The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery: Biocapitalism and Black Feminism's Philosophy of History

The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery: Biocapitalism and Black Feminism's Philosophy of History

by Alys Eve Weinbaum

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In The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery Alys Eve Weinbaum investigates the continuing resonances of Atlantic slavery in the cultures and politics of human reproduction that characterize contemporary biocapitalism. As a form of racial capitalism that relies on the commodification of the human reproductive body, biocapitalism is dependent upon what Weinbaum calls the slave episteme—the racial logic that drove four centuries of slave breeding in the Americas and Caribbean. Weinbaum outlines how the slave episteme shapes the practice of reproduction today, especially through use of biotechnology and surrogacy. Engaging with a broad set of texts, from Toni Morrison's Beloved and Octavia Butler's dystopian speculative fiction to black Marxism, histories of slavery, and legal cases involving surrogacy, Weinbaum shows how black feminist contributions from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s constitute a powerful philosophy of history—one that provides the means through which to understand how reproductive slavery haunts the present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478003281
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/14/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Alys Eve Weinbaum is Professor of English at the University of Washington, author of Wayward Reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought, and coeditor of The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, both also published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt



Capital comes [into the world] dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood.


The Africanist character [acts] as a surrogate. ... Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.


When Marx wrote in the latter half of the nineteenth century about the birth of capitalism as a bloody bodily process he relied on the metaphor of childbirth to convey the violence of so-called primitive accumulation — the process by which the commons were seized, enclosed, and privatized, people subdued and forced to labor, and natural resources extracted from the land. As Marx argued, from a decidedly teleological standpoint, these three events needed to happen in order for European feudalism to give way to modern capitalism, and thus for capital to be born into the world "dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood." Marx no doubt intended the metaphor of bloody birth to portend the violence of industrialization that he presciently predicted would come to characterize the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century in much of Europe.

What Marx was clearly not thinking about was the richness and aptness of the childbirth metaphor in the contemporaneous context of slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean. And this was so despite the fact that Marx was no doubt aware of the sexual and reproductive dispossession that slavery entailed, and might have integrated an account of the relationship of nineteenth-century slavery and capitalism into his work had he been inclined to consider what subsequent scholars have called racial capitalism, or, more precisely still, slave racial capitalism. Nor was Marx thinking about the uncanny relevance of his reproductively laden metaphor in the context of twenty-first-century capitalism — that is, in the context of biocapitalism.

In the former context — that of Atlantic slavery — the aptness of childbirth as the metaphor for production of surplus value has been examined by feminist historians of slavery who have centralized slave women's work as breeders of human commodities in the process of situating slavery as a global capitalist enterprise. I treat this scholarship at this chapter's outset and build on its insight into the dependence of the new world plantation system on the engineering of slave reproduction for profit. As we shall see, slavery increasingly relied upon slave breeding as time went on, especially after the outlawing of the transatlantic trade by the Slave Trade Act of 1807. In the latter context — that of biocapitalism — I demonstrate that "bloody birth" all too neatly describes one of the primary motors of capitalism's expansion over the past four decades. The chapter's second section thus treats scholarship on contemporary biocapitalism. Like slavery before it, biocapitalism relies on reproductive labor power and products. Indeed biological, often "bloody" processes and raw materials enable the scientific research and development that fuels profit in a global marketplace dominated by giant multinational corporations invested in the extraction of surplus value from the mining of life itself.

In this chapter's second epigraph, Toni Morrison reminds us that the idea of surrogacy resonates across American history and within the modern episteme. In Playing in the Dark, the literary theoretical work from which it is drawn, Morrison makes visible the inchoate or spectral "Africanist presence" whose textual figuration subtends white American literature and the production of the white American self. As Morrison elaborates, whiteness was one of the most significant products of nineteenth-century American literature and of the national culture that it mediated. Through close reading of canonical nineteenth- and early twentieth-century texts, Morrison demonstrates how representation of black Africanism enabled the "birth" of white citizens who are invariably figured as protagonists whose arrival in the world, via the written page, constitutes the "fulfillment of destiny." At various points Morrison describes the Africanist presence as a specter or literary foil. At others, as in my epigraph, she describes it as a "surrogate" that sometimes literally and always metaphorically births and nurses whiteness, effectively facilitating reproduction of white racial hegemony. Although Morrison never mentions the actual work of reproductive surrogacy that was performed by all African slave women forced to gestate human chattel, her use of the term surrogate resonates with my discussion of slavery and biocapitalism. It implicates the racialized reproductive processes that fueled slavery (the biological acts of gestation, parturition, and nurture) in the production of hegemonic racial formations and modern capitalism alike. Put otherwise, by using surrogacy to describe the ideological work performed by the literary representation of blackness, Morrison brings into view the gendered and sexualized processes that enabled the creation of a capitalist world system predicated on sexual and reproductive dispossession and, in turn, on the reproduction of racialized subjects and social formations, including American citizenship, white racial nationalism, and a racialized division of labor.

Overall this chapter brings together the imbricated meanings of bloody birth and surrogacy that circulate in and through its paired epigraphs by treating the relationship between contemporary biocapitalism and slave racial capitalism as it has been theorized by black feminists engaged in debates about surrogacy. Along the way I treat historical scholarship on women in slavery that demonstrates that slave breeding depended upon processes of racialization that rendered the reproduction of the system of slavery possible. As black feminist writings on surrogacy show, these processes have been epistemically recalibrated to render conceivable the forms of reproductive extraction that exist in contemporary biocapitalism. The black feminism discussed here thus ought to be recognized as a sustained meditation on what I will henceforth call the surrogacy/slavery nexus — the constellation of past and present that allows for examination of the persistence of the slave episteme in contemporary biocapitalism. As the surrogacy/slavery nexus reveals, even after the official end of slavery in the late nineteenth century, the slave episteme continues to subtend the cultures and politics of reproduction, especially the practice of surrogacy as a form of contract labor.

Although slave labor and contract labor are conventionally understood as distinct, historians of the transition from bondage to contract in the nineteenth century demonstrate that the creation of a division between the two was an ideological mainstay of modern liberalism and of liberal discourses such as slave abolitionism and free market capitalism. The historian Amy Dru Stanley explains, "The antislavery claim of the nineteenth century was that abstract rights of freedom found concrete embodiment in the contracts of wage labor and marriage — that the negation of chattel status lay in owning oneself, in selling one's labor as a free market commodity, and in marrying and maintaining a home." And yet, former slaves were unable to procure the self-sovereignty promised by entrance into labor and marriage contracts. Manumission, followed in short order by legal and political emancipation, placed the formerly enslaved into new forms of social and economic debt. Consequently, substantive freedom was perpetually deferred and emergent forms of subjection continuous with, as opposed to a departure from slavery, albeit retooled, as black labor was, for the era of supposed "freedom" that followed in slavery's wake. As Stanley elaborates, "contract freedom" is a worldview that rests on principles of self-ownership, consent, and free and equal exchange, and yet it was only in theory that self-ownership was possible for the formerly enslaved. In practice freedmen and freed women were forced, coerced, or simply compelled by the need to survive to contract their labor. Black Codes, vagrancy laws, debt bondage, sharecropping, and chain gangs as well as other racialized forms of governance ensured that contract was little more than an obligation to officially translate slavery into the ruse of "free choice." Although former slaves were de jure entitled to their persons and ownership of their labor, they were de facto prohibited from acting as sovereign subjects within an economic system that they entered, by necessity, empty-handed. Keeping this in mind, we ought to cautiously approach the idea that there is a decisive distinction between slave breeding and contract surrogacy. The liberal discourse that opposes one to the other and regards entrance into contract as antithetical to bondage persists in the present neoliberal moment in which the purported freedom to choose among numerous unfreedoms is a perverse ideological mainstay of labor and consumer markets alike. In sum, I suggest that it makes most sense to regard labor performed by contemporary surrogates not as antithetical to slave breeding but rather in relation to, if never precisely synonymous with it.

This chapter is divided into four sections. The first treats critiques of traditional Marxism and historical approaches to slavery that clear space for theorization of slavery as both a form of racial capitalism and biocapitalism that powered globalization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As already noted, it also treats feminist historical scholarship on reproduction in slavery that helps me to make the connection between slave breeding and contemporary reproductive extraction. Although historians of slavery do not discuss contemporary surrogacy, I suggest that their work compels recognition of slave racial capitalism as a biocapitalist formation and, reciprocally, understanding of contemporary biocapitalism as a form of racial capitalism. The second section emphasizes this historical reciprocity as it turns to theories of biocapitalism published in recent years that do not but ought to place the history of slave breeding at the center of the discussion of reproductive extraction. For when slavery is brought in, reproductive labor can be understood as a racializing process that has a long history and that today continues to epistemically subtend extraction of value from in vivo labor and human biological products.

The third and longest section of the chapter tells the story of the feminist scholarship on surrogacy's evolution over two decades. It begins with discussion of contributions that emerged alongside the first legal cases involving US surrogates who breached contract in the 1980s and early 1990s. These early contributions did not adequately historicize surrogate labor. However, this all changed when black feminist legal scholars entered the discussion and connected slave women forced to reproduce their own kinlessness to surrogates forced to give up the children to whom they had given birth. And yet, despite black feminists' convincing intervention, the US legal system persisted in its effort to shore up the legality of surrogacy, favoring arguments about surrogate labor that erase the history of slavery as they secure contract and protect genetic property (regarded as personal property) and its transfer. This manifests in the verdicts reached in the two most well-known court rulings on surrogacy, that in the so-called Baby M case (1986–88) and that in Johnson v. Calvert (1990–93). In the former, the court's ruling opened the way for surrogate dehumanization; in the latter, it imposed the force of law to safeguard contract and create precedent for the transfer of genetic property in subsequent cases in which surrogates gestated unrelated genetic materials. As important, the ruling in the Johnson case instantiated a distinction between bondage and contract that sublated the history of slavery — the history that must be resurrected if we are to compass the work of the slave episteme. The chapter's final section speculates that the surrogacy/slavery nexus might yet enrich our understanding of outsourced and transnational reproductive labor.

Racial Capitalism and (Re)Production

As noted previously, the concept of racial capitalism can be attributed to the political scientist Cedric Robinson. In his classic study, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Robinson explicates writings by a range of black radical thinkers who were the first to recognize capitalism's racial dynamics, and writings by Marx and Engels in which inchoate ideas of race animate the social divisions that they characterized as precapitalist. In the traditional Marxist story of so-called primitive accumulation, Robinson demonstrates that an unselfconscious developmentalism morphs into racism. As Marx and Engels relate, old racialized processes of differentiation justifying dispossession are left behind as capitalism proper commences, replacing racial distinctions (Jews, Roma, and Slavs, for instance) with class distinctions. Summarizing the problem with this version of the story of capitalism's genesis — one that refuses to recognize that racialized social formations did not simply disappear but rather evolved over time to produce the modern world system — Robinson elaborates, Marx and Engels's conceit "was to presume that the theory of historical materialism explained history. ... At worst, it merely rearranged history. And at its best ... historical materialism still only encapsulated an analytical procedure which resonated with bourgeois Europe, merely one fraction of the world economy." Because Marx and Engels neglected substantive discussion of colonialism, slavery, and genocide of indiginous populations and the global regions that sustained all three, in Robinson's view they also failed to recognize that racism not only imbricated these systems of expropriation but enabled their continuous recalibration and expansion. "At base," Robinson concluded, "at its epistemological substratum, Marxism is a Western construction" (2) that is of little use when we seek to comprehend capitalism's global reach and impact and its racial character.

Rather than moving forward as if traditional Marxism were universally applicable outside of Western Europe, Robinson suggests shifting the "epistemological substratum" through embrace of the perspective offered by black Marxism and the black radical tradition of which it is a part. In this way, he argues, non-European material realities become foundational to theorization of capital's complex global movements, and the racial organization of these material realities and their transformation over time becomes visible. In an oft-quoted passage Robinson proffers the concept that has subsequently had so much staying power: "The development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions, so too did social ideology. As a material force, then, it could be expected that racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism. I have used the term 'racial capitalism' to refer to this development and to the subsequent structure as a historical agency" (2). In a reading of Robinson, Jodi Melamed observes that embrace of the concept of racial capitalism requires apprehension of the fact that "capital can only be capital when it is accumulating, and that it can only accumulate by producing and moving through relations of severe inequality among human groups." Antinomies of accumulation (capitalists/workers, creditors/debtors, conquerors of land/the dispossessed, etc.) exist in excess of the historical "rearrangement of history" that Robinson attributes to Marx and Engels and are necessarily ongoing. Indeed for centuries capitalist expansion has required production of disposable humans and thus "unequal differentiation of human value" on a global scale. Along with other engines of differentiation, racism creates the divisions of labor, credit, conquest, and, not least, the concepts of the "human" and the "less-than-human" that enable ongoing accumulation. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries it is therefore necessary to pay attention not only to the recognizable features of white racial supremacy and imperial prowess that subtend capitalism but also to superficially (and often officially) race-neutral ideologies, such as liberal multiculturalism and neoliberal postracialism — ideologies that would appear to constitute "progress" but in fact shore up racial hegemony. In chapters 4 and 5I return to the problem of tracking the afterlife of racialized reproductive extraction in neoliberalism. In the present chapter, I begin by turning to a discussion of slavery in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, for it is in the past that I locate antecedents for the epistemic endurances that most interested the black feminist scholars whose contributions I treat here.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. Human Reproduction and the Slave Episteme  1
1. The Surrogacy/Slavery Nexus  29
2. Black Feminism as a Philosophy of History  61
3. Violent Insurgency, or "Power to the Ice Pick"  88
4. The Problem of Reproductive Freedom in Neoliberalism  111
5. A Slave Narrative for Postracial Times  147
Epilogue. The End of Men and the Black Womb of the World  177
Notes  187
Bibliography  243
Index  275

What People are Saying About This

Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery - Jennifer L. Morgan

“In this sophisticated and erudite study Alys Eve Weinbaum demands her readers engage with the history of slavery, new reproductive technologies, dystopian literatures, and black feminist theory in ways that render them all both as unsettling and as generative food for thought. This work's political urgency will call out to a wide audience of scholars and students.”

Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery - Jennifer Morgan

“In this sophisticated and erudite study Alys Eve Weinbaum demands her readers to engage with the history of slavery, new reproductive technologies, dystopian literatures, and black feminist theory in ways that renders them all as both unsettling and as generative food for thought. This work's political urgency will call out to a wide audience of scholars and students.”

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval - Saidiya Hartman

“In this innovative and ambitious book Alys Eve Weinbaum expands our understanding of the black radical tradition while pushing it in a distinctly feminist direction. The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery is an important work that will have major reverberations in black studies, literary studies, feminist theory, and postcolonial studies.”

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