Capitalism: The Role of Violence Against Women

Sylvia Federici

Jan 9, 2019 talk

In this talk, Sylvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch (see Witch Burning and Women’s Oppression) discusses her two latest books Witches, Witch Hunting and Women and Re-Enchanting the World.

Witches, Witch Hunting and Women elaborates on two key premises: 1) that the extensive free labor women perform is fundamental to the success of capitalism and 2) that violence against women is never accidental. According to Federici, it’s “structural”, ie fundamental to the human exploitation necessary for capitalist accumulation.

Federici divides violence against women into three main categories: domestic, public and institutional. Domestic violence occurs in the context of a domestic relationship, public violence includes non-domestic rape, paramilitary violence and narco-trafficking, and institutional violence consists of police violence, female incarceration (which is increasing) and criminalization of pregnancy.

Federici is also concerned about the growing frequency of actual witchcraft accusations in Latin America, India and Africa. She blames this on what she refers to as “re-colonization,” aka globalization, whereby millions of poor peasants are being driven off their land and turned into refugees. The original witchcraft trials occurred during the 16th and 17th century enclosures, when people were being violently thrown off of communal land.

Re-Enchanting the World, the second book she describes, depicts how this violent dispossession also destroys the community ties and solidarity working people rely on to resist capitalist violence. It strikes a positive note in describing how Latin American women who are forced to urbanize (after losing their land) are starting to collectivize to meet their survival needs. Examples include organizing to fight for access to water and power and to build schools and clinics.

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.


How Advertising Hurts Women

Killing Us Softly 3

Jean Kilbourne (2000)

Film Review

Killing Us Softly 3 is the third Jean Kilbourne documentary on the advertising industry’s destructive effect on women. It updates Killing Us Softly (1979) and Still Killing us Softly (1987). It’s presented in lecture format, illustrated by dozens of ad images.

The majority of Americans deny being influenced by advertising. Kilbourne challenges this. Modern advertising deliberately targets the unconscious. Ads are everywhere, continuously surrounding us with unconscious messaging about values and attitudes, as well as products.

Advertising has a massive impact on the way women think about themselves and the way they are viewed in society. The number one message pounded home by the ad industry is that women should be judged by the way they look. The expectation is flawlessness (young, thin, white and perfectly proportioned and groomed). Important secondary messages are the hard work it takes to look that way and that women who don’t measure up should feel guilty and ashamed. Sex is used to sell everything. Kilbourne is particularly concerned about the sexualization of children and teenagers in ads deliberately modeled after child pornography.

Only 5% of women have a model’s tall thin body type, with the narrow hips, long legs small breasts (unless they’re enhanced) favored by the fashion industry. This body type is based on genetic inheritance and can’t be achieved by diet, exercise or surgery, no matter how hard the advertising industry tries to persuade us otherwise. Often models are airbrushed to appear thinner and more flawless than they really are.

This constant emphasis on an unachievable ideal also negatively impacts the way men feel about real women, who are pear shaped. In addition, the objectification of women (ie their portrayal as sex objects) is directly linked to increased violence towards women. Viewing people as objects rather than human beings makes it easier to commit violence against them (and is used in military training).

The problem is aggravated by a growing tendency to eroticize violence and male dominance in advertising imagery.

Killing Us Softly 4, produced in 2010, isn’t available on YouTube for copyright reasons. It can be viewed for free on trutubetv (an uncensored noncorporate alternative to YouTube now that it’s been taken over by Google).

Killing US Softly 4 repeats most of the same ad images as number 3 but puts more emphasis on upsurge of appearance medicine (plastic and laser surgery, botox injections, etc). It also bemoans the introduction of size 0 and size 00 clothing, the pressure this places on models to starve themselves and the rise of eating disorders in the industry. Anna Carolina Reston was still modeling in 2009 when she died of anorexia nervosa.