Women and the economic crisis
moving beyond capitalocentrism
Changing the narratives and practices of living the crisis is fundamental to challenge this historical moment and turn it all around from disgracefull to fruitfull. Stepping out capitalocentrism means valuing everyday relationship-based-strategies of informal economics put in place to survive the global crisis, which could lead to social change.
"We may still be mourning our dead, but time seems to have come to discuss how we guarantee economic survival that, under capitalism, is based on production and work." Social reproduction and the regeneration of capitalist life during the Covid19 pandemic
The recent “Cura Italia” (Care for Italy) decree, issued by the Italian Government, does not “take care” of domestic workers, home-based caregivers for the elderly and child minders. But precisely this sector should be our starting point, if we want to reflect on a new form of democracy, states the appeal launched by a group of researchers
Currently the news is full of narratives on women and the global economic crisis. For example John Hendra Assistant Secretary-General for Policy and Programme UN Women speaking on 10 March 2014 in New York states:‘The economic and financial crises have exposed the shortcomings of the current economic model that contributes to inequality and vulnerability, in particular among women… the recent global economic crisis, and the subsequent jobless recovery, has widened the workload and leisure-hours gap between mothers and fathers in some countries. Furthermore, cuts to public health, childcare, and social protection services have increasingly pushed these responsibilities back onto women’ (Hendra 2014) His comments and many studies (Bettio et al 2012; Ghosh 2013) show that the impact of the crisis is deeply gendered. In Italy in education alone, 19,700 women’s jobs have been cut since 2009 and 87,000 more are predicted in the immediate future (Bettio et al 2012). Reports underscore that it is women who are bearing the brunt of the crisis across Europe (EWL 2012).
I argue that we need to challenge this narrative. Instead of focusing on women as the most vulnerable and worse off we need to see the crisis as part of the on going set of historical circumstances where gender inequalities are being played out, challenged and lived in neoliberal capitalism. The crisis is not something insurmountable and paralytic but it is something we are living through. We need to see how it is being experienced in ways that invite possibilities for change in our daily lives. We cannot ignore what is hard, difficult and unjust but we need to find the cracks and alternatives that exist alongside the crisis, and not assume we know where the crisis will lead us to more inequality and injustice. In order to get out of that mind-set we need to scrutinize the mainstream universalising framing of the impact of women and the crisis narrative. This means moving away from economistic prescriptive givens and learn from insights coming from social justice movements, feminism, and their understanding of the links among body, culture, ecology and economy.
We need to get out of the trap of our pre-determined ideas of what measures to take, and look with more openness at the contradictions, the failures, the messiness, which contain within them the hopes for social change. I have found the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham (the pen name of the late Julie Graham, US feminist economist and Kathie Gibson, Australian feminist geographer) very helpful in this regard. In their work since 1996 they have pointed out that we need to move beyond capitalism as it is represented in dominant narratives as a unified system: bounded, hierarchically ordered, vitalized by a growth imperative, and omnipresent, understood by macroeconomic theory and policy (Gibson-Graham 1996; 2006). In this imaginary the economy is seen as a diversified social space. At the centre of these forms of economies are new economic subjects and ethical practices of self-cultivation. In this imaginary local economic transformation is about ways of cultivating economic subjects with different desires and capacities and greater openness to change and uncertainty.
Let me give an example from my own lived experience of women and the economic crisis and attempts by communities to find alternatives to unfettered neoliberal capitalism and as a result of the crisis, creating news forms of political economic and social relations. I am working with a small community based feminist organization Punti di Vista (PdV) based in a 17th century Franciscan monastery The Convento S. Maria del Giglio. on the outskirts of Bolsena. The members of PdV work voluntarily in the Convento and undertake paid work in academic, government and NGO organisations based in Italy and further afield. Negotiating around who decides what happens in Bolsena is a continual struggle among the town hall, local committees, the church, local parties and progressive groups. PdV work with local women who have been leading the alternative to mainstream tourism, running the book and coffee shops, ‘eco’ wine bars, ‘bio’ cheese farms, holding workshops on local food and Etruscan cultures. Discussions about viability of local enterprises are shaped also by the everyday politics of taking care of family. Survival is via the ‘black economy’ which provides the food and care that enables people to overcome the down turn in tourism, the increase in local and national taxes, the closure of vital services and complexity of EU laws on food and safety. The community survives reliant on the goodwill of many and in the cracks of the Italian political system as well as the economic uncertainties. But along with uncertainties there are also new initiatives happening – from communal gardens, sharing of local produce in cooperatives, time banks, the organizing of pageants celebrating local historical events, fairs at harvest time etc. There is a re-embracing of histories of different sorts – forming a sense of the culture of the Tuscia area with its Etruscan history, as well as more conservative histories based on the Catholic Church, fishing and hunting communities. Attempts are being made to build communities around youth wings of local parties, new forms of fair trade shops, local restaurants promoting locally grown food and wine. Talking to people in Bolsena I sense there is a search for new forms of cultural identity and politics, with a strong distrust of the national politics and of the possibilities of making it in today’s global market. Labour rights and social protection is not even seen as something to be fought for, such is the distrust of state politics, including ‘Europe’. Many speak of moving to Germany, England, the Netherlands, where they see chances are better. What I see in Bolsena is that things are shifting. There is the search to find meaning beyond ‘fictitious consumption’. Bolsena’s sense of culture and identity has a possibility for survival if the economic imaginary changes to value ways of living in our times.
Our role as feminists is to provide the trenchant critiques of dominant thinking and ways of life including strong critiques of economic that have framed the crisis. We need to think how our research and actions are creating the grounds for social and economic innovation. What are the socially creative thinking practices that can allow our feminist analysis to release the positive affect of hope and possibility and generate alternative discourses? Thinking about the economy cannot be separated from our emotions and bodily sensation. We cannot afford to be taken down by the fear generated by crisis narratives. If we see the economy as naturally and rightfully ‘capitalist’ then any economic activity that is positioned as different (e.g., involves non-market transactions, or non-waged labour) cannot be viewed as legitimate, dynamic or long-lasting. The ‘capitalocentrism’ of economic discourse subsumes all economically diverse activities as ultimately the same as, the opposite of, a complement to or contained within capitalism (Gibson-Graham 2008). We need to pose questions that open up rather than close down the possibility of becoming economically innovative in our ways of living that move us beyond the deep inequalities of capitalism and move towards social change.
Bettio, F. M. Corsi, C. D’Ippoliti, A. Lyberaki, M. S. Lodovici and A.Verashchagina, 2012 ‘The impact of the economic crisis on the situation of women and men and on gender equality policies’, European Commission, FGB- Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini IRS- Istituto per la Ricerca Sociale December 2012
European Women’s Lobby, 2012 ‘The price of austerity - The impact on women’s rights and gender equality in Europe’, October, web edition,
Ghosh, J. 2013 ‘Economic crises and women’s work: exploring progressive strategies in a rapidly changing global environment’, web edition,
Gibson-Graham J.K. 1996 The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Gibson-Graham J.K. 2008 ‘Place-based Globalism: A New Imaginary of Revolution’, Rethinking Marxism 20, no. 4
Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006 A Postcapitalist Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hendra, J. 2014 Remarks at the CSW 10 March 2014