The Pandemic’s End in View
When I first started writing the following reflections, the country was all but trapped in the dreaded clutches of the pandemic. In the midst of what then appeared as an unstoppable plague utterly mismanaged by an inept, feckless, brazenly unprincipled administration, the lockdown put all of us in the position of terrified witnesses to a virtual unraveling of the social fabric. Suddenly no one could avoid confrontation with what appeared like an endless display of social rot that included a precipitous economic downturn, business shutdowns, mass lay-offs, growing homelessness and hunger, among others. Then came the flashpoint: rallies of mammoth proportions protesting the brutal killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black victims of police violence erupted in all the major cities of the US. Almost immediately, these protests were replicated worldwide, a wholly new and overwhelmingly encouraging phenomenon in progressive politics.
Today with the Covid vaccine finally reaching universal availability in the US, the end of the virus has come into view, even as surges resulting from its continuing unavailability elsewhere soar in hapless India and Brazil. In the US, racial tensions once again infuse the air, however. Killings of Blacks by police continue with no respite as if to underscore their inevitability, the guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin notwithstanding. But what is new in frequency is that this time it’s Asian Americans in the crossfire (and not by police), the wanton shooting by a white male of Asian American women in an Atlanta salon triggering its explosion.
What precipitated this turn of events? At the very moment of the Covid-19 outbreak, blame was immediately placed upon China by then President Trump. Presumed carriers of “kung flu,” individuals “looking Asian” thereafter began walking the streets at their peril. Not that racism against Asian Americans is new. Its embedment in US history that is traceable to migration and involvement in wars abroad is as genuinely American as Black enslavement and Native American genocide. One can enumerate, among others, the following historical landmarks: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the WW II incarceration of Japanese Americans, forced migration from the US-led war in Southeast Asia, the post-9/11 targeting of Muslim South Asians, the ICE raids on Southeast Asian communities.
But several factors have contributed to the relative marginalization of Asian Americans in the public imagination. Their depiction as a “model minority” in 1965 by sociologist William Peterson had the consequence of isolating unruly Asian sympathizers of the feared Black Panthers; furthermore, some well-placed Asians achieved enough distinction to match the portrayal and, indeed, to isolate the entire category from others of color. The designation “Asian American” includes over a dozen different countries of origin with widely divergent histories; it is also of fairly recent vintage, having been coined by anti-war activists of the Vietnam war period both to displace the pejorative “Oriental” and, perhaps more significant, to create pan-Asian unity. Often deleted from historical memory even by its constituents is that this imagined community of Asians in America was borne of a climate that was openly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.
Asian American agitation has not been conspicuous in contemporary times. It was not until 1982 that Asian Americans held their first notable protest. The Japanese economy then was in ascendance, its automobile industry having clearly outstripped the fabled General Motors. This emerged as the backdrop for the murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin, mistaken for Japanese and beaten to death with a bat by an embittered laid-off white male auto worker. The UAW, sad to say, was not blameless in stoking white racist rage.
It is therefore in this regard that what is striking in the killing of six Asian women in the Georgia salon is the local police force’s initial reticence in marking the act as racial. For many Asian Americans this is definitely a wake-up call that we are people of color and that we must join others similarly located to address racialized capitalism head-on. Last June saw the beginning of such work at the BLM protest marches. Racist incidents against Asians is bound to heighten with the increase in their numbers in the country, now making up 6% of the population, up from 2% in 1980. While Asians come from many different countries, six countries are the major contributors: China, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.
The other fall-out of Covid, also pertinent to organizing potential, is its inadvertent revelation that, despite decades of feminist understanding, care work at home provided almost exclusively by women remains unacknowledged. Why is this the case? For one, in normal times affluent women could easily procure the cheap labor of immigrant women looking after aging adults and children. But with wage-working women forced to stay home to minister to ailing parents and to children also forced out of school, women’s strenuous labor of care has been forced into the limelight. Now it remains to be seen whether this renewed awareness that it is women’s labor that sustains society at large would have any effect on studies of Filipino domestic workers, given how predicated these are on notions of “agency and resistance.” Present-day assaults on Asian women similarly call for interrogation of research perpetuating romantic illusions about liaisons on military bases that presume an improbable self-determining female.
To once more recall Angela Davis’ remark, no one can expect the excitement and intensity of movement organizing exemplified by rousing protests to be sustained. Indeed, much of the day-to-day work of creating communities of solidarity consists of the always patient, and sometimes dull but absolutely necessary, work of talking to everyday people in our immediate environs. What we simply need to continually remind ourselves is that Covid has opened up for all of us entirely new and wide spaces for movement potential and the very, very important realization that the existing order is not eternal.
The Pandemic at its Outbreak, 2020
This plague–because that’s what it is, a plague–has been a disastrous nightmare by any measure. In a way it’s more frightening than war because this enemy has the entire planet occupied: there’s no escaping it, it lurks everywhere and, so far, there’s no treatment for it nor inoculation to keep it in check. It’s a war where there will be no winners. But if the most effective methods of warfare and weaponry are yet to be discovered, it is clear to one and all who are the people stationed on the front lines. Since the early weeks of combat, it has been the nurses, doctors, health practitioners of all sorts who give the ailing physical and emotional care and who hold the hands of the dying. It is they who have been rightly hailed as heroes for their bravery and for their persistence in spite of the high mortality rate among them. It is also evident that these are mostly women, because females comprise 80% of all healthworkers in the front lines of acute care, medical/surgical and ICU units of hospitals. A disproportionate number of deaths are likely to be among Filipinos who constitute the single largest group of foreign-born nurses in the US.
Beyond the front lines of hospitals and nursing homes–the public world of production–in the private realm of the home or reproductive sphere, it is also primarily the care work of women that, late-stage capitalism notwithstanding, has been shown to sustain and maintain families. In more healthful times, family care work can be stressful enough, but under conditions of quarantine the weight of this responsibility is made more onerous by intensified economic and psychological pressures. I think it is safe to say, then, that what the corona virus has done is spotlight the ways in which it is women’s work that allows society to function. It is true that men face a higher mortality rate from the virus (Black women as well), but it is women performing the work of care who have been put at the very center.
What does this imply for feminism? If feminism is defined in general as the centerstaging of women, then it doesn’t take much to see that it is the care-giving role traditionally assigned to women, even in this postmodern world, that enables us all to survive. It is attention that this pandemic has forced on the quotidian but arduous life-preserving labor of care that, in my view, can lead to a revitalized and reformulated feminism.
The pandemic has not only exposed pre-existing inequalities, but is in fact exacerbating these, exacting the heaviest toll on women who are deemed, with not a little irony, “essential workers.” In brief, it has made the poor poorer. It is no exaggeration to assert that Covid-19 has effectively stripped away illusions about the existence of a democratic society where in normal times the service of all major institutions of late-stage US capitalism are tapped to daily refurbish.
At the pandemic’s start, the widespread belief in its capacity as a great leveler–indeed, the virus can kill anyone–was quickly dispelled because, it turns out, being struck ill and dead has rather dire implications for families of the needy and unemployed. And as if to mock the already suffering, disquieting images of produce being dumped, cattle and pigs slaughtered, milk poured down the drain (a painful recall of the Great Depression) came juxtaposed with pictures of long lines of cars queuing up at food banks.
Aside from the basic injustice of inequality that undergirds neoliberal capitalism, we are also witnessing numerous symptoms of a veritable system breakdown. It cannot cope with the crisis. It has displayed itself as totally incompetent and helpless to curb the pandemic due largely to its medicine-for-profit principle; worse, it’s been put to shame by poorer, infinitely less developed countries that, in stark contrast, have met the challenge to their people’s health with impressive proficiency. The little country Vietnam that the US vowed to bomb to the Stone Age (and rain with tons of bombs it did)–not to speak of much-despised Cuba that sends medical teams to aid the beleaguered–has successfully established health mechanisms to curb the virus’ spread.
That US capitalism is a social order that devotes its wealth and resources mainly to the great advantage of its affluent is now plain for everyone to see. As lay-offs spiral along with pandemic casualties among the poor and people of color, tremendous sums get funneled to huge corporations, and the super-wealthy become even more so. This is why the racist murder of George Floyd has generated unprecedented angry protests reverberating worldwide. David Harvey opines that even prior to Covid, stirrings were already perceptible among captains of industry at Davos that things were not looking well, particularly for the environment. In line with this they set forth proposals for an “eco-capitalism” in an attempt to rein in the capitalist impulse for profit whose consequence has been no less than ecological havoc. This pandemic, then, presents us with an opportune historical moment in which the collapse of an old system signals the possibility for its replacement. In the words of Arundhati Roy, a “portal” stands before us now, a gateway for us to walk through as we envision and create another, more humane, enabling world.
Ironically, it is an official entity that has seized the moment on behalf of women. In response to the directive for states to come up with an economic recovery plan, the Hawaiian State Commission on the Status of Women issued a 23-page document (on a half-day’s notice) focusing on the needs of the most disenfranchised sectors of the female population: native, working-class, undocumented and LGBTQIA. Its provisions include a universal basic income to address the wage gap, free public child care for essential workers, midwifery services in maternal care, an almost $25 hourly minimum wage for single mothers, and emergency funds for the undocumented, domestic workers and trafficking victims. It justly claims to be the first document presented to Congress that puts the word “feminist” front and center, with women’s paid and unpaid care work given due recognition. No less significant is that the short notice given to produce the document was met only because Khara Jabola-Carolus, the Commission Director, solicited the collaboration of organizers, academics, activists, grassroots and non-profit organizations. So speaking of “centerstaging women,” there you have it, by an arm of the state no less!
This is the “centerstaging of women” I had in mind, its purely literal sense, no excess of meaning intended. For it is precisely what I was hoping would occur, this renascent concern and support for the labor of care still performed almost exclusively by women that enables societies, even highly industrialized, high-tech ones, to maintain their day-to-day operations. Corporate lean-in feminism and representational feminism serve to distract and numb us to women’s basic needs. That a state institution would be among the first to pay attention is a nice surprise; whether it can actually provide for women, given existing conditions, is up for grabs. But what this suggests is that the plague has forced us all to return to brass tacks, to think in terms of what women require for their survival.
Feminism in its various forms can only be comprehended when the circumstances giving rise to it are firmly grasped. Consider today’s usage de rigueur: intersectional feminism. Now any recounting of its articulation by the Combahee River Collective must acknowledge, first of all, that this group was socialist with all that the word implies, not least its rejection by the mainstream; and second, that the group could assume this label only because, unpopular as it was, it was a brief moment when Marxism had a bit of currency. Such a setting also confers an altogether different meaning on the Collective’s assertion of “identity politics” because it is not one that merely demands attention to a specific identifying marker or category, but is profoundly immersed in a radical politics derived from painful recognition of the violent suppression of Blacks in US history.
It is a tribute to the political work of women activists that feminism has gained widespread acceptance in popular culture, but it is inevitable that forty years of neoliberalism would ultimately result in its watering down, diffusion, and eventual cooptation. I’ve been having a running conversation with a colleague and friend who laments what he views as the failure of ethnic studies to live up to its mission–as though teaching ethnic studies could remedy structural racism–because of what he refers to as its atrophy. Fields like ethnic and women’s studies were erected in response to clamors on the street, and it would only be a matter of time when these would be rendered toothless, particularly when cloistered in the academy, a corporatized academy at that. Earlier I had argued for a historical understanding of feminism and women’s studies as a means of keeping watch over ongoing changes, and perhaps to slow down the process of its seduction and service as, in Hester Eisenstein’s apt terms, “capitalism’s handmaiden.” What the pandemic has made perfectly clear, among other things (I write this as protests on behalf of George Floyd are erupting), is that it takes action in the streets to get ruling-class attention. Beyond this, it will take sustained widespread social movements to make serious changes, not academic papers and publications or even dedicated teaching, I’m afraid.
Meanwhile we should acknowledge that there have always been those who’ve gone against the grain, who’ve tried to recoup the insurrectionary thrust of the 60s-70s women’s movement that has been lost to corporatized academic feminism. Teresa Ebert’s Ludic Feminism is one brilliant, scathing rebuke of postmodern feminism, but hardly anyone refers to it; Ellen Meiksins Wood published several books critiquing capitalism and urging return to a class perspective, but these are known and cited only by a few already converted. Feminism for the 99 Percent , the most recent attempt to rescue a revolutionary agenda, launches a frontal attack on lean-in feminism and redirects focus back both to social reproduction as well as to a critique of capitalism. In my view the coupling of these two–women’s social reproduction and a capitalist critique–pivots back to where we should be to begin with if feminism is about social transformation. It is interesting to observe how critiques of capitalism, omnipresent in the 60s, began receding into the background, slowly but surely, only faint traces remaining with the last din of mass social movements. Its final defenestration came with Reagan/Thatcher’s launching of neoconservatism that ushered in the neoliberal postmodernism that continues to reign in the academy.
People are quick to forget. Three years after the Vietnam War was over, none of my students knew what “tiger cages” were. Amnesia comes easily especially when there are no reminders. I think that’s what has happened in women’s studies. Beginning the late 80s it was postmodernism and the cultural turn, a clear rejection of historical materialism, that was on offer in feminism. Nothing wrong with that, if one were duly informed of its history, how it came about, what perspective it was opposing. But if postmodernism were the only framework furnished for students with little or no background information, then it would be difficult, if not impossible, to adopt a critical stance.
To give an example.When I would tell undergraduates about how studies of sex workers (never prostitutes) focused on their ability to take command of their own bodies and emotions (never mind that hands, mouths, unmentionable body appendages invade, probe, violate their very personhood for pay), they were appalled. When my graduate students read such studies, they were endlessly enamoured by the nuance and complexity delineating the narration of sex workers’ lives, and they wanted more, presumably so they could perform–better yet, outdo– similar theoretical feats. In short, the latter assumed that they had acquired a degree of sophistication unavailable to the hoi polloi when, in fact, they had lost their common sense.
What’s the problem with spotlighting women’s resistance, as postmodern studies have done? Nothing, if change is not part of one’s calculation. Let’s take a look at studies that have resulted from extensive field research on Filipino women in the diaspora, of which there has been quite a collection, all of these premised on this micro-level, individual empowerment/resistance model. (The two notable exceptions: Bridget Anderson’s Who’s Doing the Dirty Work? and Grace Chang’s Disposable Domestics.) Nicole Constable enlightened us in her Maid to Order in Hong Kong about Filipino domestic workers’ ingenuity, how they could make-do in the most oppressive of circumstances. Even ordering extra ketchup and napkins at MacDonald’s became an act of resistance because, after all, now these women were asserting themselves, being served instead of serving. Written in 1997, this book was followed by several others executing the same function. These got our eyes glued to the ways in which individual women carve out spaces for themselves in which to navigate, maneuver and defy authority in mini-acts of resistance. This distracted us from asking what kind of nation is it that deploys its women overseas so it can pay its foreign debt to international lending agencies. One such book actually sets up the Philippines’ well-established labor-export program as a template for other developing nations desiring to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Then there’s a book about sex workers on US bases (so skillfully written it received an award) who are just so lucky to find romance and true love that one wonders why there should ever be any objection to trafficking. The patent goal of this approach is to show how women are active agents, not oppressed victims, which apparently is how Marxists like to portray them. As if to justify the diaspora, a friend at the University of the Philippines conveyed to me that OFW (Overseas Filipino Workers) families no longer break up because women are able to utilize Facetime, Skype, etc. to mitigate the loneliness, desolation, and bitterness that are likely consequences of prolonged separation. He is as aware as I am, I am certain, of countless broken families everywhere in the country resulting from migration, but as I later learned, he read this counter argument from a US-based scholar’s work. Nothing if not fast learners, this lesson about “agency” has been picked up in the Philippines. One columnist in a Manila newspaper wrote with pride that “diskarte,” roughly translated as “resourcefulness, street smarts, effective way of doing things”–in short, make-do mechanisms or survival strategies (deployed by subalterns, to be sure)–can now be presented as “Filipinos’ contribution to global culture.”
Now is the time to break away from all that. The outstanding accomplishment of today’s young Black activists who are leading this much-needed disruption is that their demands, when considered seriously, can be met only with structural change–not individual, lifestyle, psychological or attitudinal change, but wholesale, sweeping, structural change. It will be heartwarming to see progressive academics participate actively in this revolutionary venture, casting their lot with those on the streets and those organizing in communities. They will then have to deploy ideas aimed at total societal transformation, not its mere reform. Some wiseacre once remarked that academics at times fancy themselves the vanguard when, preoccupied with lofty ideas and busy feathering their nests, they are in reality at the tailguard of change. The opportunity is here to redress this.
I like to think that we have entered Arundhati Roy’s “portal” and are quickly moving into a world we are remaking as we move along. There are vociferous demands everywhere for racial solidarity and economic transformation, feminist voices among them, without a doubt. Preempted by these events, any remarks I can make about a reformulated or reframed feminism would be feeble. If we can join up with a mass movement that is organized, solid, and sustained, the answer will be right there.
Women’s studies or feminism in its various permutations as we know this today is the institutional response to the women’s liberation movement of the 60s-70s. Over time, as radicalism waned and conservatism began to take hold, feminism became domesticated even as its influence extended to the popular consciousness. This domestication is reflected in the postmodern cultural turn that defined scholarly feminist writings, including those about Filipino migrant workers. With the upsurge of activism around George Floyd’s murder following the pandemic’s devastation, an utterly unexpected opening now appears before us, too phenomenal and too precious to be missed.
The situation today looks very promising. There is consensus among observers that current protests are historically unmatched in size, counting in the millions compared to, say, the anti-Vietnam War’s thousands. But it isn’t merely the size and numbers that uplift the spirit in the midst of Covid-19; it’s the fact that today’s agitation gets right to the heart of this nation’s racial polity. In targeting police violence against Blacks, it has drawn the most oppressed victims of society into its ranks and launches a direct attack on what it has aptly identified as “racial capitalism.” Called by Black Lives Matter, today’s rallies have been led by young Black women as its most articulate spokespersons. What is extraordinary and without parallel is the way in which other people of color have joined enmasse for the first time. Comprised mainly by youth, these huge gatherings have hoisted placards signalling the participation of gays, transgender, and other marginalized groups.This is a totally new phenomenon which, if sustained, makes possible a social movement whose constituency can be truly multiracial and diverse.
But as Angela Davis notes, this moment of passion will inevitably pass. Right now conversations revolve around defunding the police and how such discussions must address and remedy its antecedent; that is, the socioeconomic circumstances of Black people’s lives. This means, at minimum, the provision of universal health care, decent housing, jobs with living wages, free education, and community services such as counseling of various kinds as well as training for practical skills. We should not forget that the United States is still the most powerful country in the world that takes pride in its military strength and ability to intervene and invade other countries. What if these resources were shifted and marshalled to meet people’s needs? Once we start thinking in this manner, we are on our way to envisioning a wholly different society.
It’s going to be a long, hard haul, no doubt about it. Hopefully a mass social movement will be formed that acknowledges the limitations of the previous decade’s ad hoc, spontaneous forms of mobilization and will find ways to solidify and sustain itself by securing support from similarly located populations. It is hard to tell what is coming next, but this is a historic moment and a struggle that beckons all of us to get involved.
Delia D. Aguilar was a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, taught Women’s Studies at Hamilton College, Bowling Green State University, Washington State University, and the University of Connecticut. Her books include The Feminist Challenge, Filipino Housewives Speak, Toward a Nationalist Feminism; and edited the anthology Women and Globalization (Humanity Books). She has also taught at the University of the Philippines and at Saint Scholastica’s College in Manila, Philippines.