Friday, August 12, 2011

Stolen context

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, page 10:
By the end of 1986...I left Nigeria, in body if not in spirit. But the thought of the attacks launched on the Nigerian people never left me. Thus, the desire to restudy "the transition to capitalism" has been with me since my return. I had read the Nigerian events through the prism of 16th-century Europe. In the United States, it was the Nigerian proletariat that brought me back to the struggles over the commons and the capitalist disciplining of women, in and out of Europe. Upon my return, I also began to teach in an interdisciplinary program for undergraduates where I confronted a different type of "enclosure": the enclosure of knowledge, that is, the increasing loss, among the new generations, of the historical sense of our common past. This is why in Caliban and the Witch I reconstruct the anti-feudal struggles of the Middle Ages and the struggles by which the European proletariat resisted the advent of capitalism. My goal in doing so is not only to make available to non-specialists the evidence on which my analysis relies, but to revive among younger generations the memory of a long history of resistance that today is in danger of being erased. Saving this historical memory is crucial if we are to find an alternative to capitalism. For this possibility will depend on our capacity to hear the voices of those who have walked similar paths.
I quote this little bit of Federici's introduction because it brings up an extremely important point, what she refers to here as "the enclosure of knowledge," what I described a few hours ago in conversation with the Baronette and my parents as "our hidden shared history" and as "stolen context."

Most Americans, I imagine, if they think about capitalism at all, think of it as a pretty good thing--we've been trained pretty well to associate it with "freedom," whatever that is. In the even unlikelier, rarer situation where we think about it in relation to feudalism, the system that preceded it, we're most likely to think of it as an improvement. Feudalism, we feel, became untenable, its cruelties unbearable, and it was replaced by the more enlightened system of capitalism. We think this because the more accurate history, that capitalism was developed by the powerful in response to (for a time very successful) anti-feudal struggles on the part of the powerless--i.e., that capitalism was in fact created as a bloody, intercontinental counter-revolution--this history has been concealed from us.* Our knowledge of where today came from has been stolen. Without this context, most of us are utterly unable to figure out what the hell is happening.

*Not to mention that the counter-revolution is of course still actively ongoing today, part of which is what Federici is referring to when she talks about Nigeria. Without the context of our own past, it is harder to understand what is happening elsewhere in the world, and harder not just to feel but to recognize the urgency of solidarity.

The Baronette told me about an article she read (I don't have a link, but I'm sure if you throw a brick you'll hit an article like it) criticizing the rioters in England for looting "the commons." That businesses of any kind--and chain stores, no less!--can be referred to as "the commons" with a straight face is a sure sign of how completely they have disconnected us from our history. To me, "stealing" from a corporation is one of the most noble, not to mention pragmatic, acts available to us in our circumscribed lives. But I am only able to think this because I have been made aware that once upon a time--not that long ago, relatively--things were different. Once you're aware of that, you can realize that it is the corporations who have been stealing and continue to steal from us, not vice versa.

More on this, and on Federici, hopefully to come.

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