April 2015

Silvia Federici: Women, Reproduction, and the Construction of Commons

On Reproduction: Lectures by Federici, Rolnik, and Stengers

The well-known Italian feminist Silvia Federici argues here for the importance of a gendered and feminist perspective on ideas and practices of the commons. For her, this implies centering the idea of the commons on the concept of “reproduction.” This classical Marxist term refers to the means by which society reproduces itself, materially and socially. It involves all of the things that go towards creating the conditions for living, foregrounding the centrality of care. This ranges from domestic work, child rearing, and caring for the elderly or the sick, to tending to the neighborhood and the environment, but also cultural activity and the production of knowledge.

Federici anchors her examples in recent organizational models used in Latin American and Africa that arose from the communalizing of reproduction. In Chile after the 1973 US-led coup, in Bolivia, in Peru, or in Argentina in the 1990s, women came together to respond to rising pauperization and to situations of extreme political and economic repression under globalized neoliberalism, and the crisis of the welfare state and the labor movement it has created. To combat the real threat to survival experienced by the often working-class and indigenous communities involved in these communalizing projects, organizing the means of reproduction meant creating collective food kitchens, shopping committees, committees to guarantee minimal food for children (Glass of Milk Committees), and sometimes meant the difference between life and death. But it also entailed fighting the terror, disempowerment, and feeling of hopelessness fostered by state repression and economic policies of so-called structural adjustment. In the commons, women began to transform social relations not only by sharing and transcending their pain and isolation, but also by pooling and producing knowledge, empowering themselves and their communities in the process. There was also an aspect of self-defense to these commons, in that sharing resources and building collective power also shielded women from patriarchal abuse on the part of husbands or brothers.

Federici sees similar situations of economic violence unfolding in the United States, and points out that if there is endless talk of “community” and “community building,” it is often because any existing commons, in terms of shared social relations and environments, has been threatened and often destroyed by a capitalist ideology of competitive individualism. For those of us struggling in the university, as precarious faculty but also as increasingly debt-ridden students, the effects of the neoliberal revolution are all too clear. What Federici defends is the possibility of real structural change, outside of market and state forces, so that ethical conduct no longer comes at a cost to oneself.

Her agenda in this talk is twofold. First, she means to refute the often-cited example of the internet as a foremost and laudable instance of the commons. In fact, she foregrounds a gendered divide between theorists who turn to the internet as a model of the communalization of relations and wealth—a space where usage adds to wealth, rather than depleting it—and yet who remain blind to the human costs underlying the technological boom (her examples are Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt). On the other side of that divide are theorists who invoke instead the sphere of domestic work and community organization (Maria Mies, Vandana Shiva). But she also conceives of the commons as a structural alternative to capitalism. In that sense, she is arguing for a radical revision of social relations. The commons must be thought of, she says, neither as a way to soften the violence of capitalism, nor as a mode of organization that can be easily coopted, as in the exclusionary commons of gated communities for example, or through the economic policies of micro-finance organized by NGOs or the World Bank. Indeed, a truly alternative commons would necessarily be based on a radical refusal of all hierarchical relations, whether founded on racial, sexual, or ethnic divisions.

Speaking from her own position as an leader of the Wages for Housework struggles in Italy in the 1970s, Federici brings to this discussion concerns around the degradation of the work of reproduction. A feminist perspective, although controversial, as Federici admits, locates this degradation within the oppression of women and the disregard for women’s work. She argues that instead of institutionalizing women in reproduction, the aim of feminists foregrounding the importance and dignity of reproduction is to refuse commonly held ideas around reproduction as uninspiring, unimportant, even degrading work. On the contrary, the strategy is to embrace this kind of labor, to reclaim its creative and central role in society, and to fight the socially manufactured disdain it suffers from. An important example is of course Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s practice since the late 1960s around care, through which she has extended the symbolic, affective, and perhaps economic dignity of art to the fundamental societal pillars of housework, janitorial work, and sanitation work. But she is only one among many: there were many feminists doing similar work at the time, and there are many who continue today. However, Federici’s critique extends beyond the specificity of women’s exploitation, spreading to other inequalities, divisions of labor, and differences of economic and symbolic valuation through gender, race, ethnicity, and, I might add, religion.

Silvia Federici is a scholar, teacher, activist. She is a professor emerita and Teaching Fellow at Hofstra University, where she was a social science professor.

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