Anticapitalist Feminism for Everyone

Transcribed from the 30 March 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

The risk for feminism today is to choose progressive neoliberalism as a way to save ourselves from the vicious attack from the right; however this is really not the alternative. We have this menu which we don’t like and from which we don’t want to choose. There is another path, which leads to contesting and attacking capitalism and capitalist society as a whole, starting from the myriad struggles we already have in the world.

Chuck Mertz: There’s a new feminist manifesto, and this time it’s for the 99%. It’s anticapitalist and it’s intersectional with every other cause from racism to global warming, everything in between, and above and beyond. Here to guide us through the new manifesto, we are very fortunate to have on our show writer and philosopher Cinzia Arruzza, co-author of Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto. Cinzia wrote the manifesto with past This is Hell! guest Tithi Bhattacharya, and with upcoming This is Hell! guest Nancy Fraser.

Cinzia is associate professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Cinzia.

Cinzia Arruzza: Thank you.

CM: What happens to the idea of feminism in the US when our media’s focus on gender equality celebrates corporate feminism like that of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her book Lean in, while the same media ignores massive marches for a society free of sexist oppression, exploitation, and violence?

What happens when the media focuses on Lean In and ignores all the huge wave of feminist protests that are happening here and in the world today?

CA: This is one of the questions that motivated us to write this manifesto. We want to rescue feminism from what we call a liberal or neoliberal appropriation of feminist discourse. We have seen this not only in the United States; this phenomenon can also be observed in other countries, in Europe. The kind of framing for feminism that has become mainstream in the last decades has focused on ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ for women; it is a feminism focused on promoting women to successful positions and encouraging them to have as much success as men.

Defending rights—like the right of body self-determination, the right to abortion or reproductive justice and so on—has never gone beyond what we may call formal rights. Then feminism was enlisted in neoliberal projects, what we call ‘progressive’ neoliberalism. We can think about Hillary Clinton here, for example. Progressive neoliberalism puts forward a number of policies—austerity, cuts on welfare, aggressive foreign policy, and so on—while couching itself in this pink veneer, presenting themselves as protectors of women’s rights or LGBT rights.

What happens is that masses of women are left behind. We see especially in the United States the masses of immigrant women who have suffered from xenophobic policies and policies of closed borders—also under a progressive neoliberal administration. I’m also thinking about the masses of working class women who were left behind, and are struggling to manage to arrive at the end of the month, to survive and pay the bills, while there are other women who climb and break the glass ceiling.

We think this is not feminism for everybody, this is feminism for a specific class. In other words, it is for the elite, for women of the elite who want to have parity in their own class. But this doesn’t have anything to offer the masses of women.

CM: Why should feminism necessarily challenge capitalism? Why do you think feminism needs to be anticapitalist?

CA: The analysis we are articulating in the manifesto has to do with the notion of social reproduction. Social reproduction concerns all the labor activities that go into the reproduction of what Marx would call labor power—our capacity to work, our capacity to sell our labor power within the labor market. What happens under capitalism is that social reproduction, the sphere of the reproduction of life, not only in biological terms but also in social terms (this includes education, the socialization of children, and care for all of the working class), is subordinated to production for profit. In other words, capitalism doesn’t really care about people reproducing themselves or about people’s lives. It cares about business having a workforce available on the market.

We identified the subordination of social reproduction to production for profit as the root cause of gender oppression under capitalism. Of course this is not a theory that applies to all historical epochs; we are especially aware that the oppression of women predates the birth of capitalism—but what we see is that under capitalism women’s oppression has taken a different form and has different causes compared to the past. In other words, it is in the specific mechanism of capitalism that we need to identify the causes of women’s oppression and gender oppression in general today.

We don’t have any certainty that by getting rid of capitalism we will also be free, as women, as queer people, as LGBT people, and so on. If we just get rid capitalism we certainly will not be free. What will happen is simply that only elite women, and only an elite of LGBT people, will have access to opportunities, to emancipation, to empowerment, while the large mass will be left behind.

We need a feminist movement—and indeed a feminist movement is happening today in the rest of the world—that tackles not only sexism but the interconnection, the internal relation between sexism and capitalism, and between sexist types of capitalism and racism. If we don’t do this, then we will not create the social and historical conditions for a true, universal liberation.

CM: You write, “What makes the choice pressing for us now between liberation or subjugation is the absence of any viable middle way. We owe the dearth of alternatives to neoliberalism, that exceptionally predatory financialized form of capitalism that has held sway across the globe for the last forty years.”

How does neoliberalism create a fork in the road to two separate paths where one leads to a scorched planet and the other leads to a dream world? How did neoliberalism eliminate the middle way and impose these two choices upon feminism? Because I thought neoliberalism was the middle way that we were all waiting for.

CA: First of all, we need to take into account the fundamental problem that should shape basically all of our world policies and political discussions, which is the problem of climate change—which is really caused by capitalism, and particularly the neoliberal form. In a sense, climate change already eliminates middle ground. We really are at a decisive political moment and if we do not do something decisive about this, we will all be in trouble.

There is a growth of struggles within the sphere of social reproduction—struggles around healthcare, around education and so on—that are showing precisely what kind of conditions neoliberalism created for us, and the unsustainability of these conditions. There are strikes that question not only contracts, wages, and so on, but also the quality of education, the quality of healthcare that is provided.

But besides this, if we look at recent years in particular, we can see in a number of countries the rise of an extremely reactionary far right—in Britain, in Argentina, in Italy (in Europe we have the problem, by the way, of a xenophobic, racist, and sadistic far right in a number of countries), and clearly Trump in the United States.

The rise of the far right is in many cases a response to the deterioration of conditions of life under neoliberal policies. Neoliberalism is the mass privatizations, the destruction of the welfare state, the continuous attacks on labor conditions and labor rights, which have characterized a number of capitalist countries. All of these phenomena, and the phenomenon of debt, of financial debt used as a weapon against any kind of redistributive policy—all of this has prepared the ground for the neo-reactionary far right.

On the one hand we have the rise of the right. On the other hand we have progressive neoliberalism. We could think of the mainstream Democratic Party in the United States, but also of various center-left or social democratic parties around the world—they have been champions of neoliberal policies that have really deteriorated our conditions of life, while at the same time couching themselves in this veneer of progressivism in terms of individual rights or women’s rights. Both of these political forces—the far right and progressive neoliberalism—are internal to the neoliberal project and they are enabling each other. Neither of them present real alternatives.

The risk for feminism today is to choose progressive neoliberalism as a way to save ourselves from the vicious attack from the right; however this is really not the alternative. So we have this menu which we don’t like and from which we don’t want to choose. There is another path, which is the path that leads to contesting and attacking capitalism and capitalist society as a whole, starting from the myriad struggles we already have in the world.

If we do not do this, none of the problems that have been created by neoliberal and financialized capitalism today will be solved. Neither the far right nor liberalism presents a viable alternative, a viable choice. We need to do something else, and really reveal the abilities of the international struggles against capitalism which are currently underway already.

CM: You (and your colleagues Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser) write, “Liberal feminism met its Waterloo in the US presidential election of 2016, when the much-ballyhooed candidacy of Hillary Clinton failed to excite women voters—and for good reason: Clinton personified the deepening disconnect between elite women’s ascension to high office and improvements in the lives of the vast majority.”

Did Hillary Clinton’s enormous success compared to the lack of success women were experiencing relatively under the neoliberal programs Clinton actually promoted, and her consistent insistence that “America is already great” (so it didn’t need to become great “again”)—did that lead feminists to question Hillary Clinton’s feminism? Or did it lead them to question the general corporate feminism that she was just the personification of?

CA: I do think that Hillary Clinton was just a personification of corporate feminism. I don’t much question whether she’s a feminist or not. She’s a feminist of a kind—corporate feminists are feminists of a kind. They do have feminist qualities. But they are feminist for the women of their own class, which has very little to offer the mass of women.

This kind of corporate liberal feminism that had been hegemonic in past decades was already in a crisis of legitimacy, but certainly the electoral campaign of Hillary Clinton didn’t help. You might remember that at the time, a number of liberal feminists brought articles urging women to support Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders, insisting that it would be anti-feminist to vote for a man, a white man, Bernie Sanders; that Hillary Clinton was a champion of women’s rights, and so on.

All of these appeals, and also the characterization of Sanders supporters as ‘brocialists’ (or at least as sexist), showed the profound inability to understand that the kind of feminism Hillary Clinton represented and embodied had really nothing to offer, or very little to offer to the large mass of women in the United States.

From this viewpoint, really supporting social democratic policies would at the very least reconstruct some material conditions that would improve women’s lives directly—like free healthcare; universal healthcare would certainly be something that would enormously improve women’s lives. This is what liberal feminists do not understand: that this option was clearly preferable for masses of women, while it spoke to the needs and demands and conditions of life and experiences of a mass of working, unemployed, and precarious women.

Now, I don’t mean to say that there were no issues during the Sanders campaign. But there we could at least see the beginning of a bifurcation, a political bifurcation among the liberal appropriation of feminism within the discourse and the return of a different kind of feminism, what we call in the manifesto “class-struggle feminism”—feminism that really has as its focus working class women and not the women on the top.

CM: You write, “Liberal feminism is bankrupt; it’s time to get over it.” Is liberal feminism bankrupt because, in your opinion, all liberalism is bankrupt?

MM: I would say yes. Really the progressive liberal project is bankrupt. It is part of the problem and not the solution to the problem. The bankruptcy of liberal feminism could also be seen, in a sense, as the bankruptcy of a kind of trickle-down logic applied to feminism—the idea that if we have more women CEOs, more successful women entrepreneurs and so on, this will by default also improve the conditions of women in general. We have seen that this is not the case.

We have also seen that the promises of neoliberalism were not fulfilled. We are in a situation in which the top of society is making an enormous amount of profit—even during the crisis and the years following the crisis. We are in a situation in which the people who paid the price of the crisis were working people—the mass of people—not those who had caused the crisis. And we are in a situation in which it is becoming increasingly clear that these forms of society, of progressive neoliberalism or liberalism, are not sustainable. They are not sustainable ecologically, and they are not sustainable in terms of the quality of our lives. The conditions in which we live have not just to do with labor rights and workplaces and so on, it involves social reproduction—education, the care for the elderly and the sick, the various public infrastructures that we need for our lives.

We need to elaborate different alternatives to the carceral solution, taking into account that gender violence is a systemic and structural problem; it’s not just a problem of mean or evil men attacking women. It is a structural problem that is enabled by specific social mechanisms correlated to the way neoliberal capitalism works. We need a series of interventions that are not just imprisoning bad men. It has to do rather with changing the social conditions that make gender violence acceptable and possible.

One of the signs of this political bankruptcy is, not by chance, the new strike waves in the United States: the new strike waves have been precisely within sectors connected to social reproduction. There were teachers’ strikes; on April 2 we will have the nurses’ strike in New York; hospitality workers and hotel workers are increasingly organizing and unionizing. Clearly we have a process of growth of struggles within the sphere of social reproduction—struggles around healthcare, around education and so on—that are showing precisely what kind of conditions neoliberalism created for us, and the unsustainability of these conditions. Because these are strikes that question not only contracts, wages, and so on, but also the quality of education, the quality of healthcare that is provided.

CM: You write, “The conventional feminist responses to gender violence are understandable, but nonetheless inadequate. The most widespread response is the demand for criminalization and punishment. This carceral feminism takes for granted precisely what needs to be called into question: the mistaken assumption that the laws, police, and courts maintain sufficient autonomy from the capitalist power structure to counter its deep-seated tendency to generate gender violence. In fact, the criminal justice system disproportionately targets poor and working class men of color, including migrants, while leaving their white collar professional counterparts free to rape and batter. Likewise, anti-trafficking campaigns and laws against sexual slavery are frequently used to deport migrant women while the rapists and profiteers remain at large.”

So to you, is carceral feminism, feminism? And how bad is carceral feminism for feminism?

CA: Carceral feminism is feminism. We need to take into account that feminism is not a homogeneous field. We have to talk about multiple kinds of feminism, and clearly carceral feminism is a form of feminism. But it’s a form with which we do not agree.

The reason carceral feminists fail radical feminism is that first of all, it doesn’t take into account a long history of political and religious instrumentalization of gender violence for the sake of repression and attacks against racialized people. Think about the myths of the black race in the United States. Second-wave feminism in the United States, white second-wave feminism, actually bought into the myths of the black rapist, the myth of black men being particularly attracted to white women, and so on.

In Europe, where I come from, individual cases of rape committed by immigrants are routinely used as an excuse to criminalize and deport immigrants in general. So we cannot be naive about the racialized nature of the carceral solution. Being naive or being blind about this really means leaving black and racialized women behind, and also means allowing the instrumentalization of gender violence for the purpose of a racist project.

A second problem has to do with the fact that everybody who has had an experience with the police or with the juridical system in cases of rape or gender violence is perfectly aware that in most cases it is the victim of violence who gets criminalized. This is a general phenomenon. This happens everywhere, from questioning the moral values or habits of women who are victims of rape to forcible sterilization of these women.

Finally, we need to take into account—especially in a country like the United States, where we have three million people in prison—the fact that prisons are a type of gender violence committed and perpetrated by security forces against imprisoned women, and we also need to take into account the police brutality against black and racialized women.

To think that police are our friends is, let’s say, a bit problematic. With this I don’t mean that women who have been victims of gender violence should not go to the police—this is an individual’s choice, and women who have been victimized should choose what is best for them. But in terms of a political project, we cannot support the carceral solution to gender violence. This is not a solution, because it actually very often makes things worse for the victim, and because it can be very easily instrumentalized for racist projects.

We need, then, to elaborate different alternatives to the carceral solution, taking into account that gender violence is a systemic and structural problem; it’s not just a problem of mean or evil men attacking women. It is a structural problem that is enabled by specific social mechanisms correlated to the way neoliberal capitalism works, so there is no real solution to gender violence if we do not examine these mechanisms, and if we do not propose solutions that have to do with the reappropriation of public resources in support of battered women; the possibility of women to access income in order to exit situations of abuse (for example leaving violent and abusive relatives); mainly we need education around gender violence.

We need a series of interventions that have not to do with prison or just imprisoning bad men; it has to do rather with changing the social conditions that make gender violence acceptable and possible, and increase gender violence.

CM: In March of 2017 we spoke with historian Marjorie Spruill, author of Divided we Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics. Marjorie writes about the 1977 conference on women’s rights, which she argues split US feminism in two. During our conversation, Marjorie pointed out how conservatives marched against and protested the conference outside, while inside, liberal feminists were debating over how inclusive they should be, distancing themselves from the more marginalized who also attended.

How does your manifesto overcome the shortcomings when it comes to inclusion that Marjorie Spruill points out from back in 1977?

We do not believe in separatist feminism. In order to really address the root causes of our oppression, to get rid of capitalism—we cannot do this alone, we really need to build alliances. We need to be part of general movements, of mobilizing the entire society.

CA: In the title, we call ourselves feminists for the 99%; that’s because what we have in mind is a universalistic feminism, a feminism that begins from a specific viewpoint or reality (which is a feminist anticapitalist viewpoint), but also articulates a proposal of liberation for everybody.

In terms of the debates that are happening today within feminism, we take a very strong stance about, for example, the fact that when we speak about women, we always mean both cis and trans women. In other words, we are absolutely opposed to the exclusion of trans women from feminist movements or from feminist analysis, and we find this extremely problematic.

Feminism for the 99%, then, is a trans-feminist manifesto. We also thought it was absolutely important to learn lessons that black feminism and antiracist feminism have given us over the course of decades, in order to avoid the same kinds of problems that we had with first- and second-wave feminism—in order to avoid developing political analyses or projects that think of themselves as universalistic, as valid for everybody, but actually end up excluding and leaving behind racialized and black women.

Finally, we also go a step further in the sense that we do not believe in separatist feminism. In order to really address the root causes of our oppression—to get rid of capitalism—we cannot do this alone, we really need to build alliances. We need to be part of general movements, of mobilizing the entire society.

In the last thesis of the manifesto we speak of the necessity of struggling together with other movements: environmentalists, the labor movement, the antiracist movement, and so on, struggling together, finding common ground—without renouncing anything about our own feminist perspectives. One of the mistakes we could make is to think that in order to create unity among different oppressed people, or in the working class, we need to ignore differences or ignore the inequalities that exist also among us. This would be a terrible mistake. We need to start by taking into account our differences, and the different ways in which we are oppressed under capitalism, and what differentiates (in terms of the concrete experience of oppression) black women, for example, from white women; or immigrant women and women who are indigenous; and so on.

We need to start from these differences, and on this basis elaborate projects of liberation for everybody, projects that tackle each and every one of these issues and show how various forms of oppression are actually internally connected to each other—they are not separate phenomena. They are different but at the same time connected to each other and connected to capitalism.

CM: You write, “What passes for sexual liberation often recycles capitalist values. New heterosexual cultures based on hook-ups and online dating urge young women to own their sexuality, but continue to rate them by their looks as defined by men. Exhorting self-ownership, neoliberal discourses pressure girls to ‘pleasure boys,’ licensing male sexual selfishness in exemplary capitalist fashion.”

How does neoliberalism turn sexual liberation for women into ‘pleasuring boys?’ And is self-ownership the same as sexual liberation?

CA: Great question. If we look at the way second-wave feminists have analyzed the repression of sexuality in our societies, we can see that there has been a significant adjustment in the way sexuality is regulated and organized and shaped today under neoliberalism—in other words, in our discourses about sexual repression and the regressive norms that control and repress human and especially women’s sexuality. This kind of analysis applies well to what we may call Fordist society. But what we saw with neoliberalism is actually a change of viewpoint.

In a way, individual sexual freedoms have been achieved—there is now a much more diverse multiplicity of sexual practices, sexual orientations, the shading of differences across sexual identities. Sexual identities that were extremely marginalized and have now become, at least in informal terms, or informal presentation, “mainstream.” So the kind of regulation of sexuality that we have under neoliberalism is very different from the past—therefore we need a different kind of analysis; we cannot rely on the same analysis that was articulated forty or fifty years ago.

It’s different from the past precisely because it leaves a space for individual sexual self-ownership—but it does so by increasingly normalizing and commodifying sexual identities. The risk is that what appears as greater sexual liberation (which to some extent is also the case) also hides a different form of oppression. This has precisely to do with decreasing differentiation between a gay middle class that has access to normalization—to ways of life that are similar to those of their heterosexual counterparts—and poor, working class, marginalized, and racialized queer people. This is a phenomenon that has already been observed by a number of LGBT and queer authors.

Clearly sexual self-ownership is not the same as sexual liberation in the sense that sexual liberation was a project of the creation of a society where different sexual practices and meaningful sexual relations of various different kinds would be possible and not repressed or regulated. The problem with this is that it is in large part an illusion, because the concrete material conditions that would allow for sexual liberation are not in place.

CM: One of the greatest things about this book, that’s different from 1977, is that there’s far more intersectionalism—this feminist manifesto could encourage universal support for feminism. So, in that intersectional, universal world, how does feminism benefit…men?

CA: Okay, it’s a tricky question. The kind of feminism we propose would benefit men because it would benefit everybody. We are suggesting that the relations that oppress women are the same that also create a framework for the exploitation of men’s labor, the oppression of immigrant men, and so on. Once we get rid of the root cause, which is capitalism, this would really benefit everybody. At the very least we will be alive (in the sense that we will have a better chance to stop climate change).

The struggles we speak about in the manifesto, the struggles that have to do with calls for universal healthcare, labor rights, transitional struggles—at the end of the day we really need to get rid of capitalism. But in the meantime we can fight for very specific demands such as free education, universal healthcare, labor rights, lowering the rate of exploitation, and so on. All of these targets also include men, not just women.

At the same time, the way in which women suffer from privatization of healthcare or education is different, and is worse than the way men suffer from this. From this viewpoint, starting from a feminist analysis means to go deeper in the critique of these neoliberal policies. It means to show not only the neoliberal policies that are bad for all of us, but also that they are specifically bad for women and for feminized people, and for racialized women and for gay people.

The general proposition is: let’s fight together, also with men, to get rid of these conditions altogether. However, I should also say that this in itself is not sufficient. In order to fight together, in order to be in a common struggle with men, it is necessary for men to understand what women’s oppression is about, what gender oppression is about, and to revise their own societies’ beliefs and behaviors that actually contribute to reproducing sexism on an interpersonal level. This has to do, for example, with questioning the way in which our organizations work—like our unions, our labor organizations in general, our antiracist organizations and so on—and how they actually contribute to reproducing sexism or racism, and questioning the acceptance of toxic masculinity.

The repression of sexuality and the shaping of gender identity through all these mechanisms of control and regulation that are connected with capitalism clearly affect women and queer people in particular. They are the first to be under attack and oppressed by this. But I think they also impoverish men’s lives. In other words, they also force upon them forms of masculinity that are in my view a limit for personal development. From this viewpoint, I think that questioning gender roles, and questioning the acceptance of certain kinds of masculinity, would be a benefit for men too.

But at the same time I don’t want to sound as if I want to sell Feminism for the 99% to men. We should fight together for the benefit of everybody, but also take into account that we as women are suffering the most.

CM: Cinzia, I really appreciate you being on the show. Thank you so much.

CA: Thank you very much, it was great.

Featured image source: Simona Granati (Corbis/Getty) via New Frame

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