Social reproduction: A theoretical framework with organizing potential

Oct 8, 2019

Bioretention Gardens in Detroit. Source: University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.

Editor’s note: The following article first appeared in Breaking the Chains magazine, which you can purchase here.

Cooking meals, accessing healthcare, doing the laundry, caring for children and the elderly, and taking out the trash are daily activities. We rarely think of them as having much social, economic, or political significance. But they do. In our society much of this work is often ascribed to women and also devalued. This hides the fact that all this work is necessary for the reproduction of society, of social relations, of people.

Social reproduction clearly concerns the biological reproduction of children, most of whom will become workers. But one does not have to bear or care for children to engage in social reproduction activities. Every person either engages in social reproduction or pays someone else to do reproductive work each and every day.

In general terms, there are two main classes in capitalist society: those who own and control the means of production (the capitalists) and those who sell their labor power to survive (the workers). Capitalism is constructed around a basic relationship of exploitation. The capitalists profit from the exploitation of workers. Social reproduction deals with the question of how those workers and capitalists are reproduced and maintained.

A social reproduction framework helps us to remember that when we talk about class struggle, we must be concerned not only with the relation of workers and owners at the point of production, but also with the social relations that make and remake those workers and owners. Put another way, social reproduction activities are essential to the maintenance of capitalism, even as capitalist modes of exploitation and domination work to render this work invisible.

Several Marxist feminist theorists have argued that the exploitation of women played a central role in the process of capitalist accumulation. They argue that a key feature of the transition from feudalism to capitalism was an expanded and institutionalized oppressive sexual division of labor. By dividing work in the home from work outside the home — a distinction that was different under feudalism — capitalism managed to reshape gendered relations by simultaneously devaluing women’s position in society and controlling their unwaged labor through the predominantly male wage. Capitalism, from the very start, makes the production and reproduction of labor-power appear to be natural, rather than a key feature of capitalist relations. This analysis helps us to see that social reproduction activities are not in any natural way “women’s work;” rather, capitalist relations have historically rendered women the reproductive workers of capitalism.

Understanding the heightened exploitation and oppression of women as a key feature of the process of capitalist accumulation helps us see the links between the colonial projects of expropriation and enslavement, and the subjugation of women. Silvia Federici, in Caliban and the Witch, argues that the production of commodities such as sugar, rum, tea, tobacco, and cotton in the Americas, made possible through the use of slave labor and genocide, cut the cost of reproducing labor-power in Europe. The integration of slave labor and expropriated resources from the “New World” into the reproduction of the European workforce offers us another example of how capitalist accumulation seeds divisions among the working class by rendering some work waged and visible, and other work unwaged and invisible. The introduction of the wage was crucial to the increased exploitation and oppression of women as part of this process. Additionally, new forms of torture were mobilized for both the social degradation of European women, and the enslavement and genocide of African and Indigenous people.

A history of capitalist accumulation that includes the subjugation of women, Indigenous people, and enslaved Africans, articulates the historical basis for divisions within the working class. Divisions of race, gender, and sexuality are not natural, but imposed by capitalism through brutal and violent forms of subjugation that unevenly shape working-class lives.

Today we can see these divisions in the racialization and gendering of care work such as nannies, home care workers, and domestic cleaners. Historically, the ruling class has rarely cared for their own children, washed their own floors, laundered their own clothes, or cared for their aging parents. With the decimation of the family wage, or a wage sufficient to raise a family (which was never close to universal anyway), even working-class families are paying others to perform reproductive activities.

The commodification of reproductive work develops in relation to its history as unwaged work and a process of violent capitalist accumulation that rendered that work invisible, natural, and neutral. We can see the effects of this history in the working conditions of domestic workers, manicurists, laundry workers, and nannies; reproductive work is often low waged, precarious, and low status. A social reproduction framework helps us locate reproductive workers’ struggles within the history of capitalism. It also reminds us that these workers — in part, because of their role in making and remaking people — are important to the maintenance of capitalism and key to its demise.

Organizing with a social reproduction framework

In the small, rural city in which I organize, the city government, along with community organizers, conducted a study to learn more about the barriers to economic opportunity faced by working-class people in our community. Among the most frequently cited barriers were access to affordable childcare, healthcare, and disability services, healthy food, transportation, and quality housing. Working-class people in Geneva, New York, articulated what working-class people all over the United States know to be true: it does not matter how many new jobs are created if people are too sick to work, unable to get to work, or unable to find anyone to care for their children. But we do not need a social reproduction framework to understand that the privatization, rolling back, and destruction of social provisioning has material consequences for working-class people. Where a social reproduction framework can be helpful is in naming those activities — caring for children, getting to work, accessing healthcare — as work that must be done by someone, work that is essential to our community’s very functioning.

This capacious understanding of all the often-invisible work that goes into building a healthy community was especially useful in the organizing we did around lead poisoning in Geneva. In 2016, we learned that over 200 homes in one of the most economically and racially diverse neighborhoods in the city had been contaminated by lead spewed from an old foundry. Over a period of decades, the lead had settled in the soil and was poisoning children, pets, gardens, and adults. In the first community-organized meeting about the foundry contamination, residents were angry and scared. Their diverse demands were competing and often individual, like “I shouldn’t have to pay taxes on a property that has been poisoned.” The county lead nurse contributed to this sense of individual injury and remedy, disciplining community members as she described how children’s toys should be wiped down daily and new vacuums must be purchased.

A social reproduction framework helped us ask the kinds of questions that brought unity to the struggle: “What do you need to make life liveable in the foundry zone?” Residents talked about how challenging childcare had become since children had to be kept out of contaminated backyards. They shared fears about food insecurity now that grocery store trips could not be supplemented by their backyard gardens. They talked about the difficulties of accessing adequate healthcare, particularly lead testing. Spanish-speaking residents talked about the difficulties of accessing health information because the city- provided educational resources were written only in English. Renters and home owners began to share their frustrations with one another and began to talk about how they might align their demands. Likely, these same grievances and stories would have emerged even if we had not been organizing with a social reproduction framework. That all of the organizers shared this framework made it easier to see, right away, that the lead poisoning was not only endangering people’s health and lives, but making reproductive activities even more fraught, time consuming, and riddled with additional guilt and anxiety. In other words, social reproduction helped us broaden the terrain of political struggle and forge unity.

One effect of broadening the political field was new possibilities for solidarity and new ways to do political work. Residents generated a list of demands that included free lead testing and treatment, free fruits and vegetables, free childcare in an uncontaminated part of the city, a reduction in rents at contaminated properties, and for all meetings and information about the lead poisoning and remediation efforts to be in Spanish and English. The city ultimately met many of the demands and a sizeable sum from the city budget was allocated for making residents’ lives in the foundry zone livable during the cleanup. Equally remarkable, though, was the sense of unity among neighbors who had never before thought of themselves as on the same side, shaped by a capacious sense of being the political actor rather than observer.

Reproductive activities are almost always less tedious, less time consuming, and less alienating when done collectively. When the city finally provided foundry residents with vouchers for the farmer’s market, residents would pool their vouchers and send a neighbor to the market. They shared tips about which vegetables would decrease the lead in children’s blood and strategies for keeping the lead dust out of their homes. Naming reproductive activities as political sites worth struggling over incorporated unlikely people into a political struggle, on the same side.

Benefits of a Social Reproduction Framework

Social reproduction theory draws from and extends Marxist theories of labor, value, and primitive accumulation. Thus, for feminist theorists and scholars it has provided an essential framework for understanding the relationship between capitalism and the subjugation of women and others. Outside of the academy, however, a social reproduction framework is being incorporated into organizing practices that are increasingly concerned with fighting back against the exploitation, violence, and oppression embedded in every aspect of social life. For any on-the-ground organizer, this is a lesson we have already learned: Working-class and oppressed people are fighting for our lives in virtually all aspects of life under capitalism. A social reproduction framework helps us understand how the gendered and racialized history of capitalist accumulation contributes to capitalism’s ability to shape all aspects of our lives. This history makes clear that reproductive activities are quite profitable to capitalism and essential for its maintenance.

This is good news for socialists. We already know that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction; a social reproduction framework reminds us that capitalism can and must be destroyed in all aspects of social life. Silvia Federici theorizes that reproduction also has a dual characteristic, for even as social reproduction makes and remakes us as workers, it also has the potential to make and remake us as revolutionary subjects. Just as U.S. public schools attempt to make children into potential workers with bells, lines, detentions, and binary articulations of gender, youth centers and other liberatory spaces have the capacity to undo this work, insisting that we are not reducible to the role of worker and that we do indeed have the capacity to resist, revolt, and exceed the roles offered to us by the capitalist system. It is important to recognize that the work of resisting capitalist modes of social life and subjectification happens all the time: neighbors pool their SNAP benefits, extended families collectivize childcare, community organizations glean produce from farms, and New Yorkers “swipe it forward” on the subway. In making visible the work of social reproduction, we also make available that work as sites of struggle and therefore, sites of liberation.

There are a few other specific ways in which social reproduction is a helpful framework in relation to the current fight against capitalism. The #MeToo movement has brought attention to the gender-based violence and harassment that women and nonbinary people continue to experience. A social reproduction framework helps us bring a systemic, anti-capitalist analysis to this discussion. Once we recognize that social reproduction activities are essential to the maintenance of capitalism, it follows that social reproduction would involve conflict, struggle, exploitation, and expropriation like all other work that happens under capitalism. Federici’s account of the 16th and 17th century witch hunts in Europe and the Americas, for example, explains how violent processes of extermination were key technologies of capitalist accumulation because in order to subjugate women for the purposes of reproducing the workforce, women’s power had to be destroyed. Gender-based violence is not caused by “bad” people, but is systemic, a tool used for the subjugation of women and other oppressed people in the service of capitalism. Violence in the home and workplace is linked to the violence of the state. Understanding the historic origins of gender-based violence opens up new opportunities for solidarity as we move from individual stories of harassment and assault to a recognition that capitalism benefits from our collective subjugation as well from the divisions it attempts to seed among the working and oppressed classes.

A social reproduction framework can also complicate reductive notions of identity politics. Crucially, social reproduction is not in any natural way “women’s work;” it is the history of social reproduction that allows us to see how reproductive activities have been feminized as a result of the sexual division of labor. The idea that women are somehow more capable of reproductive activities has been calcified by centuries of misogyny and white supremacy that discipline women for not being sufficiently nurturing, patient, selfless, or caring; and in the cases where women do demonstrate these characteristics they are assumed to be natural gifts, rather than socially produced skills. In this way, a social reproduction framework pushes against identity politics by insisting that woman is a socially constructed category. Men can and do engage in reproductive labor and this labor is just as invisible, in part because of its feminization, when men do this work.

Under our current conditions, a social reproduction framework can raise class consciousness among people who capitalism has positioned outside the workforce — that is, people who may not think of themselves as workers. Disabled people, the elderly, stay-at-home parents, organizers, students, and prisoners all engage in reproductive activities that contribute to the production of value under capitalism. A social reproduction framework helps us insist on what we know: All these people are part of the working class and can join with factory workers, nurses, teachers, service sector workers, and retail workers in the fight against capitalism because their working conditions also must change.

To defeat capitalism, we must not only seize the means of production, but think creatively about how we might seize the means of social reproduction. We must ask ourselves how we can do the work of making and remaking people in ways that are not violent, exploitative, alienating, and immiserating but are instead collective and liberatory, free of the divisions that render reproductive work invisible, natural, and taken for granted.

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