ourEconomy: Analysis

Whenever capitalism gets into crisis, it’s women’s bodies on the line

From witch hunts to overturning Roe v Wade, violence against women is at the heart of our economic operating system

Laura Basu
28 September 2022, 8.32am

An abortion rights supporter holds a sign during a protest in New York after the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Dobbs v Women's Health Organization abortion case, overturning the landmark Roe v Wade abortion decision, in New York, U.S., June 24, 2022


REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

I’m 27 weeks pregnant. A couple of months ago I was having what lunch I could keep down with a friend – let’s call him Tim. We were talking about the overturning of abortion rights in the US.

Tim is a fairly liberal guy and believes abortion rights in the Netherlands, where we live, should stay as they are. But still, he thinks that someone needs to look out for the rights of the ‘unborn babies’.

“This foetus is part of my body and I should have autonomy over my own body,” I said, making the basic pro-choice argument. “It’s not part of your body, it’s in your body,” Tim replied.

At that point in my pregnancy, I didn’t think anything could make me feel queasier than I already did – but that last remark did the trick. It was even more unfortunate because at the time, Tim’s partner was also in her first trimester and was experiencing the same extreme fatigue that I did.

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No wonder. In your first trimester you are not only producing another human from scratch, but an entirely new, large, complex organ: the placenta. According to evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin, the human placenta, unlike those of most other mammals, “digests” its way into your arteries, its cells “swarming inside and remodelling them to suit the foetus”.

These cells are so invasive that “colonies of them often persist in the mother for the rest of her life”, having entered her liver and brain. Most mammals can simply abort or reabsorb unwanted foetuses at any stage of pregnancy. Not so for humans. “Any such manoeuvre runs the risk of haemorrhage, as the placenta rips away” from your arterial system. This is why miscarriages can be so dangerous.

The idea that your body is merely an empty vessel that contains an unborn baby is effective anti-abortion propaganda, but it has no relationship to reality. You may as well just say that babies are flown in by storks.

This narrative mentally separates the foetus from the person who is making it with and in their body. It thereby justifies forcing women, non-binary and trans people who can gestate to reproduce in the name of this separate yet defenceless being – the ‘unborn baby’.

This carefully crafted web of words, and others like it, form an ideological front in a war on women that stretches back in time to the hunting of witches.

The war on women didn’t just happen because a few bad men (and women) managed to get their hands on power. It is part of a repeating cycle embedded deep within our economic system.

Ever since its beginnings in the early modern era, capitalism periodically gives birth to a crisis of reproduction. In response, states and corporations seek new ways to turn a profit, often relying on violence. Their actions may resolve the crisis for a while, but they sow the seeds for a new crisis to erupt in the future.

Women’s bodies are at the heart of this cycle – and once again, we find ourselves at another crisis point.

The witch hunts

In the 16th and 17th centuries, hundreds of thousands of women across Europe and the Americas were burned, hanged, drowned, raped, pricked all over their bodies in search of the devil’s mark, and had their limbs torn or their bones crushed. This might seem like the savagery of a bygone time. But in 2004, the academic Silvia Federici published a book arguing that witch-hunting had been central to building the emerging capitalist economy.

For Federici, the witch hunts served three purposes: to split the working class; to turn wombs into tools for profit-making; and to cheapen women’s labour.

At the time, capitalism was a new economy, no longer based around people mainly making things to use themselves. Instead, most people had to work for wages, making things for those at the top of society to sell for their own profit.

The story we are usually told about the transition from feudalism to capitalism is one of clean technological and social progress. Any conflicts were between the old nobility and the new bourgeoisie, as in the French and American revolutions.

But Federici showed that the new economic system was forged through an alliance between the Church, the nobility and the bourgeoisie, waging bloody war against the peasants and urban working class.

The witch hunts coincided with the first inflation crisis of modern Europe

In Europe, this war climaxed with the enclosures, a process of privatisation that kicked peasants off the land and forced them to take on what work they could find in towns and cities. In Africa, Asia and the Americas, the class war took the form of genocide, enslavement and indentured labour.

Capitalism could have never happened without this theft: it provided the capital needed to drive the industrial revolution. Federici’s contribution was to show that the theft of women’s bodies and labour was just as indispensable to kick-starting capitalism.

All that genocide and land grabbing had inconvenient side effects. According to Federici, the population of South America dropped by 75 million while in Europe the enclosures helped generate the first modern inflation crisis, by allowing landlords to raise rents and merchants to hoard grain and hike prices. Real wages fell by two-thirds.

The starving poor had little resistance to plague or smallpox and populations began to decline. In Germany one third of the population was lost by the early 1600s.

From a commercial viewpoint, this decimation of the population was bad news. In the 1620s and 30s, markets shrank, trade stopped and unemployment became widespread, in the first international economic crisis, otherwise known as ‘the General Crisis’. The fledgling capitalist economy was on the verge of collapse.

What could be more logical, then, for the new ruling alliance than to seize control of women’s bodies and their reproductive powers?

Women weren’t hunted at random. Witches were usually poor and were frequently accused either of crimes against property or of reproductive crimes. They were tried for procuring abortions, murdering children, sucking their blood, and making potions of their flesh.

Many witches were midwives or ‘wise women’, traditionally the holders of women’s reproductive knowledge. In the Middle Ages, women had some access to contraception in the form of herbs turned into potions and pessaries, but now this was proof of the devil’s work.

Witches image3.png

When my friend Tim said that the government should protect unborn babies from the people gestating them, he was probably unaware that it’s only in the last few hundred years that the uterus has become the business of the state.

Federici described a process whereby male doctors took over birthing chambers. Strict laws were set around reproduction, on punishment of beheading. Women’s sexuality ceased to be something for women to enjoy and was put to the service of the economy and of men.

Accompanying this assault on women’s bodies was a devaluing of their work, and a redefinition of womanhood itself. The heterosexual, patriarchal family became the engine of the new economy. Strict gender roles were assigned. The woman’s place was now seen as being in the home, and all the work they did there was designated as ‘non-work’.

Non-work included all reproductive labour: both in the sense of literally having babies, and all the care and domestic work needed for humans to sustain and reproduce themselves. Not only were women expected to do all this reproductive work for free, they were supposed to do it with a smile on their faces, born out of that handy thing called ‘maternal instinct’.

This is not to say that under feudalism there was no gender inequality. But capitalism didn’t exactly spell progress. The devaluing of women’s work also affected their earning power when they did try to earn a wage. According to Federici, in 14th-century western Europe, women received half the pay of men for the same task. By the mid-16th century they were getting a third of the male wage.

For Federici, just as capitalism was grounded on genocide, slavery and land theft, it was grounded on women’s free and cheap labour, taken from them by fire.

The new class wars

It wasn’t by chance that Federici chose to write her history of capitalism during the 1990s and early 2000s. She was witnessing a new phase of capitalism, a new class war and a new war on women.

This was the era of globalisation and structural adjustment. The previous, social democratic phase of capitalism that had been built after the Second World War had ended in a deep stagflation and oil crisis. From the 1980s, neoliberalism was the response of business leaders and governments around the world.

Central banks hiked interest rates, inducing a deep recession. Governments and employers launched an onslaught on trade unions and wages. The IMF and World Bank forced newly independent countries to sell off land and resources to foreign corporations, cut public spending and worsen labour conditions in response to a debt crisis triggered by the interest rate hikes.

Governments and mass media criminalised migrants, cheapening their labour. And police forces and judiciaries incarcerated working class Black and brown people on a mass scale.

At the same time, Federici was seeing a ‘feminisation of poverty’ (a widening gap between men and women living in poverty) and a surge in violence against women. In South Africa, Brazil and other places, this included actual witch hunting, often targeting those who fought back against corporate land grabs.

Neoliberal politicians like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet, though they had mixed records on abortion, espoused ‘family values’: the cis-gendered, heterosexual, patriarchal family model that had been forged centuries previously by Federici’s witch hunters.

The parallels with today are too glaring to ignore. What with the climate apocalypse, the 2008 financial crash and its eternal aftermath, the COVID pandemic and now the new stagflation crisis, capitalism has utterly shat the bed. In response, capitalists and states have sought new money-making opportunities, requiring fresh onslaughts in the class war.

Central banks are again hiking interest rates. Corporations are grabbing land in response to the food and climate crises. Governments and firms have launched new attacks on trade unions, new privatisation and austerity drives, and new attacks on migrants. Debt has rocketed and wages are falling at record rates while profits are soaring.

60% of the world’s population lives in countries where fertility rates are dropping. In response, we are seeing a resurgence of pronatalist policies

Yet again, women are in the eye of the storm. An estimated 80% of climate refugees are women. Women lost their jobs at nearly twice the rate of men during the pandemic because they are more likely to be in precarious work.

Debt and austerity tend to affect women more severely because women tend to be poorer and look after children, so are more reliant on public services. And women have seen a rise in their unpaid reproductive work because of the increased care demanded by the coronavirus.

At the same time, women and LGBTIQA+ people are facing increased violence, including more domestic abuse after being locked up with their partners during Covid. Politicians are again getting in on the action, with those in charge once again espousing ‘traditional values’, along with pussy grabbing and boasting about rape. The economic and the physical violence go hand in hand, and both are part of the wider class war.

The crisis of reproduction

When the witch hunters were out setting women alight, little did they know that they were sowing the seeds for another crisis to erupt centuries later. As we have seen, the economic model they were building relied on the unpaid reproductive labour of women – gestation, care and housework. At the same time, it ate away at the ability of women to provide that free labour, because working-class women always also had to earn a wage to be able to support themselves and their families.

This, then, is the crisis of reproduction. For some, such as the social theorist Nancy Fraser, it is an inherent part of capitalism.

After the Second World War, a new, social democratic type of capitalism provided a temporary fix, at least for the middle classes of rich countries. This was the era of the single-earner household and the housewife – when men could earn enough to support a family and women commonly stayed home to look after the children.

Neoliberalism made that setup a distant memory. Forcing wages down meant that middle class women had to join the workforce and working class women had to work longer hours. But the gap this left in household work was never filled – who was going to look after the babies?

In fact, public services and social security were slashed, making it even harder for families to support themselves. Those who could afford it tried to skirt the problem by outsourcing their childcare and housework, often to working class immigrant women, creating ‘global care chains’. But rather than solve the reproductive crisis, this only pushed it around.

The crisis of reproduction is one reason that 60% of the world’s population now lives in countries where fertility rates are dropping. In response, we are seeing a resurgence of pro-natalist policies, designed to bump up birth rates. Around 30% of countries now have pro-natalist policies, compared to 10% in the 1970s.

These policies don’t always abuse reproductive rights, and include things like grants and loans for families choosing to have a third child – usually as long as they are heterosexual and cis-gendered. But from the US to Poland and Hungary, China to Russia and Iran, restrictions on abortion are on the rise.

On the far Right, pro-natalist policies are linked to ideas such as the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory, which argues that European civilisation will be wiped out by immigration from Muslim countries and high birth rates among non-whites. Yet these ideas are invariably wrapped up with economic goals.

Conservative cultural politics are often seen as unrelated to practical economic policy. In fact, the two have been entwined from the start. In Turkey, President Erdoğan has described abortion as “murder” and suggested it is a secret plot designed to stall the country’s economic growth.

My friend Tim doesn’t know it, but in wanting the state to police women’s bodies, he’s fighting on the wrong side of the class war. Violence against women is not just the result of bad men or cracked politicians taking over. It has always been at the heart of our economic operating system, and the heat gets turned up every time capitalism lands itself in a crisis. Just ask the witches.

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