New Criticals

Gender, Biotechnology and Capitalist Nature


Stephen Frear’s film Dirty Pretty Things (2002) opens with the discovery of a human heart clogging a toilet in a hotel room in London. The shocking scene is the beginning of a story about black market organ sale: an international organ transplantation ring coerces illegal immigrants into selling their kidneys and other “spare” body parts for cash and passports. Although the film is completely fictional, black markets in organ sale are not. It is presumed that such markets emerged sometime in the mid-1980s as a consequence of two factors: first, the development of immunosuppressant drugs that reduced the importance of histocompatibility and made organs more standardized – they could be treated as interchangeable parts rather than unique objects – and second, in response to legislation that outlawed legal markets in organs in most first world countries (Waldby and Mitchell 2006, 171).

As the film makes clear, such black markets mirror the highly unequal exchanges in the legal markets between the developed and undeveloped regions of the world. The transfer of organs follows the paths of other profitable goods and services from global capitalism’s periphery to its center. The emergence black markets for organs can thus be viewed as simply following the logic of capitalist expropriation: they are merely the latest and the most literal expropriation of the bodies of the poor to profit the rich. The high-tech fantasy of endlessly renewable life promulgated in the North is made possible with the new biotechnologies and the old mechanisms of capitalist expropriation.

Such capitalist trajectories are also notably gendered. Women’s bodies and their reproductive labor in the global South are some of the most exploited resources for the processes of capitalist valorization and accumulation. There is an extensive body of Marxist-feminist literature that seeks to expose the ways that Third World women have been violently forced, at various point in history and to varying degrees today, to give up sovereignty over their bodies and reproductive capacities. These capacities and the labor connected with them has been expropriated, transported to the developed world and put to the service of capitalist accumulation. Examples range from such overt instances as slavery and sex trafficking to more complex phenomena such as global care chains, mail order brides, sweatshop labor, and sex tourism.

I want suggest here that profound changes have occurred in the ways that capitalism expropriates women’s bodies and their reproductive capacities today, however. This is due to the rapid development of biotechnology and the corresponding growth of biocommercial activity.

1. Feminist theorists have appropriated Marx’s key idea of primitive accumulation for the argument that women’s bodies, particularly in the global South, are some of the most exploited resources in global capitalism. Primitive accumulation refers to an inherently violent process of extracting resources and appropriating them for free or without adequate compensation. It is a theoretical tool for exposing the fact that capitalism has never managed to operate with just the mechanism of exploitation and the appropriation of surplus value; it has always relied heavily on outright plunder and theft. As Marx famously writes in the first volume of Capital, capital comes into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Marx 1976, 926).

According to Rosa Luxemburg’s later analysis, imperialism functioned as an effective political strategy for primitive accumulation: naturally produced use-values such as gold, ivory, and rubber were extracted from the colonies in order to enrich the imperialist centers. Marxist-feminist theorist such as Sylvia Federici and Maria Mies have developed this idea further in their influential work to argue that the violent expropriation of women’s bodies and their reproductive labor is structurally analogous to the plunder of natural resources. Mies, for example, makes a historical and theoretical link between colonialism and witch hunts. Colonies, nature and women were dominated and violently expropriated by white, capitalist men in a structurally similar way and as part of the same historical process. “The violent subordination of women under men and the process of capital accumulation was first acted out on a mass scale during the witch hunts in Europe… Women and colonial peoples were defined as property, as nature, not as free subjects, who could enter a contract. Both had to be subordinated by force and direct violence” (Mies 1997, 170). According to Mies, the same process still continues in the Third World. Women’s bodies and reproductive capacities have to be understood as mute nature and brought under patriarchal domination because such domination forms a necessary, structural condition for the capitalist accumulation process.

Primitive accumulation is a powerful idea and undoubtedly captures something crucial about the functioning of global capitalism. However, it has also limitations in the contemporary context. It implies that there is an “external nature”, an outside to the circuits of capitalist valorization that can be discovered, plundered and expropriated for free. Whereas in the early phases of capitalism such virgin territories still existed for venture capitalists to discover and plunder, such outsides are hard to find today. Venture capitalism has been forced to take new forms.

In 1980, in a landmark decision, the US Supreme Court allowed the granting of a patent for a genetically engineered bacterium. Since then intellectual property rights have been established in multicellular entities like mice, in immortalized cell lines based on adult human tissue, in embryonic stem cell lines, and in genetic sequences. Biological entities have come be conceived as intellectual property and this has transformed biomedical research into a lucrative area of investment for the increasingly mobile forms of finance and venture capital (Waldby and Mitchell 2007, 24). In other words, life itself has become an accumulation strategy.

2. Neil Smith (2007) has put forward the powerful argument that we are currently living through a period in which our socio-economic relationship with nature has dramatically transformed: nature has become capitalized to an unprecedented extent. Capitalist nature has always been commodified in the sense that naturally-provided use values are plundered for productive consumption. However, today a whole new range of “ecological commodities” has been produced. “Whereas the traditional commodification of nature generally involved harvesting use values as raw materials for capitalist production – wood for tables, oil for energy, iron ore for steel, various corns for bread – this new generation of commodities is different” (Smith 2007, 2). The new ecological commodities such as carbon or pollution credits paradoxically commodify nature as nature, as something that is produced by capitalism as “external” to capitalist expropriation.  The value of the commodity produced, for example an area of rainforest that offsets a certain amount carbon produced by air travel, rests precisely on the fact that it cannot be productively consumed. “Landowners possessing tracts of forest land (generally in poorer tropical countries) are paid not to cut their forests, while major polluters in more industrial parts of the world can purchase these credits as a means to allow them to continue to pollute” (ibid., 4).

Hence, natural resources in the Third World are not just plundered or extracted through processes of primitive accumulation. Smith’s key claim is that in today’s capitalism nature is increasingly produced as nature and then externalized, posited as an outside. The idea of “external nature” erases this material process of externalization, however, making the idea intelligible. The aim of the capitalist production of external nature becomes essentially to produce nature in new forms that can then be commodified more effectively.

The production of capitalist nature has arguably progressed furthest today in the field of biotechnology. Completely new commodities are literally produced in laboratories such as genetically modified seeds, immortalized cell-lines and even genetically modified mammals. Bio-capitalism has irreversibly moved past the stage of merely harvesting given resources or expropriating the biological properties of the nature it externalized; it is now producing its own capitalist nature for expropriation.

The fantasy guiding the biotechnological conquest of nature involves nothing less than an effort to bypass the very externality of nature that capitalism itself promulgated. Dependence on the availability of external nature for every cycle of production represents a considerable obstacle and source of insecurity for capital. Insofar as organisms can be harvested and engineered to reproduce themselves continuously, the need for continued plunder of external nature for raw materials is attenuated. …The increasingly social reproduction of nature incrementally infiltrates any remnants of a recognizably external nature (Smith 2007, 11).

The production of capitalist nature can be detected behind the rapid growth of the legal and illegal markets for blood, organs and human tissues today. In their book Tissue Economies (2007) Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell examine the new advanced techniques for the engineering of donated human tissues. They note that most donated tissues are no longer simply transferred intact from one person to another, rather, they are diverted through a laboratory process that biotechnically transforms the material. This means that these tissues can now be put to multiple uses and adopt multiple trajectories: they are “fractionated, cloned, immortalized, and multiplied in various ways” (Waldby and Mitchell  2007, 22). Tissues sourced from one person may be distributed in altered forms along complex pathways to multiple recipients at different times and at different locations throughout the world. In the case of embryo donation for stem cell research, for example, “the embryo is merely the starting point for an expandable network of cell lines whose destination is unknown” (ibid., 71). Blood, organs and tissues circulate through a complex global network of biotechnical processes and institutional complexes – tissue banks, pharmaceutical companies, research institutions and clinics. 

Hence, biotechnological capitalism no longer simply plunders and expropriates the external and given nature for raw materials. It increasingly creates its own bio-technical or social nature for new, potentially more lucrative and intensive forms of commodification. This capitalist, produced nature is privatized from the very beginning and its ownership effectively protected by courts. While persons have no legal property rights in their own body parts, it is possible for a second party to establish property rights in tissues after they have left the donor’s body. Embyronic stem cell lines, for example, are patentable entities in the UK (Waldby and Mitchell 2007, 71).

3. What does the idea of “capitalist nature” mean for the feminist critique of the expropriation of women’s bodies and reproductive capacities? Women’s reproductive labor has of course never taken place outside of capitalism understood as a comprehensive social order, but traditionally it has largely taken place outside the circuits of capitalist valorization. It seems clear that today it is meshed in them in new, insidious, and complex ways.

Commercial surrogate pregnancy is a fast growing aspect of “medical tourism” today and several countries in the global South such as India, Thailand and Mexico have become transnational hubs for such reproductive tourism. Contract pregnancies became a 445 million dollar business in India in 2006, for example, and the Indian government’s concerted efforts to actively promote medical tourism have resulted in thirty percent annual growth rate (Bailey 2011, 717). American and European infertile couples wishing to have a child are increasingly traveling there because commercial surrogacy is legal, virtually unregulated, and readily available for a fraction of what it costs in the United States, for example. Wealthy and middle class Western couples can engage a surrogate to carry and give birth to their child under highly monitored and regulated conditions in a private clinic.

Most of the surrogates involved in this business are gestational surrogates meaning that they are implanted with an embryo created by the egg and sperm of the contracting parents, or the sperm of the contracting father and an egg donated or purchased from another woman.  This means that nothing about their pregnancies is “natural”. Rather, the reproductive body of a gestational surrogate should be understood as bio-technologically and capitalistically produced. The surrogates are not only carefully screened and medically tested, their uterine lining has to be prepared for the embryo transfer. This preparation involves lengthy procedures and complex drug regimes: their menstrual cycle is carefully tracked and they have to take a variety of hormones as daily injections and pills. The transfer of the embryo is a medical procedure performed by professional physicians. Embryos in the liquid medium in which they have been growing are flushed through the surrogate’s cervix into the uterus. While most of these invariably poor women in the global South never received any medical care or prenatal check-ups during the pregnancy or the delivery of their own children, their surrogate pregnancies are highly monitored and medicalized.

The bodies and reproductive capacities of these women are thus capitalistically expropriated, but not simply as a natural, available resource. Their bodies are effectively produced as exploitable nature, and their biological capacities are engineered, manipulated, regulated and monitored in an intensified way. They become integral components in a sophisticated biotechnological process as well as in the capitalist circuits of valorization.

This process of production is also importantly a process of externalization, however: the reproductive body of the surrogate has to be externalized as “nature”, as mere biological matter, in order to create a legitimate role for the “real” genetic parents. The “surrogate carriers” have to sign strict contracts giving up any legal claim to the baby. They are thus reduced to their biological, natural functions even if these functions are ultimately socially produced and legally defined.

It is important to recognize that the capitalist production of nature in the laboratory or in the fertility clinic does not entirely displace the necessity of external nature, however. The incredible, awe-inspiring and potentially humbling capacity of the female body to turn mere genetic material into a unique, sentient human person is obviously still a fundamental prerequisite for the multi-million baby-business. The phenomenon of surrogate pregnancy should nevertheless be viewed as another demonstration of Smith’s argument that advanced capitalism today is able to absorb nature more fully and completely within its circuits by producing an exploitable capitalist nature and bypassing the “external nature” to the greatest extent possible.

For feminism this means that we need both new theoretical responses and political strategies. It is my contention that at this theoretical and political juncture, ecology and feminism must necessarily converge. The solution is not a return to forms of ecofeminism that attempt to merely preserve “an external nature” and condemn the development of biotechnology as inherently bad. As I have tried to show, capitalism has already run away from such attempts. However, a feminism that does not critically engage with our relationship to nature is in danger of rapidly becoming politically irrelevant.

Neil Smith (2007, 19) concludes his article by inviting us to consider what kind of social power it would take to democratize the production of nature: “As the global capitalist class arrogates to itself comprehensive power over the production of nature, a power camouflaged in the language of markets, private property and free trade, an adequate response must be just as ambitious… if the production of nature is a historical reality, what would a truly democratic production of nature look like?” Similarly, I want to suggest that the question that eco-feminists need to ask today is: what would a truly gender-egalitarian production of nature look like today?


Bailey, Alison (2011) “Reconceiving Surrogacy: Toward a Reproductive Justice Account of Indian Surrogacy.” Hypatia 26 (4): 716–741.

Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, Vol I. London: Penguin.

Mies, Maria (1997) “Colonization and Housewifization,” in Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women’s Lives, ed. Rosemary Hennessey and Chris Ingraham. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 175-185

Smith, Neil (2007) “Nature as Accumulation Strategy.” Socialist Register 43: 16-36.

Waldby, Catherine and Robert Mitchell (2006) Tissue Economies. Durham and London: Duke University Press.