A Conversation about Hillary Clinton's Feminism

By Doctor Comrade

The following is a conversation I had with Kat Wisnosky, a PhD student in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about Hillary Clinton's feminism and the future of Marxist theory. We began with a discussion of an interview with Nancy Fraser, a feminist theorist. You can read the full interview by Álvaro Guzman Bastida on ctxt. The relevant passage is:

Since you brought up the elections –What about the other candidate on the democratic side, Hillary Clinton? A lot of second-wave feminists, such as Gloria Steinem, have argued vocally that women should support her because she’s a woman and she’s the feminist candidate. Is she the feminist candidate?

Well, I would not say that she is. But there’s something very interesting going on. Clinton has been a card-carrying feminist for decades, she started her career doing advocacy for children and women, she’s famous for her UN speech about women’s rights are human rights, she’s been reliably pro-choice and so on. So if that all fits into this sort of recognition side, she’s been there, and in a more explicit, and front-and-center way than Sanders. But, on the other hand, What kind of feminism is this? Clinton embodies a certain kind of neoliberal feminism that is focused on cracking the glass ceiling, leaning in. That means removing barriers that would prevent rather privileged, highly educated women who already have a high amount of cultural and other forms of capital to rise in the hierarchies of government and business. This is a feminism whose main beneficiaries are rather privileged women, whose ability to rise in a sense relies on this huge pool of very low-paid precarious, often racialized precarious service work, which is also very feminized that provide all the care work.  And at the same time, Hillary Clinton, like her husband, is very implicated with Wall Street, with financial deregulation, and with this whole neoliberalization of the economy. So the kind of feminism that Sanders represents has a better chance of being a feminism for all women, for poor women, for black women, for working-class women and so on, and that is closer to my kind of feminism.

Clinton's Feminism

Kat Wisnosky: This article really encapsulates a lot of the things I've been wrestling with in my work and in my own personal philosophy lately. It's an incisive critique of second-wave feminism and also of a lot of the other liberal movements of my lifetime. It's not about actually questioning the discursive structures of society (what Hegel called the iron cage). It's about bending them just enough so that more people get boxed in. But only the right sort of people, who are questioning in the right sort of way. What we need to move to is question, interrogate and completely dismantle the existing discursive structure. Or, and this is what I've really been thinking about, question if it's even possible to do so. I'm currently inclined to think it's not. Language is a prison and communication requires structural and symbolic agreement. We create and recreate Hegel's cage every time we open our mouths, but there is no other option except silence. So where does that leave us?

DC:  I'd offer as a first point this article elucidating Clinton's checkered history on women's issues: she attacked teachers in Arkansas (many were black and female), fought unions for Walmart (undermining women's goals like putting food on the table for the family), was a proponent of welfare reform (again, women of color lost the most), and her State Department opposed wage increases for Haitian garment workers (almost all women). Clinton's record is--clearly--mixed.

Fraser's analysis of Sanders is interesting, given his focus on class: "the kind of feminism that Sanders represents has a better chance of being a feminism for all women, for poor women, for black women, for working-class women and so on, and that is closer to my kind of feminism." I think this actually aligns quite well with many modern Marxists like me who see women's liberation not as part of the goal of revolution, but fundamental to the revolution itself. So Hillary may say "women's rights are human rights," but she has done very little by way of proving her commitment to all women. I'm inclined to suggest that any broadening of the economic power of women under capitalism is only aimed at exploiting the labor market. More women in factories, for instance, just means a larger labor force that can provide more surplus value. Increase x number of workers produces y in profit, and women were--for much of the 20th century--an untapped source of surplus value.

This is not unique to blue-collar or pink-collar jobs. Educating women to become financiers or bankers or hedge fund managers just means that financial institutions have a larger and more talented labor pool to pick from, which means they hope hiring women will produce higher profits. The sheer number of brains available will be increased, so the institutions will grow in power. This means that increasing women's access to the structures of capitalism is not only self-defeating but also reinforces capitalism as a system. In this way, bringing women into the labor force does refine the iron cage.

Your comments on Hegel's iron cage are fascinating. Perhaps this is why Marx advocated moving from philosophy to praxis. The first question is understanding what forms the iron cage takes and the ways it is reaffirmed in everyday discourse (which you pointed out). Bringing more people into the tent of capitalism only bolsters capitalism and does not address the structural inequalities inherent to capitalism. Case-in-point: unequal pay. Bring in women, pay them less for the same work, reap benefits of more surplus value.

Perhaps we should interpret the iron cage like a Foucauldian épistème, wherein the iron cage is the limitations of acceptable discourse. Sure, it changes over time, and it may expand or contract, but that does not preclude the means by which an épistème functions. More importantly (and this goes to my previous paragraph), understanding how quotidian discourse shapes/defines/refines the iron cage/épistème is the critical first step in moving from philosophy to praxis. Hillary Clinton, in her neoliberal politics, does nothing to address the cage's bars, especially for women, because even though she is a woman in power, she exploits her privilege at the expense of all workers (and therefore, by extension, all women in the working class).

KW: The link to an [épistème] is a really good point.

I tend to be skeptical of a Marxist reading of feminism. I know that a lot of really excellent Feminist Marxist critique has been performed since Marx, but I have an exceptionally hard time getting past Marx's mansplaining and his racism.

That being said, however, the surplus value argument definitely holds here. It has always interested me that much of what Feminists have historically argued for is an expansion of the sphere of privilege to include the women who were sitting in the drawing rooms of the guys who had the power. The feminist intervention into colonialism wasn't to critique it, it was to make judgments about other women as a means to the end of proving their (white, capitalist) superiority and fitness for the project of exploiting the rest of the (brown, poor) world. Relief work reified colonialism while at the same time allowed women to make claims for their own equality back home, particularly in regards to achieving the vote.

DC: Well don't throw out Marxism with Marx. In my schema at least, when we look at oppression and structures of power, most of them are rooted in capitalism and the systemic inequality codified by capitalist ethics and modes of production. Marx's critique of ideology--and then subsequent critiques of ideology by the likes of [Antonio] Gramsci and the Frankfurt School and Marxist Feminists and [Slavoj] Žižek--addresses how capitalist ethics establishes hierarchical modes of thinking. This has numerous implications:

1. Makes inequality a benefit of capitalism - capitalism only functions because of inequality. It is necessary to have a class of owners that exploits a class of producers. However, this system can only function if the producers believe--tacitly or implicitly or explicitly--that this disparity is natural and/or just. The result historically has been working-class men resisting women's integration into the workforce because it threatens their job security and depresses wages. They turn their attention from the exploiters to another class of exploited people (working women). In this way, the capitalist ethos justifies the inequality of women in the minds of their working-class brethren. Result: even though women achieve some semblance of equality in the workplace, they remain unequal among members of their own class and in the hierarchy against the capitalist class.

2. Interlocks with pre-existing forms of oppression, like sexism and racism - sexism and racism both pre-date capitalism, but that has never prevented capitalism from exploiting these forms of oppression. See: Protestant union members killing Catholic immigrants; white men resisting integration of blacks and women; etc. Factionalism within the working class has prevented class consciousness, and many of these factions are built around identity (religious, racial, gender, nation of origin, etc.). The capitalist ethos here expands our proverbial iron cage, repurposing bars from a previous épistème and incorporating the metal into a new cage for a new age.

3. Bringing women into the fold of capitalism helps diffuse revolutionary energy - we have to remember that many of the social programs of the 20th century were designed for two reasons: to protect capitalism from revolutionaries and to protect capitalism from itself. For instance, the New Deal was a conscious effort to prevent the US from experiencing a Russian Revolution in the midst of the Great Depression. Similarly, allowing women into the workplace (and Title IX and affirmative action and any number of government interventions) was a way to prevent radical movements from coalescing against economic unfairness. Overt discrimination has been slowly dismantled in this country over centuries; now discrimination and segregation are much more subtle and nuanced, but just as dangerous. So the capitalists distribute some scraps to feed the working class long enough to prevent bread riots. Secondly to this point, capitalism's excesses will ultimately doom it, so capitalists curb them at opportune moments to ensure that a movement won't form against them. For instance, Medicare and Medicaid give some healthcare to the poor in order to prevent riots in the street and keep the working class healthy enough to remain productive. The Free Market would have people starve and perish from preventable diseases, which is unacceptable in a "civilized" society. So our government performs the bare minimum to ensure that capitalism survives. Žižek calls this "capitalism with a human face." In the abstract, yes it is better, but it is still capitalism.

I agree that much of First-World Feminism has been an attempt to broaden colonial structures of power by granting access to women in some limited capacity. I think of the humanitarianism of our philanthropic organizations and see the expansion of colonial power under the guise of aid. There is nothing more colonial than announcing your own altruism.

Colonialism and Marxism

KW: It's rooted in the discursive structure and that's what I'm really giving a lot of thought to. My work this semester has been radically different than my previous work. (Final paper, which is, uh... what I should be working on now, is a semiotic analysis of Islamic modernity through Sukarno's elucidation of the Pancasila. I'm trying to figure out how [Benedict Anderson's] imagined communities operationalize and I'm also really interested in how modernity functions as a multi-modal system.) It's gotten me thinking a lot about how language frames identity and how much that's culturally determinant.

It's hard for me to separate Marxism from Marx. There's a lot in Marx that I'm just so skeptical of. Even giving him credit for living so long ago, there's a lot missing. Economics is important, absolutely, but I don't think that class is entirely where identity or cohesion is derived from. It completely misses intersectionality, and it also really misses culture. We define ourselves in relation to some other. Labor/capital is one way, but it's only one way. The factionalism you mention was present at the time that Marx was writing, and it's really just not present. I partially credit that to a man who was writing about the laboring class(es) who'd never actually had a job. My post-modern, feminist self just hears richwhiteguysplaining when I read him.

I'm just mentally resisting binaries at this point, which is what Marx really posits. I think work that has been done in the tradition is more careful to avoid creating false dichotomies, which is why I use that more than I use Marx himself. Although, in a lot of ways, Marx is a good example of the problems that I'm really thinking about. In so, so many ways, he was right. But he was so locked up in what had been culturally embedded in him. Even with exposure to other cultures, he was so uninquisitive. His writing about India, for example, is not only awful, it's just wrong.

DC: Have you read [Gayatri Chakravorty] Spivak? I think a lot of the post-marxists are working through the same stuff as you. She's a Derrida acolyte and post-colonial theorist who draws heavily on Marx.

Following the 1960s, the post-marxists are blending Marxism with critical race theory, postcolonial theory, feminism, post-structuralism to strip out the more problematic aspects of Marx, some of which you pointed out.

With regards to intersectionality, I think it's a fundamental starting place for Marxists in the 21st century. Some people of course still think class is the most important characteristic of an oppressed person and I think these people miss the point. Class is the one thing that we all have in common: we are all exploited by capitalism, and therefore it is the one pole around which we can coalesce. That is not to say that class is the most important or even the most oppressive structure of power, but if we're thinking in terms of praxis, class is where everything has to start. And with this class component in mind, the other layers of oppression become more clear. For example, Stuart Hall argues that race is the modality through which class is lived (very important for America). I find that argument very convincing.

I think your comments about false dichotomies are important but I think it's mostly a straw argument to say Marxists deal only in dichotomies. Given the global division of labor, we understand that workers in the US live a very different existence than workers in Somalia or India or Brazil, and that there are many gradations of workers (manual labor, farming, industrial production, retail, civic service, etc.). Even the distinction between bourgeoisie and proletariat is largely irrelevant now, given the power of multi-national corporations and their government allies and the "middle class economy" of the US. The service economy is fundamentally different than the manufacturing economy, and that's why we need a different Marxism for the 21st century.

KW: Exactly. I'm not saying that contemporary Marxists don't understand or work with intersectionality. Marx didn't, though. And sometimes, particularly as a woman, I find reading Marx alienating because he has no conception of how female laborers would have experienced alienation in a much different way than male laborers.

I agree that the distinction between bourgeoisie and proletariat is meaningless. There is capital and not-capital. The bourgeoisie got subsumed in the present global era and matter very little to the superstructures these days.

I think the main problem is that we need to move beyond the 19th century and deeply interrogate Kantian rationalism and other instantiations of Cartesian dualities. Again, for me, it comes down to the [transference] of the symbol becoming the thing. Although, it's hard to get around that because language frames thought to the extent that we Victorians still engage the world by labels. Creating identities, even revolutionary identities, allow for identity to be co-opted and create new means of rigid performativities because they move from thought -> identity -> standard.

I haven't read enough Spivak. I should put that on the list, though. Although the list is long. My plan for this summer's theory reading is a deep, deep reading of [Michel Foucault's] Discipline and Punish and [Georges] Bataille's Accursed Share

Also, I think we've either bored everyone else to tears or scared them away. Thanks for an excellent conversation, though. I miss our old office like crazy.