Capitalism and reproduction

In 1994, Italian feminist Mariarosa Dalla Costa said that capitalist accumulation in a planetary economy is unsustainable and leads only to misery. Her words ring truer than ever.

Women and the Subversion of the Community, edited by Camille Barbagallo, collects the essays that launched the domestic labour debate after Mariarosa Dalla Costa argued that women should earn a wage for their work in the home.

This is an edited excerpt from Women and the Subversion of the Community: A Mariarosa Dalla Costa Reader (2019) edited by Camille Barbagallo and published by PM Press.

Today, the sphere of reproduction reveals all of the “original sins” of the capitalist mode of production. Reproduction must be analysed from a planetary perspective, with specific attention paid to both the changes taking place among the ever increasing lower social strata in advanced capitalist countries, as well as in an increasing proportion of the so-called Third World population.

We live in a planetary economy, and capitalist accumulation still draws its lifeblood for the continuous valorisation of both waged and unwaged labour, the latter consisting first of all of the labour involved in social reproduction, in advanced countries, as well as in the Third World. We find the social “misery” or “unhappiness” that Karl Marx considered to be the “goal of the political economy” has largely been realised everywhere on the planet.

However, setting aside the question of happiness for the time being, though certainly not to encourage the myth of its impossibility, let me stress how incredible it now seems, Marxist analysis aside, to claim that capitalist development in some way brings a generalised wellbeing to the planet.

Today, social reproduction is more beset and overwhelmed than ever by the laws of capitalist accumulation: the continual and progressive expropriation, beginning with the “primitive” expropriation of the land as a means of production dating from the 16th to 18th centuries in England, to the expropriation, then as now, of all the individual and collective rights that ensure subsistence; the constant division of society into conflictual hierarchies of class, sex, race and nationality that pit the free wageworker against the unfree unwaged worker, the unemployed worker, and the slave laborer; the constant production of inequality and uncertainty, with the woman as reproducer facing an even more uncertain fate than any wageworker, and if she is also a member of a race or nation facing discrimination, she suffers yet further injustice; the continual polarisation of the production of ever more concentrated wealth and of increasingly widespread poverty.

As Marx writes in Capital, Vol. 1: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is … at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, ie, on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.” This process of accumulation is true not only for the population overwhelmed by the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century but is even more accurate today, whether capital accumulation passes through the factory, plantation, dam, mine or the carpet weaving workshop, where it is by no means rare for children to be working in slavery conditions.

Indeed, capitalist accumulation spreads through the world by extracting labour for production and reproduction in conditions of stratification that end in the reestablishment of slavery. According to a recent estimate, slavery is the condition in which over 200 million persons are working in the world today. Those macro-processes and operations through which economic forces supported by political power unfolded during the period of primitive accumulation in Europe, processes that aimed to destroy the individual’s value in relation to his or her community in order to turn him or her into an isolated and valueless individual, a mere container for labour power, which she or he is obliged to sell to survive continue to mark human reproduction on a planetary scale.

The indifference to the very possibility of labour power’s reproduction shown by capital in the first phase of its history was only very partially (and today increasingly precariously) redeemed centuries later by the creation of the welfare state. In addition, the major financial agencies, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have redrawn the boundaries of welfare and economic policies in both advanced and developing countries. For example, the economic, social welfare and social insurance measures recently introduced in Italy correspond precisely to the various “structural adjustment” programmes being applied in many Third World countries. The result is that increasingly large sectors of the world’s population are destined to extinction because they are believed to be redundant or inappropriate to the valorisation requirements of capital.

At the end of the 15th century, the bloody legislation against the expropriated led to the mass hanging, torturing, branding and chaining of the poor. Whereas today the surplus or inadequately disciplined populations of the planet are exterminated by freezing to death or dying of starvation in Eastern Europe and various countries of the advanced West (with “more coffins and fewer cradles in Russia”), they suffer death by hunger and epidemic in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. Deaths also result from formally declared war, from directly or indirectly authorised genocide, and from military and police repression.

The other route toward extinction is an individual or collective decision to commit suicide because there is no possibility of survival. It is significant that, according to Italian media reports in 1993–1994, many cases of suicide in Italy were due to unemployment or to the fact that the only work on offer was to join a criminal gang. In India, the “tribal people” in the Narmada Valley have declared themselves ready to die by drowning if work continues on a dam that will destroy their habitat and, hence, the basis of their survival and cultural identity.

A recent and monstrous twist to this campaign of extinction comes from the extreme example of resistance offered by those who sell parts of their body, a useless container of a labour power that is no longer saleable. In Italy, where the sale of organs is banned, there were media reports in 1993–1994 in which people explicitly said that they were willing to break the ban in exchange for money or a job. For those impoverished and expropriated by capitalist expansion in the Third World, however, this is already a common way for obtaining money. There have been reports about criminal organisations with perfectly legal outlets flourishing on the basis of trafficking in organs, sometimes obtained by kidnapping the victims (often women or children) or through false adoptions. An enquiry was recently established at the European Parliament on the issue of trafficking in human body parts, and various women’s networks are trying to highlight the issue and oppose these crimes.

This is where capitalist development, founded on the negation of the individual’s value, celebrates its triumph. The individual owner of redundant or, in any case, superfluous labour power is literally cut to pieces in order to rebuild the bodies of those who can pay the criminal or non-criminal sectors of capital that profit from it for the right to live.

During the era of “primitive” accumulation, when the free wageworker was still being shaped in England, the law still authorized slavery. By treating the vagabonds created by the feudal lords’ violent and illegal expropriation of the land as “voluntary” perpetrators of the crime of vagabondage and ordaining that if anyone should refuse to work, he would be “condemned as a slave to the person who denounced him as an idler”. If this reduction of the poor to slavery remained on a relatively limited scale in England, capital soon after launched slavery on a much vaster scale, emptying Africa of the equivalent of Europe’s population through the transatlantic slave trade to the Americas and the Caribbean.

Slavery, far from disappearing, has remained one of capitalism’s unmentioned and concealed constants. The poverty imposed on a large part of the planet by the major financial agencies confines entire families to work in conditions of slavery, often so they can pay their creditors. Workers are forced to work in slavery conditions on livestock farms and in plantations and mines. Children are made to work in slavery conditions in carpet workshops. Women are kidnapped or coerced into working in the sex industry.

In the period of primitive accumulation, during which free wage labour was being born from the great expropriations, there was the greatest example of sexual genocide in history. The great witch hunts, together with a series of other measures directed expressly against women, contributed in a fundamental way to forging the unfree and unwaged woman worker in the production and reproduction of labour power.

Deprived of the means of production and subsistence typical of the precapitalist economy and also largely excluded from craftwork or access to the new jobs that manufacturing was offering, women were essentially faced with two options for survival: marriage or prostitution. Even for women who found some form of income external to the home, prostitution remained a way of supplementing low family income or the low wages paid to women.

It is interesting that prostitution first became a trade exercised by women on a mass level during that period. One can say that during the manufacturing period the individual proletarian woman was basically born to be a prostitute. From this insoluble contradiction in the feminine condition of being an unwaged worker in a wage economy emerges not only mass prostitution in that period but also, in the context of current economic policies, the reoccurrence of the same phenomenon today on a vaster scale, in order to generate profits for owners and managers of one of the most flourishing industries at the world level, the sex industry.

This led the World Coalition against Trafficking in Women to hold the first World Convention against Sexual Exploitation in May 1993, in Brussels. The women in the coalition agreed to work for the UN’s adoption of the convention and its ratification by national governments. Internationally, in fact, the sexual exploitation of women by organised crime is increasingly alarming. These organisations have already brought men and women from African countries and Eastern Europe to work in Italy as prostitutes. The tricks used to cover up exploitation in prostitution – for example, wife sales by catalogue or “sex tourism” in exotic destinations – are widespread and well-known. According to the coalition’s charges, various countries already accept forms of “sex tourism” as a planned component of national income.

Thanks to the efforts of individual women campaigners and nongovernmental organizations, research into direct government involvement and responsibility in forcing women to serve as prostitutes for soldiers during World War II has also begun. Woman’s condition in capitalism is born of violence, just as the free wageworker is born of violence. It is forged on the witches’ pyres and is violently maintained. Within the current global context of the population’s reproduction, the woman continues to suffer the violence of poverty, since her unpaid responsibility for the home makes her the weak contracting party in the external labour market.

Because of her lack of economic resources, she also suffers the further violence of being drawn increasingly into forms of sex work that are exploitative and have terrible working conditions. The warlike visage that development increasingly assumes simply worsens women’s condition still further and magnifies the practice and mentality of violence against women.

A paradigmatic case is the war rape exercised as ethnic rape in the former Yugoslavia. I have mentioned only a few of the social macro-operations that allowed the capitalist system to “take off” during the period of primitive accumulation. The perpetuation of the stratification of workers begins with the separation and counterposition imposed through the sexual division of labour.

These considerations lead to one fundamental thesis: capitalist development has always been unsustainable because of its human impact. To understand the point, all one needs to do is to take the viewpoint of those who have been and continue to be killed by it.

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