Why capitalism encourages black feminist thought
PRETORIA – Ever since the collapse of the mighty Soviet Union about thirty years ago and many events that followed thereafter including the global financial crisis in 2007-08, there has been interest in the capitalist system and its mechanisms.
Some scholars have predicted that the system would soon unravel, while others have constantly argued for its reform. Also, the rise of China in recent years was said to be the beginning of the decline of the West and its free markets. However, the capitalist system stands even stronger more than before and there appears to be no immediate alternative to substitute it.
In his book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ (1992), Francis Fukuyama asserted that the triumph of the West included a victory of market-based capitalism. The view is that capitalism has showed such resilience because it thrives best under democratic conditions. However, this assertion has generally been proven to be quite untrue. Least democratic or autocratic systems in China, South Korea and Singapore have mastered capitalism better than anyone else in the last forty years. They have not only achieved unprecedented growth rates and fairly good employment but they have also produced some of the world’s largest corporations and slowly grew standards of living.
So, it doesn’t matter whether one is in New York or Shanghai, capitalism is the only system for organizing production and is very dominant. Some people have argued that the system is the best in terms of resource distribution, and unleashing individual potential. This isn’t quite true since much of the wealth is poor and wealth is in the hands of a very small, very rich minority. As American scholar Michael Parenti puts it, “The wealth of the few rests in the poverty of the many.” Capitalism has been a dismal failure in lifting millions out of poverty as well as in reducing inequality all over the world.
Capitalism isn’t the most optimum platform for wealth distribution within and without countries. The world is stuck with heartless capitalism and is unable to rid itself of this system run by greedy demons, whose annual pilgrimage is in Davos, Switzerland. This article therefore attempts to understand why capitalism remains steady and resolute, with all its problems of inequality, exploitation and frequent crises. Starting with theoretical perspective, the article explores how the capitalist system replicates itself through ideas. Ideas have become the best currency for capitalism rather than money. This isn’t surprising after all since the Marxist theory of base-superstructure model recognises capital as the one important factor which shapes ideas through the media and education, among others.
As such, this opinion piece puts forward a compelling argument that, contrary to popular belief, the ideology of feminism, more specifically in the context of work and maybe in other spheres as well, is a construct of capitalism. Related to this, the article seeks to dismiss new but ever-growing ideas of ‘absent fathers’ as equally convoluted and based on weak but dishonest assumptions about black people in general. This phenomenon also has an important capitalist dimension to push women to the workplace, a slaughterhouse when human dignity is overlooked in the name of profitability.
Understanding the capitalist system from political perspective
Adam Smith is credited as the first person who theorised the concept of what today is generally known as capitalism. In his work ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ (shortened to ‘The Wealth of Nations’) published in 1776, Smith forms the basis of was is later to be known as classical economics. He advocated for a society that would be “characterized by laissez-faire or free markets where new institutions are established to conduct market transactions.” From this, the dominant idea is that the role of government should be minimised. What replaces government intervention is the ‘invisible hand’ which directs the forces of supply and demand in an economy.
Smith’s original conceptualisation of capitalism has evolved over time, and a number of people including David Ricardo, John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman have also shaped the manner in which the power of free markets are understood today. On the other hand, there is equally a sizable contingent of individuals who have opposed the power of the invisible hand and its consequences. The names of Karl Marx and Friederich Engels come to mind. However, there are others who have left a strong impression in their oppositionist stance against capitalism. Since this document is limited to how the capitalist system replicates itself through ideas, focus will be on how capitalist ideas have survived the storm including the bipolar rivalry between the USSR and the USA after the Second World War.
Beginning with the books ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’ (1917) by Vladimir Lenin and ‘Imperialism, A study’ (1902) by JA Hobson, there is need to get the idea on the fierce and forceful nature of capitalism as a system. Both Lenin and Hobson concurred that around 1900s, capital in Europe had reached a point of saturation and was therefore facing diminishing rates of return. As a result, this necessitated a need for new markets to experience more growth. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, for instance, did not make things easier since this was a serious attempt of breaking global systems of ownership, at least according to Parenti. Thus, colonialism became a logical step for the outward spread of capital, particularly to the African continent. For example, South Africa became a golden crown for the British empire amongst its foreign possessions with its natural wealth.
In addition to seeking more profitability, capitalism has moved beyond colonialism to becoming a dominant force in all facets of life. Capitalism, extremely wealthy companies and developed countries are interested to maintaining their indisputable position as holders of production systems, capital and everything that underpins not just what is regarded as capital but also the capitalist system itself. Borrowing from the important essay by the French scholar Jean-Paul Sartre titled 'Colonialism is a System' (1956), capitalism is indeed a system. Capitalism tends to subsume anyone who opposites its ideals and dominance. This includes the main ideas of having labour unions, affirmative action and social justice. These ideas are generally considered to be leftist and or to responsible for market rigidities. It may however be argued that they aren’t really standing asymmetrical to capitalism. Capitalism offers a stage for these ideas to thrive. It is no coincidence that the minerals‐energy complex is said to have sponsored the creation of black-led trade unions in South Africa.
This therefore means that most of what we see as opponents of capitalism is actually critical for the sustenance of the system itself. Forget the slogans like ‘An Injury To One Is An Injury To All’, ‘Workers Unite’, etc., trade unions cannot exist without capitalism. Using the Hegelian approach, the capitalist system at the level of ideas uses its fierce but yet subtle power to oppose (undo) itself and also to rebuild itself at the same. That is how it remains strong and unshakable. Within the idea of worker rights and fairness, for example, the profit motive is entailed. It is for the reason that trade unions had no place in the Soviet Union. Worker rights don’t make sense without the exploitative elements of capitalism. On its part, feminism as well is fully and completely integrated within the logic of capitalism, which is to exploit women.
Capitalism and black feminist ideas
So, it doesn’t matter how much women, especially those in the developing world, fight they will never attain any equal rights at work. Capitalism never permits any fairness, and if it did there wouldn’t be so much inequality in the workplace as well as within and without countries. Also, such things as racism and other forms of discrimination would have long disappeared if capitalism doesn’t benefit from them. American academic Patricia Hill Collins in her book ‘Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousnesses and the Politics of Empowerment’ (2000) concedes that the [black] women’s work “is organised within intersecting oppressions of race, class, and gender.” Generally, none of these forms of oppression (also referred to as intersectionalities) have been eradicated because should they disappear, capitalism will also disappear. Parenti maintains that the history of capitalism has been about great prosperity as it is about great poverty.
At surface value the ideology of feminism advances what appears to be genuine concern and respect for women and equality. However, at its core feminism exists in the realm of capitalism whose strongest point is to shape the thinking of people for its selfish gain rather than to benefit its supposed beneficiaries, women. Feminism is thus a capitalistic construct. It is one of most auspicious, prime capitalist-driven ideas which seek to extend the net of exploitation to justify inclusion of women in the classes that must be added to cheap labour, as men, to support global capitalism. As a result, women cannot conceptualise their freedom, emancipation and empowerment outside the parameters set by the exploitative system of global capitalism.
Most people, women and men, are usually incapable of understanding how ideas are formed within this uncompromising system, whose sole aim is to perpetually sustain or replicate itself. At political level, capitalism tends to be quite compatible liberalism. And liberalism in its nature only tolerates ideas that conform to its objectives - otherwise all else is treated as junk, undermined or vehemently opposed. In this way and through ideas, women voluntarily join the exploited and abused working classes. By challenging their own natural creation that always helped them to enjoy power and influence over men, using the logic of German writer Esther Villar, see ‘The Manipulated Man’ (2010), without picking a pick and shovel, now women have to sweat to earn a living.
Villar argues that women had for the longest time put the men as their active tools for wealth or income generation. But the capitalist system is smart enough to exploit opportunities as it did with slavery and colonialism. If anyone ever imagined that women would never be a target for exploitation by capital, he or she has to think again. Suddenly, women have to also go underground in mines to dig up rocks like men and earn slave wages. As it is, women are increasingly getting employment in precarious sectors of the economy and form a large quantity of working classes who enjoy no protection. This phenomenon is often misconstrued to be a function of discrimination and misogyny in the world of work. But the truth is that the market is happy to welcome them to ranks of the exploitable, particularly the workers in poor, developing countries.
The spread of capital to the developing world in the latter parts of the twentieth century, otherwise known as globalisation, was motivated by profits and taking advantage of cheap labour. Large companies such as GE, BMW or Massmart relocated production China, Mexico, South Africa and elsewhere to increase margins, and not to create jobs as it always suggested. In spite what most left-leaning thinkers say about the growth of China into becoming the second largest economy in the world, the rise of the Dragon and fellow Asian economies is through the power of capitalism. This article sees no reason to recognise any astuteness in economic policy, as it is often claimed, but it argues that the emergence of these economies was the outcome of conscious decisions by markets.
Edward S. Steinfield, in his book ‘Playing Our Game: Why China’s rise doesn’t threaten the West’ (2011), correctly argues that Western capitalism built China. Without massive capital inflows starting in the late seventies, China would still be existing in obscurity of global economics had it not opened itself for massive exploitation. At some point China was going to relent. Capitalism doesn’t allow empty spaces or vacuums, it closes them quickly. In the same way, capital turned communism in China on its head it identified that there was a resource (women, and in some cases children) that was lying fallow and unused.
One day when women become a nuisance for capital, there will be strong arguments for children to also work. Already there suggestions that children need to be taught entrepreneurship instead of allowing to play. Bookstores sell books like ‘Billy Sure Kid Entrepreneur’ and ‘The Amazing Kid Entrepreneur’. It is likely that children will also behave like their mothers and demand to join the long line of exploitation and slave wages. To a large extent, feminism thinks it makes sense by overly focusing on boardrooms and executive positions. But there is one huge omission, feminists leave out millions of women who are employed in low paying, sometimes dangerous jobs and in the informal economy. Capitalism is extremely appreciative of this because cheap labour of these women helps it to boost profits.
Anyone who is interested in the life of a domestic worker would not be surprised to learn that females (madams) oppress and abuse their nannies. This shows that normalcy of class and superiority of those with money reigns supreme, women like rich blacks show disrespect to lower class women. Even in the corporate world there’s no evidence that females at lower levels such cashiers and bank tellers derive any benefit from having female bosses. The same complaint is leveled against black male executives whose presence hasn’t contributed to transformation. But honestly, this will never happen: free-market fundamentalists dislike anything close to equity and fairness.
Markets pretend to be blind yet they thrive in circumstances of abnormality which they helped to create. In terms of labour markets politics, women direct their rage towards males but the bigger enemy is the capitalist system itself. Black workers too are quickly learning that black executives are as shady as their white colleagues, again the system is just too powerful. Overall, feminism will never serve women but the capitalist system and its strategy to drive down wages in efforts to maximise profits as well as to exploit women who have had no joy since leaving the kitchen to be part of the labour force.
Which absent fathers?
Linked to feminism and ongoing madness to influence how society thinks, there is a growing idea that children don’t have fathers. The absent father phenomenon also appears to shown concern for the well-being of children, instead it arms or psychologically prepares women to flock the labour market in droves. A five-year long study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the South African Race Relations Institute (SARRI) “found that 60% of South African children have absent fathers, and more than 40% of South African mothers are single parents, compared with 25% in the US and a developed world average of just 15%.” Without digressing, the involvement of the SARRl in matters of this nature discredits all (probably) goods intentions of this research.
As a concept, the notion of ‘absent fathers’ is flawed in that it deliberately disregards different societal structures that exist or existed across the world. Even the Western legal system on maintenance regards a man to be relevant when it comes to a child’s material needs and puts less emphasis on non-material elementals. At the forefront of this very-hard to understand narrative, it is whites and educated women whose goal is to make black men feel inadequate, and useless. The theory of ‘absent fathers’ seems to exist in a vacuum, and is not in sync with reality especially in the South African context. There are historical, political and economic dimensions to this ‘problem’ that are obviously overlooked to peddle the feelings of inadequacy on the part of black males. Hence, the enthusiasm shown by the likes of SARRI and white researchers on this topic makes one suspicious.
Anyone who wishes to gain an in-depth understanding of this occurrence should begin with brutal wars in the late 1800s against black communities which continued until 1994. The black man as the head of the family unit was forcibly removed from his wife and children in order to supply cheap labour to the white economy as well as to become a vital component of political consolidation in the making of the modern South African state. In the process, the black man was stripped of his dignity and became an input material that was deployed to create white wealth, and expansive assets. Now that the white person has succeeded to conquer this person, he is suddenly called to come forward to be a ‘present father’, whatever this means.
No one has ever bothered to explore in detail how the African family structure looked like in relation to fathers and sons. But there is a tendency to adopt nearly all half-baked solutions that could be applicable to and or rejected in other societies. Too many templates are not tested nor they have been validated for suitability in the South African context. Without fear or favour, the absent father phenomenon and its proposed solutions do not come from the concerned people (blacks in South Africa) who are said to be impacted by this. Instead, these condescending ideas are stolen predominantly from the US, and recklessly applied in South Africa without anyone's input. The same goes for feminist ideas.
Reality is that although a dog has four legs and fur skin, it is definitely not cow. Blacks in South Africa and in the US may share many traits but they aren’t exactly the same. What is increasingly becoming critical is that blacks in South Africa need to take a centre stage and create discourses about themselves. Blacks have been laboratory rats for too long who have endure painful tests and or experiments that aren’t meant to benefit them but to denigrate them.
Si ya yi banga le economy!
Based in Pretoria, Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economics, politics and global matters.