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Marx and Sociology Today

Feminism Confronts Marxism

Pyramid of Capitalist System.

March 22, 2018

For several years now, the media in Germany and elsewhere have talked of a “Marx renaissance,” meaning that the work of Karl Marx might have been right in analyzing capitalism and financial crises. This is often explained by the fact that the 2008 financial and economic crisis showed that the global triumph of capitalism is associated with social upheaval, ecological crises, and a tendency for the economic system to self-destruct. Against this background, Marx’s analyses appear up-to-date again.

Closing the feminist gap in the Marx renaissance

However, the renewed public interest in Marx and his critique of the political economy makes little or no reference to the feminist reception of Marx. These feminist analyses were never genuinely part of left-wing discussions about Marx, for they are not situated on either side of the debate. On the one hand, feminist Marxists wanted to develop a critical perspective that grasps the social question and does not detach it from gender issues; a perspective that analyzes the capitalist exploitation of resources and the associated destruction of livelihoods in their global effects; and a perspective that not only analyzes the processes of power and domination as accumulation regimes, but also identifies their patriarchal foundations. On the other hand, feminist-Marxist perspectives were critical of the previous and current reception of Marx that aimed to change all conditions of inequality and exploitation, but rarely acknowledged that gender relations were part of these conditions. Further, the separation into production and reproduction, and the sexual division of labor – which was at least mentioned by Marx – were hardly subject to further analysis, but rather disregarded.

Feminist positions

This double criticism also remains current on the occasion of the 200th birthday of Karl Marx: What is the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism? To what extent is the capitalist mode of production not only a gendered system, but also a racial system? How do cultural-symbolic forms of oppression interact with other forms of oppression in politics and economics? In what follows, we try to summarize the current evolution of these debates.

Production and reproduction

The relationship between production and reproduction remains central to the feminist debate in particular. Women still do most of the unpaid work at home and caring work worldwide. Classifying the gendered division of labor as a “natural” division of labor obscures the fact that it is a constitutive part of capitalist production which is nevertheless systematically devalued and split off. The global division of labor with the exploitation of labor and natural resources is also an important reference point of the feminist debate. Postcolonial and societal feminist critiques of global oppression and exploitation focus on the specific subaltern positioning of women in the Global South and criticize their integration into global production and care chains. In addition, surrogate motherhoods are seen not only as new forms of reproductive technologies but as forms of the international division of labor and exploitation. In this context, feminist perspectives also analyze how the state contributes to the maintenance of structural power relations in the area of work and sexuality while also structuring the conditions of social reproduction. They point to the fact that social reproduction must be considered in its global context as it is closely interwoven with the dynamics of the global market, financial, and migration regimes. Thus, global economic crises and the associated financialization processes affect the conditions under which social reproduction services are provided; this happened, for example, when families lost access to social infrastructure or had to fight against forced evictions across Europe and the USA in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. With Nancy Fraser, we assume that the “crisis” that characterizes the current capitalist situation is essentially determined by three unsolved problems: first, the relationship between productive and reproductive labor; secondly, the exploitation of nature; and, thirdly, the changes in state power in global capitalism. In addition to these conflicts regarding the transformation of state capacities, the ideological dimension of subjectification in capitalism becomes a relevant subject for queer-feminist analyses. In this context, the question of how and whether generativity and social reproduction are conceptualized as heteronormative has to be discussed further.

Women’s Trade Union League. Photo by Kheel Center, Cornell University.

Alternatives and remaining challenges

Controversial questions, however, remain: How can alternatives be developed? Who is or will be the “revolutionary subject” (unless such a concept should be abandoned), and where does the emancipatory potential come from? For example, it is worth considering whether the concepts that characterize Marxist theory are still suitable to grasp current problems. Do we perhaps need, as Ingrid Kurz-Scherf suggests, a close understanding of capitalism on the one hand and a broad understanding of political economy on the other, to make spheres of non-commodified work visible? Finally these spheres beyond capitalist logic might have the potential to bring the exploitation of the environment and human labor to an end. The “Care Revolution” approach pursued by Gabriele Winker and others aims to organize the care sector collectively, thereby removing the capitalist logic and eliminating the division between paid and unpaid work.

Postcolonial and feminist perspectives further call for a more comprehensive subject perspective, since the white, western, male class subject Marx emphasized, can no longer be the bearer of a transforming perspective.

Criticism and neoliberalism in academia However, the conditions for critical knowledge production in general and feminist critique in particular have become more difficult in times of neoliberal knowledge production, which is also influencing academia. In the process of neoliberal individualization, it is increasingly questionable how various subjects can recognize a collective will for transformation (or even revolution). At universities, feminist criticism has continuously had to deal with androcentrism and is now – as are other sciences – exposed to criteria of usability and profitability.

Against this background, the challenge is to further develop feminist-Marxist perspectives. The pluralist criticism on which it has been founded is at the same time a source for further marginalization. This can be observed in academia as well as in a left reception of Marx, which have not reflected upon their androcentric bias.

Alexandra Scheele, University of Bielefeld, Germany <alexandra.scheele@uni-bielefeld.de>
Stefanie Wöhl, University of Applied Sciences BFI Vienna, Austria <stefanie.woehl@fh-vie.ac.at>

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