Le operaie della casa (1977)

Le operaie della casa 1 of 3

Introduction

1977 saw the emergence of a new wave of social conflict in many parts of Italy, one that questioned fundamental assumptions about class struggle, political forms, and the nature of social subjectivity. 1977 was also the year in which the autonomist movement briefly came to dominate the local revolutionary milieu, only to retreat in confusion and disorder by the year’s end. Across those twelve months, hundreds of perspectives documents were produced and circulated in Italy by organizations large and small, outlining how capital and the state might be defeated in circumstances where a powerful Communist Party and union movement were calling for social peace and austerity in the name of national unity. What follows are two extracts from one such perspectives document, published in the January-April 1977 (and final) issue of Le operaie della casa. This journal was the mouthpiece of the Comitato per il Salario al Lavoro Domestico di Padova, a group then active in the Veneto region, and counting amongst its more prominent members Mariarosa Della Costa and Leopoldina Fortunati.

The whole of this fourth issue of Le operaie della casa was given over to a long document that, in criticizing the views of the dominant camps within the contemporary revolutionary left (particularly those based in Italy’s North), offered a quite different outlook as to how social conflict should be prosecuted there and internationally. The document was divided into sections: after an introduction that parodied Mao (“Great is the disorder in comrades’ heads; the situation therefore is worrying”), a sustained polemic was outlined against “The New Strategy” proposed both by leading autonomist organizations (above all, the Rosso group led by Toni Negri, and the Senza Tregua group led by Oreste Scalzone and others), as well as by circles associated with fragments of Lotta Continua (e.g. the journal Ombre Rosse) and sections of the feminist and anarchist movements (although who precisely of the latter is being criticized is not clear). Topics addressed included development, underdevelopment, and revolution, with many autonomists being accused of a blind worship of “the productive forces” aimed at setting the waged and unwaged to further toil after “the revolution”; the newfound enthusiasm within much of Autonomia for “building the party” and “seizing the state,” and what the consequences of that approach might again be for the weakest sections of the class; and finally, the flaws of those feminist groups who opposed the politics of wages for housework advocated by Le operaie della casa.

We present here excerpts from the original document in Le operaie della casa, concerning women’s autonomy, “seizing the state,” and the related question of “counterpower.” While acutely aware that the circumstances of Italy forty years ago are profoundly different to those we face today, it is hoped that this material’s appearance will spur others to re-examine the debates of those times (and to themselves translate more of this and other relevant documents of the seventies) – debates which raised a number of important questions, many of which remain unanswered in any practical manner.

 – Steve Wright

Women: The Third World in the Metropolis1

The flaw discrediting the whole outlook of our male comrades is that once again, in crisis just as in development, their eyes are locked solely on the factory, and thus they make an inevitably distorted assessment of the forces the class can mobilize against the attack of capital. In fact, just as they fail to see the struggles of the unwaged in the Third World, likewise they do not see the struggles of unwaged workers in the metropolises, and therefore cannot see the variety of the trenches from which the workers’ counterattack departs today.

This outlook continues to ignore, thus, that in the crisis itself a movement of women has developed on an international level, which on the terrain of the wage and the refusal of work has undermined the mechanisms of accumulation in a fundamental way. This movement consists of all the struggles which have always been invisible in the eyes of the left (see the decline in birth rates at the international level, the escalation in the divorce rate, the number of families headed by a woman, and of the women who abandon the family – now one in three in the USA – the number of illegitimate children, etc.) It also includes all those struggles that, insofar in as the left recognizes them, it considers acts of counterculture – the lesbian women’s movement, for example. In reality all these struggles are struggles against housework. These movements have been able to commit to an international level precisely because they have been sustained by a massive conquest of money for this labor. Sure enough, having our own money is for women an unavoidable condition for our ability to refuse dependence on men, and to refuse, therefore, our own work. This we reiterate for everyone who still tells us today that the struggle for “liberation” is not reducible to any one demand, and having money is not what is most important, but rather “transforming the everyday.” But with our pockets empty and constrained to personal dependence, it is very difficult to take back our lives and transform our social relations. Not by coincidence, the massification of the struggle for wages and the massification of the refusal of housework go hand in hand. Thus not only has a big cut of the so-called “public spending” of many states (see welfare in the USA, Canada, England, New Zealand; the “familial salary” in France, etc.) been meted out to compensate domestic labor on the waves of women’s struggles, but actually more and more the state has had to invest in the reproduction of labor-power.

But the more women have negotiated money with the state the more they have managed to refuse housework and dictate different conditions. Furthermore the massification of prostitution (upon which more than 10% of the population in Italy survives, according to Corriere della Sera) demonstrates the refusal of women to supply unpaid domestic labor – in this case, sexual labor. In this direction advances the very significant struggle that prostitutes are carrying out in the USA, England, France, and Spain, etc.

That this kind of struggle, this political subject remains unseen indicates all the limits characterizing the outlook of the left. The NAP2, differently than many others, sees in the prostitute – insofar as she is an extralegal proletarian and a precarious worker – a potential revolutionary subject, but only if she goes to prison. Only with the experience of prison, according to NAP, can the extralegal proletarian overcome uncontrolled, anarchic individualism to discover a collective identity, overcome uncontrolled consumerism (“easy” money squandered on exclusive, trivial luxury goods), to discover a revolutionary political position. From here it is a short step to the rhetoric of the Red Brigades, for whom nothing helps “raise consciousness” like a stint in prison, according to the old “the worse, the better” discourse.

Does Lyon3, for these comrades, mean nothing to the history of the class struggle? These same prostitutes they consider unbridled individualists and consumerists, redeemable for the class struggle only through prison, have occupied churches, gone on strike, attacked the state with very clear demands. They have called for decriminalization against the restructuring plan that would have them closed up in “Eros Centers,”4 and have demanded to keep their children with them, against the state control that de facto obstructs every social life, etc. In more and more towns the prostitutes are organizing as a movement. This movement, according to our male comrades, evidently does not exist?

We can direct the same question also to the comrades of Contropotere who write:

Ask the pundit in the big room pressing all the buttons what will happen before long, today, this evening. He’ll enjoy himself, comrades, with women we pay with labor, and he will bring them into houses we build, and he will use relationships we create working. (Contropotere N.O., September ’76)

Here the comrades are ostensibly berating the capitalist. In reality they are berating the prostitutes, who are immediately portrayed as leeches on worker’s labor, and not as workers in their own right who on a terrain of domestic labor have managed to charge for at least some of the tasks of this work. This is the same understanding for which in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mozambique the prostitutes were persecuted and mandated to “rehabilitate” themselves (that is, prepare themselves for “more productive” work) in actual concentration camps. This is after they were largely used (as women always are) during the wars for liberation, often to carry out very dangerous tasks. Particularly after all this, no one ever cared about how these women could survive economically beyond dependence on men, in war or not.

If this is the destiny into which “red capital,” just as “white capital,” has forced women – trying to close them in the Eros Centers, the sex factories, to increase their sexual productivity and at the same time isolate them from other women and thus restrain in some way the increase of prostitution – there is therefore is a significant connection between the plan of “white” capital and that of “red capital,” both aimed at attacking and repressing in any way the struggles of prostitutes in the world.

It is precisely the ignorance of this arc of struggles (if not the will to repress them) that has been the source of a great sense of defeat for the left regarding the current relation of forces between class and capital. This ignorance is also founded upon the left’s failure to recognize struggles that advance at different levels and with different organizational structures, for which our male comrades will always find the barrel of the gun more definitive than a factory invaded by children. This “difference” is rather always interpreted as weakness. It is not a coincidence that our male comrades have never recognized anything in the struggles of women, and (some) have begun to characterize us as a “proletarian force” (even if they are always ready to forget about us) only when they need to deal with our mass presence in the streets. First of all, unlike the male workers – who, when they “weren’t struggling” only represented “mere labor-power” – we women were little more than elements, sometimes pretty elements, of the natural landscape.

But if we must speak of our “weakness,” then we need to say immediately that if we as women do not represent a major force it is also because we have always found ourselves face to face with (and against) a left which has continuously repressed our interests. In this they are all in agreement, from the PCI5 to the “revolutionaries.” All accuse us of being backwards and blame us because we wouldn’t abandon our struggles – the only ones that would guarantee us real power – to line up at their sides. Let the comrades of the Red Brigades serve as an example: those who continue to dismiss our struggle against exploitation, contrasting it with a “class struggle” of which obviously we women never had any part.

Not until a woman lays claim to not only economic autonomy and the right to choose her own way of life, but also recognizes herself in the exploited class and begins a practice of class struggle…

Similarly in Senza Tregua of Naples:

it’s necessary to criticise the goal of wages for housework, which operates from a correct reading of the process of socialization of capital, productivity and housework, and is characteristic of a sector which is certainly at the vanguard in the theory and practice of women’s struggle. At the same time, the discourse of the refusal of housework, the challenging of that role, and the reappropriation of the political and social dimension, are not presented clearly by these comrades. This limit becomes more grave if we consider that, on the other hand, their aim does not take account of how the crisis closes political spaces for our demands, and that for the program of struggle for the wage as a moment of aggregation against development, we must necessarily substitute our organizational capacity to express power, to assert our will in the form of decree.

But if the left does not understand the profound anti-capitalist radicalism of the struggle of women for wages against housework, the state does very well. Today like never before, in fact, capital knows that undisciplined women produce undisciplined children, and that there is a direct umbilical cord between the refusal of cooking and the refusal of the assembly line, of the school, of the army.

It is precisely this struggle against work, upon which accumulation and the disciplining of the class are largely founded, that has compelled the state to invest more and more in the terrain of the reproduction of labor power. Thus the enormous growth of “public spending” has emerged at the international level.

In fact, behind the process which our male comrades define as “tertiarization” there is in large part the socialization of various tasks of housework (social assistance, “collective mothers” etc.), the immediate consequence of which is the increase in the cost of labor-power itself. nd it is precisely this increase, that is, the need to invest more and more in the reproduction of living labor, which constitutes one of the fundamental factors of the present crisis of capital.

It is not enough to examine the massification of the refusal of women on the terrain of housework. We must also understand what there is behind the organizational difficulties which workers today encounter in respect to their struggles and the refusal of their work. It is a fact, for example, that in addition to the male worker’s defense of the wage at the price of the intensification of work, women refuse to bear the brunt of the intensification of housework to avoid the lowering standard of the family. (The other example of this refusal is the great crisis of the family in the USA with the massification of unemployment, in which women often abandoned their unemployed husbands.)

Similarly, fewer and fewer women are willing to function as footholds, like support pillars, to the struggles that men wage. This is true regarding housework as much as for political work. Without a doubt the fact that women are no longer willing to sacrifice themselves, compensating with their labor for the capitalist attack against workers, represents in the short term a moment of weakness for men. But only in the short term, because in reality capital has founded its authority over male workers upon the sacrifice of women. In fact, if women’s dependence on men represented a power for men who could always count on their jobs, it is alternatively true that it has represented a great weakness for men against capital, because having dependents has always signified a great disciplinary force in the workplace. So the fact that women will not subjugate themselves to plug up the leaks is in the long term a moment of power for men too, insofar as capital has played the power difference within the class against them too.

We hoped that our male comrades would have learned this lesson with the emergence of the Feminist Movement, which if on the one hand signaled a great organizational crisis for the comrades (they were losing their wives, secretaries, and woman-comrade maids), represented on the other hand a great leap of power for the whole class. But instead of gleaning from the emergence of the Feminist Movement some new strategic directions, our male comrades sought to repress this movement because it threatened their immediate interests; or they sought to use it, to instrumentalize it, for what had always been its projects.

New strategic directions, we have said. The first and most evident being that to go beyond the factory doesn’t mean falling into a void that only the assault rifle can fill. Rather it means to unite, and to recompose on the basis of the common need for wages with all these political subjects, which, starting with women, are moving on this terrain. Wages against housework, against precarious work, against school work, and against factory work, remain, in fact, today as always, the slogans of the class.

AND WE CAN WIN.

Concluding, what does the current crisis of capital amount to in our point of view? For us too it is a definitive crisis that signals the extreme limit of capitalist development. It is not because capital does not know how to resolve these organic contradictions, but exactly because the class has attacked the mechanisms of the reproduction of capital.

Seizing the State6

The discourse on the seizure of power translates more or less explicitly into the objective of “seizing the state.” “More or less explicitly” because while there is a great homogeneity in the comrades’ positions concerning the seizure of power, on the seizure of the state the positions are more nuanced: at least for now, or at least in words. The most explicit, as always, are the comrades of Senza Tregua:

The class constitutes itself as state [si fa stato], it seizes political power before rather than after the insurrection (Supplemento a Senza Tregua, 14 July 1976).

Apparently the opposite stance is taken by Rosso, whose members speak of the “extinction” of the state. Clearly, however, this is an affectation [piccolo vezzo], since historically the extinction of the state has never meant its destruction.

But let’s approach things methodically.

What is the State?

Le operaie della casa 3 of 3

For Marx and the Marxists, the State is the product of the irreducible contradiction between the working class and capital, and the guarantor of the primacy of capital’s interests. For this reason Marxists have always criticized Kautskyist (social democratic) conceptions of the State as an organ of mediation-conciliation of opposed interests, the conciliation-mediation of the struggle between the working class and capital. Lenin went back to Marx: the State must be destroyed. At the same time he envisioned, as an intermediary objective, the necessity of seizing the state and managing it, with a view to its extinction. Lenin, like Engels before him, started from the assumption that once the private ownership of the means of production had been abolished – in other words, once these means had become the property of the state (statified, nationalized) – the State in its capitalist-bourgeois function would no longer have any reason to exist. Meaning that its extinction would be the inevitable result of the statification of capital (indeed, Lenin’s struggle was against the anarchy of production).

In reality, capital is not abolished once it is simply nationalized and statified. Exploitation remains, even if the manager of accumulation and the class relation is the state in the immediate form of the party-technocracy. On the other hand, even in the socialist non-communist countries, the state has become the direct manager of capitalist development: the enterprise state. To take an example that affects us directly, in Italy at least 50% of capital is the property of the state (Montedison, ENI, IRI etc.). But there is much more to this. Not only does the state increasingly manage and control production directly; it is also the guarantor for capital of the reproduction of labor-power (and therefore the first organizer and controller of housework).

That the state is the boss of women and the controller-guarantor of the reproduction of labor-power can be seen directly in the fact that: a) it is the state that controls the family, the birth rate, immigration, emigration etc. through the promulgation of pertinent laws; b) it is always the state that intervenes to stand in [sostituire] for women every time the refusal of housework [lavoro domestico] deepens. Indeed, the struggle of women against housework is the fundamental factor behind certain transformations in the state.

Consider the progressive growth of state investment in the social reproduction of labor-power: hospitals, schools, mental health centers, controls at the neighborhood level through social workers, etc., that stand in for mothers and wives. Today, in fact, the state – far from the army/police/government as seen from Lenin’s viewpoint! – is incarnated first and foremost in those institutions that must organize, control and guarantee the reproduction of labor-power. But guaranteeing, organizing the reproduction of labor-power has also meant guaranteeing and organizing power divisions within the class. Divisions based upon the wage and being unwaged, and maintained through the control of the unwaged by the waged: men in relation to women, parents in relation to children, doctors and teachers etc. in relation to women and children. Today, in fact, every time a layer of the class controls and commands the productivity of another layer, it always incarnates directly the authority and function of the state, it is the state in relation to the layer subordinated to it.

Therefore the other essential characteristic of the state is that it is not only the product of the struggle between class and capital, and guarantor of the latter’s primacy. It is also the organizer and guarantor of the power division within the class between waged and unwaged, and guarantor of the primacy of the waged over the unwaged (beating your wife is not violence, beating your children is even less so).

What does it mean, therefore, to seize the state? It means quite simply taking charge of the mechanisms of exploitation, starting with the exploitation of housework in all its aspects (birth rates, regulation of sexual labor etc. – speaking of which, what will become of prostitutes in the new revolutionary state?). And, naturally, rationalizing them, and developing them.

We should add that the discourse on the seizure of the state reflects once again the nationalistic optic through which these comrades consider matters, an optic that can only be anti-worker in presupposing the class as a national rather than international class. This is equivalent to suspending [congelare] the revolutionary process, a process that is necessarily international given that the working class is international. Seizing command (the dictatorship of the proletariat) over the capitalist mechanism in a given country means engaging [riferirsi] with the social wealth present at the national level, rather than the social wealth accumulated internationally. It means navigating within the equilibria of the international relations between various capitalist sectors and state, in the process operating in a manner that remains compatible with such equilibria – the opposite of subverting the latter. This perspective of the self-limitation of struggle in terms of the international revolutionary process is already present in Senza Tregua:

Grasping the fact that the limitations imposed by the network of capitalist relations persist – still not having been subverted at the global level – assumes therefore the permanence of the social product’s commodity form, and thus the permanence of the valorization process… assuming by hypothesis the necessity of maintaining and increasing, for a certain number of years, at the rhythms indicated by Economic Theory [?], a quotient of gross domestic product (and therefore a fund of labor-hours to accumulate, with the aim of producing commodities), poses the question of how to distribute productive activity amongst the population (Supplemento a Senza Tregua, 14 July 1976).

This then is the sense of that “seizing the state” proposed today by many comrades. And this holds also for those who, more primly, speak only of “seizing power” while hastening to speak of the extinction of the state. But, as we have said, historically extinction has never meant the destruction of the state, but only the destruction of one of its particular forms as a means towards its rationalization.

Nonetheless, we can say that “seizing the state” is consistent with “seizing power,” as seizing power means “the reorganization of labor.” But this is once again the scrap heap of a communist strategy that has now had fifty years of working class refusal and irreducibility to embrace as its own.

China is at Hand: Or, the Areas of Counterpower7

The thematic of counterpower, launched by the Red Brigades, recurs persistently in the discourses of the comrades. It is based on the necessity that the class already posits itself and acts as an alternative power to the power of capital. Class indeed: as counterpower. A telling aspect of this proposition is the emphasis everyone places on the decree (counterposed to demands, which presuppose the permanence of capitalist relations) with which the class expresses its essential objectives: with which the class, in other words, legislates.

How is that proletarian counterpower which today represents the intermediary objective of the whole Movement made concrete? The discourse is rather nebulous, but always revolves around the formation/construction of Areas of Counterpower, modeled on the one hand on “no go” zones (liberated zones on the model of Ireland and Angola), on the other hand on the experience of self-management:8 that is, the self-management of particular structures and “political spaces”.

The most concrete in this regard are the comrades of Senza Tregua, who think immediately of the direct management of appropriated/liberated factories for the production of arms and of means of subsistence:

Thus, if today it was possible, in factory x located within territory y, to promote forms of “provisional workers’ government” on a territorial scale (assemblies, councils, equipped to carry out their own decrees on a whole “packet” of questions: prices and tariffs; factory staffing levels and hours; the production goals for small units that generate wage goods for small scale circulation (for example bakeries, pasta makers etc), the distribution professional services on the part of non-working class occupations (doctors) etc. …) (Supplemento a Senza Tregua, 14 July 1976).

And again:

Production for subsistence, production for combat: within the conquest of these overarching terms, a process can develop through which the proletariat begins to construct the autonomy of its social dictatorship, in power… (Senza Tregua 25 March 1976).

And again:

We must build the power to occupy and set to work factories able to produce the means of subsistence and of struggle! Outside, against the reformist fantasies of self-management, we must begin to demonstrate the explosive force of a new revolutionary working class discipline (Senza Tregua 25 March 1976).

It is self-government at a local level that is proposed here; despite the comrades’ exhortations, this does indeed incarnate the reformist fantasies of self-management. In fact self-management, the self-government of the local territory, like the perspective of liberated zones that we must defend with arms, makes it possible, under the illusion of self-control, to justify a politics of misery [miseria], of self-help, of making do with what is to hand. In both cases it is the self-management of one’s own poverty [miseria] (see the experience of the Chinese communes). And it could not be otherwise, because when one’s own area, rather than wealth at an international level, becomes the reference point for what can be obtained, one winds up necessarily with the autonomy of one’s own misery. As a consequence, one falls into the proposition of austerity, of the limitation of needs: and this holds whether one is talking of areas of counterpower, or of the seizure of power, or of the self-government of the producers.

Linked to the theme of self-management is the envisioned end of the division of labor – and, in particular, the end of the division between manual and intellectual labor.

We can say straight away that this discourse also conceals a further intensification of labor. Not only will they make us work, not only will they exploit us, but they will make us plan the forms and manner of our exploitation. As in the communes, this classic model of socialism – with the elimination of the division between “worker,” “supervisor” and “planner” – will not only intensify labor, but has attempted and will continue to attempt to contain class conflict, making workers internalize and directly manage their own control and disciplining.

We women know quite a bit about this, given that we have always had to self-manage our kitchens and bedrooms. And we have always performed both manual and intellectual labor, since not only have we had to sweep,9 clean plates etc., but we have also had to plan the whole family’s budget and activities [vita].

After all, not only women, but the class as a whole, has always used self-management. In the office, the factory, the school, workers have always been responsible for the organization-division-cooperation of labor, covering for each other when someone is absent, dividing up the work to make it more bearable, etc. But self-management has always been used as a defensive, not an offensive weapon – let alone as a strategy.

As we have seen, the thematic of self-management is central to the objective of counterpower. This is a point upon which there is convergence between two of the Movement’s tendencies – the Leninist and the anarcho-libertarian (Situationist, Dadaist) – that are contradictory only in appearance. This should come as no surprise, since the antagonism traditionally expressed at the level of ideology between Stalinists and anarcho-libertarians has always been resolved harmoniously in practice (in this regard, Lenin had seen the cooperative as a model of socialist labor).

In fact there is complementarity, not contradiction, between the thematic of seizing the state, and the thematic of counterpower. There is no contradiction between the perspective of a centralized planning of production and the self-managed decentralization of its execution. Not only do all the contemporary experiences of capitalist organization demonstrate that the more command is centralized, the more is execution can be decentralized, but the very experience of realized socialism has always posed these two prerogatives as complementary.

On the other hand, the anarcho-libertarian dream of self-management (starting from local self-government) has never been in contradiction with the seizure of power, because the anarcho-libertarians’ disinterest for the state is a disinterest not only for its seizure, but for its very destruction. As historical experience has shown, the libertarian left has never represented a force against the state; it has been integrated, as we have said, in all the communist labor plans (see also the experience of the socialist communes, modeled precisely by anarcho-libertarian examples).

This integration has always occurred because there is a fundamental agreement, starting from a common identification in labor, on the necessity of managing, controlling one’s own production, according to the ideal of the artisans who express their creativity through their own labor. As a consequence there is a common agreement in considering the wage as a terrain that has been surpassed in terms of the class struggle. In its place, the anarcho-libertarians have substituted the self-management of the personal: that is, the transformation of production starting from the ambit of the home and familial relations – “the transformation of daily life.” It is in this sense that we must read their “NO” to the reproduction of the family (which is a complete “no” of money to women), by which they understand “reclaiming life.” In the place of money they offer us cultural revolution (a revolution of language, of signs, as well as a sexual revolution, etc.), that is a new alternative model of living – one that can be realised immediately, because it costs nothing, apart from a bit of good will, a lot of mental elasticity, a lucid increase in awareness [presa di coscienza] – and, obviously, a spirit of mimicry [imitazione]. In particular, it is backward to get married, to live as a couple, to have children etc. – and this holds for men as well as women, given that is has been decreed that we are equal.

It’s clear how the anarcho-libertarians use this “decreed equality” between men and women to palm us off, we women, and to close down our process of struggle against men. Which is why, looking at the length and breadth of the liberation for which they yearn reveals the true meaning for them of “women’s liberation.” They are AUTONOMOUS, yes – but their autonomy is not from capital but rather from the CLASS, starting with women.

It is this fracture between the problem of daily life and the daily problem of money that the future pink/reddish bosses are seeking to recompose, united in refusing money to the class, starting with women. Instead they offer us a reheated version of the same old stuff of a “new consciousness” (which, as we know, costs nothing, beyond some small individual effort) – the reorganization of our misery.


  1. Translated by Sam Pinto. All notes are by the translators. 

  2. Nuclei Armati Popolari, an armed left extraparliamentary group active in Southern Italy from 1974-1977. 

  3. This refers to the 1975 occupation of Saint-Nizier church in Lyon, when over one hundred prostitutes occupied the church in protest against police repression. 

  4. State-regulated brothels in Germany. 

  5. Partito Comunista Italiano, Italian Communist Party. 

  6. Translated by Steve Wright. 

  7. Translated by Steve Wright. 

  8. In English in the original. 

  9. The word used is “scopare,” which also carries the connotation of engaging in sexual intercourse. 

Author of the article

was a revolutionary feminist organization active in 1970s Italy.