An Interview with Professor Sylvia Walby
Sylvia Walby is Professor of Sociology and Gender Research at the University of Lancaster. Her recent book Crisis (Polity, 2015) is a concise analysis of the present social, political, and economic moment in the UK, the EU, and advanced capitalist societies more broadly. Walby provides scholars of socio-economics with a conceptual architecture through which to think the complexities of contemporary society.
Your book Crisis is provocative, concisely argued, and continues to speak to our present moment. Indeed, with the recent release of the Panama Papers and the electoral success of secessionist movements in the EU, your claims as to the relationship between a lack of transparency and democratic control in finance and political crisis are remarkably prescient. I wanted to start off by asking you if you still think we are living in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007/2008, and if you see recent political and economic developments as substantiating the thesis you put forward in 2015?
We are still living in the crisis. It started with the removal of controls over finance, which led to the financial crisis, which cascaded into the economic crisis in the real economy with unemployment and reduced output, which cascaded into fiscal pressure, which led to political crisis and austerity, which is now cascading into constitutional crisis and violence. So, yes (unfortunately), recent developments substantiate the thesis.
A question of yours in the book struck me as very interesting: “Would the financial crisis have been different if it had been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers?” As I understood it, what you call the “masculine monoculture of finance” was not a negligible factor in bringing about the financial crisis. Can you say more about the relationship between women and the failure of financial governance?
Financial governance is gendered. This is partly due to the gendered culture of the internal governance of finance companies, where there are only Brothers and very few Sisters; but only partly, since if finance is to be governed effectively, the power of the democratic state is more important than the internal culture of firms. Financial governance is a gendered political project. Social democracy, which seeks democratic regulation of finance by the state, is a gendered project because of its goal of seeking gender equality. So, while having more women on corporate boards (including finance companies) as a result of targets or quotas is a relevant contribution towards reducing the instability of finance, it is insufficient.
Your earlier work, I’m thinking here of Theorizing Patriarchy, was written at the height of the ‘dual systems’ debate in feminist theory. Since then, you have shifted to emphasizing the importance of macro approaches to political economy, suggesting even that feminists can make use of the concept of ‘human capital’ as developed by New Household Economics to understand the nature of contemporary public gender regimes. You also stress a return to the concept of ‘system’ through the categories of complexity science. Can you speak to how your earlier work influences your present approach to crisis? Do you think mainstream economics will take up your argument to thinking gender in labor markets beyond the simplistic production (paid) / reproduction (unpaid) divide?
I would ask: which mainstream? The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the EU’s notion of ‘smart, inclusive and sustainable growth strategy’ represent a form of mainstream economics in which the full utilization of human capacity/capital (skills, education, experience), including that of women, is a route to a more effective economy for all. This is a social democratic economic growth strategy, and requires the removal of discrimination through regulations. It contrasts with a neoliberal economic growth strategy that seeks growth through the removal of regulations: the ‘mainstream’ does not only take a neoliberal deregulatory form.
The social democratic mainstream argues for regulations to reduce gender discrimination in labor markets to achieve economic development that is sustainable and inclusive. In the UK, at least, the crisis has not led to the return of domestic gender relations, but rather to the neoliberalization of the public gender regime.
I think the concept of system is useful in making explicit the interconnections between different forms of social relations. Some early concepts of system were too static, assuming equilibrium, and too simple, making it hard to theorize the intersection of multiple inequalities. Instead of rejecting the concept of system, however, I revise it. Rather than stable hierarchies of determination, there are ‘mutually adaptive systems’, which may be more tightly or loosely ‘coupled’. The crisis is cascading from one social domain to another and to another. How can we theorize these connections without a concept of a social system that connects these domains? We need a theory of society that re-works the concept of social system.
I would like to hear your thoughts on the future role of the EU. Do you think the regulatory and transnational institutional architectures currently in place can turn the EU into a vehicle for the democratization of finance and a player in the struggle to end Violence Against Women?
Potentially, the EU could develop these policy architectures. Only a polity at least the size of the EU could regulate global finance capital. But, currently, its interventions are very modest. The new EU Area of Freedom, Security, and Justice could prioritize policy to end violence against women. Currently, this policy exists, but is marginal. At each crisis, the EU has always previously restructured itself, becoming ever more integrated and politically powerful. This is happening again (despite Brexit). The form of the integrative restructuring will depend on the extent to which democratic practices are institutionalized. Only if democratization is prioritized in the restructuring will the potential capacity of the EU to regulate finance and reduce violence be realized.
Can you tell readers a bit about your future work and where you hope to see the field of socio-economics, broadly construed, going?
I am returning to the question of the theorization of ‘society’. My intention is to integrate the implications of the empirical work I have recently been conducting on violence into this theorization. I have been examining the implications of improving the measurement of violence for the analysis of its gendered distribution: this has enabled an analysis that shows that the economic crisis has increased the rate of violence, driven by domestic violence and violence against women. This analysis connects violence to the field of socio-economics. The development of the field of socio-economics needs to consider these wider connections, to changes in violence and to changes in gender relations, in order to explain changes in contemporary society.
Interview by Agatha Slupek