Since October 2017, the #MeToo movement has revealed patterns of endemic sexual harassment and misconduct by powerful men in government, the entertainment industry and the media. The firings of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor and many others were widely celebrated as victories for survivors of workplace abuse. Similarly, the defeat of Roy Moore in the December 2017 Alabama senate election seemed to indicate that public opinion was increasingly turning against men with histories of sexual misconduct.
Marxist feminist Silvia Federici posits, however, that changing public opinion will not be sufficient in ending sexual harassment and abuse. Silvia Federici has written about the unique exploitation of women under capitalism since the 1970s and has participated in numerous anti-capitalist movements for women’s liberation, particularly the Wages for Housework campaign. She is perhaps best known for her 2004 book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation.
Talking with Service Employees Union members in Portland
In her analysis of the #MeToo movement at Portland’s SEIU headquarters this February, she challenged the movement to go beyond the legal punishment of individual offenders and look instead at the systemic causes of sexism. The material conditions of capitalism, according to Federici, create systemic differences in power between men and women. Until these material conditions change, the sexual harassment and abuse of women cannot be effectively remedied.
In Caliban and the Witch, Federici argues that the degradation of women’s bodies and women’s labor was a fundamental part of capitalism’s formation. This argument was also the basis for her critique of #MeToo. The driving force behind the recent explosion of sexual harassment revelations, as she sees it, is not a handful of aggressive men or “bad apples.” Rather, the fault lies with a system that for centuries has forced women to perform unpaid reproductive and sexual labor in the home. Such a system fostered the widespread financial dependence of wives on their wage-laboring husbands. Centuries of forced dependence produced unequal power dynamics between men and women in the home and family, which came to permeate all of capitalist society.
Gendered Power Dynamics in the Home and the Workplace
In her talk, Federici made meaningful connections between the exploitation of waged workers by their bosses and the exploitation of wives and children by husbands. When the wage labor force was still predominantly made up of men, workers brought home the frustration and powerlessness they felt on the job and took it out on their families. Federici refers to this dynamic as a “safety valve” for proletarian men: after a long day of bosses commanding their labor and their bodies, working men could come home and command the labor and the bodies of their wives. The ability of proletarian men to feel powerful at home allowed them to cope with the indignities of their jobs, at the expense of women.
Women, especially women from poor families and women of ethnic and racial minorities, had always made up a portion of the waged workforce. But as women in capitalist core countries increasingly joined the workforce en masse in the 1970s and 1980s, workplace dynamics between men and women mirrored those in the home. Capitalist society had long sanctioned husbands’ control over wives’ bodies, labor and sexuality. Thus, Federici argues that men have been socialized to see the sexuality of their women coworkers as at their disposal. The fact that women workers tend to be more highly concentrated in lower-ranking jobs and lower-paying positions only exacerbates these power dynamics.
Sexual Misconduct and Material Conditions
The overall thesis of Federici’s talk was that capitalism is built on economic and social inequalities between men and women. As long as capitalism remains the dominant world system, she argues, these inequalities will be continually reproduced as systemic imbalances of power between men and women. Without changing the underlying material conditions, society cannot expect any long lasting fixes to issues of sexual harassment and violence.
The problem, in short, goes a lot deeper than Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, or any of the other powerful men condemned by the #MeToo movement.
It’s important to note that while Federici sees ending capitalism as the only true solution to these problems, she does consider the #MeToo movement as a very positive step in this process. Federici applauded the solidarity between women that #MeToo is building. She also believes #MeToo has been an important “crash course” for men who seek to be comrades in struggle.
Federici ended her talk by emphasizing that the transformation of society will require mass participation and cannot succeed if it is considered just the work of women. While it may impact them differently, capitalist exploitation harms both men and women.
Mary McKenna and Myles Baker are active in political organizing and writing in Olympia
The entirety of Federici’s recent talk in Portland can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxSmkeMkU7c.