November 27, 2013
This is an article of mine published on The North Star.
There is a certain depressing circularity about certain arguments on the left. Those having to do with what is often termed ‘identity politics’, more particularly when expressed in the language of privilege (or lack thereof), tend to divide into two mutually hostile camps. For the one, privilege is the bread and butter of critical analysis, and what could be called traditional Marxism has been replaced, or at least complemented, by a perspective based in the body of critical theory on identity, discourse, and the concept of privilege. These arose out of a certain meeting between attempts to theorize the intersectionality of oppression – initially mainly race and gender, but later extended to many other subjects – on the one hand, and on the other the political critique of discourse and discourse analysis of French poststructuralism. Here, privilege often becomes the key concept binding together the experience of individuals and the discourses and structural forces that determine these experiences. Building on some feminist critiques of Marxism, this ‘privilegetalk’ could be read as an attempt to overcome the dichotomy between exploitation and oppression in the traditional Marxist approach and to integrate this with the tools and mentality of ‘critical theory’ and discourse analysis (including those of largely anti-Marxist thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida).
In the other camp are those for whom the above is anathema, and who insist on the clear separation between class and all other identities, or even reject reading class as an identity at all. Here, exploitation and oppression are either systematically distinguished – as in more classic Marxist views – or are seen as varieties of working class experience. In the latter case, the class relationship is nonetheless still seen as central. What distinguishes this camp is its dislike of any talk of identity, privilege, or similar terms at all. Where the first decry the economism of the second, the latter fire back with equal vehemence against the idealism or liberal individualism of their opponents. For the former, identities; for the latter, the working class – this is how the distinction is often presented by the partisans of this view. And never the twain shall meet.
Of course, this is a crude caricature, and in reality there are a great number of diverse positions on both sides, making the camps as I have portrayed them more akin to a family resemblance or ideal type than a true description. Nonetheless, the crude arguments it produces are sadly all too frequent. One problem here is a sense of essentialism pervasive to both: either essentializing identity and experience into tokenism and purely psychological struggle, or essentializing the ‘true working class’ as an undifferentiated agent whose exploitation is more ‘real’ than any mere oppressions of the marginal could ever be. To my mind this is completely unnecessary, given that both views can perhaps be bypassed by creative application of the insights of the Marxist feminism associated with the ‘social reproduction perspective’. But perhaps at least as importantly it seems fruitless because the relevant insights both of the Marxist theory of exploitation and of its ‘critical critics’ should be carefully unpacked, not lumped together in these great opposing forces that they have increasingly become. As I have argued in other contexts, to distinguish analysis and strategy is essential here. Within what is crudely called ‘identity politics’, there are many different views and positions, and so there are within the actual social groups in question, whether within the working class or among certain genders or races or what have you. It is exactly the unwillingness to engage the arguments in their own right, rather than the mutual fight against straw opponents, that is so annoying about this whole discussion.
Entering the Vampires’ Castle
It is here that I want to focus on a critical reading of Mark Fisher’s article in The North Star entitled “Exiting the Vampire Castle“. Though written in a UK context – where those who criticized celebrity comedian Russell Brand for his sexism after he called for revolution in a political interview with Jeremy Paxman drew Fisher’s ire – it is clearly intended for more general consumption. The argument of the article is depressingly familiar: Fisher illustrates all the errors of the second camp, which is precisely why it is worth examining. Though it is too long for a complete close reading, some important elements stand out. Firstly, Fisher accuses the British left, especially on Twitter, of a certain miserablism: “an atmosphere of snarky resentment”, in which the calling out of individuals is more important than establishing some popularity for left-wing ideas. Here, he calls on the frequent left criticisms of Owen Jones, as well as the tendency for the radical left (outside Counterfire c.s. at least) to dismiss the People’s Assemblies as yet another top-down adventure in entryism from a Trot sect. Then, Fisher goes on to defend Russell Brand, whom he insists is precisely so worth defending because he defended leftism on public television while being working class in background, and moreover did so with humor and verve, something the left profoundly lacks. This all forms the leadin: the main section of the article is to describe the two “libidinal-discursive configurations which have brought this situation about”. Those are, in order, the Vampires’ Castle (plural this time) and the anarchist tendencies of the UK left.
The latter is easily described: for Brand this is simply the rejection of united or popular fronts, those shibboleths of Trotskyist organizing, and the equal rejection of Labour Party support or attempts at ‘reclaiming Labour’ through one or another form of entryism (we can put Jones in this category). For Fisher, “there’s a strange implicit rule here: it’s OK to protest against what parliament has done, but it’s not alright to enter into parliament or the mass media to attempt to engineer change from there.” This he decries as an anarchism that will render the left irrelevant. But more important is the analogy of the Vampires’ Castle. This occult phenomenon is his favored phrase for a series of sweeping generalizations about what is clearly identifiable as the first camp of the polarization of the left described above. The Vampires’ Castle, Fisher tells us, “individualize and privatize everything”. They make humour impossible, seek to create guilt everywhere, and most of all essentialize the enemy, which is to say their opponents on the left. And here’s the kicker: they do all this as a strategy to pass themselves of as left-wing, when they are in reality liberals, and of an “invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background” at that. Sounds terrible, no? Time someone went in with a stake!
Des Pudels Kern
Unfortunately, not a single one of these arguments is persuasive, and quite a few are downright unfair or absurd. Let us therefore enter Fisher’s Vampire Castle, stake and garlic in hand, and see what monsters we encounter there. Some may be oddly familiar to us – especially those who look at the castle from the viewpoint of the introduction above. In the entrance hall, things are still going well. It is certainly true that – both online and offline – the radical left has long been characterized by a venomous atmosphere, in particular a refusal of any charity of reading or interpretation to those deemed oppositional or those that have previously caused offense, and good faith efforts are not much rewarded and therefore rarely in evidence. Sometimes, this leads to incredibly vindictive, personalized, and emotional disputation that does little good to solving any problems or advancing any cause, but does cause much more hurt and isolation than was already present at the start.
Nonetheless, this observation is somewhat covered in cobwebs, like an old suit of mail opposite the central staircase. It must be treated with charity in its own right. The internet, which combines a very direct and personal means of communication with a very limited possibility of nuance, body language, and context, contributes much to this problem. But even offline, the often hostile atmosphere is at least in part caused by the very importance of the politics themselves to those involved in them. One of the classic arguments of the privilege-talkers is precisely that it is much harder to abstract or disengage from arguments when your wellbeing, your sense of dignity, or your very life may be at stake in the outcome of a particular political dispute. Under such conditions, it is very difficult (though not impossible) to not take it personally. Here, the personal is indeed political. If this attitude is to be criticized, it can’t be for stating this obvious reality – at most that it sometimes overlooks that if the personal is political, that is not necessarily a good thing, and making the political as personal as possible is not necessarily the right response.
When we press onward, however, we soon start running into the occult obstacles Fisher’s castle presents to us. The hagiographical treatment of the likes of Owen Jones and Russell Brand looms at us, like the remarkably large shadow cast over the balustrade by a remarkably small cat. Why should we think that Jones is “most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years”? I am not as hostile to him as some of the UK radical left perhaps is, but I doubt even Owen himself would recognize himself in this description. Class consciousness is, after all, by definition a collective and a political process of self-awareness and self-mobilization – not something brought about by a well-meaning individual with a column in the Independent. Indeed, Owen may have helped some to raise morale, by making the hegemony of neoliberal ideas seem less complete, but that is not the same thing as the political becoming of a class.
The same can be said for Russell Brand. Perhaps his interview with Paxman was an unusually left-wing discourse for the staid political television of Britain. But there is no reason why this should mean his gratuitous sexism should be accepted, nor does the working class of the UK really need Russell Brand to tell them that they exist, or to provide them with left-Labour banalities that inequality is too large or that revolution would be a nice idea, in the abstract. If Fisher thinks that this is both necessary and sufficient for class consciousness, so “fragile and fleeting” it needs comedians on Jeremy Paxman’s show to sustain it, he has a much lower idea of the working class’ intellectual capacities than do his vampiric opponents. (The People’s Assembly I won’t even bother dealing with – it is in our terms like the papier-mâché skeleton made by a primary schooler menacing in the wardrobe: irrelevant, incapable of frightening anyone, and easily disposed of.)
Let us ignore such small scares and proceed into the very inner chambers, where Fisher’s ‘laws of the Vampires’ Castle’ await us. Fisher’s first claim is that the politics of privilege, which is clearly the vampires’ life-blood (or unlife-blood?), is not a legitimate expression of the struggles of the oppressed, but a bourgeois-liberal perversion of them. Indeed, the theme of perversion can never be far off where vampires are present, and if this is so, then the Twitter left appears as a veritable Boris Karloff of repressed gothic sensuality. The argument nonetheless follows some lines as ancient as the castle itself: “rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.” Now here I think Fisher does have one point: I have long been skeptical of the assumption of some (not all) writers on privilege that it is impossible to relate to others unless one shares their same identity and experiences. If this were true, then indeed nobody would be able to ‘speak to’ the issues of anyone else at all, to use this jargon; the reality would be that, due to the irreducability of human diversity, all political solidarity and indeed all communication would be impossible. This is perhaps a reductio ad absurdum, but some of the stronger versions of this argument are not far off, and I share with Fisher a hostility both to the implicit misanthropy and the political implications of this argument.
Some of Fisher’s points are not uninteresting, and could lead to some more exciting directions: less explored wings of the building. One thing he points to is the conflation on the part of some privilege-talkers of the act of (say) homophobia and being a homophobe. Now this is a double-edged sword, to remain in the sphere of the gothic, as it is often used as an excuse by those who both are and do to avoid the consequences of their attitude. But among radical activists it has also been remarked that this conflation can be quite unhelpful, precisely because it is an example of a false essentialism that the politics of identity was – at least in some versions – intended to undermine. If you call someone a homophobe, they are in a sense forever branded, and yet no alternative is concretely offered. Whereas calling an act or a statement homophobic allows for correction and change, and it is therefore at the least more strategically constructive in those cases where there is no need to move from the one to the other. Indeed, some would abuse the charity and good faith offered to them in this case, and there are many who lack the self-reflection to merit it. But it is a good policy, in my opinion, to err towards giving someone you criticize a way to correct themselves. The cultural repertoire of shame, dignity, and standing can so effectively be mobilized positively, rather than – as is now often the case – being a one-way street in a direction against the oppressed. This is something that calls for a case-by-case examination, and people’s character and circumstances will differ sufficiently that attempting any general rule would be unwise. At most, here one could invoke once more the benefits as well as moral discipline of charity of interpretation, and to give people a certain leeway (but hardly an unlimited one) in phrasing things the way they see it.
But that is not to say that the argument as Fisher poses it is much better. It is simply not true that the ‘identitarians’ try to keep people in their identities. There is always a risk of essentializing, and indeed tokenism is not unusual, strongly reinforced by this notion that you can only talk on topic X if previously approved by the representatives of topic X, those who share a politically mobilized identity on that basis. But even in such cases the purpose is to overcome oppression, not to maintain it, and the voicing through identity and the policing of its boundaries comes from a need to protect the humans that are ‘carriers’ of these identities in the post-structuralist sense. However flawed in individual cases the strategy and assumptions about human communication may be (and more on those below), protect the humans from oppression is not at all the same intent as to protect the identities themselves from emancipation or change, and Fisher’s conflation of the two does a great injustice to – and is in fact very uncharitable towards – those he aims his barbs at.
The same thing is true when we encounter the first vampiric lackeys of the master vampire, the lord of the castle. This lord, it turns out halfway our adventure, is in reality academia and the bourgeoisie in general. Fisher suggests his privilege-talking opponents are either wilfully accumulating ‘academic capital’, or are simply deluded by those that are doing so. But here he reveals one major mistake in his thought, when he writes: “The VC, as dupe-servants of the ruling class, does the opposite: it pays lip service to ‘solidarity’ and ‘collectivity’, while always acting as if the individualist categories imposed by power really hold.” But this is precisely the fundamental insight that the first camp has and the second camp lacks – namely that however much one may wish it otherwise, these individualist categories imposed by power do really hold. If Fisher at all understood the subject he was talking about, he would realize that those identities are not like a cloak that one dons at will, but like the very skin branded black or white, male or female, gay or straight and so forth.
This is why, ad nauseam, so much of the writing of poststructural and feminist theory has been about the body, its sufferings, and its agencies: because the adscription of identity is as much something one undergoes as it is something one does to oneself. Fisher in fact has already implicitly acknowledged this when he points out he is prone to forgetting he is male and white as ‘identities’: it is precisely this forgetting that the oppressed identities can never do, and that is what makes these identities salient in a political sense. If indeed the discourse of identity is the lackey of the bourgeoisie, it is not because of its self-awareness, but rather because it is simply a consequence of the reality of capitalist society. Its self-awareness, even when wrongly expressed, is a potent weapon against the invisibility of some forms of the reproduction and rule of this society – and thereby a weapon, however blunt at times, against the true lord of the castle.
The Vampire Is In Another Castle
What remains so curious about Fisher’s whole gothic structure is nonetheless how inadequate it is to its subject. He accuses his opponents, without otherwise naming or identifying them, of being bourgeois, academic, posh, and privileged – yet he is by his own acknowledgement a white male academic and a commissioning editor at a left-wing vanity press. If he therefore does not recognize himself in this image, it must be because, like the vampire, he has no reflection… Similarly, his chatter about ‘witch-hunts’ maintains his sense of victimhood. But aside from being a rather inappropriate historical analogy, given the witch-hunts were systematic cases of the reassertion of patriarchy and religious order and mostly against women, it is difficult to sustain this reasoning when Fisher can’t give any real examples of the power of his opponents or of his own suffering at their hands. It seems he certainly has major disagreements with their interpretation of social structure and discourse, and also with the political strategies some on the left draw out of these. This is legitimate, and should remain legitimate: nothing is free from criticism, and that includes the language and politics of privilege.
But sadly, while an interesting argument could be had about these (and has been had many times before, not least among the ‘identitarians’), Fisher does not engage in this. Rather, he throws the whole of M.R. James at his opponents in an attempt to depict them as terrors of the night. The effect is akin to the puppeteer holding the bogeyman doll in front of us. It assumes we are children, both in thinking we cannot see that he is really moving the bogeyman about, and in assuming we would be scared of it. This is a shame, because it is perhaps overdue that the various camps of the left talk to each other seriously and productively about the problems of communication that must be overcome if solidarity is to work practically between its various sections.
Finally, before we exit the castle in despondence at the lack of action – the villagers so promised us we would find monsters! – something must be said about the gothic imagery itself. It is striking how badly Fisher’s vampiric metaphor fails. But what is interesting is not that it does so, but how it does so. Fisher’s image of the Vampires’ Castle fails in two ways. Firstly, because he wishes to ascribe laws to this castle. But laws of a castle are laws that hold within the castle, or insofar as the inhabitants of the castle can enforce them beyond the walls. Fisher has no desire to go into the castle, that much he makes clear, but he does not tell us what powers of enforcement it has, beyond criticizing celebrities and creating a bad atmosphere on Twitter. Now I say this not quite jokingly – I have personally witnessed various occasions in which both online and offline the use of privilege-talk played a major role in causing enormous personalized conflicts between participants and activists who had otherwise (and also afterwards) been able to communicate productively even where disagreement could be considerable. This question of atmosphere is a practical one, not just a matter of whining about how mean it is to say bad things to a university professor. But if the exact dynamics cannot be clarified, and if it cannot be explained what in talking about oppression in a particular way causes unnecessary strife – as opposed to justified oppositions to bigotry – then the problem is not addressed. Fisher’s blanket dismissals and empty workerism do not solve this problem at all, as a rudimentary knowledge of social reproduction theory or writing on intersectionality could have made obvious.
This is compounded by the second way Fisher’s metaphor fails: namely, in the vampiric. Vampires presuppose that vampirism is going on, in other words, that one feeds off another’s life-blood in some way. But Fisher’s vampires are posh, they accumulate academic capital, they are lackeys, they produce guilt, they do all sorts of things; but suck blood they do not. And this is not a simple flawed analogy. What it reveals is that underlying Fisher’s argument is a deeper sense in which he implies that there exists a kind of hidden establishment that leeches off the real or legitimate left by ‘perverting’ or perhaps diverting its processes of class activism and class consciousness. Precisely by ascribing to his opponents all sorts of bad identities, he engages in identity politics in his own right – such as calling them posh, or their views alternately bourgeois and petty-bourgeois. His workerism, too, is essentially identitarian. So the talk of identity itself cannot be the problem. Rather, it is this sense of a hidden parasitic establishment that pervades his writing, and gives it its creepy atmosphere. Fisher refuses to tell us who They are, rather producing his gothic imagery as a way of cloaking the They in a convenient manner. But this is both dishonest and sinister. If one were as inclined to guilt by association as Fisher, one need but look at the similarities between this style of caricature and those of the ‘neo-reactionaries’ and their Cathedral, or the mysterious all-swallowing dark Other in the racial/orientalist tropes of Conrad or Lovecraft – both of which in turn owe much to simple anti-semitism.
If one may use one gothic novel against another, where Fisher thinks he is writing Dracula, he is actually writing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Dr. Jekyll of our story is Mark Fisher who wants to protect the left from the anarcho-bourgeois individualism, misanthropy, and strategic self-destruction. I have many disagreements with him, and some minor points of agreement. More generally, there is an argument there that is worth engaging with, although it needs serious reformulation on the basis of a more serious inquiry into the theory underlying the narratives of privilege and identity, something that far too many critics (again, rather uncharitably) neglect to do. However, there is also a Mr. Hyde in this story. This Fisher is a disturbing figure, one who inhabits a castle of his own and sallies forth against all who rebel by branding them vampires and traitors – indeed shades of witch-hunting, but with himself as the knight inquisitor. As in Stevenson’s story, this is probably not how Jekyll-Fisher intends it; it is rather that the Mr. Hydes both inside and outside the left find this more amenable – being able to depict all those who talk about identity, privilege and so forth as merely bourgeois saboteurs attempting to divide the left, when quite the opposite is the case. Here, Jekyll-Fisher should restrain the Hyde within him.
What I would recommend Fisher is to do some reading. Firstly, to read some of the writings on intersectionality, privilege, social reproduction Marxism, and so forth, much of which rightly or wrongly serves as the main inspirations for those people he so stridently dismisses, and of whose arguments he understands little. Secondly, he should read David McNally’s excellent Monsters of the Market. From that, he can learn how a gothic Marxism is properly employed, free from the crypto-fascist undertones of his current moral imagination. The vampire, he will learn from McNally, are not the ‘identitarians’, but it is capital itself, and if the working class has a gothic referent, it is in the figure of the zombie, labouring without will or direction at the behest of others. The zombie, which must be brought back to a state of real life or be destroyed, confronts us with the real choices involved in class consciousness: much as I dislike that phrase, the consciousness of a class always already constituted by race, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Without this awareness, any cure for the problems Fisher poses will be worse than the disease.
And the same applies not just to Fisher, but to many who would criticize without the burden of due care to understand their opponents. Indeed, it is telling that neither of the two camps involved can grant the other understanding or charity in the least, while both are always ready to demand it for themselves. I suspect this is the result of both positing a false universality: either a negative universality, a rejection of the universal based on irreconcilable difference of lived discourse and identity, or a false positive universality based on the super-emergence of the subjectivity of the working class above all forms of life. I will not elaborate further on that here, as that requires its own treatment. But if we are to overcome the hostilities and the circular firing squads of the left, online or offline, a good starting point is in our common desire to acquire a real knowledge of the other – where this desire exists, misanthropy cannot. That is the first law of gothic politics. De te fabula narratur!
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 »