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“A shorter version of this article was published previously through Red Pepper, and can be found here”.
On the 8th of March, millions of women from all over the world went on strike to protest issues ranging from gendered social reproduction roles, the criminalisation of sex work, to transmisogyny along with many others. The strike aimed to simultaneously highlight the enormous social value (and so by default value extracted as capital) that is lost when women refuse to carry out their ascribed roles, whilst also drawing attention to the continuing assault on women’s rights and safety, especially those in marginalised communities. Crucially, the strike was a specific reclamation of agency by women refusing its loss in the face of oppressive structures and behaviours. It was a display of solidarity between women of all different backgrounds, recognising that every form of oppression facing women can only be overcome through a combined effort and struggle.
They weren’t just striking from paid work but from the ‘double-shift’ of domestic work. This is the work that makes life possible – but everywhere it’s unpaid, underpaid and under-appreciated. The only thing that allows women to stop this work is when men step up to shoulder our fair share of the childcare, the cooking, the emotional labour. So, groups of men came together to take over the cooking, childcare, and general support work – the labour of social reproduction– running care centres, cookouts and a kids’ strike program. This isn’t just about one day. If we are committed to building a future of equality we need to put a step forward to build communities of care which don’t depend on the private, thankless toil of women.
Supporting movements like the women’s strike isn’t just about staying woke – it’s not just sympathy, it’s about practical solidarity, recognising that a revolutionary movement which neglects to address the oppression of women is not revolutionary in the slightest. As I will discuss in more detail further on, male participation in feminist politics often backslides into inefficient if not insidious forms of spectacle politics: the visible demonstration of solidarity in a very superficial way, which is usually unaccompanied by genuine action that materially improves the lives of women, increases their political self-representation, or attempts to dismantle the structures which prohibit the full realisation of the demands being made by the Women’s Strike collective.
Patriarchy privileges the lives and freedoms of men over those of women and non-binary people. But the fact that we enjoy relative benefits does not mean we should welcome patriarchy. Patriarchy is bound up with a system of global violence, and economic domination – a world in which male sexual aggression is the reigning logic of society, with huge numbers marginalised, isolated, exploited and dominated because of the gender they were assigned, and the social roles carved out for them because of that gender. It begets trauma, isolation and feelings of alienation.
Capital’s logic of self-expansion and endless accumulation for its own sake increasingly asserts its position as the only final framework in which our lives are thought to have value, it becomes even more imperative to imagine forms of being that reject this hegemonic order. Our contemporary state of being is one in which individuals are disciplined into internalising the notion that all humans amount to is a constellation of attributes that can form abstract units of labour time in the service of capital. Gender as a social construct functions by indexing archaic values to this internalised alienation, causing us to feel doubly frustrated and anxious when we fail to adhere to the rigid standards expected of us, be it in the case of women who are expected to enter the workplace and achieve fulfilment through economic gain whilst still carrying out the responsibilities of childcare, or men who are taught that their very sense of worth is intrinsically linked to their ability to command economic power, provide security, achieve status within professional frameworks and so on. This double bind intersects with far more considerations (such as race and class) than I’m able to mention here, but the point is that these forms of domination are inseparable and that we need to produce and multiply alternative systems of value and collective care to practically resist them.
So how can we build these alternative value systems and collective care? However well-meaning and sympathetic to the objectives of the strike we men may be, it’s important to recognise that our role here is one of support, never leadership. Only women can lead, organise and orientate the struggle against their own oppression. Political demands and rage can never be effective if the voices of those who experience them most directly are crowded out by those who do not.
Because of various historical social and cultural influences – and, less charitably, an unwillingness to give up a privileged position – many men are prevented from seeing how their support can be valuable without exerting a domineering influence, or without immediate recognition of the primacy of their causal role in a social movement. Through various media – from military propaganda to Hollywood films, comics, TV shows, and so on – men have been encouraged to see themselves in the role of a saviour, the only one who can act decisively to make a change. This cult of radical individualism is encoded not only by cultural influence but is also embedded in various other forms of reward, including social approval and job performance. There’s a degree of violence inherent in this ideology. The schema of competition becomes internalised as the only way of seeing one’s efforts as valuable, and praise of individual reward becomes the only value we are willing to accept. Countless cases of men trying to mansplain feminism to women can be recounted, but more insidiously the phalanx of left-wing ‘action-men’ often end up rending the very agency women are seeking to achieve politically right from their hands— through a failure to recognise that an essential part of the political project involves the demand that women’s voices ought to be consulted where they have traditionally been patronised and side-lined as less important.
The role of men is not to make the arguments on behalf of women since this maintains the status quo where only political demands made by men are perceived as worth being taken seriously. Our role is to provide support so that the exclusionary domain of political discussion can be breached. The best kind of support we can give to subvert a social order which tries to relegate and humiliate women is to take on the roles that are traditionally ascribed to them or understood as a mature of nature to be exclusively their duties. This challenges the very notion that support roles and social reproduction are to be considered as lesser, secondary, or naturally assigned on a gendered basis. When men disavow the gendered division of reproductive labour, we not only facilitate greater autonomy of the women we wish to express care for, but we also debunk the traditionalist idea that childcare and cooking outside of a commercial context are forms of labour which we should want to avoid at all costs.
Furthermore, we reject the notion that men are by their nature ill-suited to these roles, and rather than develop the capacity for care should focus instead on forms of self-development which are rewarded in economic achievement or power-over. We open a space in which men can genuinely articulate expression of love, affection, and care— important human emotional states which we have historically been pressured to suppress, by providing us with the opportunity to support others for their sake, not because it has instrumental value to ourselves, and by engaging in forms of labour that require the development and cultivation of sensitivity and empathy, such as childcare. This provides mutual advantages: men are no longer expected to suppress emotions in the interest of becoming the fully mechanised, rigid economic agent, whilst women are no longer faced with the prospect that they must relinquish any sense of autonomy or ambition because social care and reproduction are understood to be exclusively their responsibility.
Finally, this form of solidarity opens further possibilities about the roles men might be playing in any utopian ecology of care – not just caring for our families or our immediate loved ones but working towards building a caring communal society. In this sense, we shouldn’t see our attempts to provide care and support in this strike only as a precursor to providing support to women may be intimately close with, but also to women more generally— especially those who are most marginalised. A community of care should provide the necessary practical support which allows the most marginalised to speak out and be heard, without facing the nagging anxiety that they are neglecting more immediate responsibilities in doing so.
Of course, simply helping with social reproduction on March 8th isn’t sufficient to bring about all of this change. What is required is a consistent effort and the cultivation of new ritual practices and forms of being which might over time break down years of gendered division and stereotyped behaviours. By starting to build different communities of care, we start to trace a blueprint of the future society in which we wish to live.
We are now living in the ‘post Women’s Strike period’. To speak of things this way might sound like overstating the extent of its impact, but at least for those of us who committed so much of our time and effort into organising, it seems difficult not to think of the Assembly on March 8th as an ‘event’. It’s no doubt part of the nature of labouring hard to produce something with great ambitions that it inevitably causes the experience to become bifurcated into ‘before’ and ‘after’ stages. For the women who spent months in advance organising the strike, this must surely the case. It’s hard to imagine reaching the end of a marathon and not thinking about the finish line, much harder still to think that anyone could do so and continue running. The finish line is the event, all the experience leading up to it is concentrated on this singular point, but once the line has been crossed, its significance falls away completely, and status quo is restored. The difficult thing about the Women’s Strike, maybe also revolutionary politics, in general, is that it isn’t a marathon. It’s just running indefinitely until our demands are met, and that’s hard, but we must do it. Yes, March 8th was an amazing milestone, and the social reproduction efforts exceeded expectations, but what I’m trying to get at is that we are now at the stage where we ought to consider the ‘post’ Women’s Strike, rather than thinking about March 8th as a specific moment in history.
There is always an outlying concern – it’s probably fair to say of political action generally – that even well-meaning participation in something can be transfigured into a politics of spectacle. This takes on various forms, for which some are more deserving of criticism than others. On one end of the spectrum, you have the usual liberal politics of putting a twibbon on your Facebook avatar or wearing a REPEAL jumper but doing very little materially to effect any change in the actual politics of feminism. I had the displeasure recently of learning that there are some men in Ireland who claim to be so woke that they intend not to vote in the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment claiming they ought not to interfere with an issue that should be decided on exclusively by women! At the opposite end of the spectrum, we can look at how our own efforts can fall prey to being subsumed by ‘signal politics’. I want to be careful here because this kind of criticism is often made in a way that is inflected with a sense of Catholic guilt— now also common to certain other kinds of organising on the radical left— whereby we must always seek reasons to think of ourselves as sinful or deficient. Instead, we should draw upon the capacity for internal and reflective self-critique as one of the very strengths of the left. The question is not, what did we do wrong, but rather, how can we build upon this initial effort and do better?
The risk we are facing is that the social reproduction efforts we undertook as part of the Women’s Strike might lead us to start thinking about it as a historical event; and one in which we can praise ourselves for doing good but fail to build upon to make social reproduction in a non-gendered way a practical reality. There’s a sense in which it is only understandable that we might fall into this trap since the way in which we are taught to receive and think about our involvement with any social or cultural phenomenon now is piecemeal participation within events. A singular contribution to the struggle becomes enough because we have shown that we care, but from the fact that we received praise for our efforts we should not conclude that our work is done. In a sense, this also neatly coincides with a very familiar order of politics which we ought to resist at all costs, that is, the diffusion of responsibility from our own role in bringing to fruition the kinds of political realities we wish to realise.
The ‘Band-Aid’ model of approaching matters of immediate political concern is what springs to mind here. Mark Fisher’s prescient analysis of this is worth noting: millions rally together and demand that ‘someone’ should do something about an immanent crisis, whilst all involved simultaneously fail to recognise their power as a collective to be the very agency that can bring about change. Sadly, the failure to recognise these forms of collective power is often the very thing which permits the untrammelled interference of the state or large business entities to act as the sole guarantors of social or political change— which is ultimately then formulated in a way that serves only the interests of their self-reproduction. Hence, this mass appeal and demonstration become a form of information that states and businesses use to reinforce confidence in their own divine providence. It does the market research of ‘what can we do to become more palatable’ for these entities which depend on maintaining a fine balance between exploitation and providing the bare minimum conditions of what is acceptable to the general population to maintain order. People appealed en masse for women’s liberation, the miserable sops we were told to accept is to have more women within executive roles in politics or within companies, but only on the condition that they carry out the same executive functions in a way that continues to reproduce the larger organ, and thus neither allows them any sense of true liberation nor helps women as a general collective in any profound way.
What does this mean? It means that we shouldn’t be content to rest on our laurels. We aren’t interested in being seen to help once, but rather we outdo ourselves and exceed expectations by continuing to practice the politics we talked about and experimented with on March 8th. More importantly, what does this mean practically? Just as it is insufficient for us to reduce our contribution to the event, it is similarly insufficient for us to reduce our contribution to post-event analysis in the hope that some form of divine intervention will actualise the theory. So, we should start to formulate practical suggestions.
One suggestion might be to set up a mobile group of volunteers that can take on childcare and cooking to help Women who are otherwise prevented by gender-role demands from carrying out politically important tasks such as going to union meetings. A huge part of the purpose of social reproduction has been to facilitate women’s political engagement which is otherwise compromised when time becomes vitiated by the demands of gendered labour. Therefore, we are trying to institute a previously non-existent balance that removes the comparative advantage which allows issues to be discussed mostly by men, and which therefore weakens the political agency of women.
This ambition is both revolutionary and useful as something that produces an outcome that is directly beneficial to the struggle. But we should not forget that it is also a form of labour. We can certainly be helpful in facilitating women to do more (hopefully more fulfilling) forms of work, but I also think we can do better than to just think about this in the terms of ‘maximising outputs’ that are given to us by a capitalist totality, even where those ‘outputs’ (if you cared to think about it in this way) are highly valuable. The politics of social reproduction is one of providing a role that is supportive. It arises from a recognition that the conditions under which we currently live are those of precarity, and increasingly of a kind of time deprivation or vitiation that leaves us feeling like there is no time for joy, creativity, or even just rest.
This is surely redoubled if you are to combine both the burdens of carrying out gendered social roles and many of the other social and material conditions that have caused the world we live in to become so easily characterised by such an absence. Whilst I can’t speak of this with authority, it recounts what I have already heard described by many women already. The purpose of social reproduction shouldn’t be to just provide women with a greater capacity to act, but also to make it possible for women to escape from work. We shouldn’t need justifications of political expediency to motivate us to do social reproduction work, we should instead look to our own capacity to empathise with our comrades and recognise that there is no higher end than in providing the material conditions under which they can temporarily remove themselves from work and find some form of happiness and fulfilment outside of it.
The practical things we can do to provide this are varied to account for the fact that the situatedness of women is not homogeneous. We can provide childcare to mothers, and as I’ve been suggesting so far this is something that we can quite easily begin to do now. However, we should also try to think about what forms of support we can give to other women who we wish to support such as trans women and sex workers. We can’t allay gendered domination by only helping with childcare and cooking – in some senses an essentialised understanding that doesn’t recognise the way the social composition of gendered labour has changed in the last forty or so years. That said, the question of what we can do in these cases requires consultation with voices from these groups, rather than deliberation amongst ourselves about what we think would be in their best interests. Here, I’m proposing that we begin to open new spaces of dialogue in which we can get a clearer sense about how we can best support our comrades whose situation means that the problems cannot be supported by men just taking on a share of the traditional domestic forms of work.
These conditions of time deprivation are by no means experienced exclusively by women, and in this discussion, it is impossible to avoid reckoning with the acute stress we all face at a moment in history where we’ve become increasingly dehumanised to a point where accumulation is an end in itself and human beings become reducible to abstract units capable of being called upon at any given moment to ensure the continued circulation of capital.
If anything, this should not lead us to the conclusion that social reproduction work and our own leisure time or political activities are positional and must compete against one another. It is necessary to realise the goal of creating such a radical space requires the efforts of a collective and cannot sustainably rest upon the shoulders of a few willing individuals. The real challenge, here and in other areas of the struggle, is one of how we can bring ourselves to act collectively so that we maximise the efficiency of the meagre time resources we must create alternative possibilities from which gradual but revolutionary change can begin to occur.
Meaningful change doesn’t just depend upon a large mass of bodies, but one of healthy subjectivities participating collectively to tackle the hegemonic status of capitalist domination. In other words, we need to facilitate those conditions under which women can feel mentally and physically stronger so that they don’t have to face the struggle from already compromised circumstances. It’s simply the case that healthy bodies and minds are required to overthrow the domination of existing social arrangements, we need to cultivate an ecology of care in which people are enabled to find a sense of individual identity that is cultivated as much outside of the collective as it is from a purpose within it. We are often very good at theorising the importance of creating a kind of confidence that makes collective action more ambitious and therefore more disruptive to hegemonic order, but how can we do better to realise this ambition practically? It is often regrettably the case that even on the radical left, we backslide into the fault lines of theorising about our contemporary realities, and then take it upon ourselves to also find solutions in the same way that men are conditioned to think of themselves as saviours and protectors, but not as also being capable if not obligated to perform vital supporting roles. It’s a familiar pitfall: we can recognise some social ill, and our attitude becomes one of charity and sympathy for the women who suffer doubly from conditions of domination, so our response is to take it upon ourselves to try and resolve the problems as individuals or as a quasi-vanguard. As should be clear by now, no Promethean leap by men is going to bring about Women’s liberation, no matter how well it is theorised.
I also don’t wish to admonish excessively what I think most of us should agree is a willingness to do good in a way that is also capable of recognising and becoming sensitive to the precise nature of the problem. It is nonetheless important to provide a constructive critique that can interrogate whether our responses to empathy are those of control and domination or cooperation and support. The left could do with recognising the importance of this, and indeed because of its openness is best placed to realise the possibilities of reacting differently. Rather than recognise the problem and make vows to work harder to deliver the ideal world, our attitude should be one of recognising the positions of compromise that prevent others from participating fully in collective struggle. We especially ought to remember that this can help to diversify the range of experiences and approaches that inform how we ought to move forward in making our world a more livable place for everyone.
It begins with building the confidence of others, and with the collective stepping in not just to say in the ‘negative’ or ‘liberal’ sense that all of us ought to be entitled to a break, or time to concentrate on individual fulfilment, but also in the more revolutionary sense provide the material preconditions for this to be actualised. What I’m proposing is that we, therefore, endeavour to develop networks that can begin to provide childcare to those who need it, without the need for the justification that it produces any other political end. There is no way that we can, right at this moment, promise to fulfil all requests for assistance. But just as was the case with the Women’s Strike, we can lay the foundation into which more and more people can seamlessly enter into the fold, thus effectively evening out the distribution of labour and increasing exponentially the potential benefits such a scheme could bring about. The strategy is one of building infrastructure, and one which contains a kind of multiplier which can allow these forms of cooperation and care to proliferate organically. Whilst what we can provide initially will be modest, we should see it as building this infrastructure rather than expecting immediate results. Thus we reject all outmoded and grandiose ways of thinking about politics: as singular events that produce immediate change, and instead start to think of what we’re doing as a developmental but steady ascent towards changing the configuration of society. It’s all well and good for us to identify ourselves with pictures of Stuart Hall helping out in a crèche, but we can do better than valorising this as an icon onto which we can project our own subjectivity— we need to be serious about expressing the actual political truth underlying its value as a spectacle and meaningfully do the politics that it attempts to articulate. The time for theorising and awaiting divine providence is over, we must confidently legislate ourselves to act.