Labor, Love, Community and Democracy

        [Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]

To think about a better world, we need to theorize a bit about what is possible, given human nature, as well as what is attainable, given human history. While many Marxist-oriented thinkers have assumed that human nature is totally plastic and depends on the structure of economic relations as to whether it is basically self-interested, altruistic or community-oriented, many feminists of all stripes have argued that it is important as well to think about the structure of family, sexual and love relations to understand people’s priorities and proclivities in their intimate (what I have called “sex-affective”(see Ferguson, Sexual Democracy: Women, Oppression and Revolution, 1991, Westview)) relations with each other. In addition I would argue that we need to posit a third area which is key to understand human interpersonal power relations and that is our racial and ethnic relations with each other in variously structured community relations. People shape ourselves not only through our work relations and our love relations but also through what communities (which includes race, ethnicity and religion) that we identify with. And given how human history is littered with examples of wars and oppressive relations such as slavery and imperialism of one tribe, nation and/or self-identified ethnic or religious community over others, any vision of a better world needs to theorize how to combat racism, ethnicism and the effects of previous imperialism in its model (see also Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Marxism and Socialist Theory, 1981, South End Press).

Political relations, that is, the structured rules and practices of how human groups make decisions in community that affect their lives, are a fourth area to conceptualize to understand unequal power relations between groups. We cannot ignore the difficult question of how to structure the state so that it allows both for representative and for participatory democracy so as to find ways to check the development of political elites who represent in name only. Only democracy from below by broad-based decentralized social movements can counter such entrenched elites.

These four sites: economic relations, political relations, love relations and community relations are important to understand how power relations come to be structured unequally and oppressively. Any vision of a better society that can challenge these historical inequalities needs to have strategies to challenge unequal control of labor power, political power, love power (a concept I borrow from Anna Jónasdóttir, see The Political Interests of Gender, 1994, Temple University), and community power.

As a socialist-feminist antiracist anarchist, I argue that we need to be thinking not only of some sort of representative and participatory democratic socialism as our vision, but we need also to be thinking of ways to undermine the power of white people to dominate multiracial communities’ political decisions as well as to control other communities of color, such as other nations, which lack democratic self-determination because of the historical effects of European imperialism and slavery. In the US this means supporting and broadening the relatively ineffective Affirmative Action policies set into motion as a result of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s so that class inequality is taken into account as well as gender and race. But it means going beyond mere Affirmative Action policies to develop policies to support Black and Native American reparations to redress the skewed economic power of white vs. communities of color that occurred and continue to occur as the ongoing effects of the exploitation of Black slavery and the expropriation of Native American land in the primitive accumulation process of US capitalism. It also means finding a way to end the ongoing cycle of wars supported by imperialist and wealthy nations to amass ever more of the world’s economic resources for its own wealthy elites. And it means foreign aid and fair trade that seeks to redress the vast economic and environmental injustice caused by prior imperialism and prior wars.

Feminists of all stripes critique the economic, political and sexual power that capitalist white supremacist patriarchy has given to men in relation to women of their class, race and ethnic groups. We also insist that as the personal is the political the domains of sexuality and family relations, and the gender division of labor in productive as well as caring labor, need to be seen as primary sites of unequal gender and sexual power relations for women and LGBTI people. These unequal power relations will not automatically be eliminated simply by bringing about some version of economic socialism, whether it is centrally planned, or decentralized council socialism, or market socialism. As Albert and Hahnel (in Socialism Today and Tomorrow, 1981, South End Press) among others have pointed out, none of the attempts to create socialism, including the USSR, China, Yugoslavia and Cuba, have succeeded in equalizing relations between women and men or heterosexuals and LGBTI people. This is in part because they were based on an outmoded Marxist theory and strategy of “unite and fight” which have not worked hard enough to challenge the patriarchal and heterosexist structures of the economy and the family, including the unpaid housework of women and the gendered sexual division of paid and unpaid labor which devalue any work considered to be women’s work.


There are certainly times when we on the Left need to make common coalitions against those entrenched capitalist and national elites who will continue to shore up capitalism, patriarchy and racism and ethnicism (which in the US includes privileging the Christian majority over Muslim, atheist, and other religious minorities).
It is heartening to think of the anti-capitalist globalization solidarity networks that are being forged globally against the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the IMF and the so-called “free trade” policies of the World Trade Organization that still hypocritically allow member nations in the rich countries of the North to subsidize their own corporate agricultural products in violation of free trade. So I agree with Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher, Rebecca Solnit, Immanuel Wallerstein and others who wrote articles in The Nation debate on ReImagining Socialism that these new New Left coalitions that have included the Zapatistas in Mexico, the MST in Brazil and other social movements which have connected through the World Social Forum process are hopeful signs. But I am concerned that what is being left out of the summarizing of these new autonomous left anti-globalization movements is the importance of the visions and strategy of gender, sexual, and race-ethnic equality within these movements. It should never be just some version of economic socialism and some version of grassroots democracy that we put forward as an alternative vision to global capitalist globalization. Rather, both the vision and the strategy of organizing need to include ways of reconceiving gender, sexual, and race-ethnic structures that perpetuate inequalities in the world social formations of today.

For example, I have argued previously that eliminating male domination requires restructuring the relations between the so-called private sphere of the family and sexuality and the public sphere of wage labor. This will require that social movements and geographical communities begin to reorganize the caring labor in families and communities that is currently done on an unpaid basis by women so that it is expected to be done by both men and women, including those men who are involved in political movements. Social movements of the left will also need to set new standards that encourage parity by gender for their political leaders, that challenge domestic and sexual violence against women by any of their members, and that advocate civil rights for GLBTI people, including gay marriage, adoption, domestic partner rights etc. The Zapatistas have already sought to change sexist aspects of the indigenous cultures by developing the Revolutionary Law of Women that encourages women’s education, rights to marriage by choice and political leadership, among other things. The Brazilian MST landless rural workers’ movement has developed a gender commission and adopted a rule that requires that men who commit domestic violence against their wives leave their squatter communities. The FAT independent trade union and workers’ cooperative movement in Mexico teaches organizers to organize around women’s rights in communities as well as their members’ rights in paid work. If we in the North are to be in real solidarity with such movements, we must learn from them as well as history that we should never to allow gender or sexual rights to be given lesser priority in our visions and strategies of a reimagined socialism. We need to demand that the organization of the state and economy acknowledge that both men and women have the right to care for children, sick people and elders and that opportunities and economic and social supports be in place for people to be able to do this unpaid caring labor in the home and in the community without having to sacrifice their economic well-being to do so. We need to strategize how to bring about a change in the social division of public and private labor so as to replace the male breadwinner-female caregiver model with the universal caregiver model that expects all people to provide caring labor in a re-organized social order (see Nancy Fraser “After the Family Wage”, in Justice Interruptus, 1997, Routledge).

We must also not forget the role and continuing effects of European and US imperialism and racism in taking over, enslaving and racializing conquered peoples and nonwhite immigrants. Our vision of a reimagined socialism must include reparations in foreign aid to compensate for colonizer nations’ many years of economic exploitation of subjugated peoples, as well as Black and Native American reparations for US descendants of slaves and indigenous peoples. Politically, our political deliberations must consider ways to give various subjugated racial and ethnic groups within nations adequate representative voice in representative democratic systems. Such measures could include political caucuses but must also include cultural education that includes not only the tolerance called for by liberal so-called multicultural education but further measures of understanding and respect that seeks to incorporate aspects of minority cultural groups into mainstream legal and political processes (see Iris Young Inclusion and Democracy, 2000, Oxford University).

In conclusion, our ideal vision and strategic approach to creating a socially just society must tackle not only economic inequality and exploitation by class, but also gender, sexual, racial and ethnic oppression, marginalization and violence in the priorities we bring to bear in the social coalitions for radical change that we organize, so as to work for a reorganization of the social power relations of labor, love, community and politics.


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