Social Reproduction, Neoliberal Crisis, and the Problem with Work: A Conversation with Kathi Weeks

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Reproduction and Crisis

This dia­logue with Kathi Weeks is the result of a con­ver­sa­tion in two parts. The first took place in the wake of The Prob­lem with Work’s 2011 pub­li­ca­tion. The sec­ond one took place today, in the sev­enth year of the global eco­nomic cri­sis, with still no end in sight. In 2011 my inter­est in Weeks’s book was above all tied to the sub­ject of work, as both pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion – specif­i­cally, its refusal and of the pos­si­bil­ity of its over­com­ing. In the sit­u­a­tion opened by the cri­sis, what attracts me above all is her “more expan­sive con­cep­tion of social repro­duc­tion,” which could best be described as the con­tra­dic­tion between cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion and social repro­duc­tion. In this sense it becomes pos­si­ble to expand the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal reflec­tion beyond house­work and care work as his­tor­i­cally defined, towards the alleged “nat­u­ral­ness” attrib­uted to the labor of women, open­ing up a reflec­tion on the fam­ily, on the coor­di­nates that deter­mine wage labor, on increas­ingly out­sourced care ser­vices, and there­fore on the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of care and repro­duc­tion, the sys­tem of wel­fare and its pro­gres­sive dis­man­tling.

From this per­spec­tive our con­ver­sa­tion aims to address the sub­ject of repro­duc­tion in gen­eral terms, or rather as a reflec­tion that is not lim­ited to con­sid­er­ing women’s work (and the his­toric exploita­tion that has accom­pa­nied women’s work in the domes­tic sphere), but which assumes a broader plane that calls into ques­tion what Romano Alquati, in an antic­i­pa­tory text on the sub­ject of repro­duc­tion writ­ten in the early 2000s, iden­ti­fied as the repro­duc­tion of the “liv­ing-human-capac­ity” ­– that the “work specif­i­cally with which all of us (co)self-reproduce our­selves” is there­fore as much women’s as it is men’s.1

At the same time, by trac­ing the con­tra­dic­tion between cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion and social repro­duc­tion, the con­ver­sa­tion sit­u­ates its dis­cur­sive space pre­cisely at the level of the ten­sion between val­oriza­tion and coop­er­a­tion – a stri­ated and con­tra­dic­tory plane, where the coop­er­a­tive pres­sures are able (per­haps) to chal­lenge or even over­throw the processes of val­oriza­tion and accu­mu­la­tion. This is the polit­i­cal per­spec­tive of The Prob­lem with Work, which here we try to con­sider in rela­tion to the cycle of strug­gles in the cri­sis, more pre­cisely a “cycle of sub­jec­tiv­i­ties,” which has attempted to iden­tify a point of dis­con­ti­nu­ity with respect to the poli­cies of aus­ter­ity.2 It is, to fol­low Weeks, a ques­tion of con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of open­ing con­crete and effec­tive paths that point to the con­struc­tion of new forms of rela­tions and social coop­er­a­tion inside and out­side the fam­ily; or, bring­ing back Alquati, of the “resub­jec­ti­va­tion of the man-woman com­mod­ity.” To put it another way, it is a ques­tion of a plane of polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion that chal­lenges the very ethics of fam­ily and of work at the base of the neolib­eral project; a plane of ten­sion among repro­duc­tive processes that are given as sub­jec­tion, and repro­duc­tive processes that are given as “resub­jec­ti­va­tion.”

Between sub­jec­ti­va­tion and “resub­jec­ti­va­tion,” then, the ten­sion between cap­i­tal­ist val­oriza­tion and social coop­er­a­tion, between cap­i­tal and work, plays out. It is in this sense that, it seems to me, we can say that today social repro­duc­tion can be under­stood as a field of bat­tle: the most advanced out­post of the processes of con­tem­po­rary val­oriza­tion and at the same time the space for exper­i­men­ta­tion and processes of rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of what affects social rela­tions, self-expres­sion, and gen­der rela­tions.3 I am indeed con­vinced that today, in the cri­sis, we are part of an impor­tant con­test pre­cisely on the ter­rain of repro­duc­tion, a con­test that is cru­cial for the very des­tinies of the neolib­eral project and for the pos­si­bil­ity of the auton­omy and resis­tance of con­tem­po­rary liv­ing labor and of its processes of coop­er­a­tion.

On one hand, we wit­ness what Nancy Fraser has iden­ti­fied as an “assault on the social repro­duc­tion dri­ven by finan­cial cap­i­tal,” an assault that we see at every level, just as we see the dis­man­tling of wel­fare under the pre­text of the cri­sis.4 In Italy, aus­ter­ity poli­cies have imposed a con­tin­u­ous increase of the retire­ment age, the dras­tic reduc­tion of the Social Fund and the con­stant pri­va­ti­za­tion of health care, not to men­tion schools and uni­ver­si­ties that have been effec­tively dis­man­tled under a strict regime of bud­get cuts (often in favor of pri­vate schools and uni­ver­si­ties).5 On the other hand it was pos­si­ble to observe in the cri­sis what Chris­tian Marazzi has pin­pointed as strug­gles and move­ments “brought together by the same pos­si­bil­ity of sur­vival,” or rather a type of strug­gle that imme­di­ately inter­ro­gates the plane of repro­duc­tion in its deep­est sense: as repro­duc­tion of the very human species, or, with Alquati, “liv­ing-human-capac­ity.”6 This strug­gle is at the same time a strug­gle for sur­vival and the autonomous repro­duc­tion of the human being and a strug­gle for the sur­vival and the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal, in the sense that today the source of sur­plus-value directly coin­cides with the exploita­tion of life in its deep­est essence. One thinks for exam­ple of the debt sys­tem that indis­sol­ubly marks the sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of the indebted per­son in mate­rial terms, but also in emo­tional rela­tion­ships, or – in a dif­fer­ent frame – of the trade in human genomes that, as Melinda Cooper and Cather­ine Waldby have bril­liantly illus­trated, has fos­tered the open­ing of new global mar­kets.7

And so the strug­gle isn’t over yet: we still see, on the one hand, the neolib­eral attack on wel­fare and processes of val­oriza­tion that tar­get all of life, and on the other, the attempts – how­ever spu­ri­ous, clumsy, and incom­plete – to make of the ter­rain of repro­duc­tion a space and envi­ron­ment of polit­i­cal resis­tance. It is a field stud­ded with traps and obsta­cles, and its out­come remains far from cer­tain.

One can­not draw from this con­ver­sa­tion any recipe for sal­va­tion. Instead, sparks of reflec­tion emerge which can prove use­ful for rethink­ing work and social repro­duc­tion in the con­text of the cri­sis, for reflect­ing on social strug­gles, and – accord­ing to Weeks – on the forms of life and of sub­jec­tive work, on the fam­ily and gen­der rela­tions, and at the core, on the work ethic that per­me­ates our soci­ety.

It includes, as will be clear, reflec­tions that take up and update the rich debates of sec­ond-wave and Marx­ist fem­i­nism – a ter­rain of analy­sis and reflec­tion still extremely rich in use­ful, crit­i­cal ideas and there­fore once more rel­e­vant. From this per­spec­tive, Weeks’ sharp reflec­tion brings to the fore the always-liv­ing cen­tral­ity of those argu­ments, and rests on a num­ber of social ques­tions that become increas­ingly more pro­nounced in the cri­sis. Given its gen­e­sis, the inter­view that fol­lows con­sists of two parts, con­ceived and elab­o­rated within dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties, there­fore chrono­log­i­cally dis­tinct but con­ver­sa­tion­ally and ana­lyt­i­cally inte­grated together. Through this jux­ta­po­si­tion of speci­fic and inter­con­nected reflec­tions, which are pre­sented in the text fol­low­ing their chrono­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion, we bring out (through rep­e­ti­tions and recon­sid­er­a­tions) the nuances of a reflec­tion that spans five years full of changes.

Alto­gether, the inter­view tries to inves­ti­gate some knots that I con­sider cen­tral for a debate on the present: the sub­ject of work and its (pre­sumed) cen­tral­ity in bio­graph­i­cal and sub­jec­tive path­ways, and the pro­duc­tion of mean­ing attached to work in the con­text of pre­car­ity; its impli­ca­tions in the lim­its of the pro­duc­tion of sub­jec­tiv­ity, along the color line and the gen­der line, and the speci­fici­ties (and crit­i­cal­i­ties) that fol­low from them. Beyond the sub­ject of the fam­ily and the orga­ni­za­tion of house­work is the sub­ject of post-work that Weeks posits as a utopian hori­zon, or rather as the polit­i­cal and social ten­sion for change, a sub­ject which it is nec­es­sary above all to grasp and rethink in light of the still more pro­nounced ten­dency of neolib­er­al­ism in cri­sis to resort to forms of unpaid work, sup­plied and taken on by sub­jects them­selves as indis­pens­able moments of social growth and recog­ni­tion. In short, the cri­sis as a pow­er­ful lab­o­ra­tory for exper­i­men­ta­tion in the processes of sub­jec­tion and resis­tance, in which social repro­duc­tion, in its “expan­sive con­cep­tion,” is pre­sented as a priv­i­leged and, I would say, essen­tial, area of reflec­tion. But let’s pro­ceed in an orderly way.

The Problem With Work

Anna Cur­cio: What is the prob­lem with work?

Kathi Weeks: There are so many prob­lems. We can men­tion at least three. First of all, work monop­o­lizes our life. We spend a huge quan­tity of time and energy at work: prepar­ing and orga­niz­ing our work, mak­ing sure our work is secure, and recu­per­at­ing our spent energy; we are not only work­ing, we become work­ers! The sec­ond prob­lem con­cerns the capac­ity of work to dom­i­nate our polit­i­cal and social imag­i­na­tion. Work is where we develop our iden­tity, access social net­works, and con­struct social­ity. In the United States, work also estab­lishes the way one accesses health ser­vices and other social rights. Finally, work, that is, wage labor, is a prob­lem because as a sys­tem of dis­tri­b­u­tion of income and of social inclu­sion it is, at best, incom­plete. As the fem­i­nist cri­tique has high­lighted, there are many forms of social pro­duc­tiv­ity that are not tied to wage labor, and which are not taken into account in the redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth. And then there is per­haps the most impor­tant prob­lem, which is the hege­mony of the work ethic. Today this ethic is even more cen­tral because in forms of post-Fordist pro­duc­tion there is an enor­mous need for work­ers will­ing to invest their sub­jec­tiv­ity and to iden­tify with their work.

AC: Where does this need arise from?

KW: In the fac­tory work­ers can be more care­fully directed and con­trolled, and there­fore it is less of a prob­lem for employ­ers if they do not iden­tify with their work. But in care work, in sales or in ser­vices and in all those other forms of work that dot the post-Fordist uni­verse, there isn’t an anal­o­gous model of con­trol and super­vi­sion. There is there­fore a greater need for self-dis­ci­pline. Research shows that employ­ers are pri­mar­ily inter­ested in their employ­ees’ eth­i­cal invest­ment in work, which becomes one of the prin­ci­ple appa­ra­tuses of sub­jec­tion.

AC: In your book you talk about a work iden­tity that in sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence enters into rela­tion with dif­fer­ences in class, race, and gen­der. What does this mean in terms of the pro­duc­tion of sub­jec­tiv­ity?

KW: Work is cer­tainly the space of the “becom­ing-class” of sub­jects and of the con­struc­tion of racial­ized and gen­dered iden­ti­ties. On the ter­rain of gen­der this rela­tion is par­tic­u­larly pow­er­ful because there also exists a gen­der divi­sion of labor in both the waged and unwaged spheres. Sta­tis­tics show a per­sis­tent occu­pa­tional gen­der seg­re­ga­tion that affects all the pro­duc­tive sec­tors – although with dif­fer­ent gradations.This divi­sion can affect not only wage lev­els but also work sched­ules and activ­i­ties. For exam­ple, part-time work is dom­i­nated by women. And although the divi­sion of tasks is often arbi­trary, gen­der dif­fer­ence can func­tion to fun­nel work­ers into dif­fer­ent jobs. One could think here of the fast food indus­try, where men often work in the kitchen and women in the front, even though gen­der stereo­types could dic­tate the oppo­site.

AC: So can we think of being up front as a new sex­ual divi­sion of labor?

KW: I don’t think this is some­thing new. This rel­a­tively arbi­trary divi­sion is always grounded in an ide­o­log­i­cal pre­sup­po­si­tion of nat­u­ral sex dif­fer­ences: women do this thing bet­ter and not the other. Notwith­stand­ing fem­i­nist strug­gles, women remain the ones prin­ci­pally respon­si­ble for unpaid house­work, which strongly influ­ences their rela­tion with wage labor. The so-called fem­i­niza­tion of work, then, should be accom­pa­nied by a dis­course on the deep hier­ar­chiza­tion of work with respect to gen­der: oth­er­wise one risks ren­der­ing gen­der norms and forms of occu­pa­tional seg­re­ga­tion invis­i­ble.

From the Marxist-Feminist Archive

AC: In your book there are con­tin­ual ref­er­ences, some of them crit­i­cal, to 1970s Marx­ist-fem­i­nism. How have these analy­ses influ­enced your reflec­tion?

KW: Much of the book is ded­i­cated to reimag­in­ing and rewrit­ing some of the analy­ses elab­o­rated in those years. The writ­ings of the “Wages for House­work” cam­paign have inspired me most of all, in par­tic­u­lar the way in which they incor­po­rated the refusal of work into the fem­i­nist project to iden­tify the pro­duc­tive dimen­sion of house­work. They first of all rec­og­nized house­work as socially nec­es­sary work, with­out which the econ­omy of wage labor would not be able to func­tion. They made it vis­i­ble, under­scor­ing the com­ple­men­tar­ity between pro­duc­tive and repro­duc­tive work. Today, because pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion are super­im­posed, these terms no longer func­tion ade­quately, but in those years they made pos­si­ble the con­struc­tion of a ter­rain of very rad­i­cal demands that allowed one to ques­tion the respon­si­bil­i­ties of women with respect to the work of repro­duc­tion. In this sense, they approached the dis­course on house­work in terms of the refusal of the mor­al­iz­ing dimen­sion of work, under­stood as a labor of love within the fam­ily. There­fore, while they made an effort to make vis­i­ble the work of repro­duc­tion as imme­di­ately pro­duc­tive, they intended simul­ta­ne­ously to fight it. A very com­pli­cated and some­times even con­tra­dic­tory project, which remains of great use today.

AC: Why do you say con­tra­dic­tory?

KW: The prob­lem is how to rec­og­nize house­work as socially nec­es­sary work and to dis­trib­ute it evenly with­out the over-val­u­a­tion of domes­tic work. Nei­ther should women over-value waged work in their attempt to escape from manda­tory domes­tic­ity.

Even some fem­i­nist dis­courses have fal­len into this con­tra­dic­tion and repro­duced the work ethic and fam­ily val­ues dis­course, neglect­ing the fact that both domes­tic and waged work dom­i­nate our life and that both must be fought. How­ever, although it is more or less clear what is meant by the refusal of wage labor, what it means to refuse house­work is con­sid­er­ably more dif­fi­cult to under­stand. Would it mean aban­don­ing peo­ple and our oblig­a­tions to care? I believe it is rather a ques­tion of under­stand­ing how to reor­ga­nize care and to redis­trib­ute it in a way that does not com­pletely occupy our lives.

AC: But today, because pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion tend to coin­cide, to reor­ga­nize care would also mean to some extent reor­ga­niz­ing pro­duc­tion. How can we rethink this rela­tion­ship?

KWThis is part of the dif­fi­culty, and “Wages for House­work” can again be use­ful. To demand a wage for house­work is also a lim­i­ta­tion. In the sev­en­ties, these fem­i­nists under­scored that women did not iden­tify them­selves, at least not all of them, with the fig­ure of the house­wife. So, in nam­ing house­work as women’s work there was the risk of strength­en­ing the asso­ci­a­tion between gen­der and house­work. I have been argu­ing that the demand for a wage for house­work be replaced with a demand for basic income that is neu­tral with respect to gen­der and which does not con­form merely to the domes­tic dimen­sion, there­fore a demand even more pow­er­ful because it con­cerns every­one. How­ever there remains the prob­lem of how to make vis­i­ble the fact that house­work is con­ducted pri­mar­ily by women. It is a ques­tion then of find­ing a way to rec­on­cile the fem­i­nist analy­sis of gen­der with the demand for basic income. I have sug­gested that the cat­e­gory of life could be devel­oped as a coun­ter to both work and fam­ily.

AC: Can we then say that out­side of wage labor the bat­tle lines pass through the fam­ily?

KWCer­tainly. In the book, dis­cussing strug­gles for the reduc­tion of work­ing hours, I tried to imag­ine an alter­na­tive to the wide­spread idea of reduc­ing work­ing hours to have “more time for fam­ily.” The move­ment for the work­ing day in the United States demanded eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will. I am par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in this idea of “what we will,” which leaves open the space of pos­si­bil­ity: of forms of social coop­er­a­tion out­side both wage labor and the insti­tu­tion of the fam­ily.

AC: Between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, there­fore, a space we call “other” takes form, which is spec­i­fied by what you call “a more expan­sive con­cep­tion of social repro­duc­tion.” Can you elab­o­rate?

KWThe expan­sive dimen­sion of social repro­duc­tion is a cat­e­gory that I use to pro­pose in a dif­fer­ent way the antag­o­nism between cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion and social repro­duc­tion. Instead of think­ing wage-labor on one hand and the fam­ily and unpaid house­work on the other, tak­ing up again the work of the fem­i­nists of the sev­en­ties, I reflect on the con­flicts that exist between these two spheres. Dwelling only on domes­tic work and think­ing exclu­sively of repro­duc­tion does not offer a con­vinc­ing solu­tion to the prob­lem. This can lead to “solu­tions” that cen­ter on the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of care, which does not address the basic prob­lems. I believe instead that there needs to be a more thor­ough-going cri­tique of the orga­ni­za­tion of domes­tic work, one that points to the con­struc­tion of new forms of rela­tions and of social coop­er­a­tion inside and out­side the fam­ily.

AC: Do you believe that the cri­sis can be a fur­ther occa­sion for the con­struc­tion of these new forms of rela­tions?

KWI don’t know. Cer­tainly in the United States one can imag­ine that the cri­sis could pro­voke a dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship to con­sump­tion. It could cer­tainly be an oppor­tu­nity for rethink­ing life in a more coop­er­a­tive way, the forms of repro­duc­tion and of the dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth. But I do not know how much this is today a real­ity; in the United States, at any rate, work remains cen­tral.

Work, Between Ethics and Refusal

AC: On the other hand, when com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion pre­vails over coop­er­a­tion, it is as if the work ethic is imposed on the refusal of work, as if what you call the “work soci­ety” has got­ten the bet­ter of the post-work imag­i­nary that you sit­u­ate as the polit­i­cal hori­zon of your book…

KWThe idea of post-work is inten­tion­ally a small part of the top­ics that I dis­cuss in the book. I see post-work as a utopian imag­i­nary that ges­tures toward pos­si­ble forms of life that are not strictly sub­or­di­nated to work, in which place work as a part of life but not all of life. This imag­i­nary recon­ceives the man­age­ment of time, the pro­duc­tion of iden­ti­ties, and assump­tions about our polit­i­cal and social oblig­a­tions.

AC: Nev­er­the­less, work, as the demand for work, remains cen­tral above all for the pre­car­i­ous, who have dif­fi­culty refus­ing work because they have only ever had a dis­con­tin­u­ous, uncer­tain, and tem­po­rary rela­tion­ship with it. There­fore, para­dox­i­cally, what might be called the “pre­cariat” pro­duces a renewed demand for work…

KWThe demand for more work must still make up part of a polit­i­cal agenda, includ­ing, for exam­ple, the efforts to improve the lives of women who do not have an equal and uncon­di­tional access to work and to income. Also the demand for bet­ter work should be part of the polit­i­cal agenda, espe­cially if it can speak to the “dou­ble exploita­tion” of women at home and at work and an end to the gen­der divi­sion of this work. We should also, finally, cul­ti­vate a demand for less work. It is, how­ever, dif­fi­cult to com­bine all these domands together. Demands for less work, more work, and bet­ter work can be con­tra­dic­tory.  My sense is that today less work should be given pri­or­ity.  In short, a post-work imag­i­nary must be informed by a rig­or­ous anti-work pol­i­tics.

AC: There­fore strug­gles are against work and post-work remains a utopian hori­zon…

KWExactly, and it is for this rea­son that I am inter­ested in basic income and the reduc­tion of work­ing hours. At least in the U.S. con­text there is lit­tle space for these types of demands, and that is why I pose them as utopian demands for a post-work soci­ety. I believe that it is impor­tant to pro­duce an imag­i­nary, although utopian, that allows one to think a beyond to work. It is a ques­tion of, in other words, cir­cu­lat­ing a dif­fer­ent idea of life that allows us to rethink work sys­tem­at­i­cally as a redis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tem and sub­ject it to crit­i­cism. The demand for basic income and for the reduc­tion of work­ing hours can serve as oppor­tu­ni­ties to pro­mote debate about work and its orga­ni­za­tion.

AC: It is a project at the same time crit­i­cal and “vision­ary.”

KWYes, the refusal of work and the elab­o­ra­tion of a pos­si­ble imag­i­nary are com­ple­men­tary moments. For exam­ple, the refusal of work as an anti-work pol­i­tics also gen­er­ates a post-work imag­i­nary. In par­tic­u­lar I am inter­ested in the utopian dimen­sion, where by utopia I mean dis­cur­sive prac­tices that encour­age us to expand our hori­zons of our think­ing about work and its ethics. More­over, in the cri­tique that I advance about work, I also want to put the prob­lem of equal­ity, or rather of an unequal exploita­tion in work, next to that of free­dom, under­stood in Marx­ian terms as the pos­si­bil­ity of col­lec­tively cre­at­ing the world in which we live: the rela­tions, the insti­tu­tions, and the goods that we pro­duce. The imag­i­nary that I pro­pose there­fore also has to do with the power that sub­jects are able to exer­cise over the col­lec­tive cre­ation of the time and space of the social world. The prob­lem with work and the rea­son for its refusal are not only refer­ring to exploita­tion but also con­cern the con­trol that is exer­cised on the con­tent and time of your work, on the rela­tion­ships that you estab­lish with oth­ers.

Work and Social Reproduction in the Crisis

AC: The cri­sis is marked by the emer­gence of new global strug­gles. I have per­ceived these strug­gles as strongly engaged on the ground of social repro­duc­tion, exper­i­ment­ing with new social rela­tions that try to base them­selves on shar­ing and coop­er­a­tion. I am in par­tic­u­lar refer­ring to the expe­ri­ence of Occupy or to the Span­ish acam­padas that have paid great atten­tion to the man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tion of com­mon activ­i­ties, by tak­ing charge of ser­vices such as kitchens and libraries, by dis­cussing gen­der rela­tions, vio­lence against women and so on. I think also of expe­ri­ences such as the Mar­eas in Spain, or projects to self-man­age the health care sys­tem in Greece, which remind me of the expan­sive con­cep­tion of social repro­duc­tion you dis­cuss in your book. In such expe­ri­ences, the fight against wel­fare cuts and the con­se­quent reduc­tion of cer­tain ser­vices such as health or edu­ca­tion have resulted in the test­ing of new prac­tices that have put together ser­vice work­ers and con­sumers in the fight against aus­ter­ity mea­sures, as an autonomous orga­ni­za­tion and com­mon man­age­ment of a ser­vice. Within such a con­text, strug­gles don’t intend to restore the social order com­pro­mised by the cri­sis, or plead for pub­lic inter­ven­tion in sup­port of the wel­fare sys­tem, as ear­lier strug­gles did in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather, these strug­gles are emerg­ing as the exper­i­men­ta­tion and inven­tion of a new ground of social rela­tions that is “autonomous” from both the pri­vate mar­ket and the pub­lic pol­icy of the state. That is to say, they are prac­tic­ing and try­ing out new col­lec­tive social rela­tion­ships based on shar­ing and coop­er­a­tion. In other words, they are exper­i­ment­ing, with vary­ing suc­cess, with the pro­duc­tion of the com­mon – or a prac­tice of com­mon­ing – that is both a source and a result of social coop­er­a­tion, the area from which the com­po­si­tion of liv­ing labor takes form and its auton­omy takes shape. What do you think of such exper­i­ments?

KW: I find these prac­tices that emerge within the move­ments both nec­es­sary and insuf­fi­cient. On the one hand, as lab­o­ra­to­ries for the devel­op­ment of new ways to repro­duce our lives and exper­i­ments with more sus­tain­able modes of labor orga­ni­za­tion and social coop­er­a­tion, I find them enor­mously impor­tant. To my mind, they are most sig­nif­i­cant as alter­na­tives to the fam­ily model and the many still cou­ple-cen­tric and pri­va­tized house­hold forms that mimic it. Most of the exam­ples you men­tion orga­nize rela­tions of care and coop­er­a­tion that are not con­tained within the house­hold. As is the case with other pre­fig­u­ra­tive prac­tices, the value of these efforts to cre­ate new forms of life extends beyond their pos­si­ble prac­ti­cal (re)applications. For one thing they can also model and inspire the social and polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion regard­less of how one might judge the ade­quacy of their speci­fic con­tent. And they can also serve to chal­lenge the ethos of aus­ter­ity – that we should want, dream, social­ize and care less, and work and sac­ri­fice more – which is cen­tral to both the work ethic and fam­ily val­ues dis­courses that help to legit­i­mate the state’s (non)response to the cri­sis. These prac­tices insist that we pub­li­cize and politi­cize the work and time of social repro­duc­tion, both in the nar­row sense of what is required to sus­tain life itself and in the more expan­sive sense of what it takes to become more than we are now, to build bet­ter ways of being and liv­ing together.

On the other hand, I also think it is impor­tant to note that these small-scale and local exper­i­ments are nec­es­sar­ily lim­ited. As prac­tices that peo­ple orga­nize them­selves with­out more insti­tu­tion­al­ized forms of sup­port, they could also be likened to the kind of entre­pre­neurial endeav­ors that neolib­eral ide­olo­gies cel­e­brate. The rela­tions of social repro­duc­tion are insep­a­ra­ble from what is offi­cially rec­og­nized as the sys­tem of eco­nomic pro­duc­tion; the rein­ven­tion of one depends on the trans­for­ma­tion of the other. Social repro­duc­tion takes work – the idea must be chal­lenged that it is some­thing that we can do in addi­tion to a life­time of waged work or, alter­na­tively, in the absence of any other income. And while I do see the impor­tance of devel­op­ing alter­na­tives to the dom­i­nant forms of both pri­vate and pub­lic repro­duc­tive ser­vices and sup­port, I think some form of insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion is essen­tial lest we con­tinue to assume that our sur­vival should depend on the per­sonal rela­tions we may or may not be lucky enough to find, and may or may not be capa­ble of sus­tain­ing.

AC: I would like to pose another ques­tion con­nect­ing labor and cri­sis, specif­i­cally regard­ing the increas­ing reliance on unpaid labor. This is some­thing we have largely expe­ri­enced by work­ing as pre­car­i­ous work­ers, or as stu­dents in the uni­ver­si­ties, or through those legal­ized forms of unpaid labor that are called “intern­ships.” How­ever, within the cri­sis, in Italy at least, the use of unpaid labor tends to be insti­tu­tion­al­ized – for exam­ple, the Expo 2015 in Milan has “hired” about 15,000 young peo­ple with unpaid work con­tracts. Such labor comes with promises of improved resumes, hence empha­siz­ing the need for some sort of nat­u­ral­iza­tion of unpaid labor as an essen­tial pre­req­ui­site for a waged job in the labor mar­ket. This is, I would say, a logic in many ways sim­i­lar to the one that has his­tor­i­cally hooked women to the unpaid labor of repro­duc­tion, house­work, and care. In this regard your analy­sis on the refusal of work offers impor­tant insights. Dis­cussing the refusal of unpaid labor today, a labor largely under­stood as the har­bin­ger of impor­tant promises for the future, takes on a polit­i­cal urgency. What do you mean by refusal of work in these con­di­tions? How, within these coor­di­nates, could we move beyond the labor ethics you largely crit­i­cized in your work and think con­cretely to a post-work soci­ety? Is there any room for the refusal of work in such a con­text?

KW: I think that your claim about the rel­e­vance of the case of unwaged domes­tic work to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of intern­ship labor and other forms of unwaged or under­waged “appren­tice­ships” is very com­pelling. After all, cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion has always depended on unwaged labor to repro­duce the sys­tem of waged labor. This is some­thing that sec­ond wave Marx­ist fem­i­nists fought to expose, an insight that demands the dra­matic expan­sion of what we under­stand as the econ­omy and as the ter­rain of eco­nomic strug­gle. The list of the modes of work that employ­ers profit from but do not com­pen­sate us for arguably expands in post-Fordist economies. These include not only all the labor of enabling the present work­force to go to work each day or night and rais­ing new gen­er­a­tions of work­ers, but also most of the edu­ca­tional achieve­ments, com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, social net­works, cul­tural forms, and affec­tive capac­i­ties that work­ers are expected to cul­ti­vate and that employ­ers do not pay for. Although I think intern­ship and intern­ship-like labor should be under­stood on this con­tin­uum of non-com­pen­sated pro­duc­tion, there is some­thing stun­ning about being able to pass these jobs off as some­thing dif­fer­ent from paid posi­tions. There doesn’t seem to be a need even to claim that they serve as train­ing peri­ods, as in older forms of appren­tice­ship. It is as if they are designed to prove that a poten­tial worker is will­ing to look at the job as some­thing other than an exchange of labor for income, as some­thing one needs for rea­sons other than mere money. It is as if the point is to demon­strate one’s enthu­si­as­tic will­ing­ness to embrace a non-instru­men­tal rela­tion­ship to work. Return­ing again to the fem­i­nist cri­tique, the sec­ond wave fem­i­nists asso­ci­ated with the “Wages for House­work” demand argued that the first step in refus­ing cul­tur­ally (as well as polit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally) man­dated domes­tic­ity for women was to insist that unwaged house­hold labor is work. The sec­ond step was to see it as merely work. This strikes me as still very rel­e­vant advice in the con­text of these devel­op­ments in the regime of work.

 – Trans­lated by Andrew Anas­tasi

  1. In par­tic­u­lar Romano Alquati dis­tin­guishes “the speci­fic work with which we (co)reproduce oth­ers” and that work with which “we (co)self-reproduce our­selves.” He writes: “There is the speci­fic work with which we (co)reproduce oth­ers: repro­duc­tive and above all fem­i­nine work, but not only fem­i­nine”; and “there is in the first place the speci­fic work with which all of us (co)self-reproduce our­selves, and this too is weighted toward women. So the females espe­cially (fem­i­nists no longer say females, males: they con­sider it offen­sive…) have from the begin­ning of human­ity a dou­ble pres­ence between repro­duc­tion of self and repro­duc­tion (much more than the oth­ers) that, how­ever, in cap­i­tal­ism is turned into work and com­mod­i­fied, and in addi­tion indus­tri­al­ized. There is an anal­o­gous dou­ble pres­ence among males, albeit less so.” Romano Alquati, Sulla ripro­duzione della capac­ità umana vivente oggi, unpub­lished man­u­script, Torino 2001. 

  2. Den­tro la crisi allo spec­chio,” Com­mon­ware, August 30, 2013. 

  3. Which Alquati has spec­i­fied already as the “direct and prin­ci­pal loca­tion of the very valorization/accumulation of cap­i­tal and of cap­i­tal­ism”; Alquati, Sulla ripro­duzione, 3. 

  4. Nancy Fraser, For­tunes of Fem­i­nism (Lon­don: Verso, 2013), 5. 

  5. In the three years from 2010-2013, the national fund for social poli­cies – related to pen­sions, child­hood, immi­gra­tion, sup­port for fam­i­lies, and for non-self-suf­fi­cient per­sons – lost 90 per­cent of its resources, while the funds for the right to hous­ing, espe­cially in sup­port for rents, have in the past decade suf­fered a cut of 95 per­cent (down from 360 to 9.8 mil­lion Euros), equiv­a­lent today to 0.1 per­cent of invest­ments in social spend­ing, where the aver­age of the EU-27 is 2 per­cent (Rap­porto sui diritti glob­ali 2013, ed. asso­ci­azione Soci­etàIN­for­mazione, 2013). In terms of health, we take note on the other hand of the con­stant increase in those who turn to the pri­vate sec­tor, espe­cially in rela­tion to wait­ing times for pub­lic vis­its, which can reach up to 15 months (up to 3 per­cent between 2007 and 2013, with more than 12 mil­lion users), while there are 6 mil­lion Ital­ians who in 2013 have joined a health fund aid – includ­ing their fam­ily mem­bers we get to around 11 mil­lion clients. This is a rel­a­tively low fig­ure com­pared to 43 per­cent in Ger­many, 65.8 per­cent in France, and 76.1 per­cent in the United States, but it nev­er­the­less shows the ten­dency toward the grad­ual replace­ment of the pub­lic health sec­tor with a pri­vate one (for those who can afford it). This point has been elab­o­rated in Anna Cur­cio and Cristina Morini, “Social Repro­duc­tion: Genealo­gies, New Par­a­digms and Con­tem­po­rary Chal­lenges,” paper pre­sented at the His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism con­fer­ence, Rome 2015. 

  6. Gigi Rog­gero and Chris­tian Marazzi, “La nemesi stor­ica del cap­i­tale. Inter­vista a Chris­tian Marazzi,” Com­mon­ware 2014. 

  7. Melinda Cooper and Cather­ine Waldby, Clin­i­cal Labour (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2014). 

Authors of the article

is a political scientist and author of The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries.

is a militant scholar in the field of autonomous marxism, and part of the Commonware project.