Why Feminism and Capitalism Cannot Co-exist

Black feminist bell hooks writes:

“Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.” -bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, 1984


Notice the difference between bell hook’s definition of feminism versus the popular perception of the term. When people usually envision feminism they immediately envision equality between men and women as the goal of the movement. The main problem with this view of feminism is that it does not account for intersectionality and how different systems of oppression exist due to racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. They do not see that the goal of feminism is to free everybody from oppression.

One view of feminism is that it emphasizes equality in relation to equal pay and lack of discrimination in the workplace. However, capitalism does not allow absolute equality to exist within it. When people say equality amongst the genders, what is really implied is equality between middle and upper middle class white women who are only oppressed based on gender. In this sense, a lack of intersectionality does not account for how racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia together affects women of color, women from a range of socio-economic class backgrounds, and queer people of color when it comes to equal pay and discrimination; it only shows the impact on white middle class women. The video below shows Crenshaw explaining her theory of intersectionality.

Civil rights and critical race law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw focuses on this idea as identity politics. She once wrote that LAPD programs helping to end domestic violence for women of color could not be achieved for those who were undocumented or could not speak English. One woman “was repeatedly denied accommodation to a shelter because she could not prove she was English-proficient.”  This issue of identity politics is prevalent in constructing policy: if a law is made to eliminate discrimination against  women in the workforce, the highest group within that hierarchy, white women, would succeed, but others would not reap the total benefits. Then, laws would likely have to be made to specifically address the issue of incorporating women of color in laws combating discrimination because the previous piece of legislation did not. The highest group within that hierarchy, for example, would be straight women of color, and they would be the only ones seamlessly benefitting from the legislation. Then laws would then have to be made, for example, eliminating the discrimination against queer communities. Then disabled communities. Then, possibly, communities that do not speak English.

The problem with this top-down approach of implementing equality is that it always continues because every single person is unique in how they experience their oppressions and there are tons of categories of identity that are affected by systems of oppression.  And when one group rises above others to attain so-called equality to white men, a domination complex does not disappear. Often oppressed groups become the oppressor. bell hooks’  statement that “patriarchy has no gender,” is truly relevant: groups that aspire to become equal to male oppressors rise above other groups, reinforcing the patriarchy.

People seem to be concerned with making everyone more equal under the system of capitalism, even though this is not possible. The problem is that the idea of capitalism, in its very definition, is based on rising above others through ascending in class. When one person succeeds in the capitalistic sense, they rise above others and put others down wealth wise, contributing to a mentality of domination that is at the root of inequality.

Black feminist theorist Audre Lorde

Relative wealth is a zero-sum game. When one person becomes richer, others become poorer. A society in which everyone is perfectly rich is not possible, because the definition of being rich necessitates having more money relative to others. It was Audre Lorde who said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The “master’s house,” or white supremacist patriarchy, is consolidated by oppressive “tools.” The ideology of domination, as well as the capitalism which accompanies it, is a “master’s tool.” A mentality of domination is a master’s tool that favors white patriarchy. And while rising up over, say, all white men economically may prove that a woman of color temporarily counters the white patriarchy, domination within society never disappear. 

Thus, an elimination of “economic expansion” and “material desires,” as bell hooks points out, destroys one way in which an “ideology of dominance permeates society,” and so, it is a major part of the feminist vision to end gender-based oppression.

During eleventh grade, I went on a school trip to Tucson, Arizona to observe and analyze the dynamics of border politics from the perspective of undocumented people, activists, and actual Border Patrol agents. My group and I had the opportunity to talk to a Black Haitian male Border Patrol agent about how he felt about his job. We asked him about his decision to move from a job in finance on Wall Street to getting a senior position at Border Patrol in Arizona, and he merely stated that the pay was better and the hours were good.We asked him how he felt about separating families and preventing immigrants seeking better lives from crossing the border. To both of these, he responded that he made it a habit to prevent himself from associating any emotions with his job. He mentioned that his parents were immigrants from Haiti and we asked him how he felt whenever he detained an undocumented immigrant from Haiti. He responded similarly to how he did in the previous question. At one point, he said that he thought “more about basketball” than the implications of his job.  

The Border Patrol agent we interviewed in Arizona in 2018 (photo credit: Weston Delacey)

We kept on bombarding him with questions regarding his emotions, to his empathy and sympathy towards the people he detained, and he simply disregarded all that as a coping mechanism to what he saw as a “good job.” From my point of view, he had internalized racism from white patriarchy and then he continued to perpetuate that oppression on to others (even people from within his own racial and ethnic identity!) through his own material aspirations. This white supremacist system forced the Border Patrol agent to prioritize, what bell hooks would call, his personal aspirations towards “economic expansion” over the “self-development” of himself and his own people by oppressing and exercising his power over them. Such sums up capitalism and how it is not feminist in the slightest.  

In his abandonment of feeling emotion coupled with his loss of humanity, the Border Patrol agent was experiencing, as Audre Lorde would say, a “suppression of the erotic.” Lorde uses the term “erotic” as a sense of genuine love for oneself, others, what they do, and the world around them; for Lorde, the erotic does not mean illicit sex or promiscuity. A truly feminist society would incorporate the erotic in all parts, and have no materialism. Instead of focusing on a job that truly made him happy, that enlightened him, that had “life appeal and fulfillment” as Lorde would say, the Border Patrol agent of color we talked to instead felt pressured to accumulate wealth and rise above others.This mentality of dominance was present to his occupation, and clouded his own genuine interests. This sense of domination which coexists with a void in the erotic is exactly what we need to eradicate. It connects to bell hooks’s definition of feminism when she writes of prioritizing “the self-development of people” over the appeasement of “economic expansion” and an “ideology of domination.”

Tucson High School Chicano and ethnic studies history teacher and activist José Gonzalez (photo credit: Weston Delacey)

During this trip, we also visited Tucson High School and talked to Jose Gonzalez, a history teacher who was an activist involved in protecting Tucson’s ethnic studies and Mexican-American Studies program from Arizona lawmakers. Gonzalez highlighted how people can abandon their own beliefs in order to acquire money (just like the Border Patrol agent we interviewed) and he saw this reflected within his own Chicano students at Tucson High who were considering jobs in Border Patrol. In this sense, the government offered money to people to do a job that would complete its goals of domination of people of color. The state acts as the master, who uses the tools of employment and capital to further oppress and re-enslave those who are trying to break free. In this scenario, people of color use the master’s tools to individually rise up economically, even at the expense of other people of color. This model of economic mobility provides no real advancement for all those who are oppressed.

Additionally, in the Combahee River Collective Black Feminist Statement of 1977, they also have a Black feminist vision against capitalism. They write: “Work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses.” In the free market, rich executives hire workers at a price that will allow the executives to operate on a larger profit margin, despite not doing any work. This mechanism allows those in power to get richer and continue dominating, while continuing to dehumanize the oppressed. Thus, capitalism serves as a perpetuator of wealth inequality within itself, and, as a result, perpetuates the hierarchical power structure of domination which is at the root of white supremacist patriarchy.

When our class attended a one-day feminist conference at The People’s Forum, we heard a lecture about the Black feminist novelist, Paule Marshall, that envisioned a more economically-equal society in the future. In her novel, Daughters, Marshall emphasized in her depiction the status of rich Black people who were more present in the corporate world, and that they were “selling out their race,” something I was confused about when I first heard it. Was not the idea of Black people rising up economically a good thing?

However, now that I have taken this high school feminism class and read more Black feminist theory,  I now clearly understand the issue Marshall was highlighting: these characters of color who were idolized as pinpoints of success were merely supporting an economic system that oppressed their own people. Those who represented “success” were merely assuming the roles of the bosses and the others were merely workers who were victims of profit and the economic gap between the two highlighted economic domination.

Also, in having a few people from oppressed groups rise up economically as examples of success, oppressed groups as a whole are not freed. No one is freed. Again, individuals rising up through using the “master’s tools” of capitalism do not free everyone and “dismantle the master’s house.”

Our high school feminism class at The People’s Forum in New York for an event titled Global Radicalism: Solidarity, Internationalism, and Feminist Futures. (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez)

Companies, in search of profit, are willing to harm and further dehumanize others for the sake of their goals. Some industries, like oil, hurt the environment and take land away from native peoples, despite opposition from doing so. Again, there is little emotion in these decisions, and they serve to work a mentality of dominance in further oppressing native peoples. However, profits are prioritized and always shine through. hooks’ theme of oppression as a result of “economic expansion” still persists here.  When our class attended the International Day of the Girl Child at the UN, we found out that people working on pipelines in North and South Dakota went to local tribal territories and raped women because, according to federal law, tribal law did not apply to people from outside the tribe. The company was exercising dominance in the first place by having the money to be able to legally disregard the significance of the territory to the tribe. This power manifested into raping the tribe’s women with no economic repercussions to the company. There were no legal ramifications for the workers and company had no incentive to prevent its employees from doing so, because all it functioned on was money.

It is apparent that the main problem with capitalism is itself, in its repression of genuine human emotion and desire and its inherent dominance. We are blind to the oppression people face everyday as a result of our damaging economic system. The only way to end such things warrants the end of capitalism and the beginning of systemic change towards a more socialist feminist society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s