Silvia Federici: The joyful militancy of feminism

To share, the first of a series of reflections on contemporary feminism, in interviews, essays and so on, with the eighth of March, international women’s day as a feminist strike, in the foreground.

What follows is an interview with Silvia Federici, originally published with Lobo suelto (22/02/2020).

Feminism is the diamond tip of an international insurgency – Silvia Federici

Interview conducted by Victoria Furtado and Mariana Menéndez

While throughout the world the fourth feminist strike is being prepared in hundreds of meetings, activities and assemblies, listening to Silvia Federici is inspiring. In a stop in her travelling about the world, sharing keys of understanding and giving courage, Silvia met with us at her home in New York to discuss current feminist struggles, the popular revolts of recent months, the tensions of feminism with the left and the highlights of her latest book.

In recent years you have been traveling and in permanent contact with feminist comrades and feminist organisations in Latin America and Europe. How do you see the feminist struggle today?

It is a very important, a very particular, moment. Not only in Latin America, although it is more evident there; it is a time when the feminist movement is encountering, with all of its diversity, popular struggles, social movements that, since the 1980s, have grown in response to structural adjustment, to extractivist politics, to neoliberalism. This encounter arises from a very powerful concrete situation, which is that all of these politics have had an impact on women and the reproduction of life. Therefore women are at the forefront, not only as victims of dispossession but also as fighters, as protagonists of the resistance. And in addition to leading the resistance, there was a need to to come to terms with the men of the movements, of organisations with gender mixed membership. And it is here that there is an encounter with feminism, that feminism makes its contribution felt.

A new feminism has been created, a feminism that I think is very powerful because it has an anti-capitalist outlook that recognises a whole history of oppression, that has a decolonising outlook. It is a movement that, at last, embraces all aspects of life. It is not a movement that focuses on work as it is traditionally understood, that is, linked to production, but that is concerned with the countryside, with the body, with what happens in the community. And it’s not just opposition, it is a movement that builds. I believe that this is its great strength, it is what has allowed it to grow during these last years, even though the wave of fascism, on the right, continues to grow. Feminism is growing because it is creating a new infrastructure that has never been seen in revolutionary movements dominated by men: all this creativity, the ability to recover traditional knowledge, to create affective links.

I believe that it is a movement that has very strong bases, so it continues to attract women who come from different places, such as in Argentina and Uruguay: from trade union organisations, the solidarity economy, indigenous comrades, peasants. This is a strength. The feminist movement is what carries the struggles today, in Latin America without a doubt, but this, in a different way, is also happening in other places.

Precisely, in recent months there were in Latin America a series of popular uprisings in defense of a decent, dignified life. Perhaps the clearest cases are Chile and Ecuador, but they are not the only ones. How can we read these processes of struggle from a feminist perspective that puts the reproduction of life at the center?

I believe that a feminist perspective is important exactly because of this, because it focuses on what is most fundamental, whether as a goal or as a condition of the struggle: the change in the reproduction of everyday life, of social reproduction – not only of domestic reproduction- in all places. Because reproduction means domestic work, sexuality, affectivity; it also means environment, nature, the countryside, agriculture, culture, education.

Feminism touches a very wide range of themes linked to the reproduction of life that are the foundation of any social change, which are the foundation of any struggle. There cannot be a successful struggle without changing these which are the most important aspects of life. That is why I believe that in these uprisings that have taken place in Chile, in Ecuador, the participation of women is very important; especially looking at the long term, looking at these movements not as a momentary rebellion that tomorrow is going to fall, but as movements that express a very deep revolt, that express a very deep “its enough” with this so unfair, so violent system. And thinking in the long term that the perspective and activities of women are fundamental.

These feminist struggles we are talking about, anti-capitalist or a popular feminism, care about a diversity of issues. They are interested not only in the problems of women but also in the set of social relations and with nature. However, many times the effort is made to place our voices of women in struggle as a part of it, as if we could only talk about women’s issues. In particular, this is a conflict with the left. How do you value the relationship between feminism and the left?

I think this is very fundamental, I think that the left doesn’t want to se it. Male interests blind men who project on women what their own situation is: it is they who represent only one part, a particular type of struggle. What seems important to me in the feminist movement is that it has opened its eyes and has discovered the entire universe of the reproduction of life. It is a movement that truly not only looks at the loves of workers, at the proletariat within capitalism, but also looks at the latter in its entirety. In the seventies, at the beginning, there was talk of reproduction as domestic work, but in the last three decades we have seen that reproduction is everything. It is cultivation, the seeds, the fields, health, education, upbringing, air quality, affective frameworks, etc.

The contribution of feminism has also been to point out inequalities, because capitalism is the production of scarcity, not the production of prosperity, and the production of inequalities. Capitalism produces not only commodities, but also divisions and hierarchies as its primary condition of existence. That is why feminism gives us a broader perspective, which is not sectoral but looks at the whole of life. Of course, we are talking about an anti-capitalist feminism, not a state feminism created by the United Nations and governments to recruit women for new forms of capitalist development. It is very important to clarify this because today there is also a state feminism, an institutional feminism. We are not talking about these feminisms.

Less than a month from the 8th of March, in many countries, stoppages, mobilisations and actions are being prepared. What are the challenges facing the next feminist strike and, more generally, to keep this time of struggle open?

For me the most important thing is always the process, not the date, but the construction process. March 8 is the manifestation of what has been done, it is a very important symbolic moment, but the most important thing is what is built in the process of contacting women who, although they often have common interests, do not meet, process of creating new spaces. It is also a time to deepen what we want.

Thus, on the one hand, to create concretely new forms of organisation, new spaces, because space is fundamental, to have places where we can meet. On the other hand, the programme, what we want, because we still have many things to define. For example, there is still very little talk in feminism about childhood, which is for me today tragic; childhood is in a situation of very deep crisis. We need to articulate our program more, whether in the form of opposition to what is being done, or in the form of construction, of understanding what we want, what kind of society and relationships we want. And, as always, the third objective is to overcome the divisions of all kinds that still exist among women: racial, sexual diversity, of age between young and old, etc. This is a very important objective because divisions and hierarchies are what weaken us the most and the most powerful weapon they have to create new conflicts, to show that we have different interests, to make our energies disperse in sectarian struggles between us.

Since you mention it, how do you see inter-generational relationships in the feminist movement?

I am optimistic because I have traveled a lot and I see that in Spain, in Argentina or right here in New York, young women come to my talks. I am seventy-seven years old and in my presentations the majority, eighty percent are very young women, nineteen, twenty years old. It seems to me that there is a desire to connect. In the seventies, in mixed movements, it was said “never trust anyone who is over thirty years old”. Well, I can understand why, but fortunately that does not happen now with feminism.

There is a desire to understand, to connect with older people. However the problem of the elderly is still only touched upon very superficially. Today the elderly, and especially older women, live a very strong crisis. Many of them worked all their lives helping men to live and die, and when they need help because they can’t work anymore, they have no resources because most of their lives have been spent working without any gain. In the United States, older women are the ones who mostly populate state shelters. They are truly tragic situations, especially for those who are not self-sufficient, who often live in terrible conditions. I believe that this, like the situation of childhood, has not been sufficiently problematised in the feminist movement. Although the movement brings together women of various ages today, it is still a problematic that must be included. Because if we talk about violence, the economic and emotional misery in which so many older women live is a form of violence.

The feminist struggle is been very strong in many parts of the world, but at the same time there is a breakthrough, conservative at best, directly fascist in others. How do we make a feminist reading of this process?

If we put this violence today in the context of the twentieth century, without going to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, we can see that capitalism, in any of its recent stages of development, has always been very violent: two world wars in which nearly fifty million died, mass torture as a system of dominance in Latin America since the sixties, all of the wars that both democratic and republican governments of the United States have promoted, etc. I think it is important to contextualise this so as not to think that it is a novelty, to see that, especially when it feel threatened, harassed, capitalism needs to deploy this violence.

And today capitalism feels threatened. First, because for years they have complained that the level of profit is not enough, that it is therefore a capitalism in crisis. Secondly, because there is an advance, because feminism is the diamond tip of an international insurgency. They are years and years of continuous insurgency. From the Arab spring to today, it is an insurgency that always needs more torture, war, imprisonment. Therefore I see all of this violence as an answer which is not new, but is rather the usual response of capitalism that feels itself in crisis, that feels that its foundations are in danger and which faces international movements that, without being coordinated, have the same themes. Because from Brazil to Chile, through Ecuador, Lebanon, Haiti, there is resistance to impoverishment, misery, police and state violence.

It is no accident that when the comrades in Chile said “the rapist is you”, with great courage, because doing this in Chile is not the same as doing it in other countries, this circulated immediately. This internationalisation and immediate circulation of questions, objectives, slogans, forms of organization, tells us that there is an insurgency, a saying “it’s enough” that is very general. I think that the Bolsonaros and all these church and economic initiatives are a response. You cannot impose brutal austerity, a brutal dispossession for years and years, expel millions of people from their land, without organising an enormous apparatus of violence.

Beyond the Periphery of the Skin

Beyond the periphery of the skin, your latest book(1), has just been published. There you oppose a notion of body as it has been thought of by capitalism – that is, as a working machine and, in the case of women, as a procreating machine -, with the body as it has been conceived by collective radical imagination, particularly by feminism in the nineteen seventies. What does the body mean today as a category of social and political action?

I like the idea of body-territory because it immediately gives us a collective image. Not only because it is the first place of defense and connects the discourse of the body with the discourse of the earth, of nature, but because it puts forward the discourse of the body as a collective issue. So, the discourse of the body is about who governs who, over who has the power to decide over our lives.

I think that this is one of the fundamental questions, one of the basic questions in the struggle. Because there is a state that wants to control every minute, not just at work. In the case of women, it invades our body, our daily reality, in an increasingly intense and more oppressive way than in the case of men. The abortion problem is very exemplary. So I think that thinking about the body from a feminist perspective today is particularly crucial in determining who has the possibility of deciding over our life.

The body means life, it means reproduction, it means affectivity. Everything surrounds the theme of the body: food, sex, parenting, procreation. So the fight for the body is the fight for the most fundamental aspects of life. That is why I think that it surprises so many women with such a strong intensity, because it is here where who commands our lives is decided; is it us or the state?

But you emphasize reclaiming the body collectively, in regaining the capacity for collective decision over our lives …

Yes, collective ability, absolutely. Alone we are defeated. That is why you have to leave the house, for the struggle. Not for work, but to leave the house for the struggle, to leave the house to gather together, to leave the house to confront all of the problems that we have alone.

The idea of going beyond the periphery of the skin has to do with postulating an expansive notion of the body. For that you discuss the expansive body as conceived by Bakhtin, which expands through the appropriation and intake of what is beyond it, and you propose an equally expansive idea but of a radically different nature. You speak of a “magical continuity” with other living organisms and of a body that brings together what capitalism has divided. In that sense, would the body be the starting point for thinking about interdependence?

I do not think of a body that wants to appropriate itself, but a body that wants to connect itself. It doesn’t want to eat the world, it wants to connect with the world. The view of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of the rebirth on the body, did not understand it as something completely isolated; it was not an island, but instead, it was open. It could be affected by the moon, the stars, the wind. This body is expansive because it is not separated from the air, from the water. And it is also intimately connected with the body of others. The experience of love and sex is exemplary, but it is not the only one that shows how we are continually affected and our body changes. The tradition of the evil eye, for example, has to do with the fact that others can make you suffer, or they can make you happy, they change you.

We cannot think of the body as the capitalists think of it, as science thinks of it today, that is, as a body that is completely a machine, which is an aggregate of cells, and each cell has its program, each gene has its program; in these instances, it is ceases to be something organic. My view and my intent is to promote a vision of the body that goes exactly in the opposite direction of the view that dominates today in science. Increasingly, attempts are made to isolate the body into small pieces, each with its own characteristic. It is a fragmentation. I think of fracking, today when scientists think of the body they engage in a kind of epistemological fracking that disintegrates the body.

For me, the body must reconnect with animals, with nature, with others. This is the way for our happiness and bodily health. Precisely because unhappiness includes the enclosure of the body. There is an enclosure not only of the earth, as I have written in The Caliban and the Witch, but also of bodies. Increasingly they make us feel that we cannot depend on others, that we have to be afraid of others. This exasperated individualism, which has been accentuated with neoliberalism, is truly miserable. It makes us die, because it is a life conceptualised in the name of fear, of dread, instead of seeing that the relationship with others is a great enrichment.

The last text of the book, On Joyful Militancy, is especially beautiful. There you oppose two ideas of militancy: a joyful militancy, which makes us feel good and connects with our desires, versus a sad politics and militancy.

For me, sad militancy is a militancy that has no future, but it exists. I believe that the militancy dominated by men is a sad militancy, it is a militancy as alienated work, it is a militancy where one thinks “I should go to another meeting” as one who thinks “I should go to work”. It is that comrade who feels historical submission, does not like it, has no enthusiasm for it, it does not give her/him anything, but s/he does it as a duty, as an obligation. This is not to build another society.

You can take risks, but that is different. Sometimes you take risks because doing so gives you something, it changes your life. But it changes you now, not in the future, not in twenty years maybe, it changes you now. For me this is building a new world. It’s not just about saying “no.” Life changes in the way we begin to interact differently with other people and discover things about ourselves. Because we change, making different relationships we change. And I think that life is so sad for most people in the world that they will not add further sadness to it, they prefer to die at night watching television instead of going to a meeting where everything is pain or boredom.

The feminism that we are calling a politics of desire would be something of the antithesis of this sad militancy …

Exactly. And it is creativity, creativity of militancy. I have experienced this deeply because I remember the difference I saw, in a few years, when women left movements with men, mixed movements. The women then changed like this (turning the palms of her hands). They started talking, singing, creating, sketching. It was like an explosion of incredible creativity! Before they did all of the domestic work in organisations. So much domestic work has been done in the movements with men! And finally it was very different, it became a pleasure.

  1. Federici, Silvia. 2020. Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism. Oakland, PM Press.
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