FOR MORE THAN TWO DECADES, radical feminist scholar and activist Silvia Federici has argued that we cannot change our everyday life without questioning the political and economic mechanisms of capitalism’s dominance. Indeed, feminism insists that everyday life itself must be recognized as a highly ordered political construction, with the relationships among gender, autonomy, and labor at its core. In the pages that follow, Federici previews her latest research on the staggering acceleration of violence against women worldwidea quotidian and widespread manifestation of new networks of control.
SINCE THE BEGINNING of the feminist movement, violence against women has been a key issue, inspiring the formation of the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, held in Brussels in 1976. Feminist antiviolence initiatives have multiplied in the ensuing decades, as have laws passed by governments in the wake of the United Nations World Conferences on Women. But, far from diminishing, violence against women has escalated in every part of the world, to the point that feminists now describe its lethal form as femicide. And it has become more public and more brutal, while atrocities of a type once seen primarily in wartime have become common in peacetime.
What are the driving forces behind this development, and what does it tell us about the transformations that are taking place in the global economy and in the social position of women? Answers to these questions have varied, but it is my objective to demonstrate that, while this new surge of violence takes different forms, a common denominator is the devaluation of women’s lives and labor that globalization promotes. In other words, the new violence against women is rooted in structural trends that are constitutive of capitalist development and state power as such, in all time periods.
Capitalist development begins with a war on women. The witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe and the New World led to the deaths of thousands. As I wrote in my 2004 book Caliban and the Witch, this historically unprecedented phenomenon was a central element of the process that Marx defined as primitive accumulation, for it destroyed a universe of female subjects and practices that stood in the way of the nascent system’s main requirements: the accumulation of a massive workforce and the imposition of a more constraining discipline of labor. The naming of women as witches and the persecution of them for their witchcraft paved the way for the confinement of women in Europe to unpaid domestic labor. It legitimated their subordination to men in and beyond the family. It gave the state control over their reproductive capacity, guaranteeing the creation of generations of new workers. In this way, the witch hunts constructed a specifically capitalist, patriarchal order that has continued into the present, though it has been constantly adjusted in response to women’s resistance and the changing needs of the labor market.
From the tortures and executions to which women accused of witchcraft were subjected, other women soon learned that they would have to be obedient and silent, and would have to accept hard labor and men’s abuses, in order to be socially accepted. Until the eighteenth century, those who fought back might be condemned to the “scold’s bridle,” a metal and leather contraption, also used to muzzle slaves, that enclosed the wearer’s head and, if she attempted to speak, lacerated her tongue. Gender-specific forms of violence were also perpetrated on American plantations where by the eighteenth century (per Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette’s 2015 study The American Slave Coast) masters’ sexual assaults on female slaves had turned into a systematic politics of rape, as planters attempted to replace the importation of slaves from Africa with a local breeding industry centered in Virginia.
Violence against women did not, of course, disappear with the end of the witch hunts or with the abolition of slavery. On the contrary: It was normalized. The sterilization of women of color, poor women, and women who practiced their sexuality outside marriage continued into the 1960s. Similarly, until feminists forced its recognition, rape in the family did not exist, as far as the state was concerned. As Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa pointed out in Un lavoro d’amore (The Work of Love, 1978), violence has always been present as a subtext, a possibility, in the nuclear family, because men, through their wages, have been given the power to supervise women’s unpaid domestic labor, to use women as their servants, and to punish their refusal of this work. This is why domestic violence perpetrated by men was, until recently, not considered a crime. In parallel with the state’s legitimation of parents’ right to punish their children, who must be trained in obedience so that they’ll be tractable workers, domestic violence against women was tolerated by the courts and the police as a legitimate response to women’s noncompliance in their domestic duties.
But while violence against women has been normalized as a structural aspect of familial and gender relations, what has developed during the past several decades exceeds the norm. This is because the capitalist class is determined to turn the world upside down in order to consolidate its power, which was undermined in the ’60s and ’70s by anticolonial, feminist, and civil rights struggles, particularly the Black Power movement. The strategy of the forces of reaction is to attack people’s means of reproduction and institute a regime of permanent warfare.
My thesis, in other words, is that we are witnessing an escalation of violence against women, especially women of color, because “globalization” is a process of political recolonization, intended to give capital uncontested control of the world’s natural wealth and all human labor, and this cannot be achieved without attacking women, who are directly responsible for the reproduction of their communities. Not surprisingly, violence against women has been more intense in those parts of the world (sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia) where multinational corporations hardly bother to disguise the rapaciousness with which they are carving up and monetizing every conceivable resource and every square inch of land, and where the anticolonial struggle has been the strongest. Brutalizing women facilitates the “new enclosures.” It paves the way for the land grabs, privatizations, and wars, declared and undeclared, that for years have been devastating entire regions.
The brutality of the attacks perpetrated in such conflicts is often so extreme that they seem to have no utilitarian purpose. With reference to the tortures inflicted on women’s bodies by paramilitary organizations operating in Latin America, Rita Laura Segato has spoken of an “expressive violence” and a “pedagogy of cruelty,” arguing that their objective is to terrorize, to send a messagefirst to women and then, through them, to entire populationsthat no mercy should be expected. But the message is never an end in itself. By clearing large territories of their inhabitants, by forcing people to leave their homes, their fields, their ancestral lands, violence against women is a crucial part of the operations of the mining and petroleum companies that today are displacing scores of villages; and this violence is by no means in conflict with the mandates of international institutions, such as the World Bank and the United Nations, that shape global economic policy and set mining codes and are ultimately responsible for the neocolonial conditions under which corporations operate on the ground. It is to their offices and their development plans that we must turn, in fact, to understand the logic whereby militias in the diamond, coltan, and copper fields of the Democratic Republic of the Congo shoot their pistols into women’s vaginas, or whereby Guatemalan soldiers rip pregnant women’s bellies with knives. Segato is right. Such violence cannot emerge from the everyday life of any community. It must be planned, calculated, performed with the utmost guarantee of impunity, in the same way that, with impunity, mining companies today pollute lands, rivers, and streams with deadly chemicals, while the people who live off these resources are imprisoned by security guards if they dare to resist. No matter who the immediate perpetrators may be, only powerful states and agencies can green-light such devastation and ensure that the culprits are never brought to justice.
It’s essential to emphasize that violence against women is a key element in this new global war not only because of the horror it evokes or the messages it sends, but also because of what women represent in their capacity to keep their communities together and, equally importantly, to defend noncommercial conceptions of security and wealth. In Africa and India, for instance, until recently, women had access to communal land and devoted a good part of their workday to subsistence farming. But both communal land tenure and subsistence agriculture have come under heavy institutional attack, criticized by the World Bank as one of the causes of global poverty, the argument being that land is a “dead asset” unless it is legally registered and used as collateral to obtain bank loans with which to start some entrepreneurial activity.
In reality, it is thanks to subsistence farming that many people have been able to survive brutal austerity programs. But critiques like the World Bank’s have been successful in both Africa and India. Many women have been forced to give up subsistence production and work as their husbands’ helpers in commodity production. As Maria Mies has observed, this coerced dependence is one of the specific ways in which women in rural areas are being “integrated into development,” and is itself a violent process. Not only is it “guaranteed by the violence inherent in the patriarchal men-women relations,” it also devalues women, so that the men of their community view them (especially if the women are old) as useless beings whose assets and labor can be appropriated without qualms.
Changes in laws and norms of land ownership, and in the concept of what may be considered a source of value, appear to also be at the root of a phenomenon that, since the ’90s, has produced much misery for women, especially in Africa and India: the return of witch hunting. Many factors contribute to the resurgence of witch hunts, among them the disintegration of communal solidarity, due to decades of impoverishment and to the ravages of AIDS and other diseases; the spread of neo-Calvinist evangelical sects preaching that poverty is caused by personal shortcomings or witches’ evildoings and the aforementioned devaluation of old age and of older women’s lives in particular. But it has been noted that witchcraft accusations are more frequent in areas designated for commercial projects or where land privatization processes are under way (as in India’s tribal communities), and when the accused have some land that can be confiscated. In Africa in particular, the victims are older women, living alone off some piece of land, while the accusers are younger members of their communities or even of their own families, generally unemployed youth, who see these elders as usurping what should belong to them and may be manipulated by other actors who remain in the shadows, such as local leaders, who often conspire with business interests.
There are other ways in which new forms of capital accumulation instigate violence against women. Unemployment, the precaritization of work, and the collapse of the family wage are key in this regard. Deprived of income, men vent their frustrations on the women in their families or try to recuperate lost money and social power by exploiting women’s bodies and work. This dynamic underpins “dowry murders” in India, where middle-class men kill their wives if they do not bring sufficient assets with them. And it contributes to sex trafficking, as men force their sisters or lovers into prostitution, such that they become embroiled in a sex industry run by predominantly male criminal organizations capable of imposing slave labor “in its crudest . . . form” (as Mies puts it).
Here, individual micropolitics mimic and merge with institutional macropolitics. For capital, as well as for men cast into conditions of precarity, women’s worth resides increasingly in the cheap paid labor they can provide rather than in their unpaid domestic workwhich would, in any case, need to be supported by a stable male wage, something contemporary capitalism is determined to phase out (except for limited sectors of the population). Women’s unpaid work has not disappeared, but it is no longer a sufficient condition for social acceptance. The newly emergent political economy fosters more violent familial relations, as women are expected to bring money home, but are abused if they fall short on their domestic duties or demand more power in recognition of their monetary contributions.
Women’s need to leave the home, to emigrate, to take their reproductive work to the streets (as vendors, traders, sex workers) in order to support their families also gives rise to new forms of violence against them. Indeed, all available evidence indicates that women’s integration into the global economy is a violent process. Migrant women from Latin America are known to take contraceptives, expecting to be raped by the now-militarized border police. Street vendors clash with the police trying to confiscate their goods. As Jules Falquet has noted, as women shift from serving one man to serving many men (cooking, cleaning, providing sexual services), traditional forms of restraint break down, making women more vulnerable to abuse. Individual male violence is also a response to women’s more assertive demands for autonomy and economic independence and, more simply, a backlash against the rise of feminism. This is the kind of violence that exploded at the Université de Montréal on December 6, 1989, when a man entered a classroom and, after separating men from women, opened fire on the women, screaming, “You are all fucking feminists”; fourteen women were killed. Misogyny is also compounded by racism. In the United States, the murders of women of color are less likely to receive media attention or to be solved than the murders of white womensee, for example, the glacial pace of the “Grim Sleeper” investigation in Los Angeles, and the belated manner in which the press began giving substantive coverage to the case of this serial killer who preyed on low-income African American women. Transphobia, too, compounds misogyny: Between 2010 and 2016, at least 111 transgender and gender-nonconforming people were murdered in the US, most of whom were black trans women. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, twenty-three of these homicides occurred in 2016the highest figure ever recorded by the NCAVP.
These forms of violence are obviously different from those inflicted on women by paramilitary personnel, narcos, and corporations’ private armies or security guards. Yet they are deeply related. As Sheila Meintjes, Anu Pillay, and Meredeth Turshen have noted (in The Aftermath: Women in Post-Conflict Transformation, a 2001 study they edited), what connects wartime and peacetime violence is the denial of women’s autonomy, which is in turn linked to sexual control and allocation of resources. Mies has also noted that “in all these production relations, based on violence and coercion, we can observe an interplay between men (fathers, brothers, husbands, pimps, sons), the patriarchal family, the state and capitalist enterprises.” Domestic and public violence (i.e., military or paramilitary violence, community witch hunts) also feed each other. Institutional tolerance of domestic violence creates a culture of impunity that contributes to normalizing the public violence inflicted on women.
In all the cases mentioned above, violence against women is physical. But we should not ignore the violence perpetrated by economic and social policy and the marketization of reproduction. Poverty, resulting from cuts in welfare, employment, and social services, should itself be considered a form of violence, and so should grossly inhumane working conditions, as found, for example, in the maquiladoras, the new slave plantations. Lack of health care, denial of access to abortion, abortion of female fetuses, and microcreditso often leading to catastrophe for those who cannot pay back their loansthese things, too, are violence. To this list, we must also add the growing militarization of everyday life, with its attendant glorification of aggressive, misogynous models of masculinity. Falquet has argued that the proliferation of armed men and the development of a new sexual division of labor, whereby most jobs open to men (as private domestic guards, commercial security guards, prison guards, members of gangs or criminal syndicates, and soldiers in regular armies or mercenary corps) require violence, plays a central role in forging increasingly toxic masculinities. Statistics show that those who kill are often men who have familiarity with and access to arms and who are accustomed to resolving conflicts with violence. In the US they are often policemen or veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Significant in this context has been the high level of violence against women in the US military. In reference to the Frenchmen whose task was to torture Algerian rebels, Frantz Fanon pointed out that violence is indivisibleyou cannot practice it as your daily occupation without taking it home. Exacerbating the problem has been the mediatic construction and dissemination of hypersexualized models of femininity, contributing to a misogynous culture in which women’s aspirations to autonomy are degraded and reduced to the status of sexual provocations.
Given the pervasive character of the violence women are confronting, it is clear that resistance to it must also be organized on many fronts. Mobilizations are already under way, increasingly shunning dead-end solutions such as more punitive legislation, which only serves to give more power to the very authorities who are directly or indirectly responsible for the problems. More effective are the strategies that women devise when they take things in their own hands. Particularly successful tactics include opening shelters controlled not by the authorities but by the women who use them; organizing self-defense classes; and building broadly inclusive demonstrations like the Take Back the Night marches that originated in the ’70s, or the marches organized by women in India against rape and dowry murders, which often lead to sit-ins in the neighborhoods of the perpetrators or in front of police stations. Recent years have also seen the rise of anti–witch hunt campaigns in both Africa and India, with women and men going from village to village, educating people as to the causes of illness and the interests motivating male traditional healers, local leaders, and other frequent accusers. In some areas of Guatemala, women have begun taking the names of abusive soldiers and then exposing them in their villages of origin. In each case, women’s decisions to fight back, to break their isolation, and to join with other women have been vital to the success of these efforts. But these strategies cannot create lasting change if they are not accompanied by a process of revaluation of the position of women and of the reproductive activities they contribute to their families and communities; nor can such change be effected unless women acquire the resources they need to be independent of men, so that they cannot be forced, for the sake of survival, to accept dangerous and exploitative conditions of work.