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"Losing the sense that we can do something is the worst thing that can happen"

An interview with Silvia Federici

by Candida Hadley

Marxist and feminist philosopher Silvia Federici believes that neoliberalism has caused us to become isolated and afraid, withdraw and lose hope. It is up to us to change this.
Marxist and feminist philosopher Silvia Federici believes that neoliberalism has caused us to become isolated and afraid, withdraw and lose hope. It is up to us to change this.

Renowned Marxist feminist scholar Silvia Federici visited Halifax recently, and I had the great pleasure of interviewing her following one of her public talks. The talk, entitled Feminism, Global Capitalism and the Commons, was an engaging and engrossing discussion of the women’s movement, past and present, emerging from her books Caliban and the Witch and Revolution at Point Zero.

Federici began her work in the feminist struggle of the 1970s, challenging Marx’s problematic conceptions of reproductive work and advocating for a radical transformation of society, but found these efforts stymied by the global economic restructuring that occurred, not coincidentally, in the following decades. The world rebuilt at that time – a world of never-ending crises and war - is a world of discipline. As Federici argues, people without job security, social safety nets and strong community connections are easy to control. So, she asks, how do we break through the barriers placed in our path by capitalism, neoliberalism and austerity? We hold onto hope and we bring people together in order to begin to rebuild our communities.

In my conversation with Silvia, we spoke further to the role of crisis and fear, questions of social transformation, and the importance of hope and possibility. For the purposes of this article I have selected a few key quotes from the interview.

**

Looking at the complex of crises that currently plague us, Silvia argues that the neoliberal, capitalist system that governs our lives is responsible not only for seemingly never-ending economic and political crises, but also for the unraveling of our social fabric. Connections between us have been severed and, as a result, people, isolated and afraid, withdraw and lose hope. It is up to us to change this.

Crisis is not only an economic crisis; it has to do with the cuts and the restructuring of the political economy, but the crisis has also come because this restructuring has really disintegrated areas and organizations that existed and were tremendous supports for people. Crisis is lack of resources, but it is also a crisis of a lack of connections, of that social fabric that is so important for resistance and for imagining something different. So that’s where we need to start rethinking, reconnecting….

We’ve been taught to be afraid…. Just look at the TV, one week of TV its all the cops, all these maniacs. There’s been a tremendous investment in making us feel that this is a world in which everybody is a threat. Whereas the real threat is that you can go into hospital and die because you’re not going to have enough care, or no real help when you get sick or work accidents… or poor infrastructure. In the US we see bridges collapsing because of a lack of infrastructure maintenance, or neighbourhoods blowing up because pipes are leaking gas because they haven’t been replaced…. There is now such a lack of care that it’s a threat….

Now much more than in the past the corporate agenda is legislating that we are dispensable. That their ability to proceed unimpeded, it has to be absolute….

Confronted with this horror so many people withdraw and assume that nothing is possible. Losing the sense that we can do something is the worst thing that can happen, once you’ve lost that, lost your voice, then you just shrink, your life becomes day-to-day, machine-like, and lots of anxiety and pain. This life might be terrible, but on some level we have to transform it….

This is a system that thrives on getting away with everything, cuts resources and then makes people fight for what’s left over. It will continue to get worse in this neoliberal climate, they are continually pushing and pushing and taking away… they keep pushing unless we create some resistance… Who’s going to stop it? Who’s going to change it? Certainly not the hospitals, looking at the dollar signs, or the politicians. Unless people intervene. And there is an interest there in the families and in the communities, and also in the workplace, the people working in these institutions. Communities should have the capacity to say, ‘no, this is going on in the hospital, we don’t want this.’ That means you have to come together. That means you have to gather in churches, in schools, you have to gather some place. This is not astronomical.

How do we begin to make change? How can we stand against the neoliberal machine that threatens our lives? We need to bring people together, argues Silvia. We need to form coalitions of people from different organizations; we need to be inspired by people around the world who have made a difference in their own communities. We must come together to fight for something better.

I think, on the question of healthcare, education we need to bring together people from different community organizations with people who are working inside these institutions, the schools, the hospitals, to really begin to reconstruct the process of healthcare and education, because these are now disaster areas. Where services are only cut, where privatization is rampant, where the closing of hospitals and the closing of schools are going in hand-in-hand, so in many communities there is nothing. We need to really begin to form a broader coalition of people who are beginning to fight to stop this privatization but also to begin to imagine something different. Because the schooling and healthcare being provided now is not what we want. We want something better. We want something that is not just a band-aid, or a way of parking our children while parents go out to work. So this is the process, where the transformation begins to occur.

We need to have perhaps the equivalent of what the Occupy movement began in the neighbourhoods. Neighbourhood assemblies that are bringing together all these different social forces and then together putting pressure on the state, in many different ways. But also at the same time to begin collectively to decide what it is we need – the kind of care, the kind of health, the kind of education that we want….

Without hope you don’t even do what can make a difference. The first steps are always the most difficult. But I look at different places around the world; it is usually the people who have less who are more ready to take steps because they realize they have no alternative. There are some very glaring examples that over the years I have been very inspired by… Latin America in the 70s and 80s. You have the coming together of very stiff austerity measures, massive impoverishment, massive unemployment… and then also political repression – you have women coming together and beginning to form all kinds of community groups, basically in the name of survival, but over the years these forms of survival - these urban farms, sewing committee, glass of milk committee, popular kitchens - over the years this coming together also had a profoundly transformative impact…. Even activities that began out of necessity, not out of politics or any particular vision… but nevertheless the very fact of having taken the step created a whole process of transformation.

Throughout our conversation Silvia often turned to Occupy as an example of a movement that raised awareness, brought people together and offered the possibility of transformation. The notion of the ‘commons’ is central to much of Silvia’s work, and she argues that Occupy offered us some insights into how to begin rebuilding the commons. It also created, and continues to create, concrete goals for building relationships outside of the constraints of capitalism.

Occupy showed that having a space is very important, being together, body-to-body, not just through the internet, for example in the community. So setting some modest, concrete goals, but at the same time, they can begin to aggregate people, begin to give a sense of transformation, a sense of hope. That to me is a way of building the commons. And from there also then dealing with the issue of work. What is happening in the hospitals, what is happening in the home, what kinds of things would we like in the community….

In the US Occupy is still at work in creating spaces for people to come together to discuss issues of common interest…. Still mobilized…. I would say there are several initiatives, small, but we have what we call solidarity economies: the notion of time banking, gardens. So small initiatives. I guess the question for us is how to put them in contact with each other, how to build something bigger. But there is a broad interest… about bartering schemes… the idea of escaping the market and exchanging resources outside of the market. The desire is there….

I think for many young people [Occupy] was a very transformative experience and they began to realize what being together, and not only being together in the sense of talking, but what happens when you begin to cooperate. When you have a cleaning team or putting together a library, or contacting farmers so you can get good food, distributing food.

Although Occupy was, in many ways, a successful movement, it also experienced its share of failures. But, as Silvia says, “those moments of great failure should be moments of great learning.” We must learn from our mistakes and apply those lessons moving forward. We cannot give up because of failure – we must learn and persevere.

Many Occupies were torn apart by this inability to deal with (homeless people coming into the camps), in some cases people kept calling the police. In other cases they split up because some said ‘oh these guys are just coming for the food not political at all and we’re here for the politics,’ so it created a real division. Those moments of great ‘failure’ should be moments of great learning, should be moments of great debate, should not be a moment to let go and say ‘okay that was not possible.’ …

These moments should not be cause for despair, or for giving up, but for learning and growing. To say, ‘What is it that we need to do next time?’ … Because this movement keeps happening and we can’t create them, they are very unpredictable…. But we can be prepared by saying ‘this was the problem, how do we work on the problem?’ That is possible…. That’s why when we say a social space, we mean in particular to create a new circulation of subjects of people in different… you know those who work in shelters, those who work with homeless people… to make the connections, because in that way, for example, some people have a much better understanding of what the problems are, and what some possible solutions are and what a movement like Occupy could have done or could do to address those questions. We all have limited experiences. We all see a particular corner of the social factory.

When I asked Silvia if its possible to begin a conversation within our communities that could lead to real change – to break through all of our ideologies, our preconceived notions, our discriminations – her answer was simple: “It has to be tried. We have to assume that it is possible.”

I think what is necessary is to begin a process that breaks the isolation, the sense of despair, the sense of paralysis, the loss of hope that is so debilitating. Whatever we could begin to do seems impossible because people give up. They’ve been disappointed so many times. The alternative is more despair, because there is no real alternative…. I think it has to be tried. We have to assume that it is possible.

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Comments

Thank you so much for sharing this.

Silvia's perspective is one desperately needed in Halifax. It's wonderful to hear some real affirmations of autonomy as a guiding principle, and of the posibility of an immediate commons.

Again, thank-you very much!

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