What force is needed to end the discrimination and division rooted in the capitalist system? Can the global women’s movements become the main agency for change? Is the organised working class now redundant? Christine Thomas reviews a new publication claiming to have the answers.

On International Women’s Day this year millions of women and men once again took to the streets in global protests against gender oppression. In a small number of countries the ‘feminist’ strike was also a feature of this day of struggle. Just prior to 8 March, 24 prominent women writers and activists from nine countries signed a joint declaration calling for a new stage in the feminist struggle. They proposed the organising of “transnational meetings and assemblies of the movements” to become “the emergency brake capable of stopping the capitalist train running at full speed, and hurtling all humanity and the planet we live in, toward barbarism”.

Three of these feminists, authors Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, have collaborated and written what is effectively a prospective programme for the global women’s movement, a feminist manifesto for the 99%. In it they claim that the movement is reinventing and changing the definition of everything: the strike, the working class, and the class struggle. These are bold claims. While there are some things in this manifesto with which we would agree, it also contains political and theoretical weaknesses that are permeating the women’s movements internationally and even influencing some Marxists.

The authors clearly place themselves on the anti-capitalist wing of the movement. Capitalism, they argue, is driven by a relentless pursuit of profit and sustains itself by exploiting labour and free-riding on nature, public goods and unwaged work. The current crisis is not just economic but systemic, a simultaneous crisis of the economy, ecology, politics and social reproduction. This crisis of “epochal proportions” is causing plummeting living standards, looming ecological disaster, rampaging wars, mass migration, racism, xenophobia and a reversal of hard-won social and political rights. Feminism for the 99%, they state, must be anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-war, eco-socialist and, above all, anti-capitalist and internationalist.

The authors of the manifesto also clearly locate gender oppression in the structures of capitalist society. Capitalism, they rightly say, did not invent the subordination of women. It has existed in various forms in all previous class societies but capitalism has its own modern forms of sexism underpinned by new institutional structures. Gender violence is grounded in hierarchical power structures which fuse gender, race and class. The struggle against gender violence is, therefore, a systemic one, connecting the fight for legal reform and an “exit option” for survivors (refuges, housing, etc) with the struggle against all forms of violence in capitalist society.

In the same way, the fight to free sexuality from “procreation, normative family forms and restrictions of gender, class and racism”, and “consumerism”, cannot restrict itself to securing legal rights, leaving structural conditions unchallenged. Freeing sexuality requires building “a non-capitalist form of society which can assure the material basis of sexual liberation”. Reproductive justice cannot be separated from the demand for free, universal, not-for-profit healthcare. Equal pay should not mean equalising misery but must be linked to a generous living wage, labour rights and new ways of organising house and care work. Legal emancipation must go hand in hand with the provision of public services and social housing. In short, “without dismantling capitalism there can be no end to gender and sexual oppression”.

The writers are particularly damning of liberal (bourgeois) feminism: of the “corporate feminism” of Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, exhorting women to “lean in” at the company boardroom. This “feminism of the one per cent”, they say, merely leads to ruling-class women having equal opportunities with men of their class to manage workplace exploitation and social oppression. Feminism of the 99%, on the other hand, aims to champion the cause of poor and working-class women, ethnic minority and migrant women.

The authors are totally correct when they write about the “deepening disconnect” between elite women and the lives of the majority. And it is certainly true that the capitalist crisis has exposed the bankruptcy of liberal feminism in the eyes of many women. However, to say that liberal feminism “met its Waterloo” in the 2016 US presidential elections, when Hillary Clinton didn’t excite female voters, is an exaggeration and an underestimation of the role that liberal feminists continue to play in some of the global women’s movements – especially in the US where the three authors have been active. The crisis has seriously eroded support for liberal feminism but it is down rather than out, and still needs to be vigorously challenged by socialist feminists.

Social reproduction theory

The manifesto is informed by the theory of “social reproduction”, also referred to as “people making”, and its importance for “profit making”. This is a very broad theory, with many variants, but one aspect relates to unpaid labour in the family. To summarise, industrial capitalism created a division between paid work outside the home and unpaid labour carried out by women within it. That labour involves sustaining the current generation of workers and raising the next, instilling in them the attitudes and values beneficial to the functioning of the capitalist system. It is this gender division of labour which has underpinned women’s subordinate position in society, and capitalism still relies on the mainly unretributed homemaking and caregiving in the family which remain extremely gendered.

This analysis broadly coincides with much of what has been written in previous articles in Socialism Today. Some domestic labour is commodified by capitalism. Yet, as the authors accept, there is a clear divide between wealthy women who are able to pay for others (usually poorer women) to clean their houses or care for their children and aged parents, while working-class and poor women are increasingly forced to work the ‘double-shift’. Using an ‘unpaid work calculator’ based on earnings in the service sector, the UK Office for National Statistics worked out that in 2014 the total value of unpaid work in the home (including DIY) in Britain was just over £1 trillion, the equivalent of 56% of GDP. Sixty per cent of that work was carried out by women.

There have been many attempts over the years to highlight the importance of reproduction, to integrate it with capitalist commodity production within a Marxist framework, and to promote solutions for overcoming the gendered division of labour. While for Karl Marx only commodities (including services) sold on the market have an exchange value, in the 1970s Mariarosa Dalla Costa and other ‘autonomist Marxist feminists’ attempted to revise Marx by arguing that unpaid domestic labour does not just have a use value but an exchange value, too. Therefore, it forms a part of capitalist economic relations. This incorrect interpretation of Marxist economics formed the theoretical basis of the Wages for Housework campaign that emerged at that time.

We opposed the demand that those who carry out housework should be paid a wage, not just from a theoretical point of view but also because it reinforces gender stereotyping and the traditional role of women as carers and homemakers. Instead, we have called for the socialisation of unpaid work carried out in the home through publicly provided services, such as childcare, eldercare, public restaurants, etc, together with a guaranteed decent minimum income for those who are unable to access paid employment for whatever reason.

Women on strike

Social reproduction theory, as interpreted by the authors of this manifesto, does not argue that unpaid labour in the home has an exchange value. Nevertheless, it argues that it is at the core of the functioning of capitalism, through the way in which it creates, maintains and restores the labour power of workers who create the surplus value from which capitalist profits derive. Basing themselves on this theory, the authors argue that, through “reinventing” the strike, the recent 8 March global women’s movements have taken the class struggle beyond the “narrow”, “old-school” Marxist terrain of wage exploitation in the workplace – a reductionist conception of the class struggle which we have never held.

With women withdrawing “not just paid work but housework, sex and smiles”, the manifesto says they have made visible unpaid work and revealed the enormous potential of women’s power, “of those whose paid and unpaid work sustains the world”. While it is always useful and important to draw attention to the way in which capitalism benefits financially and ideologically from women’s unpaid work in the family and the role this plays in reinforcing and perpetuating women’s oppression, the authors’ estimation of the effectiveness of the social reproductive strike is grossly exaggerated. To put it bluntly, who notices if women do not cook or clean, look after their kids or have sex for the day, apart from their immediate family members and those closest to them? Raising the idea of a reproductive strike can have a certain propaganda value but does not point towards how the gendered division of domestic labour can be overcome.

It is most definitely a positive development that since 2017 the idea of striking has become a central feature of 8 March and has replaced the flowers and aroma therapy which in many countries had turned it into another version of Mother’s Day. With the strike there is a retying of the knot of history, a return to the militant class struggle origins of International Women’s Day. However, the manifesto makes no clear distinction between the reproductive and the workplace strike, as if both are equally valid and effective.

On 8 March this year, nobody will have noticed uncleaned houses and unprepared food but they will have noticed that in some cities the buses and trains were not running. Withdrawing paid labour, even for a day, can be effective precisely because it halts or frustrates the functioning of the capitalist system and hits profits. It gives workers, female and male, a sense of their own collective power and points to the central role they can and must play in ending the system which generates exploitation and oppression.

Even then, a one-day strike remains a form of protest action, compared to an indefinite strike continued until the workers’ demands are met. At a higher level still, a general strike poses the question to be resolved: who runs society, the capitalists or the working class? For the authors of the manifesto, however, the strike has a mere symbolic value, highlighting women’s oppression but not forming part of a strategy for ending it.

Defending the social wage

More confusion is created when the authors widen their definition of what constitutes social reproduction beyond unpaid domestic work in the home. We would agree that past struggles waged by the working class in wealthier countries were an important factor in compelling the state to assume responsibility for some aspects of social reproduction previously carried out in the ‘privatised’ home. This was through the provision of services or in the form of benefits, such as those for pensioners, the unemployed or to help with the cost of bringing up children. Marx considered this work ‘unproductive’, not in any way in a pejorative sense but in that it does not produce commodities for sale from which surplus value is derived. Nevertheless, it forms part of the ‘social wage’, a benefit for workers paid for out of the total surplus which they have created, in the form of taxation.

Faced with a crisis of profitability and the end of the post-war economic boom, the capitalists and their political representatives launched a relentless attack not just on workers’ wages and workplace conditions but also on the social wage. Those attacks have intensified through the austerity policies unleashed in many countries since the 2008 economic crisis. Through cuts and privatisation to state services and benefits the capitalists have succeeded both in reducing their share of taxation and commodifying this labour, opening up new profitable markets to exploit. For working-class people, working-class women in particular, this has created an untenable situation, forced either to pay for commodified services with reduced wages and benefits or to take on the extra burden themselves, usually in addition to paid work outside the home.

It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the most militant struggles have recently been in relation to the defence of public services, or that working-class women have been to the forefront of those struggles. Because women still assume most responsibility for caring for the home and dependent household members, they have more contact with and are more reliant on state services and benefits. This social role also explains why women often predominate in local and community struggles in defence of the environment, on housing, or other issues related to ‘consumption’. And, because women constitute an important part of the workforce responsible for the provision of public services in many countries, they have also been in the frontline of strikes in this sector.

Often, as the authors of the manifesto point out, there has been a coming together of users and providers of services in common, united struggle. The teachers and education staff involved in the impressive strike movement in several US states combined demands for better pay for workers with demands for increased spending on schools generally. The striking nurses and midwives in Ireland did the same with regards to pay and health service funding. But there is nothing new in this.

Ever since the creation of welfare states working-class people have fought bitter struggles to extend and defend public services, and the participation of women has always been high. These are not a special category of ‘social reproduction’ or ‘feminist’ strikes and struggles but battles over the social wage. As such, they form part of the class struggle as a whole which, to be successful, must be a united working-class struggle. The authors say they want to integrate social reproduction and production but what they actually do is create a false dichotomy. They counterpose what they consider to be new, radical and progressive feminist social reproduction struggles to the “weakened”, “once powerful” industrial trade unions in the predominantly male, manufacturing sector. Moreover, it is clear that the authors have no confidence with regards to future struggles by this latter sector of workers.

The relationship of forces

According to the manifesto, class and class struggle are important for feminism for the 99% but they can no longer be viewed in the usual way – the global women’s movement is changing the perception of both. Unlike the ‘mythical Marxists’ referred to in the manifesto, we do not believe that the global working class is compromised just of those who work for wages. The working class can also include the unemployed, pensioners, carers and workers’ families. Neither do we consider the working class to be an “undifferentiated, homogeneous entity”, nor that workers are just straight, white men working in factories. Capitalist processes over the last few decades have significantly altered the composition of the workforce in many countries. Service industries have grown, work has become more precarious, and many more women have entered the labour force.

There are, as the authors say, “fault lines” of gender, race, sexuality, etc, differences which capitalism has “weaponised” to divide and weaken our struggles. We would totally agree with the writers when they say that we should recognise those differences and take them seriously, and that we should not merely celebrate them for their own sake as some supporters of identity politics do. Instead, we should seek unity and “overcome the divisive opposition between identity politics and class politics”. Furthermore, we completely endorse the idea that fighting capitalism, in which the various oppressions are rooted and reinforced, is the best way to overcome those divisions.

But, how can capitalism be fought? This is never explained. For Marxists the central protagonist in the struggle must be the working class of all genders. It is the force which, because of its role in the production process and the creation of profit, not only has a clear subjective interest in ending capitalist exploitation but the potential collective power to do so. That also means it can begin the task of building a new society based on collective ownership and democratic control, and the planning of the economy.

The manifesto correctly states that the economic crisis has damaged the credibility of political elites, leading to a rejection of “politics as usual”. This is a moment of “political awakening”, an opportunity for “social transformation”. Rejection of the established political parties has created a “gaping vacuum of leadership and organisation”, and there is a searching for new ideas, organisations and alliances. So, what form will these take? Feminism for the 99%, the manifesto declares, is among the social forces which have “leapt into the breach” – although they share the terrain and are competing with right-wing forces.

It emphasises that the global women’s movement cannot be a separatist movement. The manifesto says it must join with anti-racists, environmentalists, labour and migrant rights activists, LGBTQ+ activists, those campaigning around public services and against war and imperialism – every movement that fights for the 99%. It must join forces with other anti-capitalist movements across the globe. “Only in this way will it be possible to gain the power and vision to dismantle the social institutions that oppress us”. What the authors do not explain is what the relationship of forces will be between the various allies in this coalition of the 99%, or how it will actually go about dismantling capitalism.

They identify a burning question: “Who will guide the process of societal transformation, in whose interest and to what end?” In reading the manifesto, however, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the authors believe that the guiding role will not be played by the organised working class of all genders. Instead, the central agency for change will be the global feminist movement. There will be no political party of the 99%, a party based on the working class which could draw together the forces fighting against capitalist exploitation and oppression in all its forms – including those involved in the women’s movements – around a revolutionary programme and strategy for system change. Rather, we are expected to believe that a “just world whose wealth and natural resources are shared by all”, where “equality and freedom are premises, not aspirations”, can be achieved by the global feminist movement in an amorphous ‘anti-capitalist’ alliance. No strategy is put forward as to how such a movement could overthrow capitalism – its dominance of economic relations and its powerful state and ideological apparatus – in order to begin the transformation of society in the interests of the 99%.

‘Feminism for the 99%: a manifesto’

By Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser

Published by Verso, 2019, £7.99 (Sterling)

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