Issue 5: Social Reproduction

Reproducing the struggle: a new feminist perspective on the concept of social reproduction

I believe that intimacy, together with other social and intellectual practices that are necessary for the reproduction of our collectivity, is being appropriated today by the capitalist machine and, in the same movement, transferred from the collective sphere to that of the nuclear unit and from the sphere of reproduction to that of the market economy.

Introduction: The Erosion of Intimacy

In 2012 I stumbled upon an article which was originally published in The Art of Manliness and which consists essentially of a series of pictures. The article is entitled Bosom Buddies: a Photo History of Male Affection and the pictures ended up being widely shared on social media.

friendsportrait2

What is so compelling about these pictures is not only the performance of masculinity portrayed, but the fact that intimacy in itself is so openly shared and displayed in a context that is not necessarily limited to the setting of family or romance. I had the realization that intimacy–and in particular physical intimacy, closeness and the possibility of touch–has declined in the last century among men and everybody else. Or to be more exact, it has been relegated to a handful of relationships, defined either by romance and family bonds, or, on the other end of the spectrum, by market value (sex work, massage, physical therapy, contact improvisation, etc.). I realized that we are witnessing, under capitalism, the erosion (or maybe I should say the enclosure) of intimacy.

As it turns out, intimacy is one of those hard to define areas of the common that make the reproduction of oneself and of each other possible. As Toni Negri and Michael Hardt write in Commonwealth: “This Common is not only the earth we share but also the languages we create, the social practices we establish, the modes of sociality that define our relationships.”1 Negri and Hardt continue, writing: “This form of the common does not lend itself to a logic of scarcity as does the first.”2

On the contrary, I believe that intimacy, together with other social and intellectual practices that are necessary for the reproduction of our collectivity, is being appropriated today by the capitalist machine and, in the same movement, transferred from the collective sphere to that of the nuclear unit and from the sphere of reproduction to that of the market economy.

The problem here is that the definition of social reproduction is still rather blurred. At the same time, in recent years, both the concept itself — the areas in which it takes place and what is considered common — have been redefined and expanded, with a continuous movement and a constant creation of the common on one side and, in response, a continuous expansion of the process that can be described as enclosure on the other.

The process of enclosure, “not only of communal lands but also of social relations,”3 can be redefined as a process that aims not only at the accumulation of capital and resources but, more importantly, at creating political paralysis and dependence, reducing workers’ ability to negotiate and cutting off the possibility of freely accessing forms of self-sustenance.

Self-sustenance, of course, does not refer exclusively to the material reproduction of oneself. More than just food and shelter go into the maintenance of our life. Emotional and intellectual nurturing are just as necessary and are usually provided in ways that are hard to measure, primarily by women and especially by mothers. This form of nurturing is continuously being transferred from the collective and public sphere to that of the private household or the medical institution.

Important in this respect is a particular definition of the concept of social reproduction that has to do with the necessity of reproducing one’s own identity. From the point of view of political organizing, this is an essential aspect, especially if we consider the difficulty of reproducing ourselves and our collectivity as a revolutionary one.

Apparently, the capitalist machine has understood the centrality of this activity, or set of activities, since, as Tiqqun argues,4 it responded by appropriating those areas of reproduction that have to do with the self, to promote what has been a largely successful and market oriented project of identity engineering. This is what Tiqqun calls “the anthropotechnical project of Empire”5 In essence, “At the beginning of the 1920s, capitalism realized that it could no longer maintain itself as the exploitation of human labor if it did not also colonize everything that is beyond the strict sphere of production.”6

At the core of this project is the necessity to reify the space where our social relationships take place, those we establish with others as well as those we entertain with ourselves. In order to accomplish the task of self-valorization and reification (i.e. of assigning a value to oneself and each other), capital must annihilate intimacy. As Tiqqun puts it, “The Young-Girl would thus be the being that no longer had any intimacy with herself except as value.”7

This has devastating consequences not only on the existential level — in the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us and in the moral choices that inform our everyday actions — but on the political level as well. It literally unmakes our attempts at creating a sustainable resistance and a revolutionary movement. In fact, exactly because political organizing cannot and does not subsist without a strong investment in personal relationships, the inability to relate intimately with each other produces political paralysis.

The Implosion of Movements of Resistance

In an article that I translated into Italian a couple of years ago entitled “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons,” Silvia Federici makes a claim that shifts the focus on social reproduction from a question of ideological and analytical correctness to one of strategic necessity, arguing that political movements that fail to create new forms of social reproduction are destined to be reabsorbed into the mechanism of the capitalist system.

In other words, Federici suggests that our attempts at revolution are doomed unless we find a way to transform the sphere of reproduction in revolutionary ways — ways that would include the reproduction of the social collectivity and not only of the single household. This requires a process of collectivization that would allow us, among other things, to overcome the division of labor based on gender and race.

In most industrialized and/or patriarchal societies, the prevailing model is that of a collectivity divided into modules or single reproductive units. Usually these take the form of households or families, constructed around normative regulatory principles: the men (or those individuals who assume a male role) are responsible for providing essential resources, by exchanging them for labor power in the places allocated for production (the production units: factories, offices, farms, the digital world, etc). The women (or those who assume female roles), beside increasingly providing material resources in exchange for their labor, are also expected to engage in activities that fall under the sphere of reproduction: activities of care, physical and emotional support, mediation and conflict resolution among members of the family, sex work, the socialization of children, the transmission of customs and traditions, etc.

Traditional feminist struggles in the west focused largely on fighting for the access of women into the sphere of production (the labor force) with very little leverage upon the way families are organized. The result of these struggles has been disappointing on several levels: if it’s true that some women, mostly white middle class women, were able to gain a certain amount of independence and personal liberties, this has been accomplished at a high cost. Women still largely perform those jobs that can be considered an extension of reproductive activities and that increasingly have been enclosed and transformed into value-generating activities: care work in general like teaching, sex work, nursing, human resources, therapy in all its forms, and the care of children and the elders.

Those relatively few women who succeed in establishing a stable career in traditionally male dominated fields (academia and the intellectual world in general, engineering and sciences, the medical field, administration and management, etc.) still earn considerably less than their male counterparts, under worse conditions. In addition they are still expected to perform a certain amount of care-work both on the workplace and for their family, resulting in an unsustainable amount of working hours. In this way, women often find themselves unable to devote time to research, personal development, or artistic and vocational endeavours, and are faced with hard choices. Either they decide to identify completely with their career as defined by capitalist standards — and delay or forgo the establishment of significant relationships — or they partially abandon it when they decide to have children. In addition, many women are today faced with a sort of “Sophie’s choice”: in a situation where their male partner often has a better chance at higher wages, full-time stable employment and career advancement, reproducing him and his capacity for labor presents a better chance for survival than focusing on their own aspirations and ambitions.

Another development related to the entrance of women into the labor force has been a process wherein large portions of reproductive work has been farmed out, in exchange for meager wages, to the most vulnerable sectors of society, in particular, women of color, single mothers, undocumented immigrants or even the proletariat of entire countries where workers are unprotected by unions or favorable legislation.

Most importantly, this entireprocess has proven unable to create any significant change in the basic constitution of the family and, at the same time, has not generated a coherent feminist critique of the capitalist system of production. It has evolved as a struggle for inclusion, with little or no questioning of the system in which women were to be included and with little or no awareness of the process of exclusion that is implied and makes possible any incorporation in an exclusive order.

The economic emancipation of women could be accomplished instead by concentrating changes at the point of reproduction, in particular, by transferring traditional female responsibilities, like the care of children and elders, from the single woman in the context of a family/household to the collectivity (neighborhood, village, town). This would make women less dependent from their male kins and less isolated and it would help create a network of solidarity and reciprocal protection among women.

In fact, in those societies where reproductive work is performed collectively, the division of labor based on gender often seems to be less pronounced. From Federici, we learn that this was the predominant model in the pre-capitalist servile communities of the middle ages:

… since work on the servile farm was organized on a subsistence base, the sexual division of labor in it was less pronounced and less discriminating than in a capitalist farm. In the feudal village no social separation existed between the production of goods and the reproduction of the work-force; all work contributed to the family’s sustenance. Women worked in the fields in addition to raising children, cooking, washing, spinning and keeping an herb garden; their domestic activities were not devalued and did not involve different social relations from those of men, as they would later, in a money economy, when housework would cease to be viewed as real work. […] in medieval society collective relations prevailed over familial ones, and most of the task that female serfs performed […] were done in cooperation with other women.8

Conversely, an exclusive strategic focus by revolutionaries on the realm of production creates a situation of impasse, by which movements of resistance end up being reabsorbed into the traditional system of values and its attendant social dynamics.

Federici offers two opposite examples of this mechanism. In the first one, we are taken back to the Great Depression and to the movement of the hobos. Hobos were mostly unemployed men or day laborers who lived a nomadic life, hopping trains and moving constantly. Nevertheless the hobos developed a form of collective living, the hobo jungle, with an internal system of administration, including a juridical process, an exclusive system of communication and a moral code.

But because the hobos were unable to develop beyond a mere masculine society, with the exceptional and sporadic participation of a few women who were kept at the margins, it was easy and, in a certain sense, unavoidable for them to be reabsorbed into the traditional functioning of the capitalist system. The traditional society, with its allure of the dream of a home and family was able to constitute a strong motivation for re-entering the labor force when the market needed it, exactly because the jungle was unable to offer any viable alternatives.

As Federici writes:

… but for a few Boxcar Berthas, this was predominantly a masculine world, a fraternity of men, and in the long term it could not be sustained. Once the economic crisis and the war came to an end, the hobos were domesticated by the two great engines of labor power fixation: the family and the house. Mindful of the threat of working class recomposition during the Depression, American capital excelled in its application of the principle that has characterized the organization of economic life: cooperation at the point of production, separation and atomization at the point of reproduction. The atomized, serialized family house that Levittown provided, compounded by its umbilical appendix, the car, not only sedentarized the worker but put an end to the type of autonomous workers’ commons that hobo jungles had represented.9

The second example Federici offers is that of the Sem Terra in Brazil. The Sem Terra are a movement of landless peasants, active to this day, who aim at occupying and eventually expropriating unproductive land in Brazil. The first recorded organized occupation goes back to 1980/1981 and included 6000 households on three estates in the State of Rio Grande del Sul.

The encampment, known as the Encruzilhada Natalino, took the shape of a village, and revolved around the self-sustenance of its families, where reproductive work was, for the most part, collectivized. The Sem Terra also embrace a nonhierarchical form of organization, without any clear-cut leadership and where every unit elects two representatives, a man and a woman, for the Nucleo de Base and the regional assembly.

Federici reports that when the peasants of the Encruzilhada were finally able to expropriate the land and build their own houses on it, the women demanded that the houses included common areas, and especially common kitchens, so that they could continue collectivizing the work and protecting each other from the violence of men.

New Theories of Social Reproduction

Federici’s argument, as well as other recent developments in the theory of social reproduction, suggest that we need to reconsider the classic Marxist definition.

There is a remarkable increase in the volume and the variety of discourse on social reproduction, which points to the fact that the emphasis on its importance has intensified notably. At the same time, however, it seems that the inherent meaning of this concept still escapes us. Furthermore, social reproduction continues to be treated largely as an ancillary problem in the larger plan for revolution and resistance.

In classic Marxist terms, production coincides with the sphere of proper economic activity while reproduction with all the work necessary to create and re-create the conditions that make production possible.10 In this way, reproduction is described as a relative term, which exists only in relation to production and in order to guarantee its functioning. Furthermore, it is a limited and insufficient definition which does not reflect the variety of activities that should be included.

In the traditional feminist perspective, social reproduction is defined as all that is necessary to create and maintain life, related or unrelated to the sphere of production:

…feminists use social reproduction to refer to activities and attitudes, behaviours and emotions, responsibilities and relationships directly involved in the maintenance of life on a daily basis, and intergenerationally. Among other things, social reproduction includes how food, clothing, and shelter are made available for immediate consumption, the ways in which the care and socialization of children are provided, the care of the infirm and the elderly, and the social organization of sexuality. Social reproduction can thus be seen to include various kind of work – mental, manual, and emotional – aimed at providing the historically and socially, as well as biologically, defined care necessary to maintain the existing life and to reproduce the next generation.11

In a more recent reading, proposed by Endnotes, reproduction is all the work we do that doesn’t participate directly in the market economy and does not directly produce profit. Reproduction would then be the Indirectly Market Mediated Sphere (IMM) to use a definition proposed in the 3rd issue of Endnotes:

Because the existing concepts of production and reproduction are themselves limited, we need to find more precise terms to designate these two spheres. From now on we will use two very descriptive (and therefore rather clunky) terms to name them: (a) the directly market-mediated sphere (DMM); and (b) the indirectly market-mediated sphere (IMM).12

Nevertheless, what exactly constitutes this work is not yet entirely clear.

In Caliban and the Witch, Federici, when talking about the transition from slavery to serfdom which marks the beginning of the Middle Ages from an economic point of view writes:

The most important aspect of serfdom, from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the master-servant relation, is that it gave the serf direct access to the means of their reproduction. In exchange for the work which they were bound to do on the lord’s land (the demesne), the serf received a plot of land (mansus or hide) which they could use to support themselves.13

I use this distinction between demesne and mansus as a metaphor and say that the work on the village garden (the mansus) represents the sphere of reproduction, while the work on the lord’s garden (the demesne) is the sphere of production. It then becomes clear that the same set of activities can be considered production when included in a relationship of exchange/value and reproduction when not.

Again, in the third issue of Endnotes, we read:

These necessary non-labour activities do not produce value, not because of their concrete characteristics, but rather, because they take place in a sphere of the capitalist mode of production which is not directly mediated by the form of value. […] Indeed, the same concrete activity, like cleaning or cooking, can take place in either sphere: it can be value-producing labour in one specific social context and non-labour in another.14

The only distinguishing factor that can be identified is that production creates value while reproduction does not.

Accepting this definition makes it possible then to understand enclosure as the process of transforming or transferring not only material resources but also entire areas of reproduction into the production sphere, by assigning them a market value.

There is a reason, however, why the task of defining the field of social reproduction always eludes us: more than a container with fixed boundaries (a sphere), it should be considered a process, a continuously changing one, which expands and contracts both in response to its own internal dynamics, and under the pressure of the continuous attempts at enclosing it on the part of the capitalist machine. As Endnotes argues:

Terms like the “reproductive sphere” are insufficient …, because what we are trying to name cannot be defined as a specific set of activities according to their use-value or concrete character.15

What concerns us should rather be understanding the underlying mechanisms of social reproduction and, in this context, especially those related to the replication of the traditional values of hierarchy and domination.

Social reproduction is, to this day, a process rooted in a dynamic of power, largely functioning through a division of labor that falls along gender and race lines.

Federici writes:

According to this new social-sexual contract [the one that resulted from the enclosure of commons and the division of labor] proletarian women became for male workers the substitute for the land lost to the enclosures, their most basic means of reproduction , and a communal good anyone could appropriate and use at will. […] In the new organization of work every woman (other than those privatized by bourgeois men) became a communal good, for once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women’s labor began to appear as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.16

The Unseen Impact of Social Reproduction on Revolutionary Movements

In fact the repetition of patriarchal modes of relations is at the core of the sclerotization of many radical movements precisely when they presuppose a pyramidal organization that mimics and replicates many aspects of the sphere of production. This includes an ethic largely based on the process of self-identification with production-based labor and a set of personal values based on power and dominance, rather than on the social and emotional charge necessary to build and reproduce durable relationships. It also includes the accumulation and display of male power, as opposed to the construction of collective power.

Emblematic in this sense is the case of the Black Panther Party, which focused its strategy in large part on the area of social reproduction. The BPP school and breakfast programs, as well as their focus on self-defense from police harassment and brutality, constituted an approach, in many ways revolutionary, that made social reproduction both its target and its area of recruitment. This strategy, nevertheless, did not affect the internal functioning of the party itself. In fact, patriarchal characteristics inside the party were evident in the emphasis on male identity and the performance of masculinity, as well as, in the role assigned to women in the party.

The patriarchal practices contained in the internal dynamics of the BPP, as documented in the biographies of several of its female cadres and sympathizers, such as Angela Davis, Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown, were certainly one of the factors that contributed to its demise, transforming it from a force focused on the construction of collective power to one focused on the accumulation and execution of male power.

It is well known, for instance, that when Huey Newton returned from exile in Cuba, he swiftly rid the party of the women in key positions of leadership, among them Elaine Brown, who was at the head of the party during his absence, and Regina Davis and Ericka Huggins, who managed the party school in Oakland. His argument, according to the account contained in A Taste of Power by Elaine Brown, was that the men in the party were feeling restless and emasculated and had expressly requested that the women “would be put back in their places.”

A week later, Ericka Huggins called me […]. Regina Davis, her assistant, had been hospitalized as the result of a severe beating, her jaw broken. The Brothers had done it. […] I called Huey. […] he had indeed given his authorization for Regina’s discipline. I explained to Huey exactly who Regina Davis was, as I was sure he had no idea. Regina held together the proudest of our programs, our school. Without the recognition of Central Committee membership, she had worked more than fifteen hours of every day of every week for the past two years. I emphasized that Regina managed the teachers, cooks, maintenance people, and other personnel at the school. Regina planned the children’s daily activities, weekly field trips, health checkups. Regina oversaw menus, and food and materials purchases. Regina communicated with parents and other schools as to the status of current students, former students, and prospective students. “She is the fucking school,” I said.

[…] The women were feeling the change, I noted. The beating of Regina would be taken as a clear signal that the words “Panthers” and “comrade” had taken on gender connotations, denoting an inferiority in the female half of us. Something awful was not only driving a dangerous wedge between Sisters and Brothers, it was attacking the very foundation of the party.

[…] He did not respond for a long time. “You know, of course, that I know all that,” he said finally, softly, thoughtfully. “But what do you want me to do about it? The Brothers came to me. I had to give them something.”17

The necessity to reassert a forever uncertain notion of masculinity catapulted the party itself into a spiral in which the compulsion to antagonize and dominate its own members and the entire community in its territory resulted in the almost total estrangement of the leadership from its base.

While it’s certainly true that the relentless attacks by COINTELPRO were historically the main factor in the eventual disintegration of the party, we can also say that, at the same time, the BPP collapsed because its focus shifted from that of organizing and empowering its community to that of self-survival and the reification of its own internal power.

I recalled a conversation I had with several of the Brothers one night […]. We have the guns and the men, they had boasted. We could take what we want from the Establishment. […] They wanted so little from our revolution, they had lost sight of it. Too many of them seemed satisfied to appropriate for themselves the power the party was gaining, measured by the shining illusion of cars and clothes and guns. They were even willing to cash in their revolutionary principles for a self-serving “Mafia.”18

It is necessary here to emphasize that in no way am I trying to suggest that the BPP was unique in reiterating gender dynamics that reproduce the same oppressive pattern of dominion that we can find in the Capitalist/Patriarchal society at large. On the contrary, what makes the case of the BPP so relevant is exactly the fact that, even given its internal contradictions, so much of its strategy was focused not in the place of production (workers organizing, strikes and so on) but in the sphere of reproduction, (the neighborhood, the school, the street).

I consider gender and race oppression to be a prevalent characteristic that historically affected and still plagues most revolutionary movements and that creates a situation of impasse in our attempts at bringing change. I also believe these practices of male dominance to be founded, among other things, on a series of errors in the analysis and definition of the dichotomy production/reproduction. I’m furthermore convinced these errors make it impossible to bring forth a critique of capitalism and market economy that could radically put into question its system of production and waged labor.

Conclusions: Resisting Wage Slavery and Reappropriating the Commons

We are experiencing today a massive process of enclosure in which more and more of our lives is swallowed up by the market economy and the system seems to have engaged in a project of totalitarian, capillary control. More and more aspects of our reproduction are being delegated to third parties, while our time is being freed in order to be devoted to a life of total production and consumption. Many activities that were traditionally part of the sphere of reproduction have now been assigned a market value; they are thus being transferred to areas of production and are executed by the most vulnerable people in our society.This new phase of accumulation and enclosure, however, doesn’t aim at the complete annihilation of the sphere of reproduction which, as a reservoir of unpaid labor, is essential for the survival of the system itself.

At the same time, we are witnessing the revival of campaigns proposing family wages or a basic guaranteed income – which see among its supporters Toni Negri and Michael Hardt. Alisa McKay claimed in “Rethinking Work and Income Maintenance Policy” that a basic income would be “a tool for promoting gender-neutral social citizenship rights,” while in Italy last year the parliament considered a proposal to implement salaries for all the work of care done inside the house.19 Demanding compensation for those activities that are now not considered labor seems necessary and even urgent, considering the misery and dependence in which millions of people, especially women, are made to live. If these people were to receive wages for all that they now do as a form of reproduction of themselves and others, they could emancipate themselves economically and politically. Moreover, these campaigns are often used to highlight an essential contradiction in the system: since capitalism is built upon the exploitation and appropriation of free work, it would necessarily collapse if all this work were to be adequately compensated.

However, that’s exactly why the ruling class will never concede, or at least not universally. The most we could possibly hope for, which is partially what’s happening, is that a handful of mostly white women, mostly living at the centre of the Empire will be partially relieved from the slavery of unpaid labor, by the thousands of mostly black and brown women in those same countries or somewhere else on the planet.It’s unlikely that the contradictions that exist in the areas of reproduction – namely the fact that it constitutes both work necessary for our survival and one of the places in our life where exploitation and dominion transpire in the deepest and most totalitarian way – can be resolved by accommodating or even advocating for its complete absorption into the sphere of production; in other words by assigning a market value to all our activities.

This does not mean that we should replicate capitalist schemes in the way we define and assign value to our work, to then relegate part of it to a territory of devaluation or even utter invisibility. At the same time, the demand for a monetary compensation in exchange for all the activities that now fall outside of the realm of the market seems destined to fail or to be satisfied partially and by replicating the same kind of oppression along gender and race lines.

Trying to bring down the system by offering it slices of our life for total market control offers the illusion that, if all we did could be considered productive labor and be exchanged for wages, we would somehow be more free and happier. If only the ruling class would somehow, one day, be pressured enough to concede and pay us more, pay us for more! And yet our negotiating margins are getting everyday narrower, along with our possibility to access the resources we need for self-sustenance.

This strategy also creates a narrative that offers legitimacy to the status quo and ends up allowing it to replicate itself: a continue struggle for inclusion into an exclusive system of privileges, with the argument that the urgency of the present situation doesn’t leave time and energy for more radical projects of revolution, has historically always ended with compromises that left out exactly those people whose living conditions were the most urgent.

Moreover, on the symbolic plane, this request could derail resistance from organizing around issues and strategies that have a more radical/revolutionary potential: resisting waged labor and reappropriating the common.In this sense, beside concentrating on reappropriating the means of production, it’s important to start talking about the necessity to reappropriate the means of our reproduction: essential resources like land, water, energy as well as time, public spaces, knowledge, information, etc.

The contemporary critique of capitalism could learn from theories and movements that in the past have advocated an organized resistance to waged labor. Frederick Douglass, looking back at his life as first a slave and then a waged worker, affirmed that:

Experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.20

Silvia Federici tells us that, since the dawn of Capitalism, poor people have resisted entering the workforce, so much so that anti-loitering and anti-vagrancy laws had to be introduced:

The image of a worker freely alienating his labor,or confronting his body as cap­ital to be delivered to the highest bidder, refers to a working class already molded by the capitalist work-discipline. But only in the second half of the 19th century can we glimpse that type of worker…The situation was radically different in the period of primitive accumulation when the emerging bourgeoisie discovered that the “liberation of labor-power” – that is, the expropriation of the peasantry from the common lands – was not sufficient to force the dispossessed proletarians to accept wage-labor….the expropriated peasants and artisans did not peacefully agree to work for a wage. More often they became beggars, vagabonds or criminals. A long process would be required to produce a disciplined work-force. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the hatred for wage labor was so intense that many proletarians preferred the gallows rather than submit to the new conditions of work.21

The “disciplined work force” Federici is talking about is none but ourselves! Our labor culture seems to have fully embraced the values that support productivity, high performance and the display of good work ethics, to the point that our revolutionary imagination has been short circuited into an impossibility to name or consider alternatives to wages.

Yet, according to Helga Kristin, it was only at the end of the 19th century that unions abandoned the term “wage slavery,” and with it, the idea that one day wages could be completely abolished:

By 1890 … references to wage slavery in the rhetorical toolkit of North American labor leaders had all but disappeared, replaced by a much more pragmatic vision of labor politics, exemplified by the “living wage” campaign…22

Sam Gindin and Michael Hurley write in Jacobin that after WWII:

….a particular trade-off evolved that saw unions accept an emphasis on the price of labor power (wages and benefits) trumping workplace rights…The small but effective militant Communist minority that agitated for more radical directions was harassed and many were drummed not only out of their jobs but also their unions…In this way, post-war worker militancy was consequently channeled into the safer territory of individualized consumption.

…Quantitative demands overtook qualitative demands. Getting something more rather than something different became the watchword. A culture of consumerism came to dominate, characterized not so much by the understandable urge to meet daily needs and enjoy life, but to do so in competitive and individualistic ways that sidelined popular possibilities for collectively shaping the world and sharing equitably in humanity’s achievement.23

A strategy that focuses not only on more pay and better conditions in the short term but also on less work, resistance to the idea of “good work ethics” and even refusal to engage in production altogether, could mean a switch where, instead of aiming exclusively at making the conditions in which production happens better for workers, the entirety of production would be questioned. Ideally production should be reabsorbed and coincide with the reproduction of ourselves and of our collectivity.

Bringing the Vanguard Home: Revisiting the Black Panther Party’s Sites of Class Struggle

By the summer of 1968, less than two years after its inception, Oakland, California’s Black Panther Party was running out of space. Signs of the Black Power organization’s rapid growth were especially evident at its Grove Street office, which by this time, was “busting out at the seams,” with “piles of newsletters, leaflets, buttons, [and] flags” overflowing into members’ homes.1 Not surprisingly, state agents were equally privy to the Party’s increasing popularity among local residents; during the same year, increased rates of incarceration, police-led murders, and the political exile of Panther men resulted in a predominantly female membership.2 In the midst of heightened FBI and police repression of the organization, David Hilliard, the Party’s then Chief of Staff, recalls in his autobiography that by September, he no longer felt safe in his home or the Party office.3

Thus, the search was on for a new base of operations. With the help of friends and the pooling of organizational funds, Hilliard quickly located an ideal site on Shattuck Avenue, midway between Berkeley and Oakland. Aside from the buffer that the college town’s businesses would afford Hilliard’s family against “the marginally more civilized Berkeley police” at this particular location, Hilliard envisioned additional benefits to purchasing the property:

We could hold meetings, press conferences, and store the paper in the wide space on the ground floor. Upstairs in front we can put out the paper; in back are plenty of rooms, including the kitchen. From the basement we can build tunnels to the backyard of a friend of Eldridge’s who lives nearby, escape routes in case of attack.4

Further, aware of the house’s ample size, Hilliard proposed to his wife, Patricia, the idea of withdrawing their children from Oakland’s public schools and homeschooling them at the new residence. His plans quickly materialized. After outfitting the bedrooms with bunk beds and equipping every desk with a telephone, Hilliard and his comrades covered the windows with steel sheets and placed sandbags along the walls.5 Soon “the chatter of people working, the chaos of last-minute details, some nonsense about the kids upstairs, some members sacked out on the floor in sleeping bags,” filled the house with an atmosphere that Hilliard recalls, felt “familiar, natural, right.” He called the new domain, “home, headquarters, embassy.”6

But what do we make of the tripartite relationship that Hilliard describes? Beyond what it suggests about the central role that the organization’s Chief of Staff played in the Black Panther Party’s early years, the image he provides is telling on at least one additional level; it offers us a key window through which we can more fully examine the organization’s sites of class struggle. While Hilliard may have been the only Party member to actualize plans for building an underground escape route in his backyard (and he might have been successful, had the city’s underground subway system not backed up the water level, causing the tunnels to flood), the “home, headquarters, embassy” he depicts was not unique. In fact, accounts of Panther households outlined in memoirs and biographies of former members, organizational documents, and FBI files suggest that for numerous Black Panthers, the home existed as a liminal space, at the nexus of family, community, and work life. More specifically, for many Black Panthers, the household functioned as a primary site of contestation between the Party and the state over the terms of social reproduction.

While much has been written about how the Black Panther Party’s brand of black radicalism operated as a spectacular politics – in the streets, in front of government buildings, and in community centers – few scholars have fully explored the more intimate terrains over which the BPP attempted to multiply its revolutionary ranks. If the state actively hindered the ability of black working-class families to perform the daily tasks of reproductive labor by relegating them to ghettos ridden with police violence, by inculcating their children with a public school curriculum void of black history, or by officially pathologizing black female-headed households, Party members responded with collective calls for self-determination.7

Yet, Black Power militancy, and state responses to it, did not always occur in those spaces most visible to the public. Rather, the home and family unit were just as likely targets of government subversion as the more visible urban terrains that have become the central backdrop of Black Panther iconography. Equally important, the Panthers’ anti-colonial politics were often transmitted across generations not in Party offices or community centers, but behind closed doors, in the intimate spaces of living rooms, kitchens, and backyards.

Specifically, this essay investigates the ways in which the home and family unit functioned as political and politicizing spaces for Party members and their children. In the context of the organization’s politics of self-determination, this essay seeks to understand the significance of those moments when Black Panthers’ most personal domains transformed into refuges from state violence, venues for the political education of children, and quarters that accommodated Party members’ experimentations with various living arrangements. I ask: what symbolic or material significance, if any, did conceptions of parenthood, childrearing practices, or the home, have for those interested in the Party, and for those bent on its demise? Similarly, to what extent did these phenomena function as mechanisms of Black Panther socialism? Utilizing a range of primary and secondary sources including autobiographies of former Party members, newspaper articles, and general studies of the organization, I contend that these more domestically-insulated interactions were as central to the Party’s political practices as members’ more overt organizational labor.8

Background

Like the Party’s gender theories, the ideas the BPP espoused about parenthood and family were neither monolithic nor static throughout its twelve-year lifespan from 1966 to 1982. And while Oakland’s Black Power group never released an official statement articulating the role of family and children in the socialist revolution, questions about fatherhood, motherhood, and family structure figured prominently in organizational theories and practices from the group’s early stages.9

In fact, on many levels, the Party’s establishment by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale served as a response to U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial 1965 study, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Drawing on a compilation of sociological, economic, and historical research, Moynihan ultimately attributed the high unemployment and school attrition rates among blacks in low-income cities to the structure of black families. Black mothers and matriarchal households were particularly troubling to Moynihan, as his report would cast both as debilitating to the social and economic progress of black men and male youth.10

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that tropes of the reclamation of black manhood, which could be achieved through a man’s ability to protect his family, fill the pages of the BPP’s early literature. In his early writings, Newton’s response to the matriarchal family form offers an ironic corroboration of many of Moynihan’s assertions about the state of black fatherhood. His 1967 essay, “Fear and Doubt,” for example, depicts the black husband and father as a dejected figure, consumed with feelings of guilt over his inability to provide for his wife and children. Unable to financially support or protect his family, he ultimately “withdraws into the world of invisibility.”11 Newton’s trope of invisibility is coupled with a rhetoric of protection and survival that underscores the paradoxical nature of the black father figure; both a product of governmental neglect and the target of police-sanctioned violence, he is at once invisible and hypervisible. Echoing Newton’s personal writings, the BPP’s agenda of combating police brutality inscribed a version of revolutionary black manhood that was directly tied to the protection of the home and family. One of the organization’s earliest documents, Executive Mandate Number One, for instance, called on members to defend the homes and persons of the black ghetto from oppressive state forces.12

But scholars of the BPP’s gender politics, including Tracye Matthews remind us that the Party maintained fluid, and at times contradictory notions of familial relationships as the organization’s political ideology transformed over time, in constant dialectic with external contemporary discourses.13 Even Newton, while reinscribing Moynihan’s patriarchal conceptions of family and marriage, at other moments posited the “bourgeois family” as “imprisoning, enslaving, and suffocating.”14 In line with capitalistic forms of property ownership and exploitation, the nuclear family symbolized a direct challenge to socialist modes of parenthood and siblinghood.

Moving Away From the “Bourgeois Family”

Certainly, Huey Newton’s critique of the nuclear family model did not fall on deaf ears. In fact, even before the publication of his “Fear and Doubt” essay, Black Panthers were already experimenting with communal living arrangements and sexual relationships. The image of Panther homes as at once serving as sleeping quarters, all-night diners, and organizational meeting centers abound in Panther memoirs.15 Looking at a handful of Panther families, in the following section I trace the ways in which home life manifested itself for both those individuals who worked for the Party, and those whose lineage bound them to Black Panther politics. By mapping the spatial layouts of Panther households, by tracing the nature of childhood development including the education and socialization of Panthers’ children, and by examining Party members’ conceptions of parenthood, this section asks: how did members of the Black Panther Party prepare their kin for a post-capitalist future?

Mary Williams offers a telling example of the communalism that was characteristic of many Panther households. Born in Oakland, California in 1967, Williams was exposed to the Bay Area’s culture of black radicalism from a young age. During the BPP’s early years, her mother, Mary Williams, sold issues of The Black Panther, the organization’s literary mouthpiece, to local residents, and helped facilitate the group’s community service programs. Her father, Louis Randolph, served on the Party’s community police patrols until his arrest and incarceration in Soledad Prison in 1970 on charges of the assault and intent to kill a police officer.16 Her father’s political prisoner status and her parents’ ultimate divorce meant that Williams and her siblings were exposed to different types of family settings growing up. From time to time, the Williams children stayed with their uncle, Landon Williams, who also worked for the Party. As a child, Mary recognized that her uncle’s decision to live independently with his wife and child, outside the confines of Panther housing, was somewhat unique. Whereas her uncle resided in “his own tidy little apartment,” other members of the rank-and-file settled in Party housing, “which meant bunklike   quarters and often sleeping on pallets.”17 While Williams reminds us of the diversity of living styles among Party members, her account also echoes the theme of mobility – evidenced by the constant flow of comrades – that is central to David Hilliard’s account of his Shattuck Avenue home. As the cases of Mary Williams and the Hilliards indicate, then, the constant movement of people within the household serves as a telling symbol of the inseparability of personal and political spaces for Panther families.

Movement between residences was also a common experience among Panther youth. Dorion Hilliard, son of David and Patricia, recalls spending much of his childhood moving from state to state as a result of his parents’ deep involvement in the movement. Ironically, although his was a childhood of constant relocation, Dorion remained fully surrounded by Black Panther culture. Nearly twenty of his relatives belonged to the Party, adding a sense of normalcy to his engagement in learning political songs and writing to incarcerated Panthers – activities that might otherwise have been considered strange and “un-American” by his non-Panther peers.18 At the same time, however, his Black Panther lineage was also evidenced by what was deliberately absent from his family’s home: TV, nursery rhymes, and G.I. Joes.19 His parents’ decisions regarding what they would and would not expose their children to are revealing on at least two levels; on the one hand, their banning of television viewing suggests a level of regimentation and discipline within the Hilliard household. Secondly, David’s and Patricia’s prohibition of G.I. Joe toys may be understood as their unwillingness to accommodate symbols of the state in their home, a possible indication of the Party’s firm rejection of the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War; a conflict the Party understood as an exercise in U.S. imperialism.

For other children of Black Power families, the wedding of Party and family life at times posed challenges for the existence of more intimate parent-child relationships. Ericka Abram, the daughter of former Party chairman Elaine Brown, recalls how her mother’s commitment to the working-class revolution at times led to a degree of physical and emotional distance between the two. Brown’s leading position often required her presence abroad, meeting with leaders of socialist and anti-colonial movements in places such as North Korea and China as part of the BPP’s efforts to build international coalitions.20 Still, even when the two shared the same living space, the frequent presence of Brown’s bodyguard often precluded Brown and her daughter from spending exclusive time with one another. For many years, theirs was more of a professional and politically-oriented relationship. After Brown’s departure from the Party in 1977, she and Ericka moved in together, thrust into a new situation in which they would both learn to exist as mother and daughter. Years later, in an interview with journalist, John Blake, Brown and Abram would remember it as an awkward experience because for so long, they had lived more like comrades.21

Ericka Abram was among many children of Black Power organizers whose early years were embedded in expressions of vanguard activism. To be sure, the theme of duty to one’s community appears regularly in biographical and autobiographical sources. At a young age, Ericka worked alongside Party organizers distributing food to local youth as part of the BPP’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program, one of the organization’s more than forty community service programs.22 Reflecting on her early grassroots work over thirty years later, Abram describes a duality to this phase of her life. Being politically aware as a child, she contends, was both purposeful and demanding. She notes, “Sometimes I didn’t want the responsibility of being awake. I just wanted to be like other kids. I wanted to watch cartoons.”23 Here, Abram’s understanding of her past echoes what Dorion Hilliard described earlier as an insulated childhood, one that was at once rewarding in its communalism, yet necessarily distinct from the daily operations of the more apolitical adolescence.

For other members of the second generation, their place in the socialist revolution was delineated even before birth. In July 1969, nearly one year into his life as a political exile, BPP Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, was joined in Algiers by his wife and BPP Communications Secretary, Kathleen Cleaver, who at the time was seven months pregnant with their first child.24The Cleavers named their son, Maceo, after the nineteenth-century Cuban revolutionary, Antonio Maceo, and on the day of his birth in Pissemsilt Algeria, The Black Panther announced that the Cleavers’ child would implement the Party’s ideals “until the pigs who enslave the world are wiped out from the face of the earth.”25 Witnessing his parents’ efforts in developing an international network of anti-colonial solidarity undoubtedly contributed to Maceo’s own budding consciousness of class disparity, and his role in the struggle against it. As an adult looking back on his early years, Maceo Cleaver asserts, “We knew we were freedom fighters. We realized that there were a lot of injustices and that it was our responsibility to speak up and say something about it.”26

The prioritization of the community over the individual that was central to Black Panther politics affected other realms of interpersonal relations as well. Beyond the ways in which communal thinking may have shaped children’s daily activities and self-awareness, the organization’s vanguard sensibilities also informed how individual members conceptualized parenthood. Again, the case of Elaine Brown and Ericka Abram serves as a useful example. Like many Black revolutionary Nationalists, Brown posited the overthrow of the ruling class as inherent to one’s parental duty. But the revolution never came. Abram contends that the disillusionment her mother felt upon leaving the BPP in 1977 stemmed both from an unrealized political project, as well as Brown’s feelings of parental failure. In an interview with John Blake, Abram says of her mother, “In her mind, she failed me because she didn’t change the world for me.”27 Brown adds, “We thought we were going to create something new or die trying. We didn’t think we would leave our kids right back where we started.”28

For some, collective parenting also involved collective forms of discipline. While Party members with children employed a range of disciplinary practices, memoirs and biographical sources suggest that it was not uncommon for Panther parents to experiment with non-punitive measures. Ericka Abram remembers instances in which she was asked to make amends with her peers after a dispute by writing essays on leading black figures such as Jackie Robinson.29 In this sense, some activists utilized discipline as a mechanism to expose the daughters and sons of members to the organization’s political education efforts. And, perhaps not surprisingly, parents themselves were not exempt from receiving such disciplinary actions. During her membership in the BPP’s Brooklyn branch, Safiya Bukhari often brought her daughter, Wonda with her to the Party’s office during long work days. When her comrades detected signs of parental neglect such as a diaper that was overdue for changing, Bukhari sometimes faced repercussions in the form of volunteer work assignments. On one occasion, her comrades tasked with cleaning a community members’ apartment. In another instance, after witnessing Safiya raise her voice in front of Wonda, Bukhari’s colleagues assigned her the job of writing an essay on Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth.30

As the Party grew in membership by the end of the 1960s, conversations about the relationship between the Party, family, and parenthood assumed new forms. The BPP’s Chicago branch offers a telling example of the ways in which the personal was political for Black Power radicals. In 1972, the leader of the Chicago chapter, Audrea Jones, issued a position paper addressing both the recent growth in Party membership and the rising number of children born to Panther women. Reflecting her anxieties about the increased strain on Party resources which had been used to support members and their families, Jones advocated for a change in the organization’s policy concerning birth control and family planning. Specifically, she proposed a four-step program that would require all Panther couples intending to have children to communicate with “responsible members” of the Party’s Review Committee, which included the Finance Secretary, Personnel, and Ministry of Health. After assessing the “objective conditions” of a given couple under review, the Committee would present a recommendation to the Party’s Central Committee. Ultimately, the latter group would have the final say regarding whether or not a couple should proceed with plans to start a family.31

While Jones’ program never became official policy, only two years later Panther leaders did issue a mandate requiring all members to use birth control.32 Aside from what it reveals about the momentum gained in the Black Power Movement by the early 1970s, the proposed initiative is revealing on another level. At a time when the rhetoric of “genocide,” “sterilization,” and “annihilation of the black race” flooded the pages of The Black Panther, the organization implemented its own measures to curtail and regulate the sexual activity of its cadres. Ironically, the same people that the state actively sought to control through surveillance, incarceration, displacement and murder, became key sites through which the Panthers’ black revolutionary nationalism grew beyond its self-sustaining limits.

But while we may draw parallels between the organization’s introduction of a new politics of sexual and familial responsibility and concurrent state attempts to produce vulnerability among Black Panthers, there is a danger in equating these two phenomenon. While state agencies such as the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program operated with the intent to physically eradicate black militants, BPP efforts to curtail the birth rates of the second generation reflect one of several organizational strategies used to mitigate resource scarcity in order to sustain the Party and its programs. Rather than interpreting such family planning initiatives as reproductions of state efforts to extinguish Black Panther radicalism and its legacy, then, we might better understand these policies as examples of members’ attempts to preserve their capacity to serve their communities and build a more egalitarian world for future generations.

The Home and the State

As noted above, the Black Panther Party’s attempts to determine the conditions of the social reproduction of its cadres never occurred in isolation from similar state projects. Just as the home and family unit acted as important domains in which Panthers cultivated a unified black body politic bent on the overthrow of capitalism, so too did the state recognize these spaces as crucial to its own agenda of annihilating the organization. Government officials’ framing of the BPP as antithetical to a safe nation is perhaps best illustrated by J. Edgar Hoover’s multiple warnings to the American public that the Black Panther Party – and its Free Breakfast for School Children Program in particular – posed a primary threat to national security.33

But what did the state’s attempts to inscribe its own national borders mean for families of revolutionary socialism in the 1960s and 1970s? And in the context of social reproduction, in what ways did agencies like COINTELPRO and local police departments enter the Party’s intimate spaces while carrying out the state’s mission to eliminate black radicalism? Certainly, few sites of Panther activity were left untouched by the government’s repressive hand. Evidence of state penetration of the Party’s internal operations abounds in Panther memoirs, through symbols of wiretapped phones, parked police cars stationed outside of members’ homes, and household doors laden with police-fired bullet holes.34 A fuller understanding of Party-state relations, then, warrants an examination of those moments of government intrusion in the less publicly visible realms of BPP activity – particularly those spaces in which Party members fed, housed, educated, and socialized their kin.35

Certainly, children were not exempt from the monitored status that characterized so many BPP families. Targeted at home, at school, and in some cases, as members of exiled families, children became primary avenues through which government agents produced vulnerability and disruption within both the Party and its individual family units. David Hilliard offers one of the most insightful examples of the extent to which Hoover’s agency would go to obtain information about the Black Power organization. When the Hilliards’ six-year-old son, Darryl, was sent home from school for starting a fire in his classroom, administrative officials alerted Darryl’s parents that the school might press charges. When the family received a knock on their door one week later, they were greeted by a man in a business suit, his FBI badge in hand. Hilliard recounts that when the agent informed David that his son was at risk of facing serious charges, the man used the interrogation as an opportunity to survey the inside of their home. Angry and amused, Hilliard remembers thinking to himself, “In the face of the warfare I’m bracing for, this foolishness strikes me as really contemptible, pathetic.”36 After asking the agent if his threat of taking Darryl to trial was serious, Hilliard asked the man, “A six year-old boy? Is that how desperate you are? Worried about six-year-old revolutionaries?” Although Hilliard read the situation as a moment of embarrassment for the FBI agent, his question was not unfounded. Years later Hilliard would aver that the FBI and local police would “use every weapon in their arsenal to destroy the Party,” including children.37

At times, the state’s invasive measures intensified to such a degree that some activists no longer felt that Oakland’s public schools provided safe spaces for black youth. In fact, Hilliard and Seale were among the first Party members to withdraw their children from the Oakland Public School District after cases of their repeated harassment by teachers due to Seale’s and Hilliard’s political affiliations. Hilliard and Seale would also be the first Party members to enroll their children in the BPP’s newly established liberation schools.38 For the sake of brevity, I will not address the history of the organization’s alternative schools here. However, it is important to note that such political education initiatives, on many levels, exemplify the Party’s agency in determining the nature of the educational and social development of Oakland’s black youth. The Oakland Community School – the Party’s first and longest-running liberation school – for example, served as both a safe haven for scores of local children, and as a direct corrective to a white-washed public school curriculum which many Panthers felt alienated non-white children.39

Not surprisingly, the state’s intrusion into the personal realms of American black radicalism transcended national borders as well. Although most of his involvement with the BPP took place outside of the U.S., as the head of the Party’s International Chapter, Eldridge Cleaver was also fully aware of the precarious position of second-generation Panthers. As political exiles, the Cleavers underwent constant relocation, between and within nations, employing a range of tactics to protect the confidentiality of their family’s whereabouts. In a 2006 published collection of his writings, Eldridge recounts, “We had to be very secretive about where we kept our children, often keeping them in hiding places separate from where we were staying.”40 He adds, during the family’s nearly seven-year period in exile, he and Kathleen placed their son and daughter in hiding for one year.41 When these measures left Eldridge feeling vulnerable still, he went as far as lying to his children about his own identity. It was a failed attempt, however. After their father repeatedly stressed to Maceo and Joju that his was name Henry Jones, they refused to believe him.42

While the Cleavers’ case is by no means representative of the numerous Panther families that found political asylum abroad during the Party’s years of operation – the archives have left us with few sources detailing the experiences of such families – their trajectory offers a window into the complex and diverse nature of how mid-twentieth century black radicals negotiated family responsibilities and participation in the revolution. Analyzing the Cleavers’ experience in particular may further help to expand our understanding of how reproductive labor operated within Panther families. That Eldridge Cleaver’s efforts to protect his children from state repression assumed the form of a false identity suggests that for some, family development was a necessarily precarious and at times, alienating process.

Conclusion

While scholarship on the Black Panther Party has only recently begun to explore the organization’s spatial politics, few authors have situated the home and family unit as key sites of Party members’ class struggle. Just as public parks, government buildings, and the streets became central domains of Black Power activism, Black Panthers also utilized less obvious spaces to implement their brand of revolutionary socialism. Signs of the organization’s rejection of a capitalistic state, and Panthers’ attempts to wrestle control from the state in securing a future for their kin, can be seen in members’ parental practices, living arrangements, and in the socialization of the second generation. And as newspaper articles, memoirs, and state sources reveal, the state was not hesitant to infiltrate these spaces in its efforts to monitor Party operations. For it was precisely within these realms of social reproduction that the co-construction of the Panther vanguard and Hoover’s “American” nation materialized.

Collective spaces

My intention is to talk about social reproduction in the context of a specific social environment. Social reproduction versus the reproduction of individuals, public versus private, manipulated and regulated versus free and autonomous, frustration and solitude versus joyous cooperation.

I would like to use some informal notes to create a connection between the necessity to rethink and clarify the concept of social reproduction, and the need to create collective spaces in our cities.

It is necessary to think about these spaces as truly public and relational, putting together theories and practices of resistance experimented with during the crisis.

1. What do we mean by “social reproduction”? The reproduction of individuals is social in the sense of being controlled or manipulated, in a constant shift between public and private.

My intention is to talk about social reproduction in the context of a specific social environment. Social reproduction versus the reproduction of individuals, public versus private, manipulated and regulated versus free and autonomous, frustration and solitude versus joyous cooperation.

In Europe the reproduction of individuals is subject to a continuous fluctuation between “social” and “private.”1 The social is the space of direct manipulation, organized by laws, public expenditures, customs, and moral rules that crush the individual’s ability to desire. The private is coarsely idealized as the space of freedom, but in most cases it reveals itself as the dominion of neglect, misery, frustration, powerlessness, and loneliness.

The social forms of the reproduction of individuals do not coincide only with welfare (which, during Fordism functioned as a control mechanism for the reproduction of the labor force, while today it’s only a shadow of an expense on the public budget, reduced to insignificance). It is also the entirety of the ways in which a specific society views the relationship between sexes, as well as the development, growth, and formation of individuals.

Inside the narrative proposed by neoliberalism, individuals are portrayed as free of commitments and interdependencies, free to choose their own life, able to discover by themselves a reproductive balance, even if limited by the constraints of rigid norms.

Of course all of this produces a process of retreat into the private sphere, with the establishment of new hierarchies between genders, but also between citizens and migrants, beside the usual class divisions.

According to my point of view, a feminist point of view, the reproduction of individuals is entirely social, because it is always regulated and manipulated by the society and the state, even if it doesn’t always appear to be so. This control and manipulation is exerted upon the work that has historically been assigned to women, paid labor in the case of service work or free in the case of the “work of love.”2

In this moment of crisis that we are experiencing in Europe, the actual model of social reproduction is no longer sustainable and needs the push of strong and creative forms of experimentation, even when they might seem problematic.

If we start from re-defining reproduction as “entirely social” and performed by everybody, then it is possible to imagine new forms of collaboration, interconnections between the freedom of choice and the comfort of commonality, and projects of resistance on the issue of welfare and social activity, at least regarding the sphere of material reproduction.

2. Biological reproduction is social reproduction

The reproduction of individuals can be described in various ways: biological, material, emotional, cultural, relational. Obviously these various characteristics are produced by a society that is historically determined and in turn defined by them.

The primary trait, the one that has to do with the reproduction of the species, with the material actions of having children, with the physical reproduction of individuals – because it is merely rooted in biology, seems to be dissociated from the “social” and remain a private affair, a choice founded on love and freedom, more than ever today, when women in many countries have gained access to contraceptive and abortive choices.

Nonetheless, these choices are exactly what determines the social character of biological reproduction, which has been made “free” by laws that are sometimes limiting, sometimes badly enforced, and which often contain many restrictive clauses. The choices that are ascribed to the will of individuals are indeed conditioned more than what we think. Let’s take into consideration, for instance, the history of women’s struggles during the second half of the 1900s.

Even though incentives used to affect demographic changes in countries with a strong conservative regime, keen on protecting the “race” (such as Italy and Germany but also France during the 1930s), have very little if any impact at all, there are more subtle restrictions in situations where the freedom of choice of women might seem an accomplished fact: laws on abortion can be disregarded by doctors and healthcare professionals on the basis of conscientious objection, abortion clinics might close, cultural pressures from religious institutions in favor of a generic defense of life can create obstacles to informed choices, work and life conditions can be unfavorable to reproductive choices, and a general reduction in public expenditures and in social services can strongly affect the decision to have children. It is not a coincidence that the recognition of non-traditional families, from families recreated after a divorce to homosexual families, is more and more established and widespread. These families guarantee a model for bio-social reproduction that is modern but still inside the frame of the recognized and respected paradigm of the “family,” so that biological and non-biological reproduction can still be regulated by a set of socially determined norms.

Abortive and contraceptive practices, viewed as able to guarantee freedom to the female body, freedom regarding life choices as well as the times and modes of reproduction are, on the contrary, controlled and often subjected to strong legitimacy challenges.

The implementation of practices of control upon the sexuality of women, which has been widespread through history, has recently caused strong clashes at the international level and often led to judicial sentences condemning the “sexual freedom” of women in the case of rape and violence.3

This is how biological reproduction is conditioned and ends depending on social structures. It is very difficult then to separate it from what we usually call social reproduction and from the politics and power of the ruling classes.

3. The material aspect of reproduction, the historically unpaid work of women, which had been partially socialized by the Fordist welfare system, is again privatized and retreats into the realm of the single household during the crises.

Capitalism has always treated the work of care as labor. In fact, capitalists have always compensated it (bonnes, housemaids, wet nurses, butlers, servants, etc.), even while underpaying that labor and making it structural by inserting it in relationships of dependency, attachment, and belonging.4

Considered natural inside the framework of the gender based division of labor and the financial and domestic submission of women, not only by the middle classes but also by large stratas of the Fordist working class, care work has strongly influenced the strenuous struggles for emancipation led by the feminist movements of the 20th century.

Marxist feminism during the 1970s, in classifying domestic work as labor, has simply unveiled its mystical aspects – mystified by attachment, love, status and by the search for a socially codified and predefined role – including it among the basic components of primitive accumulation.5

Certain sectors of this work had been socialized by a form of welfare that was strictly connected to full employment, but with the crisis those expenses in the public budget that were destined to the assistance of vulnerable people have been drastically cut in Europe, and consequently we are moving towards more and more aggressive forms of privatization. The social organization based on the family structure, with inadequate and minimal public services, has been delegated to women, who have become unpaid service providers, so that all the work of care, of children, elderly and infirmed, has been charged on their shoulders.

Assuming then that the majority of reproductive work, unpaid or underpaid, has been and still is at the foundation of the process of capitalist accumulation, today, beside the rise in unpaid work – pushed back inside the household – a new organization of reproduction is being orchestrated, with minimum wages and total exploitation, through selective and divisive lines, between the citizen-mistress and the migrant worker. With the welfare system no longer functioning, it is the privatization that affects the poorest sectors of the population, because the needs of those who are not self-sufficient are absolute and can’t be put aside.

Women represent roughly 50 percent of the international migratory flux, according to the report compiled in 2013 by the United Nation Population Division.6 They are sought after for specific kinds of work: babysitter, housekeeper, caregiver, nurse or sex-worker; all kinds of work that have to do with the reproduction of individuals.

Even when professionally qualified, they are deemed fit only for care and domestic work, as those are considered typically feminine, so they are underpaid and isolated, confined to the house of their master or mistress.

To this picture it is necessary to add an additional factor, at least in the case of Europe, regarding the families of origin of the European migrant women, usually from Romania or Moldova: these are women who left behind at home a family in which the mother was absent and other workers, from Ukraine or Bielorussia, would sometime assist them in the work of care of children and elderly, thus creating an international migratory chain inside the market of reproduction. In addition, this aspect has to do with the material reproduction of individuals that, even if privatized, still presents strong social connotations related to the dominion and the exploitation of poverty.

4. Politics of economic reconciliation and cooperation do not address men and women equally and, in any case, do not offer real solutions because they are directed only to those who are fully employed. The crisis produces scarcity of goods and social relations but engenders also forms of cooperation that are independent from the state.

Feminist movements are still demanding that a portion of the reproduction of individuals (such as the care of children and elderly) be socialized. On the other hand, increasing the expenditure for social services or the organization of the work of care is not on the agenda in any of the states. In the European Union the general tendency is rather that of assigning the responsibilities of the work of care to the single household, through the use of a system of paid leave, even though this only applies to those who are fully employed.

The system of paid leave is traditionally viewed through a perspective that sees women as the main caregivers, while little attention is paid to the fathers or the grown children of dependent seniors. The most progressive approaches, like that of the legislation 2010/18/UE of the European Union, propose a gender neutral take on care work, where, when it comes to the care of children – but not to that of adults or elderly in need of assistance – both parents, if fully employed, can take paid time off (even though in practice it is mostly the mothers who take advantage of these opportunities, since their salary is usually lower than that of the fathers and it is thus compatible with the percentual reductions set up at state level. In the south of Europe there’s also a cultural stigma that works against the idea of fathers engaging in care work). Less popular, if more interesting, is the practice of mandatory paternity leave, parallel to the mandatory maternity leave for mothers, even though in many states it is only a few days’ time off. In any case, it is worth repeating that all these interventions are directed exclusively at those who are employed full time.

This is what the picture looks like today: waged labor, as dependent in its traditional forms on the protection guaranteed by public expenditures (and for which T.H. Marshall’s project of a social citizenship, constructed around the idea of full employment, should have allowed constant state funding) is disappearing.7 The progressive impoverishment of a large sector of the European population through unemployment (estimated at 28 million of unemployed in Europe, especially among the younger population), leaves a large number of vulnerable people without any social support. There is more suffering and the consequence is a considerable increase in the expenses of the single households – for instance to pay for health care or for professional caretakers (there are an estimated 700,000 private caretakers in Italy, and the average expenditure for their salary is 920 euro a month: almost 10 percent of the entire health care budget!) –- but especially increased hours of work for families (which means essentially for daughters, mothers, and grandmothers) who are taking care of the elderly and the disabled, the children, and all those who need it, including those same youths who are unemployed or have unstable jobs.8

The ideology of neoliberalism puts a lot of emphasis on the responsibility of the individual towards the choices and the risks of life. Today the good citizen is the self-made one (this goes together with the privatization of services and resources that used to be public). The achievements of the individual are put above any form of social aggregation. What so called neoliberalism really wants is to “liberate” capital from any responsibility towards the reproduction of the labor force; it wants to erase the last residues of those Keynesian policies that, to this day, still force the state to guarantee (even though less and less) certain levels of reproduction.

Women know from experience that nobody is ever self-sufficient in life, not in youth or in old age, not when infirm, not as male or female, worker or unemployed. In fact, the reproduction of individuals is at the foundation of social, economic, and political relationships and represents the only meaningful framework for coexistence.

The concrete base from which to start is then the ability to think of individuals as people with bodies, thinking of ourselves as interdependent, thus escaping the liberal abstraction of the self-sufficient individual (individual and not subject).

In these times of crisis, the scarcity of resources has as a consequence the creation of innovative forms of cooperative reproduction, mostly volunteer based, which nonetheless tend to constitute a free alternative to the deficiencies of welfare, socializing the costs of reproduction.

In addition, the material aspects of reproduction, weakened by the crisis, are being re-organized in collaborative forms – such as buying clubs, co-housing, car-sharing, flea markets, time banks, communal gardens, caregivers co-ops, and community clinics.

Two emblematic examples of this process in Europe are Spain and Greece, where it is possible to find forms of resistance to the crisis at the level of social reproduction, such as health care services offered by volunteer doctors, pharmacies that distribute drugs free of charge to those in need, or the PAH (Plataforma d’Afectats per la Hipoteca, or the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, started in 2009 in Catalonia) which was able to spread its experiences and transformative momentum beyond the mere network of activists. Within the PAH, we face issues of housing, habitat, survival, and the vulnerability of the body.

The PAH was able to organize vulnerability and turn it into political action. In Greece and Spain they were able to mobilize the impoverished middle class, which the crisis of 2008 had put in a situation of precariousness. Bodies came out into the streets, and whole cities were turned into political spaces by their presence.

Forms of reproduction alternative to the market system or to the vanishing public services managed by the state, often can respond to immediate needs. The question is, are these interventions able to produce forms of social aggregation on a larger scale?

5. Can these forms of socialization substitute for the welfare system? Undoubtedly there are grey zones: often they are not transferable or cover small geographical and social areas; often they are utilized to make up for the deficiencies of the public sector. Nonetheless, many innovative projects are emerging.

It is interesting to see how the autonomy and the productive and cooperative abilities of the social fabric are often exalted as able to make up for the deficiencies of public services. In fact a strong ambivalence can be found both in forms of voluntary social work and in nonprofit organizations that operate within the area of the reproduction of individuals.

If on the one hand they represent extraordinary mechanisms of consciousness raising, on the other they are perfectly compatible with austerity policies, since they are means to socialize the costs of reproduction.

It’s not a coincidence that local governments are relying more and more, in the face of emergencies, on voluntary social work and nonprofit organizations. There is a concrete risk that the collectivization of the activities of reproduction could become just a way to manage poverty rather than a mechanism to reappropriate wealth.

There is evidence that protest movements, even the most radical of them, are not expressing themselves just with refusal, indignation, and attacks anymore. On the contrary, they are becoming more and more able to offer alternative solutions.9 They seem to be taking the form of an organization of the common, of forms of production and reproduction of life alternative to the market economy and to the state. Often they offer hybrid solutions, midway between the state and the market, with innovative contents.

The development of new means for the socialization of the costs of reproduction creates a space that can be imagined as existing between public and private, able to reintegrate bodies and their needs – those same bodies that are usually excluded from politics and formal democracy.

When it comes to the reproduction of individuals, the “common” is a reality mostly in fieri, of which we can foresee just a few aspects, and its projects unfold on a limited scale, often prompted by the necessity of survival. One of our most important goals is that of breaking the isolation in which the work of reproduction is today organized, isolation that affects mostly women and that becomes dramatic when they are taking care of those who are not self-sufficient, such as children, elderly, and the infirm.

Avoiding the emphasis on the feasibility of expanding these new forms of socialization, and even taking into consideration the difficulties of reinventing forms of relations inside the sphere of reproduction, it is possible to observe how these first experiments express a desire for community and a renewed possibility for the creation of social relationships and change.

Nancy Fraser claims that the political perspective that was originally meant for the democratization of the state and the empowering of its citizens is today used to legitimize the commodification and the disintegration of the social state. On the other hand, the outlook offered by a solidarity-based feminism could still be useful. The current crisis offers the possibility to expand that perspective, connecting the dream of the liberation of women with that of a society founded on solidarity:

First, we might break the spurious link between our critique of the family wage and flexible capitalism by militating for a form of life that de-centres waged work and valorises unwaged activities, including – but not only – care work.10

Secondly, it is important to separate labor from any notion of a well lived life, declaring the end of the model of Workfare, as it was already prefigured by some of the womens’ movements.

Actually, both liberal and socialist feminists subscribed to the typical capitalist devaluation of the work of reproduction, embracing, as the only path to emancipation, waged labor and the integration of women into the public sphere, exactly at the moment when it was the target of a serious attack by workers, both male and female, all over the world. Feminists abandoned any struggle inside the sphere of reproduction, thinking that, once fully integrated into the labor market, women would gain more social power.11

At the same time, what can be called “difference feminism” considered reproduction work as if it were ingrained in the nature of women, forgetting the conditions of exploitation in which it happens,turning it into an essentialist notion.

Defining reproduction as the fundamental source of capitalist accumulation, Marxist feminism made it possible to conceive of the possibility of an overturn towards a process of socialization that can revolutionize the actual conditions of neoliberal exploitation and emphasize the materiality of self-sustenance.

Sexual bodies, in order to survive and reproduce, need to be connected to one another. Individuals are not able to develop, live, or produce in solitude.

Compulsory relationships, typical of those unyielding structures of interconnection that were revolutionized by anti-authoritarian movements during the second half of the twentieth century, corresponded to the factory model, with its rigid and pyramidal organization. The diffuse design factory, the idea of work as incorporated into the fabric of our life, are concepts able to extract freedom from control, subsuming it into a superior instance. Relationships develop remotely, become ethereal, incorporeal; our communication, even when voice and facial expressions are included, doesn’t include the body, it’s bidimensional. It is then necessary to reestablish elements of materiality also in the reproduction of individuals.

6. It is possible to reinvent new parameters for the reproduction of individuals, intrinsic to its own transformation and with a radical innovation of its contents. On the other hand, if we fail to consider the needs of those who are not self-sufficient and the work necessary for the care of bodies and relationships, we will continue producing forms of socialization tragically characterized by inequality.

The reproduction of individuals is not just material reproduction. There is a necessary “work of love,” a work to be done for the care of relationships, which was annihilated by the process of individualization promoted by neoliberalism.

I wonder if it’s possible to grasp, in the general tendency that promotes the defense of the common and the collectivization of material reproduction, possibilities that go beyond its mere value for resistance, enriching it with potentials for the creation of new forms of relationships. This would make the practices of social reproduction more open to question and less mechanic. Most importantly, it would require a substantial modification of the theories surrounding the process of transformation, the relationship with politics, and the enunciation of practices.

The main focus should be directed at those who are not self-sufficient, that is, children, the elderly, infirm, the poor: these people depend on relationships that cannot be managed on an emergency basis or only rely on the goodwill of volunteers. If we take the needs of these subjects as a starting point, a real change in the social reproduction of individuals becomes more practical.

It is necessary to come up with ambitious projects, making theories available to those who need to put them into practice, in order to create real change. A change in the dynamic of relationships but also a change in the connections between knowledge and power.

There are theories and proposals able to formulate projects for new forms of social reproduction, respectful of the relationship between genders, of the physical presence of weak and vulnerable bodies, of the conjunction between theoretical knowledge and the needs of individuals: these are theories surrounding the notions of home, the city (the urban space), the common, the health care system.

It is necessary to make an effort, both on the theoretical and the practical level, to think and then actualize forms of collective welfare, taking into account the possibilities implied in the promotion of a social recomposition, the increase in solidarity based exchanges and, most importantly, beyond just wanting to re-appropriate our wealth, the need for solidarity towards vulnerable subjects. It is necessary to try and establish an alliance between juridical culture and social movements, between practices of self-care and the medical profession, between living in urban spaces and dreaming of a city meant for living bodies.

We could ask ourselves if it’s possible to create a connection between public and collective, material reproduction and relationships of attachment, interdependency and the free expression of subjectivity, acknowledgement of differences and the tension towards equality.

A first example of a possible restructuration of the dynamics of social reproduction is in the area of health care, where the primary filter is that of the work of care. But that needs to overcome the prejudices of a normative notion of well being, dependent from the protocols and the diktats of the pharmaceutical industry, creating interactions between patients and healthcare providers founded on a notion of health that is not medicalized, dependent on drugs, routinized, pathologized, treated as an emergency, but rather as a place of resistance and transformation of the conditions of our existence.12

Women have already opened a critical discourse around health and the use and configuration of public health care infrastructures. On the issue of abortion, European movements recently unified under the slogan “I decide,” which implies the right of self-determination and the access to a secular notion of reproductive health. Female doctors started focusing on sexualized bodies, launching a practice of medical care based on gender, with specific attention to differences. Even though the relationship between professionals, services, and social movements reveals the existence of institutional and practical limitations that are hard to recompose, this seems to be a possible open path for the transformation of social reproduction.

A second example could be that of the city, the metropolis. In a recent interview, Toni Negri describes the metropolis as equivalent to what the factory was for older generations, and the home as a residential machine for living and working inside a digitized city, in which existing and producing are inextricably interconnected.13 Life and survival are thus tied together, even though it is possible to identify some areas of disenfranchisement if compared to the total control of factory work. In this home-machine, exploitation coexists with a few possibilities for liberation/emancipation both for men and women, who could reclaim a base income as a form of compensation for the productive but especially for the domestic aspects of their work.

The spatial configuration of the city around work, production, and the placement of the bodies of the workers is now different from the model described in Revolutionary Road, in which monofunctional conglomerates defined the places of reproduction, while production happened in places isolated and separated along class and gender lines.14

If it’s true that this separation (a specific space for men at work and one for reproduction reserved for women) has disappeared today, according to Negri – in the process that sees the mechanization of the home for productive purposes and the emancipation of women from domestic work, made possible by the progress in new technologies (even though he fails to demonstrate this point. The only thing he proves is that domestic work,the basic work of reproduction,has changed) – what happened to the spaces of the common, the spaces for the reproduction of social relations?

The most prevalent architecture in a city should be the one that includes health care structures, libraries, pre-schools, schools, public art galleries, museums, and recreational facilities – all buildings and spaces where the exchanges are not monetary and where, at the moment, the majority of people working are women. The urban public sphere is the place par excellence, where non-market mediated exchanges can take place; a safe place for exploration, education, and rest. It is the place where it’s possible to experiment with democracy.

It is necessary to create spaces in which the most vulnerable subjects can coexist; spaces that are truly public, where it would be possible to spend time without having to buy anything; spaces for playing that are not sport fields, where there would be room for dreaming and exploring.

The city is a common, a place where social reproduction happens. The urbanized space reflects the lifestyle of its inhabitants and it is at the same time the container for the forms of communication recognized and accepted by the community. Public squares and recreational spaces instead of residential neighborhoods, social services that are effective and accessible, the creation of new forms of aggregation, the construction of a society where self-sustenance happens in a collective space.

In public spaces bodies can meet, with their limitations, their different needs; in public spaces it is possible to create interdependent forms of life, reinvent a cooperative sort of reproduction.

Creating an urban collective space can open the possibility for finding alternatives to the notion of neoliberal individualism, starting from the free expression of diverse subjectivities, and from an awareness of mutual interdependencies.

The sexual body represents a critique of the standard subject of the social contract, subject of rights and politics, inside the frame of liberalism (a subject supposed neutral, self-sufficient, free of commitments and relationships, signified only by its capacity to choose rationally, on the basis of a utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits), and opens up a path for the possibility to recognize sexualized singularities, limited bodies, and the need for relationships and collaboration. If this narrative has to become a form of socialization, since it is about the reproduction of individuals, it cannot be limited to the abstraction of theories, it must find spaces where it would be possible to practice and reinvent new forms of social reproduction. This is about a radical transformation of our lifestyle, it is about conquering spaces of freedom and practices of equality that include the expression of diverse forms of subjectivity and the acknowledgement of different and universal forms of interdependency.

– Translated by Fulvia Serra

Decolonial Feminist Economics: A Necessary View for Strengthening Social and Popular Economy

The crisis of the relation between human well-being and the capitalist economy is clear. Societies in the so-called core countries of Europe and the United States are facing the persistent deterioration of their living conditions while the capital generated by large corporations and the financial system is ever more concentrated.

The unemployment, vulnerability, and poverty faced by a large part of society in countries that used to be situated as winners on the world stage, have shown the limits of an economic theory in the service of the market. The well-being of human beings and the integration of the whole of society has been neglected by the neoliberal focus on economics of recent decades, which places the satisfaction of needs at the level of the individual, consequently, economic theory has been oriented toward the proper functioning of markets.

In Latin America, the perspectives of popular economy and social economy have challenged the individualist paradigm, focusing on the satisfaction of collective needs. Their conceptual developments result from the region’s particular context and history, thereby breaking with the universalist pretensions of orthodox economics and revealing the historical character of economic processes as well as the heterogeneity of its practices.

Feminist economics develops a similar critique of the constitution of a profoundly “male-centric” economic rationality, which privileges behaviors associated with competition and individualism, values that under patriarchy have been assigned to men. In contrast behaviors of solidarity, care, and reciprocity are considered to be extra-economic and feminine within the same gender regime.1

The interaction between feminist economics and social and popular economy reveals the importance of non-market settings, as well as understanding the different contributions and needs of women and men in this scenario. These include, for example, spaces associated with care and activities of reproduction, the existence of a multiplicity of economic practices rooted in knowledges constructed from ethnicity, gender, and territory. Therefore, their contributions expand the scenarios and alternatives for public policies that revalue existing practices.

The first part of this article briefly presents definitions of popular and feminist economics, to show how the interaction between these fields can contribute to the formulation of public policies in the city. In the second part, I make recommendations for public policy that challenge market enclosure, based on the revalorization of non-commodified settings, the continuity between production and reproduction, and the affirmation of the common.

Popular Economy: A Theoretical Contribution from Latin America

From the hegemonic perspective in the region, the principle objective of economics has been modernization. Therefore, non-capitalist economic practices have been addressed through concepts associated with underdevelopment and informality, highlighting the necessity of “overcoming” economic forms rooted in people’s historical experience and their culture, in the hybridization of the campesino and the urban worlds. Faced with this diversity, development programs, these being the generalization of the capitalist ethic, were formulated.

Anchored in political processes and the recognition of existing practices, the concepts of popular economy and social economy were developed. Although diverse approaches exist, there are common points associated with the existence of a reproductive rationality (instead of an instrumental rationality) that orients diverse expressions of labor, whether in the production of use-values or exchange-values, in opposition to activities oriented toward profit as the goal in and of itself.

The concept of the popular economy does not have a uniform meaning. Razeto defines it as the economy of the poor, who, to deal with exclusion, generate associative social forms to resolve the most pressing problems from their own initiatives and to deal with exclusion from the state.2 On the other hand, Núñez links the popular economy to associative work and cooperatives, in the rural as well as the urban environment.3 He considers that all workers are producers and that their activities are not oriented toward capitalist accumulation, but rather the resolution of personal and social needs. For this author, to the extent that the capitalist system is incapable of including broad sectors, those sectors find association and self-management as alternatives to resolve their everyday problems, but also to develop cultural expressions that challenge the practices and values of capitalism.

From another perspective, Coraggio, defines the popular economy as a heterogeneous and fragmented sector that cannot be understood in its complexity through the traditional concepts of informality or poverty, nor through its equivalence to the concepts of the traditional social and solidarity economy.4 He emphasizes the labor capacities of its members independent of their employment status and highlights the reproductive purpose of their processes and the organizational forms transcending kinship ties. Coraggio takes a critical perspective toward the popular economy associated with subordination based on gender, generational distinctions, and income differences, among others. Therefore, he believes that through processes of self-management, association, and forms of self-governance, practices of the social and solidarity economy can be consolidated, oriented by social reproduction proposing alternatives to the market-centric society driven by capitalism.

Gaiger, coinciding with Coraggio, states that “communitarian popular solidarity” does not have the qualities that Núñez and Razeto attribute to it, in which economic performance is marked by survival and immediacy; he argues that many of the popular economy’s activities (self-employment, micro-enterprises, family agriculture, etc.) are marked by subordination and vulnerability, which leads to the need to generate the associative practices characterizing the social and solidarity economy5

Despite these difficulties, elements of the popular economy’s dynamic are capable of being empowered to construct a sector focused on freely associated and self-managed labor, with the production of surplus connected to people’s living conditions.

The recognition of domestic units as constitutive elements of the popular economy– and, in turn, a way of finding a common thread with the issues of the feminist economy – owes its view of economic action to the framework of relations of reciprocity and not individualism.6. Members of domestic units turn to different strategies of hybridizing resources, combining wage labor and domestic reproductive labor (activities of care and production for household consumption), or production for the market, among other strategies. Another characteristic of the popular economy is that its accumulation levels are not unlimited and its goal is the intergenerational reproduction of its members.

The relationships that are woven to resolve common (material and symbolic) needs and their complexity increases as formal expressions of labor become scarcer and an innumerable amount of practices of communities emerge to maintain their lifestyle.7

However, domestic units, different from the conceptualization of the family in neoclassical economics – which was profoundly critiqued by feminist theory – is not proposed as a conflict-free setting, but as a space where there are rules of distribution and reciprocity with the objective of reproducing all of its members. This is reflected in the way in which women are mainly responsible for carrying out activities of care and producing use-values without remuneration. The shared goal of reproduction of all of its members coexists then with inequalities based on gender, age, income, etc. within each domestic unit and the popular economy as a whole.

From Fragmentation to Association

Analyses of the popular economy are framed in the field of Social and Solidarity Economy [SSE] that critiques the response that consumption is the only way to meet human needs. This limitation is the result of the totalization of private property and the institutionalization of the self-regulating market, which does not integrate an important part of the population. Thus, the market excludes vast sectors of the population, that have the capacity to work but cannot find remunerated activities to occupy them, and, therefore, cannot access needed goods and services because those are commodified.

In the neoclassical definition, the market is the only institution capable of coordinating economic initiatives and satisfying the needs of individuals, thus the intervention of any other institution is considered “extra-economic.” From the perspective of the SSE then it is about strengthening and developing a multiplicity of institutions for the economy’s development, where the market is not the only one considered possible.

The popular economy’s fragmentation presents the challenge of establishing collective processes, which would exceed the current adaptation to the conditions of savage competition for small and medium producers and of monopoly for the large corporations. The market left to its own becoming inevitably configures scenarios that exacerbate all inequalities.

Regaining sovereignty over the economic field implies a change of axis; in other words, it means primarily dealing with the material and social conditions that make life possible and the social transformations required to access said conditions.

The incorporation of a reproductive rationality occurs through linking the spheres of the public/private and the productive/reproductive. On overcoming these separations, which were artificially instituted by the conception of the self-regulating market, it goes from a maximum value of selfishness – guiding action in the economic – to incorporating values and rationalities that include solidarity and association. The first recognizes that the option for the life of the other is constitutive of the option for one’s own life, and the second is an alternative for breaking with the destructive compulsion and anomie entailed in the individualist competition of the market economy.8

Interdependence with the other generates a common framework between the popular/social economy and feminist economics, as they coincide in their critiques of the utilitarian paradigm and in the reformulation of the rationality that orients action in the economic.

Why is it Necessary to Talk about a Feminist Economics?

Feminist economics, in contrast to what common sense would suggest, is not the study of the economy and women: it is the study of how the economy, in its theoretical development and policies is embedded by gender relations to the point that one of its principal institutions, the labor market, is organized by the sexual division of labor. This current questions how men and women participate differently in the institutionalization of the economy.

Considering feminist economics as a reflection by women and for women has been an effective mechanism for ignoring the critiques that this field makes about the theoretical nucleus of the hegemonic economics., Thus the relevance of their contributions to the construction of an other economy or the development of an other society is made invisible. This field emerged in response to the conceptual limitations of a discipline that makes the same assumptions of universality and neutrality as the scientific paradigm.

Economic theory has been presented as gender-neutral although its prototypical agent, homo economicus, has been endowed with values associated with masculinity: self-sufficient, competitive, selfish, and calculating, its actions are developed in the public sphere of the market, while the non-economic sphere of the family has supposed generosity, solidarity, and equality.

This dichotomous vision in neoclassical theory is rooted in Becker’s perspective, who explains the situation of women facing reproductive tasks as a problem of efficiency and the maximization of resources.9 Feminist economics has widely debated this perspective, demonstrating its male-centric and heterosexist bias.10

The assumption of the rational economic man has been one of the pillars of neoclassical economic theory, which proposes it as a norm of human behavior and as a mechanism for ensuring the proper functioning of the competitive market. The adoption of this behavior as the ideal does not recognize behaviors based on other relations, such as those of reciprocity, solidarity, altruism, love, and care, among many others – those that, furthermore, patriarchal culture in capitalism associates with the universe of the feminine.11 Thus, a fictional separation is established between the logics that govern behavior in the market, considered a public sphere, and the home, relegated to the private sphere.

This pretense of universality assigned to homo economicus and its instrumental rationality, as the assumption of human beings’ relationship with the economy, is another one of the discussed aspects because it denies the presence of other types of behaviors that make up the market, such as solidarity, reciprocity, and concern for others.12 Such conducts are present in many of the previously mentioned popular economies. Feminist economics, on demonstrating that the reproductive sphere is inherent in the process, has deepened the analysis of the consequences of limiting the economic to the sphere of the market.

The conceptual development associated with homo economicus and its instrumental rationality is a perfect expression of how economic theory has internalized the values of patriarchy, to consider human beings’ dependence on care and protection for their institutions as extra-economic.

Capitalist hegemony in the organization of production, distribution, circulation, and reproduction, within and outside of the family, is closely linked to gender assignment. Patriarchy has produced a hierarchization of the social values of the feminine and the masculine. Hence, access to resources for production and reproduction would be framed by the place that men and women are assigned within patriarchal culture. One expression of this is the different activities and remunerations that women and men can access in the labor market.

That is not to say that inequality between men and women is reduced to economic determinism, but that market tendencies are socially processed, worsening or improving the situation in response to other relationships that are not structurally economic.

Therefore, one of the key contributions of feminist economics is redefining the concept of labor, given that the vision of “the reproductive” and of “care,” in their different dimensions, allows for those activities that are not directed by the market, without which human life would be impossible, to be included within “the economic.” Thus, one of the field’s current objectives is to make visible the value produced by care activities through their quantification in terms of wealth generation.13 In its reports, CEPAL has been showing that without the care work carried out by women, poverty in the region would increase by approximately ten points, and it has estimated that non-paid domestic work would amount to 30% of the region’s GDP.14

This perspective of feminist economics deepens the analysis of the contradictory and complex existing relationships between capitalism and reproductive labor. It shows that women are responsible for human life, ensuring that the production of goods is possible. This work, carried out without remuneration, encourages the wage paid by capitalists and public spending by the state to evade the costs of reproducing labor power and, thus, a part of the activity carried out in the home would not be the final moment of enjoying consumption, but a condition of existence of the economic system.15

The relation between popular economy and feminist economics shows that the naturalization of the reproductive as a feminine responsibility, and the separation between production and reproduction, generate conditions of structural vulnerability for these initiatives. The recognition and strengthening of the conditions for care are then a central factor for its sustainability.

Viewing popular and social economy from the perspective of reproduction breaks with the imprisonment of the economy in the market characteristic of neoclassical theory and expands the possibilities of action for organized actors and for those public policies committed to life and not to capital.

Contributions of a Decolonial Feminist Economics for the Formulation of Public Policies

I have been outlining approaches to popular economy, social and solidarity economy, and feminist economics, showing how these fields share a critique of the totalization of the market. Feminism argues that recognizing the importance of domestic labor and care mostly carried out by women is fundamental for resolving the artificial separation that capitalism imposes between production and reproduction. Likewise, social economy emphasizes a reproductive rationality in opposition to the ideal of competition and calculation, while highlighting the importance of use-values for meeting social needs.

The historical experience of Latin America and of Bogota in particular necessitates a decolonial perspective that makes explicit the need to investigate the political and economic processes that groups in conditions of subalternity in the region have faced. I am specifically interested in uncovering the economic experiences of indigenous, Afro-descendent, peasant, and low-income women to think from their economies rooted in knowledges constructed by situations of class, race, and territorial origin.16 In these economies, men and women’s participation is also differential. The hegemonic theory has naturalized the masculine, white, and European or North American position, therefore that diversity has been addressed based on categories of backwardness, informality, promoting an ideal of modernization that actively made those experiences subaltern. In this way, it has denied their theoretical relevance and importance in the economy.

Radically Situated Thought

This article has been written in the context of a country in the midst a peace process with one of the oldest actors of the multiple wars that Colombia has experienced. The peace process is necessary to stop the bloodshed, the war business with the United States, and the extraordinary benefits held by the country’s armed forces. In addition to the necessary debate over an economy in the service of the security of investors and the families in power whose roots go back to colonialism.

Despite the peace process, the longest war has been that of the Colombian elites against the population through plundering its resources. One verification of this is the untimely urbanization/proletarianization of a country with a strong rural identity. This process is exemplified by analyzing the composition of twentieth-century cities.

In 1938, 31% of the Colombian population was urban. In 1973, this figure had reached 73%. For thirty years, this forced proletarianization was achieved by the displacement of the peasant population to cities through means of terror.17 The height of this process occurred with the 1948 assassination of the liberal party’s presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who, with a majority of popular support, had been denouncing the violence against the population. A year before his assassination, 14,000 violent deaths had already been recorded, and following the event known as the Bogotazo, Aprile-Gniset calculates that 300,000 people were killed and three million campesinos were displaced between 1946 and 1965.18

The victims of this war have been concentrated in low-income sectors, campesino, indigenous and black populations. This longer term perspective is necessary for understanding the power of these economies and what it means to remain as a community in its own territory in the context of forced urbanization.

The dispossession of lands from those living in rural areas has continued to this day and it is estimated that five million people, about 10% of the country’s total population, have been displaced by the war. Forced displacement is key to understanding why land ownership in Colombia has a concentration of 0.87 (Gini indicator), one of the highest in the world’s most unequal continent.

The majority of the displaced population ends up in the large cities to safeguard their lives and Bogotá is the main recipient of this internal displacement. It is the country’s largest city with more than eight million inhabitants and its urban history is profoundly linked to the exodus of the campesino population.

Due to these historical factors, Bogotá has a particularly heterogeneous social and cultural composition. The city’s popular economy hosts a population with diverse trajectories of urbanization seeking improved living conditions. This population is attracted by a city with the economic and social infrastructure to offer comparatively better conditions, but that is also home to large impoverished sectors because of war and the social exclusion generated by decades of neoliberalism steadily implemented by national governments.

The magnitude of the social problems facing the city demonstrates the relevance of the many groups’ experiences in their capacity to guarantee collective reproduction, the decommodification of central aspects of their lives, and the defense of the territory where they live.19

Strengthening Non-Market Situations

In the economic field, all imagination regarding the question “What is to be done?” has been captured by the market relation. Most of the policies developed in support of the popular economy are focused on facilitating the process of integration into the market, without considering intervention on the conditions of a competition that is more acute for those who don’t have a dominant position in the system of privileges that capital produces, while the actors with the highest level of accumulation set the conditions of exchange for their products.

As we have seen, the popular economy’s organizational units (domestic units), as economic organizations aim to guarantee and improve the material conditions of reproduction and development of their members. Therefore, the mercantile path (selling with a monetary difference to buy useful goods and services to satisfy their needs) is not the only alternative to be taken into account. Needs can be met independently of the market.

Hinkelammert and Mora write:

The analysis of use-value looks at the economic process from the perspective of the conditions of possibility of life. It formulates, therefore, the question of how the product must be produced, distributed, and consumed so that human beings can live, that is, how the process of reproduction can be achieved in terms of a process of reproduction of human life. This does not imply reducing the human to the product (‘you are what you eat’), but it does mean that no human value can be realized if it does not enter into symbiosis with use values.20

Recuperating the production of use-values, whose consumption is not mediated by the market as an objective for strengthening the micro-social units, as well as the whole of the popular economy, contributes to recognizing that there are capacities of labor that in the present are not being valued in monetary terms. This implies that broad sectors of society cannot contribute with their work, nor can they depend on an income for meeting their needs. A dwelling protects although it is not produced as a commodity, clothing warms although it is not commercialized. Goods can be driven by social function that they supply and not by profit.

At the limit, the commodification of life makes it so that one cannot live without income or rent. The current development of capitalism considers a good part of the capacities of labor as excess and not useful for capital. Therefore, well-being cannot be a result of the becoming economic of the market liberated by neoliberalism, especially when the accumulation of profits is increasingly the fruit of speculative activity.

This tendency of the economy intensifies the conditions of injustice for sectors that historically faced greater inequalities, in the case of women, for example, the production of use-values takes on a central importance, given that in Colombia 31.1% of women lack an income compared to 12.6% of men. In Latin America, the figures are similar: 34.4% for women and 13.3% for men, according to the 2010 measurement by CEPAL’s observatory for gender inequality.

Defending economies producing use-values can be one of the keys for a more just society. In particular, because many of these economies tied to the land and its resources have suffered the constant pressure of capitalist modernization and the violence of primary and/or extractivist accumulation. This pressure has caused an over-representation of the black and indigenous population, of popular sectors, and in particular of women in the lowest income sector of the population.

While there are many policies that can be implemented to strengthen the production of use-value, I will mention some illustrative cases based on the principles of institutionalization of the economic proposed by Karl Polanyi and expanded by Coraggio in the field of the social and solidarity economy that broadens the income rates of capital and dispossesses groups of the necessary conditions for their material and symbolic reproduction.21

Autarky/sovereignty: In this section, I highlight policies that favor self-production of goods and services in the domestic units, for example:
Experiences of urban agriculture, community gardens, and seed exchanges.
Processes of appropriating knowledge in the field of natural medicine, prevention and care of allopathic medicine.
Housing improvement and self-construction.
Reciprocity and exchange: One of the decisive elements for strengthening use-values is linked to the form of circulation, in these cases networks based on reciprocity are a key factor in the movement of goods and services. The development of mutually agreed upon rules and of the distribution of goods and activities is fundamental in a society with a high social division of labor. The characteristics of the depersonalizing market in its capitalist form have downplayed the importance of the points of commerce as places of encounter and of relation beyond the monetary surplus. By tradition or resistance in the face of the crisis of the reproduction of life, the networks of direct barter or social currency (thus called because it does not meet the objective of accumulation) have resurfaced and are very useful for the exchange of diverse material goods and services and have encouraged participants to fulfill the dual role of producers and consumers.
Planning: An expression of the capacity to regain sovereignty over the economic is linked to the possibility of coordination at different institutional levels and in a communitarian way, and planning over time how one wants to live and the economic actions that support those plans. The possibility of decommodifying the basic scenarios of life, can lead to promoting the production of collective use values in those fields.
Practices of the Social Economy in Colombia

In Colombia, a multiplicity of experiences of the social economy exist despite the virulence of the armed conflict. It is impossible to draw a complete picture in such little space, however I will name a few experiences that are relevant for demonstrating the ability to organize an economy at the service of life.

In the Colombian Pacific, the black population’s struggles made possible a law that recognizes those communities’ ancestral rights. The extension of legally titled collective territories is approaching 5.5 million hectares. This recognition has allowed for limiting the projects of resource extraction and biodiversity that the World Bank has been promoting in the region. Arturo Escobar has rigorously shown how this population collectively regulates the use of space and the relation with nature combining the spiritual ordering, traditions, and necessities. The symbolic and cultural interpretation has implications for how these communities use and manage the territory, allowing them to co-exist with a nature that is endowed with power and agency.

In Escobar’s words:

The construction of the natural world established by black groups of the Pacific, as shown by ethnographers, may be seen as constituting a complex grammar of the environment or local model of nature. This grammar includes ritual practices such as the ombligada, structured uses of spaces, an ordering of the universe in terms of worlds and levels, and systems of classification and categorization of entities. The model constitutes a cultural code for the appropriation of the territory; this appropriation entails elaborate forms of knowledge and cultural representations […] Accordingly, the environment is a cultural and symbolic construction, and the way in which it is constructed had implications for how it is used and managed.22

Similarly, the indigenous regional organization of Cauca, called the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) was founded in 1971 in Toribio, with the goal of making such rights recognized. This organization started with a platform of struggle with the following objectives: To recuperate and expand the lands of the reservations, to strengthen the indigenous councils, to not pay the terraje, to make known the laws about the indigenous and demand their fair application, to defend indigenous history, language, and customs, to train indigenous professors to educate in accordance with the situation of the indigenous people and in their respective languages.23

This process has been strengthened over the years and today a variety of projects in all areas of life are being developed, ensuring a high level of autarky in terms of the resolution of material and symbolic necessities. Despite the ongoing violence and assassinations of its principal leader that the government, the army, the paramilitary, and the guerrillas have carried out on the Cauca’s indigenous populations, the strengthening of their organization has not only allowed for maintaining the territory but also for promoting alternatives to development and challenging the government’s neoliberal policies, in particular the signing of the free trade agreement with the United States.24

An emblematic expression of this process was the march that began in 2004 with the name “El Caminar de la Palabra” and that mobilized more than 60,000 indigenous people from throughout Colombia, who, in their long journey to Bogotá, were joined by a diverse range of social movements. They marched for six months without asking for anything from the government and demanding four fundamental points: 1) “No to the transnational economic model represented by the free trade’ agreement; 2) No to the terror and war that displaces and subdues people; 3) No to legislation of dispossession that hands over territories and destroys the Mother Earth; 4) Yes to to the enforcement of compliance with agreements with the people; and Yes to creating our own mechanisms of participation through an agenda of popular unity.”25 The organizational capacity brought into play and the process that later continued under the name of indigenous and popular minga demonstrated indigenous people’s ability to denounce the correlation between the neoliberal model and the war and displacement.26

In the present moment, a new occupation of lands is taking place. Beginning in December 2014, after the state’s failure to comply with granting land as reparation for the victims of the 1991 Nilo massacre, the indigenous took over lands in the north of Cauca that are destined for the monoculture of sugarcane for the production of sugar and biofuels. The bloody repression has left hundreds of people injured and various indigenous leaders assassinated, however the indigenous population maintains its presence with strong support from the country’s social movements.

The town of Nasa in Cauca not only has had the capacity to maintain its territory and its identity, but also has been actively proposing arrangements of construction with the black, campesino, and urban population, demonstrating the possibility of organizing a society with full respect of Mother Earth and all forms of life that inhabit it.

An Economy that Cares

Public policies’ emphasis on the conditions of reproduction is key for guaranteeing the sustainability of a popular economy that has as its main objective the conditions for the good life of its workers and domestic units.

The prevalence of market values over human and planetary life led the care of people to be situated in the policies of the field of “the social,” considered residual and as compensation for the market’s exclusionary and discriminatory effects, and which increasingly focuses on the most disadvantaged, individualizing the interventions. Thus, families, and particularly women, with their available resources, end up taking on the problems of reproduction as if they were problems of the private order and as managers of assistance programs.

The tension between the logic of profit and social well-being has been made explicit by structural adjustment programs, which show how the reduction in state spending (in programs that do not address social emergencies) has corresponded to the transfer of costs to households that are faced with the increase of mostly feminine free labor. This has reached its limits, with the insufficiency of atomized actions to reproduce the population and produce cohesion in society being evident.

Therefore, the socialization of reproduction needs entails that the state and the capitalist sector also assume the responsibilities that included citizens and skilled workers imply. Thus, it is about theoretically and practically incorporating a reproductive rationality that integrates production and reproduction, understanding as the economic process as a whole.27 This reproductive rationality replaces the utilitarian logic of homo economicus and is related to the proposals being formulated in Ecuador and Bolivia tied to Buen Vivir.

The perspective of la Buena Vida and its reproductive rationality allows for formulating a non-anthropocentric politics of care, given that land is considered a subject of reciprocity (if we protect her, she cares for us). At the same time, it opens a communitarian dimension of autonomy, collective self-organization that expands the alternatives for thinking about the politics of care.28

Toward the practical strengthening of the popular economy, it would be about promoting spaces for the increasing self-management of reproduction but with substantial resources and capacity for decision-making. Noting that in neoliberalism the responsibilities for care have been placed on communities (one example of this are the communitarian mothers), it is a question of not replicating the logic of compensation or co-participation that extracts the associative capacity and transformative power of the initiatives from women, organizational processes, and the most fragile sectors, thus depoliticizing reproduction to inscribe it in the rationality of the projects that expand the power of the market to the detriment of life.29

It is about promoting a public policy that recognizes the option for the life of the other as constitutive of the option for one’s own life, not only as a mandate of care for women, but as an alternative for institutionalizing an economy that cares for us. This supposes significant redistribution of resources and productive capacities, but also empowering the spaces of the constitution of critical popular collective actors and with another project of the economy.

The Space of the Common in the City

The creation of spaces for the common is one of the principal contributions to the construction of a city conducive to the popular economy. This means encouraging settings for reflection, deliberation, and exchange, as well as places for production and reproduction without the market’s mediation.

In the urban sphere, the common has been understood from the logic of the public. However, in many experiences “the common” does not coincide with the governmental, because there are ways of using space or knowledges that problematize the idea of property.

One example of this is the experience of recuperated factories in Argentina, where workers, given the breach of labor obligations and the threat of losing their jobs, appropriate the infrastructure to guarantee their job positions and produce without a boss. A large number of these spaces integrate neighborhood necessities into their own surroundings and, while they maintain their manufacturing activity, they also develop cultural, recreational, and educational activities.30

In this regard, the challenge lies in imagining legal forms that shelter and encourage collective practices of possession or use rights. These initiatives demonstrate the limits of regulatory frameworks oriented toward a polarity ranging from the public (understood as tied to the state) to the private, which is insufficient for the development of a social economy connected to the diversity of existing needs and possible responses that the associative can produce.

The definition of places of the common should not only be the outcome of technical planning, the activation of neighborhood histories, the routes between the rural and the urban, and the re-elaboration of identities related to the productive enable the recuperation of spaces and also the invention of new places.

Following the 2001 crisis in Argentina, as the result of the deepening of neoliberal policies, poverty rose to 40% of households in 2002, an unprecedented event in the country’s history. In this situation a diversity of experiences of the social and solidarity economy emerged and were strengthened, and many of them are still being maintained and growing. The phenomenon of the recuperated factories and enterprises continues today: the Productive Union of Worker-Managed Enterprises has recognized 350 companies employing 25,000 people.

These experiences continue as self-management of spaces of the common, in some cases with some level of (national) state recognition and in other cases with opposition (from the local government). There are many examples, such as food markets oriented toward the social economy, where food products made by cooperatives and small organic producers are sold.31 There are also practices of large-scale, cooperative and self-managed, housing construction among many other experiences in the production of goods and services as well as in the sphere of care (particularly in the areas of childcare, health, and education).32

These diverse experiences demonstrate the common has as its objective the resolution of needs through a plurality of collective economic forms. In all the cases, it has to do with securing the means for life outside of the market. The management of these spaces has been approached from a political perspective, not without tensions and contradictions, but that has given rise to forms of decidedly democratic organization and regulation where the principle of horizontality characterizes the set of initiatives.

In Colombia there are organizational processes that have enabled the conformation of networks of communitarian trade that mainly connect the production of the campesino economy with the needs of urban domestic units. The associations that compose these networks are small productive units that make decisions through assemblies. Among the most well known are REDESOL, RECAB, the Federación Agrosolidaria, the Red Colombiana de Comercialización and Desarrollo Comunitario REDCOM Nariño. REDESS operates at the national, composed of sectors of the solidarity economy from across Colombia (cooperatives, mutual societies, and some associations).

The Empresa Comunitaria de Acueducto, Alcantarillado y Aseo is found in Saravena, Arauca. Given that the privatization of public services has been a national state policy in Colombia and that in most cities the payment of these services is one of the main costs for the reproduction of domestic units, the organizational process that allows the emergence of of this initiative is emblematic, especially if improvement in the service’s quality and a just price are valued.

The city of Bogotá faces extensive challenges, while many of the named networks are present in the city, the principal economic activities are dominated by large multinational companies. The continuity of leftist governments in the city has allowed for keeping various city services public, for example, strengthening primary and secondary education, policies of community soup kitchens, and resources for strengthening popular economies, above all in the dimension of technical assistance.

However, the free market’s legitimacy in economic discourse, the idea that international integration is more important than strengthening the internal market, and the sacralization of private property are factors that limit the city government’s initiatives aiming to regulate the market and even decommodify the essential conditions of reproduction, such as the recognition of the right to water and gratuitous vital consumption, the implementation of a new trash collection model in the city that involved the creation of a public operator, taking a profitable business away from the private sector. These policies were attacked to the point that the business lobby caused the temporary overthrow of a democratically elected mayor.

Therefore, one of the principal challenges facing the city consists of politicizing and democratizing the debate around “the economic,” recovering the social construction of the economy, relating the policies of strengthening domestic units in this field instead of presenting them from the social or the struggle against poverty. Intervening in the economy, broadly understood, beyond the market, is also a right of citizenship that should fuel public debate in the city.

Therefore, the view accustomed to seeing the economic from the market perspective might consider the diversity of experiences previously considered as utopian, however, even when capitalism is the dominant mode of production, it is not the only one that exists. In fact, in Colombia the strength of social movements and the ability to sustain and reformulate struggles in the face of continuous processes of primary and extractivist accumulation, the financialization of housing, gentrification, etc. show that the economic institutions associated with the diverse world of indigenous groups, Afro-descendants and blacks, campesinos and the popular, have been capable of finding forms of social organizing where the reproduction of the collective has put limits on the war and its logics strictly associated with profit.

These experiences, which are maintained and are reinvented, have much to teach us. The broadening of spaces of the common for the social economy increases its power to restrict the market’s expansion in respect to the scenarios for life and limits the fragmentation and survival that imposes the logic of profit on the popular economy. Finally, an economy that cares for us, is an economy that has freed itself from the narrow space of the market.

– Translated by Liz Mason-Deese

This article was originally published in L’économie sociale et solidaire: levier de changement, Vol. XXII, no. 2 (2015).

Domestic Workers’ Rights, the Politics of Social Reproduction, and New Models of Labor Organizing

“Labor has to recognize us as a force. And how do you do that? Maybe it’s developing a union of our own.”
– Carolyn Reed

In the 1970s, a powerful movement for domestic workers’ rights emerged on the national political stage. Through their organizing, African American household workers argued for the inclusion of housework and social reproduction in the larger politics of wage labor and made a case for the centrality of this occupation to capitalism. These black working-class feminists claimed that household labor was essential for the maintenance of human life, and pushed for expanded monetary benefits and federal labor protections. The movement’s broader definition of labor, as well as its distinctive approaches to mobilizing a precarious labor force, offers new models of worker organizing that speak to some of the challenges facing the contemporary labor movement.

The organizing efforts undertaken by household workers have critical implications for our engagement with the history of the labor movement. Labor unions rarely reached out to domestic workers, in part because they believed that domestics were unorganizable, but also because the unions’ very definition of labor simply did not include household employment. The approach adopted by many industrial unions in the first half of the 20th century was premised on a manufacturing model. Workers were organized in large-scale collective spaces—usually a factory floor—and went on strike to wield leverage against their employer. Through such actions, some workers won better wages, pensions, and health and vacation benefits from employers.

While effective in large factory settings, this model is less applicable in the contemporary moment. Over the past few decades, there has been a rise in precarious labor in the United States, with a greater proportion of workers employed on a part-time, subcontracted, or temporary basis and with more workers who change employers or occupations frequently. Coupled with this is a decline in manufacturing jobs and an expansion of the service sector, which has mushroomed in part because families and households are increasingly outsourcing the labor of social reproduction to wage-laborers. Families buy prepared food, hire landscapers, or purchase the services of care workers instead of doing this work themselves. A growing number of workers are in the food industry, health care, and personal or home care—occupations that are more likely to be populated by women and people of color. Employment insecurity has been compounded by attacks on unions, fewer pension and retirement benefits, and a shredding of the social safety net.

American workers today are in a more unpredictable situation than 50 years ago. They are not guaranteed unemployment and workers’ compensation, paid vacations, and sick leave. Workers tend to be more dispersed and employed in isolated settings, where it is harder to organize. They are more likely to be classified as independent contractors or temporary workers. And they are more likely to work for multiple employers over the course of their working lives, rather than for a single employer.

While these economic changes may seem indicative of the neoliberal shift, certain categories of employment in the United States have always experienced this kind of insecurity. Household labor has historically been precarious, characterized by part-time, intermittent work with few benefits. Household workers operated essentially as independent contractors, changed employers frequently, and had little job or income security. They were excluded from labor protections in the 1930s and marginalized by organized labor. The domestic workers’ rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s rectified some of these exclusions, and offered a precedent and possible model for mobilizing an insecure labor force.

While there have been some advances, the occupation of household work is still precarious. Over time, household workers have won access to social security benefits and the federal minimum wage, but they are still excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and Civil Rights laws. And even when workers are legally covered, those laws are not always enforced. Domestic workers today are overwhelmingly immigrant women who are often unaware of their rights, may not be fluent in English, and may be undocumented, and thus are more likely to be legally exploited. Furthermore, paid private domestic work is still largely unregulated. In these ways, this sector of the American workforce has always experienced conditions akin to what other wage workers have come to encounter in recent decades under neoliberalism.

So as we ponder how to organize precarious workers, we may learn something from those in the domestic workers’ rights movement. Household labor has rarely been considered a site of resistance and organizing. The work of social reproduction that household workers engage in—cooking, cleaning and caring—is often not considered economically productive labor, because of its association with women’s unpaid housework. Because women have done this work for centuries without pay, it tends to be viewed as a “labor of love” not meriting competitive compensation. The location of the work in the home also makes it harder to recognize it normatively as work. Furthermore, because the paid workforce has been made up of low-wage immigrants and women of color, the social value attached to this labor is minimized; and it is a dispersed workforce, in which the number of employers may exceed the number of employees, making strikes an unlikely labor tactic. In the postwar period, despite these difficulties of organizing, a national movement for domestic workers’ rights emerged which won important protections for the occupation and transformed the social standing of African American household workers.

Origins of Domestic Worker Organizing

African American women have a long history of being confined to the occupation of paid household labor. They were the primary domestic labor force during slavery and in the post-emancipation South. After World War 1, with the Great Migration and the curtailment of European immigration, they became the predominant household labor force in nearly all regions of the country. By World War 2, the association of African American women with household labor was firmly solidified in the stereotypical “mammy” figure—a content and loyal household worker who always chose her employer’s family over her own.

Belying the stereotype, of course, African American household workers were not content and loyal, and resistance was common. It often took the form of individualized, day-to-day opposition to work expectations, such as refusing to do certain kinds of tasks or refusing to live-in. But household workers also organized collectively. As Tera Hunter has recounted, African American washer women in Atlanta in 1881 formed a washing society and went on strike to demand higher rates for their labor.1 In the 1930s, a number of domestic worker organizations were formed to counter the rise of what journalists Marvel Cooke and Ella Baker called “slave markets,” where African American women stood on street corners to be hired as day laborers. Cooke and Baker described the experiences of these domestic workers: “Under a rigid watch, she is permitted to scrub floors on her bended knees, to hang precariously from window sills, cleaning window after window, or to strain and sweat over steaming tubs of heavy blankets, spreads and furniture covers. Fortunate, indeed, is she who gets a full hourly rate promised. Often, her day’s slavery is rewarded with a single dollar bill or whatever her unscrupulous employer pleases to pay.”2 In the postwar period, given the context of black freedom organizing, African American women began to more systematically challenge the racialized nature of the occupation and the notions of servitude that characterized domestic service. In the 1960s, household workers established local organizations to demand higher wages, contractually-based employment, federal labor protections, and recognition of the value of their work.

Geraldine Roberts grew up in Arkansas and attended segregated schools. She left home at a young age, married, moved to Cleveland, and divorced. As a single mother, she had little opportunity to complete her education and ended up doing domestic work. As a domestic, she was not treated like a worker with rights, but as a servant whose body was the property of her employer. She described one job interview when an employer, after examining Robert’s teeth, told her: “Any girl… with a mouth this clean and pretty clean teeth was a pretty clean gal ’cause I don’t like dirty help in the house.”3 The story conjures up images of the slave auction block where slaves’ physical health, including their teeth, was closely examined by potential slave buyers. Roberts recounted the way employers routinely used physical separation to maintain a racial hierarchy: “There was a back room that was the bathroom, that would be the bathroom for myself and… other household employees… all black, and we were all told to use that bathroom, and to never use the family bathroom.”4 Roberts became involved in the civil rights and black power movements and drew parallels between Jim Crow segregation and the racialized nature of household labor. In 1965, she started the Domestic Workers of America to mobilize other household workers in Cleveland.

In Atlanta, Dorothy Bolden rode the city bus lines to recruit workers for her new organization, the National Domestic Workers Union of America (NDWUA). Bolden began domestic work at the age of nine. When the civil rights movement emerged, she worked closely with Martin Luther King and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to ensure equal access to education in Atlanta. But it was her organizing of household workers where she made a name for herself. In 1968, she established a city-wide organization that insisted on a minimum wage of $15 a day plus car fare, and developed standards for the occupation.

In 1971 Roberts, Bolden, and other household workers formed the Household Technicians of America (HTA), the first national organization of household workers. The name of the organization indicated their commitment to reframe domestic work as a professional occupation that requires skill and should be treated the same as all other forms of work. With the help of middle-class women in the National Committee on Household Employment (NCHE), an organization of employers dedicated to reforming the occupation, six hundred mostly middle-aged African American women met in Washington, D.C. to hammer out the details of their new organization. The HTA connected workers’ groups from around the country, served as a national voice for this labor constituency, and fought for professionalization, a federal minimum wage, and respect for the work they did.

Revaluing Household Labor

The core of the domestic workers rights’ movement was fundamentally defined by a demand for greater respect and recognition for household labor. Most household workers believed that their mistreatment, low wages, and lack of labor rights were rooted in the normative devaluation of household labor. Consequently, they made claims for the importance of this work. Dorothy Bolden, for example, worked in other occupations, but she loved domestic work and wanted to bring to it the recognition that she believed it deserved. She initiated an annual “Maids Honor Day,” in which employers wrote nomination letters explaining why their maid should be named Maid of the Year. “The purpose of this event,” the NDWUA announced, “is to recognize and honor outstanding women in the field of domestic labor, for their courage and stability, and the remarkable ability of being able to take care of two households at one time.”5

The movement’s campaign for federal minimum wage protection also illustrates the effort to revalue household labor. Members of the HTA and their allies in the NCHE testified before Congress to extend the federal minimum wage to household workers and rectify the inequality built into labor law during the New Deal. Domestic work was one of the occupations excluded from federal labor protections in the 1930s. At a moment when labor leaders and government officials had come to an agreement that American workers should be assured minimum wages, overtime pay, unemployment and social security benefits, certain key occupations were outside the purview of labor laws. A race and gender hierarchy already existed among different types of work, but New Deal labor legislation reinforced and institutionalized it through the passage of laws that protected certain workers but not others. This, in combination with a powerful labor movement limited by a particular conception of work rooted in the male-dominated manufacturing sector that did little to organize household-based and other marginalized workers, further heightened divisions within the American working class.

In their testimony in the early 1970s, members of the HTA and their allies presented their vision of the importance of household labor and the need for this occupation to be treated the same as all other work. Edith Barksdale Sloan, an African American civil rights activist who headed the NCHE and facilitated the formation of the HTA, said her in her testimony that domestic work should be afforded the same rights of social citizenship and New Deal benefits as other occupations: “Pay must be increased to provide a livable wage… workers must receive the so-called ‘fringe benefits,’ which long ago stopped being ‘fringes’ in every other major American industry. At this time, household workers usually do not receive paid sick leave, vacations, or holidays. Coverage under unemployment and workmen’s compensation is extremely limited and varies widely from state to state.”6 These views were echoed by Carolyn Reed, a domestic worker and organizer based in New York: “I feel very strongly that I contribute just as much as my doctor contributes, you know. And that because he is a doctor does not make him better than me, as a household technician.”7 In 1974, Congress finally passed amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that federally guaranteed minimum wage for domestic workers.

Feminist Alliances

The domestic workers’ rights movements developed alliances with some strands of the women’s movement that were also trying to bring recognition to social reproduction. Their efforts to revalue household labor paralleled similar theoretical discussions taking place in some feminist communities. Feminists in the 1960s, however, were a diverse group with different and competing positions. Many middle-class women who had been confined to the domestic sphere and felt constrained by their roles as mothers and housewives began in the 1960s to seek more opportunities outside the home. This sentiment was best expressed by Betty Friedan in her seminal book The Feminine Mystique. Friedan wrote about “the problem that has no name” and struck a chord for millions of housewives around the country who had eschewed careers to make family and home the center of their lives, but felt deeply dissatisfied and unfulfilled. In making her claim for more opportunities outside the household, however, Friedan denigrated household labor. As she wrote: “Vacuuming the living room floor—with or without makeup—is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity.”8

Other feminists sought, like household workers, to revalue household labor. Welfare rights activist made a claim for government assistance to support them in their work as mothers and insisted on the right to stay home and care for their children at a moment when the state was becoming more demanding about requiring women on welfare to take paid employment outside the home.9 The wages for housework movement, which included women like Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and Silvia Federici, attempted to reclaim housework as legitimate labor.10 Rather than seeing women’s employment outside the home as the only path to liberation, they advocated attaching a wage to it as a way to revalue the work and compensate women. This argument was rooted in an understanding that wages were a measure of labor’s worth in a capitalist economy. Moving domestic labor from the unpaid to the paid category, they believed, would bring social value and recognition to the work. Although this was a legitimate argument, the experiences of paid domestic workers offer a different perspective. Some domestic labor had been commodified since the emergence of capitalism. As domestic workers repeatedly attested, a wage, in and of itself, did not raise the status of the work.11

Nevertheless, activists in both the wages for housework movement and domestic workers’ rights movement had a common goal of drawing attention to household labor—both paid and unpaid. Reed supported Social Security for housewives as a way to recognize that work, claiming, “they can all become household technicians.”12 At a moment when many African American women as well as middle class women were fleeing household labor in search of other job opportunities, women in the HTA and the wages for housework movement chose to stay and expressed love of the work they did. As Reed explained: “I really love the work, and that’s why I chose to organize the work—because I love what I chose to do as a profession.”13

Challenging the long-standing home/work distinction that emerged with the rise of wage labor, the campaigns that domestic worker activists engaged in and the ideas they articulated illuminate how the work that takes place in the home is not a labor of love, but a form of labor exploitation that both reflects and recreates structures of power. When black domestic workers were denied the right to use the family restroom or expected to eat their food at a separate table, racial distinctions and racial hierarchies were remade. Activists drew attention to the work that took place in the home, a space that is often not considered a site of work. They argued that the way this work was allocated and valued was centrally important. Unequal power relations in the home, whether between husband and wife or between employer and employee, reproduce inequality along race, class and gender lines.

New Organizing Model

The domestic workers’ rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s suggests ways that the contingent workers of today can begin to organize. Because their place of employment was not a viable location to recruit members, household workers organized in public spaces. Rather than the factory floor, city bus lines, public parks, and neighborhoods became the sites of organizing. Workers formed collective community-based organizations even though they worked for different employers. They did not establish employer-oriented labor formations but directed their demands at the state, insisting that legislation be passed that would protect all workers in the industry. They also organized workers regardless of their immigration status. They sought to professionalize the occupation and raise the overall standards of allowable work—refusing, for example, to wash windows or scrub floors on their hands and knees. Questions of race, gender, and culture were central to the organizing, as the above particularities of African American women’s history attest. These constructs became a way to build solidarity among domestic workers.

The domestic workers’ rights movement also complicates assumptions that employers should be the primary targets of labor organizers. Household workers labored in the intimate space of the home. They were privy to a family’s personal matters and sometimes developed emotional bonds with their employer’s family. Although employees organized to wield more leverage and power, they did not necessarily want an antagonistic relationship with their bosses, since they would continue to work in close quarters with them. Many household worker activists developed collaborative relationships with employers and encouraged the creation of employer organizations to support their movement.

The domestic workers’ movement’s emphasis on revaluing forms of social reproduction resonates especially at a moment when good-producing industries account for less than 13% of U.S. employment.14 Valuing the paid and unpaid work of social reproduction, whether it is that of fast food workers, landscapers, home care workers, or housecleaners, is the first step to considering them part of the labor movement and including them in our conversation about how worker power can transform the economic climate.

The distinctive organizing approach that domestic workers adopted emerged from the particular character of the occupation. Other occupations, including Uber drivers, nail salon workers and day laborers are similarly self-employed, with few labor protections and less secure employment. The growth of these occupations is an example of how the workforce is increasingly coming to resemble domestic work. Unsurprisingly, these kinds of contingent workers are also organizing and leading the way to a redefined labor movement. The tactics and strategies utilized by household workers might not be applicable to all industries, but they suggest alternative models of organizing and new ways for workers to come together and wield power.

How Not To Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class

“…labor-power is a commodity which its possessor, the wage-worker, sells to the capitalist. Why does he sell it? It is in order to live.”

– Karl Marx, Wage, Labor and Capital

Since its very formation, but particularly since the late twentieth century, the global working class has faced a tremendous challenge – how to overcome all its divisions to appear in ship-shape in full combative form to overthrow capitalism.1 After global working class struggles failed to surmount this challenge, the working class itself became the object of a broad range of theoretical and practical condemnations. Most often, these condemnations take the form of either declarations or predictions about the demise of the working class or simply arguing that the working class is not longer a valid agent of change. Other candidates – women, racial/ethnic minorities, new social movements, an amorphous but insurgent “people,” community, to name a few – are all thrown up as possible alternatives to this presumed moribund/reformist or masculinist and economistic category, the working class.

What many of these condemnations have in common is a shared misunderstanding of exactly what the working class really is. Instead of the complex understand of class historically proposed by Marxist theory, which discloses a vision of insurgent working class power capable of transcending sectional categories, today’s critics rely on a highly narrow vision of a “working class” in which a worker is simply a person who has a specific kind of job.

In this essay, I will refute this spurious conception of class by reactivating fundamental Marxist insights about class formation that have been obscured by four decades of neoliberalism and the many defeats of the global working class. The key to developing a sufficiently dynamic understanding of the working class, I will argue, is the framework of social reproduction. In thinking about the working class, it is essential to recognize that workers have an existence beyond the workplace. The theoretical challenge therefore lies in understanding the relationship between this existence and that of their productive lives under the direct domination of the capitalist. The relationship between these spheres will in turn help us consider strategic directions for class struggle.

But before we get there, we need to start from the very beginning, that is, from Karl Marx’s critique of political economy, since the roots of today’s limited conception of the working class stem in large part from an equally limited understanding of the economy itself.

The economy

The allegations that Marxism is reductive or economistic only make sense if one reads the economy as neutral market forces determining the fate of humans by chance; or in the sense of a trade-union bureaucrat whose understanding of the worker is restricted to the wage earner. Let us here first deal with why this restrictive view of the “economic” is something that Marx often criticizes.

Marx’s contribution to social theory was not simply to point to the historical-materialist basis of social life, but to propose that in order to get to this materialist basis the historical materialist must first understand that reality is not as it appears.2

The “economy,” as it appears to us, is the sphere where we do an honest day’s work and get paid for it. Some wages might be low, others high. But the principle that structures this “economy” is that the capitalist and the worker are equal beings who engage in an equal transaction: the worker’s labor for a wage from the boss.

According to Marx, however, this sphere is “in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.” In this one stroke Marx shakes our faith in the fundamental props of modern society: our juridical rights. Marx is not suggesting that the juridical rights we bear as equal subjects are nonexistent or fictive, but that such rights are anchored in market relations. The transactions between workers and capitalists take the form – insofar as they are considered purely from the standpoint of market exchange – of exchange between legal equals. Marx is not arguing there are no juridical rights, but that they mask the reality of exploitation.

If what we commonly understand as the “economy” is then merely surface, what is this secret that capital has managed to hide from us? That its animating force is human labor.

As soon as we, following Marx, restore labor as the source of value under capitalism and as the expression of the very social life of humanity, we restore to the “economic” process its messy, sensuous, gendered, raced, and unruly component: living human beings capable of following orders – as well as of flouting them.

The economic as a social relation

To concentrate on the surface “economy” (of the market) as if this was the was sole reality is to obscure two related processes:

the separation between the “political” and “economic” that is unique to capitalism; and
the actual process of domination/expropriation that happens beyond the sphere of “equal” exchange.
The first process ensures that the acts of appropriation by the capitalist appear completely cloaked in economic garb, inseparable from the process of production itself. As Ellen Meiksins Wood explained: “So…where earlier [precapitalist] producers might perceive themselves as struggling to keep what was rightfully theirs, the structure of capitalism encourages workers to perceive themselves as struggling to get a share of what belongs to capital, a ‘fair wage,’ in exchange for their labor.”3 Since this process makes invisible the act of exploitation, the worker is caught in this sphere of juridical “equality,” negotiating rather than questioning the wage-form.

However, it is the second invisible process that forms the pivot of social life. When we leave the Benthamite sphere of juridical equality and head to what Marx calls the “hidden abode of production”:

He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labor-power follows as his laborer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but – a hiding.4

Marx emphasizes here the opposite of “economism” or “free trade vulgaris” as he calls it. He is inviting us to see the “economic” as a social relation: one that involves domination and coercion even if juridical forms and political institutions seek to obscure that.

Let us pause here to rehearse the three fundamental claims made about the economy so far. One, that the economy as we see it is, according to Marx, a surface appearance; two, that the appearance, which is steeped in a rhetoric of equality and freedom, conceals a “hidden abode” where domination/coercion reigns and those relations form the pivot of capitalism; hence, three, that the economic is also a social relation, in that the power that is necessary to run this hidden abode – to submit the worker to modes of domination – is also by necessity a political power.

The purpose of this coercion and domination, and the crux of the capitalist economy considered as a social relation, is to get the worker to produce more than the value of their labor power. “The value of labour power” Marx tells us, “is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner [i.e., the worker].”5 The additional value that she produces during the working day is appropriated by capital as surplus value. The wage form is nothing but the value necessary to reproduce the worker’s labor power.

In order to explain how this theft occurs every day, Marx introduces us to the concepts of necessary and surplus labor time. Necessary labor time is that portion of the work day in which the direct producer, our worker, makes value equivalent to what is needed for her own reproduction, surplus labor time is all of the remaining work day where she makes additional value for capital.

This ensemble of conceptual categories that Marx proposes here form what is more generally known as the labor theory of value. In this ensemble, two core categories that we should particularly attend to are (a) labor power itself: its composition, deployment, reproduction and ultimate replacement; and (b) the space of work, i.e. the question of labor at the point of production.

Labor power: the “unique commodity” and its social reproduction

Marx introduces the concept of labor power with great deliberation. Labor-power, in Marx’s sense, is our capacity to labor. “We mean by labour-power or labour-capacity,” Marx explains, “the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind.”6 Obviously, the capacity to labor is a transhistoric quality that humans possess irrespective of the social formation of which they are a part. What is specific to capitalism however is that only under this system of production, commodity production becomes generalized throughout society and commodified labor, available for sale in the marketplace, becomes the dominant mode of exploitation.7 Thus, under capitalism, what is generalized in commodity form is a human capacity. In several passages Marx refers to this with the savagery that such a mutilation of self deserves: “The possessor of labour-power, instead of being able to sell commodities in which his labour has been objectified, must rather be compelled to offer for sale as a commodity that very labour-power which exists only in his living body.”8

Further, we can only speak of labor power when the worker uses that capacity, or it “becomes a reality only by being expressed; it is activated only through labour.”9 So it must follow that as labor power is expended in the process of production of other commodities, thereby “a definite quantity of human muscle, nerve, brain, etc.,” the rough composite of labor power, “is expended, and these things have to be replaced.”10

How can labor power be restored? Marx is ambiguous on this point:

If the owner of labour-power works today, tomorrow 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 working individual. His natural needs, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing vary according to the climatic and other physical peculiarities of his country. On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called necessary requirements, as also the manner in which they are satisfied, are themselves the product of history, and depend therefore to a great extent on the level of civilization attained by a country; in particular they depend on the conditions in which and consequently on the habits and expectations with which, the class of free workers has been formed.11

Here we falter and sense that the content of Marx’s critique to be inadequate to his form. There are several questions the above passage provokes and then leaves unanswered.

Social Reproduction Marxists and feminists, such as Lise Vogel, have drawn attention to the “production” of human beings, in this case, the worker, which takes place away from the site of production of commodities. Social Reproduction theorists rightly want to develop further what Marx leaves unexamined. That is, what are the implications of labor power being produced outside the circuit of commodity production, yet being essential to it? The most historically enduring site for the reproduction of labor power is of course the kin-based unit we call the family. It plays a key role in biological reproduction – as the generational replacement of the working class – and in reproducing the worker, through food, shelter, and psychical care, to become ready for the next day of work. Both those functions are disproportionately borne by women under capitalism and are the sources of women’s oppression under the system.12

But the above passage needs development in other respects as well. Labor power, for instance, as Vogel has pointed out, is not simply replenished at home, nor is it always reproduced generationally. The family may form the site of individual renewal of labor power, but that alone does not explain “the conditions under which, and…the habits and degree of comfort in which,” the working class of any particular society has been produced. What other social relationships and institutions are comprised by the circuit of social reproduction? Public education and health care systems, leisure facilities in the community, pensions and benefits for the elderly all compose together those historically determined “habits.” Similarly, generational replacement through childbirth in the kin-based family unit, although dominant, is not the only way a labor force may be replaced. Slavery and immigration are two of the most common ways in which capital has replaced labor within national boundaries.

Relatedly, let us suppose that a certain basket of goods (x) is necessary to “reproduce” a particular worker. This “basket of goods” containing food, shelter, education, healthcare, and so on are then consumed by this mythical (or some would say universal) worker to reproduce herself. But does the size and content of the basket goods not vary depending on the race, nationality and gender of the worker? Marx seemed to think so. Consider his discussion of the Irish Worker and her/his “needs” as compared to other workers. If workers lowered their consumption (in order to save), Marx argues, then they would “inevitably degrade…[themselves] to the level of the Irish, to that level of wage laborers where the merest animal minimum of needs and means of subsistence appears as the sole object and purpose of their exchange with capital.”13

We will have occasion to discuss the question of differential needs producing different kinds of labor powers later, for now let us simply note that the question of reproduction of labor power is by no means a simple one. As we can see there is already intimation of a complex totality when considering Marx’s “hidden abode of production” and its structuring impulse on the surface “economy.” Marx’s original outline, enriched now through the framework of social reproduction of labor power, thoroughly complicates the narrow bourgeois definition of the “economy” and/or “production” that we began with in fundamental ways.

Beyond the two-dimensional image of individual direct producer locked in wage labor, we begin to see emerge myriad capillaries of social relations extending between workplace, home, schools, hospitals – a wider social whole, sustained and co-produced by human labor in contradictory yet constitutive ways. If we direct our attention to those deep veins of embodying social relations, in any actual society today, how can we fail to find the chaotic, multiethnic, multigendered, differently abled subject that is the global working class?

The twains of production and reproduction

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) (b) spaces for reproduction of labor power – may be separate in a strictly spatial sense but they are actually united in both the theoretical and operational senses.14 They are, particular historical forms of appearance, in which capitalism posits itself. Indeed, sometimes the two processes may be ongoing within the same space. Consider the case of public schools. They function both as work places or points of production and also as spaces where labor power (of the future worker) is socially reproduced. As in the case of pensions, so in the case of public health or education, the State outlays some funds for the social reproduction of labor power. It is only within the home that the process of social reproduction remains unwaged.

The question of separate spheres and why they are historical forms of appearance, is an important one and worth spending some time on.

A common misunderstanding about “social reproduction theory” is that it is about two separate spaces and two separate processes of production: the economic and the social – often understood as the workplace and home. In this understanding, the worker produces surplus value at work, and hence is part of the production of the total wealth of society. At the end of the workday, because the worker is “free” under capitalism, capital must relinquish control over the process of regeneration of the worker and hence the reproduction of the workforce.

Marx, however, has a very specific understanding and proposal for the concept of social reproduction.

First, this is a theoretical concept he deploys to draw attention to the reproduction of society as a whole not only with the regeneration of labor power of the worker or reproduction of the workforce. This understanding of the theater of capitalism as a totality is important, because at this point of the argument in Capital Volume 1, Marx has already established that unlike bourgeois economics that sees the commodity as the central character of this narrative (supply and demand determine the market), it is labor that is its chief protagonist. Thus what happens to labor – specifically, how labor creates value and consequently surplus value – shapes the entirety of the capitalist process of production. “In the concept of value,” Marx says in the Grundrisse, capital’s “secret is betrayed.”15

Social reproduction of the capitalist system – and it is to explain the reproduction of the system that Marx uses the term – is therefore not about a separation between a non-economic sphere and the economic, but about how the economic impulse of capitalist production conditions the so called non-economic. The “non-economic” includes among other things, what sort of state, juridical institutions and property-form a society has – while these in turn are conditioned, but not always determined, by the economy. Marx understands each particular stage in the valorization of capital as a moment of a totality that leads him to state clearly in Capital: “When viewed, therefore, as a connected whole, and in the constant flux of its incessant renewal, every social process of production is at the same time a process of reproduction.”16

This approach is best outlined in Michael Lebowitz’s Beyond Capital. Lebowitz’s work is a masterful integrative analysis of the political economy of labor power, in which he shows that understanding the social reproduction of wage labor is not an outer or incidental phenomena that ought to be “added” to the understanding of capitalism as a whole, but actually reveals important inner tendencies of the system. Lebowitz calls the moment of the production of labor power “a second moment” of production as a whole. This moment is “distinct from the process of production of capital” but the circuit of capital “necessarily implies a second circuit, the circuit of wage-labor.”17

As Marx sums it up, rightly, and with a bit of flourish:

The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capital relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer.18

Here, by social reproduction Marx means the reproduction of the entirety of society, which brings us back to the unique commodity, labor power, that needs to be replenished and ultimately replaced without there being any breaks or stoppages to the continuous circuit of production and reproduction of the whole.

There is a lot at stake, both theoretical as well as strategic, in understanding this process of the production of commodities and the reproduction of labor power as unified. Namely, (a) we need to abandon not just the framework of discrete spheres of production and reproduction, but also (b) because reproduction is linked within capitalism to production, we need to revise the commonsense perception that capital relinquishes all control over the worker when s/he leaves the workplace.

Theoretically if we concede that production of commodities and the social reproduction of labor power belong to separate processes, then we have no explanation for why the worker is subordinate before the moment of production even takes place. Why does labor appear, in Marx’s words, “timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market”? It is because Marx has a unitary view of the process that he can show us that the moment of production of the simple commodity is not necessarily a singular entry point for the enslavement of labor. Therefore, “in reality,” Marx tells us, “the worker belongs to capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist. His economic bondage is both at once mediated through, and concealed by, the periodic renewal of the act by which he sells himself, his change of masters, and the oscillations in the market-price of his labour.”19

But this link between production and reproduction, and the extension of the class relationship into the latter, means that, as we will see in the next section, the very acts where the working class strives to attend to its own needs can be the ground for class struggle.

Extended reproduction: the key to class struggle

What binds the worker to capital?

Under capitalism, since the means of production (to produce use values) are held by the capitalists, the worker only has access to the means of subsistence through the capitalist production process – selling her labor power to the capitalist in return for wages with which to purchase and access the means of her life, or subsistence.

This schema of capital-labor relationship is heavily predicated upon two things: (a) that the worker is forced to enter this relationship because she has needs as a human being to reproduce her life but cannot do so on her own because she has been separated from the means of production by capital; and (b) she enters the wage relations for her subsistence needs, which is to say that the needs of “life” (subsistence) have a deep integral connection to the realm of “work” (exploitation).

So far we are more or less in undisputed territory of Marxist theory.

Exact delineations of the relationships between the value of labor power, the needs of the worker, and how those in turn affect surplus value are, however, neither undisputed nor adequately theorized in Capital and it is to this that we will spend the remainder of this section.

Let us revisit the moment in Capital where even the individual consumption of the worker is also part of the circuit of capital because the reproduction of the worker is, as Marx calls it, “a factor of the production and reproduction of capital.”

A central premise that Marx offers us about labor power is that the value of labor power is set by the “value of the necessaries required to produce, develop, maintain, and perpetuate the laboring power.”20 But there is something else to this formulation. For the sake of making a logical argument (as opposed to a historical one) Marx treats the standard of necessities as constant: “In a given country at a given period, the average amount of the means of subsistence necessary for the worker is a known datum.”21

In Capital the value of labor power on the basis of the standard of necessity (U) is taken as constant and the changes in price of labor power are attributed to the introduction of machinery and/or the rise and fall of supply and demand of workers in the labor market.

As Lebowitz has pointed out, taking this methodological assumption as fact would put Marx at his closest to Classical economists: endorsing the formulation that supply shifts in the labor market and the introduction of machinery adjust the price of labor to its value, just as it does for all other commodities.

But there is a reason why the worker’s labor power is deemed a unique commodity by Marx, unlike, say sugar or cotton. In the case of labor, a reverse process may and can take place: the value of her labor power may adjust to price, rather than the other way around. The worker may adjust (lower or raise) her needs to what she receives in wages.

According to Lebowitz, Marx does not have a generalized concept of constant real wages (means of subsistence, U) but only adopts it as a “methodologically sound assumption.”22 In contrast to bourgeois political economists, Marx always “rejected the tendency…to treat workers’ needs as naturally determined and unchanging.” It was patently mistaken, Marx thought, to conceptualize subsistence level “as an unchangeable magnitude – which in their [bourgeois economists’] view is determined entirely by nature and not by the stage of historical development, which is itself a magnitude subject to fluctuations.”23 Nothing could be “more alien to Marx” emphasizes Lebowitz, than “the belief in a fixed set of necessities.”24

Let us consider a scenario where the standard of necessity (U) is fixed as Marx dictates, but there is an increase in productivity (q). In such a case the value of the set of wage goods (our original basket of goods x) would fall thereby reducing the value of labor power. In this scenario Marx says that labor power “would be unchanged in price” but “would have risen above its value.” This means that with more money wages at their disposal, workers can go on to buy more goods or services that satisfy their needs. But according the Lebowitz, this never happens. Instead, money wages tend to adjust to real wages, and capitalists are thus able to benefit from the reduced value of labor power. Lebowitz then proceeds to explain why it is that capitalists, rather than workers, benefit from this scenario.

Briefly put, he points out that the standard of necessity (U) is not invariable, but is actually “enforced by class struggle.” Thus, with a rise in productivity (q) and a “decline in the value of wage goods providing slack in the workers’ budget, capitalists…[are] emboldened to attempt to drive down money wages to capture the gain for themselves in the form of surplus value.”25 But once we see that the standard of necessity is variable and can be determined by class struggle then it becomes clear that the working class can fight on this front as well. Indeed, this is one of the consequences of understanding the expanded sense in which the economic is actually a set of social relations traversed by a struggle for class power.

Once we acknowledge class struggle as a component of the relations of production it becomes clear, as Lebowitz shows, that there are two different “moments of production.” They are composed of “two different goals, two different perspectives on the value of labor power: while for capital, the value of labor power is a means of satisfying its goal of surplus value…for the wage-laborer, it is the means of satisfying the goal of self development.”26

Reproduction, in short, is therefore a site of class conflict. However, this conflict in inflected with certain contradictory tendencies. For instance, on the one hand, as the orchestrator of the production process the capitalist class strives to limit the needs and consumption of the working class. But on the other hand, to ensure the constant realization of surplus value, capital must also create new needs in the working class as consumers and then “satisfy” such new needs with new commodities. The growth of workers needs under capitalism is thus an inherent condition of capitalist production and its expansion.

A further complication in this class struggle over the terms of reproduction is that the growth of needs for workers is neither secular or absolute. The position of the working class under capitalism is a relative one, i.e. in a relationship with the capitalist class. Hence any changes in the needs and in the level of satisfaction of workers are also relative to changes in the same for the capitalists. Marx used the memorable example of how the perception of the size of a house (its bigness or smallness) was relative to the size of its surrounding houses.27 Thus one generation of a working class may earn, in absolute terms, more than its previous generation; however, their satisfaction will never be absolute as that generation of capitalists will always have more. Since the growth of workers’ needs, then, is part of the process of capital’s valorization and their satisfaction cannot take place within the framework of the system, the struggle by workers to satisfy their own needs is also an inherent and integral part of the system.

If we include the struggle for higher wages (to satisfy ever increasing needs) in the argument in Capital is it an exogenous, hence eclectic, “addition” to Marxism? Lebowitz shows it not to be so.

What Capital lays out for us is the path of reproduction for capital. Marx represents capital’s movement as a circuit:

M – C (Mp,Lp) — P — C’ – M’

Money (M) is exchanged for commodities (C) that is a combination of (i) means of production (Mp) and (ii) labor power (Lp). The two elements combine through capitalist production (P) to produce new commodities and surplus value (C’) to be then exchanged for a greater amount of money (M’). Such a circuit is both continuous and complete upon itself, ruling out any exogenous elements.

But what about the circuit of reproduction of wage labor?

The “uniqueness” of labor power lies in the fact that although it is not produced and reproduced by capital, it is vital to capital’s own circuit of production. In Capital Marx does not theorize this second circuit but simply notes that “The maintenance and reproduction of the working class remains a necessary condition for the reproduction of capital,” and that “the capitalist may safely leave this to the worker’s drive for self-preservation and propagation.” This is where Lebowitz argues there ought to be acknowledged a missing circuit of production and reproduction, that of labor power. Marx perhaps would have addressed this in later volumes of Capital, but it remains incomplete as the “Missing Book on Wage Labor.”

Once we theoretically integrate the two circuits: that of production and reproduction of capital and that of the same for labor power, commodities themselves reveal their dual functions.

Commodities produced under capitalist production are both means of production (bought by capital for money), and articles of consumption (bought by workers with their wages). A second circuit of production then must be posited, distinct from that of capital, though in relation with it. This circuit is as follows:

M – Ac — P — Lp – M

Money (M), in the worker’s hands, is exchanged for articles of consumption (Ac) which are then consumed in a similar process of production (P). But now what is produced in this “production process” is a unique commodity – the worker’s labor power (Lp). Once produced (or reproduced) it is then sold to the capitalist in exchange for wages (M).

The production of labor power then takes place outside the immediate circuit of capital but remains essential for it. Within capital’s circuit, labor power is a means of production for capital’s reproduction, or valorization. But within wage labor’s circuit, the worker consumes commodities as use values (food, clothing, housing, education) in order to reproduce herself. The second circuit is a process of production of self for the worker or a process of self-transformation.

The second circuit of production encloses a purposeful activity, under the workers’ own self-direction. The goal of this process, is not the valorization of capital, but the self development of the worker. The historically embedded needs of the worker which themselves change and grow with capitalist growth, provide the motive for this labor process. The means of production for this circuit are the manifold useful values that the working class needs in order to develop. These are more than just means to simple biological reproduction, but are “social needs”:

Participation in the higher, even cultural satisfactions, the agitation for his own interests, newspaper subscriptions, attending lectures, educating his children, developing his taste etc., his only share of civilization which distinguishes him from the slave, [which] is economically only possible by widening the sphere of his pleasures at the times when business is good…28

Whether the working class can access such social goods, and to what extent it can, depends not only on the existence of such goods and services in society but on the tussle between capital and labor over surplus value (which reproduces capital) and the basket of goods (which reproduces the worker). On the one hand the worker consumes use values to regenerate fresh labor power. But on the other hand, the reproduction of labor power also presupposes, what Lebowitz perceptively shows, an ideal goal for the worker:

The second aspect of the worker considered as a labor process is that the activity involved in this process is “purposeful activity.” In other words, there is a preconceived goal, a goal that exists ideally, before the process itself…[and this goal] is the worker’s conception of self—as determined within society…That preconceived goal of production is what Marx described as “the worker’s own need of development.”29

However, the materials necessary to produce the worker in the image of her own needs and goals – be it food, housing, “time for education, for intellectual development,” or the “free play of his [or her] own physical and mental powers” – cannot be realized within the capitalist production process, for the process as a whole exists for the valorization of capital and not the social development of labor. Thus the worker, due to the very nature of the process, is already-always reproduced as lacking in what she needs, and hence built into the fabric of wage labor as a form, is the struggle for higher wages: class struggle. And here, finally, we arrive at the strategic implications of social reproduction theory, or why an integrative sense of capitalism is necessary in our actual battles against capital.

Social reproduction framework as strategy

The “actual degree” of profit, Marx tells us, “is only settled by the continuous struggle between capital and labor, the capitalist constantly tending to reduce wages to their physical minimum, and to extend the working day to its physical maximum, while the working man constantly presses in the opposite direction.” This struggle “resolves itself into a question of the respective powers of the combatants.”30

Note that as he lays out here the inner logic of the system, Marx does not talk of individual capitalists and the workplaces they command, but capital as a whole. Indeed, Marx is clear that although the system appears to us as a ensemble of “many capitals” it is “capital in general” that is the protagonist and the many capitals are ultimately shaped by the inherent determinants of “capital in general.”

If we apply what I call this method of social reproduction of labor theory to the question of workplace struggle, we can now have a few givens:

That the individual capitals, in competition with each other, will try to increase surplus value from the worker.
That the worker will pull in the opposite direction to increase the time (quantity) and wages, benefits (quality of life) she can have for her own social development. This most frequently will take the form of struggle for a shorter workweek, or higher wages and better work conditions in the workplace.
What is the ideal situation for the worker? That she pulls all the way in the opposite direction and annihilates surplus value altogether, i.e. she only works the hours necessary to reproduce her own subsistence, and the rest of the time is her own to do as she pleases. This is an impossible solution, in that capital will then cease to be capital. The struggle for higher wages, benefits etc. in a work place, against a boss, or even in a series of workplaces and against specific bosses, then is only part of the pivotal struggle of capital in general versus wage labor in general. The worker can even “leave” an individual boss but she cannot opt out of the system as a whole (while the system as it stands exists):

The worker leaves the capitalist, to whom he has sold himself, as often as he chooses, and the capitalist discharges him as often as he sees fit, as soon as he no longer gets any use, or not the required use, out of him.

But the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labor-power, cannot leave the whole class of buyers, i.e., the capitalist class, unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class; and it is for him to find his man – i.e., to find a buyer in this capitalist class.31

Most trade unions, even the most militant ones, are typically equipped to fight against the individual boss or a collective of bosses, which in Marx’s terms takes the form of “many capitals.” Trade unions leave the task of confronting “capital in general” alone. There is a very good reason why this is so.

As Lebowitz shows, capital’s power “as owner of the products of labor is…both absolute and mystified” – this ultimately undergirds its ability to buy labor power and submit it to its will in the production process. If the worker is to transcend the partial struggle for better work conditions and direct all social labor to producing only use values for social and individual development, then it is this underlying power of capital as a whole that must be confronted. But capital’s power in this arena is qualitatively different from that of workplace struggles: “There is no direct area of confrontation between specific capitalists and specific wage laborers in this sphere comparable to that which emerges spontaneously in the labor market and the workplace…[Instead] the power of capital as owner of the products of labor appears as the dependence of wage labor upon capital-as-a-whole.”32

Consider the two ways in which surplus value is increased: one by the absolute extension of the work day and the other by cutting wages or reducing the cost of living thereby reducing the necessary labor time. While Marx is clear that absolute and relative surplus are related concepts, it is quite clear that some aspects of this process of realization (the boss’s efforts to reduce wages, for instance) are more easily confronted in the workplace than others.

Let us take a historical example of how the system as a whole will sometimes increase relative surplus value by reducing the cost of living of the working class as a whole. During the 18th century a section of the working class in Britain was put on a diet of potatoes, a cheaper food option to wheat, such that the cost of feeding workers was forced down thereby cheapening the cost of labor as a whole. One of the best and undoubtedly one of the most lyrical historians of working class life, E. P. Thompson, called this a “regular dietary class war” waged for over 50 years on the English working class. What concrete forms did this class war take? While the cheapening of labor increased surplus value at the point of production and hence benefitted the bosses in the workplace, it was not just in the workplace, or at the hands of the bosses, that the cheapening of labor took place. Thompson gives us a moving account of how “landowners, farmers, parsons, manufacturers, and the Government itself sought to drive laborers from a wheaten to a potato diet.”33 The ruling class, as a class, then forced the increase potato acreage over wheat and prompting the historian Redcliffe Salaman to rightly claim that “the use of the potato…did, in fact, enable the workers to survive on the lowest possible wage.”34 Similarly, Sandra Halperin has shown how in the late nineteenth century British overseas investment, control over colonies, its railways, harbor and shipbuilding for Baltic and North American grain, “produced a backflow of cheaply produced…raw materials and foodstuffs that did not compete with domestic English agriculture and drove domestic working class wages down.”35

Trade unions, even the best ones, by nature, struggle against specific and particular capitals, but the above examples show the need to confront capital in its totality. Lebowitz accurately concludes, “in the absence of such a total opposition, the trade unions fight the effects within the labor market and the workplace but not the causes of the effects.”36

To his comrades in the First International Marx pointed to precisely this caveat in trade union struggles. The trade unions, Marx pointed out, were “Too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital” and had “not yet fully understood their power of acting against the system of wages slavery itself.” What, according to Marx, was proof of their narrowness? That “they had kept too much aloof from general social and political movements.” Marx’s advice to them was to overcome this narrowness and go beyond the purely economic struggle for wages:

they must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the agricultural laborers, rendered powerless [French text has: “incapable of organized resistance”] by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large [French and German texts read: “convince the broad masses of workers”] that their efforts, far from being narrow – and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.37

If we take our lead from Marx himself, then it is utterly unclear why only the economic struggle for wages and benefits at the workplace must be designated as class struggle. Every social and political movement “tending” in the direction of gains for the working class as a whole, or of challenge to the power of capital as a whole, must be considered an aspect of class struggle.

Significantly, one of the greatest tragedies of the destruction of working class power and the dissolution of proletarian living communities in the last forty years has been the loss in practice of this insight about the social totality of production of value and reproduction of labor power.

At any given moment of history, a working class may or may not be able to fight for higher wages at the point of production. Labor unions may not exist or may be weak and corrupt. However, as items in the basket of goods change (fall or rise in quality and quantity of social goods) the class is acutely aware of such changes to their life as a whole, and those battles may emerge away from the point of production, but nevertheless reflecting the needs and imperatives of the class. In other words, where a struggle for a higher wage is not possible, different kinds of struggles around the circuit of social reproduction may also erupt. Is it then any wonder that in the era of neoliberalism, when labor unions agitating at the point of production (for wages) are weak or non-existent in large parts of the globe, we have rising social movements around issues of living conditions, from the struggle for water in Cochabamba and Ireland, issues of land eviction in India and struggles for fair housing in the United Kingdom and elsewhere? A pattern perhaps best summarized by the anti-austerity protesters in Portugal: “Que se lixe a troika! Queremos as nossas vidas!” (“Fuck the troika! We want our lives!”)

The working class: solidarity and “difference”

We should then reconsider our conceptual vision of the working class. I am not suggesting here a concrete accounting of who constitutes the global working class, although that would be an important exercise. Instead, leading from our previous discussion about the need to reimagine a fuller figuration for “economy” and “production,” I am proposing here three things: (a) a theoretical restatement of the working class as a revolutionary subject; (b) a broader understanding of the working class than those employed as waged laborers at any given moment; and (c) a reconsideration of class struggle to signify more than the struggle over wages and working conditions.

The premise for this reconsideration is a particular understanding of historical materialism. Marx reminds us that “the specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element.”38

Under capitalism wage labor is the generalized form through which the rulers expropriate the direct producers. In the abstract, capital is indifferent to the race, gender, or abilities of the direct producers as long as her or his labor power can set the process of accumulation into motion. But the relations of production, as we saw in the earlier section, are actually a concatenation of existing social relations, shaped by past history, present institutions, and state forms. The social relations outside of wage labor are not accidental to it, but take specific historical form in response to it. For instance, the gendered nature of reproduction of labor power has conditioning impulses for the extraction of surplus value. Similarly, a heterosexist form of the family unit is sustained by capital’s needs for the generational replacement of the labor force.

The question of “difference” within the working class is significant in this respect. As mentioned before, Marx gestures towards differently “produced” sections of the working class in his discussion of the Irish worker, where the English worker is “produced” with access to a better basket of goods, his or her needs adjusted to this higher level, while the Irish worker remains at a brutal level of existence with only “the most animal minimum of needs.” Obviously Marx did not believe that the value of the labor power of the Irish worker was a constant that remained below that of her English counterpart due to ethnicity. Instead it was a result of class struggle, or lack thereof, and it was the English worker that needed to understand the commonality of their class interest with the Irish against capital as a whole.

Incorporating class struggle as a crucial element that determines the extent and quality of social reproduction of the worker then enables us to truly understand the significance of a Marxist notion of “difference” within the class. Acknowledging that at any given historical moment the working class might be differently produced (with varying wages and differential access to means of social reproduction) is more than simply stating an empirical truth. By showing how concrete social relations and histories of struggle contribute to the “reproduction” of labor power this framework actually points to the filaments of class solidarity that must be forged, sometime within and sometimes without the workplace, in order to increase the “share of civilization” for all workers.

Writing in the Britain of the early eighties, when the working class was being physically brutalized by Thatcherism and theoretically assaulted by a range of liberal theories, Raymond Williams understood very well the dangers of a false dichotomy between “class struggles” and “new social movements”:

all significant social movements of the last thirty years have started outside the organized class interests and institutions. The Peace movement, the ecology movement, the women’s movement, human rights agencies, campaigns against poverty and homelessness…all have this character, that they sprang from needs and perceptions which the interest-based organizations had no room or time for, or which they simply failed to notice.39

Today, we can add to the list the recent anti-police brutality struggles in the United States.

But while these struggles may arise outside the workplace, or be understood as struggles for extra-class interests, Williams points to the absurdity of such a characterization:

What is then quite absurd is to dismiss or underplay these movements as “middle class issues.” It is a consequence of the social order itself that these issues are qualified and refracted in these ways. It is similarly absurd to push the issues away as not relevant to the central interests of the working class. In all real senses they belong to these central interests. It is workers who are most exposed to dangerous industrial processes and environmental damage. It is working class women who have most need of new women’s rights…40

If for whatever historical reasons organizations that are supposed to champion “class struggle,” such as trade unions, fail to be insurgent, it does not mean then that “class struggle” goes away, or that these struggles are “beyond class.” Indeed as Williams astutely observes, “there is not one of these issues which, followed through, fails to lead us into the central systems of the industrial-capitalist mode of production and… into its system of classes.”

Understanding the complex but unified way in which the production of commodities and reproduction of labor power takes place, helps us understand how the concrete allocation of the total labor of society is socially organized in gendered and racialized ways through lessons learnt by capital from previous historical epochs and through its struggle against the working class. The process of accumulation, thus, in actuality cannot be indifferent to social categories of race, sexuality or gender, but seeks to organize and shape those categories that in turn act upon the determinate form of surplus labor extraction. The wage labor relation suffuses the spaces of non-waged everyday life.

“A development of the forces of the working class – suspends capital itself”

If the social reproduction of labor power is accorded the theoretical centrality that we propose it should, how useful is that to our second proposal – the rethinking of the working class?

Social Reproduction theory illuminates the social relations and pathways involved in reproducing labor power thereby broadening our vision of how we ought to approach the notion of the working class.

The framework demonstrates why we ought not to rest easy with the limiting understanding of class as simply those who are currently employed in the capital versus waged labor dynamic. To do so would restrict both our vision of class power and our identification of potential agents of class solidarity.

The “waged worker” may be the correct definition for those who currently work for a wage, but such a vision is, again, one of “the trade union secretary.” The working class, for the revolutionary Marxist, must be perceived of as everyone in the producing class who has in their lifetime participated in the totality of reproduction of society – irrespective of whether that labor has been paid for by capital or remained unpaid. Such an integrative vision of class gathers together the temporary Latina hotel worker from Los Angeles, the flextime working mother from Indiana who needs to stay home due to high childcare costs, the African-American full-time school teacher from Chicago, and the white, male and unemployed, erstwhile UAW worker from Detroit. But they come together not in competition with each other, a view of the working class still in terms of the market, but in solidarity. Strategic organizing on the basis of such a vision can reintroduce the idea that an injury to the schoolteacher in Chicago is actually an injury to all the others.

When we restore a sense of the social totality to class we immediately begin to reframe the arena for class struggle.

What has been the form of the one-sided class struggle from the global ruling class in the past four decades of neoliberalism?

It is crucial to understand that it has been a twin attack by capital on global labor to try and restructure production in workplaces and the social processes of reproduction of labor power in homes, communities and niches of everyday life.

In the workplace primarily the assault took the form of breaking the back of union power. The neoliberal edifice, as I have argued elsewhere,41 was built on the back of a series of defeats for the global working class, the most spectacular examples being those of the air traffic controllers in the United States (1981), the mill workers in India (1982) and the miners in the United Kingdom (1984–85).

If the ruling class attack in the workplace, or on productive labor, took the form of violent anti-unionism, it certainly did not end there. Outside the workplace the attack on reproductive labor was equally vicious. For specific countries this second line of attack may be said to have been even greater. In the case of the US, several scholars from David McNally and Anwar Shaikh to Kim Moody have shown how an absolute decline in working class living and working standards built the capitalist expansion of the 1980s. Key areas of social reproduction were attacked through increased privatization of social services and the retrenchment of important federal programs such as Aid To Dependent Children/Temporary Aid to Needy Families, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. In the global south this took the form of the IMF and the World Bank forcibly raising the price of imports – the bulk of which for these countries were food grain, fuel and medicines.

This was open class war strategically waged on the entire working class, not just its waged members, that became so effective precisely because it extended beyond the confines of the workplace. By systematically privatizing previously socialized resources, reducing the quality of services, capital aimed to make the work of daily regeneration more vulnerable and precarious while simultaneously unloading the entire responsibility and discourse of reproduction onto individual families. Where these processes of degrading the work of social reproduction worked most effectively was in social contexts where capital could bank on, create anew, or re-energize practices and discourses of oppression. From racist clarion calls against the “welfare queen,” new forms of sexualization of bodies that diminished sexual choices, to rising Islamophobia, neoliberalism found increasingly creative ways to injure the working class. It destroyed class confidence, eroded previously embedded cultures of solidarity and most importantly in certain communities, succeeded in erasing a key sense of continuity and class memory.

Spaces of insurgency: confronting capital beyond the factory floor

One of the leaders of a recent factory occupation in India explained to a shocked business reporter: “The negotiating power of workers is the most in the factory but no one listens to you when you reach Jantar Mantar [traditional protest square in the Indian capital of Delhi].”

The experiential discernment of this rebel worker is often the political-economic commonsense of revolutionary Marxism about capital-labor relations. The “dominant” reading of Marx locates the possibilities for a critical political engagement of the working class with capital chiefly at the point of production, where the power of workers to affect profits is the most.

This essay, so far, has been a counterintuitive reading of the theoretic import of the category of “production” and so we must now consider the strategic import of the workplace as a pivotal organizing space. Recent scholarship on the global south, for instance the “coolie lines” in India or the “dormitory labor regime” in China brings to striking analytical prominence not only the places where the working class works, but the spaces where the working class, sleeps, plays, goes to school – or in other words lives full sensual lives beyond the workplace. What role do such spaces play in organizing against capital? And more importantly, do point-of-production struggles have no strategic relevance any more?

The contours of class struggle (or what is traditionally understood as such) are very clear in the workplace. The worker both feels capital’s dominance experientially on an everyday basis, and understands its ultimate power over her life, her time, her life chances, indeed over her ability to exist and map any future. Workplace struggles thus have two irreplaceable advantages. One, they have clear goals and targets. Two, workers are concentrated at those points in capital’s own circuit of reproduction and have the collective power to shut down certain parts of the operation. This is precisely why Marx called trade unions “centers of organization of the working class.”42 This is also why capital’s first attack is always upon organized sections of the class in order to break this power.

But let us rethink the theoretical import of extra-workplace struggle, such as those for cleaner air, better schools, against water privatization, against climate change or for fairer housing policies. These reflect, I submit, those social needs of the working class that are essential for its social reproduction. They also are an effort by the class to demand its “share of civilization.” In this, they are also class struggles.

Neoliberalism’s devastation of working class neighborhoods in the global north has left behind boarded buildings, pawnshops and empty stoops. In the global south it has created vast slums as the breeding ground for violence and want.43 The demand by these communities to extend their “sphere of pleasure” is thus a vital class demand. Marx and Engels, writing in 1850, advanced the idea that workers must “make each community the central point and nucleus of workers’ associations in which the attitude and interests of the proletariat will be discussed independently of bourgeois interests.”44

It is our turn now to restore to our organs and practices of protest this integrative understanding of capitalist totality. If the socialist project remains the dismantling of wage labor, we will fail in that project unless we understand that the relationship between wage labor and capital is sustained in all sorts of unwaged ways and in all kind of social spaces—not just at work.

When the United Automobile Workers (UAW) went to organize a union at the Volkswagen plant in the American South, its bureaucratic leaders maintained a religious separation between their union work at the plant and the workers lived experience in the community. The union leaders signed a contract with the bosses that they would never talk to workers in their homes. But these were communities that had never experienced union power, had never sung labor songs or had picnics at union halls. Unions played little role in the social texture of their lives. In such a community, devastated and atomized as it was by capital, the union movement could only be rebuilt if doing so made sense in the total aspect of their lives and not just in a sectoral way at work alone.

Contrast this tactic to the one used by the Chicago teacher’s union to rebuild their union. They did what the UAW did not, which is connect the struggles in the workplace with the needs of a wider community. For years they brought their union banner to one grieving neighborhood after another when they were about to lose a school to the privatizers and protested against school closures. In the deeply racialized poverty of Chicago, the struggle of a union trying to save a working class child’s right to learn made a difference. So when this very union went on strike they had already established a history of working and struggling in extra-workplace spaces, which is why the wider working class of Chicago saw the strike as their own struggle, for the future of their children. And when striking teachers in red shirts swelled the streets of the city the city’s working class gave them their solidarity and support.

We want such working class insurgents to flood city streets like they did in Chicago during the CTU strike. To prepare our theory and our praxis to be ready for such times the first stop should be a revived understanding of class, rescued from decades of economic reductionism and business unionism. The constitutive roles played by race, gender or ethnicities on the working class need to be re-recognized while struggle reanimated with broader visions of class power beyond contract negotiations.

Only such a struggle will have the power to rupture capital’s “hidden abode” and return the control of our sensuous, tactile, creative capacity to labor to where it truly belongs – to ourselves.

Introduction to the Archive of Feminist Struggle for wages for housework. Donation by Mariarosa Dalla Costa

This text introduces the Archivio di Lotta Femminista per il salario al lavoro domestico, which contains a wealth of material collected from the 1970s to the present, all graciously donated by Mariarosa Dalla Costa after years of work as a militant in the Feminist Movement and as a scholar of the condition of women. The archive, based in Padua, Italy, collects a broad range of inventoried material from a strand of the Feminist Movement which, in Italy, first called itself Movimento di Lotta Femminile (Women’s Struggle Movement), then later Lotta Femminista (Feminist Struggle) and finally Movimento dei Gruppi e Comitati per il Salario al Lavoro Domestico (Movement of Groups and Committees for Wages for Housework), henceforth SLD. In English-speaking countries it is called the network of Wages for Housework (henceforth WFH) although, undoubtedly, groups aimed at claiming pay for housework have used other names. One example is the Power of Women Collective in London. Even in Italy there have been variations on the name, such as the Collettivo Femminista Napoletano (Neapolitan Feminist Collective) for the SLD in Naples, the Feminist Group Immagine (Image) for the SLD of Varese. A separate case is the Feminist Group of Pescara which, having always collaborated on initiatives of the SLD circuit, was included in the directory of the SLD circuit in the newspaper “Le operaie della casa” (Houseworkers). Since it was impossible to continuously update the lists, there were groups for the SLD that arose which did not appear in the directory of the paper, such as the Feminist Group for the SLD of San Dona di Piave and others. Also in Milan there was an SLD presence which then became part of a broader Collective at the city level; and in Rome there were two groups for the SLD which strangely did not appear in the newspaper. Even more so, it was almost impossible to keep track of the WFH groups that arose abroad. The paper did, however, take into account the principal groups. Many other groups became known when, with the repression of the late ‘70s, numerous telegrams of solidarity arrived which, along with other supporting documents in the archive, constitute an important source, giving an idea of the real expansion of the SLD / WFH network. In Padua, Lotta Femminista would in time constitute the moment for launching the formation of other feminist groups that were organizing themselves autonomously; one such example is Gruppo Femminista Medie (Middle School Feminists Group).

It was, therefore, a feminism of an international, militant, anti-capitalist dimension, leading to big struggles in view of a radical change of the existing condition. The materials contained in the archive are mainly related to the ‘70s, having been designed for immediate use in the work of practical intervention (leaflets and brochures); but there are also more analytical materials which were for the political formation of activists (small books), as well as more thorough study materials concerning issues considered crucial. Even after the ‘70s, this overall production continued along the various paths of the exponents of the network, modulating with the new evolutions of the discourse of its initiatives and the nodes considered important. Collected here is what was possible to attain up to now, with the intention of integrating it further. The archive also includes paper documents produced after the ‘70s that testify to militant activity in various countries, even though, as the era of new information technologies takes over, the flyer and brochure tend to disappear. There are also multimedia materials.

In Italy, the foundation and the start of Lotta Femminista took place in June of 1971, when Mariarosa Dalla Costa who, with her experience of years in operaismo (the workers’ movement), and having begun a political relationship with Selma James in London, convened a meeting in Padua. She asked some of her female companions to come to this meeting and put to their attention a document she had drafted. Her writing dealt with unpaid housework as work that affects the lives of all women and invited women everywhere to launch various forms of struggle to make it cost. The perspective in which the subject matter was treated corresponded with that of other struggles for wages that were led in factories, in universities and throughout the territory by workers and students. The latter group was fighting against the authoritarianism of professors and parents, against the cost of studying, and was also asking for a grant for the work of training their workforce. This archive also contains documents about the struggles of the students as well as those of temporary employees of the university. With regard to housework, women wanted to make it cost; they would require a system of services that allowed time off for the housewife, not just for the woman employed outside the home; they would require a halving of outside work time so that everyone, men and women, could devote time to reproduction, time for duties but also for an emotional exchange.

Within the Italian area of interest, from which most of the material archived here comes, some things should be clarified. The SLD strand of which we speak represents one of the two great souls of feminism, the other being that of autocoscienza (raising consciousness). This one shared significant feelings with the American practice of raising consciousness and favored small groups of women who recounted and compared their stories in the first person. Baring one’s personal experience to others was a way of denying an imposed identity, fixed in the role of wife and mother, and trying to build another identity. One of the aspects that emerged more dramatically through the experience of the small group was the discovery of violence that women experience. In the strand of raising consciousness there were groups with different names which were particularly strong in Milan and in other large cities. In the early ‘70s this strand was also in touch with Psychanalyse et Politique (Psychoanalysis and Politics) a psychoanalytic group in Paris headed by Antoinette Fouqué. The raising consciousness strand had little sympathy for demonstrations and, even on large issues of the Feminist Movement such as abortion, it sometimes preferred not to participate. It rejected what it called “external commitments.”

That is how the two great characterizations in the Italian Feminist Movement were delineated, often labeled as the “psychoanalytic” strand and the “political” strand.

They did, however, find common ground in the break with the discourse of emancipation, in not having any interest for the discussion on equality since it was tainted by the vice of homologation, and in their refusal to have anything to do with the institutions.

“Liberation,” not “emancipation” (a tiring and limited conquest of previous generations) was the new standard that was always being filled with new content as women advanced in their journey and claimed their human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as their citizenship rights. They wanted to be free from male authority, free from economic dependence on man, free from having to suffer violence, free to decide about sexuality and procreation, free to exercise self-determination in every aspect of their lives.

The “difference” was the other big statement against the discourse of equality. The difference being the specificity of the condition of women, a difference that should emerge and which required specific answers.

The SLD strand of Lotta Femminista saw the difference as it fit into the capitalist sexual division of labor. Men were paid for their work in the production of goods, women were not paid for the work of production and reproduction of labor power. This was the unbearable contradiction: an unwaged worker in a wage economy. This was the hierarchizing difference between man and woman. This was the unbearable condition, being a housewife (Italy at the time had a particularly high rate of housewives) obliged to continuously supply work to reproduce the entire family but dependent on a man for support, and by this dependency hampered in all her life choices.

Breaking this contradiction meant launching struggles everywhere in order to make housework cost. But it was also a great cultural awakening. The theme of housework asserted itself across the Feminist Movement in place of emancipation through work outside the home, even in those circuits that did not seek to require its salarization. Women increasingly rejected a femininity made ​​of endless willingness to reproduce others for free.

If the first signs of a feminist awakening date from the second half of the 1960s, undoubtedly, in Italy, a Feminist Movement that saw thousands of women take to the streets, demonstrate, organize fights, dates to the beginning of the 1970s in a context already characterized by other struggles waged forcefully by workers, students and technicians, with the very active presence of an extra-parliamentary left. From this context came numerous militant feminists who were soon joined by many others that had no previous experience of militancy. Various women from the strand of Lotta Femminista came from years of militancy in Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power). They knew that a great change that offered new and consistent solutions to the problem of human reproduction could not take place unless women’s determination could be heard. Their path, therefore, would tend to build struggles on housework and its conditions, not only in homes and neighborhoods, but also at workplaces outside the home where they wanted to make visible the existence of housework, which all other work depends on. So there were actions like bringing young children to the office, or struggles like those of the secretaries of professional firms in Trieste who refused to continue to perform additional tasks that were asked of them only because they were women. Or struggles like those in the Solari Factory in Udine which sought to reduce the time of reproduction that women had to spend on themselves for treatment and medical check-ups. They asked the management to organize a service with a doctor who would come into the factory. This would save the workers work-days that otherwise would have been lost to bureaucratic paper-work and medical visits. And they got what they asked for. The example then spread to other factories. Of course these, like many other struggles and moments of mobilization, were documented first and foremost in the newspaper “Le operaie della casa” and in other archived materials.

If, in Italy, the claim to have housework cost, to expect retribution for it starting with the most burdensome part, that is raising children, seemed unrealistic, abroad, instead, there were substantial examples to which the militant SLD-WFH network looked: primarily the Family Allowances in England, the Family Allowance Funds in France, the allowances given to Welfare Mothers in the United States, all of which represented a first concrete level of retribution for this long fatigue.

But mobilization on the matter of housework was intertwined with mobilization on all those aspects, those rights denied to feminine life that prevented the woman from emerging as a person. This, in fact, was the great process that was set in motion with the Feminist Movement. Wanting to emerge as a person meant wanting to emerge as an autonomous subject, with all rights and fundamental freedoms, a subject who claimed the ability of self-determination in all areas of her life, starting from sexuality and procreation, affirming that female sexuality is not only in function of the needs of man and is not only in function of procreation. It was a hot topic in those years, one that was constantly intertwined with that of the right of women to knowledge of their bodies, with that of health, with that of violence, with that of abortion. In Padua, a trial on abortion held on June 5, 1973, was used for the first time as a moment of political mobilization in which the whole Movement participated. It was the first act over a course of years that would lead to the legalization of abortion (Law 194/1978).

The opening of the discourse on sexuality, including the right to be able to live one’s sexual orientation, contributed, both in Padua and on a national level, to creating a terrain for debate where it became easier to take the floor for the male homosexual movement as well. A full set of their magazine “Fuori” (Out) was donated to the Augusto Finzi Archives at the public library in Marghera by Mariarosa Dalla Costa a few years ago when the possibility of building this archive in Padua had not yet materialized. However, even in the discourse on sexuality with people of the same sex, what mattered to the SLD network was to highlight that even a gay lifestyle, although in this case the division of labor is less fixed and hierarchical than in a heterosexual couple, does not solve the problem of housework.

There was also a broad commitment to promoting women’s information on what today would be called “reproductive health” and urging the State to do it. The amount of work that was dedicated to building knowledge about everything related to women’s health, which was spread through small pamphlets, mimeographs and books, is amazing. In truth, the books are small and this shows that there was little time to write them and little time to read them, since much of the time was devoted to organization and action. And publishers could not make big investments so the books had to be of limited size and essentially sold. Two such examples are the Marsilio series entitled “Salario al lavoro domestico – strategia internazionale femminista” (“Wages for Housework – International Feminist Strategy”) and the book Un lavoro d’amore (The Work of Love), by Giovanna F. Dalla Costa, a fundamental essay on the relationship between physical sexual violence and the gratuity of housework, published by Edizioni delle Donne in Rome in 1978. Keep in mind that this building of another knowledge by the Feminist Movement was part of a horizon of construction of other knowledge conducted in the ‘70s by various movements. In Padua in 1974, the Committee for the SLD that had taken over from Lotta Femminista opened the first self-managed family planning clinic which would be followed by others in other cities. In this clinic many women and doctors willingly provided their services for free. The law (no. 405) establishing family planning clinics would come in 1975 while previously, in 1971, the legislation (art. 553 c.p.) prohibiting the advertising of contraceptives had been declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. The number of these clinics, however, would always remain far below what was expected and deficient in their functions of providing information and prevention. Much effort was made on the issue of childbirth to return it to the condition of a natural event, as opposed to its excessive medicalization, and to return to the woman the lead role with the right to have at that event the comfort of a trusted person. The Movement paid particular attention to the maternity wards in hospitals and the struggle at the St. Anna of Ferrara hospital remains famous. But overall, the whole field of gynecology was indicted, being still largely in the hands of male doctors, often authoritarian and rough in their relationships with patients. Inquiries were also held in public clinics where women, often posing as patients, went to test the quality of the service. All around maternity there was a hum of feminist research: the Movement for active birth was outlined; Andria, a national coordination of obstetricians, gynecologists and midwives who were particularly attentive to the lesson of the Feminist Movement, was formed; Andria’s mouthpiece Istar, a multidisciplinary journal on birth, was established. The same circuit would be very important later in the ‘90s when the question of hysterectomy abuse was raised.

In 1974, the referendum on divorce was won, thereby allowing this relatively new institution to be part of Italy’s legal system. In 1975, the new family law focusing on equality between spouses entered into force. In fact, the institutional response to the needs of the Feminist Movement was articulated according to the classic form of emancipation and, from 1972-79, the number of women involved in paid employment would increase by 1,500,000. Things were more functional now that women could decide everything regarding their family and employment outside the home on an equal footing with their spouse.

The other major issue addressed was that of prostitution. In 1958 the Merlin Law (no. 75) had abolished the regulation of prostitution. Henceforth, prostitution would not be a crime while the exploitation of the prostitution of others was. Consequently, the State could no longer profit from this activity. In the ‘70s, prostitution itself was no longer a crime in many European countries, but in practice it was criminalized in various ways. Furthermore, male violence was often a common practice that was rather taken for granted by the institutions. In 1975, the murder of yet another prostitute in Lyon induced her street companions to occupy churches and begin to organize themselves as a movement. On June 16th, 1976, the prostitutes held their first meeting at the theater “La Mutualité” in Paris. In the same year in the United States, in New York, frequent raids led public opinion to think that locking up prostitutes in Eros Centers would be the ideal solution. Frequent raids also occurred in San Francisco, so even there the prostitutes rebelled and, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, began to assert their rights, first of all to not be exploited by others, to not suffer violence from clients and police, and to keep their children with them. The big breakthrough that happened was that prostitutes decided to speak in the first person, appearing in public, refusing invisibility, victimization and ghettoization. But above all, they refused letting others discuss their choice in only moral terms and instead insisted discussing it as a job. Since then the term sexworkers was coined and used universally. Even in Italy there would be meetings in which prostitutes spoke in the first person and, through their initiative, committees for the rights of prostitutes would be born. But above all, speaking of prostitution in terms of work would put more light on the poor choices of women forced into being either economically dependent on a man or having to hold two jobs for very low pay. So much so, that some international circuits of prostitutes would pronounce themselves in favor of wages for housework. And there is documentation of all this in this archive. But compared to the situation in which this assertion of rights was given, first among which the right not to be exploited by others, neoliberal globalization would put women from poorer countries, in conditions of weakness and blackmailed by criminal organizations, on the streets of the first world.

In 1975, the ever more impetuous growth of the Feminist Movement in various countries led the United Nations to proclaim 1975 the International Women’s Year, to announce a conference in Mexico City on “Women, Development and Peace” and to devote the new decade to the same topic. At that Conference, Northern women would meet with Southern women and discover they had different priorities. Poverty, not discrimination, was the first problem for those who came from “developing” countries. But even this conference would be perceived with a certain indifference by the Feminist Movement which was never enthusiastic in front of institutional events, especially if a high institution was involved. So there is almost no trace of this in the literature of the Movement.

In 1979, the General Assembly of the United Nations approved the Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which would go into effect in 1981. Conceived in only “negative” terms, that is, by listing the areas in which there must not be discrimination against women and, on the other hand, committing states to take action if it does happen, CEDAW covers every aspect of a woman’s life and remains the most important charter on the subject of discrimination. But for the Feminist Movement, even this charter would remain a dead letter, virtually unknown, although later it would be the charter that obligated signatory states, including Italy, to take a series of steps regarding this discrimination. Its fault, if anything, is that it did not expressly contemplate violence as a form of discrimination.

Yet violence, after housework, was the other big issue that emerged in the feminism of the ‘70s, in particular sexual violence. In Italy, the Rocco code still ranked sexual violence among the offenses against public morals and decency. It was a difficult pregnancy, that of the Movement, that wanted to give birth to the woman as a person and then expected that violence against her be counted among crimes against the person. Various bills have been presented since 1979 when the first popular initiative was presented. Even the Communist Party in 1977 presented one but the House did not initiate discussion on it. The Feminist Movement, however, was a bit embarrassed because it did not want to help define penalties. Instead, it mobilized in conferences defined as international tribunals like the one on crimes against women held in Brussels from March 4-8, 1976, involving about 2,000 women from all over the world. And in that conference a resolution presented by the activists of the SLD / WFH network from Italy, Canada, the United States, Great Britain was voted almost unanimously in the final general assembly. The resolution says: “that unwaged housework is robbery with violence; that this work and wagelessness is a crime from which all other crimes flow; that it brands us for life as the weaker sex and delivers us powerless to employers, government planners and legislators, doctors, the police, prisons and mental institutions, as well as to men, for a lifetime of servitude and imprisonment. We demand wages-for-housework for all women from the governments of the world. We will organize internationally to win back the wealth that has been stolen from us in every country and to put an end to the crimes committed daily against us all.” (Document 01467, May 1976)

The Feminist Movement also mobilized around the trials of men who used violence against women. Its presence ensured, first of all, that the victim was not transformed into the accused. In 1975, the mobilization around the trial for the Circeo massacre, the case of two women who had been raped and tortured, one of whom died while the other survived by pretending to be dead, marked the start of this mobilization and being present in trials for violence. But obviously the Movement took a number of other initiatives on this issue, from publicly reporting the names of rapists, to torchlight processions, to much more. It also took the initiative of solidarity by offering its homes as a first source of shelter for women who wanted to leave their homes because they suffered violence. In Italy, it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that there were institutional initiatives such as the first anti-violence centers or homes for women (who suffer violence), while in different European countries they arose at the end of the ‘70s.

As for the law on sexual violence, 20 years would pass before it would go into effect. It would be law no. 66 of 1996. Finally, the crime of sexual violence redefined and articulated in the case studies that considered this would be placed in the context of crimes against the person and no longer against public morals and decency.

Here, too, a passage that took place at the level of the United Nations three years earlier must be remembered. At the Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna from June 14th to 25th , 1993, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women was produced, which would be approved by the UN General Assembly in December 1993. It was the Charter that gave the most comprehensive definition of gender violence to which national standards refer.

Articles 587 and 544 of the Criminal Code were repealed in 1981, the former referring to the so-called “honor killing,” the latter to the “shotgun wedding.” But the Feminist Movement deserves credit for having first discovered and brought to light the extraordinary courage of Franca Viola in Alcamo (Trapani), who, in 1965, having been kidnapped by her rejected suitor, refused a “shotgun wedding.” In 1968, the Constitutional Court established the unconstitutionality of Article 599 of the Criminal Code which considered adultery as an offense when committed by the wife, but not by the husband. In the same way, in 1971, the same Court, as mentioned above, would declare the unconstitutionality of Article 553 of the Criminal Code which prohibited the advertising of contraceptives.

In 1965, Socialist deputy Loris Fortuna presented a bill to parliament introducing divorce in Italy, which would go into effect in 1970. These flashes in the second half of the ‘60s and the dawn of the ‘70s indicated that some willingness to change the rules and customs that regulated the sphere of reproduction was brewing in the Italian social and institutional fabric. In this context, the behavior of Franca Viola could be seen as a forerunner of a behavior that would be multiplied with feminism. But we would have to go through the explosion of 1968, in which young people achieved a new lifestyle, and through the mass struggles of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, for the condition of women to be thrown into question within a project of great transformation of which the Feminist Movement was the herald.

The great transformation … this was the project that underlay all the action of the Feminist Movement of the ‘70s, just as it underlay the action of the other movements of the period. On the one hand, it was a demand which aimed to achieve better working conditions, more free time, a widening of the sphere of welfare; on the other hand, there was an ambition to gather such force as to cause a great change.

The territory as a social factory, struggles on wages by the various entities that inhabit it, all this was already a fundamental assumption of workerism. But the Feminist Movement revealed that women work behind the closed doors of the home; that the home is a production center, it produces and reproduces labor power daily; that capitalist accumulation passes through two great poles, the factory and the home. Therefore, the woman is the main subject of the social fabric. But there is no housework in Marx. This was the discovery of those most accustomed to handling Capital.

Also keep in mind that it was workerism which had promoted the direct relationship between militants and the works of Marx. At the University and in other places, continuous lectures were made ​​on Capital; chapters 8, 24 and 25 of the first book were highlighted, dealing with the workday, original accumulation and the modern theory of colonization (or theory of systematic colonization) respectively. Such issues would come back to the forefront with the attack on common goods deployed around the planet by neoliberal globalization. Numerous studies on the various stages of capital were carried out. The discovery that there was no housework in Marx led to that set of analyses, by this circuit of scholars, which aimed to reveal the hidden phase of capitalist accumulation, that of the production and reproduction of labor power. Here we should mention, above all, the text L’arcano della riproduzione (The Arcane of Reproduction), by L. Fortunati, (Marsilio, Padua, 1981). So, also, we should mention the essay Il grande Calibano (The Great Caliban), by S. Federici and L. Fortunati, (FrancoAngeli, Mlano, 1984) that, relative to the period of original accumulation, rereads and reinterprets the trials of the witch hunts from a political point of view. This is just a first, brief mention of the fundamental texts but there are many others, representing stages of the analytical effort that was sustained, that are in the archive, representing essential components of the theoretical patrimony of the feminist strand we are dealing with.

For completeness with respect to the type of material donated, it must be said that the archive also houses a remarkable collection of feminist magazines from other groups, as well as newspaper sheets or journal issues or other papers coming from different subjects. This is explained by the fact that other active organizations felt that a mutual understanding of what was produced was interesting and so sent us their materials.

In the same way, it should be mentioned that some companions formed the Musical Group of the SLD Committee of Padua which composed and sang at events. These beautiful songs that they wrote and recorded on two albums, recently reproduced on CD, are kept in both versions at the archive. A theater group, which belonged to the same Committee, was also formed and performed the show “L’identità” (The Identity), adapted from a text by Maria Vittoria Arciero. The creativity, the need to express themselves in new forms, was in fact an essential need that exploded across the movement, even among men. The struggle was accompanied by joyful gatherings; it was accompanied by a sociality without boundaries.

The repression in the late ‘70s ended a decade of activism on the part of various subjects, including feminists. Equal opportunity policies as an institutional response to the needs of the Feminist Movement replaced the problem of capitalist development with that of discrimination between men and women, directing the younger generation to circumscribe their analytical effort to that effect. The ‘80s were years of social normalization, the launch of neoliberalism, the drastic application in many countries of structural adjustment policies. For various members of the feminist circuit in question, the impossibility of continuing a discourse in the advanced areas pushed them toward the other end of development, to spending periods of time, working even, in countries of the southern part of the world where the neoliberal globalization of the ‘90s would bring new crucial nodes to their attention: first and foremost, the relationship between the expansion of capitalist relations and subsistence economies, the question of land, water and seeds as fundamental common goods, the policies of food, the global operation of proletarianization and lowering the cost of labor, of which globalization and restratification of the work of caring is an extremely significant outcome.

Renewed studies on the theme of original accumulation therefore return in the readings of neoliberal globalization. Reproduction, in a broader sense, is investigated not only for how it depends on human activities and the supplies of the state, but also for how it depends on the health of the planet Earth.

In a context in which all kinds of disasters that open lethal wounds in the balance of life on earth and in the sea are becoming more and more dramatic and frequent, not only are studies being conducted but new initiatives are being taken. The overall work of the members of the Feminist Movement that was the subject of this illustration thereby meets new generations and helps to create new circuits of analysis and militancy. A good witness to this is the online magazine The Commoner and the complex of materials housed in this archive.

– Translated by Rafaella Capanna

Le operaie della casa

Introduction

1977 saw the emergence of a new wave of social conflict in many parts of Italy, one that questioned fundamental assumptions about class struggle, political forms, and the nature of social subjectivity. 1977 was also the year in which the autonomist movement briefly came to dominate the local revolutionary milieu, only to retreat in confusion and disorder by the year’s end. Across those twelve months, hundreds of perspectives documents were produced and circulated in Italy by organizations large and small, outlining how capital and the state might be defeated in circumstances where a powerful Communist Party and union movement were calling for social peace and austerity in the name of national unity. What follows are two extracts from one such perspectives document, published in the January-April 1977 (and final) issue of Le operaie della casa. This journal was the mouthpiece of the Comitato per il Salario al Lavoro Domestico di Padova, a group then active in the Veneto region, and counting amongst its more prominent members Mariarosa Della Costa and Leopoldina Fortunati.

The whole of this fourth issue of Le operaie della casa was given over to a long document that, in criticizing the views of the dominant camps within the contemporary revolutionary left (particularly those based in Italy’s North), offered a quite different outlook as to how social conflict should be prosecuted there and internationally. The document was divided into sections: after an introduction that parodied Mao (“Great is the disorder in comrades’ heads; the situation therefore is worrying”), a sustained polemic was outlined against “The New Strategy” proposed both by leading autonomist organizations (above all, the Rosso group led by Toni Negri, and the Senza Tregua group led by Oreste Scalzone and others), as well as by circles associated with fragments of Lotta Continua (e.g. the journal Ombre Rosse) and sections of the feminist and anarchist movements (although who precisely of the latter is being criticized is not clear). Topics addressed included development, underdevelopment, and revolution, with many autonomists being accused of a blind worship of “the productive forces” aimed at setting the waged and unwaged to further toil after “the revolution”; the newfound enthusiasm within much of Autonomia for “building the party” and “seizing the state,” and what the consequences of that approach might again be for the weakest sections of the class; and finally, the flaws of those feminist groups who opposed the politics of wages for housework advocated by Le operaie della casa.

We present here excerpts from the original document in Le operaie della casa, concerning women’s autonomy, “seizing the state,” and the related question of “counterpower.” While acutely aware that the circumstances of Italy forty years ago are profoundly different to those we face today, it is hoped that this material’s appearance will spur others to re-examine the debates of those times (and to themselves translate more of this and other relevant documents of the seventies) – debates which raised a number of important questions, many of which remain unanswered in any practical manner.

– Steve Wright

Women: The Third World in the Metropolis1

The flaw discrediting the whole outlook of our male comrades is that once again, in crisis just as in development, their eyes are locked solely on the factory, and thus they make an inevitably distorted assessment of the forces the class can mobilize against the attack of capital. In fact, just as they fail to see the struggles of the unwaged in the Third World, likewise they do not see the struggles of unwaged workers in the metropolises, and therefore cannot see the variety of the trenches from which the workers’ counterattack departs today.

This outlook continues to ignore, thus, that in the crisis itself a movement of women has developed on an international level, which on the terrain of the wage and the refusal of work has undermined the mechanisms of accumulation in a fundamental way. This movement consists of all the struggles which have always been invisible in the eyes of the left (see the decline in birth rates at the international level, the escalation in the divorce rate, the number of families headed by a woman, and of the women who abandon the family – now one in three in the USA – the number of illegitimate children, etc.) It also includes all those struggles that, insofar in as the left recognizes them, it considers acts of counterculture – the lesbian women’s movement, for example. In reality all these struggles are struggles against housework. These movements have been able to commit to an international level precisely because they have been sustained by a massive conquest of money for this labor. Sure enough, having our own money is for women an unavoidable condition for our ability to refuse dependence on men, and to refuse, therefore, our own work. This we reiterate for everyone who still tells us today that the struggle for “liberation” is not reducible to any one demand, and having money is not what is most important, but rather “transforming the everyday.” But with our pockets empty and constrained to personal dependence, it is very difficult to take back our lives and transform our social relations. Not by coincidence, the massification of the struggle for wages and the massification of the refusal of housework go hand in hand. Thus not only has a big cut of the so-called “public spending” of many states (see welfare in the USA, Canada, England, New Zealand; the “familial salary” in France, etc.) been meted out to compensate domestic labor on the waves of women’s struggles, but actually more and more the state has had to invest in the reproduction of labor-power.

But the more women have negotiated money with the state the more they have managed to refuse housework and dictate different conditions. Furthermore the massification of prostitution (upon which more than 10% of the population in Italy survives, according to Corriere della Sera) demonstrates the refusal of women to supply unpaid domestic labor – in this case, sexual labor. In this direction advances the very significant struggle that prostitutes are carrying out in the USA, England, France, and Spain, etc.

That this kind of struggle, this political subject remains unseen indicates all the limits characterizing the outlook of the left. The NAP2, differently than many others, sees in the prostitute – insofar as she is an extralegal proletarian and a precarious worker – a potential revolutionary subject, but only if she goes to prison. Only with the experience of prison, according to NAP, can the extralegal proletarian overcome uncontrolled, anarchic individualism to discover a collective identity, overcome uncontrolled consumerism (“easy” money squandered on exclusive, trivial luxury goods), to discover a revolutionary political position. From here it is a short step to the rhetoric of the Red Brigades, for whom nothing helps “raise consciousness” like a stint in prison, according to the old “the worse, the better” discourse.

Does Lyon3, for these comrades, mean nothing to the history of the class struggle? These same prostitutes they consider unbridled individualists and consumerists, redeemable for the class struggle only through prison, have occupied churches, gone on strike, attacked the state with very clear demands. They have called for decriminalization against the restructuring plan that would have them closed up in “Eros Centers,”4 and have demanded to keep their children with them, against the state control that de facto obstructs every social life, etc. In more and more towns the prostitutes are organizing as a movement. This movement, according to our male comrades, evidently does not exist?

We can direct the same question also to the comrades of Contropotere who write:

Ask the pundit in the big room pressing all the buttons what will happen before long, today, this evening. He’ll enjoy himself, comrades, with women we pay with labor, and he will bring them into houses we build, and he will use relationships we create working. (Contropotere N.O., September ’76)

Here the comrades are ostensibly berating the capitalist. In reality they are berating the prostitutes, who are immediately portrayed as leeches on worker’s labor, and not as workers in their own right who on a terrain of domestic labor have managed to charge for at least some of the tasks of this work. This is the same understanding for which in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mozambique the prostitutes were persecuted and mandated to “rehabilitate” themselves (that is, prepare themselves for “more productive” work) in actual concentration camps. This is after they were largely used (as women always are) during the wars for liberation, often to carry out very dangerous tasks. Particularly after all this, no one ever cared about how these women could survive economically beyond dependence on men, in war or not.

If this is the destiny into which “red capital,” just as “white capital,” has forced women – trying to close them in the Eros Centers, the sex factories, to increase their sexual productivity and at the same time isolate them from other women and thus restrain in some way the increase of prostitution – there is therefore is a significant connection between the plan of “white” capital and that of “red capital,” both aimed at attacking and repressing in any way the struggles of prostitutes in the world.

It is precisely the ignorance of this arc of struggles (if not the will to repress them) that has been the source of a great sense of defeat for the left regarding the current relation of forces between class and capital. This ignorance is also founded upon the left’s failure to recognize struggles that advance at different levels and with different organizational structures, for which our male comrades will always find the barrel of the gun more definitive than a factory invaded by children. This “difference” is rather always interpreted as weakness. It is not a coincidence that our male comrades have never recognized anything in the struggles of women, and (some) have begun to characterize us as a “proletarian force” (even if they are always ready to forget about us) only when they need to deal with our mass presence in the streets. First of all, unlike the male workers – who, when they “weren’t struggling” only represented “mere labor-power” – we women were little more than elements, sometimes pretty elements, of the natural landscape.

But if we must speak of our “weakness,” then we need to say immediately that if we as women do not represent a major force it is also because we have always found ourselves face to face with (and against) a left which has continuously repressed our interests. In this they are all in agreement, from the PCI5 to the “revolutionaries.” All accuse us of being backwards and blame us because we wouldn’t abandon our struggles – the only ones that would guarantee us real power – to line up at their sides. Let the comrades of the Red Brigades serve as an example: those who continue to dismiss our struggle against exploitation, contrasting it with a “class struggle” of which obviously we women never had any part.

Not until a woman lays claim to not only economic autonomy and the right to choose her own way of life, but also recognizes herself in the exploited class and begins a practice of class struggle…

Similarly in Senza Tregua of Naples:

it’s necessary to criticise the goal of wages for housework, which operates from a correct reading of the process of socialization of capital, productivity and housework, and is characteristic of a sector which is certainly at the vanguard in the theory and practice of women’s struggle. At the same time, the discourse of the refusal of housework, the challenging of that role, and the reappropriation of the political and social dimension, are not presented clearly by these comrades. This limit becomes more grave if we consider that, on the other hand, their aim does not take account of how the crisis closes political spaces for our demands, and that for the program of struggle for the wage as a moment of aggregation against development, we must necessarily substitute our organizational capacity to express power, to assert our will in the form of decree.

But if the left does not understand the profound anti-capitalist radicalism of the struggle of women for wages against housework, the state does very well. Today like never before, in fact, capital knows that undisciplined women produce undisciplined children, and that there is a direct umbilical cord between the refusal of cooking and the refusal of the assembly line, of the school, of the army.

It is precisely this struggle against work, upon which accumulation and the disciplining of the class are largely founded, that has compelled the state to invest more and more in the terrain of the reproduction of labor power. Thus the enormous growth of “public spending” has emerged at the international level.

In fact, behind the process which our male comrades define as “tertiarization” there is in large part the socialization of various tasks of housework (social assistance, “collective mothers” etc.), the immediate consequence of which is the increase in the cost of labor-power itself. nd it is precisely this increase, that is, the need to invest more and more in the reproduction of living labor, which constitutes one of the fundamental factors of the present crisis of capital.

It is not enough to examine the massification of the refusal of women on the terrain of housework. We must also understand what there is behind the organizational difficulties which workers today encounter in respect to their struggles and the refusal of their work. It is a fact, for example, that in addition to the male worker’s defense of the wage at the price of the intensification of work, women refuse to bear the brunt of the intensification of housework to avoid the lowering standard of the family. (The other example of this refusal is the great crisis of the family in the USA with the massification of unemployment, in which women often abandoned their unemployed husbands.)

Similarly, fewer and fewer women are willing to function as footholds, like support pillars, to the struggles that men wage. This is true regarding housework as much as for political work. Without a doubt the fact that women are no longer willing to sacrifice themselves, compensating with their labor for the capitalist attack against workers, represents in the short term a moment of weakness for men. But only in the short term, because in reality capital has founded its authority over male workers upon the sacrifice of women. In fact, if women’s dependence on men represented a power for men who could always count on their jobs, it is alternatively true that it has represented a great weakness for men against capital, because having dependents has always signified a great disciplinary force in the workplace. So the fact that women will not subjugate themselves to plug up the leaks is in the long term a moment of power for men too, insofar as capital has played the power difference within the class against them too.

We hoped that our male comrades would have learned this lesson with the emergence of the Feminist Movement, which if on the one hand signaled a great organizational crisis for the comrades (they were losing their wives, secretaries, and woman-comrade maids), represented on the other hand a great leap of power for the whole class. But instead of gleaning from the emergence of the Feminist Movement some new strategic directions, our male comrades sought to repress this movement because it threatened their immediate interests; or they sought to use it, to instrumentalize it, for what had always been its projects.

New strategic directions, we have said. The first and most evident being that to go beyond the factory doesn’t mean falling into a void that only the assault rifle can fill. Rather it means to unite, and to recompose on the basis of the common need for wages with all these political subjects, which, starting with women, are moving on this terrain. Wages against housework, against precarious work, against school work, and against factory work, remain, in fact, today as always, the slogans of the class.

AND WE CAN WIN.

Concluding, what does the current crisis of capital amount to in our point of view? For us too it is a definitive crisis that signals the extreme limit of capitalist development. It is not because capital does not know how to resolve these organic contradictions, but exactly because the class has attacked the mechanisms of the reproduction of capital.

Seizing the State6

The discourse on the seizure of power translates more or less explicitly into the objective of “seizing the state.” “More or less explicitly” because while there is a great homogeneity in the comrades’ positions concerning the seizure of power, on the seizure of the state the positions are more nuanced: at least for now, or at least in words. The most explicit, as always, are the comrades of Senza Tregua:

The class constitutes itself as state [si fa stato], it seizes political power before rather than after the insurrection (Supplemento a Senza Tregua, 14 July 1976).

Apparently the opposite stance is taken by Rosso, whose members speak of the “extinction” of the state. Clearly, however, this is an affectation [piccolo vezzo], since historically the extinction of the state has never meant its destruction.

But let’s approach things methodically.

What is the State?

Le operaie della casa 3 of 3

For Marx and the Marxists, the State is the product of the irreducible contradiction between the working class and capital, and the guarantor of the primacy of capital’s interests. For this reason Marxists have always criticized Kautskyist (social democratic) conceptions of the State as an organ of mediation-conciliation of opposed interests, the conciliation-mediation of the struggle between the working class and capital. Lenin went back to Marx: the State must be destroyed. At the same time he envisioned, as an intermediary objective, the necessity of seizing the state and managing it, with a view to its extinction. Lenin, like Engels before him, started from the assumption that once the private ownership of the means of production had been abolished – in other words, once these means had become the property of the state (statified, nationalized) – the State in its capitalist-bourgeois function would no longer have any reason to exist. Meaning that its extinction would be the inevitable result of the statification of capital (indeed, Lenin’s struggle was against the anarchy of production).

In reality, capital is not abolished once it is simply nationalized and statified. Exploitation remains, even if the manager of accumulation and the class relation is the state in the immediate form of the party-technocracy. On the other hand, even in the socialist non-communist countries, the state has become the direct manager of capitalist development: the enterprise state. To take an example that affects us directly, in Italy at least 50% of capital is the property of the state (Montedison, ENI, IRI etc.). But there is much more to this. Not only does the state increasingly manage and control production directly; it is also the guarantor for capital of the reproduction of labor-power (and therefore the first organizer and controller of housework).

That the state is the boss of women and the controller-guarantor of the reproduction of labor-power can be seen directly in the fact that: a) it is the state that controls the family, the birth rate, immigration, emigration etc. through the promulgation of pertinent laws; b) it is always the state that intervenes to stand in [sostituire] for women every time the refusal of housework [lavoro domestico] deepens. Indeed, the struggle of women against housework is the fundamental factor behind certain transformations in the state.

Consider the progressive growth of state investment in the social reproduction of labor-power: hospitals, schools, mental health centers, controls at the neighborhood level through social workers, etc., that stand in for mothers and wives. Today, in fact, the state – far from the army/police/government as seen from Lenin’s viewpoint! – is incarnated first and foremost in those institutions that must organize, control and guarantee the reproduction of labor-power. But guaranteeing, organizing the reproduction of labor-power has also meant guaranteeing and organizing power divisions within the class. Divisions based upon the wage and being unwaged, and maintained through the control of the unwaged by the waged: men in relation to women, parents in relation to children, doctors and teachers etc. in relation to women and children. Today, in fact, every time a layer of the class controls and commands the productivity of another layer, it always incarnates directly the authority and function of the state, it is the state in relation to the layer subordinated to it.

Therefore the other essential characteristic of the state is that it is not only the product of the struggle between class and capital, and guarantor of the latter’s primacy. It is also the organizer and guarantor of the power division within the class between waged and unwaged, and guarantor of the primacy of the waged over the unwaged (beating your wife is not violence, beating your children is even less so).

What does it mean, therefore, to seize the state? It means quite simply taking charge of the mechanisms of exploitation, starting with the exploitation of housework in all its aspects (birth rates, regulation of sexual labor etc. – speaking of which, what will become of prostitutes in the new revolutionary state?). And, naturally, rationalizing them, and developing them.

We should add that the discourse on the seizure of the state reflects once again the nationalistic optic through which these comrades consider matters, an optic that can only be anti-worker in presupposing the class as a national rather than international class. This is equivalent to suspending [congelare] the revolutionary process, a process that is necessarily international given that the working class is international. Seizing command (the dictatorship of the proletariat) over the capitalist mechanism in a given country means engaging [riferirsi] with the social wealth present at the national level, rather than the social wealth accumulated internationally. It means navigating within the equilibria of the international relations between various capitalist sectors and state, in the process operating in a manner that remains compatible with such equilibria – the opposite of subverting the latter. This perspective of the self-limitation of struggle in terms of the international revolutionary process is already present in Senza Tregua:

Grasping the fact that the limitations imposed by the network of capitalist relations persist – still not having been subverted at the global level – assumes therefore the permanence of the social product’s commodity form, and thus the permanence of the valorization process… assuming by hypothesis the necessity of maintaining and increasing, for a certain number of years, at the rhythms indicated by Economic Theory [?], a quotient of gross domestic product (and therefore a fund of labor-hours to accumulate, with the aim of producing commodities), poses the question of how to distribute productive activity amongst the population (Supplemento a Senza Tregua, 14 July 1976).

This then is the sense of that “seizing the state” proposed today by many comrades. And this holds also for those who, more primly, speak only of “seizing power” while hastening to speak of the extinction of the state. But, as we have said, historically extinction has never meant the destruction of the state, but only the destruction of one of its particular forms as a means towards its rationalization.

Nonetheless, we can say that “seizing the state” is consistent with “seizing power,” as seizing power means “the reorganization of labor.” But this is once again the scrap heap of a communist strategy that has now had fifty years of working class refusal and irreducibility to embrace as its own.

China is at Hand: Or, the Areas of Counterpower7

The thematic of counterpower, launched by the Red Brigades, recurs persistently in the discourses of the comrades. It is based on the necessity that the class already posits itself and acts as an alternative power to the power of capital. Class indeed: as counterpower. A telling aspect of this proposition is the emphasis everyone places on the decree (counterposed to demands, which presuppose the permanence of capitalist relations) with which the class expresses its essential objectives: with which the class, in other words, legislates.

How is that proletarian counterpower which today represents the intermediary objective of the whole Movement made concrete? The discourse is rather nebulous, but always revolves around the formation/construction of Areas of Counterpower, modeled on the one hand on “no go” zones (liberated zones on the model of Ireland and Angola), on the other hand on the experience of self-management:8 that is, the self-management of particular structures and “political spaces”.

The most concrete in this regard are the comrades of Senza Tregua, who think immediately of the direct management of appropriated/liberated factories for the production of arms and of means of subsistence:

Thus, if today it was possible, in factory x located within territory y, to promote forms of “provisional workers’ government” on a territorial scale (assemblies, councils, equipped to carry out their own decrees on a whole “packet” of questions: prices and tariffs; factory staffing levels and hours; the production goals for small units that generate wage goods for small scale circulation (for example bakeries, pasta makers etc), the distribution professional services on the part of non-working class occupations (doctors) etc. …) (Supplemento a Senza Tregua, 14 July 1976).

And again:

Production for subsistence, production for combat: within the conquest of these overarching terms, a process can develop through which the proletariat begins to construct the autonomy of its social dictatorship, in power… (Senza Tregua 25 March 1976).

And again:

We must build the power to occupy and set to work factories able to produce the means of subsistence and of struggle! Outside, against the reformist fantasies of self-management, we must begin to demonstrate the explosive force of a new revolutionary working class discipline (Senza Tregua 25 March 1976).

It is self-government at a local level that is proposed here; despite the comrades’ exhortations, this does indeed incarnate the reformist fantasies of self-management. In fact self-management, the self-government of the local territory, like the perspective of liberated zones that we must defend with arms, makes it possible, under the illusion of self-control, to justify a politics of misery [miseria], of self-help, of making do with what is to hand. In both cases it is the self-management of one’s own poverty [miseria] (see the experience of the Chinese communes). And it could not be otherwise, because when one’s own area, rather than wealth at an international level, becomes the reference point for what can be obtained, one winds up necessarily with the autonomy of one’s own misery. As a consequence, one falls into the proposition of austerity, of the limitation of needs: and this holds whether one is talking of areas of counterpower, or of the seizure of power, or of the self-government of the producers.

Linked to the theme of self-management is the envisioned end of the division of labor – and, in particular, the end of the division between manual and intellectual labor.

We can say straight away that this discourse also conceals a further intensification of labor. Not only will they make us work, not only will they exploit us, but they will make us plan the forms and manner of our exploitation. As in the communes, this classic model of socialism – with the elimination of the division between “worker,” “supervisor” and “planner” – will not only intensify labor, but has attempted and will continue to attempt to contain class conflict, making workers internalize and directly manage their own control and disciplining.

We women know quite a bit about this, given that we have always had to self-manage our kitchens and bedrooms. And we have always performed both manual and intellectual labor, since not only have we had to sweep,9 clean plates etc., but we have also had to plan the whole family’s budget and activities [vita].

After all, not only women, but the class as a whole, has always used self-management. In the office, the factory, the school, workers have always been responsible for the organization-division-cooperation of labor, covering for each other when someone is absent, dividing up the work to make it more bearable, etc. But self-management has always been used as a defensive, not an offensive weapon – let alone as a strategy.

As we have seen, the thematic of self-management is central to the objective of counterpower. This is a point upon which there is convergence between two of the Movement’s tendencies – the Leninist and the anarcho-libertarian (Situationist, Dadaist) – that are contradictory only in appearance. This should come as no surprise, since the antagonism traditionally expressed at the level of ideology between Stalinists and anarcho-libertarians has always been resolved harmoniously in practice (in this regard, Lenin had seen the cooperative as a model of socialist labor).

In fact there is complementarity, not contradiction, between the thematic of seizing the state, and the thematic of counterpower. There is no contradiction between the perspective of a centralized planning of production and the self-managed decentralization of its execution. Not only do all the contemporary experiences of capitalist organization demonstrate that the more command is centralized, the more is execution can be decentralized, but the very experience of realized socialism has always posed these two prerogatives as complementary.

On the other hand, the anarcho-libertarian dream of self-management (starting from local self-government) has never been in contradiction with the seizure of power, because the anarcho-libertarians’ disinterest for the state is a disinterest not only for its seizure, but for its very destruction. As historical experience has shown, the libertarian left has never represented a force against the state; it has been integrated, as we have said, in all the communist labor plans (see also the experience of the socialist communes, modeled precisely by anarcho-libertarian examples).

This integration has always occurred because there is a fundamental agreement, starting from a common identification in labor, on the necessity of managing, controlling one’s own production, according to the ideal of the artisans who express their creativity through their own labor. As a consequence there is a common agreement in considering the wage as a terrain that has been surpassed in terms of the class struggle. In its place, the anarcho-libertarians have substituted the self-management of the personal: that is, the transformation of production starting from the ambit of the home and familial relations – “the transformation of daily life.” It is in this sense that we must read their “NO” to the reproduction of the family (which is a complete “no” of money to women), by which they understand “reclaiming life.” In the place of money they offer us cultural revolution (a revolution of language, of signs, as well as a sexual revolution, etc.), that is a new alternative model of living – one that can be realised immediately, because it costs nothing, apart from a bit of good will, a lot of mental elasticity, a lucid increase in awareness [presa di coscienza] – and, obviously, a spirit of mimicry [imitazione]. In particular, it is backward to get married, to live as a couple, to have children etc. – and this holds for men as well as women, given that is has been decreed that we are equal.

It’s clear how the anarcho-libertarians use this “decreed equality” between men and women to palm us off, we women, and to close down our process of struggle against men. Which is why, looking at the length and breadth of the liberation for which they yearn reveals the true meaning for them of “women’s liberation.” They are AUTONOMOUS, yes – but their autonomy is not from capital but rather from the CLASS, starting with women.

It is this fracture between the problem of daily life and the daily problem of money that the future pink/reddish bosses are seeking to recompose, united in refusing money to the class, starting with women. Instead they offer us a reheated version of the same old stuff of a “new consciousness” (which, as we know, costs nothing, beyond some small individual effort) – the reorganization of our misery.

Mapping the Terrain of Struggle: Autonomous Movements in 1970s Italy

The most recent capitalist offensive has sparked a vibrant new wave of struggles over the question of social reproduction. Water, housing, education, to name only a few, are now decisive sites of confrontation, and activists across the globe experiment with new tactics, forms of struggle, and models of organization.

In some ways, our renewed focus on social reproduction shares interesting parallels with the “Italian Revolution” of 1968-1980, the most radical upheaval in postwar Western Europe. For while originally firmly anchored to the struggles of the factory proletariat, many movements began to wage a multitude of struggles beyond the point of production, developing class power on what was called the terrain of social reproduction.

In fact, each phase of the political evolution of the autonomous social movements was characterized by its focus on social reproduction issues, such as self-reduction campaigns on shopping, energy bills, and public transport, often in conjunction with the more radical sections of the unions in the early to mid-Seventies. Housing occupations and rent strikes became important in the mid-1970s as the crisis of Fordism-Keynesianism deepened, particularly in Rome where Workers Autonomy was strong in the urban periphery. Reproductive struggles were also carried out by students on school, university, and education issues. As the decade wore on, youth in the new, smaller, and more repressive post-Fordist factories of the Milanese hinterland began to organize themselves more outside of work and in the social territory as the “Proletarian Youth Circles,” defying the national-popular logic of PCI-championed austerity politics by demanding access to luxury goods, services, and cultural products, not just the basic means of survival, as their parents had. And as factories were restructured and decentralized, involving the laying off of tens of thousands of industrial workers and the automation, robotization, and elimination of their posts, social movements of the unemployed, particularly in the less developed South, or Mezzogiorno, began to make a guaranteed social wage (salario sociale garantito) for all, both working and unemployed, their central demand. But the most important reproductive labor struggles were those of Wages for Housework and other feminist and women’s movement campaigns for the self-valorization of the social reproduction of the workforce by women, particularly housewives, sex workers, and nurses.

While we must certainly forge our own political forms today, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Much has changed, but many of these issues remain as crucial as ever. In this context, critically revisiting the robust arsenal of political struggle bequeathed by the Italian movements of that era can provide us not only with inspiration, but also models to help guide us as we find our own way.

Theorizing Social Reproduction

The aim of this brief summary of the theoretical debates on social reproduction within Italian Autonomist Marxism and the part of the feminist movement closest to it in political and theoretical terms, above all the group of feminist intellectuals and activists around the Wages for Housework campaign in Italy and internationally, is to outline a theoretical framework within which to analyze the autonomous struggles on social reproduction in 1970s Italy. The main nodes of these debates are seen as Italian workerism, post-workerism, post-autonomism and, for want of better terms, workerist-influenced and post-workerist feminism.

Karl Marx’s rather limited discussion of reproduction and circulation in Capital Volume II was taken as the starting point by Antonio Negri and others in Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, the main workerist publications of the 1960s, to develop their analysis on the relationship of reproduction with class antagonism. Negri was one of the first workerists to identify the antagonistic nature of reproduction as part of social production, rather than just circulation within capital, while criticizing his more orthodox comrades, such as the PCI-based Mario Tronti who continued to reduce the problem of reproduction to circulation, as indeed had Marx:

we would be forced to reduce the Marxian approach to the issue of reproduction to a question of circulation: this would be absolutely illegitimate – even though it is common, especially within Italian workerism … In fact, the constant upheaval of the terms of class struggle from within the workers’ struggle and capitalist restructuring demonstrates exactly the opposite: the terrain of reproduction is dominated by the antagonistic categories of production and the process of production does not disappear in the commodity but re-emerges in all of its elements (as identified by Marx rather than Smith) in the reproduction of capital and workers’ struggles.… The working class, through its struggles, motivates capital to restructure production as well as reproduction (which is increasingly equivalent to social production).… At the current level of class struggle, worker organization only emerges when the struggle can have an impact on factory production and from there be transferred onto the whole mechanism of reproduction of social capital.1

This criticism of Marx, orthodox Marxism and even of some sections of Italian workerism over the question of reproduction in fact owed much (although not apparently acknowledged by Negri) to previous debates within Italian and later U.S.-based workerist-influenced feminism. Silvia Federici took Marx and all forms of Marxism, including operaismo to task for ignoring or underestimating the central role of social reproduction as both sexual reproduction and unpaid domestic labor in capitalist accumulation and from there in class antagonism. Referring also to a broader feminist critique of Marx, based on the work of the activists of the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s, such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, Leopoldina Fortunati, and more recently of the Australian eco-feminist Ariel Salleh, and the Bielefeld feminist school of Maria Mies, Claudia Von Werlhof, and Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen, Federici states that

this critique argues that the analysis of Marx on capitalism was hindered by his incapacity to conceive of an activity as being productive of value unless it was for the production of goods, and his consequent blindness before the meaning of the unpaid reproductive activity of women in the process of capitalist accumulation. To ignore this activity limited his comprehension of the true extension of the capitalist exploitation of work and the function of the salary in the creation of divisions within the working class, beginning with the relation between women and men. If Marx has recognized that capitalism needed to support itself, not only in an immense quantity of unpaid domestic activity for the reproduction of the work force, but also in the devaluation of these reproductive activities with the aim of reducing the cost of the labor force, possibly he would have been less inclined to consider capitalist development as inevitable and progressive.2

As an at least partial riposte to such a critique, the Italian workerist theory of the “social factory” can be seen as an attempt to go beyond its originally exclusive focus on factory-based autonomous struggles to include the related movements of 1968-69, particularly of students, and of working-class community struggles over reproductive issues such as housing, bills, and transport, although the central role of women in the social factory is again brushed over. In Italy in the early 1970s the extraordinary wave of autonomous workers’ struggles launched during the 1969 “Hot Autumn” within the centralized Fordist factory were gradually being rolled back by tactical capitalist retreats and strategic reforms, such as the Factory Councils and the 1970 Workers Charter, and the fulcrum of social conflict began to shift towards the “social factory,” leading Tronti to extend his factory-centered approach over the rest of society, so defining the social factory as:

At the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation becomes a moment of the relation of production, the whole society becomes an articulation of production; in other words, the whole of society exists as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over the whole of society.3

Thus, the “social factory” theory did not deal sufficiently with the feminist critique of Marxism in general and operaismo in particular, as neither did Negri’s theory of the “socialized worker” (operaio sociale), supposedly the new antagonist subject of the post-Fordist social factory of decentralized production, given the neutralization of the struggles of the “mass worker” in the Fordist factory of centralized production in the early 1970s as alluded to by Tronti in the previous paragraph. Although Negri developed his theory of the socialized worker in the early to mid-1970s, the period of the rise of both radical feminism and Workers Autonomy as social movements based, in quite different ways, on issues of social needs and reproduction, his attempt to lump together women and other emergent social antagonists of the period within a “general theory” was received with skepticism and accusations of lack of analytical rigor within Autonomia itself, never mind the feminist movement, although his critics, in this case at least, can in turn be accused of empirical fetishism:

(y)our interest for the “emergent strata” (proletarian youth, feminists, homosexuals) and for new, and reconceptualized political subjects (the “operaio sociale”) has always been and is still shared by us. But precisely the undeniable political importance of these phenomena demands extreme analytical rigour, great investigative caution, a strongly empirical approach (facts, data, observations and still more observations, data, facts).4

Self-Reduction and Social Reproduction Struggles in 1970s Italy

The huge wave of working class unrest begun in the “Hot Autumn” of 1969 continued unabated, reaching its peak with the armed occupation of the gigantic FIAT Mirafiori plant in Turin in March 1973 by a new generation of even more militant workers, the Fazzoletti Rossi (Red Bandanas), who organized autonomously even from the vanguardist groups of the New Left. However, from then on the effects of technological restructuring, redundancies, and the unions’ recuperation of consensus and control through the Factory Councils began to dampen down the autonomous workers’ revolt, which nevertheless continued at an exceptionally high level, compared to the rest of Western Europe, until the end of the decade.5 The largest outbreak of industrial unrest in Italy since the “Red Biennial” of 1920-21 soon spread to working class districts, where the emerging women’s movement, along with students (an increasing number of whom came from the working class since the advent of mass scholarization in the early 1960s) and the New Left groups became active in the self-organized neighborhood committees (comitati di quartiere) which organized rent and bill strikes, the self-reduction (autoriduzione) of public transport tickets and housing occupations to demand an overall improvement in working class living standards, as the growing economic, oil, and stagflation crises of the mid-1970s began to be felt.

Ironically, while the broader movement of Autonomia was gaining strength during the decade, its historical antecedent since the early 1960s, the autonomous workers’ movement, went into decline. This development was theorized by Negri, as the result of the “decomposition of the mass worker,” induced by industrial restructuration, and the “recomposition” of the new central actor in the class struggle, the “socialized worker,” situated more in the social territory outside and around the Fordist factory.6 This post-workerist theory was to prove highly controversial within Autonomia and its still workerist intellectual milieu, accentuating the divisions between Negri’s circle around the journal Rosso and Sergio Bologna’s around Primo Maggio, whose analysis continued to privilege the struggles of the industrial “mass worker.”7

One of the most important examples of social reproduction struggles in the “social factory” was the autoriduzione (self-reduction) campaign in Turin in 1974 where working class communities organized to pay self-reduced fares on public transport, involving the printing and issuing of their own tickets; a struggle in which radical sections of the trade unions, especially the PCI and PSI-based CGIL, were also engaged.8 Similar struggles took place over community control of reproductive needs: low-cost social housing, regulated low rents, and secure tenancies in the private sector, domestic energy consumption bills charged at the same low rate as industry, and “free” or “proletarian” shopping in supermarkets as depicted in Dario Fo’s 1974 play “Can’t pay! Won’t pay!.”9 Later on in the decade leisure and luxury needs became paramount for young urban proletarians, especially in Milan, as part of their critique of and opposition to the division of labor between the “right” to basic needs for the working class and the “right” to luxury and privilege for the bourgeoisie: self-reduced or expropriated eating out in expensive restaurants in the city center, the demand for and sometimes direct practice of free access to any kind of culture, whether it be a Lou Reed rock concert or an art house movie.10

These broader social reproduction conflicts were allied to the struggle of the women’s movement against the nuclear family as the site of the division of reproductive labor and domestic work, and for control of their own bodies and lives through more liberal and properly enforced divorce and abortion laws (many conservative doctors in the public health service refused to carry out abortions under a clause permitting “conscientious objection,” some while continuing to do them clandestinely in their own “back street abortion” clinics) and the democratization and feminization of medical and social services. Other forms of self-reductive and social reproduction struggles took place in the early and mid 1970s through housing occupations and rent strikes, particularly in the outskirts of Rome, a particularly hard-fought conflict by the homeless, marginalized youth and unemployed proletariat, which became one of the early focusing points of Rome Autonomia.

Reproductive Labor Struggles and Wages for Housework

Some ex-Potere Operaio theorists, active in the feminist movement, concentrated on the category of unpaid reproductive labor, which was seen as vital for the reproduction of living labor and therefore capital, particularly Dalla Costa and James on women’s unpaid housework,11 and Fortunati on reproductive labor as both housework and sex work.12 On the basis of this research, a section of the women’s movement close to Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua, Lotta Feminista,13 began a campaign known internationally as “Wages for Housework,” linking up with Selma James’ campaign in the USA and later Britain.14 In June 1974 Rosso (the weekly newspaper of Milanese “Organized Workers’ Autonomy”), as part of a debate between those demanding wages for housework and those who saw this as a “ratification” of housework, published a report by the Padua Committee for Wages for Housework on three days of discussion with the feminist movement in Mestre, near Venice.15

A large number of housewives, teachers, shop assistants and secretaries had gathered to denounce their triple exploitation by their employers, their husbands and the State, rejecting the misery and appalling conditions of work that all imposed: “Our struggle is against factories, … offices, against having to sit at a check-out counter all day … We are not fighting for such an organization of work, but against it.”16 They rejected the view of the political parties and extra-parliamentary groups that women’s emancipation lay in external paid employment, instead demanding that the State, whose most basic cellular structure was the nuclear family, pay them wages for their unpaid housework since they were reproducing and caring for the next generation of its citizens and workers, as well as for the old and infirm. They also denounced the inadequacy of the few “social services” provided, the lack of crèches and nurseries for housewives as well as for employed women, and the objectification and abuse of women’s bodies by the “masculinist” public health system. They called on women to reclaim their bodies and take control of their lives:

We women must reject the conditions of pure survival that the State wants to give us, we must always demand more and more, reappropriate the wealth removed from our hands every day to have more money, more power, more free time to be with others, women, old people, children, not as appendages but as social individuals.17

Milan was the main center of the women’s movement and women in Rosso and Autonomia often found themselves torn in two directions by their “double militancy.” They contributed to the debates on violence and subjectivity both within feminism and Autonomia, from the position that “violence, [understood as aggressive self-assertion as an antidote to patriarchal representations of female passivity and subordination], is a basis for subjectivity.”18 Otherwise, the principal areas of intervention were the factory and the refusal of work (together with Lotta Continua’s Women’s Collective), discrimination in the workplace, deregulated informal work (lavoro nero), prisons, sexual violence and machismo within Autonomia and the overall “Movement,” as well as the body and health. Action was taken in hospitals, over the unequal doctor-patient relationship and the denunciation of those doctors and medical centers that refused to carry out abortions, and of the service in general which victimized women and did not meet their actual health needs. Another area of intervention was international “solidarism rather than solidarity,” based on the feminist practice of “starting from yourself” (partire da se). They were also in touch with radical separatist feminists, who used psychoanalysis for “consciousness raising” and were close to the Radical Party, although relations with the broader feminist movement with its emphasis on the private sphere, consciousness raising, and non-violence, were conflictual. A joint action of denunciation of the Catholic Church’s negative impact on women’s control over their own bodies and lives was the occupation of the Duomo, Milan’s main cathedral and the religious symbol of its official identity. Other actions were taken to contest the stereotyping of women in patriarchal capitalist society as passive consumerist sex objects, including against wedding dress shops and dating agencies. They also participated in Lea Melandri’s “Free University of Women,” where housewives and intellectuals carried out an interclassist work on the representation of women in capitalist society. The crossover between Rosso and radical feminism produced two magazines itself, Malafemina and Noi testarde,19 making the “politics of the personal” and the questioning of gender roles part of Autonomia’s collective identity, although disagreement with Organized Workers’ Autonomy’s “workers’ centrality” position was permanent.20

School and University Struggles

The post-workerists of Autonomia also saw the cognitive labor of students as essential to the reproduction of the highly skilled sector of the work force ( the “general intellect” of Marx’s Grundrisse) and of cognitive capital as intelligence and knowledge, their studies for a higher entry into the labor market being considered as unpaid reproductive labor. This was one of the theoretical innovations that helped operaismo in 1968-69 to break down the historical divide between two of mature capitalist society’s main antagonist groupings – the industrial working class and the hitherto mainly middle-class university student – and build the alliance which was to form the basis of the Hot Autumn and the “Long Italian ‘68.” Here again the question of class composition would be crucial in explaining the arrival of the students as a mass movement, not simply for the much-needed reform of the university system but for the radical transformation of society. As the Italian economy expanded and society urbanized during the 1960s there was a growing need for qualified professionals, technocrats, and bureaucrats in both the public and private sectors. Thus, the social basis of university recruitment was widened to include large numbers of working class students. Simultaneously, the “Miracle” of unprecedented economic growth and relative prosperity since the 1950s meant that many working class families could afford for the first time to put at least one child into higher education who could then aspire to socially upward mobility.

However, despite the center-left reforms of the 1960s, the education system was completely unable to meet such aspirations, becoming one of the main causes of the 1968-69 Italian students and workers uprising, according to Robert Lumley.21 By 1974, there were mass mobilizations of school students and their parents, particularly women, throughout Italy against the dilapidated and under-funded education system, one of the first areas of public spending to be affected by post-Oil Crisis austerity measures.22 Both parents and children demonstrated and occupied schools left empty in protest against an acute shortage of classroom space, equipment, materials, and teachers which left large areas, particularly in the poorer South, operating part-time education with a shift system. Worse, inflation and austerity measures forced the price of schoolbooks beyond the reach of many working-class families. While Malfatti, the Christian Democrat Education Minister, ordered the sacking of militant Left teachers, the overall number of teachers was reduced as 600,000 prospective teachers applied for 23,000 positions.23 The government’s running down of the education system in working-class areas was balanced by its introduction of the “Schools Councils,” made up of delegated parents, teachers and students, with the aim, similar to the Factory Committees with regard to industrial action, that “they would institutionalize the struggle in the schools and re-establish political control by the right-wing.”24

The education cutbacks were also seen as a political attack on a key social antagonist, which had allied itself closely to the overall autonomous workers’ movement since 1968. In October 1974, 45 secondary schools and adult education colleges in Turin went on strike in solidarity with the FIAT national strike of October 17 and 4,000 students and teachers marched through the city center to picket the main gates of the Mirafiori plant. An analogy was drawn between the number of people losing their jobs and the rising number of working class children being failed in exams and expelled from the education system. The same month there were school strikes and demonstrations all over Italy making the common demand for an end to part-time schooling, smaller classes, immediate building programs for new schools and classrooms, no reduction in the number of teachers, improved hygiene, and facilities, local councils to make available funds they were holding back, free transport, books, and equipment for students, and free day centers for preschool children. Links were made between the committees campaigning against the education cuts and the autonomous workers’ movement.

In Rome, 3,000 construction and engineering workers joined a demonstration against education cuts. Students and workers set up joint commuter committees to oppose the increase in public transport fares. Women were especially active on this issue, as they were on virtually all social issues in the mid-1970s, the peak of the mass mobilization phase of the women’s movement, marching on schools, organizing pickets, occupying classrooms, setting up road blocks, all with the demand for better schools and day-care facilities.25 These mobilizations were self-organized with the participation of Autonomia, the New Left groups, particularly Lotta Continua in the South, as well as some of the unions, but were otherwise characterized by their autonomy from and hostility towards the political parties.

Another important element in the youth movement of the mid-seventies were the “autonomous student collectives” (ASC). In the secondary schools students and parents demanded and practiced direct participation in decision-making, which had previously been regulated by institutionalized electoral rules and representative bodies. So were born in the early 1970s the ASC, one of the social bases of Autonomía and the ’77 Movement. They organized strikes, occupations, the “trial” and expulsion of fascists, and autodidáctica (self-teaching) where students in dispute excluded their conservative teachers and taught themselves, sometimes for months. Increasingly, conflict in and outside high schools took place not only against the FUAN and other neo-fascist youth groups but also with the FGCI, the PCI’s youth wing, and with Comunione e Liberazione, a fundamentalist Catholic youth movement. In the most radical situations, autonomous students effectively “liberated” schools from their function as total institutions for the inculcation of capitalist integrative values based on work and the family, converting them into prototype “social centers.”26

Social Autonomia: The Socialized Worker in the Social Factory

One of the key aspects of Autonomia that separated it from the “bureaucratic legalism” of much of the New Left groups was its practice of “mass illegality” through housing squats, occupations of public spaces, the self-reduction of cultural as well as social costs, and forms of social expropriation such as “proletarian shopping.” The New Left, which continued to privilege struggles at the point of production, attacked this as “subproletarian” adventurism. Autonomia’s lauding of “proletarian illegality against bourgeois legality” as an aspect of the “refusal of work” extended to micro-criminal behaviors; the individual circumventing of the law in everyday life, typical of the Italian proletarian arte di arrangiarsi (art of getting by), particularly in the South where poverty and mass unemployment were rife. Here, Autonomia meridionale (southern autonomy) became a diffused social force among workers, the unemployed, and their communities, although relatively ignored by the late-1970s’ press campaign against Organized Workers Autonomy, based more in northern and central Italy.

The “area of diffused Autonomia” (or social autonomy) was the broader movement of workers, students, women, and youth, who preferred to develop their antagonism to capitalist society through a horizontal network structure, guaranteeing the autonomy of each sector and local reality from any attempt at unification and homogenization within a national party structure, and therefore in opposition to the stated aim of the Organized Workers’ Autonomy tendency of the need to create a “Party of Autonomy”27 This “autonomy of the periphery from the center” was closely linked to Autonomia’s different social composition (a mixture of “subproletariat and the intellectualized proletarian labour force. (…) The invasion of the university students without a future.”28 ), compared to that of Potere Operaio and the broader autonomous workers’ movement, which were based on the mass worker:

One can talk about the autonomy of workers who tend to deny their survival as such and to assert their life as communists, of the autonomy of the proletarianized who reject the mercantile-spectacular society, placing themselves against it (nobody believes outside it).29

Organized Workers’ Autonomy, contrasted with the “area of social autonomy” and other new social movements. However, the disparate and localized basis of even this more formally organized sector of Autonomia, which attempted unsuccessfully to privilege the party form, if under a different guise, had contrasting local characteristics and social compositions in its principal locations: in Milan, more linked to industrial factory struggles and the newer post-Fordist productive circuits, but also to struggles around reproduction and the self-reduction of social costs; in Padua, around the students’ movement, public transport and youth issues, but also involved with struggles in the Autonomous Workers Assemblies, post-Fordist factories and sweatshops; in Rome, where a more “populist” and council communist-influenced version militated among the unemployed and marginalized youth of the urban periphery, but also among the growing number of service sector workers, with a strong emphasis on internationalism.

Its Milan-based national newspaper Rosso took an increasing interest in social reproduction struggles:

[Rosso’s] greatest novelty consists in the awareness that the factory (…) is not the only terrain where the initiative of struggle has to develop. Other previously neglected social conditions assume an increasingly important role: those of women, youth, and the marginalized, never considered before as political subjects. Not immediately political but fundamental themes and problems are faced, such as personal relationships and the “general conditions of life.” Subsequently, the newspaper individualized three different sectors of the public to address: the factories, which the section Rosso fabbrica was devoted to, consisting mainly of interventions by the autonomous committees of various factories (Porto Marghera, Alfa Romeo, Zanussi etc.) (…); Rosso scuola, that included both the broad debates and news of the various high school committees; “Rosso tutto il resto,” where space was given to sectors of the youth movement organized outside the groups and of the feminist movement, that were fighting against marginalization. (…) [It] was one of the first magazines to deal with the transformation (…) from the mass worker of the big industrial concentrations to the socialized worker of the diffused factory in the territory. (…) This new political subject was to have its moment of maximum expression in the ‘77 movement. At the beginnings of 1978 the magazine identified four sectors of intervention and debate: 1) directly productive work, “for the reduction of the working day and for the conquest of time freed from work”; 2) public spending, “as the central moment of capitalist control and the reduction of the costs of social reproduction”; 3) the nuclear state and the production of death; 4) the legitimization of revolutionary action, against the repressive apparatus that the statemobilizes for the perpetuation of its dominion.30

“Diffused” and “creative” Autonomia, parts of the “autonomy of the social,” were composed of counter-cultural, unemployed, and semi-employed urban youth, students, radical feminists, homosexuals, and the cani sciolti (“stray dogs,” unaffiliated militants and activists). Youth and graduate unemployment reached crisis levels in the mid-1970s. Many young people consciously chose to avoid even looking for work (let alone the “refusal” of the late 1960s). Increasingly, they fled from the suffocating patriarchal authoritarianism of the traditional Italian nuclear family to live collectively, often in squatted flats and occasionally in communes.31 They survived partially through “black market jobs”32 and partially through mass expropriations of food from supermarkets and restaurants, but also through the “self-reduction” of bus fares, rock concerts, and cinema tickets:

[It was] a swarming process of diffused organization whose real protagonists were young proletarians, marginal to the organized autonomous groups, but inserted into dynamics of spontaneous, magmatic, uncontrollable aggregation.33

The experience of the “Proletarian Youth Clubs” (PYC/ circoli proletari giovanili) was centered in the metropolitan periphery, such as the Quarto Oggiaro and Sesto San Giovani districts in Milan where the effects of the mid-1970s economic crisis were worst felt. The satisfaction of the more complex aspirations of the individual had to be achieved “here and now” and not postponed to the future election of a leftist government or the aftermath of a socialist revolution. Likewise, there was no demand for “the right to work,” but instead one for a “guaranteed social income.” The ethics of self-sacrifice, austerity, and the “dignity of labor,” central to the PCI’s projected “moral culture” and economic strategy, were rejected in favor of the “right to luxury” in the depths of Italy’s worst postwar economic crisis, which the PCI sought to force the Italian working class to accept as “theirs” and not just of capital. Rather than demands, there were diffused behaviors and practices, such as espropri proletari (proletarian shopping) and self-reduction, but now of restaurant bills and cinema and rock concert tickets, as well as of transport costs and household bills: “The superfluous [was] at the center of [their] demands to the indignant consternation of politicians and journalists, intellectuals, and industrialists.”34

An extreme version of the ideology of consumerism was proposed, including the need and the right to consume all kinds of products whatever the extant economic circumstances. Indeed, even among the more libertarian sections of the social movements like the counter-cultural magazine Re Nudo (Naked King) there was preoccupation over the “death of [the collective ideals of] proletarian youth,”35 as this new, more individualist youth culture, based more on “subjectivity” than “solidarity,” overwhelmed the boundaries of the post-1968 counter-culture at the Parco Lambro Free Festival in Milan in June 1976. The expropriation of alternative products, the protagonism of the spectators rather than the performers, feminist separatism and the growing visibility of the heroin problem led to the Festival’s implosion and seemed to signify the end of the ideal of the collective transformation of the status quo.36

The event that presaged the ’77 Movement was the riot by the PYC and others from the “area of Autonomía” outside the La Scala opera house in Milan against the first night of the opera season in December 1976, the first display of a new kind of violence, more of urban youth gangs than of classical extreme Leftism, expressing the “prepolitical” anger of the unemployed, marginalized youth of the “dormitory suburbs,” riddled with despair and a heroin epidemic, against the politics of austerity and sacrifice:37

[This] year the first night at La Scala is – for the Milanese middle class – an occasion of political affirmation over the proletariat and a display of force (…) it is an insult against the proletariat, forced to make sacrifices so that the bourgeoisie can go to its first night. The first night at La Scala is a political date today. The proletarian youth present themselves, together with the women [’s movement], as the detonator and cultural vanguard of the detonation of the present equilibriums of power between the classes, but there is something more than 1968. The logic of sacrifices is the bourgeois logic that says: for the proletarians pasta, for the middle classes caviar. We claim our right to caviar: … because nobody can ever convince us that in times of sacrifices the bourgeoisie can go to the first night but we can’t, that they can eat parmesan but we can’t, or they can even force us to starve. The privileges that the middle class reserves for itself are ours, we pay for them. This is why we want to defeat them and we do so as a matter of principle … The right to take possession of some privileges of the middle class has been a new element since 1968, yesterday rotten eggs today self-reduction … Grassi, “socialist” and director of La Scala has told us that it’s all right to make the middle classes who want to go the first night pay 100,000 lira a head, so that cultural production can be financed; we reply that the first nights’ takings must go to the centers of struggle against heroin, that culture must be for proletarians.38

Movements of the Unemployed for a Guaranteed Social Wage

A major section of the movement of the organized unemployed in Naples also became part of “Autonomia meridionale,” the relatively forgotten part of the movement in the less developed South. It was among the self-organized unemployed movements in Naples and Catanzaro that “Autonomia meridionale” made its greatest impact, through the demand for an adequate “guaranteed social wage” from the State to counteract the social devastation caused by endemic unemployment and economic underdevelopment. The historical struggles of the unemployed for work in Naples, Italy’s poorest major conurbation, and throughout the Mezzogiorno, appeared to be in contradiction with the movement’s refusal of work. In fact the unemployed were seen as performing “unpaid labor”: through their necessary “job search” for a source of income they unintentionally depressed wages in the South and ultimately throughout the national economy as a reserve army of industrial labor, so performing a vital function for capital. The Naples unemployed were well aware of their objective capitalist function, leading them to campaign through sometimes violent mass marches and pickets of the city council’s offices for a “guaranteed social wage” and increased welfare, so that they would not be forced to accept depressed wages and could delay their entry into the labor market if necessary.

Mass unemployment also wreaked havoc with working class communities in the industrial North that were used to secure, rising incomes during the previous 20 years, and there was a significant increase in the number of suicides among redundant factory workers in cities like Turin in the early 1980s. However, for the “No Future” generation of the “socialized worker” and in particular for the ‘77 Movement, unemployment was seen as an inevitable fate which could be turned into a positive personal and collective opportunity given the right conditions: not only to “refuse work,” but also to found what Virno has called the “society of non-work,” based more on “exodus” from work as the defining identity-formation experience than resistance to work in the workplace.39

How successful this campaign of refusal to be blackmailed by unemployment was remains unclear. The implosion of Autonomia and most of the new social movements in the early 1980s, the sharp rise in heroin addiction and the suicide rate among under-30s, and the search for individual neo-mystical solutions through membership of religious cults seems to indicate an extensive collective psychological crisis due to the loss of the solidarity and bonds of communities of struggle (including those based in the workplace), resulting in much higher levels of individual atomization, alienation, and despair.40 An informant describes the “implosion of subjectivity” he witnessed on returning to Padua from abroad in 1979 to find the piazzas deserted, where previously young people had socialized almost permanently during the ‘77 Movement, now replaced by a withdrawal into private life, heroin addiction, and compulsive television viewing.41

Occupied and Self-Managed Social Centers

The occupied and/or self-managed social centers (centri sociali ocupati/ autogestiti /CSO/A) which started to appear in Milan and Rome in the mid 1970s were the main response by the autonomist movements to the crisis of social reproduction of those years, as they sought to provide social spaces for working class youth and their communities to start providing for their own reproductive and cultural needs, with the withering of the welfare state as industrial restructuring and austerity policies began to bite. Since the late 1980s, as post-Fordist globalization deepened and the neoliberal policies of public spending cuts, privatization of public services and the deregulation of the economy became the norm, they have become the “red bases” of the second-wave autonomist movements in Italy, Europe and elsewhere, as autonomism globalized as one of the major components of the “alterglobal” anti-capitalist movement.42

Often squatted and sometimes conceded public buildings, such as disused schools or factories, were taken over by groups of youth, usually from the area antagonista (the post-1983 successors of Autonomia) or anarchists, but also by extra-comunitari immigrants from Africa and Asia, as well as by anti-fascist football fans, to use as meeting places and centers for the provision of alternative social and educational services, as well as cultural and political activities, given official negligence in providing such facilities. Originally, a social phenomenon almost unique to Italy, where squatted housing was much rarer than in other European countries, it mushroomed in the 1990s, resulting in over 100 CSO/A in all the major cities, although many have since been evicted and shut down, particularly by the highly repressive hard right Berlusconi governments after 2001.

The Proletarian Youth Clubs were instrumental in establishing the first squatted and self-managed social centers in the peripheral Milanese working class districts, originally as meeting places for youth deprived of any services or spaces by the city council. Most were either closed down by the police or fell into disuse once heroin addiction reached epidemic proportions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of the first to be founded in 1975 (by New Left and Autonomía activists, rather than the PYC with which it had poor relations) was the Leoncavallo occupied social center, which based itself on the immediate social and educational needs of its local neighborhood and in opposition to the property speculators who were already “gentrifying” the center of Milan, inviting local people to discuss how to use the space:

The last city administration never worried about meeting our demands and on the other hand they have never even used the funds paid by industries for social use (1% of local rates). The experiences of the workers’ movement and of those in recent years in the neighborhoods have taught that only mobilization and struggle produce concrete results: as in the factory or in the [self-reduction] of rents and electricity and telephone bills. [T]hinking that only struggle is able to resolve the problems of our neighborhood, the base organisms of the neighborhood have occupied and reactivated the [unoccupied] factory in Via Mancinelli and have also invited the new democratic [red] ‘”junta” of Milan to show in practice its wish to meet the social demands of a popular district such as ours by allowing the social use of the occupied building. (…) Here is a preliminary list of the social structures which are insufficient in our district or even completely missing:

– A CHILDCARE FACILITY

– A MATERNAL SCHOOL

– AN AFTER SCHOOL

-A PEOPLE’S SCHOOL

– AN INTERCOMPANY CAFETERÍA

– A MEDICAL-GYNAECOLOGICAL CLINIC

– A LIBRARY

– A PEOPLE’S GYM

– SPACES FOR PEOPLE’S THEATRE INITIATIVES, MEETINGS,

DEBATES, CULTURAL AND SOCIALIZATION INITIATIVES.

With the building occupied, if we are supported by a mobilization of the whole district we can cover some of these requirements.43

Conclusions

The significance of the 1970s Italian struggles for today’s social reproduction struggles is undeniable, both in theoretical and practical terms, particularly at such a “dark moment” in recent human history when questions of social reproduction, self-reduction and expropriation are once more to the fore. They not only offer an example how social reproduction can become a focal point of movement activity and mobilization in the face of the face of rising policies of austerity and capitalist restructuring, but also provide concrete strategies for connecting this terrain with other spheres which could appear separate: struggles of the unemployed, factory occupations, and industrial labor militancy. In this sense, social reproduction was a nexus, a crucial link, in the chain of building a renewed class power – one that extended from the workplace to the school, from the home to the occupied social center. Moreover, the organizational forms that developed – a dense network (“swarm”) of community councils, clubs, committees, and assemblies – were sufficiently flexible so as to be easily adapted to the divergent urban contexts of Rome, Milan, and Turin. Again, this should not be taken to mean that we can transport these political experiences directly to our present problems; it means, rather, that the autonomous social movements of 1970s Italy are a living laboratory open to investigation, and involved a series of accumulating cycles of struggles that demand careful historical analysis. In other words, tracing the internal trajectory, shifts, and tendencies of these collective experimentations could give us a solid basis for approaching how to politically organize on the terrain of social reproduction today.

Precarious Intimacies: The European Border Regime and Migrant Sex Work

The combination of migration and sex work often evokes images of sexual violence and exploitation associated with sex trafficking. Mutilated, imprisoned, and silenced young women and children populate the media headlines around trafficking. Many activists and scholars have begun to criticize the proliferation of the sex trafficking discourse and the way it has begun to dominate current discussions on prostitution and sex work in general.1 They recognize that the extent of sex trafficking is exaggerated and that trafficked persons do not form a majority of persons in prostitution. It is clear, then, that the trafficking framework is inadequate to the task of describing the variety of experiences of labor and exploitation in the field of commercial sex: the problems migrants encounter in this field are more often related to the institutional structures of immigration and the implementation of prostitution policies that restrict and prevent possibilities for autonomous work and access to alternative spheres of labor than to individual traffickers.

This essay provides a theoretical and conceptual framework to discuss the role of borders in creating living and working conditions for sex workers within the European border regime. This regime both restricts and enables a structural background for migrant sex work. Following the formulation of Enrica Rigo, borders need to be viewed as institutions that produce social relations.2 I categorize these relations as precarious intimacies in order to describe the ways in which intimacy, commerce, and borders often intertwine in the lives of migrants engaged in commercial sex work. In order to better flesh out this concept, I draw upon insights gained from my fieldwork among and interviews with migrant sex workers in Finland, as well as long-term participation in providing legal counsel to migrants with Freedom of Movement, a grassroots migrants’ rights network in Finland.

Escape and Coercion, Mobility and Precarity

Sex work is a migrant-dominated field in Europe. A recent mapping shows that a majority – 60 to 90% – of sex workers in Europe are migrants.3 A study of one hundred sex workers conducted by the London Metropolitan University, found immigration status to be one of the most important factors impacting working and living conditions for sex workers.4 My encounters with migrant sex workers during the 18-months of fieldwork I conducted in Finland indicate similar conclusions.5

While sex work is not criminalized in the majority of the European states, migrant sex work is often regulated through immigration policies. In Finland and Sweden, for example, selling sex is a sufficient reason for deportation, and in many countries immigration officials are part of the policing of sex work. Also, in countries where sex work is legalized, like Austria or the Netherlands, working permits for migrants coming outside the EU in the sex sector are unavailable or very difficult to obtain. This creates “double” markets where migrants work in more precarious sections. If we want to understand the condition of migrant sex workers in Europe and the factors that make their exploitation possible, we need to examine the role of contemporary European immigration policies and how they intersect with prostitution policies.

Questions of agency need to be accorded a central place in public discussion of both migration and sex work. Migrants are often conflated with the circumstances they struggle with, such as poverty. The multiplicity of their desires and reasons for migrating are easily flattened down to the push-and-pull of structural factors.6 The feminist debates around sex work and prostitution, the so-called “sex wars,” evince this problem of agency in theorizing sex work, and the situation becomes even more complicated when sex work and migration are brought together. The dominance of trafficking discourse has meant that migrant sex work is mainly conceptualized in the context of sex trafficking or “modern slavery,” which reduces migrant sex workers to a simplified image of victims that are exploited by individual evildoers, such as traffickers or clients. Seeing sex workers only as victims obstructs their struggles and negotiations in regards to restrictions of movement, constraints in the labor market, and economic survival.

To make matters worse, trafficking discourse also sidelines the institutional and structural framework that makes the sexual exploitation of migrant workforces possible in the first place: immigration controls, visa requirements, lack of labor protection, and other measures mediated via the nation-state. Sex workers’ rights activists and feminist scholars have pointed out that instead of granting rights and labor market protection for people in sex work, this victimization results in demands for carceral prostitution and immigration policies and the increased involvement of the criminal justice system.7 Or alternatively, this sexual humanitarianism lends itself the moral urgency of a raid and rescue mission.8 Analysis must avoid rendering migrants as victims while not disregarding the structural constraints that they meet in their work and movement. Feminist conceptualizations of precarization offer a fruitful starting point to discuss the tension between the structural constraints that the border regime imposes on migrants and the way migrants negotiate these constraints.

The concepts of precarity, precariousness, and precarization have become popular in current public and academic discussions around the ongoing changes in the capitalist mode of production, working conditions, and modes of life in general. Many theorists and social commentators refer to these changes by tracing the shift from a Fordist to a post-Fordist organization of production and labor force.9 These concepts refer to the same ongoing social processes and their effects in contemporary Western societies, but carry slightly different meanings: as adjectives, precarious and precarity can refer to the shared ontological vulnerability of life,10 or to socially produced conditions of precarity.11 Precarization, on the other hand, refers more precisely to the social processes that expose people to precarity and produce precarious conditions.12 Researchers and social commentators have mainly applied precarization to the sphere of employment, where it is understood to relate to atypical or irregular jobs. However, precarization also has a deeper and more comprehensive meaning, referring to the crises traversing the support mechanisms that sustain modern social life, as well as the institutions that bring stability and continuity to life: the welfare state, education system, and wage labor. Precarization means processes which produce a lack of protection, insecurity, instability, and social or economic vulnerability.13

Feminist theorizations of precarization emphasize the multifold characteristics at work within these processes: many aspects of precarization are bad (vulnerability, insecurity, poverty), some good (accumulation of multiple skills and knowledge, creating of new networks) and some are ambiguous (mobility, flexibility).14 Precarization, in this light, is inherently contradictory and potentially creative, not simply as a forced condition.15 Feminist conceptualizations of precarization thus enable us to capture the vexed nature of sex work and migration as both forms of agency and as life strategies, as well as processes that are subjected to various forms of control and governance.

Jukka Könönen has described precarization as a process that separates what people are capable of doing to do from what they can do.16 In the lives of migrants especially, precarization limits the possibilities of action and turns efforts that strive for an independent and satisfactory life into survival struggles. As a consequence, migration is one way to escape insufficient economic conditions and to create a more independent and pleasing life.17 This escape should not be conceived as only reactionary, but as an active decision to improve one’s life. Immigration policies and labor market restrictions, however, set the conditions for this escape.

Borders – the spaces where these policies and restrictions are materially condensed – often strip migrants of their acquired and accumulated resources like education, profession, and expertise. Borders compel people to resort to making use of their embodied resources, like language skills, sexuality, or assumed gendered and racialized characteristics.18 Beverley Skeggs provides a means of conceptualizing this strategy by urging us to view gender and sexuality from an angle that would not reduce them to objects or properties of identity, but as resources that can be deployed and combined in various ways.19 Many of the sex workers I met are relatively well or highly educated, but they have not been able to capitalize on their education and skills in migration because of their legal residency status, Finnish language proficiency requirements, restricted access to labor market, and problems in education accreditation.20 As a result, it is intimacy, in the form of gendered sexuality, that becomes the means of acquiring mobility and income. Intimacy, then, assumes a double function: it is both a resource and a source of precarity in many migrants’ lives, a dual nature I try to capture with the concept of precarious intimacies. The majority of the sex workers either migrate with help of temporary visas to do sex work, or, if they are more settled migrants, they had often initially arrived through marriage and later ended up in sex work. Marriage or other intimate arrangements with former customers are also central to the sex workers’ residency strategies.

Contradictions in the Composition of Migrant Sex Workers

“Like citizenship itself, noncitizenship is a complex and divided condition.”21

The Schengen agreement is the basis of the common European border regime. It guarantees the free movement of European Union’s citizens and permanent residents, and removed internal border controls inside the Schengen area. A visa to one Schengen country guarantees free movement within the Schengen area. Many of the sex workers I met during my fieldwork in Finland use the possibilities of free movement to find more satisfactory forms of income. As one Latvian woman traveling to Finland put it: “It is big money. Not so big, but bigger than what you can get if you just work in some small shop or in some factory. Of course this money is bigger.” Most of the sex workers met in Finland are circular migrants, who travel between their country of residence and Finland. They had often worked in several EU countries, and were highly mobile.

Immigration policies form different opportunities of movement and income for migrants depending on their country of origin. The majority of the sex workers in Finland come from Russia and former Soviet countries. One reason for this is that it is relatively easy for Russians to get a tourist visa to the EU, unlike migrants from African or Southeast Asian countries. Large income differences between these countries and the central and Northern European EU countries make cross-border sex work a lucrative option for migrants. For many, sex work is a way to finance their studies, home renovations or other temporary projects, or to support their children while they are growing up. Working abroad also offers a possibility to do sex work in an environment where there is little danger of the nature of their labor to be exposed to their social circles. The majority of the migrants said that they don’t sell sex in their country because they want to avoid the stigma attached to sex work, they only do it while traveling. Migration enables innovative forms of income and possibilities of better life, but at the same time, immigration policies restrict the possibilities for creating permanent living situations and access to other spheres of income besides sex work.

Sex workers also find themselves in different positions depending on their race or ethnicity, working environment, age, gender, income security, and support networks.22 All these factors affect the working and living conditions of the sex workers. However, for migrants one central structural factor that defines their working conditions and level of precarity is their residency status.23

Migrants selling sexual services reside in Finland on either a permanent Finnish residency permit or citizenship; a tourist visa; EU citizenship of another country; a temporary Finnish residence permit (based on study, work, or marriage); another EU country’s residency permit; or without a permit (undocumented). Each of these statuses is associated with a different set of rights. I have illustrated the dispersion of rights between the various permit categories in the following table:

Niina

The major groups selling sex in Finland – Ethnic Finns, Russians, Estonians, Nigerians, and Thais – are all in different positions. The differences are not primarily due to their ethnic group affiliation or cultural belonging, but because these groups have different kinds of residency permits. Russians most often reside on a three-month tourist visa, Estonians are EU citizens, Nigerians typically have a residence permit in another EU-country, and Thais are mostly former marriage migrants and therefore usually have a permanent residence permit in Finland.

Enrica Rigo has noted that the contemporary European border regime’s “main function is less concerned with ‘separation’ than with ‘differentiation.’’’ Rigo refers to the fact that contemporary border controls and immigration policies have detached borders from their pure territorial function.24 Rather than simply separating people, contemporary borders differentiate them by creating different legal statuses based on a person’s residence permit status. This differentiating function of borders is extended within the nation-state through the residency permit and visa system.25 Könönen has theorized how borders produce a hierarchical fragmentation of the legal subjectivities of people residing in the same area.26 Borders thus do not only draw territorial delimitations, but also boundaries of difference between individuals: in other words, boundaries of status.27 Residency status defines migrants’ right to work (access to formal labor markets), the length of their stay and their deportability, meaning their vulnerability to removal from the country.28 In addition, residency permit status defines the access migrants have to state services.29 In a welfare state like Finland, such services are a significant benefit and reduce dependence on sex work as the sole source of income, which for sex workers translates into less of a need to see clients and more control over what kind of clients they receive.

Crucially, circular migrants do not have access to welfare state services or standard housing markets. They often reside in hotels or rent rooms through their networks, which can cost two or three times more than the standard housing market, plus travel costs. Circular migrants also experience the economic strain via increased stress: they work more often, sometimes having none or one day off a week. As such, they have less control over their working hours and conditions. When under economic stress, circular migrants are more likely to sell services cheaper and to clients that other sex workers wouldn’t receive, like men who are drunk or perceived as difficult. The fluctuation in commercial sex income is high and circular migrants don’t have the buffer of welfare benefits.

Another important factor that affects the position of sex workers is labor market access. Migrants residing with tourist visas, mainly Russians and visiting Thais, and those with another EU country residence permits – mainly Nigerians, who especially were eager to get “any kind of job” – are practically excluded from the formal labor market. To take one example, a 31-year old Nigerian women with residence permit based on asylum in Spain explains her situation in trying to find another job:

I would like to stay in this country, if I would get the papers in this country. I don’t know if I can do this job [sex work] because I don’t like this job. I can try my best to live. The job, it’s difficult. But in Spain it’s very difficult to stay. And in Spain I cannot live on the job, but here I can live on the job. […] I’d like to sell something in a shop. I like to do hairdressing or clean, I like to take care of old people. Anything I can do to have money to live my life. That’s what I want.

To have access to the labor market, third-country nationals need to apply for a work permit, a task is almost impossible if you do not have strong personal networks to rely on, which many migrant sex workers do not. To apply for the permit, the employee needs at least a six-month-long work contract from the employer, at near-full time hours. Because they can’t start working before the permit is processed (which usually takes three months), the employer has no inclination of how this person is as a worker. Immigration policies and restrictions on labor market access in part “trap” this group of migrants into sex work, even if they would prefer to do other kind of work. Hence labor market restrictions can function as an institutional form of immobilization of these migrants.30

For these individuals, the fact that sex work constitutes their only source of income means that they have less control over their working pace, choice of customers, and overall working environments. To add to these constraints, if they are suspected of or caught while selling sexual services, they can be deported. Even though selling sex is not illegal in Finland, it is a ground for deportation for third-country citizens. If a person is deported on those grounds, she or he might receive a denial of entry lasting from one to five years. Another Nigerian woman who has a residence permit based on asylum in Spain described the importance of documents and the way the fear of deportation affects her daily life:

Here we have fear. Here we have the fear of the police. I have pressure. My mind is bouncing always, I’m walking fast. I know that sometimes the police come, but not always. If you are walking on the streets here, sometimes they control you, check your ID. They will [deport and] ban that person to not to come here for four to five years […] That’s a reason why we’re afraid. If you have a European passport [citizenship], they are a little bit nicer – because most of people with European passport have a job here, they have Finnish documents. I’m not like them. They have two jobs, work in the street and work in factory. They don’t get shocked like me when they see the police.

Deportability and the fear of the police also affect the working conditions and safety of sex workers in other ways. When I talked with a Russian woman who has a permanent residence permit in Finland about difficult clients, she answered that she always tells her clients in advance that she lives in Finland permanently. This way, she says, the clients know that she is not afraid of police and cannot be threatened with calling the police like the ones who are on tourist visas: “They are afraid for their visa, but I am not afraid and they [clients] know not to make trouble.” According to an earlier study in Finland, clients who harass sex workers know that migrants coming from outside EU – Russians, Nigerians and Thais – have less protection from the law and therefore target these sex workers.31 In other words, the deportability of these circular migrants put them at a higher risk of becoming a target of violence.

Fear of deportation prevents sex workers from contacting officials in cases of violence or exploitation, and forces them to work in more hidden locations. This legal stratification of the field of commercial sex is further buttressed by racist policing practices. During my fieldwork in Helsinki, the police especially targeted black sex workers, and compelled club bouncers to use racial profiling by threatening the clubs with human trafficking accusations. This forced Nigerian women onto the streets and out of safe, social indoor nightclub working environments. A brief look at available statistics shows that the Finnish police also seem to have selective deportation practices. Although Russians outnumber Nigerians in the club and on the street scene, according to 2011-2014 police statistics on deportation on the grounds of selling sex, 70% of the persons deported were Nigerians living in another EU country, as compared to 30% of Russians on a tourist visa who are “equally deportable” third country nationals.32

From these necessarily brief snapshots, it’s clear that immigration policies have become part of labor market regulation.33 In combination with irregular migration processes, immigration policies help to form a labor force that is in a more precarious position and which then clusters to particular segments of the labor market. Stratifications emerge, producing people with different sets of rights related to labor market and welfare services. In short, immigration policies create particular relations to the labor market and produce institutionalized uncertainty for migrants’ lives.34 Combined with the legal regulation of prostitution in Finland, these policies result in a structural differentiation in the field of sex work.

Precarious Intimacies

This focus on the border regime allows for an understanding of how it produces people residing within a nation-state with differential rights, differential access to the labor market, and variable access to the services of the state.35 These differential rights have a structural role in the differentiation of the commercial sex sector, as well as in determining how migrants use intimacy in their migration processes. However, through another optic, intimacy and intimate relations can be viewed as resources – as workable and effective strategies – in these women’s aspirations to create more satisfactory and independent lives from their position of structural disadvantage.

For migrant sex workers with precarious legal status, intimate relations are a way to stabilize their residence in the EU. Many of the migrant sex workers see finding a husband or a rich lover as a great accomplishment. Marriage is the most solid way to obtain a permanent residency permit and a future in Europe. Many sex workers see a European husband as a means for greater material security and a better future. Marriage grants access to the state-provided rights and services, which can be significant not only for the current life situation, but also for future well-being.

In one example, a Russian sex worker had made a marriage arrangement with a Finnish man 20 years older than she in order to receive a permanent resident permit. She said that they do not live together, she wants to have her own independent life. Instead she visits her husband regularly, and while visiting they share different kinds of intimacies: sex, dinners, hanging out watching television and the like. She told me that they are not in love, or at least that it has never been love from her perspective. Instead there is a “long friendship and mutual understanding between them,” and she clearly had warm feelings towards her husband. This woman described her husband as “a generous friend who was helping her” and she said that she has been “lucky in that sense.”

The institutional framework of immigration regulation, however, often reduces women’s autonomy in these intimate arrangements and exposes them to different kinds of vulnerabilities and gendered relations of dependency. According to the Finnish Aliens’ Act, a person has to be married for four years before receiving a permanent residence permit. Sometimes women are literally “counting the days.” One day during my fieldwork several sex workers were celebrating with hugs. I asked a woman what was the cause for revelry; she explained to me that one woman had received a permanent residency permit after being married to her husband for over four years. The woman’s residency permit was no longer dependent on her husband. She seemed to have loving feelings towards her husband and was not planning to divorce him or to end the relationship. Rather, the women were celebrating the fact that she had gained an equal position in a relationship: a certain dependency on her husband had ended.

Some husbands use their position of power to restrict the independence of their wives. For example, some men do not want their wives to work outside the home or take Finnish language courses. The border regime produces further dependencies on spouses. Some current or former husbands take care of all the practicalities concerning their wife’s life, like unemployment and welfare benefits, communicating with the authorities regarding residence permit applications, healthcare, and overall finances. In the case of a divorce, this dependency often turns against the woman. For example, the husband of one Thai woman had not applied for her permanent residency permit even though she was entitled to it. The husband knew that once she had a permanent permit, she would no longer be dependent on being married to him for her residence.

Other forms of precarious intimacies fall short of formal marriage. In one case, a Russian woman’s client had become her client-lover. The client was already married and therefore could not marry her in order to grant her residence permit. Instead, this woman’s lover organized a job for her in his company so she could receive a work permit. She, however, did not actually work at the office – instead they had an intimate arrangement where she was his part-time lover. Their arrangement worked well for some time, but the woman explained to me that at some point her lover became violent and jealous, and she ended the relationship after gaining a permanent residence permit.

Migration scholars emphasize that immigration policies produce precarity in the formal labor market through creating institutionalized uncertainty and burdening employment relations. This makes workers dependent on employers for residency permit sponsorship.36 But for migrants who are positioned in the informal labor market of commercial sex, immigration controls and the legal positions they carve out do not create particular relations of dependency to employers; rather, they produce gendered relations of dependency to customers, husbands, and lovers. Lauren Berlant writes that “at root, precarity is a condition of dependency – as a legal term, precarious describes the situation wherein your tenancy on your land is in someone else’s hands.”37 This etymological description of precarity effectively captures the situation of migrant sex workers: their tenancy was temporarily in the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. The lack of alternative modes of movement and income places migrant women into precarious intimacies: uncertain and shifting gendered relations of dependency that they use to advance their lives, but which also make them vulnerable to different forms of exploitation.

For the migrant women I encountered, intimacy, in the form of gendered sexuality, has become the main resource of mobility and income, as well as a strategy to stabilize their residence in the EU. At the same time that these intimate contracts or relations offer women an escape and a promise of different, less precarious future, they also create gendered relations of dependency and precarious forms of intimacy.

Conclusion: Borders and the Production of Precarious Social Relations

Borders are no longer institutions that solely separate the alien from the citizen. Instead of simple processes of inclusion or exclusion – legality or illegality – borders produce forms of differential inclusion.38 In other words, contemporary immigration policies have resulted in a complex system of residency statuses that are connected to differential sets of rights.39 This means a multiplication of the precarious positions that non-citizens occupy, such as asylum seeker, refugee, student, holder of a work permit, victim of a trafficking, or a family member. These statuses have a fundamental effect on the lives of migrants. Different statuses are connected to differentials in labor market access, political rights, as well as access to welfare and health care services. Trafficking and exploitation of migrant labor are manifestations of these differential rights and statuses.

Migrants working in the field of commercial sex are not a homogenous group that can be discussed in a citizen-noncitizen axis, or even the documented-undocumented dualism. Linda Bosniak has demonstrated that noncitizenship is a complex and divided condition in a similar manner to that of citizenship.40 This complexity of non-citizenship is an important factor in understanding contemporary field of sex work in Europe. Binary categories of citizen-alien or legal-illegal no longer capture the multiplicity of positions occupied by noncitizen sex workers within a nation space. Due to the changing nature of immigration regulation, border regimes, and racist police practices we now face a complex system of legal categories a hierarchical stratification of migrant sex workers.41

Borders structure migrants’ living and working conditions and possibilities, while also having a major effect on intimate life decisions. Migrant sex workers can use intimacy to create relationships that offer a promise of a different, less precarious future. But with the lack of alternative ways of movement, residency strategies, and forms of income, patriarchal relations of dependency and precarious forms of intimacy are also created. This points to the heightened meaning of borders in the contemporary world: borders have become important institutions in the reproduction of social relations.

Despite the fact that my observations are mainly based in Finland, the findings reflect broader transnational nature of the European sex industry. Finland’s immigration policy is not only tied to international humanitarian responsibilities but also to Europeanized border regimes and the global labor market. The residence permit systems, structure of labor markets, and the level of social security vary between European countries. But because the European Union has homogenized its immigration policies and the majority of European countries are bound by the Schengen agreement, there is a uniformity to situations in different countries. Many of the sex workers I encountered during my fieldwork have lived and worked in other European countries; some have citizenship or residency in other EU nations. The multiplication of borders, the proliferation of differentiated legal statuses of noncitizens, and the dispersal of rights are not limited to Europe or to Western countries, but reflect broader global changes in citizenship and immigration regulation. Borders have become a central element of the work and intimate lives of noncitizens, both within and beyond sex work.

Production, Reproduction, and the Problem of Home for Work

“Rural women are often the most forgotten participants in the economy,” responded economist Lourdes Benería to a 1977 internal report on efforts by the International Labor Organization (ILO) to implement U.N. declarations on women’s equality.1 “Rather than being ‘marginal’ participants in the stream of economic activities,” she asserted, “they are an ‘integral’ part of it.” After all, “they work long hours in domestic and agricultural jobs, and… perform essential activities to the economic system, namely those related to production of foods and services, either in the fields or at home, and those related to the reproduction of the labour force.”2 In recognizing the role of women from the “Third World” in economic development as spanning production and reproduction, Benería underscored a central problematic that is with us yet: the relation of home to work, the meaning of such terms, and their implications for the practice of care.

The ideological split between home and work in the industrialized West has obscured the ways that each realm shapes the other. It also shaped social policy toward “women in developing countries.” Contemporary political debate maintains an opposition between “mother” and “worker” as well as “work” and “care.” This division reflects a pervasive intellectual and political impasse pervading the organization of knowledge – our scholarship – as well as legal rules, government regulations, and union organizing. “Separate spheres” or “the cult of domesticity” long dominated histories of U.S. and European women, especially for the 19th century, even though most women had to labor hard, sometimes in the home, often outside of it, to maintain themselves and their households. They were subsistence farmers, wage earners, and housewives; some were domestic servants and slaves. Even when buying and trading through markets, they had to transform purchased materials into consumable goods. They aided in childbirth, nursed the ill, looked after children, soothed the afflicted, and watched over the dead. Care was interwoven into the fabric of daily life, whether or not they went out to work.3

But industrial capitalism and, in the case of the United States, its racialization, obscured interdependencies in celebrating individualism, promoting male breadwinners, and structuring inequality through gender, race/ethnicity, and class hierarchies. However, transformations in the larger political economy made the male breadwinner inadequate even for those classes, which included families with unionized men, that in the post-WWII years seemed to obtain this ideal. By the 1970s, the beginnings of neoliberal reordering, the dual breadwinner/female caregiver model came to the fore, which left poor single mothers with having to make due on their own with increasingly meager social assistance. Wage earning women began to employ migrant mothers to take up their slack in a new international division of (re)productive labor.4

In this context, by the 1980s, the deconstruction of women’s labors became central to a larger feminist project of dissolving these social constructions, especially the dichotomy of public (work) and private (home). Feminist scholars, especially those writing out of a left tradition, simultaneously set about to revalue work that appeared to be done out of love or obligation (and racialized when coerced out of slaves or ethnic minorities), and thus became underpaid when performed for a wage and devalued in the market economy.5 But whether care is really work continues to confound, shaping social policy and driving political movements.

Care certainly is a narrower concept than reproductive labor. As we learned from the Marxist domestic labor debates of the 1970s and 1980s, reproductive labor consists of activities that produce labor power – activities that transform raw materials and commodities bought with a wage to maintain the worker daily and generate future workforces through the feeding, clothing, caring, educating, and socializing of children. It is performed usually not for a wage and by a woman (as a housewife, though she might also be a wage worker at the same time).6 Care, thus, is one component of reproductive labor, not the same as housework but often performed with other domestic activities – and where the line is between care and housework isn’t so clear. Carework involves personal services for other people: activities that tend to the physical, intellectual, affective, and other emotional needs of partners, children, and elderly, ill, or disabled people. It includes tasks for daily life, including household maintenance (cooking, cleaning, washing, even shopping) and personal existence (bathing, feeding, turning over, ambulation). Sex-affective production can be part of care. It need not be heterosexual or homonormative. Such labor requires, feminist theorists across disciplines argue, “‘caring for’ while ‘caring about.'” To tend the environment of the abode or the body is to care for but perhaps also to care about.7

Who cares varies, and we might even imagine care as disruptive to a hegemonic order rather than central to its functioning. After all, care suggests interdependency, intimacy, and species worth. Nevertheless, the interdisciplinary literature on care still reflects the equation of domestic labor with oppression. It explains women’s responsibility for unpaid family care in terms of labor market segmentation (sexual division of labor), psychodynamics (women mothering reproduces women who give care), and social status (men don’t want to do it.). Some have addressed the movement of care from the home to other workplaces (schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and factories), especially in terms of the structure of welfare states and racial division of labor, while others consider care in terms of the work and family dilemma associated with “the double day.” These scholars ask how we as a society should organize care – who should care and who should pay for care, does care remain in the family or move outside of families, is it an individual, family, community, state, or national obligation? A few emphasize the relationship between employers of care and their employees, distinguishing between spiritual and menial housework in terms of mothers, servants, slaves, and low-paid laborers, highlighting the contradictions of immigrant women cleaning and caring for the affluent.8

The skills necessary for cleaning, cooking, laundry, childcare, nursing, and other tasks appear to be natural, their economic value obscured. Some would claim that such labor has use value, but not exchange value, and thus is valueless in a Marxist meaning of value. Others, notably Leopoldina Fortunati, would argue that care already is part of exchange, that the housewife (and the prostitute) both work for capital in reproducing the labor power of the male worker.9 But because of the way we in the West, notably the United States, generally regard such labor, when it moves out of the home into the marketplace, it loses status as a labor of love and becomes classified as unskilled work that anyone can perform, because women have undertaken such activities without payment. It becomes stigmatized for two reasons: first, it involves dirt, bodies, and intimacy; second, those who have performed such paid jobs are of lower status, often men and women of color and/or recent immigrants. Though such jobs need not be women’s, or immigrant women’s work, they have been historically. Characteristics of the worker still define the skill and value of the work.

This essay will proceed in three parts. First, I discuss the dismissal of domestic labor by liberal feminist Betty Friedan in her influential 1963 The Feminine Mystique as an ironic continuation of a Marxist project that equated women’s emancipation with leaving the home for employment outside of it. Second, I analyze a feminist blog discussion over the meaning of care in the United States as indicative of a continuing denigration of domestic labor. Third, I turn to struggles of home care and other domestic workers, whose invisibility hegemonic understandings of home and work have fed into. In their organizing campaigns for recognition as workers under the labor law, we find the equation of reproduction with production. Thus, finally, I end with thoughts on the primacy of production as our paradigm for progress, which leads me back to the prescriptions of Lourdes Benería and the ILO through the lens of Kathi Weeks’ critique of “the work ethic.”

“The Problem that Has No Name” Was a Problem

The Feminine Mystique reinforced, even as it reflected, the devaluation of reproductive labor. Its influence had a pernicious impact for those women who went out to work to perform care and other domestic occupations because it dismissed the worth of the housewife’s labors at precisely the moment when service industries began their economic ascent and so fed into the undervaluing of the women who dared to call themselves “Household Technicians” rather than domestic servants, who rejected the designation, “the help.” Friedan’s understanding of women’s emancipation – employment outside of the home – and silence on care – indicative of her limited concept of work – became prevalent by the late 1960s, just in time to maintain middle class consumption in the U.S. In the aftermath of global economic reorganization and the decline of the (white) male family wage in the subsequent decades, women needed to become breadwinners. Friedan offered a vision fitting for the times, even if that was hardly her intent.10

Liberal feminists like Friedan recast work as liberation in offering employment as the solution to “the problem that has no name.” Women had to become more than “just a housewife.” For housework, which Friedan equated with fit work for “feeble-minded” girls, was unworthy of adult women with “average or normal human intelligence.” While she does not speak of “care,” Friedan equally denigrates such activities through association: “wife, mistress, mother, nurse, consumer, cook, chauffeur; expert on interior decoration, child care, appliance repair, furniture refinishing, nutrition, and education” defines the “modern housewife” who is exhausted so she can’t “read books, only magazines” (25). Caring gets folded into “a world of bedroom and kitchen, sex, babies, and home,” all of which signify limits to women’s horizons (30). “Having babies,” physical reproduction, appears as the antidote to the housewife’s emptiness – nothing more, not the production of future labor power or a product of mother love.

Such a portrait captured the position of the white middle class who, more than other women, were at mid-20th century able to remain outside of the labor force and found paid work away from the home an attractive alternative to boredom within. These were the women whose access to education and other resources (including a white male wage) made it more likely that their work could be interesting and creative. But Friedan neglected the lives of most women who even in the 1950s and 1960s found that they had to work (often part-time) at a job, not a profession, not for joy but to make ends meet or to cement that middle-class life style.

Here lies the irony. Friedan was a woman of the left, a reporter for the progressive United Electrical Workers and the Federated News Service.11 But she learned the wrong lesson from the Communist and labor milieu she lived in during the 1940s and early 1950s. She embraced the dictum of Friedrich Engels in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) that “the modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife” and second, that “if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn”; and third, “the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry,” that is, women had to go out to work in order to join together in social struggle and work for the common good.12

Another Communist analysis existed, one eventually embraced by women’s liberation, but discredited publically and loudly during the time when Friedan was involved with left politics. In the 1940 In Women’s Defense, California activist Mary Inman asserted that housework, like factory work, was productive labor. Inman prefigured much of the later domestic labor debate by claiming that “widespread denigration of housework and child rearing” was what led to women’s subordination, not the economic function of the work itself that produced future and present labor power. Indeed, Inman contended that professional and business women – those who held the kinds of jobs that Friedan would tout as liberating – faced discrimination as women precisely because of the way that housewives were incorporated into capitalism, that the “subjugation” of the latter shaped the discrimination towards the former. Housewives engaged in “necessary social labor,” but they were indirectly related to production, with “no direct contact with their exploiters” because they “work only at home, and the means of exploiting them is clear only when we take into account the entire system of production.” As “a bearer and trainer of children,” that is, as a caregiver, she creates profits by producing future labor. It wasn’t a question of biology but one of economy. The work of all the separate households was “the pivot of the system.”13

Friedan offered a contrasting view that, in devaluing the labors of the housewife, denied the worth of the domestic servant. The logic becomes, if this labor is so worthless, so routine, why pay decently to not have to do it? The “Help” in The Feminine Mystique are in the background to the main action, the woman who employs them. Paid household workers are referred to as “cleaning help” (227, 234). Friedan sees that women can get along without such help, noting that “in the absence of servants,” when they were in short supply, during WWII, women figured out how to rearrange domestic labor to enter the labor force; they “pooled” resources, organizing work shifts so someone was around to watch the children, or they relied on nursery schools. But child care centers withered away and even those who could afford a “full-time housekeeper,” whose supplies were up, took on all the home labors themselves (176-177). So, while Friedan understood the significance of social supports for labor force participation, her solution was “a new life plan for women” (326), the (re)production of women through education, and not bringing carework and other forms of domestic labor into social production, away from their privatized position. Instead she pushed for some women hiring other women to fulfill home labors while leaving home for jobs.

Given these assumptions – that domestic labors aren’t really work and that women should go out to work – it isn’t surprising that even in the 1990s, Friedan insisted that the National Welfare Rights Movement was not feminist because it sought adequate income for poor single mothers, disproportionately black, to enable its members to reject the coercion of low waged work and government work programs (workfare) to stay home and engage in motherwork.14 For historically, black women were to be workers, not mothers, or the caregivers of other women’s children and homes, undertaking the work that no one else wanted to do, which by the 1970s increasingly took place in the service sector with the movement of reproductive labors to other workplaces. Black women’s refusal of such work opened up the use of immigrant women for home labors when more privileged women went out to work.15

Care≠Work

How does the current generation of feminist commentators regard domestic and care labor? Blogging on The Feminist Wire in March 2012, English and Women’s Studies professor Sara Hosey challenged the feminist framing of care as work by “Rejecting the Rhetoric of the ‘Second Shift'” as a move toward “Insisting on Equity.”16 Sociologist Arlie Hochschild famously referred to daily tasks undertaken for family – such as dropping off and picking up from daycare, cleaning the house, shopping for and preparing food, getting children to bed, washing clothes, packing lunches, and making ready for going off in the morning – as the “second shift,” hours of labor after (or before and sometimes as snatches of time during) employment.17 Much social science literature shows that, decades into the new feminism, women still put many more hours than men into these activities of self-care and social reproduction, so that in all kinds of heterosexual households they work the equivalent of an additional part-time job.18 On the basis of her own experience with a male partner who does half the tasks, Hosey rejected the term “second shift” as an inappropriate, indeed, degrading classification of care activities.

Hosey, of course, is not alone in wishing for an arena outside of capitalism, free from the market, where we can be who we wish to be and where “interpersonal relationships, caregiving, and cooperation” reign supreme. Notable feminist theorists of the welfare state, such as Nancy Fraser and Ann Orloff, have approached the commodification of care as part of a larger critique of neo-liberal privatization and its displacement of social responsibility to families and the market.19 Additionally, for many care theorists, the very term “carework economy” represents an oxymoron. For these philosophers and policy analysts, care and economy stand in for the “hostile words” of love and money, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer has critiqued this strand of thought, an inscription of separate sphere ideology with gendered attributes repackaged: women give care, men earn money.20

These feminist theorists bemoan an increasing commodification of aspects of life that they find should be private, intimate, and personal, such as tending to dependents, usually defined as the frail, ill, and young.21 Philosopher Virginia Held typifies such arguments in regarding “caring work as enabling those cared for to know that someone values them” and for “expressing social connectedness… contributing to children’s development and family satisfaction, and… enabling social cohesion and well-being,” all outside of market norms. Likewise economist Susan Himmelweit defends caring labor as a special kind of work involving relationship and emotional attachment so that “much of the quality of our lives would be lost if the imposition of inappropriate forms of market rationality turned such work into mere labor.”22 Policy analyst Deborah Stone notes that the rules and regulations of caring in the public sphere “promote disengagement, distance, and impartiality,” while discounting the love, partiality, and attachment that many develop toward those cared for. Most caregivers, she concludes, feel demeaned by the label “’worker,” for that implies managed, bureaucratic concepts in contrast to their own “relational and personal concepts of care.”23 In short, as historian Alice Kessler-Harris has charged, these complaints assume “that incorporating women into its [the economic market] competitive value system would negate female nurturing values,” thus, negating “the affective components of life.”24

Hosey joins those who ignore both the history of intimate caring labors and the consequence of state incorporation of care as central to the organization of production, reproduction, and inequality. Her concern is not with the commodification of intimacy, as documented by theorists of sex work, but rather with the negative consequences of care as work. As a consequence, by omission, she, like Friedan, belittles the struggles of care workers for respect and dignity. Hosey thus reinscribes class and race hierarchies even as she argues for gender equity.

This recoiling from the language of exchange and investment, which Hosey connects to the economic, occurs just as she links work with the economic (though these associations are not the only ones that work evokes). This move to the economic erases positive meanings of work. We don’t embrace economic man or woman; instead we think of the economic as cold, calculating, or unfeeling. Hosey couches the act of understanding “parenting as ‘work'” with the verbs “misconstrues” and “demeans.” Labeling care as work, she contends, willfuly misreads “an otherwise complex relationship that is, at its best, definitively loving and mutually-rewarding.” She refers to “larger rewards” than the monetary to explain time spent with family.

Hosey discusses parenting and housekeeping together as two aspects of the second shift. She demotes the significance of housekeeping by relegating it to “a quotidian part of life” and taking it away “from the realm of the serious.” She asserts, “there are better, more empowered ways to spend one’s time and money than scrubbing and polishing.” Here she replicates the division between spiritual and menial housework that black feminist theorist Dorothy Roberts found in the distinction between parenting and cleaning, the first performed by the white mistress and the second given to the black or brown maid, the first justified as mothering and the second devalued as toil. This separation reserves care for only some forms of intimate labor and justifies low pay for those aspects that remain as work – and the further stigmatization of racial/ethnic women that perform the less privileged tasks.25

It isn’t that Hosey has a narrow definition of work, though. She goes on to contrast housework with real forms of work outside of employment: “consciousness-raising and political lobbying, the thinking and writing and organizing that many of us have done and continue to do, often in addition to holding down paying jobs, picking up after ourselves, and spending time with our families.” These are activities that feminist theorist Kathi Weeks might lump under “Hours for What We Will,” but others might name community and creative labors.26

There are consequences to such thinking, the equation Care≠Work. Midway in her essay, Hosey admits that she is talking about “cleaning one’s own home” and doing other household tasks “not for pay.” Focusing on unpaid forms of care and housework, nonetheless, obscures the relationship between unpaid and paid forms of care. The first informs the second and its devaluation. As sociologists Cameron Lynne MacDonald and David A. Merrill explain, careworkers suffer from “institutional misrecognition that defines care work as nonwork, as unskilled work, or female workers as nonworkers; as well as intersubjective misrecognition that bars them from equal access to social esteem by the accumulated psychic harms inflicted on them in interactions with others.”27

The Rising of the Domestic Workers

Such obscuring of the carer as a worker is particularly detrimental, then, not only because it offers a rationalization for poor compensation but also because it throws roadblocks against worker rights and unionization. As one domestic worker organizer explained during the 1970s battle in the United States for legal inclusion, “This is a gut woman’s issue. The reason we haven’t gotten our rights as a paid person in the labor force is because men think they can get their wives or girlfriends to do the job without pay.”28 This conflation has justified discrimination.

The law in the United States is particularly challenging in this regard. Unpaid carework garners no social security because there are no wages or recognized income taxed separately. Dependent housewives can gain husband’s pension benefits; after 1970s reforms and court cases, divorce transfers some social security funds to them if the marriage lasted long enough, but divorce no longer comes automatically with any compensation for intimate labors, including housework and childcare. The call for wages for housework never reverberated politically in the U.S., even though it exposed the economic relation involved. But an unintended consequence of the end of coverture, a demand of legal feminism that came to fruition in the late 1960s, was the end of alimony because men’s rights groups supported such and the monetary valuing of housework failed.29

Paid domestic work also stood outside of the labor law. In 1940, the law classified nurse-companions and other in-home care workers hired directly by clients as domestic servants and thus made them ineligible for old age insurance, unemployment, collective bargaining, minimum wages, maximum hours, or other labor laws.30 The extension of women’s work for the family into the market created an arena easily cordoned off as impossible to regulate.31 More important was the lack of powerful advocates for domestic workers and the racialism of New Dealers and their dependence on Southern votes. Professional women had a vested interest in a cheap supply of servants and most housewives did not view themselves as employers.32 Not until the 1950s would some domestic workers gain coverage under Social Security.33

Inclusion under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act proved more difficult. This was, in part, because, as one “manpower” expert explained in 1971, “the minimum wage is… needed as a floor to express the socially recognized ‘value’ of the labor rather than to meet the income needs of all family heads,” but home labor lacked value.34 Congressional myopia over the worth of such labor – along with the political economy of the South that benefited from depressing African American wages – prolonged the political work of inclusion. In both claiming housework as work and struggling against discrimination in the employment of women, organized feminism allied with domestic workers cleared the way for finally placing domestic work into labor law.35 In 1974, two years after professional women gained access, Congress included domestic servants in the wage and hour law.

These same amendments to the labor law ended up removing home health aides and attendants from coverage if hired by a third party, like a for-profit home health care agency. A definitional ruse, a designation as “elder companions” who were like casual babysitters, reduced the home aide to a friendly visitor, an interpretation of Congressional action by the Department of Labor at the time. The Supreme Court ratified what amounted to wage theft over thirty years later in 2007. The Obama administration in late 2011 proposed new rules to supplant this definition of home care as not work.36

It took twenty-one months, but finally on September 17, 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor announced final rules that ended the exclusion of home care workers from overtime and marked their recognition as workers.37 Significantly, this change considered care as work. It embedded definitions of care as assistance of individuals with “Activities of Daily Living” (i.e., “dressing, grooming, feeding, bathing, toileting, and transferring”) and “Instrumental Activities of Daily Living” (i.e., “tasks that enable a person to live independently at home, such as meal preparation, driving, light housework, managing finances, assistance with the physical taking of medications and arranging medical care”). Whereas the 1970s regulations exempted from the category of “elder companions” those who spent over 20% of their hours in housekeeping and other domestic tasks, the Obama-era ones mandated FLSA inclusion of those who perform care for more than 20% of their time. Companionship services then became restricted to “provision of fellowship and protection.” These could include “engag[ing] the person in social, physical, and mental activities, such as conversation, reading, games, crafts, accompanying…” and being there with someone in their home “to monitor the person’s safety and well-being.”38

In attempting to distinguish care from companionship, the rules replicated the strand of feminist thought that separates physical labors from relational ones, reinforcing the division between spiritual and menial housework. But as any care provider knows, the two can’t be so easily parsed. The percentage of hours represents an attempt to quantify that which overflows such frameworks. The complexity of the rules, and their careful designation, reflected the attempt by administrations to come to grips with the dual nature of care as relation and labor.

As of the writing of this essay in June 2015, it is not clear whether the Obama change in definition would ever come into effect. Just in time for Christmas 2014, at the behest of the Home Care Association of America, the International Franchise Association, and the National Association for Home Care & Hospice, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon (a George W. bush appointee) struck down the extension of FLSA to these employers of live-in home care workers. Immediately, California delayed its state-level extension of overtime to its MediCal funded workers and a second employer suit right after the New Year led the same judge to vacate the entire new rule. Home care workers face perpetual low-wages, enhanced by the prospect of continuous litigation delaying their inclusion in the labor law, as the Department of Labor appealed. Whatever side prevails, the other probably will take the case to the Supreme Court.39

Like other discourses, legal constructions matter. Home care workers had internalized their non-worker status. Surveys concluded that many saw “their work more as service than as employment.” Rather than workers, they were caregivers, a role “rooted in deep feelings about their religious or cultural traditions.”40 Unionization would come to offer “an identity as a worker’s part of a giant work-force, doing important work that merits recognition, respect, and decent standards.”41 One of the biggest challenges was to make visible an occupation hidden in the home and rendered illegible by the law, but during the last third of the 20th century, that is precisely what the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other unions managed to accomplish by winning enabling legislation and gubernatorial orders in various states that created mechanisms for collective bargaining with government agencies and put pressure on private employers who were reimbursed through public monies.

Today’s domestic worker movement – internationally as well as in the United States – similarly has sought recognition as workers. With passage of ILO Convention #189, “Decent Work for Domestic Workers,” in 2011, South African Myrtle Witbooi, Chair of the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), declared, “we are free – slaves no more, but workers.”42 Activists understood the role of domestic work in social reproduction. As Tanzanian trade unionist Vicky Kanyoka has explained, “It is our work in households that enables others to go out and be economically active… it is us who take care of your precious children and your sick and elderly; we cook your food to keep you healthy and we look after your property when you are away.”43 This sentiment parallels the one expressed by Sarita Gupta, the Executive Director of Jobs with Justice, who has insisted that home care “workers are an invaluable part of our economy – they make all other work possible.”44

Unionization of home care workers has hit an impasse with shifting political winds in the United States, as I have explained elsewhere. The momentum today is with the National Domestic Worker Alliance and its affiliates, who have pushed for bills of rights. Passed in New York, Hawaii, California, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Connecticut, these bills vary in scope, but all seek to extend labor protections, especially overtime, to private household workers. They seek to recognize care as work and propel immigrant women of color, the majority of those involved in domestic worker associations, into economic citizenship.45

Domestic workers are creating a new care movement to bring the needs of care receivers and providers together, those who do household labor and those who use such labor. The Caring Across the Generations initiative, begun in 2011, joins rights and respect with love, “to build a more caring economy for all of us.”46 It calls for decent work and a sensible immigration policy, socialized services and attention to human dependencies, with training, labor standards, and participation by families and paid workers alike. This coalition calls for establishing a pathway to staying for immigrant care workers, that is, adequate visas for careworkers.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance with its coalition partners offers hope. This movement is trying to re-signify the meaning of love away from mammy’s natural feelings to a social justice goal. The affect evoked is powerful. For success, the movement is taking advantage of our valuing of production by claiming that household labor, that is social reproduction, is central to the organization of home and work.

Conclusion

That domestic and care workers partake in the language of production makes them legible. They do so trying to shift the discussion by re-connecting production and reproduction. In some sense, over thirty years ago, Benería was pushing the world of development experts to understand this interrelation. She came to root women’s subordination in various modes of reproductive labor. But on the ground, the ILO technical assistance programs sought to redeploy family labor into income generating activities, as with milk and handicraft cooperatives. Care became work.47

Are there other ways to consider care? Feminist theorist Kathi Weeks critiques the tendency to regard “the ethic of care… as an ethic of work.” Demands for inclusion – into employment and wage labor, like Friedan, or by renaming care as work, as by unions and domestic worker associations – “risks contesting the gendered organization of a capitalist work society by reproducing its fundamental values.” The refusal to work need not be a refusal to care but rather to be caught in family values, queer or not, rather than in the activities that enhance “as the autonomist Marxist tradition might have it – of making some space for the collective autonomy that might alter some of the terms of such choices.” Such a reconceptualization might move us from care as a relation of dependency to care as a struggle for social interdependence. Ending naturalized notions of reproductive labor, Weeks suggests, is a first step.48

Perhaps considering care as work isn’t “capitulation to capitalism” – or its mystical thinking. A respondent to Hoey on the blogosphere offered an alternative reasoning by insisting that “unpaid care lets the rest of society, especially capital, off the hook.” To be utopian about care would then mean recognizing that the existence of care work “declares that paid work is possible without a capitalist, without exploitation, without wages, and without commodities.” This position refuses to see the making of people – “our bodies, our reason, and the gifts of language, culture, and the social organization of the world they give rise to” – as reducible to commodities. That is, “to name care as work that must be remunerated cries out for an alternative economic theory that recognizes the economic value of the human connections and practices about which we care most deeply.”49

We all may desire a realm of freedom, but care work by its very nature responds to a world of constraint. It exists because of inabilities, otherwise known as the limits of the human condition. To speak of independence and care is to obfuscate the relationship between care provider and receiver. The goal of social programs to free frail elderly or disabled people from dependency too often have valued the needs of the receiver by ignoring the provider or turning the performer of care into a tool, an appendage, a means of the independence and freedom of the other, whose status is of utmost concern and so the work of care becomes obscured with a focus on the results of such labor. The conditions of the care worker can be rightly ignored because the focus is on the taker, receiver, client, customer, all names for the one who is cared for. But to embrace dependency and the need for community, to celebrate interdependency, now that might just form the basis for a utopia that works – embracing production, reproduction, home, and work or dissolving the distinction as we reveal in our personhoods together.

Race, Class, and Social Reproduction in the Urban Present: The Case of the Detroit Water and Sewage System

In the last decade, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, the urban centers of the Midwest such as Chicago and Detroit, but also in the Northeast, such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, have developed a new dynamic: the use of the state (in the form of local or regional governments) to transfer infrastructural resources and their control out of or away from marginalized urban populations, which are predominantly black, brown, and immigrant.1 These infrastructures range from health and educational resources to natural and civic resources such as water and sewage systems. There has been a tendency to read these battles around infrastructure as just another round of neoliberalism – another example of the “shrinking state.” Such an approach, however, seems unable to grasp how these infrastructural grabs, rather than a consequence of the state shrinking, are in fact a distinct kind of raced and classed resource transfer mobilized and sanctioned by the state. Nowhere is this clearer than in Detroit, where the predominantly white suburbs succeeded under the cover of Detroit’s 2013-14 bankruptcy proceedings to pry the possession of the water and sewage infrastructure away from the city proper. Not only have the mostly African-American residents of the city lost control of these infrastructures, they now have to subsidize the social reproduction of the predominantly white, wealthier Detroit suburbs.

We frame these ongoing resource grabs by engaging with recent work that has attempted to theorize infrastructure’s connection to modern forms of power. Brian Larkin, perhaps the most prominent theorist of the recent boom in work on infrastructure, has defined infrastructures as “matter that enable[s] the movement of other matter.”2 As such, infrastructures are systems, ones which are frequently hidden from view and considered neutral, one of whose functions is to distribute resources and govern populations: they “comprise an architecture for circulation.”3 Our contribution here is to examine how these systems of circulation have been newly politicized and how social-reproductive infrastructure, as a means for the circulation of resources, has become an object of political contestation, a means of coercive racial and class control, and also productive of race and class itself.4

We take up the Detroit “water crisis” as a case study for thinking about the connection between the successful social reproduction of predominantly white communities and the exposure of African-American and immigrant communities to premature death and failing reproduction. We develop in two ways the connection between social reproduction and race. First, we track the reproduction of predominantly white communities – that is, their provisioning with the resources and infrastructures (water, housing, education, etc.) for reproducing certain conditions of existence and capacitation. Second, we examine how race and racial difference are themselves reproduced through differential access to the means of social reproduction.5 The case of Detroit illustrates how urban social infrastructures violently produce and reproduce race and its urban geographies, shaping the flows of peoples, bodies, and access to resources.

We need to say a word about the class and racial dynamics of Detroit. The demographics of the Detroit metro area (the suburbs as a whole are more than 80 percent white, while the city is 83 percent black) have shaped to a great degree the form that the struggle over infrastructure has taken in the region. Because of the sharp demographic split between white and black populations across city and suburban lines, battles over infrastructure have been racialized along a black-white/city-suburb boundary and marked by a persistent, ongoing, long-term anti-blackness localized against the city of Detroit. It is critical to understand how this anti-black racism has determined infrastructural battles and the forms they have taken in the region and also how social infrastructure itself has been used to produce and reproduce the area’s radical binary racial divide. This means that the material and social lives of non-black communities of color and immigrants, while subject to different forms of racism and structural discrimination, are often subsumed by the binary racial logic dominating the city’s geography, infrastructure, and political discourse. Thus, non-whites as well as poor whites in the suburbs often benefit from the anti-black racism of the predominantly white suburban political elite. Similarly, the possibilities for social reproduction of white and non-black groups within the city limits have been differentially shaped by the anti-black racism that has marked flows of and access to infrastructure in the city.

The specifics of the case of Detroit, although familiar to many post-industrial cities in the Midwest, may not be directly generalizable to other urban areas which might have more spatially complicated forms of class and race differentiation and urban/suburb governance.6 However, it can help us bring out how, across the urban United States, the social-reproductive means of communities of color and immigrants are subject to conditions of intense attack through the existing social infrastructure. Urban studies scholars have shown how welfare infrastructures and the social distribution of resources, while making a vast number of marginalized populations dependent on them, were deployed strategically as a means of social control and social regulation, of racialization, of spatial segregation, and of reproducing social marginality. In the context of neoliberal restructuring, these existing dependencies are being exploited and turned against the marginalized in particularly egregious ways, through the systematic expropriation of access to the resources necessary for basic reproductive needs. These occur through withdrawals, shut-offs and closures, extortion, excessive monetary punishment, and criminalization, keeping those on the margins subordinated to a regime of poverty, debt, and exploitation.

All these instruments have the double effect of expropriation and punishment, of producing marginalization and punishing the marginalized. While they have effectively become new forms of expropriation and dispossession, they also wield new forms of discipline and social control that are specific to the neoliberal regime and that operate on the terrain of social reproduction. Working differently than the regulatory regimes of the welfare state, these are new forms of coercion, repression, and social control over communities of color, immigrants, and the poor, reproducing the structural conditions of their class. In other words, infrastructure’s function is to extract, besides resources, compliance and obedience to the work and debt regime, and also to ensure that material wealth and class power remain structurally unavailable to these communities.7

In the following, we open with how the political and economic elites of the predominantly white suburbs of Detroit have waged a juridical and legislative war since the 1970s in order to pry the possession of the water and sewage infrastructure away from the city proper before turning, by way of conclusion, to some of the historical and theoretical ramifications that can be derived from this case study.

Making Detroit the “Minority” Partner: The Battle for the Detroit Water and Sewage System

After years of debate and speculation, the largest metropolitan bankruptcy in U.S. history became a reality when the city of Detroit filed in federal court on July 18, 2013. It was not the mayor and city council who came to the decision to file for bankruptcy, however. Rather at this moment the city was under control of a governor-appointed emergency manager. An “emergency manager” is a juridical device, which exists in the state of Michigan, in which the governor, having decided that a municipality is in a state of “financial emergency,” can send an official to take control of said municipality. The official then assumes all powers of, and overrides, the mayor, city council, and other elected governing bodies, gaining the ability to break contracts, outsource work, and reorganize any part of the administrative structure in order to return the local government to “financial health.” Before Detroit exited bankruptcy in 2014, it has been estimated that over half of Michigan’s African-American population was under the non-democratic rule of emergency managers.

The decision by the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to begin turning off the water of residents behind in their payments in April of 2014 received a great deal of national media attention.8 Roughly 30,000 people had their water disconnected in 2014; 25 percent were unable to have it turned back on in 48 hours. Moreover, in the city water rates have risen 119 percent in the last decade.9 Protests swelled throughout the summer and were given a national projection when the shut offs were condemned by the United Nations. The shutoffs came during the final months of the negotiation of the Detroit bankruptcy. As was widely reported, holders of DWSD bond debt had been demanding that the department demonstrate that it would have a more stable revenue stream in the future. The shutoffs and their political framing were read as a critique of Wall Street and finance capital – which would not be entirely wrong.10

However, such framing of the shut-offs misses two histories. The first one is the historical relation, sketched above, between the social-reproductive resources of middle- and upper-class, mostly white populations and those of black, brown, immigrant, and poor communities, which have shaped contemporary urban geographies of class and race. The second one is the suburbs’ long-term struggle to pry control of the water and sewage infrastructure from the city, as a means of securing their ability to generate revenue for their own communities. While the shut-offs were a consequence of debt negotiations and the bankruptcy of Detroit, they were also the result of this longer struggle to secure and promote the social reproduction of white communities, a struggle which has become more acute in the moment after the 2007-08 financial crisis.11

The Detroit metropolitan region is composed of four primary entities: the city of Detroit and the counties of Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland. The city runs to the border of the counties where the suburbs begin (roughly bounded by 8 Mile Road on the north and Telegraph Road on the far west). Since the 1950s, the population of the city has shrunk and the racial composition has changed dramatically. As Mathieu Desan writes:

Between 1950 and 2010, Detroit’s white population fell from 1.5 million to 75,000, with close to half of that loss occurring between 1950 and 1970, before the election of Coleman Young [Detroit’s first black mayor]. Meanwhile, Detroit’s black population has gone from accounting for 16 percent of the city’s total population in 1950 to roughly 83 percent today, standing at 590,000 (US Census Bureau). Detroit today remains one of the most segregated cities in America if one considers the metropolitan area as a whole. Whites respectively make up 81.4 percent and 91.6 percent of the suburban counties of Oakland and Macomb, while Wayne County, if one excludes Detroit, is 83.7 percent white and only 8.3 percent black.12

Like many metropolitan areas, the water system of the suburbs was an extension the city of Detroit’s system. This has meant that the city of Detroit, at least until the 1970s, controlled most aspects of the system, from price or rate setting to debt issuance to revenue. The suburbs have bought their water wholesale from the city, at a price set by the city, and then sold it on to their suburban customers. The revenue from the system was used by the city to maintain the physical infrastructure, but as revenue it could also be used for any other purpose for which the city saw fit.

The water system, and the city’s control over it, has been a target of suburban politicians since the 1970s. Because the counties have few levers of power over the city proper, their means for doing so has been juridical and legislative and their primary objective has been the creation of a new, regional governing body which they would control (their aim has been to shift Detroit to being the “minority” partner, in one county commissioner’s language). From 1977 to 2013, the water system was under the oversight of a federal judge due to non-compliance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations. While Judge Feikens (1977-2010), and subsequently Judge Cox (2010-13), declined to create a regional authority ex nihilo, the very fact of their oversight was the first bridgehead into the city’s authority and their approval and promotion of debt-led and neoliberal solutions has weakened the city’s power over time.13 In the 1990s, when Republicans controlled the governorship and both houses in the state of Michigan, suburban Detroit legislators made numerous attempts to create a regional authority at the state level. They finally succeeded in passing legislation in 2004, but then-Democrat governor Jennifer Granholm vetoed it. In an action from 2011, the mayor at that time Dave Bing and local politicians and community leaders protested against the attempted takeovers. It highlighted the historical legacy of appropriation and showed the level of importance in the city concerning the value of the water system. Bing’s comments at this event expressed what was the consensus amongst black (and other) politicians in the city: “It’s ludicrous for Detroit to own the system, to have all the debt but doesn’t have control of management of the system.” (Bing’s comments (being made extemporaneously – thus their grammar) can be heard in this newscast.))

However, what primarily white suburban leaders couldn’t accomplish through juridical or legislative means, the fiat of Detroit’s emergency manager could make real. Part of the bankruptcy agreement – hammered out under the authority of emergency manager Kevyn Orr, was the creation of a regional water board, The Great Lakes Water Authority (GWLA). By establishing the board, the suburbs finally accomplished their goal of wresting control of the system from the city.14 Under this new deal, Detroit retains “ownership” of the system but leases it to the authority for $USD 50 million a year.15 The new board is composed of six representatives, with only two from the city, one each from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and one appointed by the governor (currently Rick Snyder). A super-majority of five out of six votes is now needed for any “major initiatives such as raising rates, borrowing money, and hiring or firing a director.”16 What this means is that the city has lost control over price or rate setting, and it has also lost control over the revenue from the system. Perhaps most importantly, the agreement states that the GLWA can step in to set the city’s rate (i.e., the price customers pay), and takeover or outsource their collection process, if certain conditions are not being met.

Thus, as we argued above, the water shutoffs were not just an outcome of the need to placate Wall Street bondholders but were also part of a longer struggle opened up by white suburban elites, who in last decade have been largely successful in prying key pieces of infrastructure from the city.17 Suburban authorities now have a tool they can use to shield their communities from any future crises with the water system and to socialize those crises onto the residents of the city of Detroit. Given the racist on-record statements of county leaders like Oakland county commissioner L. Brooks Patterson, one should not hope for a lot of fair play in this regard.18 In essence, the balance of power with respect to control of the water system has been almost completely reversed.19 Once the owner of the system, the city is now reduced to less than a customer, as the GWLA retains a de facto oversight of city rate setting and collections. Through this infrastructural vector, Detroit residents will now subsidize the reproductive resources of upper- and middle-class, mostly white, suburbs.

Racialized Control of the Means of Reproduction: Towards A Genealogy

We want to use this analysis of the Detroit water system to reflect on the history of how white communities, since the inception of whiteness in the United States, have controlled the reproduction of and access to the means of social reproduction of immigrants and communities of color – and to reflect on how the present moment is both linked to and different from these historical conditions. While it is not possible for us in the short space of this essay to develop a detailed history, we want to signal some important ways that this control over resources and reproduction (social, individual, and familial) has been thought in the prior literature in order to establish a genealogical sketch of the battles over infrastructural resources and means of reproduction in the present.

The control of black women’s reproductive capacity and the social reproduction of black communities was foundational to the U.S. slave system, and in the last decade a rich vein of feminist scholarship has shown how this control was essential to the material functioning and ideology of New World slavery.20 For example, Pamela Bridgewater argued that, as the Atlantic slave trade was closed in 1808, the south started “producing” its own slaves, marking a shift towards discourses and practices around “breeding,” rewards for having children, and coerced reproduction as a source of profit.21 As Walter Johnson noted in his recent River of Dark Dreams, slaveholders were very clear that the social reproduction depended on “the biological reproduction of the people they owned” or that the successful reproduction of white communities and families depended on the control, not just of slave labor power, but on the resources for and “raw materials” of black bodies’ self-reproduction:

It was not exactly that slaveholders were indifferent to the reproduction of their slaves. Certainly […], most recognized that their own social reproduction, their own legacy to the future – as a class, as members of families, as fathers – depended on the biological reproduction of the people they owned. As with other forms of property, slaveholders used enslaved people to articulate the connections between white households and generations. As a slaveholders’ saying had it, there were three things necessary to beginning a family: a wife, a house, and a slave to work in it.22

The active control of reproduction of black and immigrant populations has been central both to white domination and to the successful reproduction of white communities. Reproduction of white communities in the United States was never “self-sufficient” as the logic of neoliberalism would have us believe; rather, it has depended historically on the control of the means of social reproduction of black, brown, and immigrant communities, to secure its flourishing, while also serving as a vector of white domination. Both of these aspects are present in the current appropriation of urban infrastructures by majority white communities in the Detroit suburbs.

Post-slavery, the differential channeling and appropriation of resources by whites has passed through three primary moments. One of the critical pieces of the New Deal, the Social Security Act, left out both domestic and agricultural workers who accounted for 90 percent of the black, as well as most of the Mexican-American and immigrant, labor force in that moment.23 Moreover, as Mary Poole recently showed, the exclusion of African Americans was not merely the result of an anachronistic southern racism, but rather enacted nationally by “a shifting web of alliances of white policymakers that crossed regions and political parties” who “shared an interest in protecting the political and economic value of whiteness.”24 The same is the case for the post-war period in which the massive flows of Federal dollars that poured into local communities did so in ways to preferentially support the social reproduction of white communities by promoting white flight and extending segregationist practices into the suburbs. With the rise of the penal or carceral state that Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Loïc Wacquant have described, these institutional arrangements were continued and refashioned through a transfer of resources out of the welfare state and into the warfare state (to use Wilson’s language).25

In the case of the Detroit water system takeover, these historical dynamics take on new inflections, in particular in how infrastructure has been newly tied into the reproduction of race and economic marginality. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has argued, racism is “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”26 Although there are multiple ways in which this vulnerability is produced, the withdraw of infrastructure that delivers essential resources, while not entirely “new,” is, we suggest, being reconstituted uniquely within the U.S. system of structural racism as it participates in spatial regimes of class power. In these contemporary configurations, the social reproduction of white communities, through state mechanisms, is supported by or parasitically feeds upon black, brown, and immigrant communities and resources. At the same time, the water system and its withdrawal has been converted into a tool for intensifying class oppression. Residents are now forced to choose between paying water bills and buying food or school supplies. It also appears that the recent spike of foreclosures in the city of Detroit can at least be partially attributed to residents falling behind on mortgage or property tax payments due to increasing water bill pressures.

These seizures of infrastructure are structured by processes that are both historical and emergent. Certainly, they form a part of the genealogy of state-sanctioned forms of resource seizure from or transfer out of economically and racially marginalized communities. While far-right positions around the need to limit the carceral state gain steam, our intuition is that the complex system forming around infrastructure, social reproduction, and racial and social marginality represents a potentially new site of reproducing class and racial domination through the two-fold dynamic of both extracting resources from the poor and communities of color and coercing them into compliance.27

To say this in a slightly different way, we generally find the most convincing accounts of neoliberalism, such as Loïc Wacquant’s, to be those that focus not on the shrinking of the state, but rather on the transfer of resources from the welfare state into the carceral state. This essay has traced another form of transfer, omitted by accounts like Wacquant’s, namely, the transfer of infrastructure. To some extent, capitalist cities have historically been sites of population control, but the state-sanctioned or authorized transfer of resources and capacities for social reproduction in and out of differently raced and classed communities via infrastructural control turns the city itself into a site of intensified coercion and repression. Limiting or conditioning access to the infrastructural means of reproduction thus becomes an effective disciplinary instrument involved not just in the biopolitical governance of “life” (the way Foucault has defined the liberal and welfare state) but that successfully mobilizes the specter of death, famine, homelessness, prison, illness and abandon to exert coercive control.

Conclusion

We would like to conclude with a few observations of a political nature. Most often, the politics one finds in the 1970s literature on social reproduction blends some form of anti-capitalism with a turn to the state, requests to the state for funding, or an orientation towards the state as a site of struggle. We think that the present moment demands that we begin to address these historical legacies of reliance on the state and think differently about politics around social reproduction.

If politics of social reproduction in the 1970s blended anti-capitalism with a turn to the state, what feels different about the present is that much of the state apparatus, to deploy Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s distinction, has been transferred from welfare to warfare. It is hard to imagine turning to the state in the present – where there once might have been points of entry for negotiation, cooptation, and mediation, today one more often finds doors leading into the carceral, judicial, and deportation systems. We know, of course, that historically the state and infrastructural apparatus attached to it have always been used to discipline. What is perhaps distinctive in the present is that the welfare justification of these tools of discipline has dropped away or rather the balance between the state’s “welfare” and “warfare” functionalities has tipped more decisively in the direction of warfare.

These resource and infrastructure seizures in the present generate, almost immediately, acute crises of social reproduction. If you live on a block where the majority of residents have no running water – before there can be a political project of wresting control of the infrastructure back from the suburbs – one is faced with the immediate daily problem of how to source water. At the same time, another particularity of the present, is how one community’s crisis underpins another’s successful reproduction. Where once there was at least a pretense to maintaining a reserve army in conditions in which they could be drawn into the labor force, now, instead of minimal conditions of life, one finds deepening crisis and a widening separation between majority white communities in which social reproduction is possible and those which have been increasingly subordinated by the state and capital to regimes of poverty, debt, and exploitation. One of the tasks of the present then will be to find a way through this situation, a terrain of social reproduction defined more by warfare than welfare, one defined less by biopolitical forms of welfare state discipline and more by forms of the intensification of the disruption of group, familial, and individual processes of social reproduction. Historically, struggles around social reproduction have opened onto the forging of autonomous forms of governance, networks of mutual care, survival, and wellbeing, and invite communities to take back the resources and knowledges necessary for caring for each other and reproducing and continuing to survive on a daily basis. Our sense is that autonomous forms of organizing will be an important part of any political project addressing current crises in social reproduction. Clearly though, putting into play infrastructural systems will also greatly challenge, due to their complex material and technological legacies, a politics of mutual care and autonomy. However, rather than a permanent obstacle to struggle, working through these kinds of challenges are what it would mean to learn to struggle anew on the terrain of social reproduction in the present.

Radical archives and the new cycles of contention

Vint Cerf, co-designer of the internet’s basic architecture and a vice president for research with Google, recently sounded the alarm about “bit rot” or the degradation of data files. He warns that we’re facing a “forgotten century” of historical documentation because we lack the computer software and hardware necessary to read obsolete computer files.1

Reflect on what this means for social movements: the meeting minutes, manifesto drafts, position papers, poster designs, calls to action, button templates, carefully crafted tweets, Facebook event announcements and RSVPs, and myriad other documents of resistance already lost to bit rot. If we jump forward to today, our enthusiasm for cloud computing could spell just as dire an outlook for documenting our contemporary movements.

The ephemera, strategizing, and documentation of contemporary social movements are at risk. Activists risk losing the official record of their actions when everything that constitutes an archive of social change is entrusted to third-party web apps and companies, such as Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. We’ve moved relatively quickly from concerns about backing up physical hard drives – easily made obsolete by the collapse of companies (Iomega Zip Drive, anyone?) and the triumph of one file format over another – to blindly trusting that our organizations’ thinking and planning are safe “in the cloud.” After all, who actually reads the terms and conditions for using Google Docs, or any other service that allows for online collaboration and high storage at low cost?

This is a call for better preservation of our historical legacy and guides to organizing for future generations. Like everything else we humans touch, archives are political. At the heart of calls for preserving our past – recent and even further back – is a question of trust. Who are activists going to trust with telling the history of their movements, achievements, and defeats? Who will be able to tell that story if our memories are locked behind a paywall, discarded, or misplaced as the result of a change in ownership of the services we use daily?

Archivists and archival activists are engaged in meaningful debates, and praxis, over the politicization of records, the politics of organizing of documents, the archivist’s role in movements (active agents or passive collectors?), and the power structures that dictate which groups’ records are collected and preserved.2 These debates are critical to activists and organizers because they determine who will know history and, importantly, how it will be known. What becomes of our digital records is part of this conversation.

I’m proposing that we consider movements and our digital records in the context of “cycles of contention.” Think about these cycles as the opening and closing of windows of opportunities for people to realize that their problems aren’t individual failings, but systemic, and then to act on those grievances as a group.

Sociologist Sidney Tarrow, in the 1990s, described these stages as a cycle of contention.3 First, as tensions mount and people begin to articulate their problems, there is a building and coalescing of concerns and movements to action. Next, ideally, we see activists becoming organizers, because they’re thinking about goals, strategies, and tactics, and innovating on forms of protest that have historically worked or failed. Third, we would see the creation of or dramatic changes within frameworks – how we make meaning out of our situation or frame our collective problems. At the same time, a movement would have people acting on the same grievances, but approaching them using different strategies. They might all be part of the same organization, or elements of a social movement “sector” spread out geographically. We’d also see, based on this new level of meaning-making and action, increased interactions between the people and those in power. This becomes a cycle because, win or lose, there will also be those in society with grievances that need addressing but, according to Tarrow, regardless of political stripe, the stages of the cycle will be similar. Grievance, meaning-making, strategizing, action, confrontation; repeat.

It’s not too far of a stretch to suggest that our use of social media, web tools, and cloud storage is now implicated in each stage of this cycle. Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s indisputable that digital technologies brought the murders of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, and too many other African-Americans to our collective attention. The urgency with which young people, many of whom have never considered themselves activists, mobilize, create trending hashtags, disseminate meeting times, craft agendas, and spread slogans with digital tools and organizing strategies. These are cycles of digital contention, if you will, which update Tarrow’s schema.

But how do we archivists and preservationists convey to those struggling, in this fast-paced moment, the importance of organizing archives? Those of us who care about preserving our organizing past for use in the future need to convey that an archive isn’t a dead entity – archives are a living repository. Maintaining our own records is the best chance we have of shaping our reality. Otherwise, the story that is told today in the mainstream media and by politicians seeking to criminalize and capitalize on dissent becomes the historical record as recorded by corporate archives and historical societies consumed by the history of “Great Men.”4 This shaping and documenting of our reality means that activists are building a foundation today that will allow future organizers to not have to reinvent the wheel.

I want to reinforce these points, about archiving in general and digital archives in particular, by referring to my own experiences with the analog archives of black feminist activists and organizations. In this instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) was an accidental third-party archivist of radical history.

In the 1990s, thirty plus years after the fact, I set out to construct a comprehensive history of 1970s black feminist organizing. There were plenty of magazine clippings in archives that normalized feminism as “a white thing,” the purview solely of white feminists. Black magazines contained articles with titles such as Encore magazine’s 1973 hit piece “Women’s Lib Has No Soul.” It was the allusion, though, to black women’s inclinations toward feminism in mainstream articles, such as a 1973 Newsweek article called “Feminism: ‘The Black Nuance,’” that encouraged my pursuit of black feminists and organized groups. More importantly, conversations with black feminists active in the era affirmed my research into this undocumented history.

Archival research eventually revealed the existence of five black feminist organizations: the Third World Women’s Alliance, the National Black Feminist Organization, the National Alliance of Black Feminists, and Black Women Organized for Action, and the fairly well-known Combahee River Collective. However, more records existed un-archived rather than in institutional archives.

Graduate students are taught, as historical researchers, a key question to ask our interviewees: “Do you have any personal papers or archives related to the organization that I could see?” I quickly learned that the best response wasn’t, “Yes, I donated my papers to University Archive X.” Instead, more fruitful was the unexpected, but often-heard: “Actually, I think I might have some papers in my basement/attic/storage unit/under my bed.” These archives, out of sight and prone to dangers such as fire and flood, lived on, unnoticed, until someone asked after them.

One archival collection speaks to this idea of a living repository. To my knowledge, the FBI collected and maintains the most complete record of the Bay Area-based Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) newsletters. Based on a Freedom of Information Act Request request in the 1990s, the FBI sent me over 200 pages of redacted documents. I assumed, or hoped, these records would contain evidence of COINTELPRO action against the TWWA. While there were a few documents providing evidence of infiltration and agents provocateurs attending TWWA organizing meetings, perhaps more significantly the majority of the documents were copies of every newsletter the organization published from 1971-1974.

If it’s possible to set aside for the moment the white supremacist violence and reprehensible violation of civil liberties wrought by COINTELPRO operations, this act of “archiving” a social justice organization’s activities provided a complete historical record of TWWA’s philosophy and actions. This black feminist socialist organization was dedicated to “the elimination of the oppression and exploitation” from which black and Third World communities suffered, and “tak[ing] an active part in creating a socialist society.” The TWWA organized a range of activities in black and Third World communities designed to model the self-determination they and other social justice organizations of the era sought. As I detail in Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations 1968-1980 (Duke University Press, 2005), TWWA’s work in black communities established a defining precedent for later black women’s activism, with the goal of ending racial, gender, and class oppression, or what we now call intersectionality.

Should we thank the federal government for their spying, which resulted in an accidental archive that no other historical archive possessed? It would have been unheard of for the TWWA to consider the FBI their organization’s official archivist. So why are we letting Facebook or even blogging platforms like WordPress be the de facto archivist of our calls to action, poster PDFs, organizational records, and other born-digital materials?

Let’s consider the FBI in the parlance of today’s technological structure: are the FBI and the U.S. National Archives an early version of a third-party platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, or a host of other social media platforms? All of these institutions have their own privacy policies, terms of service, and archiving policies. Is it wise to entrust the work and legacy of our movements to corporate (.com), educational (.edu) and government (.gov) third-parties?

If activist groups have our websites regularly crawled by the Internet Archive – bravo! If we’re following guidelines for archiving video from the point of creation, as Witness, an international organization dedicated to video as a human rights tool, advises, we’re empowering ourselves to preserve our legacy. We’re (at least partially) taking care of our activist legacy, ensuring it’s available for the future: for our own use, for tomorrow’s activists, or for historians who will tell the story of our successes or failures.5

If we download our archive using the tools a third-party service provider offers, do we know what file format we’ve entrusted with our archive? Do we have more than one piece of hardware and a copy of at least one software program that will be able to read those files two, three, five years from now?

The Library of Congress offers a set of file formats that it predicts open source, non-proprietary software will be able to read in the future.6 We should revisit our files and save them in these preservation formats. Microsoft Word, for example, might seem now like it will dominate the word processing market forever, and some groups may opt for an open source format such as Libre Office. But PDFs, specifically the format PDF/A 1, not .docx, is the preferred format for long-term preservation of documents.

The ideal backup archival and preservation-ready situation would be to have a copy of your group’s archives, in preservation acceptable format, on three different hard drives. These hard drive backups are then kept in different locations in case of fire, flood, or theft. Those hard drives would, additionally, be tested every year to make sure the files are accessible with the software you have on hand. As a final step, the files would be transferred to a new set of hard drives every five years.

For further information, I’ll recommend the work of activist-archivist-researchers, such as Howard Besser and colleagues’ website, Activist Archivists. They offer sounds reasons for archiving your group’s records, as well as links to other organizations who are archiving movement history. Much recent archival work is related to the Occupy movement, but the advice isn’t exclusive to any one movement. It’s relevant to any social justice group that wants to preserve their work for their own use or that of future activists.

In a recent article about the adeptness with which young activists are mobilizing against racist police violence using social media, the New York Times observed,

Their innovation has been to marry the strengths of social media — the swift, morally blunt consensus that can be created by hashtags; the personal connection that a charismatic online persona can make with followers; the broad networks that allow for the easy distribution of documentary photos and videos — with an effort to quickly mobilize protests in each new city where a police shooting occurs.”7

There are still analog social movement archives being discovered and deposited into traditional archives. But if we’ve lost decades of social movement history due to digital degradation, or bit rot, we would do well to insert the production, archiving, and preservation of our born-digital materials as a crucial step into Tarrow’s cycles of contention. This kind of innovation, which couples social media with mobilization, risks being lost as quickly as it’s developed.

Perhaps this is, as some activists argue, a good thing: keep challenging the status quo with new ideas and identities that are unexpected. But without a lasting record of all the new content, we’ll be left with remembrances of tools that may or may not have contributed to liberation. Whether we’re talking about the analog records of the past, or the digital records of the present, our theory and praxis lives in our documentation and records.

Repression and Resistance on the Terrain of Social Reproduction: Historical Trajectories, Contemporary Openings

While the idea of social reproduction is most often associated with Marxist feminist literature from the 1970s, considerable work was done around that concept in a wide range of rather disparate bodies of work throughout the 1960s and 1970s.1 In addition to Marxist feminism, social reproduction became a main focus for Italian autonomists, anti-Stalinist socialist humanists in post-Stalinist Eastern Europe, “anti-humanist” critics of orthodox Marxism such as Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, in studies on slavery, race, and urban development, and by postcolonial and Third-World feminists.

In these bodies of work, social reproduction has acquired a wide array of meanings and has been put to many different uses. Some take the term to mean the material means of subsistence and survival, both immediate and infrastructural, from water and food to housing and health care. Others use the concept to underscore reproduction as a particular kind of labor involved in the regeneration and well-being of others, as in domestic, care, emotional, affective, and sex work, which have historically fallen mostly to women. More recent literature has focused on the commodification of reproductive labor and the global economies and transnational chains of domestic, care, and sex work.

In these and other writings, the body has become an important focus: the body as a site of biological reproduction, the regulation of sexuality, and the reproduction of the gender binary. The reproductive and reproducible body figures as a kind of resource – a resource for labor but also for producing more bodies and lives, for workers. It becomes mobilized by population control projects and by medical and administrative technologies of regulation towards the reproduction of heteronormativity, of racial and class control, and towards social normalization projects.

Yet some political organizers and theorists have taken social reproduction to mean the public and social institutions that reproduce social relations at large: the state, the school, the factory, and the family, the hospital and health institutions. For example, struggles around access to higher education have revealed universities as sites of reproducing class and social inequality, while underscoring their role in forging social mobility. Further, work coming from critical urban studies has explored cities, urban environments, and geographies of infrastructure as sites for reproducing labor power and class and racial inequalities.

In other words, the range of writings on social reproduction, which appeared more or less coevally in the late 1960s and the 1970s, were not necessarily in dialogue with each other and do not form a coherent theoretical or political body of work. However, they all came to the concept of social reproduction at the particular juncture of the crisis of Stalinist Marxism, to criticize orthodox Marxist analyses of labor and exploitation and expose the blind spots in orthodox conceptions of working class struggle. To a degree that has perhaps gone under-recognized, “reproduction” was a central concept of non-orthodox and anti-Stalinist Marxist work in the 1960s and 70s. The concept played a prominent role in the work of anti-Stalinist Marxist humanists, particularly in the socialist countries, from studies on gender inequality, to education, leisure, the socialist family, the socialist person, and the “socialist way of life.” Anti-Stalinist Marxist humanists in the 1960s turned to the early, humanist works of Karl Marx, which Stalinist Marxism had repressed, to recover the agency of ordinary people, and to move away from the Stalinist “base-superstructure” framework. But critics of this humanist turn such as Louis Althusser also used the concept of social reproduction to critique the limitations of the Stalinist notions of state power and attend to processes of subject formation under capitalism. In short, social reproduction became both a standpoint of feminist critique of productivist Marxism and a lens for developing new critiques and theories of state power in the context of the liberal welfare and socialist states.

The political uses of the concept are not entirely coherent either: some of these works aimed, each in their own fashion, to make visible the ways in which social reproduction had become a site of social control, of gender and racial subjugation, of the reproduction of heteronormative social forms, which opened new terrains for political resistance against capitalism and the state. Others saw social reproduction as a promising site for state-driven projects of social equality and social mobility, deploying apparatuses of reproduction as instruments of regulation within capitalism, and with the help of the state.

What can we learn today from the theory and political experiences of the 1970s? And vice-versa, how do our struggles against the neoliberal restructuring of education and social infrastructure, against policing and the carceral state, and against racism, xenophobia, Eurocentrism, heterosexism, and transphobia – under capitalism, but also in anti-capitalist and anti-state organizing – allow us to develop a new historical perspective on the 1970s? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we think of autonomy and militant struggle on the terrain of social reproduction today?

In this essay, we would like to explore the spectrum of ideas and arguments on social reproduction beginning in the late 1960s and offer a sort of genealogy of the different meanings, political uses, and critiques of the category, while testing the promises and limitations of these various approaches for thinking social reproduction in the present.

Further, by revisiting Althusserian and Foucauldian critiques of capitalism and the state from the standpoint of reproduction, as well as Black, Third-World and postcolonial feminist critiques of Western Marxist and socialist feminism, we hope to broaden existing historical narratives of social reproduction.

Historical Genealogies of Discourses Social Reproduction

In their pioneering work from the 1970s, Marxist feminists in Western Europe and the United States identified social reproduction as a field of productive, generative activity. For them, patriarchal relationships and the subordination of women in the home appeared as a precondition to capitalist exploitation. What stood for labor, namely wage labor and industrial production, was a product of a white male political imaginary unable to account for the work of social reproduction relegated to the home, the “private,” and other spheres outside the factory.2 The work of domestic labor, biological reproduction, and the reproduction of labor power were all ignored by “traditional” Marxist accounts, which confined their notion of labor to the factory. In other words, the critique of the “capital-labor” relationship excluded the sphere of the home and the domestic, where women were responsible for all the work of reproduction of labor power through domestic work, and for the reproduction of the working class more generally, by bearing and caring for children. Marxist feminists showed how these disavowed, invisible, and unrecognized forms of work were absolutely necessary for the existence of the wage-labor form and the “sphere of production” in the first place. Moreover, they showed how women’s work in the home was central to the survival and reproduction of labor power and to capitalist relations more generally. Further, the question was what counted as “work” and “labor,” and who was the subject worthy of what they envisioned as “freedom” from necessity. They fought against the social invisibility of reproductive, affective, and care work and the ways in which these were entangled in naturalized notions of women’s bodies and their affective social lives.

In short, the Marxist-feminist uses of social reproduction in the 1970s became a useful feminist lens for showing how patriarchal social organization was a structural element in capitalist exploitation, and further, how the history of working class struggle had effectively mirrored and reproduced patriarchal relations and gender norms under capitalism. All these became points of feminist critique of the male-dominated Marxist left as well as a focus of feminist organizing against exploitation and capitalism.

However, this body of work had significant limitations. Even though Marxist feminists provided a solid account of how women’s sexuality and the nuclear family became a function of capitalist relations, they essentialized women’s bodies and generally worked with a static notion of the body, took for granted the gender binary, and, to a great extent, accepted the heterosexual premises of both the labor movement and the women’s movement. As contributors to the materialist-feminist journal LIES have recently written, “We find untenable the failure of largely second-wave Marxist feminism to consider gender fluidity and multiplicity under capitalism, to grapple with the forms of exploitation and violence that undergird these categories, and the political consequences of these facts.”3

Marxist and socialist feminists had no account of the kinds of technologies involved in the production of gendered subjects, sexed bodies, and in the regulation of sexuality, and how these may be tied to wage labor, the logic of capitalist accumulation, and the private property regime. Subsequent work in gender studies and queer theory used an alternative path – through Althusser and Foucault – to address these questions, turning to the ways subjects are made and remade, and to the institutions, technologies, and material practices of regulating and policing sexuality, the body, and the gender binary. Much of the subsequent scholarship influenced by Foucault, however, has lost sight of the question of how the body has become a setting for the reproduction of capitalist relations and class inequality, even as these links, we think are addressed in parts of Foucault’s work.4

Further, writing from the United States and Western Europe, Marxist and socialist feminists concerned with issues of reproduction and domestic labor for the most part did not acknowledge prior legacies of women of color organizing around issues of social reproduction, in particular housing and welfare.5 It is perhaps no surprise that black feminists in the United States and the United Kingdom responded critically to them. Drawing genealogies of social reproduction from the perspective of black women’s experience, from slavery to the racist politics of the welfare regimes, black feminists demonstrated that the domestic confines of the housewife was the problem of white working- and middle-class women. Some of these ideas were first articulated in Claudia Jones’ germinal 1949 essay, “To End the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman,” where she coined the idea of a triple oppression of working-class black women. She showed that, having had to work alongside their men, black women were never confined to the “domestic” sphere alone.6 Writing in the 1970s and the early 1980s from opposite sides of the Atlantic, Angela Davis and Hazel Carby continued the line of thought articulated by Jones. “Throughout the country’s history,” Angela Davis wrote in partial response to Wages for Housework, black women toiled together with men under the whip of plantation overseers, suffering “a grueling sexual equality at work.”7 After slavery, Davis continues, black women were employed in vast numbers in a range of industries, from tobacco and sugar, to lumber and steel. Although Davis does not adequately address the question of white immigrant women’s labor in a number of industries, she shows how black women’s labor was mobilized in the reproductive realm as well as in the manufacturing and service industries long before discourses of the “double burden” emerged in white feminist thought. As wives and mothers, workers and breadwinners, notions of black womanhood often revolved around strength, resilience, and independence rather than femininity and subordination, the white middle-class norms of womanhood. Yet Carby had also pointed out that ideologies of black womanhood and constructions of black women’s sexuality did not stem just from the material conditions of oppression and the way they shaped the black family: “The way the gender of black women is constructed differs from constructions of white femininity because it is also subject to racism.”8

Moreover, as both Davis and Carby argue, for black communities the home was historically a site of autonomy and resistance. Davis showed that, paradoxically, domestic labor, that “expression of the socially conditioned inferiority for women,” was in fact “the only meaningful labor for the slave community as a whole.”9 Women’s authority in the home made them the backbone of resistance movements against slavery, colonialism, and racism. Carby argued that “the black family has functioned as a prime source of resistance to oppression” and a “site of political and cultural resistance to racism.”10 Immigrant and Third-World women, as we will discuss later, similarly contested white women’s criticisms of the family as a site of oppression. Showing how the state pathologized, and often punished, forms of family and social life which did not conform to Western liberal models, they focused on the role of family life in cultural resistance and resistance to the state.

However, black women’s labor and their bodies were also central to the successful functioning of the slave system as a whole, and of racial and class domination during and after slavery. Work from the late 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, in particular from Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, and Patricia Hill Collins, exposed how the control of women’s biological reproduction had been mobilized towards racist projects of population control and the outright annihilation of black populations (as well as Puerto-Rican and poor white populations, as in Davis’ work).11 Building upon these earlier works, more recent feminist scholarship returned to the question of reproduction and slavery. Jennifer Morgan has demonstrated the centrality of women slaves’ physical and reproductive labor to the material and ideological formation of the New World slave system. Pamela Bridgewater argued that, as the Atlantic slave trade was closed in 1808, the South had to “produce” its own slaves, marking a shift towards discourses and practices around “breeding” and rewards for having children.12 Walter Johnson has similarly highlighted slave owners’ awareness that their social reproduction depended on “the biological reproduction of the people they owned.”13 These works have also traced the forms of resistance and alternative forms of intimacy, community, and collective knowledge black women conjured in conditions of oppression. Further work on the policing of women’s bodies and reproduction has expanded this focus to other racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups, in particular Latina and Native-American women.14

Marxist-feminist interventions from the 1970s and 1980s had a mixed reception among immigrant women. In one respect, critiques of domestic work resonated with immigrant women, who had been shuttled in massive numbers to perform domestic and care work for the white middle classes in the metropoles. In the United Kingdom, Selma James articulated the Wages for Housework framework with the concerns of immigrant women: for them it was about making visible not only their labor, but also the hidden cost of rebuilding their lives and the lives of loved ones anew in material, cultural, and historical contexts that did not belong to them, after “the uprooting of everything you’ve known.” It was about the strength needed while “fighting to stay” where they are often unwelcome, and about the persistence and resilience of keeping together a life in constant uncertainty and threat of deportation.15 For women coming from the colonized countries, immigration was about “reappropriating their own wealth, stolen from them at home and accumulated in the industrial metropolis.”16 It was the wealth stolen from their own and their ancestors’ labor, and it was as much theirs as it was anyone else’s. As the geographies of the new global division of labor developed – not just in the United Kingdom but across Europe and in the United States – feminists turned to examine the commodification of domestic and care work and to challenge the social hierarchies and meanings of “work.” Focusing on the global reconfiguration of the labor force, they showed how the commodification of domestic, care, affective, and service work reinscribed the devalued social meanings of these activities in hierarchical value-regimes of labor, which mobilized racial, gender, and ethnic differences, as well as immigration status, to subordinate, dehumanize, and devalue black, brown, and immigrant bodies and lives.17

“It is impossible to speak of the relation of women to capital anywhere without at the same time confronting the question of development versus underdevelopment,” James wrote. Her work and organizing held together intersections between women’s struggles, immigration, race, and Third-World liberation movements, while playing with emerging discourses around “development.”18 These tendencies became the basis for international organizations such as the International Wages for Housework Campaign, which welcomed women from a dizzying range of cultural, material, and economic contexts, from Peru and Trinidad, to India, Uganda, the Philippines, and Mexico, to account for their shared political experience and social conditions, while forging an experience of solidarity and togetherness.19

However, this sweeping internationalism came at a great cost: by conjuring an “international sisterhood,” James consistently universalized women’s oppression, insisting that across cultural and material contexts, “what does not vary is that whatever the standard, women are the poorer and the socially weaker sex.”20 These forms of organizing and writing saw a strong push-back from Third-World and post-colonial feminists. Alongside Hazel Carby and others, Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s signature intervention from the early 1980s unpacked their Eurocentric, colonial, and evolutionary premises. Mohanty argued that Western Marxist and socialist feminists contributed to the production of the “Third World” as a monolithic construct across widely different cultural and socio-historical contexts and posited an imagined, singular notion of Third-World womanhood, which reinscribed colonial hegemony. Patriarchy became a universal structure that oppressed all women in the same way – a “stable ahistorical something that apparently oppresses most if not all the women in these countries.”21 Presuming in this way that the conditions of oppression were the same, they erased their historical and cultural contexts and constituted women as a homogenous group on the basis of their shared oppression. Mixed up with racist and colonial prejudice, they posited a subject powerless, dependent, and uneducated, a product of the “backward” socio-economic conditions of which she was part. In this sense, “reproduction” and “unpaid labor” also became universalizing frameworks as they erased the kinds of culturally specific values and social meanings these activities assumed in non-Western and non-capitalist contexts.22 And infamously, by projecting norms of agency and emancipation specific to Western liberal capitalist societies onto non-western contexts, they judged “traditional” gender and sexual practices as “uncivilized,” backward, oppressive, and patriarchal. Thus paradoxically, Carby pointed out, Western Marxist feminists assumed capitalist relations as the gateway to emancipation and progress and implicitly embraced capitalist development as the vehicle for reforms.23

Instead of positing “women” as a coherent group, preexisting and already constituted, postcolonial feminists insisted that feminist analyses should examine how “women” and “men” emerged as subjects through cultural practices in each particular context and examine the culturally specific logics of gender practices and gender subordination, as they configure the political and social meanings of “women,” “men,” and their social activities.24 Uncovering these logics would register not only the historically and culturally specific modes of gender subordination embedded in contexts of social difference and socio-economic conditions, but also render visible women’s agency, power, and their cultures of resistance – rather than just their victimhood. Arguing for situated knowledges, for contextually and culturally specific analyses of gender relations, and for staying attentive to the cultural meanings of gendered social practices, they challenged Western Marxist and socialist feminists to situate their theorizing – to develop an awareness that their concepts and critical methodologies are products of their own socio-cultural contexts and geographies.

Social Reproduction and the State

For the most part, movements around social reproduction in the capitalist West turned to the welfare state to resolve the structural contradictions between the spheres of production and social reproduction, maintaining a rather ambiguous relationship to the state. Even as they critiqued the disciplinary and racializing practices of the state, the welfare rights movement continued to levy their social demands on the state. As Premilla Nadasen outlines in Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement, this movement was organized around forcing the state to give adequate benefits, while also fighting against the “dehumanizing and surveillance-based components of welfare.”25

Similarly, autonomists, who argued for autonomy from capitalism, autonomy from men and patriarchy, and lastly, autonomy from the state, had a contradictory relation to the state, advocating for women’s economic independence through the “female welfare wage” and various other demands on the state, such as the housework wage. Various “claimants and welfare movements” in the UK and North America, the “Family Allowance Campaign” in the UK, child benefits for single mothers, and other demands to redirect money from the general “family income” towards the specific needs of women, were all ways to advance women’s struggle for independence and empowerment by fighting to “keep the money in women’s hands, to increase it.”26 Against the socialization and collectivization of housework and childcare, Silvia Federici argued:

It is one thing to set up a day care center the way we want it, and then demand that the state pay for it. It is quite another thing to deliver our children to the State and ask the State to control them not for five but for fifteen hours a day. It is one thing to organize communally the way we want to eat… and then ask the State to pay for it, and it is the opposite thing to ask the State to organize our meals. In one case we regain some control over our lives, in the other we extend the State’s control over us.27

Thus, as they addressed their demands mainly to government, the autonomists were positioned ambiguously vis-à-vis the state, especially because by centering their organizing around demands on the state they inevitably endorsed it. Yet these contradictions posed no problem for them: the state was a giant apparatus of control and dispossession, and these demands aimed to reclaim some of the resources that working people were robbed of. The question, Selma James argued, “was not whether the State can afford to give [the demands], but whether we can afford to continue to give so much to the state.”28 But a radical critique of the state was not exactly on their political horizon.

In this sense, they shared some, perhaps unintended, commonalities with post-Stalinist socialist humanists in the East-European contexts, who also had no radical critique of the state but embraced its forms of social distribution. Insisting that ordinary humans were the creators of their own destiny and their own environment, they saw the institutions of the reproduction of social relations at large as the sites where social mobility could be achieved. Social mobility, seen as a measure of freedom and social wealth, was the precondition for the personal and social self-realization of the post-Stalinist socialist person – “the holistically developed person” or the “all-round development of the individual” which Marx spoke about in his 1844 Manuscripts. 29 Their views of social reproduction, wedded to state governance, became an expression of a seamless convergence between social emancipation and social normalization projects. Yet questions of autonomy, of communal control of land, resources, and labor in the socialist countries was configured in very complex and radically different ways – a topic which needs special consideration.

A forceful critique of the state came from another, often overlooked, tradition on social reproduction. Althusser also wrote about social reproduction in the 1970s, independently of Marxist-feminists and against socialist and Marxist humanists. Among all these traditions, he was the one to expose most forcefully the structural role of the state in capitalist relations.30 Though his work does not attend to the articulations of race and gender under capitalism, Althusser, like feminists, came to the question of social reproduction as a way of challenging traditional productivist and orthodox Marxism. But for him, social reproduction was a more expansive category, which included a range of practices, such as – “the reproduction of the means of production, [and] also the reproduction of labor power – family, housing, children, schooling, health, problems faced by the couple, by young people, etc.”31 Besides the law, the courts, the police, and the prisons, he saw the school, the church, and the family as part of the myriad institutions and everyday practices involved in the reproduction of social relations. Further, similar to the work of Italian autonomists, he saw the factory not just as a place where workers produced commodities and their labor was exploited, but as another site involved in the disciplining of bodies, in the making of working class subjects, and in the reproduction of the working class itself.

Such a definition of social reproduction may seem too diffuse and general to be of any use, but what made it specific and conceptually different was that by reproduction, Althusser meant the reproduction of capitalist relations, or “the relations of exploitation.”32 What fell in the realm of “social reproduction,” therefore, were those practices that reproduce relations of inequality and exploitation, those elements that enable and legitimate the relations of domination and guarantee their continued existence. In this sense, Althusser’s project offered another ambitious re-reading of Marx, suggesting that the primary driving logic of capitalism was not just the extraction of resources and labor power from workers. Coexistent, although not always in concert, with the logic of accumulating surplus value and its economic rationality, was the need to reproduce the hierarchies and forms of subordination on which capitalism depended.

Further, Althusser took into account the role of the state seen as the reproduction of social and class subjugation, and to him we owe one of the most interesting Marxist critiques of state power. Marx had left the issue of state power in a relative void, leaving the question “What is a Marxist critique of the state?” an unresolved theoretical challenge. In his essay “Marx in his Limits” from 1978, Althusser wrote that in orthodox Marxist accounts, the state “issued” directly from the mode of production and figured as an expression of the economic and material organization of labor and production.33 This rather simplistic view was taken to its logical extreme in the Stalinist “base-superstructure” doctrine, which saw the state as a derivative of material-economic relations, secondary to the so-called “base” or the organization of economic life. Instead, Althusser saw the state as that which guaranteed the reproduction of the relations of social inequality and exploitation through a continuum of legal, administrative, discursive, and violent or repressive means. In other words, the state was the necessary precondition for the reproduction of capitalist relations; it made sure that the material and normative premises of capitalist exploitation remain intact, that they are being reproduced in daily life.34

Foucault’s work on governmentality and the biopolitical regulation of “life” continues this Althusserian project, yet his work, mostly written in the context of the welfare state, creates oppositions between repressive and productive forms of power, the sovereign right to kill versus the biopolitical approach of “letting live.”35 Unlike Foucault, Althusser never lost sight of, or interest in, state violence and the logic of state repression, seeing them as continuous with the more productive “technologies” of governance under capitalism – a contribution which is useful to revisit in the present political context.

Implications for the Contemporary Moment

That we have turned back to the 1970s at this particular political moment is not a coincidence: such a turn has been prompted by the exigencies of our struggles. To that effect, Amanda Armstrong wrote, out of the student struggles against austerity and the privatization of public higher education, that “now and then seem to mirror one another” both in the structural conditions and the forms of struggle.36 She showed how the crisis of profitability in some industries in the 1970s propelled intense rounds of layoffs, which in turn spurred “waves of organizing” such as wildcat strikes and various forms of rebellions and organized defiance.37

We would add that the two eras seem to mirror each other negatively as well. Hard-fought gains of waged and unwaged women’s struggles in the 1970s are being currently undone, forcing us to return, once again and rather urgently, to the question of social reproduction. In fact, in the neoliberal context, existing infrastructures of social reproduction, the legacies of welfare state capitalism and socialism, have become instruments of dispossession of the means of survival and extraction of resources from already marginalized communities, often through state-administrative means. Their function is, besides extracting resources, to demand compliance and obedience to the work and debt regime, and to ensure that material wealth and class power remain structurally unavailable to those affected. Mostly falling on communities of color, immigrants, and the poor, these measures reproduce the structural conditions of their class through coercion and repression. As we show elsewhere, these trends have been particularly egregious in the post-industrial urban areas of the Midwest, as in the water shutoffs in Detroit, and the closures of public schools and mental health clinics in Chicago. Predominantly in African-American parts of the city, infrastructures of access to social services and social-reproductive needs have been turned into coercive instruments of dispossession and racialization.38

Further, the question of state repression at the site of social reproduction has emerged today more urgently than ever. The capitalist system and the state have amassed tremendous political instruments to prevent the proliferation of social forms alternative to wage-labor, market relations, and the private property regime, whether they are practiced as forms of survival of those on the margins of the system and by different cultural communities, or whether they are part of political visions of imagining social relations differently. As Armstrong argued, “by sustaining regimes of ownership, by enforcing fees for basic necessities, and by breaking up squats and communal encampments, police forces, the courts, and other state bureaucracies enclose the material conditions of life, making it virtually impossible to reproduce ourselves and each other free of waged work.”39 In other words, the state has criminalized a vast range of social, material, and economic forms of life involved in reshaping social and material relations beyond capitalism and the state, and has been persecuting basic forms of survival, of helping and caring for each other – to make sure that capitalist relations remain dominant. By persecuting activities such as panhandling and performing on the streets and in the subways, feeding others in public, and finding shelter outside the private property regime, and by barring direct access to health and gender-affirming technologies and knowledges, the state “close[s] off,” through repression, “of what we could hold in common.”40

These conditions have made us turn urgently to the question of autonomy, of developing collectively skills and resources necessary for our everyday survival. They lead us to the forging of new autonomous forms of collective governance, networks of mutual care, survival, and well-being, and invite communities to take back the resources and knowledges necessary to care for each other and to continue to survive on a daily basis. Armstrong has called these “insurgent forms of social reproduction.”41 In other words, today, unlike during the 1970s, struggles on the terrain of social reproduction, historically tethered to the state, are facing the challenges to reimagine themselves against or outside of its horizons.42 In the process of building autonomy on the terrain of social reproduction, these struggles can humbly learn from the experience and the collective survival of those permanently barred from the reproductive infrastructures of the state through various legal exclusions. Undocumented and precariously-documented immigrants, as well as ex-felons, have been permanently excluded from access to housing, unemployment, food stamps, and other social resources available to citizens. They have accumulated skills, knowledge, and the resilience and strength to survive in spaces of exclusion and invisibility. In this sense, studying the histories and cultures of social reproduction and survival of immigrant communities, who have been historically excluded from or have had little recourse to state resources, is of greatest importance. Further, transgender and gender non-conforming people, often trapped in the administrative and legal limbos of the state and in the binary regimes of public services and the health care system, have developed means of navigating within and against these institutions’ violence and harassment. Their particular conditions have given rise to body autonomy and gender-hack movements dedicated to reclaiming our bodies from the administrative and regulatory regimes of the medical system and the state. As the political links and possibilities for solidarity between these positions are becoming clearer, critiques of the state and struggles for autonomy can hardly go very far without their experiences and insights. This kind of organizing requires a serious commitment to postcolonial critiques of Eurocentrism and First-World frameworks. This is not only because people of color and immigrants who come from non-First-World and non-Western contexts join our struggles only to be subsumed by U.S. regimes of gender, class, and racial difference – a process which erases their social difference and the histories of oppression and resistance present in the multiple worlds they carry and negotiate. It is also because there is a great deal to learn from indigenous and non-Western cultures of social and communal life. We hope that thinking materialist feminism in these directions opens a wider range of avenues for movements in the present, and for building militant struggle on the terrain of social reproduction.

Sex Work Against Work

While in Anglophone countries the term “sex work” has become quite common, there has been a relative reluctance to discuss it among Francophone intellectuals and activists. Whether among “prohibitionists,” who argue that prostitution can be neither a profession nor work but simply violence, a damage to women’s dignity (as if these two terms were mutually exclusive), or among those who oppose this prohibition yet maintain a kind of “skepticism towards the claim for a recognition of ‘sex work,’” such as Lilian Mathieu, the refusal to speak about sex work is in fact symptomatic of the difficulties that feminists and the left continue to face when discussing women’s labor.1

Even if the topic of sex work might be enjoying growing interest in some parts of the world, the political challenges are by no means new. In the 1970s for example, when a number of feminist collectives launched the “wages for housework” campaign a large part of the left and even of the feminist movement remained hostile to this demand.2 Far from being only a programmatic demand, however, Wages for Housework was instead an invitation; an invitation to radically put not only the whole capitalism system into question, to the extent that capital benefited from the unwaged reproductive work carried out by women, but also the nuclear family itself, in so far as it represents one of the primary places where this exploitation occurs.

Although the Wages for Housework campaign was launched at the very beginning of the 1970s, it was not until 1978 that Carol Leigh, an American sex worker and feminist activist, coined the term “sex work.” And if the claim for “Wages for Housework” might not have the same relevance today now that a large part of domestic work has been commodified – former housewives who have entered the labor market have partly delegated this work to poorer women, especially migrant women – the claim that “sex work is work,” considering the active and often heated discussions it generates, seems more important than ever in our contemporary moment.

Therefore, while certainly taking into account the evolutions in the configuration of the reproductive sector, I will show how “sex work is work” aligns with the struggles for “a wage for housework”; in other words, we will aim to better discern and outline the mutual stakes of the housewives’ struggles and those of sex workers, so as to reaffirm the necessary solidarity between women and the inseparable character of feminist and anti-capitalist struggles. This will allow us to better grasp the relations between sex work and capitalism, and thus reaffirm the need, especially for the left and for feminism, to support these struggles in the name of the revolutionary process they open on to.

Sex Work as Reproductive Work

There are many reasons why we can insist on the kinship between the Wages for Housework movement and those struggles unfolding today that claim “sex work is work.”

First, each of these struggles emerged out of the formidable mobilizations of the feminist movement, which took place on the theoretical terrain as much as the practical one. If the Wages for Housework movement’s affiliation with feminism has always appeared evident, this has not been the same for the sex workers’ movement. We should recall that it was during a feminist conference that Carol Leigh first felt the need to speak about “sex work.”3 We can also note that, according to Silvia Federici, the feminist movement not only allowed the concept of sex work to emerge, but feminism may have also played a role in increasing the overall number of women engaged in sex work:

I think that to some extent, […] but […] to a limited extent, that the increase in the number of women who are turning to sex work has also had to do with the feminist movement. It has given a contribution to undermining that kind of moral stigma attached to sex work. I think the women’s movement has also given power, for example, to prostitutes to represent themselves a sex workers.

It’s not an accident that in the wake of feminist movement you have the beginning of a sex worker’s movement, throughout Europe, for instance. So that the stigma, the feminists, they really attacked that hypocrisy: the holy mother, that vision of women, the whole self-sacrificial, and the prostitute, which is the woman who does sexual work but for money.4

Federici’s definition of the prostitute as “the woman who does sexual work, but for money” points to yet another reason why it is legitimate to connect the struggles of housewives to that of sex workers: since work can exist even where there is no money, sex work is not solely a prerogative of professional sex workers.

One of the main contributions of feminist theorists, especially Marxist-feminists, was to show that just because an activity is not waged does not mean that it is not functional work relating to capitalism. In other words, it is not because an exchange appears to be free that it escapes from capitalist dynamics – much to the contrary. By analyzing “the history of capitalism from the viewpoint of women and reproduction,”5 Marxist-feminist theorists such as Federici have shown that domestic work performed by women – voluntarily inasmuch as it is considered to be what they naturally to do out of love – serves, beyond those who directly benefit from it – workers, future workers, or former workers – the interests of the capitalists, who consequently do not need to take into account the cost for this reproduction in the value of the labor-power they buy.

Beginning with ourselves as women, we know that the working day for capital does not necessarily produce a paycheck, it does not begin and end at the factory gates, and we rediscover the nature and extent of house- work itself. For as soon as we raise our heads from the socks we mend and the meals we cook and look at the totality of our working day, we see that while it does not result in a wage for ourselves, we nevertheless produce the most precious product to appear on the capitalist market: labor power.6

The diverse activities women perform at home – such as looking after the children, preparing meals for the men who come back from their day at work, or providing care for the elderly or ill – count as work that, although it may not not produce commodities in the same way the proletarian laborer does in the factory, nevertheless produces and reproduces what is necessary, indeed, “most precious,” to capitalists: the labor-power that a capitalist buys from the worker. According to this approach, there is no fundamental difference between ironing, cooking, and sex from the perspective of their functions in the capitalist mode of production – all of these activities relate to the more general category of reproductive work. Silvia Federici and Nicole Cox continue:

Housework is much more than house cleaning. It is servicing the wage earners physically, emotionally, sexually, getting them ready for work day after day. It is taking care of our children—the future workers—assisting them from birth through their school years, ensuring that they too perform in the ways expected of them under capitalism. This means that behind every factory, behind every school, behind every office or mine there is the hidden work of millions of women who have consumed their life, their labor, producing the labor power that works in those factories, schools, offices, or mines.7

And while some may think that sex now appears less and less as a service provided by a woman to her spouse after so-called “sexual liberation,” itself led by feminism, that “liberation” in fact only further burdens women:

Sexual freedom does not help. Certainly it is important that we are not stoned to death if we are “unfaithful,” or if it is found that we are not “virgins.” But “sexual liberation” has intensified our work. In the past, we were just expected to raise children. Now we are expected to have a waged job, still clean the house and have children and, at the end of a double workday, be ready to hop in bed and be sexually enticing. For women the right to have sex is the duty to have sex and to enjoy it (something which is not expected of most jobs), which is why there have been so many investigations, in recent years, concerning which parts of our body—whether the vagina or the clitoris—are more sexually productive.8

Finally, it should be noted that while Silvia Federici mostly refers to the heterosexual nuclear family, she does not see any end to the function of sex as work through homosexuality:

Homosexuality and heterosexuality are both working conditions…but homosexuality is workers’ control of production, not the end of work.9

This approach to sex, which treats it as an integral part of reproductive labor, allows us to reject the idea that there is some fundamental distinction between so-called “free sex,” as performed within the couple, and what we today call sex work, prostitution.

Or as in Leopoldina Fortunati’s puts it, “the family and prostitution are the main sectors, the backbone of the entire process [of reproduction]”:

Within the two main sectors, the fundamental labor processes are: (1) the process of production and reproduction of labor power and (2) the specifically sexual reproduction of male labor power. This is not to say that the family does not include the sexual reproduction of male labor power, but (despite often being posited as central) it is in fact only one of the many “jobs” that housework entails.10

From this point, Fortunati obliges us to think of the family and prostitution not as opposed institutions, but rather complementary ones: “its function [of prostitution] must be to support and complement housework.”11

This approach to prostitution in terms of reproductive labor allows us not only to highlight a common condition of women – beyond the division between the mother and the whore, since even if one performs it freely, while the other explicitly asks for money, for both, sex is work – but above all allows us to better understand the position of the sex industry in the capitalist system. Whereas most contemporary theories are essentially interested in capitalist dynamics in the sex industry through an analysis of the relations of production and exploitation between sex workers and their bosses/pimps and/or their clients, this perspective invites us to ultimately consider these two figures as only intermediary forms of the exploitation which benefits, in the last analysis, capital. It then becomes necessary to stop interpreting the criminalization of sex workers exclusively as sexual repression (with evident gendered and racist dynamics) and begin to see it as a kind of repression that fundamentally serves specific economic interests which are secured through sex, class and gender dynamics.

A Whore Army

Yet the apparently shared position of housewives and sex workers in relation to capital as reproductive laborers should not obscure a fundamental difference between their respective situations: unlike domestic labor, sex work is stigmatized and criminalized. Whether it is a prohibitionist regime as in most states of the United States, a regulatory one as in Germany, or an allegedly abolitionist one in France, sex work is criminalized in almost every country in the world, with the exception of New Zealand and New South Wales (Australia) – two countries that nevertheless have strong restrictions on migrant labor. This particular situating of sex work within the broader category of reproductive labor is not without consequences, not only for sex workers themselves, but for all women and workers: the specific treatment of sex work, or more exactly, its evolution between criminalization and liberalization, needs to be read in the more general context of the tensions caused by the dynamics of capitalism, patriarchy, and racism that structure our society.

In her Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici provides us with a historical approach according to which the repression of prostitutes starting in the sixteenth century is linked with the emergence of the capitalist mode of production, for which the free character of women’s labor is a an essential foundation.

But no sooner has prostitution become the main form of subsistence for a large female population than the institutional attitude towards it changed. Whereas in the late Middle Ages it had been officially accepted as a necessary evil, and prostitutes had benefited from the high wage regime, in the 16th century, the situation was reversed. In a climate of intense misogyny, characterized by the advance of the Protestant Reformation and witch-hunting, prostitution was first subjected to new restrictions and then criminalized. Everywhere, between 1530 and 1560, town brothels were closed and prostitutes, especially street-walkers, were subjected to sever penalties: banishment, flogging, and other cruel forms of chastisement. […]

What can account for this drastic attack on female workers ? And how does the exclusion of women from the sphere of socially recognized work and monetary relations relate to the imposition of forced maternity upon them, and the contemporary massification of the witch-hunt?

Looking at these phenomena from a vantage point of the present, after four centuries of capitalist disciplining of women, the answers may seem to impose themselves. Though women’s waged work, housework, and (paid) sexual work are still studied all too often in isolation from each other, we are now in a better position to see that the discrimination that women have suffered in the wage work-force has been directly rooted in their function as unpaid laborers in the home. We can thus compare the banning of prostitution and the expulsion of women from the organized workplace with the creation of the housewife and the reconstruction of the family as the locus for the production of labor power.12

Later, during the French Revolution, a time that witnessed an extension of the sphere of consumption, prostitution was decriminalized in 1791. Clyde Plumauzille, who specializes in the history of prostitution in this period, discusses the organization of prostitution in the Palais-Royal:

Prostitution of the Palais-Royal then participates to a set of wider apparatus connected to the “revolution of consumption that affects the whole society” (Roche, 1887; Coquery, 2011): development of the advertising technics with the prostitutes’ directories, diversification of the offer in order to reach a wider public, ostentatious windows and “commodification” of prostitutional sexuality. [The] first sex market in the capital, the Palais-Royal thus facilitated the constitution of a type of prostitution firmly consumerist, between sexual and economic emancipation and commercialization of women’s body.13

This apparent liberalization was less the result of a weakening of control over women’s bodies than of an adjustment of the market to what appeared to be inevitable, even though women’s status left them with no other option than a dependency on men. However, if courtesans in the nicer districts were tolerated, even appreciated, the same cannot be said for prostitutes issuing from the working class, and the intensification of the policing and renewed confinement of prostitutes was in fact a response to this “massification” of prostitution within the popular classes.

To understand this repression of mass prostitution, we have to grasp the link between the regulation of prostitution and capitalist relations of production. Between the French Revolution and the Belle Époque, a long period unfolded in which the ensemble of institutions distinctive of the capitalist mode of production took hold in French society: the Directory, the two Empires, and the beginning of the Third Republic all consolidate the modern forms of exploitation that emerged during the last decades of the Ancien Régime, including the more advanced sectors of agriculture in the north of France and innovations in the chemical, textile, and coal mining sectors.14 The nineteenth century is marked by the generalization of market institutions and the process of rendering the laboring classes dependent upon the market and their employers. Prostitution, and the condition of women in general, did not escape this logic. With the increasing separation of the home from the workplace, as well as the mechanization of labor and the regulation of industries, women were caught in a kind of double bind – caught between the sectors that had little regulation (domestic work, sewing workshops) and largely excluded from the majority of those sectors that were regulated. When they entered the labor market, women played the role of a surplus workforce for capital, what Karl Marx calls the “industrial reserve army”:

By the destruction of petty and domestic industries it destroys the last resort of the “redundant population,” and with it the sole remaining safety-valve of the whole social mechanism.15

As a recent study on prostitution in the Goutte d’Or during the Belle Epoque shows, the regulation of prostitution actually met considerable resistance from sex workers by way of their growing refusal to work for an exclusive employer.16 The street prostitution of the “rebellious” can therefore be understood as a type of worker insubordination: it allowed proletarian women to earn an additional income in those cases where they also worked a waged job and, alternatively, to gain an income pure and simple when they did not have another job. In both situations, the lack of regulation in prostitution actually constituted a point of leverage for women workers – as an enhancement of their bargaining power against capital and patriarchy.

This relation between the role of regulation and sex work, and its connection to forms of labor insubordination among prostitutes, is significant. First, it indicates that we cannot separate sex work and work in general. Second, it shows that the struggles of sex workers possess a very precise gender and class dimension. Lastly, it points to the fact that there cannot be a strict opposition between a regulationist regime and an abolitionist/prohibitionist one. In both cases (and in the hybrid forms that lie between the two systems), it is a question of how to discipline prostituted women and put them to work, which these women then contest by asserting their interests and attempting to strengthen their bargaining power. Before coming back to these aspects in the contemporary era, we still have to understand the reasons for these abolitionist movements and trace their emergence.

Originally, from the end of the nineteenth century onward, women’s groups began to wage a struggle against prostitution in order to denounce this regulationism; while a moral panic concerning supposed white slavery [traite des Blanches] became successful internationally, the abolitionist movement met a very favorable reception, which led in 1946 to the Loi Marthe Richard, which endorsed the closure of brothels. In its preamble, the 1949 United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others explains that “prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and endanger the welfare of the individual, the family and the community.” According to this Convention, to be considered a trafficking victim, it is enough to be procured, enticed, or led away for purposes of prostitution. The Palermo protocols (adopted by the United Nations in 2000) proposes an alternative definition of trafficking:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.17

Although this definition is both wider (every form of exploitation can be for the purpose of trafficking) and more restrictive (it mentions “exploitation of prostitution” but nothing about “prostitution” in itself, and one would expect that its major victims experience it as a form of constraint or as someone taking advantage of their vulnerable situation) than the 1949 definition, it is still intentionally fuzzy since it does not define the notion of exploitation. This blurring allowed France to translate “exploitation of prostitution” into “pimping” [“proxénétisme”] when it introduced and adapted the definition of trafficking into its penal code. Since the definition of pimping in France is particularly wide – allowing the state to sanction any support given to the prostitution of others– this means that the new French trafficking infraction does not contradict the conception of trafficking upheld in the 1949 Convention. In other words, while common law measures do exist to respond to efforts to penalize forced labor, whether in prostitution or elsewhere, prostitution is still subjected to specific measures that penalize it as such.

What is the function of this specific penalization? What broader dynamics does it belong to? What are its consequences? Many answers have already been proposed to these questions, but too often these answers refer to the repression of a prostitution which is, if not idealized, at least ideal, in that it fails to account for the tensions and conflicts that traverse the sex industry. A synthesis of the main theories of the repression of sex work, then, with a view of the general dynamics hat traverse the sphere of reproductive labor, should help us to carefully grasp the stakes of the sex workers’ struggle. Beyond purely historical approaches, it is also worthwhile to take into account the function of this repression and the stigmatization of sex workers in relation to the sexual economy as such. If this repression does have a specific function in a capitalist economy that relies – among other things – on the appropriation of the free labor of women, then an understanding of this economic context is not sufficient to account for the multiple tensions determining this repression.

Paola Tabet’s work shows that if a certain stigma defines prostitution, it does not need the capitalist system to be expressed. In many non-capitalist societies, some women are stigmatized as prostitutes, not just because they take part in a sexual-economic exchange, but because they take part in an exchange that escapes the established rules of the exchange of women in a patriarchal system. Tabet’s works recall an earlier essay by Gayle Rubin, published in 1975 under the title “The Traffic in Women,” which also sets out to explain the oppression of women without subordinating it to its potential role in capitalism. In another essay, “Thinking Sex,” Rubin is especially concerned with analyzing in more detail the systems of sexual hierarchies that structure our societies:

Modern Western societies appraise sex acts according to a hierarchical system of sexual value. […] Individuals whose behavior stands high in this hierarchy are rewarded with certified mental health, respectability, legality, social and physical mobility, institutional support, and material benefits. As sexual behaviors or occupations fall lower on the scale, the individuals who practice them are subjected to a presumption of mental illness, disreputability, criminality, restricted social and physical mobility, loss of institutional support, and economic sanctions.

Extreme and punitive stigma maintains some sexual behaviors as low status and is an effective sanction against those who engage in them. The intensity of this stigma is rooted in Western religious traditions. But most of its contemporary content derives from medical and psychiatric opprobrium.18

In this sense, prostitution is repressed and stigmatized as a deviance, akin to homosexuality, according to a system that constructs oppositions between different types of sexual practices such as the homosexual/heterosexual, free/venal, etc. Rubin’s theory thus presents the repression of sex work as not necessarily holding a subordinate function in regards to an economic order, but as taking place in an autonomous sexual system, in which external interests (economic, but also religious or medical) converge.

Elizabeth Bernstein, a theorist of neoliberalism, analyzes the repression of sex work as a way to reaffirm the boundaries between the intimate and the public sphere, and thus considers contemporary abolitionist campaigns as taking part in:19

a neoliberal (rather than a traditionalist) sexual agenda, one that locates social problems in deviant individuals rather than mainstream institutions, that seeks social remedies through criminal justice interventions rather than through a redistributive welfare state, and that advocates for the beneficence of the privileged rather than the empowerment of the oppressed.20

Thus the repression of prostitution appears not simply as a means to reinforce a certain economic order, but rather as a means to impose the neoliberal logic into the sexual economy itself. And precisely because sex work does not escape from neoliberalism any more than other sectors of productive or reproductive labor, it has to be considered from the same perspective as other sectors of reproductive labor.

In her research on what she calls “femonationalism,” Sara Farris notes that the migration of women who are pushed to work in the reproductive sector, contrary to the migration of migrant men, is quite supported by the state, in the context of the state’s withdrawal from the management of services such as child caring, and a context marked by increasing numbers of “national” women in the productive sector:

Rather than job stealers, cultural clashers, and welfare provision parasites, migrant women are the maids who help to maintain the well-being of European families and individuals. They are the providers of jobs and welfare: they are those who, by helping European women to undo gender by substituting for them in the household, allow those national women to become laborers in the productive labor market. Furthermore, migrant women contribute to the education of children and to the survival and emotional life of the elderly, thus providing the welfare goods from whose provision states increasingly retreat. […] The useful role that female migrant labor plays in the contemporary re-structuring of welfare regimes and the feminization of key sectors of the service economy accounts in a significant way for a certain indulgence by neoliberal governments and for the deceptive compassion of nationalist parties towards migrant women (and not migrant men). […] Despite attempts in the last few years by several EU countries, to establish “the demographic advantage of a certain nationality,” as Judith Butler put it, calls for assimilation addressed to migrant women – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – identify a specific role for them within contemporary European societies, insofar as they are regarded as prolific bodies of future generations and as mothers who play a crucial role in the process of transmission of societal values. As a useful replacement in the reproductive sector for national women, but also as potential wives of European men, migrant women become the target of a deceivingly benevolent campaign in which they are needed as workers, tolerated as migrants, and encouraged as women to conform to Western values.21

Femonationalism, as Farris defines it, names “the contemporary mobilization of feminist ideas by nationalist parties and neoliberal governments under the banner of the war against the perceived patriarchy of Islam in particular, and of migrants from the Global South in general.”22 To put it another way, the rhetoric of discourses that defend the integration of migrant women through labor appears, in the end, to be much less about these women’s interests than about those of the national economy and its workforce, with these female workers assuring the reproduction of the latter at a low cost. In this context, “the female migrant workforce thus seems to amount not to a reserve army, constantly threatened with unemployment and deportation and used in order to maintain wage discipline,” as it was common in the 1970s and 1980s to describe “women as extra-domestic waged,” but rather to “a regular army of extremely cheap labor.”23

Even if the encouragement for the migration of women destined to the reproductive sector seems to fall within a policy opposed to very severe restrictions on the migration of sex workers, these two distinct policies can actually be considered as complementary: first, we can note that the anti-trafficking discourse, and anti-prostitution discourse more generally, which aims to save women from migration networks that supposedly exploit them, and insists on the necessity for “reintegration,” that is to say, reintegration into the legal national economy (that means, primarily for migrant women, relegation to the domestic and care labor sector), do participate in what Sara Farris calls “femonationalism.” Although globalized capitalism dispossesses women from their means of survival, today especially in African and Asian countries, resulting in a massification of migration (and of prostitution), the repression of sex workers, in a context of the commodification of reproductive labor performed by migrant women, constitutes them as a “regular army of extremely cheap labor” on the model of domestic workers, because it has the effect of maintaining sex workers in a precarious situation.

To put it another way, since the repression of sex workers causes their precarization, this repression does not only initiate a shift in the balance of power in favor of clients, third parties, and pimps, but further serves the entire capitalist, patriarchal, and racist economic system that benefits from the cheap cost of this sector of reproductive labor. More precisely, in this sustained precarization of sex workers one can analyze their institutionalized constitution as the reserve army of the domestic workers, and therefore see the formation of a three-level system structuring women’s labor. At the first level, there is the female workforce, confined to the reproductive sector and paid less than men, and which participates in a system that still imposes a heterosexist model over women, since marriage appears as a means to reach a living standard that their wages do not independently allow. At the second level, migratory policies that maintain the cheap costs of domestic labor also reinforce the cheaper wages received by women hired to work in the productive sector. Finally, at the level of sex work, repression and stigmatization appear as threats to women who would not accept the conditions of exploitation in waged work, domestic work, or in marriage.

In this way, anti-sex work discourses – which only view the sexual exploitation of women in terms of non-commodified sex, and only see the basis for economic emancipation in legal forms of labor, especially in the productive sector – actually seem to encourage, contrary to what they claim, this exploitation through a form of work that is all the more exploited, since it appears as free, spontaneous, and natural. The demand for sex work as work, on the other hand, forces us to rethink the relations of reproduction with the aim of doing away with exploitation, whether waged or not.

Sex Work Against Work

As I have tried to show up to this point, the question of “prostitution” should not be restricted to a gender-only perspective. It is on the contrary necessary for the left to grasp the political content of sex work understood as a sector of reproductive labor. It is true, as Silvia Federici comments in her text “Reproduction and Feminist Struggle in the New International Division of Labor,” that the real stakes of reproductive labor have been too often ignored by the feminist movement itself:

If the feminist movement had struggled to make the state recognize reproductive work as work and take financial responsibility for it, we might not have seen the dismantling of the few welfare provisions available to us, and a new colonial solution to the “housework question.”24

For this reason, the sex work debate should be approached as a new occasion to (re)think this question, and furthermore, to build a true opposition to the liberal politics that has for so long controlled the discourse surrounding this question, with the consequences we have observed (femonationalism, liberalization of the sex industry only in favor pimps, an increase in the amount of work performed by women following state disengagement from public services, etc).

To affirm that sex work is work therefore appears as a necessary step insofar as it concerns the struggle against capitalism as well as women’s emancipation, above all their sexual emancipation. It is in this sense that we can qualify the political efficacy of this slogan “sex work is work” by repeating Kathi Weeks’ assessment of the Wages for Housework campaign as “a reformist project with revolutionary aspirations.”25 Indeed, if the struggle against the criminalization of sex work might initially appear to be a reformist project, essentially consisting of requests for a legislative change in order to ameliorate sex workers’ labor conditions, then to apprehend sex work as work nonetheless opens up more ambitious and expansive perspectives for emancipation.

Concerning the struggle against criminalization, it’s enough to recall that if sex workers can be defined as the reserve army of exploited women, be it because of waged work, domestic work, or marriage, then the improvement of their conditions can only be beneficial. In the same way, if the persistence of the stigma around prostitution acts like a threat upon all women in the sense that it not only limits their liberties, but above all legitimizes forms of violence against them, then the struggle against the stigmatization of sex work should be a priority in the feminist agenda. And in so far as the “anti-prostitution” struggle, on a global scale, essentially takes the form of the anti-trafficking (such as defined by the 1949 UN Convention) struggle – through the funding by western governments of NGOs intervening in the Global South to “save” the potential victims of this trafficking – the end goal of these politics would mean more autonomy for the sex workers concerned, who are today regular victims, in many countries, of a kind of humanitarian imperialism through NGOs and personalities making up the “rescue industry.”26 Additionally, while a clear majority of sex workers in western countries are migrants or non-white workers, as are most of those “supporting” their activity and then condemned for pimping, in those countries the struggle against sex work mostly takes the form of a racist offensive that participates in the systematic incarceration of non-white populations. If some can take advantage of this situation, as it emerges from the racist division of sex work, in order to claim the need to penalize the male clients who benefit from sex work – and who are presumed to be primarily white – then the desire to restore equilibrium by reinforcing the very same instruments of this systemic racism seems, on the contrary, dangerous.27 My point is not to uncritically defend third parties and other beneficiaries of the sex industry: the decriminalization of sex work has to be understood as a way of reinforcing the autonomy of sex workers vis-à-vis the situations of clandestinity that make their exploitation easier. In this context, the frequently expressed fears that the recognition of sex work would only give more weight to the sexist and racist division of labor seem not only unfounded, but above all, this recognition constitutes a precondition for the struggle against this division and the oppressions it causes.

To refuse to recognize sex work is to effectively reinforce the division between “true” labor, especially waged work, entitled to be present in the public sphere, and “non-labor,” which takes place in the private sphere. The point is therefore to do away with this opposition between the productive sphere of waged work and the exchanges considered to belong to the non-commodified private sphere, since this opposition, which only serves to hide labor that is performed but not taken into account into the wage, is only profitable for capital:

We have learned from Marx that the wage hides the unpaid labor that goes into profit. But measuring work by the wage also hides the extent to which our familial and social relations have been subordinated to the relations of production – they have become relations of production – so that every moment of our lives functions for the accumulation of capital. The wage, and the lack of it, have allowed capital to obscure the real length of our working day. Work appears as just one compartment of our lives, taking place only in certain times and spaces. The time we consume in the “social factory,” preparing ourselves for work or going to work, restoring our “muscles, nerves, bones and brains” with quick snacks, quick sex, movies, all this appears as leisure, free time, individual choice.28

In other words, the question is how to expand the scope of the feminist slogan “the personal is political” in order to include not only the reproduction of male domination inside the private sphere, but also the reproduction of the dynamics favorable to capitalism. In other words, as Lise Vogel reminds us about domestic work, the division between the sphere of waged work and the sphere considered as merely part of the private sphere, especially in a patriarchal society, only reinforces the structures of domination:

The highly institutionalized demarcation of domestic labour from wage-labour in a context of male supremacy forms the basis for a series of powerful ideological structures, which develop a forceful life of their own.29

To affirm that “sex work is work,” and that sex, waged or not, can be work, must open the possibility for a process of dis-identification – to employ the term used by Kathi Weeks in reference to the Wages for Housework campaign – of women from the sexuality to which they are, in a patriarchal capitalist society, often constrained. As Cox and Federici put it, women can determine what they “are not.”30

In the same way, with the idea that “sex work is work,” even if the point is that we do not yet know which sexuality to (re)build in the perspective of a feminist struggle, it is at least a question of knowing about which one we do not want – a sexuality of services organized according to the sexist division of labor. As Silvia Federici writes:

We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love and create our sexuality, which we have never known.31

Thus, with the “sex work is work” slogan, we do not mean to ask for sex work to be considered as “a job like the others,” so that its decriminalization would be its own end. The enforcement of such a liberal politics, as witnessed with the German or Dutch examples, essentially serves the interests of the bosses of the sex industry, so that the only effect of these policies is to put sex workers’ compensation in the hands of the capitalists. The point is, on the contrary, to reaffirm that if this recognition of sex work is necessary, it’s precisely because only though a clear identification of sex work will women then have the power to refuse it, within the framework of a broader struggle for the refusal of work and a radical refoundation of society and its dynamics of reproduction.

Conclusion

The analysis of sex work in terms of reproductive work brings many advantages.

First, by inviting us to look at the sex industry not only as a simple industry in which capitalist, sexist, and racist dynamics are deployed, it allows us to consider the fundamental role that sex work itself plays at the very heart of the capitalist system. In other words, the point is not only to consider sex workers’ exploitation by way of the direct beneficiaries of sex work – pimps, third parties, clients – but rather to consider these latter only as the mediators of the more global exploitation of women by capital.

Second, in allowing us to analyze the dynamics at work in the repression of sex work, a repression notably linked to the issue of managing migration, introducing sex workers into the more general category of reproductive workers, side by side with domestic or care workers, allow us to grasp the stakes of sex workers’ struggles in terms of the struggle against neoliberalism and especially its effects on migrant or Third World women.

Finally, by enabling us to rethink the very notion of labor, these analyses offer an opportunity to provide a new dynamic to the struggle against the appropriation of labor, a dynamic that can, in particular, allow us to take into account all those workers traditionally excluded from these struggles and who are often left to fight in isolation, in spite and in consequence of the devastating effects of capitalism on their lives (those who are precariously self-employed, single mothers, sex workers, domestic workers, midwives, etc), in the aim of radically calling into question the division of labor and the ideologies – especially racist and sexist ideologies – on which it rests.

Social Reproduction Beyond Intersectionality: An Interview

Viewpoint: We can begin with the concept of social reproduction itself. In your recent foreword to the reissue of Lise Vogel’s classic 1983 work, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, you locate Vogel’s distinct contribution to the Marxist-feminist thought in her inquiry into the “conditions of possibility of labor-power,” or the manner in which labor power is biologically, socially, and generationally reproduced. From this important point it is then possible to trace the inner connections of activities and relationships that are necessary for the continued existence of wage labor and processes of class formation outside of production. In your opinion, how does social reproduction transform the categories of Marxist class analysis? What is its theoretical and political importance?

David McNally and Sue Ferguson: First, there’s the question of a category transformation. As your question points out, the social reproduction approach transforms our understanding of labor-power. In conventional Marxist analyses, labor-power is simply presumed to be present – a given factor of capitalist production. At best, it is understood as the product of natural, biologically determined, regenerative processes. In socializing labor-power – in unearthing its insertion in history, society, and culture – social reproduction feminism reveals, in the first instance, that labor-power cannot simply be presumed to exist, but is made available to capital only because of its reproduction in and through a particular set of gendered and sexualized social relations that exist beyond the direct labor/capital relation, in the so-called private sphere. It also sharpens our understanding of the contradictory position of labor-power with respect to capital – identifying all aspects of our social reproduction – of our quest to satisfy human needs, to live – as essential to, but also a drag on, accumulation (because capital pays indirectly for this through wages, benefits, and taxes).

These are the key insights of the early generation of social reproduction feminists. But, as more recent scholarship suggests, this approach also reveals labor-power itself to be a more complex, differentiated, category. When one attends to the social reproductive relations, it becomes clear that – despite the equalizing impulses of capitalist value extraction – all labor-power is not the same. Certain workers, indeed increasingly so, are more vulnerable to heightened oppression than others – not due to any difference in the ways in which capitalist laws of accumulation operate, but because oppressive relations beyond the workplace mediate the social reproduction of labor-power, ensuring not only that workers arrive at capital’s doorstep, but that they do so embodying varying degrees of degradation or dehumanization.

This leads to your second question, the theoretical importance of the social reproduction approach. In explaining the interconnection of the unwaged work we do to reproduce ourselves on the one hand, and waged work on the other, social reproduction feminism presents us with a complexly differentiated yet nonetheless unified understanding of social totality. This is its central theoretical contribution to Marxism. With the turn from dual systems analysis to intersectionality, radical social theorists have convincingly presented us with an image of the messy experiential world, and they have identified key social, political, economic and psychological dynamics that sustain patriarchal, racialized, and settler colonial relations to name but a few. And the best intersectionality accounts have rightly insisted that it is impossible to isolate any particular set of oppressive relations from the other. Yet they’ve not developed any coherent explanation of how and why, for instance, heterosexualized relations intersect with patriarchal relations in some ways and not others (why the family, though its form changes over time to accommodate, for instance, same-sex marriage, nonetheless remains a private institution through which heteronormativity and patriarchy are routinely if not always affirmed). One reason for this has to do with intersectionality feminism’s inadequate theorization of the social totality, the overall processes or dynamic in and through which discrete social relations intersect. This dynamic is either not theorized at all or is simply assumed to be neutral, void of power relations itself. And this means, of course, that despite claiming distinct oppressions are co-constitutive, they are in fact treated as ontologically distinct systems, crisscrossing or inter-meshing in space.

The social reproduction approach, on the other hand, posits a capitalist totality. A capitalist social whole is defined, in the first instance, by the separation of workers (by which we mean all people who work to reproduce themselves and their world, the social reproducers in other words) from the means of their subsistence (or social reproduction). This is a bare fact of existence under capitalism, and as such, it broadly shapes what is possible – within the labor/capital relation, to be sure, but also within our gendered, racialized, hetersexualized, etc. relations beyond the workplace.

While to speak of capitalist determination may sound like a throw-back to Marxist fundamentalism, there is nothing mechanically causal in this notion of determination. Patriarchy and racism, according to this perspective, are not presumed to be directly functional to the needs of capital; they did not arise because capital called them into being. Rather the capitalist imperative to accumulate is determinative in the sense that it sets limits to what is possible, even if the specific possibilities – the degree of women’s participation in the workforce, for example, or access to abortion – are themselves altered through struggle.

By this reckoning, the precise relations through which we socially reproduce ourselves can vary quite a bit. And people can and do continually modify these relations in ways that best accommodate their needs, and may in fact be disruptive to capitalism’s needs for labor-power. People choose, for instance, to live in all types of relationships, including childless relationships. Men, women, and transgendered people might share the housework and childcare equally. Others may choose to spend time painting pictures that will never sell, staring into space, or fighting racism on the streets. None of that is functional to capitalism, and all of it prioritizes human need over the reproduction of labor-power for capital. But, so long as certain oppressive forms of relations facilitate (rather than hinder) the task of bringing labor-power to capital’s doorstep, there will be powerful forces (be they the institutions and practices of state, civil society or capital) sustaining racism, sexism and other oppressions – and discouraging alternative forms of human relations. As a result, the degree to which people can take control over their lives beyond the workplace – the degree, for instance, that women can take control of the conditions of their waged work and reproductive work and bodies, or that racialized people can control housing, childcare and food distribution in their communities – is, within capitalism, limited. Put differently, there is a reason that oppressive practices and institutions have not disappeared under capitalism on their own accord, and why they will remain points of struggle for as long as capitalism survives.

And this brings us to the final question, that of the political importance of social reproduction. Let’s agree that capitalism’s reproduction requires something more than the direct labor/capital relation, “economic” exchanges and laws of motion – that in fact it critically depends upon the messy, complex, set of lived relations carried out by differently gendered, sexualized, racialized human beings. If this is the case, then we need to also realize that racialized, sexualized, gendered bodies, practices, and institutions matter: racism and sexism are not historical aberrations that can somehow be separated from capitalism’s “real” or “ideal” functioning. Rather, they are integral to and determinant of – in the sense that they really and actively facilitate– actual processes of capital dispossession and accumulation. By the same reasoning, challenging racism, sexism, or any oppression that impacts the social reproduction of labor-power, can hinder the reproduction of capital.

It is in this sense that “movement” or non-workplace struggles are class struggles. That is, they are themselves potentially anti-capitalist in essence, just like a workplace struggle is always incipiently anti-capitalist. And just as downing tools can make the capitalist heart skip a beat, so can a movement that demands the end to the differential degradation of human life, full and communal access to the means of subsistence, control over our own human bodies. Certainly, no singular movement or workplace struggle of course will bring the capitalist heart to a full stop. But each disruption reverberates throughout the body, potentially weakening its pulse. So the political importance of the social reproduction approach lies in its capacity to show the importance of struggling on many fronts, but with an explicit anti-capitalist orientation.

VP: In your piece in the recent issue of the Socialist Register, you focus on the connection between social reproduction and migrant labor, particularly in the North American context. Now, the topic of immigration or migration has been covered extensively by Marxist scholars in Europe, but within the United States, Canada, and Mexico, comparatively little has been done to elaborate research on migrant labor into a broad and contemporary Marxist theory. There are exceptions of course – Rosemary Hennessy’s recent book comes to mind – but by and large, the politics of immigrant-rights organizations are not articulated in a Marxist or socialist language. Do you see your piece as contributing to this larger project, i.e., viewing processes of migration and racialization as inseparable from class and gender analysis?

DM and SF: The short answer to your question is yes. A Marxist social reproduction theory helps us draw out and explore the contradiction at the heart of the formation of labor-power. After all, capitalism has a tendency to render labor homogeneous and interchangeable. At the same time, there is no discrete commodity called labor-power just waiting on the market for purchase by capital. Instead, there are concrete human beings who are “bearers” of labor-power, to use Marx’s apt expression. As a result, the capacity for abstract labor is tied to concrete persons. And such persons exist in real, differentiated places and spaces. Just as labor-power must be produced and reproduced in actual social relations, so these relations subsist in concrete space and time. Yet, and this is another tendency of the system, the spaces of capital are differentiated according to regimes of race and empire. All of this massively affects the actual treatment of the living “bearers” of labor-power, particularly if they are racially degraded, or located as outsiders to the principal zones of capitalist accumulation.

There is an economistic strain in much of radical political economy which tends to default to the idea of “labor” as a commodity with its own markets, just like real estate or investment goods. Social reproduction theory demystifies all this by pushing on Marx’s insight about the human bearers of labor-power and then posing questions about the conditions of their production and reproduction. And theorizing the concrete sites of that reproduction requires not only attending to household and community practices – the key insight of early social reproduction theory – but also to the social-geographic location of those households and communities in a racialized social hierarchy within and between nation-states.

And here questions of migration come to the fore. After all, labor-power today is being massively reproduced at low-wage sites outside the core zones of capitalist production and accumulation. In some cases, capital can migrate to set up production, distribution and informational networks in areas where labor-power is cheap. But in cases of work that is spatially immobile – agro-business, childcare for wealthy families in the Global North, or construction, restaurant and hotel service work in those same zones – cheap labor-power (and its human bearers) must be brought to where this work is directly required. But, because its human bearers are generally desperate, they can be attracted without offers of full legal and political rights and membership. This results in differentiated statuses borne by many migrant workers, and the heightened precarity, degradation and oppression that go with them.

Of course, many commentators have provided rich descriptions of temporary worker regimes and the forms of servitude they entail. Much of this work is highly valuable. But we believe that a Marxist social reproduction approach can theorize migrant labor in ways that more fully grasp its role in late capitalism and the multi-dimensionality of the class formations involved, particularly their gendered and racialized dimensions. To offer just one example, consider the spatial separation of sites of household reproduction from those of paid employment. To theorize this adequately we need to attend not only to the physical movement of migrant workers across borders, but also to the counter-flows of chunks of their wages (in the form of remittances), as well as the work of nurturing and educating children, currently reliant on those remittances, who will likely compose part of the global reserve army of labor available for migration to the capitalist core. Social reproduction analysis has the capacity to link these flows of people and wages, as well as the spatially and nationally separated practices of waged work and social reproduction into a complex yet unitary social process. Migration thus becomes central to the reproduction of capital and the global working class, rather than an interesting sidebar. And such a mode of investigation internally links racialization and differentiated status to any meaningful gender and class analysis.

VP: Sue Ferguson has written on the emergence and importance of Canadian social reproduction feminism as an approach that conceptually integrates the relational character of class, gender, and race within the broader context of specifically capitalist power relations. We can think here especially of the work of earlier theorists in journals like Studies in Political Economy and influential edited collections like Hidden in the Household, to more contemporary theorists like Stephen Gill and Isabella Bakker, David Camfield, Alan Sears, and sympathetic critics like Himani Bannerji. Why did social reproduction analysis remain so prominent in Canadian thinking?

DM and SF: It is certainly true that, as Australia’s Kate Davison remarked at last year’s London Historical Materialism conference, there was a “social reproduction party” going on in Canada in the 1970s and 80s. We can only speculate as to why that was the case here, and not elsewhere. To begin with, it is surely important that socialist feminism had become the dominant feminism in English-speaking Canada by the early 1970s (in Quebec a left-wing kind of feminism took hold, with significant roots in the unions and left-nationalist social movements). Meg Luxton and Heather Jon Maroney suggest there were two reasons this was the case: (i) the strength of social democracy (unlike in the United States, a social democratic party has had a meaningful social and electoral presence here since the 1930s), and (ii) the relative lack of institutions and practices espousing a more traditional Marxism (unlike Great Britain or France, where Communist parties had a greater presence). These underlying conditions, they believe, helped create and sustain an intellectual and political culture that took socialist ideas seriously.

As members of a group that differentiated itself from CP-influenced Marxism – David joined the International Socialists in the mid-1970s, and Sue joined in the early-1980s – we participated in many of the debates around Marxist Feminism. This is where we encountered Lise Vogel’s book, Marxism and the Oppression of Women. Although our interest in Vogel’s text was not widely shared within our political ranks, and indeed encountered outright hostility, we continued to consider Vogel’s orientation among the soundest in developing a unitary Marxist Feminist approach.

Even more significant, however, was the way in which socialist-feminism developed some real traction inside the unions in both English-speaking Canada and Quebec. Union drives among retail and bank workers were very significant in this regard, as were strikes by nurses and hospital workers throughout the 1970s. In Ontario, where we are active, a strike by predominantly female auto parts workers in 1978 became a rallying point for the left. At the same time, a large strike by nickel miners erupted, in which women, organized under the banner “Wives Supporting the Strike” played a critical, galvanizing role. This was followed by a union-based campaign in the early 1980s to get women hired in the highly unionized steel industry. All of this meant that feminist issues were resonating within the unions. And this gave real credibility to socialist-feminists who insisted on the inter-connections between gender oppression and class exploitation. This provided a social and political context in which a feminism concerned with labor and class experience in all their complex diversity could develop.

Certainly, we saw a rise of poststructural discourse-based feminism in these quarters. But feminist political economy remained vibrant, including in its Marxist and social reproduction variants. Within the universities, much of the theoretical work being done in this area found its way into the journal, Studies in Political Economy, launched in the late 1970s. Feminists – Meg Luxton, Bonnie Fox, Wally Seccombe, and Pat and Hugh Armstrong among others – started exposing the male bias of most political economy frameworks. Drawing on the pioneering work of Margaret Benston, socialist-feminist theorists like these looked for ways around the shortcomings of the domestic labor debate. While, as Himani Bannerji has suggested, they too often defaulted to a structuralist framework, and neglected theorizing the experiences of racialized women, they nonetheless struggled to theorize gender and class in materialist, unitary terms. Against the odds, they succeeded in sustaining an intellectual interest in social reproduction throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s while so many others were heeding the siren call of postmodernism.

VP: What was the influence of Italian Marxist-feminist thought in Canadian Marxist-feminist circles? Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici, among others, have made distinctive contributions to the development of social reproduction as a theoretical framework. In addition, their work has been quite influential in the United States. Did any direct ties to this tradition exist?

DM and SF: Mariarosa Dalla Costa is the only Italian Marxist feminist that we’re aware of having been influential. Inspired by her work, a few small “Wages for Housework” collectives were formed, particularly in Toronto, but these remained relatively marginal and never constituted a serious alternative to the approach of socialist-feminists working in the unions. Getting women into unionized waged work was much more predominant than the idea of organizing women as homeworkers. Dalla Costa’s work was considered part of the Domestic Labor Debate, and as such was constructively critiqued. And today, the work of Silvia Federici is being very widely read, although in these parts it is taken up less in relation to the wages-for-housework current, and more for its insights and rethinking of issues of enclosure, primitive accumulation, and women’s bodies.

VP: To conclude: we know that theoretical analysis is always connected to social movements on the ground. What were the sites of struggle that prompted you to investigate social reproduction and class formation in the recent past and today? Are there specific experiences you can speak to here?

DM and SF: Part of our experience simply has to do with the complex ways in which the left of the 1970s and 1980s struggled in practice and theory to integrate class and gender. Particularly significant for both of us was our involvement in pro-choice struggles in Ontario in the mid- to late-1980s. Participation in this movement really foregrounds how resistant capitalist societies have been to reproductive freedom for women. And this raises all kinds of interesting theoretical and strategic questions in which we have both been interested. But especially since the mid-1990s, when we began to work politically in a less dogmatic Marxist environment (especially in the New Socialist network), we increasingly felt the need to grapple much more seriously with race and racialization—and ultimately with sexuality and ability—as constitutive dimensions of class and gender. Our support for anti-racist and migrant justice movements was certainly an important part of this story. And we found ourselves dissatisfied with just asserting that the axes of multiple oppressions “intersected” in modern capitalist society.

While intersectionality theory has raised important questions, and generated important insights, it tends to flounder at explaining why these multiple oppressions exist and are reproduced throughout late capitalism, and at accounting for the how of their interaction. Because its approach is holistic and unitary, social reproduction theory is, we think, potentially better equipped in these areas. But this requires a lot of work, and a real commitment to learning from the best of anti-racist and anti-colonial theory and practice, in order to overcome some significant shortcomings of early social reproduction theory. By emphasizing the spatial organization of capitalist and working class reproduction, Sue has attempted to take up this challenge in a couple of essays by showing how the spaces of capitalism are always racialized and colonial ones. And our joint contribution in the latest Socialist Register represents an effort to take this somewhat farther by sharply pushing beyond the horizons of the nation-state in order to consider the reproduction of the working class as a global phenomenon in which migration is a central feature. We think this is an especially exciting and challenging time for historical materialist work in these areas. And the living pulse of real social struggles is likely to keep pushing work in these areas for many years to come.

Sue Ferguson

Social reproduction, but not as we know it

It has been about 35 years since the publication of The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, and the world has radically changed since then. Society has changed faster than our capacity to re-forge the theoretical and methodological toolbox at our disposal. It is time to ask: what is happening to the reproductive sphere on a structural level?

How should we look at social reproduction?

It has been about 35 years since the publication of The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, and the world has radically changed since then.1 Society has changed faster than our capacity to re-forge the theoretical and methodological toolbox at our disposal. It is time to ask: what is happening to the reproductive sphere on a structural level? A tsunami is overturning everything. While it is not yet possible to provide a comprehensive picture of all the changes that are taking place here, nor to take full stock of their structural, political, and social meaning, I would at least like to call the reader’s attention to some important points.

We can approach the sphere of social reproduction from at least two perspectives. We can focus on the dark side of the current situation, considering the terrible violence, exploitation, inequality, and poverty that affect women all over the world in varying degrees. Many women of my generation are tempted to look at the present condition of the sphere of social reproduction with sadness and discouragement. Women continue to serve as the pillar of the domestic care of children, adults, and the elderly, even though, as a result of widespread unemployment, a generation of young men are now available to shoulder a bit more of the domestic burden. Violence against women is a global affair and a wide battle is being carried out against women’s bodies through media-imposed body images, the symbolism of the fashion and beauty industries, as signs of submission to capital and male culture. In the global South, families are lacerated by female migration, war, religious conflicts, famine, and fragile economic systems. Women continue to be paid less overall than men, and continue to have children and take care of them, men, the elderly, the ill, and the disabled without any social recognition of their work.

But we can also focus on the trends that show how women have improved their conditions of life everywhere compared to the past, and examine the main social changes they have put in motion. I choose to pursue this second strategy, and I invite women to look with me at the contemporary reproductive sphere with imagination. The feminist wave of the sixties and seventies has helped the women of my generation and those that followed to win greater power in the family and in society, which has also meant achieving more civil rights, a stronger sense of citizenship, and a greater capacity to move between spaces alone, especially in the old industrialized countries. Of course, this empowerment has also been accompanied by partial victories and even burning defeats. However, it is important to see the main trend: a general increase in well-being.

Reversing the Spheres

Up until the 1980s, the driving force of the political, organizational, and technological initiatives in society was the sphere of commodity production, understood not only as the production of goods, but also increasingly of services. From here, various processes and behaviors passed to the sphere of social reproduction, which previously had the task of functioning and producing in a dependent and supportive manner. In fact, the general mechanism was for initiatives, practices, and goods to trickle down from the productive to the reproductive sphere. But today the entire relationship between these two spheres has been reversed, at least in the highly industrialized countries, as the reproductive sphere has become the driving force of the entire system.

Arlie Hochschild was correct in arguing that the logic of the workplace was exported to homes and, vice versa, that the logic of the domestic sphere was being exported to the sphere of production.2 For instance, the fundamental features of housework, such as gratuitousness, precariousness, irregularity, and the absence of collective negotiation by unions and parties, have been exported to the sphere of production, where they have become more common than in the past. Those forms of regulating social relationships, considered secondary or peripheral until recent decades, and only tolerated in the the sphere of reproduction, have now entered into competition with more unionized forms of employment.

However, it wasn’t just the weaknesses that were exported from the sphere of social reproduction. So too were the struggles. The various negotiation processes that developed inside families, between men and women and the various generations, have also been implicitly imported. For example, the struggles against parents’ authoritarianism that developed inside families have inevitably reshaped the way new generations of workers, technicians, or employees now have to be addressed in the workplace.3 As the authoritarian behavior of parents has begun to disappear in the family, new workers have striven to be treated in the workplace in a different manner. Today, they are very often asked to perform a task with a sentence like, “could you please do this?,” rather than as an imperious command.

Indeed, social reproduction can now be said to emerge as an immense laboratory of social and political experimentations, hazards, dreams, initiatives, and visions. The reproductive sphere is where the most relevant political and social movements – such as the Arab uprisings, the Indignados movement in Spain, or Occupy Wall Street in the United States – and the most important collective actions, such as Urban Knitting initiatives,4 have developed in the last decades. The sphere of social reproduction has completely changed its identity: once considered by traditional political organizations as a place of political backwardness, it has now become the pulsating heart of the entire capitalist system, at both the social and political levels. Social and individual reproduction is now the sphere where the future is woven, discussed, and elaborated in the long run and in a real, sustainable, way. In the old industrialized countries, women, men, children, youth, adults, and the elderly are experiencing many forms of gender and generational identity, in order to deal with their own paths of autonomy and self-determination. The old gendered division of labor and the consequent differences between men and women, based on the correspondence between women and prevailing feminine features, as well as between men and prevailing masculine features, have been invested by many social and political changes.

A new gendered division of labor has taken hold: women have learned to deal with the “masculine culture” – based on logos, that is, rational thinking – and men to deal with the “feminine culture” based on metis, empathy and intuition. Women are currently receiving higher levels of education than men, and they earn better grades. This means not only that women are better educated than men, but that they have learned to deal with the logos. On the other hand, men are experiencing a closer relationship with intimacy, affection, and emotion. As consequence, not only have men learned to develop more of their emotional side, they have also learned to have a closer relationship with the body. Men have begun to invest energy in taking care of their body, by shaving, embellishing it with necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, keeping in shape with diets and physical exercises, dressing with much more attention than in the past. In sum, women have become more “masculine” and men more “feminine,” although the apparatuses of media, advertising, and education still convey overall rigid and segregating masculine and feminine images, figures, and roles.

Other old structures of society, such as the nuclear family, have lost their uniqueness. Under the initiative and the pressure of (especially) women and youth, people are living together in different ways, experiencing many distinct family forms, and even living and staying alone. The family, based on a couple with children, has been complemented by other types of families such as those made of couples without children, people living alone, single parent families, mixed families, recombined families in which members belonging to different families live together. The rigid discipline and normativity that had in the past regulated the family as the basic cell of society has become more diverse and flexible.

In this context, the regulation of social distance from others in terms of both family and friendship have changed and diversified, also thanks to the availability and spread of the new media and their practices of use. The behaviors and social practices connected to private and public dimensions of information and communication have highlighted many forms of resistance and mass initiatives from the bottom. At a political level, the regulation of social distance among the different classes has been completely re-negotiated: the awe towards the ruling classes and the subtle forms of social distinction that have been powerful instruments to maintain the power structure in society have weakened. In the streets today walk women and men belonging to the various social classes with a greater degree of social equality than in the past. Last, but not the least, the forms of political engagement and mobilization have been put under scrutiny and been transformed by the social subjects who are in search of their empowerment.

At first glance, all these fronts may seem to describe a phenomenology of a fluid society, but in reality they recount how housework, both at material and immaterial levels, is being transformed. The fact that social relationships as well as the rituals and practices of social life have changed means that immaterial and material care work and housework have been subjected to an intense wave of negotiation among women and men, as well as among generations, and to an intense wave of mass behaviors. To this end, there is no peace in the reproductive sphere, since an unequal division of housework and care work between men and women continues to persist, although in a more attenuated way than in the past. Many other elements deserve to be considered, such as the fact, for example, that families and the state need to invest considerably to housework. As a response to local women’s resistance against housework and to the double work they perform, the care of children, elderly, ill, and disabled is attracting a considerable amount of migrant women’s housework and care work. On the other hand, housework indirectly dialogues with the state by drawing the major part of the state budget towards investments for maintaining high levels of social reproduction of the labor force in the spheres of education, health, and retirement.

At the same time, many aspects of housework are outsourced (people eat in restaurants, cafeterias, or bars, send dresses to dry cleaning, etc.), and other aspects intersect with new ways of conceptualizing housework. Massive processes of simplification, standardization, and automation inside the house, in addition to housework outsourcing, affect many tasks, both at the material and immaterial level: education, affects, entertainment, communication, and information. Cooking, in particular, exemplifies the trend towards outsourcing, but is also being transformed in many different directions: from disappearing from the house to earning a new visibility in television programs. Cooking is no longer an invisible task carried out at home by women or other family members in the shadows, and it is becoming a form of work where new and old expertise combine. Thus, the reproductive sphere now proactively expresses social, political, and media initiatives as women especially request the implementation of new technologies, as the Eurobarometer survey (2012) shows.5

What makes this sphere particularly well equipped to function as space for social change is a particular combination of three forces at work within it: first, the “science of the concrete,” to borrow Lévi-Strauss’s expression; second, the metis, as a particular form of feminine intelligence; and lastly, “affects,” which enhance both.6 Lévi-Strauss, in The Savage Mind, proposed the existence of another mode of thought, distinct from the more modern “scientific” one we take as dominant. This other “science of the concrete,” as he called it, is structured by systematically labelling and classifying the world through perceptions and emotions. The science of the concrete organizes a system of thinking which recognizes the law of cause and effect and the possibilities and opportunities to combine, recombine, and remediate things. The organization of thoughts deriving from this systematic work has been able to generate active and methodical observations and controls, hypotheses to discard or validate, explanations, new questions, ideas and new concepts, and finally myths.

The science of the concrete has brought extraordinary gains, such as pottery, weaving, agriculture, knowledge of herbs and minerals, medicines, and the domestication of animals. Lévi-Strauss discusses the Neolithic paradox, arguing that these innovations would have been impossible without a very effective and powerful science.7 Lewis Mumford also intervenes on this topic, raising the question of the quality of these innovations. In effect, he claims that the quality of the Neolithic innovations and of the science of the concrete is peculiar, since he defines these as bio-technics or democratic and life-exalting technologies.8 By contrast, Mumford points out, the technologies produced by the science of the abstract – the science of engineers, information scientists, etc. – are life-denying technologies.

The other force at work in the reproductive sphere is the metis, a specific way of thinking, cultivated especially by women, based on empathy and intuition.9 It is a form of prudence and cunning intelligence, referring to the intellectual capacity to overcome obstacles by finding ways around them. The ancient Greeks associated this with Metis, daughter of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys, who was impregnated by Zeus and then devoured. The intellectual force of Metis serves to explain a resource and a capacity present or cultivable in all of us. Even if present as a distinctive feature in some of the masculine heroes such as Odysseus, she is still generally considered an “unmanly deity,” as metis is said to have more the force of water than of iron, of pervasiveness more than penetration, of tenacity and patience more than that of domination. A man or woman (and for the woman it is more culturally instinctive) who possesses this force of the mind is sheltered from a series of errors. These individuals are attentive to communication strategies and filter what to say and what to listen to. Moreover, they know how to veil themselves and how to come out of the closet: in other words, they know the importance of the mask, which allows them to decide what to hide and what, instead, to display, in order to make their message really incisive. It is through handling the metis that women were able to build a psychic power stronger than that possessed by men.

The third force is the capacity, the experience, and the competence to deal with and manage affects, emotions, and passions as a fundamental dimension of care work. Over time, in the sphere of social reproduction, women learned to develop a particular sensibility toward the emotional wellbeing of individuals and to sense its impact on the emotional heart of the society. Already Adam Smith had understood that emotions are the glue that keeps together the fabric of society.10 Indeed, no social or political science might work without addressing the reasons of the heart, of which reason, according to the famous quote of Blaise Pascal, knows nothing.11 If social interactions are a blend of emotion and reason, then communication should also be considered in the same way. “Words, most commonly used for interaction, are also part emotion and part reason and this means that one can talk not only of emotional intelligence as proposed by Salovey and Mayer and Goleman,”12 but also of “emotional communication.”13 As women show every day, emotions work like multipliers of energy.

In sum, the sphere of social reproduction is particularly equipped to function as a space of social change because it combines the three very strong forces I have introduced so far: the science of the concrete, the metis, and the affects.

The Movement of the Concrete

Women have only partially won the struggle over technology. Women possess and use many technologies right now – for example, the network of personal technologies or domestic appliances – but perhaps these are not exactly what women need and would like to have. On this topic, it is worth reflecting further. According to Sherry Turkle,14 the mindset that characterizes the digital era is similar to Lévi-Strauss’s “savage mind” or the science of the concrete.15 Another characteristic of the digital era is playfulness. As Valerie Frissen argues, “digital technologies are not only playful technologies but also the results of playful practices.” “Playing with technologies,” she continues, “has always been an important driving force behind technological transformation.”16 Exciting innovations, continues Frissen, are more frequently emerging from networks of experimenting amateurs or so-called “pro-am” (professional amateur) participants (e.g. Linux, Arduino, P2P technology).17 In addition, Frissen claims, digital technologies are a way of intellectually tinkering; paradoxically, since they are not primarily geared to innovate, the primitive, untamed and playful way of thinking by makers has historically led to many radical innovations.18

In the laboratory of experimentations and movements that is the sphere of reproduction today, let me focus on a paradigmatic movement that helps us to explain well the potentiality of this sphere. This movement is what I call the Movement of the Concrete, a political movement that is opening a new stage in human evolution. It has a large social composition and is constituted by women who bring with them the feminist and post-feminist experience: caregivers, women as well as men who are crafters, makers, new and old peasants, ecologists, volunteers, and all those who want to build a new world, immediately, without waiting on the fall of the capitalist system or without focusing only on the way to destroy it. On a practical level, this movement has a specific trajectory of development, if compared to the old and new political movements that generally express their political force with precipitate actions (public demonstrations, flash mobs, strikes, and so on). To understand the dynamics of the Movement of the Concrete we should refer to the powerful image of yeast, which is at the basis of any good process of bread-making. To have the power to leaven the dough, the yeast needs to rest in a closed space. Not so much spectacular initiatives in open public spaces (streets, squares), but a daily work that fills spaces politically, such as homes, garages, workshops, and laboratories.

This large movement aspires to introduce playfulness and to exercise a counter-production, a counter-consumption, and a counter-reproduction, beginning now, during the empire of the capitalist system, not after. Its political program is to liberate the working class, starting with the liberation of labor-power from its obligatory sale on the labor market and from its overall discipline, control, and exploitation by the capitalist regime. The strategy advanced by the activists of the Movement of the Concrete incorporates and metabolizes the politically residual figures of the bricoleur and volunteer, and transforms them into politically antagonistic and powerful figures. The first, crucial site of confrontation with the capitalist process has changed: it is now the home, but a home (and an earth) inhabited by women and men, youth, children, the elderly, ill, and disabled, where all of these live as political subjects.

The Movement of the Concrete has also encompassed emotions, passions, and affects in its development and political culture. It is from the politically residual figure of the amateur, the volunteer, and the caretaker that the activists of the Movement of the Concrete have recuperated the role of emotions and self-expression and creativity in their work, in what they produce. Not by chance, if we come back again to the figure of bricoleurs, it is worth recalling that in the past they were called “amateurs.” The label indicates how these people were and are moved by a passion, and thus pleasure and playfulness were and are the motivating dimensions of their work. After all, the place where amateurs have traditionally worked is the house or the garage, transformed into a small, personal workshop.

Another social figure moved by emotion, and in this case, compassion, is that of the volunteer. In this context, the engine is the compassion and the willingness to offer help to those in need. Of course, the figures of the amateur and the volunteer have a close relationship with the figure of the caretaker, whose labor was seen as a work of love and affects. Housework has always been motivated by sentiments and emotions; it has always represented the emotional and psychological management of the affects and the supply of comfort, support, and wellbeing to all the members of the family. The alienation in these types of work was not provoked by the underdevelopment of emotions and affects but rather by their commodification through the subordination of women as caretakers and through their function in the entertainment industry and the media.

In their political perspective, liberating work from the yoke of capital also requires liberating it from alienation understood as a de-emotion and disembodiment that is de-humanizing. Bit by bit these people show that it is possible to produce by themselves, in collaboration and in solidarity with others, without alienation and self-exploitation. Hence, the activists of The Movement of the Concrete are very far from being only makers, or only concrete thinkers. Now, they have the possibility to draw from not only the science of the concrete, but also the science of the abstract (i.e. the contribution of engineers and information scientists), merging these two different approaches together and making them operate and support each other.

What is interesting in the political strategy of this movement is its distance from the Marxist tradition. In The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in their attempt to figure out what a society could be after its liberation from the chains of capitalism, advanced the idea that with the end of the slavery of waged labor, people would be free to go fishing or contemplate nature. Thus, he could imagine, in a society without capital, only activities of relaxation and amusement. Playfulness was seen by him as a kind of compensation for the fatigue of the liberation of the society from capitalism. One of the limits of the traditional working-class struggle was to consider the struggle against the capitalist system until its total destruction the only solution. The goal was to establish a different social system, the communist one, but communism had to wait until the end of the capitalism. This political approach offers a totalizing vision of the power of the capitalist system and has led people to believe that it is simply impossible to build anything outside the control of capital until its desired end. Every new initiative and difference in logic would end up inevitably being traced back to the logic of capitalism. This vision, while able to multiply activists’ forces in view of the revolution, paradoxically also brought a certain impotence to the ruled classes. It’s possible that the conceptualization of capital as a Moloch, resonating even in the title of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, has had the effect of strengthening the capitalist system: the more we attribute power to an entity, the more it acquires power.19

On the contrary, the capitalist system covers a very limited part of human history and its logic is historically determined. The Neolithic period, for example, was much longer and more important than what we call “modernity.” The technologies and innovations invented and implemented in this period have been incredibly important for humankind. Thus it does not make sense to consider the capitalist system as inevitable, or to see it as impossible to change or to even defeat. Moreover, the capitalist system has so many contradictions in its functioning, that even without the strong resistance and antagonism of a billion people it possesses many forces of potential self-destruction. After the collapse of the communist regimes and the evidence of too many flaws in the organization of their societies, people are refusing to struggle against capitalism in a dialectical way – to accept the same fundamental values, although pushed in the opposite direction – and have begun to practice different political approaches and perspectives instead.

The need to sell labor to some capitalist is less and less perceived as the only possibility in light of other alternatives. From the perspective of millions of people, the shift from working to making is a very crucial point. Apparently, it seems a kind of loss of the social and political part of “labor” and a shift toward its mere semantic content. In reality, this shift is a very political one, because it goes to the root of the social relationships at an economic level by starting from the perspective of a “renaissance based on the end of the Regime of Waged Labor.”20 In the last 250 years, people have lost any control over and any knowledge about their work, and in general about the overall organization of work. This knowledge and know-how have become a hostage to the ruling classes. People consequently have been expropriated and have hence lost any sense of what they consume, how the goods they consume have been fabricated, the effects of consumption on their bodies as well as on the earth, the air, and the water. Hence, the ownership of means of production by the ruling class has meant the loss of the ownership not only of the means of production, but in general also of the knowledge and control over work processes, the organization of work, consumption, and the natural forces of social labor such as the environment. Having left to the ruling classes the unchecked use of natural resources, the rest of the earth suffers from their avidity and short-term vision. Without counter-forces by progressive actors and others, the ruling classes will not limit their exploitation of natural resources and are unable to express a sustainable vision for the use of such resources.

The latest developments of immaterial labor and IT technologies, which have brought the dematerialization and automation of many processes in society, have further exacerbated the devalorization and devaluation of material labor and the human body. Communication, education, affection, emotion, and sociability – the areas where women have always excelled – have been mediated by an extraordinary flux of technological innovation, giving to men more capability and hence the preeminence also in some of these sectors. However, these technologies are still life-denying and thus they have introduced the inorganic into the living heart of society.

The Movement of the Concrete is producing a re-evaluation of material and concrete work, by appropriating the process of making and, hence, consuming goods, and discovering the potentialities of working with one’s own hands. Humankind, through guaranteeing to everyone the open access to knowledge and promoting processes such as sharing, collaborating and cooperating together, is returning to the science of the concrete and to the possibility of building life-exalting technologies. In the different components of this movement, men and women are not yet distributed equally. For instance, makers are still more males than females, while women are more involved in handcraft.21 However, I predict that they will not stay segregated by gender for long. In the near future, the science of the concrete will be able to capture all the good that there is in the science of the abstract as it has been developed so far. For example, social robotics and 3D printers can become precious tools, produced by people for their wellbeing. Working at home has now become an even more complex kind of abor. People have more possibilities to design and thus to understand what they eat, how things are produced, conserved, and commercialized. As consequence, the revolution entailed by the Movement of the Concrete concerns not only the field of production considered in all its phases, but also that of consumption and all that takes place in the social reproductive sphere.22

The proprietary and competitive logics which jealously guarded not only the ownership of the means of production, but also scientific knowledge and the practical knowledge connected to them, have given way to three major strategies of demolition of capitalistic logic: open access, community building and mutual support, and solidarity and collaboration. With an Internet connection and willpower, people at home or anywhere else can easily connect with other fellow makers or communities across the world and learn how to do things by themselves.23 These new processes of production and consumption are supported by specific web services such as Tumblr, WordPress and YouTube that have collected and put at the disposal of the public millions of tutorials submitted by users. This immense patrimony of “how to do” every type of thing can be understood as a powerful process of reciprocal social teaching and learning. Today people are experiencing the ability to make almost anything, from a cake to a pillow cover, to a toy, by themselves, using technology, creative recycling, or innovating materials and processes.24 They are also transforming standardized products into personalized goods (see, for example, the online community of IkeaHackers.net). What women have done traditionally in isolation in the management of their houses and families, like cooking for example, has now become a shared and socially recognized strategy.

The Movement of the Concrete provides various venues in which to learn and find original, unusual, and inspiring ideas by putting together different political experiences with a common goal: creating the commons in the heart of the capitalist system. Blogs and forums offer online spaces to get information and discuss components, tools, software, hardware, 3D printers, etc., sharing different knowledges with the online public and publishing photos of handmade creations. In particular, blogs on technological artifacts have considerably contributed to the increase in the popularity of artifacts and to the implementation of indie subculture.25 The development of skills through cooperation with other “makers” brings not only the creation and strengthening of social interactions and social innovation, but above all brings an awareness that we no longer need capitalism. The communities of “makers” constitute a wide social laboratory that experiments with the making of personalized mass goods, by modifying the production mechanisms and components by which they can be made. They are reshaping economic models and housing solutions, they are changing how science is taught and learned; they provide the boost that prepares for a post-capitalist society, as Cory Doctorow explains in his book Makers.26

Reflecting on the Movement of the Concrete is a good exercise not only for political scientists but also for sociologists. While at the end of the sixties a “Sociology of the Future” emerged within the field of futuristic studies (investigating probable, possible, and preferable futures), more recently the future as a cultural fact has garnered attention. From this perspective, new sociologies of the future challenge the supremacy of predictions (mostly formulated in terms of economic issues) by exploring the plausibility of “what might be” within the framework of an “ethic of possibilities.”

Social reproduction, neoliberal crisis, and the problem with work: a conversation with Kathi Weeks

Even some feminist discourses have fallen into this contradiction and reproduced the work ethic and family values discourse, neglecting the fact that both domestic and waged work dominate our life and that both must be fought. However, although it is more or less clear what is meant by the refusal of wage labor, what it means to refuse housework is considerably more difficult to understand. Would it mean abandoning people and our obligations to care? I believe it is rather a question of understanding how to reorganize care and to redistribute it in a way that does not completely occupy our lives.

Reproduction and Crisis

This dialogue with Kathi Weeks is the result of a conversation in two parts. The first took place in the wake of The Problem with Work’s 2011 publication. The second one took place today, in the seventh year of the global economic crisis, with still no end in sight. In 2011 my interest in Weeks’s book was above all tied to the subject of work, as both production and reproduction – specifically, its refusal and of the possibility of its overcoming. In the situation opened by the crisis, what attracts me above all is her “more expansive conception of social reproduction,” which could best be described as the contradiction between capital accumulation and social reproduction. In this sense it becomes possible to expand theoretical and political reflection beyond housework and care work as historically defined, towards the alleged “naturalness” attributed to the labor of women, opening up a reflection on the family, on the coordinates that determine wage labor, on increasingly outsourced care services, and therefore on the commodification of care and reproduction, the system of welfare and its progressive dismantling.

From this perspective our conversation aims to address the subject of reproduction in general terms, or rather as a reflection that is not limited to considering women’s work (and the historic exploitation that has accompanied women’s work in the domestic sphere), but which assumes a broader plane that calls into question what Romano Alquati, in an anticipatory text on the subject of reproduction written in the early 2000s, identified as the reproduction of the “living-human-capacity” ­– that the “work specifically with which all of us (co)self-reproduce ourselves” is therefore as much women’s as it is men’s.1

At the same time, by tracing the contradiction between capital accumulation and social reproduction, the conversation situates its discursive space precisely at the level of the tension between valorization and cooperation – a striated and contradictory plane, where the cooperative pressures are able (perhaps) to challenge or even overthrow the processes of valorization and accumulation. This is the political perspective of The Problem with Work, which here we try to consider in relation to the cycle of struggles in the crisis, more precisely a “cycle of subjectivities,” which has attempted to identify a point of discontinuity with respect to the policies of austerity.2 It is, to follow Weeks, a question of considering the possibility of opening concrete and effective paths that point to the construction of new forms of relations and social cooperation inside and outside the family; or, bringing back Alquati, of the “resubjectivation of the man-woman commodity.” To put it another way, it is a question of a plane of political subjectivation that challenges the very ethics of family and of work at the base of the neoliberal project; a plane of tension among reproductive processes that are given as subjection, and reproductive processes that are given as “resubjectivation.”

Between subjectivation and “resubjectivation,” then, the tension between capitalist valorization and social cooperation, between capital and work, plays out. It is in this sense that, it seems to me, we can say that today social reproduction can be understood as a field of battle: the most advanced outpost of the processes of contemporary valorization and at the same time the space for experimentation and processes of radical transformation of what affects social relations, self-expression, and gender relations.3 I am indeed convinced that today, in the crisis, we are part of an important contest precisely on the terrain of reproduction, a contest that is crucial for the very destinies of the neoliberal project and for the possibility of the autonomy and resistance of contemporary living labor and of its processes of cooperation.

On one hand, we witness what Nancy Fraser has identified as an “assault on the social reproduction driven by financial capital,” an assault that we see at every level, just as we see the dismantling of welfare under the pretext of the crisis.4 In Italy, austerity policies have imposed a continuous increase of the retirement age, the drastic reduction of the Social Fund and the constant privatization of health care, not to mention schools and universities that have been effectively dismantled under a strict regime of budget cuts (often in favor of private schools and universities).5 On the other hand it was possible to observe in the crisis what Christian Marazzi has pinpointed as struggles and movements “brought together by the same possibility of survival,” or rather a type of struggle that immediately interrogates the plane of reproduction in its deepest sense: as reproduction of the very human species, or, with Alquati, “living-human-capacity.”6 This struggle is at the same time a struggle for survival and the autonomous reproduction of the human being and a struggle for the survival and the reproduction of capital, in the sense that today the source of surplus-value directly coincides with the exploitation of life in its deepest essence. One thinks for example of the debt system that indissolubly marks the subjective experience of the indebted person in material terms, but also in emotional relationships, or – in a different frame – of the trade in human genomes that, as Melinda Cooper and Catherine Waldby have brilliantly illustrated, has fostered the opening of new global markets.7

And so the struggle isn’t over yet: we still see, on the one hand, the neoliberal attack on welfare and processes of valorization that target all of life, and on the other, the attempts – however spurious, clumsy, and incomplete – to make of the terrain of reproduction a space and environment of political resistance. It is a field studded with traps and obstacles, and its outcome remains far from certain.

One cannot draw from this conversation any recipe for salvation. Instead, sparks of reflection emerge which can prove useful for rethinking work and social reproduction in the context of the crisis, for reflecting on social struggles, and – according to Weeks – on the forms of life and of subjective work, on the family and gender relations, and at the core, on the work ethic that permeates our society.

It includes, as will be clear, reflections that take up and update the rich debates of second-wave and Marxist feminism – a terrain of analysis and reflection still extremely rich in useful, critical ideas and therefore once more relevant. From this perspective, Weeks’ sharp reflection brings to the fore the always-living centrality of those arguments, and rests on a number of social questions that become increasingly more pronounced in the crisis. Given its genesis, the interview that follows consists of two parts, conceived and elaborated within different temporalities, therefore chronologically distinct but conversationally and analytically integrated together. Through this juxtaposition of specific and interconnected reflections, which are presented in the text following their chronological evolution, we bring out (through repetitions and reconsiderations) the nuances of a reflection that spans five years full of changes.

Altogether, the interview tries to investigate some knots that I consider central for a debate on the present: the subject of work and its (presumed) centrality in biographical and subjective pathways, and the production of meaning attached to work in the context of precarity; its implications in the limits of the production of subjectivity, along the color line and the gender line, and the specificities (and criticalities) that follow from them. Beyond the subject of the family and the organization of housework is the subject of post-work that Weeks posits as a utopian horizon, or rather as the political and social tension for change, a subject which it is necessary above all to grasp and rethink in light of the still more pronounced tendency of neoliberalism in crisis to resort to forms of unpaid work, supplied and taken on by subjects themselves as indispensable moments of social growth and recognition. In short, the crisis as a powerful laboratory for experimentation in the processes of subjection and resistance, in which social reproduction, in its “expansive conception,” is presented as a privileged and, I would say, essential, area of reflection. But let’s proceed in an orderly way.

The Problem With Work

Anna Curcio: What is the problem with work?

Kathi Weeks: There are so many problems. We can mention at least three. First of all, work monopolizes our life. We spend a huge quantity of time and energy at work: preparing and organizing our work, making sure our work is secure, and recuperating our spent energy; we are not only working, we become workers! The second problem concerns the capacity of work to dominate our political and social imagination. Work is where we develop our identity, access social networks, and construct sociality. In the United States, work also establishes the way one accesses health services and other social rights. Finally, work, that is, wage labor, is a problem because as a system of distribution of income and of social inclusion it is, at best, incomplete. As the feminist critique has highlighted, there are many forms of social productivity that are not tied to wage labor, and which are not taken into account in the redistribution of wealth. And then there is perhaps the most important problem, which is the hegemony of the work ethic. Today this ethic is even more central because in forms of post-Fordist production there is an enormous need for workers willing to invest their subjectivity and to identify with their work.

AC: Where does this need arise from?

KW: In the factory workers can be more carefully directed and controlled, and therefore it is less of a problem for employers if they do not identify with their work. But in care work, in sales or in services and in all those other forms of work that dot the post-Fordist universe, there isn’t an analogous model of control and supervision. There is therefore a greater need for self-discipline. Research shows that employers are primarily interested in their employees’ ethical investment in work, which becomes one of the principle apparatuses of subjection.

AC: In your book you talk about a work identity that in subjective experience enters into relation with differences in class, race, and gender. What does this mean in terms of the production of subjectivity?

KW: Work is certainly the space of the “becoming-class” of subjects and of the construction of racialized and gendered identities. On the terrain of gender this relation is particularly powerful because there also exists a gender division of labor in both the waged and unwaged spheres. Statistics show a persistent occupational gender segregation that affects all the productive sectors – although with different gradations.This division can affect not only wage levels but also work schedules and activities. For example, part-time work is dominated by women. And although the division of tasks is often arbitrary, gender difference can function to funnel workers into different jobs. One could think here of the fast food industry, where men often work in the kitchen and women in the front, even though gender stereotypes could dictate the opposite.

AC: So can we think of being up front as a new sexual division of labor?

KW: I don’t think this is something new. This relatively arbitrary division is always grounded in an ideological presupposition of natural sex differences: women do this thing better and not the other. Notwithstanding feminist struggles, women remain the ones principally responsible for unpaid housework, which strongly influences their relation with wage labor. The so-called feminization of work, then, should be accompanied by a discourse on the deep hierarchization of work with respect to gender: otherwise one risks rendering gender norms and forms of occupational segregation invisible.

From the Marxist-Feminist Archive

AC: In your book there are continual references, some of them critical, to 1970s Marxist-feminism. How have these analyses influenced your reflection?

KW: Much of the book is dedicated to reimagining and rewriting some of the analyses elaborated in those years. The writings of the “Wages for Housework” campaign have inspired me most of all, in particular the way in which they incorporated the refusal of work into the feminist project to identify the productive dimension of housework. They first of all recognized housework as socially necessary work, without which the economy of wage labor would not be able to function. They made it visible, underscoring the complementarity between productive and reproductive work. Today, because production and reproduction are superimposed, these terms no longer function adequately, but in those years they made possible the construction of a terrain of very radical demands that allowed one to question the responsibilities of women with respect to the work of reproduction. In this sense, they approached the discourse on housework in terms of the refusal of the moralizing dimension of work, understood as a labor of love within the family. Therefore, while they made an effort to make visible the work of reproduction as immediately productive, they intended simultaneously to fight it. A very complicated and sometimes even contradictory project, which remains of great use today.

AC: Why do you say contradictory?

KW: The problem is how to recognize housework as socially necessary work and to distribute it evenly without the over-valuation of domestic work. Neither should women over-value waged work in their attempt to escape from mandatory domesticity.

Even some feminist discourses have fallen into this contradiction and reproduced the work ethic and family values discourse, neglecting the fact that both domestic and waged work dominate our life and that both must be fought. However, although it is more or less clear what is meant by the refusal of wage labor, what it means to refuse housework is considerably more difficult to understand. Would it mean abandoning people and our obligations to care? I believe it is rather a question of understanding how to reorganize care and to redistribute it in a way that does not completely occupy our lives.

AC: But today, because production and reproduction tend to coincide, to reorganize care would also mean to some extent reorganizing production. How can we rethink this relationship?

KW: This is part of the difficulty, and “Wages for Housework” can again be useful. To demand a wage for housework is also a limitation. In the seventies, these feminists underscored that women did not identify themselves, at least not all of them, with the figure of the housewife. So, in naming housework as women’s work there was the risk of strengthening the association between gender and housework. I have been arguing that the demand for a wage for housework be replaced with a demand for basic income that is neutral with respect to gender and which does not conform merely to the domestic dimension, therefore a demand even more powerful because it concerns everyone. However there remains the problem of how to make visible the fact that housework is conducted primarily by women. It is a question then of finding a way to reconcile the feminist analysis of gender with the demand for basic income. I have suggested that the category of life could be developed as a counter to both work and family.

AC: Can we then say that outside of wage labor the battle lines pass through the family?

KW: Certainly. In the book, discussing struggles for the reduction of working hours, I tried to imagine an alternative to the widespread idea of reducing working hours to have “more time for family.” The movement for the working day in the United States demanded eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will. I am particularly interested in this idea of “what we will,” which leaves open the space of possibility: of forms of social cooperation outside both wage labor and the institution of the family.

AC: Between production and reproduction, therefore, a space we call “other” takes form, which is specified by what you call “a more expansive conception of social reproduction.” Can you elaborate?

KW: The expansive dimension of social reproduction is a category that I use to propose in a different way the antagonism between capitalist accumulation and social reproduction. Instead of thinking wage-labor on one hand and the family and unpaid housework on the other, taking up again the work of the feminists of the seventies, I reflect on the conflicts that exist between these two spheres. Dwelling only on domestic work and thinking exclusively of reproduction does not offer a convincing solution to the problem. This can lead to “solutions” that center on the commodification of care, which does not address the basic problems. I believe instead that there needs to be a more thorough-going critique of the organization of domestic work, one that points to the construction of new forms of relations and of social cooperation inside and outside the family.

AC: Do you believe that the crisis can be a further occasion for the construction of these new forms of relations?

KW: I don’t know. Certainly in the United States one can imagine that the crisis could provoke a different relationship to consumption. It could certainly be an opportunity for rethinking life in a more cooperative way, the forms of reproduction and of the distribution of wealth. But I do not know how much this is today a reality; in the United States, at any rate, work remains central.

Work, Between Ethics and Refusal

AC: On the other hand, when commodification prevails over cooperation, it is as if the work ethic is imposed on the refusal of work, as if what you call the “work society” has gotten the better of the post-work imaginary that you situate as the political horizon of your book…

KW: The idea of post-work is intentionally a small part of the topics that I discuss in the book. I see post-work as a utopian imaginary that gestures toward possible forms of life that are not strictly subordinated to work, in which place work as a part of life but not all of life. This imaginary reconceives the management of time, the production of identities, and assumptions about our political and social obligations.

AC: Nevertheless, work, as the demand for work, remains central above all for the precarious, who have difficulty refusing work because they have only ever had a discontinuous, uncertain, and temporary relationship with it. Therefore, paradoxically, what might be called the “precariat” produces a renewed demand for work…

KW: The demand for more work must still make up part of a political agenda, including, for example, the efforts to improve the lives of women who do not have an equal and unconditional access to work and to income. Also the demand for better work should be part of the political agenda, especially if it can speak to the “double exploitation” of women at home and at work and an end to the gender division of this work. We should also, finally, cultivate a demand for less work. It is, however, difficult to combine all these domands together. Demands for less work, more work, and better work can be contradictory. My sense is that today less work should be given priority. In short, a post-work imaginary must be informed by a rigorous anti-work politics.

AC: Therefore struggles are against work and post-work remains a utopian horizon…

KW: Exactly, and it is for this reason that I am interested in basic income and the reduction of working hours. At least in the U.S. context there is little space for these types of demands, and that is why I pose them as utopian demands for a post-work society. I believe that it is important to produce an imaginary, although utopian, that allows one to think a beyond to work. It is a question of, in other words, circulating a different idea of life that allows us to rethink work systematically as a redistribution system and subject it to criticism. The demand for basic income and for the reduction of working hours can serve as opportunities to promote debate about work and its organization.

AC: It is a project at the same time critical and “visionary.”

KW: Yes, the refusal of work and the elaboration of a possible imaginary are complementary moments. For example, the refusal of work as an anti-work politics also generates a post-work imaginary. In particular I am interested in the utopian dimension, where by utopia I mean discursive practices that encourage us to expand our horizons of our thinking about work and its ethics. Moreover, in the critique that I advance about work, I also want to put the problem of equality, or rather of an unequal exploitation in work, next to that of freedom, understood in Marxian terms as the possibility of collectively creating the world in which we live: the relations, the institutions, and the goods that we produce. The imaginary that I propose therefore also has to do with the power that subjects are able to exercise over the collective creation of the time and space of the social world. The problem with work and the reason for its refusal are not only referring to exploitation but also concern the control that is exercised on the content and time of your work, on the relationships that you establish with others.

Work and Social Reproduction in the Crisis

AC: The crisis is marked by the emergence of new global struggles. I have perceived these struggles as strongly engaged on the ground of social reproduction, experimenting with new social relations that try to base themselves on sharing and cooperation. I am in particular referring to the experience of Occupy or to the Spanish acampadas that have paid great attention to the management and organization of common activities, by taking charge of services such as kitchens and libraries, by discussing gender relations, violence against women and so on. I think also of experiences such as the Mareas in Spain, or projects to self-manage the health care system in Greece, which remind me of the expansive conception of social reproduction you discuss in your book. In such experiences, the fight against welfare cuts and the consequent reduction of certain services such as health or education have resulted in the testing of new practices that have put together service workers and consumers in the fight against austerity measures, as an autonomous organization and common management of a service. Within such a context, struggles don’t intend to restore the social order compromised by the crisis, or plead for public intervention in support of the welfare system, as earlier struggles did in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather, these struggles are emerging as the experimentation and invention of a new ground of social relations that is “autonomous” from both the private market and the public policy of the state. That is to say, they are practicing and trying out new collective social relationships based on sharing and cooperation. In other words, they are experimenting, with varying success, with the production of the common – or a practice of commoning – that is both a source and a result of social cooperation, the area from which the composition of living labor takes form and its autonomy takes shape. What do you think of such experiments?

KW: I find these practices that emerge within the movements both necessary and insufficient. On the one hand, as laboratories for the development of new ways to reproduce our lives and experiments with more sustainable modes of labor organization and social cooperation, I find them enormously important. To my mind, they are most significant as alternatives to the family model and the many still couple-centric and privatized household forms that mimic it. Most of the examples you mention organize relations of care and cooperation that are not contained within the household. As is the case with other prefigurative practices, the value of these efforts to create new forms of life extends beyond their possible practical (re)applications. For one thing they can also model and inspire the social and political imagination regardless of how one might judge the adequacy of their specific content. And they can also serve to challenge the ethos of austerity – that we should want, dream, socialize and care less, and work and sacrifice more – which is central to both the work ethic and family values discourses that help to legitimate the state’s (non)response to the crisis. These practices insist that we publicize and politicize the work and time of social reproduction, both in the narrow sense of what is required to sustain life itself and in the more expansive sense of what it takes to become more than we are now, to build better ways of being and living together.

On the other hand, I also think it is important to note that these small-scale and local experiments are necessarily limited. As practices that people organize themselves without more institutionalized forms of support, they could also be likened to the kind of entrepreneurial endeavors that neoliberal ideologies celebrate. The relations of social reproduction are inseparable from what is officially recognized as the system of economic production; the reinvention of one depends on the transformation of the other. Social reproduction takes work – the idea must be challenged that it is something that we can do in addition to a lifetime of waged work or, alternatively, in the absence of any other income. And while I do see the importance of developing alternatives to the dominant forms of both private and public reproductive services and support, I think some form of institutionalization is essential lest we continue to assume that our survival should depend on the personal relations we may or may not be lucky enough to find, and may or may not be capable of sustaining.

AC: I would like to pose another question connecting labor and crisis, specifically regarding the increasing reliance on unpaid labor. This is something we have largely experienced by working as precarious workers, or as students in the universities, or through those legalized forms of unpaid labor that are called “internships.” However, within the crisis, in Italy at least, the use of unpaid labor tends to be institutionalized – for example, the Expo 2015 in Milan has “hired” about 15,000 young people with unpaid work contracts. Such labor comes with promises of improved resumes, hence emphasizing the need for some sort of naturalization of unpaid labor as an essential prerequisite for a waged job in the labor market. This is, I would say, a logic in many ways similar to the one that has historically hooked women to the unpaid labor of reproduction, housework, and care. In this regard your analysis on the refusal of work offers important insights. Discussing the refusal of unpaid labor today, a labor largely understood as the harbinger of important promises for the future, takes on a political urgency. What do you mean by refusal of work in these conditions? How, within these coordinates, could we move beyond the labor ethics you largely criticized in your work and think concretely to a post-work society? Is there any room for the refusal of work in such a context?

KW: I think that your claim about the relevance of the case of unwaged domestic work to the current situation of internship labor and other forms of unwaged or underwaged “apprenticeships” is very compelling. After all, capitalist production has always depended on unwaged labor to reproduce the system of waged labor. This is something that second wave Marxist feminists fought to expose, an insight that demands the dramatic expansion of what we understand as the economy and as the terrain of economic struggle. The list of the modes of work that employers profit from but do not compensate us for arguably expands in post-Fordist economies. These include not only all the labor of enabling the present workforce to go to work each day or night and raising new generations of workers, but also most of the educational achievements, communication skills, social networks, cultural forms, and affective capacities that workers are expected to cultivate and that employers do not pay for. Although I think internship and internship-like labor should be understood on this continuum of non-compensated production, there is something stunning about being able to pass these jobs off as something different from paid positions. There doesn’t seem to be a need even to claim that they serve as training periods, as in older forms of apprenticeship. It is as if they are designed to prove that a potential worker is willing to look at the job as something other than an exchange of labor for income, as something one needs for reasons other than mere money. It is as if the point is to demonstrate one’s enthusiastic willingness to embrace a non-instrumental relationship to work. Returning again to the feminist critique, the second wave feminists associated with the “Wages for Housework” demand argued that the first step in refusing culturally (as well as politically and economically) mandated domesticity for women was to insist that unwaged household labor is work. The second step was to see it as merely work. This strikes me as still very relevant advice in the context of these developments in the regime of work.

– Translated by Andrew Anastasi

Surplus Population, Social Reproduction, and the Problem of Class Formation

The black lumpen proletariat, unlike Marx’s working class, had absolutely no stake in industrial America. They existed at the bottom level of society in America, outside the capitalist system that was the basis for the oppression of black people. They were the millions of black domestics and porters, nurses’ aides and maintenance men, laundresses and cooks, sharecroppers, unpropertied ghetto dwellers, welfare mothers, and street hustlers. At their lowest level, at the core, they were the gang members and the gangsters, the pimps and the prostitutes, the drug users and dealers, the common thieves and murderers.

– Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power

1. Introduction

Today, few uphold the old belief that wage labor will gradually expand to cover the majority of the world’s population. Once, this was the condition of the historical belief that capitalism would create the conditions under which wage labor could be organized as a global power to match capital. Instead another teleology has appeared, claiming that capitalist development entails working class disorganization. Rather than a narrative of progress, this is a narrative of decline, of precarity, informalization, and immiseration.

Marx had once predicted that a revolution would become organizationally possible through “the ever expanding union of the workers,” and materially urgent due to the deepening of proletarian misery: “A radical revolution can only be the revolution of radical needs.”1 In the twentieth century, the combination of misery and organization was rare, due to the concessions given to organized labor in the Global North, concessions which were to a large extent made possible by the exploitation, misery, and violent suppression of colonial populations. Today, we see instead a tendency towards the disorganization of northern labor, which is to a large extent due to competition from low-paid and less organized workers in the Global South. It thus appears that the two elements of Marx’s theory are mutually exclusive, but in a different way than believed by many during the mid-19th Century, when the idea of full employment and unionization was seen as a possibility. Instead, Marx’s own strong arguments for the impossibility of full employment have been re-actualized through a re-reading of Marx’s theory of “generalized law of capitalist accumulation” and the capitalist tendency to produce surplus-populations.2

The foremost luminaries of this reactualization have been the proponents of communization theory, among whom the collective Endnotes is perhaps the most influential voice in the Anglo-Saxon world. Referring to Endnotes, Fredric Jameson, for example, has recently offered the provocative suggestion that Capital is a book about unemployment rather than about exploitation.3 The writings of communization theorists on surplus population are of interest both because they provide an explanatory framework for understanding the empirically observable phenomena of the informalization of labor and the development of immiseration and slums, analyzed by writers such as Jan Breman and Mike Davis, and because it is one of the most sophisticated among the (in any case few) contemporary Marxist attempts to think the conditions of revolutionary communist practice today.

This text takes its diagnostic starting point in these new theoretical developments, with an aim to think through the challenge they pose in terms of the question of class formation and organization. It proposes that the central task of class composition is to respond to the problem of the contingency of proletarian reproduction, which all proletarians have in common, but deal with in many different ways. This means that class composition must start from the recognition that the modes of proletarians’ struggle are extremely diverse: from the limit condition of peasants fighting against becoming proletarianized to the classical figure of the wage-laborer on strike, lies a whole range of struggles to which feminist and anti-colonial writers are more attuned than most Marxists. Once we recognize this constitutive heterogeneity of the exploited and expropriated populations of the world, we recognize that any general theory of “the proletariat” as a revolutionary agent will have to start from the self-organization and composition of differences and particularly of different strategies of life and survival.

In order to elaborate such a theory, I turn to the Marx of the 18th Brumaire, a text not interested in the elaboration of the abstract historical dialectic of communist revolution, but in developing and deploying a method of analysis of concrete struggles. This text has rightly been lauded by many as a model materialist analysis of the conjuncture – of the crisis, the relations of class forces, the historical temporality of events, the dynamics of political representation and violence, etc. Marx’s richly textured meditation on the play of contingency and necessity in the French revolution of 1848 and its aftermath is an important corrective to the all too common Marxist attempt to limit political analysis to what can be derived from the critique of political economy or to the question of the prospects of revolution. What follows is the attempt to relate the widely observed conception of political contingency and class formation in the 18th Brumaire with the question of the contingency of proletarian reproduction. Starting from the latter allows me to read the Brumaire not merely as an analysis of the actions of constituted classes, but to draw from it a theory of class formation and class differentiation.

While the problem of proletarian reproduction has been raised with renewed urgency by the crisis and the growth of surplus populations, it has a wider significance. As observed by Michael Denning, the proletariat is not defined by exploitation and labor, but by its real or virtual poverty. The key insight of this text is that any practice of proletarian class formation and organization – the condition sine qua non of communist strategy – must start not only with this virtual poverty, but with the real strategies of life and survival through which proletarians live this problem.

2. The Necessity of Surplus Population Under Capitalism

Marx always gave a dual definition of the proletariat: in terms of the problem of the contingency of their reproduction, their existence as “virtual paupers,” and in terms of their exploitation as workers.4 In other words, the proletariat is defined by its separation from the means of reproduction, and its compulsion to reproduce itself by reproducing capital. The reproduction of the proletariat (the value of its labor-power) is kept in line with the reproduction of capital through the “normal” working of the law of value: if wages rise too high, capital will hire less workers, thus creating a reserve army exerting a downward pressure on wages.5 The point here is that as long as the employed and unemployed do not combine, wages will always fall back in line with the requirements of capital accumulation.

Marx pointed out that state violence is generally unleashed should such a combination force the law of value temporarily out of function. However, there are two other crucial limitations of workers organization, which are both based on the long-term secular tendencies of capital. First, the production and accentuation of differences within the proletariat along gendered and racialized lines, which leads to competition between and within national workforces; and secondly, the production of surplus populations.

As Marx notes with regards to the national and religious conflicts between the English and the Irish, this antagonism is the secret of the working class’s impotence in England, despite the level of organization of its English part. It is the secret of the maintenance of power by the capitalist class. And the latter is fully aware of this.6 This is not merely a strategy of divide and rule, however, but an effect of capital’s chase for absolute surplus value, which – as soon as it has extended the existing workday as much as possible – brings it to incorporate the labor-forces of areas where the reproductive cost of labor is lower, and where necessary labor is thus less relative to surplus-labor time. In the Grundrisse, Marx writes:

Surplus time is the excess of the working day above that part of it which we call necessary labor time; it exists secondly as the multiplication of simultaneous working days, i.e. of the laboring population. … It is a law of capital … to create surplus labor, disposable time; it can do this only by setting necessary labor in motion – i.e. entering into exchange with the worker. It is therefore equally a tendency of capital to increase the laboring population, as well as constantly to posit a part of it as surplus population – population which is useless until such time as capital can utilize it. … It is equally a tendency of capital to make human labor (relatively) superfluous, so as to drive it, as human labor, towards infinity.7

Second, Marx discovers that the chase for relative surplus value itself replaces workers with machinery, leading to an internal secular tendency towards the growth of surplus populations.8 Thus, by enrolling new populations as workers and by expelling existing workers in favor of machinery, capital produces ever larger working classes alongside ever greater surplus populations, which makes the challenges of suspending the law of value through organization ever greater. We see here two tendencies of capitalism: whether in crisis or in periods of growth, existing lines of production will shed labor. Despite periodic crises, capital will accumulate ever more capital, and employ ever more proletarians. This gives us “the general law of capitalist accumulation”:

The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and therefore also the greater the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productivity of its labor, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, also develop the labor-power at its disposal. … But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labor-army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to the amount of torture it has to undergo in the form of labor. The more extensive, finally, the pauperized sections of the working class and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation. Like all other laws, it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here.9

If we try to break this down we have three effects of this law: the expansion of the mass of employed (“active”) proletarians, of the number of unemployed (“reserve”) proletarians, and of the mass of unemployable (“consolidated”) proletarians.10 The effect of the latter two categories is to press down wages, i.e. the monetary part of the reproduction of the working population. Indeed, capital constantly produces a relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is superfluous to the fulfillment its drive for valorization.11 The expanded reproduction of capital is thus both the expanded reproduction of the employed and unemployed populations, positing an ever greater relative surplus, a “disposable reserve army” bred by the capitalist mode of production.12 “Modern industry’s whole form of motion therefore depends on the constant transformation of the working population into unemployed or semi-employed ‘hands.’”13

In recent decades such surplus populations have mostly been produced by automation manufactured in the Global North, whereas the surplus populations of the Global South overwhelmingly remain victims of the combined push of population growth and industrial agriculture in rural areas (subdivision of land, capitalist competition and expropriation). The northward migration from the former colonies introduces an already racialized population into an indigenous workforce rendered insecure by off-shoring, automation and informalization, with some longing for the heyday of Northern labor during the time of open white supremacy and the national social state.

In this increasing immiseration of the proletariat it is possible to find both a deepening contradiction between capital and labor – and thus an increased hope of a revolutionary clash rather than an integrationist class compromise – and an increasing competition between workers and between workers and the unemployed, and thus a decreased hope for solidarity and collective action. We discover this ambivalence in the writings of the communizationist journal and writing collective Endnotes. In their second issue, Endnotes developed a structural analysis, which claimed that the reproductive cycles of capital and labor were becoming increasingly decoupled, leading to a “secular crisis” of “the reproduction of the capital-labor relation itself” and an objective pressure on the proletariat to abolish capital.14 The inability of capital to satisfy the demands of the workers was thus a condition of possibility of communism. However, in their third issue this condition of possibility appeared as a condition of impossibility: “an increasingly universal situation of labor-dependence has not led to a homogenisation of interests. On the contrary, proletarians are internally stratified” and their collective interests have often been captured by markers of race, nation, gender, etc.15 These remarks allow, as we will see, no more than a hope grounded in a theory of the secular deepening of the antagonism between capital and labor, and the exhaustion of all possibilities of mediating it. In what follows we will see that Endnotes’s meditations on the necessities of capitalist development and the abstract possibility of communization leaves us without a materialist method of class formation.

3. Reproductive Crisis and Revolutionary Hopes

Endnotes’s theory of revolution is based on the tendency towards antagonistic reproduction given by the General Law of Capitalist Accumulation. They posit a deepening crisis of the reproduction of the class relation itself, whereby the reproduction of capital and of the proletariat will enter into a deepening antagonism:

With its own reproduction at stake, the proletariat cannot but struggle, and it is this reproduction itself that becomes the content of its struggles. As the wage form loses its centrality in mediating social reproduction, capitalist production itself appears increasingly superfluous to the proletariat: it is that which makes us proletarians, and then abandons us here. In such circumstances the horizon appears as one of communization; of directly taking measures to halt the movement of the value form and reproduce ourselves without capital.16

The tendency here described can only be seen as pointing in the direction of revolution or communization, if we claim that capitalism has reached some absolute limit to expansion, some exhaustion of the capitalist teleology itself. Otherwise, capital will have room to maneuver and give concessions, and we would thus be dealing either with a contingent limit, which poses nothing but a window of revolutionary opportunity, or more fluid fields of struggles. Staking everything on one global totalizing process of subsumption and abjection, communization theory describes a process that is heading for its limit. This theory tends to reduce the question of revolution to its structural condition: general squeeze on living conditions. But because the processes of capitalist accumulation entails both the increasing competition and atomization of workers, Endnotes can only conceive of struggle as the spontaneous coming together of the separated, principally in riots and insurrections. But in this duality of objective tendency and subjective irruption, it is easily overlooked that riots are conditioned by everyday resistances that work against the naturalization of oppression and explore the limitations of other less antagonistic forms of redress. It is equally easy to forget the role of whispers, rumors, and camaraderie that precede a riot, setting the tone of its affective atmosphere of anger and contagious mutual trust. To understand all this is necessary to understand the connection between the structural “conditions of possibility of riots” and the riot itself. Perhaps it is the belief in the imminent exhaustion of the global process of capitalist accumulation that makes it possible to neglect such considerations.

Albert O. Hirschman once observed that when Marx and Engels in the late 1840s – most influentially in the Manifesto – thought that capitalism was reaching its final limit, they failed to recognize the capacity of imperialism to displace capitalism’s contradictions and postpone its crisis.17 More problematically, Marx’s prioritization of the thesis that revolution would come about through the globalization and exhaustion of capitalist development, lead him to briefly lend colonialism support as a driver of the process that would make the proletariat a global reality, and thus communism a global possibility.18 This implication is premised on an abstract formal dialectical reversal, which completely effaces how the effects of the global division of labor are divisive and disciplining, and hence the necessary difficult task of developing cross-border solidarity. Similarly, according to Hirschman, V. I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg only really recognized this power of imperialism when they could say it had run its course, i.e. when the recognition did not contradict the idea that revolution is objectively imminent. Hirschman’s provocation raises the following question: does the orientation of the revolutionary desire of Marxists – insofar as it is sustained by the theory of capital’s real teleology running its course – orient them away from the problem that there might still be venues for capitalist expansion as well as other modifying circumstances to the general law?19 And furthermore, does capital not have the capacity to re-subsume areas and populations it has previously spat out as if they were new to it – once they have been sufficiently devalued? The problem with the thesis of exhaustion is that in order to give hope it needs to suggest a uniform deepening of the proletarian antagonism with capital. This allows theory to avoid the question of strategy and organization, and allows it to “solve” the problem of the proletarian condition through a simple dialectical schematic à la “the expropriators are expropriated.” While we might agree that that is indeed the formal concept of communist revolution, it says nothing whatsoever about the real movement that abolishes the present state of things.

In his critique of communization theory Alberto Toscano relates its “almost total neglect of the question of strategy” to “the collapse or attenuation” of collective bodies capable of projecting a strategy.20 As a theory of communist revolution, communization is a theory of the insufficiency of all real practices, yet curiously a theory of hope. This is the case, because it is speculatively derived from the observation that capitalist development entails a deepening contradiction between the reproduction of the working class and the reproduction of capital. Under such conditions, labor must abolish capital or suffer its own slow death as surplus population. This is a theory of the “conditions of possibility of communism,” in Endnotes’s Kantian formulation. Because Endnotes focus on the “moving contradiction” between capitalist and working class reproduction, they tend to pose the question of composition from the classical point of view of uniting “the” proletariat in order to produce a historical subject adequate to abolish capital, often defining the proletariat in excessively formalistic ways, as fully atomized and mutually competitive and mistrustful, whereby the problem of their coordination becomes so radicalized that even struggle can only be thought as an event of spontaneity rather than a process based on the coming together and increased connectivity of already existing networks of solidarity and trust.21

As with Marx and Engels in the Manifesto, deepening misery becomes the occasion for a conditional belief in progress, a kind of perverse faith that history will progress by its bad side – or perhaps the thesis is merely that if it progresses by its bad side, it will do so in a more communist way this time, unmediated by trade unions and parties, and free of the laborist productivism of former epochs. But freeing themselves of the weight of the past in this way, we also find ourselves in a vacuum, pinning our hopes on the absence of the positive tendency on which Marx and Engels hung their hats, namely the growing organization and productive power of the proletariat, the vehicle through which immiseration spelled the possibility of mass action rather than the barbarism of the war of all proletarians against all.

In addressing this tension, Endnotes do not provide any operational concepts and tactics that might enable the composition or abolition of these differences, except “struggle itself,” which spontaneously will abolish the double-bind in which workers find themselves: “they can act collectively if they trust one another, but they can trust one another — in the face of massive risks to themselves and others — only if that trust has already been realized in collective action.” Instead of participating in the collective development and sharing of tactics and tools of struggle, Endnotes admit the speculative character of their theory, which they consider a “therapy against despair,” the answer (revolution) to which the proletarians have not yet formalized the question. In short, communization is an answer whose only question is abstract, it responds not to the concrete problem of class formation, but to the abstract problem of fending off the despair of the theorists of revolution.

However, the debate that is of interest here is not one between forms of hope, and the possibility of revolution discovered in good or bad general historical tendencies. Neither from surplus population to communization, nor from the multitude to commonwealth, as it were. It is easy to understand that a theoretical indication of hope is necessary to keep practical reason from falling into cynicism, melancholia, or opportunism.22 But such narratives risk leaving us stuck in the Kantian problematic of orientation in thinking, according to which the rational subject will only commit itself to practical, moral action if it has hope that its action will succeed in furthering morality materially or spiritually – and in which only the kind of action that addresses the tendencies that give hope, can itself be seen as carrying a historical promise, that is a promise of more than short term gains and eventual defeat. For Kant, the practical necessity of optimism ultimately becomes an argument for the practical necessity of the idea of God, for Endnotes it becomes an argument for the continuous meditation on revolution, that is, on an answer to which proletarians have not formulated the question. Even if the concept of communization, unlike Kant’s God, is founded on a systematic materialist and dialectical understanding of the laws of movement of capital, such a theory does not, as we have seen, provide us with a strategic, practical orientation of class formation and strategies of reproduction, nor with a concept of state violence.

Even if Marx’s systematic analysis of the tendency towards the production of surplus population is empirically confirmed, as suggested by Endnotes and Aaron Benanav – Marx is still adamant that it has many modifying circumstances from which he abstracts in Capital.23 However, while Marx is right to exclude them from his exposition for methodological reasons, we cannot draw any political lessons from a law without considering its countervailing tendencies that not only work against the tendency, but even suspend it. Some of these are internal, like the periodic devaluation of labor to the point that labor renders highly mechanized production uncompetive, which would lower the organic composition of capital. Another, and more significant moderator is declining birthrates, which Marx does not take into consideration as he methodologically takes demographic growth a variable dependent solely on wage levels. Thus, because of deindustrialization, declining birth rates due to women’s struggles for reproductive health and refusal of child bearing, violent state suppression of birthrates, etc. – it is possible that the tendency towards surplus population is periodically reversed. Further, the available pool of labor has historically been diminished by war, epidemics, famine and the slow death of poverty, declining public health standards and deadly policing of poor neighborhoods and borders.

What is interesting and challenging about the re-actualization of the theory of surplus populations today is that, unlike the immiseration thesis of the Communist Manifesto, it is not predicated on a thesis of the gradual embourgeoisement of the world, or on the homogenization of the proletariat. The reality of surplus-populations poses instead the issue of a generalized crisis of reproduction, and the multitude of survival strategies that arise from it, including modes of wealth appropriation far short of revolution proper, women’s struggles, and various forms of state and para-state violence.24 Reversing the relation between theory and practice, it poses a very non-Kantian question: what does it mean to orient revolutionary practice from the standpoint of the problem of the proletarian condition and the manifold ways to live it?

4. The Common Problem of Reproduction

We have seen how the proletarian condition is best understood as one of separation from the means of reproduction. This is the condition of capital organizing proletarians as wage laborers. New separations are constantly produced by capital’s expansive drive for absolute surplus value, a tendency through which ever new populations are included in the workforce – women and agricultural producers primarily.25 Furthermore, we have seen how the drive for relative surplus value tendentially spits out more workers, rendering them superfluous to capitalist production. In the course of long periods of mass-unemployment, and as an effect of the secular decline in employment we see a growth of the consolidated surplus-population, i.e. a population unfit, unable, unwilling to work, because of poor health, age; or – which Marx only mentions – because it has adopted another mode of reproduction.

Primitive accumulation, violently destroyed and destroys previous modes of reproduction. In Feudal Europe as in the Global South today and in colonial times, primitive accumulation ruptures customary bonds of authority, as well as the peasants’ organic tie to the land, and leaves individuals atomised and bereft of the means and relations necessary to survive and actualise their potentials. Marx’s retrospective analysis of primitive accumulation in Capital focuses on how this process lead to the creation of a mass of proletarians, who had to combine with capital as workers in order to survive. However, we also see in his narrative the outline of a different set of histories of struggles against the enclosures, food riots, and of the criminalized, and thus subversive strategies of survival and reproduction. The impotentiality of individuals had and has to be enforced by private and public violence, their propensity to combine autonomously or within and against their workplaces made the process of the integration of the proletariat into work-life a protracted process.26

In tandem with the repression of other modes of survival, money develops into a general condition for participation in society: if you don’t have it you are compelled to obtain it, be it by working, stealing, selling yourself or by marrying someone who has money. In other words, proletarians have to reproduce themselves through exchange. However, this gives us nothing but the abstract social form through which labor is reproduced; indeed the ways in which labor takes this form are innumerable. Behind the common problem of the proletarians (dispossession of means of re/production) and their common ‘solution’ (money) lies a manifold of heterogeneous modes of life through which the proletarian condition can and must be lived. Thus, as Silvia Federici shows,

primitive accumulation … was not simply an accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as ‘race’ and age, became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat.27

What is also implied here is that as the reproduction of the proletariat became mediated through the wage, it did not abolish proletarian self-reproduction; the wage has very rarely been high enough for workers to obtain all the means of their reproduction (food ready for consumption, sex, cleaning, health care) directly on the market.28 Instead, the wage became a form through which the unpaid reproductive work of women, but also of children and other dependents, was mediated through the mostly male wage, producing what Mariarosa Dalla Costa calls the patriarchy of the wage.29 Whereas Marx’s analysis focuses first on the accumulation of “men,” and then on their production and reproduction of capital through their exploitation, authors such as Federici, Fortunati, Dalla Costa and James provide a theory of the condition of possibility of Marx’s analysis: the production and reproduction of labor power itself.30 To understand the history of how struggles over reproduction started to wane, it is therefore not enough to analyze the integration of proletarians in wage-labor and the criminalization of alternative reproductive practices. We must understand with Federici how one effect of this war on women, whose most violent episode was the witch-hunts, was that the proletariat was split.31 This effect of this war was not just the primitive accumulation and disciplining of women’s bodies by capital, state and church, but also the subordination of proletarian women to proletarian men. For these men the struggle for reproduction was often – and once alternative routes were exhausted mostly – a struggle to find women who could reproduce them. To the macro-violence of the clergy and the state, a micro-violence of the everyday was added, often drawing on the discursive resources and images produced by the former. Economic compulsion and extra-economic violence are inseparable but yet distinguishable under capitalism.

The destruction of the different forms of reproductive self-organization of the proletarians did not entail a destruction of proletarian reproduction as such, but the creation of the modern nuclear family, within which unpaid reproductive work took care of the reproductive needs of children and wage workers, so the workers could remain free-floating mutually competitive productive bodies. Hence we can understand the modern family as an essential survival-unit in a condition of insecurity, but we have to understand how the stability of this nuclear family model is inextricably linked to the stability of the male wage.

Thus, if we read together Marx’s chapters on primitive accumulation with his analysis of the general tendencies of capitalist accumulation, we must conclude that struggles over reproduction are becoming an increasingly important issue, not merely in the form of struggles over the wage and working day, but as defenses of welfare (the social wage), and struggles to appropriate the means of reproduction or against their expropriation. If the proletariat is, as Endnotes and Benanav write, “rather a working class in transition, a working class tending to become a class excluded from work,” we must note that it is also a class increasingly in need of alternative ways to secure its own reproduction. Before this becomes a matter of revolutionary struggle it is a matter of everyday solutions and resistances to the problem of proletarian reproduction.

5. Proletarian Differentiation

Marx conceptualizes the problem of the proletarian condition in two ways: in terms of its exploitation and in terms of its expropriation. If the former relates to the (waged) working class, the latter refers to anybody separated from the means of re/production, a pauper virtual or actual. Marx recognized that the proletariat also attempts to survive outside the capital-relation, as lumpenproletariat, rural or urban. This class lives as an excluded insider to “the silent compulsion of economic relations,” faced not with exploitation but with the “direct extra-economic force which is still… used, but only in exceptional cases.”32 Marx had first introduced the lumpenproletariat in a discussion of Max Stirner’s romantic vision of non-productive and work-refusing ragamuffins and lazzaroni. After 1848, the problem of the lumpenproletariat becomes a problem of the failed revolution, of the proletarians who sold themselves to the reactionaries. This approach, which stresses the difference between the working class and the lumpen, and contains certain moments of moralization from the perspective of the work ethic and law and order, has since been at the mainstream of Marxism, with the most notable exceptions in Frantz Fanon and the Black Panther Party.

Marx’s focus on the contrast between the productivity of the proletariat and the “parasitism” of the lumpenproletariat mirrors capitalist value-production criteria, instead of asking the question of the common condition of the two, and the often blurred borderline between them. To theorize the proletariat as differentiated into workers and lumpenproletarians entails not prioritizing the problem of exploitation over domination or vice versa, but rather seeing these as different ways in which proletarians live their condition: at the extremes some suffer only domination or exploitation directly, but mostly, proletarians are faced with some mix of both. And through the mediation of competition of jobs and state handouts, etc., all proletarians are always indirectly submitted to both, but in an uneven way in which some are relatively privileged over others.

Thus, wage labor is one of many ways in which proletarians try to solve the problem of separation. If the proletarian is a virtual pauper, then in the proletarian condition (to take this word in the sense of the “human condition,” but historicized and negative) the proletariat is stratified into different strategies of dealing with this problem:

proletarian condition

In Marx’s analysis the proletariat analysis is not limited to the actively working industrial proletariat, which was so central to trade union, socialist and communist strategy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If the proletariat consists, as Engels claimed in 1888, of “the class of modern wage laborers, who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor-power in order to live,” we must note that this does not imply that they find willing buyers.33 The proletariat thus consists both of the employed and the unemployed. If the proletariat and lumpenproletariat are not agglomerations of concrete individuals, but modes of life that individuals slip in and out of according to the need and availability of work or other strategies of survival, the distinctions begin to blur. Yet it is clear that frequent conflicts might arise between these populations, both for moral reasons (e.g. the protestant work ethic) and the negative impact of crime on the everyday lives of working people.34 What distinguishes the lumpenproletariat from the unemployed is its mode of life, its everyday strategies of hustling, theft, and sex work, a subjectivity or conduct that tends to make it unemployable, whereas the unemployed law-abidingly look for work. Similarly, there are conflicts between the unemployed and the employed, most obviously the downward pressure on wages and conditions exerted by the former, or struggles for job-security by the latter. These groups therefore cannot share the same strategies for dealing with their class condition: the workers reject the “parasitism and crime” of the lumpen. The unemployed compete with each other and press the wages of the employed. Many employed workers struggle against the inclusion in the labor market of new groups of (women, lumpen, migrants, blacks) in order to maintain their position. Finally, those reproducing the labor force – mainly women – are under pressure from the labor force itself, to reproduce it. This is what it means that different parts of the proletariat live the proletarian condition differently. Now it becomes clearer what is at stake in the problem of class formation.

6. Class Formation Through Struggle

Marx distinguished between the forms that subsume classes (the value-form, money-form, capital-form, state-form, etc.), and the active process of class-formation in struggle.35 This distinction recurs in Operaismo‘s notion of class composition, which has both a passive and an active form: the composition of the class as workers, and the active effort of composing the elements of the class, autonomously. “The political class composition… is determined by how the ‘objective’ conditions of exploitation are appropriated ‘subjectively’ by the class and directed against those very conditions.”36 It is here useful to recover a passage from The German Ideology describing active and passive class formation:

The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of existence predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class, become subsumed under it. This is the same phenomenon as the subjection of the separate individuals to the division of labor and can only be removed by the abolition of private property and of labor itself.37

Individuals are formed as a class, through their subsumption and limitation in the web of necessities of their social condition, but are forming a class through a common struggle. When there is no common struggle, those who could form a class fall back into internal competition or mutual indifference. In the absence of common struggles, the “objective class interests” become abstract slogans compared to the concrete reality of the interests of individual and families to compete with others for scarce resources. This should tell us why attempts to “raise proletarian consciousness” are generally met with derision. To say that people share a common problem to which there is a common solution is an abstract truth, which in itself will convince only very few to compose in common struggle; this requires trust in one another and in the tactics of struggle. A common problem is only a problem if a solution can be imagined; if not, it is simply a condition, a given if troubling fact, which might as well instill cynicism and opportunism. Struggles only emerge where people believe – rationally and affectively – that collective response to a problem is better than or complementary to the ways in which they deal with their condition in their everyday.

The last part of the quote indicates that the problem of the proletarian condition cannot be finally “solved,” but only dissolved, through “the abolition of private property and of labor itself.” Thus, the problem will persist and insists through all attempted solutions, be they individual or collective. This is one of the reasons for the investment of hope in political representatives who might solve the problem, religions that promise otherworldly salvation, and drugs that help you forget the whole mess. This also provides a justification for the projections of communist theory, in as much as it projects a solution that at least rests on the collective self-activity of the believers.

But is important that this communist horizon is not construed as a matter of overcoming and negating particular individual strategies of reproduction, in the sense of raising yourself to the level of universality of the class in the uniformity of its antagonism with capital. Rather, the practical task of class composition – which is necessary for posing the problem of the abolition of the proletarian condition concretely instead of remaining stuck in mutual competition and abstract hope – consists in developing collective strategies of life and survival which either combine, supplement or make superfluous individualized forms of reproduction.

If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages. This is so true that English economists are amazed to see the workers sacrifice a good part of their wages in favor of associations, which, in the eyes of these economists, are established solely in favor of wages.38

Marx makes this argument, which is clearly orientated by the practice of the English workers, against Proudhon’s theoreticist rejection of workers’ combinations. Proudhon argues against workers’ combinations, for what will they achieve, even if they win wage rises: the capitalist class will push down wages to make up for lost profits, the cost of organizing will itself be higher than what is won, and at the end of the day the workers will still be workers, the masters still masters. While questioning the economic side of Proudhon’s argument, Marx’s focus on the experiences of the Bolton workers suggests that something more, and more important than wages, can be gained from combinations and struggle.39

However, the problem of the proletarian condition is much wider than any existing or even possible organization of wage labor. In the face of surplus population, trade unions will have their bargaining power undermined by the increasing competition from the un- or underemployed, and some will engage in a loosing battle to lower competition through enhancing the exclusion of some groups, on grounds of race, gender, or citizenship status. W.E.B. Du Bois pointed to this problem, when he wrote about the black working class in the United States:

Theoretically we are a part of the world proletariat in the sense that we are the mainly exploited class of cheap laborers; but practically we are not a part of the white proletariat and are not recognized by that proletariat to any great extent. We are the victims of their physical oppression, social ostracism, economic exclusion and personal hatred; and when in self-defence we seek sheer subsistence we are howled down as “scabs.”40

The problem of proletarian separation can only be tackled in those nodal points where common solutions can be produced, and forms of competition – racialized, gendered, nationalistic, etc., can be undermined. This entails, quite significantly, facing the challenge of thinking the conditions of the composition of those that are not part of a workplace, which in Marx’s writing is quintessentially the problem of the peasants and lumpen-proletarians raised in the 18th Brumaire.

7. The Material Conditions of Composition

Where the Communist Manifesto, written shortly before the 1848 Revolutions, was a meditation on the historical tendency towards immiseration, proletarian class power and revolution, Marx wrote The 18th Brumaire in 1852 as a reflection of the failure of that revolution, particularly a failure that was due to the failure of the proletariat to compose with the lumpen and the peasants.41 It is useful to return to this text today, when it is clear that the general tendency towards surplus population leaves us with a theory of the difficulty of revolution as much as of its urgency. In it Marx developed a materialist theory of class composition, as a corrective to the general, historicist projections of the Manifesto. The Brumaire is often read as a text in which the problem of class divisions – between proletarians and between the proletariat and its allies – is one of enlightening proletarians about their objective common interest and organizing them, of establishing alliances with the organizations of other classes, and of finding ways to politically represent the unorganized and “unenlightened” residues of the proletariat and other subaltern classes. Thus the question of strategy and force becomes reduced to the question of recomposing the political forces with a view to establishing new class alliances. However, if we look carefully at Marx’s reflections on classes in the text, we see that it is a profound reflection on the relation between classes as constituted categories of people, and the shifting and inherently practical and existential responses to the contingency of proletarian reproduction through which classes crystallize or melt away. Marx’s analysis of the chaos of the revolutionary crisis solely in terms of its political contingency is implicitly but indisputably shaped by presumptions about the question of reproductive contingency.

7.1. The peasantry

The 18th Brumaire conceptualizes the problem of separation in its most radical, most scattered and isolated forms: the small-holding peasants, a mass of semi-proletarians who are largely being undermined by the developing markets in food, taxes, and debts and the lumpenproletariat. Marx’s analysis of the counterrevolutionary section of the lumpenproletariat that was organized by Bonaparte, touches quite profoundly on the question of reproduction. He did not only offer them representation and partial protection, but a temporary solution to their condition of insecurity and poverty: pay, comradeship, and a mission. While the lumpenproletariat secured the dominance of Louis Bonaparte in the Parisian streets, it was the peasantry that elected him in December 1848. Marx asks what it is about peasant life that made them susceptible to electing a leader so alien to them. Unlike the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry does not easily produce or come into contact with more or less organic intellectuals. This gives us the basis of Marx’s often criticized statement that the small-holding peasants are

incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent [vertreten] themselves, they must be represented [vertreten]. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.42

But what is it in their mode of life that makes the peasants susceptible to this mode of representation, Vertretung? Here we must ask how Bonaparte became an answer to the peasantry’s need for orientation and representation. By understanding this need we understand how it might instead be satisfied by a movement of revolutionary composition. Marx’s inquiry into this problem starts not with the consciousness of the peasants, but with a description of the peasants’ specific mode of life, their problems and the possible solutions:

The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France’ bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants. … Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient… and thus [the peasantry] acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; alongside them another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these make up a village, and a few score of villages make up a Department. In this way, the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.43

Thus the everyday and the mode of (re)production of the peasants separates them from one another, making it hard to constitute any political collectivities. And unlike the isolated urban proletarians who live in close proximity and attend the same workplaces, peasant families live stationary lives with few neighbors.44 Where a discourse that starts from the need of science and ideology would ask: how can the peasants be represented, and how can they be enlightened about the conditions under which they live, an inquiry starting with the way the peasants are living their condition comes up with different results:

Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class.45

The peasantry lives this common problem, but the very character of the problem itself, as well as the peasants’ limited means of communication and its localized mode of life, means that while it is formed as a class, it cannot form a class. This shows the strictly relational and self-relating character of Marx’s concept of class; the peasants share certain problems (market fluctuations of the prices of their produce, competition, their enslavement to capital through debt), but the ways these are formulated and dealt with are local.46 While this might create or maintain strong bonds of local communities and moral economies, the peasant population as a whole is a mere mass. It does not find the collectivity in which these problems could be articulated as common interests, where the everyday struggles of each peasant family or village could become a common struggle.

The isolation of the small-holding peasants meant that they were lost for the revolution: instead they were united by Bonaparte, a man in whose fame and power these individual peasants found a protector. Their trust in him as their representative was based on the historical memory of their alliance with the old Napoleon. A mass, whether heterogeneous and connected by locale (like the lumpen) or relatively uniform and separated (like the peasantry), is most easily united under a master or master-signifier. However, the isolation also points to the fact that a movement which develops the technical means and organizational forms through which peasants can communicate and link up is one that will abolish the need for a representative and enable the peasantry to represent itself. And indeed most of the successful revolutions and anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century – in China most paradigmatically – were to a large extent successful due to the central involvement of peasant, party due to a communist re-appreciation of the peasantry, and due in part to the increased capacity of transportation and communication and thus coordination due to telegraphs, telephones, railways, cars, etc.

While changes in the means of communication and transportation were not a relevant variable in describing a revolutionary and counter revolutionary period of four years, he did consider the becoming revolutionary of the peasantry. Thus, he invested his hopes in the revolutionary organization of the small-holding peasantry on its worsening condition, pointing to the possibility that a change in the character of the peasants’ problem would lead them to seek its representative in the proletariat. In short, Marx did not suggest that the peasants could not be revolutionary:

The Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant; not the peasant who strikes out beyond the condition of his social existence, the small holding, but rather one who wants to consolidate his holding; not the countryfolk who in alliance with the towns want to overthrow the old order through their own energies, but on the contrary those who, in solid seclusion within this old order, want to see themselves and their small holdings saved and favored by the ghost of the Empire.47

Marx defines revolutionaries as those who aim to abolish the old order, rather than improve their position within it, who opt for a different future rather than a repetition of the past in the present. Further, he notes that the ranks of the revolutionary peasants are likely to swell with the growth of the rural lumpenproletariat, “the five million who hover on the margin of existence and either have their haunts in the countryside itself” or move back and forth between town and countryside with “their rags and their children,” reminding us of Jan Breman’s contemporary analyzes of the circulation and migration of landless and land-poor labor in South and Southeast Asia.48 As the small-holding peasant class is drawn further into the bourgeois order, the conservative consolidation will become an option for still fewer peasants; in other words, the strategies and modes of living the peasant condition will change as this condition changes. Now, Marx writes (in what was certainly also a strategic intervention in a process of class composition), the interests of the peasants are close to those of the urban proletariat, in which they will find a “natural ally and leader” – while many young lumpen peasants will be lost to the army.49 The terrain of struggle and political class composition also changes – the majority of the peasants no longer find their interests aligned with the bourgeoisie, as under Napoleon, but as turning against it. Thus, while Bonaparte would like to appear as the “patriarchal benefactor of all classes … he cannot give to one class without taking from another,” severely constricting his capacity to unite different classes under his representation.50

Curiously, the proletarian leadership of the peasantry advocated by Marx seems to install it in position of representation of the isolated peasantry, similar to that of the modern Prince Bonaparte, on the one hand, or a certain automatism of them joining the proletariat in the city – instead of the lumpen. It would thus seem that our reading brings us to the very traditional interpretation that Marx – according to the iron logic of his own argument – could only be champion of the industrial proletariat. However, Marx is not hostile to peasants per se, nor does he, as we have seen, present the peasants as necessarily counter-revolutionary. The arguments around their subordination to proletarian leadership mainly relate to the development of the means of communication and combination, i.e. the means of relating and composing in struggle, and of representing themselves. As we see in the case of the petty bourgeoisie, it is the character of their mode of life, its problems and solutions, which keeps them conformist: as their problem is changing, then so will their political orientation. In The Civil War in France, written in 1871, Marx asks: “how could it [the peasants’ earlier loyalty to Bonaparte] have withstood the appeal of the Commune to the living interests and urgent wants of the peasantry?” The reactionary rural assembly of landowners, officials, rentiers and tradesmen…

knew that three months’ free communication of Communal Paris with the provinces would bring about a general rising of the peasants, and hence their anxiety to establish a police blockade around Paris, so as to stop the spread of the rinderpest.51

In the 18th Brumaire Marx was hostile to the lumpenproletariat, skeptical of the peasantry’s revolutionary capacities, and hopeful about the urban proletariat. The whole issue here is to keep in mind that Marx’s reflections, while informed by a structural analysis, are first of all conjunctural. They are focused on the material conditions of combining or allying what is separate around common struggles, and on the invention and construction of new solutions to the problems of the times and of life. Technologies of communication (means of contagion, as it were) and the capacity to overcome or bypass the force of the state are decisive. But first of all, it is a question of aligning and shaping the interests of populations under the pressure of time. In his rebuttal of Bakunin’s critique that he wishes to make the proletariat the master of the peasants, Marx remarks that it is simply an issue of composing interests. With owner-peasants it is a matter of the proletariat doing for them at least what the bourgeoisie is able to, while proletarianized agricultural workers can organize with the proletarians immediately, in as much as there reproductive strategies can be composed. Finally, with respect to the rural workers, the goal is not a mere class alliance, but to effect a reorganization of their reproduction toward communal ownership, without antagonizing the peasants, i.e. without forcibly collectivizing them or removing their rights to the land.52 We here see how Marx understands class composition as a matter of composing different struggles around reproduction, and not of feigning that this difference is simply an illusion hiding their common essence, identity, or problem.

7.2 Composing with the lumpen

To raise the problem of the class composition of the peasantry today and already in Marx’ times, is to discuss the struggles around the risk or actuality of landlessness or landpoverty and debt. Along with the question of surplus populations produced by mechanization (which also happens in industrial agriculture), this leads us towards the problem of the lumpenproletariat, as an extreme, informal condition and mode of survival and death.

Already in the Manifesto Marx and Engels had warned against this group:

The “dangerous class,” the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.53

In the 18th Brumaire the lumpenprolateriat re-enters as a problematic figure for Marx’s schema of revolution: as a class the lumpen are irrefutably a product of bourgeois society and its dynamics, and a class of radical needs, yet one organized against the 1848 revolution in France.

The February Revolution had cast the army out of Paris. The National Guard, that is, the bourgeoisie in its different gradations, constituted the sole power. Alone, however, it did not feel itself a match for the proletariat. Moreover, it was forced gradually and piecemeal to open its ranks and admit armed proletarians, albeit after the most tenacious resistance and after setting up a hundred different obstacles. There consequently remained but one way out: to play off part of the proletariat against the other.54

Thus enter the lumpenproletariat in the narrative of the failure of the revolution, made historically relevant by the 24,000 young men recruited to the Mobile Guard to suppress the revolutionary proletariat. Marx’s scepticism with regards to the lumpenproletariat is a result of his awareness of how the political allegiances of a class are shaped by the ways in which this class reproduces itself. While this did not lead him to suggest that political recomposition can be achieved through recomposition of reproduction, we shall see that such a conclusions can and must be drawn from his writings on the lumpen.

In the 18th Brumaire it would seem that Marx lapses into the organicist idea of parasitism when, invoking the nation, he writes that the lumpen, like their chief Louis Bonaparte, “felt the need of benefiting themselves at the expense of the laboring nation.”55 However, Marx’s “nation” as a victim appears ironically, in relation to Louis Bonaparte’s own consistent self-representation as the savior of the nation. What Bonaparte and the lumpenproletariat have in common is their character as floating elements in the situation – if Bonaparte eventually becomes the figure uniting contradictory class interests it is precisely because of his apparent elevation above the classes. On the other hand, the lumpenproletariat was exploited exactly as an element that has no stable station or stake in society. For Bonaparte – as for the financial aristocracy – it takes abstractions and money to exploit an unstable situation. A significant example is the case of the young members of the Mobile Guard, who were captivated by their Bonapartist officers’ “rodomontades about death for the fatherland and devotion to the republic.”56 On top of this ideological seduction, it took monetary corruption (1 franc 50 centimes a day) to bring the malleable young lumpenproletarians into the Bonapartist ranks.57 The problem of the lumpenproletariat might not be that they are the paradoxical product of bourgeois society standing in the way of the world-historical revolution, but that their untimely up-rootedness is so contemporary in times where “everything solid melts into air,” that its organization in the revolution requires a wholly different mode of political composition.

It is clear that the counterrevolutionary character of this group of overwhelmingly young and male lumpenproletarians does not allow any general points to be made about the lumpenproletariat as such. Consider Marx’s numbers: 25,000 in the Mobile Guard compared to 4 million “recognised paupers, vagabonds, criminals and prostitutes in France” – a large part of whom were women.58 Furthermore, even this particular section enrolled in the Mobile Guard, “capable of the most heroic deeds and the most exalted sacrifices as of the basest banditry and the foulest corruption,” cannot be said to be counter-revolutionary per se.59 Indeed, while Marx does not suggest any tactics by which the lumpenproletarians can be won for the revolutionary cause, his description of how they became counter-revolutionaries, implies that other ideological articulations and other ways of satisfying their needs could bring them to another cause. Here we have radical needs that are not definable in terms of stable class interests, but as the wavering interests of a heterogeneous group which can compose with whomever can help satisfy their needs and desires, with whomever it can share a slogan, an idea and a meal (just like, we should add, the working-class itself before it is ideologically and organizationally homogenized by the workers movement). From this perspective of needs and the thirst for ideas and conviviality, the problem with the lumpenproletarians for the revolution is no longer that their modes of life are essentially counter-revolutionary, but that they, unlike the workers who are fed by capital, will not be satisfied by slogans, but only by cash pay and food (and a bit of moral license). There therefore is no structural reason why Marx’s strategic orientation couldn’t heed the urgency of Frantz Fanon’s call to organize the (mostly landless, rural) lumpenproletariat, whose alliances are never given in advance, but who will always take part in the conflict: “If this available reserve of human effort is not immediately organized by the forces of rebellion, it will find itself fighting as hired soldiers side by side with the colonial troops.”60 And there is no structural reason – quite the contrary – that communisationists should not look to the practices of the Black Panthers, which started from the question of the armed and legal self-deference of a surplus population against the racist policing of its alternative forms of survival – its hustling and informal economies – and progressed to the implementation of survival programs that would drew tens of thousands to the struggle and powerful municipal election campaigns in Oakland, California.61

The willingness of young lumpenproletarians to enlist in the Mobile Guard brings up the question not just of radical needs and their revolutionary potential, but the question of their practical organization around concrete solutions: the problem of all those that cannot or will not work is of an immediate everyday character. The needs of the lumpenproletarian are more immediate than those of the employed, and more non-conformist than those of the unemployed; in the absence of exploitation their modes of life are criminalized, their neighborhoods colonized, in the terms of the Black Panthers, by the police.62 Thus the programmatic demand of an abolition of bourgeois property will be inefficient if it does not address the immediate needs of those that will otherwise sell themselves to the counter-revolution.

The history of the proletariat outside the wage-relation, of the proletarians rendered superfluous to capitalist production (if not necessarily indirectly purposeful as a reserve army) and the proletarians that always were superfluous, is a history of constant attempts to create other modes of reproduction, their victory, co-optation, or suppression. If proletarian self-reproduction against capital – i.e. a reproduction that opens for the self-abolition of the proletariat as proletariat – is to come on the agenda, it is not enough to state that such communization is an invariable revolutionary project of the proletariat (Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic) or a project only possible today, a deepening radical need (Théorie Communiste, Endnotes).63 To open the historical orientation of communization theory to the practical question of organization, it becomes unavoidable to relate it to ongoing practices of de-proletarianization. To go beyond this we need to see not only possibility and growing existential need, but potentialities which can be – or are striving to be – actualized. To do this is to open for the question of composition, emulation, organization, and contagion, between heterogeneous strategies of reproduction, as they exist or are needed to satisfy the practical situated needs of proletarians in relation to the many different ways they live this condition-problem.

While the reproduction of large sections of the Western European proletariat was mediated by the welfare state, what Balibar calls the “national-social state,” another range of struggles have taken hold, among migrants in Europe and proletarians in the “Global South.”64 Informal work and illegal activities, squatting and land occupations most significantly, but also what Asef Bayat calls quiet encroachments, a popular version of what Italian autonomists called auto-reduction in poor Levantine and North African neighborhoods and slums.65 Even where such activities are carried out on a small group or individual basis, attempts to crack down on those modes of reproduction have often resulted in mass popular resistance as Bayat points out; in short, we can speak of these as emergent moral economies of the proletariat.66 Similarly, the often “individualized” – if highly networked – ways in which migrants move often cohere into common struggles when they are met with a fence. Bayat shows that strategies of quiet encroachment, along with existing organizations of resistance such as workers unions, informal communities around mosques, and the football fan clubs, were all practical conditions for the capacity of the spontaneous uprising to pose the existence of Mubarak’s regime as a practical problem.

What matters are strategies that might build the proletarian capacity to resist and thus to project solutions to its misery, i.e. see it is a problem rather than a fate. Today, the tactics and strategies for dealing with, and abolishing the proletarian condition can thus only be reduced to the questions of the welfare state and trade unions through gross neglect. Furthermore, such strategies that have long been relevant where “development” was always a fiction, will become increasingly important a Europe that is provincializing itself and abolishing welfare rights in bundles. The forms of organization and class composition possible and necessary under conditions of surplus population and the squeeze on proletarian reproduction starts with “survival” programs. If not, the current violent and economic annihilation of the proletarian capacity to resist and combine will prevent any revolutionary crystallization.

8. Conclusion

Starting with the question of proletarian reproduction has several advantages: it immediately connects the macroanalysis of capital with the existential urgency of individual and collective strategies of life and survival. Further, it allows us to avoid positivistic sociologies of class based on the compartmentalization of a population, and economistic definitions of class in terms of economic functions within the division of labor. It allows us to think the structural and existential aspects of class formation together, and to understand how both composition and differentiation are responses to the same problem.

I have argued that the proletarian problem must be defined more broadly than by exploitation. The lumpen, the unemployed, unpaid reproductive workers, and the working class live the same problem-condition – the separation from the means of (re)production. Yet they live it differently, and these differences of daily practices, creates a differentiation of needs and desires, which is profoundly intertwined with processes of gendering, ableism and racialization, etc. The communizationist orientation to the conditions of possibility of communism poses the question of a solution adequate to the generality of this problem: the proletariat becomes the name for all those who ideally share an interest in abolishing this problem. From a spectatorial distance, this approach points out the limitations of existing struggles from the point of view of the capitalist totality, which provides it with a theory of what form such a revolution must necessarily take to be adequate. To intellectuals this is a theory of the logical form and possibility of revolution; to proletarians it is a theory of the inadequacy of their efforts. Merely pointing out the limitation of any one struggle by reference to the epochal radicality of a problem is a recipe for cynicism and indifference. It is not enough to be faced with a common problem; this yields nothing but an understanding of the proletarian condition as a misfortune. Unless there is the development of common tactics and strategies of dealing with concrete problems, the different mutually competing strategies for dealing with it will prevail. Any revolutionary practice must start with solutions that are situationally more convincing or desirable than existing ones. Instead of withdrawing to its own niche in the division of labor out of habit or for fear of violating the purity of struggles, theory, considered as a part of such movements, is the active effort to disseminate strategies of combination and struggle, and of elaborating commons and transversal points of connection between different struggles. Taking seriously the fact that resistances and networks of solidarity preexist irruptions of open struggle means to go beyond the faith in spontaneity. This entails an ethics of militant, embedded research, knowledge production, and popular pedagogy, which proceeds through practices of collectively mapping of the possibilities of composition, and reflections on how to connect and extend networks of trust and solidarity.67 It implies sharing tools of organizing and tactics of struggle, taking measure of the rumors and whispers, and engaging in small struggles in ways that can help them transform fear and mistrust into courage and solidarity.

The problem of the revolutionary organization of proletarian difference is one of inventing common solutions to the common problem of the proletariat, whether lumpen, employed or unemployed. But this must start with a recognition that the strategies of the struggle will differ significantly, according to the many ways the problem is lived and survived. Our task cannot be to search for the equation that will give us the result we want, but to explore the maximal possibilities of abolitions of separations here and now, between us and between us and our means of reproduction – be it through riots and affinity groups, mutual aid and autonomous zones or through taking municipal or state power. All this depends on situated assessments of the possibilities of composition, the state of the enemies and the relations of forces.68 If the struggle proceeds successfully, class-differences will be abolished both gradually and in leaps. Proletarians will be stuck less and less in the mode of life they had developed to deal with a problem of their separation, by abolishing this separation and thus their existence as proletarians. Struggles for de-separation are not merely courageous struggles for love, but also often entail fearful search for security. The affective atmosphere of communism cannot be given except through sensitivity to the micro- and nanopolitical dimensions of any movement. Further, if communism is to be thought again as a real movement we must accept that it cannot be a unitary process, but only the combination of manifold desires and needs of more or less separated proletarians, uniting for selfish reasons, but producing a telos in excess of their selfishness, a transindividual sublation of their individuality. Marx saw this clearly when he participated in the Parisian proletarians’ conviviality. He noted that the means to create communism is communism itself: that is, communism practiced produces itself as a need and an aim in itself.69 Communism is not an abstract Kantian “ideal” nor a plan, nor a universal and global horizon from which to judge all struggles or find hope. Communism, instead, is best described as a possible emergent telos in processes of combination, when they fold back on themselves and become self-reproducing, self-organized and capable of defending themselves. Such deseparation can only be effective when it involves the world of things and begins to abolish property as a form of separation. What is needed for this to happen is not the sustenance of hope, but practics of composition and experimentation with need, desire and possibility. Globality or universality are not terrains of collective action, but levels of theoretical abstraction. The questions of scaling up and universality will remain practically irrelevant until they are posed as concrete questions of the conditions of reproducing, combining and defending real movements.

The Bronx Slave Market

Introduction

Marvel Cooke, a seasoned African American labor activist and member of the Communist Party, wrote this set of investigative reports for the New York-based radical newspaper The Daily Compass in January 1950. For Cooke, it was a return to a familiar setting: she and Ella Baker, the famous civil rights leader, had co-written a groundbreaking exposé on an earlier iteration of the Bronx Slave Market in 1935 for the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis. Cooke’s analysis here is worth revisiting for several reasons. Not only does this represent an important attempt at conducting a form of workers’ inquiry among black domestic workers, at that time still a mostly unorganized sector of the working class; she also picks up a line of argument that resonates with other currents of black radicalism (including Claudia Jones, W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and others), tracing the survivals of slavery within the industrializing northern ghetto, where recent black migrants encountered new forms of extra-economic coercion and superexploitation.1 Over the course of four articles, Cooke demonstrates how the set-up of these “slave markets” across New York City, where women stood on sidewalks near department stores seeking offers for a day’s work, engendered isolation (their actual workplaces were always changing, from the Upper East Side to Long Island) and depressed wages through competition (they had practically no bargaining power). In her personal experience as part of the “paper bag brigade,” Cooke details the the grueling nature of the work and the overt racism often encountered, as well as how the informal wage agreement made procuring daily necessities ‒ transportation, food, etc. ‒ a strenuous task. She ends by emphasizing unionization and struggle as the principal means for abolishing these markets once and for all. Even though the Woolworth’s on E 170th St in the Bronx has long been shuttered, Cooke’s reports remain essential material as we continue to think through the connections between migration, racialization, and domestic labor today.

***

“I Was Part of the Bronx Slave Market”

The Daily Compass, January 8th, 1950, pages 1, 15.

I was a slave.

I was part of the “paper bag brigade,” waiting patiently in front of Woolworth’s on 170th St., between Jerome and Walton Aves., for someone to “buy” me for an hour or two, or, if I were lucky, for a day.

That is the Bronx Slave Market, where Negro women wait, in rain or shine, in bitter cold or under broiling sun, to be hired by local housewives looking for bargains in human labor. It has its counterparts in Brighton Beach, Brownsville and other areas of the city.

Born in the last depression, the Slave Markets are products of poverty and desperation. They grow as employment falls. Today they are growing.

They arose after the 1939 crash when thousands of Negro women, who before then had a “corner” on household jobs because they were discriminated against in other employment, found themselves among the army of the unemployed. Either the employer was forced to do her own household chores or she fired the Negro worker to make way for a white worker who had been let out of less menial employment.

The Negro domestic had no place to turn. She took to the streets in search of employment – and the Slave Markets were born.

Their growth was checked slightly in 1941 when Mayor LaGuardia ordered an investigation of charges that Negro women were being exploited by housewives. He opened free hiring halls in The Bronx and other areas where Slave Markets had mushroomed. They were not entirely erased, however, until World War II diverted labor, skilled and unskilled, to the factories.

Today, Slave Markets are starting up again in far-flung sections of the city. As yet, they are pallid replicas of the depression mode: but as unemployment increases, as more and more Negro Women are thrown out of work and there is less and less money earmarked for full-time household workers, the markets threaten to spread as they did in the middle ‘30s, when it was estimated there were 20 to 30 in The Bronx alone.

The housewife in search of cheap labor can easily identify the women of the Slave Market. She can identify them by the dejected droop of their shoulders, or by their work-worn hands, or by the look of bitter resentment on their faces, or because they stand quietly leaning against storefronts or lamp posts waiting for anything – or for nothing at all.

These unprotected workers are easily identified, however, by the paper bag in which they invariably carry their work clothes. It is a sort of badge of their profession. It proclaims their membership in the “paper bag brigade” – these women who can be bought by the hour or by the day at depressed wages. The way the Slave Market operates is a primitive and direct and simple – as simple as selling a pig or a cow in a public market.

The housewife goes to the spot where she knows women in search of domestic work congregate and looks over the prospects. She almost undresses them with her eyes as she measures their strength, to judge how much work they can stand.

If one of them pleases her, the housewife asks what her price is by the hour. Then she beats that price down as low as the worker will permit. Although the workers usually starts out demanding $6 a day and carfare, or $1 an hour and carfare, the price finally agreed upon is pretty low – lower than the wage demanded by public and private agencies, lower than the wage the women of the Slave Market have agreed upon among themselves.

Few Changes

I know because I moved among these women and made friends with them during the late 1930s. I moved among them again several days ago, some ten years later. And I worked on jobs myself to obtain first-hand information.

There is no basic change in the miserable character of the Slave Markets. The change is merely in the rate of pay. Ten years ago, women worked for as little as 25 cents an hour. In 1941, before they left the streets to work in the factories, it was 35 cents. Now it is 75 cents.

This may seem like an improvement. But considering how the prices of milk and bread and meat and coffee have jumped during the past decade, these higher wages means almost no gain at all.

And all of the other evils are still there.

The women of the “paper bag brigade” still stand around in all sorts of weather in order to get a chance to work. They are still forced to do an unspecified amount of work under unspecified conditions, with no guarantee that, at the end of the day, they will receive even the pittance they agreed upon.

They are still humiliated, day after day, by men who frequent the market area and make immoral advanced. Pointing to this shameful fact, civic and social agencies have warned that Slave Market areas could easily degenerate into centers of prostitution.

So they could, were it not for the fact that the women themselves resent and reject these advances. They are looking for an honest day’s work to keep body and soul together.

“Where Men Prowl and Women Prey on Needy Job-Seekers”

The Daily Compass, January 9th, 1950, pages 4, 7.

I was part of the Bronx Slave Market long enough to experience all the viciousness and indignity of a system which forces women to the streets in search of work.

Twice I was hired by the hour at less than the wage asked by the women of the market. Both times I went home mad – mad for all the Negro women down through the ages who have been lashed by the stinging whip of economic oppression.

Once I was approached by a predatory male who made unseemly and unmistakable advances. And I was mad all over again.

My first job netted me absolutely nothing. My employer on the occasion was a slave boss and I quit cold soon after I started.

My second job netted me $3.40 for a full day of the hardest kind of domestic work. My “madam” – that is how the “slaves” describe those who hire them – on this occasion was a gentle Mrs. Simon Legree, who fed me three crackers, a sliver of cream cheese, jelly, and a glass of coffee while she ate a savory stew.

The brush with the man was degrading and unspeakable.

These are the everyday experiences in the Bronx Slave Market and in the markets elsewhere in the city.

***

I took up my stand in front of Woolworth’s in the early chill of a December morning. Other women began to gather shortly afterwards. Backs pressed to the store window, paper bags clutched in their hands, they stared bleakly, blankly, into the street, I lost my identity entirely. I was a member of the “paper bag brigade.”

Local housewives stalked the line we had unconsciously formed, picked out the most likely “slaves,” bargained with them and led them off down the street. Finally I was alone. I was about to give up, when a short, stout, elderly woman approached. She looked me over carefully before asking if I wanted a day’s work. I said I did.

“How much did you want?”

“A dollar.” (I knew that $1 an hour is the rate the Domestic Workers Union, the New York State Employment Service, and other bona fide agencies ask for work by the hour.)

“A dollar an hour!” she exclaimed. That’s too much. I pay 70 cents.”

The bargaining began. We finally compromised on 80 cents. I wanted the job.

“This way.” My “madam” pointed up Townsend Ave. Silently we trudged up the street. My mind was filled with questions, but I kept my mouth shut. At 171st St., she spoke one of my unasked questions: “You wash windows?”

“Not Dangerous”

I wasn’t keen on washing windows. Noting my hesitation, she said: “It isn’t dangerous. I live on the ground floor.”

I didn’t think I’d be likely to die from a fall out a first-floor window, so I continued on with her.

She watched me as I changed into my work clothes in the kitchen of her dark, three-room, ground-floor apartment. Then she handed me a pail of water and a bottle of ammonia and ordered me to follow her into the bedroom.

“First you are to wash this window,” she ordered.

Each half of the window had six panes. I sat on the window ledge, pulled the top section down to my lap and began washing. The old woman glanced into the room several times during the 20 minutes it took me to finish the job. The window was shining.

I carried my work paraphernalia into the living room, where I was ordered to wash the two windows and the venetian blinds.

As I set about my work again, I saw my employer go into the bedroom. She came back into the living room, picked up a rage and disappeared again. When she returned a few moments later, I pulled up the window and asked if anything was all right.

“You didn’t do the corners and you missed two panes.” Her tone was accusing.

I intended to be ingratiating because I wanted to finish this job. I started to answer her meekly and offer to go back over the work. I started to explain that the windows were difficult because the corners were caked with paint. I started to tell her I hadn’t missed a single pane. Of this I was certain. I had checked them off as I did them with great precision – one, two, three.

The I remembered a discussion I’d heard that very morning among members of the “paper bag brigade.” I learned that it is a common device of Slave Market employers to criticize work as a build-up for not paying the worker the full amount of money agreed upon.

“They’ll gyp you at every turn if you let ‘em,” one of the women had said.

“They’ll even take 25 cents off your pay for the measly meal they give you. You have to stand up for yourself every inch of the way.”

Suddenly I was angry – angry at the slave boss, angry for all workers everywhere who are treated like a commodity. I slipped under the window and faced the old woman. The moment my feet hit the floor and I dropped the rag into the pail of water, I was no longer a slave.

My voice shaking with anger, I exclaimed: “I washed every single pane and you know it.”

Her face showed surprise. Such defiance was something new in her experience. Before she could answer, I had left the pail of dirty water on the living room floor, marched into the kitchen, and put on my clothes. My ex-slave boss watched me while I dressed.

“I’ll pay you for the time you put in,” she offered. I had only worked 40 minutes. I could afford to be magnanimous.

“Never mind. Keep it as a Christmas present from me.”

With that, I marched out of the house. It was early. With luck, I could pick up another job.

Again I took my stand in front of Woolworth’s.

“‘Paper Bag Brigade’ Learns to Deal With Gypping Employers”2

The Daily Compass, January 10th, 1950, pages 4, 21.

I had quit my first job in revolt and now, at 10:30 a.m., I was back in the The Bronx Slave Market, looking for my second job of the day.

As I took my place in front of Woolworth’s, on 170th St. near Walton Ave., I found five members of the “paper bag brigade” still waiting around to be “bought” by housewives looking for cheap household labor.

One of the waiting “slaves” glanced at me. I hope she would be friendly enough to talk.

“Tough out here on the street,” I remarked. She nodded. “I had one job this morning, but I quit,” I went on. She seemed interested.

“I washed windows for a lady, but I fired myself when she told me my work was no good.” It was as though she hadn’t heard a thing I said. She was looking me over appraisingly.

“I ain’t seen you up here before,” she said. “You’re new, ain’t you?”

On the Outside

I was discovering that you can’t just turn up cold on the market. The “paper bag brigade” is like a fraternity. You must be tried and found true before you are accepted. Until then, you are on the outside, looking in.

Many of the “new” women are fresh from the South, one worker told me, and they don’t know how to bargain.

“They’ll work for next to nothing,” she said, “and that makes it hard for all of us.”

My new friend, probably bored with standing around, decided to forgive my newness and asked about the job I had left. I told her how the fat old lady had accused me of neglecting the window I had so painstakingly washed.

“Oh, that’s the way they all act when they don’t want to give you your full pay.” She brushed off the incident as if it was an everyday occurrence.

“Anyway, you shouldn’t-a agreed to work by the hour. That’s the best way to get gypped. Some of them only want you for an hour or so to clean the worst dirt out of their houses. Then they tell you you’re through. It’s too late by that time to get another job.”

“What should I have done?”

“Just don’t work by the hour,” she repeated laconically. “Work by the day. Ask six bucks and carfare for a three-room apartment.”

Expert Advice

My new friend proved helpful. She told me all manner of things for which to be alert.

“Don’t let them turn the clock back on you,” she warned. “That’s the easiest way to beat you out of your dough. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself if they put more work on you than you bargained for.”

I asked whether she had tried to get jobs at the New York State Employment Service on Fordham Road. She said she had a “card,” but that “there were no jobs up there…And anyway, I don’t want my name on any records.”

When I asked what she meant by that, she became silent and turned her attention to another woman standing beside her. I guessed that she was a relief client.

There seemed little likelihood of another job that morning. I decided to call it a day. As I turned to leave, I saw a woman coming down the street with the inevitable bag under her arm. She looked as if she knew her way around.

“Beg your pardon,” I said as I came abreast of her. “Are you looking for work, too?”

“What’s it to you?” Her voice was brash and her eyes were hard as steel. She obviously knew her way around and how to protect herself. No foolishness about her.

“Nothing,” I answered. I felt crushed.

“I’m new up here. Thought you might give me some pointers.” I went on.

“I’m sorry honey,” she said, “Don’t mind me. I ain’t had no work for so long. I just get cross. What you want to know?”

When I told her about my morning’s experience, she said that “they (the employers) are all bitches.” She said it without emotion. It was spoken as a fact, as if she had remarked, “The sun is shining.”

“They all get as much as they can out of your hide and try not to pay you if they can get away with it.”

She, too, worked by the job –“six bucks and carfare.” I asked if she had ever tried the State Employment Service.

“I can’t,” she answered candidly. “I’m on relief and if the relief folks ever find out I’m working another job, they’ll take it off my check. Lord know, it’s little enough now, and it’s going to be next to nothing when they start cutting in January.”

She went on down the street. I watched her a moment before I turned toward the subway. I was half conscious that I was being followed. At the the corner of 170th St. and Walton Ave., I stopped a moment to look at the Christmas finery in Jack Fine’s window. A man passed me, walked around the corner a few yards on Walton Ave., retraced his steps and stopped by my side.

I crossed Walton Ave. The man was so close on my heels that when I stopped suddenly on the far corner, he couldn’t break his stride. I went back to Jack Fine’s corner. When the man passed me again, he made a lewd, suggestive gesture, winked and motioned me to follow him up Walton Ave.

I was sick to my stomach. I had had enough for one day.

“‘Mrs. Legree’ Hires on the Street, Always ‘Nice’ Girls”

The Daily Compass, January 11th, 1950, pages 4, 21.

Woolworth’s on 170th St. was beginning to feel like home to me. It seemed natural to be standing there with my sister slaves, all of us with paper bags, containing our work clothes, under our arms.

I recognized many of the people who passed. I no longer felt “new.” But I was not at peace. Hundreds of years of history weighed upon me. I was the slave traded for two truck horses on a Memphis street corner in 1849. I was the slave trading my brawn for a pittance on a Bronx street corner in 1949.

As I stood there waiting to be bought, I lived through a century of indignity.

It was that rainy muggy day after the two-day Christmas holiday, but there was no holiday cheer in the air. The “paper bag brigade” assembled unwilling – slowly. These women knew, even better than I, that there would be little trading on the market today.

I waited with six others one hour – two. Four gave up and left. Then a young couple approached, looked us over, and bargained with the woman next to me. I didn’t blame them for not choosing me. She was younger, obviously more fit. She went off trailing behind them.

An Offer of Work

I was alone. I was drenched and my feet were wet. I was about to give up when a little old woman with a bird-like face asked if I wanted a few hours’ work.

I let my fellow workers down, for I went off with my new “madam” with a bad verbal contract—75 cents an hour for an undetermined amount of work, knowing only vaguely that there was general cleaning and ironing to do. What that meant in detail, I didn’t know.

By the end of the day, I knew very well. Every muscle in my body ached.

On the way to her home on Morris Ave., the little old woman informed me that she had been hiring girls off the street for 20 years and that she’d never been disappointed.

“I’ve always picked nice girls,” she said. “I knew you were nice the minute I laid eyes on you.”

That pat on the back was worse in a way than a kick in the teeth. “I was almost afraid to ask you to work,” she went on. “You look like you belong in an office.”

I glanced down at her. Was it in her mind that the old clothing I was wearing was too good for a Negro? I couldn’t interpret her expression. She had none.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Margo,” I answered, quickly selecting a name close enough to my own not to be confusing. However, five minutes later she was calling me Margie. By the end of the day, I was Mary, a name that to her mind, I suppose, was more befitting my station.

Her apartment had two rooms and a bath, with the kitchen unit in one end of the large living room.

A Good Purchase

She watched while I changed into my work clothes. She seemed to be taking stock of my strength. Without turning, I could almost see her licking her lips. She had bought a strapping, big animal.

“First, rinse those clothes and hang them on the drier in the bathroom,” she said, pointing to the tub. “And then you can dust the walls down all over the house.” She handed me a makeshift wall mop.

There were endless chores. I ironed a man’s shirt, four full-length ruffled curtains and a tablecloth. I took the stove apart and gave it a thorough cleaning. I cleaned and scrubbed the refrigerator, a cabinet, the sink and tub and shelves above the sink. I rubbed all of the furniture in the apartment with furniture oil.

Through it all, my employer sat unperturbed, watching my every move. Once or twice she arose from her chair to flick imaginary dust from an area I had already been over. Then she’d sit down again to watch me.

She was gentle, and persistent, and cruel. She had bought her pound of flesh and she was going to get every ounce of work out of it.

They pay-off came when she asked me to get down on my hands and knees to scrub all the floors, which were covered with linoleum. I just couldn’t do it. I realized with some surprise that the ache in my chest I had been feeling all day was just old-fashioned anger. Suddenly it flared. I stood up and faced her.

“I can’t do it!”

“Can’t do what, Mary?”

“I can’t scrub all of these floors on my hands and knees. This method of scrubbing went out with the Civil War. There are all sorts of methods to make floor washing easier. And if they must be scrubbed this way, why don’t you provide a knee pad?” My words tumbled over each other. But she caught their meaning all right.

“All of my girls clean my floors this way, Mary,” she said gently. “This is the way I like them done. Well, finish this one and I’ll call it a day.”

I gathered strength as I scrubbed that floor. I cleaned it with the strength of all slaves everywhere who feel the whip.

I finished my job. After I had changed into my street clothes, this gentle Mrs. Legree counted $3.40 into my hands – exactly what she owed me by the hands of the clock, at least minus my car fare.

I was too exhausted to ask about 20 cents.

“Some Ways to Kill The Slave Market”

The Daily Compass, January 12th, 1950, page 6.

So the Slave Market is back. And it is back to stay unless something is done to kill it off quickly.

A lot of people, aroused by its rebirth in the Bronx, Brighton Beach, Brownsville and elsewhere, are already fighting to beat back its advance. They want no return of conditions that existed during the last depression when wages were driven down to 25 cents an hour. They point to a number of things that can be done.

Says Nina Evans, president of Local 149 of the independent Domestic Workers Union: “Our primary aim is to bring these women into the union. But other things must be done, too. We must carry on a continuous and militant fight to bring domestic workers under the protection of the minimum wage and minimum hour laws, and under the workmen’s compensation and social security acts.”

At present, the domestic worker is covered by the Workmen’s Compensation law only if she works for one employer 48 hours a week, and by the unemployment insurance law only if she is one of four or more household workers employed in a home for 15 days in the calendar year.

Says Laura Vossler, field manager of the New York City household office of the New York State Employment Service: “Slave Markets are a disgrace to New York City. Standardization of domestic employment can never be accomplished while they thrive. My office carries on an unrelenting fight to raise employment standards in the domestic field. But it is an uphill struggle. There must be more employer education and employee training.”

The Domestic Workers Union, manned entirely by volunteer workers, has free hiring halls at 103 W. 110th St., Manhattan; at 927 Kings Highway, Brooklyn; and is searching for a Bronx location.

Organized in 1937 by a group of courageous young domestic workers under the leadership of Dora Jones, the union has watched its membership fluctuate with the times. In the late 1930s, 500 women were paid-up members. At present, the total is 125. The main reason for this downward trend was the fact that many domestic workers went into factories during the war. Now that they are returning to household employment and the “paper bag brigade” is once more on the march, the DWU is redoubling its efforts to bring them into the union.

This is one of the most difficult groups of workers to organize, Nina Evans comments. Unlike those in other fields, they work in isolation from each other and seldom have a chance to exchange work experiences. Long hours and the piling on of impossible loads preclude such interchange after work. When their work day ends, they are dog tired and need to go home to rest, or, in most cases, to take care of their own families.

But the women of the DWU are undaunted. They spend their free time, little though it is, talking with the women of the Slave Markets, passing out leaflets in front of churches and subway stations, and in finding jobs at decent wages for unemployed domestic workers.

Last fall, the union presented a course in Negro history which brought in a number of new members.

“We want our Negro workers to walk erect in dignity and pride with their white allies,” Nina Evans says.

Mayor LaGuardia was the father of the New York State Employment Service (NYSES) household offices. In an attempt to remove unemployed women from street corners and thus eliminate Slave Markets, he opened the first experimental free hiring hall at 1029 Simpson St., The Bronx, on May 1, 1941.

Didn’t Solve Problem

But this clearly was not the answer to the problem. It merely put a roof over the Slave Market. Bidding for labor at depressed rates was more comfortable than heretofore, but other evils of the market remained. However, LaGuardia’s move did pave the way for the establishment of a number of free employment offices under the auspices of the State Employment Service where trained social workers attempt to standardize working conditions and rate of pay.

The offices, at W. 80th St., Manhattan; 384 E. 149th St. and 29 E. Fordham Rd., The Bronx; 205 Schermerhorn St., Brooklyn; and 90-91 Sutphin Blvd., Queens, are in areas where there is a demand for household workers, but where few Negroes live.

The NYSES has no household office in Harlem or in other areas where there is a concentration of Negro workers who form the majority of applicants for domestic employment. Since domestic workers are employed in every borough in the city, and in most cases must travel some distance to work, it would seem logical to set up the employment offices nearer their homes rather than in scattered working areas.

The NYSES stresses education of the employer as a method of eliminating the Slave Market. When it became aware last spring that the “paper bag brigade” was back on the streets, trained field workers from the Employment Services spoke in Bronx churches and before PTA groups, explaining to housewives the bad features of negotiating independently with workers in the streets. “Our aim is to do everything we can to protect the worker,” said Miss Vossler.

Before an applicant goes out on a job, specifications are listed and approximate time to complete the job is estimated. “There is little or no chance that an employer will take advantage of a worker we send out,” she said.

Reject Free Service

Commenting on the fact that women still frequent Slave Markets despite the fact that NYSES offers free service, Miss Vossler said: “There are always some who will not take advantage of our service for one reason or another.” She suggested that these were women who did not have “good referrals.”

However, judging from what the members of the “paper bag brigade” themselves say, many won’t take advantage of the NYSES or any other employment agency because they are relief clients and feel they must avoid employment records of any kind. “What I used to get was little enough,” one woman told me. “What am I going to do in January when my check will be cut still more?”

That is one $64 question. Another is, what will happen to her if the Slave Market ideology grows?

Now she may get 7 cents an hour. But as more and more workers join her “brigade” – as the supply of domestic labor surpasses the demand – wages are bound to be depressed even further.

Her security lies in decent legislative safeguards, in employer education and employee training, and, above all, in unionization.

These, and these only, will make Slave Markets disappear.

The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism

Esther Cooper Jackson is a radical civil rights activist. A member of the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), she went on to become the managing editor of the famous radical journal, Freedomways, which published such figures as CLR James, James Baldwin, and Kwame Nkrumah. As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, Cooper Jackson observed the plight of the black domestic workers who cooked and cleaned for the students, prompting her to begin a thorough investigation of domestic work in the United States. In the spring of 1940, she defended a Master’s Thesis on the working conditions of black domestic workers, paying particular attention to their struggles to unionize. (For more on Esther Cooper Jackson’s Thesis and the broader context of black feminism, see Erik S. McDuffie, “Esther V. Cooper’s ‘The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism’: Black Left Feminism and the Popular Front,” American Communist History 7, no. 2 (2008): 203-209.) The thesis can be read as one of the most thorough theoretical and empirical studies of the labor of social reproduction in twentieth-century United States history. Although the forms and processes of social reproduction have no doubt changed in this country, many of Cooper Jackson’s insights, methods, and questions still stand, especially when we recognize that domestic work remains one of the largest occupations in the United States and is still largely performed by migrant women of color. Moreover, the very conditions which Cooper Jackson identifies as the chief grievances of domestic workers remain the hallmark demands of their movement, and the obstacles which make this kind of organizing so onerous have persisted into the 21st century. We present here an excerpt from her Thesis, with the kind permission of Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York City.

Introduction

In spite of the increased mechanization of the home, and the use of modern electrical conveniences, large numbers of women still find employment in private homes. Today more women in the United States work in domestic service than in any other occupation. About one and one-half million women were employed in domestic service when the 1930 Census was taken.

Domestic work itself is not a popular occupation since there are many disadvantages attached to it, and hence women tend to look on it as a last resort when they are unable to obtain any other type of work. The may disadvantages with which domestic workers are contending have made it necessary to discover some means of eliminating or mitigating the disadvantages of this occupation. Some domestic workers have turned to unionization just as workers in other occupations have done as a means of improving their conditions of work.

Negro women often have to face discrimination and prejudice in addition to the problems which domestic workers as a whole must face. Since Negro women continue to be employed in domestic work in large numbers, this study is concerned with a consideration of their problems and their attempts at unionization.

The material for the body of this study was obtained from interviews, from letters, Government documents, and from magazine and newspaper articles. Those interviewed included organizers of unions, both union and non-union domestic workers, some employers of domestic workers, specialists in the Women’s Bureau, Department of Labor, in the National Negro Congress, in the Women’s Trade Union League, and in other agencies and organizations. Letters were received from the national headquarters of the American Federation of Labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the National Urban League, and the Work Projects Administration.

It is the plan of this study to examine, first, the status of Negro women as domestic workers in the United States; that is, the historical changes that have taken place in this occupation, the numbers engaged in this occupation at present, the conditions and problems of Negro women in domestic work. Second, trade unionism in the United States today, particularly in relation to Negro women and in relation to other occupations which have been thought to be unorganizable, will be examined. Data on the existing unions in New York, N.Y., Newark N.J., Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Illinois, which are the only unions in existence as far as the writer can ascertain, will be presented. An examination of clubs and other organizations of domestic workers and instances where domestic unions have failed, will follow. Attitudes of others toward unions of domestic workers will be investigated, attitudes expressed by such organizations as the Women’s Trade Union League, the Young Christian Association, by Government agencies such as the Work Projects Administration and the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, by organized labor represented by the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the American Federation of Labor, by the general public represented in newspapers, magazine, women’s clubs, by employers and employees. Finally, this study will appraise the extent to which trade union organization has offered a partial solution to problems faced by Negro women domestic workers.

Chapter 1: The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in the United States

The United States census includes under domestic and personal service a wide range of occupations from laundresses and charwomen to hairdressers and maniourists. However, this study is limited to an investigation of Negro women employed in private homes, who perform general housework and who handle services for members of the household and their guests. In spite of the fact that there are many social and economic problems related to domestic work in private homes, there is little data available as to numbers, race, age and marital status or domestic workers.

Although the exact number of household workers at the present time is unknown, an estimate can be made from the 1930 census. More than 3,000,000 women were employed in domestic and personal service in 1930. There are no accurate figures as to how many women were engaged in domestic work in private homes, but from census figures, the Women’s Bureau has indicated that well over 1,400,000 were in this group. Three of five Negro women workers reported their usual occupation as in domestic and personal service; included in this number, the Women’s Bureau has estimated that over 600,000 Negro women were domestic workers in private homes in 1930. It is a striking fact that there is a high concentration of white women household workers in the age group under 20; 24.2% were in this class age, as contrasted with 15.8% of all white women gainful workers, 15.9% of all Negro women gainful workers, and 14.4% of Negro women in general housework.1 There are, also, large numbers of older white women in domestic work, but for Negro women the age distribution is more scattered. It appears, then, that domestic work is predominantly an occupation for very young or relatively old white women and for Negro women of all ages.

Striking differences between white and Negro domestic workers with respect to marital status emerge from an analysis of census data on this subject. Among white domestic workers, the percentage married in 1930 did not exceed 25% for any age group. In the case of white women, domestic work is done characteristically by single, widowed and divorced women. Among Negro domestic workers, however, the married woman is the rule. From 25 years on the percentage of single Negro women in domestic work is small. From census data, we find that in the 1930 population, 33% of Negro married women were gainfully occupied and 8% were in general housework, but of all married white women, only about 10% were gainfully occupied and less that 1% were in general housework.2

In order to understand more thoroughly the role of the Negro woman domestic worker in present society, and the problems which they face, we shall examine briefly the historical changes among these employees in the United States. As one commentator, writing at the turn of the century put it: “In studying the question of domestic service, therefore, the fact cannot be overlooked that certain historical influences have affected its conditions; that political revolutions have changed its personnel, and industrial development its mobility.”3

During the early history of our country, service of every kind was done by transported convicts, indentured white servants, Negroes and Indians. These servants often complained of long hours of work and ill treatment, while the housewives complained of “ungrateful servants and inefficient service.” In the South, the large plantation developed with its big house and its economic self-sufficiency. Here the Negro slave was the house servant. With respect to this pattern one can see why Roscher, the German economist, discusses domestic service as an appendix to his treatment of slavery. The plantation owner and his wife looked on the Negro house servant with an air of benevolence and maternalism. The relationships between servant and mistress exhibited all the characteristics of the feudal relationship of master and serf. When slavery was abolished in 1863, many former slaves who had been domestic servants continued in this capacity, receiving a small sum of money for the work.

The number of Negro women domestic workers in the period just following the Civil War is not known. It was not until 1890, when the first separate occupational statistics of Negroes was taken by the Census Bureau, that one could get reasonably exact information on the number of Negro women domestic workers in the country. In 1890 the total Negro population was 7,488,676 or 11.9% of the total population. Agricultural and domestic workers comprised the bulk of the Negro population at this time. Almost one-third of all the Negroes gainfully employed were classified as domestic workers, although the number employed as household workers in private homes is not available.4 By 1900 there was an increase of 361,105 domestic workers in the Negro group, an increase of 37.7% over the number in 1890.

Migration of Negroes to both Northern and Southern towns in search of better wages, hours, and conditions of work and other urban attractions may account for some of this increase. Negro girls and women, especially, migrated to the city from rural areas in search of domestic work. In the South, many white women went into the cotton and steel plants, and in so doing employed Negro girls to look after their homes and take care of their children. For this the Negro domestic received wages ranging from 50 cents to $3.50 a week.5 In the North, wages for domestic work were higher, and thus provided an attraction to those seeking better conditions of work. However, in the North the Negro faced much competition in domestic work in addition to the fact that he was refused work altogether in lines of industry monopolized by white persons. Thus, Greene and Woodson say in The Negro Wage Earner: “However, the keen competition for jobs in the North, the fact that domestic service carried with it no social stigma as in the South, and the higher wages paid, all served to weaken the Negroes in this field.” These authors also point out that even though there was a numerical increase in the number of servants in 1900 over 1890, the proportion of Negro women in domestic service showed a decline in 1900 which was due to the keen competition for jobs and to the increased effort of the Negro husband and father to prevent his wife and daughters from “working out.”

From 1900 to 1914, the proportion of all Negro women employed in domestic personal service continued to decline. In the North some employers preferred whites and immigrants to Negro domestic workers. Added to this problem, was the tendency towards smaller homes so that housewives could perform household duties alone or with one domestic worker. The bakeries, the clothing stores, laundries, dairies, etc., began to do work which was traditionally the role of the domestic worker. In the South, the domestic servants began to tire of the feudal relationship and tie to the household; they had for so long been made to feel and acknowledge their social and racial loneliness. Thus, migrations to the North continued. Even though there was a decrease in the proportion of Negro women in domestic work, this field remained one of the main occupations in which Negroes were employed.

By 1920, there was a further decrease in the proportion of all Negro women who were in domestic work. Here again we see various factors entering into the situation; not only does the decrease indicate that Negro women entered into some of the industries and other occupations at this time, but indicates also the whole trend in modern housekeeping. That is, the urban housewife began to use modern mechanical appliances and time-saving devices. She also resorted to the use of birth control mechanisms, so that there were few or no children, and thus there was a decrease in the number of mothers’ helpers and other domestic workers whose duty it was to help care for the young. In spite of this decrease in the proportion of Negro women employed in domestic service which has continued to the present, there was an absolute increase in the number from 1920 to 1930. It seems highly probable that the Negro woman will continue for some time to be employed in domestic service because of the keen competition which she meets in all types of industrial work. thus, it is fitting to examine at this time the conditions under which domestic employees must work, and the problems which they face today.

From the few recent studies of domestic workers which are available one concludes that low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions are characteristic of this occupation. Negro women domestic workers have been discriminated against and exploited with double harshness. The high turnover among Negro women domestics is thereby partly explainable. From various available reports we may conclude that the major problems of domestic workers are lack of employment standards, long hours and low wages, exclusion from the benefits of social insurance and other protective legislation, and the social stigma attached to domestic work.

Lack Employment Standards

Because household workers are scattered in many private homes, thousands of individuals bargain for work. To some extent competitive forces bring about an equalization of wages. That is, domestic workers move from job to job in search of higher standards, at the same time that employers are on the watch for workers who will accept lower wages and longer hours. These competitive forces, however, are fully likely to drive down the level of compensation received by domestic workers as to maintain or raise that level. Hagel Kyrk, Associate Professor of Home Economics at the University of Chicago, states on this point:

The services of household workers are but one of many desirable goods for which personal income may be spent. Those with incomes sufficiently high can pay high wages as they can buy expensive clothes, and pay high rentals. Those with lower incomes struggle to balance their budgets by searching more and more intensively for cheaper help. One of the most difficult points in the household employment situation arises from these two circumstances – a relatively low income and a standard of living that calls for one, possible two hired workers, and two or more younger children. Every element in the situation makes for long hours, heavy work, low wages and limited accommodations.6

The household employee has no wage scale based on skill, amount of work required, or experience. She is usually untrained and unskilled. The demand for efficient and trained workers is much larger than the supply. Little efficiency can be expected when an employment office brings country girls to cities by the truck loads to work at “starvation wages,” and when employment bureaus regard the payment of an application fee as the only requirement for placement. In a study made in Chicago by the Women’s Bureau, Department of Labor (1933), it was discovered that of 246 domestic workers reporting on their training, just over one-fourth, whether white or Negro, had attended such classes, but less that 3% of the total had received there all the preparation for their work. More than one-fourth of the total had secured all their training in their own homes; about one-eight had received all in the homes in which they had worked; and one-third had their training in both these places. Employers reporting in this same study in Chicago indicated inadequacy of training and experience of domestic workers in their employment. More employers found training inadequate in cooking and serving than in any other kind of housework; almost one-third had found it necessary to give training in these branches. Other reported that employees needed training in “my ways of doing things.” Other kinds of work in which employers found it necessary to train their employees were planning, care of children, dishwashing, orderliness, and use of equipment, particularly electrical equipment.

Long Hours and Low Wages

Today employers of domestic workers work their million and half employees an average of seventy-two hours a week and pay them lower wages than are paid in any other occupation.7 Knowledge of wages paid and hours required of domestic workers in various sections of the country are revealed in a number of special studies.

In 1938, Fortune Magazine sent to more than 17,000 Fortune subscribers, to 500 editors of women’s pages of newspapers, and to 3,000 women’s clubs, a questionnaire on the servant problem. The following conclusions on wages and hours were included in the results of the survey.

Wages were highest in the Northeast, lowest in the South. Thus, 73% of general houseworkers in the New England, Middle-Atlantic section earn $40 and over a month; 60% in the western half of the South earn under $40 a month.

Wages were highest in cities of over a million. Thus, 82% of general houseworkers in cities of more than a million earned $40 and over a month; 58% in communities of less than 5,000 earned under $40.

Wages of white and Negro houseworkers ran almost parallel up to $30 a month; thereafter, they favor the whites moderately. But in specialized jobs, wages over $50 favor the whites overwhelmingly.

Five out of every six domestic workers worked more than 8 hours a day; two out of every six worked more than 10 hours; one out of six work more than 12. Short hours were most frequent in the west and in small communities; long hours in the South and in the big cities.8

In Lynchburg, Virginia (1936-1937), a study was sponsored by a Join Colored-White Committee of the YWCA and an Inter-Racial Commission. A total of 141 questionnaires were filled out by 64 employers and 77 employees. The following conclusion on wages and hours were included in the results of the study.

The typical wage of the group covered by the study was $5 or $6 per week, as represented by the two largest classes of approximately the same number of cases. Two cases were reported at $1.50 and one at $10 and there was one report of payment in the form of a house “on the lot” rent free, and one payment made only in clothing.

There were 63 employees who received pay during sickness as against 40 who did not; 58 were paid for vacations and 31 were not. There were 19 employers who states that they gave a raise in wages after a period of time, while 55 employees said they had received no raise on their present job.

There was one report of a working week of 91 hours and 16 of 80 to 90, the typical number being 72 per week.9

Another study was conducted in Philadelphia in 1932 by the Women’s Bureau of the United States Department of Labor. Of the 74 domestic workers who answered questionnaires, only one-fifth were white, and the majority of those were foreign born; this fact is significant for our purpose. The following conclusions on wages and hours are included in the results obtained in this study.

About two-thirds of the women living in who reported the length of their usual day worked as much as 12 hours or more. Two-fifth of all reporting went on duty between 7 and 8 o’clock in the morning. Nearly one-half of those by whom the time of quitting work was given, went off duty between 7 and 8 o’clock in the morning.

The median of the week’s wage of ther 72 women reporting is $14.60; for those living out the median is lower than for those living in, the amounts are $12.70 and $15.25 respectively. The white women had a median somewhat higher than that of the Negro woman – $15.35 in contrast to $14.5.10

A more recent Government investigation is that of the Bureau of Research and Statistics of the Social Security Board. An analysis was made of 3,645 registration cards providing a random sample of the active and inactive files for domestic workers registered with the State Employment Office in four cities – Cincinnati and Lakewood, Ohio; Wilmington, Delaware; and the District of Columbia. Data on wages were obtained for 1,734 workers registered in 19936, 1937, and 1938. The following results seemed significant.

In all of the cities covered and in each year most frequent weekly cash wage was from $5 to $7. In Cincinnati, Wilmington, and the District of Columbia, a larger proportion of Negroes than of white workers received from $7 to $9, but larger proportions of white workers received $11 and over.

In Cincinnati, Wilmington, and the District of Columbia daily wage rates varied from 50 cents to $3.50; the largest number of workers, 164 out of the total 450 received between $2 to $2.50 a day. In each of these cities 90% of the workers reported to have been working on an hourly basis received from 25 to 30 cents an hour.

In the records covered by this field study it was found that there was little different, as a rule, in the wage rates of those who live in the homes of their employers and those who live out, and , in a few instances, wages were lower for those living out.11

In all of these studies presented here and in other scattered studies it was discovered that overtime is rarely paid for, that a regular 8-hour work day as thousands of other workers not take for granted is only an ideal to domestic workers. Thus, in Rochester, New York, a domestic worker recently begged for a code setting hours of household labor at 84 a week, twice that of most factory regulations.

Exclusion From Social Insurance and Legislation

Legislation in the field of domestic work has been slow, partly due to the lack of standardization of domestic work, and the lack of a union front of either employers or employees to set up standards in wages, hours, and conditions of work upon which favorable legislation might secure a foothold. Only three states, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, place household employment under workmen’s compensation laws, and Connecticut only if there are four employees working for one employer. New York places domestic workers in line for unemployment insurance only if there are four employees working for one employer.

Today only one state, Washington, has a law which regulates hours of work in a household employment. This law was passed in 1937 and establishes a 60 hour work week for all employees in private households but permits longer working hours in emergencies.12 The original draft of the bill included a six-day week, double pay for overtime, and provisions of $50 fine for violation. In order to get the bill through legislature, its proponents were forced to drop these provisions. The results of the passage of the bill have not been what its proponents had hoped for: employers have been non-cooperative in many instances and employees are hesitant to report violations of the act for fear of losing their jobs.

Only one State, Wisconsin, has set minimum wage rates for women and minors in domestic work. This legislation, the Oppressive Wage Law, passed in 1925, is quite flexible in that it is interpreted and administered by the State Industrial Commission.13 However, the officials who administer the Wisconsin Law find it difficult to see that the laws are being upheld because of the many isolated places of employment, because of public opinion, which resents investigation of private homes, and because the employees are reluctant to file complaints.14

In the Social Security Act, passed in August 1938, household employers were exempted from Federal old-age and unemployment insurance. The Social Security Board, however, has pointed out the sound policy of extending age-old insurance to as many of the nation’s workers as possible and has recommended that the exception of domestic service be eliminated with allowance of a reasonable time before that effective date.

Social Stigma Attached to Domestic Work

Domestic workers have been made to feel and admit their social inferiority. They are often called by their first name, both by strangers and friends, children and adults. What one commentator said in 1897 often holds in 1940:

The domestic employee receives and gives no word or look of recognition on the street, except in meeting those of her own class; she is seldom introduced to the guests of the house, whom she may faithfully serve during a prolonged visit. The common daily courtesies exchanged between members of the household are not always shown her; she takes no part in the general conversation about her; she speaks only when addressed, obeys without murmur orders which her judgment tells her are absurd, is not expected to smile under any circumstances, and ministers without protests to the whims and obeys implicitly the commands of children from whom deference is never expected.15

The owner-slave, lord-vassal, master-servant tradition remains, as Fortune points out, the chief reason on the one hand, “why housewives have failed to be realistic in their handling of servants … and on the other, why domestic work is unpopular and domestic workers difficult to obtain.” Again, the Public Informant Assistant of the Women’s Bureau, Department of Labor, points out quite vividly: “Household employment generally is viewed as unskilled work and persons so engaged are looked down upon socially. This belief holds despite the fact that household tasks are varied and when they are done efficiently demand intelligence and a considerable variety of skills.” Finally, the domestic worker may be given a room off the laundry, or even in the garage; she has no security of any kind, and is treated in such a way by members of the family that a social stigma is attached to her.

Work conditions faced by domestic workers constitute a serious problem for the thousands of individuals directly affected, as well as for society as a whole. Individuals and organizations, in attempting to shape a program for improving conditions of domestic workers, have come to the conclusion that organization of domestic work is one of the bases upon which higher standards might be maintained. In the efforts to unionize domestic workers, leaders had followed closely the experiences of other workers who have organized trade unions and have focused public opinion on their problems.

Chapter 2: Frontiers of American Trade Unionism

The rapid strides in unionization among allegedly unorganizable workers are of considerable significance for domestic workers. Reasons given for the impossibility of organizing agricultural, white collar, technical, and professional employees are similar to those given for the impossibility of organization among domestic workers. Such reasons include isolation, independence of each worker, the lack of strong bargaining power since each employer contends with each employee, the overcrowded labor market which makes competition keen, mobility of the worker associated with frequent changes in employment, the lack of class feeling and unity, and hence, the inability of workers to get together for meetings. Although these handicaps to unionization are real, they have definitely been shown to be not insuperable in the case of white collar, professional, and agricultural workers, since all of these groups are certainly on the road to strong unionism.

The assumption that domestic workers are unorganizable has been proved false in certain European countries. As early as 1910, a domestic workers’ union was started in London.16 This union was the outcome of a series of articles written by a socialist journalist, C. L. Shaw, with the assistance of Kathlyn Olivier, a domestic worker. The story of the development of this union is important for our purpose. After five months of intensive study, Mr. Shaw and Miss Olivier called a meeting of domestic workers to which twelve persons responded. After nine months of work in educating the domestic worker and housewives to the union program, the membership increased to 95. There were many disappointments, many humorous incidents, but also a gradual increase in membership. This union attempted principally to obtain shorter hours, higher wages, and healthier working conditions, and has set up standards for carrying these principles into effect. A recent development in the English Domestic Workers’ Union is the support given by the Trade Union Congress since 1931.17 The program of the Domestic Workers’ Union has been enlarged so as to include a legislative program, the maintenance of social clubs and activities, and provision of legal aid for members, and an employment bureau for aiding members to secure work.

The Scandinavian countries have made a start at unionization of domestic workers. In Lithuania, Denmark, and Sweden, trade unions for domestic workers were organized during 1932.18 The demand which these unions have made include equal civil and political rights for their members, the extension to domestic workers of hours of work legislation, free employment exchanges, inclusion in sickness and accident insurance schemes, and the improvement of conditions as regards to wages, hours, food, and living conditions. Some of these goals have been achieved. For example, the union in Sweden succeeded in placing domestic workers on the same footing as other workers in their work contracts. Also domestic workers now come under the compulsory insurance act, and can use the public employment bureaus since the abolition of fee-charging agencies in 1926.

The change of the position of domestic workers in Russia is a very impressive one.19 Before the Russian Revolution, domestic workers in the cities often worked from dawn to darkness. The living conditions of workers living-in were inadequate: a cot in the hallway, closet, or kitchen were often the only place that the domestic servant had to sleep. The food which the workers prepared was served to the employer, while the worker ate food with little nutritional content. The pay was little and vacations were unheard of. Today under the trade unions, all domestic workers are organized. The work seven hours a day, and sometimes six, received an annual vacation with pay, and if health requires it, receive a few vacation in a sanatorium or rest home. Under the Russian Domestic Worker Order (Legislative Series, 1926) which regulates the conditions of employment of domestic workers within the Labor Code, the working day is often divided into several periods so as to allow the workers rest period.20 The social standing of domestic workers is equal to other workers. There is no stigma attached to the occupation such as we find in the United States today.

The domestic workers’ unions in these European countries have continually pushed for an inclusion of domestic workers in progressive legislation measures. The Denmark Union has succeeded in prohibiting night work for domestic workers, and in providing free time for recreation and night school, if so desired. In Switzerland, the union has given much support to the nine hour rest period law. In each of these countries compulsory sickness insurance for domestic work is in force, due to the efforts of the unions.

In Italy, before the Fascist regime, domestic workers and employers were strong. Today, however, collective agreements between domestic workers and employers are forbidden by the Royal Decree of July 1926.

The domestic workers’ unions in the United States have before them the experiences of unions of domestic workers in European countries and the experiences of unions among white collar, agricultural, and professional workers in the United States. The outlook for domestic workers’ unions does not look so dark when we consider the struggles which other unions have had. Domestic workers’ unions have been organized in Washington, D.C., New York, N.Y., Newark, N.J., and Chicago, Illinois. First steps toward unionization have been taken in other cities. It is the plan of the next few chapters of this study to examine the experiences of these particular unions, and to discover the extent to which unionization has offered some solution to the work problems of domestic workers in the United States.

[…]

Chapter 4: Attempts to Organize Domestic Workers’ Unions: New York and Newark

In New York city, efforts to organize domestic workers have yielded somewhat greater results in terms of numbers enrolled than in Washington, D.C. In relation to the relative sizes of the cities, and relative number of household employees, however, union achievements in New York are less impressive than in Washington.

The beginnings of a the New York Union date from the spring of 1936, when a club of domestic workers in New York initiative a campaign to bring together all workers in private families into some sort of an organization for collective bargaining. Under the slogan, “Every domestic worker a union worker,” they established themselves as the Domestic Workers’ Union of New York. At this beginning stage, it was an independent union not affiliated with any of the established labor organizations. The new union was launched publicly at a mass meeting held in June, 1936, at a Labor Temple, on which occasion speeches of encouragement were delivered by a number of New York labor and civic leaders, including representatives of the Building Service Employees, the Women’s Trade Union League, and several other women’s organizations. Membership began to increase after that meeting, although the growth was far from rapid.

At the present time the membership of the Domestic Workers’ Union is about 1,000. It has taken the important step of affiliation with the Building Service Employees International Union of the AF of L, and at present is the only active domestic workers’ union in the country so affiliated. There are two branches: Local 149 in New York City, and Local 130 in New Rochelle. Local 149 is the branch which is of particular interest since its members are mainly (80%) Negro women from Harlem, New York City. Its executive secretary states that the rate of growth is increasing. The members of the Local are reported to have shown their enthusiasm by saying that the Union is “the only decent thing that has happened to us.”21 Dues are unusually low for a trade union organization. The initiation fee is reported as 50 cents and the monthly dues as 50 cents. The general program of the New York Domestic Workers’ Union is exhibited by its bulletin and by statements of officers. One of the bulletins follows:

Twelve to Sixteen Working Hours Per Day

Household Workers. Why this difference in working conditions? The painters have a strong union which gives them Social Security, Workmen’s Compensation, protection on the job, and leisure time. The Building Service Workers have received the same benefits from the Union.

If the Building Service Workers want the same rights as other workers – time for recreation, church, family and friends.

If we want an adequate wage, social security, and consideration on the job, we too must build a strong union.

Join the Domestic Workers’ Union, Local 149, and speak for yourself, your rights, and your security.

Join the Union and through its strength get a 60 Hour Maximum …work week, workmen’s compensation, higher wages, social security.

The president of the Union, Miss Dora Jones, has suggested the following standards that domestic workers are seeking in a one-employee household.

I would like to know what the job I’m taking really is; what time I’m expected to be on duty, how large the house or apartment and family are, whether there are children small enough to require me to give my evenings watching them.

I’d like a clear understanding that I’m to do no heavy laundry work, no washing windows above the first floor.

I would like a room of my own. I don’t expect a bath of my own, but for the family’s sake as well as my own, I think a definite time should be set aside when I can feel that the bathroom is mine.

I should like to a 10 hour work week and one complete day off a week, not too afternoons.

I think I deserve two weeks vacation with pay, after I’ve had the job a year.

I wish wages which will provide me with decent-plus clothes, some small savings and medical insurance.

I want three square meals a day (coffee and one roll, does not, in my opinion, constitute an adequate lunch.)

I wish to have two evenings a week, when I am free to have callers in this, my home. Naturally, I prefer to entertain them in some part of the house which is not occupied by the family.

I would be willing to submit to a medical examination for the sake of my own health as well as to be able to present a certificate of health to my employer.

I wish two weeks extra pay at time of dismissal and a fairly written reference.22

One can readily understand Miss Jones’ belief that “compared with the present working conditions, the fulfillment of these would be ‘Utopia.’” Actual conditions in New York certainly fall short of this ideal. The “slave markets,” which number about 200, according to the Union, are at the bottom of the scale. Here on New York’s street corners, women wait for housewives to come to them to bargain for a day’s work. Many Negro women stand on these corners until they are hired for 25 cents or 25 cents an hour, or even 15 cents, although 50 cents I the standard rate. Jobs usually last three or four hours. When these women do obtain work, they sometimes have to do a month’s cleaning in a day.23 They are often given stale food on the theory that “a one day fast won’t kill a worker.” For this reason, they sometimes bring their own lunch. One woman who worked six years cleaning windows on the fifth floor of an apartment said, “Never again will I horn in on the Window Cleaners Union.”

The Union has to contend with domestic agencies who charge 10% of the monthly wage for jobs, a sum which must be paid in advance and is not refunded if the worker is not hired. Added to this, girls are brought in from the South and Pennsylvania, sometimes in truck loads, to fill jobs at $15 per month, where they must pay the first month’s salary for transportation costs. The Union girls, Negroes of Local 149, stated to the Sunday Worker:

Fellow comes down on a trip through Georgia and Alabama and wants to know don’t we want to make more money. We get such low pay down there.

I’m from Atlanta and you don’t make much down there. Well, it ain’t but natural that $40 a month sounds pretty good to you and that’s what the fellow promises.

You can read about how they rope in innocent girls to the city to be prostitutes. Well, it’s the same way they do us girls who work out.24

In a 1933 report by the Division of Junior Placement of the New York State Labor Department, there was revealed much exploitation of young women in domestic service. the report showed that girls of 15 and 16 years of age were made to work with no let-up from 6:30 AM to 10 or 11 at night or later. Their wages were frequently below $15 per month, and in some cases they were expected to work for “a good home with no cash wages whatever. the wages actually paid were not always the wages which the employer states at the employment office. Besides this, food, living conditions, and moral standards were low, especially in crowded apartments.”25 Authorities agree that conditions are the same today.

Confronted with many problems, this small group of organized domestic workers has begun its task of classifying domestic workers according to the jobs they do, such as cooks, general houseworkers, etc. defining the work and duties which the Union would require. The employer must sign a contract which states exactly the work conditions to be kept. The Union demands 50 cents an hour for part-time work, 50 cents an hour for general houseworkers, and as much as $100 a month for cooks. The work day is limited to 10 hours and the work week to 60 hours. The New York Union does not allow “on call’ provisions, that is, arrangements for additional hours in the day or week to be spent in the employers’ home “on call” but not actually working. The Union does not allow lower wages for workers who “live in”; it points out that “living in” means extra responsibilities and longer hours. One full day or two half days off per week are required. Added to this, the Union demands two weeks vacation with pay after one year of employment; two weeks vacation with pay after one year of employment; two weeks notice before discharge, a private room and three full meals if the worker lives in, and no heavy laundry to be done by the general houseworker.

[ … ]

There is a good deal of hostility toward the Domestic Workers’ Union of New York City from various groups. While there are 100,000 domestic workers in New York City, the Union as yet has no more than 1,000 members. Attitudes towards the Union are factors which help to make or break the Union. One woman employer, upon being interviewed, said:

I always have an understanding with my servants and I know just how to treat them. I don’t need a union to dictate to me how I should work them, or what day of the week they should have off. Take Mary, for instance, she’s been with me for two years, the longest I’ve ever kept a maid, and she never complains about the hours. She’s faithful. If she started to get into her head any of these silly ideas about joining a union, I’d have trouble right away. I tell Mary that if she works hard, and does it well, we won’t have any difficulties, and she can stay with me as long as she wants to.

A Negro woman employer, a “sophisticated New Yorker,” said:

My girl gets here at 8 o’clock in the morning and goes home at 6:30. She seldom stays later unless I have to entertain. Negroes should join unions, but domestic workers wouldn’t know what to do even if they had a union. They’re too ignorant, and like good times too much to take them seriously.

Because of such attitudes, the officers seem to be fearful that someone will try to break up the Union. Outsiders trying to learn more about union activity are not received particularly cordially at Union headquarters, especially if they ask about methods used to obtain standards, and to enforce them. Often the woman in charge of the office refuses to answer any questions or refers the inquirer to some open meeting at a later date. This attitude is understandable. Union members are afraid of what outsiders will do to them. They know the opposition which other workers have faced and they know the significance of blacklists. They know, too, that their organization is new, that it is not firmly established, that they are opposed on many sides, and thus, they are apt to assume that any outsider is likely to be an enemy.

To the support of the Union, however, come certain liberal housewives. One woman said that she never hires except through the Union, and that she is going to do all that she can “to spread the gospel” to her friends and neighbors. One group of women voluntarily agreed to place the 60-hour work week in their homes as an experiment; the trial period proved to be a success and the women now employ union girls in their homes and are pleased with the work they are receiving in return.

From all available evidence it seems as though the household workers are pleased with the Union. From workers who are members of the Union, the following are samples of their feelings:

The Union has been a God-send. I have some time to myself now; I get time for rest, and to go to a movie every now and then …

I just joined the Union two months ago. Before I belonged, I quit two jobs ‘cause I couldn’t stand it, and then spent a month on the “slave market” working by the day for 25 cents an hour. A girl that lived next door to me told me about the Union. I didn’t know what it was at first, but I went down and talked a bit to some girls who belong. I ain’t never been sorry that I’m a Union member and I’ll fight for the Union all I can.

A young Negro mother said that she now has more time to spend with her children and that the lady for whom she works didn’t want her to join the Union at first, but that after a time the employer was relieved to find that the girls didn’t “picket” her on the slightest disagreement, and didn’t make impossible demands.

Business does not consume all of the time of the Union. Recreation is also a part of the program. On certain afternoons during the week, tea is served at the headquarters. Many races and nationalities take part in these activities in New York, since the problem is not so completely a Negro one as it is in Washington.

The New York Union states as its achievements: “We have been successful in dealing with grievances and in placing members on jobs under union conditions.” the Union considers its greatest problems to be lack of funds adequate to carry on union activities and educational work, as well as the usual handicaps which are encountered in trying to organize workers in this occupation. These handicaps are stated to be a high turnover of members, irregularity in free time, utter exhaustion at the end of the work day, and “a variety of their occupational problems and racial backgrounds.”

[ … ]

Conclusion

This study has examined the conditions and problems of Negro women domestic workers in the United States today and has emphasized particularly their participation in trade union activity.

The fact that Negroes have often been the founders and organizers of the domestic workers’ unions in the United States is of significance for our study. More Negro women have not only suffered from lack of employment standards, long hours, and low wages, exclusion from social insurance and legislation, and social stigma attached to the occupation, but they have also been forced to receive lower pay and to work under lower standards than white employees. Housewives, knowing they can get domestic workers at almost starvation wages, have played employee against employee. One of the worst types of human exploitation is the “slave market” found in New York city, and one of its ugliest aspects is the way in which girls are shipped up in carloads from the South to stand on corners waiting for work at 25 to 35 cents an hour. These workers have formed the nucleus of the Union in New York.

In looking over the four Unions considered in this study, we see that the bulk of unionized domestic workers are those who have suffered most from economic exploitation and racial discrimination. In the main it is these workers who are paid comparatively well by wealthy employers. Domestic employees who work by the day or night, who are hired and fired often, and who receive far below a living wage are the ones from whom an active union program may be expected.

Of the 600,000 Negro women domestic workers in private homes in the United States today, less than 2,000 are organized. These 2,000 are concentrated in four cities: New York, Newark, the District of Columbia, and Chicago. We find that domestic workers’ Unions have set up wage and hour standards and have established contracts to enforce these standards.

The Domestic Workers’ Union of the District of Columbia has set up a contract which not only includes wage-and-hour standards but indicates just what the work is to include, such as general housework, ironing, sewing, cooking, etc., has set up standards as to uniforms, breakage, living arrangements, vacations, insurance, holidays, and provision for entertainment of friends when the worker is living in the home. Both employer and employee sign the contract, both agreeing to one week notice by either party if the contract is broken. Housewives are often willing to sign contracts if they are assured of efficient service in doing so. Although training classes have been started by the District of Columbia Union with the cooperation of the WPA classes, the Union has not yet been able to guarantee well trained workers for all the cells which come through the Union office.

The Washington Union is facing other problems, too. The total membership of the Union, 500, is an insufficient number for effective bargaining. Leadership among the domestic workers has been slow in developing, and Union members often to not cooperate fully with the Union’s employment office and placement bureau. Domestic workers in the District as yet have little feeling of unity; they have been accustomed for generations to work in isolation. Negro domestic workers often have more loyalty to the class which they serve than to other domestic workers. Thus we find a number of serious problems facing the Washington Union. The Union has proved, however, that a domestic workers’ Union is not impossible in the District, that wage scales and classification of domestic workers is important for effective unionization, and that work can be found for members of the Union at standard wages, hours, and conditions.

The New York Domestic Workers’ Union, with membership of over 1,000, is the largest of its kind in the United States, and the only domestic workers’ union affiliated with the AF of L. It has emphasized a legislative program, centering about a drive for a 60-hour week, inclusion of domestic workers in workmen’s compensation benefits and minimum-wage laws. In attempting to carry out this program, the Union has been handicapped by insufficient funds and lack of cooperation on the part of domestic workers and the public in general. However, the Union, with the aid of the International Labor Defense has had some success in dealing with grievances between employee and employer. Its members, nearly all Negro women from Harlem, report to interviewers that improvements which they have achieved since joining the Union, although they are reticent at first in talking with outsiders. The New York Union will perhaps be the nucleus for unionization of domestic workers on a nation-wide scale. In New York may be found domestic workers already union-conscious with a program, with leadership, and knowledge of union tactics. Here, too, are the headquarters for many other unions in the country, powerful unions which started out with small memberships and with many obstacles to overcome.

The Newark, N.J. Domestic Workers’ Union is perhaps the least active of the four Unions investigated for this study. Organized in 1936, the Union now has 250 members, some of whom never come to union meetings or participate in any of its activities. Perhaps the development of the Union in Newark has been slow because of tremendous opposition which members have met on all sides. Negro women themselves have looked to the Union as an impossibility and have cynically waited for its failure. White housewives upon being interviewed have expressed opposition to the Union, and have predicted that it can never include in its scope all domestic workers and therefore cannot be effective. Housewives have carried this opinion to domestic workers in their employment; these workers in turn have been impervious to any pleas which the organizers and members of the Union have made to them. The future of the Union cannot be predicted. Perhaps the fact that over 200 women are receiving wages and working hours according to union standards maybe an incentive for building the Union.

The Chicago Domestic Workers’ Union, as far as can be ascertained, has roots which extend further back than any of the other domestic workers’ unions. As early as 1930, some investigation of conditions of work among domestic workers in Chicago had been accomplished, with the aid of the National Committee on Household Employment and the Women’s Trade Union League. The work took on a fresh start in 1935 when the Domestic Workers’ Association was organized. This Union has been characterized by waves of optimism followed by waves of pessimism. After the defeat of the 8-hour bill for women in domestic work in 1939, the Union entered its most bitter days. The Chicago Union seems to be holding its membership but not increasing its numbers. Its newly defined program is modest; it includes opening training classes for domestic workers, and continuing a program of education through newspaper articles, church contacts and union-sponsored programs. The future of the Chicago Union depends on its ability to find leaders among its members who will devote full time to developing and carrying out the program of the Union, and on an expansion of its program so as to include much more than a legislative drive.

There are possibilities that the Milwaukee Domestic Employees’ Club and the Englewood, N.J., Working Women’s Club, among other organizations, may develop into bonafide unions. Many of these clubs are of recent origin and have not yet gained a foothold or have been confused as to program and policies. They may, however, be able to derive guidance and some degree of encouragement from the experience of the four active unions.

The many difficulties of organizations are not the only problems which domestic workers face. They must deal with deep rooted opinions and attitudes hostile to unionization, such as those expressed by women’s clubs, by employers, by employment agencies, by certain domestic workers who identify themselves with their employers, by newspapers and magazines. The domestic workers’ unions have realized that such attitudes have been counteracted at least partially by active support given to the Unions by such prominent organizations and agencies as the Women’s Trade Union League, the National Urban League, the National Negro Congress and the Women’s Bureau. Other support has come from progressive employers and women’s clubs, and certain Negro newspapers. Finally, the CIO has supported the various attempts of unionization and has expressed its intention of taking organizational steps in this field in the future. The conviction of the CIO that unionization is possible for domestic workers is of significance for the domestic workers’ Unions already organized and for any which may be attempted in the future. Such support tends to stimulate organization.

We have seen in this study that unionization among domestic workers is a fairly recent phenomenon in the United States, and hence, a very small percentage of the total number of organizable domestic workers is unionized. In examining the history of some large labor organizations of today, such as the United Mine Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and the Newspaper Guild, etc., we have discovered that membership was very small in the first years of organization. It is true also that when the CIO was first organized, it gave its attention to helping small Unions of rubber and automobile workers, which were the forerunners of the many affiliated CIO Unions of today. Hence, the small beginnings made in unionizing domestic workers are no indication that they are unorganizable.

It has been stated elsewhere that domestic workers are unorganizable for a number of alleged reasons including especially the point that they work in isolation. However, it has been shown in this study that similar statements have been made concerning agricultural, white collar, technical and professional workers, and yet these workers have organized themselves to an appreciable extent and have sought to standardize their work conditions. We have seen also that domestic workers in England, in the Scandinavian countries, in Russia, and pre-fascist Italy have proved that domestic workers can effectively bargain for higher wages, fewer hours, favorable legislation, and more human living conditions. While the future of unionization among domestic workers in the United States cannot be predicted, nevertheless, it can be concluded that the problems faced by Negro women domestic workers are responsive to amelioration through trade union organizations even when we recognize the many difficulties which are involved in unionizing this occupation.

The Productive Subject

It is impossible at the present time to write history without using a whole range of concepts directly or indirectly linked to Marx’s thought and situating oneself within a horizon of thought which has been defined and described by Marx. One might even wonder what difference there could ultimately be between being a historian and being a Marxist.1

Power: From Politics to the Economy

In the concluding section to The Will to Knowledge, Foucault explains what led him to consider power, as it exists today, not from a negative perspective – as a constraint that is initially juridical in form – but from a positive one, inasmuch as power relies on mechanisms that materially organize and even help to “produce” human life, instead of imposing boundaries on it. This idea is at the very core of his conception of “biopower.” As he writes about it:

This biopower was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes. But this was not all it required; it also needed the growth of both these factors, their reinforcement as well as their availability and docility; it had to have methods of power capable of optimiz­ing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to control. If the develop­ment of the great instruments of the state, as institutions of power, ensured the maintenance of production relations, the rudiments of anatomo- and biopolitics, created in the eigh­teenth century as techniques of power present at every level of the social body and utilized by very diverse institutions (the family and the army, schools and the police, individual medicine and the administration of collective bodies), ope­rated in the sphere of economic processes, their development, and the forces working to sustain them. They also acted as factors of segregation and social hierarchization, exerting their influence on the respective forces of both these move­ments, guaranteeing relations of domination and effects of hegemony. The adjustment of the accumulation of men to that of capital, the joining of the growth of human groups to the expansion of productive forces and the differential alloca­tion of profit, were made possible in part by the exercise of biopower in its many forms and modes of application. The investment of the body, its valorization, and the distributive management of its forces were at the time indispensable.2

To put it schematically, Foucault explains in this passage the need to rethink power by freeing it from the grip of politics, so as to bring it closer to the concrete level of the economy; an economy that is primarily concerned with the “management” of life, bodies and their “powers” – a term that persistently recurs here – even before having as its focus the value of traded goods within an economy of things. Furthermore, for Foucault, it is important to restore a historical dimension to this new understanding of power, which he does by relating it to the development of capitalism and the specific social relations of production set in place in the context of the Industrial Revolution. Although the term “class” is not overtly mentioned, it is clearly implied with the reference in the above passage to the “factors of segregation and social hierarchization, exerting their influence on the respective forces of both these move­ments, guaranteeing relations of domination and effects of hegemony,” and “the joining of the growth of human groups to the expansion of productive forces and the differential allocation of profit.” Foucault appears here to almost flirt with Marx’s analyses in Capital, which he reconciles with his attempt to view power from a positive and “productive” perspective.

Five years later, coming back to this point in a lecture given in Bahia in 1976, published under the evocative title “The Mesh of Power,”3 Foucault explicitly confirms this convergence. There, he writes:

How may we attempt to analyze power in its positive mechanisms? It appears to me that we may find, in a certain number of texts, the fundamental elements for an analysis of this type. We may perhaps find them in Bentham, an English philosopher from the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, who was basically the great theoretician of bourgeois power, and we may of course also find these elements in Marx, essentially in the second volume of Capital. It’s here, I think, that we may find some ele­ments that I will use for the analysis of power in its positive mechanisms.

Foucault means that Bentham and Marx are basically talking about the same thing, even if they do so in different ways: the emergence of a new configuration of power, coinciding with the rise of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, did not solely consist of an institutional change or a seizure of political power, since it fundamentally depended upon an original harnessing of the forces of life itself, providing the economy with its specific object ‒ an economy whose transformations have driven social change. This perspective, it could be argued, moves toward the thesis of the determination by the economy in the last instance, on condition that the concept is extended to eventually subsume the management or the “production” (to follow Foucault’s ambiguous term) of life in all of its forms. In the rest of the lecture, Foucault enumerates the four dimensions that characterize this historical and social shift in power, and insistently refers to Marx for each one: the dispersion of power into a multiplicity of heterogeneous powers; its detachment from the state-form; its positive, rather than prohibitive or repressive, orientation; and finally, its progressive technicization that developed unplanned through trial and error, and thus was not subordinated to any devised or preconceived ends. Foucault considers this last point to be the most important: it appears in the passage from the Will to Knowledge cited above concerning “methods of power capable of optimiz­ing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to control.”

When Foucault cites the “second volume of Capital,” he clearly has in mind the second volume of the French edition of Marx’s work, published by Éditions Sociales, which comprises Parts 4, 5, and 6 of Volume I, the only volume to appear in Marx’s lifetime, the final editing of Volumes II and III being posthumously completed by Engels. Althusser, in a preface written for the 1969 publication of Volume I of Capital in Flammarion’s GF book series, had recommended reading it by starting directly with the second half, that is, by skipping the first part, as its interpretation poses the most problems, problems only resolvable when one gets to the end of the work and can grasp the argumentation as a whole. Foucault seems to go even further, advising that Marx’s book be approached through the fourth part, which deals with “The Production of Relative Surplus-Value (Mehrwert).” Indeed, in this passage he sees, appearing for the first time, the elements enabling the definition of the new configuration of power, heralded from the end of the 18th century by theorists such as Bentham: namely, “bourgeois power” and its mechanisms, i.e., the specific procedures pertaining to a technology of power, to whose analysis Marx made the greatest contribution. By focusing his attention on this part of Capital, Foucault thereby finds a way of distancing himself from the polemical presentation provided in The Order Of Things – not of Marx’s thought stricto sensu, as found in his own texts, but what arose from it in the form of “orthodox” Marxism, in which Foucault had detected an avatar or epiphenomenon of political economy in its Ricardian form, full stop. From this point of view, it is as if Foucault proposed to add a new chapter to the project Althusser himself initiated with the publication of Reading Capital, which had already begun to challenge traditional, orthodox Marxism.

What could have interested Foucault in the passages from Capital, beginning with Part 4, to the degree that he presents them as sources for a positive study of power, rooted in the development of the economy and its “forces?” We would like to clarify this point by returning to Marx’s text, which Foucault’s suggestion prompts us to read in a manner that might be called “symptomatic,” since it is not at all obvious at first glance how one might derive the principles for an analysis of “power” which is at best implicit in Capital, hovering in the background. To roughly pose our question: how is it possible to draw the elements of a theory of power from the explanation of the process of the production of relative surplus value, without falling into overinterpretation, since the problem of power, if not completely extraneous to this explanation, is only posed at its margins? Let us say straight away that this question, which involves the particular relation that power maintains with the economy of capitalism, and which leads us to bracket the relations that power might otherwise have with political and state forms, also leads us to take into account and re-establish the primary importance of the notion Marx himself saw as his principal theoretical innovation, because it enabled him to radically break with Ricardian economics: the concept of “labor-power,” whose wording contains precisely a reference to “power,” a reference Foucault attaches such importance to in his own conception of the new economy of power. This economy, it can be said, is not an economy of things or goods but an economy of “forces,” and as such, inextricably an economy of persons; an economy which in reality is closely integrated with procedures for the subjection of persons and, more precisely, bodies. To put it in Foucault’s terms, we must ask ourselves how capitalism, by utilizing the exploitation of labor-power, developed “methods of power capable of optimiz­ing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to govern.” It should be noted that the aim of such an inquiry is not to demonstrate that Foucault’s ideas are already black and white in Marx’s text, which would amount to inventing the fiction of a “Marxist” or “Marxisant”4 Foucault, as such an heir to Marx, but to enrich our potential understanding of this text, by clarifying it in light of the hypotheses Foucault advances and thus traversing the path that leads from Foucault back to Marx in the hope of revealing new aspects of the latter’s thought and – this is the point that primarily concerns us – reframing the question of power in particular by shifting it from the level of politics to that of the economy.5

The System of Wage-Labor and the Exploitation of Labor-Power

In order to answer the questions that have just been raised, we must first return to the theory of wage-labor, which, according to Marx’s presentation, forms the basis of the capitalist economy and radically distinguishes it from preceding modes of production. We can summarize this theory by identifying three major traits. In the specific context of capitalism itself, the production of value-bearing, and thus exchangeable, commodities depends on the productive consumption of labor-power; this last, labor-power, is the property of the proletarian, and in exchange for a wage, the capitalist acquires the right to use it for a certain time within the space of his enterprise, where it is “consumed.” When he talks about the labor contract, Marx often writes that the proletarian sells its labor-power to the capitalist, a misleading shorthand if taken literally. What the worker actually alienates in exchange for a wage is not his labor-power as such, considered in its substance as something embodied in him, in the sense of being inseparable and even indiscernible from his bodily existence; if he were to do that, he would become, in a way, a slave to his employer – he would no longer be free and would lose as a consequence the responsibility of maintaining this substance that is one with his person. In exchange for the wage, the proletarian in reality only grants the right to exploit his labor-power for a certain time and in a certain place: he rents it out, strictly speaking, with the stipulation that the rent he is paid in exchange under the terms of this transaction is deferred, the wage not being paid until after use and not before, as is the case in the majority of rental contracts. This provision renders the exchange relation unequal from the start, insofar as it represents a form of pressure exercised by the buyer over the seller. It follows that if we want to understand what wage-labor is, we must carefully distinguish between labor-power as such – what we have called its substance – and its employment, which is measured in time and space, the basic unit of this measurement being formally constituted by the working day as organized within the bounds of the enterprise (at least until the end of the nineteenth century, manual laborers were generally hired and paid by the day, which distinguished them from salaried employees).

The wage-labor system, which determines the relation of capital to labor, presupposes the separation of these two aspects – the substance and its employment – and therefore that labor-power, as an aptitude borne by the body throughout its life, is in fact separated from the conditions of its activation as it is implemented within certain time limits and in the specific space of the enterprise, where the worker must go, bringing his labor-power with him, so that it can be used under suitable conditions. The existential capacity remains the inalienable property of the worker who, in exchange for a wage, concedes to his boss the possibility of using it, of putting it to work for his profit for a certain period within a given framework. This first point shows that the notion of labor-power, while it initially appears as a simple, unified, natural given, as a “power” originating in life and the body, is much more complex; the historical intervention of capitalism and its specific mode of production, it could be suggested, has the precise effect of complicating this notion by exploiting the aforementioned division, none of which is at all natural.

In this respect, Foucault would be entitled to talk of a technical procedure resulting in the establishment of a power relation: in effect, when he exchanges the employment of his labor-power for a wage, the worker is only formally “free” to do so. But for the procedure to work, the worker must actually be made to do so, because in order to survive, he is placed in the position of a job-seeker; a docile position, it could be said, insofar as it complies with an “economic” necessity that in the last instance has nothing juridical about it. In other words, the fact that labor-power is separated from its usage is historically conditioned: it corresponds to the development of a specific mode of production that depends on the exploitation of labor-power made possible by this separation, and whose very first effect is to bind the worker, the bearer of labor-power, to the constraints of the job market. Indeed, it is not enough that he “has” his labor-power, in the sense that his body belongs to him, as it still needs to be able to be set to work under certain conditions independent of him.

But that’s not all. At the outset, wage-labor appears as an exchange which, like all exchanges between commodities, should in principle be an exchange of equal values. What the worker brings to the labor market is himself: his body, his labor-power, whose usage he alienates; and, for this, he receives a wage which, in principle, must pay for what he has sold at its value, corresponding to its maintenance over the period during which he grants its usage. Maintenance should be understood as everything that enables the regeneration of this power as is necessary both for the survival of the individual worker, and also that of his family. Not only is his own labor-power reproduced within the family, but also that of his offspring; and in paying the wage, the capitalist takes out an option on this latter, thereby exercising a sort of pre-emptive claim over it. For the system to function normally – according to rules, thus making it legally indisputable – the commodity must be sold at its true price, which fluctuates around an average value determined by market conditions, that is, by variations in the relationship between supply and demand, as is the case for all market transactions. When he gets his wage, the worker therefore has not been robbed or plundered, which he implicitly acknowledges by complying with and willingly complying with the terms of the exchange, and formally speaking does so willingly. Nevertheless, one cannot leave matters here. For the exchange to effectively take place, it must reflect the interests that concretely bind the contracting parties. The seller’s interest is completely clear: the worker transfers the use of his labor-power for the wage because without it, he could not satisfy his needs or those of his family. If he brings his “commodity” to the labor market, then it is simply because he cannot do otherwise: it is the condition of his survival. But in regards to the buyer, who will employ this labor-power to his benefit, things are much less clear: what the capitalist bought at its value, he in fact intends to exploit, not at equal value, but in order to derive from it an additional value that will represent his profit, a profit destined to either increase his production or his wealth; at every turn he wins, and if this wasn’t the case, the transaction would not interest him the slightest. So there is something strange, anomalous, in the way that this relation is established. Under the terms of the exchange between the wage laborer and the person paying him, if one of them, the worker, strictly speaking, loses nothing, he does not gain anything either, that is, he cannot hope to gain more than he has initially pledged; and, if turns out that his wage even marginally exceeds his real needs, allowing him either to spend wastefully on extras or to save for himself, a correction almost automatically takes place and his wage drops, eventually bringing about a fall in the average value of the wages for all the other workers. Whereas, under the terms of the same exchange, the other party, the buyer, aims not only to recoup his stake, therefore losing nothing, but to increase it, proving this exchange of equal value, from which the system of wage-labor derives its legitimacy in terms of law, masks a conjuring trick which transforms equality into inequality, without, however, formally violating the commercial right of exchange. What has happened?

To understand this better, it is useful to apply the schema elaborated by Marcel Mauss – in another context, to account for the mechanism of the gift, an exchange which puts two parties in a relation of reciprocity – to the labor contract that sanctions the exchange.6 This schema is triangular, and articulates three operations: “giving,” “receiving,” and “returning.” Let us suppose that the labor contract, which is the basis for wage-labor, falls under this schema. The giver in this case is the person offering the commodity he seeks to part with: namely, the worker who brings his labor-power, his body – whose employment he rents out to someone else – to the market. In exchange, the buyer, his future employer, “returns” to him a value equivalent to the maintenance needs of this power. But, when this buyer is the capitalist, what is therefore “returned” – recompensed in the form of wages – isn’t exactly the same thing as what is “received” by the one who, in terms of the exchange, occupies the position of purchaser: this is the condition for this exchange of equal value to produce inequality. In other words, what the capitalist acquires in exchange for the wage, and granting him the right to exploit it according to his own wishes, in a manner consistent with his interests, is not exactly what has been brought, “given,” or formally sold in exchange for this wage. Thus, at this level, the previous division reappears, splitting up labor-power into two sides: one of these is “given” by the seller, the worker, and the other “received” by the buyer, the capitalist; the aforementioned conjuring trick depends on this splitting, which turns an exchange of equal values into an operation that benefits only one of the contracting parties, and is only possible because this exchange occurs within the framework of a power relation wherein one party, the seller, occupies the subordinate position and the other, the buyer, the dominant position, enabling the latter to impose their interests. For the system of wage-labor to take effect, the worker has to be placed in the position of a split subject who, while remaining entirely in control of his labor-power, alienates only its usage, which presupposes that this power can effectively be separated from its use.

On this basis, we can evaluate the break introduced in the explanation of the system of wage-labor by the substitution of labor-power for labor, a break that Marx presents as his principal theoretical innovation.7 If the seller, the wage laborer, alienated his labor, and if this was paid at equal value, as classical political economy until Ricardo supposed for all exchange, then the buyer, the capitalist, would gain nothing further, and the exchange would not happen simply because it would not present any interest for him. But if what the seller brings – “gives” – is his labor-power, or at least the possibility of employing it for a certain time, then the same cannot be said: for what is transferred, “received” at the end of the exchange is not exactly the same thing as presented at the beginning. What is received is the possibility of employing labor-power over and above its real value, and therefore to profit from its use. This profit is reserved for whoever buys the right to employ labor-power at its value, which is not what it produces, but what produces it, that is, the value necessary for the maintenance of the power that once produced, produces, as the bearer of the capacity to produce in excess of the value needed to produce it. Anticipating concepts that will be introduced later on, we can say that at the moment he accepts the provisions stipulated by his employment contract, the worker undergoes a quasi-miraculous mutation: he ceases to be his body in person, whose existence is by definition equal to no other, and becomes a “productive subject,” a bearer of “labor-power,” whose performance – “social labor” – is subjected to a common evaluation; and, in this fashion, he is subjected [assujetti], in all senses of the word.8

At stake here is the ambiguity surrounding the concept of labor, an ambiguity reinforced by the French language, which combines in one term two things that the English language and the German language distinguish: on the one hand, in these two languages, the terms Werk and work indicate the result of labor, once it is finished and thus when it has attained its end; and on the other hand, there is the operation or the process that produces, that is to say the activity of production as it is actually in progress, and is headed toward its end but has not attained it yet, which is indicated by the terms Arbeit and labor. One could say this terminological distinction is taken up metaphorically by Marx in his discussion of “dead labor” and “living labor.” Dead labor is “finished,” objectified labor, crystallized in the product wherein its trajectory is completed. Living labor is labor in the course of its execution, on a level that gives it a particularly dynamic range, while the product representing dead labor exhibits only a static dimension. In forging the concept of “labor-power,” his own contribution to the theory of wage-labor, Marx introduced these two aspects into this compound formula, just as the capitalist mode of production, which presupposes the possibility of substituting one for the other even though they correspond to different determinations, does in reality. One side of labor-power is decidedly dynamic, a power, with the dimension of capacity that defines it and has living labor as its bearer; dead labor is the other side, the static side of labor, in the sense of being the result of the completed labor process.9 The concept of labor-power, which joins these two aspects together, in this way allows for an understanding of what really happens when living labor transforms itself into dead labor and vice versa.10

Let’s return to the triangular model of the gift on this basis. In exchange for a wage, the worker brings to the labor market something that economically represents dead labor – that is to say, the value of the goods that are necessary for his maintenance and enable his labor-power to exist, inasmuch as labor-power is itself the product of a labor whose value is equal to that of these goods. This is what is paid to the worker, what is “returned” to him as the wage. From this point of view, labor-power is a product. But what the capitalist “receives,” with the aim of exploiting it, is living labor, the possibility of employing or activating the capacity that labor-power is the bearer of when it is exploited beyond what’s required for its subsistence, during the portion of time in which the worker, having ceased to work for himself, works for the capitalist, that is, his profit. This is no longer a product strictly speaking, but what Marx rather enigmatically calls a “productive power,” meaning a power defined by the activity of production that it is conditioned to exercise. By playing with our terms, we can say that what the worker alienates is the usage of his Arbeitskraft, his labor-power as it is wholly constituted since it it is one with him; and what the capitalist exploits is a Arbeitsvermögen, which through a process of exteriorization has been employed within the framework of productive activity. We now understand why the capitalist is the winner – and even in a “win-win situation” – in an exchange that is equal in principle, but in reality is a fool’s bargain, as most juridical relationships are, inasmuch they tacitly conceal a relationship which itself is not juridical.

The question, then, is how such a thing, improbable once its principle is revealed, can come to realize itself in fact. What brings the worker to “freely” – the quotation marks are in Marx’s text – submit to the conditions of this peculiar contract that is in principle between equal values but only in principle, since only one of the contracting parties emerges as the winner, and even cannot lose from an exchange which cannot be said to really “benefit” the other party engaged in this relationship, because it cannot do otherwise? This anomaly can be explained as follows: within the framework of the exchange in question, reciprocity is only apparent because, in the very process of the exchange, following its own trajectory, its nature has changed. At the start of this trajectory, as we have assumed, there is the Arbeitskraft of the worker, that is to say, his labor-power, meaning his personal labor, which is embodied in his individual existence; and it is precisely as an individual and on his own behalf that he agrees to enter into the labor contract, by which he transfers for a certain time the use of his labor-power in exchange for a wage. But at the end of its course, that is, when the buyer – the capitalist – takes delivery of the commodity he has bought, the latter presents itself in a whole new light: it has become labor-power, exploitable within conditions that are no longer those of individual labor, marked by the specific characteristics of the powers of initiative of the person who performs the work, but which define productive activity in general, subject to common norms. Once he has entered into the system of wage-labor, the worker, without even realizing it, has ceased to be the person he is, with his individually constituted Arbeitskraft; truly subjected, he has become the executor of an operation that surpasses the limits of his own existence. This operation is “social labor” which strictly speaking is no longer his labor, or at any rate not only his, but labor carried out under conditions which escape his initiative and control; these conditions are the regulation or rationalization of labor, or what is called at the end of the nineteenth century, by Taylor in particular, the “organization of labor,” whose outline is already traced by Marx. To return to the terminology employed previously, what the worker “gives” is the usage of his body inasmuch as it is the bearer of his own power, and what the capitalist “receives,” with the aim of exploiting for his profit, is the right to use this power as a productive force, whose capacities are assessed, calibrated, formatted, and, one can say, normalized according to principles that condition its optimal use, in the sense of the conditioning of a product – an operation in which a product is reclassified in order to meet common standards. If the exchange authorized by the system of wage-labor takes place, it’s because in the course of the exchange the instrument of the exchange has been transformed without the person looking for work being aware of it, with the consequence that this transformation is not taken into account in calculating the terms of the exchange, an exchange that takes place between equal values while still being unequal, conforming to the interest of the person who in this same relation holds the position of both payer and receiver or buyer. This is what defines the capitalist mode of production: labor-power is treated as a two-sided reality, and so is not exactly the same thing for the person who is its natural bearer and for the person who has become its user. This results in the possibility of deriving a profit from its use, kept by the capitalist for himself in the form of a surplus value (Mehrwert) that is not compensated by the wage and thus appears as a surplus. The exploitation of worker relies on this “trick”: although he remains in possession of his labor-power, he is relinquishes its use, as if its usage was no longer part of this power and as if this force existed independently of its exercise. It really is a sleight of hand, whose invisibility is the condition for its efficacy. This leads us to extend the scope of the concept of industrial revolution, accompanying the development of capitalism. Besides sophisticated machinery (with the steam engine as prototype), the industrial revolution depended on the invention of the “productive power” essential to the operation of these machines, “labor-power,” the result of a technical invention associated with the deployment of specific procedures of power, as Foucault explains following Marx. Machinofacture is a complex system of production that besides physical equipment, includes the more or less skilled agents who run it and are at the same time incorporated into its system as bearers of a labor-power destined to be productively consumed. The images in Chaplin’s film Modern Times show precisely this: they present a particularly forceful analysis of the mode of labor specific to industrial capitalism, in which inanimate machines and human machines are closely intertwined.

The surplus generated by the exploitation of labor-power is variable by definition, insofar as it is itself the result of a variation. In order to theoretically calculate the rate of exploitation (surplus value), Marx uses the model of the “working day”: i.e., the total amount of time during each workable day (and, as we have remarked, in the nineteenth century, manual laborers were generally employed “by the day,” ensuring maximum flexibility in their employment) that the worker spends working, thus activating his labor-power under conditions imposed on him by the entrepreneur. This working day is ideally represented in the form of a segment that can be broken down into its elements, which, according to Marx’s analysis, correspond to two distinct periods of time: one devoted to “necessary labor” (notwendige Arbeit) and the other to “surplus labor” (Mehrarbeit). Necessary labor is labor undertaken to produce a quantity of value equivalent to that required for the maintenance of labor-power as Arbeitskraft: it is this value that is effectively paid by the wage given to the worker in exchange for the right to exploit his labor-power, even though the result of this exploitation represents a value that is not the same as that remunerated by the wage. Surplus labor formally corresponds to the other part of the day during which the worker performs tasks that are not remunerated by his wage, since they produce a quantity of value exceeding that necessary to maintain his labor-power, a quantity of value that, consequently, within the framework of the performance of the labor process where Vermögenskraft is employed, represents the productive activity whose exploitation releases a surplus value, Mehrwert. One must not however lose sight of the fact that this division of the working day into two periods, represented by sub-segments following each other on a single line, has a purely theoretical significance. Only for the purposes of formally calculating the rate of exploitation of labor-power is it assumed that the worker, in performing necessary labor, works for himself until a certain hour of the day, and beyond this limit, for the exclusive benefit of his employer; in reality, from the first hour to the last – every moment the worker activates his labor-power – his time is composed of fixed proportions of necessary labor and surplus labor, whose borderline is not clearly discernible. This is made possible by the fact that, quite unbeknownst to the worker, who has no way of knowing when he is still and when he is no longer working for himself, his labor-power is simultaneously exploited in its dual aspect: as Arbeitskraft, whose value is measured by the quantity of labor necessary to produce it; and as Vermögenskraft, whose value is measured by the quantity of labor that it is capable of producing. This being said, Marx introduces the capital distinction between absolute surplus value (to which the third section of Volume I of Capital is devoted) and relative surplus value (to which the fourth section is devoted, that is to say, the part of the text that particularly interested Foucault for reasons yet to be specified) on the basis of this formal division, and to simplify its proof.

Thus, let the working day be a line (with a direction, as it represents the passage of time in a certain direction) divided into two parts which are meant to succeed one another:

working day222 (1)

The capitalist has an interest in changing the proportions between the two quantities of time (represented above) in his favor; wherein the first segment (A), if it costs him nothing because the value is fully contained in the product he keeps, it also brings in nothing, while only the second segment (B) represents a profit for him, because he does not need to invest the quantity of value represented by the payment of a wage to have at his disposal the goods this segment produces. To succeed in changing the relationship between these two elements, A and B, in his favor, the capitalist can take two courses of action according: lengthen the sub-segment on the right of the diagram, which interests him because it yields a profit, either by extending it to the right (thereby producing absolute surplus value), or by shortening it to the left, thereby reducing the length of the first segment (and producing relative surplus value).

Concretely, the first solution consists in extending the length of the vital part of the day, devoted to the performance of productive tasks, as far as possible, by postponing the end of the working day: the worker, instead of working a total amount of time, X, will work X+X’, then X+X’+X’’, etc…for example, if we take 12 hours of work activity as a starting point, then 14 hours, 16, 18, etc …This tendential increase, however, encounters a natural limit: the astronomical day has a fixed duration of 24 hours. If the capitalist could further prolong this length of time and therefore find the technical procedure allowing it to last for (why not?) 26 hours or 28 hours instead of 24 hours, enabling him to produce more absolute surplus value, he would not hesitate one second; but this procedure has not yet been discovered (he might pull it off by sending his workers to work on another planet without changing their conditions of pay; but the transport costs might burn a hole in his pocket, making the operation unprofitable). On the other hand, regardless of this natural obstacle, regrettably insuperable, the tendency toward the increased production of absolute surplus value encounters two limits: if the capitalist wants to fully profit from the worker’s labor-power for at least the period paid for by the wage, he must also concede a break period of non-work, devoted not to unproductive leisure but to recuperation, and more generally to procedures of maintenance and renewal of this labor-power: to eating, perhaps to procreation, and in this case to have some time to devote to his children, since if he did not do so, his capacities would be rapidly exhausted (as intensive agriculture may, beyond certain limits, exhaust the soil’s yield) and then the colorful expression that “the worker works himself to death” would no longer be just a metaphor. The capitalist who employs this labor-power must take into account the fact that it wears down and that its power would completely dissipate unless given time, even a minimum amount, to restore itself. The tendency toward the increase in production of absolute surplus value encounters another limit, namely the resistance generated by the employer’s insatiability, which pushes him to go ever further in this direction, and thus to continually increase, little by little, the length of labor time: at a certain point, the workers, who are always asked to do more, and realizing that enough is enough, understand that it is in their interest to unite to advance their demands. This terrifies the capitalist because for his enterprise of extracting surplus value to produce maximum returns, he must be able to deal with the workers who appear before him as individual workers, whose divisions he can exploit – not as a group, which would increase their capacity to resist. When it assumes a collective form, this workers’ resistance carries the additional incovenience of becoming public: the capitalist hates publicity! He especially does not want people shoving their noses in his business, which he means to carry on as he pleases! And what really perturbs and infuriates him is when the workers’ demands, after obtaining a measure of publicity and official status, are taken up by public bodies and institutions. Lo and behold, the idea of legally regulating working hours appears, in particular the limitation of child labor, a process that once set in motion expands to include adolescent and adult labor. Then inspectors, who do not necessarily share the businessman’s point of view, and (how narrow-minded! how naive!) claiming that all they are doing is enforcing the law, begin to visit the workshops, make reports, record violations, levy fines, etc., etc. – intolerable from the businessman’s perspective, because as owner of his company, he is resolved to remain master of his own house and rejects out of hand any external control over his activities. The lengthy tenth chapter in the third part of Volume I of Capital on “The Working Day” (Chapter 10 of the French edition translated by Joseph Roy under Marx’s direction) provides abundant (and terrifying) documentation relating to this theme, which Engels had already used in 1845 to write his book on The Condition of the Working Class in England (After the Observations of the Author and Authentic Sources), one of the foundational texts of what would later be called the “sociology of work.” The current controversy around the issue of the 35-hour week demonstrates that this chapter of workers’ struggles is not yet closed, and that the capitalists have not given up on squeezing a maximum of absolute surplus value from the exploitation of labor-power, while deploring the concessions to which they been forced to very reluctantly submit due to the balance of forces; but they always remain hopeful that they can renege on these concessions whenever the opportunity arises, and specifically, that labor time can be extended (at the same wage-rate, of course).

When the possibility of increasing the production of absolute surplus value is blocked despite the capitalist’s efforts, he leaves open the option of switching sides, thus increasing the length of sub-segment B in the overall schema of the working day by stretching it, not towards the right, in the direction of the production of absolute surplus value, but towards the left, in the direction of the production of relative surplus value. How does he do this? Since he understands cost calculation, his specialty, he realizes that this operation, whose goal is to reduce to a minimum the portion of time devoted to necessary labor, is conditional on lowering the value of labor-power in the strict sense, i.e., the Arbeitskraft remunerated by the wage that pays necessary labor and nothing more. There is no other way of doing this other than by lowering the overall cost of goods, which automatically results in a decrease in the amount of value needed for the maintenance of Arbeitskraft, without this decrease being accompanied by a fall in the quantity of value created by the productive activity in the form of Verm[o]genskraft. Not only will this quantity of value not decrease, it will increase: for this to happen, less is paid for the same amount of labor time, creating more value, with this decrease and increase being strictly correlative. In other words, to increase his profit, the capitalist will capitalize on the productivity of labor-power as a “productive power” from which, in the same period of time, and with the production of absolute surplus value having been provisionally stabilized, he can extract a much greater quantity of value in the form of relative surplus value. This notion of productivity allows us to understand the capitalist mode of production by going to its very heart, that is, its vital principle, its driving force.

Labor-Power as Productive Power

What should be understood by the “productivity” of labor-power? To answer this, it is necessary to revisit the concept of “productive forces” whose significance is crucial in this respect. Here, invaluable elements of explication may be found in the Dictionnaire critique du marxisme (Critical Dictionary of Marxism), edited by Georges Labica, in Jean-Pierre Lefebvre’s article on “productive power/productive forces.”11 By productive forces in the plural, Produktivkräfte, is meant the totality of the physical and organic elements which enter into the labor process: that is, both the natural and artificial means serving production as well as bodily dispositions activated by workers to employ these means to produce material goods – the ultimate goal of craft and industrial production. When Marx’s text employs this same concept in the singular, not without a certain terminological inconsistency, Produktivkraft refers not to the elements present, whether these are raw materials, technical instruments or living bodies, but something quite different. It refers to a capacity the force has inasmuch as its reality is “dynamic” in the proper sense of the word, that is, it represents a “power,” a Vermӧgen. Dunamis, in the Aristotelian sense (Metaphysics Delta, 12) is “a source, in general, of change or movement in another thing or in the same thing qua other.” It is the expression of the tendential and continuous process through which what exists at first as “potentiality” is destined, under the right conditions, to realize itself “in action.” For example, when the art of the doctor manages to transform the sick body into a healthy body, representing a change in the state of the body, the doctor does so by exercising the specific “virtue” that applies to him and makes his art effective. From this perspective, the power is meant to represent the cause to which a change is imputed. Before this change takes place or is produced, it exists as a possibility realizing itself only when the change has taken effect, that is, when all the effects have been derived from the cause. The reference to a power assigns to this potentiality a quasi-existence, between being and non-being. For this reason it is marked by an indelible ambiguity, insofar as it “already is” that which it “is not yet,” two formulas where the verb “to be” has two different values mistaken under the same term. The capitalist exploits this ambiguity to the full: with the wage he pays labor-power for what it “already is,” as Arbeitskraft [labor-power], reserving for himself the right to use it for what it “is not yet,” as Arbeitsvermӧgen [labor-capacity], which he intends to mold according to his wishes in order to put it to work. As we have seen, the miracle that the system of wage-labor performs consists in separating power from its action by artificially creating conditions that allow a power to be considered independently from its action, as if a non-acting power, a power that would not be active, would still be a power. From the physical point of view, this is more than a mystery: it is an absurdity.

In the case of a positivist philosopher like Auguste Comte, the causalistic interpretation of power and its action is tainted with metaphysical presuppositions which render his pretention to objectively understand real phenomena perfectly vain. At best, he can only offer an approximate description of them. To say that opium puts one to sleep since it is endowed with a soporific virtue constituting its power or its proper force, from which it draws its capacity to act, does not in any way advance knowledge. This is merely to invent the fiction of a “virtue” existing independently of its actualization, and consequently preceding it so that it “would already be” before even occurring, thus without having “yet” taken place. Therefore, when rational mechanics as a branch of mathematics – which spares it the obligation of facing up to the givens of experience – employs the notion of “force” and states, as Newton did, the laws of action of forces, one must be careful not to attribute to this concept a physical reality. One should confine it to the role of an abstract concept or intellectual construction which has a demonstrative value, but certainly not an explicative one in the sense of a causal explanation. Stating that forces are causes of the motion they generate simply means saying nothing at all. This is why mechanics abandons the evaluation of forces for what they are and contents itself with calculating their “work,” represented through their real effects.

From this point of view, we could say that when the capitalist occupies himself with his workers’ labor-power, which he has acquired the right to employ in exchange for a wage, treating it as a “productive power” whose productivity he intends to increase in order to produce relative surplus value – he practices metaphysics not in a theoretical but in a practical way. He practices this peculiar sort of metaphysics not during his leisure time, as a distraction or mental exercise, as he would a crossword puzzle, but throughout the entire working day dedicated to production. By opening up his company to notions such as “power,” “capacity” and “causation,” he thereby makes them a reality, realizing these fictions, these products of the mind, which he then employs with daunting efficacy. In this way, with payrolls and charts of organizational tasks at hand, he shows, better than a philosopher’s abstract proofs, that the work of metaphysics could not be more material, provided that one knows how to put it to good use in introducing it into the factory. One could, incidentally, derive from this a new and caustic definition of metaphysics: in this rather specific context, it boils down to a mechanism for profit-making, which is no small matter. This means that, amongst other inventions that have changed the course of history, capitalism has found the means, the procedure, the “trick” enabling it to put abstract concepts into practice – the hallmark of its “genius.”

What in fact is this famous productivity attributed to labor-power in order to modify it, or rather to re-modify it? It is the “virtue” or “power” that may be ascribed to it when one begins to consider and treat it materially: as a “productive power” in the sense of a capacity to be put to work. This power is not only measurable on paper but can be modelled and modified so as to increase it. Such is effectively the goal of the rationalization of labor, which, by subordinating it to norms, and by shifting these norms, intensifies labor’s “productivity.” From this perspective, the norm not only has a constative but a performative dimension. It serves not only to determine an average state, counted as “normal,” but itself becomes “normative.” In other words, the norm acts to transform the reality to which it applies, grasps it not as it is but as it could be if one were to develop its potential. This is the theme tackled by Didier Deleule and François Guéry in their short book, The Productive Body, where they draw attention to the fact that it is not at all the same to treat labor-power as a power that produces and as a productive power.12 If the capitalist were to pay a wage to labor-power as the power that produces, he would then be formally placed under the obligation of recompensing the worker with a quantity of value equal to that effectively produced by the worker’s labor. Thus the thesis of Ricardian economics that the worker’s labor is paid at its real value would be verified. But, quite evidently, such a thing cannot be of interest to the capitalist because even if this transaction created value it would not make him any profit, or would at least force him to share with the workers he employs the surplus value created by the activation of their labor-power. If he was to confine himself to the exploitation of the labor-power of his workers measured by results, that is to what it really produces in value terms, such an approach would not generate any “growth” in his terms; that is in the sense of an increase in the value of capital, “his” capital, which he jointly owns with his shareholders, the only people he must account to for the way he manages it. That is why the labor-power he employs interests him – in the strongest sense of the word – not as a power that produces but a productive power. This creates the possibility of treating it not as an active power, which it “already is,” but as a potential power, which it “is not yet,” and as such the bearer of potentialities that one can apply pressure to and control so as to intensify them.

The notion of “living labor” thus attains a new dimension. Living labor is labor that not only produces but is productive, that is, activates labor-power as a “productive power.” Living labor produces value under conditions that can be regulated by exploiting the possibilities for change that, thanks to its plasticity and adaptability, life is so rich in. The issue of “flexibility,” so fashionable today, is at the core of this problem, which a metaphysician of the caliber of Mme. Parisot13 perfectly masters, being a metaphysician without knowing it, making her “speculation” particularly effective. Precisely because it takes labor-power not as the power that produces but as a productive power, capitalism can allow itself to treat labor-power with a maximum of flexibility since it has everything to gain by doing so. To its dying breath it rejects the rules that the law seeks to impose on it under the pretext that these rules stultify a reality it considers to be living. As such, it treats reality as malleable, in the manner of a wild animal to be tamed so that it performs amazing tricks, which at first sight one would never have thought it capable, jumps through flaming hoops, spins faster and faster in a revolving cylinder, etc., etc…In the sequences of his film Modern Times, Charles Spencer Chaplin, a metaphysician of a different class than Mme. Parisot, provides a striking illustration of the high-wire acrobatics perfected by capitalist production. There one sees his hero, Charlot, being caught in an assembly line, his body becoming so supple that, flattened by the conveyor belt, he merges and becomes indistinguishable from it. He becomes an accelerated bolt screw,14 to the point that once he gets out of the factory he neither knows nor can do anything else, which is a way of showing his “power” no longer belongs to him precisely to the extent that it has been separated from him. Of course, this management of his capacities, which makes his labor-power “productive” as suits the capitalist, has the effect of creating a new rigidity, riveting him to his assigned function. He must fulfil this function obeying norms determined for him in the strongest sense of the term. In this way, suppleness recreates rigidity. The capitalist does not content himself with being a metaphysician. He is a dialectician, he reconciles opposites, which is his way of managing the powers he exploits, not just by tracing their parallelogram in the manner of a mathematician but by forcing them to enter into the schema he has established according to his interests. This schema consists in extracting the maximum profit from the means of production at his disposal, including the labor-power of his workers – in particular by making them produce relative surplus value.

One passage in Marx’s text strikingly illustrates this. This passage, which is at the end of Chapter 12, “Division of Labor and Manufacture” (Chapter 14 of the Roy edition15 ), highlights the contrast between the form the division of labor within the factory already takes under the control of the manufacturing capitalist, therefore before the system of industrial machinofacture, and the form it takes within the wider framework of society:

While, within the workshop, the iron law of proportionality subjects definite numbers of workers to definite functions, in the society outside the workshop, the play of chance and caprice results in a motley pattern of distribution of the producers and their means of production among the various branches of social labour…Division of labor within the workshop implies the undisputed authority of the capitalist over men, who are merely the members of a total mechanism which belongs to him. The division of labour within society brings into contact independent producers of commodities, who acknowledge no authority other than that of competition, of the coercion exerted by the pressure of their reciprocal interests, just as in the animal kingdom the “war of all against all” more or less preserves the conditions of existence of every species. The same bourgeois consciousness which celebrates the division of labour in the workshop, the lifelong annexation of the worker to a partial operation, and his complete subjection to capital, as an organization of labour that increases its productive power, denounces with equal vigour every conscious attempt to control and regulate the process of production socially, as an inroad upon such sacred things as the rights of property, freedom and the self-determining “genius” of the individual capitalist. It is very characteristic that the enthusiastic apologists of the factory system have nothing more damning to urge against a general organization of labour in society than that it would turn the whole of society into a factory.16

In this passage Marx pinpoints the paradox of liberal discourse, which is the warp and woof of bourgeois ideology. If the latter defends laissez-faire, deregulation, non-intervention, it does so to better establish a theory of authority, taking the form of the “lifelong annexation of the worker to a partial operation and his complete submission to capital, as an organization of labor that increases its productive power.” Therefore, a power relation underlies the treatment of labor-power not only as a power that produces, but a power with a measured productivity that can be gradually raised. It is a power imposed on the individual worker, henceforth dispossessed of all initiative in the employment of his labor-power, exploited in every sense of the word within the framework of a system of which he has become a cog. Freedom is the word the capitalist constantly repeats and demands exclusively for himself in order to turn it into a means of enslaving the working classes, whose opinion he does not ask, let alone their consent, in subjugating them to the norms of productivity which he, the apostle of freedom, has made into an “iron law.” Today, almost two centuries after the factory system was established during the first half of the 19th century, coinciding with the explosion of a frenetic capitalism, the rhetoric of the bosses has not changed one bit: freedom is my freedom, from which stems the unlimited right to enslave others, and is the condition of the production of surplus value under both of its forms, relative and absolute.

Thus it is exactly where the labor process actually takes place that a system of power and subjugation miraculously reconciling the opposing values of necessity and freedom is established through the very forms in which labor is organized, that is controlled. Once the worker has alienated the usage of his labor-power in exchange for a wage, it is as if he is split into two and becomes a divided, overdetermined subject. On the one hand, he remains the person he is, attached to his bodily existence, whose inviolable owner he rests to his death. He often drags it behind him like a burden, for he must feed it, shelter it, nurse it, reproduce it (by having children), all this most often at his own expense and on his responsibility, even when he lacks the material resources to do so. On the other hand, he is transformed into a being whose power no longer depends solely on its own conditions of existence because its usage and activation have become dependent on rules that transcend it, turning him into a productive subject. He is the bearer and owner of a labor-power divided into an Arbeitskraft which belongs to him and is his exclusive concern and an Arbeitsvermögen that may be refashioned at will; its substance, Kraft, has been made supple, flexible, so that it may be more closely annexed to the type of task assigned to the worker, at a given level of productivity. Necessity in freedom: that is the great invention of capitalism. And, in fact, it had to be invented and appropriate procedures found to put the idea into practice.

This system of power, which dissolves the opposition between necessity and freedom, is of a particular kind, specific to the epoch of the industrial revolution and the type of society it establishes, which is, in Foucault’s terminology, a society of norms. This system presupposes a complete redefinition of the very notion of power. Namely, for it to work, for the dialectical miracle to happen, the relationship it establishes must not appear as a power on high whose authority consists in the realization of an external order and therefore has the character of a formal constraint that is above all repressive and negative. Quite the contrary, the project of normalization, consisting in the organization of work so as to increase its productivity and thereby the production of relative surplus value, is defined by fact that its intervention must not appear as a command out of the blue. Rather it must be hand in glove with the living reality, with “labor-power” as the “productive power” which it seeks to control and succeeds in inhabiting so as to possess it in its very being. From this perspective, it appears a genuine creation corresponding to the passage to a second nature.

The term second nature designates a necessarily equivocal, ambiguous plane of reality which is a nature without actually being one and has the paradoxical character of a nature that is not “natural.” Hence it is a nature not given as such but produced, created, constructed from top to bottom, suited to become “productive,” flexible, transformable, to comply with the objectives of growth. Itself the product of change, it is always open to change, resulting in an order whose persistence is asserted in the principle of change. Therefore, what we have here is an unstable condition which, in the absence of a base or foundation or purpose to secure it, derives its very substance from its instability. It represents the same through the figure of the other, permanence in the form of novelty. That great practical metaphysician Mme Parisot might well adopt Nietzsche’s dictum according to which “man is the not yet determined animal” (das noch nicht festgestellte Tier). The meaning of this saying lies entirely in the “not yet” (noch nict), indicating the fundamental precariousness of a form of existence in search of its realization, towards which it does not cease to strive precisely in so far as it never attains it. Arguably, if the human, together with human labor-power whose employment constitutes living labor, belongs to second nature, it is because everything in its “nature” or alleged nature is potentially “secondary”; that is, not strictly speaking derived but having an absolutely secondary character that cannot be related to any base or foundation. Therefore, a procedure of expropriation, going beyond the alternative of perfect order and pure disorder, lies behind the topic of second nature. This procedure represents an uncertain mixture of order and disorder that is perpetually flexible and open to manipulation, always ready to tip the scales in a literally never-ending back and forth, searching not above but below, always plumbing the depths of the unrealized, of the “not yet fixed” where the idea of “productivity” takes on its full meaning.17

What is it that allows second nature to present itself as “a” nature even though it is no longer “a” nature or “of” nature? It is the fact that it guides human behavior without ever appearing to consciousness as its governing principle, this being the main condition of its efficacy. It operates under the guise of spontaneity. To belong to second nature is to live under compulsion while accepting this condition as self-evident, hence from the outset refusing to question its raison d’être, the ends it serves and the specific limits placed on these ends. This is, broadly speaking, what Bourdieu sought to analyse using the concept of habitus, and Foucault that of discipline. When he puts forward the concept of habitus,18 Bourdieu resists the temptation to put it under the heading of doctrines of “voluntary servitude.” In his opinion these make the mistake of reintroducing a certain measure of reflexivity into the adoption or acceptance of a type of behavior that is acquired without even being aware of it and followed mechanically, so to speak naturally, except that this “natural” belongs not to first but to second nature. In a similar spirit, Foucault refuses to conceive of discipline as an order or injunction descending from the soul into the body: for discipline is only established at the level of the body and its acknowledged powers through a process of trial and error, relying on disciplining strategies which, as far their functioning is concerned, do not obey any determinate finality that can be consciously understood. This is the sense of the definition of discipline put forward in the lecture “The Mesh of Power”:

Discipline is basically the mechanism of power by which we come to exert control in the social body right down to the finest elements, by which we succeed in grabbing hold of the social atoms themselves, which is to say individuals. Techniques for the individualization of power. How to supervise [surveiller] someone, how to control his conduct, his behavior, his aptitudes, how to intensify his performance, multiply his capacities, how to put him in a place where he will be most useful: this is what I mean by discipline.19

When Foucault speaks, as he does here, of “the mechanism by which we come to exert control,” a formulation which seems to confuse the positions of the one who analyzes the system and the one who makes it function for his own benefit – and not about “the mechanism by which control is exerted,” which would amount to separating out these positions – he doubtless wishes to indicate that the existence of such a system is consubstantial with what he elsewhere calls “the ontology of present,” in the sense of a present which cannot but be ours and thus coincide with our historical epoch. The disciplinary mechanism imposes itself as something that appears natural precisely at the level our actuality, to which it is strictly adapted as only a technology aiming at efficiency can be. It is not self-evident that it should be observed from a distance and reduced to its guiding principle, which is what Marx in a tour de force nevertheless managed to achieve.

Consequently, subjection to the order or disorder of second nature, according to the specific procedures of a discipline or habitus, eliminates the formality of reasoned and conscious assent: but this is to be subjected without any objection to the rule of “it is so,” ruling out any prospect of reflection and critical distance, the bases of contestation. What we have here is a form of subjection that creates a corresponding subject by recreating it ab initio and entirely, denying it any prior, preconstituted reality preceding its imposition. When it functions under these conditions, command transcends the alternative of violence and consensus, as Foucault explains in his essay “The Subject and Power”:

The exercise of power may well inspire as much acceptance as one would like: it can pile up the dead and hide itself behind whatever threats it can imagine. In itself the exercise of power is not a violence which sometimes hides, nor is it an implicitly renewed consent. It is a set of actions upon possible actions; it operates in the field of possibility where the behavior of acting subjects is inscribed: it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult, it enlarges or limits, it renders more or less probable; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; but it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action…to govern in this sense is to structure the possible field of action of others.20

The new power established in this way is one exercised not on real, already accomplished actions, but on possible ones whose implementation it anticipates by “structuring the field of possible action” in which the latter will take place. This field of possible action is precisely what constitutes second nature, whose subjects are configured so as to respond to what is expected of them without any need either to persuade or force them. For they themselves are “possible” subjects, assembled from birth and trained so as to be more easily governed, that is, from the perspective of our return to Marx, economically “productive.” Homo oeconomicus, whose integration is accomplished by this structure, is a fiction in that its reality or “nature” is completely fabricated as a second nature; but this fiction necessarily became real from the historical moment when it became part of the functioning of the mechanisms it blindly serves.

It should now be clear why Bourdieu and Foucault converge in dismissing the reference to ideology, which purports to place between people, their natural dispositions, and the historical forms within which these are exploited an intermediate layer occupied by ideal representations located in the spirit. From this point of view, the Althusserian theory of the ideological interpellation of individuals into subjects is inappropriate and is diagnosed as the return of a rampant spiritualism. For them, the procedure of subjection takes place entirely at the level of the body as an act of penetration or possession which neither corresponds to any recognizable goals of its own nor requires the mediation of any word, good or bad, because it becomes identical with the course of its reproduction. And it should be acknowledged that if the procedure by which the power that produces is transformed into a productive power finds its justification in the ideology of growth which intellectually reunites the outcome of the procedure in the discourse of the capitalist who has himself, little by little, and blindly, developed this same procedure, not knowing exactly where he was going: then this ideology, which intervenes after the fact and takes the form of a secondary elaboration whose role is to justify recuperation, has at best only an auxiliary value. It does not play any direct role in the operation through which this transformation takes place, a transformation that cannot be reduced to a language game. It does not make the decision. For the system of wage-labor – with its specific type of subjection that conditions the existence of the productive subject and not only the subject that produces – to work it is not necessary for ideas and words to be prime movers. What is required are technological and institutional mechanisms which comprehensively refashion the status of the living beings subject to this regime, that is the complex totality of the procedures which Foucault groups together under the concept of “biopower.” Such a power is exercised and produces its effects on the rhythm of life itself which, having taken over, it strives to recreate ab initio. When the capitalist hires productive subjects –the bearers of a two-sided labor-power, both Arbeitskraft and Arbeitsvermögen, a division that enables him to extract surplus value in its two forms, absolute, by extending the length of the working day, and relative, by lowering the cost of goods through raising productivity – he does not have to act the smooth-talking salesman and convince them of the reasonableness of this division. This division appears to them, that is the productive subjects they have become, an established fact that they do not have the choice of accepting or refusing. Bourdieu is right to claim that their servitude is by no means voluntary simply because there is no need, or even possibility, for it to be so considered to be accepted.21

In establishing second nature as part of the process of making labor-power “productive,” capitalism has as it were dissolved ideology in economy, in the sense of both the system of material production and the methods that organize it so as to extract maximum profit at minimum loss. One of those methods, according to Foucault, is the disciplinary system which he defines in general as follows:

Generally speaking, it might be said that the disciplines are techniques for assuring the ordering of human multiplicities. It is true that there is nothing exceptional or even characteristic in this; every system of power is presented with the same problem. But the peculiarity of the disciplines is that they try to define in relation to the multiplicities a tactics of power that fulfils three criteria: firstly, to obtain the exercise of power at the lowest possible cost (economically, by the low expenditure it involves; politically, by its discretion, its low exteriorization, its relative invisibility, the little resistance it arouses); secondly, to bring the effects of this social power to their maximum intensity and to extend them as far as possible, without either failure or interval; thirdly, to link this ‘economic’ growth of power with the output of the apparatuses (educational, military, industrial or medical) within which it is exercised; in short, to increase both the docility and the utility of all the elements of the system.22

Foucault clearly indicates here that this disciplinary economy applies not to individuals taken separately but to “multiplicities.” It is precisely by incorporating individual lives into such multiplicities, “masses,” that it manages to “economize” their usage in a way that, amongst other savings, obviates the need for ideological representations. The latter weigh in, if at all, only after the event, when the job is already done, having no influence over its course, a course already mapped out by second nature, with little chance of deviation and none of renegotiation.

At first sight, such a situation seems hopeless. If there is at best still some room left for a change in consciousness, it comes only after the fact, hence too late for the problem to be discussed and negotiated. Does this mean that the new figure of power – a horizontal power, close to the ground, insidious, which never has to admit its true nature because it has the advantage of appearing self-evident and spontaneous – wipes out any possibility of resistance? No, but only on condition that our understanding of resistance is completely revised. This revision would dismiss the idea of a global resistance, planned and initiated from the start from a center; and because it is based on a clear understanding of the situation, draws its efficacy from its ability to develop a coherent discourse of justification. Snared in the “mesh“ of the new power, which catches it so to speak at source in its everyday existence, the productive subject can rely only on mobile points of scattered resistance that are initially blind and uncoordinated. The instability of the conjuncture associated with the ambiguity of second nature, which is a mixture of order and disorder, opens an indefinable space for such points of resistance. Rather than adopt a project of permanent rupture corresponding to the formula “class against class” – a striking example being the ideological theme of the revolutionary moment of truth, all the more striking because it is divorced from reality – the productive subject finds a way to oppose the system that captures him from birth and constitutes the key to his subjection, a subjection that makes him a split subject. He does so by engaging in partial struggles, most often improvised, making the most of those occasions when the underlying ambiguities and contradictions of the system, whose trace cannot be completely erased, come to the fore. There is no recourse against biopower, at least in the beginning, save in forms of bio-resistance that, without illusions and with the energy of despair, exploit its weaknesses as much as possible. They do so postponing the synthesis, the provisional reunification of these dispersed initiatives even if it means taking up the problem from scratch when the opportunity arises. Therefore, the productive subject is left with plural strategies, whose threads he is in no hurry to gather into general programmes. The latter are necessarily misleading if they claim to definitively resolve the question with which they are confronted, a question whose clear and rational perception emerges only gradually without promises or guarantees. The best thing for the worker, when pressured to be always more productive, is to follow the very path taken by the capitalist to establish the system of exploitation from which he hopes to extract the maximum profit. Namely, he must proceed by trial and error, step by step, so as to establish little by little, against the technologies of power that have taken control of his very existence, technologies of resistance that strive where possible to loosen this grip. It is therefore in the very process of production, where the employer deploys various figures of authority, that the subjugated worker comes to fight and oppose the authority which has succeeded in penetrating the innermost recesses of his being. This struggle and this opposition, however, have no chance of success if they are waged individually. That is why they have to be taken in charge by workers’ associations, mainly by what are today called unions, that organize their protests down to the last detail and subordinate them to more and more collaborative and coordinated planning in such a way as to rid them of the unfinished character to which they are condemned as long as they remain spontaneous.

The New Power and Forms of Authority Developed Within the Labor Process Itself

From the above we can see why Foucault was particularly interested in the passages of Capital which highlight figures of authority that are closely bound up with the labor process and represent the advent of the new form of power. It is possible in particular to re-read the few pages concerning cooperation of the eleventh chapter (Chapter 13 of Joseph Roy’s translation) of the fourth section of the first book of Capital where some specific modalities of the integration of power relations with the labor process are examined: a trick the capitalist employs, like a magician, to overcome the opposition between freedom and necessity to his advantage.

The first condition of this integration is provided by the assembly of workers in the same place of work, not only next to but together with each other:

A large number of workers working together, at the same time, in one place (or, if you like, in the same field of labour, auf dem selben Arbeitsfeld), in order to produce the same sort of commodity under the command of the same capitalist, constitutes the starting point of capitalist production. This is true both historically and conceptually.23

This assembly in the same “field” where their operations are to be coordinated has a direct impact on the way the workers set their labor-power in motion:

Even without an alteration in the method of work, the simultaneous employment of a large number of workers produces a revolution in the objective conditions of the labour process.24

According to the proverb, “unity is strength,” a power resulting not only from the addition of associated elements but from their combination, which by synthesising them creates a new power whose productive potential is increased both quantitatively and qualitatively:25

Just as the offensive power of a squadron of cavalry, or the defensive power of an infantry regiment, is essentially different from the sum of the offensive or defensive powers of the individual soldiers taken separately, so the sum total of the mechanical forces exerted by isolated workers differs from the social force that is developed when many hands co-operate in the same undivided operation, such as raising a heavy weight, turning a winch or getting an obstacle out of the way. In such cases the effect of the combined labour could either not be produced at all by isolated individual labour, or it could be produced only by a great expenditure of time, or on a very dwarf-like scale. Not only do we have here an increase in the productive power of the individual, by means of co-operation, but the creation of a new productive power, which is intrinsically a collective one.26

The combined working day produces a greater quantity of use values than an equal sum of isolated working days, and consequently diminishes the labour-time necessary for the production of a given useful effect. Whether the combined working day, in a given case, acquires this increased productivity because it heightens the mechanical force of labour, or extends its sphere of action over a greater space, or contracts the field of production relatively to the scale of production, or at the critical moment sets large masses of labour to work, or excites rivalry between individuals and raises their animal spirits, or impresses on the similar operations carried on by a number of men the stamp of continuity and many-sidedness, or performs different operations simultaneously, or economizes the means of production by use in common, or lends to individual labour the character of average social labour – whichever of these is the cause of the increase, the special productive power of the combined working day is, under all circumstances, the social productive power of labour, or the productive power of social labour. This power arises from co-operation itself.27

In particular, once it became a part of this collective power individual labor-power changed its nature, making it calculable according to different parameters. It has ceased to be this or that power whose character is specifically determined by the bodily existence of its owner. As explained, it has become labor-power, even social labor-power, measurable according to unified criteria, enabling the planning, the rationalization of its application in order to increase its productivity, a notion applied to labor-power in general, termed social labor-power, before being extended to the particular labor-power of individuals. The main aspect of this change is constituted by the appearance of, what Marx calls, “the average working day.” At the end of the nineteenth century Taylor will take up this concept when talking of “the loyal working day,” the basic unit of his system of rational work organization. Like Quetelet’s “average man,” this average working day is an abstraction since it never actually completely coincides with the concrete activity of any given worker united in the same field of work, for whom this notion at best functions as a benchmark, a program to fulfill, presupposing a certain margin of approximation or error. But for the capitalist, this abstraction is no longer exactly an abstraction inasmuch as he takes it into account in the calculations according to which he manages his enterprise. In effect, work for him exists only as the result of the employment of a “collective power,” and is defined as such in his accounts. Asserting his authority, he strives to translate this power into reality in his workshops where workers are brought to work together and not separately, each by and/or for himself.

Let us note in passing that, beyond the transformations that cooperation stamps upon the productive consumption of labor-power ‒ which thereby becomes a “collective power” – the characteristic of the new type of society, whose establishment coincides with the industrial revolution and which Foucault calls “the society of norms,” is the, so to speak, mass28 assembly and management of its subjects. Thanks to analytic tools such as statistics and probability calculus – previously unknown to the state administration– it has become possible to evaluate collective performance not on the scale of isolated cases but of large numbers, and from there to anticipate the development of this performance and to adjust its course with the aim of improving productivity. Instead of being carried out on an ad hoc basis, in a disorganized way, individual actions are in some way anticipated, prepared, prefigured by the global system within which they occur, thereby influencing their outcome. One of the aspects of this change is represented by the transformation of agents of production into productive subjects which fundamentally modifies the conditions in which their work is done. In terms of work results, productive subjects must now meet programmed expectations over which they have lost control. The objectives they must achieve are determinable prior to the process charged with accomplishing them. What is decisive in this regard is that one has begun to think in terms of possibilities that can be defined independently of their implementation. In general, “powers” are sought out even beyond the limits of the field of manufacture or industrial production. These powers have the status of virtual realities which are imparted in advance with capacities that have only to be actualized by conforming to the models prescribed to them.

In a society of norms everything is programmed or can be programmed. The behavior of each individual compelled to take his place in a process that is molded in such a way loses the character of individual actions possessing an intrinsic value. It is listed, catalogued, formatted according to functional criteria that are not up for discussion and impose themselves by claiming to be self-evident. In such a collective way of life which is, as we already observed in relation to industrial production, metaphysics in action, one could say, in fact, that essence precedes existence. The order established following this type of procedure is binding but exerts its constraints more smoothly, insidiously, precisely because it takes the subjects to which it is applied at the very source, anticipating their behavior, preparing and leading them towards their goal by incorporating itself into their conduct. When their behavior does not comply with set objectives they are penalized with rejection, sidelined without any need for formal sanction. In this respect, we can speak of conditioning by a norm which no longer depends on obedience to external commands, for like what we previously called “second nature,” it has become completely immanent to the processes it affects as it completes them. In this way, the new politics of “populations” of which Foucault speaks is propagated, a politics that is simultaneously and inseparably an economics since, in the last instance, it is at the level of the economy that the new challenges of power are defined, from which new figures of subjection follow.

These remarks allow us to better grasp the scope and limits of the concept of “the disciplinary society,” on which Foucault from the outset based his explanation of the nature of the new type of power established during the second half of the 18th century within the specific framework of liberal society. The usage of this concept, introduced by Foucault in 1975 in Discipline and Punish, encounters a basic problem. Does describing a certain type of a society as “disciplinary” mean attributing to it an organizing principle, “discipline,” that applies equally to all its aspects and consequently determines it in its very being, more precisely in its “disciplinary being?” This issue is raised by Stéphane Legrand in his article, “Le marxisme oublié de Foucault,” which warns against the essentialist and reductive syncretism of the notion of discipline under which Foucault sometimes seems to subsume mutually heterogeneous forms of subjection, reducing these to a single process for which “discipline” always provides the model: “One wonders, how is it that this same schema can be used to produce training, military prowess, productivity at work, hospital treatment?”29 In the same spirit, we could question the relevance of the concept of “norm” when it lays claim to an explanatory value in itself. However, it is clear that when Foucault talks about the “society of norms” – if this formula means anything and can be taken seriously – it is not in reference to the ideal model of a society of the norm but to a reality of a completely different order, to a complex and differentiated game of norms, a notion that is at any rate better to employ only in the plural. Otherwise one risks attributing to different norms, coexisting at a given moment and potentially confronting each other in the same historical social formation, a single purpose relating to the specific power of a norm in itself, considered both as an essence and as a cause. When, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault talks about “discipline” in the singular (as he does when he gives this title to the third part of the book) he takes precisely this risk and even appears to make matters worse when he presents the panoptic schema not as a particular example but as a sort of model that, starting from the specific case of the prison, can be universally applied, to other disciplinary institutions like the army, school, workshop, hospital, etc…The notion of discipline, like that of “norm,” can only serve as an effective analytic tool if it ceases to be reduced to the abstract presupposition of a convergence of its forms of application and is instead directed towards the interaction of these forms in a context where their content is exposed to perpetual renegotiation. Analogously, if one presents the intervention of norms in the social order by reducing it to a program of “rationalization” formulated with reference to the principle of a reason entirely constituted a priori in itself, one erases at once the historical and thus conjunctural character of this intervention.30

This general objection is not the only one that we can make to the notion of the “disciplinary society.” If the society of norms was nothing but a society of discipline, this would mean that the only point of application for its mechanisms would be behavior, and more specifically individual bodily behaviors whose reform is precisely their objective. However, what characterizes the society of norms is precisely that it does not treat individuals as such but as elements forming larger groups, the type formed by populations. Thanks to this move, it is capable of “governing” them in the very specific meaning that Foucault imparts to this notion, that is, to use a formula we have already encountered, “structuring the field of their possible action.” When Marx speaks of the “field of labor (Arbeitsfeld),” where the capitalist organizes the production of surplus value under his command, he aims precisely at something of this kind. Within such a “field,” the workers have ceased to exist as individuals and become productive subjects, totally immersed in the “collective power,” that is in a collective body outside of which they no longer have a reality of their own.

Let us bring this digression to an end and return to the analysis of new modes of the labor process, in so far as they rest upon the consumption of a collective power, thus enabling the increase of its productivity. Thanks to the unification of individual powers into a collective power, the capitalist is now in a position to exert strict control not only over the results of the labor process, hence over its product as dead labor (Werk, travail, work), but also over its course as the application of living labor (Arbeit, travail, labor). The change in scale thus provokes a modification in the nature of labor. In the beginning the exploitation/extortion of surplus value applies to the individual worker, forced to work not for himself but for another. As exploitation becomes integrated with and “massifes” the operation of the labor process, it comes to apply to the collective worker who performs labor in common, social labor whose organization it now takes in charge:

We also saw that, at first, the command of capital over labour (das Kommando des Kapitals über die Arbeit) was only a formal result of the fact that the worker, instead of working for himself, works for, and consequently under, the capitalist. Through the co-operation of numerous wage-labourers, the command of capital develops into a requirement for carrying on the labour process itself, into a real condition of production. That a capitalist should command in the field of production is now as indispensable as that a general should command on the field of battle. All directly social or communal labour on a large scale requires, to a greater or lesser degree, a directing authority, in order to secure the harmonious co-operation of the activities of individuals, and to perform the general functions that have their origin in the motion of the total productive organism, as distinguished from the motion of its separate organs. A single violin player is his own conductor: an orchestra requires a separate one. The work of directing, supervision and mediation becomes one of the functions of capital, from the moment that the labour under capital’s control becomes co-operative. As a specific function of capital, the directing function acquires its own special characteristics.31

Marx here makes two comparisons in order to explain how the capitalist “directs” the exploitation of labor-power; on the one hand, with the army general, and on the other, with the conductor of an orchestra. These comparisons become even more interesting once further parallels have been drawn between them. The orchestra represents modalities of cooperation conforming primarily to technical objectives; and the army modalities of cooperation involving a vertical, hierarchical structure which organizes joint action by transmitting orders and checking that they are followed in practice, that is obeyed. In line with these two models, a system of authority combining several functions is established: directing, supervision and mediation, as enumerated by Marx in this passage. Direction is the very first form of authority which consists in giving impetus to a movement by prescribing it an unified orientation from which it must not deviate. It establishes the principle of simplification, reducing diversity to homogeneity. The very first task the conductor must ensure instrumentalists respect is that they play together, and not each for himself according to whim. Under the command of its general, communicated through its “daily orders,” an army must march “as one man,” leaving no space for deviant behavior and eliminating in advance rebels or protesters who have no choice but to exit a game in which they no longer belong. However, this direct form of authority, which is exercised far and wide, is not enough: left to itself it risks remaining a dead letter. That is why it must be circulated and in a way cashed in, distributed. Besides a higher authority that in the last instance gives the orders, this presupposes mediating bodies that supervise their application in detail, checking that the smallest individual acts conform to common rules and respect the norms. For this reason, instead of being uniformly communicated from center to periphery, authority expands through the countless channels of a complex organization, thus becoming sufficiently flexible to adapt itself to all aspects of productive activity without exception: in other words, it diversifies. However, to avoid diversification turning into dispersion, flexibility into a factor of disorder, it is necessary, moreover, that the multiplicity of mediating bodies, which concretely enact authority in such a way that it penetrates the most minute details of the labor process, are not left to themselves but are kept to the overall perspective they must obey and from which they must not be detached. Thus, they are reduced to the status of “mediations” chained to one another. Once again, the hierarchical model of the army is foregrounded. Its aides de camp, officers, N.C.O.s, martinets and minions of all kinds ensure that power, instead of residing only at the head, is present at all points of the organization, even the most minute, where it is reproduced, “represented” to the extent that it is assigned a place within the system in which it participates and on which it depends. In such an organization, there is not, on the one side, power, and on the other, opposite it, those it dominates, but a complex network whose proliferating intermediary links occupy positions that are at the same time those of dominant and dominated. Here obeying and commanding are no longer alternative functions but combine to the point where they can no longer be distinguished from one another, which means that those occupying these places obey by commanding. In this way, the operations of direction-supervision-mediation, which enable the organization of the labor process to produce the maximum relative surplus value, are based on this organization, which becomes thoroughly entangled in the “meshes of power” from which it can no longer escape. Foucault took up this idea in summary fashion in his Discipline and Punish:

Surveillance thus becomes a decisive economic operator both as an internal part of the production machinery and as a specific mechanism in the disciplinary power.32

In a footnote, Foucault cites the end of the passage of Chapter 13 (Chapter 11 of the original German edition) of the Roy translation of Capital that we have just commented on.33

In this regard, one can speak of a generalization of authority, which as it extends becomes immanent to the process of its realization, with which it fully merges. Paradoxically, this generalization, which in the beginning follows a pattern of homogenization, leads to an operation of specification or specialization, thus granting relative autonomy to the mediating instances that we have just been discussing:

If capitalist direction is thus twofold in content, owing to the twofold nature of the process of production which has to be directed-on the one hand a social labour process for the creation of a product, and on the other hand capital’s process of valorization – in form it is purely despotic (despotisch). As co-operation extends its scale, this despotism (Despotismus) develops the forms that are peculiar to it. Just as at first the capitalist is relieved from actual labour as soon as his capital has reached that minimum amount with which capitalist production, properly speaking, first begins, so now he hands over the work of direct and constant supervision of the individual workers and groups of workers to a special kind of wage-labourer. An industrial army of workers under the command of a capitalist requires, like a real army, officers (managers) and N.C.O.s (foremen, overseers), who command during the labour process in the name of capital. The work of supervision becomes their established and exclusive function.34

In order to adhere to the operation of the labor process, the command of capital follows it in the double sense of guiding and supervising it, step by step, in such a way that the pressure that command exerts is permanent and the chances of discrepancy or loss are kept to a minimum. Consequently, mass production refines the forms of the division of labor, separating out functions corresponding to activities that are not directly productive and perform this role of guidance and supervision. The idea of supervision, as Foucault has shown, notably in the studies devoted to disciplinary procedures, is part and parcel of the functioning of the society of norms. What specifically does the supervision of activities mean? It means that activities should not only be controlled afterwards in terms of their effects or results but supervised at source even before they have begun to take effect. The system of supervision has primarily a preventive role, acts as a deterrent. It prefigures the ends it seeks to enforce and is the more effective as it has no need to intervene in the activities with sanctions or punishment. This is exactly the function assigned to managerial staff whose authority, precisely because it fulfils a supervisory function, operates in close contact with the labor process, which it “follows” step by step and even precedes, directing the latter in a such a way as to leave no margin of deviation or error. Thanks to these intermediaries, the command of capital spreads throughout the productive body, throughout the collective power of social labor, taking full control using different channels whose organizational structure it has mastered. This is the precondition for its spreading without diluting. On the contrary, it is all the stronger for employing this multiplicity of channels which refine its distribution.

This distribution, ending up with the diversification of control and supervision tasks, is eventually accomplished by the separation of manual and intellectual labor, that is labor which is not satisfied with just “doing” the job or working but in return reflects upon it. This reflection on the organization of the labor process, which aims to set in motion the new collective power created by cooperation, is accomplished both at a distance and in close proximity, on an ad hoc basis and uninterruptedly. Freed from material, that is manual forms of labor, intellectual labor of different levels of graduation provides itself with the means to intervene all the time and everywhere. The first to free himself from the process of production properly speaking – that is the productive consumption of labor power – is the capitalist or boss. From his office, he pulls all the strings, takes important decisions, defines company strategy. In his train, little by little, all those he needs to transmit his orders and make sure they are correctly applied become detached or rather specialized in the “supervision” of the work of others – messengers, inspectors, security personnel, drill sergeants of every shape and stripe, to whom he delegates a part of his authority so as to consolidate its extension.

In this respect, we can talk about an economy of power which is simultaneously a conservation of power. Authority is managed like a material power, thereby reinforcing its effectiveness, whose measure in the last instance is the maximum production of profit. Let us cite in this connection a final passage from the chapter of Capital on cooperation, which summarizes its gains:

The worker is the owner of his labour-power until he has finished bargaining for its sale with the capitalist, and he can sell no more than what he has – i.e. his individual, isolated labour-power. This relation between capital and labour is in no way altered by the fact that the capitalist, instead of buying the labour-power of one man, buys that of 100, and enters into separate contracts with 100 unconnected men instead of with one. He can set the 100 men to work, without letting them co-operate. He pays them the value of 100 independent labour-powers, but he does not pay for the combined labour-power of the 100. Being independent of each other, the workers are isolated. They enter into relations with the capitalist, but not with each other. Their co-operation only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased to belong to themselves. On entering the labour process they are incorporated into capital. As co-operators, as members of a working organism, they merely form a particular mode of existence of capital. Hence the productive power developed by the worker socially is the productive power of capital. The socially productive power of labour develops as a free gift to capital whenever the workers are placed under certain conditions, and it is capital which places them under these conditions. Because this power costs capital nothing, while on the other hand it is not developed by the worker until his labour itself belongs to capital, it appears as a power which capital possesses by its nature – a productive power inherent in capital.35

This brings us back to the analyses presented at the beginning of this essay. What the capitalist buys and pays with a wage – under the terms of the labor contract, which is an exchange between parties free and equal in law – is the possibility of using the labor-power of each individual producer for a certain time within the spatial limits of his firm. But, in reality, what he exploits in order to extract a surplus value that he appropriates in full is a general productive power that is more than the sum of individual labor-powers, and which consequently he obtains gratis. This general productive power – that, in Marx’s words, “capital possesses by its nature, a productive power inherent in capital” – is the specific result of cooperation which inserts individual activities into the collective labor process as it is performed under the command of capital, corresponding to productivity norms that have literally seized hold of these activities by placing them under control and supervision. The authority the capitalist exercises in this context is legitimate, therefore legally unassailable, for it rests on an exchange based on rules mutually agreed by the contracting parties. Besides being legitimate this contract is from the point of view of the capitalist also efficient since its implementation “returns” a surplus value in the form of the production of relative surplus value that constitutes his own profit. Without any prospect of profit, unless he is a saint, which is unlikely, he would never embark on any such undertaking. This enterprise turns him into what we have proposed to call a metaphysician in action, one bringing together all the conditions required for essence to precede existence not only on paper but in reality as well. At a push, one could say that capitalist industrial production manufactures the human essence as a form of productive power in order to exploit it.

One can appreciate how much these analyses might have interested Foucault and encouraged him in his efforts to develop a new, non-juridical conception of power. These analyses make it possible to get at, what he called, the “real functioning” of power, of which the law is, at best, the ideological reverse, that is, a representation out of step with how it actually operates. However, one cannot say in the abstract that this ideology is purely and simply wrong and as such should be rejected as an illusion that it would suffice to dispel. For, in its own way, it participates in the functioning of power and contributes to its effectiveness:

Let me offer a general and tactical reason that seems self-evident: power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms. Would power be accepted if it were entirely cynical? For it, secrecy is not in the nature of an abuse; it is indispensable to its operation. Not only because power imposes secrecy on those whom it dominates, but because it is perhaps just as indispensable to the latter: would they accept it if they did not see it as a mere limit placed on their desire, leaving a measure of freedom however slight – intact? Power as a pure limit set on freedom is, at least in our society, the general form of its acceptability.36

To be productive, power must become integrated into networks that, along with wealth-producing material goods, produce the bodies which laboriously manufacture these very goods, conforming to norms that govern their manufacture. The condition for this is that the action of power is gradual, without drawing attention or being recognized, otherwise its attempts at penetration run into points of resistance that its advance, once exposed, in turn provokes. To achieve this goal, that is to remain invisible, power uses decoys, including the inverted representation of its action provided by juridical discourse. The trick is to recuperate this representation, which taken in itself corresponds to nothing real, and make it an element of the technology of power.37 This operation, which reduces the law to the level of a pure representation disconnected from any real content, and thus to a negative representation, does not have a timeless character, but takes place, as Foucault specifies, “at least in our society.” In other words, it should not be used to characterize power in general, a concept devoid of any real content. It rather applies to the type of historical society which has made productivity the heart of its existence and developed forms of industrial “cooperation” to achieve this end, that is, in different terminology, capitalist society. In the latter the technologies of power have taken on a particularly refined appearance, permitting them amongst other feats to turn the language of law to their advantage as a mask for their real activity which takes place on a plane entirely different to that of the law and its prohibitions. In other forms of society, such as feudal society, one might ask whether the law was just a language serving the same type of discourse of recovery used by the bourgeoisie. Academic Marxism fell headlong into this trap. It took literally the discourse of power elaborated by bourgeois society which makes power appear as a “superstructure” whose orders come down from high. In reality these orders ascend bottom up, from the depths of the system where value is produced. The truth of power, “at least in our society,” is economic before being political.38

According to Foucault, Marx helps us to better understand this, at least in those passages of his work where he deconstructs the “mechanisms” through which capital exerts its authority over labor, exploiting labor-power so as to increase its “productivity.” But, for this to happen the subjects must themselves be made “productive,” thanks to appropriate procedures of subjection which are part of the establishment of the new economy. These complex procedures of subjection are related to the establishment of the new form of power which, by overcoming the alternative between the individual and collective, constantly moves back and forth between the sphere of the economy and that of politics. As Foucault has explained in a key passage of Discipline and Punish where he refers in a note to Chapter 11/13 of Capital on cooperation, and to Deleule and Guéry’s Productive Body:

If the economic take-off of the West began with the techniques that made possible the accumulation of capital, it might perhaps be said that the methods for administering the accumulation of men made possible a political take-off in relation to the traditional, ritual, costly, violent forms of power, which soon fell into disuse and were superseded by a subtle, calculated technology of subjection. In fact, the two processes – the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital – cannot be separated; it would not have been possible to solve the problem of the accumulation of men without the growth of an apparatus of production capable of both sustaining them and using them; conversely, the techniques that made the cumulative multiplicity of men useful accelerated the accumulation of capital. At a less general level, the technological mutations of the apparatus of production, the division of labor and the elaboration of the disciplinary techniques sustained an ensemble of very close relations (cf. Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Chapter XIII and the very interesting analysis in Guéry and Deleule). Each makes the other possible and necessary; each provides a model for the other. The disciplinary pyramid constituted the small cell of power within which the separation, coordination and supervision of tasks was imposed and made efficient; and analytical partitioning of time, gestures and bodily forces constituted an operational schema that could easily be transferred from the groups to be subjected to the mechanisms of production; the massive projection of military methods onto industrial organization was an example of this modelling of the division of labor following the model laid down by the schemata of power. But, on the other hand, the technical analysis of the process of production, its “mechanical” breaking-down, were projected onto the labor force whose task it was to implement it: the constitution of those disciplinary machines in which the individual forces that they bring together are composed into a whole and therefore increased is the effect of this projection. Let us say that discipline is the unitary technique by which the body is reduced as a ‘political’ force at the least cost and maximized as a useful force. The growth of a capitalist economy gave rise to the specific modality of disciplinary power, whose general formulas, techniques of submitting forces and bodies, in short, “political anatomy,” could be operated in the most diverse political regimes, apparatuses or institutions.39

This passage confirms, without having to decide between the hypothesis of a Foucault who is (still) a Marxist and that of Marx who is (already) a Foucauldian, that the encounter between these two analysts of the modern regime of sociability had already taken place, resulting in a new conception of power, authority and the subject which can be taken as the basis for further analyses.

– Translated by Tijana Okić, Patrick King, and Cory Knudson

The Role of the Housewife in Social Production

Introduction

The contemporary American left press often discusses the 1970s Italian feminist arguments for the productive character of housework. However, this argument had already been made somewhat closer to home. In 1936 Communist Party USA fellow traveler and eventual member Mary Inman, who had roots in Socialist Party and IWW milieus, wrote a large manuscript reviewing anthropological theories of sexual difference, popular discourses around femininity, and the economic role of housework. The manuscript was rejected by the CPUSA, but portions were serialized in the San Francisco-based daily People’s World, and eventually published in book form in 1940’s In Woman’s Defense. Its theoretical conclusion was radical and explicitly stated: “We come then to see the social importance of 22 million housewives’ work, and its present day relation to the production of commodities. And we see how erroneous is the belief that the housewife became unimportant to the system of production when the home mainly ceased to be the place of production it once was. We say mainly, and not entirely, because the most valuable of all commodities is still produced there: Labor Power.”

While Inman’s theory was articulated in the language of the Popular Front, with a strong emphasis on middle-class women, it nevertheless sparked a bitter debate, opposed in official CP polemics by Avram Landy which insisted that women had no special interests beyond gender-neutral socialism. The remainder of Inman’s book, along with a counter-polemic, was published as Woman-Power in 1942, followed in turn by Landy’s 1943 Marxism and the Woman Question. Completely marginalized by the CP, from which she eventually resigned, Inman envisioned a new organization for women called the “Union of Labor-Power Production Workers,” and participated in the “anti-revisionist” movement that split from the Party in the late 40s. In an extraordinary 1949 pamphlet called 13 Years of CPUSA Misleadership on the Woman Question, Inman drew lines of demarcation that had been blurred in the earlier period, exposing the complicity between economic reductionism and identitarian reformism in the CPUSA. By effacing the economic role of women’s work and naturalizing the social phenomenon of motherhood, the Party reduced the mass “struggle against capitalist oppression of women” to the ideological contestation of “masculine superiority.” Socialism, cut off from the agency of working-class women, became little more than an abstract policy to be implemented from above in alliance with the progressive bourgeoisie, including bourgeois women’s organizations.

Inman continued to elaborate on these themes up to 1964’s The Two Forms of Production in Capitalism. We present here an essay from In Woman’s Defense.

The Housewife’s Role in Social Production

Workers of no other group have had their importance so ignored and denied as present day housewives.

Because productive tasks once performed in the home are now performed elsewhere, the housewife’s work now is under-rated to such an extent that she is considered in certain quarters to even be living in ease and parasitism.

Adding to this erroneous notion, and appearing to support it, is the fact that the 22 million housewives who work only at home and do all their work have no earnings or income of their own and must depend upon their food, clothing and housing being bought with money earned by their husbands.

Now this support a husband gives his wife comes out of production, and if she is not useful, in fact indispensable to the owners of industry, why do they permit 22 million women to subsist on the proceeds of industry? They could not possibly be unaware that these 22 million women, not directly productive, are out there.

And this owning class is noted for its ability to exploit the balance of the population in some manner. So insistent are they that persons work for them that they even hound those they refuse to employ, because they are unemployed, as the bulk of the vagrancy cases bear witness.

Why then do not the paid propagandists of this owning class attack this arrangement of 22 million housewives being maintained out of the proceeds of industry, instead of lauding the arrangement and surrounding it with moralistic robes?

There can only be one answer. Under certain conditions it profits them. Under certain conditions it is irreplaceable.

One very striking peculiarity of certain trends of theory about woman and what is called woman’s work, is that this work has been described and then elsewhere, generally apart from it, broad generalizations have been made referring to woman’s subjugation being a part of the system of exploitation of human labor, but these two things have not been adequately connected.

It is somewhat as if the woods were described and in a separate section the trees were also described but the whole matter was left in such a disconnected shape that neither seemed to have any relation to the other; the trees did not appear to be in the woods and the woods were not a collectivity of trees.

Let us illustrate the point further. The work of a cook in a logging camp is a necessary part of the production of lumber. The services of all the cooks in all the camps, restaurants and eating places wherever productive workers are fed, are a necessary part of production. And for the same reason, the work of the cooks in the homes of productive workers is also, at present, a necessary part of production.

The labor of a woman, who cooks for her husband, who is making tires in the Firestone plant in Southgate, California, is essentially as much a part of the production of automobile tires as the cooks and waitresses in the cafes where Firestone workers eat.

And all the wives of all the Firestone workers, by the necessary social labor they perform in the home, have a part in the production of Firestone Tires, and their labor is as inseparably knit into those tires as is the labor of their husbands.

Anyone can multiply this illustration by the products produced by Republic Steel, Standard Oil, Henry Ford, etc., and always get the same answer, that the wives’ labor is a necessary service in the creation of products in these plants.

The labor of workers in the laundries who wash clothing for productive workers is necessary to the system of production. Maids and porters who sweep the floors, make the beds and tidy the rooms in boarding houses or camps where productive workers sleep and rest, so that they may prepare themselves to return to work the next day, are a necessary link in the productive process.

And in the same way, the labor of housewives in the homes of productive workers who perform the services of keeping clothing washed and beds and floors clean, is also an indispensable part of production.

Persons who work in houses where children are boarded and trained, or schooled, are performing a useful service, and their labor is indispensable to the present method of production and distribution. And for a similar reason, millions of women in homes, who do the greater part of such work, are rendering an indispensable service to the present method of producing and distributing commodities.

If profits are to be made, commodities must not only be produced but distributed. Both production and distribution are complex and are inseparably linked to communication and transportation, and have tentacles that extend into schools and almost every legitimate phase of human activity.

The housewife does not cook eight or nine hours like the camp cook, nor wash and iron a stated number of hours like the laundry worker, nor make beds for certain hours like the maid in the hotel or rooming house, nor teach and nurse and feed children, future productive workers, a stated number of hours like teachers and workers in nurseries and schools, but she does perform all these tasks, and more, for unlimited and unstated hours every day, every week, and every month for years.

If the man cook in the lumber camp could be held to a subordinate economic position, directly under another worker and required to work, not nine hours, but an indefinite number, from ten to twelve, or more, and be paid nothing directly but have to get his keep from the little extra given the worker over him, and then be scornfully referred to as being “kept,” it is easy to see that his employer would be further enriched by the decreased status and lengthened hours of the cook.

And it is in some such manner that the collective owners of industry, the Hearsts, Rockefellers, Mellons, du Ponts, Fords and Morgans benefit by the cheap labor of the collective housewives and their resultant economic and social degradation. Besides, the wife’s dependence is a means of binding the man too, and of reaching through the parents their subject children.

And what shall we say of the housework middle class women performed under developing capitalism, cleaning, cooking, ironing, scrubbing and washing clothes and dishes? We must consider the work of most of these women as being necessary to the system of production and distribution also.

It is true that some of them hired girls but in many cases where they did, the housewife herself performed a great deal of useful work. It is our belief that the majority of the women of what is commonly called the middle class, did not subsist parasitically upon society, but did socially useful, necessary work.

Why was it useful, and why was it necessary? Because at one stage of the development of capitalism the middle class was an indispensable part of the system of manufacturing and distributing commodities. These persons with small capital investments were useful to the big capitalists, who had not yet gotten around to department and chain stores, and mass production and distribution.

When feudalism was overthrown by capitalism, the new system in the process of revolutionizing production, and spreading over the world, utilized millions of small producers and distributors.

And until the big capitalists had time and opportunity to expand over the entire earth with imperialistic, monopolistic combines and interlocking companies, banks, loans and business interests, hundreds of thousands of little stores and one-man management factories, with the manager often making a hand himself, were required in the United States, and millions more were required throughout the world.

This middle class helped build and develop and present machine system. During the building, the larger capitalists benefited by collecting tribute in the form of rent, interest, taxes and in various other ways from this middle class.

Yet, although this tributed increased in kind and amount with the years, that did not satisfy the big capitalists who wanted ownership in more and more cases and not only wanted ownership but took it.

And in time, monopoly-finance capitalists, with their inside track on politics and increasing power of wealth control, through financing and producing goods and selling them cheaper, practically destroyed the once numerically great middle class.

The small individually owned and operated factories and stores became outmoded and could not compete with ever-growing enterprises not handicapped by small capital investments. Such a method of production and distribution truly belonged to the horse and buggy days, but like the horse and buggy, useful in its historical setting.

The middle class housewife then, who did useful housework for a husband engaged in such work of production and distribution, or for songs so engaged, or for songs who were already, or preparing to become, technicians, engineers or teachers for the capitalists, or for daughters who would become the working wives of men so employed, such middle class housewives filled a socially useful role in their day to day work, and they contributed to the cumulative building of the great factory process that is modern America.

Housewives of both the middle and the working classes helped create this wealth that is America today, and part of it belongs to them by right of toil.

Mary Inman (1894-1985) was a Marxist-feminist theorist and activist.

The Social Reproduction of Sexuality: An Interview

Viewpoint: Why use a social reproduction frame to understand sexuality?

Alan Sears: For me, the usefulness of the social reproduction frame to understanding sexuality grows out of the current situation of queer politics. On the one hand, we have won rights that I never could have imagined when I first came out in the 1970s. In Canada, we have basically won full legal equality, ranging from non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to marriage and adoption rights. This is the outcome of powerful mobilizing. Some of the most exciting and defiant demonstrations I have ever been in were about queer struggles.

Yet, we have fallen far short of the vision of sexual liberation. The policing of sexuality continues, we have only shifted the bounds a bit. Just look at the recent raid of the rentboy.com offices in New York, which seems to be a crackdown on sex workers and queer sex. Gender normativity continues to pervade every area of our lives, even if the permissible ideas of masculinity and femininity have expanded a bit and the idea of gender transition is more recognized. Queerness has become a brand, one that people with limited incomes can’t afford to buy. It is not only Pride marches, but queer spaces and visibility that are defined by commerce. These spaces also tend to be defined by whiteness, as the experiences, histories, and activism of people of color and Indigenous people has often been marginalized by a dominant version of lesbian and gay identity rooted in particular social locations in the Global North.

I think the social reproduction frame helps us make sense of the contradictory gains that have been made, and therefore contributes to figuring out the next steps in sexual liberation. The crucial contribution is to show how sexuality and gender are nested in a whole set of relations of “life-making” organized around specific divisions of labor and hierarchies of dispossession. We can’t have real sexual liberation without addressing the ways our bodies and our lives are enmeshed in relations of work, household, and market, and regulated by the state.

VP: Could you be a bit more specific and tell us what you mean when you say our sexuality is enmeshed in other social relations?

AS: Sexuality is not separate from the rest of our lives. It is neither simply a biological drive nor a product of our minds. It is grounded in what we have to do to get by, the ways we use our bodies every day, the power relations that are present in every aspect of our lives. I think the social reproduction frame provides key tools to understand the ways sexuality is grounded in our everyday practices, and what that means for sexual liberation.

Capitalism is the only form of class society where the subordinated class is free in the sense of owning their own bodies. Yet that freedom is completely constrained by lack of ownership and control over the key productive resources of society. To live, we need to sell our capacity to work, be in a relationship with someone who is employed, or attain a wage equivalent, for example, through social assistance, pensions, or some other commercial activity.

Struggles around sexuality in capitalist societies are about navigating that contradiction between freedom and subordination, while sexual liberation requires actually overcoming that subordination. Let me give an example. Angela Davis argues that the sex-positivity in the music of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and other African American women blues singers in the early twentieth century was connected to the fact that some sort of freedom in the realm of sexuality and personal relationships was one of the few real gains of emancipation from slavery. If you look at slavery in the Americas you see an ongoing history of sexual violence and the deliberate destruction of personal relationships built in to the regime of brutal coercion. It is not just that the system put slave owners in a position to rape, but that sexual coercion was part of the way they maintained their power.

African Americans did not win real economic justice or freedom from racist assault or abuse by gaining emancipation from slavery in capitalist America. Black Lives Matter reminds us of how present racist violence is today, and the role that policing and prisons, along with a whole host of other institutions, play in that racism. Emancipation from slavery did bring significant and tangible changes in the area of sexuality and personal relationships – though of course limited by racist violence, economic injustice, and the regime of male dominance built into capitalist gender relations.

I think a social reproduction approach helps us understand that contradiction. As members of the working class in capitalist societies, we own our own bodies, but are dispossessed of control over them. Rather than working directly to meet our wants and needs, we are forced to seek employment and/or engage in unpaid household caregiving labor to attain access to a wage. We do not control the work process or the product of our labor. A whole host of processes is loosed upon us to ensure subordination, ranging from schooling to prisons. We are thus alienated from our selves and each other. And that has a huge impact on our sexual being.

VP: But aren’t you running the risk of turning social reproduction into a kind of theory of everything?

AS: The social reproduction frame emerged specifically as a correction developed by Marxist-Feminists to the limited perspective on class and work advanced by the dominant streams of Marxism. Basically, this limited perspective meant that most Marxists located class formation in the realm of production, that is, wage labor in the paid workplace. Those holding this perspective basically ignored the role of the unpaid labor, mainly done by women in the household, to sustain the existing working class and raise the next generation.

The social reproduction frame opens up our idea of class formation, to include a range of paid and unpaid labor processes organized through divisions of labor that are gendered, racialized, and sexualized. The weight of unpaid labor is disproportionately freighted onto the shoulders of women, but the precise configuration of paid and unpaid labor through which people sustain themselves varies tremendously over time and in different social locations.

VP: You’re talking about gender and division of labor here, but it’s not clear how all this connects with sexuality.

AS: To start with, I think a social reproduction focus on divisions of labor casts a new light on ideas of “heteronormativity” and “homonormativity.” “Heteronormative” is a term used to describe the dominant expectations for heterosexual lifestyles that set the tone for acceptable sexuality for all of society. Heteronormativity is a package that includes divisions of labor, gendered aspirations, leisure patterns, and practices of sexuality. Heteronormativity is not simply ideological, a set of cultural expectations, but is grounded in work practices organized through power relations. Heteronormativity changes over time, and in different social locations.

Roderick Ferguson pointed out that heterosexual African Americans often lived in ways that did not fit with the dominant heteronormative patterns in the United States. For example, African American women tended to participate in wage labor at much higher rates than white women, often including burdensome physical labor that was otherwise not seen as “women’s work.” This has a huge impact on gendered expectations and household practices. We might add, the regime of mass imprisonment, especially disproportionate for African American and Indigenous men, creates non-heteronormative patterns as males are forcibly removed from their communities and detained in situations in which the fulfillment of heteronormative roles – as workers, partners, fathers – is simply impossible. So does the geographic dispersion that means a particular family may include very different households in a variety of countries, for example children raised by grandparents in the country of origin while the father is employed as a temporary migrant in another country and the mother as a paid domestic worker in a third country.

Heteronormativity is not simply about conformism, but about social power, dislocation, racism, divisions of paid and unpaid labor, and the spatial organization of the global labor market. When we say, then, that winning equality rights have meant that lesbians and gays have imitated heteronormativity to create “homonormativity,” this is not simply a decision to assimilate rather than transgress. It is about what Johanna Brenner calls “survival strategies” in a set of social relations organized around dispossession, exploitation, and oppression.

Homonormativity is not simply a choice, at the individual or political level. On the one hand, it is not even an option for some people – including many who are poor, racialized or trans, just as heteronormativity is not even an option for many who are racialized, Indigenous, or migrants as discussed above. On the other hand, many who might prefer to challenge homonormativity or heteronormativity may essentially be forced to conform by regimes of paid labor, unpaid labor, and state regulation. For example, the material pressures to marry in order to obtain migration status or access to benefits required for the well-being of household members (adults and/or children) might trump ideological concerns about inviting the state into our households.

If we want to go beyond heteronormativity and homonormativity, then, it is not only about asserting queerness but about creating the social conditions in which people can thrive while pursuing the ways they really want to live in terms of gender and sexuality. Not getting fired, not being stripped of benefits or status, not getting raped, not getting beaten up on the streets, not being imprisoned or shot by cops. The social reproduction frame reminds us that the organization of paid and unpaid labor in workplaces, households, and through state regulation has a huge impact on what options we may have to pursue sexuality. Of course, we have agency and can make history in the realm of sexuality, but our ability to do so will necessarily be constrained by what is happening in these other realms of life.

VP: Earlier you said that divisions of labor are not only gendered and racialized, but also sexualized. Could you explain what you mean by that?

AS: Divisions of labor orient our lives around particular embodied practices. The labor processes that are most central to our daily routines are bound to have an impact on our experience of our bodies and our desires. A pro football linebacker, an assembly line worker in an auto plant, a department store make-up seller, and a day care worker use their bodies very differently on a daily basis. Carolyn Steedman wrote powerfully about a kind of erotic death she felt as an elementary school teacher touching and being touched by kids all day to the extent that she closed down other forms of contact.1

If you look at the kind of work you are expected to do in paid and unpaid labor, in the household and in the place of employment, it creates a sense of your body that contributes to your own mapping of desire and the erotic. If you spend a lot of time using your body to soothe distressed infants, that is bound to create a different sense of touch, for example, than if you use it to flatten running backs from the opposing team. I am not suggesting for a second that this is the only factor shaping desire, but these practices necessarily play an important role.

About 10 years ago there was a show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in which a team of gay men did aesthetic retrofits for straight men. So what does a queer eye in this sense have to do with same-sex desire? I think a social reproduction frame encourages us to think about why we might expect queer guys to know aesthetics and straight guys to be hopeless in that area. There are certainly specific areas of aesthetic and emotional labor that are disproportionately populated by gay men. Then there is the utter compulsory heterosexuality of the pro sports team. I think that real sexual liberation means taking on the coercive and hierarchical nature of divisions of labor in capitalist societies and understanding the impact the organization of work has on our sexual being.

VP: Could you expand on that, the idea that sexual liberation requires a challenge to divisions of labor?

AS: I guess what I am saying is that our abilities to experience sexual pleasure, to resist sexual coercion, to feel fulfilled and engage lovingly with others, are constrained and shaped by the ways we have to fit into specific roles determined by paid and unpaid work. At a most basic level, our work schedules, paid and unpaid, have a very direct impact on our sex lives simply by creating or limiting availability and by exhausting us or leaving us with a sense of accomplishment. At a more complex level, our sense of ourselves, including our bodies, is grounded in the work we do which hyperdevelops certain capacities and shuts down others.

A doctor, a fashion photographer, a teacher, and a mother are likely to see very different things when we stand before them, given the focus they have learned to develop through their experiences of schooling, training and work inside or outside the home. They will touch differently and have different expectations for being touched. Yes, deliberate acts of queering can challenge the normative, but unless we get at the practices and power relations in which the normative is embedded we are going to be limited in how far our liberation project goes.

I also think our sexualities are messed up by the way power works in capitalist societies. Consent and coercion are muddled by the contradiction between ownership of our bodies and the compulsion to sell our capacity to work (or do unpaid labor for someone who does so). Technically, workers consent to work at a capitalist enterprise, but the coercive power of the boss is massive. So do we really know what genuine consent grounded in control over our bodies and our lives actually looks like?

In the legal sense, you can never consent if you are coerced. But in capitalist societies we naturalize the key coercive forces and take them for granted. You have to work because otherwise you won’t be able to eat – all of us find ourselves in this situation, so we freely sign the contract and do the job for however many hours a day. And in some cases that means showing up to work looking sexually attractive, even if that might not be said out loud. Is that consensual?

It is so exciting and important to see some serious work challenging sexual violence, violence against women, and gendered harassment on campuses right now. I think a social reproduction frame might push us to ask questions about the way consent is understood in some of these campaigns. What are the coercive factors and power relations underlying consent that we are simply taking for granted, just as we accept the employment contract as consensual? The basic emphasis on full consent is crucial, but the model we tend to use is based on the autonomous rational actor who is free and informed. Actually, we are deeply enmeshed in power relations of gender, race, class, age, and bodily capacity in a society that is profoundly sex-negative. Those power relations have a huge influence on our sexual being and desires, and on our ability to voice consent or refusal.

VP: You just said that this is a sex-negative society, but does that match the everyday reality of a society where sex is everywhere?

AS: Yes, another interesting contradiction. The society where everything is sexualized, yet actual sexual activity is silenced and made invisible. Sexualized images are omnipresent, but partners often cannot even communicate their sexual desires to each other.

The neoliberal phase of capitalism has intensified the sexualization of things, as relations of commodification enter into every aspect of our everyday lives. So we try to turn ourselves into things to be hot. We try to live up to the images – they set the standards. We process our bodies and turn them into products – training, shaving, dying, tattooing, surgically altering, dieting, wearing the right stuff. The raw unprocessed body – the one that smells like a human being – is seen as contemptible.

So yes – we are negotiating sex-negativity paired with sexualization. Abortion rights, birth control, safety in social spaces and on the streets, places for young people to be sexually active – the things required for positive sexual experience, especially for women, are still walled off.

VP: So what can we look forward to in the use of the social reproduction frame to understand sexuality?

AS: I think this is an exciting moment where social reproduction theory is getting a whole lot of attention and being taken in new directions. This issue of Viewpoint is a valuable part of that. This has been driven in part by a frank recognition of the limitations of versions of Marxism that understood class too narrowly in terms of paid labor at the place of employment. It is also an important moment in sexual politics, as we grope towards a new vision of sexual liberation to take us beyond the polarization between equality rights and transgression.

I think a social reproduction approach to sexuality can combine a broader sense of class formation and life-making in capitalist societies with a transformative queer politics. At the same time, there is a lot of work to be done, for example in thinking through the relationship between divisions of labor and sexualities. To develop this work will need a lot of discussion and debate, good historical and contemporary research and activist engagement.

Toward a Brighter Dawn

Early dawn on any Southern road. Shadowy figures emerge from the little unpainted, wooden shacks alongside the road. There are Negro women trudging into town to the Big House to cook, to wash, to clean, to nurse children – all for two, three, dollars for the whole week. Sunday comes – rest day. But what rest is there for a Negro mother who must crowd into one day the care of her own large family? Church of course, where for a few brief hours she may forget, listening to the sonorous voice of the pastor, the liquid harmony of the choir, the week’s gossip of neighbors. But Monday is right after Sunday, and the week’s grind begins all over.

Early dawn on the plantations of the South. Dim figures bend down in the fields to plant, to chop, to pick the cotton from which the great wealth of the South has come. Sharecroppers, working year in, year out, for the big landlord, never to get out of debt. The sharecropper’s wife – field worker by day, mother and housewife by night. Scrubbing the pine floors of the cabin until they shine white. Boiling clothes in the big black iron kettle in the yard. Cooking the fat-back and corn pone for hungry little mouths. She has never to worry about leisure-time problems.

The same dawn in Bronx Park, New York. There is yet no movement in the near-by apartment houses. From the subway come women, Negro women. They carefully arrange the Daily News or Mirror along the park bench still moist with dew, and sit down. Why do they sit so patiently? It’s cold and damp in the early morning.

Here we are, for sale for the day. Take our labor. Give us what you will. We must feed our children and pay high rent in Harlem. Ten cents, fifteen cents an hour! That won’t feed our families for a day, let alone pay rent. You won’t pay more? Well, guess that’s better than going back to Harlem after spending your last nickel for carfare…

So thrifty “housewives” drive sharper bargains. There are plenty of women to choose from. And every dollar saved leaves that much more for one’s bridge game or theater party! The Bronx “slave market” is a graphic monument to the bitter exploitation of this most exploited section of the American working population – the Negro women.

Over the whole land, Negro women meet this triple exploitation – as workers, as women, and as Negroes. About 85 per cent of all Negro women workers are domestics, two-thirds of the two million domestic workers in the United States. In smaller numbers they are found in other forms of personal service. Other employment open to them is confined mainly to laundries and the tobacco factories of Virginia and the Carolinas, where working conditions are deplorable. The small fraction of Negro women in the professions is hampered by discriminatory practices and unequal wages.

The economic crisis has placed the severest test upon the Negro woman. Representing the greatest proportion of unemployed workers in the country, Negroes are discriminated against in relief and work relief. Negroes must pay high rent for the worst housing in any city. Segregated Negro neighborhoods are invariably deficient in nurseries, playgrounds, health centers, schools. And in the face of such adverse conditions, Negro women must maintain and rear their families.

It was against such a background that there assembled in Chicago on February 14, 15 and 16, 1936, Negro women from all sections of the country for the National Negro Congress. They made up about one-third of the eight hundred delegates, men and women, who came together from churches, trade unions, fraternal, political, women’s, youth, civic, farm, professional, and educational organizations. Women club leaders from California greeted women trade unionists from New York. Women school teachers made friends with women domestic workers. Women from the relief agencies talked over relief problems with women relief clients. Women from mothers’ clubs and housewives’ leagues exchanged experiences in fighting against the high cost of living. Negro women welcomed the white women delegates who came to the Congress as an evidence of the growing sense of unity between them.

The Women’s Sub-Session of the Congress dramatized the conditions facing Negro women everywhere. Neva Ryan, slight but dynamic, pictured the plight of the domestic workers of Chicago and the steps being taken to organize them. Rosa Rayside of New York told how they already had an A.F. of L. charter there for a domestic workers’ union. Tarea Hall Pittman, state president of the Federation of Women’s Clubs of California, emphasized the necessity of linking together the struggle of women workers with professional women. Marion Cutbert of the National Board of the YWCA and National Treasurer of the National Negro Congress greeted the delegates and urged the need for organization on all fronts. A white delegate from Detroit, Margaret Dean, told of the valiant fight made in her city by both Negro and white women against the high cost of living. Thyra Edwards, social worker of Chicago, and chairman of the Women’s Committee for the National Negro Congress, emphasized the need for consumers’ co-operatives. Rosita Talioferro, student at the University of Wisconsin, urged the mothers to begin early in their children’s lives to educate them upon the pressing problems under discussion. Herbert Wheeldin, from Westchester County, New York, one of the several men delegates who listened attentively, spoke of the severe exploitation of women workers by the rich families of Westchester.

The session ended all too soon, with many delegates yet to be heard from. The facts they related told sad stories, but there was no sadness in these women delegates, many of whom were attending a congress for the first time in their lives. There was a ring of confidence in each report – a confidence, born in many instances right at the congress, that it was possible to change these unbearable conditions. Negro women from all walks of life, unskilled and professional, Negro and white women found themselves drawn together, found that they liked being together, found that there was hope for change in coming together.

Organization and unity were the keynote of the resolution on women passed by the Congress. The resolution embodied a three-point program: (1) Organization of women domestic workers into trade unions of the American Federation of Labor; (2) organization of housewives into housewives’ leagues to combat the high cost of living, and educational facilities for their families, and (3) organization of professional women. All three to be joined together to work for adequate social legislation, for better relief, and against war and fascism. This resolution was presented to the general session of the Congress by Mrs. Nellie Hazell, representing the Negro Democratic League of Philadelphia, and was unanimously adopted.

The delegates have returned to their homes, but not as they came. These women now have a program around which they will rally their sisters at work and in the home. They have a year in which to carry through the declarations of their resolution, so that by May, 1937, when the National Negro Congress again convenes – this time in Philadelphia – they will come together once more in greater numbers and with a different story to tell, of accomplishment, of a struggle nearer the goal of the liberation of Negro women from bitter exploitation and oppression.

Making a living

Today, amidst a changed political and class landscape, strategy should take precedence over fidelity to the received canon. The activities of social reproduction remain the field of powerful class antagonisms.

The Hidden Abode[ h2]The Hidden Abode[ /h2]

With some minor exceptions, the earliest socialists, such as Charles Fourier, had little interest in the daily struggles of working people. For them, socialism was to be discovered through careful thinking, and realized by a wealthy benefactor. Fourier waited every day in his foyer for some philanthropist to come invest in his socialist future. He even went so far as to pitch to Napoleon his grand scheme to rescue “the human race from social chaos.”1

Not until the 1830s and 1840s, after working people began to struggle independently, did revolutionaries like Auguste Blanqui, Karl Marx, and others begin to consistently argue that socialism had to be based in the struggles of workers, not the elaborate schemes of intellectuals. Eventually this idea took hold, and, especially after mass migration, the spread of industry, and the dramatic sociopolitical restructurings of the 1860s and 1870s, when numerous states granted constitutions, reformed civil laws, and established parliaments, the entire socialist movement anchored itself to the struggles of the “working class.”2 Socialism would henceforth be inseparable from the formation of the working class into a coherent political subject.

Of course, it was unclear who exactly belonged to this class. Workers fell into a thousand different categories, working life remained heterogeneous, and distinct forms of production like slavery, wage labor, and sharecropping constantly bled into each other. Moreover, most workers did not have any kind of fixed identity. They were always on the move, harvesting the land in the fall like peasants, living without work over the winter, perhaps finding a factory job in the spring. The working class therefore seemed less like an indivisible singularity than a chaotic multitude shot through with differences in tradition, religion, culture, trade, race, gender, and nationality.

This unruliness posed a strategic dilemma. How could such a heterogeneous multitude compose itself into a single subject?3 In the late 19th century, social democracy had to confront this problem with a complex set of practices and theoretical proposals. The now familiar theoretical problematic of social democracy rests on three fundamental principles:

First, that one sector of the working multitude metonymically stood in for all the rest. As much of the propaganda of the period attests, the male wage worker in the factory became the face of the working class as such, its struggles rendered the most visible.

Second, the interests of this particular figure took priority over all others; the desires of ethnic minorities for racial equality, of women for emancipation, or of colonized populations for self-determination, would be realized as a subordinate function of the revolution made by factory workers.

Third, socialists privileged the shop floor, where these factory workers worked, as the primary terrain of class formation. The factory was not only where the most ardent battles were said to be fought, but where the entire working class as such entered into world history. Some, like Otto Rühle, took this factoryist logic to the extreme, arguing that “only in the factory is the worker of today a real proletarian… Outside the factory he is a petty-bourgeois, involved in a petty bourgeois milieu and middle class habits of life, dominated by petty bourgeois ideology.”4

For better or worse, these three orientations, which all implied each other, initially derived from largely strategic considerations. The struggles of industrial workers in the factory appeared as primary precisely because this was where the working class was strongest and the capitalists potentially the weakest. For it was not only where profits ultimately derived, but where unprecedented numbers of workers were gathered. In concentrating so many workers in the same, critical location, capital had created the very conditions of its own undoing. As the widely read Karl Kautsky explained:

All the conditions of modern production tend to increase the solidarity of the laboring classes. In the Middle Ages each artisan produced a finished product; he was industrially almost independent. Today it often takes scores, or even hundreds, to produce a finished product. Thus does industry teach co-operation.5

Working alongside each other, cooperating in the production process, experiencing a common situation, and most of all, sharing the same exploitation, wage workers in the factory could overcome their differences to band together as a united force. It was in the hard and hardening school of the factory, socialists assumed, that the working class could learn the practice of politics.6

While this move was originally strategic in nature, it was largely justified through a teleological narrative of history. Industrialization, the story went, would create a more or less homogenous class of industrial wage workers. “Under the influence of machinery,” Kautsky continued, “the distinctions among the trades are rapidly disappearing.”7 The substitutionism implied by these three moves, therefore, would only be temporary, since soon enough all of the toiling masses would simply become industrial proletarians:

We have already seen that the industrial proletariat tends to become the only working-class. We have pointed out, also, that the other working-classes are coming more and more to resemble the proletariat in the conditions of labor and way of living. And we have discovered that the proletariat is the only one among the working-classes that grows steadily in energy, in intelligence, and in clear consciousness of its purpose. It is becoming the center about which the disappearing survivals of the other working-classes group themselves. Its ways of feeling and thinking are becoming standard for the whole mass of non-capitalists, no matter what their status may be.8

Despite all the contradictions, exclusions, and hierarchies of this theory, the political practice of social democracy was remarkably successful. Over the course of the nineteenth and especially twentieth centuries, class became a felt reality for tens of millions of workers in most countries. Organized in unions, committees, and most often mass parties, the historical working class was not only able to win a series of tremendous victories, but succeeded in preserving a sense of subjective continuity between struggles. Class, in short, became an integral part of everyday life.

However, social democracy’s success should not lead us to uncritically accept the story it told about itself. The heterogeneity of wage labor was apparent even in the factory, and the organization of workers as a class did not proceed solely along the lines predicted by the teleology. Kathleen Canning has described, in a study of female textile workers in early twentieth-century Germany, how the experience of pregnancy was a basis of shop floor camaraderie. While these women were only moderately engaged in their union, the Deutscher Textilarbeiterverband (DTAV) – partly because of its sexism – they were highly prone to launching wildcat strikes, sometimes initially in protest of sexual harassment and rape by overseers. Canning recalls that “during the years 1902 to 1904, women made up between 17 and 23 percent of DTAV rank and file but 53 percent of participants in so-called offensive strikes.” By 1908, the DTAV had “appointed Martha Hoppe as its first female secretary and officially addressed the ‘woman question’ at its congress that year.”9

It’s worth noting, however, that German women working in factories weren’t very likely to join the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which saw unions as a privileged site of political composition. In fact, most female party members were not factory workers; they stayed at home and did housework, and were usually recruited to the party by political meetings focused on the inflation of food prices.10

After a turbulent sequence of insurrections, splits, and defeats yielded the German Communist Party (KPD), female militants challenged the new party’s focus on the male factory worker, initiating food riots and the looting of consumer goods. The members of a 1922 women’s study group on Marxist economics expressed dismay at the suggestion that housework was unproductive, and proposed a new set of working-class demands: cooperative households; restriction of domestic labor to an eight-hour day; wages for housework; free choice of profession for women; and sexual freedom. In 1928, the textile workers’ union sponsored an essay contest for women about the relationship between waged work and housework, and published the collected essays.11

The KPD would finally respond to this challenge during the Great Depression, which destabilized the cohesion of the working class in the factory. This period reminds us that a foundational characteristic of the wage relation is unemployment. As Geoff Eley writes:

With its aggressively “proletarian” identity contrasting starkly with its actual members, who gathered on street corners rather than factory floors (80 percent being unemployed after 1930), the KPD found itself willy-nilly the voice of broader-based “nonclass” mobilizations around women, youth, tenants, welfare claimants, and others during its period of growth in 1930–32. Sex reform agitations over abortion and contraception were part of this, with surprising cooperation among Communist, Social Democratic, liberal, and nonaligned left-wing doctors, social workers, and other activists. The KPD—or individual Communists and their professional organizations and the coalitions and forums the party sponsored—energized the 1931 campaign for abortion reform and the remarkable sex counseling clinics that flourished before 1933.12

In other words, the wager of social democracy – that the lived experience of the male wage worker in the factory metonymically represented the whole history of working-class formation, and therefore had hegemony at the strategic level – did not actually reflect the reality of class struggle. Since social democracy’s theoretical problematic was founded on the imagined experience of waged work, which was in reality always marginal to the vast majority of toilers, it obscured the complicated political calculations that were required in its practice. In recoding a contingent decision into an invariant philosophy of history, the strategic, historically specific considerations behind these decisions have been lost. They now haunt us as tradition.

[ h2]Outside the Factory[ /h2]

Of course, during the twentieth century, and especially in its last forty years, many radicals criticized this teleology. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists provided a fundamental challenge to the belief that the male factory worker and his desires represented the whole of the class, arguing that the socialist movement’s myopic fixation on wage labor in the factory concealed the very sphere of work that made it possible in the first place. Wage labor, by definition, means that workers exchange their labor power for the money necessary to live. But as the feminist critique underscored, payment of wages does not automatically lead to a sated, healthy, rested worker. On the contrary, a considerable amount of work has to be done to make sure these wage workers are ready to return to work the next day. As Leopoldina Fortunati once put it:

Only work can transform the wage into the use-values required in the male worker’s reproduction; but even then the use-values are not directly or immediately consumable by him. More work is necessary to transform these use-values into use-values that are effectively usable, i.e. ready to be consumed.13

That work, which under the capitalist mode of production is the work of replenishing labor power, they called social reproduction. It is the often invisible work of cooking, cleaning, caring, educating that makes wage labor at the point of production possible. Without this, feminists rightly argued, no one can sell their labor power, no wages can be exchanged, no surplus value can be generated. Social reproduction, they continued, generally takes place within the family form, those forced to do it have historically been women, and, while it is sometimes done by waged workers, it is often unpaid. Above all, some feminists, especially in Italy, began to speak of social reproduction not just as a kind of activity, but also as an entire terrain of struggle.

While these two forms of activity – production on the one side and social reproduction on the other – have always been reciprocally implicated, the terrain of social reproduction has frequently been ignored, naturalized, or disparaged. Take, for example, E.P. Thompson’s magisterial account of class formation, The Making of the English Working Class.14 Thompson, like most socialist writers of the time, adhered to the notion of a separate, naturalized domestic sphere. He implied that the home is governed by a natural division of labor, but in the workplace, that division was historically constructed. Since “real” exploitation therefore only happens in the workplace, not at home, “real” politics, and therefore class struggle and class formation, can only emerge at the place of work. Seeing the terrain of social reproduction as outside of history, as something that was always already there, he passed it over in silence. Since this terrain has been historically gendered as female, this basically meant writing women out of history.15 In so doing, Thompson unwittingly reproduced the same teleological narrative of the 19th century socialist movements, but now as official history.

The feminist critique therefore had to be multipronged. At the level of theory, feminists explored the concepts of social reproduction, unwaged work, and surplus value. At the level of history, it was necessary to deconstruct the received story of class formation. Joan Scott and Louise Tilly’s famous book Women, Work, and Family, for example, argued first of all that social reproduction does have a history, and is therefore a site of politics, of class formation; second, that forms of production and social reproduction have always been closely related, with changes in one directly affecting the other; and third, that the home was not, and still isn’t, exclusively the realm of socially reproductive activity, but rather a complex site of both social reproduction and production.16

At the level of contemporary practice, feminists criticized the idea that the factory was the primary site of class formation by organizing a series of struggles on the terrain of social reproduction. In 1970s Italy, for example, one need only mention the struggle to legalize abortion, the Wages for Housework Campaign, or the vast movement to unilaterally reduce bus fares, electricity bills, or rents, sometimes called “autoreduction.”17

Women took the lead in these movements over the cost of living. But it is very significant, and often forgotten, that a number of the factory male workers who once glorified the plant themselves began to argue in the late 1960s that it was time to extend the struggle outside. In 1969, the wave of worker struggles known as the Hot Autumn won pay raises, better benefits, and greater say in the operations of the factory. But the reaction was swift and calculating. On one side, the unions recuperated these demands for political autonomy by creating a more democratic, but ultimately contained, council system; on the other, capitalists simply counteracted these higher wages by raising the general cost of living, increasing rent, the price of food, and the cost of basic services.

Italo Sbrogio, a worker at the chemical plant at Porto Marghera, later admitted that the ploy was a partial success. “In view of this,” he went on, we “put our back into it and said that the intervention inside the factories would have to be carried to the outside, to the ‘social,’ as well, broaching the issue of the rise of living costs.” In other words, struggles inside the factory were now faced with a strategic impasse; it became necessary to surround them by waging the struggle on other terrains. This was one of the primary strategic considerations behind the auto-reduction campaigns, which, it should be noted, began in the proletarian neighborhoods immediately surrounding the factories. Sbrogio recalls how the movement soon spread beyond the factory neighborhoods: “People lowered rents, occupied empty houses, paid less for their food. We organized all this by establishing local committees in the various parts of town. We even managed to organize a shopping strike which forced some supermarkets to cut prices for basic food.” In one case, a major self-reduction demonstration culminated with militants starting “a huge fire by burning all the gas and electricity bills that we had reduced. After four months of nationwide protests the government and union signed an agreement, which cut the price of electricity. Those involved in the committee said that such a strong bond between the factory and the neighborhood had never existed before.”18

In some instances, these struggles over social reproduction led to experiments in collective ways of living, creating day-care centers, communal kitchens, and people’s health centers.19 These experiments in other forms of life, which many considered essential to ensuring the non-reproduction of specifically capitalist social relations, went beyond counterculture precisely because they were fully rooted in a much broader front of struggles.

Of course, there were considerable debates about this general move beyond the point of production, and many factory workers vehemently opposed the demotion of their struggles to second rank. This would in fact prove to be a major contradiction within the movement. Yet in the heat of the struggle, when strategy became the order of the day, the old narrative that placed primacy on the plant came undone, and other paths of class formation revealed themselves.

[ h2]The Political Question[ /h2]

Today, amidst a changed political and class landscape, strategy should take precedence over fidelity to the received canon. The activities of social reproduction remain the field of powerful class antagonisms. Not only has the capitalist assault on the terrain of reproduction taken the form of austerity – the devolution of the costs of social reproduction back onto workers – but the growing response to the squeeze on working-class time has been the accelerated marketization and commodification of reproductive labor.

Many of today’s lines of political contestation are thus being drawn squarely through the terrain of social reproduction – soaring rents, crumbling buildings, underfunded schools, high food prices, crippling debt, police violence, and insufficient access to basic social services like water, transportation, and health care. It’s no surprise that some of the most dynamic mass struggles – such as anti-racism, anti-police brutality, and anti-austerity – are primarily unfolding in neighborhoods. In Ferguson, where unemployment is over 13%, a social movement was born in the streets, not the shop floor. In Detroit, once the heart of factory struggles in this country, one of the major struggles today is the fight for water.

We should not take this to mean that social reproduction is a transhistorical category of economic necessity, and that therefore it joins production as an anthropological imperative. It should point us instead to the specificity of capitalist social relations, which begin, in the words of Michael Denning, “not with the offer of work, but with the imperative to earn a living.”20 When we assume the perspective of social reproduction, we see that our basic state, so to speak, is not defined by a waged job, but rather existential wagelessness. On the terrain of social reproduction it becomes abundantly clear that unemployment precedes employment, the informal economy precedes the formal, and proletarian does not mean wage worker.

The struggles at the level of social reproduction link with those in the fast food industry, agriculture, hospitals, universities, and logistics, attesting to the need for a unitary field of analysis and antagonism. The political question today is how to effectively articulate the plurality of struggles on these diverse terrains in a way that can begin the long process of building a new class power. And that brings us once again to the question of political organization.