Happy International Cupcake Activism Day

Eaon Pritchard
By Eaon Pritchard | 8 March 2024
Eaon Pritchard.

Why the managerial elite's co-option of International Women's Day is a betrayal of its working class roots.

When International Women's Day arrived in the early 20th century, it symbolised solidarity for working-class women fighting for their rights in an industrial world that exploited them.

Rooted in the socialist movements of the time, IWD was a day of international unity, resistance, and advocacy for women's rights to vote, work under fair conditions, and live free from discrimination and oppression.

If this is news to you, here’s a brief history.

Clara Zetkin, a German political theorist, activist, and advocate for women's rights, played a crucial role in establishing IWD.  She was already a leading figure in the German socialist movement and a critic of mainstream German feminism, highlighting a divide between ‘bourgeois’ feminism, which represented only the interests and viewpoints of the middle and upper classes, and the proletarian women's movement, aligned with the class struggle.

In 1910, at the International Socialist Women's Conference in Copenhagen, she proposed the idea of an annual celebration to promote equal rights - including suffrage for women.

The proposal was unanimously approved, leading to the first International Women's Day on March 19, 1911.

Between its founding in 1911 and the latter 20th century, the women's movement and the celebration of IWD faced various forms of suppression and marginalisation, largely due to the shifting political landscapes, two world wars, and the complex dynamics of the feminist struggle itself.

Despite these challenges, the women's movement persisted, and various waves of feminism continued to push for change. With the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, which focused on issues such as sexuality, family, the workplace, and reproductive rights, there was a resurgence in the women's movement.

However, the turning (away) point for IWD can likely be traced to sometime in 1975 when The United Nations co-opted International Women's Day. Supposedly, this was to give the day more ‘global recognition and legitimacy’, but its incorporation marked a shift away from the day's original socialist roots, aligning it more with a global technocratic and managerial approach.

The UN's endorsement helped transform IWD from a day of radical protest and activism, which often included strikes and demonstrations, into a more mainstream celebration. This institutionalisation can be seen as a form of depoliticisation that removed the day's explicit connections to socialist and labour movements.

As we navigate through the 21st century, the essence of IWD has been diluted even further.

This dilution is symptomatic of a broader societal transformation, the rise of ‘managerialism’.

This is a shift towards a society dominated by a new class of managers and bureaucrats who control the means of production not through ownership but through the manipulation and organisation of information and political capital.

This term was coined by James Burnham, an American philosopher, political theorist and contemporary of George Orwell, in his 1941 book The Managerial Revolution. He proposed that Capitalist society would not transition into Socialism, but to a Managerial society. This society would not be dominated by the old capitalist owners but by a new class of professional managers and technocrats who would control the means of production. He argued that the new managerial class would not align with the interests of either the workers or the capitalists, but would have their own distinct interests and agenda.

Burnham was spot on, if a bit ahead of his time.

DEI is a salient example of contemporary managerialism - a  system of control that the managerial class uses to maintain their status, manage social relations, and guide the direction of organisations, all without fundamentally altering the power dynamics or economic structures. The inconvenient truth about DEI is that, almost universally, its first (only?) goal is the preservation and expansion of itself. In this respect, it is pure managerialism - righting any wrongs can come later.

Consequently, this managerial elite has also co-opted movements like IWD, transforming them from vehicles of working-class struggle into instruments of managerial class ideology. Any messages of economic equality, workers’ rights, and systemic change are filed away in a focus on individual achievement and empowerment workshops within that managerial class.

The original spirit of IWD, emphasising solidarity, collective action, and systemic change, is uncomfortably at odds with the individualistic, competitive ethos promoted by the managerial class.

And, of course, much of the current IWD narrative promotes the exact bourgeois version of feminism that irked Zetkin back in 1911.  But it’s palatable to the elite — one that champions breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ without questioning who put the walls up in the first place, or who cleans the windows.

This shift serves the interests of the managerial elite by co-opting the language of feminism and women's rights to maintain their power structures. It neutralises the potential for radical change by focusing on surface-level diversity and inclusion initiatives that do not threaten the underlying economic and social hierarchies. The celebration of women CEOs and women in positions of political power is heralded as the pinnacle of progress, while the struggles of working-class women remain largely unaddressed.

There’s no pay gap at the minimum wage.

The rise of managerialism is not just an economic shift but a profound transformation in how power is exercised and maintained. The co-option of IWD by the managerial elites exemplifies how movements for social change can be absorbed and neutralised by the very structures they seek to challenge.

To reclaim the revolutionary potential of International Women's Day, we must recognise this co-option as a betrayal of its roots and recommit to the principles of solidarity, class struggle, and systemic change. Only then can we honour the legacy of IWD and continue the fight for a world that respects the rights and dignity of all women, particularly those from the working class who have always been at the heart of this struggle.

The working-class women who clean up after you in your glass offices, your refurbed warehouses or co-working hubs.  The ones who mop the floors, fill and empty the dishwashers, do the hoovering and clean the toilets.

These women start their days long before you, juggling multiple jobs, often rushing from one cleaning gig to another. They can't afford the luxury of musing over gender equality in the boardroom because they're too busy making ends meet, supporting families, and trying to survive on wages that wouldn’t pay for the agency’s monthly booze and cheese bill. And they don’t get a mental health day for burnout or WFH two days a week. They don’t even know what burnout is. In any case, they are all outsourced contractors who don’t show up on the pay gap reporting.

While the managerial classes applaud themselves for their progressive stance on women's rights, they don’t even notice the problems of the working-class women inside their own establishments. Unfortunately they face real systemic barriers that your morning tea and market-friendly activism  just won’t fix. To see IWD reduced to a hashtag, shrink-wrapped into Instagrammable moments, is to witness a profound disservice to the true meaning of the day.

So, until the corporatisation of International Women's Day decides to address the real wage gap, job security, or childcare provision — issues that directly affect the quality of life for these hardworking women - just enjoy your latte and cupcakes.

And maybe do your own dishes.

Eaon Pritchard, Working class hero and CSO at Bray&Co

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