Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation Exercise Pragmatic Power, Strike at UO

By James Anderson

Known for stimulating the “sociological imagination” and for analyzing the “power elite,” sociologist C. Wright Mills provided a framework for understanding the exercise of power.

Mills referred to “the powerful” as “those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist,” and he suggested no one could “be truly powerful” without “access to the command of major institutions, for it is over these institutional means of power that the truly powerful are, in the first instance, powerful.”

Jon LaRochelle, a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Oregon, said there are potent “conceptions of power in the American tradition,” like those offered by Mills, and also by writers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary Parker Follett.

“But no one really talks about pragmatism as a resource for that,” he said. “So that’s what I’m looking at right now.”

Graduate Teaching Fellows Strike Back

LaRochelle has also observed how power functions outside the classroom at the university. As a member of the bargaining team for the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, the union for graduate employees at the University of Oregon, he witnessed the ways power was exercised throughout contract negotiations in Eugene.

They had been bargaining with the university since November 2013 and at the start of December the following year had yet to reach an agreement. The Graduate Teaching Fellows at Oregon had worked with an expired contract since last spring when an initial strike authorization vote took place.

As dialogue deteriorated and prospects for a fair contract faltered, the union went on strike December 2, just three days before the end of fall semester classes and right before finals week.

The strike, which lasted eight days, ended after a 22-hour negotiating session that went from 10 a.m. on Tuesday until the university and the GTFF reached an agreement around 8 a.m. the next morning.

“At the beginning we really had no way of anticipating that it would go until the following Wednesday,” LaRochelle said in a phone interview with Graduate Assistants United.

Although they had never been on strike before, the union and those atop the academic hierarchy at the University of Oregon have a contentious history. Following a year-long organizing drive in 1975, the GTFF became formally affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers the next year after the Oregon Employment Relations Board rejected the university’s argument that GTFs were more students than employees.

Overruled but undeterred, the university administration adhered to the same line of argument up to December 2014, when issues of wages and paid leave became sticking points in contract negotiations.

LaRochelle said the university and the union came close to an agreement on wage increases just prior to the strike, but the former refused to budge on the issue of paid parental and medical leave.

The administration did not want to set a precedent so that adjuncts might assert rights to similar benefits during forthcoming faculty negotiations, LaRochelle said. Another aspect, he added, “is a general unwillingness on the part of the administration to recognize the value of GTF work.”

The GTFF reaffirmed that value with a second strike authorization vote during the fall 2014 semester, following a summer of negotiations and the move in August to have a state mediator facilitate future bargaining.

After the second authorization vote, in which a majority of GTFs voted to strike, the university made a proposal for “flex time,” which would have permitted a graduate employee to take some time off for an emergency or for the birth of a child, provided the employee made up the time later.

But the problem is that most GTFs are employed on a term-by-term or 9-month appointment basis, LaRochelle said. Rather than receiving time off as an employee, “flex time” puts the burden on the individual GTF to do extra work because they had a baby or because they got sick and needed time away for extended medical treatment, he added.

In the mediation session before the strike, the university then proposed a “graduate student hardship fund” as an alternative to paid leave.

The hardship fund, as proposed by the administration, would have cost the university more money than the paid leave proposal advanced by the union, LaRochelle said.

“The problem was that they were making every effort to not recognize us as workers deserving this benefit,” he said about the administration’s efforts.

Pragmatist Philosophies of Power

William James, an oft-cited philosopher in the American pragmatist tradition and a thinker whose work LaRochelle has oft-engaged with, offered an anecdote in his 1907 book “Pragmatism” worth recalling when considering opposing temperaments at the bargaining table.

Outlining a relative theory of truth as a way to escape dead-end disputes, James suggested the trick is to ask what difference it would make in practice if a particular position were adopted instead of another. If it would make no difference, the position could be attributed to a party’s temperamental bias.

But James’ outline, in its simplest form, lacks a theory of power, especially regarding its concentration and exercise within institutional contexts.

As Mills wrote in “The Power Elite,” institutions, including perhaps education, “are the necessary basis of power, of wealth, and of prestige, and at the same time, the chief means of exercising power, of acquiring and retaining wealth, and of cashing in the higher claims of prestige.”

Class consciousness, Mills noted, does not equally characterize “all levels of American society,” but is rather “most apparent in the upper class” and throughout the upper strata of institutions.

What James failed to articulate in full is the extent to which institutional arrangements and power relations impact temperament and ultimately influence understanding of truth. As Mills might infer, the class conscious – or institutionally conditioned – position of the UO administration compelled attempts to exercise power-over. Following this theory, the university rejected the union proposal, even though it would have saved them money in the short run, because it threatened institutional power over the long-term.

But Mills’ notion that the powerful can “realize their will” even when “others resist” also fails to account for the fluidity of power and downplays the capacity of human agents to alter power structures.

Hardship Funds, Hard Compromises

For GTFs at Oregon, the hardship fund had two issues that made it an unacceptable offer, LaRochelle said. He said it was unclear there was any guarantee a GTF could be sure to get the funds in case of emergency or a child birth. It also would have been formalized only as a written letter between the president and the graduate school, he said, and would not have been written into the collective bargaining agreement except as a copy of the letter, making it difficult to grieve in the event a GTF was denied funds.

“It’s really our only form of power in the contract is to be able to grieve when things go wrong,” LaRochelle said.

What came out of the marathon negotiating session when the strike ended was a bit of a compromise, he said.

The GTFF secured guaranteed seats on the committee overseeing the fund allotting up to $1,500 for new parents and up to $1,000 for medical hardship.

If a new parent puts in an application to the graduate school to obtain money from the fund to reimburse three weeks of missed work and wages after the birth of a child, LaRochelle explained in an example case, there is recourse if the graduate school rejects the application. The GTF could appeal to the committee, which will have two graduate employee and two graduate student spots. If the committee then approves the request, the application goes to the provost. Should the provost deny the funds, the union can come in and grieve on behalf of the GTF.

Although the union cannot grieve the amount the GTF can receive, LaRochelle said, the GTFF, which since the strike boasts more than 50 percent membership of eligible graduate employees at UO, can hold university higher-ups accountable to the overall process.

“That was a win for us, and now the real test is just going to be implementation – so making sure that going forward the thing gets constituted appropriately and functions the way it should,” he said.

The union also sought wage increases. They wanted to attain a living wage over the course of four or five years.

During negotiations, the focus had been on minimum salaries. About 60 percent of graduate employees at UO make the minimum, LaRochelle said, and the previous minimum before the new contract was more than $200 short every month compared to what the university’s financial aid numbers suggest constitutes the cost of living in Eugene.

Before the strike concluded, the administration stipulated that if the union wanted a higher dollar amount available for the hardship fund, then they would have to accept lower wages.

Instead of getting a five percent wage increase for two years, as the GTFF proposed, the administration pushed a proviso of five percent one year and four percent the next.

Striking got the graduate employees closer to a living wage, securing them five percent for both years.

Administrative Power, Inadvertent Consequences 

But the union could not have done it by themselves, LaRochelle admits.

“We said throughout the process that the university has been our best organizing tool,” he said.

Early on, the university hired a lawyer who had a habit of making a mix of condescending, egregious and inane comments during the open bargaining sessions, he said. This prompted the entire room to erupt in laughter on occasion, and to march from the room and rally outside once in response to one comment.

LaRochelle said the university sent email blasts out to the campus community, making assertions many recognized as dubious. An entire department that did not initially support the strike changed its whole view on the situation in response to one email from the administration, he added.

The incident is similar to what happened at Southern Illinois University Carbondale when the Faculty Association went on strike in fall of 2011.

“Students are not directly involved in the labor negotiations between the University and the unions which bargain on behalf of the University employees, and they should not be used as unwilling pawns in the disagreement between the parties,” then-Chancellor Rita Cheng wrote in an October 7 email to the SIUC campus community as negotiations heated up that semester. “Please carefully read the following facts as you consider your individual decision and circumstances should the IEA represented groups put you in the position of having to choose between participating in a strike or continuing your work / education.”

In response, SIUC students wrote an open letter explaining how many of the rights and resources enjoyed by working people came from organizing and defending unions.

“We have not been threatened or coerced in anyway by our instructors—contrary to the Chancellor’s repeated assertions—however the tone of Rita Cheng’s almost daily emails seem increasingly threatening,” the letter stated.

Similar statements of support for the GTFF strike came from the Student Labor Action Project at the University of Oregon, an organization that supports labor and promotes economic justice on campus and beyond. LaRochelle said UO students also conducted a sit-in at the administrative building during the strike, and statements of solidarity poured in from the student government and both the faculty and staff unions.

Like at SIUC during 2011, administrative malfeasance left other marks, however.

“The administration created a contingency plan that basically gutted academic standards,” LaRochelle said about the university’s program, which was condemned by two motions on the faculty senate floor.

The administration tried to force department heads to take control of GTF-taught classes, which LaRochelle said would have been a disaster given the vast amount of graduate employee instruction on campus. Some students were also given the option to pass on their final if they had a GTF instructor who was striking, he said, and the dean reportedly artificially increased the grades of students in the philosophy department when they came to argue for better marks.

“We sort of inadvertently uncovered some very problematic positions on the part of the administration,” LaRochelle said.

He attributes this in part to the new Board of Trustees. Until recently, he said, Oregon had statewide Board of Trustees for all state universities. This summer all Oregon institutions got their own Boards. The contingency plan accepted by the Board “was a clear indication that they wanted first and foremost to break the strike, to undermine the power of the union,” LaRochelle said.

The Board of Trustees at UO had a motion scheduled for the day after the strike ended to supersede university constitution and gut the power of the faculty senate, he said.

“The extent to which they’re acting to institute a corporate model, top-down governing structure is worrisome to say the least,” LaRochelle said.

He said institutional hierarchies and institutionalized exploitation, especially of graduate employees, constitutes one mode of power. Another mode, LaRochelle suggested, moves through the disciplinary mechanism of student debt tied to “an outrageous tuition-based model that puts a burden on the very possibility of having a meaningful life.”

The UO GTFF strike was thus part of what LaRochelle said he would characterize as “a fight for the heart and soul of American higher education.”

The GTFF, having been in the fight for several decades, has accumulated many small wins, like the $61 per-term cap on fees the union procured for all UO teaching fellows in their previous contract.

Graduate Assistants at SIUC, in contrast, pay much more back to the university in employment fees.

Assuming full credit hour enrollment, student fees for the 2012-2013 academic year at SIUC totaled $3,352.68, according to the university’s Institutional Research and Studies Factbook. The average GA in a PhD program at SIUC on a 50 percent employment assignment earns $1,633.91 per month, or $14,705.19 for the academic year. Two months of that average GA’s salary go back to the university in fees.

LaRochelle said the traditional role of organized labor in fighting for a fair contract to eliminate those employment fees and to increase wages remains important. But another power dynamic is at play too, he added.

“It’s also about recognizing that the university is a politicized space, and that we can collectively develop an understanding of how that space is shaped and respond to it,” LaRochelle said. “I think that the grad union is absolutely key in looking forward and responding to the problematic trends in higher education.”


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.




Struggle, Collective Action for Stress Relief

By James Anderson

Graduate students who work as Graduate Assistants are in a unique position insofar as they face both student-related and work-related pressures. They are thus likely to feel both student-related and work-related stress, especially around the end of the semester.

Whether working on or grading finals, final projects or end-of-the-semester assignments, GAs feel the heat during the cold two weeks of December before winter break.

But stress pervades graduate school and work generally.

A 2012 study in the journal Training and Education in Professional Psychology found that more than 70 percent of a sizable research sample of psychology graduate students reported experiencing a stressor that negatively impacted their optimal performance.

Researchers identified turning to friends, family and classmates as the three top coping strategies for stressed out students.

Activism does not appear to have been on the list, although perhaps it should have.

Malte Klar and Tim Kasser published a study in 2009 after surveys of college students, coupled with a national sampling of activists, showed collective action is positively correlated with higher levels of well-being and vitality. The results corroborated the researchers’ theory “that political activism is often intrinsically motivating and may reflect a fundamental human motivation,” and “that activists are more likely to experience the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, an indicator of more frequent experiences of intrinsic motivation.”

Yet, there remains cause for pause. Activism takes time. It demands energy. It can require use of money or resources.

The barriers to entry loom large. The funny thing about struggle, though, is that those barriers begin to dissolve emotionally and psychologically when well-being and affect improve as a result of just acting to overcome those obstacles.

Struggle likewise breaks down those barriers in ways that are quite concrete.

In the 2012 study of psychology grad students, researchers identified academic pressures and economic concerns as the two top grad school stressors.

Coincidentally, the top concerns for Graduate Assistants United as the union negotiates a new contract with the University are stipends and the related fees Graduate Assistants pay.

During bargaining, GAU is also addressing issues of GA workload and quality control over employment duties.

The reasons for doing so are straightforward. When asked to perform an inordinate amount of labor within the 10 or 20 hours of work per week on average a GA is contracted to do, stress mounts. Such added intensity above a reasonable level can force a GA to reduce the quality of her teaching, research or assistantship activities.

Coerced reduction in work quality is a matter of pedagogical integrity. It compounds stress by negatively impacting university experience, for everyone involved. Lack of work quality control can negatively impact a GA’s prospects for future employment when crucial opportunities for serious research and teaching are sacrificed without employee consent for the sake of saving the university money while maintaining a highly hierarchical and socially destructive division of labor.

GAU has also put the issue of a minimum credit hour requirement on the bargaining table. At Southern Illinois University Carbondale, the current contract requires an assistant to “be enrolled as a student for at least eight (8) graduate level credit hours,” during the fall and spring semesters, with an exception for doctoral candidates and master’s students in their last semester who are “only required to register for six (6) graduate level credit hours.”

In contrast, graduate employees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have no minimum credit hour requirement in their contract.

Arguments insisting an eight or more credit hour stipulation is needed to ensure reasonable time to degree completion are suspect at best. All GAs would benefit from having the freedom to take on a heavy course load certain semesters and a lighter course load during others, and from being able to take classes over the summer to balance their course load out over the course of the year, avoiding super stressful semesters.

As it stands, some GAs at SIUC are forced to take an extra three credit hour course each semester in order to meet the credit hour requirements because one or two credit hour independent studies are unavailable. Those facing such a problem, and GAs with other obligations aside from their assistantship and school work – like the GA with sick parents or siblings to care for, or the single parent with several children pursuing a degree while working as an assistant – would also benefit from having the choice to enroll in fewer credit hours per semester without sacrificing assistantship eligibility.

Union activism is a potent method for biting into the above stressors by building an organization and securing a legally-binding contract with teeth.

Organizing Literally Saves Lives

A report from the Economic Policy Institute in 2012 found that in addition to improving wages for both union and non-union workers, a “sweeping advantage for unionized workers is in fringe benefits,” and workplace protections that improve well-being.

Evidence suggests the findings in the report remain true beyond our borders.

Patrick Ackermann, a union leader with the Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques in France, helped create L’Observatoire du stress et des mobilités forcées (the Observatory of Stress and Forced Mobility) to address issues at Orange S.A., formerly France Télécom, a multinational telecommunications company where restructuring and intimidation by bosses led to an epidemic of worker suicides.

Bosses tried to individualize the causes when workers kept killing themselves, but suicide notes left by employees explicitly blamed what was taking place in the company. The changes that ruined and ultimately took some workers’ lives – tantamount to what one engineer who committed suicide called “management by terror” – included bosses accosting employees by email and managers making subordinates undergo humiliating interviews in front of people.

As Ackermann told Sara Waters at Jacobin, since 80 percent of the workers legally could not be fired because of their special status as fonctionnaires, “management resorted to more insidious psychological tactics to force them to leave the company,” and “engaged in what might be described as terror tactics that targeted individuals by every means possible.”

Because the issue is not easily communicable “within the conventional language and symbolism of trade-union militancy,” Ackermann said, some saw suicides as only personal problems “that had nothing to do with union activism,” but the union still took action. They negotiated a new agreement in 2010 that protected workers from excessive workplace pressures and undue stress on the job.

Enforcement of the contract proved difficult, so activists supplemented this with the syndicalist-style Observatory of Stress and Forced Mobility, which documents worker suicides and reaches out to major media to publicize the problem, putting pressure back on the employer to stop harassment.

Beating Bullies, Stressing the System through Transformative Struggle

The notions that suicides are more common during the holiday season is a myth, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but the oft-overlooked conditions underlying suicides and other less serious workplace stressors still deserve our attention now.

Bullying in academia increases stress, and not just at the end of the semester. An employee at one university for 14 years said being the victim of constant bullying “totally destroyed” her sense of self-worth.

The amount of administrative work has been increasingly passed down since academics seldom have personal secretaries anymore and faculty cuts continue. Departmental secretaries have thus had to take on the extra burden, an article notes. Similarly, GAs have experienced additional work expectations and probably the bullying that tends to come with it.

One union, Unison, has commissioned research into bullying within academia. Elaborating on the increasingly “competitive and hierarchical” environment of higher education and discussing possibilities for recovering “the more collegial culture” that appears lost, Sam Farley and Christine Sprigg note that contacting a union representative when bullying persists is a good first start.

Wellness promotion and stress relief by way of politicized action of course comes in other forms.

Movements for free education, on display in the march against the marketization of higher education that filled the streets of London on November 19, are afoot in more than one country. The recent occupation of the Humanities and Social Sciences building at the University of California Santa Cruz – an action supported by Cornel West and initiated after the UC Board of Regents approved another tuition hike – illustrates another outlet for putting stress on the institution to end systemic exploitation.

All these kinds of collective action suggest different ways of alleviating stress through struggle in the short term, while probably benefiting collective well-being over the longue durée.


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.



Tonight, (Wednesday, November 19) Happy Hour from 8-10pm at Tres Hombres


How much has GAU saved you?


SIU Interim Chancellor Paul Sarvela Dies

The unexpected passing of Interim SIU Chancellor, Paul Sarvela, is cause for a moment of reflection by the university’s faculty, staff, and students.  While not interacting directly with Dr. Sarvela, the leadership of Graduate Assistants United (IEA/NEA) had voiced optimism in his appointment and were looking forward to a constructive, fruitful relationship.


During times of sudden loss, those with honorable intentions often struggle in finding the right words to convey condolences to the family and close friends of an individual taken at such a young age.  The Executive Committee of GAU along with our members wish to express our collective desire for strength and comfort to Dr. Sarvela’s family and those who knew him.


Bob Velez
President, Graduate Assistants United

At the Bargaining Table

Your bargaining team has been hard at work going through our contract and compiling issues that negatively impact graduate assistants. As issues have come up over the past several years, we have been keeping track of them, in anticipation of the bargaining season. We have heard your concerns, and we hope that we will be able to improve the working conditions of GAs at this University with our new contract. To that end, we have formally presented our issues and interests to the Board’s bargaining team over the course of three meetings. We identified and presented 22 different issues:

  1. GA Stipends & Employment Fees
  2. Summer Healthcare
  3. Health Insurance Fee
  4. Training & Orientation
  5. Minimum Credit Hour Requirement
  6. GAU Office
  7. GA Workload & Quality Control
  8. Side Letter on Student Healthcare
  9. Access to GAU Bargaining List
  10. Fair Share
  11. Sick Leave
  12. Bereavement Leave
  13. Taxable Tuition for GAs (not RA or TA positions)
  14. Vacation
  15. Information Requests (Dean’s Email List and Board Budget Proposals)
  16. Eliminate 48-month Funding Caps
  17. GA-taught Class Size Caps
  18. Class Size Requirements not Counting Tuition Waiver Graduate Students Toward Enrollment Numbers
  19. Springfield Campus GA Spousal Healthcare
  20. Tuition Waivers / Scholarships
  21. Non-discrimination Policy
  22. GAU’s ability to file a chapter grievance on behalf of GAs
The Board’s team also presented a number of interests, though there is a considerable degree of overlap. Some other issues opened by the Board’s team include: GA Evaluation Process, Discipline and Dismissal process for GAs, and Additional Employment.
Now that you know what issues are on the table for negotiations, we will be asking you, our members, for your comments on these issues. We hope to hold dedicated events to these bargaining interests in which we will provide information and solicit feedback from you, so keep an eye out for announcements. Bargaining is a top priority for this year’s GAU leadership, so you can be certain that bargaining will be on the agenda for all of our Executive Committee and General Membership Meetings. In the meantime, if you have any concerns, or comments concerning the issues we presented, please feel free to contact the GAU Bargaining Team at
In Solidarity,
Sandy Kim

Inspiration for New Sensibility Inspired by Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch”

By James Anderson

Halloween conjures up all kinds of images, rituals and events.

Ghosts. Ghouls. Goblins. Vampires. Zombies. Dracula. Frankenstein. The Monster Mash. Costume parties. Trick-or-treating. Unofficial celebrations. The official Hangar 9 “Little Pizza Halloween Extravaganza” in Carbondale. And of course the debut of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror XXV” episode.

The subject of witches also inevitably becomes a big part of the pop-culture lexicon around this time. But the history of witches, specifically the history of the witch-hunt, seldom receives attention or gets discussed.calibanwitch250

Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation” is one text to turn to for an understanding of the witch-hunt, its historical function and its effects.

So from whence does this notion of the witch emerge?

Central to Federici’s thesis is that capitalism was not the result of an evolutionary process toward greater productivity and prosperity. Rather, “the rise of capitalism was coeval with a war against women,” part of “a concerted attempt to degrade them, demonize them, and destroy their social power,” she wrote.

When “centuries-long social conflict,” combined with economic crisis, shook the power of merchants, feudal lords and the affluent and authoritarian sector of the clergy, Federici argues, this generated a class-conscious response.

The reaction of the ruling classes came in response to the “grassroots women’s movement” protesting established orthodoxy, “contributing to the construction of alternative models of communal life” and challenging “the dominant sexual norms,” in conjunction with attempts to create “more egalitarian relations” among the sexes.

Both revolt and ruling class reaction intensified when the feudal economy entered into serious crisis by the end of the Middle Ages, Federici suggests. Wages doubled, prices fell by 33 percent, rents declined “and a tendency appeared toward local self-sufficiency” between 1350 and 1500 in Europe. This prompted a “global offensive that in the course of at least three centuries was to change the history of the planet, laying the foundations of a capitalist world-system, in the relentless attempt to appropriate sources of wealth, expand its economic basis, and bring new workers under its command.”

The witch-hunt, an “unleashing of campaign of terror against women,” she wrote, weakened the peasantry already disadvantaged by land privatization, increased taxes, “and the extension of state control over every aspect of social life.” In destroying a whole slew of practices incompatible with capitalist discipline (e.g. communal relations, sexual activity not for reproduction of labor-power, traditional folk medicine antithetical to new doctrinaire rationality), and insofar as it cultivated a fear of the power of women that deepened gender divisions, “the witch-hunt was an essential aspect of primitive accumulation and the ‘transition’ to capitalism.”

Persecutions started in the 15th century. The witch-hunt accelerated toward the end of the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century, at the same time as revolts – both rural and urban and usually led by women – intensified against privatization, enclosures of land and rising bread prices.

Federici suggests fixation during witch trials on the “Sabbat,” the witches’ supposed gathering place, might illustrate the parallel between attacks on poor people’s organizing against subjugation.

“But there is no doubt that, through the judges’ obsession with these devilish gatherings, besides the echo of the persecution of the Jews, we hear the echo of the secret meetings the peasants held at night, on lonesome hills and in the forests, to plot their revolts,” Federici wrote about the witch trials.

She also draws a connection between accusations about alleged pacts with the Devil – selling one’s soul – with the way the working classes started challenging laws implemented to protect the emerging new order.

Considering the historical context and class and gender of the accused, “we must conclude that witch-hunting in Europe was an attack on women’s resistance to the spread of capitalist relations and the power that women had gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction, and their ability to heal,” she added.

Caliban and Conquest: Attacks on Witches in the Americas met with Resistance

However, Federici qualified, “continuity exists “between the subjugation of the populations of the New World and that of people in Europe, women in particular, in the transition to capitalism.”

She contends the two-pronged campaign against witchcraft, magic and alleged devil worship in the “New World’ and back in Europe, helped form an “international division of labor,” dividing “the new global proletariat by means of different class relations and systems of discipline, marking the beginning of often conflicting histories within the working class.”

Characterizing aboriginal populations in the Americas “as cannibals, devil-worshippers, and sodomites supported the fiction that the Conquest was not an unabashed quest for gold and silver but was a converting mission,” and not, as Federici argues, “the paradigmatic form of repression, serving to justify enslavement and genocide.”

She noted attempts to isolate accused witches from the rest of the community worked in Europe, but not among the Andean people – who had no notion of the Devil until the Conquest – because witchcraft and resistance became inextricably linked in the consciousness of the colonized and accused.

In the title and throughout her book Federici refers to the figure of “Caliban,” featured in Shakespeare’s 1612 play, “The Tempest” as the rebellious son of a witch. With inspiration from the Shakespearean narrative “suggesting the possibility of a fatal alliance among the oppressed,” Caliban became a symbol of resistance throughout Latin America.

It’s ironic, Federici commented, that Caliban and not Sycorax, the mother-witch, came to represent rebellion. The latter “might have taught her son to appreciate local powers – the land, the waters, the trees, ‘nature’s treasuries’ – and those communal ties that, over centuries of suffering, have continued to nourish the liberation struggle to this day, and that already haunted, as a promise, Caliban’s imagination.”

Federician Critique of Certain Forms of Feminism  

Some feminists fail to grasp the relevance of Federici’s thesis for today.

Janet Hanson, a former Goldman Sachs executive and founder of a group aimed at putting more women in positions atop the corporate hierarchy, has said the women’s movement went astray when it “became bitter and cynical” and focused on “what we don’t have as opposed to what we should have in an equal society.”

Hanson has a point about shifting from cynicism to a new sensibility, but her vision remains heavily skewed by its adaptation to relations that do violence to both women and men.

Her perspective reflects the institutions of which she advocates for and has been a key part.

Goldman Sachs, where Hanson was a vice president, has been described by former Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, in germane fashion for Halloween, as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” It has also been accused of causing a global food crisis, in addition to financial crisis, ensuring inequality that plunged populations into starvation – not exactly conducive to the “equal society” we should aspire to, as Hanson has it.

In a similar vein, a Pew Research Center report released in August 2014 identified as problematic that only about five percent of women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and that women occupy less than nine percent of all management positions.

The report ignores the issue to which critical feminists are adamantly opposed: the relations of domination reified in structures where bosses and executives exist and exert power over others.

In contrast, an October 2014 report published by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United focused on the fact women work “most of the financially precarious jobs” in today’s economy. Some 70 percent of restaurant servers and 60 percent of all tipped positions are performed by women, the report stated.

The federal minimum wage for tipped workers remains $2.13. This means women remain disproportionately disadvantaged from poverty level pay, or are more frequently forced to endure degrading treatment so as not to lose money from tips needed to compensate for their inadequate remuneration on the job.

In “Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women,” Martha Ackelsberg clarified a distinction between the “classical liberal formulations” of feminism pervading US culture today, and the feminism of women involved in Mujeres Libres, an influential women’s organization during the short-lived anarcho-syndicalist revolution in Spain during the 1930s. The latter – like present-day Marxist and anarchist feminists – insisted on understanding freedom as “a social product,” and “attempted to develop strategies for empowerment (capacitación) that would enable previously subordinated men and women to realize their own capacities,” by considering how to collectively produce a kind of power-to  “without creating new relationships of ‘power over’ others.”

Ackelsberg favors the “insistence that hierarchy needs to be addressed and uprooted independent of economic relations” – a dubious proposal for today.

Domination, hierarchy and subordination could exist apart from constant capital accumulation, the driving force of our exploitative social reproduction. Yet Federici’s historical account of the witch-hunt, wherein women were terrorized to instill the discipline and control needed to “transition” to a system based on expropriation of the surplus value others produce, makes clear the foundations upon which capitalist society was formed. Federici demonstrated the tightly tethered relationship between sex-based hierarchies and economic reorganization for exploitation, which continues to inform oppressive relations in the present.

Making Sense of Struggle: Money, Markets and Magic at Work

Similarly, understanding how transformation of everything into a commodity to be bought and sold on the market affects social relations and militates against feminist objectives must be a primary task for feminism now.

In his essay comparing witchcraft with economics, David Hawkes stressed the extent to which commodities rule our world and underscored the parallels between wage labor and witchcraft. A capitalist economy “that represents material human activity in the form of exchange value,” and relies on money, “an externalized representation of abstract human labor power – that is to say, of human subjective activity, of human life,” involves the same sort of use of “performative” signs and “projection” that theories of witchcraft deploy, he argued.

Hawkes noted the increase in preoccupation with witches that has occurred when market economies and money are introduced to societies. He expounded on the social effects when wage labor, the condition of selling or alienating one’s labor, extends throughout society.

“The person remains a legally autonomous subject, but he gives up a portion of his life – that is, of his self – in exchange for a symbol of that portion,” Hawkes explained. “This symbol, which is money, then attains a subjective power, so that it determines the lives of the people whose activity it represents. A money economy is one in which people are ruled by fetishized representation of their own selves. Market economies are ruled by this ghostly, dead – but supernaturally active – power called money.”

Hawkes, however, did not discuss the extent to which certain classes in society wield social power over others, nor did he elaborate the importance of struggle against those power relations.

Women have historically been at the forefront of such struggle. It was women who pioneered the textile factory strikes in New England, and women who carried out “The Mother of All Strikes,” the first factory strike in the US, when workers rejected a 25 percent cut in pay, an extension of the working day and the sadistic management styles at Slater Mill in Rhode Island in 1824.

A network of feminist groups by the name of “WITCH,” influential in the early stages of the women’s liberation movement in the US, was born on Halloween in 1968, a year of revolution throughout the world-system, given the multiple uprisings that took place across the globe. Around that time, “the witch-hunt emerged from the underground to which it had been confined, thanks to the feminists’ identification with the witches, who were soon adopted as a symbol of female revolt,” as Federici observed in her book.

Amazing women like Marina Sitrin are presently participating in and writing about horizontally-arranged explicitly anti-capitalist organizing. Others like Victoria Law are critiquing pseudo-activism, like “carceral feminism,” which problematically seeks to address domestic violence through the use state violence – the very form of organized force Federici cites in her book as playing a pivotal role in the war against women-as-witches.

Women in the workplace and at university are often unfairly expected to be caregivers on top of other duties, as Natalie Nash pointed out. But promising efforts are afoot with an affective politics based in bonds of love and trust, and forged in opposition to the violence and impoverishment to which the system subjects so many.

Perhaps a new sensibility, grounded in the ghosts of the poor and feminine who practiced the magic of healing and caring before being systematically attacked during the advent of capitalism – coupled with the rebelliousness embodied by the women accused of witchcraft, as Federici described – could be a nice treat for us to resurrect this Halloween and thereafter.


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.



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