Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s ‘erratic Marxist’ Finance Minister, is being represented in line with a number of different stereotypes as part of the ideological response to, and sometimes even also defence of Syriza. Among these stereotypical representations is one briefly debated on a little Facebook thread, which is whether he is being ‘feminised’ by the media. This argument was kicked off by the objections to Varoufakis agreeing to a photo-shoot for Paris Match, which showed him posing with his wife in his lovely apartment in the shadow of the Parthenon while trying to sell a deal which would fool the Germans and mollify the Greeks.
The question seems to revolve around whether he is a tough guy standing up for Greece, a real man shoulder to shoulder with his comrades, or whether he is giving way and will be a passive partner with the Troika and so lead his country-folk to humiliating surrender. The stakes for Syriza are high, and the struggle inside the party (which Varoufakis has never actually been a member of) are still about buying time while enabling the Greek people to mobilise for the real showdown. That endgame has not yet arrived, and the choice between macho resistance or feminine submission is a distraction from the political-economic issues in the streets and strike-committees. But it is an ideological distraction that does show us something of the way that capitalism pits winners against losers and men and against women, and it draws attention to ‘feminisation’ as a significant process in which the work-force and then national identities are being reconfigured today.
This ‘feminisation’ should not be confused with feminism, and the only connection with the two is that the idea that women are more intuitive and caring of others – qualities that have historically been used to treat women as lesser than men while pretending to make them more lovely – which was mobilised by some feminists is now harnessed to the needs of contemporary capitalism. That is, some forms of feminism which emphasised the biological and ‘maternal’ character of women, sometimes tactically, have been recuperated, neutralised and absorbed by capitalism. This is the case most dramatically in the service-sector, which has rapidly expanded in the past fifty years in what is sometimes called ‘late capitalism’. The rise of the service-sector – including hotel, restaurant and shop-work, as well as all kinds of call-centre and consumer support – which now forms the highest proportion of the economy in most countries, including in the ‘developing’ world, saw the re-entry into the workforce of women on a massive scale. The early years of capitalism in Europe had actually involved women as workers – something lost to historical memory with the enclosure of women as home-makers in the nuclear family – and the globalisation of capitalism now calls upon women as workers world-wide.
Women in the service-sector are especially valuable employees because they bring stereotypical ‘feminine’ values to the work-place and to interaction with customers, and this involves more intense forms of exploitation and alienation. The feminist sociologist Arlie Hochschild described in her book ‘The Managed Heart’ how airline stewardesses, for example, have to be not only efficient workers but also super-attentive to the needs of travellers, and this ‘emotional labour’ is draining. All the more so because the stewardesses have to engage in what Hochschild called ‘deep acting’ in which they display their emotions to others so that they are not able easily to guard a private space away from the work-place. It is difficult to remember that this work, this interaction with the customer, is not all there is to life when emotional energy is poured into being very nice to them. This feminisation of interaction with customers then spins into a broader feminisation inside organisations, and now not only in the service-sector, as there are demands to comply and to mean it, to be very nice to managers and to show some depth of emotional commitment to the organisation. This is then the context in which managerial advice is given to help women (and men who must also learn from women in this process of feminisation) to cope and help workers present ‘a positive face’ to their customers and employers.
This feminisation of capitalism, the entry of women into the work-force, their exploitation and then the transformations of the process of capital accumulation which entail the management of emotion as well as behaviour, also has repercussions for the way the oppressed are treated and represented. Racism, for example, has drawn on a range of contradictory strategies to pathologise the oppressed, sometimes treating Black men as hyper-masculine, as an animalistic threat to civilization, which is assumed to be something closer to feminine sensibilities, sometimes feminising races and nations who are treated as if they are child-like, like women, and so not yet up to the standards of modern rational society. This is lose-lose for the oppressed as the game of stereotypical masculinity versus femininity and the trap of feminisation is set for them. Resistance to imperialism can then be characterised as macho protest, as refusing to comply with the rules of the game, or, at the very same time, the ‘other’ of the West can be rendered as less than masculine, feminised, which was the argument made by Edward Said in his depiction of strategies of ‘orientialism’, which is clearly relevant to the way that Greece is now being treated as traitor to the European ideal and, by implication, closer to the orient. It is in this sense that we might say that Varoufakis himself is being ‘feminised’.
One response to the recruitment of women’s stereotypical qualities and capacity for care in the service sector is to connect that care to solidarity and so to deliberately make the link once again between feminisation and feminism, though this time in such a way as to reframe those qualities as strengths rather than weaknesses. This has been the way for some Marxist traditions learning from feminism and re-defining their politics so that collective mobilisation connects with everyday life, so that ‘big politics’ connects with the everyday political tasks and with how men and women relate to each other. This is Marxist feminism that takes seriously the slogan ‘the personal is the political’, and it is in that context that there have been discussions inside Socialist Resistance, for example, about ‘feminising the organisation’.
Another response, which complements this attempt to revalue the contribution of women in radical politics, is to unravel masculine stereotypes and so open the space for a different, perhaps queerer way of working through questions of power. This unravelling of stereotypes in politics by exaggerating them and mocking them sometimes backfires but is still worth a go. This is the way in some of the interventions to support Syriza negotiating with the Troika, inside Greece and inside Germany. This unravelling applies to national and gender stereotypes. Rumours from Athens immediately after the election of Syriza in January included that a popular chant among some demonstrators in support of the new government was ‘Halloumi, Souvlakis, Yanis Varoufakis’, though the nearest slender evidence for this actually has ‘bread’ instead of halloumi (which is actually Cypriot). Meanwhile, German solidarity with Syriza has sometimes been more implicit, self-mocking and targeted the image of Varoufakis, not as feminised as such but rather as the other side of feminisation, as a hyper-masculine leather-jacketed motor-biking threat.