Marina Vishmidt: HUMAN CAPITAL OR TOXIC ASSET: AFTER THE WAGE
Reproduction in the Home, Reproduction of the Home
To move chronologically, and to take a starting point which in some ways will appear arbitrary – certainly to historians of the working-class, community and women’s movements – the Welfare Rights Movement coming onto the scene in the 1960s in the United States stands as an interesting case, as it shared activists, demands and campaign tactics with the Civil Rights Movement and the second-wave feminist movement, as well as the more radical community-based and nationalist-influenced factions of the movement like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords.7 The Welfare Rights Movement was composed of the single mothers who were the main constituency of U.S. social services of the time. They were among the first, both in the Civil Rights and the women’s liberation movements, to position their struggle squarely on the terrain of social reproduction. They grounded what came to be known as “the personal is political” in the systemic inequities that organized their lives. They were also the first to name and analyze the structural contradiction that drove their demands on the state – the contribution of unpaid domestic labour to the efficiency of the capitalist economy – and were the first to associate their reproductive function with an economic position. They suggested that this reproductive labour be recognized and valued in the same way as paid labour in the workplace, and also turned this into a political practice, claiming a voice and a subject position from the sidelines of marginality and impoverishment: as women, as single mothers, as African-American in many cases, and as social welfare claimants. They claimed a “social wage” as against the patriarchal “family wage” paid to the male worker as the head of the family, the social responsibility of capital for the “externalities” of commodified but unwaged social being – looking after children and the elderly, for example. Dignity and autonomy from harassment, surveillance and corrupt bureaucracy were also emblematic to their struggle. As traced earlier in the dialectic of affirmation and negation, the Welfare Rights Movement affirmed a “wrong” in order to negate the social conditions and the social identifications – patriarchy, capitalism and racism – that made that wrong possible, indeed unquestionable, and rendered them its natural targets. Yet it can be argued that overall, like the mainstream of the Civil Rights and women’s movements (which came a bit later), the ultimate horizon of the movement for most of its members, in praxis and analysis, was that of improving their position within the current state of affairs rather than seriously challenging it, which would have had its tactical as well as its political reasons. The institutionalization of the movement in the National Welfare Rights Organization (1966–1972) lent it negotiating power at a higher level, but the reactionary social climate of the Nixon era, as well as internal splits (over expanding the movement to include the working poor vs. redefining welfare as a feminist issue) ended up destroying the organization. U.S. Government counter-insurgency activities no doubt also played a role, given the overlap of welfare rights activists with Black Panthers and other radical (as well as moderate – the CIA drew no such distinctions amongst its internally colonized) community action groups.
In the early 1970s, the currents of Marxist feminism in Italy associated with the Worker’s Power and Autonomia analyses started to put forward the idea that reproduction also constituted a “hidden abode,” as Marx spoke of production in its contrast with the sunlit equality of exchange. They proposed that since unpaid work conducted primarily by women in the home produces, the same as factory workers, the commodity of labour-power, which is then sold on the market for a wage, that they could as well form the “vanguard” of working-class organization and work refusal. Until that point, women at home were (indirectly) producing surplus value.
The desired consequences of this redefinition of women’s work was that unwaged workers would be acknowledged as subjects of working-class politics, and that “women’s issues” could be more broadly addressed as “class issues” and understood as antagonistic to capitalist interests in the same way as the issues of waged workers. Another reason was to actualize reproduction – childcare, health care, prostitution, power relations in the home and community – as a properly political site of contestation, rather than continuing to abide by the “revolutionary logic that established hierarchies of revolutionary subjects patterned on the hierarchies of the capitalist organization of work.”8 Finally, some elements of this position, though not all, came to the conclusion that if housework produced a commodity, maybe even value, i.e., it fulfilled the minimal conditions of capitalist work in general, then it should be paid for by capital like any other work “directly,” “at its value,” rather than through the miserly margins of welfare payments or the “family wage.”
Alongside the number of conceptual, political and practical problems addressed by this analysis, there were a similar number of problems with the analysis itself. On the conceptual side, it could be claimed that no labour in capitalism is ever paid for “at its value,” or else surplus-value extraction would not be the first law of capitalist work. The second objection would follow from this, that for Marx, “being a productive worker is a misfortune,” and that the identification of domestic labour with productive work only made it politically meaningful in the “workerist” context, fixated as it was by the productive/unproductive labour distinction and which saw the factory worker as hegemonic, rather than providing a weapon against the relations of production in its own right. On the political side, as was swiftly pointed out, linking the emancipation of female houseworkers to the wage both reinforced the centrality of the state or “total social capital” to the reproduction of workers and families, and trapped women in the home rather than renegotiating gender roles and radically moving the structure of the family in a more collective and egalitarian direction. Additionally, it faced the paradox of the “transitional demand” that asks to reform capitalist relations in a way which would make them no longer capitalist; a paradox equally confronting the idea of the “basic income” today. Finally, the practical problem of evaluating housework in the same terms as waged work would revolve around problems of measure and withdrawal of labour: “[…] how exactly a wage could be calculated, given the lack of instruments for the measurement of the work day? How could housework ‘strike’ overcome the necessary aspects of community support for struggle in other sectors of the class composition?”9
Wages for Housework could further be discussed as a tension between the prescriptive and descriptive: how does a critical position on the production of value help us overcome value? Proceeding through the moments of affirmation and negation again, the affirmation would go something like: we, too, produce value and are productive workers, so the workers’ movement has to take us into account and expand their concept of value to include unpaid or “social” labour. The negation could then be, if we produce value, then value is so broad as to fall apart; it immediately becomes a political rather than a technical category. This was in fact the position of Silvia Federici, among others, who cautions against the literal interpretation of the Wages for Housework programme, placing emphasis rather on its strategic horizons and its critical character, what she terms “Wages against Housework.” Rather than the productivist agenda of raising all to the same baseline of exploitation, the contribution of the Italian Autonomist feminist perspective was to push for a generalization of the refusal of work by expanding the category of what constituted work, and to ensure that the “hidden realm” of reproduction would never again be forgotten in the analysis of and action against capitalist exploitation. As Federici has recently noted on the legacy of Wages for Housework for today’s anti-systemic movements:
“When we said that housework is actually work for capital, that although it is unpaid work it contributes to the accumulation of capital, we established something extremely important about the nature of capitalism as a system of production. We established that capitalism is built on an immense amount of unpaid labor, that it is not built exclusively or primarily on contractual relations; that the wage relation hides the unpaid, slave-like nature of so much of the work upon which capital accumulation is premised [...] In other words, by recognizing that what we call “reproductive labor” is a terrain of accumulation and therefore a terrain of exploitation, we were able to also see reproduction as a terrain of struggle [...].”10
Parenthetically, it should also be added that Italian Marxist feminism took on very disparate forms, although the one chronicled above has perhaps become the most renowned due to the originality and far-reaching impact of its analysis. There were also feminist elements of the armed factions that emerged in Italy towards the end of the 1970s, and their efforts did not transpire in the “hidden realm” alone – they targeted health clinics that refused to provide abortions to users of public healthcare for “reasons of conscience,” but were happy to do so for a steep fee, as well as sweatshops employing mainly young and immigrant women.11 The emphasis on reproduction as a political battlefield most consistently developed by the feminists could also be seen to be key to the prevalence of both organized and informal campaigns of “self-reduction” and “proletarian shopping” in 1970s Italy; groups of tenants would take unilateral and concerted action to lower their rent or utilities, or pay lower prices or nothing for public transport or for groceries (although clearly the workers in these sectors had to be co-operative to some extent for these tactics to succeed).
The “social factory” of waged, unwaged and informal work did become increasingly central to Autonomist Marxism, as activists “followed the workers out of the factories,” who were leaving for reasons ranging from and between the broadly subjective (mass refusal) and broadly objective (mass unemployment). At the same time, there continued to be a caesura between feminism and class struggle, with divisions between socialist feminists, separatists, bourgeois and social democratic feminists and so forth complicating a situation where the subordination of women seemed so clearly to be attendant on capitalist class relations (and on religious customs) but seemed to flourish equally well in Left milieus among “comrades.” An articulation of the relations between patriarchy and capitalism (as well as the construction and exploitation of race)12 where sexism and racism are seen as both divisions in a global working-class and as relatively autonomous, as phenomena which are both overdetermined and contingent, continues to be one of the most vexed fault lines in Marxian praxis; a thinking-through of the relations between them which is adequate to the present moment of capitalist decomposition, in all its unevenness, is a project of staggering complexity and no less staggering urgency, even with the resources supplied by thirty or more years of Marxist and materialist feminism and queer theory, not to mention historical and actual praxis.
However, the prescient appropriation by the Italian Autonomist feminists of the reproductive field for political action by its “native informants,” by those already defined by their lack of access to social visibility and economic power, can now be used to contextualize the organized struggles against welfare cutbacks that found a resurgence in Thatcher-era Britain and are making a gradual reappearance today. Reproduction as the social mediation of the value-form outside the workplace has clearly always been problematic, as the foregoing has illustrated. Yet it is in times when this particular mediation starts to eclipse the encounter with the value-form in the workplace for increasing numbers of people, i.e., in times of mass unemployment and capitalist restructuring, that the politicization of reproduction starts to have more general repercussions which are no longer limited to those temporarily falling into the category of the unwaged and who decide to organize for mutual aid and advice. From examination of the 1980s groups, the practical consequences of this can be quite disparate. The interstitial and low-level nature of some claimants’ groups can suddenly acquire a degree of visibility for which in some cases the participants are not prepared, or materially cannot sustain. In some cases also, the organization can shuttle between being a campaign group with radical demands and a “service provider,” and can finally end up subcontracted as a service provider for the state – something which is only going to escalate with the present UK government’s ideological commitment to expanding the role of the voluntary sector in what were formerly areas of state provision: ‘The Big Society’.
Such a dialectic between self-activity and support has so far not been able to translate into a broader mobilization which finds a commonality between the interests of the unemployed and the still-employed, even in the current destructive climate of the impending and gratuitous cuts. It has, in other words, not been able to redefine those sociological or factual categories as political ones. Yet such a commonality, in whatever terms it is set out, and whether it’s guided more by expediency than left communist analysis, is indispensable to the de-legitimation of the cuts and a defeat of the political project that is generating them.
The Islington Action Group of the Unwaged (1980–86) along with other claimants’ action groups and benefit workers’ strikes of the 1980s and 1990s, and going into the present with the national and local branches of the Unemployed Workers Union, the Brighton Unemployed Centre, the Edinburgh Claimants Union and the London and Edinburgh CAPs (Coalitions Against Poverty), the Hackney Solidarity Group, Save Our Council Housing and Save Our Nurseries, comprise the most visible historical and present-day actors of the struggle on the terrain of reproduction in the UK. To different degrees, the perspective is about encouraging resistance and collective activity among the ever-more demonized “benefits scroungers” who are uniquely aware of the effects of the state deficit being resolved on their backs but only have the means to confront them in a largely individualized and piecemeal fashion, i.e., from a situation of defeat. It is also sometimes about the principled “refusal of work” position, viewing benefits as a direct appropriation of socially produced wealth otherwise removed from its producers; and then, fundamentally, it is about occupying the “welfare state commons” and all the contradictions of that position. Like the struggles in the universities or the battles against social housing privatization, it is less about upholding the entrenched model of public services than it is about refusing to concede what little remains of non-commodified public goods (although that struggle would seem to be lost in terms of higher education in England, where fees up to £10,000 for a full degree and rocketing student debt is now the norm; universities are still free in Scotland). This reactive, rear-guard orientation, though it might seem to be less descriptive of the 1980s – which had a more recent memory of working-class organization – than of the contemporary groups, confirms that the situation of defeat is fundamental to all the listed formations. Although the political conjuncture demands generalization of struggles, three decades of working-class decomposition, union-hostile laws and public quiescence are preventing this from happening at the moment. But this is not to overdetermine the future, even the immediate future. And couldn’t decomposition find its own specific power? Could we say that the labour of the negative still applies even when it is a question of the negation of labour?
Note: Originally conceived in two instalments, the material referred to but not extensively discussed in this text will appear in an autonomous text for Reartikulacija in 2011.
Marina Vishmidt is a London-based writer who deals mainly with art, value, and the politics of work and abstraction, currently doing a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London.
7 Like their contemporaries the Black Panthers, the Puerto Rican Young Lords combined a nationalist and anti-racist agenda with ‘community work,’ which consisted of self-organized programmes in childcare, education and food distribution alongside direct action. See Jennifer 8. Lee, “The Young Lords’ Legacy of Puerto Rican Activism”, New York Times, City Room blog, Aug. 24, 2009 and Frank Edwards, ‘Young Lords 40th Anniversary’ at http://www.areachicago.org/p/issues/6808/young-lords-40th-anniversary/; also http://www.nationalyounglords.com/ for the origins of the movement. For the Welfare Rights Movement, see Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States by Premilla Nadasen, Routledge, 2004 and Bread or Justice: Grassroots Organizing in the Welfare Rights Movement by Lawrence Neil Bailis, Lexington Books, 1974.
8 George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici, ‘Notes on the Edu–factory and Cognitive Capitalism,’ in The Commoner, issue 12, Summer 2007; in Edu-factory Collective, eds., Towards a Global Autonomous University: Cognitive Labor, the Production of Knowledge and Exodus from the Education Factory, Autonomedia, New York, 2009; and at http://www.commoner.org.uk/12federicicaffentz.pdf
9 Nicholas Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics, Routledge, London/New York, 2003, Chapter 5; or at http://libcom.org/library/deleuze-marx-politics-nicholas-thoburn-5
10 Silvia Federici, ‘Precarious Labour: a Feminist Viewpoint’, Variant 37 at http://www.variant.org.uk/37texts/Variant37.html#L9 or in the print edition pp 23–25.
11 See Vincenzo Ruggiero, ‘Sentenced to Normality: The Italian Political Refugees in Paris’, Crime, Law and Social Change, No. 19, 1993, pp. 33–50. Referenced in Pat Cunninghame, ‘Italian feminism, workerism and autonomy in the 1970s: The struggle against unpaid reproductive labour and violence’, p. 7, note 31; @mnis: Revue de Civilisation Contemporaine de l’Université de Bretagne Occidentale EUROPES / AMÉRIQUES http://www.univ-brest.fr/amnis/
12 It is relatively more straightforward to make the case that racism was both coterminous with and instrumental to the emergence of capitalism, via colonialism and slavery, than to make the same case for the subjugation of women, which seems historically much older and more widespread. In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici makes a trenchant, if not altogether successful argument, for the co-emergence of capitalism and the subjugation of women in the era of ‘primitive accumulation.’ Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation, Autonomedia, New York, 2004.