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Lean in or Rise up?

10-Nov-2019Anya Mae Lemlich and Stephan Kimmerle

Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto. By Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser. Verso 2019, 96 pages, $12.95 paperback.

Feminism for the 99% has four main strengths:

1. It Pushes the Feminist Movement to the Left

One of the strongest contributions of the authors of Feminism for the 99%, Cinzia Aruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, is their bracing take-down of liberal, corporate feminism, or what they call “equal-opportunity domination.” The academic-activist authors present the global feminist movement at a crossroads, where one path is the type of feminism that sees itself “as a handmaiden of capitalism,” (p. 2) which prioritizes a few women reaching the top of the social ladder only to continue to oppress the majority of the world’s population.

The authors recognize the revitalized feminist political moment we are in, as well as the importance of correcting course away from liberal feminism. The global feminist movement is on the rise, from militant feminist strikes to fights for abortion rights to the outcry of #MeToo in dozens of countries. In the US, the women’s marches against Trump re-ignited and widened the feminist movement, but they remained tied to the dominant ideology of liberalism, closely aligned with the corporate Democratic party.

As organizers and supporters of the International Women’s Strike and self-identified Marxists, the authors argue for a different kind of feminism: one that is anti-capitalist, internationalist and anti-racist. They do this through a series of 11 theses.

2. Anti-capitalism

One of the authors’ brilliant moves is to argue convincingly that the varied oppressions that people face in our society are all grounded in capitalism. Thesis #8 argues that capitalism is built on racial and colonial violence, which it continues to prop up in order to sustain itself. It also points out the historic racism embedded in liberal feminism, and that racism serves as a useful tool for misogyny. In thesis #9, they argue that it is capitalism, not just human activity, that is destroying our planet.

Thesis #5 deals with gender oppression under capitalism. Locating the oppression of women in social reproduction, the authors argue that the work of “people-making” under capitalism was both assigned to women (reinforcing gender roles) and subordinated to the making of profit. By making clear the hidden but necessary labor that social reproduction provides for capitalism and its productive sphere, the authors aim to prove that these non-economic spheres are also sites of struggle.

The authors understand capitalism as what Marx would call a “totality,” as “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” (p. 64). The deeper contradictions in our society, then, are not limited to the capitalist economy, but take place throughout capitalist society as a whole.

In attacking this totality, the authors call for a class-struggle approach. One of the authors, Tithi Bhattacharya, refers to “feminism for the 99 percent” as “class-struggle feminism.” The authors expand “class struggle” outside of the so-called traditional battles over wages and economic gains. They reaffirm that struggles over social reproduction (housing, free transit, universal health care, etc.) are class-struggle approaches.

3. A Strategic Focus on the Strike

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The new feminist strike is one such class-struggle approach. Inspired by the feminist strikes in Spain, Argentina, and elsewhere, the authors see the reinvention of the strike as the “key innovation of the current movement.”

Given the bureaucratic, conservative approach of most labor leaders, this is a welcome wake-up call, not only to rebuild labor militancy but also to use the power of strikes to fight for all types of working-class issues, not just economic, but against oppression in any form. The movement’s re-popularization of the strike and challenging of a narrow conception of who can strike is a positive development. After all, strikes are the working class’s most powerful weapon. For instance, in Poland, the 2018 feminist strike succeeded in defeating a bill that would have made abortion completely illegal.

The authors say: “Withholding not only waged work, but also the unwaged work of social reproduction, they have disclosed the latter’s indispensable role in capitalist society. Making visible women’s power, they have challenged labor unions’ claim to ‘own’ the strike.”

The 2018 feminist strikes in Spain and Argentina raised consciousness, expectations and organizing abilities. These sorts of “protest strikes” or “strikes as demonstrations” are important because they help make visible our common and collective oppression. They push back against the idea that it is we as individuals, not society, who are responsible for our misery. Participants in mass strikes feel the strength of their numbers, which can then pave the way for further mass action.

Still, to understand where the working class’s most potent power lies, it makes sense from a strategic point of view to differentiate between strikes of waged workers and those in unwaged social reproduction. Strikes of waged workers wield more economic power by hitting the profits of individual capitalists. Generally, strikes in waged workplaces point to the fact that the working class produces all the wealth, can interrupt the system of profit production, and―in the end―can take over production without the bosses.

This is not an argument to belittle strikes of unwaged social reproduction workers or to neglect the power they have. It is an argument to be aware of the power structure of capitalist society and to build working-class and feminist power strategically so we can build a movement to take over society and end oppression.

We should work not only to build strikes outside of the waged workplace, but also to reignite strikes within the waged workplace. This will build militancy beyond the approach of conservative labor leaders and also take up non-economic demands. Given that the global working class is majority female and people of color, economic power in workplaces can be used to move the whole labor movement into struggle against issues such as the gender pay gap, sexual harassment at workplaces and in society at-large, and the oppression of people of color, trans, and gender non-conforming people.

4. A Rejection of an Economistic Approach

Feminism for the 99% states:“Too many sections of the left still fall back on the old formula holding that what unites us is an abstract and homogenous notion of class, and that feminism and anti-racism can only divide us.” Instead of an identity-politics approach that all too often counters class-reductionism with class deprioritization, the authors argue for an expansive view of class and class struggle. This is one of the biggest contributions of Feminism for the 99%.

The working class is not, and was never, primarily white and male, nor is it homogenous. As they say, the “global working class comprises billions of women, immigrants, and people of color.” It is multi-faceted and made up of people with diverse identities.

Capitalism uses our heterogeneity to divide us. The way to unify the working class, is not to ignore these differences. Rather, the authors argue, we need to take these differences seriously and build solidarity together. We can build this unity by both acknowledging divisions, waging a struggle against oppression, recognizing its roots in class society, and fighting “against capitalism’s weaponization of our differences.”

Three critiques of Feminism for the 99%:

1. Anti-capitalist Feminism Needs to Develop a Socialist Alternative

The authors, who all identify as Marxists, present their feminist Manifesto in the tradition of the Communist Manifesto. Unfortunately, unlike Marx and Engels, they do not explicitly argue for a socialist society. While brilliantly deriding capitalism for the mess it has caused, they do not present a thorough alternative vision for the society we’re fighting for.

Capitalism is what Marx and Engels called a “mode of production,” an economic system which shapes the whole of society. How we produce goods and services is the economic foundation of society, but capitalism is much more than that; it is a “totality.” We need to talk about a vision for a completely different mode of how humans should produce and reproduce society―a socialist vision of liberation and reorganization of society.

Of course, like the authors, we do not expect to have a roadmap or ideal utopia laid out for us ahead of time. But socialist feminists should go beyond just “anti-capitalist” organizing and lay out an idea of a socialist feminist future: one that includes democratic, working-class control over the means of production (the large corporations, raw materials, supply chains, energy production, etc.)

A socialist vision must also include the need to revolutionize how society organizes social reproduction. Socially necessary tasks need to be drawn into the public sphere and taken out of the private sphere of the nuclear family which reproduces patriarchy. This can be done by developing universal social services: high-quality childcare, elder-care, healthcare, paid parental leave, cheap and accessible high quality restaurants and food, etc. All this will lay the foundation for the development of a radically different culture, one that is democratic, egalitarian, solidaristic, feminist, and anti-racist.

2. Its Strategy to Achieve Change Falls a Bit Short

The main strategy put forward in Feminism for the 99% is for all radical movements to join together in a common anti-capitalist insurgency, and for these movements to create alliances.

While this is certainly positive, this strategy is incomplete. What’s missing is a call for the self-organization of the working class. To that end we argue for the working class to create a political party of its own, rooted in workplaces and neighborhoods, armed with Marxist ideas to change the world. Workers and oppressed groups need our own party to build up our power, flex our muscles by winning fights for reforms through militant strike action and other forms of mass action, and we need to link these struggles to eventually taking power ourselves.

We agree with the broad definition of the working class that the authors present—a working class that is heterogenous and varied that includes not only currently employed waged workers but also their families, communities, unwaged workers, and unemployed workers, or in Marx’s terms, “the reserve army of labor.”

The working class is only powerful when we act together. A working-class party unified not on the basis of glossing over differences but by fighting for the entire class on all of our issues (not just economic issues) is how we self-organize and start to build our power.

3. It Doesn’t Deal with Identity Politics

The authors do not explicitly engage with “identity politics.” Instead, they present two strands of politics to differentiate themselves from—liberal feminism on the right and class-reductionism on the left. But radical versions of identity politics are dominant today among left-wing feminists. This needs to be addressed by Marxist feminists.

Identity politics have come to take on different meanings for different people. We use the term to describe theories of fighting oppression that are not only based around identity but are not linked to an overarching socialist program for change; that tend to prioritize identity over political content; and do not view the working class as the decisive agent for revolutionary change.

Capitalism uses differences in identity to divide the working class, and a danger with identity politics is that it can reinforce and deepen these divisions. Like the authors, we should be clear that it is capitalism that divides us. We must identify capitalism as the enemy, while recognizing, as the authors do, that capitalism relies on and promotes racism, sexism and homophobia within the working class. Fighting solely along lines of identity and reducing each other to “allies” in our different struggles will not lead to the kind of broad working-class struggle and power that we need to overthrow the ruling elite.

This understanding does not diminish the deep divisions of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia within the working class, nor the success with which the ruling class has used these oppressions to divide us. It also does not imply in any way that the struggles against the oppression of women, LGBTQ people, or people of color have to wait until a unified working class confronts these issues. Out of these battles, together with the power of the labor movement, socialist feminists can argue to build unifying struggles, movements and organizations.

We agree with the authors that the working class must acknowledge these differences, take them seriously, and act in solidarity. But it will take more than that. Instead of prettifying the work, we need to confront the real challenges and divisions we face. Bringing our struggles together will not happen automatically. We need to argue for a conscious approach.

Building solidarity will require struggle and debate within working-class organizations. The dominant ideas in movements are always contested. In the women's movement, as Feminism for the 99% highlights, liberal ideas, which are limited to working within the framework of capitalism, compete with socialist ideas, which aim to put an end to capitalism. Similarly, socialist politics and identity politics also compete with one another. Identity politics currently dominate the left, and, to their credit, these ideas have contributed to leading a new generation into waves of social struggle. But at the same time, identity politics too often point toward the fragmentation of struggles and efforts to organize.

That is why we need to build a conscious political force, our own political party, with a leadership that systematically fights for a unified socialist feminist program both within the feminist movement and in the struggles of workers and all the oppressed.

The demands among different sections of the working class will not always be the same. To develop solidarity between these different struggles requires a socialist party that is actively involved in each of these battles that can bring together their varied experiences. Such a generalized political undertaking - a common political party fighting for leadership in the working class - allows for socialists involved in different movements to develop a common strategy and demands.

Read the Book and Join the Socialist Feminist Struggle

Feminism for the 99% is a welcome contribution to the global feminist movement which adds to the debate about how to resist oppression and exploitation. Its strength lies in its unbending wrath toward liberal feminism and its wider understanding of capitalism as the root source of oppression.

It is a call not to “lean in” but to rise up!

Anya Mae Lemlich and Stephan Kimmerle are activists in DSA and members of its Reform & Revolution caucus.