“Like the welfare women said: every woman, every mother, is a working mother.”
What memory can do:
Re-signify the earth
Re-signify the local
Make the struggle visible
Read Silvia Federici and she will revolutionize the way you understand the world. She will turn it upside down and radicalize it. Part of a group of feminist thinkers who have reinvented and expanded Marxism, Federici has helped put women’s work, long banished to the margins of anti-capitalist analysis, at the center. Reproduction, the typically unpaid work of caring for others and sustaining common life, is as important as production, the waged work left-wing political economists have traditionally emphasized.
Federici argues that the fixation on waged work obscures a more complex and multifaceted reality. What we call the economic, or public, sphere cannot be separated from the domestic, or private, one. The family—a social formation shot through with domination and exploitation under conditions of patriarchal capitalism—precedes the factory. There would be no employees to hire or profits to extract if a massive, unremunerated, overwhelmingly female labor force didn’t create and care for their fellow human beings.
Beginning in 1972, Federici was part of a remarkable effort to operationalize this analysis and push for a revaluation of labor. The ensuing Wages for Housework campaign was boldly internationalist in its assessment—women the world over had nothing to lose but their uncompensated chains—yet decidedly local. The New York branch was based in Brooklyn and had a storefront in south Park Slope, only a fifteen-minute walk from where, in August 2018, Silvia and I met to catch up.
Today, Wages for Housework is being rediscovered by a generation of young people who see uncompensated labor not just in the home but all around them—the requisite unpaid internships after college, the shifting of work to consumers (we bag our own groceries and tag our own luggage), and the extraction of personal data in exchange for “free” online services. Capitalism, by design, perpetually seeks to pay as little as possible—ideally nothing—for people’s energy and time.
Federici’s best-known book, the groundbreaking Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, puts this tendency in historical context, going all the way back to the Middle Ages. The text lays out themes—exploitation, resistance, and the centrality of the commons—that her latest publications, including Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women and Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, return to and deepen.
In the spring of 2016, I asked Federici, whom I knew socially through activist circles in New York City, to participate in what would become my 2019 documentary film, What Is Democracy? I invited Federici because I knew she would speak as both a theorist and a practitioner, a historian and a rebel—and thus embody the essence of the film and its companion book, Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, which both insist that democracy is inherently paradoxical. Democracy requires reflection and action. It is a noun and a verb—a beautiful ideal and a messy reality.
On a whim, in March 2016, I suggested she fly to Italy, where she was born, and join me in Siena for an on-camera conversation in front of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s proto-Renaissance fresco The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. Painted between 1338 and 1339, the strange and evocative triptych is widely regarded as the first secular fresco, conjuring, as it does, the impact of a political system’s character on the broader society. Federici immediately agreed—it turned out she has a print of the painting hanging in her living room.
Two years later, the film was complete and I was finishing the companion book. My time with Federici in Italy had a profound impact on both projects and how I understand politics, economics, and feminism. But I still had more questions to ask her.
I. “THE LITTLE HONEY OF HEALTH CARE”
ASTRA TAYLOR: Walking over, I couldn’t help but think back to our trip to Siena. So much has changed since then. The right wing is gaining ground worldwide, Donald Trump is in the White House, #MeToo has burst onto the scene. When I began plotting my movie, in 2014, I had no idea what was in store.
Today, everyone agrees democracy is in “crisis”—and it’s a crisis that feels unprecedented in a lot of ways. And yet our conversation from 2016 is still relevant. During the talk, we were looking at and being inspired by an Italian fresco painted in the 1330s, and the imagery—which warns against the vices of avarice, vanity, and violence—still resonates.
My general instinct is that we need to emphasize the continuity of events and not get too dazzled by the idea that there has been a radical rupture. At least that’s what I hoped to do with the film: to put the current crisis of democracy against a more expansive historical and philosophical backdrop. But what do you think? How much has changed? Have we entered a wholly new era?
SILVIA FEDERICI: I think exactly these moments are the moments when, in fact, more than ever, you need to go back to history. You need a broad scope. Because when you put Trump against the backdrop of the unfolding of American history, then the continuity stands out. And also what you begin to see is that even in those moments that appear less dramatic or less violent, there was lots of violence unleashed and organized by the U.S. in other parts of the world.
So I think it’s really important to build a broad canvas. And then you begin to see the continuity. And you also begin to see the rupture. And you can ask: why in this moment are there certain particular forms of expressing violence, this return of a blatant, fascist style?
AT: Right: when you look back on American history, there is so much violence. So we need to be more precise if we want to recognize what has changed.
SF: If we look at the post–World War II regime, when you had the state still working out a sort of mediation, they are still giving the impression, with the New Deal, that there is a social contract. If workers have high levels of productivity, then you’ll have certain levels of material comfort, et cetera. In the ’70s this contract breaks down. It breaks down in the United States and internationally. Then you have the big world-restructuring. So I think that now you have to think of these three moments. First, the end of what people call Fordism, or Keynesianism. Then you have the moment of the world agencies, you know, where the state is represented by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, which impose policies of globalization.
We’re entering a third phase. I think that Trump represents, in a way, a further step, where international agencies are now more and more actually replaced by the great corporation directly. I think, if anything, what has been taking place—and this, in a sense, is the novelty, although this has been the trajectory of capitalist development all along, right?—is more and more capitalism confronting labor or workers directly. You see the state receding, and there is no mediation. The confrontation is more brutal, more direct, and the veils are dropping.
This is a capitalism that is becoming more and more pure. I think the phase we’re entering now is one where the kind of resistances that were effective in previous times have been so destroyed that now capitalists don’t need the mediation of the state. You don’t have to give workers social security. You don’t have to give people the little honey of health care.
Institutions like the World Bank and the IMF have done the job, with structural adjustments, with privatizations, and so on; they have done the job of breaking down all the protections. They’ve done the job, and they, too, are receding. So the nation-state has been receding, and now even the international state formations are receding. Which is why in more and more places, including Africa and Latin America, everybody now talks, for example, of the politics of extractivism.
I think Trump represents this more brutal moment. So there is continuity and there is novelty. But it’s not that there is a rupture. There is a building of a logic, an unfolding.
II. THE BACKWARD LEFT
AT: In the twentieth century, all these transnational institutions were created to serve capital, when what we needed were world institutions to constrain capital—to, say, tax multinational companies, or limit things like carbon output and currency speculation.
SF: Right. With the World Trade Organization, the corporations have secret tribunals in which they can sue governments. We are in a situation where the corporations can actually bring governments to trial for violating their right to make as much profit as they can.
The World Bank and so on have created a terrain where the corporate capital now can move. The monsters now can move without the mask.
All of Oaxaca State, [and] much of Mexico, has been concessioned. Concession means that now companies have a right to walk in almost everywhere in Mexico and drill. Push people away for profit.
AT: It’s also the end of the myth that capitalism and democracy go together, right? My whole life, we have been told they were twins, indispensable to each other. Of course, that was always a lie—the history of imperialism and the ways the institutions you’ve mentioned have collaborated with autocrats and dictators in the global south prove as much—but it was a powerful myth nevertheless.
SF: Oh, absolutely. Look at Pinochet in 1973 and the massacre or torture and detainment of forty thousand Chileans. That was the beginning of structural adjustment and the neoliberalization of the global economy. It was the beginning of the canceling of all union deals, the canceling of wage contracts, the canceling of, you know, state investment in education.
AT: Given all the counterevidence, it’s shocking that the myth was so successful. How was the myth propagated—the idea that market liberalization and human liberation go hand in hand?
SF: I lived in Nigeria in the 1980s. And there was not that myth there. It propagated here because I think the left has been so backward.
AT: Is it the old problem of American exceptionalism? Most Americans, even left-leaning ones, tend to be pretty America-centric in their views. Is that what you mean by “backward”? Backward in the sense of not being aware of the rest of the world?
SF: Well, for example, you always hear “This is not us”; “This is not America”; “This is not who we are.” I don’t know what they’re talking about. There are six million people who have gone through the jails. I mean, you know, in the U.S. there is a death penalty when most of the world has abolished it. The U.S. is still murdering people in multiple wars and there is a humongous nuclear arsenal. Its government has taught torture and coup-making. It has given money and resources to overthrow governments.
AT: I mean, the country’s first presidents were all illegally speculating on indigenous lands. Whatever transformation Donald Trump represents is built on this foundation. He’s only the latest iteration of America’s most vile tendencies.
That said, he’s a repulsively charismatic villain, so it’s tempting to focus on him. But the real problem is the economic system, and that’s a harder thing to name and see and push back against. In my film [What Is Democracy?], you and I talk a lot about the way centers of power have become distant from the people and the way power has become more impersonal and abstract. In the documentary, we are looking at a proto-Renaissance painting of an ideal republic, a city-state, and one thing you say in the film is that Siena was a society built on a scale where citizens lived next to the oligarchs who exploited them. Power was visible, legible, in a way it’s just not today.
SF: That’s right: the painting of the city shows the castle and the towers where the wealthy live.
AT: I mean, now we have Trump towers, I guess. So again there’s continuity. But back then, the people who were making you do backbreaking work, charging you taxes, or taking your harvest were your neighbors.
SF: It’s transparent.
AT: Right. But today how many Americans even know about the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization or the Investor-State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS, which is the name for these secret tribunals you’re talking about? Very few.
SF: It’s not just Americans. Imagine living in a rural village in the Congo, or in Cameroon, where people don’t read English, and you have no idea why the prices of rice or of cotton and coffee are collapsing. You have no idea why yesterday there was a government board that you could bring your crop to, and today the government board that would have given you a guaranteed price is gone, and you cannot send your crop, and your crop is rotting. And you don’t know that in Chicago there was an agricultural meeting that set the prices. This mysteriousness causes a destructive unease. Not only from the suffering from the pain of the poverty, the cuts, but also from not understanding what is happening. The decision-making is taking place in ways and in places that are so removed from where you are that you are totally confused, and that generates more suspicion.
AT: A rural Congolese farmer’s livelihood is determined—and decimated—by a meeting in a country he wouldn’t even be allowed to visit, because he doesn’t have the right passport, let alone money to pay for a flight. But a lot of Americans feel this way, too: that decisions that impact them are out of their hands. And academic research shows they are basically right—regular people essentially have no say; their impact on policy is negligible. I mean, I attended some of Trump’s rallies as research—he ran as an anti-war, anti–hedge fund, anti-swamp candidate, and look how he governs. The only things he’s stuck to are the racism and misogyny. But basically he’s your typical Republican plutocrat, with an extra dose of incompetence and corruption.
The tragedy is that when people who feel angry and vulnerable try to make sense of things, they so often embrace explanations that are really toxic, right? It’s that unease and suspicion you mentioned. So in some countries this manifests as a return of witch hunts you have written about. In the United States, [it manifests in] the spread of conspiracy theories about globalists and the UN and crisis actors and god knows what else.
But figuring out these complex issues is actually tough. For example, I just finished the companion book to the film, and each chapter focuses on a sort of paradox or tension that is central to democracy. So of course one chapter is about the local versus the global, which means that everything we’re discussing has been on my mind lately. It was by far the toughest chapter to write, because the problems can seem really intractable.
We have a tendency to think the smaller scale is more democratic—and a lot of political philosophers have argued that is always the case—but it’s not always so simple. Small groups can be dysfunctional and large systems can be democratically beneficial. I mean, I’ve been in a lot of small, dysfunctional groups. And I would love for there to be a functional international climate accord.
But sitting here, speaking to you, I can’t help but feel that there is something about the local scale that is important. It seems to me that it’s not really about size, but rather about being grounded and embedded in a specific context. Because we are human beings who need to exist somewhere. And living in a place, being rooted in a place, gives us power.
SF: Yes, yes! The rootedness is totally, totally important. And that’s why I am so in love with and inspired by and always willing to go to Latin America. I don’t know of any other people who have expressed this so powerfully, and it’s really coming from the women. In every corner of Latin America there is a struggle.
The capacity for the resistance of people, the capacity to say no: it’s really huge. In every corner there is a struggle against a hydroelectric plant, oil drilling, mining… It’s really very, very, very important. And yet often the problem with the local is that they don’t have the power to—you know, if they come down with the army, the paramilitary, et cetera, et cetera: small communities don’t have the power to resist. But that struggle of the local—it’s very crucial even if, many times, they are defeated. The local is essential. It might not always be sufficient.
AT: Essential but not sufficient—yes!
III. “BURY THE PLACENTA IN THE LAND”
SF: I don’t know if I told you the story of this place I’ve gone to in Mexico, San Juan Progreso, in Chiapas, near Oaxaca. There was a gold mine, open pit, and they made a big struggle against it: the society divided in two, the village divided in two, those for the mine, those against the mine. Those for life and those for death: that’s the way some people put it.
And those against it physically confronted the guards, the paramilitary, and so on, and then there was too much; they couldn’t continue. But even afterward they have created, like, this micro-war, where even now—I was there about a year ago—the whole community is totally politicized.
You take a cab, but it has to be a cab that’s against the mine: the driver must be against the mine. They don’t want to give any money to the mine. You know, you buy your bottle of water, but not from the place that is for the mine. They have created a radio system of warning. Young people, fourteen, fifteen, have a little radio, and they communicate what’s going on with the mine. They have a feast every year, in September, but they don’t allow the workers from the mine, or anybody who supports the mine, to come to it.
AT: Because the mine will literally take their land and destroy it and destroy communities and lives.
SF: Yes. And so you need to bring the resistance. There’s also a lot of work that women are doing in Latin America around the role of memory. You know, reconstructing the collective memory of the place to boost the resistance. To create solidarity, to create a collective subject, to create a common interest, to bring out the bond with the land that allows you to say, “I’d rather die than to see my land poisoned.” That is there; that is very strong.
AT: Because so much of capitalism is the extractive. Capitalists would rather people be placeless, right? That’s one thing I thought about while working on the film, as I got to know migrants and refugees in a way I hadn’t before, and I saw up close the way so much migration is forced, how millions of people today are forced to be mobile because of war and poverty. And of course capitalism began with enclosure, in the centuries before industrialization when people were kicked off the commons, which is what your historical work is all about.
SF: Yes, you know, indigenous women in Mexico, they put their placenta, when the child is born—this is part of the micro-war—the women bury the placenta in the land because they believe that their children will know: this is their land. Your land is a cuerpo territorio, the idea of the “body territory.”
This is now the central concept in Latin America—in women’s feminist Latin American literature: the body territory. Right? The idea that you cannot separate the struggle of the body from the struggle of the territory, and vice versa.
Part of the body territory: you put the placenta into the earth to make that bonding. So when you move away, you’re leaving your heart; you’re leaving part of your body in that, right? So this is the whole issue of memory—memory is not just a romantic thing, but it has to do with re-signifying the earth, re-signifying the local, re-signifying the place where you live. And doing so in a way that makes visible the struggles, and what you struggle for, because it brings out the memory of the people. They were struggling and the land was filled with blood that has gone into the land. It’s the story of the ancestors. It’s a reminder that things are bigger than you, right?
AT: The local is a reminder that things are bigger than you—I like that. I think the local thing gets kind of fetishized—you know the cliché “Small is beautiful.” But it’s not about beauty; it’s about power, right?
I thought about this when I was reading your new book, Wages for Housework. I noticed that when the movement began it had the word international in it. Right? It was the International Wages for Housework Campaign.
So there’s also an interesting tension. On the one hand, Wages for Housework operates on this very small, local scale—the intimate space of the home. Yet you’re politicizing the home under the grand banner of the international. In 1975, you all were literally pamphleteering in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, which is two blocks from where we are now. You also had a Wages for Housework storefront on Fifth Avenue, not that much farther away. But you were in dialogue with women all over the world. The tension is that for your global vision to have force or power, you had to enact it locally, person-to-person.
SF: Yes, because we saw that this sexism is happening everywhere. And capitalism is international. So it was all international. But the movement was rooted here, in Brooklyn.
Too often even the left doesn’t see the power of communities. Back then they were telling us that you had to go and get a job in the factories to really have some power to confront capitalism. Meanwhile, when you look at the black power movement, the civil rights movement, they were not based in the factories. They were based in the communities. They were based in the churches. So we were talking about communities, right? We were saying, “No, you don’t have to go there. The women are already here. You can struggle here, in the supermarket, the laundromat, the home.”
They never saw the women in the laundromat, sitting there, as workers—they always saw them as parasites. They never saw sex workers as workers. It’s the contempt, the contempt toward women and toward children, that I think was really strong among the left, and among some leftist women too.
Like the whole thing about maternity. I personally decided not to have children. But I think there was the idea that if you decided to have children, you must have no level of consciousness—that was also very strong. That’s why many feminists didn’t fight for maternity leave.
AT: There was a fight for the right to abortion but not for maternity leave or free childcare.
SF: And there was no fight against the attacks on welfare. But it is connected. Because welfare allowed a woman to have children while being able to leave a man and to raise a child on her own.
AT: And without necessarily having to make it work.
SF: Yeah, and without having to have a second job.
AT: Right, a second job—because parenting is work.
SF: The constant attacks on women as parasites, the racist attacks on “welfare queens.” Then that went from the focus on the welfare mother to creating an atmosphere of the dysfunctional family, the dysfunctional kids, the criminal kids, the crack period. So then you had more penalties for crack than you had for cocaine, which fed into mass incarceration.
I’m bitter about the fact that the women’s movement didn’t see that, didn’t oppose that, didn’t come out strongly in the streets to attack the vilification, to say, Fuck the state—you know?—we’re women. Like the welfare women said: every woman, every mother, is a working mother.
AT: Exactly. Instead there was the 1980s image of the working woman with her shoulder pads and briefcase. She was white and upwardly mobile.
SF: So now we get these women like, you know, Sarah Sanders. Now you get all these monsters. All the dirty jobs are now done by women.
AT: Yeah, it’s true, right? Betsy DeVos is a good example. Talk about a working woman!
SF: I can’t even look at them.
AT: Given that we’re in a moment of feminist resurgence, right, this feels important for this moment. The problem isn’t pathological individual men, and the solution isn’t “empowered” individual women.
SF: Yes, the lesson is that this is a structural problem that is really built into the bones and ligaments of the capitalist system, and the state as it is. Sexism and violence against women are built into the organization of work; they’re built in the legislation; they’re built into the organization of space; they’re built into everything.
In fact, look at the two hundred priests. They have been able to attack, violate, a thousand children. Nobody said anything; everybody knew, right? And I’m saying women are also set up by all these institutions to be violated, right? For instance, the woman who has to stay with the man who might be beating her up, because she doesn’t have welfare money any longer. The waitress whose tips depend on how much of a bosom she puts out. The woman on the assembly line who’s being harassed.
And I think that’s very, very important to see. You need to see that the violence is not a matter of a few perverse men. It’s institutional.
AT: There are so many egregious and visceral examples of violence against women, things like rape and domestic violence, that it can almost be hard for people to see policy issues—even welfare reform, or broader economic issues like fair wages and time off—as feminist issues, even though they are.
For example, I see my film as an extremely feminist film, in the sense that it deals with democracy, political theory, and just is full of women, right? There are young women; there are old women; there are women from the United States; there are women from Syria. And at the end, you and I even talk about feminism explicitly.
And yet it’s not on the nose enough to be recognized as such by most programmers. It’s not about, I don’t know, discrimination in the workplace, or sexual abuse, or a woman becoming successful in a male-dominated field, or beauty and body image. It doesn’t fit this limited conception of what feminism is and what a film about “women’s issues” is supposed to look like. But I wanted to infuse an unapologetically feminist perspective into a film that wasn’t only or primarily geared at women, and I also wanted to challenge the long-standing idea of democracy as a male business, simply by featuring women prominently in a film. The film isn’t about feminism; instead it is feminist.
SF: It’s a very crude conception of feminism. And one that can also be very easily dealt with.
IV. “ROBOTS ALL THE WAY DOWN”
AT: There was one line that I thought was especially great in the Wages for Housework book. I’m paraphrasing, but basically you say that the problem of our first job has never been solved by getting a second job. [Laughter] You are responding to the idea that women should achieve equality and self-realization by entering the workplace. Which is an idea that capitalism can adapt to. Instead, you are saying, Hold on. Women are already working. Let’s recognize, dignify, and compensate that labor. Which is an idea that capitalism cannot handle.
SF: We have to see this as the metabolism of capitalism. What do capitalists do whenever they are confronted with mass struggle? They have to make some concessions. But they make them in a way that divides people.
Because you now have a number of women who don’t do housework, or much of it. They work outside the home. And then you have other women who still do a lot of it, right? And you have women who are coming from impoverished parts of the world and doing housework as paid work. So it’s very clear that, for a limited number of women, housework has been reduced; they can make money and buy things; they have the money to eat out. They have the money to outsource a lot of their work. But the majority do not.
AT: The majority of women are not wealthy enough to hire help.
SF: You know, I wrote a small piece on women and debt. And it turns out that the working woman, the woman with the job outside the home—the majority of the working women in the United States have so much debt that between now and eternity, they will never be able to get rid of it. All because women make so little. The condition of work is so poor. They make so little that they cannot afford to have somebody who takes care of their children. They are the ones who are the main users of payday loans.
AT: Yeah, I see this in my activist work with the Debt Collective, the debtors’ union I co-founded in 2012. Indebtedness is raced and gendered. Payday loans are all targeted toward single mothers, especially black and brown single mothers. You also say in Wages for Housework that women are the only group that pays for the privilege of working. They have to pay for childcare to work.
SF: Yes! That’s right!
AT: You all wrote that in the ’70s, but it was prescient. Today more and more people are paying for the privilege of working by taking out student loans, or through unpaid internships, so there’s been a kind of feminization of all of labor.
SF: That’s right. The feminization is the spread of unpaid labor. Now the spread of unpaid labor means that, more and more, you work for a year without money, hoping they will give you the job. And so you do a year. The left, unfortunately, is always worried about technology replacing workers; they are not worried about how, actually, unpaid labor is spreading. What is shrinking is the waged working class, not work.
AT: When I saw you speak in Toronto, you said something that I loved. I wrote an article on automation for Logic magazine recently, and in it I coined a word: fauxtomation. I came up with it because so much of what technologists say is automated is not automated at all—it is actually unpaid or really underpaid human beings behind the machine, like when we check out our own groceries, right? But one thing you said really stuck with me. You said, “Don’t let the powers-that-be tell you that you’re disposable.”
SF: Yes, yes. Absolutely.
AT: And that really changed the way I saw the whole automation debate. Lots of evidence, even a big, new World Bank study, says that robots aren’t about to take all the jobs. And yet people keep saying it’s inevitable, that human labor will be obsolete, and that makes everyone feel very insecure. It’s very effective ideology.
SF: It’s very effective. You’re supposed to feel so lucky to have a job, because the jobs are disappearing—everybody is talking about that. They have been talking about the worker-less factory since the ’50s.
Think of China. China is the factory of the world. Think of India. The number of workers in slave conditions is higher than ever.
Also, robots are not in the house or doing housework, taking care of kids. Taking care of kids is considered the second-largest sector of work in the world to this day—that cannot be mechanized. When they grow up, you can put them in front of a TV. But when they are, like, zero to three or four, you still have to wipe their ass; you still have to feed them. Imagine the work that a woman does the first six, seven, eight months. All that work. Imagine billions of children. And they’re telling us that robots will be the end of work. It’s a very masculine view.
And what happens to the earth? Where do the robots come from? How much more extractivism do we need? How many more people are we going to kill to make the robots? The robots don’t make themselves. Somebody makes the robots; somebody has to extract the minerals to make the robots. So who are they? Are they not human beings? So robots make robots?
AT: It’s going to be robots all the way down! Since you began to develop these ideas, in the ’70s, has your attitude or thinking on reproduction changed much? Or do you feel like you pretty much had it right even back then?
SF: Yeah, it has changed a lot. It has broadened. It has broadened, because I’ve seen that reproduction is much more than just domestic work. And even domestic work was not working just in the home—because the woman takes the child to school, the mother goes to talk to the teachers, et cetera, et cetera. Going to Africa, going to Latin America, I began to see the connection between the fields, working in the garden, and then, of course, contamination, women fighting around access to water, women fighting against the poisoning of the earth. Reproduction is also agriculture. It’s reproduction of the earth.
AT: Interesting. I have to say that reproductive labor is a very intuitive framework. When you start to see the world that way, it makes sense—that there’s this whole glacier of labor and that waged work is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. There is all this work underneath it, all this unpaid labor and extraction that capitalism could not function without.
It’s such a strong analysis and yet it has taken some time to catch on. After the period when you were very active with the New York Wages for Housework group, and the conservative backlash of the 1980s and 1990s really gained steam, did you feel that the critique wasn’t relevant? Or did you ever doubt the analysis?
SF: No, no. Because from that experience I went to work on Caliban and the Witch.
AT: That’s so interesting. Can you actually trace Caliban back to the activism in some ways?
SF: Oh yeah. Directly. In fact, I wrote it for that. Because people kept saying, “Oh, but women have always done housework. Women have always done this, women have done that.” This naturalization, right? So for me it was important to show that, no, women have not always done housework this way.
AT: It’s not natural; it’s something that came into being as a consequence of certain material conditions and power relations. So women may have done reproductive labor, but the conditions were not the same.
SF: Yes, the social relations are different. Which means the work is different. So women in the Middle Ages in the commons—they didn’t depend on a man for their survival, because they had access to the commons, to the land.
I started working on Caliban and the Witch because people were presenting all these [naturalizing] arguments. I said, “Fuck it.” So I began to look at the nineteenth century. In fact, I wrote the whole thing—some of the things I was working out were looking at those notes about the genesis of housework and so on and so on. And then I decided, No, let’s start from the beginning. I kept asking more questions. And I decided, OK, let’s go back to before capitalism.
So that’s how it began. There would be women idealizing, Oh no, the home is the holy place where there is really freedom; the home is the only place where capitalism has not come in. With Wages for Housework, you’re bringing capitalism into the home. That’s what we’ve always been told—“You’re bringing capitalism into the home.” And I would say, “No, capitalism is already there.” So the idea of writing the history of housework: that’s how it began. It became something else. I now see Caliban and the Witch as something more, but it began with the idea of writing the history of housework in capitalism.
AT: And then it became, actually, a groundbreaking history of capitalism that sprang from an analysis of housework. I think that’s a fascinating detail, because it’s also a powerful example of how experience and praxis can inform theory. I guess I just assumed the theory came first. But I love that the theorizing and analysis were, in fact, informed by struggle, by your activism.
SF: Look at the feminist revolt. First women went into the streets to protest things like Miss America. They did it without great theories. Then there’s a production of feminist theory from that generation that is immense, but it begins with that boom. There is a big bang in ’67, ’68, ’69.
AT: You know, I never read Carol Hanisch’s “The Personal Is Political” until the other day. It’s from that period.
SF: It’s good.
AT: It’s really good. And it is someone thinking through things. It’s a little all over the place. She’s asking, Is this therapy? Is this politics? What exactly is happening and what does it all mean? She’s thinking things through.
SF: And it’s coming from deep experience, personal experience. It started from what many women in the movement experienced, the power relations that we experienced with men in social movements. Not having the courage to say, I don’t understand what you’re talking about; not having the courage to say, No, I’m not going to fuck even if [that means]I don’t appear “liberated.” Women being told, “Get the bitch off the stage.” I read recently stories I had forgotten, about the way men reacted when women insisted that the women’s issues get talked about.
AT: Now they only think those things! Or tweet them. Which is a kind of progress, I guess. But to your point, history shows that people have always fought back, enacting democracy from the bottom up and embodying freedom, equality, and justice even in the absence of grand theories to guide them. We talked about that in Siena. All the forgotten rebellions of the Middle Ages—the peasant riots and the heretics and so on.
SF: That’s right: people are acting even if they don’t have theory. Then you begin to see what you’ve done. Then theory comes. I mean, I think it’s important then, to learn from the theory. It’s important to learn, because it enables you; it gives you the sense of history; it gives you the sense of alternatives. But it’s not true that the big breakthroughs in terms of theory have to come before the action. They come from action. First comes the revolt, then comes the idea.
Astra Taylor is the director of the philosophical documentaries What Is Democracy?, Examined Life, and Zizek!; the author of the American Book Award winner The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age; and a co-founder of the Debt Collective. Her latest book is Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone.