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.

Submitted by vicent on February 18, 2016

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