In the last quarter of the twentieth century the world’s institutions reached a consensus: they came together to hail the goal of gender equality. Ironically, this was at the very moment when we were witnessing the limits, the exhaustion, of the equality paradigm.
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The structures of gender – the sexual division of labour, and violence as a resource in the making and doing of masculinity – were always going to be difficult to dislodge. But the equality paradigm is now being defeated by the counter-revolutionary, neoliberal priorities of the world’s financial institutions. They preach equal opportunity, but in practice produce a ‘regressive modernisation’ that reshapes but continues the patriarchal division of labour, and of traditional masculinities and femininities.
‘Woman’ as commodity, as carer, as producer and reproducer (though rarely hailed, it appears, as taxpayer and never as citizen) is being positioned anew as Other; the sovereignty of ideologies of masculinity is simultaneously rattled and reinstated. The old sexual contract is recognised as unsustainable but retained in modernised form. A neoliberal neo-patriarchy has emerged as the new articulation of male domination.
Attacks on welfare
When neoliberal politics and the world’s financial institutions marginalise state welfare - in whatever part of the world - they deprive women of support in their role as unpaid carers, and reconstitute women care workers as the precariat; and in doing so they also reinstate patriarchal divisions of labour and redistribute incomes towards men. Social solidarity through the medium of welfare states is the minimum necessary condition for society to take the side of women. This is not to say that social-democratic or socialist states were feminist - their tragedy is that they weren’t. But the economic regimes forced on states by the World Bank and the IMF have waged war on the public good; and their neoliberal imperative is also the articulation of neo-patriarchy in global governance.
The redistribution of resources away from women and children through the cutting of welfare provision is apparent in Coalition government policies. But perhaps Asian capitalisms, home to almost half of the human population are - as much, if not more than, Europe or North America - defining the new global sexual settlement. The successful economies of Asia tend to be strong states with weak welfare provision and modernised forms of male domination.
In China, before the turn to economic liberalism, workers were poor, but they were equally poor. In 1988 women’s pay was 86 per cent of men’s. By 2011 it was only 67 per cent. Before capitalism, parenthood had little impact on pay. After capitalism, the parenthood penalty rose to 40 per cent. Privatisation and cuts scythed public child care provision - a massive redistribution away from children and women.
As Jayati Ghosh has shown, in India the rush to urban industrialisation following the government’s embrace of neoliberal fiscal reform has generated a form of ‘jobless growth’: a rise in GDP without expanding employment - and a defeminised labour force. Women’s share of the labour market has plunged from around half to a quarter, and the gender pay gap has increased in every category of work.
In South Korea, a paragon Asian tiger, and perhaps the most techno-savvy society on the planet, men do least housework, and women’s labour force participation is the lowest in the OECD countries. The gender pay gap is the highest: 38 per cent. Among employed women it has one of the highest levels of ‘precariousness’ - 70 per cent.
In Britain, despite years of consciousness-raising among the police, judiciary and law-makers, sexual assault is a crime that by and large escapes justice. Ninety per cent of rape is not reported. Eighty per cent of rapes that are reported are not acted upon. Of the 14 per cent that go to trial in Britain, only half result in conviction. In 2013, the police referral of reported rapes to the Crown Prosecution Service declined. And this kind of impunity is more or less replicated throughout the world.
More widely, force is the accomplice of global neoliberalism, and is an integral part of its evolving gender settlement. In the post-cold-war era the world is plagued by what Mary Kaldor calls ‘new wars’; and the making and maintaining of militarised masculinities is vital to the new modes of armed conflict that are proliferating across the flexible frontiers of globalised capitalism, between and within states. Looting, pillage, population displacement and rape are not so much occupational hazards as central to their modus operandi. Violence is franchised out to auxiliary militias, security corporations and freelancing warlords: gangs, guerrillas, police, death squads and vigilantes prosper; their networks of criminal free trade and spatial domination overpower the best efforts of ‘new democracies’ from Soweto to Sao Paulo. For neoliberal capitalism radiates violence.
Societies emerging from dictatorship in Latin America are plagued by organised crime and violence, and struggling to survive the impact of neoliberal economic policies. Millions of people live in toxic, unplanned, unprotected urban landscapes, where emaciated local states have little or no jurisdiction or powers of intervention; where the violence of dictatorships or civil wars continues to discipline relationships between political and police apparatuses enfeebled by neoliberal policies; where boundaries between politics and legal and illegal ‘free trade’ are fluid and patrolled by hyper-masculinities.
Latin America’s ‘new democracies’ are ill-equipped to confront, let alone control, the drugs and guns ‘industrialists’ who migrate more or less unhindered across borders, whose local foot soldiers service global operations. Homicide rates (per 100,000) are soaring in Brazil (21), Columbia (31), Venezuela (45), El Salvador (69), Honduras (91). The most unprotected neighbourhoods live in a state of ‘endless war’, where murder rates are multiplied by extra-judicial executions. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the murder rate quadrupled from 6 per 100,000 in the 1980s to 26 per 100,000 in the 2000s, overpowering community organisations and local and national state apparatuses. The penetration of democratic and public institutions by criminal networks is so extensive that violence has often become the basis on which they function, rather than a symptom of failure. Despite the best intentions of the new democracies, men’s violence is fragmenting social space, fostering fear and creating distrust in institutions.
In South Africa, the articulation of apartheid and patriarchy produced one of the most violent societies on earth: it had the highest homicide and rape rates in the world. Its remarkably peaceful liberation from apartheid was then swiftly recaptured by neoliberal neo-patriarchy: fiscal austerity, privatisation, export-oriented production - and violence. Twenty years after liberation there are more police and security guards than nurses: 400,000 private security guards and 190,000 police officers to 212,000 nurses. Every month the security industry registers 20,000 new members - men patrolling other men are stationed everywhere - whilst over 40 per cent of nursing posts remain unfilled.
The need for a gender revolution
Meanwhile in Europe a glance at the statistics vindicates a pessimistic prognosis. The crawl to economic equality between men and women is over in the OECD countries. The Equality and Human Rights Commission warns that progress toward equal pay is ‘grinding to a halt’. The European gender pay gap is stable at around 25 per cent. The annual pay gap between men and women is about 26 per cent, but it is 65 per cent between part-time women (mainly mothers) and full-time men. Men’s pensions are 50 per cent higher than women’s.
These figures do not represent the lag between a patriarchal past and an emerging, egalitarian future. They are probably as good as it is going to get. The gap is structural. In the twenty-first century, a relative lifetime gender gap confronts young women just as it constrained their mothers.
In no society in the world does the criminal justice system take the side of women. In no society or system are women paid the same as men for a day, a week, or a lifetime’s work. In no society do men share equally the work of care with women. Sexism finds new cultures and contexts; violence and sexual aggression attract impunity.
And in a world dominated by neoliberal neo-patriarchy there is little indication that this will change in favour of women - without a gender revolution.
This article will be discussed by Beatrix Campbell, Pragna Patel and Alison Winch at a Soundings seminar at the Marx Memorial Library on Thursday 28 November. For more information: http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/manifesto/upcoming-seminar.html. It is based on the argument in Beatrix Campbell, End of Equality (Manifestos for the Twenty First Century), to be published by Seagull in January 2014.