Part III: What is this thing called work?

Eleanor Ivory Weber

A note on the work of feminist writer, teacher and militant Silvia Federici (1942–). Federici was born and grew up in Italy, though has spent the majority of her adult life in the USA. Influenced by Italian autonomist Marxism, she was one of the founders of the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s, which remains one of the bedrocks of her work to this day. Though the context for gender and class struggle has shifted significantly in the last forty odd years, for example with the increasing casualisation (read: precarisation) of the workforce, Federici’s work continues to be highly pertinent to any consideration of the wage-relation, of gender’s role in economics, and to ideas of productivity under capitalism. In an essay from 1975 Federici writes:

‘To demand wages for housework is to make it visible that our minds, our bodies and emotions have all been distorted for a specific function, in a specific function, and then have been thrown back at us as a model to which we should all conform if we want to be accepted as women in this society.’[i]

The evocation of labour that is at once physical and affective is noteworthy. Federici and the other women in the International Feminist Collective argue that women’s work (cooking, cleaning, providing sex, looking pretty, raising children as good future-workers, etc.) needs to be recognised as essential to capital’s reproduction. They saw that granting this concealed labour a wage would render its inherent (economic) productivity visible, both to other members of society and to capital at large. This visibility would be crucial to demonstrating that the ‘care work’ women perform in the home is real work (i.e. exploitative work, work that contributes to the continued success of capital). Through visibility, change can commence.

Although there are aspects to this that sound dated in our post-Fordist times (of course, men cook, clean, have bad sex with their wives, have to look good, raise children, etc.), what Federici revealed in the mid-1970s is valuable to understanding contemporary wage and gender relations, notably what has been more recently termed the ‘feminisation’ of labour.[ii] Feminised, post-Fordist, affective, cognitive, semiotic, immaterial – whatever you like to say – labour: what these terms refer to is the deregulation of work, the decoupling of work, from a direct wage-time relation of the clock-in/-out of the mid-20th century. In other words, just as the US gold standard was removed in 1971, paving the way for financial capitalism and neoliberalism to reach new heights (lows) in debt~credit accumulation and exploitation, so too has work and human productivity become a site for speculation.

This is an old, and only too familiar, story for most creative workers. The charming adage of ‘investing in your own future’ starts to get a bit tired when one’s on the treadmill of endless internships with no job in sight, or in debt for exhibitions that are supposed to provide exposure to collectors. Working for free because you ‘love’ your work has become as pervasive and insidious an ideology as the idea that women are ‘naturally’ cookers, cleaners and nurturers.

Hence, to return to where we began with Federici, we need to make visible the connection between creative, affective work that consistently – structurally – goes unpaid, and the reproduction of capitalist relations of power and exploitation. Unless you really do believe we can all be profitable artist-entrepreneurs if only we get enough lines on the CV, returning to the citation above is worthwhile – and exchanging the words ‘house’ and ‘women’ for ‘creative’ proves a snack: ..:

‘To demand wages for creative-work is to make it visible that our minds, our bodies and emotions have all been distorted for a specific function, in a specific function, and then have been thrown back at us as a model to which we should all conform if we want to be accepted as creatives in this society.’

Which begs the question: what if we stopped working for free?

In any case, my hunch is that no-one’s getting rich any time soon. Instead, I hope we will ever more regularly ask ourselves whether creativity in capital’s terms (womanhood in capital’s terms…), is really creativity at all.

[i] Silvia Federici, ‘Wages against housework’ (1975), Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, PM Press, 2012.

[ii] Here I direct you to Antonella Corsani, ‘Beyond the myth of woman: the becoming trans-feminist of (post-)Marxism’, SubStance, vol. 36, No. 1, Issue 112: Italian Post-Workerist Thought, 2007 (trans. Timothy S. Murphy). And to Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman, Zero Books, 2009.

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