Fighting disciplinary and eliminatory gendered violence with adversarial forms of social reproduction

In 2018 in Canada, a woman or girl was murdered every 2.5 days, and in 2005 in the USA, an average of three women were killed every day. In Canada, 9 out of 10 reported sexual assault victims are women. The Native Women’s Association estimates that 4,000 Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been murdered in Canada over the past three decades. In 2018, 370 trans people were reported murdered globally; most of them were racialized women. Non-binary people face higher suicide levels than trans men and trans women. All of this gendered violence has a specific function in the mechanics of capitalist, imperialist, and colonial power.

Red Braid argues that gendered and sexual violence in capitalist societies, whether carried out by state bodies or by people exercising oppressive gender power in their intimate relationships, is always a representation of the organization, adjustment, and compulsions of the field of “social reproduction.” While gendered and sexual violence is a too-common experience for all women, the reason behind each incident of violence can be as varied as the relationships that different groups of women have to capitalism and its reproduction.

For working class women, social reproduction is the compulsory, unwaged, gendered “domestic” work of the housewife. Gendered violence has a disciplinary function against working class women. Husbands and fathers use gendered violence to teach wives and daughters to accept the grueling, thankless, endless toil of the housewife, and to accept the patriarchal dominance of the man at the head of the household. Men in public, on the streets, and in workplaces reinforce this patriarchal order by unrelentingly reminding women, with sexual harassment, assault, and other violations on their bodily sovereignty, that the public is the world of men.

Indigenous women have a different relationship to capitalist production than working class women, so social reproduction has a very different political meaning for Indigenous women. Indigenous nations are attacked by Canada’s imperial, settler colonial forces with the intention of seizing and converting Indigenous lands into property and commodities. Violence against Indigenous women is not disciplinary as much as it is exterminationist. The Canadian state and its settler civil society attack Indigenous women with sexual and gendered violence as part of a campaign of genocide, with the goal of eliminating Indigenous nations and monopolizing Canada’s claim to territorial sovereignty. Indigenous social reproduction, then, has a revolutionary character. The survival and furthering of Indigenous generations is decolonial because the wellbeing of Indigenous families are building blocks of the resurgence of Indigenous nation-hoods.

Non-Indigenous trans women, as well as trans men, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people, fall somewhere in between these two poles. Working class trans women do socially reproductive work, in families and in community spaces, that can be appropriated by the logic and needs of capital. And in that work, they are vulnerable to disciplinary violence. But all trans women, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are vulnerable to the eliminatory violence faced by people who trespass the rigid laws of the patriarchal gender binary. Trans women’s self-defence responses to eliminatory gendered violence, whether by fighting back against state violence or gendered and sexual assaults, or by creating nurturing, celebratory spaces that strengthen the overall existence of trans women’s communities, is a resistant form of social reproduction.

If disciplinary and eliminatory forms of gender violence stem from whether a particular group of women is coerced into performing socially reproductive labour for capitalist production, or violently cast away to clear the path for capitalist production, then the gendered character of reproductive labour is at the heart of gendered violence. The truth is that our communities are always performing adversarial forms of reproduction. The insidiousness of capitalism is in its ability to quietly and persistently appropriate our loving care for each other for its own benefit. But it is the ubiquity of this appropriated reproductive labour that makes reproduction a field for decolonial and socialist struggle.

Red Braid sees the encouragement and nurturing of adversarial forms of reproduction as a strategy for a revolutionary gender practice. By encouraging adversarial forms of reproduction that deepen our capacities to wage revolutionary struggle, we strive to develop an anti-colonial, feminist class consciousness in subaltern Indigenous and working class communities. Our political goal of developing worlds free of gendered and sexual violence, without patriarchal gender roles and colonial domination, can be practiced as well as won by decoupling reproduction from gender and building adversarial forms of reproduction in our organizational spaces and community survival struggles.

Working class women and social reproduction

Working class women bear the responsibility of social reproduction on top of our exploitation as workers. Social reproduction is the work necessary, within a capitalist mode of production, to produce the labour-power of wage earners, the family, and the nation. An example of how the capitalist division of labour produces a belief that the subordination of women is “natural” can be drawn from one of the stronger periods of the Canadian labour movement.

Attempts by working women during the first decades of the 20th century to join, create, and sustain trade unions were stifled by working men and the male-dominated labour bureaucracy, who believed that working women’s primary responsibility was to care for the husband and family in the home. This belief in women’s natural subordination, and thus lack of support for women’s labour organizations, has had ripple effects. Women in the workforce to this day make 75% to the dollar of men and are still resigned to the gendered double-shift: in 2015 women in Canada performed an average of 50% more unpaid household labour a week than men.

While women have taken up a permanent position in the waged workforce, the type of labour we do echoes these old themes of domestic service work. According to the labour data from the 2016 census, working women in Canada are concentrated in the service industry, which is a single category that comprises a wide range of jobs, from a layer of privileged workers on one end and abject, subaltern workers on the other. On the top end of the service industry are the well-paying administrative jobs that offer upward social mobility to an overwhelmingly white group of women, and on the other end are low-security domestic and personal service jobs that are worked by predominantly racialized women.

This women’s workplace binary is partially due to the gate-keeping of women out of the Canadian labour movement, but is also a result of the failures of bourgeois feminism. Since the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, liberal feminists have sought and won representation as professionals in bourgeois and colonial institutions. A massive growth of the “quaternary service sector,” which services the financial needs of investors, in major cities since the 1970s has opened space for women to find work in professional and managerial administrative jobs. This movement of middle class white women into demanding office jobs has produced an explosion of personal service workers, whose job is to reproduce the capacities of entrepreneurial women and their families. These low-wage, personal service working women themselves are stuck in a reproductive double-shift. Because they can’t afford maids and nannies, personal service working women are stuck doing a shift of unwaged reproductive labour at home after completing their low-waged reproductive labour job in the homes of yuppies.

The actual conditions of women’s labour, paid and unpaid, provide the background in which the culture of male supremacy develops. Male supremacist culture has a semi-autonomous life of its own where working men experience the bourgeois ideal of women’s subordination to men as a social fact, an entitlement, and their well-deserved right; no boss man has to breathe the order into working men’s ears because part of patriarchal masculinity is to independently work as a foot soldier of man’s manifest destiny. The semi-autonomous field of male supremacist culture untethers men from the need to serve the logical, objective needs of capital. Men wield gendered and sexual violence against women, gender non-conforming people, and men whom they perceive as sexually “effeminate” and/or racialize as hyper or inadequately masculine when they want to, and in the ways they want to.

Men’s long simmering frustrations with working women’s resistance to the patriarchal gender order and with Indigenous women’s leadership in national resurgence spilled over in the late 2010s with the emergence of neo-nazi groups and so-called “incel” organizations. It seems that the most hyperbolic attitudes of the past continue to unfold before our eyes.

Resistant reproduction in the throes of transmisogyny

Misogny affects all women and all trans and gender non-conforming people, while transphobia is a particular form of eliminatory misogyny that affects trans and gender non-conforming people. But transmisogyny, which uniquely impacts trans women and woman aligned non-binary people, is more than just the crucible of misogyny and transphobia – it is the triple-bind in which we have to prove we are women and, in doing so, are punished both for being women and for being “not” women or men. A brutal example, brutal because it is both gruesome and common, is that men treat trans women as sexual objects until they find out we have (or used to have) a penis, and then they beat or murder us. In this dynamic, our gender is totally alienated from us and at the disposal of our aggressor. It shifts only to maintain the perpetrator’s maleness, which is inextricably wound up with his heterosexuality.

Statistics collected from the 2009-2010 Trans PULSE survey in Canada and the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey outline the eliminatory nature of transphobia: trans people, as a whole, are more likely to experience sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and suicidality; more likely to rely on sex work and underground economies and live in poverty, than the general population or cis women, with degrees of vulnerability within the trans population varying widely depending on compounding factors like migration status, racialization or Indigeneity, and disabilty. In Ontario, half of trans people have an annual income of less than $15,000. While this paints a stark picture of the violences trans people face, it would be an error to miss the convergences of working class trans and cis women’s struggles by fixating on a generalized understanding of transphobia.

Sitting in the juncture between traditional capitalist social reproduction as women and near total social abjection as poor trans people, working class trans women’s resistant reproduction strikes at the rotten, woman-hating core of the bourgeois gender binary and its exploitative and oppressive imperatives. For example, trans women who take hormones have to be on a constant dose, but regular access to a doctor is difficult, and sometimes impossible for working class trans women because of waitlists and the expense of hormones, which are largely not covered by public healthcare in Canada. In response to this structural discrimination, trans women in cities across Canada have established hormone-sharing networks. Women who have managed to access hormones try to get prescribed higher dosages than we need and take less than we need in order to pass on hormones to others.

Working class trans women create lists of transphobic doctors, bad dates, and condescending social workers; we walk home with each other, give each other pepper spray, take care of each other when we’re sick or kicking drugs. We read together, play together, drink and use drugs together so no one dies, and in doing so, we carve out a subaltern space where we can be almost certain we are no longer under the threat of trans-antagonistic or misogynist violence and abuse. These activities are not revolutionary, because they do not attack or weaken the power of the cis surpremacist state, but they are the self-activity and resistant reproductive work of trans womens’ communities. In that, they are a flicker of light that gives us a fleeting glimpse of how to reorganize social life so that no one is in need.

Indigenous reproduction: The negation of colonial power

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls issued its final report in June 2019, and unequivocally declared that violence against Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people is genocide. Gendered violence against Indigenous people is radically eliminatory, aimed at the death and destruction of Indigenous women, families, communities, and nations. The work of social reproduction in Indigenous economies and nationhoods has the opposite relationship to capitalism than socially reproductive work within the circuit of capitalist production. While capitalism depends on working class women’s unwaged, socially reproductive labour to refresh and maintain the workforce, Indigenous social reproduction is in conflict with a settler colonial capitalism that wants to eliminate Indigenous peoples. Acts that rebuild Indigenous populations, communities, nations, lifeways, and sovereignty are antithetical to Canada.

Indigenous reproduction, including the struggle against gendered and sexual violence, is centred on the defence and decolonization of Indigenous families and kinship practices. Sadie Morris (Nuu Chah Nulth and Irish) and Destiny Morris (Nuu Chah Nulth, Gitxsan, and Irish), who are members of Red Braid’s Indigenous Leadership Council, contributed articles to this collection that elaborate the revolutionary power of Indigenous reproduction in anti-violence and kinship practices.

Indigenous reproduction also resists settler colonial attacks on Indigenous women in cities, who are most vulnerable to violence. Of the approximately 4,000 Indigenous women murdered and missing in Canada, many were abducted or assaulted in urban spaces, like the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, where the urban space itself has been racialized as a colonial problem. Indigenous women have founded and organized, for more than 25 years, an annual memorial march for missing and murdered women. This march started off small but has become a powerful political field of struggle that forced the BC government to hold an inquiry into the disappearances of women from the Downtown Eastside. The women leaders of the movement held the state inquiry accountable, organizing a boycott of the processes when it turned away from a victim-centred and family-inclusive process. Beyond creating networks of support to help women survive colonial violence, the February 14th Women’s Memorial March committee exercised an adversarial reproduction that fought against the power of the settler colonial state.

Indigenous reproduction is the reproduction of Indigenous genders. Trans, two spirit Indigenous people and Indigenous people who practice nation-specific traditional Indigenous genders are pressed into queer and trans socal formations alongside settlers by the shared pressures of transphobia, which attacks everyone who fails to conform to the European gender binary, while also maintaing a distinct position relative to the colonial gender binary because of our Indigeneity. Indigenous trans women suffer both transmisogynistic, settler-colonial violence as well as its internalized reflections within Indigenous nations and communities that have adopted the colonial two-sex/gender binary. Indigenous people carry the land and nation despite our dispossession. Our reproduction of multiple Indigenous genders is the reproduction of kinship and lifeways.

Queer social reproduction: A contested ground

In a capitalist economy, whether we like it or not, our survival profits our bosses in a mutually dependent cycle of commodity exchange: we recharge after work in order to be able to go back to work, despite our desires to monopolize our own spirits and energies. Because of this inescapable fact of capitalist production, practices of “self” and “community” that do not break with colonial and bourgeois ways of organizing social life are not adversarial forms of reproduction because they fail to cultivate the politicized, collective power needed to disrupt capital. Unsurprisingly, “self-care” has been absorbed into bourgeois logic, with advertisements explaining that the key to financial success is caring for yourself.

Unlike Indigenous reproduction, which in itself is the negation of colonial power, queer community reproduction, while having a resistant inflection, is not automatically anti-capitalist. In queer cultures we see our forms of resistance nearly instantaneously co-opted by capital. Our old practice of cruising for dates or clients has been turned into an above-ground sugar baby enterprise in the last few years for career-oriented women. And queer culture can smoothly be absorbed by Canada’s neoliberal ruling class, as demonstrated by Vancouver City Hall’s announcement of 2019 as the “Year of the Queer,” and the annual bourgeois spectacle of the Pride Parade, which features pigs, politicans, corporations, and banks.

But queer social practices are also sites of contest because our dance parties, safe spaces for trans people, collective houses, and kink nights are both sanctuaries from eliminatory gendered and sexual violence, and extensions of our workplaces, keeping us functional enough to live and therefore work another day. For queer reproduction to break through its contestations and develop a clear, consciously adversarial character that threatens bourgeois, patriarchal gender power, we need to build structures of counter power. In other words, we need anti-capitalist and anti-colonial organizations, resolutely opposed to the cross-class spectacle of Pride Parades, which mostly function as a celebration of the purchasing power of white gay men.

Towards a subaltern feminism: Autonomous organization and adversarial reproduction

Like in queer communities, there are already practices of resistant reproduction in subaltern Indigenous and working class communities. We need resistant reproduction in order to survive evictions, homelessness, police violence, the opioid overdose genocide, and every other form of violence that plagues, punishes, and seeks to eliminate our communities. Resistant reproduction, however, can be individualized, scooped into the regulatory power of the state, and used to appropriate the adaptive, organic genius of community knowledge in order to cut off the revolutionary possibilities that are latent there. For example, drug users responded to the opioid overdose crisis by creating autonomous self-defence spaces, like tent cities, where members of communities were better able to respond to overdose incidents and save the lives of their kin. The Provincial Health Authority responded by picking off “peer” leaders, providing funding and resources and creating government-approved spaces. Resistant reproduction was assimilated into a reproductive arena of public health, which included police surveillance and activities contained by social workers.

Subaltern communities exercise resistant forms of social reproduction, but also hold patriarchal values. The conflict between these patriarchal ideological and cultural structures, and practices of resistant reproduction, can be expressed in disciplinary and eliminatory gendered violence within communities. Part of the revolutionary work of encouraging existing practices of resistant reproduction includes taking hard stances against all instances of gendered and sexual violence and lingering fantasies of men’s supremacy and chauvinism.

The strategic challenge facing a revolutionary gender liberation struggle is nourishing adversarial forms of reproduction. A revolutionary Indigenous reproduction is that which reorganizes Indigenous family, kin, and national structures outside of and in opposition to Canada’s colonial interests. A revolutionary working class reproduction must reject those fundamentals of liberal individualism and the imperial, patriarchal family. Individual “self care” can only be adversarial when we are reproducing our energy for the purpose of revolutionary activity. We need revolutionary organizations in order to reproduce our energies for strategic, adversarial purposes that cannot be recuperated into the reproductive needs of capitalist processes. And, most importantly, we must decouple reproduction from gender. Bourgeois reproduction is innately violent and misogynist because it is gendered as women’s work. While a revolutionary anti-capitalist reproductive practice would value and hold up women’s traditional work as the axis around which we can develop a revolutionary social order, revolutionary reproduction must be detached from gender, and reorganized in irreconcilable opposition to compulsory, disciplinary violence.

Red Braid’s strategy for fostering revolutionary practices of reproduction is to focus on the resistant reproduction of women and trans people in community survival struggles, recognizing and elevating them politically. Social reproduction does not have an inherently negative or oppressive value, rather it is the context of patriarchal power, capitalist production, gendered and sexual violence, and gender roles that invest it with terrible meaning. But unshackling reproductive labour and its requisite gendered violence from bourgeois production and colonial domination can make reproduction a political strategy, and a point of principle in a fight against patriarchy and colonial gender domination.