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Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework

Federici, Silvia. Wages Against Housework. Bristol: Falling Wall Press and the Power of Women Collective. 1975.

Review by Hayyim Rothman

In 1975, scholar and activist Silvia Federici published a short book called Wages Against Housework, which explored the social consequences of domestic labor––historically considered women’s work. Federici advocates for wages for domestic labor, arguing that housework is a pervasive manipulation perpetrated against the working class.

Federici begins by highlighting the difference between housework and a job. Because jobs are paid, they provide at least the possibility of agency. Housework is not simply unpaid––it is also a form of violence against women. Housework, Federici posits, has been “transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character.” (2)

This particular unpaid job is coded into the biological identity of the worker, excluding women from the social contract and exploiting them. Federici sees capitalism at the root of the problem: “the unwaged condition of housework has been the most powerful weapon in reinforcing the common assumption that housework is not work, thus preventing women from struggling against it.” (2)

Federici addresses the manipulative sense in which women are made to believe this to be the case. Women are naturalized to believe that unwaged work, including housework and childcare, are feminine attributes. All women are expected to participate and even enjoy these activities, which harms not just married women or mothers, but women who choose different paths. Federici’s proposed solution is wages for housework. This would insert women into the socio-economic contract and oppose the gendered division of labor.

Federici frames her proposal with the language of protest. “When hundreds and thousands of women are in the streets saying that endless cleaning, being always emotionally available, fucking at command for fear of losing our jobs is hard, hated work which wastes our lives, then [men] will be scared and feel undermined.” (7)

The arguments raised in Wages Against Housework apply far beyond women’s unpaid labor. Federici’s critiques also apply to the present situation of post-industrial immaterial labor. In light of Federici’s contribution, we can extend her claims: now, capitalist production is becoming organized in such a way that it really does exploit those parts of human experience which are intrinsic elements of what it means to be human. By blurring the lines between work and play, everyone––not just the women Federici speaks of––can be duped in the same way. If play is “not work” or lesser work, then even when it is treated as a sort of work, the player can more easily be exploited; after all, he or she is being paid for what he or she would naturally do anyway.

Think about the ways today’s consumers have been naturalized to the use of social networks, which penetrate into everyday life in a way that hides their economic value. What if users of services like Facebook, Twitter, and so on––users who contribute value to these companies both directly and indirectly––were to demand wages for their contributions? What effect would this have on the matter?

Large social media companies which are such tremendous economic powerhouses give us the impression that we are lucky to have them and, moreover, to enjoy them as free services. But pointing out that they need our constant data input to survive, input that is now free labor, might change things and put power back into the hands of the user?

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Hayyim Rothman has a PhD in Philosophy from Boston College and recently received a Fulbright postdoctoral research fellowship to work at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

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