The East Coast network Fire Next Time recently posted this dialogue between two of their members, Zora and Ba Jin, contrasting Silvia Federici and Selma James. The post argues that Federici’s Marxist-Feminist understanding of primitive accumulation in her book, Caliban and the Witch, forefronts global migration, colonization, and international connections among women and people of color. On the other hand, the post asserts, James’ Marxist-Feminist analysis centers on the U.S.-centric housewife role and only secondarily takes up the question of waged women’s work and Third World and Black Feminism. The post further critiques Wages for Housework as a liberal feminist goal, arguing that “it seems like a weird coexistence with capitalism.” In response to this post, I feel the need to clear a few things up and ask some questions in the spirit of comradely debate.
1. Why force a wedge between Federici and James?
Federici and James are a part of the same Marxist-Feminist tendency. A third person I would put in this longstanding tendency is Mariarosa Dalla Costa, who co-wrote “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community” with James, and still writes alongside Federici for The Commoner journal. In fact, in the “Preface” to Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, she writes:
“The thesis which inspired this research was first articulated by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, as well as other activists in the Wages for Housework Movement, in a set of documents in the 1970s that were very controversial, but eventually reshaped the discourse on women, reproduction, and capitalism .”
Furthermore, Federici wrote pamphlets in support of Wages for Housework in the 1970s. In addition to their theoretical contributions, Dalla Costa, Federici, and James have done similar organizing through the years, for example with sex workers and in communities in the third world.
It is not clear what James’ and Federici’s relationship is today, but in discussing their contributions between (roughly) 1950 and 1980, their arguments (both historically and theoretically) strengthen and uphold one another. The following will explain why.
2. James’ analysis of the housewife and reproductive work under capitalism.
First, I would like to look more closely at James’ discussion of the housewife. At face value, the housewife is a one-sided experience at best, and a dated concept at worst. As Zora describes,
“The whole wages for housework thing seems alienating for me, because it’s not applicable to that many people in the U.S. There is a history here of women of color being pushed into waged domestic work, in which you weren’t paid that much, and your worker’s rights weren’t protected. So it has already been capitalized on. You pushed multiple groups of people, who were not white women, into this domestic work to take care of white women’s children. And the wages for housework thing makes me think, “Well is that your end goal? To be co-opted by capitalism, and to make your work legitimate under capitalism?” It seems like a weird coexistence with capitalism instead of addressing how capitalism is reaching all the way down into reproduction, and developing a strategy to combat that, beyond just demanding wages.”
However, James’ methodology (along with Federici’s) is much more complex than Zora acknowledges. James discusses the particular, or one-sided expression of the division of labour under capitalism, in conversation with the totality of social relations. James explicitly acknowledges that the experience of the unwaged domestic labourer is one particular experience of the many different types of labour due to the capitalist division of labour. For example, consider the following quote from James’ pamphlet, “Sex, Race and Class:”
[James quoting Marx's Capital] “‘Manufacture…develops a hierarchy of labour powers, to which there corresponds a scale of wages. If on the one hand, the individual laborers are appropriated and annexed for life by a limited function; on the other hand, the various operations of the hierarchy are parceled out among the laborers according to both their natural and their acquired abilities.’
“In two sentences is laid out the deep material connection between racism, sexism, national chauvinism and the chauvinism of the generations who are working for wages against children and pensioners who are wageless, who are ‘dependents.’
“A hierarchy of labor powers and a scale of wages to correspond. Racism and sexism training us to develop and acquire certain capabilities at the expense of all others. Then these acquired capabilities are taken to be our nature, fixture our functions for life, and fixing also the quality of our mutual relations. So planting cane or tea is not a job for white people and changing nappies is not a job for men and beating children is not violence. Race, sex, nation, each an indispensable element of the international division of labour.” [Sex, Race and Class p. 96].
Under the capitalist division of labour, we become our jobs. We are relegated into one form of work (we are teachers, bus drivers, call center workers, etc.) that we are to perform over and over again. Marx calls this alienation. Capitalism has a gendered and racialized hierarchical division of labour, where certain kinds of work, as James points out, are “naturalized,” to people of color, women, and children.
These forms of work are historically de-valued under capital, and therefore women’s labour power is de-valued, a point that Federici explains in her account of primitive accumulation. Further, the appearance of the value of labour power is the wage, and so women’s work is unwaged and/or underwaged. This means that the housewife’s position in the division of labour as an unwaged worker, is tied to an immigrant domestic worker’s low-waged position, and a school teacher’s position, etc.
James’ work in this area was an important step for challenging Orthodox Marxism’s assertion that class struggle only took place in the factory. These arguments could be extended to feudal peasantry, for example, arguing that the peasantry in countries who had not yet been colonized by capitalism had their own unique communist potential.