Silvia Federici on Zoom

“Naming the Work” | An Interview with Silvia Federici

The Drift

Last month, the U.S. saw hundreds of thousands of women disappear from the workforce, part of a trend that has accelerated since the pandemic began. At the same time, we’re seeing a transformation of attitudes toward work and the organization of society around it, as the rupture of normalcy reveals deep-seated unsustainability. 

To guide us in thinking through this tumultuous time, we Zoomed with the legendary Marxist feminist scholar-activist Silvia Federici. The cofounder of the International Feminist Collective, Federici was a pioneer of the “Wages for Housework” campaign in the 1970s and published Wages Against Housework (1975), a pathbreaking analysis of women’s unpaid domestic labor. Since then, Federici has written, taught, and organized extensively around the world on issues related to gender, labor, and the cooperative fight for equality. Among many other things, she has revisited the European witch hunts to argue, in Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (2004), that the subjugation of women laid the foundations of modern capitalism. More recently, in Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (2018), she called for a resuscitation of the idea of the commons as a shared source of power against the capitalist logic of profit and exploitation. 

Informed by decades of groundbreaking work, Federici offers a cogent reading of the present socio-political situation — and rousing counsel to all those who are and would be in the struggle.

You’ve written about the gender politics of housework, as well as work outside of the home. How do you see those politics playing out now, in the middle of a pandemic that blurs the lines between home and workplace?

The pandemic has not created a crisis, but has intensified an existing one, showing more than ever the need for a real mobilization by women to change the conditions of our reproduction. 

Covid has made ongoing daily problems completely unsustainable. Most women have had to carry two jobs at the same time: working outside the home, then rushing back to take care of their kids, or the elderly, or people with chronic diseases. So many women right now are going crazy. If the kids are also at home, they have to help them with their schoolwork on the Internet, and with the emotional problems created by the isolation and by all the restrictions that adolescents have to face.

We have always known that the logic governing this capitalist society is one that systematically, structurally devalues socially reproductive work, which means that it devalues our lives. The fact, for instance, that the hospital system was malfunctioning was not accidental, but the result of constant cuts, over years and years, to subsidies for public health care. Our lives are functional to the accumulation of wealth, so they’re interested in keeping us alive and healthy only as long as we can reproduce. 

It’s time to see whether we can go beyond responding to the emergency, and instead restructure the activities and social relations that are necessary for our reproduction.

In “Wages Against Housework,” you wrote that we are all housewives — is the pandemic forcing us to recognize that, as we’re seeing women leave the workforce in vastly disproportionate numbers?

Yes, because the reality is — and these are worldwide statistics — that although the younger generation of men do some housework, the majority is still done by women, even when they work outside of the home. 

There are few women who can avoid doing reproductive work, because it is also emotional work, not just physical. To this day, housework, reproductive work, and particularly the area of reproductive work that concerns child-rearing (especially in the first five or six years of life), is statistically the largest segment of work on earth. 

Almost 60 percent of American families employ domestic workers for some number of hours per week. Of course, domestic workers themselves frequently come from countries that have been devastated by international capital, and the programs that the U.S. and Europe have imposed on the so-called former colonial countries. Many have had to leave their own children behind. 

Only a relatively limited number of women can even afford that kind of solution; the majority are still doing the housework. So, I think it’s still a central issue for the feminist movement: how we can force a rechanneling of resources away from destructive activities like war to support for reproduction in all aspects. 

Kathi Weeks put “Wages for Housework” side by side with a demand for a guaranteed and universal basic income. We’ve seen this idea come up again, first in the Democratic Primary, and then during the period of expanded unemployment benefits earlier this year. Are you an advocate of UBI? How do you think about the issue?

I think we need to be clear what we fight for when we demand a guaranteed income. Let’s not forget that the person who first came up with the idea was Milton Friedman. A number of conservatives still support it, because they see a monetary bonus as a way of getting the state out of the business of investing in social programs like welfare, pensions, and childcare.

Many on the left and part of the feminist movement see connecting work to the demand for resources as an almost self-defeating position. I understand this position. But I think it’s very important when we struggle, whether it is for wages for jobs or the guaranteed income, to establish that this is not charity; this is not a concession. I like to call it naming the work. In other words, we have to reveal the work that is already being done, the work that has already been there — that generations of women and children and also men have done. It must be made clear that the whole employer class has benefited from unpaid labor — that there’s been a social injustice, perpetrated over a long period of time.

One way of expressing it is to say that without all this work, it would be impossible to organize any kind of labor activity. We need to expose a whole area of exploitation, attach our demand to it. It reveals the kind of social relations in which we carry out our daily existence. It is crucial to show that the government and employers have a huge debt on the table.

This is also important because every time we claim that we have a right to the social wealth that we produce, we are treated as parasites. You are young, but I remember the vilification campaign that was launched against Black women when they were struggling over welfare. They were called “welfare queens” and accused of fraud. In “Wages for Housework,” we fought against it. We said: welfare is not charity; the women who are on welfare are actually workers. Our perspective changed — or attempted to change — the public understanding of what welfare is about. I still regret that the feminist movement didn’t come out strongly to say that welfare benefits are not charity from the state, and that raising children is work that is social. 

This is the context into which I place the discussion of guaranteed income. It should be guaranteed with the recognition that it is not a gift, but merely the beginning of a restitution for the immense amount of wealth that has been appropriated at the expense of women’s lives.

With so much white collar work remote, do you think that we’re a step closer to imagining life without work, or at least structured differently around work? What is post-work to you?

Well, it depends what we mean by work. When I write a pamphlet in the course of a struggle, that is work, but it’s not alienated labor. A society where all of our needs are taken care of by machines cannot exist, and if it did, it would be a nightmare. I do not want to be cared for by a machine when I am ill, and would not want to have children cared for by machines. Those who dream of such a world do not think that reproductive activities are work. So we should not speak of a post-work society, but of a society that does not exploit work, in which work does not serve the private accumulation of wealth. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re very close to seeing this world. I hope I’m wrong. 

You have challenged women to stop celebrating exploitation as heroism. Do celebrations like Mother’s Day, which you’ve criticized, mirror the way that essential workers and care workers have been lionized during the pandemic? What do you make of care workers’ newly politicized role?

I think we need less applause and more action, more organizing for better pay and better conditions, and also for more protection for the workers. 

Covid has revealed the imperative to hold discussions about how we protect ourselves, what it means to be healthy, and what kind of state investment we need. Ideally, women in the community and women working in hospitals and schools would come together, with men as well, to decide what care we need and how to achieve it.

There have been relentless attempts by these institutions to blame individuals and pit them against each other. So parents blame the teachers for the school’s failures, and the hospitals blame the nurses if something goes wrong — if, for instance, a patient is given the wrong medicine. These are efforts to blame structural limitations and disinvestment in healthcare on the workers, which is why it’s very important to come together and create cooperative classes. 

We also want to talk more broadly about feminism. What do you make of the relationship between the left and feminism today? Where should feminists be putting their energy? 

I speak less and less about feminism, and more of feminisms in the plural, because the field is now very crowded. There’s a lot of feminism that I don’t identify myself with: for example, neoliberal feminism, the feminism that is interested in breaking glass ceilings. I’m interested in anti-systemic feminism, which is concerned not just with the question of identity, but with the material condition of our lives. 

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling, particularly to South America, and I have been inspired by what women are doing there. There’s a type of feminism there that is, in a way, more mature. It sees the need never to separate the struggle against capitalism from the struggle against patriarchy, from the struggle against the destruction of nature, from the struggle against racism. These are all different aspects of the same struggle. 

The left itself is such a broad field now. But I was very inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and by the fact that there was an incredible outpouring of support and indignation for the assassinations, over and over, of Black people, and participation by a lot of white youth, male and female. I’m repeating something that many have stressed, but this is new and very inspiring.

You’ve drawn a direct connection between the Civil Rights movement and the feminist movement of the same era, and between Seneca Falls and Abolitionism. How does today’s anti-racist movement create possibilities for feminist struggle? Or is “identity” too siloed now?

No, I still think that the struggle against social inequality and social injustice lifts all boats — it’s not something that only benefits one particular group. And I think we will see in the coming months, Trump or no Trump, that what has happened since the killing of George Floyd is really the turning of a new page. 

Justice is indivisible, and injustice is indivisible. You cannot have racism without sexism. I work with a small group of feminist researchers on violence, and we just finished a pamphlet on the criminalization of pregnancy, focusing on the policies that have been put in place within the last ten to fifteen years. In many states now, even a fertilized egg is considered a person with legal rights. A fertilized egg can have a lawyer and go to court. It’s absolutely insane. 

So many women, primarily Black women, women of color, and immigrant women, have been arrested under these laws because they took medicine — legal medicine — that affected the fetus, or because they were in a car accident, which was judged “reckless behavior.” It’s becoming very difficult to prove that you had a natural miscarriage. 

I’m saying this to show that institutional racism is expressed very specifically against Black women. I’m confident that the anti-racist mobilization that is taking place will also expand and give power and strength to the struggles of women, because these laws impact Black women especially — but still, in fact, all women.

In this election cycle, particularly since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, attention has been focused aggressively on abortion as a question of women’s choice and control over our bodies. You’ve criticized the focus on choice in the past. How do you see it playing out now?

Yes, I have criticized the exclusive focus on choice, because it seems to me that if we have to make a struggle — and we do have to — then real control over our bodies requires not only the right not to have children, but also the right to have them, and to raise them under safe and healthy conditions. 

In the late ’70s there was great unhappiness among Black women when the major trend in the women’s movement was to identify choice with abortion. Their stance was: We have been denied maternity, from slavery to the attacks on welfare. So, if we want to really speak of choice, we have to speak of the material conditions that make it possible for women to decide to become mothers. 

The concept of emotional labor has become increasingly common, especially in activist spaces. What do you make of its place in movement-building?

I think it’s very important, but that we have to make a distinction because there is, for example, emotional labor that is done for pay. Arlie Hochschild famously wrote in the 1960s about flight attendants and the emotional labor required to make people feel comfortable on planes. That’s very alienating, because you are so concerned with others that you become numb to your own feelings. 

But there’s emotional work — that emotional dimension that comes from being together and cooperating. I wouldn’t call it labor, but I would call it the development of emotional and affective ties through being together and organizing production and struggle together. 

Creating those affective ties in solidarity builds a movement that is more sustainable. Male-dominated movements in the past, I think, have often viewed the struggle in opposition only, and they have not given enough attention to building relationships and to integrating those elements of the society that we want to create in the day-to-day organization of the struggle.

So, there’s an alienated affectivity, and then there’s another affectivity that develops in the process of engaging in cooperative activities and realizing that, alone, we are defeated, even if we share the same interests and projects.

That brings us to our last question: you’ve written about the importance of constructing a commons. How can we access the commons, theoretically and literally, at a time when we’re so atomized, both politically and physically?

That’s exactly what I was talking about. This is the moment of the commons, right? But the construction of commons should not be understood only in response to the present emergency. The first act of the commons is coming together and realizing that confronting the state means moving beyond conceptions of “I and the state” or “capital and the state.” Building processes of cooperation in everyday life is in fact what enables us not only to begin to change our life and make it more livable, but also gives us more power in the struggle with the state and in the struggle with capital. 

How this is realized depends on where you are. In the Amazon rainforest, women, men, and children are fighting the petroleum industry and mining of all types, as well as against the army, because Bolsonaro is attacking the territories of Indigenous people. There, of course, the whole issue of the commons is defending the land, defending the territory. But there is a continuity between their struggle and ours. 

In New York, the commons is building a community garden, eating with people that you work with politically. It is saying no to homelessness, demanding free or cheap housing and the expansion of healthcare and community control over the care we receive. The commons is community-supported agriculture, recuperating all forms of traditional medicine, learning about herbs, and learning about prevention. In the middle of the 19th century, all over the U.S., there was a public health movement with the slogan “every person is a doctor.” They had groups everywhere learning how to keep each other healthy. That’s the commons. 

Then, of course, it’s shared knowledge — producing knowledge together, not having to depend on the commercialized and profit-driven knowledge of the media, but creating and building our own understanding. For women in particular, there is so much we know that we don’t even know that we know.