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

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Feb 18 2016 10:18


Viewpoint Magazine

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