Towards A Red Feminism
— Teresa Ebert
for Barbara Foley and her struggles
to build a socialist academy
RED FEMINISM CONTESTS all forms of institutionalized feminism: from cultural feminism (which is making a comeback in the name of a commonsense fear of the "new," the "alien" and the technological) to postmodern feminisms with their bourgeois reifications of the pleasures and desires of commodity capitalism.
Red Feminism challenges the effectivity of the new localist, "transnational" feminisms and calls for a renewed internationalism--with a historical and strategic use of the nation-state--to fight global capitalism. It insists on the priority of production and class struggle in the emancipation of women and reaffirms the solidarity of humanity on the basis of shared needs. Red Feminism thus moves away from individualistic desires and the limits of identity politics toward the collective struggle of international socialism.
Socialism presents a quandary for many on the radical left--especially feminists--under the impact of postmodernism. They find they can neither reject nor accept it. Thus, former editor of the Socialist Review, David Plotke, in an interview with postcolonial theorist and feminist, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, says he no longer knows "what it means . . . to say he . . . is a socialist," but that he "wouldn't take any pleasure in saying that [he is] not a socialist" either (Spivak and Plotke, "Dialogue" 18).
Similarly, Spivak is not so much for socialism as she is not against it: "Like you," she says to Plotke, "I would not like to call myself an antisocialist" (18). Yet both agree that socialism, in some of its most fundamental aspects, as Plotke says, "are in general terms unacceptable" (17)--because of its "statist orientation" and "narrowly economic focus" among other reasons.
Why such doubts about socialism at this historical moment when the consequences of transnational capitalism and its cultural politics are becoming so readily evident; when we see the local and global intensification of class warfare?
The catastrophic divisions between North and South are worsening, but even within the North, particularly the United States, class divisions are increasing significantly, as is well known: "the wealthiest 1 percent of American households . . . owns nearly 40 percent of the nation's wealth" while the "top 20 percent of Americans . . . have more than 80 percent of the country's wealth"--a figure the New York Times reports is considerably "higher than in any other industrial nation" (Bradsher, A-1, D4). Why, then, does socialism with its rigorous critique and powerful explanation of the destructive logic and injustices of capitalism seem so irrelevant--particularly for many feminists struggling to deal with the deteriorating global condition of women?
One especially important factor in the rise of post-socialism and the displacement of Marxism as a revolutionary theory and praxis for feminism has been the impact of postmodern knowledges--specifically poststructuralism (for a critique of "post-ality," see Zavarzadeh). Poststructuralism is, of course, itself a historical effect of transnational capital and its knowledge industry.
Part of the impact of poststructuralism on social theory has been to disenable a transformative social politics by constructing a conceptual system that fundamentally misreads global capitalism as NEW TIMES that require NEW POLITICS. What is New Times? By now, nearly everyone on the left is familiar with these postmodern TRUISMS--and many have even embraced them as the new Truth--but let me briefly rehearse them here for our discussion.
As one of the editors of Social Text, George Yudice, describes it: The "New Times" of global capitalism are marked by "the shift to post-Fordism and other changes in the mode of production" in which "flexible accumulation, consumer culture, and the `new world information order' are produced or distributed (made to flow) globally." These "correspond to a weakening of the articulation of national discourse and state apparatuses" (Yudice 4).
The term "post-Fordism" has become a convenient shorthand for the New Times changes--which are seen as not only economic but also social, cultural and political--and which, as Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques explain, have "served to disrupt, if not entirely displace, the old distinctions between production and consumption" (12). In this post-Fordist logic, consumption becomes the main source of wealth and citizens' political power, and thus, as I will discuss below, the main arena of social change.
Desire, moreover, is substituted for labor as the primary agency in consumer capitalism. For example, Deleuze and Guattari argue in their work Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (perhaps the most influential book in poststructuralist political theory), that "desire produces" the "real" (26): "social production is purely and simply desiring-production itself."
Another important consequence of the post-Fordist logic for left feminist politics is the seeming eclipse of the nation-state--both as a player in capitalism and as a site of social transformation--and its replacement by local initiatives on one hand and transnational networks on the other. Gayatri Spivak, for example, argues that the notion of new social movements as "interested in state power--[does] not apply in the southern theater. A different model is already at work" (9)--there is, she says, "no bargaining point for a nation-state-based socialist commitment." (9)
Instead, local grassroots activism and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)--based especially on women's and ecological issues--are forming transnational networks (largely via the internet) and constituting a new global citizenship, a new international civil society, and a new politics. But how effective, as a transformative social force, is this new feminist politics of transnational local initiatives? Can this new global citizenship engage in effective struggle to end the world-wide exploitation of women?
From the position of Red Feminism, this is a very questionable politics indeed: one that is easily co-opted by the very forces it seeks to contest, and based on quite problematic postmodernist presuppositions--especially its reification of difference, diversity and the local--and an inadequate understanding of the structure of exploitation and objective reality of capitalism.
The proliferating diversity and new mediating structures of consumer capitalism are all superstructural changes that obscure the continuation of the same old harsh realities that are fundamental to capitalist mode of production. No matter how much the patterns of employment, accumulation and consumption may change--no matter how decentralized or globally distributed they become--the basic structural reality of capitalism remains the same: THE EXPROPRIATION AND EXPLOITATION OF LIVING LABOR (SURPLUS LABOR) IN THE PRODUCTION FOR PROFIT.
Moreover, the exploitation of surplus labor is intensifying, whether it is goods, services, information, or microelectronics that are being produced, and whether the locale is a sweatshop in Los Angeles or Sri Lanka; a MacDonald's in Newark or Manila. These New Times, then, are not really so new.
Nor is there much "new" in the "new" globality of capital. As Harry Magdoff has argued, while capital's current globalization involves considerable intensification, it is still a continuation of the centuries-old process of capitalist growth and incessant accumulation through the expansion of world markets and attempt to control material resources and labor beyond national borders.
This is a process of internationalization marked by fluctuations of cooperation and competition among national components of capitalism. Similarly, the consequences of the geographic spread of capital--the widening gap between rich and poor nations, between core and periphery--is not new, only intensified (Magdoff 4-5).
Why then have left feminists so misread the objective reality of capitalism and abandoned an international socialist struggle for transnational "globe girdling" networking--to use a phrase from Spivak? One way to begin to answer this question is to ask another question: What kinds of theories has feminism turned to, to help it understand and explain the world-historical material reality it is struggling to change? WHAT DO THESE THEORIES ENABLE FEMINISM TO DO? Or more to the point, PREVENT FEMINISM FROM DOING?
Postmodern theory, especially poststructuralism, has had considerable influence on feminist thinking and praxis--producing what I call a "ludic feminism." Ludic feminism is founded on a series of, by now, common postmodern assumptions that rewrite difference as a proliferating play of significations, give priority to the local, the autonomous and the "bodily," and privilege desire as a liberatory agency and consumption as the arena of social change.
Some of its main forms range from Drucilla Cornell's Derridean feminism and Judith Butler's "performativity" theory to "ludic socialist feminism," as in Donna Haraway's work, and the new "transnational feminism" (e.g. see Grewal and Kaplan; for a fuller elaboration of this issue, see my Ludic Feminism and After: Postmodernism, Desire and Labor in Late Capitalism).
Another fundamental assumption of ludic feminism is that "theory" (as the knowledge of historical social totality) is totalitarian and repressive of difference, and thus that theory and praxis are two autonomous entities. Such a localist ludic politics displaces revolutionary praxis aimed at emancipation from the exploitation of labor and need.
Do I seem to exaggerate? Let me remind you of two prominent feminist declarations discrediting emancipation. Judith Butler, perhaps the most influential ludic feminist theorist, declares the "unrealizability of `emancipation'" because poststructuralism has shown its foundations to be "contradictory and untenable" ("Poststructuralism" 8).
Again, in a quite different but related vein, Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies, in their theory of Ecofeminism, reject the "Enlightenment emancipation-logic" and argue that the "'subject's emancipation from the `realm of ecessity'"--a fundamental principle of historical materialism--is itself an oppressive patriarchal, Eurocentric notion (7). This abandonment of emancipation has part of its roots in the ludic philosophical operations, which reify the local and the valorization of difference, diversity and autonomy.
At the core of this ludic localism is the separation of theory and practice. For Marxism, theory is an integral and inseparable part of praxis: praxis is the truth of theory and theory is the very frame of knowing produced by praxis and at the same time guiding it. To separate them, Marx had thought, was an idealist fallacy.
But feminism and poststructuralism have problematized the relation between theory and practice, arguing that practice is local, specific, non-generalizable and autonomous. To determine practice by theory is to unleash violence against the specificity and difference of practice--theory, in short, is seen as reductive of the diversity of the local, the particular.
In her book The Wake of Deconstruction, Barbara Johnson sums up the classic poststructuralist position that "Theoretical statements, whether about decisions or about undecidability, are all equally detached from any particular intervention" (84). Thus in the name of "theory," theory is "detached" from practice. Ludic feminist theory becomes an "anti-theory" theory that celebrates the local, the specific, the particular in all their differences.
The detachment of theory from practice is based on the difference not only of theory from practice but (as the logic of Derridean "difference" makes clear) the difference of theory from itself--that is, theory is seen as self-divided by the differences of language and signification constructing its concepts (Derrida, 3-27). This proliferation of differences has lead to Lyotard's well-known ludic left slogan, "Let us wage war on totality." (82)
Theory, as an explanatory practice, as the systematic and interconnected understanding of social practices has thus largely been abandoned in favor of "thick description" (Geertz, 5), as local, nongeneralizing description of the specific and particular. The social totality becomes unknowable--or as post-Marxist Ernesto Laclau declares, "'society'. . . is an impossible object" ("Transformations" 40-41).
In short, ludic theory can no longer provide knowledge of totality--especially the totality of capitalism--because it posits the social as divided by proliferating series of incommensurate, autonomous differences that Lyotard calls "language games." Lyotard further develops this idea through his concept of the differend: the radical irreducible point of differences among events and phrases rendering them--and rendering truth and justice--incommensurable.
The war on totality, the detachment of theory and practice is especially disenabling for feminist struggles against global capitalism. Let me demonstrate this by examining very briefly some of the assumptions in Mies and Shiva's Ecofeminism, which has become a very influential text among activist feminists who formally reject ludic feminism but embrace all its concepts and practices through an experiential and localist argument. Ludic and activist feminists, in other words, are becoming the same in their anti-emancipatory views and acts.
Mies and Shiva's Ecofeminism is an exemplary articulation of the "local-against-global-resistance-movements" (Spivak's phrase) characterizing transnational feminism. At the core of the Mies-Shiva analysis of the "destructive tendencies" of what they call the "capitalist-patriarchal world system" are a reductionist science and technological development as the source of domination and "violence against women and nature." (24)
Western, patriarchal science and technology are, for Mies-Shiva, reductionist of diversity and difference: They abstract the particular into "uniformity, perceiving all systems as comprising the same basic constituents." (23) Reductionism is the "philosophical component" of capitalism for them and becomes one of the main means by which they mis-recognize the objective reality of capitalist exploitation. Mies-Shiva emphasize "commercial capitalism" as "specialized commodity production ... [that] demands uniformity in production." (24)
This insistence on uniformity--this reductionism--according to Mies-Shiva, "reduces complex ecosystems to a single component, and a single component to a single function" (24), and it is this "single-component exploitation" that, for them, is the logic of patriarchal-capitalist profit making and violence against women and nature.
But in making this argument Mies-Shiva displaces the exploitative process of capitalism--the expropriation of people's surplus labor for profit. As in all idealist theory, the formal and formalist apparatus (logical reduction and model building in science) becomes the issue and thus diverts attention from what is at stake, which is the use of science not for emancipation of humankind from the realm of necessity but for profit.
In the name of opposing reduction, Mies-Shiva reduce formal science to its logic and erases the relation of science and history, knowledge and profit. Hers is a reductionist reductionism. Yet science is always an abstraction, which means it is a reduction--that is, it articulates the relations of seemingly disparate events to a fundamental structure or process. The question is not that reductionism is negative in itself, but how is reduction historically used? It can be used to produce resources for meeting the needs of human kind, or it can be used to produce profit.
Therefore, to essentialize science in terms of its method and make method--reduction--the issue rather than the historical uses of that method is the usual recurring maneuver in all conservative thought. This essentialization of method (the reductionist antireductionism) is the basis for Mies-Shiva's conflation of "commodified capitalist materialism" and "Marxist materialism" as sharing the same logic of domination, to which they counterposes a specific, particular "materialism base" of the individual "body" (19-20) and its everyday practices.
(I would like to mention in passing, since I do not have time to develop an analysis here, that the BODY is the space in which ludic feminism and activist feminisms of various kinds converge and form a unified theory against emancipatory feminisms.)
Mies-Shiva, thus, propose the "everyday practice of women in agricultural communities in the conservation and renewal of biodiversity" (170) provides the specific knowledges to counter reductionism because "biodiversity is a relational not reductionist category." (171) But this seemingly nonreductionist knowledge--"subsistence perspective"--is itself an abstraction--that is, a reduction. Mies-Shiva call it looking "at dominant structures from below, from the ground of diversity, which reveal monocultures." (164) In only finding uniformity this is as abstract as the science she critiques.
Shiva and Mies are putting forth a largely ahistorical, antitechnological and culturalist view that understands the problem of oppression as one of "growth" and "uniformity" and the solution as one of "limits" and conservation of differences. In doing so, they abstract out the forces of production--technology, industrial development--from the social relations of production in capitalism, that is, the production for profit.
They essentialize technology and growth as in-and-of-themselves destructive, not seeing that it is a question of the uses of technology and growth for profit, rather than to meet human needs, that is the fundamental problem. As a result it is technology that is said to be the problem, rather than capitalism, and the solution for Shiva and Mies thus becomes eliminating technological development--and returning to subsistence. In many ways this anti-progress theory is aimed at discouraging development in the South and thus keeping the South as a market for the North.
As the Marxist ecologist James O'Connor points out, such "equating [of] environmental degradation with industrialization, or . . . technology per se . . . lets capitalism off the hook. It obscures the fact that capitalism gets at nature through exploiting labor. . . [and] Capitalism uses nature in the form of cultivated fields, raw material, capital goods, as a means of exploiting labor" (Cockburn, "Socialist Ecology" 18). The solution is not ending growth, but ending capitalism: ending production for profit and eliminating the exploitation of labor.
However, most ludic socialist feminists have moved a long way from the struggle to end capitalism. In fact, much contemporary feminism has reached an impasse in which it cannot think the future of humanity outside of capitalism. The empowerment of women is now conceived as possible only by embracing capitalism--by accepting and working within the system rather than transforming it.
This is one of the more disturbing aspects of Gayatri Spivak's interview on transnational resistance. Not only does she seem to readily accept "capitalism with a small `d' development" (5)--that is indigenous, low growth capitalism in the Southern theater, a version of Shiva and Mies' "subsistence perspective"--but she repeatedly suggests a form of "enlightened benevolent" giving on the part of capitalist countries of the North.
In other words, this ludic socialist, who is not quite antisocialist, becomes preoccupied with what she calls the "unfinishable tug-of-war" between "taking and giving," which "relates to the ethical." (14) Ethics, global philanthropy, becomes the social policy of transnational feminism not only for Spivak but also for many NGOs.
Even more common is the reification of capitalism as "market economy," as do Mies and Shiva, in which consumption becomes the main arena of change. There is something of a North/South divide, however, around the "politics of consumption." In the North, as George Yudice points out in his "Civil Society, Consumption and Governmentality," consumption is more an articulation of desires and aspirations; whereas in the South, especially as formulated by NGOs, there is advocacy of a global citizenry of restrained consumption.
This call for "voluntary simplicity and consumer liberation," at the core of Mies and Shiva's localizing politics, is a moralistic and anti-historical injunction: liberation from consumption rather than a liberation of desires through consumption. As Mies argues, "the only alternative" to "unending growth and profit" of the "world market system" is "a deliberate and drastic change of lifestyle, a reduction of consumption and a radical change in the North's consumer patterns." (62)
This program is not very different from Republican efforts to solve the problem of teen-age pregnancy (which is an economic issue) by moralistic "family values" lectures and injunctions for sexual abstinence. This is social change as volunteerism: "Just say No." It does little, if anything, to radically intervene in the structures of exploitation of capitalism.
There are clearly new aspects to late capitalism, which increasingly tries to secure its fundamental relations of profit by deconstructing the state and setting up, in place of the state, what might be regarded as a global civil society. This global civil society is itself mapped out in terms of NGOs, which are used in many ways to secure the interests of global capitalism by displacing class and marginalizing economic policy and practices by sheer entrepreneurship and the free market.
It may be necessary to make a distinction here between globalism--which is the privileged term in contemporary left theory--and internationalism, which is the Marxist notion. By emphasizing globalism, contemporary transnational feminism deconstructs the state and establishes a transnational order based on culture--at the center of which is the matter of consumption. This, in other words, is globalism in which transnationality is achieved by the fact that a clerk in Hong Kong listens to the same music and enjoys the same jeans and "GAP clothes" as a teacher in Rumania or a London teenager.
Hence this civil society is based on consumption, and the connections that it makes are connections of objects of desire. In short, this is the civil society of commodification. In opposition to this is the idea of internationalism based on a world historical solidarity beyond the boundaries of nationality and consumption and founded upon class and production.
Red Feminism is a contestation of globalism as the regime of consumption, and it is the struggle for internationalism--the solidarity of all workers of the world beyond national boundaries. Red Feminism, in other words, is a materialist and historical understanding of the workings of capitalism, and it recognizes that at this stage of its development, it is necessary to support, as a strategic matter, the national state as a site where reforms and rights must be fought for and protected.
For postmodern theorists--especially following Foucault's "non-economic analysis of power" (Power/Knowledge 88-89)--power is local, contingent, reversible, producing its own resistances, and the state is seen as a repressive regime suppressing both the play of individual desires and the aleatory flows of power/resistance. The post-al left, thus, "wages war" not so much against the exploitation of people by capitalism but against the domination ("totality") of the state as an oppressive agent restraining individual freedoms. In doing so, it is quite willing, as Spivak indicates, to form alliances with "capitalism with a small `d' development" (Spivak and Plotke, 5).
For Marx, however, power is not autonomous but derives from the ownership of the means of production--it is an outcome of labor (not discourse) and thus a force in the class struggle. The state, in capitalism, is the historically specific exercise of power on behalf of the ruling class: "The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" (The Communist Manifesto 57).
The issue of the state, for Marxists then, is its role in the class struggle. The State, in other words, is not an essence: Historically under communism it will wither away when the workers gain control over the means of production and the force of the state is no longer necessary to enforce class rule.
But we do not live in a communist or even a socialist order. Instead, in the current world historical situation, no particular social force can contest transnational capitalism with anything like capitalism's resources--except the state. As Masao Miyoshi writes in his essay, "A Borderless World? From Colonialism to Transnationalism and the Decline of the Nation-State," "the state did, and still does, perform certain functions, for which there is as of now no substitute." (744)
The fact that the state is, for the most part, as Miyoshi also notes, "thoroughly appropriated by transnational corporations" (744) does not change its importance in the class struggle. It is only through gaining control of the state that the workers will acquire the resources and apparatuses of power to enable them to control the means of production. The nation-state in late capitalism continues to be a necessary site in the international struggle to end the exploitation of people's labor and wrest the ownership of the means of production away from a transnational bourgeoisie.
It is, thus, necessary to engage the state as a resistance against transnational capitalism. As Lenin reminds us in The State and Revolution, Marx and Engels provide "a highly interesting definition of the state, which is also one of the `forgotten words' of Marxism: `the state, i.e. the proletariat organized as the ruling class.'" (23)
Contemporary feminism, under the influence of postmodernism, has developed a number of theories and practices that are represented as progressive. As I have indicated, however, they are far from being so. In its localism, this kind of feminism cuts off the relation of a coherent theory as an explanatory critique to guide its practices and prevent them from becoming ad hoc reactions; in its ecological anti-progressivism, such feminism becomes an ally of capitalism.
Feminism's anti-growth logic is ultimately an attempt to keep the third world a permanent market of products for the first world. Feminism's conception of transnational anti-Statist resistance is identical--in its effects--with conservative attempts to remove the last existing obstacle from the path of capitalism. Its moralistic celebration of limits and its ethics of give-and-take lead to establishing philanthropy as international policy. Finally, a feminist valorization of consumption as the new political power of transnational citizens destroys the solidarity of women on the basis of their production practices and class connections.
What we need is not a new "global-girdling" (post) consumptionist feminism, but a Red Feminism. Instead of alliances based on individual desire(ing), we need an international collectivity committed to emancipating women and all oppressed people from need and the exploitation of their labor.
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ATC 65, November-December 1995