I was very excited to find this piece by Silvia Federici talking about feminism, precarious labor, post-operaismo, etc. It’s a talk called “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint.” (See also these two interviews, with Maria Rosa dalla Costa and Alisa Del Re translated from the Futuro Anteriore [sp?] collecting. I should also take a crack at reading the interview with Federici in Italian, as it’s not been translated yet.)

I’ve been interested in this precarity stuff for a while now, and in feminism. It was feminism that made my early very vulgar marxism and unknowing maoism unravel. (Do I count as an ex-maoist if I was affiliated with a maoist party but didn’t know it was maoist?)

Likewise with a big chunk of my excitement over the postoperaismo parts of autonomist marxism.

So the Federici piece feels sort of like something I was looking for.

(This reminds me, I have to get the categories or tags or whatsits updated for my blog, that may make me repeat myself less. It might make me repeat myself less. I’m at least two years behind on the updating, maybe more. Ugh. I usually just use searches to find stuff that I think I’ve posted, which is not very efficient. I think I’ve got quite a few posts on this stuff now about feminism and women and Negri et al… for instance: this and this and this.)

Federici writes that recent works by people like Negri and Virno “capture important aspects of the developments that have taken place in the organization of work” and stresses that she does not

“want to minimize the importance of [these] theories (…) 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.”

On precarity and immaterial/affective labor she writes:

“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.”

I’m not clear if this paragraph has an implied “for Negri and Virno and others” or “for real in the actual economy.” Either way, I don’t like the implied relationship here between the labor process and the conditions of work. That is, I don’t like the implication that the the structure of work leads to the conditions of the work, including the legal conditions. These conditions are not determined by the structure of work. At the least, they’re underdetermined by the structure of work. To put this differently, the main determinants are political whereas the quote sounds like the main determinants are technical. There’s no major non-political reason why immaterial labor should be (are) precarious and other labors should not be (are not). Rather those outcomes are the result of historical factors, class conflict, strategies, etc. Again, politically not technically determined.

Federici continues, noting that

“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.”

The final sentence here hits the nail on the head for me: overemphasis on the forces of production and underemphasis on the relations of production, and mistaken account of their relationship.

In her criticisms, Federici states 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.” What’s left out here 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. (…) The fundamental principle [neglected in the theoretical accounts of precarious and immaterial labor] 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.’ (…) the restructuring of production has aimed at restructuring and deepening the divisions within the working class, rather than erasing them.”

Federici writes that this theory at least implicitly holds that “capitalist development is necessary to create the material conditions for communism,” which is a key part of what no longer works for me here. When in a polemical mood, want to say this implication has a theological or religious quality (which I mean here as a criticism).

Another problem is that “the precarious labor theory (…) presents itself as gender neutral.” (This reminds me, I need to type up my notes on Heidi Hartmann, and compare that work with stuff on slavery, like Johnson and Tomich.) This is part of what makes this work insufficient on divisions within the working class. There’s no discussion “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,” a pressing political matter.

This stuff on immaterial and “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.” (See Boydston, Fortunati, Mies, as three that I’m aware of [which reminds me, I need to find my copy of the Mies and put up my notes, and start building a list on feminist {criticisms of} political economy].)

“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. (…) 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”

in the immaterial and precarious labor conversations, or risks being lost, and such a loss is or would be a serious problem.

“[T]he 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 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 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.”

Federici ends concluding that “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.”

There’s more in the talk, like stuff on social struggles and reproduction as a terrain of struggle, which is definitely worth reading and which I won’t quote here. I’ll end these notes with Federici’s remarks about what may be going on politically in all this stuff, and her attempt at a partial explanation of explaining the relative popularity of this work. (Here‘s at least part why it was so exciting to me personally back when.)

Federici expresses “suspicions that this theory expresses the interests of a select group of workers, even though it presumes to speak to all workers.” I think this is connected to an earlier/older/ongoing theme in the operaismo stuff, which is the hegemony of one class sector over another. People from Midnight Notes discuss this here, referring to it as a class vanguard and using the EZLN as an inspiration for criticizing this move. (Some discussion on this here and here.) The universality of immaterial labor is functional for the hegemony or attempted hegemony of one sector over the entire class. Federici argues that these theories “bring us back to a male-centric conception of work and social struggle.”

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.


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.”


I was just looking for something else and found this old blog post of mine, which includes a bit of my notes on the intro to the Negri collection Books For Burning. I had forgotten this, but in a recent comment on the stuff in that book Negri said part of the point of the writing collected in that book was “to legitimate a kind of leadership within the seventies movement.” Seems to me this supports Federici’s argument quite a bit.

This bit from Mezzadra is relevant too, re: Mike’s point in the comments below about retrospective homogenization of class composition. This relates to the point that Mike (S) and Jpool made arguing with me about the term ‘wage slavery’ here.

Notes to self: Revisit this – http://generation-online.org/p/fpnegri19.htm