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Times of Dispossession

and (Re)possession
An Interview with Silvia Federici
Arlen Austin
introduction by Beth Capper and Rebecca Schneider

Introduction
Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004) is
about the reverberations of violence and struggle that possess and (re)possess the body across
time. Federici’s monograph is at once an exhaustively researched historical study of the witch
hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries and a crucial feminist intervention in contemporary
debates over social reproduction and the primitive accumulations that founded (and continually
re-found and reproduce) the capitalist mode of production. It impresses the alternative modes
of life, formations of knowledge, and histories of rebellion that have been occluded by progres-
sivist narratives of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Indeed, the very idea of “transi-
tion” as a linear (and inevitable) history of succession is anathema to Federici’s project, which

TDR: The Drama Review 62:1 (T237) Spring 2018. ©2018


New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 131
instead dwells in and on the long interregnum of proletarian and women’s revolts against the
consolidation of capitalism and the enclosures of the common lands of collective property.
What was being foreclosed in this transitional moment were “alternative models of com-
munal life” (2004:22), as well as the knowledge practices that supported and reproduced these
models. For Federici, the writing of history is therefore not a mere accounting of the past
but instead a process of reanimating historical memory to inspire future modes of resistance.
Through the trace of poor women’s struggles against primitive accumulation and genocide, we
glimpse the possibility of an alternative path of what could have been and could still be. Such
paths have not been thoroughly disappeared. Rather than located or isolated in bygone times
(and despite the myth of primitive accumulation as an “originary” dispossession [see Coulthard
2014]), such paths are walked and rewalked by those whom capitalism both continually exploits
and continually struggles to forget.
Though Caliban and the Witch has been essential to feminist scholars and activists, its pur-
view in performance studies has been less pronounced — something this interview hopes to
redress. Clearly, the title Caliban and the Witch is inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it
seems fitting that an instance of theatre should grace the cover of a book that looks to rean-
imate capitalism’s constituent otherwise. If capitalism requires the “primitivized” figures of
Caliban and the witch as backdrop for its exploitation machine, then working to foreground
the background, as Aimé Césaire did with A Tempest (Une Tempête, 1969) in the interests of anti-
colonialism, is still crucial in the interest of anticapitalism. For Federici, Caliban is a symbol
not only for the anticolonial rebel (as he is for Césaire, as well as the Cuban essayist and poet
Roberto Fernández Retamar [1989]), but also for “the proletarian body as a terrain and instru-
ment of resistance to the logic of capitalism” (2004:11). But, even more than Caliban, it is the
figure of the witch who, in Federici’s volume, is placed, as she writes, “at the center-stage” (11).
In some ways, what Césaire and Retamar did for Caliban, Federici does for the witch. And so
Shakespeare’s Caliban and his mother Sycorax the Witch are conjoined. One might even say
reunited. The witch is “the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to
destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the
obeha woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt” (11). But while
Shakespeare and Césaire kept her offstage, Federici does not.
Through nearly five decades of global social movements, Federici’s scholarship and activ-
ism have become central to feminist claims for social reproduction and reproductive labor
as primary sites of organizing and analysis. Arriving in the United States from Italy to pur-
sue her PhD in philosophy at the University of Buffalo in 1967, Federici’s earliest scholarly
works focused on modernist literature and Marxist theories of aesthetics. Soon, however, she
was drawn into the nascent feminist movements of Italy and the United States, leaving full-
time academic work to become the coordinator for the New York committee of the Wages for
Housework (WfH) movement. For WfH, the historical disciplining of women’s reproductive
labor was central to capitalist development since it served as the pillar for the production of the
most primary of commodities: labor-power itself. Interestingly, some of the earliest protests
staged by the WfH movement in Italy included women performing makeshift theatre pieces
adjacent to regularized cardboard cutouts (see fig. 1). These cutouts represented a spectrum of

Figure 1. (previous page) Members of the theatrical troupe of the Padua Wages for Housework Committee
performing in a collectively composed work entitled L’Identità during a demonstration in Mestre, Venice,
1 May 1975. (Photo from the Archivio di Lotta Femminista per il salario al lavoro domestico, donated by
Mariarosa Dalla Costa to the Civic Library, Padua, Italy)

Arlen Austin is a PhD student in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University.
Arlen Austin

His research explores theories of work and its refusal and the uses of media by postwar social movements.
arlen_austin@brown.edu

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left- and right-wing political positions, all of which consigned women to the performance of
unvalued reproductive labor.
Between the years of 1984 and 1987, Federici taught at the University of Port Harcourt in
Nigeria, experiencing first-hand the effects of the structural adjustment programs implemented
by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.1 This time was formative for her own
ongoing study of the history of the witch hunts and the reassessment of traditional Marxist the-
ories of primitive accumulation, writing that “it was the Nigerian proletariat that brought me
back to the struggles over the commons and the capitalist disciplining of women, in and out
of Europe” (2004:10). Caliban and the Witch had a long gestation period, developing through
Federici’s participation in the WfH movement and her time in Nigeria, and manifesting in an
earlier work coauthored with Italian feminist Leopoldina Fortunati (Federici and Fortunati
1984). Throughout Caliban and the Witch, Federici explores the witch trials as a reaction-­
formation to women’s autonomous control over their own (biological and social) reproduction
and the forms of knowledge in which women were most centrally proficient (from midwifery
and abortions to community healing practices). As she demonstrates, these autonomous prac-
tices posed a threat to the inauguration of capitalism, and concerns over demographic and eco-
nomic crises in the mercantilist era generated a demand for women to be dispossessed of power
such that their reproductive capacities could be placed “in the service of population increase and
the production and accumulation of labor-power” (2004:181).
Caliban and the Witch forwards a theory of the (gendered) body, of temporality, and of his-
torical memory that has much to contribute to performance studies’ broad interrogation and
exploration of the body and its social reproduction through time and across space, both in
terms of the disciplinary and regulatory performativity of bodies and the embodied gestures,
acts, and repertoires that enable the transmission of subjugated knowledges that have been tar-
geted for destruction (Taylor 2003; Schneider 2011). Mounting a critique of Foucauldian char-
acterizations of the body as a wholly discursively produced site subject to productive power,
Federici traces how changing conceptions of the body are tethered to the emergence of cap-
italism, noting how processes of scientific rationalization sought to destroy and remold the
body, once widely understood to be imbued with magical properties, into a laboring machine
(2004:161). As such, Caliban and the Witch illuminates how the female body, and women’s differ-
ential conceptions of what a body is and what it could and can do, became a target of an allied
state-church power and genocidal extirpation. The production of the “witch” as a figure, and
the widespread execution of women as witches, is therefore revealed by Federici to be a cipher
for the eradication of alternative organizations of knowledge and collective life, in general, and
a differential conception of the body and its powers, in particular. Such alternative knowledges
stood (and still stand) in opposition to reorganization of time necessary to the implementation,
and ongoing sedimentation, of capitalist labor-discipline. For example, Federici explores how
the common belief in particular forms of magic “rested upon a qualitative conception of space
and time that precluded a regularization of the labor process” (142). One way to read Caliban
and the Witch with, in, and through performance studies, then, might be to examine how per-
formance art, theatre, and dance allow us to enter into cross-temporal scenes that interrupt the
temporality of capitalism, how they enable us to sense the body differently, and how they invoke
and visualize speculative possibilities for other worlds and other modes of social reproduction,
where “magical” knowledges might yet permeate our lives.

  1. In collaboration with George Caffentzis and Ousseina Alidou, Federici cofounded the Committee for Academic
Freedom in Africa in 1991 to help provide a support structure for rapid international response to repression of
African student movements and to reframe debates around the education “crisis” on the continent. The group
Silvia Federici

analyzed underlying causes for the violent repression of African student movements and the defunding of univer-
sities, finding their root cause in a global capitalist recolonization project aimed to again render Africa available
for extraction of mineral resources and manual labor.

133
Arlen Austin worked with Federici to compile an anthology of texts from the New York
Committee of the Wages for Housework movement recently published by Autonomedia
(Federici and Austin 2017). He sat down with Federici at her home in Brooklyn, New York,
during the Spring of 2017 to discuss the genesis of Caliban and the Witch, her transformative
rearticulation of the category of primitive accumulation, the importance of aesthetic production
to her project, and her evolving understanding of global social movements.
 — Beth Capper and Rebecca Schneider
References
Césaire, Aimé. (1969) 2002. A Tempest. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Theatre
Communications Group.
Coulthard, Glen Sean. 2014. Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New
York: Autonomedia.
Federici, Silvia, and Arlen Austin. 2017. The New York Wages for Housework Committee 1972–1979: History,
Theory, and Documents. New York: Autonomedia.
Federici, Silvia, and Leopoldina Fortunati. 1984. Il Grande Calibano. Storia del corpo social ribelle nella prima
fase del capital. Milano: FrancoAngeli.
Retamar, Roberto Fernández. 1989. Caliban and Other Essays. Translated by Edward Baker. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Schneider, Rebecca. 2011. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment.
London: Routledge.
Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham,
NC: Duke University Press.

The Persistence of Primitive Accumulation


and the Temporalities of Resistance
ARLEN AUSTIN: You mention in the introduction to Caliban and the Witch [2004] that the
necessity of revisiting the witch hunts became pressing for you through your involvement with
the feminist movement of the early 1970s — the Wages for Housework movement in particular.
Could you reflect a bit on what makes the investigation of so-called primitive accumulation press-
ing for movements whose immediate struggles might appear, at first glance, to be removed from
such a complex theoretical-historical endeavor?

SILVIA FEDERICI: This question can take us in many directions. First, I always assumed that
you don’t understand any social phenomena unless you identify the social forces that shaped
their development and the social, historical context in which they emerged. In the feminist
debates concerning the nature of housework, many accepted the liberal notion that housework
is a personal service, belonging to a private sphere free from capitalist relations. It was impor-
tant, then, to demonstrate that this was not the case, that although reproduction is a trans-
historical process, housework — in other words, reproductive work as we know it, has been a
specific, historically determined construction defined by the capitalist class. Thus it became nec-
essary, as part of our political battle, to produce some historical documentation, to prove that
housework is not an eternal element of social life but has been organized for specific purposes,
and in such a way that it is functional to the labor market and the reproduction of labor-power.
This historical investigation was crucial to the realization of Caliban and the Witch and the dis-
Arlen Austin

covery that the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries had a profound impact on the deter-
mination of the role of women in the developing capitalist society — as they contributed to

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devalue women’s labor, and destroyed the social power women had accumulated in the course
of the antifeudal struggles of the Middle Ages. Reconstructing this history invalidated the argu-
ment that the home, the family — the sphere of reproductive activities — are free from capital-
ist relations. It responded to the argument of those in the feminist movement who accused us of
wanting to bring housework into the sphere of capitalist relations. It helped to demonstrate that
the capitalist class is the real beneficiary of this work, and liberated us from the guilt we always
felt when we wanted to refuse it. It showed that, as unpaid house-workers, women have been
contributors to capitalist accumulation and therefore have the power to undermine it by with-
drawing their labor. Yes, history is a necessary instrument of struggle.

AUSTIN: Your investigations of primitive accumulation have helped articulate resistance within
a dual temporal frame: investigating histories of violence and their implications for the pres-
ent. Can you comment on the necessity of a dual conception of time for a feminist understand-
ing of history?

FEDERICI: The question of time is important in our struggles. A key element of my journey
through time was the realization that everything, in a way, is present and this presence is essen-
tially motivated by a demand for justice. Those who have been killed, those who have been tor-
tured, those who have been unjustly persecuted throughout history are still able to give us
advice and are still demanding that we speak for them. They are still demanding justice. I came
to the point in writing Caliban and the Witch where the witches were alive for me, they were
not only in my heart but in my ears, my eyes. Reading the stories of these women who died so
horribly, in conditions difficult for me to conceive — alone in their tortures and their deaths,
screaming in utter desperation. I felt those screams had to be heard. The moment I became
aware of those stories, the unspeakable suffering and humiliation to which these women, my sis-
ters potentially, were subjected, I felt it was my duty to tell their story, that it was impossible for
me not to try to give them voice.

AUSTIN: So there is a powerful element of reanimation in history writing for you?

FEDERICI: Yes, reanimation, and the acknowledgement of the continued presence of the past
in the present. I have now come to the conclusion that the past is with us and it is up to us to
make it count. If we don’t make the past count, we cannot make the present count. This has
become one of the principles of my political life.

AUSTIN: The violence of primitive accumulation is also conceived and articulated through
intergenerational understanding. We have come across many texts in going through the Wages
for Housework archive that address women’s relation to the ways their mother’s lives were
structured by housework and their own growing understanding of the violence that their moth-
ers had experienced. This understanding is powerfully expressed in some of the songs and
poetry of the movement.
FEDERICI: Yes, the songs the Wages for Housework movement has produced have a histor-
ical dimension. Any serious movement has songs, not only songs of the present but from the
past as well. The emotional impact of these songs comes from understanding that singing them
is an act of solidarity with the past; it is a commitment to refuse oblivion, to refuse to allow the
struggles of the past to go unnamed, unheard, forgotten. The Triveneto Committee for Wages
for Housework in Padova [Italy] produced a canzoniere. There is a song in it that I find particu-
larly moving, of a woman who speaks to her mother. She extends her hand to her and says: I now
understand what your life has been like and how unjustly you have been treated. You worked
your whole life but no one has recognized your work. Now you are an old woman and the house
is empty. Your husband who has spent most of his life outside the home still has his friends, he
Silvia Federici

can go to the bar and drink, but you are at home alone. But now, she tells her mother, women
are organizing, women who understand what you went through. And the women’s movement is
also fighting for you.

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AUSTIN: So is there a crucial sense that alienation between generations is deeply connected
for you with the violence of primitive accumulation and ongoing dispossession?

FEDERICI: Yes. A Mexican feminist, Mina Lorena Navarro, speaks of “multiple forms of dis-
possession” [Composto and Navarro 2014]. We are not only dispossessed of the land, the
waters, and forests; we are dispossessed of our relation with nature and other people and from
the knowledge that comes from, among other things, intergenerational communication. This
contributes to our inability to understand and learn from our own history. It is no accident that
in the US the ruling class has devoted so much energy to the destruction of historical memory,
which depends on intergenerational continuity, on the transmission of knowledge that used to
occur between generations. As Navarro writes, the collective memory of the past creates a par-
ticular subjectivity, a collective subject more capable of resistance.

AUSTIN: Much of your understanding of “primitive accumulation” as an ongoing process


developed through your teaching experience in Nigeria and subsequent work with student
movements in Africa. How did your time in the country, specifically your experience of the
effects of structural adjustment on the education system, influence your subsequent understand-
ing of primitive accumulation, the writing of Caliban and the Witch, as well as the articulation of
what the Midnight Notes Collective1 would come to call the “new enclosures”?
FEDERICI: My experience in Nigeria had a “decanting” effect. We had seen signs of a capital-
ist counterrevolution starting in the mid-’70s, beginning with the near bankruptcy of New York
followed by the oil embargo that triggered a tremendous spike of inflation and a huge rise in
commodity prices. There was then a call by the capitalist class for a strike on investments; this
was when the Club of Rome2 in 1974 called for zero-growth. It was evident that a new phase
of capitalist development was beginning. It was a grand counterrevolution that the capitalist
class was mounting against the “crisis” it had suffered in the ’60s and ’70s. But its contours were
not clear.
In Nigeria I understood that the driving force in this transformation was a process of dis-
possession similar to the one Marx had described in Capital volume I, this time justified as a
response to the country’s “debt crisis,” and a restructuring of the economy that amounted to a
process of recolonization. The governments had to cut investment in health, education, trans-
portation. It had to dismantle the public sector. Wages were frozen, the local currency was
devalued. Production had to be reoriented towards export. Universities were badly affected.
Students’ stipends were eliminated and fees were introduced, triggering a protest movement
that was met with much repression. This is why back in the US with other colleagues I formed
an organization called Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa, where we defined aca-
demic freedom as the right to study. In Nigeria we saw the “new enclosures,” forms of privatiz-
ing the means of reproduction, which we wrote about in a remarkable issue of Midnight Notes
published in 1990. We saw that these forms of enclosure were accompanied by an intense attack
on women, who were accused of being a cause of the crisis. Thus, as I mention in Caliban and

  1. The Midnight Notes Collective published their first issue of Midnight Notes, “Strange Victories,” in 1979, with
14 subsequent issues published sporadically through 2009. Membership in the group was fluid and there were
years in which participants tended to remain anonymous both for personal security and to avoid a cult of person-
ality around particular authors. Original members in the late 1970s included Monty Neill, Hans Widmer, and
George Caffentzis, with John Willshire Carrerra and Peter Linebaugh joining shortly thereafter. Silvia Federici
became heavily involved with the group in the early 1980s (Midnight Notes Collective 1990).
  2. Founded in 1968, the Club of Rome has been, historically, among the most influential of global-capitalist think
tanks, identifying its membership as composed of “notable scientists, economists, businessmen, high level civil
Arlen Austin

servants and former heads of state from around the world” (Club of Rome 2017). In 1972, the group commis-
sioned what became the bestseller The Limits of Growth simulating the effects of economic and population growth
with limited resources.

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the Witch, the comparison with the history of primitive accumulation in Europe that I had been
studying was inevitable. In Nigeria I saw that privatizing the main means of reproduction, dis-
possessing people, is a permanent aspect of capitalist accumulation and that the expansion of
capitalist relation requires a war on women, as the devaluation of reproductive work is key to
the devaluation of labor power.

AUSTIN: And you saw this process of recolonization developing first hand, in the most brutal
fashion, through your teaching work in Nigeria where you witnessed both the defunding of the
universities and repression of student movements.

FEDERICI: The attack on universities was crucial to this recolonization project. As a represen-
tative of the World Bank put it at a conference in Harare in 1976, “Africa does not need univer-
sities.” This made it clear that the destruction of the institutions of higher education was part
of a global restructuring of labor power in which Africans would be destined to become man-
ual laborers as they had been in the colonial period. This in fact is what has taken place. We
have seen through the ’80s and the ’90s that young men and women who in former times would
have been students or farm workers now have to migrate — they are the ones who die in the
Mediterranean or traversing the Sahara, or in the best of cases try to eke out a living in Europe
selling counterfeit bags or doing menial work cleaning streets, hospitals, and homes at the low-
est levels of the workforce. As we began to work with student struggles in Nigeria and contin-
ued this work in the US through the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa (“academic
freedom” here meant defending the right to study and to be a producer of knowledge) we saw
that there was a direct connection between the attack on the university and the restructuring of
the global workforce. The assault on the universities came from the need to accumulate a work-
force destined to become cheap labor, immigrant labor.
This explains why when the World Bank gave instructions to African governments on how
to pay back their “debts” the universities were a primary target. It was justified as an “anti-­
elitist” maneuver — presumably the money taken from the universities would be used to boost
primary education. But this never happened, as primary education depends on the university
system for the formation of teachers.
The cuts came at a time when the universities were beginning to democratize, admitting
people who did not come from well-to-do families. This process was nipped in the bud. As a
result the campuses were soon turned into battlefields, but as I said, the protest was severely
repressed. In the north of Nigeria, at the Ahmadu Bello University in the state of Zaria, in
1976, 30 students were killed during a peaceful protest. Across the country student unions were
banned and students arrested, some of them tortured while in jail.
All of this was done in the name of the “debt crisis” and to speed up the so-called “economic
recovery.” In reality, the recovery has never taken place; debts have continued to accumulate. It
is clear that the debt had to remain in place as a means for imposing “reform” — in other words,
for controlling the socioeconomic and political direction of the countries affected.

AUSTIN: I would like to return to questions of movement struggles after a detour through a
discussion of aesthetics. Some of your earliest work as a scholar focused on Marxist theories of
aesthetics, modernist literature, and performance. You mentioned that as a young woman you
considered writing a dissertation on the Living Theatre, whose performances you had followed
in Italy and the US in the 1960s. I wonder if you could talk about how your ongoing interest in
the arts nourishes a feminist politics, specifically with reference to time. It seems that for you art
has often been a resource for understanding the possibilities of modes of reproduction outside
of, and/or in opposition to, the temporality of capitalist development.

FEDERICI: Yes, you are right. It is a dimension of my life and work that I wish had been more
Silvia Federici

prominent. My interest has changed over time but in my youth I was very interested in both lit-
erature and the visual arts. For years in my childhood and adolescence I couldn’t see a painting

137
without trying to copy it. I filled booklets with drawings of paintings. I also held a Marcusian or
Schillerian conception of art as a vehicle of human liberation — the practice where work turns
into play. I thought with Marcuse that art is the repository of images of human liberation. I was
also interested in theatre as a form of collective participation, influenced by the Living Theatre,
which I thought was quite revolutionary, ending the passivity of the spectator and collectivizing
the creation process that theatre offers.
Working on Caliban and the Witch, I spent hours choosing images to illustrate the text. They
make the book richer than words alone. Painting, as well as literature, is part of my political
work; I still draw from both. Throughout my teaching career I taught courses in art and poli-
tics, exploring the ways in which changing sexual relations and the changing position of women
were reflected in them and whenever possible using images to illustrate my syllabi. Yes, images
make the presence of the past visible. They stand as proof of other possibilities.
Recently, as you can see by looking at the walls of my room, I have been inspired by the
work of the Mexican painter Rodolfo Morales who throughout his life has painted women as
creators of commons, women turning urban spaces into commons, weaving the social fabric
together. He uses women’s bodies architecturally, as structures embracing the community.

AUSTIN: To return to what you said about bearing witness to histories of dispossession and
violence: Does that process necessarily require an aesthetic element? Does the aesthetic help to
suture different temporal frames in the process of imagining resistance? Certainly images pro-
liferated by mass media in the depiction of violence against women across time also have a cer-
tain consistency...

FEDERICI: The continuity of the forms of persecution and oppressions deployed against
women is evident in cinema and television. Degrading images of women have persisted in cin-
ematic representations and such images continue to contribute to a culture dominated by the
fear of women, a culture in which the woman is a witch, aggressive, lustful, obsessively commit-
ted to revenge, possessed with inextinguishable hatreds. We need healing images and images
of resistance.

AUSTIN: I think you mentioned once that you had to leave your chair and walk constantly
while working on Caliban and the Witch; you had to have some sensual, bodily experience
because the material was so horrifying.

FEDERICI: Reading the accounts of the witch hunts, imagining the horror these women were
experiencing, made me feel like I was suffocating. Imagine being in a room with somebody
knowing he will torture you and once the torture is over you’ll be burned alive. Imagine read-
ing about the instruments of torture used to extract confessions. I felt a terror that made me
walk in the night unable to sit down. This history poses for me a question I will never be able to
answer satisfactorily: What system was this that created human beings capable of such horren-
dous deeds, capable of inventing such horrible instruments to torture women already destined
to be burned — instruments to remove the breasts of women, crush their bodies till their eyes
dripped from their faces? What would possess a human being to inflict this kind of pain and not
be affected by it? Unfortunately this is not a question only about the past, as we know such tor-
tures are approved by many in our government, and several of the tortures applied to “witches”
have been used by the CIA — like waterboarding, for instance.

AUSTIN: You write powerfully in Caliban about the rise of mechanistic philosophy, the works
of Descartes and Hobbes in particular, which, in combination with techniques of spectacular
exposure and humiliation, such as the public anatomy lesson and public executions, served to
both desacralize the body and terrorize populations. Can processes of creation become ways of
refiguring those connections so violently destroyed?
Arlen Austin

138
FEDERICI: Yes, violence is deeply connected with the loss of creativity, with the inability to
have a creative relation with other people, to see the relation with others as a source of wealth
and enriching experiences. Capitalism teaches you to look at others as objects of fear, people
who will deplete you rather than enrich you, whereas in the Renaissance, for instance, people
believed in the existence of an erotic force binding everything, human beings and nature. Some
people argue that this notion of an erotic attraction inspired Newton’s concept of gravity, which
is like an erotic force, the earth affecting the moon and the moon in turn drawing the tides.

AUSTIN: So Newtonian gravity comes from magic as much as from secular science!

FEDERICI: Yes, Keynes called Newton the last magician as he was very interested in magic
and in occult forms of numerology.

AUSTIN: That would argue against any claim that scientific development necessitates a capital-
ist organization of labor.

FEDERICI: Capitalism undermines our capacity to understand the rhythms of nature; it


destroys our sense of the magical in nature. In the winter the earth looks dead, but the same
earth will produce trees and leaves of every color in the spring. How are those colors of the
spring engraved in those grains of earth in the soil? How do you go from this dead earth to
such an abundance of color? That is magic, isn’t it?

AUSTIN: In terms of impoverishment your work has also criticized the Marxian tradition’s
focus on the industrial waged-worker. You have stressed that it is women who have a better
understanding of the importance of creating a society beyond capitalism, and have developed
more powerful forms of organization.

FEDERICI: Women’s struggles can overcome the division between the moment of reproduc-
tion and the “political” moment, the protest, the demonstration; they also provide the repro-
ductive infrastructure for the struggles. They refuse the division of their movements into two
different spheres — the notion that “here we struggle,” and “there we reproduce ourselves.”
Instead, they see reorganizing reproduction in a way that makes it possible to strengthen the
resistance. I think this understanding is something particular to a history of women’s organi-
zations. See what happened at Standing Rock. It was women who organized the reproduction
of the movement: the care for children, the food, the reproductive infrastructure of the camps.
Because women have that experience and knowledge, you find that more and more, on a global
level, they lead the most important struggles, particularly struggles around reproduction, against
extractivism, against the ecological exploitation of lands and waters, against genetic engineer-
ing and commercialization of agriculture. Women are often in the first line of resistance, in
part because many men migrate from their communities, and also because women know what is
needed for reproduction and keep their eyes on the future. They are not as interested in short-
term gains, like the wages they might win from a local mining company, but look at the conse-
quences of the destruction of the environment on the reproduction of the community.

AUSTIN: Many would claim that the category of reproductive labor has been rendered obso-
lete by automation, or women’s entry into the workforce, the rise of a waged service economy,
labor-saving technologies, etc. The implication is that reproductive labor is no longer a site in
need of valorization or crucial to organizing. There are many grounds on which to critique such
arguments, but do they entail a misunderstanding of both the persistence of traditional forms
of reproductive labor and the relevance of changes in the organization of reproductive work for
the organization of our struggles?

FEDERICI: They reflect a shortsighted view of the changes that have taken place. Much repro-
Silvia Federici

ductive work has been commercialized, with the rise of a fast-food industry and the employ-
ment of domestic workers, usually immigrant women coming from countries that have been
totally impoverished. In working-class families there has been a reduction of domestic work,

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because women now have fewer children, buy food already made, and spend less time on
domestic work. The present demographic decline is a silent demonstration of a collective
reduction of housework. But what you find when you look at the way reproduction has been
reorganized globally is that, as the family has fallen apart in the face of impoverishment and
dispossession, women who in the past worked in the home serving a family and an individ-
ual man, now are out in the street serving large numbers of people. Much reproductive work
has been transferred into the streets; women are running small street businesses, selling food,
drinks, small trinkets they have made. It makes women less subject to a particular man, but
more vulnerable to violence, because when you spend much of your time in the streets you are
continuously dealing with the possibility of confrontations, particularly with the police. In con-
clusion the idea that reproductive work is no longer important to capitalist accumulation, or
that traditional forms of reproductive work have all disappeared is inaccurate. A tremendous
amount of unpaid reproductive work is still done in the home. It has been reduced and a good
part of it has been commercialized, but women still do the majority of the unpaid labor that
supports waged work. And there has been a massive expansion of sex work that is central to
capital accumulation.

AUSTIN: In your early work you drew crucial connections between sex work, women’s unpaid
domestic work, and the struggles of welfare mothers in the US. In January of 1975 you wrote
up notes from discussions amongst members of the New York Wages for Housework committee
on welfare and previous welfare rights struggles. In that text, you outline the precedence for the
Wages for Housework movement of the struggle of welfare mothers in the United States in the
1960s. After decades of neoliberal programs aimed to dismantle the US welfare state and vil-
ify welfare recipients, the power of these movements can seem remote. Could you describe how
they were an inspiration for your earliest feminist work and what you see as their continued rel-
evance today?

FEDERICI: The welfare rights movement was extremely important. As we often said, welfare
for us was the first wages for housework women had won. But most feminists did not see it this
way and they did not mobilize to oppose the vilification of women on welfare that began in the
early ’70s; they did not oppose the cuts to welfare services and fight so that welfare could be
redefined as wages for housework. This history is well analyzed in Premilla Nadasen’s powerful
book, Welfare Warriors [2005], where she shows that the more black women took control of the
movement, the more the feminist dimension of the welfare struggle became clear. The women
were claiming that welfare was not charity, as every mother is a working mother. This at the
time when mainstream feminists kept talking of “working mothers” in a way that accepted that
only women working for a wage were “really working.” The inability of the feminist movement
to fight alongside welfare mothers was a major defeat for feminism. I have been reading an
important book on the subject by Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body [1997]. It is a powerful
complement to Nadasen’s history, as it outlines in detail the vilification of women on welfare;
their characterization as fraudulent persons, “welfare queens,” having their children subsidized
by real workers. Roberts says that the vilification of black women on welfare served to vilify
the entire black community. The “welfare queen” became the “crack mother” producing “crack
babies,” leading to dysfunctional ghetto communities, which in turn justified the building of a
carceral state where a whole generation of black youth has been imprisoned.
As for the relevance of welfare rights for the present, I can say that we still have to put an
end to the unpaid labor women do in the home! How we go about it can take different forms.
In the ’70s we fought for “wages for housework”; the claim for monetary compensation is one
form of struggle — a crucial one but not the only form. We cannot change the organization of
reproduction without appropriating the means of reproduction. So, there is always a double-
move necessary: there is a refusal of unpaid labor, which is expanding rather than contracting in
Arlen Austin

our society, and then there is the process of appropriating the wages due. Both moves are indis-
pensable if we are talking about building a strong movement.

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AUSTIN: Yes, and the antiwelfare discourse also has a life of its own. Trump, in his [2017]
inaugural speech, used the trope of “moving America off of welfare and into work” — this over
two decades after welfare benefits had been effectively eliminated in the US as a means of
ongoing support.

FEDERICI: Yes, he is just the most recent voice in a long line of US presidents. Here his
brother-in-arms is Bill Clinton, the great “friend of the black community,” who in fact
destroyed welfare by imposing the shift from welfare to workfare. This in response to the great
black women’s struggle, which had declared that “every mother is a working mother,” saying
that they would swap their children if that was the only way to establish that caring for them is
real work. The cut of welfare payments to single mothers has been a cruel, cynical move, espe-
cially considering the immense wealth that has been devoted to armaments, warfare, prison
building — all activities considered “productive” in this system. Thousands of women and chil-
dren have been thrown into abject poverty, as the jobs they may get do not most often pay
enough for them to pay for daycare and what it costs to go to work. Welfare politics is where
you see the hypocrisy of this social system.

AUSTIN: So there has to be a double-move of refusal and reappropriation in the struggle


over reproduction?

FEDERICI: Yes, refusal of unpaid labor and reappropriation of wealth — wealth that we


have produced. “Refusal of work” is popular these days, but it’s always refusal of wage labor.
Moreover, it is never explained how you refuse work if you do not have any means to support
yourself. It has become a catchy slogan, but with little substance. The first step to be taken in
refusing work is not to continue to work for free, otherwise how do you refuse to take a waged
job? And how do you demand a “guaranteed income” if you cannot even get paid for the work
you already do?

AUSTIN: It is common to speak of a “crisis in reproduction” today but part of what is very
powerful about your writings in the Wages for Housework movement, the Midnight Notes
Collective, and your essays on structural adjustment programs is their contribution to an anal-
ysis of neoliberal capitalism as a reactionary force, one that must perpetuate crises of various
kinds whenever its own reproduction is threatened. What are the crucial questions to ask when
confronted with any discourse of “crisis,” in other words, how do you distinguish “crisis” as the
real immiseration of people and the decimation of human and nonhuman life from a discourse
of “crisis” that simply reveals anxiety over the continued reproduction of capitalist relations?

FEDERICI: The first question to ask about the “crisis” is: Whose crisis is this? The capital-
ist crisis and our crisis are not the same; in fact they are opposite. It is also crucial to understand
the difference between those crises of capitalism that derive from a real incapacity to accu-
mulate, and those that, since at least the 1930s, the capitalist class has engineered to discipline
workers. As [Joseph] Schumpeter has observed, the capitalists have the capacity to plan crises as
much as they can organize and plan development. Capitalist crises can be produced artificially.
For example, the “debt crisis” of the late ’70s was artificially created by giving countries in the
“South” loans at very low interest rates and then raising the same interest rates so that the debts
became unmanageable.

AUSTIN: You have spoken of the failure of the feminist movement to understand and support
the work of black feminists in the welfare rights movement. This would seem a prime exam-
ple of a movement crisis as opposed to crises for capitalism that are precipitated by high levels
of working-class resistance. Have you seen techniques developed in social movements, in Latin
America or elsewhere, to build structures for self-assessment?
Silvia Federici

FEDERICI: You are right. The inability of many feminists to see the importance of the welfare-
rights struggle is an example of such a crisis. The problem is that I am not sure today’s feminists

141
have learned from the mistakes of the past or associate the crisis the feminist movement has
undergone with those strategic mistakes. I cannot speak for movements in Latin America. But
certainly when you are dealing with the level of repressions people have faced in countries like
Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, you have to be vitally interested in understanding where the politics
of the past may have failed. Many of the young people involved in movements today had their
parents tortured, disappeared in the 1970s. They carry this history in their bodies. So they are
less inclined to forget or to be unreflective about the past.

AUSTIN: Yes, so perhaps we need more voices and history in our bodies. You did mention ear-
lier that you could not help but hear the voices of the witches as you wrote Caliban and the
Witch. What novel artistic or political forms have you seen to urge people to allow themselves
to be possessed by voices and histories that persist in demanding transformation? Does the con-
cept of “possession” have any resonance for you in the reproduction of political struggles?
FEDERICI: I am thinking of a recent documentary, Cecilia Barriga’s Tres instantes, un grito/
Three moments, a shout [2013], that narrates the story of high school students in Chile who, for
one semester occupy their school. In the end they had to leave, and one of the most incredi-
ble scenes shows them hugging each other and refusing to let go. Afterwards some were inter-
viewed and said how devastated they were; they said that they knew that in those six months,
in the occupation, they lived the best part of their lives and now the best part of their lives
was behind them. This intensity, this strong sense of solidarity, truly revolutionary, is the best
form of “possession.” It’s what continues to reproduce struggle, resistance, in the face of so
many setbacks.
References
Barriga, Cecilia, dir. 2013. Tres instantes, un grito/Three moments, a shout. HD video. Chile/Spain. 96 min.
Club of Rome. 2017. “About Us.” Accessed 22 October 2017. www.clubofrome.org.
Composto, Claudia, and Mina Lorena Navarro, eds. 2014. Territorios en disputa. Despojo capitalista, luchas en
defensa de los bienes comunes naturales y alternativas emancipatorias para América Latina. México, DF: Bajo
Tierra Ediciones.
Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New
York: Autonomedia.
Federici, Silvia, and Arlen Austin. 2017. The New York Wages for Housework Committee 1972–1979: History,
Theory, and Documents. New York: Autonomedia.
Midnight Notes Collective. 1990. Midnight Notes 10: New Enclosures. New York: Autonomedia.
Nadasen, Premilla. 2005. Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States.
London: Routledge.
Roberts, Dorothy. 1997. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York:
Random House.
Arlen Austin

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