Anti-Capitalist Feminism

February 8, 2021 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change, feminism | 2 Comments

The following is a revised version of review that appeared in the February 2021 issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail movement in the United States.

Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto. By Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser. 85 pp. Verso. 2019. $12.95. https://www.versobooks.com/books/2924-feminism-for-the-99

I first heard of the work of Nancy Fraser in 2018 in a Marxist Education Project course here in New York City. I learned a great deal from the course but was too intimidated by the complexity of the book we read, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory (Polity 2018), coauthored by Fraser and German social philosopher Rahal Jaeggi, even to consider reviewing it.

Then, in 2019,  Fraser followed up on that publication with an equally significant but definitely less daunting Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto. The fact that Fraser has co-authored this volume as well as the previous one, this time with her  New School colleague, Cinzia Arruzza, and the Purdue global studies professor, Tithi Bhattacharya, gives you a sense of her ongoing commitment to feminist collaboration.

Given my enthusiasm for this book, my decision to begin my review with a discussion of its final twenty-five  pages, its “Postface,” may seem odd, but that’s what I’m going to do. One rule that I have never forgotten from my early grant-writer training is that you always start  with a problem statement. But Fraser and her co-authors never got such training. Instead, they go straight to laying out the eleven theses of their manifesto, and only in their “Postface,” the problem that prompts it. They name this problem  a “crisis of capitalism,” but one that is by no means only economic, but also political, ecological and social reproductive.  And they find this social reproductive dimension of the crisis especially important because since the end of the second wave of feminism and the onslaught of neoliberal economics beginning in the late 1970s, social reproduction has received so little attention.

So what is “social reproduction,” and why is it in crisis? According to Fraser et al., social reproduction comprises the enormous amount of time and resources  that go into birthing, caring for, and maintaining human beings. But capitalism offloads this work and cost onto women, communities, and states, so as to maximize its own profits. Capitalism refuses to compensate those whose work underpins its own functioning 

Now Fraser has long been critical of second wave feminism because of its failure to integrate social reproduction as well as women’s economic inequality into its platform. Her critique focuses on the shift from distribution to recognition in feminist discourse–inclusive language and more women’s pictures on web pages, for example. And economically, the entry of women into the waged labor market was perceived as feminist progress, and indeed it was, for some. 

But the abolition of the “family wage,” with unionized benefits, was a catastrophe for many other women, especially women of color, who, along with their lower-class spouses, were forced into working multiple precarious jobs to make ends meet. And women from the Global South were imported into the US precisely to care for the families of professional white women (and men) so as to be able to send remittances to home countries devastated by neo-liberal austerity policies and debt. “Lean-in feminism,” as Fraser and her colleagues make abundantly clear, is really the liberation of a very small percentage of women.*

For Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser, the crisis of social reproduction is parallel to the other crises of capitalism, precipitated by the assumption that there will always be sufficient energies to reproduce societal bonds and labor, just as there will always be sufficient environmental resources to support humanity, and there will always be the political resources to deal with catastrophes like pandemics and climate disasters.

The inadequacy of this thinking provides the foundation for the eleven theses that justify the authors’ call for a Feminism for the 99%. They begin by highlighting the effects of the global women’s strikes beginning in 2016  that brought attention to more than labor issues, then move on to the bankruptcy  of “stand alone identity politics” that obscures the harms of neoliberal economics. As an alternative, we must fight for social/political structures that enable everyone, poor and working-class women and men, immigrants, queer, trans and disabled people, and victims of domestic abuse. A radicalized feminism also recognizes that we are facing a crisis of society as a whole, based in the cyclical collapses of capitalism, which are then ostensibly remedied by repeated economic bail-outs  that save the 1%.

Thesis 5 folds into this crisis the gender oppression caused by the subordination of social reproduction to work for profit, oppression that harms in particular differently raced, gendered and nationalized individuals. Capitalism is also at the root of gender violence, with men in precarious jobs more inclined to domestic abuse and the privatization of social services making domestic shelters less available. Additionally, capitalism, based from the outset on  racist and colonialist violence,  continues to be so especially through austerity measures and debt punishment in the Global South and the importation of women of color for low-waged domestic labor to “free” professional white women.

The manifesto further asserts that real feminism is essentially eco-socialist, fighting not only the climate crisis per se, but the capitalist structures that underpin it: Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Oil. And these can be defeated only by global solidarity, not merely by the corporate leadership of “warmongers in skirts.” Additionally, the manifesto shows that capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with democracy because it is funded by neoliberal democratic government subsidies even as it develops fossil-fuel generated manufacturing around the world and funds right-wing authoritarianism.  All of this hurts women and their children, especially women in the Global South and women of color, vastly more than it hurts white “feminists.”

Ultimately, Arruzza, Bhahattacharya, and Fraser argue compellingly that the only solution to these overlapping crises is for all radical movements, including women’s movements, to join in an “anti-capitalist insurgency” against climate change, racism, labor exploitation, social reproductive expropriation and racial dispossession. Lean-in feminism that invokes abstract, meritocratic, anti-racist corporate diversity and “green capitalism” simply isn’t going to cut it. Only a broad-based insurgency, based in acknowledgment  of significant differences and privileges, as well as the needs, desires and suffering of our various groups, can triumph.

In thinking about the application of the authors’ manifesto to women like me, , one part of their critique  of “second wave feminism”—the feminism that contributed to the current crises—struck me: the negative impact of the tendency to identify professionalization with women’s liberation. My own women’s movement, the Grail, moved from living in community, on subsistence —we got room and board and $50 a month when I did so in the 1970s—to a stress on professionalization and intellectual training. Many of us who started out living on subsistence in community for the sake of the common good went on to become lawyers and non-profit executives and university professors. 

It’s hard for me to imagine things any other way. But perhaps Feminism for the 99% will inspire us to rethink the individualism and economic privilege that accompanied such a shift and to join in action with movements of people who never enjoyed those benefits.

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Knopf, 2013.

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