Sexual violence and the neoliberal era

June 11, 2014

Nancy Welch is an activist in Vermont, English professor at the University of Vermont (UVM) and member of United Academics, the UVM faculty union. At a June 5 International Socialist Organization meeting, she spoke on a panel discussion on "American Misogyny: What's Behind the War on Women?" Here, we print her speech, edited for publication.

IN THE sickening aftermath of Isla Vista, most everyone I've spoken with has instantly recognized that this massacre is not an isolated event--especially as news arrives of another shooting, this time at Seattle Pacific University--but is the latest chapter in a war on women.

My plan here isn't to go through all the evidence that our virulently misogynist society is taking a measurable, murderous toll on the physical health, psychic well-being, social and economic security, and political voice of women and of anyone who challenges the gender, sexual and racial order. Instead, I would like to see what further understanding we can arrive at by considering why this war is happening now.

First, some sobering statistics.

Since 1982, Mother Jones reports, there have been more than 70 mass shootings in the U.S.--this compared with fewer than 20 in the previous 30 years. Recent reports from USA Today and Mayors Against Illegal Handguns found that since 2009, mass shootings of four or more people happen on average once every two weeks, with the mass murder rate doubling from the decade before. In nearly 60 percent of the cases, the shooter killed his current or former wife, intimate partner or other family members.

Protesters stand in solidarity with sexual assault victims
Protesters stand in solidarity with sexual assault victims

Consider, too, how commonplace it has become to find among the day's headlines stories of gang rape--most recently, of a Georgia high school senior by celebrated members of the school's football team--or of girls, young women, gay men and trans women ending their lives after a barrage of bullying. A 2001 study titled "Hostile Hallways" by the American Association of University Women found that 83 percent of middle- and high-school girls reported being sexually harassed at school--and that is a study I wish they would repeat today to measure the spread and also the deepening intensity of that harassment.

These trends are found worldwide as well. In the Export Processing Zones of the Global South--"theaters of discipline and punishment," writes Purdue University professor Tithi Bhattacharya--gender violence becomes a favored tool for exploiting women workers. In the vast swaths of the Indian economy where workers are under- or unemployed, reports The Guardian, "young men...increasingly unable to participate in the 'India shining' fairytale...reassert their identities, and power, in a savage and cruel act," with the past 40 years bringing a tenfold increase in reported rapes. The World Health Organization recently issued the finding that physical and sexual violence against women has reached "epidemic proportions," impacting more than a third of women around the globe.

As the UN's use of the terms "epidemic" and "pandemic" underscores, we are not talking about pockets of violence against women, but about its globalization. As we know too when football teams in Ohio, Texas and Georgia use social media to document and celebrate their acts of rape; or when University of Vermont frat boys circulate a quiz asking, "Who would you like to rape?"; or when lawmakers and judges make pronouncements about women who "rape easy"; this misogyny isn't on the fringes.

In the U.S., it has become so utterly mainstream that we're supposed to watch a movie like This Is the End and chuckle at the rape jokes--while accepting the logic that groups of men naturally give off a "rapey vibes," and that it isn't really rape if we're talking about a girl like Lindsay Lohan, and she's drunk and she doesn't know what's happening.

TO UNDERSTAND why this mainstreaming of misogyny is happening and why now, I want to pick up the argument made by Tithi Bhattacharya in the winter issue of the International Socialist Review and also by Jen Roesch in a article.

The major point Bhattacharya and Roesch make is that while we undeniably live amid a toxic stew of ideas and images that naturalize the violent subordination and oppression of women, that naturalize white male supremacy--a toxic stew creating what is appropriately termed rape culture--those ideas come from somewhere. Roesch writes: "When we talk about culture, we need to talk about how it is generated and perpetuated"--because in understanding the how and why, we will be much better equipped to take up the question of how to change it.

Here, I want to join Bhattacharya in examining how the gender-based violence we are currently witnessing bears the specific stamp of neoliberalism. The global war on women has not only developed step by step and side by side with another global phenomenon, economic globalization or neoliberalism; it is also embedded within--born from and fueled by--the restructuring of social relations that neoliberalism has advanced.

Neoliberalism is the increasingly hegemonic economic program that has striven since the early 1970s to resolve the crisis in capital accumulation through cheapening the cost of doing business, including and especially through outright attacks on working-class wages, conditions and rights. When we talk about neoliberalism, we often talk about devastation in the realm of production: defeated unions, gutted wages and benefits, workers in all sectors subjected to speed-ups, many within sweatshop conditions and under terms of indentured servitude. We talk too about privatization, as corporations convert public resources like health care, education and even water into private property to be sold for a profit.

The important contribution of a group of socialist feminists, particularly in the Canadian tradition, has been to draw out how neoliberalism has restructured not only the terms of production, but of social reproduction--offloading responsibility for and re-privatizing the care and maintenance of the current and next generation of workers.

Neoliberal policies seek to cheapen the cost production and increase profit margins not only by lowering wages and increasing job insecurity, but also by decreasing or eliminating public supports for social reproduction, such as health care, child care, public transportation and other kinds of public infrastructure including public higher education.

THESE FORMS of social provisioning that were hard-won by earlier generations in movements and strikes for labor, civil, and women's rights are being reassigned back to the individual, using the rhetoric of personal responsibility and family values, plus the scapegoating of women and families of color who fail to measure up.

Consider, for instance, the full-page, full-color print ad from the Department of Homeland Security (which includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency) in upscale magazines such as Food and Wine just a few months after the colossal failure of the government to aid the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Headlined "Everyone Should Have a Plan," the ad features a smiling white middle-class suburban family prepared, "in the event or terrorist attack or other emergency," to load their mini-van and drive to safety.

If one goal of neoliberalism is to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the 1 Percent, including by offloading responsibility for disaster assistance, another interlinked goal is to heap blame onto the powerless and poor. As the ad says, "Everyone should have a plan. There's no reason not to."

"Everyone Should Have a Plan" is emblematic of the dramatic restructuring of social reproduction that is neoliberalism's hidden story. If we can get at that hidden story, we also stand to gain a much more specific and comprehensive understanding of what's created the toxicity of our society.

Why? Because capitalism depends on social reproduction--the state and the capitalist class it serves can't just shrug off the question of how workers will be made fit for another day, another generation of work--but, at the same time, capital does not want to pay social reproduction's price. And so we are sung the praises of the "Everyone Should Have a Plan" good mother--a good mother because she is self-provisioning and requires no government supports at all. We are likewise warned of the dangers and drain of public-program dependency.

In a January 2011 issue devoted to a smackdown of the public sector, the Economist represented public-sector workers as a gluttonous woman with a ceaseless appetite for "More pay" and "Bigger pensions." Before her, dwarfed and helpless, cowers the figure of a businessman.

The sleight of hand pulled by the Economist is, of course, in suggesting that it is rapacious public-sector, not private-sector, greed that in caused the world economy to go into free-fall in 2008-09. Disingenuous, too, is the implication that workers take, rather than create, value for the capitalist class.

Note also the image's specious and deeply sexist implication that the business-suited man pays for women's appetites. To the contrary, by every measure under neoliberalism, women pay the price. Women pay the price not only through an increase in unpaid labor in the home and not only through the low wages and poor conditions that go with "women's work" in the realm of paid employment. Women also pay a steep price for the rhetoric of blame, resentment, entitlement and control unleashed by the capitalist class to accomplish its restructuring of both the workplace and the home.

LET ME unpack this, starting with why social reproduction theory is such an important addition to Marxist political economy--what it adds to our understanding of how capitalism works; what it tells us about why capitalism depends so deeply on sexist and racist oppression; what it reveals about why capitalism's neoliberal chapter has engendered such violence.

In Volume One of Capital, Marx uncovers the secret to capital accumulation: the special commodity of human labor power. When workers bring their labor power to bear in the production of goods, services or ideas, the owning class enjoys the value created by labor power--value that is greater than what the worker is handed in wages and what was spent on other production costs. Because the accumulation of capital starts with and absolutely depends on this generation of surplus value, and because it is human labor that is specifically and uniquely able to create surplus value, labor power is the pivot on which the whole capitalist system turns.

But how is labor power itself produced and reproduced? It's really only in passing that Marx takes up this question--by the midpoint of the first volume of Capital, he is in such a hurry to get into the "hidden abode of production" that he mentions but does not cross the threshold into another hidden abode. That other hidden abode is that of social reproduction--the realms, including but not only the home, in which people and their labor power are daily and generationally maintained and reproduced, including through provisioning for food, shelter, clothing, health care and education.

Any struggle over the rate of exploitation--over labor's share of the values created in the production process--includes a struggle over the extent to which the costs of social reproduction are assumed by capital or, assisted by bootstrapping and leave-it-to-the-family rhetoric, sloughed off.

Since social reproduction is also not only about provisioning workers' bodies, but also provisioning and educating minds, any struggle against oppression--in any sphere of society, not just the workplace--is a struggle over what kinds of ideas and attitudes the bearers of labor power will hold and the ideas and attitudes of the wider society.

Hence, Bhattacharya starts her essay "Explaining Gender Violence in the Neoliberal Era" with the image of former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn running naked down the corridor of an elite Manhattan hotel in pursuit of the Black immigrant housekeeper who, in the IMF order of things, exists to service his room and his body. That image comes some 30 years into the crisis of accumulation world capitalism faced by the mid-1970s, some 30 years into a restructuring of the terms of production and of social reproduction, including, as Bhattacharya writes, "efforts to re-craft gender identities and recirculate certain ideologies regarding the working-class family."

That re-crafting of gender identities has included promotion of male entitlement and of female availability as well as--witness another horrifying scene, of two teen girls raped and hung from a mango tree in one of India's poorest states--disposability. Shocking as they are, these images are the logical outgrowth of a system that assigns the lowest value it can to human life.

HERE, I want to pause and give some emphasis to those verbs re-craft and recirculate: Because it is not that we are dealing here with timeless forces of patriarchy nor are we looking at a simple turning back the clock on women's liberation. As socialist feminist Kate Bezanson explains, any time we find a change in the terms of social reproduction, we will also find political and cultural mobilization in service to a renegotiation of the gender, sexual, racial and family order.

For instance, during my childhood, there was a massive mobilization, including in the form of the Black Power and women's liberation movements, that resulted in a substantial increase in the public sector, in public provisioning and in ideas about the public rights and dignity of oppressed and excluded groups. Through my childhood, I also witnessed cultural products that this from-below mobilization and renegotiation engendered--television shows like Julia, which starred an African American woman as a nurse and single (albeit widowed) mother, and later Maude, which devoted an episode to the lead character's open and unapologetic decision to have an abortion.

This is not to say that the late 1960s and early 1970s marked a period of revolutionary freedom, nor that its cultural products weren't mixed. But even as a child, it seemed evident to me that, from Love, American Style to Bridget Loves Bernie, some sort of societal shake-up was on display.

By my young adult years, however, there was another mass mobilization, this time from above and featuring such racist and sexist cultural products as the "welfare queen," to which would be later added the backlash fictions of predatory Black men, wilding youth, lazy and incompetent government workers, overpaid teachers, crazy environmentalists, job-stealing immigrants--and, of course, regretful career women looking to opt out and pursue the true satisfactions of stay-at-home motherhood.

Maybe I can sum up the sea change that occurred by pointing out that the late 1960s into the mid-1970s brought into U.S. living rooms at least half a dozen television shows featuring divorced women, single women and families headed by a woman alone; fast-forward to 1996, and we find fidelity-challenged President Bill Clinton signing into law the bill that repealed welfare, a bill that begins: "The Congress makes the following findings: (1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society. (2) Marriage is an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children."

That bill, replacing welfare supports with low-wage and no-rights workfare requirements, was not about turning back the clock to the brief period following the Second World War when working-class families had more means to fit into the breadwinning dad and stay-at-home mom mold.

Instead, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was one among a growing number of measures designed to free corporations from paying taxes to support social programs. It was also designed to ensure that those same corporations would have plenty of cheap, disempowered, mostly female and disproportionately minority and immigrant workers, including for the growing low-wage industries of for-profit health care, elder care, child care and domestic services, which the curtailment of government programs helped launch.

Reagan's "welfare queen," Clinton's "personal responsibility," and Obama's "accountability" are just a few markers of what Meg Luxton describes as the "massive ideological changes that accompanied and legitimized" neoliberalism's global economic restructuring, including "downloading services previously provided by the state onto individuals and families."

As Luxton suggests, those services can't just be jettisoned; there has to be justification and legitimization--through the promotion and regulation of thoroughly sexist ideas about the proper division of labor, the proper place of and roles for women; and an onslaught blame and shame for all who fail to fall into line. This promotion, regulation, blame and shame issues forth from most official places, in the most official ways: military, police, courts and legislatures; also the academy, where sexist, racist, and eugenicist ideas aren't just taken up by frat boys, but penned and promoted by prominent academics and think tank pundits such as Steven Pinker and Charles Murray.

And this is where we find the conditions of possibility for the violence of an Elliot Roger, fueling his sense of entitlement to, disdain for and resentment of women, also feeding and shaping his racial self-loathing, his eugenicist ideas. Those ideas abound in our culture, but it's a culture of historical specificity that is bound up with the neoliberal project of reordering the terms of social reproduction.

WHAT DIFFERENCE does having such an analysis make?

First, if we understand that this is a period in which the restructuring of production and the restructuring of social production go hand in hand, we can name clearly what links the fronts in which we are struggling. We can discern, for instance, that the Fight for 15 is a fight against attacks on working-class provisioning, against sexist ideas about women's work and women's duties--a fight for the rights and well-being of women.

Further, if we understand that the terms of social provisioning, plus underwriting ideas about the sexual, gender and racial order, aren't unchanging, but shift depending on who is mobilizing and how, we can also see what differences a fightback can make. For instance, as reported on the blog Jezebel, protests in the wake of the Steubenville gang rape seem to be making a difference in Calhoun, Ga., where public support for the 18-year-old victim of a post-prom rape is strong, and authorities appear to be taking action against the football stars who carried it out this attack.

The "final victory for gender justice," Bhattacharya points out, cannot be won until "we rebel against the fundamental tyranny of capital to take our labor in order to make profits." While that rebellion can be sparked anywhere in society, it is at the point of production where capital realizes the value of labor power and thus reaps the benefits of gender oppression.

So as we build the fight to defend all women, let's remember that it is at the point of production where we can also build the power--power in which the concerns, voices and abilities of working-class women figure prominently--that will be needed to challenge and change the entire system.

Further Reading

From the archives