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Refusing the Planetary Work Machine

by Kevin Van Meter
Perspectives Journal

A Review of Silvia Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero and George Caffentzis’s In Letters of Blood and Fire


In the immediate aftermath of the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999, at the peak of the counter-globalization cycle of protest, I stumbled into an office at Long Island’s Hofstra University. Amongst piles of books and photocopied lefty fliers I found a copy of the Midnight Notes collection Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-19921 and had a chance encounter with feminist activist-scholar Silvia Federici. Since then I – and the Team Colors Collective, in which I participate – have drawn on the work of Federici and the Wages for Housework Campaign of which she was part, philosopher George Caffentzis and historian Peter Linebaugh of the Midnight Notes Collective, and economist Harry Cleaver, who, along with Caffentzis and Linebaugh, wrote as part of the short-lived Zerowork Collective that predated Midnight Notes. I do not offer this personal introduction as a justification for celebrating the release of these two collections, as much as they should be celebrated; rather, I do so because revolutionary politics are “something, which in fact happens” in “human relationships,” as E.P. Thompson offered.

In what follows I explore the history that situates this work and review the concepts and ideas offered by Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle and Caffentzis’s In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism.2

A Short, Incomplete History of Autonomist Marxism in the United States

In the “Introduction” to Reading Capital Politically, Harry Cleaver proposes a “political- strategic reading” of Marx’s Capital that takes the perspective of working-class struggle. Cleaver argues, “[R]evolutionary strategy cannot be created from an ideological critique; it develops within the actual ongoing growth of working-class struggle.”3 He then locates this perspective in a series of heretical Marxist organizations that he broadly defines as purveyors of an “autonomist” politics. Beginning with the publication of the 1947 pamphlet The American Worker by autoworker Paul Romano and Ria Stone (pen name of Raya Dunayevskaya), Autonomist Marxism was forged in 1950s Detroit in the former- Trotskyist Johnson-Forest Tendency and subsequent organizations Correspondence Publishing Committee and Facing Reality. These organizations, each with their own publishing arm, included figures such as Trinidadian Marxist CLR James, Works Projects Administration Historian and documentarian of American slavery George Rawick, retired factory worker and Wayne State Professor Martin Glaberman, and Chinese-American Detroit luminary Grace Lee Boggs.

The connections between the Detroit-Torino auto industry and The American Worker resonated with Raniero Panzieri, Romano Alquati, Mario Tronti, and Antonio Negri in various journals-qua-organizations Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) and Classe Operaia (Working Class). These projects drew on the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Socialisme ou Barbarie, and various ultra-left tendencies in the Italian Communist Party. Following the 1969 Hot Autumn in the Fiat factories and corresponding student struggles, a new phase of struggle in the social factory was launched with figures such as Paolo Virno, Sergio Bologna, and Franco "Bifo" Berardi, and similar journal- organization hybrids were launched including Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle) and Potere Operaio (Workers Power). The Detroit-Torino proletariat attacked capital at its highest points of concentration in the auto industry. Subsequently, working class struggle in the auto industry pushed capital to seek new areas for accumulation. Hence capital moves the factory model beyond the factory gates to encompass all of society, in what Autonomist Marxists have termed the “social factory”.

The working class response to the development of the social factory was typified in Italy under the broad movement called Autonomia, which in turn traveled to Germany via the squat movement exemplified by the Autonomen, and was developing in the US and UK during the same period. Militants Paolo Carpignano and Ed Emery, the latter of Red Notes in the UK, served as conduits of this discourse, as did Federici, who was at the heart of the US-wing of the International Wages for Housework Campaign. Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa initiated the Campaign, based in London and Pauda, Italy respectively, and circulated its call via Dalla Costa’s monumental The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community.4 With the advent of the feminist movement in Italy, the UK, and the US, Wages for Housework took Autonomist Marxism in a different direction then its initial focus on male autoworkers.

Herein the Campaign centered the housewife and the unpaid reproductive work they performed, thus furthering the discourse on the social factory.

As a result of the work of the Campaign in the US, and in New York City particularly, a men’s group came together to form Zerowork and launched a corresponding journal. The initial meetings in New York included members of Facing Reality, Wages for Housework, and featured Cleaver, Caffentzis, Linebaugh, and others. Zerowork released two journals in 1975 and 1977 respectively (and produced an unreleased third) before splitting, with Cleaver moving to Austin, TX and a number of remaining members launching Midnight Notes, along with Bostonian educator Monty Neill.

At this time New York City was in the midst of the Fiscal Crisis, mass firing of CUNY faculty, and repression of social movements that echoed the 1979 mass arrest of Italian militants. New York was entering ‘midnight’ with the endless imposition of work, while Cleaver continued to argue that capital was moving toward ‘zero’ work in Austin amidst the tech boom. The Midnight Notes collective, which continued until recently, along with Zerowork, was amongst the first to theorize the importance of the NYC Fiscal Crisis for future International Monetary Fund / World Bank structural adjustment programs. Furthermore, they contributed key analysis on the importance of hydrocarbons – wood, coal, oil, gas – and uranium for neoliberal capital, intervened in the antinuke movement, described the process of “new enclosures” (i.e. structural adjustment, privatization of land and forced urbanization / proletarization, increasing penetration of capital into everyday life), and furthered the Zapatista slogan “one no, many yesses.”

As the 1980's began Autonomist Marxism found its expression in the continuing work of the Midnight Notes collective and with the related project Processed World that was launched in San Francisco. Initiated by Chris Carlsson, who would later go on to found Critical Mass, and feminist Caitlin Manning, Processed World focused on the new forms of work, specifically temporary office work and precarious labor. Combining the aforementioned projects with influences such as the Situationist International, early punk rock, and a playful San Francisco counter culture, Processed World participated in various street actions and theatre in addition to an irregularly published journal.

Reviewing Revolution at Point Zero and In Letters of Blood and Fire

In Revolution at Point Zero Federici locates the beginnings of the Wages for Housework Campaign in the Welfare Rights Movements rather then the assumed burgeoning white, middle-class feminist movement. It is these various perspectives that Federici utilized in her organizing with the Campaign in New York, and appear in Revolution at Point Zero as well as her well-received 2004 volume Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation.5 Moreover, her “Counter-planning in the Kitchen” written with Nicole Cox, is an application of Bill Watson’s “Counter-planning on the Shop Floor” to unwaged work, and further illustrates her position within the Autonomist tradition. “Counter-planning in the Kitchen” offers a important remark – “[p]ower educates.”6 Specifically, against the liberal notion that racialized, gendered, and other oppressive behaviors change through education or changes in consciousness, Federici and Cox argue that the education process comes through refusal, struggle, and political recomposition. 7

Revolution at Point Zero
8 opens with Federici’s 1975 essay “Wages against Housework.” Challenging the notion that the wages for housework demand was simply about the figure of the housewife and wages due, she argues that “[w]ages for housework [...] is a revolutionary demand not because by itself it destroys capital, but because it forces capital to restructure social relations in terms more favorable to us and consequently more favorable to the unity of the class.”9 Put clearly, the demand is for the unwaged work of social reproduction – that is, the reproduction of a particularly important commodity for capital: the workers’ ability to work– to be recognized as such through its refusal. Hence the refusal of gendered, unwaged work is part of class struggle and a class project beyond capital’s imposition of such work. Earlier in the chapter she notes, “women have always found ways of fighting back, or getting back at them, but always in an isolated and privatized way. The problem, then, becomes, how to bring this struggle out of the kitchen and the bedroom and into the streets.”10 Here I see reflections of the women’s consciousness-raising movement of the time but with an added class struggle component. By the 1980s capital was in the process of restructuring its technical composition and attempting to decompose the power that various sectors of the working class obtained in the previous cycle of struggle. In “The Restructuring of Housework and Reproduction in the United States in the 1970s” she argues, “[t]he clearest evidence that women have used the power of the wage to reduce their unpaid labor in the home has been the explosion of the service sector in the ‘70s. Cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, even problem solving and companionship have been increasingly ‘taken out of the home’ and organized on a commercial basis.”11 The predictive quality of these comments should be obvious, as the new forms of labor that capital has developed in the advancing decades has simply created a sector of low waged ‘housework’ performed in others homes while maintaining, and even increasing the imposition of, unwaged housework. Federici argues in her later chapters that what is now called affective work (the “service industry”) is simply capital taking the demand of wages for housework to extreme levels by imposing a form of low waged housework upon the planetary working class, most specifically poor women of color. Finally, Federici calls attention to the need to center reproductive work in our movements: “We cannot build an alternative society and strong self-reproducing movements unless we redefine in more cooperative ways our reproduction and put an end to the separation between the personal and the political, political activism and the reproduction of everyday life.”12

In Letters of Blood and Fire commences with Caffentzis’ monumental “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse”. Originally published in 1980s No Future Notes: the Work/Energy Crisis & The Anti-Nuclear Movement, listed as Midnight Notes number two, “Work/Energy Crisis” finds Caffentzis at the apex of his powers. Using multifarious language, he decodes the magic of the market and the energy crisis of the late 1970s. Amongst a wide range of concerns – the state of the antiwar movement, increased imposition of unwaged work on women, the shifting technological composition of capital, theory of machines – he offers two particular cogent insights, amongst many: first, capital transforms value from low sectors (unwaged, service, factory, and farm work) to high sectors (finance, energy); and second, not unrelated, capital seeks “low entropy” workers. “The less the entropy, the greater the ‘efficiency’ [and less resistance offered]: hence the greater the work/energy ratio, the greater the profit” he states.13

In Letters of Blood and Fire14 contains three sections, beginning with the imposition of work, continuing with the theory of machines (a rich discussion that counters the often dismissive analyses of technology that predominate among radicals today), and concludes in understanding capitalist crisis and its origins in class struggle. Taking each chapter in kind might abscond with the red thread that ties these pieces together, and Caffentzis’s writing, while stirring and written with a question / answer approach, could confuse those not familiar with these discourses. Thus, it’s worth describing two aspects of this thread: first, how “counterplanning from the shop floor to the kitchen”15 reveals class composition; and second, how centering class autonomy in the understanding of capitalist crisis illuminates various possibilities for class struggle and in turn critiques those who see crisis as a result of the internal contradictions of capital. On this second point, crisis in capitalism according to Marxian theorists such as David Harvey, Paul Sweezy of Monthy Review, and others, is caused by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, a crisis of overaccumulation, or the internal contradictions of capitalism; herein the role of working class struggle in causing crisis in capitalism is secondary if it appears at all. Against these analyses, Caffentzis urges us to “read the struggles,” by assessing how struggles are politically composed, how the struggles are overthrowing “capitalist divisions,” how they are reaching their limits and directly confronting the technical composition of capital. By centering class struggle, and the autonomy of the working class from capital, the working class becomes a living, political project rather then a “structure” or “category.” Further contained within this insight is the notion that in refusing work (which encompasses “counterplanning”) in its waged and unwaged forms, the working class moves from a class ‘in itself’ (technically composed for capital) toward being ‘for itself’ (politically composed against and beyond capital), as revealed in struggles. Further, “[f]or much of the history of the working class, this power to be able to refuse work has been rooted in the existence of common property resources or commons that people could access independent of their status as waged workers.”16 Hence the struggle ‘for itself’ contains elements of the commons and practices of commoning. Autonomist Marxism, and this is clear in Caffentzis’s work, sees the seeds of the new society – counterplanning, self-reproducing movements, commoning – as material rather then ideological seeds in the shell of the old.

Revolution at Point Zero and In Letters of Blood and Fire are not collected works nor are they illustrative of the broad scope of these militants’ contributions. Rather, as much of their prior solo and collaborative work, these collections function as particular interventions: Federici’s into the continued gendered nature of social reproduction and the need for movements to center their own self-reproduction, Caffentzis’s into Marxian crisis and machine theory as well as the continued imposition of work. Radicals interested in this American legacy ought to supplement these collections with the work of Midnight Notes, including the aforementioned Midnight Oil, Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local and Global Struggles in the Fourth World War (2001), New Enclosures (1990), and the more recent Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons (2009) addressing the current fiscal crisis.17 Further, Federici’s recent collection serves as a complement to her ingenious Caliban and the Witch and various articles on witch-hunts. A collection of materials from Federici and Caffentzis’s years in Africa is yet to be compiled.

There are various resonances between the collections. Caffentzis includes “Mormons in Space” co-written with Federici, and while the Wages for Housework “Copernican Revolution” is omnipresent, his final chapter “On the Notion of a Crisis of Social Reproduction: A Theoretical Review” directly engages with the material in Revolution at Point Zero. Additionally, Federici draws on the larger literature of refusal of work, Marxian crisis theory, and Autonomist Marxism, while critiquing the search for a particular revolutionary subject and the latent Leninism of Negri, Hardt, and others; Caffentzis compliments this by arguing that “immaterial labor” does not in fact exist. These similarities are unsurprising for Federici and Caffentzis have been partners and political comrades for forty years.

Continued Importance of Hydrocarbons, Reproductive Labor, and Refusal of Work

Federici and Caffentzis (as well as their comrades in Midnight Notes) have illustrated the continued importance of hydrocarbons (wood, coal, oil, gas) and uranium, reproductive labor (unwaged housework), and the refusal of work (struggles of waged and unwaged workers against and beyond the wage) for our present moment. To conclude I briefly review these concepts and then read them as tools and weapons for contemporary anarchist and radical currents.18

Hydrocarbons, along with labor-power, is a base commodity that in turn affect all other commodities in a capitalist society; the energy sector, as the intersection of both, thus holds a particularly important place for class struggle. Moreover, “energy” is in fact work, as value is transferred from low sectors (unwaged, service, factory, and farm work) to high sectors (in this case energy). The anti-nuke movement, of which Federici and Caffentzis were active participants and commentators, effectively prevented capital from using nuclear power as an option for accumulation. In a similar fashion, current climate change, anti-fracking, pipeline, and mountain top removal struggles have a role in defending the earthly commons in addition to resisting the ability of capital to plan.

Reproductive Labor serves to conceptualize the myriad of services and tasks, predominately performed by women and those outside of the gender binary, which reproduce labor-power. This encompasses both unwaged reproductive labor and a significant sector of female laborers “employed in the service sector and [as] domestic labor” [who have] migrat[ed] from the Global South to the North.”19 This underlying materiality of reproductive labor is suffering under an increasing imposition of work as welfare benefits are cut, state services are pawned off to the non-profit sector, and the continued precariousness of waged work leaves the working class seeking other avenues for reproduction. To this complex set of realities and struggles, Federici proposes the centering of reproduction in revolutionary movements, in what she calls “self- reproducing movements.” This strategic assemblage takes a few forms: “recognizing domestic work as work,”20 in both unwaged and waged forms; active solidarity with those refusing this work and wages’ struggles associated with this work; and “undoing the gendered architecture of our lives and reconstructing our homes and lives as commons.”21

Refusal of Work when read through a particularly American counter-cultural lens becomes the simple rejection of work and celebration of slack, as tends to happen in our contemporary radical movements. Rather, the rich tradition of Autonomist Marxism in Europe, America, and elsewhere views the refusal of work as a temporal reality at the core of capital – the class antagonism. Refusing forms of unwaged and waged work make this work visible. With the left abandoning struggles around wages and only giving tacit comment to debtor-creditor struggles, revolutionaries have the opportunity to organize against precaritization, divisions of labor, and the imposition of work.

Finding ourselves in the post-Occupy moment, or may I suggest malaise, anarchist and radical movements are apparently stuck in the search for a singular revolutionary subject, the simplistic attraction of moralistic arguments, and the pairing of the desire for immediate results with the rapid turnover of movement participants. Refusing the planetary work machine whilst constructing common resources and common practices can be scaled “all the way down” to everyday lives and “human relationships” – and address the current stuckness of radical movements by reading class conflict from the perspective of working class struggle. Herein mountain top removal is simultaneously about preventing ecological destruction and the capitalist use of energy, debt resistance is concerning debt and the lost wages and incomes that debt represents, and the refusal of unwaged reproductive labor resists the imposition of care-work as it seeks to create relationships based on care-giving. And in turn, refusing the endless imposition of work is about wages due and a world without such an imposition. This “political-strategic reading” begs the question: where do we see refusals against the planetary work machine and what is the political composition of these struggles? It is here – in reading working class struggle as it exists rather then as a “structure” or “category” – where we can begin to develop anarchist and radical movements that move.

Refusing the Planetary Work Machine


Caffentzis, never to miss an opportunity to address the pressing issues of the day, gave a retirement speech at the end of the Spring 2013 semester. As an active participant in Strike Debt and other campaigns, he titled the talk: “My Penance, Student Loan Debt.” Caffentzis’s, as well as Federici’s, recent interventions in the Occupy and Student Loan Debt movement – calling for jubilee – is just the most recent action in a long, illustrious career as militants, revolutionaries, and theorists. Refusing the planetary work machine concomitant with the practices of commoning has been the thrust of their solo and collaborative work. Revolution at Point Zero and In Letters of Blood and Fire thus serve as introductions to the thought of Federici and Caffentzis and as a node in a much larger undertaking.

Biography

Kevin Van Meter is a member of the Team Colors collective (www.warmachines.info) and recently relocated to Minneapolis to complete his doctorate in Geography. With Team Colors, Van Meter co-edited the collection Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Politics in the United States (AK Press, 2010); and with Team Colors, co-authored Winds from below: Radical Community Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible (Team Colors, 2010). Van Meters’ work has appeared in various radical publications and his doctoral research documents American Autonomist Marxism.

1 Midnight Notes Collective (eds.) Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War 1973-1992 (New York: Autonomedia, 1992); www.midnightnotes.org

2 Both collections are published under the Common Notions (www.commonnotions.org) imprint of PM Press (www.pmpress.org) and in association with Autonomedia (www.autonomedia.org). Silvia Federici. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012); George Caffentzis’s In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism (Oakland: PM Press, 2013).
3 Harry Cleaver. Reading Capital Politically (Leeds: Anti/Theses & San Francisco: AK Press, 2000), 57.
4 Mariarosa Dalla Costa. The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (Bristol: Falling Walls Press, 1972).

5 Silvia Federici. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004).
6 Federici. “Revolution at Point Zero”, 37. Credit for insight goes to Craig Hughes of the Team Colors Collective.

7 “By political recomposition” the Zerowork collective states, “we mean the level of unity and homogeneity that the working class reaches during a cycle of struggle in the process of going form one composition to another. Essentially, it involves the overthrow of capitalist divisions, the creation of new unities between different sectors of the class, and an expansion of the boundaries of what the ‘working class’ comes to include.” Zerowork Collective. “Introduction to Zerowork 1” in Midnight, Midnight Notes Collective (eds.).
8 Federici’s collection is organized chronologically from 1975 to 2010, with the exception of one chapter; additionally, there is a gap between 1985 and 1998. One clear error in the collection is the absence of an index.

9 Federici. “Revolution at Point Zero”, 19.
10 Ibid, 18.

11 Ibid, 49.

12 Ibid, 147.

13 Caffentzis. In Letters of Blood and Fire, 55.

14 Rather then being organized chronologically as Federici’s collection, Caffentzis’s book is thematic in its construction. Chapters begin in 1980, eschewing his early work with Zerowork and Midnight Notes issue one titled “Strange Victories”, and conclude in 2010; the three undated chapters are from his more recent period.
15 Caffentzis. In Letters of Blood and Fire, 4.

16 Caffentzis. In Letters of Blood and Fire, 249.

17 Midnight Notes Collective (eds.). Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local and Global Struggles in the Fourth World War (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2001); Midnight Notes Collective (eds.). Midnight Notes, No. 10, New Enclosures (Boston: Midnight Notes, 1990), available online at: http://www.midnightnotes.org/newenclos.html; Midnight Notes Collective and Friends. Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons (Boston & New York: Midnight Notes, 2009), available online at: http://www.midnightnotes.org/Promissory%20Notes.pdf.

18 For our previous application of these concepts to the contemporary period see: Team Colors Collective. Winds from below: Radical Community Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible (Portland: Eberhardt Press & Team Colors, 2010); Kevin Van Meter. “To Care is to Struggle” in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Fall 2012); and Team Colors Collective. Occupied Zuccotti, Social Struggle, and Planned Shrinkage (New York: Team Colors Collective, 2012).

19 Federici. Revolution at Point Zero, 71.

20 Ibid, 8; Caffentzis. In Letters of Blood and Fire, 269-270.

21 Federici. Revolution at Point Zero, 148.

Buy Revolution at Point Zero now | Buy Revolution at Point Zero e-Book now | Buy In Letters of Blood and Fire now | Buy In Letters of Blood and Fire e-Book now | Back to Silvia Federici's Author Page | Back to George Caffentzis's Author Page



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