This is not a whinge or a rant, but a question posed as openly and ingenuously as it’s possible to do. It won’t be long, but I thought it was worth writing about.
In the Space Project, a temporary education and organising space in Leeds, people have been running a reading group on (The) Crisis – discussing and learning about this current depression and why, when and how crises of capitalism occur. It’s been ‘successful’ in terms of the fact that quite a lot of people have come (between 20-35 at each session) and some interesting conversations have been had, people are sharing knowledge and experiences and questions and occasionally arguing. Yesterday, it was the fourth session, ‘Feminist Perspectives on Crisis’, which I was helping facilitate. Three of us involved in the reading group were there. Three others came. And there we were, the six of us.
I am not going to mount a defence of why a feminist analysis is relevant to our understanding and reactions to the crisis, but I nevertheless hope it’s illustrated by the following outline of the hour-or-so long discussion we had, which was one of the best conversations I’ve had the pleasure of having.
Ellen talked about her experience of the multiple feminisms of the 80s, of the place of black feminism which had its own particular intersection with Marxism and conflicts with liberalism, about Shulamith Firestone’s idea of a feminist revolution analogous to a Marxist revolution, but of people taking back the means of reproduction as well as production. For her, what makes feminism interesting and immediate is how it changes and challenges our understanding of different ‘levels’ of human inquiry – psychology, environmentalism/ecology, economics, culture – and how it crosses boundaries between these ‘disciplines’. For her using feminist theory and ideas to talk about crisis is a way of getting away from structural definitions (related to the economy, capital and so on) and to talk about these other ‘levels’ too – about our lives as they are physically lived, about our needs and desires, about education, how we are cultivated. She mentioned, too, the suppression of female intellect and dismissal of women’s ideas over history, and pointed out that it was a woman, Harriet Martineau who first posited that a full political economy had to take into account unpaid (and predominantly female) labour.
It turned out that Gaye had hosted one of the first Women’s Liberation groups in the UK in her home in Bolton in the late 60s. She wasn’t sure what it was all about at first, but she agreed strongly with free access to abortion, one of the four key demands of the movement at the time (They were: free nursery care, free contraception, free abortion on demand and equal pay for equal work). We then had a long discussion about work, and in particular about the Wages for Housework campaign, each chipping in what we knew. Guy pointed out that in Italy, the demand of Wages for Houswork was far more strategic – not a ‘genuine’ demand but a way of pointing out that under capitalism, this demand could not be fulfilled, thus exposing the system’s reliance on vast volumes of unpaid labour and exploitation; in the UK, however, people took it as a real demand and got caught up in the complexities of how it could ever be properly implemented. Why are certain political proposals dismissed as utopian or ‘impractical’, we wondered, while others are not? Why ‘can’t’ certain debts be forgiven? If we can have a Universal Benefit soon, why not a Universal Wage?
For the 4 younger (mid-20s) participants in this conversation, our different experiences of feminism and activism kept overlapping with thoughts about the readings; one of us had come to feminism through his experiences of another reading group and understanding feminism as the possibility of a radical critique of gender, sexuality and wage labour (not always together though!). We talked about our experiences of gendered work, we reminded ourselves that many kids in the UK are not paid and have paltry welfare support for caring full-time for members of their family. We kept trying to keep the borders of the working world open in our minds, talking of how labour migration affects women and men differently in different countries and times. I recalled a book called ‘Global Women’, read when I was about 18 about women who leave their families to go and care for others’ children, or houses, or do sex work, and how it made me think beyond white liberal feminism for the first time.
We talked about why reproduction is often framed as a ‘lifestyle choice’ in either positive and negative terms, or an economic one. Stigmas around ‘single mums’ and ‘absent fathers’ which seemed to begin in the 70s in earnest (or maybe things always seem to begin when we begin), in one crisis of the welfare state. One of us had counselled young women saw their rational choices to have children so that they could get housing and a guaranteed income. And so we talked about our basic needs, and how we get them met, in the fourth largest country GDP in the world, where 10% of GDP is a huge sloshing tide of capital running in and turning out of the City of London, a conduit passing dry shores. And about anxieties around reproduction and socially reproducing the workforce, the call to teach ‘parenting’, coercing kids into gender and work. Disciplining for self-discipline.
The Black Death of the late 14th century killed up to 60% of Europe’s population, resulting in a crisis for reproduction and labour. Jon talked about Federici’s thesis of expropriation of labour, especially women’s labour, as something which long predates modern capitalism. Early capitalists, the state and the church all combining forces to gender certain tasks, to remove or suppress the wage, to break down a feudal familial structure in order to boost population growth and unpaid labour. This included proscriptions on sexual and other behaviour, legalisation of rape, regulation of prostitution, and trials for witchcraft. Another point, made later - After the Boer War killed so many men, ‘surplus women’, wandering women, changed the makeup of teaching from a male-dominated to a female-dominated profession. This gave rise to anxieties about lesbianism, adultery, women unhitched from the sphere of domesticity and of marriage. And here were women, making men and women, and one reserve army begat another.
I don’t think we could have had the same kind of discussion with a larger number of people. It would just have been different, no better, no worse, who can say? But still we found ourselves asking; why didn’t more people come? The recommended readings weren’t any more ‘difficult’ than the other readings we’ve had (see below for more ideas). Did people, then, feel that a feminist analysis was tangential, that they could opt out of this one? Did they think it was a tokenistic session? Did the men who didn’t come either think it was a discussion ‘for women’ or did they feel uncomfortable that a feminist approach to crisis was potentially going to attack their individual and collective actions as men? We people worried others would intimately ask them to think about their own (waged and unwaged) work as well as their feelings, their sexuality, their ‘personal’ politics? Is feminism ‘past’ to them and now a niche interest?
I’ve thought quite a lot and quite unsatisfactorily about what ‘free universities’ and free schools, squatted social centres etc can do to redo, to undo, to de-educate and challenge, to generate as well as impart knowledge. I think we opened up a short and important space yesterday to tell history and politics in a way it is not usually told, not even in ‘the left’ or amongst ‘radicals’, and to make new links in our minds. I learnt tons.
I really can’t bear a self-referential politics that endlessly unpicks our interpersonal differences and problems, or unconstructively criticises other movements, but I don’t think I’m doing that in asking this question. Why did people not come? is a question I intend to ask at the beginning of the next and final session, because I really, really, think it matters. I think it’s fair to surmise that feminist perspectives provide a huge and endlessly intriguing and rage-inducing array of ways to look at crises of capitalism, past and present. And they trouble that ‘past and present’, distinction too, to see what modalities of power mutate and carry on.
BOOKS, ARTICLES and WOMEN recommended/referenced during our discussion:
Silvia Federici – Precarious Labour – A Feminist Viewpoint
Feminist Fightback – Why Cuts are a Feminist Issue
Laura Augustin – Sex as Work and Sex Work
Silvia Federici – Caliban and the Witch
Dale Spender – Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them
Harriet Martineau – Illustrations of Political Economy [Martineau (1802-1876) was an early sociologist and all-round badass. I had never heard of her till yesterday]
Barbara Ehrenreich – Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy
EDIT: A response from somone saying they didn’t go not because of feminism, but because of declining quality of the discussion. Ironically, I think the ‘quality’ of the discussion was higher than it has been when there were only 6 of us - because there were only 6 of us? And maybe that’s a wider reflection about how small reading groups should be to be enjoyable for everyone.