Federici & the enclosures

A quote from and brief comment on Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch:

Women were also more negatively impacted by the enclosures because as soon as land was privatized and monetary relations began to dominate economic life, they found it more difficult than men to support themselves, being increasingly confined to reproductive labor at the very time when this work was being completely devalued. As we will see, this phenomenon, which has accompanied the shift from a subsistence to a money-economy, in every phase of capitalist development, can be attributed to several factors. It is clear, however, that the commercialization of economic life provided the material conditions for it.

With the demise of the subsistence economy that had prevailed in pre-capitalist Europe, the unity of production and reproduction which has been typical of all societies based on production-for-use came to an end, as these activities became the carriers of different social relations and were sexually differentiated. In the new monetary regime, only production-for-market was defined as a value-creating activity, whereas the reproduction of the worker began to be considered as valueless from an economic viewpoint and even ceased to be considered as work. Reproductive work continued to be paid–though at the lowest rates–when performed for the master class or outside the home. But the economic importance of reproduction of labor-power carried out in the home, and its function in the accumulation of capital, became invisible, being mystified as a natural vocation and labelled “women’s labor.” In addition, women were excluded from many wage occupations and, when they worked for a wage, they earned a pittance compared to the average male wage.

These historic changes–that peaked in the 19th century with the creation of the full-time housewife–redefined women’s position in society and in relation to men. The sexual division of labor that emerged from it not only fixed women to reproductive work, but increased their dependence on men, enabling the state and employers to use the male wage as a means to command women’s labor. In this way, the separation of commodity production from the reproduction of labor-power also made possible the development of a specifically capitalist use of the wage and of the markets as means for the accumulation of unpaid labor. (pp. 74-75)

There’s a lot in this quote, and in the book (from what I’ve read so far), that appeals to me. Probably I will post more on it if/when I get something together that is not maddeningly vague and excruciatingly disconnected. But for now I’ll just note that for Federici, the (further) oppression of women ushered in by primitive accumulation was no mere coincidence, no accident without substantive implications. Contrary to the wishes of liberals and many Marxists, capital’s creation (or, perhaps it’s better to say, capture) of a gendered subjectivity cannot be easily erased or modified without disturbing its “core”; it is, instead–to put it provisionally and sloppily–foundational: The most efficient way for capital to ensure the maximal minimization of socially necessary labor is to create a servant subject that can see to the maintenance of the laborer while her own reproduction is subsumed under the male’s wage. Federici doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation for why women specifically were chosen for this role–why, for example, an under-underclass of servants or slaves wouldn’t have sufficed–though throughout the first two chapters she leans towards monocausal interpretations of the emphasis on gender, namely, that the capitalist strategy was one of divide and conquer, so that the cooptation of men would create a buffer and a beneficial hierarchy. This seems to ignores the overdetermined and aleatory feature of historical change and glosses over women’s already second-class social standing, among other things.

Particularly noticeable so far is Federici’s acceptance of, even insistence on, the conventional temporalities. She tends to treat the subjection of women under developed capitalism as an accomplished historical fact, as a single founding act that continues to this day. To be sure, she doesn’t deny the oppression of women in advanced capitalist societies, but the historical analogies she draws tend to render primitive accumulation for such women as historically frozen in time. For instance, in several places she analogizes what was happening to women in Europe and North America in the seventeenth century to what women in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are living today. While such analogies might be helpful shorthand, they tend to elide how primitive accumulation is a continuing facet of capitalism, even in advanced capitalism. That is, they don’t recognize that the changes in the lines between production-for-use and production-for-market affect women and how those redrawing are felt by the gendered body. To put it another way, ironically, given her sensitivity to the fundamentality of the separation of productive and reproductive activity, Federici relies on a founding act of oppression, an ur-production, and underappreciates that women’s social position is continually reproduced, on a daily basis.

Caliban and the Witch, it seems to me, could be read profitably alongside feminist critiques of the social-contract theorists–I’m thinking primarily here of Carole Pateman–in a sort of genealogy of the interactions between and shared histories of capitalism and liberal democracy.


3 thoughts on “Federici & the enclosures

  1. Thanks, Nate. I know of them, but haven’t yet read them. Want to, though. In fact, I think I will add the latter to my list for the library trip tomorrow.

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