Collidoscope: Of Care Work, Protests and High-Risk Feminism

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Collidoscope is The Wire‘s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here.  If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.


Capitalism’s crisis of care

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

What does the crisis of social reproduction entail?

In a fascinating and hard-hitting article in the New Left Review, philosopher and political scientist Nancy Fraser is discussing just that. The ‘crisis of care’, she says, refers to the social pressures that mean time (and the required feeling) for certain things is becoming harder and harder to find: raising children, caring for family members and friends, maintaining households, keeping up a community and so on. And who, trying to keep with the pressures of today, can argue with that? (Side note: If you’re looking to read more on that, I suggest my colleague Nehmat Kaur’s culture newsletter from yesterday – it gave me something of a quarter-life crisis, but it’s a great read.)

This crisis, she argues is part of a larger crisis in capitalism, a general crisis with ecological, economic and political strands. But the social reproduction side of it more often goes ignored – even though without it, Fraser argues, none of the other strands can be properly understood if abstracted from the crisis of care.

This crisis, according to Fraser, is no accident but deeply rooted in the structure of financialised capitalism. The social reproductive activities seen as external to capitalism are one of the things that keep the system going, while capitalism “free rides on activities of provisioning, caregiving and interaction that produce and maintain social bonds, although it accords them no monetized value and treats them as if they were free”.

But capitalist societies, both historically and now, have dissociated social reproduction from economic production – by invisibilising it and labelling it as ‘women’s work’. Fraser brings out this paradox very clearly:

“Paradoxically, however, they make their official economies dependent on the very same processes of social reproduction whose value they disavow. This peculiar relation of separation-cum-dependence-cum-disavowal is an inherent source of instability: on the one hand, capitalist economic production is not self-sustaining, but relies on social reproduction; on the other, its drive to unlimited accumulation threatens to destabilize the very reproductive processes and capacities that capital—and the rest of us—need. The effect over time, as we shall see, can be to jeopardize the necessary social conditions of the capitalist economy. Here, in effect, is a ‘social contradiction’ inherent in the deep structure of capitalist society.”

She then follows the historical movement of how care work has been repeatedly externalised and ignored. In an interview given to Dissent Magazine, she summarises this historical movement:

“…we can trace a historical path from the so-called liberal capitalism of the nineteenth century to the state-managed regime of the mid-twentieth and on to the financialized capitalism of the present day. In a nutshell: liberal capitalism privatized social reproduction; state-managed capitalism partially socialized it; financialized capitalism is increasingly commodifying it. In each case, a specific organization of social reproduction went with a distinctive set of gender and family ideals: from the liberal-capitalist vision of “separate spheres” to the social-democratic model of the “family wage” to the neoliberal financialized norm of the “two-earner family”.

…we now have the new norm of the “two-earner family.” Sounds lovely, doesn’t it—assuming you’re not single? Like the family wage ideal, however, this too is an obfuscation. It mystifies the steep rise in the number of hours of paid work now required to support a household, and if the household includes children or elderly relatives or people who are sick or disabled and cannot function as full-time wage earners, then so much the worse. And if it’s a single-parent family, it’s even worse than that. Now add to this that the two-earner ideal is being promoted at a time of cutbacks in state provision. Between the need for increased working hours and the cutback in public services, the financialized capitalist regime is systematically depleting our capacities for sustaining social bonds.”

Fraser makes it pretty clear that we’re all living this very crisis, however much we try to ignore it. So what happens now? Where do we go from here?

Obviously, Fraser cannot answer that and nor could anyone else who doesn’t have a magic crystal ball. Capitalism has reinvented itself several times in the past, she suggests that this crisis could mean the formulation of another mutation. But this crisis is inherent to capitalism itself and not just its current form, she has shown, so then there is only one possible resolution – a deep structural transformation.

“What is required, above all, is to overcome financialized capitalism’s rapacious subjugation of reproduction to production – but this time without sacrificing either emancipation or social protection. This in turn requires reinventing the production-reproduction distinction and reimagining the gender order. It remains to be seen whether the result will be compatible with capitalism at all.”

Is it too ambitious, too utopian even, to imagine that such a change is possible? Not in the least, Fraser says in her interview, and I’m inclined to agree. Hope for this “utopia” is the only thing that could possibly stimulate change, unless we plan on living in a society of continuously exacerbated crises forever.

“…the idea that you could build a society that assumes every adult is a person with primary care responsibilities, community engagements, and social commitments. That’s not utopian. It’s a vision based on what human life is really like.”


Protesting against MNC’s in Turkey

Representative image. Credit: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

Representative image. Credit: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

What determines whether people will protest against multinational extraction companies?

People have tried to answer this question before and come up with a range of reasons, given that populations have responded very differently across the world to the presence of MNCs in the extraction industry – from welcoming them to fighting them tooth and nail. Most of these reasons are defined by the characteristics of the extractive industry in the specific area – the immediate threat it poses to livelihoods and/or the environment, the strategies companies use, whether the government in the area is known to suppress protests and so on.

Some have also said that this struggle is inevitable, given the impact extractive activities have on the local ecology.

In their article in World Development, Hayriye Özen and Sükrü Özen have another suggestion. Focusing their analysis in Turkey, the authors argue that the reasons provided above don’t explain why there would be different levels of community protests in mining areas that are quite similar in nature.

They take the cases of two gold mines in Turkey, Efemçukuru and Çöpler, to argue that what creates and determines the intensity of conflict between the multinational extractors and the local populations is the differential construction of discourse and meaning around the issue of gold mining, economic development, the environment, MNCs and land use. The intensity of the conflict, according to them, is also “closely related with discursive strategies and practices that rival parties mutually develop and carry out throughout the process of the struggle”. The dialogues and struggles between the parties, and shifting power relations also play a key role in defining these strategies and practices.

The possibility of constructing new meaning and struggles, they argue using Laclau’s theory, comes when there is a failure of existing social structures and conditions. Of course the discourse that develops out of this failure or “dislocation” isn’t the same in all cases. This is explained, the authors say, by the presence, ability and leadership of member of the community who lead the construction of an alternative discourse, and the presence of ‘ideological raw materials’ or values, meanings and identities that already exist and can be moulded to the needs of the new “dislocation”. In the case that there are multiple parties hoping to shape this “dislocation”, there is the start of a hegemonic struggle.

Coming back to the cases studies: Both Efemçukuru and Çopler mines were started in 1999, the first run Eldorado from Canada and the second by Anatolia Minerals Development Limited (AMDL) from the US. Both ran their operation through different subsidiary companies in Turkey. The two cases are highly similar in terms of company and community characteristics, the authors argue, and differ only in terms of gold reserves, production stage and production technology. Yet, while Efemçukuru saw a high level of conflict, Çöpler saw close to none.

In Efemçukuru, the authors argue, the “dislocatory” effects of the mining project created new discourses. The struggle started early – local populations were unwilling to sell their land to Eldorado and filed lawsuits to stop the company’s activities. However, most people sold their land over time. Even during the litigation process, Eldorado did not cease its mining operations.

The MNC did not try to frame a discourse of local gain around their activities, the authors write, and while some local authorities and politicians did try to do so, the discourse amongst the population did not see the project as meaningful to them in any way.

Once the struggle started, Eldorado and its supporters did make an effort to bring up concerns of ‘economic development’ and ‘social responsibility’. The company also highlighted its own contributions to ‘regional and national development’, in terms of the gold produced and taxes paid. Anti-mining groups counteracted these, bringing up the multiple environmental issues associated with the activity – claims the company said were ‘baseless’.

The struggle against the mining company was also framed as an anti-imperialist struggle against the exploitation of local resources by MNCs and their local collaborators. The pro-mining group, in turn, termed these protestors and anti-development ‘traitors’ (doesn’t that sound familiar). The government was an active supporter of the mining industry, providing suspicious environmental clearances, nationalising land in the area and the use of government force and threats.

The pro-mining discourse in Çöpler was very similar, but faced far less opposition. It was also based on themes of development, responsibility and environmental safety. The company also claimed to contribute to the regional economy and initiated a sustainable development plan to encourage women entrepreneurs, small businesses, agriculture, dairy and bee farming.

Despite the fact that cyanide was used in the mines (widely seen as extremely environmentally destructive), no environmental discourse was created in the area. There was no discursive attempt – unlike in Efemçukuru, there were no other anti-mining protests in the region to draw from. According to the authors, there was then only one discourse available to the people. Though there were complaints against some company activities, these did not turn into a movement.

Özen and Özen’s research question is very interesting and their description of the two case studies in Turkey is fascinating to compare. Yet there is something that leaves me slightly uncomfortable (and maybe unconvinced?). The agency of the local population in shaping discourses does not seem to figure in their analysis – both the pro-mining arguments (from the company, government) and anti-mining ones (from environmentalists, NGOs) are portrayed as coming from outside and then creating a movement for the people. Çöpler is portrayed as being different because no environmental NGO was active in the area – suggesting that this means the discourse was not available to them at all. But organic social movements (against environmental destruction as well as other factors) have been seen through history, something it seems the authors analysis chooses to ignore.


High-risk feminism in El Salvador

A campaign against gender-based violence in El Salvador. Credit: Erik Törner/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A campaign against gender-based violence in El Salvador. Credit: Erik Törner/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How are women fighting for their rights in high-risk situations?

That’s what Julia Zulver is talking about in her article in Gender and Development‘s special issue on Latin America (the rest of the issue is very interesting as well, I would recommend checking it out).

Zulver’s research is based in El Salvador – a country known for it’s violent history of civil war and ongoing gang battles. Gendered violence is also rampant, be it inside the house or in work/public spaces. A lot of this violence, Zulver argues, goes unrecognised and is ignored by state or donor-led violence reduction programmes, which use homicide rates as a proxy to estimate violence. Given the amount of gang violence in the country, homicide rates are higher among men and programmes tend to invisibilise violence against women. This despite the fact that El Salvador has the highest feminicide rate in the world – 14.4 for every 100,000 women.

Living in India, Zulver description of El Salvador has a faintly familiar ring to it, though being in a completely different context. The levels of violence in general are much higher, making women even more vulnerable. Women are often used as pawns in the gang wars, Zulver writes, with girlfriends, wives and other family members of gang members often used as targets. This is easily paralleled in Indian society – whenever there is a high amount of violence between certain groups, women are used to ‘dishonour’ the other side. This has been seen numerous times over the years – during Partition, the 2002 Gujarat riots, the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.

The gang culture, Zulver writes, also breeds a culture of intense machismo. That isn’t hard to believe if you’ve seen any depiction whatsoever of gang violence, not to mention it usually comes along with militarisation in any form. This hypermasculinity, when challenged by other perceived failures, reinvent themselves into even more hierarchical and violent gendered relationships – again, something that has been observed and commented on the world over.

“When exclusion from political, economic, and social power leads to emasculation, gangs engage in (re)masculinising behaviours. They adopt a form of hyper machismo, an identity rooted in gender inequality and a predilection to violence. When it comes to these gang members, part of regaining and asserting one’s masculinity is concerned with sexual access to women.”

In a scenario like this, with violence almost literally everywhere you turn, how do feminist movement assert themselves? That is what Zulver refers to as “high-risk feminism”. Groups fighting for women’s rights in El Salvador have found the space and voice to express themselves and try and make a difference, she argues, developing a unique form of subversive gender politics. Zulver divides the methods used by women into four categories: collective identity creation, social capital building, (legal) framing and acts of certification.

An important moment for the women’s rights movement in El Salvador was the passing of the Ley Especial Integral para una Vida Libre de Violencia para las Mujeres (LEIV; Special and Comprehensive Law for a Life Free from Violence for Women), which came into effect at the start of 2012. This law is seen as the outcome of feminist movements fighting for state intervention against gender-based violence. The existence of this law, Zulver writes, has been a big part of collective identity creation, because of the awareness programmes that came after it. Several NGOs have taken up the issue up the task of education women across the country about the LIEV. This has also led

This and other campaigns have also led to the creation of social capital – bringing women together to discuss their issues. Organisation around things like community gardens has also meant that women have a place where they can meet and talk, even creating community savings account or a community space just for women.

By ‘acts of certification’ Zulver is referring to the feminist movement making itself heard in front of authorities. The LIEV is not without problems, she says, and there are several others laws in the country, particularly the anti-abortion law, that go against women’s rights.

In the context of El Salvador, individuals participating in such movements often face risk of violence themselves. However, leaders told Zulver that they do not feel specifically targeted. “They explained to me that the main perpetrators of violence (referring to gang members) are so caught up in their own gang wars that they do not have the time to start targeting women’s organisations. Women’s groups are not seen as a direct threat to gang control, and are therefore not usually the object of targeted attacks.”

What does all of this mean? What Zulver’s research brought out is that women’s movements in El Salvador are having to work in opposition to government naratives. This also means that the narratives used by donors and aid agencies, even those working for women’s rights, may not be in line with the movements withing the country. To be relevant, what is needed is a transparent system that listens to divergent voices, particularly ones that are making an effort to be heard despite the high-risk environment.

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