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By Logan Jaffe
New York Times

October 6th, 2016

The salt and pepper shakers that you see above sat in my grandmother’s kitchen for decades. For much of my life, I saw them as I’d see anything in her home: her wind chimes on the porch; her garden shoes by the door; and those colorful pepper shakers on the kitchen table.

I didn’t think even twice about holding them up to my cheeks in an impromptu selfie photo shoot with my sister over Thanksgiving in 2010.

Now I cringe at that memory. My sister and me, white women, 18 and 21 at the time, smiling, making funny faces and posing with objects that contained significance we did not understand.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t see that those salt and pepper shakers were mammies, a racial caricature created to perpetuate the narrative of black women’s servitude to whites.

I didn’t see that in my hands, there was physical proof that, for much of this country’s history, many white people did not simply see black and brown people as inferior; the white world that I come from also created mechanisms and characters – from Jim Crow to Aunt Jemima – to maintain that narrative of inferiority.

When I recounted the experience to Dr. David Pilgrim, the founder and director of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, he said many people have their own stories and experiences with racist objects.

More than you’d think.

CONTRIBUTE: If you own or have encountered a racist object, we want to hear from you. 

Which is why he considers his museum, which houses about 12,000 objects in a winding hallway of the basement of the Ferris State University library in Big Rapids, Michigan, as much a “storytelling facility” as it is a contextual, educational and painful anti-shrine to the pervasiveness of American racism by way of everyday physical objects.

“Everyone who walks in that door,” he told me when we met at the museum, “they’re not just coming to the objects. They’re bringing themselves and their racial luggage – and in some cases, baggage – to the objects.”

Dr. Pilgrim, who is multiracial but identifies as black, acknowledged that many people feel disgust, pain and outrage when they visit the museum or see these items. He said that’s understandable. Especially for African-Americans – especially now at a time of increased racial tension – the playful portrayals of racism and racist violence often conjure up horrific real-life experiences.

Still, Dr. Pilgrim said, the items have value because they force us to not only confront the ubiquity of racism – from government policy to kitchen tables – but also to talk about the many ways that’s experienced, or not experienced by some of us, often for many years or an entire lifetime.

Objects are also tangible representations of stories. They are one of the many ways that narratives about race and ethnicity are expressed, told and understood.

“These objects were made by everyday Americans making money,” Dr. Pilgrim said. And, he added, they had a purpose: “The millions and millions and millions of everyday objects that belittled African-Americans were made to support the racial hierarchy in the United States.”

Take, for example, the objects Pilgrim’s collected that depict black men as targets. They’re from decades-old carnival games as well as modern-day shooting ranges.

What do they communicate about black men?

“The implication is that they don’t experience pain in the same way,” Dr. Pilgrim said. “Then that justifies physical punishment against them.”

For decades now, at least since the Civil Rights era, there has been an effort by many black families and luminaries (Oprah Winfrey included) to collect these objects, too. But hardly for nostalgia’s sake.

As the late Civil Rights leader and activist Julian Bond wrote in a 1996 collector’s price guide of black memorabilia: “They speak of triumph and overcoming, and inform us that despite what others thought and believed, we were never what these figurines and objects suggest. We see them as sentinels guarding the past, doorkeepers who prevent our ever returning to it, harsh – if even sometimes beautiful – preservers of the history we have overthrown.”

Dr. Pilgrim also stresses that while these blatantly racist objects aren’t as common as they once were, the narratives they embodied still linger, alive.

“I think there’s a narrative that has always existed in this country, and that is the narrative that blacks and whites are just different,” Dr. Pilgrim said.  “And not only are they different, but different in ways that one is superior to the other. And that when they share the same space that conflict is inevitable. I think that narrative still exists in this culture. And I think it’s still reflected in our movies, in our books, and in our politics, certainly.”

WATCH: Dr. Pilgrim explains why he studies racist objects.  

Of course, many other groups – Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, poor whites, Jews, women and gay people, to name a few – have also been, and continue to be, targets of commodified hate.

But the number of objects that dehumanize African-Americans far outnumber those of any other group; Mammies, Piccaninnies, Sambos, Sapphires, Jezebels, Toms, Coons were an industry.

Today, I’m acknowledging my role in that industry. While I have not personally bought these objects or promoted their ideals, I have benefitted from the comfort of not seeing them at all – of not having to.

I’m bringing my experience with these objects out into the open, shame included, because Dr. Pilgrim has convinced me that they not only carry with them both pain and responsibility, but also that there’s value in talking about them – their origin stories, their significance, and how different people interpret their messages.

Plus, as a mediamaker embedded at the New York Times’ Race/Related in partnership with POV, I’m tasked with creating work that reflects how race is experienced today. And in my mind there’s no good way to do that alone.

So, we’re asking you, Race/Related readers, to help us shape an interactive project about offensive objects.


– Because the way race is experienced today can’t be tackled without a thorough and thoughtful examination of the way it’s been experienced in the past.

– Because I’m not convinced the work I create on my own for this subject will be better or more meaningful than the work we can create together.

So here’s the deal.

We’re asking for the stories of people who have encountered these items. If you’re someone who has experience with or a story to tell about these objects, and if you’re interested in using them to understand their origins and impact, then we want to hear from you.

Our goal is to come back to you with more information about these objects and we’ll also try to create some of the meaningful conversations that Dr. Pilgrim also aims to inspire.

SHARE: Have you seen a racist object? Tell us about your experience.

To be crystal clear, our intent is not to promote or champion these items. If you use these objects to promote hate and intolerance, this project is not for you.

Our aim is to create a respectful, engaging and thought-provoking space to talk about personal stories and facilitate honest, constructive discussions.

For me, that process has already started. I’m still not sure what to do with my grandmother’s mammy salt and pepper shakers. But maybe as this project develops, there will be answers to that question, and many more. 


Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Dr. David Pilgrim's Author Page

Racist Objects: A Painful Past Still Present

By Logan Jaffe
New York Times
October 6th, 2016

What’s to be gained from confronting the uncomfortable?

The video above is full of blatantly racist images and objects – old children’s books that infantilize African-Americans, vintage kitchenware that perpetuates white supremacy, T-shirts and bumper stickers that promote hate and violence.

They are hard to look at. But we can’t ignore the horrors of our racist past, because they influence our present.

The objects in the video can all be found at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, where David Pilgrim, the museum's founder, uses them to help people contemplate the pervasiveness of racism. But there are many more out there, depicting African-Americans and other groups.

I shared my own experience with an object owned by my grandmother in this week’s Race/Related newsletter. Now we're asking you for your stories and experiences with racist objects.

Why? Because we aim to create a meaningful conversation about race and racism.

Why are you asking me to share my experiences involving racist stuff?

This is the first part of a larger interactive project with The New York Times and POV that aims to examine how narratives about race are expressed, communicated and manipulated. We’re asking for your participation to help us understand how common racist objects really are, who has them, why, and to explore what impact they have on individuals and on society.

What will you do with my submission?

We promise to read every submission. We’ll contact a selection of participants for follow-up interviews. We hope to help some of you uncover the back stories to your objects. We also hope to connect you with others who have varied experiences with these objects so we can explore their impact together, with moderated online chats and future installments of this project.

But aren’t you just stirring up more racism and hate?

We know this is a difficult and painful subject. If you use these objects to promote hate, this project is not for you. Our intention is not to promote or champion the existence of these objects. Our goal is to create a respectful, engaging and thought-provoking space to facilitate honest, meaningful discussions about race and prejudice.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Dr. David Pilgrim's Author Page

Racist Memorabilia Teaches Awareness at Jim Crow Museum

Courtesy Dr. David Pilgrim is the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum on the Ferris State University campus in Big Rapids, Michigan. Pilgrim, who has collected racially-charged items most of his adult life.

by Konnie LeMay

Dr. David Pilgrim is the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum on the Ferris State University campus in Big Rapids, Michigan. Pilgrim, who has collected racially-charged items most of his adult life, believes cartoon and stereotypical  images of Aunt Jemima, Jim Crow, Chief Wahoo and the Redskins all rob the dignity and identity of the races portrayed.

Though Pilgrim uses the items as teaching tools, he admits his disgust for the objects and a relief in moving them to the museum in 2012. “I hated my collection most of my life. I hated having it in my home and I was glad to get it out of my home.”

However, he added, the desire to sweep away or ignore these images – past and present – leaves unhealed wounds.

The Jim Crow Museum has nearly 12,000 objects depicting racial imagery, with 5,000 pieces on display at any time.


On display on the museum is a Ku Klux Klan knife - with a Cherokee head logo.

On display on the museum is a Ku Klux Klan knife – with a Cherokee head logo.

Though the museum primarily emphasizes the stereotypes of African Americans, Pilgrim, along with the university’s gallery director, Carrie Weis, also created two traveling exhibits, including one titled “Them: Images of Separation” with 35 examples of stereotyping of African, Native, Jewish, Mexican and Asian Americans as well as the stereotype of  ‘Poor Whites.’

In developing the museum Pilgrim said, “the biggest roadblocks were Whites and African Americans, who just wanted these stories to be dead and forgotten, people who wanted to see this history die. The truth is racism has not died … these objects are still being made.”

Pilgrim explained that having a collection of racially-charged items is a not an endorsement of their message. “We are not a shrine to racism. It’s a place where we try to provoke intelligent conversation. I know Americans like happy history, but there was another history.”


Dr. David Pilgrim:

Dr. David Pilgrim: ”I know Americans like happy history, but there was another history.” Photo: Courtesy

In the case of Native imagery, Pilgrim finds two main lines of stereotyping. “The drunk savage, the buck or the jezebel hyper-sexual young female, or the romanticized, idealized way – the strong brave, the beautiful woman, the warriors fighting against the government.

A Native comic book is part of the Jim Crow Museum's collection. Photo: Courtesy

A Native comic book is part of the Jim Crow Museum's collection. Photo: Courtesy

“In sports,” he says “there’s probably the greatest abuse of the Indigenous people. You wouldn’t get away with it in that way with another group.”

Pilgrim credits Vernon Bellecourt, White Earth Band of Ojibwe, a leader in the American Indian Movement, with first turning his attention to sports. “He was one of the early people who sort of introduced me to the anti-mascot campaign.

“The so-called Washington Redskins. I don’t see how you can’t see that as at least a racial slur, if not a racist slur. You would be surprised at how many people think there is nothing wrong with that.

“To live in a society where every major societal institution taught you that you were inferior in every way imaginable, big and small. There’s no way that they don’t internalize that,” Pilgrim said. ““It stains you in some way.”


Dr. David Pilgrim, an applied sociologist, is author of Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice and will release another book in 2017 that includes his essay, “Brothers,” his reading of which is on the Jim Crow Museum’s YouTube channel

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Revolutionary Mothering in Novel Niche

by Almah LaVon
Novel Niche
October 8th, 2016

Who will take us in? This is what Glenda Moore was asking when she knocked on strangers’ doors for hours in late October 2012. Caught outside with her young sons in Staten Island, New York during Hurricane Sandy, she asked this when doors were opened, only to be closed in her face. (Later, some of the people who refused to help said they thought she was trying to burglarize their homes.) She asked this until she lost grip of her sons. Until the sea said,  I will take them.  
The bodies of Brandon, 2, and Connor, 4, were discovered nearby a few days later.


This is how marginalized mothers are unsheltered every day; this is why an arbor-anthology had to be built, and its name is Revolutionary Mothering: Love On The Front Lines (PM Press, 2016). The aim of this collection of communiqués, poems, essays, and visual art is to center mothers, who, like Moore, are locked out of “angel in the house” iconographies–i.e., primarily “radical mothers of color with a few marginalized (queer, trans, low income, single, and disabled) white mothers,” in the framing words of editors Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams. And how do the editors define mothering? Panoramically. Enter this anthology knowing that there is a new spelling of the name: “m/other.” Spell it like “investing in each other’s existence,” as Loretta Ross does in the brilliant preface. Spell it like “less as a gendered identity and more a possible action, a technology of transformation,” as Gumbs does in her poetic, incandescent essay, “m/other ourselves: a Black queer feminist genealogy for radical mothering.” Spell it like “a primary front in this struggle {against a colonial, racist, hetero-patriarchal capitalism}, not as a biological function, but as a social practice,” as Cynthia Dewi Oka does in one of the book’s most electrifying entries, “Mothering as Revolutionary Praxis.”

“Revolutionary mothering” may be more redundant than oxymoronic, according to the biome of this book. However, Malkia A. Cyril reminds us in her incisive “Motherhood, Media, and Building a 21st-Century Movement,” the weaponized think-of-the-children has been used to undergird “a conservative vision of family” and the carceral state. Cyril asserts:

…empire is sustained, and mothers become one of the tools of its continuous resurrection.

But just as mothers can become the ideological vehicles for hierarchy and dominance, they are uniquely positioned to lead both visionary and opposition strategies to it. With the right supports, mothers from underrepresented communities can help lead the way to new forms of governance, new approaches to the economy, and enlightenment of civil society grounded in fundamental human rights. In fact, they always have.

With blazing authority in “Forget Hallmark: Why Mother’s Day Is a Queer Black Left Feminist Thing,” Gumbs dismisses “the assumption that mothering is conservative or that conserving and nurturing the lives of Black children has ever had any validated place in the official American political spectrum.” (If it was so conservative, why have so many forces been arrayed against it?) Gumbs argues convincingly that Black motherHOOD is fundamentally insurgent; Black mothers, past and present, harbor futurity.


Witness the diversity of dispatches from the front lines: in Victoria Law’s “Doing It All…and Then Again with Child,” an organizer-mama writes letters to incarcerated women (many of them also mothers) that incorporate her daughter’s drawings–and travels to Chiapas, Mexico to hear Zapatista mothers talk about seamlessly integrating children into revolutionary struggle. Irene Lara invokes “Tlazolteotl, the Nahua sacred energy of birthing and regeneration” in the ceremony-limned “From the Four Directions: The Dreaming, Birthing, Healing Mother on Fire.”

Mothers construct a theatre of testimony to resist genocide and extrajudicial killings in Arielle Julia Brown’s “Love Balm for My SpiritChild,” reminding me of the indefatigable Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo. In Lindsey Campbell’s “You Look Too Young to Be a Mom,” a chorus of young mas flip scripts that insist teen pregnancy is disaster unalloyed. tk karakashian tunchez megaphones “WE ARE WELFARE QUEENS AND WE AREN’T ASHAMED” in the manifesta, “Telling Our Truths to Live.” In “On My Childhood, El Centro del Raza, and Remembering,” Esteli Juarez re-members being raised by a father and other activists who occupied an abandoned school in Seattle, Washington for months, so that Chicanos, Mexicanos, and Latinos could have a public space to “gather, build community, access resources, [and] organize.”

The etymological root of “anthology” is “many flowers,” and Revolutionary Mothering is truly a fistful of spiky, necessary blooms. You need to be present for stories like these: Norma Angelica Marrun reflects on an undocumented childhood in the U.S. without her mother in “Why Don’t You Love Her?” In “Birthing My Goddess,” H. Bindy K. Kang is subjected to reproductive profiling and surveillance targeting South Asians in British Columbia. Terri Nilliasca reveals that the international adoption machine is built for white Westerners, and not balikbayan coming to the Philippines to adopt (“Night Terrors, Love, Brokenness, Race, Home & the Perils of the Adoption Industry: A Journey in Radical Family Creation”).

This book is riven with border lines–indeed, one of its conceits is lines, from “shorelines” to “between the lines”–and those lines matter. Border and bottom lines often mark what kind of mothering one has access to; Gumbs summons “immigrant nannies like my grandmother who mothered wealthy white kids in order to send money to Jamaica for my mother and her brothers who could not afford the privilege of her presence.” Cynthia Dewi Oka adds that “collectivizing caregiving in our communities is linked to dismantling a capitalist empire that abuses Third World women’s bodies as part of its infrastructure.” The children of marginalized mothers in the U.S., Loretta Ross makes clear, are primed to “become disposable cannon fodder for U.S. imperialism.”

There are some lines in the sand, uncrossable uncrossable. Gumbs calls out “neo-eugenicist” rhetoric and its relationship to “globalized ‘family planning’ agendas that have historically forced women in the Caribbean, Latin America, South Asia, and Africa to undergo sterilization in order to work for multinational corporations”; she also quotes officials who suggest that aborting Black fetuses in the U.S. will reduce crime and sterilizing women in “developing nations” will “prevent economically disruptive revolutions.” Oka punctures the population-bomb bogeyman embodied in “Black, indigenous, and Third World children…as perpetrators of environmental degradation.” In fact, mothering and radical homemaking are the imaginarium our moment needs, Oka insists–as she sketches a vision of the homes and habitats to come: “Perhaps the kind of home we need today is mobile, multiple, and underground.” The home as rhizome. A site of flux and disturbance, in the most generative sense. The home of the warning shot, to shoo away the State (see: Korryn Gaines). As an otherworldly realm of revolutionary eclipse and endarkenment: “Perhaps we need to become unavailable for state scrutiny so that we can experiment,” she muses, leaving us with a deepened “encumbrance upon each other while rejecting the extension of our dependence on state and capital.” Isn’t this kind of reliance and resiliency we will need, considering the demands of climate change? Is this what it means to mother in the Anthropocene?


Thankfully, this book doesn’t neglect to hold what is unresolved and difficult about mothering and being mothered. There’s pressure on people of color to craft reactive hagiographies about our mothers; while the impulse is understandable–don’t talk about your mother’s failures since the State is all too prepared to enumerate and criminalize them–stories like Rachel Broadwater’s “Brave Hearts” are refreshing. In it, Broadwater meditates on her disappointment with her own traumatized, imperfect mother. Mai’a Williams eschews the soft-focus sentimentality surrounding “mamahood” when she writes, “It’s a visceral sense that vulnerable, quivering life is breaking you and you have to let it.  It’s not self-sacrifice. It may not even qualify as love. It isn’t sweet. It isn’t romantic.” This is beautifully and painfully illustrated in Vivian Chin’s essay, “Mothering,” which is mysterious, fraught with slippage, and haunted by damage not quite known. This is the anti-lullaby–this is rage-son, ankle bracelet, juvenile court, polliwogs not getting enough nutrients, you don’t help me with shit. Fabielle Georges’ “The Darkness” flickers with the radioactivity of colorism, lookism, and Black self-loathing. Claire Barrera talks about being short-fused due to chronic pain in “Step on a Crack: Parenting with Chronic Pain.”


If this anthology’s foremother is This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color–indeed, its initial title was This Bridge Called My Baby–then its sibling might be the zine movement. China Martens traces a brief history of “subculture media” that includes The Future Generation zine she started in 1990. Several zinesters are featured in Revolutionary Mothering, including Noemi Martinez of the zines, Making of a Chicana and Hermana, Resist.  Martens explores how zines oiled her leap to blogs and “online snippets” especially suited to the time-strapped mom. Some of the anthology’s contributions (like Mamas of Color Rising’s “Collective Poem on Mothering”) read like raw, urgent telegraphs from mothers out of time–“time traveling is a necessity,” Martens says–and these seemingly rush-crafted pieces add to the anthology’s sense of welcome and immediacy.


Revolutionary Mothering
is a dreambook. Place it on your bedstand and when you awaken, scribble your not-quite-daylight visions in the margins so your dreams will be in good company. With its protean take on mothering, expect to pick up a new book each time you open it. And while we’re dreaming, I would have loved more voices from mothers who embody the truth that “mother” is “older and more futuristic than the word ‘woman,’” as Gumbs wrote. Also invoked by Gumbs, I want more stories from the house mothers of ball culture themselves. Next time, then. I have gotten into the habit of collecting radical anthologies, and this one ranks among my favorites: I was rocked and healed and mothered by this open-armed anthology itself, and suspect it will go on to give birth to other anthologies, other worlds. Mothering got next.

If your potential was visible on your body, like a hologram of your future, you’d know what things to just give up on without trying . . . but then you’d never know that you change your hologram potential if you try.
—Rio, Katie Kaput’s nine-year-old son in “Three Thousand Words”

Those caregiving collectives? Those “phamilies, chosen and stronger than blood” tk karakashian tunchez speaks of? Yes, those. We have an amphibious city to build now, and Revolutionary Mothering offers so many blueprints, so much holographic potential. Let’s hold each other close, before the rising seas.

Almah LaVon is a poet errant and incogNegr@ who is often based in western Pennsylvania. More of her writing on books can be found in the forthcoming anthology, Solace: Writing, Refuge, and LGBTQ Women of Color.

Shivanee’s postscript: It’s a tasselated, tapestried honour to have Almah’s critical work on Novel Niche! Many thanks to her, and to the editors and contributors of this formidable anthology, purchasable here.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Mai’a Williams Author Page | Back to Alexis Pauline Gumbs's Author Page | Back to China Marten's Author Page

Gypsy reviewed in Peace News

by Gabriel Carlyle
Peace News
August-September 2016

It is 2041 and atmospheric CO2 levels have passed 600 parts per million, leading to the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet and a three-metre rise in sea levels. Florida is underwater and world population has passed 10 billion. A few billion are stateless refugees. ‘A few billion more [are] indentured or imprisoned.’

Every cultivated acre on Earth is planted with sterile genetically-engineered varieties whose terminator genes have been implanted to protect corporate profits. ‘There [isn’t] a live food plant left anywhere on Earth that [can] propagate itself.’

No longer the global hyperpower, the US continues as if it is, ‘starting or provoking conflicts more or less at need, its constant need being, as always, resources.’

In this hyper-dystopian context, a small group of renegade scientists have conspired to launch the Earth’s first starship, Gypsy – a desperate attempt to solve ‘the great problem on Earth, the problem of humanity’, by starting afresh in a new solar system. (One of the astronauts, who ‘grew up in the slums of Athens after the euro collapsed’, suggests that they christen the ship the ‘Fuck You’ instead.)

Headed for the star Alpha Centauri, almost 4.4 light years away, at 5.6 percent of the speed of light (relative to the earth), the journey will take many decades.

This is ‘hard’ science fiction: Scholz has extrapolated all of the technologies that appear from published research papers, and even went as far as running gravity simulators on his home computer to make the final approach to Alpha Centauri as accurate possible.

Indeed, according to Scholz, this may be the first SF story to ‘take full stock of how hard, maybe impossible, interstellar travel is going to be’. Consequently, the crew’s journey is about as far from Star Trek’s warp-drives as you can imagine.

Story and backstory unfold as, one-by-one, five of the crewmembers are briefly awoken to deal with various crises. There is no happy ending and ‘the great problem’ remains unsolved.

Most compelling is the all-too-plausible picture that Scholz paints of a future techno-hell – a picture with plenty of lessons for the present.

There, humanity has used its new-found mastery of nuclear fusion to encircle the globe with hundreds of thousands of super-light bombs (‘Because the minimum individual yields were within the range of conventional explosives, no nuclear treaties were violated’), and ‘every bit of the world’s digital traffic [is] swept up... stored and analyzed’. Even offline surveillance is ubiquitous, featuring ‘hidden or winged [cameras], small and quick as hummingbirds, with software to read your lips from a hundred yards, and up beyond the atmosphere satellites to read the book in your hand if the air was steady’.

The plotters obtain their spaceship by deceiving a man ‘who owns a third of the world’s fresh water’, and the psychology and behaviour of the 1% is the focus of what is perhaps the story’s most telling passage.

Speaking of ‘the leaders, the nations, the corporations, the elites’, Gypsy’s founder member observes that: ‘if you judge them by their actions instead of their rhetoric, you can see that they understood [the world’s predicament] perfectly and accepted the gravity of it very early. They simply gave it up as unfixable. Concluded that law and democracy were hindrances to their continued power. Moved quite purposely and at speed toward this dire world they foresaw, a world in which, to have the amenities even of middle-class life – things like clean water, food, shelter, energy, transportation, medical care – you would need the wealth of a prince. You would need legal and military force to keep desperate others from seizing it. Seeing that, they moved to amass such wealth for themselves as quickly and ruthlessly as possible, with the full understanding that it hastened the day they feared.’

Though one should never underestimate human beings’ seemingly-limitless powers of self-deception, such a diagnosis may turn out to be not be that wide of the mark.

In the accompanying essay, ‘The United States of Impunity’, Scholz launches an excoriating non-fiction attack on these same elites. ‘A lone wolf like Bernie Madoff, who stole from elites, went to jail’, he notes, while ‘those with systemic ties, who stole from the public [in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis], didn’t’. Likewise, only a few low-level actors were held accountable for torture and killings in Iraq, ‘while the architects of the policies that created the criminogenic situations went untouched’.

‘Those responsible for instigating, justifying, and maintaining the torture regime, as well as the illegal war, were let walk’, normalising ‘the most extreme abuses of the Bush years’ – a pattern not restricted to the western side of the Atlantic.

The remaining material consists of a fantastical correspondence with the editor of a non-existent magazine, NOVUS Science Fiction; a seven-page satirical joke in the form of a fictional testimony before the US senate committee on homeland security and governmental affairs; and a short interview with the author.

Moving, memorable, and stylistically-sophisticated (one simultaneously disturbing and hilarious section consists of fragments of future internet traffic; elsewhere Scholz refers to the spaceship’s own datastream as ‘pushing its mite of meaning back into the plaintext chaos of the universe’), Gypsy is another stellar addition to PM Press’s stand-out Outspoken Authors series.

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The Spitboy Rule reviewed on Scanner Zine

By Steve Scanner
Scanner Zine
September 23rd, 2016

THE SPITBOY RULE: Tales Of A Xicana In A Female Punk Band - Michelle Cruz Gonzales {162 pages, PM Press}

If ya didn’t know, SPITBOY was an all-female Punk band active in the early 90s and based in San Francisco. Gonzales was the drummer of that band, known at that time simply as Todd. This is an engaging read that documents her memories, ideals and personal identity with intelligence, wit and wry hindsight.

The narrative goes back to when Gonzales was in her school band, playing flute and discovering the GO-GO’S. It’s a familiar story, that of where a single band not only sends one off in a new direction but completely changes life’s path and future decisions, but it’s always an interesting story to see what band was the catalyst for the author to become who she is today. From there, we get to read about Gonzales first Punk band, BITCH FIGHT, moving from small-town Tuolumne to the San Franciscan metropolis, SPITBOY forming, recording and touring and the band’s ultimate demise. It could be viewed as standard band biography stuff, but Gonzales makes the narrative much more personal and intimate than many other such books.

For starters, SPITBOY was not a band of hard-out party animals, so there’s no tales of drunken debauchery (seems the band preferred the challenge of Travel Scrabble). Instead, we get an on-going, first-person account of Gonzales understanding her own Chicana heritage within the confines of an all-white, all-female band. Her observations about her background when compared with the rest of the band are insightful, thoughtful and to-the-point without being remotely jealous or chastising. The issue of sexism also rears its ugly head with several small-minded creeps who seem to think it’s OK to not just be suggestive but totally abusive. Fortunately, SPITBOY was a band that could confront such bigotry and come out victorious.

Elsewhere in the book we read of the friction caused by the band not aligning itself with the then-popular Riot Grrrl movement, the culture shock of touring Japan, getting pulled over in New Orleans by cops with guns at the ready and the drug squad ready arrest, the band’s alliance with LOS CRUDOS and of the actual SPITBOY rule.

Gonzales’ narrative is direct, pointed and without too much halcyon reflection. By the end of the book, the reader certainly feels that they understand and relate to the traits of Gonzales as well as the rest of the band, and that is in no small part due to the conversational tone with which Gonzales writes.

This is a brief read though; of the 162 pages, 20 are filled with some excellent photos while each chapter also starts with a photo. There is a preface by former Maximum Rocknroll and Punk Planet columnist Mimi Thi Nguyen and a foreword by Martin Sorrondeguy of LOS CRUDOS/ LIMP WRIST fame.

Without a doubt, this is much more than just a band biography. It is as much a book about self-discovery, female camaraderie and personal politics as it is about a female Hardcore Punk band doing things their own way and succeeding at it. I am sure plenty of people could find both inspiration and confidence after reading this book - and that extends beyond people of colour and females to encompass any and all who feel marginalised by society or intimidated by their local Punk scene. If that’s not the mark of success for a book, I’m not sure what is.

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The Spitboy Rule reviewed on Milo and the Calf

Milo and the Calf
September 20th, 2016

Ok, so I know Michelle, the author of this book, and some of the other members of Spitboy, the band at the center of this story. There was a time, a long long while ago, when we were all close. It would be really easy for me to make this review a walk down my own memory lane, but I’m going to resist that.

This is Michele story, told in a series of interlocking vignettes centered around her time in Spitboy, one of the pivotal bands of the early 1990s Bay Area punk rock scene. But the book is about much more than Spitboy. It’s the story of a Xicana from a small town in California, the daughter of a single mom, who discovers punk rock, moves the Bay Area, and forms one of the most groundbreaking punk rock bands of the 1990s.

Spitboy was a band of fierce women who played hardcore infused with passion, politics, and love. I, like many, were incredibly inspired by the band. Its fascinating to read these stories from their days touring the world, struggling against the sexism prevalent in the punk rock scene, while also forming profound relationships with each other and those they came into contact with. Today Spitboy is remembered mainly as a pioneering all women punk band, and they were that, for sure. But they were more. They were generous and kind. They were inspiring in their aspirations for, and dedication to, DIY punk culture, and they were a hell of a lot of fun to see live.

While there are plenty of band war stories here, it wasn’t always fighting the man and loading the van. As with any band on the road, there were conflicts. Michelle, Xicana and raised working class, came to the Bay Area punk rock scene with a very different life story from many in the then mostly white, mostly middle class, scene. This led to scores of painful moments, many of which rang all too familiar to me. Michelle faced everything from the casual erasure of her identity to blatant racism and classism. It is at times hard to reconcile the political aspirations of the punk rock scene with the treatment Michelle endured.

But those are the facts, and we need to face them.

Michelle treats all of this, the good and the bad, with real grace. She calls out the many instances in which the class differences in the punk scene were glossed over, and the scores of times her identity was erased. She does so with a compassion, honesty, thoughtfulness, I find inspiring.

This is a powerful story, which captures a time and place in the punk rock world which few others have documented. I’m so glad I was privileged enough to know Michelle, and the other Spitboy women, and I’m so glad she wrote this book.


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Anthropocene or Capitalocene? in Marx & Philosophy

Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
by Steve Knight
August 30th, 2016

The public’s imagination has been seized in the twenty-first century with the notion that human impacts upon the earth’s geology and ecosystems have been so widespread and profound that they have actually launched a new epoch in the Earth’s history.

Biologist Eugene Stoermer suggested in the 1980’s that this hypothetical new epoch might be called the Anthropocene (literally, “New Era of Man”), a term that was repeated in a seminal paper in 2000, by the atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen.

While the Anthropocene has not yet been recognized officially by any of the major scientific organizations that designate geological epochs, and there is considerable disagreement among scientists as to when it might have begun, the increasing weight of evidence pointing to unprecedented anthropogenic impacts upon earth and climate systems virtually assures that “Anthropocene” will indefinitely be fixed as part of the public discourse.

In recent years, however, a group of thinkers trained in the ecosocialist tradition of Marx and Engels have initiated a critique of the concept of Anthropocene, arguing that it implicitly blames all of humanity for creating the deleterious effects of biodiversity and species loss, carbon emissions, ocean degradation, deforestation, and other strains on our biosphere. Instead of blaming all of humanity – which includes billions of the world’s poorest, who consume and pollute little – they contend that it is more accurate to place blame on a globalized system of capitalist relations, which are premised on the assumption that infinite, compound growth is possible on a planet with finite resources. This has locked us into unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, hence, “Capitalocene”. The recent collection Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism, edited by Jason W. Moore, offers new perspectives on this ecosocialist critique that should be helpful to anyone engaged in extending their understanding of the current ecological crisis.

Part One of the collection, The Anthropocene and Its Discontents: Toward Chthulucene?, offers two attempts to evaluate the term “Anthropocene” as a potential normative category. What does it tell us, and what does it leave out of the conversation? Environmental sociologist Eileen Crist writes in On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature, that the problem with calling this epoch the Anthropocene, is that it traps us within the anthropocentric worldview that caused our climate crisis in the first place. “The Anthropocene discourse clings”, she tells us, “to the almighty power of that jaded abstraction ‘Man’ and to the promised land his God-posturing might yet deliver him, namely, a planet managed for the production of resources and governed for the containment of risks” (23). Crist declines to suggest an alternative name for our epoch, but says that whatever we call it, it must convey a more integral, holistic vision of interrelationships between the human and non-human. “Lifting the banner of human integrity,” she says, “invites the priority of our pulling back and scaling down, of welcoming limitations of our numbers, economies, and habitats for the sake of a higher, more inclusive freedom and quality of life” (29).

In the second essay of Part One, Staying With the Trouble: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Donna J. Haraway brings her background in fields as diverse as technology, feminist theory and multispecies studies, to bear on positing a new paradigm that might replace “Anthropocene” in our discourse. She laments at one point that “[t]hese times called the Anthropocene are times of multi-species, including human, urgency: of great mass death and extinction…of refusing to know and to cultivate the capacity of responsability…of unprecedented looking away” (39). As a response, she proposes the alternate term “Chthulucene”, based on the eight-legged tree spider Pimoa Chthulu, a creature that learns by feeling with many tentacles. What Haraway calls “tentacularity” (shared by organisms as varied as creepers, roots, fungal tangles, jellyfish, even humans) is a quality of life “lived along lines—and such a wealth of lines—not at points, not in spheres” (36). It is this sort of “string figured” (or “sympoietic,” as per environmental researcher Beth Dempster) thinking, which is multipolar, organizationally open, distributionally controlled, and dynamic, that Haraway believes will lead to better solutions to our ecological conundrum. While Haraway offers some exciting potential avenues for conceptualizing beyond the limitations of the Anthropocene model, I am unsure how her “string figured” mode of thinking might be applied practically to halting the worsening breakdown in our biosphere. I am personally more comfortable with Eileen Crist’s straightforward approach of emphasizing holistic relations between the human and non-human realms.

Part Two, Histories of the Capitalocene, offers three attempts to give some historical context to capitalism’s increasingly tight grip on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. The Rise of Cheap Nature, by editor Jason W. Moore, reprises many of the key points in Moore’s 2015 magisterial study, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Moore believes that while the Anthropocene meme can engage questions of how humans make natures, and vice versa, it cannot provide answers. This is because it is trapped in a Cartesian binary of Humanity vs. Nature, instead of recognizing the “double internality” of humanity-inside-nature, and nature-inside-humanity. Moore maintains that the Capitalocene (an epoch he says was initiated by significant transformations in land and labor relations ca. 1450 to 1640) is premised on a “world-ecology” dialectic in which “capital and power—and countless other strategic relations—do not act upon nature, but develop through the web of life” (97). The secret to capitalism’s creation of value, he says, is that it does not actually value most of its inputs; rather it depends on a steady stream of “Cheap Natures”—labor, food, energy and raw materials—to boost accumulation. Much of capitalism’s crisis since the beginning of its neoliberal phase in the 1970’s, Moore suggests, may be attributed to the increasing difficulty of obtaining Cheap Nature inputs.

Justin McBrien’s Accumulating Extinction: Planetary Catastrophism in the Necrocene posits that outright extinction, of species, cultures, languages and peoples, lies at the heart of capital accumulation. McBrien sees the Necrocene, an epoch of “New Death”, coterminous with the Capitalocene, as causing not just the “metabolic rift” between labor and the Earth, as described by John Bellamy Foster and other ecosocialists, but a process necrotizing the entire planet in a headlong rush to subsume all of the Earth under capital. The final section of McBrien’s essay connects the Necrocene to a post-World War Two “catastrophism” promulgated by the military-industrial complex, and embodied most vividly at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Capitalism found in the atom bomb the dark watery reflection of its own image. It realized that its logic could lead to one thing: total extinction. It realized that it had become the Necrocene” (124).

The third essay in the Histories section, Elmar Atvater’s The Capitalocene, or Geoengineering Against Capitalism’s Planetary Boundaries, takes on the subject of geoengineering, namely proposed large-scale interventions in the Earth’s climate system aimed at limiting or reversing anthropogenic climate change. These strategies are considered risky by most scientists, but have become attractive in a world increasingly reliant on technological solutions; a few prominent scientists, including Google’s Ray Kurzweil and climate scientist Paul Crutzen, have even said that geoengineering is the answer to the climate crisis. Altvater’s critique of geoengineering, however, is rooted in his analysis of capitalism’s inherent irrationality. Classical political economy, he notes, neglects to consider the full web of life’s interdependencies, including most crucially that capitalism relies on a constant “tap” of cheap inputs and a cost-free externalization (“sink”) of waste outputs. Geoengineering promises to address the negative consequences of externalization by pricing in their costs; but Altvater says that this is doomed to fail, because “many interdependencies in society and nature cannot be expressed in terms of prices.” Approaching the problem holistically would be an answer, but this is impossible in capitalism, which Altvater says “is committed to fixing the parts and not the whole” (151).

The collection’s third and final section, Cultures, States and Environment-Making, looks at the crucial aspect of culture in creating the Anthropocene from two entirely different perspectives. In Anthropocene, Capitalocene and the Problem of Culture, Daniel Hartley defines culture as an historically evolving, contingent process, drawing on dialectical relations between land, labor, intellectual activity, the state and other factors. “Cultural history”, he writes, “must incorporate the profound interrelation of historically and geographically specific struggles with their fundamental symbolic components” (163). Hartley’s main problem with the Anthropocene concept is that it does not consider the politics of class struggle as materially determinant, suggesting instead a world where an undifferentiated “humanity” uses technology in a mechanistic “one-on-one billiard ball model of technological invention and historical effect” (156).

In contrast to Hartley, Christian Parenti’s Environment-Making in the Capitalocene: Political Ecology of the State looks at the crucial role played by the state in creating conditions for the Capitalocene. The author asserts that the state does not simply have a relationship with nature; it is a relationship with nature, because its assertion of territorial control—legally, militarily and scientifically—maintains the web of life necessary for societies to function. Parenti reviews some examples of the vital role the state has played in creating conditions for capital accumulation:
Alexander Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures, the Erie Canal, and China’s Grand Canal. He concludes with an impassioned plea to the Left not to forget the role of the state in formulating an anti-capitalist strategy; “[t]o reform capitalism—and to move beyond it—the Left needs to place the state front and center in its strategic considerations” (182).

The essays in Anthropocene or Capitalocene? provide an invaluable contribution to the debate over what we should call this strange new epoch, wrought by centuries of capitalist depredations upon our biosphere. As these ecosocialists so ably tell us, from their individual perspectives, that humanity’s best hope to save the planet (and its species, including our own) relies on finding ways to replace an unsustainable Capitalocene with socialist relations of production and consumption.

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Sipping Tea with Silvia Federici

Silvia 9

All photos: Luis Nieto Dickens

by Hanna Hurr
Mask Magazine
August 2016

What is the deal with that book about the witch hunts, though?
¶ Hanna Hurr sits down with Silvia Federici, the mother of materialist feminism and author of Caliban and the Witch, to discuss the lessons we still have to learn from Wages for Housework and other organizing around reproductive labor.

Silvia Federici

Twelve years have passed since Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch was published, and even though feminism is experiencing a prime time renaissance, the distance between rosy endorsements of Hillary’s glass-ceiling breaking and the anti-capitalist, anti-imperial position Federici and others advanced decades ago feels galactic. I spent an evening with Federici to discuss the unrealized vision and legacy of the feminist movement of the 70s, and how her theories of reproductive labor remain relevant to this day.

Every morning, Silvia Federici wakes up to run in the park. Perhaps this explains why she, at the age of 74, is more up to speed than most in her generation. “I just read this article about someone who died while playing Pokemon Go,” she tells me as she welcomes me into her living room. “I hear it’s causing all sorts of problems.” This is the woman who inspired a generation of millennial feminists to think about how women have been treated by the economy since the Middle Ages. It’s not surprising that she’s still watching closely.

I don’t know how many copies Autonomedia has sold of Federici’s treasured book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, but I doubt that would give even a remote estimate of how many have read it. I’ve seen xeroxed copies stacked in infoshops, PDFs shared online, earmarked copies read out loud during road trips and passed among friends like a secret, sacred text. Many know it simply as ‘the book about the witch hunts,’ and this might make its lasting significance seem perplexing. But it’s not just about the witch hunts. Rather, it’s a historic overview of how capitalism emerged and spread. 

Here is the short version: Federici agrees with Marx that the spread of capitalism could not have happened without hundreds of years of brutal violence and disciplining of rebellious bodies. However, she expands his argument and shows how we are witnessing an ongoing accumulation of labor-power and potential-labor-power, the process that was required to produce the submissive capitalist subject of today. She also argues that capitalism sustains itself and continues to grow though a permanent primitive accumulation (the process that, according to Marx, created the conditions for the development of the capitalist system). Primitive accumulation, involving the dispossession of millions of people from their means of subsistence, is not just something that happened once, a long time ago. It’s something that is still taking place today, constantly. She proposes that this also includes and is made possible through the production of difference – hierarchies built upon gender, “race,” and age, that separate, divide people, domesticating some and marginalizing others in order to produce a continuous supply of new workers, enclose more land, and create ever-evolving forms of exploitation.

“I think I was already a feminist at ten years old,” Silvia Federici tells me with a smirk, adding that, when she was a teenager, her family moved to a town with a communist administration and she grew up in a fairly “anticlerical” environment. There were other factors. Her father was a philosophy teacher who also taught history, and would share with her stories about how the popes used to lead armies, how the spirit of religion lived more in the heresies than in the church, how people rebelled against the oppression by the church. It was from her father that she first learned about the history of the heretic movement, which she later wrote about in Caliban and the Witch. “He was the one who told me that the heretics were the real church.”

Like many others like her, Federici’s mother was a fulltime housewife. As a child, Silvia says she dreaded the traditional fate of women; she resisted doing housework and would struggle with her sister about who would clean up or do the dishes. “It was made clear to me from an early age that there was a difference between being a man and being a woman, and that as a girl I would not be allowed to do all kinds of things. I didn't want to be a housewife because I understood that this was a position with no social power.  I spent years wanting to be a man and had no desire for femininity. The last thing I wanted was to be like my mother.” The irony doesn't escape her: the fear of succumbing to her mother’s lot, in a way, inspired her to become a radical feminist preoccupied with the political nature of housework. 

At first I hesitate to ask Federici about her relationship to her mother because it seems so cliché, but throughout our conversation Federici speaks candidly and fondly about her mother.  When I ask if her introduction to radical feminism furthered this gap between them, she gives me a firm no: “The opposite happened. Feminism introduced me to a whole new reflection on housework and power relations, what the devaluation of women’s work meant on an individual and collective level, and it made me rethink my relation to my mother. I felt very bad having been so unappreciative of her, so I started going home more and wanting to do the housework. This began a transformation in my relationship with my mother; it brought us closer together.”

Federici moved to the United States in 1967 to start a PhD program at the University of Buffalo, and it was only a matter of time before her paths started crossing with early second-wave feminist circles in New York. 

As Jo Freeman explains, young women found each other at socialist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist gatherings and actions throughout the 60s, and formed groups of their own when their sexist so-called peers refused to take them seriously. The first groups formed spontaneously in Chicago and Seattle in ‘67 and ‘68. Over the next couple of years, word spreads to people across the country, including Federici. “Feminism as a movement really takes off in the summer and fall of ’69, after the famous SDS conference in Chicago, which also birthed the Weathermen. A number of women left the conference and began to caucus on their own. I was in Italy at the time – I used to go back for my summer vacation – and when I returned in September, there was a women’s movement. That fall I heard the first feminist critiques and read the first feminist manifestos, and I didn’t need any convincing.”

This experience of finding something new that resonates so strongly it becomes instantly familiar, it’s something that I and many people who’ve gone through some kind of politicization can relate to. When I ask her what it felt like, her awakening into feminism, she describes it as a series of “emotional turning points,” one of which was being in a room, in New York, full of hundreds of women. “Up until that point I had never been in a room with so many women. For young women today it would not be something so emotional, because you’re used to seeing women together. But we were not. We came from a world in which women coupled with men. You had moments of being together with your girlfriend but that was child’s play. We used to call it l’amica del cuore, the friend of the heart, your girlfriend. The world of women was a devalued world, a world that sooner or later you were expected to leave, when you found the man of your life.” 

The feminist movement would go on to highlight this world, the world of housework, the family and child rearing, as foundational to capitalism, and it’s interesting that Federici describes a parallel personal shift in attention: re-discovering personal relationships with other women as something powerful, valuable, and political. “To be in a room of 400 women for the first time was thrilling. We were all very excited about each other and soon we became uninterested in men. I remember looking around and feeling shaken up inside. It felt like a revolution.”

As she describes this, I see my life flash before me; a series of intimate moments with girlfriends during my childhood, teens, early adulthood, mixed with lonely moments of trying to prove myself to the world, the world of men, and re-discovering in the second half of my twenties how powerful these relationships can be. It has taught me tenderness and care and thoughtfulness and solidarity and kindness. And yet, hearing Silvia Federici talk about all-women spaces, I become nervous. It is almost taboo now to express feeling this kind of excitement, and for valid reasons – some feminist groups excluded trans women, and transmisogyny is still as real as ever. The ease with which cis women could find solace in sharing space continues to afford us a lazy excuse to exclude trans women and others marginalized by patriarchy. All of this is complicated, although I totally understand and in 2016 can still relate to what she is talking about. The first and only time I met with a psychologist, she told me to pay attention to the feelings that made my throat thick and my eyes filled with tears, that ‘behind that resistance lies something complicated and real and meaningful worth sitting with.’ This isn’t a perfect feeling.

Silvia Federici has often cited Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s article “Women and the Subversion of the Community” as the text that instigated the development of her historical and theoretical positions on capitalism, exploitation, and reproduction. “I was already coming from a Left background, but reading Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s article made me understand what feminism meant in terms of class politics. All kinds of things began to fall into place, I began to see new constructions.” It’s easy to see the influence of Dalla Costa in her work: the text describes the centrality of reproductive labor to capitalism – from unwaged housework and the role the education system plays in reproducing society. She emphasized the housewife’s isolation and dependence on men as core mechanisms by which capitalism is maintained, and put forth the still controversial position that the home is a central place of struggle: “The role of housewife, behind whose isolation is hidden social labour, must be destroyed.”

Together with Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, Federici founded the International Feminist Collective, which started the Wages for Housework campaign in 1972. Federici went on to start Wages for Housework groups in Brooklyn and around the US. In 1975, Federici published the texts “Wages against Housework” and “Why Sexuality is Work,” which articulated the group’s central ideas: capitalism depends on the unwaged reproductive labor of the housewife – to give birth to new workers, feed and clothe them, and provide emotional support and stability in times of need and crisis. If housewives were to refuse to do this work, capitalism would be on the brink of collapse.

Forty years later, the idea that capitalism originates and should be fought from the kitchen may seem less pertinent. After all, how many housewives do you know, and doesn’t capitalism seem to be thriving? But the Wages for Housework campaign wasn’t only striving for ‘wages for housework’ as a main goal. Inspired by the Italian operaismo movement, as well as by the anti-colonial struggle, they used the wage as a strategy to shed light on how many functions of society were done in the isolation and invisibility of the home, disregarded as ‘unproductive,’ and how many wageless workers have actually contributed to the accumulation of capitalist wealth. As Dayna Tortorici wrote of Federici in More Smiles? More Money, “by recasting all the social activities women perform as ‘work,’ Federici economizes them to the point of logical extremity. The point isn’t actually to put a price on perfunctory marital sex, or to max out categories of value so that their utility disintegrates; it’s to illuminate how supposedly non-capitalist activities shore up the economic system that structures and controls so much of our lives.” In fact, it’s impossible to quantify the economic impact the household has played historically in absorbing crises of capital and helping the economy bounce back. When someone loses their job, when a worker suddenly falls sick, when the police fuck somebody up, when the economy becomes increasingly precarious leaving people depressed and hopeless, it is usually mommies and households that patch people up, give people a place to rest and recover, provides an outlet for anger and distress – whether it’s through food, space, love and emotional support, healthcare, or sex.

While a lot has changed in terms of what opportunities exist for women, this is only true in some parts of the world and some sectors of society. Regardless, it is still true that capitalism relies on countless forms of un(der)paid reproductive labor, and many would be surprised to learn that the ways we talk about our conditions today were already described by the Wages for Housework campaign. From describing affective labor as labor, while criticizing the labor movement for reinforcing our dependence on wage labor, to calling for reparations for slavery and supporting welfare women’s struggles, many of the things we talk about on Twitter today as if they were new revelations, Federici and her peers analyzed and organized around already in the 70s. 

Federici saw the feminist movement take off in New York firsthand. By 1975, it had grown into a mass movement. When I ask her what it was like to be part of this, she lights up. “You could really see it in the streets. On March 8, there would be thousands of women out protesting. It was very powerful, and it wasn’t just white. I remember in particular: International Women’s Day in 1971. After the big march we went to Union Square. There was this huge podium, and on the podium there were three women. One from the Young Lords, one from the Black Panthers, and one from the Witches. The energy was amazing.”

As the movement grew larger and louder, its energies began to be seized from all directions. During the second half of the 70s, there was a strong pull to form a women’s labor movement, something Federici criticized — not because there was anything wrong organizing around women working outside the home, but because it concentrated all feminist energies around waged labor, operating on the assumption that working outside the home was the road to ‘women’s emancipation.’ “To me it was a limitation, not because it was wrong to go towards the labor movement, but because increasingly all kinds of struggles over reproduction were abandoned. In fact, two years later, in 1976, when the issue of maternity leave went to the Supreme Court, the feminist movement did not fully support it. It was feared that if we started calling for such ‘privileges’ we would not be entitled to fight for political equality and for equal pay for comparable work. The same happened around welfare – when welfare women started being attacked, there was no feminist mobilization to counter it, which was a terrible mistake.”

The second major takeover came from institutions like the United Nations and the US government. “By the 70s, the feminist movement was very much taken over. That was an  important turn that has not been understood enough in terms of its historical implications. The UN presented itself as the sponsor of the emancipation of women, calling, in 1975, the first World Conference on Women in Mexico City.”

When I ask her to explain what happened and why, she looks at me for a second, as if not sure how to convey the full extent of this massively important moment: “The UN intervened in the women’s movement in many ways and it would take the whole evening to talk about it in detail.” To summarize, she says, there were two main reasons for this increasing institutional attention being paid to the women’s movement. “First, there was the realization that a certain type of deal was over. Women would no longer accept being subservient to men and to relate to the state and to capital though the mediation of men.  The UN intervention in feminist politics expressed the realization that from now on capital would have to deal directly with women, and also that women’s demand for autonomy, if properly domesticated, cleaned up and channeled, could be used to re-launch an economy that was in crisis. More specifically, women’s demand for autonomy, for a wage of their own could be used to address the labor crisis that capital was facing in the 70s. Profit rates were collapsing, anti-colonial struggles were taking place in many parts of the world, here and in Europe they had blue-collar workers’ revolts. Now, suddenly they had all these women demanding the right to work, demanding to enter the waged labor force… All of these forces worked together so that the doors of many workplaces could be opened to women. I have no qualms to say that the entrance of women on a mass level into the waged workforce was one of the factors that helped overcome the labor crisis. I say ‘on a mass level’ because black women always had to work outside the home, as they could nor rely on a steady male wage.”

Perhaps Federici stresses this period because it captures why making demands primarily around waged labor and reforms is a strategy that will only produce short-term gains and most likely longer-term setbacks. Since the 70s, the so-called “feminization of labor” has allowed mostly middle-class white cis women to climb the ranks in business and politics, become managers and CEOs and soon, perhaps even the president. Of course, wages are still unequal, the labor market is still sexist. But mostly, the increased “equality” between certain classes of men and women in the Western world has coincided with new groups of people being locked into positions of underpaid reproductive labor, producing a new international division of reproductive labor with children and elders being cared for, houses cleaned, clothes made, food prepared by people of color, recent immigrants, and non-college-educated millennials. 

“They did exactly the same thing with the anticolonial movement a decade earlier: when they realized the anticolonial struggle could not be defeated the United Nations went in and took it over, posing as the leader of the decolonization process. Some people got killed, like Lumumba, others were selectively chosen and installed. You can say that the UN made sure that decolonization would take place in a way that didn't shake the boat, that firmly reasserted the interests of international capital. This is why we used to speak of Neo-colonialism, because the colonial bond was never broken up. Except now it was reasserted with a more indigenous ruling class.

The UN’s intervention into the anticolonial movement happened first, and by the time the UN did the same thing with the women's movement they had a tested practice. They created a new class of ‘global’ feminists, going here and there to international institutional gatherings, where they spent nights debating over the wordings of documents. They created new agendas that appropriated the feminist language but discarded its subversive content. For example, UN literature speaks of violence against women but does not tell us how that violence is created, what are the social forces responsible for it.”

The UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, she said, was a final blow. “All of a sudden every feminist was going to Beijing and it seemed that this was the place where you had to be to function in the feminist movement. It was said that there you would meet women from Africa and all over the world.  Very good! But, I was thinking that the Zapatistas had an amazing encounter up in the mountains of Chiapas that also brought together people from all over the world, and these were poor indigenous peasants, they were not the UN. Yet, they were able to pull it off, so why not us? My contention has always been that the women's movement could’ve done that, and didn’t need the UN to build international solidarity.”

In the 80s, Federici worked as a teacher in Nigeria just as the Structural Adjustment Programs were being introduced across Africa, and it was this experience that inspired her to write Caliban and the Witch. She had co-authored a book on the impact of the transition to capitalism on the process of reproduction together with Leopoldina Fortunati in 1984, but while living in Nigeria she observed firsthand the same process that happened in Europe in the early days of capitalism take place all over again – land privatization, the disruption of local economies an communitarian regimes, the destruction of resources sustaining communal life. But she also realized that many people still see their lives as, she writes, “radically antagonistic to the requirements of capitalist production.” Being reminded of how crucial women have been to the resistance against wage labor and enclosures, she decided to revisit the research they had started 20 years earlier, and study the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the process that Marx calls ‘originary accumulation.’ 

It’s easy to see that then, as well as now, Federici’s focus was never on the woman primarily; her focus was on understanding the economic forces and institutional mechanisms that together produced the woman as housewife working to reproduce labor power for capital: to guarantee the quantity and quality of labor. When she describes the decades-long cooptation of the feminist movement as “a big heartbreak,” I can only imagine the loss she is describing. If you ask her, the feminist movement – the one that was interested in fighting capitalism – was reduced to silence. 

A further concern for her is today’s frequent claim that the feminist movement she was part of, the so-called “second wave,” has lost its relevance. 

“Today, intersectionality is treated as a new discovery. For me it's not, it was already present in our analysis. Selma James’ Sex, Race and Class analyzed the relationship between racial exploitation and sexual exploitation, the kinds of hierarchies and ideologies capitalism had to construct to hide and naturalize particular forms of labor exploitation. The continuity between the enslavement of African people and the devaluation of women’s labor and social position has always been there. We analyzed the material basis for them.

I find it difficult to accept that the so-called second wave of feminism of the 70s was completely oblivious to this. The women’s movement grew in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and ‘Black Power’ and was affected by it, as the first feminists in the 19th century were affected by the abolitionist struggle.  What is true is that the feminism of the 70s as a whole did not have enough of a class politics, and did not have anti-racist politics. But there were groups, like ours, whose work recognized the continuity between racism and sexism. There were many strains within the women’s movement.”

So, when Federici expresses impatience with a politics focused on identities, her frustration is directed at the failure to locate the source of the multiple forms of oppression we are dealing with. To her, capitalism is still growing stronger by the same mechanisms as it did when she entered the scene, which is why waging struggle from her position as a woman is still important for her.

“Since the beginning of capitalism, women have fought to change what it means to be a woman. To me ‘woman’ always meant particular forms of exploitation, particular places in the division of labor, and particular histories of struggle. Clearly there are crucial diversities among women. There are hierarchies, inequalities especially along the line of race and age. But there are also common grounds, though I draw a line, as I don’t see women in the capitalist class as my ‘sisters.’ That’s why I don't want to give up the category ‘woman.’ It is not a biological category, it's a socio-political and historical category. If you cannot name your condition, then you can’t make certain kinds of struggle. When I think of ‘woman’, I place myself in a history and in particular forms of struggle that women across the world are continuing to this day.”

One thing is for sure: Federici’s argument that capitalism works by harnessing reproductive labor, and producing difference and above all hierarchies to fix certain identities to this specific kind of labor is no less relevant today than it was in the 70s and 80s. We now face the reality that robots are replacing large groups of workers – from service workers and manual laborers to care workers and teachers – while the creative labor that humans do is unaccounted for. At the same time, services like childcare and healthcare are increasingly privatized, leaving a growing poor population with no access to those kinds of services and having to make up for it by working double or not at all. Services like Facebook appear to meet the need for more connection and emotional attachment, but the emotional labor is still done largely by the same groups of people as before, while making the labor aspect of it even more obscure. 

Federici is no longer teaching, but this does not seem to have slowed her down. She is still writing and speaking, and when we met she has just returned from a trip to Sweden, where she participated in the conference Expansions on Homecraft. The walls of her living room are filled with books, and on one side of the room stands a large fold-out table, on top of which sits her 11-inch MacBook Air. It looks like she was in the middle of something when I showed up. As we wait for our photographer Luis Nieto Dickens to arrive to take photos of her, I ask her what her days are like.

“Every morning I get up and go running in the park. Then I work. I'm currently working on two manuscripts. One is an anthology of the materials that we produced in the New York Wages for Housework committee.” She pulls up the cover on her computer and it’s a red illustration from one of the Wages for Housework campaigns. “The other is a book on the commons. I also have this long term project that I don't know if I’ll ever finish that is about children under capitalism, which was a kind of upshot from Caliban and the Witch. The last few years I've done a lot of traveling, which I normally don't do. I also get a lot of emails, which is good but also very disrupting. I'm struggling with that now, trying to figure out how to deal with it. I don't like not reading it, I don't like to not respond. Otherwise, I do housework and go to meetings. I sometimes go to Mayday [Space], Woodbine, Bluestockings, and similar places. We have a big social life, George [Caffentzis] and I. Very often we're like ten people here having dinner together in this living room. The rest of the time I write and read.”

Luis texts me that he’s outside, so I run down the three flights of stairs to let him in. We apologize to the doorman who seems completely unsurprised that these queer-looking young people are running up and down the stairs to visit Silvia. Back inside, Luis pulls out his camera and begins snapping photos, and Silvia graciously plays along, poses for the camera and follows our cues.

Between meeting Silvia Federici and writing this, I’ve reread all of Federici’s books, and felt the presence of her work everywhere – from news articles about police shootings to Twitter rambles about emotional labor. On August first, I heard that Korryn Gaines had been killed by Baltimore police, and I stayed up late watching YouTube videos of her previous interactions with the police. I have no doubt Korryn Gaines was shot specifically because she refused to participate in a system that depended on her cooperation. Her body was crossed twice by difference: a black person’s refusal to be expelled or colonized is a crime against the accumulation of bodies as labor-power; a woman’s refusal to domesticate her children is a crime against the accumulation of the capacity to produce life. Hers were crimes against the whole regime. It reminded me once again of why Federici’s work is still so valuable today. Her writing offers historic continuity to our shared discontent; it flips the “normalcy” of this world on its head, saying: resisting capitalism and patriarchy and racism and colonialism make complete sense, together and all at once.


Hanna Hurr is the Managing Editor of Mask Magazine.

Buy Revolution at Point Zero now | Buy Revolution at Point Zero e-Book now | Back to Silvia Federici's Author Page | Back to George Caffentzis's Author Page

Publisher Spotlight: PM Press

IPG Blog
September 13th, 2016

PMPolaroidsPM Press is an independent publisher that specializes in radical, Marxist and anarchist literature, as well as crime fiction, graphic novels, music CDs, and political documentaries. In other words, PM Press is the coolest.

Here, co-Founder Craig O’Hara walks us through how a history of anarchism and activism has led PM Press to the success they see today, and how they march ever toward a “most just, humane, and fun world.”

IPG: How did PM Press get its start? How did you specifically find your way into publishing?

Craig O’Hara: Nearly everyone at PM Press was already involved in some aspect of independent or grassroots publishing and distribution before PM got its start in 2007. In our organization we have folks with decades of experience in book publishing and distribution operations (pre-dating the internet, ouch), running independent bookstores, slinging merch with rock bands, designing print-ready materials for hip magazines and corporate clients, and plenty of experience warehousing and shipping books. No one at PM was really a “rookie” before we started, and we’ve been lucky to assemble something of a dream team of experienced folks without ever advertising for outside help.

What brings us together at PM is the desire to both publish and actively promote materials that we feel can make a difference in our present/everyday society. Influenced greatly by actions and ideas from the history of anarchism and social justice activism, we want to publish and promote books and materials with ideas geared towards creating a most just, humane, and fun world.

IPG: What differentiates PM Press from other publishers?

Craig O’Hara: To the public, it’s probably the wide range of events that we do to reach new readers. In 2015 we organized and promoted nearly 400 author events and 120 tabling/exhibiting events across North America, with a growing number in the UK as well. We take our boxes of books, folding tables, and bookshelves where no publisher has gone before. We table political and academic conferences, labor events, book fairs, craft fairs, really anywhere that books can be sold to a receptive audience. Who else has books available in every expected channel but are also top sellers in both Matewan, WV and Oaxaca, Mexico?

PMTableIn addition to nearly four hundred books we’ve published over nine years, we have also released dozens of CDs (both music and spoken word) and documentary DVDs covering everything from animal rights to Zapatistas.

We have no formal offices, yet are international. PM Press staff are located on both coasts of the US as well as Canada and the UK, working mostly out of their homes. We do have a variety of storage facilities, from working warehouses with forklifts to basements where the books fight for space with vintage motorcycle parts.

Within the industry, we differ from many other publishers in that we treat our authors with great respect. We pay regular royalties, actively sell foreign rights in multiple languages/territories, and generally give our authors more say in their project. We operate largely without subsidy (from wealthy individuals or corporations) and without debt, paying the printer on time and the full balance of any credit card use each month. In a certain ironic sense, our sustainable anti-capitalist operation is a roaring financial success.

IPG: How does youpmpull2r mission of “creating radical and stimulating fiction and nonfiction books…” change how you navigate the publishing industry?

Craig O’Hara: It means we have to navigate and operate both inside and outside of the established industry. Since our beginnings, a full 50% of our income has been from direct/nonbooktrade selling. We are never chasing publishing trends, but seeking to publish underrepresented viewpoints that have the potential to affect and influence readers. Luckily we have assistance from the fine folks at IPG to help bridge the gap between what we do on a daily basis and the workings of the mainstream publishing industry.

IPG: What do our readers need to know about your books?

friendsofPMCraig O’Hara: One neat fact is that they are nearly all printed in the US by the employee-owners at Thomson Shore in Dexter, MI. Beyond that, we want readers (and writers) to know that “you can do this too.” There are far too many fantastic books we receive as submissions that we simply don’t have the resources to publish. There is no shortage of great material to publish, wonderful stories to tell, and readers open to intelligent discussions outside of the mainstream media.

IPG: Who do you feel is your primary audience?

Craig O’Hara: We publish a broad enough range of books that it’s difficult to pinpoint or attempt to stereotype our primary audience. People interested in a better world? Well, who isn’t? Everyone from the multiracial working class whose lives are reflected and respected in our work to grad students and professors swimming in theory, to ethical vegetarians, cutting-edge artists, and punk rockers!

IPG: In your opinion, how has the publishing industry changed over the years?

pmpull3Craig O’Hara: Over the last few decades, much of the industry has been squeezed, shrunk, or discarded. There are fewer independent publishers and distributors (and all operating with a lower profit margin due in part to Amazon’s unfortunate presence), and the impressive flux of new bookstores (particularly those in high-rent, gentrified areas) can rarely afford to stock releases outside of the mainstream/sure-thing bestsellers. A television/internet-based, celebrity-driven culture has created a sad trend in the book business to chase after “the next big thing” as it runs by rather than operate as a forum for diverse and important ideas that impact our lives.

IPG: What do you think are the benefits of independent publishing? The drawbacks?

Craig O’Hara: The benefits are being part of the process of connecting the stories, ideas, and artwork of authors to a global community of readers. Drawbacks, well, very long hours and there’s not much money in it. We have very few authors who can make a living writing professionally, and virtually none that could do so solely from their PM releases. There just isn’t much money in book sales after each part of the food chain takes a bite.


IPG: Where do you see PM Press in five years?

Craig O’Hara: I expect it will be very similar to what we see now, some of us will be grayer and heavier, others will be younger and smarter. We just signed a five-year distribution deal with IPG, so I expect both organizations will continue to get better at what we do each year.


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