Neoliberalism, Capitalism and Gender Violence

Last week I was at a conference where I was invited to give a paper. The conference, on the interactions of capitalism and music, was convened by Dr Anna Morcom of RHUL in association with the Institute of Musical Research, London. It was a very interesting conference with presenters from different aspects of the music industry and music genres sharing their work. In addition to being exposed to those genres of music that I was unfamiliar with (such as Rap, Hip Hop, traditional Irish music, a specific type of evangelical gospel music, etc.), the conference helped understand capitalism in other ways to what I have been doing so far. An interesting argument that was raised often during the conference was the presence of multiple capitalisms, in plural. In other words, it was argued that it is problematic to reify capitalism as a uniform system that can be described using one definition.

Earliest works on free market and mobility of labour transcending geographical borders such as that of Thomas Friedman, whilst useful in understanding the idea of nation-state in alternate ways, have made the arguments as though capitalism is a seamless phenomenon (and thereafter, a system) that works uniformly across all societies. Of course, those ideas have been severely contested by academics, in general, and economists, in particular. However, it was rather refreshing and very interesting (to me at least) when each presenter at the conference used their corresponding examples to show how making capitalism a ‘it’ does not work. For instance, Dr Jayson Beaster-Jones discussed this disconnect, between ‘popular imagination of capitalism’ as he accurately put and how values of capitalism functions in the society, using his ethnographic work on music chain-stores in India. He argued that there was an uneven upward mobility within the economic classes even if the social contexts within which representatives of such classes were working represented a different, imaginative and a rather rosy picture.

I want to extend this critique of capitalism, as a product of neoliberal economic policies, to the issue of gender norms and specifically, gender violence in contemporary India. For a while now, I have been attempting to formulate a way in which gender norms and identities can be understood within the context of neoliberalism (and capitalism) and to see what this interaction does to the questions of gender norms, gender equality and constructions of gender identities. These questions came to me after incidents of violence against women were reported by the Indian news media, more often now than in the past.

In 2012, the Guardian published an article citing a poll that India is the worst place for women to work. There is nothing specifically remarkable about the article except that India was ranked amongst all the rich G20 nations. Of course, there is a rationale to taking economic growth into account: arguably, when a country’s economy grows, the government can afford to provide public safety, healthcare, jobs, which ideally would help is closing the gender gap (I know am taking leap here with my simplistic assumptions as the article rightly gives the example of Saudi Arabia to make a case of not being so; however, economic indicators have been taken into account as a measure for gender inequality and violence, as the article points out). After the gang rape and essentially, murder of a student in Delhi in 2012, Ratna Kapur, a columnist wrote about the crisis (perceived…?) of masculinity that has occurred since women have entered the workforce.

Women’s entry to workforce has largely been due to the ‘economic expansion’ that set course in the early 1990s India. Until then whilst it was common for women to do engineering and science degrees, historically seen as fields of study for men, newer ‘economic boom’ certainly provided more employment opportunities for women studying these courses. In addition, women in general found positions in the outsourcing sector with increase in migration to ‘tech-cities’ such as Bangalore, Gurgaon, Noida, Hyderabad, Chennai, etc. One of the seeming merits of neoliberalisms is to create a common economic sphere where all gender identities can participate. Thus, workers/employees are generally seen as labour, in a broad sense, and their productivity is measured based on profits, surplus value, etc. There is some goodness in all gender identities being treated equally, right? (If we were to ignore Marx and look for silver lining here…!).

Running deep within this issue is the assumption that economic power awarded to women must result in gender equality and agency for women—this economic power, in this context, brought by these economic policies. Another assumption is that neoliberal policies will have a uniform effect on any society that either adopts it or is imposed upon. This neoliberalism of ‘popular imagination’ is severely contested when instances of gender violence are reported. [Note that I said reported and not occur because it is the naiveté of non-occurrences of such incidents that I am attempting to critique here]. The question then arises as to why economic opportunities do not solve all problems in a society. Of course, popular response to these incidents is that of ‘Othering’ the societies that do not conform to the ‘popular imagination’ of neoliberalism—to say, for instance, that these societies are inherently ‘backward’, ‘uncivilized’, etc. and hence no amount of economic progress can transform these ‘barbarians’. At least, the international media will be quick to come to that conclusion.

And here is where it helps to see neoliberalism(s) and capitalism(s), which I will discuss soon, in plural. Subjectivity of these economic policies within different societies is something that ‘popular imagination’ grapples with or overlooks completely. Call centres that predominately have night-shift work pattern might seem as creating an equal ground for all gender identities to work together. To be fair, companies with night-shift work patterns have organised taxis to pick up and drop off employees, mainly for the safety of female employees; however, so many incidents of rape-and-murder of female employees by cab drivers have been reported on a daily basis. Economic opportunities, for instance, does not help women in a context within which women are expected to learn self-protection skills to walk on the road at night, returning from work, to fight sexual harassment. As I have argued previously, it is very disconcerting to see that I have to earn my right to walk on a road safely! In contemporary India, women’s right to go to pubs is cited as a mark of freedom the ‘New India’ has brought. However, reports of women being attacked inside the pubs, and stalked and attacked outside is all too common. There are not many reports of sexual violence at work place, but does not mean it does not occur. The how question—what solutions we can find to end such violence is discussed by, if I may cite her article again, Ratna Kapur and myself here.

Where does the question of capitalism arise here? In everyday contexts, capitalism functions through the existing status-quo. It is, for instance, not entirely accurate to argue that capitalism perpetuates gender inequality- at least not in all contexts. If we were to rephrase that argument, it is accurate to say that capitalism feeds upon the existing gender inequality for its own end. There are multiple forms of capitalism(s) at function here: on the one hand, through neoliberal economic policies, women have been given the economic power to participate in the capitalistic economy. At the same time, capitalism functions on the existing gender norms and stereotypes that restrict women from participating with agency. Take the example of marriage industry. Women can now earn and pay for their weddings and have the power to reject dowry system. However, the marriage industry has become so bloated and extravagant, partially due to the same spending power of everyone in general, that staying unmarried is still not a socially acceptable option; rather, the market keeps emphasizing the role of women as a bride, wife and a mother. How does this relate to gender violence and specifically, violence against women? Marriage industry is only an example of the incongruences in the way capitalism(s) work. Whilst it gives economic agency (albeit limited due to various reasons) to women, it also functions in the public sphere by feeding on the existing gender roles and norm. Thus, we see an unevenness, a contradiction to the ‘popular imagination’ of capitalism. Cutting across this issue is the issue of class, which I do not wish to explore here. However, it is suffice to say that gender identities along with class complicates it further.

This is not to say that the economic opportunities available for women in contemporary India is a complete failure. Rather, it is helpful to acknowledge that economic development is not a uniform phenomenon that works across all societies. This helps in finding ways to address the problems of gender violence in a productive way rather than ‘Othering’ these societies. In addition, it will also help us to see that gender discrimination at work place, gender violence are problems that prevail in all societies, even in the ‘developed world’, that need to be addressed as Everyday Sexism project has been showing to us.

This argument is a work-in-progress for me; I welcome comments and criticisms to think through these issues more clearly.