‘Feminism for the 99%’ book review: Neither femocrats nor fascists?

argentina ni una menos march

Argentinian women’s strike against femicide.

Review of Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser (https://www.versobooks.com/books/2924-feminism-for-the-99)

By DAPHNE LAWLESS

When Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser announce that their “manifesto”, Feminism for the 99%, is consciously inspired by perhaps the most famous Manifesto of our time – Marx and Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party (582)1 – you can only applaud their ambition. Certainly, one of the (few) hopeful features of the global radical scene today is how many women, queer and gender-queer authors and analysts are standing up to offer new thinking and possible ways out of the impasse into which our movement has sunk, in the twilight of neoliberalism and the era of Trump and Brexit.

This short book is divided into the “Manifesto” proper, and a “Postface” which goes into more detail about the intellectual basis upon which their authors make their political proposals. The authors set themselves the task of combining modern “intersectional” feminism with Marxist political economy – a necessary task in the modern era, which they sum up as follows:

As feminists, we appreciate that capitalism is not just an economic system, but something larger: an institutionalized social order that also encompasses the apparently ‘noneconomic’ relations and practices that sustain the official economy. (619)

The roots of their analysis lies in Social Reproduction Theory. The authors use an excellent turn of phrase to sum up the division that this theory makes between the two spheres of work in capitalist society: “profit-making and people-making work” (230). “People-making” work (aka social reproduction) includes housework, care for children, the sick or the elderly, emotional labour, and all the other little things which go together to make life under capitalism (barely) liveable. The great trick of capitalism as an economic system is that capitalists only pay for profit-making work, and that for less than it is worth; families and individuals are stuck with the responsibility and the costs for performing essential people-making work (excluding some meagre support in countries with a welfare state). The authors rehearse the analysis of the Marxist tradition, starting with Engels, that capitalism deliberately encourages gender oppression and the institution of the patriarchal nuclear family, which keep women docile and isolated, thus ensuring a continual supply of unpaid people-making work.

The crucial advance the authors make is to argue that, since people-making work is as vital to the survival of capitalism as profit-making work, that the weapon of the strike – workers withdrawing their labour – is potentially as powerful in the people-making sphere of society as it is in the profit-making sphere, and even more so in the current neoliberal era where workers’ organisation at the point of production has been so run down. They point to two major “Women’s Strike” waves in different part of the world – a Polish women’s strike against that country’s laws against abortion, and an Argentinian women’s strike against a court ruling acquitting two men of the rape and murder of a teenage girl (75) – which later linked up as part of an “International Women’s Strike” on International Women’s Day, 2017. It was working on this very strike which brought the three authors of the book together (607).

The authors point to this phenomenon as not only an extension of the strike weapon into the people-making sphere of society, but its reinvention in a new context:

this burgeoning movement has invented new ways to strike and infused the strike form itself with a new kind of politics. By coupling the withdrawal of labor with marches, demonstrations, small business closures, blockades, and boycotts, the movement is replenishing the repertoire of strike actions, once large but dramatically shrunk by a decades-long neoliberal offensive. At the same time, this new wave is democratizing strikes and expanding their scope – above all, by broadening the very idea of what counts as “labor”. (91)

The authors are very clear that the idea of a “women’s” or “feminist” strike is not a new form of the separatist-feminist politics of the 1980s.

Not only women and gender-nonconforming people, but also men have joined the movement’s massive demonstrations against the defunding of schools, health care, housing, transport, and environmental protections… Feminist strikes are thus becoming the catalyst and model for broad-based efforts to defend our communities. (116)

strikes belong to the working class as a whole – not to a partial stratum of it, nor to particular organizations. (802)

The Manifesto proper is divided into eleven “Theses” which mark out an explicitly intersectional approach. “Feminism for the 99%” is, the authors say, not only essentially anti-capitalist, but internationalist, anti-racist, and ecosocialist. They draw a very convincing parallel between the exploitation of women’s unpaid “people-making” work and the dispossession of indigenous people: “the racialized expropriation of unfree or dependent peoples has served ever since as a hidden enabling condition for the profitable exploitation of ‘free labor’” (433). And this is in turn paralleled by the ransacking and degradation of the global environmental “commons”:

women occupy the front lines of the present ecological crisis… [and] are also at the forefront of struggles” against it… women model new, integrated forms of struggle that challenge the tendency of mainstream environmentalists to frame the defense of ‘nature’ and the material well-being of human communities as mutually antithetical. (470–488)

One of the authors’ most sharp criticisms of neoliberal feminism is the observation that privileged women in the Global North have only managed to liberate themselves from the social obligation to provide unpaid people-making work by passing the burden down a “global care chain” (758). Their relative economic success allows them to pay for women from the Global South to take up this labour as nannies, cleaners and carers – to the extent that some Southern countries, at the behest of the IMF and similar institutions, have made a positive policy of sending women overseas to perform such labour, thus depriving their own communities of carers. “The overall result is a new, dualized organization of social reproduction, commodified for those who can pay for it and privatized for those who cannot” (766). The Global North not only imports women’s care work, but exports women’s oppression – as in the Export Processing Zones of northern Mexico, whose mainly female workforce is disciplined in part by sexual violence (332).

Critique

One very curious omission is that the book makes no reference to sex work or sex workers. This omission is particularly puzzling given that sex workers were a vital part of the International Women’s Strike which brought the authors together (see https://www.redpepper.org.uk/on-international-womens-day-sex-workers-are-going-on-strike/). The book’s existing analysis of “global care chains” could easily be expanded to consider women from ‘peripheral’ nations trafficked or economically migrating to ‘core’ nations, so it would be interesting to see the authors comment on this. Additionally, the Women’s Strike strategy enables sex workers to take action for their own interests, rather than paternalistically being regulated by the state as both conservatives and sex-worker exclusionary ‘radical feminists’ advocate.

But by far the greatest weakness of the book in the sense of practical politics is an attempted equivalence of “reactionary populism” and “progressive neoliberalism” as twin enemies against whom this new movement is to be built. There seems to be a clear disconnect in the Manifesto between its very convincing Marxist-feminist analysis and its political appeal to a language of populism. The very turn of phrase, “the 99%” (which came out of the Occupy movement at the start of the decade) indicates a populist rather than a class analysis, appealing to “anti-elite” sentiment while deliberately glossing over precisely who the “1%” are. As is shown when it is taken up by the populist Right, this slogan can be directed against the “fancy” lifestyle habits of the urbanized, professional middle-class rather than the real culprit of our misery, global capitalism and the class which embodies it – or a fictitious “cabal” of ethnic, political or sexual Others who are believed to have seized control.

One example of this is the authors’ acceptance of the argument of Right-wing populists, and their fellow travellers on the “alt-left”, that Donald Trump is now the President of the United States because “Hilary Clinton failed to excite women voters” (51).  This is an extremely tendentious reading of the 2016 election, which Clinton would have won by a clear margin if the United States elected its President by global standards of democracy. The other major fact ignored by this analysis is that, according to exit polling, 52% of white women who voted in the 2016 US presidential voted for Trump, the “pussy-grabbing” candidate of white supremacy and misogyny.Perhaps there might be other reasons that white women would vote for a white-supremacist candidate other than “the less racist candidate didn’t excite them”, particularly their whiteness and racism.

It is quite distressing in this context that the authors use “anti-elitist” tropes which are clearly associated with right-wing attacks on the Clinton campaign, such as dismissive mentions of “pant suits” (139) or even “brunches” (78).3 The authors have every right and justification to criticize the politics of what they call “femocrats” – the Sheryl Sandbergs (and yes, the Hillary Clintons) of this world who simply want more women to get ahead under capitalism. But such glib re-use of the slogans effectively used by Right-populism by people arguing for a Left political project is not just lazy. In the current conjuncture, it is dangerous. It does not draw a line between class opposition to the hollowness of neoliberalism’s promises of equality and diversity, and Right-populist attacks on those politics altogether. The authors themselves recognize this danger when they discuss “those currents of left-wing parties in Europe that propose to ‘co-opt’ the Right by themselves opposing immigration” (414). What shall we then say about co-opting the Right’s culture-war sneering at “pant suits” and “brunch”?4 It seems particularly strange in a context where the authors praise the success of the #MeToo movement, which began among women working in Hollywood, a subculture which seems particularly “brunch-prone” (332).

The danger of “99%” populism which concentrates too much on opposition to liberal hypocrisy is shown when the authors discuss what rights women currently have under progressive neoliberalism:

The only way that women and gender non-conforming people can actualize the rights they have on paper or might still win is by transforming the underlying social system that hollows out rights. By itself, legal abortion does little for poor and working-class women who have neither the means to pay for it nor access to clinics that provide it… laws criminalizing gender violence are a cruel hoax if they turn a blind eye to the structural sexism and racism of criminal justice systems. (150)

From Marx onward, socialists’ opposition to the rhetoric of bourgeois democracy and human rights has been that these promises are but a shadow of what real liberation would be like. But that cannot allow us to believe that bourgeois democracy and rights mean nothing. Just because abortion rights in the United States are de facto restricted (financially and by local reactionary laws) doesn’t mean that it is a matter of indifference as to whether the Supreme Court, including one Trump appointee who has been credibly accused of sexual assault as a young man, overturns the Roe v. Wade decision and abolishes that bourgeois right altogether.

To describe bourgeois democracy and rights as a “cruel hoax” does not take serious account of what would happen to women and the gender-queer in a world where such laws and rights were swept away, or where the bourgeois establishment stopped even pretending to pay lip service to them. One possible answer can be seen before our eyes in Putin’s Russia. The replacement of progressive neoliberalism with reactionary populism or fascism is not a matter of indifference to the most vulnerable workers. It has been previously noted that the leading voices who put the critique of progressive neoliberalism ahead of hard opposition to Right-populism – what Idrees Ahmad calls the “alt-left” (https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2017/8/25/the-alt-left-is-real-and-its-helping-fascists) are white (mainly male) media professionals, the kind of people who are not only not the first targets of fascism, but if they are smart and/or cynical enough, may be able to make a good living as regime publicists5.

Although the authors are correct that we have to build a movement which fights “reactionary populism but also its progressive neoliberal opponents” (193), we cannot be indifferent between these two evils here and now – especially when our own forces are so weak. The authors blithely announce: “We reject not only reactionary populism but also progressive neoliberalism. In fact, it is by splitting both these alliances that we intend to build our movement” (542). The question of who “we” is in this paragraph is an important one. It presupposes an anti-capitalist, pro-democracy global movement which has sufficient social weight to fight both these evils. It is imperative to build this movement, independent of and critical of progressive neoliberalism – but the support shown by (at least) a plurality of white women voters in the United States for the Trump movement shows how difficult it will be to “separate working-class communities from the forces promoting militarism, xenophobia and ethnonationalism” (552)6. Note the problematic formation here – the section of the working-class which (in Western countries) either active or passively supports reactionary politics are overwhelmingly white. The black and Latin@ working class did not vote for Trump, neither did black or Latina women. Racist ideas will destroy any working-class or feminist movement, and they don’t go away simply by blaming the progressive liberals for not fighting them hard enough. The fate of socialists in Britain who thought they could “piggyback” on the momentum of the Right-populist Brexit movement to shift it in a socialist-international direction should be a warning for everyone.

Conclusion

Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser stake out a convincing claim for a revolutionary socialist, internationalist and anti-racist feminism which rejects both right-wing populism and the “progressive” wing of neoliberalism. But the fact must be faced that, at this point in history, it is the former who are in ascendancy and the latter who are on the defensive. It is certainly easier to turn a mass of excluded, despairing workers and poor people against this class of managers and privileged workers than against an abstract global “system”; but this is precisely what the populist Right and its fascist fringe is doing right now.

The authors are correct that “a crisis… is also a moment of political awakening and an opportunity for social transformation” (194). It is also, as we have seen, an opportunity for all manner of fascist and fascist-like monsters to crawl out of the gutters of history, to attack the very ideas of diversity and equality that progressive liberals pay lip-service to. Thus, the Left cannot hope to cynically reuse the Right’s attack lines for our own ends. We have to promote a message of fulfilling the promises of progressive liberalism, opposing their hollowing-out by neoliberal economics; not treat the femocrats and the fascists as if there were no choice between them. Thankfully, the authors’ call for the reinvention of the tactic of the mass strike for the 21st century, extending it into the “people-making” sectors of society, is a cogent and intelligent one, which will hopefully be taken up by the broader radical Left.

Our movement today finds itself rehashing the arguments of the 1920s and 1930s of how anti-capitalists should react to a situation where a growing Right-wing populist and fascist trend threatens bourgeois democracy. The first reaction of the global Communist movement, which had come under the domination of Joseph Stalin’s authoritarian government in Moscow, was the “Third Period” analysis (1928-1933) in which Communist Parties performatively rejected both liberal democracy and fascism – helping smooth the path for the latter, and thus their own path into the concentration camps. In some cases, as in Germany, Communists actually worked side-by-side with the Nazis to put pressure on the establishment parties. Once the true horror of fascism in power became apparent, Stalin decreed a switch to the equal and opposite error – where the Communists joined a “Popular Front” against fascism with the bourgeois establishment, suppressing their own independent politics and thus throwing workers’ interests under the bus. Although Leon Trotsky’s alternative tradition of revolutionary socialism can be seen as problematic for many reasons, his insistence on rejecting both these cynical approaches in favour of united working-class anti-fascist action is still a guiding light for those who want to stop the rise of global fascism before it’s too late.

1 References are made to Kindle locations in the e-book edition.

2 Other polling analysis has cast doubt on whether the 52% figure is accurate, but still comes up with a preference by white women voters for Trump over Clinton: see http://time.com/5422644/trump-white-women-2016/.

3 See an interesting article suggesting that using “brunch” as a target of political derision is in itself misogynistic: https://www.glam.com/lifestyle/reasons-to-love-brunch/

4 It becomes even stranger when you realise that all three of the authors are professional academics at universities in New York and London – surely members of precisely the class whose consumption habits they are ridiculing? I would be surprised if the authors had a personal objection to eating brunch or wearing pant-suits in their day-to-day lives.

5 It is possibly significant that this Manifesto has been published by Verso Books, who have come under fire from many leftists and liberals for publishing authors who push an anti-neoliberal message which comes perilously close to apologies for right-wing authoritarianism and populism – for example, Max Blumenthal, the propagandist for Putin’s imperialist war in defence of Syria’s Assad regime (see https://twitter.com/im_PULSE/status/1113640209516781568). As Marxists and therefore materialists, we must critically interrogate whose voices get amplified by professional publishers and institutions, and what the material incentives behind such decisions are – even on the self-described “Left”.

6 Dutch author Flavia Dzodan’s exposé of “alt-right feminism” is worth reading in this context: https://medium.com/this-political-woman/alt-feminism-and-the-white-nationalist-women-who-love-it-f8ee20cd30d9

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