Let us survive: Demanding the decriminalization of sex work

The following has been excerpted in part from a talk given by Red S. for the DSA NYC’s Strike & Labor Solidarity working group. Red currently organizes with the Support Ho(s)e Collective, coordinates the Justice for Alisha Walker defense campaign and actively works with Survived & Punished New York City. They are also co-organizing nationwide efforts against Fosta/Sesta under the banner of #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA and #LetUsSurvive to highlight the resistance of sex workers and survivors--specifically helping to coordinate and signal boost organizing efforts for International Whores Day on June 2nd. Image courtesy of artist Audrey Ryan.

It’s important to be intentional and deliberate with the language we share when talking about criminalized and stigmatized workers. So often those most affected are disallowed from the terms of discussion, denied their own words and characterizations of their experiences. Let’s confront that by creating a shared language and understanding of the terms that will be in use...

Sex work is an umbrella term used by many to encompass all sorts of erotic labor, practice, and trade. This includes, but is not limited to, full service providers, escorting, cam work, adult film performers, dommes, stripping, sugar baby work, fetish provision, etc. It’s work. A lot of it is unfortunately criminalized because of patriarchal moral panic, white supremacy, anti-immigrant sentiment, and misogyny. The term ‘sex work’ was coined by Carol Leigh in the 1980s and is useful in organizing efforts to build solidarity and break down whorearchy (or the internal stratification of labor/hierarchy within the sex industry) as well as push back against the anti-sex work so-called feminists who refuse to acknowledge erotic labor as labor.  

Labor trafficking is forced or coerced labor, debt bondange, wage theft, or outright wage denial, and in the case of those being trafficked for sexual labor, abuse, assault, and often rape. It’s not work that someone elects to do. Most often you’ll hear sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, or human trafficking to make for a more salacious policy headline or shocking article title--and often even when the circumstances do not reflect or warrant such characterizations of exploitation or abuse.

Capitalism necessitates the labor exploitation of workers. Any job where you are unable to dictate or determine your working conditions, or compensation, is exploitative. Any job where you have to sell your labor power for a wage that you do not determine is exploitative. Working under capitalism is complicated.  Working identities are complicated. Sometimes survivors of labor trafficking might also identify as sex working or trading sex in ways that were necessary for them. Some sex workers have survived violence. Some survivors of trafficking will engage in sex work on their own terms before or after surviving trafficking. Most sex workers are confronted by stigma and whorephobia; this plays out differently depending on lived experience and other systemic oppressions. Some folks need to trade or engage in survival sex to get by. We need to be able to honor and speak to the experiences of folks in the trade/industry who are most impacted and affected by criminalization if we all want safer and autonomous work places and to effectively organize for decriminalization.

We can only mitigate and hopefully reduce harm, fight for better conditions, workers’ organizations, unions, better compensation, while we organize to overthrow capitalism. Any kind of work where the bosses have more power (which is the majority of what we call work) and any kind of work under a society that forces us to labor for a wage is going to be inherently based in exploitation and maximum profit extraction. Think about the role national borders play in making some work far more exploitative than other jobs. Think about criminalization and how that endangers all kinds of workers every day.

For most sex-working people laboring means constant precarity; and it means advocating for immediate survival. Sex workers have this in common with other marginalized and criminalized working people, and those whose work isn’t seen as work. Recently there has been a shift in language, moving away from mere survival towards a desire to demand more and a desire to thrive. This is a hell of a shift in community spaces and in the media. Sex workers are shifting the narrative, demanding to not just be seen as human beings, but angry, complicated, resilient human beings.

With a narrative shift like this happening in the mainstream, or at least in the independent media, we should be bold. We should keep pushing and demanding people expand their horizons of what is possible to achieve through struggle. For a left that is infatuated with raising humanity’s horizon line to seek alternative economic structures in the immediate--socialism-- to hopefully work toward the radical transformation of society--full communism/anarchism-- ushering in (among other so-called utopian socialist ideas) the abolition of money and private property, the nuclear family, etc I kinda think calling a harm reduction and an intrinsically pro-worker position like decrim “pie in the sky” or “niche issue,” is bullshit.

We need to organize around the decriminalization of all erotic labor. No worker should be criminalized for the work that they do (except cops and prison guards, for whom I offer no job protection in my labor philosophy/analysis). All workers deserve the right to organize freely without harassment or fear of violent reprisal. As long as we live under a system that requires us to labor for a wage, workers deserve the opportunity to pursue safe and equitable work environments. As radicals, socialists, anarchists, Marxists, we must proceed from this position of workers’ building collective power amongst workers and the unemployed.    

Decriminalization as a goal and practical organizing position necessarily requires harm reduction strategies that inform what tactics we may engage in when defending and supporting worker-led struggles. 

What decriminalization should look like:

  • Immediate moratorium on arrests/raids of sex workers and clients

  • Revocation of punitive laws surrounding sex work

  • Immediate channeling of all county, state police funds for prostitution arrests into actual harm reduction programs that have sex worker input and oversight. Yes, this would be a deliberate move toward defunding and divesting from the police.

  • Immediate release of all sex workers who are incarcerated for prostitution charges or charges relating to their self-defense while performing erotic labor.

  • Policy-based and nuanced decoupling of sex work from labor trafficking; and the expansion of cash assistance, housing assistance, visa/asylum assistance to all those who are survivors of trafficking violence without forced victimizing language that’s currently required to access these emergency services.

  • Inclusion of ‘sex worker’ as a potential protected category to combat the discrimination workers experience when being barred from public services (accessing health care, recourse to challenge police violence, affordable housing programs etc).

Decriminalization would mean a cultural shift as well as a policy shift. Demanding decriminalization and anti-carceral harm reduction tactics, broadly speaking, directly challenges the whorephobia of the state and society. That is exactly the approach and organizing for sex workers’ power we must be engaged in.

We ought to listen to the struggles and learn from the workers we want to organize alongside and show solidarity with. We ought to challenge internalized whorephobia, and work to dispel misconceptions or myths about sex working people and their labor. The biggest barriers to organizing sex workers isn’t just the criminalization we face, the cops,  but also the attitudes and gatekeeping of some of our would-be comrades. These aren’t just bad opinions holding us back, it’s actually becomes counter-organizing.

I want wrap with the following quote from “a dozen pissed off sex workers: a group of activists and artists active in various sectors of the sex work industry who hail from Chicago, Los Angeles, Texas and New York, who wrote a piece back in 2014 called “Labor Intensive: In Defense of Sex Work:”

“Do not fall prey to the over simplified positions the Left has held in the past, or continues to drag, baggage-like, with it. Do not try to save us. Do not believe the liberal feminists who promise their programs have our best interests at heart. Do not assume we need your analysis to illustrate our lived experiences. Do assume you need our living and working experiences to inform your analysis. Do become our allies. Do respect us and our role as workers and artists. Do listen when we call you out for taking a reductionist position on our art. Do stand in solidarity with us in our fight for union representation, free speech, improved working conditions and decriminalization.”



A Vulnerable Strength: Malaise as Energy for Social Transformation

A Vulnerable Strength: Malaise as Energy for Social Transformation
Amador Fernández-Savater

This text is a version of a talk given at the ‘Politicisations of malaise’ event held in Barcelona on 18th January 2017

There are stories that seem to sum up historical eras or moments. One of them is told by Willy Pelletier, in a recent edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, titled "My neighbour votes for the National Front".

Pelletier is a veteran activist in far left anti-racist organisations, and in the article he narrates various actions undertaken against the Front National. His account, however, is laced with doubt and auto-critique: ultimately, these mobilisations have been unable to halt the rise of the FN. Between the lines, he offers an explanation: we learn that none of these actions ever affected anyone who sympathises with the FN, because they always took place within very closed circuits (among political activists who live in certain neighbourhoods, who speak in a certain way, who have certain values, and so on).

Pelletier meets an FN sympathiser (perhaps for the first time?) when, semi-'retired' from activism, he goes off to live with his partner in the country in the Aisne area (in Picardy). His name is Éric, a worker specialising in industrial packaging. They become great friends, and one day, after a few drinks, Éric confesses to him that he votes for Marine Le Pen. "I get goosebumps when I hear her, the way she talks about the French makes you feel proud. Besides, the FN has helped a lot of people around here."

What kind of place is Aisne? It is a typical scenario from the crisis, in the way Pelletier portrays it. Deeply rundown, with hardly any services (in health and transport), or meeting places (bars, parishes and sports associations are closing down). There is no work, everyone is in debt, young people are leaving, violence against women is on the rise, and so too is the general "feeling" of insecurity (even though robberies are uncommon). But there are also ghettos of the rich throughout the area: liberal executives or professionals who arrive from Paris and buy up decent stone houses or abandoned farms at knockdown prices.

After encountering Éric, Pelletier asks himself new questions. The moral superiority with which he previously judged (abstract, unknown) FN voters no longer adds up. There is now one of them in front of him, in flesh and bone, who has his story and his reasons. And he is his friend. Pelletier concludes the article thus: "At work, Éric thinks 'the young people' neither listen to him nor respect him...Living there, stuck in a space in decay, impotent faced with a world that no longer resists, seeing his area fill up with 'Parisians', how is it that Éric could feel 'proud'?'

Crisis of presence

Abandonment and lack of resources, unemployment and indebtedness, the breaking of the thread between generations and the destruction of meeting places...the crisis is not merely an 'economic crisis' but also one of reference points and fidelities, of beliefs and values. A cultural crisis, in the anthropological sense of 'ways of life', that runs very deep.

The Tiqqun collective proposes that we think of this as a 'crisis of presence'. What does this mean? That our presence, that is, our being in the world, is no longer firm, nor assured, nor guaranteed. Under attacked in the realm of the economic (unemployment), of the social (the rundown contexts) and of values (the absence of community or thread between generations), the things that enter in crisis "beneath the surface" are precisely our very faculties for 'standing tall' before the world. What once appeared solid begins to disintegrate: the meaning of life and reality, the subjective consistency and very fixity of things.

But the crisis of presence is not only loss or danger, but also opportunity. In what sense? The presence now crumbling is the 'sovereign presence': a kind of relation with the world in terms of dominion and control. An experience of life based upon the sharp distinction between a subject (who governs) and an object (the world to be governed). A conception of freedom as 'dominion' (over nature, over others, over time, over reality). As self-reliance and independence.

Crisis of presence means that we run up against a turmoil that is highly intimate (and is all the stronger the more we have been educated in the mould of the sovereign presence: as white men, adults and property owners, workers in a world without work, etc.). What arises from this turmoil, from this crumbling, is disquiet, malaise. The feeling that you do not fit in, and that nothing does any more. Malaise is the palpable manifestation of the crisis of presence.

As such, the crisis of presence opens up the possibility of a bifurcation, of a displacement, of the invention of new ways of being in and relating to the world, both personally and collectively. Social malaise can be the engine and the centre of energy for a deep transformation, towards a new political time, a new economic time, cultural, existential, and so on.

A dark period

Are we now entering a 'dark period'? Let’s call this 'dark period' one in which malaise, -this unrest, this not fitting in, this potential energy for change- is channelled by the right.

Here, the right is not merely the establishment, but rather a kind of walking paradox: anti-establishment establishment, anti-elitist elite, anti-liberal neoliberalism, etc. It is the Front National, it is Trump, it is Brexit and all the other variants of the populist right, supported by all the Érics of the world. Proscribed by the 'cultural consensus' that defined the frame of what is possible during recent decades and which is now falling to bits. Rejected because they do not keep up appearances regarding what is 'politically correct' (what is liberal-democratic): they polarize, they exaggerate and they lie shamelessly, they are aggressive and they promote hate that is sexist, xenophobic, etc.

The populist right seems to satisfy in its own way the two drives that Freud located in our unconscious: Eros and the death drive, that is, the drive for order and the drive for disorder.

Order: Here I mean the promise of restoration of the subjectivity that is in crisis. The captivating force of the promise of a job, a place in the world, of continuity with tradition, of belonging to a community, etc.

"Make America great again", exclaims Trump. "Let's take back control", say the supporters of Brexit. Let's take back the control that we once had. And with this, let's take back normality, greatness even. How? Through the exclusion, through high walls and all kinds of barriers, of that which threatens us, of that which has brought decay to our world and our bearings that provide meaning. The scapegoat can be Éric's 'Parisians', or 'refugees' or 'Mexicans' or 'gender equality' (when asked whom he would vote for, a taxi driver of African origin told a friend in the US city of Baltimore: "I can't vote, but if I could I would go for Trump. Because if Hillary wins, women will have a lot of power in this country. Men no longer matter here. What we need is a strong man").

In any of these cases, malaise is conceived of as a 'harm' that is inflicted upon us by an 'other' whom we must keep 'away' from 'us' so as to recover normality. And by doing so, we will close the wound, we will calm all this disquiet, we will put an end to the turbulence and we will recover our balance, thus reversing our 'decay'.

A desire for order and normality, a desire for protection and sovereignty. There is all this on the one hand, but not only this. There is also a desire to blow everything to bits.

- Disorder: here I mean the enjoyment from 'giving a bloody nose’ to the consensus which, with its good manners and pretty speeches, has brought us to ruin. To a left that spreads inequality, war and deportation everywhere, but always 'keeping up appearances'. To the progressive elite of the Democratic Party that lives distant and insensitive to the preoccupations of the popular classes and moreover laughs at their way of life, their tastes and their reference points. To the 'Parisians' who vote socialist, but who buy up at knockdown prices the houses and farms that the inhabitants of Aisne can no longer maintain, and who rail against those poor people who vote for the right. And so on.

In a world where everything appears tied down and well tied down, in which no gesture (from above or below) appears capable of short-circuiting the state of things and opening up a sense of the possible, Trump, Brexit and the FN channel the longing for something to happen, for seeing 'the impossible' occur, the very thing that all these politically correct voices believe "can not and must not happen", the demoniacal... Who has the most to offer? And all it takes is a vote! That is, without losing at any moment the position of spectator in the disaster film.

Debates in the progressive camp

Beyond the 'moral superiority' that gives up on asking questions about things it does not understand, labelling it as simply the resurgence of ignorance and brutality, there are two other readings of the current situation in the 'progressive' camp that deserve attention and discussion: the 'Marxist' reading and the 'populist' reading.

-The 'Marxist' reading finds the origin-cause of what is happening in the disarray of the left (and, in general, in the paradigm of class struggle). That is, social malaise, which before had organisational and cognitive structures that could provide focus from the left, has been left orphaned.

And it is the populist right that has adopted the orphan, by raising its tone of voice and calling out the discontent, offering the malaise (anger, rage, uncertainty), schemas that provide explanation, routes to channel it, and enemies against whom to turn. Through its 'cultural wars' (regarding abortion, religious beliefs, lifestyles, etc), the populist right captures 'class resentment' by redirecting it against 'the enemies of traditional values'. That is, it translates poltical-economic conflicts into moral and identitarian conflicts. 'The cultural war is a class war, but a deformed one', according to Zizek.

What does this entail, then? It means recreating the cognitive and organisational structures of class struggle, politicising the economy, speaking about material interests, rebuilding the left. However, can we reduce contemporary malaise to an economic-class question? In Éric's own story we saw how many situations, processes and factors converge; how the economic, the social, the cultural, the existential etc. are mixed together. Can we really, therefore, think of cultural matters as mere 'deceptions', 'distractions' or 'smokescreens' which prevent us from seeing what is 'essential'? Can we suppose that the racism and sexism of Trump voters are (secondary) 'ideological phenomena' that will fade once the malaise has been focused on economic and class questions?

I think the populist right is successful not because it speaks about cultural matters by covering up class-economic matters, but rather because it has something to say about it. Because it situates the political battle on the terrain of ethics, anthropology and ways of living. That is, on the ways of seeing oneself, of relating to others, of doing things, and of being in the world. What can the left propose regarding all of this? I fear it is very little: hardly the ‘ideal life of the activist', with so little reach and so little appeal, as we already know.

- The 'populist' reading (I am speaking here about progressive populism) would have it that it is not so much a matter of finding the 'real causes' of the malaise as 'constructing its meaning' and imprinting upon it a direction. Society is a structure of meaning. All that is human is made up of signs, but ‘open signs’, susceptible to being appropriated or conquered. Politics is, therefore, a fight to 'define the events'.

Let’s give a clear example: what meaning are going to give to the crisis? Is it the responsibility of 'people who have lived above their means', as our rulers say, or is it that of the oligarchical 'caste' that has looted the country? This will be decided through a 'cultural battle' over speeches and narratives whose unfolding does not depend upon the truth of which they are the bearers, but rather the communicative effectiveness of the metaphors in play.

The construction of meaning, from these premises, obeys a formal logic. That is, it is not concerned with a meaning that comes from 'experience itself', but rather from the meaning it receives from a discourse that articulates it in a certain code. As we know, the populist code, theorised by Ernesto Laclau, consists of the articulation, through 'empty signifiers' and an antagonism with an Other, of the unsatisfied demands of society, into a new historical bloc (national-popular identities that are able to represent the whole, and not just one part). In the ‘construction of hegemony’, the political fight takes place between ‘operations of meaning’ (in terms of media, discourse, aesthetics), and the winner is whoever is able to ‘codify’ reality with the greatest effectiveness. To give it meaning.

The code, then, is always there, prior to every situation, prior to every process, prior to every word and every gesture, and what is required is a combinatorial intelligence that can make the code and the signs (the given) fit together. The problem here is everything that we lose by thinking about the world (and about politics) as a semiotic battle between previous codes. We lose the materiality of the real (because what are interpreted are message-signs, the rest is of no interest and is abstracted). We lose the irreducible singularity of events and their relations (which requires of us a sensitive, rather than a combinatorial, intelligence). We lose the autonomy of processes (which can be thought-directed-codified from the outside, without there being any relation intimate with or on the inside of these processes). And finally, we lose the possiblity for creation of new meanings for social life (because time and again we get the reintroduction of 'other', the new or the unknown, in a logic of the same).

Malaise as energy of transformation

Let's return for a moment to Éric, 'stuck in a space of decay, impotent in the face of a world that no longer resists'. This immobilisation, this impotence, turn him into a victim. The malaise appears as harm, as loss. Blame for everything lies with "others". And what is desired is to "return the blow" (to see the heads of the guilty roll) in order to rebalance things and the world (presence), to return to normality.

How long can we keep up this condition of being victims? Don’t we get tired of it? We don’t change much by replacing one enemy with another: 'immigrants' for 'the caste'. We keep intact the subjectivity of victimhood which criticises but which does not undertake any change, which thinks that evil comes from another (group of person) and that if we eliminate it all will be well, but which always delegates, to the latest saviour, the task of 'restoring balance' (in many cases nostalgia for something that never existed).

We do not need criticism that comes from victimhood, from resentment, but rather a strength that is affirmative, one of transformation. A different relation, then, with our malaise. This is the most difficult thing since there is nearly nothing in our western culture that educates us for this. The normative ideal of 'sovereign presence' (control, dominion, self-sufficiency) makes us see crises as something that "shouldn't happen", or, at any rate, something which we have to get out of immediately, something that we have to 'repair' as soon as possible so that we can return to normality. A different relation with malaise entails not seeing it only as harm or loss, but also as an opening and an opportunity, an engine of change.

Can we leave immobilisation and impotence behind by using malaise itself as a lever? This is an 'energetic' approach to malaise: the energies unleashed in it are 'commutable', that is, they can be transformed into other things (into actions, into words, into "works", into other ways of life, into new sensibilities and reference points, etc.). The tears that do not get swallowed, but are instead shared and elaborated upon can metamorphose into collective actions, into processes of mutual aid, into the creativity of new images and words, into gestures of refusal and challenge. Healing does not therefore entail repair, but rather (self) transformation.

An example. It is often said that in Spain the populist right has little strength (yet) because 15M made us 'understand' that the enemy is the 1% (politicians and bankers) and not the 99% (immigrants, refugees, the poor). But here we remain in the 'semiotic' approach and the struggle over interpretations. It would be better to see the squares of 15M as places of a near 'alchemical' process through which one kind of energy (malaise lived in solitariness and impotence) turns into another (the joy of collective potency). Through being-together, through shared presence, through mutual accompaniment, through the "affective complicity among bodies', as Franco Berardi (Bifo) puts it.

We will call the kind of strength that is generated in this shared presence 'vulnerable strength'. That is: a strength that is born -paradoxically- out of weakness. From the fact of having been touched, affected, 'struck' by the world. It is not the strength of will of the sovereign presence, which stands apart from the world in order to push it in the 'right direction', but rather a strength that is affected by the world and that precisely because of this can affect it in turn. It is the strength of the affected: those of the 11M attack in 2004, of the PAH, or anyone capable of turning suffering into an energy of transformation.

Malaise, as an energy (not as an object to be mobilised, nor a sign to be interpreted) is thus the raw material of social change. But its 'politicisation', however, blows traditional forms of the political asunder.

It means keeping alive a link between the existential and the political that is as alien to the militant group (where personal problems have no place) as it is to the self-help group (where the problems of the world do not enter). It requires from us a 'knowing what to do with not knowing', because we cannot know beforehand the elaborations of meaning that contact with malaise can give rise to (there is no master-code that holds the answers in advance). It requires spaces that can take malaise in without judging it (what 'anti-capitalist' space would be able to invite Éric in, for example?). It demands of us forms of horizontal companionship: it is not a matter of 'organising' or 'interpreting' what is happening to others, but rather to make a voyage together. And much more.

Opening up a bifurcation

In the 'collapse of a world that no longer resists', the populist right promises us a return to order and normality. It is a false exit. It channels malaise by singling out scapegoats, but it provides no answer to underlying problems (the crisis of representation, the economic crisis, the ecological crisis, etc.). On the contrary: by hiding and reproducing their conditions, by turning us into victims and blocking all possibility of transformation, it prepares the way for new disasters.

Progressive populism also promises to return us to order and normality (the Welfare State, national sovereignty, etc.), by unseating 'the caste' from power and setting out 'an alternative horizon of certainties and securities'. The content is different (what kind of order, what kind of enemy), but it amounts to the same approach, interpellating the subjectivity of victimhood in need of compensation for the feeling of loss, and reinforcing the reference points in crisis (a little bit of "pride"). This option can offer us a "minimum amount of protection" if it reaches power. It is not to be sniffed at, but it is highly insufficient if we are aiming for profound change.

Between 'turning back time' (impossible) or the 'flight forward' (suicide), is there a third option? This is even more difficult: not thinking about 'exiting the crisis', but rather opening within it a bifurcation. Turning the 'civilizational crisis' into a 'civilizational mutation'. Not clinging desperately to something, but rather undertaking a voyage. Not containing the collapse, nor dreaming of reversing it in order to return to where we were, but rather opening up and sustaining new worlds here and now: other modes of relation with work, with the body, language, the earth, the city, the 'we', etc. To take advantage of the crisis, leveraging vulnerable strength.

Historically, women have proven highly capable of turning situations and places of dependence into focal points of potency: deploying vulnerable strength. In this sense, the best news about Trump's victory has been the massive marches of women that took place in the US on the day of the inauguration. Called anonymously by three 'everyday' women, relying on the capacity for contagion of social networks (where movements by affect are propagated, through anonymity and horizontality), they allow us to imagine an opposition to Trump that goes beyond mere anti-Trump reaction. An opposition that is not merely ideological or partisan, that is not merely defensive or focused on resistance (though of course there are a great many things to defend), but above all, one that is affirmative and paradigmatic, with (theoretical and practical) approaches for a civilizational mutation with regard to work, care, the family, relations, etc.

"A world can only be stopped with another world'. It is not just a question of opposing Trump, but rather the world of which Trump is the figurehead. The world of the sovereign presence, which is now in turmoil, which only knows how to react to this with violence, and which threatens to sink every one of us with it.

 ** The ‘energetic’ approach to malaise is largely inspired by the book ‘Libidinal Economy’ by Jean-François Lyotard.

Power to the sisters and therefore the class!

As long as there has been the working class, women have been striking. From the textile mills of early industrial capitalism, to the agricultural fields, maquiladoras and sweatshops, and the stratospheric circuits of high-tech manufacturing of today, women have played a critical role in the struggle inside the “abode of production.” But they’ve also struggled outside the workplace, and pushed us to expand what we think work is and where it takes place in society.

In 1972, feminists in Italy launched a global campaign demanding wages for their housework. The message was clear: women, as housewives, are laborers and their labor is necessary to the full functioning of society. Therefore, they ought to be paid for their services. The demand was less about compensation and more about changing the way we think about housework, reproduction, and capitalist relations at a planetary scale. The apparently “naturalized” gendered relations that structure it are crucial terrains of struggle for fundamentally exposing and exploding the capitalist imposition of this work and therefore all work.

Two quotes from Silvia Federici’s landmark essay “Wages Against Housework” articulate this point:

“…not only has housework been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character. Housework had to be transformed into a natural attribute rather than be recognized as a social contract because from the beginning of capital’s scheme for women this work was destined to be unwaged. Capital had to convince us that it is a natural, unavoidable and even fulfilling activity to make us accept our unwaged work.”

And later in the essay:

“If we start from this analysis we can see the revolutionary implications of the demand for wages for housework. It is the demand by which our nature ends and our struggle begins because just to want wages for housework means to refuse that work as the expression of our nature, and therefore to refuse precisely the female role that capital has invented for us.”

Today, as capital and its many reactionary formations—from liberal democratic to authoritarian and fascist regimes the world over—use violence and intimidation to overcome their own crises and attempt to roll back even the most modest gains made by the feminist movement of the last several decades, women everywhere are saying they won’t go quietly back to their "hidden sphere." They're taking to the streets, the squares, and their neighborhoods in protest not just against a devastating gendered and racialized wage gap, but in order to refuse the exploitation and oppression inherent in the very wage/unwage hierarchy that suppresses all working class activity.

Common Notions supports the international women's strike and offers our publications to anyone looking to deepen their understanding of today’s women's strike and its history. The autonomist feminists we've had the good fortune of working with have produced groundbreaking analyses of the various mediations of women and capital, from the welfare state to the current global division of reproductive labor.

You can read more about these powerful women and their work on our website:

Sex, Race, and Class: The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952–2011 by Selma James

Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle by Silvia Federici

Family, Welfare, and the State: Between Progressivism and the New Deal by Mariarosa Dalla Costa

Autonomist Feminist Publications

Students, Immigrants, and Sanctuary Campus Movement: The Struggle Against Debt and for a Living Wage

Guest post by George Caffentzis

After the massive demonstrations that followed the alleged Trump electoral victory, the first visible response to Trump’s ascendance to the presidency has been the Sanctuary Campus Movement now centered in more than a hundred university and college campuses around the US. The objective of this movement is to commit the college administrations to protect immigrant students, to refuse collaborating with the government in its plan to deport undocumented immigrants, and to provide material assistance to those facing deportation. 
In its moral and political foundations this campus-centered movement recalls the church-based sanctuary movement of the 1980s. But it is also driven by the struggle that in recent years have grown on campuses across the nation that have brought together students fighting against debt and for student unions with immigrant staff workers fighting for a living wage, both finding a more formal political expression in the common support for the Bernie Sanders campaign. 
A key reason for the increase in the attacks on immigrants (both through deportations and through “hate crimes” committed by the home-grown equivalent of paramilitaries) has been the fear of these movements and above all the fear of a recomposition between students and immigrants, who are often the same person. This is what has stimulated capitalists like Trump to launch a large-scale and vicious racist attack on immigrants and plan mass deportations. There is no doubt that the capitalist class wants immigrants in the country, but only if they accept a totally subordinate position and carry no social cost. The biggest calamity capitalists fear (much more than climate change!) is an across-the-board wage increase spearheaded by the lowest paid workers in the country. 
In the 1980s through the politics of mass incarceration the US establishment exorcized the threat of a Black revolution by putting behind bars the most combative sector of the US working class. Today they are countering the surge of immigrant struggle by planning the mass deportation of immigrants. They are indeed deporting the ‘immigrant revolution.’ It is tragic that many white workers have assisted this project, which is separating them from the very people they can rely upon to forward their interests. 

Students have filled the ranks of the minimum wage and living wage campaign, undoubtedly motivated by a sense of justice, but also by material considerations. Immigrant struggles have raised the bottom for all and increased all workers’ social power. The often-indebted students who joined living wage campaigns refused meritocracy as their goal, saw the destructive and divisive power of competition, and opened a powerful process of cooperation in the rejection of all new forms of servitude. 

The growing revolt against student debt, now averaging thirty thousand dollars per student, the increasing exploitation of unpaid student labor—through internships generating huge profits for employers—have also raised consciousness that school work is indeed work and now work that has to be paid for! 

Since the Occupy Movement highlighted the plight of indebted students, the demand for its abolition and for ‘wages for schoolwork’ (an established practice in Scandinavian countries) has circulated through the classrooms, creating a material connection with the immigrant struggle and practices of solidarity with the “Dreamers” movement. 

The New Sanctuary campus movement is not, then, an anomaly. It is the continuation and radicalization of a student movement that has been growing across the nation, highlighting the place of students, schoolwork, and schools in general in the capitalist organization of work and the need for students to ally with workers’ struggle. Thus, while the movement echoes religious themes, it is based on a principle of class justice: you must be paid for work you do and you must be paid a living wage. This is what immigrants are demanding. Trump’s instigated class terror will not silence this powerful demand. 
May the demand of the Sanctuary Campus Movement grow and help transform our universities, neighborhoods, cities, and shared continent into a sanctuary for all.

A couple of titles from Common Notions Press will provide some background: 

Wages for Students
Introduction by George Caffentzis, Monty Neill, and John Willshire-Carrera
Edited By Jakob Jakobsen, María Berríos, and Malav Kanuga
ISBN: 978-1-942173-02-1
Published September 1, 2016

The Debt Resisters' Operations Manual
Strike Debt
ISBN: 978-1-60486-679-7
Published: April 1, 2014

We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party
Mumia Abu-Jamal
ISBN: 978-1-942173-04-5
Published October 1, 2016



Former Black Panther’s Political Memoir “forges from the furnace of death row a moving, incisive, and thorough history” —Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!

October 15th marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. It also marks the publication of the new edition of We Want Freedom, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s award winning history of the Black Panthers. The world’s most renowned political prisoner, Mumia was only fifteen when he helped found the first Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party. Now as calls that Black lives matter grow louder, Mumia connects the historical dots between contemporary struggles and the Panthers’ demand for the “immediate end to police brutality and the murder of Black people.”

With a poetic voice and critical gaze, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party combines memories of day-to-day life in the Party with rigorous analysis of the Black liberation struggle. Mumia challenges historians who claim that only the civil rights model was authentic, positioning the Black Panther Party as an ahistorical aberration. He brilliantly locates the Party in a centuries-long tradition of Black resistance, a legacy articulated in Kathleen Cleaver’s sharp introduction as a “disfavored history.” The roots of today’s struggles are brought to the surface time and again as Mumia examines the long history of resistance to slavery, racial politics in Philadelphia, and the FBI’s subversion of justice through COINTELPRO and earlier operations.

In an open, conversational style Mumia also remembers his personal experience as a Party member, placing the reader in the life of the average Black Panther. While many books on the Black Panther Party focus on the icons of the organization, We Want Freedom conveys the everyday grit, love, and dedication of the tens of thousands who called themselves Panthers.

An award-winning journalist, Mumia began his writing career as Lieutenant Minister of Information for the Philadelphia branch and for the Party’s national newspaper. Alice Walker describes Mumia as “a rare and courageous voice speaking from a place we fear to know.” He is regularly heard on a network of over 150 radio stations and at www.prisonradio.org.

After years of international protests, on December 18, 2001, the U.S. District Court overturned Mumia’s death sentence, but upheld his conviction. In 2012 Mumia was moved, for the first time, into general population, after almost thirty years on Death Row. That same year, the first edition of We Want Freedom became unavailable in the US with the closing of South End Press. Now, Common Notions is pleased to work with Mumia to bring out a new expanded edition and make this essential book available once again to readers and revolutionaries.

For more information, review copies and interview requests, contact Alexander Dwinell at alexander@commonnotions.org or Malav Kanuga at malav@commonnotions.org.

Quotes from Mumia Abu-Jamal on the fiftieth anniversary of the Black Panther Party

“It’s been fifty unbelievable years since Huey and Bobby typed out the Ten-Point Program and Platform of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. How many times in the last fifty years have you reread the Ten-Point Program and marveled at how grim the conditions still facing millions of Black people remain. Half a century and Black life still don’t matter. Let us join with our younger brothers and sisters and help build a freedom movement worthy of our fallen soldiers and our ancestors.” —Mumia Abu-Jamal author of We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party, October 10, 2016

“I think that in an age where Black Lives Matter is the greatest and biggest civil rights movement in decades, it’s time for people to learn from [the Black Panther Party], its high points, its low points, its mistakes, and its successes, because if you read the Ten-Point Program that Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton wrote in October 1966, it will startle you. It will shock you to see what hasn’t changed in fifty years.” —Mumia Abu-Jamal on Democracy Now!, October 7, 2016

We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party (New Edition)

We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party

by Mumia Abu-Jamal

Add To Cart

We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party (New Edition)
By Mumia Abu-Jamal, Introduction by Kathleen Cleaver
336 pages / October 2016
ISBN: 978-1-942173-04-5 paper $20

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