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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Childbirth and Social War (2010)

"In the early 1920's, capitalism realized that it could no longer maintain it's exploitation of human labor if it didn't also colonize everything that exists beyond the strict sphere of production. Faced with the socialist challenge, it had to socialize too. So it needed to create its culture, its entertainment, its medicine, its urbanism, its sentimental education and its own moores, and be prepared to perpetually renovate these."
-Tiqqun "Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Jeune-Fille"
When anarchists speak of "Social War" we aren't just renaming the "Class War" of years past, wherein the struggles against capitalism were carried out by the proletariat seeking to overthrow the bourgeoisie and destroy class society, what we are speaking about is the colonization of capital into all forms of modern life and the need to seek out and attack it in every sphere within which it exists. Social war means constant conflict (in varying degrees of intensity) with all aspects of life inside our post-industrial desert. It means both the destruction of all commodified forms of life and the creation and dissemination of new, non-recuperable life-ways.
Our analysis must encompass the totality of our oppression, that is to say that we should never consciously overlook any part of life that capital has integrated itself into. An anarchist strategy needs to avoid stagnancy by constantly redefining and remapping the social terrain and locating the spaces where power has recuperated dissent. We can't expect to remain relevant or be effective if we keep trying to reintroduce the practices and theories of old dead anarchists into a context that is entirely different. Life has changed and we, if we do not wish to wither away into oblivion, must change with it.
One aspect of life that we should not overlook is childbirth. Reproductive freedom has a long and rich history of resistance to capitalist and state control.
Work that had for centuries been done by women (i.e. gathering, farming) was gradually taken over by men and their beasts of burden. This more sedentary life caused many women to give birth to more children which increased the population and helped to give rise to Feudalism. But when the plague hit, Europe lost 60% of it's population, and people with specialized skills and knowledge could charge extraordinarily large sums of money for their work. Burgeoning nation-states, scrambling to pull together enough people to continue business as usual after the catastrophic population decrease, gave rise to the new networks of power, a primitive state apparatus, and, of course, a clamp down on peasant communalism. Some heretical sects resisted the attack on their communal life-ways by refusing to obey their laws, setting churches on fire, hanging bishops for betraying the real teachings of christ and some, as in the case of the Bogomils, downright refused to bear children so that they would not bring new slaves in this "land of tribulations".
The onset of primitive accumulation necessitated a new restructuring of power in Europe and an increase in potential laborers. This was at a time when a nation-state's power and wealth was partially defined by the amount of its citizens it had at its disposal. When empires needed these bodies they implemented new state regulations over childbirth. In 16th century Nuremburg, the penalty for maternal infanticide was drowning, and all over Germany the Pro-Natalist crusades went as far as punishing women who didn't show enough of an effort during childbirth. In France, a royal edict of 1556 required women to register every pregnancy, and sentenced to death those whose infants died before baptism after a concealed delivery, whether or not they were proven guilty of any wrong doing. The suspicion under which the midwives - leading to the entrance of the male doctor in the delivery room - stemmed more from the authorities fear of infanticide (the potential of losing their labor power and cannon fodder) than from any concern of the midwives' alleged medical incompetence. With the marginalization of the midwife, women lost the control they had exercised over procreation and were reduced to a passive role in child delivery, while male doctors began to be seen as the real "givers of life". Some midwives in Germany turned spies for the state in order to continue their practice. Most midwives rebelled, instead of adhering to the new guidelines imposed on them, they continued guiding women through the birthing experience the way they always had. Some of these unruly women were called witches, some were murdered, but most continued practicing, only less vocal this time.
Midwives, as demeaned as they were, regularly continued to attend most mothers up until the 1920's when there was a move to hospitalize the birthing experience in the United States. White and mostly upper and middle class women started attending hospitals due to the doctors promises of a smooth and hygienic birth. Propaganda campaigns, financed by the medical industry, at the time portrayed midwives as 'unsanitary', poor immigrants. An important thing to note here is that with all of the turn of the century arguments against midwives: that they were unclean, old-fashioned, ill-equipped, and dangerous; it was in fact in the hospitals where a rise in disease was occurring - puerperal fever (aka childbed fever - a fatal infection that was usually introduced by unhygienic obstetricians), complications (due to the hospitals rigid control of the movements of women's bodies), and fatalities (due to unnecessary interventions).
Somewhat quickly the hospitalization of childbirth began to rise. Within a few decades most deliveries happened in a hospital environment. This provided an immense amount of capital to the industry (as everyone now must pay to come into the world). Also accomplished in this is medicalization of childbirth, and this is crucial to an anarchist analysis of childbirth, is the intense regulated control of the process of bringing life into the world. The state decides how (and in some cases when) you are allowed to enter the world. After a few generations women had given up almost all power over procreation to licensed professionals and state bureaucracy. Some midwives spoke against the medical apparatus, but were drowned out by more "competent" doctors and studies financed by the medical industry.
In the late 1960's and early 70's there was a revamp in the field of midwifery, which was closely tied to the hippy and back-to-the-land movements. Childbirth was seen, once again, as a spiritual ceremony and many hippies came to older midwives, eager to learn the trade. This new generation of midwives set up birthing centers on communal farms, collectives in cities and organized free midwifery trainings. This marginal subculture of "spiritual midwives" existed mostly on the fringes of society and did not (for the most part) break out of its groovy ghetto to attack the medical industry and the state apparatus for controlling the welcoming of life. Not to be overlooked though, are the important ways these births empowered women and helped them feel more in control of their bodies. Their refusal to obey state regulations over childbirth, refusal to accept money for delivering children and the expropriation and dissemination of specialized skills shows a move into a revolutionary consciousness. Content as they were to set up birthing communes and midwifery collectives these midwives failed to take direct action against the business of being born.
But the 60's counter-culture came and went and what was left were scattered birth collectives charging clientele ludicrously large fees, upper-middle class midwife authors collecting royalty checks from book sales, and a general acceptance of state licensing and certification. Although there was a slight resistance in the 80's to the legalization of midwifery by some radical midwives, most midwives were just glad they were allowed to practice openly. What started out as a radical subculture reclaiming an almost lost skill, that carried with it a potentially revolutionary paradigm, had become a commodified and regulated component of the industrial medical apparatus. It continues to exist today as another life-choice colonized by capital and overseen by the state.
In recent years midwifery, homebirths and unassisted childbirths have grown in popularity. But midwifery as a practice has yet to reject the commodification of its own existence; it has in fact become more of a commodity than ever before. With the movement toward a green capitalist market, midwifery, along with veganism, organic local food co-ops, hybrid cars, Barrack Obama, and bicycles has become just another eco-niche. Certified Midwives have fairly large incomes, prenatal yoga birthing classes cost a fortune and birthing tubs for homebirths are not communized but are instead rented out for hundreds of dollars.
Within this commercialization of natural childbirth there exists a kernel of subversion and rebellion, the anarchist midwife. The anarchist midwife is new to the scene but brings with her all of the tools to make childbirth a threat to the ruling order. She carries with her a disdain for all things regulated and surveilled, a readiness to work outside of the law, a sharpened critique of the medical industry, the skills to deliver a new life and a deep trust and love for the mother and child's intuition.
The anarchist midwife has within herself the capacity to be truly subversive. She can provide free or low-cost births for illegal immigrants who would otherwise be turned away or into the police by the hospital staff. She can learn Spanish to offer her skills, and knowledge, to immigrant communities, outlaws and fugitives. She and her peers can communize birthing equipment. She can use illegalism to fund birthing centers, conferences and skillshares. She can expose and disrupt obstetricians that speak out against midwifery when they give lectures. She can despecialize her knowledge by sharing it with others. She can write pamphlets and journals critiquing the capitalist medical industry. She can give whatever procedures she and the mother deem safe during child-delivery without regard for the state and its arbitrary restrictions.
She is a free agent, a rebel, a subversive, one part of the social war. She is the anarchist midwife.

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