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Is There No Feminism With Capitalism?

Reading Public Seminar, Thinking about the Relationships between Gender Justice and Free Public Life

The developing debate over #MeToo and the MeToo backlash raises critical questions concerning the broad and deep struggles for democracy and social justice, perhaps the most central: are gender justice and capitalism compatible? Many of my friends and colleagues think not. I disagree.

My dissent from the leftist consensus of my corner of the academic world is informed by historical experience and critical reflection. It starts with work I did in previously existing socialist societies, both before and after their transformations, and it is focused on an appreciation of the quality of public speech and action on issues of gender and sexuality in recent years.

Then. For twelve years at The New School’s Democracy and Diversity Institute in Krakow, Poland, Ann Snitow and I had an ongoing debate on the relationship between democracy and feminism. In the then relatively recent aftermath of the transformations of 1989, with our tongues deeply embedded in our checks, the debate was framed as “Democracy versus Feminism.” It started as our response to a number of our male students (as I remember coming from Ukraine), who thought that the course I was giving on democracy was the serious course, while her course on gender was the frivolous one. We wanted to demonstrate that we took each other quite seriously and understood that our classes were closely related. We had some differences in our points of view and judgments, but even more importantly, we shared commitments and concerns, and both of our classes demonstrated this. We both recognized the importance of a free democratic public life for the pursuit of social justice, including gender justice, though our emphasis and priorities were not exactly the same. To simplify: I gave priority for the free public life, she to gender justice. Her point was that there could be no democracy without gender justice, mine that there could be no gender justice without a free public life. I still hold this position, but also agree with hers.

During those years, Ann played a key founding role in creating The Network for East West Women, a remarkably successful project that created dialogue among women intellectuals and activists on both sides of the old iron curtain. The network played a significant role in bringing gender studies into academic life in East Central Europe and bringing various feminisms to broader public attention all around the old Soviet bloc.

In the meanwhile, on a sideline, I wrote a piece analyzing the obstacles I thought they were up against, provocatively entitled “Why There is No Feminism After Communism.” (Intentionally echoing Werner Sombart’s Why is there no Socialism in the United States?)

My concern was mostly about language. The language of western feminism, informed as it was by the vocabulary of the left, and especially the Marxist left, I thought, would be hard to translate for critical democrats who had had their fill of Marxist ideology. This led to interesting discussions between Ann and me about whether feminism was an ideology, which I admit I playfully provoked when I asserted that I am against all “isms.”

I was reminded of these old discussions while reading Hannah Leffingwell’s timely, theoretically informed, historical analysis of feminism. She elegantly made Ann’s point in our discussions. The piece so nicely resonated with the discussion my beloved friend and I had back in the day that I emailed the link to her.

Ann to me: “Jeff! I’m so excited! Does this mean you no longer damn feminism as a ideology with a single coherent truth claim?” And I responded to her: “Of course, I never thought feminism was a damned ideology and have always considered myself a feminist.”

Yet, I admit, I also always thought that the western feminists of those times still had a problem in that they emphasized a specific set of positions that was off putting for those who didn’t share their political experiences. They didn’t prioritize the broad competing feminist currents such as the historical cases Leffingwell describes, I thought. For me, still, this is the first principle: feminist debate in a free public space that is crucial for democracy, including lean in feminists, I’ll add.

As I write this, I can imagine Ann’s response. In fact, in our last debate, she, wearing my baseball cap, argued my position, and I argued hers, wearing her earrings. For both of us, neither her position nor mine was correct. Democratic promise and the promise of feminism could be found in the tension between our positions.

Now. Those discussions inform my appreciation of the latest developments, anticipating their future promise. The #MeToo movement in the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal has made visible the depth and breath of profound problems, which are being frankly debated in unprecedented ways. I find it encouraging that there are strong disagreements about the issues involved in the general public and on universities, including The New School. We should be careful not to engage in witch hunts, (or is it warlock hunts with their very special link to patriarchal structures of power, as Katie Gentile emphasizes?). Those accused of sexual harassment and worse, certainly should have their rights protected, as Andrew Arato underscores. Yet, as Claire Potter, along with others, has emphasized, while legal protections of the accused predators and of their survivors are important matters, the challenges go far beyond that – dealing with the messy complexities of sex and power at the university.

The politics of sex at universities involves great complexity and ambiguity that must be recognized, along with the differences of analyses and judgments. That this is being discussed, informed by public recognition of experiences of harassment, assault and rape that were previously hidden, suggests to me we are seeing the beginnings of a radical transformation, an enriched public sphere. I recognize the profound reckoning that is now happening, as Jessica Delgado has analyzed. The #MeToo movement became visible through celebrity scandals and it hits us academics close to home, but it is going far beyond us.

This should be celebrated, as feminist veteran Jo Freeman movingly does. I love the fact that at Public Seminar we published a post on the “pussyhat” as a feminist fashion icon. I think it is highly significant that a feminist now tells herself and others about their past illuminating multiple voices. I find it encouraging that an African American celebrity can touch off a storm of speculation about her candidacy to be President of the United States, after she gives a moving speech at a vacuous awards ceremony, and I find it even more encouraging that this is criticized broadly and cogently without racism or sexism.

But of course, problems continue, not fully recognized or understood, and hardly addressed. And as Maryam Omidi observed here, “for every allegation of sexual assault or harassment there seems to be both a wave of solidarity and also a backlash.” She suggests, citing Nancy Fraser, that real change requires an understanding of “the structural sources of gender domination in capitalist society.”

This brings me back to Krakow and my discussions with Ann Snitow. Like my friends in Central Europe, I have my doubts about such argument. While I agree that gender injustice as it relates to problems of class and race is extremely important, I think it is also important to recognize that race, class and gender are both related and independent of each other. And since I am not at all convinced that there is now a systemic alternative to the modern economy, aka capitalism, the solidarities that exist across class and racial divides need to be recognized, along with the ways that the injustices of race, class and gender intersect. This is where a relatively free public space, a mediated public sphere is of crucial importance. Really existing capitalism, for sure, causes problems, but doing away with capitalism, my experience in really existing socialism tells me, wouldn’t solve them, even if this were a real possibility. Free democratic action, independent of political cliches, is required in really existing socialism, really existing capitalism and in imagined socialism.

But perhaps I am mistaken on this. It’s something to be discussed and acted upon politically. It can’t be decided theoretically.

With this in mind, I look forward to the event at The New School on Sexual Harassment and Assault: Eros, Power, Violation, and Consent and to similar events that are now proliferating, which Public Seminar will report on. These are signs, to my mind, that real change is happening, and we don’t have to wait for the revolution, though it obviously would be very good to have a less authoritarian political leadership and a more just political economy.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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