Social Reproduction Theory, or SRT, is a theory that centers how we—as individuals, the working class, and society as a whole—produce and then maintain our need-satisfying capacities over time. It is also, as I argue in the forthcoming book Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon, a theory that is committed to socialism, which, far from authoritarian domination, I take to be the name for all the social relations through which we could most freely develop and use these capacities. In my view, SRT analyses both the constraints of capitalist social relations, and points to the possibilities for socialism beyond them.
The way the COVID-19 pandemic has stemmed from, but then disrupted capitalist social reproduction, is ripe for SRT’s first kind of social analysis, while the way the pandemic opens possibilities for more radical commitments make it ripe for SRT’s second commitment, that is, to pursuing socialism. This is because COVID-19 has made our standard strategies for social reproduction entirely unreliable, and in doing so, has put the question to the very form of their organisation. What I mean by ‘strategies for social reproduction’ is simply the fact that there are always many different ways that we can organise the work we do to satisfy our needs.
In the previous regime of social reproduction, we could only satisfy our needs when paychecks came in, but during the pandemic, this way of doing things is no longer tenable. And this is why COVID-19 has put the question to forms of social reproduction that rely on exchanging our abilities to work for a wage. It is shining a light on and clarifying what was hidden or only dimly visible: that there is something troubling and violent in the way that we hang on the very possibility of waged work. And there is something deeply disturbing in how the wage and the work we are compelled to do for it dominates all our other needs and shapes, or better, contorts the way we reproduce ourselves. Now that the virus has equated working with taking increasing risks with one’s life, the waged nature of reproducing life can start to seem like a bad bet.
It is not only that the virus has revealed a divided or even a fundamentally rotten society. While this is no doubt true, this insight was already well-prepared. The consequences of the crash and global recession of 2008 made class-based social analysis first possible and then increasingly popular. Who could have imagined back in 2005 that in just a decade, plausible candidates for executive office could again sound like the social democrats of bygone generations?
However, our response to COVID-19 holds promise to push much further. The virus has demonstrated to millions, and made millions more capable of seeing, the need for a fundamentally different organisation of how we satisfy needs. Through the changed patterns of our daily lives, the virus has afforded a mental (if not for essential workers, a physical) distance from our standard way of abiding by and internalising the capitalist mode of social reproduction. Through this distance we are increasingly able to first see and then strongly object to the basic economic arrangements of the wage and capital’s profit-driven arrangement of our social reproduction. To be sure, the virus has opened pathways for reactionary, authoritarian, and neo-fascist forms of rule, but it is also radicalizing our relationship to need in ways that can support far more hopeful politics.
SRT’s central and twofold insight is that our powers are beholden to capitalist economic pressures but also, and crucially, that they are the very tools that capital is beholden to as it grows its dominating force. With all but non-essential workers encouraged or forced to isolate as best they can, unemployment has increased, wages have declined, and in many instances, production has ground to a halt. The wages necessary for millions in the working class to reproduce themselves have fallen or been reduced to nothing. The pandemic therefore poses not only a personal and public health crisis, but a crisis of social reproduction at both the ideological and practical level. For the most part our needs remain the same, but our ability to pay for their satisfaction does not. The more the working class is pressured to return to work as if it were not straightforwardly murderous and counterproductive to do so, the more glaring the ideological crisis becomes. Indeed, attempts to resolve the practical crisis have been accurately described as evidence that capitalism is a death cult.
Tragically, there had been ample evidence that the industrial arrangements of production would likely sponsor a virus like this one, and it has been clear for quite a while that some very significant changes were necessary, but most did not heed the warnings. Agricultural and livestock production was arranged in facilities that were crowded to the point of danger for all involved. The close proximity of massive populations of different species of livestock increased the risk of viruses crossing and spreading between species. Finally, the extraordinarily interconnected nature of our social relations, combined with the speed with which we now traverse them has meant that viruses that previously died out before transmission are now capable of rapidly evolving in capitalist livestock production and then rapidly spreading from a small set of agricultural workers to billions of others. A social reproduction view is helpful in seeing how the devastating consequences were inevitable, not in any absolute sense, but given the cost, and especially wage-reducing imperative that organises capitalist industry.
Social reproduction theory is even more helpful in tracing the pandemic’s social consequences, because they are in no sense naturally given. In the US and in most societies today, nearly everyone either has to work in exchange for a wage or rely on those who do while capitalists compete by shaving costs. Those who are rendered redundant or deemed incapable of working are seen as ‘surplus populations’. Those who can find waged work use most if not all their income to pay for mortgages or rent, food, transportation, outsourced care needs, and debts. In capitalist society we produce and continuously reproduce our lives more or less as reliably as we can use them to generate wages. However, as is clear with the coronavirus, working in exchange for a wage has become impossible or deadly for many, and much more fraught with perils and stressful for everyone else. Those who depend on others’ wages are even more vulnerable to the myriad, often gendered, forms of abuse that flow from relations of dependence.
Declining support for healthcare and health research has meant that adequate PPE and ventilators stock, as well as vaccines and ameliorative treatments, were deemed insufficiently ‘necessary’ or profitable to invest in. The risks we take in agricultural production were then magnified by the way states and localities, strapped for cash due to declining profitability of capital and thus tax revenues, turned to cutting back on already precarious health infrastructure. Racist and classist disadvantages in ability to socially isolate and access healthcare were magnified, and the entirely foreseeable results are finally happening: a viral pandemic that has created far more risk than necessary for all, and which is especially dangerous for those already most constrained by capitalist arrangements of social reproduction.
If, as I’ve argued, SRT sees that the pandemic-induced crisis of social reproduction is creating a legitimation crisis for capital, what paths can it offer as a way out of this catastrophe? In other words, what political ways towards freer, even socialist regimes of social reproduction can SRT point to?
In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, social reproduction theory points to how essential workers have a tremendous burden, but also tremendous leverage. From nurses and teachers to Amazon warehouse workers we have seen how, through withholding labour power, this leverage can be used to win safer working conditions. Victories then show workers just how essential their powers truly are and this insight can gather steam. Once workers see that they, rather than their bosses make the economy run, and that they deserve to live when public health dictates that they ought not work, even more radical awakenings become possible.
In this way, SRT’s view of COVID-19 sees how it is magnifying the kinds of risks and trade-offs that workers are always forced to take. When we have to ask ourselves if we can afford to take a sick day, or whether we can afford to pursue a freer life when a job is our path to healthcare or rent, the continued life of workers is posed against our ability to do what would be best for us. SRT is then committed to deepening and broadening the working class’ recognition of their own powers within and ultimately against the capital-induced constraints we are forced to accept. Through these powers, social reproduction theory is committed not only to overcoming the death cult of capitalism, but to a socialist horizon of life-making: a regime of social reproduction beyond our need for wages and beyond our need to merely live through this pandemic or another day of drudgery. SRT’s commitment to socialism promises a horizon in which our powers are socially produced and reproduced, quite simply, for their own sake.
Aaron Jaffe is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Liberal Arts at The Juilliard School in New York. His articles have appeared in Comparative Literature and Culture, Philosophy and Social Criticism, and other journals. He has written chapters in The Bloomsbury Companion to Marx, and Critical Theories and the Budapest School.
His new book Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon: Work, Power and Political Strategy, is available to pre-order now.
*I would like to thank my 9:00 am “Writing Seminar” class for providing excellent feedback on a draft of this piece. Through the constraints of zoom-based education, and in the depths of weeks-long social isolation, their careful attention and insightful comments have shown we have extraordinary abilities to grow our capacities despite living through equally extraordinary conditions.