Eclipsing Exploitation: Transnational Feminism, Sex Work, and the State

Jennifer M. Cotter

Orthodox Marxism and the Contemporary

What is Orthodox Marxism?
Stephen Tumino

(D)evolutionary Socialism
Deborah Kelsh

Corporate Transnationalism and Red Internationalism
Amrohini Sahay

Class, Labor and the "Cyber": A Red Critique of the "Post-Work" Ideologies
Rob Wilkie

Haven't you realized that workers have it pretty good today
Brian Ganter

Revolution as Seduction, Pedagogy as Therapy and The Subject is Always Me
The Red Collective

Marxist Interventions


Under the pressure of increasing class contradictions in the international division of labor, the dominant discourses of feminism are in a political crisis over their engagement with materialism. Specifically, the dominant feminisms—which, for the most part, are part of the "nation"-al civil rights movement and thus remain deeply "national"—are now under pressure for the way in which they have displaced issues of the international division of labor, solidarity in politics, and matters of universality in epistemology and philosophy—questions, that is of class, labor, and exploitation—and based feminist politics on localism ("nationalism"), personal lifestyle, volunteerism, the body, and performance. Even feminists who have inherited the cultural theory of ludic feminism are now, under pressures from transnational capitalism and its emerging contradictions, articulating a "transnational feminism" that claims to oppose ludic postmodern feminism for the way in which it restricts politics to the confines of locality and prevents the possibility of "resistance" to transnational capitalism. For instance, in their introduction to their anthology Scattered Hegemonies, transnational feminists Caren Kaplan and Inderpal Grewal argue that the ludic postmodernism of Lyotard and others has maintained a localizing ethnocentric focus on Western texts and restricted debate to aesthetics and culture at the exclusion of politics (Scattered 3-5). They argue that, in its references to "the circuits of transnational capital," ludic postmodernism has lent support to "construct[ing] an apolitical collage of locations and people, linked not through their historicized social relations but through their mystified experiences as players in a field of global travel" (Scattered 7-8). As a consequence, they argue, ludic postmodernism has been "unable to account for contemporary global conditions" (Scattered 1) and produce an effective politics that intervenes in them.

But it is telling that while transnational feminists are distancing themselves from poststructuralism, they hold on to poststructuralist politics. For instance, they reject the notion of emancipation and revolution and re-state Foucault's notion that all that can be done under capitalism is "resistance." According to Kaplan and Grewal, "there is no space outside of [existing] power configurations," and no "binary" position from which to overthrow them, and thus feminism must "negotiate" with the existing structures of violence and power ("Transnational" 356). Such a view, of course, is itself based on the rather reactionary notion of power that Foucault has spelled out in his History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. For Foucault, power is autonomous from any "general system of domination" such as capitalism "exerted by one group over another" (92). Power relations have their own "immanent logic" that is "not . . . the effect of another instance that 'explains' them" (94-95). This is, to be clear, in direct contrast to the orthodox Marxist understanding that "power" derives from the private ownership and control of the means of production and is thus, at its basis, the capacity to command over the surplus-labor of others. By contrast, Foucault claims, "relations of power are not in superstructural positions" to production (94). Instead, power is a "multiplicity of force relations" that "comes from everywhere" (93). Moreover, there is no material basis for revolutionary struggle "instead, there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case" (96). Power cannot be overthrown because "there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations" (94). That is, power is not concentrated in the hands of a few rather, it is diffuse, traverses all social sites, and is available to appropriation by all.

In short, Foucault's theorization of power involves the total erasure of class contradictions in the international division of labor and the abstraction of domination from exploitation. On these terms domination, power and "resistance," including the domination of women and "resistance" to it, are detachable from relations of production based on exploitation (the private appropriation of surplus-labor). But such a view ideologically justifies relations of domination because it theorizes "resistance" as autonomous from economic access and the fundamental transformation of production relations. Consequently, "empowerment" is considered to be possible for all within capitalism. Thus, it is not necessary to overthrow capitalism for all women to be "empowered." It is only necessary to resist—or "crisis manage"—the daily effects of capitalism. This is another way of saying that "women's empowerment" can co-exist with exploitation. This is precisely the position that Kaplan and Grewal take in their endorsement of Spivak's notion of "crisis management" and "negotiation": empowerment for women is to be found within capitalism and can exist along side of exploitation.

Owing to its basic acceptance of ludic politics, the "new" de-localized feminism, therefore, cannot accept universality and solidarity and in place of revolutionary "internationalism" to abolish private property, it advocates "transnationalism." In the presumed absence of structural connections based on global class contradictions, "transnationalism" theorizes the connection between various local sites on the basis of "affect," what Derrida calls "a link of suffering and hope" (Spectres 85) and consumption. It thus advocates for "transnational-localism"—a "new global civil society," or what Spivak calls "globe girdling"—composed of a combination of "nongovernmental" organizations and locally based activist groups that serve as a foundation for a new global citizenship.

But how "resistant" to transnational capitalism is this transnational-local "resistance"? The class politics of "transnationalism" become quite clear in Spivak's transnational feminist notion of, "hard-core economic resistance." As Spivak defines it, "economic resistance" involves not an abolition of capital but "reallocating the uses of capital" (8). It involves "enlightened donorship" for those in the North and the "redistributive use of capital" in the South (11). In this schema, consumption not production becomes the main source of agency and power for citizens and thus the main site for social change. Far from proving to be "resistant" such an understanding of resistance naturalizes commodity culture and the consumative subject. What is left unexamined and exempt from critique is the fundamental inequality in global production relations between those who own and control the material resources and political instruments of society (and therefore are in a position to determine toward what uses "donorship" and "redistribution" are put) and those who must sell their labor in order to survive (and are therefore subject to exploitation and excluded from the very organizations making distribution decisions).

This "transnationalism," therefore, is itself a form of crisis management for capitalism that does not go beyond the localism that it claims to contest. Nowhere is this more clear than in transnational feminism's re-theorization and normalization of the concept of class. Under the banner of "transnationalism" the dominant feminism now claims to "return" to issues of class, labor, and "economic production" in the theorization of the material conditions of women's lives, after decades of denying their relationship. For instance, like many feminists, Angela McRobbie wants to distance herself from the failures of post-modern feminism by showing that its culturalist focus on "desire" and "pleasure" in consumption and its subsequent inattention to "the highly exploitative conditions under which [consumer] goods . . . have been produced," have engendered a mode of feminism that has "resulted in the [economic] bottom end . . . of the social hierarchy being dropped from the political and intellectual agenda" (32-33; emphasis added). As a consequence she argues that feminism, if it is to be effective toward social change, must not abandon "class as a primary concept for understanding social structure" (38). Likewise, in their articulation of "transnational feminist cultural studies" Kaplan and Grewal argue for the necessity of "such terms as division of labor, class, capital, commodification, and production" in feminism if it is going to address the material conditions of all women's lives, not just some ("Beyond" 351).

However, in transnational feminism and cultural feminist theory generally, "class" is theorized not as the place of the subject in the social relations of production but as his/her location in the social relations of reproduction, exchange, and consumption, or what McRobbie calls the "social relations of shopping." While transnational feminists are now rushing to address "class," the theory of class that they propose is one that displaces economic contradictions in the social relations of production, with moral and ethical contradictions in the "workplace." For McRobbie "class" and "production" are understood in occupationalist terms—in terms of the type of work performed and the social status it has in the workplace—not in terms of one's relationship to the means of production. In her analysis of women in the fashion industry, for instance, she argues that what is necessary in order to change their exploitative conditions of "production" is a "(New) Labor policy" that "think[s] across the currently unbridgeable gap" between various sectors of the international fashion industry by emphasizing collaboration and ethical understanding between designers and pieceworkers and public pressure from fashion magazines, celebrities, and other consumers to move women into "better paid and more highly skilled work" (42). In short, transforming "production relations," according to McRobbie, means embracing solutions that propose to change the position of women within the existing division of labor from one sector to another, or changing the way in which particular sectors are ethically valued by others.

In actuality, what she and other feminist theorists today are calling the sphere of "production" is in fact the sphere of the circulation of labor-power as a commodity. That is, they focus on changing the terms under which labor-power is circulated as a commodity: the terms within which it is bought and sold. What is excluded by the theorization of "class" and "production" as modes of "circulation" is the possibility and necessity of transforming the relations under which labor-power is produced as a commodity: the conditions of exploitation that enable it to be bought and sold in the first place. The position of labor-power as a commodity is taken for granted as "given" in transnational feminist discourse and, as a consequence, "class" is normalized. This leads to practices that restrict feminism to cooperation with the existing social relations of production without transforming them.

When the inquiry into conditions of production is restricted to what is actually the sphere of circulation, the material relations between owner and worker appear to be relations of equality and freedom of choice—where both the buyer and seller of labor-power are equal before the law and meet in the marketplace to each other's mutual advantage. It is on these terms that, despite claims to recognize class as a material antagonism not merely a lifestyle "difference," McRobbie argues: "there is no inherent reason why closer collaboration of this sort could not take place to the mutual advantage of all parties" (42). Such a view, however, is a utopian reading of "class" which takes a moral stand against the effects of capitalist exploitation but fails to serve as a guide for transforming the fundamental material contradictions that enable it. It fails to serve as a guide for transformation because, though it criticizes the consequences of capitalism, it does not actually explain them and can therefore only "reject" the harmful effects of capitalism without abolishing its fundamental processes. However, once we leave the sphere of circulation and turn toward what Marx called the "hidden abode of production" what is laid bare and explained is the "secret of profit making": the production of "surplus-value" (Capital, Vol. 1 279). Engels explains,

. . . that the appropriation of unpaid labor is the basic form of the capitalist mode of production and of the exploitation of the worker effected through it; that even if the capitalist buys the labor power of his laborer at its full value as a commodity on the market, he yet extracts more value from it than he paid for; and that in the ultimate analysis this surplus value forms those sums of value from which are heaped up the constantly increasing masses of capital in the hands of the possessing classes. (Engels 33)

It is this "discovery of surplus-value" and its production, as Engels makes clear in Anti-Dühring, that distinguishes utopian and reformist understandings of "production" from materialist and revolutionary understandings (Engels 33). Without knowledge of capitalist production as the production of surplus-value and the exploitation of labor, the dominant feminism avoids transforming these conditions and putting in place the material conditions that are necessary to produce collectivity in the work place—that is collective production not for the profit of some but the needs of all.

Women cannot be emancipated from exploitation and oppression under conditions in which some can appropriate the surplus-labor of others. This is because emancipation requires public ownership and control over the material resources of society (the products of collective labor) and thus, of the means of production. Without public ownership of the means of production—in which all persons collectively determine the uses toward which social labor is put—the vast majority of women will continue to be denied economic access and their labor will continue to be exploited. Thus, feminism must produce scientific knowledge of production—of the production of surplus-value—so that it is able to produce practices that do not simply moralize against the consequences of capitalism but that are capable of transforming its fundamental conditions. Freedom from oppression and exploitation for women must be materially enabled, by putting the material conditions in place for it.

No change is possible unless the material conditions that enable it are put in place (or are being put into place) and no understanding of these "material conditions" can be accounted for without knowledge of "class." Class, understood as the position of the subject of labor in the social relations of production (whether one owns the means of production and has command over the surplus-labor of others, or whether one only owns her labor-power and is exploited), is the concept that is most crucial for understanding the material conditions necessary for social transformation, including change for women. This is because "class" is the concept that explains whether the social relations of production are organized so that the material resources, the social products, belong to all members of society (classless society) or whether they are appropriated by the few who privately own the means of production. But it is precisely this knowledge of class—of surplus-labor and surplus-value and the conditions which make it possible—that is under attack by dominant cultural theories including "transnational feminism." Knowledge of the material existence of "surplus-value" as the private appropriation of surplus-labor is being erased from feminism in an effort advanced, most notably by Spivak, to turn it into a linguistic pun and a site of textual play—what Spivak calls "catachresis." But such a theorization shifts the focus away from the private command over the surplus-labor of the majority to the ludic play of textual differences. On such terms, television and fashion shows are more central than class contradictions in transforming social arrangements. But, without knowledge of class, cultural "theory" cannot explain the material conditions within which dominant cultural representations are produced and become accepted, nor can it account for what needs to be done in order to put the material conditions in place for social transformation. Such knowledge of material conditions—of who owns and controls the material resources of society and who determines the uses toward which they are put—is imperative for feminism if it is going to intervene in these conditions in order to transform them and produce the conditions necessary to emancipate all women. Moreover, the revolutionary transformation of class relations is imperative for feminism if it is to be a project that works toward setting free all persons from exploitation and oppression and not a ruse for the class privilege of some women (and men) in the global division of labor.

The ineffectivity of transnational feminism as a transformative practice—that is, as one capable of fundamentally transforming the conditions of women's lives in the international division of labor—can be seen clearly by examining recent discourses on "global sex work." Like much of transnational feminism, the discourses on "sex work" claim to move away from disconnecting the conditions of women's lives from capitalist production but, at the same time, they abstract "work" under capitalism from exploitation as the production of surplus-labor. In her introduction to Global Sex Workers, Kamala Kempadoo theorizes "sex work" as a term produced in order to explain prostitution and other facets of the sex industry "not as an identity . . . but as an income generating activity or form of labor" (3). "Sex work," it is claimed, is a term that advances the interests of all workers, especially female workers in the "Third World," because it emphasizes not the "victim" status of prostitution, but women's "agency" to "choose" a line of work that allows them to "make do" and "survive" in existing conditions. Some theorists, such as Alison Murray, argue that the "agency" of sex workers has "nothing to do with" economic conditions, and that to argue that poverty forces women into sex work is to advance the moralist assumption that no "normal" woman would "freely choose" to engage in sex work (Global 43). According to Kempadoo and other transnational feminists, "sex work" is a form of "necessary sexual labor" or "emotional labor" that is not inherently exploitative owing to the capacity of sex workers to assert their "agency" by developing strategies of resistance to "get by in their everyday lives" ("Slavery or Work?" 226).

What makes "sex work" exploitative, according to transnational feminists, are moral and legal restrictions and regulations imposed by the State to criminalize sex work and prevent women from "freely choosing" it. In Allison Murray's contribution to the volume Global Sex Workers, she states: "it is precisely the moral hypocrisy of global capitalism and sexual repression, including the criminalization of prostitutes, which creates the space for exploitation, discrimination, and negative attitudes toward female sexuality" (54). Here "capitalism" is theorized as primarily a moral economy in which moral contradictions in sexual relations are understood to be what causes the exploitation of sex workers and the oppression of women in capitalism. These contradictions, Kempadoo argues, are based on a "masculine hegemony" in which "female sexual acts that serve women's sexual or economic interests are . . . dangerous, immoral, perverted, irresponsible, and indecent" ("Slavery or Work?" 230). Presumably, in the absence of moral codes and legal barriers that criminalize "consensual" sex work, it would harbor no exploitation or oppression. Thus, the main task that transnational feminism advocates in relation to "sex work" is to decriminalize it and to advance the rights of women to freely choose sex work through the "deregulation" of the State. Once sex work is legalized, it is assumed, sex workers will then be entitled to the same rights as all other workers.

But this theorization of legal rights as the basis of emancipation mystifies the basic processes of capitalist exploitation, including the exploitation of sex workers. Even when the worker is legally free, to sell her labor in the capacity that she legally "chooses" under capitalism, she is not free from exploitation: from the forced extraction of her surplus-labor. Contrary to understanding "sex work" as non-exploitative where it is legal and without moral stigma, it is imperative to insist on sex work as exploited WAGE-LABOR because, for one thing, without doing so we cannot account for the fact that sex work continues to be based on exploitation even when it is "legalized" and even when, on legal terms, it involves "free labor."

It is, of course, important to note here that transnational feminism puts the "state" (i.e., power) at the center of its analysis of sex work, which eclipses the role of wage-labor (i.e., economics). As Teresa Ebert has explained, it "wages war on totality"—specifically the totality of the "State"—without opposing the exploitation of wage labor in capitalism (Ebert 31). Once again, while transnational feminism distances itself from ludic practices, it continues to displace exploitation (labor) with oppression (power). Contrary to its claims, sex work is not a point of departure from the subordination of sexuality to the capitalist state rather it is actually the increased subordination of sexuality to production for profit. It is indicative of shifts within the capitalist mode of production in which the forces of production in capitalism have developed to the point that tasks once performed primarily within the privatized family of capitalism are now increasingly becoming sites of commodity production and exchange.

What is read as increased freedom from the state and bourgeois morality, in actuality, is the subordination of sexuality to the logic of transnational capital. The celebration of "sex work" as a mark of freedom and "agency" is a ruling class response in the relations of reproduction to the historical limits of the "nuclear family" that aims to get workers to re-adjust to exploitative conditions in the social relations of production. Sex work is not merely a power relation. It is, first and foremost, an economic relation and is best understood not as oppression but as exploitation. What transnational feminism occludes is that it is not the moral contradictions of the capitalist state that makes sex work exploitative but, as Alexandra Kollontai has argued, sex work is itself enabled by the "exploitative structure of [capitalism's] economy" (Selected Writings 263). The bottom line of commodified sexuality is not freedom of sexuality, freedom for women, or freedom for workers, it is freedom for transnational capital to turn all aspects of life into sites for the production of profit. Thus, "freedom" to "choose" sex work (which itself presupposes class society) is only the highly restricted and formal "freedom" that capitalism has always allowed its workers: freedom from property and the freedom to sell one's own labor-power. In short, it is the "freedom" to be exploited in the way one "chooses" but not the freedom from exploitation.  

In actuality, discourses of "sex work" are not a point of departure from bourgeois morality as such because they do not serve as a point of departure from private ownership of the means of production—the material basis of bourgeois morality. The class politics of transnational feminism's notion of "agency" and "power" for women becomes strikingly clear when we examine Kempadoo's reading of "gender subversion" in the Caribbean sex industry. According to Kempadoo, the "romance tourism" of the Caribbean, which is "based on the sale by men of 'love' to North American and European women" and in which "'rent-a-dread' and beach boys dominate the tourist … sex trade," is an indication that "gender relations are clearly being contested" ("Slavery or Work?" 230-231). Such a reading of the consumerist practices of wealthy North American and European women as a mark of feminist "agency" and "power" erases the crucial difference between those women who have access to the material resources to participate as consuming tourists in the global sex trade, and those men and women who are denied access to material resources and therefore must subordinate their "needs" to the "desires" of the wealthy. It is a convenient ruling class narrative for wealthy North Atlantic women to maintain the position that there is no principled position against oppression and exploitation—that power is so diffuse and amorphous that there is no "outside." Such a notion makes it possible to "advance feminism" without questioning the ruling class desire to exploit those who have been positioned as "racial" and "sexual" others.

For orthodox Marxist feminism—that is for Red Feminism—concerns about the character of individuals (their desires, needs, their gender, their sexuality, their "identity" and "difference," and their agency) cannot not be abstracted from the conditions that produce them—not just the legal and moral conditions, but the "material conditions determining their production" (German Ideology 42). Red feminism does not, for instance, treat "desire" or "agency" as a "free floating" choice that is severed from economic structures but as a practice enabled by the material conditions within which that society produces its needs. "Desire" and "freedom of sexuality," for Red feminism, is in dialectical relation to need and how these needs are produced. Thus the ways in which women's sexual desires are constructed and the ways in which a woman is able to fulfill desire is enabled by her position in the material relations of production and the division of labor. For instance, the material conditions of possibility for "freedom of sexuality" are quite different for a woman who occupies a strictly gendered position in the social division of labor such as much of the sex industry and is compelled to take up a strictly heterosexual position in marriage or in sexual and economic service to a pimp in order to survive, and a woman who is a well paid professional in an occupation in advanced capitalism that is relatively flexible regarding gender. Freedom of sexuality for women, then, is not something that can be symbolically, morally, or legally asserted, but must be materially enabled by putting the material conditions in place for it. The significance of production for feminism—that is, the production of surplus-value and its private appropriation—as well as its normalization in transnational feminism, matters because it determines what material resources and conditions are at the disposal of all members of society (and how they are organized) and therefore determines whether the social arrangements will be able to eradicate oppression for all or whether they will need to be transformed to do so. Transnational feminism, with its focus on transforming the state without abolishing wage labor, is actually producing a position that works in the interests of subordinating the state to the interests of transnational capital. What is necessary in feminism is not the individualized "agency" of "transnational" feminism but the collective solidarity of revolutionary internationalism for a feminism that will participate in the class struggle to abolish capitalism's regime of profit and wage-labor and therefore put the material conditions in place to emancipate all people from exploitation.

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