„Students are Workers“
In January 2020, acclaimed scholar Silvia Federici visited Vienna following a WU invitation to speak about feminist perspectives on economy and housework. Progress seized the opportunity and met the renowned feminist economist to discuss student activism in a global context.
progress: You have been involved
in student movements across the
world, namely the USA, Nigeria and
Italy. What were major similarities
between movements that you came
across in your work?
Silvia Federici:For one thing, the situation I encountered in Nigeria and later in the United States was a peculiar one because it was generated by major transformations that took place in the universities. Starting in the 1980s, at different times and at different levels of intensity, but all across the world nonetheless, we began to see a disinvestment in education by the state. The increasing dependency of universities on business, the university becoming an enterprise, knowledge becoming a commodity, all of that consequently came to be at the centre of the student movement struggle. The idea of a free university, of free education, of resisting the commercializing of education. So that was certainly a common denominator in student movements, and I believe it’s a common denominator now of struggles across the world.
The connection with the struggle of the 1970s hinges around the issue of the student as a worker. We can see a revival of this question in some places today. In Canada, especially in Montreal, there is a big movement demanding fair wages for students, who are often forced into unpaid labour that comes in the form of unpaid internships. The whole idea of the student as a worker is founded upon one belief: We are not here for our pleasure; we are not here for our benefit. We are here because you are forcing us to train ourselves so we can become more productive. We are here for your benefit and for your interest, so you need to pay us.
Inspired by your campaign „Wages for Housework“, the project „Wages for Students“ took off in the 1970s. Do you think the demand is still justified?
I think the question of wages for students is very important. It’s a scandal to me that now students have to pay for their education. I agree completely with the students in Canada. In fact, they often invite me to talk about the issue of reproductive work. They see a continuity between the critical perspectives we develop on education and on reproductive work. In the end, the state’s organization of education, much like the state’s organization of reproduction, is not done with the benefit of individuals and communities in mind. Both systems are organized for the benefit of capital, chasing an ever more productive society.
What is it like to introduce these ideas to people who see students as part of the ruling class, i.e. their future oppressors?
This of course is a battle and it really depends on different political traditions. I think that for instance in Italy for a certain time in the late 1960s, there was a moment of coming together. For the students to say “We are workers!” was a sign of solidarity with the workers’ movement. It was an assertion of the continuity of the students’ struggle with the struggle that was taking place in the workplace, in the offices, in the factories. At the same time, the student activists would often have come from those same working-class families. Forcing students to pay to go to school puts another burden on working class families. It’s an instrument of social selection. Saying „Students are workers!“ is a challenge to the way our society is stratified.
You were one of the founding members of CAFA, the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa – how did that come about?
It began in Nigeria in the 1980s. There had been massive mobilization of mostly students and some teachers. There was a strong students’ organization at the time, the National Union of Nigerian students (NUNS), that was crucial. They were basically the centre of the opposition to the politics and structural readjustment of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF had proposed an austerity programme that was eventually embraced by the Nigerian government as well as many other African governments, which meant massive disinvestment in education. NUNS created the manuals for the struggle on campus. There were even massacres in the north of the country, but NUNS stayed close to the people on the ground. Students were being arrested, students were being beaten up, even at the university where I was at the time in Port Harcourt. There were three or four days where the police came in a veritable rampage. They invaded the dorms, even the women’s dorms, they beat up women, the police did lots and lots of terrible things. One of them even launched a gas canister against me, which was amazing because I had thought that as a white woman and as a teacher, I would be less vulnerable. I would take my bicycle through the smoke of tear gas to see what was happening. It was very brutal. When I left – which was also related to the structural readjustment, because the state’s disinvestment meant that faculty were no longer being paid – I decided I had to do something.
I couldn’t just go on and forget all of this. Nigerian faculty also had to leave the country so we decided to form an organization with the goal of exposing the objectives behind the defunding of universities. We wanted to demonstrate how it fit in with the restructuring of the global economy and the new international division of labour that was emerging. Our bulletin from back then is still online. We published a book in 2000 called „A Thousand Flowers“ and then we began to organize. We went specifically to departments of African Studies and to various universities in general. We weren’t able to raise the mass support on American campuses that we were hoping for, but I still think our work was very important. First and foremost for African students and universities, because for many years we provided extensive analysis and documentation. Teachers and students gathered information that we published in our periodicals. Activists tell us that this work was vital. We stopped in 2003. By then we had lost contact with the local student organizations. We didn’t feel like we had the kind of understanding anymore about what was happening there for us to continue.
You’ve mentioned terms like „global universities“ and „division of labor in education“ – What do you mean by that?
The terms are very connected. As part of the neoliberal drive, which is the expansion of capitalism, we find ourselves in a new hegemonic system dominated by American capital and the multinational. An essential part of this system is the restructuring of education and international labour. What I call the „global university“ is the fact that now we have a system where a select number of universities in educational centres in the United States, or in what they call the global North, set the standard for the rest of the world. Colombia, Harvard, the London School of Economics, etc. This creates an international education system that is extremely hierarchical, where the responsibility of decision-making lies with a number of select organizations. These influential few are the ones who determine what education is, what knowledge is, how to produce knowledge, which knowledge is worthwhile and which is not. According to this system, for instance, knowledge is not considered valuable unless it is published in certain journals. In any part of the world, you now have to publish in certain journals to get a promotion or to gain access to resources. That also means that you have to mould your research interest to the subjects, the categories, the language, that these journals promote. This means that less and less local researchers can work on local issues.
Connected to this is another perverse development, which is online education. Online education is very widespread in the United States. There are new private, for-profit universities cropping up that provide most of their courses online. That means very low costs for the investment, as these universities don’t need buildings or infrastructure. This is a very dissatisfying development, but online accessibility is instrumental to global education. Now the World Bank can say to Nigeria: „You don’t need to build your own university; the students can take online classes from Harvard“. We are witnessing a whole new structure emerge that is recreating the colonial system at an educational level.
In your work you write about commons and their role in society and capitalism. Do you think the neoliberalisation of universities is an attack on education as a common good?
Absolutely. Part of the struggle is the creation of „knowledge commons“, as they are known in the activist language in the United States. People speak of building commons of knowledge, creating spaces where knowledge is produced, distributed and circulated collectively and outside of the logic of the market.
You have written about how labour under capitalism alienates workers from their own body. With the increasing indifference of the EU to refugees dying at her border in mind – how do you think capitalism has changed how we relate to other people’s bodies?
Capitalism has demonized certain people so much that you become numb to the suffering of others. Oppressors have been able to convince sectors of the working class that their own well-being depends on exclusionary policies. I think the left carries the burden of responsibility for not having been able to do the kind of educational work that unites the oppressed. If we don’t distinguish between fact and fiction, we are vulnerable to all the stupidities that are being said about migration. It’s not a matter of fighting immigrants who are taking your job! It’s about fighting the German government, the EU, the US government, those who are impoverishing, who are dispossessing entire regions of the world for their resources. They are the ones we should point our finger at: „You, who are letting people drown in the Mediterranean, imposed the very policies that caused them to leave their countries. You are the ones who are responsible.“
In your book „Caliban and the Witch“ you expose how, when under pressure, the ruling class has historically resorted to institutionalizing discrimination against a group within the proletariat. Is this our perpetual fate under capitalism or do you see an end to this reaction in sight?
This question is actually heavily debated in some circles. People like David Harvey, a more traditional Marxist, came up with a statement upon being asked if capitalism is necessarily gender-biased. And he said: „Well, that is what happened historically, but logically you could think of a capitalist-system without gender-bias.“ I disagree with him, with the whole idea of logically separating capitalism from history. Because capitalism has only been able to build its expansion on gender-based discrimination, because the unpaid labour of women has enabled the massive accumulation of wealth. If the capitalist class had to provide the infrastructure for reproductive labour itself, certainly the accumulation process would be much more reduced. It doesn’t make sense to analyse capitalism in an abstract way. You don’t just wipe out history! It’s a very non-materialist position. Materialism is built on the recognition of historical dimensions of social reality. The moment you accept that historical reality, you can’t deal in abstractions anymore. Gender-discrimination, like racism, is a structural element. I always say that capitalism is not the production of wealth, it’s the production of scarcity.