Over the last century, women’s lives have changed in ways that are incomparable to the relatively minor changes in men’s lives over the same period. From the right to vote to greater insertion in the workplace to female presidents around the world, the lives of women today are almost unrecognizable compared to those of women a century ago. But there are other facts that sharply contrast with the image of smooth progress towards greater gender equality, often used to characterize the rights of women in imperialist countries and wealthy semi-colonies.
Given the progress towards gender equity, how do we explain that each year, between 1.5 and 3 million women and girls are victims of male chauvinist violence? How do we explain that prostitution has become a major and highly lucrative industry, which has allowed the expansion of trafficking networks? Despite enormous scientific and technological advances, 500 thousand women around the world die annually from complications during pregnancy and childbirth, while 500 women die every day because of complications from illegal abortions (World Health Organization).
In the same period, the “feminization” of the workforce has increased exponentially, especially in Latin America, but women find themselves in the most precarious jobs. They are subject to market fluctuations, sexual violence at work, and other oppressions. The current crisis is bearing down on a working class that is characterized by a female labor force that accounts for more than 40 percent of global employment (International Labor Organization). Fifty percent of those female workers are precariously employed in low wage and unprotected jobs. They are being incorporated into the ranks of the global proletariat for the first time in history.
There is a sharp contrast between the rights that have been won—including the legitimacy that the concept of “gender equity” has gained in recent decades—and the sobering picture these statistics depict. Does feminism only offer women restricted emancipation? Is feminist liberation limited to a privileged few that enjoy some democratic rights in certain countries, while brutal aggressions continue against the vast majority of women in the rest of the world?
International Power Relations and the Place of Women
This paradoxical situation, created by decades of conservative politics, cannot be explained without examining the international power relations that emerged with the radicalization that began in the 1960s. A revolutionary rise of the masses took place from the end of the 60s to the mid-80s. People questioned not only the capitalist order, but also the iron-fisted control of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the worker-states of Eastern Europe. However the imperialist counter-offensive —under the banner of neo-liberalism – led to a political and cultural defeat..
Unlike the strategy of the two world wars, the partial recovery achieved by the capitalist system in the late 80’s and 90’s was not based on the destruction of productive forces through military action. Although “physical defeats” took place in countries such as Argentina – where 30,000 people were disappeared – this was not the foundation of the emerging world order. In Europe the deflection of the revolutionary process was not based on physical defeats but rather on co-opting and dividing the working class. Faced with this imperialist attack on the masses and its conquests, organizations created by the working class (from social-democratic or communist parties to unions and bureaucratized workers’ organizations) went on to help implement these capitalist measures. The free-market model was the guiding principle of this period of restoration. It diverted and halted the rise of the masses by extending capitalist democratic regimes – leading the way to economic, social, and political measures that reversed many of the victories won in prior years.
This process extended through time and space in an unprecedented way. While the upper sectors of the middle and working classes were brought to the table of the consumerist feast, the vast majority of people were thrown into chronic unemployment and faced overcrowding in poor suburban neighborhoods. They were subject to social, political and cultural marginalization. Individualism permeated mass culture. In order to establish a new “integrationist” social contract, it was necessary to incorporate many democratic demands, including feminism. Thus social movements were contained within public policy.
Feminism in democracy: from insubordination to institutionalization
Whether self-marginalized or assimilated into battles for “recognition” fought within the parameters of the “democratic state,” feminism gave up the fight against the capital’s social and moral order. At the time of capital’s largest attack, the absence of a revolutionary objective and the role of the bureaucracy plunged the working class into economic corporatism.
A two-sided reformism emerged. On the one hand, feminist politics became limited to exerting lobbying pressure on state institutions for an “expansion of citizenship” – quickly proving to be a waste of time as the crisis develops. This strategy, which we will call equality feminism, has clear limits for working women. At best, working-class women have only been given the right to struggle for wages while leaving the management of public affairs to the bourgeois political elite.
During these decades of deep conservative restoration, women who longed for their emancipation did not have a model to follow in countries run by so-called “really existing socialism,” as was the case in the early twentieth century. Instead, they found that any attempt to oppose the existing regime could generate new and monstrous forms of oppression and exclusion. Stalinism stained the Bolsheviks’ liberatory flags which had stood for women’s emancipation. It transformed these aims into their opposite, destroying and reversing the small, bold steps taken by the Russian Revolution in 1917.
As the feminist agenda was co-opted and integrated into the capitalist system, progress was made in the attainment of basic democratic rights. The feminist agenda – previously supported only by some sectors of the vanguard – became the common sense of the masses. However the radical nature of feminism at the dawn of the second wave was swallowed up by the system. Its subversive challenge was re-directed from the streets to government buildings, from radical social transformation to institutionalization. Difference feminism, the political current that criticized this, sought to create a different symbolic order starting with the idea of sexual difference.
But difference feminism ended up reducing gender to an essentialist category, postulating that being a woman bestowed certain values that were supposedly universal and had been degraded by male hegemonic discourse. To some extent, this new feminism rejected political dispute, emerging as a reaction to the dominant political system’s assimilation of equality feminism. Instead, it aimed to create a counterculture based on new values arising from sexual difference. Along with the rejection of equality feminism, it ultimately challenged the movement for an egalitarian society which was free from exploitation and oppression.
During the advance of the conservative restoration, neither the egalitarian politics of integration within capitalist democracy, nor the difference feminist politics of resistant counterculture prevented the unprecedented expansion of oppression and violence against millions of women worldwide.
Lesbians, black women, and women from “Third World” countries would eventually question this celebration of feminine virtues. A celebration which concealed differences and oppressive hierarchies among women. Sexual difference then burst into multiple intersecting differences among women, making way for numerous fluid identities and a fragmented political subject.
Post-feminism then went further. Given the existence of so many distinct and singular identities, it argued the impossibility of establishing any identity at all. Reframing normative discourse through parody became a political strategy that would undermine hegemony and open up new spaces of meaning. It established the idea of individual emancipation, deceptively infused with the possibilities of consumption and subjective appropriation-transformation of one’s own body.
While individualism proliferated around the world through economic policies that pushed millions into unemployment and enforced the fragmentation and relocation of the working class, feminism moved further away from a project of collective emancipation. It fell back on increasingly solipsistic speech, limited to inciting an elite that demanded the right to be recognized in its diversity while being tolerated by and integrated into consumer culture.
Post-feminism as “accomplice/opposition”
Equality feminism can be credited with conceptualizing gender as a social and relational category linked to the concept of power, highlighting that the oppression of women has a history and is not the “natural” consequence of anatomical differences. Meanwhile, feminism of difference resisted assimilation into a system of subordination, discrimination and oppression that differs from the “universal” model forged under patriarchy. While difference feminism ultimately succumbed to a biologistic essentialism, post-feminist theories questioned the notion of sexuality as invariable, leading to the conception of desire as situated. Rejecting the idea that difference should be transformed into fixed, static identity opens up a powerful way forward in the culture and construction of subjectivity, even though it is not a strong political strategy for the creation of a movement for the emancipation of those who are oppressed by mandatory heteronormativity.
However, the greater degree of political equality in capitalist democracies does not dissolve social inequality; nor does the shared nature of afflictions common to the exploited members of a social class dissolve the inequalities generated by oppression based on difference. How can we imagine equality that is not based on identity and uniformity? And difference that is not constituted as identity and hierarchy?
Far from taking an unequivocal stand for equality, Marxism proposes a materialist and dialectical analysis of difference; it questions the metaphysical abstraction of formal equality, which traps concrete differences into an empty universalism. Under capitalism, equality can only exist formally through the abstraction of particular elements of social existence. The capitalist State achieves this fetishistic divorce of politics and economy, offering a resultant split human being: the people are equally citizens, while being essentially different: either dispossessed workers or owners of the means of production.
Postmodern theories, which propose that differences be recognized in their specificity to such a degree that they dissolve as categories of identity (or that we could do without them), draw the attention to “the excluded”. By not taking into account capitalist relations of production in which these exclusions are supported, postfeminism concludes by calling for a struggle for “inclusion” and symbolic representation which ends up conforming itself to the new market tolerance for diversity rather than subverting it. Without considering the inextricable relationship between the capitalist mode of production and the multiple fragmentations that contribute to oppression, a radical challenge to the stability of sexual identities and heteronormativity loses its subversive potential. Hence, Terry Eagleton defines postmodernism as “politically in opposition, but economically an accomplice.”
Claiming difference as such or merely proclaiming the elimination of binary identities in a world where such differences are cause for brutal insults and injustices, post-feminism ends up looking more like a self-congratulatory speech to an enlightened minority than a critique by a powerful and radically transformative movement. For Marxism, in contrast, the focus is on equal attention to the diverse needs of the people: this is the only way that difference does not become hierarchy and equality, or uniformity, something that no “expansion of citizenship” granted by capitalist democracies may offer – even less so in times of economic, social and political crisis such as the one we are experiencing. Only a society of free producers can be a society where equality is not based on tyrannical standards that seek to hide differences, but is instead based on an equal respect for differences that constitute the particular elements of social existence.
Through women’s eyes
The current global crisis is the result of capitalism’s inability to survive without imposing greater hardship on the masses and further degrading and politically weakening its democratic regimes. The period of conservative restoration, which led to this new capitalist crisis, created a contradictory scenario: co-option and integration of large sections of the middle class and certain sections of the working class, alongside the exclusion of the majority of the masses – leaving behind an uncharacteristic fragmentation of the working class. At the same time, entire countries were becoming incorporated into the world market and millions of people pushed into massive cities were forced into salaried employment.
For the first time in the history of humanity, this new period of capitalist crisis has a labor force that is highly feminized and more urban than rural. However, while the global situation pushes women and the most oppressed social sectors to develop their subversive potential – shown in historical moments of great crisis or in social, economic and political cataclysms – feminism has become divorced from the masses, generally distanced from the perspective of a collective, emancipatory project.
Reclaiming such a perspective requires the recognition that, if the working class has the potential power to destroy the resources of capitalist economy, this strategic position does not suffice to revolutionize the dominant order if the working class fails to conquer and command an alliance with sectors oppressed by capital—including uniting with the ranks of the highly feminized proletariat. Raising a program for the liberation of women is vital to the working masses, because of the group’s composition and the need to establish an alliance with other sectors and social strata pushed into misery, ruined by big capital and condemned to discrimination and marginalization within a dominant culture that denies their recognition.
Faced with this situation, many on the Left have conformed to the status quo of recent decades of conservative restoration. From the skeptical perspective, which assumes that defeat by the imperialist counter-offensive is irreversible, the expansion of rights in bourgeois democracy was implemented as an ultimate strategy. Indeed, the ruling classes were forced to heed these demands in order to defuse radicalization, to co-opt and integrate large sectors into the regime. Some forces on the left established these conquests as ultimate objectives rather than strategic milestones; an anti-capitalist program was traded for an anti-neoliberal program with the minimal goal of limiting the scope of the most harmful aspects of conservative restoration.
At the opposite pole, others on the left dismissed the need for a program and a policy for women’s emancipation that stems from conquered democratic rights within bourgeois democracy. This is another form of adaptation: by default, “issues” of oppression are left in the hands of multi-class social movements, while corporatism and narrow trade unionism in the labor movement deepen. Ultimately, the strategy of proletarian hegemony is abandoned by way of sectarian abstention.
The authors of this article believe that a ruthless critique of the misery bred by capitalism in all aspects of life, including subjective and interpersonal relationships, must be an integral part of our Marxist world view, our program and our strategy in the struggle to radically change class society. While we support all struggles that seek to wrest the best living conditions for the millions of people who are immersed in the most unimaginable indignities, we aim to achieve a stateless society without social classes: a society liberated from the chains of exploitation and all forms of oppression that pit human beings against each other.
Those of us who seek the liberation of humanity from destitution and humiliation can only come together from the point of view of the most violated among the exploited. For fundamental transformation we must look through the eyes of women, and it is from this point of view that we try to re-appropriate the Bolshevik way of thinking, while at the same time, understanding the profound social changes of the last century that led to new problems which must be taken into account.
We know that merely longing for communism will not bring it about, even when it is longed for by thousands or millions of exploited people. We must seek not only to establish a different order, but to overthrow the existing one. Any partial conquest that is obtained in the narrow margins of degraded democracies must be situated within this broader strategy.
This is the only real antidote to the post-feminist utopia of radical democracies and the dystopia of bureaucratic totalitarianism that betrayed the Bolshevik revolution and transformed it into its antithesis. In this way, women’s struggle for emancipation and a Marxist critique that is enriched by feminist contributions may emerge as a renewed socialist feminism waiting to see the light of day.
(*) This is a reduced version, revised by the authors for this edition. You can read the original article in Spanish, “La Emancipación de las mujeres en tiempos de crisis mundial”, Part I and Part II, in Ideas de Izquierda Magazine No. 1 and No. 2.