A Socialist Feminist Manifesto for Our Times

Reviewed by Shmyla Khan

[Sheryl] Sandberg and her ilk see feminism as a handmaiden of capitalism. They want a world where the task of managing exploitation in the workplace and oppression in the social whole is shared equally by ruling-class men and women.

Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, in “Feminism for the 99% – A Manifesto”, deliver scathing criticism of mainstream feminism, which they term as “equal opportunity feminism”. They see contemporary feminism at a crossroads, a clear choice between popular feminism and a socialist feminism that rejects patriarchy along with oppressive, racist, patriarchal structures. While many feminists have mounted a critique of the “lean-in” brand of feminism, what makes Feminism for the 99% important is that it expounds on political alternatives. The book is a call to arms as it offers valuable lessons for feminists, both young and old, to realign their politics with the larger fights against late-capitalism.

The book is in conversation with the biggest crises of our times: the economic crisis in which the contradictions of capitalism have manifested in unprecedented income inequalities around the world; an ecological crisis in which climate change poses an existential threat to the planet that we inhabit; the rise of white supremacy and fascism; and the crises around the imagination of feminism. The authors seek to advance a political project that encompasses these problems, not in the language of intersectionality that populates modern progressive movements, but through a critique of the structures that underpin these crises.

While the target of the book is the wider public, it seems to speak directly to feminists and diagnoses the limitations of mainstream feminist interventions. The “gender question” has long been de-politicised and confined to gender studies departments and neoliberal development projects. Feminist politics is often an appendage to most political manifestos, never the foundation. Most interventions seeking to “protect women” through law and policy have benefited only a few women, while working within structures, or, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, use the master’s tools, rather than dismantling the master’s house.

The book seeks to expand the horizons of feminist politics beyond the narrow focus on gender-based violence and harassment (in fact it spends remarkably little time on the subject), to all types of structural violence: from the exploitation of garment workers in the global South to low-paid immigrant women working in homes as care workers. Furthermore, the authors do not shy away from critiquing the hollow calls for sisterhood and feminist solidarity that prevails in feminist discourse, arguing that sisterhood should be a consequence of feminist struggle, but cannot be a starting point. Sisterhood often assumes the narrative of the dominant, which has historically been white, upper-class women, and obscures the different forms of oppression that women of colour face. The manifesto calls for a universal struggle where issues of class, racism and gender are connected. However, the authors are wary of conventional forms of universality in which internal differences are ignored. Taking into account critiques on both sides, the politics espoused in the book manages to strike a balance between traditional exclusionary politics and the divisiveness of pure identity politics.

The language of the book is accessible, direct and incisive. Though grounded in larger academic debate and theory, it does presume some prior knowledge of these subjects. Spanning less than 100 pages, the book has a broad audience in mind, but sometimes slips into in-speak when addressing particular forms of politics. 

The first section of the book addresses current modes of politics in eleven theses, critiquing contemporary politics and status quo structures. The second half lays out an explicit agenda in the form of a manifesto, presenting an expansive view of the crisis of capitalism from the lens of multiple contradictions: ecological, political and reproductive. The authors point out that the exploitation of capitalism needs to be understood both in terms of the surplus value extracted from labour through profit-making, as well as from the exploitation of labour that is not valued, which the authors term as “people-making”, i.e. the unpaid care work and domestic work disproportionately performed by women. The authors reframe the crisis of care work as a structural problem, connecting the women’s struggle with the larger struggle against economic exploitation.

The book starts and concludes with scenes of the feminist strikes on 8th March, calling on the readers to repoliticise International Women’s Day. “Brushing aside tacky baubles of depoliticisation–brunches, mimosas, and Hallmark cards–the strikers revived the day’s all but forgotten historical roots in working-class and socialist feminism” that was espoused in the vision of German socialist-feminists Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin in 1911. 

The manifesto rings true in our context, and speaks directly to young feminists organising Aurat Marches across the country. The book presents a political project that eschews both neoliberalism and progressive politics dominating our mainstream. The latter holds a progressive veneer, but is still grounded in the politics of individuality and market capitalism. This is particularly true of the dominant discourse around LGBTQ rights, which, while accepting various sexual identities, tends to be framed within the narrow confines of struggles such as marriage equality. This discourse is critiqued for commodifying queer identity, and failing to question the structure of economic inequality. The book can be an uncomfortable read, as it so directly rejects so much of the language and touchstones of progressive feminism today.

Image source: Folio Books

The tone of Feminism for the 99% is urgent. The political undertaking is ambitious. For the authors, their predecessor is “The Communist Manifesto” penned by Marx and Engels. The authors’ project is to address the spectres haunting the entire planet, not just Europe, but from the hacia la huelga (‘feminist strikes’) in Spain to the feminist struggles in Chile. In 2018 in Spain, more than 5 million workers staged two-hour walkouts on International Women’s Day to demonstrate the collective power of women’s labour by paralysing tasks and activities that women do, both visible and invisible. Similarly, feminists in Chile have been an integral part of protests against state brutality, occupying universities and colleges to protest what they term as “femicide”. They also holding General Feminist Strikes on 8th March. For the book’s authors, the “spectre” is not the same as the one that concerned Marx in 1848. Rather, they are addressing the world at the time of publication in 2018.

The book is a fitting call to arms for our times, a manifesto that stands on the shoulders of socialist-feminist theory and written by women embedded in internationalist feminist struggles. In its final analysis, Feminism for the 99% offers a biting critique of the political binaries we are often confronted with, between conservative values and “progressive” liberalism, but it is also a book about hope. The hope that comes from feminists organising from below to imagine a politics that demands both “bread and roses”.

Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto
Cinzia Arruzza, Nancy Fraser and Tithi Bhattacharya
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834105
96pp.

Shmyla Khan is a feminist activist and works as a researcher on digital rights and gender.


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