Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth (and why anti-capitalists should care)

And now at last, and with some trepidation, on to my final take on Marilyn Waring’s Counting For Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth.

I have already discussed this Introduction to the Second Edition, and the First Half of this book in other posts. Suffice it to say that after having finished the book, i don’t really feel the need to retract any of my first impressions.

That said, seeing as i did get through the second half, i do have to say that it is here that Waring is at her best, making her strongest and most useful (to an anti-capitalist) arguments.

It should come as no surprise that what economists say is good for the economy is not necessarily what we would see as being good for the people trapped in that economy, and it is in this section (especially chapters 7-9, “The Value of Death”, “A Value on Your Time” and “The Eye of the Beholder”) that Waring goes all out showing how this is so. How capitalist development often means that “In the old days we were poor but there was plenty of food. Now, we have money but nothing to eat.” (to quote Dona Ettelvina, a Mayan villager, from page 194).

Of course, Waring’s focus is the way in which gender is built into the capitalist class structure, and she does a very good job exploring this. Her overview deals with militarism, “development”, pollution, reproductive technologies, breastfeeding, diet, the sex trade, rural women’s labour… and she ties all of these quite different subjects together, showing how they are all integrated into standard economic models in a way which heightens the exploitation of women by keeping their exploitation invisible and “off the books”.

If, as Maria Mies and other feminists have argued, patriarchy “constitutes the mostly invisible underground of the visible capitalist system”, then Waring shows how the United Nations and the entire mainstream of economics work to constantly reproduce this invisibility.

To get rid of this invisibility we have to learn to see through capitalism’s lies, and when we do so a new landscape of exploitation is revealed. To give just one example from page 146: “In the late twentieth century, the greater number of the casualties and victims of war are not the military but ‘civilians’ – that is, overwhelmingly, women and children. In the late twentieth century, the greater number of casualties and victims of the market are not the workers but the “economically inactive” – that is, overwhelmingly, women and children.”

Now to me, that is a worthwhile starting point for some really useful analysis. It is observations like this one that makes Waring’s book worthwhile. This is the “good part” of Counting for Nothing – and it really is good.

Just What We Needed: A “New” Revolutionary Subject!

Now as for the downside… as i mentioned last week, Waring claims that the exploitation of women occurs in essentially the same way in developed countries as in the Third World. Here and there she claims that all women share a common oppression, and she qualifies this as “slavery”. She also implies, and at one point even explicitly states, that all men have a common position – in a perhaps purposefully hyperbolic dig at socialist-feminists she states that “male workers are now capitalists”, and that “the property imbued in them is womankind.”(p.5)

Just to be clear: she is not just stating that all male suits, or all middle class men, or all white men, or all First World men, are “capitalists”, nor is she stating (as Leopoldina Fortunati has) that capitalism “sometimes wears a workers face”… no, she is stating that all men from the Third World to the First are “capitalists”, and that all women from the First World to the Third are “slaves”. As Gloria Steinem writes in her preface to the book, “women are a Third World where ever we are.” (p.xii)

Now, this kind of hyperbole is somewhat common in certain sections of many oppressed peoples’ movements (though thankfully less common than it used to be!), and it tends to be the anthem of a particular privileged layer within the oppressed, and this certainly seems to be the case here. Butch Lee in particular has provided a biting attack on this fuzziness. As she puts it in her book The Military Strategy of Women and Children:

“What’s it mean, then, to talk about the Witchhunt and genocide against women? White feminists today like to identify with the ‘witches.’ That’s what i mean, we don’t know who we are. We aren’t the ‘witches.’ We are the ones on the other side: the loyal sisters and wives of the euro-men doing the policing and burning. The sisters of patriarchy trying to protect themselves from the terrorism by submitting, trying to be the unthreatening helpers.”

It is often those women who are most privileged, and who are objectively offering the least resistance to capitalist-patriarchy, who feel the most pressure to “prove” the existence of a homogonous “class of women” with an identical “women’s interest”.

I suspect that this claim that Third World women have the same interests as First World women, that working class women have the same interests as ruling class women, is not unconnected from Waring’s focus on overhauling the United Nations System of National Accounts – the ruling class ledgerbook that includes such figures as the GNP, GDP and official unemployment rate, for example.

Waring’s strategy involves demanding that women’s unpaid labour is included on national censuses, that environmental damage and military production are included as negative growth (today they are obscenely counted in the same way as socially useful work and production), and that until this is done women should refuse to answer the census questions as they are told.

And this will topple the patriarchy!?!

Power Feminism and “The Powerless”

“Of course as long as men rule women there can be no real expectation of change”, she admits, and yet claims that this rectification of the National Accounts is a tactical necessity because “the women in elected and bureaucratic office would be empowered in their lobbying and work. And the information would empower the powerless – to change governments, leaders, and the nature of economic power.” (p.231)

Now the second part of this argument is clearly wrong – “the powerless” will not be empowered by their oppressors including their labour in United Nations statistics, and when they do rebel – in guerilla armies or peasant associations or communist parties or in countless informal ways – it is because of historical processes, personal convictions, the balance of forces… but not what it says in the United Nations System of National Accounts!

Clearly, given Waring’s own past as a politician who felt frustrated by women’s invisibility in the New Zealand National Accounts, it is the empowerment of “women in elected and bureaucratic office” that leads her to privilege this obscure form of feminist struggle. It is because of her desire to see all women – First World and Third World, poor and wealthy – as part of a unitary class that she interprets the success of this most-privileged layer of women as the key to liberating all women. As she somewhat incredibly states in her Epilogue, “when more than half of the elected representatives are women, the institutional structure of government will change: the impact of women’s culture in those numbers will see the hierarchy transformed. We don’t know precisely how, and that’s not really important. We know that the notion of power and its use would be transformed; we know that the substance of what is valued would be transformed.”(p.256)

Check that out: “We don’t know precisely how, and that’s not really important”?!?!?

i have got to say that this passage is such obvious bullshit that i am afraid it may discredit the very worthwhile aspects of Waring’s argument. After all, it is not hard to imagine a country which would formally impute women’s unwaged labour, but in so doing would simply formalize the higher level of exploitation that women suffer. After all, this is capitalism we’re talking about here, when push comes to shove there’s nothing beyond its pale, certainly not differential wage rates! Indeed, it is easy to imagine these “women in elected and bureaucratic office” acting just as diligently as their male counterparts in maintaining the overall class system. It is because Waring sees them as “women” unqualified – not “white women” or “middle class women” or “pro-capitalist women” – that she can identify their interests as the interests of the so-called “powerless”.

And yet Waring herself is not a “power feminist”, and she seems painfully aware of how silly her solution is, how badly her pro-capitalist strategy fits with her anti-capitalist analysis. At one point she is resigned to admitting that “While i knew that reproduction should not be imputed, I also know that we must insist that it be.” (p. 232), and she acknowledges that “our global ecosystem, our environment, all other species, our Mother Earth was still exposed to rape and exploitation by the national accounts, and the creation of visibility for women changed nothing here.” (p.233). As i mentioned previously, her Introduction to the Second Edition seems to be an after-the-fact admission of the inadequacy of her entire strategy. One gets the impression that her great ability to see what is wrong with the present system and her fervent desire to help us escape is not matched by any real sense that she actually knows a way out. If this is the case then hers is a predicament i think most honest people can sympathize with – one only wishes she could have had the courage to say so.

It is unfortunate that one can be both eloquent and clear-headed and yet also completely unrealistic and muddleheaded, but there you have it. Waring is not the only author who has examined a question, exposed injustice, given us a glimpse of how the world could look through new eyes… and then ruined it all by trying to sound “constructive” and tacking on a half-baked “strategy” at the end of her book.

Not Just the United Nations

If Waring’s book were simply to be applied to the United Nations, i would actually go so far as to suggest that readers limit themselves to chapters 7-12 and just skip the rest. But it is a useful exercise to go over her arguments with sexist economists because this problem, of discounting women’s economic role when it is unwaged, also has serious consequences for the left.

Maria Mies, in her book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, has already shown how the unwillingness of national liberation movements to consider the (primarily female) “informal economy” as being as important as the (primarily male) formal sector as guaranteeing the failure of attempts to uproot patriarchal attitudes and capitalism itself. As Mies noted “Our analysis of the socialist countries has shown that the maintenance, or the creation, of the bourgeois, patriarchal, sexual division of labour and of the nuclear family is the apparently insignificant gate through which reactionary forces can again find entry into a society which tried to free itself from the clutches of capitalism and imperialism.” (p. 223)

Mies looks specifically at China and Vietnam, but the list of countries where the left-wing and national liberation movements have discounted women’s work (and thus women themselves) with fatal consequences is a long one. In Chile, for instance, the left in the 1960s had a strategy that centered around men, largely because Popular Unity (the socialist party led by Salvador Allende) only related to the working class as workers, and working class women were considered to be wives-of-workers, not workers in their own right. (At the time 75% of women worked in the unwaged domestic economy.) Popular Unity tried to “out-macho” their opponents, appealing to male workers’ power but failing to integrate women into the equation.

The sexism of the Chilean left played right into the hands of imperialism, as it was the right-wing that managed to mobilize women in record numbers to oppose Allende. Radical academic Margaret Power, in her book Right-wing women in Chile: feminine power and the struggle against Allende, 1964-1973, shows how the right consciously developed a far more sophisticated (and in some ways less, or at least differently, sexist) approach, and this created a situation where women were in the forefront of the anti-Allende opposition, in a very real way laid the groundwork for the CIA-backed Pinochet coup in 1973.

Nor is this weakness –and the possible consequences – is not limited to socialists thirty years ago…

[the section that was here has been temporraily taken out as i discuss with a comrade how fairly i was interpreting some of his views…]

As i stated in my post on the first half of Counting for Nothing, i would hold to a more pessimistic view than either Waring’s feminism or the clichéd leftist position. Neither “women’s empowerment” (in the sense of getting more women elected to office) nor “worker’s power” (in the sense of workers in the formal economy managing society) is up to the task of resisting capitalism or patriarchy, rather what is needed is an analysis and a movement that would oppose both of these as two aspects of one system of oppression. Much in the same way that some revolutionaries have already grasped that to be truly anti-imperialist one must be anti-capitalist (and vice versa), i would argue that to be truly anti-capitalist one must be anti-patriarchal (and vice versa).


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