Our collaborative feminist organisations should be critical of capitalism or they will probably be bullshit

February 9, 2015 § 5 Comments

This is a response, kind of, to Amelia Greenhall’s excellent post on Starting your own b(r)and, an incredibly detailed and useful outline of Greenhall’s experience working with Model View Culture. This isn’t meant to be a critique. Greenhall has been generous in sharing her knowledge, and I mostly just want to expand on the first couple of thoughts I had in response:

1coops2alternatives

I’m writing these thoughts not as an expert, but as someone who is still trying to think more and learn more about what it might mean to be a feminist, how to be an effective activist, and how to build alternatives to the very broken system that is currently available to us.

As the title of this post suggests, I’m drawing very tentatively on the important work of women, particularly Flavia Dzodan, in expanding the discussion of intersectionality. Intersectionality, originally developed in parallel by Black feminists Kimberlé Crenshaw and the Combahee River Collective, is a term that’s increasingly used in different feminist communities to discuss the ways in which different forms of oppression overlap.

Dzodan is one of the many writers who are emphasising the role that capitalism plays in these intersecting forms of oppression. In particular it’s useful to read her critique of choice, neoliberal, and libertarian feminism, in which she writes about the problems with seeing a form of feminism which sits easily with capitalism as the default. She argues that this,

“has also led to a sense of “amplified agency”. We are told to “maximize our freedom”, we should “brand ourselves better”, we should “choose our choices” and demand a better distribution of the resources. In the process, we are left with a feminism that imposes on us the moral task of maximizing our own value. This is a feminism of the individual with an inflated sense of the self that is devoted to the creation and administration of individual business opportunities in detriment of systemic change or, at the very least, in detriment of an analytical approach that examines our individual relations as part of a whole and our interactions and participation in a system of inequalities we cannot escape.”

I don’t think that Greenhall’s post neglects the idea of solidarity, or talks only about individual benefits; for example, she writes carefully and thoughtfully about how to ensure that authors are properly paid and retain control of their work.

But I do think that the section on ‘What kind of corporation should you become?’ needs deeper examination. Greenhall opens by noting that, “The first question many people ask is: should I be a for-profit or a non-profit?” As she points out, there are a lot of problems with the non-profit format, including the ways that the need for funding can distort an organisation’s work (outlined in more detail by Sue Gardner). Greenhall cautions that, “You can choose to focus all your energy on selling one thing – a thing that is good, for a profit – and still be a feminist.”

There are two issues I want to raise here. Firstly, like Dzodan, I think it’s important to question what it means to accept that feminism can sit easily within capitalism and to assume that we can focus on simply running companies that sell a ‘good product’ (feminist content). We accept a particular model of workplace in which there are bosses and workers, in which some people control the company and others work for it. We accept that we can fulfill our personal goals through making and selling good products. We accept that we can work against gender inequality (and for diversity in other more nebulous senses) without working against the capitalist system. But capitalism requires inequality and always will. It is build on the unpaid or vastly-underpaid labour of social reproduction, which is usually relegated to women and people of colour.

Secondly, I want to question the idea that our only choice of organisational forms is between for-profit and non-profit models. Both of these, especially in the context of formal US incorporation, are built on the same hierarchical model. They both assume that for an organisation to function properly, there must a division between those who control the direction and those who are merely workers. The non-profit sector doesn’t offer alternative models for organisation, and in many cases it merely means an intensification of the exploitation that workers face.

We need to, at the very least, be considering options beyond the for-profit/non-profit divide. We need to be thinking about organisational forms that create real challenges to the current capitalist system, including cooperatives and collectives. These forms have their own contradictions and problems, but we can learn from them and build on them. There’s a bunch of good writing on this, from the vast body of work on areas with a long history of collectives (including Mondragon and Reggio Emilio); more recent work on how workers in Argentina reclaimed their workplaces; activist zines on feminist collectives; writing reflecting on the experiences of current workers’ cooperatives; and histories of the collective movement in different places (including Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, which I just found out about and really want to read).

This is not to say that I think it’s somehow inexcusable or fundamentally unfeminist to end up deciding to run a for-profit or non-profit organisation. We all make our own uneasy compromises with the system, myself included. In many cases it may not be viable to attempt radical new forms of organisation. But at the very least we need to be thinking carefully about how feminism and capitalism relate to each other, and what the alternatives might be. We should be careful about restricting our vision to a set of possibilities that all exist within the system as it is, and instead be at the very least considering organisational forms that offer us hopes of a more fundamental restructuring of the world.

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§ 5 Responses to Our collaborative feminist organisations should be critical of capitalism or they will probably be bullshit

  • Andromeda says:

    Huh. As someone who’s faced the “should we be a for-profit or nonprofit” choice twice in the last few years, I didn’t read that question *at all* as being about organizational forms. I read it purely as, “which category of US tax law is it best for us to fit into?”

    I think there’s a ton of room to also ask philosophical questions about the nature of the organization, and I’m glad you’re asking them. It is *also* important that the business exist on paper in a form that is legible to tax and banking institutions, whether or not the available checkboxes really adequately describe the nature of the organization.

    • sky says:

      I’m not that familiar with how US tax law works, but at least in Australia incorporating as a non-profit means specific organisational requirements in terms of roles that need to be filled. And in a lot of places there are formal legal and tax structures available for cooperative and collective forms, and there are often also umbrella organisations that can help people navigate the process of setting up those structures.

      I’m definitely not saying people should ignore the legal/banking/regulatory context they’re working within. What I’m saying is that in asking “what kind of organisation should we form?” it’s useful to look beyond for-profit/non-profit structures and consider other existing models, and also to think more deeply and critically about how the capitalist system relates to feminism (whether ‘intersectional’ or otherwise).

      As I hope I made clear in the post, I think in some cases people will look at the possibilities and decide it makes most sense to go with a for-profit or non-profit organisation that fits pretty closely within the status quo. But I think the range of possibilities we’re considering should at least ask, “is a worker co-operative or a collective or some other form right for us?” And we can only do that if we’re learning about those models, and thinking critically about the capitalist system.

  • […] Our collaborative feminist organizations should be critical of capitalism or they will probably be b… (February 9):  “[L]ike Dzodan, I think it’s important to question what it means to accept that feminism can sit easily within capitalism and to assume that we can focus on simply running companies that sell a ‘good product’ (feminist content).” […]

  • This is hands down the best title for a post I’ve seen in years.

    But then, I’ve always loved it when academics, and you in particular, find the occasion for the judicious use of a curse word.

    So, fuck yeah.

    As something of a stay-at-home-dad, living in post-communist Russia, I find myself straddling a great many identities at present, and have a perhaps unusual suggestion for further reading.

    At the much admired core of the capitalist system, there exists a strange space where alternative organisational forms not only flourish, but are actively encouraged. Moreover most of these organisations sit inside other organisations that are also very oddly constituted and organised. Moreover these organisations are themselves producing technology that actively upsets traditional hierarchies and structures.

    Tech Start-ups inside incubators and accellerators.

    Just a thought …

    We should make plans to catch up. It’s been too long.

    Yours,
    B

  • Here are some relevant notes by Dan McKinlay, divergent mind, Ph.D Candidate in Zurich.

    “Here is a list of everything I am taking notes on at the moment that I see fit to release.

    All conclusions provisional, all ideas wild-eyed, half-baked and unreviewed. You’re welcome.”

    http://notes.livingthing.org/financial_markets.html

    http://notes.livingthing.org/finance.html

    http://notes.livingthing.org/firms.html

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