Building a Movement Against the War on Reproduction: Connecting with Silvia Federici
By Abigail SusikJune 23, 2023
Instead, Federici’s answer was neither limited to the issue of the ban on abortion rights in the United States nor preoccupied with the plight of paid and unpaid workers in the neoliberal economy after COVID-19 lockdowns. Her answer to Gago’s question about mass anxiety regarding human reproduction spoke, rather, to the question of the conditions of existence and survival for all people on a global scale, both in the present moment and into the future.
I call it a war—a war on people’s reproduction. Wherever you turn your eyes you can see that. […] I think the most visible evidence of this war is the massive migration movements that we see all over the world and the [ever-present] reality of refugee camps. Today […] the image of the worker is not the image of the person at the assembly line; it’s the immigrant. […] This […] has to do, I think, with [this broad] corporate move to basically take control, possession, of every important resource for the reproduction of people across the world. I think there is a plan, for example, to separate people from land, from access to independent means of reproduction, […] so that you’d have companies that will control all the soil, the subsoil, that will control the trees, the seas […]
Such a harrowing forecast encapsulates the fact that, although Federici is profoundly engaged with the sociopolitical struggles of women (in the broadest sense of that gender category), her target of ongoing critique is not limited to patriarchal violence and oppression. Rather, her work exposes the manipulations and contradictions within the by-now-venerable system of capitalism that endlessly replicate and augment such hegemonic structures. It is capitalism’s manipulation of workers as an expendable population—a reserve of wealth to be controlled and exploited for surplus value and profit like any other available natural resource—that Federici referred to when she described a war on human reproduction. According to her, this devaluation of life is a form of dispersed, atrocious violence. Capitalism’s exploitative forces “destroy the condition of existence, and […] impose lives that are non-lives,” she told the audience at NYU.
This is why, in Federici’s view, the overturning of abortion rights in the United States is not a stand-alone issue that can be combated in an isolated manner, separate from other oppositional causes. The need for access to abortion rights is, for her, intimately connected to myriad intertwined urgencies that impact people across multiple indicators of identity and institutionalization, such as gender, sexuality, race, class, age, and nationality. In her NYU conversation, for example, Federici referred to the international debt crisis as an “artificially created” instrument that launched “a war with financial mean[s]” to “change the fundamental condition of reproduction.” Harnessing nations and individuals with crushing debt is just another way of ensuring their submission to capitalism’s demands, which in turn affects the quality and purpose of human existence—the reproduction and sustainment of life itself.
Federici made it clear that women, and women’s reproduction (both in terms of biological reproduction and the toil of social reproduction), have always been and still are at the center of capitalism’s offensive against humanity’s capacity for independent survival. This is where the issue of abortion becomes crucial for Federici’s estimation of how the feminist movement could connect strategically to other reform and protest initiatives to coordinate a broader and more effective base of activism practiced by masses of people from all kinds of backgrounds.
“How do you degrade […] the everyday reproduction of life without first waging a war on women?” Federici asked the audience at NYU. “So to me, for example, the question of abortion is […] a much bigger issue, ” she continued, evoking the social complexity of the cause-and-effect cycle produced by the recent American campaign for forced pregnancy.
It’s not only that capitalism wants more workers. Right now, they have a lot of workers. […] The attack on abortion has a whole disciplinary effect, because it is an attack on women’s sexuality, on women’s autonomy. It’s a bonus given to […] patriarchal men who have been attacked in their wages. They have been attacked in their jobs, but they can feel [like] a boss in their home.
In other words, Federici clarified, activist struggles against abortion bans can only be successful if we collectively confront the myriad injustices wrought by capitalism across diverse populations, nationalities, and geographic regions—and if we comprehend it as part of an encompassing capitalist war on reproduction, a battle over who controls the conditions for existence.
When I called last month to talk with Federici about abortion bans and her thoughts concerning the capitalist devaluation of human life, these were the first words that she said to me: “My vacuum cleaner has swallowed a sock.”
Although we’ve been corresponding on and off about common interests in our work for about five years, it was our first conversation. This lag in our acquaintance was due in part to restrictions associated with the pandemic, but it was also because both of us had recently become caregivers dealing with arduous maintenance routines and intensive involvement with the medical industry. Federici’s partner, philosopher George Caffentzis, learned he had Parkinson’s disease a few years ago, and now Federici is busy with care work and most of the reproduction tasks in their lives. After a long struggle against infertility and a pregnancy with complications associated with advanced maternal age, compounded by risks from coronavirus, I gave birth to a son six months ago and have been exclusively breastfeeding since then.
Laughing about the devoured sock, Federici thanked the neighbor who dropped by her Brooklyn apartment to fix the vacuum and apologized to me for our difficulty in finding time to talk. She affably pointed out how appropriate it was that the timing of our conversation was determined and bracketed by unpaid social reproduction work—caregiving and housework—and indeed, I had to get off the call sooner than expected when I heard my son’s cries.
Our common care work aside, I initially got in touch with Federici in 2018 when I was conducting research for my book Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work (2021), which surveyed the international surrealist movement’s wage-labor abolitionism between the 1920s and the 1980s. I wanted to ask Federici about her memories of the Second Telos International Conference of radical thinkers and activists, an event that took place at SUNY Buffalo in 1971 and included speakers such as Herbert Marcuse, members of the Revolutionary Black Workers group, and representatives from the Italian ultra-leftist movement Lotta Continua. The Chicago Surrealists traveled to this symposium, meeting Marcuse and beginning an eight-year correspondence with him that centered on the idea of subverting the “performance principle”—Marcuse’s term for our internalized work ethic—to foster in its place the unbridled “pleasure principle.”
Federici didn’t interact with the Chicago Surrealist Group at the Telos summit, but her activist background was and still is shaped by participation in such gatherings, which sought to facilitate networks of solidarities among different factions of the New Left. Now in her early eighties, she was born and raised in Northern Italy during World War II. She moved to the United States on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1967, eventually emigrating and receiving her doctorate in philosophy from SUNY Buffalo in 1980. During the research for my book, it was fascinating to learn more about Federici’s life and studies in advance of her co-founding of the International Feminist Collective in 1972, and her well-known establishment of the first US chapter of the Wages for Housework campaign in 1974, with her collaborator, Nicole Cox.
Yet, my ultimate reason for contacting her was less about fact-checking historical details than about the impact her writings had upon me, an influence that is apparent everywhere in my book. Volumes such as her Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking, and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism, which was published by PM Press in 2020 just as I was finishing my manuscript, swayed my interpretation of the surrealist refusal of the wage-labor imperative and what I saw as their reformulation of the “work” of art as an anti-work sabotage tactic. Federici is familiar with writings by surrealists such as Franklin Rosemont, who attended the 1971 Telos summit, and she quotes a 1989 text by him from the journal Arsenal: Surrealist Subversion in her essay “Marx, Feminism, and the Construction of the Commons” (2013) when she discusses Marx’s late interest in precapitalist Indigenous societies. Several areas of her thought resonate with surrealist concerns, such as her discussion in Patriarchy of the Wage: Notes on Marx, Gender, and Feminism (2021) of the utopian socialism of the 19th-century French writer Charles Fourier, or her notion of a potential renewal of the joy of life through the revitalization of community in her 2018 book Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons.
Like so many others, I was most drawn to Federici’s lifelong engagement with the role of women in unpaid social reproduction, the area of her thought that has received by far the most attention. My book cites Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (2012), the second edition of which compiles essays about the gendered interrelation of paid and unpaid labor written between the mid-1970s and 2016, incorporating material from the Wages for Housework period and beyond. Federici’s historical study Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004), however, is the book that has attracted the widest audience and has contributed to her increasing visibility over the last decade, accounting for her renowned status today.
For instance, in 2021, The New York Times Magazine published Jordan Kisner’s front-page profile of Federici emphasizing the urgent relevance of her arguments during the coronavirus lockdown. Caliban and the Witch demonstrated how women’s autonomy was squelched by the European patriarchy in the transitional period between feudal societies and capitalism so that women’s domestic work and biological reproduction could be controlled and maximized for renewable value. Midwives, who were able to perform abortions and provide obstetric care, became common targets for witch hunts. Kisner insightfully points out that the continued legacy of such exploitation was starkly exposed under the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Black, Brown, and female “essential” workers, as well as unpaid domestic workers, faced impossibly dangerous or untenable working conditions.
In the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the reinstating of the ban on abortion rights in the United States, Federici’s ideas about the “enclosure” of women’s childbearing capacities and capitalism’s fundamental mission to repress women’s autonomy are, of course, all the more revealing. When we spoke about these issues, Federici characterized this war on reproduction as a “perverse” war of “vengeance” against women that is fundamentally linked to the capitalist attempt to subsume and profit from the reproduction of life, including the retainment of women as cheap labor.
Since many women think they can still get access to abortion through a pill in the mail or through travel to another state or another country, we are not seeing the same acute reaction as in former decades, she observed. Among the hypocrisies, she said, is the fact that “people don’t believe they are facing the same situation that women did in the 1970s, when you had to get backstreet abortions, or you went abroad, or you were forced to carry your pregnancy” to term.
“I always believed that, if abortion was blocked, there would be an insurrection,” she told me.
Since the insurrection hasn’t happened, I wanted to know, what’s next?
Over the course of our recent discussions focusing on the abortion ban and a general war on human reproduction, Federici argued that the struggle against the capitalist devaluation of human life will gain momentum if activists connect and broaden their base, so that a network of interrelated issues could build a stronger cause with more proponents. “A movement is not based on a single issue,” she told me. “A movement recognizes the connections between a wide array of problems.” Echoing her conversation with Verónica Gago at NYU in March, Federici detailed the way in which the abortion ban is one facet of a set of intricately intertwined phenomena, including indebtment, homelessness, and rising interest rates.
One of Federici’s examples of a movement that recognizes the connections between issues is the reproductive justice movement, which was spearheaded by African American feminists in the wake of the categorization of the fight for abortion access under the label of “choice” starting in the late 1970s. She explained:
In response to this conception of abortion as choice, Black women were saying, “We have also been denied maternity. Real control over our bodies cannot just be the ability not to have children.” In this country, Black women from slavery to the present have been denied maternity through sterilization, lack of access to health care, and lack of resources to raise children.
Emphasizing the need for a broad movement against the war on reproduction following the example of the reproductive justice movement, she continued:
Even when I was involved in the Wages for Housework campaign, we stressed that this idea of control of our body is only half of the issue. The other half is the right to have children under conditions that will not result in a horrible life. That’s how the struggle around abortion and procreation connects to a whole other set of issues. Through reproductive justice and the question of race, you can also then see how abortion is linked to questions of policy, jobs, how many hours you are working, childcare, pay for men versus pay for women, and healthcare.
Along with the reproductive justice movement, Federici credits feminist and Indigenous movements across the Global South for offering prime examples of solidarity-building relating to such causes as violence against women, women’s working conditions and unionization, and ecological crises such as access to water and the contamination of natural resources. She elaborated:
The influence of the Indigenous movement in Latin America has contributed to the strength of feminist causes there because the Indigenous movement has a very strong communitarian thrust. In Argentina, you have seen the formation of women’s organizations within the unions, which reflects women’s desire to raise issues about male dominance that the union isn’t addressing. These are additional examples of what allows for the feminist struggle to address a broad range of issues, from abortion to the financialization of biological reproduction to the fact that now you must use a credit card to make it to the end of the month.
For Federici, social revolution is a long process of social experimentation that entails rupturing individual sensibilities and reversing the sequestered nature of the nuclear family. To overcome the exhausting day-to-day routine of recuperating from work and completing maintenance tasks like cooking and cleaning, people can begin the process of connecting through modest acts of socialization, such as book clubs, she suggested. “The moment you connect with other people, you have already created a feeling that you are not confronting life alone,” she insisted. “You can start to socialize your fears and your problems. Alone, you are already defeated. The moment you get together with other people, your imagination expands.”
Federici added, “We know now that revolution is not the takeover of the Winter Palace. Revolution is learning to work with other people, trying to find a range of possibilities. It begins when you say, ‘This is a change I want to make in my life,’ and you go with it.”
Even if she sees revolution as a process rather than an event, Federici has not given up hope that protest movements will continue to mobilize and resist the exploitation of human life on every level of existence. “I don’t know if these struggles will turn the tide of destruction,” she said, “but it is all we have.”
Abigail Susik is an associate professor of art history at Willamette University and author of Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work (Manchester University Press, 2021). She is the editor of Resurgence! Jonathan Leake, Radical Surrealism, and the Resurgence Youth Movement, 1964–1967 (2023) and co-editor of the volumes Surrealism and Film After 1945: Absolutely Modern Mysteries (Manchester University Press, 2021) and Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance (Penn State University Press, 2022).
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