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The Antidote to Midterm Despair Is Socialist Feminism

Among feminists, many are driven to the polls by the attacks on reproductive rights and trans youth. But so many go to the polls reluctantly, for lack of another solution. The antidote to midterm despair is socialist feminism.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

November 8, 2022
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Image: Luigi Morris

So far, the 2022 midterms seem to have a historic turnout. Yet millions of voters do not seem enthused, such as a friend who just posted a picture of an “I voted” sticker, followed by the word “ugh.” This is the mood among millions of people.  Among feminists, many are driven to the polls by the attacks on reproductive rights and trans youth. But so many go to the polls reluctantly, for lack of another solution. But with only 28% of the population thinking the United States is going in the right direction, it is clear that something is amiss. 

The 2008 Obama election was marked by hope and change, with the possibility of a better tomorrow seemingly on the ballot. Instead, Obama bailed out the banks while people lost their homes, and defended the police in the first Black Lives Matter movement. 

In 2016, with the promise of the first woman President, many took to the polls with enthusiasm once more. Hillary Clinton was expected to break the glass ceiling, and women all over the country were inspired. 

The 2018 midterms, amidst a tumultuous Trump administration, also seemed to promise change, with new progressive, so-called “Democratic socialists” on the ballot speaking out against capitalism and corporate greed. Now, the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party now stands for little more than the Biden agenda — forget Medicare for All, free college, or defunding the police to fund social services. 

In this context, the midterms are marked by a cloud of impending doom. Hope is not on the ballot. Change is not on the ballot. Although the Democrats attempted to cynically employ abortion rights for an enthusiastic women’s wave, it seems that no such wave is coming. And many of those who are coming to the polls are doing so not with dreams of a bright future, but with fear of the alternative. 

These elections — and the United States at the current juncture — are marked by a crisis of neoliberalism, and within the base of the Democratic party, these elections are marked by a crisis of “progressive neoliberalism.” 

This feeling of dystopian dread felt by so many people reveals something profoundly real and urgent. We all know that the Democrats aren’t going to save us from the problems we face, and the hegemonic ideology of times past no longer inspires confidence, much less enthusiasm. And so it is time to think of real solutions and organize for them. We don’t need lesser evilism. What we need is socialist feminism.

A Crisis of Progressive Neoliberalism

We are clearly witnessing a crisis of neoliberalism — inflation, war, and distrust in the institutions of the regime. But when we take a closer look, we can see that the Democratic Party is experiencing the limits of “progressive neoliberalism.”

Neoliberalism is an iteration of capitalism developed as a result of the crisis of capitalist growth in the 1970s. It is characterized by bipartisan attacks on workers’ standard of living, attacks on unions, and the vast expansion of the prison industrial complex — politics put forward by both parties. It was the Clinton administration that created the “New Democrat,” who embraced free trade, deregulation, and Reagan-like policies that attacked the working class. As Nancy Fraser explains, “Throughout the years when manufacturing cratered, the country buzzed with talk of “diversity,” “empowerment,” and “non-discrimination.” The Democrats embodied what she calls “progressive neoliberalism”, which is:

an alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end “symbolic” and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other….Ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve different ends, now gloss policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives.

Progressive neoliberalism, despite its “pro-diversity” rhetoric, is creating a massive crisis of social reproduction, or a crisis in the tasks needed to reproduce the working class. It not only severely cut the wages of working class people, especially Black and Brown people, but it also made women less able to engage in care work by cutting social services, cutting funding for schools, and making a two-income household essential for making ends meet. It massively expanded the prison industrial complex, as well as vastly expanding anti-immigrant border control — which serves to divide families and create an even deeper crisis of social reproduction. 

Yet, social movement leaders played a leading role in supporting the Democrats. After the liberatory ideas of the 60s and 70s, the Black Power movement, the feminist movement, and the New Left were all crushed and co-opted. They turned into non-profits that put their resources, money, and faces in the Democratic Party, becoming a key part of the hegemonic apparatus of the state. Any activism was funneled into the party through the mechanism of the non-profit industrial complex, giving the Democrats the well-earned nickname, the “graveyard of social movements.” Further, the charisma of social movements and the promise of a more just America gave cover for neoliberal attacks, and specifically, for the Democratic Party. 

As Fraser explains, in 2016, anti-establishment Republican voters rejected progressive neoliberalism — they rejected the attacks on workers, unions, and the factory jobs, and the politicians who used an empty “multiculturalism” to get there. Sanderism was also an expression of a rejection of progressive neoliberalism, as is the growth of the DSA and the turn of a whole sector of young people to the idea of socialism.

But progressive neoliberalism was not dead. 

In 2020, the Democrats activated the progressive neoliberal coalition and deployed every weapon in their arsenal to drive a mass uprising into the confines of capitalist “democracy.” “Black Lives Matter,” the Democratic Party said. They spoke about reforming the police. They painted Black Lives Matter on sidewalks and kneeled wearing kente cloth, while at the same time lambasting what they called “violent protesters.” Kamala Harris was chosen as vice president, a vice president who could act as though she was on the side of BLM while at the same time being a representative of the prison industrial complex and attacks on working class people and people of color. In short, she was chosen to be a neoliberal. 

The Democratic Party and its allies were helped along by the non-profit industrial complex, like the Black Lives Matter Global Network, which functioned as the link between the organizers and representatives of progressive neoliberalism. These non-profits, including the Women’s March, claim every two years that this is the “most important election of our lifetime” and mobilize social movement activists into the Democratic Party. 

But progressive neoliberalism was a shadow of its former self in 2020. It had lost its hegemonic capacity; the charisma of progressive neoliberalism had faded, and it was no longer able to inspire hope in a better tomorrow. When people took the polls in 2020, for many it was “anyone by Trump,” and it was a vote to stop the far right.

It didn’t work. Voting for Democrats did not and will not stop the right. 

As police budgets, the military budget, and ICE detentions rise to new heights, as Roe v. Wade is overturned and inflation remains at record breaking levels, voting for Democrats in order to stem the tide of a radicalized far right is clearly a losing strategy. 

The Midterms and Beyond

For large swaths of Democratic Party voters, especially young people, these midterms are characterized by fear, demoralization, and desperation. In the context of the ongoing global and national crises, progressive neoliberalism no longer has the ability to inspire enthusiasm. 

While inflation makes it difficult to make ends meet, corporations are making historic profits. Roe v. Wade was overturned, turning back the clock on a historic victory for the feminist movement and making abortion inaccessible in nearly half of the states. The Democrats have a majority in Congress now, but Biden is holding abortion rights hostage as a midterm election ploy. Meanwhile, the Florida Board of Medicine voted to ban gender affirming care for anyone under the age of 18, and over 300 anti-trans laws have been introduced in the past year. 

And of course, the feeling of impending doom of climate change is a dark cloud that hangs over young people.The Republicans are just climate deniers, while Democrats give lip service to environmentalism while supporting fracking and increased oil and natural gas production.

The Republican Party has continued on its rightward trajectory. We are now witnessing Trumpism outside of and beyond the individual figure of Trump. These Trumpists question the democratic process and want to undermine voting rights, all while attacking trans kids, reproductive rights, teaching about U.S. history in schools, and more. 

The Democratic Party has funded the worst elements of the Republican Party in hopes for an easy midterm win — likely a losing gamble. Despite the strident speeches about the end of democracy, the Democrats have helped some of those very same candidates.

The Women’s March and other “feminist” non-profits have put their resources towards getting people to the polls and funneling the anger about Roe v. Wade into the Democrats. This was always a cynical ploy, given the fact that the Democrats have time and time again refused to codify Roe. And it doesn’t seem to be working for the Democrats: in the midst of a massive economic crisis, inflation is top of mind for voters. 

As a result, in a quick pivot, the Democrats have shifted to act as though they are against aspects of progressive neoliberalism — the very hallmark of their party. They have shifted to an “anti-woke,” law and order campaign strategy aimed to attract a sector of Trump’s voting base, low-income white voters. Take Tim Ryan’s pro-police ads alongside a “workers first” sign. Or take Kathy Hochul’s campaign to increase police funding and “keep criminals off the street.” Barack Obama has been on an “anti-woke” crusade for the past few years, pointing to Ryan as the future for the Democratic Party. 

Despite what the Democrats say, the antithesis to progressive neoliberalism is not “anti-woke” neoliberalism. There are no real solutions for working class and oppressed people in a system built on the exploitation of the vast majority for the profit of a few. To counter progressive neoliberalism, we need socialist feminism. 

Fight for Socialist Feminism 

Socialist feminism understands that inflation is a reproductive rights issue, and it is a feminist issue: we demand the right to an abortion, but also the right to choose to have and raise children, and the ability to afford it. Socialist feminism is rooted in the multi-racial and multi-gender working class that demands unions, higher wages and safe working conditions. Socialist feminism means that we demand a liveable world — it means we stop as much of the climate disaster as can and manage the effects in a way that put people first. 

A living wage, parental leave, unions, quality schools, confronting climate change: all of these are issues that put us in direct confrontation with capitalist profits. The capitalists who run all of society want to make sure they squeeze as much profit as possible from the working class, as well as from the land we live on. That’s why they fight against unions tooth and nail. That’s why they are destroying the planet that they too live on. 

As socialist feminists, we know that progressive neoliberalism serves to capture and contain the illusions of people whose living conditions are under attack. While progressive neoliberalism promised progress for oppressed people within the confines of capitalism, it has been a weapon of the Democratic Party to attack  the living conditions of the majority of working-class and oppressed people for the sake of capitalist profit. We know that progressive neoliberalism was an illusion to serve the ruling class. There is nothing progressive about a system in which eight people own the same wealth as half the world; there is nothing progressive about a system in which workers, the most exploited of whom are Black and brown, have their bodies broken by hard labor so that billionaires can be even more wealthy. And so, our socialist feminism begins with a wholesale rejection of the capitalist system and a commitment to overthrow it.

Socialist feminism requires a direct confrontation with the capitalists, and it requires a direct confrontation with the parties of capital — the Democrats and Republicans. It must be built on the understanding that another world is possible if we fight for it, and that in that fight the Democrats and Republicans are on the other side of the barricade. 

Any illusions that the Democrats will act on our behalf or stem the tide of the rising right wing has been debunked by the last few months — as it has been over and over through history. 

In these midterm elections, we all know that progressive change is not on the ballot; the idea that elections and these institutions could bring about change feels like a distant idealistic dream. The working class is on a sinking boat, and while both parties want workers’ votes, neither one will throw them so much as a life-vest. 

Let’s face that fact. And let’s take the future in our own hands. 

The antidote to the despair that so many feel is the fight for socialist feminism. 

The seeds for the mass struggle we need are seen every day in new Starbucks stores unionizing. It’s seen in the actions taken by workers on behalf of trans rights, reproductive rights, and more. It’s in the high schoolers who are walking out for trans rights and in the real possibility of a massive railroad strike.

We must turn despair into anger and anger into organization. We need to build a party of our own: a multi-race, multi-gender working-class party that fights against all oppression and exploitation. A party that fights for socialist feminism. 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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