Political work with women and as women in the present conditions: Interview with Silvia Federici

An interview with Italian Marxist feminist, Silvia Federici which centers around austerity measures in the universities, the response from students in California and women's place and experience within these movements.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 23, 2011

Maya Gonzalez and Caitlin Manning1 : You have written about university struggles in the context of neo-liberal restructuring. Those struggles responded to attempts to enclose the knowledge commons. Do you see the university struggles of the last years as a continuation of the struggles against the enclosure of knowledge? Or as something new? Has the economic crisis altered in some fundamental way the context of university struggles?

Silvia Federici: I see the students’ mobilization that has been mounting on the North American campuses, especially in California, as part of a long cycle of struggle against the neo-liberal restructuring of the global economy and the dismantling of public education that began in the mid-1980s in Africa and Latin America, and is now spreading to Europe—as the recent student revolt in London demonstrated. At stake, in each case, has been more than resistance to the “enclosure of knowledge.” The struggles of African students in the 1980s and 1990s were particularly intense because students realized that the drastic university budget cuts the World Bank demanded signaled the end of the “social contract” that had shaped their relation with the state in the post-independence period, making education the key to social advancement and participatory citizenship. They also realized, especially on hearing World Bankers argue that “Africa has no need for universities,” that behind the cuts a new international division of work was rearticulated that re-colonized African economies and devalued African workers’ labor.

In the US as well, the gutting of public higher education over the last decade must be placed in a social context where in the aftermath of globalization companies can draw workers from across the world, instituting precarity as a permanent condition of employment, and enforcing constant re-qualifications. The financial crisis compounds the university crisis, projecting economic trends in the accumulation process and the organization of work that confront students with a state of permanent subordination and continuous destruction of the knowledge acquired as the only prospect for the future. In this sense, today’s students’ struggles are less aimed at defending public education than at changing the power relations with capital and the state and re-appropriating their lives.

We can draw a parallel here with the revolt of French workers and youth against the decision by the Sarkozy Government to expand the working-life by two years. We cannot understand the vehement opposition this decision has generated if we only focus on the time-span workers have to forfeit on the path to pension. Clearly, what brought millions to the streets was the realization that in the balance was the loss of any hope for the future, which is the reason why so many young people also joined the barricades.

This same understanding is what has made this cycle of university struggles different and given them more or less an openly anti-capitalist dimension. This is the significance, in my view, of the circulation of the idea of the common/s in the rhetoric of the student movements internationally. The call for “knowledge commons” reflects not only a resistance to the privatization and commercialization of knowledge, but the growing awareness that an alternative to capitalism and the market must be constructed starting in the present. It also stems from the realization that engagement in a collective process of knowledge production is not possible in today’s academic environment. Skyrocketing fees, courses tightly tailored to narrow economic goals, oversized classes and overworked, underpaid, precarious teachers—all these conditions devalue the knowledge produced in the universities, calling for the creation of alternative forms of education and of spaces where they can be organized. This, perhaps, is how we can begin to think of the “politics of occupation,” i.e. as a means to take over spaces needed for the creation of new commons.

Maya Gonzalez and Caitlin Manning: You have written extensively about education struggle and global resistance to austerity measures as struggles over institutional sites of social reproduction rather than production. What do you think is revealed by conceiving educational struggles as part of a larger set of struggles over sites of social re-production? And what kind of social inequalities and labor exploitation remain beyond the scope of this approach?

Silvia Federici: I should first stress that the shift from production to reproduction in the analysis of class relations has been the product of a transformation that, in different ways, has traversed the theoretical field since the 1970s, visible both in post-structuralist as well as neo-liberal critique, from Foucault to Becker. The main impulse towards it has come from the feminist rethinking of work and redefinition of reproductive labor as the “hidden part of the iceberg” (in Maria Mies’ words) on which capitalist accumulation is based. This shift has had a powerful illuminating effect enabling us to think together a heterogeneous set of activities—such as housework, subsistence agriculture, sex work and care work, education both formal and informal—and recognize them as moments of the social (re)production of the work-force.

From this perspective, we can read the changes that have taken place in the universities politically. We can read the introduction of fees and the commodification of education as part of a broad process of disinvestment in the reproduction of labor-power. It is an attempt to discipline the future labor force, a process that began in the late 70s with the abolition of open admission, clearly a response to the 1960s campus revolts and the insubordination of which youth were the protagonists.

Making reproduction the window from which to analyze the capital-work relation should not be seen however as a totalizing operation. Reproduction (of individuals, of labor-power) should not be conceived in isolation from the rest of the capitalist “factory”.

Recently, instead, we have seen the development of theories (e.g. Negri and Hardt concept of “bio-political production”) that preclude a synoptic view of the field of capitalist relations, assuming that all production can be reduced to production of subjectivities, life styles, languages, codes and information. In this way, the immense struggle that is taking place across the planet, in fields, mines, and factories is lost, ironically at the very time when we are witnessing the most extensive international cycle of industrial struggles (in China and much of South and East Asia) since the 1970s.

Maya Gonzalez and Caitlin Manning: The approximately $830 billion in student loan debt has been getting quite a bit of attention recently in the media since the total student debt now surpasses credit card debt. The international network of academics and educators you work with, Edu-Factory, has made debt a central rallying point for university struggles. As Jeffrey Williams points out, if you attend an Ivy League or comparable expensive private university, you would have to work 136 hours a week all year to be able to afford it without debt.2 Some have said that the current protracted economic crisis is not a recession but a depression masked by debt. How do you think the issue of deepening indebtedness could be turned into a significant site of struggle?

Silvia Federici: Indebtedness is already a site of struggle, but until now, at least in the US, it is a struggle that has taken place silently, under the radar, articulated through hidden forms of resistance, escape, and defaults, rather than an open confrontation. The default rate on federal student loans is continuing to rise, especially at for-profit colleges where it has topped 11.6%.

Discussions with students suggest that debt is an issue that tends to be evaded, at least in the immediate present. Many don’t like speaking about it. Weighing on them is a relentless neoliberal propaganda portraying education as a matter of individual responsibility. As Alan Collinge writes in his Student Loan Scam,3 many are ashamed of admitting they have defaulted on their student loans. The idea that (like pensions) free education should no longer be a social entitlement is seeping into the consciousness of the new generations, at least as a form of intimidation, contributing to blocking any attempts to make abolition of debt an open movement.

Still, the Edu-Factory network was right in making debt a central rallying point for university struggles. The struggle against student debt has a strategic importance. As Jeffrey William points out, debt is a powerful instrument of discipline and control and a mortgage on the future.4 Fighting against it is about reclaiming one’s life, breaking with a system of indentured servitude that casts a long shadow on people’s lives for years to come.

How to build a movement? I think it will require a long mobilization involving the cooperation of many social subjects. A key step towards it is an education campaign about the nature of debt as a political instrument of discipline, dispelling the assumption of individual responsibility and demonstrating its collective dimension. The moralism that has been accumulated over the question of indebtedness must be exposed. Acquiring a degree is not a luxury but a necessity in a context where for years education has been proclaimed at the highest institutional levels as the fault line between prosperity and a life of poverty and subordination. But if education is a must for future employment, it means that employers are the beneficiaries of it. From this viewpoint, student debt is a work issue that unions should take on, and not academic unions alone. Teachers too should join a debt abolition movement, for they are on the frontline: they must save appearances and pretend that for the university, cultural formation is of the essence. Yet, they have to accommodate to profitability requirements, like oversized classes, the gutting of departments, overworked students, carrying at times two or three jobs. Debt is also a unifying demand; it is everybody’s condition in the working class worldwide. Credit card debt, mortgage debt, medical debt: across the world, for decades now, every cut in people’s wages and entitlements has been made in the name of a debt crisis. Debt, therefore, is a universal signifier and a terrain on which a re-composition of the global work force can begin.

Maya Gonzalez and Caitlin Manning: Last year building occupations and other kinds of direct action were critiqued as the strategies of the privileged. How can there be mass direct action in a country like the US where the carceral state is so massively over-funded and where police repression continues to fall so much more heavily on particular racialized or at-risk populations?

Silvia Federici: I will not comment on the situations that developed on some of the UC campuses and the merits of the decision to occupy buildings. I was not a participant in these events and choices of tactics are so dependent on context and balances of power that any comments on my side would be inappropriate. Instead, I will point out that mass direct action has a long history in the US, exemplified by the Civil Right Movement, despite the existence of a repressive institutional machine operating on many levels—police, courts, prison, death penalty. The Civil Rights Movement and later the Black Power Movement confronted the police, with its hydrants and dogs, they confronted the Klan, the John Birch Society. Your question as well indicates that not all people of color objected to more militant tactics. Still, the differences in the power with which students from different communities face the university authority and the police must be brought out in the open and politicized. Organizational decisions must take them into account. This should be the case regardless of whether or not buildings are occupied, keeping in mind the great diversity of conditions in which students find themselves. In addition to the higher risk incurred by people from communities of color we also must take into account in every type of mobilization students who cannot afford being arrested because they have children, have families who depend on their presence, or have illnesses and disabilities preventing them from participating in certain types of actions. These are matters of paramount importance in a movement, and they concern all students. Readiness to protect those who face the harshest consequences and accommodate different types of initiatives is a measure of the strength and seriousness of a movement, without underestimating, at the same time, the fact that situations of struggle are always extremely fluid and transformative. And those who may have not participated yesterday may be the first to occupy tomorrow.

Maya Gonzalez and Caitlin Manning: From California to New York, women have raised concerns that there is a serious problem with gender relations within the movement. Despite their active involvement many women feel marginalized, they lack confidence in group settings, they feel constrained in expressing themselves. In some cases they have been alienated by sexist or masculinist modes of speech and action (as in “Direct Action as Feminist Practice”5 ). As women, we were taken by surprise. After decades of feminist struggles of various sorts, we now—yet again—feel the need to create feminist groups and find collective ways of confronting patriarchy. We find ourselves struggling to open spaces that we hadn't anticipated being quite so constricted. To what extent is our experience different from, and to what extent similar to, yours in the ‘70s? What can be learned about the past from our experiences in the present, and vice versa?

Silvia Federici: The configuration of gender relations in the student movement is very different today than it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Female students have far more power than women of my generation ever had. They are the majority in most classes and are preparing for a life of autonomy and self-reliance, at least autonomy from men if not from capital. But relations with men are more ambiguous and confusing. Increased equality hides the fact that many of the issues the women’s movement raised have not been resolved, especially with regard to re-production. It hides the fact that we are not engaged collectively in a socially transformative project as women, and that, with the advance of neo-liberalism, there has been a re-masculinization of society. The truculent, masculinist language of “We are the Crisis,” the opening article of “After the Fall,” is an egregious example of it. I fully understand why many women feel threatened rather than empowered by it.

The decline of feminism as a social movement has also meant that the experience of collectively organizing around women’s issues is unknown to many female students and everyday life has been de-politicized. What priorities to choose, how to balance waged work and the reproduction of our families so that (learning from the experience of black women) we keep something of ourselves to give to our own, how to love and live our sexuality—these are all questions that female students now must answer individually, outside of a political framework and this is a source of weakness in their relations with men. Add that academic life, especially at the graduate level, creates a very competitive environment where those who have less time to devote to intellectual work are immediately marginalized, and eloquence and theoretical sophistication are often mistaken as a measure of political commitment.

A crucial lesson we can learn from the past is that in the presence of power inequalities, women must organize autonomously even to be able to name the problems they face and gain the strength to voice their discontent and desires. In the ‘70s, we clearly saw that we could not speak of the issues concerning us in the presence of men. As the authors of “Direct Action as Feminist Practice ” so powerfully write, you do not need to be “silenced,” the very power configurations that rob us of our voice take away our ability to name the specific working of this power.6

How autonomy is achieved can vary. We do not have to think of autonomy in terms of permanent separate structures. We realize now that we can create movements within movements and struggles within struggles, but calling for unity in the face of conflicts in our organizations is politically disastrous. What we can learn from the past is that by constructing temporary autonomous feminist spaces we can break with psychological dependence on men, validate our experience, build a counter discourse and set new norms—like the need to democratize language and not make of it a means of exclusion.

I am convinced that coming together as women and as feminists is a positive turn, a precondition for overcoming marginalization. Once again, women in the student movement should not let the charge of “divisiveness” intimidate them. Rather than being divisive, the creation of autonomous spaces is necessary for bringing to the surface the full range of exploitative relations by which we are imprisoned and expose power inequalities that unchallenged would doom the movement to fail.

Maya Gonzalez and Caitlin Manning: In crafting feminist responses to our current predicaments, we have repeatedly engaged in somewhat disconcerting, if also enjoyable, moments of identification—moments when we speak “as women,” for instance, or when we found women's reading groups. How are we to think through such moments, especially in light of recent interventions in feminist theory that highlight the multiple fractures cutting across the putative collectivity of “women,” or that insist upon the instability and mutability of gender identities? What might come of such acts of identification? What promise might they contain? What danger?

Silvia Federici: I must begin with the premise that I have never discarded from my theoretical and political framework the concept of “women.” For me “women” is a political category, it qualifies a specific place in the social organization of work and a field of antagonistic relations where the moment of identity is subject to continuous change and contestation. Clearly, “women” is a concept that we must problematize, destabilize and reconstitute through our struggles. I have always insisted in my writings that it is a matter of priority for feminists to address the power differentials and hierarchies existing among women, beginning with the power relation determined by the new international division of reproductive work. But to the extent that gender still structures the world, to the extent that the capitalist devaluation of reproductive work translates into a devaluation of women, we cannot discard this category, if not at the cost of making large areas of social life virtually unintelligible and losing a crucial terrain of collective resistance to capitalism.

Identification as women contains the possibility of understanding the origins, the workings and the politics of the mechanisms of exclusion and marginalization that many female students evidently experienced during the occupations in California and New York. It is a probe enabling us to decipher why and how male domination sustains the power-structure and bring to the surface a world of experiences that would otherwise remain invisible and unnamed.

Recognizing those aspects of the experience of women that constitute a ground of subordination to men, while at the same time confronting the power differences among women themselves is today, as in the past, one of the main challenges facing feminists and activists in any social movement. At the same time, identification contains many risks. The most insidious, perhaps, is the idealization of relations with women, which exposes us to the most burning disillusions. This is a problem to which the women of my generation were especially vulnerable, as feminism appeared to us at first as the promised land, the longed-for home, as a protective space in which nothing negative could ever affect us. We have discovered that doing political work with women, as women, does not spare us from the power struggles and acts of “betrayals” we have so often encountered in male-dominated organizations. We come to movements with all the scars that life in capitalism imprints on our bodies and souls, and these do not automatically disappear because we work among women. The question however is not to run away from feminism. That sex and gender matter is an irrenounceable political lesson. We cannot oppose a system that has built its power in great part on racial and gender division by struggling as disembodied, universal subjects. The question rather is what forms of organization and means of accountability we can build that can prevent the power differences among us to be reproduced in our struggle.

Maya Gonzalez and Caitlin Manning: As you know, the gender issues we've confronted seem to be particularly pronounced in insurrectionary or “occupationist” circles. Can we situate this tendency in the history of a traditionally male-dominated radical Left? How are some of the recent feminist interventions part of a history of women’s reclamations of radical politics and tactics?

Silvia Federici: I can only formulate some hypothesis as my knowledge of “occupationist politics” is mostly derived from the reading of After the Fall. I’ll start then by pointing out that the takeover of buildings and squatting in them, as a tactics, has a long tradition in the history of world struggle. The legendary 1937 strike in Flint Michigan was a “sit-down” strike. The Native American Movement revival in the 1960s began with the takeover of Alcatraz. And today students all over the world are engaging in “occupations” to make visible their protests and prevent business as usual to prevail. The problem, I believe, is when these actions become an end in themselves, carried out, as “We are the crisis” states, “for no reason.” For in this case, in the absence of any articulated objective, what comes to the foreground tends to be the glorification of risk-taking. The broader question is the persistence of sexism in today’s radical politics: that is, the fact that, as in the ‘60s, radical politics continue to reproduce the sexual division of labor, with its gender hierarchies and mechanisms of exclusion, rather than subverting it. We certainly confront a different situation from that described by Marge Piercy in “The Grand Coolie Damn,” which portrayed the role of women in the anti-war movement as that of political housewives. But what has been attained is a situation of formal equality that hides the continuing devaluation of reproductive activities in the content, goals, and modalities of radical work. Crucial issues like the need for childcare, male violence against women, women’s broader responsibility for reproductive work, what constitutes knowledge and the conditions of its production, are still not a significant part of radical discourse. This is the material basis of sexist attitudes. We need a radical movement that programmatically places at the center of its struggle the eradication of social inequalities and the eradication of the divisions between production and reproduction, school and home, school and community, inherent to the capitalist division of labor. I hope I will not be charged with gender bias if I say that it is above all the task of women to ensure that this will occur. Liberation begins at home, when those who are oppressed take their destiny into their hands. Challenging sexism and racism cannot be expected from those who benefit from them at least in the short term, although men should not be exonerated from the responsibility of opposing inequitable relations. In other words, we should not expect that, because we are in a radical setting, the forces that shape relations between men and women in the broader society will have no effect on our politics. This is why despite the leap in the number of female students in the classrooms, the terms of women’s presence on the campuses and in radical groups has not qualitatively changed. What has prevailed, instead, has been the neo-liberal ideology of equal opportunity that has validated gender and racial hierarchies in the name of merit and valorized the social qualities needed for competition in the labor market. These are all essentially the traditional attributed of masculinity: self-promotion, aggressiveness, capacity to hide one’s vulnerability. I cannot stress enough that radical politics cannot succeed unless we challenge the existence of these attitudes in our midst. It is time, then, that the broader transformative vision which feminism promoted at least in its initial radical phase, before it was subsumed under a neo-liberal/institutional agenda, be revitalized. This time, however, we must fight for the eradication of not only gender hierarchies but all unequal power relations in our schools, in this process also redefining what is knowledge, who is a knowledge producer, and how can intellectual work support a liberation struggle rather functioning as an instrument of social division.


Silvia Federici is a long-time feminist activist, teacher, and writer. Her published work includes Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004) and A Thousand Flowers: Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African Universities, co-editor (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999).

Maya Gonzalez is a communist and revolutionary feminist living in the Bay Area. She is a graduate student in the Department of History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz. Her work has appeared in Endnotes.

Caitlin Manning is a filmmaker and Associate Professor of Film and Video at California State University, Monterey Bay.

From Reclamations Journal: Issue 3 (December 2010)

  • 1With contributions from Aaron Benanav, Amanda Armstrong, Chris Chen, and Zhivka Valiavicharska
  • 2Williams, Jeffrey J. “The Pedagogy of Debt.” Toward a Global Autonomous University. New York: Autonomedia, 2009. 89-96.
  • 3Collinge, Alan. The Student Loan Scam: The Most Oppressive Debt in U.S. History, and How We Can Fight Back (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2009)
  • 4Williams, Jeffrey J. “Student Debt and The Spirit of Indenture.” Editorial. Dissent Magazine (Fall 2008); Web. 27 November 2010. http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=1303
  • 5Armstrong, Amanda, Kelly Gawel, Alexandria Wright, and Zhivka Valiavicharska, “Direct Action as Feminist Practice: An Urgent Convergence,” Reclamations 2 (April 2010). Web. 27 November 2010. http://www.reclamationsjournal.org/issue02_feministas.html
  • 6Ibid.



10 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Entdinglichung on February 25, 2014

another interview with Silvia Federici: http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3293