How Not To Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class

Factory Complex (Heung-soon Im, 2014)
Fac­to­ry Com­plex (Heung-soon Im, 2014)

“…labor-pow­er is a com­mod­i­ty which its pos­ses­sor, the wage-work­er, sells to the cap­i­tal­ist. Why does he sell it? It is in order to live.”

– Karl Marx, Wage, Labor and Cap­i­tal

Since its very for­ma­tion, but par­tic­u­lar­ly since the late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the glob­al work­ing class has faced a tremen­dous chal­lenge – how to over­come all its divi­sions to appear in ship-shape in full com­bat­ive form to over­throw cap­i­tal­ism.1 After glob­al work­ing class strug­gles failed to sur­mount this chal­lenge, the work­ing class itself became the object of a broad range of the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal con­dem­na­tions. Most often, the­se con­dem­na­tions take the form of either dec­la­ra­tions or pre­dic­tions about the demise of the work­ing class or sim­ply argu­ing that the work­ing class is not longer a valid agent of change. Oth­er can­di­dates – wom­en, racial/ethnic minori­ties, new social move­ments, an amor­phous but insur­gent “peo­ple,” com­mu­ni­ty, to name a few – are all thrown up as pos­si­ble alter­na­tives to this pre­sumed moribund/reformist or mas­culin­ist and econ­o­mistic cat­e­go­ry, the work­ing class.

What many of the­se con­dem­na­tions have in com­mon is a shared mis­un­der­stand­ing of exact­ly what the work­ing class real­ly is. Instead of the com­plex under­stand of class his­tor­i­cal­ly pro­posed by Marx­ist the­o­ry, which dis­clos­es a vision of insur­gent work­ing class pow­er capa­ble of tran­scend­ing sec­tion­al cat­e­gories, today’s crit­ics rely on a high­ly nar­row vision of a “work­ing class” in which a work­er is sim­ply a per­son who has a speci­fic kind of job.

In this essay, I will refute this spu­ri­ous con­cep­tion of class by reac­ti­vat­ing fun­da­men­tal Marx­ist insights about class for­ma­tion that have been obscured by four decades of neolib­er­al­ism and the many defeats of the glob­al work­ing class. The key to devel­op­ing a suf­fi­cient­ly dynam­ic under­stand­ing of the work­ing class, I will argue, is the frame­work of social repro­duc­tion. In think­ing about the work­ing class, it is essen­tial to rec­og­nize that work­ers have an exis­tence beyond the work­place. The the­o­ret­i­cal chal­lenge there­fore lies in under­stand­ing the rela­tion­ship between this exis­tence and that of their pro­duc­tive lives under the direct dom­i­na­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist. The rela­tion­ship between the­se spheres will in turn help us con­sid­er strate­gic direc­tions for class strug­gle.

But before we get there, we need to start from the very begin­ning, that is, from Karl Marx’s cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my, since the roots of today’s lim­it­ed con­cep­tion of the work­ing class stem in large part from an equal­ly lim­it­ed under­stand­ing of the econ­o­my itself.

The economy

The alle­ga­tions that Marx­ism is reduc­tive or econ­o­mistic only make sense if one reads the econ­o­my as neu­tral mar­ket forces deter­min­ing the fate of humans by chance; or in the sense of a trade-union bureau­crat whose under­stand­ing of the work­er is restrict­ed to the wage earn­er. Let us here first deal with why this restric­tive view of the “eco­nom­ic” is some­thing that Marx often crit­i­cizes.

Marx’s con­tri­bu­tion to social the­o­ry was not sim­ply to point to the his­tor­i­cal-mate­ri­al­ist basis of social life, but to pro­pose that in order to get to this mate­ri­al­ist basis the his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist must first under­stand that real­i­ty is not as it appears.2

The “econ­o­my,” as it appears to us, is the sphere where we do an hon­est day’s work and get paid for it. Some wages might be low, oth­ers high. But the prin­ci­ple that struc­tures this “econ­o­my” is that the cap­i­tal­ist and the work­er are equal beings who engage in an equal trans­ac­tion: the worker’s labor for a wage from the boss.

Accord­ing to Marx, how­ev­er, this sphere is “in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Free­dom, Equal­i­ty, Prop­er­ty and Ben­tham.” In this one stroke Marx shakes our faith in the fun­da­men­tal props of mod­ern soci­ety: our juridi­cal rights. Marx is not sug­gest­ing that the juridi­cal rights we bear as equal sub­jects are nonex­is­tent or fic­tive, but that such rights are anchored in mar­ket rela­tions. The trans­ac­tions between work­ers and cap­i­tal­ists take the form – inso­far as they are con­sid­ered pure­ly from the stand­point of mar­ket exchange – of exchange between legal equals. Marx is not argu­ing there are no juridi­cal rights, but that they mask the real­i­ty of exploita­tion.

If what we com­mon­ly under­stand as the “econ­o­my” is then mere­ly sur­face, what is this secret that cap­i­tal has man­aged to hide from us? That its ani­mat­ing force is human labor.

As soon as we, fol­low­ing Marx, restore labor as the source of val­ue under cap­i­tal­ism and as the expres­sion of the very social life of human­i­ty, we restore to the “eco­nom­ic” process its messy, sen­su­ous, gen­dered, raced, and unruly com­po­nent: liv­ing human beings capa­ble of fol­low­ing orders – as well as of flout­ing them.

The economic as a social relation

To con­cen­trate on the sur­face “econ­o­my” (of the mar­ket) as if this was the was sole real­i­ty is to obscure two relat­ed process­es:

  1. the sep­a­ra­tion between the “polit­i­cal” and “eco­nom­ic” that is unique to cap­i­tal­ism; and
  2. the actu­al process of domination/expropriation that hap­pens beyond the sphere of “equal” exchange.

The first process ensures that the acts of appro­pri­a­tion by the cap­i­tal­ist appear com­plete­ly cloaked in eco­nom­ic garb, insep­a­ra­ble from the process of pro­duc­tion itself. As Ellen Meiksins Wood explained: “So…where ear­lier [pre­cap­i­tal­ist] pro­duc­ers might per­ceive them­selves as strug­gling to keep what was right­ful­ly theirs, the struc­ture of cap­i­tal­ism encour­ages work­ers to per­ceive them­selves as strug­gling to get a share of what belongs to cap­i­tal, a ‘fair wage,’ in exchange for their labor.”3 Since this process makes invis­i­ble the act of exploita­tion, the work­er is caught in this sphere of juridi­cal “equal­i­ty,” nego­ti­at­ing rather than ques­tion­ing the wage-form.

How­ev­er, it is the sec­ond invis­i­ble process that forms the piv­ot of social life. When we leave the Ben­thamite sphere of juridi­cal equal­i­ty and head to what Marx calls the “hid­den abode of pro­duc­tion”:

He, who before was the mon­ey-own­er, now strides in front as cap­i­tal­ist; the pos­ses­sor of labor-pow­er fol­lows as his labor­er. The one with an air of impor­tance, smirk­ing, intent on busi­ness; the oth­er, timid and hold­ing back, like one who is bring­ing his own hide to mar­ket and has noth­ing to expect but – a hid­ing.4

Marx empha­sizes here the oppo­site of “economism” or “free trade vul­gar­is” as he calls it. He is invit­ing us to see the “eco­nom­ic” as a social rela­tion: one that involves dom­i­na­tion and coer­cion even if juridi­cal forms and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions seek to obscure that.

Let us pause here to rehearse the three fun­da­men­tal claims made about the econ­o­my so far. One, that the econ­o­my as we see it is, accord­ing to Marx, a sur­face appear­ance; two, that the appear­ance, which is steeped in a rhetoric of equal­i­ty and free­dom, con­ceals a “hid­den abode” where domination/coercion reigns and those rela­tions form the piv­ot of cap­i­tal­ism; hence, three, that the eco­nom­ic is also a social rela­tion, in that the pow­er that is nec­es­sary to run this hid­den abode – to sub­mit the work­er to mod­es of dom­i­na­tion – is also by neces­si­ty a polit­i­cal pow­er.

The pur­pose of this coer­cion and dom­i­na­tion, and the crux of the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my con­sid­ered as a social rela­tion, is to get the work­er to pro­duce more than the val­ue of their labor pow­er. “The val­ue of labour pow­er” Marx tells us, “is the val­ue of the means of sub­sis­tence nec­es­sary for the main­te­nance of its own­er [i.e., the work­er].”5 The addi­tion­al val­ue that she pro­duces dur­ing the work­ing day is appro­pri­at­ed by cap­i­tal as sur­plus val­ue. The wage form is noth­ing but the val­ue nec­es­sary to repro­duce the worker’s labor pow­er.

In order to explain how this theft occurs every day, Marx intro­duces us to the con­cepts of nec­es­sary and sur­plus labor time. Nec­es­sary labor time is that por­tion of the work day in which the direct pro­duc­er, our work­er, makes val­ue equiv­a­lent to what is need­ed for her own repro­duc­tion, sur­plus labor time is all of the remain­ing work day where she makes addi­tion­al val­ue for cap­i­tal.

This ensem­ble of con­cep­tu­al cat­e­gories that Marx pro­pos­es here form what is more gen­er­al­ly known as the labor the­o­ry of val­ue. In this ensem­ble, two core cat­e­gories that we should par­tic­u­lar­ly attend to are (a) labor pow­er itself: its com­po­si­tion, deploy­ment, repro­duc­tion and ulti­mate replace­ment; and (b) the space of work, i.e. the ques­tion of labor at the point of pro­duc­tion.

Labor power: the “unique commodity” and its social reproduction

Marx intro­duces the con­cept of labor pow­er with great delib­er­a­tion. Labor-pow­er, in Marx’s sense, is our capac­i­ty to labor. “We mean by labour-pow­er or labour-capac­i­ty,” Marx explains, “the aggre­gate of those men­tal and phys­i­cal capa­bil­i­ties exist­ing in the phys­i­cal form, the liv­ing per­son­al­i­ty, of a human being, capa­bil­i­ties which he sets in motion when­ev­er he pro­duces a use-val­ue of any kind.”6 Obvi­ous­ly, the capac­i­ty to labor is a tran­shis­toric qual­i­ty that humans pos­sess irre­spec­tive of the social for­ma­tion of which they are a part. What is speci­fic to cap­i­tal­ism how­ev­er is that only under this sys­tem of pro­duc­tion, com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­tion becomes gen­er­al­ized through­out soci­ety and com­mod­i­fied labor, avail­able for sale in the mar­ket­place, becomes the dom­i­nant mode of exploita­tion.7 Thus, under cap­i­tal­ism, what is gen­er­al­ized in com­mod­i­ty form is a human capac­i­ty. In sev­er­al pas­sages Marx refers to this with the sav­agery that such a muti­la­tion of self deserves: “The pos­ses­sor of labour-pow­er, instead of being able to sell com­modi­ties in which his labour has been objec­ti­fied, must rather be com­pelled to offer for sale as a com­mod­i­ty that very labour-pow­er which exists only in his liv­ing body.”8

Fur­ther, we can only speak of labor pow­er when the work­er uses that capac­i­ty, or it “becomes a real­i­ty only by being expressed; it is acti­vat­ed only through labour.”9 So it must fol­low that as labor pow­er is expend­ed in the process of pro­duc­tion of oth­er com­modi­ties, there­by “a def­i­nite quan­ti­ty of human mus­cle, nerve, brain, etc.,” the rough com­pos­ite of labor pow­er, “is expend­ed, and the­se things have to be replaced.“10

How can labor pow­er be restored? Marx is ambigu­ous on this point:

If the own­er of labour-pow­er works today, tomor­row he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same con­di­tions as regards health and strength. His means of sub­sis­tence must there­fore be suf­fi­cient to main­tain him in his nor­mal state as a work­ing indi­vid­u­al. His nat­u­ral needs, such as food, cloth­ing, fuel and hous­ing vary accord­ing to the cli­mat­ic and oth­er phys­i­cal pecu­liar­i­ties of his coun­try. On the oth­er hand, the num­ber and extent of his so-called nec­es­sary require­ments, as also the man­ner in which they are sat­is­fied, are them­selves the pro­duct of his­to­ry, and depend there­fore to a great extent on the lev­el of civ­i­liza­tion attained by a coun­try; in par­tic­u­lar they depend on the con­di­tions in which and con­se­quent­ly on the habits and expec­ta­tions with which, the class of free work­ers has been formed.11

Here we fal­ter and sense that the con­tent of Marx’s cri­tique to be inad­e­quate to his form. There are sev­er­al ques­tions the above pas­sage pro­vokes and then leaves unan­swered.

Social Repro­duc­tion Marx­ists and fem­i­nists, such as Lise Vogel, have drawn atten­tion to the “pro­duc­tion” of human beings, in this case, the work­er, which takes place away from the site of pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. Social Repro­duc­tion the­o­rists right­ly want to devel­op fur­ther what Marx leaves unex­am­ined. That is, what are the impli­ca­tions of labor pow­er being pro­duced out­side the cir­cuit of com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­tion, yet being essen­tial to it? The most his­tor­i­cal­ly endur­ing site for the repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er is of course the kin-based unit we call the fam­i­ly. It plays a key role in bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion – as the gen­er­a­tional replace­ment of the work­ing class – and in repro­duc­ing the work­er, through food, shel­ter, and psy­chi­cal care, to become ready for the next day of work. Both those func­tions are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly borne by wom­en under cap­i­tal­ism and are the sources of women’s oppres­sion under the sys­tem.12

But the above pas­sage needs devel­op­ment in oth­er respects as well. Labor pow­er, for instance, as Vogel has point­ed out, is not sim­ply replen­ished at home, nor is it always repro­duced gen­er­a­tional­ly. The fam­i­ly may form the site of indi­vid­u­al renewal of labor pow­er, but that alone does not explain “the con­di­tions under which, and…the habits and degree of com­fort in which,” the work­ing class of any par­tic­u­lar soci­ety has been pro­duced. What oth­er social rela­tion­ships and insti­tu­tions are com­prised by the cir­cuit of social repro­duc­tion? Pub­lic edu­ca­tion and health care sys­tems, leisure facil­i­ties in the com­mu­ni­ty, pen­sions and ben­e­fits for the elder­ly all com­pose togeth­er those his­tor­i­cal­ly deter­mined “habits.” Sim­i­lar­ly, gen­er­a­tional replace­ment through child­birth in the kin-based fam­i­ly unit, although dom­i­nant, is not the only way a labor force may be replaced. Slav­ery and immi­gra­tion are two of the most com­mon ways in which cap­i­tal has replaced labor with­in nation­al bound­aries.

Relat­ed­ly, let us sup­pose that a cer­tain bas­ket of goods (x) is nec­es­sary to “repro­duce” a par­tic­u­lar work­er. This “bas­ket of goods” con­tain­ing food, shel­ter, edu­ca­tion, health­care, and so on are then con­sumed by this myth­i­cal (or some would say uni­ver­sal) work­er to repro­duce her­self. But does the size and con­tent of the bas­ket goods not vary depend­ing on the race, nation­al­i­ty and gen­der of the work­er? Marx seemed to think so. Con­sid­er his dis­cus­sion of the Irish Work­er and her/his “needs” as com­pared to oth­er work­ers. If work­ers low­ered their con­sump­tion (in order to save), Marx argues, then they would “inevitably degrade…[themselves] to the lev­el of the Irish, to that lev­el of wage labor­ers where the mer­est ani­mal min­i­mum of needs and means of sub­sis­tence appears as the sole object and pur­pose of their exchange with cap­i­tal.”13

We will have occa­sion to dis­cuss the ques­tion of dif­fer­en­tial needs pro­duc­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of labor pow­ers lat­er, for now let us sim­ply note that the ques­tion of repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er is by no means a sim­ple one. As we can see there is already inti­ma­tion of a com­plex total­i­ty when con­sid­er­ing Marx’s “hid­den abode of pro­duc­tion” and its struc­tur­ing impulse on the sur­face “econ­o­my.” Marx’s orig­i­nal out­line, enriched now through the frame­work of social repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er, thor­ough­ly com­pli­cates the nar­row bour­geois def­i­n­i­tion of the “econ­o­my” and/or “pro­duc­tion” that we began with in fun­da­men­tal ways.

Beyond the two-dimen­sion­al image of indi­vid­u­al direct pro­duc­er locked in wage labor, we begin to see emerge myr­i­ad cap­il­lar­ies of social rela­tions extend­ing between work­place, home, schools, hos­pi­tals – a wider social whole, sus­tained and co-pro­duced by human labor in con­tra­dic­to­ry yet con­sti­tu­tive ways. If we direct our atten­tion to those deep veins of embody­ing social rela­tions, in any actu­al soci­ety today, how can we fail to find the chaotic, mul­ti­eth­nic, multi­gen­dered, dif­fer­ent­ly abled sub­ject that is the glob­al work­ing class?

The twains of production and reproduction

It is impor­tant in this regard to clar­i­fy that what we des­ig­nat­ed above as two sep­a­rate spaces – (a) spaces of pro­duc­tion of val­ue (point of pro­duc­tion) (b) spaces for repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er – may be sep­a­rate in a strict­ly spa­tial sense but they are actu­al­ly unit­ed in both the the­o­ret­i­cal and oper­a­tional sens­es.14 They are, par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal forms of appear­ance, in which cap­i­tal­ism posits itself. Indeed, some­times the two process­es may be ongo­ing with­in the same space. Con­sid­er the case of pub­lic schools. They func­tion both as work places or points of pro­duc­tion and also as spaces where labor pow­er (of the future work­er) is social­ly repro­duced. As in the case of pen­sions, so in the case of pub­lic health or edu­ca­tion, the State out­lays some funds for the social repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er. It is only with­in the home that the process of social repro­duc­tion remains unwaged.

The ques­tion of sep­a­rate spheres and why they are his­tor­i­cal forms of appear­ance, is an impor­tant one and worth spend­ing some time on.

A com­mon mis­un­der­stand­ing about “social repro­duc­tion the­o­ry” is that it is about two sep­a­rate spaces and two sep­a­rate process­es of pro­duc­tion: the eco­nom­ic and the social – often under­stood as the work­place and home. In this under­stand­ing, the work­er pro­duces sur­plus val­ue at work, and hence is part of the pro­duc­tion of the total wealth of soci­ety. At the end of the work­day, because the work­er is “free” under cap­i­tal­ism, cap­i­tal must relin­quish con­trol over the process of regen­er­a­tion of the work­er and hence the repro­duc­tion of the work­force.

Marx, how­ev­er, has a very speci­fic under­stand­ing and pro­pos­al for the con­cept of social repro­duc­tion.

First, this is a the­o­ret­i­cal con­cept he deploys to draw atten­tion to the repro­duc­tion of soci­ety as a whole not only with the regen­er­a­tion of labor pow­er of the work­er or repro­duc­tion of the work­force. This under­stand­ing of the the­ater of cap­i­tal­ism as a total­i­ty is impor­tant, because at this point of the argu­ment in Cap­i­tal Vol­ume 1, Marx has already estab­lished that unlike bour­geois eco­nom­ics that sees the com­mod­i­ty as the cen­tral char­ac­ter of this nar­ra­tive (sup­ply and demand deter­mine the mar­ket), it is labor that is its chief pro­tag­o­nist. Thus what hap­pens to labor – specif­i­cal­ly, how labor cre­ates val­ue and con­se­quent­ly sur­plus val­ue – shapes the entire­ty of the cap­i­tal­ist process of pro­duc­tion. “In the con­cept of val­ue,” Marx says in the Grun­dris­se, capital’s “secret is betrayed.”15

Social repro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem – and it is to explain the repro­duc­tion of the sys­tem that Marx uses the term – is there­fore not about a sep­a­ra­tion between a non-eco­nom­ic sphere and the eco­nom­ic, but about how the eco­nom­ic impulse of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion con­di­tions the so called non-eco­nom­ic. The “non-eco­nom­ic” includes among oth­er things, what sort of state, juridi­cal insti­tu­tions and prop­er­ty-form a soci­ety has – while the­se in turn are con­di­tioned, but not always deter­mined, by the econ­o­my. Marx under­stands each par­tic­u­lar stage in the val­oriza­tion of cap­i­tal as a moment of a total­i­ty that leads him to state clear­ly in Cap­i­tal: “When viewed, there­fore, as a con­nect­ed whole, and in the con­stant flux of its inces­sant renewal, every social process of pro­duc­tion is at the same time a process of repro­duc­tion.”16

This approach is best out­lined in Michael Lebowitz’s Beyond Cap­i­tal. Lebowitz’s work is a mas­ter­ful inte­gra­tive analy­sis of the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of labor pow­er, in which he shows that under­stand­ing the social repro­duc­tion of wage labor is not an out­er or inci­den­tal phe­nom­e­na that ought to be “added” to the under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism as a whole, but actu­al­ly reveals impor­tant inner ten­den­cies of the sys­tem. Lebow­itz calls the moment of the pro­duc­tion of labor pow­er “a sec­ond moment” of pro­duc­tion as a whole. This moment is “dis­tinct from the process of pro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal” but the cir­cuit of cap­i­tal “nec­es­sar­i­ly implies a sec­ond cir­cuit, the cir­cuit of wage-labor.”17

As Marx sums it up, right­ly, and with a bit of flour­ish:

The cap­i­tal­ist process of pro­duc­tion, there­fore, seen as a total con­nect­ed process, i.e. a process of repro­duc­tion, pro­duces not only com­modi­ties, not only sur­plus-val­ue, but it also pro­duces and repro­duces the cap­i­tal rela­tion itself; on the one hand the cap­i­tal­ist, on the oth­er the wage-labour­er.18

Here, by social repro­duc­tion Marx means the repro­duc­tion of the entire­ty of soci­ety, which brings us back to the unique com­mod­i­ty, labor pow­er, that needs to be replen­ished and ulti­mate­ly replaced with­out there being any breaks or stop­pages to the con­tin­u­ous cir­cuit of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of the whole.

There is a lot at stake, both the­o­ret­i­cal as well as strate­gic, in under­stand­ing this process of the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties and the repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er as uni­fied. Name­ly, (a) we need to aban­don not just the frame­work of dis­crete spheres of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, but also (b) because repro­duc­tion is linked with­in cap­i­tal­ism to pro­duc­tion, we need to revise the com­mon­sense per­cep­tion that cap­i­tal relin­quish­es all con­trol over the work­er when s/he leaves the work­place.

The­o­ret­i­cal­ly if we con­cede that pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties and the social repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er belong to sep­a­rate process­es, then we have no expla­na­tion for why the work­er is sub­or­di­nate before the moment of pro­duc­tion even takes place. Why does labor appear, in Marx’s words, “timid and hold­ing back, like one who is bring­ing his own hide to mar­ket”? It is because Marx has a uni­tary view of the process that he can show us that the moment of pro­duc­tion of the sim­ple com­mod­i­ty is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a sin­gu­lar entry point for the enslave­ment of labor. There­fore, “in real­i­ty,” Marx tells us, “the work­er belongs to cap­i­tal before he has sold him­self to the cap­i­tal­ist. His eco­nom­ic bondage is both at once medi­at­ed through, and con­cealed by, the peri­od­ic renewal of the act by which he sells him­self, his change of mas­ters, and the oscil­la­tions in the mar­ket-price of his labour.”19

But this link between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, and the exten­sion of the class rela­tion­ship into the lat­ter, means that, as we will see in the next sec­tion, the very acts where the work­ing class strives to attend to its own needs can be the ground for class strug­gle.

Extended reproduction: the key to class struggle

What binds the work­er to cap­i­tal?

Under cap­i­tal­ism, since the means of pro­duc­tion (to pro­duce use val­ues) are held by the cap­i­tal­ists, the work­er only has access to the means of sub­sis­tence through the cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion process – sell­ing her labor pow­er to the cap­i­tal­ist in return for wages with which to pur­chase and access the means of her life, or sub­sis­tence.

This schema of cap­i­tal-labor rela­tion­ship is heav­i­ly pred­i­cat­ed upon two things: (a) that the work­er is forced to enter this rela­tion­ship because she has needs as a human being to repro­duce her life but can­not do so on her own because she has been sep­a­rat­ed from the means of pro­duc­tion by cap­i­tal; and (b) she enters the wage rela­tions for her sub­sis­tence needs, which is to say that the needs of “life” (sub­sis­tence) have a deep inte­gral con­nec­tion to the realm of “work” (exploita­tion).

So far we are more or less in undis­put­ed ter­ri­to­ry of Marx­ist the­o­ry.

Exact delin­eations of the rela­tion­ships between the val­ue of labor pow­er, the needs of the work­er, and how those in turn affect sur­plus val­ue are, how­ev­er, nei­ther undis­put­ed nor ade­quate­ly the­o­rized in Cap­i­tal and it is to this that we will spend the remain­der of this sec­tion.

Let us revis­it the moment in Cap­i­tal where even the indi­vid­u­al con­sump­tion of the work­er is also part of the cir­cuit of cap­i­tal because the repro­duc­tion of the work­er is, as Marx calls it, “a fac­tor of the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal.”

A cen­tral premise that Marx offers us about labor pow­er is that the val­ue of labor pow­er is set by the “val­ue of the nec­es­saries required to pro­duce, devel­op, main­tain, and per­pet­u­ate the labor­ing pow­er.”20 But there is some­thing else to this for­mu­la­tion. For the sake of mak­ing a log­i­cal argu­ment (as opposed to a his­tor­i­cal one) Marx treats the stan­dard of neces­si­ties as con­stant: “In a given coun­try at a given peri­od, the aver­age amount of the means of sub­sis­tence nec­es­sary for the work­er is a known datum.21

In Cap­i­tal the val­ue of labor pow­er on the basis of the stan­dard of neces­si­ty (U) is tak­en as con­stant and the changes in price of labor pow­er are attrib­ut­ed to the intro­duc­tion of machin­ery and/or the rise and fall of sup­ply and demand of work­ers in the labor mar­ket.

As Lebow­itz has point­ed out, tak­ing this method­olog­i­cal assump­tion as fact would put Marx at his clos­est to Clas­si­cal econ­o­mists: endors­ing the for­mu­la­tion that sup­ply shifts in the labor mar­ket and the intro­duc­tion of machin­ery adjust the price of labor to its val­ue, just as it does for all oth­er com­modi­ties.

But there is a rea­son why the worker’s labor pow­er is deemed a unique com­mod­i­ty by Marx, unlike, say sug­ar or cot­ton. In the case of labor, a reverse process may and can take place: the val­ue of her labor pow­er may adjust to price, rather than the oth­er way around. The work­er may adjust (low­er or raise) her needs to what she receives in wages.

Accord­ing to Lebow­itz, Marx does not have a gen­er­al­ized con­cept of con­stant real wages (means of sub­sis­tence, U) but only adopts it as a “method­olog­i­cal­ly sound assump­tion.”22 In con­trast to bour­geois polit­i­cal econ­o­mists, Marx always “reject­ed the tendency…to treat work­ers’ needs as nat­u­ral­ly deter­mined and unchang­ing.” It was patent­ly mis­tak­en, Marx thought, to con­cep­tu­al­ize sub­sis­tence lev­el “as an unchange­able mag­ni­tude – which in their [bour­geois econ­o­mists’] view is deter­mined entire­ly by nature and not by the stage of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment, which is itself a mag­ni­tude sub­ject to fluc­tu­a­tions.”23 Noth­ing could be “more alien to Marx” empha­sizes Lebow­itz, than “the belief in a fixed set of neces­si­ties.”24

Let us con­sid­er a sce­nar­io where the stan­dard of neces­si­ty (U) is fixed as Marx dic­tates, but there is an increase in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty (q). In such a case the val­ue of the set of wage goods (our orig­i­nal bas­ket of goods x) would fall there­by reduc­ing the val­ue of labor pow­er. In this sce­nar­io Marx says that labor pow­er “would be unchanged in price” but “would have risen above its val­ue.” This means that with more mon­ey wages at their dis­pos­al, work­ers can go on to buy more goods or ser­vices that sat­is­fy their needs. But accord­ing the Lebow­itz, this nev­er hap­pens. Instead, mon­ey wages tend to adjust to real wages, and cap­i­tal­ists are thus able to ben­e­fit from the reduced val­ue of labor pow­er. Lebow­itz then pro­ceeds to explain why it is that cap­i­tal­ists, rather than work­ers, ben­e­fit from this sce­nar­io.

Briefly put, he points out that the stan­dard of neces­si­ty (U) is not invari­able, but is actu­al­ly “enforced by class strug­gle.” Thus, with a rise in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty (q) and a “decline in the val­ue of wage goods pro­vid­ing slack in the work­ers’ bud­get, capitalists…[are] embold­ened to attempt to dri­ve down mon­ey wages to cap­ture the gain for them­selves in the form of sur­plus val­ue.”25 But once we see that the stan­dard of neces­si­ty is vari­able and can be deter­mined by class strug­gle then it becomes clear that the work­ing class can fight on this front as well. Indeed, this is one of the con­se­quences of under­stand­ing the expand­ed sense in which the eco­nom­ic is actu­al­ly a set of social rela­tions tra­versed by a strug­gle for class pow­er.

Once we acknowl­edge class strug­gle as a com­po­nent of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion it becomes clear, as Lebow­itz shows, that there are two dif­fer­ent “moments of pro­duc­tion.” They are com­posed of “two dif­fer­ent goals, two dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on the val­ue of labor pow­er: while for cap­i­tal, the val­ue of labor pow­er is a means of sat­is­fy­ing its goal of sur­plus value…for the wage-labor­er, it is the means of sat­is­fy­ing the goal of self devel­op­ment.”26

Repro­duc­tion, in short, is there­fore a site of class con­flict. How­ev­er, this con­flict in inflect­ed with cer­tain con­tra­dic­to­ry ten­den­cies. For instance, on the one hand, as the orches­tra­tor of the pro­duc­tion process the cap­i­tal­ist class strives to lim­it the needs and con­sump­tion of the work­ing class. But on the oth­er hand, to ensure the con­stant real­iza­tion of sur­plus val­ue, cap­i­tal must also cre­ate new needs in the work­ing class as con­sumers and then “sat­is­fy” such new needs with new com­modi­ties. The growth of work­ers’ needs under cap­i­tal­ism is thus an inher­ent con­di­tion of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion and its expan­sion.

A fur­ther com­pli­ca­tion in this class strug­gle over the terms of repro­duc­tion is that the growth of needs for work­ers is nei­ther sec­u­lar or absolute. The posi­tion of the work­ing class under cap­i­tal­ism is a rel­a­tive one, i.e. in a rela­tion­ship with the cap­i­tal­ist class. Hence any changes in the needs and in the lev­el of sat­is­fac­tion of work­ers are also rel­a­tive to changes in the same for the cap­i­tal­ists. Marx used the mem­o­rable exam­ple of how the per­cep­tion of the size of a house (its big­ness or small­ness) was rel­a­tive to the size of its sur­round­ing hous­es.27 Thus one gen­er­a­tion of a work­ing class may earn, in absolute terms, more than its pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion; how­ev­er, their sat­is­fac­tion will nev­er be absolute as that gen­er­a­tion of cap­i­tal­ists will always have more. Since the growth of work­ers’ needs, then, is part of the process of capital’s val­oriza­tion and their sat­is­fac­tion can­not take place with­in the frame­work of the sys­tem, the strug­gle by work­ers to sat­is­fy their own needs is also an inher­ent and inte­gral part of the sys­tem.

If we include the strug­gle for high­er wages (to sat­is­fy ever increas­ing needs) in the argu­ment in Cap­i­tal is it an exoge­nous, hence eclec­tic, “addi­tion” to Marx­ism? Lebow­itz shows it not to be so.

What Cap­i­tal lays out for us is the path of repro­duc­tion for cap­i­tal. Marx rep­re­sents capital’s move­ment as a cir­cuit:

M - C (Mp,Lp) — P — C’ - M’

Mon­ey (M) is exchanged for com­modi­ties (C) that is a com­bi­na­tion of (i) means of pro­duc­tion (Mp) and (ii) labor pow­er (Lp). The two ele­ments com­bine through cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion (P) to pro­duce new com­modi­ties and sur­plus val­ue (C’) to be then exchanged for a greater amount of mon­ey (M’). Such a cir­cuit is both con­tin­u­ous and com­plete upon itself, rul­ing out any exoge­nous ele­ments.

But what about the cir­cuit of repro­duc­tion of wage labor?

The “unique­ness” of labor pow­er lies in the fact that although it is not pro­duced and repro­duced by cap­i­tal, it is vital to capital’s own cir­cuit of pro­duc­tion. In Cap­i­tal Marx does not the­o­rize this sec­ond cir­cuit but sim­ply notes that “The main­te­nance and repro­duc­tion of the work­ing class remains a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal,” and that “the cap­i­tal­ist may safe­ly leave this to the worker’s dri­ve for self-preser­va­tion and prop­a­ga­tion.” This is where Lebow­itz argues there ought to be acknowl­edged a miss­ing cir­cuit of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, that of labor pow­er. Marx per­haps would have addressed this in lat­er vol­umes of Cap­i­tal, but it remains incom­plete as the “Miss­ing Book on Wage Labor.”

Once we the­o­ret­i­cal­ly inte­grate the two cir­cuits: that of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal and that of the same for labor pow­er, com­modi­ties them­selves reveal their dual func­tions.

Com­modi­ties pro­duced under cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion are both means of pro­duc­tion (bought by cap­i­tal for mon­ey), and arti­cles of con­sump­tion (bought by work­ers with their wages). A sec­ond cir­cuit of pro­duc­tion then must be posit­ed, dis­tinct from that of cap­i­tal, though in rela­tion with it. This cir­cuit is as fol­lows:

M - Ac — P — Lp - M

Mon­ey (M), in the worker’s hands, is exchanged for arti­cles of con­sump­tion (Ac) which are then con­sumed in a sim­i­lar process of pro­duc­tion (P). But now what is pro­duced in this “pro­duc­tion process” is a unique com­mod­i­ty – the worker’s labor pow­er (Lp). Once pro­duced (or repro­duced) it is then sold to the cap­i­tal­ist in exchange for wages (M).

The pro­duc­tion of labor pow­er then takes place out­side the imme­di­ate cir­cuit of cap­i­tal but remains essen­tial for it. With­in capital’s cir­cuit, labor pow­er is a means of pro­duc­tion for capital’s repro­duc­tion, or val­oriza­tion. But with­in wage labor’s cir­cuit, the work­er con­sumes com­modi­ties as use val­ues (food, cloth­ing, hous­ing, edu­ca­tion) in order to repro­duce her­self. The sec­ond cir­cuit is a process of pro­duc­tion of self for the work­er or a process of self-trans­for­ma­tion.

The sec­ond cir­cuit of pro­duc­tion enclos­es a pur­pose­ful activ­i­ty, under the work­ers’ own self-direc­tion. The goal of this process, is not the val­oriza­tion of cap­i­tal, but the self devel­op­ment of the work­er. The his­tor­i­cal­ly embed­ded needs of the work­er which them­selves change and grow with cap­i­tal­ist growth, provide the motive for this labor process. The means of pro­duc­tion for this cir­cuit are the man­i­fold use­ful val­ues that the work­ing class needs in order to devel­op. The­se are more than just means to sim­ple bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion, but are “social needs”:

Par­tic­i­pa­tion in the high­er, even cul­tur­al sat­is­fac­tions, the agi­ta­tion for his own inter­ests, news­pa­per sub­scrip­tions, attend­ing lec­tures, edu­cat­ing his chil­dren, devel­op­ing his taste etc., his only share of civ­i­liza­tion which dis­tin­guish­es him from the slave, [which] is eco­nom­i­cal­ly only pos­si­ble by widen­ing the sphere of his plea­sures at the times when busi­ness is good…28

Whether the work­ing class can access such social goods, and to what extent it can, depends not only on the exis­tence of such goods and ser­vices in soci­ety but on the tus­sle between cap­i­tal and labor over sur­plus val­ue (which repro­duces cap­i­tal) and the bas­ket of goods (which repro­duces the work­er). On the one hand the work­er con­sumes use val­ues to regen­er­ate fresh labor pow­er. But on the oth­er hand, the repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er also pre­sup­pos­es, what Lebow­itz per­cep­tive­ly shows, an ide­al goal for the work­er:

The sec­ond aspect of the work­er con­sid­ered as a labor process is that the activ­i­ty involved in this process is “pur­pose­ful activ­i­ty.” In oth­er words, there is a pre­con­ceived goal, a goal that exists ide­al­ly, before the process itself…[and this goal] is the worker’s con­cep­tion of self—as deter­mined with­in society…That pre­con­ceived goal of pro­duc­tion is what Marx described as “the worker’s own need of devel­op­ment.”29

How­ev­er, the mate­ri­als nec­es­sary to pro­duce the work­er in the image of her own needs and goals – be it food, hous­ing, “time for edu­ca­tion, for intel­lec­tu­al devel­op­ment,” or the “free play of his [or her] own phys­i­cal and men­tal pow­ers” – can­not be real­ized with­in the cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion process, for the process as a whole exists for the val­oriza­tion of cap­i­tal and not the social devel­op­ment of labor. Thus the work­er, due to the very nature of the process, is already-always repro­duced as lack­ing in what she needs, and hence built into the fab­ric of wage labor as a form, is the strug­gle for high­er wages: class strug­gle. And here, final­ly, we arrive at the strate­gic impli­ca­tions of social repro­duc­tion the­o­ry, or why an inte­gra­tive sense of cap­i­tal­ism is nec­es­sary in our actu­al bat­tles again­st cap­i­tal.

Social reproduction framework as strategy

The “actu­al degree” of prof­it, Marx tells us, “is only set­tled by the con­tin­u­ous strug­gle between cap­i­tal and labor, the cap­i­tal­ist con­stant­ly tend­ing to reduce wages to their phys­i­cal min­i­mum, and to extend the work­ing day to its phys­i­cal max­i­mum, while the work­ing man con­stant­ly press­es in the oppo­site direc­tion.” This strug­gle “resolves itself into a ques­tion of the respec­tive pow­ers of the com­bat­ants.”30

Note that as he lays out here the inner log­ic of the sys­tem, Marx does not talk of indi­vid­u­al cap­i­tal­ists and the work­places they com­mand, but cap­i­tal as a whole. Indeed, Marx is clear that although the sys­tem appears to us as an ensem­ble of “many cap­i­tals” it is “cap­i­tal in gen­er­al” that is the pro­tag­o­nist and the many cap­i­tals are ulti­mate­ly shaped by the inher­ent deter­mi­nants of “cap­i­tal in gen­er­al.”

If we apply what I call this method of social repro­duc­tion of labor the­o­ry to the ques­tion of work­place strug­gle, we can now have a few givens:

  1. That the indi­vid­u­al cap­i­tals, in com­pe­ti­tion with each oth­er, will try to increase sur­plus val­ue from the work­er.
  2. That the work­er will pull in the oppo­site direc­tion to increase the time (quan­ti­ty) and wages, ben­e­fits (qual­i­ty of life) she can have for her own social devel­op­ment. This most fre­quent­ly will take the form of strug­gle for a short­er work­week, or high­er wages and bet­ter work con­di­tions in the work­place.

What is the ide­al sit­u­a­tion for the work­er? That she pulls all the way in the oppo­site direc­tion and anni­hi­lates sur­plus val­ue alto­geth­er, i.e. she only works the hours nec­es­sary to repro­duce her own sub­sis­tence, and the rest of the time is her own to do as she pleas­es. This is an impos­si­ble solu­tion, in that cap­i­tal will then cease to be cap­i­tal. The strug­gle for high­er wages, ben­e­fits etc. in a work place, again­st a boss, or even in a series of work­places and again­st speci­fic boss­es, then is only part of the piv­otal strug­gle of cap­i­tal in gen­er­al ver­sus wage labor in gen­er­al. The work­er can even “leave” an indi­vid­u­al boss but she can­not opt out of the sys­tem as a whole (while the sys­tem as it stands exists):

The work­er leaves the cap­i­tal­ist, to whom he has sold him­self, as often as he choos­es, and the cap­i­tal­ist dis­charges him as often as he sees fit, as soon as he no longer gets any use, or not the required use, out of him.

But the work­er, whose only source of income is the sale of his labor-pow­er, can­not leave the whole class of buy­ers, i.e., the cap­i­tal­ist class, unless he gives up his own exis­tence. He does not belong to this or that cap­i­tal­ist, but to the cap­i­tal­ist class; and it is for him to find his man – i.e., to find a buy­er in this cap­i­tal­ist class.31

Most trade unions, even the most mil­i­tant ones, are typ­i­cal­ly equipped to fight again­st the indi­vid­u­al boss or a col­lec­tive of boss­es, which in Marx’s terms takes the form of “many cap­i­tals.” Trade unions leave the task of con­fronting “cap­i­tal in gen­er­al” alone. There is a very good rea­son why this is so.

As Lebow­itz shows, capital’s pow­er “as own­er of the prod­ucts of labor is…both absolute and mys­ti­fied” – this ulti­mate­ly under­girds its abil­i­ty to buy labor pow­er and sub­mit it to its will in the pro­duc­tion process. If the work­er is to tran­scend the par­tial strug­gle for bet­ter work con­di­tions and direct all social labor to pro­duc­ing only use val­ues for social and indi­vid­u­al devel­op­ment, then it is this under­ly­ing pow­er of cap­i­tal as a whole that must be con­front­ed. But capital’s pow­er in this are­na is qual­i­ta­tive­ly dif­fer­ent from that of work­place strug­gles: “There is no direct area of con­fronta­tion between speci­fic cap­i­tal­ists and speci­fic wage labor­ers in this sphere com­pa­ra­ble to that which emerges spon­ta­neous­ly in the labor mar­ket and the workplace…[Instead] the pow­er of cap­i­tal as own­er of the prod­ucts of labor appears as the depen­dence of wage labor upon cap­i­tal-as-a-whole.”32

Con­sid­er the two ways in which sur­plus val­ue is increased: one by the absolute exten­sion of the work day and the oth­er by cut­ting wages or reduc­ing the cost of liv­ing there­by reduc­ing the nec­es­sary labor time. While Marx is clear that absolute and rel­a­tive sur­plus are relat­ed con­cepts, it is quite clear that some aspects of this process of real­iza­tion (the boss’s efforts to reduce wages, for instance) are more eas­i­ly con­front­ed in the work­place than oth­ers.

Let us take a his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of how the sys­tem as a whole will some­times increase rel­a­tive sur­plus val­ue by reduc­ing the cost of liv­ing of the work­ing class as a whole. Dur­ing the 18th cen­tu­ry a sec­tion of the work­ing class in Britain was put on a diet of pota­toes, a cheap­er food option to wheat, such that the cost of feed­ing work­ers was forced down there­by cheap­en­ing the cost of labor as a whole. One of the best and undoubt­ed­ly one of the most lyri­cal his­to­ri­ans of work­ing class life, E. P. Thomp­son, called this a “reg­u­lar dietary class war” waged for over 50 years on the Eng­lish work­ing class. What con­crete forms did this class war take? While the cheap­en­ing of labor increased sur­plus val­ue at the point of pro­duc­tion and hence ben­e­fit­ted the boss­es in the work­place, it was not just in the work­place, or at the hands of the boss­es, that the cheap­en­ing of labor took place. Thomp­son gives us a mov­ing account of how “landown­ers, farm­ers, par­sons, man­u­fac­tur­ers, and the Gov­ern­ment itself sought to dri­ve labor­ers from a wheat­en to a pota­to diet.”33 The rul­ing class, as a class, then forced the increase pota­to acreage over wheat and prompt­ing the his­to­ri­an Red­clif­fe Sala­man to right­ly claim that “the use of the potato…did, in fact, enable the work­ers to sur­vive on the low­est pos­si­ble wage.”34 Sim­i­lar­ly, San­dra Halper­in has shown how in the late nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry British over­seas invest­ment, con­trol over colonies, its rail­ways, har­bor and ship­build­ing for Baltic and North Amer­i­can grain, “pro­duced a back­flow of cheap­ly produced…raw mate­ri­als and food­stuffs that did not com­pete with domes­tic Eng­lish agri­cul­ture and drove domes­tic work­ing class wages down.”35

Trade unions, even the best ones, by nature, strug­gle again­st speci­fic and par­tic­u­lar cap­i­tals, but the above exam­ples show the need to con­front cap­i­tal in its total­i­ty. Lebow­itz accu­rate­ly con­cludes, “in the absence of such a total oppo­si­tion, the trade unions fight the effects with­in the labor mar­ket and the work­place but not the caus­es of the effects.”36

To his com­rades in the First Inter­na­tion­al Marx point­ed to pre­cise­ly this caveat in trade union strug­gles. The trade unions, Marx point­ed out, were “Too exclu­sive­ly bent upon the local and imme­di­ate strug­gles with cap­i­tal” and had “not yet ful­ly under­stood their pow­er of act­ing again­st the sys­tem of wages slav­ery itself.” What, accord­ing to Marx, was proof of their nar­row­ness? That “they had kept too much aloof from gen­er­al social and polit­i­cal move­ments.” Marx’s advice to them was to over­come this nar­row­ness and go beyond the pure­ly eco­nom­ic strug­gle for wages:

they must now learn to act delib­er­ate­ly as orga­niz­ing cen­ters of the work­ing class in the broad inter­est of its com­plete eman­ci­pa­tion. They must aid every social and polit­i­cal move­ment tend­ing in that direc­tion. Con­sid­er­ing them­selves and act­ing as the cham­pi­ons and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the whole work­ing class, they can­not fail to enlist the non-soci­ety men into their ranks. They must look care­ful­ly after the inter­ests of the worst paid trades, such as the agri­cul­tur­al labor­ers, ren­dered pow­er­less [French text has: “inca­pable of orga­nized resis­tance”] by excep­tion­al cir­cum­stances. They must con­vince the world at large [French and Ger­man texts read: “con­vince the broad mass­es of work­ers”] that their efforts, far from being nar­row – and self­ish, aim at the eman­ci­pa­tion of the down­trod­den mil­lions.37

If we take our lead from Marx him­self, then it is utter­ly unclear why only the eco­nom­ic strug­gle for wages and ben­e­fits at the work­place must be des­ig­nat­ed as class strug­gle. Every social and polit­i­cal move­ment “tend­ing” in the direc­tion of gains for the work­ing class as a whole, or of chal­lenge to the pow­er of cap­i­tal as a whole, must be con­sid­ered an aspect of class strug­gle.

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, one of the great­est tragedies of the destruc­tion of work­ing class pow­er and the dis­so­lu­tion of pro­le­tar­i­an liv­ing com­mu­ni­ties in the last forty years has been the loss in prac­tice of this insight about the social total­i­ty of pro­duc­tion of val­ue and repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er.

At any given moment of his­to­ry, a work­ing class may or may not be able to fight for high­er wages at the point of pro­duc­tion. Labor unions may not exist or may be weak and cor­rupt. How­ev­er, as items in the bas­ket of goods change (fall or rise in qual­i­ty and quan­ti­ty of social goods) the class is acute­ly aware of such changes to their life as a whole, and those bat­tles may emerge away from the point of pro­duc­tion, but nev­er­the­less reflect­ing the needs and imper­a­tives of the class. In oth­er words, where a strug­gle for a high­er wage is not pos­si­ble, dif­fer­ent kinds of strug­gles around the cir­cuit of social repro­duc­tion may also erupt. Is it then any won­der that in the era of neolib­er­al­ism, when labor unions agi­tat­ing at the point of pro­duc­tion (for wages) are weak or non-exis­tent in large parts of the globe, we have ris­ing social move­ments around issues of liv­ing con­di­tions, from the strug­gle for water in Cochabam­ba and Ire­land, issues of land evic­tion in India and strug­gles for fair hous­ing in the Unit­ed King­dom and else­where? A pat­tern per­haps best sum­ma­rized by the anti-aus­ter­i­ty pro­test­ers in Por­tu­gal: “Que se lixe a troika! Quer­e­mos as nos­sas vidas!” (“Fuck the troika! We want our lives!”)

The working class: solidarity and “difference”

We should then recon­sid­er our con­cep­tu­al vision of the work­ing class. I am not sug­gest­ing here a con­crete account­ing of who con­sti­tutes the glob­al work­ing class, although that would be an impor­tant exer­cise. Instead, lead­ing from our pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sion about the need to reimag­ine a fuller fig­u­ra­tion for “econ­o­my” and “pro­duc­tion,” I am propos­ing here three things: (a) a the­o­ret­i­cal restate­ment of the work­ing class as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject; (b) a broad­er under­stand­ing of the work­ing class than those employed as waged labor­ers at any given moment; and (c) a recon­sid­er­a­tion of class strug­gle to sig­ni­fy more than the strug­gle over wages and work­ing con­di­tions.

The premise for this recon­sid­er­a­tion is a par­tic­u­lar under­stand­ing of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism. Marx reminds us that “the speci­fic eco­nom­ic form, in which unpaid sur­plus labor is pumped out of direct pro­duc­ers, deter­mi­nes the rela­tion­ship of rulers and ruled, as it grows direct­ly out of pro­duc­tion itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a deter­min­ing ele­ment.”38

Under cap­i­tal­ism wage labor is the gen­er­al­ized form through which the rulers expro­pri­ate the direct pro­duc­ers. In the abstract, cap­i­tal is indif­fer­ent to the race, gen­der, or abil­i­ties of the direct pro­duc­ers as long as her or his labor pow­er can set the process of accu­mu­la­tion into motion. But the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, as we saw in the ear­lier sec­tion, are actu­al­ly a con­cate­na­tion of exist­ing social rela­tions, shaped by past his­to­ry, present insti­tu­tions, and state forms. The social rela­tions out­side of wage labor are not acci­den­tal to it, but take speci­fic his­tor­i­cal form in respon­se to it. For instance, the gen­dered nature of repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er has con­di­tion­ing impuls­es for the extrac­tion of sur­plus val­ue. Sim­i­lar­ly, a het­ero­sex­ist form of the fam­i­ly unit is sus­tained by capital’s needs for the gen­er­a­tional replace­ment of the labor force.

The ques­tion of “dif­fer­ence” with­in the work­ing class is sig­nif­i­cant in this respect. As men­tioned before, Marx ges­tures towards dif­fer­ent­ly “pro­duced” sec­tions of the work­ing class in his dis­cus­sion of the Irish work­er, where the Eng­lish work­er is “pro­duced” with access to a bet­ter bas­ket of goods, his or her needs adjust­ed to this high­er lev­el, while the Irish work­er remains at a bru­tal lev­el of exis­tence with only “the most ani­mal min­i­mum of needs.” Obvi­ous­ly Marx did not believe that the val­ue of the labor pow­er of the Irish work­er was a con­stant that remained below that of her Eng­lish coun­ter­part due to eth­nic­i­ty. Instead it was a result of class strug­gle, or lack there­of, and it was the Eng­lish work­er that need­ed to under­stand the com­mon­al­i­ty of their class inter­est with the Irish again­st cap­i­tal as a whole.

Incor­po­rat­ing class strug­gle as a cru­cial ele­ment that deter­mi­nes the extent and qual­i­ty of social repro­duc­tion of the work­er then enables us to tru­ly under­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of a Marx­ist notion of “dif­fer­ence” with­in the class. Acknowl­edg­ing that at any given his­tor­i­cal moment the work­ing class might be dif­fer­ent­ly pro­duced (with vary­ing wages and dif­fer­en­tial access to means of social repro­duc­tion) is more than sim­ply stat­ing an empir­i­cal truth. By show­ing how con­crete social rela­tions and his­to­ries of strug­gle con­tribute to the “repro­duc­tion” of labor pow­er this frame­work actu­al­ly points to the fil­a­ments of class sol­i­dar­i­ty that must be forged, some­time with­in and some­times with­out the work­place, in order to increase the “share of civ­i­liza­tion” for all work­ers.

Writ­ing in the Britain of the ear­ly eight­ies, when the work­ing class was being phys­i­cal­ly bru­tal­ized by Thatch­erism and the­o­ret­i­cal­ly assault­ed by a range of lib­er­al the­o­ries, Ray­mond Williams under­stood very well the dan­gers of a false dichoto­my between “class strug­gles” and “new social move­ments”:

all sig­nif­i­cant social move­ments of the last thir­ty years have start­ed out­side the orga­nized class inter­ests and insti­tu­tions. The Peace move­ment, the ecol­o­gy move­ment, the women’s move­ment, human rights agen­cies, cam­paigns again­st pover­ty and homelessness…all have this char­ac­ter, that they sprang from needs and per­cep­tions which the inter­est-based orga­ni­za­tions had no room or time for, or which they sim­ply failed to notice.39

Today, we can add to the list the recent anti-police bru­tal­i­ty strug­gles in the Unit­ed States.

But while the­se strug­gles may arise out­side the work­place, or be under­stood as strug­gles for extra-class inter­ests, Williams points to the absur­di­ty of such a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion:

What is then quite absurd is to dis­miss or under­play the­se move­ments as “mid­dle class issues.” It is a con­se­quence of the social order itself that the­se issues are qual­i­fied and refract­ed in the­se ways. It is sim­i­lar­ly absurd to push the issues away as not rel­e­vant to the cen­tral inter­ests of the work­ing class. In all real sens­es they belong to the­se cen­tral inter­ests. It is work­ers who are most exposed to dan­ger­ous indus­tri­al process­es and envi­ron­men­tal dam­age. It is work­ing class wom­en who have most need of new women’s rights…40

If for what­ev­er his­tor­i­cal rea­sons orga­ni­za­tions that are sup­posed to cham­pi­on “class strug­gle,” such as trade unions, fail to be insur­gent, it does not mean then that “class strug­gle” goes away, or that the­se strug­gles are “beyond class.” Indeed as Williams astute­ly observes, “there is not one of the­se issues which, fol­lowed through, fails to lead us into the cen­tral sys­tems of the indus­tri­al-cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion and… into its sys­tem of class­es.”

Under­stand­ing the com­plex but uni­fied way in which the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties and repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er takes place, helps us under­stand how the con­crete allo­ca­tion of the total labor of soci­ety is social­ly orga­nized in gen­dered and racial­ized ways through lessons learnt by cap­i­tal from pre­vi­ous his­tor­i­cal epochs and through its strug­gle again­st the work­ing class. The process of accu­mu­la­tion, thus, in actu­al­i­ty can­not be indif­fer­ent to social cat­e­gories of race, sex­u­al­i­ty or gen­der, but seeks to orga­nize and shape those cat­e­gories that in turn act upon the deter­mi­nate form of sur­plus labor extrac­tion. The wage labor rela­tion suf­fus­es the spaces of non-waged every­day life.

“A development of the forces of the working class - suspends capital itself”

If the social repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er is accord­ed the the­o­ret­i­cal cen­tral­i­ty that we pro­pose it should, how use­ful is that to our sec­ond pro­pos­al – the rethink­ing of the work­ing class?

Social Repro­duc­tion the­o­ry illu­mi­nates the social rela­tions and path­ways involved in repro­duc­ing labor pow­er there­by broad­en­ing our vision of how we ought to approach the notion of the work­ing class.

The frame­work demon­strates why we ought not to rest easy with the lim­it­ing under­stand­ing of class as sim­ply those who are cur­rent­ly employed in the cap­i­tal ver­sus waged labor dynam­ic. To do so would restrict both our vision of class pow­er and our iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of poten­tial agents of class sol­i­dar­i­ty.

The “waged work­er” may be the cor­rect def­i­n­i­tion for those who cur­rent­ly work for a wage, but such a vision is, again, one of “the trade union sec­re­tary.” The work­ing class, for the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ist, must be per­ceived of as every­one in the pro­duc­ing class who has in their life­time par­tic­i­pat­ed in the total­i­ty of repro­duc­tion of soci­ety – irre­spec­tive of whether that labor has been paid for by cap­i­tal or remained unpaid. Such an inte­gra­tive vision of class gath­ers togeth­er the tem­po­rary Lati­na hotel work­er from Los Ange­les, the flex­time work­ing moth­er from Indi­ana who needs to stay home due to high child­care costs, the African-Amer­i­can full-time school teacher from Chicago, and the white, male and unem­ployed, erst­while UAW work­er from Detroit. But they come togeth­er not in com­pe­ti­tion with each oth­er, a view of the work­ing class still in terms of the mar­ket, but in sol­i­dar­i­ty. Strate­gic orga­niz­ing on the basis of such a vision can rein­tro­duce the idea that an injury to the school­teacher in Chicago is actu­al­ly an injury to all the oth­ers.

When we restore a sense of the social total­i­ty to class we imme­di­ate­ly begin to reframe the are­na for class strug­gle.

What has been the form of the one-sid­ed class strug­gle from the glob­al rul­ing class in the past four decades of neolib­er­al­ism?

It is cru­cial to under­stand that it has been a twin attack by cap­i­tal on glob­al labor to try and restruc­ture pro­duc­tion in work­places and the social process­es of repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er in homes, com­mu­ni­ties and nich­es of every­day life.

In the work­place pri­mar­i­ly the assault took the form of break­ing the back of union pow­er. The neolib­er­al edi­fice, as I have argued else­where,41 was built on the back of a series of defeats for the glob­al work­ing class, the most spec­tac­u­lar exam­ples being those of the air traf­fic con­trollers in the Unit­ed States (1981), the mill work­ers in India (1982) and the min­ers in the Unit­ed King­dom (1984–85).

If the rul­ing class attack in the work­place, or on pro­duc­tive labor, took the form of vio­lent anti-union­ism, it cer­tain­ly did not end there. Out­side the work­place the attack on repro­duc­tive labor was equal­ly vicious. For speci­fic coun­tries this sec­ond line of attack may be said to have been even greater. In the case of the US, sev­er­al schol­ars from David McNal­ly and Anwar Shaikh to Kim Moody have shown how an absolute decline in work­ing class liv­ing and work­ing stan­dards built the cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion of the 1980s. Key areas of social repro­duc­tion were attacked through increased pri­va­ti­za­tion of social ser­vices and the retrench­ment of impor­tant fed­er­al pro­grams such as Aid To Depen­dent Children/Temporary Aid to Needy Fam­i­lies, unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, and Social Secu­ri­ty. In the glob­al south this took the form of the IMF and the World Bank forcibly rais­ing the price of imports – the bulk of which for the­se coun­tries were food grain, fuel and med­i­ci­nes.

This was open class war strate­gi­cal­ly waged on the entire work­ing class, not just its waged mem­bers, that became so effec­tive pre­cise­ly because it extend­ed beyond the con­fines of the work­place. By sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly pri­va­tiz­ing pre­vi­ous­ly social­ized resources, reduc­ing the qual­i­ty of ser­vices, cap­i­tal aimed to make the work of dai­ly regen­er­a­tion more vul­ner­a­ble and pre­car­i­ous while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly unload­ing the entire respon­si­bil­i­ty and dis­course of repro­duc­tion onto indi­vid­u­al fam­i­lies. Where the­se process­es of degrad­ing the work of social repro­duc­tion worked most effec­tive­ly was in social con­texts where cap­i­tal could bank on, cre­ate anew, or re-ener­gize prac­tices and dis­cours­es of oppres­sion. From racist clar­i­on calls again­st the “wel­fare queen,” new forms of sex­u­al­iza­tion of bod­ies that dimin­ished sex­u­al choic­es, to ris­ing Islam­o­pho­bia, neolib­er­al­ism found increas­ing­ly cre­ative ways to injure the work­ing class. It destroyed class con­fi­dence, erod­ed pre­vi­ous­ly embed­ded cul­tures of sol­i­dar­i­ty and most impor­tant­ly in cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties, suc­ceed­ed in eras­ing a key sense of con­ti­nu­ity and class mem­o­ry.

Spaces of insurgency: confronting capital beyond the factory floor

One of the lead­ers of a recent fac­to­ry occu­pa­tion in India explained to a shocked busi­ness reporter: “The nego­ti­at­ing pow­er of work­ers is the most in the fac­to­ry but no one lis­tens to you when you reach Jan­tar Man­tar [tra­di­tion­al protest square in the Indi­an cap­i­tal of Del­hi].”

The expe­ri­en­tial dis­cern­ment of this rebel work­er is often the polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic com­mon­sense of rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ism about cap­i­tal-labor rela­tions.  The “dom­i­nant” read­ing of Marx locates the pos­si­bil­i­ties for a crit­i­cal polit­i­cal engage­ment of the work­ing class with cap­i­tal chiefly at the point of pro­duc­tion, where the pow­er of work­ers to affect prof­its is the most.

This essay, so far, has been a coun­ter­in­tu­itive read­ing of the the­o­ret­ic import of the cat­e­go­ry of “pro­duc­tion” and so we must now con­sid­er the strate­gic import of the work­place as a piv­otal orga­niz­ing space.  Recent schol­ar­ship on the glob­al south, for instance the “coolie lines” in India or the “dor­mi­to­ry labor regime” in Chi­na brings to strik­ing ana­lyt­i­cal promi­nence not only the places where the work­ing class works, but the spaces where the work­ing class, sleeps, plays, goes to school – or in oth­er words lives full sen­su­al lives beyond the work­place. What role do such spaces play in orga­niz­ing again­st cap­i­tal? And more impor­tant­ly, do point-of-pro­duc­tion strug­gles have no strate­gic rel­e­vance any more?

The con­tours of class strug­gle (or what is tra­di­tion­al­ly under­stood as such) are very clear in the work­place. The work­er both feels capital’s dom­i­nance expe­ri­en­tial­ly on an every­day basis, and under­stands its ulti­mate pow­er over her life, her time, her life chances, indeed over her abil­i­ty to exist and map any future. Work­place strug­gles thus have two irre­place­able advan­tages. One, they have clear goals and tar­gets. Two, work­ers are con­cen­trat­ed at those points in capital’s own cir­cuit of repro­duc­tion and have the col­lec­tive pow­er to shut down cer­tain parts of the oper­a­tion. This is pre­cise­ly why Marx called trade unions “cen­ters of orga­ni­za­tion of the work­ing class.”42 This is also why capital’s first attack is always upon orga­nized sec­tions of the class in order to break this pow­er.

But let us rethink the the­o­ret­i­cal import of extra-work­place strug­gle, such as those for clean­er air, bet­ter schools, again­st water pri­va­ti­za­tion, again­st cli­mate change or for fair­er hous­ing poli­cies. The­se reflect, I sub­mit, those social needs of the work­ing class that are essen­tial for its social repro­duc­tion. They also are an effort by the class to demand its “share of civ­i­liza­tion.” In this, they are also class strug­gles.

Neoliberalism’s dev­as­ta­tion of work­ing class neigh­bor­hoods in the glob­al north has left behind board­ed build­ings, pawn­shops and emp­ty stoops. In the glob­al south it has cre­at­ed vast slums as the breed­ing ground for vio­lence and want.43 The demand by the­se com­mu­ni­ties to extend their “sphere of plea­sure” is thus a vital class demand. Marx and Engels, writ­ing in 1850, advanced the idea that work­ers must “make each com­mu­ni­ty the cen­tral point and nucle­us of work­ers’ asso­ci­a­tions in which the atti­tude and inter­ests of the pro­le­tari­at will be dis­cussed inde­pen­dent­ly of bour­geois inter­ests.”44

It is our turn now to restore to our organs and prac­tices of protest this inte­gra­tive under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ist total­i­ty. If the social­ist project remains the dis­man­tling of wage labor, we will fail in that project unless we under­stand that the rela­tion­ship between wage labor and cap­i­tal is sus­tained in all sorts of unwaged ways and in all kind of social spaces—not just at work.

When the Unit­ed Auto­mo­bile Work­ers (UAW) went to orga­nize a union at the Volk­swa­gen plant in the Amer­i­can South, its bureau­crat­ic lead­ers main­tained a reli­gious sep­a­ra­tion between their union work at the plant and the work­ers lived expe­ri­ence in the com­mu­ni­ty. The union lead­ers signed a con­tract with the boss­es that they would nev­er talk to work­ers in their homes. But the­se were com­mu­ni­ties that had nev­er expe­ri­enced union pow­er, had nev­er sung labor songs or had pic­nics at union halls. Unions played lit­tle role in the social tex­ture of their lives. In such a com­mu­ni­ty, dev­as­tat­ed and atom­ized as it was by cap­i­tal, the union move­ment could only be rebuilt if doing so made sense in the total aspect of their lives and not just in a sec­toral way at work alone.

Con­trast this tac­tic to the one used by the Chicago teacher’s union to rebuild their union. They did what the UAW did not, which is con­nect the strug­gles in the work­place with the needs of a wider com­mu­ni­ty. For years they brought their union ban­ner to one griev­ing neigh­bor­hood after anoth­er when they were about to lose a school to the pri­va­tiz­ers and protest­ed again­st school clo­sures. In the deeply racial­ized pover­ty of Chicago, the strug­gle of a union try­ing to save a work­ing class child’s right to learn made a dif­fer­ence. So when this very union went on strike they had already estab­lished a his­to­ry of work­ing and strug­gling in extra-work­place spaces, which is why the wider work­ing class of Chicago saw the strike as their own strug­gle, for the future of their chil­dren. And when strik­ing teach­ers in red shirts swelled the streets of the city the city’s work­ing class gave them their sol­i­dar­i­ty and sup­port.

We want such work­ing class insur­gents to flood city streets like they did in Chicago dur­ing the CTU strike. To pre­pare our the­o­ry and our prax­is to be ready for such times the first stop should be a revived under­stand­ing of class, res­cued from decades of eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism and busi­ness union­ism. The con­sti­tu­tive roles played by race, gen­der or eth­nic­i­ties on the work­ing class need to be re-rec­og­nized while strug­gle rean­i­mat­ed with broad­er visions of class pow­er beyond con­tract nego­ti­a­tions.

Only such a strug­gle will have the pow­er to rup­ture capital’s “hid­den abode” and return the con­trol of our sen­su­ous, tac­tile, cre­ative capac­i­ty to labor to where it tru­ly belongs – to our­selves.


  1. Thanks are due to Charles Post, Col­in Bark­er, Gareth Dale, Andrew Ryder and Bill V. Mul­len for read­ing draft ver­sions of this essay and mak­ing exten­sive com­ments. All errors remain mine. 

  2. Many foun­da­tion­al Marx­ist con­cepts of course inhere to and derive from this pro­pos­al. The ques­tion of the appar­ent sep­a­ra­tion between, say, eco­nom­ics and pol­i­tics or the State and civil soci­ety are both impli­cat­ed in this ques­tion of appear­ance. For more details see, Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Sep­a­ra­tion of the ‘eco­nom­ic and the ‘polit­i­cal’ in cap­i­tal­ism” in Democ­ra­cy Again­st Cap­i­tal­ism: Renew­ing His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995); Peter D. Thomas, The Gram­s­cian Moment: Phi­los­o­phy, Hege­mony and Marx­ism (Boston: Brill, 2009). 

  3. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True Social­ism’ (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1986), 111. 

  4. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal: A Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin Books, 1976), 280. 

  5. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 274. 

  6. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 270. 

  7. “Labor-pow­er was not always a com­mod­i­ty (mer­chan­dise). Labor was not always wage-labor, i.e., free labor. The slave did not sell his labor-pow­er to the slave-own­er, any more than the ox sells his labor to the farmer. The slave, togeth­er with his labor-pow­er, was sold to his own­er once for all. He is a com­mod­i­ty that can pass from the hand of one own­er to that of anoth­er. He him­self is a com­mod­i­ty, but his labor-pow­er is not his com­mod­i­ty. The serf sells only a por­tion of his labor-pow­er. It is not he who receives wages from the own­er of the land; it is rather the own­er of the land who receives a trib­ute from him. The serf belongs to the soil, and to the lord of the soil he brings its fruit. The free labor­er, on the oth­er hand, sells his very self, and that by frac­tions. He auc­tions off eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his life, one day like the next, to the high­est bid­der, to the own­er of raw mate­ri­als, tools, and the means of life – i.e., to the cap­i­tal­ist. The labor­er belongs nei­ther to an own­er nor to the soil, but eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his dai­ly life belong to whom­so­ev­er buys them.” “Wage, Labor and Cap­i­tal” in Marx and Engels Col­lect­ed Works, Vol. 9 (New York: Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1986), 203. This, how­ev­er, is not the whole sto­ry. Jairus Bana­ji has con­vinc­ing­ly shown that “wage labor,” that is “the com­mod­i­ty labor pow­er, was known under var­i­ous forms of social pro­duc­tion before the cap­i­tal­ist epoch.” What dis­tin­guished cap­i­tal­ism from all oth­er mod­es of pro­duc­tion was that wage labor “in this sim­ple deter­mi­na­tion as the com­mod­i­ty labor-pow­er, was the nec­es­sary basis of cap­i­tal­ism as the gen­er­al­ized form of social pro­duc­tion.” [empha­sis mine]. The speci­fic role that wage labor played under cap­i­tal­ism was that it was “cap­i­tal-posit­ing, cap­i­tal-cre­at­ing labor.” See Bana­ji, “Mod­es of pro­duc­tion in a mate­ri­al­ist con­cep­tion of his­to­ry” in The­o­ry as His­to­ry: Essays on Mod­es of Pro­duc­tion and Exploita­tion (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2011), 54. 

  8. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 272. 

  9. Ibid., 274. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Ibid., 275. 

  12. For more details see Lise Vogel, Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Wom­en: Towards a Uni­tary The­o­ry (Chicago, IL: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2014 [1983]). 

  13. “Out­li­nes of the Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my (Rough Draft of 1857-58),” in Marx and Engels Col­lect­ed Works, Vol. 28 (New York: Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1986), 215. 

  14. There is a rich lit­er­a­ture and debate on the sta­tus of house­work as val­ue pro­duc­ing labor. For argu­ments in favor of house­work as pro­duc­ing sur­plus val­ue see the work of activist-the­o­rists such as Sel­ma James, Mari­arosa Dal­la Costa and Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, e.g., see: Mari­arosa Dal­la Costa, “Wom­en and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­ni­ty,” Rad­i­cal Amer­i­ca 6, no. 1, (Jan­u­ary-Feb­ru­ary 1972). Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Ital­ian as “Don­ne e sovver­sione sociale,” in Potere fem­minile e sovver­sione sociale (Padova: Mar­sil­io, 1972); Sel­ma James, “Wage­less of the World,” in All Work and No Pay, eds. Wendy Edmonds and Suzie Flem­ing (Bris­tol: Falling Wall Press,1975). For the posi­tion that domes­tic labor does not pro­duce sur­plus val­ue, to which I sub­scribe, see Paul Smith, “Domes­tic Labor and Marx’s The­o­ry of Val­ue” in Fem­i­nism and Mate­ri­al­ism: Wom­en and Mod­es of Pro­duc­tion, eds. Annet­te Kuhn and Ann­marie Wolpe (Boston: Rout­ledge and Kegan Paul, 1978). While I dis­agree with the argu­ment that domes­tic work is unpaid pro­duc­tive labor, it is impor­tant to empha­size here that we owe the wages-for-house­work fem­i­nists of the 1970s a great ana­lyt­i­cal debt for the­o­riz­ing ques­tions of domes­tic labor in an effort to over­come the lacu­na in Marx. 

  15. Karl Marx, Grun­dris­se (Lon­don: Pen­guin Clas­sics, 1993), 776 ff. 

  16. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 711. 

  17. Michael A. Lebow­itz, Beyond Cap­i­tal: Marx’s Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my of the Work­ing Class, 2nd ed. (Bas­ingstoke: Pal­grave McMil­lian, 2003), 65. Empha­sis in the orig­i­nal. 

  18. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 724. 

  19. Ibid., 724. 

  20. Karl Marx, Val­ue, Price, Prof­it: Speech by Karl Marx to the First Inter­na­tion­al Work­ing Mens Asso­ci­a­tion (New York: Inter­na­tion­al Co., 1969), ch. 6. 

  21. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 275. 

  22. Lebow­itz, 31. 

  23. The­o­ries of Sur­plus Val­ue, quot­ed in Lebow­itz, 32. 

  24. Ibid., 31. 

  25. Ibid., 110. 

  26. Ibid., 127. 

  27. Wage, Labor and Cap­i­tal” in Marx and Engels Col­lect­ed Works, Vol. 9 (New York: Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1986), 216. 

  28. Marx, Grun­dris­se (Lon­don: Pen­guin Clas­sics, 1993), 287. 

  29. Lebow­tiz, 69. 

  30. Karl Marx, Wages, Price and Prof­its (Peking: For­eign Lan­guage Press, 1975), 74. 

  31. “Wage, Labor and Cap­i­tal” in Marx and Engels Col­lect­ed Works, Vol. 9 (New York: Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1986), 203. 

  32. Lebow­itz, 96. 

  33. E. P. Thomp­son, The Mak­ing of the Eng­lish Work­ing Class (Har­mondsworth: Pen­guin, 1963), 347. 

  34. R. N. Sala­man quot­ed in Thomp­son, The Mak­ing of the Eng­lish Work­ing Class, 348. 

  35. San­dra Halper­in, War and Social Change in Mod­ern Europe: the Great Trans­for­ma­tion Revis­it­ed (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2004), 91-92. 

  36. Lebow­itz, 96. 

  37. Karl Marx, “Instruc­tions for the Del­e­gates of the Pro­vi­sion­al Gen­er­al Coun­cil. Dif­fer­ent Ques­tions” in Min­utes of the Gen­er­al Coun­cil of the First Inter­na­tion­al, quot­ed in Lebow­itz, 97. 

  38. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal III (Moscow: Pro­gress Pub­lish­ers, 1971), 791. 

  39. Ray­mond Williams, Towards 2000 (Lon­don: Chat­to & Win­dus, 1983), 172. 

  40. Ibid., 255. 

  41. Tithi Bhat­tacharya, “Explain­ing Gen­der Vio­lence in the Neolib­er­al Era,” Inter­na­tion­al Social­ist Review Issue 91 (Win­ter 2013-14): 25-47. 

  42. Karl Marx, “TradesUnions: Their Past, Present and Future,” in Instruc­tions for the Del­e­gates of the Pro­vi­sion­al Gen­er­al Coun­cil: The Dif­fer­ent Ques­tions. The Inter­na­tion­al Workingmen’s Asso­ci­a­tion, 1886. Pub­lished online 1996. 

  43. For details on urban slums and gen­dered vio­lence in India, see my “India’s Daugh­ter: Neoliberalism’s Dreams and the Night­mares of Vio­lence,” Inter­na­tion­al Social­ist Review Issue 97 (Sum­mer 2015): 53-71. 

  44. “Address of the Cen­tral Author­i­ty to the League” in Marx and Engels Col­lect­ed Works, Vol. 10 (New York: Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1986), 282-83. 

Author of the article

teaches history at Purdue University. Her first book, The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education, and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal (Oxford, 2005), is about the obsession with culture and education in the middle class. Her work has been published in journals such as the Journal of Asian Studies, South Asia Research and New Left Review, and she is currently working on a book project entitled Uncanny Histories: Fear, Superstition and Reason in Colonial Bengal.