Before I review this book, I want to talk about where we are in the world at this moment. Joseph R. Biden will be our next president in 2021 after “raising” 1.69 billion dollars to defeat incumbent Donald Trump’s haul of 1.96 billion dollars.
This result is, in some sense, completely unremarkable as Trump was a historically unpopular president and Biden is the living embodiment of a political insider having worked in Washington since he was 30 years old.
His presidency will be as unexceptional as the rest of his political career, but for now, I’d rather focus on his vice president, Kamala Harris.
As the first woman and first woman of color to hold the second highest office in the land, Harris’ win is historic, yet bittersweet. Harris is pro-cop and anti-trans rights as well as a host of other poor political positions that make her seem more like a rubber stamp than the champion of women and people of color everywhere.
Kamala Harris fits right in line with the whole host of neoliberal politicians now lining Biden’s Administration, many of them women. Neera Tanden is a prime example of the problematic nature of candidates. Tanden, with her record of defending corporations and attacking social security is contentious.
Why do many of these women uphold some of the most regressive values a politician can hold within the Democratic Party?
It’s not like there is a lack of options as there are many incredible women in politics like Elizabeth Warren, the four members of the squad, or new representatives like Cori Bush. There is also the growing Black Lives Matter movement with renewed urgency after the killing of George Floyd and the increase in labor strikes after decades of inactivity.
It is in this context that Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser finds itself as an antidote for the poor leadership we have in these trying times. It is from this perspective, this context, I wish to review this book.
The Review: Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto
A concept frequently mentioned in feminist theory is that of the glass ceiling. The idea is that there is a metaphorical glass ceiling that prevents women from attaining top positions in leadership roles such as CEO, President, or any position of serious power and that the only way to beat the glass ceiling is to shatter it.
Sheryl Samberg, the COO of Facebook, wrote a book about this topic where she encouraged women to “lean in” to positions of leadership to provide a sort of equality where women will make up half of all positions of power and men can make up half of all domestic settings, an equality by means of proportional representation in society.
But what if you can’t even see the glass ceiling? What if the problem facing most women is not a glass ceiling, but a dirty, dingy basement where it is a luxury to even see the glass ceiling?
This is the central conceit of Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto: not only do most women never get a serious opportunity to lean into roles of leadership, but that it is that same “leadership” that locks most women into a hierarchy where some women get to rule and most women are to be ruled.
After all, the idea of “lean in” implies there is a hierarchical system that women are left out of unless they lean in.
Taking direct inspiration from the most famous manifesto, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, the authors of Feminism for the 99% believe that feminism should move itself away from top-down power structures and towards bottom-up ones focused around the working class like that of traditional socialism.
In the book, there are eleven theses that are discussed, like Marx’s Manifesto work and Samberg’s own Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, each fall into one of three broader categories. I will talk about each in short detail to paint the broad strokes about the content of the book.
Realigning Contemporary Feminism Away from Liberal Capitalism
Making up the first four theses, this section of the book goes over how feminism is currently dominated by a liberal mindset and should instead be reoriented towards a socialist, working-class feminism. This section of the book deals with establishing an alternative to the dominant form of feminism we see amongst our rulers and in popular discourse.
I have spent a lot of time in this article detailing the ways in which liberal elites wield power, but I think it is important to bring up a political distinction in American discourse, the difference between liberal as used by a socialist and liberal as used by the current discourse.
In American lexicon, liberal is used as a word to refer to anyone who is to the left of conservatives, which includes just about anyone to the left of Ronald Regan. As used by socialists or other leftist groups, liberal tends to mean more like the word “centrist,” or people whose values uphold the status quo instead of fixing it, apparent in some liberal’s reluctance to rectifying the inequalities created under capitalism.
This distinction in definition might seem like air splitting, but it helps clarify a potential confusion when reading the book. Instead of condemning liberals for their support of social justice, like a conservative or right-winger might, it is to instead hold them accountable for their inconsistencies.
A great example might be calling out Joe Biden for calling himself a progressive while also being the father of mass incarceration and whole host of non-progressive stances. The distinction is meant to highlight the privilege of a few women over the vast majority as the result of liberal capitalism.
Gender and Sexual Control Under Capitalism
This group (theses five through seven) refers to how capitalism creates control and violence towards women. An example issue would be how many women find themselves in traditional domestic roles where the labor is as difficult as it is unpaid.
The dangers of this unpaid work become more apparent when your ability to live a decent life depends on paying rent, groceries, and hospital bills,. Some women simply can’t afford to leave abusive partners due to an inability to cover the basic necessities. This is just one example of capitalism subjugating women, but there are lots of examples that the book explores.
The subjugation of social reproduction for the purpose of profit-seeking is another important form of control the book addresses. Our system requires a constant influx of new bodies to do work, as has been true throughout history. With women the ones giving birth, their subjugation proves to be important to maintaining capitalist power.
In our society, we rely on traditional gender roles to give birth and raise the next generation of workers who will then create future generations of workers, with all this labor going mostly unpaid. Furthermore, the cost of raising a child can put incredible strain on families as they must pay for expensive childcare services out of pocket while getting paid almost nothing for their essential labor.
During Covid-19, this has become an especially pressing issue as schools have stayed closed while mothers have received no assistance to alleviate their economic suffering, leaving millions of mothers to choose between their children’s well-being and work. Instead of being a problem within the system, the book instead argues that this is the system working as intended, social control as a feature.
Feminism as an Intersectional struggle
The remaining four theses in the book expand upon the idea of feminism not being an isolated issue but rather one that intersects with other areas of social justice. There is a strong focus on colonialism and the environmental crisis as products of capitalism that feminism for the 99% could combat.
Both issues have been systematically ignored by feminism in developed nations, imperialism under the guise of bringing civilization and environmental destruction as a symbol for industrial progress. Ending the exploitation of the planet and its people cannot be solved with more women CEOs. Instead, the book argues that there must be an international approach to feminism instead of relegating it to the few women lucky enough to be elites.
It is these broader issues, the book argues, that make feminism necessary for the 99% because making our exploiters more gender proportional does not end injustice. If oppressive structures exist, oppression will continue to find a way to manifest itself.
A comprehensive approach to feminism must come hand in hand with economic justice, racial justice, eco-justice, and international peace if it is truly to be a feminism for the 99%. Anything less will lead to the same exploitation, only with different faces.
A Manifesto to Reorient the Way We Discuss Feminism
I would not recommend this book to you if you are looking for specific solutions to these issues because the book does not offer them. Much like Marx’s pamphlet in 1848, this manifesto is meant to reorient the way we discuss feminism away from the language of liberal elites into something that recognizes the issue of women in every corner of the world.
While it is not the book’s intent to offer anything more than a survey of the issues facing 99% of women, it could lead the reader to want concrete answers instead of abstract criticisms.
This book has a lot of important things to say, but the lack of immediate solutions for the immediate problems facing women today can come across as a little irritating.
Why tell women that they are being subjugated if there is no answer on how to stop it? I don’t believe this book has to answer the specifics, but that doesn’t mean that desire to know solutions isn’t still there.
Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto should not be your last book on the subject, it should be your first. If ending exploitation were as easy as pointing it out, we would have ended it a long time ago, so a manifesto that only totals 59 pages could not possibly provide answers to such a complex question and it shouldn’t have to.
Marx took three volumes and 16 years to publish Das Kapital, yet the work he started is still not done. More than that, the work of linking the ideas of feminism and socialism seems more difficult as it asks the writers to work across social disciplines. As Mark Fischer says in his book Capitalist
Realism: Is There No Alternative?
“The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect.”
A glimmer of hope has been provided. From here on out, it is our job to act.