Manifest(o)ing Feminism: Women Occupy Patriarchy!

The whole world was erupting as we U.S Americans were watching. Our noses pressed to the screen-monitors of history we watched as waves of mass rebellion rippled from Greece and Spain to Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria in the Arab Spring where dictatorship after dictatorship was toppled. And then, who knew? I for one never expected that the waves of protest would find our own shores. As we watched, only occasionally would a plaintive or angry question pop up: When will we get out on the streets?  Yet when pushed to the brink and over of desperation at the beginnings of the economic onslaught on this country, people were still echoing the noxious nostrums of the new president who preached “no more excuses” and “individual responsibility” to a people suffering the brunt of a crisis put in motion by a financial system that–contrary to the delusions of the left–had put Obama in office.

When the nation began to crash in the first month of the new president's first term, we did not rush to the streets when Obama appointed for fixing the crisis the same miscreants culpable for creating it. Nor did we riot upon word that while record numbers of people were plunged into joblessness, homelessness, and health crises, corporations were making record rates of profits. Yet Obama called for self-sacrifice and personal responsibility, instructing us that "everyone" had to pitch in in hard times. That we are all one family. Our uncles presumably are not then the thirty major corporations who paid no income tax in the last three years, while making 160 billion dollars?

And there was no revolt among people of color despite the fact that for these communities recession is depression and even “economic holocaust.” Nor did women surge into the streets when sold out by the State’s sudden bequeathing of decision-making power over health-care to Catholic bishops during the non-debates over Obama-care, thus ensuring an outcome that made hash out of reproductive justice for women. The state gambled with women’s bodies and all we got was one lousy rally staged by the same mainstream women’s organizations who had, even prior to taking their phantom seat at the “negotiations,” had abandoned their right to ask for anything more than no-change to the abortion status-quo. Yet the status-quo was already defined by racial injustice to women for example under the Hyde Amendment which denies public funding for abortions. (See here for my critique of the role of women's organizations in the health-care debates and the Obama election)

As the new regime commenced year 1, 2 and 3 with its procedural pillaging (making it continuous with predecessor regimes), major left-liberal venues like The Nation were and are still issuing their piteous calls for a real and Liberal Obama to come out of hiding and “do the right thing.”   The sycophantic relation between state and corporate pirates, pimps and priests is reiterated by the established liberal-left in the latter’s long record of genuflection to electoral politics and Democrat Party. In the same vein, as shown by the role of Feminist Majority and Planned Parenthood in the health-care deform, mainstreaming feminism has meant establishing feminism as ancillary to the Party. Although there are shining exceptions, whatever else remains of the public face of feminism is a brand-feminism of sound-bites and slut-walks; primarily an identity-politics of I am a feminist because I’m empowered by doing anything I choose as long as it’s a choice kind of politics and especially if it’s a choice of my sexual subordination (except I call it empowerment).

Thus in the context of a deracinated, branded Left, Occupy Wall Street has seemed like a miracle. It seemed to have come from nowhere and yet it has come. And it has come as a welcome, indeed essential rupture with the dominant molds of leftist/feminist politics to date.

Taking (to) The Streets

If nothing else Occupy Wall Street has proved that the sanctity of the neoliberal-hyper-individualized-(“no more excuses”)-self-unit is not recession-proof after all. The Occupy movements have sprung free collective outrage from the ideological snare of neo-individualism and its seemingly impenetrable fortress of personal shame and self-blame as a response to economic violence. Through its action, the movement has re-directed resentment outwards from the self to the real cause of wide-shared suffering, namely a System that stops short of nothing in its predatory imperatives to feed on any living substance—from seeds and medicinal herbs to human bodies and whole populations—for its means of extracting surplus-value (profit). The choke-hold of personal blame and shame—or on the flip-side, the lock-down of positive-think faiths in individual empowerment—gives way as the sense of a human faculty we thought extinct begins to rouse, namely the capacity to act with others for co-determining the conditions of our individual and collective fates.  This capacity to act is the essence of politics itself which means according to philosopher Hannah Arendt, acting in concert with others for goals and objectives, and this essence has been released from hibernation by force of activity itself, the action of the new Occupy movements.

So perhaps the carrying capacity of The Streets has not yet been exhausted? Once teeming with the spirit of rebellion, for decades now (with some exceptions) The Street has been under lock-down, zoned by police-escorted, permit-ted arenas of civilized obedience. Thus public space has been re-privatized, shrink-wrapped to sound-bite-sized feel-good moments of unity whose shelf-life never survives beyond its moment of orchestrated “self-expression.”  “Having a voice” has for so many years become the raison d’etre of protest. The beauty of Occupy Wall Street is that in its seizure of The Streets, i.e. of material space, it surpasses the merely expressive while retaining symbolic power as “occupation.” But more verb than noun, its dynamism pushes the movement beyond spatial location into a time-zone called the now-moment of history.


Occupy Imperialism, Occupy Patriarchy

Very early on in this very nascent movement, people of color organized themselves to push Occupy Wall Street towards new intellectual syntheses that account for the racial structure of capitalism. These groups with their blogs and working groups continue to remind us that capitalism is based on still-living legacies of racialized conquest, colonization, and slave-systems—or in short empire building. In contrast to the working-groups and blogs of people of color, no comparable development has emerged from women pushing forward a feminist analysis—thus the reason for Lucinda Marshall and I co-founding is founded to invite feminists to jump into the political opening created by the Occupy movement and forge new analyses and networks of action that show how capitalism is organized around the exploitation of women. We dare to utter that hoary term, “patriarchy” which might stick in the craw given decades of vilification relegating the term to the historical bumper-sticker crop of slogan-kitsch. Yet patriarchy is a term emphasizing the systemic and structural nature of women’s oppression and exploitation. Patriarchy is a term which makes sense of the fact that “Capitalism kills women” as I read off the Halloween-painted cheek of one young woman activist. For the concept of patriarchy goes farther than capitalism in explaining why it is that capitalism depends for its sustainability on the extraction of surplus value from women’s unpaid work—women's unpaid and unvalued work is equal to 50% of the world's GDP  and yet  women only control 1 per cent of the means of production. (See here for a short-list of statistics). This “women’s work” (i.e. work naturalized/normalized as women’s work) consists in care-taking, emotion-tending, sexual servicing, as well as in reproductive labor. The word “patriarchy” explains that it is women’s position as subordinates of men for example as wives, girlfriends, daughters, prostitutes that allows for capitalism to profit off of the services provided by these subordinates. Patriarchy allows capitalism as well as all social classes of men, albeit differently according to race and economic status, to profit off of the appropriation of women’s bodies, sexuality, and minds/emotions as well as labor.

Consider a few examples of how capitalism is really capitalist patriarchy: Consider that it is due to women’s position as an unpaid tender of children and men that austerity cuts slash most brutally at women, specifically impoverished women of color who are forced to take up the slack of all the care-work no longer provided minimally the State. Consider the case of Latina mothers of young children in Hartford, Connecticut. When their state subsidies were slashed under welfare deforms, they were forced to sell food-stamps in exchange for cash for purchasing school supplies  for their children!

Consider too the role played by the U.S sponsored military in a capitalist and imperialist world-order: the military exists in large part to protect corporate interests, and is fueled by and fuels a turbo-masculinity. With the spread of U.S military bases around the world, so spreads the brothels at these bases for sexual appropriation of local women. These populations of women are targeted for the express purpose of servicing military men and their ejaculatory racial fantasies of the colonized women at their disposal. The sex industry, primarily fueled by demands of men to put women on the market for sale, sustains neoliberal capitalism in other ways. In the most basic sense, as Eve Ensler has pointed out, the poorer women become, the more women become sexually commodified. She reminds us that women can be sold cheaper than a cell phone the world over.  Consider then that developing nations under the yoke of austerity policies imposed by the World Bank and IMF in the service of the corporate interests have turned to the sex industry for a percentage of their GDP. Women’s non-sexual trafficked labor as migrants is also part of this percentage and another pattern in neoliberal capitalist patriarchy. The systemic appropriation of racialized and colonized women specifically is at a dense nodal point of intersecting systems of exploitation.

I am talking about patriarchy here as a world-order, and feminism as the movement which contests and opposes this world-order. While this understanding of feminism was common twenty or thirty years ago, it has been eclipsed by an identity-politics-view of “women’s issues” smugly ratified by the male white dominant left.  Slavoj Zizek is consummate mansplainer when he grants his celebrity-intellectual imprimatur to Occupy Wall Street in the following narrative of the Occupy Movement genesis:

“In a kind of Hegelian triad, the western left has come full circle: after abandoning the so-called "class struggle essentialism" for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist, and other struggles, capitalism is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem.”

Talk about master-narratives, Zizek would position himself with mastery over history, assuming a god's-eye-view and assuring us that feminism and anti-racism alike are only phases before passing away into the great synthesis that absorbs their partial-perspectives into the One Unity that counts. The ugly (to the master) truth is that historical struggles against the race of capitalism, and against patriarchy are very much in process, and will be determined not by the masters of discourse, whether left or right, but by those who are the primary subjects of this struggle. Angela Davis is far more attuned to the historicity of the moment when, in her speech to Occupy Wall Street she encourages the movement to see that the unity it embraces as “the 99%” is a “complex” unity, i.e. a unity accounting for multiple systems of exploitation including race and gender.

Feminism Now?

Our job is to wake our people up, so that we don’t sleep through this moment.”  Black Agenda Report

Bruce Dixon and Glenn Ford, editors of Black Agenda Report are reminding African-American political activists to determine the outcome of the movement themselves rather than strain to read the minds of the young, white constituency at the core of the present Occupy movement. Feminists need to remind ourselves of a similar task. The need for a feminist presence to develop itself in the space of the Occupy movements shows up painfully within present efforts by women to confront an atmosphere of sexual harassment at the Occupation sites. The stories are filing in, and we do not yet have a clear picture of what is really going on. We do know that working groups like “safer spaces” in New York city have organized to confront the problem yet there is no sign that the groups have drawn political and analytical connections between on-the-ground male dominance and the systems of exploitation that Occupy Wall Street as a movement are contesting.

Davis and Ensler are the exceptions the norms at Occupy Wall Street; at present I have no doubt that resistance to feminism outweighs any signs of a feminist perspective coming to Occupy movements. And yet I remain optimistic. The dynamics of radical protest released by the movement surpasses the particular ways that it has thus far framed and defined itself. Due to its creation of public space as a space of action, and its rupture with calcified forms of political action, Occupy Wall Street has created a political space where already on a daily basis new groups, unhinged from ties to long-standing institutions and established organizations, are spontaneously creating themselves. (Listen here for brilliant and encouraging interviews with scholar-activist perspectives on Occupy as a historical social movement). Can feminist solidarity reap the whirlwind and reinvent itself within new forms of social association too? My optimism in response to the question derives from the fact that the dynamism released by Occupy Wall Street involves women–lots and lots of young women–who, like their male counter-parts are caught up in the momentum of movement-creating. This means that women are agitating, aroused anew as political actors on the stage of history. If there is any situation then, in which feminist ideas might stick and take root, this is it. Will Occupy Wall Street be open to re-orientation through the lens of feminist action and vision? Will feminism re-invent itself as a movement within the new political situation and its force-field of political possibilities? I have no answer; the moment is undetermined, fluid and dynamic in terms of any known outcomes. All I know is that our job– to paraphrase Black Agenda Report– is to wake our people—women—up so that we feminists do not sleep through the moment.

Kathy Miriam is an activist-scholar who blogs at Dialectical Spin: Radical Feminism in Otherland  and (co-founded with Lucinda Marshall of Feminist Peace Network).  

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