Labor without Ends

Anna E. Clark

My Brilliant Friend (2012) The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), The Story of the Lost Child (2015), by Elena Ferrante, Translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions.

In her 1975 essay “Wages Against Housework,” feminist activist Silvia Federici argues that “housework”—cooking, cleaning, care, sex, kids—should be acknowledged as work, as something taken from the person who performs it and put to ends that are not her own. Part of a collective of Marxist and post-Marxist feminists working across Europe and North America, Federici had recently helped to launch “Wages for Housework” (or WfH), a campaign premised on the assertion that any attempt at class struggle must first contend with the unwaged domestic work expected of women. Written at time when New Left activists were accusing WfH of sidelining the interests of the industrial proletariat, Federici’s essay is both a rallying cry and a defense. Wages are not an end in themselves, she asserts; rather, they’re the only proof under capitalism that labor has taken place. “Exploited as you might be,” Federici explains, wages allow you to show that “you are not that work.[1]

Today, “Wages Against Housework” can seem both quaint and impossibly radical, an artifact of a decade that was trying to figure out what to do with the upheavals of 1968 and in which women were only beginning to work outside the home in large numbers. But look again and it’s prescient.  The conditions of women’s work Federici describes—labor mistaken for impulse, care made into toil—are today the conditions of most work. Our service, caregiving, and freelance jobs entail unremunerated emotional labor, near-endless availability, and significant outlays of time and money that are rarely factored into compensation. Employers portray themselves not as profit-motivated corporations, but as collectives comprising partners, associates, and team members—euphemisms that make employees’ obligatory tractability and emotional engagement seem like natural expressions of loyalty, dedication, and enthusiasm.  Just as women’s work has often been elided, mistaken for instinct, so too is the un- and under-waged work of the employee now regarded not as an oversight or an injustice, but as part of the natural state of employment.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that, in an echo of the New Left opposition to WfH, the loudest resistance to such work often idealizes the kind of manufacturing jobs that have usually been done by men, implicitly tying work that results in concrete products (i.e. not service and caregiving) to the ability to earn a living wage, and further devaluing the ever-broadening category of emotional labor. Read in 2017, “Wages Against Housework” points to the inadequacy of explanations that chalk up the contemporary worker’s trials to the loss of unions, the rise of globalization, and the vanishing of well-paid factory jobs. All these causes matter, but so too does our longstanding failure to consider basic human maintenance as labor, even and especially when it is performed in spaces charged with the affects of care, intimacy, privacy, and domesticity. What Federici proposes in 1975 remains achingly true today: there is no worker’s liberation without feminism.

Glimpses of Federici’s manifesto appear in the feminist movements that have sprung up in the wake of the 2017 election. “Feminism for the 99 percent,” for example, a movement begun by Princeton professor and Black Lives Matter activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor linked to the March 8th International Women’s Strike, makes abortion access, wage differentials, and the lack of state-funded childcare the centerpieces of its proudly radical platform.[2] But Federici’s most essential demand—that even what seems like “love” should count as work—remains absent from popular contemporary feminist thinking. To embrace such a demand would be to acknowledge that, under capitalism, even work we want to do—even work that doesn’t feel like work—can nonetheless result in our exploitation. It would require us to come to terms with the limits of choice, and to nonetheless resist the systemic compulsions we live within.  It’s hard to imagine what this would look like, and it’s not coincidental that “Wages Against Housework” ends with questions: “why are these our only alternatives and what kind of struggle will move us beyond them?” (18). But Federici is right to insist on the importance of ends and actions beyond just those we can imagine. As “Wages against Housework” makes clear, the struggle for equitably waged work is vital, but it’s also only just a beginning.

Among the few recent texts to link the ideas of WfH to present-day feminism, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels amplify Federici’s claims in their elaborate, sustained renderings of women’s labor—domestic and otherwise. Written in Berlusconi’s debt-crisis Italy and released in English between 2012 and 2015, the Neapolitan novels chart a tumultuous, decades-long relationship between the narrating Lenù and her friend Lila. While both come from an impoverished, violent Naples neighborhood of the late 1940s, Lenú escapes while Lila is continually pulled back in. Frequently referencing the Marxist and post-Marxist Italian feminists who influenced Federici, Ferrante’s first-person naturalism depicts the imbricated lives of Lenú and Lila with a combination of breadth and specificity that defies any attempt to reduce the characters to symbols, foils, or class representatives. Yet, by repeatedly showing the ways choice and impulse dissolve into the larger forces that shape work of all kinds, the novels connect physical labor’s exploitation to more subtle misuses of intellectual and emotional labor. Confronted with such conditions, Lenú and Lila react with forms of rejection—withdrawing, abandoning, abruptly charting new interests, and sloughing off old ones. Here, one way to oppose a system that devalues or refuses to acknowledge your labor is to turn work and its products into things that are perpetually incomplete, unfinished and failed. Relieved of teleological necessity, labor becomes resistant to others’ uses and ends.

The likeness Ferrante draws between seemingly disparate forms of labor emerges gradually, often belied by stark contrasts between the young adulthoods of the two protagonists. In one scene at the end of the second volume, The Story of a New Name, Lenù, newly degreed and anticipating the publication of her first novel, discovers Lila employed at a salami factory run by a man who once treated them as peers:

“What have you done to yourself?”
She immediately withdrew, put her hands in her pockets.
“Nothing. Stripping meat off the bones ruins your fingers.”
“You strip the meat?”
“They put me where they like.”
“Talk to Bruno.”
“Bruno is the worst shit of them all. He shows up only to see who of us he can fuck in the aging room.”
“Lila.”
“It’s the truth.” (463)

Lenù’s first-person narration, often replete with psychological nuance, here retreats behind dialogue in a signal of incomprehension. Her responses, first to Lila’s defiantly matter-of-fact confirmation of her terrible labor, then to her revelation of Bruno’s sexual persecution, convey a self-protective disbelief that Lila, like stripping meat from bone, tries to tear away. The “truth” Lila points to, the trebled exploitation of the body, labor, and sex, is the truth of her own life, but also, she suggests, that of women in general. For Lenú, though, Lila’s profound mistreatment is only a reminder of what she’s escaped. After she sees Lila throw one of her own stories into a bonfire, Lenú’s equanimity is restored only when she receives the proofs of her first novel:  “a hundred and thirty-nine pages, thick paper, the words of my notebook, fixed by my handwriting, which had become pleasantly alien thanks to the printed characters” (467). Only years later, when Lenú, in one of the novels’ many nods to feminist theory, reads Sputiamo su Hegel “(Let’s Spit on Hegel”), art critic and feminist activist Carla Lonzi’s 1974 manifesto decrying intellectual sexism, does she begin to understand Lila’s words and actions. Struggling to write a second novel while caring for children and a husband, Lenú realizes that even the scholarship she’s used to free herself from her oppressively patriarchal roots is in fact only a more sophisticated version of that patriarchy.

Of course, Lila and Lenú never see themselves solely as laborers or housewives. A cobbler’s daughter, the teenage Lila designs elegant shoes with a skill her father and brother never achieve; later, she teaches herself the new language of computer programing and masters it with the combination of creativity and intuitive brilliance she shows in all her thinking. Yet both these aptitudes become the means by which men claim power over her. Lila’s violent Camorrista husband is also the one who first gets her shoes into production, while one of his rivals eventually opens a data-processing center just for Lila to run (it’s housed, for extra irony, in the old shoe warehouse). The transition from shoes to data processing suggests a move from the concrete to the more abstract and recondite, as if Lila is seeking to maintain control over her intellectual activity by pouring it into a subject few understand, yet no matter the kind of labor she performs, the means that allow her to sustain it always ask more of her than she wants to give. And though Lenú’s writing—highly personal and always done at home—often seems to provide her a protective distance from the messy commercial exchanges that plague Lila, it too is subject to similar forces, always oscillating between private need and public, commercial approbation. The feeling Lenú gets when she sees her first novel in print—a sense of alienation that ironically confirms her work’s value—appears and recoils throughout her career. A scene at the end of the final volume, The Story of the Lost Child, underscores this pattern: Lenù’s grown daughters pay a visit, showing off their mother’s formidable publications to boyfriends and spouses. Listening to one of girls read snippets of text, Lenù deflates: “Countless times I had anticipated redemptive changes that had never arrived … I had stressed certain themes: work, class conflicts, feminism, the marginalized. Now I was hearing my sentences chosen at random and they seemed embarrassing … aged ideologies that I had supported as indisputable truths” (458). By the end of the Neapolitan novels, the alienation of print publication that Lenù once found affirming has become excruciating, evidencing not only her earlier works’ datedness, but also the depersonalizing power of commodification itself. Separated from their original context, separated from her, Lenù novels are merely inert, obsolete things. Only by beginning a new novel—only, that is, by returning to the private stage of her work—does Lenù (momentarily) overcome this disappointment. 

In later volumes, even women’s bodies come to seem complicit in such alienation, as the many depictions of childbearing and childrearing register a decided ambivalence to reproduction’s work and ends. Though in some ways both Lenù and Lila are determinedly maternal (when an earthquake strikes Naples, Lenù speaks of “rescu[ing] the children in [their] wombs”), the experience of bearing children is more frequently characterized as one of loss—certainly loss of one’s familiar body and of self-determination (pregnancies here are often undesired), but mostly loss of the child itself, who in the very processes of birth and development becomes evermore alien. When Lenù gives birth, she speaks of the experience as a “happy liberation,” yet as her children grow they turn into “being[s] with blurry features” who struggle against or secretly oppose her. Lila, as if anticipating this evolution, resists the labor of childbirth altogether. As one of the women from the old neighborhood tells her, “There are women who never give birth, they want to keep the child inside forever; you’re one of those” (155). This idea is later repeated by Lila as she admires her newly voluptuous pregnant body (190), and then again by her gynecologist, who describes Lila as a problematic patient—a woman who makes normal birth into a drama by “[doing] her best not to bring her infant into the world” (217). When Lila’s youngest child Tina disappears—as Lila herself eventually does, permanently and without a trace—the event is the worst of all losses, but it also proves an unsettling realization of Lila’s desire to keep Tina within her, in memory if not in body.

Lila’s vanishing is the tetralogy’s endpoint and beginning, the thing we know we’ve been headed towards since the prologue of My Brilliant Friend, which finds the sixty-six-year-old Lila disappeared and Lenú attempting to defy her by writing their lives’ story. In a series whose fidelity to the mundane realism of daily life can seem almost fanatical, Lila’s disappearance, abrupt and total like her daughter’s before her, torques the narrative towards the surreal. Lenú imagines Lila doing all the things—traveling, living alone— she wasn’t able to do in her younger years, even as, left behind, she feels her absence as a kind of personal attack: “she who gets angry at my inadequacy and out of spite reduces me to nothing, as she has done with herself” (466). But Lenú’s own anger contradicts this assertion of nothingness: the disappearance is an act that matters precisely because it upsets and upends. Disappearing allows Lila to refuse the subjugation that’s attended her life’s every labor in a way that, present, she never could. Echoing Federici’s invocation of a post-wage feminist future in which women can reject the work that has been made to seem inherent in their bodies, the absence that bookends Ferrante’s series blurs the frustrating compromises of the present into a kind of utopian possibility. If, as Federici claims, “To say that we want wages for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it,” Lila, impatient even to the point of cruelty, seizes the refusal without waiting for its preconditions. The words that Lenú once would have read in Sputiamo su Hegel apply here too:  “We are the world’s dark past, we are giving shape to the present.”[3]

[1] Federici. “Wages Against Housework.” Rpt. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland: PM Press, 2012. 16.

[2] See Jaffe, “A Feminism for the 99 Percent: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on the March 8 Women’s Strike.” Truthout.org, 28 Feb. 2017. http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/39639-a-feminism-for-the-99-percent-keeanga-yamahtta-taylor-on-the-march-8-women-s-strike. “Feminism for the 99 Percent” recalls the work of one of the offshoot groups of WfH, Black Women for Wages for Housework, which called for, among other things, reparations for slavery and imperialism in addition to domestic compensation.

[3] Lonzi, “Let’s Spit on Hegel,” Trans. Veronica Newman. Rpt. Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader. Eds. Paola Bono and Sandra Kemp. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. 59.

Anna E. Clark is an assistant professor of English at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. Her scholarship considers Victorian novels’ portrayal of static identity and the first-person narration of minor characters. She can be found online at annaeclark.com.