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Silvia Federici is one of the most important political theorists alive today. Her landmark book Caliban and the Witch demonstrated the inextricable link between anti-capitalism and radical feminist politics by digging deep into the actual history of capital’s centuries-long attack on women and the body.
In this essay, originally written in 2008, she follows up on that revelation by laying out her feminist anti-capitalist vision, and how it extends beyond traditional Marxism. This piece is comprehensive – long but far-reaching. At times seeing the truth requires seeing in the dark – acknowledging the true horrors of the world as it currently is manifest.
This essay was updated and published in Silvia’s new anthology Revolution at Point Zero, and I have made a few small additional edits. Enjoy! [alex]
The Reproduction of Labor Power in the Global Economy and the Unfinished Feminist Revolution (2011 edition)
“It is clear that capitalism has led to the super-exploitation of women. This would not offer much consolation if it had only meant heightened misery and oppression, but fortunately it has also provoked resistance. And capitalism has become aware that if it completely ignores or suppresses this resistance it might become more and more radical, eventually turning into a movement for self-reliance and perhaps even the nucleus of a new social order.” – Robert Biel, The New Imperialism (2000)
“The emerging liberative agent in the Third World is the unwaged force of women who are not yet disconnected from the life economy by their work. They serve life not commodity production. They are the hidden underpinning of the world economy and the wage equivalent of their life-serving work is estimated at $16 trillion.” – John McMurtry, The Cancer State of Capitalism (1999)
“The pestle has snapped because of so much pounding. Tomorrow I will go home. Until tomorrow Until tomorrow… Because of so much pounding, tomorrow I will go home.” – Hausa women’s song from Nigeria
This essay is a political reading of the restructuring of the (re)production of labor-power in the global economy, but it is also a feminist critique of Marx that, in different ways, has been developing since the 1970s. This critique was first articulated by activists in the Campaign for Wages For Housework, especially Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Leopoldina Fortunati, among others, and later by Ariel Salleh in Australia and the feminists of the Bielefeld school, Maria Mies, Claudia Von Werlhof, Veronica Benholdt-Thomsen.
At the center of this critique is the argument that Marx’s analysis of capitalism has been hampered by his inability to conceive of value-producing work other than in the form of commodity production and his consequent blindness to the significance of women’s unpaid reproductive work in the process of capitalist accumulation. Ignoring this work has limited Marx’s understanding of the true extent of the capitalist exploitation of labor and the function of the wage in the creation of divisions within the working class, starting with the relation between women and men.
Had Marx recognized that capitalism must rely on both an immense amount of unpaid domestic labor for the reproduction of the workforce, and the devaluation of these reproductive activities in order to cut the cost of labor power, he may have been less inclined to consider capitalist development as inevitable and progressive.
As for us, a century and a half after the publication of Capital, we must challenge the assumption of the necessity and progressivity of capitalism for at least three reasons.
This personal reflection was written for and performed at a spoken word event on March 2nd in Philadelphia.
“After the Apocalypse” – by Alex Knight
When I was 10 or 11, my father and I watched a TV special, probably on FOX, called “Prophecies Revealed,” which rounded up an assortment of fables from Nostradomus on down, to scare the crap out of the audience and get ratings by making people believe the end of the world was right around the corner. One segment talked about the Mayan calendar, and over a background of creepy and violent images, posed the question, “what’s going to happen on December 21, 2012? Will our technologies revolt against us? Will there be some kind of cataclysmic event, like an enormous meteor impact? Will nuclear war finally consume the Earth?”
I feel silly to admit it, but these ideas of imminent doom really stuck with me. Maybe I was just an impressionable kid who had seen too many Terminator movies. Or maybe there is something really appealing, even liberating, about apocalypse – at least for those of us living in a repressive, alienating, hierarchal social system such as zombie-capitalism. The specter of apocalypse seems to substitute in negative form for the positive vision of “social revolution” that radicals a century ago believed in – namely, a way out, an escape. Say what you will about the Rapture – at least it’s a rupture. Meaning, even if the fires of armageddon were a nightmare in the short run, at least the horror of the world we live in would come to an end, and then maybe something better would sprout from the ashes.
Almost immediately after I left home for college, these apocalyptic prophecies were resurrected from the nether-regions of my mind. On September 11th, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit by hijacked airplanes. As I watched in my Freshman dormroom, I felt shock, sadness, but also a forbidden and shameful giddiness. The attack was a horrible, evil thing, and I feel awful for those who lost loved ones. But for me at age 18, the dramatic realness of that event was a sharp, sudden puncture to the bubbly propaganda image of 1990′s peaceful hegemonic America. It was the first time I ever realized that the world is not static – it is changing all the time. I had just never looked outside my plastic suburban cage to see the real world, in its full ugliness and beauty. September 11th, as hellish as it was, was for me that rupture – it jarred me into the awareness that there is an exit from the prison of mainstream America, if you’re willing to do a little digging.
I started to listen a bit more to my communist English teacher, be less defensive in response to voices critical of capitalism, and I set off down the rabbit hole. As Bush put the country on the warpath, I transformed myself from a video game junkie into a committed activist devoting every bit of energy I could to making revolution happen in this country, starting by organizing a national student movement against the war, I hoped. Read the rest of this entry »
“Invisible and unspeakable, without a meaningful lexicon, is the world of care. No human could survive or thrive without touch, affection, nurturing, attention, compassion, validation, or empathy–yet the need for these acts of care (which are often gendered as feminine, no matter who provides them) has been subsumed into necessary invisibility by a system that depends on depriving us of the means to tend to our own lives.”
“Alienation and Intimacy”
by Corina Dross
Originally posted on Revolt, She Said.
Intimacy is often considered outside the realm of political discourse; politics is what we do out there, not what happens in our homes, our friendships, and our romances. We know this is false, but that knowledge itself doesn’t transform our lives.
We still carry shame and fear about our private needs and desires–and we look to our communities for clues about the appropriate ways to get these needs met. So when we mirror for each other the same policing and oppression we’ve learned from the larger culture, we’re failing to demand a better world for ourselves and the people we love.
The enterprise of radical relationships is to create a language that we haven’t yet learned, that can subvert the language we’ve been given, as we struggle to analyze how the alienation that permeates our world specifically functions in the details of our intimate lives. It’s important that this enterprise be public and collective, to avoid the trap of buying into the self-help book mentality–which advises us to analyze our own deepest fears and worst habits alone or with a therapist, or with a partner or best friend–but as an individual project, without agitating for the world to better meet our collective needs.
And our own worst habits are not merely ours; most likely, they arise in response to larger systems of oppression, which we all face, and which we internalize. There are multiple intersections of oppression in our lives, but let’s focus here on capitalist processes of alienation. If we look at some specific ways capitalism creates suffering–and makes this suffering appear normal and invisible–we may see parallels in our intimate lives and begin to formulate forms of resistance.
There are many cultural side-effects of the capitalist project, worth discussing in future conversations, but for now let’s start with the idea of artificial scarcity.
If we agree that capitalism shapes our world through processes that consolidate wealth, power, and resources amongst very few–creating scarcity and need for the rest of us, robbing us of time to pursue our own deepest desires and interests, time with friends and loved ones, access to healthy food and housing, access to medical care, and a thousand other necessary things, we can imagine how much pressure there is on our intimate relationships, which are supposedly outside of the public sphere, to be sites of abundance. It’s somewhat fantastical that we could expect one person (or several, depending on how we arrange our love lives) to make up for all that lack. But popular narratives reinforce this: that love will fix all our problems; that a long-lasting romantic partnership should fill all that is empty in us; that we must give to our lovers all that the world can’t.
1) Confidence is the most attractive quality. If you love yourself, people can tell and are more likely to be interested in you. If you don’t, you could fake it, but you’ll probably only fool people who also have low self-esteem.
2) Attraction is viral. If one person is into you, others will catch on and also become interested. The opposite is also true.
3) “We want the ones we can’t have.” Being distant or unavailable usually makes someone appear more desirable, whereas if they are obviously into you and available, they may appear less desirable.
4) When relationships develop, one partner is usually more distant, while the other pursues. The greater the distance, the greater the pursuit. The pursuer may feel neglected, and the distancer may feel smothered. Often this dynamic hardens into a power imbalance, where the distancer can dictate terms. The only way back to equilibrium may be for the pursuer to stop pursuing.
5) Every relationship (not just romantic) contains a power struggle. Both elements of power-over and power-with are always present to some degree. In healthy relationships, power-with is the predominant element, whereby people work together towards common goals and develop trust. When power-over becomes the predominant element, the relationship is probably unhealthy and both people are likely to get hurt.
6) Because we live in a social system based on power-over (white supremacist capitalist patriarchy), we have each been hurt routinely and therefore carry trauma into all of our relationships. Some people carry more trauma than others due to race, class, gender, and other differences. This may cause them to have difficulty feeling safe or trusting others. In romantic relationships, if someone is experiencing trauma from past abuse, they are more likely to either:
a) seek out scenarios where they may get abused again,
or b) seek out scenarios where they can feel powerful by abusing somebody else.
7) Men, despite being privileged by patriarchy, typically are isolated, lonely, and unable to deal with their emotions. Being emotionally nurturing is perceived as feminine, therefore it is very difficult for hetero male friends to support one another without homophobia shutting them down. This can make hetero men feel desperate to find a woman who will take care of them. If they find one, they may dump all their emotional baggage, which they don’t know how to unpack, onto her. She then becomes the only person who understands him, even better than himself, making him very dependent on her.
8) Love is really, really difficult while living under white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. But we can’t wait until the revolution to love others or be loved. Love is the quality that most makes us human. So we need to constantly struggle for love at both the personal and political levels, which are inextricably linked.
This was written in the Fall of 2010. Although the complete series will remain unfinished for some time, I am publishing these finished sections because when you put hundreds of hours into something, it makes more sense to share what you’ve produced than to keep it in the closet forever. [alex]
Why Marxism Has Failed, and Why Zombie-Marxism Cannot Die
Or My Rocky Relationship with Grampa Karl
by Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com
Part 3.1 – September 19, 2011
This is part of an essay critiquing the philosophy of Karl Marx for its relevance to 21st century anti-capitalism. The main thrust of the essay is to encourage living common-sense radicalism, as opposed to the automatic reproduction of zombie ideas which have lost connection to current reality. Karl Marx was no prophet. But neither can we reject him. We have to go beyond him, and bring him with us. I believe it is only on such a basis, with a critical appraisal of Marx, that the Left can become ideologically relevant to today’s rapidly evolving political circumstances. [Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.]
What Marx Got Wrong
Although Karl Marx provided us crucial and brilliant anti-capitalist critiques as explored in Part 2, he also contributed several key theoretical errors which continue to haunt the Left. Instead of mindlessly reproducing these dead ideas into contexts where they no longer make sense, we must expose the decay and separate it from the parts of Marx’s thought which are still alive and relevant.
I have narrowed down my objections to five core problems: 1. Linear March of History, 2. Europe as Liberator, 3. Mysticism of the Proletariat, 4. The State, and 5. A Secular Dogma.
I submit that Marx’s foremost shortcoming was his theory of history as a linear progression of higher and higher stages of human society, culminating in the utopia of communism. According to Marx, this “progress” was manifest in the “development of productive forces,” or the ability of humans to remake the world in their own image. The danger of this idea is that it wrongly ascribes an “advance” to the growth of class society. In particular, capitalism is seen as a “necessary” precursor to socialism. This logic implicitly justifies not only the domination of nature by humanity, but the dominance of men over women, and the dominance of Europeans over people of other cultures.
Marx’s elevation of the “proletariat” as the agent of history also created a narrow vision for human emancipation, locating the terrain of liberation within the workplace, rather than outside of it. This, combined with a naive and problematic understanding of the State, only dispensed more theoretical fog that has clouded the thinking of revolutionary strategy for more than a century. Finally, by binding the hopes and dreams of the world into a deterministic formula of economic law, Marx inadvertently created the potential for tragic dogmatism and sectarianism, his followers fighting over who possessed the “correct” interpretation of historical forces.
(These mistakes have become especially apparent with hindsight, after Marxists have attempted to put these ideas into practice over the last 150 years. The goal here is not to fault Marx for failing to see the future, but rather to fault what he actually said, which was wrong in his own time, and is disastrous in ours. In this section I will limit my criticisms to Marx’s ideas only, and deal with the monstrous legacy of “actually existing” Marxism in Part 4.)
“Rooted in early industrialization and a teleological materialism that assumed progress towards communism was inevitable, traditional Marxist historiography grossly oversimplified real history into a series of linear steps and straightforward transitions, with more advanced stages inexorably supplanting more backward ones. Nowadays we know better. History is wildly contingent and unpredictable. Many alternate paths leave from the current moment, as they have from every previous moment too” – Chris Carlsson, Nowtopia (41).
Much of what is wrong in Marx stems from a deterministic conception of historical development, which imagines that the advance and concentration of economic power is necessarily progressive. According to this view, human liberation, which Marx calls communism, can only exist atop the immense productivity and industrial might of capitalism. All of human history, therefore, is nothing but “progressive epochs in the economic formation of society,” as Marx calls it in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):
“In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production… the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism [communism].” Read the rest of this entry »
Upheaval Productions has produced some impressive documentary and interview footage on the most pressing issues of our day. Here I am reposting 3 of their courageous interviews with 3 modern-day visionaries: Malalai Joya, a heroic voice of reason from the warzone of Afghanistan, Charles Bowden, who continues to shed necessary light on the underlying causes of US-Mexico border violence, drug trade and immigration, and George Katsiaficas, who has spent his life studying revolutions and popular uprisings around the world, and how ordinary people make positive social change.
Each video is about 10 minutes. I learned a lot from all three interviews, and I’m sure you will too. Enjoy!
Malalai Joya is an Afghan activist, author, and former politician. She served as an elected member of the 2003 Loya Jirga and was a parliamentary member of the National Assembly of Afghanistan, until she was expelled for denouncing other members as warlords and war criminals.
She has been a vocal critic of both the US/NATO occupation and the Karzai government, as well as the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalists. After surviving four assassination attempts she currently lives underground in Afghanistan, continuing her work from safe houses. After the release of her memoir, A Woman Among Warlords, she recently concluded a US speaking tour. She sat down for an interview with David Zlutnick while in San Francisco on April 9, 2011. Read the rest of this entry »
“To me, the struggle is a healing process. If the struggle itself is not a healing process, it’s not worth it! There’s something wrong with it. You struggle because you need to liberate yourself. If the struggle does not liberate you, if it doesnt carry that hope, why bother?”
On March 3 and 4, 2011, acclaimed radical feminist theorist Silvia Federici gave two talks in Philadelphia. On the 3rd, she spoke at the Wooden Shoe anarchist bookstore about her book, Caliban and the Witch, on “The True Nature of Capitalism.” That event literally overflowed with an audience eager to connect the pieces of the historical violence against women, and the ongoing crisis of capitalism.
The next night, on March 4, Silvia spoke at Studio 34 Yoga in West Philly to another packed crowd, on the subject of “Our Struggles, Ourselves: Rethinking Healing Work.” This was a more personal, and in many ways a much deeper talk, which touched on a multitude of subjects from capitalism’s attacks on humanity and the Earth, to how to build self-reproducing movements that avoid the mistakes of past generations.
Today I am posting the audio recording from that amazing event!
One of Silvia’s most powerful insights that continues to work its way through my brain was the distinction between “suffering,” which may be necessary in movement work, and “sacrifice,” which ultimately harms the movement because it harms us as individuals. She makes it clear that there should be no place for sacrifice in a movement for our liberation:
“What do we mean when we say sacrifice? Because, it’s very true, in many ways, when we say, ‘I’m not going to go into this career, and instead I’ll do the struggle. I’ll be poor, but eh!’ It may sound like sacrifice. But I would like to say that it’s not!
[Sacrifice] means that I’m taking away something vital from my life, something that I need, and then give it up for the struggle…
It doesn’t mean that the struggle does not make you suffer. But suffering is not sacrifice. It’s really different. There may be pain that comes too. But maybe it’s a pain that is better than the pain you would have if you didn’t struggle.
Maybe it’s a pain that prevents you from dying. Because we can die from numbness, irrelevance, wasting your life in triviality, despair, inertia, passivity, from giving up whatever creativity you have in yourself. So, sometimes it’s worth suffering not to see that in yourself. But i wouldn’t call that sacrifice.”
I am very proud to post this inspiring discussion, including the Question and Answer period, which we recorded in audio format. There are 2 video recordings which were also made, 1 of each of the talks, and I look forward to making those videos available in the near future. For now, please enjoy the audio!
This is a 2-hour recording, so you might want to download it and put it on your mp3 player or computer. There is a LOT here, so it may not be possible to get through it all in one sitting!
Also, here I’ll post some notes I’ve taken while re-listening to Silvia’s talk:
At 4 minutes – How can we build movements of resistance without destroying ourselves? How can we build self-reproducing movements?
5:15 – Thesis: We cannot liberate our individual selves without changing the world. At the same time, we cannot change the world without liberating ourselves. Read the rest of this entry »
The message of the march was “Invest in Caring, Not Killing,” and drew attention to the absurd budget cuts that our new Governor has proposed here in Pennsylvania, similar to what is going on in Wisconsin, as well as at the federal level as right-wing idealogues are given positions of power. The intention of these cuts appears to be to punish poor and working class families, especially women, for the failures of Wall St. So we see teacher’s unions under attack, as if teachers caused the stock market to crash?
Selma James, the author of the excellent article below, was founder of the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s, which brought attention to the fact that women’s labor is systematically unpaid, unrecognized, and undervalued. The same message, of putting resources and value into the caring and nurturing work that upholds the entire society, rather than into destructive activities such as wars and bailouts for the rich, continues to motivate the Global Women’s Strike today.
Last week Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch, spoke in Philadelphia on many of these themes, and how the attack on women has been a key part of the structure of capitalism since its origin 500 years ago in the fires of the European witch burnings. Silvia’s work has opened my eyes to the ways in which capitalism is dependent on the division between (predominantly male) paid labor and (predominantly female) unpaid labor, which she calls the realms of production and reproduction. It turns out that capitalist profits could not be made if women’s labor was valued the same way as men’s – taking care of children, the elderly, and men’s emotions just isn’t very profitable, even though it is absolutely essential to society.
It’s also important to recognize that the unpaid labor holding up capitalism goes far beyond housework, to slavery, prison labor, the self-disciplining of the body, and the theft of resources and destruction of ecosystems that result from capitalist exploitation of Mother Earth.
I hope to upload the video or audio of Silvia’s inspiring events in the coming days. In the meantime, check out this article by Selma James.
International Women’s Day: how rapidly things change
by Selma James
March 8, 2011
Originally published by The Guardian.
A century ago International Women’s Day was associated with peace, and women’s and girls’ sweated labour – which votes for women were to deal with. Not a celebration, but a mobilisation. And because it was born among factory workers, it had class, real class. Later it came to celebrate women’s autonomy, but changed its class base and lost its edge. This centenary must mark a new beginning.
We live in revolutionary times. We don’t need to be in North Africa or the Middle East to be infected by the hope of change. Enough to witness on TV the woman who, veiled in black from head to foot, led chants in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, routing sexism and Islamophobia in one unexpected blow. She and the millions moving together have shaken us from our provincialism, and shown us how rapidly things can change. Women in Egypt have called for a million women to occupy Tahrir Square today. Who would have predicted that a month ago?
Feminism has tended to narrow its concerns to what is unquestionably about women: abortion, childcare, rape, prostitution, pay equity. But that can separate us from a wider and deeper women’s movement. In Bahrain, for example, women lead the struggle for “jobs, housing, clean water, peace and justice” – as well as every demand we share.
The revolution is spreading. Read the rest of this entry »