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Our duty to win: Strategy and anti-capitalist feminism

Originally published: Advocate on June 21, 2017 by Tatiana Cozzarelli (more by Advocate)

Guadalupe García De Rayos moved to the United States when she was fourteen and lived here for two decades. She is the mother of two kids who were born and grew up in the United States. After being convicted of using a false social security number, she appeared for her annual check-in with immigration officers in February and was deported to Mexico.

Nawar al-Awlaki was eight years old when she was killed by an American drone in Yemen in early February. She was one of ten women and children who were killed in the attack. Years earlier, her older brother was killed in one of Obama’s drone strikes while he was eating dinner in an outdoor restaurant. He was sixteen years old.

These stories reflect the suffering of millions of women in the United States and around the world. As has become patently clear, the Trump administration has launched a massive attack on immigrants, the environment, and women’s rights. Numerous protests have made these attacks visible and serve to build the resistance against them. Although there were fewer demonstrations under the Obama administration and those of the Democrats before him, it is important to understand that the Democratic Party has been pursuing the same policies of misery and death for decades.

The resistance movement in the United States has slowly gathered steam. From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, we’ve seen people organizing to resist the attacks on their rights. Women have been central leaders of these important social movements and carried out the largest national march in decades: the January 21 Women’s March on Washington. This mobilization did not have a strong or coherent political message, though it expressed the growth of a women’s movement ready to fight Trump. From the massive energy built up by this march, there emerged a call for the International Women’s Strike, which began to articulate the need to organize a left women’s movement that is anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist — a “Feminism of the 99%.”

The call for a Feminism of the 99% (F99%) correctly differentiates itself from the neoliberal feminism that has been hegemonic in the past decades. Its strongest points are linking the fight for women’s rights to a critique of the capitalist system by highlighting the oppression of the working class and poor — especially Black, Latina, trans and disabled women — and departing from a feminism that supports the Democratic Party. The call for an International Women’s Strike mobilized large numbers of women across New York City on March 8, an impressive demonstration that stands in stark contrast to small leftist gatherings that have marked the date in the U.S. over the past several years. This protest was one among many in the 50 countries, which echoed the call for a strike.

At the same time, F99% did not clearly articulate strategies that the women’s movement might embrace to strike at the heart of a system that exploits and oppresses the vast majority of people. This discussion is particularly urgent in the face of increasingly brutal attacks on the working class and the oppressed under the Trump Administration, which has strengthened a radical right wing. Yet, Trump is only the tip of the iceberg; the attacks against us have been going on for decades. Feminism of the 99% and the call for a strike on March 8 opened a fundamental debate about the direction the women’s movement must take in this moment of increased politicization and right-wing attacks.

We’ve been losing for years

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Women, other oppressed groups, and the working class have been losing the battle for years. It has been four decades since the world has seen a revolution. The fall of the Soviet Union opened up new markets for capitalism, inaugurating a period of capitalist hegemony around the world, both as an economic system and as an ideology. While some rights were won as a result of the radical movements of the sixties, these past three decades have cemented the victory of capitalism as not just the most preferable system but as the only system possible. Unionization rates have plummeted, while labor unions implemented a “business unionism” model that was completely divorced from the rank and file and put their weight and money behind the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, both capitalist parties took away workers’ rights, including, in many states, the right to strike, effectively stripping workers of their most powerful weapon.

With the onset of the AIDS epidemic, the radicalism of Stonewall and the LGBT movement gave way to various alliances between LGBT leaders and the Democratic Party, which until very recently did not even support marriage equality. The imprisonment, repression, and murder of political activists in the Black Power movement allowed Democratic Party proxies to defend the racist power structure, while paying lip service to issues affecting black people’s lives. Figures like Jesse Jackson emerged in the wake of the political vacuum created by the racist and repressive attacks on black revolutionary movements. Similarly, while radical feminists of the 60s and 70s was able to address the entanglements between the patriarchal system, capitalism, state violence, and imperialism, we have since seen the rise of a new kind of feminism — a liberal feminism — one that sought first and foremost to increase the number of women in positions of power, as explained in March 8: When the Earth Shook. The primary goal of this “lean-in feminism” has been to attain legal recognition and rights so that a few women are able to achieve success within the capitalist system.

In other words, despite the major differences between them, these three movements underwent a similar co-optation that transformed them from radical movements that fought for systemic change to reformist movements that upheld the status quo. They were ultimately siphoned back into the confines of the capitalist system, advocating for greater participation in the existing power structures and class system, while placing their faith in the Democratic Party.

The past two decades have also been characterized by the eradication of what little remained of the safety net for poor people in the United States. Reagan used the myth of the “welfare queen” to justify significant cuts to social programs for the poor and the expansion of a racist ideology against black women that further divided the working class. Labor unions and social movements co-opted and tamed by the Democratic Party did not put up an effective fight against these measures. Instead, non-profits stepped in to administer band-aids that attempted to fill in for the services that the government no longer provided. Several of these non-profits address racial justice and gender equity while receiving money from corporations and the government which exploit and imprison women and people of color. The proliferation of these “social justice” organizations only perpetuates the perception that revolution is unnecessary and ties those who fight for social justice to the interests of the government and corporations.

Identity politics and the non-profitization of the women’s movement

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Identity politics mirrors some of the contradictions of the non-profit industrial complex because it reduces oppression to a series of individual problems that are confronted on an individual basis. The prevailing expressions of identity politics — discourses, policy agendas, institutions, activist-leaderships — do not address the link between individual bigotry and/or sexist behavior and the capitalist system that maintains structural oppression.

Identity politics has been an important response to dominant political spheres that erased the importance of oppressed groups. It helped develop an understanding of the different ways in which people are oppressed, particularly examining the diverse experiences within the working class (which includes queer, disabled, immigrant, and black people). However, the ideology of identity politics does not acknowledge that this oppression is a mechanism that helps guarantee capitalist profits. These politics are ideal for the non-profit industrial complex which targets and divides parts of the population to fight for crumbs in the neoliberal world order. Rather than fighting capitalism, many strands of identity politics end up seeking representation within capitalism.

Capitalism and women’s oppression

The dominant narrative in the neoliberal era is that equality for women will be achieved by the passage of laws and policies, ignoring the fact that capitalism actively prevents full equality. While it’s true that we must fight for progressive laws, we should not see such achievements as simply steps on a ladder to liberation. Full liberation requires a different strategy, one that is not limited to racking up democratic victories but aims at tearing down capitalism.

While some may attribute women’s subordination to the sexism of individual people, misogyny does not merely exist in the minds of individuals; it is first and foremost a system of material inequality. Capitalism benefits from the wage gap and the continuous downward drive of wages. Capitalism also benefits when domestic labor is viewed as natural, intrinsically female, and thus remains unpaid.

Although sexism existed before capitalism, and the end of capitalism is not the same as the end of sexism, this system garners massive profits from sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia. For every woman CEO, there is a woman who is paid miserable wages to clean her bathroom. Within this system, there can be no equality, and even steps forward are deeply contradictory.

Beyond “lean-in,” beyond identity politics

More and more people now see the flaws inherent in the fight for advances within a capitalist paradigm. Millions of young Americans are no longer afraid of the word socialism and see it as a system “more human” than capitalism, expressed by the votes for Bernie Sanders, the “socialist.”

Although Sanders certainly does not propose to destroy capitalism, the thirteen million who voted for him demonstrated openness to more radical ideas. Unfortunately, this radicalization also took place on the Right, as expressed by Trump, who championed a politics of racism and misogyny while promising to solve the economic problems of those devastated by years of neoliberalism. His victory marked a turning point for thousands of progressive people who are disillusioned with both political parties and are beginning to take the fight for their rights into their own hands.

These radical ideas are also expressed by Feminism of the 99%, which goes beyond neoliberal or “lean-in” feminism, which seeks representation in the highest positions of the current system. A call for a women’s strike in the U.S. signed by prominent feminists such as Angela Davis, Nancy Fraser and Cinzia Arruzza stated, “Lean-in feminism and other variants of corporate feminism have failed the overwhelming majority of us, who do not have access to individual self-promotion and advancement and whose conditions of life can be improved only through policies that defend social reproduction, secure reproductive justice, and guarantee labor rights.”

Implicitly, F99% rejects the individualization and fragmentation of the politics of identity, and fights for a feminist movement that stands in solidarity with everyone oppressed by neoliberalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. This incipient left wing of the women’s movement also rejects the fragmentation created by national borders which only serve to divide the oppressed and the working class. As a political trend born out of the call for the International Women’s Strike organized in over 50 countries, there is a strong basis for internationalism. Our struggles must be united, even as they negotiate and recognize difference, and they must be decisively anti-imperialist. We must make alliances across national borders to fight imperialism, not ally ourselves with either of the two political parties that carry out imperialist policies.

Limits to the feminism of the 99%

Unfortunately, “Feminism of the 99%” does not see society as divided into bosses and workers, but rather into an ultra-rich elite and everyone else. The concept of “the 99%” does not point to our role in production, rooted as it is in a critique of the excesses of capitalism as opposed to a critique of the entire capitalist system. Furthermore, if anti-capitalism is a real, achievable goal as opposed to a decorative slogan, we must think about how to end capitalism. This brings us to the central role of the working class.

The basis for the critique of the “99%” slogan is not a fetishization of the working class, but rather a concern with the urgent task of winning. We see the working class as the heart of capitalist society; it is the sector that turns the gears on the entire capitalist state. Without the working class, there are neither profits nor products. The ruling class knows this and has historically gone to great lengths to tactically divide the working class through racism, sexism, and LGBTQ-phobia. If the heart of capitalism is the exploitation of working class labor, then it is the working class that can bring an end to capitalism and begin the work of creating real equality by taking up and fighting for the demands of all oppressed sections of society.

The strike as a working-class weapon

The International Women’s Strike and growing anti-Trump sentiment have foregrounded the necessity of organizing strikes. While the International Women’s Strike called for a strike for women’s rights and against Trump, the reality is that no sector of U.S. labor actually went on strike on March 8. This is in stark contrast to Argentina, where socialist-feminist organizations rooted in the working class successfully carried out important work stoppages.

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As anti-capitalist feminists, reviving U.S. labor is of crucial strategic importance. In the context of an imminent increase in right-to-work legislation, putting forward the idea of a strike could breathe life into a dying labor movement. In On Strikes, Lenin wrote,

“Strikes, which arise out of the very nature of capitalist society, signify the beginning of the working-class struggle against that system of society. When the rich capitalists are confronted by individual, propertyless workers, this signifies the utter enslavement of the workers. But when those propertyless workers unite, the situation changes. There is no wealth that can be of benefit to the capitalists if they cannot find workers willing to apply their labor-power to the instruments and materials belonging to the capitalists and produce new wealth.” 

Strikes differ from rallies and protests because they shut down capitalist production and demonstrate to the boss, the government, and the worker that the working class is in fact the most powerful enemy of the capitalists. Some of the organizers of the Women’s Strike argued that labor strikes were unrealistic because the American working class is weak. There is certainly evidence to support the claim; the labor movement has been demolished and the union bureaucracy has sold out. Yet it is essential to challenge and transform the weakness of the labor movement in the United States, not adapt to it.

A key question for F99%, then, is: how do working-class women who make up the movement organize a strike in their workplaces?

We have seen some important clues that point to a way forward. Although Randi Weingarten from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) takes a hard stance against Trump and spoke at the Women’s March on Washington, the AFT did not call meetings to discuss work stoppages on March 8. Yet, so many teachers planned to call out on International Women’s Day that three school districts were forced to close. These teachers demonstrate that there is a will to resist, but that the union bureaucracy refuses to organize a collective struggle.

A new, anti-capitalist feminism should help create, support, and organize these rank-and-file demands and denounce the hypocrisy and bankruptcy of unions that do not fight for their members or for the working class as a whole. In many states, the right to strike has been stolen from the working class. Rather than adapting ourselves to this harsh reality, the Left, the workers, women, and all oppressed people must fight to get this right back. It will not be easy, but we can take inspiration from the example of the women who organized the 1908 strikes—the strikes that inspired International Women’s Day—under terribly harsh conditions. We do not, however, have to go back as far as 1908 for further examples. As internationalists, we should look at the struggles of other countries. In Argentina, women from the socialist women’s group Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses) pushed for assemblies at all workplaces in universities, and in some sectors of teaching staff and Pepsico, a food distributor, workers were able to organize a strike on March 8.

A feminism that can win

Organizing a strategy that is likely to win is no easy task. After all, the enemies of the working class are more powerful today than ever before; they have control over the military, the media, the courts, the politicians, and even the unions. The fight against the patriarchal capitalist system, therefore, must be strategic to be effective.

The utmost example of this is the Russian Revolution, when the working class took power, led by the Bolsheviks. Despite the poverty of war-torn USSR, they were able to provide women more rights than most capitalist democracies today. The resistance to Trump cannot stay within the narrow scope of defending women’s rights. It is necessary that the most radical sector of the women’s movement embed itself in the working class and galvanize the broader working class into embracing the fight for women’s emancipation. And the women who are willing to fight for their emancipation should embrace the struggle of the working class and its historical role, the socialist revolution.

We must get to work because it is our duty to fight with all that we have—because it is our duty to win.

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