Does capitalism cause rape?
I like Kavita Krishnan, so when she argues that capitalism causes rape, I sit up and take notice. The post is long so it can take a while to figure out exactly what her argument is. The crux is in this paragraph:
The global upswing in gender violence (including sexual violence and domestic violence) and misogynistic rape culture, ought then to be traced at least in part to the imperatives of global capitalism and imperialism and their local agents, to justify an increased burden of social reproduction for women, the availability of women from the former colonies as pliant labour, and rape as a weapon against people’s movements resisting primitive accumulation. The fear of violence contributes to disciplining women into suitable labourers, both for global production as well as reproduction.
This, and much of the post, is somewhat confusing (more on this later) so I’m going to try explaining the ideas as simply as possible. There is not one, but three ways in which Krishnan tries to link capitalism** to violence against women.
*Her essay includes a long critique of the ideas of Maya John and Prabhat Patnaik, which I will not discuss here. I’ve restricted this post to the links between capitalism and gender violence.
**Note that I find the word “capitalism” itself quite vague and dodgy, but you can’t have a discussion without some common ground, so I’m going flow with it.
1. “…an increased burden of social reproduction for women…”
Any society, to thrive and prosper, requires people to engage in two kinds of work: making goods for consumption and sale, and taking care of people – children, sick friends, relatives, aged parents etc. The first is called “productive activity”, and second is called, somewhat cutely, “reproductive activity” (and includes giving birth). No economic system – including capitalism – can survive unless there is a steady flow of new labourers to replace those who have retired or died, and the burden of ensuring that children are born, raised, and taken care of until they enter the workforce typically falls upon women, who give up paid “productive activities” to focus on unpaid “reproductive activities”.
How does this result in gender violence? Her argument appears to be that, in order to keep women engaged in reproductive activities, it becomes necessary (for capitalism) to create a “patriarchal” culture, where women take up a lot of the housework. This culture makes them dependent upon their husbands, and vulnerable to abuse. Furthermore, the need to create a patriarchal culture causes the “capitalist class” to oppose things like abortion, often with rhetoric that is misogynistic and indirectly causes rape by contributing to “rape culture”. One example she obliquely hints at is US Representative Todd Akin’s claim that rape can’t result in pregnancy.
In short – capitalism needs patriarchy; thus capitalism supports patriarchy; patriarchy causes abuse/rape.
This argument is tenuous, to say the least. Firstly, economic systems can function just fine – perhaps better – if men take up half of all domestic duties. Given this, it’s hard to see why “capitalism” needs women specifically to engage in a lot of “reproductive” activities – it could work just as well by inducing men to engage in more reproductive activity. “Capitalism” doesn’t need “patriarchy” (although firms adapt to such cultures) and it functions quite well in countries like Sweden etc.
Secondly, the link between capitalism and “rape culture remarks” is baseless, and consists of little more than the observation that some pro-business politicians said silly things about rape. Given the weird international division of beliefs into “left-wing” and “right-wing” beliefs, this does look like a coincidence. Anyway, as Krishnan herself notes in her critique of Maya John, right-wingers hardly have a monopoly on stupid ideas about rape.
Thirdly, it’s not clear how Krishnan’s version of “rape culture” works. While Akin’s statement was vile and ignorant, how exactly does it lead to more rape? Rapists aren’t worried about impregnating their victims. Insensitive statements such as these are hurtful and make life harder for the victims of rape, but it’s a strong and unsubstantiated claim that these lead to more rape. “Rape culture” should not be a black box into which unpleasant things go in at one end and come out as rape at the other. It’s this kind of muddled thinking that allows me to compile lists like this.
Finally, and most importantly, the last thirty odd years – the era of “neoliberalism” – have seen the large scale entry of women into the workforce, a fact that is at odds with the capitalism-promotes-patriarchy story. It is to this that we will now turn.
2. “…the availability of women from the former colonies as pliant labour…”
One of the biggest changes in the last thirty odd years has been the entry of women into the labour force in countries across the world, a phenomena that scholars call the “feminisation of labour”. There are many possible explanations. One is the destruction of welfare nets, which induces families to send women to work. Another is the erosion in the power of labour unions, which kept wages high, but led to unemployment for “outsiders” like ethnic minorities and women. A third is the weakening of labour market regulations like minimum wage, which means that families can no longer count on men being able to earn a secure income. A fourth is increasing use of casual labour, contract labour, home-working etc. which are cheaper than permanent factory labour; such work is particularly suitable for women, given their “reproductive” duties. A fifth reason has been the shift to production using “unskilled” labour, which requires no investment in training workers – firms are now more willing to hire women who may quit to get married. Finally, women, because of their upbringing, are apparently more “docile”, which firms want in a labour force. These points are taken from pp. 584-585 of this Guy Standing paper. In countries like India, the Phillipines, Bangladesh etc. there has been an increase in the number of women working in what are disparagingly called “sweatshops”.
The responses to the feminisation of labour has been mixed. On the one hand, it increases female income, reduces dependence on men, and raises women’s bargaining power within households. On the other hand, it is unclear whether there is an increases the welfare of women. Firstly, in many places, their wages are taken by their families. Secondly, working women receive less money from their husbands, family and community. Finally, many of the above factors may result in lower incomes for the communities that women live in.
Krishnan seems to believe that this state of affairs increases violence against women. She asserts that “their insecure working conditions create greater hurdles and challenges for these women in their struggle against patriarchy.” This claim is odd. The feminisation of labour can potentially reduce gender violence against women, by freeing them from being completely dependent on their husbands and making them less vulnerable to abuse and marital rape. By increasing female incomes relative to men, capitalism can undermine patriarchy, defined here as a system in which (elder) men dominate households. How does the reverse happens i.e. how does women working more reduce their influence within a household, increasing domestic violence? Krishnan doesn’t explain.
It’s possible that she uses “violence” in a broad sense and sees working in a sweatshop as a form of violence in itself. Whether this is valid is a question for another post; for now I’ll simply note that this is not what most people think of, or should think of, as “gender violence”.
3. “…rape as a weapon against people’s movements resisting primitive accumulation.”
Capitalism requires goods like land, minerals, coal etc. to produce goods. In order to provide these things, they must be taken away from the farmers, tribals etc to whom they belong, preferably without compensation. These farmers and tribals resist the theft of their land, and this brings them into conflict with corrupt governments. This conflict can become violent as governments try to suppress these movements with the police or the army. These forces often rape women as a way of breaking resistance. In condensed form: capitalism causes appropriation, which causes conflict, which causes rape.
While there is nothing wrong with this argument, there is nothing particularly right about it. Such cases aren’t even registered at police stations, so it’s hard to see how it explains a “global upswing”. It doesn’t explain rape in cities, towns and villages where there is no active resistance to government appropriation (i.e. most of them, including Delhi). It doesn’t explain sexual violence in countries like the US where police do not resort to raping protesters who Occupy Wall Street. Some of the most violent expropriations in recent history have occurred under communist governments, and plenty of appropriation occurred in India before 1991 – the notion that this kind of conflict is unique to, or even particularly bad in, capitalist economies is absurd, as is the notion that this will disappear under “socialism”. It doesn’t help the case when “neoliberals” – from Milton Friedman to Swaminathan Aiyer – are against this kind of theft.
Rape is one of the most most awful aspects of humanity. Figuring out what causes it is important, and the first step towards ending it. Kavita Krishnan believes that capitalism is a factor – she is wrong. It’s hard to see how an attempt to “keep women in the kitchen” (so to speak) will result in more rape. It’s hard to see why capitalism needs to keep women in the kitchen – it functions quite nicely in countries where they aren’t. It’s hard to see how women working in larger numbers will result in more rape. It’s easy to see how conflict can result in more rape, but it’s hard to see how this is a major factor, or unique to capitalism. I get that there has been an apparent increase in violence against women, but people need to be more careful while presenting potential causes.
Note: You can find a critique of Kavita Krishnan’s writing style here.