The War on the Commons, the War on Women--The third essay in our book club on Silvia Federici's brilliant opus.
I found myself wondering at times what stopped this process of enclosure and pauperisation that is moving around the world, what stopped it from happening in the 8000 or so years that civilisation has existed before capitalism? Because the ruling class must have wanted this much power at all times, right? What finally enabled it happening then?
It wasn't fossil fuels, was it? Because those did not yet exist in the 1600s... was it just random mutations of culture that made ideas like enclosure and wage labor finally occurr to the ruling class? This question was the one thing that was missing for me in these chapters. Because it also seems to me that the thing that enabled it, must be the thing that can change or be changed to stop it as well, or even reverse it. But as always, this is fascinating.
This is where my issue with Federici comes out. She has a lot of insightful stuff to say about how capitalism degraded the position of women. But that isn’t the whole story. Plenty of pre-capitalist societies oppressed women. Just read the Bible, the Old Testament is full of sexism and it predates capitalism by millennia. For sure capitalism and colonialism made things worse, but capitalism is not the sole factor in women’s oppression. This is in contrast to racism, which truly did not exist prior to the capitalist slave trade. People may have discriminated against outsiders, or made jokes about other groups’ physical features, but they did not dehumanize other solely on the basis of skin tone. Many societies did dehumanize women on the basis of sex and sex alone.
Of course, it is also true that many pre capitalist societies held women in high regard and there were societies where there were checks and balances between the powers of the sexes. I’d say the radical feminists and Federici are both wrong: men have not always and in all places oppressed women, and women have been oppressed in societies with many different economic bases. I’d recommend Gerda Lerner’s Creation of Patriarchy to anyone curious about the origins of male supremacy. She would agree that the patriarchy is a historical phenomenon that is not due to a biological oppressive drive among men, but she traces its roots to the development of civilization itself and I’m inclined to agree with her. Federici’s work fits Europe but fails to account for things like foot binding in China’s feudal culture, or child brides among modern hunter- gatherer groups.
With regard to what you write at the beginning about the White Goddess and kingship, that's something I've been reading into recently. In the myth of the Tuatha De Danann in Ireland, the prospective king Nuada is unable to take his place on the throne because the goddess Brigid has told the people that the king may not have any blemishes, and Nuada has lost a hand in battle.
"the state’s role..... is to manage the working class on behalf of the capitalists, not to protect or liberate them."
Very true, now more than ever.
I think this book could be construed as a belated recognition of the significance of Ivan Illich's 1982 magnum opus "Gender".
May be the keyword in this discourse is enclosure.
The best exposition I know of why this may be the case is made by Anthony McCann in his 2004 paper to the International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASCP) 2004 conference in Oaxaca. The paper is called "Understanding Enclosure Without and Within the Commons". The paper can be found here:
This is such a long and detailed chapter that I might have to come back later with a further comment, but so far it seems to be fairly clear that it wasn't a 'transition' to capitalism at all; it was more of a brutal enforcement. I notice the 'divide and rule' tactic was being used early on to make divisions between people in the lower classes, and I see that continuing today particularly with 'identity politics'. I wonder if all the people who think identity politics is so great realise that they're doing the capitalists' job of dividing people for them? I note too that nowadays 'identity politics' is enforced at the state level with all sorts of new 'crimes' being invented to keep people in line, or at least shut them up. In this I think it could be seen as the fencing off of some more 'commons', e.g. the internet which is dominated by people with a certain set of views and anyone who dares to say something contrary to these views gets hounded and insulted, and quite possibly 'cancelled'. People can even end up losing their jobs as a result of posting something which doesn't fit in with the identity politics agenda. This suggests that work is also possibly a new 'common' being fenced off; only people with certain views will be employed. Very worrying indeed.
Something else which struck me is how the peasant populations ceased to be seen as people and were viewed solely as work-producing units. Yet today, people seem to wear the title of 'worker' as some sort of badge of honour. They don't seem to have noticed that they're not seen as actual people particularly and are only valued as 'workers', but they go along with it and even seem proud of it, without noticing the fact they're being de-humanised and no longer seen as actual 'people'. The phrase 'working people' is a bit better but it's still clear that the 'working' bit is more important than the 'people' bit.
A few more things occurred to me as I was reading this chapter, one of them being the benign way people think of 'cottage industries'. Nowadays the term seems to mean 'a small independent business probably run from a person's home', but when it first appeared it was a system used to break the independence of the craftsmen and artisans and reduce costs for the capitalist class.
Another is a complete inversion in the idea of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. The 'deserving' poor were those who couldn't work due to illness or disability; the 'undeserving' poor were those who could work but weren't working. Nowadays, at least here in the UK, the 'deserving' poor are those who are working but aren't paid enough by their employers to survive and so have to claim welfare payments to 'top-up' their meagre wages; and the 'undeserving' poor are those who can't work due to illness or disability. Horrendous really.
It's interesting that the workhouse system was used to break the solidarity of the poor as 'benefit/welfare shame' is used for the same purpose nowadays.
I've noticed just how many of the 'reproductive' labours can now be done for money, although probably not for very much money, that people when I was growing up would do for themselves. You can now pay people to look after your children, do your laundry, repair your clothes, cook your meals and deliver them to your door, clean your home, even walk your dog for you! For the (inevitably) poorer people doing these jobs one could imagine a situation where they tire themselves out completely cleaning other peoples' homes for them and yet live in chaos and squalor themselves because they are too exhausted to clean their own homes, plus cleaning their own homes gives them no financial reward.
The mention of the use of warfare to further the capitalist cause is also significant. Is it only where good agricultural land and/or plentiful natural resources lie that wars are used? I might have missed something here but no-one seems particularly bothered about helping the Tibetans fight against the Chinese occupation of their country. It's been going on for a long time and nothing much is heard about it. Perhaps it's just not seen as potentially profitable enough as Tibet doesn't have much good agricultural land and yak herding is never going to make anyone much of a profit. So there's no point in trying to help the Tibetans against the Chinese aggressor, plus western governments want to do business with China; a big population and therefore a big potential market.
On the issue of the diminishing of women's rights, it may be a coincidence or perhaps not that western capitalist governments seem to look to populations in which women already have fewer, and in some cases a lot fewer, rights than western women currently have. The lack of women's rights is rarely challenged or even mentioned. Plus the whole 'trans' issue is also encouraged, whereas any actual biological women who speak up against the loss of women-only spaces and/or services are aggressively attacked, sometimes by men wearing t-shirts with 'Be Kind' writ large on them. Even the use of the word 'woman' is outlawed or severely frowned upon. At one stage, the UK's NHS website removed the word 'women' from the 'Women's Health' page! (It did end up being replaced, but it shows just how far some trans activists will try and push things and also the influence they can have.)
The idea of women becoming 'the new commons', and raping a prostitute becoming de-criminalised seems also to have worrying echoes in the present, where the rape conviction rates are so low that it is almost de-criminalised for all women now. And the rape conviction rates (something like 3% in the UK) are only a percentage of rapes actually reported. Many go unreported due to the hideous treatment a women is exposed to if she actually does report a rape.
Contraception and abortion becoming crimes because they reduce the number of bodies available to force into work and wealth-making for the capitalist class throws an interesting light on the absolute 'no-no' of even mentioning the worrying size of the human population. It becomes more clear why western capitalists court populations which ban contraception. It also exposes the prohibition of contraception and abortion as being political issues rather than religious ones.
I am still catching up. This material is stimulating and challenging my intellect. I am enjoying it.