No Vacancy

[What follows is an attempt to figure something out on paper about the places that seem free and open but are really still mediated by the reach of our productive economy.]

A motel’s neon sign can signal an invitation or a closed door, but either way its letters always say the same thing: NO VACANCY. Its message is a question of selective illumination, built to facilitate the perpetual turnaround of rented time and space; nothing is completely free. Increasingly there are fewer rooms available for those who want to opt out or to practice resistance to the flows and goals of capitalism. We’re all involved by degrees despite our frequently emphasized freedom of choice.

One could assume that a vacancy of capital implies a void or an outside to the totality of capitalist logic and structure. And, though we have experienced situations that feel like temporary escapes from the dictatorial determinants of productivist ethic and profit logic, it’s dangerous to think these areas (as they often are thought) as true breaks in the system— blank places, unmediated by the totality of capitalism where a new world might be built. Even if you were able to secure a free and vacant room for awhile, you’re still staying at the same hotel. Overstay without paying and you’re subject to the threat of force.

There are many ways to simulate the feeling of being outside, and these pseudo-exteriors to the dominant economy play an important role. Within the expansive hotel we find rooms full of sunlight lined with forest-clad wallpaper; complementary breakfasts, lotions, and free? wi-fi that all tell us a story of free-ness. Leaving the hotel metaphor behind, we can find other sites and processes in society that often get categorized as being beyond or outside of capitalist logic such as: gift economies, public spaces, the sphere of the home or family, as well as fields that are ascribed transcendent qualities like spirituality, religion, scholarship, or the arts.

Making a home and caring for our children, for instance, are activities that unfold according to a different set of processes than working 9-5 in a factory or office job. Largely, homemaking and childcare are seen as non-value-producing forms of labor because they “take place in a sphere of the capitalist mode of production [that] is not directly mediated by a form of value.”(1) They are fundamentally reproductive rather than productive, taking place in a more indeterminate and private un-waged sphere, not one regulated by a wage. But these reproductive processes, despite their lack of direct relation to monetary compensation, structure the negative space (the pseudo-outside) through which capitalist production acquires a solid shape. Just as “there must be an exterior to value in order for value to exist...for labour to serve as the measure of value, there must be an exterior to labour.”(2)

Silvia Federici and other Autonomist Feminists, who were integral in the 1970s Wages for Housework campaign, saw this to be true. They brought a new awareness to homemaking and care as work and as an integral part of the productive economy. Originally working from Mario Tronti’s claim “that at a certain stage of development capitalist relations become so hegemonic that every social relation is subsumed under capital and the distinction between society and factory collapses,” Federici and others saw clearly that this so-called ‘social factory’ “began and was centered in the kitchen, the bedroom, the home—insofar as these were the centers for the production of labor-power.”(3) The Autonomist Feminists also made a strong critique of Marx, pointing to his lack of attention to the role of (heavily gendered) reproductive labor in his canonical analysis of the political economy.

Since the origins of capitalism, it is this sphere of reproduction (both literally and metaphorically) that has been the distinct domain of women’s unwaged labor. Male workers sell their time to produce commodities that can be sold for profit, but women have been the ones to produce and continually reproduce the workers themselves birthing, feeding, and clothing them. Looking at the provocative critique of the 1970’s feminists, we can see how all the life-giving activity that we do to prepare for our jobs (like working-out, making dinner, going to bed early, taking vacation etc.), is tied up in the loop of capitalist production.

Using the example of unwaged reproductive labor in the home also illuminates how certain kinds of work become obscured in terms of the productive economy. What appears to be a sphere outside of capital really is at the center of its circulation. Housework was made invisible through its naturalization: a woman’s care for her family was assumed to be a biological inclination—a natural calling and purpose. As such, it wasn’t recognized as work and therefore didn’t need to be compensated by a salary. The crucial thing about Wages for Housework was that it was a demand made not to literally find an appropriate wage that could be equivalent to the task of making a home, self, and family, but to expose the home as a site of necessary labor for the production of surplus value (capital) and to suggest that’s its maintenance is not comparable to any wage. It was also important at the time to reject the assumption that a women’s natural profession was to make and raise a family in the first place. Many of these women demanded a wage in order to refuse it.

The same naturalization process that made housework invisible as work unfolds in other terrains as well, constituting the image of a vacancy. Work that comes naturally or is personally satisfying slips out of the waged sphere of labor, supported by the logic that if one loves what they do, then they would do it regardless of getting paid. This is an especially common expectation when it comes to artistic labor. But “emotionally satisfying work is still work, and acknowledging it as such doesn’t undermine it in any way. Refusing to acknowledge it, on the other hand, opens the door to the most vicious exploitation and harms all workers.”(4)

In an article in Jacobin magazine Miya Tokumitsu writes about how ‘do what you love’ (DWYL) has become the mantra and mentality of a large sector of today’s workers. She describes how detrimental this mindset has become for labor as a whole. Specifically she pinpoints how DWYL “reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm.” She cites publicists tweeting on the weekend, reporters doing the work of the photographers who have been laid off, workers checking email on sick days, and academics accepting non-material compensation for working overtime and without contracts as some of her evidence. Perhaps more important are the implications for people who do non-lovable forms of work. “DWYL denigrates or makes invisible vast swaths of [their] labor [—labor that allows] many of us to live in comfort and to do what we love.”(5)

Partly, what Tokumitsu is describing are working conditions under increasing austerity and crisis where privatization and corporatization have resulted in the contracting of budgets, and workers have found themselves laboring over previously paid jobs for free. The perpetuation of life as we know it depends on the growing sphere of what the Endnotes journal calls abject labor. The sphere of the abject includes a kind of work that was waged at some point, but has become too costly for the state or for capital to continue including in a direct, waged-market sphere. These work activities are abject only because capital has deemed them so, not because of the nature of the activities itself. Welfare and public education are good examples, where at one point in time the State was willing to foot the bill for the public good, but is now rationalizing its retraction of fiscal responsibility. Low- income families, teachers and students are suffering the consequences of not only diminished resources within the home and classroom, but they also must live each day with the knowledge that they’ve been cast off by the very system they’re expected to belong to and work in.

In some ways it isn’t a surprise that the DWYL mentality is on the rise considering the powerful encroaching nature of capitalism. The spheres of work and non-work are made to seem collapsed in the world of the worker who does what she loves; she is always working because she loves it. The danger of this rampant positive mentality is that it masks the historic antagonism and separation between work and non-work....the antagonism between the two is as significant as their separation: Since capital is the production of surplus value, and since this production implies the constant expansion of labor time within society, the tendency within the mode of production is the constant encroachment of surplus labor time on the worker’s time away from labor. Capital is a totalizing process and seeks to consume the whole of the worker’s day under its logic.(6)

Entrepreneurism (such a big part of the DWYL worklife) is a way to convince individuals to adapt their wills, desires, and goals to profit logic—to the will and blindly replicating desire of the market.
These trends toward increased privatization, the rise in rhetoric around entrepreneurism, and the neoliberal dream of autonomous self-employment have to be seen in the context of resistance—as a response to worker struggles of the past. The terrain of work and production have changed so that worker solidarity and organization have become difficult, if not impossible, to establish. When so many people are self-employed, precarious, free-lance agents, certain tactics like the work strike become unrealizable. If so many workers are their own boss who do they withhold their labor from? These new confusions about what constitutes work, who profits from it, and how to resist its more exploitative forms have to be asked anew, whilst acknowledging that less flexible forms of exploitation, i.e. the factory, still persist.

If we are willing to acknowledge that there is no true exterior to the political economy then this opens new terrains for critique and struggle. We aren’t limited to organizing on the shop floor, but like the Autonomist Feminists did, we can organize across our kitchen floors and in classrooms, libraries, and fitness clubs—the places where we as future laborers are constructed. But we won’t accomplish anything if we can’t first recognize ourselves and each other as fellow workers.

Our resistance has to reckon with the fact that power inscribes and orders the language we use to speak our lives, perform our authenticities, and map our future worlds. “Each gesture and each constructive activity in which we invest ourselves has a counterpart within the monetary economy or the libidinal economy.”(7) At every turn we can ask how working out, doing our laundry, giving away free art, or performing a particular identity are good for capitalism and the state. Once that is realized, we can figure out how to organize them differently so as to be non-compliant, to make an interruption, an opposition to what power suggests.

We must organize and agitate from all spheres of life, perhaps even more so in the spaces where capital seems absent or obscured (again the home, the relation of bodies, the public park, the DWYL artist’s studio). These are the sites where the contradictions inherent in capitalism can be uncovered and drawn into visibility through refusal, provocation, and re- imagination. Looking back on the 1970s campaign, Federici describes how the sphere of reproductive labor doesn’t need to be negated, but revolutionized—commoned—but it seems that in addition these experiments into new ways of living and working together must also be enacted as confrontations to the clean flows of capital.


1 Endnotes, “The Logic of Gender,” in Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes, (London: Endnotes, 2013), 62.
2 Ibid, 62.
3 Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 8.
4 Miya Tokumitsu, “In the Name of Love,” Jacobin Magazine, #13, Winter 2014, 14.
5 Ibid, 13.
6 Jehu, “Notes on the essay The Logic of Gender,” The Real Movement accessed March 27th 2014:
7 Claire Fontaine, The Ready-Made Artist and Human Strike, translated 2005,