Feminist Fightback‘s presentation to ‘Fighting for Reproductive Justice – a Review on Feminist Strategies and Right-Wing Attacks’ with E*Vibes from Germany (14:00-15:30, 20th Sept 2015) @ Connecting European Struggles; Feminism in the Crisis Conference in Malmö, Sweden.
Feminist Fightback would like to say a big thank you to the organisers of the ‘Connecting European Struggles’ conference held in Malmö, Sweden last month. The theme of the conference was ‘Feminism and the Crisis’ and Feminist Fightback gave a talk about how we should understand the right-wing attacks on reproduction since the financial crisis in 2008. We wanted to contextualise the attacks on access to abortion that we’ve been seeing across various European countries affected by the crisis and austerity, including those we’ve seen in London by religious anti-abortionists outside clinics. We don’t think these attacks should be seen in isolation, but rather, a feminist response needs to understand the wider relationship between capitalism, capitalist crisis and the state as the first step to thinking about possible responses and strategies.
The full presentation is below but here is a quick summary:
- We first talk about what we understand by ‘reproductive justice’ and limitations we find in many current discourses around ‘abortion rights’. We then set out how our understanding is reflecting in our types of political practice.
- We want to show that the attacks on access to abortion in the last few years are not an aberration or coincidence, but rather an effect of more fundamental changes happening within the capitalist system as a whole. In order to show this to we have to see women’s role in reproduction as an intrinsic component of the how the capitalist system works and was founded. So we give a summary of the historical link between women’s role in reproduction (and the family) and the transition to capitalism, as well as how the state is involved in upholding this. This all explains why abortion and issues around reproduction are not just ‘women’s issues’ but fundamental to the class struggle.
- We then move on to presenting our thesis in light of the above. Namely that at the current stage of advanced capitalism, the within Europe capitalism is materially blurring and undermining the family unit at the same time that capital has to contain impoverishment within the family and needs the family unit for ideological reasons (as a buffer to austerity). This contradiction is the basis upon which we can start thinking about how we can and want to live differently.
- We then look at how this contradiction is playing out in the UK context and what policies the state is employing to try and manage this contradiction.
- We then talk specifically about Feminist Fightback’s actions outside abortion clinics against the anti-abortionists and discussions we’ve had about developing effective strategies counter to other feministsconclusion we emphasise the need to have a wider critique of the social context in which decisions about abortion are being made and how this needs to be an essential part of our revolutionary politics.
- In conclusion we emphasise the need to have a wider critique of the social context in which decisions about abortion are being made and how this needs to be an essential part of our revolutionary politics.
1. What do we understand by ‘reproductive justice?’
Reproduction can just mean biological reproduction or have a broader definition, a more Marxist definition that encompasses how we reproduce ourselves more generally under capitalism e.g. how we all feed, clothe and house ourselves etc. The latter includes but is not limited to biological reproduction. The concept of ‘reproductive freedom/justice’ is supposed to encompass this wider perspective, seeing as our decisions to have children and then once we have them, how we raise them, is largely based on the social situation we are in that determines our relative ability to feed, clothe, house and educate them.
In 2008 Feminist Fightback made a decision to stop referring to ‘abortion rights’ to describe our politics and interventions around reproduction and instead use the phrase ‘reproductive freedom’ or ‘reproductive justice’. In doing so, we were drawing upon critiques of mainstream ‘pro-choice’ politics made by Black feminists in the United States and some socialist-feminists in Britain in the 1980s. They had argued that framing reproductive issues solely in terms of access to legal abortion ignored the fact that real ‘choice’ for the majority of women didn’t just depend on the legal right to have an abortion but also whether they could afford to raise a child. To demand real ‘choice’ and reproductive freedom, it was therefore necessary to demand, alongside the right to abortion, a free and publicly funded health service, decent child and a single-parent benefits, and generally fight for a society where ‘choice’ could actually mean something – i.e. a society that isn’t a capitalist one.
We try and highlight the limitations of the discourse around the language of ‘choice’ (e.g. ‘my body’, ‘my belly is mine’), used as it often is around the abortion issue without any political context or acknowledgment that ‘choice’ within capitalism is, for the vast majority of people, limited.
The fact that we can’t see abortion as a single issue raises interesting questions around the kinds of political practices we’d want to see in the feminist movement. Within mainstream feminism in the UK, at least, there is still a tendency towards simple messages and single-issue campaigns, and which primarily seek redress from the state through legislation and/or policy change. This ‘turn towards the state’ can be traced back to the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 70s, which mirrored the general tendency of the revolutionary downturn during that decade.
2. Summary of the historical link between reproduction, production and the state and limitations of liberal responses to attacks on reproductive ‘rights’
So in a climate where there’s lots of liberal feminism, identity politics and state-focused politics in the UK we think we need to continue emphasising why issues around reproduction, including access to abortion, are part of the class struggle and not just a ‘women’s issue’ or ‘gender issue’. When we talk about these things we inevitably have to talk about the kind of society we live in, how it is structured, and how we produce and reproduce ourselves within it.
And in order to emphasise that issues around reproduction are part of the wider class struggle we need to highlight:
a) how the state/capital is fundamentally linked to the sphere of ‘reproduction’, as well as production, and
b) how women’s role within the capitalist mode of production has to take account of their role within the ‘family’.
Both have to exposed and challenged in the revolutionary struggle.
For those of you who are unclear about the structural and historical relationship between production, reproduction, capitalism and the state, here is a short summary:
- During the transition to capitalism a gendered division of labour developed in two distinct spheres: reproductive and productive. Women’s unwaged work in the home became a source of free labour that then reproduces the workforce. There are lots of books that talk in more detail about this process, with varying explanations but one example many people refer back to is Engels. He charted women’s changing (and worsening) status with the rise of private property bought about by changes to the agricultural production process. Productivity increased by the development of new production methods and surpluses were created that fed the rise of private property. As a result, kinship changed from matrilineal to patrilineal in order to preserve property within the family. The state emerged to enforce these private property relations. While we could dispute the details, the point we should take away from it that this division of labour was not just a ‘natural’ process but one that was dependent on specific material conditions that developed in the transition to capitalism, which in itself was bound up with changes in the production process.
- The mass movement of women into unwaged, devalued domestic work within the family was because the family itself was ‘devalued’ in the sense that production outside the home became more important for peoples’ livelihoods. It’s not that there was a male conspiracy to keep women trapped at home. Rather, we would say that the transition to capitalism was a process where the ‘separation’ of the productive and reproductive spheres was primarily the result of capital’s struggle to dominate workers and to break the power of the artisans. What do we mean? Well, we have to make a slight digression to explain this point using as example of weavers. Before the Industrial Revolution, weaver families worked from home (cottage industry), but for capital it was not profitable enough to just supply them with material and pay them for finished product because they worked irregularly. And it was not enough to just bring the weaver family into the manufacturing system, where they would use their tools under surveillance. It was only when capital developed weaving machines that they were able to control the workers and to speed up the work process and make it profitable. The introduction of machines was built on a new sexual division of labour: with men maintaining the machines, and women and children operating them. Giving men the supervisory roles was to appease the men who had been involved in the violent struggles to protect their artisan trades e.g. Luddites (textile workers in England between 1811-16 who destroyed machines) and weavers revolt in Silesia in Germany in 1844 (the army had to be called in to restore order).
- So we can see that there was a process of proletarianisation where weavers turned from skilled artisans to waged workers, an emergence of the factory system as distinct from ‘the home’, and the development of gendered hierarchies within the workplace, which all became the material basis upon which women were relegated to the domestic sphere (even if they did also do waged work). Their biological differences meant it made sense for the women to pushed out because their having babies made them more costly and unreliable to hire – especially in a context of no system of welfare support.
- Women’s reproductive functions then became more of an interest to the state because they produce the next set of workers.
- And because of women’s resulting role as the reserve army of labour, the state/capital relies primarily on using their role as the child-raisers and caregivers as the instrument by which they can try and draw them in and out of the labour market.
So what do we take from all this? We would emphasise two points. Firstly, that we can’t talk about reproduction or changes in this sphere (such as the attacks on abortion we’ve seen in countries such as Spain, Greece or the UK or cuts in the social wage across Europe that mean we have to shoulder more of the burden of our own reproduction individually or within small family units) in isolation from what’s happening in the sphere of production, or structural changes such as a capitalist crisis like the one we’re living through now. Production and reproduction are two sides of the same coin. So as feminists we should not turn a blind eye to ‘broader’ political issues that affects us all as a class (e.g. workplace struggles, healthcare privatisation, housing struggles etc). We think liberal feminist responses often fall into this trap e.g. focusing on specific issues for the benefit of ‘women’ without challenging the bigger picture e.g. wanting to ring-fence government funds for women’s services and not fighting the cuts agenda as a whole. Conversely, those on the spectrum of the revolutionary left should see struggles around reproduction as intrinsic to their political analysis and action.
The second point we’d like to emphasise is that the state is ‘economically’ tied to the capitalist mode of production, which is based on a separate domestic sphere, and politically acts as the main protector and to certain extent enforcer of the private domestic sphere and the gender division within the class. This points to a definitive limit of what the state can actually ‘do’ to help us. This should make us question the mainstream, radical and liberal feminist proposals, which focus on and address the state as the sole, and seemingly neutral force that can act on behalf of women.
3. So how can we understand what is happening at the moment?
At this stage of capitalism and within Europe we can see that capitalism materially blurs the family unit i.e. we don’t materially need the family in the same ways we used to – instead of the wife having to cook and clean, we can buy ready-meals, household appliances and personal services. Capitalism is also undermining the family unit e.g. really high house prices mean people aren’t able to get on the housing ladder and without the extra space couples are delaying having children; migration and general increase of forced mobility amongst the workforce is splitting up families.
But at the same time, because of the crisis capital has to contain impoverishment within the family and needs the family unit for ideological reasons; within this tension social struggles are taking place. This contradiction – between the family being undermined and yet having to be the container for dealing with the pressures of austerity – is the basis upon which we can start thinking about how we can and want to live differently.
4. Situation now in England
So how is this contradiction being played out in the England specifically?
Well, we’ve seen an increasing number of religious right-wingers accosting women outside abortion clinics and GP surgeries, as well as government policies that are actively promoting the ideology of the family e.g. legalising gay marriage, introducing tax incentives for married couples, attempting to garner support to reduce the time limit for abortion, inviting pro-abstinence and religious ‘anti-choice’ groups to their Sex and Relationships Education Council etc. At the same time, very low and stagnating wages, long hours and cuts to benefits mean ‘the family’ is having a hard time coping under the pressures of austerity.
5. Feminist Fightback action and discussions about strategy
We’ve already written about questions that arose from our actions trying to counter anti-abortionists outside clinics (see link to tactical debates below).
Our actions are framed within an ongoing debate we’ve had about whether to have a presence outside clinics. We are aware that many feminist groups have decided not to do this, saying it escalates the situation and makes women feel worse. This is an ongoing discussion within the collective but it hasn’t stopped us from trying to stop these anti-abortion groups.
Policy change or direct action?
In light of what we’ve set out in this presentation with regards to the wider context in which attacks on reproduction are happening and the state’s role in perpetuating this, we would be questioning organisations who appeal to the state to make new laws to enforce buffer zones and to ‘decriminalise’ abortion (like bpas) or focus on single-issue campaigns (like Abortion Rights). We rather think that a direct action campaign where we make our own buffer zones for example is immediately effective, but there is little discussion amongst us and clinics about how we can work together but use different approaches.
We’d like to think more about the role of abortion clinic workers in our struggles. When organising past actions, Feminist Fightback always tried contacting the clinics in question. We didn’t get a response from them. More recently, they have been more receptive. Members of staff came outside to talk to us and say that they were glad we were there. The turnaround may have something to do with the fact that they previously had funds to station a member of their own staff outside the clinic to escort for women inside. As budgets have become tighter, they are now unable to do this (this was what one clinic worker told us when she came outside to talk to us). This allows some space for common ground although also raises other problems. E.g. we don’t want to just plug a hole for service cuts. We make no bones about the fact that we have a political agenda, and we don’t want to fall into the trap of being an extension of a service-provider, just offering a service to women.
Long-term propaganda war
We are also having ongoing discussions about how we effectively counter the anti-abortionists as a more long-term strategy, directly and through propaganda. E.g. at the moment we think the anti-abortionists have the monopoly of ‘information’ regarding the abortion procedure. Their highly emotive images of tiny fingers and toes are quite effective at pushing our emotional buttons but there is no information or campaigns from abortion providers tackling this head on. The procedure and information about it is pretty sanitised and leaves space open for the anti-abortionists to fill with their highly skewed propaganda.
We think ‘abortion rights’ and mainstream feminist responses to attacks on women and reproductive ‘rights’ also needs to talk about what happens when women have children – this is the point at which a gendered division of labour becomes cemented and inequality rises.
We think we have to move beyond defensive action. It is not enough to give out leaflets on the days an abortion clinic is closed.
We need to include a wider critique of social context in which decisions about abortion are being made.
And we need to make the argument that abortion and reproduction in general is an integral part of working class politics and to maintain this division is essentially liberal.