Imagine a world in which care and compassion are valued more highly than wealth and possessions. One in which violent crime is rare and sexual assault virtually non-existent. It’s a world where individuals set aside personal ambition, focusing instead on the needs of others. All the misery and greed of unfettered neoliberalism has been cast aside.
Alas, such a world does not yet exist. To ask everyone to adhere to its values would be impossible. But wouldn’t it be good if we could at least get halfway there? What if half the population could adopt these principles? Wouldn’t that be a start?
Well, fellow dreamers, we’re in luck. It may seem as though contemporary politics is meaner than ever before, but there’s a backlash – a kindness revolution – taking place, and it’s not just about individual figures such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. As Diane Abbott notes, “the insurgency on both sides of the Atlantic is about millions of people realising that ‘a better way is possible’ and wanting to move beyond neoliberalism.” What’s more, there are huge swathes of people who’ve already taken the plunge and opted out. But if you’re wondering where these people are, you’re unlikely to find them on a platform at the latest rally. They’re back home, engaged in a radical anti-capitalist practice which transforms our whole understanding of “work” and situates love and inclusion as the central principles of human endeavour. Or “doing women’s work,” as it’s usually called.
As a feminist, I’m all in favour of a re-evaluation of the unpaid labour that has traditionally been undertaken by women. The idea that cooking, cleaning, birthing and caring do not constitute “real” work has long been used as a justification for men’s oppression of women. While some have suggested that women need merely to “liberate” themselves from such drudgery, this cannot be a long-term solution. Dirt, shit and tears will always be with us. Someone has to clean them up and right now, that someone is usually female.
There is nothing shameful in this. On the contrary, the domestic and emotional realm to which women have traditionally tended can be seen as an antidote to the toxic individualism of the “masculine” world of business and politics. As the philosopher Nina Power puts it, “the most important things in the world are those which are currently valued the least”. “What if,” writes Power, “rather than fighting to compete, or even competing at all, we instead fought to re-evaluate what is most central to the ongoing wellbeing and existence of humanity as such?” What if, indeed. This is a question that feminists have often asked ourselves. Why should men set the standards to which women aspire? Couldn’t we instead set the example for ways of living and working which are fairer and more humane? Well, yes, we could. The trouble is, we already have. We’ve been doing so for millennia and guess what? Men, among them our socialist heroes, still haven’t followed our lead.
It’s because of this that I’ve started to feel a growing unease with the way in which the idea of “opting out” of capitalism’s worst excesses has come to dovetail with supposedly feminist re-evaluations of women’s labour. Power suggests that women “stop playing this rigged capitalist game”, but aren’t many of us excluded from it in any case? What good has this done us? It has long been noted that at times of great political unrest, the “angel in the house” rises up to calm men’s fears. Right now I’m seeing a new version of this, one which masquerades as far more hip and progressive – as radical, in fact – but which ultimately asks that women perform the exact same role that capitalist patriarchy has always asked of her. What’s more, far from challenging a classist, sexist status quo, it reinforces it.
Take, for example, the following article in Open Democracy, in which the author, Josefin Hedlund, proposes making love “revolutionary”:
“We should actively promote more feminine and feminist practices of love, such as caring, seeing, and actively listening to others […] This requires complex emotional labor that pays attention to how mental health issues, insecurities, and vulnerabilities are differentially distributed across the privilege spectrum […] In a capitalist world of competition, domination, and individualism, practicing love in this way is a form of feminist resistance.”
Really? Far from feminist resistance, this sounds to me like plain old unpaid women’s work. It’s dealing with an irritable baby, an angry teenager, a sick sibling, a resentful partner, a frail parent, all of whom require attention. Such attention is not revolutionary. It’s just work, just life. Someone is already doing it and always has been (and yes, I suppose you could argue that not getting paid is a form of anti-capitalist resistance, but it’s a rubbish one). The revolution will come, not when we recast such work as “feminist” but when women do less of it and men do more.
In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? Katrine Marçal makes the point that as a “science of self-interest” economics has always managed to accommodate the idea of women being naturally self-sacrificing:
“The answer is that man has been allowed to stand for self-interest and woman has stood for the fragile love that must be conserved. By being excluded.”
Women’s unpaid labour supports men’s paid labour. Far from symbolising a revolutionary opt-out, women’s work is, as Marçal explains, “a natural resource that we don’t think we need to account for. Because we assume it will always be there. It’s considered an invisible, indelible infrastructure.”
There’s nothing brave or radical about telling women to other themselves within a system that has othered them to begin with. Women don’t need to be told to be more inclusive, more generous with our time, more empathetic, more willing to give up self-definition, more willing to do things for free. Female socialisation does that well enough, thank you, and it does so not to challenge inequality, but in order to perpetuate it.
I’m getting tired of seeing men on the left call for a more caring, sharing world when actually, if they practised what they preached, they wouldn’t be the ones standing on a platform with a microphone. They’d be behind closed doors wiping arses and someone else – maybe even a woman – would be in their place. But then again if a woman has any ambition at all, she can’t be a true socialist, can she? If she truly believed in compassion and collective action, she’d be making the most of the opportunities being an inborn member of the carer class had already bestowed on her. She’d be at home with her kids (because she must have kids, right?).
And this is the ultimate double bind for the political woman. The feminine role you’ve been conditioned to perform would be radical if men performed it too, but they don’t. This is understandable. But if you don’t, you’re a traitor. Hence men can call for a kinder, gentler politics, but you’ll always be the one who’s expected to be kind and gentle in practice. It’s not flattering to women to tell us self-sacrifice is radical. It will be flattering the day men fall on their swords, too. We need to stop berating the women who manage to opt into the world of men and instead ask more of the men – most men, that is – who refuse to opt out.