Occupy and the struggle over reproduction: An interview with Silvia Federici

| December 8, 2011

Silvia Federici is a veteran activist and writer who lives in Brooklyn. Born and raised in Italy, Federici has taught in Italy, Nigeria, and the United States, where she has been involved in many movements, including feminist, education, and anti-death penalty struggles. Her influential 2004 book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, built on decades of research and activism, offers an account of the relationship between the European witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries and the rise of capitalism. With other members of the Wages for Housework campaign, like Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and with feminist authors like Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Federici has been instrumental in developing the idea of "reproduction" as a key way to understand global and local power relations. Reproduction, in this sense, doesn't only mean how humans reproduce biologically, it is a broad concept that encompasses how we care for one another, how we reproduce our physical bodies depending on our access to food and shelter, how culture and ideology are reproduced, how communities are built and rebuilt, and how resistance and struggle can be sustained and expanded. In the contest of a capitalist society reproduction also refers to the process by which "labour power" (i.e. our capacity to work, and the labour force in general), is reproduced, both on a day to day basis and inter-generationally. It was one of the main contributions of the theorists of the Wages For Housework Movement to Marxist feminist theory to have redefined reproductive work in this manner.

Max Haiven: We hear a lot of talk about the originality of Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupations. But people have been pointing out that this movement isn't unprecedented and it has been building in various ways for a long time. What do you see as the feminist roots of the Occupations, both in New York and more broadly?

Silvia Federici: This movement appears spontaneous but its spontaneity is quite organized, as it can be seen from the languages and practices it has adopted and the maturity it has shown in response to the brutal attacks by the authorities and the police. It reflects a new way of doing politics that has grown out of the crisis of the anti-globalization and antiwar movements of the last decade, one that emerges from the confluence between the feminist movement and the movement for the commons. By "movement for the commons" I refer to the struggles to create and defend anti-capitalist spaces and communities of solidarity and autonomy. For years now people have expressed the need for a politics that is not just antagonistic, and does not separate the personal from the political, but instead places the creation of more co-operative and egalitarian forms of reproducing human, social and economic relationships at the centre of political work.

In New York, for instance, a broad discussion has been taking place for some years now among people in the movement on the need to create "communities of care" and, more generally, collective forms of reproduction whereby we can address issues that "flow from our everyday life (as Craig Hughes and Kevin Van Meter of the Team Colors Collective have put it). We have begun to recognize that for our movements to work and thrive, we need to be able to socialize our experiences of grief, illness, pain, death, things that now are often relegated to the margins or the outside of our political work. We agree that movements that do not place on their agendas the reproduction of both their members and the broader community are movements that cannot survive, they are not "self-reproducing," especially in these times when so many people are daily confronting crises in their lives.

Great sources of inspiration here have been the response of Act Up to the AIDS crisis, the anarchist tradition of "mutual aid," and, above all, the experience of the feminist movement which realized that "the revolution begins at home" in the restructuring of our reproductive activities and the social relations that sustain them. In recent years, this merging of feminism and political "communing" has generated a great number of local initiatives -- community gardens, solidarity economies, time banks, as well as attempts to create "accountability structures" at the grassroots level to deal with abuses within the movement without resorting to the police. Often these initiatives seemed to remain confined at the local level and lack the power to link up to confront the status quo. The Occupy movements show us that this need not be the case.

MH: Is feminism critical for this movement, and how so?

SF: Feminism is still critical for this movement on several grounds, and I am encouraged by the fact that many young women today identify themselves as feminists, despite a tendency in past years to dismiss feminism as merely "identity politics."

First, many of the issues that were at the origins of the women's movement have not been resolved. In some respects the position of women has worsened. Despite the fact that more women have access to paid employment, the root causes of sexism are still in place. We still have an unequal sexual division of labour, as reproductive work remains primarily a woman's responsibility, even when she works also outside the home, and reproductive work is still devalued in this society. Though we are less dependent on individual men, we are still subject to a patriarchal organization of work and social relations that degrades women. In fact, we have seen a re-masculinization of society with the glorification of war and the increasing militarization of everyday life. Statistics speak clearly: women have the longest workweek and do most of the world's unpaid labour, they are the bulk of the poor, both in the U.S. and around the world, and many are practically sterilized because they cannot afford to have children. Meanwhile, male violence against women has intensified rather than diminishing, not only at the individual level but also at the level of institutions: in the U.S., for instance, the number of women in jail has increased five-fold since the '80s.

For all these reasons feminism is crucial for the Occupy movement. You certainly cannot have a "sustainable" movement if the unequal power relations between women and men and male violence against women are not addressed.

I am also convinced that the Occupy movement has much to learn both from the egalitarian vision of society that the feminist movement developed in its radical phase -- which was also an inspiration for the queer and the ecological movements. Consensus-based decision making, the distrust of leaders (formal or charismatic) and the idea that you need to prefigure the world you want to create through your actions and organization, these were all developed by radical feminist movements. Most importantly, like the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the radical feminist movement began to address the question of unequal power relations in the movement and in society by, for instance, creating autonomous spaces in which women could articulate the problems specific to their conditions. Feminism has also promoted an ethics of care and sisterhood and a respect for animals and nature that is crucial for the Occupy movement and, I believe, has already shaped its practice. I have been impressed by the tolerance and patience people demonstrate to one another in the general assemblies, a great achievement in comparison with the often truculent forms of behaviour that were typical in the movements of the '60s.

MH: Since the 2008 financial crisis, we've heard a lot of attempts to understand and critique the system, both from liberal critics and from Marxists and others on the Left. But we haven't heard a lot of feminist explanations. What does a feminist critique of finance capitalism look like?

SF: Finance capitalism is not different in nature from capitalism in general. The idea that there is something more wholesome about production-based capitalism is an illusion we must abandon. It ignores the fact that finance capitalism is also based on production and unequal and exploitative class relations, although in a more circuitous way. A feminist critique of financial capitalism, then, cannot be substantially different from a critique of capitalism in every other form. Nevertheless, looking at finance capitalism from the viewpoint of women, we can gain an insight into some of the ways in which our everyday reproduction and the relation between women and capital have changed.

We see first that financial transactions -- through credit cards, student loans, mortgages -- have become part of our everyday means of subsistence. Like male workers, many women too have come to rely on them to make ends meet and satisfy their desires. This by itself indicates that the world of finance is not a fictitious sphere of capitalist relations, but reaches deeply into our day-to-day lives. It also indicates that, increasingly, women now confront capital directly, rather than through the mediation of the male wage, as was the case for women who worked exclusively in the home, or through the mediation of the state, as was the case of women on welfare and other forms of social assistance. Indeed, through the entanglement of finance capital in the working of our daily lives, financialization has become one of the main grounds of confrontation between women and capital, and this is an international phenomenon.

We see the same dynamics with the development of micro-credit in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. Micro-finance has become one of the main tools by which international agencies have attempted to bring a whole population of women formerly engaged in subsistence economies under the control of global monetary relations by encouraging them to see themselves as market entrepreneurs and take out loans for small enterprises. While these programs have been heavily promoted by investors, banks and "development" professionals in the global North, they have proven one of the most contested policies directed towards women worldwide, since far from "empowering" women (as the rhetoric goes) they are turning them into debtors and, in this way, transforming their daily micro-reproductive/marketing activities into sources of value-creation and accumulation for others. In some cases (e.g. in Bolivia in 2002) women have besieged the banks to protests their debts and the extortionist policies banks and lenders have enforced. There have also been cases of women who have hanged themselves because they could not pay back their debts.

This situation shows that when we speak of a "financial crisis" we must be very careful not to assume that we speak of one reality alone. For surely the massive indebtedness that women have incurred both in the North and the South, through credit cards, loans or micro-credit, is a financial crisis in itself!

A longer version of this interview appeared in Znet.

Max Haiven is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Art and Public Policy at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is also an adjunct faculty member in the Division of Historical and Critical Studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he teaches cultural studies and material culture.

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