Gerstenberger on Privelege

Gerstenberger gives a very interesting and suggestive account of the historically-specific genesis of privilege in the following:

‘The way that the goals of bourgeois revolutions arose from the logic of the critique of the ancien régime became apparent wherever women, slaves, oppressed and persecuted people in conquered territories, members of non- Christian religions – sometimes even of a Christian denomination that was not the dominant one in the country in question – not to mention the poor- est inhabitants, sought to make use of those natural rights that had been proclaimed in the bourgeois revolutions against the previously existing legitimisations of power. All of these were refused admission to the ‘sovereign people’. In a certain sense, they were all treated as savages who could not (yet) claim the status of citizen and the rights that went with this. Several writers acknowledged this fundamental contradiction that accompanied the constitution of bourgeois state power. Thomas Jefferson, for example, could find no justfication for the ‘peculiar institution’ of the slave economy in the United States. Immanuel Kant pointed out that ‘the entire fair sex’ did not make any public use of its reason, being prevented from doing so by its ‘guardians’.

If we approach the contradiction between the justification of bourgeois revolutions and their political results with the instruments for analysing societies of the ancien-régime type, the differentiation between citizens and others appears as the establishment of a collective privilege, the privilege of participation in debates and decisions over public matters. Just like privileges under the ancien régime, this privilege was also, in many respects, secured by law – in electoral legislation, in the rule of husbands over their wives, in the legal fixing of slave status and in the rule over ‘natives’ that was taken for granted. Looked at in this way, bourgeois revolutions abolished the many different privileges of ancien-régime societies only to put in their place the collective privilege of citizens.

All those who enjoyed this privilege were male. Though this sufficiently shows how marriage and family law continued the traditions of patriarchal rule, at the same time as this was delegitimised, the exclusion of women from the society of citizens did not just mean the perpetuation of an earlier form of rule. For only with the above-mentioned emancipation of ‘interest’ from the earlier world of privileges and thus families, did the historical possibility arise of a systematic sex-specific individualisation. In so far as men claimed the public mode of existence of individuality as a sex-specific privilege, in this way bringing the mental structures of a hereditary nobility into the new world, they shunted female individuality into the private sphere.

To the extent that revolutionary publics temporarily defined the ‘nation’ in a more comprehensive way, the political privileging of men had to be conquered anew, whilst elsewhere the social and sex-specific limitation of the ‘political nation’ was successfully defended for a long period. But, since bourgeois revolutions were conducted everywhere under the banner of equality, freedom, and the natural rights of all, the subsequent establishment of exclusion strategies did not appear in a good light. The historical constitution of bourgeois state power thus became the point of departure for all those who have since demanded that its principles should become reality.’
Gerstenberger, Impersonal Power, 668-9

About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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