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The Feminist and the post-COVID-19 state

Inna Michaeli, Director of Programs at AWID

Talking to feminists these days, you get a range of perspectives on the current crisis and where we’re headed. Yes, this is our moment! - some say. Finally it’s clear to everyone why functioning health systems and public services are essential, why austerity has been killing us. We have to push harder than ever for bold feminist agendas, to take on the entire failed economic model. 

Don’t get so optimistic, say others, - crisis is also an opportunity for conservatives to push for everything from patriarchal family norms to corporate bailouts to repressive border regimes. Just look around you. Holding our ground might be the best you can get for now.

It's hard to say which direction it will go, but one thing is clear - we’re facing huge changes, from millions of people who have just lost the little income they had, to governments and tech giants laying the groundwork for a draconian surveillance of citizens. So if we want to shape the post-COVID-19 world, rather than wake up to it one day, it’s time for action. A feminist action. But which one?

I read with interest a call to social movements to think big and take power in the government. Resounding yes to thinking big. But movement mobilization to get our representatives into state institutions and government offices? Not so fast. Am I as excited to see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking truth to power, just like your next-door feminist? Sure. Yet, I’d suggest that this call relies on an outdated perception of what the nation state is and how power operates today in many parts of the world. 

If we are truly looking into the future, it’s a good time for feminists to rethink the state - and how we engage with it - while putting forth feminist solutions, alternatives and realities that are not state-centered. 

First, where is the power actually?

We know that corporations hold more wealth than states; for decades, states have been signing off their own sovereignty and political power over to corporations.

We should all prepare for corporations to start suing governments for COVID-19 response measures, because provision of clean water to the public, economic relief actions and price caps on medicines could cause losses to investors and big business, and if you ask them - it’s you and me, the public, who must compensate them. Even if you’re lucky and the government has the political will to bailout the people, how they can do it is an entirely different question. The pursuit after investment at all costs has set an entire legal architecture of investor treaties and trade agreements in place to bind state institutions in the service of corporate interests. Over 2,600 agreements, to be precise, while we’re still fighting for a single treaty on corporations and human rights. Untangling this structure is not an easy task.

Second, what is the state of international cooperation, which relies on the nation-state system?

The United Nations historically has been important for feminist gains. In many countries, feminists were able to take progressive resolutions won in the UN, and push for change on the national level. Increasingly undermined and underfunded, the UN is now faced with the growing influence of conservatives and anti-rights actors on the one hand, and the private sector on the other. Many feminists continue engaging with the UN because of our commitment to the principle of international cooperation - multilateralism. Yet, we are managing our expectations and not holding our breath, because we know that old fashioned lobby and advocacy alone won’t do. Rather, we need to reimagine multilateralism; the entire UN system needs a thorough transformation to allow for a powerful advancement of gender justice and social justice agendas.

Thirdly, not only the COVID-19 crisis is experienced differently by different communities and in various parts of the world; the state of the state across political contexts varies.

In some countries it might make sense for a feminist or a social movement candidate to run for office. In others, it does not. The political context might be too fascist, volatile or corrupt, state institutions might seem too ineffective to be transformed from within, or you and your movement may simply not recognize the legitimacy of the government. 

To illustrate the latter, I remember myself as a young feminist, trying to explain to a puzzled European woman why for some of us, entering the entire Israeli political system of elections was out of question. As feminists in the left, we did not recognize the legitimacy of a government that ruled over the Palestinian people through occupation and colonization. From conversations with feminists in other countries I know that “the state” can mean very different things for us.

While authoritarian responses and tendencies are rising in this moment in many countries, we are witnessing widespread and deep community organizing and solidarity initiatives flourishing

These responses to people’s immediate needs demonstrate what’s truly important and essential for our survival and social life - care work, food, housing, health, environment, to name a few. Importantly, these responses manifest not only the practices, but also the fundamental values and cultural trajectories that must be at the core of our society, our economic system, our political institutions. 

And guess what, these trajectories are not the outdated economic theories with the image of the self-interested, risk-taking profit-seeking entrepreneur or the self-satisfied politician full of himself. Both images, one should note, originate from 19th and 20th century theories of white male colonizers that continue dominating the mainstream economic and political order. As feminists, we often hear that engaging with this order rather than challenging it is the pragmatic thing to do. Sometimes it might be the case, other times pragmatism is nothing but solidification of the systems that work against us; a discourse of pragmatism is evoked to limit our political imagination and narrow the boundaries of what is possible. 

If one good thing could come out of COVID-19, it is precisely this realization, that the decisions to privatize health systems, abolish social safety nets and welfare policies, create millions of precarious jobs, and sign off powers to big pharma, are anything but “pragmatic”.

It is outright destructive for humanity, and for the environment. As is the gradual de-radicalization of Left parties across the world and the adoption of mild right-wing or outright neoliberal ideologies, in a desperate - and as a rule failed - attempt to attract public support.

The reality is that some of us have depended on community support networks for all our lives, - be it for economic survival, for healthcare and emotional support, or for creating sub-cultures that give our lives creative force and meaning. I am talking about queer and trans communities, migrant communities, undocumented persons, sex workers, domestic workers, Black and Brown communities, working class and other social groups on the peripheries of institutional power. 

Yes, the state now fails millions of people, but many of us never could expect much from the state. Communities that have been surviving in the face of oppression and exclusion have also been creating autonomous political structures, participatory social institutions, environmental care practices and common values. We have been creating and living feminist realities, feminisms in practice.

Whether seeking to engage with existing political institutions, to reimagine them or to organize entirely outside of them, I believe this is where we find our most realistic, most pragmatic feminist compass.

* The ideas expressed in this text are inspired by conversations and learnings from recent conversations of the AWID Board, staff and partners.