Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle.

By Silvia Federici

PM Press ISBN 97816048633385195  $15.95

reviewed by Alan Dent


            The volume collects twelve essays published between 1975 and 2010. Its starting point is the need for revolution. Therefore, where it engages with democratic politics, mostly it does so to dismiss them. This is a major failing. Though in some ways Federici disavows Marx, her work is permeated by the intellectual tenor his work established. He has virtually nothing to say about democracy. Like many who wish to see capitalism superseded, Federici does not discuss the chances of reforming it out of existence. There will be revolution or nothing; a depressing alternative as revolution hardly looks imminent. She dismisses “legal reform” because, “This approach fails to challenge the international economic order that is the root cause of the new forms of exploitation…” It’s hard not to read this and to be reminded of Nye Bevan’s famous assertion that those who want to do everything at once end up doing nothing at all. The British National Health Service may not “challenge the international economic order” but it is arguably the greatest achievement of the Left in Europe, remains a political thorn in the flesh for the Right and is Britain’s single most popular institution.

            There is much in these essays that is sensible. She writes astutely about the nature of globalization, its responsibility for impoverishment in developing countries, for the Biblical wave of refugees, for the chaotic immigration which bears down on local wages and much else that is the common currency of the radical left. However, much of this is marred by the revolutionary assumption and its consequent failure to discuss democracy together with her view that reproduction is the fertile locus for revolutionary upheaval and that wages for housework is the tactic to bring about the rapid downfall of capitalism. Her argument is: if wages are demanded for housework (whether carried out by men or women) the cost to “capital” and/or the State will be so great the system will be bankrupted. On its ruins, as always in fantasies of apocalyptic change, will rise the paradise of equality, peace and brother and sisterhood capitalism stands in the way of.

            The wages for housework campaign was partly Federici’s brainchild. Thus, it is easy to understand why she is unable to let go of it (because she is subject to the same vanity and egotism which motivate capitalists, as we all are). Forty years after the wages for housework campaign was conceived, there is not a  glimmer of a sign that it will bear fruit. One of Federici’s arguments is that the rise in the number of women in the workforce since the Second World War is the result of women wanting to escape the tyranny of domesticity. She cites no evidence, however. She makes no reference to polling, as people of revolutionary conviction seldom do: if your theory tells you how people are bound to behave, why bother asking them what they think ? There is, however, recent polling in which women were asked if they would give up their jobs could they afford to. Some 80% or more are reputed to have answered positively. Hardly consonant with the theory that they are fleeing the oppressive home because they want a wage.

            Federici’s willingness to talk for women rather than let them speak for themselves leads to some extraordinary assertions: “But the main reason why we cannot enjoy the pleasure sexuality may provide is that for women sex is work. Giving pleasure to man (sic) is an essential part of what is expected of every woman.” Can this be interpreted to mean anything other than: in capitalist societies no women enjoy the pleasure of sexuality ? However hard you try to be sympathetic to Federici’s position, this is a hopeless generalization based on no evidence. Surely basic intellectual honesty requires that if we are to assert something about the experience of all women or all men, we need to engage in sociological research. The problem with assertions of this kind is they are subverted by the black swan phenomenon: black swans may be rare but if you claim all swans are white, it needs only one to destroy your position. If only one American women enjoys sex, and god forbid, with her husband, Federici is wrong. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to hedge her bets and say that the pleasure women might derive from sex may be diminished by what they are expected to provide for men ? This is much more difficult to refute, but of course it lacks the absolute character revolutionaries love.

            There is a powerful whiff in these pieces of the notion of history as “process without a subject”. Federici often uses “capital” rather than “capitalism”. The former cleaves close to its Marxist origins; the latter permits of flexibility: capitalism in 1960s Sweden was a very different matter from that in present-day Nigeria; that of England in 1800 very different from present-day Costa Rica. Presumably this is why she often employs the strictly economic term. Revolutionaries are addicted to absolutes.

            “Capital” makes no decisions. Only people do that. There is only one place in the universe where a moral decision can be made: the individual conscience. Capital is not a thing, it’s a social relation. It exists because of choices people make. It’s banal enough to recognize that people who do well materially out of capitalism are likely to support it. That they do so through hypocrisy and double standards shouldn’t surprise us: people always have used double standards to defend unjust advantage, since it came into existence. To be disgusted by double standards is not the same as being surprised by them. Disgust is correct. Surprise is naïve.

            The intellectual tradition from which Federici comes embraces a more or less reflectionist view of consciousness, and by implication, of conscience: people think and choose according to the dictates of the economic relations of their society. This is the bare bones of a theory. Some flesh has been added by neuropsychology, especially, perhaps, Leslie Brothers whose Friday’s Footprint: How Society Shapes The Human Mind is significantly more revolutionary that Federici’s work.  “Social stimuli” writes Brothers, “have physical effects on neurons.” Not only do the social circumstances in which we grow and live shape our ideas and feelings, they change the physical configuration of the brain. Brothers is conscientious is recognising that mind can’t be reduced to brain. Mind is not a thing any more than capital, it is a set of relationships. Where is mind located ? Brain may be its site but a brain on its own is mindless. In a certain sense, mind exists between people.

            This points to a much more complex and nuanced view of consciousness than the reflectionist perspective. If social stimuli have physical effects, presumably specific stimuli have specific effects which points to a wide variety of responses. One of the failings of Federici’s kind of thinking is that it confuses what is offered with what is received. People are offered capitalism but they don’t necessarily receive it in the way it’s offered. In this regard, it is to be noticed that Federici treats women as a homogenous group. She makes virtually no distinction between women from different classes. Women, in her view, are victims of capitalism in much the same way, even those born rich who embrace it enthusiastically. Though she does refer to working women she doesn’t specify how differing circumstances can elicit very different responses to capitalism in different women.

            Women under capitalism are breeders of workers. They perform the fundamental act of production: reproduction. They don’t give birth to babies, children, sons or daughters, but to workers. This kind of thinking is indicative of the dismal reductionism of some of her thinking. There is no reason why you couldn’t transpose this to the lives of hunter-gatherers: there, women are breeders of hunters and gatherers. They perform the fundamental act of production. There is a desperate failure here to recognize that the totalitarianism of capitalism is not so complete that there are no spaces where people can elaborate meanings which defy the system they live in. In the same way, she asserts we must “put an end to the separation between the personal and the political” with no recognition that this is almost a definition of totalitarianism itself. The world of Franz Kafka is one where the distinction between public and private has been obliterated. To abolish the separation between private and public is to destroy those arenas where people can make choices against the ruling values. Federici seems unaware she is proposing totalitarianism as a solution to the existence of capitalism.

            Similarly, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Federici that it might be an idea to expand the arena in which money doesn’t matter.  “Capital”  either fixed or liquid,  is by definition measured by money. To widen the areas where money has no importance is to alienate “capital” from those spaces. She wants to bring wages into the home in order to expose that childrearing and housework are major contributions to the economy, and as our economy is capitalist, they assist capitalists. Yet wouldn’t it be more sensible to enhance the extent to which the family and private life in general can serve as an asylum from capitalism ? As Christopher Lasch has shown, the family is no longer a “haven in a heartless world”, because it has been invaded by the values of capitalist consumerism and meritocracy. Should the response to that be defeatism, the conclusion that, as private life offers no refuge, it must be done away with and blended entirely with political, public life ? Isn’t that remedy worse than the disease ? Wouldn’t it be more rational to find ways to recreate a private realm expansive enough to keep the cold winds of capitalism at bay ?

            There are points in the book where Federici’s poor thinking produces risible statements: “The absence of the nuclear family did not mean that workers did not mate and copulate.” Just as well, or the species would have perished long ago. Confused and silly formulations like this flow from her flawed assumptions: capitalism created the nuclear family; that’s where workers mate and copulate; they do so because capitalism requires them to; but of course, they would do it anyway.

            Marx began from economic production. In doing so, he was taking a step up from the biological. He was deliberately focussing on what human beings create. We didn’t create our biology. By putting the emphasis on reproduction, Federici is entering a territory which is much more difficult than she thinks. Far from it being merely the case that “workers” mate and copulate even in the absence of the nuclear family, because sexual attraction is part of their biological inheritance, they would mate and copulate under almost any circumstances. She is right, obviously, that reproduction determines social relations at the most elementary level, yet in entering the territory of sexual attraction she has set herself questions she doesn’t answer. How does sexual attraction work ? How far is it simply wired in and how much mediated by culture ? How can we distinguish between the two? It is reported that a psychological experiment involved “good looking” women (ie women whose facial symmetry is above average) staring into men’s eyes while the latter’s brain responses were measured. The expected areas fired up vigorously. When the procedure was reversed and men looked into women’s eyes, the same result occurred; but it did so too when good looking men looked into the eyes of men and women into the eyes of women. What does that mean ?

            Federici downplays intimacy. Yet, all these millions of workers who are reproduced for capitalism by dutiful sex workers ( “prostitution underlines every sexual encounter”) were engendered in intimacy and each of those intimacies is unique. We are all wired for language competence but every individual produces an idiolect; a use of language specific to them. If capitalism can’t wipe out our idiolects, how can it wipe out our individual intimacies ? For her theory to work, it has to be the case that there is no private space, that “capital” is in all our bedrooms and determines our every move. Such exaggeration doesn’t shore up her thesis.

            Nor does she address the question of how and why women became second-class citizens. Has it always been so ? Does the anthropological evidence support that ? If not, what brought about the change ? If we know how the oppression of women arose, won’t it be easier to do away with it ? Was it a result of conquest among pre-historic peoples ? It certainly existed long before capitalism so how can we be sure that getting beyond capitalism will remove it ?

            For Federici, “capital” is the villain. She writes of it as if it has a mind, as if it isn’t in millions of individual minds the choices are being made which keep capitalism and discrimination against women in place. Implying that “capital” has agency which is responsible for women’s problems, she short circuits her thinking by concluding the abolition of “capital” will, more or less automatically, solve the problem. However, if the oppression of women pre-dates “capital” (and it does by a very long way) why should we conclude that simply abolishing “capital” will be enough ? She is side-stepping the difficult question of virtue. A good society needs good people. In her implied view, as people are puppets of their economic system, a co-operative, egalitarian system will engender virtuous individuals. This leaves unanswered the question of why, given that the anthropological evidence points to the primordial condition of humanity as co-operative and egalitarian, we ever left paradise. Albert Einstein pointed out that the egocentric impulses in human beings are much stronger than the altruistic. This may be so, and for relatively simple evolutionary reasons. If it is, we have to struggle against our egotism in order to be virtuous. Is it “capital” which makes us vicious or is it our capacity for viciousness which gave rise to “capital” ? It isn’t necessary to be a theist to recognize that religion is more or less founded on the idea of our divided nature, our need to fight our own worst impulses in order to be at least somewhat virtuous. The question of this inner struggle is remote from Federici’s position. The struggle is against “capital”, if that implies a struggle with ourselves, it is not elaborated or explored.

            The effort of democracy must be to grant as much responsibility as possible to the individual conscience. Federici doesn’t have much to say about responsibility. Women must be liberated but the idea that they must accept responsibility is never addressed. This has always been a failing of the Left. The rhetoric of liberation has had little to say about the assumption of responsibility being liberated implies. The theory of the determining power of economic forces which take on a life of their own tends to diminish the importance individual responsibility. It is not people who are responsible for injustice, but “capital”. Can we accuse “capital” of hypocrisy ? Can we claim that “capital” rather than people operates double standards ?

            The struggle for justice is a moral struggle. In order to fight injustice we have to expose the moral double standards of those who uphold it; but they are people, not disembodied economic forces.

            Given democracy, how could Federici’s wages for housework demand be realised ? Should ten million American housewives rise as one and demand an hourly rate for ironing, how could it be implemented ? Short of seizing State power themselves, how could they bring the policy into being ? On the other hand, how could a political party, the American Democrats or the British Labour Party fight an election on a manifesto of the State paying for housework, knowing that the result would be State bankruptcy ? It doesn’t take much realistic thinking to see how impossibilist the tactic is in democratic societies. Of course, theorists like Federici, who tend to believe they have uncovered the secret of historical change are often quick to imply “false consciousness” on the part of those who support the system they are trying to remove. There are many dubious ideas in Marx’s work but false consciousness is one of the worst. It closes the system of thinking to which it belongs to criticism. It implies there is one and only one “true” consciousness.

            Democracy may be capitalism’s afterthought but it is an afterthought of genius. Marx was writing and thinking at a time of denial of political rights to the majority. To transpose to democratic societies his revolutionary prescriptions is to be left behind by the very history you claim to understand. To transform the social position of women we have to engage with democracy which means winning elections as well as raising consciousness and holding rallies and demonstrations; it implies cumulative change over generations; it means letting go of the comforting fantasy of a once-and-for-all cataclysmic change which will “challenge the international economic order”.

            The apocalyptic view of history embraces an unacknowledged pessimism: only total revolution will do; anything else will be disappointing and hopelessly piecemeal. The more hopeful position is that every gain is worth fighting for. The British NHS is a good example: not perfect but an enduring alternative to the values of the market it has flummoxed the Right in their attempts to do away with it. Bevan was right: don’t try to do everything at once or you will do nothing at all. Isn’t Federici’s strategy irresponsible by comparison ? How can she guarantee that bankrupting the capitalist State would lead to betterment ? Might it not lead to dislocation, violence and repression ? Plain folk, who want betterment in their lives, are often sceptical of millennial solutions. Perhaps that’s why the wages for housework campaign has failed.

            Millions of American women are cheering Trump. The Left has failed them. They want jobs and a sense of hope. He is a false prophet but it is a serious accusation against the Left that he was able to win. “…every moment of our lives functions for the accumulation of capital” write Federici. Every moment ? This is so intellectually vapid no one can take it seriously. Certainly not the women with “Make America great again” emblazoned on their t-shirts.