Wages without work

Revolution at Point Zero by Silvia Federici and The Problem with Work by Kathi Weeks, reviewed by Nicholas Beuret
November 2012

It is no longer a question of being out of work. The question is: on whose terms will we be unemployed? The financial crisis has thrown millions out of work and destroyed the future possibility of decent work for millions more. Many, if not most, of the unemployed and unemployable are women. With the TUC calling for ‘A future that works’ at its recent march, the publication of two books that pay attention to the legacies of feminist and anti-work traditions such as Wages for Housework is welcome.

Silvia Federici is a writer and militant who co-founded the International Feminist Collective, which launched the Wages for Housework campaign internationally. Kathi Weeks is an associate professor of women’s studies at Duke University. Accordingly their books differ in style and approach; however both develop aspects of a critique of work and the central role reproduction has to play in the transformation of our lives.

Revolution at Point Zero is an edited collection of Federici’s work, including some of the earliest Wages for Housework texts; essays exploring the ‘war against women’, which she argues forms both the pre-history and current conditions of capitalism; and essays exploring the limits of care and the role of the commons. Federici has been working on all these issues for decades, most notably in Caliban and the Witch (Autonomedia, 2004).

In this edited collection several key analytical highlights stand out. The first is the insight that unwaged work – in the home and the colonies – is the foundation of capitalism. A campaign against unwaged labour, like the fight against colonial rule, was (and still is) crucial to ‘break the processes of capital accumulation’.

The second is the denaturalisation of gender roles: the fact that housework is not ‘naturally’ women’s work but emerged as a naturalised social role at the same time as (male) waged work. Both the housewife and the waged worker are capitalist social roles.

The third, and perhaps most important for current feminist movements, is that waged work has failed to liberate women. Federici argues that liberation is not to be found in refusing either reproductive labour or waged work but in the radical transformation of both.

Last is the insight that we need what Federici describes as ‘the commons’ as a means to create non-capitalist forms of collective reproduction. Commons are not a replacement for struggles over the wage but a necessary compliment. This insight has inspired Federici’s recent work in US social movements, building what has been termed ‘communities of care’ or ‘self-reproducing movements’, and offers an inspiring starting point for post-Occupy strategising.

Weeks begins The Problem with Work with a focus on the pervasiveness of the work ethic and the centrality of work to capitalists and anti-capitalists alike. Her primary concern is to show how the imperative to ‘be productive’ constrains the potential of revolutionary movements. She sees our imaginations as captured by a particular understanding of what is economically and ethically valuable.

She convincingly shows how an imperative to be productive, at work, in the home, school and in life generally (‘Five Top Tips for Productive Dating Profiles!’), is central to the way capitalism not only puts us to work but makes us want to be put to work. We think work is right and just, and when we imagine another world, even a ‘post-revolutionary world’, we imagine a world of work. Weeks argues that we need to break the hold that work has on our imaginations. She calls for ‘concrete utopianism’ – a perspective that starts from what is possible now, even though it may seem impossible.

Starting from the possible utopian aspects of the present, Weeks, in a similar vein to Federici, calls for a re-centring of struggle around our everyday life against work. For Weeks, this starts from two linked demands.

The first is for a basic income, divorced from any ‘productive activity’. The idea is not to valorise unwaged labour as a form of work, or to recognise the economic value of everyday acts of reproduction, but to enable a life outside waged work. For neoliberal class warriors like David Cameron, it is precisely this disconnect between income and the wage, often found in aspects of the social wage such as the NHS and welfare benefits, that is the primary target of recent cuts.

The second demand is for shorter working hours without a reduction in wages. Without time to live differently away from waged work there is no possibility for creating a different world. Revolutionary movements and moments need time and it is precisely the question of what to do with that time, the question of how to live and (re)produce differently, that lies at the heart of both books.

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Corrupt Bstard 9 November 2012, 09.46

The Unconditional Basic Income is the way forward. More power to anyone pushing this idea out there. Now if only the Green Party would become known as the party of the citizens income rather than the party of the environment, we could well see our SYRIZA moment in the UK

laurence 23 November 2012, 22.54

although the basic income idea is progressive – and is probably part of any solution to our present crises – we might want to ask why Andre Gorz, while pushing a form of basic income for decades, for most of that time insisted that it SHOULD be conditional on work or some form of contribution

I think the answer is that he understood citizenship is a relationship in which members of a geographically bounded political community grant one-another rights and impose on one-another responsibilities. For the most part these rights and responsibilities are culturally encoded and tacitly understood – a kind of cultural substructure out of which the superstructure of legal, political and economic rights emerge and take specific forms.

This is essentially a kind of social contract. Arguably this is why the Beveridge post WW2 welfare model in the UK took the form of an insurance scheme – by working one “paid in”, and was therefore entitled to welfare payments or services in times of need. It is extremely important to point out here that such an arrangement puts a premium on trust and a broad sense of collective belonging. If the system is to be successful it should be a widely accepted assumption that most able-bodied people will not attempt to play the system (free ride), and will only claim on the system in times of genuine need. If this is broadly accepted it should also be the case that the community recognises a collective obligation to those who cannot easily find work (for example the disabled) to provide adequate financial and other support so that they can share in the life of the community in a manner which ensures self respect.

the relationship of this understanding of citizenship and welfare to the unconditional citizens income idea is that without the obligation to contribute, the right to receive payments to an adequate level which allows participation in the life of the community and self-respect (i.e. full citizenship) will be fragile and is in fact inevitably doomed to being whittled or smashed down – through tax revolts, election of right-wing parties with anti-welfare agendas, etc.

for this reason, I believe what is needed is legislation limiting working hours, economic policies promoting full employment (but which must be with less hours per week than at present and must be linked to a genuinely green economic agenda) and some kind of citizens income, but one which allows people to work much more flexibly, but does not promote large-scale free riding.

Bernard Marszalek 24 December 2012, 05.45

Here in the U.S. Basic Income seems like a stealth political program. Though considered in the 60’s by a political spectrum that reached from ML King to Nixon, the idea was only revived a decade ago by academics with no significant impact. I think in part because the parameters of the program are in dispute as evidence by the previous comment from Laurence.

The issue of “free riding” – contra Gorz – should not determine the outlines of a program to liberate us from stupid and demeaning jobs. What is the worst social catastrophe after all – paying someone a minimal income to dream all day or enforcing an arbitrary definition of “socially useful” work?

The larger quandary for me is to agitate for a system that depends on State beneficence: What power decrees, it can rescind. One approach may be to use the notion of the Commons as the basis for providing all with at least a basic livelihood. Embedding this concept into the socio-political and cultural foundations of society may provide the means by which we remove the State (at least a bit) from our daily lives. Alaska already has an annual fund based on oil revenues that provides approximately $1,000 to all residents – adults and children. The Alaska Permanent Fund, established in 1976, is independently, and transparently, managed and endorsed to both Republicans and Democrats.

Red Pepper readers should know that Karl Marx’s multi-racial son-in-law Paul Lafargue argued for a three hour, three-day work week in 1883 in his essay “The Right to be Lazy.” For more see:

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