“Feminism Is for Everyone”

Perspectives for a Feminist Class Politics

Barbara Fried

is editor-in-chief of “Journal LuXemburg" and deputy director of the Institut für Gesellschaftsanalyse at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. She works on issues of health and care, social infrastructure and left-wing feminism. She is also involved in organizing approaches and connecting policies in the care sector and is a co-founder of the Care Revolution network.

2017 began with a global wave of feminist protests. Opposition to Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States was expressed most visibly by the Women’s Marches – and not only in the US itself. In Poland, resistance to restrictions on reproductive rights by the country’s right-wing government continued, while 8 March brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets from Buenos Aires and Istanbul to New Delhi. In Germany, as well, International Women’s Day witnessed demonstrations the likes of which we had not seen in decades.

At the same time, right-wing parties and movements are successfully taking up, articulating and mobilising widespread and to some extent justified popular anger in the ongoing organic crisis of neoliberalism: anger at a society in which the needs of the many are trampled upon while obscene wealth coexists with growing existential crisis and social inequality; anger at a society in which democratic structures and procedures are hollowed out and in which ongoing pressures towards flexibility and market pressure are a daily reality for many, making it impossible to reconcile wage labour, reproductive necessities and other wishes and desires.

This constellation has brought renewed attention to existing praxes and approaches towards every day, connective and organising politics across the broader Left. In light of the AfD’s rise in Germany, Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the publication of Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims in German translation also helped to push the question of class back to the centre of the Left’s agenda (see the debate in LuXemburg-Online 2016 and Candeias 2017), as relevant segments of the working class expressed their dissatisfaction with neoliberalism’s unfulfilled promises by voting for right-wing parties.

Why is it that the Right manages to operate as an articulation of anti-neoliberalism? What does this have to do with left-wing politics in recent decades? And most importantly: why are feminism and the women’s movement – aka “gender mania” – so easily depicted as part of the despised establishment? What does this mean for future feminist responses – what could a feminism look like that takes on these questions, or even formulates a feminist class politics?

The Left: Not Enough Class, Too Much “Hoopla”?

The common criticism heard lately is that the Left neglected the social question by devoting its attention to “identity politics”. It spent too much time on feminism and other alleged fringe topics, and thus helped pave the way for the Right’s success. Both of these are of course not true. It is true, however, that the Left has grown disconnected from large segments of the working classes and unemployed. This is particularly true of social movements and the so-called “emancipatory Left”, but to a certain extend also applies to the party and trade union-oriented social Left, which is also mostly confined to academic and professionalized contexts and often fails to take up the everyday concerns of many people in a way that speaks to them. This is not only the case for overwhelmingly male workers in the former industrial cores, but also for migrant service workers and precariously employed knowledge workers. Left-wing praxes are mostly not a point of reference for them.

It is not the case, however, that this “alienation” is the result of too many “pink-violet-green” topics. On the contrary: even today, feminist and migrant perspectives as well as ecological questions barely make it into the canon of the political Left (and only partially into that of the movement Left). They are treated, sometimes with good intentions but often in a delimiting and dismissive way as a bunch of “hoopla”. A systematic interweaving of feminism and left-wing “core topics” remains uncomplete, so that “women’s politics” is often still viewed as a sectional demand, unrelated to the critique of labour relations, the distribution of wealth and financial crisis. This division must be overcome by pushing forward the development of a feminist class politics.

Feminism on Trial

On the other hand, it is also true that the concerns of many “non-white” women as well as women from socially marginalised backgrounds remain largely absent within feminist struggles – even those beyond bourgeois feminism. The issues of the women’s and environmental movements and the struggles for social acceptance and equality of different ways of life (whether LGBTIQ or migrant) have grown detached from the concerns and everyday realities of many people. Some of them were “expropriated” and selectively integrated into hegemonic projects – such as demands for gender quotas in the boards of major German corporations, diversity programs for executive personnel, as well as a parental allowance that disproportionately benefits high-earning families.

This made them appear more like attempts to provide careers to highly-qualified, flexible individuals ready to perform, effectively turning them into projects of the elite (see Hajek 2017). In this process, parts of the movements named above were painted into the corner of the politics of recognition, and neglected to conceive their concerns systematically as questions of social justice, to discuss poverty, social exclusion and marginalisation as central moments of racism and sexism, and to analyse gender relations as a social and economic structural category.

Feminism for All – Renewing Feminism

The question facing feminist class politics is: which of the demands we have raised thus far relate to whose interests? And are we capable of communicating our goals in a way that they can even he “heard”? How can we orient our projects towards representing the concerns of the many?

Here, insights from early intersectionality debates are crucial. Audre Lorde, a black poet and lesbian feminist activist, for example, pointed out that “equality” for black women was never a convincing feminist narrative, not least due to the devastating and blatant differences between women (1984). A debate on feminist class politics can learn much from this notion, as it also reflects the experience of many women here: “These debates have nothing to do with my life.” They construe a collective woman, which possesses no meaning nor action-enabling form as a realm of experience. If feminism is largely associated with quotas in corporate boards and haughty-sounding language rules, but not with struggles against precarised work or for expanded social benefits for single parents, then it should come as no surprise when feminism appears as an elite project.

Who Is the Working Class? Intersectional Class Analysis

The critique of aspects of feminist struggles can, against this backdrop, be formulated somewhat differently. Rather than arguing: the feminists failed to account for this and that, we should ask: which everyday experiences of women (non-white, socially marginalised, transwomen, etc.) are not represented? And most importantly, through which praxes, changed spaces of discussion and coalitions can this be altered?

Adopting this perspective, it becomes clear that the widespread notion in the current debate of a contradiction between identity politics on one side and social or class politics on the other is an analytical dead-end, not to mention incorrect in a double sense. These are not two different problems to be addressed separately, with the concerns of socially marginalised people over here, and those of women/LBTIQ/migrants over there. This alleged opposition is, instead, itself an expression of the problem of both a reductive class analysis and well as an oversimplified analysis of gender relations (and racism). In terms of what constitutes “class relations”, the dominant conception suggests that “class” emerges strictly in a narrowly-defined sphere of production. Often, this perspective is limited to wage labour. At the same time, the language of class analysis lacks the necessary terms with which to formulate the experiences of discrimination which do not emerge (solely) from one’s position in the totality of the relations of production, i.e. everyday racist degradation and sexist debasement.

If we understand heteronormativity and gender relations as “relations of production” and “fundamental regulating relations” (Haug) in all spheres of life from the outset, it becomes clear that gender is not an additional, albeit equally significant relation of oppression – as many debates around race, class, and gender tend to imply – but rather a moment of class relations itself, an arrangement with which to organise the social division of labour and thus social rule. This always includes the internal division of the class, for which the ordering of gender plays a central role. Division into, for instance, those who perform unpaid care work and those for whom this is generally taken care of for, or those who pursue a skilled occupation and those who – for half the money – work in social services, and accordingly into those who can continue to live well even after their retirement and those who will not receive an adequate pension. These are all questions of gender relations and thus not forms of domination outside of class relations to be incorporated into our analysis, but rather an intrinsic component thereof.

Similar is true of racism, which Stuart Hall once described as “one of the dominant means of ideological representation through which the white fractions of the class come to ‘live’ their relations to other fractions, and through them to capital Itself” (1980, 341). He analyses racism as a form with which white workers are integrated into the ruling project and their support for this project is organised. In this arrangement, incorporation or rather support is exchanged for privileges, freedoms, and certain life opportunities denied to others – thereby pitting the “incorporated” in opposition to other parts of the class.

This stratification of class relations through incorporation and division along categories of skin colour or gender sets the bar for solidary action quite high indeed. Yet this is precisely what the goal of a feminist or intersectional class politics must be: asking what kinds of politics enable the overcoming of these relations, meaning “all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence” (Marx), without empowering some parts of the class at the expense of others along the way.

In Spite of It All: Class as a Strategic Point of Crystallisation

In both these and other feminist struggles, then, we must explicitly incorporate or work out a class perspective without it becoming dominant or understanding class questions as a priori in a traditionalist sense – an understandably common concern in debates around feminist class politics. The task of a class feminism (or a Left seeking to develop such a feminism) must thus be to investigate existing struggles and demands to determine where implicit or explicit exclusions are produced, or rather at which points feminism’s class perspectives can be strengthened.

This includes the important question of how different parts of the class which should be involved in these struggles can be won over – particularly those that are not used to interpreting their problems as class problems due to previous feminist and other political debates, as well as those who in light of previous debates around social questions are not used to thinking of their problems as questions of given gender relations. We must develop forms with which different concerns can be taken up and reformulated as questions of class, gender and, in this sense, as shared identity.

Instead of class or identity politics, we need class as identity politics – a politics in which the overcoming of class relations in a non-reductionist sense becomes a common point of reference addressed differently in different places and in different fields, but with the common goal of shaping our conditions and ways of life collectively and democratically for all – and with a clear sense of antagonism vis-à-vis ruling politics and attempts to divide and conquer (see Demirovic 2017).

In this way, various movements beyond feminism can be cohered together into a new class politics, in order to form a “connective antagonism” (Candeias 2017) to neoliberalism, which also contests the Right’s position. In the current social situation, an inclusive feminism or a feminist class politics appears as a compelling counter-pole not only to an aggressive anti-feminism, but also to an authoritarian project “from above” and “from the right” as a whole. The fact that a movement opposing both the liberal feminism of a Hillary Clinton and the government of Donald Trump was the most visible thus expression of such discontent thus far. In the spirit of the early theoreticians of intersectionality, we must renew our push for a perspective of “feminism is for everyone” here, as well.

In this text, numerous discussions held around the establishment of the Feminist Circle of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation have been included. The long version is published on LuXemburg.

Further Reading

  • Candeias, Mario, 2017: Eine Frage der Klasse. Neue Klassenpolitik als verbindender Antagonismus, in: Weltklasse, LuXemburg Online-Sonderausgabe, August 2017
  • Demirović, Alex: Die Zumutungen der Klasse. Vielfältige Identitäten und sozialistische Klassenpolitik, in: Klasse neu denken, Debattenheft der Sozialistischen Linken, 7/2017
  • Fried, Barbara/Schurian, Hannah, 2016: Nicht im Gleichschritt, aber Hand in Hand, in: LuXemburg, 1/2016
  • Dies. (Hg.), 2017: UmCare. Gesundheit und Pflege neu organisieren, 2. überarb. Auflage, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Reihe Materialien, Berlin
  • Haug, Frigga, 2002: Zur Theorie der Geschlechterverhältnisse, in: Das Argument 243
Translated by Loren Balhorn