In 1793, eager to destroy every last vestige of the old order, French revolutionaries created two new systems of time and measurement. The first, called decimal time, divided the day into ten hours and the months into three ten-day weeks. It proved so unpopular that Napoleon abolished it a decade later. But the decimal system for measuring weights and distances lived on as the metric system.
Why one failed and the other succeeded haunts the current debate over gender. A new vision of gender as something fluid and existing apart from a person’s biological sex is challenging the old binary model that links gender to sex. People wonder if this new vision—what critics call “transgender ideology,” but which for all intents and purposes is “gender neutrality”—will succeed like the metric system or fail like decimal time.
Critics think they have nature on their side. They think gender is like time—or music. In the latter case, late 19th– and early 20th-century composers experimented with atonal music, just as painters had begun to show a preference for abstract art over representational art. Yet nature arguably re-asserted itself in the musical case; the human ear, said atonality’s detractors, proved to have a narrower range for what it could appreciate than the human eye did. In nature’s name, people rejected discordant notes just as they had rejected decimal time—and will reject gender neutrality, the critics contend.
Yet gender neutrality may be the exception here, not because the traditional binary model lacks roots in human nature, but because a mighty force opposes it.
French business hated decimal time. It wreaked havoc on the timepiece industry, which was the 18th century’s version of high tech. It retarded international commerce, since other countries kept to the old time. It antagonized labor, since workers had to go ten days before getting a day off rather than seven. Business tipped the balance against decimal time.
An analogous situation is at work today, except the new vision—gender neutrality—has business on its side.
Why Capitalism Wants Gender Neutrality
To maximize profit, capitalism requires efficient workers to create what Karl Marx called “surplus value.” Surplus value means the value beyond that which the employer must pay to keep a worker alive and reproduce. For example, if an employer pays a living wage for eight hours of work but can get the worker to produce in five hours what normally takes eight, then the employer extracts the surplus value (three hours’ worth of production) as profit to re-invest. The quest for surplus value is what drives capitalism, Marx said, and culture along with it.
In the first half of the 19th century, surplus value was largely irrelevant in the United States, as the majority of working Americans were self-employed independent farmers. But within the small manufacturing sector, capitalism relied on traditional notions of gender inequality to maximize surplus value. Manufacturers needed well-fed men with maximal upper body strength to labor efficiently, which meant women cooking for them and darning their socks at home. Traditional norms of masculinity and femininity prevailed.
But American capitalism and gender inequality were only convenient allies during this period. When men preferred to stay on the farm, cotton mill owners, for example, had no compunction about employing women to work on the looms, first drawing from the population of local farm girls and later from among newly arrived Irish immigrants.1 When more male laborers became available through immigration, the scheme ended, but it was a portent of things to come. Profit first, culture second.
New technology came online to make the extraction of surplus value more efficient. As Marx predicted, it also enabled employers to factor out the differences between men and women, including men’s greater upper body strength, thereby allowing women to work at the same jobs as men. Women also found positions in the emerging service economy, where upper body strength was unnecessary. Both innovations made women a new and attractive source of surplus value. Gender inequality soon gave way to gender equality.
Gender equality increased surplus value during the 20th century. A man supporting a wife and children needed a certain wage to keep his family alive. When gender equality drew more women into the workforce, both husband and wife could support the family, which meant each could be paid somewhat less, as their total wage added up to something more. In Marxist terms, employers were able to extract more surplus value from each worker. It was even better for the employer if the couple was childless, as the living wage needed by the family fell further, freeing up more surplus value. In fact, this happened, as the birth rate in the United States (and other Western countries) fell.
With strong business support, a new culture of gender equality arose, declaring men and women to be distinct life forms yet deserving equal economic opportunity. Notions of masculinity and femininity persisted and remained connected to biological sex, but they ceased to be grounded to the same extent in economic reality, for now men and women were more likely to work at the same tasks. Instead they became psychological norms—states of mind, so to speak—that people cultivated through fashion, behaviors, and products purchased on the new consumer market.
For example, while upper body strength declined in economic relevance, many men began lifting weights because people found the pumped-up look “manly.” The male body craze tracked the rise of the new consumer culture, with pumping up in the 1950s moving on to the surgically-altered chins, pectoral implants, grafted hair, and fat-injected penises of the 1990s. For similar reasons, some men adopted a military style and wore flight jackets, along with a stern countenance, despite having never served in the military. Other men wore football jerseys with the names of their favorite players printed on the back.
Many women, in turn, bought exotic lingerie from Victoria Secret to preserve the mystery of the “other.” The cosmetics industry barely existed in the United States as late as the first decade of the 20th century, with make-up largely reserved for prostitutes and cabaret actresses. It also suddenly became a mass market starting in the 1920s, pioneered by Max Factor and Elizabeth Arden. During this same period, again in tandem with the rising consumer culture, some women got plastic surgery on their faces; then, starting in the 1960s, moved on to other body parts, such as breast implants, believing these procedures enhanced femininity.2 Today, we spend more money on fitness and cosmetics than on education or social services.3 On cosmetic surgery alone, Americans spent $16.5 billion in 2018, with breast augmentation and liposuction being the most popular procedures. Once unmoored from economic reality, the norms of masculinity and femininity were not easily fixed, and they sometimes rushed unrestrained beyond the range of common sense.
When gender equality yielded diminishing amounts of surplus value, gender neutrality, or the lack of any differentiation between the sexes, became the logical new source.
For example, men on average wait 40 seconds to use the toilet, while women wait two minutes and 20 seconds. By making stalls gender-neutral, the average wait becomes one minute, which is a 20 second increase for men but a one minute and 20 second decrease for women. Assuming, as gender neutrality does, that men and women are interchangeable economic units, the net total decrease in wait time means more time for workers to spend at their desks or on the factory line. This translates into more surplus value.
Making business letters and emails gender-neutral works off the same principle. Workers don’t need to waste time trying to figure out if the person being addressed is male or female. The resultant time saving yields more surplus value. Adopting a company-wide gender-neutral pronoun such as “they, them, and theirs” also saves time. Using gender-neutral language in job postings has already been shown to decrease the time to hire—by 14 days, according to one study. The sooner a worker gets started, the faster surplus value can be extracted.
On the wage side, gender-neutral fashions and cosmetics are often cheaper because of economies of scale, which means workers can be paid less to look fashionable. Indeed, women’s personal care products typically have a 13 percent mark-up relative to men’s. For fashion designers, gender neutrality also makes clothing production more efficient. One leader in the field said that “designers, by showing men’s and women’s looks in tandem, are saving time and money.”
Finally, gender neutrality decreases sexual tension in the workplace, at least in theory. Thirty years ago, the American corporate workplace was like a cruise ship, adapting comforts to the needs of people who for a certain time are entirely cut off from the world. Many large companies built cafeterias, nap spaces, meditation rooms, and gyms, while also permitting romance to flourish. Yet more time at work meant more opportunities for human interaction, including flirtations that distracted from work, or worse, flirtations gone awry. Since segregating the genders is no longer an option, gender neutrality has become the preferred solution. Male-female relationships at work are encouraged to take on a professional, indifferent, uninterested tone; a flat tone that one associates with other common things. They grow rationalized and standardized, as in the production of cars and computers, and even acquire a hygienic quality. The result is fewer company payouts for sexual harassment claims. In addition, undistracted workers yield more surplus value.
Industry itself is sometimes only dimly aware of gender neutrality’s benefits, describing and praising them in economic terms but doing so in piecemeal fashion. There is no official “gender neutrality school” within business. Corporate America will probably best appreciate gender neutrality in hindsight, through profit margin graphs.
Nor will gender neutrality yield as much surplus value as gender equality did. Gender equality dramatically doubled the labor pool, while gender neutrality works on the margins—for example, through increased time-savings or by applying modest brakes to wage increases. But this is consistent with how corporations have boosted profit margins over the past few decades. Companies have relied on an array of small advantages—for example, the fall in labor’s bargaining power, a decline in corporate taxes, globalization, declining interest rates, declining anti-trust enforcement, technology allowing for greater scale and lower marginal costs, and low tariffs. Each advantage alone is modestly important, but when taken together the advantages are enormously important. They have helped to boost the extraction of surplus value and enabled U.S. equities to be 40 percent higher than they otherwise would. Gender neutrality is one more advantage, but also one that will likely increase in importance as the traditional advantages are threatened.
A gender-neutral culture is emerging to complement the new method of extracting surplus value. Ideals of masculinity and femininity, long ago disconnected from economic reality, and primarily images cultivated through consumer goods and activities, are being filed down or even swapped. Because commodities rather than any particular tasks make the man or the woman today, it should not surprise that they have become mutually interchangeable. Today, a woman can be masculine; a man can be feminine; people can be both, either, or neither. It all depends on how the person feels at any particular moment, and what consumer goods or activities the person feels like buying or engaging in.
When thinking about gender fluidity, people today tend to focus on the transgendered because they generate most of the news—for example, biological males entering female locker rooms. But the plight of the transgendered is only a sideshow in a larger historical process that Marx called “the werewolf hunger for surplus value.” Capitalism needs surplus value to survive. Only a small percentage of people are transgendered, yet capitalism has adopted their cause as a symbolic event to help it lay the foundation for a new human being more generally. That new human being—gender neutral—is neither man nor woman according to nature’s so-called ideal, but rather man or woman with two arms, two legs, two dots for eyes, and a gash for a mouth, with everything else to be added later, and made by nature in a rush. After all, in capitalism, time is money.
What Comes After Gender Neutrality?
Gender neutrality is not the end of history. We already can foresee history’s next stage and how ideology will be used to defend it. Again, Marx is useful here.
When feudalism collapsed, the capitalist idea of freedom, meaning the freedom to build a business, coincided with Marx’s idea of freedom, which was the liberation of human creativity. This is why Marx thought capitalism was progress over feudalism. At least men could escape the control of the guilds, build businesses, and fulfill their dreams. But the two freedoms would not be in sync for long, Marx explained: The capitalist idea of freedom would eventually turn men into a proletariat. In addition, capitalism would build machines that could be operated as easily by women as by men, making many men economically redundant. The age of gender inequality would give way to the age of gender equality, and capitalism would throw men under the bus.
In the next phase of history, during the 20th century, gender equality represented progress over gender inequality, as now women could build businesses and work at jobs once denied to them. Capitalism’s understanding of freedom and feminism’s understanding of freedom were in sync. But they would not be in sync for long, just as they were not in sync for long for the men. Many women became proletarians themselves, like the men. Instead of having careers, they found themselves in boring jobs. At the same time, women lost their chivalric protections. From capitalism’s perspective, these protections constituted an irrational throwback to an earlier era. Corporate America was glad to be rid of them. Feminists played right into capitalism’s hands by encouraging their demise.
In the new era of gender neutrality, capitalism has launched another attack on women. Having already attacked traditional social arrangements to get more women into the workforce, it now attacks the feeling among biological women that they form a group with special characteristics. It attacks binary notions of “femininity” (and “masculinity”) as relics of a hated feudal past, viewing them the way it has traditionally viewed militarism and nationalism: something dark and primordial; a source of aggression, instability, and violence; an irrational way of life that the perfect workings of capitalism will one day do away with.
We see this drama play out as Twitter bans a white feminist for saying that differences between men and women exist. Other activists have piled on, calling the woman a “TERF”—a pejorative term that stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. Political analysts note how feminists such as former tennis star Martina Navratilova oppose letting transgendered women compete in women’s sports, and how this pits feminists against other progressives. But they ignore the more important fact that Twitter, a major capitalist enterprise and therefore typically cautious, along with other major capitalist enterprises such as Facebook and Google side with the transgender movement against traditional feminists.
Capitalism is throwing women under the bus, just as it did men decades before. This shocks feminists, who are used to corporate America’s support. Gender neutrality threatens the carve-outs, set-asides, and special programs for women that have helped them gain entrance to business’s top ranks. But the amount of surplus value that capitalism can extract from women as women is diminishing.
The next stage of history belongs to the transgendered and the gender neutral. Gender neutrality will become the norm; business will get the culture it wants. In the name of “freedom” and “justice,” capitalism will support the new culture just as it once supported feminism, and before that rugged masculine individualism.
But this stage, too, will end, and capitalism will throw the transgendered and the gender neutral under the bus. Decades from now, perhaps, when artificially intelligent beings come on line, capitalism will discover a brand-new source of surplus value—indeed, a tireless one, since robots can work 24 hours a day. The entire human species will get thrown under the bus, including traditional men and women, transgendered men and women, and the gender neutral. Humans will protest, but capitalism, experienced in the persuasive arts of ideology, will defend the new robots in the name of “freedom,” “justice,” and “empowerment,” just as it defends transgendered and gender neutral people now, defended women earlier, and defended men even earlier still. Assuming no civilizational conflagration intercedes, and that humanity can somehow be bought off or silenced, the transgendered and the gender neutral will join the ranks of the spurned.
All this seems impossible, unthinkable, and unnatural. But nature long ago revealed itself—and revealed itself to be unnatural. Western civilization is built on a modern philosophy that says there is nothing natural about human beings other than their selfishness and vanity, and that human beings are capable of being molded into any product so long as society has strong enough educational institutions to do so. Men can be taught to go to work or to stay at home and raise children; women can be taught to stay at home and raise children or to go to work; men and women can be taught to believe in the traditional binary gender model or to see themselves as men or women independent of their biological sex. Economic progress demands this malleability, and capitalism has been the mighty accelerator of this process, yet modern philosophy laid the groundwork. In each generation, a way of life once thought to be frightful is accommodated, and people come to think of it as a matter of course. Today, gender neutrality is being accommodated. The notion that artificially intelligent beings deserve the same rights as human beings will follow.
Can We Stop the March of History?
Gender neutrality will likely remain a Western phenomenon and Marx’s paradigm explains why. In China, for example, many young people, like their counterparts in the West, are beginning to see gender norms as intrinsically fluid. But unlike in the West, China lacks the conditions for this view to take deep root.
First, Chinese industries are further away from maxing out the amount of surplus value they can extract through a culture of gender equality. With profits threatened, they simply force their men and women to work harder. For example, China’s technology companies are adopting the “9-9-6” rule, which means working nine a.m. to nine p.m., six days a week. Ironically, it is communist China and not capitalist America that manifests what Marx called “an impulse to suck labor dry,” or the “vampire thirst for the living blood of labor.” For political reasons, “9-9-6” is not an option in the U.S.
Second, government plays a larger role in the Chinese economy than it does in Western economies, and while the extraction of surplus value may be capitalism’s organizing principle, it is not government’s. According to Marx, the “greed for surplus labor” drives hard work and efficiency in the private sector. In the public sector, however, there is no extraction of surplus value for purposes of re-investment, by definition. This is why it makes no sense for a government worker to try to create in four hours what normally takes eight. By Marx’s own reasoning, efficiency and speed are almost irrational in government work. The large Chinese state has no reason to push for gender neutrality to maximize surplus value.
Third, China is state-dominated, and the state, observed Marx, is dangerous because it continuously introduces noneconomic drives into society, such as religion and nationalism, and builds up structures of power that subvert the free forces of the economy. Traditional notions of masculinity and femininity fall under this category of noneconomic drives. True to form, the Chinese state has recently denounced gender neutrality and called it “pathological.” It declares traditional masculinity the bedrock of national strength, thus tying the old noneconomic idea of gender with the old noneconomic idea of nationhood. The Chinese state has both the power and inclination to resist capitalism’s logic and ban gender neutrality.
The United States, on the other hand, has done nothing to interrupt gender neutrality’s ascendance. Masculinity and femininity are already taking on more of a subconscious existence in America, like an underground river that only comes to the surface here and there, expressing itself in sudden bursts and then sinking again to flow on underneath everyday conscious life. Still, even progressives should fear the era to follow, when artificially intelligent beings come online. Can nothing check the inevitable historical process?
There is one way, and it comes with a precedent. In the United States and England, reformers over a century ago sought to shield children from the capitalist dynamic. In the United States, where capitalism reached its most concentrated and characteristic form, success came late. Legislation finally passed in 1916, only to be overturned by the Supreme Court several times. Child labor protections finally became law in 1938, yet business fought them to the end in the name of “freedom,” calling them restrictions on interstate commerce. Even then, the law carved out agricultural labor, which is why to this day 500,000 children, some of them as young as six years old, harvest almost a quarter of the food grown in the United States.
In England, true to form, industrial capitalists, although technically more “liberal” than aristocratic Whigs or traditionalist Tories, were the biggest opponents of child labor protections. Yet protections passed during the Disraeli administration, which represented a popular conservatism, aspired to wall off a small portion of the world from capitalism’s influence.
A similar approach might help today—not to protect children but to protect men and women, including transgendered men and women, and not just against the troubles of today but against those of the future as well. To insist that men and women are somehow different, just as reformers once insisted that children and adults are different, is to confound the view that all human life is merely capital, which is how Marx characterized capitalism’s view of humanity. This will make it harder for capitalism to toss humanity aside on the day that surplus value demands it. For if men and women are different in ways that non-human beings cannot share in, then humanity itself remains distinctive and different, and perhaps worth protecting, or at least worth taking a second look at.
Capitalists will likely protest, as they did when the child labor laws were passed. In the name of “freedom” and “progress” they will demand that men and women be considered interchangeable, just as they demanded that adults and children be considered interchangeable. And they will be right in a way, for there is something romantic, even feudal, in the notion that men and women differ. But that notion may also save humanity when the time comes. It may take the form a vague remembrance of that early life when men and women were profoundly different. I dare not call that difference “natural.” Men and women will no longer be beautiful flowers. But they can live near the flowers, and have some of the odor of traditional gendered life about them to protect them from forces that would toss them away when they no longer yield surplus value.