Notes on Labor, Maternity, and the Institution

Mierle Laderman-Ukeles, Wadsworth-Atheneum (1973)


Pro labor activism will not begin to overcome the injustices and indignities it purports to redress until it addresses an irreducibly (for now) gendered form of labor: labor, as in, going into labor, giving birth (or adopting). While much recent discourse attempts to account for the industrial or “fordist” to post-industrial shift in forms of labor, patterns into which workers are set, employment, and unemployment (I am thinking of the Italian Autonomist Marxists and Virno, Negri and Hardt in particular), and while so many statistics tell us that more women are in the workforce than men (in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008 to the present), maternity is scotomized. Is this just another not-so-subtle form of gynophobia? A fear on the part of feminists of essentialism? A critique of the emphasis French Feminists of the 70s placed on maternity? An innocent oversight in recent iterations of Marxist analyses?

Artistic practices of the last decade highlight the remunerative system of a global service industry, one in which “art” takes its place fully embedded in–rather than at an interval of either autonomy or imminence–the fluid, continuous circulation of goods and services: Andrea Fraser’s Untitled (2002) in which Fraser had her gallery, Friedrich Petzel, arrange to have a collector purchase her sexual services for one night, Santiago Sierra’s 250 cm Line Tattooed on Six Paid People (1999) in which the artist paid six unemployed men in Old Havana, Cuba thirty dollars each to have a line tattooed across their back. Fraser’s work was characteristically “controversial” in the most rehearsed ways, and Sierra’s drew criticism for having permanently disfigured six human beings. The misprision and naivete of the critics spectacularized both, of course. Sierra’s retort involved a set of references to global economic conditions that the critics may not have liked to hear: “The tattoo is not the problem. The problem is the existence of social conditions that allow me to make this work. You could make this tattooed line a kilometer long, using thousands and thousands of willing people.”1 Both Fraser and Sierra point to the quasi-universality of what autonomist Marxist theorist Paolo Virno calls a “post-fordist” regime of “intellectual labor” to describe the shift from the assembly line to a wide range of labor in which traditional boundaries and borders no longer apply. Virno says, “by post-Fordism, I mean instead a set of characteristics that are related to the entire contemporary workforce, including fruit pickers and the poorest of immigrants.” This post-fordist regime is characterized by flexibility, deracination, and the shift from habituated work to contingency. Concomitantly, the post-fordist laborer does not take his or her place in the ranks of he masses, but flows into a multitude, differentiated by numerous factors, among them, post-coloniality, endless permutations at the level of gender, ethnicity, race.

For Virno and the autonomists, art and culture are no longer instantiations of exemplarity and exceptionality, as for Adorno, but rather “are the place in which praxis reflects on itself and results in self-representation.” In other words, the cultural work operates as a supplement, a parergonal addition to an already existing logic. It neither passively reflects nor openly resists. There is no vantage or “outside” from which art could dialectically reflect and resists, as Adorno would have it. Long since the work came off its pedestal and out of its frame, from the gallery to the street, the ostensibly non-site to the site as Robert Smithson put it, cultural production is too embedded in social and economic circulation to reflect let alone critique. Virno sees this limitation—the absence of an outside—as one shared with that of activism and other forms of tactical resistance: “The impasse that seizes the global movement comes from its inherent implication in the modes of production. Not from its estrangement or marginality, as some people think.”3Ironically, the luxury of estrangement and marginalization enjoyed by the avant-garde and neo avant-garde is no longer available. And yet, it is “precisely because, rather than in spite, of this fact that it presents itself on the public scene as an ethical movement.”4 For if work puts life itself to work, dissolving boundaries between labor and leisure, rest and work, any action against it occupies the same fabric.

Among others, a problem that surfaces [too quietly and too politely, with a kind of ashamed and embarrassed reserve] is that of gender. The issue is not merely that Fraser puts her body at risk while Sierra remunerates others to place at risk, and in pain, their bodies, that corpus on which habeus corpus is founded. Needless to say, Sierra has organized projects around male prostitutes, such as that of 160 cm Line Tattooed on Four People, executed for the contemporary art museum in Salamanca, Spain, in 1999.

The problem is that the category of disembodied labor, or intellectual labor as Virno alternately calls it to describe its reliance on abstraction, scotomizes a form of irreducibly gendered embodied labor: labor. Now let the cries of essentialism! ring. Where is Julia Kristeva when you need her? Hélène Cixous telling us to allegorically write with our breast milk?5

Many feminist artists of the 1970s—in a historical moment that has both formed and been occluded by the artistic pratices of the last decade which I mention above–explicitly addressed the category of unremunerated labor: Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen(1973-4), for instance; Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman which explicitly draws an analogy between house-work and prostitution. Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document (1979) elevates maternity to the level of analytical research, part of the putative archival impulse. Merle Laderman Ukeles tacitly situates domestic work in a category with the service industry understood historically, before all labor became maintenance labor, as “maintenance.”6 Ukeles’s differentiation of production and maintenance almost seems romantic in hindsight. As though there were creation/production rather than reproduction. And yet…..

Radical Marxist and feminist activist Silvia Federici, author of Genoa and the Anti Globalization Movement (2001) and Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint (2008) argues against the gender neutrality of precarious labor theory, that of the Marxist autonomists Paolo Virno and Antonio Negri.7 Federici situates the commonality of rape and prostitution as well as violence against women within a systematized appropriation of female labor that operates as accumulation, much as accumulation did atavistically, long before the formation of commodity economies, or the development of general equivalence. Atavism as a repressed matrix for putative modernity—a modernity in which gender determination describes one of the greatest forms of uneven development—supports Ariella Azoulay’s claim, in The Civil Contract of Photography, that modernity did little to alter women’s positions in relation to discourse, the institution, and civil rights greater than the vote. Just as for Foucault the modern biopolitical regime compounds the old to achieve a more thorough penetration of everyday life, modernity permutes previous hegemonies “shaped and institutionalized over thousands of years.” In twentieth-century battles for the right to corporeal self-determination, to reproductive rights, for instance, “the body itself underwent a process of secularization, …this body came into the world without any of the normative defenses of citizenship to regulate it.”8 Under “Universal” rights, the contingencies of the body, deemed particular, did not become part of the discourse around citizenship, thus abandoning it to a renaturalized precariousness. Premised on a set of Enlightenment Universalist claims purportedly neutral to the particularities of corporeality, modernity failed to account for the specificities of women’s lives. Instead, the body, or “bare life” tacitly continues to be the way women are viewed, here commodified and sexually fetishized (neo-liberal “Western” democracies), there regulated within disciplinary, and often violent, parameters, as in Islamist cultures.9 These differences in hegemonic models of femininity may be theorized;10 the process of biological labor, however, slips the grasp of discourse, and, with it, policy. This last term would include international policies in which Enlightened self-interest are legitimated by the roles of women, of women’s bodies to be more precise.

Federici links her notion of atavistic forms of reserve—the accumulation of women’s labor—to colonial expropriation. She argues that the IMF, World Bank and other proxy institutions as engaging in a renewed cycle of primitive accumulation, by which everything held in common from water to seeds, to our genetic code become privatized in what amounts to a new round of enclosures.

Pop culture, as always a place where cultural articulations happen within normative parameters that may differ from “discourse,” presents the most direct expression of this that I have yet to come across. The high/low binary was a false product of fordism, one that no longer operates. When a famous male rapper says, “gonna get a child outta her,” he is speaking hegemony, not “marginalization.”


Labor: If Virno is “correct,” in his analysis, there can be no “perspective” from which to think labor. From what fold within labor might I think it? I’ve worked as an hourly wage earner, a mother, and a salaried “professional.” One of these three terms is incongruous; discourse has hit a false note. My description of something about which I should know a great deal, my own history as a laborer, has already committed a rather egregious crime according to the law of discourse. As De Man has famously said, “abuse of language is, of course, itself the name of a trope: catachresis. …something monstrous lurks in the most innocent of catachreses: when one speaks of the legs of a table or the face of a mountain, catachresis is already turning into prosopopeia and one begins to perceive a world of potential ghosts and monsters.” What thwarted terms, or monsters, are barred from an account of my accounts? Discourse be damned, or in this case, personified; I am using “I.”

At 13, 22 years ago, I was what Siegfred Kracauer might have referred to as “a little shop girl,” working at a T shirt store for 3.75 an hour, selling 20 dollar Joy Division T-shirts and 5 dollar Grateful Dead stickers to other, older, teenagers [with allowances or their own jobs]. My mom had to accompany me to the first day to make good on PA labor laws. 7 hours of my labor/boredom would have bought me one of the T-shirts I sold. I’ve worked, like so many artists and academics, as a museum guard, 17 years ago, for 7/hr, or 10.50/hr for working past the 8-hour shift. Needless to say, none of these jobs had benefits. I’ve written articles for prominent scholarly journals where the pay may roughly be calculated at 3 cents/word, 1 percent of what a glossy magazine would pay for non-scholarly work. Let’s not get distracted by the amount of time that scholarship requires: travel; archives; dozens if not hundreds of books read; writing; and editing. But that “let’s not” is a sliding glass door of sorts: it articulates the injustice of unremunerated work, but it also stands as a reminder that the pleasure [and/or displeasure] of some work is irreducible to money, acts as an irreducible quality. But isn’t everything held in the matrix of currency [fiction]? All process, a term inclusive of work, skilled or unskilled, is irreducible to the monetary value assigned it. A bibliography supportive of that last statement alone would entail a foray into a discursive terrain bordered by Vico, Marx, Weber, The Frankfurt School, Foucault, Post Structuralism and practically every title in Verso, Stanford’s Crossing the Meridian and the University of Minnesota press, and the work of countless others. Irreducible labor. Or as Thomas Keenan has recently put it, the irreducible “jelly” of work that remains after the abstractions of exchange value is “accounted.”11

I’ve worked for 19 thousand a year as a gallery receptionist 14 years ago; for nothing, in monetary terms, writing a proto-book as a PhD candidate to produce a dissertation, partially about labor and art in reconstruction era Italy; for a stipend of 18 thousand per annum teaching college students courses that full [celebrity] professors were also teaching; for one glorious year at 55+ thousand a year as a “term” assistant professor at a prominent women’s college affiliated with an ivy league university; and some ten k (+) less a year as a tenure track assistant professor at a state institution. The latter ostensibly includes compensation for teaching Art History to undergraduates and studio practitioners, directing advises toward theirs MAs or MFAs, and coming to countless faculty meetings. I can retain that salaried position if I produce enough of those journal articles, at 3 cents a word, so let us include the latter, now that I HAVE a tenure track position, in that before-taxes salary. And I get benefits. I am by all [ac]counts VERY lucky and yet the contradictions in the remunerative system are too many to count. I am not compensated in any way—including in University evaluations and other assorted forms of self-regulative beaurocracy—for the 5 or so, sometimes more, hour (+)-long studio visits I conduct every week. An aside on the studio visit: it is by far more intense than an equal measure of time, the hour, of teaching, advising, or any other form of labor but one. And that latter, around which I skirt, is a term from which I steal to work. “Robbing peter to pay Paul.” Wait, I thought I was the one getting paid?

And I “speak” from a vantage of extreme privilege, of multiple privileges, of all privileges but one, to which I stand in a relation of excess and lack. That excess and lack revolves a particular embodied form of labor, a production that is a non productive labor unlike the non accumulative labor of which the autonomists speak…

The discursively impossible: I have given birth through the labor process to a child. “Let’s not,” in the interest of not getting caught in the sliding glass door, “count” pregnancy, or post pardum recovery or breast-feeding. Let’s try to isolate labor in order to attempt to, tautologically, quantify it, as the issue of labor conventionally requires us to do. That labor was 32 hours long. Not one of those 32 hours was commensurable with any other hour. Time contracted, not necessarily in rhythm with those of my womb (hystery in Greek), time dilated, not necessarily in tandem with my cervix. It was working parallel to me; no, those organs were working in tension against me. Dissonance. I have never been capable of thinking my body’s labor in what I will call, despite the need to shore it up by the labor of discursive legitimation, my experiential time. This time shrank and stretched like hot taffy. I would need the proper name “Deleuze” here, and The Logic of Sense, to get the discursive sanction I need to support this last claim. That would take a little labor, labor time I could punch in as academics will no doubt do some time soon, or rather do now however elliptically in requisite annual self reports. But those 32 child labor hours defy break down into 32 units of 60 minutes, 1920 units of 60 seconds, etc. This form of labor slips the grip of discourse; even metaphor.

Catachresis is not monstrous enough to operate as a medium for the articulation of this [non] event. There was, however, a quantifyable cost for the hospital ante-chamber, the delivery room, the “recovery” room, and the first examination of the infant. And there were more complex “costs;” I was “let go” of the second year of my position as a term assistant professor at a prominent women’s college associated with an ivy-league university. The Chair responsible for my firing, I mean, liberation, is a “feminist,” and a mother of two. She thought it would be “for the best,” for me to have time off. I never asked for time off. This did allow her to win a point or two for her annual docket; I was hired back on the adjunct salary of 3 thousand per class the next semester. This allowed the department to save 50 thousand dollars in 2007-2008, and the cost of benefits. Did I mention that the semester after giving birth, after having been “let go,” I still made it to campus to attend all advising sessions? 50K in savings that the institution no doubt never even registered, my loss. But who cares, I had a healthy beautiful bright baby!….. to love AND support. BTW, diapers are 20/box. Currently, I calculate that I make about 12 dollars and fifty cents an hour given that I work at least sixty hours a week. Ergo, a box of diapers is equal to over an hour and a half of work. I go through many of these per month still. At the time of being fired/demoted/whatever, I lived in NYC, where diapers cost more than 20/box. And I made, about 4.16 and hour. A box of diapers cost 5 hours of work. But like many women, and unlike many others, I had assistance, that of a partner and that of a parent. Let’s not address the emotional and psychological cost of the latter; let’s please not address the price dignity paid. Oops, prosopopeia. Does dignity have agency? I hope the reader knows by now that I find calculations to be absurd. “How do I love Thee, [dear child, dear student, dear reader,] Let me count the ways….” I am, however, serious in the following query: how do others less lucky than I make it in the global service industry (in which education and so called higher education now takes it place, now that Professors at State schools are classified as mid level managers?) How do women who have babies and work make it? They pay to work; they pay with their children. Sacrificial economies.

Now again, let’s not get caught in that door by even discussing the 24/7 labor of parenting. The pleasures of this last, and the agonies, are irreducible. But, again, isn’t everything? So: Suspended. Bracketed, a priori. A discursive delimitation or repression? It is in such poor taste to discuss this: bad form. Just a note, daycare is 10 thousand dollars per anum. A baby sitter charges 10-15 an hour. I over identify with the sitter and guiltily–as though I even had the luxury of being a fat cat liberal riddled with guilt–pay said sitter 20. But no worries: I don’t believe in baby-sitting. I have no life outside of the working and the parenting, no leisure. I mistrust the latter. I dislike being appeased. No compensatory blah blah for me. I do, however, want the hours taken away from my child by studio visits and the like to be remunerated HER. She keeps track of when I am missing. I can’t keep count. Guilty interstitial pleasure: Facebook, whom (uh oh) I can credit for the honor [snarkery free] of labor on the present piece.


Like most institutions of its kind, the University at which I have a tenure track position, for which I am reminded to be eternally thankful—and I AM—does not have maternity leave. Were I to choose to have a second child (this statement requires an exegesis into the word “choice”), I would take sick-leave, as though giving-birth were an illness; as though [biological] labor were a subtraction from the forward march of time, of production and productivity, of progress. Sick-leave, time taken while ill ad ostensibly unproductive. Sick leave, the concept if not the necessary practice, is sick. More perverse still is the idea that populating the next generation, however selfish this may or may not be in many way, however narcissistic or not, is not a form of non-productivity. The double negative in this last should raise some flags in the space of textual analysis, labor analysis, gender analysis. An aside: I never felt less ill than during pregnancy, childbirth, and so called recovery. The use of the word biology will deliver the present text, again, to the accusation of essentialism. I will add that it goes without saying that maternity need not be biological. But it is still labor. A colleague recently adopted a child. Said colleague travelled to a distant continent to retrieve the child with whom she had spent a year establishing an intimate, if painfully digitally mediated, long term relationship. She took family medical (sick) leave. It, apparently, is against an ethics of work to be preoccupied with a new baby.

Moreover, were I to have a second child, my tenure clock would stop if I took that odiously named family/sick leave. My opportunity to make a case for my own worth via tenure review would be deferred. Of course, were we unionized, there may be a fighting chance, were our esteemed male colleagues to support us, for maternity leave, or, more unthinkably, paid maternity leave and no punitive tenure clock [beyond the normative punitive parameters]. “We” are our worst obstacle. As a prominent political science academic and feminist recently pointed out to me, one of the greatest obstacles to unionization or any form of collectivization, for artists and academics, is that they think of themselves as “professionals” and associate unions with blue color workers. Were they to peek around, they would note that these workers are practically extinct. We are all in an endless lateral plane of service. As one student told me, “my parents pay your salary,” to which I responded, “like the cleaning lady.” Note that there is no “liberal elitism” lurking here. We are all, to some extent, unless we work for JPMorgan Chase or some hedge fund, the cleaning lady (many nannies, like many cabbies, have a string of PhDs. My republican aunt once told me with delight that her cleaning lady had worked with my dissertation adviser when she, “the cleaning lady” was in grad school). Anyway, the student just nodded. I told him he should work to get his parents’ money’s worth.

Professors and academics like to think that they transcend as they were believed to do in a previous disciplinary socio-cultural regime. Jackson Pollock thought that too. He was an easy puppet in Cold War politics.  Teaching undergrads in a core curriculum of an ivy league university that shores its superiority and identity around said core curriculum of old master literature, art and music—in other words, utterly dependent on a labor pool of graduate students—I participated in the effort to unionize. The threats were not subtle. The University’s counter argument was that students study; they don’t labor.

And women work, they don’t labor. There is no language.

1 Marc Spiegler. “When Human Beings are the Canvas.” Art News. June, 2003.
2 Interview with Paolo Virno. Branden W. Joseph, , Alessia Ricciardi trans. Grey Room No. 21 (Fall 2005): 26-37.
3 Ibid. P. 35.
4 Ibid.
5 The Laugh of Medusa.
6 For an excellent panoramic overview of these practices, see Helen Molesworth. “House Work and Art Work.” October No. 92 (Spring 2000).
8 Ariella Azoulay. The Civil Contract Of Photography. New York: Zone Books, 2008. P. 226.
9 Ibid. For a discussion of the blind spot of sexuality and embodiment in Enlightenment thinking, see Jacques Lacan’s “seminal” “Kant with Sade.” Critique (April, 1963).
10 “Nothing, we are told by Western Hegemonic discourse, so differentiates “us” from “them” as the lack of freedom for women in Islamist societies. It needs to be noted, however, that far from silencing the power of women, Islamist regimes highlight it, acknowledging through severe and violent restrictions that what women do is crucial to political and social order. The argument justifying the strict codes of conduct, based on respect for women (in contrast to the Western commodification of women and their disparagement as sex objects), has a dialectical dynamic that can lead to its own undoing.” Susan Buck-Morss. Thinking Past Terror. P. 12. London: Verso, 2003. P. 12.
11 Thomas Keenan. “The Point is to (Ex) Change It: Reading ‘Capital’ Rhetorically.” Fables of Responsibility. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007.

Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint

Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint
Silvia Federici

Precarious work is a central concept in movement discussions of the capitalist reorganization of work and class relations in today’s global economy. Silvia Federici analyzes the potential and limits of this concept as an analytic and organizational tool. She claims reproductive labor is a hidden continent of work and struggle the movement must recognize in its political work, if it is to address the key questions we face in organizing for an alternative to capitalist society. How do we struggle over reproductive labor without destroying ourselves, and our communities? How do we create a self-reproducing movement? How do we overcome the sexual, racial, and generational hierarchies built upon the wage?

This lecture took place on October 28th 2006 at Bluestockings Radical Bookstore in New York City, 172 Allen Street, as part of the ‘This is Forever: From Inquiry to Refusal Discussion Series’.

Tonight I will present a critique of the theory of precarious labor that has been developed by Italian autonomist Marxists, with particular reference to the work of Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno, and also Michael Hardt. I call it a theory because the views that Negri and others have articulated go beyond the description of changes in the organization of work that have taken place in the 1980s and 1990s in conjunction with the globalization process – such as the “precariazation of work”, the fact that work relations are becoming more discontinuous, the introduction of “flexy time”, and the increasing fragmentation of the work experience. Their view on precarious labor present a whole perspective on what is capitalism and what is the nature of the struggle today. It is important to add that these are not simply the ideas of a few intellectuals, but theories that have circulated widely within the Italian movement for a number of years, and have recently become more influential also in the United States, and in this sense they have become more relevant to us.

History and Origin of Precarious Labor and Immaterial Labor Theory

My first premise is that definitely the question of precarious labor must be on our agenda. Not only has our relationship to waged work become more discontinuous, but a discussion of precarious labor is crucial for our understanding of how we can go beyond capitalism. The theories that I discuss capture important aspects of the developments that have taken place in the organization of work; but they also bring us back to a male-centric conception of work and social struggle. I will discuss now those elements in this theory that are most relevant to my critique.

An important premise in the Italian autonomists’ theory of precarious labor is that the precariazation of work, from the late 1970s to present, has been a capitalist response to the class struggle of the sixties, a struggle that was centered on the refusal of work, of as expressed in the slogan “more money less work”. It was a response to a cycle of struggle that challenged the capitalist command over labor, in a sense realizing the workers’ refusal of the capitalist work discipline, the refusal of a life organized by the needs of capitalist production, a life spent in a factory or in office.

Another important theme is that the precariazation of work relations is deeply rooted in another shift that has taken place with the restructuring of production in the 1980s. This is the shift from industrial labor to what Negri and Virno call “immaterial labor”. Negri and others have argued that the restructuring of production that has taken place in the eighties and nineties in response to the struggles of the sixties has begun a process whereby industrial labor is to be replaced by a different type o work, in the same way as industrial labor replaced agricultural work. They call the new type of work “immaterial labor” because they claim that with the computer and information revolutions the dominant form of work has changed. As a tendency, the dominant form of work in today’s capitalism is work that does not produce physical objects but information, ideas, states of being, relations.

In other words, industrial work – which was hegemonic in the previous phase of capitalist development – is now becoming less important; it is no longer the engine of capitalist development. In its place we find “immaterial labor”, which is essentially cultural work, cognitive work, info work.

Italian autonomists believe that the precarization of work and the appearance of immaterial labor fulfills the prediction Marx made in the Grundrisse, in a famous section on machines. In this section Marx states that with the development of capitalism, less and less capitalist production relies on living labor and more and more on the integration of science, knowledge and technology in the production process as the engines of accumulation. Virno and Negri see the shift to precarious labor as fulfilling this prediction, about capitalism’s historic trend. Thus, the importance of cognitive work and the development of computer work in our time lies in the fact that they are seen as part of a historic trend of capitalism towards the reduction of work.

The precarity of labor is rooted in the new forms of production. Presumably, the shift to immaterial labor generates a precariazation of work relations because the structure of cognitive work is different from that of industrial, physical work. Cognitive and info work rely less on the continuous physical presence of the worker in what was the traditional workplace. The rhythms of work are much more intermittent, fluid and discontinuous.
In sum, the development of precarious labor and shift to immaterial labor are not for Negri and other autonomist Marxists a completely negative phenomenon. On the contrary, they are seen as expressions of a trend towards the reduction of work and therefore the reduction of exploitation, resulting from capitalist development in response to the class struggle. This means that the development of the productive forces today is already giving us a glimpse of a world in which work can be transcended; in which we will liberate ourselves from the necessity to work and enter a new realm of freedom.

Autonomous Marxists believe this development is also creating a new kind of “common” originating from the fact that immaterial labor presumably represents a leap in the socialization and homogeneization of work. The idea is that differences between types of work that once were all important (productive/reproductive work e.g. agricultural/industrial/“affective labor”) are erased, as all types of work (as a tendency) become assimilated, for all begin to incorporate cognitive work. Moreover, all activities are increasingly subsumed under capitalist development, they all serve to the accumulation process, as society becomes an immense factory. Thus (e.g.) the distinction between productive and unproductive labor also vanishes.

This means that capitalism is not only leading us beyond labor, but it is creating the conditions for the “commonization” of our work experience, where the divisions are beginning to crumble. We can see why these theories have become popular. They have utopian elements especially attractive to cognitive workers – the “cognitariat” as Negri and some Italian activists call them. With the new theory, in fact, a new vocabulary has been invented. Instead of proletariat we have the “cognitariat”. Instead of working class, we have the “Multitude”, presumably because the concept of Multitude reveals the unity that is created by the new socialization of work; it expresses the communalization of the work process, the idea that within the work process workers are becoming more homogenized. For all forms of work incorporate elements of cognitive work, of computer work, communication work and so forth.

As I said this theory has gained much popularity, because there is a generation of young activists, with years of schooling and degrees who are now employed in precarious ways in different parts of the culture industry or the knowledge-production industry. Among them these theories are very popular because they tell them that, despite the misery and exploitation we are experiencing, we are nevertheless moving towards a higher level of production and social relations. This is a generation of workers who looks at the “Nine to Five” routine as a prison sentence. They see their precariousness as giving them new possibilities. And they have possibilities their parents did not have or dreamed of. The male youth of today (e.g.) is not as disciplined as their parents who could expect that their wife or partners would depend of them economically. Now they can count on social relationships involving much less financial dependence. Most women have autonomous access to the wage and often refuse to have children.

So this theory is appealing for the new generation of activists, who despite the difficulties of resulting from precarious labor, see within it certain possibilities. They want to start from there. They are not interested in a struggle for full employment. But there is also a difference here between Europe and the US. In Italy (e.g.) there is among the movement a demand for a guaranteed income. They call it “flex security”. They say, we are without a job, we are precarious because capitalism needs us to be, so they should pay for it. There have been various days of mobilization, especially on May 1st, centered on this demand for a guaranteed income. In Milano, on the May Day of this year [2006], movement people have paraded “San Precario”, the patron saint of the precarious worker. The ironic icon is featured in rallies and demonstrations centered on this question of precarity.

Critique of Precarious Labor

I will now shift to my critique of these theories – a critique from a feminist viewpoint. In developing my critique, I don’t want to minimize the importance of the theories I am discussing. They have been inspired by much political organizing and striving to make sense of the changes that have taken place in the organization of work, which has affected all our lives. In Italy, in recent years, precarious labor has been one of the main terrains of mobilization together with the struggle for immigrant rights.

I do not want to minimize the work that is taking place around issues of precarity. Clearly, what we have seen in the last decade is a new kind of struggle. A new kind of organizing is taking place, breaking away from the confines of the traditional workplace. Where the workplace was the factory or the office, we now see a kind of struggle that goes out from the factory to the “territory”, connecting different places of work and building movements and organizations rooted in the territory. The theories of precarious labor are trying to account for the aspects of novelty in the organization of work and struggle; trying to understand the emergent forms of organization.
This is very important. At the same time, I think that what I called precarious labor theory has serious flaws that I already hinted at in my presentation. I will outline them and then discuss the question of alternatives. My first criticism is that this theory is built on a faulty understanding of how capitalism works. It sees capitalist development as moving towards higher forms of production and labor. In Multitude, Negri and Hardt actually write that labor is becoming more “intelligent”. The assumption is that the capitalist organization of work and capitalist development are already creating the conditions for the overcoming of exploitation. Presumably, at one point, capitalism, the shell that keeps society going will break up and the potentialities that have grown within it will be liberated. There is an assumption that that process is already at work in the present organization of production. In my view, this is a misunderstanding of the effects of the restructuring produced by capitalist globalization and the neo-liberal turn.

What Negri and Hardt do not see is that the tremendous leap in technology required by the computerization of work and the integration of information into the work process has been paid at the cost of a tremendous increase of exploitation at the other end of the process. There is a continuum between the computer worker and the worker in the Congo who digs coltan with his hands trying to seek out a living after being expropriated, pauperized, by repeated rounds of structural adjustment and repeated theft of his community’s land and natural sources.

The fundamental principle is that capitalist development is always at the same time a process of underdevelopment. Maria Mies describes it eloquently in her work: “What appears as development in one part of the capitalist faction is underdevelopment in another part”. This connection is completely ignored in this theory; in fact and the whole theory is permeated by the illusion that the work process is bringing us together.

When Negri and Hardt speak of the “becoming common” of work and use the concept of Multitude to indicate the new commonism that is built through the development of the productive forces, I believe they are blind to much of what is happening with the world proletariat. They are blind to not see the capitalist destruction of lives and the ecological environment. They don’t see that the restructuring of production has aimed at restructuring and deepening the divisions within the working class, rather than erasing them. The idea that the development of the microchip is creating new commons is misleading; communalism can only be a product of struggle, not of capitalist production.

One of my criticisms of Negri and Hardt is that they seem to believe that the capitalist organization of work is the expression of a higher rationality and that capitalist development is necessary to create the material conditions for communism. This belief is at the center of precarious labor theory. We could discuss here whether it represents Marx’s thinking or not. Certainly the Communist Manifesto speaks of capitalism in these terms and the same is true of some sections of the Grundrisse. But it is not clear this was a dominant theme in Marx’s work, not at least in Capital.

Precarious Labor and Reproductive Work

Another criticism I have against the precarious labor theory is that it presents itself as gender neutral. It assumes that the reorganization of production is doing away with the power relations and hierarchies that exist within the working class on the basis of rage, gender and age, and therefore it is not concerned with addressing these power relations; it does not have the theoretical and political tools to think about how to tackle them. There is no discussion in Negri, Virno and Hardt of how the wage has been and continues to be used to organize these divisions and how therefore we must approach the wage struggle so that it does not become an instrument of further divisions, but instead can help us undermined them. To me this is one of the main issues we must address in the movement.

The concept of the “Multitude” suggests that all divisions within the working class are gone or are no longer politically relevant. But this is obviously an illusion. Some feminists have pointed out that precarious labor is not a new phenomenon. Women always had a precarious relation to waged labor. But this critique goes far enough.
My concern is that the Negrian theory of precarious labor ignores, bypasses, one of the most important contributions of feminist theory and struggle, which is the redefinition of work, and the recognition of women’s unpaid reproductive labor as a key source of capitalist accumulation. In redefining housework as WORK, as not a personal service but the work that produces and reproduces labor power, feminists have uncovered a new crucial ground of exploitation that Marx and Marxist theory completely ignored. All of the important political insights contained in those analysis are now brushed aside as if they were of no relevance to an understanding of the present organization of production.

There is a faint echo of the feminist analysis – a lip service paid to it – in the inclusion of so called “affective labor” in the range of work activities qualifying as “immaterial labor”. However, the best Negri and Hardt can come up with is the case of women who work as flight attendants or in the food service industry, whom they call “affective laborers”, because they are expected to smile at their customers.

But what is “affective labor?” And why is it included in the theory of immaterial labor? I imagine it is included because – presumably – it does not produce tangible products but “states of being”, that is, it produces feelings. Again, to put it crudely, I think this is a bone thrown to feminism, which now is a perspective that has some social backing and can no longer be ignored.

But the concept of “affective labor” strips the feminist analysis of housework of all its demystifying power. In fact, it brings reproductive work back into the world of mystification, suggesting that reproducing people is just a matter of making producing “emotions”, “feelings”, It used to be called a “labor of love;” Negri and Hardt instead have discovered “affection”.

The feminist analysis of the function of the sexual division of labor, the function of gender hierarchies, the analysis of the way capitalism has used the wage to mobilize women’s work in the reproduction of the labor force – all of this is lost under the label of “affective labor”.

That this feminist analysis is ignored in the work of Negri and Hardt confirms my suspicions that this theory expresses the interests of a select group of workers, even though it presumes to speak to all workers, all merged in the great caldron of the Multitude. In reality, the theory of precarious and immaterial labor speaks to the situation and interests of workers working at the highest level of capitalistic technology. Its disinterest in reproductive labor and its presumption that all labor forms a common hides the fact that it is concerned with the most privileged section of the working class. This means it is not a theory we can use to build a truly self-reproducing movement.

For this task the lesson of the feminist movement is still crucial today. Feminists in the seventies tried to understand the roots of women’s oppression, of women’s exploitation and gender hierarchies. They describe them as stemming from a unequal division of labor forcing women to work for the reproduction of the working class. This analysis was the basis of a radical social critique, the implications of which still have to be understood and developed to their full potential.

When we said that housework is actually work for capital, that although it is unpaid work it contributes to the accumulation of capital, we established something extremely important about the nature of capitalism as a system of production. We established that capitalism is built on an immense amount of unpaid labor, that it is not built exclusively or primarily on contractual relations; that the wage relation hides the unpaid, slave-like nature of so much of the work upon which capital accumulation is premised.

Also, when we said that housework is the work that reproduces not just “life”, but “labor-power”, we began to separate two different spheres of our lives and work that seemed inextricably connected. We became able to conceive of a fight against housework now understood as the reproduction of labor-power, the reproduction of the most important commodity capital has: the worker’s “capacity to work”, the worker’s capacity to be exploited. In other words, by recognizing that what we call “reproductive labor” is a terrain of accumulation and therefore a terrain of exploitation, we were able to also see reproduction as a terrain of struggle, and, very importantly, conceive of an anti-capitalist struggle against reproductive labor that would not destroy ourselves or our communities.

How do you struggle over/against reproductive work? It is not the same as struggling in the traditional factory setting, against for instance the speed of an assembly line, because at the other end of your struggle there are people not things. Once we say that reproductive work is a terrain of struggle, we have to first immediately confront the question of how we struggle on this terrain without destroying the people you care for. This is a problem mothers as well as teachers and nurses, know very well.

This is why it is crucial to be able to make a separation between the creation of human beings and our reproduction of them as labor-power, as future workers, who therefore have to be trained, not necessarily according to their needs and desires, to be disciplined and regimented in a particular fashion.
It was important for feminists to see, for example, that much housework and child rearing is work of policing our children, so that they will conform to a particular work discipline. We thus began to see that by refusing broad areas of work, we not only could liberate ourselves but could also liberate our children. We saw that our struggle was not at the expense of the people we cared for, though we may skip preparing some meals or cleaning the floor. Actually our refusal opened the way for their refusal and the process of their liberation.

Once we saw that rather than reproducing life we were expanding capitalist accumulation and began to define reproductive labor as work for capital, we also opened the possibility of a process of re-composition among women. Think for example of the prostitute movement, which we now call the “sex workers” movement. In Europe the origins of this movement must be traced back to 1975 when a number of sex workers in Paris occupied a church, in protest against a new zoning regulation which they saw as an attack on their safety. There was a clear connection between that struggle, which soon spread throughout Europe and the United States, and the feminist movement’s re-thinking and challenging of housework. The ability to say that sexuality for women has been work has lead to a whole new way of thinking about sexual relationships, including gay relations. Because of the feminist movement and the gay movement we have begun to think about the ways in which capitalism has exploited our sexuality, and made it “productive”.

In conclusion, it was a major breakthrough that women would begin to understand unpaid labor and the production that goes on in the home as well as outside of the home as the reproduction of the work force. This has allowed a re-thinking of every aspect of everyday life – child-raising, relationships between men and women, homosexual relationships, sexuality in general – in relation to capitalist exploitation and accumulation.

Creating Self-Reproducing Movements

As every aspect of everyday life was re-understood in its potential for liberation and exploitation, we saw the many ways in which women and women’s struggles are connected. We realized the possibility of “alliances” we had not imagined and by the same token the possibility of bridging the divisions that have been created among women, also on the basis of age, race, sexual preference.

We can not build a movement that is sustainable without an understanding of these power relations. We also need to learn from the feminist analysis of reproductive work because no movement can survive unless it is concerned with the reproduction of its members. This is one of the weaknesses of the social justice movement in the US.
We go to demonstrations, we build events, and this becomes the peak of our struggle. The analysis of how we reproduce these movements, how we reproduce ourselves is not at the center of movement organizing. It has to be. We need to go to back to the historical tradition of working class organizing “mutual aid” and rethink that experience, not necessarily because we want to reproduce it, but to draw inspiration from it for the present.
We need to build a movement that puts on its agenda its own reproduction. The anti-capitalist struggle has to create forms of support and has to have the ability to collectively build forms of reproduction.

We have to ensure that we do not only confront capital at the time of the demonstration, but that we confront it collectively at every moment of our lives. What is happening internationally proves that only when you have these forms of collective reproduction, when you have communities that reproduce themselves collectively, you have struggles that are moving in a very radical way against the established order, as for example the struggle of indigenous people in Bolivia against water privatization or in Ecuador against the oil companies’ destruction of indigenous land.

I want to close by saying if we look at the example of the struggles in Oaxaca, Bolivia, and Ecuador, we see that the most radical confrontations are not created by the intellectual or cognitive workers or by virtue of the internet’s common. What gave strength to the people of Oaxaca was the profound solidarity that tied them with each other – a solidarity for instance that made indigenous people from every part of the state to come to the support of the “maestros”, whom they saw as members of their communities. In Bolivia too, the people who reversed the privatization of water had a long tradition of communal struggle. Building this solidarity, understanding how we can overcome the divisions between us, is a task that must be placed on the agenda. In conclusion then, the main problem of precarious labor theory is that it does not give us the tools to overcome the way we are being divided. But these divisions, which are continuously recreated, are our fundamental weakness with regard to our capacity to resist exploitation and create an equitable society.

From: In the Middle of the Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protest, Movement & Movements.
Publisher: The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest.