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Beyond Economic Man

Economic Crisis, Feminist Economics and the Solidarity Economy

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In the United States, and in most of the “developed countries,” feminist movement, and feminist economists, have been focusing on empowering women within the existing global capitalist system. This has involved conceptualizing and documenting the existence of sex discrimination, and advocating for equal rights and opportunities for women. It has involved analyzing unpaid care work and informal work, including its key role in the economy, and advocating for paid parental leaves and other forms of support for it, as well as for its inclusion in macro policy making. It has involved analyzing the conflicts between paid jobs, especially traditionally masculine ones, and unpaid care work in the home; the erosion of unpaid care work as women enter the paid labor force; and the advocating of work/family policies to compensate for the systematic disadvantaging of those who do unpaid care work (1).

Indeed, we have made some very important strides over the past almost 40 years. Now, the concept of sex discrimination has replaced the notion of a God-given sexual division of labor, and the forced imposition of such rigid gender economic roles is considered to be unacceptable by most. With the support of feminist movement, individual women have fought their way into most traditionally male-dominated jobs, including the very high status ones. Women’s entrepreneurial abilities have been recognized with microcredit programs all over the world, particularly in poor countries. At the same time, the experience of the past 40 years has shown the limitations of our ability to liberate and empower women if we are forced to accept the current rules of the economic game. To play and win at that game, women have been forced to act like the “Economic Man” which U.S. feminist economists identified and critiqued in the first path-breaking collection on feminist economics, Beyond Economic Man: narrowly self-interested, competitive, individualistic; focused on money and motivated by greed (2).

There are many short-comings to the game itself, even if freed from sex and race discrimination:

-- To play that game, we have to accept that most women, and most people, will continue to be losers; many without their basic needs filled.

-- To play that game, we have to minimize or farm out (usually to other women) our unpaid caring labor (3).

-- To play that game, we have to focus on increasing the profits of the company we serve or own, serving owners or stockholders but ignoring or even gravely damaging other stakeholders, including workers, consumers, suppliers, the local community, government, and the earth upon which we all depend for life.

-- To play that game, we have to turn a blind eye to the multiple crises that this economic game has been producing, from climate to energy to food to water, employment, and soul, which threaten the very existence of all women, our children, and the men in our lives.

As I once heard Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade (1987), comment: “What’s the use of struggling to get the top berths of the boat if the boat is sinking?” It is clearer than ever before that there is something deeply wrong with the dominant economic system – with its very DNA. That it needs radical transformation. It is also probably clear to most of us that feminist movement all over the world – including feminist economists-- need to play a key role in midwifing this transformation. But how?

 

FEMINISM AND THE SOLIDARITY ECONOMY

There are many different definitions of the solidarity economy which have been put forward around the world over the past 25 years (4). Jenna Allard and I have identified four ultimate aims of the solidarity economy: 1) fulfillment of human needs, 2) the breakdown of oppressive economic hierarchies of all types, 3) the development of human potential, and 4) the preservation of our communities and our environment. All of these aims are congruent with essential feminist goals.5

At the core of the solidarity economy is the emergence of a new kind of economic person – a solidaristic person -- who cares for herself and others, who is socially responsible and cooperative, who honors earth and values community. For feminist economists, one of the key things to notice about this new, solidaristic economic person is that she/he transcends the polarization of masculinity and femininity upon which economic man, economic woman, and capitalist economics are based. As Julie Nelson has convincingly argued, this polarization (and, I would argue, the hierarchy associated with it) creates distorted or negative forms of masculinity and femininity (6). Economic man’s “negative” form of masculinity confuses self-assertion and strength with insensitivity, domination, and rigidity. Economic woman’s subordinated and self-abnegating way of caring involves the acceptance of male domination if not active self-victimization, and creates children who grow up to be masculine dominators, feminine self-subordinating servers, or both.

In the area of work, the polarization of economic man and woman into paid and unpaid work respectively is transcended, as are the goals of competitive bread-winning and self-subordinating homemaking. Both kinds of work can be valued, pursued, and integrated by the solidaristic economic person to support her/his livelihood and that of her/his loved ones, as a means of self-expression and development, and as a way to serve others, society and the planet. Solidaristic work ranges from liberatory reproductive and community work to paid work for socially responsible businesses, nonprofits, or as agitators and whistle-blowers within “low-road” firms.

Finally, the entrepreneurial spirit which is so key to the dynamism of capitalism is transformed in the solidarity economy. The capitalist entrepreneur or manager is the quintessential economic man, who pursues manly “success" by maximizing wealth and profits, and does so by creating unnecessary needs and forced obsolescence; minimizing (and externalizing) costs; exploiting workers, the earth, suppliers, and consumers; bribing the state to serve its needs; as well as through theft, graft, and corruption. In contrast, solidarity entrepreneurship involves participating in a creative, win-win production process which seeks to benefit all stakeholders (workers, consumers, owners, community, environment, government, suppliers, competitors), and which is supported by socially responsible consumers, workers, and investors, and forward-seeking public policy. The solidarity person as entrepreneur or manager creates a “high road” firm – which can take the form of a socially responsible corporation, nonprofit, cooperative, or community business.

 

CONCLUSION

The new economic person or more correctly, persons, whom feminists have been searching for are being constructed alongside and through the emerging solidarity economy. In this transformative moment, we are building the road as we travel. And the road itself builds us, or allows us to transform ourselves, liberate ourselves, heal ourselves of the wounds of hierarchical polarization by gender, race, class, and nation. The solidarity economy presents an economic way forward that can truly liberate women and all people.

 

(1) Matthaei and Brandt conceptualize these efforts as three distinct feminist economic processes: equal opportunity, valuing the devalued, and integrative. See Matthaei, J. and Brandt B. (2007), “The Transformative Moment” in Albritton R., Jessop R. and R.Westra (eds.) (2007), Political Economy and Global Capitalism: The 21st Century Present and Future, London: Anthem Press.

(2) Ferber M. and Nelson J. A. (eds.) (1993), Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

(3) See Folbre N. (2001), The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values, New York: New Press; Folbre N. (1995), “’Holding Hands at Midnight’: The Paradox of Caring Labor”, Feminist Economics, 1(1): 73-92.

(4) See TransformationCentral.org for a compendium of definitions.

(5) Allard J. and J. Matthaei (2008) “Introduction,” in Jenna Allard J., Davidson C., and J. Matthaei (eds.) Solidarity Economy: Building Alternatives for People and Planet, Chicago: Change Maker Publishing.

(6) Nelson J. A. (1996), Feminism, Objectivity, and Economics, New York: Routledge.