Putting gender justice into alternative economic agendas

In 2010, many of us across the JASS community are thinking about how to define and promote economic democracy as a critical element of our gender justice efforts, and any equality effort for that matter. So I was very excited to read the"6 foundational ideas for a progressive economic agenda" by Deepak Bhargava, an influential, inspiring social justice leader/thinker in the US who heads a large organization - Center for Community Change -- dedicated to grassroots organizing, a bit like JASS, but focused on the USA. While definitely a US perspective, it's recommended reading. I'll quote the main section that caught my attention:

Our alternative has to challenge directly some of the underlying assumptions of conservative economic ideology – these are familiar to us. Human beings are naturally selfish, competition is the primary engine of progress. Wealth is mainly created by business owners and investors; the more they are rewarded, the more everyone benefits. Free markets are fair and efficient and should be left alone. The smallest government is the best government. We live in a color-blind society, and racism is a thing of the past.

Here are some potential foundational ideas for a progressive economic vision:

  1. Wealth is created not by individual entrepreneurs, but by all of us.
    Activities often viewed as irrelevant to economic production –scholarship, art, science, public service, social work, caregiving – are integral to wealth creation. Societies that invest broadly in child welfare, education, health care, environmental protection and other “collective” goods are not just fairer, but ultimately more prosperous. The conflict between economic growth and social equity, the alleged bone of contention between conservatives and liberals, is more myth than reality.
  2. Our shared quality of life is more important than the private accumulation of wealth.
    When the pursuit of private gain promotes growth and innovation, it should be duly rewarded, but not to the detriment of the common good. The speculative frenzy of the housing bubble, the excessive salaries and bonuses of executives, undermined our economy rather than strengthening it. Capital that was locked up in lavish mansions, luxury vehicles, and financial speculation could have been used more beneficially for education, transportation, clean energy, primary health care and other investments that generate long-term growth and shared prosperity. Private wealth should be respected, but it is not sacrosanct.
  3. Human beings are complex, and capable of many things, not just selfishness.
    Let me be clear: we as progressives do not naively assume that people are always good, but we do assert that people are capable of acting morally and with care and compassion for each other. We also are unapologetic in asserting that we have deep moral obligations to care for one another -- to act and behave as though other people count for as much as we do, and that future generations have a claim on our behavior today. From these principles, we can make specific moral claims: $3 million gold ipods, 1.2 billion yachts, 2milion dollar sound systems, $65,000 a night hotel rooms are just plain wrong –they are morally wrong, and while I’m not sure they should be outlawed, they should be viewed as sociopathic behavior and as such the subject of cultural critique.
  4. Inequality in wealth and income beyond a certain point –and we are surely well beyond it in the United States in 2010—is bad for democracy and bad for the economy.
    Equality –not exact parity—is a necessary condition for a just society. And, to the extent that massive inequality helped to cause the Great Recession, it may also be said that equality is good economic policy.
  5. Racial inequality is not separable from economic inequality in the United States –they are part and parcel of the same set of structures and so any progressive economic project must put racial justice at the center.
  6. Broader participation by workers and communities –more democracy-- improves rather than impedes economic productivity, innovation and growth."

I'm back. Yes, it's compelling and clear, and quite applicable to our own thinking on economic democracy. But do you notice anything missing? Like, "women" or gender inequality?

Considering that the World Economic Forum's 2009 report on the gender gap ranked the USA 17th overall, and 46th in terms of women's economic opportunities , I thought this rather a stunning and troublesome omission that would surely undermine the success of the whole package! So, I commented with all due respect for the contribution. This is what I said: My organization works in 27 countries, regionally and internationally – focused on movement-building around gender justice agendas. We recognize some common political threads with CCC, and since we are somewhat free-er politically outside the US to frame economic issues, we go ahead and just say that we work on “economic democracy.” So, it is with great interest that I read your speech and the 6 foundational ideas. Bravo!

But incomplete.

Maybe you thought that 6 was an easy round number but a 7th is sorely lacking, without which, the full package of ideas will fail to generate growth and equity as you propose.

It has to do with gender equality and justice. I found it odd, since many of your staff and members are women and there is such clear data on gender-based economic inequality – such as lower wages, fewer job opportunities and options for advancement, lack of paid maternity leave and childcare, and the devaluing of women's unpaid labor -- all that caring that keeps the whole machine running. And we're talking about 51% of the population. That is, not an interest group.

So, here’s my proposal for your 7th:

Gender inequality is inseparable from economic and racial inequality and deeply structural; women’s inability to fully engage in and benefit from the economic life of our country hurts all of us as well as women themselves.

This comment's long but the troublesome absence of gender inequality and justice in progressive agendas in the US suggests we’ve got a lot of talking to do. And yes, have the courage to say the “unsayable.” Thanks. (End of comment)

I recommend that you share your comments to help our progressive allies in the US bring gender equality and gender justice back into US social justice agendas!