The successive and overlapping economic, political, public health, geopolitical and environmental crises in the early part of this century highlight the continuing relevance of Marxism’s focus on capitalism’s contradictions.  However, capitalism’s resilience in the face of these contradictions is in part due to the system’s ability to prevent the working-class unity that Marx and Engels had memorably prophesied in the Communist Manifesto.  While Marxist and neo-Marxist scholars have long (and rightly) stressed the contribution of gender and racial inequalities to ongoing working-class divisions, another source of such divisions is both the existence within capitalism of structurally distinct economic sectors and the unevenly recognized contribution of these sectors to the production of the economic surpluses driving capitalism forward.  The implications of the existence of these structurally distinct sites of surplus production will, therefore, be the focus of this piece.

There has been a long-standing assumption within Marxist literature that surplus in contemporary societies is produced within the private capitalist sector of the economy.  This view has been challenged by many feminist economists, who have linked this assumption to the long-standing tendency to devalue and erase both women’s work outside the capitalist workplace and the sizeable contribution this work makes to economic production.  Taking this feminist objection seriously need not negate Marxist theorizing, since it can enrich Marxist analyses of surplus production.

What, for the purposes of this piece, is most important about the Marxist conception of the surplus is the distinction between necessary and surplus labor.  The former refers to the portion of the direct producers’ labor that is necessary to produce their own means of subsistence.  The latter, by contrast, refers to the remainder of the producers’ labor, which, in enriching the class receiving the surplus, also reproduces the exploitative capitalist system on an ever-expanding scale. The surplus consists, in other words, in all economic output that exceeds the output necessary to support the direct producers in accordance with their socially determined necessary level of subsistence.  In short, these direct producers do not just perform the labor necessary for their own reproduction but additional labor as well, which has allowed the capitalist economic system to expand to its present (ecologically unsustainable) scale.

While Marxists have historically tended to identify necessary labor with the labor necessary to produce the commodities that workers (and the children who will eventually take their place in the work force) have to consume in order to keep working for capitalists, Marx’s discussion of what it takes to reproduce workers’ labor power implicitly points beyond this practice.  As far as children (not to mention the workers in capitalist workplaces themselves) are concerned, the reproduction of their labor power depends not just on the consumption of capitalist commodities but also on the work that turns the commodities into ready-to-consume goods (for example, the cooking of the steak purchased in the supermarket).  Moreover, as Marx was also aware, the reproduction of workers’ labor power requires educational work, which becomes ever more important as capitalism keeps revolutionizing not just the lifeless means of production but also the level of skills required to operate the ever more sophisticated technologies on which contemporary capitalism depends.  And, of course, the reproduction of labor power also depends on caring work that keeps workers physically, mentally and emotionally healthy enough to show up for work day after day.  As all these examples illustrate, the work that produces the necessary product on which capitalism depends is not just carried out in the capitalist workplace but also in households and in a variety of public sector institutions, such as schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and clinics, and so on.

Moreover, just as the product necessary to reproduce labor power is inconceivable without the contribution of households and the public sector, the ever-expanding levels of labor power throughout the history of capitalist development (in the form of both ever-larger numbers of workers as well as ever higher levels of education and skill required of these workers) bear witness to the fact that households and the public sector are sites of surplus production no less than the private capitalist sector.  Indeed, just as ever-expanding levels of labor power depend on increasing amounts of commodities made possible by the surplus produced in the latter sector, so do they depend on surpluses produced in households and the public sector.

Ironically, one obstacle to the recognition of the role of households and the public sector in the production of surplus is an ideological appearance that Marx did much to expose.  One of the reasons why capitalist exploitation is so hard to recognize is that the wage appears to workers as a reward for the labor they expend in the workplace rather than as the amount they receive for selling their labor power.  This appearance makes workers in the capitalist workplace view their wage not as the means through which the conditions of reproducing their labor power (including the conditions made possible through the work of those taking care of them and their children at home or in public hospitals, or the work of those having educated them in public educational institutions, and so on) can be secured but as money they have earned by working the prescribed amount of time in their work contract.

This ideological appearance makes it easier to keep workers divided by creating cleavages within households (for example, in traditional one-breadwinner households, in which a male breadwinner may see themselves as ‘supporting’ a female homemaker who is supposedly ‘not working’) or between private- and public-sector workers (with private sector workers being encouraged to view themselves as, once again, ‘supporting’ public sector workers whom capitalist media often portray as lazy, incompetent and supposedly overpaid).

The ongoing relevance of such dynamics becomes clear once we recall the recent history of neoliberal capitalism and the waves of economic restructuring and crisis that have characterized it.  This history also demonstrates, however, that when segments of the working class (for example, white male workers) have tried to mitigate the intensifying exploitation they face in the capitalist workplace by being enlisted in neoliberal projects that promise to reduce their taxes or to end affirmative action, they usually find that what they have bargained for are policies that further eviscerate their unions, wages and working protections, while undercutting their (and their children’s) ability to get the healthcare and education they need in order to survive an ever more turbulent and competitive global capitalist environment.

In other words, the recognition of households and the public sector as sites of surplus production is not a purely academic question.  It has important political implications that Marxists should be the first to recognize, given their long-standing emphasis on the importance of working-class unity.  At a time when capitalist injustices and destruction reach unfathomable heights, it is incumbent on Marxists to take any and all theoretical steps that can help bring about the kind of forceful and effective political practice that could prevent the kind of dystopian future that awaits us, should capitalism be left to develop according to its profit-seeking logic.

Costas Panayotakis is a Professor of Sociology at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and the author of The Capitalist Mode of Destruction (Manchester University Press).

This post summarizes his 2021 article: “Beyond the Capitalist Workplace: How the Production of Surplus across the Economy Keeps Producers Divided.” Review of Radical Political Economics, 53(1): 77-94

Image by Chris Devers via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)