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?

Submitted by vicent on February 18, 2016

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 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.”