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.

Why Social Studies Never Made Sense in School: The History of Anarchism

No Gods No Masters: The History of Anarchism – Part 1

Icarus Films (2017)

Film Review

This three-part documentary series provides an eye opening look into the history of anarchism and its pivotal role in the development in the development of Marxism, communism and the trade union movement. The powers that be would have you believe that Karl Marx simply dreamed communism up sitting on his lonesome in the British Library.

Part 1 covers the period 1840, when Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (the father of anarchism) published What is Property, to 1906. Like socialism, anarchism grew directly out of the abject misery (eg starvation, malnutrition, epidemics, workplace injuries, alcoholism, etc) of early industrial capitalism. When French scholar and activist Jean-Pierre Proudhon first declared himself an “anarchist” in 1840, the life expectancy of an industrial worker was 30 years.

I was previously unaware that the global anarchist movement organized the First International (aka The First International Workingmen’s Association) in 1964. In fact, anarchists comprised the vast majority of the First International before Karl Marx and his Russian follower Mikhail Bakunin conspired to expel  them. The anarchists, who disagreed with the call by Marx and Bakunin for a centrally run revolutionary political party, subsequently formed the Anarchist International Workingmen’s Association.

Prior to watching this film, I was also unaware that the anarchist movement initially came up with the strategy of the general strike, nor that it was first tried in the US. On May 1 1886, 340,00 workers came out on strike to demand an 8 hour day. The violent police reaction (and extreme government corruption it exposed) led to extreme disillusionment with the notion of worker organizing as a route to reform. The result was a brief period  “propaganda of the deed”* activism in which a handful of anarchists tried to trigger mass insurrections though a series of bombings and assassinations of world political leaders (including US President William McKinley and Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand**).

With the turn of the century, international anarchist groups abandoned violence (which Proudhon had expressly opposed) to return to trade union organizing. This would give birth to “anarchosyndicalism”***, which promotes the general strike as the principal means of accomplishing revolutionary change nonviolently.

Their efforts would bear fruit in 1905-06, with political revolutions in Russia and Persia, and mass insurrections in France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Chile, India, Japan, Mongolia.

1905 would see the formation of the International Workers of the World (IWW), the first anarchosyndicalist movement in the US.


*”Propaganda of the deed,” refers to violent direct action meant to serve as an example for other oppressed peoples and a catalyst for revolution.

**This assassination of the heir to the Austrian Hungarian throne would be used as a pretext for the launch of World War I, when Serbia rejected an ultimatum by the Austro-Hungarian government to extradite one of the Serbian assassins.

***Anarcho-syndicalism is a theory of anarchism that views revolutionary industrial unionism or syndicalism as a method for workers in capitalist society to gain control of the economy and, with that control, influence broader society.

 

Patriarchy: The Crucial Role of Women’s Unpaid Labor Under Capitalism

Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour

by Maria Mies

Zed Books (2014 edition)

Book Review

In this 1986 classic, Mies challenges Marx’s description of the unpaid labor of women (childrearing, care of the sick and elderly, housekeeping and subsistence agriculture, handicrafts and firewood and water collecting in the Third World) as part of their “natural” function. In doing so, she provides the first comprehensive economic analysis of patriarchy.

While Marx and Engels readily acknowledge that capitalism oppresses women, they overlook the fact it also exploits them via the massive amount of free labor it makes them provide. According to Mies, it’s only this unpaid labor, which Mies refers to as super-exploitation, that makes wage labor exploitation possible.

Super-exploitation of Women and Colonies Finances Capitalist Expansion and War

She compares the super-exploitation of women under patriarchy to the super-exploitation that occurs under colonization. Both are intimately associated with violence, and both increase during the periods of rapid capital accumulation, which are necessary to finance capitalist expansion and war.

Violence and the Sexual Division of Labor

Based on modern anthropological research, Miles also offers a much clearer explanation of how the sexual division of labor arose, as well as its intimate link with violence. Citing numerous studies, she shows how women’s childrearing role made them them responsible for most food production in primitive societies (80% in hunter gatherer societies). Women also developed the first tools – namely baskets and pots for storing grain.

Popular culture places much more emphasis on the tools invented by men – weapons – and their use in hunting. Current anthropological evidence suggests they played a much bigger role in raiding other tribes to kidnap and enslave women (over time men were also enslaved), both for procreation and their food producing capacity.

Witchcraft Trials, Colonization, Mass Enslavement and the Rise of Capitalism

With the rise of capitalism, violence against both women and colonies (to compel their free labor) significantly increased. The pervasive witchcraft trials (and land confiscations) that began in the late 15th century, accompanied by the violent enslavement of New World colonies and Africans, would create the massive capitalist accumulation required for full scale industrial development.

Why Violence Against Women is Increasing

Mies also provides an eloquent analysis – linked to the intensification of capital accumulation – for the global increase in violence against women and Third World colonies over the last four decades. The onset of global recession in the 1970s forced capitalists to shift their labor intensive work to the Third World, where harsh US- and European-backed puppets use violence to suppress wages..

In the First World, simultaneous cuts in public services, have significantly increased demands on women for free labor (especially in the area of childcare and care of the sick and elderly). The simultaneous increase in violence against women (and the psychic trauma it induces) make it all the more difficult for women to organize and resist this super-exploitation.

 

Understanding the Current Economic Crisis

The ABC’s of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know
Fred Magdoff and Michael Yates

Monthly Review Press (2009)

Book Review

In the ABC’s of the Economic Crisis, Magdoff and Yates use stagnation theory to explain the origins of the current global economic crisis. Karl Marx predicted that overproduction and stagnation would be inevitable under monopoly capitalism once market demand has been saturated. Magdoff and Yates use the auto industry as an example. Immediately after World War II, consumers bought a lot of cars and trucks which were unavailable between 1941 and 1945. By 1970 there was a surplus of cars – all the Americans who wanted cars and trucks had already bought them. Meanwhile the world’s poorer nations didn’t have a mass market large enough to reduce this surplus.

The same was true of other durable goods (refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, vaccuum cleaners, etc). And as consumer buying slowed, so did profits and GDP growth.

Why Capitalism Didn’t End With the Great Depression

Many Marxists (including John Strachey in The Coming Struggle for Power) believed the Great Depression signaled end stage stagnation and the imminent death of capitalism. According to Magdoff and Yates, it was only the massive economic boost of World War II military spending that saved capitalism in the thirties and forties.

There was also a brief post war boom in the fifties and sixties, as consumers rushed to buy goods that were unavailable during the war. When the sixties ended, stagnation set in again, accompanied by a marked slowing of profits and growth. However neither declined to 1930s levels, thanks to the “financialization” of the US economy.

The Financialization of the US Economy

The term “financialization” describes the process of creating profits without producing products or services. In the US, finanancialization injected money into the economy in three ways: via massive government spending and indebtedness (to private banks), via massive consumer indebtedness and via an explosion in the trade of derivatives and similar financial products.

Between 1980 and the 2008 crash, the banking, insurance and investment sector became the largest growth sector of the US economy. Beyond financing unprecedented levels of consumer, business and government debt, this sector also engaged massively in speculation (ie gambling).

Financialization: A Giant Ponzi Scheme

As Magdoff and Yates describe, the enormous “wealth” created by the financial sector helps to drive the “real” productive economy. The main problem with financialization is that it’s basically a Ponzi scheme – it can continue only so long as economic growth continues. If it goes on too long, the speculative bubble will burst, resulting in financial collapse, as it did in 1929 and 2008.

The Link Between Declining Profits and Low Wages

Despite the life support provided by “financialization,” economic stagnation continued between 1970 and 2008. As Magdoff and Yates point out, GDP growth dropped from 4.4 to 3.3 percent in the 1970s, to 3.1 percent in the eighties and nineties, and 2.2 percent between 2000 and 2008.

A significant decline in wages and purchasing power accompanied this decline in profits and growth. In order to keep workers consuming, the corporate sector compensated by giving them credit cards – lending them money at 18-20% interest they were no longer paying in wages.

How to Have a Revolution

Wretched of the Earth

by Frantz Fanon (1961)

Free PDF:Wretched of the Earth

Book Review

Wretched of the Earth is a sociopolitical analysis of how revolution happens, based on the author’s personal experience in Algeria and his study of nationalist revolutions in sub-Saharan Africa, Vietnam, Latin America and Cuba.

Many Marxist scholars consider Fanon’s work to be the first major expansion of Marxist theory after Lenin. His primary contribution is to delineate the potential revolutionary forces of third world countries. His chief disagreement with Marx concerns the revolutionary potential of the lumpenproletariat, the urban beggars, petty criminals, prostitutes and gang members who lack access to formal work. According to Fanon, the lumpenproletariat make up the majority of the population in third world countries (and increasingly, in 2017, the industrialized world)  thanks to first world colonizers who have driven them off their land.

Marx believed the lumpenproletariat were incapable of achieving class consciousness and thus of no use in the revolutionary struggle. In contrast, Fanon feels they help to instigate revolution owing to their high proportion of young people and their belief they had nothing to lose.

Unlike Marx, Fanon believes third world revolutionary struggles must originate with rural peasants (like the Chiapas uprising in Mexico), that city dwellers are too “colonized,” ie too invested in existing political and economic structures to want to dismantle them.

Wretched of the Earth also describes the phenomenon of economic colonialism, as manifested in Latin America (and later South Africa). In these cases, a country achieves political independence but continues to be economically (and militarily) oppressed by first world multinational corporations.

Fanon makes a number of recommendations for preventing this, including

  1. immediate nationalization and decentralization (via the creation of wholesale and retail cooperatives) of the economy
  2. mass political education aimed at enabling the masses to govern themselves,
  3. rapid economic restructuring aimed at developing soil and other natural resources for national use (as opposed to first world benefit),
  4. land reform to stem the migration of peasants to the city,
  5. guarding against feudal traditions that view men as superior to women, and
  6. avoiding the trap of political parties.

Frantz Fanon was born in 1925 of mixed heritage in Martinique. He fought with the French resistance during World War II and received a scholarship to study medicine and psychiatry in France. In 1953, he was offered a hospital position in Algeria, where he joined the Algerian National Liberation Front. He died of leukemia in 1961, shortly after the publication of Wretched of the Earth.

 

The Inherent Right to Rebel

The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf

J A Scott

MW Books (1988)

Book Review

Babeuf’s speech available free on line at: Defense Speech

Babeuf was a whistleblower under Louis XVI, who in 1782 exposed corruption in the tax system imposed by the French aristocracy. He spent the years immediately preceding the French revolution (1789) either in hiding or in jail. On learning the Bastille had fallen, he joined the revolutionary struggle. In addition to launching a newspaper, he circulated numerous pamphlets and petitions calling for the abolition of private property and an end to the private expropriation of the commons and the division of society into exploited and exploiting classes.

In September 1792, he was elected to the revolutionary government, only to be arrested in 1795 by the counter-revolutionary forces that overthrew Robespierre. He was charged and found guilty of advocating for the re-establishment of the Constitution of 1793.

The book is the verbatim defense Babeuf presented to the court that sentenced him to death. He cites the writings of Plato, Sir Thomas Moore, Thomas Jefferson, Rousseau, Diderot and other Enlightenment thinkers to argue that human beings have a natural right to rebel against political and economic injustice and that violence, poverty and war all have their roots in the concept of private property.

He further argues that the natural function of society and social institutions is to protect the weak against the tyranny of the strong (whereas in reality they do the opposite). He contends that the 1789 revolution wasn’t complete because it allowed the wealth to continue to control all social power and government. He also (correctly) claimed that the election adopting the 1795 constitution was rigged and thus failed to represent the true will of the people.

For me the significance of Babeuf’s courtroom oration (which predated Marx by more than 60 years) was the surprising realization that Marx wasn’t the first to argue against the argue against the damage wealth inequality wreaks on society. It’s easy to forget that Karl Marx was but one of a long line of thinkers (which includes Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith) who advocated against class exploitation.

The End of Capitalism

The End of Capitalism

David Harvey (2016)

In The End of Capitalism, geography and anthropology professor Anthropology David Harvey makes the case that economic crises and inequality are part and parcel of capitalism and can only be ended by dismantling the capitalist economic system.

He begins by examining the cumulative “perception control” by the corporate media that has made it virtually impossible (except perhaps in Iceland) to look at any alternative economic systems despite the deplorable performance of capitalism since the 2007 global economic crash.

Quoting from Volume 2 of Marx’s Capital, he goes to demonstrate that growth and debt are structural components of capitalism – how the amount of debt created always equals the amount of capital growth created. In fact, repaying all government debt (as many conservatives advocate) would end capitalism faster than a workers revolution.

He also quotes Reagan advisor David Stockman and former vice president Dick Cheney to demonstrate how the Reagan and both Bush administrations deliberately ramped up the deficit (on unfunded wars) as a strategy to force future administrations to cut social spending.

For me, the most interesting part of his talk is his discussion of the Chinese economy, specifically how their willingness to employ Keynesian tactics (of government deliberately spending money into the economy) to generate 10% economic growth and save the global economy from total collapse.

In elucidating a viable alternative to capitalism, Harvey quotes from volume 3 of Capital, where Marx defines capitalism as a “class relation between owner and worker such that the owner extracts surplus value (profit) from the worker’s labor.” Thus in his (and Marx’s) view, the only viable alternative is a system of worker self-management of our own productive process (ie worker cooperatives). He believes such a system would coordinate production via a Just in Time networking strategy similar to those used by Wall Street corporations.

The video has an extremely long introduction and Harvey starts speaking at 8.00.