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Feminism and Social Reproduction: An Interview with Silvia Federici

by | January 19, 2017

George Souvlis and Ankica Čakardić: What were the formative experiences for you politically and personally?

Silvia Federici: The first most formative experience in my life was WWII. I grew up in the immediate postwar period when the memory of a war that had lasted for years, added to the years of fascism in Italy, were still very fresh. At an early age I was aware that I was born into a world deeply divided and murderous, that the state far from protecting us could be an enemy, that life is extremely precarious and, as Joan Baez’ song later said, “there but for fortune go you and I.” Growing up in postwar and presumably post-fascist Italy it was difficult not be politicized. Even as a little girl I could not help not to be antifascist hearing all the stories my parents told us, and my father’s tirades against the fascist regime. I also grew up in a communist town, where on May Day workers sported red carnations on the jackets and we wake up at the sound of Bella Ciao, and where the struggle between communists and fascists continued with the fascists periodically trying to blow up the monument to the partisan and the communist retaliating against the headquarter of the MSI – Movimento Sociale Italiano – which everybody knew was a continuation of the now banned fascist party. By the time I was 18 I saw myself as a radical, that at the time the prototype struggle was still that of factory workers or the anti-fascist struggle.

Coming to the US was also a major, politically formative turning point. I came in the summer of ‘67. The University of Buffalo where I was to study for the next three years was a very active campus, being on border with Canada and a place of passage for many anti-war activists trying to escape the draft. I arrived in the midst of several mobilizations in support of the Buffalo 9 , who had been arrested trying to cross, against the framing of Martin Sostre, a Puertorican activist much respected in the black community, who was framed by the FBI. Very soon I was joining student and anti-war protests. I started working with Telos and with an underground journal called the Town Crier. In the US I learned about the legacy of slavery, racism, imperialism. While in the US I also became acquainted with the Italian ‘new left’, with Operaismo and the extra-parliamentary groups that formed in the wake of ‘68 in France and the Italian Hot Autumn. I was particularly inspired by Tronti’s reading of Marx, saying that first comes the working class and then capital, meaning capital does not evolve out of its autonomous logic but does so in response to working class struggle, which is the prime motor of social change. That has been a big lesson for me, it has taught me to always look for the struggle, the social contradictions as keys to understanding social reality. Operaismo also provided a critique of historical materialism and the politics of communist parties. But of course it was important that I became acquainted with the new Italian political thought in the US, because here I could never forget the history of colonialism and enslavement, the history of the wageless. This history – and of course my experience growing up in still patriarchal postwar Italy, shaped my approach to feminism which was another, truly revolutionary moment in my life. I will not speak of that because my work speaks for it. I’ll speak instead of what it meant for me in the early ‘80s to be able to spend time teaching in Nigeria, my first encounter with sub-Saharan Africa. By the time I had done a good amount of reading about colonialism, as well as the politics of development and under-development, but Nigeria was another moment of subjective political transformation, no because it changed my view of social relations but disclosed a whole reality that was immensely different when lived from my knowledge of it through books. In Nigeria I learned about communal relations, about the continuing importance of land, I learned about the curse that oil is for the countries in which it is found, and the great creativity of African people. The teaching I had been able to do there came to an end with the escalation of the ‘debt crisis’ and political repression. However, back in the US, I began to spend more and more time in Mexico, and more recently in other countries of Latin America, also because of the publication of Caliban and the Witch in Mexico, Argentina and Ecuador and now in Brazil. I mention Latin America because despite the hardship that people, women in particular are facing, because of the politics of extractivism, the ever present violence – by armies, the paramilitaries, the narco-traffickers, the DEA with its ‘War Against Drugs’- the struggles that people are making to maintain their autonomy, to recreate often coming from a situation of total expropriation, autonomous, collective forms of reproduction and self-government, represent not a model but an inspiration that positively affects my own political thinking and practice.

GS+AC: Were you involved with Lotta Femminista in the 70s with Leopoldina Fortunati, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James and others? What was the relationship between this movement and Operaismo?

SF: I was never part of Lotta Feminista. I was already in the US when it was formed, and the Italian women I worked with in the campaign for wages for housework had broken with Lotta Femminista, precisely on the question of WFH. I cannot speak therefore about its relation to Operaismo. Both Mariarosa dalla Costa and Leopolda Fortunati have spoken about it and I refer to them. As for myself, I have already spoken of my debt to Operaismo and how it influenced my approach to WFH. I can add that Tronti’s Operai e Capitale (Workers and Capital), in addition to giving a central role to class struggle in the shaping of capital’s movements, also introduced the concept of the ‘social factory.’ He actually did not use this term, but argued that at a certain point of capitalist development the factory begins to reshape society in its own image, for its own productivity needs. He had in mind, in particular, how educational systems have been restructured to prepare the proletarian youth for industrial work. This resonated with our analysis of the community, the home, the family as centers for the production of labour – power, as capitalist constructions, rather than legacies of pre-capitalist social relations, which was at the time the dominant idea even in the feminist movement.

GS+AC: Your work bears some similarities to that of Paddy Quick, Maria Mies and Wally Secombe. All of these writers argue that to analyse women’s oppression in capitalism several points must be taken in account: sexual division of labour; social reproduction; the control of women’s bodies and reproductive power; and the dynamic influence of family forms. In this, you explicitly situate your work within the theoretical heritage of the domestic labour debate, drawing on Dalla Costa and James’ argument that the sexual division of labour and unpaid work play a central function in the process of capitalist accumulation. Could you tell us a bit more about the distinctions between your work? And, what do you see as distinction in this between the capitalist and the feudal systems?

SF: Although all the authors you mention grounded the position of women in capitalist society in the process of reproduction, there are significant differences among us.

One difference (for example between the analysis of wages for housework and that of Maria Mies) is that we have always defined domestic work as a capitalist construction, and specifically as work whose social aim is the reproduction of labour power. I have often stressed that in reality domestic/reproductive work has a double character: it reproduces our life and at the same time it is expected to reproduce the work-force and because of it is subjected to specific constraints. In Mies’ work you do not find always this distinction. In her analysis there is a continuity between domestic work and subsistence-oriented reproduction in so called ‘underdeveloped’ countries.

This is partially true. But there is a difference between reproductive/domestic work under conditions in which women have access to land or other forms of reproduction, as for instance in many indigenous communities, and domestic work which is not paid and depends on a (mostly male) wage. However I have a large base of agreement with Mies and appreciate how she has expanded the concept of reproduction to include agricultural work in much of the so-called third world.

The distinction between the feudal system and the capitalist system stems from the radical expropriation to which workers are subjected to in capitalism, and their separation from the means of reproduction. This is the motor of capitalist development as well as the intense exploitation of labour. As I have stressed in Caliban and the Witch, capitalism is the first system of exploitation that sees labour, rather than the land, as the main form of wealth. For this reason it has developed a whole new politics with respect to the disciplining of the body, especially the body of women, and the management of reproduction beginning with procreation. Capitalism must control the work of reproduction, as it is a central aspect of the process of accumulation, so that reproductive work functions as the reproduction of labour power, i.e. our capacity to work, rather than (for instance) the reproduction of our struggle.

GS+AC: In Caliban and the Witch you refer to Robert Brenner’s article “The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism”. What do you think of Brenner’s work and the work of other “Political Marxists”?

SF: I do not remember now all the arguments of Brenner and the school of Political Marxism. I agreed with its stress on the transformation of agrarian relations in Europe as crucial for capitalist development, although the formation of an agrarian/land market was also made possible by the river of silver that came into Europe following the conquest of vast regions of South America. But I have the same critique of this school that I have of Marx’s approach: their ignorance of the role the reconstruction of reproductive work has played in the capitalist ‘take off’. They have correctly seen the separation of the peasantry from the land as a en essential condition for the existence of capitalist relations, but have ignore the separation of production, from reproduction, the devaluation of reproductive work, its confinement to a seemingly non- economic sphere and the consequent devaluation of the position of women, who with the transition to capitalism are destined to become the main subjects of this work. Like Marx, Brenner and the school of Political Marxism ignores the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries in their analysis of the impact of capitalist development on agrarian relations, which I think is a major mistake.

GS+AC: Do you think it is possible to capitalism could ever exist without the appropriation of women’s unpaid domestic labour?

SF: No, I don’t think it is possible, because women’s unpaid labour, which continues into the present, is the condition for the devaluation of labour-power. Without this work, the capitalist class would have had to make a major investment into all the infrastructures necessary to reproduce labour-power and its rate of accumulation would have been seriously affected. There is also a political side to the devaluation and consequent naturalization of reproductive work. It has been the material basis for a labour hierarchy which divides women and men, which enable capital to control the exploitation of women’s work more effectively through marriage and marital relation, including the ideology of romantic love, and to pacify men giving them a servant on whom to exercise their power.

GS+AC: Could you tell us a bit about the difference between the Wages for Housework tradition and feminist “unitary” theory (of Lise Vogel, Sue Ferguson, Cinzia Arruzza, etc.) when it comes to understanding the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy?

SF: I have not read the work of Sue Ferguson and Cinzia Arruzza. As for Lisa Vogel some of the main ideas at the basis of her theory are taken from Dalla Costa and James’ work who already provided a unitary theory as they explained the reconstruction of patriarchal relation in capitalism starting from the definition of women’s social function as the unpaid re/production of the work force. Where I believe Dalla Costa and myself as well separate from Vogel is in the view of socialism as a liberatory system. Marx and the Marxist-socialist tradition have an optimistic view of capitalist development as creating the necessary conditions for a non-exploitative society.

I am writing now from Mexico, after having travelled in recent months through several countries of Latin America, everywhere confronted with communities that are facing destruction at the hands of mining, agribusiness companies which are today the leading sectors of capitalist development. Speaking of my work, and my own perspective, I can say that I have learned from Marx and continue to use his work, but I less concerned today with building a ‘unitary theory’ that Vogel was, unless today Marxist are prepared to abandon the development bias that so far have been such an essential part of their theory and politics. Across the world, from the rural areas to the urban favelas, in a world where favelization is a growing process, capitalist development is death.. and the challenge today is how to build an alternative to it.

GS+AC: You edited the book Enduring Western Civilization, in which you says that the formation of the Western Canon went hand-in-hand with the exclusion of the “other”, both the sexual, the gender, the ethnic, the religious and the “racial”. This process was closely interlinked with the formation of westernized analytical categories through which we perceive the world. Recent work, such asVivek Chibber’s  Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, offers a sustained defense of theoretical approaches that emphasize universal categories like capitalism and class. His work, in others words, constitutes an argument for the continued relevance of Marxism in the face of some of its most trenchant critics. What do you think both about this kind of reasoning and the general issue of the use of universal categories for the critique of capitalism that derive from this study? There is any way to balance the two, critique of west and the use of analytical tools that derive from it, or they are mutually exclusive?

SF: Again, I am not comfortable commenting on works I have not read, or have not consulted in long time. So I will confine myself to some comments on the concept of the ‘West’ and the presumed need of universal categories. As I, with others, have shown in Enduring western civilization, the concept of West and Western is a product of the cold war, when, in the aftermath of the Bolschevik revolution Western came to stand for capitalist, industrially/technologically developed, innovative etc. whereas communism was racialized, seen as ‘asiatic,’ understood as backward, incapable of development. For this reason I do not use ever ‘Western’, which also hides class relations, hiding the different /antagonistic relation in Europe, the US – the so-called West – and similarly the class/ antagonistic relations in regions such as Africa, Latin America. West/Western are political terms, untenable in their content, and intended to present global politics as formed by opposite worlds, in which no divisions, no hierarchies exist, and presumably one common interest prevails.

As for universal categories I can say that clearly we need a certain level of abstraction in our analyses, but we cannot understand capitalism and the history of the global economy unless we look at it from the viewpoint of different subjects. In a society which is the results of century of construction of hierarchies and therefore extremely different experiences the idea of a universal viewpoint is bankrupt. Capitalism cannot be understood in its totality if it is not approached from the viewpoint of the slaves, the colonized, as well as the viewpoint of industrial workers, from the viewpoint of proletarian women as well as proletarian men, and I would say the viewpoint of children, and of course an ecological viewpoint.

GS+AC: Recent years have seen both an increase in migration to Europe, as well as a rise in the parties of the far-right. How do we, on the left, fight this terrible situation?

It is impossible to express in a few words the pain and indignation I feel seeing what governments and so many people in Europe are doing to the refugees from wars the same governments have financed. It is scary to see that year after year, almost every week in the Mediterrenean boats carrying refugees have shipwrecked and hundreds and hundreds have died, so that the Mediterrenean is now a big cemetery and this is happening in front of everybody’s eyes, not in hidden concentration camps – not to mention the ‘hospitality centers, which are jails where those undocumented are thrown and kept for indefinite periods in wretched conditions.

It is of course deplorable that the response among many, also workers, is not solidarity but rejection, persecution, and nationalistic postures. It is particularly worrisome as it is often a war among the poor, as often those who Want to raise barriers are people themselves struggling to survive, who think they can protect themselves not through solidarity with the refugees, but by a politics of exclusion. I would like to add though that we need to know ore about the neo-Nazi who attack refugees, in Germany for example, as there is evidence of complicity on the side of the authorities and the police, to the point we can think of the neo-Nazi surge as instruments of control for refugees who may be useful as cheap labour power but only to the extent they accept to stay at the bottom of the social ladder.

GS+AC: There’s been a rise of certain leftist formations – from Corbyn and Sanders to Podemos – in recent years. Do you see any hope in these developments for signification social transformation? How do you think the contemporary left should relate to the state?

SF: This is not an easy question to answer. We just learned – a cause of a major surprise for most – that the Zapatistas have proposed to participate in the presidential elections of 2018 with an indigenous woman candidate. It is not the case they have changed their politics, it seems, but that they are so besieged that they try in this way to break the encirclement and make broader sectors of the population aware of the massive, violent attack they have been experiencing since the death of Galeano. That said, we see that left-leaning governments and the whole politics of progressivism, in Europe as in Latin America is in crisis. Few have mobilized in Brazil to demand the reinstatement of Dilma Roussef, though many condemned her impeachment as a fraudulent move, almost a coup. The record of progressive government is that at best they have alleviated some of the most extreme forms of poverty, but have not changed the node of production, have not implemented the reform the social movements who brought them to power demanded, have not reined in the violence of the army and the police. Perhaps a different discourse could be made for chavism, as it was ore respectful of people’s power, but it too relied on extractivist politics, which has made the country dependent on the ups and downs of the global market. And what to say of Bernie Sanders who after spending months explaining why his followers should not vote for Clinton now says it is the only way? What a lesson in cynicism.

I don’t call the politics of the commons “spontaneist”. There are now in the word many communitarian regimes that have hundred of years of history behind them. And there is not much spontaneity in the defence of common goods in many parts of the world when this must confront the violence of paramilitaries and armies, and companies’ security guards. Clearly we should not dogmatic in these matters. At the local levels it is possible many time to exert some influence on governments. But what we see is that the centres where decisions are made are becoming more and more distant from the reach of people. We also see the formation of an international power-structure that constantly supersedes the power of the nation state, as is the case of the EU.

Of the constant interference of the IMF and World bank in state politics, especially but not exclusively in the ‘third world,’ we see a proliferation of “Free Trade Agreements” – like the TTP or the TTIP (fortunately not yet signed) – which establish the direct rule of capital over the global economy, so that no decision can be taken at the economic level that is not approved by the big corporations, and national sovereignty is totally eliminated. Under these conditions how to be optimistic about the instalment of left/radical governments?

GS+AC: A wave of change rolled through Latin America at the turn of the twenty-first century, sweeping away neoliberal governments. Crucial to this have been the new social movements that emerged demanding both socio-political and economic rights. This, though, has produced tensions between the ruling parties and the social movements. Do you believe that these tensions can be solved in a way that cam promote the interests of the working classes in Latin America?

SF: I visited Ecuador in April of this year and had many encounters with ecological and women’s groups and the reports were unanimous. Why, people are asking, is the left in Europe or the US speaking of Correa as a radical, when his politics are fully in line with neo-liberalism? Why given that more than any previous government Correa is now attacking the land of indigenous people and he displays in his everyday policies a complete contempt for women? Being brought to power by a movement of indigenous people Correa introduced into the country’s constitution the principle that nature too has right, and at first seemed determined not to exploit its oil resources, but has since changed his mind, now is promoting foreign investment and petroleum drilling in the park of the Yasuni’. Not surprisingly he has repeatedly clashed with the same indigenous populations that once supported it, and his government is widely condemned as contemptuous of movements from below, authoritarian, and supportive of corporate power. Evo Morales too speaks of Pachamama when he goes abroad but follows a similar extractivist politics, which in addition to destroying lands, forests, rivers, is creating internal form of colonialism. This is not to say that they are not groups of workers who may support their politics, as extractivism means wages for some, though at the cost of the destruction of the livelihood of many, in the same way as in many US communities young workers support fracking.

I must say there is a broad gap between the view of these governments elaborated by radical theorists in Latin America – like Luis Tapia, Raul Zibechi, Raquel Gutierrez Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, and many others and the view of them held by many leftist in the US and Europe.

GS+AC: Could you comment on the recent US presidential elections?

SF:: The US elections are a sad show, whose dangerous implications are already evident, if it true that dozens of white supremacists groups have now emerged to the surface feeling supported and legitimated by Trump’s pronouncements.

It is demoralizing to see sectors of the US working class falling for someone like Trump. But of course Clinton – with her ties to Wall Street, the CIA, the war machine – is not an alternative. And she can play the feminist only because since the ‘70s feminism has been institutionalized, so that women could be integrated into the global economy as cheap labor.

Interview conducted on 19/10/2016