Beyond the Fragments: Autonomist Feminism

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The following is the first of the transcripts of speeches from the recent Beyond the Fragments event in Manchester. Here Jess Winterson of Plan C looks at autonomist feminism, the Wages For Housework campaign of the 1970s and their implications for today.

What the re-release of Beyone the Fragments again makes clear is that while resistance to the present crisis is mounting, each desperate campaign is weakened because it is piecemeal and it lacks any broadly opposing vision of what else might be – and that effective opposition would require mobilisation far beyond the present scope of those who would see themselves as ‘socialist’ or as even being on the left.

As the book continues to make explicit we can be in no doubt that the conditions which gave rise to the ‘old left’ no longer exist in the global North, and so our historical sense must therefore remain at fault.

As Lynne Segal commented in the original edition it is no longer a question of simply overthrowing the state as it might have appeared before 1945 but of becoming part of a changing culture and consciousness. Beyond the Fragments is part of the necessary insistence that this includes feminism, and also that feminism not be confined to ‘women’s issues’.

Similarly autonomous feminists have reconceived class composition in ways that do not subordinate feminism to class or vice versa – and if the left is to forge new kinds of solidarity above and beyond its already existing self then it must take into account the changing political landscape. An intellectual infrastructure and a vision of the good should also be imperatives to this project and I’m going to discuss the contributions of autonomous feminists in this light.

Neatly, this also begins in the late 1970s, with the Wages For Housework campaign. I’ll begin by quickly outlining three of the major criticisms levelled at it – in order to highlight its continued relevance not as a campaign but as a political perspective through which the wage became a contested, category and a lever for interrogating a mode of production from the standpoint of gender.

So,

  1. As Marx put it ‘this demand can be satisfied only under conditions when it can no longer be raised’ – the idea then, that Wages For Housework is an excessive practical demand so contrary to the profit motive that it could only be realised in a revolutionary situation.
  2. Say it were to be taken on by ‘capitalism’ – domestic workers then become vulnerable to a new form of management where they had previously been inactive in the formal economy.
  3. From Beyond the Fragments – the risk is that housework is institutionalised – whereas the feminists’ primary concern should be to challenge the division by which women were confined to the home in the first place.

They are all good points and indeed they make it clear that Wages For Housework doesn’t really ‘work’. Pushing forward the analysis regardless, however, I believe Wages For Housework permitted a continued commitment for revolutionary feminists to ask bigger questions about how work/labour and gender are shaped today.

This was because what Wages For Housework showed was one of few assertions of women as relevant objects of Marxist analysis – and subjects therefore of revolutionary politics. It was not so much a struggle to enter capitalist relations – but instead to make the point that we’d never been out of them.

By revealing all of the unpaid labour that goes into creating profit – the work that reproduces the workers – the pillar of every other work – it revealed the wage to be broader than the wage itself. Capital as a social relation and capitalism as a system of social reproduction that only transforms itself when the current situation is no longer tenable. Wages For Housework thus attempted to confer social power to women by showing how to struggle from a particular work relation is to recognise the power to refuse that relation.

Anyway, as a campaign it was a resounding defeat and the narrative of liberal feminism clearly won out – on the one hand more women entered the workplace, taking on the double shift at home. And on the other, gender was removed from the terms of workplace exploitation, only to be replaced by a racialized class of other women in commodified labour in the homes of the global middle class.

But as a political perspective it acknowledged, specifically, the impact of modes of labour on subjectivity. It showed how uncompensated labour shapes what it means to be female. And knowingly working within the context of second wave feminism in the 1970s it also sought to join in with the undermining of expectations of women and the struggle against their perceived social role.

Today there is an increasing disconnect between value and the wage relation and there remains a political significance to re-defining productive labour. No longer is there a labour movement dominated by male industrial workers but, rather, a post-Fordist landscape of immaterial and precarious labour and unemployment that defines the changing ways in which we are exploited. As Silvia Federici so aptly put it then – ‘A woman can do any job without losing her femininity which simply means that no matter what you do you are still a cunt’ – a statement equally applicable to modern day precarity, unemployment and graduates without a future. I would say.

Today the autonomous feminist analysis has therefore moved on from the impact of modes of labour on subjectivity to labour itself as processes of subjectification. Or to provide a concise example, the depressing yet contemporary malaise in which seeming to love your job is now your job.

So called ‘third-wave’ feminism or, better, queer theory also looks at the ‘construction of the subject’. From the 90s onwards queer theorists have shown that traditional binary distinctions (man/woman, sex/gender) and the myth of ‘identity’ as common ground, have constrained feminist discourse. Foucault showed that power informs everything and Judith Butler and co have thus been able to provide a more nuanced picture of gender, identity and feminism that is fragmented and contestable. What Butler identifies as the oppressive power of the so called heterosexual matrix can, to my mind, is well illustrated in centralised male leadership.

Can the radical politics of queer theorists and autonomous feminists work together, not to foreclose individual agency but instead to suggest ways in which to denounce the situation and make visible a common terrain on the basis of which to organise a struggle?

I think that it most certainly can and one such author to approach this question is Kathi Weeks – as she updates the 1990s postmodern critiques of consumer culture and the colonization of life by the markets, to the 21st century colonization of life by work.

She poses an alternative critical strategy rooted in contemporary discourses of subjectivity that hang on the distinction between life and work and a vision of what subjects could become in contrast to what they are.

This is, if nothing else, an example of remaining in tune with the intellectual spirit of the age as she attempts to map and contest the contemporary organisation of capital in ways that work with the contemporary insights of feminism and with the aim of changing culture and consciousness and yet without assuming that an organically generated proletariat already exists.

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