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.