Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) is the comeback kid. A child of the Marxist feminism of the 1960s and 70s, with antecedents in Marx and Engels, SRT has recently been the subject of several critical volumes (see Tithi Bhattacharya’s 2017 volume, as well as recently reissued texts by Martha Gimenez and Lise Vogel), as well as a special issue of Capital & Class (December 2019) edited by myself and Stephen Gill. The goal of this issue was to go beyond our earlier thinking in Power, Production and Social Reproduction (2003) where we sought out a conversation between critical global political economy and historical materialist feminism. In that book, we posited an unfolding and intensified contradiction between the global accumulation of capital on the one hand, and the provisioning of stable and progressive conditions of social reproduction on the other. Indeed, the foundational contradiction of capitalism and the life-making and sustaining processes were realized through dispossession from the means of subsistence via enclosures, resulting in the necessity of wage labor for survival. As Nancy Fraser has argued, social reproduction “is a condition of possibility” for sustained capital accumulation, yet the latter’s search for unlimited accumulation tends to destabilize the very processes of social reproduction upon which it relies.
Broadening and deepening notions of social reproduction in response to transformations of the conditions of existence under a globalized neoliberal capitalism, we have sought to highlight both new and old forms of dispossession, exploitation, and oppression. We also focus on the simultaneity (for more on this, see the post by Rose Brewer) of the complex linkages between class, race, and gender across different geographies, scales, structures, and durations.
We do so by introducing the notion of variegated social reproduction (building on Brenner, Peck, and Theodore’s work on variegated neoliberalism). By this we mean to capture aspects of the historical and ontological variability of globalized capitalism. Its specific differentiations and varieties stem from concrete social, cultural, ecological, and material practices and structures. This variability is conditioned by the pressures, incentives, disciplines, and contradictions of “geopolitics and global political economy in a consumerist, carbon-intensive capitalist market civilization with its tendencies to accelerate the turnover time of capital and to widen circuits of exploitation and dispossession.” Social reproduction – uneven across, scales, locations and jurisdictions – is nevertheless increasingly shaped by the power of capital and global accumulation premised on the commodification of labor, society, and nature.
Variegated social reproduction as a conceptual lens is meant to acknowledge that the unfolding of the contradiction between capital accumulation and the conditions of social reproduction is not uniform but uneven and variegated, involving developments that are sometimes unanticipated. Several of the contributions to our special issue illustrate that the neoliberalization and commodification of social reproduction remains incomplete and is not all encompassing or determinant. For example, one contribution on post-war Japan by Myles Carroll traces the shift in social reproduction from “nationalist communitarianism” to “fragmentary neoliberalism,” with the latter representing an incomplete and ambivalent attempt to resolve the contradictions of the old model of social reproduction in the context of the competitive global political economy. In the case of Poland, Stuart Shields shows how dominant conservative political forces have limited key aspects of neoliberalization by bolstering the redistribution of incomes and basic social reproduction provisions such as welfare and family assistance as a means to consolidate their power and electoral prospects. In the case of Britain, Alex Nunn and Daniela Tepe-Belfrage argue that the state has not withdrawn from social reproduction but has actually expanded its reach, now controlling the reproduction of the labor force through disciplinary processes in the education and social care systems.
Two contributions also significantly extend the reach of SRT by directly engaging with the ecological life-supporting systems and forces that sustain both human and non-human life (Paul Foley) and by exploring the way that the body is transformed under historically differentiated food regimes (Sebastien Rioux). Both underscore the importance of feminist historical materialist accounts of the notion of the body-as-produced in the context of nature, labor, and social reproduction.
That not all forms of social reproduction are progressive and indeed, may be regressing, is a general theme of our special issue and is highlighted in Ellie Gore and Genevieve LeBaron’s article on primitive labor markets and unprotected workers in Ghana’s cocoa industry. They illustrate that the conditions of subordinated female cocoa workers can only be fully understood once the dynamics of social reproduction – especially the production and reproduction of labor power – are integrated into value production and relations of power at the local and global levels.
If we accept the widely held view of a variegated world capitalist market, we must also think about the variegated geographies of social reproduction that underpin such global markets. Diverse activities such as labor in formal and informal markets, work in the home, and the reproduction of bodies through affluence and hunger become part of a more comprehensive and meaningful understanding of power, production, and of course, social reproduction.
Isabella Bakker is a Distinguished Research Professor and York Research Chair at York University. In 2009, Bakker became the first York University professor to earn a Trudeau Fellowship and was later elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She holds a Ph.D. in economics from the New School.
This article is based upon her recent special issue of Capital & Class edited with Stephen Gill, as well as their coauthored introduction to that volume: Isabella Bakker and Stephen Gill, “Rethinking Power, Production and Social Reproduction: Toward Variegated Social Reproduction,” Capital & Class 43 (4), December 2019.
Image: Courtesy of Pluto Press via Monthly Review Online website.