This book is an invitation for further exploration of the intersections of socialism and feminism.
Some might think that having better sex is a trivial reason to switch economic systems. But turn on the television, open a magazine, or surf the internet, and you will find a world saturated with sex. Capitalism has no problem commodifying sexuality and even preying on our relationship insecurities to sell us products and services we don’t want or need. Neoliberal ideologies persuade us to view our bodies, our attentions, and our affections as things to be bought and sold.
INTRODUCTION: YOU MIGHT BE SUFFERING FROM CAPITALISM
The argument of this book can be summed up succinctly: Unregulated capitalism is bad for women, and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives. If done properly, socialism leads to economic independence, better labor conditions, better work and family balance, and, yes, even better sex. Finding a way into a better future requires learning from the mistakes of the past, including a thoughtful assessment of the history of twentieth-century state socialism in Eastern Europe.
For those women lucky enough to sit at the top of the income distribution, the system works pretty well.
Capitalism thrives on women’s unpaid labor in the home because women’s care work supports lower taxes (není třeba peníze na školky, péči o důchodce). Lower taxes mean higher profits for those already at the top of the income ladder—mostly men.
Some young people today joke about “full communism now.” Leftist millennials might not know about (or prefer to ignore) the real horrors inflicted on citizens in one-party states. Gruesome tales of the secret police, travel restrictions, consumer shortages, and labor camps are not just anticommunist propaganda. Our collective future depends on a balanced examination of the past so we can discard the bad and move forward with the good, especially where women’s rights are concerned.
In East Germany, Scandinavia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, political leaders supported the idea of women’s emancipation through their full incorporation into the labor force. These ideas soon spread to China, Cuba, and a wide variety of newly independent countries across the globe. Experiments with female economic independence fueled the twentieth-century women’s movement and resulted in a revolution in the life paths open to women previously confined to the domestic sphere. And nowhere in the world were there more women in the workforce than under state socialism. Understanding the demands of reproductive biology, they also attempted to socialize domestic work and child care by building a network of public crèches, kindergartens, laundries, and cafeterias. Extended, job-protected maternity leaves and child benefits allowed women to find at least a modicum of work/family balance.
The majority of Albanian women were illiterate before the imposition of socialism in 1945. Just ten years later, the entire population under forty could read and write, and by the 1980s half of Albania’s university students were women.
In countries such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and East Germany, women’s economic independence translated into a culture in which personal relationships could be freed from market influences. Women didn’t have to marry for money.
Women’s rights in the Eastern Bloc failed to include a concern for same-sex couples and gender nonconformity. Abortion served as a primary form of birth control in the countries where it was available on demand. State socialist governments suppressed discussions of sexual harassment, domestic violence, and rape. And although they tried to get men involved in housework and child care, men largely resisted challenges to traditional gender roles. In no country were women’s rights promoted as a project to support women’s individualism or self-actualization. Instead, the state supported women as workers and mothers so they could participate more fully in the collective life of the nation.
Across Eastern Europe, post-1989 nationalists argued that capitalist competition would relieve women of the notorious double burden and restore familial and societal harmony by allowing men to reassert their masculine authority as breadwinners. However, this meant that men could once again wield financial power over women. Women in Eastern Europe are once again commodities to be bought and sold—their price determined by the fickle fluctuations of supply and demand. We live surrounded by newly opened porno shops, porno magazines, peepshows, stripteases, unemployment, and galloping poverty. In the press they call Budapest ‘the city of love, the Bangkok of Eastern Europe.’ Prague is an epicenter of the European porn industry.
Conservative cold warriors will counter any attempt to complicate the history of twentieth-century state socialism with screaming about Stalin’s famines and purges. In their imagination, the entire experience of state socialism consisted of people standing in bread lines and snitching on their neighbors to the secret police. For seventy years in the Soviet Union and forty-five years in Eastern Europe, totalitarian leaders apparently shuttled everyone back and forth between labor camps and prisons, a godless Orwellian nightmare where people wore grey, unisex Mao suits and sported shaved heads. If babies were born, it’s not because people chose to start families, but because the Party mass-inseminated the population to meet predetermined human production quotas.
“Do you want a salary raise? You are communist. Do you want public services? Do you want to tax the rich and ease the burden on small producers and wage earners? You are a communist and you killed my grandparents. Do you want public transportation instead of highways? You are mega-communist and a [stupid] hipster.”
George Orwell once wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Conservatives will do anything to suppress evidence that socialist experiments in the twentieth century (despite their collapse) did some good things for women, including policies that have been and can be implemented in democratic societies: paid maternity leaves, publicly funded child care, shorter and more flexible work weeks, free postsecondary education, universal health care, and other programs that would help both men and women to lead less precarious and more fulfilling lives. (If I want to own my snow blower in common with my neighbors, it must be because I’m secretly hoping they’ll get sent to the Gulag.)
Millennials and members of generation Z reject the Cold War baggage of their elders who once proclaimed, “Better dead than Red!” Young people wonder whether their lives would be less harried, insecure, and stressful if the government took a more active role in redistribution.
Young women in particular have little to lose and much to gain from a collective effort to build more just, equitable, and sustainable societies.
WOMEN—LIKE MEN, BUT CHEAPER: ON WORK
Married West German women could not work outside the home without their husband’s permission until 1957. Laws prohibiting married women from entering into contracts without their husbands’ permission persisted in the United States until the 1960s. Women in Switzerland didn’t earn the right to vote at the federal level until 1971.
“Under the capitalist system women found themselves worse off than men,” Bernard Shaw wrote in 1928, “because, as Capitalism made a slave of the man, and then by paying women through him, made her his slave, she became the slave of a slave, which is the worst sort of slavery.”
Think about it: Why do cheap diners always have waitresses, but expensive restaurants often have male waiters? In the comfort of our own homes, most of us grow up being served by women: grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, and sometimes daughters. But being served by men is rare, as is having men look after our basic needs. We pay a premium to have a man serve us our dinner because we perceive this service as more valuable, even if all he does is set a plate in front of you and grind fresh pepper onto your filet mignon. Similarly, although women have fed humanity for millennia, men dominate the culinary world. Apparently, customers prefer a side of testosterone with their mashed potatoes.
In the past, women understood the general public valued their work less and took steps to mitigate against the effects of discrimination. Charlotte Brontë published her early novels under the pen name Currer Bell, and Mary Anne Evans wrote as George Eliot. More recently, both J. K. Rowling and E. L. James published books using their initials to obscure their gender. In Rowling’s case, her publisher asked her to do this to attract boy readers who might reject a book written by a woman.
In many countries women had no choice; they were forced to work when their children were old enough to go to kindergarten. And women in state socialist countries suffered the double burden of housework and formal employment (a problem very familiar to many working women today).
According to a report from OECD, the Scandinavian countries lead the world not only in terms of gender equality but also in terms of public sector employment. This is no coincidence. In 2015, 30 percent of total employment in Norway was government employment, 29.1 percent in Denmark, 28.6 percent in Sweden, and 24.9 percent in Finland. The United Kingdom, by contrast, employed only 16.4 percent of its total employed population in the public sector, and in the United States this figure was 15.3 percent. Even more remarkable is that women account for around 70 percent of all public employees in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, and the OECD average is 58 percent. The authors of the report explain women’s overrepresentation in the public sector partially because teachers and nurses are female-dominated professions, but also because of “more flexible working conditions in the public than in the private sector. For example, in sixteen OECD countries the public sector offers more child and family care arrangements than the private sector.”
Economists and legislators will have to debate the details, but given that as of 2017, just eight men own the same amount of wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity, redistribution is going to come in one form or another. Current levels of inequality are unsustainable in the long term.
An acute crisis of overproduction and underconsumption looms on the horizon.
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING EXPLOITATION: ON MOTHERHOOD
In particular, the East German government idealized early motherhood and built special “mother-and-child” housing at universities where students could live with their babies. East German woman had their first child by the age of twenty-four, which meant she avoided the fertility decline associated with delayed childbearing. The government heavily subsidized housing, children’s clothing, basic foods, and other expenses associated with child rearing, as well as providing women with access to child care whenever they needed it.
No business wants to be known as the one with the generous maternity leave policies because it fears that the women most likely to have babies will flock to it over its competitors. But if the law requires that all companies must offer the same job-protected leave, then many employers would be willing to support these policies. It would mean they could hire the most promising job candidates and invest in training them with a high degree of certainty that they would reap the benefits of that training. Thus, the only way to ensure that all women benefit from these policies (not just wealthier, professional women working in already enlightened companies) is to have the full weight of the federal, state, or local government behind them.
Why should the government pay for something that we can get women to do for free?
In the United States, these years out of the labor force hurt mothers in a variety of ways: lost income, being passed over for promotions, less money toward social security or retirement, and increased economic dependence on men. Of course some women want to stay at home, and this should remain a choice, as long as staying home to do care work does not entail financial dependence.
Motherhood—which should be such a source of joy—has devolved into a crushing burden for so many women.
PANTSUITS ARE NOT ENOUGH: ON LEADERSHIP
My daughter learned that a well-qualified woman with years of relevant experience could lose an election to a celebrity businessman with no governmental experience.
Capitalist economies create an ever-growing wealth gap between those who own the means of production and those who must sell their labor for less than the value it creates in order to meet their basic needs.
Quotas were first introduced in Norway in 2003; companies faced dissolution if they did not diversify their boards. For large firms, a full 40 percent of board seats needed to go to women. As a result, the European Commission decided in 2017 to push for an EU-wide law requiring that large companies in all member states impose a 40 percent quota for women on corporate boards.
Both executive men and women, as well as men and women in politics, often build their careers on the backs of poorer women: the nannies, au pairs, cooks, cleaners, home health aides, nurses, and personal assistants to whom they outsource their care work. Policies to help women get to the top always must be combined with practical steps to help those women struggling at the bottom, or they simply exacerbate existing inequalities.
The only way for girls to see women in positions of power is to find a way to challenge the political and economic cultures that prevent their participation in the first place.
CAPITALISM BETWEEN THE SHEETS: ON SEX (PART I)
“According to sexual economics theory,” Baumeister and Mendoza explain, “when women lack direct or easy access to resources such as political influence, health care, money, education, and jobs then sex becomes a crucial means by which women can gain access to a good life, and so it is vital to female self-interest to keep the price of sex high.” Women do this by reducing the supply (no more casual sex), which drives the price up.
According to the ideologues over at the Austin Institute, young men these days are camping out in their parent’s basements, playing video games, and subsisting on Domino’s pizza because cheap sex is just a text away. When women have no birth control, the price of sex is higher. When women have no access to abortion, the price is higher still. When women have fewer educational or economic opportunities outside of their relationships with men, the price for sex is usually marriage. When the price of sex is very high, according to this worldview, sex-starved men have incentives to go out and get jobs, earn money, and make something of their lives so they can buy access to a woman’s sexuality for life through marriage. In cultures with more men than women, for instance, economists have shown that there is a higher rate of male entrepreneurship. When the price of sex is too low, however, men have no intrinsic incentive to do anything productive.
Marriage reduced women to the status of property of their husbands.
TO EACH ACCORDING TO HER NEEDS: ON SEX (PART II)
A survey of women’s sexual practices conducted by the Gewis-Institut, Hamburg, for Neue Revue reported that 80 percent of Eastern women always experienced orgasm, compared to 63 percent of women in the West. Women’s greater sensual enjoyment was linked to women’s economic independence and self-confidence.
There were also other factors that contributed to the differences in sexual cultures. In the first place, the church played a much stronger role in regulating morality and sexuality in the West than in the secular and atheist East. West German culture certainly embraced the traditional gender roles of the Protestant and Catholic churches to a much greater extent than the East. Second, the authoritarian nature of the GDR regime foreclosed the public sphere to East Germans, and they responded by retreating into the private sphere, where they constructed cozy, unideological private lives as a way to find refuge from the otherwise omnipresent state. Third, there was less to do in the East compared to the many commercial distractions available in the West, so people probably had more time for sex. And finally, the East German regime encouraged people to enjoy their sex lives as a way of distracting them from the monotony and relative deprivation of the socialist economy and the travel restrictions. Gays and lesbians, although not overtly persecuted, lived circumscribed lives confined to the private sphere. And as much as the state tried to convince men to help out in the home, East German women still performed the majority of domestic work. Childbearing was considered a duty of East German women, and socialists tended to view sex as something that would eventually lead to marriage and children. Finally, even if they wanted sex to be pleasurable for both men and women, the state was never in favor of unbridled promiscuity or “hedonistic” sex. Sex was supposed to be an expression of love and affection between equal comrades.
The skyrocketing incidence of depression and anxiety are the negative externalities of a system that reduces human worth to its exchange value. Whether we like it or not, capitalism commodifies almost every aspect of our private lives, as sexual economics theory predicts. Personal relationships take time and energy that few of us have to spare as we scramble to make ends meet in the precarious gig economy. We are often exhausted and drained, unwilling to invest the emotional resources necessary to maintain loving relationships without compensation.
Many will argue that there is nothing morally wrong with sex work, and it should be legalized, protected, unionized, and fairly compensated for those who freely choose to seek employment in this sector of the economy. Sex work existed long before the advent of capitalism, it continued to varying degrees throughout the state socialist countries, and it will no doubt exist in some form well into the future. But much overt sex work, as well as the subtler forms of commodified sexuality for sale, is the result of an economic system that provides little material security for women, and encourages all people to turn everything they have (their labor, their reputations, their emotions, their bodily fluids and ova, and so forth) into a product that can be sold on a market where prices are determined by the caprices of supply and demand. This form of amorous exchange is not sex-positive empowerment for women, but a desperate attempt to survive in a world with few social safety nets.
Critics of the American health care system often point out that employer-based health care traps workers in jobs they hate because the costs of individual plans are so prohibitive. But rarely is it mentioned that dependent wives are also trapped in their marriages because our health care system gives them access to medical care through their husbands. In the case of divorce, a woman loses access to her ex-husband’s employer-based plan, leaving her to fend for herself.
FROM BARRICADES TO BALLOT BOXES: ON CITIZENSHIP
If you spend any time on the internet reading the blogs of “men’s rights” activists, you will find that they rely heavily on Lott and Kenny’s 1999 article to support their claims that women should no longer vote (although really, you’re probably better off reading dog food labels than reading men’s rights blogs).
Redistributive policies are a better guarantor of women’s independence than the unbridled free market.
Desperate to discredit the political demands of “social justice warriors,” opponents will shout about the purges, famines, and Gulag, arguing that voter-supported attempts to build a universal, single-payer health care system or a national network of quality child care facilities will inevitably lead this country down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism.
Today, millennials and members of generation Z view democratic socialism as an answer to their many frustrations—one less libido-inhibiting than selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (antidepresiva).
Millennials embrace socialism because they are “tired of the unequal world they inherited.”
These days it seems the market is a tool used by the super-rich to increase their wealth, which they use to buy influence and power over the government, that is pretending to represent the people, just as state socialist governments in Eastern Europe once did the bidding of dictators and high-ranking elites while pretending to work for the good of the people.
When programs like Social Security and Medicare disappear because the government can no longer afford to pay for them, all of the care work needed to look after our parents will descend onto the shoulders of women who are already at home because they can’t afford day care for their children. And without some form of universal health care, future cuts to Medicaid will mean that more and more Americans will need constant care at home, waited on, no doubt, by their daughters, mothers, sisters, and wives. With women responsible for a growing heap of care work in the private sphere, their autonomy will shrink, and they will find themselves economically dependent and helpless to leave unsatisfying, violent, or emotionally abusive relationships.
Reclaim your time, emotional energy, and self-worth from the reductive logic of capitalism. You are not a commodity. Your depression and anxiety are not just chemical imbalances in your brain but reasonable responses to a system that thrives on your dehumanization. As Mark Fisher argued in 2012, “mental health is a political issue,” and to the extent that our private lives inform our mental health, relationships are a political issue, too.
“Love kills capitalism.” If people are happy in their intimate lives, if they feel loved and supported for who they are rather than what they own, capitalism loses one of the most valuable tools it has: it can no longer convince us that we need to buy more things to fill the void left by our lack of personal connection. By preventing our affections from becoming yet another thing to be bought and sold, we are taking the first steps of resistance.