Socialist Feminism Pt. III: The “Happy Divorce” of Feminism and Capitalism

woman-eye-eu-230x150And now, for the Grand Finale: does the contemporary feminist economist ideal of “social democracy” actually work? Is there a way properly integrate feminist ideology with the dominant capitalism? Thankfully, we have an excellent case study available to answer that question: the European Union. 

The EU’s social and economic policies definitely create one of the most liberal political agendas in the world; but, possibly more importantly, the EU is perceived as a propagator of social democracy. This perception is important because scholars around the world are looking towards the EU as a beacon of hope and a standard for which other “advanced” states can/ should aim. So, if the EU’s gender equality policies don’t work then… whose can? Promoting gender equality is one of the core tenants of the EU’s social program. A 2004 Council Directive reads, “The European Unions objectives on gender equality are to ensure equal opportunities and equal treatment for men and women and to combat any form of discrimination on the grounds of gender…The issue also has a strong international dimension with regard to the fight against poverty, access to education and health services, taking part in the economy and in the decision-making process.” The EU also has a “Gender Equality Index” tool that was developed by the European Institute for Gender Equality. One of the highest scoring nations is Denmark, with 73.6 points on the 100-point scale (the aggregate number for member states is 54). 

Denmark is a more specific example of a social democratic state that has both social and economic plans to combat gender inequality – so it’s not surprising that they score so high on the Gender Equality Index! Denmark has an impressive record of progressive policies, including the implementation of the Ministry of Gender Equality, which stated in its 2009 plan to combat the “Great Recession” that it aimed to “include[s] a number of important priorities for labour market participation, closing gender pay gaps, reconciling work and family life and increasing the number of men taking parental leave… [and] increasing women participation in decision-making.” 

Interestingly, Denmark’s economic policy of flexicurity is also designed to promote more equality in the market. The Danish government’s website provides this basic overview of the structure: 

One side of the triangle is flexible rules for hiring and firing, which make it easy for the employers to dismiss employees during downturns and hire new staff when things improve. About 25% of Danish private sector workers change jobs each year.

The second side of the triangle is unemployment security in the form of a guarantee for a legally specified unemployment benefit at a relatively high level – up to 90% for the lowest paid workers. The third side of the triangle is the active labour market policy. An effective system is in place to offer guidance, a job or education to all unemployed. Denmark spends approx. 1.5% of its GDP on active labour market policy.

Flexicurity has received a great deal of praise, both domestically and globally. In fact, the EU formally recommended to member states that they attempt to adopt flexicurity in order to fulfill the goals adopted at the Lisbon Strategy of Growth and Jobs.

However, flexicurity is not quite the miracle we’ve been wanting. Let’s be real: flexicurity is an attempt to maintain capitalistic competitiveness while tempering the negative effects of capitalism with welfare policies. Flexicurity pre-supposes capitalism. This is, to use a continuing metaphor, an attempt to address the symptoms of capitalism – there is a social safety net to catch anyone that falls through the system. The degree to which business needed to be coerced into agreeing to flexicurity (or not) is beyond the scope of this particular post, but if we can agree that businesses primary preference is always to maintain as much control over the market as possible, then we can be sure that flexicurity is an example of a curbed capitalism – not something wildly new and exciting. 

As a form of curbed capitalism, flexicurity does appear to adequately battle the economic inequalities that capitalism and “free markets” create for women and other minorities; but it only hits two out of Power’s 5-Points. All things considered, though, flexicurity as an economic system is a framework that should work to help alleviate gender inequality in society and in the economy – alleviate, but not prevent.

In 2012, the European Women’s Lobby published a study titled “The Price of Austerity,” which found that women across Europe (including Denmark) were suffering from austerity measures in unprecedented and theretofore unmeasured ways. Austerity has not only caused progress for gender equality to stagnate, but is the reason for regressions in certain areas. Austerity measures have cut public sector jobs and wages across the EU, and “Because women account in average for almost 70% of public sector workers in the EU, anything that happens to public sector jobs and wages affects women more.” In Denmark, women’s employment actually regressed to pre-recession levels: in 2005, 74% of women were employed; in 2008, 75.5%; but in 2011, only 72.5% of women had jobs. Apparently, flexicurity doesn’t quite work for everyone. Furthermore, the report adds, the “means-testing” system to determine who receives unemployment benefits does a terrible job of 1) calculating an accurate number of unemployed persons and 2) distributing help with precision. 

The question of jobs, unemployment, and welfare also bleeds into the discussion of the social effects that austerity has on women’s status. Cuts in the public sector means cutting female employment – but women are far more likely to need those services provided by the government too. Austerity has led to cuts in childcare, elderly care, slashing budgets for women’s shelters and crises centers – services that help promote gender equality for all. The EWL characterizes this as a “reprivatisation of care and a shift towards more ‘familialist’ welfare systems.” Denmark serves as a perfect example: the ceiling for universal child allowance was slashed to 4600 euros a year. This makes the problem of women leaving the workforce even worse; not only are women losing jobs, but caretaking demands are also pulling them back into the house. These statistic signal a regression back to traditional gender roles. The report concludes, “Public gender equality institutions are being destroyed on the pretext of austerity.” 

So… if the social safety net is the first thing to get slashed during an economic crisis under the pretext of saving money… and women’s rights are supposed to be protected by the welfare state… then I have to conclude that the state still holds capital at a higher value than women’s rights. This goes right back to Power’s 5 Points, numbers 2 and 4 of which are (respectively) “human well-being should be a central measure of economic success” and “ethical judgements are a valid, inescapable and in fact desirable part of an economic analysis.” This is, clearly, utterly antithetical to capitalism, which thrives on the indubitable all-importance of capital as the primary way to measure and gain economic “success.” Even the magical “flexicurity” cannot prevent the adverse social affects of capitalism – and that is because flexicurity presupposes capitalism. It is not a true alternative; it is merely a creative way to alleviate some of the inequality. And “alleviating” “some” inequality is not what feminism is about – feminism demands equality of all persons. Or, at least, isn’t that what we’re trying to tell ourselves? 

This proves that women’s rights are not inalienable rights in a society that is tainted with capitalism. And until women’s rights are inalienable rights, feminism has not succeeded. Therefore, feminist economist are actually a heck of a lot closer to their socialist feminist predecessors than they might realize. I would argue, however, that feminist economists must work for the destruction of capitalism in its entirety if they wish to achieve full gender equality.

Assuming that feminist economists want feminism to succeed wholly and completely, they must abandon the hope that an equal society can be created where the economy is based on the assumption that power is transferable in capital form, because capital is generated by a very specific group of people that have very specific and insurmountable privileges. Capitalists will try to maintain that power at all costs; which means excluding others. Feminists – and feminist economists – want to equalize the distribution of power in society. Therefore, capitalism, in all forms, must go. Which leads us… back to socialism. 

I am open to the idea that there is another economic system that is not capitalism or socialism. But I am not open to the concessionary dream that is “social democracy.” Social democracy seeks to treat the symptoms of gender inequality – contemporary feminist economics and socialist feminism of the ‘70s seeks to treat the disease itself. To that degree, feminist economics is really just updated socialist feminism – one that wants to give worth to reproductive labor, insists on the interconnectedness of other minority identities that women have, and has the language to describe the ways economic well-being needs to be understood. Feminist economics does necessitate overthrowing capitalism – feminist economists just don’t know it yet. 

Perhaps feminist economists have not yet aligned themselves with a particular economic structure because they are just waiting for one that accurately meets their needs. It is possible that socialism is not the true antithesis of capitalism, as the socialist feminists proposed. The day may come when feminist economics band together and announce a feminist economic revolution with a completely new economic system as their frame-work for a new economy – and I wait for that day with baited breath. But, until then; socialism is the best option for creating gender equality, both in the economy and in society. Just as the socialist feminists always knew. 


Categories: Alternative Models, Crisis and Austerity, International Ladies, The Dismal Discipline

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