On May Day this year, as part of the Radical May festival, we streamed a live event with Susan Ferguson and Tithi Bhattacharya, who discussed how the pandemic has shone a light on the importance of the Marxist concept of social reproduction theory. Engaging with feminist anti-work critiques, the speakers proposed that women’s emancipation depends upon a radical reimagining of all labour and advocates for a renewed social reproduction framework as a powerful basis for an inclusive feminist politics.
Many questions were asked by the audience, and there was not enough time to answer them all. Luckily, Susan and Tithi have taken the time to answer the questions, which are reproduced below.
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Question 1: ‘Isn’t the contradiction between capital and life, profitmaking and carework, sometimes mitigated by the fact that some carework is organized capitalistically (ie. you can make profit off it)?
Yes, in the case of commodified care work (for example, a McDonald’s cook or someone who works in a for-profit daycare centre), workers are directly exploited by a capitalist who profits off their labour. As a result, their labour processes are managed in accordance with the market discipline imposed by the law of value. That is, their clear goal as workers is to be as “productive” as possible — to do their job as cheaply and, where applicable, as quickly as possible (just like someone working for Samsung or Google, for example).
Such commodified social reproductive work mitigates the contradiction between life-making and capitalist value-production insofar as it subsumes life-making to accumulation.
Nonetheless, that contradiction hovers at the edges of such production processes, precisely because what is being produced (and sold) is care — the nurturing of human life.
In most cases, this fact places a limit on the imposition of market discipline in commodified social reproduction. For instance, one could find even cheaper (more capitalistically productive) ways to look after kids than current private daycare arrangements: a centre could employ one care worker for every 20 kids two years and older instead of one per 11 or 1 per 5, as are the legal requirements in Texas and Indiana respectively. But there’s a reason the state intervenes to reduce that ratio.
Historically evolved and socially specific limits are imposed on market logic because the product is human life. Whereas the state might impose health and safety standards on factories producing computer parts, those are largely aimed at protecting the workers in those plants, not at the products. The standards that states impose on childcare operations, on the other hand, are primarily aimed at ensuring that the business’ product, human life, is not at risk. Other commodified social reproductive work processes are similarly conditioned by non-market considerations. For instance, restaurant inspections and regulations around how food is stored and cooked are also animated by the need to ensure that value-production meet certain needs for nutrition and well-being of consumers. So yes, the contradiction between life-making and profit-making in capitalistically organized social reproduction is mitigated, but it doesn’t disappear.
Question 2: ‘Since capital partly reproduces workers’ lives through exploitation and oppression, can SRT’s commitment to life-making be pushed beyond life-making as such towards communist life?
SRT’s commitment to life-making is, in effect, a commitment to prioritizing human needs above all else. If you’re asking does that imply or require that social reproductive work be organized communally, I’d say yes, likely.
The critique of capitalist social reproduction begins from the fact of dispossession. Capitalism’s initial and on-going dispossession of the mass of humanity from their means of subsistence through the violent imposition of a system of private property and commodification is at the heart of how and why workers’ social reproduction is largely privatized and individualized in the first place. That is, it is why workers must rely upon wages and their own privately organized social reproductive labour to ensure they can provision themselves and their families. This is what creates the tendency to reinforce the private family (even when it is not the two-parent, patriarchal household that has been socially and ideologically dominant for much of capitalism’s history) as a privileged site of capitalist social reproduction.
But the alternative to private social reproduction is not necessarily communal social reproduction.
The state, of course, socializes social reproduction to some degree in capitalism and some might argue (though not us) for a post-capitalist social reproduction regime organized entirely by the state.
One reason why that would be a problem is because we’ve also seen why and how such state socialization is not adequate to fulfilling human need. Indeed, as much as the state minimally meets human need (through welfare provisions and public services such as healthcare and education), it is also essential to ensuring that certain groups’ human needs are not met. Immigration and border controls, systems of internal and external colonization, policing, housing policies, and the list goes on… All these things ensure that some people’s lives (primarily racialized, Indigenous, feminized, queer, disabled peoples’ lives) are reproduced more cheaply and under greater threat of violence than others.
So SRT rules out that life-making be socialized through the capitalist state.
Beyond that, I think things get a little less certain because SRT shares in a Marxism-from-below perspective in which social transformation is defined by those who are in struggle. Insofar as it sees the struggle against capitalism as a struggle of the oppressed recognizing their commonality in prioritizing life-making over capital-making, I think there is every reason to expect that the reorganization of life-making labour would be premised on the elimination of private property, and hence, ultimately communally organized. That said, it’s impossible to determine this with certainty in advance. Perhaps there’s some as yet unimagined organization of the resources society needs to survive (e.g., maybe the choice isn’t just between private, state-controlled and communal property relations).
About such future times, the only thing we can say for sure is that society’s labour will not be organized simply to prioritize life-making but for the flourishing of life. There is an important distinction between the reproduction and maintenance of life under conditions that limit and discipline human need, and those very same acts and institutions under a social system that is organized to meet and expand such needs in a collective manner. Under capitalism, any gains we make to defend or expand life-making work or institutions are (a) always temporary and (b) aimed at mitigating the injuries of capital on life, not to abolish them.
But in a postcapitalist society where living labour is not dominated by its abstraction, the community can collectively decide the manner and form of production. Labour can be directly social and not social through the medium of exchange. In such a society life-making becomes the goal of social labour rather than its reluctant afterthought. If production needs are set consciously and carried out by an “association of producers”, society needs to spend only a set/limited amount of time to produce for the maintenance of life. The rest of social time can be directed towards the flourishing of life, as Marx put it in the Grundisse, “[t]he less time society requires to produce corn, livestock, etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or spiritual”
I think this is where SRT’s commitment to life-making organically develops into a commitment to meet material as well as sensuous, creative and intellectual needs. A commitment to what Marx called a ‘totality of manifestations of life’.
Question 3: Can you talk more about the differences/similarities between SRT and intersectionality please? I know there’s an essay in Tithi’s book on this. Should we use both in combination?
First, we need to acknowledge that there are many different iterations of intersectionality feminism, just as social reproduction theory is used in a variety of ways. The most insightful work within intersectionality feminism explains distinct relations of power (gender, racial, sexuality, and so on) as co-constitutive. However, these approaches suggest that the “intersections” of power relations occur outside of or beyond a unifying logic of how we reproduce ourselves as a society. SRT agrees that power relations are co-constitutive, but insists on explaining these in relation to the way in which capitalism sets the over-arching conditions of our reproduction. Such conditions derive in the first instance from the fact of our dispossession from the means of life and life-making, which generates the contradictory relationship between value production and life-making under capitalism. And it is this necessary but contradictory relation between life and capital that determines the conditions of possibility for all kinds of human relations. The essay in Tithi’s book (by David McNally) makes the point that the SRT critique builds upon the insights of intersectionality while also theorizing a complex unitary social logic.
Question 4: what do you see as the role(s) for arts workers in relation to social reproduction theory during this pandemic?
First, arts workers are not just life-making but life-saving during this pandemic. They’re helping incredibly to keep people sane and hopeful about life. They are doing that through their very insistence on making art throughout the pandemic. In Houston, we have a local production company sending us weekly performances — mostly pianists playing classical music, followed often by a discussion of the piece’s history and meanings. And the Houston Museum of Fine Arts is challenging people to recreate master works at home using pandemic related themes. In Toronto, one theatre company is offering zoom sessions with kids in which they coach them on acting out bits of plays. All sorts of independent and small collectives of artists are producing and sharing songs, poetry, films and more. And let’s not forget the comics who are parodying the pandemic’s effects on daily life and skewering our so-called leaders. These are all testament to the necessity of art to making meaning out of life, and its ability to soothe and lift our hearts and minds to a world beyond our immediate material circumstances. So, arts workers have a crucial role to play in the social reproduction of daily life during the pandemic. (There are likely some pretty interesting studies to be done relating to the art that gets produced and responses to that art in this period — who precisely is producing it, what gets produced and how, how does it critically address the period, how is it received, etc.)
The awful and sadly predictable part of this is that many artists are also taking a huge and possibly permanently disabling hit from the spatial distancing policies. As you know, production of all sorts of arts events shut down pretty quickly — from major festivals and concerts to one-off plays that have been months, sometimes years, in planning. Closed galleries and museums now have backlogged schedules. Grants for independent artists will undoubtedly shrink as governments go into full throttle austerity mode to “pay for” pandemic spending. I expect that what little state support there will still be for the arts will go primarily to safe bets, established institutions that tend to not challenge the norms and expectations of capitalist society. Many of the very artists who nurtured, amused and incited us throughout the pandemic will probably face the social devaluation of life- (and art-making-) as-normal under capitalism.
Question 5: Does this tendency of degradating life and life-making, a way of capital producing the kind of life it is necessary to its valorisation?
The valorisation of capital requires the creation of surplus value. This in turn depends upon the worker creating more value for the capitalist than she is recompensed for through her wages. Insofar as the tendency to degrade life lowers the wages of the worker, it contributes to increasing value for capital. So, yes, capitalist organization of social reproduction must ensure that life is sufficiently degraded that workers can and will produce (and expand) surplus value for the capitalist. SRT further proposes that because life-making under capitalism is bound up with hierarchical oppressive relations (along lines of “race,” gender, sexuality, ability, nationhood, age, etc.), not only is the degradation of life and life-making necessary to capital’s valorisation, but so too is the differential degradation of life and life-making. That is, for example, the social and historical degradation of black lives relative to white lives (through low wages, de facto segregation, poor healthcare, high imprisonment rates etc.) solidifies for capital a section of the workforce that accepts poorer and more dangerous conditions of work and greater surveillance and precariousness. It also secures for capital a low-wage workforce, which is especially important for those industries that do not have high profit margins. So it is not necessarily the case the such workers are more “productive” (e.g., create higher value for capital). But it is the case that they allow capital to profit off of industries that might otherwise be unprofitable (e.g., construction, agriculture, healthcare, nursing homes and childcare centres). In this sense, the differential degradation of life under capitalism facilitates the valorisation of capital in industries it might not otherwise find profitable.
Question 6: Wouldn’t it be more correct to say that capitalism is indifferent to life, not against it? In fact, in some historical moments, capitalism has promoted life through developing productive forces.
Right, I hear what you mean. And yes, there is a sense in which capitalism is indifferent to life. Your boss, Bill Gates or even Donald Trump don’t really care what you eat at home, how many kids you have, if you are in a same sex relationship or not. But they’re not indifferent in the sense that they do care about ensuring there is a sizeable and healthy enough workforce. Does this make capital promoters of life though? We don’t think so. It means that they have an instrumental attitude toward life and hence a relationship of reluctant dependence to life-making. They want it available to exploit. That is all. That is in effect tantamount to being against life — that is, against the idea that life in itself is valuable. And, more significantly, the dynamics of capitalist accumulation systematically undermine life because the pressure and tendency is always toward dispossession — towards lowering wages and taxes, even when they can and will (as we’ve seen in the pandemic) jump into action to save lives when faced with an existential threat.
Question 7: What do you think about Mental Health services becoming commoditised in an attempt to get people back to ‘work’ to be ‘productive’ whilst robbing the welfare state?
First, I think insofar as mental health services can be bought and sold on the open market, that marks a failure of the state to provide an essential social reproductive service. But your question is perhaps more about the contradiction of providing something that ultimately makes people healthy enough to be exploited. So, whether it’s coming from the market or the state, should we be concerned about providing services so people can become healthy enough to work — especially in a time when it’s dangerous to go back to work?
Yes and no.
At one level, major social services like education and healthcare are oriented to making/’producing’ people into stable good workers. There’s no getting away from that.
At the same time, for those who suffer from a lack of education or poor healthcare (psychiatric or other), some stable state is much better than none.
But while we support providing people with such support, we also need to, at the same time, support movements in which clients of social services help to define and expand service provision. We need to give students, those with mental health or other conditions, and community members more generally the opportunity to work with experts in these fields to better identify community needs and creative ways of meeting them. As for providing services here and now in order to get people back to work, I think we need to argue for the separation of those two things. Yes we need services, but not as a condition of their willingness to get back to unsafe workplaces.
Question 8: SRT focuses primarily on the harsh distinction between reproduction of life and the production of commodity, but can some women’s role do both? And how would you theorise that?
This is answered somewhat in the response to the first question. Women working in commodified social reproductive industries tend to also be racialized (for instance in nursing, home care staffing, contracted out domestic workers, etc.), and that this drives home how important anti-racism and anti-sexism politics are to any discussion of class resistance. Militant, successful community resistance to, say, police violence can mean that a black, Hispanic or Filipina single mom working as a retirement home personal support worker need to worry less about her kids while she works a night shift. And building solidarity between such a campaign and homeworkers unions can begin to highlight the ways in which the racism that drives insecurity in the streets and precarious living more generally also works to sustain a racialized workforce whose lower wages result in capital’s higher profits.
Question 9: When we think of SRT bringing home the focus on preconditions of capitalism in life making and death making, how does SRT help us to (re)imagine alternatives?
SRT begins from the Marxist idea that it is through work — through our practical, imaginative and sensual interaction with the world — that we create our lives, our societies, our histories.
The problem with capitalism is that it obstructs the ability of the vast majority of people to freely create ourselves and our world. It robs us of our means of subsistence, but also of our ability to organize our practical world-making activities according to our needs and desires.
We can and do push against the limits capital imposes on our life-making — through certain individual acts of defiance, the creation of alternative spaces and programs, and through protest itself. It is in such moments that we see the glimpse of the possibilities for other forms of organizing life-making (and correspondingly, of organizing the social reproduction of dying as well). We can learn, first of all, that life-making doesn’t have to be individualized and privatized. We learn that people can pool resources and talents to help feed a community, to learn new things, to heal and comfort others, to create art, and do countless other things. We learn, in other words, that our practical world-making activities do not have to involve alienated relations between people and between people and things.
SRT calls attention to this as the basis from which alternatives to capitalist social reproduction can be imagined. At the same time, it calls attention to the way in which capital’s relentless undermining of human life is a constant and harsh reality for the vast majority of those of us living on this planet. That is why it’s so important to confront and ultimately transcend capitalism, rather than to think we can somehow create a kinder capitalism through state reforms, or that we can somehow ignore its relentlessly expanding dynamic.
Thanks again to Susan and Tithi for answering these questions.
Susan Ferguson is Associate Professor Emeritus at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, teaching Youth and Children’s Studies and Digital Media and Journalism. She is the author of Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (Pluto, 2019).
Tithi Bhattacharya is a Marxist historian and activist, writing extensively on gender and the politics of Islamophobia. She has been active in movements for social justice throughout her life, spearheading campaigns across three continents. She is the Professor of South Asian History at Purdue University and the author of The Sentinels of Culture (OUP, 2005). She is on the editorial board of Spectre. She is the editor of Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (Pluto, 2017).