan Berg and Donald Lien. Measuring the effect of sexual orientation on income: Evidence of discrimination? Contemporary economic policy, 20 (4): 394-414, 2002.

[Bhroin 2009]
Feargha Ní Bhroin. Feminism and the same-sex marriage debate. Electronic, Marriage Equality, April 2009. URL

[Billy et al. 1993]
John OG Billy, Koray Tanfer, William R Grady, and Daniel H Klepinger. The sexual behavior of men in the united states. Family planning perspectives, pages 52-60, 1993.

[Black et al. 2000]
Dan Black, Gary Gates, Seth Sanders, and Lowell Taylor. Demographics of the gay and lesbian population in the united states: Evidence from available systematic data sources. Demography, 37 (2): 139-154, 2000.

[Black et al. 2007]
Dan A Black, Seth G Sanders, and Lowell J Taylor. The economics of lesbian and gay families. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 21 (2): 53-70, 2007.

[Canada 2011]
Statistics Canada. General social survey – 2010 overview of the time use of canadians. July 2011.

[Colman and Atlantic 1998]
Ronald Colman and GPI Atlantic. The Economic Value of Unpaid Housework and Child Care in Nova Scotia. GPI Atlantic Halifax, 1998.

[Embrick et al. 2007]
David G Embrick, Carol S Walther, and Corrine M Wickens. Working class masculinity: Keeping gay men and lesbians out of the workplace. Sex roles, 56 (11-12): 757-766, 2007.

[Nair 2015]
Yasmin Nair. The secret history of gay marriage. 2015. URL


1From Extended Penn World Tables

2 See

3 “In short, the secret history of gay marriage is that its real history, as a rapacious, greedy, and entirely selfish campaign carried out by rapacious, greedy and entirely selfish gay men and women has been systematically erased by gay men like Frank Bruni and their unctuous straight allies like Frank Rich and Linda Hirshman. The secret history of gay marriage is not that it might prevent our sex lives from being more interesting, but that its victory enables the cementing of a neo-liberal society where only private relationships can ensure access to economic security and healthcare. The preferred narrative is that gay marriage will be a dream come true. The reality is that gay marriage is nothing but a nightmare and neo-liberalism’s handiest little tool.” [Nair, 2015

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 4.08.