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labor Feminist Organising and the Women’s Strike: An Interview with Cinzia Arruzza

The Sicilian born Marxist-feminist talks about the new, global wave of women-led mobilizations and the continuing importance of class politics.

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Women’s March, Washington, D.C., 2017., Rebecca Pollard on Flickr.com
What is on the international horizon today when it comes to progressive and feminist struggles across the globe? One of the most important actions of contemporary leftist struggles was built around the call, in which you were involved, for a worldwide women’s strike on March 8 earlier this year. Is there a chance we may have a new feminist movement?
I think we do already have an international feminist movement. But let me clarify an important fact: we did not call for a worldwide women’s strike, in spite of the fact that our statement was interpreted this way by a number of media. We called to support the International Women’s Strike that activists around the world had already organised. We also called for organising the strike in the United States, and from this viewpoint we were quite late in the game, which means that we then had to hurry to organise the women’s strike over the course of three weeks. I’m insisting on this point because it is very important to recognise that the women’s strike was not a day of action called for in a voluntaristic way by a group of activist intellectuals. It was a world-wide mobilisation that had its roots in the Polish women’s strike against the abortion ban and its victory, in the wave of women’s strikes and demonstrations in Argentina, in the reawakening of the feminist movement in several Latin American countries, and in the women’s mobilisation in Italy. The call for the international women’s strike grew organically from these already existing struggles: the time for a new feminist movement is ripe. We are in the middle of it and we should take this movement very seriously.
Would you like to describe your experience as an organiser of the strike? One of its slogans aimed to represent the 99% of women, can you tell us what this means? Is there a possibility of maintaining this kind of struggle?
The idea of organising the strike in the United States originated from a set of considerations. The first was that the Women’s March on Washington had revealed the presence of enormous potentialities for feminist mobilising. The second is that there were already a number of collectives, networks and national organisations that were developing an alternative feminism to liberal feminism: class-based, anti-racist, and inclusive of trans women, queer and non binary people. Once again, calling for the strike was not just a voluntaristic move in the States, as it came from the awareness that another feminism was already there: the strike served the purpose of creating a national non-sectarian network of organisations and individuals, of making this other feminism visible, of breaking the hegemony of the kind of corporate feminism embodied by Hillary Clinton and her feminist supporters, and finally of empowering working class, migrant and black women.
This is what we meant by the slogan ‘a feminism for the 99 per cent’: a class-based feminism capable of articulating demands and political positions that speak to the complexity of the lived experience of the cis and trans women left behind by corporate and lean-in feminism. From this viewpoint, even the adoption of the term ‘strike’ to define our day of action was meant to emphasise the work that women perform not only in the workplace, but also outside of it. To move forward and manage to maintain a continuity, a feminist movement for the 99 per cent needs to be rooted in a general process of reactivation of class struggle. We received some criticisms for using the term ‘strike’, as we are not a union and we did not have sufficient contacts with labour organisations.
Over the course of recent years however we have seen a number of important labour mobilisations organised by non-traditional labour organisations and networks, for example, the campaign Fight for Fifteen or the mobilisations organised by ROC, movements such as Black Lives Matter, and in the past months the migrants’ strikes and mobilisations against the Wall and the Muslim Ban. Now, instead of seeing all these forms of mobilisations as in alternative with each other or as in alternative to labour organising in the workplace, we should see them as all various forms in which class struggle is currently taking place, forms that potentially empower each others and create the conditions for organising work stoppages in the workplace.
The women’s strike was part of this process: it has contributed to politically re-legitimise the term ‘strike’ in the States, it has caused non-conventional work stoppage in three school districts, and it has given visibility to labour organisations where the majority of workers are women, such as ROC or NYSNA, or to instances of local labour organising and workplace struggles led by women and queer people.
In a recent article for Jacobin, you spoke about some ‘dangers’ of anti-Trumpisim and lessons we have to take in account in comparison with anti-Berlusconism, what might be the problems?
The risk is that of not seeing the continuity between Trump’s policies and the policies carried on by the Democratic Party under Obama’s presidency. I’m not arguing that there are no differences, obviously, but I do think that we need to see Trump’s version of neoliberalism as the outcome of decades of neoliberal, anti-immigrant and anti-black policies that have taken place both under Republican and Democratic administrations. The election of Trump is, in my view, an indictment of eight years of Obama’s presidency. For how is it possible that after eight years of a presidency that started with the slogan ‘Yes, we can’, we ended up with a misogynistic and racist authoritarian as the new President?
From this viewpoint, while the first months of Trump’s presidency have seen a promising surge of struggles and resistance, it would be a strategic mistake to only mobilise against Trump, without also addressing the political bankruptcy of the Democratic Party’s politics. In order to defeat Trump, we need to articulate a radical alternative not only to Trump but also to the kind of progressive neoliberalism embodied by Hillary Clinton.
Do you think a Clinton victory would have added anything for the women’s movement? Would she represent a true solution against the candidacy of Donald Trump? Are the women who did vote for her partially responsible for the election of Trump?
During the primaries, Sanders’ campaign was the target of constant attack by liberal feminists supporting Clinton, who claimed that it was anti-feminist to vote for Sanders and that women should unite under the banner of the ‘women’s revolution’ embodied by Clinton. This kind of feminism has utterly failed. At the presidential election the majority of white women, particularly those without college education, preferred to vote for an openly misogynistic candidate rather than the alleged champion of women’s rights, Clinton.
Of course, plain racism does explain part of this vote. But there are other factors that should be taken into account, and the question we should ask ourselves is: which women have actually benefitted from the kind of liberal feminism embodied by Clinton? In the Seventies a woman with college education still earned on average less than a man without college education. In the decade 2000–2010 the situation appeared entirely changed: while the average income of working class women and men stayed flat, elite women’s earnings increased faster than elite men’s earnings, and in 2010 a high earning woman made on average more than 1.5 times as much as a middle class man.
In a recent piece in The Nation, Katha Pollitt has articulated what liberal feminism is about, while also taking for granted that liberal feminism represents the whole of feminism or what feminism in general is and should be. Reproductive rights and – I guess – the fight against gender discrimination are the only demands clearly identifiable as ‘feminist’, unlike the fight against racism, war, poverty, environmental crisis, etc. Looking at the lived reality of working class, migrant women and women of color, I really don’t see what this brand of feminism has to actually offer to them. Equal pay, for example, seems to be a worthy cause, but if decoupled from demands concerning minimum wage it means nothing to working class women, as wage equality can also be achieved by feminising men’s labour and compressing men’s wages to the bottom.
At the end of the day, this brand of feminism turns out to be a project for elite women’s self-promotion. We can of course ally and fight together on unifying issues such as reproductive rights, but other than that I’m afraid we want very different things.
Your book Dangerous Liaisons functions as a kind of a historical review of feminist struggles but with the emphasis on revolutionary or progressive histories of feminist movement and theory. One of your major theoretical aims was to try to link the feminist movement with the class struggle but also bring it closer to organisational and political questions. If we read contemporary Marxist feminism as a threefold story (starting with dual system theories of domestic labour debate, materialism in the line of Christine Delphy and unitary theory) can you argue that the social reproduction theory is the key to understanding gender/sexuality under capitalism?
Well, this is the kind of theory I’m trying to develop, so of course my answer is: yes! This question would need a very long explanation, but to give a short summary: dual systems theories are in my view motivated by the legitimate aspiration to give prominence to gender and racial oppression and avoid the kind of economic reductionism that is at times still supported by some Marxists or socialist activists. The problem with this solution, however, is that it raises more theoretical difficulties than it can solve. Social reproduction theory tries to do something different, namely to re-conceptualise what we mean by capitalism, challenging the notion that capitalism is an economic system, and rather insisting on seeing capitalism as a totality of social relations, the core of which is capitalist accumulation, but in which production and reproduction are intimately linked.
If we look at capitalism in this way, then we can see how racism or sexism are not two systems interacting with a third economic system – capitalism –, but are rather sets of relations of domination and oppression that are integral part of the conditions of capital’s reproduction and are constantly produced and reproduced by the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. This also makes the question whether class struggle should have priority over ‘identity-based’ struggles not only obsolete, but also entirely misleading. On the one hand, if we think of the class as a political agent, then gender, race and sexuality are intrinsic components of the way people experience themselves and their relation to the world and to their conditions of existence, hence they are necessarily part of the way they will get politicised and struggle.
People do not experience race, class or gender inequality as separate phenomena, people’s lived experience is not compartimentalised in this way: how one person is racialised is going to deeply shape the way she is exploited and will experience her exploitation, and viceversa. Political organizing cannot make abstraction from people’s experience, it must actually begin from people’s concrete experience, otherwise it ends up into rationalism: into the projection of bookish blueprints about what class struggle means or should mean upon people’s lived reality.
On the other hand, if feminism and anti-racism want to be projects of liberation for all feminised and racialised people, then the question of capitalism is unavoidable. At this point the real question becomes: what kind of feminism or anti-racism do we need? The problem we had in past decades, for example, is not that identity-based struggles replaced class struggle, it is rather that the liberal position within feminist struggles and debates became hegemonic. How to break this hegemony is what we should discuss today, the debate about identity-based struggle versus class struggle misidentifies the problem, creates unnecessary divisions, and should be dropped once and for all.
In one of her articles from the mid-1990s Bianca Beccalli mentions that the radical feminist movement that was created in Italy during the mid-1970s has almost disappeared. Do you agree with her claim? If yes, why did this happen? Is it possible to say that radical feminism has become the ‘handmaiden’ of capitalism?
I certainly agree with her. But this is a process that is not specific to Italy and that refers to the decline of class struggle everywhere. What happened in Italy, specifically, is that differentialist feminism became the hegemonic form of feminism, including in left organisations like Rifondazione Comunista. The wealth of Marxist contributions to feminism, for example coming from the tradition of Operaismo, became mostly neglected.
I do not believe that radical feminism became the handmaiden of capitalism, but I do think that differentialist feminism did. Just to give you an example, in a volume published in 2008, the main proponent of differentialist feminism, Libreria delle donne, defended the spread of part-time as a form of work that would allow women to say a double yes: to maternity and to work. Well, from 1993 to 2013 the rate of part-time contracts over the total of women’s labour contracts grew from 21 per cent to 32.2 per cent and 80.7 per cent of part-time employees are women. 22.4 per cent of women workers under the age 65 drops out of the formal labour market because of family-related reasons, and the rate is up to 30 per cent  for women with children. As a result, ISTAT predicts that a large mass of women will spend the last decades of their lives in poverty. How feminist is that?
You argue correctly that one of the most important contributions to queer theory was made by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter. In your work you mention some of the problems with Butler’s, and radical feminism’s, stress on the ideological character of gender oppression and its psychological implications at the cost of often reducing the complexity of reality to the level of language, or even dehistoricisation of the relations of oppression between the sexes. Can you briefly explain your critique?
I do not criticise Butler for addressing gender only from an ideological or psychological viewpoint, because she certainly doesn’t do that, as she takes into account the variety of institutions and relations of power that contribute to constitute gender, and these go well beyond discursive practices. I rather criticise two aspects of her take on performativity. The first is that she presents performativity as the way gender is reified in general and does not take into account the possibility that her description rather refers to a specific form of gender reification, one that takes place within late capitalism and is directly related to mass consumption (an argument made for the reification of sexual identities by Rosemary Hennessy and Kevin Floyd, for example). Capitalism is not even mentioned in her early work on gender.
The second is that she adopts Derrida’s interpretation of Austin’s speech acts as a method of interpretation of social relations and history more in general, for example by applying the notion of ‘iteration’ to the interpretation of subversive acts, to struggles. What I try to explain in my article is that this application of linguistic notions to extralinguistic reality has serious limitations and does not help us understand the historical dynamic of struggles. For example, I don’t see how such a thing as a historical event can take place within that conceptual framework.
As a professor of philosophy can you comment on two things: what is it like to be a woman philosopher today in a traditionally very ‘masculine’ discipline, also given the fact that philosophy has historically been quite misogynistic? And, what do you think about widespread methodology in philosophy that avoids social history, suggesting that we shall understand philosopher better if we deal ‘only’ with texts?
I am a historian of philosophy, more specifically of ancient philosophy, and I studied in Italy where the discipline is not particularly masculine, or at least certainly less so than in the United States or Germany. In my field there are a number of very prominent women philosophers and from this viewpoint I have been quite lucky, as less exposed to the kind of isolation that, for example, my queer and women students often feel.
That said, philosophy clearly has a problem. On the one hand there is the canon, and the exclusion of non-Western philosophy, for example the various schools of Chinese philosophy, as well as of a number of women philosophers. On the other hand there is the predominance of ideal theory in ethics and political thought, especially within the analytic tradition. Let me just say that if we take the task of political theory and ethics to be to help us address, identify, and clarify actual social, political, and ethical problems, ideal theory is basically useless.
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This is an edited version of a Salvage interview. 
Political Critique is a pan-European online magazine for democracy, equality and culture beyond the nation-state. One of its main premises is to combine and confront different perspectives.