Issue Introduction: Materialist Feminisms Against Neoliberalism

Mary Ellen Campbell and A.L. McCready

Feminism has had many lives. Living in colonial-settler Canada, the editors of this special issue are especially attuned to the forms of imperialist, settler and liberal “feminism” that have motivated a great many social projects. Recently, these include the ostensible concern over the status of women in Afghanistan that has played so well as a rationale for war, the false feminism of micro-credit lending schemes, and the “post-feminist” discrediting of alternative social visions in favour of a corporate or consumer feminism. These faux feminisms occurs alongside the institutional dislocation of women’s and gender studies programs as loci for the generation of transformational knowledge, and the simultaneous incorporation of certain elements of movements and struggles in order to generate “academic captial” for the neoliberal university. We live amidst a rapidly accelerating culture of neoliberal individualism, characterized by the dogged attack by state and business on the material and social protections won by decades of women’s struggle within and against the current system. This neoliberal moment is also characterized by the virulent cult of persecuted white masculinity and the backlash against supposed minority gains that demonstrates the neoconservative social values that a neoliberal culture feeds and begets. There has never been such dire need for decisive, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, transnational feminist analysis, pedagogy and social foment.

From early noted thinkers such as Lucy B. Parsons, Rosa Luxembourg and Emma Goldman, to “Marxist-Feminist” scholars such as Maria Mies, Mariarosa and Giovanna Dalla Costa, Genevieve Vaughan, Angela Davis and Silvia Federici, to anti-racist and anti-colonialist scholars such as bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Himani Bannerji, Patricia Monture Angus, Vandana Shiva, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Jacqui Alexander, Angela McRobbie, Wendy Brown, and many others, “structuralist” or “materialist” feminisms draw a lineage that views cultural articulations of gender, class and race specifically through the lenses of economics, political struggles, and anti-imperialist, anti-hetropatriarchal and anti-racist agendas.  For these “materialist” feminisms, the reckoning of capitalist, colonial and hetropatriarchal histories and organizations of power is critical both to their structural analytic approaches and to their conditions of liberation from gender-based oppression.

This volume invites a conversation that draws on the body of work we might broadly think of as structural or materialist feminisms. Our aim is exploratory rather than sumative, to cast a net and see who is gathered in to this conversation at this time. But this kind of reflection is itself hardly a new practice. In 2002, this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation reflected on the impact of the 1981 publication, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour and the future directions necessary for transformational alliance across diversities. An impressive tome of some six hundred pages, this collection takes stock, evaluates “progress” and the lack of it and reflects on new tensions within and among feminisms and the neccessity of new directions. So there is a history to attempting to harvest the fruit of past seasons of struggle in order to re-invigorate revolutionary vision for the future: these attempts to revisit and rekindle the visions and power of our forebearers is in part a utopian feminist genre, with the objective, as AnaLouise Keating puts it, of “theorizing not just for survival but for transformation…transformation of ourselves and the world” (14).

Likewise, in 1989, Feminist Review published a special issue entitled The Past Before Us to “[chart] some aspects of the impact of feminism across those [previous] two decades,” including “the limitations of a politics that subsumes its adherents under a single category of ‘woman’” without taking into account the differences of “class, race and ethnicity, national and social status, etc.” (2-3).  Noting the perils of tracing feminism’s roots to a single movement (particularly the largely white, middle-class radical student movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s) (1-2) and predicting the “danger” of “the reification of differences rooted in experiential identity” (3), The Past Before Us looked forward to a “politics of autonomy and alliance” that would cross identities and national borders—an activist strategy of solidarity that would be underwritten by a “socialist-feminist” inheritance.

While we do not live in 1980s Britain, we inherit the fall-out that Thatcherite (or Reaganite, or, in Canada, Mulrooney-ite) neoliberalism and international finance capital championed in the 1980s. “We talk a lot today of women’s liberation’s limitations” wrote the editorial collective of Feminist Review in 1989; “yet many of the movement’s most basic demands—for equal pay, equal rights, and an end to what we once termed ‘discrimination’—have yet to be met, and remain valid” (3).  Over twenty years later, these “basic demands” still go unmet, and seem to be slipping away from the vast majority of women who did, for a time, enjoy them.  This, even as yet other forms of oppression and exploitation become visible through struggle, compounding rather than displacing previously articulated oppressions. For example, we think here of transphobia, of the increasing precarity of work and life under capitalist globalization, of the urgency of ecological crisis, or the escalated policing of migrants and racialized people under the auspices of the security state. Or of the globalization of care work and reproductive “domestic” labour that “outsources” the “second-shift” of family care from wealthy women to migrant “guest workers” lacking in rights and protections.  Or the violence against indigenous women across North America that testafies to the existence of ongoing colonial warfare. This, even as the very language of feminism is vilified, reviled and ridiculed, where it has not been appropriated to serve “empowering” individualist, capitalist ends. Just as the politics of 1960s radical feminism could not provide a “blueprint for the late eighties” (4), we need to revisit and rework the politics of “autonomy and alliance” to serve the needs and the promise of a new century of (in the words of Chandra Talpade Mohanty) “post-feminism,” “post-racism” and “post-heteropatriarchy,” such that our solidarities might be capable of not merely challenging the neoliberal order, but replacing it.

“Neoliberalism” is by now a familiar term to feminists, and readers of authors like David Harvey and Subcomandante Marcos will know that it bears little resemblance to the politics of enlightenment “liberalism.”  Rather, neoliberalism refers to the set of economic and political doctrines (perfected in the US-backed patriarchal military dictatorships of 1970s South America and unleashed around the world at the close of the Cold War) of opening all spheres of life up to the capitalist market place through the privatization of services, the deregulation of markets, and the globalization of corporate freedoms. But it is important to note, as Silvia Federici does, that neoliberalism is not just the triumph of a gender-neutral free-market fundamentalism – its costs are disproportionately borne by women, and borne unequally by women diversely situated around the globe. And, as Cynthia Enloe makes clear, neoliberalism is driven by the “securitization” and militarization of society, a process that ironically both conscripts women for war and for capitalist patriarchy, and marginalizes, silences and subjugates them. Enloe (along with many others, like Sherene Razack, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Zillah Eisenstein,) shows how the global War on Terror at once “exalted” (in Thobani’s words) the masculine soldierly ideal as the highest standard and model subject of political and cultural life and, on the other, deployed feminized and racialized “decoys” (in Eisenstein’s terms) including female and multi-racial soldiers, politicians and pundits to distract and deflect attention from the intensification of white supremacist, patriarchal capitalist social relations. This occurred along side the appropriation of feminist rhetoric into the neoliberal war machine, which used the images of ostensibly oppressed racialized women to foment support for an endless war whose ultimate effects included the massive transfer of public wealth into private hands, untallied and unquantifiable loss of life and destruction, and the regeneration of Western imperialism in the guise of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism.” Neoliberalism’s claim to universality and desirability is in no small part dependent on having us believe that the free market has brought us to a moment of near-perfect equality, a “colour-blind” and gender-neutral utopia of equal opportunity and meritocracy where even if it is (grudgingly) accepted that feminism and measures against racism were once necessary, they are held, today, to be relics of the past. It is against the backdrop of this false consensus of neoliberal market utopia that “other” societies (and social visions) are held up and found wanting, justifying imperialist aggression and policing. Meanwhile feminist, queer, anti-racist and anti-colonial activism and scholarship and their visible spokespersons are subjected to vicious backlash and personal attack as the cult of persecuted white masculinity gains strength and adherents (in identifiable formations, such as “white rights” movements, “men’s rights” groups, “Caucasian students’ associations,” etc., and more diffusely articulated). This cult enlists the public, usually through charismatic white male leaders, to exorcise anxieties over the very real and deepening conditions of what Silvia Federici calls the “crisis of social reproduction” caused by neoliberal privatization, deregulation and globalization by scapegoating women, people of colour, queers, and other “special interest groups”.

In the same way that The Past Before Us “asked contributors, in tracing their various histories, to document developments and raise questions that might point a way to the future” (3), we asked our contributors to address broadly defined materialist feminist lineages and strategies for analysis and action. In a neoliberal age in which capitalism’s rapacious appetite has reached the hard limit of a finite planet, inflecting the horizons of cultural politics with renewed urgency, what is to be gained or lost by prioritizing gender as a category of analysis? Where is the work of structural feminism taking place today? What is the “authentic” work of materialist feminism in neoliberal times?

This issue is led by Max Haiven’s interview with veteran feminist author and activist Silvia Federici (author of Caliban and the Witch and Revolution at Point Zero), which highlights topics including the commons, the labour of reproduction, and the potentials and limits of the Occupy movement. As one of the leading figures in the global Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s, Federici has been central to developing feminist theories of “reproduction” as an essential expansion and correction to Marxist political economy. In this interview, she outlines the ways that neoliberal capitalist globalization represents a new series of “enclosures” of common land, labour and care work, and also the ways that social movements, including the Occupy Movement, are bringing an analysis of reproduction into the heart of their mobilizations.

Next, Sarah Amsler considers the key question that structures this issue: “what is the feminist movement’s answer to neoliberal power?”– a reflection prompted by a gathering of students and faculty in Britain addressing the corporatization of the university in which the topic of feminist thought and practice received a chilly reception. What is the role of feminism in an aggressively corporatizing academic institution that celebrates the return of masculinized culture and disciplinary regimes, and that treats the life, labour and value of those who “do not serve the interests and demands of capital” as “professional problems and investment risks”? Amsler finds direction in feminism’s very opacity in neoliberal rationality to suggest possible approaches to re-imagining political strategies and democratic futures.

In her perceptive analysis of the history of abortion rights discourse in Australia, Kate Gleeson demonstrates how the langugage of “choice” that came to dominate the struggle for access to abortion services is all too comensurable with a neoliberal interpreation of “choice.” In these terms, women’s fundamental right to autonomy over their own bodies becomes subsumed under market freedoms and options. Gleeson demonstrates how the ideal of choice, never “free” to begin with, is “deployed as a lure for young women to subscribe to the anti feminist conditions of neoliberalism, so that they will decline to organise politically as feminists to disrupt liberal democratic regimes and economies.” “The choice to be ‘responsibly’ sexual in particular,” she argues, “is valorised by both young women and the dominant discourses of neoliberalism and post feminism.”

Next, Christina Van Houten works through bell hooks’s theorization of “a politics of critical regionalism.” In the 1990s, hooks proposed a mode of “spatialized feminist subjectivity” and a critique of “postmodernism’s exclusionary politics of difference”  to develop a politics of materialist feminism, and, ultimately, ecology. Van Houten illustrates the relevance of spatiality and historical geography to materialist feminism, antiracist activism and ecological Marxism. Critical of postmodern aestheticism, hooks “argues for a radical decentering of subjectivity that makes a decisive break with patriarchy, racism, and classism and…makes alternative coalitions on the basis of common local and regional social relations.” According to Van Houten, “critical regionalism” contains liberatory promise and a “utopian” impulse for preserving autonomous, oppositional, sustainable and defragmented “subcultures,” offering a promising avenue for materialist feminist and ecological politics.

Developing the theme of local manifestations of the intertwined nature of ecological and feminist concerns, Uschi Bay and Deborah Western investigate the relevance and value of gender as a category of analysis in climate change study by examining women researchers’ contributions to the 2012 United Nations framework convention towards the Earth Summit. They explore recent attacks against on Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that associate Gillard’s identity as a woman with her government’s policy on climate change, linking anti-climate-change-science and anti-feminist attitudes. Western and Bay assess the underlying sexism of neo-conservative discourses of climate change denial that defer to misogynist ideologies of “victim-blaming” and evoke neoliberal fears of taxation and the limitation of individual market freedoms. Bay and Western advocate feminist approaches to the problems of climate change, adaption and migration, and illustrate the importance of identifying and strategizing against the misogynist, anti-feminist predilections of neo-conservative and capitalist discourses on climate change.

In “Reinventing Revolutionary Subjects in Venezuela,” Sarah Motta seeks to  “render visible an increasing feminization of resistance in Latin America” by revisiting the Autonomist Marxist Feminist emphasis on the spheres of social reproduction, the gendered division of labour and subjective alienation. Following the Autonomous Marxist Feminist praxis of “historiography from below,” Motta assesses the “revolutionary potentials of everyday forms of informal politics…which have historically been marginalised from the lens of masculinised revolutionary analysis” so as to “reinvigorate a Marxist feminist praxis that can make visibile, contribute to and theorise in solidarity with contemporary forms of anti-capitalist struggle.” Motta recounts the stories of three women involved in the Urban Land Committees in Venezuela (CTUs). Their stories show that women are central to struggles that “re-define the practice of politics, create new democratic subjectivities, and re-invent social transformation, processes in which woman, family and community are renegotiated and re-imagined.”

In light of the intensifying neoliberal practice of land privatization and “land-grabs,” Susie Jacobs provides an overview of the gendered dimensions of land reform and agrarian redistribution and assesses the benefits and drawbacks of these programmes for women’s (particularly married women’s) “status as members of a social and political collective.” Jacobs raises two key questions concerning women’s access to land: first, whether or not women’s land rights would “automatically empower women or improve their social and material conditions”; and second, what form land rights should take. Jacobs speculates “ways forward,” taking into account the visibility of women’s labour and economic contributions, improvements to state and legal support for gendered land rights, and rural women’s participation in trade union organization and more widespread social movements for class equality. To be effective, she cautions, these strategies must be in part transnational, and must refuse to replicate neoliberal agendas.

Taking up the theme of the neoliberal appropriation of feminist discourse, Karen Bridget Murray examines the neoliberal (re-)conditioning of the term “feminization of poverty” and its concomitant technologies that enforce positivist approaches to “measuring” poverty. She explores how these approaches naturalize and institutionalize children as the privileged emblems of suffering while reinstituting women as the subject of disciplinary measures. In these functions, Murray argues, the “feminization of poverty” redefines poverty as external to “governmental fields” of power relations and places the onus on “community” (not, for example, the state) for its remedy. For Murray, the move to define a “deserving poor” while cutting funding to social programs, the shift from identifying women to identifying children as the “targets” of poverty intervention, and the troubling alliance of feminist and community groups with this ideology begs the question of who is being “targeted” and more crucially, for what and how?”  Murray focusses on the “modes of power operating through the children-community-poverty relationship” at the register of “everyday life” in a street-level inner urban district in east end Vancouver, British Columbia, and in so doing performs a more rigorous analysis of the gendered dimensions of poverty than the ubiquitous “feminization of poverty” discourse can offer.

Finally, in “Last Stop of the Academy: Teaching Gender in the Men’s Prison,” Jane Chin Davidson and Shreerekha Subramanian discuss their experience as instructors in the Texas penitentiary system. From this situated location they identify the prison as a prime institution of neoliberal power, in both the disciplinary and the bio-political sense.  The prison connects the neoliberal promise of emancipation through (individualized, commodified) education with “the material conditions affecting communities” that are “both separate from and connected to a history of slavery and “race.” The men’s prison, they show, offers one articulation of how “conflicting “figures of oppression” converge at the intersection of the prison and the academy.”

One of the interesting themes we see emerging here is that in some way a materialist feminism for the present necessitates engaging with place. We mean “place” not merely in terms of situating ourselves and our analyses between global forces and local particularities and attending to our own locations of priviledge and oppression, complicity and resistance, but also in the sense that production and reproduction, at root, depend upon specific histories and relationships to land and place. A growing awareness of settler-colonialism on one hand coupled with the ecological crisis wrought by capitalist exploitation on the other brings the re-territorialization of this relationship to the fore. Any transnational, anti-racist materalist feminist envisioning of a more just and equitable future likewise neccessitates re-territorializating and de-colonizing those relations. Further, the appropriation of feminist discourses, knowleges and technologies which is such a widespread feature of this ostensibly post-feminist moment that it is now quite generalizable, still depends upon historically specific appropriations. Remembering the specificity of these stories and honing our story-telling and curiosity as sharp feminist tools can help anchor us against the tide of neoconservative backlash.


Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria and AnaLouise Keating, eds. this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation. 2002. Routledge.“Editorial.” Feminist Review: The Past Before Us. 31 (1989): 2-4. Web. 26 March 2013.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Neoliberal Academies and Radical Critique: Reflections on Transnational, Anti-Racist Feminist Practice.” McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. 20 March 2013. Public Lecture.

Moraga, Cherrie and Gloria Anzaldua, eds. This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. 1983. Kitchen Table Women of Color Press of New York.

This entry was posted in Editorials and edition . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues