Bodies as a site of class struggle?

The front page of the Brighton Argus, Sat 24 March 2012

This is a short blog prompted by recent events in Brighton, as well as wider discussions I’ve been having about the (possible) relationship of austerity to gendered violence and oppression.

In terms of what’s been happening in Brighton, a ‘pro-life’ group (who I won’t name since they’re aiming at publicity) have been regularly harassing women at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic, importing tactics from the US where such actions are a lot more common. This made the front page of the local paper today after they intimidated a rape survivor (see lead pic). Even before it was front page news it had lead to a grassroots group Brighton Pro-Choice forming to counter the anti-choice campaign and defend women’s rights. Similar groups have formed elsewhere in the country (e.g. see the Red Rag Campaign on Twitter), which brings me onto the wider point.

Is it just a coincidence that anti-choice groups are gaining traction now, at a time of austerity and heightened attacks on previous working class gains on all fronts, from wages and welfare to pensions to healthcare? Or is there some connection between the wider attacks on the working class and the attacks on women’s control of their own bodies? And therefore while the body is clearly a site of struggle, could it be understood as a site of class struggle? Basically, I don’t know, and I mainly want to open a discussion. Also, in a sense it doesn’t matter, as I support the right to choose regardless of whether it’s part of the class struggle or not. But I think it is worth thinking about, so here’s a hypothesis.

I’ll begin with this EP Thompson quote that Nate mentioned in response to a previous blog:

"While one form which opposition to capitalism takes is in direct economic antagonism – resistance to exploitation whether as producer or consumer – another form is, exactly, resistance to capitalism’s innate tendency to reduce all human relationships to economic definitions. The two are inter-related, of course; but it is by no means certain which may prove to be, in the end, more revolutionary. (…) [People] desire, fitfully, not only direct economic satisfactions, but also to throw off this grotesque “economic” disguise which capitalism imposes upon them, and to resume a human shape.”

This could be paraphrased as saying that the class struggle is not just a matter of the terms of exploitation of ‘human resources’, but over the fact we are reduced to mere human resources at all. In terms of workers, this is pretty straightforward and familiar to most libcom readers: workers are dispossessed of any other means to survive, and thus have to sell their labour power on the market to make ends meet. But it seems that womens bodies are reduced to resources in another way too – as producers of children. RAG flag up this point:

While the site for this [struggle] has often been the work-place in traditional anarchist dialogue, it was noted that from a feminist perspective, the family and the body are additional sites of conflict (our literal “means of production” which we determined to seize!)

My gut feeling is to say the class struggle is about imposing our human needs on the inhuman diktats of capital. And there’s no reason for those needs to be purely economic. Even ‘bread and butter’ workplace struggles are often as much about dignity and respect as pay and working hours. And as human beings, we have needs far beyond the workplace which are similarly not limited to simple economic concerns. So I’m minded to say that the reimposition of a ‘traditional’ role of women as male-owned baby-making machines is part of the class struggle, and part of the current ruling class offensive against historic working class gains.

But I can’t really back that up beyond the above. Is anyone aware of any studies looking at advances/retreats of womens’ rights in relation to wider social/economic conditions? I know Silvia Federici has argued strongly that the body is a site of class struggle, and the disciplining of women as producers and carers of children has played a fundamental part in the rise of capitalism. And despite my criticisms of some of her specific historical claims, I still support that general thesis. But there must be loads more literature on this kind of thing, so does anyone have any recommendations, or any thoughts?

Posted By

Joseph Kay
Mar 24 2012 20:15


  • Is it just a coincidence that anti-choice groups are gaining traction now, at a time of austerity and heightened attacks on previous working class gains on all fronts? Or is there some connection between the wider attacks on the working class and the attacks on women’s control of their own bodies?

Attached files


Mar 24 2012 23:51

You don't even have to look at US for where this is imported from. Precious Life have been doing this in NI at family planning and advice centres for as long as I can remember, and of course NI is the only part of the UK that isn't covered by the 1967 Abortion Act.

fingers malone
Mar 25 2012 00:05

My gut reaction is that there are likely to be more attacks on womens' freedom as times get worse. For various reasons, one reason is trying to reimpose traditional roles to use women as free labour to make up for cutting the welfare state. Another is to get people to focus their anger at what is happening away from the ruling class, so encouraging men who lose their jobs to blame women rather than their employers.

Mar 25 2012 04:43

I don't know for sure, but i don't think that there has been a major change in public attitudes to abortion in recent years (ie. most people think that something around the current law is about right.)

What i think is happening is that there has been a renewed energy and confidence within the anti-abortion movement linked to the efforts of people like Nadine Dorris, who are connected to the US anti-abortion movement and want to import its approach to the UK.

Thomas Frank's What's the matter with Kansas? suggests that this has been part of a "culture wars" strategy which encourages sections of the working class to focus on cultural issues whilst neo liberal policies are undermining their economic postion. Part of this is a focus on "the tradtional family" which says that men should/will regain their patriarchal authority over women and children.

jef costello
Mar 25 2012 08:10
fatbongo wrote:
Thomas Frank's What's the matter with Kansas? suggests that this has been part of a "culture wars" strategy which encourages sections of the working class to focus on cultural issues whilst neo liberal policies are undermining their economic postion. Part of this is a focus on "the tradtional family" which says that men should/will regain their patriarchal authority over women and children.

I see the logic in transferring the debate within an election from what will be done to arguments about 'values' makes things more manageable. It entrenches the public and removes what little element of choice and accountability this system had to begin with.
I don't really know if this is a discourse that has been imposed, for example when Blair started talking about abortion and the Tories were going on about late-term abortions it seemed to me like an attempt to impose a discourse that most people didn't care about. That said evangelical churches in the UK are growing and I don't really know that much about their members or their politics aside from the fact that these churches seem to be economic con jobs for the most part.

Mar 25 2012 22:22

Interesting stuff Joseph. It seems to me that our labor power is within our bodies. Sometimes in doing stuff for work we gain new abilities but for the most part work lessens our abilities (tiring us out, breaking us down) and it always places limits on us, because we can't do other things with our time and ability. So I think that yeah the body as a site of class struggle. And this extends beyond waged work in lots of ways, as you get into. That said, I think that the political attacks you're talking about do have stakes for the class struggle but the attacks may be a kind of class struggle/effort at restructuring class relations which is not consciously motivated that way. What I mean is, the functional role of all this in capitalism and the understanding of the people involved may be very different. Know what I mean?

Also, your post reminded me of this quote from Sergio Bologna -
"our analysis of these structural factors will be ineffective unless we can combine it with an analysis of the huge transformation taking place in the sphere of "personal life". This obviously starts from the breakdown of sexual relations brought on by feminism. It then widens to involve all the problems of controlling one's own body and the structures of perceptions, emotions and desires. This is not just a problem of "youth culture". It has working-class antecedents in the cycle of struggles of 1968-69. The defence of one's own physical integrity against being slaughtered by line-speeds and machinery, against being poinsoned by the environment etc, on the one hand is a way of resisting the depreciation of the exchange value of one's labour-power and the deterioration of its use value, but at the same time it is a way of re-appropriating one's own body, for the free enjoyment of bodily needs. Here too there is a homogeneity, not a separation, between the behaviour of the young people, the women and the workers.

The question of drugs now arises. Control of drug usage is being reappropriated by the institutions of the political cycle. No sooner have young people had a taste of soft drugs, giving them a first-hand taste of how much this society has robbed them of their perceptive potential, than the heroin multinational decides to step in and impose hard drugs. A space of political confrontation opens up, between use value (self-managed, within certain limits) and exchange value of drugs, and this involves organisation and instances of armed self-defence."

Mar 27 2012 18:11
I’m minded to say that the reimposition of a ‘traditional’ role of women as male-owned baby-making machines is part of the class struggle, and part of the current ruling class offensive against historic working class gains.

I read this shortly before hearing about the Arizona Health Bill, which allows employers who provide health insurance to demand proof that the birth control pill isn't being used for the purpose of birth control (it has other medical uses). This passed Arizona's House of Representatives and will now go to the Senate.

Though there's been lots of opposition to the bill from the Democrats, they aren't exactly fighting for women's right to have control over their own bodies - their line of argument is that women shouldn't have to disclose their medical records.

This certainly seems to be an example of the traditional role of women being imposed upon us - women must either relinquish contraceptive control to their partner, or failing that, abide by the "moral" beliefs of their boss.

And in the US the lack of contraceptive control has further ramifications: only 6 states provide any paid maternity leave (Arizona, unsuprisingly, isn't one of them). And so if you do get pregnant you'll either have unpaid leave or, as is more likely in low paid work, lose your job. It isn't hard to see how women will be forced off the labour market and back into the home.

Mar 28 2012 17:52

Control over our bodies, particularly control over women's bodies, is clearly an important part of controlling the working class. I'd agree that bodies are a site of class struggle but not only because we're fighting for dignity and respect but also because of the repercussions that reproduction and the traditional division of labour has in economic terms. Women's work in producing and caring for children is a necessary part of producing value.

Having said that, I haven't really been able to make the most direct connection between that analysis and this current struggle around reproduction. I've viewed this as part of a general attempt to clutch on to conservative values when looking for someone to blame for "broken Britain". Apparently it's tempting to try to recreate nostalgic visions of a whiter, more christian Britain before men were emasculated into unemployment by feminism, before the failing multicultural experiment, before hoodies roamed the streets because their single mothers are at work, etc etc. I would have thought a bit of conservative backlash would be a good direction for the state to push peoples frustration. David Cameron has blamed everything from the riots to the banking crisis on the deterioration of christian values and women's rights are bound to be one of the first casualties in that trend.

Mar 29 2012 02:50

hey again Joseph, I read this quote today and immediately thought of your post.

One essential condition of the establishment and maintenance of power is the coercion of bodies and the threat of violence or death. To be sure, the body is not simply a biological entity, but a political institution: the relations of the State to the body are thus considerably more complex and extensive than those of repression. Nevertheless, the State is always rooted in its physical constraint, manipulation and consumption of bodies. In every State, this takes place in two ways: through institutions which actualize bodily constraint and the permanent threat of mutilation (prison, army, police, and so on); and through a bodily order which both institutes and manages bodies by bending and moulding them into shape and inserting them in the various institutions and apparatuses. As a material reality, the STate is synonymous with a kind of stunting regimentation and consumption of persons' bodies - in other words, with its incarnation in the very flesh of the subject-objects of state violence. Since all bodies are political, we cannot speak here of bodily mortification by the State: for that would point to the image of an original body, which, while naturally free, is later politically distorted. But within the bodily order, it is still necessary to have personnel who train and discipline bodies with suitable physical devices."

- Nicos Poulantzas, _State, Power, Socialism_ page 29.

Mar 29 2012 18:10

I wanted to point out this recent interview with Ina May Gaskin about maternal mortality rates here in the US. Apparently the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is missing half to two-thirds of the maternal deaths.

She talks about the

personnel who train and discipline bodies with suitable physical devices

mentioned in Nate's quote above:

What we’re finding out we don’t have is choice in—when the pregnancy continues. Now what? Where you have the baby, it’s not just a matter of getting the baby out of the woman, it’s how we do it. And so, as our C-section rate goes up, up, up—when I began as a midwife, it was under 5 percent. Now—and then, in only a decade, it had quadrupled. And now we’re, in many hospitals, over 50 percent. And that’s going to mean that you—you’ve lost the benefits now of the C-section, and you’re starting to have women dying because of C-sections.

...this is—when you do too much surgery, when you enter the abdominal cavity, you know, you’ve introduced whole new kinds of complications that can take place. You can have women dying from pulmonary embolism, and that can happen hours or during a C-section. It can happen after. It can happen after the woman goes home. It can be days or weeks. And there can be just—boom, because she doesn’t know that a pain in her leg is a sign of danger. You can have scar tissue that grows and can cause a bowel obstruction, causing a death that way. You can have a scalpel slip and cut the uteran artery and bleed to death. You can have the bowel knicked and then have an infection set up that might mean an early death from bowel obstruction.

...And the fact that California reported a tripling of the maternal death rate between 1996 and 2006 should—and the fact that here in New York, the New York Academy of Medicine reported that the death rate, which according to the Health and Human Services should be no higher than three to four per 100,000 births, for African-American women has reached an astounding 79 per 100,000. Should be three or four.

She then talks about how the profession of midwifery -women helping women give birth- has been basically obliterated by the medical industry, at least in the US.

There is also this pamphlet from the '70s, which I have yet to read:
Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers

Joseph Kay
Apr 9 2012 10:40

Another thing on this, having removed unions collective bargaining power in Wisconsin, the governor has abolished equal pay legislation on the quiet. For all the problems with unions, i can't help thinking this would have at least been slowed down by consultations etc, and seems to show a clear link (in the ruling class' minds at least) between attacking workers' rights and pushing women back into the home (the rationale is explicitly that money is more important to men cos they're the breadwinners).

Joseph Kay
Apr 23 2012 19:15

Two updates on this. The 'carnival for choice' counter-protest was a big success, and seems to have forced some divisions in the congregation between spiritual and militant anti-choicers. Also, another libcommer linked this on my facebook; 50 anti-choice vigils planned across the UK.

Apr 23 2012 20:29

I've seen this kind of shit in Louisville, KY at the abortion clinic there, the bullying/guilt-trip tactic is used constantly by the anti-choice zealots. I'm sorry you all are experiencing it more in Britain, no one deserves this disgusting harassment. Are there clinic escort volunteers that can keep harassers away from women?

Joseph Kay
Apr 23 2012 21:16

I think Brighton Pro-Choice have offered escort volunteers; i've certainly heard it discussed. Apparently the evangelical churches in the UK are being backed by US money. But while they might have deep pockets they don't (yet) have the same kind of social base as they do across the Atlantic so fingers crossed we can nip this kind of thing in the bud. That said, senior members of the government have been making supportive noises for the anti-choicers, so they're pushing at an open door to an extent.

Jan 6 2014 12:04

at feminist fightback, we were thinking about this question and wrote this discussion paper last year: