Originally published: 19.03.17
Maria Mies: Patriarchy and the Accumulation on a World Scale
This book provides a most important analysis of the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism. Maria Mies’ thesis is that patriarchy is at the core of capitalism, and in fact, capitalism would not have had its success in its accumulation of capital without patriarchal ideals and practices.
She builds on Federici’s analysis of the witch hunts, which were instrumental in the early developments of capitalism and argues, convincingly and in-depth, that the exploitation and oppression of women allowed for its successful domination of the world.
“The witch hunt which raged through Europe from the twelfth to the seventeenth century was one of the mechanisms to control and subordinate women, the peasant and the artisan, women who in their economic and sexual independence constituted a threat for the emerging bourgeois world order.” (p.81)
I would like to focus here on the third chapter of her book, ‘Colonization and Housewifization’. Here we see how patriarchal capitalism’s power and domination flourished by colonialism. Capitalism’s mantra is continuous profit and expansion which is essential in the ongoing accumulation of capital. But this also requires new areas to exploit – thus the expansion into other countries – and the colonization of other lands, resources and people.
According to Wikipedia:
“Colonization is a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components.”
Thus western capitalism became a world imperial power, colonizing what we now call “third world countries”.
“One could say that the first phase of the Primitive Accumulation was that of merchant and commercial capital ruthlessly plundering and exploiting the colonies’ human and natural wealth.” (p.89)
The success of this domination was to dehumanize the people of these colonized nations – to paint them as the “other” – as savages, uncivilized and lesser beings – to justify their oppression. ‘Black’ people were deemed inferior, wild and in need to be controlled and therefore open to exploitation.
The colonies were: “…lying outside ‘civilized society’” (p.75).
Mies also described how the colonization process was gendered – and based on patriarchal ideals.
What is central to Mies’ thesis are the connections between the patriarchal capitalist exploitations of nature, of land and property, of women and of those deemed to be “foreigners” or “heathens”.
Mies makes connections between issues which have previously been seen as separate entities –
“…I shall rather trace the ‘underground connections by which nature was exploited and put under man’s domination to the processes by which women in Europe were subordinated, and examine the processes by which these two were linked to the conquest and colonization of other lands and people.” (p. 77)
In Europe the results of the witch hunts and what is described by Mies as the“housewifization” of women was in the process of becoming entrenched within western capitalism. Women had been separated from the public sphere; their work deemed unproductive and of no value to the production system. Women had become dis-empowered and subjugated into the privacy of the home. By the 19th century we have the“ideal woman” depicted as the weak Victorian woman with no power or autonomy.
In the colonies it was necessary for capitalists to create a sexual division of labour, both as a means to control reproduction and thus labour and also to position women in the non-labour sphere and thus develop a class of cheap labour. Where there was evidence of any form of equality between the sexes or women’s independence and autonomy, this was held to be primitive and backward by the colonizers. Thus a sexual division of labour was actively instituted.
There were good economic reasons for this ideology and practice to be embodied in the colonization process. Mies cites Annie Stoler’s work which tells us that in the plantations in Sumatra:
“At different economic and political junctures in plantation history, the planters contend that (1) permanent female workers were too costly to maintain because of time they took off for child-birth and menstruation, (2) women should and could not do ‘hard’ labour, and (3) women were better suited to casual work.” Stoler 1982. (p.96).
Mies argues that:
“…the introduction of the ‘weak woman’ was a clear ideological move which served the economic purpose of lowering women’s wages and creating a casual female labour force…” (p.96)
Like the European witch-hunts, women’s reproductive capacity was controlled under colonial power. In the Caribbean, slave women were not allowed to marry nor have children as it was cheaper to import slaves from Africa than pay for the reproduction of slave labour. However, once this source of slave labour was depleted, slave women were encouraged to reproduce.
In Burma, for example, as in Europe during the development of capitalism, local home industries, usually run by women, were destroyed by the importing of commodities. Thus reducing the capacity for women to have economic independence.
Mies also explores the impact of German colonialism in Africa. Because it was German white males who were the colonizers, sexual relations between these men and African women were encouraged and condoned. However, it soon became apparent that this may in fact raise the status of African women allowing them to become German citizens if they were to marry and have mixed-race children. This was obviously a problem under a racist regime. In 1905, inter-racial marriages became legally prohibited. However, as Mies points out, this did not preclude inter-racial sexual relations and men were encouraged to use African women as concubines or prostitutes.
“Here the double-standard is very clear: marriage and family were goods to be protected for the whites, the ‘Master Men’ (Dominant Men). African families could be disrupted, men and women could be forced into labour gangs, women could be made prostitutes.” (p.98)
This was also true for the British colonizers. Racism rears its ugly head when…
“…the African woman is degraded and made a prostitute for the English colonizers, then the theories of racial superiority of the white male and the beastliness of the African woman are propagated” (p.95).
It is important to remember that this racism and misogyny was not just based on immoral ideology, but had a sound economic base. In order for European capitalist growth there was a need for the resources, land and labour power of colonial nations. As Mies points out:
“Wealth for some, means poverty for others.”
Mies talks of the dual processes in the perception of European women and “other women” – the civilized and domesticated as opposed to the savage and uncivilized colonial black woman. But she argues this served a purpose for the accumulation of capital.
The exploitation of resources and labour in the colonies meant that luxury goods became more available to the bourgeois classes in Europe. Part of that process meant that capitalists needed to create the demand for such goods and the role of the housewife as consumer was essential to this process.
And so, Mies explores the development of the nuclear family in late 18th and 19th century – the social and sexual division of labour, and the establishment of private (family) and public (economic and political activity) spheres – and the creation of housework and the housewife as an “agent of consumption” (p.106)
Thus colonialism and imperialism has created an international and sexual division of labour, whereby land and resources are pillaged for the profit of western capitalism; where labour is created by slavery and exploitation based on a sexual division of labour which leaves women dependent and vulnerable to further oppression; and the oppressed position of women in Western countries as housewives and consumers.
Mies ends her chapter on Colonization and Housewifization with this:
“It is my thesis that these two processes of colonization and housewifization are closely and causally interlinked. Without the ongoing exploitation of external colonies – formerly as direct colonies, today within the new international division of labour – the establishment of the ‘internal colony’, that is, a nuclear family and a woman maintained by a male ‘breadwinner’, would not have been possible.” (p.110).
Mies makes very clear the convergence of these two structures of domination – patriarchy and capitalism and is central to seeing patriarchy as systemic and structural. As Federici summarizes in her Foreword these connections have been truly verified:
“(there is)… a direct causal connection between the global extension of capitalist relations and the escalation of violence against women, as the punishment against their resistance to the appropriation of their bodies and their labour.” (xi)
MairiVoice: I am an Australian radical feminist. I have had my blog for over a year now and write mostly about feminist political issues in Australia.I also run a feminist facebook pagegiving voice to radical feminism by sharing articles and interesting news. I have been a feminist for over 30 years and have been an activist around issues such as child sexual abuse, domestic violence and family law issues. I also love to read women’s books – both fiction and non-fiction – interested in feminist theory – and sometimes write about the books I am reading on my blog