By KAREN SCHRAUFNAGEL
Donald Trump, the misogynist-in-chief, daily tweets out his hate-filled rhetoric, serving up women, immigrants, and people of color as red meat to his hungry base, always ready to blame the least powerful for capitalism’s crimes.
In the meantime, Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s entitled, over-privileged Supreme Court nominee, likes beer and torture and “deserves” a life-time seat on the highest court in the land. Never mind his clear lack of judicial temperament, or the sexual assault allegations against him, because he got into Yale and studied hard!
People around the United States were captivated by the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, as those old enough to remember were by that of Anita Hill 27 years earlier. But Hill’s testimony didn’t stop the selection of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, and Blasey Ford’s testimony didn’t keep the Senate Judiciary Committee, and later the full Senate, from confirming Brett Kavanaugh.
Many people, and especially women, are justifiably angry. At first, that anger propelled us into the streets. But it was quickly channeled to the voting booth, where it fueled a historic level of voter participation in mid-term elections this past November.
The “wave” crashing into Washington this month is full of firsts. Yes, it is “blue” (meaning Democrat), but it also female; 102 women now serve in the House and 27 in the Senate. The most diverse Congress in history is now in place.
We voted. Do we still need to march?
Many liberals, “progressives,” and even radical feminists have expressed pride in the new politicians they helped elect. However, Marxist feminists are less inclined to be fooled by this rainbow-colored paint job on the same old institutions of the capitalist class. What accounts for the difference? It stems from differing perspectives about the roots of oppression and how we make change.
Liberal feminists generally fail to see the structural obstacles. They tend to accept the adage that hard work, dedication, and single-minded focus on the goal pays off.
They believe that the 2018 election was a validation for them because numbers don’t lie—there are more women in positions of political power than ever before, including a return engagement for the only woman ever to serve as speaker of the House of Representatives.
“Progressive” feminists tout what they consider to be “feminine” values like caring and compassion, relationship building, and cooperation. They don’t believe you have to be female to share these values, but they certainly see the 2018 election as empowering this value system to stand up to Trump’s agenda of greed, hatred, and bigotry. Impeachment here we come!
Many radical feminists, on the other hand, see patriarchy as the root evil from which all that is rotten grows, and their solution often revolves around intersectional feminist identity politics. For radical feminists the new Congress, so full of hyphenated-identities, will see more clearly through the institutionalized chauvinism and legislate differently. There may still be plenty of old, rich, white, Protestant, straight men in positions of power, but new identities at the table mean new ideas can enter the conversation.
Accordingly, liberals, “progressives,” and even radical feminists tend to be optimistic about the new Congress. They are marching in this year’s Women’s Marches to demonstrate their support for the newly elected women and to urge and empower them to enact sweeping policy changes.
In contrast, Marxist feminists recognize that politicians of the two capitalist parties serve as spokespeople for the ruling class. The politicians may look more like “us,” but that should not fool us. Capitalist politicians represent the interests of the capitalist class. A capitalist politician in a dress, or even a hijab, is still a capitalist politician. It is the role they play and not the costume they wear that matters. So, Marxist feminists march not to support those in power but to demand a feminism of the 99%.
The objectives of Marxist feminism were explained in a recent interview in International Viewpoint with Cinzia Arruzza, an associated professor at the New School of Social Research in New York. Arruzza stated: “Feminism for the 99% is the anti-capitalist alternative to the liberal feminism that has become hegemonic in recent decades, due to the low level of struggles and mobilizations around the world. What we understand as liberal feminism is a feminism centred on liberties and formal equality, which seeks the elimination of gender inequality, but through means that are only accessible to elite women. We think, for example, of the type of feminism embodied by women like Hillary Clinton. Or, also, the kind of feminism that in Europe is becoming an ally of the states in supporting Islamophobic policies …
“To be clear, it is a type of feminism that pursues gender equality within a specific class, the privileged one, leaving behind the vast majority of women. Feminism for the 99% is an alternative to liberal feminism, since it is openly anti-capitalist and anti-racist: it does not separate formal equality and emancipation from the need to transform society and social relations in their totality, from the need to overcome the exploitation of labour, the plundering of nature, racism, war and imperialism.”
Mired in controversy
This year’s Women’s March has been embroiled in controversy. The 2017 March, coming the day after Donald Trump’s inaugural and framed as a direct challenge to his explicit misogyny, was huge. Millions of women and their allies took to the streets of Washington, D.C., and in hundreds of other cities and towns across the country and around the world. It was a massive success, but very white and subject to criticism by women of color for its lack of inclusiveness.
In 2018, the message, “Women March to the Polls” signaled the clear intent by the behind-the-scenes, Democratic Party machine leadership to capture women’s anger and channel it towards electoral ends. Marches were fewer and smaller, and still subject to criticism as “white, liberal feminist” dominated.
This year, having successfully channeled all that anger into getting more women (including many hyphenated-identity women) elected to office, the Women’s March made a determined effort to look more like the women they claim to represent. But charges soon started to fly, centering on the issue of anti-Semitism, which came to the center of national discussion following the gun attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue last October.
Tamika Mallory, a Black woman activist for gun control and one face of the national Women’s March leadership, has made no secret of the fact that the Nation of Islam stood beside her and supported her when no one else would, after the brutal murder of her son’s father 17 years ago left her a Black, single, teen mother alone in the world. It should therefore be no surprise that Mallory was among the 15,000 who attended the Nation of Islam’s annual “Saviour’s Day” event last year.
According to some in the women’s movement, Mallory’s subsequent refusal to denounce Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam who has made poisonous statements against Jews, makes her guilty of anti-Semitism by association.
Likewise, Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian Muslim leader of the March and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, is presumed guilty because she won’t denounce Mallory. Sarsour is also under attack as an “anti-Semite” and a “jihadi terrorist” because of her active support for the rights of the Palestinian people against racist Zionism. A grouping of right-wingers, Zionists, and other commentators from Fox News to pop singer Courtney Love have joined the chorus against Sarsour, though a large number of prominent political activists who are Jewish have spoken out in her defense.
Of all the problems that plague the Women’s March, however, the most debilitating by far is the orientation of central organizers to electoral politics and the Democratic Party. Clearly, a new sustained mass-action orientation is necessary. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people, from all walks of life, have joined the Women’s marches the last two years shows the possibilities of building such a movement.
This year, Socialist Action urges participants in the Jan. 19 marches to join the contingents of supporters of International Women’s Strike (IWS), which champions a program of working-class and internationalist demands as an integral part of the struggle for women’s liberation. See their call for a feminism of the 99%, which a number of groups and individuals have signed, on the next page.
A theory that can help guide us
Fortunately, the women’s movement has theoretical tools that can guide our participation in struggles for political power and help us see past the myriad distractions. Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) is such a tool. While many radical feminists tend to believe that the root of women’s oppression lies in biology, SRT uses historical materialist analysis to argue that this cannot be true.
In pre-class society, when social production was organized communally and products shared equally, the social status of women and men reflected the indispensable roles each played in the subsistence productive process, and there was no material basis for the exploitation of one group over another.
Child-bearing cannot be the root of women’s oppression because although women have always been the ones to bear children, they have not always been oppressed. The origin of women’s oppression is intertwined with the transition from pre-class to class society. In these specific socioeconomic conditions, as the exploitation of human beings became profitable for a privileged few, women, because of their biological role in production, became valuable property.
SRT fills the gaps left in Marx’s analysis (labor power creates all wealth, but the continuous re-creating of labor power is exogenous to the model of capital accumulation), creating a fuller, unified theory in the process, which explains women’s oppression and provides guidance in the ongoing struggle for women’s liberation. We oversimplify and summarize here by stating that the patriarchal family system operates in the service of the capitalist system—allowing the individual capitalist, the capitalist class as a whole, and the capitalist system itself to evade responsibility for, and the associated costs of, reproducing the labor power on which the capitalist system depends.
Our task is to make visible all of the “work” that capitalism has assigned to the family, in which it is expected to perform invisibly, at little or no cost to the capitalists, extracting ever greater profits for the capitalist class at the expense of the rest of us. Accomplishing this provides numerous benefits for the ruling class:
First, the “family” that performs all this reproductive labor for free is an idealized notion of the capitalist imagination (think “Leave it to Beaver”). In this scenario, only wealthy, white, heterosexual, cis-gendered women really have the option to stay home and care for children, elders, and household, without compensation, and they mostly choose not to—opting instead to hire women of color or immigrant women to do such work for very poor compensation (and leaving their own families to do so).
But this mythical, idealized family also creates a normative standard, and the punishment for falling outside these norms is oppression. Women are caught in a double bind where their assigned role inside the patriarchal family is oppressive, while any attempt to break free of the assigned role targets them for oppression.
Second, as we see clearly in times of economic boom, when the state chooses to buttress the family in order to facilitate the availability of women outside the home in the “productive” economy, there is no innate logic to assigning families, instead of society as a whole, responsibility for the care of “unproductive” members of society.
Third, in times of economic crisis, when the ruling class needs to simultaneously drive women from the work force to reestablish the reserve labor pool, lowering wage levels and cut the growing costs of social services provided by the state transferring the economic burden and responsibility for these services back onto the individual family of the worker, they do so by launching an ideological offensive against the very concept of women’s equality and independence.
The real world consequences include more sexual harassment and violence, less access to reproductive health services and choices, demonization of immigrants (a separate but connected reserve labor pool), fewer “support” services in schools (higher student to teacher ratios and the virtual disappearance of nurses and social workers), and larger work loads and lower pay for those who do “women’s work” professionally—teachers, social workers, domestic workers, and health-care providers.
And finally, a SRT feminist, Marxist understanding of the nature of women’s oppression helps us formulate transitional demands and choose our battles for maximum impact. We stand with the women of Ireland, Poland, and Argentina (and here at home), fighting for access to abortion and other reproductive health services and choices. We stand with the women of Puerto Rico, who are facing an increasing wave of gender violence, exacerbated by the ruthless Fiscal Control Board’s bankrupting of their country.
We stand with the women of the caravans, desperate to escape the violence and starvation U.S. policies sow in their home lands. We demand “Let them in!” We stand with the nurses. We stand with the teachers. We stand with hotel workers. We stand for a feminism of the 99%.