Introducing: social reproduction theory

Submitted by cathy n on 25 March, 2019 - 10:40 Author: Kieran Miles
domestic work

One of the key texts of early social reproduction theory was Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women, published in 1983. Vogel’s aim in the book was to criticise the ‘dual systems theory’ that emerged from the 1970s, which saw (a) Marxism as an explanation for class exploitation, and (b) patriarchy as an explanation for women’s oppression: two linked but fundamentally separate systems.

Some, like Hartmann, explicitly stated that Marxism was ‘sex-blind’, which necessitated a 'specifically feminist analysis': of patriarchy. Some socialist-feminists went further and suggested how the two systems might be more than linked, but symbiotically related. But Vogel sought to overcome the ‘dual systems theory’ entirely, and explain how class exploitation and women’s oppression are in fact component parts of the same system (see Capitalism and Women’s Oppression by Rachael Clark). As Susan Ferguson and David McNally note in their introduction to Vogel’s book, the subtitle is ‘Towards a Unitary Theory’, and “that subtitle links Vogel's project to the socialist-feminist search for a single, integrated theoretical account of both women's oppression and the capitalist mode of production” (xxiii).

Women’s oppression under capitalism is rooted in women’s overwhelming responsibility within the family unit for (a) domestic labour, necessary for the functioning of capitalism on a day-to-day level, by ensuring the workforce is capable of showing up the next day, fit for work, and (b) child-rearing, necessary for capitalism’s generational continuation, via reproduction of the future workforce. Bhattacharya states in Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression that “both those functions are disproportionately borne by women under capitalism and are the sources of women’s oppression under that system” (73). Labour is the critical element in the creation of surplus-value (production), so we must also analyse how that labour is made ready for the next working day, year or decade (reproduction). “Every social process of production is at the same time a process of reproduction” (Marx, 711). Put simply: if capitalism continues because we need to work in order to live, what are the conditions that enable us to work? This is the starting point of social reproduction theory.

“If the owner of labour-power works to-day, to-morrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be sufficient to maintain him in his normal state as a labouring individual. His natural wants, such as food, clothing, fuel, and housing, vary according to the climatic and other physical conditions of his country. On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called necessary wants, as also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development, and depend therefore to a great extent on the degree of civilisation of a country, more particularly on the conditions under which, and consequently on the habits and degree of comfort in which, the class of free labourers has been formed” (Marx, 275).

This tells us two things. Firstly, the importance of class struggle in determining the value of labour-power, and the kinds of needs, wants and desires we have. Secondly, that labour-power is expended through the production of commodities. After a hard day’s work, you need a cup of tea and a hot meal! “A definite quantity of human muscle, nerve, brain… is expended, and these things have to be replaced” (Marx 274-5) – the question is how are they replaced?

The most common site for the replenishment of labour-power is the kin-based family unit. Despite the mass entry of women into the workforce over the last century, women are expected to take on the majority or even the sole responsibility for domestic work, care for older family members, and childrearing in the home. These tasks are of course unpaid, and so the structure of the nuclear family, with women dependent on a partner’s wage, continues for millions of people even today. The think tank Catalyst stated that in 2018, women’s participation in work globally was 48.5%, compared to 75% of men. The gap between the two is largely explained by the expectation that women will participate in domestic labour in place of paid employment. Of course, women who work are usually expected to continue domestic labour outside of work hours too: what feminists have termed the ‘double burden’. Women who work are additionally more likely to be in part time employment – a 2013 report by the Office for National Statistics found that of women in work globally, 42% are in part time employment. This can be explained by the responsibilities of domestic labour, and the shortage of free childcare. On top of this, women can be expected to be paid less than men for like-for-like work – Catalyst found in 2018, the average gender pay gap in the UK is 18.4%, so women earn about 80% of men’s wages for identical work. The gap is much wider in other countries.

Marx was careful to note that even in developed countries where industrialised capitalism had become the dominant mode of production, there were often still remnants of earlier stages of capitalism (e.g. handicrafts) or even other forms of production. Similarly, it is important to note that whilst the family household is the dominant site of social reproduction, there are several alternative sites as well.   

Within the national framework, a source of generational replenishment of the workforce can come through immigration. Governments with ageing populations often seek young migrant workers to take on social care and health work, or other forms of work more generally. Earlier in capitalism’s history, slavery provided an expanded workforce in the cotton and tobacco plantations in the USA, or the sugar and coffee plantations in the Caribbean.

Some reproduction can also take place outside the house, for example, in the ‘dormitory labour system’ for temporary migrants and contract labourers (overwhelmingly women, bound by the hukou system) in the Special Economic Zones in southern China (see Pun Ngai 2009), in which the state builds dormitories next to factory compounds and rents them out for use to the factory owners. Shortening the spatial distance between the workplace and the site of reproduction has clear benefits for the bosses: it is easy to hold down wages, and lengthen the working day. Twentieth century Fascism and Stalinism point to yet another system: the inhumane history of forced labour camps. There are many other additional non-family based forms of living today: flatshares, housing co-operatives, care homes, single-parent households, and so on. However, with all these specificities having been accounted for, the household of the nuclear family remains the dominant form in which social reproduction takes place.

Bhattacharya stresses that successful battles by the working class for healthcare provision, pensions, public facilities like children’s centres, has led to some aspects of social reproduction moving directly into the sphere of paid employment. Instead of caring for an elderly relative, we pay a care home; instead of cooking, we get a takeaway; instead of caring for children round the clock, we make use of children’s centres. The level of class struggle (and a degree of ruling class self-interest) has often determined whether these things are paid for by individuals and families, or funded out of taxation by the state. Cultural expectations that many of the tasks formerly done by women in the household remain ‘women’s work’, even when turned into paid employment, often means that these jobs are in the majority held by women – and are often the lowest paid industries too.

Many of these sites blur the lines between the private and public spheres – a school is a site of reproduction (the education of children) and production (teachers working for a wage.) We can also make distinctions between whether these sites are run for profit or not, and therefore whether the work is productive or non-productive (in the sense of the terms as used in Marxist economics), but the outcome is the same. Bhattacharya notes that “it is important in this regard to clarify that what we designated above as two separate spaces – (a) spaces of production of value (point of production) and (b) spaces for reproduction of labor-power – may be separate in a strictly spatial sense, but they are actually united in the theoretical and operational senses… [and] sometimes the two processes may be ongoing within the same space” (75).

Having outlined the main contours of social reproduction theory, there are three current areas of debate amongst its proponents that I would like to draw attention to – none of which I have drawn a definitive answer to, and all of which I have sketched simplified outlines of below. The first is the question of the classification of social reproduction, specifically as to whether it is value-producing or not. The second is how to overcome the problems of social reproduction, focused on campaigns like Wages for Housework. The third is the emotional aspect to these questions.

The first question can be posed thus: is the reproductive sphere (all of the cooking, cleaning, and other housework, and even the emotional support of a relationship, the schools that taught us, the hospitals that treat us, and the libraries and parks and culture that nourish our intellectual faculties) necessary for the continuation of capitalism, but one which falls outside of the sphere of production – or is it a form of production itself? Is social reproduction, as the creator of the commodity of labour-power, also a form of productive labour?

Autonomist Marxists who answer positively to this question have developed a theory of the ‘social factory’. If labour-power is a commodity, but produced outside of the workplace, and the extension of capitalist social relations reaches far beyond the factory gates, then "the whole of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination to the whole of society" (Tronti). This however, poses immediate problems for socialist strategy: if the workplace is no longer a specific spatial site, but the whole of society, how do struggles over wages and working conditions materialise? Additionally, Marx wrote about how capitalist social relations expand beyond the workplace and necessarily imply, for example, the existence of the state, and a legal-juridical framework (see chapter 2 of Capital, Volume One). This does not however, overcome the necessity of waged labour, in the workplace, for the functioning of capitalism, and blurs the crucial distinctions made by social reproduction theorists between waged and unwaged labour, private and public spheres, production and reproduction.

The second question relates to attempts to overcome the oppression of domestic labour. The Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s sought to draw attention to the existence of gendered domestic labour, and to demand wages for that domestic work, necessary for capitalism, that went unpaid. However, the logic of the demand remained in some ways individualistic, centred around that work remaining within the household. Federici stated that the demand for wages for housework was not really made with the expectation of winning the demand – “in fact, to demand wages for housework does not mean to say that if we are paid we will continue to do it” – it was rather a way of drawing attention to the nature of housework, its gendered dimensions and the idea it is ‘natural’ or an innate part of womanhood, and a way of struggling against it. I would question that if women were to be paid for housework, would that really undermine the idea of ‘women’s work’, or in fact reinforce it? If the demand is made not to be actually won, but as a tool in consciousness raising, should we pose slogans we don’t actually want to win? Other demands in the history of the socialist movement have been instead about socialisation of the domestic sphere: communal laundries, kitchens, childcare facilities, and so on. These demands draw the work out of individual households and into the community. These were indeed the aspirations of socialist feminists like Alexandra Kollontai during the early days of the Russian Revolution.

The third problem relates to the difficulty in theorising our emotional relationship to social reproduction, particularly in relation to childrearing, and emotional labour. Despite the many obstacles outlined above, raising children is for many people, of all genders, a rewarding and fulfilling endeavour. Yes, raising children is a form of ‘work’, insofar as nearly everything we do that is necessary for the functioning of capitalism is a form of work. But it also a labour of love, and something many derive immense personal fulfilment from. Is there a danger that a neoliberal logic, of every single thing having a price or a value or an exchangeability, can ignore this (if not essential, then commonplace) part of our humanity?  Some variants of ‘anti-work’ politics can go from fair criticism of the current makeup of our working lives and the existence of ‘bullshit jobs’, but then shade into outright hostility to work itself, denying that labour (i.e. using our mental and physical and creative capacities to change the world around us) can be an enjoyable part of our humanity. In a similar fashion, some criticisms of domestic labour can shade into a hostility to all forms of social reproduction. What if we enjoy cooking for our housemates? Or like helping our kids with homework? We are social animals, who enjoy human interaction in its many forms: friendships, families, sexual and romantic relationships, having colleagues, being on a sports team, being part of a community or subculture. When we listen to our friends, offer them emotional support, remember a birthday, isn’t that part of the normal (and immeasurable) ‘parameters’ of friendship, rather than a form of unpaid labour?

Vogel summarises the questions posed thus: “The domestic-labour literature identified family-households as sites of production. Reconceptualised as domestic labour, housework and child-care could then be analysed as labour-processes. From this beginning came a series of questions. If domestic labour is a labour-process, then what is its product? People? Commodities? Labour-power? Does the product have value? If so, how is that value determined? How and by what or whom is the product consumed? What are the circumstances, conditions, and constraints of domestic labour? What is domestic labour's relationship to the reproduction of labour-power? To overall social reproduction? To capitalist accumulation? Could a mode of reproduction of people be posited, comparable to but separate from the mode of production? Might answers to these questions explain the origins of women's oppression?” (184).

These are questions that the movement is still theorising. Like the search for a Grand Unified Theory of physics, the attempts to be specific about the extant forms of production and reproduction, as part of a unified materialist understanding of society, continue to be detailed and analysed. Social reproduction theory aids us, as Bhattacharaya says, in providing an explanation of capitalism in its “messy, sensuous, gendered, raced” (70) totality, centred around human life and the class struggle: capitalism’s “unruly component: living human beings capable of following orders – as well as of flouting them” (ibid).

Capital (vol 1) by Karl Marx, tr. Ben Fowkes, Penguin, 1990.
‘Capital, Labour-Power and Gender-Relations: Introduction to the Historical Materialism Edition of Marxism and the Oppression of Women by Susan Ferguson and David McNally, in Marxism and the Oppression of Women by Lise Vogel, Haymarket, 2013.
‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’ by John D’Emilio, in Powers of Desire: Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Sharon Thompson & Christine Stanstell, Monthly Review Press, 1983.
‘Capitalism and Women’s Oppression’ by Rachael Clark, in Why Socialist Feminism?, women in Workers’ Liberty, Phoenix, 2016.
‘How Not to Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class’ by Tithi Bhattacharya, in Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression’, ed. Tithi Bhattacharya, Pluto, 2017.
Catalyst report:
Factory and Society by Mario Tronti, tr. Guio Jacinto, Quaderni Rossi no. 2, 1962.
Gendering Dormitory Labour System: Production and Reproduction of Labour Use in South China by Pun Ngai, paper published in 2009.
Marxism and the Oppression of Women by Lise Vogel, Haymarket, 2013.
Office for National Statistics report, ‘Women in the Labour Market 2013’:….
Queer in a Lean World by Alan Sears, paper given in 2000.
School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom by Catherine Connell, University of California Press, 2014.
The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism by Heidi Hartmann, paper published in 1979.
Wages Against Housework by Silvia Federici, Power of Women Collective and Falling Wall Press, 1975. 

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