It Is Time To Give Up Liberal, Bourgeois Theories, Including New Materialist Feminism, And Take Up Historical Materialist Feminism For The 21st Century

Julie Torrant


Žižek's Communist (Hypo)thesis

"Theory Too Becomes A Material Force": Militant Materialism or Messianic Matterism?
Stephen Tumino

The Spectral Ontology and Miraculous Materialism
Kimberly DeFazio

Spirit Objectified: The "Austerity" Economics of "New Materialism"
Rob Wilkie





Recently, there has been a turn away from textualist and culturalist theory in feminism and the emergence of "new" materialist feminisms. Represented by the work of Elizabeth Grosz, Rosi Braidotti, and others, this turn in theory has come in response to the deepening inequalities and crises of capitalism that are having  profound effects on women worldwide — material problems outside the text and not resolvable by a change in cultural values. While it is important to see that the new materialist feminisms are responses to real problems, it is equally important to understand how these materialisms are limited by their conceptualization of the material.  The new materialist feminisms are actually disenabling for feminism in that they are forms of spiritualism which displace critique with strategies of enchanted affective adaptation and survival and thus dismantle materialist feminism's primary conceptual tool for social transformation.  To avoid merely reproducing sophisticated forms of the survivalism and "prepperism" that have emerged as individualistic coping responses to economic crisis and austerity, I argue that feminism needs to return to historical materialism in the tradition of Marx, Engels and Kollontai to understand social life in terms of its root relations and aid in the struggles to bring about social transformation.

Exemplary of the new materialist feminism is Rosi Braidotti's writing on "the politics of 'life itself'," a theory which she organizes around the trope of "sustainability." Sustainability, a concept in ecology for living within natural limits, becomes in these writings a means of reconceiving the historical social relations of capitalism as if they were the unchangeable, underlying existential limit-situation of "life itself." The politics of "life itself" and the new materialist focus on seeking a sustainable feminism within this new, more "realist" approach to  material reality, is a form of feminist theory and politics which is ultimately the already familiar theory and politics of reparative reading. Why is this significant? As Ellis Hanson suggests in a review of Sedgwick, "Faced with the depressing realization that people are fragile and the world hostile, a reparative reading focuses not on the exposure of political outrages that we already know but rather on the process of reconstructing a sustainable life in their wake" (105). In other words, reparative analysis begins not with critique of the so-called already known and presumably known to be unchangeable, but by focusing on how to live within the already-known-to-be hostile world. Such a theory of the social begins and ends by reducing knowledge to a matter of how to cope, how to feel, how to exist, etc. within what is taken to be unchangeable. The effect of this focus on "sustainability" within hostility is that social transformation — which requires the production of knowledge of what needs to be transformed — is treated as impossible. Abandoning the project of transformation, I argue, is a sign of the way dominant "materialist" feminism — under the guise of "new materialism"— has increasingly abandoned the project of women's emancipation from exploitation, and in the interests of capital instead translates austerity measures into a theoretical discourse of getting by on less.

At the core of Braidotti's theory of "sustainable feminism" and "life politics" is a "new materialist" understanding of "life." For Braidotti, life is made up of two parts — zoē and bios. Z, "life as absolute vitality," is the spiritual and bios is the "bio-organic" body which sets limits on the spiritual life force (210). Braidotti writes:

Zoē, or life as absolute vitality, however, is not above negativity, and it can hurt. It is always too much for the specific slab of enfleshed existence that single subjects actualize. It is a constant challenge for us to rise to the occasion, to catch the wave of life's intensities and ride it (210).

Thus for Braidotti, the source of social contradictions is the conflict between zoē, that is, absolute vitality or spiritual life force, and our bio-organic bodies. As a result, Braidotti's new materialism bypasses the ensemble of social relations and historical conditions that produce social contradictions in capitalism and presents contradictions as transhistorical and existential conditions of life as such. On this logic, our absolute vitality comes into the world and reaches the limit of the body and this causes us "pain." But (in this narrative) there is no real way to compensate for pain. This explanation of pain is an example of bypassing the social. As such it is an accomodationist block to changing the conditions that produce suffering.

In fact, as with all the popular articulations of "materialism" today, Braidotti's theory is not actually an extension of materialism, but a break from it. Materialism means determination by the mode of production because it is this materialism that explains sense experience. Materialism is not the experience that exceeds conceptuality — a Kantian theory of the material that has come to dominate cultural theory, especially as it conceives of "life." This notion of materialism merely reifies sense experience, it cannot explain it. Braidotti is Kantian about the material because she sees it as a sublime excess. Life, Braidotti writes,

is experienced as inhuman because it is all too human, obscene because it lives on mindlessly. Are we not baffled by this scandal, this wonder, this zoē, that is to say, by an idea of life that exuberantly exceeds bios and supremely ignores logos? Are we not in awe of this piece of flesh called our 'body,' of this aching meat called our 'self' expressing the abject and simultaneously divine potency of life? (208).

According to Braidotti, what exceeds the individual body is zoē—the spiritual life force, which we should not understand conceptually (by seeking to explain the conditions that shape it) but worship. This is a sentimental anti-instrumental call for the re-enchantment of life that obscures the way the individual is determined not by what Braidotti calls "divine potency" but by the social relations of production. And like all anti-instrumental arguments, Braidoitti's ends up affirming a species of the sublime: a mode of affective non-knowing that resists rationality.

Thus, having rejected the necessity of being able to conceptualize (visible) effects to their (often invisible) causes, Braidotti proceeds to declare that the effects of living in the ruins of capitalism—especially disasters like 9/11—defy all reason and are impossible to understand, and she concludes that what is now necessary is not collective praxis to address the social relations which condition the unequal situations of tragedy, but an individual ethics of affirmation.  She writes: 

This is the road to an ethics of affirmation, which respects the pain but suspends the quest for both claims and compensation. The displacement of the "zoē"-indexed reaction reveals the fundamental meaninglessness of the hurt, the injustice, or injury one has suffered. "Why me?" is the refrain most commonly heard in situations of extreme distress. The answer is plain: actually, for no reason at all. Why did some go to work in the World Trade Center on 9/11 while others missed the train? Reason has nothing to do with it. That's precisely the point. We need to delink pain from the quest for meaning. (213-14)

Following her predictable rejection of concepts and reason, in the guise of a sermon on "selflessness," Braidotti here once again rejects the abstract in favor of the errant concrete and takes as a presupposition the individual. For it is of course from the starting point of individuals and their loss that we cannot understand and explain such historical events as 9/11. From the perspective of the individual, such events are indeed random and inexplicable, but from a historical perspective they are determined. It was deep global inequities that provided the conditions of possibility for the 9/11 attacks. To celebrate the individual perspective and the inability to grasp historical necessity based on that individual perspective is not only to celebrate ignorance, but to naturalize the limits of workers and how they are thrust into the position of individuals who must compete on the market for work while leaving it the prerogative of the owners to organize the totality to the benefit of a few at the expense of the many. 

Central to Braidotti's enchanted materialism is her claim that affectivity "is what activates an embodied subject, empowering him or her to interact with others" (210). However, she writes, "a subject can think/understand/do/become no more than what he or she can take or sustain within his or her embodied, spatiotemporal coordinates" (210). Thus, the ethical subject is the one who learns to endure his or her maximum zoē/bios intensity because such endurance leads to "sustainable transformations" (211), the degree of change an individual can bear.

But the consequences of affirmative ethics are deeply problematic when considered in relation to the material conditions of working class families, who have been subject to a thirty year stagnation in real wages, even as worker productivity has sharply increased. In the wake of the more recent 2007 crisis, worker productivity has sharply increased [1], while wages fell. Alongside of these trends, rates of violence against women have increased dramatically [2] and suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the US [3]. That the spouses in working class families are increasingly emotionally strained and often alienated from one another is not a transhistorical effect of their embodied state as it confronts a "divine" life force in zoē, but an effect of their deepening exploitation. To posit their connection and dis-connection as a transhistorical effect of the confrontation with bios-zoē is to de-historicize their pain and alienation as individuals and as a couple. It is to cut off affect from its social conditions and then insist on its affirmation. 

Working more hours is a matter of "making do," not existential intensity, and it is this making do under conditions of deepening exploitation that all working class families—gay and straight, white and of color, native and international—have been forced to do and which affects women profoundly. As Marx explains in his analysis of the global development of capitalism

The less the skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labour... the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women. Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex. (Communist Manifesto 62).

This is a particularly important argument because it explains the way that capitalism increasingly turns women into wage-workers.  Working class women and men form the "great camp" facing capital and it is thus increasing important to the prospects for revolution that women conceive of themselves as working class. This is daily confirmed in the era of global capitalism, when women workers make up the increasing majority of global workers, subject to extremely low wages and are particularly susceptible to the effects of austerity because they tend to work in and use the public sector more than men.

As my discussion has, thus far, implied, "new materialism" is a ruling class movement in cultural theory in general and in feminist theory in particular. "New materialism" is aimed not only at ideologically and pragmatically adjusting exploited workers to the exigencies of capitalism in crisis and marginalizing struggles for social transformation by representing them as outside the realm of the "sustainable" (as we see in Braidotti's theory of "new materialism"), but it also serves as a means to shore up the class privileges of a small ruling class minority of men and women in capitalism by translating class contradictions into a new metaphysics of freedom.

This is evident in the "new materialist feminism" of Elizabeth Grosz who, in her essay "Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom," calls for a turn in feminism to understanding freedom for women in "metaphysical terms" (140) and, more specifically, in terms of the autonomism of Nietzsche and the "vitalist" metaphysics of Henri Bergson.  Grosz argues that feminism and its (so called) "traditional" concepts of materialism, have been focused on a "negative" concept of freedom—what she calls a "freedom from"—by which she means freedom from external material relations outside the subject in which constraints are imposed by "the (oppressive and dominant) other" (141). Drawing on Nietzsche, Grosz characterizes struggles for "freedom from," as part of "the other-directedness of [a] reactive herd morality" (141) which assumes that "freedom is not an accomplishment granted by the grace or good will of the other" (152). According to this narrative, "freedom from," therefore, only works "within existing social networks and relations" rather than "the creation of a future unlike the present" (154). While Grosz does not outright deny that constraints imposed by others still exist, she contends that "'freedom from,'... at best... addresses and attempts to redress wrongs of the past without providing any positive direction for action in the future" (141, emphasis added).

Instead, Grosz argues that "we need to look outside the traditions of thought that have considered subjectivity as the realm of agency and freedom only through...the operation of forces—social, cultural, identificatory—outside the subject" (140). Feminism, she contends, should take up a "freedom to" which is "unconcerned with the other and its constraints, directed only to its own powers and to the fullest affirmation of its own forces" (141, emphasis added). "Freedom to," she claims, is a "positive" concept of freedom—a sign not of "herd morality" but of "the self-affirmation of an active or noble morality"—because it is not "bound up with a shared existence with the other and the other's powers over the subject" (141) and does not seek freedoms "bestowed on us by others," rather, it relies on "autonomy, in the individual’s inner cohesion and historical continuity" (153).

Grosz's relegation of "freedom from" to an ignoble "herd morality" and the problems of the past is a ruling class caricature of collective struggles for social transformation that marginalizes the continued need for freedom from necessity brought on by the deepening of exploitation in transnational capitalism.  The unsaid logic of the argument that collective struggles to realize freedom from necessity display a shameful lack of autonomy is the same ruling class moralism which asserts that the workers are seeking special favors and handouts from those in power instead of relying on their own "inner" resources and innovations. We can see the class politics of this theory when Grosz poses the rhetorical question: "Is feminist theory best served through its traditional focus on women's attainment of a freedom from patriarchal, racist, colonialist, heteronormative constraint? Or by exploring what the female—or feminist—subject is and is capable of making and doing?" (141).  The underlying logic and unsaid assumption of Grosz' argument is that feminism no longer needs to concern itself with the emancipation of women from material relations and the social structures that oppress and exploit them in transnational capitalism. Contrary to Grosz's claims to supersede liberal feminism, her argument is not rooted in materialist or transformative feminism, rather, it is based on a ruling class postfeminism that assumes that women have already achieved "equality" and "power" and that struggles for collective social transformation of our "shared existence" are no longer relevant or necessary to bring about freedom for women.

This is a disenabling view for an emancipatory materialist feminism because it conceals the fact that despite the changes in women's lives that have come with being pulled en mass into the workforces of global capitalism, these changes have been class divided: while a small class fraction of women in global capitalism now, alongside of ruling class men, own a greater share of the wealth produced by the surplus-labor of the global working class and occupy positions of power, for the majority of women this has meant what Goretti Horgan calls "equality in exploitation" and the "race to the bottom upon which global capitalism is founded" (n. pag.).

Grosz, however, raises the historical and socially produced class contradictions in postfeminism to a new level of ahistorical abstraction by translating them into a new metaphysics of freedom.  "Freedom," Grosz argues, is "an immanent and sometimes latent capacity in life" (149). "Life itself," and therefore "freedom," according to Grosz, is best explained as ontologically "indeterminate"—a radical form of contingency that "liberates life from the constraints of the present" (153). She argues that, "Indetermination is the ‘true principle' of life, the condition for the open-ended action of living beings, the ways in which living bodies are mobilized for action that cannot be specified in advance" (149) and that "the possible never prefigures the real, it simply accompanies it as its post facto shadow" (147). "[E]ven in the most extreme cases of slavery," she contends, "there is always a small space for innovation [and...] inventiveness" (n 1; 154). Freedom, in Grosz's narrative is a spontaneous and inalienable condition of life itself or the sheer fact of living—an élan vital or spirit of life—such that even the slave has "freedom" within slavery, thus making the freedom from slavery unnecessary.

Grosz's "freedom to" or "within" which occults the conditions that necessitate freedom is a vacuous and empty concept of freedom that provides an apologetics for wage-slavery (and the growth of human trafficking) in capitalism. It puts in ideological suspension the historical and material conditions of necessity and exploitation which determine the ends and interests toward which "life" is put in capitalism by representing them as not only impossible but unnecessary to understand. In doing so, this theory is a most effective ally of capital because it rejects the possibility and necessity for collective social transformation, planning, and organization. Without transformation of production relations, the "innovation" and "creativity" of the exploited—the capacity of the worker to produce—is still subordinated to production for the profit of some not the needs of all. Rather than becoming the basis of freedom for all, workers surplus-labor enriches the owner's profit and conditions of life while workers are reduced to the sheer fact of biological living. Grosz merely translates this process of alienation through exploitation into metaphysical terms and celebrates it as freedom.

Freedom is not an imaginary ontological autonomy but, as Engels argues, it is "a product of historical development" (Anti-Dühring 144). Women and others can be free only insofar as they are free from necessity. Freedom from necessity is founded not on ontological autonomy but on social collectivity, which is a material relation of production in which no one person can privately own the means of production and, therefore, command over the surplus-labor—and thus the lives—of others; "a state of society in which there are no longer class distinctions or anxiety over subsistence for the individual, and in which for the first time there can be talk of real... freedom" (145).

Grosz is more concerned with the freedom of some from "definitions" rather than the freedom of all from exploitation. She writes: "Freedom has no given content; it cannot be defined" (147) and explains this theory with the following statement from Bergson: "Any positive definition of freedom will ensure the victory of determinism" (quoted in Grosz 147). However, Grosz does not actually leave freedom without a content—and, specifically, a class content. She writes: "Freedom is thus the exception rather than the rule in the sense that it can function only through the ‘autonomy' of the living being against a background of routinized or habituated activity" (148). In other words, freedom is a matter of the "exceptional" living being who acts in unconventional ways. Yet, this "freedom" requires the continuation of "a background of routinized or habituated activity" that the so called "exception" can be offset against. For the majority of women this means the normalization of their routine and habitual exploitation by capital which Grosz dehistoricizes by abstracting it from the material relations of production that enable it. Put another way, Grosz's theory ideologically normalizes and "disappears" the material exploitation of women's surplus-labor in transnational capitalism by ideologically "dissolving" it into a question of their "habituated activity." Grosz's "exceptionalism" puts into sharp relief the class interests behind her argument for a feminism that is "unconcerned with the other and its constraints" and that rejects "a shared existence with the other" (141). This is not a theory of the autonomy of the feminist subject from the "(oppressive or dominant) other" (139, emphasis added) as Grosz claims. Rather, it is a theory for a ruling class feminism which is aimed at dispensing with the collective needs of the exploited others in capitalism for freedom from necessity through collective social transformation. This is the mark of a turn to a capitalist class theory because capitalists benefit when we concern ourselves only with ourselves. When we do this (focus on the individual), we make ourselves as well as others easier targets for exploitation.

Despite its disclaimers, new materialism ideologically updates liberal feminism, and this not only leads it to reject conceptuality as the erasure of the random, the unpredictable, and the indeterminate, but to affirm the bourgeois theory of individual liberty, which underwrites new materialism's notions of affirmative ethics and autonomous freedom. Liberty, as Marx argues in "On the Jewish Question,"  is "[t]he right of the circumscribed individual, withdrawn into himself" (Reader 42). Individual liberty takes for granted a world in which individuals are divided by class: on the one hand there is the class of workers who are forced to compete with one another on the market for "jobs" in order to gain a livelihood and survive. On the other, there are the capitalists who buy the labor of workers on the market and profit from the use of that labor in production. What Marx calls the individual withdrawn into himself is thus the cultural effect of economic relations that make possible the individual who puts her own private need above collective need, and who thus accepts a world in which the have-nots struggle as individuals, increasingly alienated, in order to make ends meet. This is of course the individual whose liberty to remain an unregulated individual—to put the private before the collective—is lauded by the bourgeois, who take this right as a transhistorical, indeed natural phenomenon.  As Marx puts it, the "practical application of the right of liberty is the right of private property" (42). Through the lens of individual liberty, capitalists' deepening of the rate of exploitation of workers may be criticized for being "too high" at times, when the class divide threatens to destabilize capitalism, but the ability of capitalists to exploit their workers is never questioned. Hence the emphasis, not on the need for transformation, but on the "selfless" and "noble" accommodation to worsening exploitation—a mantra that is everywhere repeated whenever working class movements demand better wages or working conditions.

A "materialism" that does not account for the historical relation of "life" in general or the conditions of women's lives in particular to the ensemble of the social relations of production—that is to class relations and exploitation in production—is not materialism but a new spiritualism that ideologically covers over the social structures and historical basis of inequality and economic contradictions in capitalism, and presents these as existential conditions of life as such.  What Alexandra Kollontai said of feminists of the 20th century is still true today of new materialist feminists, including Grosz and Braidotti. She writes:

However apparently radical the demands of the [bourgeois] feminists, one must not lose sight of the fact that [they] cannot, on account of their class position, fight for that fundamental transformation of the contemporary economic and social structure of society without which the liberation of women cannot be complete. (176).

It is time to give up liberal, bourgeois theories, including new materialist feminism and take up  historical materialist feminism for the 21st century.




Works Cited

Braidotti, Rosi. "The Politics of ‘Life Itself' and New Ways of Dying." New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2010. 201-218.

Economic Policy Institute. "The benefits of increased productivity over the last thirty years have not gone to the middle class." State of Working America. Economic Policy Institute. n.d. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.

Engels, Frederick. Anti-Dühring. Peking Foreign Languages Press, 1976. Print.

"Facts and Figures." American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. n.d. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.

Grosz, Elizabeth. "Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom." New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2010. 139-157.

Hogan, Goretti. "How does globalization affect women?" International Socialism Journal. 92 (2001): n. pag. Web 1 Jan 2013.

Kollantai, Alexandra. "The Social Basis of the Woman Question." The Essential Feminist Reader. Ed. Estelle Freedman. Random House, 2007. 175-181. Print. 

Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. Frederic Bender. New York: WW Norton, 1988. 

---. "On the Jewish Question." The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978. 26-52.

"U.S.: Soaring Rates of Rape and Violence Against Women,. Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch. 18 Dec 2008. Web. 31 Dec 2012. 

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