Transforming democracy in times of crisis
Tithi Bhattacharya, Awino Okech, Khara Jabola-Carolus, Laura Roth and Felogene Anumo
21 August 2020
Our webinar Feminist Realities – Transforming democracy in times of crisis explored the ways the pandemic intersects with patriarchy, corporate power and a global division of labour that is both gendered and racialized. Can this crisis provide a window of opportunity to re-organize and shift power to build radical democratic systems that genuinely care for the environment and our collective well-being?
Tithi Bhattacharya Associate Professor of History and the Director of Global Studies at Purdue University and co-author of the manifesto Feminism for the 99%, opened the discussion by sharing two telling images of the crisis, the first of Palestinean farmers leaving free vegetables by the roadside for hungry people and the second of the Indian police hosing down migrant workers with bleach. Embodying two kinds of responses, the images speak of ordinary people engaging in sustaining, life-saving activities, and the carceral ways in which governments and states are attempting to manage the pandemic.
We can thank capitalism – including factory farming that contributed to the origins of COVID-19 – for bringing us to this crisis. A system that in its response is prioritizing profits over life, while remaining reluctantly dependent on the processes and institutions of life making. Capitalism relies on workers to produce commodities that are then sold to make profits and can therefore only survive if workers lives are reproduced continuously and reliably while being replaced generationally. Food, housing, public transport, public schools, and hospitals are all ingredients of life making that socially reproduce workers and their families. The level of access to these processes often determines the fate of working people as a whole, while women still perform the bulk of life making work globally. Despite its dependence on life, capitalism is reluctant to spend any portion of its profits on what sustains and maintains it. Care work is devalued, underpaid, or unpaid while institutions including schools and hospitals are privatized or underfunded.
Our world before COVID-19 was already ravaged when it came to gender. Care work in the home is still mostly done by women whose unpaid labour is worth ten trillion dollars globally. Professions that embody the spirit of care work, including teaching and nursing, employ large numbers of women and provide services and infrastructures that are not only vital to the production of life but also build capacities and attributes essential to the human condition.
Into this world of unequal wages, unenumerated labour and unmitigated gender violence came COVID-19. While temporary field hospitals were created to care for the sick, draconian immigration laws were somewhat temporarily relaxed and hotels were commandeered to house the homeless, governments around the world only responded to the virus once its spread was impossible to control with medical infrastructures. Ignoring years of scientific warnings of the risk of a pandemic, states around the world with the help of big pharma focused rather on building for-profit healthcare systems. In the US, the statistics of 2.7 hospital beds per 1000 people and 120 guns per 100 civilians show clear priorities.
This crisis has revealed what feminists have known all along, that the life making work of care performed mostly by women, including food production, nursing, cleaning and teaching is what sustains society and enables other work. However, in the US women represent 60 per cent of those laid off during the pandemic and nurses have had to work wearing garbage bags and swim goggles to protect themselves. In addition, the death rate is disproportionately skewed towards people of colour. Domestic violence is on the rise globally as women are forced to stay at home with known abusive partners and family members and immigrant women are being airlifted to work on Italian farms with no regard for social distancing rules. The recent opening of the economy has brought the struggle between life and wage. People are being forced to decide whether they can afford to stay safely at home and risk losing their jobs and subsequently healthcare for those living in the US.
As feminists, we must fight the return to capitalist business as usual. The ways we can do this and upend the dynamic of profit-making over life-making are apparent all around us in the mutual aid and solidarity networks led by ordinary people. The flourishing of the many over the prosperity of the few must be a priority over the blind drive to ecological devastation and gender violence that profit-making creates.
Awino Okech Lecturer at the Centre for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London, offered her perspective on how the rise and collisions of fascisms, fundamentalism and capitalism have limited and predetermined our practices of democracy and governance.
As we know, the pandemic has dramatically exposed the inequalities underwritten by racialized logics and mapped onto class and gender. The historical theft of races and the gutting of countries through economic processes is now evident for us all globally to see and we are facing a very particular challenge deeply connected to the ways in which our societies are structured. In the Global North, these realities have become much starker in the past five years with the overt mobilization and ascent to power of racist movements across Europe, the US, and parts of Latin America. Those in the Global South, particularly from the African continent, have long since been aware of how those particular government arrangements are propped up by an international political elite. This has been sold to us under the guise of preventing terrorism, dealing with migration issues and the need to have safer secure countries across border zones so we can prevent the movement of people from Africa into Europe. This discourse around terrorism, stable and secure countries is underwritten by the desire for the international political elite in collusion with the local political elite to sustain governance arrangements that benefit them and not the vast majority of citizens. As a result, voting has become a performance and citizen agency diminished due to the decisions of those sitting in parliaments largely determined by other actors, state as well as private and international capital. We now know that British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica intervened in a range of electoral processes and the ways in which the technology platforms we have become so used to using and the data that we willingly submit to them has become manipulated and mobilized for the interests of global capital and international and local elite. Renegotiating the social contract through democracy and location elections is no longer working for the vast majority.
What has been evident in Africa – Sudan, Burkina Faso and Egypt particularly – is that citizens are rising, unwilling to allow the farce of elections to be the core mechanism by which their futures and realities are determined. The anger we are now seeing in the Global North towards governance arrangements and ideas about democratization, elections, and voting has been witnessed in other parts of the world for many years, the narrative shaping undemocratic processes including ideas of cultural and racial faults. In this COVID-19 moment, those in the Global North are acutely aware that those in office are not responding to their needs, but rather to those of global capital and elites.
Feminist analysts and activists observing these global shifts have become aware of the questions of gender and sexuality as pivotal to how fascist movements are organizing and mobilizing. We see particular narratives around the persecution and withdrawal of queer and women’s rights by specific governments as opportunistic measures taken to prevent discussions on corruption and election fraud. The targeting of women, human rights defenders, and queer folk is part of the process by which fascist movements and far-right groups are rethinking the nature of the state. The conservative, ultra-nationalist ideas pursued by these groups are fundamentally informed and shaped by conservative, binary ideas of gender and sexuality. We must now reframe our own activism around the ways in which queer politics and women’s rights have been coopted into larger nationalist ideas and go back to the very foundational feminist idea that gender and sexuality are central to how our societies function.
We know from conflict scholars and literature on the transformation of societies during moments of conflict that these situations provide a tiny window – during the moment of moving from conflict to peace – for transforming and rewiring the ways in which societies think about gendered ideas. How can we as scholars, activists and people interested in visions of society that are grounded in freedom, equality and justice seize this opportunity? Rather than working in isolated pockets we must think critically around transnational solidarity and build stronger narratives and activist related work across the Global South that contextualizes a central narrative of change, transformation, justice and freedom.
Khara Jabola-Carolus Executive Director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women (HSCSW), co-founder of AF3IRM Hawaii (the Association of Feminists Fighting Fascism, Imperialism, Re-feudalization, and Marginalization) and author of Hawaii’s Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19, followed on from Awino to speak about the extent to which working within the state is effective in order to transform democracy from an inside government perspective.
In Hawaii, a settler-colonial state that has a long history of devastating impacts of infectious diseases, indigenous or native Hawaiian women have always been the worst impacted. Today Hawaii has been largely rendered unlivable by the ravages of tourism, luxury development and militarism that defines its economy. Most US states have a commission on the status of women, a tool left by feminists in the sixties to help advance the movement. The extent to which these commissions are actually feminist depends on their politics and the laws governing them. The HSCSW is the first and oldest in the US mandated to engage in politics and be a watchdog for women. Aiming to connect scholars with community theory building, the agency works as the main policy consultant for elected officials and government heads as well as fostering a trusting relationship with feminist activists and women in the state.
We are all witnessing the global rise of fascism and in Hawaii, in particular, the political class feels like a juggernaut of capitalism pushing to return to the old normal as quickly as possible. To try to counteract this the HSCSW has modeled a community based participatory process bringing together a group of diverse women focused on those most impacted by this crisis, colonized, native and transnational women who find few answers in western feminism and incrementalist solutions. The group has a shared understanding of the trauma of western colonization and how the pandemic and the ways communities are suffering from it traces back to western colonization, land loss and value and women as a global commodity.
Laura Roth Lecturer of legal and political philosophy at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, member of Minim Municipalist Observatory and co-author of the practice-oriented report Feminise Politics Now! gave an intervention focusing on radical possibilities of feminist democracy, political cooperation, and governance.
Practices to this end are already taking place in many cities and towns on different continents, shifting focus from states towards local politics as a strategy not only to find answers to this crisis but also to deeper systemic issues. The municipalist and feminist movements are key to achieving global change as both aim to change the structure of politics as well as influence policies.
Around the world, the pandemic responses show a trend towards centralization, top-down decision making and militarized discourses. Many responses we suggest propose decentralization and sharing power with communities and social movements, however in times of crisis fear makes people more willing to give up their freedoms and worry less about who is making decisions. We do see community responses multiplying in many countries and local governments dealing with most of the practical and complex consequences and impacts on the most vulnerable people.
Municipalism, although it has different meanings, does not suggest simply more autonomy for cities and towns to decide what’s best but is a political strategy aiming to build power from the bottom up enabling collaboration between social movements, communities and local governments. In Spain, municipalism implemented by many cities in 2015 was connected not only to new more democratic and feminist policies but also to changing political processes, linking to the anti-austerity movement. We see an incapacity of traditional representative politics to engage people and right-wing populism unfortunately able to mobilize people. How can we address this problem and bring people back to politics?
Feminism and municipalism focus on building power from the bottom up rather than trusting existing structures that reproduce existing privileges. Both movements treat people as subjects not objects of politics and recognize the complexity of the issues of this crisis not simply as matters of concrete policies or economic responses. In practice, we must think about how we can implement new structures of politics. Minim Municipalist Observatory has been gathering and publishing a series of reports on practices and discussions that are happening on the ground. Key issues regarding gender equality include not only in having more women in politics but also sharing responsibilities in terms of visibility and collective leadership. It is important to consider how we talk about issues in politics and move away from confrontative discourses towards collective discussions that resemble how communities speak and address their issues. Work on participatory democracy is taking place in many domains aiming to implement horizontal decision making structures that incentivize decentralization and in turn generate diverse ways of engaging people in politics, removing mechanisms that tend to favor the privileged.
A central issue in feminist politics is putting care at the forefront of our practices. Not only shifting the care work already being done to a public issue with more evenly distributed responsibility, but also bringing care into political relationships and every discourse and practice of political relations.
Felogene Anumo of Building Feminist Economies and The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) presented the #feministbailout campaign, an idea that emerged as soon as the scope and scale of the pandemic began to push corporations to align closely around bailout demands.
A critical message we see at this moment is a call to bail out people, not corporations. The #feministbailout campaign aims to interconnect feminist solutions and proposals that focus on the women, trans, and gender diverse people supporting the economy as part of a comprehensive global economic recovery agenda. The campaign builds on the feminist realities that already exist in the ways we live and the day to day struggles of our communities. The co-creation plan has involved coordinating a series of actions in English, French, and Spanish with over 1000 international feminist collectives, organizations, and individuals starting with a virtual street rally at the beginning of June. This action week connected and amplified existing campaigns and messages under the feminist bailout umbrella including climate justice, bodily autonomy, governance, resourcing, racial and economic justice. Demonstrating our collective power is key to making use of this crucial narrow window we have to ensure our diverse demands are better seen, heard, and taken on board. Fundamentally, the campaign aims to build and strengthen transnational solidarity and reframe feminist economies as the solution, not an alternative.
Moving on to consider the relationship between states and capitalism, Tithi provided a background of the early days of capitalism in the Global North. It is important to remember that original funding for the development of the industrial capitalist center of Manchester in the UK came from the slave trade, disregarding the stolen lives of Africans, as well as the British families who were put to work for fourteen-hour days. The result was a system with short term vision focusing on profit but also dependent on working lives. As states stepped in to regulate profits, ensuring they increased, social reproduction functions were stripped including public funding for health while carceral state functions escalated. Immigration borders were hardened and police violence increased. Playing a double role within the system, capitalism attempts to guarantee the reproduction of life in disproportionate ways while it militarizes and guarantees death in the same way, valuing life only to increase profit while reinforcing heteronormative families and racialized social logic. Until we can reach an ideal socialist society we must put pressure on the state to prioritize life over profit – funding more hospitals and schools over prisons – while taxing corporations properly. Work on the ground by movements of the marginalized is vital to shift state priorities.
In her final intervention, Awino spoke about stronger solidarity in concrete terms and how we can support real internationalism and coordinated anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic movements. Feminist funds in particular are providing less project and program-based funding and more strategic support of initiatives in the context which they work. This is a vital move away from feminist ideas that position those in the Global North with access to funds as the determinants of the agendas and initiatives in other parts of the world. How we are experiencing COVID-19 and other structural inequalities that preceded this moment are not felt in the same way, so being able to act as an ally while recognizing the ways in which privileges and position impacts conversations is an important step forward. Autonomous organizing is critical in allowing people to regroup, heal and care for themselves and has strengthened in this moment in terms of the ways communities have responded to funding initiatives, care and support. Building meaningful international solidarity means moving away from generalized ideas about capitalism and white supremacy. While borders are closing there are many examples of how activists have been able to work remotely, offering a chance to break out and build movements outside the development agenda and NGO logic.
Khara noted the many ways in which we can bring about cultural change across national and political differences. Advocating for legal change can set the tone and send a clear message from the government while emphasizing community education enables people to recognize gender inequality. We must educate in a ways that ties into empathy and storytelling in spaces that can facilitate these methods and create the conditions that help people understand the plight of women, femme identified, and nonbinary people.
Laura concluded the webinar by highlighting the importance of giving people a voice and trusting them to make the change themselves, facilitating learning by empowering people to become part of processes, and take responsibility. A more democratic culture develops by implementing and experiencing democracy in practice. Changing politics on the local level is a powerful way to engage people in a meaningful way to take part in the real practice of democracy connected to their lives and experiences.