Neoliberal Education and Free-market Feminism in India

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In The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels stated: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” With the advent of neoliberalism, we have witnessed a process of ideological re-construction in which every attempt has been to fundamentally structure and shape social metabolism according to the needs of a new economic base. In this comprehensive operation, neoliberal ideologues have extensively utilized schools as important camps for the long-drawn-out percolation of a new “common sense”.

Like elsewhere, India has also re-formatted its educational apparatus to structurally align it with the directives of an emerging capitalist consensus. This article attempts to examine the manifestations of such a consensus in the second chapter “People as Resource” of the “Economics Textbook for Class IX” written by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). It will specifically dissect the section of the chapter concerned with issues related to the economic status of women. Through a Marxist analysis, it will be revealed that India’s educational architecture has been buttressing neoliberalism on the terrain of discursive struggles by regurgitating the hackneyed axioms of the corporate world.

The Falsehoods of Meritocracy

In the subsection “Economic Activities by Men and Women”, it is written: “Education and skill are the major determinants of the earning of any individual in the market. A majority of women have meagre education and low skill formation. Women are paid low compared to men… women with high education and skill formation are paid at par with the men.” This textual snippet perfectly encapsulates the crass ahistoricity and free-market fundamentalism of the book’s perspective towards the subjugation of women. The text presents the capitalist market as an unbiased arbitrator of people’s lives, sanitizing the fact that it is totally based upon the violent and coercive extraction of surplus value from workers.

The reverence of market’s “impartial” attitude towards “skills” is reflective of the stranglehold meritocracy has on neoliberalized societies. Meritocratic values have been foisted upon the working class to perpetuate the myth that socio-historic contexts don’t have any bearings on the personal trajectories of different individuals. Instead of taking into account the multiplicity of interrelations that make up an individual, meritocracy inflates the conception of “skills” into some abstract and static generality. When this prefabricated device is artificially superimposed on the entirety of society, we are left with the deafening chants about the “laziness” of subalterns who prove to be unable of climbing up the ladder of success and glory.

When a meritocratic perspective is used to look at the existential state of women under capitalism, any mention of structural factors is eschewed because in a meritocratic utopia everything is only dependent on one’s “skills”. Consequently, what women need today is increased “skill formation” so that they can be uplifted from their hapless situation by the Market God. In “Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto”, Cinzia Arruzza, Nancy Fraser, and Tithi Bhattacharya call this political outlook “liberal feminism” whose “real aim is not equality, but meritocracy. Rather than seeking to abolish social hierarchy, it aims to “diversify” it, “empowering” “talented” women to rise to the top…its proponents seek to ensure that a few privileged souls can attain positions and pay on a par with the men of their own class. By definition, the principal beneficiaries are those who already possess considerable social, cultural, and economic advantages. Everyone else remains stuck in the basement.”

A Marxist Understanding of Women’s Oppression

In contradistinction to the neoliberal-meritocratic understanding of women’s conditions in the contemporary period, Marxism insists that the market is not a neutral entity which metes out fair treatment to everyone based on their merit. On the contrary, it is essentially entwined with social categories and feeds on gender divisions. Capitalism uses past and current modes of social discrimination and exclusion to its own benefit, to facilitate the extraction of surplus and ensure greater flexibility and bargaining to employers when dealing with workers. Thus, patriarchy – far from being an alien component of the market – is an indispensable cultural code which capitalism endlessly uses to stabilize and consolidate unbridled capital accumulation.

In capitalist societies, there remain essential but usually unpaid activities (such as cooking, cleaning and other housework, provisioning of basic household needs, child care, care of the sick and the elderly, as well as community-based activities), which are largely seen as the responsibility of the women. This unpaid work in social reproduction subsidizes wages by lowering the worker’s socially necessary cost of living, which in turn increases the share of surplus value in the total value created in the capitalist mode of production. The sustained utilization of women’s unpaid work for capitalist profit-maximization can only be maintained through the whiplash of patriarchy.

Apart from unpaid labor, capitalism also benefits from women’s paid labor. The existence of a gender pay gap in the labor market means that the production of exchange values by women is highly profitable for capitalists. Women’s engagement in outside work for an income does not mean that unpaid work has ceased to exist. Women from poor families who are engaged in outside work cannot afford to hire others to perform these tasks, so these become a “double burden” of work for such women. Now, women are producing both use values and exchange values, with the latter being produced at extremely cheap wages.

Revolutionary Feminism

From an analysis of the NCERT economics textbook’s discussion of women exploitation, it is evident that schools in India have been functioning as neoliberal ideological apparatuses, carefully coordinating and managing consent for the existing social structure of accumulation. To counter-act the reactionary influence of such an educational experience, we need to disseminate the idea of “revolutionary feminism”. Cecilia Zamudio forcefully describes the essence of such a feminist ideology: “The struggle for the emancipation of women and the struggle against capitalism are inseparable. For a revolutionary feminism, which is not a cover photo but a daily struggle, which fights against all exploitation.”

The crafting of intra-subaltern linkages and the concrete contextualization of women’s struggle in the wider panorama of anti-capitalist resistance allows us to avoid falling into the co-opted form of feminism promoted by the organic intellectuals of the ruling class. By purposefully ignoring the structural source of patriarchy i.e. capitalism, free-market feminism succeeds in preventing the coherent formation of class consciousness. It leads to a situation where the insertion of female faces into social machineries of daily violence and exploitation is celebrated as “empowerment”. Today, we need to vehemently foreground revolutionary feminism which unshackles women from patriarchal exploitation and presses for the radical re-constitution of society.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected]



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