Sunday, August 8, 2010

A feminist capitalist's manifesto

In a recent piece titled "Feminism and anti-Capitalism, a love story" on Feministe and Girldrive, Nona argues that because structural sexism is built into a capitalistic economy, fiscal conservatism and feminism are inherently incompatible, and in fact in conflict with one another.  In fact, she seems to single out fiscally conservative beliefs above even socially conservative ones for exclusion from the feminist paradigm.  While it is "[effed] up to leave conservative women out of the conversation, especially if they felt torn between their family’s traditions and their own reality," fiscal conservatism is a different issue because "capitalism needs to be humanized" and "business [needs] to be regulated."

And yet, here I am.  I am a feminist and I am a capitalist.  I am a feminist because I believe in expanding the choice set for women everywhere.  I am a feminist because I work to challenge systematic oppressions.  I am a feminist because my life's work is women, and I have never felt satisfied doing anything else.  And yet, I am a capitalist.  I am a capitalist because I believe in making the pie bigger, and then trying to divide it as equitably as possible.  I am a capitalist because I am an economist, and I believe that markets tend to offer more efficient solutions to problems (and in fact, often more equitable) than governments, although I also believe that sometimes they don't.  I am a capitalist for reasons that have nothing to do with ideology, because my ideology is that none of us have any moral claim to the endowments of our birth, and thus a good life is one that serves others.  I am a capitalist because I think it works. 

I am not a capitalist because I think the interests of business should come before the interests of women.  Far from it. I have seen big government oppress women, and business and free markets help them.  I believe systematic oppression is every bit as entrenched in government forces as it is in market ones, and that both can be tools to either rectify or reinforce the hierarchies of the past.  I believe there is a role for government in correcting inequalities, but I also believe that government helped to put them there in the first place, both in the US and the world over.  In places where governments continue to oppress, I have seen the remarkable effect of freedom, both market and personal, in improving the quality of life for people in need.  I believe that women's right to vote in this country, a fundamental accomplishment of feminism, is also integrally tied to immigrant and otherwise under-privileged women's participation in the labor force, even under sub-human conditions--sheer, brutal, ugly capitalism. 

But because my capitalism is not a philosophy or ideology, but rather, shall we say, a method, a tool, I also have no problem with government intervention or labor activism when that's a more effective way to achieve my ultimate end goal--prosperity, equality, hope.  While Republicans often use economics to defend 100% anti-regulation positions with the fervor of religion, economists have no religion.  Their only god is math.  They calculate the welfare gain and the deadweight loss from a given policy, and use this to determine whether it's pareto improving (meaning it makes some people better off without making anyone worse off), average welfare improving, or only a change in distribution.  Economics can't tell us which policies are moral or good, that takes our own judgment, but it can tell us which create wealth and which destroy it.  I am a capitalist because I believe that if we can create wealth while preserving dignity and freedom, that's the route we should take.  Within that framework, there's plenty of room for social justice and redistribution.  But first, you have to have something to distribute.  I am a capitalist, but a humanist first.

But this isn't enough for Nona, who thinks that because of feminism's historical ties, those who don't subscribe to its associated political leanings should be kicked out of the club today.
Feminism isn’t only about equality; it’s about believing that you can alter the status quo, and feminism has deep historical connections with socialism/Marxism/anarchism.  In a (very small) nutshell: the two opposing forces here are big government and the free market. A pro-business stance is pretty much always part of a Republican platform, undisputed. The Tea Party’s bread and butter is appealing to people who have lower-taxes, less-government, let-the-poor-fend-for-themselves mentalities. And so if you push for more corporate power, and less government spending, you’ll inevitably be cutting social programs and widening the pay gap. And the people who will be hurting the most is women and their families, and poor people and minorities and the disabled and pretty much everyone who’s not white, male and rich.
Unless you think that the regulations and constraints on free enterprise made by people in power, who are mostly male, white and rich, mostly serve to benefit the male, white, and rich.  Unless your realize that many things "big government" does are to protect its interests abroad, which very often means hurting the economic interests of poor people outside the US.  Unless you think the very worst thing that can happen is war, and that a government equipped to protect women and minorities from social injustice is also a government equipped to persecute them abroad in wars under dubious auspices.  Unless you think, as I do, that the same healthcare bill that helped under-privileged groups receive care also gave the government an unprecedented role in deciding what is and what is not appropriate care, something that they decided in a direction that was very damaging to women.  There are many reasons to favor restrictions on rather than expansions of government, and many of them are very feminist indeed.

You may not agree with my political leanings, my economic analysis of the situation, but I will not let you stand there and tell me I'm not a feminist.  I refuse.  Because to me, being a feminist is about opening up options to women who have few.  It's about supporting women's choices and their right and ability to make them.  You may do that by working for social services and regulation, I do that by working on issues of gender equality and female empowerment abroad.  Have I done less to uplift women than you?  How would you know?

But to Nona, my views are easily put in an anti-woman box:
Let’s call these positions what they are: a pure, religious devotion to corporations. An unwillingness to re-imagine capitalism. 
I’m not an economist. This isn’t meant to be an entire structural analysis of how class and gender intersect. It just disturbs me how capitalism has become untouchable in our political environment, that the only thing getting debated feminist-wise by mainstream pundits is whether or not someone supports abortion, gay rights or other social issues. It pisses me of that socially moderate, fiscally conservative politicians like Olympia Snowe or Jean Schodorf get a (tentative) feminist pass just because they don’t want to overturn Roe v. Wade.
She is not an economist, but I am.  And I am also a feminist.  I'm a feminist who believes that if a woman supports women's rights to make choices free from oppression, she is on my side.  I am a feminist who is more interested in creating allies among people with different perspectives and modes of operating than encouraging division.  Nona's worried about this, too, but not enough to let fiscally conservative women join the team:
Republicans often complain that liberals are tolerant of everyone except conservatives. The same complaint goes for feminists—that they’re constantly critiquing who can be in the club and who can’t. I’ve always been opposed to framing feminism as some sort of club, with a laundry list of rules and regulations. Not only does that ignore the fact that traditionally marginalized women feel excluded from the movement (as we learned last week on this blog), it also creates a dynamic of “You’re either with us or against us.” It blocks discussion. It leaves no room for complexity.
But after Sunday, I realized voting for a socially moderate Republican does no good–ever. It may protect some civil and reproductive rights we have now from being bludgeoned, but it does nothing to break down more structural inequities. No matter what, it gives the cold shoulder to economic policies that, as Ann puts it, “have, for far too long, been lost in the woods.”
This post is a big part of the reason I started a blog.  I wanted to have a blog for women who were pro-women, but who didn't necessarily call themselves feminists or immerse themselves in feminist theory.  I wanted a blog for women to be treated as whole people, deserving of engagement in matters political, religious, social, and the like.  I wanted a blog where women could be themselves, without fear of being told they didn't know enough or weren't like-minded enough to join the conversation.  Most of the writers of this blog are not fiscally conservative, but I happen to be, and we somehow manage to work together to make the world a better place for women all the same.

If you're a fiscally conservative feminist, or a fiscally conservative person who works on behalf of women, you are welcome here, and we won't tell you what you are and what you aren't.  If you use your voice and your actions to make the world a better place for people who are less privileged than you, that's good enough for me.  Have a seat and join the conversation.


  1. Coca Colo, this is not a response to your overall post about feminism and capitalism. I only felt the need to chime in on a small point, just as a fellow "economist".
    First, being an economist doesn't necessarily mean you're a capitalist. I don't think you claim that, but just want to clarify. There have been many economists in history who wouldn't classify themselves as capitalists.
    And second, your arguments make it seem as though economists are immune to moral/ideological considerations and only rely on their god, "math", when they make welfare calculations about Pareto improvements. I think that this just cannot be. Economics is inherently different from other disciplines such as chemistry, physics, or math, because it deals with policies and issues that affect people on a daily basis. Economics is inherently political, and economists who make mathematical calculations of welfare gains/losses *must* make certain assumptions. Those assumptions, as well as the policies they choose and do not choose to study, reflect the kinds of priorities that they have, and the judgments that they impose on how society should be. To me, it's impossible to do economics without having an understanding of the political, and, yes, ideological and moral implications of the research that one does.

  2. I couldn't write something this eloquent because of how irritated I was by that post. Surprised? Absolutely not, because it's not the first of its kind on Feministe, but possibly the first that celebrated degrading women with varying beliefs about economic policies if they also deigned to believe in women's rights.

    I haven't returned to the comments since I pitched my fit, so I'm not sure how it all shook out. But thank you for saying this - because I think it bears saying.

  3. The government can be just as harmful to women, children, marginalized and indigenous communities as business. I just finished my degree in economics. It never fails to amaze me how often people will begin a discussion on economics and not actually want to talk about… economics. I’m not completely capitalaist- I can critique capitalism just as easily as I can critique any other economic system. But I do acknowledge that capitalism provides an incentive that has led to much of what we have today.

  4. I really liked this post and the comments.

    Regarding whether economics is ideological or not, I agree that certain mathematical welfare assumptions will be more or less appealing to certain ideologies. I agree that certain fields/subfields of economics may gravitate towards certain ideologies based on the kind of assumptions/methods/data that become standard practice. I agree some individuals can choose assumptions/methods/data that can serve to rationalize their ideology.

    However, an advantage of (good) economics is that it's rigorous and its argumentation is transparent. One can still advance the science out of curiosity while being detached from the implications. One can understand blogs from both left-wing and right-wing economists and find both to be informative. A researcher can legitimately lack a prior on the right mix of government/centralization/interventionism vs. market/decentralization/laissez-faire that's appropriate to solve a given problem, and use economic methods to form a judgment.

    So while I agree economists are not immune from ideology, I believe their methods allow them to be closer to that ideal than other forms of argumentation.

  5. I wish this post had addressed class. It is easy to be pro "free market" and "responsible spending" when one is a member of a class which benefits from capitalism.

    What about the women of our society and of other societies who are harmed by the capitalist system? Capitalism gives choices with one hand while with the other takes them away- from the lower classes.

    I think the author's understanding of "capitalism" is a little fairy-talesque. Capitalism did not form because a bunch of big-hearted do-gooder economists got together and wanted to create a system that would bake a bigger pie and a method to equitably distribute it. The system was formed by a self-interested class that wanted power and wealth as the feudal system was crumbling.

    Capitalism is the opposite of equity- the whole point of capitalism is that rewards are distributed INequitably. That is how a woman can work hard her entire life and still be destitute in her old age- hard work does not equal capital, but only with capital can you succeed. It's not called 'capitalism' for nothing.

    To breezily state that your capitalist feminism is about "choices" while ignoring that capitalism removes choices from the lives of poor women, (besides destitution, wage slavery, or both) indicates that you have more critical thinking to do about the existence of class in America and how this intersects with women's issues. Or do poor women just not work hard enough?

    On a slightly different topic, I believe in both the post you are responding to, and your own post, a false dichotomy is clung to. This is the 'opposition' between government and business. It is clear in America (at least) that government and business are mutually supporting, not antagonistic forces. Regardless, these are not the only two forces in society, and socialism and capitalism are not the only two ways to arrange an economy. So it is not helpful to argue that government can't be trusted, so we must have more free market-ness, or that corporations can't be trusted so we need greater government intervention.

    Clearly, neither of those situations would create equity for everyone in society. I can't wait until the debate expands to realize that OTHER OPTIONS EXIST! Women have more choices than simply a huge centralized government or a huge corporate oligarchy! Why don't we expand women's economic "choice set"?


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