Nancy Folbre Lecture on Gender and Economics

As I was researching the reading list for my new class on the Women’s Economy, I found this video of Nancy Folbre giving a talk on Women’s Work and Capitalism at the New School. We will be reading Greed, Lust, and Gender this term.

Folbre is brilliant and compassionate. The talk is just wonderful. I want to call special attention to the last question. A woman who had attended a conference on women’s rights and poverty alleviation stands up and, with a quavering voice, says she has just learned there is more slavery in the world today than ever before and most of the slaves are females forced into traffic.

These facts are thought to be true by many experts. It is a sad comment on the “rich world” that most people (not just in America) don’t know it. But that is not my point.

The questioner says that there was discussion at the conference about corporate social responsibility and microcredit. She refers to various interventions where girls would be able to become economically independent. The questioner does not feel this tactic is appropriate, though her only explanation for her feelings is to start labelling (e.g., it is “neoliberal” and so on). She does not have a reasoned argument.

I was pleased that when it was Folbre’s turn to answer, she turned the question back on the woman by asking her what her preferred solution would be. And, of course, the woman does not have a solution. Instead, she again falls back on labelling (says she is a “democractic socialist” and we are to infer that this means she wouldn’t want to include corporations in solving these problems under any circumstances) and that she would want something “more comprehensive,” something that involves a “revolution.”

Folbre responds that she would want to try whatever new methods might seem promising and, especially, things that were “collaborative” and “sustainable.”

I was pleased by this exchange because I thought Folbre handled the question gracefully and kindly (as she did all others), but also because it illustrates something we are experiencing constantly when studies about market-based approaches are presented or appear in the press. There is this unquestioned stance whereby any proposed solution must be “comprehensive,” cannot be “individualistic.” Yet the critic never has an alternative to propose, other than the usual, implicit ones (where there is either a revolution or the state steps in). This is where I see the shadows of the old cultural studies feminists still lurking on the edges of debate.

What “comprehensive” solution will there be? And who will initiate it and how? Without particulars, this objection is nothing but ideological grand-standing. In many of the developing countries, the idea that the state can or will step in on behalf of women is simply naive Very often these states are underfunded or corrupt–and often are unfriendly to women’s rights. Revolutions create a violent instability that often devolves into right-wing tyranny (as in Iran)–very bad for women.

And, given the lack of a serious comprehensive alternative to be proposed, I do not understand people who will dismiss any partial solution on the basis that it is partial. They seem to say that if a program won’t help everyone, equally, immediately, it isn’t worth undertaking! This seems heartless and morally irresponsible to me.

Finally, I don’t understand, especially in these days of rage at the 1%, why people would not want the corporations to be paying back in. I suppose these folks would argue that CSR programs are not enough to compensate for the profits that top executives are taking out. So far, I would agree. But this ideologically motivated pushback against them is not likely to encourage growth in programs to combat poverty. In the meantime, simply rejecting any less-than-all-out-revolution, led-by-the-state solution seems like old style, failed thinking to me.

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