Hay Festival: Essay from The Welsh Way – A Progressive Veneer: Neoliberal Feminism in Wales
At this year’s Hay Festival the author of The Story of Wales, Jon Gower; contributors Mabli Jones (Chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg), Catrin Ashton (Communist Party); and Huw Williams, one of the editors will be discussing The Welsh Way: Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution which was published by Parthian in 2021.
Challenging the rhetoric of Welsh Labour and its record in power – and the broader perception of the British left – its wide range of author-activists, practitioners and academics dissect the narratives, policies and assumptions that structure perceptions of our politics, and tackle the myth that Welsh politics is somehow more progressive than that of its neighbours.
In anticipation of the event Nation Cymru is publishing two of the essays this weekend, the second of which is by Mabli Siriol Jones.
Mabli Siriol Jones
On International Women’s Day 2018, First Minister Carwyn Jones declared his ambition to make the Welsh Government a ‘Feminist Government’.
Commenting on the ambition, he said there was ‘no point politicians being able to see a difference … members of the public need to see that something positive is being done to their lives’.
The reality since devolution, however, is that the various commitments and policy initiatives towards gender equality have had minimal material impact on most women’s lives.
This is because politics and policymaking in Wales are captured by the neoliberal consensus, and feminism as practised by the political class is no exception.
The feminism that has been dominant in Welsh public life, as in the UK and other western states, is a neoliberal feminism, aiming for the advancement of individual women within the existing neoliberal framework, rather than a genuinely emancipatory project committed to dismantling that framework and securing justice for all.
Nancy Fraser argues that the hegemonic political worldview in western states over recent decades has been progressive neoliberalism.
This is defined as a political consensus combining a neoliberal politics of distribution (financialisaton, deregulation and privatisation) with a progressive politics of recognition (increased social status for oppressed groups, such as women, LGBT people and people of colour).
Fraser argues that in order for neoliberalism to become truly hegemonic in states shaped by the post-war economic consensus and the social movements of the 1960s, it needed the gloss of progressive recognition politics.
This combination allowed neoliberalism to triumph, and it has dominated since.
It is only recently, following the financial crisis, that this consensus has begun to shatter, with the rise of outsider populist politics on the right and left.
As Fraser identifies, feminism has played a large part in this project of progressive neoliberalism.
This is due in part to the unwitting perversion of some of its central tenets, and in part to the championing of a certain kind of feminism by privileged women based on their personal advancement relative to men of their own class.
Feminism has become, in Fraser’s words, the ‘handmaiden’ of neoliberalism, which ‘turns a sow’s ear into a silk purse by elaborating a narrative of female empowerment’.
Neoliberal feminism is characterised by a reformist approach to existing social structures, seeking the advancement of individual women within those structures rather than fundamental change for all.
It is therefore pre-occupied with representation, having women in visible leadership positions within high status workplaces, such as politics, the media and boardrooms. Its agent is the individual and her empowerment, rather than the collective.
It locates oppression primarily in the interpersonal, rather than the structural.
It operates by ‘raising awareness’ and attempting to change attitudes and behaviours, rather than the material conditions and social relations that give rise to them.
It is process-oriented and imagines that inequality can be tackled by changing institutions’ procedures, rather than questioning the power imbalances inherent in those institutions themselves.
Its theory of change rests on the assumption that promoting more women into positions of power will lead to improvements in everyone else’s lives – a ‘trickle-down feminism’ mirroring the trickle-down economics of neoliberalism.
Analysis of power
Crucially, it does not have an analysis of power itself – a word that is usually absent from its lexicon, which prefers the language of ‘equality’, ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’.
It situates the achievement of feminist aims in the actions of a benevolent state that will (someday, if we get the right people into power) address the needs and concerns of women.
Above all, in Fraser’s terms, it prioritises recognition over redistribution: changing attitudes and women’s social status rather than the allocation of wealth, power and resources.
Neoliberal feminism speaks to the concerns of a class of women for whom being a feminist becomes another lifestyle label, rather than a political praxis; a way to prove one’s progressive credentials while securing one’s own advancement.
These are predominantly wealthy, white, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender and heterosexual women; women who benefit from existing social structures, despite the disadvantages they encounter due to their gender.
They therefore tend to privilege gendered oppression above other forms, as that is the only, or primary, oppression they experience. This is nothing new. The history of mainstream feminism is one of exclusions, and the use of feminism to secure the class position of certain women relative to their male counterparts.
Neoliberalism has been able to use feminism because these schisms already existed.
Women at the top have long been content to secure their own position at the expense, and by using the labour, of working-class women, often drawn from communities of colour and the Global South.
As a result, the primary political purpose of neoliberal feminism, unwi-tingly or not, is to reinforce neoliberalism as the dominant mode of ordering society by giving it a progressive veneer.
The truth is there will never be equality for women (or any oppressed group) under neoliberalism, as it is a system based on the exploitation of women’s unpaid labour and tearing apart the social fabric within which women’s material conditions can be improved, and where the comfort and wealth of some comes at the expense of many others.
Yet as Fraser notes, the neoliberal consensus is fracturing everywhere.
Feminism must ask itself what its role will be in what takes its place.
Neoliberal Feminism in Wales
Wales has been radically reshaped and deeply scarred by neoliberalism and its processes of deindustrialisation, austerity and privatisation.
As Gabriel Winant has noted, it is those who bear the brunt of neoliberalism who also have to manage its consequences, particularly women in working-class communities, deindustrialised areas and communities of colour.
As neoliberalism destroys the notion of the collective and cuts back on social provision, women experience increasing poverty and precarity and have to pick up the pieces through unpaid care and the feminised workforces of the caring professions.
This is illustrated by the fact that 86% of the reductions in public spending through cuts to welfare and tax changes under austerity came from women.
One in four people in Wales lives in poverty and for single parents (90% of whom are women) the figure is 44%.
Women are more likely to be in insecure employment, and 41% work part time.
They make up the bulk of the workforce in the caring professions, as 80% of workers in health and social work and 66% of the education workforce.
They are therefore on the frontlines of managing the vicious circle of increased need and reduced capacity in public services due to cuts, privatisation and the inequality and human misery generated by neoliberalism.
In a country with an ageing population and high levels of disability and long-term illness, they also provide the bulk of unpaid care, doing 60% more unpaid care work than men and making up 59% of those providing family care.
The Covid-19 pandemic and recession have exacerbated all these issues and underlying structural trends – economic, social, demographic – mean they will only intensify in future.
Short on detail
Yet 20 years of devolved policy on gender equality has prioritised recognition over redistribution and attempted, with little success, to manage the impact of neoliberalism on women’s lives.
Due to the focus on recognition over redistribution, the framework for ‘equalities’ policy under neoliberal governance is to treat it as an area apart, with little influence on major policy areas.
The Welsh Government is typical in this regard. The approach is incrementalist, managerialist and focused on processes, with the neoliberal tendency to generate new forms of bureaucracy with little real value.
The language used reflects the managerialist approach: people have ‘protected characteristics’, they are ‘stakeholders’ or ‘service users’.
Policy interventions tend towards creating new procedures, training programmes and awareness-raising campaigns, as was evident in the response by Senedd politicians to the Me Too revelations of sexual harassment in politics.
The actions taken concentrated on awareness-raising, strengthening complaints procedures and ‘Dignity and Respect’ policies, without a deeper reckoning or acknowledgement that these would be inadequate in a workplace with vast and inherent power imbalances and limited labour rights.
The rhetoric on gender equality does not match the reality, as demonstrated by the government’s Advancing Gender Equality in Wales Plan on how it will fulfil the feminist government ambition.
While accepting the need for far-reaching change, the plan is short on detail, light on action, heavy with managerialist language and focused on instituting new processes rather than substantive policy change.
Meanwhile, the government’s flagship gender equality legislation has also fallen short.
The Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Act was heralded as ‘world-leading’ when it was introduced in 2015, but its interventions focus on training and procedures and implementation has been painfully slow. Funding of the sector is piecemeal and short-term, provision is patchy and services are stretched.
Austerity has made women both more vulnerable to abuse and less able to access support – what’s needed above all is significant investment in the sector.
This failure has a human cost: in 2019–20, 574 people were turned away from domestic abuse services and 251 were on waiting lists for rape crisis support.
A common thread through the missed opportunities to materially advance gender equality is a lack of class analysis and aversion to redistribution.
The Welsh Government’s Childcare Offer, which funds 30 hours of childcare to working parents of 3 and 4-year-olds, is a key example.
Parents who aren’t in work are excluded, with the result that the offer benefits some of Wales’ wealthiest families while giving nothing to the poorest.
Anti-poverty organisations, opposition politicians and the Children’s Commissioner called for the offer to be extended to all parents, but the government refused to change direction.
The episode demonstrated how deeply wedded the government is to neoliberal doctrine, including the aversion to universalism, increasing conditionality in welfare and public services and the belief in work as the route out of poverty and a good in itself.
This thinking has also been evident in its opposition to the devolution of welfare administration, despite the fact this would allow it to offset some of the harmful elements of Universal Credit, such as allowing payments to more than one member of the household, rather than the current primary earner policy that leaves women financially dependent on their spouses and more vulnerable to abuse.
Likewise, the government’s refusal to move away from the current model of for-profit social care provision towards a universal and free publicly owned service shows a lack of understanding of the material benefit this would have to women who, as well as providing the majority of unpaid care, make up 83% of workers in a sector where low pay, precarity and exploitation are widespread.
This lack of class analysis is also behind much of main-stream feminism’s approach to sex work, with an inability to understand sex work as work and the material realities that lead people to sell sex.
This includes support from gender equality organisations and politicians for the ‘Nordic model’ that criminalises the purchase of sex, rather than decriminalisation and labour rights for sex workers.
The Nordic model makes sex workers less safe and rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives a lot of sex work – which is sex workers’ need to make money.
This has led to bizarre alliances, including the Welsh Government backing the introduction of equivalent legislation in the UK to a Trump administration law that shut down sex work websites and drove workers underground into more dangerous practices.
Contrasted with the lack of a focus on redistribution is the fixation on representation in discussions of gender equality since devolution.
Much has been made of the fact that the Senedd was one of the first parliaments in the world to achieve 50/50 representation in 2003.
A Cardiff University study is often cited for the claim that this made for better policy development, noting women were more likely to raise gender equality issues.
Yet as the examples given above show, it is not clear that this has led to improved outcomes for most women.
The drive for 50/50 representation has continued however, with the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform recommending in 2017 that the Senedd introduce a legal quota to ensure 50% of representatives would be women and 50% men.
This was welcomed despite the perverse implication that Wales would therefore be introducing a ceiling on women’s representation and ensuring protected seats for men.
It is a fallacy to assume that women are naturally kinder, more level-headed and ethical actors in positions of leadership.
It is a particularly bizarre claim in a country whose social safety net was unpicked most radically by its first female prime minister, and whose second created the hostile environment.
To argue otherwise is to accept that women are somehow not full political actors in the same way as men – people who can advance a range of political projects, and their own interests, in positions of power.
Any discussion of women and power that neglects an analysis of power itself – or treats it as a neutral sphere, a tool that is wielded better somehow by women – is inherently superficial and flawed.
History shows that women are just as capable as men of upholding oppressive systems where they benefit from those systems themselves.
It is, of course, essential that women participate fully in decision-making structures, and it is obvious that is not currently happening.
This is not adequately addressed, however, by the suppositions of a feminism that focuses on representation to the detriment of other issues and talks more about the sexism female politicians face than the structural barriers that shut others out. Quotas do not solve a problem at its root, they just put in place mechanisms at the end of a system to change its output.
They therefore mainly benefit women who are already near the top of these systems, and the issues these women are more likely to care about or understand will reflect their own experiences and class position.
These mechanisms will not necessarily lead to improvements in most people’s lives, as they leave unaddressed the question of who will be put in power and what they will do with it.
They do not address deeper questions of how power is distributed and wielded, or advocate for real democratisation of institutions that disenfranchise the majority.
Wales’ ‘progressive consensus’ has often been lauded, but it is precisely on those issues where that consensus appears to be most well-established that political commitment is at its most shallow.
Politics is the field of contestation, and consensus achieved without contestation tends to be around quite hollow ideals, as they are those that do not represent a threat to the established order.
Political consensus around ‘gender equality’ amounts to a general idea that equality (ill-defined and broadly conceived) is a good thing, and few policies go beyond increased representation.
Demands for redistributive policies are dismissed and ‘gender equality’ and ‘feminism’ become floating signifiers, empty of the commitments that would make them transformative.
This shallow consensus has meant that Welsh politics and mainstream feminism has been inadequately prepared to answer the challenge from the growth of anti-feminist
This has been evident in the fifth Senedd with the election of more than one representative who has endorsed the ideas and language of the alt-right; the backlash to the Me Too movement and the use of anti-feminism in the Plaid Cymru leadership election with the claim that Leanne Wood was too focused on the ‘niche issues’ of the oppressed.
Reactionary politics feeds off the wounds and resentments generated by neoliberalism, telling those for whom progressive neoliberalism has failed to secure improvements in their lives that it is its politics of recognition, not redistribution, that is to blame.
The answer from neoliberal feminism tends to be dismissal or ridicule, as it struggles to articulate a more robust defence of its programme that has, after all, neglected redistributive policies that would have a material benefit to men as well as women. Wales has many characteristics that make it fertile ground for reactionary political currents: a small and exclusive political class, low levels of political engagement and a weak media and public sphere.
The response to anti-feminism, which is often at the vanguard of reactionary political projects, does not bode well for the response to other reactionary projects in future, including the growing anti-devolution movement.
The Welsh political class appears ill-equipped to meet these challenges, or even understand them.
Towards an Alternative Feminism
We live in a moment of deepening and cross-cutting crises, lived every day in the experiences of those in our society who cannot insulate themselves through wealth. Neoliberal feminism cannot help when you are unable to feed your children without the aid of a food bank, shafted from one underpaid job to another and navigating the cruel and arcane processes of decimated public services.
Where are these women in the narratives and concerns of neoliberal feminism?
Its women tend to be those who have risen to the top, or the girls who need encouragement that with hard work they can get there too.
When working-class or marginalised women appear, it is usually as an afterthought or in a paternalistic frame that presents middle-class liberal feminists as their saviours.
They are never agents in their own right, nor comrades in struggle. They are women to be ‘empowered’ by their benevolent feminist leaders, not people who find ways to survive, resist and even triumph within a system engineered against them.
Neoliberal feminism will never lead to emancipation because it precludes the only way we get there – through struggle, together.
We urgently need to rebuild feminist politics on a different foundation. This should be based on a fundamental rejection of neoliberalism and reclaiming the collective good.
This feminism must centre an analysis of power: how it works, who has it and what they do with it.
Rather than ‘equality’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’, we need to talk about dismantling and sharing power, and wielding it for our own ends.
Margin to centre
We must work, in the words of bell hooks, ‘from margin to centre’, starting from the needs of the most marginalised. The woman imprisoned for protecting herself from her abuser; the woman made destitute by our immigration system; the woman turning to sex work due to the inadequacy of Universal Credit.
This is a feminism that would talk less about promoting individual women within institutions and more about transforming those institutions to serve the rest of us. This is not a feminism that can be generated or led by politicians or NGOs; it must be built from the ground up, as part of a project to democratise society.
While rejecting progressive neoliberalism, we must also reject a certain brand of leftism that dismisses ‘identity politics’ and says the rights of women and marginalised people are ‘distractions’ from the only true struggle, class struggle.
This dismisses decades of Marxist thought on gender, race and imperialism, as well as the needs of working-class people who experience multiple forms of op-pression. As Fraser reminds us, justice requires both recognition and redistribution.
This means a real commitment to intersectionality and situating feminism within a broader movement for social, economic and climate justice.
It is feminism as a project for the redistribution of wealth and power, and socialism that puts feminism, anti-racism and anti-imperialism at its heart, understanding that there is no liberation for some, without liberation for all.
Despite the ravages of neoliberalism, a long tradition of communitarianism and radical activism still exists in Wales.
A truly feminist government would use this to reject the neoliberal consensus and reorientate the economy and society around care – the antithesis of neoliberal economics.
The confrontation between capital and the stubborn human need for care has been brought to the fore by the Covid-19 pandemic and will only increase with current trends.
The caring professions were on the frontlines of Covid-19, with the pandemic exposing both the damage of decades of neoliberal reforms to these services, and that they are the true creators of value in our society.
Reproductive labour of all kinds has been undervalued precisely because it is done for free by women and is one of capitalism’s foundational sites of exploitation. Yet care is resistant to automation and our need for it will only grow.
This need should be met by high-quality universal services, not unpaid labour and for-profit provision.
Rejecting neoliberalism and centring a politics of care can help us weave together the commitments and solidarities we need to build an alternative.
The neoliberal order is fragmenting and what takes its place is undecided.
As Fraser argues, this can lead to ever more reactionary politics, or a progressive project for recognition and redistribution.
Neoliberal feminism has shown itself incapable of delivering justice. Drawing on a rich counter current of feminist scholarship and activism, we must turn to something else – a political project working for the liberation of all women from violence and exploitation within a wider movement for a radically different society, one based on the realisation of care, dignity and joy for all.
We need a different kind of feminism that will demand, and win, much more.
Mabli Siriol Jones is from Grangetown, Cardiff. She has worked in politics and as a campaigner for LGBT rights and reform of the asylum system. She is the current Chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith.
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