Those Who Die Never Really Die
A Conversation with Silvia Federici
By Nathan Albright \ Katrina Albright \ 2019-06-02
Silvia Federici is an Italian-born writer, scholar, and activist, and among the most influential voices in the Marxist-Feminist tradition. From co-founding the Wages for Housework Campaign of the 1970s, to documenting the International Monetary Fund’s destructive impact on African commons while she taught in Nigeria in the 1980s, her work has always exposed the effects of capitalist enclosures on women. Her widely read book Caliban and the Witch examines the relationship between early capitalist enclosures and witch hunts in Europe. She recently published two new books -- Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women, and Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons.
We sat down with Professor Federici at her Brooklyn apartment -- a warm space dominated by her writing desk and filled with posters, books, and photos recalling decades of radical political work. All around us were reminders of a life dedicated to -- in her words -- joyful millitance.
Katrina Albright: One of your new books talks about women all over the world who are still being persecuted and killed as witches. The other deals with this idea of “re-enchanting” the world by reclaiming the commons. Is there a relationship between “magic” and “enchantment”? Specifically, is there anything about the cultural practice of magic itself that can be used as a tool of resistance?
Silvia Federici: I’m not interested in magic as a tool of resistance -- well, it depends on on how we define it. I've been trying to give, with ‘enchantment,’ my notion of what is magical. And what I'm saying is it’s something that's part of the natural world. It’s not the supernatural, you know? It’s part of a world in which there are many forces. This world, this planet, this earth, this nature. It’s millions of years, so there's a great mystery there. But to me, the magic is to be able to go beyond these enclosures of capitalism. And to begin to reconnect with a broader conception of what it means to be a human being, what nature means. So if magic is understood in the way sorcery was traditionally understood, with special tricks, then no. But if magic means reconstituting a more whole conception of human life, then yes, magic can be part of resistance. To me, the more important thing is to understand that history. To reclaim the past and turn this knowledge into a form of resistance. To understand that the past is present.
KA: I guess in order to see that reconstituted world as supernatural, you would have to accept the mechanized world as normal or baseline.
SF: Yes, that's right.
Nathan Albright: In Re-Enchanting the World, you talk about the idea of reclaiming the commons -- which you define as a social relation.
SF: As a social relation, yeah. As a way of organizing society and as a relation among people. Cooperation and control over wealth, over nature, over what you do, control over what you produce. So for example, if you work in a factory, the principle of the commons is that you don’t have to produce things that are killing people. Why is the union fighting to produce things that are dangerous to people's lives? It’s a sense of responsibility towards each other and towards the earth. Understanding that your well being is dependent on others and vice versa. That, to me, is what the commons means. I’m curious what you thought of the book -- which parts resonated with you?
NA: I felt the essays in Re-Enchanting the World got more and more relevant as they moved into the present. It was encouraging to see those contemporary examples of commoning.
SF: Yes. In fact, after the book came out, I went to Latin America again and I had a whole new set of experiences. I went to visit this place in Buenos Aires called Villa 21-24. There's a whole network of women there that came together in the last few years, deciding that they had to do something. They had an epidemic of dengue fever -- lots of people died, lots of women were killed. So they’ve organized some amazing services, but also a whole political operation. They’re picking up the garbage, taking the kids to school -- because there's no crossing signals and they were being killed by trucks. They’re working with families around violence, organizing healthcare for women, organizing the sex workers. There was even a musical group, and they're reading together. It's the politicization of everyday life. They're building this tremendous knowledge about the community, and they're also working on understanding how to deal with the authorities. It’s seen as a place of danger, as a place of lawlessness. In reality a lot of people there have been expelled from rural communities and are now trying to recreate a life. And the women are really the ones who are keeping that life together.
KA: They're rebuilding their world.
SF: Yes. The women were very proud to show me how they’re learning to build houses. The idea is that they feel responsible. That, to me, is what the commons is. The sense of -- I'm not going just to think about myself. The sense of community. It’s a sense that’s still strong in Latin America, because lots of people come from Indigenous places or from an Ejido in Mexico, where doing things with others -- the assembly -- is still within living experience. It’s not an exotic thing.
NA: In Re-Enchanting the World, you talk about this idea of everyday life as the place where people can change how their lives are reproduced. That almost everything consumed is part of a supply chain based on violence and extraction -- for instance, you mention the amount of resources that go into the production of a single computer. It seems like commons are, at their best, an opportunity to opt out of those violent supply chains.
SF: Yes. Yeah.
NA: But most of the commons I can think of -- in my life anyway -- aren’t spaces to opt out entirely -- though they’re maybe working in that direction. Could you talk about that idea of opting out -- and how we get there?
SF: Well you know, the commons for me is a horizon -- it’s something to move towards because we don't have it now. But at the same time, it’s also a principal of action in the present, a principal of organization of one’s life, collective and individual. So obviously there's always a tension between the present and the future -- we are still in a world of capitalist relations. But nevertheless, I think that any struggle that we make has the potential of creating a common, if it is organized in a particular way. So for me, the common is something that has to begin to structure our everyday life and our everyday struggles. It’s shifting from looking at the commons as these little things, a garden, to looking at it as a principal of organizing society in a way that is cooperative, that is not exploitative. People call it horizontal, I prefer to say cooperative, non-exploitative, with a principal of social justice. It’s a society where you cooperate with people -- you don't compete. And it’s a society where you share the wealth that you produce. You don't have somebody ordering you, but you have collective self-decision. I think those principles can be brought to every struggle. The struggle, for me, is not something that is in another place, in another world. The struggle is every day -- not only individually, but collectively. That's why I talk about these women in the periphery -- where they have to struggle. Because short of that they have nothing. But they’re showing that everyday life is political. The women's movement has said the personal is political -- I say that everyday reproduction is political. Do we use something that has been produced at the cost of rivers of blood or don’t we? Do we organize on an individual, atomized basis, thinking only of our own specific interests, or do we organize in a way where we think about the people around us? That, to me is the principal of the commons. It’s applied to everyday life along three lines: self-government, regaining control of our lives, and cooperating with other people. Trusting that cooperation is possible, trusting that cooperation is necessary.
KA: Are there examples of commoning in the United States that you feel hopeful about?
SF: Yeah! There's been so many. From Standing Rock to Occupy to free universities -- commons of knowledge. Organizers are cooking together, eating together. It may seem like a small thing but that would have been inconsiderable once. I'm thinking of the way men organized in the Communist Party. Workers went home from the factory -- the wife would be there with dinner -- and then they went to the house of culture at night. Mostly it was a male place. But what is it you share when you do politics? Only a space in a demonstration? Or do you share something else? I'm not saying monthly dinners are enough. But Occupy, I think, has brought in the conception of the importance of interpersonal relations, of people knowing each other, of affectivity, of not just doing flyers but also doing food, of learning skills of how to organize a daycare. These to me are important elements of a struggle.
KA: Your writing really clarified the way I thought about enclosures -- this idea of taking away spaces where these cooperative social relations can happen. But the thing that feels most new to me in our lifetime is the idea that social relations themselves are being enclosed. Like social media, or the sharing economy.
SF: Yes, absolutely.
KA: Does that change the way we have to organize?
SF: One has to be very, very careful. I'm always concerned that if you don't fight well they're going to learn from the way you organize, and then they're going to use it against you. So organizing and making a struggle is very important but you have to make it in a way that cannot be used against you -- not that this is easy. Much of what capitalism has learned, it has learned from struggle. They don't have their own independent creativity. I think they've learned tremendously from the sixties. The NGOs, the whole sharing economy. Even the World Bank speaks of commons. It's like the United Nations becoming the spokes organization for women’s liberation. They've completely sucked up what was feminism, trimmed it, taken away everything that could make it subversive, that they could not incorporate into a capitalist agenda, and then sold it again as women’s emancipation. I think this is what has also happened with the sharing economy. They found the name to label something that is exactly the opposite of commoning and sell it as if it were a form of commoning.
KA: It seems to me that alters social relations themselves -- that you can’t even ask your neighbor for a ride because you should just take an Uber. Or you can't have a conversation with your grandma on Facebook without giving data to someone, you know? [laughs].
SF: That's right. Exactly. No, I agree but.... [sigh]. We can also do something. I feel there's a lot of denial. It does become difficult not to commercialize everything. Not to measure what I could be earning if I was doing this. And academia has done so much damage. You know, these Foucauldian ideas that power is something that is circulating in every direction, so we're all victims and we're all assassins. So that people do not draw a line. If I give a talk at a University, I like them to pay me because I consider myself a worker for them. But the idea that you get paid for doing political work -- that I think is so corrupting. I understand that with general impoverishment, the difficulty in getting jobs, it’s a way of living. But I don’t feel there's been a serious political discussion of what are the lines, of what are the things you cannot do. I think in the 60's and 70's around feminism, and in particular the civil rights movement and Black Power, there was a lot of discussion about the politics of organization, power relations and the relation to money. I feel there hasn't been that level of analysis and self criticism. It's not completely absent but I don't think it's been enough. What are the dynamics that begin to happen, when people are, for example, treating political organizing as a job? As if you were a union organizer or an NGO, you know? That I think is a discussion that would be very healthy, very important.
KA: Because people can only say certain things when they're on the payroll somewhere.
SF: That's right. And that should also be made visible and discussed. Because now when you go to a political space you don't know who [laughs] --
KA: -- Whether people are really representing themselves or something else --
SF: Yeah. So I think that's really one of the big issues, the question of organization, and the question of money.
KA: It does feel like the monetization of regular social relations makes that even more complicated.
SF: Yeah! And you know people were so critical of Wages for Housework!
KA: You were ahead of your time!
SF: Wages for Housework was about money from the state for the work we were all doing. This was a collective thing and it was about our relation with capital and with the state. Now, you just have to sell yourself. You sell your couch, you sell your child, you sell your womb, you sell your kidneys.
KA: I keep talking about social media, but I think a lot about things like women making their living on Instagram with just these images of domestic life they're selling.
SF: Selling -- yes!
KA: Selling an image of a home, their children. That’s okay but Wages for Housework was --
SF: Yeah, people thought Wages for Housework was bad! Because it meant you were stuck in the kitchen. I didn't realize how profound a capitalist logic has entered into people's bones, particularly in this country. There is a profound internalization that capitalism is the supreme mode of dealing. But still a lack of interest in all these issues of reproduction. You know, now it’s fashionable to talk about social reproduction in academia, but there’s still such a profound acceptance of what constitutes a more advanced form of work, a more advanced form of social relations. You know, it's a question of what is more valuable [laughs]. What is more valuable?
NA: I’ve been thinking about your definition of reproduction in the context of the ecological crisis -- it seems like reproduction itself is under threat and there’s very little response to it.
SF: Yeah absolutely, I think there's a complete reproduction crisis. I am obsessed with global warming. It’s already 50 degrees (C) in some places, 45 degrees in parts of Europe now. I was there, you cannot be outside. But global warming still has an element of abstraction right? I am very visual. I keep seeing footage of animals eating plastics. I see the ocean being poisoned, the rivers being poisoned, rivers on fire, yellow with chemicals. I don't know how we get people to incorporate that repulsion in their body to move us, to do anything we can.
KA: Do you think it’s related to the struggle to revalorize reproduction?
SF: Yeah it is, oh absolutely!
NA: What do you think commoning is going to look like as global warming progresses?
SF: Well, I prefer to talk about what commoning means now and fighting against those outcomes. But there may be a time when people will be forced into realizing that alone they will not survive. The problem is, why wait till you're in such a desperate situation? Because what is going to happen? When people in Flint realized that they were not going to do anything about the stuff coming through the faucets, then people began to organize. But why always organize after the crisis? When your life is already in question?
NA: We were just talking about this earlier, that capitalism is very good at toeing the line of crisis, at making people feel like they're maybe just on the edge of losing things, right up as close to that breaking point as you can get without actually changing the status quo, without reaching a productive crisis.
SF: Yeah, the Damocles Sword. You always have it above your head. Make a mistake and you'll be in the gutter. So you live with this tension and you make all kinds of deals to safeguard yourself.
NA: I want to ask you about a passage from Re-Enchanting the World. You say:
"Struggles aiming to re-ruralize the world, (through land reclamation, the liberation of rivers from dams, resistance to deforestation, and, central to all, the revalorization of reproductive work) are crucial to our survival. These are the conditions not only of our physical survival but for the re-enchantment of the earth. For they reconnect what capitalism has divided -- our relation with nature, with others, and with our bodies -- enabling us not only to escape the gravitational pull of capitalism but to regain a sense of wholeness in our lives."
To me that seems like a really spiritual idea.
SF: Absolutely yeah. I think there's a big mystification. Religion always exploited the desire for an extending of ourselves, an extending of our bodies. I've been thinking a lot about it because I'm working on a book on the body, and I used to be very excited about the Bakhtinian body. It's a conception of the body that wants to take in the world. I always find it fascinating because it's a body that doesn't end at the edges of the skin. But now I'm thinking of the opposite, not a body that wants to take in, but a body that wants to go out. A body that wants to connect with nature, with the winds, with the seas, with the animals. You know, all these forces in the older societies that had a much deeper relationship with the natural world, with the animal world. Indigenous peoples, the peasants, millions and millions of campesinos, fishermen, the Babylonian ancients who were able to see the movement of the constellations just by looking at the skies, or the Polynesian navigators. People were able to navigate even the Pacific Ocean without instruments because they could read nature. And this sense of being connected with forces bigger than you -- that is part of a spirituality. It's part of a feeling that everything is alive, a feeling that nature is a big body, an organism. That it's very, very different than capitalism. Now we have nature as a big machine.
NA: Do you have spiritual practices in your own life to keep yourself in touch with that?
SF: No. There've been times that I've been meditating, and I wish I could do more. I've been feeling very pressured in the last few years. It's been great that my books have gone around, but on another level I've also lost a lot of my peace of mind. That has cut into the time for me to, for instance, be out in nature, to walk, to have quiet. That has become more difficult. That is something that I hope to recuperate.
KA: We've also been talking a lot about self care, which feels related. It's a very popular concept right now but it seems premised on the idea that your work is terrible and that it's not going to get better. And a lot of what gets labelled self care is sort of just tips for how you can just slightly assuage that feeling, alone, by yourself [laughs].
NA: In order to continue to exploit yourself the next day.
SF: Yeah. Self-care. “Doing something good for yourself.” Well, can you do something good for yourself without doing something good with other people? Fighting for a place where you don't breathe bad fumes, where you don't have a polluted river, where you don't have chemicals in the food you eat -- that's self care. But capitalists don't imagine that. They imagine you know, buy yourself a good lipstick.
NA: And it's always self-care short of changing the things you do in a bigger sense, never changing your occupation or refusing to accept your circumstances.
SF: Exactly, yes. You want self care? Demand a wage increase, fight with other people.
KA: But it does seem like people doing political work often experience profound burnout -- especially those who aren’t paid to do it. How do we care for ourselves while we do all that fighting?
SF: I wrote a little piece about Joyful Militance -- that I think doing political work is something that should give you joy. And there is conflict when it gets to be too much. But writing, or, for example, the privilege of being able to go and have a visit with these women in Villa 21-24, meeting people, it's very powerful. I'm a great believer that doing these things should give you joy. Should allow you to grow. Feeling the growth in yourself, feeling the connectivity with other people, it’s a great wealth. I feel very sad that so much of that is being taken away from us.
NA: You’ve said in Joyful Militance that you've gone through phases of “sad politics” yourself?
NA: And we were talking about how the culture we live in now is so atomized, so separate. That seems like a big part of what’s causing so much burnout. It’s hard to be open about being depressed or experiencing sadness. It seems to me that it’s clearly political. I think emotions themselves have become shameful.
NA: I can't think of a more powerful possible starting point than what so many people seem to be experiencing, this sense of loneliness and depression --
KA: Yeah, It seems that a lot of people -- even people who might not quite be able to recognize themselves as part of a material crisis -- are still experiencing a drastic social emotional crisis right now --
SF: Yes! Very much.
KA: Can we organize around that idea of the political nature of loneliness?
SF: I should write these things down because I'm very blessed -- I've got so many people around me, people I love, that I care for. I've got a great group of women. We're very affectionate with each other and we like to come to the meetings because we like to be with each other. So I've been very lucky. I've had a lot of contact with women in Spain and also in Latin America -- they're ready to share feelings. You know many have gone through experiences of their family -- repression, people being killed. So there's a sense of the importance of people being there -- the contact, the hug. But I'm less in touch emotionally with the experience of loneliness.
NA: I'm happy for you that you're out of touch with that!
KA: I know, it makes me so happy to know that.
SF: It's true, it's true. I know women have begun reading groups just for example, reading groups are very good. I have a good friend, you probably know of her because she's a great feminist, Maria Mies.
KA & NA: Yeah.
SF: So Maria Mies is now 85. She had to leave her apartment in Cologne because she couldn't walk up the stairs any longer and they didn't have an elevator. She moved with her husband who’s also very old to the outskirts of Cologne, in one of these communities for older people. So when she got there she looked around and she saw it was all older women. Many who had no history of politics. And so Maria is a political animal -- she's always been organizing with people. So she decided what she could do was a singing group. And they had a fight because the management wanted them to pay -- but finally they won a space to meet for free. She said that after a while all the women wanted to come and sing.
SF: And she said that from the singing it turned into so much more. Because singing is also very emotional. They say that singing saves your brain, right? That if you sing you preserve your memory. So singing brought out histories of life. Women began to share histories. Right? A singing group.
KA: That's so good. I love that so much.
SF: Yeah. You don't have to have a big thing. Share your songs, share the things that have given you pleasure, that meant something in your life. Think about them. Share them with other people and see where you go with it.
KA: Can you talk a little bit more about that idea of art or storytelling as a commoning practice?
SF: I think that storytelling is very related. There's so much knowledge in what we do, the stories we heard from our parents. And so much political potential of understanding there. Storytelling is like singing -- these are treasure trove activities, right? From which one can learn so much, and find paths to connect with other people. I think storytelling has within it a history, and also a politics.
KA: When we first arrived we talked a bit about your concerns over this popular resurgence of “witch horror stories” in movies and TV. Can you talk more about that?
SF: Well what is it these movies ask you to do? There's something that the movie is telling you, right? It's okay to beat up a woman, it's okay to kill her. Women are dangerous. They look good, or they look innocent, but beneath that is all this horrible stuff. And the state is doing this too -- it's just not calling it witchcraft anymore. States are passing laws giving personhood to fetuses. Women are losing rights with respect to reproduction right and left. It's even difficult now to prove that you had a miscarriage. Women are being accused of homicide and manslaughter and feticide. Women who were in car accidents are being arrested. Women are being dragged -- literally -- from the birthing room because there is a whole system of surveillance developing -- where the police contact hospital doctors and nurses, under the threat of losing their licence. So you go for a blood test and the next day you have the cops in front of your house. And it’s poor women -- just like the “witches,” the peasant women who were burned alive. I mean, how many women would go and watch those movies if they knew the history, if they knew what being called a witch meant?
KA: Do you feel there can be healthy depictions of witches?
SF: Absolutely. I think there should be histories about the witch and they should be told as stories. This is why, to me, my books are storytelling. I don’t trust books that are totally abstract. They do not have a connection with some lived experience, either in the past or in the present. Because, well, what are you talking about? Has this meant something to people? Does this mean something or is it just an idea? So that to me is storytelling. That's what I'm trying to do. And I think people respond to that. Because it also brings up their own stories. It’s like Maria. When she began to sing, all the women realized that their singing was connected to experiences -- to memories -- you know? To something that enriches your life. And it’s the same with art! Unfortunately the real estate people have learned about art. Because art is very powerful. You don't have a good movement unless you have good songs -- not just good documents. I'm always asking "do you have good songs?"
KA & NA: [laughs]
SF: A song is the naked collective subject. People sing together -- I know -- I come from Italy where people always sang together. I don't know about now. Probably it’s another world now. But when I was young, in every circumstance -- but particularly in political groups -- whenever people got together, they always sang a song. It’s a way of resignifying the collectivity. You know, this is what we are. It means something. Our histories, this music, it means something.
KA: Have you heard stories that ‘resignify the collective’ in that way too?
SF: So many do, my god, I've heard a lot of stories. I go to Argentina, and I've met people whose uncle, father, were taken on the flights of death, where they put them on the plane, they inject them and then they flew them into the Via de la Plata. So the stories are there. And they're collective stories. You go to streets in Buenos Aires and you still see graffitis that refer to things that have happened. You know, The Night of the Pencils, when they arrested a lot of high school students during the junta in the 70's. So the story is all around you. And that's something I don't know if I talk enough about -- recollecting the history, you know? Making the realm in which you live speak, right? When I go to a place, I ask people, "what happened here?" I go to Universities and I say "what happened here?" And then you hear stories -- this place of knowledge was built on so much suffering, you know? And the students walk and they don't know on what ground, and they would have probably a different relation if they knew what happened here. In Madison, Wisconsin this guy told me "oh here is where Black Hawk made his last stand." Then shortly after they were all massacred. Imagine if the students knew. These are the things the students should dig up -- beneath the university, the commons.
NA: You’ve written a lot about that idea of uncovering the history of the commons -- these memories of the different ways people lived or organized. It seems like such a powerful idea and so central to everything you write. But can you talk about how we can reclaim, or embody those histories in the present?
SF: Oh it's easy -- you asked me about spirituality? I want to tell a story. And it’s part of the commons. It's about a woman named Gladys Tzul Tzul, from the highlands of Guatemala. The stories that come out from Guatemala are like witch hunts -- entire groups of people were burnt alive, communities destroyed. So there is a village where everybody was killed, but Gladys says, "Well, these people have such a will to live. They're still fighting, those who have survived. They're fighting to get back their land." I said "Where do they get this courage?" And she says "I think it's because for us, those who die never really die. We have such a very powerful relationship to the dead. For in our culture, the dead are very present and we never think of them as gone completely." And that connected with me very strongly because one of the things that still keeps me interested in the story of the witch hunts is that I decided that I cannot allow those women to be dead. Those women never received any justice. Now I am here on this earth and I know of them who died in a dungeon, who died burnt alive, and I want to be their voice. I want to do whatever I can to tell their story. That's connected to the sense of being a whole -- we are an extended body. This to me is making history. This to me is making politics. This to me is spirituality.
Nathan Albright is a Cofounding Editor at the The Flood.
Katrina Albright is a writer and organizer living in Los Angeles (and Nathan's sister).