Between Gilead and OnlyFans: Notes on the Oppression of Women in 21st-Century Capitalism-Imperialism

All of the images that accompany this editorial are original submissions from comrade Ruby Lois.

By the kites Editorial Committee, March 2022.

International Women’s Day on March 8th was initiated by the international communist movement over a century ago as a recognition of the centrality of women’s liberation to communist revolution. In contrast to the patriarchy, violence, and degradation women face under capitalism-imperialism, where the proletariat, under the leadership of communist parties, has seized power and embarked on the socialist transition to communism, tremendous advances have been made in overcoming the oppression of women.1 In 2022, with no socialist states in existence and with the bourgeoisie having fortified an effective regime of preventive counterrevolution, archaic forms of patriarchy persist while new forms of women’s oppression have been constructed, aided and abetted by the new technologies of the Silicon Valley bourgeoisie. A substantial reconfiguration of the oppression of women has been underway in North America for the last several decades. Drawing on discussion, study, and experience with many comrades, the kites editorial committee presents these notes on the oppression of women in 21st-century capitalism-imperialism, focused on North America. Our contribution is written in hopes of fostering greater debate and discussion that can more fully theorize the contours of women’s oppression in the present and inspire strategic thinking on how this oppression can be resisted and ultimately overcome through revolution. We welcome further contributions analyzing the oppression of women to our journal from comrades inside and outside our ranks.

From the second-wave feminist movement to the Clintonian 90s to the reactionary backlash

On this International Women’s Day, we find ourselves at a juncture where horrific new forms of patriarchal domination and subjugation come delivered to women wrapped in millennial pink, certified by girlboss influencers and radical leftists alike (via slogans like “sex work is work”). Those justifying and celebrating these new forms of women’s oppression do not even have the dignity to resist and overthrow the more archaic, longer-standing forms of patriarchy, such as the regulation and control of women’s bodies, that are increasingly resurgent via restrictions on the right to abortion in the US.2 In this moment when new forms of resistance are desperately needed, the postmodernist ideology that defines the world outlook of large sections of the petty-bourgeoisie obfuscates the fact that women are an oppressed group, disarming people with the consciousness they need in order to mount resistance.

As kites has written about,3 postmodernism gained prominence and then hegemony among sections of the petty-bourgeoisie via the dark triangle of academia, NGOs/nonprofits, and activist culture, from which it has increasingly spread more broadly in society, especially through social media. Postmodernism, especially its vehement opposition to universalist projects aimed at liberation, became hegemonic in a soil fertilized by decades of bourgeois anti-communism. The rise of postmodernism supplanted the radical and revolutionary movements and politics of the 1960s and ’70s, including the second-wave feminist movement that had won important victories for women’s equality, such as the right to abortion and the refusal of large numbers of women to accept the confines of the “good” (i.e., submissive) wife/mother/homemaker. While the bourgeoisie certainly did not allow the full equality of women in imperialist society, it did grant greater bourgeois-democratic rights and participation for at least some sections of women in response to the feminist movement (as well as due to its own economic necessities). Practically speaking, in liberal regions and among the liberal sections of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie, women started to occupy more positions of power and prestige and were incorporated into the professional workforce in greater numbers.

While, to some extent, patriarchal notions of ownership over women and their bodies were challenged and legal and political victories, such as the right to abortion, were achieved in the 1970s, those victories took place within the system of capitalism-imperialism and did not mean getting beyond commodity relations. Consequently, those sections of women who were more “free” had to compete in the market of commodity relations in a society still stamped by the oppression of women and inequality between men and women. Patriarchal thinking and practice among men was not uprooted over the last several decades, though new forms of it have emerged and co-exist with older forms. Thus women with greater legal and political (bourgeois-democratic) freedom were in effect forced to compete within a system of commodity relations stamped by patriarchy, a contradiction that subsequently gave rise to new forms of women’s oppression which we will describe below.

Moving from the 1970s to the 1990s: At the same time when postmodernism was gaining hegemony via the aforementioned dark triangle, the bourgeoisie was busy reshuffling its own decks. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Anglo-American imperialist alliance was united for several decades in a global project of opposition to the Soviet Union, both when the latter was a socialist state and after the mid-1950s when it became a social-imperialist (socialist in name, imperialist in content) state that was the Anglo-American bloc’s chief rival for global dominance. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the section of the US bourgeoisie cohered around Bill Clinton believed that the best way to become, and then maintain their position as, the sole-superpower was at the head of a multinational alliance, disciplining “rogue states” militarily through NATO and economically through instruments like the World Bank and IMF.

For the dominant wing of the US bourgeoisie in the 1990s, the best way to build support for their imperial domination was to project an image of acting as a benevolent, progressive international force, working to promote development, stop genocides, and champion women’s equality. The Clinton administration brought in the first female secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and put Hillary Clinton in a far more politically significant role than any previous “First Lady” in US history. Domestically, this was a period in which the US bourgeoisie was working to diversify its own ranks, especially in top government positions, and wielding the regime of preventive counterrevolution to absorb what remained of 1960s radical politics. To give a few exemplars of this particular moment in time, Hillary Clinton was famously speaking to a UN conference on the status of women while Bill Clinton threw tens of thousands of mothers off welfare, scapegoating Black mothers in particular as “lazy freeloaders.” Even during Clinton’s impeachment trial, in which right-wing elements used the pretext of Clinton having wielded his position of power to take sexual advantage of a young woman intern, the Clinton administration maintained bedrock support from mainstream women’s rights organizations, indicating the Democratic Party’s success at co-opting large sections of the feminist movement.

The Clinton administration’s promotion of multicultural liberal values and the increasingly diverse, if still white-male-dominated, ranks of the bourgeoisie and layers of the petty-bourgeoisie coincided with the final stages of de-industrialization under NAFTA and other policies that are often labeled “neoliberalism.” These policies, themselves a response to the crisis of overaccumulation of capitalism-imperialism,4 resulted in the class and social position of some sections of the population in imperialist countries being undercut, including the upper sections of the working-class and lower sections of the petty-bourgeoisie who have long been a stable social base for imperialism. The far Right has been successful in mobilizing these sections of the population, particularly but not only whites among them, in a reactionary response to the ways the crisis of overaccumulation has affected them, directing them to lash out at women and other oppressed sections of society. The far Right does considerable propaganda work to paint a picture of an idealized white male life being upended by women, LGBTQ people, oppressed nationalities, immigrants, Muslims, etc., shifting the exact scapegoat(s) for what works in the particular moment, and mobilizing a backlash on that basis. Hillary Clinton proved to be the perfect foil for this mobilization, as a woman in the ruling class who is, in fact, partially responsible for the decline in class position of some sections of people, and the liberal section of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie was completely oblivious to the appeal of right-wing populism against Hillary Clinton.

The explosion of far Right consciousness and mobilization in recent years has roots in a soil that was already fertilized by generations of revanchist social movements from Goldwater to Reagan, and deep religious fundamentalism and white supremacy. The mobilization of a reactionary social base to defend patriarchy has a deep-seated history in the US, from the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, to the Christian fascist Operation Rescue and the murder of abortion doctors, to Rush Limbaugh, the number-one radio talk show host for years calling assertive women “feminazis.” What the Trump moment achieved was the unique marriage of two distinctive (but always related) trends: unhinged fratboy rape culture (especially via an attack on “cancel culture”) and theocratic attempts to roll back women’s place in society. Among Trump’s three appointees to the US Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett is a devout Catholic deeply committed to asserting the domination of religion in public life (with the attendant consequences for women) and Brett Kavanaugh has been credibly accused of sexual assault and being a participant in fratboy rape culture. That Supreme Court now stands poised to substantially restrict women’s legal right and access to abortion, up to and including potentially overturning Roe v. Wade.

The struggle over abortion rights as a concentration of the struggle over the position of women in society

The struggle over abortion rights has long been a concentration of the struggle over the position of women in society, which is why Christian fundamentalists seeking to reimpose male patriarchal authority over women’s bodies have tried to shut down abortion clinics, murdered doctors, sought to ban legal abortion, and waged a propaganda campaign equating abortion with murder. For the last several decades in the US, an uneasy compromise has allowed for abortion to remain technically legal on a nationwide level while being increasingly restricted in Republican-governed states, with access to abortion providers depending on your finances and where you live (abortion clinics are virtually non-existent in rural areas and regions dominated by Christian fundamentalism). A reversal of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court would be a major setback for the position of women in society, further restricting abortion access and encouraging new waves of repressive laws (and potentially emboldening murderous vigilantes), and simultaneously a continuation of a decades-long rollback of abortion access.

The particular form of bourgeois dictatorship and democracy in the US means that federal judges appointed by the president have the “final word” over the legality of abortion. Owing to this peculiarity, every election season, Democrats and Republicans both have a key issue—the legality of abortion—to rally their voting and donation bases around (with the boogeyman of “what if the courts are stacked with appointees by the other party?”). The mainstream pro-choice movement has largely been complicit in this state of affairs, uncritically hitching its wagon to the Democratic Party for several decades.

Considering all the righteous outrage of many women, especially in the progressive and liberal petty-bourgeoisie, at the election of Trump, it is all too revealing that none of the pro-choice and feminist organizations that have become appendages to the Democratic Party could transform this outrage into a sustained resistance movement, with the short-lived groundswell of action around the January 2017 women’s march easily diverted back into the mechanisms of bourgeois-democracy. Fast forward to Fall 2021 and the reactionary Texas law that effectively bans abortion in that state and a Supreme Court docket that suggests the Court will uphold and further legal restrictions and even bans on abortion in many states in the coming months and, despite widespread outrage, no political force has managed to mobilize effective mass resistance. Mainstream pro-choice organizations have shrunk and no longer have the capacity to even put on sizeable protests, and the contemporary Left’s emphasis on “mutual aid” has led it to focus one-sidedly on raising money to provide poor women with funding to access abortions as an alternative to confronting the bourgeois state’s attacks on abortion rights (Pacman politics + postmodernist feminism = giving up fighting for the legal right to abortion).

Compounding this state of affairs is that, due to the hegemony of postmodernism and postmodernist identity politics and in the absence of a communist vanguard party, there is a profound lack of political agitation and organization among young women in particular and the popular classes more broadly who could be mobilized in political struggle in defense of abortion rights and against all reactionary re-assertions of patriarchy. The growth of social movements from Occupy Wall Street on could have created a renewed defense of women’s full participation in society. Instead, they proved to be fertile ground in which to train a whole generation in the postmodernist politics of denying that women are an oppressed group. That training was brought to social movements by way of the aforementioned dark triangle of academia, NGOs/nonprofits, and activist culture, which has enforced the hegemony of postmodernist ideology within the social movements of the last decade.

Since, for the postmodernists, oppression isn’t generated by class relations but by individual interactions, they put the fact that some sections of women may participate in the oppression of others principal over the understanding that women are oppressed as women. As with most postmodernist politics, this analysis takes an aspect of truth (in this case, the fact that women of the privileged classes and oppressor nations within imperialist countries do at least benefit from, if not in some ways take part in, the oppression and exploitation of others) and uses it to obfuscate the prevailing class and social relations in society (in this case, the oppression of all women as women, as evidenced by the numerous scandals revealing sexual harassment and assault at elite universities and in the upper echelons of corporate offices). Postmodernists reject communist understandings of the oppression of women, and even the views of previous generations of radical and progressive bourgeois-democrats, insisting that women need some additional “multiplier” (queer, immigrant, disabled, etc.) to be considered oppressed.

For example, in certain circles, it’s become commonplace to assume that white women are not oppressed as women. In typical postmodernist fashion, this view takes a particular expression (in this case, the real phenomena of “Karens”) and interprets it through the prism of oppression Olympics, rather than in historical or dialectical context. Similarly, “white women” as a monolithic category are often scapegoated for electing Trump in 2016, despite the rather obvious fact that different sections of white women vote quite differently from one another, and the statistical fact that the percentage of white women who voted for Trump was consistent with the percentage who voted for Republicans in previous elections (and, by this method of analysis, white men, not white women, should be the ones being blamed for getting Trump elected). Hand in hand with the (frankly misogynist) blaming of white women for Trump’s 2016 election and their demotion in the postmodernist oppression Olympics is the demotion of gay men (especially white gay men), who have achieved some element of equality in Democrat-governed urban areas, and blaming them for the oppression of other people (peep woke social media in June, when white gay men as a whole are somehow to blame for the corporate capture of gay pride parades). In addition to white women and gay men being, in effect, “canceled” in the oppression Olympics, Black men as a group have received similar treatment from the postmodernists, often stereotyped as hypermasculine and homophobic, putting new clothes on the same old white supremacist thinking. For the purpose of this writing, the point here is that postmodernist oppression Olympics and “privilege discourse,” which fails to make a materialist analysis of the class relations behind oppression, have used the category of “white women” as a way to deny that women are oppressed as women.

For the woke crowd, the understanding of women as an oppressed group has been replaced with a postmodernist political fetishization of transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people, who have been elevated to gold medal status in the oppression Olympics, especially when they have identity multipliers (in other words, queer or trans plus one or more other oppressed identity marker(s)). To be clear, communists oppose all forms of bigotry, chauvinism, violence, and legal discrimination against transgender people, and have no interest in arguing that one form of oppression is of greater moral importance than another. What we are criticizing is how postmodernism has displaced women as an oppressed social group and supplanted opposing patriarchy, which is at the root of both the oppression of women and the oppression of people who do not conform to traditional patriarchal gender roles, with the pursuit of ever more esoteric identities—the more esoteric the more oppressed. Philosophically, the postmodernist emphasis on “difference” as a social category, in opposition to the communist understanding of the material relations of oppression and exploitation, is to blame for this sad state of affairs.

The resultant postmodernist displacement of the oppression of women has led the postmodernists to deny that abortion (and access to birth control) is a women’s issue at all. Instead of talking about the assault on abortion rights as an assault on women and their reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy, some postmodernists insist that what really needs to be made front and center is the fact that a small number of transgender men can become pregnant (and thus their abortion rights must be defended, which is, of course, true, but is used to displace the fact that the oppression of women is the driving force behind restrictions on abortion rights). As a result, you can go to some abortion rights rallies and never hear anyone talk about the oppression of women, instead insisting on woke lingo like “people with a uterus,” because in the postmodernist conception the most crucial aspect is the changing of language to be more woke.

Even as the postmodernists have displaced analysis of the oppression of women with a political fetishization of trans people, failing to defend abortion rights in the process, they have also failed to secure many victories against the oppression of trans people aside from perhaps a few more gender-neutral bathrooms in a few enclaves of the liberal petty-bourgeoisie. Much postmodernist activism is far more concerned with performative displays among the already converted; for example, what has the adoption of quasi-religious woke rituals like pronoun circles achieved aside from making sure people new to activist groups feel like outsiders? Why did Leftists and postmodernists miserably fail to come to the defense of Chelsea Manning, who was denied the right to live as a women and refused adequate medical care while imprisoned for the “crime” of exposing the US military’s war crimes? Trans people in regions where Christian fundamentalism is dominant and trans people who are proletarians continue to face high rates of murder and other hate crimes. The postmodernist political fetishization of trans people, gender fluidity, and pronouns has failed to mount serious resistance to the root causes, in patriarchy, of the oppression trans people face, in addition to reneging on struggling for women’s equality and gay rights.

Reversing correct verdicts and the rise of commodified self-sexualization

Prioritizing the subjective experiences of a small number of privileged individuals, postmodernists have reversed the correct verdicts of the second-wave feminist movement, as well as the longstanding communist view, that prostitution and pornography are nothing but institutions of oppression and exploitation of women. Postmodernists have gone so far as to claim that prostitution and pornography are liberating for the women who participate in them, creating revolting hypocrisies like “feminist porn” and the idiotic and reactionary slogan “sex work is work” (idiotic because it’s a tautology and reactionary because it seeks to normalize the buying and selling of women’s bodies for male sexual gratification). They justify these claims by universalizing the experience of the small number of petty-bourgeois women who work in the sex trade (relatively) free from coercion and in relatively safe conditions, ignoring the masses of trafficked and prostituted women and girls, to say nothing of the broader social impact of treating women as commodities to be bought and sold in the sex trade.

In this respect, the postmodernists have provided the ideological justification for the bourgeoisie to further reconfigure the oppression of women in the 21st-century. Women are now freer than ever—freer than ever to choose their own oppression. For a significant section of women of various classes, a “new” option is on offer: the option to develop your own “human capital” to create an entrepreneurial future, putting your whole self and life on offer to the highest bidder, whether through “influencer” culture, girlboss bullshit that steps on everyone under you, or one of the most heinous inventions of the 21st century: OnlyFans. All of these options embrace cold capitalist commodity exchange and sustain the fantasy that it’s possible for all women to get ahead in this system as long as they’re willing to play the game.

Girlboss feminism promotes the successful capitalist woman as the model to aspire to, and of course only a few women can achieve this goal, which is a capitalist goal of being an exploiter. It shows us that the bourgeoisie is willing to allow a few women into positions of power, so long as they can use them as examples to inculcate the broader population in capitalist logic.

OnlyFans is indicative of the new trend of commodified self-sexualization of women, made possible by the new technologies of the Silicon Valley bourgeoisie that can mask sexual exploitation as self-employment, be your own boss, and freedom of choice (even as these new technologies are just new forms of pimping, and are used by old school pimps). Normalized on social media platforms, especially Instagram, what is especially pernicious about this mass participatory commodified self-sexualization is that it has been erroneously championed as a form of women’s liberation.

In these and other forms of exploitative (including self-exploitative) models of “women’s empowerment,” we can see a reconfigured oppression of women in which the bourgeoisie has found more ways for women to own their own chains. Postmodernist ideological hegemony has left many people, including those involved in what passes for “radical” politics in North America today, ill-equipped to challenge, or even recognize, these new forms of oppression. It’s only recently that the widespread defense of prostitution and pornography among Leftists in North America began to receive criticism from within, spearheaded by a few courageous women who had experienced sexual exploitation firsthand and advanced a critique of “sex work is work” politics.5 It remains to be seen whether these promising shoots will generate collective organization and mass mobilization that targets the sex trade bourgeoisie and its lieutenants and takes its critique of the sex trade more broadly throughout society, beyond Leftist circles. As communists, we have a responsibility to expose how all of these new and reconfigured forms of the oppression of women are anchored in the system of capitalism-imperialism, how and why that system must be overthrown, and strengthen struggles against the oppression of women, including by linking them with a growing revolutionary movement.

What hasn’t changed…and our responsibilities

Women of all classes face the ever-present threats of domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, abuse, and the casual harassment and male chauvinism of everyday life, at home, at work, on the street, at bars, at church, etc. These concentrated expressions of patriarchal oppression have at various times sparked sharp forms of struggle, and here we salute the militant sisters throughout Latin America who have built mass movements and militant organizations confronting femicide, domestic violence, and the disappearances of women and girls. In the US, a consistent string of high-profile sexual assault cases gave rise to the brief explosion of #MeToo, which revealed the persistence of widespread sexual harassment and assault, and led to a handful of high-profile culprits getting locked up. Without any revolutionary leadership, and defined significantly by the functioning of social media and mainstream media, #MeToo crashed on the rocks of celebrity scandal and was never allowed to deepen. In postmodernist and Leftist activist circles, where sexual harassment and assault have turned out to be no less rampant than in society more generally, a secondary problem has been blurring the line between violations of consent which merit harsh punishment and behaviors that, while expressions of male chauvinist world outlooks, did not violate consent and/or commit violence, and are best struggled with through sharp criticism and persuasive methods aimed at transformation.

On a deeper level, #MeToo was an example of how the reconfiguration of women’s oppression has given rise to significant social conflicts in which greater bourgeois-democratic freedom for some sections of women comes up against longstanding patriarchal practices. It’s no coincidence that #MeToo was taken up in the entertainment industry, where putting up with sexual harassment and assault has too often been necessary for career advancement, and in professional petty-bourgeois jobs where women have taken up positions in the workforce that decades ago were largely the preserve of men. We can expect future conflicts to arise from the contradiction between women’s greater bourgeois-democratic freedom and longstanding patriarchy, and communists must take up the responsibility of intervening in such conflicts with revolutionary answers.

Beneath the hype of girlboss feminism and commodified self-sexualization, the bedrock truth is that women from the proletariat and in nations oppressed by imperialism still cannot find liberation under this system, and face myriad forms of horrific oppression. For all the claims that the US was going to liberate women in Afghanistan or Libya, the US military is a cesspool of sexual assault, both for the women in it and for those who come into contact with it. Moreover, the US occupation of Afghanistan brought with it the expansion of the sex trade (just as the US military has elsewhere), subjecting women previously under Taliban rule to a different but no less brutal form of oppression. The extractive frontiers of accumulation for the oil companies and mining industries come ready-made with trafficked Indigenous women and girls. And Black women and girls find themselves the targets of predators and traffickers who often act with the impunity of bourgeois state protection, as the recent public spotlight on and trial of R. Kelly has demonstrated, and the bourgeoisie’s “justice” system sometimes even punishes those women who manage to fight off such predators, as the case of Cyntoia Brown revealed. Furthermore, Black proletarian women have had to bear the burden that the bourgeoisie’s program of mass incarceration of proletarian Black men has placed on families and communities.

Comrades, we have heavy tasks in front of us. For the masses of women, being stuck between Gilead and OnlyFans is a bleak future. But we are confident that if a revolutionary people begins to emerge, a truly liberatory future for women will open up. In China, where the social relations seemed frozen in amber, and foot-binding and arranged marriages were the order of the day, the revolutionary people under the leadership of the Communist Party dared to rise up and put an end to those social relations. Doing away not just with the old feudal order, but also moving to end rape and sexual-assault and living like new women and men, they made a material reality out of the slogan “women hold up half the sky” during the socialist years from 1949 to 1976. On this International Women’s Day, let us take inspiration and learn from their achievements as we confront the reconfiguration of women’s oppression under 21st-century capitalism-imperialism, with the strategic confidence in the proletariat and the masses of women that this oppression can be ended through revolution alongside all class divisions, the production relations on which they rest, and the ideas and culture that foster and fortify them.

Break the chains! Unleash the fury of women as a mighty force for revolution!

ENDNOTES

  1. For some compelling personal accounts of the position of women in Maoist China, see the book Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era, edited by Xueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, and Bai Di (Rutgers University Press, 2001).
  2. For those unfamiliar, the Republic of Gilead is the name of the theocratic patriarchal society in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been further popularized by the recent HBO television series adaptation.
  3. See especially “Kick ‘Em While They’re Down,” kites #3 (2021).
  4. For further elaboration on the crisis of overaccumulation, see José San Miguel, “Theses on Capitalist Crisis and Class War,” kites #2 (2020).
  5. See, for example, Esperanza Fonseca, “A Socialist, Feminist, and Transgender Analysis of ‘Sex Work’” (2020), available at proletarianfeminist.medium.com.