Feminism: Capitalism’s Handmaiden?

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Margaret Atwood’s classic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, remains one of my favorite literary work I have ever read. Wikipedia offers a decent overview of the premises of the novel.

The Commander’s account of how it became possible for the Gilead state to gain Power still gives me chills. It was the first time I legitimately considered the possibilities of the backlash of identity politics and its danger.

While we may be far from being overruled by a totalitarian state where women are literal baby pumping machines, here I explore the premises that feminism has become ‘capitalism’s handmaiden.’

The politics of identity

A quick observation of our surroundings, from TV shows to Social Media and the conversation we have with our friends, undoubtedly, points to the proliferation of identity-politics in contemporary public discourse.Identity-politics and its aim to have all identities recognized and represented in the social, political and economic spheres of society has penetrated current public vocabulary.

Identity politics gained relevancy in political discourse after it became linked with a new wave of counter-cultural movements of the late 1960s focused on a ‘new politics of recognition of culture, identity, and lifestyle’ (Edwards, 2009). The proponents of identity politics argued that politics of identity and difference would bring about changes in the struggle for social equality. However, it’s proponents has criticised identity politics for playing a part in assisting neoliberalism’s desire to repress all instances of social equality. Nancy Fraser, a prominent critique of identity politics, has blamed identity politics for  “valorizing difference than promoting equality” and neglecting political economy.2 Such critique of identity politics and its unintended consequences for social change has been evident within the feminist movement.

A critical look at the feminist movement offers a compelling narrative of the growing power of neoliberalism and its strategies to adapt to identity-based movements in order to camouflage its part in the (re)production of social inequalities, and in the process maintain the status quo.

Second-wave feminism

In the late 1960s, the second-wave feminism commenced as one of the new social movements that challenged the normalizing structures of social democracy.2  It was this era of feminism that brought into the general public’s consciousness the discourse that “the personal is political.” If politics is truly about power relations, the feminists argued, formal political arenas should not be a prerequisite for political struggles as the political can take place informally, such as within community groups and in personal interactions.

The movement also questioned and challenged the core features of capitalist modernity that social democracy naturalized, such as sexual repression, sexism, and heteronormativity. By challenging the gender exclusions of social democracy, it successfully exposed the problems of capitalist society, such as materialism, corporate culture, consumerism, bureaucracy, and social control.2 However, its political vision was so intensely focused on gender inequality and the status hierarchies premised on cultural constructions of gender differences, it vastly ignored political economy.1 In doing so, it overlooked economic inequalities that underly gender struggles.

For instance, feminist’s popular narrative of female empowerment has been used to secure equal access for women within the capitalist labor force. Such narrative has led feminism to “become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society.”1 The shift to the representation of women within the capitalist labor market has led the movement to stir away from its once fierce and radical criticisms of, and attack on, the dominant power structures. Its radical critique of capitalism and social democracy has fretted away in the face of capitalist globalization and neoliberalism market.2 Never mind that the capitalist labor force has led to depressed wage levels, declining living standards, and the increase in feminization of poverty; female empowerment rhetoric has “harness[ed] the dream of women’s emancipation to the engine of capital accumulation.”1 Accordingly, Fraser has accused feminism of being “capitalism’s handmaiden,” supplying the justification for new forms of inequality and exploitation to endure.

Conclusion

From the feminist movement, one of the pioneers of identity-politics discourse, to the anti-corporate counterculture of the 1990s with its anti-capitalist rhetoric, they all have one important lesson in common– the powerful  and unprecedented strategies of the economic and political structures to uphold the status quo, from institutionalization to commodification of social movements, to diffuse popular resistance, have been no match for our contemporary obsession with identity-politics.

As such, contemporary social justice movements critically examine their resilience to identity politics and the growing powers of neoliberalism and its strategies to adapt to identity politics that are counter-productive to radical social transformation. As neoliberalism continues to expand its domination, and in the process exacerbate social inequalities, it might be time to consider political movements that go beyond the realms of class and identity politics with a focus on lessening neoliberalism’s chokehold on every aspect of our lives.

 References
    Fraser, Nancy. 2013.”How Feminism became Capitalism’s Handmaiden – and How to Reclaim It.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/14/feminism-capitalist-handmaiden-neoliberal
    Fraser, Nancy. 2005. “Mapping the Feminist Imagination: From Redistribution to Recognition to Representation.” Constellations (12)3:295-307.

 

2 thoughts on “Feminism: Capitalism’s Handmaiden?

  1. Intriguing post and refreshing perspective. Reminds me a lot of similar argument around multiculturalism, arguably another facet of identity politics. That multi-cultural identities should be celebrated and taken into consideration, but never beyond the realms of the neoliberal agenda.

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    1. Absolutely! It would be ludicrous to discuss social inequalities without the politics of identities, of course, but have we taken it too far that it’s becoming counter-productive to radical social transformation? I don’t have the answers but I’ve been obsessing over this topic lately.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and leave a comment!

      Much appreciated! 🙂

      Like

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