Reproduction is Capitalism's Last Frontier
How bodies and seeds have become sites of resistance
Like many, after reading about the overturning of Roe vs. Wade in the U.S. last week, I am at once enraged and also having to actively resist the apathy that comes with being bombarded with incomprehensible levels of tragedy every day and still needing to function. In the search for ways to make sense of what seems like just pure tragedy, I have been coming back to Silvia Federici’s writings in Caliban and the Witch on control over the female body as being an essential stage in early capitalism. I wanted to share that story today because I believe that there are powerful lessons from the past that help us to contextualise what is happening now.
Disclaimer: I use the term 'woman' frequently in this piece, and while these problems do affect cisgender women predominantly, the stripping of reproductive rights deeply affects trans and non-binary people as well. Further, the category of “woman” is not limited to those with a uterus. As always, feedback is always welcome on the most inclusive use of these terms.
For most of history, women have found ways to control their reproductive lives. Throughout most of the world, prior to about the 16th century (and of course, in varying degrees depending on the region and time), women largely controlled the spheres of birth and reproduction, with midwives assisting at births and distributing herbs to meet women’s reproductive needs. By and large, this was tolerated by the State (and even to a large extent by the Catholic Church in Europe, which recognised that women may have to limit the number of children they had for economic reasons).
But just as we are seeing now, at some point there was a massive shift in the state’s regard towards women’s agency over reproduction. This shift came, perhaps rather predictably, when the control that women exercised began to threaten the economic and social systems that existed at the time.
Federici explains that violent control over reproduction often follows mass depopulation events when there is a sudden, sharp decline in the workforce (such as the Black Death). In the 16th century, one such event was taking place around the globe, spurred by colonisation. Early capitalists and colonisers dreamed of “an infinite supply of labour” arising from the colonies. But the diseases and sheer violence the colonisers brought to the Americas quickly dashed that vision. Ninety-five percent of the population in South America, about 75 million people, died as a result of the invasions. In Mexico, the population went from 11 million in 1519 to 2.5 million in 1600. (p. 86) In the 1580s, the population began to decline in Western Europe as well, a trend that continued into the 17th century.
Most of those who died in Europe were impoverished. The rich were able to avoid smallpox and other diseases as they swept through cities, but low-wage workers were not so lucky. All of this led to an economic crisis that threatened early capitalism’s very existence. Markets were shrinking (both in Europe and the colonies), unemployment grew, and trade was stagnant. The entire economy was on the brink of collapse.
It was due to this crisis, Federici claims, that population growth became a state matter and a topic in public discourse. It is also this crisis that intensified the persecution of “witches,” which went hand-in-hand with the severing of women’s control over reproduction, the criminalisation of abortion and contraception, and state regulation of procreation.
Of course, there were other factors that led to this. However, as Federici states, “It cannot be a pure coincidence [...] that at the very moment when population was declining, and an ideology was forming that stressed the centrality of labor in economic life, severe penalties were introduced in the legal codes of Europe to punish women guilty of reproductive crimes.” (p. 87)
Population growth emerged as a central goal for society. Women began to even be valorised for their reproductive capacity; the Church emphasised the need for women to populate the world, stating that “whatever their weaknesses, women possess one virtue that cancels them all: they have a womb and they can give birth." (p. 87) Pro-natalist policies began emerging in France and England; the family was placed on a pedestal, and marriage became incentivised.
The largest initiative during this era, however, was an intensely violent attempt to sever the control that women once had over their own reproduction. This was done partially through the witch-hunts, which criminalised non-procreative sexuality and contraception, and claimed that women were sacrificing children to the devil (p. 88). But a new penal code also emerged punishing women severely for so-called “reproductive crimes.” Punishment for contraception use, abortion, and infanticide were harsher than for most male crimes. Often, the punishment was death.
Governments also put in place surveillance mechanisms to make sure that women did not abort their pregnancies. As Federici writes, “In France, a royal edict of 1556 required women to register every pregnancy, and sentenced to death those whose infants died before baptism after a concealed delivery, whether or not proven guilty of any wrongdoing.” (p. 88) This was also the first time that women were charged as full adults for their crimes; previously, statutes were in place limiting their legal responsibility because of their perceived incompetence. As a result, women were sentenced to death more for reproductive crimes in this era than for anything else.
Midwives began arousing suspicion during this period, which led to the male doctor entering the delivery room and becoming regarded as the true “givers of life.” (p. 89) Women’s role in birth became a passive one, and birthing practices emerged that prioritised the life of the fetus over that of the mother in a medical emergency. In order to keep practising, midwives were enlisted as spies for the state, required to report all births, determine the paternity of children born out of wedlock, and examine women for signs of lactation if babies were abandoned. These policies persisted for more than two centuries.
The result of these shifts, according to Federici, was the “enslavement of women to procreation.” As she writes, “while in the Middle Ages women had been able to use various forms of contraceptives, and had exercised an undisputed control over the birthing process, from now on their wombs became public territory, controlled by men and the state and procreation was directly placed at the service of capitalist accumulation.” (p. 89) The knowledge that women once possessed about birth and reproduction, transmitted from generation to generation, was violently stripped from them. They became non-workers, enlisted to reproduce workers for the state, with no control over their bodies and were confined to unpaid reproductive labour. Marriage became seen as their true career.
“According to this new social-sexual contract,” Federici writes, “proletarian women became for male workers the substitute for the land lost to the enclosures, their most basic means of reproduction, and a communal good anyone could appropriate and use at will.” As she continues, “every woman (other than those privatized by bourgeois men) became a communal good, for once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women's labor began to appear as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.” (p. 90) It was, in her words, a historic defeat.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the parallels to the present day are eerie. Although the reasons for this modern reversal of reproductive rights are complex and certainly not only economic, it also doesn’t feel entirely coincidental. This early struggle over procreation and control of reproduction happened at the very beginning of capitalism’s journey. It happened at a time when the entire capitalist system was on the verge of collapse, in large part because of population decline and resistance to capitalism’s advances. Is it any surprise that following a modern-day global pandemic in which millions of people died, causing a labour shortage of predominantly low-wage and exploited workers, we would see a resurgence in the violent control over reproduction?
We live in an age where we have just experienced a mass population decline; where women and all people who can get pregnant across the globe are wising up to the reality of becoming parents in a society that does not care about or support them adequately. Thousands are engaging in “birth strikes” in countries such as Japan and Korea to protest the unfair care burdens and pay discrepancies they experience once they become parents. Suddenly, there is a threat to the reproduction of the workforce. And instead of addressing some of the legitimate reasons that people with uteruses cannot or do not want to support children, the response from capitalism is violent repression, control, and forced birth.
Of course, none of this is to say that there is some kind of conscious conspiracy by those in power to increase the workforce by forcing people to give birth. Federici explains how in the case of this earlier movement to control reproduction, there was a complex interplay between already-existing cultural factors, rising misogyny, and what the governments happened to deem as in their self-interest economically. It can never be reduced to one factor.
However, I believe reminding ourselves of the linkages between all of these trends and the logic of capitalism is crucial during this time. As Federici states, “Women’s bodies are the last frontier capitalism has to conquer, because capitalism sees human labor as the main instrument of wealth accumulation, and therefore must control its source. How many children we produce determines the size of the workforce. Also how we raise our children makes a difference in how they see the world, how they struggle, what they struggle for. This is why we have ‘population control’ policies, carried out through forced sterilizations. This is why the state wants to assert its right to decide who is going to be born and who is not.”
This trend is not limited to bodies, either. Nature itself is based in systems of reciprocity, of regeneration. The rise of biotechnology and corporate control over seeds is another sphere where capitalism is trying to expand and exert control over that which reproduces itself. Terminator seeds, the stripping of farmers’ knowledge, and the devaluing of farmers in their own sphere to make way for “experts” all follow the same playbook as the one to strip women from their knowledge of birth. “Just as technology has transformed the seed from a living, renewable resource into a mere raw material, it has devalued women in a corresponding way,” writes Vandana Shiva. “The medicalisation of reproduction has been linked to the mechanisation of the female body in which a set of fragmented and replaceable parts are managed by professional experts.” Sovereignty over food and sovereignty over the body are not separate struggles. They are one and the same.
Given this history, we must expect these rising attempts to control reproduction—to control life itself. There is virtually no end to the violence that will be mounted in an attempt to preserve the last dregs of this extractive system, to suck the last few trillions out of it.
But if what we are seeing today is, indeed, a kind of mirroring of the earlier siege on reproduction, perhaps it indicates that capitalism is, once again, in deep peril. Millions are demanding a different kind of society, and most of these movements, just like they were last time, are led by women. Last time, though, the violence was so great that capitalism effectively won (although resistance never went away completely). Perhaps this time, things can be different. We can learn from the past. This resurgence in violent control over reproduction could mark the beginning of the downfall of this system if we do not abate in our efforts to seize this moment and double down our resistance. Perhaps rather than simply signifying another crackdown or a reversal of rights, it betrays the desperation of those in control of this dying system. It shows how much they need us.
During the last breaths of feudalism, one of the most effective methods of resistance amongst peasants (once their labour power increased through population decline) was to simply refuse to pay rents, taxes, and other duties to landholders. Entire villages and communities banded together and simply refused. We cannot forget the power that is held in these forms of resistance—civil disobedience, refusing to follow unjust laws, and simply withholding labour would grind the system to a halt. Capitalism absolutely depends on the unpaid labour of women. It depends on the unfettered exploitation of nature. It cannot exist without them.
We must take time to grieve the massive loss of rights that millions experienced this week. The devastation, loss, and hardship this will cause are incalculable, especially to impoverished people, people of colour, and other marginalised groups. But we cannot lose sight of the larger struggle to dismantle all of these interconnected systems of oppression, and the opportunities that are arising through this time of upheaval and transition to imagine and realise an entirely different world. In short, we cannot forget how powerful we truly are.
This piece by Rebecca Traister for The Cut on the necessity of hope. “Because while it is incumbent on us to digest the scope and breadth of the badness, it is equally our responsibility not to despair,” she writes. “These two tasks are not at odds. They are irrevocably twined.”
This essay by Catherine Bush for Noēma Magazine on caring for the earth as if we were its aunts. “What if we cared for the world’s future inhabitants like aunts?” She asks. “As if these people-to-be are not ours — because they are not. Care like aunts who are impelled into altruistic relationships with those with whom we form communities (whether we like it or not), those both near and far, whose discomforts may or may not be ours, including those who don’t agree with us, while we attempt to navigate this human and more-than-human world of porous and penetrated borders.”
This piece by Vandana Shiva titled “The Seed and the Earth: Biotechnology and the Colonisation of Regeneration.” It’s on the longer side, but such a worthwhile read. In it, Shiva delves into the parallels between control over reproduction and control over seed through biotechnology, explaining their common origin in patriarchal capitalism.
Resilience in a Food Crisis - Aug. 2 Press Forum: Even in midst of crises of hunger, conflict and climate change — grassroots peasant and Indigenous communities have sustained and developed incredibly resilient food systems. We invite journalists to join this press forum to hear stories that demonstrate resilience to shocks, support agricultural and eco-systemic biodiversity, mitigate climate change and combat hunger.
Journalists sign up here (once registered for the forum you will be enrolled for future forums as well).
This edition of Offshoot was written by Thea Walmsley, with editing support from the team.