Published on May 5th, 2017 | by Nicholas Walrath0
Deconstructing Women’s Oppression: Social Reproduction Theory and its Centrality to Women
This article will be the first in a series devoted to the topic of a unitary theory of women’s oppression and liberation. The Marxist-feminist theory of social reproduction will be explored in order to arrive at an understanding of not only how women are subjugated within a capitalist economy but how this socioeconomic system thrives on female oppression and demands it to reproduce the labor power that fuels the capitalist economy. The work of American sociologist and former civil rights activist, Lise Vogel and her seminal, though criminally overlooked, 1983 title “Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory” will serve as the primary springboard into how capitalism continually seeks to undermine women’s empowerment in the public and private spheres, in both the workplace and within working class family life, and how various social and economic justice movements can be viewed through the lens of social reproduction in order to coalesce seemingly disparate struggles, framing them as interrelated symptoms of a system based upon the exploitation, oppression, and alienation of working class women through the notion of the reproduction of labor power and, more broadly, of social reproduction.
This first article will provide a synopsis of social reproduction by way of an explanation of the concept of labor power and how it is reproduced. Marxist terminology will be defined in order to understand concepts that will be elaborated upon in future articles. And while theory in itself does not provide definitive answers for those on the ground experiencing concrete reality, it can, in Vogel’s words, “provide guidance for the understanding of actual societies, past and present.” Marxist theory facilitates a deeper, conceptual understanding of the barriers that capitalism puts in our path as well as highlights the material and ideological underpinnings of a system that continually seeks to thwart our goals of mutualism, egalitarianism, and the fulfillment of a higher stage of human consciousness free of domination. These articles are undertaken in the hope that they spur further discussion of a theoretical framework that is as salient now in the 21st century as it was over 35 years ago.
Working class life in the US and throughout the developed world has withered under the assault of forty-plus years of neoliberal capitalism. The myths that once supported neoliberalism have lost their credibility with the humiliated, disenfranchised working class of the US and elsewhere. They are the human refuse of globalization and their anger is seething and palpable. This is evident when looking at the current social and political landscape of America as the tides of ethno-nationalism, Christian fascism, xenophobia, right-wing populism, and militarism have been set in motion, lining the pockets of a blatantly kleptocratic administration in the process.
Wages have flatlined, police brutality continues unabated and does its militarization, more devastating climate events stemming from global temperature increases are becoming hyper-normalized, impacting the poorest disproportionately; communities go for months, sometimes years, without clean drinking water as our national infrastructure continues to deteriorate leaving untold millions vulnerable to lead contamination and other toxins and yet, capital accumulation for the top 1% continues all the while. The list could go on, ad infinitum.
The hardships that wage workers undergo are pacified by hegemonic, depoliticizing ideologies of patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy, (neo)colonialism, and hyper-individualism facilitated by the bourgeois state that, as the 2007/2008 collapse illustrated, will rush to the rescue of Wall Street while sacrificing the rest of society at the altar of profit.
And yet, not everyone bears the brunt of this increasing precarity equally. Women, particularly women of color, have for decades, despite apparent gains, been paid less than their male (and white female) counterparts, not to mention witnessing reproduction rights being restricted via ridiculously stringent regulations for abortion providers as enacted by GOP lawmakers. Women are also more likely to be the victims of sexual assault, especially in male dominated institutions like the US Army and Fox News, as well as on college campuses and in the workplace.
A Refresher on Marxist Terminology
Before moving further, a few definitions should be established for those out of practice with Marxist theory:
Surplus value refers to the point where profit originates from, whereby the worker is paid less that the value of her work. The difference between the two being profit. Productive labor connotes labor that produces surplus value for the capitalist class; those who control the means of production and its tools, equipment, and raw materials. Unproductive labor is still considered as labor but which does not produce a surplus (the capitalist cannot make money off of it). Exploitation and oppression are interactive; however, the former refers to the reality of being paid less than the value of one’s labor whereas oppression is defined as a “systematic limit or denial of rights, liberty, and power often based on class, race, and gender.”
As a formal definition, labor power can best be summarized as “the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being…which [s]he sets in motion whenever [they] produce a use value of any kind.” Labor power is the latent capacity for labor that resides in every human being and, wrote Marx, “its potentiality is realized when labor power is put to use — consumed — in a labor process.” This consumption refers labor power, which is at “one and the same time the production of commodities and of surplus-value.” Framed differently, the worker both consumes and has their labor power consumed. (Marx often referred to capital in vampiric terms).
Sociologist Lise Vogel argued that labor processes exist within a specific mode of production and, as Marx astutely noted, production and reproduction are intricately linked. “A society can no more cease to produce than it can cease to consume.” Thus, every social process of production is, at the same time, a process of reproduction. Social reproduction entails the reproduction of the conditions of production and for this to happen there must always be a supply of labor power available in order to “set the labor process in motion.”
Labor produces use value, which denotes any “useful thing” that, Marx stated, “by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another.” According to Vogel, “use values, and the useful labor that may go into their production, exist in every society, although the precise social form they take varies.” Indeed, use value is required for “the existence of the human race” and subsequently, remains a “necessary condition, independent of all forms of society.” Labor power is also “independent of every social phase of [human] existence, or rather, is common to every such phase.” In other words, use value produced through labor power can and does exist outside a capitalist economy as it is a universal condition.
Finally, supplementary labor describes Marx’s category for child rearing, taking care of elders and the sick, providing emotional support, homeschooling, cooking, cleaning, and other processes that facilitate individual consumption. Supplementary labor as carried out by women most often occurs outside the public sphere. Nicola Ginsburgh writes, “supplementary labor therefore also needs to be performed in sustaining past and future workers — those too young, too old or too sick to work at a given point in time.” Furthermore, it is continually undervalued as commodified forms of domestic work, termed by Vogel as reproductive labor, pay less in the labor market, while employed women suffer from sexist wage disparities. These two forms of oppression occurring in the both private and public spheres provide some illustration as to the interconnectedness of working women’s oppression.
Social reproduction theory was developed through discussions and discourses that occurred within the feminist left during the apex of women’s liberation in the late 1960s and 1970s (essentially, the beginning of the neoliberal era). In this climate, the discourse of the time asked what relevance Marx’s ideas held for understanding and dismantling women’s oppression. Given the historical animosity and theoretical rift that existed — and still exists today — between Marxism and feminism, the discussions were often heated though cross pollination did occur in terms of feminism’s emphasis on what Michele Barrett describes as the “politicization of personal life,” which Marxist theory clearly benefited from.
These exchanges between different tendencies and strategies within the women’s movement were far from settled by the early eighties — a point at which social reproduction’s academic currency within feminism had been devalued by the novelty of postmodernism. Meanwhile, feminism had retreated into “identity politics,” fighting for a (neo)liberal notion of “recognition” amidst the onslaught of the burgeoning conservative revolution happening in the US and Great Britain with the ascension of Reagan and Thatcher, respectively.
While it was ultimately the situating of women’s oppression in terms of highly individualized and subjective experiences that informed feminist discourse, Barrett argued that the “material foundations” were just as vital to understanding this oppression. Barrett saw mainstream feminists as having “tended to ignore the ways in which private oppression is related to broader questions of relations of production and class structure.” In sum, women’s oppression may be understood through unique subjective experiences informed by sexuality, race and gender; however, for Barrett, Vogel, and other social reproduction theorists a materialist analysis was needed to situate women’s oppression within the broader context of the capitalist economy and within their role as a vital component of the working class.
Despite the changing political climate, the most noteworthy and theoretically rigorous work that went against the zeitgeist of the era’s favored “dual systems” framework was from Lise Vogel and her 1983 publication, Marxism and the Oppression of Women – Toward a Unitary Theory. Here, Vogel explored women’s role as unwaged, domestic laborers and sought to establish a political economy of “unproductive labor,” seeking to elaborate upon why Marxists deemed domestic labor to be “unproductive.” This stance found opposition with the “Wages for Housework Campaign” with proponents such as Margaret Benston, Dalla Costa, and Selma James contending that housework was indeed “productive” and who demanded that women’s domestic chores be compensated within the capitalist economy. The next article will pick up on this thread, however, more detail is needed in terms of what is meant by social reproduction and the reproduction of labor power.
What is social reproduction?
What is important to consider for those unfamiliar with social reproduction theory is that the working class does not produce itself. Production is half the story of capitalism. As Marx theorized, production requires reproduction as its prerequisite in order for capitalist relations to continue uninterrupted; an event Marx referred to as “the first historical act.” Workers cannot be picked from the branches any more than they can be harvested from the soil. They need to be produced either through generational replacement via parthenogenesis (child birth), immigration, and/or slavery.
Before getting into the fine details, Vogel provides a warning to those who might refer to social reproduction as the reproduction of labor power (and vice versa):
Some process that meets the ongoing personal needs of the bearers of labor power as human individuals is there a condition of social reproduction, as is some process that replaces workers who have died or withdrawn from the active work force. These processes of maintenance and replacement are often imprecisely, if usefully, conflated under the term reproduction of labor power.
Put differently, one condition of the social reproduction of the working class entails the material world (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) whereas another aspect involves such processes as generational replacement for the young, elderly, sick, and/or retired. Both these processes should not, however, be referred to as the reproduction of labor power.
Marx was keen to realize that the productive capacity of the working class, its labor power, exposed one of capitalism’s many contradictions. One being that labor power is treated as a commodity under capitalism yet the tasks that reproduce it are undertaken mostly by women in a non-commodified manner, poorly compensated by the market (if at all).
Capitalism also creates a class of workers that serve as the wellspring of its profitability and yet, it also play the role of its potential undoing. Framed differently, capitalism sets the conditions for its own destruction by both attacking and over-regulating the private sphere, which is imperative to the functioning of the working class in the public sphere. A prime example would be a mass layoff from a corporation, which then impacts unemployed workers and their households with debt, depression, foreclosures and other ramifications, threatening the very fabric of social reproduction.
To return to the debate briefly mentioned earlier within the feminist left, when Marxists speak of domestic labor as being “unproductive” they are not taking a callous position but rather, pointing out the inherent cruelty of capital-labor relations where women’s domestic work is valued at next to nothing. Social reproduction theorists like Vogel argued that “domestic labor” resided in a “gray area” as it was both fundamentally unproductive in accordance with a Marxist understanding of surplus value. However, it could be also argued that domestic labor is indirectly productive to the formation of the working class. Whichever the position one takes, Vogel and social reproduction theorists argued that the Wages for Housework Campaign conflated her view of the unproductive labor as a value judgment.
A Brief Mention of Patriarchy and Capitalism’s Relationship
With the changing dynamics of capitalism including the increasing commodification of household tasks that provide regeneration (i.e. cooking, cleaning, childcare, healthcare, entertainment, and emotional support) social reproduction demands more of women than of men and this subjugated status cannot be explained away in purely biological terms (e.g. child rearing) nor can capitalism be cited as the sole culprit of women’s oppression. Rather, Vogel held that, in opposition to dual systems theorists, patriarchy and capitalism reinforce one another in a sort of pernicious symbiosis. Women’s oppression is thus, an amalgamation of structural factors and natural ability. Nonetheless, the role capitalism plays is found in its reliance upon, perpetuation and naturalization of women’s oppression, which weighs heavily on the family to organize and carry out the reproduction of labor power. Thus, the family is a site of struggle that also entails ideological components such as care, “maternal instinct,” and the fulfillment of personal needs.
Vogel’s Critique of Marx and Engels
While Marx and his partner Engels to their credit sought to construct an origin story of women’s oppression, found within the latter’s 1884 work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Vogel found some aspects lacking in both their works in that she perceived Marx and Engels as relying too heavily on a materialistic, economically deterministic explanation. Vogel did agree with Engels’ contention that women’s oppression was rooted in a social, historical, and material process that could also be deconstructed socially. Again, multiple factors were/are at work in perpetuating women’s oppression.
Another point of disagreement and critique for Vogel was her response to Marx’s argument that, in terms of the maintenance and reproduction of the working class, the capitalist class was in a position to leave the social reproduction of the working class to the workers themselves in their drive toward self propagation. Vogel disagreed with this assessment, arguing that the capitalist does not take a hands-off approach but that instead, through the workings of the bourgeois state, heavily intervenes in social reproduction. A prime example of this state interference would be child rearing, which is perhaps one of the most institutionalized and regulated parts of working class life. Other examples include public education, which, while helping the working class and indeed, demanded by them, assists capital by instilling in every generation the ethos necessary to succeed within the market economy.
Marx’s underdeveloped analysis of social reproduction and failure to deliver a political economy of domestic unpaid labor provoked many questions from Vogel and others. Among them, if labor power produces value, how is it produced? How does one formulate a political economy of women’s domestic tasks that operate within the emotional realm such as raising children, providing support for offspring, and fostering community ties? What are the leisurely activities that sustain us as people and not merely as members of the working class? How is social reproduction augmented by the welfare state and what are the ramifications for the working class. How does race interact with social production and how is gendered division of labor also racialized?
Finally and most importantly, how can an understanding of social reproduction be deconstructed by activists, agitators, and others fighting for social change in order to foster a revolutionary praxis that gets to the heart of women’s oppression as well as providing pathways to liberation?
Ferguson, Sue. “Lise Vogel And Social Reproduction Theory | Wearemany.Org”. Wearemany.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.
Ginsburgh, Nicola. “Lise Vogel And The Politics Of Women’s Liberation – International Socialism”. Isj.org.uk. N.p., 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.
“Lise Vogel And The Politics Of Women’s Liberation – International Socialism”. Isj.org.uk. N.p., 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.
Muldoon, Jessie. “Introduction To Social Reproduction Theory | Wearemany.Org”. Wearemany.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.
Vogel, Lise. Marxism And The Oppression Of Women: Toward A Unitary Theory. 1st ed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983. Print.