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On the value of social reproduction - Informal labour, the majority world and the need for inclusive theories and politics | Alessandra Mezzadri

29 July 2019

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Radical Philosophy 2.04 (Spring 2019)

by Alessandra Mezzadri

Radical feminist analyses have always placed considerable emphasis on the crucial role played by social reproduction for the development of capitalism. Early social reproduction analyses – primarily premised on housework but also more broadly concerned with wagelessness – developed a robust critique of Marxian views that identified processes of value-generation only with the productive sphere, and de facto deployed ‘productive’ and ‘paid’ labour as synonyms. 1 Some more recent approaches, by contrast, propose social reproduction as a ‘theory’ (SRT), and deploy the concept in order to focus on how labour is regenerated daily and inter-generationally through private and public institutions in contemporary contexts. 2 This second set of studies seem concerned with analysing the circuits of care that reproduce the worker as connected yet distinct to those of capital and value-generation. At the same time, however, they are committed to avoiding what they consider ‘dual theories’, conceptualising patriarchy and capitalism as separate systems. 3

Starting from a review of the social reproduction debate, old and new, and focusing on the rise and spread of informal and informalised labour, the following analysis argues that only interpretations of social reproduction activities and realms as value-producing can advance our understandings of labour relations of contemporary capitalism. In fact, reproductive activities and realms play a key role in shaping such relations and in the processes of surplus extraction they are embedded in, particularly, (albeit not only), developing regions; that is, in the ‘majority world’. Specifically, this analysis argues that reproductive realms and activities contribute to processes of value-generation through three channels: first, by directly reinforcing patterns of labour control, expanding rates of exploitation; second, by absorbing the systematic externalisation of reproductive costs by capital, working as a de-facto subsidy to capital; and, third, through processes of formal subsumption of labour that remain endemic across the majority world. I conclude that the exclusion of informal and informalised labour from debates on the relation between social reproduction and value creation will inevitably lead to problematic – in fact, dualist – understandings of capitalist development. I discuss by way of conclusion the political relevance of stressing the value-producing nature of wagelessness for a politics (and theory) of inclusion, able to capture the leading features of the contemporary world of labour, and aimed at building solidarities between productive and reproductive struggles.

Social reproduction debates, new and old

The recent publication of Tithi Bhattacharya’s edited collection Social Reproduction Theory (2017) has revamped debates on social reproduction, and its role and (re)configuration under capitalism. The collection aims at making a number of contributions. First, it proposes to engage in a Marxian theorisation of class where social oppression is not treated in merely epiphenomenal terms, but rather is seen as co-constitutive of processes of class formation. 4 Second, it aims at illustrating the process of reconfiguration and commodification of social reproduction during the neoliberal phase of capitalism. The essay by Nancy Fraser stands out in in this regard by virtue of its ability to re-sketch the whole history of capitalism in terms of different regimes of social reproduction, and in its analysis of the current neoliberal phase; 5 while Susan Ferguson’s essay on childhood also significantly contributes to our understanding of neoliberal ‘socialisation’. Third, the collection aspires to ‘reconcile’ Marxian and feminist analyses of capitalism, in the context of a ‘unitary theory’ of capitalism. 6 While the agenda of this project is certainly worthy, and the book succeeds in confirming the key role that social reproduction plays in contemporary capitalism, some of the contributions are, arguably, overly adversarial towards other theorisations moved by compatible intellectual and political concerns – for instance, David McNally’s rather selective critique of intersectionality theory – or towards older analyses of social reproduction. 7 The latter is the main object of discussion here. Specifically, some social reproduction theory (SRT) studies do not sufficiently acknowledge the huge contributions made by early social reproduction analyses in explaining the role played by reproductive realms and activities in structuring capitalism and generating value by producing the ‘unique’ commodity, labour power. 8 In fact, one could argue that the very packaging of social reproduction as a ‘theory’ might be seen – rightly or wrongly – as an attempt to reincorporate earlier analyses into a somewhat broader (Marxist) remit.

On the other hand, undoubtedly one of the most contentious areas of difference between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ social reproduction debates is the role that social reproduction does or does not play in processes of value-generation. This is by no means a minor issue within Marxist debates. In fact, if, for some, the greatness of early radical feminist analyses of social reproduction lay, among other things, in their subversive approach to what constitutes value, for others it is this that constitutes their limitation. The analysis that follows aims to underline the strong theoretical foundations of the early social reproduction debate and its take on value. It also aims at illustrating why, focusing on the contemporary world of informal and informalised labour, and so shifting attention from ‘The West’ to ‘The Rest’ 9 – namely, the majority world, where the lion’s share of the people on this planet labour – we cannot easily dismiss these earlier analyses and claims. In fact, once we move away from western-centric analyses and study the features of actually existing labour relations for the majority of people globally, we come to appreciate the role that social reproduction plays in processes of labour surplus extraction and value-generation. In short, from the perspective of the livelihood of the majority world, social reproduction is indeed value-generating, and in a Marxian sense.

The (great) value of social reproduction: the early debate

There is little doubt that, in relation to issues of value and wagelessness, the social reproduction debate first originated with the publication in 1972 of The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community by Selma James and Maria Rosa Dalla Costa. This largely political pamphlet, which focused on housework but was more broadly concerned with wagelessness, was the first to highlight how capitalism was first and foremost dependent on processes of generation and regeneration – biological as well as social – of the worker and of commodity labour power, which mostly took place outside what were considered the classic domains of production and value-generation. While the pamphlet hardly engaged in an in-depth theoretical analysis of how social reproduction generated value, following its publication several radical feminist scholars sought to provide the argument with the theoretical depth it deserved.

Looking at housework but also at sex work, Leopoldina Fortunati explored the ways in which reproductive work is de facto socially constructed as the realm of ‘non-value’ within productivist schemas, and hence was excluded from orthodox Marxian understandings of value-generation. She argued that its non-valorisation should therefore be considered as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. 10 Silvia Federici’s feminist analysis of primitive accumulation as a brutally gendered process entailing the dispossession, devaluation and domestication of women, and the barbaric destruction of their bodies through witchcraft accusations and trials, is also constructed around a similar theoretical project. In Caliban and the Witch, whose earlier version in Italian was in fact co-written with Leopoldina Fortunati (Il Grande Calibano), Federici shows how capitalism was first and foremost built on imperial and colonial dispossession, and on the expropriation and exclusion of some cohorts of people from realms of generation (or appropriation) of value. Her feminist theorisation of primitive accumulation illustrates how all these events predated the far better known processes of land enclosure usually considered to characterise the initial phases of capitalism. 11 Equally, Federici’s project aimed to subvert more traditional analyses of value, by showing the complex (and bloody) politics and history delineating its social perimeters and boundaries, which stretch far beyond transformations in the sphere of production. The entire work of the German feminist sociologist Maria Mies, which started off with her magisterial 1982 analysis of the Lacemakers of Narsapur in Andra Pradesh, India, also aims at debunking the mythology of value as merely generated within productive realms. Indeed, Mies’ analysis of home-based work challenges theorisations that propose a neat separation between the realms of production and reproduction, and suggests how processes of housewifisation of women’s labour have systematically blurred sources of value, both by hiding women’s productive contributions to the market, and bydevaluing those contributions as non-value-producing. Mies expanded these insights into housewifisation further in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, 12 where, like Federici, she also analyses at length the interconnections between patriarchy and capitalism in relation to imperialism. 13 Here, Mies analyses the variation of housewifisation across the world economy. In fact, the work of Rhoda Reddock illustrates how this played out very differently for female slaves and indentured labourers. 14 For these women, housewifisation primarily worked to contain the rising costs of death or sexually transmitted diseases for slaves and plantation labourers. This is a point also made by Angela Y. Davis in Women, Race and Class, with specific reference to black women slaves in the United States. 15

A far less well-known author, internationally, is the Marxian feminist economist Antonella Picchio, who arrives at similar conclusions about the exclusion of socially reproductive activities from sources of value. In fact, by proposing a compelling exploration of the ways in which the cost of labour has been treated in classical political economy, not only by Marx but also by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Picchio highlights how the exclusion of reproductive activities from value calculations is not only a political issue, but one derived from the ways in which the whole corpus of classical political economy dealt with the value of labour; namely, as an exogenous parameter given by the general reproductive conditions of a given society at a given point in time. This treatment of the value of labour as an exogenous factor, then, facilitated its inaccurate conflation with its cost, namely the wage, instead of regarding it as endogenous to the capitalist system. On the other hand, who is waged and who is unwaged has always been a largely political – in fact, legal – issue, as Picchio goes on to demonstrate with reference to the British Poor Laws, and their legal, gendered distinction between abled (that is, male) and unable bodies. 16

Undoubtedly, it is the reification and fetishisation of the wage as the value rather than the cost of labour that provides the premises for productivist understandings of value generation. 17 Obviously, productivist Marxist understandings do not theorise the wage as the ‘true’ value of labour, as they must account for the rate of exploitation. However, they do aim to resolve the issue of the value of the commodity labour-power within the same schema that deploys it as the measure of the value of all other commodities. 18 In fact, this is the main problem with productivist analyses. They want to stretch the labour theory of value far beyond its proposed remit; namely the realm of commodity production. Specifically, they try to deploy the theory in order to assess the value of the commodity that is set as the very measure of value itself; that is, labour-power. This results in a paradox. The ‘special’ commodity ‘labour-power’, whilst recognised and celebrated as unique by the SRT approach, seems to receive the same rather poor treatment as any other ‘vulgar’ one, when it comes to its value.

The centrality of the labour theory of value to Marxian analyses of capitalism is, of course, a much-debated issue. Recently, David Harvey, for instance, has questioned the extent to which one can find a coherent ‘theory’ of value in Marx, or if, instead, the original Marxian analysis aimed primarily at showing the limitation of Ricardian understandings of value. 19 Indeed, the biggest lesson from Marx should be that all value is generated by labour in production, and is not the result of capitalist efforts to combine production ‘inputs’. In this sense, as brilliantly put by another feminist economist, Diane Elson, more than a labour-theory of value in Marx one finds a value-theory of labour. 20 However, I do not feel one has to go as far as posing more complex ontological questions about the labour theory of value in order to build the case for the value-producing nature of social reproduction. One has simply to remark how the question lies entirely outside the remit of the labour theory of value. On the other hand, as SRT acknowledges – in line with the earlier social reproduction feminist scholars analysed above – Marx is mostly silent about the circuits producing the most extraordinary commodity of all under capitalism; namely, the worker. [ . . .]

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