Last night at a restaurant with some friends, the topic of conversation moved to the recent Proposition 8, which passed in California on election day and, if it stands, would forbid gay marriage within the state. Such a topic was not particularly controversial at this particular table, since we are all roughly of the opinion that banning gay marriage is a form of discrimination against gays and that discrimination against gays is wrong.
But one of my friends, an avowed Marxist-Trotskyite, advanced the further opinion that all marriage should be banned because marriages are merely--or at least ultimately--state sanctioned property relations that have their basis in the subjugation of women. He then cited what "we all know" to be the history of marriage and the vows which command the woman to agree to "love, honor and obey." He finished with an anecdote of someone he knew who "bought" a wife in Palestine/Israel (apparently that one example proves the general rule).
He stated his views so categorically and he gave such an impression of believing his views that I knew it would be difficult to talk with him. When someone's philosophy is so reductionist, they can't be talked to. So I offered only some minor objections and listened to the rest of the table opine on what they "knew" marriage to be.
Isn't marriage at least a little more complicated than as a vector for the subjugation of women? Sometimes, marriage can work to protect women in their property rights. Consider, for example, alimony requirements in cases of divorce. Of course, one may object that such requirements merely underscore the degree to which marriage is a set-piece of property relations; and also that celebrating the protections, such as they are, that women receive in marriage is merely buying into the rules behind those property relations . And one would be right. But it is not such a one-way street. Each of us lives in a world not entirely of our own making. We take the tools we have. Revision, reform, might be necessary and, where possible, desirable.
To the objection that one need not follow the property prescriptions of marriage and that marriage operates as a public affirmation of one's dedication to another in addition to (and in spite of and in contradiction of) any coercive property relations, my friend stated that doing so was akin to trying to improve slavery by being a kind master. (Those weren't his exact words, but his analogy was to slavery and involved the notion of someone trying to put a kind face on it.) Again, to this objection, I say that none of us lives in a world completely of our own making. For example, we were spending the evening at a restaurant that employs wage workers--a situation which my Trotskyite friend would heartily agree is one fraught with power relations meant to exploit the surplus value of one's labor--the mere fact that we were "nice" to our servers changes none of that.
The fact that he was as full-fledged a member of this property relation does not make him a hypocrite nor does it make him insincere. But it does illustrate that we cannot extract ourselves completely from such relations.
When it comes to marriage, as when it comes to a lot of things, there is simply a lot that we don't know.