Feminism and Neoliberal Governmentality

By Johanna Oksala, University of Helsinki:

“A fundamental feature of neoliberal governmentality is not just the eradication of market regulation, for example, but the eradication of the border between the social and the economic: market rationality—cost-benefit calculation—must be extended and disseminated to all institutions and social practices.”


The article investigates the consequences for feminist politics of the neoliberal turn. Feminist scholars have analysed the political changes in the situation of women that have been brought about by neoliberalism, but their assessments of neoliberalism’s consequences for feminist theory and politics vary.  Feminist thinkers such as Hester Eisenstein and Sylvia Walby have argued that feminism must now return its focus to socialist politics and foreground economic questions of redistribution in order to combat the hegemony of neoliberalism.  Some have further identified post-structuralism and its dominance in feminist scholarship as being responsible for the debilitating move away from socialist or Marxist paradigms. I share their diagnosis to the extent that it is my contention that the rapid neoliberalization characterising the last thirty years has put women and feminist thought in a completely new political situation. However, in contrast to those feminist thinkers who put the blame for the current impasse on the rise of poststructuralist modes of thought, it is my contention that the poststructuralist turn in feminist theory in the 1980s and 1990s continues to represent an important theoretical advance.  I will discuss Foucault’s genealogy of neoliberalism in order to assess the ways it can contribute to feminist theory and politics today.  I contend that Foucault can provide a critical diagnostic framework for feminist theory as well as for prompting new feminist political responses to the spread and dominance of neoliberalism. I will also return to Nancy Fraser and Judith’s Butler’s seminal debate on feminist politics in the journal Social Text (1997) in order to demonstrate that a critical analysis of the economic/cultural distinction must be central when we consider feminist forms of resistance to neoliberalism.

Women do not only want a happy home any more, they too want money, power and success. They are atomic, autonomous subjects of interest competing for the economic opportunities available. (…) The fact that women too read Playboy and get Brazilian bikini waxes is increasingly understood as a sign of their liberation and empowerment.


As several commentators have emphasized, Foucault theorizes neoliberal governmentality as a particular mode of producing subjectivity: neoliberal governmentality produces subjects who act as individual entrepreneurs across all dimensions of their lives. Governable subjects are understood as self-interested and rational beings who will navigate the social realm by constantly making rational choices based on economic knowledge and the strict calculation of the necessary costs and desired benefits. They are atomic individual whose natural self-interest and tendency to compete must be fostered and enhanced. Under neoliberal governmentality society thus becomes a game in which self-interested, atomic individuals compete for maximal economic returns.


Global neoliberal economy relies on women’s labor, but also increasingly on the feminization of labor. This widely used, but ambiguous concept denotes, on the one hand, the quantitative increase of women in the labor market globally due to the growth of the service industries and the increasing demand for care work. However, it also denotes a qualitative change in the nature of labor: the characteristics historically present in women’s work—precariousness, flexibility, fragmentary nature, low-status and low-pay— have come to increasingly characterize all work in global capitalism.32 As Rutvica Andrijasevic notes, this does not mean that the dualism production/reproduction no longer exists, but rather that reading it exclusively in terms of gendered division of labour does not fully capture contemporary forms of labour arrangements.


I am thus suggesting that feminists must continue to critically question sex work, but they should not do so from a universalist moral perspective concerned with static female subjects and their natural and fundamental human rights, however. As feminist research has demonstrated, sex worker’s subjectivities are complex and do not easily fit into the binaries between forced/voluntary, victim/free agent, active/passive. From a Foucauldian perspective, their subjectivities too have to be examined in relation to the governmental rationalities, power relations, discursive regimes and juridical norms that constitute them. It is also important to note how human rights discourse can cut both ways: abolitionists are opposed to prostitution because they view it as a violation of women’s human rights, but the sex workers’ rights advocates utilize human rights discourse too when arguing that states’ attempts to criminalise sex work or penalize sex workers is a denial of the human right to self-determination to those who make an individual choice to enter prostitution.

A critical feminist perspective to sex work does thus not have to fall back on universalist human rights discourse, but, in the context of neoliberal governmentality, sex work should be approached as an issue concerned with the politically constituted and contestable limits of the markets. While I acknowledge that particular forms of rights discourse might well have strategic utility in the political contestation of the power of the markets, ultimately we need more radical political tools than human rights in order to fundamentally contest our current neoliberal governmentality.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: