Has Neoliberalism Knocked Feminism Sideways?


The Spice Girls

by Rahila Gupta

Feminism needs to recapture the state from the neo-liberal project to which it is in hock in order to make it deliver for women. It must guard against atomisation and recover its transformative aspirations to shape the new social order that is hovering on the horizon.

How should feminists read our current times? A major economic crisis rocks the developed world. While austerity measures don’t appear to be working across Europe, the mildly Keynesian efforts of Obama to kick-start the US economy have had only a marginal effect. The Occupy movement has gone global and the public disorder in the summer, with more disorder being predicted by the police, are an indication of deep discontent with the system. Yet we have seen an enthusiastic and vibrant third wave of youthful feminism emerge in the past decade.  At the rate at which these waves arise, it will be some time before the rock of patriarchy will be worn smooth.

The current phase of capitalism – neo-liberalism – which began with Thatcher and Reagan in the 1970s, promotes privatisation and deregulation in order to safeguard the freedom of the individual to compete and consume without interference from a bloated state. According to David Harvey, a Marxist academic, the world stumbled towards neo-liberalism in response to the last major recession in the 70s when ‘the uneasy compact between capital and labour brokered by an interventionist state’ broke down. The UK government, for example, was obliged by the International Monetary Fund to cut expenditure on the welfare state in order to balance the books.  The post-war settlement had given labour more than its due, and it was time for the upper classes to claw these gains back.   

The fact that second wave feminism and neo-liberalism flourished from the 1970s onwards has led some to argue, notably Nancy Fraser, that feminism ‘served to legitimate a structural transformation of capitalist society’.  I am with Nancy Fraser in so far as she says that there is a convergence, a coinciding of second wave feminism and neo-liberalism, even that feminism thrived in these conditions. It is well known that in an attempt to renew and survive, capitalism co-opts the opposition to its own ends. If part of the project of neo-liberalism is to shrink the size of the state, it serves its purpose to co-opt the feminist critique that the state is both paternalistic and patriarchal.  Critiques of the nanny state from the right may chime with feminist concerns. However, the right has little to say about patriarchy.  What is left out of the co-option process is equally significant.  The critique of the state mounted by feminists such as Elizabeth Wilson  when state capitalism was at the height of its powers suited neo-liberal capitalists seeking deregulation and a reduced role for the state.

Fraser’s analysis does not explain the current resurgence of feminism at a time when the shine of neo-liberalism has faded.  It is not so much that feminism legitimised neo-liberalism, but that neo-liberal values created a space for a bright, brassy and ultimately fake feminism – the ‘I really, really want’ girl-power ushered in by the Spice Girls. This transitional period between second wave and the current wave of feminism (which some commentators characterised as post-feminist) represented the archetypal appropriation of the feminist agenda, shorn of its political context, by neo-liberalism. Incidentally, many of us rejected the label post-feminist because it felt like an attempt to chuck feminism into the dustbin of history and to deny the continuing need for it. In hindsight, there was something different going on in that lull between the two waves in the 70s and 80s and today; the voice of feminism was being drowned out by its loud, brassy sisters.

If the culture of neo-liberalism had something to offer women, it was the idea of agency, of choice freely exercised, free even of patriarchal restraints.  It emphasised self-sufficiency of the individual while at the same time undermining those collective struggles or institutions which make self-sufficiency possible. The world was your oyster – all you needed to do was compete successfully in the marketplace. The flexible worker, in order to make herself acceptable to the world of work, may even go so far as to remodel herself through cosmetic surgery, all the while under the illusion that she was in control of her life.  In her essay on ‘Feminism’ in a forthcoming book, Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, Clare Chambers argues that liberal capitalism is committed to what she calls the ‘fetishism of choice’. If women choose things that disadvantage them and entrench differences, it legitimates inequality because the inequality arises from the choices they make. The few women who do well out of the sex industry do not believe that their work entrenches inequality because it is freely chosen, because prostitution is seen as a liberation from the drudgery of cleaning jobs. Choice is their weapon against feminist objections. In their so-called free expression of their sexuality, they are challenging nothing in the neo-liberal schema because the work reduces women to the status of meat and commodity. 

Neo-liberalism had other impacts: on the actual day-to-day political and social commitments of those concerned with gender justice. At first feminists stood to benefit from the state’s gradual shedding of its functions which began under Thatcher, in that classic double-edged way in which capitalism operates. Southall Black Sisters (SBS) was founded in the same year that she came to power. We who set up anti-racist, feminist and other community groups in the 80s complained that we were providing services which should have been part of the remit of the state – and that we were doing it for half the cost at the expense of our pensions (none), maternity rights (shockingly for a feminist group, none), working all the hours in the day with no employment protection – all this self-exploitation justified by our commitment to the cause. The up side of it was that the service we provided was grounded in political insights into the nature of patriarchy, racism and class.

But this was only the half of it. Over the next thirty years, the grants culture morphed into contracts and commissioning. Why? Partly because neo-liberal ideology popularises the view that grants make us complacent whereas commissioning brings in competition, the ideal Petri dish for human development. But competition for funding destroyed the solidarities we worked so hard at building with other women’s groups.  ‘Value for money’ concerns led to the introduction of targets; meeting them sometimes needed an element of creativity – how do you quantify success in supporting a woman facing domestic violence if she does not choose to leave her violent partner? These outcomes take a long time and the short-termist, box-ticking culture of neo-liberalism destroys the integrity of such work.

Fortunately, the neo-liberal project of rolling back the state is not yet complete; some of the state institutions from the earlier, statist period came to SBS’s rescue. The judiciary, hardly a bastion of progressive wisdom, put a break on the commissioning process when SBS challenged Ealing Council’s decision to offer the domestic violence “contract” to all comers without having carried out a proper race equality impact assessment first. It was the equality duties placed on the state as a result of earlier political campaigns which, in this case, attempted to inject equality concerns into a depoliticised culture which is what neo-liberalism aims to create.

Additionally, the ‘best value’, the more for less principle opens the door to any provider as long as they can prove that they have some track record.  It is precisely this de-politicised culture that allowed the Home Office to take away the contract from POPPY for services to trafficked women, the foremost agency in the field, and award it to Salvation Army. It didn’t matter that the women may not have easy access to abortion advice or services, that the service is provided within a strong Christian ethos, that the umbrella body, Churches Against Sex Trafficking in Europe or CHASTE – to which the Salvation army belongs, also bids for government contracts to lock up trafficked women on their way to being deported in the same safe house where trafficked women are fighting for their right to remain; one building is both prison and refuge. The climate in which we operate has become so depoliticised that agencies in the field who want to differentiate themselves from the faith sector call themselves the ‘violence against women sector’ and not feminists! 

While the state plays an important role in safeguarding the rights of women, a state in hock to the neo-liberal project can damage the health of vulnerable sections of society. Black women, in particular, are alive to the contradictions that the state polices their communities more heavily and uses harsh immigration rules instead of better resources when we turn to it for protection against issues like forced marriage.

This marketisation of the voluntary sector is neo-liberalism’s attempt to find new markets. It thrives on the continuous expansion of markets; hence the growing privatisation of what had been regarded as off-limits – public utilities, education, prisons, social housing – but we are reaching saturation point. Neo-liberalism is no longer delivering growth in the developed world, and therefore profit, the holy grail of capitalism as we can deduce from the mess in Europe and America. David Harvey believes that the main achievement of neo-liberalism has been re-distributive; money has flowed from the poor to the business elites. Our latest budget makes the poor rather than the rich pay for growth programmes to kick start the economy. In Brazil, Nestle has targeted people earning less than $2 a day by launching a floating supermarket along the Amazon selling fizzy drinks and milk powder – so we have the obscenity of obesity and malnourishment sitting side by side. If this is not scraping the barrel then I don’t know what is. 

I believe we are witnessing an implosion of neo-liberalism but the opposition to it has yet to take a concrete shape. As Elaine Husband of the New Democratic Party in Canada said, people are tired of being trickled down on. How do we re-capture the state from the neo-liberal project to which it is in hock? What is the way forward? A new society hovers on the horizon and feminism should play an important part in shaping it.

I’m no Mystic Meg but here are some issues worth considering:  Resistance is important. That’s one of the reasons why the neo-liberal project developed unevenly. Thatcher privatised many things, but left the NHS alone because there would be fierce resistance although David Cameron seems less daunted by it; women have often been the backbone of resistance movements, from the miners’ wives onwards to Skychef and Gate Gourmet, second wave feminists from the 70s are both strengthened by and need to nurture the current wave; we need to let go of growth as a gold standard of economic health. Serge Latouche, a French academic, argues for ‘degrowth‘ or contraction economics. Growth in terms of meeting real human need makes sense, growth achieved through consumerism does not; the market needs the state more than the state needs the market as we have seen from the massive injection of government funds to rescue the banking sector; neo-liberalism has encouraged the growth of a permanent underclass, usually made up of illegal immigrants and predominantly women in some categories, who live completely outside the system, which makes a nonsense of democracy’s commitment to universalism.

Feminism needs to guard against atomisation – which is what neo-liberalism thrives on. We should be a transformative movement, should recognise, understand, analyse what damage neo-liberalism has done to all our traditional allies. We need to get involved in the major movements of our time, to redraw the links, participate in Occupy London, fight religious fundamentalism as well as sexual violence, wage inequality and poverty. These may be old goals for a new culture but they can do with re-stating as we haven’t got there yet.

This article stems from an ippr roundtable discussion on Gender Justice, Society and the State, held in December 2011 to examine the role of the state in delivering gender justice and whether the culture of neo-liberalism had anything to offer women.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy