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The following book review was published in the Fall issue of Fifth Estate. I originally wrote a much longer version here. This one’s short and sweet. [alex knight]
Silvia Federici’s book, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, is an essential read for those of us seeking to overthrow systems of domination and build a liberated future.
What is most fascinating about Caliban and the Witch is how it challenges the widely-held belief that capitalism, though perhaps flawed in its current form, was at one time a “progressive” or necessary development. Uncovering the forgotten history of the Witch Hunt that consumed Europe in suspicion and fire for more than 200 years, Federici demonstrates that capitalism has always relied on spectacular violence, particularly against women, people of color, workers, and those cultivating a more egalitarian future.
The book recalls the enormous and colorful peasant movements of the Middle Ages, which pointed towards non-capitalist futures for Europe, and by extension, the world. However, these paths were blocked. The “shock therapy” of the Witch Hunt was used to terrorize rebels and visionaries, impose new discipline on the body, on female sexuality in particular, and usher in a new social system based on a landless working class and the devaluation of women’s labor.
Federici writes, “It is impossible to associate capitalism with any form of liberation or attribute the longevity of the system to its capacity to satisfy human needs. If capitalism has been able to reproduce itself it is only because of the web of inequalities that it has built into the body of the world proletariat, and because of its capacity to globalize exploitation. This process is still unfolding under our eyes, as it has for the last 500 years.”
by Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com
2A. The first truth is that capitalism is destroying our planet. Through global warming, extinction, impoverishment, racism, sexism, homophobia, propaganda, war, the burgeoning security state, computerized isolation, and more, it is literally killing us.
2B. The second truth is that we are dependent upon capitalism for our immediate survival. Whether through wages, pensions, or social services, our livelihood depends on income provided by the very system which is killing us.
3A. Most of us would like to avoid facing this paradox, and so delude ourselves into apathy, nihilism, and cynicism. We accept the system’s offer of fantasy and mute our inherent knowledge of the deep wrongness that pervades the real world.
3B. Some braver souls among us face the first truth and so do whatever they can to avoid complicity with the machinery of death and destruction. They may adopt an ethical diet, curb their consumption, or even attempt to “live off the grid” (to the extent this is possible within a global power structure whose tentacles reach into every corner of the Earth). Taken to its extreme, this is the route of escapism. Its goal is moral purity, flight from guilt, the individual satisfaction of knowing you’re no longer part of the problem.
The failure of escapism is that avoiding responsibility for the problem also means avoiding responsibility for the solution. You can take comfort in your moral stance, but with or without your participation, capitalism rolls on, destroying billions of lives.
3C. A different set of folks are more concerned with the second half of the paradox – the fact that we are trapped in this system as bad as it is, and therefore the best we can do is to improve it or make it more fair. They may fight for policy changes through lobbying or even run for office. In its pure form, this is the route of reformism. The aim is to work “within the system,” influence the people in charge, and perhaps become one of them in time. The theory goes that once in a position of power, they would be able to steer the ship in a new direction.
The failure of reformism is that it requires the abandonment of our ideals for actually overthrowing the system or creating a world without capitalism. There’s nothing wrong with making life more livable within the system, but when we become ourselves part of the system, we betray ourselves and we have already lost.
4. By themselves, neither of these two poles, escape or reform, offers us any hope of abolishing capitalism and saving our world. Yet, no way forward can exist without both elements. Rather than fleeing this paradox, if we embrace the absurdity of our situation, we can harness the energy of the contradiction to create something new. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
This personal reflection was written for and performed at a spoken word event on March 2nd in Philadelphia.
“After the Apocalypse” – by Alex Knight
When I was 10 or 11, my father and I watched a TV special, probably on FOX, called “Prophecies Revealed,” which rounded up an assortment of fables from Nostradomus on down, to scare the crap out of the audience and get ratings by making people believe the end of the world was right around the corner. One segment talked about the Mayan calendar, and over a background of creepy and violent images, posed the question, “what’s going to happen on December 21, 2012? Will our technologies revolt against us? Will there be some kind of cataclysmic event, like an enormous meteor impact? Will nuclear war finally consume the Earth?”
I feel silly to admit it, but these ideas of imminent doom really stuck with me. Maybe I was just an impressionable kid who had seen too many Terminator movies. Or maybe there is something really appealing, even liberating, about apocalypse – at least for those of us living in a repressive, alienating, hierarchal social system such as zombie-capitalism. The specter of apocalypse seems to substitute in negative form for the positive vision of “social revolution” that radicals a century ago believed in – namely, a way out, an escape. Say what you will about the Rapture – at least it’s a rupture. Meaning, even if the fires of armageddon were a nightmare in the short run, at least the horror of the world we live in would come to an end, and then maybe something better would sprout from the ashes.
Almost immediately after I left home for college, these apocalyptic prophecies were resurrected from the nether-regions of my mind. On September 11th, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit by hijacked airplanes. As I watched in my Freshman dormroom, I felt shock, sadness, but also a forbidden and shameful giddiness. The attack was a horrible, evil thing, and I feel awful for those who lost loved ones. But for me at age 18, the dramatic realness of that event was a sharp, sudden puncture to the bubbly propaganda image of 1990′s peaceful hegemonic America. It was the first time I ever realized that the world is not static – it is changing all the time. I had just never looked outside my plastic suburban cage to see the real world, in its full ugliness and beauty. September 11th, as hellish as it was, was for me that rupture – it jarred me into the awareness that there is an exit from the prison of mainstream America, if you’re willing to do a little digging.
I started to listen a bit more to my communist English teacher, be less defensive in response to voices critical of capitalism, and I set off down the rabbit hole. As Bush put the country on the warpath, I transformed myself from a video game junkie into a committed activist devoting every bit of energy I could to making revolution happen in this country, starting by organizing a national student movement against the war, I hoped. Read the rest of this entry »
I recently finished this fascinating book by C.L.R. James, detailing the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803. This was the first (and only?) time in history that an entire colony of African slaves revolted against their masters and succeeded in establishing independence. The magnitude of such a feat, considering all the European backlash and repression, from no less than Napoleon, is shocking to this day.
C.L.R. James is famous for being one of the most outspoken anti-colonial Marxist thinkers of the 20th Century. His political career started in his native Trinidad, took him through Trotskyism to the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which defined the Soviet Union as state capitalist. After being deported from the US, he spent his final years living in London and married to Selma James, the influential Marxist feminist and founder of the Wages for Housework campaign.
The merits of this book are obvious, it is a blow-by-blow account of how the slaves of Saint-Domingue became the free citizens of Haiti. For its profound social history, it has become required reading for post-colonial theorists, pan-Africanists and anti-capitalists of all stripes. The book is made more relevant by the ongoing injustices against the Haitian people by the US government and international NGOs, which have kept Haiti in a state of poverty and dependence. It is important to remind ourselves that the Haitians are proud people with a history of self-empowerment.
The flaws of the book are perhaps more interesting. James wants to paint Toussaint L’Ouverture in the same stripe as Vladimir Lenin, who James sees as actually a heroic revolutionary leader. From this error stem all the peculiar sections of the book where Toussaint’s character become the main focus. Most interestingly, James also criticizes some of Toussaint’s worst moves, correctly charging them as cowardly or counter-revolutionary, yet does not hesitate to explain them away by referring to Toussaint’s “genius.”
For me the bottom line is that humans instinctively desire freedom. We don’t need any authorities to create it for us, we either all create it together or we lack it. Generals like Toussaint tend to want to appeal to authority, whether Napoleon or the bourgeois Jacobins in Paris. It is a simple fact that people in power are more concerned about what other people with power think, rather than what the people think. Here lies Toussaint’s mistake, and the mistake of Leninism as well.
None of this should discourage the reader from reading and absorbing the social history behind one of the greatest popular democratic victories of all time. The point is to read history critically.
One such critical reader is my friend Daniel, who wrote the excellent review which follows, and which brings the contradictions of James’ work to life. [alex]
The Black Jacobins
C.L.R. James, 1938
Review by Daniel Meltzer.
This book was an excellent read. The strengths included breathtaking battle scenes, rousing rhetoric for freedom and against slavery, brilliant stories of liberation, and page-turning political intrigue. The weaknesses in the book come from self-defeating politics of discipline for the sake of discipline, and the heart-rending compromises that Toussaint L’Overture makes with people who see him and the republic he created as nothing more than slaves to be punished for their insubordination.
The utter brutality and injustice of slave ownership, and the barbaric treatment of slaves is scandalous. You will literally shake your head at the stories of how slaves were treated under the law in Haiti. A particularly unnerving example is the slavemasters filling a slave up with gunpowder and lighting a fuse, exploding the body of the slave, perhaps for punishment, but seemingly just as often because the slavemasters could.
The slaves began creating a series of low-level daily resistance to such a situation that is tragic and fascinating. “The majority of the slaves accomodated themselves to this unceasing brutality by a profound fatalism and a wooden stupidity before their masters. [...]Through the shirt of [a slave] a master can feel the potatoes which he denies he has stolen. They are not potatoes, he says, they are stones. He is undressed and the potatoes fall to the ground. “Eh! master. The devil is wicked. Put stones, and look, you find potatoes.” Read the rest of this entry »
[There are a lot of thought-provoking ideas in this article, as we reflect on the Occupy movement, what it was, what it meant, and where we go from here in our movements against zombie-capitalism and for a better world.
I intend to write much more about my reflections on Occupy, don't worry. - alex]
Originally posted on Bay of Rage (May 16, 2012) (broken link 5/28).
For those of us in Oakland, “Occupy Wall Street” was always a strange fit. While much of the country sat eerily quiet in the years before the Hot Fall of 2011, a unique rebelliousness that regularly erupted in militant antagonisms with the police was already taking root in the streets of the Bay. From numerous anti-police riots triggered by the execution of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009, to the wave of anti-austerity student occupations in late 2009 and early 2010, to the native protest encampment at Glen Cove in 2011, to the the sequence of Anonymous BART disruptions in the month before Occupy Wall Street kicked off, our greater metropolitan area re-emerged in recent years as a primary hub of struggle in this country. The intersection at 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland was, more often than not, “ground zero” for these conflicts.
If we had chosen to follow the specific trajectory prescribed by Adbusters and the Zucotti-based organizers of Occupy Wall Street, we would have staked out our local Occupy camp somewhere in the heart of the capitol of West Coast capital, as a beachhead in the enemy territory of San Francisco’s financial district. Some did this early on, following in the footsteps of the growing list of other encampments scattered across the country like a colorful but confused archipelago of anti-financial indignation. According to this logic, it would make no sense for the epicenter of the movement to emerge in a medium sized, proletarian city on the other side of the bay.
We intentionally chose a different path based on a longer trajectory and rooted in a set of shared experiences that emerged directly from recent struggles. Vague populist slogans about the 99%, savvy use of social networking, shady figures running around in Guy Fawkes masks, none of this played any kind of significant role in bringing us to the forefront of the Occupy movement. In the rebel town of Oakland, we built a camp that was not so much the emergence of a new social movement, but the unprecedented convergence of preexisting local movements and antagonistic tendencies all looking for a fight with capital and the state while learning to take care of each other and our city in the most radical ways possible.
This is what we began to call The Oakland Commune; that dense network of new found affinity and rebelliousness that sliced through seemingly impenetrable social barriers like never before. Our “war machine and our care machine” as one comrade put it. No cops, no politicians, plenty of “autonomous actions”; the Commune materialized for one month in liberated Oscar Grant Plaza at the corner of 14th & Broadway. Here we fed each other, lived together and began to learn how to actually care for one another while launching unmediated assaults on our enemies: local government, the downtown business elite and transnational capital. These attacks culminated with the General Strike of November 2 and subsequent West Coast Port Blockade.
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 »
This was written in the Fall of 2010. Although the complete series will remain unfinished for some time, I am publishing these finished sections because when you put hundreds of hours into something, it makes more sense to share what you’ve produced than to keep it in the closet forever. [alex]
Why Marxism Has Failed, and Why Zombie-Marxism Cannot Die
Or My Rocky Relationship with Grampa Karl
by Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com
Part 3.1 – September 19, 2011
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 and Part 2.]
What Marx Got Wrong
Although Karl Marx provided us crucial and brilliant anti-capitalist critiques as explored in Part 2, he also contributed several key theoretical errors which continue to haunt the Left. Instead of mindlessly reproducing these dead ideas into contexts where they no longer make sense, we must expose the decay and separate it from the parts of Marx’s thought which are still alive and relevant.
I have narrowed down my objections to five core problems: 1. Linear March of History, 2. Europe as Liberator, 3. Mysticism of the Proletariat, 4. The State, and 5. A Secular Dogma.
I submit that Marx’s foremost shortcoming was his theory of history as a linear progression of higher and higher stages of human society, culminating in the utopia of communism. According to Marx, this “progress” was manifest in the “development of productive forces,” or the ability of humans to remake the world in their own image. The danger of this idea is that it wrongly ascribes an “advance” to the growth of class society. In particular, capitalism is seen as a “necessary” precursor to socialism. This logic implicitly justifies not only the domination of nature by humanity, but the dominance of men over women, and the dominance of Europeans over people of other cultures.
Marx’s elevation of the “proletariat” as the agent of history also created a narrow vision for human emancipation, locating the terrain of liberation within the workplace, rather than outside of it. This, combined with a naive and problematic understanding of the State, only dispensed more theoretical fog that has clouded the thinking of revolutionary strategy for more than a century. Finally, by binding the hopes and dreams of the world into a deterministic formula of economic law, Marx inadvertently created the potential for tragic dogmatism and sectarianism, his followers fighting over who possessed the “correct” interpretation of historical forces.
(These mistakes have become especially apparent with hindsight, after Marxists have attempted to put these ideas into practice over the last 150 years. The goal here is not to fault Marx for failing to see the future, but rather to fault what he actually said, which was wrong in his own time, and is disastrous in ours. In this section I will limit my criticisms to Marx’s ideas only, and deal with the monstrous legacy of “actually existing” Marxism in Part 4.)
“Rooted in early industrialization and a teleological materialism that assumed progress towards communism was inevitable, traditional Marxist historiography grossly oversimplified real history into a series of linear steps and straightforward transitions, with more advanced stages inexorably supplanting more backward ones. Nowadays we know better. History is wildly contingent and unpredictable. Many alternate paths leave from the current moment, as they have from every previous moment too” – Chris Carlsson, Nowtopia (41).
Much of what is wrong in Marx stems from a deterministic conception of historical development, which imagines that the advance and concentration of economic power is necessarily progressive. According to this view, human liberation, which Marx calls communism, can only exist atop the immense productivity and industrial might of capitalism. All of human history, therefore, is nothing but “progressive epochs in the economic formation of society,” as Marx calls it in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):
“In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production… the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism [communism].” Read the rest of this entry »