Capitalism’s life source: the domestic and social basis for exploitation

US-based socialist Tithi Bhattacharya responds to questions from rs21 on her new book about social reproduction theory.

For someone who hasn’t come across the term before, what is social reproduction theory?

Social reproduction theory (SRT) sounds quite intimidating, but the (rather grandiose) anthology of big words masks a relatively simple question: if capitalist production is fundamentally the production of commodities, and it is workers who produce such commodities, who ‘produces’ the worker? SRT theorizes the social processes through which labour power (the worker’s capacity to work) is reproduced under capitalism and the relationship such processes have to the production of commodities.

Most stories about capitalist production begin when the worker reaches the doors of the workplace. SRT is the backstory to that narrative. If production of commodities by the worker starts at, say, 7:00 am and stops at 5:00 pm, then SRT is about what happens before 7 and after 5.

Back to the question of who produces the worker, one part of that answer is easy, almost common sense, and this is the part played by social reproduction in the private sphere, or at home. Obviously, it is because our worker had dinner, a bed to sleep in, and access to other similar ways to regenerate her capacity to work, that she is able to return to work. After her long shift at work did she then have to do a ‘second shift’ of cooking for herself and her family? Did she have to pick up her child and soothe her? Such questions open up a new set of issues. But let us for a moment set them aside and simply catalogue the ways in which her home, her place within the family, helps regenerate her working capacity.

There is another more straightforward dimension to how the worker is reproduced. Birth or biological reproduction replaces an older generation of workers, and reproduces a new one. While capitalism mystifies the conjoined nature of production and reproduction, sometimes spoken language retains social echoes of this unity, for we continue to talk about women ‘labouring’ to give birth. Similarly, the term proletariat has its origin in the Latin proletarius or “one who produces offspring”, since the proletarius in Roman society was registered in the census only for her/ his ability to raise children.

Many feminists argue that the writ of social reproduction stops here at the borders of domestic and reproductive labour. According to these theorists, (some prominent examples would be Selma James or Mariarosa Dalla Costa) it is ‘care work’, performed mostly by women within the family, that reproduces the worker’s labour power, which she then sells to capital. Capital benefits greatly from this care-work but pays nothing for it. Hence these scholar-activists launched a campaign to demand wages for housework.

Other Social Reproduction theorists, and I count myself among them, however, argue that labour power is only partially reproduced within the family. Education systems, public transport, recreation facilities such as parks and swimming pools, whether a working-class community has access to clean water (think, Flint Michigan, or Standing Rock) are resources, nested within social relations, that reproduce her labour power. Hence, access to such resources that contribute to the reproduction of labour power is fundamental to both individual workers as well as the class as a whole. Relatedly, the working class is not only reproduced through biological reproduction, but slavery and immigration are some of the historical ways in which capitalism has ‘regenerated’ its workforce.

SRT then is a double movement: it theorises, on the one hand, the various social practices that reproduce labour power – all the numerous capillaries of social relations that constitute such a process – and on the other hand, how those relations, while distinct, are not separate from the production of commodities, but form a unitary totality. Changes in the relations of production thus affect the relations of reproduction and vice versa. Wage cutting at work can contribute to conditions of homelessness or domestic violence while privatisation of water or raising the price of bread and other social necessities can lead to social and workplace revolts.

What’s new about this theory?

The question of ‘new’-ness is an interesting one. For Marxists, the central propositions of SRT must seem very familiar. This is because SRT can be considered an analytical broadening of the labour theory of value (LTV).

LTV is about reproducing in thought the social relations that constitutes capitalism. The first misconception – that these are to be understood in narrowly ‘economic’ terms – must be rejected. LTV is concerned with two questions: How do humans under capitalism produce the material conditions of their existence? How does capitalism as a system reproduce itself?

The production of use values, things we need to live (bread, houses, books to read, musical instruments to play) refers to the way in which we as humans reproduce ourselves and our lives. But how we produce those use values and, crucially, who we produce for, determine how capitalism reproduces itself.

The labour theory of value reveals:

  • the social processes by which capitalism organises the production of commodities, across workplaces globally, in such a way that different concrete labours of human beings are measured against one another, not directly, but through the mechanism of the market
  • how different commodities (one naan bread and one iPhone) are brought into equivalence with each other on the basis of the labour time socially required to produce them
  • that the pivot of capitalist reproduction is not that different kinds of work producing different kinds of commodities are exchanged (that could happen if independent craftspeople/artisans brought their goods to a market). Capitalism as a system is marked by the purchase and sale of the worker’s labour power by the capitalist, who then, under their sole control and domination, puts that labour power to work for the production of profit.

The capitalist does pay the worker for her labour power, this is the wage she receives, but it is only equal to the labour time necessary to ‘reproduce’ the worker herself, or the wage goods the worker will buy. The rest of the value the worker produces in the workplace goes to the capitalist as surplus value.

Since it is the ‘reproduction’ of the worker that SRT elaborates upon, it looks at both paid goods that reproduce the worker, or the real wage bundle, as well as the unpaid labour (domestic work, child birth) that helps sustain and replenish the working class. SRT thus combines the social practices that produce ‘life’ (understood both biologically and socially) with those that produce ‘commodities’ into a unitary system.

What is perhaps new about SRT is that it shows Marx’s account of LTV, which only deals with the origin and fate of commodities, to be a partial account. In most Marxist accounts of capitalism, labour power is assumed to be simply present. SRT shows that we can neither assume it to be simply ‘there’ nor treat its production as devoid of history. SRT inserts into our understanding of capitalism the deeply gendered and racialised ways in which labour power is produced and made available to capital and it is SRT’s critical contribution to Marxist theory.

Let me elaborate. The reproduction of labour power, although not done under the direct rule of capital, takes very specific forms under capitalism. Unpaid domestic labour of working class women, and the biological capacity of women to give birth, are central to this reproduction. Neither of these elements are ahistorical, nor up to individuals to determine, but are organised by capitalism to assume particular forms in society. For instance, the emergence of the monogamous, heteronormative family, spatially separated from production, is not an accidental development in modern history but related to capitalism’s general requirement for readily available and constant source of labour power at a minimal price.

Here, I must say something about biological reproduction, since transphobia has emerged as a new frontier of sexism and violence. Women’s ability to bear children (or put in SRT terms, their ability to generationally replace labour power) creates the conditions for their oppression under capitalism. But this is not a biologically determinist argument, for SRT points towards the social organisation of biological capacity, and the ways in which such organisation takes places are both historical and contingent upon culture, geography etc.

In reality, SRT provides us with a vitally anti-essentialist, not to mention possibly trans-inclusive, argument about biological reproduction. It draws attention not to female biology but to capitalism’s need for generational replacement of labour power. It is capital’s dependence on specific bodily functions such as child-birth, lactation etc., that shapes privatised social reproduction and reinforces the enduring form of the male-dominated household under capitalism. The biological differences between a male and female or cis and trans body are only important here because of the ways in which such difference are articulated and organised by capital. Further, such an argument implies that it is ultimately irrelevant whether biological childbearing functions are carried out by cis or trans women, even if the latter phenomenon is never generalised within the social form. As long as such functions are required and organised by capital, women’s oppression, and by extension gender oppression and violence, will continue to exist.

The family is one of the ways that the working class is reproduced – but as you say above, migration is another. Does social reproduction theory have anything to say about migration and race?

SRT offers two levels of analysis about the role of migration and racism in capitalism. The first of these is easy to discern. SRT is concerned with the ways in which labour power becomes available to capital. The heteronormative working-class family is obviously capital’s primary source but clearly forced migration, slavery, immigration have been key means by which labour forces have been constituted in particular countries and regions, or in a bounded community.

These historical processes, particularly slavery, are not incidental to capitalism but constitutive of it. It is a rather pointless theoretical exercise to separate out ‘abstract’ capitalism–presumed to be gender/ race neutral, equipped only with the drive for accumulation – from ‘historical’ capitalism, where gender and race construct and assist accumulation. Talking about capitalism in abstractions alone is like talking about life on earth only in terms of the laws of gravity without talking about nation states, wars or sex!

Since SRT prompts us to understand labour power not as already-available, but as made available, it enquires into the myriad processes through which this happens: how labour power is reproduced within and by particular sexualised/racialised social relations. This, as I said earlier, shows oppression to be a key organiser of capitalist social relations.

But there is a second level of analysis to the question of race and racism within SRT. While SRT establishes the reproduction of labour power as the condition for the reproduction of capital, it also asks if all labour power is re-produced as equal.

Capitalism, as a system of production, strives to establish equivalences between different commodities as well as between different labouring capacities, as we saw above. But all labour powers are not equal. Certain bodies/peoples and their labour powers are re-produced in ways that make them more vulnerable to capital’s dominance than others. While the effects of these differences often manifest themselves in the workplace (hired last, fired first, wage inequality) surely the production of such differences must be traced to the capillaries of social reproduction–school systems, access to health care, whether ‘the family’ was present to nurture the child or both parents had to face the effects of mass incarceration, and so on–and the role they play in the production of such differences.

SRT, then, does two things quite effectively. One, by theorising (as opposed to describing) the role played by oppression in capital accumulation it conclusively rejects analytical cleavages between exploitation and oppression and shows them to be internally related. Two, because SRT recognises this imbricated unity between them, it allows us to have a distinctly non-functional approach to oppression. Racism/sexism (and other such specific oppressions) are understood not as forms that capital created because it ‘needed’ them but rather as dark bricolages from many pasts that arose, through many trials and errors, because of the ways in which capitalism organised social production. They are thus neither stable forms, nor eternal ones but dependent on both accumulation and struggles against it. While this means that both the form and extent of oppression will vary depending on collective struggles against it, it also implies that because oppression is tied inextricably to the drive for accumulation, capitalism determines the limits of our anti-oppression struggle while within its framework. Put differently, SRT emphasises in theory the need for an anticapitalist struggle against oppression.

Many people have stressed that you can’t look at class, racism, women’s oppression or sexuality in isolation – that we have to address these issues in an ‘intersectional’ way. How does social reproduction relate to intersectionality?

The response to this requires a long, considered essay! David McNally has written it for us, and it is part of the forthcoming volume on SRT that I have edited. So I will only raise here what I see to be some theoretical problems with the intersectional model.

First, let me say that Intersectionality theorists have given us rich empirical studies of race and gender and their functioning under capitalism. They have also insisted on the centrality of oppression in the shaping of our modern world. In both these we, as Marxists, should find common cause. It is not surprising that on a college campus in the US today, when someone says they are an ‘intersectional feminist’ what they really mean is that they are an antiracist one. And she is definitely someone we should be seeking out to work with.

But is intersectionality an adequate tool to understand and hence change capitalist reality? The theoretical problems Marxists have with intersectionality begin with the term itself. Intersectionality as a term implies that different oppressions (for example, racism and sexism) intersect and a combination of these various intersections form a latticed reality.

Let us take the metaphor ‘intersection’ seriously. An intersection is where two distinct roads meet. But are race and gender distinctly constituted ‘roads’ or social relations? If so, where did they arise and what sustains them? Moreover, what is the logic of their intersection?

Beyond the term, and the problems it posits at the outset, there is the question of a Marxist idea of a totality and this sort of a latticed social whole. An additive combination of relations is not the same as what Marxists understand to be ‘totality’. Georg Lukács, and following him, Bertell Ollman’s work are some of the best expositions of what Marxists mean by totality. Here, let me point to just two major differences between the two.

The Marxist understanding of social totality is inherently dynamic. Change, mutations, adaptability are its hallmarks. There is almost a vitalist slant to many of Marx’s passages about society (and social relations). He writes as though society were a living organism. The latticed or intersectional view of society is completely static, almost two-dimensional. There is no sense in either the concept or the metaphor that any of these intersections are changing or responsive to change elsewhere.

Secondly, Marxism’s project is to develop a theory of historical change through the concept of immanent contradictions. Marxism shows this changing, pulsating social totality to be shot through with contradictions that are immanent, not external, to it. Intersectionality, due to its static model, can only have transhistorical models of oppression that are always present and are at best arbitrary in how they function. For instance, if social oppressions are intersectional, then where do new oppressions arise from?

Theory and concepts are important not simply because they are tools that explain our world, but because they should equip us with ways to change it. Here too intersectionality is somewhat inadequate to that task. For instance, following intersectionality, it is very easy to discern why we should be in solidarity with the most oppressed; because she is the bearer of multiple intersections. But why should the most oppressed be in solidarity with say the white, male worker? [1]

Finally, I think empirical findings of intersectional theorists actually contradict an intersectionalist methodology. Instead of race and gender being separate systems of oppression or even separate oppressions with only externally related trajectories, the findings of Black feminist scholars show how race and gender are actually co-constitutive. SRT offers us, as David McNally has argued, a way to ‘retain and reposition’ the insights of intersectionality, yet reject its theoretical premise of an aggregative reality.

You’ve edited a book of essays on social reproduction which is to be published this autumn. What key issues does it address?

One important consideration for me was to explore the strategic implications of SRT for our times. SRT shows that social relations outside of the wage labour/capital relation are crucial for capital’s reproduction, and how the formation of labour power serves as a fundamental precondition to the reproduction of capital. If capitalist social relations are forged and sustained outside the point of production, it follows then that those relations can also be challenged and disrupted outside the point of production.

Social movements that develop around means of subsistence or services that help reproduce life– struggles for housing, healthcare or dignity in the face of racial violence– can then carry as much anticapitalist charge as those struggles that develop within the workplace. This is a critical theme that animates the book and that I think we need to develop further given the low level of struggle in workplaces.

You were one of the key organisers of the Women’s Strike on 8 March. Where did the idea for that come from?

The inspiration came from the historic women’s strike in Poland against a proposed legal ban on abortion (2016) and a similar massive feminist mobilisation in Argentina by the activists of Ni Una Menos against male violence. The call for an international women’s strike first came from Polish feminists and slowly grew to include activists in 50 countries. We adopted the word ‘strike’ to emphasise that women laboured not just in the work place but also in the sphere of social reproduction.

8 March for us in the United States was an opportunity to test SRT in practice. We knew that union density in the US (as well as globally) was at an all-time low. The organising tools that had been traditionally available to the working class were either absent in most workplaces or had been blunted by decades of business unionism. This did not mean that the working class had been defeated by capital. It meant that often the terrain of class struggle moves from the sphere of production to that of reproduction.

8 March proved to be a joyous and concrete lesson in this specific kind of organising. More than 30 US cities participated in the strike in the form of demonstrations, rallies, teach-ins on university campuses and actual work stoppages in three school districts. Women called in sick at work, wrote letters to their husbands to do their own cooking for the day, rallied and marched as teachers, nurses, sex workers and mothers. Our manifesto called for a feminism of the 99 percent to mount a direct challenge to the Lean-in feminism of bosses such as Sheryl Sandberg and the imperial-feminism of hawks such as Hillary Clinton. A highlight for me was the speech by a young transwoman who spoke at our New York rally about how she had led a successful union drive at her workplace against her ‘feminist’ boss. The boss’s feminism evaporated, she said, when it came to rights for her employees. Against such ‘boss feminism’ she said proudly, March 8 for her was the beginning of a Feminism for the 99 percent.

It will be important to see what kind of organising practices and forms we can rebuild from the 8 March experience. 8 March showed us that there is a tremendous potential today for a new global feminist movement to coalesce. Forty years of neoliberal depredation of working class lives certainly shows us the need for it.

Like the women’s strike, such a global movement, if it arises, will not be composed of Marxists alone. But if we, as Marxists, want to play a role in shaping such a movement then it is important to prepare our theory and our practice–tarnished by years of defeats, sectarianism and timidity–for such a moment. SRT can be a critical contribution to such preparedness but the new generation of activists who will undoubtedly forge and galvanise such a movement will surely bring to SRT itself a new “fusion of thinking and acting” or its own “philosophy of praxis.”

[1] I am grateful to Snehal Shingavi for pointing this out.


This article was first published in the Autumn 2017 issue of the rs21 magazine.

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