Feminist Next System Literature Review

Mariarosa Dalla Costa

In 1972 Dalla Costa (Italy) and Selma James (US) wrote the famous essay "The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community" which launched the early “domestic labor debate” and the transnational campaign “Wages for Housework.” The movement critiqued the Welfare State as the protector and guarantor of the sexual division of labor and made the case that housework is an invisible reproductive labor that supports and sustains capitalism. Dalla Costa was a member of Lotta Femminista, a feminist group that was influenced by and connected to some of the Italian autonomous and workerist movements.

In a 2004 piece for the Commoner, Dalla Costa outlined some feminist commons ideas:

"I have mentioned only some of the social macro-operations which allowed the capitalist system to ‘take off’ during the period of primitive accumulation. Just as important was a series of other operations left unmentioned here for the sake of brevity, but which could also be illustrated today as aspects of the continual re-foundation on a world scale of the class relationship on which capitalist development rests. In other words the perpetuation of the stratification of workers based on separation and counterposition imposed through the sexual division of labour.

These considerations lead to one fundamental thesis: capitalist development has always been unsustainable because of its human impact. To understand the point, all one needs to do is to take the viewpoint of those who have been and continue to be killed by it. A presupposition of capitalism’s birth was the sacrifice of a large part of humanity – mass exterminations, the production of hunger and misery, slavery, violence and terror. Its continuation requires the same presuppositions. Particularly from the woman’s viewpoint, capitalist development has always been unsustainable because it places her in an unsustainable contradiction, by being an unwaged worker in a wage economy and, hence, denied the right to an autonomous existence. If we look at the subsistence economies – continually besieged, undermined and overwhelmed by capitalist development – we see that capitalist development continually deprives women of the land and water which are fundamental means of production and subsistence in sustaining the entire community.

The expropriation of land leaped to the world’s attention in January 1994 with the revolt of the indigenous people of Chiapas in Mexico. The media could hardly avoid reporting it because of the crucial role played by Mexico’s alignment with the Western powers through the agreement for the North American Free Trade Area. The perversity of producing wealth by expropriation and the production of misery was there for all to see. It is also significant that the dramatic consequences of expropriation of the land led those involved in drawing up the Women’s Action Agenda 21 in Miami in November 1991 to make a forceful appeal for women to be guaranteed land and access to food.

At the same time, the process of capitalist expansion – in this case the Green Revolution – led many people to practise the selective abortion of female foetuses and female infanticide in some areas of the Third World: from sexual genocide to preventive annihilation.
The question of unsustainable development has become topical with the emergence of evidence of various environmental disasters and forms of harm inflicted on the ecosystem. The Earth, the water running in its veins and the air surrounding it have come to be seen as an ecosystem, a living organism of which humans are a part – they depend for their life on the life and equilibrium of the ecosystem. This is in opposition to the idea of nature as the ‘other’ of humanity – a nature to be dominated and whose elements are to be appropriated as though they were potential commodities waiting in a warehouse.

After five centuries of expropriation and domination, the Earth is returning to the limelight. In the past it was sectioned, fenced in, and denied to the free producers. Now, it is itself being expropriated of its reproductive powers turned topsy-turvy, vivisectioned, and made a commodity. These extreme operations (like the ‘banking’ and patenting of the genetic codes of living species) belong to a single process whose logic of exploitation and domination has brought the planet to such devastation in human and environmental terms as to provoke disquieting questions as to the future possibilities and modalities of human reproduction.

Environmental destruction is united with the destruction wreaked on an increasingly large proportion of humanity. The destruction of humans is necessary for the perpetuation of capitalist development today, just as it was at its origins. To stop subscribing to this general destruction, and hence to approach the problem of ‘sustainable development’, means, above all, to take into account the struggles that are moving against capitalist development in the metropolises and the rural areas. It also means finding the ways, and defining the practices to set capitalist development behind us by elaborating a different approach to knowledge.

In interpreting and taking into account the various anti-capitalist struggles and movements, a global vision must be maintained of the many sections of society rebelling in various forms and contexts throughout the planet. To give priority to some and ignore others would mean adopting the same logic of separation and counterposition which is the soul of capitalist development. The cancellation and annihilation of a part of humanity cannot be given as a foregone conclusion. In the metropolises and the advanced capitalist countries in general, many no longer have a waged job. At the same time, the welfare measures that contribute to ensuring survival are being cut back. Human reproduction has already reached its limits: the woman’s reproductive energy is increasingly dried out like a spring whose water has been used for too much land and water, says Vandana Shiva.

Reproduction is crushed by the general intensification of labour, by the overextension of the working day, amidst cuts in resources whereby the lack of waged work becomes a stress-laden work of looking for legal and/or illegal employment, added to the laborious work of reproduction. I cannot here give a more extensive description of the complex phenomena that have led to the drastic reduction in the birth rate in the advanced countries, particularly in Italy (fertility rate 1.26, population growth zero). It should also be remembered that women’s refusal to function as machines for reproducing labour-power– demanding instead to reproduce themselves and others as social individuals– has represented a major moment of women’s resistance and struggle. The contradiction in women’s condition – whereby women are forced to seek financial autonomy through waged work outside the home, yet on disadvantageous terms in comparison to men, while they also remain primarily responsible for labour-power’s production and reproduction – has exploded in all its unsustainability. Women in the advanced countries have fewer and fewer children. In general, humanity in the advanced countries is less and less desirous of reproducing itself.

Women’s great refusal in countries like Italy also demands an answer to the overall question we are discussing. It demands a new type of development in which human reproduction is not built on an unsustainable sacrifice by women, as part of a conception and structure of life which is nothing but labour time within an intolerable sexual hierarchy. The ‘wage’ struggle, in both its direct and indirect aspects, does not concern solely ‘advanced’ areas as something distinct from ‘rural’ ones, for there are very few situations in which survival rests solely on the land, To sustain the community, the wage economy is most often interwoven with resources typical of a subsistence economy, whose overall conditions are continually under pressure from the political and economic decisions of the major financial agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank. Today, it would thus be a fatal error not to defend wage levels and income guarantees – in money, goods and services.

These are working humanity’s rights, since the wealth and power of capitalist society has been accumulated on the basis of five centuries of its labour. At the same time, land, water and forests must remain available for those whose subsistence comes from them, and to whom capitalist expropriation offers only extinction. As different sectors of mankind seek and demand a different kind of development, the strength to demand it grows to the extent that no one accepts their own extinction or the extinction of others.
The question of human reproduction posed by women’s rejection of procreation is now turning into the demand for another type of development and seeks completely new horizons. The concept of welfare is not enough. The demand is now for happiness. The demand is for a formulation of development that opens up the satisfaction of the basic needs on whose suppression capitalism was born and has grown. One of those needs is for time, as against a life consisting solely of labour. Another is the need for physical life/sexuality (above all, with one’s own and other people’s bodies, with the body as a whole, not just the functions that make it more productive) as against the body as a mere container for labour-power or a machine for reproducing labour-power. Yet another need is the need for collectivity (not just with other men and women, but with the various living beings which can now only be encountered after a laborious journey out of the city) as against the isolation of individuals in the body of society and living nature as a whole. Still another need is for public space (not just the public parks and squares or the few other areas permitted to the collectivity) as against the enclosure, privatisation and continual restriction of available space. Then there is the desire to find a relationship with the totality of the Earth as a public space as well as the need for play, indeterminacy, discovery, amazement, contemplation, emotion ... Obviously, the above makes no pretence of ‘defining’ fundamental needs, but it registers some whose systematic frustration by this mode of production has certainly not served human happiness. I think one must have the courage to pose happiness as a problem. This requires re-thinking the notion of development, in order to think again ‘in the grand manner’ , and to reject the fear that raising the question of happiness may appear too daring or too subjective. Rigoberta Menchu told how the mothers in her community teach their girls from the start that the life facing them will be a life of immense toil and suffering. But she also wondered why, reflecting on very precise, capitalist reasons: ‘We started to reflect on the roots of the problem, and we came to the conclusion that its roots lay in possession of the land. We did not have the best land, the landowners did. And every time we clear new land, they try to take it from us or to steal it in some way’. Rigoberta has raised the problem of how to change this state of affairs; she has not cultivated the myth of human unhappiness. The Christian teaching she has used alongside the Mayan traditions has offered various lessons, including that of the Old Testament’s Judith.

In my view, it is no coincidence that, in these last 20 years, the women’s question, the question of the indigenous populations, and the question of the Earth have assumed growing importance, for they are linked by an especially close synergy. The path towards a different kind of development cannot ignore them. There is much knowledge still in civilisations which have not died but have managed to conceal themselves. Their secrets have been maintained thanks to their resistance to the will to annihilate them. The Earth encloses so many powers, especially its power to reproduce itself and humanity as one of its parts. These powers have been discovered, preserved and enhanced more by women’s knowledge than male science. It is crucial, then, that this other knowledge – of women, of indigenous populations and of the Earth – whose ‘passiveness’ is capable of regenerating life should find a way of emerging and being heard. This knowledge appears now as a decisive force that can lift the increasingly deadly siege capitalist development imposes on human reproduction."

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