Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons
by Sylvia Federici
PM Press (2019)
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.
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.
Land of Corn is a documentary by Peace Brigades International about four environmental and land rights activists fighting to protect the commons in Oaxca Mexico, Santa Helena Honduras, Choco Columbia and La Primavera Guatemala. In each case, activists are fighting collusion between US-backed corrupt governments and international corporations to end their communal land rights and destroy their livelihood.
In Oaxca, a multinational corporation seeks to illegally evict residents to construct a giant wind farm.
In Santa Helena Honduras, a US-backed corporate giant seeks to displace local farmers for a giant dam and hydroelectric project. This illegal eviction stems directly from the 2009 US-backed coup, in which Obama and Hillary Clinton supported the overthrow of the democratically elected Honduran president.
In Primavera Guatemala, a multinational seeks to clear cut a rain forest residents’ ancestors have fought for generations to preserve.
In Choco Columbia, land rights activists are seeking to reclaim land they lost in the 1980s and 1990s to a corrupt public-private partnership that converted their land to large scale cattle ranches and palm oil and GMO crop plantations.
It’s extremely dangerous to be a land rights/environmental activist in US-backed Latin American countries. One-hundred-sixteen were assassinated in 2014 alone. Those featured in the film face constant death threats. On March 3, 2016 Honduran activist Berta Caceres was murdered by gunmen in her sleep.
As a woman fighting to reclaim community land in Columbia bitterly observes, non-farm jobs are virtually non-existent in her country. If her family is unsuccessful in reclaiming their land, their only other option is to illegally immigrate to the US, as so many other displaced Latin American peasants have done.
Occasionally you come across a book that totally turns your worldview on its head. This book is definitely one of them.
Stop Thief is about the loss of the Commons through enclosures,* which author Peter Linebaugh maintains is the essence of capitalism. Until 200 years ago, communally owned moors and forests were fundamental to all human civilization. In Europe, the Commons included specific customary rights, including gleaning, grazing rights, and access to the forest for medicines and wood for fuel, housing and tools. These rights had been guaranteed for thousands of years (they’re mentioned in both the Old and New Testament) and were codified in the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Thanks to the Commons, which provided for the basic subsistence needs of the population, there was virtually no crime as we know it and no extreme poverty.
In the essays in Stop Thief, Linebaugh details 800 years of enclosures, as well as the popular riots and rebellions that have resisted them. In doing so, he establishes a clear continuity between the organized resistance against European enclosure and the work of great revolutionary thinkers, such as Karl Marx, Thomas Paine, William Morris and Edward Thompson
According to Linebaugh, the European enclosure acts didn’t just enclose (privatize) moors and forests, but they enclosed handicrafts as factories, community markets as shops and women as units of reproduction who ceased to have a legal persona (women who resisted enclosure were burned and/or tortured as witches).
Enclosure: A Global Phenomenon
Enclosures, which occurred worldwide thanks to European colonization, began in the 13th century with peaks in the 15-16th century, the 18th-19th century and the 21th century. The latter have resulted in the theft of pensions and homes by banks, the privatization (and destruction) of the environment, the capture of health care by insurance companies and current attempts to privatize (enclose) the Internet. In other words, the essence of capitalism is dispossession, ie theft.
In Europe, enclosure mainly took the form of imprisonment and the privatization of communal land. In the 18th century, enclosure was accompanied by a prison building spree and the creation of a “civilian” police force, as well as massive emigration to European colonies. Commoners who persisted in claiming their customary rights were criminalized and either hanged (for minor crimes such as stealing firewood or a loaf of bread) or imprisoned.
Resistance to Enclosure Has Been Continuous
The resistance to enclosures, especially in England and Germany, was more or less continuous. Over 800 years, peasants blocked privatization of their communal land by petitioning, fence breaking, stoning officials for posting enclosure notices, riots and organized rebellion. Despite continuousl military occupation, it took 17 years to drive the peasants out and fully privatize Otmoor.
The Peasants Revolt of 1381, the Ketts Rebellion of 1549, the formation of Levellers, Ranters and Diggers movements that would culminate in the English Civil War in 1649, and the formation of the Luddites in the late 18th century were all part of the popular resistance to enclosures.
Marx and the Theft of Wood
Marx refers to the process by which the ruling elite encloses the Commons, depriving common people of the means of subsistence (aka the means of production), as primitive accumulation. Linebaugh traces how Marx’s interest in political economy was directly influenced by coming of age as the Moselle region in Germany was being enclosed. His very first essays on “Debates of Law and the Theft of Wood” expressed outrage at the appropriation of local forests by rich burgermeisters and the criminalization of customary wood gathering.
I also really enjoyed the essays on Tom Paine, which discuss his upbringing as the Norfolk commons was being enclosed and his critical influence in the Irish and French revolution. His essays and books calling for the restoration of the Commons are rarely discussed in American history textbooks.
*Enclosure is the legal (usually violent) process by which common people are driven off communal land to enable it to be fenced off as private property.
**The Charter of the Forest is a charter originally sealed by King Henry III under the regency of William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke. A companion document to the Magna Carta, it re-established rights of access to the royal forest that had been eroded by William the Conqueror and his heirs.
Robin Hood Minor Asset Management Cooperative (http://www.robinhoodcoop.org/), the first cooperatively owned hedge fund, is another novel method of funding political activism. Unlike Enric Duran’s act of “financial civil disobedience” (see Spain’s Modern Day Robin Hood), it’s totally legal.
Founded in Finland in 2012, the main purpose of the Robin Hood Co-op is to use experimental investment technologies to expand the commons and public domain, while offering ordinary people access to income outside of paid work. Among its founding members are several former economics professors from Aalto University (who were fired for starting the Robin Hood Co-op). The co-op presently has over 350 members from 15 different countries and is valued at roughly half a million euros.
Like a hedge fund, the fund’s growth is based on the principle of producing new financial assets by hedging existing ones. Fund managers employ a data mining algorithm called “Parasite,” which follows all the transactions of the US stock markets, identifies the spreads and the star investors and follows their “swarming.” In other words, Parasite is designed to imitate the emerging consensus actions of the world’s best investors.
In the nearly three years since its formation, it has consistently kept pace with the S&P index. In its first year the value of its portfolio rose 30.75%. In the second year, it rose another 9.4%. Since June 2014 it seems to be performing slightly under the S&P index. Profits are primarily used to fund anti-corporate projects that expand the commons or public domain.
How to Join
To join the cooperative, people need to buy one share (30 euros) and pay a onetime membership fee (30 euros). They can buy as many additional shares as they want at any point.
Every member has one vote independent of the numbers of shares they own. They use it to vote in on-line member meetings, where important co-op issues are decided. They can also suggest Robin Hood Projects, become part of the selection board and participate in the work of the cooperative. For examples of proposed projects for to 2015 go to Projects.
When new members buy shares, they are given six options for how they want their net profits (profit minus co-op’s costs) between themselves Robin Hood Projects. If they choose to keep more than 50% of the profit, there is a onetime fee.
Once a month, the new money invested in shares is exchanged for dollars and sent to the co-op’s broker, Interactive Brokers, in New York. This creates a new series, which is invested based on information from the Parasite algorithm. Thus, the performance of the investment fund depends both on the euro/dollar exchange rate fluctuations and the success of the co-op’s investment portfolio on the stock exchange.
Robin Hood Co-op is a “slow” investment organization. Thus people must notify the co-op management if they wish to sell their shares. The actual value of each share is calculated after the end of the fiscal year (end of June) when costs of the co-operative are deducted from them. Finnish law allows them to transfer monies from sold shares six months after the end of the fiscal year. People can also sell their shares to other members.
Avoiding Outrageous Bank Fees
The co-op website is set up to use Transferwise, a low cost non-bank method of overseas money transfer. In countries (like Australia and New Zealand) that aren’t set up yet for Transferwise, Robin Hood Co-op encourages members to avoid exorbitant bank charges by paying their membership fee and buying shares in bitcoins (BTC).
I paid my 60 euros by exchanging $NZ 97for 0.27248653 BTC at Coined (a New Zealand bitcoin exchange) and using Coinbase to transfer the bitcoins to Robin Hood Co-op.
The Obsolete “Means of Production” Narrative
Below is Max Keiser’s interview with Daniel Hassan about Robin Hood Co-op (starts at 11:42). In it they discuss how the leftist “means of production” narrative is obsolete in a global economy where most wealth is produced via financial transactions. They also discuss how the Parasite algorithm works and how they choose activist projects to support with their profits.
*Bitcoins are a type of digital currency which operate independently of any central bank and in which encryption techniques are used to regulate the generation of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds.
**Kiwibank is a full service commercial banked owned and operated by the New Zealand government.
The title Sacred Economics sounds like a New Age treatise on spirituality. The book is actually about the end of capitalism. It offers an extremely well-researched discussion of the history of money, capitalist economics and the world wide movement for economic re-localization. By avoiding simplistic clichés about greedy corporate CEOs and amoral banksters, Eisenstein arrives at some startling conclusions. Tracing the western conception of money back to its earliest origins, he makes a strong case that money itself is responsible for rapacious growth and resource depletion, greed and the demise of community.
Money and the Loss of the Commons
The main focus of Part I is an exploration of the profound effect money has on human thinking and psychology. Part II focuses on economic relocalization and other practical steps activists can take to restore the original gift economy.
Part I begins with an analysis of the dual illusions of separateness and of scarcity. Both, Eisenstein argues, are mistaken beliefs stemming from the privatization of communally owned land. This, in turn, was an early consequence of the introduction of money.
Prior to Roman times, land, like air and water, was considered part of the commons and couldn’t be owned. Under Roman tradition, there was no way for an “individual” (a Greek invention related to the concept of money and personal wealth) to legitimately take possession of common lands. Thus the Roman aristocracy had to seize it by force, just as Europeans stole the communal lands of Native Americans, Maori and indigenous Australians.
During the many centuries our ancestors had access to communal lands for their herds and crops, they enjoyed a sense of interconnectedness and interdependency. This was lost when the wealthy began fencing it off as private property. This loss of interconnectedness has left all of us with a profound inner emptiness we experience as never having enough.
How Money Destroyed the Gift Economy
Part I also describes the gift economy that characterizes all primitive cultures. Public gift giving was the primary mechanism all early societies used to satisfy basic survival needs. As civilizations became more complex, gift exchange and barter were impractical over long distances. This led money was introduced as a common medium of exchange.
An early artifact of the introduction of money is the mistaken belief that the basic necessities of life are in short supply. This illusion underpins all western economic theory. In fact many textbooks define economics as the study of human behavior under conditions of scarcity. As Eisentein points out, this is a ludicrous notion in a world in which vast quantities of food, energy and raw materials go to waste.
The Origin of Greed
Eisenstein attributes greed to this illusion of scarcity. He can see no other explanation for low income people giving away far more money, relative to income, than their rich counterparts. Rich people worry about money more and are more inclined to perceive scarcity when none exists. Einstein talks about the immense anxiety people in rich countries experience over “financial security.” No matter how much they accumulate, it’s never enough.
Debt, Usury and Perpetual Growth
Sacred Economics argues that what economists commonly refer to as growth is the expansion of scarcity into areas of life once characterized by abundance. Fresh water, which was once abundant, has become scarce following its transformation into a commodity most of us are forced to pay for.
The fractional reserve banking system, which allows bankers to loan money they create out of thin air, accentuates the pressure to convert more and more of the commons into commodities. The amount of debt created is always greater than the money supply. Current global debt ($75 trillion) is more than twice global wealth ($30 trillion). This results in constant pressure to create more goods and services to repay personal, corporate and public debt.
Growing pressure to repay debt only hastens the rate at which natural resources, such as fossil fuels, minerals, forests, fish and water, are converted to commodities. A parallel process is causing the social, cultural and spiritual commons to be dismantled. Stuff that was free throughout all human history – stories, songs, images, ideas, clever sayings – are copyrighted or trademarked to enable them to be bought and sold.
Einsenstein’s Confusion About Marxism.
The only weakness of Sacred Economics are some mistaken and contradictory assumptions Eisenstein makes about Marxism. He makes the assertion in Part I that capitalism needs to be replaced, but not in a “Marxist” way. He claims this would remove any “monetary” incentive for people to produce goods and services that are useful to the community. This seems to contradict his call for the a return to a gift economy in which people contribute to the community for intangible rewards (public recognition, status and esteem) rather than monetary reward.
Below Eisentein speaks briefly about his book.
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