Capitalism and the crisis of reproduction

In Europe, this war culminated in the enclosures, a process of privatization that evicted the peasants from the land and forced them to accept whatever work they could find in the cities. In Africa, Asia and the Americas, class warfare has taken the form of genocide, slavery and indentured labour.

Capitalism could never have existed without this theft: it provided the capital needed to drive the industrial revolution. Federici’s contribution was to show that the theft of women’s bodies and labor was equally essential to the start of capitalism.

All this genocide and land grabbing has had annoying side effects. According to Federici, South America’s population fell by 75 million while in Europe fences helped generate the first modern inflationary crisis, allowing landlords to raise rents and shopkeepers to hoard grain and drive up prices. Real wages fell by two-thirds.

The starving poor had little resistance to plague or smallpox, and populations began to decline. In Germany, a third of the population had disappeared by the early 1600s.

From a business perspective, this population decimation was bad news. In the 1620s and 1630s, markets contracted, trade came to a standstill, and unemployment became widespread, during the first international economic crisis, otherwise known as the “General Crisis”. The nascent capitalist economy was on the verge of collapse.

What could be more logical, then, for the new ruling alliance than to take control of women’s bodies and their reproductive powers?

The women were not hunted at random. Witches were generally poor and were frequently accused of either property crimes or reproductive crimes. They were tried for inducing abortions, killing children, sucking their blood and making potions from their flesh.

Many witches were midwives or “wise women”, traditionally the holders of women’s reproductive knowledge. In the Middle Ages, women had some access to contraception in the form of herbs made into potions and pessaries, but now it was proof of the work of the devil.

When my friend Tim said that the government should protect unborn babies from people who gestate them, he probably didn’t know that it was only a few hundred years ago that the womb became the business of the state.

Federici described a process by which male doctors took control of birthing rooms. Strict laws have been established around breeding, under penalty of beheading. Women’s sexuality ceased to be a pleasure for women and was put at the service of the economy and of men.

This attack on women’s bodies is accompanied by a devaluation of their work and a redefinition of femininity itself. The heterosexual and patriarchal family has become the engine of the new economy. Strict gender roles were assigned. Women’s place was now seen as being in the home, and all the work they did there was designated as “non-work”.

Non-work included all reproductive work: both in the sense of literally having babies, and all the care and domestic work necessary for humans to feed and reproduce. Not only were women supposed to do all this reproductive work for free, but they were supposed to do it with a smile on their face, born of this handy thing called “maternal instinct.”

This is not to say that under feudalism there was no gender inequality. But capitalism is not exactly synonymous with progress. The devaluation of women’s work also affected their purchasing power when they tried to earn a salary. According to Federici, in 14th century Western Europe, women received half the salary of men for the same task. In the middle of the 16th century, they received a third of the male salary.

For Federici, just as capitalism was based on genocide, slavery and the theft of land, it was based on the free and cheap labor of women, which was taken from them by fire.

The new class wars

It is not by chance that Federici chose to write his history of capitalism of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. She witnessed a new phase of capitalism, a new class war and a new war against the women.

It was the era of globalization and structural adjustment. The previous, social-democratic phase of capitalism that had been built after World War II had ended in deep stagflation and an oil crisis. From the 1980s, neoliberalism was the response of business leaders and governments around the world.

Central banks rising interest rates, leading to a deep recession. Governments and employers launched an attack on unions and wages. The IMF and World Bank have forced newly independent countries to sell land and resources to foreign corporations, cut public spending and worsen working conditions in response to a debt crisis triggered by rising interest rates of interest.

Governments and the media have criminalized migrants, devaluing their work. And the police and the judiciary have massively incarcerated working class blacks and browns.

At the same time, Federici saw a ‘feminization of poverty‘ (a widening gap between men and women living in poverty) and an increase in violence against women. In South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere, this included real witch huntoften targeting those who have fought back against corporate land grabs.

Neoliberal politicians like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet, though they had mixed backgrounds on abortion, espoused “family values”: the cisgender, heterosexual, patriarchal family model that had been forged centuries before. by the witch hunters of Federici.

The parallels with today are too glaring to ignore. Between the climate apocalypse, the financial crash of 2008 and its eternal sequels, the COVID pandemic and now the new crisis of stagflation, capitalism has completely broken the bed. In response, capitalists and states sought new opportunities to make money, necessitating new attacks in class warfare.

Central banks are raising interest rates again. The companies are grab the land in response to food and climate crises. Governments and corporations have launched new attacks on unions, new privatization and austerity displacement and new attacks on migrants. Debt exploded and wages go down at record rates while profits soar.

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