Value of Knowledge Reference

Liberation Epistemology


The development of epistemology is essentially coextensive with the bourgeois epoch — the epoch of production for exchange, of commodity production. As capitalism develops, all facets of human existence become commodified, transformed into objects to be bought and sold, alienated from the individual human producer and coming to appear as if they were natural “inhuman” objects, as “forces of nature”.

This mode of production divides people into two classes — the buyers/users of human labour power and the producers/sellers of labour power. Those who live outside of this trade in human energy are “outside the economy” and “don't count” - women engaged in unpaid domestic work, members of self-sufficient or subsistence communities as well as the aged, disabled, etc.

Those oppressed under this social system, particularly those whose labour is exploited in the production of social wealth, struggle for recognition and freedom, and identify themselves in whatever way they can, by means of the forms of organisation and consciousness possible within bourgeois social relations. Workers form themselves into cartels to bargain more effectively for the price of their labour power, and those doubly exploited by the under-valuing of their labour or whose labour is directly consumed in unpaid labour, likewise struggle to increase the value of their labour and to participate on an equal footing with others in the labour market. However, in general, this struggle of “the excluded” is manifested only at a time when their labour begins to have value, to be exchanged, or at least the conditions for such commerce are coming into existence.

It is in this sense that we say that “trade unionism is bourgeois consciousness”. Trade union consciousness has no place before, after or outside of the labour market. Trade unionism does not in essence call into the question the right of the capitalist to use and the need of the worker to sell labour power. While anti-capitalist, socialist consciousness may develop within organisations of workers, such consciousness which aspires to a higher form of society in which wage-labour is abolished is nothing to do with trade unionism whose very foundation is wage-labour. Socialist consciousness grows up in the same conditions and on the same basis as trade union consciousness, namely modern conditions of production and the self-activity of organised workers — but it is something quite distinct from the forms of bourgeois consciousness with which workers fight to improve their lot within capitalism.

It is in this same sense that I shall refer to “liberation epistemology” as a form of and part of “bourgeois philosophy”. By “liberation epistemology” I refer to the philosophical production of the women's movement, in particular beginning with Simone de Beauvoir in the 1950s and later Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Shulasmith Firestone, Dale Spender, and many, many others and such contemporary writers as Linda Nicholson and Drucilla Cornell, and many, many others, but also Black Liberation writers such as C L R James and Frantz Fanon and US Blacks such as Stokeley Carmichael, Hughie Newton, Malcolm X, and others. Michel Foucault in particular, but also many other post-modern writers continue the same tendencies which find political application in combating a wide range of forms of the discounting of human labour.

There is no implication that one or another liberation struggle is “secondary” to the struggle of workers or the socialist movement or that I am in some way labelling such tendencies as bourgeois while reserving the tag of “proletarian” for other philosophical currents. In fact, I think that to talk of a “proletarian epistemology” would be essentially meaningless. While the philosophy of Karl Marx is something else again and the subject of a separate consideration, the various Communist Parties have shown little evidence of the creative and mass development of epistemology which can in any way be compared to the Women's Movement and the Civil Rights movement and nothing of the kind is under consideration here.

By “Bourgeois Epistemology” I mean the whole organic development of Epistemology from the Copernican Revolution till today. In it I include the Royalist Hobbes, the cleric Berkeley (though perversely), as well as the socialist-humanist Feuerbach and, with important qualifications, Marx, in so far as he was concerned with that subject. I use the word “bourgeois” in the sense that we say that “trade unionism is bourgeois ideology”, even though it is clearly the ideology of proletarians, because it reflects the historic tasks of the bourgeois epoch. Bourgeois epistemology will only complete its development when the market is well and truly buried. It is nonsense to think that we can invent “proletarian epistemology” in the same sense that Trotsky reserved the conception of “proletarian culture” as something which could come into being only in some far, distant future:

“[Marxism] was formed entirely on the basis of bourgeois culture, both scientific and political, though it declared a fight to the finish upon that culture. Under the pressure of capitalistic contradictions, the universalising thought of the bourgeois democracy, of its boldest, most honest, and most far-sighted representatives, rises to the heights of a marvellous renunciation, armed with all the critical weapons of bourgeois science. Such is the origin of Marxism. ...”


“One cannot turn the concept of culture into the small change of individual daily living and determine the success of a class culture by the proletarian passports of individual inventors or poets. Culture is the organic sum of knowledge and capacity which characterises the entire society, or at least its ruling class. It embraces and penetrates all fields of human work and unifies them into a system. ...

... We have the literary works of talented and gifted proletarians, but that is not proletarian literature. . .” [What Is Proletarian Culture, and Is It Possible?, Trotsky 1923]

Furthermore, on the social and political level, the completion of the tasks of the bourgeois epoch is by no means exclusively the role of the bourgeoisie. As Trotsky put it in The Permanent Revolution:

”... the victory of the democratic revolution is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat which bases itself upon the alliance with the peasantry and solves first of all the tasks of the democratic revolution. ...

“The dictatorship of the proletariat which has risen to power as the leader of the democratic revolution is inevitably and very quickly confronted with tasks, the fulfilment of which is bound up with deep inroads into the rights of bourgeois property. The democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution.” [Trotsky, 1924]

Nevertheless, it is of considerable theoretical importance to be able to understand those tasks which are essentially those of capitalism (right of free speech, right of association, universal suffrage, separation of Church and State, equality before the law, freedom from racial villification, national self-determination, etc.), and (so far as is possible) those forms of human activity and relationship which are essentially characteristic of a completely new and qualitatively different form of human society (such as the Russian Revolution).

In this context, the anti-capitalist politics of many feminist, civil rights or anti-colonial currents by no means contradicts the placing of the epistemological import of such movements as part of the 400-year long development of “bourgeois” epistemology.

Does such a characterisation somehow mean that as a socialist I am opposed to or “not interested in” women's liberation, anti-racism or national liberation? Emphatically “No!”. And if for reasons of not wanting to be misunderstood by trade unionists and feminists, I were to compromise this understanding, we are reduced to bourgeois radicalism, in which class characterisation is used simply as a label to mark out friends and enemies.

After this preamble which may encourage the reader to at least suspend judgement, I would like now to look at the development of liberation epistemology.

The Development of Liberation Epistemology

In the mid-1930s, the cricket commentator of the Manchester Guardian, the cultured young man from Barbados, C L R James, began to agitate for the right of the West Indies to self-government. Shocked at the indifference of the British workers at the imperialist repression of the rebellion in Abyssinia, James delved into the history of the struggles of Black people and gave the first modern voice to the liberation struggle begun by the Black slaves of Haiti in 1791. His speech to the Socialist Workers Party in 1948, Black Power, traces the origins of Black Power deeply in the history of US Blacks and their struggle against slavery, and proposes that American Negroes will build an independent movement and cannot be subordinated to organised labor or the Marxist Party.

Feminist epistemology begins with Simone de Beauvoir's publication of The Second Sex in 1949. The web site
lists literally hundreds of women epistemologists, but only one who was writing before 1949. Feminist historical research has brought to light a large number of individual women who developed and published feminist views well back into the nineteenth century, but it is only after The Second Sex that we see women investigating philosophy as part of the liberation struggle.

De Beauvoir specifically seeks to draw upon psychoanalysis, biology and historical materialism to find an approach to understanding and what is Woman and the means of her liberation, and in the course of her investigations critically calls upon Hegel, Marxism, Existentialism, natural science, sociology and analytical philosophy - anything which might shed light on her subject. The result is a monument and classic of our times and marks the beginning of what is to become the most important contributory current in today's philosophical world. Nevertheless, its essential critical eclecticism which distinguishes it as the founding work of liberation philosophy means that it is also, in a sense, not yet distinctly and essentially liberation philosophy as such.

In 1959, Frantz Fanon published Wretched of the Earth. This work was explicitly aimed at furthering the national liberation struggle and was less “philosophical” in form than de Beauvoir's book. However, the impetus and consciousness which Fanon gave to the African liberation struggle (itself inspired by CLR James) was picked up by the Civil Rights movement in the US and through this intermediary inspired the upsurge of the women's movement which began in the US. Women from the Civil Rights and New Left movements might reflect:

“I'm not thoroughly convinced that Black Liberation, the way it's being spelled out, will really and truly mean my liberation. I'm not so sure that when it comes time “to put down my gun,” that I won't have a broom shoved in my hands, as so many of my Cuban sisters have.” [Quoted by Raya Dunayevkaya in Philosophy & Revolution, 1973]

Feminist philosophy emerged in the mid-1960s as a product of the social and political struggle of women for liberation, and marks the beginning of liberation epistemology-proper.

In order to throw off the elaborate forms of oppression through which the African is labelled inferior, mentally deficient, is enslaved and denied basic human rights, the American Negro is held in poverty and terror, unpaid and exploited and labelled as “violent”, “criminal”, etc., the woman imprisoned in domestic service or low-paid menial paid employment and denied access to social institutions — anger and the will to struggle and sacrifice is not enough. The oppressed is obliged to delve deeply into the very theory of knowledge of the oppressing society (NB: not just its ethics, its laws and morals, but its theory of knowledge!) and find out how to challenge the definition of what is. [And Marx's Capital should be understood in the same way, too]

Now, it is necessary to look at when and where this happens. As pointed out above, the process has its very beginnings in the late 1940s and flourishes in direct connection with the mass movements from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, after which it has become an integral part of the body of bourgeois epistemology generally. It is of some historical interest to investigate the conditions underlying and the forms taken by feminist philosophy in its historically earlier forms, but it is this more recent phenomenon which is of world-historic significance and the earlier manifestations will need to be assessed in the light of the “third-wave”.

What happened during the 1940s, 50s and 60s which brought about this explosion?

According to Lynn Beaton:

“People tell you that most women left the workforce at the end of the Second World War and went back into the kitchen. But out of 800,000 [Australian] women, that only happened to only about 50,000 of them. There's something very powerful about that statistic. ... In June 1947, there were 110,000 married women in Australia in the labour force, and these married women were 3.4% of the women in the labour force. They went up: 1954 7%, in 1961 9.6%, 1966 14.1%, 1971 18% and 1981 21.2% and in November 1990 in Victoria they were 25% of the women in workforce .... in Nov 1990, 54% of women were in the paid workforce ... nearly 43% of the workforce. “ [talk at AAWL in 1991. It is interesting to compare these observations to the same observation James makes about the US Negroes and Fords]

Lynn Beaton has analysed this process in some depth. Not only were women moving out of unpaid domestic service in marriage or other forms of bondage and servitude based on kinship, and into the labour market, but as wage-workers they were producing domestic appliances, foodstuffs and clothing and providing services such as hospitality, nursing and other forms of “women's work” which then supplanted the same work formerly performed outside the commodity market. That is, in the advanced industrial countries, on the basis of developments in manufacture and in technology and work-organisation generally, during this period women's work was socialised i.e commodified.

Putting it slightly differently, women transformed their labour from labour which took place outside of the exchange of commodities into labour which, like that of other workers — had value. It is no wonder then that this movement soon gave rise to the demand for Equal Pay and more fundamentally given the gender segmentation of the labour process, for “Equal Pay for work of Equal Value” and the struggle to prove in practice that women's work had value equal to men's work.

This struggle over the value of women's work, over the value of women — their lives, their words, their bodies, their values and their thoughts — demanded a fundamental critique of the philosophical foundations of knowledge in a patriarchal society, and I put it that the essence of the Women's Liberation movement (its Essence, not the most, or only, “important thing” — the Essence) is the valorisation of women's labour.

The gendering of knowledge had not been “noticed” by men until the gendering of value, and the gendering of knowledge, was challenged.

Likewise, the beginnings of the liberation struggle of Blacks was in the struggle of slaves for their freedom, and up to a certain point, the people of the colonial countries do not sell their labour power as a commodity on a world labour market in competition with European and American workers; their labour power and the products of their labour are ripped off. It is only when they challenge for control of their own economies that the Euro-centric culture of which Western philosophy is a part is challenged by the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America, who assert that Western philosophy is only one of many possible philosophies and expose various facets of the European mentality as implicit in European knowledge.

The same effect is achieved through the replacement of the old-style of colonial exploitation by “neo-colonialism” in which US or other foreign capital exploits the labour-power of the local population by introducing the normal mechanisms of wage-labour supplemented by state-violence and various forms of political-economic pressures, but nevertheless drawing the local population into the world-wide labour market.

Of course, this struggle is not at all in the first place a matter of philosophy or “discourse”. Women, like the colonial peoples and Blacks who fought the Civil Rights struggle, believed with Marx that: “Hitherto philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point however is to change it”. [Theses on Feuerbach, XI]

It is only the hard, often violent and painful material, social struggle of women against the human agents of their oppression, to gain access to “traditional male jobs”, to extract equal pay and force the trade unions to support the equal pay fight, to force legislatures and courts to remove discriminatory laws and regulations, fine and gaol employers and harassers, to leave husbands who beat them or refuse to share domestic duties, to chain themselves to the doors of the Court, take strike action, spoil the fun when sexist jokes are made, etc., etc., etc.

Nevertheless, positive social and historical research and critical examination of the theory of knowledge are indispensable tools in this struggle.

According to male chauvinism — the ideology of both men and women in a patriarchal society: Woman is Irrational, Woman is worthless, etc., etc — except when she is possessed or traded, except when she is Other, is Object. The oppression manifested by such conceptions cannot be destroyed without also destroying its epistemological structures, for the knowledge-forms not only reflect social relations, they also act as indispensable props for those social relations.

The exposure of the patriarchal content of knowledge has been achieved by feminist epistemology. We must go to the content and form of this feminist epistemology. It is impossible to do justice to philosophical work — which has been argued and developed in whole libraries of books and through discussion and critique by millions of women — through a schema which aims to pick up “the drift” of the argument running through these movements. The reader must go to the original authors for a real understanding.

We must also note that the philosophy of the women's movement was in great measure developed not by individual writers but, rather through indefinitely extended and interconnected discussion groups, which were made up of women actively engaged in struggle, and only later given form in a book which we can now look at and analyse. Proceeding, with these qualifications ...

Betty Friedan's investigation of the psychological malaise affecting middle-class American women marks a new beginning. Friedan finds that the problem lies not in psychology as such but in the insane division of labour and concomitant system of values and beliefs which were imposed upon and accepted by these middle class Americans. From there she goes on to a critique of Freudian psychology, demonstrating that this theory is itself little more than a reflection of the sexual-social relations of turn-of-the-century Viennese bourgeois society, of which Freud was a part. As epoch-making as was de Beauvoir's work, this is a new approach to the existing body of scientific knowledge; it is not just used but demolished!

Kate Millett, Dale Spender, Evelyn Reed, Germaine Greer, etc., etc., etc., all ruthlessly continue this work, demonstrating that scientific, social or even natural science is gendered, and this knowledge is not just a reflection of what is, but is itself a real and substantial support for the system of patriarchal oppression.

Kate Millett's 1969 Sexual Politics (among other things) redefines the “conventional” division between the “unimportant” personal and the “important” political. In redefining the world in which women's oppression is rooted from being “merely personal”, Millett is re-valuing the labour and perceptions of women. At about the same time, the role of language in forming objects is brought out. This means firstly that oppression is exercised by means of language, but secondly that oppression can be combated by changing language!

From roughly the same period, Shulasmith Firestone's 1970 attempt to make a critique of Marxism by “transliterating” “economic class” reasoning to “sex class” reasoning was, I believe, misguided on the philosophical plane, even if it proved useful politically, and has not contributed positively in the development of liberation epistemology. All in all, although many of the pioneers of this movement received their theoretical training in the “New Left”, Marxism failed to respond to this challenge and what development was made in philosophy were made more in spite of rather than with the aid of Marxism. (I refer of course not to the work of Marx himself, but the actual movement which identified itself as Marxist at this time. Lynn Beaton is one exception, with her work identifying the socialisation of women's labour as the underlying basis of the women's liberation movement.)

Subsequently, whatever his credentials as a “liberated male” or male-chauvinist, Michel Foucault largely continues this epistemological work, initially looking at the definition of “madness”, and going on to look at how knowledge is formed by the social mechanisms which define who is allowed to speak and be listened to, what they may speak about, what concepts may be called into play and how they may expressed.

At this point, I need some more time to formulate what this says about the value of language, in the sense that Saussure talks of the value of words in terms of their meaning. Foucault brings to light the valuing and devaluing of human beings (labour) by means of forms of language-practice (discourse) which are structurally constrained in specific ways by various social mechanisms. Foucault also recognises that necessary and positive role played by the regulation of language practice by the same social forces which manifest forms of oppression.

The drift of this epistemology is to bring out how labour (particularly in the latter stages, intellectual labour) is discounted or de-valued by linguistic or knowledge practices and relationships, paying particular attention to the way linguistic or knowledge practices define people. It addresses itself to much the same task as the advocate of the Nurses Union who came before the Industrial Relations Commission in 1986 to argue the equal value of nurses' work with that of other (male) health professionals.

Dale Spender puts it very clearly:

It is because males have had power that they have been in a position to construct the myth of male superiority and to have it accepted; because they have had power they have been able to 'arrange' the evidence so that it can be seen to substantiate the myth. The myth was made a long time ago and for centuries it has been fostered by women and men so that now it is deeply embedded in virtually every aspect of our existence. It is a myth which may be attacked but one which is not easy to eradicate, for all myths still have a hold over us long after they have been intellectually repudiated, ...

It appears to be part of the human condition to attempt to make existence meaningful but we can only make sense of the world if we have rules by which to do it. We need to know what information to select, how to piece it together, and what interpretation to impose upon it, and the rules which each culture evolves for making sense of the world form the basis for these decisions. As we use these rules we confirm their validity, we make them 'come true'. Our results depend on the programme we begin with; as we pattern, select and interpret on the premise that males are superior - and of course, concomitantly, that females are inferior — we construct a view of the world in which males continue to be seen as superior, and females continue to be seen as inferior, thereby perpetuating the myth and reinforcing the justification for male power.

... When we begin to select, pattern and interpret according to the rule that the sexes are equal, we will construct a very different reality, we will make very different ideas 'come true'. The claim for male superiority will no longer seem reasonable and the male monopoly in power will be seen as problematic. [Man Made Language, 1980]

The task of liberation epistemology is much the same as that of the market — to reduce all human labour to a common substance of value, meaning social necessary abstract human labour.

This may appear to be the most reactionary statement of the decade — that “women's liberation equals economic rationalism”. But to draw such a conclusion would be too hasty, for the task of liberation epistemology is as much a necessary preparation for the liberation of humanity as is capitalism; but like capitalism, it does not constitute that liberation, but merely prepares it.

Only the bitter struggle of the various social groups discriminated against in bourgeois society has achieved Equal Value. It is not bestowed by the straight, white, male bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, it is a fact that it is precisely this “post-modern” or “late” (or whatever you want to call it) capitalism which has created the conditions in which such struggles have emerged spontaneously and made the gains that they did not make for many thousands of years before.

However abominable may be the conditions being brought into being by capitalism, it is clear that these very same forces are creating the conditions for a new society, and the worse things become, the stronger become the forces to overthrow them. But this cannot be a case of holding on to or going back to what we had in the past. That is self-evident.

Equal Value and Capitalism

What is happening with value as capitalism becomes reaches its maturity? Marx explains:

The separation of public works from the state, and their migration into the domain of the works undertaken by capital itself, indicates the degree to which the real community has constituted itself in the form of capital. ... The highest development of capital exists when the general conditions of the process of social production are not paid out of deductions from the social revenue, the state's taxes [or via family obligations or by plundering the colonies - AB] ... but rather out of capital as capital. This shows the degree to which capital has subjugated all conditions of social production to itself, on one side; and, on the other side, hence, the extent to which social reproductive wealth has been capitalised, and all needs are satisfied through the exchange form; as well as the extent to which the socially posited needs of the individual, i.e. those which he consumes and feels not as a single individual in society, but communally with others — whose mode of consumption is social by the nature of the thing — are likewise not only consumed but also produced through exchange, individual exchange. ... [Marx, Grundrisse, Notebook V, 1857]

The post-war period and the upsurge of the national liberation movement and the socialisation of women's labour particularly in the industrialised countries has had the result of extending the value relationship, the commodity relation, into every pore of human life and into every corner of the globe, the destruction of all forms of public enterprise, the elaboration of the division of labour to its highest level alongside the reduction of labour to its most abstract form, the drawing into the world economy of every last refuge of feudal or tribal society, the penetration of trade into the family by the actual destruction of the family and of all relations of kinship, the substitution of recourse to litigation for all forms of moral obligation or state and judicial regulation, the provision via the market of sex, love, friendship, pleasure, comfort, revenge, parenthood and child-care, education and religion.

How do we react to these phenomena of the final stage of development of capitalism marking its complete maturity while threatening to plunge humanity into unspeakable global poverty? One can hardly resist the argument that we must defend the public sector (education, health, transport, etc.), family life and ordinary human relationships, the environment, the right of nations to manage their own affairs - all in the process of being eradicated by capitalism — in other words to defend those enclaves from which the value relation was formerly excluded. [c.f. Communist Manifesto]

However, would it not be more rational to aim to go “beyond value”? To supercede the exchange of labour altogether in favour of world-wide cooperative labour?


This capitalist system — which equalises the labour of men and women, transforming all labour into “abstract labour”, which draws all nations into the world market and opens the opportunity for the victims of all kinds of social stigma to be “treated as equals” — also appears to have a systematic tendency towards "structural unemployment”, the absolute devaluation of the labour of increasing numbers of people, those unable to sell labour power or otherwise participate in the market, notably carers and others such as artists who do not attempt to sell their labour on the market. Young people are value in the course of production and old people the waste products of value after it has been used up.

And yet so far as I can see these people lack a philosophical advocate.