| “Feminism Is for Everyone” – Perspectives for a Feminist Class Politics

Oktober 2017  Druckansicht    Druckansicht
by Barbara Fried

2017 began with a global wave of feminist protests. Opposition to Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States was expressed most visibly by the Women’s Marches – and not only in the US itself. In Poland, resistance to restrictions on reproductive rights by the country’s right-wing government continued, while 8 March brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets from Buenos Aires and Istanbul to New Delhi. In Germany, as well, International Women’s Day witnessed demonstrations the likes of which we had not seen in decades.

At the same time, right-wing parties and movements are successfully taking up, articulating and mobilising widespread and to some extent justified popular anger in the ongoing organic crisis of neoliberalism: anger at a society in which the needs of the many are trampled upon while obscene wealth coexists with growing existential crisis and social inequality; anger at a society in which democratic structures and procedures are hollowed out and in which ongoing pressures towards flexibility and market pressure are a daily reality for many, making it impossible to reconcile wage labour, reproductive necessities and other wishes and desires. These “neoliberal breaking points” (Goes 2017) are not actually solved by the Right but rather taken up so effectively that they sometimes appear as the most visible pole of “resistance” to the status quo. With their mobilisation against “gender mania”, “early sexualisation” and “marriage for all”, they organise massive assaults on the achievements of the women’s and gay movements, and against anyone and everyone who fails to conform to the stereotype of a heterosexual, white “normal citizen”. By offering national-social and seemingly simple solutions tied to an allegedly homogenous and harmonious collective, they have pushed emancipatory forces onto the defensive.

This constellation has brought renewed attention to existing praxes and approaches towards every day, connective and organising politics across the broader Left. In light of the AfD’s rise in Germany, Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the publication of Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims in German translation also helped to push the question of class back to the centre of the Left’s agenda (see the debate in LuXemburg-Online 2016 and Candeias 2017), as relevant segments of the working class expressed their dissatisfaction with neoliberalism’s unfulfilled promises by voting for right-wing parties. Why is it that the Right manages to operate as an articulation of anti-neoliberalism? What does this have to do with left-wing politics in recent decades? And most importantly: why are feminism and the women’s movement – aka “gender mania” – so easily depicted as part of the despised establishment? What does this mean for future feminist responses – what could a feminism look like that takes on these questions, or even formulates a feminist class politics?

The Left: Not Enough Class, Too Much “Hoopla”?

The common criticism heard lately is that the Left neglected the social question by devoting its attention to “identity politics”. It spent too much time on feminism and other alleged fringe topics, and thus helped pave the way for the Right’s success. Both of these are of course not true. It is true, however, that the Left has grown disconnected from large segments of the working classes and unemployed. This is particularly true of social movements and the so-called “emancipatory Left”, but to a certain extend also applies to the party and trade union-oriented social Left, which is also mostly confined to academic and professionalized contexts and often fails to take up the everyday concerns of many people in a way that speaks to them. This is not only the case for overwhelmingly male workers in the former industrial cores, but also for migrant service workers and precariously employed knowledge workers. Left-wing praxes are mostly not a point of reference for them.

It is not the case, however, that this “alienation” is the result of too many “pink-violet-green” topics. On the contrary: even today, feminist and migrant perspectives as well as ecological questions barely make it into the canon of the political Left (and only partially into that of the movement Left). They are treated, sometimes with good intentions but often in a delimiting and dismissive way as a bunch of “hoopla”. A systematic interweaving of feminism and left-wing “core topics” remains uncomplete, so that “women’s politics” is often still viewed as a sectional demand, unrelated to the critique of labour relations, the distribution of wealth and financial crisis. This division must be overcome by pushing forward the development of a feminist class politics.

Feminism on Trial

On the other hand, it is also true that the concerns of many “non-white” women as well as women from socially marginalised backgrounds remain largely absent within feminist struggles – even those beyond bourgeois feminism. The issues of the women’s and environmental movements and the struggles for social acceptance and equality of different ways of life (whether LGBTIQ or migrant) have grown detached from the concerns and everyday realities of many people. Some of them were “expropriated” and selectively integrated into hegemonic projects – such as demands for gender quotas in the boards of major German corporations, diversity programs for executive personnel, as well as a parental allowance that disproportionately benefits high-earning families. This made them appear more like attempts to provide careers to highly-qualified, flexible individuals ready to perform, effectively turning them into projects of the elite (see Hajek 2017). In this process, parts of the movements named above were painted into the corner of the politics of recognition, and neglected to conceive their concerns systematically as questions of social justice, to discuss poverty, social exclusion and marginalisation as central moments of racism and sexism, and to analyse gender relations as a social and economic structural category.

It is for this same reason that the gains in emancipation and freedom won by various social movements were so easily integrated into the neoliberal project, whereby “diversity” has been reduced to an ingenious technique of neoliberal hegemonic rule. It is precisely because of this reality that so many are inclined to accept a rebellion against the status quo cast as a struggle against the “musty 1968ers” and their alleged political correctness.

Feminism as an Accomplice of Neoliberalism?

Nancy Fraser is probably the most prominent representative of this (self-)criticism, the foundations of which she already began to formulate at the turn of the millennium (2001, see also Haug 1998). She sharpened her argument in the wake of the Trump shock, speaking of feminism’s “complicity” with “progressive neoliberalism” (2017), allowing itself to be taken over without resistance and thus separating justice from diversity, the latter reduced to a neoliberal and individualistic husk. This circumstance calls for fundamental renewal. Sarah Leonard, editor of The Nation and a feminist activist in the US, sees in the current crisis and in the American context more generally the need, but also the chance, to reformulate feminist politics by developing a “feminism for the 99 percent” (2017).

In the process of exploring perspectives for an inclusive feminism, we must (self-)critically reflect upon the mechanisms of passive revolution and neoliberal integration sketched out above, albeit without dramatically dismissing all hitherto existing feminist praxes as Fraser’s diagnosis sometimes seems to suggest. Not only were significant steps made worth defending, but there were and are always other, subaltern forms of feminist struggles which were often viewed as something of a kill-joy in the era of business feminism embodied by Hillary Clinton in the US and Kristina Schröder in Germany, and thus often confined to the margins. In many of the conflicts occurring here, social questions are indivisibly tied to racist discrimination and gender disparities: whether autonomous women’s shelters, projects against sexual violence, anti-racist/feminist organisations like the Respect Network, the self-organisation of women refugees, as well as countless groups conceiving of themselves as alternatives to the mainstream gay and lesbian movement. These kinds of praxes must be sought out and engaged in a serious dialogue while also further developing our own politics, rather than risk obscuring them in our critique.

Why Anti-Feminism Attracts Social Discontent

Equally if not more important, however, is understanding why so many people seem willing to oppose the curse of authoritarian neoliberalism in the form of anti-feminism. Why is frustration with the system so easily attributed to “gender mainstreaming” and “marriage for all”, turned against those who actually or usually only allegedly have profited from it? What desires of the subaltern classes are being tapped into here, and to what extent does this also express moments of rebellion against moments of neoliberalism’s selective Integration?

Arlie Russel Hochschild’s most recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land, takes on precisely these questions. Based on conversations with Trump voters in the Mississippi Delta, she describes how many felt “slapped in the face” at “the entrance gate to the middle class” (2016). In this worldview, social mobility resembles a seemingly endless queue in which one waited patiently for years while others constantly skip ahead. It is always the Other which neoliberalism allows to jump forward at the decisive moment – or at least, that is how it is perceived. The justifiable anger of many at not having “their turn” after so many unfulfilled promises is channelled into a conformist revolt against those who actually or usually only imaginedly or merely symbolically profited from neoliberalism.

In the early 1980s, the Projekt Sozialistischer Feminismus published a text on gender relations and socialist women’s politics, arguing that the movement’s “victories carry the markings of the social order under which they were achieved.” With view to the proletarian defence of nuclear family relations as discussed at the time, they went on, “every piece of privacy is also an escape from capitalist relations of production […] The defence of women’s oppression [as housewives] would thus be an element of a specific form in which the working class opposes capital” (PSF 1984, 83).

Looking at today’s situation against this backdrop, the modern version of this clinging to or “reclaiming” of the heterosexual nuclear family by the Right could (also) be read or deciphered as such an oppositional moment against the thoroughly economised way of life. There are obvious gains in individual emancipation associated with the tendential dissolution or questioning of the stagnant nuclear family characteristic of Fordism: both the economic independence of women as well as the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships – that is, a degree of de-heterosexualisation and freedom of choice in this arrangement – as well as, implicitly, the notion that gender is ultimately a social construction. At the same time, however, it has lead to sharpened forms of increased pressure to valorise and a double burden pushing people towards exhaustion when all adults are expected and forced to work according to the so-called adult-worker model. Moreover, this means privatisation and individualisation, as the nuclear family was not replaced with plural and socialised care arrangements, but rather with constellations of joint family liability no longer necessarily based on lineage or genealogy. A “defence” of the sheltered family space and with it traditional ideals of femininity is thus an oppositional moment against pervasive neoliberalism, unrestrained flexibilisation and society’s ongoing abandonment of responsibility for the conditions of social reproduction. From a (queer-)feminist perspective, of course, this cannot mean calling for the “defence of the family”, but we nevertheless must take this oppositional nature seriously. Otherwise, we will never be able to understand why right-wing and even conservative Christian narratives are so attractive (see Hajek 2017).

This observation facilitates another perspective on the otherwise seemingly plausible claim that (queer-)feminism’s demands contributed to the Right’s success. It is neither true that feminists are at fault for their rise, nor is it the case that it had nothing to do with the changing ways of life which were, at least partially, achieved by the women’s movement. The feminist goal of gender equality in neoliberalism replaced the “unemancipated housewife” with the constantly active and highly capable family manager. It is the latter, however, which today proves to be a burden for so many women and men alike (albeit in different ways), experienced as a functional shift beyond mere economic pressure, including a devaluation of prior social roles and qualifications, destabilising self-confidence and emotional securities. Against this backdrop, then, right-wing ideologies of the family can also be understood as a reaction to these changes, perceived as “feminist” rather than “neoliberal”. That the Right manages to gather support for “anti-feminist” positions outside of existing right-wing and racist/reactionary milieus is partially due to this fact.

How Feminism Could Relate (Differently) in Everyday Life

When searching for new feminist praxes and politics, we have to ask ourselves which experiences and moments of everyday consciousness a class-oriented feminism could relate to, as it is only through this lens that we can identify shared perspectives for social change. The central question is thus: which desires and needs does right-wing discourse take up, and how could they be interpreted differently, reprocessed and articulated in an emancipatory way?

One example: in the context of a neighbourhood organising project sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (see Pieschke 2017), a neighbourhood meeting was held last summer under the motto of “What do we want to and what can we change in our district? What concerns us the most?” After touching on several topics, the recently-finished refugee shelter next door (inevitably?!) came up: a young single mother suddenly burst out, “They have a brand-new playground and a massive high fence around their house!”. Only over time was it possible to work out where her envious glances came from, as well as the notion that “locking in” the adjacent refugees somehow constituted an undue privilege. For this single mother working full-time, a situation in which children could play safely or even under the supervision of security guards seems paradisiacal compared to her lived reality, in which parents must either be constantly present – which, given the packed day, means stress – or constantly worried that their five-year-old daughter could “get away” from the open courtyard of their apartment block – a common fear among parents today, stirred up by contemporary domestic security discourses. Independent but safe play seemed possible in the refugee shelter, unlike in her own apartment block. Here, an understandable wish is articulated in the form of racist notions of competition: “Why do ‘they’ get that while ‘we’ don’t?” A discussion emerged about how to “create security” in the residential area beyond meters-high fences. Who had similar fears and wishes? How could mothers in the apartment block band together? Who else could keep an eye on the children playing in the actually quite delightful and green, but also open courtyard?

Struggles against (sexual) violence and for the right to move safely and freely in public space are distinct feminist concerns, and the fact that the Right always plays the children’s safety card does not make the issue any less important. So why not think about how feminist debates around “self-organised security” (see Brasselle 2017) can be conducted to move beyond left-wing scenes and relate to the concerns of these mothers, as well as those of refugee women? A neighbourhood meeting like this is still a long way away from ending fear. What it shows, however, is that we as the Left have to make an effort to find out which individual claims and desires can be articulated in the language of the Right. This is not always obvious. We have to find forms of first recognising and, ideally, differently articulating and addressing them. This will require a great deal of translation work (see Steckner 2017).

Feminism for All – Renewing Feminism

The question facing feminist class politics is: which of the demands we have raised thus far relate to whose interests? And are we capable of communicating our goals in a way that they can even he “heard”? How can we orient our projects towards representing the concerns of the many?

Here, insights from early intersectionality debates are crucial. Audre Lorde, a black poet and lesbian feminist activist, for example, pointed out that “equality” for black women was never a convincing feminist narrative, not least due to the devastating and blatant differences between women (1984). A debate on feminist class politics can learn much from this notion, as it also reflects the experience of many women here: “These debates have nothing to do with my life.” They construe a collective woman, which possesses no meaning nor action-enabling form as a realm of experience. If feminism is largely associated with quotas in corporate boards and haughty-sounding language rules, but not with struggles against precarised work or for expanded social benefits for single parents, then it should come as no surprise when feminism appears as an elite Project.

The critique of aspects of feminist struggles can, against this backdrop, be formulated somewhat differently. Rather than arguing: the feminists failed to account for this and that, we should ask: which everyday experiences of women (non-white, socially marginalised, transwomen, etc.) are not represented? And most importantly, through which praxes, changed spaces of discussion and coalitions can this be altered?

Who Is the Working Class? Intersectional Class Analysis

Adopting this perspective, it becomes clear that the widespread notion in the current debate of a contradiction between identity politics on one side and social or class politics on the other is an analytical dead-end, not to mention incorrect in a double sense. These are not two different problems to be addressed separately, with the concerns of socially marginalised people over here, and those of women/LBTIQ/migrants over there. This alleged opposition is, instead, itself an expression of the problem of both a reductive class analysis and well as an oversimplified analysis of gender relations (and racism). In terms of what constitutes “class relations”, the dominant conception suggests that “class” emerges strictly in a narrowly-defined sphere of production. Often, this perspective is limited to wage labour. At the same time, the language of class analysis lacks the necessary terms with which to formulate the experiences of discrimination which do not emerge (solely) from one’s position in the totality of the relations of production, i.e. everyday racist degradation and sexist debasement.

If we understand heteronormativity and gender relations as “relations of production” and “fundamental regulating relations” (Haug) in all spheres of life from the outset, it becomes clear that gender is not an additional, albeit equally significant relation of oppression – as many debates around race, class, and gender tend to imply – but rather a moment of class relations itself, an arrangement with which to organise the social division of labour and thus social rule. This always includes the internal division of the class, for which the ordering of gender plays a central role. Division into, for instance, those who perform unpaid care work and those for whom this is generally taken care of for, or those who pursue a skilled occupation and those who – for half the money – work in social services, and accordingly into those who can continue to live well even after their retirement and those who will not receive an adequate pension. These are all questions of gender relations and thus not forms of domination outside of class relations to be incorporated into our analysis, but rather an intrinsic component thereof.

Similar is true of racism, which Stuart Hall once described as “one of the dominant means of ideological representation through which the white fractions of the class come to ‘live’ their relations to other fractions, and through them to capital Itself” (1980, 341). He analyses racism as a form with which white workers are integrated into the ruling project and their support for this project is organised. In this arrangement, incorporation or rather support is exchanged for privileges, freedoms, and certain life opportunities denied to others – thereby pitting the “incorporated” in opposition to other parts of the class.

This stratification of class relations through incorporation and division along categories of skin colour or gender sets the bar for solidary action quite high indeed. Yet this is precisely what the goal of a feminist or intersectional class politics must be: asking what kinds of politics enable the overcoming of these relations, meaning “all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence” (Marx), without empowering some parts of the class at the expense of others along the way.

Becoming a Class? Addressing the Contradiction Strategically

A precise and up-to-date class analysis is central to such an undertaking, but still only half the battle. It is not only decisive how the class changes and differentiates in the face of high-tech capitalism, precarisation and flexploitation, but also how class formation occurs (albeit through changed forms of incorporation) under these changed relations. In reference to Gramsci, Hall emphasises that “so-called ‘class unity’ is never assumed, a priori.” Rather, “classes, while sharing certain common conditions of existence, are also crosscut by conflicting interests, historically segmented and fragmented in this actual course of historical formation. Thus the ‘unity’ of classes is necessarily complex and has to be produced” (1996, 423).

The question of this “making of class” (E.P. Thompson) expands our perspective for today’s debates: if this class struggle necessarily presupposes the class, how can we ensure that it actually comes together in struggles, in order to end oppression and thus became a “class for itself” (Marx)? Which praxes and politics are capable of this? How must they be constituted, particularly under conditions in which the subaltern lacks both a common language and often understanding of common interests, and in which everyday life provides practically no spaces of encounter, of shared ways of life in which to experience and develop shared concerns? What could be a point of reference for collective action in such a situation?

Politics or praxes into which all relations of domination are condensed and can be resolved in one swift blow do not exist. It remains to be seen what the shared, activity-guiding issue will be in any given situation, how it can be formulated collectively and in a way that produces not exclusive solidarity, but rather unity in difference.

The question of how common interests can be produced in differing contexts in a way that facilitates collection action was always a central question for the labour movement, reformulated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak as “strategic essentialism” in the 1980s from a feminist/post-colonial perspective, as part of her critique of class reductionism and Western feminism. Spivak proceeded from the dilemma that political (self-)representation without the formulation of collective subjects will not succeed, as unity “in action” is necessary in order to challenge existing relations of power. Such collective subjects, in turn, are linked to essentialisation. The extent to which commonalities are created along certain experiences also increases the danger that other experiences, particularly differences within a group, will be ignored, thereby creating potential (new) exclusions. This applies to both “the class” as well as “the women”. In order to become capable of action in the first place, however, we cannot circumvent the need for a temporary – that is, strategic – essentialisation (Spivak 1990, see also Bringmann 2017).

Connective Perspectives, Popular Praxes and the Unlearning of Privilege

Developing a feminist class politics must confront this double bind. For our debates, that has to first mean sharpening our eye for internal differences. In this regard, both Marxist class-analysis as well as large parts of feminism exhibit major lacunae. This also means becoming aware of one’s own internalised privileges and perspectively “unlearning” (Spivak) them through a painful process, in order to truly become connected. This entails taking the debates of post-colonial feminism into account in a fundamental way (see Becker 2017). At the same time, the various dimensions of the production and reproduction of domination are never to be addressed “totally”. On the contrary – the goal formulated above of understanding and addressing domination in an intersectional manner so as to avoid producing new exclusions runs the risk of being politically debilitating, as no political praxis can fulfil this aspiration entirely. Popular politics can hardly be developed in this way.

So how could it work? Strategies of transformation cannot be developed in a vacuum, but rather must relate to and intervene in existing struggles, controversies and movements. Various already-existing feminist practices and demands must be investigated to determine which concerns are already contained therein and where they could be “enriched” with a class perspective, but also how to avoid systematic marginalisation or exclusion. The totality of different experiences does not necessarily have to be reflected in all demands and politics at all times, but rather must be incorporated into the horizon of collective action, in the social conditions to be created by a democratic commonality (see Demirovic 2017). To the extent that such a perspective exists today, it does so only rudimentarily. Our job is to develop it concretely in a common struggle for space to satisfy a wide variety of wants and Needs.

This direction has emerged in debates around perspectives for feminist organising in care struggles over recent years. For example, the demand for cost-free and democratically organised social infrastructure in all spheres of care has been established and developed as a common perspective (see Winker 2015, Fried and Schurian 2016, and many more). Here, incipient traces of a feminist class politics can be found, albeit generally discussed with different terminology. In discussions and politics emerging from the Care Revolution network, the decision was made to prioritise feminist organising in a field whose struggles in home and care work constitute a central field of feminist movements. Moreover, privatisation and market pressure become experienceable in everyday life here, where racist division and discrimination play a central role in the face of the international division of labour and “global care chains” (Hochschild). Finally, it has also constituted a centre of trade union struggles in recent years. These strategic reflections shared the goal of developing a popular feminist politics that incorporates everyday concerns and struggles for concrete improvements while simultaneously pursuing a fundamental re-ordering of gender arrangements and modes of production and life. Such concrete, connective politics are very challenging indeed, but several obstacles have already been tackled (see UmCare 2016 and Fried and Schurian 2016, 2017).

How such a popular class-oriented (and post-colonial/anti-racist) feminism could look has been further developed by an ongoing debate in the United States for several years. The movement for “reproductive justice” criticises contemporary feminist practices around the topic of sexual self-determination – a central field of feminist struggle – as reductive. From the perspective of non-white women, they formulate, among other things, the necessity and possibility of focusing on more than unrestricted access to abortion. Due to racism and eugenics policies, the right to bear children is equally as precarious as the right to end unwanted pregnancies for many women, particularly indigenous and black (see Hentschel 2017). Accordingly, reproductive justice must also incorporate the right to children.

In the spirit of a feminist class politics, we must take up this thought and add another perspective: here and there, struggles for sexual self-determination for both indigenous and black as well as many socially marginalised “white” women must include fighting for conditions under which it is truly possible for everyone to have children if and how they choose. This means not only birth, but also securing childrearing socially, which means that adequate labour relations as well as modes of living, de-precarisation, guidance, child care, education opportunities and much more must be incorporated into the political horizon of feminist struggles for sexual self-determination. Only if these prospects are available to everyone can we really speak of freedom of choice when it comes to abortion or raising children.[1]

In Spite of It All: Class as a Strategic Point of Crystallisation

In both these and other feminist struggles, then, we must explicitly incorporate or work out a class perspective without it becoming dominant or understanding class questions as a priori in a traditionalist sense – an understandably common concern in debates around feminist class politics. The task of a class feminism (or a Left seeking to develop such a feminism) must thus be to investigate existing struggles and demands to determine where implicit or explicit exclusions are produced, or rather at which points feminism’s class perspectives can be strengthened.

This includes the important question of how different parts of the class which should be involved in these struggles can be won over – particularly those that are not used to interpreting their problems as class problems due to previous feminist and other political debates, as well as those who in light of previous debates around social questions are not used to thinking of their problems as questions of given gender relations. We must develop forms with which different concerns can be taken up and reformulated as questions of class, gender and, in this sense, as shared identity.

Instead of class or identity politics, we need class as identity politics – a politics in which the overcoming of class relations in a non-reductionist sense becomes a common point of reference addressed differently in different places and in different fields, but with the common goal of shaping our conditions and ways of life collectively and democratically for all – and with a clear sense of antagonism vis-à-vis ruling politics and attempts to divide and conquer (see Demirovic 2017).

In this way, various movements beyond feminism can be cohered together into a new class politics, in order to form a “connective antagonism” (Candeias 2017) to neoliberalism, which also contests the Right’s position. In the current social situation, an inclusive feminism or a feminist class politics appears as a compelling counter-pole not only to an aggressive anti-feminism, but also to an authoritarian project “from above” and “from the right” as a whole. The fact that a movement opposing both the liberal feminism of a Hillary Clinton and the government of Donald Trump was the most visible thus expression of such discontent thus far. In the spirit of the early theoreticians of intersectionality, we must renew our push for a perspective of “feminism is for everyone” here, as well.

This text was inspired by many discussions surrounding the founding of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s feminist discussion group with, among others, Lia Becker, Alex Wischnewski, Kerstin Wolter, Mario Candeias, Katharina Pühl, Silke Veth, Melanie Stitz, Hannah Schurian and Susanne Hentschel.

Translated by Loren Balhorn


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[1] Perspectives for disability politics can also be extended in a similar sense: the existing social pressure to abort fetuses with foreseeable genetic “anomalies” or other disabilities can only be effectively countered when the necessary social conditions for living with disabled children and people as such are secured. Only then can we speak of real freedom of choice in this context.