Anarchist and anti-capitalist approaches to feminism

April 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

At the first AdaCamp, I noticed that quite a few participants were talking about a politics of openness, drawing on their experiences of ‘open stuff’ (primarily free and open source software politics), but without necessarily having the background to connect this to other political threads that might be relevant.

This is understandable: not only are a lot of people attending AdaCamp coming from a technical (rather than humanities) background, but even my post-graduate degree in political science frankly did little to connect me to political traditions that felt useful to me, and I’m trying to learn for myself now. People are looking for these traditions, though, and so we need to help each other find them.

Lucy Parsons

Anticapitalist approaches to feminism are vitally important. Capitalism is inherently exploitative. It relies on workers making a profit for others within workplaces in which they often have little control over what they produce or the conditions under which it’s producedand on the unpaid or vastly-underpaid labour of marginalised groups (particularly women, and most especially women of colour). It’s also an economic system which relies on constant and hugely-damaging expansion, which we cannot sustain environmentally.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should condemn everyone working within the capitalist system: there is no ‘outside’ to capitalism. But we should be thinking carefully about the tactics and strategies that we employ in our feminisms. It’s easy to fall for the rhetoric of leaning in: to push for more women CEOs and other highly-valued positions, and individualistic solutions which require women to work alone to push back against sexism in their workplaces.

Instead, we need to be thinking about how to change or build alternatives to existing structures where we can. Co-ops and other worker-run organisations are one approach. We can also think carefully about payscales (what’s the ratio between the pay of the highest and lowest paid worker at your workplace? and what is it if you include work that’s contracted out?), and about building solidarity between people in different roles within an industry. We should recognise the importance of caring work and other forms of unpaid labour, and build structures which distribute this labour more evenly.

IMG_5294We also need to more consciously build the skills that allow us to organise and cooperate. I’ve been seeing ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness‘ by Jo Freeman mentioned quite often, sometimes with the unspoken assumption that the problems Freeman discusses (which are significant) mean horizontal organising is inevitably doomed. But as Freeman says herself in the closing section of her essay, there are specific steps we can take to ensure that horizontally-organised spaces aren’t structureless.

This requires learning new skills, and often building new cultures. One aspect of John Restakis’ work that I found interesting was his discussion of the difference between places with a culture of cooperative work (like Emilia Romagna in Italy and Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain) and places which have rapidly collectivised in response to crisis (he discusses Argentina in particular). It takes time to learn to be patient with long meetings and to interact with others in good faith to build collaboration rather than competition.

We also need to do more, I think, to recognise and help develop the emotional skills necessary for effective organising, which requires active reflection on the invisible work in our spaces: including people’s efforts to smooth conflict and help others feel valued. Anarchism (and specifically anarchafeminism) is one framework for this that I find useful, because it focuses heavily on processes (rather than end goals). It also offers an alternative to the libertarian* approach with its focus entirely on individual freedom, instead understanding individual autonomy as always being embedded within community.

Anarchist feminists have also been dealing with some of the same issues that have affected women in open stuff: how to deal with harassment or abuse in a supposedly-decentralised, supposedly-liberatory community; how to develop processes of self-governance that don’t reinforce existing oppressions; how to build change within (frequently) male-dominated communities. Drawing on these experiences, and the praxis that has come out of them, can help enrich our approaches.

Hopefully that’s provided a useful 101 for people who wanted a little more information after the AdaCamp Montreal session on this. There are a lot of directions for additional reading and discussion, and I’ve linked to a few of them here: feel free to leave helpful links in the comments also. I also highly recommend checking out the report (and more detailed notes) from the Femhack gathering on autonomous feminist infrastructures, which was on just before AdaCamp.


* I use ‘libertarian’ here in the sense it’s used in the US, and particularly in tech communities, to mean an ideology that’s focused on individual freedoms without challenging the market as the main way of organising distribution of resources. In Europe, ‘libertarian’ (and especially ‘libertarian socialist’) often means something different and more in line with anarchism.

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