Social Ecology and Feminism:
Can Socialist Ecofeminism be the Answer?
Table of Contents
2. Overview of Feminisms
In this work, I would like to examine the debate between the fields of feminism and social ecology regarding the need or desire for the separate endeavour of ecofeminism. The evolution of all three bodies of theory is relatively recent, with ecofeminism being the youngest member of the trio. This is an important debate because ecofeminist theory claims that gender oppression and the oppression of nature are intimately interlinked. I will argue that if the feminist and the social ecology fields fail to communicate and disregard the connections drawn by ecofeminism, due to a myopic focus on early ecofeminist writings, then the resolution of humanity’s conflict between itself and the non-human world will remain an unrealisable goal. Thus I will defend ecofeminism, and socialist ecofeminism particularly, against irrelevancy, against charges of strong essentialism, biological determinism, and non-inclusiveness, and will defend a role for strategic spirituality within the ecofeminism movement.
To this end, I will give an overview of feminist theory (Section 2), and of social ecology (Section 3), and then pinpoint some of the feminist concerns with social ecology, in Section 4. Following this, I will introduce ecofeminist theories and try to show why socialist ecofeminism is the most likely to have a satisfactory response to the lack of feminist analysis in social ecology and the lack of ecological awareness and plans in feminist theory (Section 5). In Section 6, I will outline the basic responses of socialist ecofeminism to the weaknesses of feminism and social ecology, and then in Sections 7 and 8 address four sets of arguments against ecofeminism and the socialist ecofeminist responses to them. I conclude (Section 9) that socialist ecofeminism, because of its commitment to historical materialism, avoids the pitfalls of strong essentialism and biological determinism, and through its socialist base is inclusive of all races, classes and genders, and succeeds where feminism fails because of its focus on ecological reform.
2. Overview of Feminisms 2.1 Essentialism
As I will be referring to essentialism at some length within this paper, I will provide here a short definition of the concept. Following Andrew Sayer, “essentialism is generally taken to be the doctrine that objects have certain essential properties which make them one kind of thing rather than any other”.1 Essentialism has become somewhat of a dirty word in academic discourse because of its negative associations with the various “ism’s” of sexism, racism, etc. Sayer later distinguishes between strong and moderate essentialism, a distinction which I think is crucial in the scope of the debate which I am considering here. Strong essentialism is characterised by homogenisation and often by idealisation of the object (thus for example, an oppressed group such as women are characterised as being vacuous and vain, while simultaneously being raised up for their supposedly universal abilities of nuturance – thereby denying differences between individual women, and even to a large extent denying the possibility of there even being individual women). Moderate essentialism, in contrast, says only that some things have essences (for example, water having the essence of the chemical formula of H2O, but also some institutions and other social entities) and other things, such as gender, do not. Moderate essentialism can incorporate difference among individuals because it claims only that there are some features which are common to the objects in questions, not that all features are the same.2 I will later argue that strong essentialism is not a necessary characteristic of ecofeminism, though some degree of moderate essentialism can and perhaps should be present in a theory which attempts to guide policy.3
Over the last century and a half, women have been demanding that their status in society be critically examined. Initially this was accomplished by challenging the popular (male) opinion that women were categorically unsuitable for public life. Women were viewed as being primarily emotional rather than rational, and their nurturing qualities, while excellent for the purposes of domestic labour, were not considered appropriate for participation in the public realm. Early feminists countered these claims by showing that women as well as men have the capacity for rational thought, discourse and deed. In this characterisation of women, liberal feminism is moderately essentialist, in much the same way as society at large is (and continues to be) essentialist regarding the innate qualities and abilities of at least white able-bodied males, if not males in general. Early feminists were characterised, therefore, by a commitment to the status quo, but with the modification of “women are people too”. Liberal feminism to this day uses this approach to attain full civil autonomy for women. Liberal feminism, as with liberal politics in general, is committed to capitalism as the economic mode of choice, because only capitalism allows individual freedom to contract out one’s abilities, be they financial, physical or mental. As such, liberal feminism, to the extent to which it is concerned with environmental problems, advocates a market-based strategy for resolution.4 Following Alison Jaggar, there are three other main strands of feminism to date, in addition to liberal feminism. These are traditional Marxist feminism, radical (or cultural) feminism and socialist feminism. In her book, Feminist Politics and Human Nature, Jaggar examines each of the four types of feminism in turn, and concludes that socialist feminism is the most promising, though at the time of her writing, she felt that socialist feminism was perhaps more of an idea than a reality.5 I will give a brief overview of cultural and Marxist feminism and Jaggar’s criticisms thereof, before turning my attention to socialist feminism.
2.3 Cultural/Radical Feminism
Cultural feminism is characterised by a return to some of the traditionally reviled (by men) areas of female activity. It is often strongly essentialist in its descriptions of women and fails to recognise that there are fundamental differences in the types and means of oppression suffered by women of different races, sexual orientations and economic status. However, a moderately essential addendum to cultural feminism could be that there are some fundamental characteristics shared by women in their separate oppressions. Allison Jaggar defines oppression as "a result of human agency, humanly imposed restrictions on people's freedom...oppression must also be unjust".6 Cultural feminists argue that even if there are superficial differences in societies, all societies meet the above criteria in terms of their characteristic treatment of women. While the strong essentialist claim that all women are the same in their oppressed status is not defensible, I think that the moderate essentialist claim that there are common features to the experience of women the world over has merit. I will be discussing further arguments for and against essentialism in the context of ecofeminism in Sections 7.2 and 8.2 below.
Cultural feminism is also often characterised by biological determinism7, that is, by a viewpoint which regards the traditional abilities of women to be innate in their biology, rather than as a result of socialisation. I would like to distinguish here between biological determinism and essentialism. Biological determinism is a sub-category of essentialism, in that it refers only to biological abilities or traits that are necessary for a living being to be categorised as a specific type of creature. Thus, an essentialist claim regarding being human may be that one carries a human genome, but a biological determinist claim may be that as a result of the specific genetic complement (such as carrying two X chromosomes as opposed to an X and a Y chromosome), certain behaviour is predestined and unalterable. As a result of biological determinist beliefs, many cultural feminists have advocated a separatist policy; because if the traits of men and women are biologically determined, then there is little point in trying to reform the repressive and oppressive attitudes of men (as these are predestined by their possession of a Y chromosome), and therefore it is more efficient to simply disassociate oneself from men entirely.8 Some radical feminists have gone so far as to say that all heterosexual intercourse (whether consensual or otherwise) is rape, because of the underlying, pervasive means of domination over women which are perpetuated in our culture’s sexual mores.9 As such, many radical feminists advocate at least political, if not physical lesbianism.10 Other varieties of cultural feminism advocate a more spiritual approach to life, invoking ancient female-centred practices such as Wicca and goddess worship, in place of detrimental patriarchal mainstream religions such as Christianity and Islam. Overall, cultural and radical feminists call for a re-evaluation of the nature and value of “women’s work” and a subsequent change in predominant opinion regarding the contributions of women to society.
2.3.1 Problems with Cultural/Radical Feminism
Because cultural feminism has exerted a strong influence on ecofeminist theory, I would like to consider some of the major problems associated with this body of theory. Some problems with cultural feminism lie in its essentialist approach. Socialist and liberal feminist politics have worked very hard in the last two decades in particular to problematise “the woman question”. This has taken the form of questioning the basis for sexual stereotyping, challenging “the feminine” and actively creating a space for alternative conceptions – the inclusion of lesbian, black and third world feminisms have been particularly important. Women, on this view, are socialised to be women, therefore there is no such category of “women” outside of patriarchal society. As such, appealing to such a construct seems regressive and possibly harmful to the overall goal of the emancipation of women.11 Cultural feminism is seen as embracing patriarchal stereotypes too easily and thereby to be undermining this progress.12,13 However, it is important to realise that the reversal of value dualities which is often endorsed by cultural feminists is meant to serve a specific political function. By lifting up that which has been degraded and backgrounded (to use Val Plumwood’s term14), cultural feminists aim to restore (or create) confidence in real-life women. While this approach may have difficult theoretical implications, it is still effective in motivating people.
Another difficulty with the cultural/radical feminist position is that separatist politics, while they may be necessary initially in order to provide a safe and encouraging atmosphere for women to air their thoughts and views, is ultimately self-defeating, because it does not induce the rest of society to change. Given current capitalist structures, it is difficult if not impossible for women-run, decentralised, separatist businesses, residences, etc., to stay open or be commercially viable (even if a given co-operative is not run for profit, the rent on the building must still be paid, the workers must still be paid in order for them to eat, etc.).15 Also, the radical feminist position on heterosexuality is unlikely to be attractive to the majority of “successfully” socialised women, thereby possibly alienating the very contingency whose co-operation and support is necessary for separatist politics at all. Thus practically speaking, cultural/radical feminism is unlikely to be a widely accepted political strategy.
2.4 Marxist Feminism
Marxist feminism comes from an entirely different strand of political thought.16 This variety of feminism takes the Marxist method of historical materialism to argue that the roles of women in capitalist society are a result of a dialectical process through the ages, which have encouraged the development of certain traits in women and in men. As such, Marxist feminists claim that biology is gendered as well as sexed.17 Marxist feminists are also highly critical of capitalist means of production because they associate the domination of women by men with the domination of workers by capitalists. As such, the route to emancipation for women is the emancipation of the workers and a change in the means of production. Marxist feminists do not engage with the characterisation of the worker, however, and generally focus on the role of women in production. Neither does it necessarily engage with the role of so-called reproductive work (which is done largely by women), and in doing so may conceal a subtle misogyny.18 Marxist thought is moderately essentialist in its claims regarding the universal oppression of the worker under capitalism and Marxist feminism follows mainstream Marxist theory in being moderately essentialist in its characterisation of the nature of the oppression of women. It is not, however, strongly essentialist, due to its commitment to historical materialism. As a socially-oriented project, Marxist feminism seems to have greater potential than liberal or cultural/radical feminism as a type of politics which can appeal to a broad range of women. I will be considering possible objections and proposed solutions to Marxist feminist problems in the following section, in the context of socialist feminism.
2.5 Socialist Feminism
Jaggar maintains that the weaknesses of Marxist feminism are addressed by socialist feminism. Socialist feminism, because of its commitment to addressing the social causes of domination and oppression, incorporates the best of Marxist feminism. It retains the historical materialist perspective, which allows it to avoid accusations of (strong) essentialism, but critically examines the Marxist ideal of a worker. Socialist feminism has shown that for traditional Marxists, the worker is in fact white, male and generally employed in the heavy industrial sector. This ideal of a worker is hardly appropriate for addressing the concerns of women, which in our society generally include considerations of childcare, sick-leave for the care of dependants, domestic labour and other sexually defined tasks, as well as the well known problems associated with the capitalist workplace.19In addition, socialist feminist analysis shows how it is women who are systematically oppressed for the operation of capitalist society, even more than the male worker, because of three separate, but interlocking reasons. Firstly, women are systematically paid less than male workers (this is true even today, as it is primarily women who are employed in marginal, part-time and benefitless jobs, such as clerical work, domestic help, and the various care professions, and still today receive lesser wages than men in the same positions in many fields20). Historically this was due to men needing to be paid a “family wage” as they were the primary breadwinners for families.21 Today, this no longer holds true in much of the Western world, but the work that women do (which, especially regarding the clerical “industry” is essential for business to run in the information age) is still paid less, which has an added benefit for capitalism in that it tends to drive overall wages down. Secondly, women are needed for sexual titillation of male workers, so that male workers’ minds are taken off the frustrations which are inherent in capitalist means of production. Thirdly, women serve (generally outside of the paid labour force) as an outlet for the frustration and alienation of male workers through violence: rape, domestic battery, etc.22 Thus, as Nancy Fraser argues, “male domination is intrinsic to capitalism, not accidental, and the institutional structure of this social formulation is actualised by gendered roles.”23 Socialist feminism also examines the role of the family in the oppression of women and makes the observation that the nuclear family is a nexus for capitalist exchange and power-brokering and as such, will need to be critically deconstructed if a revolutionary society which is also free of the male dominance of women is to be achieved.24
In addition, socialist feminism critically examines the distinction between production and reproduction which is fundamental to the Marxist argument. Socialist feminism shows that much of what is regarded as reproductive work actually involves many if not all of the elements of productive work, and that its conceptualisation should therefore be addressed in any formulation of a revolutionary strategy (a recommendation which has proved notoriously difficult to attain in revolutionary circles, often prompting the formation of separate women’s movements in order to place feminist concerns on the revolutionary agenda). Furthermore, the distinction may well have to be abolished altogether in order to attain true emancipation of the worker – both in the home and in the capitalist arena. Socialist feminism is committed to an ideal of the human which is not gendered, but based on the abilities of individual people. Ann Ferguson characterises this non-gendered ideal as gynadry, switching the traditional ordering so as to emphasise the transvaluation of traditional gender roles that will need to be accomplished in order to attain an equal society. She emphasises, however, that because of reproductive activities, sex is likely to remain a more important indicator of individuality than other means (such as race). Nonetheless, Ferguson believes that her conception is different from the traditional “equal but different” gender dualism.25 I will consider possible objections to the socialist feminist position at length later in the paper.
3. Overview of Social Ecology Social ecology is a doctrine which has been largely elucidated by the anarcho-communist, Murray Bookchin. Bookchin has been involved in what can be termed the environmental movement26 since the early 1950’s, when he first published works on food additives. Later moving into the nuclear protest movement, Bookchin finally produced what is still considered his main treatise on social ecology, The Ecology of Freedom, in 1982.27 A revised version was brought out in 1991, in which the main change was a refutation of his earlier accolades for the then newly-emerging ecofeminism.28 As this is the only major change in the new addition (and occurs not in the text itself, but in the introduction), I will be using the first edition in my examination of social ecology. Social ecology is a plan for a new type of human community, with a new relationship with the non-human world. Its inspiration stems from the widespread ecological disasters which seem to be a result of modern capitalist society’s attachment to economic growth, and the fetishisation of commodities as the means to human happiness. Much of Bookchin’s work relies on the insights of Marx and Engels, in terms of dialectical relationships between humans, modes of production and the non-human world. However, departing from traditional Marxism, Bookchin places the blame for current ecological disasters not only at the door of capitalism, but in the very nature of western civilisation; namely, the fact that our society is organised in terms of nesting hierarchies, in which the old dominate the young, men dominate women, capitalists dominate workers, and the State bureaucracy dominates everyone, and humanity as a whole (at least in Western civilisation) dominates the non-human world. Thus he sees the salvation of the non-human world, and indeed the salvation of humanity, to be found in the dissolution of hierarchical ties as such. The ideal society, for Bookchin, is one in which democracy is direct, communities are at human-scale (an idea which he bases on the Greek polis), means of production are common, and work is not toil, but satisfying, fulfilling labour, in which mental and physical labour are not separated out as they are in centralised production (in both capitalist economies, and centralised socialist communities). Bookchin claims that social ecology has its origins in humanity’s initial awareness of its own sociality – “not merely as a cognitive dimension of epistomology but as an ontological consociation with the natural world.”29 By this Bookchin means that social ecology has its inspiration in the relationship which ancient communities had with the natural world; a relationship in which nature was an active partner in human society rather than being “mummified and muted” as in modern society. In the ecological community of the future, relations between people and non-human nature will more closely resemble relations in what Bookchin calls “organic communities” – communities from the distant past which were characterised by a sexual division of labour and by the absence of hierarchy.30 Bookchin’s unexamined acceptance of the sexual division of labour has been the cause of some feminist opposition, a position which I will cover more deeply in Section 4 below. Ecological communities will also be characterised by a transformation of a wealth of things (which is the defining characteristic of our own civilisation) to a wealth of culture and individuality.31
As a utopian vision, social ecology has a few flaws. The most fundamental of these is the lack of attention which Bookchin pays to the role of gender-based oppression in his model society, and the fact that this oppression underlies many of the characteristic features of modern society. While Bookchin obviously isn’t endorsing the current status quo, he fails to provide a means for accomplishing the revolutionary utopia which will not incorporate the current androcentric bias. Indeed in the introduction to The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin states specifically that his work is meant to provoke thought on the part of the reader, not provide a sort of fait accompli which will provide a blueprint for the new world.32 This notwithstanding, I believe that it is insufficient to simply claim that a, b, and c must be accomplished in order for humanity’s survival, without making at least a preliminary effort to describe how this might be done. For example, a cornerstone of social ecology is small, human-scale communities, but Bookchin neither provides means for how to dismantle current cities which he despises, such as Los Angeles and other North American megalopolises, nor how to create new communities based on alternative technologies, when the rest of the world is not apparently ready for the transition. For the same reason that radical feminist communes which require separatist policies find it difficult to succeed in capitalist society, so too do I think that prototype ecological communities will find it difficult to maintain themselves without an overarching network of many other such communities. But, it seems naive to believe that these self-organised and democratic communities will simply spring up like mushrooms and topple the bureaucracies which run our nations.33 Insofar as the realisation of goals is a problem for most utopian visions, perhaps social ecology should not be singled out, but nonetheless I think it would be valuable to pay a greater degree of attention to the nuts and bolts of the transition to the new society.