A Conversation with Sylvia Walby about Crisis, Brexit and Changes in Gender Regimes

Image: Phil Roeder / Flickr

Tuesday 8th August, 2017

Ece Kocabicak

In your 2011 book, The Future of Feminism, you argue that depending on civil society and policy, the financial crisis of 2008 might initiate a shift either towards social democracy and the democratic regulation of finance, or towards fundamentalism, xenophobia and protectionism. Considering Trump’s electoral achievement in the U.S. and Brexit in the UK, did we fail to take the social democratic path? If so, why?

In The Future of Feminism (in 2011), I analysed feminism as a leading player in the development of a social democratic coalition, which produced social democratic public gender regimes and social democratic forms of capitalism. In the Crisis book, I investigated the cascade of the crisis through society. The Brexit referendum and the election of Trump confirm my conclusion: there has been a critical turning point and the development of a neoliberal form of the public gender regime and a turn away from the social democratic form.

What do you mean by ‘cascade’?

I use ‘cascade’ to connect the different phases of the crisis as they affect different institutional domains in society. The term is intended to indicate a process, but one that was not inevitable. The financial crisis (in 2007-08) did not have to become a crisis in real economy (in 2008-09), but it did: cascading from finance to the real economy. The crisis in real economy cascaded into fiscal pressures. It was not inevitable that those fiscal pressures would be interpreted as a crisis to which the government would respond with austerity. It was not inevitable that the economic crisis would give rise to austerity. And again, it is not inevitable that austerity would lead to the political fractures around gender, ethnicity, religion; but it did. I use the term cascade to indicate that although there was a movement of the crisis from one institutional domain to another it was not inevitable. Social systems are not so tightly coupled that this cascade was inevitable. There is more than one possible outcome of the crisis.

In your recent theoretical framework, you identify four domains: economy, polity, civil society and violence. Considering the cascading crisis, do you think that crisis has also had an impact on the domains of polity, civil society and violence?

Yes, the latest cascade of the crisis has been into political turmoil and into violence. In Britain, there has been an increase of violent crime since 2008, particularly domestic violent crime and violence against women. Immediately after the Brexit referendum, there was a spike in hate crime - against people identified by ethnicity and religion. The cascade of crisis into violence is a serious development, in that conflict is no longer contained in the political formal channels. This is potentially a challenge to democratic institutions.

Next, I would like to focus on global gender transformations. Rather than suggesting that crisis pushed women back into the home, you argue that we have seen a greater exploitation of women within the public gender regime, and the public gender regime has become more neoliberal and less social democratic. In other words, with the 2008 crisis you describe a shift from the social democratic to neoliberal form of public gender regime. Can you elaborate on this argument a little bit more?

Some ways of thinking about varieties of gender regime have a simple division between production and reproduction: women may be women predominantly working in the home or predominantly in the workplace. That is too simple. I differentiate between different forms of women’s engagement in the public and divide the public gender regime into social democratic and neoliberal varieties. In both forms, women are in the public, for example, in employment and education. They differ in the levels of democracy and organisation of care work. In the social democratic variety of public gender regime, democratic pressures lead the state to provide care work; in the neoliberal variety of public gender regime, where democracy is less deep, care-work is organised through the market. In the crisis, there was a question as to whether women would be pushed back into home as some feminist theorists predicted. I do not think that happened, at least in the U.K. Women stayed ‘economically active’, being in employment or actively seeking work, rather than becoming economically inactive and ceasing to seek work. Even despite the reduction in welfare state provision, women sought employment. Rather, work in the home was intensified and women did more work. Women did not go leave employment to go back into home. I conceptualise that as a shift from the social democratic to the neoliberal form of public gender regime rather than the re-domestication of the gender regime.

Do you think that a reverse transition back to domestic gender regime is also possible? Do you see any connection between the recent attacks on abortion rights and a shift back to domestic gender regime?

A reverse transition from public to domestic gender regime is possible. The account I have just given concerned the U.K. By contrast, Lombardo’s work on Spain suggests that that some aspects of gender relations were re-domesticated, while others moved in a neoliberal direction. The outcome is contingent on gendered political and economic processes. But the suggestion from some feminist theorists that crisis usually leads to re-domestication (or re-familialisation), is, I think, incorrect. It depends on the context.

Considering the crisis, do you think that feminist contestations are significant?

Yes, feminist contestations are significant. They are often underestimated, for a number of reasons. Sometimes they are not seen. Many of those who suggest feminism has disappeared have not engaged in empirical investigations of the issue. Further, newspapers tend to under-report these struggles, so there is a lack of visibility. There is also difficulty in seeing feminism when feminism is defined as an identity, since this limits the actions that are included. If, by contrast, feminism is conceptualised as a project, defined in terms of goals and actions, there is a potentially more inclusive understanding of feminist activity. Limiting feminism to people who self-identify as feminist is limiting in the case of intersecting political projects. Practices involving coalitions and alliances would be excluded from the analysis of feminism if it is limited to identity. An example is trade unions. Trade unions rarely state that they are feminist organisations. Nonetheless, at least in Britain, trade unions are a major force promoting closing the gender pay gap, supporting improvements in women’s working conditions, the gendered welfare state, and free choice on abortion. Trade unions are part of a feminist project. It is important to include such intersectional projects; to exclude, makes invisible significant parts of feminist action.

You give the example of trade unions; does that mean that trade unions are one of the important alliances of feminist movement or feminist project?

Yes, at least in Europe, the alliance between feminism and the labour movement has been important, for example, in the development of the gendered welfare state. The weakening of trade unions has had significant detrimental consequences for joint projects with feminism.

Why do you think that some scholars like Nancy Fraser and Hester Eisenstein tend to underestimate these feminist contestations? Populist interpretation of Fraser’s work even claims that feminism has been co-opted by capitalism. What do you think?

I think Fraser and Eisenstein underestimate feminism. They engage in very little empirical investigation of feminism, despite their sweeping claims about its nature. Neoliberals may want to claim that they are in alignment with feminism, but the reverse is not the case.

You mention that in some countries feminism is stronger in its grassroots form yet in others feminism has engaged with political projects other then feminist projects. I was wondering if the dominant form of feminism is related to varieties of patriarchy.

Feminism takes many different organisational forms. These include: the grassroots; non-governmental organisations; and entities within the state such as gender-equality agencies. Feminism has varying levels of institutionalisation: sometimes within particular political parties; sometimes feminism is part of governmental programs; and sometimes it changes the social formation. These forms can vary with the variety of gender regime, and with the length of time of their development. It can take years for grassroots mobilisations to develop organised forms. This is not one-way process. These processes can also be undone in processes of de-democratisation.

Considering gender equality regulations, do you think that the international organisations, for example the United Nations and the European Union, are losing their power over nation-states? Especially with the rise of right-wing politics, can those international organisations still be influential over nation-states’ gender agenda?

The UN has been a very important site in which feminist non-governmental organisations around the world engaged with each other, and developed joint projects. The public statements and declarations by UN authorities are important frameworks for building cooperation for gender equality projects. But I am not sure that United Nations ever had power over nation states! The UN often frames justice issues in terms of human rights, for example, framing violence against women as a violation of women’s human rights, though it has also framed it as a form of gender discrimination.

The EU is important for gender equality in Europe. If the EU were to be weakened, this would weaken a major support for all forms of equality in Europe.

Working class votes were significant for Brexit and Trump’s electoral victory thereby the shift to neoliberal public gender regime. Do you think that feminist strategies should also address class-based inequalities? How can we do that?

Feminist strategies have always engaged with class inequalities. The long-standing alliance between feminism and the labour movement is an example of that. I am not so certain that Brexit was simply a consequence of working class votes. The majority of Labour voters voted remain, even if the majority of Labour constituencies voted leave. The picture is very complicated.

There was significant opposition to the European Union from fractions of capital that resisted European Union regulations on their activities, such as those preventing mergers that lead to monopoly control. The hostility of the owners of the newspapers to the EU has had an effect on popular opinion. The understanding of the EU project in the rest of Europe is different from that in the U.K. In most of Europe, the EU is still understood as a peace project - a project in which there should never be a war again in Europe. Most British people never saw the EU in that way.

What are the fractions of capital supporting Brexit? Nigel Farage, for example, is a businessman representing a particular group of small producers who cannot compete with the global producers within local market. Is there a division between the local and global producers?

The EU has been attempting to regulate finance capital, especially after the 2007 financial crisis. There are divisions within the EU on the regulation of finance: the EU-2007 has often taken a different position from the U.K., which is affected by finance in the City of London. Within the EU, the most interesting issue is not Brexit, but rather the discussion of the re-structuring of the EU. That will be an important and interesting process, the outcome of which is not obvious.

Do you think that whether to control finance capital or not will be the core debate in this re-structuring process?

That would be one of the components. The EU has repeatedly restructured and deepened its political institutions in moments of crisis. I expect that the next restructuring would include increased EU-level regulation not only of finance but also of the fiscal, that is, government expenditure, including welfare. EU-level control over the fiscal has been experienced by Greece. This may be applied to all EU Member States of the EU at the next restructuring. Such a transfer of decision-making power from Member States to the EU-level would have important gender implications given the significance of the welfare state for gender equality issues. It potentially means a move in the location of governance from the Member State to the EU level on gendered expenditures on health, education, welfare, and services for women.

What is the future?

The future is uncertain. We do not know to the extent to which there will be democratic mobilisation. We do not know whether such a revitalisation of democracy would be strong or weak, effective or ineffective. The biggest questions about the future concern the future of democracy. After all, it was the de-democratisation of the controls of finance that gave rise to financial crisis that cascaded through the economy, the fiscal, the political and into violence. Following the previous financial crisis in 1929, was depression, fascism, holocaust, and war, and eventually the emergence of a social democratic response. There is a question of whether such a cascade in the crisis might occur again.

Dr Ece Kocabicak is currently working as an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University. Her research focuses on varieties of patriarchies and capitalisms, the relationship between gender and class-based inequalities, and the significance of political collective subjects for social transformation within the historical context of Turkey. She further examines the processes and factors that sustain gender-based exclusionary strategies in Muslim majority countries.

Here's more you may be interested in: