Preoccupying: Silvia Federici

October 26, 2014


Silvia Federici is a New York-based scholar, teacher, and organiser. She is a professor emerita and teaching fellow at Hofstra University, where she previously worked as a social science professor following many years of teaching in Nigeria. Amongst her many roles, Federici co-founded the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa and the International Feminist Collective. She has organised with the Wages for Housework campaign, and was involved with the Midnight Notes Collective. Federici’s best known work, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, argues that primitive accumulation is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism.

Occupied Times Your work has drawn focus to the emergence of the nuclear family as a construction of nineteenth century capitalism, when it came to be seen as the optimum unit of production and reproduction, especially under the factory system. Do you see the nuclear family as being irredeemably regressive and irrevocably tied to capitalist relations? If so, how do we extricate ourselves from these normative social structures?

Silvia Federici The nuclear family is a social form built on a contradiction. It reproduces us but as workers, in view of our future or daily exploitation. This is one reason why it is so oppressive. It is the place where as children we are taught to accept the capitalist work discipline. It is also a place of unequal relations. Domestic work and domestic life are built on women’s unpaid labour and the male supervision of it. As I have often pointed out throughout my work: by means of the wage, capital and

the state delegate to men the power to command women’s work, which is why domestic violence has been socially accepted and is so widespread even today. Beating your wife because she does not do her work and, for instance, refuses sexual advances has always been condoned as a condition of housework. Until feminists fought against it, battering your wife was not considered a crime, in the same way that beating of children is not considered violence, it is condoned as part of their socialisation process, for as non-workers children do not have the right to control over their bodies and bodily integrity. It also took a long mobilisation to convince the authorities that rape can take place in the family. The nuclear family has been an instrument of de-socialisation. In the course of the 20th century the working class family has become more and more isolated from the rest of the community. Housing politics, with the creation of suburbia, have accelerated this process.

How do we extricate ourselves from the family? First, today the working-class family is already in crisis, because unemployment, the precarious character of work and the collapse of wages are leading many young people to postpone or to renounce building a family, or are sending parents to different places in search of an income. The right to have a family, which is the right to a certain level of reproduction  – marking the difference between slavery and waged labour – is more and more under threat. But at the same time, we also have a return to more extended types of families, built not on blood ties but on friendship relations. This, I think, is a model to follow. We are obviously in a period of transition and a great deal of experimentation, but opening up the family – hetero or gay – to a broader community, breaking down the walls that increasingly isolated it and prevented it from confronting its problems in a collective way is the path we must take not to be suffocated by it, and instead strengthen our resistance to exploitation. The denuclearisation of the family is the path to the construction of communities of resistance.

OT You have written critically of the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970s, in regards to its class and race biases, while others such as Selma James and bell hooks have exposed the movement’s erasure of the lives of women of colour, trans-women and working-class women. As disputes and battles within feminism today often focus on similar divides, are there practical lessons you can share from organising around these issues? What approaches do you think would be most effective at ensuring that revolutionary movements recognise and act upon the diverse and overlapping oppressions affecting different women’s lives?

SF The best approach is to realise that as long as we are divided along racial as well as gender lines we will not have the power to create a more just society. More specifically, we cannot obtain any significant social change unless we fight against the totality of women’s exploitation, and as long as we fight for policies that only benefit a limited group of women. For instance, identifying control over our body with the right to have an abortion and thereby ignoring the plight of women threatened with sterilisation or unable to have children because of their economic conditions, has weakened the feminist movement, so much so that today even legal abortion is in question and in many states is out of reach for low income women.

Similarly, not having made a strong campaign in support of maternity leave (when the issue went to the US Supreme Court in 1976), and not having fought against the denigration and criminalisation of women on welfare – above all, not having mobilised against the destruction of welfare by [Bill] Clinton in 1996 – has also been a serious mistake which has affected all women.

If we assume that housework is not real work, which is the premise of the shift from welfare to workfare, then no one is entitled to any institutional support for raising a family. Then, the state is correct when it claims that raising our children is a personal responsibility and if we want daycare centres, for instance, we have to pay for them. In sum, the approach is to insist that any demand and strategy that does not benefit all women and, first of all, those who have been most exploited and discriminated against, any approach that does not undermine the hierarchies that have been constructed among us is bankrupt, and in the end it undermines any gains we may momentarily obtain.

OT In Caliban and the Witch, amongst other factors, you point to the institutionalisation of witch-hunt trials, burnings, and torture at the centre of the concerted subjugation of women and appropriation of their bodies and labour. Are there parallels for the historical witch hunts in today’s world? We have, for example, seen witch-hunts in sub-Saharan Africa where similar processes of enclosure and accumulation operate.

SF Yes, there is a continuity between the witch-hunts of the 16-18th century and those that are taking place today in many parts of the world. The differences between are also great. Today’s witch-hunts are not conducted by governments and nation-states, they are not supported by legislation and are not defended as those of the past were by the contemporary intelligentsia. The continuity lies in the fact that, like the witch-hunts of the past, those of the present are connected with developments typical of the process of ‘primitive accumulation’, in this case the increasing process of land expropriation and privatisation which result in efforts to restrict women’s access to land and in attacks on women (especially older women) who own land and/or resist expropriation. Both in Africa and India, where thousands of women have been killed on charges of witchcraft, widows who struggle to maintain their land, after their husbands die, have been among the victims. A further element of continuity is the use of witch-hunting to re-define not only women’s economic position but their social identity and to undermine their social power. Women who are combative, who resist, have been reduced to unpaid helper of their husbands, and (in Africa, for instance) are also seen as witches. Not accidentally, witch-hunting in India today (as in the past) is especially widespread in the tribal areas, where women have traditionally been more economically independent. But on these questions I refer to my “Witch-hunting, Globalisation and Feminist Solidarity in Africa Today” that was published in the Journal of International Women’s Studies (October 2008).

OT You have argued that the subjection of women in Europe and the Americas was crucial to the making of capitalism. Was this solely an “Atlantic” phenomenon or did colonialism in Asia play a similar role?

SF It did play a similar role, although in most regions colonialism came at a later date (than e.g. in Latin America) and could not have the same impact on social relations. In China, moreover, colonial rule was limited to the coastal area. And there were regional differences in the degree to which gender relations were transformed by colonial rule. As a general tendency, however, colonial rule deepened gender inequalities as both British and Dutch colonialists supported patriarchal customary provisions and instigated a process of land privatisation that increasingly excluded women from access to land and even grazing rights.

In India, for instance, the British formally supported the Hindu restrictions on widows’ inheritance of their husbands’ property and in tribal areas cooperated with the local chiefs to undermine women’s independence. Both in India and Indonesia colonial domination marked the end of matrilineal societies, which had flourished in several regions – e.g. in Northern Kerala in India, and in the Minangkabau communities of Western Sumatra in Indonesia, where women had collective ownership of land, inherited through matrilineal lines.

OT In Caliban & the Witch you say that: “Marx never acknowledged that procreation could become a terrain of exploitation and by the same token a terrain of resistance. He never imagined that women could refuse to reproduce, or that such a refusal could become part of class struggle.” Would you advocate a collectivised application of this refusal?

SF It would be great if women across the world went on a procreation strike not to bring any more children into this world until it is made a friendly place for them, in the same way as Athenian women presumably decided to refuse men sex as long as the war continued. But I am not suggesting we do this. It is not a viable strategy because it is hard to imagine how it could be organised and it would end up benefiting the supporters of population control. It is also important to realise that there is already a subterranean procreation strike taking place. Women in African countries where wars have become endemic try not have children or to abort, as women did in slavery. In the US too, the birth rate is declining, and so is it in various parts of Europe, with the exception of France. Behind these demographic statistics we have to see a process of struggle that undoubtedly affects capitalist development.

OT In an important section of Revolution At Point Zero you point to the fact that social movements have continually neglected the issue of elderly care. In fact, a lot of arguments are made by some left-leaning commentators about “intergenerational injustice”. How would you like to see the inclusion of issues such as the isolation and neglect of older people, especially in the US and parts of Western Europe, into social movements’ political practice or demands?

SF If we are concerned with poverty, degradation, loneliness, we have to realise that all these problems are suffered in an egregious way by elderly people, who are among the most invisible and forgotten populations in our society, unless they have significant financial means. Even feminists, with a few exceptions like Nancy Folbre, until recently have generally ignored the elderly. The interest in elder care as a political issue is a recent phenomenon.

There are many issues social movements should address. For instance, the fact that women in the US who have not held waged jobs but have worked all their lives as full-time housewives are not entitled even to Social Security except through their husband, after nine years of marriage and even then she would be entitled to the equivalent of half of his paycheck. Also, social services for the elderly have been decimated, so that it is increasingly difficult for older people today to have access to a seniors’ centre or have some nurse-aid come to the home to help them with their chores. Yet, no group has fought against this increasing degradation of elderly peoples’ lives. Similarly we have not seen in the US the kind of intergenerational protest that developed in France when the government proposed to increase the pension age. Building a movement against the attempt to eliminate or reduce Social Security would be a good starting point, especially since Social Security is being used to create the impression that the wealth of the nation is being wasted on the elderly, limiting the possibilities of the new generations. This blatant attempt to divide young and old is something that should be of great concern to all social movements.

OT Land and space are continually being treated as empty frontiers: colonised, restructured and reinstated in an ongoing process of accumulation. David Harvey’s theory of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ offers a compelling description of the gentrification process, extending the idea of primitive accumulation; a continual process that you have also identified in divergence to Marx. Do you believe that there are limits to these continued cycles of primitive accumulation and if so, are we reaching them? Are there restrictions on the spatial, temporal and technological fixes that capitalism has always found, allowing it to reproduce itself?

SF I do not see these limits, not on our horizon. For years (for instance) we have heard about peak oil, and now fracking and drilling at depths previously unimaginable have shown how misplaced those predictions were. It is also bad politics to concentrate on the limits that capitalism may encounter in its exploitation drive. It fosters the illusion that capitalism can destroy itself and it detracts from the need to place the construction of a non-exploitative world on our agenda. Obviously the world is finite, but from the point of view of building an anti-capitalist strategy the material limits of capitalist development should not be our concern. We should be more concerned with people’s fascination with capitalist technology that contributes to fueling extractivist politics and the destruction of our environment. As long as so many people worldwide are addicted to capitalist technology, capitalism will manage to overcome the limits it may encounter.

OT You’ve written about the commons as both a historical and contemporary site of struggle. But can’t Capital live with and even recuperate attempts at commoning? What gives it the potential to be a genuine threat?

SF Clearly as long as the construction of commons remains an isolated, limited activity it can be recuperated and today this is certainly a serious consideration. But if commons are not conceived as islands in a sea of capitalist relations but as communities of resistance giving us the power to escape exploitation, then their creation can be a challenge to the capitalist system. A population determined to refuse the logic of competition and wanting instead to live according to the principle of cooperation is a great threat to capitalist society.

OT Work in the UK is decreasingly mediated via the wage relation, what with forced workfare programs, the monolithic capturing of public data and the unpaid creation of social capital in a new media age. Does this erosion of waged labour strengthen, or weaken, demands for a wage for housework?

SF I think it strengthens it. The precarisation of work and the catastrophic consequences of the shift from welfare to workfare show the failure of the feminist strategy that identified waged labour as the path to women’s liberation and to end the sexual division of labour. It also forces us to find new terrains of struggle. It is significant, in this context, that the demand for a basic income has revived the interest in wages for housework. People now ask me what I think of this demand, and how it compares with wages for housework as far as its organisational potential goes. Not least, the abolition of many benefits once attached to waged labour and the constant reduction of wages make the struggle against the capitalist devaluation of our lives a central issue of radical politics. Unpaid domestic labour is only a part of it, but a crucial one.

OT The consequences of climate change are forcing humanity to contemplate its own destruction in ways it hasn’t since the proliferation of nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War. Considering the possibility that we may be living on the edge of history, and drawing from the cultural memory of the Cold War, how might we continue a struggle for justice within this seemingly fatal context?

SF The prospect of annihilation is a relative one. For many communities in the US – black communities whose children are murdered by the police in the street, indigenous communities like the Navajo that have to coexist with uranium mining, communities where unemployment is skyrocketing and the list goes on – apocalypse is now. In this context, we struggle for justice by refusing to separate the struggle against the destruction of the environment from the struggle against prisons, war, exploitation.

You cannot worry about climate change if your life is in danger every day, as is the case for so many people in this country.


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