Slavery is everywhere banned, but the ethos of the slave trade thrives in the baby-buying business.
“Life in contemporary ‘biocapitalism’ is complexly connected to life in ‘slave racial capitalism.’”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Alys Eve Weinbaum. Weinbaum is Professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her book is The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery: Biocapitalism and Black Feminism’s Philosophy of History.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Alys Eve Weinbaum: My book is about the ways in which four hundred years of Atlantic slavery not only materially but also epistemically shapes contemporary capitalism. The basic idea is that there is a thought system that was brewed up in slavery that rendered the extraction of women's reproductive labor power and its products, children, conceivable in both sense of that biologically laden term. Today, we live in a world in which reproductive extraction once again subtends capitalist exchange. Babies, eggs, and reproductive labor (among many other biological products) are routinely bought and sold—in fact, markets in babies, eggs, and surrogate labor span the globe in what some scholars call global fertility chains. It is today possible to purchase an egg from a woman living in Romania, have it fertilized and implanted in the womb of second woman living in Thailand, and then pick up a baby that has been expressly reproduced for transport to a new life in another country, usually in the global North. What makes it possible to conceptualize this global reproductive extraction as currently practiced? I suggest it is the long history of slave breeding that makes such circuits of contemporary exchange imaginable. I also suggest that these circuits are racialized because reproductive extraction has historically been understood to be a racializing process that renders the labor power of women alienable and fungible. I hope my book helps people see the complex connections between contemporary forms of racialized and gendered reproductive extraction and those that took place in the context of slavery.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope people read my book and gain what Raymond Williams once called “an extra edge of consciousness” about how capitalist hegemony is quite literally reproduced through the exploitation of women whose labor is devalued and whose bodies are cast as less-than-human through processes that are both gendered and racialized. I want people to recognize that life in what some social scientists have called contemporary “biocapitalism” is complexly connected to life in what others have called “slave racial capitalism.” This said, my work is not all about becoming conscious of exploitation. It is also about imagining the histories of insurgency that might yet inform present activism and organizing. Slave women opted to take their reproductive labor out of circulation. They resisted rape and forced breeding as Angela Davis made us aware with her groundbreaking essay on women in slavery. And, as subsequent historians of slavery have amply demonstrated, slave women prevented conception, resisted rape, and committed abortion and infanticide. They ran away alone and with their children. They participated in not only refusing their enslavement and the enslavement of their children but also in bringing about the end to slavery. When we recall these past forms of refusal of slave racial capitalism and especially when we recall women's refusal of the gender specific forms of exploitation of their sexuality and reproduction, we can tap into powerful freedom dreams that might yet animate our thinking about and response to present reproductive cultures and politics, and present markets and the reproductive products—biological and technological—that we consume.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
The black female body was the pivot around which the slave enterprise turned. Today, we cannot afford to participate in the reanimation of a culture that exploits the racialized reproductive body as the fount of wealth and ultimately of human futurity. We need to stop prioritizing the reproduction of biological kinship as we create the world we want to live in and collectively imagine the future of humanity on this planet. The genetic fetishism that drives so many reproductive practices and decisions needs to be denaturalized and disavowed. We need to un-learn the reproductive mindset that compels consumption of someone else's reproductive labor power and products. As Donna Haraway and others have recently argued, it's high time we thought more about making kin than about making babies and population. We need to un-learn the ways we have thought about reproduction and racialized the process in order to rationalize its exploitation.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My book is all about black feminism as a collective formation and about the individual black feminists whose brilliant understandings of history have been articulated across multiple idioms including historiography, legal theory, and fiction. I think black feminism has, since its beginning, sought to recognize the relationship between women's experiences in slavery and in the present moment of writing. For black feminists writing in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—those whose work I focus on in my book—the connection made between slavery and the neoliberal present was amazingly powerful. I write about a number of figures—some well-known, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and also many others, less well known, whose ideas formed part of a collective project that sought to reimagine the meaning of freedom unbound from free enterprise. In this sense, the black feminists whose work interests me most ought to be recognized as black Marxist thinkers, and, by extension, as contributors to a black radical tradition that is too often construed as male. Which is not to say that W. E. B Du Bois, a major contributor to the black radical tradition is not always with me—his ideas continue to shape my thinking in this book as in those that came before. For that matter, so do Walter Benjamin's ideas about historical materialism as what he called, after Hegel, "a philosophy of history." Bottom line, I suppose I would say I'm most inspired by thinkers who have sought to rework the profound insights of traditional Marxism by rendering it responsive to questions of gender, sexuality, and race as well as class. Most recently I've been inspired by the work of Silvia Federici in this regard.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Many of the fictional texts I treat in my book are dystopic—either because they are set in slavery and imagine a world in which exploitation is extreme and unrelenting, or because they are set in a near or far future in which the old forms of exploitation, including slavery, are recalibrated to new needs and desires. I think in imagining dystopian worlds we also clear space to imagine the flip-side, utopia—dystopia allows us to think about the new worlds we want to create by way of critique and by way of contrast. My next book picks up on this idea of dystopia as imaginative resource, and as a form of critical historiography.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for thePolitical Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the forthcoming book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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