Friday, October 31, 2014

Feminism in the Free Market

In this week’s WAPPP seminar, “Feminism Triumphed and Tamed: The Politics of Knowledge in Gender and Development,” Elisabeth M. Prügl, a Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute of Geneva explored a critique of what some have come to call “free market feminism.”

While there have been many gains in the fight for gender equality in recent years, there is concern among some feminists that feminism itself has been co-opted by major institutions and by the forces of global capitalism. These scholars worry that feminism is no longer critiquing but rather supporting the existing power structures that have long disadvantaged women.

To analyze this deeper, Professor Prügl narrowed in on the largest global development institution, the World Bank. After conducting a close reading of World Bank documents from 2001 to the present, she argued that there are three dimensions of what happens to feminist ideas when they enter the neoliberal discourse: (1) integrations and instrumentalizations, (2) slippages, and (3) silences.

Firstly, feminism has been integrated into many institutions and into the idea of capitalism itself. To demonstrate this, Prügl used what she refers to as “the business case,” or the argument made by institutions that have a core mission apart from gender equality that more equality creates better economic outcomes. The narrative is not unique to the World Bank; it has become increasingly common in global institutions and on far-reaching development campaigns. 

Prügl posits that by focusing on the business case, we narrow the political imagination of what policies will actually improve women’s lives. We may ignore reproduction and childcare policies or oversimplify issues by making heteronormative assumptions and commitments.

Prügl argues that the problem definition is hugely important, as definitions are very tightly linked to solutions, and might even be defined after the solution has been found. She says that this is especially true in the case of neoliberalism, where it has already been decided that the market can solve everything.

Preferences also become an issue when discussing integration in the push for equal economic opportunity. Under conditions of equal opportunity, inequality results from preferences. Yet Prügl argues that it’s also possible that the outcomes an individual has experienced for her entire life shape her idea of what is and is not possible for her – and therefore actually change her preferences.

Prügl argued that slippages of feminist ideas occur in neoliberal institutions, with direct effects on markets, such as business registration and labor law. The idea of agency can also move away from its feminist definition in these circumstances. While those in the economic development sphere often define agency as the power and opportunity to take risks or seize opportunities, gender experts discuss it as the capacity to make decisions about one’s own life free of violence, retribution or fear – factors not always considered by economists.

Silence on feminist issues in the realm of global capitalism is also a concern for some. Prügl argued that gender expertise largely remains at the level of microeconomics, while the macroeconomics of equality are not discussed, and modernization, growth and globalization are taken as unquestioned goods. 

Prügl concluded by stating that gender mainstreaming has been both a failure and a success in recent years. She argued that the world changes due to the impetus from the knowledge and power we as individuals participate in validating, stressing the importance of a feminist critique of the current state of affairs. 

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