Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A MF Response to Silvia Federici's "Wages Against Housework" (1975)

Since my self-identified women only feminist discussion group explored the text, several folks have expressed an interest in my response to Silvia Federici's "Wages Against Housework" (Power of Women Collective and Falling Wall Press, 1975). Here is a link to the complete text: Here is my analysis:

1.) This is a fun read. It's short and powerful while making a very strong case for the importance of earning wages for housework. Federici strategically and successfully uses "cunt" and  "fucking" to jar and challenge readers and to emphasize the sexual objectification of women through common gendered slurs. The opening epigrams are defiant; the essay comes out swinging:
"They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.
They call it frigidity. We call it absenteeism.
Every miscarriage is a work accident.
Homosexuality and heterosexuality are both working conditions…but homosexuality is workers’ control of production, not the end of work.
More smiles? More money. Nothing will be so powerful in destroying the healing virtues of a smile.
Neuroses, suicides, desexualization: occupational diseases of the housewife."

2.) Wages for housework is a wonderful idea. I stand in solidarity with and will fight side-by-side with anyone struggling for wages against housework. I accept Federici's premise that "...we are all housewives, we are all prostitutes and we are all gay, because until we recognise our slavery we cannot recognise our struggle against it, because as long as we think we are something better, something different than a housewife, we accept the logic of the master, which is a logic of division, and for us the logic of slavery. We are all housewives because no matter where we are they can always count on more work from us, more fear on our side to put forward our demands, and less pressure on them for money, since hopefully our minds are directed elsewhere, to that man in our present or our future who will 'take care of us'." I strongly agree with Federici's point that domestic laborers should be considered part of the workforce and should be able to organize for better conditions and eventually to revolt. Domestic labor is labor and should be considered by everyone and compensated as such.

3.) My idea of what constitutes a "revolutionary perspective" differs from Federici's. For her, revolutionary programs need not damage or seek to end capital, but only "attack[s] capital and force[s] it to restructure social relations in terms more favourable to us."* For me, revolutionary programs must absolutely damage and seek to overthrow capital. Therefore, while for Federici wages against housework is a revolutionary demand, for me it is a transitional at best, reformist at worst, demand. While it would undoubtedly ease the suffering of many working class women (and men) and perhaps strike a great blow to patriarchy, it would not destroy or even necessarily weaken capital.

4.) Federici's claim that wages for housework would promote class unity seems to be the most obvious advantage to a wages for housework program. Most of us are threatened with retaliation for organizing for better conditions at work, so would it not be an invigorating development for the working class to be able to come home after a long day of exploitation and discuss work complaints and demands with one's domestic partner? The resentment frequently caused by the friction between domestic labor (e.g. the domestic laborer feels taken for granted and doubly exploited if s/he also works outside of the home) and labor outside of the home (e.g. the laborer feels the pressure of providing for the partner who works at home) would likely be eased by the empowerment that comes with working class unity. Once the domestic laborer and the out-of-home laborer are both considered legitimate laborers, some part of the (social) division of labor dies, perhaps even resulting in some minor alleviation of alienation, and a new bond is formed between them. If both partners work outside of the home, then there will be a more equitable distribution of domestic chores between them because of the new status of domestic labor as paid/socially-contracted labor, as well as because of the blow to the heteronormative gender roles perpetuated by the patriarchy that require and train women to be responsible for cleanliness and chores.**

Federici makes fascinating points about the status of housework as unpaid labor. This is one of the most poignant paragraphs:
"But in the case of housework the situation is qualitatively different. The difference lies in the fact that not only has housework been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character. Housework had to be transformed into a natural attribute rather than be recognised as a social contract because from the beginning of capital’s scheme for women this work was destined to be unwaged. Capital had to convince us that it is a natural, unavoidable and even fulfilling activity to make us accept our unwaged work. In its turn, the unwaged condition of housework has been the most powerful weapon in reinforcing the common assumption that housework is not work, thus preventing women from struggling against it, except in the privatized kitchen-bedroom quarrel that all society agrees to ridicule, thereby further reducing the protagonist of a struggle. We are seen as nagging bitches, not workers in struggle."

5.) While I agree with Federici that "...housework is already money for capital...," I must side with Alexandra Kollontai on one of their other disagreements. Collectivized childcare and housework should be part of any revolutionary program.*** What a flamboyant straw man that Federici in her bombast has created! No one is promoting the jingoistic flag worship that she claims will be an inevitable result of state-run daycare. In fact, socialism is antithetical to jingoism; therefore, socialist programs, such as collectivized childcare, are also antithetical to jingoism. Socialism, as Marx conceived it, must be an international struggle, thereby making jingoism irrelevant and offensive (not to mention counterrevolutionary). No comrades will be forcing anyone's children to worship a flag.

Federici claims that collectivized daycare would result in a loss of control over workers' lives, with the state determining what children should learn and how they should be disciplined. However, in a socialist society, worker collectives (consisting of parents and domestic laborers) would determine the best practices for these communal care centers. If a worker genuinely fears that the all-powerful state will begin an insidious propaganda and indoctrination campaign against children, then that worker should become involved in the decision-making process surrounding childcare and housework (i.e. join the relevant collective). There will be no loss of worker control under collectivized childcare. In fact, the converse is true. Workers will be the only ones in control of raising and nurturing children under socialism. Once the fierce individualism bred by capitalism becomes passe, childcare can once again focus on raising the best possible people equipped to perpetuate the best possible society.

Housework under socialism absolutely must be collectivized. Imagine two scenarios:
a.) A worker spends eight hours (or less, depending on whether full employment has yet been accomplished) on the job. After work, the worker faces three hours of domestic chores.
b.) A worker spends eight hours on the job. During those eight hours, another worker has dusted, vacuumed, swept and mopped, washed and folded the laundry, cleaned the dishes, and cooked dinner. After their respective shifts, both workers return to clean homes, with no responsibility to conduct further labor.

As a full-time worker, it is apparent to me that choice a.) is the more desirable and more equitable choice because, paid or unpaid, housework after a long day at work is an undesirable burden. Collectivized housework allows both workers to contribute meaningfully to society then enjoy their leisure time unencumbered by the demands of a second job.

7.) I take issue with Federici's inexplicable negative characterization of the "career woman." She characterizes the struggle of the "career woman" as a meaningless one by using the word "worthwhile" sarcastically, then claims that women with careers do not utilize "unity and struggle" to achieve their goals and habitually oppress and exploit other women. While this might sometimes be the case, it is unfair to completely dismiss professional women who are only able to pursue a career as a direct result of feminist battles for maternity leave and workplace equality and who do not build their careers on the backs of other women.****

*The usual left communist argument could be made here: that wages for housework would somewhat ease the burden of living under capitalism, thereby resulting in a delay of revolution. While I am not prepared to support that argument (for is it not self-righteous and privileged--not to mention historically questionable--to suggest that workers should suffer more intensely in order to more swiftly bring about revolution? Do workers not historically fight against capital more effectively when they are well fed, properly clothed, and safely housed?), I do understand  its internal logic, while simultaneously marveling at its icy condescension.

**My analysis primarily addresses heterosexual relations of power under capital because that is Federici's primary focus although I would like to examine her occasional provocative comments about homosexuality and labor in a later post.

***The childcare currently in the US is privatized and run by underpaid, underqualified, disinterested (and often abusive) parties charging exorbitant fees or that are subsidized by a state that will not (and perhaps cannot) prioritize child care.

**** Under capitalism it is impossible to avoid building something on the back of some woman somewhere in the world. Therefore, "career women" do oppress other women. However, it is unfair to dismiss "career women" (while presumably allowing others a free pass) with a sneer because they participate in exploitation common to everyone who pays taxes and consumes goods in the imperialist US.

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