Feminism & Neoliberalism: Dovetail Development

Nancy Fraser on the co-development of the latter-20th century feminist movement and neoliberalism as a form of capitalism.

Neoliberalism wants cheap women workers.

Pillars of 2nd wave feminism (against state-organized capitalism) that melded with neoliberalism, post-1970s, to create the degraded form of feminism characteristic of the conservative age:

1) Critique of economism/focus on distributive justice –> cultural determinism, glorifying political-economic ignorance.
2) Critique of androcentrism, male family wage–> uncritical embrace of wage labour.
3) Critique of managerialism/technocracy/nation-state as arena of political contestation

–>market over state, deregulation, welfare state retrenchment.

It’s not just that feminism has been hijacked by capital.

There is an affinity between feminism & neoliberalism that enables their coalition: They both oppose traditional authority. Ideally, feminists oppose the traditional authority of elders, fathers, husbands; capitalists oppose traditional authority that slows or broadly redistributes profit accumulation. But capital has the resources and some feminists have the motivation to efface those specificities, or to cohere when the specifics overlap; and it’s capital’s terrain.

Current trends in feminist neoliberalism:

1) Today, feminism is less a critique of capitalism, and more of a contribution to neoliberalism, eg. microcredit finance as “answer” to poverty.

2) Gender and sexuality departments in universities are used to pioneer academic proletarianization, privatization and other neoliberal policies.

3) With the explosion of surveillance states, especially the US, feminist anti-male violence politics and policies are used as a tool to enforce US-centric state monopoly on violence and conservative policy orthodoxy within the capitalist World-system.

4) Feminist obeausity entrepreneurs oppose pro-working class food, health, and transit movements.

5) Neoliberal feminists continue to insist that we have to valorize popular political-economic illiteracy, which, they hold, is within a properly female domain, whereas they hold that political-economic literacy is “male.” This conceptualization translates in practice into the Victorian Progressivist/feminist assumption that a competent, educated woman’s work is properly low-paid/unpaid caregiving and hegemony transmission, wherefrom eventually elect women are promoted into caregiving and cultural management.

6) “Polyvocality” busywork keeps the young women fussing, fretting and preening about in the house, forever perfecting cocktail party guest lists and chiding each other about their manners, even as the house is being systematically dismantled by bulldozers, and plundered by Christian patriarchs, bankers, and oil men. It’s a prefigurative technique; it’s not political engagement. It’s a partial gesture, thats game-changing effectiveness requires social preconditions.

I agree strongly with Nancy Fraser’s dead-on observation that feminists (maybe because we come from different political and material vantage points) have not in this conservative era figured out how to oppose traditional authority in a way that makes feminism distinct from neoliberalism (that is, US-centric global monopoly capitalism).

While feminists who acknowledge this prefer to claim that feminism is just weaker than conservatism, and there is truth to that, it is also true that mainstream, liberal feminist politics and policies cohere feminists to neoliberal initiatives as well.

Eisenstein, Hester. 2009. Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World. Boulder: Paradigm.

Eisenstein essentially takes up Viriginia Woolf’s enlightened charge in “Three Guineas” (1938).

and cites Johanna Brenner: “(M)ainstream feminist goals are entirely compatible with the economic doctrines of corporate globalization” (ix).

Judith Orr (2010) reviews the feminist terrain from England.

But for one anti-neoliberal feminist example, Naomi Wolf is always in there, drawing the line in the sand between capitalist class political projects and feminist commitments. You may prefer the (co-optable, acontextual) brand of female “purity” offered by liberal or radical feminism, but I really appreciate the dirty public role Wolf takes on in these controversies.

Prominent, reliable anti-neoliberal feminists include:

Nancy Fraser
Ellen Meiksins-Wood
Selma James
Judith Orr
Johanna Brenner
Hester Eisenstein
Naomi Wolf
Angela Davis
Barbara Ehrenreich
Julie Matthaei
Amy Goodman
Marilyn Waring
Jacqui M. Alexander
Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Pnina Werbner
Frances Fox Piven
Arlie Hochschild
Juliet Schor
Holly Sklar
Diane Elson
Mariane Ferber
Julie Nelson
Mimi Abromowitz
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Kim Phillips-Fein
Stephanie Coontz
Lani Guinier
Brooksley Born (?)
Naomi Klein
Sasha Lilley
Kate Drabinski
Emily Drabinski
Karen Orren (?)

Historical left-feminists:

Alexandra Kollontai
Alice Field
Jenny Marx Longuet
Eleanor Marx
Annie Besant
Silvia Pankhurst
Virginia Woolf
Raya Dunayevskaya
Dora Monefiore
Clara Zetkin
Dolores Ibarruri
Lena Morrow Lewis
Harriet Taylor
Evelyn Reed
Kate Millett
Bernice Shoul
Teresa Ebert
Marlene Dixon

TBC…

What will feminists replace traditional patriarchal authority with, besides the orthodox, male-dominated US-centric market daddy wagon we’ve way too often been hitched to and steered by since the 1970s?

 Neoliberal feminism is not so much an abeyance institution as it is a technique for advancing conservative initiatives that feast on the blood, sweat and tears of women– while letting feminists feel those familiar feminine feelings: righteous and altruistic and busy…and exhausted and frustrated. This is a central problem to feminism that should no longer be pussy-footed around in the interest of maintaining a vagina- and queer sexual identity-centered coalition.


It does not increase women’s freedoms to answer “We shall replace the capitalist capitan of our hearts with polyvocality,” the idealist, romantic, pluralist “substitute” for sometimes-coalitional, sometimes-contentious political democracy, and a diluted, denatured and anxiously-respectable form of resistance. Which is not to say polyvocality isn’t difficult. Indeed, under present might-makes-right social relations, polyvocality can never be substantively accomplished to challenge the order. That difficulty doesn’t mean it is the prime lever to order change.

We don’t exit hierarchical, exclusionary, patriarchal “gang” relations by urging an interdependent pluralistic voluntarism (AKA  polyvocality). There’s an alluring micro-macro homology to that theory–and it’s too easy, and the US has shown that the valorization of pluralism cannot counter social human organization and power within a hierarchy building, surplus accumulating framework.

Instead Enlightenment’s champions fight together, over centuries, to found institutions that systematically, broadly redistribute  resources, surplus, status, and power (This is the Frodo Baggins theory: Concentrated power is a burden that corrupts. Control tyranny by distributing power to those least capable of (ab)using it, and keep it moving around. I’m sorry, it’s very nerdly; but essentially, in this view, Lord of the Rings is an Enlightenment story about how you get to communism. It should be rewritten by a socialist-feminist.), and we fight to beat back organized, capital-backed coalitions of conservatives–people who specifically want to restrict power, status and surplus to a small group most able to abuse it.

This is a long haul. Sometimes it requires disruption; sometimes it requires coalition-building and alternative institution building. Because there is an outside context of motivated power that systematically rapes and pillages, you cannot (figuratively) expand the acequias outside the remote interstices (figuratively, Northern NM) unless you repeatedly fight the long fight, as well as build alternative institutions and culture. Here is where historical-materialist feminists do not buy the capitalist portrayal of communism. Yes, communists fight, and that is needed. Pacified alterity cannot induce change by itself, because surplus-accumulating power is complex enough and flexible enough to absorb it; and it is not enough to celebrate the marginalized existence of pacified alterity within a dehumanizing, environmentally-destructive system. We need to re-engage strategic, contentious politics, to disrupt, as historical political sociologists Frances-Fox Piven and Domhoff will agree.

As Lichterman says, it is strategic not to reify specific individuals and groups as opponents, so that we can recognize the moment’s coalition opportunities; but we always have to be able to recognize the conservative difference and oppose it. We understand that egalitarian liberation requires a role for creative, contentious collective strategy when we recognize, as Zizek notes, that an order, including patriarchy, mobilizes its defenders.  The twentieth century’s basic passion, “the belief that politics was the key to our truths as well as our myths,” (Hobsbawm 2012) has not been superceded, only suppressed for class warfare purposes.


Polyvocality is necessary, but so extremely insufficient, that by itself, it does more harm (contributes to tyranny) than good (moves us toward broad egalitarian, developmental relations). Within the context of organized conservatism, the process and goal of polyvocality, and the prefigurative politics of polyvocality tend to deliver not polyvocality but conservatism, in the form of neoliberalism (conservatism-cum-liberalism). This is because the capitalist market grotesquely amplifies the voice of the powerful, the accumulators. In a putatively-polyvocal (pluralist) regime, the automatically-amplified voice will drown out all others. Like voting, polyvocality is an utter and complete mirage under capitalism. It prettily promises that immediately we can model and deliver equal and sufficient liberation for all, and with herculean effort it may provide a freedom here or there, at a scale sufficient to keep the ladies busy with manners and guest list projects while egalitarian freedoms are crushed en masse. Not unlike white women’s traditional role in the US South. So far, polyvocality’s chief accomplishment is to support capitalist class cohesion, and insofar as feminists subscribe to it, to subsume non-elite women under the project of multicultural capitalist class cohesion. Polyvocality alone cannot reduce women-exploiting, women-crippling business as usual.

You cannot move toward either political or cultural democracy if you are studiously neglecting and forever deferring to disrupt the egregious, overbuilt, institutionalized, hierarchically-structured relationships of tyranny and domination–our relationships within the oikos, our relationships to the surpluses extracted and amassed, and to those who control them–that structure our everyday lives. That neglect is the result of making the wrong (respectable, proper) coalitions.

Polyvocality has to be a preservation practice of monastery communities, and a second-tier goal, after feminists have stopped forming “coalitions” with (being co-opted by) capital’s primitive accumulation and exploitation initiatives, and have instead embraced the long hard road of forming capitalist order-disruptive, organization-building coalitions with the working class, which is not male (even if conservatives have had some of it wishing it were). It’s obvious that US working class institutions are heavily to blame for this coalition failure–but they’re nearly obliterated now. 


The point I am making in this post:
Feminists need a socialist backbone not because socialism is a more transhistorically-essential political program; not at all. Feminists need a socialist backbone because without a critique of capital, in a capitalist context, feminism will be emphatically subsumed by and subordinated to conservative surplus and power accumulation projects that eviscerate feminist achievements and obstruct feminist goals.


The conservatives are showing us that in the US, time and time again, they can invoke and wield Little King politics that promise, no matter what else might be going on, that every dispossessed American can join together with the political-economic elite in ruling with an iron fist over women as a group. That political strategy cannot be beat back and held down unless feminists can join together with socialists to advance, both with some prefigurative politics and with plenty of non-innocent, political conflict, both the egalitarian distribution of the wealth society collectively creates and post-feudal freedoms for all.

Women who have emerged from abuse know–You cannot overcome systematic abuse with a culture of “egalitarian” respect and listening, practiced by only one side, the abused. Now consider this difference in this analogy: We cannot exit our abusive relationship (based in surplus and power accumulation)–We cannot exit our planet, and find a more supportive “women’s shelter” planet. Ours is the long, hard battle not just to maintain a distinct, better vision of human relations, but to engage in conflict, to subdue, and to conquer the oppressor–as the political-economic opportunity strikes (as he loses coherence, confidence, hegemonic monopoly), and put him on a new track, within which he is motivated and compelled to share in the reproductive provisioning and to share resources, status, and power.

At that point the idealists–the anarchists and postmodernists have an important role to play in fostering reinforcing polyvocal culture and art. The monks and nuns of prefigurative politics will take care of themselves today. We need to be fostering, valorizing, and protecting organizers, strategists, communist horizon theorists (including socialist-feminists), monkeywrenchers, and fighters.

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