Magazine article Artforum International

Undeclared War: Silvia Federici on Violence against Women

Magazine article Artforum International

Undeclared War: Silvia Federici on Violence against Women

Article excerpt

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 worldwide--a 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. …

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