The corporate seduction of feminism

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Socialist feminist and US academic Hester Eisenstein spoke to Sally Campbell and Judith Orr about her book, Feminism Seduced, and the challenges facing the women's movement in the US and worldwide.


What do you think about the first year of Barack Obama's presidency?

I didn't share the excitement and the enthusiasm that a lot of my colleagues on the left had about Obama. I distinguish his actions from the symbolism of his being elected.

There's no doubt that electing a black president is a major historical shift and is very moving and important symbolically. Obama himself is deeply impressive. I did read his autobiography. I first read it in Starbucks and burst into tears, and was very embarrassed. He's a beautiful writer and he does have this international experience which is real on the page.

The bottom line is that he was elected by a cohort of young people who were very excited by the idea of "change you can believe in", but he was also funded by the major hedge funds and Wall Street. They knew very well who they were putting in office - somebody who would change the face of American imperialism, literally, from the heavy handed tactics of George Bush to someone that could walk the walk on internationalism and responsible leadership. He used the same sort of rhetoric in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. It was absolutely Orwellian - war is peace, and so forth. Obama is a very skilled politician and he's being used by the elites to refurbish US leadership in the world.

How do you think the mood has shifted, over the war for instance?

This so-called withdrawal of US troops from Iraq is a withdrawal from the cities to US bases where they can hang out, and if there's trouble they come pouring out again, so that's a bit of a sham. This notion of saying that the war in Afghanistan is the good war, which entails repeating and buying the whole myth of 9/11 - I don't subscribe to for a second. He is using 9/11 just the way Bush did, to legitimise the war in Afghanistan. But it is a war of territory. It assumes the US can have its footprint in that crucial part of the world, near China, near Pakistan, and control things on the ground.

But there's this constant appeal to terrorism and then the convenient appearance of terrorists, Americans who have just happened to go to Afghanistan and just happened to be part of various plots and schemes. I don't take it seriously. I don't say that there aren't people very angry at the US, but it's clear that all sorts of intelligence agencies are manipulating the situation to provide plausibility for the "War on Terror".

It seems that the anti-war movement demobilised with the election of Obama, is there some reorientation now?

There's a very good film by Robert Greenwald on Afghanistan (Rethinking Afghanistan, 2009) which people are starting to show. It's kind of like waking from a dream and going, "Oh, we still seem to be at war." And he's sending 30,000 more troops, which doesn't include the contractors. These numbers are very slippery. So I think people are beginning to regroup and say, No, no, no, no, no, this has to be opposed. But it's hard. My colleague, Ruth Rosen, wrote about her heart being broken by Obama. I just never fell in love in that way.

Does this make it more difficult to resist? For example, there have been big debates about abortion and healthcare reform in recent weeks.

The abortion debate has been appalling, absolutely appalling! Because people still see Obama as progressive, I think he's made it harder.

There's no doubt that Obama is charming and brilliant and learned and Michelle is so adorable and the children are so adorable - there is such a cult of celebrity around the Obamas, it's hard to realise that he's a very, very tough player. After campaigning on issues that brought in progressives to support him, he has moved very rapidly to the centre.

In the latest Senate draft of the healthcare plan they have basically quashed the public option and the trade off at the moment is to allow people from the age of 55 to pay into Medicare at an unspecified price. That's a substitute for a public single payer option which every other industrialised country has.

In that context the House version of the healthcare bill contained the Stupak amendment, which would mean that people whose private insurance currently covers abortion would no longer have this coverage. In order to cover the cost of abortion, they would have to buy a rider to have an abortion. Can you imagine? You'd say to yourself, let me buy a rider because in five years I'm going to have an unwanted pregnancy.

So they beat that back in the Senate version, but they now have a so-called compromise which accepts the status quo established by the Hyde Amendment in 1977 - that there shall be no federal funding for abortion. This excludes poor and working class women from having their abortions paid for by the government. This is now seen as a middle of the road position. It's the fallback. So you can pay for it privately, which cuts out anyone with a low income.

People kept saying it was an acceptable compromise, meaning that the anti-abortion forces have basically won most of the territory.

The anti-abortionists seem to be gaining ground at the moment.

Absolutely. This dates from the Roe versus Wade case in 1973 - the court case that allowed legal abortion in the US. Unfortunately, as it was passed as a Supreme Court decision it was not legislative. This means it is subject to change once you change the composition of the Supreme Court.

But you can date the rise of the new right, the coalition between Republicans and evangelical Christians, from then. They very cleverly seized on abortion as one of their key issues because they could bring together an attack on so-called excessive federal spending with an anti-woman, anti-gay, anti affirmative action, anti civil rights coalition, and it just took off.

They pulled in a lot of shock troops from people who were religious and actually felt that abortion was a sin.

Your book is called Feminism Seduced, what do you mean by the phrase?

I refer to mainstream or hegemonic feminism. I felt that in the process of selling globalisation corporate leaders and other elites have been systematically trying to seduce women into embracing the expansion of capitalism.

I'm conscious that I'm cutting out of my analysis a whole range of much more radical, much more deep-seated notions that come out of the women's movement: black feminism, lesbian feminism, eco feminism - there's a whole range of feminisms that I'm not really tackling. I'm really talking about a certain kind of hegemonic feminism which is embodied in women like Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. I'm tracking how the ideas of mainstream feminism have been used by policy makers and international financial institutions to push the agenda of corporate globalisation.

So it's a bit ambiguous. I don't think all feminists have been seduced, but I do think that some of them have been, especially certain academic feminists.

I'll give you one example. One of the main strategies for globalisation has been the creation of export processing zones around the world with up to 80 percent, 90 percent cheap female labour, in places like Haiti and notoriously in China. There are academic feminists who say that the way to get out of patriarchy and women's role in the family is to get women into production, into paid work. This is all very true but not if you're working 14 hours a day and being stripped and tested for pregnancy.

So there is a problem with the chorus from academic feminists who say it's wonderful that women are being drawn into paid production in an uncritical way.

How have you been shaped by second wave feminism, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?

For women like me, feminism basically beat down the doors in academe, in medicine, in law, in architecture, so that women were able to walk through the doors of these previously excluded fields. There has been a broad middle class of women created on the basis of their own income rather than the basis of their husbands' income, which was the way class was determined when the majority of women were not in the paid workforce.

By the same token, corporate leaders and the government have created a massive low wage economy now, and the majority of women are caught in those jobs - the worst jobs - without promotion, without safety standards and so on. So you now have an enormous class divide.

I quote Karen Nussbaum who used to work for the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) and was then head of the women's bureau in the labour department under Bill Clinton. She says when the corporations saw the wave of the women's movement coming, because it was very powerful, they deliberately split women by opening the doors for certain women into management while keeping wages low and conditions terrible for the majority of women.

That's why you argue that academics or activists can't really fight or discuss or critique a society in terms of just gender alone, but that instead it's important to look at a structural analysis of the whole system of capitalism.

Absolutely. I find it remarkable the number of journals and academic articles by feminists - and I'm certainly not the first person to say this - that take gender as their major variable and then don't look more broadly at the role of the US in the world or what the US has been doing to reshape the world economy.

In my book I go back to the Second World War and then particularly through the 1970s and look at the imposition of globalisation. I look at what that has done to create poverty by restructuring the economy of Third World countries. A lot of US feminists are very parochial. They don't have the consciousness to say, "I'm located inside this major actor in the world," and to see what that means in terms of the imperial or neo-colonial role of the US.

When you talk about class in relation to oppression how do you locate class in the structures of society?

I really take a Marxist position. With all its changes over the years capitalism still operates on the basis of owners and workers. There's an enormous debate about that, pointing out that class has become so complicated because there are all these layers of management and all these middle class people who aren't technically owners and so forth.

But still the bottom line is, in terms of economic power, you have people who have to work for a living and people who don't because they're owners. I find over and over again that when you go to conferences people just don't see class as primary. And in the general public, as many as 90 percent of Americans characterise themselves as middle class. So there's little or no consciousness of how class operates.

I was just at a conference in New York for the Demos think tank who have panels on public issues. They had the typical panel: one woman talked about women in the labour movement and then the next talked about women in management and said how shocking it is that women still get sexually harassed and how they don't get the same perks that their male colleagues do.

That's a perfect example of how they see gender as trumping class. It's the same kind of 1970s naïve sisterhood that doesn't look at the difference between those women who are acting as managers and working for capital and the women who are subject to capital. It's a blurring that goes on because you're focusing solely on gender and "sisterhood".

You talk about the need to heal the "unhappy marriage" between the left and feminists and say there has to be change on both sides. What do you mean by that?

I'm referring back to the 1970s when radical feminists in the US like Robin Morgan came out of the New Left and were in a rage, appropriately so, because they were treated like servants; they weren't allowed to have leadership positions.

When they raised issues about women's liberation they were ridiculed and hooted off the stage. So there was a real experience of humiliation and dismissal that led to people saying the kind of extravagant things they said: that women's oppression is the only true oppression, that it pre-dates class, etc.

That position somehow didn't get critiqued. It got critiqued by socialist feminists, of course, but it became quite a dominant mode in the US and on the US left, so traditional feminists wouldn't go to left conferences and basically saw feminism as renouncing the tradition of Marxism.

I always found that appalling, but on the other hand you have to note that every single conference by the left for years ignored feminists, marginalised them, didn't include them. I spent some years in Australia and I was astonished that Australian academic left men were reading my book, Contemporary Feminist Thought, and other feminist works and were taking the ideas on board. I was astonished because I had never seen that among my left colleagues in the US. I don't know what the situation was in England.

So my feeling is that there's work to be done on both sides. I think feminists have to move beyond this anger which is 40 years old and take on board what a Marxist analysis looks like now.

Of course, because of the shadow of Stalinism, we have to argue for a totally different kind of socialism. People are so disillusioned by what happened in Eastern Europe - the tyrannies and the lack of political freedoms - that they have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. We need to look at the ways in which women's issues can be effectively folded into an economic reorganisation of society.

For this I look to the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, the Bolivarian government of Evo Morales, and the other radical left electoral regimes in Latin America.

An enormous debate is now going on in that area of the world about how to build a 21st century socialism, which would incorporate women's issues and the issues of indigenous communities, and that would be intensely democratic and built using both state power and grassroots leadership. These debates and social experiments may show us a way forward.


Hester Eisenstein's new book, Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women's Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World, is published by Paradigm, £16.99.