Friday, December 20, 2013

Women, feminism and neoliberalism

Philosopher Nancy Fraser, author of Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (2013), has some provocative thoughts on feminism and neoliberalism in How feminism became capitalism's handmaiden - and how to reclaim it Guardian 10/14/2013. A German version is available, Neoliberalismus und Feminismus: Eine gefährliche Liaison Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 12/2013.

I'm far from familiar with some of the discussions to which she refers, such as the past discussion over the "family wage" she references here:

One contribution was our critique of the "family wage": the ideal of a male breadwinner-female homemaker family that was central to state-organised capitalism. Feminist criticism of that ideal now serves to legitimate "flexible capitalism". After all, this form of capitalism relies heavily on women's waged labour, especially low-waged work in service and manufacturing, performed not only by young single women but also by married women and women with children; not by only racialised women, but by women of virtually all nationalities and ethnicities. As women have poured into labour markets around the globe, state-organised capitalism's ideal of the family wage is being replaced by the newer, more modern norm – apparently sanctioned by feminism – of the two-earner family.
But I like her description of what neoliberalism is about, like this:

Never mind that the reality that underlies the new ideal is depressed wage levels, decreased job security, declining living standards, a steep rise in the number of hours worked for wages per household, exacerbation of the double shift – now often a triple or quadruple shift – and a rise in poverty, increasingly concentrated in female-headed households. Neoliberalism turns a sow's ear into a silk purse by elaborating a narrative of female empowerment. Invoking the feminist critique of the family wage to justify exploitation, it harnesses the dream of women's emancipation to the engine of capital accumulation.
The phenomenon she discusses is what the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse referenced in his 1974 essay, Marxism and Feminism, a path-breaking effort at the time to combine New Left critiques of capitalism at the time with the emerging feminist consciousness. (Recently republished in differences 17/1: 2006; originally published in Women's Studies 2/3 [1974]).

Equality is a basic democratic demand. But, as Marcuse notes in that essay, formal equality between the sexes could theoretically be achieved within capitalism. This would not end the dominance of the Performance Principle, Marcuse's adaptation of Freud's concept of the reality principle, Marcuse's version emphasizing the specific social demands and resulting personal conditioning specific to capitalist economic relationships. As he put it there:

The Movement operates on two levels: first, the struggle for full economic, social, and cultural equality. Question: is such economic, social and cultural equality attainable within the capitalist framework? I will come back to this question, but I want to submit a preliminary hypothesis: there are no economic reasons why such equality should not be attainable within the capitalist framework, though a largely modified capitalism. But the potentialities, the goals of the Women's Liberation Movement, go far beyond it, namely into regions that can never be attained within a capitalist framework or within the framework of any class society. Their realization would call for a second stage, where the Movement would transcend the framework within which it now operates. At this stage "beyond equality," liberation implies the construction of a society governed by a different Reality Principle, a society where the established dichotomy between masculine and feminine is overcome in the social and individual relationships between human beings. [my emphasis]
Fraser's short Guardian piece emphasizes the ways in which feminism advanced equality within the existing society with its existing class relations.

But that does not mean that the equality achieved was not an important advance with liberating potential beyond minted female Republican CEO's like Meg Whitman or Carly Fiona who later acquired political ambitions.

Marcuse saw a constructive feminizing of society as a necessary element in counteracting the increase in aggressiveness that Freud believed was increasing in advanced Western societies:

... here are the governing values in capitalist society: profitable productivity, assertiveness, efficiency, competitiveness; in other words, the Performance Principle, the rule of functional rationality discriminating against emotions, a dual morality; the "work ethic," which means for the vast majority of the population condemnation to alienated and inhuman labor; and the will to power, the display of strength, virility.

Now, according to Freud, this value hierarchy is expressive of a mental structure in which primary aggressive energy tends to reduce and to weaken the life instincts, that is, erotic energy. According to Freud, the destructive tendency in society will gain momentum as civilization necessitates intensified repression in order to maintain domination in the face of the ever more realistic possibilities of liberation, and intensified repression in turn leads to the activation of surplus aggressiveness and its channeling into socially useful aggression. This total mobilization of aggressiveness is only too familiar to us today: militarization, brutalization of the forces of law and order, fusion of sexuality and violence, direct attack on the life instincts in their drive to save the environment, attack on the legislation against pollution, and so on. [my emphasis]
Also in The Guardian, Dawn Foster addresses this same issue in Why corporate feminism is convenient for capitalism 12/11/2013:

Few women will sit in boardrooms in their lifetime, and adding a few "golden skirts" in places of high responsibility doesn't translate straight to a hastening improvement in women's rights and quality of life. As comforting as the idea of "trickle-down feminism" might be, it's never borne out in reality – the four most powerful jobs in Norway are held by women, yet politicians are considering allowing doctors to refuse to perform abortions. The slowly shrinking gender disparity of MPs is constantly held up as a marker of progress, yet at the same time, Rachel Reeves promises to be "tougher" than the Tories when it comes to savaging the welfare state.

The problem with corporate feminism's obsession with individual stories of success, and "having it all", is that many women don't have much at all. Women have been disproportionately affected by austerity, with single mothers and pensioners particularly affected. A few more women may be MPs or CEOs, but three times as many young women are locked into low-paid jobs than were 20 years ago. The fall in real-term wages affects women more, since they were earning less in the first place. Asking women to "lean in" is far easier than demanding we fundamentally change the way businesses operate, and how we reward and approach work.
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