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Anarchist Midwifery: An Interview

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By Emjaybee

Recently, ANaturalAdvocate sent me a scan of an article from a very interesting magazine; SQUAT: An Anarchist Birth Journal, (Link is PDF).  ANaturalAdvocate asked me specifically to interview Daniel Wilson regarding his article titled “Childbirth and Social War” (page 22 of link, or here).

I have been struggling with a way to present this interview to an audience that, like me, is probably not well-versed in anarchist philosophy. In other words, I wanted to say something intelligent about a topic which is completely new to me.

And I decided that it would be dishonest to pretend I am knowledgeable on this topic. Like most Americans, my concept of anarchy is vague-to-nonexistent; it’s like thinking I’m prepared to write a treatise on minor 15th-century poets.

However, I have had the privilege of meeting some people online who have taught me a little and have read some interesting pieces on squatter’s rights movements, guerrilla gardening, DIY culture, and yes, homeschooling and homebirth, that seem to overlap with some areas of anarchist thought.

Daniel himself was kind enough to provide links within his answers, which I’ve included here.

As for the rest, I’ll let Daniel’s responses to my questions speak for themselves. I’ll send him the link when this is posted, and maybe he’ll come over and answer any of your questions directly.

You mention commodification of midwifery as a new development, but haven’t midwives always accepted some form or payment—if not money, then food, livestock, etc.? Per A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, Martha, at least, kept extensive records of payment for her services.

Throughout the history of civilization, most midwives have accepted goods or services in exchange for their knowledge and skills, but this is not what I mean when I use the term “commodification”. I am using a Marxist definition of the word to explain the relationship midwifery plays in a modern capitalist market, labeled by some as Green Capitalism.  More specifically I am exploring the concept of cultural commodification, wherein counter-cultural expression or past historical culture is emptied of any real meaning before being sold to the dominant culture. Midwifery has become a symbolic act of consumption for most people. It is marketed to feel-good eco-yuppies as a piece of the primitive.

 An example: My neighborhood was once full of quirky charm. There were guerrilla food gardens in abandoned lots, cheap ten speed bikes in the front of punk houses, metal sculptures placed on the corners at night by art students who were probably high, posters promoting music shows and insurrection wheat pasted on every open surface, regular house shows (concerts), an extensive network of communal houses, lots of graffiti and a general air of life. Petite bourgeois nuclear families, tired of living in housing developments, sick of their sterile cul-de-sac and feeling guilty about shopping at Costco, see our dull, but vibrant in comparison, community and decide to move in. Not knowing any other way to relate to the world, they buy their way in, our culture becomes a commodity. They want to feel some kind of life, so they shop for it at the local food co-op, buy it in the form of a $1500 bike, and purchase hiking shorts and hemp sandals to go with their new feeling of freedom. Who they are is not the relationships they have with the other people they live next to but rather their consumer choices. My neighborhood was destroyed by gentrification, when the yuppies moved in, the rents went up, the police moved in and what little life we tried to make here moved out. Now, people who would call the cops on me for walking around at night, are asking me if we had a homebirth and who our midwife was, not because they care that our child had a smooth entrance into the world but because midwifery fits right in with their eco-yuppie persona.

In what way do you see midwives being supported if not by payment? Do you see a barter economy as permissable/desirable, or do you have another model in mind?

Modern life requires us to be paid. For the most part, none of us are legally allowed to live on the planet without paying money to someone else. Therefore we must sell our labor to someone else in exchange for a wage so we may have the ability to eat, drink and live in shelter. This didn’t always use to be the case.

Modern anthropologists tell us tribal life has free access to the means of survival, that these humans work together in cohesive gather-hunter bands and generally only “working” an average of four hours a day. One of the reason humans evolved to live that way, I believe, is because a basic tenant of tribal life is mutual aid and cooperation. When someone grows old or is wounded they have the rest of the tribe to look after and help them, something they were expected to do for others before them. Things in forager societies are freely given with the knowledge that what one gave will be reciprocated sooner or later. Bartering and trading is something tribesmen do with enemies and strangers, because they need immediate reciprocation for their transaction. In tribal society there are usually women who help other women give birth, these midwives only respond to so many births a year so midwifery is not their sole role in society and are materially and emotionally supported in the same way as everyone else, there is no need to barter. So the history of civilization shows most midwives accepting goods for services (food, livestock, etc), but the longer “history” of tribes shows us different.

As for a working model that can work for us here and now , I’m not sure, but I think that the Invisible Committee says it best when they talk the mass proliferation of communes:

“The commune needs money, but not because we need to earn a living. All communes have their black markets. There are plenty of hustles. Aside from welfare, there are various benefits, disability money, accumulated student aid, subsidies drawn off fictitious childbirths, all kinds of trafficking, and so many other means that arise with every mutation of control…The important thing is to cultivate and spread this necessary disposition towards fraud, and to share its innovations. For communes, the question of work is only posed in relation to other already existing incomes.

The exigency of the commune is to free up the most time for the most people. And we’re not just talking about the number of hours free of any wage-labor exploitation. Liberated time doesn’t mean a vacation. Vacant time, dead time, the time of emptiness and the fear of emptiness – this is the time of work. There will be no more time to fill, but a liberation of energy that no “time” contains; lines that take shape, that accentuate each other, that we can follow at our leisure, to their ends, until we see them cross with others.

A commune tends by its nature towards self-sufficiency and considers money, internally, as something foolish and ultimately out of place. The power of money is to connect those who are unconnected, to link strangers as strangers and thus, by making everything equivalent, to put everything into circulation.”


How do you think a midwife should learn her skills, and how will potential patients know if she is capable, outside of the established medical accreditation/certification framework? In other words, how will it be clear that she now has enough skill to assist in childbirth without some kind of certification/testing process?

The same way midwives helped laboring women before certification/testing processes.


Does your disappointment with the current state of midwifery (in the process of being absorbed/accepted eventually into the rest of medicine) have to do with a fear that it will suffer in quality, or a fear that it will become less and less available to the poor? Do you think the possible institution of socialized medicine would alleviate that, or do you have a different model in mind?

 I’m “the poor” and we had our homebirth paid for by the state. To be honest I don’t worry so much about midwifery becoming less available to the poor. What I really worry about how we are going to put an end to this miserable way of life that keeps us poor. Seriously, having children in a safe, comfortable, healthy and natural environment is great, but it isn’t all there is. All of us inhabit a massive environmental catastrophe, a shallow and meaningless social desert, a world of box stores and seven-elevens, a massive surveillance apparatus, chemical factories, mines, plantations and sweatshops, and a giant military that rains fire from the sky onto real people. I think that if I were to worry about midwifery suffering in quality because it’s being absorbed into medicine I would feel like an asshole.

I wrote the article “Childbirth and Social War” for Squat because the history of midwifery is interesting to me and I wanted to show the intersections between midwifery and the need to destroy capitalism and the state. I think that strong, empowered mothers avoiding unnecessary interventions and birthing babies into a positive and life-affirming space, then raising them in a stable environment, whilst consistently meeting their needs and really loving them can only go so far in making this world a better place.


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Reader Comments (18)

Ahhh, I love this about your blog, Jill - always something new.
Emjaybee and Daniel, thank you for the very interesting interview. If I weren't on paid time for The Man right now I'd follow some of the links - will do so later.
This reminds me of the concept of "mythological midwifery" from Rixa Freeze's dissertation about unassisted childbirth. She writes about how many proponents of UC have an idealized concept of what midwifery was like in an ambiguous past time. She analyzes this discourse not in terms of historical accuracy but in terms of how it reflects the UCers' views of modern midwifery and their values regarding childbirth.
I would be inclined to see that at play here as well - Daniel basically says as much at the end, I guess. My reaction to the complaint that 'it's not like it used to be' is generally along the lines of 'you can't go home again' but I guess that's a fairer criticism of nostalgia than it is of anarchy.

**negativity warning**
(I think I also have a hard time with Daniel's assertion that his neighborhood pre-yuppies was really somehow outside of the system. Counter-culture is still culture. And the language used to describe the takeover just reeks of pissy othering to me.)

August 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJMT

Just a quick side note of caution...some may find parts of Squat offensive/disturbing. It is not purely about birth. It's a shame as most of it looked really interesting/informative.

August 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKim

Yes, very interesting. Thanks, Emjaybee. Here I was thinking my homebirth was the result of soul-searching and intense research but really I was just trying to keep some hippie cred and obscure the fact that I own some furniture from IKEA. Please don't tell my friends the truth! I can't think of anyone who'd disagree w/ the final sentence. While some of us are passionate about birth issues and maternity care, we know it is just one piece in a big nutty system. I don't feel compelled to learn more about anarchist philosophy from this interview. But, again, glad I read it.

August 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnother Rachel

PS-- JMT, agree w/ your final thought. Gentrification and housing access are huge issues beyond the fact that yuppies make your neighborhood dorky and expensive.

August 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnother Rachel

Regarding asking about home birth and assessing that their reason is “not because they care that our child had a smooth entrance into the world but because midwifery fits right in with their eco-yuppie persona,” I suspect this is assumption made based on contempt for those who the author feels invaded his space and appropriated his culture. I wonder what that neighbor would cite as her reasons for considering giving birth at home.

I wonder this because, while I’m all for examining cultural scripts, I’ve grown tired of supposing what women’s motives are for making the decisions they did with regards to the bodies, births, breasts and babies. I’ve read “Ugh, can you BELIEVE she (got an epidural, scheduled a cesarean, gave birth at home, formula fed, etc.)?” one too many times and I’ve grown a bit cynical. This may or may not apply.

The article in Squat is very interesting. There was a sweeping statement that I’m not sure is accurate across the board: “Certified Midwives have fairly large incomes, prenatal yoga birthing classes cost a fortune and birthing tubs for homebirths are not communized but are instead rented out for hundreds of dollars.” I believe this depends on where you are in the country. Plus, if you look at the idea of not paying midwives through a different lens you could arrive at the conclusion that jobs traditionally held by females have been relegated to second class status and paid very poorly due to lack of respect.

Like Emjaybee, I’m not well versed in anarchist rhetoric. Along the lines of what JMT said, I see some idealization of the good old days when life was pure and people weren’t greedy. Regardless, the history of state regulation of childbirth as well as the history of the social/cultural/economic reasons for the institutionalization of birth in this century in the U.S. are fascinating.

August 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterJill

Reading his words reminds me of the goth/anarchist subculture here in Charlottesville. Generally it seems to me that the followers of this movement like to sit around on the open-air mall with strange clothes on (this is coming from the person who LOVES to wear costumes) and complain about how oppressed they are by the "system". Of course we all want a better future, but I can't believe that sitting on my butt complaining about it is going to do anyone a bit of good.

Of course the world we live in today is ruled by commerce and big business, but that's really not going to change unless the whole system of things were to change (I personally believe, based on the Bible, that this will happen after Armageddon when human governments are destroyed). Instead of standing on a street corner with a sign, however, I choose to do something more productive with my time in the meantime, and if I buy some furniture from Ikea for my rented house in a yuppie neighborhood, at least I got it cheap :)

I don't know what to say about the midwives part of his story- I chose not to read the article as I'm sure the rest of the magazine would anger me and I would prefer to be able to sleep tonight. the truth is that people need to eat, and that is true of midwives also.

August 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersara

@ JMT:
you had mentioned, "Just a quick side note of caution...some may find parts of Squat offensive/disturbing. It is not purely about birth. It's a shame as most of it looked really interesting/informative."
i've read squat and was just wondering if you could be more specific about what you are referencing here...as far as i can remember, it was in fact a "birth journal" and everything in it was related to birth. what did you feel like could be potentially offensive or disturbing to some people?
i'm just really curious to know.

August 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterradmid

sorry, i guess that was actually supposed to be a question for kim.

August 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterradmid

Radmid, thank you! I went and skimmed through the whole journal to find what was disturbing and I couldn't find it, then I forgot to come back and ask.

August 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterJill

a common mistake is for people to mistake anti civilization arguments for primitivist arguments. so, i identify as an anarchist, so i can probably read through his ideas with less cognitive dissonance than the majority of people.
anti civ argues that this current civilization, from the passed 5 thousand years, this industrial civilization, goes against basic human values of living. that it is, to put it simply, a death machine. that requires war, alienation, occupation, colonization, and turning living beings into products.
this is a dift argument than primitivist arguments that say that we as a people should return to some idealistic edenic past. while many primitivist are also anti civ, not all anti civ are primitivists. does that make sense?

what anti civ does is look at the history of human beings, and asks questions about what are the most fair ways to live on this planet. this does not mean a 'returning' to some romanticized past, but a reclamation of human values.

part of the problem i see, is that arguments against anti civ, refuse to accept the difference in views between reformism and revolution. what i mean is: that to argue that women should be paid for their services, in this current economic structure, is a reformist argument. creating changes, while allowing for the capitalistic edifice to remain standing. a revolutionary argument is that the capitalistic edifice itself must be transformed into something else.

daniel wilson is not making a reformist argument, as most anarchists dont, so to respond with reformism kind of misses the point.

dont get me wrong i have critiques of this interview and his article in squat, i find him dismissive, stumbling inside his own social privilege, and at times silly. but i just wanted to put out there some anarchism 101, so that folks can get a feel from where he is coming.

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermai'a
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