Vanessa Bilancetti – From Berlusconi to Weinstein to Westminster: Why we need a feminist political economy

Beyond all the salacious sensation around Harvey Weinstein and his cohorts at Westminster in the mainstream media, this event could be an important turning point in the Western world. Vanessa Bilancetti looks past the headlines to examine the relation between women and a labour market created by men.

Vanessa Bilancetti is a doctoral candidate at the University of Rome La Sapienza. She has just submitted her PhD thesis ‘A Critical Reading of the New Economic Governance: the Case of the Fiscal Compact’.

Cross-posted from SPERI


Hollywood is being rocked by the revelations about Harvey Weinstein. Almost every day new people are coming forward to tell their stories of harassment and violence. And, as many filmmakers and actors have made clear, everyone knew what was going on, but no-one said anything. Until now. Many newspapers are now portraying Weinstein as a person with a sexual obsession and ready to go into rehab. But the cases of harassment go beyond this single person. What is emerging is much more than one man’s obsession: an entire system based on sexual favours, harassments and violence is coming to the surface.

The Weinstein affair has led to a slightly different public discussion in Italy, a country that is not new to this kind of sexual scandal. Here, actresses are being blamed because they did not denounce the alleged abuse at the time it took place. Some right-wing newspapers have been very clear, these actresses did not denounce because they profit from the situation. Therefore, they claim this has nothing to deal with harassment. In contrast to this position, many others have written about the incapacity for victims to talk about their abuse and denounce their abusers. The Scottish government has released a very good campaign under the hashtag #IJustFroze, to explain how victims can feel about sexual violence.

But the Weinstein case is also important for other reasons, beyond the world of showbiz and Hollywood. This case talks about the relation between women and the labour market in general and how women have entered a labour market that was developed for men and is organised by men. Reading the report of the European Commission on Violence Against Women and Economic Independence of 2017 it is clear how economic emancipation did not erase the possibility of violence or harassment, but a shift has occurred: from violence perpetuated primarily by partners within the confines of the home, to harassment perpetuated by non-partners in public spaces.

Here, there is a pattern of gendered economic relations – beyond the gender pay gap but related to it – that needs to be revealed. And much of this has to deal with violence and harassment in many different forms: sexual, psychological, or physical. This is exactly what a feminist political economy can do by looking at gendered social relations, beyond the abstract idea of the homo economicus.

Firstly, women entering into the labour market have remained responsible for the majority of the cleaning, cooking and caring of children and elderly. From being the housekeeper and the excluded of public life, in the neoliberal era women have become the wonder woman of both the house and the office. Able to do everything and permanently haunted by the idea of not doing enough at work or for their children. In fact, our competitive labour market is based on the abstract idea of a businessman that can dedicate day and night to his job, and achieve satisfaction from it. In reality this model not only harms men but is unsustainable for women.

Secondly, this abstract idea of the businessman breaks down in front of the exploitation that we all experience in the labour market. How free are we really to say no to our boss? How free are we to denounce when we could lose our entire career or simply the job through which we earn our living? In a labour market that is more and more competitive and precarious how much power of negotiation do we have in front our boss? Current labour relations entail subordination for both men and women. But, usually, women are paid less, and they rarely get to the top positions. Thus, our competitive labour market looks much more divided along lines of gender and race, rather than being a space of equal opportunities. White men are usually in positions of power with good salaries, whereas women are more likely to have casual contracts and lower wages, especially if they are women of colour.

Any labour relation entails subordination, but women, who are usually in the subordinated position, can be submitted to a specific form of violence in this relation: violence on their bodies, sexual violence, and harassment. On this issue, Brit Marling, who was sexually assaulted by Weinstein, but was able to escape has probably written the most effective explanation on the topic:

“The things that happen in hotel rooms and board rooms all over the world (and in every industry) between women seeking employment or trying to keep employment and men holding the power to grant it or take it away exist in a gray zone where words like “consent” cannot fully capture the complexity of the encounter. Because consent is a function of power”.

Women like Brit Marling who are now speaking out show that it is possible to escape, if you know that walking out of that door you will still be able to have a job and earn your life. In fact, the majority of the women that are speaking out and loudly now, already have a career and they cannot be blackmailed, or at least not anymore.

As has become clear this is not only about a single film producer, and it is not only about Hollywood. Even, the European Parliament seems to be a place where harassment is normal. And now we know that even the British Parliament – the place where democracy was invented as someone told me once – is a place where harassment can take place.

Everyone in Hollywood apparently knew about what Weinstein was doing, just like as in Italy everyone knew about Berlsuconi, and probably too many people were not surprised about the recording of Donald Trump saying ‘I would grab her by the pussy’. In these cases, the first line of defence of men in power has been to undermine the credibility of victims. This is what Trump did, what Strauss-Khan did, and what Berlusconi did, and none of these men were convicted for committing violence. Blaming victims is what is now happening in the public debate in Italy, because for Italy, as for many other countries, to condemn Weinstein means to recognise a problem much bigger than a single man.

The millions of tweets using the hashtag #MeToo have showed the systematic normality of this violence towards women, and the systematic undervaluation of harassment. #MeToo has not only revealed the vulnerability of every single woman, but it has turned this vulnerability into collective recognition, and then into possible collective agency. A woman should not be alone in front of harassment. Individual blackmail, stigma, shame, fear can only be overcome together. As the Italian movement Non Una di Meno (Not One Less) has written #WeToogether.

#WeTooghether explains another important aspect. Uncovering and challenging systematic gendered and racial violence is not only a question presented to gendered or racialised subjects, but of all subjects. Systematic violence and harassment against women in the labour market is a problem for the entire society, men and women. Addressing this violence means to change the way we relate with each others, as well as, to change the structural relations of power in the labour market. It means to tackle the structural inequality of our society, and also to deconstruct the gender stereotypes that are shaping our relations.

And this is why we need feminist political economy because a gendered perspective on the economic relations is able to unravel the inequality of a society supposedly based on equality. We need to study how the labour market entails a gendered division of labour, how development has been based – and still is – on the unpaid work of women, and how harassment is intrinsic to the labour market.


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