Contested Outcomes: Feminism and Neoliberalism

by Sylvia Walby, Lancaster University, UK, and former President of the ISA Research Committee on Economy and Society (RC02)

The wider implications of the financial crisis are contested. Is the crisis (2007-12) an opportunity for a radical restructuring of economy and society in either a left (social democratic or socialist) or right (neoliberal or fascist) direction? This paper argues that gender is at the heart of the processes and structures involved, that the neoliberal project and governmental programmes are gendered.

The Sources of Neoliberalism

While the development of finance capital is a global process, there are still significant differences between national social formations. These allow us to interrogate the different outcomes of the unfolding crisis, depending on diverse political forces in civil societies, states and other political entities.

        The current face of the crisis in a European context (and variably applicable elsewhere) is huge pressure to cut government expenditures. Government budget deficits and accumulated debts are presented as though they are unsustainable. There are varied interpretations of these pressures.

        One is that the source of such deficits and debts is over-spending on welfare, so that the remedy is cuts in expenditure. However, this is undermined as an explanation of the source of the deficits, since these are predominantly due to sudden decreases in tax revenues as a consequence of the recession that was caused by the financial crisis, compounded by the funds to bail out the banks and necessary expenditure to support those made unemployed by recession.

        A second interpretation is that the problem lies in the creation of the euro as a common currency for the European Union, so that individual countries cannot adjust their currencies. But this “solution” is merely to suggest competitive devaluations, a kind of protectionism discredited in the 1930s (already deployed by the UK, which remains outside of and hostile to the euro).  

        A third interpretation is that the financial crisis is the inevitable product of capitalism, as the current regime of accumulation is exhausted; leaving a future of either barbarism or socialism (Harvey) or maybe a transition to the next hegemon (Arrighi). But this interpretation is rather sweeping and tends to underestimate the specifics of the political and civil societal contexts.

        The fourth interpretation – the one advanced here – treats neoliberalism not as an inevitable next stage of capitalism, but as a project, entwined with the development of finance capital, and with which a wide range of political forces engage. Within this perspective there is considerable debate as to the nature of these forces and their prospects. As governments fall, the old political parties struggle to address the new circumstances. New projects, from Occupy to Uncut, develop outside the state; new political parties and coalitions are formed to contest the state. Of particular significance in this interpretation is the gendering of the sites of contestation and of the political forces and their emergent agendas.

Austerity is a Feminist Issue

In recent decades in many European (and other) countries there has been an increase in the gendered aspects of welfare states in the provision of education, health, care and in the regulation of employment and its interface with care-work. These were often the outcome of feminist and laborist projects combined in complex ways in social democratic and socialist programs. The sedimentation of these gendered projects in governmental programmes and social formations occurred simultaneously with the emerging neoliberal project of privatisation and de-regulation. Gender and class dynamics have often diverged, as employed women became slowly more involved in civil society and political institutions, while some social democratic institutions such as trade unions were pushed back. During the financial crisis the neoliberal project has emerged as a sharply gendered attack on these incrementally achieved gendered social democratic developments.

        Taxation is a feminist issue. The technique of gender budgeting applied to changes to national budgets, showed that the attempts to narrow the deficit were not borne equally by all sectors of the population, but disproportionately by women. In the UK, the House of Commons Library reported that in the 2010 Budget, of £8.1bn net personal tax increases/benefit cuts, £5.8bn (72%) was to be paid by women and £2.2bn (28%) by men. While taxes (which are disproportionately paid by men) were scarcely increased, benefits and public services (which are disproportionately used by women) were cut severely. Closing tax havens or introducing a tax on financial transactions (promoted as policies for the EU by France and German leaders, though resisted by London) are gendered policies.

        A further UK example concerns the cuts to national budgets to provide local welfare services, such as refuges/shelters, advice and support workers, to prevent violence against women. The development of this sector was a gendered social democratic response to violence, in which priority was given to the development of welfare provisions that helped female victims rather than more punitive responses to perpetrators such as prison. In a small research project, data on the intricacies of funding cuts were uncovered with assistance from NGOs and trade unions that had invested in “freedom of information” procedures. Reductions in national budgets of 1% a year became magnified as they were translated into cuts of 31% by local councils to services to prevent violence against women, partly because these services were less protected by statute than more conventional ones.

Divergent Responses

The restructuring of economy and society in the UK and in other countries has generated many responses that vary significantly between countries and which have produced divergent effects. One way of thinking about these differences has been to contrast mobilizations generated in civil society from those oriented towards the state. Civil society mobilizations include Occupy, which had a presence in many European as well as North American cities, but there are many others, for example, in the UK there is mobilization around tax evasion and avoidance by corporations, coordinated by Uncut. New political parties have formed in several European countries, including France (Left Party), Germany (Die Linke) and Iceland, as well as new coalitions as governments have fallen. These left mobilizations have typically included a strong feminist component. At least in a European context, it is perhaps a mistake to polarize these developments too strongly between those outside and those inside the state, since these forms of political development engage with each other. Where there has been the strongest development of new articulations of left and feminist forces, for example, in Iceland, there is less concentration of the negative effects of the financial crisis on the few and a move towards a deeper democratization.

        The financial crisis is not over. The attempts to restructure are producing diverse outcomes, not least because of varied political mobilizations. These concern not only capitalism, but also the form of the gender regime. The outcome is still being fought over.

United Kingdom, Volume 2, Issue 5

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