Seizing the means of reproduction

May 6, 2015

Social Strike presentation at the London Plan C Congress, December 2014
Camille Barbagallo

What do

  1. washing the dishes
  2. having sex
  3. reading a bedtime story to a young child and,
  4. remembering you mums birthday and remembering to send a card on time

What do all these things have in common? They are all activities, labour and work that we can understand to be reproductive.

By reproductive I mean the work of making and remaking people. Most people associate reproduction with having babies – with biological reproduction. Having babies – and all the work and labour that such processes entail are certainly part of reproduction. But when we speak of reproduction and specifically of reproductive labour we are referring to a lot more than that.

Reproductive work is all the work that we do that makes and remakes people on both a daily basis and also inter-generationally. And like most work that happens under capitalism, it is work that involves conflict, struggle, violence, exploitation and expropriation.

One of the main reasons that reproduction involves so much conflict, tensions and contradictions is that when we produce and reproduce people we don’t do so in a neutral or abstract way. There is no cookie cutter mould in which people are pumped out with all the same characteristics, traits and skills.

Under capitalism, we reproduce human beings as labour power, or as potential labour power. We reproduce people as workers. As class subjects – who are disciplined, educated, skilled and moulded – to as the saying goes “to know their place”. Be it to rule, to be the manager or to work like a dog for someone else.

We can say then that it is reproductive labour that distributes us via class relations, through education and training opportunities to our respective dole queues, factories, offices or professional careers.

In a similar vein, if we understand gender, race and sexuality to be social constructions rather than inherently biological characteristics – then it is reproductive labour that teaches us, socialises us, schools us to be learn to be men or women, black or white, straight or gay.

We learn these relations; we become these subjects over time and through the processes and practices of reproduction. Which is to say that to a large degree we become the subjects that we know ourselves and others to be through washing the dishes, having sex, or not having sex, going to school, not going to university, caring for others and being cared for.

From this perspective, then reproduction involves a whole lot of fucked up relationships and processes that are central to the reproduction of capitalism as system of exploitation and domination.

In this instance reproduction seems and is very much part of the problem. It involves daily and generational violence, conflict and struggle. A far cry from the often romanticized community projects of communal gardens, collective childcare arrangements.

That reproduction is part of the problem is especially true when we look at the history of reproduction and who it is that has been designated to the role of doing the vast amount of work of cooking, cleaning, and caring in the world.

That reproduction is part of the problem is borne from a history that has consistently and structurally devalued the work of making and remaking people. Let’s consider some of the key characteristics of reproduction for a minute:

  1. Reproductive labour is not even ‘real’ work, it does not according to many a Marxist scholar create surplus value. Often is it does not attract a wage and when it does it is often poorly paid
  2. Reproductive labour is naturalised to the extent that reproductive work is considered to be for those who naturally have the skills of being nurturing, patient, selfless, caring – without much regard paid to how certain people came to possess such skills, while others didn’t.
  3. Reproductive labour has been made invisible, wrapped up in love and obligation, hidden behind closed doors in the home and out of sight
  4. Often reproductive work only really becomes visible when it is not done – think of those dishes. If somebody and indeed it is a body does the dishes, wipes them up, puts them away, the persons labour often goes unnoticed. But if they leave them, piled up on the sink, smelly and dirty then it is the absence of reproductive labour that is able to be seen. The same can be said for care of children, all things going to plan, the immense amount of labour that is involved in caring raising and disciplining a child goes unnoticed – until that work is not done and the child is either neglected or in neo-liberal speak – makes bad choices.

Which is to say that reproductive work has been both devalued, made invisible and feminised. In the history of our reproduction it is women who have been the reproductive workers of capitalism.

Of course while this work has always been gendered, it has also always been racialised and classed. Rich women have rarely done their own dishes, cared for their own children or even fucked their own husbands. It is working class women and women of colour who have done this work. And who continue to do this work.

Which brings us to another key concept of reproduction. I have briefly in broad brush strokes – touched on the vast and overwhelming amount of unwaged reproductive work that it takes to keep the world fed, clean, healthy, educated and ready for work.

But lets go back to our list from the beginning

  1. doing the dishes
  2. having sex
  3. looking after children
  4. and remembering your mums birthday and remembering to send that card.

All these activities, all this work are forms of labour that whilst often performed unwaged, they all can and do exist as waged forms of reproductive labour.

In fact in our post-industrial neo-liberalism economy, where we longer make things – all the British economy really makes is people. And finance. We make and remake people through a dazzlingly array of services – that with money in your pocket – you can now buy.

With the destruction of the male family wage that once reproduced or nearly reproduced the nuclear family – it now takes at least two wages to have the money in your pocket to buy the services that you no longer have the time to do or importantly don’t have the desire to do.

Whether its all the commodified care services that look after kids before and after school, or nurseries that start at 3months of age, to the ever increasing elder care industry to healing the sick and caring for those with disabilities.

To the professionalised cleaning services or the market of personal services. In fact in cities like London – it is hard to think of a form of human activity that has not been commodified. Really. There are quite literally an army of waged reproductive workers ready to

  1. walk your dog
  2. perform an erotic dance for you and your workmates
  3. tone your bum
  4. wax your eyebrows
  5. help you give birth
  6. listen to your problems and teach you methods to cope with stress
  7. and make you a ridiculously expensive coffee, served with a smile if that’s the way you like

So, lets just recap:

Reproductive labour involves all the work and activities that are required to make or remake people – both making new people i.e. babies but also all the work of people who are already alive, fed and ready for work on a daily basis. Bearing in mind that what is though of as necessary and required is a social and historical construct.

Reproductive labour has a long history, a history that is as important and as profitable to capitalism as the development of the factory system and commodity production. Yes, really.

It is work that can and often is unwaged. But equally it is work that can and often is low waged, precarious and low status.

The stubbornly low status nature of reproductive work derives in the main from its other key characteristic – it is feminised. It is women’s work

But. That is only half the story. Because if reproduction can be thought of as part of the problem – and it clearly is implicated as being fundamental to the production and reproduction of labour power and hence is fundamental to the processes that reproduce capitalism on a global scale.

However reproduction – as scholars like Silvia Federici and Mariarosa Dalla Costa stress has a dual characteristic. Which is to say that at the same time that reproductive labour produces and reproduces us as workers and maintains the capitalist system – it also reproduces life and produces autonomous human subjects.

Subjects who are capable of or at least possess the potential to resist, struggle and create change. And who are capable of creating radical, revolutionary change. We may be workers, but we are not reducible to the role of worker. We exceed such subjectification.

So it put it plainly, without reproductive labour there is no exiting capitalism. And so, hence we find ourselves in a most complex of contradictions – when we bring reproduction to the centre of analysis and struggles – we find a cluster of labour that is both fundamental to the maintenance of capitalism and at the same time – the same processes of labour possess and contain the possibility of not only human life but also of revolutionary change. Kind damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

To bring reproduction to the centre of our analysis is not as some have claimed, to de-prioritise so-called production. It is to see how these two terrains interact, how they are in conflict and how they reproduce each other.

There is an immense amount of so called productive work in the world that can and needs to be refused. Abolished even. Good riddance we could say.

And equally, there is much of how reproductive work is organised that needs to be radically transformed, some of it can even be refused. As a starting point – we need to think of ways to decommodify our reproduction, without pushing that work back into the realm of naturalised domestic – only to be made invisible again and pushed back onto those who are supposedly naturally inclined to do such work.

This presents a problem – because in the main the work of making and remaking people cannot be abolished, nor can it nor do we want it to be fully automated and performed by robots and machines. I often wonder when folks raise the demand of fully automated communism who it is that will do the work and where they think the work of reproduction will take place. By proposing techno fixes to the questions of reproduction, folks are contributing to the continued devaluing of reproduction by constantly seeking ways to minimise to work of reproduction. Reinforcing that is supposedly shit work that no-one wants to do.

Instead, the task is to radically reorganise the work, to revalue it, to bring it to the centre of our lives and our struggles. This is as much to identify all that is wrong with currently existing reproduction as much as it is to reclaim all that is necessary.

Equally, from Black feminist scholars – such as belle hooks and Patricia hills Collins – we can also think of reproduction as belonging to a radical ‘homeplace’ – a place that is necessary to nurture, to value and to support – as a place in which we can retreat to and recharge our bodies after the cruelties and harm of capitalist work – and crucially where we can make plans, learn from each other to have courage to resist, and to teach our children to not only survive capitalism but to revolt against its discipline, rhythms  and institutions of power.

It is from feminists of colour that we learn that home is a contested place – in that while many of us fought to smash the family and were desperate to leave home and earn a wage, many others of us where fighting to be able to keep our families together and had already been working for wages for many generations.

Because if our desire is exiting capitalism – and it is certainly mine – and we wish to do so as quickly as possible – we need an exit strategy that pays as much attention as possible to the historical hierarchies of how the wage and gender have been produced, to the systems of power and exploitation that have produced the urban and the rural, one built of the systems of colonialism and slavery and the first and so called third world and the very construction of the ecological world as a resources to plunder and exploit, somehow imagined as disconnected from human life.

To pay attention to all these things it is necessary to bring reproduction centre stage. Because there be gold in them hills. Quite literally. In that the wealth of human society is not a collection of commodities – it just appears so. Because in fact, it is labour, indeed it is humans and our activity and interaction with the world around us that produces the immense wealth of the world. It is from this perspective that we can confidently claim that we need to seize the means of reproduction and to bring the struggles, the conflicts and the painful tensions and contradictions of reproduction to the centre of our plans to exit capitalism.