Reproducing the Struggle: A New Feminist Perspective on the Concept of Social Reproduction

Introduction: The Erosion of Intimacy

In 2012 I stumbled upon an article which  was originally published  in The Art of Manliness and which consists essentially of a series of pictures. The article is entitled Bosom Buddies: a Photo History of Male Affection and the pictures ended up being widely shared on social media.

friendsportrait2

What is so compelling about these pictures is not only the performance of masculinity portrayed, but the fact that intimacy in itself is so openly shared and displayed in a context that is not necessarily limited to the setting of family or romance. I had the realization that intimacy–and in particular physical intimacy, closeness and the possibility of touch–has declined in the last century among men and everybody else. Or to be more exact, it has been relegated to a handful of relationships, defined either by romance and family bonds, or, on the other end of the spectrum, by market value (sex work, massage, physical therapy, contact improvisation, etc.). I realized that we are witnessing, under capitalism, the erosion (or maybe I should say the enclosure) of intimacy.

As it turns out, intimacy is one of those hard to define areas of the common that make the reproduction of oneself and of each other possible. As Toni Negri and Michael Hardt write in Commonwealth: “This Common is not only the earth we share but also the languages we create, the social practices we establish, the modes of sociality that define our relationships.”1 Negri and Hardt continue, writing: “This form of the common does not lend itself to a logic of scarcity as does the first.”2

On the contrary, I believe that intimacy, together with other social and intellectual practices that are necessary for the reproduction of our collectivity, is being appropriated today by the capitalist machine and, in the same movement, transferred from the collective sphere to that of the nuclear unit and from the sphere of reproduction to that of the market economy.

The problem here is that the definition of social reproduction is still rather blurred. At the same time, in recent years, both the concept itself —  the areas in which it takes place and what is considered common — have been redefined and expanded, with a continuous movement and a constant creation of the common on one side and, in response, a continuous expansion of the process that can be  described as enclosure on the other.

The process of enclosure, “not only of communal lands but also of social relations,”3 can be redefined as a process that aims not only at the accumulation of capital and resources but, more importantly, at creating political paralysis and dependence, reducing workers’ ability to negotiate and cutting off the possibility of freely accessing forms of self-sustenance.

Self-sustenance, of course, does not refer exclusively to the material reproduction of oneself. More than just food and shelter go into the maintenance of our life. Emotional and intellectual nurturing are just as necessary and are usually provided in ways that are hard to measure, primarily by women and especially by mothers. This form of nurturing is continuously being transferred from the collective and public sphere to that of the private household or the medical institution.

Important in this respect is a particular definition of the concept of social reproduction that has to do with the necessity of reproducing one’s own identity. From the point of view of political organizing, this is an essential aspect, especially if we consider the difficulty of reproducing ourselves and our collectivity as a revolutionary one.

Apparently, the capitalist machine has understood the centrality of this activity, or set of activities, since, as Tiqqun argues,4 it responded by appropriating those areas of reproduction that have to do with the self, to promote what has been a largely successful and market oriented project of identity engineering. This is what Tiqqun calls “the anthropotechnical project of Empire”5 In essence, “At the beginning of the 1920s, capitalism realized that it could no longer maintain itself as the exploitation of human labor if it did not also colonize everything that is beyond the strict sphere of production.”6

At the core of this project is the necessity to reify the space  where our social relationships take place, those we establish with others as well as those we entertain with ourselves. In order to accomplish the task of self-valorization and reification (i.e. of assigning a value to oneself and each other), capital must annihilate intimacy. As Tiqqun puts it, “The Young-Girl would thus be the being that no longer had any intimacy with herself except as value.”7

This has devastating consequences not only on the existential level — in the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us  and in the moral choices that inform our everyday actions — but on the political level as well. It literally unmakes our attempts at creating a sustainable resistance and a revolutionary movement. In fact, exactly because political organizing cannot and does not subsist without a strong investment in personal relationships, the inability to relate intimately with each other produces political paralysis.

The Implosion of Movements of Resistance

In an article that I translated into Italian a couple of years ago entitled “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons,”  Silvia Federici makes a claim that shifts the focus on social reproduction from a question of ideological and analytical correctness to one of strategic necessity, arguing that political movements that fail to create new forms of social reproduction are destined to be reabsorbed into the mechanism of the capitalist system.

In other words, Federici suggests that our attempts at revolution are doomed unless we find a way to transform the sphere of reproduction in revolutionary ways — ways that would include the reproduction of the social collectivity and  not only of the single household. This requires a process of collectivization that would allow us, among other things, to overcome the division of labor based on gender and race.

In most industrialized and/or patriarchal societies, the prevailing model is that of a collectivity divided into modules or single reproductive units. Usually these take the form of households or families,  constructed around normative regulatory principles: the men (or those individuals who assume a male role) are responsible for providing essential resources, by exchanging them for labor power in the places allocated for production (the production units: factories, offices, farms, the digital world, etc). The women (or those who assume female roles), beside increasingly providing material resources in exchange for their labor, are also expected to engage in activities that fall under the sphere of reproduction: activities of care, physical and emotional support, mediation and conflict resolution among members of the family, sex work, the socialization of children, the transmission of customs and traditions, etc.

Traditional feminist struggles in the west focused largely on fighting  for the access of women into the sphere of  production (the labor force) with very little leverage upon the way families are organized. The result of these struggles has been disappointing on several levels: if it’s true that some women, mostly white middle class women, were able to gain a certain amount of independence and personal liberties, this has been accomplished at a high cost. Women still largely perform those jobs that can be considered an extension of reproductive activities and that increasingly have been enclosed and transformed into value-generating activities: care work in general like teaching, sex work, nursing, human resources, therapy in all its forms, and the care of children and the elders.

Those relatively few women who succeed in establishing a stable career in  traditionally male dominated fields (academia and the intellectual world in general, engineering and sciences, the medical field, administration  and management, etc.) still earn considerably less than their male counterparts, under worse conditions. In  addition they are still expected to perform a certain amount of care-work both on the workplace and for their family, resulting in an unsustainable amount of working hours. In this way, women often find themselves unable to devote time to research, personal development, or artistic and vocational endeavours, and are faced with hard choices. Either they decide to identify completely with their career as defined by capitalist standards — and delay or forgo the establishment of significant relationships — or they partially abandon it when they decide to have children. In addition, many women are today faced with a sort of “Sophie’s choice”: in a situation where their male partner often has a better chance at higher wages, full-time stable employment and career advancement, reproducing him and his capacity for labor presents a better chance for survival than focusing on their own aspirations and ambitions.

Another development related to the entrance of women into the labor force has been a process wherein large portions of reproductive work has been farmed out, in exchange for meager wages, to the most vulnerable sectors of society, in particular, women of color, single mothers, undocumented immigrants or even the proletariat of entire countries where workers are unprotected by unions or favorable legislation.

Most importantly, this entireprocess has proven unable to create any significant change in the basic constitution of the family and, at the same time, has not generated a coherent feminist critique of the capitalist system of production. It has evolved as a struggle for inclusion, with little or no questioning of the system in which women were to be included and with little or no awareness of the process of exclusion that is implied and makes possible any incorporation in an exclusive order.

The economic emancipation of women could be accomplished instead by concentrating changes at the point of reproduction, in particular, by transferring traditional female responsibilities, like the care of children and elders,  from the single woman in the context of a family/household to the collectivity (neighborhood, village, town). This would make women less dependent from their male kins and less isolated and it would help create a network of solidarity and reciprocal protection among women.

In fact, in those societies where reproductive work is performed collectively, the division of labor based on gender often seems to be less pronounced.  From Federici, we learn that this was the predominant model in the pre-capitalist servile communities of the middle ages:

… since work on the servile farm was organized on a subsistence base, the sexual division of labor in it was less pronounced and less discriminating than in a capitalist farm. In the feudal village no social separation existed between the production of goods and the reproduction of the work-force; all work contributed to the family’s sustenance. Women worked in the fields in addition to raising children, cooking, washing, spinning and keeping an herb garden; their domestic activities were not devalued and did not involve different social relations from those of men, as they would later, in a money economy, when housework would cease to be viewed as real work. […] in medieval society collective relations prevailed over familial ones, and most of the task that female serfs performed […] were done in cooperation with other women.8

Conversely,  an exclusive strategic focus by revolutionaries on the realm of production creates a situation of impasse, by which movements of resistance end up being reabsorbed into the traditional system of values and its attendant social dynamics.

Federici offers two opposite examples of this mechanism. In the first one, we are taken back to the Great Depression and to the movement of the hobos. Hobos were mostly unemployed men or day laborers who lived a nomadic life, hopping trains and moving constantly. Nevertheless the hobos developed a form of collective living, the hobo jungle, with an internal system of administration, including a juridical process, an exclusive system of communication and a moral code.

But because the hobos were unable to develop beyond a mere masculine society, with the exceptional and sporadic participation of a few women who were kept at the margins, it was easy and, in a certain sense, unavoidable for them to be reabsorbed into the traditional functioning of the capitalist system. The traditional society, with its allure of the dream of a home and family was able to constitute a strong motivation for re-entering the labor force when the market needed it, exactly because the jungle was unable to offer any viable alternatives.

As Federici writes:

… but for a few Boxcar Berthas, this was predominantly a masculine world, a fraternity of men, and in the long term it could not be sustained. Once the economic crisis and the war came to an end, the hobos were domesticated by the two great engines of labor power fixation: the family and the house. Mindful of the threat of working class recomposition during the Depression, American capital excelled in its application of the principle that has characterized the organization of economic life: cooperation at the point of production, separation and atomization at the point of reproduction. The atomized, serialized family house that Levittown provided, compounded by its umbilical appendix, the car, not only sedentarized the worker but put an end to the type of autonomous workers’ commons that hobo jungles had represented.9

The second example Federici offers is that of the Sem Terra in Brazil. The Sem Terra are a movement of landless peasants, active to this day, who aim at occupying and eventually expropriating unproductive land in Brazil. The first recorded organized occupation goes back to 1980/1981 and included 6000 households on three estates in the State of Rio Grande del Sul.

The encampment, known as the Encruzilhada Natalino, took the shape of a village, and revolved around the self-sustenance of its families, where reproductive work was, for the most part, collectivized. The Sem Terra also embrace a nonhierarchical form of organization, without any clear-cut leadership and where every unit elects two representatives, a man and a woman, for the Nucleo de Base and the regional assembly.

Federici reports that when the peasants of the Encruzilhada were finally able to expropriate the land and build their own houses on it, the women demanded that the houses included common areas, and especially common kitchens, so that they could continue collectivizing the work and protecting each other from the violence of men.

New Theories of Social Reproduction

Federici’s argument, as well as other recent developments in the theory of social reproduction, suggest that we need to reconsider the classic Marxist definition.

There is a remarkable increase in the volume and the variety of discourse on social reproduction, which points to the fact that the emphasis on its importance has intensified  notably. At the same time, however, it seems that the inherent meaning of this concept still escapes us. Furthermore, social reproduction continues to be treated largely as an ancillary problem in the larger plan for revolution and resistance.

In classic Marxist terms, production coincides with  the sphere of proper  economic activity while reproduction with all the  work necessary to create and re-create the conditions that make production possible.10 In this way, reproduction is described as a relative term, which exists only in relation to production and in order to guarantee its functioning. Furthermore, it is a limited and insufficient definition which does not reflect the variety of activities that should be included.

In the traditional feminist perspective, social reproduction is defined as all that is necessary to create and maintain life, related or unrelated to the sphere of production:

…feminists use social reproduction to refer to activities and attitudes, behaviours and emotions, responsibilities and relationships directly involved in the maintenance of life on a daily basis, and intergenerationally. Among other things, social reproduction includes how food, clothing, and shelter are made available for immediate consumption, the ways in which the care and socialization of children are provided, the care of the infirm and the elderly, and the social organization of sexuality. Social reproduction can thus be seen to include various kind of work – mental, manual, and emotional – aimed at providing the historically and socially, as well as biologically, defined care necessary to maintain the existing life and to reproduce the next generation.11

In a more recent reading, proposed by Endnotes, reproduction is all the work we do that doesn’t participate directly in the market economy and does not directly produce profit. Reproduction would then be the Indirectly Market Mediated Sphere (IMM) to use a definition proposed in the 3rd issue of Endnotes:

Because the existing concepts of production and reproduction are themselves limited, we need to find more precise terms to designate these two spheres. From now on we will use two very descriptive (and therefore rather clunky) terms to name them: (a) the directly market-mediated sphere (DMM); and (b) the indirectly market-mediated sphere (IMM).12

Nevertheless, what exactly constitutes this work is not yet entirely clear.

In Caliban and the Witch, Federici, when talking about the transition from slavery to serfdom which marks the beginning of the Middle Ages from an economic point of view writes:

The most important aspect of serfdom, from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the master-servant relation, is that it gave the serf direct access to the means of their reproduction. In exchange for the work which they were bound to do on the lord’s land (the demesne), the serf received a plot of land (mansus or hide) which they could use to support themselves.13

I use this distinction between demesne and mansus as a metaphor and say that the work on the village garden (the mansus)  represents the sphere of reproduction, while the work on the lord’s garden (the demesne)  is the sphere of production. It then becomes clear that the same set of activities can be considered production when included in a relationship of exchange/value and reproduction when not.

Again, in the third issue of Endnotes, we read:

These necessary non-labour activities do not produce value, not because of their concrete characteristics, but rather, because they take place in a sphere of the capitalist mode of production which is not directly mediated by the form of value. […] Indeed, the same concrete activity, like cleaning or cooking, can take place in either sphere: it can be value-producing labour in one specific social context and non-labour in another.14

The only distinguishing factor that  can be identified is that production creates value while reproduction does not.

Accepting  this definition makes it possible then to  understand enclosure as the process of transforming or transferring not only material resources but also entire areas of reproduction into the production sphere, by assigning them a market value.

There is a reason, however, why the task of defining the field of social reproduction always eludes us: more than a container with fixed boundaries (a sphere), it should be considered a process, a continuously changing one, which expands and contracts both in response to its own internal dynamics, and under the pressure of the continuous attempts at enclosing it on the part of the capitalist machine. As Endnotes argues:

Terms like the “reproductive sphere” are insufficient …, because what we are trying to name cannot be defined as a specific set of activities according to their use-value or concrete character.15

What concerns us should rather be understanding the underlying mechanisms of social reproduction and, in this context, especially those related to the replication of the traditional values of hierarchy and domination.

Social reproduction is, to this day, a process rooted in a dynamic of power, largely functioning through a division of labor that falls along gender and race lines.

Federici writes:

According to this new social-sexual contract [the one that resulted from the enclosure of commons and the division of labor] proletarian women became for male workers the substitute for the land lost to the enclosures, their most basic means of reproduction , and a communal good anyone could appropriate and use at will. […] In the new organization of work every woman (other than those privatized by bourgeois men) became a communal good, for once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women’s labor began to appear as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.16

The Unseen Impact of Social Reproduction on Revolutionary Movements

In fact the repetition of patriarchal modes of relations is at the core of the sclerotization of many radical movements precisely when they presuppose a pyramidal organization that mimics and replicates many aspects of the sphere of production. This includes an ethic largely based on the process of self-identification with production-based labor and a set of personal values based on power and dominance, rather than on the social and emotional charge necessary to build and reproduce durable relationships. It also includes the accumulation and display of male power, as opposed to the construction of collective power.

Emblematic in this sense is the case of the Black Panther Party, which focused its strategy in large part on the area of social reproduction. The BPP school and breakfast programs, as well as their focus on self-defense from police harassment and brutality, constituted an approach, in many ways revolutionary, that made social reproduction both its target and its area of recruitment. This strategy, nevertheless, did not affect the internal functioning of the party itself. In fact, patriarchal characteristics inside the party were evident in the emphasis on male identity and the performance of masculinity, as well as, in the role assigned to women in the party.

The patriarchal practices contained in  the internal dynamics of the BPP, as documented in the biographies of several of its female cadres and sympathizers, such as Angela Davis, Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown, were certainly one of the factors that contributed to its demise, transforming it from a force focused on the construction of collective power to one focused on the accumulation and execution of male power.

It is well known, for instance, that when Huey Newton returned from exile in Cuba, he swiftly rid the party of the women in key positions of leadership, among them Elaine Brown, who was at the head of the party during his absence, and Regina Davis and Ericka Huggins, who managed the party school in Oakland. His argument, according to the account contained in A Taste of Power by Elaine Brown, was that the men in the party were feeling restless and emasculated and had expressly requested that the women “would be put back in their places.”

A week later, Ericka Huggins called me […]. Regina Davis, her assistant, had been hospitalized as the result of a severe beating, her jaw broken. The Brothers had done it. […] I called Huey. […] he had indeed given his authorization for Regina’s discipline. I explained to Huey exactly who Regina Davis was, as I was sure he had no idea. Regina held together the proudest of our programs, our school. Without the recognition of Central Committee membership, she had worked more than fifteen hours of every day of every week for the past two years. I emphasized that Regina managed the teachers, cooks, maintenance people, and other personnel at the school. Regina planned the children’s daily activities, weekly field trips, health checkups. Regina oversaw menus, and food and materials purchases. Regina communicated with parents and other schools as to the status of current students, former students, and prospective students. “She is the fucking school,” I said.

[…] The women were feeling the change, I noted. The beating of Regina would be taken as a clear signal that the words “Panthers” and “comrade” had taken on gender connotations, denoting an inferiority in the female half of us. Something awful was not only driving a dangerous wedge between Sisters and Brothers, it was attacking the very foundation of the party.

[…] He did not respond for a long time. “You know, of course, that I know all that,” he said finally, softly, thoughtfully. “But what do you want me to do about it? The Brothers came to me. I had to give them something.”17

The necessity to reassert a forever uncertain notion of masculinity catapulted the party itself into a spiral in which the compulsion to antagonize and dominate its own members and the entire community in its territory resulted in the almost total estrangement of the leadership from its base.

While it’s certainly true that the relentless attacks by COINTELPRO were historically the main factor in the eventual disintegration of the party, we can also say that, at the same time, the BPP collapsed because its focus shifted from that of organizing and empowering its community to that of self-survival and the reification of its own internal power.

I recalled a conversation I had with several of the Brothers one night […]. We have the guns and the men, they had boasted. We could take what we want from the Establishment. […] They wanted so little from our revolution, they had lost sight of it. Too many of them seemed satisfied to appropriate for themselves the power the party was gaining, measured by the shining illusion of cars and clothes and guns. They were even willing to cash in their revolutionary principles for a self-serving “Mafia.”18

It is necessary here to emphasize that in no way am  I trying to suggest that the BPP was unique in reiterating gender dynamics that reproduce the same oppressive pattern of dominion that we can find in the Capitalist/Patriarchal society at large. On the contrary, what makes the case of the BPP so relevant is exactly the fact that, even given its internal contradictions,  so much of its strategy was focused not in the place of production (workers organizing, strikes and so on) but in the sphere of reproduction, (the neighborhood, the school, the street).

I consider gender and race oppression to be a prevalent characteristic  that historically affected and still plagues most revolutionary movements and that creates a situation of impasse in our attempts at bringing change. I also believe these practices of male dominance to be founded, among other things,  on a series of errors in the analysis and definition of the dichotomy production/reproduction. I’m furthermore convinced these errors make it impossible to bring forth a critique of capitalism and market economy that could radically put into question its system of production and  waged labor.

Conclusions: Resisting Wage Slavery and  Reappropriating the Commons

We are experiencing today a massive process of enclosure in which more and more of our lives is swallowed up by the market economy and the system seems to have engaged in a project of totalitarian, capillary control. More and more aspects of our reproduction are being delegated to third parties, while our time is being freed in order to be devoted to a life of total production and consumption. Many activities that were traditionally part of the sphere of reproduction have now been assigned a market value; they are thus being transferred to areas of production and are executed by the most vulnerable people in our society.This new phase of accumulation and enclosure, however, doesn’t aim at the complete annihilation of the sphere of reproduction which, as a reservoir of unpaid labor, is essential for the survival of the system itself.

At the same time, we are witnessing the revival of campaigns proposing  family wages  or a basic guaranteed income – which see among its supporters Toni Negri and Michael Hardt. Alisa McKay claimed in “Rethinking Work and Income Maintenance Policy” that a basic income would be “a tool for promoting gender-neutral social citizenship rights,” while in Italy last year the parliament considered a proposal to implement salaries for all the work of care done inside the house.19 Demanding compensation for those activities that are now not considered labor seems necessary and even urgent, considering the misery and dependence in which millions of people, especially women, are made to live. If these people were to receive wages  for all that they now do as a form of reproduction of themselves and others,  they could emancipate themselves economically and politically. Moreover, these campaigns are often used to highlight an essential contradiction in the system: since capitalism is built upon the exploitation and appropriation of free work, it would necessarily collapse if all this work were to be adequately compensated.

However, that’s exactly why the ruling class will never concede, or at least not universally. The most we could possibly hope for, which is partially what’s happening, is that a handful of mostly white women, mostly living at the centre of the Empire will  be partially relieved from the slavery of unpaid labor, by the thousands of mostly black and brown women in those same countries or somewhere else on the planet.It’s unlikely that  the contradictions that exist in the areas of reproduction – namely the fact that it constitutes both work necessary for our survival and one of the places in our life where exploitation and dominion transpire in the deepest and most totalitarian way –  can be resolved by accommodating or even advocating for its complete absorption  into  the sphere of production; in other words by assigning a market value to all our activities.

This does not mean that we should  replicate capitalist schemes in the way we define and assign value to our work, to then relegate part of it  to a territory of devaluation or even utter invisibility. At the same time, the demand for a monetary compensation in exchange for all the activities that now fall outside of the realm of the market seems destined to fail or to be satisfied partially and by replicating the same kind of oppression along gender and race lines.

Trying to bring down the system by offering it slices of our life for total market control offers the illusion that, if all we did could be considered productive labor and be exchanged for wages, we would somehow be more free and happier. If only the ruling class would somehow, one day, be pressured enough to concede and pay us more, pay us for more! And yet our negotiating margins are getting everyday narrower, along with our possibility to access the resources we need for self-sustenance.

This strategy also creates a narrative that offers legitimacy to the status quo and ends up allowing it  to replicate itself: a continue struggle for inclusion into an exclusive system of privileges, with the argument that the urgency of the present situation doesn’t leave time and energy for more radical projects of revolution, has historically always ended with compromises that left out exactly those people whose living conditions were the most urgent.

Moreover, on the symbolic plane, this request could derail resistance from organizing around issues and strategies that have a more radical/revolutionary potential: resisting waged labor and reappropriating the common.In this sense, beside concentrating on reappropriating the means of production, it’s important to start talking about the necessity to reappropriate the means of our reproduction: essential resources like land, water, energy as well as time, public spaces, knowledge, information, etc.

The contemporary critique of capitalism could learn from theories and movements that in the past have advocated an organized resistance to waged labor. Frederick Douglass, looking back at his life as first a slave and then a waged worker, affirmed that:

Experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.20

Silvia Federici tells us that, since the dawn of Capitalism, poor people have resisted entering the workforce, so much so that anti-loitering and anti-vagrancy laws had to be introduced:

The image of a worker freely alienating his labor,or confronting his body as cap­ital to be delivered to the highest bidder, refers to a working class already molded by the capitalist work-discipline.  But only in the second half of the 19th century can we glimpse that type of worker…The situation was radically different in the period of primitive accumulation when the emerging  bourgeoisie discovered that the “liberation of labor-power” – that is, the expropriation of the peasantry from the common lands – was not sufficient to force the dispossessed proletarians to accept wage-labor….the expropriated peasants and artisans did not peacefully agree to work for a wage. More often they became beggars, vagabonds or criminals. A long process would be required to produce a disciplined work-force. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the hatred for wage  labor was so intense that many proletarians preferred the gallows rather than submit to the new conditions of work.21

The “disciplined work force” Federici is talking about is none but ourselves! Our labor culture seems to have fully embraced the values that support productivity, high performance and the display of good work ethics, to the point that our revolutionary imagination has been short circuited into an impossibility to name or consider alternatives to wages.

Yet, according to Helga Kristin, it was only at the end of the 19th century that unions abandoned the term “wage slavery,” and with it, the idea that one day wages could be completely abolished:

By 1890 … references to wage slavery in the rhetorical toolkit of North American labor leaders had all but disappeared, replaced by a much more pragmatic vision of labor politics, exemplified by the “living wage” campaign…22

Sam Gindin and Michael Hurley write in Jacobin that after WWII:

….a particular trade-off evolved that saw unions accept an emphasis on the price of labor power (wages and benefits) trumping workplace rights…The small but effective militant Communist minority that agitated for more radical directions was harassed and many were drummed not only out of their jobs but also their unions…In this way, post-war worker militancy was consequently channeled into the safer territory of individualized consumption.

…Quantitative demands overtook qualitative demands. Getting something more rather than something different became the watchword. A culture of consumerism came to dominate, characterized not so much by the understandable urge to meet daily needs and enjoy life, but to do so in competitive and individualistic ways that sidelined popular possibilities for collectively shaping the world and sharing equitably in humanity’s achievement.23

A strategy that focuses not only on more pay and better conditions in the short term but also on less work, resistance to the idea of “good work ethics” and even refusal  to engage in production altogether, could mean a switch where, instead of aiming exclusively at making the conditions in which production happens better for workers, the entirety of production would be questioned. Ideally production should be reabsorbed and coincide with the reproduction of ourselves and of our collectivity.


  1. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, Harvard University Press 2009, p. 139 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, Autonomedia 2004, p. 8 

  4. Tiqqun, Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl, Semiotext(e), intervention, series 12, 2007 

  5. Ibid, p 12 

  6. Ibid, p. 15 

  7. Ibid, p. 18 

  8. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation, Autonomedia, NY, 2004, p. 25 

  9. Silvia Federici, Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, op. cit. 

  10. Throughout this article I maintain a distinction between the terms work and labor. By  labor I intend waged labor as a form of alienated and exploited work. I use the term labor in relation to the sphere of production. When I talk about reproduction I use the term work, to emphasize that it is not work exchanged for money but work we do to reproduce and maintain ourselves. The only exception to this pattern is when I use the expression: division of labor. 

  11. Barbara Laslett and Johanna Brenner, Gender and Social reproduction: Historical Perspectives, Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 15, 1989, pp. 383-384. 

  12. Endnotes, The Logic of Gender, in Issue 3, Gender, Race, Class and other Misfortunes 

  13. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch,, Op. Cit. , 2004, p. 24 

  14. Endnotes, Issue 3, Gender, Race, Class and other Misfortunes 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, op. cit., p. 24 

  17. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power, A Black Woman’s Story, Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York, 1992, pp. 444-445 

  18. Ibid, p. 444 

  19. Alisa McKay, “Rethinking Work and Income Maintenance Policy: Promoting Gender Equality Through a Citizens’ Basic Income.” Feminist Economics 7 (1):, 97-118, 2001. 

  20. Philip S. Foner, Yuval Taylor, ed. Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Chicago Review Press, 2000, p. 676 

  21. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, op. cit., pp. 135-136 

  22. Helga Kristin,From Wage Slaves to Wage Workers: Cultural Opportunity Structures and the Evolution of the Wage Demands of Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, 1880-1900, Social Forces, 85, 1393–1411, March 1 2007 

  23. Sam Gindin and Michael Hurley, Less Work, More Power, in Jacobin, issue 18, summer 2015 

Author of the article

teaches Italian Studies at University of Pennsylvania, and is a member of the editorial collective at Viewpoint.