Beyond Feminism and Other Defensive Battles: To End All Oppression, We Must Destroy Capitalism!
This first appeared in Skewed News.
What does ending the oppression of women look like? How will we know when we’ve achieved it? When we’re allowed to get free abortions whenever we want? When we no longer have to fear or experience rape? When we stop sex trafficking? When we all feel positive about our bodies and minds? When all girls in the world are educated? When we achieve equal pay?
We want all these things, of course. We need them. They’re essential. But are they enough? Don’t we need more than that? I’m going to suggest that if we focus our energy only on these specific issues, then we’re setting our sights too low.
If we fight around them directly, we may get some victories. But these victories will be temporary, partial, and incomplete. Because as long as we live under capitalism, we will never get the whole package. We will never be truly free.
If we achieve equal pay, we’re still wage slaves. If we’re taught to read, the material we have access to is still determined by others. All our relationships—every kind of relationship—are still distorted and deformed by market forces. We’re still caught in the nightmare, still under the domination of the capitalist class, those few bloated parasites living off the blood and sweat of the vast majority of humanity.
All forms of oppression are generated and held in place by capitalism. If we address each of these individually, they can shift from one group to another, one social space to another. Capitalism is infinitely adaptable. They’ve decided it’s ok to be gay now, it’s ok to have a Black or female president. But we still feel the system riding our backs, grinding us down in a hundred million ways, devouring the world and threatening our very existence.
Of course the oppression of women is specifically very useful for capitalism. In patriarchy, a historical holdover from feudalism, capitalism has found a very handy tool. It will use whatever tools are there. But it doesn’t NEED any particular tool; it has many to choose from. It can ameliorate our oppression and still function: still exploit, still dominate, still kill millions, still wage wars of conquest, still destroy the world.
If we address oppression without tackling that larger framework, then while we make little gains here, we lose big over there. We run back over there and then we lose again over here. They keep us running after small, temporary victories to make us feel like we’re doing something. Meanwhile we’re reduced to exhausted ambulance chasers who can never build anything capable of challenging the whole system. We become frustrated, burnt out activists who leave every mass mobilization more empty-handed and depressed than ever, because nothing has really changed. We need to get unstuck and break this pointless pattern.
What we ultimately need is a revolution that can free all of humanity from all forms of exploitation and oppression.
Capitalism can adapt to pretty much anything except one thing: their overthrow by the working class. In fact, if we are to win our freedom, and put a stop to all the horrible symptoms and effects and supports of capitalist domination, including the oppression of women, then we have to address all of these within the context of class struggle. The only path that can lead to our emancipation is proletarian revolution.
Capitalism’s purpose, its essence and nature and reason for being, is not oppression. It is not division. It’s not to torment us. These are simply means to achieve its only real purpose, which is the constant enlargement of itself. The only goal of the capitalist is the accumulation of capital. Everything else serves that.
Capital is generated through the extraction of surplus value from the working class as they are exploited in the labor process. That’s the core of it. Surplus value is capital’s fuel, the foundation of its existence. This fact makes the working class the fundamental enemy of capital. It is the only class that, by emancipating itself from wage slavery, can put an end to capitalism and offer an alternative to it.
Capitalists understand this very clearly. So they do whatever it takes to keep the working class divided, and the rest of the dominated masses divided from the working class. It has engineered a hundred million ways to set us up against one another. If we are all at each other’s throats, we can’t unite and crush them. It’s that simple.
The oppression of women is simply one of many convenient methods to keep us divided so we can’t build a working class movement capable of ending their ability to accumulate capital. If one method stops working for them, they contrive another. The masses have responded to oppression with the Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement, and other movements that have had the goal of winning equal rights within the capitalist structure – but capitalism can absorb and adapt to these, to whatever extent that they are forced to. They simply shift the divisions around from moment to moment: to Muslims, to immigrants, to whoever is the scapegoat of the day. There are infinite ways to divide the working class and erase class struggle from our consciousness by supplanting it with other divisions.
So we need to see what they’re doing, the purpose and strategy behind their actions, and we need to unite AS WORKERS and as allies of the working class.
Of course, as women, we have specific intolerable conditions and issues, and working class militancy doesn’t automatically erase them. We should not tolerate them for one second. But we need to address them in a way that will actually change them. Do we want to not be forced to have children against our will, or to be prevented from having them if we do want them? Do we want to live without the constant fear of abuse and rape? Do we want to stop being treated as servants by our partners and families? Do we want to be treated as human beings, to be seen as human beings, to FEEL like human beings? Do we really want emancipation?
We need to ask ourselves: what is that going to take? And then once we have our answer, we need a strategy that corresponds to that.
When I assert the need for revolution, that doesn’t mean that I think all oppression will be automatically and instantly ended in that moment. Centuries of conditioning don’t vanish in a day. But it will eliminate the structural support for it. Once it becomes economically unnecessary, it will also become ideologically and politically superfluous. It will make the end of oppression POSSIBLE.
The only thing—the ONLY thing—that capitalism can’t survive is a unified working class conscious of and organized to fight for its interests. So that’s what we need to be focused on building. This is not to say we postpone our struggles as women or push them to the back of the room. Indeed, these struggles are deeply intertwined. The workers organization Batay Ouvriye, in Haiti, put it like this: “The working class’ liberation…will have to be a total liberation. Otherwise it won’t exist. The emancipation of the working class is the only one that demands, indeed commands, concurrently, the emancipation of women.”
To build a revolutionary movement, we need to stop reacting. We need to stop fighting defensive battles. We need to stop wasting our energy trying to enlarge our rights within a system that will always have structural oppression as part of its nature. We need to jettison individual coping strategies and strengthen our collective social power. We need to stop confining our battles inside our own circles, and take the fight to our enemy.
To build a revolutionary movement, we need to organize. We need to build up our skills along with a political line that will take us where we need to go. No one starts out knowing what to do or how to do it. It takes time and effort and constant, constant practice. It’s a lifelong commitment. We start from where we are and struggle through it. It can be slow, painful, and difficult. But if we care about humanity, about the world, about the future, we have no choice. We must become effective. We must do the work. Otherwise we’re wasting our time.
It takes confidence, study, and constantly learning through actual struggle among actual people, over and over and over. It takes fighting through our fear; it takes audacity! It takes the willingness to listen and think and figure things out and express opinions. It takes developing an assertive attitude, a combative spirit, an eagerness to engage in conflict. We can talk all day about how society conditions women to be weak, silent and passive, but no one can overcome this for us. No one else can make us strong. WE HAVE TO BECOME STRONG.
Then we must take our place as equals in the struggle against capital, building a working class-led mass movement that has a chance to smash the system that is the root cause of all our misery. Instead of fighting for equality within an inherently exploitive framework, let’s go after the whole thing. Let’s join with our working class sisters and brothers to destroy our common enemy, capitalism, and advance together toward a classless and sustainable future.