Solidarity in Numbers

Oxford review of books

Is mainstream feminism utterly broken? According to Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, the feminist academics behind Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, the answer is yes. They argue that the icons of mainstream feminism, Hillary Clinton and senior Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, underscore individual empowerment to ascend in corporate and political settings. In the mainstream view, the metric of progress is the number of women in boardrooms and female representation in the FTSE 100. Meanwhile, structural problems that preclude some woman from even accessing such ‘equal opportunity’ are largely overlooked. The authors term this type of advocacy ‘equal opportunity domination’ to emphasize how our discussions of ‘equality’ often force us to conceive of narrow-minded solutions that work within the system. We are expected, for example, to see it a sign of progress when it is a woman, not a man, ‘who busts their union, orders a drone to kill their parent, or locks their child in a cage at the border’. Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser proffer a feminism that is anti-capitalist, eco-socialist and anti-racist, and takes none of our present circumstances as a given. Feminists must destroy ‘the system that generates the boss, produced national borders, and manufactures the drones that guard them’. Their book is divided into concise yet punchy theses, all explained within the bounds of a few pages. These theses include ‘Liberal feminism is bankrupt. It’s time to get over it.’ and ‘Capitalism tries to regulate sexuality. We want to liberate it.’

Borrowing extensively from Marxist theory, Feminism for the 99% combines recent work in Marxist feminist theory with contemporary feminist issues. At the core of the text is social reproduction theory, Bhattacharya has written about extensively. Bhattacharya takes Marx’s identification of ‘labour power’ as central to the capitalist system, and argues that this labour power is reproduced in spheres outside of capitalist production – mainly in the home. By placing the household within the market apparatus, Bhattacharya shows that women are in fact the epicentre of the capitalist process – and the beneficiaries of capitalism are implicated in the maintenance of traditional gender roles.

Under capitalism, Bhattacharya argues, women are given a set of duties that revolve around social reproduction. First, they give birth, providing the next generation of workers ready for exploitation. Next, through their roles as mothers and homemakers, they prepare children for their lives as workers. Mothers, teachers, etc. are encouraged to fashion children as heterosexual cis-girls and cis-boys. Nationalist sentiment encourages a worldview where families produce not just ‘people’ but ‘Americans’ or ‘Brits’ – who can be called upon to sacrifice their life for their country in times of need.

Capitalism is not independent from gender. Rather, the authors suggest that capitalism has always depended on the engine of a reproductive system that is fueled by the proper maintenance of gender roles. The consignment of women to homemaking and childrearing provides the possibility for men to maximise profit. Under this system, woman constitute the most exploited group: the duties of social reproduction have been assigned to women without any compensation. Because value under capitalism is synonymous with money, and since women’s work is paid nothing, they are damned to economic and social subordination. Gender oppression, the authors conclude, is inherent to the economic system.

This argument is not new. The American black feminist movement have connected women’s oppression to economic status since the 1970s. Then, as now, they acted in opposition to a narrative espoused by the second wave feminist movement and championed by Betty Friedan. Based on a survey of former classmates at Smith College – intelligent women who were becoming bored with their lives at home – Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique turned feminism into a rights-based advocacy for white suburban housewives. Friedan believed that the path to female liberation was to enter the workforce. This narrow focus on a privileged class of women precluded the possibility of accommodating women who were subjugated at the intersection of gender, race and class. Black feminists dubbed the second wave moment ‘white feminism’, and pointed out that to most black women, the issue of whether or not to participate in the workforce was never a choice – they had to work. Appeals to the suburban housewife to get out of her own kitchen were insulting to black women on many levels. Not only were such assumptions wrong (many women had no choice but to work) but they were also tone-deaf; black women were historically consigned to look after the domestic needs of white women and their children, so why were they now excluded from the call for equality? Black feminists forced the mainstream movement to examine itself and its ideas of what really constituted ‘women’s struggle’.

Recently, the mainstream (or ‘white’) feminist movement has faced criticism of a anti-neoliberal kind. Working in the same area as the authors of Feminism for the 99%, Hester Eisenstein has argued that feminist ideology has been co-opted in the service of global capital and imperialist interests. Her target is the Global War on Terror (known as the ‘G-WOT’ in the Pentagon), which she claims has served to replace the ideological void left behind by the Cold War. Today, G-WOT serves as the justification for the United States’ imperialistic endeavors, as the threat of Communist Russia once did for McCarthyism and US public radio propaganda.

Like the authors of Feminism for the 99%, Eisenstein connects women’s rights to larger forces such as the operation of modern states. She demonstrates how US propaganda on ‘female empowerment’ was used to justify brutal acts of war in the Middle East. The emancipation of women became a cornerstone of the US ideological framework for the war on terror abroad. Meanwhile, back at home, the Bush administration rolled back abortion rights and opposed gay marriage. Feminism was portrayed as the road to modernity, while terrorism was associated with traditional patriarchal institutions.

Prominent women in politics jumped to back this framing of the issue.Laura Bush and Cherie Blair argued that the war in Afghanistan was a part of an effort to save Afghani women from the Taliban. President Bush himself took credit for liberating millions of women as a result of the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a speech near the end of International Women’s week, Bush defended his policies with reference to women:

More than 50 million men, women and children, have been liberated from two of the most brutal tyrannies on earth – 50 million people are free. And for 25 million women and girls, liberation has a special significance. Some of these girls are attending school for the first time. Some of the women are preparing to vote in free elections for the very first time.

Indeed, the US State Department allocated $10 million to train women to participate in the Iraqi election of January 2005. Some of this money was awarded to the Independent Women’s Forum, an organisation that opposes paid maternity leave, government-provided childcare, equal pay for equal work and the Violence Against Women Act. It is this kind of hypocritical feminism that the authors of Feminism for the 99% oppose and seek to replace. For them, feminism cannot achieve its full potential while it continues to work within a framework that supports imperial projects.

The implications of this approach are radical and wide-ranging. Feminism for the 99% argues that gender violence is entangled with capitalist relations. This violence is inherently linked to power dynamics within a capitalist society. Those dependent on others are most often exploited. A worker may be dependent on a paycheck or a boss’s reference. A mother may be dependent on a husband’s income. Dependence is an inherent part of capitalism – and violence, in turn, is an inevitable byproduct of dependence.

Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser argue that feminists must reject attempts to tackle gender inequality without meaningfully challenging capitalism itself. The system perpetuates gender violence, and so a real stand against violence has no choice but to break the capitalist wheel. Other solutions merely kick the can down the road – they treat the symptoms and not the cause.

‘Incarceral feminism’ is one way to tackle these systems. Incarceral feminists challenge the mainstream view that the incarceration of sex criminals is a net societal good. They show how such measures rely heavily on a criminal justice system that disproportionately locks up poor and working-class men of color, while allowing their white (and white-collar) counterparts to get off scot-free. It also leaves women to pick up the pieces, travelling long distances to visit imprisoned sons and husbands, sustaining their households alone and dealing with the legal and bureaucratic implications of incarceration. Crucially, ‘incarceral feminism’ overlooks the fact that women are often heavily dependent on their abusers – when abusers are locked up, their victims have nowhere else to go. Indeed, it is important to note that fiscally conservative (and therefore capitalistic) solutions to times of crisis often mean that the situation of abused women becomes more precarious. In the UK, the establishment responded to the recession by further slashing public services, the first and foremost of which was funding for domestic shelters.

The authors of Feminism for the 99% are also critical of highly capitalistic solutions to the problem of gender violence: part of what is known as the ‘femocrat approach’. This approach extols the usefulness of microlending as a means of mitigating gender violence. Microlending is the extension of extremely small loans to borrowers who lack access to large banks or steady employment. It has long been pitched as a support for rural entrepreneurs, a method of alleviating poverty, especially for women. While the idea seems sound on paper, the authors point out that microlending increases the dependence of women on their creditors: ‘By tightening the noose of debt around the necks of poor and working-class women, this approach to gender violence inflicts a violence of its own.’

According to the authors, at every nexus of exploitation it is women who lose out. For example, in their Marxist reading of the current ecological crisis, capitalist societies have always sought to bolster profits by commandeering and stealing natural resources. There is nothing inherent in capitalism that attends to the care and replenishment of natural resources. They argue that the crisis produced by this ideology reproduces and worsens women’s oppression – according to book, women occupy the front lines of the present ecological crisis, making up 80% of climate refugees. Moreover, because of their outsized role in providing food, clothing and shelter for their families, they play an indispensable role in coping with drought, pollution and the overexploitation of land. Therefore, Feminism for the 99% seeks to reverse capital’s destruction of the earth – and in doing so, to improve the situation of women in the Global South.

The authors of this book, most notably Bhattacharya, are activists themselves and their experience has clearly informed their manifesto. Bhattacharya has spoken at length in interviews about her experiences in the teacher’s strikes in the US in recent years, and indeed, the teachers’ movement is lauded in the book as ‘demonstrating the political potential of women’s power’. She argues that by striking, women are broadening the very idea of what counts as labour: ‘Refusing to limit that category to waged work, women’s strike activism is also withdrawing housework, sex, and smiles’. This conception of striking, rooted in social reproduction theory, was central to the creation of a transnational movement on 8 March, 2017, when the first women’s strike was held. This strike rejected the models of empowerment based in ‘galentines’ brunches and consumption, and revived the day’s forgotten historical roots in working-class and socialist feminism. Moreover, this strike was just one of many – from US teachers’ strikes, to the struggles against water privatization in Ireland, to the strikes of Dalit sanitation workers in India, workers are now rebelling against capitalism’s attack on social reproduction. It is through the strike, as well as through an alliance with all anti-capitalist insurgent bodies, that Feminism for the 99% seeks to achieve a Marxist revolution. In the authors’ own words, they ‘own all struggles against the current system’, rejecting ‘not only reactionary populism but also progressive neoliberalism’.

The book acknowledges, but struggles with, the left’s problematic history with gender. The Chartist movement in England famously dismissed advocating for women’s enfranchisement, while in 1960s America Stokely Carmichael of the Student National Coordinating Committee famously declared ‘The only position for women in the SNCC is prone’. Nor are these problems of the past. In a podcast interview, Bhattacharya talks of rooms full of white, male leftists who sideline race and gender in their desire to centre working-class struggle. Indeed, the leftist critique of ‘identity politics’ is centred around exactly this idea, that gender and race are individualising constructs that are used by neoliberalism to divide the struggle. The authors of Feminism for the 99% seek to move past this delineation of ‘valid’ and ‘invalid’ struggles by situating all issues of race, class and gender in their capitalist context. They argue that problems must be tackled at their root cause, instead of being papered over as irrelevant constructs. This approach goes some way to tackling the ‘identity politics’ issue, but is perhaps more of a wishful approach than one that can be concretely found in most leftist bodies currently.

Despite its flaws and the seemingly insurmountable challenge it advocates, Feminism for the 99% is a hopeful book. Reading it reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a friend. She was speaking of the way in which the ‘Women’s Vote’ is remembered in Britain, with huge celebrations taking place last year at its centenary. Her teacher was discussing the importance of this moment, and my friend pointed out that when the amendment was passed in 1918, black working-class women like herself would not have been able to vote. Her teacher responded with anger at my friend’s supposed dismissal of such a momentous moment. And yet, she was right to be sceptical – only about one-third of women were enfranchised in 1918. Why is it, then, that schools choose to remember this date as opposed to the date of universal suffrage ten years later? Public consciousness still buys into a version of ‘trickle-down feminism’, which wants all women to claim the vote for upper-class white women as a universal victory. This is the same feminism that encourages everyone to laud women stepping into CEO positions, despite the exploitative nature of the positions themselves. Feminism for the 99% is a call for feminists worldwide to build a movement based on real shared goals, and to support a broad based working-class struggle. It is time to move past mainstream feminism, onto brighter horizons.

ZEHRA MUNIR reads History at Wadham. She spends a great chunk of her time clicking ‘interested’ on Facebook events she has no intention of attending.