Bread and Roses: Intersectional, Anti-Capitalist Feminism

I recently read ‘Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto’ (page numbers of quotes are included in this article) that outlines the exciting direction of some feminist thought and its anti-capitalist, intersectional approach – analysing how systems of power interconnect and interact with each other and affect different groups and people differently.

Several years ago I took part in a debate regarding all-women shortlists at my local Labour party branch. I argued that all-women shortlists will not tackle the root causes of women’s unequal representation in politics and that they also favour primarily middle class, white women. It wasn’t a popular opinion at the time, but it is great to see this type of perspective regarding the need for a radical approach to intersectional inequality gaining in popularity as typified by the development of the ‘red feminist horizon’. It links into the criticism found in the ‘Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto’ regarding what they term liberal feminism, which Hillary Clinton and her advocates have been a great example of, as women reaching and holding corporate roles and being in positions of power is said to be a victory for women’s rights and equality. This involves a complete disregard for the negative effects the decisions and actions these women have on others, especially other women. Like my argument against all-women shortlists at the time, liberal feminism is about tokenism and it will not address the real cause of inequality and oppression: capitalism.

This is why neoliberalism and liberal feminism can work so closely together. Neoliberalism is aided by liberal feminism legitimacy and liberal feminism is aided by political and economic corporate and capital acceptance. Except, this is increasingly being challenged by people not content to just tinker with the system and are instead calling for an interconnection of anti-capitalist movements and struggles. As outlined in ‘Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto’, “liberal feminism steadfastly refuses to address the socioeconomic constraints that make freedom and empowerment impossible for the large majority of women…By definition, the principal beneficiaries are those who already possess considerable social, cultural and economic advantages.” (p.11)

Central to this exciting intersectional, anti-capitalist feminist movement is the importance of something called social reproduction theory and its links with the labour movement and related actions/strategies, with these feminists reinventing the concept of striking itself. Women’s Strike is a radical new project led by feminists, as outlined in the ‘Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto’:

“What had been a series of nationally based actions became a transnational movement on March 8, 2017, when organizers around the globe decided to strike together. With this bold stroke, they re-politicized International Women’s Day…the strikes demonstrate the enormous political potential of women’s power: the power of those whose paid and unpaid work sustains the world.” (p.7)

This relates to the role of social reproduction theory at the centre of this movement, which the Women’s Strike UK calls “the conflicts and struggles over what it means to produce and reproduce not only labour power (and the wage relation) but life itself.” Adding, “without a doubt we have witnessed a ‘turn’ to the question of social reproduction across significant swathes of the radical left. However, despite this much needed shift in analysis – it is sobering that actually not that much has changed – or perhaps more correctly not nearly enough has changed…”

As Tithi Bhattacharya outlines in her article about social reproduction theory, central to Karl Marx’s work was the importance of labour for reproducing the capitalist system. However, there are limitations to this analysis:

“…Marx is frustratingly silent on the rest of the story. If labor power produces value, how is labor power itself produced? Surely workers do not spring from the ground to arrive at the marketplace, fresh and ready to sell their labor power to the capitalist.”

This is the crux of social reproduction theory. Labour power is produced and reproduced outside of the formal capitalist economy. Bhattacharya states that there are three key interconnected processes that reproduce labour power:

“1. By activities that regenerate the worker outside the production process and allow her to return to it. These include, among a host of others, food, a bed to sleep in, but also care in psychical ways that keep a person whole.
2. By activities that maintain and regenerate
non-workers outside the production process–i.e. those who are future or past workers, such as children, adults out of the workforce for whatever reason, be it old age, disability or unemployment.
3. By reproducing
fresh workers, meaning childbirth.”

This is done for no cost, primarily by women, and is central to reproducing and sustaining capitalism by reproducing labour. It is important to see production and social reproduction as interconnected; for instance, job cuts, wage reductions and service closures has an effect on the ability to socially reproduce labour. This critically takes apart the traditional view of labour and the worker and considers the wider aspects to this alongside also showing the need to be an anti-capitalist when advocating for feminism.

Furthermore, the traditional view of a worker doesn’t reflect labour patterns either, as “the employment rate among women of ‘prime working age’ (aged 25-54) is up from 57% in 1975 to a record high of 78% in 2017” with high numbers of “working-age mothers in paid work: up from 50% in 1975 to 72% in 2015. The rise has been particularly large among lone mothers and mothers of pre-school- and primary-school-age children.” This links into the dual role many women now have in terms of production and social reproduction.

Related to this, Carers UK provide some valuable statistics that makes the point regarding the centrality of women in non-paid carer roles and how key this is for reproduction and production and thus sustaining capitalism, as “women are more likely to take on caring roles than men. Of the 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK 58% – 3.34 million – are women…[and] the economic value of the unpaid care provided by women in the UK is estimated to be a massive £77 bn per year.” Crucially, this has an impact on women’s ability to work: “women are more likely to have given up work or reduced working hours to care, particularly in their 40s-60s. Women aged 45-54 are more than twice as likely than men to have given up work to care and over four times more likely to have reduced working hours due to caring responsibilities.”

Essentially, “any issue to do with the workplace is actually also about women and gender. Policies that govern workplaces have the power to affect women both at work and at home” and importantly “the major functions of reproducing the working class take place outside the workplace.”

And there we have the bread (production) and roses (reproduction). Anti-capitalist movements have to be based on bread and roses to succeed. This influences the way we approach political strategies:

“An understanding of capitalism as an integrated system, where production is scaffolded by social reproduction, can help fighters understand the significance of political struggles in either sphere and the necessity of uniting them…This is why in the organizations where we fight for wages (e.g., our labor unions), we need to raise the question of reproductive justice; and in our organizations where we fight against sexism and racism, we need to raise the question of wages.”

A more specific example of the importance of social reproduction theory is the gendered nature of food bank use. Obviously we need to eat to be able to live and thus work. Eating is becoming increasingly difficult however, given politically motivated austerity from the Conservatives over the last 10 years. Three of the biggest causes of food bank use are low income; income shocks (such as rising food and housing costs) and benefit delays. Importantly:

“A recent study from the government’s Money Advice Service concluded that two-thirds of those in debt are women. Whilst 2.2 million women are now classified as ‘breadwinners’, this is generally in low-income households. Research from the Resolution Foundation found that most low paid workers are women, and another study by the Trades Union Council concluded that the number of young women in low paid jobs had tripled in the past 20 years.”

There is also the rise in period poverty, with campaigns interconnecting this with other issues; for instance, Bloody Good Period provide period supplies to asylum seekers and refugees.

Food bank use is only increasing, for instance “The Trussell Trust’s food bank network provided 658,048 emergency supplies to people in crisis between April and September 2018, a 13% increase on the same period in 2017.” These kind of statistics should make us worry about the increasing normalisation of food bank use in society and its acceptance by more people as being part of the welfare system. It is another way that capitalism and capital is reproducing itself by ensuring that the social reproduction essential to production and thus labour value continues to take place, even if it demoralises and depresses people in the process. This is why we have to fight until every single last food bank is gone and no longer needed. For that, we need to overcome capitalism. Reformism isn’t enough.

Crucially, it is not about “women’s issues” – it is about showing the interconnection of different struggles and how this relates to the capitalist system and the importance of feminism leading the way. As argued in ‘Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto’, feminism for the 99% needs “to join with every movement that fights for the 99 percent, whether by struggling for environmental justice, free high-quality education, generous public services, low-cost housing, labor rights, free universal health care, or a world without racism or war.” (p.15)

As well as gender, social reproductive theory “is shot through at every point by the fault lines of class, race, sexuality, and nation.” (p.22) The intersectional aspect is so important if we are to challenge capitalism through a networked counter-power movement. Joining up against capitalism can help unite these different but related struggles.

“The true aim of social reproduction struggles is to establish the primacy of people-making over profit-making. They are never about bread alone. For this reason, a feminism for the 99 percent incarnates and fosters the struggle for bread and roses.” (p.72)

Jane Watkinson (she/her) is an anti-capitalist, intersectional feminist and vegan interested in Marxism, social ecology, sociology, revolutionary humanism, and studying radical social, economic, and political theory and how this can be applied in practice. She is a freelance researcher working in the community sector. Her LinkTree is here.