Could postcapitalism be the great leveller?

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A number of times recently I’ve been struck by what a male-dominated field economics is. Reading Yanis Varoufakis’ book The Global Minotaur and Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, it often appears that the story of capitalism is a story of men, of their labour and capital.

Silvia Federici in her book Caliban and the Witch examines the impact of developing capitalism on women’s lives, describing how as men lost access to land, the concept of their ‘ownership’ of women developed, how as people moved into cities and trades, women were excluded from many of the higher paid, skilled jobs and excluded from the prestigious guilds. The major premise of her book is that the witch hunts of the 17th century were an assault on women’s economic position, intended to crush women’s resistance to enclosures and subject them to early capitalism.

I started writing this post sitting in the Blackbird Cafe, where a number of men and women are at their laptops working – all of them potentially part of the “universally educated” group that Mason believes could be engineers of postcapitalism. If such societies are going to be up to the task of tackling questions of growth over sustainability, the delivery of basic social goals, migration, women’s liberation and demographic ageing, as Mason claims they will, then the full instatement of women into the process becomes imperative.

With this in mind, I was interested by an interview I heard on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday with Oxford University’s Prof Jane Humphries and Polly Trenow of the Women’s Budget Group that picked up on Yvette Cooper’s claim that “a really feminist approach to the way the economy works” is needed.

Humphries describes feminist economics as offering

“a critical evaluation of economics as a discipline. It questions the extent to which economics is positive and objective and it shows how its models and methods are biased towards masculine perspectives and masculine topics. And this has left economics ill-suited to the study of certain issues and processes where culture and historical context may be important, for example. And these are often issues which are of particular concern to women. A second strand of feminist economics is a focus on topics of particular relevance to women such as care work, unpaid work in the home, the gendered effects of austerity, the persistence of glass ceilings.

The major contribution of feminist economics had been to draw attention to the imbalance within the theory and the adverse implications it has for economic analysis, Humphries told presenter James Naughtie, agreeing with his summing up that “the theoretical basis of economic thinking and argument tends to ignore a perspective which touches on women’s lives and that means that it’s skewed in the way that it describes our society”.

Trenow, who works with the Women’s Budget Group, explained how the organisation advocates for policies aimed at making the economy more equal.

We want to see a balance of investment in physical infrastructure like roads and rail with social infrastructure, so investing in hospitals and care homes, which will help women, but will also help men who are carers too. We want to see things like helping work fit flexibly around people’s caring and family responsibilities.

Humphries concluded that the view we have of how society works is “certainly not complete and probably also misguided. [A] massive amount of constructive, useful work is actually completely undervalued and has little esteem attached to it, for example.”

These strike me as important perspectives to take into account if we are to design a transition to postcapitalism that delivers social justice as Mason envisages. Drawing on ideas outlined in The Fragment of Machines, Mason argues that Karl Marx had “at least imagined” a route to postcapitalism based on the rise of information technology. I’ve yet to read how Mason applies Marx’s “revolutionary idea“ about “a kind human being able to deploy the entire, accumulated knowledge of society; a person transformed by vast quantities of socially produced knowledge and for the first time in history more free time than work time”

We will know when postcapitalism has happened, Mason argues, “if a large number of goods become cheap or free, but people go on producing them regardless of market forces. We’ll know it’s underway once the blurred relationship between work and leisure and between hours and wages, becomes institutionalized.”

This postcapitalist reconstitution of humanity, work and life could present a remarkable opportunity, opening up space where genuine equality could be negotiated and structured – between all women and men. The critique of economics could provide vital insight as to how economics has been skewed towards men, but evidently more than a women’s ‘arm’ of economics is needed. Something like the approach that the activists in Madrid implemented, of instating a diversity of women’s perspectives at the core of the process, would be needed.

Of course, the movement towards a society which incorporates non-paid work could be particularly perilous for women who already shoulder a great deal of responsibility as non-paid workers, and there’s always the possibility that, as with previous cycles of capitalism, women could suffer in the struggle over limited resources. But what could be achieved if postcapitalism acts as a leveller between all men and women, and presents us with a location from which a more just society could be created?

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