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.

The Link Between Globalization and Violence Against Women

witches and witchhunting

Witches, Witch-hunting and Women

by Sylvia Federici

PM Press (2018)

Book Review

This book is a collection of essays that continue the theme feminist historian Sylvia Federici introduced in her 2004 book Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation (see Witch Burning and Women’s Oppression). In addition to re-exploring historical links between witchcraft trials, enclosures, land privatization, and systematized oppression of women, Witches, Witch-hunting and Women extends her analysis to the present day. Federici sees strong links between increasing violence against women and “globalization,” a euphemism for an elitist campaign to dispossess third world peoples of their lands and livelihoods. This dispossession, in turn, has led to the largest mass refugee migration in history.

In tracing its historical origins, the book makes the case that capitalism was actually a “counterrevolution” against the widespread 14th century rebellions that improved both the working and living conditions of both peasants and early urban workers. In constant fear of new rebellions by landless peasants (expelled from common lands under enclosure laws), the landed and merchant classes introduced a totally new form of production that imposed even harsher labor discipline than feudalism.

The witchcraft trials of the 16th and 17th century were essential to this transformation. They were primarily directed against women who resisted enclosure, widows, women who had children out of wedlock, landless women who were driven into the streets (either as market vendors or prostitutes), midwives and women who practiced folk healing.

At a time when thousands of women were killed for accusations of witchcraft, all women were banned from guild membership and prohibited from engaging in crafts other than brewing or spinning and bringing legal cases to court. Under capitalism, they were generally confined to the home to perform unpaid domestic labor in total submission to their husbands.

In looking at modern equivalents, Federici sees a direct link between the massive dispossession occurring under globalization and escalating violence against women. She points to a big increase in domestic violence and rape (especially “handbook” rape*), in sex traffcking, in unprosecuted murders of women (especially women of color), in witchcraft accusations against tribal women in Africa and India, and in dowry and honor killings in India and Pakistan.

She also sees strong links between the current mass incarceration of people of color and the 17th century Great Confinement, in which droves of peasants were incarcerated in prisons and workhouses after being driven off their land.


*”Handbook rape” rape by trained military and paramilitary forces is deliberately designed to terrorize targeted populations. Examples include inserting knives or guns into a woman’s vagina or slitting open her pregnant belly.

They Fuck You Up Your Mom and Dad

philip-larkinPhilip Larkin

1922-1985

This be the verse

by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

Climate Change: A Really Inconvenient Truth

 

A Really Inconvenient Truth

Directed by Cambiz Khosravi (2007)

Film Review

This film, a moving tribute to the late radical psychiatrist Dr Joel Kovel,* is a critique of Al Gore and his signature documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Owing to his failure to make important links between capitalism and global warming, Kovel believes Gore deserves much of the blame for the failure of the current climate movement to stop global warming.

Kovel’s main criticism of Gore, who first learned of the link between carbon emissions and global warming in the late seventies, was his failure to use his immense power as Clinton’s environmental point man to pursue government action to reduce carbon emissions. Instead Gore “played the game” and continued to advance the interests of the Wall Street corporations responsible for skyrocketing emissions (eg fossil fuel companies, car makers, etc). And the banks and PR and advertising companies responsible for unrelenting psychological pressure on Americans to over-consume.

Kovel believed Gore was deliberately dishonest about labeling climate change a “moral” issue. Instead of blaming capitalism and the corporate oligarchy for climate change, Gore blamed human nature. In the process, he played along with a system that seeks to “commodify” every human need and desire for its profit making potential. Ironically his documentary resulted in the creation of two brand new commodities: carbon credits and green technology.

According to Kovel, ending climate change is impossible without ending the continual economic expansion that is fundamental to capitalism.** Individuals are helpless to stop climate change through behavior change .

Kovel, who died in April 2018, was a presidential candidate in the 2000 Green Party primary but lost out to Ralph Nader.


*Commodification is confiscation of human needs and wants (land, goods, services and ideas) into products that can be sold for a profit.

**Kovel is a bit fuzzy about why continual expansion is essential under capitalism. I suspect it relates to Marx’s failure to address the role of private banks (in creating 98% of our money as debt) in infinitely increasing debt and the necessity of continuous economic expansion to pay it.

Gun Control and the True Historic Purpose of the Second Amendment

Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment

by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz

City Lights (2018)

Book Review

According to Dunbar-Ortiz, the main function of the Second Amendment, is to enshrine the voluntary militias used by white settlers to dispossess Native Americans of their land and compulsory slave patrols to hunt down and capture runaway slaves.

She disagrees with gun control advocates on many fronts:

First she disagrees that the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms” relates only to their use in a “well-regulated militia.” She maintains that it clearly refers to an individual right, like the other guarantees in the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment is modeled on various state constitutions (which were already in effect) that guarantee gun possession as an individual right. Moreover the right to form state militias is already covered in Article 1 of the Constitution.

Second citing other countries like Switzerland and Canada (which rarely experience gun violence) with few or no gun control laws, she disagrees that more gun control laws will reduce gun violence in the US.

Third she disputes Democratic Party claims that blames opposition to gun control on NRA lobbying. Noting that American gun culture precedes the NRA by more than a century, she argues the organization spends far less on lobbying than Big Oil or Big Pharma.

Dunbar-Ortiz contends that US gun culture is deeply rooted in the racist, white nationalist, God-ordained nature of the virulent capitalism sanctified by the US Constitution. She reminds us of the real issue that triggered the Revolutionary War: namely the British ban on illegal settlement on unceded Indian land west of the Appalachians. George Washington and our other founding fathers derived most of their wealth from illegal surveying and speculation in Native land.

Thus when the US finally won independence in 1791, a massive escalation of “savage war” was unleashed against the indigenous nations that had civilized North America. “Savage war,” aka “irregular warfare,” refers to deliberate violence directed against women, children and the elderly, along with the infrastructure that supports their survival. Although the US government gives lip service to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits acts of war against civilians, their wars have always mercilessly targeted civilians. Prime examples are the 1846 Mexican-American War, the war against Cuba (1898-1900) and the Philippines (1898-1948) and numerous undeclared wars of the 20th century (the Korean War, Vietnam War, Central American War (1981-89), Afghan War, Iraq War, Libya War, Syria War, etc)

The most surprising part of the book is the introduction, in which Dunbar-Ortiz describes becoming a gun owner and joining the NRA when an activist group she belonged to was spied on and stalked by police and intelligence operatives.

Women’s Health: The Rise and Fall of the Male Expert

Free PDF:For Her Own Good

For Her Own good is a sociological study of the historical trend of male experts claiming the right to dictate what is best for women. Ehrenreich and English attribute this loss of female autonomy to the sudden and total disruption of centuries-old social roles that accompanied the rise of capitalism.

Elimination of Women’s Traditional Economic Roles

Under pre-capitalist patriarchy, women were totally subject to their fathers and husbands but still derived considerable prestige from the basic survival functions they performed in the home (ie tending gardens, chickens and dairy cows, as well as making butter, cheese, soap and candles and carding, spinning, weaving, and making clothes). With the rise of capitalism, all these functions were shifted into factories, and the household was limited to performing personal biological functions, such as eating, sleeping, sex, birth, dying and care of children and the elderly.

Even the traditionally female role of healing was transformed into a commodity to be sold in the market place. Prior to the advent of capitalism, except for the very rich (who could afford a doctor), healing was the exclusive domain of women.

Women had great difficulty finding a new role for themselves under capitalism, which led to a virtual epidemic of of depression and “neurasthenia,”* especially among upper middle class women.

Medical Care Becomes a Commodity

The book traces the rise of “heroic” medical interventions that arose when medical care became a commodity (doctors had to engage in active and visible treatment to demand a fee). Most of these interventions (especially blood letting, leech therapy, mercury salts) made patients worse, if not killing them. In the 1830s, the US working class rebelled against doctors as members of a parasitic elitist class. A popular health movement, run mainly by women, stressed the importance of fresh air, bathing, herbs, raw foods and daily exercise as a healthier alternative than the quack treatments employed by doctors.

In the 20th century, the rise of the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, which enabled the rise of “science based” medical training in medical schools, gradually forced lay midwives and other non-medical healers out of business.

The Myth of Science-Based Medicine

The authors spend the last third of the book delineating how so-called “science-based” medicine was based as much in myth, misogyny and superstition – at least when it came to women – as so called pre-scientific medicine. This is especially clear from the section on childrearing – where expert opinion seems to have reversed itself every few decades.

In the early 20th century, doctors and child guidance specialists insisted a mother’s role was to regiment a child to insure it behaved like a machine. Mother were strongly cautioned against playing with babies, picking them up except for feeding, hugging, kissing or cuddling them.

Follow the 1929 financial crash, experts reversed themselves and told mothers they had to be permissive and allow children to follow their own impulses in decided when to eat, sleep and play.

Child experts reversed themselves a third time when the US fell behind the Russians in the space race in the 1950s. At this point child experts dumped on mothers for not stimulating children enough or setting firm enough limits.


*Neurasthenia is a condition characterized by physical and mental exhaustion of unknown cause.

The Myths of Capitalism

In The Myths of Capitalism, Michael Parenti explodes the most prevalent myths the ruling elite perpetuates regarding capitalism. Examples include

  • Capitalism produces prosperity – in truth capitalism produces prosperity for a handful of people and poverty for nearly everyone else. Parenti gives numerous examples of this.
  • The poor are responsible for their own poverty and are always looking for handouts – in reality, poverty occurs when the ruling elite privatize resources and public services to increase profits. Wherever capitalism is introduced, poverty follows.
  • Privately run businesses are always more efficient than those that are publicly run – Parenti gives number examples (including the post office, Medicare and Social Security) of government-run operations that have far less bureaucracy and far lower administrative costs than their private counterparts.
  • Capitalism fosters democracy – Parenti demonstrates quite ably how the exact opposite is true. A well educated working class that resists exploitation by exercising their democratic rights is an enormous threat to private profit. The US ruling elite fully supported the Bush/Obama suspension of basic civil liberties, the routine surveillance of the citizenry and the introduction of torture.

Most of the presentation focuses on the corporate crime and corruption and routine economic instability inherent in a capitalist economic system. Under modern industrial capitalism the only way to keep the economy from collapsing is to undertake a permanent state of perpetual war.