Note from LeftEast editors: Feminist philosopher, political economist, and activist Silvia Federici discussed the transformation reproductive labor has experienced over the last 40 years, and particularly under post-2009 austerity. Originally published in Italian in Francesca Coin (ed.), Salari rubati. Economia politica e conflitto ai tempi del lavoro gratuito, Verona: Ombre Corte, 2017, pp. 99-106.
Francesca Coin: In the seventies you were among the first to discuss unpaid labor, showing how the accumulation process in the factories started from women’s bodies. What has changed in the years since?
Silvia Federici: Free labor has exploded. What we saw at that time, from the particular perspective of domestic work, has permeated the whole society. If we look at capitalism’s history we can see that unpaid labor has been widely practiced. If we think of slavery, of reproductive labor, of agricultural work under conditions of semi-slavery—from campesinos to peones—we can see how paid labor has been a true exception compared to unpaid labor.
The latter, today, is continuing to grow in traditional as well as in new forms, because now, in order to access to a paid job, one has to do at least some unpaid labor. In Greece, some people told me that nowadays it is necessary to work for free for six or seven months in hopes of getting a paid job, and this is true in many different contexts; they hire you for free, you work for six or seven months and then you come back home.
The outright coercion of unpaid labor is an even more widespread practice. The universities have been the first to exploit it. In that case, the idea of “training” is central. Internships are presented as a benefit for students, but it is actually a way for students to be exploited from their first (productive) years. And this age (for being productive) is decreasing; free labor is practiced also in high schools.
The media is talking a lot about “gig” workers now. Gig is an expression that comes from jazz music to refer to an ad hoc performance, and now this term is applied to the labor world. It’s about on-demand services that extend the Uber model to all other sectors—the precariousness of working life has been extended to the highest levels. This point is crucial to feminism, in particular for those feminists that consider the entrance into paid labor as a kind of improvement or emancipation, while it is increasingly prefigured as unpaid labor.
FC: You already pointed out some time ago that the crisis of Fordism was characterized by the reiteration of a “reproductive crisis” precipitated by the erosion of public services. From this point of view, it is surprising how, in the last forty years, unpaid labor has been made the norm, while it has also been made invisible through a blaming discourse that ascribes the causes of the current social agony to those who suffer from it.
For example, I think of the narrative that produces and stigmatizes the “working slacker”—there is a much talk about them these days—to hide the dismantling of the welfare state behind the need to discipline those people who (they say) sponge off society. What implications does all this have for social relationships?
SF: It’s an upside-down world. In the seventies there was a Fordist approach to social policies—indeed such policies preceded Fordism, and they were based on the use of public investments in order to reproduce the labor force. It is an approach which culminated with the New Deal in order to create a meeker and more productive workforce. With the end of Fordism, though, this idea ended too. From public investment we switched to the financialization of reproductive work: what once was financed by the state is now paid by us.
From the moment public subsidies were cut, reproduction has become a vector of accumulation. Withdrawal of grants has forced students to take on huge debts, so that today we have a student population that is deeply indebted before even entering the labor market. The same happened with healthcare and social assistance—particularly assistance for the elderly, childcare, and kindergartens. The United States led this process. Those who need medical care have to pay a consistent amount of money; meanwhile the ever fewer social service providers endure a constant work overload.
In these years, the Taylorist model has been applied to social work and care work. Public expenditure has been cut off, while (public) services have been “Taylorized.” So today, those practicing social services have many more customers/users than before, while unpaid labor is increasing too. This reduction to the minimum of public facilities is at the heart of the reproduction crisis we are experiencing. The victims of this dramatic crisis are mainly women, children and seniors.
The situation in nursing homes is critical, because the lack of staff is patched over by an ongoing medicalization process. Mistreatment in nursing institutions is widespread and continuous. Seniors are often sedated and tied to bed. It is no coincidence that the number of suicides among them has hugely increased. Application of drugs is also a common practice among children in schools, in order to force them to be docile and disciplined. This aspect of the reproduction crisis is the result of the shift from social spending to the market model. It means that you have to assume the cost of reproduction, and in many contexts this has lethal consequences for the population.
Killing women is a message of unconditional cruelty: people are warned that they cannot resist expulsion because they would collide with forces that have no pity.
You also refer to another aspect of the crisis of reproduction, public shaming: those rituals of public slander that accuse the few who still enjoy a state subsidy of being privileged and fraudulent. These bad guys are put on the pillory and accused of being the cause of budget impoverishment as if they were disrupting the economy. In Italy, this public slander has reached shameful levels. It seems important for me to emphasize that we have to strongly reject the idea that the state’s financial disruption is due to the abuse of state aid: rather, direct responsibility lies with the state, which in many cases forces the proletariat to criminality.
They are forcing us to be criminals in order to survive. They have cut off forms of subsistence and legal access to reproduction so drastically that for a large part of the population it is no longer possible to survive without falling into illegality: without selling drugs, without prostitution, without informal commerce.
That is why the United States, the leading country in the application of neoliberalism, is also the leading country in the creation of a prison society, i.e. a society where, as a system of governance, a large part of population gets locked away because it is not a source of income and because it is seen as potentially subversive and combative—and because, having been historically discriminated against, it could claim reparations for what has been taken away. And so it is preemptively imprisoned and excluded from the few legal channels that remain for survival, in a vicious and perverse circle.
Marx emphasized how the development of capitalism led to the formation of an “outlaw” proletariat. We might say that the formation of such a proletariat is nowadays a global phenomenon, pursued systematically. We can see it clearly in the case of migration. To survive, it is increasingly necessary to enter into illegality and this, then, allows the state to act with violence against the labor force.
FC: Recently I read some data about Greece saying that the dismantling of public expenditures punishes women twice: first because cuts to social spending mainly affect women in the home who relied on social assistance, and then because the cuts force working women back into traditional, unpaid roles in assistance and caring. It has also been said that violence against women should be considered a consequence of the social violence caused by austerity policies.
SF: Violence has hugely increased in these years. It is the violence of permanent war. They are destroying an entire country every few years. The world is becoming more and more a battlefield and a prison system. Capitalistic violence is continuing to grow. You can see it in the resurgence of penalties and in the militarization of life. Today in the United States and in Latin America, police are trained by the army; the United States has built prisons all over the world; corporations have private soldiers; and the number of security guards is steadily rising. The model of violence is shaping society and subjectivity from the standpoint of male subjectivity. As usual, these processes affect women first and foremost.
I recently attended a forum on feminicide in Colombia, in a Pacific port in the Buenaventura area where there have been many massacres. There you can see many of the factors contributing to this violence. Buenaventura is perhaps one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is a town overlooking the Pacific ocean from the middle of a wonderful tropical forest that was recently contaminated due to the extraction of gold. The water and the rivers that the population used for their reproduction were contaminated by mercury. So there are continual clashes, because the practices of extraction lead to the exploitation and expulsion of local people.
In these places, violence, especially violence against women, serves to terrorize the population. A Latin American anthropologist, Rita Segato, wrote an interesting book about it. She speaks of a message of violence, of a pedagogical cruelty: by killing women who are helpless and not part of any fighting forces, people are warned that they cannot resist expulsion, because they would collide with forces that have no pity. Killing women is a message of unconditional cruelty.
It is important to emphasize that these struggles for the defense of common goods are never purely defensive. All of them aim to create a “common” good. Defining your land also means defending the possibility of controlling the territory that is necessary to build political autonomy and self-government.
It must be added that women are the key agents of recovery for the global economy. In the 1970s, women’s labor reactivated the economic system. Traditionally, women faced violence in the domestic environment: the husband disciplined his wife through violence when she did not do housework. Today, in order to survive, women must often work in places where they are particularly exposed to male violence. It is said that women migrating from Guatemala to the United States take contraceptives because they are sure they will be raped by men on the journey. Many of them seek survival through selling things in the streets, so every day they are confronted with violence and with the police. Sex work, labor in maquilas—the new plantations where it is required to work for fourteen or sixteen hours per day—work as street vendors: these are all occasions of violence.
Violence also has an intimidating effect. It prevents or limits the possibility for self-organization. The militarization of life means that women are increasingly confronted with men who work with violence: the soldier, the prison guard, the security guard. This militarization has an influence on subjectivity and on personal relationships. Fanon wrote that those who torture every day will not be able to be good husbands when they come back home, because they will continue to resolve conflicts in the way they are used to. Today, we see it in a society that is more and more war-oriented, where exploitation is based on direct violence, and this has more and more influence on the relationship between men and women.
FC: In the seventies you showed how exploitation was hidden in subjectivity and in femininity, and how it was naturalized and made invisible so that women’s labor was considered a birthright. Transforming this invisibility into political struggle was fundamental to highlight the way in which accumulation takes place through the body and upon it. The concealment of exploitation into subjectivity—I think of migrant labor, and of Race at Work [La razza al lavoro], a book by Anna Curcio and Miguel Mellino—is sometimes considered acquired, but often, on the contrary, it is elusive. I think of the idea of homo economicus. This category is still widely used even though today these “entrepreneurs of the self” are ultimately individuals without a safety net and whose only hedge against the future depends on their availability to work longer hours for even less pay. Isn’t this idea of the homo economicus another kind of exploitation presented as emancipation?
SF: The ideology of homo economicus, of choice and of self-employment, is completely neoliberal. In fact, the autonomy granted by self-employment is very limited. If the eight-hour workday in a factory was jail, it is the same when you don’t know whether in six months you will have an income that allows you to live, so you don’t have any chance to plan and schedule. In fact, there is no emancipation in living with ongoing instability and with permanent anxiety due to life’s precarities.
[Franco] Bifo [Berardi] wrote about this in one of his books. He said that precariousness affects personal relationships, creates personalities prone to opportunism and forced to cultivate social relationships in order to survive. We can see this in (social) movements as well. If once there was a clear separation between work and politics, those borders are now confused, and this has negative consequences because it introduces forms of opportunism into politics. I think this is one of the biggest problems we face today.
FC: Last year, when you were in Greece, you spoke of the occupied spaces and squats in Athens as important initiatives to restore the conditions of reproduction to popular control. In recent years there have been very rich experiments such as collective forms of expropriation in supermarkets, the self-reduction of rents and bills, attempts at re-appropriation of land, and the creation of alternative economic circuits able to use reproduction as an opportunity to free life from exploitation. How can the command of money be dismantled?
SF: The command of money can be evaded foremost by defending our “common goods” and reapplying control and use of land, forests and water. This is one of the most important struggles in the world today, and it is no coincidence that capitalism is destroying entire regions to make sure that their mineral resources do not fall into other hands. The fight against mining extraction, as well as against monoculture, transgenic crops, and transnational corporation control over seeds, is at the center of the social movement politics in Latin America as well as in the United States and Canada. One of the strongest struggles in the United States today is the Sioux’s fight against the construction of a pipeline that would cross their territory to connect Dakota to Illinois. Representatives of indigenous people, as well as many other activists, are coming from various parts of the country and from Latin America to block this project.
It is important to emphasize that these struggles for the defense of common goods are never purely defensive. All of them aim to create a “common” good. Defining your land also means defending the possibility of controlling the territory that is necessary to build political autonomy and self-government. In urban areas, squats and organizational networks created by women in the streets—because nowadays reproduction, in more and more countries, is moving to the streets—create new forms of subsistence and solidarity.
In Brazilian favelas or Argentine villas, people evicted from rural areas create new neighborhoods, new camps where houses, gardens, and spaces for children are built. I visited one of these villas in Argentina, Villa Retiro bis [sic], where I met women who really impressed me. I felt that something new was going on because these women live in a situation in which every moment of their everyday life becomes a moment of political discussion. The point is that there is nothing guaranteed there and everything must be conquered. Everything has to be defended. Water and electricity must be negotiated with the state.
But they do not allow the state to organize their life. They struggle with the state to have seeds, to have free electrical power, to have drinkable water, to have roads instead of just mud, and therefore it is always a continuous struggle. These women are trying to create their own life, they are linked to each other, they have created a “women’s home” where there are also spaces for preventive care. The state built a wall to separate the villa from the rest of the city and to prevent other appropriations but women destroyed it. These women use the “theater of the oppressed” as a form of political education, to establish a political debate among themselves and to address some issues such as sexual abuse, sometimes also in a fun way, inviting other women to participate. I do not know if what is happening will have the ability to counteract macro-politics, but I know something new is happening and we have to start from there.
Translated from the Italian by Stefano Oricchio
Republished with permission
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