“Silvia Federici’s work embodies an energy that urges us to rejuvenate struggles against all types of exploitation and, precisely for that reason, her work produces a common: a common sense of the dissidence that creates a community in struggle.” — Maria Mies
Silvia Federici (*1942 in Parma, Italy)
is an Italian feminist theorist, activist, teacher and scholar with a radical autonomist feminist Marxist and anarchist background. Federici is best known for developing a new political subjectivity and strategy that works to make visible women’s domestic and reproductive labor as the foundation of capitalism.
“The roots of my feminism lie primarily in my experience as a woman growing up in a repressive society, as Italy was in the ‘50s: anti-communist, patriarchal, Catholic, and weighed down by war.” ― Silvia Federici
In 1967, Federici came to the United States to study for a PhD in philosophy at the University of Buffalo. After teaching and researching at University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria from 1984 to 1986, she was active in the anti-globalization movement and the U.S. anti–death penalty movement in the 1990s. As Professor at Hofstra University, she taught international studies, women studies, and political philosophy courses from 1987 to 2005.
Federici was influenced and inspired by the movement of workers’ autonomy in Italy, the anticolonial movement, the civil rights movements and the Black Power movement in the United States as well as by the National Welfare Rights Movement in the 1970s. Her work is focused on questions of colonialism, capital punishment, immigration and emigration, globalization and global market inequality, food politics, elder care and capitalism, and academic freedom in Africa – always engaging alongside and through an international politics of race, gender, and class.
The Wages for Housework Movement
“Our primary aim was to show that domestic work is not a personal service but real work, because it is the work that sustains all other forms of work, insofar as it is the work that produces the workforce.”― Silvia Federici
In 1972, Federici co-founded the International Feminist Collective, which formed chapters in Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States to demand wages from their respective federal governments for the labor that women do in the home. Arguing that capitalism rests on unpaid domestic labor for the reproduction of the workforce as well as the devaluation of these reproductive activities to cut the cost of labor power, women ignited debates in their cities surrounding the sexual division of labor, economic dependence on men, and “women’s work.”
Even though Federici herself was a single woman without children at that time, she considered the ‘wages for housework’ demand essential, because she considered it “not as payment for specific tasks, but as a broad movement and as a strategy to establish the value of women’s work. It was such a revelatory power even just to name ‘wages for housework‘. It said, these homes are the factories in which we work. It was a question of denaturalising housework and showing the social, historical character of the work. […] We wanted to disconnect it from femininity because the naturalisation was a big impediment to struggling against it.”
Witch-hunts, the Naturalization of Women’s Unpaid Labor and the Rise of Capitalism
“Witch-hunts were instrumental to the construction of a patriarchal order in which the bodies of women, their work, and their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the State and transformed into economic resources.”― Silvia Federici
Federici’s most well-known work is Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (2004). In this book, which has been translated into several languages, Federici investigates the reasons for the witch hunts of the early modern period from a feminist and Marxist perspective.
In opposition to Karl Marx’s claim that the so–called ‘primitive accumulation’ was a necessary precursor for capitalism, she considers it a fundamental characteristic of capitalism itself. By pointing to the transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production and by explaining how the gender specific prosecution of the witch hunts was linked to a necessity of control over bodies and their sexuality, Federici shows that capitalism in fact requires a “constant infusion of expropriated capital in order to perpetuate itself”.
Federici connects this expropriation to women’s unpaid labor and the construction of the unproductive housewife, which she frames as a historical precondition to the rise of a capitalist economy predicated upon wage labor. Related to this, she describes the historical struggle for the commons and the struggle for communalism: Instead of seeing capitalism as a liberatory defeat of feudalism, Federici interprets the ascent of capitalism as a reactionary move against the rising tide of communalism.
“[V]iolence against women is a key element in this new global war, not only because of the horror it evokes or the messages it sends but because of what women represent in their capacity to keep their communities together and, equally important, to defend noncommercial conceptions of security and wealth.”
― Silvia Federici: Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women (2018)
According to Federici, the institutionalization of rape and prostitution, along with the heretic and witch-hunt trials, burnings, and torture, should be considered as “at the center of a methodical subjugation of women and appropriation of their labor.”
This perspective, thought together with colonial expropriation and the ongoing process of re-colonization, provides a framework for understanding the work of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and other proxy institutions as “engaging in a renewed cycle of primitive accumulation, by which everything held in common—from water, to seeds, to our genetic code—becomes privatizedin what amounts to a new round of enclosures.”
Reclaiming the Enclosed Body and Redefining Marxism
In Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking, and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism (2020), Federici elaborates on the history of the capitalist transformation of the body into a work-machine. In this process she confronts some of the most important questions for contemporary radical political projects: “What does ‘the body‘ mean, today, as a category of social/political action? What are the processes by which it is constituted? How do we dismantle the tools by which our bodies have been ‘enclosed‘ and collectively reclaim our capacity to govern them?”
In her latest publication, Patriarchy of the Wage: Notes on Marx, Gender, and Feminism (2020), she seeks to delineate the specific character of capitalist “patriarchalism”, by highlighting the aforementioned problematic view of industrial production and the State in the struggle for human liberation within the classical Marxist tradition.
Federici has been called “the most important Marxist feminist of our time” (btlbooks.com) and a “crucial figure for young Marxists, political theorists, and a new generation of feminists” (Rachel Kushner).
Or, as Z Magazine puts it:
“Reading Federici empowers us to reconnect with what is at the core of human development, women’s labor-intensive caregiving—a radical rethinking of how we live.”
Written by WAVE Intern Verena Henneberger.
Interview: “Silvia Federici reflects on Wages for Housework” (2018)
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