by Sara Colantuono and Geophrey Darrow
June 17, 2020
This publication is part of a collaborative project devoted to analyzing the Italian philosophical response to the COVID-19 pandemic, developed in the Spring 2020 graduate seminar “Italian Thought: Inside and Out” taught by Laura Odello and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.
Northern Italy, Padua, 1970s: a group of women involved in Marxist extra-parliamentary leftist groups such as Potere Operaio began to interrogate the concepts of domestic and reproductive labor as two of the most crucial, as well as undervalued, sites of exploitation of women under the capitalist mode of production. These concepts, in turn, were to give birth to the Wages for Housework campaign, led by the International Feminist Collective (IFC), that organized strikes against domestic as well as waged labor and demanded greater economic and social equality for women.
By the early 1980s, two key texts emerged to expand and historicize the ideas developed in this initial surge of critical attention: Silvia Federici and Leopoldina Fortunati’s Il Grande Calibano (1984), and Fortunati’s L’Arcano della Riproduzione (1981, English 1995). Although each offers a wealth of theoretical insights, the central conceptual maneuvers underpinning these texts are the recognition of women’s unpaid, reproductive labor as a site of the creation of value in the form of labor-power and the decentering of the so-called “transition to capitalism” as a liberatory process commensurate to Western narratives of historical progress, especially with respect to the lived conditions of women in the midst of this upheaval.
Indeed, Fortunati’s L’Arcano hinges on the argument that “labor power is the most precious commodity for capital not only because it is the only commodity capable of creating value during the process of production, but also because it reproduces itself as value within the process of reproduction” (1995: 12-13, italics in original). That is, Fortunati explodes all attempts to separate commercial and domestic spaces by demonstrating that the most valuable product on the market is, in fact, the worker, who gives value to all other commodities, and it is the labor performed largely by women in the home that ensures the continued production and value of that product-worker. And this value, for Fortunati as for Federici, coincides with and determines the capitalist expulsion of women from waged labor and women’s subsequently increased dependence upon the male wage under the capitalist regime (Fortunati 1995: 14).
English-language readers are, perhaps, more familiar with Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, published in English in 2004 and again with revisions in 2014, which set out to further the projects of L’Arcano and Il Grande Calibano with a renewed focus on the gendered implications of Marx’s concept of “primitive accumulation”: the violent seizure of resources that constitutes a necessary precondition for the development of capitalist modes of production (Capital vol.1: 1019-1020). In one of the most powerful crystallizations of her monograph’s central argument, Federici writes: “A return of the most violent aspects of primitive accumulation has accompanied every phase of capitalist globalization, including the present one, demonstrating that the continuous expulsion of farmers from the land, war and plunder on a world scale, and the degradation of women are necessary conditions for the existence of capitalism in all times” (2014: 12-13). In this respect, Federici significantly articulates the formal continuities between the devaluation of women’s labor/bodies and the conditions of crisis and violence that have been the defining characteristics of the history of capital.
While these theoretical contributions stand out for their lucidity and precision, even among similar attempts to individuate the structural force of domestic and reproductive labor conducted by feminists in other parts of the world, their reception from institutions and from other feminist groups as well as their practical application has remained tenuous since their critical peak in the 80s. A reflection on the failure of the feminist struggle to realize the revaluation of reproductive labor through means like wages for housework has not been developed yet, but, as the current health and economic emergency hits women’s lives in new but familar ways and the domestic space, familial relationships, education and care are reconfigured, these conceptualizations become more and more unavoidable.
In “La vita oltre la pandemia,” published on April 28, 2020 by Non Una di Meno, we see how a contemporary feminist collective takes up the devaluation of women’s and reproductive labor in light of the disparities made evident by COVID-19. Not only has this tendency led neoliberal policymakers to defund hospitals and thereby reduce the supply of available beds and medical resources, they argue, but the invisibility of women and care workers has also left them in many ways unprotected as the pandemic unfolds. This is true both in economic terms, where care workers, especially migrants, have been left without income support, and in terms of sexual and gender-based violence, which has been exacerbated by Italy’s stay-at-home orders. Citing Fortunati’s L’Arcano while following the pattern of political articulations that inform Federici’s later work, the writers of Non Una di Meno contend that this violence and exploitation cannot be separated from questions of colonialism, environmental exploitation, and wealth inequality writ large. In response to this dismal prospect, they advocate for a new and renewing ethics of care that takes up economic independence as a vital instrument in the struggle against these injustices.
Non Una di Meno (Not One Less) is a broad feminist coalition centered in Italy, drawing support from such groups as Io Decido (I Decide), Unione Donne in Italia (the Union of Women in Italy), and Donne In Rete Contro la Violenza (Network of Women Against Violence). Their mission is to bring the lived experiences of women and others who suffer under capitalist heteropatriarchy to the forefront of Italian politics and make issues like women’s autonomy, the right to choose, and sexual/gender-based violence mainstream political concerns in Italy and around the world. Among their first major demonstrations was a protest for the amendment of the Extraordinary National Anti-Violence Plan in 2016, and they continue to organize and protest against violence committed against women, LGBTQIA individuals, and people of color while demanding economic reform and the redistribution of wealth.