Britain’s Daily Mail recently reported that T-shirts for the “this is what a feminist looks like” campaign costing £45 ($71) were being made by women in Mauritius working in sweatshop-like conditions. One veteran feminist rounded on her fellow ideologues:
‘While London fashionistas and point-scoring politicians brag about their right-on credentials by wearing the £45 shirt, the predominantly female migrant workers who actually make them have to work a grueling 45-hour basic week, live in barrack-style dormitories, 16 to a room, and are paid a derisory 62p an hour to make ends meet,’ adding, ‘there’s nothing remotely feminist about having T-shirts made by poorly paid migrant workers in the Third World.’
I beg to differ. I think exploiting Third World women is something western feminism does all the time. It would seem beyond dispute that women in the west live more privileged lives than those in “poor” countries. After all, what western woman has ever lived 16 to a room? Arguably women in the west live more privileged lives than everyone on Earth, with the exception of that small group of elite men they are so clearly fixated upon both sexually and, as feminists, politically.
But that doesn’t stop feminists gleefully reporting that life is getting tougher for western women: apparently the UK came in at only no. 26 in the global gender gap rankings (the US was 20th). That’s better than Mauritius at 62, but far behind Rwanda at no. 6. As one commenter put it though maybe Rwanda closing the gender gap just means that life over there is is equally crap for everyone.
But when not competing with their “third world” rivals for top victim status, western feminists tend to argue for international solidarity, which translated means that western feminism should be a model for the rest of the world. Like liberal modernisation theory, feminism assumes that less developed countries (LDCs) should develop into more developed (i.e. progressive) countries.
Such a linear model of development has been challenged for being western, imperialist, and just plain wrong, but as an internationalist movement—the idea that women everywhere are in fact an “oppressed class”—it has revolutionary overtones as well. The internationalism of the women’s movement conveys the sense that the women of the world are a gender proletariat, and politically conscious western feminists the revolutionary vanguard.
Recently celebrities like Emma Watson and Beyoncé have joined the cause. Emma, as the vanguard intellectual responsible for the HeforShe initiative, appealed for the world’s men to fight with her against counter-revolutionary forces. There is an obvious irony to elite women celebrities like Ms. Watson fighting for feminism, including for themselves. But at least Watson attempts a sincere effort at being a “role model,” even if her ideology is poisonous.
But what sort of role model does “feminist” Beyoncé provide for women in traditional societies when she grinds and gyrates on stage? Or for that matter feminist shock artists like Femen or Pussy Riot? Do girls in Afghanistan have a better or worse chance of being educated and respected on account of a feminism that seems to offer help and assistance while seeking to stir the hornet’s nest on the other?
I don’t doubt that idealistic young women naively expect feminism to help disadvantaged women abroad. But having a kind heart doesn’t mean much if the effect is to make things worse. Indeed one of the main effects of global progressivism seems to be that it inflames more traditional societies, making them more resistant to the kind of small improvements that might actually make a difference. When “progress,” “humans rights,” and “spreading democracy” sound like bywords for imperialism to the people they’re supposed to help, then maybe it’s time activists pushing the agenda asked themselves if they are partially to blame for the world burning.
So far, the above could be (implausibly) explained as “great powers” pushing a cause that coincidentally has both good and bad effects for the intended beneficiaries. But I would like to suggest that western feminism has a selfish interest in perpetuating the misfortune of women in the third world.
As the world becomes more formally democratic and consensual, those who wish to act in the world must demonstrate they have justice on their side; not the justice of might is right, but the justice of fighting against injustice. In the case of Afghanistan, the War on Terror needed feminism as an easily marketable social justice cause. To put this another way, being able to claim you are fighting against “injustice” has now become an important political resource in its own right.
This ability to invoke an ethical crusade is a resource like any other, like oil, gas, or water. It establishes not only the grounds for action, but also the redistributive action. It is a form of social capital, or what has been called ethical capital. Moreover, injustice, by virtue of the redistributive claims that can be made on its account, has material benefits for those who can command it for their own purpose.
Thus, western feminism desperately needs the international feminist cause to be its own struggle. Increasingly insecure about the weight of its own cause, with its manufactured outrage and paranoid claims of misogyny sometimes amounting to no more than complaints about hurtful words, western feminists have an ever increasing need to “import” injustice from abroad. That way, as long as women in other countries remain genuinely oppressed it doesn’t matter how privileged western women themselves become. Global feminism’s balance sheet will always show them in credit.
Some marxists have argued that the reason “modernization” doesn’t work is that it isn’t supposed to. Gunther Frank for instance argued that developed countries benefited by “under-developing” less fortunate ones. According to him, the wealth of the less developed periphery was repatriated to the metropolis—be it New York, London or Amsterdam—in an unequal exchange, for example a transfer of technology for natural resources.
Something similar is going on with the “technology transfer” of western progress for the resources of (negative) ethical capital that oppressed women in LDCs possess in such abundance. Ethical commodities are exchanged for the ethical capital of “injustice” so that rich white women in the west get to look beautiful “wearing” real pain and injustice, as though it were a fur coat. But there’s blood dripping from those furs, and its time they admitted it wasn’t theirs.
The problem is feminism needs third world injustice because in every meaningful sense it has exhausted its own supplies. Hurt feelings, unkind words, and making a few pennies less because your career stalled when you chose to have a baby isn’t the same as being shot in the head for wanting to go to school. Unfortunately messages like that don’t sell t-shirts.