Jordan Kisner: The Lockdown Showed How the Economy Exploits Women. She Already Knew

Silvia Federici has been warning for decades of what happens when we undervalue domestic labor.

New York Times, February 17, 2021

Prospect Park in May is a commotion of beauty: meadows and dense rambles, hills and hollows, everything covered in chokeberries, spicebush, violets, flowering hawthorns, magnolias and lindens. In this splendor the birds are boisterous, as are the people. But last May, the park was quieter than usual, and the people moving through it had a subdued, worried energy. Many wore masks; many did not. Occasionally someone shouted at someone else for coming too close. There was both fear of breathing common air and a desperate craving for it. Through this scene proceeded, at an energetic pace, Silvia Federici, the 78-year-old scholar and theorist of domestic labor, one of the most influential socialist feminist thinkers of the last century.

Federici had a black scarf tied over her nose and mouth, and she was wearing a delicate blue sweater her mother made long ago. Federici walks all the way around Prospect Park at least once every day, even in the winter, with her partner of 47 years, the philosopher George Caffentzis. (Caffentzis learned he had Parkinson’s disease a few years ago, she explained, and the walking helps him stay well.) But for several days in May, she agreed to do a second daily walk with me.

I had asked to meet because the pandemic and its cascade of economic, social and political breakdowns had led to a profusion of Federician thinking in places I had never encountered it before. Suddenly notions and phrases from her work were all over my social media feeds, op-ed pages and exchanges with friends, as people confronted what kinds of labor are considered essential and why. Federici is a longtime advocate of the idea that domestic work is unwaged labor and was a founder of the Wages for Housework movement in the early 1970s. It is a form of gendered economic oppression, she argues, and an exploitation upon which all of capitalism rests.

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