The Dream of Women’s Emancipation

How do socialist feminists of the 21st century theorize struggles against multiple axes and institutions of domination that are inherent to capitalist social order? What do they envision the emancipatory social transformation to look like? Against the background of the global domination of neoliberal values of individualism, entrepreneurship, competitiveness, and self-determination along with continuous expansion of the economic logic to the societal and political realms, socialist feminists of the 21st century have been developing structural accounts of women’s oppression engaging with questions of power and unequal access to resources under capitalism and articulating the linkages between today’s struggles in the realm of production, reproduction, polity, and cultural gender meanings. While embracing the notion that gender intersects with other systems of subordination and oppression including class, religion, race, and nationality, feminist politics today is conceptualizing emancipation in line with its critique of capitalist social order since the current crisis of capitalism is inevitably the hegemonic setting for any social theorizing. The political and theoretical challenges that socialist feminists face today are elaborated by Nancy Fraser in “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism.” In order to shed light on feminist responses and models of resistance to hegemonic regime of neoliberalism, I will discuss the critical insights about the nature of today’s political struggles, drawing on Johanna Oksala’s “Feminism and Neoliberal Governmentality.”

Both Fraser and Oksala view feminist theorizing today in terms of developing the political and analytical tools that can challenge the structural underpinnings of the capitalist social order and counter the hegemony of the neoliberal ideology. As Fraser puts it eloquently: “[T]oday’s crisis does not fit the standard models that we have inherited: it is multi-dimensional, encompassing not only the official economy, including finance, but also such ‘non-economic’ phenomena as global warming, ‘care deficits’ and the hollowing out of public power at every scale” (Fraser, 227). In a similar vein of thought, Oksala situates feminist theorizing in the framework of neoliberal governmentality that is characterized not just as “eradication of market regulation, but also the eradication of the border between the social and the economic” (Oksala, 34). Given the unprecedented expansion of market rationality to all social and political institutions and social practices, Oksala emphasizes the need for feminists to focus on a structural analysis of the capitalist system and redirect the “theoretical and political forces of post structuralism to new issues such as neoliberalism and globalization” (Oksala, 33). Importantly, both political theorists conceptualize capitalism not just as a global economy but as a set of social relations that are larger than the economy itself. In an effort to articulate the role of feminist theorizing in developing an understanding of 21st century capitalist “institutionalized social order” and possibilities of emancipation within this system (Fraser, 67), Oksala turns to Foucault’s analysis of neoliberal govenrmentality while Fraser focuses on re-examining Marx’s understanding of capitalism.

For Fraser, to evaluate the potential for emancipation from all forms of oppression it is critical to look behind the Marxian understanding of the four core features of capitalism. She effectively asserts that “markets depend for their very existence on non-marketized social relations, which supply their background conditions of possibility.” Building on Marx’s account of capitalist production, she reveals what is behind the “hidden abode” and conceptualizes the conditions underpinning the capitalist institutions and logic. The first background condition for the possibility of capitalist production is particularly helpful for feminist theorizing since it is one of the sources of the modern capitalist form of women’s subordination. While Marx’s theoretical framework leaves out reproductive activities, Fraser, following materialist feminists including social reproduction and domestic labour theorists, claims that “wage labour could not exist in the absence of housework, child raising schooling, affective care and a host of other activities which help to produce new generations of workers and replenish existing ones, as well as to maintain social bonds and shared understandings” (Fraser, 61). This division between unwaged reproductive labour and productive waged work is one of the critical non-economic conditions of possibility for commodity production. Another fundamental hidden abode is “nature’s capacity to support life and renew itself” (Fraser, 63). Drawing on the work of ecofeminists that highlighted the gender-based differences in access to resources in today’s economy and the role of women in the “invisible” farm economy, Fraser unpacks the current neoliberal efforts to blur the nature/human boundary and strengthen this distinction at the same time. Another major structural division that is integral to capitalist social order is the division between economy and polity. According to Fraser’s analytical framework, this distinction is central to capitalism’s political conditions of possibility.

The split between economic and political powers under capitalism is also discussed in great detail in Oksala’s article. Mapping some of the main features of Foucault’s theorizing of neoliberal governmentality, Oksala illustrates how this theoretical framework can be a valuable resource for feminist models of resistance to neoliberalism’s political underlying rationality. Foucault’s analysis traces the genealogy of the governmentality that made it possible for the economic to become an independent sphere with its own laws and regulations and consequently extend this logic to the broader societal structures. Extending this logic a little further, Oksala grasps the political effects of this rapid expansion of the economic sphere, which she argues “entails the erosion of social practices, political activities and institutions that are not organized along market rationalities” (Oksala, 50). Another critical development under the regime of neoliberal governmentality is the fact that “the free market starts to operate as the principle of good government” (Oksala, 48), which ultimately constitutes our understanding of the political. The Polanyian idea of political power or states counterbalancing markets is questioned in this context. Colin Crouch’s and Wolfgang Streeck’s recent works have opened up new dimensions for reframing the debate by acknowledging the fact that “states hailed in 2008-9 as saviours of the financial system from its own self-destructiveness and thus as guarantors of social peace have quite quickly found themselves under pressure once again to offload crucial aspects of their ‘stateness’ to the very markets they helped save from disaster.” [1] For Streeck, the age of austerity measures and massive reductions of the public sector budget “severely affected the capacity of national states to mediate between the rights of citizens and the requirements of capital accumulation.” [2]

The struggles taking place today in the realm of capitalism’s political conditions of possibility are vital for present-day feminist theorizing. For Fraser, with the hollowing out of the political capacities that historically served as a foundation for capital, “capitalism’s political conditions of possibility are also now a major site and flashpoint of capitalist crisis” (Fraser, 65). While the institutional divisions within capitalism serve as the locus for social struggles that aim to re-imagine and re-draw the boundaries between policy and economy, reproduction and production, human and non-human, these sources of critique are also constitutive elements of the capitalist social order. For Fraser this contradiction implies that “none of the ‘non-economic’ realms affords a wholly external standpoint that could underwrite an absolutely pure and fully radical form of critique” (Fraser, 70). Perhaps a similar concern is raised in Oksala’s analysis of the impact of the intensification of neoliberal governmentality on feminist subjects. She effectively argues that “the feminist subject, as well as our understanding of feminist policies, are shaped and constituted by our current neoliberal governmentality” (Oksala, 39). While embracing Foucault’s philosophical interpretation of neoliberalism as a “specific, rationally reflected and coordinated way of governing” (Oksala, 36) and a “particular mode of producing subjectivity” (Oksala, 41), the political philosopher claims that feminist conceptualizations of women’s emancipation might be shaped by the neoliberal hegemony. Nevertheless, despite the depoliticization of the social and political realms, which manifested in the exclusion of a range of political and economic decisions from democratic governance structures, both of the political thinkers seem to share the premise that “capitalism’s ‘non-economic’ realms have a weight and character of their own, which can under certain circumstances provide resources for anti-capitalist struggle” (Fraser, 70). While it remains unclear what those circumstances could possibly be under capitalism, the political importance of this theoretical account of the nature and roots of capitalist crisis today is absolutely critical.

Drawing on the insights stemming from Oksala’s and Fraser ‘s analysis of counter-hegemonic or “boundary” struggles that encompass multiple sites of action, socialist feminists working towards developing effective strategies for women’s emancipation need to acknowledge the contradictory nature and the limits of the anti-domination struggle under capitalism. Feminism’s critique of women’s oppression and approaches to eradication of gender hierarchy can at times capitalize on the engine of capital accumulation. How transformative can this agenda be and how can feminists ensure that this struggle challenges the capitalist institutional order rather than reinforce it? The direction of liberal feminist politics, which not only became the hegemonic force of women’s liberation within the neoliberal framework but also its logic became incorporated in this regime of governance and capital accumulation, illustrates that allying our struggle to private sector forces and marketization approaches does not even challenge the multiple layers of domination that women struggle with in their daily life. In fact, as Oksala correctly asserts, this model of “resistance” focuses primarily on the “material welfare of women — their employment and social benefits,” and the increasing commodification and marketization of the reproductive realm, which in reality leads to subordination and exploitation of others (Oksala, 42). She believes that social feminists need to use “political measures and theoretical interventions that go beyond traditional socialist welfare policies” (Oksala, 36) and engage in debates about the limits of markets and broader visions of politics and the political.

In this vein of thought, Oksala claims that socialist feminist politics needs “more radical political tools than human rights in order to fundamentally contest our current neoliberal govenrmentality” (Oksala, 52). While she acknowledges the importance of the rights discourse in the emancipatory struggle and its role in political contestation of the power of markets, she believes that the human rights tools are not adequate for the larger anti-capitalist and counter-hegemonic struggle. The implication of this argument is at once theoretical and political because it suggests that even though the human rights discourse mobilizes values and ideals that run counter to economic logic, the movement does not create conditions for counter-systemic or anti-capitalist struggle. While I agree with Oksala’s critique of the human rights framework and I share the concern that at the moment it simply ameliorates the destructive effects of free markets rather than challenges the unlimited expansion of the economic to all dimensions of social life, I believe the human rights discourse is one of the sites of boundary struggles that “under certain circumstances” can become a promising resources for transformative change. As the most hegemonic global framework for the achievement of freedom and emancipation from empire and capital in the context of the collapse of prior utopias (both state-based and internationalist) and the unavailability of alternative political visions for free and just life, the human rights agenda can ally with either of two struggles — the counter-systemic or system-conforming. Building on Oksala’s point it could be argued that the human rights discourse including Amartya Sen’s human capabilities approach to development is constituted and shaped by the current neoliberal governmentality. While I see how this ideology of individual versus collective rights might have easily supplied the rationale for new modes of capital accumulation, I also believe that the socialist feminists need to engage with the human rights discourse to articulate which approaches within this struggle against both the state and the capital have emancipatory potential for women. The socialist feminists of the 21st century should engage critically with the advocates for women’s human rights to move them away from focusing on individual women with a very narrow notion of empowerment and help the movement re-imagine the human rights struggle infused with emancipatory understandings.


[1] Paul du Gay and Glenn Morgan, “Understanding Capitalism: Crises, Legitimacy, and Change Through the Prism of The New Spirit of Capitalism,” in New Spirits of Capitalism? Crises, Justifications, and Dynamics, ed. du Gay, Paul and Glenn Morgan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 3

[2] Wolfgang Streeck, “The Crises of Democratic Capitalism,” New Left Review 71 (2011): 25

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