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Feminism and Revolution: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Why we must reach beyond a politics that views feminism as a struggle of women against oppression by men for a solidarity politics that seeks to end all forms of oppression

Orla Dean, 5, holds a placard during the Time's Up rally at Richmond Terrace, opposite Downing Street on January 21, 2018 in London, England. (Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images/adjusted)

The following is an excerpt from a longer essay by the same title, published on the Great Transition Initiative website.

In the early 1970s, as an integral part of “second wave” feminism, Marxist-feminists insisted on recognizing that patriarchy and capitalism were intertwined oppressive systems: liberation could not be achieved without overcoming both. A simple identity politics of womanhood or a class-specific Marxist politics of a working-class revolution would not suffice.

Soon, though, we and other feminists were challenged by the need to broaden our lens further. The insight that identities of gender, class, race, sexuality, nationality, etc., are mutually determining gave rise to a new concept: intersectionality….

"Solidarity politics is a powerful tool for economic and social transformation because it subjects each and every social practice and institution to a critical gaze which perceives and rejects inequality of any type."

The recognition of intersectionality had a profound effect on Marxist-feminism, and on feminist organizing in general. The identity politics upon which both mainstream and Marxist-feminism had been built—the understanding that women are oppressed, by and vis-à-vis men—had attempted to transcend other forms of oppression that differentiate and stratify women’s experiences. But this project was doomed to fail. Ignoring these other systems of oppression amounted to privileging the experiences and needs of white, heterosexual, Northern, middle-class, and professional women, while ignoring how the feminist movement was reproducing class, racial-ethnic, North-South, and other forms of inequality. Because women are oppressed not only by gender, but also by race, class, sexuality, nationality, and the domination of nature—these differences come up, differentiate, and divide women when we come together as feminists.

The splintering of feminism that characterized the “third wave” led many to believe that feminism was dying or dead. However, feminism did not die. Rather, through synchrony with other identity-based social movements, a new and more complex form of politics is emerging, which builds on and transcends identity politics: “solidarity politics.”

Simply put, the way out of the challenges posed by intersectionality for feminists, especially Marxist-feminists, has been to expand our practice of feminism. Feminists have found that we cannot bring women together to fight for our liberation if we do not also recognize and seek to eradicate the other forms of oppression that women face, both within our movement and in society. We need to reach beyond a politics that views feminism as a struggle of women against oppression by men for a solidarity politics that seeks to end all forms of oppression—patriarchy, racism, classism, homophobia, able-ism, neocolonialism, species-ism, etc.—from our movements, and from our economy and society. This emerging solidarity politics has the potential to bring people together across all inequalities with the shared purpose of deconstructing all forms of inequality. Solidarity politics has been developing in other social movements as well, as they confront the inadequacies of a unidimensional view and grapple with intersectionality.

From Solidarity Politics to Solidarity Economics

The challenge of intersectionality has led feminism, and other progressive social movements, to a politics against all systemic inequalities and oppressions. Solidarity politics is a powerful tool for economic and social transformation because it subjects each and every social practice and institution to a critical gaze which perceives and rejects inequality of any type. This gaze can mobilize people together around any particular social problem, from an intersectional perspective. A great example of feminist solidarity politics is the Black Lives Matter movement, started by three Black women, and committed to ending state violence against Black people, while also affirming a womanist and queer/trans perspective.

Solidarity politics leads naturally to systemic critique. Awareness of how oppressions connect with one another in a person’s experience, or in any particular social practice or institution, evolves into an understanding of the systematic ways that oppressive practices and institutions conjoin and interact within an economic and social whole. For the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, critical resistance to police brutality has evolved into critique of the school system and of the prison industrial complex.

The next and critical step to be taken in the development of feminist (and other) solidarity politics is to unite around a positive vision of the future and a way to get there. Such a vision must include ways feminists and others practicing a politics of solidarity can engage in the process of systemic change concretely, in their lives, in the here and now.

Without an overarching vision of systemic transformation, the feminist movement in the US has tended to focus on demands for equal opportunity within the prevailing system, such as gaining representation in positions across the economic hierarchy previously monopolized by men. In so doing, feminism shrinks to a movement which takes the basic rules of our capitalist economy as given, and defines women’s oppression solely in terms of discrimination in the labor force and lack of reproductive rights. At its worst, this approach reduces feminism to “breaking the glass ceiling” whereby a minority of women gains access to top positions, almost always by doing things the way men do them. Even when we add race and class discrimination to the mix, to represent women’s intersectionality, and focus for example on women of color gaining entry into higher paid craft positions, we still take the economy’s basic structure as given. This structure fails women in many key ways, including the poverty wages received by women at the bottom of the economic hierarchy; exploitation and subordination of the unpaid work of caring for a family member; the organization of the entire production system around profit for a minority of owners; and the destruction of our ecosystem in the process—all instead of meeting the needs of women and their families.

However, another vision of feminist transformation, which critiques and transcends equal opportunity, and seeks systemic economic transformation, has emerged and is gaining momentum: the solidarity economy movement. This growing movement emerged in the 1990s, both in Europe and in Latin America, and spread globally through the World Social Forum movement, overlapping with the New Economy movement, Sumak Kawsay/Buen Vivir, and the Community Economy movement, among others.

The solidarity economy framework identifies liberatory economic practices and institutions already existing within capitalism-dominated market economies, and treats them as parts of an emerging integrated “solidarity economy.” The basic criteria for inclusion in the solidarity economy are the values embodied by the economic practice or institution. The list of solidarity values includes cooperation, equity in all dimensions, participatory political and economic democracy, sustainability, and diversity/pluralism. The framework recognizes that any particular practice or institution will not be a perfect fit for all or even any particular value. Instead, each of these dimensions of the solidarity economy lies on a spectrum. The struggle for systemic transformation involves moving our economic practices and institutions along the spectrum, from inequality towards solidarity.

"Essentially, Solidarity economics is the expression of solidarity politics in the economy."

While cooperatives of all sorts—worker, consumer, and producer—comprise a key building block of the solidarity economy, so, too, do efforts to promote socially responsible consumption patterns, shift investment toward social and environmental goals, and redesign enterprise for community benefit. Many of the practices showcased, from community gardens, to the takeover of abandoned factories or lands, to the creation of community currencies, arise as people come together in response to the failure of capitalist economic institutions. Essentially, solidarity economics is the expression of solidarity politics in the economy.

In contrast to the traditional Marxist view of revolution, the solidarity economy framework encourages people to participate in systemic economic transformation in the here and now, rather than waiting for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The solidarity economy is thriving, within markets, alongside of capitalist institutions, even within them. There is a plethora of ways to participate and make positive, systemic change. An apt term for this type of change is r/evolution—revolutionary in terms of being systemic, but evolutionary in the sense of needing to happen gradually, because it is multi-dimensional, multi-sectoral, and multi-level (micro and macro).

Feminism and the Solidarity Economy

The solidarity economy framework is deeply feminist. The capitalist economy was built as a white-masculine-dominated sphere, defined by traditionally masculine qualities of competition—the struggle to win, i.e., to “better” or dominate other men. Men provided for their families by competing with each other in the economy for money, as entrepreneurs, farmers, and workers. The (white) masculine ideal of the “self-made man” was one who made it from the bottom to the top of the economic hierarchy of wealth and power. Firms embodied this ethos of narrow materialistic self-interest in the form of profit-motivated production, with a callous disregard for the needs of their workers, consumers, and the ecosystem. Caring for others was restricted to women’s unpaid and devalued work in their homes, or to low-paid women-dominated service jobs.

The solidarity economy can be understood as the injection of the traditionally feminine work of caring for others into the core structures of our masculine-dominated economy. In the capitalist system, economic activity is structured to increase the wealth of capitalists. The owners and managers of firms literally do not care about the possible negative effects of their actions on others. Workers are fired and deprived of their livelihoods, consumers are manipulated and misinformed, and the environment is destroyed, all as a regular part of business. As many feminist economists have avowed, the economy must be dedicated to provisioning the peoples’ needs. In addition, the economy must foster compassionate, mutually beneficial relationships among people, and between people and nonhuman life. The solidarity economy framework—which highlights the term solidarity—affirms this core aspect of the new system that solidarity politics is working for.

"The solidarity economy can be understood as the injection of the traditionally feminine work of caring for others into the core structures of our masculine-dominated economy."

In turn, transforming the practice of care work itself becomes essential to realizing the solidarity economy and the Great Transition. Traditional authoritarian parenting in a patriarchal family sets up the dominant-subordinate roles which are then reproduced through traditional schooling and then in capitalist, authoritarian firms. Unequal relationships of domination and subordination begin in the family, with husband over wife, and parents over children. Children go to school where their teachers direct and rank them, and then to workplaces where obedience to the boss is required. If we are to transform our economy into a system of mutually beneficial, egalitarian relationships, parents need to teach children not to dominate or subordinate themselves, but rather how to love and affirm themselves, to stand up for themselves, and to respect and care for others. Feminists have spent a good deal of energy advocating for financial support for women’s traditional care work and low-paid care jobs. But we also need to subject mothering and parenting and caring to a feminist transformative lens, and seek innovative ways to help us all do it better, as part of our work for systemic change.

Conclusion

True feminism—feminism that seeks to liberate all women—leads inexorably to solidarity politics, solidarity economics, and r/evolution—a global citizens movement, as described by the Great Transition Initiative. It is important for feminists, both women and men, to continue to affirm this, and to ascribe to solidarity politics. Feminism must be r/evolutionary if it is to be fully feminist.

"We must keep shifting the lens from resist to build, from what we are against to what we are for..."

Moreover, it is imperative that all progressive movements be vigilant about the challenge of intersectionality and commit themselves to eradicating all forms of inequality—including male domination and gender oppression—that they encounter within their organizations and in their organizing.

The movement of movements is a major actor in a new world theater, yet most are unaware of it. We must keep shifting the lens from resist to build, from what we are against to what we are for, and inspire ourselves with the many solidarity economy examples around the world. A key task for feminists and all progressives at this time in history is to make visible the r/evolutionary way forward in order to inspire progressive activists to draw together and align in coordinated lines of synergy.

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Julie Matthaei

Julie Matthaei is a Professor of Economics at Wellesley College, where she teaches courses on feminist economics and the political economy of gender, race, and class. She is a co-founder and board member of the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network. She is the author of the forthcoming book From Inequality to Solidarity: Co-Creating a New Economics for the Twenty-First Century.

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