Reproducing the Commons
By: Por: Silvia Federici, Noah Simblist, and Stephanie Smith
As part of the ICA’s early research for this project, Noah Simblist and Stephanie Smith cotaught a seminar on the topic of “commonwealth” for which students read Silvia Federici’s texts on “the commons” and its relationship to feminism. As an extension of this research, Federici was invited to comment more directly on the application of her ideas to this project. In this interview, Federici elaborates on her conception of the commons and how it might contribute to an understanding of “commonwealth” in light of both historical and contemporary challenges. Simblist and Smith interviewed Federici early in the pandemic, and as a result, this conversation touches on a number of issues then emerging as part of the public debate related to COVID-19.
— the Editors
SIMBLIST: The commonwealths of the United States were founded simultaneously on utopian aims and on exclusions. The idea of people coming together to govern themselves for the common good, to repel the forces of imperial Britain, sounds great, but the “we” that constituted this commons was limited in terms of gender, race, and class. In our conversations with our colleagues at Beta-Local, they highlighted the ways in which colonialism remains present in Puerto Rico.
SMITH: Virginia was the site of first contact between the English and Native Americans, and then Richmond was the second largest market of enslaved people in the United States as well as being the capital of the Confederacy. These foundational moments of systemic racism are very deeply felt within this context.
FEDERICI: Yes, when we think of commons in the context of the US, we think of the Native American societies, or the commons created by the maroons, and socialist utopian experiments. The US was founded on the destruction of communal societies, and that process is not over, it continues today.
SMITH: How would you redefine the idea of commonwealth for the present?
FEDERICI: Commonwealth literally means sharing the wealth, the natural wealth and the wealth we produce. It also means self-government, collective decision making, and responsibility for each other and the land. To reconstruct the common today we need to change the material conditions of our lives. Solidarity is not enough.
Struggles to defend the commons and to reconstruct them are taking place today across the world. They are struggles to recuperate land, to oppose mining and oil drilling, to oppose the privatization of urban spaces and services and the privatization of knowledge and education.
The struggle for the commons begins with creating ways of becoming more autonomous from the state and capital; for instance recuperating traditional forms of medical knowledge, like the knowledge of medicinal plants—as many women are now doing in Latin America. In some countries women are creating seeds banks, not to be forced to depend on Monsanto; they are learning again to select seeds. This is the beginning of the commonwealth.
SIMBLIST: I wonder if you could speak about some of the examples that you gave in your book Re-enchanting the World about the specific feminist connection to the commons and commoning. What is specific to groups of women and their relationship to these terms?
FEDERICI: Women are particularly interested in the preservation of the commons because, as it has often been noted, they have a more precarious relationship to wages and to any form of property and monetary income. They have been and remain far more dependent on access to the commonwealth, beginning with our natural wealth, than men.
Women are also more concerned about building communal wealth and access to it because they are those who reproduce the community—those who have to make the food, fetch the water, take care of people who are ill, and care for the environment. Any change in the environment has a direct effect on the process of reproduction. So they understand much more deeply the consequences of the destruction of the commons in terms of the soil, the earth, the forest, and the relationships that sustain them. More and more, women have been propelled to the forefront of the struggle because of their role as the main subjects of the reproduction of their communities. Women are on the front line against fracking, oil drilling, deforestation. Women are also those who nurse children and if their bodies absorb poisons from food or the water they pass it on to their children. This too creates a more intense consciousness of what is at stake in the destruction of our eco-systems.
SMITH: To pivot from thinking about the bodies of women to the body politic, we’ve been thinking about colonial American principles of the commonwealth that were about shared governance, but only for landowning white men. Do you see any connection between those early limitations on participation and the structure of American democracy, past and present?
FEDERICI: Yes, the United States was never a democracy, in the sense of government by the people, all the people, and continues not to be. Democracy, the demos has never been understood as something belonging to the property-less. It was always for people with property. It was for them also that the principles of the French Revolution were declared. Not surprisingly, the legislations and the constitutions that were forged according to these principles have always been built, in one form or another, on exclusion. The US was built on slavery, indentured servitude, the exclusion of the poor from political participation. And when slavery was abolished racism was used to maintained control over the liberated slaves; that is why it is so pervasive, so structural, and so difficult to eradicate. It structures every aspect of society and deliberately so. Despite the periodic talk of reform, it is clear that the system has no intention to do away with it. Over the last few months we have seen a powerful movement growing against institutional racism and racist violence. This is crucial because until we do away with the legacy of slavery we will not have any hope of social justice in this country.
Women too were also discriminated against. In France and England, all through the 18th century, the principle of the “covered woman” prevailed, the “covered woman” being the woman who has no legal status and must be represented by a man in front of the law. With the rise of capitalism women actually lost rights that they had until the 15th century when they could go to court on their own to denounce an abuse perpetrated against them. But by the 18th century, they could no longer do so—they had to go to court through a man.
We must reconstruct democracy and the commonwealth, so that it is no longer a mask for an actual policy of exclusion. In some Indigenous communities in Latin America unless you do the work, you cannot be part of the assembly, you cannot participate in the decision making. In other words, you belong because you contribute to the maintenance of the community. This is a principle that is not exclusionary but is built on reciprocity and mutuality. This has to be the essence of social relations, the basis on which we have equal access to the commonwealth.
SMITH: It’s a beautiful idea: one becomes a part of the assembly based on what one contributes to the well-being of all. Some early uses of the term “commonwealth” were defined in relation to the health and well-being of the larger community—a holistic conception of wealth.
FEDERICI: The principle of the Native Americans is that we need to maintain the commons for the next seven generations, we need to make sure the other people after us can use them.
SIMBLIST: The next question has a lot to do with debt, which is another thing that one might hold together. You’ve written a lot about your experiences in Africa just as global organizations were leveraging debt to transform economies and agencies within these countries. This is something that Puerto Rico is very much concerned with now. In many ways, the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States has become defined by debt. It might be speculation for you, without knowing so much about the Puerto Rican condition, but there’s a certain bondage that occurs with this notion of debt. How do you see those relations playing out?
FEDERICI: Maria Mies has argued that we should take responsibility also for the “negative commons,” for example for trash, and not only wait on the government. This is a useful way of thinking also about debt.
It’s important to distinguish national debt and personal debt because often we forget that the same communities are vulnerable to both. Cuts in social spending, in services, in benefits, are justified in the name of the national debt. We have seen it in Africa and many other regions, in the aftermath of the “debt crisis.” Governments that had a national debt were not allowed to go to the monetary markets, they were forced to go through the International Monetary Fund and accept major reforms of their economies in exchange for new loans. With “structural adjustment” came the end of free education, the end of free healthcare. Huge cuts in social services were justified in the name of paying the national debt. But then many people have personal debt. This is because we now must pay for things that in the past were subsidized, and wages for the majorities are extremely low. Debt is also a product of “microcredit.” This was supposed to be an anti-poverty program and instead it has created a whole population of women who are drowning because they cannot pay the loans they have taken, and they are being subjected to all kinds of vilification because of it.
But movements against the politics of debt are swelling. Now it is recognized that microcredit is fraudulent, it is a Trojan horse. In the protests in Argentina and Chile on the 8th of March this year, for International Women’s Day, the issue of the debt was central. All over the world women are in debt, in the US as well. They are the ones who take most “payday loans.” As soon as women began to obtain waged jobs, companies came into existence that started giving loans on payday, with the wage as the collateral. This is because the pay for most women is so low that they cannot survive on what they earn. So you have women now who may have two jobs, and, at the same time, are accumulating debt. It is an epidemic. Doctors are beginning to talk about the “money syndrome”—women are getting sick because they are constantly worrying about money. The debt issue is extremely important; it carries the fear of unemployment, the sense of the precarity of existence, not knowing what will happen tomorrow. And now with COVID, all of this has escalated, as so many people are losing their jobs. We are told that in the US since the beginning of COVID, two million women have lost their jobs or they left them because they had no childcare and the children were home from school. That’s why the commons are so important. Because never has life felt so precarious.
SMITH: To expand on that and to pull together a couple of threads, are there examples that you could share of anti-capitalist, feminist, and/or Indigenous approaches to commoning that you think might be useful in pushing against debt?
FEDERICI: In Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Mexico, there has been a growth of the anti-debt movement. Debt is also being adopted as a key feminist issue through much of Latin America. I’m very interested in Latin America because I see a feminism there that is closer to the feminism that I identify with. It’s a feminism rooted in ecological issues, the issue of land, the issue of control over the territory as a place in which to practice forms of self-government. Women understand that unless we come together and begin to organize our daily life in forms that are more cooperative, we cannot survive or create the kind of social fabric that is capable of confronting the state from a position of power.
A powerful example of approaches to commoning is that of The Landless People Movement of Brazil. They have been at the forefront of the struggle with massive land occupations. During these occupations, the women have realized that if they organized collectively, for instance doing the housework or caring for the children in a cooperative way, they would be more capable of resistance. And they realized that cooperating in the process of reproduction—not only during the occupations but after as well, could change their lives. And they began to confront very classic feminist issues: relationships with men and gender hierarchies, both in daily life and also within the struggle.
Another example is the way women organize in some of the villas in Argentina, areas where the state doesn’t go in except through the military. These are places where there are no social services of any type. Nobody collects the garbage. So in some places women are organizing, not simply to replace the state or to guarantee a better survival for their community, but to create an alternative, to build solidarity, to build community.
Gladys Tzul Tzul, a sociologist and activist from Guatemala, has written a book looking at the different mechanisms her people have used that have enabled them to maintain their land for five hundred years; one of the reasons she gives is the central importance of collective work and collective decision making. She describes self-governed communities where everyone must give a contribution to the general well-being from an early age in life. And every decision is made through the assembly. She also speaks of the importance of the yearly fiestas. People work on it all year because the fiesta is the moment in which everybody makes a commitment to the community. It’s the moment of collective resignification of what it means to be in the community. The fiesta is about music and food, but mostly it’s a moment to say “we are here, and we want to be here, and we are committed to be here again, tomorrow.”
SIMBLIST: Could you say more about your interest in questions of memory and the collective body?
FEDERICI: One part of the commonwealth is the question of memory. Memory is something that connects people. It allows for the creation of a communal subject that is able to transcend the limits of individualization. It places what we do in a broader tapestry. It helps us see what we are doing in terms of a long history of human liberation, and also establishes our connection with the dead, and this gives courage, because if we see ourselves as part of a collective body then dying is not the end of everything. As this woman from Guatemala said, the dead are always here. Solidarity with the dead is also part of the commonwealth.
SMITH: We’ve covered a lot of the territory, but to close: how might we move through this crisis to open up and enact new forms of commoning?
FEDERICI: This moment of crisis can be used as a moment of de-legitimation of the system.
In the 20th century capitalism claimed that it had been a source of “progress,” that it had defeated epidemics through the discovery of penicillin, and antibiotics, and then the introduction of hygienic measures. So what is happening? AIDS, Ebola, dengue fever, SARS, swine flu. It has been one epidemic after another, This is due to the destruction of the environment, the general impoverishment, malnutrition and social inequality. This system has no legitimacy. It is unsustainable, it is killing us. It is not one crisis, but multiple ones: global warming, deforestation, constant epidemics, constant war and a system that accepts the existence of the most open, violent forms of racism.
Now all the hopes are pinned on the vaccine. But aside from the question of who will be able to benefit from it, who will have access to it, unless the dramatic social and ecological crises we live in are addressed, the vaccine will have no impact on the life of the majority. It will help us live another day until the next epidemic, and many will die not because of COVID but because they have nothing to live upon and no hope for the future.
So we need to build an alternative. Many groups across the country are now organizing for mutual aid. Obviously it’s limited, but it’s the principle that we are responsible not just for our lives but for our collectivity. This is the commonwealth. Short of that we will go from crisis to crisis.
Silvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2018).