Feminism and the Refusal of Work: An Interview with Kathi Weeks

Meat packing workers in Sopot, Serbia, December 2016. Photo: UN Women Europe and Central Asia/Rena Effendi. via Flickr.

First published in Political Critique

You’re a Marxist, aren’t you? How has Marxist thought informed your work?

Yes, I count myself as a Marxist, among other intellectual and political affiliations. I have been drawn to Marxism for its commitment to, and myriad tools for, understanding the workings of capitalist economies and social formations.  Perhaps more than anything else I am interested in those versions of Marxism that focus on work, and specifically on workers’ experience of work — its rythms, organization, power relations, pleasures, and pains — as the entry point into the study of capitalist societies. So for me, Marxism has been most valuable as a collective site for exploring the critical study of work. As a Marxist feminist, my analyses of gender identities and hierarchies tends to foreground the gender division of labor as a powerful machine for the reproduction of gender difference and inequality. It is not the only motor of the gender system, but I think the gender division of childcare and eldercare work is a particularly potent source of our ideas and feelings about gender and for gender ideologies and institutions.

How do you define Marxist feminism in 2017? What are the basic strategic insights that you think that movement should follow, particularly in the era of global neoliberalism?

Good questions.  As a way to try to answer them let me offer a crude but I think useful distinction between two periods of Marxist feminist work, one past and one present. 

First the past. In the 1970s, Anglo-American Marxist feminists focused on mapping the relationship bewteen two systems of domination: capitalism and patriarchy. One could characterize this phase as the attempt to bring a Marxist critique of work into the field of domestic labor and the familial relations of production. By examining domestic based caring work, housework, consumption work, and community-creation work as forms of reproductive labor upon which productive labor more narrowly conceived depends, and by viewing the household as a workplace and the family as a regime that organizes, distributes and manages that labor, Marxist feminists went a long way towards demystifying these so-called “private” practices, relations, and institutions. On the one hand, they were concerned with the theoretical question of how to understand the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy: were they best conceived as two related systems or as one fully intertwined system?  On the the other hand, they were also focused on the closely related practical question of alliances: should feminist groups be autonomous from or integrated with other anticapitalist (and often antifeminist) movements?

Today we find ourselves in a different situation that holds new possibilities for the relationship between Marxism and feminism. Whereas 1970s feminists struggled to bring a Marxist analytic tailored to the study of waged labor to a very different kind of unwaged laboring practice that had not been considered part of capitalist production, today I think that in order to grasp new forms of waged work we need to draw on the older feminist analyses of waged and unwaged “women’s work.”

Some describe the present moment in terms of the “feminization of labor.” It’s not my favorite term, but what I understand by it is a way to describe how in neoliberal post-Fordist economies more and more of waged jobs come to resemble traditional forms of feminized domestic work. This is particularly evident in the rise of precarious forms of low-wage, part-time, informal, and insecure forms of employment, and in the growth of service sector jobs that draw on workers’ emotional, caring, and communicative capacities that are undervalued and difficult to measure.

To confront this changing landscape of work, instead of using an unreconstructed Marxist analytic to study unwaged forms of domestic work, we need today to draw on Marxist feminist analyses of gendered forms of both waged and unwaged work for their insights into how these forms are exploited and how they are experienced. The practical implication of this is that, if we want to both understand and resist contemporary forms of exploitation, Marxists can no longer remain ignorant of or separated from feminist theories and practices. As I see it, feminist theory is no longer optional for Marxist critique.

In a number of your publications you reference the concept of the refusal of work. What do you think this concept has to offer us analytically and politically?

I borrow the concept from the autonomous Marxist tradition. As I understand it, the refusal of work is directed against the system of (re)production organized around, but not limited to, the wage system. There are three points worth emphasizing here. One is that the refusal is directed not to this or to that job, but to the larger system of economic cooperation that is designed to produce capital accumulation for the few and waged work that is supposed to support the rest of us. Second, this notion of refusal doesn’t privilege any one specific form of response, like the work stoppage, but rather designates an aspiration to mount a radical critique of work that could be inclusive of a much longer list of possible stances and actions. Finally, I would also describe the refusal of work as a collective political project over time instead of an individual ethical mandate. The goal is to transform the institutions and ideologies that tether us to the existing world of work, waged and unwaged, which requires the political organization of collectivities. Most individuals as such are not able to simply walk away from employment, so that is not what we are talking about.

I think that the refusal of work is important politically because I believe that work and the relations of (re)production are profoundly meaningful sites of political consciousness and contestation. The wage system isn’t working for almost everyone. Most of us have problems with work. Depending on where we are situated, these include everything from overwork to unemployment and underemployment, even if these are experienced very differently in the most and in the least privileged sectors of the economy. It is in our relationship to work (broadly conceived to include also the experience of unwaged forms and of being excluded from a relationship to work in a society that prescribes it) that we are probably most likely to develop a critical perspective on capitalism and formulate demands for change.

How do you think the refusal of work can be useful in regards to women’s work? Could this refusal be one of the tactics of the current feminist movement?

Yes, I believe that the refusal of work offers feminists a vitally important line of critical analysis and agenda for political practice. To understand why this is the case we need to revise our model of capitalist economies. The wage system that remains the key mechanism of economic survival depends on a second institution, namely, the privatized family that serves as the primary locus for the reproducive labor necessary to reproduce workers on a daily and generational basis. So the wage-and-family-work system includes the major systems of production centered on the realm of waged work and of reproduction organized around the household and held together by the institution of the family as the means by which many of us are recruited into these typically unwaged and gendered relations of reproduction. So as feminists have long argued, we need a broader mapping of a capitalist economic system that can account for all the work, both waged and unwaged, that is involved in sustaining that system.

The question remains, then, what it might mean to “refuse” the work of social reproduction as it is presently organized and divided. As feminists have learned, refusing domestic work is a far more difficult project with potentially more far-reaching effects. In my opinion, the refusal of work in this terrain involves at minimum, the critique of the family as the institutional lynchpin of the social relations of domestic reproductive labor and the family ethic as its ideological support. At maximum it means confronting the entire organizatioin of work and life.

This is one of the many reasons why I have been so interested in the 1970s Wages for Housework literature. What these theorists and activists attempted is what I see as one of Marxist feminism’s most difficult maneuvers: to make domestic labor visible as work and part of the valorization process but at the same time, insist it is not something to celebrate or revere. This is a very difficult thing to do: to gain its recognition as socially necessary labor (that requires, for example, more time off from waged work to accomplish), but not to overvalue it as such — to insist rather on its demystification, de-romanticization, de-privatization, de-individualization, and of course, de-gendering. As work, it too is something to struggle against becoming the whole of life. As I see it, this means struggling against — to name only a couple of things — the gender division of this work, the appalling conditions of so much waged domestic work, as well as forms of work intensification such as the ideology of intensive mothering. It also involves the invention of new ways of organizing and sharing work and of making it meaningful.

Ιn your study, The Problem with Work, you put forward a strong argument for Guaranteed and Universal Basic Income. Now there seems to be a growing number of left-wing essays and thinkpieces claiming that Basic Income projects are not inherently leftist and are actually consistent with neoliberal logic and restructuring (basically throwing cash at a problem instead of providing any kind of infrastructural solution). Do you have any further thoughts regarding the Guaranteed and Universal Basic Income, particularly in light of these new left-wing critiques and the concept’s surge in popularity amongst conservatives?

I interpret the growing interest in a Basic Income across the political spectrum as a positive development. Here is how I see it: the demand for a Basic Income is, depending on the terms of the demand, a left-wing demand; however, the politics of the demand are not by any measure straightforward. Whether or not it can improve the lives of a broad crosssection of workers depends on several specifics, most important, on the level of the income that is provided. If it is too low, it risks further subsidizing low wage employers by offering their workers a wage supplement. The demand I support is for a miminal livable income that, insofar as it enables workers to opt out of waged work even temporarily, would force such empoyers to offer better wages and conditions. That said, the politics around this are tricky at best, as it is not unlikely that once won, a Basic Income will be first instituted at a low level. The struggle to then raise the level of income will require additional efforts.

But even if or when it is secured in the form of a minimal livable income, it should be clear that a demand for Basic Income is not a proposal to replace the wage system, but only to loosen its grip on us a bit by providing income for those now shut out of or rendered precarious in relation to waged work, and for those whose contributions to social (re)production that are not now remunerated with wages. It would also give individuals a stronger position from which to negotiate more favorable employment contracts and better enable us to make choices about what kinds of households and intimate relationships we might want to form. While these are not insubstantial benefits, they do not add up to some revolutionary postcapitalist vision.

On the contrary, I think a Basic Income is likely to be the only way capitalism will be able to sustain itself materially and ideologically in the near future as the wage system and family model continue to reveal themselves inadequate to the task of distributing income and organizing productive cooperation. Instead, what a Basic Income could provide is material support for the time and effort necessary to fight for additional reforms and a conceptual opening to think more critically about work and nonwork and more imaginatively about how they might be further transformed. It is in that sense a rather modest demand, but one that I think will enable further political thinking and action.

Do you believe that the concept of precarious work focuses too much on the contract or terms of employment, rather than exploitation occurring in the valuation of work? Does critical theory need a stronger concept than precarity, for example "super-exploitation"?

I understand the two concepts, precarity and expoitation, as referring to different aspects of the organization of waged work. The concept of exploitation describes the basic terms of the capitalist employment relation; the exploitation of labor is the lifeblood of the system. Different forms and sectors of work may be exploited at different rates and under different kinds of managerial regimes, but it is not an optional feature of the system of waged work under capitalism.

The category of precarity designates an historical shift in more specific aspects of the employment relation. I think the term makes the most sense when it is used to mark the transformation from the Fordist model (and this was obviously a model or ideal rather than an empirical description of all jobs) of secure, lifelong, fulltime employment that could enable workers to serve as a steady supply of consumers for the products and services they produced, to the rise of more insecure, part time, and temporary forms of employment in a more networked and globalized economy where consumers can be found elsewhere.

I think the term is most resonant for those located in some countries other than the United States where the Fordist model was more widely spread and more fully realized. Employment was typically more precarious for larger numbers of workers in the U.S. than, for example, in some Western European economies. That said, I think the concept is an important addition rather than an alternative to the concept of exploitation. I find it most compelling when it is used not to defend or explain a demand for some return to the confines of the old Fordist model, but when it is invoked as part of the struggle to make more secure, more sustainable, more livable, a relationship to work in which work does not dominate the rest of life.