Silvia Federici is a writer, activist and one of the most influential feminist theorists of her generation. Her contributions to the practice-based theory of reproductive labor and the commons are increasingly gaining the recognition they deserve within the academic and activist community, and will hopefully help lay the foundations of future collective projects geared towards the transformation of society beyond capitalist relations.
ROAR contributor Marina Sitrin recently sat down with Federici at her home in Brooklyn, NY to discuss the relationship between struggles over social reproduction, gender, work and the commons, particularly in today’s context of crisis and austerity.
Marina Sitrin: Social reproduction is being talked about a lot recently. Could you begin by describing the basic concept? You are one of the key writers and thinkers on this question, having challenged and expanded the concept as theorized by Marx.
Silvia Federici: The fact that the concept of social reproduction is receiving so much attention today is a good development. For too long there has been an exclusive concentration on production of the commodity, even though reproductive life and work are at the center of any transformative project. They are not only central to capitalist accumulation, but to any form of organization.
Social reproduction is a relatively recent term. In the 1970s, we spoke of it in terms of domestic work, referring to all the activities that reproduce our daily life and at the same time, in a capitalist society, also reproduce labor-power. Later, we expanded the concept: we saw that procreation is part of the reproduction of life and that “reproduction” has two sides, in contradiction with each other. On the one hand it reproduces us as people, and on the other it reproduces us as exploitable workers. The question we posed is how to turn reproductive work into a reproduction of our struggle.
In more recent times, activist and academic circles have popularized the concept of social reproduction to stress that the reproduction of the workforce also takes place outside of the home, in schools and hospitals, for instance. My own understanding of reproduction has also changed over the years. Traveling in Africa or Latin America, you realize that for many women across the world reproductive work begins with putting some grains in the soil — not for sale, but for feeding the family. The care of the environment is also part of reproductive work, which means that ecological degradation especially affects women.
The problem here is that there is a gap between theory and practice. There is a lot of discussion today about care work, particularly in relation to children but also in relation to the elderly, as feminists are aging and are confronted with the care of their parents. But we have not really seen many initiatives at the neighborhood level addressing this urgent need and beginning to create the type of networks and structures we need.
Could you talk a bit about the context of austerity and crisis? This seems to be one of the main reasons why discussions about social reproduction are gaining traction in Europe and North America today.
Yes, the impoverishment and dispossession we see across the world are also present in Europe and North America. For millions of people, and especially for people of color, neither capital nor the state provide any means of reproduction — they exist only as repressive forces. So many have begun to pool their resources and create more collective forms of reproduction as the only guarantee of survival.
We see it in Greece, with the attempt to build a network of social clinics in a situation where the healthcare system has been dismantled — people there have come together, communities have mobilized, farmers have brought food from the countryside. And it is significant that the Greek population, which has been confronted with the most brutal austerity program in Europe, is also the one that has been at the forefront of the solidarity movement with refugees and immigrants. This has been very inspiring, and I wish some of the lessons we can draw from this experience could be the foundation for a new politics in the United States.
What about the gap between the language of social reproduction and the reality of what people are doing on the ground? If you look at the clinics or the work with refugees in Greece, many participants tend to be women. Is the way social reproduction is being spoken of today placing gender at the center?
Yes, much of the work of reproduction is done by women. In Latin America and particularly in Africa, you see that those who have held on to subsistence farming are mostly women. Until recently, subsistence agriculture was one of the main activities for African women, but now it has come under attack by the World Bank, which argues that you should use the land to borrow money and set up a business, because only money is productive and only business can pull you out of poverty — so you should not use the land for sustenance and shelter.
The reason women have been targeted by these institutions is that, in the face of the crisis, they have taken matters into their own hands. They have gone into the streets and have created a whole alternative economy that has its roots in subsistence farming — it is the micro-trade, the small snacks and drinks that they prepare and sell for very little money to neighbors and other workers. This is an economy that international organizations and governments try to destroy or manipulate, through the aggressive promotion of micro-credit for instance, because it gives women and people in general more independence from the market.
So if we could link that back to the ways of organizing that have been mainly led by women, how do we begin to break down the division of labor? We have the language of reproduction, and it seems very useful, but the practice seems more of the same?
This is a difficult issue with broad implications. I just came back from Colombia, and one of the things that has happened there is a massive process of dispossession — an attack on the means of reproduction to which people have access, which often begins with displacing people from the land. This is implemented with much violence against women, from witch-hunting to pure massacres. The question, though, is why only women are organizing against it. This is not a women’s problem. Women are the first to be targeted, but it is a men’s problem too — as most of the perpetrators are men.
Women are on the frontline because they pay the highest price for these developments. But we must have a men’s movement against violence against women. We need men who organize to tell other men: you cannot do that. More broadly, we need to fight against the redefinition of masculinity that is taking place today, with its glorification of aggressiveness. The male model now is the soldier, the security guard, the narco — always the man with the gun.
As the French feminist sociologist Jules Falquet has pointed out, in the new international division of labor, the main work that has become available to men is the work of violence — working as a soldier, a security or jail guard. This may be one of the reasons why there is so much violence against women today. There is a growth in the militarization of everyday life and the shaping of a new violent concept of masculinity.
We think that men should be taking on more work of reproduction. Some younger people are doing it, but it is still an enormous challenge. In some cases, that difficulty has material roots, as men get better jobs and wages, so if there has to be a choice in the family, they are the ones who go out to get wages. After all, they are more likely to be the ones who get them and they generally get better wages than women.
But there is also a real complicity by men with capital today, in the same way that there is complicity at the level of violence. How can we deal with that?
One way is for women to carve out their own spaces and not compromise in that. It is important that women have their autonomous political space even if they work within mixed organizations. This is the only way we can analyze our situation and devise strategies and struggles adequate to produce change. Otherwise, entire areas of exploitation remain unexamined and are made invisible again.
I remember how bitterly men in the left opposed the feminist movement in the 1970s, charging that we were dividing the working class and expecting us to be a support group for their struggles. It was difficult for them to accept that we could move autonomously on the basis of our own work, our own exploitation. Only when women left their organizations were they forced to open their eyes. So my advice now is for women to build their power autonomously.
That is interesting because even in the more recent global movements — like the more autonomous movement of the squares in Europe and the US — you had this language arguing that ‘there is diversity and acceptance, but we are all basically the same and beyond divisions’ — a kind of apolitical post-feminism.
I do not believe in post-feminism, post-colonialism, or the politics of “post-ism” more generally. Colonial relations are stronger than ever and feminism is still necessary — just not the type of feminism, obviously, created by the United Nations, which has tried to co-opt the feminist movement as it had already co-opted the anti-colonial movement.
The tendency towards post-feminism worries me because there is now an attack on the very notion of “women”; a project that began with post-modernism and that rejected the assumption of any commonality among women, even proletarian ones. Today some young women reject the very concept of women assuming it to be a purely capitalist construction. But what it means to be a woman has also been defined by the struggles that women themselves have waged, in particular those challenging and rejecting the capitalist definition of “femininity” and “gender”.
Do you think a similar misuse could also be taking place with the language of social reproduction and care work? I have seen these terms used in academic circles, by progressive people as well, but in ways that are sometimes incomprehensible and that take it out of any social practice.
The moment a concept like “care work” is taken out of a practice, it is made static and reified. It becomes an innocuous idea, like the “care society”, so popular today in some feminist circles precisely because it is thought in isolation from what we need to do in order to achieve it. Language, too, is a terrain of struggle. You have these terms like “social reproduction” or “the commons” that that have been emptied of any meaning in academic discourse. I see language as another battleground where we must try to re-appropriate the meaning of our struggles.
Social reproduction, for me, should be the door to a whole rethinking of the neighborhood, the community — to a politics weaving together our desires, our possibilities, our crisis, and then mapping courses of action. I am interested in developing a new politics that moves between the wage and the common. In fact, this is my slogan now: “between the wage and the common.” This is because we cannot abandon the wage struggle today: we see it all around us, with the fast-food workers and Walmart workers fighting to increase the minimum wage.
This may not seem very revolutionary, but it is actually quite important as it brings together many workers who are among those who have the least power in society today, and is turning them into a new social force. Today, when the fast-food workers call for $15 an hour, they are calling for liberation, they are calling for an end to slavery, they are saying ‘we are tired of being the ones whose wages can be cut to the bones, we are tired of living at the margin.’ Their struggle is about much more than the actual amount of money, and not accidentally is now connected to the struggle over immigration and the struggle of Black Lives Matter.
You have to be careful when you struggle for wages because wages are used to divide people, but as a tool for change they can be used in the opposite way. For example, in Italy in the early 1970s, at a time of very intense class antagonism, workers began to demand inversely proportional wages, so that those who had the lowest wages would get the biggest raises and vice-versa. There the wage was used politically, it was used was as a way to unify people and to subvert the labor hierarchies that have been built through the wage system. Now something similar is also happening in the struggle around the $15 minimum wage — it is about subverting these hierarchies, it is the bottom rising.
I see the wage and the common not as two separate areas, but, potentially, in some situations, as two instruments reinforcing each other. You need commons to give power to the struggle over the wage and you need the wage to give some resource to the commons. The key question is how you expand your autonomy, how you build new relations of solidarity, how you re-appropriate some of the wealth we have produced, without exchanging with more exploitation or more control by the state over our lives.
Like some of the housing movements? The PAH in Spain, for example, take over houses, then they see what people need in assemblies of families (which they call “villages”), and they provide it in common, reorganizing various elements of daily life.
Exactly. But first people in the neighborhood have to decide what they want — you cannot allow the state to decide that for you. You need to build a base, for instance by holding regular meetings with people who work in public services — nurses, educators — who are part of the state but who today are very dissatisfied because they know they cannot really do a good job with the constant cuts and the taylorization of their work, which leaves no space for relations with the people they serve. That is where the transformation has to take place. It should be a process of building alliances with people who are also interested in bettering the condition of social reproduction and who know from within how serious the problems of the present system really are.