The Politics of the Commons: Silvia Federici

A political demand/action must be judged not only from the perspective of its goal, but also, and more fundamentally, from its capacity to generate unity and organizational potential among those who challenge and struggle against capitalism.

This statement was proffered by Silvia Federici during a talk in the fitting space of the publishers and bookshop Traficantes de Sueños, in Madrid, on May 16th and served as the central idea around which she presented her work, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, recently published in Spanish.

Federici’s work is today something that has developed over some time. Intellectually, she is a child of the 1960s and 70s and she shares with many of her generation a rich work dedicated to critically re-thinking the nature of capitalism. Federici’s undoubtedly most significant contribution in this regard has been in crossing a Marxist inspired criticism of capitalism with feminism, by placing reproduction at the heart of capitalist relations of production.

For Federici, this called for a concern with the domestic reproduction of life, the production and reproduction of the working class necessary to capitalism. But as the labour of reproduction lies outside the system of surplus value extraction, of exploitation, capitalism depends upon, and is first and foremost, a system of devaluation and of appropriation of life (human and non-human) and of the processes /relations of its reproduction, necessary for capitalist accumulation.

The hierarchies of salary which divide the working class are thus supplemented by hierarchies between salaried labour and non-salaried processes of reproduction. And as the reproduction of the working class takes place in what is ostensibly the “private sphere”, women’s domestic labour would suffer naturalization and exploitation through appropriation; a form of oppression necessary to maintain the overall low cost of labour power on the market. (It would be in this same “private space” that the modern, feminine notions of woman would be constructed).

It was against this reading of women within capitalist social relations that Federici, along with others, would defend in the 1970s a public salary for domestic work (and not exclusively for domestic women’s work). Such a salary was conceived of as a means to subvert the sexual division of labour that is central to the capitalist mechanisms of hierarchisation, accumulation and exploitation, and thereby potentially broadening and radicalizing the struggle against capitalism.

The globalisation that begins in the 1980s transforms the ways and processes of capitalist domination, changing, intensifying, shifting and relocating, inventing, new means of exploitation. Understood by Federici as a politics of appropriation and/or recuperation of control over processes of primitive accumulation, in response to weakened capitalist exploitation resulting from the plurality of anti-capitalist movements of the 1960s and 70s, capitalism’s reproduction comes to rely increasingly on expropriation: of land, water, forests, human relations through an increasing mobilisation of the means of exploitation, debt, privatization, the liberalization of the movement of capital and war. The accompanying “proletarianisation” and pauperisation of increasingly larger numbers of the world’s population is thus secured by what is essentially an expropriation of peoples’ commons: the conditions necessary for human life, both material and social. Capitalism divides, separates us, from domains of nature, human relationships, social wealth, in sum, all that is essential to social reproduction. It extends equally into the “private” space of domesticity, transforming human family and community life into exploitable relations. The consequence is a generalised crisis of reproduction, with well being ever more a privilege of the few.

A politics of the commons, of its defense and creation, is accordingly a politics of re-appropriation of the conditions and means of reproduction; an occupation of what has been expropriated for purposes of exploitation. Capitalism is incapable, structurally, of offering, providing for, human happiness. A revolutionary politics of the commons for Federici directly contests this structure, through the collectivisation of the means of production and reproduction in the hands of autonomous, self-governing communities of equals.

An interview with Silvia Federici at Madrid’s Traficantes de Sueños

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