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  • An Honest Day’s Wage for a Dishonest Day’s Work:(Re)Productivism and Refusal
  • Heather Berg (bio)

Thirty years after publishing the pivotal “Wages Against Housework,” Silvia Federici revisited reproductive labor and its central role in the “unfinished feminist revolution”: “The concept of ‘reproductive labor’ recognizes the possibility of crucial alliances and forms of cooperation between producers and the reproduced: mothers and children, teachers and students, nurses and patients” (2008, 100). The Wages for Housework movement focused on establishing reproductive work as work and demanding a wage for it in hopes of making the family on which capital relies so uneconomical as to bring the system to its knees (Federici 1975). An additional legacy of the movement for anticapitalist feminism remains the celebration of cross-class alliances between those served and those serving. I argue that Wages for Housework is remarkable both for the militancy of its approach to reproductive labor’s organization under capital and the conservatism of its approach to the reproductive work ethic. We would be ill-equipped to resist the violence of late capitalism without a framework with which to understand unrecognized and unwaged work as work. However, the ethic of alliance positions workers precariously in relation to the blackmail of what I term the “social necessity debt,” a configuration in which workers are evaluated based on the perceived necessity of their work to the reproduction of society. This perceived value is in turn mobilized against workers as the reason they cannot refuse work. Teaching and health care are therefore valued more highly than retail work, for example, but a teacher’s or nurse’s refusing work tasks or walking out midshift is assigned an ethical debt retail workers have not as yet been asked to confront. Capital extracts ethical responsibility from workers, much like labor itself. By positing a [End Page 161] vision of community in which our interests are necessarily aligned with those of the people we serve, we enable that extraction.

In this spirit, I critique what I term “(re)productivism,” an attitude toward reproductive labor that assumes that social reproduction is selfevidently good and necessary and subordinates disruptive desires and practices to its dictates. This both draws from and complicates autonomist Marxist critiques of productivism as a framework in which “the richness, spontaneity, and plurality of social practices and relations are subordinated to the instrumental and rationalist logic of productivity” (Weeks 2011, 81). That autonomists directed their critique of productivism at both capitalist and orthodox Marxist visions of social organization is key to my argument. Like socialism informed by Marxist orthodoxy, anticapitalist feminism and the Wages for Housework movement emphasize control over labor’s structure and organization rather than its ethics. Extending the push from autonomist industrial workers who “didn’t want control; they wanted out” (Cleaver 2000, 17), I am concerned with reproductive labor and its ethics, including but not only as they exist under capitalism.

Nearly forty years after Wages for Housework’s inception, the problematics the movement identified with reproductive labor—the “blackmail whereby our need to give and receive affection is turned against us as a work duty,” unclear boundaries between work and nonwork, contingency, isolation, and low pay—are paradigmatic of work that reaches far outside the home (Federici 1975, 20). Marxist feminist scholars have explored the “feminization of work,” where “feminization” means both an increasing proportion of women in the labor market and the trend in which capital increasingly calls upon the affects, activities, and conditions associated with women’s reproductive labor in all forms of work (Morini 2007). Working from this latter definition of feminization, I explore the corresponding feminization of symbolic debt, whereby more and more workers get saddled with the syrupy affects that have traditionally helped capital to extract the maximum reproductive labor from women.

Marxist critiques of productivism that unsettle not only the material terms of labor but also its ethics are central to efforts to disrupt the ethical economy of capitalism—an adaptive and complex system of debts and credits that pushes us to work more for less (Weeks 2011). Antiproductivism allows us to see work as a form of violence, rather than a path to selfdiscovery or a necessary...