Feminist political economy – conceptualising the economy and identifying gendered impacts

In contrast to CPE, FPE is characterised by a significant degree of intellectual and methodological eclecticism. What unites FPE, however, is its focus on ‘how gender is performed, enacted, embodied, constructed, institutionalised and reconstituted in the global economy and how these processes work through other many and varied structures of oppression ... and are in turn actively resisted’ (Elias and Roberts 2018,5). Broadly speaking, FPE literature points out the central role of gender (inequalities) in the maintenance of capitalist economies and the state (Elias and Roberts 2018;Woehl 2014).Where CPE focuses on the co-construction of the political and the economic, FPE goes further. It points out that the functioning of the economy and much of economic policy depend on the maintenance and reproduction of particular relations between the state and households, which are held in place by the gendered socialisation of human bodies (Griffin 2010,87). The delegation of care work to households, in which mainly women perform this labour —unpaid — is one of the most important of these relations (Elias and Roberts 2018,5). Similarly, the low wages paid for work as nursing, childcare and elder care, or in domestic work such as cleaning, rest on an undervaluation of care and reproductive work and the people typically regarded as suitable for it (Elias and Roberts 2018).These female-dominated jobs and public care services are often seen as a cost, rather than an investment (Elson 2017). Feminists argue in contrast that this situation constitutes a reproductive tax extracted from women to subsidise the productive economy (Rai et al. 2014).The current Covid-19 pandemic illustrates the productive economy’s reliance on this reproductive subsidy particularly well. Under-funded health and elder care systems unable to cope with the pandemic have led to a near total economic shut down in an effort to suppress transmission so that health care systems will not be overwhelmed. As a result, responsibility for care work and education has been moved back into the home where workers struggle to perform their normal paid work while also having newly intensified caring duties. Early studies have indicated that these shifts are exacerbating gendered and racialised inequalities (Amnesty International 2020; EIGE 2020).

Multiple, more detailed theoretical perspectives and empirical studies flow from these core premises of FPE. FPE’s insistence on the centrality of gender to the functioning of capitalism is one of the key differences distinguishing it from CPE. It also places FPE at odds with many of the central assumptions in dominant approaches to economics. Core among these entrenched assumptions is a tendency — particularly within neo-classical economic paradigms — to argue that economic policy is‘gender neutral’ (Bakker 1994).This perspective is, in turn, premised on several disciplinary concepts and commitments that discourage consideration of the interactions between different ‘levels’ and sectors of the economy.

First among these is the presumed division between the ‘productive’ sector — that is, paid labour — and the (social) reproductive sector in which (predominantly unpaid) care work is performed. FPE points out that the productive economy is dependent on the care sector, which creates functioning humans who can work (Caglar 2009, 166). This dependency is, however, consistently ignored in most economic modelling and economic policy. Instead, dominant approaches simply assume an unlimited supply of care (Rai et al. 2014).

Two other disciplinary assumptions have been problematised by FPE scholars: divisions between the macro-, meso- and micro-economy and the concept of ‘homo economicus’ or the rational economic man. Neo-classical disciplinary assumptions of the kind often used to underpin austerity policies are premised on the assumption that the individual behaviour of a self-interested ‘rational economic man’ is the driving causal force in the economy at all levels — micro, meso and macro. Within this paradigm, macro-economic analysis is nothing more than the study of the aggregate effects of individual activities (Bakker 1994, 8; Caglar 2009, 163). This differs from heterodox approaches, which accept that macro levels of the economy may have their own dynamics that are more complicated than the aggregate effects of individuals’ actions (Caglar 2009, 163). These concepts are an important target of feminist critique because they underpin economic policy-makers’ common arguments that social impacts are not a macro-economic concern. Within the neo-classical mind-set, macro-economic policy and analysis is by definition not concerned with individuals, but rather with aggregate measures that can be modelled, such as output levels, rates of growth and budget surplus/deficit (Bakker 1994, 8). Under these logics, the social impacts of economic policies (like austerity) and the gender inequalities they entrench are decoupled from the policies causing them.

Fl’E scholars have challenged these assumptions by thoroughly demonstrating the social impacts of macro-economic policies (Gill and Roberts 2011). However, the presumed separation between the economic and the social, which seems absurd from a feminist perspective, remains influential in mainstream economic thinking and practice. As a result, Fl’E perspectives argue that these ideas and disciplinary assumptions maintain a ‘strategic silence’ (Bakker 1994; Young et al. 2011), which serves both to constitute and to obscure unequal economic relations between men and women (Bakker 1994).They also underpin increasing tensions between the capitalist economy and social reproduction, discussed below.

In addition to these kinds of critiques of economic disciplinary assumptions, Fl’E approaches have shown how both gender and race can structure many economic transactions so that women and men (and other people whose identities may not conform to binary gender classifications) participate in markets on unequal terms (Bakker 1994, 5; Gill and Roberts 2011).These dynamics are relevant both within and among countries. Fl’E scholars show how states often exploit women’s subordination, marketing their under-paid labour as a competitive advantage to attract international manufacturing (Dedeoglu 2013). In this way, global production chains that bring affordable goods to the Global North, such as food, clothing and technology, are often rendered possible by continued gendered exploitation (Dedeoglu 2013).

State and corporate claims of non-responsibility for social reproduction have also resulted in it, too, becoming a globalised commodity, with stark gendered and racialised impacts. As states continue to retrench public services, a small proportion of highly educated women can buy in labour to perform care work, which the state supports and subsidises less and less. Usually, this labour takes the form of either female migration or ethnicised labour— a practice that gender-selective and racist national border regimes often facilitate (Sauer and Woehl 2011).The migration ‘care chains’ (Hochschild 2000) established by these policies also mean that gender regimes are no longer ‘fenced in’ by the nation state, instead stretching between countries sending and receiving migrants (Hochschild 2000; Sauer and Woehl 2011).This has clear effects on classed and racialised hierarchies among women.

In order to contest these gender-biased and gender-blind understandings entrenched in mainstream economic policy, Fl’E scholars have devised concepts and measures that capture the gendered inputs into the economy and the gendered outcomes of policy. These include the application of human rights perspectives to macro-economic policy (Balakrishnan et al. 2010), gender budgeting (see below),‘social infrastructure (Elson 2017), and attempts to theorise‘depletion’ (Kai et al. 2014).These concepts and approaches attempt to account for the input of social reproductive labour, the impacts of investing in it and the impacts of cutting state support for it. They provide analyses that span different levels of the economy and expose the interrelations between the productive and reproductive economy and the economic and social spheres.

Finally, FPE has also pointed out global patterns in the production and mobilisation of economic knowledge. These critiques have identified the types of knowledge commonly held in esteem in economic policy-making. Peterson (2012, 9) highlights the grip of‘positivism, modernism and masculinisation’ in economic policy-making. She describes positivism in terms of ‘rationalist approaches’ characterised by dichotomised thinking and stable definitions of homogenous and discrete phenomena that enable calculation and prediction as well as control over ambiguity, contestation and critical reflection. She describes modernism as privileging of Western-centric knowledge-production, governed by individualism and instrumental rationality and with a tendency to devalue the voices of‘others’. Finally, masculinism is the tendency to base economic theory on essentialised notions of a generic atomistic and self-interested man (for a discussion of masculinities see Hearn et al. in this volume).These kinds of approaches drive mainstream economic analysts to pursue ‘objective’ measures of the impacts of, for instance, the crisis rather than analyses that concede the complex social and cultural realities leading to it (Griffin 2013).

The dominance of positivism, modernism and masculinism in economic policy-making also underpins a tendency to confer onto white male perspectives the mantle of‘expertise’ while rejecting competing perspectives from peripheral or marginalised voices. Basing economic theory explicitly on (Western, white) men also glosses over relationships between differently located people, thus normalising inequalities. Fl’E approaches, in contrast, emphasise multidisciplinary approaches, which include analyses of inter alia gendered practices and processes in institutions, such as the World Bank or multinational corporations; sites of analyses, such as the household; and methods such as ethnography — foci traditionally overlooked by ‘malestream’ political economy scholars (Elias and Roberts 2018).

Finally, FPE concepts have been applied to show how the dominance of these epistemological tendencies in economic policy-making shape the possibilities for feminist interventions in economic policy. A key example of this is the widespread tendency to support gender equality policies with arguments and empirical knowledge about efficiency, business benefits and positive effects on employment rates, economic growth and competitiveness. FPE analyses argue that promoting gender equality measures on this basis ignores the historical and structural causes of gender inequality, legitimises neoliberal economic policies and corporate capitalism, reproduces gendered understandings of the economy and reduces gender equality commitments to an investment strategy (Elomaki 2015, 2020). Such promotion also restricts the justifications feminists can use in support of gender equality measures to arguments premised on efficiency, while drawing feminists into the frustrations of working within restrictive ‘technicalised’ policy development and implementation processes (Ferguson 2015).

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