Thursday, August 18, 2011

Enclosure, colonization, reproduction, and the subjugation of women

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, page 17:
This is what occurred in the 19th century, when the responses to the rise of socialism, the Paris Commune, and the accumulation crisis of 1873 were the "Scramble for Africa" and the simultaneous creation in Europe of the nuclear family, centered on the economic dependence of women to men--following the expulsion of women from the waged work-place. This is also what is happening today, as a new global expansion of the labor-market is attempting to set back the clock with respect to the anti-colonial struggle, and the struggles of other rebel subjects--students, feminists, blue collar workers--who, in the 1960s and 1970s, undermined the sexual and international division of labor.

It is not surprising, then, if large-scale violence and enslavement have been on the agenda, as they were in the period of the "transition," with the difference that today the conquistadors are the officers of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who are still preaching the worth of a penny to the same populations which the dominant world powers have for centuries robbed and pauperized. Once again, much of the violence unleashed is directed against women, for in the age of the computer, the conquest of the female body is still a precondition for the accumulation of labor and wealth, as demonstrated by the institutional investment in the development of new reproductive technologies that, more than ever, reduce women to wombs.
One of the things Federici does nicely here is to emphasize the way that in a colonial power (like the contemporary United States or the European countries of the 19th century) repression at home and repression abroad, though they take different forms, are parts of the same system. As she described in the last quote I wrote about, the "primitive accumulation" of capital that occurred in Europe primarily around the 16th and 17th centuries--the enclosure of the commons, the destruction of traditional modes of knowledge, the attack on the power of women, and so on, all of which is Federici's primary subject matter in the book--all of this is occurring, right now, in extremely similar ways, in the so-called "third world," because once you've subjugated and stolen everything from your "own" people, the next step is to do it to other people. I'm reminded forcefully of Derrick Jensen's argument that civilization, based as it is in the degradation of one's own landbase until it is unable to support its populations, is inherently violent--it always needs to expand, because once you've taken everything "your" land and "your" people have to give, you have to look elsewhere for more.

Of course, I'm making it sound like a linear process--steal everything at home, then steal everything somewhere else, then steal everything somewhere else--when of course it is not. The attacks on the lower classes in Europe happened at the same time as the colonization of huge swathes of the rest of the world, including among other things genocide of unmatched scale in the Americas and the transformation of the people of Africa into property that could then be stolen en masse (and, of course, the genocide that inevitably accompanied this). And, again, as Federici points out, the processes of enclosure, colonization, and theft are ongoing today. Whether with explicit military invasion or the machinations of the IMF (or both or more), most of the world is directly subjugated to international capital.

And here (in the US, where I'm writing from, but to my knowledge this applies similarly to anywhere inside the walls), processes similar in shape if not in scale--the militarization of the police, the slaveries of debt and the wage (made possible by that not-so-long-ago enclosure of the commons)--are in play. Also in play: women's bodies, and the struggle over who controls them.

Embarrassingly, I thought once upon a time that the struggle over reproductive freedom, though real enough down here at the bottom with the rank and file of "pro-life" and "pro-choice" groups, at the top was "really" about the fact that Roe v. Wade rested on an expansion of the concept of the "right to privacy." In other words, I thought that powerful people smiled on attempts to criminalize abortion as a step in the creation of a surveillance state. (I also thought that, by thinking this, I was being more clear-sighted than most people.) What I didn't realize was that this idea rested on three incorrect assumptions: first, that people in power care about laws and judicial decisions in any capacity beyond PR when necessary; second, that the surveillance state is an end in itself rather than one part of a multi-tiered system of resource extraction; and third, that power's interest in controlling reproduction started and stopped with Roe v. Wade (and, therefore, incidentally was only concerned with abortion itself). My introduction to anarchist analysis wiped out the first assumption, my increasing knowledge of class struggle and the true nature of civilization itself wiped out the second, and, the past few years of chipping away at reproductive freedom in creative ways while leaving Roe nominally intact wiped out the third. I started to think--my god, is this actually a case of people in power objecting to something on purely moral grounds?

Well, of course it isn't. By thinking so, I was without realizing it still thinking in terms of the first faulty assumption. When power makes laws against a certain behavior, they don't do it to keep everyone from engaging in that behavior; they do it to keep the wrong people from engaging in it. Making laws that restrict reproductive freedom will never stop powerful people from controlling their own reproduction--but it does take the reproduction of the lower classes out of lower class women's hands.

And why does power care about this? It's because the exploitation of a class of people isn't a one-time thing; it's an ongoing process which requires the ongoing reproduction of that class. Of course it is in power's interest to take control over that reproduction away from the people responsible for it, the people who historically used to have control over it--women. When the ruling classes, as Federici puts it, "reduce women to wombs," they do it to make sure that people get born at the rate they need.

Of course, after all these words I'm still oversimplifying this, and there are all kinds of quibbles and caveats that could be made, not to mention the fact that I've only--so far--looked at one aspect, the directly biological, of what Marxist analysis calls the "reproduction of labor." But the overall point is honestly kind of a simple one: power faced a crisis in the 15th and 16th centuries; it faced another in the 19th century; and it faces another now,* and it is reacting in very similar ways. One of those ways, indeed one of the pillars that capitalist power rests upon, is the subjugation of women.

*That the first two crises were caused in large part by popular revolution and the current one is caused more by the fact that power is almost done burning through everything this planet was generous enough to give us, is of course extremely important, but not right now for the purposes of this discussion.

More coming; if you want to look at all of the quotes I pulled from Federici's extremely important book before I get around to discussing them, they're all on the Commonplace.


Anonymous said...

thanks ethan. a tho't: perhaps a/the issue, or an angle on it, is: who owns reproduction? similar w/violence: who owns (the right/ability to act with) violence?

abortion signifies that state ownership is not total and so cannot be allowed indiscriminately.

Ethan said...

Hm...I'm interested, but I think I'm not quite sure what you mean, especially by your last sentence. If you don't mind, could you expand a little?