Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review: Revolution at Point Zero

[Silvia Federici. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland CA: PM Press, 2012.]

Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch -- a feminist reexamination of the origins of capitalism -- was, for me, a mind-blowing and paradigm-shifting book. While her essays collected in Revolution at Point Zero didn't shake me up in quite the same way, their analysis does succeed in hammering away at our inherited understandings of capitalism using a similar cluster of insights to those that animated her earlier book in such a way as to leave those understandings fundamentally reshaped.

Originally from Italy, Federici was one of the founders of the International Feminist Collective in 1972, which went on to launch the Wages For Housework campaign. She has continued to work as a writer, teacher, and organizer since then, in Nigeria for many years and most recently in the United States.

At least in part because of the hard work of Wages For Housework and those who came after, it has become a feminist truism in the early 21st century that all of those kinds of mostly-unpaid work that make life possible and that even today remain vastly disproportionately done by women -- the cleaning, the cooking, the emotional labour, the work of caring for children and older adults, the relational work that is the foundation of community -- are, in fact, work. Most frequently today, this recognition is taken up in a moral or micro-political mode and connected to efforts to change relations and practices for individuals, couples, and small-scale communities. Which, without a doubt, are important, and need greater recognition and buy-in from those of us whose lives are organized into greater freedom to opt out of this particular burden. Similarly, to the extent that there is awareness today of the Wages For Housework campaign, it is regarded (as it was as well by many who dismissed it back in the 1970s) as simply a demand -- maybe a helpful and important one, maybe an unreasonable one, maybe even a misguided one that would end up expanding the reach of the market into everyday life, but nonetheless just a demand for improved material conditions for individuals (especially women), households, and small-scale communities.

From the early essays written during the heyday of the campaign in the 1970s, to a couple written during the years of Reaganite reaction, to many from the era of the triumph of neoliberalism in the 1990s and beyond, they all make it very clear that Wages for Housework was never just a demand -- it was a revolutionary perspective. In combination with theorists writing from anti-colonial contexts, Federici and the other feminists affiliated (and later inspired) by Wages For Housework make clear that capitalism is not just a name for those relationships mediated by the wage and by money, but is a system that has always depended on appropriating vast amounts of unpaid labour. This applies to the unpaid labour of enslaved and indentured people in/from the Global South, and it applies to the unpaid labour appropriated mostly from women all over the world that can be described as "reproductive" in character. This unwaged labour is integrally part of capital, and it is subordinated and devalued precisely by its unwaged character, which makes it seem entirely natural and as if it flows from some essential attribute of the category "woman." In demanding that it be waged, feminists were demanding that it be seen as a central and foundational aspect of how our contemporary social relations work. And recognizing that centrality -- truly recognizing it and faithfully following its implications -- must necessarily transform, in ways large and small, everything else that we understand about capital and about struggles within, against, and beyond it.

As with any career-spanning collection, even a fairly compact one like this, there is some repetition across different essays, and also some unevenness. In part because it is well-curated and fairly short, I didn't find myself minding the repetition, and indeed I found it helpful -- the kind of shift prompted by Federici's analysis is the kind that takes multiple exposures to work its way into all of the nooks and crannies of our existing ways of thinking. For instance, given how thoroughly most analyses of neoliberalism in the last two decades have ignored the importance of unpaid reproductive labour in how capital and our lives have been transformed in this era, as well as in how resistance can and must happen, I found it pretty useful to have more than one essay filling this gap in different ways. It was interesting, as well, to trace the shift in the political moment through not just the shifts in the content of the essays across the years but also in the mood and tone of the writing. It's not exactly a happy trajectory, given the years covered, but it's an important one to understand. (And it somehow felt less unhappy than I remember being the case in a collection of essays by US feminist Charlotte Bunch that I read years ago, that covered much the same period from a somewhat different sort of feminist perspective.) It is also interesting to trace Federici's evolving understanding of reproductive labour -- she notes this explicitly in her Introduction -- from a very direct impulse to reject it as imposition and burden in the earlier years, to a much more nuanced understanding by the end that recognizes not only its role in the subordination of women and of the broader working class but also sees collective experiments in new non-state, non-market ways of organizing it as a crucial basis and site for the struggle for a radically transformed world.

As much as I appreciated its analysis, in reading this book, I found it difficult not to be pessimistic. I don't think that pessimism is necessarily something that Federici put in the writing, at least not in any deliberate way -- it's really more a product of my reading of it. I think truly taking account of the role of reproductive labour in global capital, both in years gone by and today, makes our current unpleasant global trajectory even more stark. It makes it even more clear than conventional left analyses that nostalgia for some mythologized (and misunderstood) slightly-better (for some) yesterday simply cannot be what shapes our anti-neoliberal politics. It didn't help that I was constantly aware, as I read, of this book's resonance with Jason Moore's Capitalism and the Web of Life, which builds on the analysis of Federici and many others and adds an ecological focus on capitalism's dependence on appropriating the unpaid work done by what we might call in imprecise shorthand "nature." Even without Moore's focus on ecological catastrophe, though, Federici's work makes it quite clear that there is simply no return to what from the inside looked like an everpresent horizon of plenty and relative ease for the middle class and at least some of the working class in the West in the post-Second World War years, but that from the outside was clearly an unusual bubble and blip in the course of world history that depended on massive predation, and on high levels of appropriation of unpaid labour from women, from the Global South, and from the natural world. We shouldn't want to recreate it, even if we could. None of which is at all new to me, but even so it's still not a happy or easy truth to face, and I felt very aware of it as I read.

Like I said, though, that pessimism is more about me and about the world than it is about the book. And the book is well worth reading. It advances an analysis that is important and useful, and that we cannot do without. As for how exactly to translate these insights into action -- well, that's a lot less clear. Certainly Federici gives examples in some of the later essays, particularly drawing from how working-class women in the Global South and also in urban contexts in North America are already self-organizing. But mostly I get the sense that, in the spirit of the autonomist roots of her politics, she mostly sees that as something that needs to be worked out collectively on the ground as we move forward. And this book is her invitation to do just that.

[Check out my somewhat out-of-date but still extensive listing of my book reviews on this site.]

No comments: