Since the publication of its first edition in 1986, Maria Mies’ Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale has become a classic work in the materialist feminist tradition. With the goal of addressing what she saw as unanswered questions for the women’s liberation movement in the face of a contested future, Mies takes a historical, system-level approach to identifying the root of women’s exploitation and subjugation. Mies’ analysis draws heavily on Marxist theory in its analysis of capitalist exploitation, but deviates from this tradition when it comes to the origins of capitalism. Additionally, while acknowledging the different tendencies of feminist thought and activism of the day, Mies eschews the labels of radical, Marxist, and liberal feminism for her own work on the grounds that such labels subsume feminism into pre-existing analytical frameworks. In rejecting these pre-existing analytical and ideological frameworks, Mies makes it clear that her quest to identify the root of capitalist-patriarchy is an attempt to define the issue around which all strands of feminism should organize.
Achieving this political unity, of course, is easier said than done; what should be the basis of feminist unity, or whether it is possible to define one at all, has proven to be a pivotal debate across feminist scholarship. Mies’ account of her studies with women from around the world, particularly the Global South, suggests a hopefulness held at the time of writing that the horizon of globalization would bring with it an unprecedented capacity to build global solidarity between women. However, decades later, we have instead been left to grapple with the alienating irony of globalization: that the global proliferation of knowledge and communication has in many ways achieved more in highlighting differences between women (and people in general) than it has in providing a basis for “sisterhood.” In the book’s foreword, updated in 2014, Marxist feminist Silvia Federici posits that this splintering makes Mies’ work more important than ever, as the radical core of feminism has been “buried under years of institutional co-option and postmodern denial of any ground of commonality among women,” (p.ii). While Federici’s implicit dismissal of third-wave feminism as a postmodern distraction is a bit severe, she is ultimately correct in her assertion that the significance of Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, although different than 30 years ago, is still substantial.
The basic thesis that Mies puts forward is that capitalism cannot function without a patriarchal base. She argues that Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, which is required as a foundation for capitalism, is predicated on the patriarchal exploitation of women’s bodies and labour. Unlike Marx, however, she does not see primitive accumulation as just a precursor to capitalism, but rather a process that necessarily continues within the capitalist system through the exploitation of subsistence labour. Thus, she refers to the “capitalist-patriarchy,” as opposed to two distinct systems. She goes further to argue that the use of subsistence labour provided by ‘housewives’ in the West is only possible due to the simultaneous exploitation of men and women in the colonies and formerly colonized states. While she draws a line in this analysis between the “First World” and “Third World” countries that appears dated today, she defines these groups in terms of their specific relationship to global production processes, which allows room for today’s reader to re-draw the boundaries of these groupings while still benefitting from Mies’ analysis of how they function in relation to each other regardless of their precise composition.
A particularly salient argument Mies puts forth is that violence against women plays an integral role in this ongoing primitive accumulation. Mies takes the basic problem that women are, traditionally, conceptualized not as productive workers but as property, and extrapolates the significance of this property in a world where there is less and less ‘nature’ to plunder in the primitive accumulation process. She states, “women’s first and last ‘means of production’ is their own body. The worldwide increase in violence against women is basically concentrated on this territory,” (p.169). In framing violence against women as a grab for productive potential, Mies simultaneously indicts capitalism and orthodox Marxism: indeed, if women’s bodies are the (or at least a) means of production, then whether their bodies are deemed public or private property is of little consequence from a feminist perspective. While this claim of a “worldwide increase in violence against women” should have been made with more specific evidence – it is unclear against what data this comparison is being made – this is still perhaps her most enticing argument in favour of a distinctly feminist approach to political economy, and is an argument that, in an era where sexual economies based on the commodification of women have proliferated, is as relevant today as ever.
The weakest point of Mies’ analysis comes at the end of her book where she proposes a set of principles around which to organize a post-capitalist-patriarchal society. Despite the meticulous work in previous chapters that situates her arguments in concrete systems and relationships, Mies’ fails to provide a plausible account of how these principles should be pursued – a somewhat jarring departure from the grounded nature of the rest of her work. In the final pages of the book, she makes a vague case for the use of feminist-led consumer boycotts in the West to lay the groundwork for subsistence production movements in the ‘Third World.’ However, she makes the unsubstantiated claim that such movements would lead to a “de-linking” of Third World economies from the world markets, and that multinational corporations (MNCs) would have to “close down their sites and move back to their fatherlands,” (p.233). Unless she presumes that these movements would somehow occur simultaneously across the world, there appears to be no reason why an MNC would not simply move to the next cheapest country for production.
Further, Mies does not take the opportunity to address or mitigate this shortcoming in the 2014 update to the book. Instead, she makes further vague suggestions that are not only poorly defined, but appear to be contradictory to the dubious plan of action laid out in the final chapter of the original work. In the new chapter, she argues:
A new paradigm cannot be based on a violent revolution. […] If we want to overcome both [capitalism and patriarchy], we have to take a different path. This is the path of sowing new seeds,” (p.x).
It is not clear to the reader what seeds there are to sow, nor how her original suggestion of simultaneous consumer boycotts and labour revolt would necessarily sidestep violent – thought perhaps justifiable – crisis.
Despite the shortcomings of her closing chapter, Mies successfully illustrates in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale that it is indeed possible to account for differences between women, particularly in terms of their relationship to global production processes, while still connecting these different expressions of exploitation and subjugation to a common system. While there is an (often warranted) tendency in today’s feminist scholarship to problematize categories of systemic analysis for lending themselves to the erasure of difference, Mies’ careful account of the global role of women under the capitalist-patriarchy should serve as a powerful reminder that there is indeed still insight to be found in the search for common ground.
Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour (Critique. Influence. Change Edition), by Maria Mies. London: Zed, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-78360-260-5.