Between La Salada and the Workshop: Communitarian Wealth in Dispute

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“Ibid., 14) and it is precisely the porous border between “biology and meaning” that familiarizes it with this being in transit. It is the fixation on some type of “naturalness,” however, that encloses her as a “being on the borderline” while it marks a clear space of exclusion.”

Sarah Pabst, “Inside the Market”

Starting from the enormous informal market on the outskirts of Buenos Aires – La Salada – in Neoliberalism from Below, Verónica Gago examines the complex popular economies constructed on the borders of the legal and the illegal, the formal and the informal, the “traditional” and the “modern.” In doing so, she shows how neoliberalism, not merely as a set of economic policies, but as a specific subjectivity and social relation, is reproduced not only from above but also from below, as migrants apply their own forms of calculation and logics of competition.

In this excerpt, ((Between La Salada and the Workshop: Communitarian Wealth in Dispute,” in Neoliberalism from Below, Verónica Gago, pp. 78-107-. Copyright, 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished with permission of the copyright holder. Gago analyzes Argentina’s economic recomposition following its 2001 crisis by starting from those supposedly marginalized subjects of women, migrants, and the indigenous, thus opening up new lines of inquiry that do not start from the assumption of a unitary leading subject or a homogenized form of production. Here the notion of a homogeneous community is torn apart, revealing the multiplicity and conflict that has always been inherent in the concept. This places difference at the center of the analysis and understanding how capital manages to capture value from this difference becomes a central question. Thus it pushes us to recognize the diverse forms of exploitation and extraction of value present within capitalism since its beginning, challenging teleological notions of economic progress and the boundaries between production and reproduction, the modern and the traditional, the communitarian and the capitalist.

Informalization and Feminization: Toward Slave Labor? 

The informalization of the economy reintroduces the categories of home and community as important economic spaces and reinterprets them to its advantage. In Argentina the crisis of neoliberalism led to the widespread use of subsidies as a way of getting through this crisis in the world of work. The logic of the enterprises promoted by these subsidies can be categorized as a drive toward initiatives based in the household and in the community. 

This means that social assistance is articulated, particularly in times of crisis like 2001, based on domestic-communitarian economies in popular neighborhoods. The crisis was a moment when so-called domestic labor (of care, feeding a neighborhood, etc.) moved to the forefront because it was massively articulated with unemployment subsidies and in many households became the only source of income. Since then, the social protagonism during the crisis has also led to a political reshaping of public assistance: the distribution of food, traditionally a domestic task, was a fundamental moment in the formation of movements and enterprises that, in many cases, demanded autonomy from the state, appropriating its resources and collectively redirecting the use of those individually allocated benefits. In the crisis of 2001, social reproduction became independent from employment relations, in turn showing how the notion of employment is distanced from that of the (biopolitical) production of social value, capable of sustaining forms of socialization in crisis.

In itself, neighborhood-territorial organization requires domestic knowledges, and, at the same time, it projects them onto a public-political space in a very special way when the crisis is simultaneously a crisis of political representation and of the mediating function of institutions in general. This supposes that in popular experience there is a capacity to reappropriate an instrument of governmentality that, since its origins, has represented the state’s onslaught against alternative forms of socialization in order to, after producing dispossession, restatize the social. ((Joachim Hirsch, Globalización, capital, estado (Mexico City: UAM-Xochimilco, 1996).)) It is worth remembering that since its beginnings public assistance was (1) a decisive moment in the statist relationship between workers and capital and in the definition of the state’s function; (2) the first recognition of the unsustainability of the capitalist system, which rules by hunger and terror; and (3) the first step toward the reconstruction of the state as the guarantor of class relations, as the supervisor of the reproduction and disciplining of the labor force. ((Jacques Donzelot, The Policing of Families (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979); Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 84)) What is being debated now is the possibility of the appropriation and tactical use of these resources that were originally distributed as social assistance.

I want to highlight how public assistance is entangled with the management of the crisis of wage labor in order to bring new elements into the debate over a politics of governance of the social. Maurizio Lazzarato ((Maurizio Lazzarato, Políticas del acontecimiento (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2006)) argues that the languages of assistance and the labor market are today intertwined. The hypothesis is that both operate by managing scarce labor and, therefore, promoting the artificial creation of employment, but under a logic of the subsidy. The passage from the unemployment subsidies of the Plan Jefes y Jefas de Hogar (Heads of Household Program), which were used massively in the midst of the crisis, to their reconfiguration into the Plan Argentina Trabaja (Argentina Works Program) exemplifies this tendency in a literal way. ((While the first program (Plan Jefes y Jefas de Hogar) focused on subsidizing the heads of households considered to be temporarily unemployed, the second is based on subsidizing cooperative forms of work that are recognized as quasi-permanent. The beginning of these programs, however, marks a milestone because it was the most massive social program in Argentina’s history and the threshold signaling a change of era: the social programs were here to stay.)) This dynamic simultaneously occurs in the proliferation of informal, multifaceted forms of work.

The Feminization of Space: The Community and the Home as Inputs

The feminization of these economies is inscribed within the framework of the crisis of wage labor, weaving the fabric through which the community and the home become essential for thinking about wealth. Dora Barrancos classifies this relationship between women’s protagonism and crisis in broad terms: “There are countless historical settings in which ‘feminine nature’ is forged, not as an incardination, as an eccentric outside, but rather as an element that is immanent to the crisis.” ((Dora Barrancos, “Mujeres y crisis en la Argentina: De las Madres de Plaza de Mayo a las piqueteras.” In Los conflictos en los mundos ibéricos e iberoamericanos contemporáneos, de las elaboraciones sociales y políticas a las construcciones simbólicas, ed. Michel Ralle (Paris: Éditions Hispaniques, 2013), 253)) She puts particular emphasis on Argentine history from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to the piqueteras: “I will insist on the upheaval in standards, norms, and expectations of gender that emerges from crises, and on the hypothesis that the greater the severity of the damages, the more expressive is that which I call feminine visibility in the agora. Women loosen the chains and defy the normative restrictions that restrain them as subjects of private meaning.” ((Ibid., 257))

The feminization of labor involves a twofold process: on one hand, women’s public presence increases, positioning them as important economic actors, at the same time as tasks undertaken by men in that same informal economy are feminized. On the other hand, it transfers characteristics of the economy of the household or the community, usually understood in neighborhood terms, into the public sphere. Some questions arise from highlighting this perspective: how does this feminization of the economy alter domestic and labor hierarchies? To what extent does such feminization of the economy refer to a tendency that cannot be reduced to the quantity of women that become part of it but rather is a qualitative modification of labor processes and forms of exchange?

According to Saskia Sassen, ((Saskia Sassen, Contrageografías de la globalización (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2003)) women combine two different dynamics. On one hand, they integrate an invisible and powerless class of workers, in the service of strategic sectors of the economy (they have no chance of unionizing or constituting a labor aristocracy). At the same time, access to an income, albeit small, feminizes the commercial opportunities produced by the informalization of the economy and transforms gendered hierarchies.

Certain subsidies, organized under a logic of microfinancing of enterprises and self-managed initiatives, allow the neoliberal perspective to be compatible with popular and communitarian forms of livelihoods. The know-how involved in domestic-reproductive labor, along with a complex repertoire of communitarian practices and knowledges, created a web of multiple economies in the midst of the crisis that enabled thousands of people to survive, while it displayed the powerful political capacity of popular self-management.

There are affinities between the feminine and the communitarian that categorize these economies in a particular way: the ability to work at microscales, confidence in the value of the affective as a productive moment, experience of the minoritarian as a specific potencia. The historical character of these features has to do with a dense history of subjectivities associated with reproductive labor, historically relegated to a functional and highly productive marginalization, as Christian Marazzi indicates under the concise image of the subjective history that is hidden in “the place of the socks.” ((Christian Marazzi, Capital and Affects: The Politics of the Language Economy, Trans. Giuseppina Mecchia (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011)) In moments of crisis like 2001, those qualities take on a directly political profile and begin fulfilling strategic functions in social organization while they also nourish neoliberalism’s capacity to develop as governmentality.

If neoliberal premises “seek to strengthen or establish women as self-employed workers in small enterprises that are modeled upon capitalist enterprise,” ((J.K. Gibson-Graham, “Building Community Economies: Women and the Politics of Place,” in Women and the Politics of Place, ed. Wendy Harcourt and Arturo Escobar (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian, 2005), 147)) it is also necessary to see their other side: the moment of subjectivation and autonomy represented by these economies, which, as such, suppose a challenge to hegemonic economies. Along this line, the feminist J. K. Gibson-Graham theorizes what they call “diverse economies” as “producing a language of economic difference to enlarge the economic imaginary, rendering visible and intelligible the diverse and proliferating practices that the preoccupation with capitalism has obscured.” ((Ibid., 133)) For these feminists, the language of economic difference is inspired by some crucial counterdiscourses: research about domestic labor as unpaid and invisibilized labor in countries’ national statistics, studies of informal economies and their integration into North-South transactions, as well as the language of Capital about economic difference when it is not captured by historical stage theory and developmentalism, according to a systemic conception of the economy.

The language of economic difference becomes a way of detecting other processes of becoming, paying special attention to their situated character, which is the importance of the category of place: “In more broadly philosophical terms, place is that which is not fully yoked into a system of meaning, not entirely subsumed to a (global) order; it is that aspect of every site that exists as potentiality. Place is the ‘event in space,’ operating as a ‘dislocation’ with respect to familiar structures and narratives. It is the unmapped and unmoored that allows for new moorings and mappings. Place, like the subject, is the site and spur of becoming, the opening for politics.” ((Gibson-Graham, “Building Community Economies,” 132))

The idea is not simply to oppose alternative economies to capitalist domination but rather to unravel certain economic practices in terms of their difference and to reintroduce contingency into thinking about the economy. But it is also to remove this economic diversity from the frameworks in which it was traditionally thought: as economies that were traditional, based in the family, backward, in opposition to the modern. Thinking with a logic of economic difference, according to Gibson-Graham’s list, is a challenge that requires materializing the different types of transactions and ways of negotiating commensurability, the different types of labor and ways of compensating them, and the different forms of enterprises and ways of producing, appropriating, and distributing surplus. These criteria can serve to displace the communal from its precapitalist connotation, but also to avoid projecting it as a utopian-redemptive modality, as a savior from the commercial world. I aim to use this concept in relation to its ability to account for other economic logics based on their undisguised heterogeneity.

Community economies are not a celebration of the local. They are a way of accounting for a new combination of scales, capable of assembling dynamics, productive modes, knowledges, and circuits that at first appear to be incompatible. In this sense, place refers to a situated singularity. Again, community must be removed from its conception as territorial circumscription that risks becoming a form of confinement. On the contrary, the communitarian is simultaneously a form of rootedness and projection that, nevertheless, cannot be enclosed as a cliché of a prefabricated “alternative economy” or a type of ideally re-created solidarity. In this regard, the communitarian becomes operative to the extent that it is capable of opening an analysis of the terrains of economic experimentation beyond “formal markets, wage labor and capitalist enterprise.” ((Gibson-Graham, “Building Community Economies,” 137))

The empty, nonprescriptive character of what they understand as community economies rests on the meaning of being in common as an always political invention: “To begin to think about this is to embark upon another kind of language politics, one that involves what we have called the ‘community economy.’ But rather than the proliferative fullness we see in the diverse economy, the community economy is an emptiness—as it has to be, if the project of building it is to be political, experimental, open and democratic.” ((Gibson-Graham, “Building Community Economies,” 142))

The Eternal Irony of the Community

A certain Nietzschean perspective allows us to point to a relationship between the feminine and a form of the common that goes beyond the effective existence of a community. It would be a feminine common that consists of the capacity to “eternally” satirize the community (to use—also ironically—G. W. F. Hegel’s phrase: the women are “the everlasting irony of the community.” ((G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 288)) Or, in Friedrich Nietzsche’s words, the “eternal feminine” could name that which opens a void within the community, unfounding it and blurring its boundaries. Precisely what this feminine mode has in common is a (virtual-actual) potencia: that of demystifying the community each time that it is presented as a totality, as a form of truth.

The feminine then functions as irony, deconstructing the stability of that which is presented as unified. ((Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Precarias a la deriva, A la deriva por los circuitos de la precariedad femenina (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2004); Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Desandar el laberinto: Introspección en la feminidad contemporánea (La Paz: Muela del Diablo, 1999)) It also satirizes the widespread idea of politics according to which there is strength in unity. If there is another economy of forces that is affirmed as pluralism and dispersal, the force of the feminine common is its multiplicity; it is a stranger to unity and rather inclined to waste forces. This statement, however, calls for a method capable of assessing it, of showing its movement. In an attempt to address the matter, I will develop three methodological points: why do Hegel and Nietzsche link the feminine to the eternal? A point of departure is to treat the feminine as the insistence—without bottom or end—on a becoming that desubstantializes the common: that makes it incapable of being attached to a ground, a language, or a land. The eternal feminine in Nietzschean language can be read as that territory capable of offering stateless forms of democracy, which do not require loyalty or belonging, in opposition to the substantial community. In the Hegelian allusion, the feminine indicates a negativity: that which casts doubt on the community in regard to its own seriousness, its own governability. In this context, I will draw on some feminist texts to understand that same indication in a positive sense.

Hegel wrote that women are the “everlasting irony of the community.” On Hegel’s phrase, the Italian feminist Carla Lonzi, in the manifesto “Let’s Spit on Hegel,” states, “Wherever woman reveals herself as the ‘eternal irony of the community,’ we can at all times recognize the presence of feminism.” ((Carla Lonzi, “Let’s Spit on Hegel,” in Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader, ed. Paola Bono and Sandra Kemp (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991 [1971]), 40-59)) After the deconstruction of the community, that is, after putting it in “more than one language,” there is something of the feminine that becomes decisive in that multiplication, precisely because women are the “sex” that is not “one” but multiple. ((Judith Butler develops this idea from Luce Irigaray in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999).))

Women as a paradox in the discourse of identity is a point of departure for the critique of the metaphysics of substance structuring the subject. ((This presence of the feminine as the other of the one-subject is in the very origin of Western mythology, at least in its Judeo-Christian version, through the figure of Lilith, the first woman, who was created with Adam from the earth’s dust and who refused to lie beneath him in sexual intercourse. Lilith escapes with an angel, and God solicitously creates Eve from Adam’s rib. According to this myth, collected in religious texts for centuries, this is the meaning of Adam’s phrase in Genesis, when God creates Eve, “This time you are flesh of my flesh.” Lilith, in turn, would acquire a spectral presence. She will return, threatening, hovering over the bed in which a couple is having sex and seek the newborn in order to take them. For a documented version of the features of Lilith in Judeo-Christian mythology see Daniel Colodenco, Génesis: El origen de las diferencias (Buenos Aires: Lilmod, 2006).)) Judith Butler, following a deconstructionist perspective, takes up Luce Irigaray’s critique of phallogocentric language of “univocal signification,” in which women are “linguistic absence and opacity” as they are the unrepresentable, the nonrestrainable, the nonassignable. ((Butler, Gender Trouble, 14)) This raises the question of a (sexual linguistic-affective) economy that escapes the significant phallogocentric economy (and its conceptions of the other, the subject, and lack). What other economy is accounted for by the feminine?

Let’s return to Lonzi, for whom difference is not a juridical argument to oppose or replace equality but rather women’s existential principle against (revolutionary) patricentric political theory. One key to this existential dimension is precisely that of giving value to unproductive moments (recharging that word with an eternal irony). This “form of life proposed by woman” is one of “women’s contributions to creating the community, undoing the myth of this subsidiary industriousness.” ((Lonzi, “Let’s Spit on Hegel,” 53))( It could be said about sewing, as a departure from the idea of feminine labor as complementary or subsidiary, that the unproductiveness claimed as the feminine mode is a way of satirizing the community as the pure coordination of efforts, as a space of accumulation. ((The idea of unproductiveness can also be expanded. On one hand, one can differentiate nonrecognized labor that is primarily domestic-feminine labor that remains productive, that produces value, while it is also invisibilized. On the other hand, unproductiveness could be spoken of as the mode of a feminized economy that shuns accumulation and possession and that could be characterized according to certain traits: (1) the possession of a multiple, heterogeneous, and limited code; and (2) the capacity to introduce fragments in fragmentation.))

When Nietzsche speaks of the “eternal feminine,” he refers to the singular mode of that which “has no depth”—as Nietzsche characterizes woman—and that, at the same time, is not “superficial.” ((Eugen Fink explains the Nietzschean association between woman and eternity: “The turn towards the world is, however, always a love for infinity for Nietzsche, however not an infinity of the world of the itself. All seven seals conclude thus: ‘O how would I lust for eternity and the wedding ring of marriage—the ring of eternal return. I have not found the woman who I love, with whom I would like to have children, unless it is this woman, who I love; because I love you, O eternity.’ The love for infinity is compared to erotic love. Infinity is a woman; the ring of eternal return is a wedding ring.” Eugen Fink, Nietzsche’s Philosophy (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), 101.)) It is a certain amphibian characteristic that is simultaneously a no longer and a not yet. This is how the states of transition are characterized, and the eternal feminine seems to play with that image of interrupted transition, as the extreme part of an antiessentialism that draws forces toward an emptiness of origin and definition. The relationship between the feminine and the eternal serves, in this regard, to enable us to conceive of an ever open, nonwhole configuration of the world.

Therefore, the idea of the eternal linked to the feminine curiously appears in Hegel and Nietzsche as distrust: as irony, as eternal war, toward the community, which is always presented as complete and unified (Jacques Derrida would say fraternity). However, that idea of the eternal in Nietzsche can also be linked to his definition of women, whom he describes in The Gay Science as those capable of exercising “action at a distance.” ((Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), 123)) This can be translated as a deterritorialized and timeless influence, capable of a paradoxical effectiveness: extracommunitarian.

Thus, the possibility emerges for understanding women’s (ironic, distant, eternal, unproductive) force as stateless: that which does not allow the communion between community and identity. Therefore, the perspective of the feminine appears to go beyond all nostalgia: there is no lost community, and, thus, no community to recover (invoking the model going from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Hegel and later resumed by the Romantics). Is it possible to understand this unproductive economy in the profoundly ironic sense of the term unproductive, which links the eternal to the feminine and its potential to speak ironically about the community, as a way of distinguishing forms of social reproduction from the reproduction of capital?

From the Community to the Social Factory

A particular feminist perspective of the 1970s sought to debate the community, demystifying it and relating it directly to the factory, its supportive other. In their classic text The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James state, “The community therefore is not an area of freedom and leisure auxiliary to the factory where by chance there happen to be women who are degraded as the personal servants of men. The community is the other half of capitalist organization, the other area of hidden capitalist exploitation, the other hidden source of surplus labor. It becomes increasingly regimented like a factory, what Mariarosa calls a social factory where the costs and nature of transport, housing, medical care, education, police, are all points of struggle!” ((Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (Bristol, UK: Falling Wall, 1972), 11))

They indicate and anticipate a fundamental relationship: the community becomes the mechanism for what the tradition of Italian operaismo would theorize as the social factory. That is, the community is one of the elements incorporated into the sphere of valorization when this includes a set of connections, affects, and forms of cooperation that expand and reclassify a form of production that is no longer confined within the factory walls. ((An interesting debate has been developed around this topic in a special issue of Rethinking Marxism: The Common and the Forms of the Commune, vol. 22, no. 3, July 2010, edited by Anna Curcio and Ceren Özselçuk.))

Within feminist thought, this possible declination of the communitarian (as know-how, technology, affect value) is anticipated as a new chapter of capitalist valorization. Returning to the feminine figure as subverting the community—the Hegelian warning radicalized by feminism—James, in the introduction to the book she co-authored with Dalla Costa, traces a relationship between home and community: “Mariarosa Dalla Costa considers the community as first and foremost the home, and considers therefore the woman as the central figure of subversion in the community. Seen in this way, women are the contradiction in all previous political frameworks, which had been based on the male worker in industry. Once we see the community as a productive center and thus a center of subversion, the whole perspective for fully generalized struggle and revolutionary organization is re-opened.” ((Dalla Costa and James The Power of Women, 20))

Community and women, then, function as the axis of a new form of valorization and, at the same time, introduce a new type of conflict. On one hand, they decenter the subject of the white male industrial worker from its privileged status of producer, and, on the other, they make visible the productive materials that from the beginning are foundational for capitalism while being invisibilized and devalued: the labor of reproduction, the constitution of social relations, affective cooperation. Women’s relationship as producers of labor power directly connects them to capital and also puts them always on the verge of the possibility of subversion: “Women’s relationship with capital is fundamentally that of producing and reproducing the current and future labor force, on which all capitalist exploitation depends. This is the essence of domestic labor and this is the labor for which the majority of women are prepared and with which all women identify.” ((Ibid., vii))

The identification of feminine labor as invisibilized labor has a direct relationship with its condition as unpaid labor in terms of wages, which minimizes it as subsidiary to male wage labor, while ignoring the intrinsic connection between the two. The “patriarchal wage,” however, marginalizes and subsumes not only women’s work but also peasant labor. Dalla Costa and James were writing in the context of an international struggle for wages for housework—not only to incorporate housework into the wage regime but also to break away from the idea of housework as strictly naturalized and free feminine labor. Deployed in this way, the feminist perspective does not simply introduce a specificity; it does not imply a particularism. Instead, it opens up the notion and the composition of the working class itself. In this regard, the authors put their struggle in conversation with that of blacks in the United States, noting a fundamental relationship between women and blacks. It is worth quoting at length:

This process of development is not unique to the women’s movement. The Black movement in the US (and elsewhere) also began by adopting what appeared to be only a caste position in opposition to the racism of white male-dominated groups. Intellectuals in Harlem and Malcolm X, that great revolutionary, were both nationalists, both appeared to place color above class when the white left were still chanting variations of “Black and white unite and fight,” or “Negroes and Labour must join together.” The Black working class was able through this nationalism to redefine class: overwhelmingly Black and Labor were synonymous (with no other group was Labor as synonymous except perhaps with women), the demands of Blacks and the forms of struggle created by Blacks were the most comprehensive working class demands and the most advanced working class struggle. ((Ibid., 8))

From this perspective, the passage from the community to the social factory can be thought of as a movement of politicization (demarginalization and visibilization) of the experience of unwaged labor. Driven by the struggles of women, blacks, and peasants—in the feminist retelling—this movement problematizes the notions of class and labor and makes visible the multiple layers of value that the wage seeks to homogenize, monopolize, and command. The wage as political command over a multiplicity that exceeds it is contested by the insubordinate emergence of subjectivities that open up the very concept of exploitation.

The Social Factory as Method

The capitalist social factory, the expansion of exploitation over the whole of society, is the (inverted) correlative of the capacity to—ontologically— produce worlds and, therefore, an enrichment of cooperative capacity. It is inverted because that increasing cooperation occurs as the intensification of exploitation, obedience, and mystification of the world. Thus, the “inversion” (formerly in an idealist sense, now in a materialist one, as Karl Marx would say reading G. W. F. Hegel) that we require “puts things on their feet” and allows us to break through the deeper rationality of the present state of things. The social factory is, above all, and even as a condition for the functioning of capitalism itself, an image of the totality of a system of valorizing resonances, at the level of being itself. The problem of philosophies of community ((Raúl Zibechi, Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-state Forces, trans. Ramor Ryan (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2010)) is that they intellectually—although not in reality— disconnect the community from its productive machinic context (and horizon), that is, from the factory, the valorizing movement of the whole. This separation is artificial but motivated by an understandable need to strengthen communitarian resistance to the becoming capitalist of the world, that is, to the—global—capitalist social factory. This gives rationality to sovereign institutions and political forces of emancipation that work against them.

The social factory then becomes a methodological perspective (and its variation founds an ontology of variation) that enables a critical point of view, from below, of the subsumption of life by capital, where the communitarian critique plays an important role, as demonstrated by a certain feminist philosophy. The categorization of feminine labor as “personal service” is one of the ways of not classifying it as work, by locating it beyond capitalist relations of production (outside of the investment of capital, according to Marx) and thus downplaying its specific productivity and dehistoricizing its function. 

If, “in respect to women, their labor appears to be a personal service outside of capital,” ((Dalla Costa and James, The Power of Women, 32)) the separation between reproduction and production condemns the former to a nonvalorizing, nonretributive sphere, subordinated to the definition of the wage in negative terms (as nonwaged activity). It is no coincidence that Paolo Virno, when speaking on the multitude, returns to associating manual and servile labor with the source of the performative, ((Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Trans. by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004)) as does Marx. 

Slaves versus Wage Laborers

Following Dalla Costa and James, Silvia Federici ((Federici, Caliban and the Witch)) argues that with the devaluing and invisibilization of women’s work, domestic labor is created as a way of sharply separating production from reproduction. This enables a capitalist use of the wage to command the labor of the unwaged. However, Federici directs the force of this argument to thinking about the dispossession of feminine labor as the core of capitalism’s primitive accumulation.

In this respect, she argues that with the privatization of land (enclosures)—the most well-known nucleus of theorization about primitive accumulation—women become the “communal goods.” This means that their bodies and labor are mystified as personal services and/or natural resources. They are a territory that can be utilized because they guarantee social reproduction and provide common services:

According to this new social-sexual contract, proletarian women became for male workers the substitute for the land lost to the enclosures, their most basic means of reproduction, and a communal good anyone could appropriate and use at will. Echoes of this “primitive appropriation” can be heard in the concept of the “common woman” which in the sixteenth century qualified those who prostituted themselves. But in the new organization of work every woman (other than those privatized by bourgeois men) became a communal good, for once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women’s labor began to appear as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink. ((Ibid., 97))

Women’s historical defeat, in this respect, was the feminization of poverty. Federici argues that through a new patriarchal order, the masculine “primitive appropriation” of feminine labor was enforced, “reducing women to a double dependence: on employers and on men” ((Ibid.)). Thus, women’s enslavement to reproduction poses an analogy to slaves in the Americas in the same movement of capitalism in its violent beginnings:

While in the Middle Ages women had been able to use various forms of contraceptives, and had exercised an undisputed control over the birthing process, from now on their wombs became public territory, controlled by men and the State, and procreation was directly placed at the service of capitalist accumulation. In this sense, the destiny of West European women, in the period of primitive accumulation, was similar to that of female slaves in the American colonial plantations who, especially after the end of the slave-trade in 1807, were forced by their masters to become breeders of new workers… But despite the differences, in both cases, the female body was turned into an instrument for the reproduction of labor and the expansion of the workforce, treated as a natural breeding-machine, functioning according to rhythms outside of women’s control. ((Ibid., 89–91))

Procedures for making domestic labor natural and servile are renewed as figures of mystification while they operate by classifying this labor in a certain way. The popularization of prostitution has to do with the theft of time and the creation of the figure of the housewife as a family enclosure for producing the labor force. Hence the importance of her methodological warning: women’s wage labor, housework, and (paid) sex work cannot be studied separately.

Labor: Beyond the Distinction between the Modern and Nonmodern

The way in which postindustrial capitalism produces new combinations of elements of the servile economies with elements of postmodern economies should no longer be analyzed by looking at the hegemonic (or hegemonizing) tendency of free wage labor but based on the expansion of a new feminization of labor that implies the increasing valorization of attributes that permanently classify labor as nonfree. As an improved and expanded new type of colonial condition, the current feminization of labor principally suggests a great ambiguity: one through which a new capitalist drive becomes competitive and dynamic by flexibly articulating itself with practices, networks, and features that historically characterized the flows of unpaid labor.

It is necessary to highlight that the slave or servile mode is not the other of modern labor but rather its constitutive counterpart, as Susan Buck-Morss conclusively demonstrates through analyzing the simultaneity (and imbrication) of Enlightenment philosophies and the slave economy starting in the seventeenth century. ((“There is an element of racism implicit in official Marxism, if only because of the notion of history as a teleological progression. It was evident when (white) Marxists resisted the Marx-inspired thesis of the Jamaican-born Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (1944)—seconded by the Marxist historian, Trinidad-born C. L. R. James in The Black Jacobins—that plantation slavery was a quintessentially modern institution of capitalist exploitation.” Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), 57.)) The colonial condition of the world has since characterized that double economy: nonmodern economies and modern economies—as an apparent dichotomy between servitude and freedom—functioning in a coherent manner in the same mode of production.

Carole Pateman writes, “The comparison of wives and slaves reverberated through the women’s movement in the nineteenth century. Women were very prominent in the abolitionist movement and they quickly made the connection between the condition of slaves and their own condition as wives.” ((Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), 120)) The same could be said of indigenous people, who—in another economy—share, along with slaves and women, a regime of labor with characteristics of nonfree labor. They share demands of loyalty and availability, and the fact that there is no (waged) measure of their labor. These are common requirements—although in different ways—of the domestic economy, the slave economy (of sugar production), and the economy of the mita, the encomienda, and the pongo (characteristic of the mining economy). ((The mita, encomienda, and pongo are different systems of forced labor used by colonial regimes to extract labor from indigenous populations in the Americas, especially for mining gold and silver.)) This supposes that feminized subjects—in a reactionary version of feminization—remain on one side of the modern line that divides servile labor from free wage labor. A series of binaries are imposed: wage labor versus subsistence, the distinction between labor force and ownership of persons, free choice versus force or captivity. This argument is even extended to sexual expropriation and expropriation of underage minors—often linked to the impossibility of having one’s own name—that removes the possibility of locating a will in these subjects and also serves as a mode of reactively feminizing them, of severely victimizing them.

Thus, the feminine refers to a weakness that is foisted onto certain paradigmatic attributes—those who are supposedly underage minors, those who are under the sexual ownership of another, and finally, those who engage in a type of labor that is not formally governed by the rules of modern wage labor. Thus, the feminine or the feminization of a subject—by tone of voice and body position, but also in a determined relation to production and property, and in certain relation to the anonymous and the collective—implies a way of naming the subaltern. This naming implicitly carries a distinction that opposes a passive body, reduced to pure biological reproduction, to an active body with the power of producing meaning and language, in which the passive is tied to the feminine or to that which is feminized.

It is possible to propose another meaning, a variation, of feminization. It is a distinction of terms (political power versus biological-adaptive power), yet these are not mutually exclusive but rather affirm their difference without being set against one another: it is not a logic of opposites. Thus, disjunction is the dynamic of a separation; however, I want to distinguish between disjunction that excludes one of its terms and that which enables the affirmation of both, maintaining their differences. ((This same distinction in the modes of disjunction could be thought for the relationship between voice and writing.)) The latter image can be linked to that conceptualization of woman as “being on the borderline,” between zoo and bios, as analyzed by Julia Kristeva. ((Catherine Clément and Julia Kristeva, The Feminine and the Sacred (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 13)) According to Kristeva, the feminine body expresses—in a dramatic way—a “strange intersection between zoo and bios, physiology and narration, genetics and biography,” ((Ibid., 14) and it is precisely the porous border between “biology and meaning” that familiarizes it with this being in transit. It is the fixation on some type of “naturalness,” however, that encloses her as a “being on the borderline” while it marks a clear space of exclusion. ((Kristeva states, “It is very possible that a society dominated by technology and profit may reduce women to being merely the possessors of ‘zoological’ life and will not in any way favor the inquiry or spiritual restlessness that constitutes a ‘destiny’: a ‘biography.’ When I proposed this exchange regarding ‘women and the sacred,’ I particularly had that danger in mind: the new version of ‘soft’ totalitarianism that, after the famous ‘loss of values,’ erects life as the ‘supreme value,’ but life for itself, life without questions, with wives-and-mothers supposed to be the natural executors of that ‘zoology’?” Ibid., 13–14).))

The Feminine as an Economy

These modes of disjunction, then, differentiate between, on one hand, the feminine as an economy of production, use, and circulation (of goods and speech) that expresses conducts of rebellion and, on the other, the feminine that functions by naming the exasperation with or fixation on features of a submission that impedes language, or reduces it to lament as the naturalization of the sexual condition, making it inoffensive. This fixation or unidimensionalization of the feminine operates by making the voice a—semantic and somatic—record of submission or of the lack of authority to speak. However, it has another use: the feminine voice is that which breaks down the division between the public and the domestic by using language as a space of the heterogeneous, while it is also capable of a strategic efficacy of silence and language, in both cases as the organized and secret voice of mutiny or rebellion. This involves challenging or dismantling the attributes previously discussed in their pure negativity.

Through analyzing the migrant discourse and experience in Peru, Antonio Cornejo Polar (1996) develops the category of migration for reading segments of Latin American literature that are distinguished by their “radical heterogeneity.” ((Antonio Cornejo Polar, “Una heterogeneidad no dialéctica: Sujeto y discurso migrantes en el Perú moderno,” Revista Iberoamericana 62 no. 176–77 (1996): 837–44)) Migration, as a category, does not allow the exclusive opposition between indigenous and metropolitan identities (and, therefore, the dislocation of the terms center and periphery); it avoids the flat figure of the subaltern as the victim and, at the same time, perceives modes of repetition in difference: for example, how certain productive forms that migrants use—“reciprocity, economic operability of the extended family or simple godparenting”—are implanted in the cities in a nonlinear way in respect to the capitalist norm.

This idea of migration as “nondialectical heterogeneity” enables a particular reading in respect to possible alliances and subjects: if the subject is undefined by its experience of migration, its identity is not dissolved but multiplied to the point of making each subject a plurality of ongoing processes of subjectivation. Some feminists have theorized this type of relationship as a coalition: the concept of an “uneasy alliance” used by the Bolivian feminist group Mujeres Creando raises the challenge of a heterogeneous composition as a fundamental dilemma of activism. This kind of coalition, since it is practiced by affinity and not by identity, displaces the binary categorizations of constituted and fixed subjects: outside the community and literate as opposed to native and nonliterate, or even subaltern versus non-subaltern. ((Regarding the ambiguity of the term subaltern for the argument I am considering, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s reading of the Subaltern Studies Group, trying to bring them closer to deconstruction, is interesting: “Our own transnational reading of them is enhanced if we see them as strategically adhering to the essentialist notion of consciousness, that would fall prey to an anti-humanist critique, within a historiographic practice that draws many of its strengths from that very critique… It is in this spirit that I read Subaltern Studies against its grain and suggest that its own subalternity in claiming a positive subject-position for the subaltern might be reinscribed as a strategy for our times.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 276. The “strategic essentialism” that Spivak proposes seems to go against the “bi-frontal” or “schizophrenic” narratives that Cornejo Polar theorizes for thinking about migration. However, some feminists, such as Chela Sandoval, make both strategies or “technologies” compatible in a postmodern “differential oppositional consciousness” of Third World feminism that brings together “a facultad (a semiotic vector), the ‘outsider/within’ (a deconstructive vector), ‘strategic essentialism,’ (a meta-ideologizing vector), la conciencia de la mestiza, ‘world traveling’ or ‘loving cross-cultures’ (differential vectors), and ‘womanism’ (a democratizing, moral vector).” Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 180.))

- Translated by Liz Mason-Deese


Author of the article

is a social sciences professor at the Universidad Buenos Aires and researcher at the National Research Council (CONICET). She is the author of Neoliberalism from Below (Duke University Press, 2017), Feminist International (Verso Books, 2020), and co-author of A Feminist Reading of Debt (Pluto Press, 2021). She was formerly a member of Colectivo Situaciones and is currently a member of the Ni Una Menos Collective.