The Politics of the Commons:
           Manifestos in Action

            An Interview with Silvia Federici

In 1972 a group of women from across Europe and the United States gathered at the International Feminist Conference in Padova, Italy, where they launched Wages for Housework, an international campaign demanding domestic work to be recognized as labor and paid by the state. Among the initiators of this movement was philosopher, writer, and scholar Silvia Federici, who a year later started the New York Wages for Housework Committee, a small independent organization that operated from a storefront in Brooklyn until 1977. As part of its work the committee produced a significant number of printed documents and materials like flyers, posters, and pamphlets, which could be reproduced easily and cheaply; these were an important vehicle for getting the committee’s message across in a clear, concise, and accessible way. By articulating their demands through printed matter this small organization created a free-speech platform that set a revolutionary vision forward. One of the texts that best synthetizes this movement is Notice to All Governments, a manifesto illuminating the political dimension of housework by reconceptualizing activities like raising children, cooking, and cleaning as the basis for the accumulation of capital and not as an act of love as they are usually presented.

In the summer of 2020 in Brooklyn, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Federici and I discussed this text and its relevance today, along with her vision for a future in which we transform from a society of permanent crisis into one that prioritizes life over private profit.

Gaby López: The first paragraph of this manifesto states, "In return for our work, you have only asked us to work harder," referring to the double exploitation that began with the inclusion of women in the workforce during the 1960s and 1970s. You have said that it “was not a right to work that was gained, but a right to work more." Nowadays the tendency to perform long unpaid shifts—inside and outside the home—continues to expand and permeates every aspect of our lives. At the same time exploitation in its different forms and economic inequality only keep growing. How have things changed on the feminist agenda since this manifesto was published, and how have the urgencies shifted from 1975 when you wrote that wages for housework was the only revolutionary perspective from a feminist viewpoint?

Silvia Federici: There's been a change in the concerns, the strategies, and the objectives of most feminist movements across the world in terms of what they see as the main ground of their organizing and the main issues and problems that women are confronting. This has to do with a shift from the question of liberation and emancipation through gaining a waged job outside the home, to changing radically the conditions of women by dealing first with the question of reproduction; whether it is care work—which has become a big issue across the world—or issues related to ecology, land struggles, housing, education, health, and food production. There is a whole spectrum, and certainly reproduction today goes way beyond housework.

In the 1970s in Europe and particularly in the United States, large sections of the feminist movement focused on the second job and many of the struggles over reproduction were conceived through that lens. For instance, having an abortion when you did not want to have too many children or access to a day care center so you could have more time to work. And I'm not saying that these are not necessary, but I think that in Wages for Housework we were critical of that perspective—not because we were against working outside the home—because it seemed to us that unless we dealt with the question of domestic work in all its different aspects we wouldn't be able to have any real power.

Today we have decades of experience and we have seen that the majority of jobs that women get do not give us economic autonomy or any real sense of satisfaction or self-realization. We’re not talking about the creative jobs that a few women achieve; most women are stuck with jobs that are underpaid and consume a tremendous amount of time, making it very difficult to reconcile having children and having a life of one’s own. And women who have jobs outside the home also carry enormous amounts of debt because their job rarely gives them enough to take care of their needs. So, with the entrance of women to the waged workforce we also saw the growth of structures like payday loan companies. On the payday you got your salary and then a loan because the salary was never enough. There was a precarization of life.

GL: Based on the experience you acquired by collaborating with groups of women all around the world, here in the United States, obviously, but also in other places like Nigeria, Mexico, and Argentina, where do you think we should be putting our energy in order to move forward and improve these precarious conditions under which we currently work and live?

SF: There is an understanding that we need to look at the issue of reproduction as very central, not only in the case of women, but in the case of everybody. Unless we begin to struggle also—if not primarily—on that, we're not going to be able to change the conditions of our lives in any situation in which we find ourselves. How do we claim, reclaim, and expand our access to resources to be placed at the service of our reproduction? Whether monetary, land, or services; the whole question of forcing a change of policies and beginning a process of reclamation of resources, that's number one. I call it the politics of the commons. Number two is reclaiming the decision-making. Who makes the decisions involving health or education? One political perspective says, “Well, we go to the state, and we ask the state to give us these services.” Another perspective, particularly strong in Latin America, says, “No, we also want to have a saying; how do we define what it means to be healthy?” What kind of healthcare do we want so that we don't allow or simply rely on the state to organize our life? And how do we work it out? It's a non-state centered conception of how we organize society in terms of the kind of infrastructure we need.

“Unless we begin to struggle also—if not primarily—on the issue of reproduction, we're not going to be able to change the conditions of our lives in any situation in which we find ourselves.”

GL: And in this reclamation process what are some specific practices or structures you have seen? Do they have a common thread? Is that thread precisely the redistribution of resources that you're talking about or the decision-making mechanisms?

SF: I have been very interested in the construction of alternatives that, on one side, are able to break the isolation in which women have traditionally been forced to reproduce their lives and the lives of their families, and on the other, do not depend on the market and the state.

Being with women and women's organizations in Mexico and Argentina, I’ve noted that that many times these alternatives are almost imposed on them by necessity. Often women are forced to move from rural areas or Indigenous communities and urbanize. And they have to invent a way of reorganizing their lives because they have nothing. Often they begin with occupying space, occupying territory, taking over certain pieces of land, and building a community through a garden or a place for the children. They organize collectively to reconstruct old forms—or new forms—of healthcare and knowledges about procreation, herbs, plants, and all kinds of remedies.

In Brazil, for instance, there is a landless people movement, the Sem Terra, who have reclaimed access to land and constructed schools and all kinds of collective forms of reproduction. And in addition to what they have built on that land, they have opened shops and centers in many cities of Brazil where they sell what they produce in the rural areas. These centers are also places of knowledge production; and it's really important that in these experiences, you always find that the collectivization of the production of subsistence goes hand-in-hand with the production of knowledge.

Throughout Latin America Comedores Populares (popular kitchens) is something which has spread. Women take turns to cook and serve food on a rotating basis, so you may have 15 women working one day and another group of 15 the next day, and they may cook 700 meals. This goes hand-in-hand with a lot of discussion assemblies, so it's not just a service, it's an experience in self-government.

Wages for Housework concentrated on the question of domestic work because that is where we came from. Most of us were women in urban environments from typical families with the man going out to work and the wife staying home. But at the same time, we were aware of touching on something bigger because we had a window into the unpaid labor of capitalism. And from the very beginning we saw that capitalism was actually accumulating in a way that was very different from what we had read in Marx, and that the area of unpaid labor was much wider. Then, we began to connect with anti-colonial struggles, colonialism, slave labor, and we began to see the bridges.

GL: By talking about domestic work, you could talk about other forms of oppression that were happening then; it was sort of the entry point. And one of the things that you connected through Wages for Housework was how violence against women's bodies happened, right?

SF: Yes, in the 1970s the issue of violence against women was already very important and we realized it was directly related to unpaid labor. Women who lived with violent men often could not leave because they depended on the men, especially if they had children. And without the man, they would not be able to survive. It also turns out that when women have debt, that indebtment increases the likelihood of violence against them and makes them much more vulnerable. The issue of violence cannot be reduced to this, obviously, and it cannot be resolved only through the ability of women to have resources of their own, but it is a very important step.

GL: So violence is only a symptom. I mean, would you say that today’s violence against women is a symptom of an economy or a system in which reproductive labor remains unrecognized and unwaged?

SF: Absolutely. And, you know, violence has many sources and we’re just beginning to see that there is a map, but all of its forms are connected. I also think we need to distinguish between institutional violence—the violence of the state—which for me is the first and most important one, and it takes many forms. I am inclined to see certain economic policies as violence; for instance, when a woman is forced to retire against her will or when a woman lives in a situation where all her life is work for minimum wages that do not allow her to have any form of autonomy. Then there is public violence like in Latin America: the paramilitary, the death squads. And that type of violence has increased enormously because women are the ones leading the struggle for the defense of the environment. So if there is a goldmine that comes to town or an oil-drilling operation, it's mostly women who are saying, "No, we don't want these to come in, they're poisoning our land.” If you look at the last years in Latin America, many women who are leading struggles have been killed. So there is that violence, which has increased in the last 20 years.

GL: And in Mexico, there is obviously the state and public violence that you're talking about, but also femicides, which have tremendously increased in prevalence every year. At the beginning of the month just this year, we had massive strikes and protests about it.

SF: Yes, violence has been growing exponentially and, of course, that includes domestic violence; they are all connected. In fact, Mexico is a good example; I know women that have been working a lot around these issues and once they know the number of women being killed by episodes of public violence, they can tell the ratio of domestic violence. State violence and public violence give men a cover for the devaluation of women and a sense that you can beat them, you can kill them, and you're not going to be punished.

GL: And this is, in fact, what has strongly shaped many of the recent feminist strikes and protests around the world. What do you think the role of strikes and protests is in this context, and what role do they play in tackling the origins of violence and patriarchy?

SF: I would like to distinguish between the strike and the protest, even though they are kind of the same thing. I think of the protest as the presence of women in the street. I've had goosebumps all over my body these last weeks looking at the images coming from Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. Their presence has been so powerful and it's been incredible to see women saying to the state "Tú eres el violador" (You are the rapist), having that courage and reclaiming space. The government in Argentina is soon going to vote on the legalization of abortion, which was a direct consequence of the amazing demonstrations that women have led. I mean, they calculated half-a-million women in Buenos Aires just on March 8.

And the other thing is the strike, which has generated really interesting debates about reproduction. Many times, women have people who are depending on them and this has forced us to see how different the situation for women and men is. Women are not just producing cars; when you're dealing with people, your forms of protest have to be different. When you are saying “no” to a job, what is it that you are saying no to? Because we are reproducing the state, we are reproducing capitalism, we are reproducing our own exploitation, but we are also reproducing ourselves; reproduction has that double face. This is a situation where you begin to connect the form of struggle that you make with the vision of the society that you want to build. How am I going to strike? What is it that I am refusing to reproduce? What are those aspects that are making this a form of exploitation and something that imprisons us? If I cannot strike because I have a child, what is it that I can do?

“When you are saying no to a job, what is it that you are saying no to? Because we are reproducing the state, we are reproducing capitalism, we are reproducing our own exploitation, but we are also reproducing ourselves; reproduction has that double face. This is a situation where you begin to connect the form of struggle that you make with the vision of the society that you want to build.”

GL: I feel that there's also a kind of tension between the strike and the protest that was especially clear in the events that just took place in Mexico during March 8 and 9. The first day you had thousands of women taking over the streets, making their struggles visible with their bodies and their speech. And the next day, the opposite was happening. You saw no women in the street at all, there were no women performing any kind of labor, they went on strike. Those are two very different and contrasting ways of saying no and this is enough, enough of the state killing us, enough of men abusing their power, and enough of not being paid for the work we do.

SF: Right, exactly.

GL: But they are both forms of expression that point out unacceptable circumstances and demand change. In that sense, I would like to go back to the manifestos because they also propose a path forward, which I think is a key element of this genre. What do you think should be the medium of manifestos now, and what platforms do you think should we use for manifestos today?

SF: Any kind of platform is good. The main point of creating a manifesto is that you propose strategies and a vision of how social change is to be achieved. With manifestos, you have an immediate struggle and an immediate concern, but then there is a horizon where they can be interpreted in a more expansive way. If you look at some of the most powerful manifestos and the visions that are included in them, they always take you beyond that immediacy. Once you have the vision, the platform is everywhere.

GL: If you had to write a new manifesto what would it be about? And what aspects of the original one would you keep?

The Wages for Housework manifesto is still very good in terms of putting the government on notice; at the same time, it's not a manifesto that wants to make a deal with the state.

SF: The Wages for Housework manifesto is still very good in terms of putting the government on notice; at the same time, it's not a manifesto that wants to make a deal with the state. Wages for Housework was tackling the question of resources for our reproduction and that meant not accepting housework as if it was a natural thing for women. I think dealing with unpaid labor and working for free under capitalism is still a very important topic; however, a new manifesto would address a broader experience. The movement has internationalized and now includes Indigenous women and looks at issues of coloniality, imperialism, ecology, violence, and the destruction and poisoning of the environment. It also looks at capitalism with its constant production of scarcity and debt. What is happening today with the coronavirus pandemic is the confirmation that this system does not guarantee our lives. And when people talk about defunding the police, it is somehow what we were saying with Wages for Housework: take money away from the destruction of life and put it at the service of the production of life.

The fundamental task today is that of building communal forms of reproduction and the kind of society that we want. There's an understanding among women across the world about what society should look like when we say "putting reproduction at the center." We want a system that prioritizes our lives, and whatever strategies we use, that system is one where human beings are not tools for the accumulation of private wealth—where we are not continuously living a life that is precarious, not knowing what will happen when we discover a lump in our breast, or when we are thrown out of our jobs. Now we feel that our survival is at risk every moment. Capitalism is destroying us, and we need—whatever we do—to put on the agenda the construction of a different society. That would be the manifesto that I would write today.


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Now, Life Is Living You

• The Politics of the Commons