Workers’ Inquiry and Reproductive Labor

Ramiro Gomez, Jr., 2013
Ramiro Gomez, Jr., 2013

The orig­i­nal pro­pos­al for a “sta­tis­ti­cal inves­ti­ga­tion of the con­di­tion of the labor­ing class­es” was first for­mu­lat­ed by Karl Marx in his “Instruc­tions to the Del­e­gates of the Pro­vi­sion­al Gen­er­al Coun­cil of the Inter­na­tion­al Workingmen’s Asso­ci­a­tion” in 1867, and then revis­it­ed in 1880. The intent was to bring to light the “facts and mis­facts” of the orga­ni­za­tion of work, the process of pro­duc­tion, and life, which bour­geois pow­er obscures or even mys­ti­fies. In 1964 Raniero Panzieri1 wrote on the the­me “Polit­i­cal Objec­tives of Inves­ti­ga­tion,” pre­sent­ing them in the fol­low­ing terms:

we have impor­tant instru­men­tal goals dri­ven by the char­ac­ter of inquiry as a cor­rect, effi­cient and polit­i­cal­ly fer­tile method to estab­lish con­tacts with sin­gu­lar and grouped work­ers. This is a cru­cial objec­tive: not only is there no dis­crep­an­cy, gap or con­tra­dic­tion between inquiry and the labour of build­ing polit­i­cal rela­tions; inquiry is also fun­da­men­tal to such process. More­over, the work need­ed for inquiry, the labour of the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sion with com­rades and work­ers, is one of seri­ous polit­i­cal train­ing, and inquiry is a great tool for this.2

The work­ers’ inquiries the­o­rized and prac­ticed by Quaderni Rossi (Red Note­books) in the ear­ly 1960s artic­u­late an analy­sis of the speci­fici­ty of “neo-cap­i­tal­ism” – Fordist cap­i­tal­ism – lead­ing to a polit­i­cal line focused on the irre­ducible antag­o­nism of the work­ing class of large-scale indus­try. This artic­u­la­tion rep­re­sent­ed a break with the dom­i­nant ide­olo­gies of the polit­i­cal and union Left of the epoch: polit­i­cal rein­vest­ment in the imme­di­ate con­di­tions of fac­to­ry life broke with the exclu­sive con­cen­tra­tion on the autonomous spheres of pol­i­tics and ide­ol­o­gy. The affir­ma­tion of con­flict imma­nent to fac­to­ry life broke with the soci­o­log­i­cal myths of the tech­ni­cal and social pro­gress that was sup­posed to have reab­sorbed all con­tra­dic­tions in the over­all order of the “Afflu­ent Soci­ety.”

Polit­i­cal inquiry, when con­duct­ed out­side of the point of pro­duc­tion, tend­ed in the course of the 1970s to dis­solve that uni­ty of con­scious­ness and oppo­si­tion which was the basis of the ana­lyt­i­cal and polit­i­cal method of work­erism.  On the oth­er hand, the activism of move­ments and groups, through their priv­i­leg­ing of the body and their politi­ciza­tion of dai­ly life, exper­i­ment­ed in their strug­gles with the dis­lo­ca­tion of con­flict to the sphere of cir­cu­la­tion. Here it was Tron­ti and Negri who fur­nished the the­o­ry, with the dis­tinc­tion between labor-pow­er (the object of Marx­ism as a sci­ence) and the work­ing class (the sub­ject of Marx­ism as rev­o­lu­tion), and with the cri­sis of the law of labor-val­ue.

In the pas­sage from mil­i­tant work­erism to fem­i­nism in the 1970s in Italy, there emerged, among the rad­i­cal fem­i­nist groups with Marx­ist train­ing, an analy­sis linked to struc­ture of the work­ing day and the dimen­sion of auton­o­my with­in women’s lives as a whole. Artic­u­lat­ed with­in polit­i­cal prac­tice was an appar­ent­ly reformist dis­course on social ser­vices, and a prac­tice of con­crete forms of “lib­er­a­tion from house­work.” The start­ing point was not ide­o­log­i­cal, but, in a trans­for­ma­tion of work­erist prac­tice, artic­u­lat­ed in strug­gles con­nect­ed to imme­di­ate needs of lib­er­a­tion. The trans­la­tion from fac­to­ry strug­gles for health and safe­ty, for equal pay rais­es for all, for free trans­port, artic­u­lat­ed in the demands for social ser­vices and for a rede­f­i­n­i­tion of wel­fare, were linked to recog­ni­tion of con­crete and imme­di­ate mate­ri­al prob­lems, which lay at the basis of the work of repro­duc­ing labor-pow­er.3

Start­ing from the Marx­ist def­i­n­i­tion of labor-pow­er as “a com­mod­i­ty” which “exists only in [the] liv­ing body,”4 Marx­ist-Fem­i­nism defined “work” to include also that unpaid activ­i­ty of the repro­duc­tion of indi­vid­u­als that is his­tor­i­cal­ly con­signed to wom­en (to fem­i­nine roles).5 Pri­vate, unpaid house­work is defined as social­ly nec­es­sary, pro­duc­tive, able to con­sti­tute for cap­i­tal an indi­rect source of sur­plus val­ue, even if it seems to pro­duce only use-val­ues. If in fact the pro­duc­tion of sur­plus val­ue begins with the acqui­si­tion of labor-pow­er by the own­er of the means of pro­duc­tion, then through wage labor, the deter­mi­na­tion of sur­plus val­ue is not the result of only the labor-pow­er that is direct­ly brought to the mar­ket. Sur­plus val­ue is deter­mined also by the unpaid work of repro­duc­tion of indi­vid­u­als. Waged labor, sus­tained by house­work, brings its repro­duced labor-pow­er to the mar­ket and there­by trans­fers, through the work process, val­ue and sur­plus val­ue to com­modi­ties, which through the mar­ket are con­vert­ed into mon­ey.

The work of repro­duc­tion with­in the fam­i­ly – pro­duc­ing con­sump­tion goods and not goods for exchange on the mar­ket, goods which are not trans­formed into mon­ey – does not appear to be pro­duc­tive of val­ue. The same goes for the pro­duc­tion of sub­sis­tence: this does not enter into the mar­ket as exchange val­ue. But those who are sus­tained by repro­duc­tive work, their own or that of oth­ers, are more pro­duc­tive and more effi­cient in the process of social pro­duc­tion.

Fur­ther, if the wage effec­tive­ly mea­sures how much is nec­es­sary to repro­duce labor-pow­er, the waged work­er should receive a wage equiv­a­lent to the mar­ket cost of all the work and ser­vices that are car­ried out by those who repro­duce labor-pow­er (in most cas­es, wom­en). By now the stud­ies of the hypo­thet­i­cal val­ue of the unpaid work of repro­duc­tion com­pared with the GDP are well known: Boeri, Bur­da and Kra­marz have esti­mat­ed – for exam­ple – that in Italy this work comes to around one-third of the GDP.6 Not only this, but anoth­er rev­e­la­tion to note is that the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties and the repro­duc­tion of per­sons belong to two inter­re­lat­ed con­texts. Care seems to be some­thing sep­a­rate, extra­ne­ous to the world of pro­duc­tion; but, par­tic­u­lar­ly today, when cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion has invad­ed life, and there­fore repro­duc­tion, it is not pos­si­ble to hold the­se two sec­tors sep­a­rate. They are con­nect­ed, even if his­tor­i­cal­ly dis­tinct, and in the­se cap­i­tal hier­ar­chizes and orga­nizes human activ­i­ty to the end of its own repro­duc­tion. And the link is devel­oped in two sens­es: the first, and clear­er one, is that already described as the direct pro­duc­tion of val­ue, the sec­ond is that in which the qual­i­ty of care as pro­duc­er of val­ue enters into the waged labor that pro­duces com­modi­ties.

Up to now I have used Marx­ist cat­e­gories. Adeli­no Zanini exhorts us to not ask Marx to say things that he did not say, or that he could not say given the social rela­tions of the his­tor­i­cal peri­od in which he wrote.7 There­fore using Marx­ist cat­e­gories, try­ing to use them today, prob­a­bly also means forc­ing them to try to bet­ter under­stand the real­i­ty around us. I see in the rela­tion­ship pro­duc­tion-repro­duc­tion three phas­es fol­low­ing the phase of exten­sive exploita­tion of labor-pow­er Marx described with the extrac­tion of absolute sur­plus val­ue. At the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry and the start of the 20th in the West, the large fac­to­ry was con­sub­stan­tial with the appear­ance of the skilled work­er as the cen­tral fig­ure. The repro­duc­tion of this work­er, it was thought, could be guar­an­teed, con­serv­ing the val­ue of the com­mod­i­ty labor-pow­er, through con­trol of his con­di­tions of life. One thinks of Ford and of the use of the five dol­lars a day – that is, of a very high salary for the mar­ried work­er, with chil­dren, who did not drink, etc., there­fore of a con­trol of the qual­i­ty of his repro­duc­tion. Or else one thinks in Italy of Lan­i­fi­cio Rossi at the start of the 20th cen­tu­ry, with the boss who built hous­ing for the work­ers around his fac­to­ry, there­fore con­trol­ling direct­ly from the fac­to­ry where and how work­ers lived. It is the mod­el of the fac­to­ry panop­ti­con over work­ing-class life. Lat­er, in mass democ­ra­cy, social rights pre­sent­ed them­selves as corol­lar­ies of male polit­i­cal rights, and devel­oped the sys­tem of extend­ed social assis­tance, lat­er trans­formed into social secu­ri­ty sys­tems.

There was a dif­fu­sion of social­ized prac­tices of repro­duc­tion con­cern­ing the mass work­er, with hygiene mea­sures, social insur­ance, the begin­ning of wel­fare. The idea that a part of the repro­duc­tion of labor-pow­er must be social­ly guar­an­teed through the work rela­tion was wide­spread. A social­iza­tion of part of the repro­duc­tion of labor-pow­er had begun, and already had prece­dents in health care sys­tems and schools: and let’s not for­get that the­se were things that were first assigned to the fam­i­ly. And with social ser­vices this area grows. But this type of social­iza­tion begins to con­nect and clash with the unpaid work of repro­duc­tion of labor-pow­er. Until this point the two dis­cours­es had not clashed, they had func­tioned sep­a­rate­ly. On the one hand some ser­vices and some uses of mon­ey con­nect­ed to the repro­duc­tion of labor-pow­er became inte­gral parts of the work­ers’ wage: the expan­sion of school­ing, uni­ver­sal health care, a par­tial dif­fu­sion of day­care and nurs­ery schools, fam­i­ly trans­fer pay­ments, assis­tance incomes, var­i­ous forms of aid to less advan­taged fam­i­lies, etc. On the oth­er, a part of the work of repro­duc­tion came into the mar­ket, and became waged. Since there is a strong incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty between the waged work of pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties and unpaid repro­duc­tive work, the effort to obtain wage auton­o­my on the part of those doing unpaid house­work undid the Key­ne­sian and Bev­erid­gian plan­ning of the labor mar­ket that tend­ed to be ori­ent­ed toward full employ­ment of male labor-pow­er. Wom­en entered and this plan­ning broke down, the mass entrance of wom­en into the labor mar­ket changed the equa­tion. The affec­tive dimen­sions of the work of repro­duc­tion, which become ever more com­plex because they are par­tial­ly social­ized, and because they increase expec­ta­tions for the qual­i­ty of repro­duc­tion of indi­vid­u­als, are not clear: the Marx­ist the­o­ret­i­cal method of inquiry becomes nec­es­sary to under­stand on what ter­rain sub­jec­tiv­i­ty can express desire for change.

Inquiry on the Work of Reproduction of Persons

To ana­lyze the work of repro­duc­tion, we must first observe that it is usu­al­ly exclud­ed from polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic analy­sis due to the exist­ing rigid sep­a­ra­tion between pub­lic and pri­vate life, which lies at the basis of all polit­i­cal analy­ses. An analy­sis of the affec­tive dimen­sions of care, how­ev­er, is of fun­da­men­tal impor­tance. I use care to refer to the work of repro­duc­tion of per­sons, since as we shall see there are not many words avail­able for ana­lyz­ing the speci­fic sec­tions of this type of work. And not only for dimen­sions of care, but also for the dynam­ics of pow­er that are inher­ent in every rela­tion­ship that assumes it and needs it, that is, in the lives of indi­vid­u­als. It is impor­tant to con­struct a con­cep­tu­al tool for under­stand­ing care, or the repro­duc­tion of per­sons, both to under­stand exact­ly what we are talk­ing about, so as to insert it into polit­i­cal the­o­ry, and to place care in the rela­tion­al links that con­sti­tute our area of study, his­tori­ciz­ing it, and under­stand­ing its role in the evo­lu­tion of class and gen­der rela­tions.

A first dis­tinc­tion that should be made is that between care and ser­vice, that is, between a form of assis­tance that sat­is­fies a need that an assist­ed per­son is not able to sat­is­fy on their own (care), and a ser­vice that sat­is­fies those needs which the assist­ed per­son could sat­is­fy for them­selves autonomous­ly. So it is nec­es­sary to be clear in the way we define needs, and, on the basis of this, to under­stand the posi­tion of those who provide assis­tance and the posi­tion of those who receive it. Fur­ther, we must deter­mine the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the sub­jects to whom are attrib­ut­ed the func­tion of repro­duc­tion. Joan Tron­to dis­ar­tic­u­lates care into four phas­es, linked to the sub­jects, agents, or recip­i­ents of care.8 This allows us to eval­u­ate the extent to which the work of repro­duc­tion is a com­plex and extreme­ly artic­u­lat­ed form of work.

A fur­ther pas­sage, in deep­en­ing our under­stand­ing of the­se cat­e­gories, con­sists in ana­lyz­ing how much of this work can be del­e­gat­ed to the mar­ket or to agents of social­iza­tion, and how much instead remains ambigu­ous­ly in the sphere, in both neolib­er­al and neo­con­ser­v­a­tive terms, of per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty. Inquiry, which in this case is a sub­jec­tive reflec­tion on social­ly imposed prac­tices, allows me to clar­i­fy the artic­u­la­tion of this work, not only in rela­tion to the pro­duc­tive process and the dynam­ics of gen­der, but also with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of social­iza­tion (waged or not) of some of its parts. I am aware of forc­ing the analy­sis to a con­sid­er­able extent. Despite the fact that the names I use are some­what inven­tive, in real­i­ty they define not only seman­tic dif­fer­ences, but are in fact con­sti­tu­tive of this work. A first dis­tinc­tion I make is between domes­tic work, repro­duc­tive work, and care work. Domes­tic work is what econ­o­mists call ele­men­tary work, that which serves for sur­vival: clean­ing, wash­ing, cook­ing, gro­cery shop­ping, etc. Repro­duc­tive work is the work that serves to repro­duce the species: not only bear­ing chil­dren, but also rais­ing them, cre­at­ing the indis­pens­able con­di­tion for the con­ti­nu­ity of life, what Marx called the repro­duc­tion of the race. Care work, how­ev­er, has to do with rela­tion­ships, with the con­ti­nu­ity of rela­tion­ships, with affec­tion, with sex. The­se are obvi­ous­ly not exact­ly sep­a­ra­ble, they inter­sect and super­im­pose on each oth­er, but have par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics and are tasks that can be attrib­ut­ed pri­mar­i­ly to dif­fer­ent sub­jects.

Ele­men­tary work is the sim­plest, the most social­ized, the most eas­i­ly trans­fer­able, tra­di­tion­al­ly attrib­ut­ed to wom­en. Tra­di­tion­al­ly it has nev­er been exclu­sive­ly free, or mis­tak­en for a sign of love; in more recent his­to­ry afflu­ent class­es and the bour­geoisie have always assigned this ele­men­tary work to domes­tic work­ers. It can be com­mod­i­fied on the mar­ket or in social ser­vices with the ratio­nal­iza­tions that involve new orga­ni­za­tion­al forms: one thinks of coop­er­a­tive buy­ing groups, con­do­mini­um ser­vices, coop­er­a­tive hous­ing, etc. The time of this work is mea­sur­able and its cost is quan­tifi­able. It is repet­i­tive, bor­ing, nec­es­sary but also reducible work, can be replaced in some areas by machi­nes, while for oth­ers it can be dif­fused over time, or sim­ply reduced by chang­ing lifestyle or coun­try (if one moves from Italy to the coun­tries of North­ern Europe, we see that this work is con­sid­er­ably reduced).

How­ev­er, repro­duc­tive work, aside from being the gen­er­a­tive basis of our species (mater­ni­ty), has to do with depen­dent per­sons. Clear­ly it includes ele­men­tary work, but it is also more than that. This does not refer to a dis­tinct uni­verse of sub­jects, but to those who are not able to take care of them­selves on their own, and not only due to phys­i­cal or men­tal inca­pac­i­ties rel­a­tive to age (chil­dren and the elder­ly) or to ill­ness, tem­po­rary or last­ing over time, but also to per­sons who are per­fect­ly able to repro­duce them­selves but do not have the time to do so, because of the orga­ni­za­tion of their waged labor, or due to social con­ven­tions that con­struct speci­fic roles for the repro­duc­tion of indi­vid­u­als. For a part of this work one can turn to the mar­ket, with indi­vid­u­al con­trac­tu­al forms (such as home health care work­ers), or to wel­fare ser­vices, when they are avail­able and offer some guar­an­tee, as well as in part to the small­er-scale ser­vices of vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tions. Fur­ther, the total man­age­ment of depen­dent per­sons, aside from being cost­ly today, requires orga­ni­za­tion­al work, of pres­ence and con­tin­u­al mon­i­tor­ing that can­not be del­e­gat­ed. In this case the sub­jects involved are many, but not all can be exter­nal­ized. Sta­tis­ti­cal research tells us that most of the­se sub­jects are in any case wom­en, both waged and unwaged.

In recent years, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with two phe­nom­e­na – on the one hand the increase in immi­gra­tion, and on the oth­er the exten­sion of the finan­cial cri­sis of the states – we see the trans­fer of some of the waged part of care work from the wel­fare state to the mar­ket, with forms of par­tial social­iza­tion on the ground due to local ini­tia­tives of social coop­er­a­tion. This is due to the fact that the repro­duc­tion of indi­vid­u­al depen­dents has an unavoid­ably intrin­sic rigid­i­ty, due to the increase in life expectan­cy and the greater atten­tion to qual­i­ty of life on the part of younger gen­er­a­tions.

The third def­i­n­i­tion of the work of repro­duc­tion of per­sons is “care work” or “affec­tive labor.” To me, the lat­ter is that which seems to be less like “work,” that which it should not be pos­si­ble to make into con­trac­tu­al­ized labor. As far as sex is con­cerned, it seems evi­dent that a part of this is del­e­gat­ed to the mar­ket in the case of sex work­ers; at any rate, we have already seen fem­i­nist analy­ses of this since the 1960s, and I will not go any fur­ther into this aspect.  How­ev­er, all of us need a care work­er to smile every once in a while at our moth­er; it is impor­tant that we orga­nize par­ties for our chil­dren, and that we man­age our rela­tion­ships out­side of the work­place. In our dai­ly life all of us have need of con­so­la­tion, of affec­tion, of close­ness. It is a work that requires emo­tion­al par­tic­i­pa­tion, sen­si­tiv­i­ty, tact, and devo­tion. And is it a work that from with­in the folds of the pri­vate, despite seem­ing less a form of “work,” has been sub­sumed under the mar­ket, with­out becom­ing waged labor, but form­ing an inte­gral part of the mar­ket by being sub­sumed under the form of work required by the mar­ket. Indeed, in the orga­ni­za­tion of waged work, par­tic­u­lar­ly in ser­vices to per­sons, this sort of avail­abil­i­ty is increas­ing­ly required: the sales­per­son is required to smile, the call cen­ter work­er to mod­u­late their voice, the home health care work­er and the gov­erness are required to show how much they love our elder­ly and our chil­dren; in many jobs it is increas­ing­ly required to love the cus­tomer, the patient, or whomev­er is con­cerned. The­se qual­i­ties are most­ly demand­ed in sec­tors pre­dom­i­nant­ly staffed by wom­en, but are extend­ing them­selves to every form of work that requires rela­tion­ships, includ­ing requir­ing loy­al­ty, emo­tion­al par­tic­i­pa­tion, and affec­tion and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the “com­mod­i­ty,” the “firm,” the “pro­duct.”

Start­ing with this def­i­n­i­tion of the work of repro­duc­ing per­sons, how­ev­er arbi­trary and debat­able, it seems to me impor­tant to ver­i­fy whether there has been a change in recent decades, above all in rela­tion to the work of pro­duc­ing com­modi­ties. In the 1970s the pro­duc­tion-repro­duc­tion rela­tion­ship, from a gen­der per­spec­tive, with­in the process of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion, saw for wom­en an immea­sur­able length­en­ing of the work­ing day, accu­mu­lat­ing repro­duc­tive work and the work of repro­duc­ing labor-pow­er. There was one wom­an, one wage, two jobs: there was a dou­ble work shift for wom­en who also worked for the mar­ket. And when this was not the case there was forced exclu­sion of wom­en from the pub­lic and waged sphere, that is, exclu­sion from the labor mar­ket.

Today we see a greater for­mal inclu­sion of wom­en in the pub­lic sphere, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the labor mar­ket: I have asked myself if this cor­re­sponds to a fail­ure to dis­tin­guish between pri­vate and pub­lic spheres on the part of wom­en, or if this con­tin­u­um breaks down where that hap­pens. I thought that this might break in a com­pos­ite, mul­ti­form time, artic­u­lat­ed on sev­er­al lev­els, in which com­mand and sub­or­di­na­tion inter­sect­ed, and com­bined in com­plex orga­ni­za­tion­al forms of dai­ly life. This is ulti­mate­ly the con­di­tion of wom­en today. How­ev­er, in the 1970s I the­o­rized that a cap­i­tal­ist reply to the demand for wages for house­work would be a process of the wag­ing of repro­duc­tive work in some of its forms, and I thought that the­se would be most­ly linked to an enlarge­ment of wel­fare and there­fore to a trans­po­si­tion of a part of social ser­vices to the mar­ket. Obvi­ous­ly this would have been pos­si­ble with a mass of wom­en in waged labor with­in a dynam­ic of full employ­ment, some­thing said today by many econ­o­mists, like Fer­rera or Gøs­ta Esp­ing-Ander­sen, and which hap­pens in some Euro­pean coun­tries, with an enlarge­ment of the mar­ket in the ser­vice sec­tor.9

From the mid-1980s a macro­scop­ic restruc­tur­ing of the mar­ket for the ser­vice sec­tor has tak­en place glob­al­ly. It has prob­a­bly been a respon­se to the fem­i­nist move­ment, which expressed the refusal of house­work by many wom­en, with their mas­sive entry into waged labor. East­ern Europe has been an excep­tion, where the dis­man­tling of “real social­ism” pro­voked instead an increase in female unem­ploy­ment, poor­ly com­pen­sat­ed for by the migra­tion of wom­en in recent years. Today the process of wag­ing domes­tic work is in full gear, but in dif­fer­ent and more com­pli­cat­ed ways than had been expect­ed. Today in many cas­es we have two wom­en, two jobs, but only one wage to share. The care of the depen­dent per­son is paid for, ser­vices cost mon­ey. After all, because of how the sys­tem works, on the one hand, the new labor-pow­er must be com­pet­i­tive on the mar­ket (and wom­en, with the gen­der pay gap, are ide­al sub­jects); on the oth­er hand, who­ev­er sub­sti­tutes for part of the work of repro­duc­ing per­sons pre­vi­ous­ly pro­vid­ed for free must be avail­able to work for a wage low­er than the mar­ket prices of oth­er anal­o­gous forms of work (infor­mal work, more or less doc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, work in ser­vices that are paid less than oth­ers). Fur­ther, in the gen­er­al labor mar­ket, the emer­gence of forms of atyp­i­cal employ­ment, the increase of part-time or of per­son­al­ized hir­ing, seem today to coin­cide with both the needs of the pro­duc­tive sys­tem and with the desires (needs?) of many wom­en to rec­on­cile moth­er­hood, care, and waged labor.

The sec­ond point is the fem­i­niza­tion of waged work. Evi­dent­ly, if the entire social struc­ture, if all rela­tion­ships, if all the pos­si­bil­i­ties of social­iza­tion are based on the work of repro­duc­ing per­sons, with its intrin­sic qual­i­ties, it is nec­es­sary that we show why this is and explain its rel­e­vance. Wom­en are the cen­tral ele­ment from which this type of work is demand­ed, in all its forms, unwaged and waged. The ques­tion is: is this because of their nat­u­ral qual­i­ties?  I real­ly don’t think so. Cer­tain­ly there is train­ing involved, often due to the con­di­tions of eco­nom­ic depen­dence or social sub­or­di­na­tion that allow one to devel­op the syn­drome of being a slave, that con­sist of an ele­vat­ed sen­si­bil­i­ty to the needs of the mas­ter, atten­tion to care, capac­i­ty to respond with affec­tion and devo­tion. When one’s own sur­vival depends on this, it is clear that one’s involve­ment will be total. When one cares for fam­i­ly mem­bers or works in care sec­tors we may assume that the indi­vid­u­als involved man­i­fest a series of behav­iors, moti­va­tions, and spe­cial com­pe­ten­cies; the atti­tude called for is that of pro­tec­tion and coop­er­a­tion, emo­tive and altru­is­tic. If there is a social expec­ta­tion, often one responds to it. It is assumed that one must exude affec­tion and empa­thy. So, on the one hand there is a sub­jec­tive con­di­tion that oblig­ates us to be empa­thet­ic and atten­tive to the needs of oth­ers, on the oth­er there is a social con­ven­tion that expects deter­mi­nate behav­iors and atti­tudes on the part of some speci­fic sub­jects. In short, the­se qual­i­ties we call fem­i­nine, gen­er­al­ized as such between wom­en, or at least seen to come from wom­en, are per­haps not innate, per­haps do not belong exclu­sive­ly to wom­en; per­haps they are the result of their social posi­tion and the roles his­tor­i­cal­ly imposed on them. But the­se “fem­i­nine” qual­i­ties are today demand­ed over a wide arc of the mar­ket, because soci­ety has become a ser­vice soci­ety, the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties has become rar­er, and greater qual­i­fi­ca­tions are required than those of phys­i­cal force and patience with repet­i­tive acts. As Kathi Weeks says in an inter­view with Anna Cur­cio on Uni­No­made, “in the fac­to­ry there was a dis­ci­pline. The work­ers were close­ly direct­ed and con­trolled and there­fore there was no prob­lem if one did not iden­ti­fy with one’s work. But in care work, in trade or in ser­vices and in all those oth­er forms of work that make up the post-Fordist uni­verse there is no anal­o­gous mod­el of con­trol or mon­i­tor­ing.”10 The need for qual­i­ta­tive expres­sion of emo­tion­al and social fac­tors, moti­va­tion and affec­tion, cor­re­spond to the need for con­trol of work and its pro­duc­tiv­i­ty which are oth­er­wise dif­fi­cult to real­ize. The­se are char­ac­ter­is­tics, I want to stress, which can­not be spec­i­fied in a con­tract (how can one write atten­tion, sen­si­bil­i­ty, inter­est, into a con­tract?) and which sug­gest the need for an indi­vid­u­al­iza­tion of the work rela­tion­ship (this need is found in the demand by some col­lab­o­ra­tionist unions that have moved from demand­ing nation­al con­tracts to sep­a­rate con­tracts for each firm, if not for each indi­vid­u­al).

In any case, the process of the “fem­i­niza­tion of work” demands from all work­ers, regard­less of gen­der, the­se qual­i­ties, which become “con­sti­tu­tive” of work in a knowl­edge and “rela­tion­ship” soci­ety. One of the char­ac­ter­is­tics, how­ev­er, that I would like to note, is that the fem­i­niza­tion of work, beyond the require­ment of an empa­thet­ic atti­tude, involves the mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the use of time. Lin­ear time becomes a process, that is, it enters into doing more things simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with­out hier­ar­chiz­ing them. Those whose work involves repro­duc­ing per­sons are used to shift­ing from one time to anoth­er in dai­ly life, as any moth­er knows. There are in fact dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties of care, some that can be com­pro­mised, oth­ers that can be put off, oth­ers still that that there is no pos­si­bil­i­ty of delay­ing. The dichotomies between pub­lic and pri­vate time, between the time of the body and that which is social, are tran­scend­ed, as Car­men Lec­ca­rdi states, “able to erode the pos­si­bil­i­ty of con­trol on the part of the indi­vid­u­als forced to mea­sure them­selves again­st an epochal expe­ri­ence of uncer­tain­ty and an ungovern­able future.”11 Wom­en are trained in the­se non-lin­ear times, in many ways. Now the­se are being trans­ferred to the train­ing of all work­ers.

Some Considerations

If the repro­duc­tion of per­sons is a foun­da­tion­al sec­tor of life, the analy­sis of its com­po­nents – that is, inquiry – is com­plex, because work and plea­sure inter­sect and are super­im­posed on one anoth­er, as ser­vices and love, affec­tion and fatigue. The per­sons trained in repro­duc­tion per­form roles that are oth­er­wise com­pli­cat­ed, involv­ing com­mit­ment and given to great ambi­gu­i­ty with respect to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of change. The big ques­tion to which I do not have an answer is: what in the repro­duc­tion of the indi­vid­u­al can be placed in com­mon, what can we social­ize, and what remains pri­vate, inti­mate, non-del­e­gable to wage labor or to inno­v­a­tive forms of coop­er­a­tion? In the knowl­edge soci­ety, can we imag­ine restor­ing the needs of the indi­vid­u­al to the cen­ter of our atten­tion, be they phys­i­cal or sen­ti­men­tal? It is not a ques­tion of mor­ti­fy­ing the intel­li­gence in favor of the body or emo­tions, but of a sec­u­lar recog­ni­tion of the insol­uble, to con­struct a dif­fer­ent func­tion­al­i­ty: not the flesh, the body, life, pros­per­i­ty func­tion­al to the intel­li­gence (pro­duc­tion, inven­tion, knowl­edge), but exact­ly the reverse. The polit­i­cal and eth­i­cal goal should be respon­si­bil­i­ty toward the good life for every­one, with times of life that are social­ly rec­og­nized. I would say that to try to resolve this prob­lem we find our­selves faced with an unavoid­able choice, which rev­o­lu­tion­izes the pro­duc­tion-repro­duc­tion rela­tion­ship by revers­ing the pri­or­i­ty: repro­duc­tion of the per­son as the pri­or­i­ty for human activ­i­ty. The search for the good life (I like to evoke “the good life,” cit­ed in some con­sti­tu­tions in Lat­in Amer­i­ca, much more than hap­pi­ness, because the good life has repro­duc­tion with­in it) requires not just a cit­i­zen­ship income (a redis­tri­b­u­tion of the wealth pro­duced to sat­is­fy the needs of life), but also social coop­er­a­tion for repro­duc­tion, for ele­men­tary work, a project for invent­ing forms of liv­ing togeth­er beyond and again­st the times and spaces of waged labor, con­struct­ing new forms of rela­tion­ships and social­iza­tion.

To elab­o­rate on any project seri­ous­ly we need to stop think­ing of an abstract and per­fect­ly autonomous sub­ject. This would seem to be a para­dox, one that becomes evi­dent in the sit­u­a­tions in which the rela­tion­ships of depen­dence, affec­tion, and author­i­ty are read­able only by assum­ing the par­tial­i­ty and the con­crete­ness of the point of view that makes us rec­og­nize com­plex rela­tion­ships in rela­tion to needs and to their sat­is­fac­tion. I am think­ing here of the rela­tion­ships moth­er-child, nurse-patient, etc.: here the auton­o­my of the indi­vid­u­al col­laps­es com­plete­ly, there is author­i­ty, there is repro­duc­tion, there is depen­dence, there is need. Indeed, it is not only a ques­tion of demand­ing rights, but also of rec­og­niz­ing needs. Rights tend to deny that we are all rec­i­p­ro­cal­ly depen­dent on some­one, and accen­tu­ate the depen­dence of peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent, because the prin­ci­pal ref­er­ence is to the autonomous indi­vid­u­al. In fact, we are wit­ness­ing the para­dox of the pol­i­tics of social and fam­i­ly work when we oper­ate with a con­cep­tion of the inde­pen­dent indi­vid­u­al, that is, one who works on the labor mar­ket free from fam­i­ly com­mit­ments. In real­i­ty, the very pos­si­bil­i­ty of this indi­vid­u­al to act on the mar­ket (I return here to what I wrote at the start of this essay) depends on care work, on the repro­duc­tive work of some­one who is con­ceived as depen­dent on the wage of some­one else.

Con­trary to the the­o­ries of the gift, it does not seem to me pos­si­ble to return to val­oriz­ing exchange for free.12 And nei­ther is val­oriz­ing by pay­ing half as much for that mis­un­der­stood activ­i­ty cov­ered under the term “care.” Nor is what is at stake to find means of inclu­sion, of con­sid­er­ing wom­en specif­i­cal­ly: instead it is a ques­tion of tak­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tics of life and the his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry of wom­en into con­sid­er­a­tion, pro­duc­ing an idea of soci­ety as a whole, start­ing from their strate­gic posi­tion and from the total­i­ty of their lives. Work­ers’ inquiry requires con­tact with and knowl­edge of the sub­jects of pro­duc­tion, for the con­struc­tion of an orga­ni­za­tion­al and polit­i­cal project. Today wom­en demon­strate that anoth­er world is pos­si­ble, with­out hav­ing to pass through the need to con­struct a knowl­edge of the rela­tion­ships of exploita­tion: every­thing is evi­dent, all we need to do is want to see it, to “start with one­self.” Accord­ing to Alain Touraine, “Wom­en are, so to speak, priv­i­leged, because today to do pol­i­tics means to rec­on­cile pub­lic and pri­vate. Female demands are glob­al, they have an inclu­sive dis­course.”13

—Trans­la­tion by Steven Cola­trel­la


  1. Raniero Panzieri (1921-1964), Marx­ist the­o­rist, and one of the founders of work­erism. He found­ed the review Quaderni Rossi with oth­ers, includ­ing Mar­io Tron­ti, who broke away in 1963 and found­ed Classe Opera­ia

  2. Raniero Panzieri, “Uso social­is­ta dell’inchiesta opera­ia” in Spon­taneità e orga­niz­zazione. Gli anni dei Quaderni Rossi 1959-1964. Scrit­ti scelti, ed S. Mer­li, (Pisa: BFS edi­zioni, 1994). Eng­lish trans­la­tion by Ari­an­na Bove on eicp.net

  3. L. Chisté, A. Del Re, E. For­ti, Oltre il lavoro domes­ti­co (Milano: Fel­trinel­li, 1978-1979). 

  4. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin, 1990), 272. See also pages 274-5.  

  5. An entire thread of Ital­ian Marx­ist Fem­i­nism (I refer to Mari­arosa Dal­la Costa, Antonel­la Pic­chio, myself and oth­ers), had already in the 1970s defined the repro­duc­tion of the per­son as work. In ear­ly 2012, a ver­dict by a labor court judge in Venice, Margher­i­ta Bor­to­la­so (not by chance a wom­an) defined the house­wife as “a non-depen­dent work­er,” con­ced­ing to the hus­band parental leave for their chil­dren inas­much as “both par­ents work.” The hus­band, a police offi­cer, had been denied this leave by his employ­er, the Min­istry of the Inte­ri­or, lead­ing to the labor court suit. There­fore, the def­i­n­i­tion of house­work as work, and of the house­wife as a work­er, today also has judi­cial sanc­tion. An idea that has come a long way.  

  6. T. Boeri, MC Bur­da, and F. Kra­marz, eds., Work­ing Hours and Job Shar­ing in the EU and USA (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007). 

  7. A. Zanini, “Marx: un’introduzione alla crit­i­ca dell’economia polit­i­ca” in Genealo­gie del futuro, ed. G. Rog­gero and A. Zanini (Verona, Ombre corte/Uninomade, 2013), 13-27. 

  8. J. Tron­to, “Cura e polit­i­ca demo­c­ra­t­i­ca,” La soci­età degli indi­vidui, 38, XIII (2010): 34-42. Tron­to iden­ti­fies four phas­es of care: 1) car­ing about, which requires the moral qual­i­ty of atten­tion and a sus­pen­sion of one’s own inter­ests; 2) tak­ing care of, which assumes respon­si­bil­i­ty in rela­tion to oth­ers; 3) care leav­ing, which means per­form­ing work that requires com­pe­tence; 4) care receiv­ing, because there must be a respon­se by the per­son to whom care is given, and this respon­se must be eval­u­at­ed with respon­si­bil­i­ty.  

  9. See Chisté, Del Re, and For­ti, Oltro il lavoro domes­ti­co; M. Fer­rera, Il fat­tore D (Milano: Mon­dadori, 2008); Gøs­ta Esp­ing-Ander­sen, La riv­o­luzione incom­pi­u­ta. Don­ne, famiglie, wel­fare (Bolog­na: Il Muli­no, 2011). 

  10. La ripro­duzione del pos­si­bile. Oltre il lavoro, oltre la famiglia,” inter­view with Anna Cur­cio and Kathi Weeks. 

  11. C. Lec­ca­rdi, Soci­olo­gie del tem­po. Sogget­ti e tem­po nel­la soci­età dell’accelerazione (Roma: Lat­erza, 2009), 8. 

  12. See G. Vaugh­an, For Giv­ing: A Fem­i­nist Crit­i­cism of Exchange (Austin: Plain View Press, 1997).  

  13. La Repub­bli­ca, 30 July 2012: 21. 

Author of the article

is associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Padova.