January 22, 2014
This is a repost of my review of Luciano Canfora and Amadeo Bordiga’s concepts of democracy, first posted on The North Star.
In The North Star, and the left more widely, the question of democracy is one avidly debated. While many of the classical distinctions within the radical left remain valid, such as about whether or not one should participate in parliamentary elections and what the attitude towards voting should be, this is only part of a larger problem. One of the biggest issues that distinguishes the different ‘strands’ or ‘tendencies’ of the left is precisely the underlying question of what each mode of socialist thought thinks democracy is, and whether this is a good thing — in short, what does it mean for something to be democratic? Are the ‘liberal democracies’ of our time simply stunted democracies, or are they not democratic at all and should they become so? And what of the left communist critique of democracy, as found in the works of Amadeo Bordiga and similar writers?
Luciano Canfora’s book Democracy in Europe1 is essentially a history of the concept of democracy within European political thought and practice, and therefore gives a good opportunity to explore this question a bit further. Written with much wit and a certain historical flair, befitting an iconoclastic scholar of Greek history as Canfora is, the book identifies as the central problem for any left discussion of democracy the question of what is actually meant by that term. Indeed, more often than not socialists tend to proclaim their support for democracy, the need for more democracy in society (especially economic democracy), and criticize the inadequate democracies of our time. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, adherence to ‘democratic socialism’ (or sometimes ‘socialism from below’) has become something of a watchword for entry into the ranks of the homines bonae voluntatis. But what does this ‘democratic’ mean, and what should it mean for us?
Canfora approaches this question through a kind of reasoned history, a rough chronology of political forms that, in each case, posited the question of democracy in a new way. One must of course begin with classical antiquity, for it is there that ideologically the notion of democracy began: even now, many ‘Western Civ’ textbooks and the like promote the idea that democracy is a quintessentially Western invention, and that it originates in ancient Greece, more specifically in classical and archaic Athens. This view has been criticized by a good deal of classical historians, and Canfora is of course no exception. As we know, the ‘democracy’ of the Athenians was based on mass slavery (four or five slaves to every freeman) and on the exclusion of foreigners and women citizens from the political process. Moreover, what Canfora does not mention as much, the Athenian community was constituted in religious and tribal terms in the same way that the Roman was and its medieval European heirs, and therefore democracy as a secular sovereignty of the people was wholly absent. The frequent use of sortition by lot for the most important positions, including the executive power, had a strong religious significance. It presupposes the equality of citizens; but for the ancient Athenians it followed that therefore the candidates among them were chosen by the gods, not by men.
More important and useful perhaps than this familiar critique is Canfora’s main approach, which is to examine the uses of the concept of democracy in these times. As Canfora shows, democracy (demokratia) was almost always used negatively, by the opponents of the Athenian system during the period between the Tyrants and the defeat in the Peloponnesian War: a term to describe something akin to our concept of ‘mob rule’. Even some of its defenders, such as the commander Pericles, are hesitant about using the term too readily — for the opposition between democracy and liberty was the argument of the classical aristocracy, and to accept the former appeared to concede the latter. Equally, the concept of democracy in Athens and in the classical world generally was predicated on a narrowness of citizenship, and any attempt to actually extend it — such as in the emergency of the impending defeat by the Macedonians — to slaves, outsiders, and so forth, was immediately rejected by the Athenian assembly precisely in the name of democracy: it could only exist by sustaining a wider elite than the oligarchy, but not by abolishing it.
It is these oppositions and meanings of democracy, Canfora argues, that have structured the concept up to the period of the rise of socialism. Democracy was for most reform-minded philosophers and intellectuals a negative term, so that even as Enlightened a figure as Kant rejects it in his Perpetual Peace, and De Tocqueville’s analysis of democracy is predicated on the concept that the slow victory of democracy is the death of liberty. There is here, as Canfora shows, a kind of double irony. One is the opposition between democracy and liberty, whereas in the modern West these are generally concepts claimed to go together. But there is also the vigorous opposition by aristocracies and elites, Enlightened or reactionary, against the ‘democratic’ movements of their time, when these democratic movements themselves could only be democratic in the Athenian sense: that is to say, democratic in the sense of extending oligarchy to a wider (middle) range of people. Yet often there were also people who sought a democracy in a different sense, one not based on oligarchic rule at all, with a totally new formulation of citizenship — democrats against the democracy. This is the central conflict of Canfora’s history.
The opposition between popular-democratic movements and the aristocratic-oligarchic movements in the early modern period then appears as something like the struggle between the Roman populares and optimates, where both were essentially factions of elites fighting over the control of a captured Roman plebeian clientele. The real secret of the Roman ‘proletariat’ was that it ultimately could play its client role and act due to its reliance on the exploitation of slave labor and the conquered territories abroad (especially Egypt) — and the same is true for the revival of this democracy in the early modern age. The victory of the Parliamentarian party in the English Civil War was a defeat for the old oligarchic faction, but was a victory of the oppressors of Ireland and the gentry class, not a victory of those who took democracy in our modern earnestness, like Diggers or Levellers. The Puritan and Parliamentarian notion of democracy is again one of the Bible, and of the equal but limited citizenship of those in the ‘English nation’ that were not dependent on others for their income — whatever Rainsborough and others tried to argue.
A similar phenomenon holds for the revival of classical democracy and its virtues in the garb of the French Revolution, as Canfora shows. Rightly, he pays much attention to the often too easily overlooked significance of the Jacobin faction’s view of democracy: namely, that despite their adaptation of classical garb, they understood it radically differently from the traditional view of what democracy meant. Indeed, as Canfora suggests, their reading of the classical period was worse compared to their counter-revolutionary colleagues, the more they moved beyond the classical meaning of ‘democracy’ — especially in their firm conviction that liberty and the equality of democracy could and should co-exist.
This is shown by the great events of the 18 Pluviôse, when Danton, Robespierre and others got the Convention to pass a decree abolishing slavery not just on French soil, but in the colonies — something unimaginable in Britain or the United States, the bulwarks of ‘liberty’. For the Jacobin speakers at the Convention, it was impossible that slavery should continue in the colonies, for this would mean they had failed to “raise themselves to the standard of liberty and equality”. For the Jacobins, maintaining slavery was the policy of l’aristocratie. Canfora suggests it was this, more than anything else, that aroused wide hostility towards the Jacobin wing of the revolutionaries and precipitated their downfall.
The Thermidorean counter-revolutionaries, who would eventually culminate in the dictatorship of Napoleon I, were imbued with the classical view of liberty, and therefore saw a democracy that would go beyond its sense of ‘extended oligarchy’ as insupportable. It is equally no coincidence that the revival of the aristocracy after Thermidor also sees a revival of slavery and a revival of the religious basis of citizenship, which the Jacobins had sought to destroy. When the celebrated philosopher Benjamin Constant then inaugurates the modern view of liberalism, its Whiggish history, in his Comparison of the Liberty of the Ancients with that of the Moderns, he praises the liberty and peace that exists in that time — the year 1819, after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, a year before the alliance of absolutist powers in the Congress of Vienna! Such is liberty against democracy.
Of course, the traditional Western view then depicts all these as tragic moments in our distant past, but democracy as a system ‘returning’ in the 19th century, with the extensions of the franchise. However, Canfora gives us much material — if very ambivalently argued — to undermine this depiction. For the victory of democracy in the 19th century is much exaggerated, and has much more in common with the oligarchic notion of democracy than with the positive. The late 19th century certainly sees the rise of mass politics, in particular with the formations of the first political parties in the modern style, integrated organizations with political and electoral strategies inherent in their programme, rather than loose alliances between elite individuals and ‘notables’ following their own sense of liberty or their moral compass. These arise especially there were universal suffrage became a real potential, the first sense of a democracy that would go beyond the classical form: in the German Empire after its founding, with the rise of the social-democratic party (SPD), and briefly in mid-19th century France, around the person of Napoleon III in his use of referenda against the oligarchic, ‘constitutional’ democracy of the 1848 revolution. Of course, in the latter case this false universality did not last, for Napoleon III immediately got rid of it.
But in none of these cases was a form of democracy found that would go beyond the oligarchic structure underlying its historical concept. What’s more, this remained true even into the 20th century. This manifested itself in two ways. One was the restrictions on the basis of wealth or education that prevailed within the widening scope of suffrage, such as in the UK, despite its two Great Reform Acts. When the great imperial powers went to war in WWI, a war Michael Gove assures us was a fight for democracy, the only country among all the combatants with universal male suffrage was Germany. In Italy, France, the USA and the UK, the suffrage was limited by either wealth or race. (In Russia and Japan, there was only a derisory imitation of elections.) Over time, however, these restrictions proved exceedingly vulnerable to attack, because they made explicit the oligarchic restrictions on a now increasingly positively depicted concept of ‘democracy’. They were of course justified in each nation according to the self-evident needs of the national interest, of liberty, or of the Germanic need for leadership, but after the carnage of the war and the revolution in Russia, this proved difficult to maintain.
Therefore, Canfora argues, a different approach was taken in response. The vote and the conception of citizenship was extended much more widely, now finally incorporating also the full half of citizens that are women — although it is no coincidence that this took the most ‘bourgeois republican’ nations and thus defenders of the classical legacy, France and Switzerland, the longest to do. This made ‘mass politics’ an inevitability, and meant the death of the old loose associations of notables constituting the friends of liberty. These mass politics then increasingly incorporated also the socialist parties, whether split into their Communist and social-democratic halves or not.
But, as early critics such as Bordiga noted, this sense of democracy as mass politics was by no means the overcoming of its oligarchic nature in effect. It would never have been possible without revolution if that were the case. Rather, what happened according to Canfora is that the major powers increasingly sought other ways to restrict the meaning of universal suffrage. Here Canfora’s own analysis becomes increasingly superficial, but we can attempt to extend its implications. One was by the genesis of mass media and the usage of it by economic and political oligarchies to influence public opinion, especially in the form of limiting the ‘range of the possible’, known as the ‘Overton window’. More importantly, and often underappreciated by the left (and here I think Canfora is quite right to give it a central role) is the use of electoral systems that are inherently oligarchic in nature. The replacement of proportional representation systems with one or two round majority vote systems guarantees wild distortions of the actual distribution of opinion, generally at the expense of ‘radical’ parties and of political or social minorities widely distributed. Gerrymandering, the reinvention of the ‘rotten borough’, which especially in the United States is a widespread and accepted practice, should be added to this.
The left has traditionally ignored these issues or minimized them, seeing them as minor problems of liberal practice or simply part of the scam that is voting anyway — but they mistake here the real nature of such restrictions. It is no coincidence that the most oligarchic countries, the one with their revolutionary content dating furthest back, are the most wedded to single district systems. The nature of such restrictions is precisely equivalent to those of ‘direct’ restrictions on voting by wealth, race, and so forth. In the United States, white conservative (or liberal) supermajorities are manufactured by aggregating all the black voters into one or two districts. In the UK and other countries with first-past-the-post voting, often a majority of the votes cast never has any effect on the outcome: a result no different than that of the ‘elections’ in the Roman Republic, where the aristocracy had so many votes that there was little point for most of the lower ranked citizens in even showing up. The ever-increasing rates of nonvoting are a clear sign of the nature of such voting systems. Add to this the constant threats of intervention or repression, whether McCarthyism or the American plan of invasion and sabotage if the PCI won the elections, or even De Gaulle’s quasi-coup and the West German ban on the KPD. If the form of democracy cannot be restricted outright, it will be restricted in other ways.
However, is all this to say then that the problem with liberal democracy is that we do not have enough of it? Canfora is unclear on this issue; for him, the legacy of the USSR and Eastern Europe is no more indication of the direction of democracy in the modern age than is the Western experience. But this is in some sense, as I indicated in the beginning, perhaps thecentral question dividing the left organizationally. Indeed, Canfora at least clarifies, through his historical analysis, two things. First, that democracy has always meant an extension of citizenship beyond the elite, but still on the basis of the oppression of others; and that liberalism, in the sense of the defenders of liberty as the highest value, has historically been hostile even to this. (A modern confirmation of this can be found in the hostility of neoliberal thinkers as well as the Austrian School economists to anything but the most superficial democratic forms.) Against both of these options, the third historical strand, the radicalism of ‘substantive democracy’ with a new formula of citizenship, also always makes an appearance wherever it can, but is generally defeated.
How then to solve this riddle? Even for Bordiga, it is clear that the first opposition, between the narrow oligarchs and the equalizers, and the opposition of both these factions to the third one, the radical democracy, cannot be conflated. “In its statements of principle, Marxist communism presents itself as a critique and a negation of democracy; yet communists often defend the democratic character of proletarian organizations… There is certainly no contradiction in this, and no objection can be made to the use of the dilemma, ‘either bourgeois democracy or proletarian democracy” as a perfect equivalent to the formula “bourgeois democracy or proletarian dictatorship’”, says Bordiga in The Democratic Principle. But the confusion between democracy in Canfora’s classical sense, and democracy as a critique of this democracy, has often led the left astray:
In order to avoid creating ambiguities, and dignifying the concept of democracy, so entrenched in the prevailing ideology which we strive relentlessly to demolish, it would be desirable to use a different term in each of the two cases. Even if we do not do this, it is nonetheless useful to look a little further into the very content of the democratic principle, both in general and in its application to homogeneous class organs. This is necessary to eliminate the danger of again raising the democratic principle to an absolute principle of truth and justice. Such a relapse into apriorism would introduce an element foreign to our entire theoretical framework at the very moment when we are trying, by means of our critique, to sweep away the deceptive and arbitrary content of “liberal” theories.
Our task, then, is to defend democracy against The Democracy, including the alliance of liberals and bourgeois Radicals (in the technical sense as referring to people like J.S. Mill or the left of the French Republicans — hence the capital letter) that until 1848 appeared to be willing allies of the democrats in the radical sense. It is in the split of bourgeois Radical liberalism from the socialist movement, as the embodiment of the radical democracy against the classical democracy, that the problem of left politics presents itself. In the West, where this split is complete, Bordiga’s critique is fully applicable — which does not solve more exact questions of electoral participation, etc., which can only be decided in each specific case and conjuncture. Outside the West, this alliance still exists to some extent, insofar as the conquest of democracy in the classical sense is — as both supporters and opponents of the subaltern project agree — itself a project that is either incomplete or has failed to get off the ground entirely.
Completely in conformity with Chibber’s critique of the subalternists, it is true both in the West and outside it that, as Bordiga says, “the socialist critique of democracy was in essence a critique of the democratic critique of the old political philosophies. Marxism denies their alleged universal opposition and demonstrates that in reality they are theoretically similar, just as in practise the proletariat did not have much reason to celebrate when the direction of society passed from the hands of the feudal, monarchical and religious nobility into the hands of the young commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.” However, the form of democracy has changed rapidly since he wrote this in 1922 (just as fascism was coming to power in Italy), and ‘liberal democracy’, as a carefully balanced mixture of real democratic elements and of oligarchic democracy, has become a completely dominant political form in the West where it has not in the rest of the world. Where we have the indirect oligarchy of district systems, Potemkin parties and the buying of votes, much of the world has these as well as the traditional impositions of the opponents of democracy altogether, the narrow oligarchy rather than the wide oligarchy — this changes the nature of their struggle compared to ours.
For us, then, a more ‘left communist’ posture is permissible in our strategy towards democracy than people in much of the world can afford. But ultimately, as Canfora and Bordiga both make clear in their own way, the form of democracy is less important than its content. The use of ‘democracy’ as a single concept has too often historically hidden that — through its many different forms — there have been two kinds of it: democracy as the equality of limited citizenship based on exclusion, and democracy as a radically new foundation of citizenship. Liberalism has been forced to make itself, against its will, compatible with the former, but only socialism is compatible with the latter.
1. Luciano Canfora, Democracy in Europe: A History (tr. Simon Jones). Oxford 2006: Blackwell.↩
November 4, 2013
Maria Mies’ classic work Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor is an unduly neglected classic of radical feminist history-writing. Although written in 1986, and using materials mostly from the late 1970s and early 1980s, her lucid and polemical argumentation has lost neither its relevance nor its potency. As current debates in socialist politics and economics are reviving once more the question of feminism as a central concern of radical activism, it is encouraging to hear that Zed Books are intending to republish this work before long. (The edition used for this review was the reprint edition of 2001). Mies’ book came out of a particular strand of radical feminist writing, which although deeply influenced by Marxism sought to go beyond it and formulate a critique of patriarchal relations and of the use of technology within a patriarchal structure as a historical and political-economic foundation of exploitation deeper still than the class relations analyzed within (most) Marxist thought. This writing was especially prominent in the 1970s and 1980s in Germany, with the ‘Bielefeld school’ of Mies, Claudia von Werlhof, and Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen, and in Italy, as in the work of Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici.(1) In both cases, it was the product of the struggle of women’s autonomous organizations, who developed in their struggle both an autonomist style Marxism and a conception of capitalist exploitation as a subset, a special case, of a more general kind of exploitation inherently involved with patriarchal society.
What makes Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale such a powerful classic of this movement is not just the steely clarity and force with which its theses are expounded, but also Mies’ thoroughgoing materialism and her critical attitude to Marxism and its standard assumptions and historiography. The book is written in continuous critical dialogue with the Marxism of her day, especially the traditional Leninist approaches but not limited to those alone. This dialogue is more often implicit than explicit, certainly in terms of works referenced, but it is clear that the argument can be read as one of the most systematic radical critiques of the Marxist understanding of history and political economy ever to come out of the so-called ‘social movements’. For that reason alone, it should be read with seriousness and attention by Marxists, and not just those concerned with ‘women’s issues’ as a kind of cultural or political side project. Mies’ critical engagement with Marxism is not at the level of the fundamentals, at the level of the Marxist understanding of class, exploitation, agency, and power.
Of course, to do such a tightly argued series of essay-style arguments justice is not an easy task. But I shall attempt to sum up what I see as the main points of the book, the most fundamental theses of this particular school of radical feminism. The first and most important is the rejection of feminism, the significance and theory of women’s liberation, as a primarily cultural or political affair. That is to say, the oppression of women is for Mies not a question of purely ideological conservatism or political division of the working class. The roots of patriarchy are not superstructural, but foundational: in that unhappy metaphor, a part of the ‘base’. Mies systematically critiques the ‘cultural’ interpretations of feminism, the role of structuralism and functionalist theories of ‘roles’, and the traditional Marxist viewpoint of women’s oppression as arising out of the relegation of women to the ‘non-productive’ sphere.
In contrast to this, for Mies patriarchy is to be found in the social relations of production themselves, and is perhaps the single most important shaper of these relations. It is therefore not ‘just’ a form of oppression, but in the full sense a form of exploitation: exploitation of women’s labor and exploitation of women’s bodies. It is also, and this is the second thesis (in some sense a corollary of the first), not the product of capitalism nor a holdover fated to disappear under capitalism. Throughout the book, Mies mobilizes a fair amount of case studies in political economy – especially in India, in Andhra Pradesh, where she worked for a while – as well as in anthropology and economic history to support these theses. As she endeavours to show, women’s labor has always been a productive form of labor. To simplify her narrative of economic anthropology somewhat, the fundamental basis of patriarchal exploitation is the sexual division of labor, and this division of labor arises out of what she calls the ‘Man-the-Hunter’ model.
Human beings, from the outset, produce their lives. This is done in the earliest societies by means of gathering and hunting, before the origins of agriculture. For Mies, the gathering stage fundamentally precedes the hunting stage and agriculture. In this gathering stage, the center of society is the woman, who as mother is the precondition for the reproduction of the species. This involves a subject-relation to nature, in which the production of life is central, seen as a kind of relationship of give-and-take. Men are necessary for procreation, but do not have their whole bodies as sources for the production of life in the way women do; for them, the relationship to nature is an object-relation, one not fundamental to the reproduction of life itself. Where hunting coexisted with gathering, the hunting was generally the task of men, but as a supplement to the staple food procurement of women, not as the central economic metabolism reproducing society. Therefore, women’s reproductive labor has been the basis of society from the start.
However, with hunting men’s object-relation to nature developed and allowed them to turn their tools of violence onto other humans, including on the women providing the food and the new humans that allowed society to continue to exist. The hunting technology, purely parasitical on life and unable to produce new life, then became the basis of the ability of men to subjugate women, and thereby to exploit the productive labor of women to their own benefit. Both agriculture and pastoralism then sustained and systematized these relationships; in pastoralism, men could reproduce life via cattle, making women an accessory to their property in cattle, and in agriculture, the settled surplus could be appropriated by men and become the basis of their claims to property. This, in essence, is how exploitation entered the world from the man-the-hunter model, according to Mies.
While much of the work contains suggestive historical and political insights that I cannot explain here in any detail, in essence it extends this conception of exploitation of women’s labor in society to the economic history of capitalism and its origins. As with Federici’s work, feudalism, colonialism, and the witch hunts play a major role in the story, as examples of the further colonization of the life-world (a Frankfurter Schule conception implicitly prest in the work) by patriarchy. The witch hunts, on this reading, were a prerequisite of capitalism in destroying the knowledge and autonomy of women regarding their own bodies that ancient and feudal relations had to some extent maintained, and to destroy the ability of women of property, midwives, herb doctors and so forth to continue a public existence economically independent of men.
Colonialism simultaneously extended the patriarchal-exploitative model onto the non-European world, rendering the colonized subject in much the same way as women were rendered subject and dependent on men, and often using the same tropes to justify this exploitation. Borrowing from Carolyn Merchant’s pioneering work, the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century appears as the ideological and practical systematization of patriarchal relations, as an instrumentalizing of technology to the ends of the complete subjugation of nature, which inherently means the subjugation of women as ‘natural’ by the men of ‘culture’ or ‘science’ – as seen in the notoriously misogynist formulations of the new scientific outlook in Francis Bacon.(2)
Capitalism is in a sense the fulfilment of these ‘promises’. Not only does it reinforce and strengthen the immediate forms of violent economic coercion, but, for Mies, it can only exist on the basis of these more fundamental exploitations. While the relentless drive to subjugate every life for the sake of accumulation is peculiar to capitalism, this does not destroy but rather modifies and strengthens the underlying foundation. The basis of the exploitation of wage labor, on this reading, is not just the one-off ‘primitive accumulation’ of the early modern period, but the persistence and indeed necessity of the exploitation of labor deemed not ‘productive’ for capitalism itself.
In other words, exploitation of ‘productive’ labor is only possible because of the exploitation of ‘unproductive’ labor, and this is precisely what Mies holds most against the Marxist interpretations of capitalism and patriarchy alike. Marxists, Mies argues, have always seen the integration of women into the working class as the prerequisite for the emancipation of women. While feminism has been a part of socialism from the start, independent feminist action has often been denounced as bourgeois and divisive because of its nonclass nature. Simultaneously, working class feminists were told that the oppression of women was either an ideological holdover from feudalism, to be eradicated by political and cultural struggle, or that it was the result of the exclusion of women from productive labor, which could be solved by unified class-based activism for employment, unionization, etc. (Often both arguments at once.) Maria Mies’ critique of this standpoint is as relevant now as ever, with leftwing organizations – especially self-proclaimed Leninist ones – still often using argumentation along these lines. For Mies, what this viewpoint ignores is a vast amount of the actual economic exploitation under capitalism, namely the exploitation of labor productive of life. Not just housework and care for children, but vast amounts of women’s labor even in the direct production or maintenance of commodities is ignored in this perspective.
It is absurd, she argues, to claim that women should be reintegrated into the workforce as a precondition of emancipation when women have always been the majority of the workforce – just not counted as such because work undertaken by women is systematically downgraded or ignored into ‘informal sector work’, ‘unproductive work’, or even seen as leisure time. Especially in the Third World, but not infrequently even in the First (and Second), women were and are systematically excluded from the ‘productive’ sectors of the economy (heavy industry and higher administrative work etc) and pushed out into less paid, higher-intensity and more irregular work in ‘informal’ sectors, in putting-out systems, handicraft production from home, and so forth. In agriculture in poor countries, it is overwhelmingly women who bear the burden of the heavy labor in addition to the housework, healthcare work, childcare and so forth that revolves on them.
Such systematic exploitation is only possible because of the violent imposition of such roles onto women by men. An illustrative example here is the various leftwing national liberation struggles, which supported women’s equality and sought to integrate them into factory work and even frontline fighting, out of the exigencies of the war – but as soon as the war in e.g. Vietnam was over, the women were relegated once more systematically to informal and housework, poorly recognized and remunerated, working longer hours, and generally excluded from political participation. And this is hard to deny: virtually no Leninist Politburo or National Liberation type government has ever had a woman in it, and none have been led by women. (In fact, one could add to this the similar pattern of expansion and retrenchment of women’s positions following their equally ‘emergency’ participation in the ‘productive’ workforce in the West during WWI and WWII.)(3)
The ‘wages for housework’ campaign of the Italian wing of this radical feminist school should probably be seen in this light. It involves a critique of the concepts of productive and unproductive labor of not just capital itself, but also of the Marxist interpretations of capital. It is in that sense both descriptive and normative, as is Mies’ theory. Although the latter does not specially emphasize this campaign, rather arguing in favor of women’s autonomous organizing and a rejection of the dismissal of ‘middle class feminism’ in favor of an encouragement of all women’s activism at the point of consumption.
What then is the upshot of all this? Here, the theory and the political conclusions must, as always, be analytically distinguished. The main point of the book is the powerfully argued case that rather than seeing women’s issues as one of many ‘side problems’, oppressions to be distinguished from and considered less fundamental than class exploitation under capitalism, in fact capitalism itself is merely a special case of patriarchal society. In this sense, Mies reverses the usual Marxist conception of the relationship between women’s oppression and capitalist relations. This also means that women’s oppression and violence against them should not be seen as a feudal holdover, something that will go away on the basis of a workerist politics, but are rather ongoing ‘primitive accumulation’ – something akin to what David Harvey has since theorized as ‘accumulation by dispossession’. It is the exploitation of women’s labor, the majority of all labor performed in the world in Mies’ broader definition of this concept, that is fundamental to all patriarchal societies since the dawn of pastoralism and agriculture. The Marxist politics of equality through integration are therefore totally inadequate to accommodating this fact, as is any Marxist political economy that fails to comprehend the really productive nature of the supposed ‘unproductive’ production of life.
In my judgement, there is much here that is instructive, interesting, and worth engaging with. Much of the argumentation with regard to the exploitation of women’s labor, past and present, can probably be sustained without too much difficulty. Indeed, that socialist politics and economic analysis have often not moved forward much on these points since the mid-1980s is a sign of the relative retrogression of the socialist movement generally since that period. Although indeed many feminist and socialist activists have worked with these ideas and continue to extend and apply them today, much of the ‘higher’ political economy and theory of Marxism has not really grappled with the fact of socially reproductive labor, the informal sector, and the centrality of women to both in an adequate way. (The foreword to the 2001 edition, written in 1998, barely registers any change.)
On the other hand, it is unclear how well Mies’ actual narrative of exploitation stands up to economic and historical scrutiny. Much rests on the anthropology of early societies and her sometimes rather philosophical claims about the respective relationships of men and women to them, and I am unable to judge to what extent those are confirmed by recent literature. While this perspective is a salient counterblast to the revival of patriarchal ‘realism’ in the form of Evo Psych, this does not mean it is any more correct, and the questions of nature and the natural in society (ancient and modern) remain hotly debated. (Mies does not, for what it’s worth, deny to men’s nature an ability to overcome patriarchy, nor does she regard them inherently oppressive or violent.) Similarly, the economic historical narrative is suggestive, but based on an extremely narrow set of sources largely within or allied to this particular school of theory, such as the work of Merchant, Von Werlhof, and others, plus some selective readings in the work of Claude Meillassoux and Immanuel Wallerstein.
It is imperative that an argument along these lines be developed or judged in light of a wider and more inclusive body of literature if it is to fully convince. Occasionally, after all, her interpretations lead her to some bizarre statements, such as the claim that rape does not occur in animals (p. 164), or her insistence that violence against women is constantly increasing in modern society, which she does not support with any evidence. This underlines the need to take the argument seriously, but not to take all the empirical claims for granted without further corroboration. Similarly, to what extent her views on productive and unproductive labor are or are not to be reconciled with Marxist value theory is a subject not explored in this book, but a potentially fruitful avenue of argument that could actually move Marxist political economy forward as well. That said, this criticism should not be overstated – for example that some of her empirical work has become outdated (such as the arguments based on the legality of rape within marriage in the West) is for an important part creditable to the activism of feminists thinkers and doers like herself.
What’s more worrying is the political section at the end of the book, in which she outlines a more or less programmatic view of anti-patriarchal politics. Just like with Von Werlhof’s intriguing works on capitalist technology, it is here that in my view she badly lets down the materialist and critical commitments that characterize most of the work. For Mies, the importance of the production of life as central to any radical politics opposed to capitalism and patriarchy leads her to oppose any view that involves the classic Marxist arguments for reducing necessary labor, freeing up the life-time of individuals, and applying technological capacities in the interests of all. These are for her just so many more attempts at technological utopias, dreamed up by working men to further free themselves from work at the expense of nature (ecology) and the colonized (women and the Third World).
Instead, her dream is essentially one of romantic reaction. In a rather remarkable piece of justification, she claims that it would be better for as many people as possible to return to agriculture, to work in the house and on the land, for the reproduction of life in an immediate way. Much of the argument is here indebted to the Frankfurter Schule critiques of Enlightenment instrumentalism, but she gives them a markedly backward-facing turn.(4) After all, she assures us, the poor Indian women of Andhra Pradesh she saw at work didn’t really mind working so much, they were happy and even sang songs, showing that this is the real relationship of the body to production. Autarkic production in all societies, with the burden of work as large as possible and shared among all as much as possible, is here the goal; to strive for an overcoming of work, or a use of modern technologies to free us from work, is merely “Man playing God”.
It is here that Mies falls both into romantic reaction and into theoretical inconsistency. She rebuts these claims in her later foreword by stating that a return to an old state isn’t so bad, and besides, she offered an alternative political economy, which is an important part of socialist theoretical work. But it is not so simple. Mies’ materialism abandons her when she thinks that previous forms of society, such as feudal or older agricultural labor, are more ‘natural’ than any other merely because they involve producing food as the precondition of life. While this may be the precondition of all other organic development of society, it does not mean that we can or should replace a base-superstructure model of class vs all other social relations with one along the lines of agriculture vs all other production.
Moreover, she is inconsistent in what she will and will not allow the future society to contain. It is possible that the future society deconstructs the ancient patriarchal exploitation based on the sexual division of labor; that it overcomes the need for accumulation; and that it achieves ecologically sustainable autarky. But it is not possible that the free time of the future would be more meaningful than the ‘leisure’ of today, which she solely conceives of as a false category invented to ignore women’s housework. It is not possible that technology which today is applied against humanity can tomorrow serve it. It is possible for her ideal society to contain all forms of work which are sensuous and pleasurable; but it is not possible for the Marxists to argue that free time could be the basis for human development, as free time is just filled with “male leisure activities such as video films and computer games” anyway.
Her romantic vision of agriculture and its deadening, back-breaking work is not supported by any sense of either the reality of this work or what it would really mean for humanity to be doomed forever to be restricted within this narrow perspective of life. It may be so that it was good enough for many of our ancestors, but why should we care? Indeed, in the history of humanity as a species, agriculture is a comparatively recent invention, and it is just as instrumental and technological as any other technology. In this, Marx’s critique of what he called ‘feudal socialism’, the hankering for the imaginary peace of the settled past with its narrow horizons and its stable order, is as valid as ever. The choice is not really between either capitalist accumulation and a turning back of the anthropological clock; even if the latter were possible, which it is not, it is not desirable. Her vision here, paradoxically, reveals on her part a failure of the imagination, one common to much of the writing of this school: a failure to imagine technology and life-time as constituted differently than in the societies of the past, where both served the surplus rather than the surplus serving them. While I sympathize with much of the radical feminist interpretation and critique of patriarchy offered here, as well as with the critique of accumulation for its own sake, this does not imply to me that we must substitute Marx’s utopianism of free time for Mies’ reactionary utopianism of peasant authenticity. Mies should not crucify humanity upon a cross of mud.
1) Not to be confused with the Bielefeld School of social history, associated with Reinhart Koselleck and his colleagues.
2) E.g. the metaphors in his Novum Organum of putting nature on the rack, making Her reveal Her secrets, and so forth. There is a whole interesting feminist reading of the origins of modern science that this review cannot go into. See: Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York, NY 1983: HarperCollins).
3) For more on the subjugation of women to nationalist ideas of nature and productivity, see a previous guest article on Notes & Commentaries here.
4) While she does not credit them, there seems an implicit debt to Adorno & Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).
October 31, 2013
Fortunes of Feminism is in first instance primarily a collection of powerful essays in critical theory by the feminist thinker Nancy Fraser – currently professor of Political and Social Science and also of Philosophy at The New School in New York. However, there is more to it than merely a collection of the usual kind, often titled something like ‘philosophical papers’, that simply intends to gather a philosopher’s most influential or representative articles over the course of a lifetime’s work. Rather, both the topic of the essays and their organization are themselves reflective. On the one hand, as we move from the earliest essays – written in the mid-1980s – to the more contemporary ones, we follow the development of Nancy Fraser’s own thought. This ranges from early feminist engagements with the thought and legacy of the Frankfurt School to the debates with, and incorporation of, the work of some of the major ‘poststructuralist’ thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. This culminates in an attempt to overcome their aporias through a move towards the mobilization of economic theory for new considerations of ‘the social’ and its defense. Read the rest of this entry »