Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Feminist Past is Prologue

"Fortunes of Feminism – From State-Managed Capitalism to Neo-Liberal Crisis,” by Nancy Fraser, 2013.

This is a collection of 25 essays from the 1980s to 2008 by Fraser, a feminist ‘social philosopher’ at the New School in New York.  Like attorneys who use turgid or constipated words and structure instead of clear and simple ones, these essays by a professor are larded with an academic jargon that seems derived from what is called ‘critical theory.’  Which seems a somewhat unspecific name.  There are few books by feminists interested in material theory, which is why I am reviewing it.  Fraser seems to be influenced by the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist sociology and by Max Weber and Hannah Arendt.  In an odd way, it is somewhat of a companion volume to Lise Vogel’s “Marxism and the Oppression of Women” (also reviewed below). 

Here is an example of Fraser’s jargon.  After talking about feminists ignoring the global ‘poor’ she says:  “Naming this second, meta-political injustice ‘misframing,’ I argue for a post-Westphalian theory of democratic justice which prolematizes unjust frames.”  What she really means is:  “I argue for an internationalist perspective which includes the global poor.”  The scary part is that you can understand the jargon by the end of the book.  Her favorite word is ‘androcentrism’ which, from the Greek, means ‘male-centered.’  Her second favorite is ‘late-capitalism,’ a term of triumphalism that has certainly outliving its applicability, given it was first coined in 1902 and later taken up by the Frankfurt School and others after WWII.   Her third is ‘postindustrial’ – a term that is both narrowly nationalist and absolutely untrue.  No society on earth is ‘post-industrial.’

Periods of Feminism

The period covered by Fraser is from the 1970s, when ‘second-wave’ feminism was at high tide, to feminism’s decay into cultural criticism under the neo-liberal/neo-conservative period of Reagan/ Thatcher, the Bushes & Clinton in the 1990’s, and ending in the economic crisis of 2008.  Her estimate is that socialistic economic and material analyses will once again play a role in feminism due to economic factors, and the best aspects of ‘second wave’ feminism will be back. 

What is ‘second wave’ feminism?  Well, that which came after the first wave, which were the original suffragettes like Mary Wollenstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony, and activists like Margaret Sanger.  Suffrage was one main result of the first wave - New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote in 1893, while the U.S. gained it in 1920, 27 years later.  The only two countries in the world where women still can’t vote are Saudi Arabia and the Vatican – both theocracies loyal to U.S. power.  The second wave started in the post-war period with Simone du Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and ended with a ‘New Left’ feminism linked to Marxism.  The gains of ‘second wave’ feminism in the U.S. were the legalization of abortion, making gender discrimination in jobs illegal, making domestic violence and rape in marriage illegal, mandating equal pay for equal work, ending bars against women in certain jobs, the development of contraceptives, Title IX sports equality and full contract authority for women.  These of course are only legal steps and so fall short of actual social equality.

The Chapters

At any rate, if you can get by the sometimes stultifying jargon, the essays track leftish arguments with sociologist Jurgen Habermas, fellow feminist Judith Butler and post-modernists Lacan, Julia Kristeva and Sassure – the founder of structuralism.  I.E. some of the same people that popped up in the book, “Fashionable Nonsense,” (reviewed below.).  Fraser follows the arguments of Vogel on the direct connection of the family to the capitalist economy, linking the ‘domestic’ and personal spheres with the economic, state and political spheres.  Fraser's analysis rejects the low-status identity of women as an ideological component of women’s economic role.  Instead she pictures this as part of two areas - cultural and economic - somehow independent,  'side-by-side' phenomenons.  Her assertion, which she does not back up, is that women’s inferior cultural role is not ‘super-structural,' as an active reflection of their economic role.  This it seems is to avoid any appearance of obvious Marxism.

Fraser takes on the pragmatic sociological philosophy of Habermas by arguing that his description of society isolates the family and the domestic sphere from the economic and public spheres, which consequently puts many women and their issues in a ghetto.  She also criticizes Habermas for ignoring any gender identification of the various areas of society  Though since the 1970s, the sexual identity of certain jobs or roles has changed in the developed capitalist countries, though not decisively. I don’t think many people care about Habermas, but then these essays were written awhile ago.  They are perhaps valuable for pointing out that even world-class intellectuals like Habermas ignored gender in his sociological theory. 

Fraser has an excellent history of the term ‘dependency.’  At present the word “dependency’ downgrades mostly women who do home-based, unpaid ‘carework.’  Carework is defined as taking care of babies, elderly parents, sick relatives or even a husband who does nothing at home.  Part of it features the individualizing process of ‘psychologizing’ many poor women who do carework - aka liberals and conservatives using psychology to avoid a systemic analyses.  Fraser contrasts this with what she calls two ‘thought experiment’ solutions to this problem in the ‘post-industrial welfare state.’  One is a full employment model and one is a ‘caregiver’ model which compensates those who stay at home to do the necessary work of taking care of others.  She shows the feminist limitations of both models, and suggests a combination of the two.  She then says that, under the present ‘post-industrial welfare state’ they are virtually impossible. Her analysis is completely confined to capitalism and smacks more of academic social work than anything else.

More Secular Mysticism

Fraser’s makes a philosophical attack on feminist disciples of post-modernist language structuralism and neo-Freudian psychology.  She starts with Sassure, moves to Lacan, and ends up with Kristeva, who calls herself a ‘post-feminist.’ (which means we no longer need feminism!)  Fraser basically takes their structuralist and post-structuralist theories apart as static, individualist, verbally-based theories that have no connection with history, class or movements.  She points out their idealist nature makes them unable to actually intersect with the real world and help women.  Sort of a linguistic Platonism to my mind.  She instead supports a ‘pragmatic’ description of language, which does just that. 

Fraser’s next target is Judith Butler, another somewhat leftish feminist who disagrees with Fraser’s take on the ‘two’ (actually three) areas of struggle for Fraser – economic, cultural and political.  Fraser refers to the low-status of women as the key feminist cultural issue - something that has an independent life from the economy.  They argue about the roots of gay oppression, which Butler thinks is caused by the capitalist economy, while Fraser says it is both economic and cultural.  Fraser points to the fact that modern capitalist corporations are all for hiring gay workers and getting gay customers.   To buffer her own analysis, Fraser makes fun of the old-time Soviet description of the ‘base’ and the ‘superstructure’ as a description of the relation between economy and culture/ideology - as if all Marxists describe battleships instead of a living system.  These heavy terms are not nimble enough to capture the interrelations between the material life of a society and its cultural or political expressions, but they certainly allocate economic and material reality the ultimate role. Fraser uses the 'proof' of Soviet and eastern European workers' states to make her point, but the political limitations of those states are obvious.  Fraser by ignoring the fundamental role of material reality, Fraser flies into idealism – as culture in her theory becomes an equal entity to economic and materiel forces.

It all comes to a head in her last chapter, written during the economic crisis of 2008, in which she posits that the dominant cultural and liberal versions of feminism have intersected and actually merged with the new form of capitalist neo-liberalism.  Instead of taking on the economic roots of women’s oppression, feminism has focused on other issues more palatable to the capitalist economic system.  This is quite a stunning observation from Fraser, as she was invested in seeing the economy as just one of 3 ‘equal’ aspects of society.  Which shows that Fraser actually pays attention to historical development and that she is serious in wanting to revive what she calls ‘socialist-feminism.’   

I can only point out that advances in women and gay rights in the workforce and the army - absolutely justified as they are - still do not undermine either the profit system or imperialist militarism.  What I call the neo-liberal family – gay, married and childless, single, living together, divorced, dating, as well as married with children – does not weaken capitalism significantly, though it does free people culturally.    I think the reason is that the big capitalists can get labour from all over the world now, and do not need some U.S./ European families to produce as many babies to reproduce the U.S. working class.  Just as globalized corporations do not need all consumers to be U.S. citizens. The big capitalists also desire, as Vogel pointed out, to extract women and every group from the family into the labour force, which can then replace baby-making.  Ultimately capital wants to privatize every function of the family and in exchange, institute wage labour for everyone in it.  Even children!  That is, if it can’t get the work for free.

Fraser says “Henceforth, feminist theorists cannot avoid the question of capitalist society.” She shys away from Marxism, thinking it all ‘economist’ - and instead grasps for Karl Polyani, who incorporates certain feminist ideas in a book he wrote in 1944.  Fraser’s subsequent solutions are vague, professorial and seem disconnected from any actual struggles going on in the world.  She repeats her desire to take up the battle for economic, cultural and political struggles for women, but how this will actually work is left unsaid.  She ignores the class and ethnic basis of different kinds of feminism - which will generally lead women from different classes to focus on separate issues.  Her tripartite theoretical approach actually splits the movement.  What feminism needs now is a 'monist' struggle that is keyed on anti-capitalism - and uses every political and cultural angle to carry out that struggle, including the necessary fight against sexism.

I slogged through this academic jungle so you don’t have to … or perhaps you do.

Guardian comments on upper-class feminism 1/21/2015 -  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/21/feminists-obsessed-elite-metropolitan-lives-low-paid-females

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 13, 2015

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