Socialist Feminism 101

socialist feminist day school
A Socialist Feminist 101 talk given by Kassie Hartendorp, Member of Fightback (Te Whanganui-a-Tara) on International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2014.

This talk was originally given as the first part of a Socialist Feminist Day School held by Fightback in Wellington/Te Whanganui-a-Tara at 19 Tory Street. This was followed by poet & academic Teresia Teaiwa speaking on Gender and Colonisation, Fightback member Ian Anderson speaking on Fighting Rape Culture, and a concluding discussion on Where Next for Socialist Feminists by Kassie Hartendorp.

The day began with everyone discussing what they thought of socialism and feminism as concepts, and whether they identified as socialists or feminists. This talk followed:

Often we can’t use the term socialism, without explaining the term capitalism. Capitalism is generally understood as a system that is based on the growth of private profit. Under capitalism, the means of creating goods and services are owned by a small minority of people, and sold to make a profit. In simplistic terms, those who does not own a business or company must work for someone else to earn money in order to live. We find ourselves needing to work long hours in jobs we often don’t really like, to pay for food, rent, bills, the list goes on. For those who aren’t able to work, due to sickness, disability or a lack of jobs, we rely on a substandard allowance from the government, known as the benefit, social welfare, the dole. Even if we can’t work, cannot find work, or don’t want to work, there is a constant pressure to be in paid work, whether socially or to make ends meet.

The logic of capitalism, is to make a profit, its to continue reproducing capital. We can see how this works at a very basic level. Say you make shoes for a living. Everyday, you go to the local factory and make designer Crocs. It’s a hard life cause everyone hates what you do, yet you know there’s a core group of gardeners and chefs in the world who probably have a lot of respect for your work.

humble croc

Now in one hour, you can make 20 pairs of crocs and get the minimum wage of $14.25 an hour. It’s not much, but you have a passion, right? Each Croc you put into the world costs about say, $10 to make including the use of equipment and shipping, and costs $40 down at the Warehouse or wherever. So in one hour, you’ve technically created $600 worth of Croc profit in your 20 shoes. If every one of those shoes were bought (heaven forbid), your factory owner might have earned a few hundred dollars. But what you’ve taken home is $14.25.

The gap between the costs spent and the price it has been sold for, is known as ‘surplus value.’ It’s the value that you have created, but the profit from it goes to a boss, or owner of a company, rather than back to those who have spent the time in the factory, doing the work. Socialists argue that this makes capitalism an exploitative system, as it is making profit for private owners (known as the capitalist class) from the workers, or the working class.

It’s worth spending some time thinking about the jobs you have worked, what wealth has been created, and how much of that wealth you really see in your pay cheque at the end of the week. Other jobs are more obscure, such as service, community and public sector work and some work for themselves rather than big companies, but the logic of capitalism still rules everything around us.

Capitalism isn’t just about the world of economics, but should be seen as a social relation.The ability to accumulate vast amounts of wealth off the majority of people for private profit, has led to great social inequality. The gap between the rich and the poor grows ever wider, and this can be noted here in Aotearoa with one in four children living below the poverty line, but also internationally with the rise of wealthy nations over super exploited countries. When the capitalist class needs more capital, it simply keeps moving on to nations that it can exploit even more. This process is seen as imperialism, and still continues today in the search for cheaper workers, to pump up profits. The logic of capitalism, and white capitalism says that any place in the world is there to colonise, regardless of the nations, cultures and communities that already inhabit those countries.

Capitalism also affects how we see and understand each other, as well as how we see and understand ourselves. It relies on a mass amount of workers who need to sell their labour, their time, yet makes sure the job market is always tight, which increases competition. People who have low wages and poor conditions are less likely to speak up about their workplace if there are no other jobs to go to. The capitalist class has a lot to benefit from us remaining silent and divided as workers, as students, as migrants, as beneficiaries and blaming each other rather than looking at the roots of the cause.

While oppression such as racism and sexism have existed in class society before Western capitalism, as we know it now, our current system has shaped it into new forms, deepening social divisions and allowing for power structures to remain in place that fail people of colour, women, older people, LGBTIQ folk, those with disabilities, as well as in general, the sick, the poor and people with mental health experiences. The only people that capitalism really benefits are the elite 1% who are able to access and be in control of vast amounts of capital.

A system that is built on selling things, constantly, hugely informs the way we live, and the things we prioritise. We end up relying on public funds from our taxes to take care of basic social welfare and support as well as building infrastructure, law and policy and deciding on national goals. But we ourselves have very little input into what is done with the money, and it’s pretty normal for politicians to lie and go back on promises.

As well as this, research funds are usually only available in areas where there can be a viable market. The media is owned by gatekeepers that often reinforce and perpetuate myths and negative stereotypes. The revitalisation of trampled or colonised cultures and language is less of a priority, yet those cultures are fine to be turned into a commodity if a Government decides that it can be used to base a tourist campaign on, for example.

At a basic level, how do we negotiate our own sense of self when we don’t have the resources to be able to do this, and there are industries based on making money from our ‘self-improvement.’ Would the cosmetics or diet industry still be making massive profits every year if we were told from birth that how we looked was actually pretty great, and we don’t need to rely on purchasing items that would gain us the social status we need to excel in a competitive environment?

Phew, it all looks pretty fucked, right? At its core, capitalism’s priorities are to create more capital, free up markets, and allow for more wealth to be able to flow into private hands. But this creation of wealth is based on exploitation.

Socialism however, is a system based on fulfilling human need. It is a system where individuals and communities have the means to really be able to control their own lives. And not in a way that is based on individual freedom like ideas put forward by libertarians, but collective freedom that works in the interest of the majority.

Socialism means putting the control of the means of production, our factories, our workplaces back into the workers’ hands through the process of socialisation. The wealth that is created goes back to the workers and to society, rather than all of the surplus value going straight into the owner’s pockets or offshore bank accounts. The power to decide how the wealth is distributed would lie in the hands of workers and communities, and would be planned on a national basis, and coordinated internationally. In a system that is based on human need, and has control of the wealth and resources, we can begin to seriously address issues such as poverty, unemployment, homelessness and social inequality.

Socialists believe that it’s not possible to just tinker with and improve capitalism, but there needs to be a complete transformation of our economic, political and social system through a social revolution. There is no exact plan or script for how a revolution would take place or what a socialist world would look like, as it would depend largely on the people, communities and societies creating it.

But there would be basic priorities under socialism, such as establishing a more democratic decision making structure involving the voices of workers and communities. For example, after the Cuban revolution , they established people’s committees, trade unions, women’s and student organisations to help govern the country. Workplaces put together proposals on national plans and had a say in their own laws or policies affecting them. Education and healthcare were made completely free and available to everyone. The future of Cuba was put in the hands of the people.

While profit is the main motive as it is now, we create waste. We waste time making products or creating services that aim to make money rather than working for a real social need. Imagine how many less products we would need, if everything was made to last as long as it said it would on an informercial? If big companies weren’t relying on us to buy the new edition of the new thing every few months? If we planned our market and our economy wisely, rather than just leaving it to creepy, invisible hands?

Socialism would create the conditions where we could begin to use that spare time and wealth to address issues such as poverty, meaning more people would be able to survive and have meaningful, and enjoyable lives. It’s about imagining what we would have the time and resources to create when we don’t need to work 40+ hours a week making money for someone else. More people would be able to focus on activities and areas that don’t create wealth, such as arts, literature, music, research and working on projects that genuinely benefit people and the environment around us.

I will note here that Marxists see socialism as the transitional period in attempting to construct communism. Communism, while having a pretty bad rep, is understood by Marxists as the aim of a classless and stateless society, operating on the principles of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need.’ Under communism, the need for a government wilts away as people govern themselves through more effective mechanisms. Some people use the terms socialism and communism interchangeably, as both refer to a process of collective ownership.

Now feminism is not, in essence, mutually exclusive to the ideas of socialism. A feminist is generally understood as someone who recognises that women face oppression based on their status as a woman, and works to fight against this.Feminists use the term patriarchy, which often refers to the overarching system and social mechanisms which allow for the dominance of men over women. From a socialist feminist perspective, Heidi Hartmann has defined patriarchy as men’s control over women’s labour (which is largely unpaid, such as housework, childcare and so on), and is maintained through the sexual control of women’s bodies.

Intersectional feminism acknowledges that people can experience oppression on many levels, and how these oppressions interact. For example, how a white, ablebodied cis woman’s experiences of sexism may differ to how an older queer woman of colour, or transwoman with a physical disability experiences sexism, and what that means in terms of how we orientate and organise against oppression. Sharon Smith claims that the first real talk of intersectionality was by Sojourner Truth in 1851 with her speech, Ain’t I A Woman, which refuted the claim that all women’s experience of sexism was the same, particularly when it came to the oppression of black women.

Kimblere Crenshaw writes in her key piece on intersectionality, Mapping the Margins , that when one discourse fails to acknowledge the significance of the other, the power relations that each attempt to challenge are strengthened. Here she is talking specifically about anti-racist and feminist ideas, but it can be related to many other discourses, and i think is true when it comes to sociaism and feminism,

Why socialists need feminism
There is a rich history of socialists and feminists bringing their ideas together, either by working as socialist feminists which is known as a strand of political thought in itself, or working in joint campaigns and actions.

Engels theorised extensively on women’s oppression, linking it up with the rise of class society and the nuclear family as an individual unit, that relies on monogamy and the passing down of land and property through the males of the family. He discussed issues such as sexual and domestic violence and how they were built into this conception of the family. Around the same time, German thinkers such as Clara Zetkin and August Bebel were writing about women’s oppression and its relationship with capitalism. Their work is still very relevant today.

Inessa Armand, the first leader of the women’s department of the 1917 Russian Revolution, once said “If women’s liberation is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without women’s liberation.”

The Third International, an organisation of communists initiated in 1919 recognised the importance of struggles by women around every question ranging from the right to divorce, to equal pay, to abortion, to communal kitchens and laundry services socialising domestic labour. They made it mandatory that every section of the International develop a program of demands and an orientation toward winning the leadership of mass struggles by working women, and integrated this into their work towards the struggle for power.

The October Revolution in Russia made the conditions to be able to drastically change the social situation, not just on an economic basis. Under Lenin’s rule, free abortion was available on demand; homosexuality was decriminalised, dining halls, laundries and day-care centers were established, and the new regime sought to ensure equality of economic opportunity in the civil service, in industry, in the party and in the armed forces. A lot of these changes were far ahead of the ‘advanced’ capitalist countries at the time, and many still to this day, despite Stalin going on to change many of these laws back.

Socialism is about the liberation of all humankind, and has recognised the particular ways that capitalism oppresses women. However, I’m not claiming that socialism has always been perfect in terms of their theory and practice. Founding Marxist texts are still a product of their time, and have used antiquated terms and sometimes backwards ideas around sex, gender, race and ethnicity. There has been a lot of critique of ‘bourgeois feminism’ which has often led to the dismissal of key feminist ideas, or relegating racism and sexism as secondary to the class struggle. Many Western socialist groups have remained dominated by white, straight men and perpetuated the same power structures that we aim to fight against. Some have directly perpetrated sexual violence against women and worked with others to cover this up and shut down debate.

Socialism needs feminism, and an intersectional feminism at that, because any way that we theorise or organise, needs to be based on the liberation of all, not just through a narrow lens, that keeps on producing damaging power structures. One socialist feminist writer says that while Marx didn’t write about intersectionality as we know it today, he did speak in similar terms when saying: “But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” Marxism and feminism have not always been mutually exclusive ideologies, and key feminist ideas have in fact been discussed and developed by Marxists over the centuries.

Marxism and socialism need to remain living, moving and evolving ideas. They need to take the lead from the input of all women, of all people, to be able to determine priorities, tactics and strategies forward. This means, as Teresia [Teaiwa, speaker at event] actually put it in a conversation last week, that we need to be having conversations and bouncing ideas off each other in order to illuminate the blind spots of our ideas or practices.

Why feminists need socialism
Feminists also need socialism because the liberation of women is so deeply intertwined with the struggle against capitalism. According to UN gender reports women perform 66% of the world’s work, produce 50% of its food and earn only 10% of its income. They own just 1 percent of the world’s property. Modern capitalism has shaped, defined and strengthened women’s oppression. It has relied on the domestic labour of women, having children, bringing them up, taking care of the household and looking after the sick and elderly, who often have the double burden of this unpaid work, as well as holding up paid jobs at the same time. The social inequality and poverty often hits women the hardest, particularly in over-exploited countries.

Popular feminist theory such as intersectionality theory provides a nuanced framework that describes different experiences of oppression and how they overlap and conflict. But depending on how you use it, it doesn’t explain how this occurs or provide us with the means to fight this oppression. Class isn’t just another form of oppression, (such as when people use the term classism) but the underlying way our society is organised and exploited. Class analysis begins to give us the tools to be able to affect change. It’s not about leaving behind our feminist demands, but grounding them in ideas that acknowledge how capitalism works against women, and that we can fight oppression and exploitation at the same time. We have seen that we can make small changes to the current system that may allow for wealthy, white, straight women to access power, resources and better lives but there will always be people being left behind while capitalism remains.

Back on intersectionality theory, I think the way it is often used, begins from the premise of the individual, and can end with individual answers or action. We can very easily fragment into our own specific oppressions, and for very good reason. Time needs to be spent on addressing the intersections of oppression, queer women of colour need to come together, same as transwomen with experiences of disability, as examples. But the answers can’t always end up fragmented and individualised. It’s ineffective, and actually, it just contributes to us personally bearing the weight of systemic oppression. Socialism is based on collective struggle. It acknowledges that the problems are structural and collective, and that the answers are structural and collective. As a mini example, when I agreed to do this talk, I mentioned that as a woman, I often feel like I have to hold a room, to pay attention to peoples’ feelings, to mediate and respond and so on. I feel the pressure to accommodate people, make them welcome, look after them, make sure they’re fed and happy. I believe this is something I have been taught from a young age, and that I feel as a social pressure. So I asked that the dudes in the group take the responsibility of preparing and sharing the food, and checking in on people, so that I could focus on the work of delivering political content. I believe this is one way of how an intersectional group can work collectively. Acknowledging the way women may be socialised to act or think, the way this can oppress women or create gendered work divides, then coming together to work out a solution which at the end of the day, has created an event focused on women’s oppression, but not leaving all the responsibility up to women, who then feel too tired and drained to hold the next meeting.

A class analysis or socialist perspective is not just about theory. It provides extra tools to be able to make change. Socialists recognise the power that the working class holds – yes, the bosses may hold the authority, but the workers hold the real power. When we choose to stop working as a group, as a workplace, as an industry, or better yet, as an entire section of society – we are able to wield our power and hit the owners of the production, where it hurts the most. We are able to make real gains, and with enough buy in and momentum, we can make decisive action that echoes across society. Imagine if we had an intersectional union movement, that was mobilised to wield that power in solidarity with oppressed groups at any point. We need to be applying our feminist frameworks to our modes of dissent and action, but as feminists we also need to be thinking collectively. Where can we work together, and build alliances? What women are we directly benefiting when we prioritise struggles? What power can we tap into, to allow for the greater liberation of all?

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