Red Feminism in the Age of Neoliberalism – Part 8: Red Feminism in Postmodernity

by Emily Eisner

continued from Part 7: Socialism and Female Liberation: History

Red Feminism in Postmodernity

A massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the owning class has taken place. . . the idea of a progressive politics as simply a question of changing representations . . . has become too hollow to be convincing.

Teresa Ebert, “(Untimely) Critiques for a Red Feminism,” [168]

We must not be like some Christians who sin for six days and go to church on the seventh, but we must speak for the cause daily, and make the men, and especially the women that we meet, come into the ranks to help us.

Eleanor Marx, “Speech on the first May Day” [169]

By now we can see that liberal feminism, postmodern feminism, and anarchist feminism are incapable of abolishing capitalism and the sexual division of labor, and thus ending women’s exploitation and subjugation. Liberal feminism does not challenge the capitalist mode of production. It does not

consider the existing social order (capitalism) to be what it is because of the accumulation of capital as the result of the appropriation of the labor of the many by the few. . . Even when these theories deploy the concept of class . . . they theorize class in such a way that it is more an index of political, cultural, and psychological practices than economic and material ones. [170]

Liberal feminism’s emphasis on agency and individual choice results in a complete phobia of radical criticism and systemic analysis of material oppression that includes the choices of many women. Liberal feminism, like political liberalism in general, rests on principles of voluntarism (choice rhetoric), the transformational power of ideas, and the free market. This is evident in liberal feminism’s uncritical embrace of prostitution, femininity, beauty norms, female capitalists and entrepreneurs, and more. Far from criticizing how Western women’s consumption choices affect women in the global South, liberal feminism even refuses to criticize how these consumers’ choices have even been manufactured by capitalist patriarchy.

On the other hand, postmodern philosophy and postmodern culture in the West emerged from the ashes of the organized labor movement, the liberating hopes of anticolonial movements in the global South, many Marxist-inspired movements of the 60s and 70s in the global North, and the Western radical feminist movement. This amalgam of postmodern thought, termed “post-ality”, rejects Marxism with a call for a decentralized, non-hierarchical, consumerist, localized, playful alternative to neoliberal capitalism. “Post-ality” as the announcement “of a new society which is post-production, post-labor, post-ideology, post-white and post-capitalist,” obfuscates a Marxist understanding of the totality of global neoliberal imperialist capitalism, and with it, the understanding that accumulation is at the root of women’s subjugation. [171]

Both of these theories shift the theoretical focus from the producer, who is nowadays located far out of sight in sweatshops across the global South, to the consumer. This is a progressive Western subject “who daringly consumes objects” and uses her body and language to “[deconstruct] the binary” of class, sex, etc as “resistance to capital.” [172] However, both the liberal and postmodern ideologies “perform the dominant ideological task of bourgeois knowledges, which is to construct concepts that remove (or at least reduce) the class antagonisms” and sex antagonisms, I would add, “from the social relations of property,” production, and reproduction. [173] The sexual division of labor, key to capitalism’s devaluation and subsequent super-exploitation of female labor, cannot be abolished “until we eradicate the socially imposed gender differences between us.” [174] We need to conceptualize class antagonism and relations to the means of production as central to our present society in order to fully criticize gender, the sexual division of labor, and male sexual terrorism’s role in upholding material male supremacy.

The tendency of some radical feminists to treat male supremacy as resulting from some innate masculine essence of domination, and to view all women, including white bourgeois women, as equally oppressed, renders the movement incapable of both appealing to the women workers of the world and liberating them. The Combahee River Collective, in their renowned statement of 1977, wrote that the lesbian separatism in vogue with white radical feminists

… leaves out far too much and far too many people, particularly black men, women, and children. We have a great deal of criticism and loathing for what men have been socialized to be in this society . . . But we do not have the misguided notion that it is their . . . biological maleness that makes them what they are. As black women we find any time of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic. [175]

Not all radical feminism, of course, “completely denies any but the sexual sources of women’s oppression, negating the facts of class and race.” [176] When radical feminism becomes alert to the centrality of accumulation, production, and the sexual division of labor as roots of women’s subjugation–and sees that the liberation of workers from the yoke of capital is necessary for feminist liberation–it faces two options. Either align oneself with one of the strains of radical anticapitalism such as anarchism, primitivism, or utopian socialism, or use historical materialism and Marxist theory to fundamentally reject liberalism and all it entails.

Anarchism, as I have outlined above, is heavily influenced by liberal political theory and postmodern ideology. It emphasizes individualistic notions of liberty and anti-authoritarianism–which is itself a reaction against concepts created by Western anti-communist propaganda campaigns to laud the social relations of liberal capitalism. While its nebulousness and structurelessness appeal to many Western youths rebelling against the violence inflicted upon their communities by the neoliberal state, the failure to differentiate between the tyranny of the bourgeois state and the necessity of the proletarian state is a theoretical shortcoming.

In conclusion, the quest for a radical anticapitalist feminism that will offer a structural analysis of women’s oppression and offer a plan for a liberating social system leads us to Marxist feminism. Due to the pervasive influence of postmodernism on contemporary academia, feminism, philosophy, and even state policy, arriving at a ruthless rejection of all things “pomo” is not going to be easy for the West. Fortunately, one can always begin with oneself, with the hallmark of feminist organizing: consciousness raising. Once one becomes radicalized and introduced to Marxist/feminist ideas through literature, media, or friends, it only takes a simple conversation or informal meeting among friends to begin discussing personal experiences and current events in their relation to Marxist feminist ideas. Consciousness raising groups among friends and community members are instrumental in introducing and simplifying Marxist feminist theory for working women.

The space for revolutionary organizing, however, is not in the party, on a website, or in a lecture hall, though these are all useful tools. The revolutionary space is the workplace, the home, the community center, the women’s shelter. Organizing a workplace, neighborhood, or community towards collective action is the weapon of the proletariat, both male and female. Housewives and domestic workers have historically been left out of union organizing due to the isolated nature of their work. This does not mean that collective action and union organization are not possible, it only means that they have historically been neglected. [177] I believe that organizing women at the point of their labors, wherever that may be, will give the 21st century women’s movement economic strength. A social movement that focuses its efforts on periphery symptoms of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal world order will only ever achieve reforms, reforms that will always fail to root out the source of the injustice. That is not to say that these tangential injustices are not of critical importance, rather that the worker’s power comes from her work, and her economic weapon is the strike. In Iceland, the feminist gains won by women’s movements were jump-started by the women’s general strike of October 24, 1975. On this day, 90% of the female population, across all professions, went on strike to highlight the indispensability of women’s work to the functioning of society. Every year on the same day, Icelandic women go on strike. Despite their internationally recognized feminist culture, Icelandic women’s protests of the persistence of economic inequality continue to this day. [178] Iceland is not a fully communist country, nor does it implement gender-abolitionist and Marxist feminist policy to eradicate the sexual division of labor fully. However, this example offers insight to the potential of the women’s general strike.

In the neoliberal economic and legal times of today, such actions and organizations are not going to be easy, fast, or even guaranteed. With the rising tide of right-wing populism and the ecological consequences of capitalism’s ruthless consumption, it has possibly never been as dangerous, difficult, or unexpected to propagandize and organize for revolutionary action. With every conversation, every shared book, and every informal meeting, powerful movements are born. It is not enough to let the right propagandize and organize before our eyes while whining that the age of radical movements are over. The postmodern shift in focus from production to consumption has made the West forget of the power at our fingertips, 40, 50, 60, 70 hours per week. Labor is still the source of all value, and women create more than half of it. What the women workers of the world need is not a postmodern alternative to Marxism, a “something else.” [179] We need a Marxism that has learned and grown from the past, a Marxism that engages with history, and is borne out of it. The time to abandon postmodernism and liberalism in the women’s movement is now. Red Feminism has been waiting for us.


Endnotes for this section: [168-179]

168. Ebert, Teresa. “(Untimely) Critiques for a Red Feminism.” 119.

169. Marx, Eleanor. “Speech on the first May Day,” (1890) Eleanor Marx. Vol 2, ed. Yvonne Kapp. Pantheon, 1976.

170. Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud, “Post-ality: The (Dis)simulations of Cybercapitalism.” 47.

171. Ibid. 3.

172. Ibid. 46.

173. Ibid.

174.  Hartmann, Heidi. “Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex,” 232.

175. Combahee River Collective, “Statement.” Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1979. 367.

176. Ibid.

177.  along with all other feminized occupations and women workers in mixed-sex occupations.

178.  Johns, Steven. “The Iceland women’s strike, 1975.” 24 October 2016.

179.  Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud. “Post-Ality: The (Dis)simulations of Cybercapitalism.”