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Nowadays, it is becoming ever clearer to more and more people across the world that many Marxian insights, as to the nature of capitalist exploitation, have never lost their actuality. However, most of these acumens do not take into account the systemic aspects of capitalist production. Moreover, they rarely focus on the actual strategies, deployed by the rich and powerful to ensure that the representatives of the socially underprivileged populations continue to remain discursively marginalized. This, in turn, created the objective preconditions for the emergence of feminist analysis, as the tool for obtaining a better understanding of post-industrial modernity.
The social construction of race, sex, and gender
The most significant of all feminist theorizations up to date is concerned with the discovery of a link between capitalist production and the socially constructed notions of “race”, “sexuality”, and “gender”. In her article, Wright explores this subject matter at length. While focusing on the socio-economic exploitation of Mexican female workers in “maquiladoras” (sweatshops), the author has shown that the lowered sense of self-esteem in these women is the necessary prerequisite for the shops where they work to remain profitable. The reason for this is that, for as long as the functioning of commercial organizations that employ a largely unskilled workforce is concerned, it represents a matter of crucial importance for managers to be able to ensure a comparatively high turnover rate amongst workers. The rationale behind this suggestion is that, as it appears from the article, in the economic environment with the dramatically devalued worth of one’s unskilled labor, producing an excessive “surplus value” undermines the company’s short-term sustainability.
As Wright aptly observed: “An insufficient degree of turnover… represents another form of waste: an excessive productive capacity” (84). This exposes the innate inconsistency between the employers’ formal commitment to providing unskilled female workers with different skill-enhancing opportunities (so that they would be willing to retain their jobs) and the fact that the very paradigm of capitalist production deems such a course of action counterproductive to the organization’s long-term commercial interests. This explains why, after having arrived to work at maquiladoras from the country’s rural areas, most female workers continue to adhere to the strongly patriarchal “traditional” values, without trying to realize their full existential potential. Contrary to what the “cultural” explanations of the phenomenon insist upon, the unskilled female laborers’ inability to break out of the vicious circle of poverty has very little to do with the specifics of their ethnocultural affiliation. Rather, it is another by-product of the ongoing economic Globalization, commonly associated with the notion of progress.
In this regard, the article by Federici can be well thought of as the continuation of the previously analyzed one. According to the author, the adoption of the neo-liberal economic policies in most countries of the world resulted in the creation of the situation when, as of today, the workers’ bargaining power continues to decline rather rapidly. As she noted: “We are witnessing the development of a homeless, itinerant workforce, compelled to nomadism… looking for work whenever an opportunity appears” (Federici 105). It is understood, of course, that the concerning trend could not have had any other but a strongly negative effect on the formation of the self-identity sense in women, especially given the fact that Western societies never ceased being prominently patriarchal. For example, the last few decades (since the rise of Globalization) saw a significant increase in the number of women that are being physically/sexually abused by their husbands regularly.
Federici directly links the phenomenon to the earlier outlined trend: “An increase in male violence against women, (is) triggered in part by fear of economic completion, in part by the frustration men experience in not being able to fulfill their role as family providers” (109). There is, however, even more to it. As one can infer from Federici’s article, the enactment of different social policies that have been traditionally presumed to be of primary concern to women (such as the legalization of abortion) should not be discussed outside of the overall socio-economic context. After all, if the demographic dynamics within the society are predetermined economically, then there is indeed a good rationale in referring to the gender-related regulative policies and practices as such that serve the purpose of increasing the effectiveness of capitalist production. Therefore, the legalization (or criminalization) of abortion should be seen as the instrument of regulating the “reproduction of workers”: the most important economic function of women, which is not being accounted for within the context of how the free-market economy generates a new “surplus value”.
In light of the above-stated, there can be very little doubt that the notions of “sex” and “race” are indeed socially constructed. The actual process of how it is being done appears to be heavily affected by the particularities of the surrounding socio-economic environment: all in full accordance with the main provisions of feminist sociology.
Social and cultural power
One of the most paradoxical aspects of the contemporary socio-cultural situation in America is that, despite the country’s nominal commitment to professing the ideals of multiculturalism, American society continues to remain subtly racist. There is, however, is nothing truly unexplainable about the described state of affairs, in this regard: it is nothing but yet another observable extrapolation of the fact that, just as it was the case in the 19th century, the public discourse in the US remains essentially Eurocentric. The validity of this suggestion is best explored concerning the assigned articles by Gramsci and Hong, as such that contain several valuable insights into what are the subtle tactics that the representatives of the ruling elites resort to while striving to preserve their dominance over the society.
The first thing that emerges from the reading of both written pieces is that, contrary to what many people assume to be the case, it is wrong to refer to knowledge as merely the summation of some odd facts that represent the value of a “thing in itself”, regardless of what happened to be the surrounding socio-cultural climate. There are always the elements of a perceptual bias to just about every type of knowledge, as well as to the process of how it is being accumulated, in the epistemological sense of this word. The functioning of most colleges and universities in the US is perfectly illustrative, in this regard. After all, the actual goal of these institutions’ existence has always been assumed to foster normative knowledge in students. This type of knowledge, however, naturally derives from the specifically Eurocentric (object-centered) outlook on the surrounding reality. As Hong argued: “The epistemological structure of Western university education… (is) based on a sense of progress toward a singular and universalizable notion of civilization, represented by a canonical notion of Western culture” (99). The effect is apparent: even the most successful African-American graduates leave their colleges and universities with the deep-seated/irrational conviction that Eurocentric “normativity” is indeed thoroughly legitimate. Subsequently, this causes them to feel alienated to an extent from the Black discourse and makes it much harder for the individuals in question to adopt an active stance in life while addressing social challenges.
This suggestion correlates well with Gramsci’s conceptualization of public education as the tool that helps the bourgeoisie to maintain its hegemonic grip on society. In this respect, the dominant social group’s goal is to establish the objective preconditions for the representatives of the underprivileged social classes/minority groups to feel more or less comfortable with the fact that they are being exploited. For the rich and powerful, it is important to ensure that there is a: “spontaneous consent given by the great masses of population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” (Gramsci 12). The logic behind this suggestion is rather obvious: the more some people do not question their marginalized status within the society, the lesser is the amount of money/resources that needs to be invested in rooting out the society’s “unruly” members. This exposes the true role of intellectuals in just about any class-stratified society: to act on behalf of the ruling elite with their main function being the construction of a “classless” social discourse. For the exploiters, it matters very little whether the exploited assess life challenges through the lenses of their cultural, racial, or sexual affiliation: all for as long as the latter are willing to forget their identity as the members of the discursively disfranchised social class.
Therefore, it is indeed appropriate to refer to conventional epistemology, in general, and public education, in particular, as being instrumental to a significant degree. Put, knowledge/education is not a constitutionally guaranteed right. Rather, it is a social privilege provided to people in exchange for their willingness to affiliate themselves with the currently prevalent public discourse, constructed by those who own the country’s financial and industrial assets.
Hong and Gramsci differ rather substantially in what they envision to be the circumstantially appropriate approaches for dealing with the situation. According to the former, an emphasis must be placed on helping African-American students to identify the traces of Eurocentric normativity in just about every educational pursuit. By being able to do this, Black students will be much likelier to attain self-actualization and prove themselves as the Black community’s valuable members. Gramsci, on the other hand, believed that it is specifically the anticipated rise of the social class of “true” (as opposed to “traditional”) intellectuals that will result in freeing Western epistemology from its operative (class-related) constraints. According to the philosopher, such an eventual development is predetermined by the very process of the capitalist economy growing increasingly industrialized. Even though the advent of post-industrial modernity in the West has been seen to undermine the validity of such Gramsci’s suggestion, the current political and economic developments in the world imply that it is much too early to part way with Gramsci’s intellectual legacy as “outdated”.
Federici, Silvia. “The Reproduction of Labor Power in the Global Economy and the Unfinished Feminist Revolution.” Revolution at Point Zero, edited by Silvia Federici. Common Notions, 2012, pp.91-111.
Gramsci, Antonio. “The Formation of the Intellectuals.” Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited by Quintin Hoare. International Publishers, 1971, pp. 5-14.
Hong, Grace. “The Future of our Worlds: Black Feminism and the Politics of Knowledge in the University Under Globalization.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, vol. 8, no. 2, 2008, pp. 95-115.
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Wright, Melissa. “Dialectics of Still Life: Murder, Women, and Disposability.” Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism, edited by Melissa Wright. Routledge, 2006, pp. 71-89.