International Woman’s Day, Wendy Brown, and What Feminist Theory Can Do For You.

I’d like to welcome all the new readers from time.com. Today is International Woman’s Day, and I’d like to talk about why academic feminist critiques of liberalism are crucial to rebuilding the conceptual framework for the labor movement and empowering workers.  But first,  I’d like to second Matt Yglesias’ recommendation of Susan Moller Okin’s Justice, Gender, And The Family. The book is a feminist critique of political philosophy, especially those in or responding to the arguments of political liberalism (Rawls, Walzer, Sandel, MacIntyre).  The chapter on the libertarianism of Locke and Nozick is particularly fascinating – if you are entitled to something you’ve made where you’ve contracted or already own all the resources used in the process, shouldn’t women have full property rights over their children?

I’m going to add two more and then pivot to a different argument.  If you want to see a similar project for a different strand of political philosophy, I’d recommend Wendy Brown’s Manhood and Politics, which is a feminist critique of the political projects of Aristotle, Machiavelli and Weber. Specifically how each builds a theory where what is important to the realm of the political is constructed alongside a construction of manhood, and what is excluded from, and found to be threatening to, politics is bound up with the construction of the feminine. Aristotle establishes politics is the domination of natural necessity and the body, Machiavelli bounds women up with the uncontrollable forces of fortuna as the enemy of political glory/freedom/power, and Weber winds up full circle with the freedom from constraint turning back into an “iron cage” of domination that can only potentially be overcome by doubling down on the notion of a heroic man recapturing a soulless bureaucracy.

Brown also has a critique of liberalism in an article that is sadly not online, Liberalism’s Family Values (collected in States of Injury).  Like Okin, she deals with the liberal tradition being predicated on a liberal subject that is the antithesis on the conceptual and practical role women play in society.   The eight values of a liberalism positioned next to the values they exclude from the political realm is a particularly sharp explanation of what is going on under the hood of liberalism.  From the article:

I want to make a quick argument that this critique is important for those who want to rebuild an economy where prosperity is broadly shared and concentrations of power are held in check.   E.D. Kain has been running a “Labor Rountable” at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen blog. Tim Kowal, Jason Kuznicki, Erik Vanderhofff, Mark Thompson and the great Kevin Carson have all participated.   E.D. Kain’s project is building the power of labor, concentrating on unions but also looking for other ways to prevent the ransacking of ordinary Americans that has taken place over the past three decades.

Freddie DeBoer argues that he “can identify an interested party who, theoretically, could help to restore labor power, American unions, and the counterbalancing effects of collective bargaining and worker strikes and protests: libertarians.” With all due respect to Freddie, I think libertarians are literally the worst group possible to intellectually marshall for the broad task of fighting for autonomy, respect, decency and power to be broadly shared.   In some ways, they are the argument to be overcome.  Instead, I’d argue that everyone who wants this project to succeed needs to engage in the the feminist critique of liberalism.

Why? Academic feminism has thought deeply about two arguments that need to be addressed. The first is that that the project is larger than stagnating wages, something that can’t be addressed by the differential inflationary impacts of the consumption of cheap electronic goods and really cheap food. The issue is about freedom and autonomy.   The subject that can lead a life of equality, liberty, autonomy in the public is not a given or a prerequisite to society but instead a political creation, something created only through struggle.

The second is that a contract, like a marriage contract or like a labor contract, can be “freely” entered into but still contain elements of coercion to it. Coercion can still be the central characteristic of it.  That the market is a series of voluntary transactions, and any outcome of it just, is an illusion. How to pull away that veil is the project, and feminist thought gives us a start on it.

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8 Responses to International Woman’s Day, Wendy Brown, and What Feminist Theory Can Do For You.

  1. Mike Easterly says:

    Re your final paragraph, you ought to check out Pateman’s Sexual Contract and Steinfeld’s Invention of Free Labor.

  2. Magpie says:

    With due respect, the following reminds me of Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman:

    “Academic feminism has thought deeply about two arguments that need to be addressed. The first is that that the project is larger than stagnating wages (…)
    “The second is that a contract, like a marriage contract or like a labor contract, can be ‘freely’ entered into but still contain elements of coercion to it. (…)”

    I certainly agree that those two arguments are valuable in a critique of “liberalism”. To the extent that academic feminism embraces them, I agree with you as well: it is on the money.

    But, make no mistake, the root of these arguments is to be found in Marxism.

    In a way, what you seem to be proposing is a return (at least a partial one) to revolutionary Marxism, as opposed to reformist (let’s call it “gradualist”) Marxism a la Eduard Bernstein (father of social democracy).

    If the label “academic feminism” makes these ideas more palatable, less confronting or threatening for the American public, then I’m all for it.

    But, it seems to me, we are re-inventing the wheel.

  3. Nuveen says:

    You’re on a roll today.

  4. Have not read Okin’s book. But have a question about this quote: “if you are entitled to something you’ve made where you’ve contracted or already own all the resources used in the process, shouldn’t women have full property rights over their children?”

    Do women own sperm? Because children can’t be made without it. So I don’t understand your question.

    • adamcahan says:

      Well, looking at it from an 18th century perspective, men could probably be compensated with a small, flat fee for their physically miniscule material contribution.

      The idea of looking at sperm as intellectual property though, in a 21th century way, seems like more fun though!

    • WatersBlessings says:

      Speaking as a heterosexual man, my experience of sexual intercourse involving mutual attraction, desire, and pleasure-giving, when my lady lover opens her body up to receiving and giving pleasure with me, the incidental effects of her magnanimous profusion of givings to me occasionally entail the passage of sperm from my body to hers. Rather than claiming ownership of said sperm, I gave it freely with the greatest of enthusiasm as she gave what she gave with equal delight. On legal grounds, she may then oblige me to pay a fair share of the cost of raising the resultant child born of our amorousness, but it was wholly her bodily labor that led to the child’s birth. I simply provided a key chemical component, thus entitling me if i wish to pursue the matter to the pleasure and honor of helping to raise the darling mystery person who entered this world through the door of our loveplay, but only if it was a mutually-agreed-on dalliance. If i forced myself upon her, she would have exclusive entitlement to “ownership” of the child, in particular to sole decision-making authority as to its manner of being reared, as well as the right to demand of me a steady, regular contribution of economic support for the child’s upbringing and living, and i would have no right to the joys of fatherhood, except noting from a safe distance the miracles attendant on the child’s blossoming.
      In short, once the sperm has entered the woman’s body, unless the man was unwillingly in chains during the event it is most certainly her property, even more than in cases where the phrase “possession is nine-tenths of the law” fits.

  5. chris says:

    Brown also has a critique of liberalism

    ISTM that this can be very badly misleading if you don’t point out that it is a critique of *classical* liberalism, which is now in the US generally called libertarianism. Modern US liberalism is more of a synthesis (sometimes conflicted) of classical liberalism and more community-oriented ideals of justice and equality. It’s not liberals who are opposed to civic duty and selflessness, it’s Ayn Rand.

    Also, the analogy between a “dominant term” and a dominant person is waaaay overstrained.

  6. Pingback: Changing the Subject: The World Is Object, Those Who Would Change It Are Subject. For Really Big Change, Change the Subject

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