F: The Manifold of Work: Reproduction


Midnight Notes on social reproduction, work and jogging from 1980.

Submitted by Fozzie on June 22, 2023

Sraffa’s distinction between basic and non-basic commodities is essential to our explanation of the energy crisis as a response to working class attack on capitalist accumulation in the late 60s and early 70s. However, there is one crucial flaw in Sraffa’s theory. Capital does not produce things, “commodity bundles”, “finite pies”, or physical shit but values, work. It is a system for the exploitation of time, life and energy. Though we have reached the period when all the “powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse” are integral to the process of production, capital has in no way gone beyond its measuring rod — work-time -- as Sraffa suggests. The “law of value” has not been repealed; on the contrary, it rules with the greatest rigor. Similarly, the relation between capital and the working class is not a “pure power relation” (like that between De Sade’s aristocrats and their subjects) but one in which work remains the basis of capital’s power. What is transformed by the change in basic commodity prices is work from the Low sector to the High sector.

For the energy price rise strategy to succeed an enormous amount of work must be produced and extracted from the Low sectors in order to be transformed to capital available for the High sector. In order to finance the new capitalist “utopia” of “high-tech”, venture-capital demanding industries in the energy, computer and genetic engineering areas, another capitalist “utopia” must be created: a world of “labor-intensive”, low waged, distracted and diffracted production. The price rise would be reduced to paper unless it imposed a qualitative increase in shit work. This is the crisis within the crisis. Can energy price hikes be backed up with the requisite work? In this juncture, as always in capital’s history, a leap in technology is financed out of the skins of the most technologically starved workers. Those in the anti-nuke movement who have as their slogan “Nukes destroy. Solar employs” are wrong. A nuclear society requires an enormous increase in work, not in the plants or the fuel cycle, of course, but in the capitalist environment. Utilities might invest in nuclear plants and the engineers and guards necessary to run them, but the investment goes not guarantee a given “return”. For profit to be made out of such a “high-tech” investment, it must be transfered from “low-tech” exploitation. As always. “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is... at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.1 The resolution of the energy crisis requires the destruction of the old type of line worker and the creation of a new figure of exploitation. Where is this work to be extracted from? Or rather, from whom?

Capitalist development feeds on the energy of the working class, on its revolutionary disgust. Ironically, capital’s answer was provided by the struggle itself If the profits crisis had its epicenter in the fission and explosion of line workers and housewives, then its resolution had to use these energies against themselves. Such is the capitalist dance called the dialectic. To the men who said, “Take this job and shove it” capital responded by closing auto and steel plants; to the women who said, “Hit the road. Jack” capital responded with the “service sector” job. The increasing refusal to accept the Oedipal wage relation by women and youth forced a complete re-organization of the wage and the structure of work. The energies released by women’s revolt against unpaid labor in the home have been the basis of the enormous expansion of a low organic composition sector which has provided the work necessary for the energy price transformation. Women’s revolt, while revealing their exploitation through the Oedipal wage, opened a new path for capitalist development.

The “Oedipal” wage is the wage paid to the male worker for his reproduction which also, though in a hidden and distorted manner, is to reproduce his wife and children and which gives him real power over them. The structure of the nuclear family is buried in this wage, the whole complex Of power relationships between men and women is summed up in a number. But it is another example of the illusory nature of the wage.

The wage — economists say — is “the price of labor”, but what is this price about? $5 an hour, $200 a week, $10,000 a year, $400,000 a life... what does the money per time really pay? Does any amount pay for your life-time? Not really, it merely pays the time it takes to make you;

The value of labor-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labor-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction of this special article. So far as it has value, it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average labor of society incorporated in it... the value of labor power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the laborer.2

So says Marx, but here he’s wrong. For the production of labor-power does not “reduce” to a bundle of commodities, the means of subsistence. Labor is also necessary to produce this "special article", that must be included in the value of labor-power. It is the essential micro-work, largely feminine, unpaid and thus invisible. Housework... from raw to cooked . . . washing, fucking, cooling tempers, picking up after the bash, lipstick, thermostat, giving birth, kids, teaching them not to shit in the hall, curing the common cold, watching the cancer grow, even lyric poems for your schizophrenia ... sure Marx points out that there is a “historical and moral element” in the quantity of the means of subsistence, but his servant girl and Jenny seemed to come for free.

Why the micro-invisibility and virtual character of housework? Simply because, as long as capital didn’t have to pay for it, it could repress the demands of the female houseworkers and have the sexual poles of the working class at each others’ throats. Only when women refuse to do this work does capital begin to recognize it and pay it, i.e., only when women struggle against this work does it become a commodity. For the primary way capital recognizes itself is in the mirror of the commodity form, and the necessary condition for something to be a commodity is that it satisfies a desire “real or fancied”.

However, something cannot be desired if it is there, being qua being, pure facticity, if it is natural. Something cannot be a commodity unless someone lacks it. But what is lacked can be made to be lacking. Capital creates commodities by making what is natural, un-natural, as in the case of land. But there is a complementary operation of making what is un-natural, natural. These two operations have been applied to work. Regular waged work is desired by capital, it needed it, wanted it and can be denied it by a struggle: hence it is un-natural, a commodity, paid. However:

In the case of housework the situation is qualitatively different. The difference lies in the fact that not only has housework been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality — an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character. Housework had to be transformed into a natural attribute rather than be recognized as a social contract because from the beginning of capital’s scheme for women this work was destined to be unwaged.3

When women refuse to do “what’s natural” then their services become commodities for capital, whole industries are born. Similarly, at the moment black lung disease began to become “unnatural for a coal miner” when the miners’ struggle refused the “constant concomitance” between their job and slow suffocation, the respirator industry “took off’. So capital develops both from our death and our refusal of it, appears. The revolutions of desires that lay behind the tides of capital’s technological “creative destruction” are rooted in the refusal of the working class to just be. This is the dialectical harmonic that joins class struggle with capitalist development. This general correlation applies to this crisis as well.

At the very moment when Nature “refuses to give its gifts in abundance”, the “Nature” within society, the woman, refuses its place. The fights, the visits to the therapist, the affairs, the divorce, the welfare line, the service sector job meet the oil price hikes. The destruction of Oedipus is not just a psycho-analytic comedy, it is out of the revolt of the women and children and the wandering of the men that capital must create commodities in order to generate the work, and surplus value, essential for this period. A dangerous and even desperate ploy? Perhaps. But these are “apocalyptic” times.

Take jogging for instance. Men now know that the wife, or even mommy, will not necessarily be around after the open heart surgery, and that the cost of a private nurse would be prohibitive, especially given that the very requirements of a steady job over a few decades (which would make the private nurse possible) call for a care-and- feeding that only the now non-existent family can provide. So you jog, you “take care of yourself’. The same is true of women, as there is no insurance, no steady man’s job with fringes, no regular wage coming. Part time jobs just don’t provide. So you jog. Even the kids jog from the start since they've learned the facts of life early. At the end of the day, you invest your hour around the park, reproducing yourself since no one else will do it for you for free any more. But around this twilight act revolve whole industries, new health technologies, new clothing for jogging in the rain, new sneakers, massage specialists, health clubs, etc.

Indeed, as the death fear mounts, as you know that Colonus does not wait, but the leukaemia, the I.V. and the oxygen tent remain, a new industry around death develops: death nurses guiding you through the “five stages” calmly, for it is all preplanned and researched, massaged with a cocktail of morphine and whisky on the tray. As the family evaporates, the most explosive industry is that of the body. Not accidently, we see that independent of the ups and downs of the business cycles, “health services” have nearly doubled in employment in the crisis to fill up the vacuum. In this industry there are approximately 4 million women and about one million make workers. The scene is obvious: your former wife, mother or sister is now doing something that she used to do for free, but now she gets paid for it. "What was natural before is problematic now and you wonder if anybody will answer as you press the button beside your bed.

Unfortunately for capital, labor power needs a body, it “pre-supposes the living individual” and so capital must keep us alive in order to make us work (and die) in its monitors. But there is nothing automatic about living, work must be done to carry it on, and when the women of the family stop their work somebody must pick it up. Take the question of food ... certainly its price has a crucial impact on the wage, but an equally important factor is brought in by the question “Raw or cooked food?” Who is to cook it, serve it and talk to you while you eat it? Mama? Increasingly it is the teen-aged Vietnamese girl at McDonalds’, now that approximately half the meals in the U.S. are eaten outside “the home”.

The “service economy” becomes the counter-pole of the “energy/information” economy and it’s the growth sector of the crisis. This sector is but an extension and socialization of women’s work in the home. In the Keynesian period the “institutions of the state”— schools, hospitals, jails and army were supplements to the home. They would take over when the “woman” failed, or finish off and standardize her work . . . Yet, at the hub, women’s work in the home remained the fundamental producer of subsistence for the male worker. But with the work/energy crisis, the center cannot hold any longer. Increasingly the invisible work previously crystallized in the assembly lines appears qua work in the service sector. The Oedipal wage gets disagregated. The “external” agencies and industries expand and become replacements instead of aids for the home.

Women’s struggle against housework has forced a reanalysis of the wage and the reproductive work done in the home. Whereas before it was hidden in the male wage, now it takes on a separate status. The invisibility of housework, veiled by the wage is nothing new for the wage is designed to obscure:

The wage-form thus extinguishes evertrace of the division of the working-day into necessary labor and surplus labor, into paid and unpaid labor. All labor appears as paid labor. In the corvee, the labor of the worker for himself and his compulsory labor for his lord differ in space and time in the clearest possible way. In slave labor, even that part of the working-day in which the slave is only replacing the value of his own means of existence, in which, therefore, in fact, he works for himself alone, appears as labor for his master. All the slave’s labor appears as unpaid labor. In wage- labor, on the contrary, even surplus-labor, or unpaid labor, appears as paid. There the property- relation conceals the labor of the slave for himself; here the money-relation conceals the unrequited labor of the wage-laborer.4

The slave’s revolt has forced the master to recognize the slave’s labor power as alien to him and has forced him to buy it, to pay for it. But in the wage another form of exploitation is again hidden. Mirrors don’t all lie in the same way. Formal slavery is not the same as waged work. There are

forms of work organization that are impossible under slavery, types of rhythms that are not sustainable. Capital learned that the whip and chain are not the most profitable forms of work control. The slave is “inert”, “invisible”, “opaque”, and he must be pushed around to get anything from him. It is capital’s great discovery that “freeing” labor power actually leads to greater levels of exploitation, and its occasional returns to slavery (Nazi Germany, Jim Jones, Southwest immigration) have reconfirmed this truth. The free laborers’ “freedom” gives capital a new dimension of movement while the slave sticks, is mechanically dependent upon the production process, is a machine among the machines and must be cared for when it breaks down.

Women’s labor has had a formal status intermediate between the slaves and the waged worker, for she is technically free but actually unpaid. In some ways, her status is worse than the slave’s for she was “the slave of the worker”, instead of the master. But her revolt, while destroying the old system, creates the possibility of a new source of exploitation (as well as the possibility of capitalist catastrophe). For with the explosion of the service' sector’s extensions of housework, capital reopens a forgotten page in its history: absolute surplus value production.

Since housework has always been a “labor-intensive", low tech form of work, the service sector is low on fixed capital. (Sexual technology, e.g., has barely recovered the level of ancient Egypt in recent years and though billions have gone into the research of better methods of conception there has been next to no official research on the bio-chemical roots of pleasure, sexual or otherwise.) Hence the “low productivity” of the services, a fact used by some economists to explain the breakdown of the economy-wide productivity trends in the crisis. If relative surplus value productivity is not the source of exploitation, then capital must have recourse to time and the length of the work-day, i.e., absolute surplus value.

For there is a major problem in extracting relative surplus value from housework: although it can be industrialized, there are bottlenecks and anachronisms limiting its productivity. Take prostitution: though there are all sorts of tricks to make the John come faster, there must be some time-consuming contact and an immediate struggle over time (hence the pimp). In fact, the reproductive effect of many services seems to necessitate some minimum amount of time (like the limits imposed on agriculture by the seasons). Theoretically, these too can be disposed of in the same way that agriculture can be completely detached from seasonal cycles, but this would require a history of struggles that have not yet taken place. Hence service work, because of its unit by unit character, largely allows only absolute surplus value production.

This development of absolute surplus value work is not statistically evident because much of this work is “part time”. This does not imply that a woman’s working day is reduced by working part time. On the contrary, it means that an enormous part of the total housework women still do remains unpaid. In this transition period, capital is still interested in getting as much unpaid work as possible out of women both via the job and what remains at home. Thus we have women in the 70s, in the midst of a jungle of microcomputers, genetic technology, and fission reactors, with work schedules that would make Manchester operatives nervous: 6:30 get the kids and hubby ready, 9:00 on the “part time” job, 2:00 off the job and go to pick up kids, 5:00 make dinner, 8:00 school-time for Mommy to up-grade employment someday, 12:00 fuck and sleep (?) There is an enormous amount of surplus value in this schedule, though the energy to do it comes from the desire to get “from under the thumb” of hubby.

Housework then is externalized and waged. Surplus value is extracted directly from the labor¬ time of the women on the job in addition to her reproduction work being extracted from the male workers on the assembly line. With the growth of the service sector in the crisis, the “human capital” experiments of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were either abandoned or curtailed, for the indirect method of capitalizing on housework was too uncertain. The State’s idea in the 60s was that by investing in the home (via welfare, food stamps, etc. ) women would do a proper level of housework with their children. But increasingly in the 70s the state was not willing to wait for the growing productivity of labor-power due to the human capital investment to produce the relative surplus value that would give a proper return to the investment.

As long as there was faith in the future, capital was willing to wait, sometimes a generation, to pick the fruits of the houseworkers’ labors. However, the profit crisis showed that the future was in short order, it was no longer guaranteed. Thus, the surplus value of the housework had to be realized immediately, sucked up just at the moment of its exuding rather than the next day in the reproduced line worker or the next generation in the new cohort of workers entering the labor marker. It is at this point that the energy crisis enters. Big Mother Nature is now used to squeeze little Mother dry. If Big Momma is stingy and has turned cold, capital turns to little momma: “Help me out or we’ll all go down together.”

As women refuse this deal, as they demand “too much” for their work, as they refuse to do it properly and efficiently, the energy crisis collapses. As this final veil falls, capital is faced with a working class untorn by the poles of sexual powers. An apocalypse indeed.

  • 1K. Marx, CAPITAL, Vol. 1 (New York: Internationa! Pub., 1967), p. 645.
  • 2ibid, pp. 170-171.
  • 3 S. Federici, “Wages Against Housework,” in E & B. Shapiro (eds.) THE WOMEN SAY/THE MEN SAY, (N.Y. Delta, 1979), p. 57.
  • 4K. Marx, CAPITAL, Vol. 1, p. 539.