I have for some time been looking forward to reading Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Not just because I know both well enough to expect insightful commentary from them, but also because their recent political writing has been an important component in the trend to re-evaluate leftist strategies (back) towards consciously future-oriented, optimistic, technology-friendly and generally ‘modernist’ approach. In these respects, this book did not disappoint. The work consists essentially of two parts. The first few chapters are devoted to a critique of existing strategies and ways of thinking as identified by Srnicek and Williams, approaches they deem to be harmful to the prospects of the left and in need of overcoming. The second part is concerned with developing an alternative proposal for the (radical) left’s political orientation, buttressed by more empirical discussions of political economy and technological change. Although in that sense the book is multi-layered and ambitious in scope, it is throughout an easy read: Srnicek and Williams have found, I think, the right tone for popular political writing that seeks to deal with abstract problems without relying on tedious jargon. If at times it seems a little dry, a bit lacking in the spark one expects of a directly political tract, it makes up for it in combining a light touch of vocabulary with analytical seriousness.
It’s easy to be against austerity and neoliberalism; it is less easy to say something meaningful about it, and to take stock of the Western situation in a sober and critical way. To do this is the purpose of Against Austerity, the most recent work of the hand of Richard Seymour, blogger at Lenin’s Tomb and (ex-)member of various radical groups in the UK. Although the cover blurbs present it as a strategy for defeating austerity and reviving the left, most of the book by far is actually concerned with analyzing what austerity is, how it relates to neoliberalism, state and class strategies, ideology, and economics. While these topics are by now fairly well-trodden ground in left analysis, there is perhaps a need for a popular synthesis of the various theories and interpretations offered in the literature, and this book helps fill that gap. Combining — as is Seymour’s wont — Poulantzian/Gramscian state and class theory with the economic interpretations of the crisis offered by the school of Panitch & Gindin and Duménil & Levy, this work offers a (brief) political economic reading of the crisis that is fully integrated with a strategic and political conception: neoliberalism as a class offensive of financial capital and its state integration to recompose the state-economy relationship and indeed the very structure of ‘the market’ and its society itself. As Seymour puts it: “what we are witnessing, under the auspices of austerity, is not just spending cuts. It is a shift in the entire civilisational edifice of capitalism, deepening an equivalent shift that began in the 1970s” (3-4).
What does this shift consist of, according to him? The author discusses a fairly broad range of phenomena, and the discussion of the crisis and its strategic meaning ranges from economics to class, to state, and to ideology. Let’s take the economics first. The general thesis of the crisis interpretation may be summed up as the Panitch-Gindin-Duménil-Levy school. That is to say, the view that neoliberalism entails an intensification of existing trends towards ‘financialisation’, seen as the dominance of finance capital over other capitals and its stranglehold on the state; an attendant rise in inequality and more open class warfare, as opposed to the welfarist compromises of the boom period when manufacturing capital was in charge; and a shift from consumption to an investment orientation. When it comes to the state analysis of neoliberal economics, however, Seymour (in my view rightly) takes his cue from Philip Mirowski: the neoliberal state presents itself as a ‘small government, free market, individual responsibility’ type liberal regime of familiar sort, but in reality neoliberalism means an enormous increase in the state’s repressive authority and even in its reach over all aspects of life. The difference is that the state is now used to create markets and market dependence where none existed before, or where it was attenuated by welfarist ‘obstacles’. The neoliberal state is a regime of (re)imposing market relations into the fabric of everyday life wherever possible, and it is in this context only that the combination of increasing authoritarianism (at least compared to the 60s-70s) with the new conservatism and the drive to (anew) outsource and commodify all labour can be understood.
Financialization also comes into the class analysis. After all, one of the characteristics of neoliberalism (all agree) has been the increasing indebtedness and financial ‘enmeshing’ of Western workers. Also, the centrality of finance and the finance-state alliance in the United States to the workings of the international economic system since the end of Bretton Woods, as documented by Gindin and Panitch in The Making of Global Capitalism (London/NY 2013: Verso) has generated (or imposed) similar alliances elsewhere in the Western world. The upshot of this is that, on this interpretation, finance has become the central nervous system of capitalism and that financial capital has become the leading sub-class (hegemon) within the ruling class alliance. Unpacking Seymour’s Gramscian-Poulantzian jargon, the social relation that is the state is always in some sense a reflection of the struggle of different classes and class forces. In this particular case the alliance between corporations, banks, political parties, civil servants and so forth that dominates the UK is led by finance capital and its direct or indirect representatives in politics: the often-observed City-Westminster nexus.
Yet in the state analysis, Seymour rightly emphasizes that the neoliberal austerity alliance is not an impregnable unity. On the contrary, neoliberalism is as any movement an alliance of different ideas and forces and has a fragmentary nature. If cohesion is created by the dominance of the particular interest of finance over the whole, even other sectors of capital, the strategies pursued on this basis also entail risks and potentials for division. The wholesale attack on the conditions of social reproduction as they have grown in the postwar era more aggressive and sweeping than even in the Reagan-Thatcher years, and this means that either Marx’s ‘moral’ historical element in the reproduction of labor will be pushed down to a systematically lower living standard for the Western working class; or it could mean sufficient disruption and resistance that this social reproduction itself is threatened and the attack has to be called off. The former appears to be happening now, but the latter was the picture of the earliest wave of neoliberalism in the 1970s, and this shows the importance of organized labor resistance to raising the risks of an austerity strategy for the ruling class.
Similarly, the pursuit of debt reduction, cutting government expenditure, public employment and so forth makes sense from the viewpoint of financial capital — as it strengthens credibility and therefore creditors — but it threatens through the ensuing conflict and contraction the position of weaker elements of capital, such as manufacturers and those dependent on international trade. Such state intervention as exists in the economy is explicitly to defend finance capital at all costs, hence the bailouts, but there are also other elements of the ruling class alliance and global stability to keep in mind, not least politically. Hence Seymour rightly notes that “the divisions among elites over whether to proceed with austerity reflects both the risks of the project and divergences of short-term interests” (94). This solves the riddle of whether austerity is ideological madness or whether we should adopt the ‘rational choice’ view that this ruling class must be right about its own interests: it depends on what segment of the alliance we are talking about.
This brings us to the question of ideology, which perhaps more than anything else (unless it is the decline of unionism) defines our current era. Here, Seymour is perhaps at his best. As is obvious to all, but often handwaved away in the wishful thinking that passes for much left analysis, the situation ideologically is very grim. In the UK, fewer people now support the old ‘welfare’ set of views than even at the height of the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s that inaugurated Thatcher’s rule. The new ‘common sense’ imposed by decades of virtually unchallenged neoliberalism and the demise of the Soviet Union — the latter a factor Seymour barely mentions — has quite successfully imbued the current generation of young people with an ethos of individual careerism, of identifying with the discipline of the market. While this generation is much more progressive than the previous on questions of gender, sexuality, race and so forth, it is also much more neoliberal in terms of the relationship of individuals to society and its political economy — a trend visible throughout the Western world. In addition, Richard Seymour gives due attention to the counterpart of this common sense: the increasing violence and authoritarianism against those who resist or transgress the new discipline of the market and its inequalities and exploitation. From forced labor to obtain benefits to the escalation of police tactics, it is especially the women and people of colour of the Western world who make up much of the working class that bear the brunt of this offensive. The rhetoric of ‘scroungers’ and benefit dependence only legitimizes this new ‘liberalism without a human face’, and the more the state and its remaining welfare system present themselves as modes of exercising neoliberal authority, the less they are seen as universal achievements of citizenship in a high-wealth society. Seymour brings out this vicious cycle of our current times quite well.
There is much to like about this book. It is a clear and well-structured read: it starts off rather blocky and posturing in the beginning (for which I am just not the right audience) but improves over time with an at times fairly detailed analysis of the relationship between the rule of finance capital within the neoliberal state and the concrete strategies, alliances, and ideological ‘strong redescriptions’ this entails. Refreshing especially are two important things about this work: firstly, Seymour’s resistance to wishful thinking and hand-waving optimism. He describes the utter weakness of the left’s resistance, the decline in unionism and the small likelihood of its recovery, and the increasing neoliberalization of the Western common sense in no uncertain terms. Secondly, he rightly points out how identifying neoliberalism simply with ‘free marketeers’ and seeking a restoration of the old welfare capitalism and union alliances to combat it is an illegitimate and impossible exercise in old union worker nostalgia and doomed to collapse before it ever gets off the ground. He emphasizes how much unions have now come to rely on public service workers for their base, the last relatively privileged and secure bastion against the labour market, and how the neoliberal offensive on this point is destroying even that base as we speak — without any clear counter-strategy to be seen. The spirit of ’45 is an obscene display of delusional nostalgia, and should be rejected wherever it appears, and Richard Seymour does not indulge it — which is rare among the left in the UK, although such politics of nostalgia is much less evident in the United States. On the whole, this book does what should be the starting point of any Marxist analysis: it describes with sober senses how bad the radical left’s strategic position is, unhindered by the shibboleths or blinders of sect strategy.
Admittedly, I have some disagreements with the analysis as well, both larger and smaller in nature. Although these are all points on which people can reasonably disagree, I’ll mention a few points of difference here. One is that I think Seymour still concedes too much to the existing union structure, despite his justified emphasis on the need for a ‘new unionism’. The Owen Jones argument that unions are still the ‘biggest democratic institutions in the UK’ and the like simply does not convince, and masks the real issues of organized workers in the West. Firstly, if we criticize liberal democracy for being a sham democracy in some respects, being structurally set up to favour the elites and by demobilization and abstention excluding much of the working class, then this goes a fortiori for the unions. Even in the United States general elections will reach a 50% turnout or so, whereas union leadership elections are often decided on a turnout of about 15%. That does not bode well for an argument about their democratic content. Moreover, the dependence of Western unions on public sector workers. While the conditions and makeup of the public sector workforce is increasingly like that of private sector work, the strategic position is different. Public sector workers are more subject to the neoliberal ideological resistance to the state apparatus, making them seem ideal examples of wasteful obstacles and parasites to be cut; they’re often, as state representatives, in ambiguous relationships to workers (think of teachers or social workers); and they depend way more than private sector workers do on a general reserve of public support and solidarity. In Chicago, the CTU managed to triumph on this basis, but in most cases the long-term trend is not good for public sector-heavy unions.
Finally, there is also a certain analogy between the ‘Labour is defined by its members, therefore should be supported’ and the ‘unions are run by workers, therefore democratic’ arguments: both ignore the way the structure of membership is set up to prevent the use of that instrument for any anti-capitalist purpose under current conditions. A new unionism would mean a radical reformation of the existing union structure just as it would require a doing away with Labourism (something Seymour does agree on). It is worth noting that in various polls, from the US to Australia, people systematically indicate that unions are among the least trusted and liked institutions in the West — comparable to big business and parliaments, in fact.
Another point concerns the economic analysis. While I do not want to go into too much technical detail that will likely bore or confuse a general left audience, it is at least worth noting that some of the economic reasoning that underpins the book is disputable. While I readily agree with Seymour’s analysis of neoliberalism in the Mirowskian style, i.e. as the imposition of markets by a stronger (and even sometimes bigger) state rather than a classic free market offensive, I am less enamoured than he is of the Gindin-Panitch-Duménil-Levy approach to the crisis. Everyone can agree that the proximate cause of the crisis lay in the financial system and its particular overexposure to bad debt, and that this bad debt in turn has its roots in the stagnation (though not necessarily decline) of worker compensation. But it does not follow from this that long-term financial trends are the dominant ones in explaining global capitalism since the neoliberal turn of the 1970s. The argument that opponents of this school do not take finance to be a ‘real’ part of capitalism is misplaced; while indeed the populist narrative sometimes leans towards seeing finance as merely parasitical on capitalism, none of the Marxist economic literature on the crisis does this. It is clear that the credit system and finance are central to capitalism, as one can find in Capital volumes 2 and 3. But it is also clear that if finance is essential to capitalism, it is equally incapable of generating new value in the system, and this — rather than its circulation or the imposition of competition and productivity increases for their own sake — is the lifeblood of capitalism at a global level. This does not make finance irrelevant, fictitious, or parasitical, but it means that a purely financial explanation of longer term trends in capitalism is less plausible within a Marxist economic analysis, because less ‘microfounded’ (as the neoclassical economists would put it). Perhaps, of course, such Marxist analysis is wrong — post-Keynesian theory, for example, does indeed give good reasons to support a wholly financial explanation of long-term crisis tendencies, relying on the interaction of expectations and demand, and this is something we find repeatedly in Seymour’s book next to the Marxist literature.
This points to some of the inconsistency of the economic analysis proposed by some of Seymour’s narrative. He attacks those who see declining rates of profit (identified by Marx himself as one of capitalism’s most important crisis tendencies) as central to the long-term analysis of crisis trends in capitalism by using two arguments: 1) that profits have been at a record high before and after the crisis; and 2) that such an argument is teleological and implies there is a ‘final crisis of capitalism’. Neither of these is convincing. The first is a common reply to the ‘rate of profit’ literature on the crisis, as in Andrew Kliman and Michael Roberts, but it rests on a conceptual misunderstanding. The historically high profit rates Seymour cites are, besides being uncorrected for inflation (!), stocks of profit. What determines investment in Marx’s theory, however, are rates of profit — returns on investment. Not absolute amounts, but returns as a percentage of a capital invested. If capitalist A invests $1000 and gets $100 back, and capitalist B invests $100 and gets $50 back, then it is A who will be outcompeted, not B. A should have invested in B’s production process (or finance, or trade, or whatever) and made $500 instead of $100 on his capital, and it is precisely the role of finance to make such distributions of investments happen, and thereby to equalize (and maximize) the rate of profit. It is precisely these rates of return that are advertised in all the financial literature and that play the same role for capital as the ’200 or 500 a year’ in rents (or interest) did for the Mister Darcy types in the Austen and Brontë novels. In fact, Seymour himself notes that “what matters to capital is the rate of profit on investment” (69)!
Why does this matter? Because whether or not Kliman and Roberts are right in their statistical analysis, it seems evident that a rate of profit analysis can explain why despite all the neoliberal offensives and despite 500 billion bailouts and the governments more or less begging capital to invest (as Seymour notes in his book), no investment is forthcoming. The left is no serious opposition; the unions are moribund; the government gives capital all it wants; and it does not invest. This baffles the Obamas and the Osbornes, who have only neoclassical economics to go by. The high-profit view also has no explanation of this, but the low rate of profit view does. There lies the relevance of this debate among Marxists.
The second counterargument should also be addressed, because it applies to the broadly SYRIZA-type strategies proposed by Seymour. While I think he is probably right that this kind of Eurocommunist ‘broad alliances’ and ideological offensives are about the best we can achieve at the moment, I think we should recognize that this is a position of weakness. The liberals are winning, and while a long-term offensive of ideology may hit the neoliberals where they are weakest, it is not likely to reverse the arrangement of forces in the short or even medium term. It is therefore very nefarious when nostalgic analysis substitutes for sober senses in this regard, as Seymour observes. But this applies also to the strategic implications of the inconsistency mentioned above, between emphasizing the need for investment and accumulation on capital’s part on the one hand, and simultaneously insisting this requires more consumer demand on the other. This is a fundamental mistake. Contrary to the Keynesian analysis underpinning this argument, according to Marx’s economics it is not the case that capital accumulation requires high worker consumer demand, nor therefore does it require the state to intervene on this basis to guarantee it.
The state does indeed often, since the Great Depression, intervene to prop up — in various ways, according to the class configurations in charge — the consumption levels of the working class. But this is for political reasons, and defended as such: Roosevelt and LBJ alike were worried about riots, uprisings, and revolutions, not about ‘multipliers’ (in fact Roosevelt famously campaigned on an austerity agenda). If this seems implausible, remember that capitalism accumulated quite fine in the Victorian age, even if regularly wracked by crises, despite the subsistence level (or lower) consumption of the workers, and the same thing is true for capital outside the West — a dimension Seymour barely mentions at all in his discussion of the political economy of the crisis. (I could here go into the relevance of the global dimension for the strategic problem of whether we should prioritize the living standards of Western workers in the face of globalized value flows, and also the absence of a discussion of the transnational capitalist class in this work. But arguably that would go too far for a review of a popular book mainly concerned with domestic strategy.) The importance of this argument rests in this: 1) that it would be wrong to think that the liberal state cannot go beyond a small bandwidth of austerity and repression; 2) that it would be wrong to think that any form of ‘demand side’ politics would do better than austerity at overcoming the crisis from the standpoint of capital.
The mistake here is a common one, and by no means limited to Seymour, but it entails confusing the needs of capital accumulation with the needs of the working class. It is precisely Marx’s point that the two are disjoined under capitalism. The conditions of capital accumulation are determined by the rate of profit and the variables that constitute it; whereas Marx pointed out that saying a crisis consists of insufficient demand is a tautology. (It must be noted this is recognized by some post-Keynesian literature as well.) The upshot then is that we must resist the urge to promote Keynesian solutions as an alternative to austerity ones for growth, i.e. capitalist accumulation, although of course we can and should defend the welfare state, good public services etc. on other grounds. It also means that we should not think that austerity is irrational or a mistake on the part of the ruling class compared to the possibility of a Keynesian alternative, as most of the center-left suggests. Not to suggest Seymour is one of them, but there is perhaps an unexamined tension between his interpretation of the economics and the most important observation in the book: that “if we attempt to ground our criteria in terms of the dominant criteria of what is good for capitalism, we cannot win” (159, emphasis omitted).
If I seem to spend exaggerated attention to the economic discussion in this book — which is only a part of the whole — I apologize; this just happens to be my main subject of interest at the moment. But the relevance of economic analysis of the crisis remains important to any strategy as well, as I’ve hopefully shown, and that is a major concern of this book. That said, I think on the whole this is a readable and useful guide to the interrelationship between austerity, neoliberalism, and the state at the level of strategy and ideology, and these are perhaps the book’s main foci in any case. It will disappoint the more ‘left communist’ skeptics, in its Eurocommunist-Gramscian approach, but this is itself a product of the limitations of our times. Aside from the usual minor errors — Alex Andreou is not called ‘Alex Alexandreou’ (102n56); Krugman is not ‘marginal within his profession’ (126) — the book has much to offer in terms of a sober and nuanced analysis. This goes especially in the UK where the trend towards nostalgia, wishful thinking, and resisting empirical and strategic reconsideration is so strong. As Richard Seymour puts it in the conclusion: “if this book has been intended to do anything, it has been to find a way to drop those fetishes… assimilate the reality of our present situation, and soberly assess the challenge posed by austerity, without losing sight of the objective — which is to navigate our way out of this impasse” (152). To that aim this book is certainly a worthwhile contribution.
In this post, I intend to do something perhaps unpopular among the contemporary left: that is, to provide a conditional defense of Theory, with a capital T, and by implication the academy from the point of view of the radical left and its critiques. While the first part of this reflection will focus on the latter, this sets the stage for my discussion of the former; it is the need to defend theory for its own sake, the virtues of abstraction, and the recognition of the nature of knowledge and what this means for a radical view that animates my thoughts.
Much has been written about the ‘academic turn’ within Marxism – and radical thought more widely – as a corollary of the decline of a radical workers’ movement. Everyone is familiar with the way in which Marxism besides moved increasingly within the domain of professional theorizing from its previous points of emphasis: economic history, economic theory and political theory are less and less Marxist, whereas (at least in the Anglosphere) many Marxist academics have either abandoned it altogether or sought refuge in the ‘safer’ domains of literary criticism, cultural studies and so forth. This is, however, in a certain sense a battle within the academy, and takes its institutional framework for granted. While I believe that this shift is a major part of the defeat of Marxism in the 20th century, both as cause and effect, this is not the view in many parts of the contemporary left. Rather, it is often questioned whether academia itself is a worthwhile thing for Marxists to pursue and to engage with, and more strongly, whether Marxism today does not suffer from an excess of theory compared to a paucity of practice. The academic left is easily blamed for this perceived state of affairs; not just individually as Marxists, but especially as those responsible for perpetuating Marxism’s academic turn in the first place. Everyone is probably familiar with the exasperated activist’s complaint that all these supposed Marxists are just writing abstract stuff in the ivory tower and that they should come down to join the streets for a picket or a placard instead. Continue reading “Theory and the Left: A Nighttime Reflection”
The collection of socialist feminist arguments and lectures collected in 1979 under the title Beyond the Fragments is due a re-read in our present times. After the crisis in the SWP and the lengthy debates on the relationship between Marxist organisation and the ‘social movements’, often as vituperative as they have been inconclusive, the need to go beyond the fragments of each individual movement and find resources for a common purpose is as great as ever. What is striking about this collection is therefore how little dated it is – the occasional reference to the influence of the CPGB or the rule of Callaghan’s Labour aside, most of it reads like it had been written last week. For this reason, it is worth revisiting especially the opening essay by Sheila Rowbotham, which takes up most of the book. While the other two essays, by Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, emphasize also the practical and organisational significance of the women’s movement on the politics of the radical left, it is Rowbotham’s essay that most thoroughly gives a theoretical exposition of the flaws and failures of that radical left in taking up these lessons. Continue reading “Book Review: Sheila Rowbotham et al., “Beyond the Fragments””
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).