Thursday, October 15, 2015

Feminism, Capitalism and "Society"

In the Times, Gary Gutting interviews left-wing feminist Nancy Fraser about her view that contemporary "mainstream feminism" has been too thoroughly captured by capitalism to actually serve women:
For me, feminism is not simply a matter of getting a smattering of individual women into positions of power and privilege within existing social hierarchies. It is rather about overcoming those hierarchies. This requires challenging the structural sources of gender domination in capitalist society — above all, the institutionalized separation of two supposedly distinct kinds of activity: on the one hand, so-called “productive” labor, historically associated with men and remunerated by wages; on the other hand, “caring” activities, often historically unpaid and still performed mainly by women. In my view, this gendered, hierarchical division between “production” and “reproduction” is a defining structure of capitalist society and a deep source of the gender asymmetries hard-wired in it. There can be no “emancipation of women” so long as this structure remains intact. . . .

As I see it, the mainstream feminism of our time has adopted an approach that cannot achieve justice even for women, let alone for anyone else. The trouble is, this feminism is focused on encouraging educated middle-class women to “lean in” and “crack the glass ceiling” – in other words, to climb the corporate ladder. By definition, then, its beneficiaries can only be women of the professional-managerial class. . . .

In the 1970s, feminists developed a powerful critique of the postwar cultural ideal known as the “family wage.” That ideal held that women should be full-time homemakers and their husbands should be the family’s sole (or at least principal) breadwinners, earning enough to support an entire household. Certainly, only a minority of American families managed to achieve this ideal. But it had enormous currency in a phase of capitalism premised on mass-production manufacturing and relatively well-paid unionized work for (especially white) men. All that changed, however, with the eruption of second-wave feminism, which rejected the family wage as sexist, a pillar of male domination and women’s dependency. . .

Today, the feminist critique of the family wage has assumed an altogether different cast. Its overwhelming thrust is now to validate the new, more “modern” household ideal of the “two earner family,” which requires women’s employment and squeezes out time for unpaid carework. In endorsing this ideal, the mainstream feminism of the present aligns itself with the needs and values of contemporary neoliberal capitalism.
I have some sympathy with Fraser's views. I have written here before about my sense that feminism has led to millions of women becoming miserable cogs in the corporate machine just like men, and to millions of parents being overwhelmed by the dual burden of careers plus parenting and housework.

But the harder I think about Fraser's argument, the less I understand what sort of future it points toward. I suppose that in a communist society the state could assign parents an annual stipend per child, as a sort of salary for caregiving; but what could a non-communist society do? We already offer low- and middle-income parents generous tax breaks, free public schools, and many other sorts of subsidies. What else?

My more fundamental objection is that Fraser, like a lot of people, assigns "society" quasi-dictatorial power over our lives.

It seems to me that in a world where we put more value on caregiving, we would put less emphasis on making stuff. And that means we would end up with less stuff. So Fraser is arguing that we should all be poorer in goods but wealthier in time and loving care. Right?

And the thing is, we already could do that if we wanted to. In fact, millions of people already do. My wife worked part time from home for years when our children were young, and millions of other Americans do similar things. If American women wanted to devote themselves full time to caregiving, they could. And millions do. It just means being poorer than people who live in two-career families. For some people it would mean being, by American standards, very poor. So?

I understand that in many ways our society is set up to discourage such acts, but so what? "Society" has no power over our lives but what we choose to give it. It seems to me that most Americans choose to seek a middle class life as we define it; nobody in the neoliberal elite is making them. The thing that bothers me about Fraser's argument is that she seems to want a world in which nobody has to choose between working to earn money and time for other things. Until we have Star Trek style replicators, this is simply not possible.

Life is always about choices. If Americans wanted to put less value on the goods produced by neoliberal (whatever that means) capitalism, they could. Many do. Whining that they pay a high price for this choice seems to me completely beside the point. In wishing that women could devote their lives to caring for their families or others without giving up any of capitalism's material benefits, isn't Fraser showing that she has herself been captured by capitalism's values? It is, after all, not a new idea that the way to freedom is learning to live on lentils.


G. Verloren said...

I'm a reformist at heart, so when I hear someone like Ms. Fraser blithely dismiss all the progress that has been slowly, painstakingly, incrementally made on behalf of women everywhere, I tend to roll my eyes a bit.

A mere half century ago, it was practically unthinkable for the amount of progress we've made to date ever to occur. We've come a very long way in what is a historically very small space of time.

And that's not to say there isn't still a mountain of progress that remains for us to achieve. But to dismiss the fact that we've surmounted a number of foothills, when before we were barely sea level and had been so for centuries, is to my mind ridiculous.

I can't really fault people for being impatient. But progress is progress, slow or small as it may be. We all want to one day summit the mountain, but getting fed up because we haven't done it as quickly as we might have liked does no one any good whatsoever.

I'd love to see a utopian society develop, free from injustice and needless suffering, and I'd love to see it happen quickly. But the only way I think we're ever going to come anywhere near a utopia is if we start where we are now and put one foot in front of the other, and repeat ad nauseum. There may be some shortcuts we can find and some pitfalls we can avoid along the way, but we're still in this for the long haul, not the short term.

Unknown said...

I take John's point that it is quite possible in our society to choose the kind of life that the interviewee advocates, that the price of choosing it isn't actually that terrible, and that there's room for wondering why what other people do or advocate should matter so much to the interviewee, or to anyone else. But surely there's room for socio-cultural debate too. Humans are by nature social and interested in each other. Commenting on what other people do and say--and arguing about it--is part of what makes us human. It's certainly a part I like. I agree that the trope that "ideas I don't like are part of the oppressive machine and I'm fighting for liberation" is stereotyped, tired, overused, usually inappropriate (like Hitler analogies). But I'm not sure I'd want to live in a society where nobody had much to say about what other people were doing and just minded their own business.