“…new openings will bring more rank-and-file activism and create opportunities for socialist-feminists”

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

Johanna Brenner

AS THE COLD war winds down, the battle over the peace dividend will include a struggle to name the enemy. The “war on drugs” has opened a window of opportunity for diverting resources to the apparatuses of state repression (not to mention one or two small interventions in Central America). But social-service advocates also use the “war on drugs” to justify claims. You want a neighborhood center? Claim it will cut down on crack use. You want to expand drug treatment for poor women? Focus on crack babies.

The issue is new, but the method isn’t Middle-class reformers and social-service entrepreneurs have always defended the welfare state in terms of protecting society from danger–class/race warfare, disease or criminality. Conservatives and liberals differ primarily in how their programs construct the danger and balance repression, social control and real benefits.

Advocates for women, like the other “lobbies,” are casting about for a handle on the peace dividend. The war on drugs has limitations—police, attorney generals and corrections officials have little interest in better and more education, childcare, healthcare, paid parental leave, better-paid employment The “war for competitiveness” offers better possibilities. In this war to regain U.S. economic dominance, state direction and mobilization of investment, including investment in human capital, is touted by important sectors of capital and their representatives.

In the national mobilization for economic renewal, women, as producers of new workers and as workers themselves, will have a claim on investment resources. And so in position papers, press conferences, legislative hearings, testimonies to government commissions, advocates for women argue that healthcare, eldercare, childcare are necessary to raise the productivity of women workers and to meet the future demand for skilled labor. The “underclass” of unskilled single mothers represents a wastage of human labor power that we can no longer afford. The underemployment of skilled women workers endangers our ability to compete Reams of studies testify to the hours lost to employers because of sick children.

The limitations of this strategy lie not only in its fundamentally bourgeois cost/benefit discourse but in its form of organization. For instance, the “childcare lobby” has yet to force a bill through Congress. While something minimal will likely pass this year, childcare funding that meets the needs of the poor and working poor, a significant shift of resources, will take a very broad and militant mobilization. This, the “childcare” lobby cannot, will not, produce.

It’s the old reformist downward spiral: Without an organized mass base, advocates for the oppressed have to find ways to convince the powerful that they have something to offer. The more they seek these alliances, the less they can organize their own constituencies, thus, the more they are forced to adapt to the prevailing balance of forces and political climate.

While the peace dividend opens a political space for organized feminism and the organizations that speak for women, it is doubtful that they will be able to mobilize the same outpouring of energy and money that we’ve seen in the campaign to protect legal abortion. Unlike abortion rights, expanding public services or subsidizing/requiring employee benefits are not cross-class issues. Still the sense of new openings, the shaking of old legitimations for restricted social spending, will bring more rank-and-file activism and create opportunities for socialist-feminists.

We need to join campaigns for reforms with a different organizing strategy: an alternative discourse, a different view of alliances and a different understanding of the purposes of organization. First, the g9al is not to perfect women and children (or men, for that matter) as factors of production, but to expand their possibilities for self-determination and their ability to control their conditions of life.

Second, alliances “up” will not win very much in the way of expanded services; there are too many more powerful interests competing for a restricted state dollar Reforms designed to support corporate profitability, even if implemented, will only replicate existing gender, racial and class inequalities.

Programs that benefit working-class women and their communities, including communities of color, will only be won through alliances based on grassroots militancy and organization. Grassroots militancy and organization come only when people are willing to put scarce time and energy into activism. They do so when they believe they have rights and entitlements, when they think they have some chance to win, and when their activity provides dignity and meaning.

How we organize—what we say, what we do—can foster these conditions. Which is the third point we are going to see more activism but no quick victories. Our organizing has to inspire and develop activists, preparing them for the long haul and enhancing their lives. Democratic participation has to be at the center of our organizations and our demands for change. In addition to demanding more funding, we should propose democratically run (worker and client-controlled), decentralized public services.

In the struggle to define the meaning of the popular rejection of command economies and bureaucratic states in Eastern Europe, the left will have to counter-pose to both market and bureaucracy a vision of self-managed socialism. The struggle for transformed public services can contribute to developing that vision in popular consciousness.

March-April 1990, ATC 25

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