Nine Notes on “Gender Strike”

By Madeline Lane-McKinley |

1. “Gender strike” describes the impossibility of a “general strike” only pronounced by conditions of feminization.

“But let’s make this clear,” Maria Dalla Costa writes in 1974, “No strike has ever been a general strike… We’ve never seen a general strike.” [1] Forty-three years later, Dalla Costa’s intervention remains vital to our understanding of the strike form, yet the historical conditions by which to make use of this intervention have drastically transformed as well. More than ever, this impossibility of the strike’s generalization corresponds with the generalization of gendered work – what we might otherwise describe as the feminization of labor.

What renders the general strike unprecedented, along the lines of Dalla Costa’s argument, is precisely the illegibility of certain labors in dominant conceptions of the strike form. Under the guise of a general strike, she contends, “we’ve only seen men, generally men from the big factories, come out on the streets, while their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, went on cooking in the kitchens.” In such instances, the very concept of the strike merely recapitulates the invisibilization of all aspects of social reproduction – the historically gendered division of labor which privileges waged work, however exploitative, over the naturalized forms of labor traditionally performed in the domestic sphere by women.

Yet over the past several decades, in the era of post-Fordism, we have seen a tremendous shift in terms of this gendered division of labor, toward a process of generalized feminization. Under such conditions, “capital seeks not a social contract with labour but a contingent and provisional contract,” as Lisa Adkins explains, “a contract where nothing is guaranteed for the worker or would-be worker other than the hope or possibility of work but not necessarily a sustaining wage or a life that can be planned into the future.” Such conditions, not coterminous with post-Fordism, “attach women to precarious, insecure, fatiguing and impossible forms of working and living, indeed to the continuous plane on which the terms of the post-Fordist contract are endlessly played out.” [2]

More and more, the nature of work resembles the 24/7 relentlessness of what was once “women’s work” — that is, the condition of being “always on duty,” as Dalla Costa writes, “for the machine doesn’t exist that makes and minds children.” [3] The outmoding of other forms of work by technology pronounces these conditions of feminization. For many jobs, to be “on the clock” is merely an archaic gesture. Increasingly, work takes the structure of ceaseless responsibility, while the wage decreasingly corresponds with units of time. It is in this era of feminized labor that “all work has become women’s work, even that of men,” as Nina Power suggests. [4] By extension, it is under such conditions that the impossibility of a “general strike” is evermore contradictory, with the proliferation of this concept in the vocabulary of contemporary struggles.

How does this generalized feminization bring forth different conditions of possibility for the “general strike”? Unambiguously, gender remains the key contradiction.

2. Liberalism is an anti-feminist ideology; anti-feminism always already reflects the ideological conditions of liberal thought.

While we might understand this period in terms of the vast incorporation of women into the workplace, this transition has been celebrated by liberal feminism to the point of further naturalizing the still un-waged facets of social reproduction. The demands for equality in liberal feminist discourses fail to acknowledge the ways in which difference continues to mediate exploitation under capitalism. The biological capacity to be impregnated, for instance – whether by choice or by force, or some combination or coercion – remains a massive liability to individuals in a regime of “equality” which disacknowledges social conditions of individuated disparity.

As marriage rates decline, divorce rates increase, and more women enter the workforce, the liberal fantasy of equitability threatens to depoliticize the social conditions of gender in relation to feminization. The inequitability of housework and carework distills the contradictions of generalized feminization. In 2015 the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted a survey of employed persons — leaving much labor nevertheless unaccounted, the results reflect the non-generality of certain labors: on an average day, according to the study, “22 percent of men did housework–such as cleaning or laundry—compared with 50 percent of women. Forty-three percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 70 percent of women,” and in households with at least one child under the age of 6, women provided four times as much physical care than men in the same households. [5] Absent in the survey, however, is any indication of how much class operates as a distinguishing factor in more “gender equitable” households — in which the majority of labor is outsourced to precarious and low-waged domestic workers, often immigrant women. At a global scale, this manifests as “transnational, regional, and local inequalities in the commodification and racialization of the household division of labor,” as Rhacel Parreñas suggests. [6]

On the one hand, the generalization at stake in the process of feminization enables a more expansive, non-binary conception of gender, contingent on racialization, among other factors of class exploitation. On the other hand, this generalization plays into certain liberal fantasies, which pervade contemporary struggles. A “gender strike” articulates both the impossibility and the prefigurative gesture of the general strike, if the latter concept is to be at all useful in the present context. Yet current discourses of the general strike require the interrogation, critique, and reinvention at stake in this gesture of a gender strike.

The problem with articulating a general strike as always already a gender strike is precisely the opportunistic quality of contemporary discourses of “solidarity” and “unity,” which functionally insist on a liberal individualist conception of “equality” — however critical these discourses might be of liberalism. In effect, such discourses serve to diminish problems of racialization and gendered divisions of labor. While upheld as the opposition to the paradigm of lean-in liberal feminism, these discourses of unification play into a liberal fantasy structure of eradicating difference from the scope of contemporary resistance. As a result, this fantasy of “unity” merely reproduces the very conditions of the “lean-in” paradigm, by which individuals are coerced into enduring, and moreover normalizing social conditions of exploitation.

teorema2

3. There is no “solidarity” without the abolition of gender.

The abolition of gender is not a doing away with the question of gender but much the opposite.

If we are to demand the impossibility of a general strike, then the problem of difference cannot be undone by a regime of mandatory “solidarity,” but a practice of continual critique across struggles. A “unity” that invisibilizes the social conditions of difference is utterly in keeping with neoliberal capitalism. More specifically, in the interest of “unity,” as part of the push-back against what will strategically be reduced to “identity politics,” forms of normalized misogyny and racism, for instance, will remain intact and deprioritized in the larger scheme of political struggles, such as sexual violence and harassment, racial discrimination, and emotional abuse. This will occur among the most radical milieu of anti-capitalist resistance in the absence of critiques of gender.

Regardless of hot pink color schemes and however many cis-women have marched in its name, liberalism is always anti-feminist – including the liberal ideological basis for compartmentalizing the pervasiveness of sexual violence and abuse into “identity politics” or “private issues.” The critique of liberalism cannot resort to such tendencies.

Conveyed in the notion of a “gender strike” is precisely the refusal of such conditions for collective political work. Such a strike consists of the withdrawal from coercion into silence, the denial of a rhetorics in the service of perpetuated exploitation. This is not identity politics – nor is it lifestylism, voluntarism, moralism — but an insistence that culture and politics cannot be separated. It is an insistence that political change requires cultural struggles – that the everyday is a site of practice for what remains otherwise abstracted and depersonalized with the logic of capitalism.

4. False utopianism is a regime of anti-utopianism.

What the concepts of “gender strike” and “general strike” hold in common is a disavowal of liberal false utopianism. The false utopia of liberalism can be understood as the promise that individual equality may be achieved under capitalism. Through the course of the twentieth century — with a few, minor disjunctures — the concept of utopia has been politically evacuated, eventually surrendered to the stronghold of capitalist realist ideologies. Kathi Weeks delineates these vacillations as “anti-utopianism fueled by a sense of liberalism under threat and one born of a sense of its dominance”:

While liberalism continues to mutate into new forms, its case against utopia continues to revolve around a fairly stable set of indictments… between the rationalist and realist rebukes, between the claim that there should be no alternative and the assurance that there is no alternative. [7]

Rendering ‘utopia’ a concept “at best naive and at worst dangerous,” these conditions limit our formal engagement with the strike as well.

teorema3

5. The “human strike” articulates the “general strike” as a utopian problematic.

The “human strike” reformulates the conditions of a “general strike” from the gendering of productive and reproductive labors into a social hierarchy of visibility and invisibilization. Claire Fontaine describes the “grève humaine” as “more radical and less specific [than] a general strike or a wildcat strike,” as a form that “attacks the economic, affective, sexual and emotional positions within which subjects are imprisoned.” In this sense, the human strike can take numerous forms, as “a revolt within a revolt, an unarticulated refusal, an excess of work or the total refusal of any labour, depending on the situation”:

There is no orthodoxy for it. If strikes are made in order to improve specific aspects of the workers’ conditions, they are always a means to an end. But human strike is a pure means, a way to create an immediate present here where there is nothing but waiting, projecting, expecting, hoping. [8]

For these reasons, however, the human strike must be engaged more explicitly as a utopian problematic.

Yet the idea of a utopian problematic is itself particularly troubling. ‘Utopia,’ in its clearest conception, is always formulated as a problem: as a “no-place” (οὐ-topos), an absence, both negation and counterpart. Setting aside the competing historiographies, we can trace a shift in utopian imagination away from the spatial image of an elsewhere (such as an island) toward the problem of time. As a mode of critical negation, utopia is a figure of exteriority, alterity, and non-totality. Today it is the dystopia of the present that demands such reformulation as a problem of utopian thought, resistant to the relegation of “waiting, projecting, expecting, hoping.”

As a utopian construct, the human strike is insistently presentist, situated, and spatially imaginative. At its basis is the refusal to be banished to a speculative past or future. It takes on a variety of appearances — as cultural shifts, practical modifications, behavior, forms of radical solidarity — while being susceptible, like any utopian formulation, to moralist and idealist tendencies. For these very reasons, however, the general strike is far more of an idealist utopian category, based on a completist vision of generalization. The human strike raises this conception of generalization to the level of social totality.

For these reasons, to make use of this concept requires attention to heterogeneity and partiality, the co-presences of a social totality that make imagining its critical undermining something other than impossible. In their conception of the “caring strike,” Precarias de la Deriva write, “we need tools to bring it about,” in order to make sense of the ostensible contradiction between the strike as “always interruption and visibilization” and care as “the continuous and invisible line whose interruption would be devastating.” [9]

6. Under the dystopian conditions of the present, suicide takes the appearance of a “human strike.”

As with any utopian construct, the human strike carries with it a set of misguided, even dangerous implications. Unless upheld as an epistemological method through which to critique present conditions, it can be misused to confirm a sense of general futility and nihilism constraining the present.

If we are to understand the “strike” in the strictest terms as the refusal of work, and to raise this concept to the level of social reproduction, then the purest interpretation the “human strike” is suicide. Such purist fantasies should be abolished with liberalism.

teorema1

7. The “gender paradox of suicide” is not a paradox, but an articulation of social reproduction as a gendered struggle.

Although the statistics are varied among different countries, in most of the world the suicide rate for men is much higher than for women. However, especially in rich countries like the United States, women are far more likely to undergo psychological treatment for suicideation or attempted suicide. For decades, this has been described by the medical health profession as the “gender paradox of suicide,” which seems to be a “fixed epidemiological gender phenomenon,” as Silvia Canetto and Isaac Sakinofsky write, with a number of potential explanations. [10] While Canetto and Sakinofsky summarize a number of explanatory theories, however, the social construction of ‘gender’ is utterly naturalized by these psychiatric discourses.

This seeming paradox must instead be understood in terms of social reproduction. For the same reason that the suicide mortality rate is higher for men, maternal filicide is more likely than paternal filicide. In fact, the rates of infanticide are far more reflective of suicide rates than murder rates. [11]

Rather than a paradox, this disparity must be critically engaged as the historical condition of ‘gender’ as the logic of a sexual division of labor. Just as the mother’s day cannot end, her life cannot end without those for whom she cares.

8. The “gender strike” is a practical question.

For much labor conceptualized under the rubric of social reproduction, the strike form presents a structural problem. In many instances, such as care work, the strike is criminalized — it is simply not possible to refuse the work of caring for a dependent who is incapable of self-care. If not a form of suicide, to strike from such labor is a matter of homicide or abuse. Whereas the “strike” has been imagined as a form of resisting labor and collectivizing against managerial power, to refuse certain reproductive labors only worsens the already impossible situation of the laborer. In this sense, the “gender strike” — as a description of the gendered labor conditions of social reproduction — brings us to a set of practical questions.

Rather than attempt to imagine social reproduction through the rigid formalities of the strike, as precisely a collective refusal and stoppage of labor, it may be more helpful to ask of the conditions of possibility for collectivizing the otherwise atomizing, isolative, and individuating labors to be understood as reproductive work. This is to moreover understand the estrangement of these labors, precisely as labor: as Arlie Hochschild explains, “Beneath the difference between physical and emotional labor there lies a similarity in the possible cost of doing the work: the worker can become estranged or alienated from an aspect of self [that] is used to doing the work.” [12]

What do different kinds of labor entail to become recognizable, and even weaponized against forces of exploitation? How can unwaged, invisibilized forms of reproductive labor become collectivized, without that collectivization becoming merely a quick remedy for austerity measures? There is of course the risk of fetishizing and romanticizing “autonomy” in an era of compulsory precarity. For these reasons, attention to questions of caretaking and mutual aid will be deemed beside the point, not political, or even countereffective.

The focus on collectivizing care must be recovered from this logic, somehow. Throughout radical milieu, we have lost many to this failure to politicize a focus on care. Anti-capitalist critique takes a psychological toll, as we recurrently see in deaths within our political and intellectual communities.

The practical question of a gender strike is not only to collectivize — rather than withdraw — these issues of caretaking, but to put forth an enduring concept of radical love.

teorema4

9. “Love” is its opposite until it is also known as work.

“My fear of anger taught me nothing.” – Audre Lorde [13]

At an epistemological level, if there is even a concept of radical love to which we might have access under the ideological conditions of the present, it would have to begin as the negation of the liberal fantasy we encounter as “love trumps hate.” It would have to be conceptualized in relation to the rise of a global right, in all its localized formations. It would have to perform a multitude of tasks, precisely because it would be work. What the notion of a “gender strike” helps to articulate is exactly this insistence: that love is work, that a concept of ‘radical love,’ however enduring, must exceed work, but cannot evacuate work. This is critical, and we cannot be convinced otherwise. It is not beside the point – the conditions of possibility for future political struggle rests on our capacity to make such a concept thinkable.

***


All images are from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s
Teorema, 1968

[1] Maria Dalla Costa, “A General Strike” https://caringlabor.wordpress.com/2010/10/20/mariarosa-dalla-costa-a-general-strike/

[2] Lisa Adkins, “Contingent Labour and the Rewriting of the Sexual Contract,” The Post-Fordist Sexual Contract: Working and Living in Contingency, 1-29

[3] Maria Dalla Costa, “Women and the Subversion of the Community”

[4] Nina Power, The One-Dimensional Woman, 22

[5] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.nr0.htm

[6] Rhacel Parreñas, Servants of Globalization: Migration and Domestic Work, 30

[7] Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, 181

[8] Claire Fontaine, The Human Strike Has Already Begun, 29

[9] Precarias a la Deriva, “A Very Careful Strike — Four Hypotheses,” 42

[10] Silvia Sara Canetto and Isaac Sakinofsky, “The Gender Paradox in Suicide,” 23

[11] Susan Hatters Friedman and Phillip J Resnick, “Child Murder by Mothers: Patterns and Prevention,” 137

[12] Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, 37

[13] Audre Lorde, “Women Responding to Racism,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 127

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s