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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.”
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 is one of the most striking and intelligent articles I’ve ever read, encouraging a total reconfiguring of how to view capitalism and revolution. Russell Means was a leader in the American Indian Movement (AIM) of the 1960s and 70s, and remains one of the most outspoken Native Americans in the U.S.
I came across this essay while researching for my upcoming critique of Marxism, and was blown away by its clarity. This is Means’ most famous essay. It was published in Ward Churchill’s book “Marxism and Native Americans”, under the title “The Same Old Song”, and has appeared elsewhere under the names “Marxism is a European Tradition,” and “For America to Live, Europe Must Die.” Yet, it is actually not very available on the internet. I hope by republishing it I will raise some much-needed debate on the nature of the revolutionary project today.
I want to point out one difference I have with the essay, namely that the “European culture” Russell Means criticizes is capitalism, and before it could commit genocide and ecocide on the rest of the planet, this social system had to be imposed upon Europe first. Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch is key to my understanding of these violent origins of capitalism. The importance of this distinction is to clarify what Means says at the end of the essay, that he is not making a racial argument, but a cultural argument. For me, we need more than that, we need a political/economic argument which cuts to the core of why capitalism is destroying the planet and making us all miserable. Only then does revolutionary change appear possible. [alex]
“For America to Live, Europe Must Die”
Reproduced from Black Hawk Productions.
The following speech was given by Russell Means in July 1980, before several thousand people who had assembled from all over the world for the Black Hills International Survival Gathering, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is Russell Means’s most famous speech.
“The only possible opening for a statement of this kind is that I detest writing. The process itself epitomizes the European concept of “legitimate” thinking; what is written has an importance that is denied the spoken. My culture, the Lakota culture, has an oral tradition, so I ordinarily reject writing. It is one of the white world’s ways of destroying the cultures of non-European peoples, the imposing of an abstraction over the spoken relationship of a people.
So what you read here is not what I’ve written. It’s what I’ve said and someone else has written down. I will allow this because it seems that the only way to communicate with the white world is through the dead, dry leaves of a book. I don’t really care whether my words reach whites or not. They have already demonstrated through their history that they cannot hear, cannot see; they can only read (of course, there are exceptions, but the exceptions only prove the rule). I’m more concerned with American Indian people, students and others, who have begun to be absorbed into the white world through universities and other institutions. But even then it’s a marginal sort of concern. It’s very possible to grow into a red face with a white mind; and if that’s a person’s individual choice, so be it, but I have no use for them. This is part of the process of cultural genocide being waged by Europeans against American Indian peoples’ today. My concern is with those American Indians who choose to resist this genocide, but who may be confused as to how to proceed.
(You notice I use the term American Indian rather than Native American or Native indigenous people or Amerindian when referring to my people. There has been some controversy about such terms, and frankly, at this point, I find it absurd. Primarily it seems that American Indian is being rejected as European in origin–which is true. But all the above terms are European in origin; the only non-European way is to speak of Lakota–or, more precisely, of Oglala, Brule, etc.–and of the Dineh, the Miccousukee, and all the rest of the several hundred correct tribal names.
(There is also some confusion about the word Indian, a mistaken belief that it refers somehow to the country, India. When Columbus washed up on the beach in the Caribbean, he was not looking for a country called India. Europeans were calling that country Hindustan in 1492. Look it up on the old maps. Columbus called the tribal people he met “Indio,” from the Italian in dio, meaning “in God.”)
It takes a strong effort on the part of each American Indian not to become Europeanized. The strength for this effort can only come from the traditional ways, the traditional values that our elders retain. It must come from the hoop, the four directions, the relations: it cannot come from the pages of a book or a thousand books. No European can ever teach a Lakota to be Lakota, a Hopi to be Hopi. A master’s degree in “Indian Studies” or in “education” or in anything else cannot make a person into a human being or provide knowledge into traditional ways. It can only make you into a mental European, an outsider.
I should be clear about something here, because there seems to be some confusion about it. When I speak of Europeans or mental Europeans, I’m not allowing for false distinctions. I’m not saying that on the one hand there are the by-products of a few thousand years of genocidal, reactionary, European intellectual development which is bad; and on the other hand there is some new revolutionary intellectual development which is good. I’m referring here to the so-called theories of Marxism and anarchism and “leftism” in general. I don’t believe these theories can be separated from the rest of the of the European intellectual tradition. It’s really just the same old song.
The process began much earlier. Newton, for example, “revolutionized” physics and the so-called natural sciences by reducing the physical universe to a linear mathematical equation. Descartes did the same thing with culture. John Locke did it with politics, and Adam Smith did it with economics. Each one of these “thinkers” took a piece of the spirituality of human existence and converted it into code, an abstraction. They picked up where Christianity ended: they “secularized” Christian religion, as the “scholars” like to say–and in doing so they made Europe more able and ready to act as an expansionist culture. Each of these intellectual revolutions served to abstract the European mentality even further, to remove the wonderful complexity and spirituality from the universe and replace it with a logical sequence: one, two, three. Answer!
This is what has come to be termed “efficiency” in the European mind. Whatever is mechanical is perfect; whatever seems to work at the moment–that is, proves the mechanical model to be the right one–is considered correct, even when it is clearly untrue. This is why “truth” changes so fast in the European mind; the answers which result from such a process are only stopgaps, only temporary, and must be continuously discarded in favor of new stopgaps which support the mechanical models and keep them (the models) alive.
Hegel and Marx were heirs to the thinking of Newton, Descartes, Locke and Smith. Hegel finished the process of secularizing theology–and that is put in his own terms–he secularized the religious thinking through which Europe understood the universe. Then Marx put Hegel’s philosophy in terms of “materialism,” which is to say that Marx despiritualized Hegel’s work altogether. Again, this is in Marx’ own terms. And this is now seen as the future revolutionary potential of Europe. Europeans may see this as revolutionary, but American Indians see it simply as still more of that same old European conflict between being and gaining. The intellectual roots of a new Marxist form of European imperialism lie in Marx’–and his followers’–links to the tradition of Newton, Hegel and the others. 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 »
How can we move beyond capitalism? What kinds of economic models can we look to, to ensure that the economy is both sustainable in its relationship to the Earth, and empowering of communities on the ground level?
As YES! Magazine regularly does, this article highlights examples of people stepping up to answer these questions of our age. Here they describe how different communities around the US are creating solutions that are both locally rooted and cooperatively run. [alex]
by Marjorie Kelly and Shanna Ratner
Aug 03, 2010
Innovative strategies for cooperative local ownership make it possible for prosperity to be shared as well as sustainable.
Drive across southern Minnesota near the city of Luverne, and you’ll see clusters of wind turbines poking up through the cornfields. Climb into one of these sleek, gleaming, white towers, and you’ll find sophisticated computer controls monitoring dozens of factors every moment (wind speed, pressure on the blades, and so on). Yet the way the turbines are funded and owned is just as innovative as the technology that runs them.
These wind developments were created by Minwind Energy, a limited liability company that is structured as a cooperative. Back when only corn was harvested in these fields, Minwind invited hundreds of local residents to make investments of $5,000 apiece, eventually raising $4 million to fund the turbines. In return, the residents became owners of the project—alongside the farmers on whose land the turbines stand.
With a policy that no individual can own more than 15 percent, the ownership design is aimed at spreading wealth widely and keeping it rooted locally. According to the Government Accountability Office, keeping a project like Minwind locally owned means that local communities get three times more economic benefit than if the project had absentee owners. Rather than flowing to Wall Street investors or major companies, the dollars generated by these wind farms will flow first through local communities, going to pay local workers, local investors, and local suppliers of all kinds. Wealth stays local.
If sustainable technologies are about the what of the living economy, local and shared ownership designs are about the who: who will own the productive capacity of the nation, who will control it, and who will benefit from the wealth created.
Minwind Energy is also an example of shared ownership, an emerging, broad category of ownership design in which ownership is shared among individuals (as in cooperatives or employee-owned firms) or between individuals and a community organization (as in a community land trust, where families own their homes while a nonprofit owns the land they stand on).
Shared ownership, like local ownership, is a valuable tool for enhancing community wealth over the long term. Both represent the innovations in social technologies that must evolve alongside innovations in physical technologies—like wind turbines, organic agriculture, or sustainably managed forests—if we’re to create an economy in which prosperity is both sustainable and shared. If sustainable technologies are about the what of the living economy, local and shared ownership designs are about the who: who will own the productive capacity of the nation, who will control it, and who will benefit from the wealth created.
Shared ownership takes many forms. For example: Read the rest of this entry »