Following is the text of a talk delivered by the author on Nov. 4 at the “The Solution is Socialism” educational conference in Connecticut. The conference was hosted by the Youth for Socialist Action chapter at Central Connecticut State University, where the sessions were held.
Usually, when I begin a talk about Marxism and feminism, I pick one of the latest outrages to the dignity of women and gender non-conforming people to stand in for all that capitalism has meant in the past and has in store for us in the future. This time, I had a lot of trouble choosing. In the last several weeks, we watched a strong 17-year-old without papers, sequestered in a refugee center, forced to stand up to the entire arsenal of the state of the most powerful capitalist nation on earth in order to be allowed to buy an abortion for herself.
Her story was punctuated by Trump’s racist and sexist denunciation of “welfare queens” stealing from the public, just as he was driving forward on a tax bill designed to utterly demolish any survival of the social pact made by the capitalist class in the wake of the rebellious Thirties. Within days, his administration threatened transgender soldiers with the kind of discharges that could condemn them to a life of joblessness, ostracism, and poverty.
And each morning as we click onto our news feed, we read the names and stories of the victims of sexual harassment that occupy the loftiest positions in the realm of the arts, the corporate world, and the U.S. Congress.
Faced with this overwhelming demonstration of the social subordination of women and those who are gender non-conforming, one would expect an uprising. Instead, the only leadership actually visible on the public stage called a National Women’s Convention whose mission was to prepare women to take up positions within this system and run for office, acting as if the two-party shell game that got us to this place was really a vehicle for change.
Why did this happen? Why is this the default response to the offensive against our ability to survive with dignity? In part it is because, despite a century and a half of betrayal on reproductive justice, child care, education, and elder care, many feminist activists retain deep illusions in the system, imagining that capitalism, with a bit more reasoning, with a few more mobilizations, with a few more liberal legislators, can actually be shaped into something that can emancipate us.
Socialists disagree. We believe that gender subordination is shown historically to be so integral to the functioning of the capitalist economy and the ability of big business to make profits, that lasting and fundamental changes will be only be made once we can break apart the most basic components of this system and create something entirely new.
Capitalism is a system in which all production is organized to make profits. Profits come from what value is produced by workers in the factory above and beyond what the boss gives in wages so that the worker can sustain himself or herself, and those who are dependent, and those who cannot yet work or can no longer work.
The boss, who is competing with other capitalists, needs to constantly increase profits, and after all other measures have been taken, in the end, can only do it by trying to lower wages. That is, capitalism is a system that works well only by impoverishing those who create its wealth.
To retain privately as much of the surplus society produces as possible, the capitalist class tries to put all the financial responsibility for the care and maintenance and reproduction of the working class onto the individual, usually using the vehicle of the nuclear family. Women’s, and less frequently men’s, unpaid care and nurturing labor in the home and community have been an essential way for the capitalist class to keep the system humming. Having some section of the female working class carry out unpaid labor in the home, in turn, by the logic of the system, makes women’s waged labor cheap.
When it is useful to pull these women into the waged work force to make profits, this sectoral, service, or care work is privatized. It becomes feminized low-wage labor, and the fact of its existence is used to try to lower the wages of the working class as a whole.
Unpaid, precarious, temporary, part-time, low-wage women workers who leave and return episodically to the full-time labor pool at the capitalists’ whim play an essential role in making the profit system work for the bosses. There are mechanisms other than gender that help the capitalists keep a pool of surplus labor around. National oppression and immigration are just two others. Regimes to replace workers based something other than gender—slavery and work camps—are sometimes temporarily deployed to handle social reproduction. But it is gender that is the backbone of the system of surplus labor and social reproduction as a whole in the capitalist mode of production.
These two poles—a privatized realm of social production based on unpaid work that keeps part of the working-class family educated, healthy, and sane enough to keep punching the clock and big pools of warehoused surplus workers that keep wages down—are integral to the production for profit system. There are variations in implementation. And there are divisions among capitalists about how, practically speaking, to organize social reproduction at any specific time. But these contingencies do not challenge the general workings of the system.
The current debate over taxation, for example, is really about just how far the bosses want to go in terms of cutting the social wage. Just how far can they go in terms of placing the burden for the maintenance of daily life on the individual workers and their families before there is a revolt? In truth, all the talk of deficits and taxation, all the efforts of big business to lower its tax rate, are really about their increasing unwillingness, in the face of new global competition and a declining rate of profit, to continue social spending on education, health care, housing, childcare, elder care, safe water, safe food, and so on.
When Congress battles over taxation rates and budgets, a great deal of what they are fighting really does have to do with how much they can avoid paying the cost of providing these necessities to the working class as a whole without provoking a really threatening response. The wing of the capitalist class driving through the current tax reform is pretty confident, given our level of fightback, that they can go lower and still stay in power.
Capitalists steadily reduced the social wage
The amount of the social wage is determined by the class struggle. For the last 40 years, unfortunately, this has been an almost one-sided war, with capitalists in a global crisis consistently and successfully chipping away at the social wage and conditions of working-class life until, today, they feel that they should not have to pay to insure clean water in Flint or an inspector in a meat-packing plant. It is this relationship between social reproduction and production for profit, alongside the ruling class’s constant calculation regarding how much the working class will resist, that keeps us in the loop of progress and retreat on issues such as reproductive justice, the disciplining of sexuality and gender expression, and the use of sexual violence and harassment.
None of this is determined in a completely predictable way by the conjunctural circumstances of production and profit. But the connections are demonstrable over time and space, and we ignore this fundamental relationship at our own peril. I have seen the waxing and waning in my own time, coming of age in the post-World War II boom amidst the tremendous gains of second-wave feminism and living through the historic defeats of the gendered neoliberal offensive of the last decades.
The ferocity of today’s attacks on women and gender non-conforming people cannot be fully understood outside of the context of the current, even more intense global capitalist crisis. These connections show us that no victory is permanent or secure as long as this mode of production is in place.
Let us remind ourselves of how neoliberal capitalism has been functioning on a global scale for the last 40 years. The off-shoring of a lot of low-wage industry was carried out only with a sophisticated gendering of global labor and the use of hoary patriarchal setups to keep those women vulnerable and unorganized.
Peter Custers, in his studies of women’s labor in Asian economies, has documented how the development of the garment industry in Bangladesh and Pakistan was accompanied by the recreation, the resuscitation and reshaping, by urban elites of traditional rural conditions that kept women coming to the city for jobs but tied to peasant family structures that disciplined them.
Lourdes Arizepe described the same process in Mexican strawberry agribusiness. Manipulating the circumstances of social reproduction to assure profitable production is a generalized phenomenon. Within the sweatshops—whether in South Asia, Africa, or the borderlands here—sexual harassment is used systematically to keep workforces quiescent.
A range of studies from the last several decades confirms this. A study of women in the export processing zones of the Dominican Republic found that 40% were sexually harassed by their bosses. Another study in Kenya found that 90% of women in the export zone were sexually harassed. And in each of these countries, imperialist-mandated austerity programs cut water, education, and health, and so dramatically increased the unpaid labor load of women.
So, the neoliberal period has seen gender used brutally in both production and social reproduction. The sheer number of women that began work during this period for subsistence or less than subsistence wages was cited by The Economist as the largest source of economic growth in the world by 2006. The cuts in the social safety net lowered corporate and elite taxes everywhere. Since the 2008 crash, we can only imagine that this whole process has deepened.
These stories can be told about gendered labor in the United States as well. In fast food operations in the U.S., a 2016 study reported, the percentage of sexual harassment of women was 40%. And in 2014, the Restaurant Opportunities Center found sexual harassment among restaurant workers (women and men) registering at 90%. Had the kitchen workers been employed further back on the food chain, they would have suffered systematic sexual violence in the fields, as documented in a NPR special in 2014.
My father-in-law’s cousin organized female Jewish jewelry workers in New York City in the 1930s—and guess what? The union won the shop because it promised to put an end to the morning lineup, in which the male foremen would greet their employees by walking along the line and feeling up each of them, just to let them know who was the boss.
“Jane Doe,” as an immigrant coming to work in the U.S. without papers, likely to be subject to persistent wage theft and extreme exploitation, all the while still sending funds home to help privately raise the next generation of such workers, could be the embodiment of this global and gendered process. The efforts to control her reproduction could be taken from the annals of any colonial operation from history, as they all used gender subordination as one tool of conquest.
Russian Revolution: radical measures to liberate women
When you think about it this way, you realize that gender subordination is not an accident or something to be held over that could be cleared up if we get some more enlightened people into the Congress. For the vast majority of working-class women and gender non-conforming people, the pain and fear associated with it is omnipresent. This is because it is undeniably part of the way that the system functions.
It can seem overwhelming. It is so normalized. But history shows us that it does not have to be this way. One hundred years ago, in 1917, a women’s demonstration for bread in Petrograd, Russia, turned into the first mobilization of a revolution that upended the entire social system organized production for profit. This revolution had a leadership determined to break women free from the drudgery of the compulsory and repressive family mandated by the Orthodox Church, and immediately made simple divorce available to all.
Children born outside of a religious marriage could no longer be considered “illegitimate.” Abortion became free and legal. “Sodomy” was decriminalized for only the second time in modern history. Community kitchens and nurseries and laundries that could replace the unpaid labor in the family were built despite tremendous economic stress.
In those years, for a brief time, the most far-reaching experimentation and debate on the way to organize society to free women was on the agenda. There is at least one same-sex marriage on the court dockets from this period. Radical thinking about sexuality was generalized and exhilarating—from Moscow to Berlin.
This amazing working-class effort to emancipate working women, according to LGBTQI researchers into the period like Jason Yanowitz, would very likely have led in time to even more far-reaching conceptions of gender variability and rights. Sadly, it was cut short by imperialist intervention in the Soviet Union, civil war, a period of scarcity, and a bureaucratic counterrevolution. But it happened, and shows us what is possible if we manage to take the reins of power and organize society on the basis of fulfilling human needs, collective responsibility for social reproduction, and individual dignity. Social revolution, though never a guarantee, is a prerequisite for female and sexual liberation.
Clearly we are not now on the verge of a revolutionary upsurge. But revolutions are not spontaneous. The ideas that they implemented in 1917 and 1918 had been debated in the factories and working-class women’s organizations for decades. The women who led this transformation had worked for decades to create a working-class political party that was clear on these issues and capable of leading in the decisive moments.
This one brilliant moment when all of everyday life could be reorganized was prepared, in truth, by generations of work. This is the broad task before us today: Building our organizations. Struggling to achieve clarity on the most advanced questions around sexuality and gender and, with others, theorizing emancipatory solutions. Creating spaces where regular people can learn of their potential power.
Socialists need to join up with forces like those who initiated the International Women’s Day strike solidarity action on March 8 and to begin to create nodes of a women’s movement for the 99%, a movement that privileges the struggles of working-class women, including trans women, and that recognizes the leadership of African American and immigrant women. We need a movement that is independent of the Democratic Party and full of spaces in which working women can find their radical political voices. A movement where working women can learn, debate, and build their confidence as leaders.
Such a movement, by the way, is also essential if we are to successfully counter the right-wing ideological offensive that managed to draw in working women alienated from “lean-in” feminism and the Hillary Clintons of this world. Twentieth-century European history tells us in no uncertain terms that failure on this score can lead to actions and events that are unthinkable.
This movement has to exist on a community and campus level. But its cadres must also be part of building a left wing in the unions that can mobilize the most combative sections of our class in support of the unorganized, in support of child care, elder care, health care, housing—all the social services we need to free women and other care givers for leadership.
And we must look for the moments when we can carry out exemplary struggles that make a movement independent of the Democrats look viable to the unorganized. Has such a movement existed? Yes, of course, it has in many historical contexts. In fact, women’s movements with these characteristics are in formation, and one of them in Argentina, Pan y Rosas, is the topic of our next speaker, Tatiana Cozzarelli of Left Voice.