The Stacks

The Stacks – Issue 6

The Stacks

Welcome, once again, to The Stacks, produced by DSA’s National Political Education Committee. In this edition, following close on the heels of midterm elections that saw record numbers of women elected to the House of Representatives, we’re taking a socialist-feminist tack — and naming a Class Enemy of the Month that’s been particularly bad news for working women. Read on for this, as well as updates on DSA projects all across the country — and thanks, as always, for subscribing!

The Extremely Offline

Too often lost in the onslaught of daily news is the perspective that enables us to make sense of political events as they occur. In this section, we connect the enduring ideas of the socialists who preceded us to the pressing topics of today.

The period since our last issue has been alternately enraging and exciting for feminists in the United States. First, October opened with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, after a weeks-long spectacle that re-traumatized many sexual assault survivors. His appointment endangers Roe v. Wade, the case that protects abortion access, and a number of other social rights which provide a floor of racial and gender justice in the US.

Yet we also got to see a flood of women socialists burst onto the political scene to uncompromisingly link redistributive demands to a feminist vision. From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Amelia Marquez, Jovanka Beckles, Kara Gloe, and Kristin Seale, more than half of DSA’s candidates this cycle were women. And even where they didn’t win, they collectively mobilized millions of votes for their ambitious program.

In this context, members might be curious about the literature that informs socialists’ views on women’s rights. What is socialist-feminism, exactly? How does it differ from other kinds of feminism? And what does that mean for how we organize today? These aren’t easy questions to answer, because socialist-feminist theory, like the term itself, is very broad. There are many thinkers who write under its umbrella, representing a variety of perspectives and often disagreeing with each other.

But DSA member Barbara Ehrenreich, in her essay “What Is Socialist-Feminism?”, says we shouldn’t be deterred; there are some common principles that most socialist-feminists can share. These principles are found in those elements of a Marxist and feminist worldview which  mirror and strengthen one another.

For example, both Marxism and feminism “are critical ways of looking at the world” which seek to understand their conditions “not in terms of static balances […] but in terms of antagonisms [….] There is no way to have a Marxist or feminist outlook and remain a spectator.”

We certainly saw this at play during the Kavanaugh hearings. As liberal commentators called for calm, civility, and leaving senators alone to eat their gourmet dinners — the “static balances” outlook — militant feminists mobilized marches, confronted congressmen in elevators, and occupied their representatives’ offices — thus representing the “antagonisms” outlook. They saw that when it came to women’s rights, as well as LGBTQ rights, union rights, racial justice, and a host of other issues, there was no common ground between their interests and Kavanaugh’s.

Ehrenreich adds that both Marxism and feminism force us to look at the “fundamental injustice” universal to all capitalist and sexist social systems. She further argues that feminism demands a more expansive kind of Marxism. “Socialist feminists […] see capitalism as a social and cultural totality,” she says. “In its search for markets, capitalism is driven to penetrate every nook and cranny of social existence.” In this outlook, the fact of women’s diminished participation in the formal labor market doesn’t place them outside of the working class or its struggles.

Another writer, Johanna Brenner, agrees that to understand women’s oppression, it’s important to look at women’s whole lives. Her ideas are most thoroughly explained in her book Women and the Politics of Class, but the arguments there are too substantial for us to summarize here. Instead, try starting with this 2017 interview, where she introduces many of the ideas in her book.

“A feminist materialist analysis considers not only the compulsion of wage work in capitalism,” Brenner says, “but also the limits placed on our personal lives by structures of social reproduction which in turn are shaped by regimes of capitalist accumulation.” In other words, capitalism doesn’t only affect us at work; it affects us at home, in our neighborhoods, in our relationships with our partners and our children.

But Brenner adds another element to Ehrenreich’s list that she believes distinguishes socialist-feminists from other feminists. According to her, it isn’t sexist ideas that are primarily responsible for the oppression of women, queer, and gender-nonconforming people in society. Instead, ideas about gender difference derive their strength from the fact that they are grounded in the gender division of labor within social reproduction. In turn, the gender division of labor is reproduced within family households in response not only to cultural assumptions and social pressures but also as a response to the privatization of responsibility for the work of social reproduction. The practical impossibility of “socializing” care in capitalist society lends a false legitimacy to discourses of gender difference.

In this view, people aren’t simply tricked into believing and then acting upon sexist ideas. Instead, these ideas flow from the ways capitalism refuses to take responsibility for the costly and unprofitable labor of social reproduction — meaning all the tasks of bearing and raising future workers. Instead of socializing the duties of cleaning, cooking, and caring, capitalism “privatizes” them, making them the individual responsibility of each family unit.

According to Brenner, this creates strong pressures towards women bearing the brunt of social reproduction. Ideas about women’s inferiority and subservience are an effect, not a cause, of this arrangement. In this account, the fight against patriarchy isn’t only a war for people’s hearts and minds, as liberal feminists tend to insist. It’s also about changing the material conditions people of all genders live under.

Many socialist-feminists have found the lens of social reproduction especially useful for highlighting the situation of women of color and women from the Global South. Writers from Premilla Nadasen to Tithi Bhattacharya point out that under capitalism, one of the only ways for women to free themselves from the burdens of reproductive labor is to pay others to do it.

Of course, only wealthier and whiter women can afford this, while it is overwhelmingly black and brown women — many of them immigrants from the Global South — who are the ones exploited by these largely informal and underpaid jobs. This kind of deep exploitation is often maintained by violence, making the intersection of capitalism, racism, and sexism especially brutal for women of color.

This is far from a full account of the wide array of socialist-feminist resources available to us. But they’re chosen to show that a feminist perspective can deeply enrich our socialist one. They keep our feet firmly planted in the real, challenging conditions feminists face today, while training our eyes on the more human and just order we’re organizing towards.

National Updates

  • It’s hard to believe, but next summer’s National Convention, where DSA will elect its National Political Committee and set its political agenda for the following two years, is already creeping up on us. That’s why the national organization will be organizing regional “unity conferences” in March and April 2019 to host pre-convention discussion, trainings, and debate. Watch the “News” page for more details.

  • The National Political Committee has released a statement on the 2018 elections that includes a full list of DSA-endorsed elected officials (national and local) and ballot initiatives. You can view all NPC statements here.

  • DSA is looking for an Organizing Director to join its staff. Check out the description and apply if you want to spend your days organizing for democratic socialism!

  • Sacramento DSA recently hosted Jane McAlevey, union organizer and author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, for a talk about organizing vs mobilizing. Check out the video of her talk.

  • DSA has endorsed the national series of strikes against Marriott held by UNITE-HERE!. Check out our statement of support and list of action items here.
  • DSA chapters have recently been targeted by the far-right’s Project Veritas, which tries to harass and intimidate activists by infiltrating meetings, secretly recording people, and heavily editing their footage. Watch this training video to learn how to protect yourself, your comrades, and your chapter.

  • The Stacks is still looking to feature examples of exciting political education events produced at the local level. If your chapter has recently held a cool event, or produced useful resources, please email us at [email protected] and we’ll feature it in a future issue.

Class Enemy of the Month:
or, the Martin Shkreli Award

In the socialist-feminist spirit of this edition, we’re focusing our ire not on an individual, but on a corporation that’s built its profits on abusing women workers: Marriott International.

This is the same Marriott that, for years, resisted enacting protocols to protect their employees from sexual harassment. This despite the fact that the hotel and restaurant industry account for 14 percent of sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC. Marriott finally caved in September, after a group of women workers took advantage of the publicity around #MeToo to decisively confront shareholders.

As the biggest and richest hotel company in the world, Marriott has seen a nearly threefold increase in annual profits since the recession. But they’ve shared roughly none of this wealth with the workers who make these profits possible.

That’s why in early October over 7,000 workers at Marriott hotels across the country went on strike, with a demand that’s so sensible it almost sounds like a joke: “One Job Should Be Enough.” Unfortunately, if you’ve worked a service job in the last few decades, you already know that thanks to low wages, inconsistent scheduling, and rising housing costs, it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a job that doesn’t pay enough to live on. The demand is especially urgent for the millions of women that staff hotels, who are often already burdened with a “second shift” at home.

Additionally, hospitality work is physically demanding, and the pace of work has only increased, even as revenues are on the rise. Motivating workers to accept this workload requires everyday harassment, abuse, and intimidation, directed at a workforce largely composed of women and people of color.

To a corporation like Marriott, service workers are just another term in the profit-and-loss equation — the mindless, amoral mandate to maximize shareholder returns means the maids, maintenance workers, food-and-beverage staff and front desk clerks aren’t people, but costs to be minimized. As a result, Marriott’s board and management aren’t likely to be swayed by an appeal to their essential kindness or humanity. The only message they’ll hear is one that cuts off the flow of profits.

That’s where unions come in. Marriott workers are represented by UNITE HERE, and while only 21 of the company’s 6,700 hotels have gone on strike, fourth-quarter revenues aren’t looking good. Contracts have been agreed on at several of the striking hotels, and with the support of their union — and of customers who know better than to cross picket lines — they’re keeping the pressure on several Marriott properties in San Francisco.

Many of these hotels, like the Ritz-Carlton Boston Common, the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu, are high-end luxury hotels, where it’s not hard to find a room that sells for more money per night than a Marriott worker makes in a week. On that basis alone, Marriott International deserves to be in the conversation for Class Enemy of the Month — and right now, while they’re holding out against workers who demand nothing more than the basic dignity that should be afforded to them as human beings, they’re a lock for the title. We hope you’ll join us in supporting UNITE HERE in their fight on behalf of all of Marriott’s workforce.

That’s all for this month, folks! Remember to share with your friends, and send any comments or questions to [email protected].

Editorial team:
Ella Mahony, Ajmal Alami, Andrej Markovčič, Zoe Holden, Stephen Gose (graphic design).