The following is a guest post from Annette Blanka. ‘Women, Austerity and Revolt’ was the opening paper from the ‘Casting Spells’ panel presented by the Feminist Discussion Circle at the 2014 Sydney Anarchist Bookfair. See also the previous post by Princess Mob here for another of these papers.
This piece argues passionately for a ‘reversal of perspective’ among radicals on the question of work. It argues that those of us who desire social change need to come to terms with the vast expanse of invisible and unwaged labour that women perform non-stop within capitalism, including in social movements. It outlines the context of austerity which makes this re-think all the more urgent, in light of the current demolition of welfare, and affirms possibilities for struggle.
Women, Austerity and Revolt
The other day when I was talking with a friend about doing this presentation, he noted how the assumption is often that you’re there to present “the Answer.” Well I hate to disappoint anyone but I’m not going to do that. What I want is to prompt us all to ask better questions.
My aim in this talk is to show how austerity makes it all the more urgent for those of us who desire social change to engage in what I’d call a “reversal of perspective” on the question of work. That is, to come to terms with the vast expanse of invisible and unwaged labour that women perform non-stop. I’ll outline the context for the current demolition of welfare, and affirm the prospects for struggle and emancipation.
The scholar bell hooks defines feminism as the struggle to end sexist oppression, and I think that ‘ll do just fine here. Now, the current PM, which stands for Prime Misogynist, declared during his speech on International Women’s Day, that he is a feminist. Apparently that’s why he appointed himself Minister for Women, a post until now always filled by a woman. And as a feminist Minister for women, he’s busily waging war on everyday women. It’s clear that the turbo-charged demolition of welfare is a direct attack on women’s lives, and the work we do. Just this week, his govt announced that, as we all suspected, they can’t wait to push the hideous Income Management scheme on welfare recipients across the country. (You can find more info on what Income Management is, in the written paper to this talk). It’s clear that IM is particularly harmful for women, since it is most often they who are responsible for managing household finances and caring for children. It poses a huge obstacle to this caring work. Of course the previous Gillard Labor govt was no friend of women, slashing the single mothers pension, and expanding Income Management and the dreaded NT Intervention.
These events fit into a wider, underlying context, and context is everything. We are in the midst of a relentless backlash against women and feminism that has been taking hold throughout the age of austerity over the past 30 years, and accelerated since the Global Financial Crisis. This backlash seeks to push feminist voices out of the public discourse, and ruthlessly restrict women’s room to move against the imposition of boundless unwaged work in the home and family.
The austerity model of finance-driven capitalism we are ruled by, has tanked all over the world. And yet, it remains firmly in place as the ruling model. This suggests it’s being pursued for other reasons than “economic growth”. As people may know, austerity refers to deep shifts in society since the 70s have also been known as neo-liberalism or post-fordism. Briefly, among its key features are the removal of investment and speculation controls on capital, allowing huge amounts of speculative capital to flow freely across borders. Meanwhile, the flow of people is ruthlessly restricted, and nationalism reaches fever pitch. This mobility has enabled capital to push through the dismantling of public services like transport, higher education, and the social welfare system. We’ve seen a massive restructuring of work, to make jobs insecure, short term and stripped of benefits. Countless jobs have been simply eliminated, as waves of automation rippled through manufacturing, printing, finance, media and arts industries. Crucial to remember in all this, is that winding back the power of unionised labour and the gains of the 60s social uprisings, like feminism – which were described in elite documents as an “excess of democracy” – was the explicit if not publicly stated goal.
All that “restructuring”, like the casualisation of work, demolition of welfare, and de-funding of community services, have a disproportionate effect on women. It’s women who make up the hundreds of thousands of single-parent families, struggling on low incomes to care for the next generation of human beings. Women as a whole are economically much worse off than men, and after divorce, even middle-class women often live in poverty. Women pushing 40 like yours truly, are often reduced to a motherly role or made invisible. It’s worth recalling that women gain just 10% of world income, own 1% of world property, and yet perform 2/3 of the world’s work (UN figures), and this situation is not getting better, even right here within the world’s rich countries.
In fact, according to data gathered by the Association for Women in Development, the burden of unwaged labour borne by women in the invisible workplace of the home, like caring for children, partners and the elderly, has increased markedly since the GFC. This has undercut gains made by women in the workforce, as unpaid work responsibilities impinge on women’s position in the labour market. In Australia, since the GFC, women make up the largest numbers of those who are underemployed, or people who aren’t able to work enough hours to gain a sufficient income, most often due to childcare responsibilities.
Work: waged and unwaged
Like the iceberg below the surface of the water, the work of reproducing fed, clothed, cared-for human beings is the invisible motherlode that underpins all capitalist waged work. As Professor Christa Wichterich puts it, “Industrial and financial value creation is based on a thick layer of social regeneration, care work and social safety nets, which are assumed to be outside of economics and not producing value.” As it’s work from which capital profits enormously, we can recognise this unpaid labour as a dispossession. Here, there isn’t even the formality of a wage. Instead, what we have looks a lot like the outright plunder of colonisation. Whether they have jobs or not, there’s the expectation that women will perform reproductive or what I call “regenerative” work in the family for free, for life. We can thank feminist radicals like Selma James, Mariarosa dalla Costa, and Silvia Federici for identifying that women’s position of inequality is rooted in this role, personified in the housewife. The fact that large numbers of women are also in the workforce has not served to lift the burden from women’s shoulders, but rather opened the trap of the “double day” – being doubly exploited in both the workplace and the home. Of course, when combined with political work, this becomes the triple day. Lou will have more to say about the hazards that come up there. From this vantage point, we can see welfare, in particular the single mothers’ pension, as a form of wages for caring work, as social wage that was won through struggles from below.
All of this implies that the question we need to ask is definitely not, is gender more important than class, but in effect, what is class itself? Where does the antagonism in capital lie? If we recognise that this antagonism is rooted in the struggle of our class against work, which their class wants to impose from above, without wages if possible. Then, even a glance reveals that women are front and centre of the class antagonism that is built in to capitalism. In other words, gender like race, manifests the class antagonism itself.
If we see that work is imposed by capital not just in the workplace, or site of so-called “productive” labour, but throughout the sphere of regenerative work, then our understanding of class struggle needs to permeate beyond the confines of the formal workplace. Like systemic white supremacy, it is through the subjugation of women that capital secures the hierarchy within the class by which it imposes its will on us all. Gender inequality equals the power of capital. In this context, “unity” does not mean getting behind those who already have more advantages within the class. Unity can only be created by getting behind struggles by the more exploited parts of the class to liberate themselves. Only this can unmake the divisions between us. BTW I feel a sense of deja vu saying this – after all, selma james made this clear over 40 years ago in her text sex race and class, so why are we now still at this point?
Once and for all, it’s not about women’s issues. Women are not an “issue”. We are is the vast majority of the working class, here and around the world. No one’s going to hand us our dignity, we as women must claim it ourselves. That means first of all solidarity and love amongst women instead of rivalry and jealousy. Secondly it means valuing the many kinds of women’s work and collectivising it, sharing it around, with guys who are brave enough to learn some of those skills and take on feminine work, like listening………. It means ditching the patronising attitude to women that has long burdened the left, and de-legitimised women’s voices in it.
Reality demands that we transform the stereotypes of class. For all the criticisms made of identity politics, the identity politics of class, the stereotype of the working class as inherently male, white, ‘blue collar’ and barely literate, is arguably more damaging, and ultimately condemns the left to oblivion. In a real sense, we begin to unmake capitalism by generating other relations. Through our refusal of unequal gender relations, we open possibilities to move beyond capitalism. It is through this positive refusal, we begin to constitute ‘the dangerous class’.