Let me begin with some of my frustrations with feminist politics today. These largely stem from how far feminism has moved from an explicitly anti-capitalist agenda. I shall illustrate by taking recourse to three quick anecdotes.
In a conference on Decolonising Feminism organized at the University of the Witwatersrand last year, my strong impression was that very few presentations spoke to issues of class and economic inequality. At one, slightly tense moment in the conference, when a colleague and I suggested that black feminist activists were being unreflexive of the power differentials that exist amongst black women especially on the basis of class, my colleague was told to keep her ‘white feminism in check’ (I wasn’t because I am what Gayatri Spivak would call a safe colour). So, in at least this exchange, gender and race were pitted against one another but also in ways that made it difficult to name other kinds of inequalities, such as those that might exist within women as a group, even of the same colour.
I taught a great third year cohort recently on a course on Gender and Feminism. The students were already feminist, and, overwhelmingly, in intersectional terms. They identified, in other words, not just as women but as black women, as black queer men, and so on. While this language provided rich fodder to think through gender, sexuality and race together, it also meant – at times – the ranking of oppressions and injustices in a competitive field of race, gender and sexual identities. What was also interesting in the classroom was the complete and utter absence of any thinking around class, the workings of capitalism and neoliberalism, even when pushed in that direction.
Finally, to draw on an entirely different example from my field of research in India: intersectionality is not a term that has had significant purchase there. Or so I thought. On a recent research trip, I met the queer activists I have been researching for nearly a decade now. At the start of my research, they were – like Indian feminists more generally – painfully aware of issues of access and outreach. How would a metropolitan organization like theirs reach vulnerable lesbian women located in rural areas, they would ask. Now, in 2017, the organization is much more firmly institutionalized and professionalized. When asked about wider access, I got one consistent response: intersectionality. No more needed to be said and presumably no more needs to be done. Simply evoking the concept of ‘intersectionality’ implies doing the labour of class and sexuality-based activism together.
‘Intersectionality’, it seems, has something to do with the manner in which feminist discourse and politics appears to have moved away from certain kinds of concerns such as disparities pertaining to class and wealth. International women’s day provides a good opportunity to return to these issues given the explicitly socialist roots of the day that few appear to be aware of. Just as Clara Zetkin called for a movement of proletarian women against a mainstream ‘bourgeois feminism’ in 1894, a group of powerful scholars and activists have come together – in Trump’s USA – to campaign for a feminism for the 99%. In other words, a feminism for the majority of the US population who have faced the bulk of neoliberal restructuring. Women – and especially women of colour – have been disproportionately affected by these policies the world over. Instead of a feminism that represents their interests, what we see – these activists argue – is the rise and popularity of a ‘Lean in’ type of feminism; one that effectively makes neoliberal dictums of individual advancement at the cost of any structural analysis and change more mainstream and amenable to women. Their call for strike action on International Women’s Day is a clear evocation of the socialist legacy of the day and the anti-capitalist roots of feminism itself.
Nancy Fraser is part of this call, already influential for her robust critiques of capitalist or ‘neoliberal feminism’. In arguing that feminism has become the ‘handmaiden’ of capitalism, Fraser shows how feminist ideals are not only being appropriated by neoliberal agendas but are actually serving to buttress neoliberalism’s everyday manifestations and ends.
Even as one cannot deny that this version of neoliberal feminism has today won out, Fraser’s argument is not without its problems. In an instance of what I have called feminist melancholia, Fraser proclaims, in a vastly generalized manner, the decline, loss or even death of feminist radicalism today. Consequently, critiques like hers can appear to be anachronistic in harking back to a ‘truer’ version of feminism in another time. Fraser’s position has also been accused of both Eurocentrism in failing to consider feminist currents outside of Europe that are actively resisting neoliberalism as well as romanticizing feminism’s alliance with the left.
Another way in which one could provide a considered response to the politics of the present – playing with the idea of feminist temporalities – is to evoke a different past of feminism: not one in which feminism was happily married to socialism but a socialist feminism that was intrinsically intersectional. Two recent works provide direction here: Linda Gordon on intersectionality and Keeanga Yamahatta-Taylor on #BlackLivesMatter in the US. In very different ways and speaking to different though not unrelated concerns, both recover a history of socialism for feminist and anti-racist politics in the US today. Their rewriting of the feminist and antiracist Left makes it hard to empty current feminist considerations of commitments to economic equality and justice.
For the historian Linda Gordon, second-wave socialist feminists in the US were, contrary to the prevailing commonsense, deeply intersectional in their analysis and organizing around sexism in that they understood many vectors of domination that needed to be challenged together. Furthermore, it was feminists of colour within this socialist strand of ‘women’s lib’ who really made such thinking possible in showing how issues of racism and poverty were, for instance, inseparable in their daily lives. This is in sharp contrast the ways in which race and class appear to be split in our political discourse today with class emerging as a problem of the white working classes alone while the effects of structural racism – such as police brutality – being discussed in separation from those of economic exploitation. Intersectionality contributes, Gordon argues, to this problem insofar as it essentialises identities with the added assumption that only minorities can understand and represent their problems. Gordon provides an important articulation of the problem of identity politics within intersectionality today, in ways that echo with my own experiences recounted above.
Likewise, Taylor – one of the intellectual voices of the Black Lives Matter movement –takes us back to a history of the Black left to do two things: one, to provide ample evidence of how socialist struggles have been anti-racist ones, attracting many African Americans. And secondly, to show, in the context of the most recent wave of resistance against state violence in the US, that structural racism and class oppression are joined at the hip. In recovering the history of socialism as an intersectional one, she says:
‘no serious socialist current in the last hundred years has ever demanded that Black or Latino/a workers put their struggles on the back burner while some other class struggle is waged first. This assumption rests on the mistaken idea that the working class is white and male, and therefore incapable of taking up issues of race, class and gender. In fact, the American working class is female, immigrant, Black, white, Latino/a, and more. Immigrant issues, gender issues, and antiracism are working-class issues’.
Sexuality struggles, I would add, are no strangers to these contestations around class. Even if we take the example of a new queer movement like the one around decriminalising sodomy in India, we see how elite queer liberal concerns have taken precedence over issues of livelihood and survival amongst working-class queer communities.
The upshot of both these interventions is this: the current sidelining of class in forms of feminism and antiracist struggles is anathema to the actual history or histories of radical feminist mobilisation and thought. Current claims to be intersectional not only serve to erase these histories and their lessons but have also come to act as a shorthand for ‘diversity’ or ‘equality’. Even the most corporate versions of ‘lean in’ feminism can today comfortably claim to be intersectional given just how far the term has moved, in the popular commonsense, from any concerns with economic inequality.
I am not suggesting a recovery of socialist feminism to allay my frustrations with respect to intersectional feminisms in the present. What I am suggesting is an attention to multiple lineages of feminist and anti-racist struggles to show – as Gordon and Taylor do – the centrality of socialist and anti-capitalist politics given the manner in which race, class and gender are mutually constituted and lived. This is not a plea for a ‘better’ history of feminism or of socialism. Rather than telling different (hi)stories of struggle, we need to – as Clare Hemmings argues – tell these (hi)stories differently. So, in telling the history of feminism as being rooted in and committed to addressing multiple and interlocking oppressions, we might be able to renew the commitment that ‘my feminism will be anti-capitalist or it will be bullshit’.
Srila Roy is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. She tweets in a personal capacity @srilaroy