Strategic gendering as capability: one lens into the complexity of powerlessness.

Author:Sassen, Saskia
Position:The Works of Martha C. Nussbaum: Feminism and Liberalism; History, Identity and Sexuality; Gender and Development

In her influential work on capabilities, Women and Human Development, (1) Martha Nussbaum addresses questions that cut across diverse framings and philosophical conceptions, even as her project is to exit the confinements of these conceptions. Her conceptual exit aims at a precise locating of the core elements that should be at work in our understanding of human development: the individual as a bearer of capabilities that ought to be realized. These core elements should be recognized normatively and politically. (2) More specifically, her work establishes a norm: the right of women to be what they can be.

I intersect with this proposition. But I start from and arrive at conceptual grounds that diverge from Nussbaum's. This divergence in beginnings and endings can coexist with that shared point of intersection: the recognition of individuals as bearers of capabilities. The divergence stems partly from our different disciplines and partly from substantive differences in focus. Nussbaum's concern in Women and Human Development is to recover the individual, in this case women, as the bearer of capabilities. (3) My concern is to recover the larger assemblage of actors and conditions within which this individual can become a bearer of capabilities.

In terms of the focus of this Article, the major theoretical and political implication is a systemic repositioning of exploited or undervalued women. After twenty years of International Monetary Fund ("IMF") driven restructuring in poor Global South countries, these exploited and undervalued women are active factors in the making of alternative political economies for survival, not only for survival of their households but also for a range of economic sectors and for governments. In this process these women do not necessarily become empowered. The women themselves most likely do not gain anything from their functioning as a capability in the making of alternative economies for survival--or, from this analytic recognition/legibility of their systemic positioning as a vanguard actor in the making of a new history. But this recognition matters politically and theoretically: they are not only victims, and they can make history even if they do not become personally empowered. In this complexity of powerlessness lies a possibility for politics, including the making of the political. To sharpen the elaboration of the argument in this short article, I have chosen to focus on systems that can be seen as negative, notably, the trafficking of women for the sex industry, perhaps one of the most extreme forms of trafficking of workers. The analysis in this Article examines how these exploited women have become a key source for the survival not only of their households, as has been widely reported, but also, and less noted, for the survival of "entrepreneurship" in economies devastated by neoliberal policies that have destroyed traditional economies. Entrepreneurship in the context of trafficking ranges from global criminal syndicates, which are truly murderous, to small local entrepreneurs who are actually hired by the "trafficked" migrant, whether woman or man. Furthermore, these trafficked workers have become a source for enhancing government revenues at a time when many of these governments are burdened by massive debts to the international financial system and access to hard currencies has become critical. The capacity to enable survival of households, economies and governments needs to be recognized. That these women remain powerless and are often enslaved is a fact, but that should not obscure a second fact, that there is complexity in this powerlessness, and hence the possibility of a politics--a reorienting of this collective capacity towards different aims and thereby a making of a history.

Part I discusses how the concept of capabilities becomes central to my analysis, albeit through a shift from individual to system. Part II shows how a feminist analytics of major features of economic systems can bring to the fore the collective capacity of women to make economies, even as this fact did not bring empowerment to women and was obscured in standard economic accounts. I name this collective capacity strategic gendering because it goes beyond the matter of gendered outcomes and involves making. Part III elaborates on this through a more detailed empirical examination of how strategic gendering emerges as a capability feeding the formation of alternative economies--for the survival of households, economic entrepreneurship, and governments--that operate on the backs of mostly poor and exploited women. A big question is whether the negative valence of this dynamic is one step in a larger trajectory where that capability might eventually become a positive one for those women, a subject I develop at greater length elsewhere. (4)


    In this analytic shift from individual to system, the category of capabilities can change valence; more precisely, it is marked by multivalence in that it can be positive or negative, depending partly on the specific assemblage of elements within which it functions. (5) I argue that capabilities can evince negative valence: under certain conditions, what is good for a system (including good for noxious systems) turns out not to be necessarily good for the individual even if her "capabilities" have come into play to enable, support, that system. In spite of this systemically driven negative valence for the individual, I consider it important to recover the fact that an individual's capabilities are at work. One conceptual instrument in this analysis is, then, the notion of capabilities.

    Extricating the category of capabilities from its positive valence opens up the analytic possibility that powerlessness can range from elementary to complex, a critical element for my attempt to capture how powerless women can be bearers of capabilities that materialize not at the individual but at the system level. This variability in the meaning of powerlessness does not simply depend on the characteristics of individuals: the settings also matter. For instance, the powerlessness of a specific undocumented immigrant will be quite elementary in the context of a California commercial farm but can become complex in a city like New York or Los Angeles. Strategic gendering is one instantiation of the complexity of powerlessness.

    Martha Nussbaum's work has redrawn the conceptual map within which we situate the notion of capabilities today; indeed, her work has been of major importance to the development of a feminist analytics centered in this concept. What Nussbaum calls for is:

    [A] principle of each person's capability: the capabilities sought are sought for each and every person, not, in the first instance, for groups or families or states or other corporate bodies. Such bodies may be extremely important in promoting human capabilities, and in this way they may deservedly gain our support: but it is because of what they do for people that they are so worthy, and the ultimate political goal is always the promotion of the capabilities of each person.(6) In this regard she argues forcefully:

    When we look at the family, whose capabilities do we look at? Here we must repeat: we look at each person. Here, as in the case of religion, a principle of each person's capability should guide us. It is not enough to ask whether the family promotes a diffuse and general kind of affection and solidarity. We must ask in detail what it does for the capabilities of each of its members in the area of love and care, and also with regard to the other capabilities. (7) Further,

    The basic political principles [of liberal individualism as argued here] mandate that society secure a threshold level of the basic goods of life to each, seeing each life as deserving of basic life support and of the basic liberties and opportunities; that we do not rest content with a glorious total or average, when some individuals are lacking, whether in liberty or in material well-being. (8) There is much I agree with here, content-wise.

    Nussbaum's emphasis on the individual takes her in a specific direction conceived of as univocal. She writes, "A capabilities analysis, by contrast [to a utility-based analysis], looks at how people are actually enabled to live." (9) This statement implies a one-to-one relationship between capabilities and individual, and, perhaps more clearly, attaches a positive valence to "enabled to live." I would agree that this is an important question and that many such enablements to live can be positive. But are they always? The shift From individual to system brings with it a triangulation: there is now a third actor in the frame, and this, in turn, problematizes the question of who is the beneficiary of an individual's capabilities, or of an individual being "enabled to live," and thereby problematizes the proposition that capabilities are necessarily positive in valence. In some ways, this triangulation parallels feminist analyses of patriarchy in the household insofar as women's work is critical to the household and to maintaining patriarchy even as the latter is noxious. The switch From individual to system allows us to recognize that the capabilities are a variable when it comes to the practical world. This does not necessarily preclude its being constructed as positive in the world of norms.

    The emphasis on the individual has placed this important book at the center of multiple debates. At a time when diversity, group rights, and other divergent conceptions have proliferated, her book has drawn much commentary and critiques. It is not my purpose in this Article to discuss this vast body of responses. (10) Here I only want to reference some of the statements by Nussbaum in her book that address some of the commentary and critique that was to come. My engagement with Nussbaum's conceptualization of capabilities comes...

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