A feminist response to Michael Albert’s visions for the Occupy MovementPosted: 3 July 2012
This post is a review of two free ebooks: “Occupy Theory” by Michael Albert and Mandisi Majavu (PDF), and “Occupy Vision” by Michael Albert and Mark Evans (PDF). As the names suggest, these books are being put forward as a potential unifying ideology for the Occupy movement, and for the anti-capitalist movement more generally. The ideas in these books also form an ideological basis for the International Organisation for a Participatory Society (IOPS).
A key figure in all this is Michael Albert, an academic and lifelong activist who co-authored both books. In the dedication to “Occupy Theory”, it’s made clear that the ideas in this book are being put forward as a potential unifying ideology for both the IOPS, and for the Occupy movement itself.
Dedicated to the idea that “another world is possible” and even more so, to the practice to “make another world real” and to all those who wish for, believe in, and try to advance related endeavors. And to enlarging the Occupy Movement. And to founding an International Organization for Participatory Society.
- “Occupy Theory” dedication
Albert’s ideas about alternative economics are really interesting, and definitely worth devoting time and discussion to. But his ideas about feminism are so wrong I didn’t know whether to scream or just cringe in embarrassment for the authors. The first few times I tried to read these books I gave up in disgust, but I kept coming back to them because I want to take part in brave, exciting conversations about what a better world would look like… and yet because Albert has positioned his ideas as a potential unifying vision for the Occupy movement, these conversations will tend to take his ideas as a starting point. And that means that Michael Albert’s ideas about feminism are like a dragon I need to slay.
The good bits
I like Albert’s ideas about Participatory Economics, or Parecon. I like the fundamental aim of creating a society based on co-operation rather than competition. I like the concept of “balanced job complexes”, where, instead of some people having crap jobs and others having interesting ones, everyone does some mixture of interesting, empowering work, and menial drudgery. I like the idea of getting rid of political authority and replacing it with some system of councils and recallable delegates. I like the idea that important resources and the means of production would be administered jointly by the people who depended on them. I like the idea of self-managing, boss-less workplaces.
Albert’s ideas on race
I’m not especially knowledgeable about race, so I don’t feel that I’m qualified to critique Albert’s ideas about it. And yet… Albert bases his ideas on race on a theory called Intercommunalism, which was put forward by Black Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton in 1970. From a Google search, it doesn’t seem like a lot of people are talking about Intercommunalism in 2012. Yet there are plenty of really exciting and challenging discussions about race happening right now, both within the Occupy movement and outside of it. So here’s my suggestion: don’t spend any time reading Albert’s forty-year-old ideas, instead spend the time reading stuff written by people who are actively talking and thinking about race today, like these: For People Who Have Considered Occupation But Found It Is Not Enuf, Decolonize Oakland communique March 18, 2012, Open letter to the Occupy movement: the decolonization proposal, Counterpunch: Race, gender, and Occupy, Racialicious: racial fractures and the Occupy movement, To Occupy or Decolonize? That is the Question… Is there an Easy Answer?. And then watch this video by Jay Smooth on talking about race – it’s not about the Occupy movement in particular but it’s just brilliant:
From Marxism to Complementary Holism
Albert assumes that his readers are Marxists, or are at least familiar with Marxist ideas. He starts from the Marxist idea that class oppression is the fundamental form of oppression in society, and that once class is abolished, all other forms of inequality (including sexism) will disappear as well. However Albert rejects the Marxist view, and recognizes that no one kind of oppression is more fundamental than all the others.
In essence, we must say goodbye to prioritizing one sphere before analyzing all spheres – an approach called monism. We must say goodbye to taking one aspect of society as a priori preponderant in importance. We must say hello to a more balanced and comprehensive stance, called holism, which sees the mutual interconnectivity and entwined influence of all four spheres.
- p70 “Occupy Theory”
As an alternative to Marxism, Albert puts forward a theory called Complementary Holism, which divides society into four spheres: the economic sphere, the political sphere, the family/kinship sphere, and the community/culture sphere. While Albert emphasises that problems such as sexism, racism, and class inequality are interconnected, he nevertheless claims that each of these problems has its root in just one sphere. Therefore Albert advocates working on each sphere separately. In his view, anti-racists should work in the community and culture sphere, while feminists should work in the kinship sphere, and union organisers should work in the economics sphere.
Table: Spheres and Institutions in Complementary Holism
|Institutions||Problems||Theory used to solve the problems|
|Kinship Sphere||The home, families, parents and children||Sexism, homophobia||Feminism|
|Community / Culture Sphere||Places of worship, religious beliefs, ethnicity||Racism||Intercommunalism|
|Economic Sphere||Worplaces, markets||Poverty, exploitation, unfairness||Participatory Economics (Parecon)|
|Polity Sphere (politics, governance)||Government||Unfairness, not democratic or participatory enough||Participatory Politics (Parpolity) – decision-making done by nested councils and council courts|
Here’s how Albert attempts to justify confining feminism to the kinship sphere:
If we want to find the source of gender injustice it stands to reason that we need to determine which social institutions – and which roles within those institutions – give men and women responsibilities, conditions, and circumstances, that engender motivations, consciousness, and preferences that elevate men above women.
- Occupy Vision p.124
Hang on, what’s all this about “the source of gender injustice”? Who said it has a source? This is like talking about “the source of water”: let’s see, water comes from my tap, but also from the toilet and the shower, and also from the sky when it rains. It also comes from glaciers and from rivers and from the ocean… but wait, does water come from the ocean or does it go to the ocean? Shit, I guess water doesn’t really have a single source after all. And neither does Patriarchy.
This new movement structure would take its leadership regarding aspects of its focus from those of its members most directly dealing in the focused areas. Thus, in our countries, the U.S. and UK, we would get leadership from the women’s movement about gender issues; from black and Latino movements about race; from the anti war movement about peace issues; and from labor and consumer movements about economic matters.
- p120 “Occupy Theory”
Funny how feminists and anti-racists aren’t invited to “give leadership” in the economics and politics spheres, which (let’s face it) many activists would consider to be the most important ones.
If there is homophobia or other sexual hierarchies in a society, and if the economy is capitalist, then the economy will – to the extent owners are able to do so – exploit whatever differentials in bargaining power they are handed. A typically top-down polity will also, at least, reflect and often exacerbate those differentials. Beyond this, however, the capitalist economy and any authoritarian polity may also incorporate gay and straight behavior patterns into economic roles, consumption patterns, etc. With parecon and parpolity, however, no exploitation of sexual difference is even possible – much less enacted in the economy – because there is one norm of remuneration and one logic of labor definition that applies to everyone and which, by their very definition, foreclose options of hierarchy, while the polity derives from and thus reflects and protects the will of men and women schooled by feminist relations.
- Occupy Vision p.134
I agree with Albert that political and economic competition exacerbate and reproduce sexism and homophobia. However he is saying that economic and political systems based on co-operation rather than on competition (parecon and parpolity) “foreclose options of hierarchy”, which pretty much means “sexism and homophobia will magically disappear”. This idea is just… bizarre.
Feminism vs Complementary Holism
Albert seems to think his ideas are feminist, but calling them that doesn’t make it so. Complementary Holism says that feminist ideas are only needed in the kinship sphere, and are not needed when the subject at hand is politics, economics, or culture. This is exactly the opposite of what feminists have been shouting from the rooftops ever since Carol Hanisch wrote The Personal Is Political in 1969. To give just a few examples showing that feminism exists and is needed in every part of society:
- In 1972 Selma James founded the Wages for Housework campaign.
- The Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968 in the UK led to the Equal Pay Act.
- In 1989 the US Kimberle Crenshaw founded the theory of Intersectionality, initially in order to explain the fact that, even after equal pay legislation forced businesses not to discriminate against women and Black people, white women and Black men were hired, but Black women were still discriminated against.
- The concept of the Male Gaze was originated by Laura Mulvey in 1975. It was originally used in Film Theory, and is now used to explain how women are objectified in virtually every type of media.
- In the 1970’s feminists began using the term Rape Culture. At the time rape was rarely discussed and was considered to be rare, since rape survivors were silenced by a culture of shame, victim-blaming, rape myths, and a tendency of the police to disbelieve women. However through consciousness-raising groups women discovered that rape was horrifyingly common, and began to map out the many ways in which our culture promotes rape. This important work continues today.
- Since 1976, women-only Reclaim the Night marches have been held yearly in cities across the globe, demanding the right for women to safely occupy public space, without being harassed or attacked, and without the need for male chaperones.
- SlutWalks around the world demand an end to rape apologism and victim-blaming by the police, but also by society in general.
- Muslim feminists around the world are challenging patriarchal interpretations of Islam, and in particular are challenging FGM, forced marriage and “honour” crime. In the UK, feminist Muslims are challenging patriarchal interpretations of Islam inside their communities, and also in wider UK society, challenging the idea that these abuses are “part of our culture”, and instead saying that these should be seen as part of the spectrum of Violence Against Women, which also includes rape and intimate partner violence. cf Black Feminists.
Even the briefest glance at the history of feminist ideas shows that it’s ridiculous to suggest that feminist ideas could ever be confined to the kinship sphere. As an alternative to Complementary Holism, I propose that the Occupy movement should do what feminists, among others, have been doing for decades: combat all forms of oppression, whenever and wherever we find them, at all levels, as individuals, and also in the groups, institutions and communities we belong to. This approach takes more hard work than the Complementary Holism approach of putting everything in neat boxes and only looking at one thing at a time, but that’s OK – after all, no-one ever said that building a better world was going to be easy.
How Complementary Holism plays out in the real world, or, “We gave you the women’s tent, what more do you want?!”
Complementary Holism says that sexism only needs to be addressed in the kinship sphere, which pretty much gives a free pass for sexist behaviour everywhere else. Complementary Holism tells people that they don’t need to take either individual or collective responsibility for making our communities into harassment-free zones. The equation goes: harassment = gender inequality = kinship sphere = Not My Problem.
Here are a few experiences of this mentality within the Occupy movement:
The organizers of the original camp, Occupy Wall Street, responded to the issue of violence against women by setting up a guarded sleep area. That’s nice, but it doesn’t address the issue itself. In fact, it’s a recreation of the same old problem. It doesn’t address the fact that, when women live with the threat of rape as part of their daily existence, they aren’t free. It doesn’t say that the actions of the rapist are simply not acceptable.
The acceptance of violence against women is a de facto decision by a bunch of men, and sadly many women followers, that women aren’t really part of the 99%—that they don’t truly have a right to be free in society.
Here’s another, similar experience of the idea that violence against women and children is not treated as an important issue: it isn’t everyone’s problem, it’s just a women’s problem. In other words, it belongs in the kinship sphere:
Before men started becoming defensive, nearly every casual conversation I had with men regarding gender issues resulted in them telling me about the women’s area and the women’s daily meetings, as if that addressed any grievance the “feminists” might have and absolved them from any concern or need to educate themselves about “women’s issues.” More recently in New York, a man sent a request to one of the women’s caucuses for the group to intervene in what he characterized as an inappropriate, exploitative relationship developing between a man in his 30s and a 16-year-old girl. His comment was, “Who will look out for women in this movement if not your group?” But what makes this man who considers himself a member of the Occupy Movement incapable of intervening himself? Does he realize how insulting and dismissive it is to see, once again, a man treat injustice toward a woman as less important than other injustices, less morally imperative that he also “look out for” someone being exploited because of her gender? Instead, once again, sexual harassment and exploitation is disconnected from issues of injustice, oppression and abusive privilege. It’s just a women’s problem, a personal issue; so let the “girls” handle their own separate problems in their own separate safety zones and caucuses.
Whose Occupy? by progressiveinstincts
I’m going to conclude with a quote expresses perfectly that in order to achieve its goals, the Occupy movement needs feminism, not just hived off into the kinship sphere, but in every sphere and at every level:
Report after report started surfacing about sexist power dynamics, of women being harassed, shouted down, sexually assaulted and raped. The sheer number of reports made it all too clear that these weren’t isolated incidents but rather something that was happening systemically throughout the Occupy movement.
If Occupy, as it goes forward, wants to really change the world, it will have to have a zero tolerance for misogyny and violence against women and for that matter, violence against anyone. But as the articulation of that vision develops, we also need to look at what feminism brings to Occupy and why it is so crucial for the success of the movement.
It seems to me to be beyond obvious that if you want true structural economic reform, issues like equal pay, access to childcare, paid maternity leave, etc. have to be an integral part of the Occupy agenda because women are half of the world’s population and without those things, we are not able to participate fully in society.
And that would be the end of this article… except that unfortunately “Occupy Vision” contains a few paragraphs in which Albert and Evans share their ideas about unpaid work in the home. And it’s bad. Really bad. As a public service I’m going to add a postscript to debunk this.
Postscript: caring work and unpaid labour
In the UK 50 minutes of unpaid work are done for every hour of paid work while in 2007 the value of women’s unpaid work worldwide was estimated at USD 11 trillion, or almost 50 percent of world GDP. A 2002 UK study estimated that: “if unpaid household chores were treated like other work, it would be valued at more than three-quarters of the paid economy.”
With all this in mind, here’s what Albert and Evans had to say about domestic work:
… we tend to think household labor shouldn’t be considered part of the economy subject to the norms of productive labor. First, nurturing and raising the next generation is not like producing a shirt, stereo, scalpel, or spyglass. There is something fundamentally distorting, to our thinking, about conceptualizing child care and workplace production as being the same type of social activity.
The second reason we think household labor should not be counted as part of economic production is that the fruits of household labor are largely enjoyed by the producer him/herself. Should I be able to spend more time on household design and maintenance and receive more remuneration as a result? If so, I get the output of the work and I get more income, too. This is different than other work and it seems to us that changing the design of my living room or keeping up my garden is more like consumption rather than production. Suppose I like to play the piano, or build model airplanes, or whatever. The activity I engage in for my hobby has much in common with work, but we call it consumption because I do it under my own auspices and for myself.
- “Occupy Vision” p132
There is so much wrong here, where to even begin?
First: Albert and Evans seem to be under the impression that child-care is not a form of paid work. The reality is that there millions of women working as nannies worldwide. Live-in domestic workers and nannies are among the most oppressed of all workers: they are often in the country on a work visa and would have to leave if they lost their job, which puts them in a highly vulnerable position. The work is done in the employer’s home so there are no opportunities to talk with other workers or unionise. Abuses such as withholding wages and taking the worker’s passport in order to control them are rife, as is sexual assault of workers by their employers. cf
Second: Many parents leave their kids at daycare during the day, and everyone understands that the daycare workers are doing work for which they rightly receive a wage. It makes no sense to say that a parent who does exactly the same work in their own home is doing a fundamentally different activity. Feminists have long been saying that people who work in the home should be treated as, well, workers, and should receive everything that goes with that: safe working conditions, breaks, not too long working hours, and, oh yeah, wages.
Third: The examples of “workplace production” that Albert and Evans give are all about making something in a factory: a shirt, stereo, scalpel, or spyglass(!?). Which… just… what planet do these people even live on? What about cleaners, mechanics, train conductors, teachers, nurses, physiotherapists, people who do admin work in an office, people who give tech support?
Fourth: Spyglass?! I’m sorry, I just can’t get over this.
Fifth: Raising children is productive work. It’s the most fundamentally productive kind of work there is. After all, if society doesn’t have a new generation, in a few years there won’t be anyone left to work in the spyglass factory.
Sixth: Albert and Evans compare childcare to a hobby, like building a model airplane, which implies they thinks people choose to do it. In reality doing child-care work instead of waged work is sometimes a choice, and sometimes isn’t. Many parents would prefer to work during the day and spend time with their kids in the evenings and weekends, but can’t because child-care (the work they are forced to do for free!) would cost more than the wage they could get if they worked. Many couples would prefer to both work part-time and do part-time childcare, but are unable to do this because of the lack of part-time and flexible jobs, and so are pushed into a situation where one partner, most often a woman, has to stay at home full-time, with the loss of wages, financial independence, and career development that this entails.
Seventh: Albert and Evans seem to think that work in the home consists of interior decorating and working in the yard, which is beyond stupid. Interior decorating is something you do maybe once a year, and many people don’t have a yard at all. I am going to take a wild leap here and guess that neither of the authors of “Occupy Vision” has ever, in his life, spent an hour alone with a three-year-old. If he had, he would know something about the never-ending tasks that child-care work involves: planning meals and keeping track of nutrition, researching after-school activities, daycare, and summer camps, planning and coordinating carpools, finding babysitters, researching how to deal with sleep or potty-training issues, or whether or not that rash is something to worry about. Washing hands, wiping mouths, changing diapers, expressing milk or sterilizing baby bottles. Making sure baths happen and hair is shampooed. Making sure the floor is very clean (since small children will crawl on it then put their hands in their mouths) making sure nothing poisonous or small enough to choke on is within the child’s reach. Clipping nails, brushing kids’ hair and teeth. Dropping them off and picking them up. Scheduling doctors’ appointments, communicating with the school, making sure they have whatever school supplies they need. Organizing birthday parties, playdates, and sleepovers. Making sure there is enough laundry powder. Getting up in the middle of the night to feed a baby or to comfort a child after a nightmare.
The cluelessness that Albert and Evans display about what child-care work entails is not random, it’s a particular cluelessness that arises from society’s endemic sexism. Patriarchy systematically marginalises and minimizes women’s work, valuing work done by men while de-valuing work done by women, and allowing men the privilege of never having to think about problems that don’t directly affect them. All of us grow up in a sexist society and absorb sexist ideas, but I feel embarrassed for Michael Albert and Mark Evans that their sexism is so painfully obvious and so painfully unexamined, and that it has left them with such a profoundly distorted view of the world.
Ironically, though, Albert and Evans have proved my point better than I ever could. They claim that feminism is only needed in the kinship sphere, yet their own lack of even the most basic knowledge of feminist ideas has led them to make statements about economics that make no sense whatsoever. When we approach the task of imagining an alternative economic system, women’s unpaid work is not a minor detail; roughly half of all work is unpaid, and any economic theory is going to have to include this from the get-go. The suggestion that there can be a Participatory Economy which does not include caring and work in the home is ludicrous, and it is also a perfect example of the fact that when you set out to imagine a better world, one of the first tools you are going to need in your toolbox, is feminism.