Panel: Sexual Violence and Neoliberalism, Historical Materialism, June 2013

Panel in Question:

Conference Website:

I’m supposed to be writing about multi-racial identity and my own personal narrative from that framework. So, of course, I’m procrastinating by listening to a panel on the role of neoliberalism in re-codifying sexual violence against women. The context for this panel was the 2013 conference on Historical Materialism hosted by We Are Many[1]. The speakers each addressed issues relying on the deployment of the neoliberal mentality as fundamentally shifting discourse on sexual violence as something of the individual, rather than the state.

I’ve become more interested in how social changes in ideology have reflected the transition from Keynesian to neoliberal economic policies at the end of the 20th century. Tithi Bhattacharya, a Marxist historian of East Asia at Purdue University, gave the first paper, in which she addressed the intersection of capital and culture in this regard. Her central point developed a conception of capital as ever changing in overcoming localized obstacles, and applying the lessons learned in those localized instances to a broader logic of capitalism around the globe. For example, the use of Norplant in cities like Baltimore (genocide as a term is a little much here, but the link gives a good assessment of the stakes at hand), and its proposed (although failed) use as an incentive for women on welfare was pre-empted by clinical trials in Chile and other regions of what Bhattacharya termed the Global South. These trials gave a form of biopolitical control over women workers to the bosses, by incentivizing the use of Norplant by women, in order to create a more consistent labor force. According to Bhattacharya: “The reproductive technology Norplant, financed by 15 mil dollars in us foreign aid was first used coercively on the bodies of women of the global south. In the Indonesian city of Bogor, only government employees who used Norplant received their paychecks in time. Some jobs such as the work on Indonesian tea plantations required proof of Norplant use. In Bangladesh, use of Norplant was encouraged even before its clinical trials were underway”. This was the sort of operational logic given by senators who offered Norplant as a tool to tacitly maintain economic control over family units on welfare.

Without delving too far into the racial and gender lines that are immediately drawn in the creation of the “Welfare Queen”, what I think is fascinating about this most basic point is the exchange between capital as an ethereal entity and its real existence as a form of collective action. As Bhattacharya mentions, it is not that capital itself is seeking to displace struggles for equality. Rather, capital represents the collective consciousness of individual political actors, each of who move towards a variety of economic decisions that encourage the market to dictate political value. It’s a slight distinction, but very important in how we conceptualize the role of markets, especially when efficiency becomes the absolute goal of market-oriented economies.

This also blurs the line between what we might call “foreign aid” and neoliberal imperialism. Two other points discussed in the paper shed light on how this line becomes blurred. The first is the role of the IMF in the imposition of Structural Adjustment Programs, which provide long-term loans to countries in crises in exchange for a variety of social spending cuts[2]. Indeed, one of the goals of these loans is to create economies that are more market oriented. The second is her discussion of Export Processing Zones as furthering gender violence. These zones are regions in which the competition for jobs has led to an increase in workplace harassment. Women applicants report being forced to have sex in order to secure jobs, while the International Labor Rights Fund also reported 95% of Kenyan women facing harassment at work do not report the crime. 90% of the women in this study were women from EPZ workplaces.[3] There are further reports that women are subject to complete strip searches. These are Zones that were exported to locations like Ciudad Juarez with the North American Freed Trade Agreement in 1992. In short, neoliberal forms of logic may lead to more job placement, or economic aid given to developing countries, but the costs of such aid are disproportionately placed on the women within those societies.

I am not an economist, nor do I consider myself an economic historian (although, by trade, I have become rather adept at reading economic reports and research). I am also fully aware that there are more nuanced perspectives on the role of neoliberal policies in the New World Order, but those perspectives seem a little more prevalent both in terms of policy and localized dissemination through other issues. For example, the second paper in this panel, given by Jennifer Roesch, pointed towards the increasing tendency of placing the onus of sexual assault on women, rather than looking at social conscience as something to keep men accountable. This, she suggests, is also part of the neoliberal tendency, which emphasizes individual responsibility over collective action. She cited Katie Roiphe’s work The Morning After, in which Roiphe wrote, “There’s a grey area in which one person’s rape might be another person’s bad night”[4].

Roesch immediately said: “I think that idea was shocking at the time, when I was a student in the 1990s”. Contrast that sort of position with the media coverage of Steubenville, and it becomes apparent just how rapidly neoliberalism not only as economic thought, but also political philosophy has permeated the state on a whole. The emphasis on the individual, rather than being a storied progression from some sort of historical origin (although, admittedly, it parallels very nicely with the “rugged individualism” of America) is merely the result of what might be colloquially referred to as the triumph of capitalism following the fall of the USSR.

I am still learning much about these structural processes, but I think a tentative conclusion one might be able to draw is that the role of a good social conscience is one that keeps in mind the broader picture of workers and consumers when attempting to figure out the problem of collective action. The social state may seem unnecessary on an individual level, but social programs are ones in which the individual tendency to lean towards the market may be rectified in the eyes of a conscience in which people are treated like people. This feels like a truism, but in a time where there is a deep distrust of government, and larger social institutions, it may be time for a reminder that there is a cost to letting the markets operate freely.

[1] Link available here: .

[2] Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism (London: Verso, 2013) page 218

[3] Jacqui True, The Political Economy of Violence Against Women (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

[4] Katie Roiphe, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism (New York: Back Bay Books, 1994)


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