The "Crisis" in Feminism and Labor in Transition

Jennifer Cotter


In all class societies, at historical junctures when class contradictions reach a crisis moment, there is a shift in the social logic. The world is explained in, broadly, spiritual terms in order to obscure the material social relations as cultural values and represent class antagonisms (that have now broken through the surface of the "old" social logic) as cultural differences. It is on these terms that, in the wake of the increasing collapse of the U.S. economy and the ongoing imperialist wars, feminism in the West has (once again) become increasingly fascinated with its own "end." Feminism (like socialism, history, ideology…) is said to have been exhausted ("ended") because, for example, it is believed that the project of women's freedom is over. It is over, the argument goes, because feminism is in "crisis." Feminism has lost its way. Many women have become successful and have abandoned projects concerned with women's freedom, others hope to become successful and talk about "post-feminism," and many have simply given up and have concluded that there is no feminism and that the collective project to free women from economic exploitation and social inequality is "finished." 

By most counts, to be clear, contemporary feminists do not actually openly declare an "end" (as "exhaustion") to feminism as do conservative cultural critics (e.g., Kay Hymowitz, "The End of Herstory," City Journal 2002 and Phyllis Schlafly, Feminist Fantasies, 2003). To openly declare an "end" to feminism is considered to be an act of closure and a denial of difference. "End," after all, also implies that there is a historical beginning to feminism, a decisive axis of political action and social transformation, and a material super-session of the totality of relations of exploitation and inequality for women and, therefore, a new opening to history (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program). This revolutionary feminism, which situates the exploitation and inequality of women within the social totality of capitalism and the exploitation of all workers, was more or less abandoned by the "left" in the West in the wake of the collapse of the long boom and the fall of profits in the early 1970s, with the onset of a new period of brutal assault by capital to reprivatize any modicum of collective material conditions of life for workers around the world in order to transfer wealth upward. The notion of ending the exploitation and oppression of all women through the collective transformation of social praxis (revolution)—and specifically the transformation of the material relations of production in capitalism—became too much of a burden for the U.S. and European left whose "way of life" was now more glaringly shown to be dependent upon capital's exploitation of workers both at "home" and around the world. With the economic crisis of 1973, therefore, a new mode of social analysis emerged in the West in which inequalities of gender, sexuality, race and even "class" were increasingly abstracted from the class contradictions of capitalism (private property relations) and all social, economic, and political matters were explained in cultural terms. This turn to culture has obscured the social relations of production as "cultural values" and represented the material contradictions of labor as epistemology and cultural meaning. 

In this mode of social analysis, which was produced as a tool for dismantling revolutionary struggle and adjusting social movements against economic and social inequality to the material interests of capital, there cannot be said to be an "end" to economic exploitation and social inequality for women because this implies that history is the history of the succession of material relations of production and, therefore, requires praxical transformation of material contradictions (revolution). When material contradictions are translated into epistemology and cultural values, it is assumed that there is only a rewriting of the end(s) before this end (Jean François Lyotard, "Re-writing Modernity"). This is to say that, after the Cultural Turn, history is presented as changing, shifting, and coming into "crisis" on the basis of ethical, discursive, philosophical, religious, aesthetic, cultural and, in short, ideological crises and conversions—or the spiritual resolution of material contradictions—precisely in order to obscure the economic crisis of labor endemic to capitalism and the necessity of transforming material relations of production. 

It is on these terms that today contemporary feminism in the West—by which I mean the dominant feminist theory and praxis in the wake of the Cultural Turn which understands gender and sexuality as autonomous from capitalism and class relations—does not openly declare an end to feminism. Instead, much of contemporary feminism presents a counter-narrative of feminism as an ongoing, "vibrant," cacophonous project—with no origin and no end—rich with diverse, conflicting, and contesting cultural values. However, while no one actually dares to utter the word "end" for fear that they may be read as too closural, linear, or reductive, contemporary feminism is still haunted by the spectre of the "end." It alludes to and hints at an "end" (as in "exhaustion") without openly declaring an end to feminism, by declaring that feminism has reached an "impasse" and that it is now time to "renew" feminism—to update and shift its social logic—for a "new era." In what is presented as bringing a breath of fresh air to feminism—particularly in the wake of the collapse of postmodernism—feminist theorists located in the United States and Europe are calling for moving "beyond" the "endless" divides, impasses, and debates over questions of universality and difference, power, identity, etc. that have dominated feminist discussion through the 1980s and early 1990s leading to impasses, dead ends, and so on and turning to the exploration of cultural values as the means of renewing feminism and re-connecting it to the lives of women. 

For example, in her book Literature After Feminism, Rita Felski remarks that "Feminist criticism is a widespread and well-known field of study that [...] has had more impact on the teaching of literature than any other recent school of criticism. It has generated innumerable books, conferences, and articles and has its own phalanx of superstars" (5). But feminism, Felski continues, is a "mixed bag" that, in the wake of postmodernism, has become obsessed with a "fruitless zigzagging between universality and difference" (16). Now that feminism is "an established institution, not a fragile and delicate seedling," Felski argues, it is time to "sort through" feminism and determine "what is worth keeping and what is not" (5). She claims that the source of this "fruitless zigzagging" is that feminism has for too long concerned itself with understanding cultural and aesthetic "values" as "ideology" and, therefore, as "nothing more than an endorsement of current power relations" (164). Feminist critique, according to Felski, has alienated the "female reader" and her "values" and, by implication, it is this critique of culture and values and their relationship to unequal material relations that has turned women off of feminism. "The feminist scholar who earns her living by analyzing texts," Felski states, "is not doing the same thing as the female reader who picks up a book in the hope of finding several hours of enjoyable distraction" (53). In Felski's narrative, feminism benefits more women—and is, therefore, more "valuable"—when it provides "hours of enjoyable distraction" or "pleasure and consolation in aesthetic experience" from women's "exhausting and stressful lives" (53). 

As it turns out, what Felski means by "sorting through" feminism is quite literally the sorting out of feminism any trace of thinking seriously about the material relations of inequality and exploitation under which the majority of women in capitalism live today. Felski is not even remotely interested in the serious examination—let alone transformation—of the material relations that have brought about increasingly "exhausting and stressful lives" for the majority of women, even after some class-fractions of women have become part of a "phalanx of superstars" and moved into positions of economic privilege and institutional power over other working women and men within transnational capitalism. Instead, she celebrates the way in which the "critique-al" consciousness of women in the U.S.—that is, their historical capacities to analyze the superficialities of culture under capitalism and uncover the material relations of exploitation and inequality behind them—has been so dismantled and paralyzed that most women in the West today are immobilized in the face of the rising poverty rates for single mothers, declining social security, inaccessible health care, and the rise of a national security state and the onslaught of imperialist warfare under the pretext of "freedom for women." 

In place of analytical critique and conceptual analysis of material relations behind these contradictions, Felski works to rally women around moral clarity and certitude over "our values" and "way of life." She puts forward the "values" of disengagement from the political and retreat into the aesthetic as self-evidently valuable and in doing so she converts the cultural intelligibilities that are now being used to justify imperialism and the class aggressions of a handful of corporate owners into "new" values for feminism. Moral certitude over "values" and "our way of life" has become the conservative benchmark for ideologically translating U.S. capital's class war to appropriate the cheap labor and material resources of the Middle East and Central Asia into a "culture war" over civilization, democracy, and freedom for women. "Democracy" of "values" has become a political cover for the material transfer of wealth (exploitation) from the "rest" to the "West." Felski's enthusiasm for the "value" of a politically domesticated postcolonial literary canon is especially telling in this regard: 

This literature no longer stands for sober reportage and single-mindedness of purpose; it is no longer viewed as an instrument, a weapon, or a tool. Instead, it is hailed as a polyglot, hybrid, Creole form teeming with multiple and conflicting voices. It is a hodge-podge, a polyphonic mélange, a rich syncretic stew of styles and sources, drawing on diverse literary traditions cross-breeding them in exciting and unexpected ways. Once seen as formally unadventurous, even dull, the postcolonial text is now on the cutting edge of aesthetic excitement. […] Rather than a clarion call to justice, the writing of the non-Western world is now a thoroughly ambiguous mélange of voices that is not easily deciphered. (159)

Felski blocks analytical critique through articulating a new exotica which basically reassures a Western public that the non-Western (literary) world is now "safe" for travel, pleasure, and consumption. This conceals over what lies behind consumption and cultural tourism: the protection of private property and exploitation over material need in transnational capitalism through global militarism. "Values," in other words, are not self-evidently valuable rather they are determined by the material relations outside. As has been made clear in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the outside of the culture of "creole," "hybridity" and the "rich syncretic stew" of values are the same brutal material relations of poverty, racial segregation, and the violent protection of private property over human life (such as the deployment of the National Guard with "shoot to kill" orders to protect Walgreens against starving and homeless people) endemic to capitalism. What the turn to "values" provides is the spiritual aroma of transnational capital which has invited the "other" into the structures of capitalism in order to more effectively exploit her. 

Felski puts forward as the "extremist other" of feminism any "clarion call to justice" on the part of the non-Western world. In doing so she articulates a feminism that sentimentalizes the "values" and aestheticizes the violence of Homeland Security, the National Guard, and the Patriot Act. To put this another way, Felski sentimentalizes the prioritizing of profits over needs, which is what is at stake in Homeland Security, the National Guard, and the Patriot Act. For instance, "the Patriot Act" is the name for the violent criminalizing and pathologizing of all acts of opposition or criticism to the dictatorship of capital and its security junta in the state of the U.S.A. It's ideologic is the notion that to dissent and critique is to be a criminal, that opposition and resistance are the acts of abnormal persons, and that oppositional critique brings about social crisis. Felski does not, of course, come out and say that "calls for justice" should be criminalized. Rather, she takes the more "moderate" position that we should "value" the end of such calls. But "clarion calls for justice" and oppositional critique are an objective outcome of class contradictions; they are an effect of capitalist social relations of production and the inequalities they produce. The "end" of such calls is also the effect of material developments in class contradictions. To value the "end" of "clarion calls for justice"—without the transformation of class relations—is to value the violent suppression of workers' struggle against capitalism through national security juntas, global militarism, and pre-emptive strikes.

In a recent interview for Stacy Gillis et al's Third Wave Feminism, Elaine Showalter's comments make the class interests of the contemporary "renewing" of feminist values even more stark. She argues that feminism "cannot pretend anymore that no women have power" (61-62). "Feminism," Showalter remarks, "has operated for several decades on an ethics of powerlessness" when, instead, for a feminism of the 21st century, "we need to investigate an ethics of power" (Gilles et al 61). Feminism as a critique of social inequality and economic injustice and the material relations that produce them, and as a mode of organizing to transform these relations, according to Showalter and a growing number of feminists, is over. It has become "out of date" in the face of women's achievements in leadership, government, and business. By focusing its critique on the way in which the existing social relations continue to oppress and exploit women, so this argument goes, feminism has gotten in the way of "making alliances" for real change. It is therefore time to "let go of feminism" (61-62). For Showalter, although "academics, social workers, and welfare mothers" may have "good ideas" they have no "real leverage" for making change and thus, she concludes, "I would invite some rich women to these discussions" (62). The (post-) feminism of today, she claims, needs to concern itself with "women who are powerful economically and politically as well as women who make things happen" (63). 

It is, of course, not surprising to see Showalter, who has established herself as a "academic celebrity" in the pages of Vogue by defining the class privilege of some women to wear haute couture clothing as a feminist act, now define feminism as a means of intervening in the obstacles that stand in the way of the class interests of wealthy and powerful women ("The Professor Wore Prada"). Showalter's comments are notable, however, because they mark the degree to which many contemporary feminists have abandoned the principles of social transformation and materialist analysis of the oppression and exploitation of women that situates it as an effect of social relations and have increasingly moved toward the notion that women's material conditions of life are of their own making. Showalter's implication is that women—for example so called "welfare mothers"—are not oppressed and exploited by structurally unequal economic and social relations but by cultural values of "powerlessness"—what has been chastised in right-wing blogs such as Free Republic and American RealPolitik as a "culture of victimhood." In fact, Showalter's very use of the term "welfare mother" is an index of the degree to which many contemporary feminists—in the name of a "re-newed" feminism—have moved to the political and economic project of the right. For instance, Showalter's argument that it is "rich and powerful women" who will make all the difference for a 21st century feminism is identical to the strategies of the Bush administration and its tax laws, which give tax breaks to the wealthiest segments of the population. Like Showalter's view that it is wealthy and powerful women that will benefit the most exploited and oppressed segments of the female population, the defense of corporate welfare is, of course, that such tax breaks, by giving the most wealthy and powerful economic rewards, will "trickle down" in jobs, resources, health care provisions, etc. for working men and women who do not otherwise have access to wealth. What historical evidence has shown however, is that such "trickle down" measures have actually resulted in a massive transfer of wealth to the wealthiest segments of society—a transfer that has contributed to a situation in which, compared to 30 years ago, the income of the top 1% of the U.S. has grown from 133 times the bottom 20% to 189 times the bottom fifth ("Ever Higher" The Economist 19 December 2004). 

In a similar but slightly more subtle vein, Robyn Wiegman, in the introduction to her anthology Women's Studies on Its Own, remarks that "those of us trained by the founding generation [of second-wave feminists] have the opportunity to carry something forward, and to do so from within the positions of power that feminism in the academy has made possible for us" (2). Women who are working in positions of power in the institutions of capitalism (in particular in academia), in Wiegman's narrative, can now tip their hats to earlier feminist critiques of inequality between women and consider their own positions of power as a "positive political inheritance" for feminism (2). But, she makes clear, it is now time to move beyond debates over inequality and power between women and "think about the field otherwise" (3). These debates, according to Wiegman and other contributors to Women's Studies on Its Own, only lead to an "impasse" (Wiegman) "general malaise" (Rachel Lee), "faulty and damaging divides" (Kaplan and Grewal)—in short, the "crisis" of feminism. According to Wiegman there is a "difference that resides in the present" which now requires feminists to rethink feminism. In this regard, Wiegman remarks: "how non-identical are our motivating factors and how newly legible are the contexts and problems that generate this important rethinking of the interventionary project of the field" (44). This is another way of saying that we are in a "new era" in which the social inequalities and material contradictions for women have fundamentally changed. According to Wiegman, in this so called "new era" the "central problematic and most important animating feature of feminism as a knowledge formation" is the "impossibility of coherence" of feminism or of our conception of women (170). 

In each of these stories of "feminism now" there is assumed to be, as Wiegman remarks, a "difference that resides in the present" requiring a "rethinking" of feminism. Feminism has become an established institution in the culture of capitalism—from academia, to politics, business, international relations, non-governmental organizations, Hollywood, haute couture, and so on—and many women now occupy positions of power when they would not have a few generations ago. Feminism in the West, this story also presupposes, has become a progressively multicultural, transnational, polysexual, multilingual and "inclusive" movement with the criticisms of women of color, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, and the "innovations" of poststructuralist and postmodern theories of differences. Feminism has, according to this narrative, gone from a movement that was once absorbed with a monolithic, white, straight, and logocentric conception of "Woman" to a "post-movement" that is a collection of diverse and contesting values, an incoherency of positions—what Felski calls a "hybrid polyglot" of inclusivity and what Wiegman calls the "impossibility of coherence." Now that the "lessons" of the past few decades of feminism have been "absorbed," there is something still standing in the way of feminism causing it to come to an impasse or "crisis"—threatening its end or exhaustion—from which feminism now needs to be cleansed and renewed. What we find out is that, according to these narratives, what is standing in the way of so called "feminism" is, simply put, the residue of any serious project of social transformation of the material relations of capitalism to bring about economic and social equality for women. The critique of unequal material relations and the struggle to transform them are the "old" values of feminism that only stand in the way of feminism and women and, so the story goes, it is time to move on to a "new" and "renewed" feminism. 

While most contemporary feminists formally distance themselves from narratives of "origin" "progress" and "end," they in fact assume an end to feminism by virtue of the success (progress) of some women within capitalism—that some women have become more wealthy, powerful, and successful by gaining a greater share of the distribution of social wealth. Although they don't openly declare an end to feminism, and therefore keep talk about feminism alive, the dominant understanding of feminism's "crisis"—and the transition from the "old" to the "new"—is grounded on the assumption that feminism (or at least earlier generations of feminism) has achieved and accomplished what it set out to and that in the contemporary historical situation the "older" goals of social transformation for the emancipation of all women from exploitation and economic inequality cause conflict, division, crisis, and are no longer relevant today. 

This culturalist understanding of "crisis" takes as its starting point the notion that "crises," "divides" and "impasses" in capitalism are the effects of a loss of "ethics," "morality," "unity," etc., when they are actually the objective consequence of exploitation and capitalism's inherent tendency towards a falling rate of profit. In other words, "impasses" and "crises"—including the impasses and "crisis" of contemporary feminism—are not simply cultural and discursive (a loss of "values") they are the effects of material contradictions in production. Feminism is divided and in "crisis" because of deepening inequality for the majority of women in transnational capitalism brought on by exploitation in production while some class-fractions of women have moved into positions of class privilege independent of men. This means that it is not critique, debates and public contestation over "women" and "power" that cause feminism to come into "crisis" rather it is the material contradictions of class society that have made feminism a divided terrain. 

When, for example, Wiegman argues that we should move beyond "impasses" and simply "think about [feminism] otherwise" she is, like Felski and Showalter, ideologically smoothing over the class contradictions in which women live and cleansing feminism of the need to work to transform the material contradictions of women's lives in capitalism now. She is, in other words, producing a ruling class feminism useful to some women who have gained a measure of class privilege within capitalism. The unsaid of these arguments for ending "faulty and damaging divides" and "renewing values" is that crises of capitalism (i.e., the crisis of profit-making)—and the way it is wreaking havoc in the lives of women today—are the result of women's struggles against and opposition to capitalism and not the result of exploitation and capitalism's tendency towards a falling rate of profit. Again, this is a standard conservative argument in a slightly updated language: capitalism is not the problem for women; capitalism and its "efficiencies" are the solution for women. Anything that gets in the way of this "efficiency," this productivity is pathologized as the problem from which feminism needs to renew itself. 

The culturalist perceptions of feminism and its "crisis" are part of a ruling class narrative of feminism that puts forward the interpretation of "free" and "freedom" in purely cultural and legal senses. For example, since, at least on the social surfaces, (some) women in transnational capitalism are seemingly more "free" to express contesting cultural values women are deemed to have material freedom. But "freedom" of expression (whether the expression of desire or the expression of discontent) is an empty freedom because it is a conversion of the material into the cultural. It says that equality is to be found in the expression of one's values but leaves unexamined the material relations of exploitation in which the majority live. 

It is this conversion of the material into the cultural—that is, the translation of the economic contradictions and brutalities of capitalism now into "new" cultural values for feminism—that is really at the heart of the crisis of feminism in the West today and is my main object of study in this essay: how and, more importantly, why contemporary feminism has been appropriated and converted from a struggle for economic equality and freedom from exploitation for all women through the transformation of the social relations of exploitation in capitalism and into a cultural values movement for the majority of women to adapt to living in the ruins of capitalism. 


On the left in general and in feminism in particular in the West, it has become a matter of "commonsense" that cultural change is "material change." To not only make a distinction between cultural change and economic change but also to put forward that economic change determines the cultural is considered to dematerialize and trivialize cultural changes for women and to engage in the height of reductive and totalitarian thinking. Before moving on to resituate the "Cultural Turn" in feminism in the recent history of class relations—and to examine why feminism in the West has retreated further and further into culturalism and spiritualism while the class contradictions of capitalism are becoming more severe and brutal for the majority of women in the world—it is useful first to return to unpack the central lines of contestation for culturalist feminism in the canonic late 1990s debate between Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser over the relation of culture to the economic. In her essay "Merely Cultural," Butler argues against the conceptual distinction between culture and the economic on the grounds that it renders struggles other than class, namely sexuality, as "merely cultural." The "economic/culture" divide, she contends, is a conceptual and analytical anachronism and invention that has presented culture as "immaterial," situated struggles for freedom of (homo)sexuality in this domain of "immaterial culture," and in doing so, has marginalized these struggles as derivative and secondary. To put this another way, Butler's contention is that the emptying of struggles for freedom of sexuality of their economic content is really an effect of the conceptual distinction between "economics" and "culture." To deal with this problem, Butler proposes that it is necessary to deconstruct and abandon the conceptual distinction between "economics" and "culture" in favor of, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have also put it, "the increasing indistinguishability of economic and cultural phenomena" (Empire 275). "Is it possible," Butler asks, "to distinguish, even analytically, between a lack of cultural recognition and a material oppression, when the very definition of legal 'personhood' is rigorously circumscribed by cultural norms that are indissociable from their material effects?" (41). On this basis, she contends, it becomes clear that "sexuality must be understood as part of [the] mode of production" (41). For Butler, the (mis)recognition of sexuality—both "normative sexuality" and the "non-normative sexualities it harbors within its own terms ... [and] the sexualities that thrive and suffer outside of those terms"—are not "merely culture" but are constitutive of economic relations themselves. Moreover, in this view, it is only by understanding sexuality and gender as "part of the mode of production" (and expanding the definition of the economic beyond relations of wage-labor/capital), that struggles over social inequalities of sexuality and gender can be returned to struggles for economic freedom and not reduced to the "merely cultural." 

But of what, according to Butler, do "economic struggles" for freedom of sexuality consist?  The "material" and "economic" struggle for freedom of sexuality, for Butler, is a struggle over cultural recognition and legal personhood. To put this another way, in proposing to redefine sexuality as an economic struggle not "merely cultural," Butler in actuality rewrites the economic relations in cultural terms by, for example, arguing that struggles over "cultural recognition" and "legal personhood" for gays and lesbians are "part of [the] mode of production" itself (41). What this argument does is equate the cultural struggles that appear on the surface of capitalism, particularly for inclusion in private property rights, with fundamental changes in the private property relations themselves and the relationship of sexuality and gender to them. 

In her "Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism: A Response to Judith Butler," Nancy Fraser contests Butler's evacuation of the culture/economic conceptual distinction on the grounds that such a maneuver posits the indistinguishability of cultural and economic phenomena "by definition," not through historical analysis and analytical grasping of material practices. Struggles over sexuality, for example, do not alter the relations of class inequality in capitalism because the regulation of sexuality "structures neither the social division of labour nor the mode of exploitation of labor-power in capitalist society" (145). The historical evidence, she firmly establishes, is that "capitalist society now permits significant numbers of individuals to live through wage labour outside of heterosexual families" (147). Moreover, multinational corporations such as Apple, Disney and American Airlines have shown that they are not incompatible with the recognition of sexual difference by instituting policies such as domestic partner benefits. "Contemporary capitalism," she maintains, "seems not to require heterosexism" (147). 

In the absence of historical evidence that changes in cultural recognition of sexuality have a transformative effect on the social relations of production in capitalism, Fraser concludes that the cultural theory that is most useful for understanding struggles over gender and sexuality is, therefore, one which sees sexuality as strictly a matter of cultural change and, moreover, culture as materially autonomous—not coterminous with and indistinguishable—from the economic. Culture and, therefore, sexuality, she maintains, have their own, independent, materiality. For Fraser, economic inequalities (what Fraser euphemistically calls "economic disabilities") for homosexuals are "better understood as effects of heterosexism in the relations of recognition than as hardwired into the structure of capitalism" (147). The material inequality of gays and lesbians, in other words, is not connected to the structure of wage-labor/capital relations but a matter of how gays and lesbians are culturally valued. The larger lesson of Fraser's text is that culture and cultural values should be the terrain of struggle for economic equality and social justice for those marginalized on the grounds of sexuality and gender. She writes, "The good news is we do not need to overthrow capitalism in order to remedy those disabilities." Capitalism can continue exploiting the labor of workers for profit, and private property relations can continue, with no effect on material inequalities of gender and sexuality and the economic, social, and political equality of homosexuals and women. In other words, she writes the struggle for freedom of sexuality as purely a struggle for cultural, legal and political equality within capitalism. This evacuates feminism as a struggle for economic equality: it re-inscribes it as a ruling class movement based on equality of "values." 

Despite their local differences in how they define the relationship of culture to the economic, what unites the arguments of Fraser and Butler is that, as part of the Cultural Turn in feminism, they convert the economic contradictions of women's lives into matters of cultural values. Their arguments are based on the notion that it is the struggle over cultural norms and values that is the terrain of economic and material freedom on the basis of sexuality and gender. To be clear, the "difference" between Butler and Fraser is that Butler contends that changes in cultural recognition of sexuality and gender "constitute" fundamental changes in wage-labor/capital relations, while Fraser argues that such changes have little or no effect on the relation of wage-labor to capital but, she contends, such changes do constitute material and economic change for women and homosexuals (if not for all workers). These are really formal differences in their main argument: while Butler defines the cultural as constituting the economic, and Fraser defines it as autonomous from the economic, their main argument is that the struggles for material freedom of gender and sexuality are waged on the terrain of battles over legal personhood, cultural recognition, and the way in which human beings are morally, ethically and culturally valued, respected, or esteemed. In other words, material freedom and social justice in the dominant cultural theory are founded on cultural values. 

How effective is this "value theory" of gender and sexuality as a theory of inequality, historical change, and the material relations and social praxis through which this occurs? Have the dramatic cultural changes in gender and sexuality relations, values and mores that have taken place for some—particularly in the West and in cosmopolitan centers of commerce—over the last 50 years (from so called "modernity," through "postmodernity," to "globality") constituted material freedom for women and material freedom of sexuality, thereby offering historical and material evidence that gender and sexuality are best addressed on the terrain of cultural values? Moreover, have these changes in culture, as theorists such as Hardt and Negri seem to maintain, fundamentally transformed the very structures of production in capitalism so that it is no longer based on the exploitation of surplus-labor and is now constituted by the desires of a multicultural, polysexual, transgendered, and transnational "multitude"? 

On the cultural surfaces of capitalism, (some) women's lives, indeed, appear to have changed dramatically since the end of World War II. Women around the world, in the North and in the South, have been more thoroughly incorporated into the waged workforce over the last 50 years. Moreover, owing to greater participation in the workforce, the economic status of many women is not dependent on the income of a husband. In many regions of the world women are a more visible part of public life than in previous generations, with increased political and legal freedoms to take part in political office, business, public institutions, public demonstrations and civilian life. Some women have more freedoms, comparatively speaking, to express their desires or discontent with respect to sexual relations: including pre-marital sex, living outside of monogamy and/or marriage, legal right to birth control and abortion, bearing children outside of marriage, the right to divorce, and sexual relations and/or domestic partnerships with women. 

Yet, these increased "cultural freedoms" of gender and sexuality for (some) women have not freed women from material inequality and economic exploitation. At the same time that women have gained "cultural freedoms" to participate in the paid workforce and women all over the world have become part of the wage-labor force in increasing numbers, women also constitute some of its most exploited sections. Moreover, not only for the majority of women, poverty has increased for all workers:  the top 100 CEOs who 30 years ago made 39 times the average workers income, now make 1000 times their income ("Ever Higher" The Economist 29 December 2004). The wage gap between men and women workers has narrowed, but 59% of this is owing to men's falling wages rather than rising wages for women ("Working Women" AFL-CIO). The moving of women into the workforce and "cultural freedoms" that have coincided with this, in other words, have taken place in the context of a transnational capitalist economy in which the gap between rich and poor has grown astronomically, suggesting that alongside increased employment for women, and increased working hours for those who are employed, wealth is being transferred upward. The incorporation of women into the workforce, in other words, has coincided with increased exploitation—the private appropriation by the few of the surplus-labor of the majority—and the concentration of wealth into fewer hands. Economic freedom is an illusion when women—while culturally and legally "free" to work—make less than men and, along side the majority of men, are subject to exploitation. Moreover, the cultural and legal freedom to wage-work is only a formal freedom not only when women still get paid less than men, but when their increased workforce participation is used as a means to lower wages and increase the rate of exploitation, and when it has coincided with increased poverty of women worldwide. While in the last 50 years capitalism has pulled more women than ever before into the paid workforce–and given new cultural freedoms to women to accommodate these shifts—the gap between rich and poor has grown astronomically and along with it the vast majority of women have sunk deeper and deeper into poverty. For instance: "Working outside the home and being economically independent means [women] don't have to answer to any man, but the 'race to the bottom' on which the expansion of global capital is being built means that, typically, this work entails long hours at low wages and makes caring for children very difficult" (Horgan 1). 

While some women have gained increased cultural freedoms to live and have sexual relations outside of marriage, monogamy, "mono-culturalism" and heterosexuality these polysexual and multicultural "kinship" relations have also coincided with the deeper subordination of sexuality, kinship, and family relations to commodity relations and production for profit. In the United States for example, while less than 25% of the population (compared to 45% in 1960) lives in the traditional "nuclear family" of two married, heterosexual parents with biological children, the increased diversity of the family has not freed kinship and sexual relations from economic inequality under capitalism. As Julie Torrant has argued, "new" polysexual, multicultural, transgeneration kinship, affective, and family relations are not so "new": they do not constitute the transformation of the material structure of the family under capitalism. The family is still an economic unit of capitalism in which (multicultural, polysexual, transgenerational) workers shoulder the cost of social reproduction out of their wages while the socially produced wealth is appropriated by owners ("Why is the New Family So Familiar?"). Households headed by women, for example, while increasingly common, represent one of the fastest growing poverty groups around the world (Horgan 5). 

Moreover, increased cultural acceptance of multiple sexualities, and new transgendered and transnational kinship arrangements, has come hand in hand with the growth of the transnational sex industry, bride exchange, domestic labor migration and the deeper subordination of all modes of sexuality, kinship, and family to commodification and production for profit. When one looks at the historical evidence of "sexual freedom" under capitalism, on one level sexual freedoms seem to have increased and some sexual mores seem to have to relaxed. On another level, however, sexual relations have become more subordinated to commodity production and exchange suggesting that it is not so much freedom of sexuality that had been won but freedom to deploy sexuality on the market and to be ever more subjected to the relations of wage-labor. 

For example, not only "family values" but also "queer values" are enabled by capitalism and marked by its class contradictions. The gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered community (glbt), for instance, has been seen by some on the left as a cultural vanguard of sexual values but closer examination reveals the class divided structure of the material conditions confronting the changing values of glbt. The material conditions of freedom are quite different for instance for an upper-middle class queer urban tribe in Manhattan, Paris, or Tokyo and a brothel of transgendered multi-cultural sex workers in the same cities. While both may be marked by multiple sex partners and both serve as an extended "kinship" structure and are historically speaking a response to the contradictions and failures of the nuclear family and monogamous marriage under capitalism, they are also markers of the limits to and contradictions in "sexual freedom" and "values recognition" under class relations. The transgendered sex workers are otherwise "unemployable," owing to their marginalized status. Their sexuality and "daring," while giving them "freedom" from conventional family values, does not give them economic freedom and, in fact, is used as a tool of exploitation against them making them "more or less expensive to use" (Marx, Manifesto 115). The marker of this economic unfreedom is that sexuality is subordinated to the commodification of sexual relations, to economic compulsion, and the subordination of sexual relations to financial considerations. These constraints are not simply matters of "cultural values" with economic repercussions; rather, the cultural values are themselves an effect of the social relations of production in capitalism and the fact that all levels of human existence—including sexuality—are subordinated to production for profit. 

The seeming exception to the general deterioration of women's conditions of life in transnational capitalism is that there is now a small minority of women, alongside and independent of ruling class men, who own and control the material wealth of society and, therefore, wield tremendous power over the life conditions of other men and women. Moreover, some women have also increasingly joined the ranks of upper-middle class managers and receive substantial remunerations from capital for their services of managing workers (both men and women) to adjust to the imperatives of transnational capital and production for profit. For this small minority of women, changes in cultural values have meant the opportunity to wield class power and privilege independent of men. However, their "freedoms" are themselves not representative of freedoms for women but of class freedoms, which are materially dependent on the exploited labor of others including the vast majority of women. For example, the "freedom" of ruling class and high managerial women from the constraints of the family under capitalism and for leisure time either entirely away from or in addition to work is made possible not by material freedom for all women but by the exploitation of others, including women employed as domestics and caregivers. Exploitation, in other words, has continued along into "new" social and cultural relations of gender and sexuality. While on the surface of capitalism there appear to be new freedoms that suggest a break within capital from its exploitative past, if we go into the "hidden abode of production" we find that the same, fundamental division between capital and wage-labor still shapes social difference, culture and cultural freedoms (Capital 279).  


The historical and material developments in capitalism now throw into sharp relief the "value theory" of gender and sexuality, which argues that cultural change is economic change. This theory has been unable to explain the fact that exploitation and increasing economic inequality have been brought along into changed social and cultural relations and have accompanied new cultural representation and "freedoms" of gender and sexuality. Changes in cultural representations, values, and "everyday" practices of gender and sexuality, in other words, do not constitute material and economic freedom for women from the exploitation of their labor and increasing poverty in capitalism. Moreover, the counter-part to this culturalist argument—that what is lacking and, therefore, what is needed for freedom are the further extension of "cultural freedoms" of "recognition" and "ethical value"—has been unable to explain why, historically, new "cultural values" of recognition are produced and why they have coincided with increased impoverishment of the majority of women worldwide, the deterioration of the economic freedoms of the majority of men and women in transnational capitalism, and the transfer of wealth away from social resources in education, childcare, healthcare, social security and toward corporate welfare, the defense budget, and other measures that defend the freedom of transnational corporations to make a profit. 

Feminism in the wake of the Cultural Turn has been and is increasingly unable to explain and work to transform the deepening social and economic contradictions of gender and sexuality in capitalism now because it has bypassed issues of labor and abandoned a materialist conception of history for culturalist conceptions of gender and sexuality as autonomous signifying practices, cultural singularities, and values. It has cleansed feminism of any historical understanding of the relationship of differences such as gender and sexuality to the material relations of production in capitalism, to the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, and particularly to class as a material relation of the subject of labor to ownership of the means of production; a social relation based on the exploitation of surplus-labor. The retreat into culturalism has become so deep in contemporary feminism in the West that as the class contradictions of capital are sharpening and have broken out into imperialist warfare, and women's conditions of life are deteriorating in the cross-fire, many feminists in the West are retreating further and further into spiritual and religious explanations of the material contradictions that emanate from exploitation in production, making it harder and harder to connect the relationship of women's deteriorating conditions of life to the material processes of capitalism (see, for example, M. Jacqui Alexander's Pedagogies of Crossing). 

The materialist conception of history, by contrast, is the understanding that "the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life" (Engels 6). It proceeds from the understanding that social transformation is not constituted by a transformation of culture or values, but by a transformation of the material relations of production. Marx explains this in the following way in the "Preface" to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness… 


…[I]n studying […] transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. (Marx, Preface 20-21) 

This means, among other things, that culture and cultural change do not transcend the mode of production. Ideas and values—including our changing values of gender, sexuality, what is meant by "feminism," and whether or not it has a "future"—do not have their own autonomous meaning and value rather they become "valuable" as a result of material contradictions that originate in production. Culture under capitalism is a product of private property relations. Culture and cultural change cannot "act" independently of the material relations that make it possible. To bring about material transformation requires transformation of the social relations of production. 

The reason that the materialist conception of history and the distinction between the "economic" and the "cultural" is necessary for feminism is because it enables those struggling for social transformation to read the difference between the cultural changes in, for example, gender and sexual relations that occur as a response to the intensification of class contradictions in capitalism and the way it extracts surplus labor and material changes that result from the transformation of the production relations themselves. To collapse the distinction between the "cultural" and the "economic" is to erase the material difference between cultural shifts in capitalism, which derive from the development of its forces of production and the intensification of class contradictions between the forces and relations of production and material transformation, which derives from the transformation of the social relations of production (private property relations). In doing so, this collapse substitutes changes in the modes through which the subject of labor is given the necessary "cultural skills" to live under increased class contradictions and more complex strategies for securing surplus-labor for the transformation of the relations of exploitation themselves. "Feminism," under these conditions, becomes a means for reforming and updating gendered and sexed subjectivities to culturally, subjectively and psychologically adjust to more complex and sophisticated modes of exploitation—and increasingly brutal economic and social inequalities—as the class contradictions of capitalism intensify, but not of transforming social relations of production based on exploitation.  

One of the first steps for producing a theory and praxis of transformative feminism is to break with the contemporary feminist embrace of the "Cultural Turn" and its reformist conception of social change that we find in feminist theories such as those articulated by Butler and Fraser and, instead, produce a materialist theory of social difference and historical change. What feminism needs is a labor theory of gender and sexuality that grasps that feminism's relationship to historicity is a material relation of labor. This means that, contrary to the commonsense of canonical feminisms, social differences such as gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity are not primarily "discursive constructs," "signifying practices," "literary categories" or matters of identity, affect, values, ethics, or even public policy or law rather, they are social relations of capital. Moreover, the way feminism and the transformation of material relations of exploitation and oppression of women are articulated in history is not homologous to cultural changes such as changes in cultural representations, signifying practices, legal arrangements and public policy, management styles and strategies, lifestyles, desires, affects, values and/or cultural productions of women. 

To explain gender, sexuality, and other social differences as "social relations of capital," is to understand them as what Delia Aguilar calls "class-bound" issues situated in the world-historical material processes of capitalism. By understanding social differences as "class bound" issues, Aguilar more specifically means that they are social relations bound to the material relations of production based in the exploitation of surplus-labor (413).[1]  Class, to be clear, is not an "identity" it is a material relation of production. Class—understood as the relation of the subject of labor to ownership of the means of production—is the root issue for feminism and struggles for economic equality and social justice because class (the relation between those who own the means of production and exploit the surplus-labor of others who only have their labor-power to sell in order to survive) is the material relation that structures all other social relations in capitalism. This is because it is the material relation that determines whether or not people own the means of production and therefore command over the labor of others and the ends and interests toward which the socially produced wealth is put or whether they are exploited and live in abject poverty. The capitalist mode of production, which is at its root a social relation of production for profit, does not fundamentally rely on the exclusion of difference; rather, it relies on the exploitation of surplus-labor for profit. In the course of its historical development, moreover, capitalism produces differences: it produces increasingly complex divisions of labor in order to increase its capacity to extract surplus-labor and with these complex divisions of labor, in turn, it also produces the cultural means and "practical consciousness" through which the subject of labor adjusts to these divisions. The "differences" that are acquired in the formation of "identities" are a culturalizing of the material relations of capitalism. 

Social differences such as gender, sexuality and race are forged out of the material processes of capitalism namely, the social division of labor and private property relations (the social relations of production). They are produced and change as an effect of these material relations of production. Moreover, they become markers of social difference, historical indexes of social inequality, and sites of social struggle because of class—that is, because of the division of labor and property relations between owners and workers. "Gender," for instance, has a material history in the sexual division of labor in the family in class society. Cultural practices of "femininity" and "masculinity" are an articulation and culturalizing of the division of labor between "reproductive" and "productive" labor in, for example, early industrial capitalism when women are primarily located in reproductive labor in the home.   

However the "gender division of labor"—e.g., where women are located in the division of labor between production and reproduction, or paid or unpaid labor and what occupations they hold vis-à-vis men—is not autonomous from class relations nor do they "constitute" these relations. The gender division of labor is dependent on and determined by the root division of labor and property relations between owners and laborers: in capitalism the division between capital (exploiter) and wage-labor (exploited). Engels discusses this in his historical analysis of the way in which the transformation of the mode of production and property relations from feudalism to capitalism, and the shifting of social production from the patriarchal household under feudalism to modern industry under capitalism put the gender division of labor "topsy-turvy simply because the division of labor outside the family had changed" (158). This transformation of property relations in production transformed the character of women's labor and placed women in a relationship of economic dependence on men. 

The basic understanding that "gender division of labor" is itself the effect of class is also applicable in capitalism now: production for profit has now pulled women en masse into the workforce and has altered gender and sexual relations to accommodate this shift. Yet, these new modes of gender and sexuality relations are still used as tools of exploitation by, for example, placing women into contingent, part-time, and low-paid workforces. What underpins not only changes in the location of women in the workforce but in reproductive relations and matters of lifestyle, personal relations, and the daily practices of "gender" and "sexuality" is, under capitalism, production for profit. Gender and sexual relations in this respect are determined by class relations and the division between those who own the means of production and therefore command over the material resources and conditions of life of the majority of people of the world and those who only have their labor to sell in order to survive and are exploited. For example, "same sex" marriage and family are not simply sites of autonomous desire, choice, and affect rather they are "class-bound" sites of economic necessity and compulsion under changing labor relations in capitalism. For many, "same sex marriage" has become an economic necessity under capitalism. Yet, at the same time, "same-sex" marriage and family—like heterosexual marriage and family—is a "private property" relation marked by class inequality. It is not indicative of and does not bring about freedom of sexuality from privatized social reproduction in capitalism in which the cost of social reproduction of the workforce is the private responsibility of workers and in which some families live off of profit while the majority live off of wages and are exploited.  

Gender and sexuality each have a material history in the social division of labor. What make "gender" and "sexuality" sites of social struggle and change is that they are reproduced as tools of exploitation. They are used in capitalism as a means to raise or lower the rate of exploitation. This is both the case in terms of the way in which gender and sexuality are used to raise or lower wages as well as, for example, the way in which gender and sexuality are used to control the rate of growth and development of the working population and, therefore, control capital's access to the supply of exploitable labor. But these measures are themselves dependent on the social relations of production: the fact that capital relies on labor-power to produce surplus-labor for profit. Capitalism, in other words, reproduces social differences—and requires changes to cultural relations—to pull workers in and out of the workforce, raise or lower their wages, depending on what is most profitable. 

With this in mind, material freedom for women is not simply a matter of their relocation in the workforce nor is it a matter of the changes in everyday gender and sexuality practices that the inculcation of women into wage-labor has made necessary. Rather it is a matter of emancipation from exploitation through the praxical transformation of social relations of production based on private ownership in which some can own the means of production and therefore command over the lives and exploit the surplus-labor of the majority. In short, to transform the material relations of inequality for women means not simply cultural changes in how gender and sexuality are represented, lived and experienced but requires the transformation of private property relations that make gender and sexuality sites of exploitation.  

This does not mean that feminism should abandon culture as a terrain of analysis and critique. Rather, it needs to re-understand culture materially and historically. Culture, while analytically and materially distinct from the economic, is not autonomous, it is forged on the basis of labor and property relations and is a bearer of economic interests. But culture is also "inversive" meaning that it is a transcoding of material contradictions: culture cannot resolve the material contradictions that develop at the point of production. As a product of labor, it is impossible to discuss culture in any analytically and historically explanatory way without examining its relationship to the historical and material relations of production in which the dialectical praxis of labor takes place—that is, its labor and property relations. In class society, "cultural freedoms" regarding gender and sexuality, made possible by the dialectical praxis of labor, are still forged on the basis of private property relations and the exploitation of surplus-labor. Not only does this mean that many of these freedoms are possible only for a small segment of society, it also means that when cultural values and mores in gender and sexual relations change for the majority and "new cultural freedoms" of gender and sexuality are increasingly made available to the majority they are forged on the basis of its exploitative labor relations and used as more and more sophisticated means through which transnational capitalism works to inculcate women into relations of exploitation. 

Seen in this regard, culture also has a role in reproducing the subject of labor for the social relations of production and the historical conditions under which production takes place. Culture, to put this another way, is the apparatus through which the subject of labor—and the subject is always a subject of the dialectical praxis of labor and the social relations of production (property relation) within which labor takes place—is given the consciousness skills made necessary by the material relations of production to act within them. But culture is itself dependent on labor and the social relations of production and does not constitute these material relations and, therefore, it is not the main terrain of material transformation. Culture does not transform the material relations of production (its property relations). But culture is a site in which the class contradictions and dialectical praxis to transform them are "fought out" at the level of ideas. 

The task of feminist cultural theory is to produce materialist cultural critique that offers serious conceptual analysis of the ways in which the economic interests of the ruling class are converted into cultural values and used to obscure the material conditions under which working people, including the majority of women, are exploited. Red Feminist Cultural critique should demonstrate how culture under capitalism is reduced to ideology and deployed to obscure the violence and brutalities of transnational capital, and how it can be made to matter again in struggles for social transformation. While cultural theory—which is a knowledge practice and therefore part of the cultural relations in which human beings fight out material conflicts at the level of ideas–does not itself constitute material transformation for women, it is necessary in struggles for social transformation. 


One of the main problems of feminism after the Cultural Turn is not simply that it fails to "explain" the economic but that it "explains away" the class contradictions confronting women, homosexuals, workers of color… in capitalism today and, in doing so, it contributes to naturalizing and rationalizing exploitation under capitalism and the dismantling of feminism and other "left" movements as movements for revolutionary social transformation. In their canonic culturalist debate Butler and Fraser, for instance, both end up providing a corporate narrative that legitimates class relations by presenting capitalism as the "end of history" for women and homosexuals. By situating material change in the culture of capitalism—without transformation of private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of surplus-labor on which capitalism rests—the value theory of gender and sexuality returns to a ruling class version of history as progress for women and queer and transgendered persons within capitalism. The cultural turn, in other words, ends up taking as universal the class privileges and "progress" of some women who now have moved up in the ranks of class society but ignores the conditions pushing the majority further and further into poverty. The turn to "culture" and the displacement of the "economic" in contemporary feminist theory and practice has been part of a class war by capital on the feminist movement to dismantle its capacity to see through the superficialities of cultural change for women under capitalism and contribute to the struggle to transform material relations of production in capitalism. Moreover, it has been a class war by capital to convert feminism into a ruling class "post-movement" useful for production for profit—one which helps capital by updating the contemporary workforce into the kind of cultural practices and intelligibilities needed by capital to maintain production for profit. 

Today, as I implied in the introduction, contemporary feminists are trying to shore up this class conversion of feminism by extracting the turn to culture from the specific form of speculative philosophy in the West called post-structuralism and by updating culturalist feminism for capitalism now. A more recent interview by Nancy Fraser is a case in point. Fraser, like many feminists today, distances herself from "postmodern feminism" by first rehearsing a distance from what she calls the "standard," "ahistorical" and "self-congratulatory" narrative of progress in feminism in which feminism, through a series of progressive waves, has shifted from a movement dominated by "white middle class heterosexual women" and increasingly become an "inclusive movement that better allows for the concerns of lesbians, women of color, and/or poor and working-class women" (1109). This story, she points out, is "pre-occupied exclusively with developments inside the movement [and] fails to situate interior changes in relation to broader historical developments and the external climate" (1109). Instead of the "standard" interpretation of progress in feminism, Fraser's suggests that the history of feminism should be explained in terms of what she calls the "life cycle of social movements" in which the various so called "phases" of feminism go through an inevitable process of radicalization, normalization, then crisis. For example, in reference to "second wave" or "modern" feminism and the prevalence of social movements which argued for women as part of a social collectivity and the notion that it is possible to fundamentally transform existing material relations, Fraser argues that: 

Such moments, of course, do not and cannot last. The heady spirit of the early second wave was followed by a period of normalization in which feminism eventually became more or less integrated into the existing political structures of the various countries in which it was situated. (1107) 

According to Fraser, such a process is an inevitable part of the ebb and flow—the "life cycle"—of radical social movements. Feminism in the post-WWII years, she contends, has gone through a series of "phases"—from modernism, to postmodernism, to "post-nationalism" or "globalization"—each of which has started out as a "radical resistance" to the limits of the last phase but, by an interminable and indeterminable process of substitution and repetition which she calls the "life cycle of social movements," each ends up normalized in the structures of capitalism, brought to "crisis" (exhausted) for its failures to continue to advance freedom for women, substituted with a "new" version of feminism for "new" conditions, and then the inevitable "life cycle of social movements" repeats. 

In Fraser's "story" of "phases" of feminist history, the explanation that is offered for why specific phases of feminism were brought to crisis and lost their political effectivity for social transformation—why the old became the new—is a mystical one of "bad timing" (1112), of "tragic historical irony" (1111), of the "miraculous resurrection" of neo-liberalism in the face of radical social movements (1110), of the "decline" of "utopian energies" (1109), and of history mysteriously bypassing projects that were once valued as "radical" social movements making these values no longer "make sense" (1110). 

In this story, the contemporary "crisis" of feminism becomes "crisis-as-usual" in which the social contradictions of capitalism—and what capitalism does to adjust itself to new conditions of production and maintain profit—become the normal and existential working of feminism and radical social movements. The "cure" for the "crisis-as-usual" is the usual cure to install a "new" set of feminist values. In the face of "crisis," it is taken for granted as commonsense that for feminism to matter again its task is to update itself to produce a "new" feminism—a new set of cultural values of gender and sexuality—for the "new" times. The task of feminism as each so called "phase" begins to unfold, and prior to being brought to crisis, is according to Fraser to produce a "Zietdiagnose" (a diagnosis of the times)—a diagnosis of the cultural politics and values that prevail at a particular historical juncture—and on the basis of this Zietdiagnose to update its gender and sexual politics accordingly. For instance, according to Fraser, during the time in which social democracy and the welfare state were prevalent, it "made sense to try to marry a feminist perspective with the New Left critique of the welfare state" in order to "extend its egalitarian ethos from class to gender to beyond" (1110, 1111). When "social democracy [was] on the defensive" owing to a "miraculous" return of "neo-liberalism" from the historical dustbin, and feminists were "unable to make headway against the injustices of political economy" it then "made sense" for feminists to give up on questions of political economy and shift focus onto issues of "recognition" and "cultural value" of "difference." Now that we are moving into a new era of "globalization," so the story goes, it "makes sense" once again to "update" feminism to the global values and concerns of "the times" by turning to questions of new forms of "state" in "non-governmental organizations" and "redistribution." 

In place of materialist analysis and critique of history, Fraser offers a truncated genealogy of feminism that spiritualizes the historic dismantling of the revolutionary feminist movement in the west and its conversion into a class based post-movement of values for the success of some women in capitalism. She does so by abstracting the cultural apparatuses of capitalism—from modernity, to postmodernity, and now what she calls "post-nationalism" or "globalization"—from the continuing social relations of production in capitalism. While Fraser now distances her culturalist arguments from postmodernism by suggesting that "postmodern feminism" cannot be understood as progress, she once again reduces change for women to changes in the cultural apparatuses of capitalism. The "failure" of postmodern feminist politics of recognition to bring about social and economic equality for women is cleansed of its relationship to the social relations of production in capitalism. Feminism, for Fraser, is synonymous with the adjustment of women to the cultural apparatuses of capitalism. In this context, the values of "modern feminism," "postmodern feminism" and now "post-national feminism" that "make sense" for some women in capitalism are taken by Fraser to be self-evidently valuable for feminism at the time. But cultural values are never self evidently valuable. As Marx puts it: "Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself" (i.e., by his values) "so one cannot judge... a period of transformation by its consciousness, but on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life" (21). It is therefore necessary to move beyond this essentially theological explanation of the "crisis" of feminism and examine its cultural crisis in relation to the economic crisis of capitalism. 

To put this another way, the cultural changes that have occurred in relations of gender and sexuality within capitalism—and the shift of the dominant feminisms from "modern," to "postmodern," and now "post-postmodern" feminisms—are the effects of material developments in the economic contradictions of capitalism. What Fraser calls the "phases" of feminism—"modern," "postmodern" and "global feminism"—need to be reunderstood in relation to the social relations of production in capitalism. Modernity and postmodernity, for example, are cultural apparatuses of capitalism. Modernity, postmodernity, and globalization—and the respective modes of feminism and dominant theories of gender and sexuality articulated within them—are ensembles of cultural practices and conceptual strategies enabled and deployed at particular stages of the historical development of class contradictions in capitalism, for the subject of capitalism to come to terms with and to locate herself within the contradictions of wage-labor and capital. They do not exist independently of the laboring practices under capitalism, the social relations of production within which they develop, and the development of contradictions between wage-labor and capital. Specifically, in the case of modernity, this is the period of capitalist development from laissez-faire capitalism to monopoly capitalism. In the case of postmodernity, it is the period of capitalist development in the early stages of (trans)national capitalism. In the case of "globalization" or "transnationalism" it is the advance of transnational capitalism into a new level of class contradictions that have broken out into imperialist conflict to re-divide the surplus-labor of the globe.  

To abstract these cultural apparatuses from their relation to the material relations of capitalism, as is done in culturalist feminism, is to dehistoricize culture. To continue to discuss history—and feminism's relation to historicity—in terms of "modernity," "postmodernity," and now "globalization" substitutes a discussion of changes for women on the social surface of capitalism for explanation of the underlying material relations of exploitation (the private appropriation of surplus-labor) that continues under the changes on the surface. Rather than understanding the relation of gender, sexuality, and feminism to historicity to be a relation explained by culture—which leads to a feminism absorbed with the social surfaces of capitalism and the updating of its cultural apparatuses not with material transformation to end exploitation—this relation is more effectively explained as a relation of labor. To put this another way, gender, sexuality, and other social differences are not cultural values, or autonomous cultural differences, they are social relations of capital. The history of contemporary feminism is therefore not explained nor is it materially transformed by the succession of cultural apparatuses and their values of gender and sexuality but is best explained by different levels of class contestation within capitalism.  

A closer look at the Cultural Turn in history—and specifically the transition from "modern" to "postmodern" feminism—reveals that the Cultural Turn is also the effect of these material contradictions but, at the same time, is an ideological inversion of them. 

What has been called "second wave" feminism came of political and intellectual age in the material conditions of society in the decades immediately following World War II, particularly during the "long boom" of capitalism—the most sustained economic boom in capitalism's history, roughly spanning from the end of World War II to the oil crisis of 1973, in which the world capitalist economy underwent enormous growth in productivity and produced wealth on an unprecedented scale. Imperialist nations such as the United States, France, and Germany saw their gross national product triple, quadruple, and quintuple respectively. Industrial urban centers were produced throughout the globe and the rural populations of not only imperialist nations but also nations such as Spain, Italy and Ireland were reduced to less than one third of the total population (Harman 75).

The institutionalization of Fordist mass production practices—large-scale, mass production, with moving assembly lines—in the technical division of labor and of Taylorism in management appeared to many at the time to "free" workers (at least those in the West) from the material inequalities of earlier levels of capitalist development. Moreover, with production taking place primarily within the respective national boundaries of competing capitalist interests, capital maintained an economic interest in supporting the reproduction of the domestic labor-supply. Capital is dependent upon the exploitation of surplus-labor of workers to produce profit. Moreover, it also needed these workers to act as consumers in an attempt to stave off a crisis of profit caused by overproduction. In order to deal with labor shortages following the war and reproduce a national working population that could both produce at the existing levels of production and at the same time actually purchase mass consumer goods in order for profit to be realized, it was useful for capital at the time to maintain high wages and moreover, to allot part of the wealth produced to economic and social welfare, education, etc. As a result, the wage-working populations, particularly of the imperialist nations which saw steady increases in their gross national production, also saw a steady relatively uninterrupted increase in their wages, access to mass consumer goods, an expansion of economic and social welfare and the "welfare state," as well as an expansion of the culture industries aimed at social reproduction of workers, particularly the university, and a steady increase in the standard of living of large sectors of the working population (Pelizzon and Casparis 122-126; Allen 288-289). 

But the appearance of capitalism does not correspond to the essence of capitalism: the root material relations of production based on the exploitation of surplus-labor of workers who do not own the means of production and its appropriation into the hands of a small fraction of owners. Behind the appearance of equilibrium and progress under capitalism to many in the West, this unprecedented productivity and wealth was undergirded by the structure of exploitation manifested in sharp class inequality, imperialist conquest and warfare to subordinate new areas and regions of the globe to capitalist production, displace and proletarianize the rural poor, and transfer wealth produced by workers throughout the world into the hands of the capitalist class. Despite the "boom" in the global capitalist economy, economic inequality persisted globally. In Latin America for instance, urban workers lived in a state of frequent unemployment, dire poverty, and primarily resided in shanty towns without electricity and running water. China and India produced huge urban centers while the majority of their populations still resided in rural poverty (Harman 75). Even within nations that benefited enormously from the long boom, such as the United States where the wage-working population was experiencing a steady rise in wages and employment in what many at the time thought was proof of a secure "balance" between labor and capital, the economic inequality still existed below the surface. For example, many women, particularly in the earlier stages of the long boom, were pushed out of the waged workforce and back into reproductive labor in the home to help re-supply the depleted domestic labor force after WWII. Women wage-workers faced inequality and lower wages in the workplace, which, among other things, reinforced economic compulsion into the family, heterosexuality, motherhood, and marriage. Workers of color and immigrant workers, moreover, faced intense racism and segregation which devalued their labor-power, forcing them to work in conditions of sporadic employment, low-wages, and dead end jobs, with the threat of state sanctioned brutality for resisting unequal conditions. To put this another way, on the social surfaces of capitalism, particularly in the West, there appeared to be a stable balance between wage-labor and capital and the notion that capitalism—and the dominant Fordist production practices it deployed at the time in order to produce profit—led to increasing prosperity for all. On the other hand, this increased productivity on the part of workers and the "prosperity" that was enjoyed by the capitalist class and some segments of the laboring population, was not actually founded on a mutual accord but on the private appropriation of surplus-labor (exploitation) which resulted in increasing economic inequality, instability and crisis worldwide.

What has been called the "second wave" of feminism in the West, and its conceptions of gender and sexuality, were forged on the basis of these class contradictions during the "long boom" of capitalism and at a specific stage of historical development of its laboring practices—or "productive forces"—of Fordist mass production. Feminism at this time, of course, used a variety of contesting and conflicting analytical approaches to understand and act upon the material contradictions and their relation to gender and sexuality in the decades immediately following World War II—such as the liberal feminism of Betty Friedan, the radical feminism of Shulamith Firestone, the "dual systems" theory of Heidi Hartman, the black feminism of Dorothy Joseph and Audre Lorde, and the socialist feminism of Angela Davis, Mary-Alice Waters and the members of the Combahee River Collective. Like the feminist theories of today, they are all marked by the economic contradictions of the day. They are articulations of the social relations of production and class struggle over women's relationship to class, exploitation, and capital. 

Take, for instance, the classic modernist conception of feminism typified in the liberal humanist feminism of Betty Friedan. In her landmark contribution to the inauguration of "second wave feminism," The Feminine Mystique, Friedan critiqued the way in which what she called "the feminine mystique" re-defined the "woman question" exclusively in terms of "sexual role" and excluded women from being considered, alongside men, as "human beings of limitless human potential": 

[T]he logic of the feminine mystique redefined the very nature of woman's problem. When woman was seen as a human being of limitless human potential, equal to man, anything that kept her from realizing her full potential was a problem to be solved: barriers to higher education and political participation, discrimination or prejudice in law or morality. But now that woman is seen only in terms of her sexual role, the barriers to the realization of her full potential, the prejudices which deny her full participation in the world, are no longer problems. The only "problems" now are those that might disturb her adjustment as a housewife. So career is a problem, education is a problem, political interest, even the very admission of women's intelligence and individuality is a problem. (61) 

The "feminine mystique" that Friedan brought to the fore of public discussion emerged at a time in which many women who were previously drawn into the waged workforce for the first time during World War II in order to serve as productive labor for capital were now being pushed back into reproductive labor in the family. Historic gains made for these women in institutions of public education, childcare, social welfare to make it possible for women to participate in the waged workforce had been re-privatized in the 1950s to re-secure women's reproductive labor in the home. Friedan's own analysis of "the feminine mystique," for example, points back to previous historical periods in the United States, such as the 1910s and 20s as well as during World War II in which women's participation in the waged workforce was on the rise and in which sexual mores were not always confined strictly to "family values" and women's place in the home. In fact she argued that one of the characteristics of "the feminine mystique" was that it contributed to narrowing the scope of women's participation in public life and the scope of what were understood as the problems confronting women of the time. 

To be clear, Friedan's argument does not contain an explicit address of the relationship of gender, sexuality, and women to class and capitalism and instead defines the "woman question" exclusively in the liberal humanist terms of universal subjective idealism. There is, in fact, no mention of capitalism in Friedan's text at all. According to Friedan's analysis, the structure of the "woman problem" (that is, the terrain of material struggle and freedom for women) was a psycho-cultural one—a pathology in women brought on by "the dehumanizing aspects of modern mass culture"—that kept them trapped in domestic "purposelessness": 

it is not an exaggeration to call the stagnating state of millions of American housewives a sickness, a disease in the shape of a progressively weaker core of human self that is being handed down to their sons and daughters at a time when the dehumanizing aspects of modern mass culture make it necessary for men and women to have a strong core of self, strong enough to retain human individuality through the frightening, unpredictable pressures of our changing environment. (305) 

The main problem, as defined by Friedan, was "the new feminine morality" and women's fear of their own "success" which prevented them from equal participation in the workforce and public life. In other words, "why" women were oppressed, according to the logic of The Feminine Mystique, had to do with cultural values that kept men dependent upon women's servitude and women pathologically fearful of their own success alongside men. The struggle for women's liberation, therefore, was defined primarily as a struggle for redefinition of gender and sexual values to allow for the inclusion of women as equal participants in the workforce and public life under capitalism.  

However, the "discontent" and "cultural values" that Friedan marks as an expression of universal internal desires and drives of all women as "human beings of limitless human potential" is actually a class desire produced by the material relations of capitalism. The narratives of "feminist discontent" are laments over such issues as women having to ask husbands for money to go shopping and out to lunch with friends rather than control their own disposable income to spend; doing the majority of housework rather than paying domestic labor to do it; not using one's ivy league education for advancement in the professions and instead attending college to find a husband. Such "problems," however, are not existential conditions of life as such for "women" as "human beings of limitless human potential." Rather they are the highly determined material contradictions of a particular class-fraction of women whose economic privilege in class society—though dependent on and controlled by their fathers or husbands—afforded them luxuries such as "disposable income" and "ivy league" educations to begin with. The liberal humanist conception of "universal woman" advanced by Friedan abstracted the social contradictions of "gender," "marriage," "sexuality," "work" and so on from the material relations of production based on private property. Understanding the "woman question" and the material contradictions of "marriage" and "family" under capitalism in these existentialist and subjective idealist terms masked the material relations of exploitation that brought about these contradictions for the majority of women (who did not have the class privileges enjoyed by Friedan and other upper-middle class women). In doing so, "modern feminism" limited the terrain of feminism as such to the material interests and contradictions faced by a class-fraction of women for whom independence from their husbands for a position of relative economic privilege was a material possibility; women who wanted to maintain this relative privilege on their own by gaining a greater "independent" share of distribution. 

The material reality of the time is that the majority of women—working class women and women of color—both in "advanced capitalist" nations such as the United States as well as so called "developing" nations such as Spain, China and India were facing a much sharper set of social and economic contradictions than, for instance, the problem of having their own independent share of disposable income and being able to enjoy a position of relative class privilege in the professions. For the majority of women already working, their conditions of life were marked by low wages, economic insecurity and continued economic compulsion into marriage and the bourgeois nuclear family not for the class privileges of a disposable income but for (limited) protection from homelessness, starvation, and dire poverty afforded to the majority of women under private property relations. The Feminine Mystique and the "discontent" that it expressed was in the end a lamentation of the bourgeois woman of the suburbs, culturally far removed from—but economically enabled by—the class contradictions faced by and the exploitation of women of the urban proletariat and the rural poor. 

The "discontent" that Friedan outlined—the new "values" of women in the West—was actually a product of material developments in the class contradictions of capitalism, not, as she proposed, an expression of the fact that (as she and other liberal feminists have claimed) women were changing as the result of internal desires and drives and that they were finally starting to "wake up" to their "true selves." The understanding of "woman" as "human beings as limitless human potential" is an idealist one from the outset. It is based on the notion that people form a concept of the ideal human—or in this case the ideal "woman"—and "win freedom" for women "to the extent that was necessary to realize this concept." In actuality, the conception of "woman" and the "value" placed on this ideal are effects of the social relations of production. As Marx and Engels put it the notion of an ideal "human" (or the ideal for "woman") "corresponds to the definite relations predominant at a certain stage of production and the way of satisfying needs that correspond to these relations" (Marx and Engels 457). Friedan's emphasis on women becoming "full adults" and "human beings of limitless human potential," through being working mothers was in actuality an articulation of what capitalism at that historical moment required of women in the social division of labor in order to stave off declines in the rate of profit. Women's incorporation into the workforce of capitalism was not in itself a manifestation of their liberation; rather, it was an effect of the fact that capitalism needed exploitable labor-power at a reduced cost. The modern feminism of Friedan, in short, concealed over the material contradictions confronting women and translated the economic interests of capital at the time into "new" cultural values for women. 

In the more politically and intellectually developed forms of feminism at this time, "women" were grasped on historical and social terms as part of a broader social collective of exploited and oppressed people against social relations that were at root fundamentally unequal and exploitative. The notion of women as a social collective was, in other words, not explicitly understood as an "existential identity" as found in the liberal feminism of Friedan. Such notions of "existential identity" were critiqued at this time for the way in which they put forward an ahistorical notion of "sisterhood" and commonality among women, and for the way in which they translated historical and material questions of patriarchy, nationalism, racism, imperialism, and heterosexism into matters of the "cultural pathology" of the oppressed and exploited. For example, members of the Combahee River Collective argued for understanding "patriarchy" as part of interlocking structures of oppression of "white supremist, patriarchal capitalism." They argued that "the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy" (213) Others, such as the Chicago Gay Liberation organization argued that sexual liberation is "inextricably bound to the liberation of all oppressed people" and cannot succeed without a fundamental change in society which will put the source of power (means of production) in the hands of people who at present have nothing" (49). 

On the one hand, the increased productivity and investment in social and economic welfare, and expansion of the culture industries and the universities, among other things, led to a growth of questions of collectivity and the notion of the possibility of a society free from economic inequality. On the other hand, the collectively produced wealth was still privately appropriated by capital and, as it is today, it was distributed and adjudicated in terms of what is profitable for capital and the production of profit and, therefore, could not serve as a material basis for eliminating economic and social inequality. The contradictions between the increased productivity, investment in social and economic welfare and expansion of culture industries on the one hand and, on the other hand, the exclusions from the prosperity of the long boom and the benefits of the "welfare state" gave rise to increasing resistance on the part of workers, women, gays, bisexuals, and lesbians, and persons of color. Moreover, as capitalism came into crisis in the late 1960s and early 1970s culminating in the end of the long boom with the oil crisis of 1973, it became increasingly clear—even within those nations which benefited most from the long boom—that the post-war "prosperity," the "welfare state," the continuously increasing standard of living (for some, albeit large, sectors of the working population) could not contain the crisis of capital as its fundamental class relations broke through the surface and began to dismantle the economic and social welfare. 

The increased economic instability as capitalism began to go into stagnation and decline at this time burst open the temporary "bubble" created by the long boom and threw into sharper relief the fact that capital was fundamentally based on exploitation. These conditions also led to open critique of capitalism for the way production for profit fundamentally precluded the temporary (and now increasingly illusory) freedoms promised by the long boom and the welfare state and arguments for abolition of private ownership of the means of production as a necessary material condition of bringing about economic equality and restoring social justice. So, for example, Angela Davis articulated a very different notion of "collectivity" than the existential conception of "women." For example, in her analysis "Rape, Racism, and the Capitalist Setting," she argues that "the violent face of sexism, the threat of rape will exist as long as capitalist society survives. If the anti-rape movement is to avoid the dilemma of Sisyphus, its current activities—ranging from emotional and legal aid to defense methods and educational campaigns—must be complemented by larger offensive measures and situated in a strategic context which envisages the ultimate defeat of monopoly capitalism" (137). In this mode of feminism the "women's problem" is not centered around a universal existential identity for women but is articulated by social relations of production in capitalist society and requires the transformation of these relation—the ultimate defeat of monopoly capitalism. 

However, many of these critiques of the classic modernist feminism of Friedan by radical, socialist, lesbian, black and Latina feminists of the second wave ultimately shared some of the same assumptions about social transformation as a matter of inclusion in the prosperity of the long boom of capitalism. They took for granted the historically specific but temporary cultural and production practices required to maintain profit at that time and saw these as fundamental features of capitalist production as such and its class relations founded on exploitation. By assuming that capitalism fundamentally relied on the welfare-state, the Fordist division of labor, and the "nuclear" family with its strict allocation of domestic labor as "women's labor" and, therefore, an identitarian notion of "woman," a number of feminisms focused on the reform or even transformation of these temporary features of capitalism. For example, many saw the re-organizing of the welfare state and the technical division of labor (occupations) to include women and persons of color as tantamount to the revolutionary transformation of class relations (the division of labor between property owners and workers). In doing so, they left unexamined the underlying conditions upon which "modern capitalism"—like contemporary transnational capitalism—rests: the exploitation of surplus-labor which has remained unchanged. 

Many "second wave" feminisms did explicitly deploy the idea of class but class was often used in a modified way so as to allow for the centering of its cultural features. The relationship of gender and social difference to class was by and large understood to mean that gender is a class, sexuality is a class, race is a class. For example, in what is considered to be one of the inaugural books of radical feminism, Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex, rewrites Engel's labor theory of gender (as outlined in Origins of The Family, Private Property and the State) in order to argue that women form an autonomous, collective "sex-class." The goal of feminism, according to this theory of gender as a class, was "seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility—the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of child-bearing and child-rearing" (Firestone 11). In her classic socialist feminist essay, "The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Toward a More Progressive Union," Heidi Hartmann builds upon Firestone's theory of gender as a distinct class by arguing that "the material base upon which patriarchy rests lies most fundamentally in men's control over women's labor power" (Hartmann 15). According to Hartmann, the historical and material evidence of women's separate class position, was that "men have a higher standard of living than women in terms of luxury consumption, leisure time, and personalized services" (9). The implication of this is that, for Hartman and Firestone, women's "emancipation" was to be brought about, much like it was for Friedan, by giving women greater reproductive freedoms and a larger share of social distribution relative to men. 

In her "Black Feminist" critique of Hartman's essay, "The Incompatible Ménage À Trois: Marxism, Feminism and Racism," Gloria Joseph argued that the "categories of marxism are sex-blind and race-blind" (93). Joseph argued that the exclusion of race from the socialist feminist understanding of inequality for women was to reduce "Black discontent" to a pathology and neurosis and conceal over the fact that "discontent" is "a response to a social structure in which Blacks are systematically dominated, exploited, and oppressed" (97). Joseph's critique, to be clear, was an immanent critique that accepted the basic assumptions of Hartman's "dual-systems" analysis of social relations and difference. The category of "race," she argued, needs to be added to the socialist or "dual-systems" feminist theory of class to account for Black women as a separate "class" owing to the fact that "Black females are on the very bottom rung of the occupational status ladder" (102). For Joseph, like Hartman, and many other feminists at the time, social differences were not explainable on the basis of wage-labor/capital relations but rather, they were explainable by understanding race, gender, and sexuality, as their own "classes." As Joseph's arguments made clear, this was a way of saying that social differences are not or are "no longer" determined by economic exploitation and that ending social injustice and economic inequality was not dependent on ending private ownership of the means of production: 

As the extensive brutality of women by men does not appear to be reducible to the economic factors involved, so the virulent suppression of one race by another does not appear reducible to purely economic considerations … racial differences and antagonisms are no longer basically due to economic exploitation. (103) 

In historical support of her claims that "race…does not appear to be reducible to economic considerations," Joseph argues that "Education, professional jobs, and housing are three areas where empirical evidence proves that economics is no longer the prime motivator for Black exclusion and exploitation" (104). 

By articulating gender, sexuality, and race as distinct class positions, class itself was understood in much of feminism at the time to be determined by such features as income, the number and spacing of children, access to birth control and other reproductive technologies, marital status, occupation, access to education. So, for example, for Joseph the way to address "Black discontent" was, like it was for Friedan's notion of "women's discontent," to address questions of status and redistribution without transformation of production. When many second wave feminists spoke of revolution to "overthrow" class what this meant in praxical terms was to seize control of these features of status—giving women, persons of color, and gays, bisexuals and lesbians a greater share of distribution by giving them higher wages, wages for housework, access to education, childcare, access to middle-class housing and neighborhoods, more social mobility and life chances on the market. 

At the core of this culturalist conception of "class" is the late 19th century/early 20th century notion of embourgeoisment articulated by such thinkers as Thorstein Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class) and Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism)—the idea that the working class moves up the social ladder to the middle class and upper-middle class (to use limited sociological terms) by the acquisition or "redistribution" of new wealth. The theory of embourgeoisment is a mediation of class relations which presupposes that class is determined by the acquisition of new wealth and therefore, the fundamental transformation of "class" is constituted by the transformation of distribution. So, for example, class can be cataloged by the articles of consumption owned (houses, clothing, cars, etc.). However, the commodities owned by a particular class, or class fraction, at a specific historical moment are a historical index of the development of social production but not a fundamental feature of its labor and property (class) relations. What is owned by one class at a particular historical moment as a "luxury" changes and becomes accessible to others as social production develops. However, the ownership of new articles of consumption by the working class does not change the social relations of production under which exploitation takes place. It does not change the fact that those who own the means of production still privately appropriate the surplus-labor of those who only own their labor-power to sell in order to survive. Private property is not a catalog of objects it is a social relation of exploitation between those who only have their labor to sell in order to survive and those who own the means of production and can therefore, as Marx and Engels put it, command over other people's surplus labor (247). 

"Redistribution"—contrary to the political rhetoric of the time—is not revolution. Redistribution merely transfers the wealth already produced by the exploitation of surplus-labor in production without transforming the relations of exploitation in which new wealth is produced. Redistribution without transformation of the relations of production is endemic to capitalism: it is the way in which capital transfers a fraction of the wealth exploited from some workers to others so as to control the rate of growth and development of the working class and regulate access to the future labor supply from which it extracts profit in the form of surplus-value. "Redistribution" in other words is dependent on exploitation and is a spiritual resolution of material contradictions of class society. It does not actually resolve the class contradictions endemic to capitalism it merely temporarily buffers them for some workers: the success in "redistribution" of some women, some persons of color, some homosexuals and the upper-middle class "way of life" ultimately advocated by the new social movements in the U.S. was paid for by the surplus-labor of workers around the world who saw their material conditions of life increasingly deteriorate. 

In production for profit, moreover, redistribution and the transformation of cultural features of "status"—such as income and access to education—are always, in the final analysis, determined by production for profit and what is needed by capital to maintain profit. As the "long boom" of capitalism began to come to crisis in the late 1960s—with its sharpest crisis in 1973—and capitalism entered a period of deep stagnation and decline, U.S. capital moved manufacturing offshore in search of new investment and cheaper labor and unemployment started to rise among workers in the North who had previously thought their conditions of life were infinitely secure. In the years immediately following World War II, capital continued to have a strong investment in building the productivity of the "national" workforce by increasing its job skills (education), wages (income), standard of living (housing, health, access to consumer goods) and so on. However, once many industries grew to a higher level of productivity they began to come into a crisis of overproduction in which they needed to compete more ruthlessly on an international level in order to maintain and increase their rates of profit. Under such conditions, what was once "profitable" to capital to increase its access to and supply of labor power after the war—e.g., the redistribution of a fraction of surplus-labor to workers "at home" in terms of social welfare, increased wages, job security, increased standard of living, and other features of "status," etc.—came into severe contradiction with the interests of capital in maintaining its rates of profit. 

In order to stave off declines in profit, capital required many of the changes to gender, sexuality, and race relations advocated by the new social movement's turn to culture. To take one example of "status" raised by feminists of the second wave: the need to revolutionize the "family" by changing the domestic division of labor between men and women, freeing women from this labor, allowing them to work, giving them choice for the number and spacing of children through access to birth control and abortion, rights to divorce, etc. Both "socialist feminists" such as Hartman and radical feminists such as Firestone and Gayle Rubin saw the solution to women's oppression as a matter of a revolution in kinship and "reproduction" which was increasingly severed from the transformation of the social relations of production. But the history of women in capitalism proves otherwise. Capitalism has itself "revolutionized" the family and dramatically transformed it in response to material contradictions in maintaining levels of profit while at the same time continuing to exploit the majority of the world's women. 

The onset of the transfer of mass-production abroad and of the dismantling of the welfare state as capital came into crisis, meant a drop in wages and the incapacity of the "nuclear family" to support itself on the wages of a "male head of household." Out of economic necessity, women were drawn into the waged workforce in increasing numbers by the end of long boom. Women's incorporation into the waged workforce was not itself without economic contradictions marked, for example, by lower wages and sporadic unemployment: "The resumption in the late 1950s of the growth in the share of female labour […] took place against a changed background" of the rise of "part-time" and "low wage" employment (Tabak 93). With wages significantly lower for women and workers of color, they provided part of the exploitable labor-power needed by capital at a cheaper price. These changes, made by capital to maintain profit, led to a "crisis" in the "nuclear-family": the sexual division of labor in the home, the question of access to birth control, rights to divorce, access to higher levels of education and skills training for women became burning questions not only to women but to capital which was pulling women into the workforce to exploit their relatively cheaper labor. In other words, capital required the transformation of legal and cultural arrangements of gender and sexuality, without transformation of the social relations of production, in order to "free" women from a division of labor that was increasingly getting in the way of profit for capital and to update gender and sexuality relations for new strategies for securing an exploitable labor force. 

The stripping of gender and social differences of their relationship to private ownership of the means of production in the culturalist analytics of second wave feminism was at root a private property conception freedom for women that articulated projects of freedom and justice within the confines of private property relations. As a consequence of its retreat into culturalism much of "second wave" feminism acted very much the way unions acted: the material conditions of capitalist production at the time (for example, the lack of labor-power after the war, the post-war economic boom, etc.) allowed unions to argue for and get a "social wage" and establish a welfare state. For example, capitalist production throughout the world at the time was still heavily dependent on national workforces for sources of surplus-labor extraction and, therefore, U.S. capital was compelled to invest in the reproduction of the labor supply through allotting a greater portion of the social surpluses back into social welfare. But these very conditions also limited union practices—they ended up as extensions of state apparatuses that helped to maintain capitalist production under the historical and material conditions of the time. In like manner, much of "second wave" feminism (and other oppositional movements of The New Left) served to critique the way in which women, gays and lesbians, persons of color were excluded from the prosperity of the long boom. At the same time, insofar as feminists retreated—or were pushed back—into the cultural dimensions of this problem and abstracted gender from the social relations of production based on exploitation, they also ultimately limited feminism to political practices endorsing reformist policies aimed at helping capital by updating women for the contemporary workforces needed by capital. 

As the economic crisis of capital wore on, the class basis of "second wave" feminism's turn to culture became more apparent as feminism retreated further and further into an upper-middle class identity politics and the protection of the "way of life" of a small minority of women in the U.S. at the expense of collectivity and solidarity with the struggle to transform capitalism. Identity politics—which Ellen Willis defines in her book No More Nice Girls as "the idea that one's experience as a member of . . . a [marginal] group determines the authenticity and moral legitimacy of one's politics" (xv)—continued the culturalizing of the social division of labor under capitalism. In its method of social analysis "identity politics" emphasized personal experience of oppression as the basis of knowledge of the social relations producing this oppression. Such an empiricist view however obscures that "experience" does not "explain" material relations, it is rather what is explained by material relations. In her materialist analysis of racism and race theory, Sue Clegg explains this in the following terms:  "Oppression," she argues, is often "experienced in terms of being black, or being a woman, or being Irish, or being gay, but it cannot be explained simply by virtue of this experience. For that we need an analysis that goes beneath experience. These oppressions cannot be overcome one-by-one because they are connected to the central dynamics of capitalist exploitation" (112). Moreover, "lived experience"—feeling, affect, perception—is what Althusser has called the "lived experience" of "the reality of ideology" ("A Letter on Art" 223). "Experience," Althusser argues, is the ideological domain of the "individual" in "abstraction from [material] structures." In this sense, it conceals the conditions of its own explanation. Materialist explanation, by contrast, requires concepts and analytics that intervene in the ideology of "lived experience" (feeling, affect, perception) and go "outside" of experience to uncover the material relations that produce it. 

This approach to the social increasingly led to the detachment in the cultural imaginary within which many second wave feminists were working, not only of gender, sexuality, and race but also of class itself from the social relations of production. It represented the material contradictions women confronted in capitalism less and less as a structural relation of the subject of labor to ownership of the means of production and more and more not only as matters of cultural features of status but also increasingly as matters of "interpersonal" relations, "choice," and the "care of the self." The primary way of ameliorating the material inequality for women in capitalism became a matter not of transforming collective conditions of exploitation for all but giving some class fractions of women in capitalism a greater share in distribution and moving them into positions of power to manage other workers on behalf of capital. 

While the universal conception of "woman" advocated by Friedan was not an adequate challenge to the exploitation of women, since it obscured the material differences between those women who are members of the ruling class and own and control the material resources of society and those who only have their labor to sell in order to survive, the abstraction of social differences from class merely updated Friedan's class politics for capital. Far from increased inclusion, the turn away from economics and to culture and "identity" resulted in what Willis called a "logic of fragmentation into ever smaller and more particularist groups" (Willis xv) legitimating transnational capital's assault on movements for social transformation. 


At the end of the long boom, feminism in the West underwent an increasingly rapid conversion from a project focused on the collective revolutionary struggle to transform capitalist economic relations of production and "inter-locking" social structures of oppression and toward a movement based on an "ethics of differences" in which social change was re-articulated in terms of matters of changing representations, cultural values of recognition, interpersonal negotiation, lifestyle, consumption, and "direct action tactics." While the philosophical and political support for this retheorization in feminism began in the 1960s and 1970s with the "new social movements" of the New Left, "socialist" and "radical" feminisms in their varying degrees of support for the notion of patriarchy as "autonomous" from capitalism, reproduction as separate from production, social differences as separate "classes" (status), and "consciousness raising" based on "personal experience" (identity politics), the most significant philosophical and political contribution to and index of this shift has been the institutionalization of "postmodern" theories—from poststructuralism, to postcolonialism, to post-Marxism—in feminism (and on the Euroamerican left generally) in the 1980s and 1990s.

At the center of the "post-alization" of feminism was a fundamental shift in Euroamerican "left" practices from politics (the principled understanding of and intervention into existing social structures and economic relations) to "ethics" (the understanding of the "social" as a series of incommensurate, alleatory, "events"—individual instances that have to be approached "care-fully" without the security of any common and underlying principle of judgment). Ethics, of course, has always been in the forefront of social theory. However, there is a radical difference between the traditional "ethics" (of Plato, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, etc.) and "post" ethics. "Post" ethics (which is the consequence of a re-reading of Kant by, most notably, Jean François Lyotard) is an "ethics" without foundation: an ethics in which its evaluation is completely immanent and has no reference to any "outside" principles based on material relations or objective laws of historical and material development. 

Like the liberal, radical, socialist, black, and dual-systems theorists of the 1960s and 1970s, "postmodern feminisms" also used a variety of analytical approaches—from the poststructuralist feminisms of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Drucilla Cornell, Diane Elam, and Judith Butler, to the queer feminism of Diana Fuss and Elizabeth Meese, the postcolonial critique in the writings of Chandra Talpade Mohanty as well as Gayatri Spivak's self-identified "poststructuralist-Marxist-feminist" critique, to the post-Marxist or "post-socialist" feminism of Donna Haraway, Nancy Fraser, and J. K. Gibson-Graham. What is common to these positions (despite what has often seemed to be sharp contestation between them), and what set them apart at least formally from the dominant tendencies of feminism in the 1960s and early 1970s is the articulation of social differences of gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, class and so on as increasingly "irreducible" differences and, especially "signifying practices." This is to say that in the discourses of the "post," social differences are unexplainable on the basis of an outside underlying global logic of historical development or a social totality of material relations and particularly underlying relations such as capitalism (or "patriarchal capitalism"), the mode of production, economics, class, labor, and exploitation. 

In the wake of the "post-" conversion, therefore, social differences which were once understood as "interlocking" social structures of oppression and part of a social totality of material relations (i.e. "white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism") were reunderstood as, at most, "intersecting" and (semi)autonomous differences. The inter-relation of gender to sexuality, race, ethnicity, nation, and/or class, in this view, is considered to be a network of alleatory and contingent relationships. As a consequence, unlike many feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, who advocated for collective and mass movements for "revolutionary" social transformation, postmodern feminists most often argued that the only possible politics is local, contingent, and at most "coalitional" (temporary and strategic affiliations based on affinity, not on collectivity and structural relations of material necessity). "Freedom," in the writings of many feminists at the time, was re-understood as cultural resistance to collectivity, categorization and conceptuality, universality, "economics," and particularly the hegemony of the "welfare" or "nation" state. 

Part of the "reasons" offered for this shift—or conversion—in feminist theory and praxis was the understanding that the material relations of capitalism have themselves changed—and undergone a "fundamental break"—and that they are no longer determined by wage-labor/capital relations. At the forefront of this shift in Western feminism of the 1980s and 1990s, and presenting itself as the foundation for a "new socialist feminism," was the retheorization of global material relations themselves. Advanced most notably by such "post-socialist" feminists such as Donna Haraway and J. K.. Gibson-Graham, this retheorization of material relations claims that we have now entered a post-production, post-labor, post-class and post-capitalist society. The historical "evidence" offered for this shift was the emergence of "a world system of production/reproduction ... called the informatics of domination" (Simians 163). For Haraway "'advanced capitalism' is inadequate to convey the structure of this historical moment" (160) as the world has been "intimately restructured through the social relations of science and technology ... [which] provide fresh sources of power, [and] ... need fresh sources of analysis and political action" (165). In such a social arrangement, Haraway and other post-socialists contend, it is no longer ownership and control over the means of production that is the material basis of power rather, it is the ability to understand and manipulate information technologies—"the systems of myth and meaning structuring our imaginations" (163). The understanding was that, as Stuart Hall put it in his writings on "New Times," "the word is now as material as the world." Feminist politics, on these terms, was converted from a struggle to transform material structures to what Michele Barrett called a "politics of truth" or what Haraway called "coding" and the resignification of cultural norms: "cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly" (176). In short, material transformation was considered to be tantamount to a semiotic reorganization of representation, as if the rewriting of capitalism were enough to end the exploitation of women under these conditions. 

Poststructuralist feminism translated women's relationship to the material contradictions of capitalism into matters of epistemology and cultural meaning by arguing that "woman" is a signifier without a signified—a sign without a referent; it is a trope that is subject to the play of meaning traces in language or what Derrida calls "difference." For example, in Beyond Accommodation, Drucilla Cornell argued that "woman" is a site of the play of meaning—a process of interpretation—and that "no woman can claim that hers is the ultimate reality excluding all others, based on a concept of gender identity or on the uncovering of the essence of woman" (2). What is important to recognize in her formulation is that in her attempt to oppose an "essence of woman" and "identity politics," Cornell also rejected any outside material relations that produce gender and oppress and exploit women. At the core of Cornell's feminism is a rejection of the very notion of explanation predicated on the idea that it is a representational apparatus of domination. According to Cornell, even "to conceptualize difference is once again to reinstate its identity through its very determination as a concept" (182). Any explanation of gender produces a closure of meaning that serves to enforce a female "identity" which merely makes a "simple reversal" of the gender hierarchy without actually displacing it (Cornell 11). On these terms, essentialism is not merely understood as the positing of a "biological essence"—a transhistorical and unchangeable ontology upon which the oppression of women is forever founded—but it is also any attempt to produce any coherent explanation and critique of the historical and material relations that produce "feminine difference." Cornell goes on to posit that "there is no ultimate outside referent in which this process of interpretation comes to an end, such as nature or biology or even conventional gender structures [emphasis added]. As a result, we cannot 'discover' the ground of feminine identity" (83).

The materiality of "gender" was understood to be constituted by discursive recognition and ethical values. Along these lines, in Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler argued, 

            to be material means to materialize, where the principle of that materialization is precisely what "matters" about that body, its very intelligibility. In this sense, to know the significance of something is to know how and why it matters, where 'to matter' means at once 'to materialize' and "to mean." (32; emphasis added)  

For Butler, materialization is itself an effect of "intelligibility." It is a discursive process enabled by the closure of established meanings that "stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter" (9). On the terms of poststructuralism, to posit a set of determinations (an historical truth), such as the social division of labor and mode of production, is simultaneously to construct this as an outside cause. In other words, it is to construct through discourse what we consequently regard to be a determining cause and, as such, the proposed material cause is actually an "effect" of discourse. To this end, Butler argued that positing causal relations "misses the point that the historicity of discourse and, in particular, the historicity of norms ... constitute the power of discourse to enact what it names" (187). 

One of the main consequences of the institutionalization of the poststructuralist reunderstanding of material reality and the "performative power" of language has been to dismantle from feminist theory its capacity to explain the difference between the "appearance" of material relations and the "essence"—or structure—of material relations. All modes of explanation that attribute a structure of material and historical causes to "what is" become understood as homogenizing discursive constructs. A telling example of this is the conceptual framework through which Chandra Mohanty makes her criticism of the limits of "modernist" Western feminism and what she called its "discursive imperialism" in her 1984 essay "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse." Mohanty argues that to explain women as "powerless," "exploited" or "sexually harassed" is "quite similar to sexist discourse of labeling women weak, emotional, having math anxiety, etc." (338). This, however, is quite a reductive reading. By appealing to the performative power of discourse to bring into being that which it names, this reduces all historical explanation and critique of the outside material relations that oppress and exploit women with "homogenizing" and "essentializing" women as inherently unable to act to transform these material relations. To put this another way, "perfomativity" conflated historical explanation of the englobing material relations of capitalism with its inverse: the pathologizing and individualizing of women's inequality in which inequality is attributed to inherent "psychological" or "existential" characteristics of women. The effect of the institutionalization of such discourses was to dismantle and cleanse from feminism explanatory critique of gender, race, and ethnicity as social relations of capital. 

In the wake of poststructuralism, gender, sexuality, social differences and even capitalism, have been increasingly abstracted from the material relations and division of labor in which they are made possible. They have been translated and ideologically (not materially or praxically) converted into cultural and discursive constructs, tropes, metaphors and literary categories which develop and change independently of class, labor, and the material relations of production. Even when "class," "labor," the "mode of production," "exploitation" or an "outside" are considered, they have also been translated in the wake of the institutionalization of poststructuralism into cultural and discursive constructs that are transformed through changes in values. The consequence of this is the understanding among many contemporary feminists that it is not the material relations of capitalism that need to be transformed but representations and values regarding these material relations that need to change. A case in point is J. K.. Gibson-Graham's The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. For Gibson-Graham, "capitalism" is not a material relation of ownership of the means of production, it is primarily a hegemonic "economic and social descriptor"—a mode of representation and cultural value—that gets reinforced by those forms of political practice that seek to oppose capitalism (2). Thus the main means for transforming class relations was to redefine or revalue them: to pluralize class into classes. To free domestic labor in the home from its relationship to class inequality, one had simply to "redefine" domestic labor as a "non-capitalist class process" outside of the wage-labor/capital relation (168). Thus, instead of working to transform the material relations of wage-labor/capital, they argued that what is necessary for the advancement of the global situation of women is a redefinition of capitalism: a "vision of a capitalist future [that] is not predicated on the general eradication of capitalism but simply involves the acknowledged coexistence of capitalist and non-capitalist economic forms" (179). For Gibson-Graham working to abolish capitalist exploitation (and hence, capitalism) is "too reductive" and "homogeneous" compared to the "economic heterogeneity" of acknowledging capitalism along with other so-called "non-capitalist economic forms." 

Postmodern feminism institutionalized a "politics of phrases" that transcoded the material contradictions in capitalism and its changing labor relations for women into epistemology. The "post" abstracted the changes for women in capitalism from the historical and material relations that produce them and thus converted feminism from a project to transform these material relations into a way of talking—and into a politics of what Marx calls "fighting phrases with phrases."  By a rhetorical sleight of hand postmodern feminism simply redefined and revalued the emergent conditions of production in capitalism as "what should be" for women. By converting the material contradictions of capitalism into epistemology, a politics of phrases—or what in feminism has been called the "politics of truth"—covers over what Marx critique of the economics of untruth (Barrett 139-40). The "economics of untruth" is the understanding that the "truth" is not determined by the performative power of language or the reigning ethics and morality of the day but by historical and material relations of production. In relativizing all explanation as inherently predicated upon (mis)representation, feminism after poststructuralism provided a useful alibi for transnational capital in its efforts to conceal the exploitation of workers and promote new strategies of extracting profit. 

If we move our analysis away from the North Atlantic, to rural female piece-rate workers in the Talleres Rurales del Valle Precooperative (TRV) just north of Cali, Columbia we can see the way in which this blurring of the "economics of untruth" has been a means for mystifying the proletarianization and exploitation of women in transnational capitalism. Legally a "co-operative," the TRV, like other so called "non-profit" organizations, presents itself as a "worker-operated" and "worker-owned" program with the aim of "lend[ing] dignity to peasant women" and promoting development of the production process "through the applied use of co-operative methods" (Truelove, 50). In the parlance of postmodern feminism and its "ethics of difference" such redefining of women as persons with "agency" gives them power. In actuality, as Cynthia Truelove demonstrates, "co-operatives" such as the TRV program are sites for "outsourcing" work from national and multinational industries that aim to close their plants in urban sites where worker organization and social benefits are much higher, and secure sites of unprotected labor in rural areas. As Truelove argues, the members of the so-called "co-operatives" are in actuality "disguised wage-laborers" and "industrial proletarians" whose "surplus value generated through this labor arrangement is directly manifested in the profit generated for industry through the employ of cheap labor" (56). The legal and discursive redefinition of these women as "socias" (members of a worker-managed co-operative and agents autonomous from capital) instead of wage-workers is "primarily a legal convenience for industry" (53). It is an ideological cover for transnational capital's reprivatizing of social welfare (healthcare, education, etc.). While the piece-rate workers are entitled to "benefits," as "socias" with their own "autonomous agency" they are required to pay for these "benefits" out of deductions from their wages. 

Moreover, insofar as these "co-operatives" are in actuality functionaries for corporate profit, the ideology of "co-operativism" and "teamwork" that they promote is a way to weed out those who attempt to organize for greater control of the production process on the part of workers. For the "disguised wage laborers" in the TRV the knowledge that the reality of their material conditions as wage-workers is indeed hidden from them under the veneer of non-profit organizations and "co-operatives," and the legal classification of their status as "socias"—is an important insight for struggle against the exploitation of their labor-power. It is the development of this knowledge of the economic untruth of the "co-operatives" and the legal classification of women as "socias" and the economic reality of their exploitation as wage-workers (not a transhistorical truth but an historically produced, and therefore transformable, truth) that has enabled these women to more effectively contest the lack of control they have over the sale of their labor-power and the production process in general (55). 

The conversion of the material into the discursive and cultural in "postmodern" feminisms is a "spiritualizing" of these relations which is to say that it is an ideological inversion of material relations. Poststructuralist feminism was a textual healing—or a "spiritual resolution"—of class contradictions unfolding in the relations of production in capitalism, which were consequently reshaping gender and sexuality relations. As a "textural healing" it does not praxically resolve contradictions that materially develop at the point of production, it merely ideologically suspends them and conceals over the material relations that produce them. In this way it provides an ideological frame for political practices that focus on surface reforms of capitalism that have been quite useful to rearticulating feminism in the interests of transnational capitalism and dismantling feminism as a movement of social transformation. This "ideological inversion," however, is itself the effect of the material processes of capitalism: "if in all ideology men and their relations appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical-life process" (Marx and Engels 42). Poststructuralist philosophy and its "ethics of differences," to be more specific, is the ideology of a fledgling transnational capital which at that time was materially transforming the social division of labor, without the transformation of wage-labor/capital relations (exploitation), in order to intensify exploitation and bolster the declining rate of profit

What is most telling in this regard is that at the same time of the initial institutionalization in feminism and cultural theory generally of an "ethics of difference" and the necessity to rearticulate gender and sexuality as "flexible" and "irreducible" floating textualities or cultural singularities "resistant" to the authority of the state but unexplainable in terms of economics and the mode of production, North Atlantic capital was engaged in a massive class war on workers' conditions of life by working to dismantle state welfare provisions and labor laws (including social welfare and labor laws for women) and re-privatize social wealth that had been allotted to public institutions (such as education, social security, health care, welfare, etc); break up social collectivity and worker's solidarity in trade-unions; deregulate "free trade" by, for instance, removing legal barriers and tariffs to transnational corporations, as well as deregulating labor laws enforced by "nation-states" abroad; and shift manufacturing production sites outside of the North where relatively cheaper labor could be secured.

The changes that were celebrated by poststructuralist and post-Marxist feminists as a supersession of wage-labor/capital relations and, as André Gorz put it, the "end" of the working-class were actually effects of the intensification of class contradictions and a massive transfer of wealth from workers upward. The dismantling of public and social welfare and the re-distribution of surplus-labor from public institutions to owners through, for example, the reformation of the tax-laws under Reagan, was an effect of the fact that the "welfare state" had outgrown its historical usefulness to capital. During "the long boom" in which productivity and profits for U.S. capital increased steadily, and there were labor shortages as a result of the wars, capital was economically compelled to invest a portion of the surplus-labor it extracted from workers into the social welfare of the domestic workforce. Such measures were at that time necessary in the face of acute labor shortages to control the growth and supply of exploitable labor-power available to capital to maintain profit. However, as capital entered a crisis of overproduction with the crash of the long boom and its rate of profit began to decline, the measures that were once necessary for capital to secure surplus-labor to maintain profit now became a hindrance to profit for the ruling class. Capital that had relied heavily on workers "at home" to provide exploitable labor-power during the long boom increasingly moved mass production abroad to seek out cheaper sources of labor power and less restrictive conditions of production—conditions that had been made more "amenable" to capital in the West owing to brutal imperialist conquest and colonization—in order to be competitive with other capitals internationally. 

Moreover, to stave off declines in profit competing capitals also had to revolutionize production practices by producing labor-saving technologies—including information and cybertechnologies—to extract more wealth from the working population. These developments in the forces of production also led to new technological and occupational divisions of labor and conditions of production or what have been called "post-Fordist" production practices and "post-Taylorist" managerial strategies based on flexibility and plural organization. But like Fordist production, these strategies of production are founded on private ownership of the means of production and, at their root, are grounded in the exploitation of surplus-labor from the working class. They are not a fundamental transformation of social relations of production based on exploitation rather, they entail new forms of extracting surplus-labor from the work force in order to raise the rate of exploitation. 

Both "at home" and "abroad" women were pulled into wage-labor in increasing numbers. Many women who had not worked previously were economically compelled to work for a wage in addition to unpaid reproductive labor in the family because of the deterioration of the family wage. It was also in the material interest of capital to employ women and workers of color in increasing numbers and move them into new occupations because, owing to their historical position of material inequality in capitalism, they were less expensive for capital to use as exploitable labor power. As a consequence of these changes in the material conditions of capitalism after the collapse of the long boom, and the drawing of women into the workforce en masse, capital produced changes in gender and sexual relations and women's relationship to the family. Capital necessitated and accommodated cultural and legal changes in gender and sexuality relations in order to "free" women to join the exploitable workforce in increasing numbers. 

Like the emergence of the modernist conceptions of "identity" and "woman" that poststructuralist feminism opposed, the textualist and "post-" theories of women as an irreducible trope were deeply connected to the material developments of capitalism in the latter part of the 20th century. Both abstract gender from class and in doing so are different modes of ruling class ideology for different levels of class contestation. The presupposition of a "discrete singularity" ("sign"), with a "self-same identity," or singular correspondence between language and a stable or "fixed" referent or thing—what Kant refers to as the noumenal—that has characterized "modernist" philosophy was the privileged mode of referentiality in industrial capitalism, which at its highest level of historical and material development uses Fordist assembly-line mass production and Taylorized managerial practices that break down the production process into "discrete" parts and reduce the subject of labor to the individual of calculated mass-assembly time. Singular referentiality—the presupposition of a correspondence between "words" and "things"—is the referentiality of mass production. Its "referent"—the "thing" which is named—is abstracted from the material relations of production in which "things" are produced. To put this another way, the singularity of the noumenal is part of the administrative reason of capital which conceals the material relations of exploitation under which the commodity is produced and therefore puts forward an idealized understanding of the material as abstract "things." 

In this same regard however, contemporary cultural theory, including feminism, also abstracts the material from the material relations of capitalism. First, it does not actually break from a "referent" and "referentiality" as it claims. Instead, as Teresa Ebert has argued, it puts forward a different mode of referentiality that rejects a one-to-one correspondence between signifier and signified and pluralizes the range of referents into a network of shifting signifiers in a relation of textual play, rather than extricating itself from referentiality altogether. In place of a singular referent, the canonical feminisms put forward a "post-referential" referentiality that is characterized by a series of "object substitutions," doublings, a network of multiple and shifting discursive references (Ebert 48-49). Yet, unless discourse has some form of "immanent" theological power which accounts for the formation of objects, but is itself not accounted for by the historical and material relations of the mode of production, then this theory necessarily assumes the existence of matter outside of any historical relation whatsoever until it is inculcated into discursive relations. This is an ahistorical notion of "matter" which reduces it to a static, reified mass. In the guise of being "more historical" than historical materialist analyses of women's oppression which were thought to "essentialize" material reality in economics, poststructuralist theories of discursively "constitutive" reality obscured the material as a structure of material conflicts: what Marx has called the "ensemble of social relations" of production ("Theses" 616). 

The construct of a stable and fixed "identity" or "feminine essence" for woman is both an effect and an ideological articulation of the division of labor between women who were often primarily located in unpaid reproductive labor in the home and forced into positions of economic dependence on marriage and the family, and men who were primarily located in paid wage-labor outside the home. This division of labor, under the existing historical conditions of capitalist production at the time, was useful to support capital's need for controlling and regulating the labor supply needed by production for profit. In such a situation of Fordist assembly-line factory production, Taylorist managerial strategies, and a fairly rigid division of labor, the dominant mode of referentiality in culture was singular. In these material conditions the dominant conception of woman as a "fixed," "natural" and "singular" identity was useful to capital for adjusting the labor force to the economic interests of the ruling class. In this respect, "woman" appeared under capitalism, and according to those representations serving the interests of capital at the time, to have a relatively fixed meaning in a "feminine essence" or "identity." In actuality, gender was not grounded in a fixed "feminine essence" but produced by the social division of labor. 

Such an understanding of "referentiality" in general and "woman" in particular, however, became increasingly outdated for capital, particularly after the crash of the long boom. At this time the world capitalist economy entered a period of general economic stagnation and decline in the rate of profit. The singular identity "woman," and the rigid binary between "woman/man" once ideologically useful to capital to naturalize a strict division between reproductive and productive labor increasingly became a redundant project for capital under economic crisis and the development of new conditions of production to increase the extraction of surplus-labor from the workforce. The singular referent—between language and a stable object—was and still to a large extent is seen as "oppressive," because this mode of referentiality serves to ideologically adjust the workforce to modes of extracting surplus-labor that began to serve as a hindrance to profit. Capital needed to break class collectivity on the one hand, but make legal and cultural accommodations for the inclusion of differences on the other in order to accommodate drawing workers into new modes of extracting surplus-labor. Early transnational capital needed an "ethics of difference" in order to lay the ideological conditions to break strong trade unions and class solidarity and isolate workers of the world to raise the rate of profit for the owners. It did so through the differences of gender, sexuality, age, nationality and race. This "ethics of difference" helped to break the notion of fixed social differences that were once useful under capitalism's "old" modes of extracting surplus-labor which used Fordist production practices and Taylorist managerial strategies, and reinstituted a new notion of social difference based on "post-Fordist" production practices. 

The "textual healing" offered by "post" feminism is a translation of the dominant bourgeois theories of "post-Fordist" political economy and the reigning post-Taylorist managerial philosophies prevalent at the time articulated in such books as Daniel Bell's Information Society and Peter Drucker's Post-Capitalist Society—or today Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat—into gender theory and politics. Post-Fordist and post-Taylorist managerial theories represented the development of new technologies and post-Fordist managerial practices as fundamental transformations to exploitation in production and, therefore, as progress (a material supersession) beyond the material contradictions and class inequalities of capitalism. These theories have been an updating of the Weberian theory of class for new developments in the productive forces of capitalism. They take changes in which commodities are owned (computers instead of typewriters), what means of production are used, and changes in the managerial strategies of capital to extract more wealth from workers as a material transformation of the basic relations of exploitation. The theory of a fundamental break from capitalism to a "post-class" "informatics of domination"—or what has similarly been called "New Times" (Hall), "information society" (Bell), "post-capitalist society" (Drucker), or "post-Fordism" (Amin)—has, among other things, entailed the abstraction of cyber and information technologies from the material relations in which they are produced. To stave off declines in profit competing capitals have had to revolutionize production practices by producing labor-saving technologies—in this case information and cybertechnologies—to extract more wealth from the working population. These developments in the forces of production have also led to new technological and occupational divisions of labor and conditions of production or what have been called "post-Fordist" production practices and "post-Taylorist" managerial strategies based on flexibility and plural organization. The production of new technologies, changes to the technological division of labor, and the development of new managerial practices, however, are not actually an index of material changes—i.e., a "fundamental break" as Hall has called it—or a supersession of capitalist production (a supersession of the exploitation of surplus-labor) with a "knowledge economy" based on control of information. 

Far from fundamentally restructuring the material relations of capitalism, and offering "freedom" from exploitation, information, knowledge, and cybertechnologies such as the "computer" are themselves the effect of social relations of production based on the exploitation of labor for profit. In his article "Capitalism, Computers, and the Class War on your Desktop," Bob Hughes remarks on the fact that cybertechnologies are not a transformation of the material relations of production in capitalism: 

The machine on which I write this was massively subsidised by the sweat, tears, taxes and poisoned aquifers of the people of Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and China. It was assembled in Taiwan's notorious Hsinchu "science park," into which $60 billion of public money has been pumped, and from which perhaps 40,000 tons of toxic water is pumped into local waterways every single day. Its silicon chips have consumed 700 times their own weight in water, hydrocarbons, toxic gases and solvents. Its hard disk was made in a factory in Thailand, where women have actually dropped dead at their work benches from lead poisoning.

The notion that knowledge, information and cybertechnologies have fundamentally transformed class relations, and are "free" from the constraints of exploitation (the theft of surplus-labor by the owners), conceals over the living labor which produces new technologies and the relations under which this production takes place: the conditions of private ownership and exploitation in which the majority of the population does not own the means of production and is compelled under the threat of starvation, homelessness, and destitution to work part of the working-day to reproduce their own means of subsistence and part of the working-day to produce surplus-value for the ruling class. Moreover, "new technologies" are not only produced under such conditions they are deployed in production for profit. "The computer," Hughes continues, "has been turned into a humourless device for extracting profit from people; systematically wasting their effort, ideas, hopes; turning any luxury it allows us into a costly, burdensome necessity; and, finally, erasing all evidence that human beings were ever involved." Information technologies and the ends and interests toward which they are put—whether they are used to provide clean drinking water and house people or to reduce an entire nation to rubble and destitution for profit—is determined by the material relations outside in which they are produced and used. With this in mind, the notion of "post-class" is a corporate narrative that is a particularly devastating retreat for feminism at a time in which workers in transnational capitalism are increasingly subordinated to the exploitative logic of capitalist relations of production—often while producing the goods and services that are the necessary preconditions for this new "cyber-reality." 

What many postmodern feminists presented as "effective" feminist practice in the name of feminism were the cultural intelligibilities of upper-middle class women such as knowledge workers in the academy because, by focusing on issues of deconstruction, coding, knowledge, discourse, etc. they were able to gain the cultural and labor skills they needed to "succeed" within the changing labor relations of capitalism. But this success was dependent on the fact that transnational capital was investing in producing technical managers and knowledge workers in the North—and it had capital to invest in this as a result of the exploitation of surplus-labor around the world. What the "object crisis" of feminism and its notion of "post-referential referentiality" concealed is that the majority of women in transnational capitalism who gained new skills in "informatics," coding, discourse analysis, flexibility, etc. because these were the marketable skills at the time, were still subject to exploitation. The evidence of this is not only the continued exploitation in the service industry but the increases in wealth gaps between rich and poor, despite the updating of workers skills. The crisis of capitalism in the mid-1990s which entailed, among other things, the crisis of the "" industries in the North and the transferring of production for computing and technology to the South, suggests that it is not "knowledge" but the extraction of surplus-labor and securing the material conditions for continued exploitation of surplus-labor that is the source of wealth. In this case now produced by workers in Latin America, India, China and Pakistan who are now the main suppliers of cheap labor for transnational capital. 

Poststructuralism became popular and was institutionalized in feminist theory in the West in the 1980s and 1990s because it cleansed feminism of what became "old" concerns for a small minority of women.  Upper-middle class women who had use for solidarity and alliance with working class women when it helped them to move into the professions such as the academy and managerial positions in mainstream U.S. business advocated for "sisterhood," singular identity for "woman" or even the notion of "woman" as a "class," gender coalition in politics and the need to "revolutionize" reproduction—but without the need to transform production.  Once women were increasingly relocated into the workforce, measures of state welfare for workers were dismantled, and wealth was transferred upward matters of sisterhood became a redundant project for them. The identity woman once useful to ruling class and upper middle class women, was no longer needed for these women under new developments in production and a plural and "irreducible" conception of gender—once again cleansed of any relationship to class—became the new banner of ruling class feminism in the West. The "ethics of differences" helped provide the cultural intelligibilities of flexibility, reversibility, contingency, that was useful for SOME women in capitalism who gained from changes for women in the division of labor (because they were pulled into managerial positions and were given a larger share of distribution) while not challenging the material basis of the exploitation of the majority of women. The "ethics of difference" allowed for a politics of opportunity (opportunism) for some petit-bourgeois women to align themselves with women when it was advantageous but not when it intervened in their class privileges—but the same flexibility, etc. was also the development of new modes of extracting surplus-labor from workers and, consequently, of the deepening exploitation of the majority of women now inculcated into contingent labor forces, in unstable part time work, and declining pay. 


But now this project (the ethics of difference) is increasingly made redundant for capital. Postmodernism and its "ethics of difference"—and, therefore, postmodern feminisms—are collapsing and are increasingly the subjects of discussion of "end" because their material basis is collapsing with the crisis of profit in capitalism. No longer a fledgling transnational capital that needs to break up the welfare state useful to capital in the long boom, capital is now once again in economic crisis and has entered a new wave of imperialism and export of capital to secure new sources of surplus-value extraction and stave off economic crisis. Just as Fordism, mass production, the welfare state, and so on, once useful to capital for securing exploitable labor power and extracting surplus-labor for profit, began to stand in the way of profit in the face of economic crisis, and therefore capital worked to dismantle them, now post-Fordism, post-Taylorism, the deregulated state, etc. are standing in the way of profit as capital is entering a new wave of imperialism and export of capital in order to stave off declines in profit. Just as the ideology and cultural apparatuses of capital transitioned from modernism to postmodernism to culturally adjust the workforces to new conditions of production without the transformation of the basic structures of production, now this too is transitioning. The question for feminism is whether or not it is going to be a tool of capital and continue to align itself to the changes required of women for production for profit and advance the material interests of some women in capitalism or whether it is going to work to transform the material relations of capitalism. 

The crisis of feminism today—i.e., why feminists are now calling once again for "new values" to "renew feminism" against its impasses and "ends"—is not a "crisis of values" rather it is a class crisis; it is the effect of the economic crisis of wage-labor in capitalism. What unites the "old" cultural arrangements for women with the "new" cultural arrangements for women is the exploitation of labor under capitalism. On the social surfaces of capitalism, women's working day has dramatically transformed in terms of the kind of tasks and occupations that have monopolized their labor-time: not only have women been more thoroughly inculcated into paid wage-labor so that now they are spending a significant time in paid wage-labor outside of the home, in addition to the unpaid reproductive labor in the family, women have also been drawn into new occupations—themselves the outgrowth of new divisions of labor—that require new skills and new technical knowledge of the contemporary workforce. The material conditions of women's lives in capitalism have not, however, fundamentally transformed so that the project of feminism has been "finished." On the contrary, the daily conditions of women's lives in capitalism have been determined by production for profit. 

What seem to be "advances" for women within capitalism are dialectically related to their deepening exploitation as part of the waged workforce. Moreover, the "democratic" freedoms given to (some) women under definite conditions of production are re-privatized under other conditions depending on the labor-power needs of capital in maintaining the rate of profit. Thus at some moments and under specific historical and material conditions, women have been pulled into wage-labor and been given the limited public "freedoms" and democratic institutions that capitalism makes possible to make them an effectively exploitable labor-force (effectively exploitable because the democratic institutions, such as public education, have endowed them with the skills and capacities that are currently needed at a given level of development of production for workers to produce surplus-value for profit). While, at other moments, women have been pushed out of wage-labor and/or denied access to "freedoms" and democratic institutions that were obtained at earlier moments, thus re-instituting their economic dependence on the family and re-securing women as reproducers of the next generation of labor-power.

What is consistent, however, is the subordination of women's conditions of life to production for profit and the priority of profit over needs. For all of the changes on the surface of the working day of capitalism, and women's place in the technical division of labor, the structure of the working day in capitalism is still founded on the theft of surplus-labor. It is still founded on the fact that the minority privately own and control the means of production and therefore command over the surplus-labor of the majority who only own their labor to sell in order to survive; it is still structured by the fact that workers work part of the day to reproduce the value equivalent to their own means of subsistence and part of the day producing surplus-value for those who own the means of production. 

What has changed in other words are the modes of exploitation and the location of women within the workforce, but not the basic material relations of exploitation themselves. Thus, what bourgeois theorists call the END of feminism—or allude to as the "end" in their calls for "renewal" of feminist values—is simply a new dialectical turn: it is an ideological response to new changes in the organization of labor. Capitalism requires changes to its organization of labor not because of a crisis of values (culture) but a crisis of profit (economics). For example, post-Fordism is seen as the "end" of Fordism not because exploitation has ended but because niche marketing is needed by capital in order to stave off declines in profit. "Postmodernity" was seen as the end of "modernity" because a fledgling transnational capital needed to break up the "welfare state" no longer needed for securing exploitable labor power for profit. Today, "postmodernism" in general and postmodern feminism in particular are increasingly the subject of discussions of the "end" because capital no longer needs the "ethics of difference" institutionalized in "post" understandings of difference and now needs a "post-difference" hegemony of "values" to ideologically unite isolated workers together as consumers in the ideology of "our way of life" and conceal over the material relations of imperialism. In like manner, the spectre of the "end" has once again been raised in feminism because the class fraction that fought for the integration of (some) women into positions of wealth and power within capitalism has now achieved those goals and therefore sees the fulfillment of its own class ambitions as the "end" of the emancipation of all women from inequality and exploitation. What is called "end" in bourgeois theory, in other words, is in material reality a new class development in feminism. 

To put this another way, contemporary feminism takes the changes to gender and sexuality that have occurred within the culture of capitalism and the economic changes for some class-fractions of women who now occupy positions of economic privilege in capitalism to constitute the success of feminism in bringing about fundamental material changes to conditions of life for women in capitalism now. Moreover, these narratives then deploy this "success" to justify the continued cleansing from feminism of any trace of theory and praxis for social transformation of the material relations of exploitation. This erases the material chain of causality between the class privileges of some women and the increasing poverty of the majority. It teaches women to "not see" that the positions of power of some women, some persons of color,… in the institutions of transnational capitalism today are not the effect of increased freedom or equality for women but are class freedoms for some that are dialectically related to the increasing poverty of the majority of women because these positions of power are dependent upon the exploitation and transfer of wealth away from the majority. 

Contemporary feminism in the West, which has covered over the roots of inequality for women in the theft of surplus-labor by presenting cultural change to gender and sexuality as "root" changes for women's material conditions of life, now, as Lindsey German puts it, has "run up against the limits of class society" (35). What she means by this is that "the existence of a small minority of women with access to top jobs and all the material advantages that these bring with them is perfectly compatible with the continued existence of class exploitation" of the majority of women (35). Feminism after the Cultural Turn has become little more than a defense of this class inequality. Now, the economic crisis of capital is once again breaking through the "spiritual aroma" of cultural feminism in the West, exposing its ruling class interests. In an effort to shore up cultural feminism—which has defended the class interests of a small minority of women—feminists of the West today are now advocating a "democracy of values" for women within capitalism.

In the wake of the Cultural Turn, feminism has been bypassed as a project to transform material relations of economic exploitation and social inequality for women and embraced as an ethical project for the formal equality and spiritual unity of multiple, incoherent, and contradictory "values" among women. This "cultural values feminism" is increasingly steeped in the cultural intelligibilities and mysticism that are needed by U.S. capital today. The Cultural Turn on the "left" is now supplying the same ruling class intelligibilities of "democracy" that are currently deployed by the right to cover over the economic transfer of wealth from the "rest" to the "West" by translating the economic contradictions brought on by a decline in profit (which is why the U.S. is now in a competitive battle over the material resources and labor of the Middle East and Central Asia) into a conflict over cultural values and presenting the current wars as wars over religion, morality, civilization, our way of life, and so on. In fact, contemporary feminist theory and praxis in the West has been so emptied of any understanding of the relationship of gender and sexuality to the material relations of capitalism that "feminism" itself is now easily appropriated as a (semi)autonomous cultural value in the service of imperialism. 

To learn from the history of feminist struggle in material conditions of exploitation, it is therefore, crucial for contemporary feminism to re-examine the direction that its cultural theory has taken in the last several decades and re-open historical materialist discussion of the relationship of culture to the economic. Moreover, feminism must reopen examination of the relationship of gender, sexuality, and an increasingly transnational culture to issues of labor, capital, class, exploitation, and imperialism. It is especially crucial for feminism to confront the fact that the reduction of gender and sexuality to "cultural values" in much of contemporary cultural theory has coincided with the historical and material deterioration of women's conditions of life in transnational capitalism. Feminism has to confront the fact that, in capitalism now, many of the dominant understandings of gender and sexuality—even within feminist cultural theory—have become so redefined and emptied of any explanatory content of their relation to the historical development of material contradictions in capitalism that the name "feminism" has become more easily appropriated in the service of transnational capitalism and U.S. imperialism. The wars in Central Asia and the Middle East (which are a thinly disguised armed mugging of the surplus-labor of the "other"—the transfer of wealth from the "rest" to the "West"), the sexual torture by female soldiers of male inmates at Abu Ghraib prison, the iconization of "Bushwomen" such as Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes, and the "remaking" of transnational capitalists such as Martha Stewart—all of which have been defended by transnational capital in the name of "feminism" and "freedom for women"—are impossible to exclude from a feminism cleansed of the relationship of gender and sexuality to class, labor, production and exploitation in transnational capitalism. On what grounds can they be excluded not only if feminism is considered so undecidable as to be rendered open to all interpretations but also if feminism is to be reduced merely to a matter of cultural change?  To make feminism matter again is to make it matter as a material force for social transformation to bring about relations of social justice and freedom from economic exploitation rather than a material force to update women to new cultural values and developments in transnational capitalism. But such a project is not possible without producing historical materialist explanation that can enable people to recognize the difference and relationship between the changes that go on over the cultural surface of capitalism and what occurs in its economic relations. 

The "end" of feminism in historical materialist analysis is not an "end" (termination) to the project of freedom for women rather, it is an index of class struggle. It is a matter of change and transformation of the material relations in which women are exploited. Red Feminism is not finished because freedom for women is not simply success in the conventional sense—that is, success in distribution by becoming wealthy and powerful—but what Engels called "the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry" (74). This, however, is not merely a change of the "gender" division of labor—changing the distribution of exploited wealth to some women and relocating others into new labor forces within capitalism—rather, it requires the abolition of private property relations, that is, the transformation of the social relations of production. Feminism does not "end," namely, until class relations end. 

[1] In contemporary feminism in the West, Aguilar argues, "The theoretical frames utilized" to explain and analyze concrete matters of gender and sexuality "are those that carefully steer clear of the vaguest notions of surplus labor, so that no matter how eloquently empirical data may speak of exploitation, the transcription winds up telling another story" (413). In her analysis of "sex work" and "domestic labor"—particularly of the material conditions of Filipino sex workers and domestics—she shows that in the absence of a clear grasp between the relationship of gender and sexuality to class relations and the exploitation of surplus-labor, contemporary conceptions of gender and sexuality end up producing a very moralizing, individualist and idealist understanding of difference and social change based on the autonomous agency of the local subject abstracted from the englobing material relations of exploitation in capitalism.

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THE RED CRITIQUE 12 (Winter/Spring 2007)