November 6, 2013
“Bolshevism is knocking at our gates, we can’t afford to let it in… We must keep America whole and safe and unspoiled. We must keep the worker away from red literature and red ruses; we must see that his mind remains healthy.” – Al Capone
The genre of the mafia film, and related media such as mafia-related thrillers and so forth, remains one of the fixed stars at the firmament of popular culture. Movies like The Godfather, Scarface have become all-time classics, while television series such as The Sopranos rival with them for the considerable audience interested in such works. What characterizes many of the most successful media in this genre is not so much having the mafia as a subject, but that more often than not they are seen from the point of view of the gangsters themselves. Portrayed as flawed, greedy, but witty and inventive fighters against establishment and order, bound by an idiosyncratic but honest honor code, the mafiosi seem to figure as ideal anti-heroes. Of course, that the life of the mafia boss gives plenty of opportunity for filmmakers to incorporate high doses of violence and sex in their films is also an important part of the deal. This fits perfectly with approaches such as HBO’s standard formula for successful television series, which is simply repackaging sex and violence into a thin intellectual wrapping so that people don’t feel unsophisticated or vulgar for watching it.
In principle, there seems nothing wrong with this. After all, the mobsters in question are rarely portrayed as particularly good or nice, and antiheroes are a common and appreciated trope of scriptwriting. Moreover, for good reasons few people identify strongly with the FBI or other police organizations dedicated to maintaining the law and order against which the mafia supposedly rebel in vain, so that the latter can appear both as antihero and as underdog – certainly an irresistible combination. However, it seems to me that especially on the left, the politics of this genre is not sufficiently examined. Of course, there is a considerable amount of writing on the notions of masculinity and outward aggression. For example The Sopranos explicitly plays on the theme of the fragility of masculinity and the absurd lengths to which the mafia members will go to sustain it. Similarly, much has been written on the nature of the mafioso as a self-made man, as a social climber, and the mythology of the rags-to-riches dimension inherent in the criminal career, but this remains focused on the level of the mafioso as individual. In this narrative, the mafia film is an example of how the criminal story of ‘bootstrapping’ becomes the anxious dream, an object of jealousy as well as a source of repulsion, for Western audiences in times of diminishing social mobility.
In a different interpretation, Fredric Jameson’s famous essay on The Godfather in his article “Reification and Utopia” focuses on the mafia as a cypher for the essentially criminal and pervasively parasitical power of capitalism itself, this is still robbing the mafia as protagonist of its historical and economic origins. Put differently, for Jameson “mafia movies thus project a “solution” to social contradictions – incorruptibility, honesty, crime fighting, and finally law-and-order itself – which is evidently a very different proposition from that diagnosis of the American misery whose prescription would be social revolution.” This means the mafia protagonist is merely the ‘dark side’ of capitalism to play off against the fantasy of the Party of Order, the possibility of a restoration of order and moral values within capitalism that would free us from its negative, destructive forces and restore a sense of Gemeinschaft. The mafia film is for him therefore an exercise in moral judgement on the ‘illegitimate’ side of capitalism, ignoring that capitalism is always criminal.(1)
But what is less examined is the position of the mafia genre from a historical and comparative perspective. That is to say, while the structure of the mafia honor code and its significance – and of course the talents and techniques of filmmaking itself as they are expressed in Scarface or the like – are familiar points of inquiry, this still takes the concept of the mafia film with the mafia as protagonists for granted. Instead of this, I would suggest the political implications of the mafia film can be understood differently if we focus on the economic historical function of the mafia as an institution. In that case, the seemingly self-evident acceptance of the mafioso as antihero protagonist should be seen by any radical politics in a much more negative light than Jameson and the other psychological readings suggest. For what is at stake is more than just an ambiguity towards capitalism as a whole: the mafia as antihero protagonist is itself a politically reactionary instrument.
Few people seem very aware of the origins of the mafia beyond a conception of them ‘coming from Italy’ as a peculiar kind of organized crime, and then with Italian settlers in North America taking up root in the big cities of that continent. However, the mafia was always more than just a simple gang, or even a confederation of gangs. Such a thing does not come about naturally; neither do their strict hierarchies, honor codes, and the clan-like structure. We must not naturalize this, but examine it historically. What we find then is that the origins of the mafia lie in Italy, but in a particular context: namely in the struggle between the landlords, often absentee landlords, and the peasantry of the Mezzogiorno. From the high Middle Ages onwards, after the establishment of serfdom in the Kingdom of Naples (which also controlled Sicily) and its maintenance under the rule of Aragon, the interests of absentee landlords were protected during the periodic risings of peasant rebellions or foreign invasions (such as by the North African muslim states) through organized groups of guardians of their fiefs. It is in this that traditionally the origins of the mafia are found: representatives and guardians of the interests of the feudo, the large landowners, from the period of serfdom up to the 19th century or so.
So the mafia from the get go are an outright reactionary organization serving the interests of the large landowners, the latifundists.(2) This also explains their ongoing hostility, up to the present day, towards the political and social organizations of the poor rural populations in Italy and towards the political left (the PCI) and its trade unionists, whose members they often sought to assassinate. However, we should not simply project the feudal origins onto present-day mafia activity. In the course of the 19th century, southern Italy became subsumed to the rule of capitalism, and with it, the structure of its social relations changed, and the mafia along with it. As Salvatore Lupo describes in his History of the Mafia, feudalism decayed into fragmentation of landownership and urbanization plus export-based agriculture and mining became economically dominant trends in Sicily and elsewhere.(3) This meant that the raison d’être of the mafia shifted along with it. Partially, with the various rounds of redistribution of land in southern Italy, the mafia interposed itself effectively between the large landowners and the peasantry, controlling the process of distribution to their own advantage. As Lupo writes: “they [the mafia] were organizers of cooperatives and won much of their power base by serving as intermediaries in the transfer of land from the large landowners to the peasants, and therefore by placing themselves firmly astride the collective movements precisely in the postwar years following the First World War and the Second World War.”
Similarly, with increasing export orientation of tenant farming, for example in citrus fruits, and with the development of urban markets linked to the rising world market of the capitalist era, it is precisely in the interstices between rural production and urban marketing that the mafia found its strongest foothold.(4) In Palermo, Lupo identifies their base of operations as the suburban and rural terrain belonging to the city proper: “In particular, in what in the nineteenth century was called the agro palermitano , or Palermo territorial countryside, midway between city and countryside, in the borgate and in the villages of the hinterland, the Mafia groups established a system of control over the territory that set out from the dense network of guardianìe (custodianships). They ultimately seized control of both legitimate and illicit business, cattle rustling, smuggling and contraband, and the early commercial intermediation of citrus fruit and other products of the area’s rich agriculture. In a more recent era, the same area proved to be the more or less natural marketplace for the expansion of real estate and for speculation in that field—age-old locations and age-old power bases finding new opportunities for profit. The Mafia’s introduction into a transoceanic migratory network and its involvement with long-distance trade, such as the citrus fruit business, simply laid the groundwork in terms of mentalities and abilities well suited to smuggling tobacco and narcotics.”
It is important therefore, as always with such phenomena, to not simply ascribe the persistence or nature of the mafia to quaint and romantic holdovers from the feudal era. Their utterly reactionary role in terrorizing the peasantry of the Mezzogiorno and acting as guardiani of the latifundists is clear enough. But in the modern period, capitalist relations have not caused them to wither away, but rather to strengthen their operations. The role of the drug trade and other activities immediately related to the world market, and their operations in land and housing speculation and in protection rackets, are all examples of how the mafia’s traditional role as intermediaries have taken on new forms in the capitalist period. This is no different in New York than in Palermo. Whereas previously they operated directly in the interests of the agricultural ruling class, with the slow disappearance of this class and its significance, they became intermediaries of the new ruling order in a more abstract way – intermediaries wherever money was to be made, licitly or illicitly, always by interposing themselves between producers and the realization of the value of goods.
In other words, they now act as intermediaries on behalf of the ruling class not as a sociological phenomenon, but to the driving force of capitalism in a more abstract sense, intermediaries on behalf of capital in general. This clarifies on the one hand their mixture of clan-like structure with a strongly entrepreneurial focus, and on the other hand the ambiguity inherent in the much vaunted honor codes of the mafia, the omertà. As Lupo describes, and the mafia films invariably portray with great seriousness, the mafia always like to conceive of themselves as bound by ancient honor codes which require them to support the weak and attack the strong. More often than not, they see themselves as good, traditional Catholics and are quite insistent on enforcing its religious principles, including its inherent homophobia and patriarchal attitudes.
But it is impossible to comprehend why both the makers and the viewers of the mafia genre take this at its word. In a classic example of Hobsbawm’s ‘invention of tradition’, the more the modern mafia appears as an agent of capital, and pursuing the most violent and regressive forms of capitalism imaginable, the more the mafia is keen to present itself as defenders of traditional values. As Lupo notes: “In that ideology there is a certain degree of self-persuasion, a great deal of overweening ambition, and an even greater degree of propaganda destined to clash in the great majority of cases with a far different reality… Greed and ferocity, as will be documented in the pages of this book, are intrinsic characteristics of the Mafia of both yesterday and today, and both Mafias are and were capable of slaughtering innocent people, women and children, in defiance of their codes of honor… Sicilian and Italian American mafiosi continue to declare their hostility to drugs, which destroy the sociocultural ties of the community, even when they are caught red-handed dealing narcotics.” And so forth.
Similarly, this kind of hypocrisy of the mafia code, a lie and misrepresentation at its very base, also applies to the mafia’s relations with the state. In reality, the mafia is not so much anti-state nor a protector of traditional communities against state interference as it is, once again, a mediator between state and citizens, in its own interests. The history of Italy during fascism shows that the mafia and fascism could find a lot to agree on and to respect in each other’s work: they were really not so very different, and many of the mafia’s main figures were enrolled into the official fascistic militias, against the partisan activities of the resistance of the left based in workers and peasants’ movements. Equally, after WWII Italian politics has seen a consistent corruption and collusion between mafia and state figures, especially but not exclusively among the parties of the right and center. Occasional bursts of arrests of leading mafiosi then appear as the state’s means of keeping the mafia in the place where they want it: enablers of the political programmes of the Italian right, but not too much of an independent power outside its own sphere. The mafia have often chafed under this yoke – leading occasionally to outright war with the state, always with the mafia as the losing side – but on the whole accept the deal in return for their increasing, rather than decreasing, dominance through terror over the producers and small capitals of southern Italy in the course of the 20th century. The same is true in those places in North America where the mafia was and is sufficiently established to undertake the same role, such as in some parts of Canada and in cities like New York and especially Boston.
Here I must additionally say something on the role of the mafia in the specific context of migration to North America, because it is in this context that the mafia genre is almost always situated. It is frequently portrayed in the more historically oriented depictions as the equivalent of a ward boss, as power-brokers protecting poor migrant communities of Italian-Americans from petty criminality and the aggressive intervention of the WASP state establishment. While there is some basis of truth in this, this once again reinforces the mythology of the mafia as protectors of traditional communities, and ignores the fundamentally negative role the mafia plays even so. Gangsters throughout modern history, up to modern-day Mexico or Russia, defend themselves ideologically by the claim that they act as the real source of order and justice in poor communities and that they eliminate the many petty thieves and lenders and so forth preying on the population. But in reality, what this means is not the elimination of such small criminals, but their incorporation into the mafia sphere.
Like any capitalist enterprise, they seek to eliminate the competition and to obtain a monopoly: a monopoly on parasitical violence against the workers and against smaller capitals. It is a fundamental political inconsistency, and a mistake, to take their ideological justification of the search for this monopoly at its word. This justification is fundamentally analogous to the claims of the capitalist class that without its monopoly of economic rule, no production could take place, or the way the Party of Order representing its interests justifies the need for a police force to ‘restore order’. Precisely because these goals are, within capitalism, fundamentally analogous, the mafia is in practice ready to collaborate with the forces of the state whenever it suits them. Contrary to the mythology around the iron code of omertà, in reality mafiosi constantly betray each other once they have been arrested in order to obtain reduced sentences. There is no political principle here, only the formation of a petty ruling class within a larger capitalist formation in those cases where the state itself is unwilling or unable to enforce a monopoly of property against the workers. The mafia is less than a ward boss, because it does not deliver services beyond the elimination of its rivals. But it is also more than a ward boss, because it mediates the rule of capital through violence: namely in those situations where the latter’s usual means to terrorize the workers into accepting its exploitation by a parasitical class are inadequate.
The determining factor here is their hostility to the independent activities of organizations of workers and peasants on the basis of class or on the basis of rural resistance, unless such could be co-opted into a moral and individualistic programme. (Here, some of Jameson’s analysis is certainly sustainable.) The collusion between the mafia, the parties of the right and centre, and the Catholic Church is therefore (among other things) an alliance against the left, particularly trade unions and Communists, and is founded on its hostility towards this. That is the real meaning of the mafia today and throughout the capitalist era, and it is not just limited to the Italian case: much the same can be said of the Mexican cartels, of the Russian mafia, and so forth. Similarly, we find the mafia always on the side of the Italian-Americans or the Irish-Americans as a ‘community’ in the historical portrayals of its role. But in reality this means precisely the enforcement of the integration of these respective groups into the establishment of capitalism, reinforcing its existing order – including the role of this community in rigidly enforcing the oppression of black Americans, a prerequisite for its acceptance into the larger ‘white’ state.(5)
Now what is the point of all this history? It is to establish the curiously indulgent and positive attitude towards the mafia as genre protagonists, even if in the form of antiheroes. If one compares for example the treatment of the mafia given the above knowledge with the treatment of the Ku Klux Klan in American media, there is a striking difference. The KKK, although a Protestant organization, had much the same kind of role in protecting the interests of landowners against the potential independent organization of the rural and even urban workforces in their specific region, and equally claimed to be bound by the honor codes of their ancient genteel traditions in the style of Gone With the Wind, and equally combined terrorizing the producing population as intermediaries between state and society, and equally ultimately served the purpose of maintaining a particular order of property convenient to the supremacy of a small historical elite (including its racial dimension in America). Yet it is inconceivable that an HBO series or a whole range of commercially and aesthetically successful films would be made portraying KKK members and their organizations as flawed but dignified antiheroes.
Of course, the racial dimension plays a big role here, but this only reinforces the point: while those films successful in the early 20th century, such as Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation are now uniformly discredited and never shown because it is recognized that their very premise is tacitly based on the oppression of black Americans – both as workers and as blacks – such awareness is rarely if ever exercised against the genre of mafia films, which even among the left enjoy a great popularity. Of course, some people better versed in the genre will no doubt accuse me of misunderstanding it in the details of the specific films. That may be so; but if I misunderstand them in the specific, it is exactly by understanding them in the general, and therefore refusing to recognize this genre’s romantic idealization of an institution that both under feudal and capitalist conditions has always shown itself as the worst enforcer and mediator of the conditions of exploitation of these economic systems. Just like there is nothing heroic about the KKK, not even anti-heroic, the same is true of the mafia.
1) Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”. Social Text 1 (1979), p. 146.
2) From the Latin latifundia, the large landholdings of the Roman aristocracy, generally worked by slaves. This system of large landownership of a narrow class of slave-owning aristocrats formed the basis for Western European feudalism with the decay of the central power of the Roman imperial state. See e.g. Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (London 2013 : Verso), p. 75-103.
3) Salvatore Lupo, History of the Mafia (New York, NY 2009: Columbia University Press).
4) See also: Dimico et al., “Origins of the Sicilian Mafia: The Market for Lemons”. University of Göteborg, Working Papers in Economics 532.
5) Noel Ignatiev, How The Irish Became White (New York, NY 1995: Routledge).
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 9, 2013
One of the centerpieces of Marxist theorizing about history, that philosophy of history generally known as ‘historical materialism’, is the succession of modes of production. Each mode of production is essentially a more or less integrated totality of social relations, one that has a stability and continuity determined by its particular division of labor and techniques of production. Each is reproduced on the basis of the ‘laws of motion’ of that particular division of labor and that particular set of technologies, never mind the mental conceptions of society and the role of each functional part within it that form such an essential part of the continuity and stability the material process of social reproduction has.
The classic periodization of history according to this model in Marx’s own day was the succession from savagery (or ‘primitive communism’) to ancient society, feudalism, and then capitalism, with the non-European societies making a detour via the ‘Asiatic mode of production’. After a century and a half of historical analysis and refinement, little of this edifice is now standing. But the two most studied modes of production are perhaps also the most generally accepted and most stable concepts: feudalism and capitalism. But how to understand these? For capitalism, one need look no further than Capital itself and the vast literature that has followed in its wake. Feudalism, on the other hand, is much less well described in its own characteristics – the central point of contention in the literature has been the debate of transition from feudalism to capitalism, much less describing feudalism itself with anything like the rigour of Marx’s masterpiece on capitalism.
Nonetheless, the game Dwarf Fortress is amenable to a Marxist analysis precisely by understanding its relationship to the central characteristics of the feudal mode of production.(1) This can be grasped by looking at the main dynamics of the game: the division of labor, the reproduction of dwarven society, the economic system and trade, and their integration. The first characteristic is the organization of dwarven labor. Starting out with a small exploratory team of settlers, one takes a particular section of the world that is more or less taken as terra nullius and makes it amenable to dwarven homesteading and regular life. This is the beginning of every game in Dwarf Fortress (assuming fortress mode), and it already gives a clear indication of the nature of social expansion under feudalism. The fact of the low population density of the world allowing such expansion is one such observation, but more important is the purpose of settlement itself. Read the rest of this entry »