By Madam Tlank
September 18, 2012
In memoriam, Shulamith Firestone
Selma James is a great speaker. This collection of her writing from 1952-2011 shows that the same clarity and precision are also found in her written works. This has something to do with her thought and writing process. Her first pamphlet, ‘about being a housewife and about the women in my working-class neighbourhood’, was revised and sharpened in response to comments (most of which ‘I disagreed with’) from ‘my neighbours, who were not “political”‘. Committed to this ‘collective writing’ and to collective organising, James is driven to be precise and clear: ‘I hate imprecision. It’s the enemy’. There is not one imprecise line here (unless it is someone else’s she is attacking). The materialistic urgency with which James cuts through the claims of official feminism, academia, unions, NGOs and other branches of ‘brain prostitution’ is especially welcome right now for those of us recently bereaved of Shulamith Firestone and in as much need as ever of a fierce Marxist feminism grounded in ‘collective, social action by people whose eye contact with reality is not on the whole mediated by learned tomes’.1 James herself refused to go to university because ‘I was afraid it would ruin my mind’.
One argument running throughout the book is about the reproduction of capitalist hierarchy within the working class, manifest in divisions such as waged/unwaged, women/men, black/white, ‘3rd’/’1st’ world, child/adult.2 Unions (e.g. in representing only waged/’legal’/specific-sector workers) and parts of the left ignore and exacerbate these divisions; the Wages for Housework campaign set out to make them visible and quantifiable. Consistent through 60 years of James’ political strategy is this principle: ‘the weakest parts of the working class (the unwaged) have to figure out how they can fight and on that basis show the dominant parts of the working class how it is to be done’. If one sector loses, all sectors lose, but even if one sector wins without the others it usually translates into a defeat, ‘for in the disparity of power within the class is precisely the strength of capital’. Or as she puts it elsewhere: ‘With victories like that, we don’t need defeats’. The practical lesson: ‘Those with more power must unite with us with less because we know better what their interests are than they know themselves’.
But in order to struggle against intra-class hierarchy, its existence must be acknowledged. Therefore James has little patience with the ‘horizontalism’ through which elements of the academic and activist left (not to speak of management theorists) would simply wish division away. ‘Horizontalism assumes that there are no differences among us. Well, there are […] And one of the things which I expect my leadership to do is to expose the hierarchy so that we can undermine it, not hide it, not make believe it isn’t there, not “Raise our consciousness” so we don’t notice it’. And: ‘when divisions are called “diversity”, the problems become cultural and no one need address how and why we are divided […] how can you avoid naming the divisions among us as part of addressing what to do about them’.
A second continuous thread, entangled at every point with the first, is the fight against work. Not for ‘decent’, ‘meaningful’ or ‘well paid’ work, but against the indignity of labour as such. ‘Work is not just another issue’, it is ‘the essence of capitalism, which must be destroyed, root and branch’. In James’ reading of Marx and of life, the wage relation structures all social relations. To break the neck of the system, we must fight against work. To fight against work, we must understand precisely what constitutes work in capitalism. Thus, all unwaged work that feeds into the capitalist social relation must be accounted for. Hence, wages for housework.3 James speaks in defence of mothers and ready to fight as one of them when she states that women’s work ‘is not outside the wage relation. […] The wage and the wage relation, often in form of a man’s wage, commands the work we do; the wage and the wage relation dominates the society we do this work for, and thus most directly dominates us’. Housework, care work is labour taking place within the capitalist relation. It must be refused even though it involves the well-being of other human beings (which is always the unfair pressure put upon nurses or teachers who go out on strike).
Then there is James’ beef with what generally passes for feminism, and consequently with academic ‘movement managers’ (along with those in local government, unions, NGOs etc.). As I followed James’ arguments and criticism over these 60 years I was struck by how clear sighted she has been all along about what academic thought and professional advocacy might do to the movement. The threat of incorporation was obvious to her all along: ‘The challenge to the women’s movement is to find modes of struggle which, while they liberate women from the home, at the same time avoid a double slavery and prevent another degree of capitalist control and regimentation’. Demands for ‘equal pay, free twenty-four-hour childcare, equal educational opportunity and free birth control and abortion on demand’ – could be ‘vital’ if ‘incorporated into a wider struggle’, but as they stand ‘they accept that we not have the children we can’t afford; that the State facilities keep the children we can afford for as long as twenty-four hours a day; and that these children have equal chance to be conditioned and trained to sell themselves competitively with each other on the labor market for equal pay. By themselves these are not just co-optable demands. They are capitalist planning’. This was written in 1972; perhaps it will be heeded some time after 2012. In the meantime, sponsored feminists debate whether women ‘can have it all’ (i.e. children AND a high-end professional career), while ‘strategy’ means getting more women onto FTSE 100 boards.
One of James’ great strengths is how materialist she is. She ALWAYS asks where the money comes from? Who gets what? What for? Etc. One of the best pieces in this book, ‘Reflections on a Conference’, does this so acutely it’s hilarious. ‘And so the […] consideration that I felt was missing in the discussion yesterday […] was money. It’s not a dirty word, especially for those of us who don’t have much.’
This materialism always insists on the totality of social relations, but there’s nothing abstract about it: it’s decisive again and again on concrete particulars.
For example, on government:
There is no cake [of which some can have a slice and others can’t], there is no budget, there is only the wealth which we have made and which they have stolen.
On unions and the ‘right to work’:
You would think it is immoral to be disengaged from exploitation. The only thing “wrong” with unemployment is that you don’t get a pay packet.
The theory of patriarchy cut off from and prioritized over class, race, etc. , is a scabs’ charter.
On disciplines and discipline:
Psychology itself by its nature is a prime weapon of manipulation. It does not acquire another nature when wielded by women in a movement for liberation. Quite the reverse […]
Women’s liberation needs:
– to destroy sociology as the ideology of the social services which bases itself on the proposition that society is ‘the norm’ […]
– to destroy psychology and psychiatry which spend their time convincing us that our ‘problems’ are personal hang-ups and that we must adjust to a lunatic world […] If we don’t deal with them, they will deal with us.
– to discredit once and for all social workers, progressive educators, marriage guidance counsellors, and the whole army of experts whose function is to keep men, women and children functioning within the social framework, each by their own special blend of social frontal lobotomy.
And ultimately on all of the above:
Everything I have been saying assumes that the wage (what capital pays us) is the crucial point of conflict between us and capital. They want the money; so do we. They want the money because they want to force us to work. We want the money because we don’t want to be forced to work. We understand each other perfectly; we just disagree.
1 Citing Virginia Woolf’s The Three Guineas, New York: Penguin, 1972, James writes: ‘When a woman entered the professions, they were involved in “brain prostitution” […] But when a brain seller has sold her brain, its anemic, vicious and diseased progeny are let loose upon the world to infect and corrupt and sow the seeds of disease in others.’
2 Some of Firestone’s best arguments reappear here, see: Shulamith Firestone, ‘Down with Childhood’, in The Dialectic of Sex, London: Paladin Press, 1972.
3 Note the contrast with Stella Sandford’s concept of ‘caring work/ maternal labour’, which Sandford posits as somehow not quite subsumable under capital. See: Mme Tlank and Mira Mattar, ‘Past Caring’, Mute vol.3, No.2, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/past-caring