Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale- Women in the International Division of Labour

Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour, Maria Mies (Zed Books, 2014)

Review by Giuliana Monteverde, PhD candidate at Ulster University

Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale is regarded as a feminist classic.  This new edition – published 28 years after the original – includes a preface where Mies reflects on her work in light of new ‘communications technology’; the 2008 economic crisis; and a post 9/11 world fixated on terrorism and Islam (p. xxii).  In the last paragraph of the 2014 preface, Mies optimistically points to the resurgence of the word ‘capitalism’ in contemporary political discourse, pointing out that people are gradually realising problems cannot be solved within capitalist patriarchy.  In line with her original thesis, she concludes that, “capitalism is just the latest avatar of patriarchy” (p. xxiv.).

Mies’ argument is that women, colonies and nature are exploited, and this is ultimately how capitalism is able to function.  She states that “the woman problem” should not be tacked on to already existing theories of oppression.  As a result of this, her book undertakes a rigorous critique of the classical Marxist conception of labour, and goes on to theorise a feminist one.  She challenges the idea that patriarchy under capitalism is a hangover from earlier times, and points to the socio-historical explanations for gender inequality in relation to labour.

The book begins by taking stock of feminism.  Mies says there are divisions between and within groups of women, but that women are also united under patriarchy.  She talks about the outcomes of this simultaneous unity and division, referencing feminist paternalism and guilt.  She criticises feminisms that operate solely in the cultural and ideological sphere, which is a precursor to contemporary critiques of liberal reformist feminisms.  Mies critiques a feminist conception of autonomy that fits too easily with an individualistic consumerist position wherein women achieve autonomy from buying, or having the ability to buy.

Mies takes a global approach, saying that “we are both divided and connected by commodity relations” (p. 3.).  Consumers in the West are directly involved in the ongoing exploitation of others, but this is, “totally obscured from our consciousness” (p. 3.).  Throughout the book Mies links the overdeveloped and underdeveloped worlds, stressing that one is underdeveloped at the expense of the other.  She links witch-hunts in Europe to treatment of third-world women during colonialism; links violence against women across the globe; and discusses government interference in reproductive health (first world women expected to create more white children whereas third world women subjected to population control measures).

Importantly, Mies points out white Western women’s complicity in the exploitation of producers in global capitalist markets.  She also mentions tensions between women of the same nationality and different class (urban versus rural women, middle-class versus working-class women), and refers to Big Men and Small Men to differentiate between those with more power and privilege.  This creates a necessary layer of complexity when talking about such a vast problem, time period and geographical location.

A strength of the book is its use of specific case studies.  Mies’ own work in India appears throughout, and the chapter on patriarchy in socialist countries looks at changing government policy in China, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam after their national liberation struggles.  These examples add complexity and real-world references to the overall argument, with Indian newspaper excerpts providing some harrowing examples of rape and brutal dowry murders.

There are several aspects of the book that may jar with some contemporary feminist thinking.  Mies’ approach to sex work is perhaps not as nuanced as it could be, as it is presented as always based on imperialist, racist patriarchy.  I would be interested to read how the book’s thesis would fit in with, or contest, current feminist discourse on sex work.  Additionally, Mies’ suggestion that women boycott “cosmetics and new sexy fashion fads” (p. 226.) is at odds with some contemporary thinking on beauty practices.  Mies does acknowledge this perspective in her footnotes, saying she understands how women may need to beautify themselves, but that they needn’t do it in the way the beauty industry demands.  Again, a longer piece just on this subject, against the backdrop of her thesis on capitalist patriarchy, would be fascinating.

This book is recommended reading for anyone involved in feminist research, activism or teaching, as well as those interested in Marxism, socialism and environmentalism.  Many of Mies’ predictions in this book have been realised in much more extreme ways than she expected, particularly in terms of technology. Patriarchy and Accumulation contains insight still highly relevant to late 21st century neoliberal capitalist white supremacist heterosexist patriarchy, and offers a non-paternalist global approach that links women without reducing difference.

Giuliana Monteverde is a second year PhD student at Ulster University, Coleraine.  Her doctoral thesis looks at complicity in contemporary feminist discourse.  Giuliana’s research interests are pop culture, contemporary feminism, neoliberalism and capitalism.