Monday, September 26, 2011

Women under capitalism

Silvia Federici, over pages 63 and 64 of Caliban and the Witch, lays out some premises:
  1. The expropriation of European workers from their means of subsistence, and the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans to the mines and plantations of the "New World," were not the only means by which a world proletariat was formed and "accumulated."

  2. This process required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force. Most of all, it required the destruction of the power of women which, in Europe as in America, was achieved through the extermination of the "witches."

  3. Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply an accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as "race" and age, became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat.

  4. We cannot, therefore, identify capitalist accumulation with the liberation of the worker, female or male, as many Marxists (among others) have done, or see the advent of capitalism as a moment of historical progress. On the contrary, capitalism has created more brutal and insidious forms of enslavement, as it has planted into the body of the proletariat deep divisions that have served to intensify and conceal exploitation. It is in great part because of these imposed divisions--especially those between women and men--that capitalist accumulation continues to devastate life in every corner of the planet.
Before I get started, I would like to point out that neither Federici nor anyone else is suggesting that the oppression of women--or even some of the specific forms of women's oppression as discussed here--is original to capitalism. Such an argument would be absurd. However, capitalism, as (so far) the most ravenously expansionist form that civilization has taken (exponentially more so than its immediate predecessor, feudalism), has intrinsically higher and different demands than previous forms, and as such its oppression of women has over the past several hundred years taken on newly specialized and in many cases more comprehensive forms. This is something that I will hopefully be covering in more detail in future posts. For now, this.

In I., Federici summarizes much of what she's discussed to this point in the book, which itself was in many ways a summary of the existing work done by post-Marxist* scholars on interpreting the "transition to capitalism." In this analysis, we can understand the "transition" as a deliberate series of actions by the powerful, not just in response to threats to their power but also in an effort to consolidate and increase that power: the use of the enclosure of the commons (and other methods of separating the peasantry from their land, as for example impressment) to weaken the ability of the commoners to resist and to force them into the new forms of labor; the colonization of Africa and the Americas. In other words, this analysis understands that capitalism cannot exist without colonies, that the riches of the capitalist depend not only on "visible" wage labor but on "invisible" non-wage labor, that the exploitation of the wage worker here-and-now depends on both the past violent theft of that class's means of subsistence and on the ongoing violent plunder of the colonies and the colonized. In other words,** this analysis dramatically expands, in both time and space, what is meant by "primitive accumulation"--it can now be understood as an ongoing process of what might in part be sardonically termed "outsourcing."

*I'm not using the term in any technical sense--I don't even know if post-Marxism has a technical definition or not, and I don't care to--because I have no patience for following scholarly leftist factionalism; it's one area where I revel in ignorance. I just mean researchers, writers, historians who have been influenced by Marxist analysis but feel that it is far from complete.
**And assuming I understand the terminology correctly, which I might not.

Having acknowledged this analysis, Federici presents the feminist argument that, though essential, the analysis is incomplete in so far as it overlooks the experiences of oppressed women and the role that this oppression plays in the maintenance of capitalism. Any analysis that ignores this and yet pretends to "universality" is woefully incomplete; even aside from the fact that, as I've mentioned before, women are half of the population, their oppression is every bit as foundational as (if not more so than) the other oppressions on which capitalism bases itself (not to mention that all of these oppressions are tangled together, and cannot be understood in isolation because they don't exist in isolation). Without the oppression of women, capitalism would be unable to function.

Federici lays out this argument (briefly, to be expanded upon throughout the rest of the book) in II. The phrase the transformation of the body into a work-machine is key. In the case of men, this means what we normally think of when we think of "work"--i.e., all aspects of our physical being had to be subsumed into the capitalist production process, and those that could not be thus subsumed had to be suppressed. It is the same in the case of women, but with them the focus is extremely different; it is this difference that Federici expresses as "the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force." What does she mean by this?

She is using the term "reproduction" in two senses here, the Marxist and the biological.* Under capitalism, women are subjugated to reproduction in both senses. In Marxist terms,** the "reproduction of the work-force" refers to the effort required to renew the worker's ability to work, day after day. The cleaning of clothes, the care of the home, the preparation of food. If all of these tasks seem to belong together under a common heading other than "reproduction," it is because they are what make up housework. The (unpaid) work, that is, of the housewife: women's work. Without this work, the wage work of capitalist production would be impossible.***

*It may be more accurate to say that she is expanding the Marxist definition to include the biological, but for convenience I will talk about the two meanings separately.
**Again, if I'm understanding correctly; I'm no Marx expert, as you can probably tell. If I'm misunderstanding or misrepresenting, let me know. My feeling, however, is that even if I am misusing terms my overall points stand.
***There are several seemingly strong objections to this argument, some of which I will address towards the end of this post.

The other sense in which Federici is using the term "reproduction" is, as I mentioned before, the biological--i.e., having babies.* Capitalists rely on others to create wealth for them--they need workers--which put another way means: capitalism will always need people, lots of 'em. On the other hand, it doesn't want too many people, because the masses of people, in addition to being capitalism's greatest resource, are also its greatest threat. Thus, the population must be tightly controlled,** which of course means that birth must be tightly controlled. The upshot of this is, unavoidably, "the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force." Women's control over their own bodies must be taken away from them--they must not be able to choose when to have children and when not to, because their own decisions may be at odds with the needs of capital.

*While I was away from the computer making myself lunch, Boorman apparently decided there should be a footnote here, and who am I to argue?
**As some book I read recently pointed out (I can't remember which, so I unfortunately can't credit--possibly it was James C. Scott's
Seeing Like a State), it is no coincidence that capitalism and the science of demography are of approximately the same age.

There is much that I could write about what Federici says at the end of II., about the "extermination of the 'witches'" being the method by which women were subjugated for the purposes of capital, but since that is the primary topic of Federici's entire book, I think I will wait and discuss that in future posts.

In III., Federici summarizes and builds upon all of this, incidentally refuting the standard argument of those who say (usually in bad faith, though sometimes with good intentions) that it is feminists who create an artificial division between men and women. It is the power structures under which we live that create these divisions, and feminists who describe and attempt to counter them. The argument that they are created by feminists is similar to the position of those who say that calling out racism is in itself racist, which is to say, it is nonsensical, a form of (as discussed in my last Federici post) directing the blame downwards rather than upwards.

So it is in large part this "accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class" that makes capitalism its profits.* Not only this, but they also help the whole system to be self-policing. It is well understood, in some circles at least, that the system of racialized slavery served to divide the once largely united lower classes into two mutually antagonistic groups, with the relative power of lower class whites over blacks serving to help the lower class whites to identify with the upper classes and to focus their often justified anger at their own situations down the hierarchy rather than up it. A similar end is served by creating a division between men and women, and specifically a hierarchy in which men are superior to women. The patriarchal family is a reiteration of the patriarchal system at large, with the husband/father as the boss--the owner--and the wife and children as the proletariat. If every working man--every wage slave--is granted his own realm of absolute authority, his anger at his own exploitation can be blunted, redirected.

*It is very tempting, but probably meaningless, to make an analogy to physical systems in which an energy imbalance in two parts of the system is made to do work.

I suspect that there's not really anybody in my teensy readership who believes either in the orthodox Marxist claim that capitalism is a progressive improvement over previous systems or in capitalism's definition of itself as such, both refuted in IV. As such, I feel no particular need to discuss that point in detail. However, in this little corner of the internet I do frequently see objections to the feminist analysis which, to me, suggest a deep-down, more than likely unwitting, adherence to the Marxist view that the capitalist imposition of wage work is in a broad historical context a form of "progress." These are the seemingly sound objections I mentioned above, and the fact that I'm getting to them now is a sign that this behemoth post is almost over.

So, to go back to the point about the reproduction, in Marxist terms, of the workforce being the unpaid responsibility of women, one might (and many often do) object that, well, things might have been like that once, but nowadays women are in the paid work force just as much as men, so women aren't really housewives anymore--this specialized, foundational oppression of women is a thing of the past, now, and capitalism is still steamrolling along just fine. Or one might also object that the housewife, as an exclusive occupation, is a phenomenon of the white middle class only, that in recent history at least black and other poor women have always been wage workers. Both of these objections are true, to a point (the second in particular is an omission of which many feminists have notoriously been guilty). However, even leaving aside the fact that the employment situation of black women has always been different from that of black men to the point of being practically incomparable, and even leaving aside the fact that to this day women reliably make significantly less money for the same work as men while simultaneously having more expenses in both time and money as a prerequisite for having these jobs,* it is still the overwhelming pattern that women, even when working as many waged hours as men, are still responsible for the majority, if not the entirety, of the non-waged reproductive work.

*I am speaking here of the larger requirements women in our society must fulfill in order to present a "professional" appearance, in terms of makeup, hair care, clothing, etc.

This fact is the inevitable, and desired, result of the capitalist division of labor along sexual lines, but its day to day reality is, unlike many other aspects of the global capitalist machine, something we ourselves can directly and concretely change. We might not be able to do anything directly and immediately about women's lower wages or loss of reproductive freedom (or, for that matter, the violence directed at colonial subjects overseas, though we of course should always be doing the long-term work of fighting all these forms of oppression), but right now, today and every day, we can fight the personalized form of women's oppression.


Richard said...

I just ordered this book and look forward to reading it.

Richard said...

It's right up your alley, Richard!

Richard said...

Also, great write-up, Ethan. This book well deserves our close attention, so I couldn't be happier that you're doing this.

Ethan said...

First Richard--excellent! It really is an essential book.

Second Richard--Thank you.

almostinfamous said...

this is most excellent, ethan. i dont have much in the spare cash dept right now, but as soon as i do, i am going to pick up some Silvia Federici books. Any recommendations on where to start would be most welcome, as our local internet megastore seems to be able to import the books at reasonable cost :)

Ethan said...

Glad you like. Hah, local internet megastore. I've only read Caliban thus far--and it's an excellent place to start. Not having been particularly knowledgeable about the period in question (primarily the 1400s to the 1700s), I found it useful to read Linebaugh and Rediker's The Many Headed Hydra first, which is an excellent survey of the growing global order of the time from the perspective of the common people. Don't know if you'd want to or not, but I thought I might mention it. (that goes for anybody else, too, naturally)

Ethan said...

(PS good luck with the spare cash thing...)

Anonymous said...

after reading caliban, i found some of federici's essays online:

and i am loving your write-ups of the book.

Ethan said...

Oh nice! Thanks for the compliment and for the link--looks great.