How a certain feminism became a servant of capitalism

Carlos Zilio, SELF-PORTRAIT AT 26, 1970, felt-tip pen on paper, 47x32,5

By Nancy Fraser*

By invoking the feminist critique of family wages to justify exploitation, she uses the dream of women's emancipation to grease the engine of capitalist accumulation.

As a feminist, I always assumed that by fighting for the emancipation of women I was building a better, more equal, just and free world. Lately, though, I've become concerned that the original ideals promoted by feminists are serving very different ends.

I am particularly concerned that our critiques of sexism are justifying new forms of inequality and exploitation.

In a cruel twist of fate, I fear that the women's liberation movement has become embroiled in a “dangerous friendship” with neoliberal efforts to build a free market society.

This could explain why feminist ideas, which once formed part of a radical worldview, are increasingly couched in terms of individualism.

If feminists criticized a society that promotes opportunism at work, now women are advised to adopt and practice it. A movement that prioritized social solidarity now applauds women entrepreneurs.

The perspective that previously valued “care” and interdependence now encourages individual promotion and meritocracy.

What lies behind this turnaround is a radical change in the character of capitalism. The regulatory state of capitalism, in the post-war period after the Second World War, gave way to a new form of “disorganized”, globalized and neoliberal capitalism. Second wave feminism emerged as a critique of the first, but became a servant of the second.

Thanks to hindsight, we can see today how the women's liberation movement simultaneously envisaged two very different possible futures. In the first scenario, a world was envisaged in which gender emancipation went hand in hand with participatory democracy and social solidarity. In the second, a new form of liberalism was promised, capable of granting men and women the benefits of individual autonomy, greater choice and personal advancement through meritocracy. Second wave feminism was ambivalent about this. Compatible with any of society's visions, he was also able to carry out two different historical elaborations.

As I see it, feminism's ambivalence has been resolved in recent years in favor of the second, liberal-individualist scenario. But not because we were passive victims of neoliberal seduction. On the contrary, we ourselves contributed three important ideas to this unfolding.

One such contribution was our critique of the “wage of the family”: of the ideal of the family, with the man earning the bread and the woman the housewife, which was central to capitalism with a regulatory state. The feminist critique of this ideal now serves to legitimize “flexible capitalism”. After all, this current form of capitalism relies heavily on women's wage labor. Especially about low-paid work in services and manufacturing, performed not only by unmarried young women, but also by married women with children; not only by racially discriminated women, but also by women of virtually every nationality and ethnicity.

With the integration of women into labor markets around the world, the ideal of the family wage, of capitalism with a regulatory state, is being replaced by the newer and more modern norm, seemingly sanctioned by feminism, of the two-earner family.

It does not seem to matter that the underlying reality, in the new ideal, is lower wage levels, less job security, lower living standards, sharp increases in the number of hours of paid work per household, the exacerbation of the double, now triple or quadruple, and the increase in poverty, increasingly concentrated in families headed by women.

Neoliberalism dresses us up like a silk monkey through a narrative about women's empowerment.

By invoking the feminist critique of family wages to justify exploitation, she uses the dream of women's emancipation to grease the engine of capitalist accumulation.

Feminism, moreover, made a second contribution to neoliberal ethics. In the era of regulatory state capitalism, we rightly criticize the narrow political vision that purposefully focused on class inequality and was unable to address other types of “non-economic” injustices such as domestic violence, sexual assault and oppression. reproductive. Rejecting “Economism” and politicizing the “personal”, feminists have expanded the political agenda to challenge the hierarchies of the status based on cultural constructions about gender differences. The result should have led to a broadening of the struggle for justice to encompass both the cultural and the economic. But the result was a biased approach to “gender identity” at the expense of marginalizing “bread and butter” issues. Worse yet, the shift from feminism to identity politics dovetailed seamlessly with the advance of neoliberalism, which sought nothing more than to erase all memory of social equality. Indeed, we emphasized the critique of cultural sexism precisely at a time when circumstances demanded that we redouble our attention to the critique of political economy.

Finally, feminism contributed a third idea to neoliberalism: the critique of welfare state paternalism. No doubt and progressively, in the era of regulatory state capitalism, these critiques have converged with the neoliberal war against the “nanny state” and its more recent and cynical support for NGOs. An illustrative example is the case of “microcredits”, the small bank loan program for poor women in the global South. Presented as bottom-up empowerment, an alternative to the top-down bureaucratism of state projects, microcredits are seen as the feminist antidote to poverty and women's domination.

What is overlooked, however, is a disturbing coincidence: microcredit flourished just as states abandoned macrostructural efforts to combat poverty, efforts that cannot be replaced by small-scale lending.

Also in this case, a feminist idea was recovered by neoliberalism. A perspective originally aimed at democratizing state power to empower citizens is now being used to legitimize commodification and cuts in the state structure.

In all these cases, feminism's ambivalence was resolved in favor of (neoliberal) individualism. However, the alternative scenario of solidarity may still be alive. The current crisis offers the possibility to pull that thread once more, so that the dream of women's liberation is once again part of the vision of a caring society. To get there, feminists need to break this “dangerous friendship” with neoliberalism and reclaim our three “contributions” to our own ends.

First, we must sever the spurious link between our critiques of family wages and flexible capitalism, advocating for a way of life that does not revolve around wage labor and values ​​unpaid activities, including, but not limited to, “Care”.

Second, we must block the connection between our critique of Economism and identity politics by integrating the struggle to transform the  status quo  dominant that prioritizes the cultural values ​​of masculinity, with the battle for economic justice. Finally, we must sever the false link between our critiques of bureaucracy and free market fundamentalism, calling for participatory democracy as a way to strengthen the public powers needed to limit capital in the name of justice.

*Nancy Fraser is an American philosopher, feminist, and Professor of Political and Social Sciences at New School University.

Published on the website La Tizza, in Spanish translation of the original: Fraser, Nancy, “How feminism became capitalism's handmaiden, and how to reclaim it”, The Guardian, October 14, 2013.

Translation: Ricardo Kobayaski


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