Feminist political economy on social reproduction

Marxist feminists adopt a more circumscribed notion of the term ‘social reproduction’ to refer to the activities that ensure that ‘labour power’, the ‘special commodity’ that the capitalist needs to keep the system going, is itself produced and made available to the capitalist. This term and meaning have been retained since the 1970s and 1980s when this line of researchfirst emerged (Vogel, 2013 [1983]; for a review, see Ferguson & McNally, 2013; Luxton, 2006).This is a narrower conception than that entailed by Fine (Chapter 12 in this volume), focusing mainly on the material conditions for the reproduction of the labour force carried out outside of capitalist production and mostly by women.

Indeed, the most popular definition of social reproduction within feminist scholarship defines it in terms of the activities ‘directly involved in the maintenance of life on a daily basis, and intergenerationally’, which include ‘how food, clothing, and shelter are made available for immediate consumption, the ways in which the care and socialisation of children are provided, the care of the infirm and elderly, and the social organization of sexuality’. Or, in short, all the ‘care necessary to maintain existing life and to reproduce the next generation’ (Laslett & Brenner, 1989, pp. 382-383).

Lise Vogel (2013 [1983]) offers one of the seminal works on the reproduction of human beings and labour power. Two key ideas that the concept of social reproduction underlines are, first, that labour power is produced and reproduced outside of capitalist production; and second, the production and reproduction of labour power is mainly carried out by women. The Marxist lineage of the concept is, in turn, deemed to accomplish two interrelated things: first, it aims at articulating the sphere of production of commodities within that of the production of labour power, seeking to develop an approach that would enclose both production and reproduction within a unitary framework, even if setting them analytically apart; and, second, it puts gender (as well as its intersections with other forms of oppression) at the centre of analysis of both production and reproduction. Thus, feminist scholarship also sees the domains of economic and social reproduction as deeply interconnected, even if its focus is the analysis of the reproduction of the labour force in the domestic realm.

Vogel develops her analytical proposal through the understanding of domestic labour — which she deems a part of the overall necessary labour (i.e. the labour necessary to reproduce one’s own and others’ labour power) — as a key contradictory component of capitalism. The domestic part of the necessary labour is produced outside of the capitalist forms of production. But if production has to occur, reproduction must occur, and if reproduction must occur, then domestic labour has to be performed. However, capitalism’s drive for maximum profit and accumulation tends to demand the full availability of labour power. The underlying contradiction is, then, that ‘From the point of view of capital, domestic labour is simultaneously indispensable and an obstacle to accumulation’ (Vogel, 2013 [1983], p. 163).This contradiction creates a tension between the capitalist class (trying to keep the costs of reproduction at a minimum) and the labourers themselves, sometimes in fragmented ways, sometimes in unified ways, trying to gain the best possible conditions for their own reproduction. This tension is what allows for different resolutions at different times and moments, not only in the level and type of domestic labour performed, but also in who performs it and how. From this follows a very dynamic understanding of how social reproduction in general is organised: whether in privatised, familial models;

Financialised social reproduction 175 through a strong welfare state; in a privatised fashion, having recourse to formal or informal labour markets; making use of waves of migration; accentuating already underlying inequalities or smoothing them; with or without female participation in the labour market; or all of the above, at different moments and to various degrees.

Thus, even if the focus is on domestic non-waged work, a key point of Marxist feminists is to explain womens oppression under capitalism in terms of a unitary, materialist framework, providing an integrated account of both women’s oppression and the capitalist mode of production. Hence, the analytical distinction forged between economic production and social reproduction is meant to bring closer to the surface the links between the two so as to underline that women’s oppression is grounded on the central relations of the capitalist mode of production such that ‘in order to secure the production and reproduction of current and future supplies of labour-power, capitalism requires institutional mechanisms through which it can exercise control over biological reproduction, family-forms, child-rearing, and maintenance of a gender-order’ (Ferguson & McNally, 2013, p. xxvi). Indeed, capitalist societies are deemed to have repeatedly reproduced male-dominated family forms as the changes occurring in time and place ‘have not inherently undermined the gendering of fundamental responsibilities for the birthing, nurturing, and raising of young children’ (Ferguson & McNally, 2013, p. xxxiii).

An important aspect of bringing together economic production and social reproduction in a unitary system, with underlying interrelations of the various parts of the system, is that it facilitates identifying the various sources of oppression within capitalism that magnify the burdens and constitute the main obstacles to overcoming them. To put it another way, the feminist approach to social reproduction allows a systemic analysis of capitalism which ‘is incomplete if we treat it as simply an economic system involving workers and owners, and fail to examine the ways in which wider social reproduction of the system ... sustains the drive for accumulation’ (Ferguson quoted in Bhattacharya, 2017, p. 2). This is deemed to bring to the fore the forms of oppression that have been marginalised, such that ‘oppression is theorized as structurally relational to, and hence shaped by, capitalist production rather than on the margins of analysis or add-ons to a deeper and more vital economic process’ (Bhattacharya, 2017, p. 3).

The analytical role of the concept of social reproduction is taken to be particularly timely in contemporary neoliberal times as the burdens of social reproduction have intensified, implying increased

subsistence and domestic labour to offset the cutbacks to social reproduction in both the labour market (with reduced prices for subsistence products, pay cuts, jobs losses and the expansion of contingent work) and the state (with cuts to welfare payments, education and health care, and new or increased user fees).

(Luxton, 2006, p. 39)

Indeed, since the new millennium the interest in social reproduction seems to have re-emerged to account for the gendered detrimental impacts of neoliberal policies.6 Under neoliberalism, the reconstitution of labour markets, with the reduction of pay and rights, and the focus on restrictive fiscal policies, implying cuts in budgetary expenditures, have implied a new redistribution of social reproductive work within the household, and among women based on their class, ethnic origin and citizenship. These changes imply a shift of activities previously guaranteed by the state or corporations to the household, which must now be performed within the household, be shifted to paid domestic workers within the household or substituted through bought services in the market. This means not only that with neoliberalism the material conditions of households are being eroded and that more burdens are being pushed onto them, but also that these affect particularly women given the persistence of gendered norms. As social risks are being increasingly privatised, commodified and individualised, old and new inequalities arise.This is so because, depending on class and ethnicity, at least some women will be able to buy the domestic services of other women even if they both face the conflict between their paid work and their social reproduction needs (Bakker, 2003,2007).

This in turn brings into the analysis the variegated nature of these transformations, even if the term is not used by these scholars.Their systemic nature, resulting from the increasing role of global actors, means uneven and combined impacts at the national level, especially considering that social reproductive activities are increasingly done ‘across borders’.This entails the ‘the painful irony for a majority of women migrants’ that ‘they end up, despite their qualifications for other employment, working as domestics and nannies for women in the host country in order to make money to support their own dependents in their home country’ (Luxton, 2006, p. 39).

This is a mark of‘the neoliberal moment in the global political economy’ inducing the ‘re-privatisation of the governance of social reproduction’ and it is associated with ‘a general increase in the range, depth and scope of socioeconomic exploitation in global capitalism amid wider conditions of primitive accumulation’.This is carried out through transnational trade organisations and mechanisms, such as the World Trade Organisation and the General Agreement on Trade in Services, that impose restrictive fiscal policies and fiscal austerity measures that adversely affect social provisioning in many developing countries (Bakker, 2007, pp. 541—545).The problem is not only that increased demands for autonomisation and responsibilisation place added burdens on women, by hindering the supply and quality of the public services on which they depend both as workers and as beneficiaries, but also that this shift of responsibility renders women’s work invisible once again, as well as their class and racial intersections (Bakker, 2007, p. 547).

The same arguments have been developed for the European context, addressing the impact of austerity policies to tackle the crisis: producing more economic and social vulnerability (e.g. Leahy, Healy & Murphy, 2014),

Financialised social reproduction 177 accentuating their gendered impacts (e.g. Bargawi, Cozzi & Himmelweit, 2016; Kantola & Lombardo, 2017), and pushing the financialisation of economic and social reproduction (e.g. Wohl, 2017).They, too, stress the role of EU policies putting in place a set of‘hegemonic projects’ that have been promoting a ‘finance-led regime’, which has meant ‘the advancement of financial products into private households ... such as private pension schemes, privatised health and elderly care provision’ (Wohl, 2017, pp. 141—142), and the instrumental role of the crisis in pushing this agenda further through austerity measures (Chapter 7 in this volume; Rodrigues, Santos & Teles, 2018; Santos, 2017; Santos, Rodrigues & Teles, 2018).

This is in line with the SoP approach to financialisation, understood as the contemporary neoliberal stage of capitalism in which economic and social reproduction has become increasingly governed by finance (Fine & Saad Filho, 2016; Chapter 12 in this volume). Indeed, an emerging stream of research is now beginning to address the growing role of finance in social reproductive activities and their gendered impacts. Focusing on housing, Roberts (2013) has argued that the individualisation and re-privatisation of relations of social reproduction, by assuming formal equality of individuals, is erasing gender (as well as class and ethnicity) inequalities in paid labour markets, in asset ownership and in the division of unpaid labour. This is not only because access to housing through mortgage debt reproduces extant inequalities due to differentiated access to these markets, but also because these inequalities have been magnified by regressive fiscal policies (e.g. tax deductions) that promote private homeownership for the better-off while reducing the availability of collective forms of housing for the worse-off. Roberts (2013, p. 23) then concludes that mortgage markets ultimately have served ‘to redistribute wealth upward, from the poor to the rich, from single women to men and from certain racial minorities to white men and their families’.

By looking into social provisioning in a systemic way, the SoP approach stresses that the growing predominance of mortgage markets in accessing housing has additional detrimental impacts on other subsystems of housing provisioning through the privileging of selectivity over a policy of universal scope. This is so because policymakers, in the context of crisis and recession, find themselves torn between ‘the pressures both to reduce individual and overall benefits and to protect the most vulnerable’ (Fine, 2017b, p. 35).These in turn impose added pressures on single women with children as those more likely to be the targets of selective and intrusive measures (Montgomerie & Tepe-Belfrage, 2016).

The systemic proposal of the different strands of social reproduction theory can also be aligned with the basic stance of the SoP approach to the determination of the value of labour power in the various stages of capitalism, which means that differentiated forms of social reproduction affect the determination of the value of labour power. That is, as different systems of provision are de-commodified, re-commodified or re-privatised into the familial sphere,

different elements redefine the value of labour power. These pertain to those factors determining the levels of absolute and relative surplus value and how they evolve, and the increased presence of finance, both directly and indirectly, in economic and social reproduction. In the present stage,‘neoliberalism seeks avenues for renewing accumulation that draws upon expanding the role in social reproduction of private capital and of finance in particular’ (Chapter 12, p. 269). Returning to the contradictory role of the domestic portion of necessary labour, we can then state that:

so-called domestic labour can be seen to be not only a vital component of social reproduction alongside health, care, education and so on, but also mutually to constitute the social norms associated with the value of labour power in which the content of each and the balance between them can shift as well as be transformed.

(Chapter 12, p. 261)

The links between financialised social reproduction and the determination of the value of labour power, and how it varies across the labour force, have been recently forged by Horton (2019) through the analysis of the financialisation of care homes in the UK. Her case study shows, not only that increasing ownership of domains of social provisioning by private equity firms is partly driven by the realisation of value from the purchase of associated property assets (such as care homes, which can be resold or leased back to the service provider), but also how the interests of finance are advanced through the downgrading of the work conditions of care givers, who are mostly low-status female workers. This in turn suggests that privatisation and the presence of finance are facilitated in fragmented and low-status sectors due to the composition of a powerless workforce dominated by women, migrants, black and minority ethnic groups, who face barriers in other parts of the labour market. By producing worsening work and social conditions, financialised social reproduction accentuates exploitation in the sphere of production and further strains the social reproduction of the labour force, implying new forms of extracting both absolute and relative surplus. But Horton also shows that these sectors create resistance and pose limits to further financialisation as the already extraordinarily high levels of exploitation in this sector curb further exploitation and the continuing downgrading of relevant care service by conflicting with care ethics. Thus, the rise of financialised social reproduction in an increasing number of domains does

signal not just a flow of surplus to capital via interest payments [and others resulting from the purchase of financial products such as health insurances and pension funds], but also the increased likelihood of each household offering more workers to the market and each workers commitment to deliver productivity growth and longer working weeks as the condition of meeting her own costs of subsistence [i.e. absolute and relative surplus].

(Bryan, Martin & Rafferty, 2009, p. 470)

Feminist political economists offer relevant clues for further research on these distributive impacts of financialisation. A critical point of social reproduction literature is that the privatisation of social provisioning accentuates extant inequalities, as access to these services becomes more dependent on market provisioning (for those who can afford it) and is shifted onto the domestic sector (for those who cannot). This then implies the deterioration of the situation of women from the lower classes given that the labour force continues to be segregated by gender and gender-based pay gaps persist, and domestic work still relies mostly on women (INE & Eurostat, 2017).

To conclude, the key contradiction of capitalism that Marxist feminists identified four decades ago is still, if not more, relevant today as the burdens of social reproduction are pushed to the domestic sphere, even if in contradictory ways due to the active roles of the state and the market. What is at stake is not only a gender issue. It is a profound crisis of social provisioning compromising the livelihoods of increasing segments of the population through the production of ever more ‘variegated, volatile vulnerabilities’ (Chapter 12, p. 268).

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >