Just before Christmas, I chaired a conference hosted by the think tank Res Publica on the subject of “post-liberal” feminism – a messy, controversial and (I think) exciting topic that, to my knowledge, had never before been discussed in such a format. The panel included the philosophers Nina Power and Kathleen Stock, the campaigner Nimco Ali and the writer Mary Harrington, and our conversation ended up circling back to one topic in particular: the body and liberalism’s disregard for it.
Pinning down a definition of “post-liberal” is as difficult as pinning down a definition of “liberal”, but what the term is usually taken to mean in practice is cultural conservatism combined with a suspicion of capitalism. This is a bemusing combination for many in London SW1, but one that is remarkably well represented in the rest of the country, where poll after poll demonstrates that the “post-liberal quadrant” (economically left, socially right) is more popular than any other, particularly among working-class voters, including women. This Blue Labour/Red Tory political space is well populated, but still poorly represented in Westminster.
The key claim made by post-liberal theorists such as Patrick Deneen is that social and economic liberalism are not in tension with one another, as the colloquial American use of “liberal” as shorthand for “left wing” might suggest. Rather, they are two sides of the same liberal coin: a free-market ideology is complemented by an ideology that seeks to free individuals from social constraints and, in doing so, maximise their ability to work and to consume.
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The atomised worker with no commitment to any place or person is the worker best able to respond quickly to the demands of the market. This ideal liberal subject can move to wherever the jobs are because she has no connection to a particular location; she can do whatever labour is asked of her without any moral objection on grounds of faith or tradition; and, without a spouse or family to attend to, she never needs to demand rest days or a flexible schedule. Then, with the money earned from this rootless labour, she is able to buy consumables that will soothe any feelings of unhappiness, thus feeding the economic engine with maximum efficiency.
The feminist expression of this ideology focuses in particular on the constraints of the female body, which, with the right tools, can progressively be overcome. Don’t want to have children in your twenties or thirties? Freeze your eggs. Called away on a work trip postpartum? FedEx your breast milk to your newborn. Want to continue working full time without interruption? Employ a live-in nanny, or – better yet – a surrogate who can bear the child for you. Liberal feminism promises women freedom, and when that promise comes up against the hard limits imposed by biology, then the ideology directs women to chip away at those limits through the use of money, technology and the bodies of poorer people.
This works, up to a point. But it is a fragile system and one that can only ever benefit a minority. Mary Harrington has described the liberation of women from care work as “a kind of Ponzi scheme”, in which the labour is displaced from richer women on to poorer women, with higher earners “able to outsource the wiping of bottoms”. The task ultimately falls to women on zero hours contracts who are “paid minimum wage to care for others all day before going home to do so for their own babies and elderly”.
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The “progress” that women have made over the past century in terms of entry into the workforce and public life is not a result of us all – men and women – waking up to the truth of the feminist argument. Rather, we’ve seen a material change in women’s circumstances, brought about both by technology – disposable nappies, microwaves, central heating and so on – as well as by the outsourcing of domestic labour to a newly globalised workforce. And as machines have supplanted the strong male body, and we have moved towards a knowledge-based economy in the West, it has become increasingly possible for women and men to perform the same kinds of labour, and thus increasingly necessary to educate girls – so much so that female students now outnumber male peers in higher education.
I’m able to sit here writing this column, rather than doing laundry or darning, only because I’ve got a washing machine whirring away upstairs, and a cheap source of new clothing ready to wear from Bangladesh and China. Which I’m very glad of – I’ve got no intention of throwing it all away and getting back to the washboard and castile soap, because I don’t reject the desire for freedom. I’m not an anti-liberal, and goodness knows women have every reason to chafe against the constraints imposed on us by our societies and our bodies, both in the past and in the modern world.
But there is a problem with the liberal feminist narrative that deserves our attention, and it is a problem that has been highlighted by the pandemic. When the fragile structure of our current economic arrangement falls apart, and we are suddenly in a much poorer society, with nurseries and schools closed and a lot more caring work to be done, those of us who depend on the “Ponzi scheme” for our freedom are abruptly reminded that relentless “progress” is not assured. Babies still need to be born and cared for, and someone (almost always a woman) still needs to wipe the bottoms and keep the household warm, clothed and fed. My hope is that this crisis may be an opportunity for post-liberal feminism to step in and provide a more honest analysis of a woman’s lot in the 21st century.
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This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost