Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Capitalism and the Conflict over Universality: A Feminist Perspective

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Capitalism and the Conflict over Universality: A Feminist Perspective

Article excerpt

Three Viewpoints on Universality

In a moving piece, "The Mastery of Non-Mastery" Mick Taussig recounts his travel to a Kobane devastated by the ISIS siege. Reporting a conversation with women combatants in the Women's House, he quotes the following words: "It was so terrible. It was not only we who were fighting but the whole world was with us. Truth-hakikat-is so hard here. It is not reducible to war. Soldiers can't give the truth. If you talk with them you see what ISIS did to humanity. This is a moment in history. I cannot tell you what happened. But I can tell you we were connected to each other and to the land, which is the land of humanity" (Taussig 2015). Humanity is what was at stake for the women combatants who spoke to Taussig, not only in the struggle with ISIS forces, but also in their attempt to create a democratic, ecological, and feminist society without the borders of a nation state. For Kobane does not belong to Kobane people alone. "Welcome! This town is yours! It belongs to humanity": this is how Taussig and his colleagues were welcomed when they arrived there. Faced with the large body of feminist theoretical work criticizing universalism, what shall we make of this appeal to universal humanity; to a universal connection of everybody with everybody else, to a shared destiny and a shared land; to a new, democratic, horizontal social organization for everyone to take part in; a society made by feminist combatants, who fight to liberate themselves in order to liberate us all?

The feminist problem with universality is at least as old as Olympe de Gouge's 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen. It is, moreover, a debate apparently without a compelling resolution in either direction. To a large extent the conflicts over universality within feminist theory responded to and reflected the equivocal nature of the various political embodiments of universality. This political and practical impasse can hardly be solved by means of mere conceptual discussion. However, there are good political reasons to rehash this theoretical debate. After some decades in which the imperatives of difference, particularity, and localism have been widely supported as the political antidote to the great metanarratives characterizing modern politics, we are now confronted with a major question: Is a politics that is transformative of social relations and aimed at replacing heterosexist and racist capitalism with a democratic free and egalitarian society possible without articulating universal claims and demands? This question is all the more urgent today, for feminists, in a sense, have lost their innocence. Confronted with the increasing ability of neoliberalism and nationalism to both coopt some of the ideas articulated within feminist theory and within women's movements, it is necessary to radically rethink some of the tenets of feminist discourse over the last decades. As argued by Nancy Fraser, "this is a moment in which feminists should think big. . . . In seizing this moment, we might just bend the arc of the impending great transformation in the direction of justice-and not only with respect to gender" (Fraser 2013:226).

As I will argue in this paper, insofar as the capitalist world is a "world" rather than a contingent patchwork of disjointed fragments, the notion of universality cannot be evicted from a transformative politics. Feminists must hold on to a notion of universality not merely because it is strategically effective, but more importantly because we are already entangled in the universality produced historically by both capitalist social relations and the discourse of political modernity. The question we should ask, therefore, is not so much how to free feminist politics from universalism, but rather what kind of universality we need to radically transform social relationships and end heterosexist oppression.

In "Ambiguous Universality," Étienne Balibar distinguishes between three viewpoints on universality (Balibar 2011): the first-"universality as reality"-indicates the actual interdependency between the units that build what we call the world. …

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