Celebrating March 8, International Women’s Day …
What is the “body” under capitalism? When we speak of the body, how has our sense of “self” in relation to our bodies been redefined, reduced, and mutilated under the logic of capital and the impositions of the state? While the answers to these questions are relevant to anybody that labors under capitalism, they have a particular weight and resonance for those that have suffered most under this global system — women.
In her highly influential work Caliban and the Witch, feminist writer and teacher Silvia Federici uncovered the brutal transformation European populations were forced to endure under the emerging social order of capitalism, the consequences of which inevitably extended outward to the rest of the world population, both human and more-than-human alike. Her most recent book, Beyond the Periphery of the Skin, extends this exploration into how these forces continue to impose their logic on the body, from the role the social sciences and medical establishment have played in this process, to the lack of imagination in institutional politics in addressing the root of the problem.
In this interview, Federici elaborates on how this ongoing transformation of the body extends inward just as much outward. Our modern conception of the “self” is, without a doubt, impoverished, but as her book titled suggests, reconnecting with what lies beyond the periphery of the skin is essential in reclaiming what was lost on this long and violent path to our present moment, with all its beautiful acts of solidarity and resistance, to the ongoing brutal repression of human and more-than-human life in all its forms.
Note: This interview was originally released through my audio podcast Last Born In The Wilderness. I asked Silvia to review the transcript before publication, and with her contributions, the text of our discussion has been edited for clarity and length.
Well, Silvia, it’s great to do this again. I think we spoke almost two years ago or something like that. It’s amazing how fast everything is moving. Especially since the beginning of this year, everything has been moving so quickly with the pandemic, with the social unrest that we’re seeing in the United States, the economic crisis, and everything that’s come up out of that.
I want to discuss this new book that you have published through PM Press, Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking, and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism. It’s a collection of writings that touch on various themes, but I would say the major theme that ties it together is the body, how capitalism has restrained or reformed or imposed itself on our bodies, on us.
My first question would be to ask: what are some of the most obvious things that come up when you explore how the body has been transformed under capitalism?
This is a theme I began to develop in Caliban and the Witch. The third chapter is about the struggle against the rebel body. I was inspired by the fact that when the feminist movement began, in the 1970s, it often referred to its politics as ‘body politics’. We saw that in the history of capitalism women have been subjected to a far more intense discipline than men. We saw that capitalism reached more deeply into our lives, appropriating not only our labor but our entire bodies. I refer to the state’s control over our reproductive capacity, over procreation, over our sexuality. This is because our reproductive capacity has been placed at the service of the reproduction of workers. So in Caliban and the Witch I paid particular attention to how capital and the state have appropriated our bodies and transformed them. In Beyond The Periphery of the Skin, instead, I examine the struggle women have made to free their bodies from the hold of the State and their limits.
What ties together the book, as reflected in the title, is the idea that we cannot free our bodies or change our identities, unless we change the material conditions of our lives, and recognize that our bodies are constituted, at all times, by our relations with other people and the surrounding social and natural world. In this sense Beyond the Periphery of the Skin is polemical with respect to main trends in contemporary science, that explain what happens to our bodies, in the case of illnesses, for instance, on the basis of abnormal genes. The cellular world of the gene is represented as a self-enclosed reality, no longer shaped by its relation to the whole organism. Yet, the amazing thing about our bodies is that every part is interconnected and continuous with what lies outside of it. In the case of illness, this means that environmental causes are far more important as pathogens than deviant genes. This is a theme that in a way, brings us back to the Renaissance conception of the body, where the ‘microcosm’ (the body) is connected with the ‘macrocosm’ of the universe, the stars. So I think of the body in a very expansive way. This means that if we want to change our bodies we must change how we work, what access we have to the wealth being produced, to nature. We have to act not only on the body itself, but also on the material conditions that shape our lives, which decide what the body can or cannot do.
The book is built as an argument. It begins by looking at particular forms of exploitation and then moves to how we can reclaim our subjectivity, our corporeal reality, and it ends with a praise of the dancing body, which is an exploration of the body in its powers and possibilities. In this process, I touch on some contemporary theories, to see how useful they are and some of their limits.
In the first part of the book, I criticize the feminist movement almost exclusive stress on abortion, summed up in the assumption that the right to abortion is “reproductive choice,” whereas control over our bodies means to also being able to have the children we want and under safe conditions. As activists of the Reproductive Justice movement have stressed, calling abortion “choice” ignores that not to be forced to procreate against our will is only the negative part of control, but from slavery to the present, black and brown women in the U.S. have been denied the right to maternity. I argue that it is not a contradiction that while some women have been forced to procreate, others are practically criminalized if they do. The capitalist class wants to decide who can reproduce and who cannot, in the same way as they want to decide who can live and who must die. Black and indigenous women often faced sterilization, especially when on welfare. Since the late 1970s, we have seen a sterilization policy applied on a mass scale to women throughout the former colonial world, to prevent, I believe, the birth of a new generation of Africans, Latin Americans, Caribbean people fighting to reclaim the wealth that was taken away from these regions. It was after the anti-colonial struggle that demographers began to speak of a “population explosion”, and the need for “population control.” It has served also to justify the existence of poverty in the midst of an obscene corporate accumulation of wealth, and to shift the blame from colonial exploitation, old and new, to the women of the world, accused of producing too many children. This idea has become a mantra with the World Bank.
In the second part of the book, I look at new issues and theories that have been at the center of debates on ‘gender politics’ as, for instance, Performance theory.
As I wrote, ‘performance’ is a useful concept, but we must see its limits, in that many acts, many instances of performance are in fact motivated by constraints rooted in the capitalist division of labor. When a woman puts on lipstick, when she diets, acts sexually in a certain way, she most often does so because of the social expectations that are tied to her role as reproductive worker, as a person whose social task is to serve men, to provide sexual/emotional services to them, and whose economic survival often depends on it. In other words, acts of “performance” are generated/motivated by a system of compulsions, pertaining to what women have to do to be socially accepted and to support themselves and their children within a specific system of exploitation and a specific division of labor. I wanted to bring attention to the lack in performance theory of a recognition that we live in a capitalist system of exploitation that structures how we act, this is a system that we can fight against but also at a great cost.
Covid-19 has laid bare the systemic character of the inequalities that structure our society. We have seen that eighty percent of those who die of Covid are people in the Black community, people whose lives, even without the epidemics are in constant danger, and not only because of police brutality, but because of persistent discrimination in every aspect of their lives. This means we cannot have a non-racist society unless there is radical change in the distribution of wealth, in the organization of housing, education, healthcare. This argument has implications also for the question of sexual identity. As crucial as being able to change one’s sexual identity may be, the struggle to ensure its possibility must connect with that of movements fighting against the exploitation of labor and more broadly the logic that shapes the capitalist organization of life.
Yeah, something that comes up for me as a question is the ways that many of the values of capitalism have been internalized so thoroughly over hundreds of years that even the demands that are being asked within Leftist politics and movements are fundamentally shaped by Capital. That’s got to be one of the biggest struggles that we can never fully get away from as Leftists. I feel like you address that in your work.
Yes, the need to create a society not run by the logic of capitalist development is a central theme of my work, and over time it has also shaped my relation to Marxism. A good part of the Left still looks at capitalist development as a condition for our struggle. There are even people now who believe that you have to accelerate capitalist development because it accelerates the capitalist crisis. And there’s too much uncritical celebration of the new technologies, though it’s clear that much of the ecological devastation of the world is due to the production of computers and iPhones.
We must change our conception of the social wealth. And in this sense, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a text book. It has shown us how the destruction of the natural environment — the contamination of the air, the waters, the food that we eat, intensified by racism and other forms of social discrimination — weakens our bodies, makes us vulnerable to disease.
There are epidemics because the earth is sick and so is our society. In Indigenous communities in Mexico, Guatemala, when a child is born, women bury the placenta in the soil to signify the profound, almost sacred bond between people and the earth. In Latin America women also speak of “my body, my territory” (“mi cuerpo mi territorio”). It means that our bodies are our first line of defense and also that what we put in the land is what goes into our bodies. So, it is clear that the so-called “pre-existing conditions” are above all the social conditions of a capitalist system that devalues our lives, and especially the lives of the people whose exploitation has been most crucial for the accumulation of capitalist wealth. In sum, we cannot have a healthy body unless we have a healthy earth, unless we stop burning the forests, breath air that is not contaminated, produce food that is not poisoned by pesticides. Even if Covid disappeared today we would still die of cancers, malnutrition, depression. What is never mentioned in the statistics about mortality that we hear every day, is that in 2019, more than 4700 people died of suicide in the U.S. This is another powerful reason why our “body politics” must go “beyond the periphery of our skin.”
I was thinking about this crisis with this pandemic and how it seems to be, as you said, laying bare capitalism. And I imagine that back in the Medieval period when the bubonic plague was sweeping across Europe and Asia, that it had a similar social and economic impact. If you could talk about that, maybe we could draw comparisons there and maybe we can see some of the great things that came out of that, and also some of the obviously terrible things that emerged from that as well.
Epidemics have very little to do with nature. They are always a human-made phenomena, because epidemics spread with the circulation of goods and people. The bubonic plague was brought into Europe from the Orient and circulated with trade. Some say the crusades were a disseminator. It eliminated more than one-third of the European population, and created a terrible turmoil on two levels. First, the fact that so many people died, made many people indifferent to the danger of infection, feeling that life being so precarious it was better to live it up. Moreover, the fact that so many people died caused a breakdown of the closed economy that dominated in the Middle Ages. As the fields lay empty people moved from place to place, taking over land, in urban areas the cost of labor increased, social protest escalated. For a time, because of the scarcity of labor, urban workers got the upper hand. But soon the reaction started, with even attempts to impose new forms of servitude.
Historically epidemics have also triggered persecutions. Starting in the 14th century, epidemics of bubonic plague became an excuse for massacres — of Jews, who were accused of spreading the contamination. Later, in the 15th century, there was another big epidemic: syphilis. The first cases appeared in 1485 in Naples, during the French occupation of the town. So, the Neapolitans called it the “French disease”, whereas the French called it “the Neapolitan disease.” Eventually the Native Americans were blamed for the syphilis. It was argued that Columbus’ companions brought it back from the “New World.” So Trump’s speaking of Covid as the “Chinese disease” fits into a long history of scapegoating.
Another persistent factor is that epidemics spread especially where people have been impoverished and weakened by malnutrition or by war. This was the case of the Black Death and the great epidemic of influenza that followed World War I, and we have seen it again in recent times, as the impoverishment caused in many African countries by the austerity programs imposed by the IMF in the 1980s caused epidemics of meningitis, cholera, gastrointestinal diseases and later Ebola. In Latin America we have seen dengue fever, Zika. In Asia the avian flu and SARS. The difference is that now people are dying also in Europe and the U.S, and this is why much attention is paid to it. But it was an illusion to think that epidemics could spread across the world, and not affect, e.g., Europe or the U.S.
The production of disease is an integral part of capitalist development. You cannot have a capitalist system that systematically separates people from the conditions of their reproduction, that impoverishes, immiserates, dislocates people, and destroys the natural environment, without the emergence of new diseases. We know, for the instance, that with climate change, animals, as well as insects, bacteria that were typical of certain geographical areas are now moving to other localities. So epidemics are a symptom of a broader disease that is affecting the whole system.
One question that comes up in your discussion is that in response to the Black Death in Europe there was a reaction from the ruling class with the attempt to further subjugate people. They wanted to take away whatever freedoms gained during that time. There were the enclosures of common lands and witch hunts. The moment we’re in, right now, gives us the opportunity to free ourselves and ask deeper questions, but we also should be very conscious that those that have the most wealth and power are going to use whatever tools and means at their disposal to further subjugate us, and even come up with new forms of subjugation that we still don’t even know or recognize.
Yes, we already see how the President is practically inciting a race war, siding with white supremacists now coming out in the open, as the hangings, and the constant attacks on protesters are demonstrating. As black scholar/activists like Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, have shown, despite its formal abolition, slavery has constantly been restructured, with Jim Crow first and then mass incarceration. So we have to be vigilant, to make sure that reforms do not end by being a restructuring of the way racial discrimination is organized. Clearly real change will come not only when the police system is abolished, but when the devaluation of black peoples’ lives, now shaping social policy from housing, to education, healthcare and the so-called ‘justice’ system, is completely eradicated.
We have to be prepared because there is a section of the population in the United States that has enriched itself from stolen land and the enslavement of people, and will not stop at anything to not lose its privileges. This is why, in the United States, there is still the death penalty, which is the support system of a slave society. When you see the way it’s administered, who in this country is executed, you see how much the legacy of slavery is still with us.
The positive development is that the state of emergency created by Covid-19, and the fact that the epidemic has left so many people without any resources, is leading to the realization that this system is not sustainable and that we cannot construct a better society except through collective action.
It is impressive how across the country people now are organizing not just to providing mutual aid, but with an eye to creating long term change. In New York, in addition to mutual aid organizing I am told there are popular assemblies, bringing together people fighting over housing, over the defunding of the police, and in support of people in prison. A challenge is to change the way we organize our everyday reproduction. As I have written in Re-enchanting the World, to be able to carry on a long-term struggle we need to create a new, more cooperative reproductive infrastructure.
I have one last question, which is I see personally and with the people that I’ve become connected with, a real tangible effort to reclaim the body, and particularly to reclaim women’s autonomy. In your work, you say that women’s control over their ability to reproduce has been taken from them through the medicalization of child birth and other policies. But I am seeing a real collective effort now to reclaim ancestral traditions, knowledge, and wisdom, and that is just one manifestation that I’ve seen. So I would ask you, what are some tangible examples that you’ve witnessed in which people are reclaiming the body?
One example is the struggle that is taking place not only to defend the right to abortion, but against what some national health advocates have called “the criminalization of pregnancy,” which is a set of policies that are practically punishing women, especially black women, if they decide to have a child. This is because several states have introduced fetal protection laws that criminalize anything a woman does as possibly jeopardizing the life of the fetus. Women, for instance, who were in a car accident or used even legal drugs have been arrested for placing the fetus at risk. And now in some states doctors have to contact the police if the blood test of a pregnant woman appears suspicious. Black women’s organizations and the Reproductive Justice movement have denounced these practices. And they have also encouraged women to go to a hospital to deliver accompanied by a doula, an advocate, to ensure that they are given proper care and are treated with respect. There is also, as you said, a great circulation of knowledge and practices about more holistic forms of healthcare, and a healthy distrust of institutional medicine. This means that we need to construct forms of community control over the care we are provided in hospitals, clinics, so that we do not confront alone a medical system that is organized fundamentally for profit.
I am reminded here of the popular health movement that developed in the United States in the mid-19th century, which had a slogan: “every person, a doctor.” It originated from peoples’ distrust of the medical profession. People thought doctors only cared for their money, so they launched this movement, that for a long time stopped the process of licensing.
One issue that today needs more attention is the health of children. Officially, now, eight million children are treated for mental disorders, and are daily given pills against depression, or hyperactivity, or attention deficit. I believe this is a way of medicalizing a social problem, which is the diminishing amount of time and resources available to children in this society, at home as in the schools as well, as all the creative public school programs have been eliminated and teaching is now mostly about testing.
To heal and control our bodies we also need to change agriculture and put an end to the torture of animals which is now the reality of animal farming. If people were aware of the horrible conditions in which animals live I think the meat industry would collapse. There are animals who never rise on their legs from the time they are born to the time they are slaughtered because they are so fattened their bones do not carry their weight. We should be concerned with such cruelty also because we are next in line. Violence and injustice are indivisible. Once you accept so much barbarity against some living beings, inevitably it will extend beyond them.
Will the experience of Covid, of this confrontation with mass death, and the obvious inability of the system to deal with it, produce real change? This is the question everybody is asking now. What is certain is that a new movement is growing, spurred by the revulsion against police brutality and institutional racism, but also motivated by the realization that capitalism does not guarantee our reproduction, that it is a threat to anybody that is not an owner of wealth, and that we have to take control over the basic elements of our lives, refuse to be divided from other people, and refuse to build our well-being on the suffering of others.
That points to the title of your book, which is so beautiful and it encapsulates your perspective, Beyond the Periphery of the Skin, which is to say that the suffering you pointed to, the violence enacted against the animal world, we’re not separate from it. We eat that and, as they say, “you are what you eat.” But I just wanna say that you’re extending that the idea of the body itself much further than this self that’s been constructed under a kind of post-enlightenment capitalist colonialist mindset.
Yes. It connects us to other people, to nature, to animals.
The self-made individual does not exist and if it did it would be the poorest person. The idea of the loner individual is that of a person that can be easily defeated. The U.S. has perfected the science of dividing people. The movie industry, the TV programs always show “the other” as a threat. So we are supposed to think of ourselves first. It is frightening to think that one response to Covid and to the protests following the killing of George Floyd has been an unprecedented surge in the sale of guns. Three million guns have been purchased in the last three months, many by people who never had a gun.
Yet, isolated we are already defeated. With other people not only our power but our imagination of what is possible expands. The powerful, liberating feeling that we have when we march with other people, as it has happened in the past weeks, comes from this sense that our body, our lives are expanding, that something new is growing, that change is possible.
Absolutely, and I’ll just leave it there, Silvia. I think we covered everything, and you explained and elaborated every point that I’ve ever wanted to talk to you about, so I really thank you for the time. I just wanna say your book Beyond the Periphery of the Skin is incredible, published through PM Press, and of course, your book, Caliban and the Witch is just incredibly important. It was important for me, at least, I’ve referenced it many, many times in my work, so I have to thank you for all that you’ve done.
Thanks also to all the people who have helped my work, which has always been inspired by collective experiences and by many peoples’ writings and struggles.
Silvia Federici is a feminist writer, teacher, and militant. In 1972, she was co-founder of the International Feminist Collective that launched the Wages for Housework campaign. Her books include Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women; Caliban and the Witch; Re-enchanting the World; and Revolution at Point Zero. She is a professor emerita of social sciences at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
Patrick Farnsworth is a long-form interviewer and host of Last Born In The Wilderness, a weekly-released podcast that covers such broad topics as anthropogenic climate change, radical political theory and praxis, animism, psychedelics, and current events. He is the author of We Live in the Orbit of Beings Greater Than Us, published through Gods&Radicals Press.
(Source: GODS&RADICALS, July 21, 2020/abeautifulresistance.org)