Mariarosa Dalla Costa, “Capitalism and Reproduction”
“Capitalism and Reproduction”
Mariarosa Dalla Costa
Chapter 2, Bonefeld, W., Holloway, J., Psychopedis, K. (ed.),Open Marxism – vol. 3: Emancipating Marx. 1995 [PDF]
This Chapter was presented at the seminar ‘Women’s Unpaid Labour and the
World System’, organised by the Japan Foundation, 8 April 1994, Tokyo, as
part of the Foundation’s ‘European Women’s Study Tour for Environmental
The sphere of reproduction today reveals all the original sins of the capitalist
mode of production. Reproduction must be viewed, of course, from a planetary
perspective, with special attention being paid to the changes that are taking
place in wide sectors of the lower social strata in advanced capitalism as well
as in an increasing proportion of the Third World population. We live in a
planetary economy, and capitalist accumulation still draws its life-blood for
its continuous valorisation from waged as well as unwaged labour, the latter
consisting first of all of the labour involved in social reproduction, 1 in the
advanced as well as the Third World countries.
We find that social ‘misery’ or ‘unhappiness’ which Marx2 considered to
be the ‘goal of the political economy’ has largely been realised everywhere.
But, setting aside the question of happiness for the time being – though
certainly not to encourage the myth of its impossibility – let me stress how
incredible it now seems, Marxist analysis apart, to claim that capitalist development
in some way brings a generalised wellbeing to the planet.
Social reproduction today is more beset and overwhelmed than ever by the
laws of capitalist accumulation: the continual and progressive expropriation
(from the ‘primitive’ expropriation of the land as a means of production, which
dates from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in England, to the expropriation,
then as now, of all the individual and collective rights that ensure
subsistence); the continual division of society into conflictual hierarchies (of
class, sex, race and nationality, which pit the free waged worker against the
unfree unwaged worker, against the unemployed worker, and the slave
labourer); the constant production of inequality and uncertainty (with the
woman as reproducer facing an even more uncertain fate in comparison to
any waged worker and, if she is also member of a discriminated race or nation,
she suffers yet deeper discrimination); the continual polarisation of the
production of wealth (which is more and more concentrated) and the production
of poverty (which is increasingly widespread).
As Marx writes in Capital:
Finally, the law which always holds the relative surplus production or
industrial reserve army in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation
rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of
Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock. It makes an accumulation of misery
a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth.
Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation
of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization
and moral degradation at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that
produces its own product as capital.3
This is true, not only for the population overwhelmed by the Industrial
Revolution of the nineteenth century. It is even more accurate today, whether
capital accumulation passes through factory, plantation, dam, mine or the carpet
weaving workshops where it is by no means rare for children to be working
in conditions of slavery.
Indeed, capitalist accumulation spreads through the world by extracting
labour for production and reproduction in conditions of stratification which
end in the reestablishment of slavery. According to a recent estimate, slavery
is the condition in which over 200 million persons are working in the world
Those macro-processes and operations which economic forces, supported
by political power, unfolded during the period of primitive accumulation in
Europe – with the aim of destroying the individual’s value in relationship to
his/her community in order to turn him/her into an isolated and valueless
individual, a mere container for labour-power which she is obliged to sell
to survive – continue to mark human reproduction on a planetary scale.
The indifference to the very possibility of labour-power’s reproduction shown
by capital in the first phase of its history was only very partially (and today
increasingly precariously) redeemed centuries later by the creation of the welfare
state. Currently, the major financial agencies, the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank, have undertaken the task of re-drawing the
boundaries of welfare and economic policies as a whole in both the advanced
and the developing countries. (The economic, social welfare and social
insurance measures recently introduced in Italy correspond precisely to the
various ‘structural adjustment’ plans being applied in many Third World
countries.) The result is that increasingly large sectors of the world’s population
are destined to extinction because they are believed to be redundant or inappropriate
to the valorisation requirements of capital.
At the end of the fifteenth century, the bloody legislation against the expropriated6
led to the mass hanging, torturing, branding and chaining of the poor.
So today the surplus or inadequately disciplined population of the planet is
exterminated through death by cold and hunger in eastern Europe and various
countries of the advanced West (‘more coffins less cradles in Russia’). 7 They
suffer death by hunger and epidemic in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere;
death caused by formally declared war, by genocide authorised directly or
indirectly, by military and police repression. The other variant of extinction
is an individual or collective decision of suicide because there is no possibility
of survival. (It is significant that, according to Italian press reports in
1993-94, many cases of suicide in Italy are due to unemployment or to the
fact that the only work on offer is to join a criminal gang. In India, the ‘tribal
people’ in the Narmada valley have declared a readiness to die by drowning
if work continues on a dam which will destroy their habitat and, hence, the
basis of their survival and cultural identity.)8
The most recent and monstrous twist to this campaign of extinction comes
from the extreme example of resistance offered by those who sell parts of
their body. (In Italy, where the sale of organs is banned, there were press and
television reports in 1993-94 of instances in which people said that they were
trying to sell parts of their own bodies for lack of money. There have been
reports of how criminal organisations with perfectly legal outlets are flourishing
on the basis of trafficking in organs, sometimes obtained through the
kidnapping of the victims (often women or children) or through false adoption.)
An enquiry was recently opened at the European Parliament on the issue,9
and various women’s networks are trying to throw light on and block these
crimes. This is where capitalist development, founded on the negation of the
individual’s value, celebrates its triumph; the individual owner of redundant
or, in any case, superfluous labour-power is literally cut to pieces in order to
re-build the bodies of those who can pay for the right to live.
During the era of primitive accumulation, when the free waged worker was
being shaped in England, the law still authorised slavery, 10 treating the
vagabonds created by the feudal lords’ violent and illegal expropriation of
the land as ‘voluntary’ perpetrators ofthe crime of vagabondage and ordaining
that, if anyone should refuse to work, he would be ‘condemned as a slave to
the person who denounced him as an idler.’ 11 If this reduction of the poor to
slavery remained on a relatively limited scale in England, capital soon after
launched slavery on a much vaster scale, emptying Africa of the equivalent
of Europe’s population at that time through the slave trade to the Americas
and the Caribbean.
Slavery, far from disappearing, has remained as one of capitalism’s unmentioned,
concealed constants. The poverty imposed on a large part of the
planet by the major financial agencies chains entire families to work in
conditions of slavery so that they can pay their creditors. Workers are made
to work in conditions of slavery in livestock farms. plantations and mines.
Children are made to work in conditions of slavery in carpet workshops. Women
are kidnapped or fooled into working in the sex industry. But these are only
some examples. It is significant that the problem of slavery was raised by
the Non-Government Organisations at their Forum in Vienna on 10-12 June
that preceded the UN’s World Conference on Human Rights on 14-25 June
In the period of primitive accumulation. while free waged labour was
being born from the great expropriations. there was the greatest case of sexual
genocide in history – the great witch-hunts. which. with a series of other
measures directed expressly against women. contributed in a fundamental way
to forging the unfree, unwaged woman worker in the production and reproduction
of labour-power. 12 Deprived of the means of production and subsistence
typical of the previous economy. and largely excluded from craftwork or access
to the new jobs that manufacturing was offering. the woman was essentially
faced with two options for survival: marriage or prostitution. Even for women
who had found some form of work external to the home. prostitution at that
time was also a way of supplementing low family income or the low wages
paid to women. It is interesting that prostitution first became a trade exercised
by women at the mass level in that period. One can say that during the manufacturing
period the individual proletarian woman was born fundamentally
to be a prostitute. 13
From this insoluble contradiction in the feminine condition of being an
unwaged worker in a wage economyl4 sprouted not only the mass prostitution
in that period but also the reoccurrence in the context of current economic
policies of the same phenomenon today, but on a vaster scale, in order to
generate profits for one of the most flourishing industries at the world level,
the sex industry. This led the World Coalition against Trafficking in Women
to present the first World Convention against Sexual Exploitation in Brussels
(May 1993). The women in the Coalition also agreed to work for the adoption
of the convention by the United Nations and its ratification by the national
Internationally, in fact, the sexual exploitation of women by organised crime
is increasingly alarming. These organisations have already brought man~
women from Africa and eastern Europe to work in Italy as prostitutes. The
tricks used to cover up exploitation by prostitution – for example, wife sales
by catalogue or ‘sexual tourism’ in exotic destinations – are legion and wen I I
known. According to the Coalition’s charges, various countries already accept
forms of ‘sexual tourism’ as a planned component in national income. Thanks
to individual women and non-governmental organisations, studies of the
direct government responsibility in forcing women to serve as prostitutes for
soldiers during the Second World War have also begun.
Woman’s condition in capitalism is born with violence (just as the free waged
worker is born with violence); it is forged on the witches’ pyres and is
maintained with violence. 15 Within the current context of the population’s
reproduction, the woman continues to suffer the violence of poverty at the
world level (since her unpaid responsibility for the home makes her the weak
contracting party in the external labour market). Because of her lack of
economic resources, she also suffers the further violence of being sucked
increasingly into organised prostitution. The warlike visage that development
increasingly assumes simply worsens woman’s condition still further and
magnifies the practice and mentality of violence against women.16 A paradigmatic
case is the war rape exercised as ethnic rape in ex-Yugoslavia.
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 17 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 18
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: 19 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.2o
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.21
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.22 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 Menchu23 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’ . 24 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
In my view, it is no coincidence that, in these last 20 years, the women’s
question, the question of the indigenous populations,25 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 26 – 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.
I. On this: M. Dalla Costa and S. James, The Power of Women in the Subversion
of the Community, Falling Wall Press,. Bristol, 1972.
2. K. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in Early Writings,
Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1975, p. 286.
3. K. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976, p. 799.
4. The Economist, 6 January 1990.
5. See M. Dalla Costa and G.F. Dalla Costa (eds.), Donne e politiche del debito.
Condizione e lavoro femminile nella crisi del debito internazionale, Franco
Angeli, Milan, 1993 (An English-language edition is being prepared by Zed Books,
6. Cf. K. Marx, Capital, vol. I, chapter 28.
7. La Repubblica, 16 February 1994.
8. The protest over the Narmada dam has received extensive coverage in international
publications and the international media. For a critical interpretation of the
proliferations of dams in the world see V. Shiva, Staying alive: Women and Survival
in India, Zed Books, London, 1990.
9. See La Repubblica, 16 September 1993.
10. See K. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, chapter 28.
11. Ibid., p. 897.
12. See S. Federici, ‘The Great Witch-Hunt’, in The Maine Scholar, voL I ,no. I, 1988.
13. See L. Fortunati, L’arcano della riproduzione. Casalinghe, prostitue, operai e
capitale, MarsiliO, Venice, 1981; L. Fortunati, Sesso come vaLore d’uso per il
valore, in L. Fortunati and S. Federici, Il grande Calibano. Storia del corpo sociale
ribelle nella primafase del capitale, Franco Angeli, Milan, 1984, p. 209.
14. See M. Dalla Costa and S. James, The Power of Women.
15. See G.F. Dalla Costa, Un lavoro d’amore. La violenza fisica componente
essenziale del ‘trattamento’ maschile nei confronti delle donne, Edizioni delle
Donne, Rome, 1978.
16. Currently, there is a wide-ranging debate on this issue. A. Michel’s essay remains
a good reference-point: ‘La donna a repentaglio nel sistema di guerra’, Bozze,
no. 2, April-March 1987.
17. See K. Marx, Capital, vol. I, chapters 26-33.
18. Women’s Action Agenda 21, in World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet,
Official Report, United Nations, 8-12 November, Miami, 1991.
19. See V. Shiva, Staying Alive.
21. See M. Dalla Costa and S. James, The Power of Women.
22. See M. Dalla Costa and G.F. Dalla Costa, Donne e politiche del debito.
23. E. Burgos, Mi chiamo Rigoberta Menchu, Giunti, Florence, 1990.
24. Ibid., p. 144.
25. As was stressed by the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples at the NGO
Forum in Vienna (10-12 June 1993), these peoples have worked especially hard
during the last two decades to get their voices heard, to make progress on
questions concerning them (the question of land, above all), to obtain greater respect
for and a formalisation of their rights in written form. Significant stages in the
process have been the Kari Oca Declaration, the Land Charter of the Indigenous
Peoples, and the Convention of the International Labour Organisation of Indigenous
and Tribal Peoples (lLO Conv. No. 169). This growing liaison and promotion
of their demands was a major factor in the speedy expressions of solidarity from
the North American indigenous populations during the rebellion of the indigenous
peoples of Chiapas.
26. See V. Shiva, Staying Alive.