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A woman born in the late seventeenth century in Europe had a life expectancy of less than thirty years. She would have expected to bear seven children, and spend her days gathering wood and water, spinning yarn and making clothing, preparing food, and tending children. If she were born to a wealthy, aristocratic family she would have served mainly as a pawn in a diplomatic game between aristocratic families run by men and serving the interests of the oldest and most dominant among them. She did not look forward to any sort of political voice let alone power of her own unless she were one of the small handful of queens by birth. If she were born to a peasant family, she would have been illiterate. Much of her life was spent in hard labor and dirty, cramped conditions of life. She had little control over the timing or number of children she would bear, and she would likely bury most of her children before dying herself in childbirth.
My maternal grandmother was born in the late nineteenth century in the upper Midwest of the United States. She bore five children, four of whom lived until maturity, and she lived to be eighty years old in good health until her final days. When she was in her thirties, the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified and she became eligible to vote in federal elections, although she never lived to see a woman elected as governor or as a senator from her state.
There is much that professor cudd and I agree on in this debate regarding feminism and capitalism. Most basically, of course, since we are both feminists, we believe that women are oppressed and that this is morally wrong. In words at least, we share the same goal of social freedom (though both her goal and its relationship to capitalism are ambiguous). We also agree that capitalism creates conditions that make the liberation of women possible and we would support many of the same reforms to capitalism. Furthermore, we agree that the bureaucratic model of the former Soviet Union is not a desirable alternative to capitalism. Beyond that, however, we part company. The burden of my argument has been that while, on the one hand, capitalism creates the potential for genuine human liberation, at the same time it puts systematic barriers to its realization. This is especially true for women as they tend to be among the least powerful in all societies. The source of improvements under capitalism is development, which is not unique to capitalism; hence, advances achieved since capitalism began are not a definitive argument in favor of it today. Moreover, as I have tried to show, while capitalism was a progressive force in human history, it is so no longer. Indeed, it threatens the future of humankind.
When we started on this project in 2006, capitalism seemed to be bigger and stronger than at any point in history. It was truly a global system, fulfilling – for better or worse – Karl Marx's description in The Communist Manifesto of 1848: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere … In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”
The fall of communism in the Soviet Union in 1989 led market enthusiasts to proclaim that liberal capitalism was “the end of history.” The free market approach to capitalism had been hegemonic in the United States for over a quarter of a century, President Ronald Reagan having declared in 1981 that “Government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem.” Although the dot.com boom of the late 1990s was over, there was the new housing boom. A financial crisis had exploded in Asia a decade before, but the West had weathered the storm, and it only confirmed the experts' conviction that the Keynesian approach of mixing government spending with the market, more typical in Asia, was bad for the economy. Whatever its validity, Keynesianism was defeated politically. The European model of capitalism, sometimes called social welfare capitalism because of its extensive government spending on social services (or branded as “socialism” by adherents of the free market), was under heavy pressure due to global competition with the more market-oriented approach of the Americans, known as neoliberalism.
Professor holmstrom and i agree on many things. We agree that poverty is a serious problem, and that the wealthier persons of the world should do more to alleviate it. We agree that women are overrepresented among the poorest of the world, and that in many places women suffer from severe oppression. We also agree that philosophers and economists have in the past largely failed to attend sufficiently to the concerns of the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable, and, until recently, have virtually ignored women. What we disagree on, for the most part, is the best means of ending poverty and oppression. Where I see capitalism as an essential means to that end, she sees it as an inevitable obstacle to progress. Part of our disagreement hinges on the conception of freedom and human well-being. But we both also agree that neither material goods nor freedom are incommensurable; they permit tradeoffs, though we might disagree on how those tradeoffs are to be made.
Our main disagreement, however, is over the economics of poverty and well-being. By “economics” I mean two things. First, is the economic theory that should be applied in the debate. Professor Holmstrom accepts a Marxist theory of production and wages, which I maintain is outdated and false. I accept a neoclassical account of wage and price determination, which she rejects as ideological and naive.
Political philosophy and feminist theory have rarely examined in detail how capitalism affects the lives of women. Ann Cudd and Nancy Holmstrom take up opposing sides of the issue, debating whether capitalism is valuable as an ideal and whether as an actually existing economic system it is good for women. In a discussion covering a broad range of social and economic issues, including unequal pay, industrial reforms and sweatshops, they examine how these and other issues relate to women and how effectively to analyze what constitutes 'capitalism' and 'women's interests'. Each author also responds to the opposing arguments, providing a thorough debate of the topics covered. The resulting volume will interest a wide range of readers in philosophy, political theory, women's studies and global affairs.