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

  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.