Social Reproduction

If our task is to propose a theoretical and historical model best suited for understanding the origins of the oppression of women under capitalism, then we should without a doubt consult Marx. Although we cannot speak of a systematic analysis of the oppression of women in any of Marx’s work, his explanatory methodological framework is key for a feminist analysis of women’s oppression. Marx’s critique of the trans-historical assumptions of classical political economy, his definition of the specificity of capitalist societies as a “collection of commodities”, as well as his account of the circulation of capitalist production and reproduction as a whole, are fundamental elements of social reproduction theory (SRT). Starting from these theses developed by Marx in Capital (Marx 1982), SRT focuses on one specific aspect of the relation between productive and reproductive labour which is left under-theorised and undeveloped in Marx. What we are referring to are the implications of Marx’s famous theory of the circular course of capital, which describes how surplus value is created through the processes of production and reproduction. It is exactly this theory that serves as a starting point for SRT because it provides an entry into the “tacit” issue on the link between the market and household relations. Following from the above, the goal of SRT is to grasp also what is not “visible” in the process of production – it asks what kind of processes enable a worker to show up at her workplace and examines the conditions of her existence and the social processes related to those conditions.

In order for society to survive it needs to reproduce. SRT points out that ‘reproduction’ may allude either to the process of the regeneration of the conditions of production which enable society to survive, or to the regeneration of humankind. Rosa Luxemburg in her Theory of Accumulation (Luxemburg 2015) explains that reproduction is repetition, a ‘renewal of the process of production’, hence implying that the regular repetition of production is the general precondition of regular consumption and human existence (Čakardić 2017). In what way do we use these kinds of Marxist premises while thinking in terms of SRT?

If we use the example of classic industrial labour in the capitalist mode of production, the capitalist secures through the market the means needed for the operation of a factory and the workers’ wages. Wage labour enables the working class to secure/consume the items and services necessary for life – like food, clothes, covering household expenses – however, those needs are met in the household, not on the market. Moreover, in order to eat, one needs to take into account the preparation of food; if one buys clothes, they need to be washed and maintained; and, also, physical care needs to be provided to elderly members of the family or children. Unlike labour in the ‘productive’ sphere of society, domestic labour belongs to the ‘reproductive’ sphere. Both capitalists and labourers consume food, one way or another, prepared at home; their clothes must be washed, or they depend on some other kind of reproductive labour. Therefore, their life and work in the productive sphere is mediated through a range of activities belonging to the domestic sphere. SRT claims that this structural and spatial gap between the reproductive and productive spheres of society indicates the fundamental reason for the oppression of women in capitalism. On what basis can we make this claim? 

Following tradition, historically, the reproduction of the working class is undertaken by women outside the productive sphere, and is unpaid. It essentially refers to three interconnected processes: a) the regeneration of workers and their livelihood; b) the maintenance of non-workers which relates to the care of children, the elderly and the unemployed in general; and c) childbirth as the reproduction of new labour force. This indicates the ontological level of the problem: activities not defined as labour (food preparation, cleaning, care, breast-feeding, giving birth), and lacking any market value, are not considered labour. The mathematics is clear here: if the labour in question is transferred to, for example, a capitalist with an employee, she would be obliged to organise a range of activities, investing time and money into procuring services which are traditionally free and a burden to the household.

Marxist feminism has tackled the problem of social reproduction in various ways and therefore we cannot speak about one unified SRT tradition. Feminists supporting the ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign, close to the Marxist autonomist tradition in a dual-system manner, offered one approach.1 A second (materialist) approach is found in Christine Delphy’s characterisation of social reproduction as a series of actions within the domestic sphere, which she sees as a separate mode of production (Delphy 1980). Finally, Lise Vogel offers a ‘unitary’ approach, in which social reproduction is taken to mean the simultaneous reproduction of both the labour force and class society (Vogel 2013). It is also worth recognizing that socialist-feminist approaches, for example that of Aleksandra Kollontai or Rosa Luxemburg, also offered an important account of the relation between productive and reproductive work.2 The main difference between the autonomist Marxist-feminist tradition, based on dual-system theory, and the unitary approach suggested by Lise Vogel, is in the understanding of surplus value. Unlike dual-system theory, Lise Vogel rightly argues that reproductive labour does not produce surplus value, only use-values. Despite the afore-mentioned difference, it is important to note that even if the domestic-labour debate established a view of domestic work as productive labour and a process upon which the reproduction of capitalist society as a whole depends, this debate undoubtedly served as a springboard for establishing a ‘unitary’ analytical framework to theorise domestic labour as an integral part of the capitalist mode of production.

What is also important for SRT is that it treats the question of (multiple) oppression (gender, race, sexuality) in a direct relation to capitalist production rather than in the fashion of an “add-on” strategy which treats oppression through a functionalist lens. To put it succinctly, SRT is a sort of methodology used to explain labour and labour power under capitalism, by which we further develop Marxist theory and use its implications for applying SRT to our current conjuncture.3