This article responds to Ashley J Bohrer’s article, ‘Wages for Immigration’, Spectre (Spring 2020)
Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) is a theoretical framework for all kinds of work that reproduces capitalist accumulation at different levels, often for free within the home but also on the cheap. It asks: why do women still do most of the housework? Why are some jobs, typically women’s jobs, so badly paid?
SRT argues that maintaining structures of inequality and social institutions such as the nuclear family are useful to capitalist accumulation. For example, child labour has been illegal for some time in the developed world and children no longer help make profit. Instead, they need to be fed and cared for into adulthood. The problem of lack of productivity can be minimised if this carework is squeezed out of parents (usually mothers) at cost to the family, or badly-paid nannies, nursery workers and school workers.
Ashley J Bohrer’s article argues that immigration is a form of social reproduction; in contrast to the more common position that immigration and anti-migrant racism create the conditions for a system of highly racialised social reproduction, in which, for example, low-paid domestic work is predominantly done by black and brown people for well-off white people.
Social Reproduction Theory understands acts of childcare as central to the reproduction of the next generation of workers, or “generational replacement”. Bohrer argues that this work is often viewed too narrowly, as only the “work of sexual and domestic reproduction: gestating, bearing and rearing working-class children along with all the physical and emotional labour this process requires.”
Bohrer argues that childbearing in the ‘first world’ capitalist societies like the US has become less common. Women are having fewer children than earlier generations and are not replacing the workforce in sufficient numbers. Immigration, instead, is fulfilling the “replacement need” of capitalism. She points out that the US migrants and their US-born children account for 88% of population growth.
All of the exertions and tribulations associated with immigration – upending one’s life and livelihood and the often harrowing challenges faced when crossing borders – should be, according to Bohrer, understood as labour, as human beings acting on the world and transforming it. This experience, of making oneself a migrant, shapes the future social and economic conditions in which migrants find themselves, and, in a world of border controls and work visas, mass immigration means large numbers of undocumented and precarious workers, many of them subject to especially harsh exploitation. The more undocumented people there are in an economy, the more surplus labour can be extracted, as bosses can drive down pay and conditions, with little fear of unionisation or industrial action.
Bohrer raises the important point that immigration challenges the view held by many social reproduction theorists that the continued primacy of the nuclear family is crucial to generating unpaid, social reproductive labour. Immigration breaks up nuclear families. Individuals leave their native countries to find work in higher-wage economies. Dependent family members are sent to live with relatives when parents migrate. Deportees are forced to part from partners and children.
Overall, Bohrer aims for a more nuanced reading of both immigration and social reproduction and these are definitely interesting arguments. I don’t think she quite succeeds, however. She fails to make a sustained case for immigration as generational replacement on two counts:
Generational replacement within the family under capitalism was never just about the replacement of bodies but also about ideological conditioning: setting up patterns of atomisation, breaking up possibilities of wider social solidarity.
The relationship between immigration and modern capitalism is complicated by racist and xenophobic politics, which are not always in line with the immediate economic needs of the capitalist class. The drive to close borders and deport immigrant communities is popular in spite of the usefulness of cheap migrant labour, for instance.
Bohrer ends her article by raising the demand for wages for immigration, adopting the ‘wages for…’ slogan popularised by the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s. The ‘wages for housework’ demand sought to call attention to unpaid, undervalued work in the home.
Similarly, Boher argues that Marxist feminists must call for migrants to be remunerated for the work of making themselves migrants. The demand is ultimately an engagement in polemic and rhetoric, raised in order to expose what is bad about the systems of exploitation and oppression under which we live. It is a utopian demand, not concerned with how it might be implemented, which begs the question of how it can take the struggle one step, another step - the many steps forward needed to dismantle those systems.
While we do sometimes need to dramatise exploitation and oppression, more than anything we need to build the labour movement and raise demands for such things as the closure of all detention centres, the abolition of immigration controls. These are hard struggles to win, especially as we have lost on Brexit, that need solid, detailed arguments.