For many people, lockdown has exacerbated an already deadly domestic situation, or, as one sufferer put it, it’s a pandemic on top of an epidemic.
Recent Facts of Abuse
When lockdown was announced in the UK on 23 March, immediate concerns were raised about domestic violence. Now that sufferers would be locked up with their abusers, how could they keep themselves safe? How could they escape? What help would they get?
Lockdown, as predicted, created the perfect conditions for unchecked brutality behind closed doors, and cases have soared to levels exceeding the ‘norm’ for this time of year. In the UK, the largest domestic abuse charity, Refuge, reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day, while a separate line for perpetrators seeking help to change their behaviour has had 25% more calls. Refuge is currently reporting a 49% increase in daily calls, with its website recording increased use of 417%. In Canada, organisations such as the Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), which is a small local organisation in Vancouver, have reported that calls to their support lines have increased by 300%. A representative of BWSS stated that approximately 40% of callers were quarantined in their homes 24/7 with their abusers. Victims Service in the York Region, in Toronto, has reported an increase of referrals of domestic violence victims by 300%. And these numbers leave out the people who can’t reach out for help due to being in the presence of their abuser all the time. The windows of opportunity have narrowed with quarantine measures.
Horrifically, domestic abuse murders have doubled. The project Counting Dead Women identified 16 murders between 23 March and 12 April, including children. It’s the highest number of domestic killings for 11 years. In the 6 weeks up to 19 April, 4,000 arrests were made across London, and the Met have arrested an average of 100 people every day during lockdown for domestic violence crimes. West Midlands Police made 400 arrests in 14 days. Obviously many cases aren’t ever reported to the authorities.
Worldwide the UN is predicting an increase of at least 15 million cases and women’s charities globally are reporting massive increases; up to 50% in Brazil; in Cyprus calls to a hotline rose 30% in the week after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed. In China, according to the Sixth Tone site which campaigns against abuse, 90% of the violence is Covid-19 related.
While it is true that domestic violence is not solely towards women, that men can also suffer it, the vast majority of cases are women (83% of UK high frequency victims i.e. of 10 or more crimes). Further, the vast majority of perpetrators are men (92% of UK defendants in domestic-abuse prosecutions in 2018 were male). And while it isn’t something that only affects the working class, the vast majority of those seeking help are working class women, since they have little or no resources to fall back on. So while domestic violence may not be an automatic product of a class society, it is very much the reflection of one.
For many people, lockdown has exacerbated an already deadly domestic situation, or, as one sufferer put it, it’s a pandemic on top of an epidemic. According to the World Health Organisation, stress, the loss of social networks, the loss of income and a reduction in access to services can all exacerbate the risk of violence in the home. In the UK poor housing and overcrowded conditions is acknowledged to be a big risk factor, and even those who did manage to flee before Covid-19 faced homelessness or grim and unsuitable temporary accommodation due to the housing crisis. In fact, domestic violence is one of the main causes of housing instability for women and children; most female targets of abuse face a stark choice: staying put with an abuser or losing your home, in other words swapping one type of hell for another.
Leaving a violent situation is often the most dangerous point for a woman and her kids. It’s never a decision taken lightly. Usually it’s involved months of careful secretive planning at high risk. In the UK, domestic violence refuges have been severely impacted by austerity cuts. The refuge system, always a low priority, was at breaking point before the lockdown. Council funding for women’s refuges has been cut by nearly £7m over 8 years even though the number of cases has been rising. Local authorities in England have cut their spending on refuges by 24% over the past decade. Refuge managers have been warning for years that deaths will result from funding cuts, with workers and volunteers describing it as a ‘bare bones’ service as they struggle to meet the demand. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, one volunteer in the Midlands told of a case a few years ago when a woman called for a refuge place with her four kids. The closest place available was in the Orkney Islands, 600 miles away. The volunteer reported that the woman didn’t call back.
The Class Issue
The majority of poor people globally are women, and it’s no different in the UK. In recent years the state's austerity measures have increased the numbers of women and children living in poverty. (According to the House of Commons Library between 2010 and 2017, 86% of the reduction in government spending fell on women). Cuts to women’s services are a reflection of the way the poorest members of the working class are seen, as they have been in history, as expendable and of little importance.
Capitalist democracies like to pride themselves on defending and promoting equality, but what does equality under capitalism mean? How can you get equality in a system built on the exploitation of one class by another, one that has inequality built into its very structure? And which is riddled with misogyny, and which thrives on division? It’s been 50 years since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act and women are still fighting for pay equality. Women still face harassment on the street, on-line and at work. Women’s bodies are commodified more than ever. Some women are still literally bought and sold. Rape is still a weapon of war. And like violence in the home, working class women bear the brunt of it all.
Lockdown has highlighted the plight of those who suffer at the hands of domestic abusers, but it’s a problem capitalism can’t solve because it sees it as an individual problem, a relationship problem, in short, a ‘domestic’ problem. But violence in the home isn’t a private matter, it’s a symptom of a system of exploitation, and rather than being able to solve it, capitalism just keeps on creating the horrific conditions for it to grow. At its core, domestic violence is a symptom of capitalist sexual relations. This is not to say that domestic violence did not exist before capitalism, but rather what shapes how and why these acts are perpetrated is capitalist exploitation and alienation.
Monogamy, as we understand it, is a condition of class society, more specifically it is a condition of inheritance. In his extensive study on the subject, August Bebel states that “[m]an, being an owner of private property, had an interest in having legitimate children to whom he could will his property, and he, therefore, forced upon woman the prohibition of intercourse with other men.”1 The same expectation was not placed on men, however, as they were not the ones who carried the heirs they were preoccupied with ensuring were “legitimate”. Sexual relations being transformed by the conditions of the means of production can be evidenced throughout history.
With capitalism, we saw the advent of the nuclear family unit, a formation where the maintenance and replenishment of labour power was primarily located, whether by way of the wife performing the bulk of domestic activities, or by way of the mother rearing her children. It is important to understand this when we begin to see women entering into the workforce, which has not occurred at a steady progression, but rather in intervals in different times and places. Women were not brought into the workforce as a kindness to be given for the liberation of women. It was a means of lowering wages, as having more people from the family actively selling their labour power meant each individual worker could be paid less while the family wage remained about the same. Women were not liberated from their economic dependence on men because they became able to enter the workforce, instead the economic dependence on the nuclear family became pronounced in a very slightly altered way. For some sections of the working class men are becoming dependent on women, not only for their domestic efforts in the home, but for their wages as well. It could not be any clearer that the nuclear family functions as an economic unit, and that coupling is at the very least heavily shaped by survival needs.
But even where economic dependence on a spouse is lessened, for example in the homes of higher wage earners, instances of domestic violence can and do still happen. Financial hardship is not the only trigger for violence in the domicile. It is pertinent for us to understand that the proclivity towards this type of violence is rooted in how we relate to each other, not only on gender lines, but as workers as well. Through the sale of our labour, workers are separated from their creative potential, we are divided from the products of our labour. These products, commodities, take on a social character, “and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.”2 Though it isn’t readily apparent in all aspects of life, workers relate to each other as objects and through the relation of commodities to one another. This is alienation.
We do not approach relations to one another as social beings, but rather, we approach relations as objects. Our romantic and sexual partners are things to be possessed, and the duration of time the other is in our possession simply varies. This kind of relating is specific to capitalism’s mode of production, and therefore it is not surmountable within capitalism. No amount of counselling and shelters will fix this problem, as we do not have the tools to relate to one another outside of the paradigm of capitalism. As Marx has said, "[t]he only intelligible language in which we converse with one another consists of our objects in their relation to each other."3
This does not mean that we only relate to each other as objects. We also relate to each other as workers. We have a sense of familiarity with the struggle of our fellow workers, though the social consequences of that struggle can appear differently for some of us, because the root of our plight is the same. Through our relation to one another as workers we can extend solidarity to our fellow workers by concerning ourselves with the increased danger posed by the heightening of circumstances ripe for instances of abuse to erupt in violence. While we recognise the need for programmes and shelters to assist people who are experiencing domestic violence and oppose their disintegration, whether during quarantine measures or through austerity, we also recognise that this is merely a harm reduction measure, and far from a solution to the problem. We must work to end alienated labour and the family as an economic unit and to release the true creative potential of the proletariat in production and in every aspect of our lives. This requires an entirely new mode of production which we call communism but has nothing to do with the Stalinist monstrosity of yore. It is not something that can be brought in by legislation. It requires a revolution on a global scale.
As Marx wrote in The German Ideology:
"Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men (and women – editors) on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew."
Revolution is not just economic and political but above all social. Capitalist contradictions create a whole series of struggles in working and living conditions that go from immediate rent and wage strikes to more long term threats of an environmental and military nature. These struggles need to create their own international political instrument to bring us together as a class to fight the various dead ends of capitalist reformism and keep our eyes on the prize of a society in which the freedom of each is the condition for the freedom of all.
RT (CWO) / Lydia (Klasbatalo)