Smoothing Opposition by Ontologizing Exploitation: The Flat Ontology of Neoliberal Feminism

Jennifer Cotter



Red Map of the Middle EastDossier on Gaza

The War(s)
Mas'ud Zavarzadeh

In the Case of Gaza
Rob Wilkie

The Left Tragedy on Gaza
Stephen Tumino

The Poverty of (Post)Humanities
Teresa L. Ebert

Speaking Internationalism: Class Difference in Writerly Cosmopolitics
Amrohini Sahay

When Left Theory "Leaves Behind the Dream of a Revolution": Class and the Software Economy
Rob Wilkie

Jameson's Spiritual Reawakening: Labor Theory in the Time of Wal-Mart
Robert Faivre

Speaking of Communism: How Badiou Subtracts Class from Marx's Speeches on the Paris Commune to Produce a New (Infantile) Communism
Stephen Tumino

Naturalism is not Materialism: Spinoza, New Materialism and the Left
Kimberly DeFazio

Beyond In-between Feminism: Martha E. Gimenez and Capitalist Social Reproduction
Julie Torrant





After the 2008 economic crisis of capitalism, many feminists in the global North are formally declaring their dissatisfaction with the "poststructuralist fatigue" (Puar 387) of the cultural turn and turning toward what Rosi Braidotti calls a "new brand of materialism" (The Posthuman 22) to explain the material contradictions of women's lives in capitalism now. The feminism of the "cultural turn," which came of age with the rise of neoliberal capitalism and its marketization, deregulation and "free floating" currencies, taught an interpretive framework that served to normalize capitalism and adjust women to increased exploitation as wage-laborers by reducing material contradictions of gender, sexuality, and race to "floating signifiers" and "irreducible differences" and obscuring their dialectical relation to material relations of class and exploitation in production (Ebert 347-66). Now, in the wake not only of the rise but also the crisis of neoliberal capital, of austerity measures, increased exploitation, the commodification of all aspects of life, climate change and ecological disasters, and the resulting material inequalities and contradictions of women's lives under capitalism the "textual approaches" to feminism are "increasingly being deemed inadequate for understanding contemporary society" (Coole and Frost 2-3).

Yet, what is rapidly becoming canonic in the global North as the "new material turn" in feminism is by and large updating an axiom that was central to feminism after the cultural turn: namely, that the feminist materialism of the future is a materialism without a dialectical critique of the relationship of gender and sexuality to class, labor, exploitation and the mode of production. Instead, the "new material turn" substitutes (post)humanist ontologies as the basis of materialist feminism now: from theories of "new materialism" (Coole and Frost), to object-oriented feminism (Behar), performative metaphysics and "agential realism" (Barad), the "matter of corporeality" (Grosz, The Incorporeal) in which the "incorporeal" is inverted into the Deleuzian "intensity" of the matter of the "body," and new feminist vitalism (Hill), among others.In this view, what is needed in feminist analysis in the 21st century is a "new ontology" of "life as zoe" (Braidotti, "Politics of Life") or "life itself" (Rose) that sees the autonomy and liveliness of matter, objects, and things as central to material reality. Rooted in the monist and vitalist theories of Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze among others, this view understands "matter" to be constituted by an errant élan vital—an irreducible, capricious, vibrant and radical alterity or "surplus-life" (Cooper)—that is said to form the ontological basis of "resistance" in a time of what Bruno Latour calls "Dingpolitik" in which "matter itself is up for grabs" (14). On these terms, the material contradictions of gender, sexuality, and of women's lives are understood in terms of a "flat ontology" of irreducible and contingent "assemblages" (Deleuze and Guattari) of vitalist, "auto-poietic" or "self-producing" matter (Braidotti, The Posthuman) that is autonomous from the dialectical praxis of labor and exists outside of any historical or social determination such as the mode of production. By embracing (post)humanist ontologies, new materialist feminism claims to offer a materialist feminism that confounds the "binary" terms of dialectical and historical materialism and traverses binaries of gender, sexuality, race, and class and open us up to a radically new world "devoid of dualisms" (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 85).

In this essay, I argue that, contrary to its claims, the "new material turn" in feminism—by which I mean not only "new materialist" feminism but the range of feminisms rooted in (post)humanist ontologies—does not "transverse" binaries rather, it places class binaries, production for profit, exploitation, and the material contradictions these give rise to in ideological suspension.  The so called "new ontologies" are ideological paradigms that bypass material relations of exploitation: more specifically, the dialectical relation of life, gender, sexuality and reproduction to what Marx calls the "ensemble of social relations" of production ("Theses on Feuerbach" 616). They offer a dehistoricized concept of material reality that addresses the material contradictions of life in capitalism—contradictions of life for women, for workers, for persons of color, for other species and the environment—not through analysis of social structures with the aim of transformation, but through raising these contradictions to a new metaphysical level of abstraction that transcodes the historical and social laws of motion of capitalism into laws of nature and the ontological basis of objective reality as such. The 'new material' turn in feminism is a new idealism to crisis manage capitalism and adjust women to new imperatives to stave off declines in profit. As Julie Torrant argues in her critique of feminism's embrace of new materialism: "Contrary to their self-representations, 'new materialist' feminisms are disenabling forms of spiritualism that displace explanatory critique of the emergent material conditions [of capitalism] with strategies of enchanted affective adaptation" (97). More specifically, (post)humanist ontologies put forward a metaphysics of the market and "exchange-relations" in capitalism and, when used as the basis of feminism, at most offers a neoliberal feminism of market freedoms for women, such as the freedom to sell one's labor on the market for a wage and to be exploited, rather than freedom from exploitation. A telling sign of new materialism's embrace of neoliberal feminism is that it now literally embraces "branding" and "marketing" in the name of exploited women (Behar 6).

By contrast, what is needed now is what Teresa Ebert calls "red feminism" that advances the understanding that freedom for all women, not just privileges for some, has a necessary dialectical and material relation to the abolition of wage-labor and capital relations, exploitation, imperialism, and the use of gender, sexuality, and cultural differences by global capital as "instruments of labor" to raise or lower the rate of exploitation of the global workforces. What is needed, in other words, is a dialectical and historical materialist feminism that understands that capitalism at root requires the exploitation of the surplus-labor of workers in production as the source of profit and that "gender," "sexuality," and "race" as material relations, and sites of struggle and social transformation are not autonomous from the capitalist mode of production and its global division of labor and property relations.  At the core of red feminism is the dialectical theory of the centrality of the materiality of labor as the means by which the world is transformed and transformable. It is "by thus acting on the external world and changing it," as Marx writes, that humanity "at the same time changes [its] own nature" (Capital 283). In grasping the revolutionary potential of labor, red feminism not only advances a revolutionary critique that uncovers the historical and social basis of the relation of gender to the exploitation of labor. It also explains why ending the exploitation of labor by capitalism is the necessary material basis for the collective transformation of human society from the accumulation of profit to the meeting of the needs of all.

Assembling the Attack on Dialectics

One of the central targets of new materialist feminism is a rejection of the development of dialectical and historical materialist feminist critique of capitalism.  For example, Rosi Braidotti, whose writings have quickly become part of the canon of "new materialist" and "vitalist" feminism, rejects dialectics on the basis of what is by now the standard—or commonsensical—rejection: that it is "too binary." According to Braidotti, dialectical analysis is a method of analysis that perpetuates "violent binary oppositions" in which "difference or otherness [plays] a constitutive role, marking off the sexualized other (woman), the racialized other (the native) and the naturalized other (animals, the environment or earth)" (The Posthuman 27). In other words, Braidotti equates and rejects historical materialist dialectical analysis and critique with classic Western metaphysical concepts of "static binaries" and "The negative dialectical processes of sexualization, racialization and naturalization of those who are marginalized or excluded" (28). New materialist feminism, therefore, claims that the central task of feminism is to "overcome dialectical oppositions" by "engendering non-dialectical understandings of materialism itself," which, so the narrative goes, "results in relocating difference outside the dialectical scheme, as a complex process of differing […] based on the centrality of the relation to multiple others" (56).

Materialist dialectics, however, is not a theory of binaries in "stasis" rather, it is the analysis of historically and socially produced, and therefore collectively transformable, material contradictions. Rather than taking "what is"—existing conditions of life under capitalism—for granted as autonomous, self-evident, or "static," materialist dialectics is an inquiry into the historical and material causes, i.e., social relations of production, behind immediate conditions and contradictions of life under capitalism. Materialist dialectics, Marx writes, "is an abomination and a scandal to the bourgeoisie […] because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, it's inevitable destruction" (Capital 103). In other words, the material contradictions of life produced under global capitalism in which a small fraction of society owns and controls the means of production and exploits the surplus-labor of the majority for profit, are material and objective contradictions but they are also social and historical and can be transformed. What Braidotti calls a "negative dialectical process" that brings about "sexualization, racialization, and naturalization of those who are marginalized and excluded," (The Posthuman 27), when understood in dialectical materialist terms, is not the end of the dialectical turn "because [dialectics] regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well" (Marx, Capital 103). In materialist dialectics, there is also the "negation of the negation": meaning that these are socially and historically produced, and therefore transformable, material contradictions.

Historical materialist dialectics is necessary for feminism in the 21st century because it examines the historical conditions that produce and bring about material contradictions, such as the social division of labor that produces "sexualization" and "racialization" and the wage-labor and capital—i.e., class relations—on which this division of labor is founded, as well as the development of material conditions which can lead to their collective transformation.  As Eleanor Burke Leacock argues "Marxist dialectics are used to describe processes as they unfold in the context of specific historical circumstances […] in the fully structural sense of production relations" (213). The concept of "dialectical opposition" or negation, "refers to an active process of transformation and the development of new forms" (219) that is not only necessary for understanding the historical conditions that give rise to "the sexual division of labor itself [and] changes in its form and function" (215) but for understanding the material basis to change them. Dialectical materialism, in other words, is the theory of collective social transformation.

On the terms of anti-dialectical "new materialism," however, "dialectical oppositions" are regarded not as historical or material processes requiring transformation of social relations of production, they are regarded as artefacts of human correlationism, anthropocentrism, and "human hubris" (Bennett ix) that obscure the diffuse, amorphous, radically contingent, and immanent material reality of which we are composed. At the core of new materialism is the revival of a vitalist and monist theory of ontology which is said to transverse binary oppositions. "A 'monistic universe'," Braidotti explains, "refers to Spinoza's central concept that matter, the world and humans are not dualistic entities structured according to principles of internal or external opposition" (The Posthuman 56). In advocating "a monistic philosophy," Braidotti claims to "reject dualism […] and stresses instead the self-organizing or (auto-poietic) force of living matter" (3).  One of the implications of this view of "auto-poietic" matter is that along with the rejection of dialectics, the new materialist and vitalist feminisms ideologically conceal the role of "the dialectical praxis of labor" and the relationship of gender, sexuality, and race to the social relations of production in which labor is exploited. The "problem" with dialectical and historical materialism, Jane Bennett claims in her book Vibrant Matter, is its focus "on collectives conceived primarily as conglomerates of human designs and practices" (1-2). According to new materialist feminists, Marxism, and therefore, Marxist feminism and its understanding of the dialectic of gender and class and the revolutionary potential of labor is simply another expression of dualism, "anthropocentrism" and "human instrumentality." Thus, the new (post)humanist ontologies claim that feminism should not regard social existence as rooted in the "social mode of production" and instead should see material reality as constituted by what Bennett, following Deleuze and Guattari, calls a "mode of assemblage," which she defines as "ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts" (23). In non-dialectical assemblage theory material reality is seen as an aleatory and fragmented flow and temporary conglomeration of objects and social practices: "[w]hat it means to be a 'mode,'" according to new materialism, "is to form alliances and enter assemblages: it is to mod(e)ify and be modified by others. The process of modification is not under the control of any one mode—no mode is an agent in the hierarchical sense" (22). In this view, material reality is made up of various conflicting, capricious, decentralized objects, things, in ad hoc local and micro assemblages outside of any structural relations or totalizing mode of global social and economic relations of production—such as transnational capitalism—that determines social conditions of life.

This anti-dialectical theory of "mode of assemblages" is, as Teresa Ebert remarks, "a response to capital's need to block any understanding of social totality that brings to the surface the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist regime" (355), namely, that behind the exchange of commodities, including the exchange of labor-power for wages, is the theft of workers' surplus-labor in production. It produces an alienated consciousness that disappears the relation of exploitation of human by human that takes place behind the production, circulation and conglomeration of "diverse […] materials of all sorts" (Bennett 23) and teaches the global workforces to instead look on capitalism and its requirements as "self-evident natural laws" (Marx, Capital 899). When conceived of as "assemblages" devoid of labor, material contradictions of gender, sexuality, race, and class are ideologically normalized and naturalized as the effect not of historically produced and therefore transformable social relations of production but as the effect of an ontological conditions of life and "being" as such or what Elizabeth Grosz calls "the precarious, accidental, contingent, expedient, striving, dynamic status of life in a messy, complicated, resistant, brute world of materiality" (Nick of Time 2). In the face of "assemblages" the only way for feminism to address the consequences of capitalism is to give up "the aspiration towards cognitive and practical mastery over the world" (Frost 78).

The opposition to "dialectics" and dialectical materialism in (post)humanist ontologies, in other words, is an ideological opposition to the theory of collective social transformation; it is an opposition to the understanding that material contradictions of life under capitalism are not simply "static binaries" but are the product of socially historically produced, and therefore, collectively transformable material relations of production.  In place of collective social transformation, new materialism puts forward the theory of "radical immanence." The theory of "radical immanence," is the understanding that already within the present there exists an "other" future world—a radically immanent alternative world within—that is beyond binary opposition, exploitation, and capitalism but without the need to collectively transform the social relations of production founded on private property and to end exploitation.

For example, Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, in their book New Materialisms: Interviews & Cartographies, argue for a "transversal" feminism of "radical immanence" that "traverses […] sexual dualisms" and provides "a new way of mapping the relations between the sexes by moving beyond sex, sexual difference, and gender" (87) through what they call a "performative ontology of sexual difference" (142). They argue that "binary" sexual difference is "nothing but a collective molar habit of mind" and that a post-binary society rooted in the vitalist "sexual differing" of the performative body "is not found in the future, but between the linguistic codes of sexual difference where it always already roams, materially and vitally" (156). In such a view there already exists a radically immanent vital ontology of differing within the body itself that is beyond sex, gender and other social binaries, and beyond material contradictions of class and exploitation. In this narrative "sexual differing" and "post-gender," "post-race," and "post-class" society is already here without social transformation of capitalism or, as Braidotti claims, "We already live in permanent states of transition, hybridization and nomadic mobility, in emancipated (post-feminist), multi-ethnic societies" (The Posthuman 184).

Feminism, in this view, can dispense with the collective social transformation and needs to give up the so called "negativity" of "oppositional critique" for what Braidotti calls a "life-affirming positivity" with "the absence of any reference to negativity or violent dialectical oppositions" (The Posthuman 56). By focusing on "oppositional critique" and "dialectical oppositions" such as the dialectical relation of gender and sexuality to class (i.e. the way in which gender and sexuality are used by capital to exploit surplus-labor), new materialism claims that we are constrained by the "negativity" of the "past" when feminism of the future must "be indeterminate (infinite)" (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 142). The call for "the absence of any reference to […] violent dialectical oppositions" (Braidotti, The Posthuman 56) is a way of marginalizing oppositional critique aimed a social transformation New materialist feminism is an ideological updating of neoliberalism and the argument that critique and transformation of capitalism is unnecessary for feminism and that the struggle for collective social transformation is an imaginary relic of the past. New materialism firmly recasts the feminism of the "future" as a liberal feminism in which we all already have "equal opportunity" for differing within capitalism and we just need to let go of our "molar mental habits" and adjust our expectations to "what exists" under capitalism as the basis of freedom. 

To eliminate "any reference" to "violent dialectical oppositions" does not do away with material contradictions (i.e., "binaries") nor does it unleash the power of "multiple others" as Braidotti claims. Rather, it actively suppresses, from materialist feminist social theory, the development of explanatory concepts with which to critique the material contradictions of gender and sexuality in capitalism, concepts that are needed for more effective collective transformation of the material relations in which women are exploited. This is because, contrary to the frame provided by new materialism and other (post)humanist ontologies, material contradictions of gender and sexuality are not simply artefacts of human correlationism projected onto an otherwise aleatory field of assemblages, rather, they are the effect of historical and material processes and contradictions in the social division of labor—of "definite social relations" of production founded on exploitation (Marx, Wage-Labour 29). Gender relations are a site of social struggle in capitalism because in class society gender is what Marx and Engels call an "instrument of labor" which is deployed by capital to make labor "more or less expensive to use" (Manifesto 491).  Gender becomes historically useful to capital, as an instrument of labor, to raise or lower the rate of exploitation by, for example, organizing workers into divided and competing labor forces which can be pitted against each other in order to divide class solidarity and cheapen the cost of labor. Marx further elaborates on the way in which social differences such as "gender" and "age" are used as instruments of labor to naturalize the way in which capitalist development throws out of the workforce historically higher-waged workers and replaces them with "fresh exploitable" workers at a cheaper rate. For example, as women, teenagers, and children have been drawn into the waged workforces of capitalism and more members of the family sell their labor for a wage and are exploited, rather than capitalism bringing about increased "equality" and standard of living for all, capitalism proves "Nothing more than that now four times as many workers' lives are used up as there were previously, in order to obtain the livelihood of one working family" (Wage-Labour 47); in exchange for the same wage that capital used to pay one worker, it now gets the surplus-labor of multiple workers.

Put in other terms, "gender," "sexuality," "age," "race," and other social differences are not irreducible singularities that exist in an accidental-acausal assemblages, rather they are "instruments of labor" used by capital to normalize the lowering of the "exchange-value"—i.e., the wages—of labor-power. In turn, they become ideological justifications for relative increases in the rate of exploitation because, by cheapening the cost of labor-power, they shorten the time the worker spends in the working day reproducing the value equivalent to her wages and increase the time the worker spends producing surplus-value. They, furthermore, are reproduced to provide a way to teach workers to interpret as natural the social division of labor and the way they are pitted in competition with one another by capital—a situation in which "labourers compete not only by selling themselves one cheaper than the other, but also by doing the work of five, then ten, then twenty" (Marx, Wage-Labour 44). Gender, moreover, is also useful for capital as an instrument of labor by serving as a tool in controlling the rate of growth and development of the surplus-labor producing population pushing and pulling women in and out of production and reproduction depending on the needs of capital. Cultural and discursive binaries are the outcome, at the level of ideas, of material contradictions in the social division of labor. They are the ideological translation of historically produced and therefore transformable social relations of exploitation into seemingly "metaphysical" essences. However, without transformation of the material relations of production even "post-binary" gender is not free from exploitation, but develops in relation to the need for capital to break down older more rigid gendered divisions of labor to draw women in the workforce en masse as exploited producers of surplus-labor.

Rebranding Capitalist Ontology as Feminist Market Freedom

The new "(post)humanist" ontologies are actually a metaphysics of the market. This is perhaps most strikingly apparent in the turn to object-oriented feminism, which transcodes the historical and social process of commodification—what Marx calls "exchange-value"—into the essential and ontological basis of Being as such and, in doing so, represents exchange-relations as a form of "empowerment" for women. Similar to other feminisms that derive their understanding from (post)humanist ontologies, object-oriented feminism claims to break from the absorption of feminism into social "constructionism," with its incessant focus on language and subjectivity, and to offer a more "materialist" approach to feminism. Thus, Katherine Behar, in the Introduction to her edited collection Object-Oriented Feminism, argues that feminism should be oriented around the understanding that "the impersonal is political" in which "the call for solidarity should be to rally around objects, not subjects" (7). This focus on "objects, not subjects," Behar contends, "promises a positive return to the 'real world' after a generation of feminist thought thathas been accused of ascribing gender as a construct in language" (5).

What object-oriented feminism means by "the real world," however, is a what Behar and others call a "flat ontology" –i.e., an ontology of "objects in "flat" or nonhierarchical arrangements" (10). This theory of materialism is drawn from object-oriented ontology's general assumption thatthe "real world" is composed of an aleatory assemblage of objects, which are "withdrawn" from each other and exceed any causal material relations, whether the dialectics of nature or the social relations of production. Thus, for example, object-oriented ontologist Graham Harman, in his essay "The Road to Objects," claims that "the real world is made up of individual objects that are withdrawn from all theoretical, practical, and even causal access" and that such objects always "retain an unexhausted surplus deeper than our relation with" them (174). In this view, material reality is composed of objects that are unique and autonomous singularities. Moreover, as unique and autonomous singularities, object-oriented ontology claims that objects ontologically exceed any material relations. Harman claims that "the failure of both theory and praxis to exhaust the things of the world" (174), is not simply a limitation of human theory and practice rather, it is an ontological limitation of reality: i.e., "a limitation of relationality in general" and that "relations […] fail to [grasp] their relata" (171).

In other words, according to object-oriented-ontology, the material world is composed of objects that ontologically exist as autonomous and irreducible singularities with in no material relations of determination whatsoever, including labor relations and the social relations of production, and therefore they exceed any directed collective labor for social change. Rather than a more "materialist" theory, object-oriented ontology is a ruling class ideology—a commodity fetishism—that disappears the dialectical praxis of labor and the social relations of production into the free play of "things" on the grounds that, as Harman puts it, "every relation forms a new real object" (177). In the ruling class "logic" of object-oriented ontology all relations—including all humans and their production relations—are themselves objects such that the formation of new objects is a relation between objects, devoid of labor, and a relation is not a relation at all but a new object. This erases the material relations of production through which the "unexhausted surplus" in objects is actually produced by the exhausted wage-laborer.

Behar claims that this kind of object-oriented theory "stands to evolve feminist and postcolonial practices" because it "extend[s] the concept of objectification and its ethical critique to the world of things" (8). What she regards as "evolved" about object-oriented feminism is that rather than critique material relations in which people in general, and women in particular, are treated "like objects," instead it proposes that all "people are […] objects as such from the outset" (8; emphasis added). For object-oriented feminism the basis of equality for all human and non-human "others" is to regard all of reality to be composed of "a pluralist population of objects, in which humans are objects no more privileged than any other" (Behar 5). According to this logic, if all are regarded as "objects from the outset" no person or thing and no form of objecthood can be privileged over any others. Rather than arguing for transforming the social relations of production in which women are exploited and in which they are objectified and commodified, object-oriented feminism instead argues for "equality" of all "objects," human and non-human. At best this is a formal cultural equality of "lifestyles," which is to say a cultural equality of "styles" of consumption. For instance, while Behar references object-oriented feminism's claims to move beyond anthropocentrism and "promote sympathies and camaraderie with nonhuman neighbors" (8), her main concern seems to be the "exclusion" from feminism of "sexual objects" and commodities, as well as visual imagery of sexual objectification and/or subjects who identify as "sexual objects"—such as the "Playboy bunnies"—on the grounds that all humans are "objects from the outset" so no one form of objectification or object-status should be privileged over another.

Object-oriented feminism dehistoricizes the "commodification" of women and of sexuality and ideologically conceals its material basis in the historical and social development of commodity production and exchange-relations and, ultimately, of modes of production founded on class and the exploitation of labor and production for private profit not collective need. Instead, it represents commodification in terms that translates capitalism into a law of nature. More specifically, in object-oriented thinking, the commodification—i.e., of humans, their labor, plants, animals, natural and manufactured objects, etc.—which is the social and historical effect of the capitalist mode of production, is deconceptualized and translated into a matter of "objectification." Then "objectification" is understood as the status of being an object and as an ontological and elemental feature of all of material reality as such. By representing all of reality as ontologically composed by "objects from the outset," object-oriented ontology abstracts "objects" from any causal relations and disappears these causal relations into "things" themselves. In the process of doing so, it ideologically transposes the material effects of what Marx calls the "ensemble of social relations of production" in capitalism onto the ontological ground of "Being" as such.

The commodification of women and of sexuality, however, is the historical and social effect of social relations of production founded on private ownership of the means of production, exploitation, and production for the profit of owners rather than the needs of workers. In her book Myths of Male Dominance, for example, Eleanor Burke Leacock demonstrates that the "commodification of women" is neither the product of "permutations of oppositions projected by the human mind," as in Hegel's dialectical idealism and more recent social constructionism, nor is it the product of universal ontological or existential conditions of life as such as in object-oriented feminism, rather, it is the effect of developments in the historical conditions and material relations of social production "among people as they work under different constraints to maintain and reproduce themselves" (214). More specifically, the commodification of women in particular and of human life in general, is the effect and outgrowth of the general transformation of egalitarian societies based on collective production and use to class-based societies based on private property and commodity production and exchange. Through empirical studies of the transformation of dozens of egalitarian societies to private property relations and the relationship of the deterioration of women's social position to the rise of class and private property relations, Leacock demonstrates that,

the process whereby exchange and specialization of labor beyond that by sex transformed goods (important for direct use) into commodities (important for exchange value) and concomitantly transformed relations among people from common production for cooperative use, to rivalry in production for accumulation and competitive exchange […] was decisive in the process through which egalitarian relations were undercut and virtually all women, along with increasing numbers of men, became themselves commodities. (216)

Gender and the commodification of women—of their bodies, sexuality, and of their labor—has a material and social history in the general development of social modes of production based on commodity production and exchange and the emergence of class relations in which social production is organized for the profit of some rather than the collective needs of all, i.e., in which some privately own and appropriate the products of social labor through exploitation.

Object oriented feminism naturalizes exchange relations and in doing so it conceals the necessary relationship of freedom of sexuality to the revolutionary project of freedom from exploitation and from the subordination of all social relations and conditions of existence to commodity relations (market relations) and production for profit. Instead, it substitutes for social transformation of capitalism the "free-play" of commodities and objects as a theory of emancipation for women. A telling example of object-oriented feminism's class-based politics is Behar's argument that object-oriented feminism "takes [its] cue from OOO: it is a brand. As a brand, object-oriented ontology has leveraged a calculated posture of coolness to make waves among various communities" (6). Behar claims that, whereas "the self- proclaimed radicality of OOO's discursive intervention was not matched by a radical politics […] OOF steps in, offering an alternative brand that is, following Haraway's vision, both a feminist practice and a multinational corporate strategy" (6). It is important to note that Behar reduces social theory and critique to a marketing strategy and market trend and is more concerned with the exchange-value of theory—its "coolness" factor as a commodity—than with its use-value as a contribution to struggles for social transformation and the emancipation of women. This is a market feminism that represents "multinational corporate strategies" and the subordination of all aspects of life to commodity production and exchange as a form of freedom and sexual "empowerment" for women.

Object-oriented feminism equates freedom with "market freedom," i.e., the freedom of exchange and the freedom to be exchanged. Instead of a theory for the material emancipation of women from exploitation and commodification, what object-oriented feminism offers is an ideological updating of liberal pluralism that, at its core, is a ruling class theory of "market-equality." This is market equality because, while it claims to advance the recognition of freedom, singularity and individuality that has always been "promised" by capitalism but in material reality is denied in capitalism, it accepts the equating of people and their labor with objects, including the objects that are the product of human labor. Yet, the equating of people and their labor with objects is enabled by historical and human social relations of commodity production and exchange in which the labor-power of workers is a commodity, like any other, to be bought and sold on the market for exploitation in production.

When object-oriented feminism claims that people are "objects from the outset" on the grounds that all reality is composed of objects that exceed any relations, it conceals the social and historical basis of "commodities" and "commodity relations."  Objects—whether plants, animals, natural substances, or manufactured objects—become commodities only under specific historical and social relations of production in which use-values are produced for the purpose of their "exchange-value" and "exchange-value" is produced for profit.  And, it is only under "definite social relations of production" that "labor-power is a commodity" like any other commodity on the market, "which its possessor, the wage-worker, sells to the capitalist" (Marx Wage-Labour 19). Moreover, workers sell their labor-power as commodities "In order to live" (19; emphasis added).  Workers, who own no commodity other than their labor-power, have no means under capitalism to live except to sell their life activity, that is, to "sell themselves, and that by fractions" to capitalists, who privately own the means of social production (20). Yet, far from being an eternal and natural ontological condition of Being as such "labour-power was not always a commodity (merchandise)" (19). The appearance of labor-power as a commodity on the market is not a natural, eternal, or ontological condition of being as such it is the product of historical and social relations of production in capitalism.

By naturalizing the idea that humans and their social relations are "objects from the outset," at most, object-oriented feminism takes the market logic of the ideology of exchange in capitalism in which the "circulation or commodity exchange […] is the very Eden of the innate rights of man" (Marx, Capital 280) and expands it into the value of all "objects" whether human, including "human others" or "non-human neighbors." Yet, ideology of exchange—i.e., the ideology of the market—is a ruling class ideology that conceals that behind the so called "freedom" of the market, it is in the "hidden abode of production" that the theft of workers' surplus-labor takes place, and when a worker brings "their own hide to market" they have "nothing else to expect but—a tanning" (Marx Capital 280). This is because exchange is "the [phenomenon] of a process taking place behind it" (Marx, Wage-Labour 186): that is, a process of exploitation in which, in the working day under capitalism, workers who do not own the means of production, spend part of the day producing the value in the form of commodities that is equivalent to their wages and means of subsistence (necessary-labor), and part of the day producing surplus-value which is appropriated by the owners for profit (surplus-value).

What is concealed by object-oriented feminism's celebration of a "pluralist population" of objects is that behind the exchange-relations of capitalism—behind objects and their exchange-value—is the theft of workers surplus-labor in production. While Behar in effect argues for the "market equality" of the "sexual object" or "Bunny" her concept of "freedom" has little to offer the vast majority of women in global capitalism who sell their labor-power as a commodity on the market and are exploited producers of surplus-value, including those who produce the global commodities that serve as the "accoutrements" of sexual objects: from teenage girls who are the exploited wage-labor on cotton farms in Burkina Faso, to the girls and women who transform this cotton into cloth as the exploited wage-labor in India's textile mills, to those who cut and sew this cloth into lingerie as the exploited wage-labor in Sri Lankan garment factories subcontracted by Victoria's Secret (Simpson). By erasing the relationship of the oppression and exploitation of women to the social relations of production, this theory conceals that the producers of commodities, wage-laborers, are exploited and participates in mystifying the social and historical—and therefore collectively transformable—material relations in which women and girls have been drawn into the exploited waged workforces of global capitalism en masse. This is a theory for women who are part of a class that can revel in the pleasures of consumption and not a theory of emancipation for the majority of women in global capitalism who are exploited producers.

Against Market Feminism: The Dialectics of Red Feminism

The "return" to "matter" in (post)humanist feminist ontologies is by and large a response, in capitalist cultural theory, to the crisis of capitalism. The so called "new material turn" in feminism is a new means of culturalizing and spiritualizing neoliberal capital in the wake of its global economic crisis. It is important to note that the "economic"—and, therefore, "matter"—is not only the focus of dialectical materialism it is also the focus of capitalist theory: it is a privileged category in neoliberal theory with its priority of economic reformism to stave off a crisis of profitability. Neoliberal theory, in its various forms, is only interested in economic and cultural reforms to remove the fetters not to human freedom, including freedom for women, but to profit for capital. The new (post)humanist ontologies are a culturalizing of neoliberal economic theories; they contribute to producing a cultural intelligibility that ideologically updates the global workforces to adjust workers to new imperatives for profit in the wake of crisis. They do so by ontologizing the exchange-relations of capitalism as well as the economic crisis of profitability in capitalism as the metaphysical ground of objective reality as such.

 "Life," in new materialist feminism, is dehistoricized. It is abstracted from historically produced social relations and structures of production and reproduction and is posited as a transhistorical, transsocial, metaphysical force.  According to this logic, "social totality"—the "many determinations and relations" which dialectically constitute the social precisely in the sense that some elements do determine others (Marx, Economic Manuscripts 37)—are translated into relations without determination and thus beyond explanation or directed collective social change. This is the ideology of exchange in which: "individuals appear to be independent […], appear to collide with each other freely, and to exchange with each other in this freedom; but they appear independently only to those who abstract from the conditions, the conditions of existence, in which those individuals come into contact with each other and these in turn […] appear, though produced by society, as it were, as natural conditions" (Marx Economic Manuscripts 100). In this view, social contradictions, inequalities and differences in historical conditions of life that are the result of social relations of exploitation—of the class contradictions and a crisis of profitability in the mode of production founded on production for profit not needs—are ideologically, but not materially, dissolved, into the natural, the elemental, and the eternal.

While non-dialectical materialist feminisms represent themselves as unleashing the "differences within" material reality, rather than what they contend is the exclusionary and totalizing logic of class, the new (post)humanist ontologies upon which they are based represent capitalism as an invisible law of nature and translate violence and discrimination against the "other" into an effect of a transhistorical irreducible ontology. (Post)humanist ontologies formally distance themselves from both the "subjectivism" and "constructivism" of poststructuralism, as Jaspir Puar does in her argument that intersectional theory has reached a "poststructuralist fatigue" and needs to be updated with assemblage theory (387). Yet, this merely raises the logic of poststructuralism—and its reduction of material contradictions of gender, sexuality, and difference to "irreducible signifiers"—to a new metaphysical level of abstraction by advocating the "ontological irreducibility" of social contradictions (386).

Echoing Kimberlé Crenshaw's intersectionalist argument that "discrimination" is like an "accident [that] happens at an intersection" which "can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them" (Crenshaw 149), Puar contends that "race, gender, sexuality are […] events, actions, and encounters, between bodies" in ontologically irreducible assemblages (Puar 382). In the figure of assemblages, differences are collapsed into singularities without historical determination and material inequalities are the effect not of exploitation but of "accident," "indeterminacy" and "unpredictability." The systemic and structural violence against the other in capitalism is explained away as astructural, acausal, accidental. In such a view, material contradictions of gender, sexuality, race, and class are collapsed into a post-dialectical "flat ontology" in which all are equally complicit in the inequalities generated within and beyond society, regardless of one's position in the global division of labor and social relations of production.

At best this logic culturally and ideologically updates, in a new (post)humanist rhetoric, a liberal feminist agenda of "market freedoms" with its focus on equalizing what Max Weber called "life chances" on the market (927) by elimination of gender barriers in culture and the workplace that inhibit women's "movement" or "free flow" on the market and get in the way of women selling their labor-power for a wage or becoming managers on behalf of capital. Rather than working to eradicate exploitation, (post)humanist feminisms focus instead on "discrimination" as an irreducible "event" and, therefore, as an end in itself. However, discrimination cannot be ended in itself—that is, it cannot be ended immanentlywithin social relations of production based on exploitation and production for profit. It can be ended only from its outside by ending exploitation. Discrimination cannot be resolved immanently within capitalism because the social relations of production based on private ownership of the means of production and the theft of workers' surplus-labor for profit have become fetters to human freedom in general and fetters to the freedom of women in particular. Freedom for women comes not by increasing their "life chances on the market" such as raising hourly wages but by ending wages—that is, ending wage-labor and capital relations—in which they are exploited as collective producers of surplus-labor. Gender discrimination is not the root cause of the situation in which woman find themselves globally, rather, exploitation is. Gender discrimination is part of women's concrete reality because of the social relations of production founded on exploitation. Gender as Delia Aguilar has argued is a "class-bound" issue with a dialectical relation to wage-labor and capital relations founded in the extraction of "surplus-labor" (413). This is why the integration of women into the global waged workforces of capitalism—and the cultural and "post-binary" adjustments to gender and sexuality that have been made within capitalism to accommodate this shift—have not emancipated women and brought about freedom from discrimination and inequality but, as a result of exploitation, have instead resulted in what Goretti Horgan, among others, calls the "race to the bottom upon which global capitalism is founded."

Instead of providing means to understand, dialectically, the material contradictions in which women are situated today, (post)humanist feminisms instead assert that material reality itself is ontologically composed by crisis. On these terms the crisis of capitalism and the forced adjustment of the lives of millions of women to the dictates of production for profit are explained as the effect of an ontological condition of life as such or, as Lauren Berlant claims: "we are all contingent beings, and life proceeds without guarantees" (166). Along similar lines Claire Colebrook claims, "what is absolute is contingency" (74). Crises that have historical and social causes in the material contradictions of capitalism—in the declining rate of profit and the forcible extraction of social wealth from workers to stave off these declines—are dehistoricized and, to use Colebrook's language, are rendered as the "infinite unfolded" or "a different expression of a [infinite] whole that differs with each of its events of being expressed" (75). Or, in Braidotti's terms it is a vital life force that is unpredictable and precarious: "Life," Braidotti argues in The Posthuman, "can be a threatening force, as well as a generative one" (112). Social crisis and contradiction, in this view, are ontological conditions of life—of the capricious life of zoe—as such. They are regarded as expressions of life's eternal unpredictability and "infinite possibilities" (107). In the face of crisis, Braidotti argues that what we need is to embrace the "exhuberance of zoe" and privilege the affirmation of "life" over the so called "thanatopolitics" or "negativity" of dialectical materialist critique (107). 

This offers a class-based feminism which advances the interests of a small class-fraction of women who have risen in the ranks of global capitalism and gained a greater share of the surplus-value produced by the majority and, therefore, see no need for developing a critique of relations of exploitation that can serve as a guide to the struggle for social transformation to emancipate women. The class logic of non-dialectical materialism is further evident in Braidotti's concept of "sustainable transformation." What she means by a "sustainable transformation" is not actually social transformation but endurance of and a positive affect within capitalism. More specifically, in her essay "The Politics of Life as Bios/Zoe," Braidotti argues that a sustainable ethics begins with a concept of "a sustainable self that aims at endurance" (184).  "Endurance," she contends "means putting up with hardship and physical pain" (184). "Sustainability," she continues, "has to do with how much a subject can take. Ethics can be understood as how much bodies are capable of" (188). Braidotti argues, that "For an ethics of sustainability, the expression of positive affects is what causes the subject to endure. Expression of positive affects is like a long-lasting source of energy at the affective core of subjectivity" (186). "Survival," "endurance," and "putting up with hardship and physical pain," constant change, etc. are represented by Braidotti as forms of "radical immanence" and the creation of another life, another world within and at the same time beyond capitalism. This is a politics which marginalizes the necessity of collective transformation of the "ensemble of social relations of production" and focuses on changing the felt experience and affect of individual women within capitalism in crisis. "A radically immanent intensive body" Braidotti argues, is "a portion of […] forces […] that is stable enough to sustain and undergo constant […] fluxes of transformation" (188).

However, this glosses over the historical and material relations in which the condition of survival to the next working day for increasing numbers of women around the world depends upon their ability to sell their labor-power to capital for a wage and thus become part of the logic of the capitalist working day. In doing so, new materialism dispenses with the necessity to critique and work to transform the material relations in which women are exploited. By arguing against the necessity of transforming material relations of exploitation and, at the same time, arguing for the "endurance of pain and hardship" and "expressing positive affect" within capitalism, monist feminism is, in effect, arguing for increasing the endurance of women workers and, therefore, increasing their productivity, within increased rates of exploitation in the existing relations of production. This is an austerity feminism that preaches on behalf of capital to the exploited women of the global workforces to get by on less, endure more, survive, and maintain a positive attitude under conditions of increased exploitation instead of working to struggle for social critique and transformation. In new materialism, conditions of dire need that are the effect of the structural crisis of capitalism are then presented as positions of "creative radical alterity": "precarious existence is not solely a negative phenomenon" because "it gives space to women's creativity" (Fantone 17). Such theories ideologically translate increased exploitation and the exigencies of austerity and capitalism in crisis into a new "spiritual sublime." In other words, the "anti-dialectics" of (post)humanist feminism conceives of the "reactivation" of feminism in terms of the neoliberal logic of irreducible singularities and translates living within the ruins of capitalism in crisis into an ontological and metaphysical condition of life as such at a moment when women have been pulled in and out of the workforces of capitalism as exploited producers to bolster the rate of profit.

In contrast to (post)humanist feminisms that return to "matter" in order to ontologize capitalism, the Marxist feminist interest in "material reality" and in the "economic" is not to reify capitalism as a metaphysical basis of Being, but to abolish economic exploitation; to bring about freedom for women through freedom from exploitation for all. What is needed in feminism in the 21st century is critique that grasps that capitalism at root requires the exploitation of the surplus-labor of workers in production as the source of profit and that "gender," "sexuality," and "race" as material relations, and sites of struggle and social transformation are not autonomous from the capitalist mode of production and its global division of labor and property relations. What is needed is a red feminism that advances the understanding that freedom for all women, not just privileges for some, has a necessary dialectical and material relation to freedom from class relations, exploitation, imperialism, and the use of gender, sexuality, and cultural differences by global capital as "instruments of labor" to raise or lower the rate of exploitation of the global workforces. What is necessary more than ever today is a red feminism that advances a labor theory of gender, sexuality, and cultural difference rooted in Marx's labor theory of value and its dialectical critique of global capitalism.


First published in Marxist-Feminist Theories and Struggles Today: Essential Writings on Intersectionality, Labour, and Ecofeminism, edited by, Khayaat Fakier, Diana Mulinari, and Nora Räthzel, Zed Books (an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc) 2020.



Works Cited

Aguilar, Delia. "Questionable Claims: Colonialism Redux, Feminist Style." Women and Globalization, edited by Delia Aguilar and Anne Lacsamana, Humanity Books, 2004, pp. 404-21.

Behar, Katherine, editor. Object-Oriented Feminism. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Barad, Karen. "Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 801-32.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke UP, 2010.

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell, Dover, 1998.

Berlant, Lauren. "Post One" in "Precarity Talk: A Virtual Roundtable Discussion with Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, et al," edited by Jasbir Puar. TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 56, no. 4, 2012, pp. 163-77.

Braidotti, Rosi. "The Politics of Life as Bios/Zoe." Bits of Life: Feminism at the Intersections of Media, Bioscience, and Technology, edited by Anneke Smelik and Nina Lykke, U of Washington P, 2010, pp. 177-92.

---. The Posthuman. Polity, 2013.

Colebrook, Claire. "Disaster Feminism." The Subject of Rosi Braidotti: Politics and Concepts, edited by Bollette Blaagaard and Iris van der Tuin, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 72-7.

Coole, Diana and Samantha Frost, editors. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Duke UP, 2010.

Cooper, Melinda. Life as Surplus. U of Washington P, 2008.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics." The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, pp. 139-67.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi, U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Dolphijn, Rick and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. Open Humanities Press, 2012.

Ebert, Teresa. "Epilogue: Gender After Class." Marxism and Feminism, edited by Shahrzad Mojab, Zed Books, 2015, pp. 347-66.

Frost, Samantha. "The Implications of the New Materialisms for Feminist Epistemology." Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, edited by Heidi Grasswick, Springer, 2011, pp. 69-83.

Fantone, Laura. "Precarious Changes: Gender and Generational Politics in Contemporary Italy." Feminist Review, no. 87, 2007, pp. 5-20.

Grosz, Elizabeth. The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution and The Untimely. Duke UP, 2004.

---. The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism. Columbia UP, 2017.

Harman, Graham. "The Road to Objects." Continent, vol. 3, no. 1, 2011, pp. 171-179.

Hill, Rebecca. "Interval, Sexual Difference: Luce Irigaray and Henri Bergson." Hypatia, vol. 23, no. 1, 2008, pp. 119-31.

Horgan, Goretti. "How Does Globalisation Affect Women?" International Socialism, no. 92, 2001, pp. 139-167.

Latour, Bruno. "From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik: Or How to Make Things Public" Making Things Public-Atmospheres of Democracy, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Germany, 2004.

Leacock, Eleanor Burke. Myths of Male Dominance: Collected Articles on Women Cross-Culturally. Monthly Review Press, 1981.

Marx, Karl. Capital, Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes, Penguin, 1976.

---. "Theses on Feuerbach." The German Ideology by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Progress Publishers, 1976, pp. 615-17.

---. Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 28, International Publishers, 1986.

---. Wage-Labour and Capital. Edited by Frederick Engels, International Publishers, 1986.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6, International Publishers, 1976, pp. 477-519.

Puar, Jasbir. "I Would Rather Be a Cyborg than a Goddess: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics." Meritum, vol. 8, no. 2, 2013, pp. 371-90.

Rose, Nikolas. The Politics of Life Itself. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Simpson, Cam. "Child Labor Used in Victoria's Secret 'Fair Trade' Products." Bloomberg News, Here and Now, 15 Dec. 2011.

Torrant, Julie. "Mind Over Matter and Other Posthumanist Feminist Tales." Human, All Too (Post)Human: The Humanities After Humanism, edited by Jennifer Cotter, Kimberly DeFazio, Robert Faivre, Amrohini Sahay, Julie P. Torrant, Stephen Tumino and Rob Wilkie, Lexington Books, 2016, pp. 95-114.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. U of California P, 1978.