Monday, April 03, 2006

Not just feminism

I was recently asked for my model of an economy that would be "fair." This doesn't really address that question, but now that I've worked my way around this far I see I'm reinventing a number of wheels:

A very tiny minority of wealthy, mostly white people, through their multinational corporations, exploit the rest of the world's population for their own benefit. Even in the United States the exploitation is ruthless and getting worse; outside the US and Europe it is far worse. Huge portions of the world's population cannot afford a decent life, many more are barely getting by, and even the comfortable are always in danger of falling into bankruptcy. Factories close, jobs are lost or shipped to other countries, there is "no money" for public education or health care. Everyone can see that the ruling class has gathered to itself all the material wealth of the world and has more than it could ever use--certainly more than it deserves under any possible meritocratic standard--enough to feed, clothe and shelter the world. Why do we tolerate this vicious exploitation? Why aren't the street filled with police keeping the poor from rising up against the rich?

One reason for the ease with which the goods of the world are kept from the people who produce them is the systematic exploitation of seemingly natural divisions--between races, between men and women, between us and them. The one division that white men have trouble seeing is the only one that really matters--the one between them and the wealthy elite with whom they identify. No apparent barrier exists between the white male worker and white male elite; anyone can be rich, anyone can be President. Meanwhile, the ruling class steals from the majority white male workforce but the usual suspects are blamed. Jobs aren't lost to corporate greed, they are lost to affirmative action, or illegal immigrants. Public universities shrink as the population needing them grows, but my kid can't get in to UCLA because of affirmative action. White male workers whose parents could support families on their hard-won union salaries wonder where the money has gone, but instead of seeing the vast wealth that has been sucked up into the upper 1% of the population they see the insignificant, token benefits flowing to the less fortunate. And why are they less fortunate anyway? Because they are different, less qualified, lazy, have too many kids, aren't as smart, won't learn English, aren't Christian. Deprived of the support of the white masses, the revolution can't (yet) get off the ground.

All it would take for a better, more just, more moral economy would be for the exploited 99% to unite against the thieving 1%. But that requires that ordinary white men recognize that they have more in common with Tibetan peasants and black single mothers than they have with George W and his handlers. In the conversation that prompted this post, someone compared feminism to unions as an idea that might have outlived its usefulness. Unions have declined because coordinated action by the workforce is so powerful that tremendous resources were directed at undermining it. Organized violence, legal restrictions, corruption, bad press, and most of all, manipulation of internal divisions along racial, gender and ethnic lines crippled unions. Unions or a 21st century equivalent may be our only hope of a world in which resources and opportunities flow to those who actually work for them. But to be effective, unions must actually unite all the groups now divided from each other. Feminism's role in this is to study, publicize, explain and eliminate the oppression of women that also oppresses men. Denial of opportunity on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc. must all be addressed at the same time, and worldwide. Otherwise illusory gains will be made at the expense of other oppressed groups while the wealth continues to flow into the hands of those who have not earned it and do not need it.

Feminism has enabled people like me to be lawyers. In the big picture, these are not real gains. We are being bought off by the system because we have demonstrated enough ability to make trouble. Our existence and success (such as it is--we are carfully trained to conceal any problems we might be having in having it all) serves the exploitative economy by supporting the illusion of equal opportunity for all. Apart from that role, how people like me fare in the economy is pretty much irrelevant to the real structural change that is needed.

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