Silvia Federici Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle
Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle collects essays spanning over thirty years of Silvia Federici's work. Turning around the Marxian question of the production and reproduction of the working class, the volume presents a dynamic and multi-layered examination of the personal, political, social, and economic determinants of gender inequality in late capitalism. Federici gives nuanced analyses of the complex interrelations of sex, race, globalization, and colonialism as the nexus of capitalism's most vicious and destructive subjection of the working class, a subjection which occurs on the basis of its own (socially mediated) biological needs. The body of work constitutes a multi-decade dialogue with Marx's corpus and the generations of Marxist theorists and activists who came after him as well as with the figureheads of second and third wave feminism.
Taking her point of departure from the Italian Operatio tradition of political Marxist thought, Federici argues that in late capitalism, relations of production have so permeated the fabric of cultural life that they are indistinguishable from social relations; social relations have become relations of production. Society is thus a social factory tasked primarily with the 'reproduction' of capital – the fulfilment of the worker's needs such that s/he may return to work the next day. This 'system maintenance' of capitalism requires large quantities of labour in the forms of elder care, child rearing and bearing, food production and/or preparation, clothing production and mending, house cleaning, the creation of 'leisure activities,' as well as the emotional and psychological decompression and reaffirmation necessary to get through the day. Capitalism requires this work to sustain itself and yet has displaced the responsibility and the cost of these activities onto workers and their families. In the era of neoliberal austerity and global 'structural adjustment programs,' everywhere workers are coerced into spending more and more of their time on reproducing themselves (and thereby the system) and receiving less and less assistance. And still, in the 21st century, the bulk of this work which capitalism requires to sustain itself is taken on by women.
The text is separated into three sections, one on Housework, one on Globalization, and one on the Commons. The sections on housework and globalization collect essays detailing with nuance and analytical acumen the contours of the problem of social reproduction. In the third section, Federici evaluates the potential of the current Left revival of the concept of the commons to address the problem of the reproductive exigencies of capital.
The essays contained in the first section focus largely (though not exclusively) on the gender dynamics of housework in the West. In recounting the narrative of her own political involvement in the women's movements of the 1970s, Federici stages the demand for Wages for Housework campaigns as an initial reckoning with the subjugation of women in the home and their de facto confinement to it, even as the percentage of women working outside the home grew dramatically. As a whole, the section argues that capitalism structurally requires a certain segment of the population to remain unwaged; one of the historical ways this has been accomplished is to render invisible the massive, taxing labour of women inside the home. The demand for wages and the recognition that under capitalism, sexuality and femininity themselves are 'works' which deserve recompense, was designed to lay bare the reality of labour under capitalism in general: all labour becomes servitude. The reclamation of the home as a site of work resists capital's determination to silence, ignore, erase, hide the work that millions of women perform every day as the condition for the possibility of waged work outside the home. It also intended to decouple gender roles from housework itself, as the demand was wages for housework, not for housewives.
The second group of texts expands the analysis of the division of labour operative in the first section to the forces of globalization. Contrary to the commonplace neoliberal narrative of progress, Federici argues that globalization has reorganized the global division of labour in a way which has come at the expense of indigenous and non-white communities, and especially at the expense of the women in these communities, re-entrenching both sexism and a new form of economic imperialism. Undertaking a close analysis of the effects of United Nations initiatives as well as Structural Adjustment Programs foisted on the so-called 'Global South,' Federici convincingly argues that women have overwhelmingly borne the brunt, in the first place, by the systematic destruction of collective modes of work organization as well as subsistence farming, but also by the economic devastation which has forced millions of people to flee their homelands to the 'Global North', where women overwhelmingly find employment in the domestic sphere, often in exploitative conditions that offer them little legal recourse. Further, globalization has often meant the destruction or privatization of natural resources, new rounds of enclosures, coercive microcredit schemes, etc. Where globalization has furnished new jobs, they have almost always been either manufacturing positions which are poorly paid, provide no job security, and often employ dangerous working conditions, or they have been agricultural positions, where the fruits of labour are shipped off to the 'Global North' for consumption, even as entire continents starve to death. The interrelation of gender, race, and colonialism emerge as iterations of the same problem: capital's permanent need for a class of unwaged, precarious, dehumanized workers.
The third section examines the recent attempts notably by autonomist leftists like Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt to activate a notion of the commons as a space of resistance to the organization of social reproduction. Arguing that much of the discourse of the commons has been male-dominated and thus blind to the frequently gendered question of reproduction, Federici argues that only a notion of the commons sensitive to the central problematic of social reproduction and its implications for class, gender, sex, race, and national origin can provide a real and vibrant alternative to capitalism.
The work brings together a variety of crucial issues under a unified Marxist lens. An impressive feat considering how little Marxism, feminism, and anti-colonialism in general talk to one another. But what remains unsatisfying in the volume is the turn away from structural analysis in her discussion of the commons. Federici seems to endorse community projects like communal gardens as viable sites of resistance to capitalism. It is here that her analysis could benefit from a return to Marx or even, a return to her earlier work which insisted on institutional, political, structural responses to capitalist patriarchy. The problem with this analysis is that it strikingly lacks class struggle as a dimension of analysis. As has been often remarked, building alternative spaces like community gardens, communal childcare and the like often require both leisure time and a certain concentration of capital. Further, communal means of organizing the tasks placed on the shoulders of women does little to de-gender the work being done, to combat the very real fact that the reproduction of the social body still falls squarely on the backs of women the world over. The turn to nurturing alternative spaces is undoubtedly important and crucial for coping in the world of endlessly commodified, stultified, deadened human relationships; but Federici mistakes this coping mechanism as a real and vibrant alternative with the power to dismantle capitalism. The Federici of the 1970s would not have made such a claim.