The reproduction of labor power at capitalism’s core

Social Reproduction Theory:

Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression

In 2014, Haymarket Books reprinted Lise Vogel’s classic Marxism and Women’s Oppression: Toward a Unitary Theory. Originally published in 1983, it attempted to theorize women’s oppression using an explicitly Marxist framework. Vogel’s purpose in writing the book was to demonstrate that the tools necessary to understand women’s oppression were already available. Her book was nothing less than groundbreaking and provided the foundation for the current resurgence of social reproduction theory.

Susan Ferguson and David McNally write in their introduction to the new edition of Vogel’s work that “every book has its curious life-history.” Written just as the 1960s left and the women’s liberation movement went into retreat, this unfortunate timing contributed to the book fading into obscurity. But Marxist feminists and early social reproduction feminists kept the book from being completely lost. So it is fitting that Lise Vogel provides the forward to the new collection Social Reproduction Theory, edited by Tithi Bhattacharya.

The central theoretical contribution that Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) makes, as an avowedly Marxist framework, is that the reproduction of labor power is a fundamental part of the overall system of capitalism. Without the rearing, feeding, and education of workers, the system could not exploit them to produce commodities for profit. Often unwaged, undervalued if not invisible, reproductive labor enables the process of production to occur. As Bhattacharya argues in her introduction:

The fundamental insight of SRT is, simply put, that human labor is at the heart of creating or reproducing society as a whole. . . . Capitalism, however, acknowledges productive labor for the market as the sole form of “work,” while the tremendous amount of familial as well as communitarian work that goes on to sustain and reproduce the worker, or more specifically her labor power, is naturalized into nonexistence. Against this, social reproduction theorists perceive the relation between labor dispensed to produce commodities and labor dispensed to produce people as part of the systemic totality of capitalism.

One consequence of this approach is an understanding of “how categories of oppression (such as gender, race, and ableism) are co-produced simultaneously with the production of surplus value.”

Although generally accessible, readers unacquainted with Marxism will find some parts of the book challenging, especially those parts that rely on the notion of totality developed by the German philosopher Hegel. Yet these parts of the book are well worth the effort, as this is where the ongoing debate between advocates of SRT and proponents of intersectionality theory is staged.

The book’s contributors share a common definition of social reproductive labor; it is the paid and unpaid work by which the laborer herself, and individual workers, are reproduced. This includes the care of workers themselves, the care of the nonlaboring members of the family (children, elderly family members, family members on disability, or unemployed), and finally, the replacement of one generation of workers with the next. The tasks that this process can involve are far-reaching. As the book points out, it involves schooling, pensions, and systems of care work, and varies by region, nationality, race, and gender.

The scope of the book is impressive. The contributors both develop the theory and also apply it to a wide range of questions. The contributors take some deep dives into Marxist economics, as well as the relationship between social reproduction and the role of gender identity and sexuality. Taken together, they show how social reproduction theory can extend our notion of class struggle beyond the workplace to the arena of social reproduction.

Nancy Fraser’s chapter “Crisis of Care? On the Social-Reproductive Contradictions of Contemporary Capitalism,” analyzes how the social reproduction of labor has adapted to three major phases in capitalist development. She argues that within every phase of capitalism, there is a “crisis tendency” or “contradiction” stemming from the reliance capitalism has on the process of reproductive labor, while its drive toward accumulation destabilizes that process itself. She explores the original separation of the productive and reproductive sphere as it emerged at the advent of capitalism, and then how that has changed and adapted through capitalism’s “mutations,” as she describes it. This chapter provides an excellent opening by situating social reproduction theory in how we understand capitalism, while also exploring the way the reproductive sphere changes as capitalism’s forms change.

Other chapters address the welfare state, domestic labor, and the role of pensions. Salar Mohandesi and Emma Teitelman attempt to expand the historical recounting of capitalist history to including social reproduction in their contribution, “Without Reserves.” Carmen Teeple Hopkins presents a case study in “Mostly Work, Little Play: Social Reproduction, Migration, and Paid Domestic Work in Montreal.” Serap Saritas Oran explores the sustenance of the elderly in “Pensions and Social Reproduction.” Susan Ferguson examines childhood, capitalism, and alienation in “Children, Childhood, and Capitalism: A Social Reproduction Perspective.” And Alan Sears discusses questions of gendered and racialized labor, bodies, and sexuality in his essay, “Body Politics: The Social Reproduction of Sexualities.”

In her chapter “How Not to Skip Class,” Bhattacharya argues that the working class needs to be understood more dynamically and broadly than economic reductionist formulations “in which a worker is simply a person who has a specific type of job” (emphasis in original). She instead contends that struggles in the realm of social reproduction must be seen as a crucial part of overall class struggle. Workplace struggle, while vital, is not the only arena in which the working class fights. She writes,

Workplace struggles thus have two irreplaceable advantages: one, they have clear goals and targets; two, workers are concentrated at those points in capital’s own circuit of reproduction and have the collective power to shut down certain parts of the operation. . . . But let us rethink the theoretical import of extra-workplace struggles, such as those for cleaner air, for better schools, against water privatization, against climate change, or for fairer housing policies. These reflect, I submit, those social needs of the working class that are essential for its social reproduction. They also are an effort by the class to demand its “share of civilization.” In this, they are also class struggles.

Bhattacharya shows how social reproduction theory is a vital contribution to Marxism’s ability to understand the whole system of capitalism, both production of commodities and reproduction of labor, and to identify battles in both as aspects of class struggle.  

David McNally’s chapter, “Intersections and Dialectics: Critical Reconstructions in Social Reproduction Theory,” explores the relationship between intersectionality and social reproduction theory, ultimately arguing that intersectionality’s shortcomings render it inadequate to explain oppression under capitalism. This has become a key theoretical debate among Marxists and the broader left. Bhattacharya contends that intersectionality cannot explain how the various oppressions fit together in the overall system. She poses the problem as a question: “If, as intersectionality theory tells us, race and gender intersect like two streets, then surely they are two separate streets, each with its own specificities. What, then, is the logic of their intersection?”

McNally rejects a theoretically sectarian posture toward intersectionality, arguing that its theorists’ insights can and ought to be “absorbed” into social reproduction theory instead of rejected. But he argues that intersectionality theorists, even at their most insightful, fall prey to what he calls “social Newtonianism.” Following Bhattacharya, he suggests these theorists tend to accept categories of oppression (gender, race, etc.) as “separate and autonomous ‘bits’ that enter into external relations with other ‘bits.’”

He calls this “mechanical thinking” that treats different aspects of society as discrete and separate elements that arise independently from one another and then only subsequently interact. He contrasts this to Hegel and Marx’s method of dialectical thinking that situates all elements as part of the whole of society, with each part of society inseparable from, and internally connected with, all other parts of society in its origin, existence, and transformation. Thus, instead of separate elements intersecting, Marxism calls attention to the “dynamic and changing interrelations among the elements of life that comprise a concrete (and hence internally differentiated) totality.”

In fact, McNally recognizes that intersectionality theorist Patricia Hill Collins strives toward exactly this when she writes that oppressions ought to be understood as “a single, historically created system.” At the same time, he insists that intersectionality necessarily drives its proponents to understand themselves as “standing at intersections,” whereas we really “stand in the river of life, where multiple creeks and streams have converged into a complex, pulsating system.”

McNally is right that there may be a tendency among some adherents of intersectionality toward a one-sided mapping of individual roads and crossroads at the expense of conceptualizing the whole map. However, his focus on the general might also lead him to underappreciate the specific context in which intersectionality theory and its insights arose. Intersectionality, and specifically Black feminism, helped overcome a very reductionist and one-sided version of Marxism. While never explicitly stating that we must reject intersectionality as a tool of analysis, McNally argues that intersectionality should be “transcended by a more robust theory,” that is, a “dialectically revitalized social reproduction theory.”

McNally’s own discussion of Angela Davis’s groundbreaking Women, Race, and Class, I suggest, counsels a different understanding of the relationship between intersectionality and social reproduction theory. In rightly praising the book as a seminal contribution to our understanding of exploitation and oppression, McNally writes that Davis’s work “ought to be considered a social reproduction text.” But she never in fact refers to that tradition. And he even notes “the status Davis’s text has in intersectionality literature.” Moreover, Angela Davis herself insisted at the 2017 Women’s March that our movement requires “an inclusive and intersectional feminism that calls upon all of us to join the resistance to racism, to Islamophobia, to anti-Semitism, to misogyny, to capitalist exploitation.”

Rather than viewing intersectionality as merely containing critical insights that must be integrated into social reproduction theory while rejecting the framework itself, perhaps we can conceive of the theories as two moments (to return to Hegel) in a larger historical materialist theoretical framework. McNally himself points out the value of Davis’s method, in which she presents a historical totality of capitalist exploitation in order to highlight the particular instances of intersectional oppression so that they may be comprehended and fought.

Cinzia Arruzza concludes the collection with a call to put social reproduction theory at the service of class struggle and social movements in the context of organizing the International Women’s Strike (IWS). She traces the origin of IWS in mass mobilizations in Argentina, Mexico, Italy, and Poland and urges her readers to build a new feminist movement that takes up the challenge of “articulating forms of action, organization, and demands [in which] diversity must become our weapon, rather than an obstacle that divides us.” She raises a critical debate among revolutionaries as to how to articulate the analytical distinctions and practical convergences between various forms of social struggle, arguing that “class struggle . . . cannot be conflated with labor struggle in the workplace.” This insight points to how a wide variety of resistance (Black Lives Matter, airport occupations against the Muslim ban, etc.) “potentially empower each other and create the conditions for organizing work stoppages in the workplace.” The point that we should not conflate all class struggle to workplace struggle is well taken, even though it is also the case that workplace struggle continues to be at the heart of a Marxist understanding of working-class power.

While the timing of Lise Vogel’s foundational text was unfortunate, the opposite is true for this extremely useful and important volume. Published in the first year of Trump’s misogynist rule, and just in time for the explosion of the Women’s Marches, #MeToo movement, and heroic strike of the mostly women teachers in West Virginia, this book should be required reading for anyone looking to deepen their theoretical footing to fight the intertwined battles against capitalism’s brutal exploitation and oppression of the world’s majority.

Issue #100

Spring 2016

100 Issues of the ISR

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