The New Women’s Movement to Reclaim the Commons

Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons

by Sylvia Federici

PM Press (2019)

Book Review

This book is a collection of essays about capitalism’s continuing seizure and privatization of the “commons” and growing women’s movements in Africa, Latin America and Asia to resist enclosure and reclaim privatized land.

Federici divides her book into two parts. The Part One (“On the New Enclosures”) essays describe the original 15-17th century enclosure laws that drove my European ancestors off common lands they had farmed communally for more than 1,000 years. This process (which Marx refers to as “primitive accumulation”) laid the groundwork for capitalism in two important ways: 1) it allowed the accumulation of capital (ie land) to finance the industrial revolution and 2) it forced landless peasants into factories.

Part One goes on to explore how the World Bank and IMF continues to expel drive third world peoples from their communal lands, creating the largest mass migration of refugees in history. I was quite surprised to learn that communal land ownership survives intact throughout much of Africa and that women produce 80% of the continent’s food via subsistence farming.

This section also features excellent essays on the role the Chinese government has played in driving their peasant population off their communal lands – and the role of microcredit in inflicting debt on rural populations that were previously immune to the forces of globalization.

In Part Two “On the Commons,” Federici details numerous examples of third world women’s movements that are reclaiming the commons via such strategies as squatting on privatized land, urban gardening (growing crops on privatized land), time banks, savings pools, and programs to collectively undertake shopping, cooking and care of street children.

This section also offers an excellent critique of Marx’s failure to acknowledge the essential role under capitalism of the unpaid work of women and colonized peoples – nor of the degradation of the “commons” known as the environment.

The book’s final essay warns of the seductive nature of Internet technology and role it plays in distracting people from genuine face-to-face interaction that brings about real change.

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