First published in Romanian on CriticAtac and Platzforma. The article is translated as a part of the cooperation between the members of the Eastern European Left Media Outlet – ELMO. Translated by Silvana Râpeanu.
Feminism has gone through various stages since the 19th century, crystallizing in association with, or dissociation from, multiple ideologies, among them liberalism, socialism, culturalism, and nationalism. Fortunately, at least in some corners of society, feminism has come to define itself as an intersectional, anti-racist and anti-nationalist politics, and, in fewer cases, also as an anti-capitalist position. Anti-capitalist feminists recognise that the capitalist political economy is not only based on class exploitation (so it is not just an economic regime), but – being a particular social order – also feeds on patriarchy, , racism, and nationalism. Unfortunately, in our age menaced by the war machine of imperialism, it is the most underrepresented variant of feminism.
The lack of an anti-capitalist perspective means that feminism today no longer has sufficient argumentative power to fight the resurgence of patriarchy and sexism. In the current context, of the multiple crises of capitalism, dying of many wounds, counteracting the fascism which is pushing the whole world to self-destruction should be a crucial task of feminism. An anti-capitalist, or put positively, a socialist feminism is needed to articulate the critique of gender, racial and sexual oppression in terms of political economy, i.e. in terms of the use of patriarchy, racism and sexism to further class exploitation and capital accumulation, and as we see today to legitimise wars for political-economic supremacy.
Imperialist wars are part of the capitalist political economy; they are fought to provide capital with ever new spaces where its profitability is guaranteed, though the big powers try to convince us that these wars are fought as a struggle for supposed ‘cultural normality’. In fact, they are desperate instruments to carry forward the ‚”spatial fix” (capitalism’s survival method of moving capital investment into new economic areas – for example from the productive economy into urban development; or into new geographical territories where it has not had opportunities to make a profit in the past). When such processes can no longer take place peacefully, they translate into wars. There is little we, as left-wing public intellectuals, can do to stop these mechanisms. But at least we can expose them. To this end, we need the contribution of socialist feminism.
We are at a moment when the world’s great imperialist powers, in search of new ways for global capitalism to survive and new arrangements to ensure capital’s increasing profitability, are opting to re-shape it for this purpose through the instrument of cold, hot, and proxy wars. We see how, in the process, the core countries of global capitalism, and their supporters in the peripheral geographies of the world (including the countries of Central and Eastern Europe), are putting gender, sex, and “race” at stake through a culturalist approach as part of an effort to justify wars, militarization and their human and financial costs. Socialist feminism is a good partner in exposing this extremely dangerous discursive manipulation because it upholds the principles of equality in every sense of the word.
Meanwhile, the next episode of the new global imperialist war has been unleashed. Ukraine seems to have been a drill for Taiwan. And we were wondering why the parties to this proxy war were not sitting down at the peace negotiation table. T Warmongering and militarisation can now be unleashed without limit in the new world imperialist war in which the US economic hegemony, on its deathbed, is once again trying to bring what it can under its influence. From where? From under the influence of its big competitors, Russia and China. The EU participates helplessly. Subscribing to the warlike calls from the US to gain independence from “Russian gas”, thus getting into all sorts of impossible situations because this cheap gas has made Germany a successful export-oriented, economically and politically dominant country in the EU, on which many intra-European economic flows depend. Beyond that, is this bellicosity also an attempt to reduce or eliminate the dependence of advanced capitalist countries on Asia, which for the past five decades has provided them with cheap labour? Or is it the desire to place, in the wake of these wars, US-friendly governments in Russia and China, in order to open these countries up even more directly and subordinate them to the expansion of Western capital?
After all the vain hopes and illusions as to what positive developments the crisis of neoliberal capitalism might bring, it has become clear what follows it: pandemics, energy crisis, stagflation, generalised war. Capital and the states which rule in its name are looking for solutions to perhaps the most complex crisis in human history, through which to save themselves (as usual). And after the exacerbation of neoliberal globalisation that for a long time brought wealth to Western capital, saving it from the crisis it went through in the 1970s within the confines of nation-states, it seems that nothing but the re-structuring of the world order can follow. That is what is at stake: who will gain from this restructuring, which in today’s conditions can no longer happen peacefully, diplomatically, but only through war. And not just a localised war, or a war waged from one part of the world to another, but a generalised war. The culturalist “debate” about gender, sexual and racial order is a tool to justify wars waged to establish a new global economic order. Politics is still making this shift between registers, appealing to themes that it assumes are mobilising on all sides of the conflict, and in doing so it avoids talking about class relations, class exploitation, or even the social-economic dimensions of racism, patriarchy and sexism.
Below is an example of this phenomenon happening in our proximity.
Last week we observed Orbán Viktor’s speech in Tușnad on the economic situation of global capitalism and war , spilling over into racism due to his anti-communism and anti-socialism. Although he correctly observed the crisis of the unipolar global order, he did not go so far as to say that it is the crisis of global capitalism, nor did he talk about the exploitation of the working class as a pillar of the relationship between Western capital and (cheap) labour in Central and Eastern Europe.
For Orbán “the West” is a monolith, which he wants to fight as a monolith: Wall Street, socialists, identity politics – they are all equally enemies to him. He is actually more bothered by the cultural West, from whose values he wants to protect the supposedly pure and timeless being of the Hungarian nation, including, naturally, the Hungarian population of Erdély/Transylvania. As a convinced right-winger, he resorts to the “cultural problem” to criticize the power relations between Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, and the US (even if he nonetheless adores Trump). He keeps spinning and conflating the two, economic dependency and cultural dependency, but his right-wing nationalism does not allow him to be consistent in his critique of today’s global order, or in his search for alliances that empower other actors against neoliberal American hegemony and EU domination in Europe. He marches on the latter not to seek alternatives to capitalism, not even in the transnational-national opposition variety, but to protect himself culturally from the domination of the “West”.
What is an end and what is a means in the above argumentation is hard to say. But it is precisely because of the supremacy of the cultural argument in his political vision that Viktor Orbán resorts to racist discourse, beyond his old-school nationalism. The great danger of this narrative is that it sets the tone in this part of Europe for the return of ideological-political faith in the existence of races and the normalisation of racism that actually produces them in order to hierarchise them and to dominate, exploit, and even annihilate the supposedly inferior races. And this is a most dangerous addition, an element of fascism in CEE, adding to today’s widespread insecurity created by the war in Ukraine and armed tensions around Taiwan, already fraught with fascist and racist overtones. It is not Orbán’s culturalism that saves us from the evils of the European Union, born and matured in the neoliberal paradigm, it is not the network governance of such leaders that saves us here in the semi-periphery of exploitation, poverty, and underfunding of the public housing, health, and education systems. The alternative does not come from conservative capitalism, or from capitalism which has retreated within the borders of nation states, or even in the form of state capitalism. The latter was a post-war paradigm, crystallised in response to the devastating world wars that started in Europe, and unable to halt the crisis that transformed it into neoliberal capitalism. What is more, the alternative does not come from state socialism as we knew it in the pre-1990 Eastern Bloc, nationalist and patriarchal in its Romanian version at least (but not only), conservative in its limitation of civil and political rights, co-actor of the Cold War, which eventually succumbed to the pressure of global capitalism into which it has been integrated throughout its existence.
Since Orban’s speech has caused shivers in Romania against the backdrop of the historic Romanian-Hungarian conflict, I have been reading more and more often opinions similar to his – a paradox that makes some Romanians forget about the danger of the “Transylvanian question”, exacerbated at the same time by other Romanians. These views do not criticize the West in terms of political economy, but in the sense of a spirit that has created the space for the affirmation of ethnic, gender and sexual identity politics. They celebrate the desired sovereignty over the West in terms of the latter’s non-interference in “local cultural choices” on supposed sexual, ethnic or gender “normality”. For those who hold such views, gaining freedoms and rights for previously dispossessed categories – women, sexual minorities, ethnic minorities – is undesirable because in the last 30 years they have come with the package of Western neoliberalism. So they are willing to forget the critique of capitalism, or at least of neoliberalism, by attacking its economic foundations, and indulging in culturalist critique. Some forget. Others are convinced capitalists. A few get tangled up in ambiguities.
Such dangerous positions also appear in Romania among those who in the recent past have been critical of gender, ethnic, and sexual identity politics, reproaching them that, by fighting against racism, patriarchy and sexism, they de-legitimise the class struggle. I note that in such cases they end up forgetting what they promoted, namely the recognition of the centrality of class exploitation in capitalism. And they begin to wage an anti-Western struggle focused on gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, reaching a consensus with pro-capitalists who want to convince us that what would save us, for example here in Romania, is a racist, sexist and patriarchal anti-Western capitalism.
This is what has emerged from the new crisis of capitalism in these semi-peripheral countries of global capitalism – not an option for a socialist world order, but a desire for a capitalism that lives not only through class exploitation, but also through patriarchal oppression, sexist domination and racial cleansing. This is why socialist feminism is needed, or, if you like, adapted to the realities of capitalism today – to make us think about the alternative of internationalist socialism built against the racist and patriarchal capitalism that generates ever new imperialist wars to sustain capital against all those it exploits, dispossesses, annihilates. Of course, the ideological and practical construction of such an alternative requires solidarity on all sides, including labour, housing, environmental, feminist, and LGBTQ+ movements.
The ideational system of socialist feminism is a good companion in such an aspiration, having the critical capacity to deconstruct how capitalism works as a social system, but also culturalism in its various manifestations. On top of this, socialist feminism also has the utopian ambition to imagine a world free of all regimes of power that create multiple inequalities and injustices, in which producers of value in all fields have control over the means of production and forms of cultural and political self-representation.