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Silvia Federici is one of the most important political theorists alive today. Her landmark book Caliban and the Witch demonstrated the inextricable link between anti-capitalism and radical feminist politics by digging deep into the actual history of capital’s centuries-long attack on women and the body.
In this essay, originally written in 2008, she follows up on that revelation by laying out her feminist anti-capitalist vision, and how it extends beyond traditional Marxism. This piece is comprehensive – long but far-reaching. At times seeing the truth requires seeing in the dark – acknowledging the true horrors of the world as it currently is manifest.
This essay was updated and published in Silvia’s new anthology Revolution at Point Zero, and I have made a few small additional edits. Enjoy! [alex]
The Reproduction of Labor Power in the Global Economy and the Unfinished Feminist Revolution (2011 edition)
“It is clear that capitalism has led to the super-exploitation of women. This would not offer much consolation if it had only meant heightened misery and oppression, but fortunately it has also provoked resistance. And capitalism has become aware that if it completely ignores or suppresses this resistance it might become more and more radical, eventually turning into a movement for self-reliance and perhaps even the nucleus of a new social order.” – Robert Biel, The New Imperialism (2000)
“The emerging liberative agent in the Third World is the unwaged force of women who are not yet disconnected from the life economy by their work. They serve life not commodity production. They are the hidden underpinning of the world economy and the wage equivalent of their life-serving work is estimated at $16 trillion.” – John McMurtry, The Cancer State of Capitalism (1999)
“The pestle has snapped because of so much pounding. Tomorrow I will go home. Until tomorrow Until tomorrow… Because of so much pounding, tomorrow I will go home.” – Hausa women’s song from Nigeria
This essay is a political reading of the restructuring of the (re)production of labor-power in the global economy, but it is also a feminist critique of Marx that, in different ways, has been developing since the 1970s. This critique was first articulated by activists in the Campaign for Wages For Housework, especially Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Leopoldina Fortunati, among others, and later by Ariel Salleh in Australia and the feminists of the Bielefeld school, Maria Mies, Claudia Von Werlhof, Veronica Benholdt-Thomsen.
At the center of this critique is the argument that Marx’s analysis of capitalism has been hampered by his inability to conceive of value-producing work other than in the form of commodity production and his consequent blindness to the significance of women’s unpaid reproductive work in the process of capitalist accumulation. Ignoring this work has limited Marx’s understanding of the true extent of the capitalist exploitation of labor and the function of the wage in the creation of divisions within the working class, starting with the relation between women and men.
Had Marx recognized that capitalism must rely on both an immense amount of unpaid domestic labor for the reproduction of the workforce, and the devaluation of these reproductive activities in order to cut the cost of labor power, he may have been less inclined to consider capitalist development as inevitable and progressive.
As for us, a century and a half after the publication of Capital, we must challenge the assumption of the necessity and progressivity of capitalism for at least three reasons.
The following essay was written for and performed at a spoken word event on Nov. 15 in Philadelphia. Enjoy! [alex]
“A specter is haunting Europe; the specter of zombie-ism.” – Zombie Karl Marx
Why has the archetype of the zombie been so ever-present in pop culture over the last five years or so? Is it just a passing fad, like Justin Bieber’s latest hairstyle or the eye-rolling annoyance of YOLO? Is it simply because it’s so much fun to dress up in tattered rags, skin covered with fake blood and oozing sores? Or could this zombie fixation reflect something buried in our subconscious about the society we live in today? Something about our ideas about ourselves, minds turned off and eyes glued to flickering screens, fatalistically attempting to forge human relationships through virtual social networks, working meaningless jobs to pay inescapable debts, groaning towards a future that promises no better than what already exists, and at worse may offer apocalyptic disaster, a remix of Fukushima and Hurricane Sandy set on repeat?
But beyond detachment and doom, could our obsession with the undead reflect the reality of the state of institutional decay, political futility, and economic stagnation the world as a whole is struggling to wade through, like some pungent swamp that won’t release its brambles from our ankles?
I submit that the answer is all that and more. I believe we are, in fact, living through a historic period tied to the image of the zombie because the system which dictates and dominates our globe, from the world-markets to the workplace to the propaganda machines, and I do not hesitate to name it – capitalism, has in fact zombified right before our eyes, transforming into a monster that threatens to tear all of our lives apart, unless we can find some way to annihilate the sucker, or at the very least evade it until its virus extinguishes itself in an orgy of self-destruction.
And yes, this is a hopeful theory, more hopeful than almost anything else a left-wing radical like myself is likely to propose to you in this day and age. In this age of grimness and despair, scheduled to climax in about a month, any hope for a better future may sound like the naïve ramblings of a starry-eyed child who’s watched too many Disney movies. Nevertheless, hear me out, I have a point.
In 2009, the radical UK magazine Turbulence published an excellent editorial called “Life in Limbo?”, which courageously declared that neoliberalism, the dominant ideological and political project of the capitalist elites over the last forty years, had failed and been replaced by what they called “Zombie-Liberalism”: Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday I had the honor of speaking alongside George Caffentzis to answer the question, “What is Capitalism?” Certainly this is one of the core questions of our era, as millions of people are becoming politicized during the unending economic crisis and looking for an analysis that can explain what is happening to them. In order to make a better world, we first need to define the system that dominates the current one, and that is capitalism.
[update 2/13: and here is the video of the talk, in two parts!]
Below is the outline I created for my talk (downloadable HERE). I tried to bring a holistic analysis of the system that could be understandable by the average person, but still contain a nuanced perspective of all the ways capitalism has screwed us over and screwed over our planet. I’ll be fleshing this out over the next several days to revamp the “What is Capitalism?” section of the website. [alex]
What is Capitalism?
“Know Your Enemy” – Rage Against the Machine
2/1/2012 – LAVA
Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com
- Capitalism is a Global System of Abuse
- Common Sense Radicalism – speak to the core issue in a way everyone can emotionally understand
- How does it feel to live in a capitalist system? Like an abusive relationship.
- “The problem that has no name.”
- Social and ecological trauma
- BP Oil Disaster demonstrates system’s logic: profit over all, total lack of accountability
- Power, Abuse, Resistance
- Power-Over and Power-With
- Internalized Oppression vs. Inherent Need for Self-determination
- Systems of Abuse/Oppression: Patriarchy, White Supremacy, Class
- Some Features of Class Societies:
- Inequality – the few benefit at the expense of the many
- Economic production disconnected from human need
- Forced labor – slavery, wage slavery
- State violence – punishment, repression
- Warfare, Conquest
- Unsustainable ecological abuse
- Popular resistance
- Capitalism is the most advanced Class Society
- Capitalism: Pyramid of Accumulation
- Financial Speculation
- Commodity Trading, Commodities
- Wage Labor, Wage Labor, Wage Labor
- Enclosures: the largest, but invisible part of the iceberg
- any energy, resources or labor taken by force or without just compensation
- Stages of Capitalism: 1492 – Present
A timely and valuable article by one of the facilitators of the Occupy Wall St. process, David Graeber. I was there for the occupation’s humble beginnings last Saturday, but since then it has become a sensation among the conscious and concerned population of this country. Why? Because finally there is an ongoing, unignorable, and vibrant manifestation against the Wall St. crooks who quite blatantly stole trillions of dollars from us.
Whether the occupation on Lower Manhattan lasts, or grows, or dies in the coming weeks, the global upheaval will continue and become an ever-present feature of the 21st Century. Our theory is that capitalism has entered a crisis from which it will never recover. The youth can feel it, we know we have no future within the existing system. The only question is, what alternative models can we move to, when everything feels so bleak?
The Wall St. occupiers have followed the examples of Egypt, Greece, and Spain in using the direct democratic process of the “general assembly.” This means thousands of young people are having their first exhilarating taste of their voice being part of the actual exercise of power – participating in a movement. In truth, this is our best hope, so spread it and bring that exhilaration to your friends and family.
If we have a general assembly in every town, every workplace, every school, then capitalism is over for real. [alex]
“Occupy Wall St. Rediscovers the Radical Imagination”
by David Graeber
Originally published the The Guardian UK, September 25, 2011.
The young people protesting in Wall Street and beyond reject this vain economic order. They have come to reclaim the future.
Why are people occupying Wall Street? Why has the occupation – despite the latest police crackdown – sent out sparks across America, within days, inspiring hundreds of people to send pizzas, money, equipment and, now, to start their own movements called OccupyChicago, OccupyFlorida, in OccupyDenver or OccupyLA?
There are obvious reasons. We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt. Most, I found, were of working-class or otherwise modest backgrounds, kids who did exactly what they were told they should: studied, got into college, and are now not just being punished for it, but humiliated – faced with a life of being treated as deadbeats, moral reprobates.
Is it really surprising they would like to have a word with the financial magnates who stole their future?
Just as in Europe, we are seeing the results of colossal social failure. The occupiers are the very sort of people, brimming with ideas, whose energies a healthy society would be marshaling to improve life for everyone. Instead, they are using it to envision ways to bring the whole system down. Read the rest of this entry »
The message of the march was “Invest in Caring, Not Killing,” and drew attention to the absurd budget cuts that our new Governor has proposed here in Pennsylvania, similar to what is going on in Wisconsin, as well as at the federal level as right-wing idealogues are given positions of power. The intention of these cuts appears to be to punish poor and working class families, especially women, for the failures of Wall St. So we see teacher’s unions under attack, as if teachers caused the stock market to crash?
Selma James, the author of the excellent article below, was founder of the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s, which brought attention to the fact that women’s labor is systematically unpaid, unrecognized, and undervalued. The same message, of putting resources and value into the caring and nurturing work that upholds the entire society, rather than into destructive activities such as wars and bailouts for the rich, continues to motivate the Global Women’s Strike today.
Last week Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch, spoke in Philadelphia on many of these themes, and how the attack on women has been a key part of the structure of capitalism since its origin 500 years ago in the fires of the European witch burnings. Silvia’s work has opened my eyes to the ways in which capitalism is dependent on the division between (predominantly male) paid labor and (predominantly female) unpaid labor, which she calls the realms of production and reproduction. It turns out that capitalist profits could not be made if women’s labor was valued the same way as men’s – taking care of children, the elderly, and men’s emotions just isn’t very profitable, even though it is absolutely essential to society.
It’s also important to recognize that the unpaid labor holding up capitalism goes far beyond housework, to slavery, prison labor, the self-disciplining of the body, and the theft of resources and destruction of ecosystems that result from capitalist exploitation of Mother Earth.
I hope to upload the video or audio of Silvia’s inspiring events in the coming days. In the meantime, check out this article by Selma James.
International Women’s Day: how rapidly things change
by Selma James
March 8, 2011
Originally published by The Guardian.
A century ago International Women’s Day was associated with peace, and women’s and girls’ sweated labour – which votes for women were to deal with. Not a celebration, but a mobilisation. And because it was born among factory workers, it had class, real class. Later it came to celebrate women’s autonomy, but changed its class base and lost its edge. This centenary must mark a new beginning.
We live in revolutionary times. We don’t need to be in North Africa or the Middle East to be infected by the hope of change. Enough to witness on TV the woman who, veiled in black from head to foot, led chants in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, routing sexism and Islamophobia in one unexpected blow. She and the millions moving together have shaken us from our provincialism, and shown us how rapidly things can change. Women in Egypt have called for a million women to occupy Tahrir Square today. Who would have predicted that a month ago?
Feminism has tended to narrow its concerns to what is unquestionably about women: abortion, childcare, rape, prostitution, pay equity. But that can separate us from a wider and deeper women’s movement. In Bahrain, for example, women lead the struggle for “jobs, housing, clean water, peace and justice” – as well as every demand we share.
The revolution is spreading. Read the rest of this entry »
Why Marxism Has Failed, and Why Zombie-Marxism Cannot Die
Or My Rocky Relationship with Grampa Karl
by Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com
Part 2 – November 4, 2010
This is part of an essay critiquing the philosophy of Karl Marx for its relevance to 21st century anti-capitalism. The main thrust of the essay is to encourage living common-sense radicalism, as opposed to the automatic reproduction of zombie ideas which have lost connection to current reality. Karl Marx was no prophet. But neither can we reject him. We have to go beyond him, and bring him with us. I believe it is only on such a basis, with a critical appraisal of Marx, that the Left can become ideologically relevant to today’s rapidly evolving political circumstances. [Click here for Part 1.]
What Marx Got Right
Boiling down all of Karl Marx’s writings into a handful of key contributions is fated to produce an incomplete list, but here are the 5 that immediately come to my mind: 1. Class Analysis, 2. Base and Superstructure, 3. Alienation of Labor, 4. Need for Growth, Inevitability of Crisis, and 5. A Counter-Hegemonic World-view.
(It must be noted that many of these insights were not the unique inspiration of Marx’s brain, but were ideas bubbling up in the European working class movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, which was the political context that educated Marx. Further, Marx’s lifelong collaborator, Friedrich Engels, undoubtedly contributed significantly to Marx’s ideas, although Marx remained the primary theorist.)
In the opening lines of the “Communist Manifesto” (1848), Marx thunders, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
In other words, as long as society has been divided into rich and poor, ruler and enslaved, oppressor and oppressed, capitalist and worker, there have been relentless efforts amongst the powerful to maintain and increase their power, and correspondingly, constant struggles from the poor and oppressed to escape their bondage. This insight appears to be common sense, but it is systematically hidden from mainstream society. People do not choose to be poor or oppressed, although the rich would like us to believe otherwise. The powerless are kept that way by those in power. And they are struggling to end that poverty and oppression, to the best of their individual and collective ability.
The Manifesto elaborates Marx’s class framework under capitalism:
“Our epoch… possesses this distinctive feature: it has simplified class antagonisms: Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps…: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Marx-Engels Reader 474).
Marx relayed the words “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat” directly from the French working class movement he encountered in his 1844 exile in Paris, when he briefly ran with the likes of “anarchist” theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Marx himself reminds us, “No credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them.” Class analysis pre-dated Marx by many decades. Yet he articulated the class divisions of capitalist society quite clearly.
The “bourgeoisie” are those who own and control the “means of production,” or basically, the land, factories and machines that make up the economy. Today we know them as the Donald Trumps, the Warren Buffets, etc., although most of the ruling class tries to avoid public scrutiny. In short, the ruling class in capitalism are the wealthy elite, who exert control over society (and government) through their dollars.
Opposing them is the “proletariat,” which Marx defines as “the modern working class – a class of labourers who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital” (479). The working class for Marx is everybody who has to work for a wage and sell their labor in order to survive.
The divide between the bourgeoisie and proletariat as seen by Marx impacts society in deep and rarely understood ways. However, it is clear that as the rich rule society, they design it for their own benefit through politics, the media, the school system, etc. Inevitably, through “trickle up” economics, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. As the class conflict worsens, for Marx there can only be one solution — revolution:
“This revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew” (193, “The German Ideology” 1845).
How could it happen? Marx rightly answers, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Read the rest of this entry »
Why Marxism Has Failed, and Why Zombie-Marxism Cannot Die
Or My Rocky Relationship with Grampa Karl
by Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com
Part 1 – October 29, 2010
[Click to see Part 2]
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852
“Once again the dead are walking in our midst – ironically, draped in the name of Marx, the man who tried to bury the dead of the nineteenth century.” – Murray Bookchin, Listen, Marxist!, 1969
A specter is haunting the Left, the specter of Karl Marx.
In June, my friend Joanna and I presented a workshop at the 2010 US Social Forum, an enormous convergence of progressive social movements from across the United States. The USSF is “more than a conference”, it’s a gathering of movements and thinkers to assess our historic moment of economic and ecological crisis, and generate strategies for moving towards “Another World”.
Our workshop, entitled “The End of Capitalism? At the Crossroads of Crisis and Sustainability”, was packed. A surprising number of people were both intrigued and supportive of our presentation that global capitalism is in a deep crisis because it faces ecological and social limits to growth, from peak oil to popular resistance around the wold. Participants eagerly discussed the proposal that the U.S. is approaching a crossroads with two paths out: one through neo-fascist attempts to restore the myth of the “American Dream” with attacks on Muslims, immigrants and other marginalized groups; the other, a path of realizing and deepening the core values of freedom, democracy, justice, sustainability and love.
Despite the lively audience, I knew that somewhere lurking in that cramped, overheated classroom was the unquestionable presence of Zombie-Marxism.1 And I knew it was only a matter of time until it showed itself and hungrily charged at our fresh anti-capitalist analysis in the name of Karl Marx’s high authority on the subject.
It happened during the question and answer period. A visibly agitated member of one of the dozens of small Marxist sectarian groups swarming these sorts of gatherings raised his hand to speak. I hesitated to call on him. I knew he wasn’t going to ask a question, but instead to speechify, to roll out a pre-rehearsed statement from his Party line. I called on others first, but his hand stayed in the air, sweat permeating his brow. Perhaps by mistake or perhaps from a feeling of guilt I gave him the nod to release what was incessantly welling up in his throat.
“I don’t agree with this stuff about ecological limits to growth. Marx wrote in Capital that the system faces crisis because of fundamental cycles of stagnation that cause the falling rate of profit…”
With the resurrection of Marx’s ancient wisdom, a dangerous infection was released into the discussion. Clear, rational thought, based on evaluating current circumstances and real-life issues in all their fluid complexities and contradictions, was threatened by an antiquated and stagnant dogma that single-mindedly sees all situations as excuses to reproduce itself in the minds of the young and vital.
Marx didn’t articulate his ideas because they appeared true in his time and place. No. The ideas are true because Marx said them. Such is the logic. If I didn’t act fast, the workshop could surrender the search for truth – to the search for brains.
I would have to cut this guy off and call on someone else. I knew better than to try to respond to his “question” – it would only tighten his grip on decades of certainty and derail the real conversation. Unfortunately, there is no way to slay a zombie. Regardless of the accuracy or firepower in your logic, zombie ideas will just keep coming. The only way out of an encounter with the undead is to escape.
I motioned my hand to signal ‘enough’ and tried to raise my voice over his. “Thank you. OK, THANK you! Yes. Marx was a very smart dude. OK, next?”
Karl Marx was without a doubt one of the greatest European philosophers of the 19th century. In a context of rapid industrialization and growing inequality between rich and poor, Marx pinpointed capitalism as the source of this misery and spelled out his theory of historical materialism, which endures today as deeply relevant for understanding human society. He emphasized that capitalism arose from certain economic and social conditions, and therefore it will inevitably be made obsolete by a new way of life.
For me, what makes Marx’s work so powerful is that he told a compelling story about humanity and our purpose. It was a big-picture narrative of economy and society, oppression and liberation, set on a global stage. Marx constructed a new way of understanding the world – a new world-view – which gave meaning and direction to those disenchanted with the dominant capitalist belief system. And in crafting this world-view, Marx happened to do a pretty good job wielding the tools of philosophy, political economy and science, aiming to deconstruct how capitalism functions and disclose its contradictions, so that we might overcome it and create a better future.
Brilliant ideas flowed from this effort, including his analysis of class inequality, the concepts of “base” and “superstructure”, and the liberating theory of “alienated labor.” Marx also showed that the inner workings of capital live off economic growth, and if this growth is limited, crisis will ensue and throw the entire social order into jeopardy. For all these reasons, Marxist politics – the Marxist story – remains popular and relevant today.
But due to serious errors and ambiguities in Marx’s analysis, Marxism has failed to provide an accessible, coherent, and accurate theoretical framework to free the world of capitalist tyranny. Read the rest of this entry »
Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification and the Umoja Village Shantytown
by Max Rameau
Nia Press, 2008
Review by Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com
I first heard about a group called Take Back the Land, which was illegally moving homeless families into empty homes in Miami, in a study group about the Civil Rights movement and the grassroots organizing that made it so powerful. The reference was highly appropriate. In many ways, Take Back the Land is a direct heir of that bottom-up, Black self-empowerment, civil disobedient, movement-building tradition, and is one of the most inspiring examples of a group renewing and developing that tradition today.
In our moment of crisis and stagnation, here is a group full of creativity, improvisation, and highly potent political analysis. Through its actions, the group proclaims: ‘Families are being foreclosed on and kicked out onto the street? We’re not going to lobby Washington and hope for some crumbs to come down. We’ll take matters into our own hands and move people directly into homes!’ This is precisely the spirit of direct action and participatory democracy that kick-started the Civil Rights movement, and the spirit that we need if we are to escape the human suffering that the elite are imposing on the poor and working class in this economic crisis.
Max Rameau, author of this book and a principal organizer in Take Back the Land Miami, came and spoke in Philadelphia a few months ago. I was struck not only by how charismatic and effective a speaker he was (something I could say about many smooth-talking political or corporate salesmen of our age), but by how Max was able to break down complex, abstract theoretical questions into common language that was easily understood. In this way, he demystifies politics and translates concepts usually reserved for academics or professionals in such a way that average, everyday people can take away something new and useful from the exchange. It’s clear that his primary goal is not an ego-trip to show off his brilliance, or to sell books and make money, but to do something much more difficult and meaningful: to spark movement to force the US government to recognize housing as a human right.
This book is written in that same frank style. In fact, it’s basically a how-to on grassroots housing organizing. It’s short – only 132 pages – but all you need to know is laid out here: the political context of Miami and nationally in terms of lack of affordable housing and gentrification that drives poor and Black people out of their homes, the strategic decisions and organizing that go into launching a new organization and campaign, the challenges and joys of working with homeless people, and the difficult and deceptive terrain of interacting with politicians, who are often agents of larger and more powerful corporate forces. Max Rameau just tells the story of his group, but in such a provocatively specific way. He explains to us exactly how things were done, who did them, who interfered and how, and he’s not at all afraid to name names.
The book centers on the incredible story of the Umoja Village, a shantytown built by Take Back the Land and allies on a vacant lot in a poor Black section of Miami. Because “In South Florida… local governments responded to the [housing] crisis by actively decreasing the number of low-income housing units” (pg. 23), Take Back the Land took the initiative to seize land and invite homeless people to take up residence there. The purpose of the action was not only to house people, an immediate need, but to draw attention to the crisis and to the government’s inaction, thereby hopefully shaming them into creating more low-income housing. Read the rest of this entry »