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.

Why Growth is the Main Cause of Poverty

Growth Equals Poverty

Vendana Shiva (2013)

In this presentation, environmentalist and anti-globalization activist Vendana Shiva challenges the Wall Street mythology that economic growth reduces poverty. Using her own country India as an example, she demonstrates how poverty (and inequality) increase in direct correlation to GDP increases.

The examples she offers clearly apply to the US, UK and New Zealand. All three countries are experiencing alarming increases in poverty and inequality as GDP increases. As in India, the quality and availability of health, education and other public services have declined steeply as “growth” has increased.

She goes on to demonstrate what GDP growth really represents: the privatization (ie theft) of natural and public resources by a small number of elites.

In India at present, 1/4 of the population lives in abject poverty and 1/2 of children are malnourished. Vendana blames the increase in hunger on the forced adoption of industrial agriculture and GMO crops. Monsanto and GMO advocates like Bill gates argue that GMOs will decrease world hunger. In India, where Monsanto has successfully lobbied to make it illegal for farmers to save seed, just the opposite has happened.

This due partly to Monsanto’s seed monopoly, which has caused an 8,000% increase in the cost of seed; partly to the high cost of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides GMO crops require; and partly to the destruction of soil, bees and biodiversity caused by industrial agriculture and GMO crops.

How Putin Outwitted the Russian Oligarchs

The Rise and Fall of the Russian Oligarchs

Directed by Alexander Gentelev (2006)

Film Review

The Rise and Fall of the Russian Oligarchs focuses on the scandalous period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in which 100 opportunist oligarchs destroyed the economy of a relatively wealthy country (with the help of the CIA, USAID, the IMF and the World Bank) by seizing $20 billion of assets for roughly a billion dollars. The admitted goal of these Russian oligarchs (and their CIA supporters) was to privatize as many industries as possible behind the scenes before the Communist majority in the Russian parliament could consolidate power and stop them. The documentary’s overarching theme concerns Putin’s rise to power in 1999, which is credited for saving the Russian economy via his shrewd confrontation and defeat of these oligarchs.

This Russian-made documentary focuses on three specific oligarchs: Mikhail Chernoy, who now lives in exile in Israel; Theodore Gusinski, who now lives in exile in Spain, and Boris Beresovksy, who now lives in exile in London. It’s divided into two parts.

Part 1

Part 1 describes how these men used privatization schemes introduce by the last Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev (under Perestroika – 1985-1991) to acquire a variety of Russian assets for pennies on the dollar. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many state-owned factories were threatened with closure, the Russian government initially privatized them through an ill-conceived voucher scheme. Ownership in the factories was broken up into millions of shares in the form of vouchers distributed to all Russian citizens. Because they had no other source of income, many were forced to sell their vouchers cheaply for food. Others were tricked into “investing” them in phoney investment schemes as their owners sold on their hoard of vouchers and pocketed the proceeds.

Chernoy wound up with hundreds of thousands of these vouchers, which he used to buy up Russia’s aluminum industry.

Using western financing, Gusinski would form Russia’s first commercial TV network in 1993. In 1994 Berezovsky (again with the help of western financing) would buy Russian state TV for a few million dollars. Joining with other oligarchs, they skillfully used their media monopoly to promote their privatization agenda.

Part 1 also covers the 1991 attempted coup against Gorbachev (a desperate attempt by the Communists to reverse rapid privatization); Yeltsin’s successful (CIA-backed) coup in 1993, in which he used the military to attack the Russian parliament, effectively dissolving parliament and the constitutional court; and the vast human misery caused by the “shock therapy” Wall Street imposed Russia as they looted their economy. This, in turn, would lead to escalating mass protests demanding a return of the Communists to power.

Part 2

Part 2 focuses on the oligarch (and CIA) financed and controlled election of Boris Yeltsin in 1996 – as well as the direct role the oligarchs assumed in government following Yeltsin’s victory against his more popular Communist opponent.

The Russian economy reached breaking point in 1998. By then, the Russian government had lost so main state-owned industries (75%) that it could no longer pay its debts and Russian banks froze depositors assets.

This, along with Yeltsin’s failing health, would lead to a political crisis, resulting in Vladimir Putin’s appointment as acting president initially supported by the oligarchs – in 1999. Following Putin’s election in 2000, he quickly turned on oligarch supporters, who expected to control his government as they had Yeltsin’s.

Then, as now, he excelled at media manipulation, capitalizing on popular fear of Chechen terrorism to heighten his popularity. He also shrewdly confronted individual oligarchs for tax evasion and other financial crimes during televised cabinet meetings.

This was followed up by security raids and harassment, arrest – and in some cases imprisonment – to encourage numerous oligarchs to relinquish their ill-gotten shares to state control.

In this way, Putin essentially ended Wall Street’s wholesale exploitation of the Russian economy and the Russian people – and Wall Street and the US military-intelligence complex have never forgiven him for it.

The documentary’s main weakness is its failure to explore the major role Wall Street and US intelligence played in the destruction of the Russian economy between 1991-2000. Good background on this at the following links:

The Harvard Boys do Russia

US Meddling in 1996 Russian Elections in Support of Boris Yeltsin

USA Russia

The Plunder of Russia in the 1990s

Reclaim the Commons: Take Back the Grid

800px-POWER_LINES_PASS_FROM_NEARBY_HOOVER_DAM_TO_SOUTHERN_CALIFORNIA_-_NARA_-_549011

On average, Germany obtained 27.8%  of their electrical power from renewable sources in 2014, up from 6.2% in 2000. This contrasts with 13.2% renewably produced electricity in the US and 18% in the UK.

Writing in the October 22, 2014 Guardian , Kate Henderson, Chief Executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, attributes much of Germany’s success in greening their power supply to a growing grassroots movement to re-muncipalize power production. Since 2007, 170 German municipalities have bought back their grid from private power companies. This is in addition to 650 energy cooperatives owned by private individuals and cooperatives. Due to the innate inefficiency of power grids,* numerous communities have abandoned large regional grids for local distributed energy projects.

As Nick Rosen writes in Off the Grid, there’s no question that smaller, decentralized energy supply networks are cheaper and more efficient for consumers. Grids only developed because they’re more profitable for power companies.

I totally agree with Henderson’s premise: citizens need to quite relying on dishonest politicians and sociopathic corporations to help them reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. It makes much more sense to take back power generation into local community control.

What I find especially exciting is that it’s already happening.

Taking Back the Grid

In late 2013, the citizens of Hamburg (Germany’s second largest city) voted to buy back their electrical power grid. Two other major cities, Frankfurt and Munich, resisted privatization in the 1990s and retained their electrical supply in public hands. In 2013, Berlin voters also passed a referendum to re-muncipalize their power supply, but the voter turnout was too low for it to take effect.

Several US cities have hosted similar re-municipalization movements. In 2011 owing to Xcel Energy’s reluctance to pursue solar energy alternatives, Boulder Colorado passed two ballot initiatives  empowering the city council to buy back the power grid. The process has been stalled fighting Xcel lawsuits challenging the city’s right to buy the energy grid.

The Privatization of US Energy Utilities

Until about the 1980s, most US cities had public utilities. However, the lingering effects of the 1970s energy crisis and the privatization and deregulation frenzy of the Reagan and Clinton years led many cities to sell their power plants and distribution grids in the eighties and nineties. Since that time, large energy conglomerates, most of which are hooked on coal-fired power or fracked gas, have controlled most of America’s energy production.

Santa Fe and Minneapolis are also considering initiatives to buy back their electricity supply.

Sacramento, Austin and Seattle, which never gave theirs up, are far ahead of the rest of the country in their reliance on renewable power generation.

Sacramento derives 38% of its electricity from renewable resources, Austin 20% and Seattle 93.8%.


*According to the EPA. Our current electrical power system operates at approximately 33% efficiency.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Privatization and the Theft of the Commons

Catastroika

by Aris Chatzistefanou and Katerina Kitidi

Film Review

Catastroika is a Greek documentary on neoliberalism, with a specific focus on the privatization of publicly owned resources. Although it makes no mention of historian Richard Linebaugh, its depiction of the neoliberal privatization movement provides an elegant illustration of the ongoing theft of the Commons (see Stop Thief: the Theft of the Commons).

After a brief overview of the University of Chicago economists (championed by Milton Friedman) who first put neoliberal theory into practice during the Pinochet dictatorship, the documentary tracks the wholesale privatization of Russia’s state owned industries after the 1993 coup by Boris Yeltsin, in which he illegally ordered dissolution of the Russian parliament (see The Rise of Putin and the Fall of the Oligarchs).

The fire sale of state assets to oligarchs and western bankers would virtually destroy the Russian economy, throwing millions of people into extreme poverty and reducing average life expectancy by ten years.

The Privatization of East Germany

With German reunification in 1990, East Germany would be the third major target for massive privatization. According to German economists interviewed in the film, the process amounted to an “acquisition” of East Germany by West German bankers. The West German government set up an agency called Treuhand to buy up state owned East German businesses at the rate of ten to fifteen a day – a total of 8,500 businesses in four years. The process, undertaken with virtually no oversight, predictably resulted in massive chaos and fraud. Many well-performing East Germany companies were dissolved for the simple reason they competed with West German businesses. Three million (out of 4.5 million) East German workers lost their jobs, which East Germany’s GDP shrank by 30%.

Using Debt to Compel Compliance

With the gradual demise of the world’s dictatorships during the 1990s, debt, rather than brute force, became the main mechanism to compel people to give up their publicly funded assets. At present, most of the focus is on Greece.

Current EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker holds up Treuhand (which incurred a 250 million euro debt German taxpayers are still paying off) as a model for the Greek Asset Development Fund. The latter has been steadily selling off (at bargain basement prices) Greek railroads and municipal power and water systems.

The Dismal Track Record of Privatized Utilities

The filmmakers end the film by highlighting the disastrous outcome of Britain’s decision to privatize its railroads in 1993, the city of Paris decision to privatize its water service in the 1980s (it’s recently been re-municipalized due to massive public unrest – like privatized water systems in Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina) and California’s experiment with electricity deregulation in the 1990s (leading to the Enron scandal).*


*The Enron scandal involved massive securities fraud and a deliberate conspiracy by power companies to withhold power to drive up electricity prices.