Organising and living: An interview with Silvia Federici


Silvia Federici was born in Parma, Italy, and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is Emerita Professor at Hofstra University and has worked as a teacher in Nigeria. Federici is co-founder of the International Feminist Collective (1972), and the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa (1990). Her writings include Revolution at Point Zero (2012) and Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (2004). She spoke to Chiara Bonfiglioli in May 2013 whilst at the Subversive Forum in Zagreb.

C.B: I would like to start, if you don’t mind, with your personal history and with the genealogy of Wages for Housework. When did you move to the United States and how did the Wages for Housework group start between Italy, the UK and the US?

S.F: I moved to the US in 1967. There I became involved in the student movement and then after 1969 I became involved in some women’s study groups and feminist organisations, like the Women’s Bail Fund, an organisation in New York that worked to provide bail to women in jail. Around 1971, in New York, I also began to work with some comrades who had left Italy and had been involved in Operaist journals, for example in La Classe. They were very interested in the new movements, Potere Operaio, Lotta Continua, so we decided together to begin translating some materials (for an overview of Operaismo in English follow this link). In fact, we had in mind an anthology of Italian documents and we began to work on that in 1971. We translated many essays from Tronti, Sergio Bologna and others. This is how I came into contact with Mariarosa Della Costa’s “Women and the Subversion of the Community” (in Italian Potere femminile e sovversione sociale). She was in Lotta Femminista at the time and she had just written it. I was enthusiastic about it and I thought “This is it! This is the kind of feminist perspective I need.”

In the summer of 1972, when I went to Italy, I went to meet her and I arrived in the midst of a large feminist gathering in Padova. Out of this meeting, after several days, came the decision to found a collective we called the International Feminist Collective. That was made of women from different countries who made a commitment to start a Wages for Housework campaign in the countries we came from. We formed an international network, with groups in Italy, England, Germany, the United States and Canada, that produced a substantial amount of material and experiences. For a number of years we organised a campaign for WFH and international gatherings in which we discussed how to plan our campaign and how to participate in particular struggles, and developed our perspective, theoretically and practically.  We discussed questions of organisation, what literature to produce and how to exchange knowledge. My involvement in WFH lasted until the end of ’77. Forty years later, I feel very encouraged to see that there is now a lot of interest in Wages for Housework. In the seventies, the perspective we presented was always under attack by many feminists and by the Left. Today I see the opposite. I have been to a number of Historical Materialism conferences and I have seen that the issue of reproduction has become an essential component of the Marxist feminist perspective. I think that the changes that have taken place in the organisation of work, due to the restructuring of the global economy in the last three, four decades, have produced a new type of understanding and the need for a new feminist strategy other than emancipation through waged labour.

C.B:  Why do you think that a critique of capitalism from the point of view of reproduction is necessary?

S.F: Because it allows us to rethink capitalism as a whole. When you look at the question of reproduction you see something fundamental about the capitalist organisation of work. You see that capitalism is forced, as a system, to devalue reproductive work. You see that in the history of capitalism, certain patterns are continuously returning. Both slavery and the devaluation of women’s work are materially rooted in the capitalist need to reduce the cost of producing the working class. Capitalism needs to cut the cost of producing life, producing work or producing labour-power to a minimum. In the same way as capitalism appropriates the natural world for nothing it also appropriates the work of the people it enslaves and women’s domestic work. The moment we understand that, then we have to take an anti-capitalist perspective, because we see that sexism and racism are structural elements and a structural necessity of a capitalist system. We cannot have capitalism without some form of racism or some form of sexism. That is why, no matter what kind of struggle we are involved in, we need to begin to create an alternative to capitalism. In the women’s movement, in Wages for Housework, we saw that. For example, we saw that there are different ways in which we can struggle around childcare. We can struggle for childcare to liberate our time for wage labour or we can struggle for childcare recognising that we are working already and we do not need more work. Childcare should not liberate our time for more work but from work. Organising childcare also raises the question of what kind of new generation we want to bring into existence. It’s not simply a matter of creating parking lots for children. We expand the horizon of our struggle and imagine what a future society could be, rather than remaining enclosed in a capitalist perspective, where we exchange one type of work for another, without breaking out of the circle of capitalist accumulation.

C.B: In your works there is a strong critique of the idea of woman’s emancipation through labour, which has been part of the Marxist and liberal feminist tradition. Why do you think that the concept of emancipation through waged labour is limited?

SF: I think it’s limited for many reasons. First of all, it’s limited because it accepts the capitalist definition of work; it equates work with waged labour, as if this were the only form of exploitation and anti-capitalist struggle. Speaking of housework as unpaid labour opened up a whole new understanding, it showed that the areas of capitalist exploitation and struggle are much wider than it is generally assumed. It is the same criticism that the Black Power movement and the anti-colonial movement made of the orthodox Marxist Left, when they insisted that slavery was a pillar of capitalist accumulation. It is also a question of strategy and organisation. Women have joined the waged workforce at the moment when the ‘work-place’ was undergoing a massive attack with the beginning of outsourcing and the precarization of work. So joining the wage labour force was not a great victory. By the end of the seventies, work was being relocated in the maquilas and unions were reopening all the contracts and giving up what workers had gained. Thus, for the feminist movement to concentrate its effort on organising “in the work-place” was a strategic mistake.

I’m not saying, of course, that women should not do waged work. But it’s different when you make it a political strategy. In the United States this has meant that the struggle over reproduction was abandoned. Everything was about creating women’s unions and obtaining equal pay for equal work. And what happened? We have joined the workforce but have not been able to change the workplace.  For example, very few places provide childcare. We have not changed its organisation of work because we have entered the labour force in a position of weakness. A struggle over reproduction, instead, could have led to a political re-composition among women. But by the mid ‘70s the struggle over reproduction was abandoned at least in the United States. The feminist movement there was so afraid of doing anything that could undermine its demand for equality that they didn’t even fight for maternity leave. As a result now we do not have maternity leave. We have to struggle place by place. When it went to the Supreme Court, many feminists did not want to fight for it because they believed that if you ask for a ‘privilege,’ then you cannot ask for equality. They did not see that maternity leave is not privilege, and we should not have to pretend we are men in order to be treated as full human beings.

C.B: In your work you write about communities of care, something I find very important. In Revolution at Point Zero, for instance, there is a beautiful chapter on the elderly and elderly care. Can you tell something more about the issue of care, and how it can allow us to rethink political struggles as a whole?

S.F: The question of the commons and of communities of care is very important. We began to have this kind of discussion, years ago in New York, at the peak of the anti-globalisation movement. At that time, after Seattle, there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. Thousands of people came together in Seattle, or Montreal, but soon afterwards everything seemed to fall apart. Many young people started questioning the ways of organising in the movement. They felt that these great mobilisations left a lot of people out. For example, there are people with illnesses who cannot easily participate. Others have family responsibilities, they have to care for young children or for elderly relatives. It seemed that this was a movement in which only “the fittest” can participate, those who can talk until twelve o’clock at night, who don’t have young children and don’t have to pay for day-care when they go to a meeting. So we started to talk about creating a self-reproducing movement, a movement that can reproduce itself, that does not separate organising and our everyday life.

As a result of those discussions a number of little books and zines were produced, reflecting upon what it means to have a self-reproducing movement and to create a network of mutual support. We began to rethink the notion of mutual aid that was so prominent in the anarchist movement but also in the early communist movement between the turn of the century and the 1920s-1930s, before the welfare state. At the time, all the care was done by workers’ organisations; it was the unions that were providing pensions, compensations for accidents, etc. In that way, the unions were much more rooted in the community, and when there was a struggle, the community and the workplace were always together. Today there’s no community, at least in most of the urban centres in the United States. So we need to recreate solidarity, we need to recreate the social fabric of our towns, and we need to create a new basis for our struggle. We need to create autonomous forms of reproduction, so that they become a ground for resistance. If we are serious about building an anti-capitalist struggle, we also need to ask what kind of society we want to create and experiment in new forms of cooperation.

The question of organising reproduction in a cooperative way is especially important, because we cannot industrialise reproductive work, not at least the most laborious aspects of it, those related to childcare.  This is my critiques of Marx and the Left when they dream of a society where the machines will do all the work. Machines cannot do child-care. Thus, there is a huge amount of work that cannot be technologised. The only way to organise it, then, is to make it more cooperative. The individualized, isolated way in which much reproductive work is organised is killing us. So the idea of care-communities has many dimensions. There is the dimension of survival, but there is also the prefiguration of a new society. There is also a dimension of resistance and there is the reconstruction of the social fabric. These are new relationships, new forms of cooperation, in which we basically reclaim the right and the capacity to decide what kind of reproduction we want. The Occupy movement was encouraging because these were young people, many of them had never been political before, and their most important experience during the occupation was that of reproducing themselves cooperatively. It was a big experiment in cooperative reproduction that lasted several months: organising and working in cleaning teams, in cooking teams, connecting with the farmers, organising the library and other ‘knowledge commons,’ organising the circulation of information, the live stream, making the posters together. It was a unique transformative experience. It gave people a sense of what it could mean to live in a society in which you are not alone, in which in our everyday life we cooperate with each other at our reproduction. And because of that, even after the encampments were dismantled, a lot of struggles that had come out of it have continued. For instance, the struggle against student debt. One organization that came out of Occupy and is still functioning is Strike Debt.

C.B: Another point you raise in Revolution at Point Zero is the one of the institutionalisation and co-optation of the feminist movement in the last thirty years. Could you say something more about that?

S.F:  I often compare the role that the United Nations played in relation to the feminist movement with the role that the United Nations played in relation to the anti-colonial movements. By placing itself at the head of the decolonisation process, the UN ensured that it would take place in a way congenial to the interest of international capital and the U.S. Something similar has happened with the women’s movement. The intervention of the UN in feminist politics has redefined the feminist agenda in a way that makes it compatible with the neo-liberal program. Once it became clear that the mediating role that men have played in capitalism, between women and capital, was in crisis, the UN had to intervene to create new structures and institutions. The massive entrance of women into wage labour has placed women in a much more direct relation to capital. And that has required a change in the institutional set up. On one side, the work of the UN and of the NGOs was to restructure the feminist agenda, eliminating from it anything that could not be domesticated; and on the other, it was to educate governments to create policies that would recognise this new direct relationship between women and capital. As a result, in the space of ten, fifteen years, we have seen a feminist movement that has increasingly lost its autonomy. Year after year, from Mexico City in 1975 to Beijing in 1995, feminists have organised their activities around UN deadlines, conferences.

International agencies and NGOs are eroding not only the autonomy of the women’s movement but also the autonomy of millions of women who have been trying to organise their life outside of the market. For example, they are pushing micro-credits on women in Africa and Asia who live off a subsistence economy, working on the land for subsistence, but now, after taking the loans, are in debt to the banks. The NGOs have become the shock-troops of micro-credit, which is a truly perverse program, though advertised by the World Bank and United Nations as a mean of women’s empowerment. In reality, it’s a means of squeezing more work and money out of women who are living at the margins of survival, but have been able to build some form of mutual network of support. The feminist group Mujeres Creando in Bolivia has produced a powerful report called La Pobreza es un gran negocio (Poverty is a big business), which shows that microfinance has the highest interest rate of any loan, 20% - 30%. Why? Because they say that loaning to poor people is very laborious, since you have to do more work to figure out what they have. So they hire people to walk miles, to go to the houses of the women who take the loans to see what they have in their gardens. They have a chicken, some pots. In Bangladesh they take away the pots. The rice cooking pots that the women have, they take away them away, which is a big humiliation, leading some women to kill themselves.

Lamia Karim has written a powerful book on this, Micro-finance and its Discontents (2011). It’s all about the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and the NGOs and she has a really detailed analysis of the NGOs who are involved in the micro-credit business. In Bangladesh it’s even more violent, because when a woman cannot pay, the other women and the NGO officers go to her house and break it: “If you don’t pay we break your house” they say. And the first thing they do is to take away the tin roof which they then sell, so that the house has no roof. And then they take the pots and women have nothing else. So it’s based on collective control.  It’s supposed to make sure that every woman polices the others, forcing them to pay back the loan they have taken, for which they are made collectively responsible. Another scholar, Julia Elyachar, has written a book called Markets of Dispossession: NGOs, Economic Development, and the State in Cairo (2005). She describes how banks and the NGOs have studied shaming tactics, to figure out how you can shame people into paying back the loans, since different cultures have different shaming codes. They want to know how to shame people so that they will not be able to refuse to pay.

So behind the much celebrated concept of ‘empowerment’ there is the idea that only access to money gives you power and the attempt to bring women who formerly lived off subsistence economies under the control of monetary relations. A lot of it has to do with separating women from the land because there’s still a lot of subsistence farming in the world. Subsistence farming gives people power because in a country where the wages are extremely low and unemployment is very high, the fact of having a piece of land gives you some autonomy, it allows you to eat, to survive, and escape the worst forms of exploitation. So, international financial agencies like the World Bank want to put an end to it. In articles I have written I have argued that the contemporary returns of witch-hunting in various parts of the world- from Africa to Papua - is very much connected to this process.* In response to the impoverishment that globalisation has created, women are reclaiming land in the rural areas and also in the urban areas. They have been resisting the commercialisation of land, the commercialisation of water, the selling of trees. So there is a fierce attack against them, which is part of a struggle to redefine what is valuable and what is not.

* See Silvia Federici, “Witch-Hunting, Globalization, and Feminist Solidarity in Africa Today” (Journal of International Women’s Studies, October 2008).


Photo courtesy of Robert Crc