All illusions fall when adaptation is impossible
by Michael Monasky
Feminist scholar and philosopher Silvia Federici spoke at the Sol Collective Thursday night in Sacramento about her new book, Revolution at Point Zero, reaching back to the heady times in the 1970s that pushed its way through male economic domination. The inspiration for her title comes from a 1974 novel, Woman at Point Zero, by Nawal El Saadawi, about the case of an Egyptian woman who killed her pimp in self defense.
Awaiting execution for her crime, she had reached “point zero” and revealed her life story to a prison psychiatrist. “Point zero” is the realization that, despite desperate and awful consequences, this person has control. It is a starting point in the struggle to live in solidarity, cooperation, and in the commons.
Federici begins by telling us that we must look at our lives through production, locally and globally, and how we reproduce ourselves for that work, as “so many live at the edge of death.” Her book's first theme, reproductive work, she says, is a “changing concept, including housework, domestic labor, subsistence economy, education, and all the day to day activities” necessary to prop up wage labor. Despite the extreme importance of reproductive work, feminists engaged in refusal of their “primary destiny” for housework and child rearing. The source of this “refusal” is elusive: it could be the watershed event of so many Rosie-the-riveters of World War II; in Italy, Federici said that war “broke the social contract”, so that women revolted when basic social protections were tossed aside.
Federici maintains that “Karl Marx made a very profound mistake” bifurcating wage labor from domestic labor, the unpaid labor done by women. She demands that we re-examine capitalism to include “work that reproduces a workforce.” Women’s work could no longer suffer “exclusion from socially necessary labor,” she said. That includes reproductive work in the kitchen, the bedroom, and the laundry. Unpaid female labor allows profit and capital accumulation. The workday of the woman is longer than acknowledged in Marxist economic tradition. Federici complains that, “for Marx, there is no time for children.”
Another, second theme in Revolution at Point Zero is the effects of the global economy on women. Economic analysts tend to look at our world through the prism of industrial production. Reproductive work has been restructured in industrialized countries which have required women to work in production for wages. However, modern liberalization of markets through NAFTA, GATT, and other trade agreements that favor US and European producers have put women in Africa, Asia, and Latin America out of work. Women are now a large part of a huge migrant labor force. Structural adjustments required by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization have forced women into being sex and domestic workers, and providing their bodies for the baby and egg markets as well as maternal surrogacy.
So, there's been a “deterioration of the status of women” due to neoliberal market expansion, says Federici: an “assault on subsistence economy” and common lands in Africa to seize fuels and control mining and agribusiness. Federici says that there has been “no investment in reproduction of the work force since the 1960s,” including education, healthcare, and pensions. Capitalism thrives on the enlargement of the global, domestic, unpaid work force. By necessity, individuals are forced to be come “micro-capitalists.” And war, seen through the lens of reproduction, reveals refugees, the landless, and new forms of exploitation.
Federici says that, in a hierarchy of unpaid labor, wage labor is the highest form. Male workers are pacified by the fact that they can delegate unpaid labor to women. Although wages and work should be synonymous, domestic labor is “naturalized” to women. In that case, says Federici, miscarriage (and abortion) are a work accident; sexual frigidity is really absenteeism; neurosis, suicide, and de-sexualization are occupational diseases of the housewife.
What historical events led to this unpaid work for women? Federici asserts that primitive accumulation happened during two centuries of witch-hunting. In Caliban and the Witch, Federici explains that it was not enough to simply dispossess peasants of their land and the commons in feudal Europe. Women's sexuality and social power were challenged and destroyed by christian witch hunts. She declares her book's third theme, that women are the commons, and the commons are women. But witch-hunting catalyzed the transition of feudal, landed peasantry to be uprooted, urbanized, and alienated to work in factories for capital production and wage labor.
Federici posits that modern commons should not be limited to, say, a virtual Internet. She envisions a vast, global commons acquired through radical land-squatting, urban farming, and collective participation in resource preparation and use, such as shopping and cooking. The world is at a point of crisis with cuts in social services, foreclosures of private and public spaces, the privatization of education, and environmental degradation (e.g., Fukushima nuclear reactor contamination that has resulted in 22,000 US deaths, mostly infants.)
Federici lauds re-creation of forms of support and solidarity: “Occupy Wall Street (OWS) reflected the need for a new kind of politics, creating new forms of sociality.” She proclaims that “reproductive labor cannot be performed by machines and robots without great emotional cost, since emotional, physical, and cognitive needs cannot be separated.” Federici is hopeful for the “expansion of political intelligence when you're out in the square together.”
Latent struggles took off during OWS activities, with renewal of protests against foreclosures, student debt, and strikes by subway workers. The dynamic nature of the commons was re-defined as students and workers encountered the homeless, police violence and surveillance, and arrests with deportations of immigrants. “We need to confront that much of the wealth of the world is held by the state,” says Federici; struggle is meaningless when redistribution of privileges is “built on principles of exclusion.”
Real social transformation can greatly and adversely affect wage labor and be extraordinarily revolutionary when the underlying reproductive supports to production are withheld by women. Such a disturbing revolution is seen as essential to the freedom of women. As the protagonist, Fridaus, of Woman at Point Zero says: “I knew that [prostitution] had been invented by men, and that men were in control of both our worlds, the one on earth, and the one in heaven. That men force women to sell their bodies at a price, and that the lowest paid body that of a wife. All women are prostitutes of one kind or another.”
Silvia Federici's lecture can be heard here.