Feeling Powers Growing: An Interview with Silvia Federici
This interview was conducted by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery for Joyful Militancy (building thriving resistance in toxic times) published by AK Press. Silvia Federici is an Italian activist and author of many works, including Caliban and the Witch and Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. She was co-founder of the International Feminist Collective and organizer with the Wages for Housework Campaign in the ‘70s. In it they discuss new ways of acting and destructive cultures within political movements.
Silvia Federici: My politics resonate with your idea of “joyful militancy.” I’m a strong believer that either your politics is liberating and that gives you joy, or there’s something wrong with them.
I’ve gone through phases of “sad politics” myself and I’ve learned to identify the mistakes that generate it. It has many sources. But one factor is the tendency to exaggerate the importance of what we can do by ourselves, so that we always feel guilty for not accomplishing enough.
When I was thinking about this conversation, I was reminded of Nietzsche’s metamorphoses in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and his image of the camel. The camel is the prototype of the militant who burdens herself with huge amounts of work, because she thinks that the destiny of the world depends on her overwork. Inevitably she’s always saddened because the goal is always receding and she does not have the time to be fully present to her life and recognize the transformative possibilities inherent to her work.
carla and Nick: You said that you feel like there are so many sources to sad militancy and can you speak to some more of those?
Federici: Sad militancy comes from setting goals that you cannot achieve, so that the outcome is always out of reach, always projected into the future and you feel continuously defeated. “Sad politics “ is also defining your struggle in purely oppositional terms, which puts you in a state of permanent tension and failure. A joyful politics is a politics that is constructive and prefigurative. I’m encouraged by the fact that more people today see that you cannot continuously postpone the achievement of your goals to an always receding future.
Joyful politics is politics that change your life for the better already in the present. This is not to deny that political engagement often involves suffering. In fact our political involvement often is born of suffering. But the joy is knowing and deciding that we can do something about it, it is recognizing that we share our pain with other people, is feeling the solidarity of those around us. Militants in Argentina speak of “politicizing our sadness.”
This is why I don’t believe in the concept of “self-sacrifice,” where self-sacrifice means that we do things that go against our needs, our desires, our potentials, and for the sake of political work we have to repress ourselves. This has been a common practice in political movements in the past. But it is one that produces constantly dissatisfied individuals. Again, what we do may lead to suffering, but this may be preferable to the kind of self-destruction we would have faced had we remained inactive.
The inability to make politics a rewarding experience is part of the reason why, I think, the radical Left has been unsuccessful in attracting large numbers of people. Here too we are beginning to learn however. I see that many young militants today are recognizing the importance of building community, of organizing activities that are pleasurable, that build trust and affective relations, like eating together for instance. It is not an accident that Indigenous peoples’ movements in Latin America give so much importance to the organization of events like the fiestas.
Nick and carla: We wanted to ask you specifically about the feminist movement and what are some of the ways that feminists and other movements have struggled with sad militancy in the past. We’re thinking of Jo Freeman’s essay on “trashing” from the ‘70s, where she talks about real tendencies to destroy relationships within the feminist movement.[i] In one of the interviews that you’ve done, you mention “truculent forms of behavior that were typical of the movement in the ‘60s” and that you see new forms of kindness and care emerging that maybe were absent back then. So we wanted to ask you about how things have changed from your perspective, and whether you see a connection between trashing and what is now called call-out culture in contemporary movements.
Federici: When I wrote about truculent behavior, I was thinking of relations in the male Left and male-dominated organizations, where you found a lot of protagonism and peacock-like competition, as well as a manipulation of women, sexual and otherwise. These were among the factors that motivated the rise of the women’s liberation movement. Not only women’s demands were pushed off the agenda, but everyday relations were often degrading for them.
A good description of women’s lives in male-dominated organizations is Marge Piercy’s “The Grand Coolie Dam,”[ii] where she powerfully describes the many forms of subordination women suffered in male-dominated groups. In comparison, the organizational forms the women’s movement adopted were a major improvement. Possibly feminists moved too far in the opposite direction. I am thinking of Jo Freeman’s critique of the “tyranny of structurelessness.”[iii] But she’s excessively critical of the feminist movement. I don’t agree that feminists were especially prone to trashing each other. The attack on leadership, for instance, though it often worked against people’s capacity to express themselves, also opened the way to more egalitarian relations—like ensuring that everyone would have a change to speak in a meeting. The resistence against women getting credit for authoring articles or speaking too much in public was a legacy of the experiences we had made in male-dominated organizations. In time, it is a fear that most women left behind, as they felt more confident in their own powers.
“The problem has been the wedding of “identity” with the politics of rights, as when we speak of women’s rights, Indigenous peoples’ rights, as if each group were entitled to a packet of entitlements, but in isolation from each other, so that we lose sight of the commonalities and the possibility of a common struggle.”
Some of the bitterness that you find in Jo Freeman comes perhaps from the fact that, when we joined the women’s movement, many of us believed that we had reached a sort of paradise. As I wrote in “Putting Feminism On Its Feet,” when I began to work with other women I truly felt that I had found my home, my tribe.[iv] We thought that we had reached a place where everything would be harmonious; where there would be love, care, reciprocity, equality, cooperation—sisterhood as we called it. So we dis-activated our critical thinking and left our defenses down. Unfortunately, we didn’t reach paradise, and the disappointment was especially severe because we assumed that in the women’s movement we would find happiness, or at least we would not encounter the kind of jealousies, power plays, and power relations we had experienced with men.
Spinoza speaks of Joy as coming from Reason and Understanding. But we forgot that all of us bear on our bodies and minds the marks of life in a capitalist society. We forgot that we came to the feminist movement with many scars and fears. We would feel devalued and easily take offense if we thought we were not properly valued. It was a jealousy that came from poverty, from fear of not being given our due. This also led some women to be possessive about what they had done, what they had written or said.
These are all the classical problems and distortions that life in a capitalist society creates. Over time you learn to identify them, but at first, many of us were devastated by them. For me coping with this realization has been an important learning process. But I have also seen women leaving the movement because they were so deeply hurt by it.
On the other hand, the feminist movement, because it stressed the importance of sharing experiences and engaging in a collective examination of our everyday lives and problems, gave us important tools to deal with this situation. Through “consciousness-raising” and the refusal to separate politics from our everyday reproduction it created forms of organization that built trust and showed that our strength was rooted in our mutual solidarity.
I found a vision in the women’s movement that allowed me to overcome some bitter experiences and over time insulated me from disappointment. I see politics now as a process of transformation; a process by which we learn to better ourselves, shed our possessiveness and discard the petty squabbles that so much poison our lives.
I think that this has been a collective experience that has left a mark on other organizations as well. It seems to me that, over the last two or three decades, the women’s movement has been the most important influence on the organizational forms of most radical movements. You don’t find today, on a general level, the kind of behavior that was common among men thirty or forty years ago, not at least among the new generations, although there is still a good amount of machismo around. But you also have men who genuinely want to be feminist, and define themselves as anti-patriarchal, or organize against male supremacy—all unthinkable stands—with few exceptions—in the ‘60s.
carla: I have all these questions! There seems to be some kind of paradox in this: that joy is about feelings and relationships, but not just an individual feeling. And while we want to speak to the power of joy, it can’t be turned into a commandment, and in fact it gets lost when it becomes something imposed on people. But it also can’t be about just feeling happy or feeling good, or being okay with the way things are. It feels like a little bit of a paradox and I haven’t figured out how to think that through. A lot of my activism over the years has been around youth liberation and working with children having more of a say, and getting that form of oppression into the discussion and into activist spaces, and my work was very centered around that in a public way. I don’t want to replicate individualism in liberation; I want it to always be connected to the larger systems and social struggles. But it also needs to be about thriving right now, because they’re kids! And when things were working well it seemed that there was a lot of room for freedom and growth but it was held and felt collectively, without a bunch of rules or norms. There was happiness, sure, but also difficulty and a willingness to work through it. So it feels like a constant paradox to work through joy …
Federici: I like the distinction between happiness and joy. Like you, I like joy because it is an active passion. It’s not a static state of being. And it’s not satisfaction with things as they are. It’s part of feeling powers and capacities growing within yourself and in the people around you. It’s a feeling, a passion, that comes from a process of transformation and growth. It does not mean that you’re satisfied with your situation. It means, again using Spinoza, that you’re active in accordance to what your understanding tells you to do and what is required by the situation. So you feel that you have the power to change and feel yourself changing through what you’re doing, together with other people. It’s not a form of acquiescence to what exists.
Nick and carla: We’ve found your concept of the accumulation of divisions really compelling, and the ways you’re centering how capitalism is always using white supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and other oppressive hierarchies to create divisions and enable exploitation. Your historicization of those divisions is powerful, because you show how the state and capitalism have deepened and entrenched patriarchy and racism as a strategy to stop resistance and enable more intense exploitation. And for us, in this book we really want to center the importance of rebuilding trust and connection and solidarity across those divisions, while leaving space for difference and autonomy. One of the things that we like about your work is that you don’t jump to a simple unity—that overcoming these divisions doesn’t look like a simple unity. And so we wanted to ask you to talk about that a little more. Is there a distinction between divisions, which are hierarchical and exploitative, and differences, which might be something else? And can you talk about the positive horizon you see for resisting the accumulation of divisions while warding off a kind of homogenizing unity?
Federici: Yes, the distinction between differences and divisions is important. When I speak of “divisions” I speak of differences that carry hierarchies, inequalities, and have a divisive power. So, we need to be very clear when we speak of “differences.” Not all should be celebrated.
The lesson we learned in the ‘60s from the women’s movement and the Black Power movement is that the most effective way to respond to unequal relations is for those who have less social power to organize autonomously. This does not exclude the possibility of coming together for particular struggles. But in a society divided along racial and gender lines, unity is a goal to be achieved, not something that can be assumed to already exist. Organizational autonomy, or at least the construction of autonomous spaces within mixed organizations—as it often happens in Latin America—is a necessary condition to subvert these divisions. The women’s movement could not have developed the understanding of the situation of women that it developed if women had remained in male-dominated organizations. It was crucial for women to move away from these organizations to even begin to think about their problems and share their thoughts with each other.
You cannot think of a problem, give voice to it, share it with others, if you fear that you will be dismissed, ridiculed, or told that it is not important. Moreover, how could women have spoken of sexuality and their relations with men in front of them? And how could Black militants speak openly of their experience of racism in front of white people?
Autonomy within movements that are working toward unity but are traversed by power relations is fundamental. A crucial reality would have remained hidden if the feminist movement had not organized autonomously and this is also true of the Black Power movement. Important areas and forms of exploitation would have continued to be unnoticed; would not have been analyzed and denounced and would have continued to be reproduced.
carla and Nick: You often point to Latin America and other places where the social fabric is much stronger in general, and movements are a lot more capable of reproducing themselves and meeting their own needs, relying less on the state and capital. The maintenance of communal and cooperative forms of life seems to be central to the capacity for sustained struggle and resistance. Can you elaborate on all this?
Federici: I went to Nigeria in the ‘80s and one of the big surprises for me was to discover that large amounts of land were still managed communally. That doesn’t mean that in communal land regimes relationships are necessarily egalitarian. Generally men have more power than women; but until recently they could not sell the land. Clearly these communal regimes have gone through many changes, especially because of colonial domination. But the fact that communal ownership has been widespread in Africa until at least the nineteenth century and, in some regions, continues even today, has had a deep impact on relationships and people, which is why I believe so much violence has been and is necessary to privatize the land and the continent’s immense natural resources.
It’s the same thing in Latin America. In Mexico, in the 1930s, during the government of Lázaro Cárdenas, some land was returned to indigenous communities that had been expropriated by colonial invasion. Today the Mexican government is trying to re-privatize everything, but until recently at least thirty percent of the country’s land was still held communally.
Again, this is not a guarantee of egalitarian relations. Women in these communities are coming forward, criticizing the patriarchal relations often prevailing within them. A good example are the Zapatista women. As you can read in Hilary Klein’s book Compañeras, many of the transformations that have taken place in Zapatista communities, like the application of the Revolutionary Law On Women, have been the product of the struggle that women have made against patriarchalism. But communal land regimes guarantee the reproduction of the communities that live on the land.
Today many of these communities are facing dispossession because of land privatization, deforestation, the loss of water to irrigate their milpas. But when they are forced out and come to the cities, they still act as a collectivity. They take over land though collective action, they build encampments, and take decision collectively. As a result, in many cities of Latin America, new communities have formed that from their beginning were built collectively. It appears that the narcos now try to infiltrate some of these communities. But when people take over the land and cooperate to build their houses, to build the streets, to fight with the government to connect the electricity and get water pipes, there is a good chance that that they will be able to respond to this threat, and you can see that there’s a new social reality emerging in these communities.
As Raúl Zibechi often points out, something new is emerging in these communities because they have had to invent new forms of life, without any pre-existing model, and politicize the everyday process of their reproduction.[v] When you work together, building houses, building streets, building structures that provide some immediate form of healthcare—just to give some examples—you are making life-choices, as all of them come with a high cost. You must fight the state, fight the police, the local authorities. So you have to develop tight relations with each other and always measure the value of all things.
Nick and carla: Following up on that, part of what we are curious about is how we can learn from places where, in general, the degree of politicization is higher and the social fabric is much stronger. What kind of lessons can North American–based organizers draw from this for organizing in our own communities? How can people in the global North learn from all of the vibrant struggles and forms of life in Latin America while being attentive to differences in context at the same time?
Federici: This is a discussion that is taking place in New York. People in the social movements who are inspired by the struggles in Latin America are now thinking in terms of territorial politics, the territory being a place where you have some form of collective control and even self-government. Clearly, the situation in the US is profoundly different. But thinking in terms of territory enables us to see that the neighborhoods in which we live are not neutral spaces, they are not just conglomerates of houses and people. They are very politically structured. In New York, for instance, since the ‘70s, there’s been a process of “spatial de-concentration,” whereby every neighborhood has been studied by local and federal authorities to figure out how to better control the movement of people and guarantee that the wrong people do not go to certain neighborhoods. Subway lines, bus lines, playgrounds have been restructured, to make sure that poor people cannot easily go to places of wealth.
So looking at our neighborhoods as “territories” in this case means recognizing those factors of tension, of crisis, those power relations that traverse them that divide people but can also bring them together. The social centers that have opened in recent years in New York are attempting to do that, trying to engage in practices that create “territory,” that is, create forms of aggregation. Building more collective forms of reproduction is a key aspect of this process. It is indispensable if we want to create “communities of resistance,” spaces where people are connected and can engage in some collective decision-making.
carla and Nick: Maybe one thing to follow up on this. In that question you talked about the forgotten impacts of really subtle things like architecture, planning, and in Caliban and the Witch you talk about the forgotten impacts of the witch hunts, and how those impacts are still with us today. Are there underappreciated movements of joy and transformation where we haven’t fully appreciated the impacts?
Federici: There are so many movements. The Suffragette movement, for example, is always portrayed as a bourgeois movement, but I’m discovering that it had a working-class dimension as well. But rather than thinking of particular movements, what most matters is discovering and recreating the collective memory of past struggles. In the US there is a systematic attempt to destroy this memory and now this is extending across the world, with the destruction of the main historical centers of the Middle East—a form of dispossession that has major consequences and yet is rarely discussed. Reviving the memory of the struggles of the past makes us feel part of something larger than our individual lives and in this way it gives a new meaning to what we are doing and gives us courage, because it makes us less afraid of what can happen to us individually.
Nick and carla: Another thing that we wanted to talk to you about is the style and tone of intellectual engagement. Your style is so generous, and you have a really militant critique of capitalism, but you’re always pointing to examples in a range of different movements and you seem to reserve really pointed attacks for large destructive institutions like the World Bank. It seems to us that this differs from a lot of radical critique today, which can be very focused on exposing complicities or limitations, talking about the ways that movements are lacking, that they haven’t yet reached this or that, as well as targeting individuals. So we wanted to ask: Is this style something that you’ve cultivated and that you’re intentional about, and maybe more generally, can you talk about the potential of theory in intellectual work today, and what joyful theory might look like? What makes theory enabling and transformative, and what gets in the way of that?
Federici: It’s partially a consequence of growing old. You understand things that when you’re younger you didn’t see. One thing that I’ve learned is to be more humble and to hold my judgment of people until I know them beyond what I can make out from what they say, realizing that people often say foolish things that they do not really believe or have not seriously thought about.
It also comes from recognizing that we can change, which means that we should stress our potential rather than our limits. One of the most amazing experiences in the women’s movement was to see how much we could grow, learning to speak in public, write poetry, make beautiful posters. All this has given me a strong distaste for the impulse to squash everything at the first sign that something is not right.
I’ve made it a principle not to indulge in speech that is destructive. Striving to speak clearly, not to make people feel like fools because they don’t understand what I say, is a good part of it. That’s also something I’ve taken from the women’s movement. So many times we had felt humiliated, being in situations where we didn’t understand what men had said, and didn’t have the courage to ask what they meant. I don’t want to make other people ever feel this way.
carla and Nick: You’re really good at that! One of the things we were talking about this morning is the question of identity and a lot of the critiques of sad militancy that we have read really make identity into the problem quite a bit more than we would want to. We’re trying to think through how to speak to the power of identity and experience while also pointing to power of transformation and working across difference, and how the two of those aren’t antithetical in the way they’re sometimes set up, that they’re crucial for each other.
Federici: I think the critique of identity has taken on dimensions that are not always justified. What people often criticize as identity is actually the position that a person has had in the capitalist organization of work. For example, is being a housewife an identity? Yes, it’s an identity, but it is also a particular place in the capitalist organization of work, like being a miner, it’s also a particular form of exploitation. Identity is often used in a way that hides that exploitation. That’s when it becomes problematic.
Moreover, behind identity there’s also a history of struggle and resistance to exploitation. Identity can be a signpost for a whole history of struggle. When I say I am a feminist, for instance, I consciously connect myself to history of struggle that women have made. Identities can be mutable as well. “Woman,” for example, is not a fixed identity. The concept of woman has undergone a tremendous change over the last fifty years.
The problem has been the wedding of “identity” with the politics of rights, as when we speak of women’s rights, Indigenous peoples’ rights, as if each group were entitled to a packet of entitlements, but in isolation from each other, so that we lose sight of the commonalities and the possibility of a common struggle.
Nick and carla: That’s really helpful. Our last question is about hope. Spinoza himself is pretty wary of hope, but he sees it as quite future-oriented: to hope is also to fear, because you’re attached to a future object or outcome. More generally hope is often equated with a naïve optimism: it can become fixated on a certain outcome. But in one of your interviews,[vi] you talked about it as something that’s a lot more open-ended. It’s more the sense that we can do something. Do you think that hope is necessarily attached to a vision of the future?
Federici: Hope is positive if it is an active passion; but only if it does not replace the work necessary to make our action successful.