by Joshua Eichen
22 November 2012
In 2012, we all pay at least lip service to the entanglements of class, gender, and race when not also struggling to incorporate other threads into our explanatory frameworks and actions. So when you come across clarity of vision that precisely explains those relations, one can only marvel that it was written 37 years ago and try not to be too dismayed that it isn’t more widely known. Hopefully this new collection of work by Silvia Federici will change that.
They say it is love.
We say it is unwaged work.
They call it frigidity.
We call it absenteeism.
Every miscarriage is a work accident.
Heterosexuality and homosexuality are both working conditions… but homosexuality is worker’s control of production, not the end of work.1
So opens the first essay in this necessary collection of Federici’s writings. It includes essays from two periods and is organised into three sections: the first as part of her work with the Wages for House Work campaign and in dialogue with the feminist movements of the time; the second covering social reproduction since 2000 and the rise of the Movement of Movements; and the final part on the reproduction of the commons and communing. The constant optic running through her work is the centrality of social reproduction to production, and women’s labour at the heart of that reproduction globally. The first set of essays, written at the height and in the afterglow of the social struggles of the time, posit the demand of wages for housework and explains the logic behind it, drawing attention to the impossibility of production without reproduction, particularly its affective dimensions, or as she writes in the preface, ‘nothing so effectively stifles our lives as the transformation into work of the activities and relations that satisfy our desires.’2 In the later sets of essays, her optic is expanded to reflect the changes in the international division of labour and unalienated forms and communities of care.
As part of the Wages for Housework campaign, and as part of the generalised struggle against work, her writings lay bare the connection between waged labour, the unwaged labour necessary to reproduce it, and its international dimension. Taking an Autonomist Marxist line against the dominant liberal and socialist feminisms of the time, these essays argue two points.3 First, that women are already part of the working class and the tasks labeled ‘housework’ produce and reproduce both the current and the next generation of labor power that is required by the ever expanding circuits of capital, making money from their ‘cooking, smiling, fucking’.4 Second, bringing women into the factories was no more of a victory than bringing factories to the 3rd world. And that going to work in a factory was a defeat in itself, or as the Marxist groupuscule propagandises at the beginning of Elio Petri’s 1971 La classe operaia va in paradise [The Working Class Goes to Heaven], to the workers as they go into the factory on a bright winter’s day, ‘today the sun will not shine for you’.
As the book’s introduction notes, her life’s work had its genesis in the matrix of 1960s Italy, in the social struggles of the time and the insights and problematics of operaists and autonomists, particularly Mario Tronti’s seminal Operai e capitale. Wages for Housework engaged with Tronti’s notion of the social factory, that at a ‘certain stage of capitalist development capitalist relations become so hegemonic that every social relation is subsumed under capital and the distinction between society and factory collapses’, that an increasing reorganisation of social space is and has taken place for the needs of capitalist production.5 For Federici and the other members of the Wages for Housework campaign, the heart of this reorganisation is in ‘the kitchen, the bedroom, the home’, where the labour of social reproduction is performed and given a much more concrete reading, and more importantly, a much more concrete demand.6
Federici’s success as a writer and theorist is in the grounded nature of her proposals and her irrefutable axiom that if we weren’t fed, able to sleep and make ourselves presentable, we wouldn’t be able to sell our labour power. The demands of Wages for Housework are an argument against housework, its invisibility, its gendering and its devaluation and ultimately, for wages. Wages that could be used to refuse other work, that receiving a wage for the work would no more guarantee its performance than the union contracts of the 1970s prevented widespread absenteeism, and that is the first step against struggling against it. It is a revolutionary demand, ‘not because by itself it destroys capital, but because it forces capital to restructure social relations in a way more favorable to us and consequently more favorable to the class.’7
The rest of
the book collects a subsection of her interventions in the debates on
globalisation and the commons, or commoning from the point of view
articulated during her time with the Wages for Housework campaign but
expanded to reflect the changed dynamic of the international division of
labour.8 The articles are strong but lack the urgency that informs the
first section of the book. Overall the shortcomings of the book are
minor but threefold. There is a dark age, a lack of biographical
information and a lack of in-depth theorisation about the relation
between housework and the possibility of unalienated communities of care
work, which she deals with in her essay ‘On Eldercare and the Limits of
Marxism’, but not to the extent one would like. The dark age consists
of a fifteen-year gap from which no writings are included. Given the
strength of the rest of the material, the fact she was publishing during
this time as part of the Midnight Notes Collective, and the marked
difference in tone between the two periods, albeit not the analytic
lens, at least a small sample of the period would have been appreciated.
Finally, a lacuna of biographic information hurts the collection. She
draws attention to the fact that second wave European feminists grew up
in the rubble of the Second World War and the effects it would have on
the idea of choosing or not to raise children after having spent a
childhood in such marked scarcity and destruction. Beyond that, there is
still a great history to be written on the social nexus of a small but
vital section of the Marxist U.S. Left starting in the 1970s and
continuing to the present. The lines running through the Wages for
Housework campaign, the short lived journal Zerowork, the Midnight Notes
Collective9, the publishing house Autonomedia, Federici, Peter
Linebaugh, Harry Cleaver, and George Caffentzis, among others, deserves
to be examined. Autonomists posited the theory of the circulation of
struggle, that forms and discourses of struggle travel. The inverse, the
circulation of strugglers, needs to be investigated as well. (The
circulation of defeats is also worth investigating, and perhaps more
critical in understanding working class defeats globally in the era of
neoliberalism, but a much less happy point to reflect upon).
Finally, since at least 1968, social movements have been struggling with their relation to the state. Federici offers a useful insight into the nexus between social movements, the state, and how values are encapsulated in every demand and in the organisation to achieve it:
It is one thing to set up a day care center the way we want it, and then demand the state pay for it. It is quite another thing to deliver our children to the State and then ask the State to control them not for five but fifteen hours a day. It is one thing to organize communally the way we want to eat (by ourselves, in groups) and then ask the state to pay for it. It is the opposite thing to ask the State to organize our meals. In one case we regain some control over our lives, in the other we extend the State’s control over us.10
“The Commoner.” Web. 17 Oct 2012. .
Federici, Silvia. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. PM Press, 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2012.
“Midnight Notes Collective.” Web. 17 Oct. 2012. .
Petri, Elio. La Classe Operaia Va in Paradiso. 1971. Film.
Wright, Steve. Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism,
Pluto Press, 2002. Web. 16 Oct. 2012.
“Zerowork.” Web. 17 Oct. 2012. .
2 Federici 3.
3 Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism remains invaluable for understanding the history and theoretical debates of the period.
4 Federici 19.
5 Federici 7.
6 Federici 8.
7 Federici 19.
8 The Commoner web journal is a good place to familiarize oneself with the commons and communing.
9 Most content of both journals are available online.
10 Federici 21.