We need to decide to be effective, to start taking power and our struggles seriously. The Left – and by that I mean counter-hegemonic movements that wants to organise power, and therefore wealth, equitably; or, in simpler speak, social justice movements – is weak. We need to build movement. This means committing ourselves to grounded and long-term organising.
We know largely where we are at. We have histories to guide us. We know the state and capitalism – institutionalised in corporations – are among our main enemies. Despite debates about just what the state is we know when we encounter it. We know it in the courtrooms, and when confronted by police. We know it in the army tanks that drive into indigenous communities and when we cross borders. We confront the corporations whenever we confront the state, and the state whenever we confront capitalism. More often than not, it is hard to tell them apart. Working as one, the state and corporations inflict immense violence on people and the earth. We know we must stop their work.
Despite this knowledge, our dependence on the state and corporations is immense. We cannot feed, house, transport, educate, or heal ourselves without them. We are asking people to join us in a movement to end the work of the state and capitalism, but we depend on them to meet our most basic needs. The paradox in this is so stark as to outline a fundamental requirement of the Left: we must learn and organise to depend on ourselves, to create our own power, a counter-power.
This is not a new idea. People on the Left have long been theorising the process by which, instead of taking state power, we build our own power base, thereby rendering state and corporate power redundant and giving us the autonomy we need to struggle against them. We have only to look at the Zapatistas to see counter-power in action. These indigenous communities are meeting their basic needs autonomously. Of course, projects focused on meeting our basic needs risk marginalising the need for structural change, but projects that do nothing to meet these needs risk becoming purely symbolic.
From a feminist perspective, building a counter-power must include localising community tasks of caring for one another, for children, our elders, the sick, and the spaces we learn, work and live in. When this caretaking work is shared, it enables women – on whom most caretaking work usually falls - the time and energy to develop themselves in other ways than caretakers. Only by sharing this work can we remove ourselves from capitalism's sphere, from a dependency on payable people – usually poor non-white women - to act as caretakers.
I am not interested in building counter-power that is not consciously feminist. It is easy to imagine communities building counter-power in which violence against women is a daily naturalised phenomenon, in which women are objectified, and in which gendered divisions of labour continue to disproportionately undervalue the work of women. It is easy because in so much leftist movement this happens. This writing addresses the latter issue: it is a vocalisation of my frustration at the unwillingness of men to acknowledge that women do a disproportionate amount of undervalued invisible caretaking work in the world and the Left. Caretaking includes childcare, cleaning, cooking and emotional work. This work should be visible, valued and shared. This is not to say that no men do any of these things, simply that women do most of it.
In my late teens, I realized that women were often more active and sensitive listeners and more supportive than men. Later, when I “became political”, I found that, whereas men and women were both present around activism, women did most of the organising. I found also that men in the Left talked too much. This, combined with experiencing everything from sleaziness to sexual assault from leftist men, led me to organise almost entirely with women. I am suddenly doing political work with more men than I ever have before. As a group these men are not doing their share of caretaking work. This, coupled with the fact that men outside the left also do not do a fair share of caretaking work, means that I feel surrounded by men who – like boys demand caretaking but do not give in return.
When I point out this inequity to men, they respond in different ways. Some say that when you clean in front of them they feel “guilty”, but they nevertheless do not help. Others say they don't have to clean up after themselves because they “do other stuff”, are “good activists” or “do favours” for you. Others say cleanliness is relative; if you are bothered by their mess, that is your problem. Others point to the cleaning they do. This behaviour is a testament to the ongoing conviction amongst men that doing some cleaning is exceptional, wheras women think doing some cleaning is an obvious part of life.
Men who make women ask them to do obvious caretaking work don't respect the energy required to do this asking. Nor do they respect that they are forcing us into a problematic gender role whereby women become nags, mothers, or angry bitches.
Men tell me they have few male friends with whom they talk about how they are feeling. Women tell me they usually rely on female friends for their emotional needs. I take from this and my personal experience that fewer men than women are doing the day-to-day emotional work necessary to get us through life's ups and downs. Often men not practised in giving emotional support nonetheless demand it from women, so women are asked to give but can expect little in return. I seldom hear men on the Left express gratitude for the emotional work women do. It is as if this work is invisible. This has contributed to my frustration when men ask formally at collective meetings how they might support a woman in a trying situation. I have wanted to say that, because women are practised caretakers, we know how to support without always asking or waiting to be told and so support first and support well. By the time men ask formally how they can help, women already have the bases covered.
While some men have made conscious efforts to unlearn sexist behaviour – including how to do and proactively doing caretaking work – these men are few. For many others, women's caretaking work remains invisible. To these men, I think it is worth considering the idea of a privileged standpoint. People experience the world differently and thus have different knowledge of the world, but this knowledge is not all equal. Rather, those groups disadvantaged by power have a privileged perspective of the world. A person who grows up in a working class household, without inherited wealth, income security, a university fund, and “connections” that come from inherited social capital, has experiences that lend themselves to a critique of class privilege. Affluent people, less aware of differences between their opportunities and those of less affluent people, will believe that they have “earned” their class positionality. Likewise, people of colour suffer racial profiling, discrimination in the housing and job market, differential treatment from educators and healthcare workers, have experiences that lend themselves to a critique of race privilege. White people, will often not see their own privilege. This does not mean all knowledge is relative, because we read power into these differences.
The same extends to men's and women's respective knowledge of the world. If men do not see the caretaking work women do, that does not mean women don't do it or that women's complaints can be ignored. It means men must look harder. If men don't see women's work, it is because this labour inequity is so normal as to not merit thought. It is inconvenient to women and thus we question it more.
Unless you are one of a small number of men who gets it, you should take personal responsibility for the collective short falling of men as a gender. This is not to say that by doing more caretaking work you will single-handedly dismantle the patriarchy. This is rather to say that the politics of patriarchy manifest in individual behaviour. The personal is political. When men refuse to equitably share care-taking work with women, they are flexing their privilege and they are wasting women's time.
Women carry fatigue and frustration at the invisibility of their work around them for along time before finally overflowing with anger. When we do overflow, often we do so at one or two men who happen to not be doing their share at that particular moment at which we can take no more. Our anger, though directed at those one or two men, is also directed at a plethora of other men. Our anger is collective, but we can rarely gather together all the men who have pissed us off and speak to them collectively. The male behaviours that upset us happen in small and big ways every day but in such a dispersed way that we have no looming symbols or institutional centres, no corporate offices or parliamentary buildings, at which we can concentrate feminist protest. Rather, we politicise behavioral patterns.
This is important to remember when women lose it at men for something that to those men, might seem small. A small failure to do obvious caretaking work is part of a larger collective failure. This larger failure is the cause of our anger, and this anger is justified. When I am angry with men who behave like boys, it is not because I'm a bitch or a nag, but because these men are wasting my time, and I do not have much to spare. What will burn me out more quickly than the state and capitalism is the unwillingness of men in the Left to see, value and share the caretaking work women do. To men as a collective: please, open your eyes, take some personal responsibility and stop wasting my time.
Mutiny Zine #39, June 2009, Sydney Australia. http://jura.org.au/files/jura/Mutin