Friday, October 14, 2005

Feminist Economics 101: The first half of Marilyn Waring's Counting for Nothing

Alright, so as you may notice i have not posted for a couple of days – partly out of mid-week fatigue and partly because i am finding it difficult to figure out exactly what to say about Marilyn Waring’s book Counting For Nothing, which i am now half-way through.

But first, before getting to that, a few technical notes, after two weeks blogging:

  1. i am wondering if i made a mistake going with blogger rather than wordpress – seems a bunch of features i would appreciate (i.e. categories) require work-arounds which are a pain in the ass…

  2. finally think i figured out the “post template” function, only it’s not as nifty as i had hoped. It basically just starts your posts out with some html code, you then have to fiddle with it

  3. i have added a “read more” function to my template, so that those loooooong posts don’t completely clog up my main page.

OK, now on to Waring’s book…

As i mentioned in my post earlier this week, after having read the Introduction to the Second Edition, this book argues that there is a male bias in the way that countries calculate their National Accounts.

Seeing as i am only half-way through this book, what follows is in-a-nutshell how i see the core of Waring’s argument so far:

  1. Countries figure out their “important numbers” (i.e. GDP, GNP, Consumer Price Index, unemployment rate, etc.) from a bunch of different surveys and censuses, and together these are called “national accounts” – these numbers are used by industry and government to set policy goals, pass legislation, work out their economic programmes, etc.

  2. There are a number of “grey areas” built into the very concepts used in these accounts, the most noteworthy one being the so-called “productive boundary”, that dividing line between activities which count as work and those that do not. To deal with these grey areas, monetary values are imputed to various activities even though in practice they are either unpaid or paid in kind.

  3. Under the present world economic system, these grey areas – which in and of themselves may be unavoidable and need not be instruments of oppression – are manipulated in such a way so as to grossly undervalue or even completely devalue women’s work. Thus, values are imputed to some productive activities but not others – and the ones that get counted tend to be activities done by men, while the ones that get relegated outside of the productive boundary tend to be done by women.

  4. This manipulation of the national accounts, this hiding of women’s labour, is part of a conscious strategy by male accountants, statisticians and politicians to exploit women.

  5. This process occurs in different ways, but is essentially the same in both the developed countries and the Third World.

  6. If this situation were remedied “the repercussions would be felt in various fields of social policy: certain forms of social security would be extended to them [housewives], as would access to adult vocational training pogrammes presently restricted to the ‘working’ population, and a greater investment would be made in social facilities such as child care centres.” (p. 10)

  7. Nevertheless, the question remains: “To what method level would this method be effective, and at what point would patriarchy reassert its power?”

OK, on points 1 to 3 Waring makes her case very well. She gives example after example of men’s unpaid labour being given a monetary value in the national accounts, and example after example of women’s work being denied any monetary value. This is even in the case of work that is often paid – her wonderful example being “when a man marries his housekeeper the GNP goes down.” (p. 61)

Now, i must admit that i am less convinced about Waring’s other points.

Point Number 4: Is there a conscious conspiracy involving a brotherhood of crooked accountants?

Sylvia Federici, in her book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, describes how in the early days of the capitalist system women were pushed out of the paid labour-force by a cross-class alliance of male workers and male rulers – now that was a conscious strategy… and it gave rise to an economic system – capitalism – which is thus congenitally and inherently patriarchal. As Maria Mies wrote in her book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: “Patriarchy thus constitutes the mostly invisible underground of the visible capitalist system.” (p. 38)

So again: are crooked accountants a feature of this system?

The question is difficult to answer, because it really depends on what one means by “crooked”. In terms of not being fair, of being exploitative, of stealing the wealth that people create, of encouraging parasitism… capitalism itself is “crooked”. But once that is said, it has to be added that within a capitalist system, an accountant or a statistician or a politician does not have to be at all crooked or dishonest in order to replicate the dishonesty and immorality inherent in the system itself.

There is a tendency to want to describe various problems as being due to “corruption” and “dishonesty”, and a great reticence to see them as structural aspects of a system. This is not only because structural problems may seem more daunting, but also because by personalizing an issue it becomes more interesting, it excites people’s imagination more, and in that way it is much more accessible. Waring – herself a former politician – may just be adept at playing to the crowd, or she may herself believe that she is up against a conspiracy by a cabal of highly-placed United Nations officials, but in the end this kind of personalistic explanation promises more than it can deliver.

The oppression of women, and the fact that so much of women’s labour is rendered invisible, are structural features of the capitalist system. Waring may identify many sexists within government, but no matter how many she exposes, it’s a safe bet there’ll still be many many more left for her to uncover, because their “sexism” – like the accountants’ “crookedness” – are features of the system. So in order to remedy this situation, a structural and historical analysis is necessary. Waring comes up short here – she is long on describing effects of capitalism but overly simplistic when describing causes.

I would recommend interested people read Maria Mies’ Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation and Butch Lee’s Night-Vision: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain, The Military Strategy of Women and Children on these questions.

Point number 5: In fairness, i believe Waring is going to try and back up this point more in the second half of her book, i will hold off on commenting on what i suspect her argument will be. Suffice it to say, that i am highly suspicious…

Point number 6 is pretty much obviated by point number 7. Essentially, Waring sees great changes potentially coming from a less sexist system of national accounts, but concedes the possibility that “patriarchy reassert its control.”

Whether or not this would be the case is indeed a good question, and one that all manner of left-feminists have mused over for some time now. How sexist does capitalism have to be, how great are the possibilities for a “post-patriarchal capitalism”?

There seems to be an implicit message in this book that the world economic system can become post-patriarchal without there necessarily having to be an anti-capitalist revolution. Waring seems somewhat taken by the belief in “male values” and “female values”, so i am guessing she imagines a world economy shorn of its male bias being one which would also be re-oriented towards human needs, less harmful of the environment, more egalitarian. At no point does she call for anything like socialism or communism or anarchism, and one gets the impression that she believes that women’s empowerment will simply cause some wider consequences that need not necessarily be spelled out…

…one almost has the impression of looking at a mirror image of the left-wing cliché that once capitalism is abolished other questions will sort themselves out. According to some comrades, no special programme is needed to deal with women’s oppression, because that’s already covered when we say “smash capitalism”!

I would argue a radically different, and more pessimistic, position that either Waring’s feminism or the clichéd left-wing anti-capitalism. Work by women like Maria Mies, Butch Lee and Sylvia Federici has convinced me that any struggle for human liberation “will have to transcend or overcome capitalist-patriarchy as one intrinsically connected system” (Mies, p. 38) and this means explicitly analyzing and fighting against all manifestations whether we see them as being primarily “capitalist” or “patriarchal”.

In this light, Waring’s plan to reform how the United Nations keeps its accounts seems somewhat trite and pedestrian - and i think this is part of why i have found it difficult to write about this book. While i find much of what Warin has to say to be interesting, i have repeatedly found myself muttering “who gives a fuck what the United Nations thinks!” – i mean this is not a system most of us conceive of being a part of any kind of liberated future, the national accounts would fade into history in a world of “no borders no nations”, never mind no classes, so what is a radical anti-capitalist supposed to be learning from this?

These questions have been popping into my head over the past few days as i have read Waring describe her run-ins and discussions with this government statistician and that economic advisor. I do have an answer in mind, but its still cohering on the edges of my mind, and i have only read half of the book so far, so i’m going to keep it under my hat for now…

Hopefully by this time next week i’ll have finished this book, and then i’ll let you know what i think!

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