Social Reproduction Theory

Issue section: 

How is women’s oppression connected to capitalism? Is Marxism too focused on economics at the expense of wider struggles? These questions have been at the heart of debates around Marxism and feminism since the 1970s.

New activists are discussing them in the wake of the women’s marches against Donald Trump, the #MeToo campaign and the fantastic vote for abortion rights in Ireland.

Old theories are being rediscovered and reshaped in order to answer them, including Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) which deals with the way that labour power (more specifically a working class that makes profits for the capitalist class) is reproduced.

The writings of Marxist feminist Lise Vogel are often taken as a starting point for understanding SRT. When Vogel first analysed the role of the family in the reproduction of the next generation of workers, she was rightly arguing against those feminists that wanted to separate the fight for socialism from the women’s movement.

Her attempt to outline a “unitary theory” was made in the same spirit as writers from the International Socialist tradition in the 1980s who emphasised the central role of the family to capitalism.

Ultimately Vogel’s confusion on the nature of states such as Russia and Cuba — which she called socialist — led her to promote the very cross-class alliances that she started off arguing against.

Nevertheless her work helped to underline the importance of the family in understanding women’s oppression and how that is bound up with the system of capitalism as a whole.

Tithi Bhattacharya’s recent collection of articles takes “social reproduction” as their starting point to look more widely at struggles that take place away from the workplace, focusing on the conditions in which workers are born, fed, housed, educated, and cared for when ill — or old — and so on. This work falls disproportionately on women.

One frustrating aspect of the book is that there is little discussion of how the family and women’s oppression emerged. There is barely a mention of Friedrich Engels’ classic work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Marx is frequently employed to back up the analyses, but what start out as good intentions — to develop “a sufficiently dynamic understanding of the working class” — often end up obscuring the very reasons why Marx insisted on the self-emancipation of the working class.

There are fascinating insights into the ways that some employers saw the importance of the family towards instilling productivity and discipline into their workers.

For example Ford Motor Company hired hundreds of inspectors “to interrogate workers, enter their homes unannounced, check on the work of wives and even investigate how they managed the household budget”!

The main thrust of the book is that struggles that take place outside the workplace, for example over high rents, water rates, against police brutality and sexual violence, are class struggles.

This is important to state, but is hardly a new insight. There is a long tradition of socialists throwing themselves into such struggles, from the involvement of the Communist Party in the rent strikes of the 1930s to the uprising of workers in support of students in 1968, sparked by demands for men and women to be able to visit each other’s rooms, to the Miners Wives Support Groups of 1984-5.

It is simply not true that revolutionaries are obsessed with stereotypical strikes over wages. What is true, and it is a point missing from the book, is that we consciously aim to link these struggles to where the power lies to change society, precisely in the workplace.

So an analysis of 1968 has to involve a discussion about the power of workers compared to students, not to counter-pose them but to help them win. A discussion of the role of women in the miners’ strike has to explain why the strike was defeated.

Underpinning the book is an analysis that links neoliberalism to a weakened working class. This leads the authors to underplay the role of workplace struggle. Strikes over pay and conditions are seen as the diminishing domain of white male workers in factories.

By contrast we are told that focusing on the sphere of social reproduction will reveal “the chaotic, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered, differently abled subject that is the global working class”.

But any visit to a picket line will reveal precisely this working class, whether it’s the Barts Hospital cleaners of 2017 or the Grunwick strikers of 40 years ago. And strikes are never purely “economic”; socialists building solidarity for them will always try to bring out their wider political significance.

Overall the book suffers from a pessimism about the state of workplace struggle today. Ironically groups of people who are treated as being outside “waged work” have in fact been at the forefront of classical workplace action — such as Uber drivers and fast food workers.

Being on a zero hours contract does not put you outside the waged working class, as anyone involved in the recent college lecturers’ strike will know.

We won’t win the bigger fight against this rotten system and all the oppression that goes with it unless the organised working class has a central role.

The best writing about SRT reinforces our understanding of the ways in which capitalism affects our lives outside the workplace, but using this to downplay the absolute centrality of workplace struggle to the fight for socialism is a mistake.