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Childcare and Counter-hegemony

For my first post of 2014, and because my collective blog on leftist parenting didn't succeed in getting off the ground, I'm going to reflect on some of my most recent thoughts about being a father of a girl who is now over fifteen months old.  Since she is a significant part of my life, and parenting takes up a significant chunk of my time, I obviously spend more time thinking about raising her than I do about my academic life.  And aside from the logistical thoughts regarding how to organize everything else in my life around her schedule, and how to share childcare equitably with my partner, I also find myself ruminating quite a bit about the larger ideological problems I will be forced to encounter as she grows up in a capitalist world.

Particularly, I have thinking a lot about a certain poem by Caitlyn Siehl (it is not your job), that has been circulating on innumerable tumblr sites, which succinctly explains some of my fears regarding my daughter's future.  Maybe I've become too much of a dad, or maybe I'm suffering from lack of sleep and energy, but when I first read this poem it had a visceral emotional impact.  For it describes the future that is rushing towards my daughter, promised by every relative who, in complimenting my daughter's existence (and obviously not out of any conscious malevolence), focuses on how pretty, lovely, gorgeous, etc. she looks.

Clearly, like every parent, I think my kid is cute and I would be lying if I said I didn't feel a small amount of pride when others confirm my bias.  At the same time, however, whenever I hear these compliments––which are now becoming more than simply a recognition of "your kid is cute in the way babies and toddlers are cute by being babies and toddlers" and instead slowly being determined by a gendered logic––I wonder why the same compliments are not typically given to boys of the same age, in the same families, whose "cuteness" has been delinked from appearance and instead reconfigured around their cleverness and ingenuity.  I think of how she will begin to see herself, after growing up with these compliments about her appearance, and how her understanding of her identity will be shaped according to social constructs of femininity.

Even liberal experts on child development are beginning to realize what the feminist movement could have told them, among other things, decades ago: certain patriarchal social relations are reinforced by this gendered socialization, and girls who are taught to place the value of their identity in their appearance will face an uphill battle because of this valuation.  Indeed, a popular book by Lisa Bloom (which I doubt is revolutionary due to the endorsements of people such as Dr. Phil) concludes that is damaging to tell girls they are pretty, connecting this discourse to eating disorders and a whole host of problems that affect women more than men.  And as feminists have been saying for a long time, the valorization of the male subject is accomplished through this ideology, not to mention the fact that it compliments notions of inherent female vulnerability and male aggressiveness that are part of rape culture.

Now I haven't read Lisa Bloom's book but, based on reading some of her articles, I suspect that it doesn't offer a solution to a problem she has only (I also suspect) only partially grasped.  Because the cause of women disempowerment is not what Naomi Wolf called "the beauty myth" (not that Wolf saw this as the cause) anymore than the prime cause of racial disempowerment was the racist sciences of phrenology and physiognomy.  I suspect Bloom does not see the "you are pretty" problem as a symptom of the vestiges of tributary patriarchy that has become an ideology entrenched in the class logic of capitalism, viciously repurposed for this mode of production, because it appears that her solution is the typical liberal solution: educate your children to understand their "authentic" value, talk to them individual-to-individual so that they can learn how to value themselves in a way that is not dependent on their looks, and solve the problem of the disempowerment of women (and hence patriarchy) simply by a heroic overcoming of the beauty myth.

After all, as much as my partner and I will work hard to ensure that our daughter understands that she does not have to be "pretty", and as hard as we work to eliminate all pressures in her personal life that would tell her otherwise, we are also dealing with a problem that is far more pernicious than what is accidentally imported into her personal life.  So as much as we have fastidiously raised her so far without television, and with books and toys we have privileged as neutral and so far she loves more than what some other kids her age are taught to love [currently she is enamoured with her "peppa" blue bunny and the book Goodnight Moon], we know that her tastes will change the older she grows.

My kid's favourite toy

As social beings, whose consciousness is greatly determined by how and why we are embedded within a given society, we are educated according to the ruling ideas of the ruling classes, what is oft-times treated as "common sense".  Friends, other family members, teachers, television, and society as a whole will work to reinforce a way of being, and thus a consciousness, that she will find hard not to value because it is ultimately what she has learned ought to be valued.  In such a context there are only four options: embrace these bullshit values, struggle against them in an isolated and doomed manner, drop out of society and become hermits, or work desperately for a new society that is premised on liberatory social relations.  Obviously, I reject the first two options, find the third repellant in its individualism and ultimately economically impossible, but realize that the fourth is extremely difficult since––though the only real solution––is the business of a collective revolution that, though the basis of my ideological dedication, is something I probably won't see in my lifetime… though I desperately hope it will be realized in my daughter's lifetime and that she might even be part of this realization.

So in the meantime, barring an immediate revolution, how can we parents who reject this socialization deal with its insidiousness?  For we cannot simply dismiss the problems of the present in the hope of a future socialist horizon and sink into a bad faith pragmatism––that is, the supposedly "pragmatic" position of simply recognizing the problem and doing nothing to combat it based on the argument that it can only be solved through a revolution that will most probably not happen in the next two or three decades.  Such a pragmatism sacrifices the current generation on the altar of the future and is precisely what anti-fascist thinkers such as Walter Benjamin warned about in Theses on the Philosophy of History when he castigated the SPD for justifying the oppression of the present with recourse to an inevitable socialist future that could only be accomplished through the misery of the present––a misery that would be justified since it contributed to this future perfection.

In this context, rather than waiting for a future socialism to spontaneously and magically emerge, we organize in the present and in this organizing work desperately to produce a hegemonic movement where revolutionary values will become common sense.  Hence a war of position of a counter-hegemony that aims to become the next hegemony.  A revolutionary movement that develops its own community structures that, in regards to the raising of children, will be structures in which other "red diaper kids" will be counter-socialized together: our own youth groups, comrades for our children as they grow up, counter-values that will hopefully be treated as more valuable than those that are part of normative ideology.  I desperately hope that, by the time my daughter is twelve, we will have succeeded in organizing a movement that, connected to a revolutionary party with designs to change the current state of affairs, will be able to have some version of the Young Pioneers.  I cannot help but think of the rebellious aspects of the Girl/Boy Scouts in Russia, during the lead up to the October Revolution, that broke ties with the rest of the Scout movement and identified instead with the Bolsheviks.

Tonight my daughter spent half an hour carrying around a leftist book I've been reading, The Threat of Liberation, opening it up randomly and pontificating in her toddler language, and rubbing its cover and saying "people" over and over.  My hope is that, when she grows old enough to appreciate such a book's content more than its form, she will be just as excited.  But for the moment she is sleeping in the room down the hall, clutching her bunny close, and dreaming a world that is not yet infected by the nightmare of a vestigial and entrenched ideology of patriarchy.  Would that we could bring a world into being tomorrow that would demolish this nightmare forever.


  1. I really like that you are writing about this stuff that is very important and hard to negotiate for revolutionaries. I don't really think that being around other 'red kids' and adults on the left will shield Esther in any way from mainstream capitalist-patriarchal views of gender and I don't want it too. I do want her to have an analysis of them though and know that they are simply views produced by a certain experience and not fundamental truths of human existence. Megan is also an Anthropologist and can back up these sorts of arguments with many well-researched historical facts about the role of women and gender in different societies throughout history. I think being in a group with other kids from communist or militant families may help her to feel confident about her analysis or even to learn it from someone who isn't her mother, but I want her to really understand the dominant ideology and be very well versed in it. I am not against her seeing gendered things on tv or in books or encountering them in school, but I want her to be able to understand them. The same goes for racism, as she will inevitably see people being racist, but I want her to understand that their views are based on incorrect ideas that simply are not true and are produced by certain social condition. Esther's favourite book on my shelf is Settlers, probably because of the picture of Ho Chi Minh dancing with children on the back. I hope she reads it as well as the Mao Volumes II and V she pulls down for unknown reasons, as they don't even have pictures. Maybe she knows her dada likes them and sees me reading them or something.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I definitely do not think my daughter should be shielded from society at large, or that she should only hang around with other communists, because that would be tantamount to the strategy of "dropping out" that I noted was problematic. My point was about building a counter-hegemonic community and enabling her to identify with the values of this community while still interacti g with the ruling values of society at large. After all, as you have correctly noted, there is no way to actually escape ideas about gender, race, etc. since they will be experienced regardless. My daughter is already being socialized according to certain gender norms no matter what we do so the only real approach is to work on producing the grounds of empowerment and critical mindedness that will enable her to feel connected to a counter-culture and learn how to think through "common sense" ideology. It is great, like your daughter, that ours already identifies with what we like (she wants to play with the books we are reading, etc.) and hopefully, if we don't ram it down her throat but make it part of a larger process of socialization, this will have an impact on her development.


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