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Sylvia Federici: Primitive Accumulation of Capital and Violence Against Women

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An interview with Sylvia Federici, during a stop in Quito, about primitive accumulation and violence against women

“You destroy a community by terrorizing its women.”

By Manuel Bayón, for Agencia Tegantai

Translated by Brian Gruters

Agencia Tegantai: You describe in Caliban and the Witch the connection between violence against women and the origin of capitalism. How should we view this connection today in Ecuador when abortion is criminalized at the same time as the petroleum and mining industries are expanding?

Sylvia Federici: There’s a direct relationship between what the State is trying to do today, not just in Ecuador but at an international level, to expand its control and vigilance over women’s bodies, the drive toward extractivist policies, and as a consequence, an increase in violence against women’s bodies. It is an increase that begins to resemble femicide because quantitatively and qualitatively it has no precedent. The number of women who were beaten and killed, and the appalling nature of the violence, make it appear that this is something new in our time. I believe that the common element is in the attempts by governments today, in the new wave of primitive accumulation, to extend control over all natural resources and all territories, rural and urban, as well as over women’s bodies. Capitalism, the governments that represent it, and the objectives of capitalist investors, have attempted to control women’s bodies because they see them as a natural resource, a tool for the production of a workforce and something that should be controlled.

AT: How do they achieve this control over the production of new bodies for capitalist labor at the same time that they unleash violence against women?

SF: Today, at the international level, control over women’s bodies and over procreation does not appear in a single form. In some places women are sterilized. During the ‘90s a policy of the World Bank was adopted at the international level, which was called population control, because it accused women of producing too many children. Women were accused of causing poverty in their communities. And for that reason they adopted a policy of sterilization. And in other parts of the world women are required to procreate. The common theme is that the State wants to control the bodies of women, just as it wants to control natural resources and territory. Regarding the land, an extractivist policy of the sort that is being applied today, as destructive as mining or petroleum are, truly requires the control women and attacking them directly. Through violence against women you destroy the resistance of the community.

AT: So then for extractive capital, is violence against women among the main strategies of territorial control?

SF: They try to displace entire populations from their ancestral lands in order to excavate petroleum, diamonds, or coltan, and in doing so they terrorize women. It’s what happens today in so many parts of the world: this unjustified terror, which appears to be an end in and of itself, is so disproportionate. Because women are generally unarmed, they don’t pose a threat to any community, but nevertheless they are killed, tortured…it’s appalling. Rita Segarro has spoken about this on many occasions and has said some very interesting things, highlighting that today violence against women is not just domestic violence, but rather public violence, violence that comes from paramilitaries, which is connected, with its deepest roots in this extractivist policy, in the objective of general population displacement. You destroy a community by terrorizing its women.

AT: What is the role of women against this looting, against the destruction of communities?

SF: This is another reason for the violence against women: they are on the front lines in the defense of the commons. Women are not only victims of violence, but are particularly victims of violence because they are on the front line in the defense of the earth, the forest, and ancestral knowledge. It’s really important to highlight this. And also because women, more than men, are defending the noncommercial use of natural resources. They are defending, for example, the organization of resistance. And in much of Africa, subsistence farming is carried out by women. This is a true war by the World Bank against the subsistence agriculture. The World Bank that accuses women of producing too many children and impoverishing their communities with excessive procreation also accuses women of being tied to this backward method of cultivation and production. According to the World Bank, only money and business create social prosperity, and it accuses women of being tied to subsistence agriculture, and that this is the cause of poverty in their communities. For this reason it has pushed programs such as microfinance, which has been a complete disaster because it has not reduced the onset of poverty, but rather has increased it, creating a whole population of indebted women.

AT: One fundamental thesis of Caliban and the Witch is that the counterrevolution that initiated capitalism required patriarchy in order to be effective. Does this mean that we must do away with inequality in order to do away with capital?

SF: This is the challenge, the most important question facing us. I have always said that capitalism’s power is not solely in nuclear bombs, prisons, and torture, but, more importantly, the divisions that capitalism has created historically within the global proletariat. Divisions in labor hierarchies allow the creation of different experiences, different realities, which permit the delegation of power to banks and salaried workers, the power to control women, people of color…

AT: How can we confront these divisions in order to strengthen our unity in the fight?

SF: We can confront them in various ways. One that I learned from my experience with the feminist movement is that those who have the least amount of power must be capable of organizing themselves autonomously. The feminist movement was born in the United States among women who had become active in various mixed movements–the antiwar movement, the student movement, organizing for civil rights–always realizing that they were unable to speak, analyze their specific situation, their specific exploitation. Because in this mixed organizing no room was given to the exploitation of women. When women left these male-dominated organizations and began to unite amongst themselves, there was an explosion of creativity, because when they began to share their experiences they realized that the problem was not caused by individual shortcomings, and that they were confronting a common concern. This allowed them the ability to think about the struggle. At the same time, this was important because sharing their experience and analyzing their situation allowed them to discover an entire history, and an area of exploitation, that until then had been obscured. If women had remained alone in mixed organizations, an entire area of capitalist exploitation would have been ignored and would have continued. Capitalism would have been able to continue with this form of exploitation. The same thing happened with the struggle for civil rights in the United States. The Black Power movement was when black people began to organize autonomously. This does not mean that you can’t have common struggles or that unifying should not be an objective. But we can’t organize ourselves around unity that doesn’t exist, one that is an affirmation of the interests of those who have the most power.

AT: What is the role of men in overcoming these hierarchies that might reestablish unity against capitalism?

SF: It’s also clear that the difficulties of the feminist movement should be concerning to men as well. Femicide is not just a problem for women. Women suffer directly, but it’s also a problem for men. Today it is very important for men to organize themselves, educate other men, and mobilize themselves. Why is there no men’s march against femicide? Why is it women who always must march against femicide, or against other forms of exploitation of women? Why don’t men march in support of abortion, or in support of women controlling their own bodies? The mobilization of men against these examples of patriarchy would be extremely important. We women we have been waiting a long, long time for men to mobilize, because this problem is not one women should face alone. Through this type of exploitation, capitalism has spread its roots into the body of the proletariat at large, not just the bodies of women.

Published June 2, 2016

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