Friday, September 9, 2011

Unlearning their history to learn ours

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation pages 21-22:
A history of women and reproduction in the "transition to capitalism" must begin with the struggles that the medieval proletariat--small peasants, artisans, day laborers--waged against feudal power in all its forms. Only if we evoke these struggles, with their rich cargo of demands, social and political aspirations, and antagonistic practices, can we understand the role that women had in the crisis of feudalism, and why their power had to be destroyed for capitalism to develop, as it was by the three-century-long persecution of the witches. From the vantage point of this struggle, we can also see that capitalism was not the product of an evolutionary development bringing forth economic forces that were maturing in the womb of the old order. Capitalism was the response of the feudal lords, the patrician merchants, the bishops and popes, to a centuries-long social conflict that, in the end, shook their power, and truly gave "all the world a big jolt." Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle--possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide. This much must be stressed, for the belief that capitalism "evolved" from feudalism and represents a higher form of social life has not yet been dispelled.
It is difficult to understand where we are today without also understanding our history--how we got here. The history most of us are taught, the history we receive passively (and some of us actively), is less than no help with this--even on those rare occasions when it isn't a pack of out-and-out lies.

There are three main methods that I can think of offhand that people use to lie about history without lying per se. Federici discusses two of them here (the third, which is to tell the truth about events but either to lie about or to not even mention reasons, she discusses implicitly throughout her book, and I might approach it more directly soon).

The first of these methods is to define history as exclusively the history of power, or the history of wealth, however you want to look at it. In this telling, the history of the "transition to capitalism" (a phrase Federici approaches skeptically, and I follow her example in using quotation marks around it) is the history only of kings and capitalists. We hear about others only as they appear to these kings and capitalists--as resources, as threats.

The second method is to treat what-happened as what-had-to-happen, to look at the past as inevitable. You do this partly via the first method: by ignoring everyone but the powerful, you ignore resistance to power, and therefore you ignore the alternatives, sometimes hypothetical, frequently (though usually briefly) concrete, that resistance offered.

Many people in our circles (the anarchists or whatever) have learned how to break down the walls built by these methods to different extents (and books like Zinn's People's History were a good first step to demolishing the first method), but most of us, myself as always emphatically included, have not learned this nearly enough. No matter how much we deny it, there usually remains a trace of the teleological in our approach to history, a sense of "this is the way things have to be, because that was the way things had to happen," which in its fundamental denial of the reality of how we got here leaves us unable to truly understand where we are, and how to get anywhere else. Similarly--and this is Federici's main but by no means only focus--many of us break through the narratives handed down by those in power to the hidden narratives of the relatively powerless--but only to a point. What many of us (mostly men, but some women too) miss is the role of women in our history, our shared history of resistance.

It is only when we knock down these barriers, not only the ones we've already demolished but the ones we don't yet realize are still standing, that we can move at all.


Paul said...

Do you think medieval proletariat is ahistorical?

Ethan said...


Justin said...

closely related; evolutionary psychology.

I am entirely convinced that almost all of our entire conciousness and behavioral norms are bounded and defined by social construct rather than instinct or natural tendency, to have a conversation with anyone who believes that we have a natural or inevitable tendency toward status hierarchy or domination based on material or sexual rights proves to be fruitless once you get to that part of it.

Ethan said...

Ah, right--the big lie that the way things are now, in our historically aberrant way of life, is the way we've evolved to be, the only way we can ever be, because of our pesky biology.

High Arka said...

There is a certain distasteful aura associated with privileged westerners--particularly but not always of the kayaking white male variety--being very affronted at complex theories of the once ominous, now cunningly subtle patriarchal domination of western women. This said aura being that such affront tends to occupy a greater degree of energy than the affront at the shredding into death of the bodies and souls of less privileged women far away.

Does this brand of trickle-down antisexism work? Let's try it out. Here's a sample rallying cry:

"If we only had a powerful woman Secretary of State, with a strong political backing and personal wealth, serving her nation, perhaps we could finally address the problems of war, starvation, environmental destruction and bigotry."

Oops! It seems that the answer to the problems of the world will not be found in singing dirges of lower wages, fewer promotions, underwear models, and the many accumulated sins of the male of the species. Changing the sexes of the masks on the deathlords will stop the grindery no faster than changing the presumed races of said masks.

It does help the more (not most! admittedly! but still more!) privileged feel victimized, though. And helps the Pakistani set of men, women, children and elders fade far into the background, where they, apparently belong.

The oppressed women of the Victorian era, who sat in dresses worth five hundred pounds sipping tea and munching crackers by the fire--while thousands of poor white children starved and froze to death, slaves were shipped overseas, and vast hordes of brown people of all sexes were butchered for living near the choice resources of the time--are laughing at you now, for the many decades and centuries that you have missed the point on your little crusade for "feminism." Death's grinning skull loves when you miss the point and divide humanity against itself for incidental slights. And yes, as painful as it is to hear, glass ceilings, sexist jokes and eleven thousand terrible spousal beatings a year, while not deserving of ignorance, are not as bad as one million starving children. That said, you can't weigh horror. But looking at those things side by side, and looking at the amount of American complaining about each, gives an insight into the problematic ways in which the grindery keeps on, well...grinding.

That is entitlement.

Why don't you take to the streets for the right of bicyclists to have more space on America's roads? The distressing problems of the financial exploitation of the upper-middle-class elderly by minority computer hackers? The agonizing worry of the single most powerful person in the world that unemployed white men in Kansas might misjudge his religion simply because he's a mulatto?

Or you could simply write many a dissertation about the nuances of sexism in the middle ages.

This has been your message from the spirits of dead children in a galaxy far, far away. Carry on, ye Joanna Russ crusaders.

Ethan said...

I could go through everything you just wrote and respond to it point-by-point. On the other hand, I could just ignore you. The second option is probably the better one, but I'm going to take a middle path here.

You've now repeatedly shown that the instant the subject of women comes up, you become incapable of comprehending even the simplest things that other people write, but that you nevertheless feel the need to respond to what you don't understand with lengthy irrelevancies. I would ask you to please consider why this might be.

High Arka said...

The operative point here is the focus of your angst. Take, as an example, the holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with it. However, taken in context with its geographical, national and temporal location, even something like said museum, which is not (necessarily and/or wholly) wrong in and of itself, can be highly indicative of a more important, more terrible problem with its builders, worshippers and/or the world at large. (Would that there could be a museum for every such atrocity. Then again, if there were, there wouldn't be space left for the dwellings of the living.)

For example, the immense cultural focus on that particular Jewish/communist/homosexual/unlucky mass killing throws into relief the resultant willing blindness toward other mass killings. This blindness works in tandem with (creates?) certain other aspects of the world in which said holocaust museum was built. The elephant in the room is, of course, Palestine and the ongoing hashemitic genocide, but many other pages of the penultimate human history tome make the point just as well. Currently, for example, the rape, starvation, displacement and brutal murder of women in Somalia. Insert other location here as needed. Or just go to the "black America" third-world-style infant mortality and prenatal care rates for a more proximate approach.

At an even deeper level, one might associate the monumentalization of the holocaust as a justification, rather than a sad reminder. The building of that museum in the geographical nexus where American labor is monetized, then used to fund death machines sent to murder homeless hashemites, seems too purposeful to be a coincidence.

Which is why, when privileged white westerners angst at length about the plight of privileged white women, there's something there. No, the abuse of women is not unimportant. No, the abuse of men is not unimportant. No, the abuse of children is not unimportant. This one tends to care more about the youth and life of the future. And even feminist statisticians tend to note that 9 of 10 deaths in war are women and children.

Which is why there's something there. Rabid focus on western female repression is a way of redirecting the conscious mind away from things that might otherwise command attention. Such as mass death and the crushing of life and the world. In the cosmic sense of things, your hand-wringing about sex discrimination in the middle ages is roughly tantamount to Paris Hilton screeching that she broke a nail, and why is the world so unfair?

Of course, Paris Hilton's broken nail is important. It sucks to break a nail. Human woes should not be ignored or marginalized, no matter how "small" they are in relation to other woes. This one would be happy to give Ms. Hilton some antibiotic ointment and kind words. The problem is not that she's unhappy about it; the problem isn't even if she throws a giant fit about it. However, if Paris' fit indicates that she genuinely believes that her broken nail is a problem more important and meaningful than the homeless guy on the grate, then there's something there: a subconscious repression of the real forces we are employing wrongfully against one another.

This one understands your desire to not think about it, and to choose "ignoring" it as the best option. Build your museum and throw this one out, if you must.

Ethan said...

You've now repeatedly shown that the instant the subject of women comes up, you become incapable of comprehending even the simplest things that other people write, but that you nevertheless feel the need to respond to what you don't understand with lengthy irrelevancies. I would ask you to please consider why this might be.

High Arka said...

Your HTML cannot be accepted: Must be at most 4,096 characters!

Here's what it would've been:

This one will also add that if this one failed to comprehend the simplest things you wrote, or even the more complex things, perhaps you might paraphrase them or develop the points a little further to see if the misunderstanding can be remedied.

Justin said...

"The operative point here is the focus of your angst."

The focus of Ethan's angst is the difficulty in knocking down barriers or even being able to detect them in a reinterpretation of history that rejects the value system of the oppressive, patriarchal power structure.

I am having trouble following what the discussion is, or whether this qualifies as a discussion.

Justin said...

I mean to say to Arka that you are presenting information or a way of looking at reality through a different lens that you have found compelling and enlightening and are trying to bring it into this discussion to do the same for others. You are wielding the information clumsily, its not that others don't find it compelling on its own merits, but when misapplied find it is tiresome to respond to. I think that is what Ethan meant by his reply.

High Arka said...

While acknowledging your ad hominem (e.g., "this isn't even a real discussion" & "you are mentally clumsy"), this one continues as follows:

Richard said...

It's evident that reading comprehension is not your strong suit. (That's not an "ad hominem", btw, it's a judgment.)

High Arka said...

Will you help this one understand by phrasing the missed point in a form that can be understood by someone with such low abilities to comprehend things read?

(It's so nice that Ethan has so many friends who can explain the deficiencies that cause his visitors to be unable to understand his viewpoints. Like NYT reporters friendly to the administration!)

Justin said...

I think your reading comprehension is fine. I don't think you are unable to comprehend, I think your ability to express your reply as it relates to the post is what is clumsy.

Returning to your point about the focus of Ethan's angst, the rest of what you are writing does not obviously relate to the post for everyone as it does you. From my perspective, you are leaping into an irrelevant discussion. I don't think what you are writing is wrong, just that it is misapplied here. I didn't help matters with using a phrase like patriarchy, but I think what Ethan is saying is that sometimes its hard to see past ones unexamined assumptions. Unexamined assumptions are sometimes ignored because they are hard to see, not because the individual chooses to ignore them.

That is the point of the post as I see it, the examples used to express this blindness are secondary.

High Arka said...

The original post discusses the role of feudal lords, not ladies, in transitioning to capitalism through the destruction of female social power, and how "mostly men" (kings, but not ladies or queens or princesses!) are ignorant of this historical trend because of their blindness toward the female "side of the equation" (latter not Ethan's quote). This one fails to see how that is not a historical argument in conformity with standard western feminist theory, into which you correctly brought the term patriarchy, as it had been so directly implied by Federici in the selection.

Richard said...

"standard western feminist theory": what is this?

you don't know what you're talking about, and there isn't enough time for people to educate you in comment boxes; maybe you should read the book.