Reproducing the Struggle: A New Feminist Perspective on the Concept of Social Reproduction

Introduction: The Erosion of Intimacy

In 2012 I stum­bled upon an arti­cle which  was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished  in The Art of Man­li­ness and which con­sists essen­tial­ly of a series of pic­tures. The arti­cle is enti­tled Bosom Bud­dies: a Pho­to His­to­ry of Male Affec­tion and the pic­tures end­ed up being wide­ly shared on social media.


What is so com­pelling about these pic­tures is not only the per­for­mance of mas­culin­i­ty por­trayed, but the fact that inti­ma­cy in itself is so open­ly shared and dis­played in a con­text that is not nec­es­sar­i­ly lim­it­ed to the set­ting of fam­i­ly or romance. I had the real­iza­tion that inti­ma­cy--and in par­tic­u­lar phys­i­cal inti­ma­cy, close­ness and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of touch--has declined in the last cen­tu­ry among men and every­body else. Or to be more exact, it has been rel­e­gat­ed to a hand­ful of rela­tion­ships, defined either by romance and fam­i­ly bonds, or, on the oth­er end of the spec­trum, by mar­ket val­ue (sex work, mas­sage, phys­i­cal ther­a­py, con­tact impro­vi­sa­tion, etc.). I real­ized that we are wit­ness­ing, under cap­i­tal­ism, the ero­sion (or maybe I should say the enclo­sure) of inti­ma­cy.

As it turns out, inti­ma­cy is one of those hard to define areas of the com­mon that make the repro­duc­tion of one­self and of each oth­er pos­si­ble. As Toni Negri and Michael Hardt write in Com­mon­wealth: “This Com­mon is not only the earth we share but also the lan­guages we cre­ate, the social prac­tices we estab­lish, the modes of social­i­ty that define our rela­tion­ships.”1 Negri and Hardt con­tin­ue, writ­ing: “This form of the com­mon does not lend itself to a log­ic of scarci­ty as does the first.”2

On the con­trary, I believe that inti­ma­cy, togeth­er with oth­er social and intel­lec­tu­al prac­tices that are nec­es­sary for the repro­duc­tion of our col­lec­tiv­i­ty, is being appro­pri­at­ed today by the cap­i­tal­ist machine and, in the same move­ment, trans­ferred from the col­lec­tive sphere to that of the nuclear unit and from the sphere of repro­duc­tion to that of the mar­ket econ­o­my.

The prob­lem here is that the def­i­n­i­tion of social repro­duc­tion is still rather blurred. At the same time, in recent years, both the con­cept itself --  the areas in which it takes place and what is con­sid­ered com­mon -- have been rede­fined and expand­ed, with a con­tin­u­ous move­ment and a con­stant cre­ation of the com­mon on one side and, in response, a con­tin­u­ous expan­sion of the process that can be  described as enclo­sure on the oth­er.

The process of enclo­sure, “not only of com­mu­nal lands but also of social rela­tions,”3 can be rede­fined as a process that aims not only at the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal and resources but, more impor­tant­ly, at cre­at­ing polit­i­cal paral­y­sis and depen­dence, reduc­ing work­ers’ abil­i­ty to nego­ti­ate and cut­ting off the pos­si­bil­i­ty of freely access­ing forms of self-sus­te­nance.

Self-sus­te­nance, of course, does not refer exclu­sive­ly to the mate­r­i­al repro­duc­tion of one­self. More than just food and shel­ter go into the main­te­nance of our life. Emo­tion­al and intel­lec­tu­al nur­tur­ing are just as nec­es­sary and are usu­al­ly pro­vid­ed in ways that are hard to mea­sure, pri­mar­i­ly by women and espe­cial­ly by moth­ers. This form of nur­tur­ing is con­tin­u­ous­ly being trans­ferred from the col­lec­tive and pub­lic sphere to that of the pri­vate house­hold or the med­ical insti­tu­tion.

Impor­tant in this respect is a par­tic­u­lar def­i­n­i­tion of the con­cept of social repro­duc­tion that has to do with the neces­si­ty of repro­duc­ing one’s own iden­ti­ty. From the point of view of polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing, this is an essen­tial aspect, espe­cial­ly if we con­sid­er the dif­fi­cul­ty of repro­duc­ing our­selves and our col­lec­tiv­i­ty as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary one.

Appar­ent­ly, the cap­i­tal­ist machine has under­stood the cen­tral­i­ty of this activ­i­ty, or set of activ­i­ties, since, as Tiqqun argues,4 it respond­ed by appro­pri­at­ing those areas of repro­duc­tion that have to do with the self, to pro­mote what has been a large­ly suc­cess­ful and mar­ket ori­ent­ed project of iden­ti­ty engi­neer­ing. This is what Tiqqun calls “the anthro­potech­ni­cal project of Empire”5 In essence, “At the begin­ning of the 1920s, cap­i­tal­ism real­ized that it could no longer main­tain itself as the exploita­tion of human labor if it did not also col­o­nize every­thing that is beyond the strict sphere of pro­duc­tion.”6

At the core of this project is the neces­si­ty to reify the space  where our social rela­tion­ships take place, those we estab­lish with oth­ers as well as those we enter­tain with our­selves. In order to accom­plish the task of self-val­oriza­tion and reifi­ca­tion (i.e. of assign­ing a val­ue to one­self and each oth­er), cap­i­tal must anni­hi­late inti­ma­cy. As Tiqqun puts it, “The Young-Girl would thus be the being that no longer had any inti­ma­cy with her­self except as val­ue.”7

This has dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences not only on the exis­ten­tial lev­el -- in the way we per­ceive our­selves and the world around us  and in the moral choic­es that inform our every­day actions -- but on the polit­i­cal lev­el as well. It lit­er­al­ly unmakes our attempts at cre­at­ing a sus­tain­able resis­tance and a rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment. In fact, exact­ly because polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing can­not and does not sub­sist with­out a strong invest­ment in per­son­al rela­tion­ships, the inabil­i­ty to relate inti­mate­ly with each oth­er pro­duces polit­i­cal paral­y­sis.

The Implosion of Movements of Resistance

In an arti­cle that I trans­lat­ed into Ital­ian a cou­ple of years ago enti­tled “Fem­i­nism and the Pol­i­tics of the Com­mons,”  Sil­via Fed­eri­ci makes a claim that shifts the focus on social repro­duc­tion from a ques­tion of ide­o­log­i­cal and ana­lyt­i­cal cor­rect­ness to one of strate­gic neces­si­ty, argu­ing that polit­i­cal move­ments that fail to cre­ate new forms of social repro­duc­tion are des­tined to be reab­sorbed into the mech­a­nism of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem.

In oth­er words, Fed­eri­ci sug­gests that our attempts at rev­o­lu­tion are doomed unless we find a way to trans­form the sphere of repro­duc­tion in rev­o­lu­tion­ary ways -- ways that would include the repro­duc­tion of the social col­lec­tiv­i­ty and  not only of the sin­gle house­hold. This requires a process of col­lec­tiviza­tion that would allow us, among oth­er things, to over­come the divi­sion of labor based on gen­der and race.

In most indus­tri­al­ized and/or patri­ar­chal soci­eties, the pre­vail­ing mod­el is that of a col­lec­tiv­i­ty divid­ed into mod­ules or sin­gle repro­duc­tive units. Usu­al­ly these take the form of house­holds or fam­i­lies,  con­struct­ed around nor­ma­tive reg­u­la­to­ry prin­ci­ples: the men (or those indi­vid­u­als who assume a male role) are respon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing essen­tial resources, by exchang­ing them for labor pow­er in the places allo­cat­ed for pro­duc­tion (the pro­duc­tion units: fac­to­ries, offices, farms, the dig­i­tal world, etc). The women (or those who assume female roles), beside increas­ing­ly pro­vid­ing mate­r­i­al resources in exchange for their labor, are also expect­ed to engage in activ­i­ties that fall under the sphere of repro­duc­tion: activ­i­ties of care, phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al sup­port, medi­a­tion and con­flict res­o­lu­tion among mem­bers of the fam­i­ly, sex work, the social­iza­tion of chil­dren, the trans­mis­sion of cus­toms and tra­di­tions, etc.

Tra­di­tion­al fem­i­nist strug­gles in the west focused large­ly on fight­ing  for the access of women into the sphere of  pro­duc­tion (the labor force) with very lit­tle lever­age upon the way fam­i­lies are orga­nized. The result of these strug­gles has been dis­ap­point­ing on sev­er­al lev­els: if it’s true that some women, most­ly white mid­dle class women, were able to gain a cer­tain amount of inde­pen­dence and per­son­al lib­er­ties, this has been accom­plished at a high cost. Women still large­ly per­form those jobs that can be con­sid­ered an exten­sion of repro­duc­tive activ­i­ties and that increas­ing­ly have been enclosed and trans­formed into val­ue-gen­er­at­ing activ­i­ties: care work in gen­er­al like teach­ing, sex work, nurs­ing, human resources, ther­a­py in all its forms, and the care of chil­dren and the elders.

Those rel­a­tive­ly few women who suc­ceed in estab­lish­ing a sta­ble career in  tra­di­tion­al­ly male dom­i­nat­ed fields (acad­e­mia and the intel­lec­tu­al world in gen­er­al, engi­neer­ing and sci­ences, the med­ical field, admin­is­tra­tion  and man­age­ment, etc.) still earn con­sid­er­ably less than their male coun­ter­parts, under worse con­di­tions. In  addi­tion they are still expect­ed to per­form a cer­tain amount of care-work both on the work­place and for their fam­i­ly, result­ing in an unsus­tain­able amount of work­ing hours. In this way, women often find them­selves unable to devote time to research, per­son­al devel­op­ment, or artis­tic and voca­tion­al endeav­ours, and are faced with hard choic­es. Either they decide to iden­ti­fy com­plete­ly with their career as defined by cap­i­tal­ist stan­dards -- and delay or for­go the estab­lish­ment of sig­nif­i­cant rela­tion­ships -- or they par­tial­ly aban­don it when they decide to have chil­dren. In addi­tion, many women are today faced with a sort of “Sophie’s choice”: in a sit­u­a­tion where their male part­ner often has a bet­ter chance at high­er wages, full-time sta­ble employ­ment and career advance­ment, repro­duc­ing him and his capac­i­ty for labor presents a bet­ter chance for sur­vival than focus­ing on their own aspi­ra­tions and ambi­tions.

Anoth­er devel­op­ment relat­ed to the entrance of women into the labor force has been a process where­in large por­tions of repro­duc­tive work has been farmed out, in exchange for mea­ger wages, to the most vul­ner­a­ble sec­tors of soci­ety, in par­tic­u­lar, women of col­or, sin­gle moth­ers, undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants or even the pro­le­tari­at of entire coun­tries where work­ers are unpro­tect­ed by unions or favor­able leg­is­la­tion.

Most impor­tant­ly, this entire­process has proven unable to cre­ate any sig­nif­i­cant change in the basic con­sti­tu­tion of the fam­i­ly and, at the same time, has not gen­er­at­ed a coher­ent fem­i­nist cri­tique of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem of pro­duc­tion. It has evolved as a strug­gle for inclu­sion, with lit­tle or no ques­tion­ing of the sys­tem in which women were to be includ­ed and with lit­tle or no aware­ness of the process of exclu­sion that is implied and makes pos­si­ble any incor­po­ra­tion in an exclu­sive order.

The eco­nom­ic eman­ci­pa­tion of women could be accom­plished instead by con­cen­trat­ing changes at the point of repro­duc­tion, in par­tic­u­lar, by trans­fer­ring tra­di­tion­al female respon­si­bil­i­ties, like the care of chil­dren and elders,  from the sin­gle woman in the con­text of a family/household to the col­lec­tiv­i­ty (neigh­bor­hood, vil­lage, town). This would make women less depen­dent from their male kins and less iso­lat­ed and it would help cre­ate a net­work of sol­i­dar­i­ty and rec­i­p­ro­cal pro­tec­tion among women.

In fact, in those soci­eties where repro­duc­tive work is per­formed col­lec­tive­ly, the divi­sion of labor based on gen­der often seems to be less pro­nounced.  From Fed­eri­ci, we learn that this was the pre­dom­i­nant mod­el in the pre-cap­i­tal­ist servile com­mu­ni­ties of the mid­dle ages:

… since work on the servile farm was orga­nized on a sub­sis­tence base, the sex­u­al divi­sion of labor in it was less pro­nounced and less dis­crim­i­nat­ing than in a cap­i­tal­ist farm. In the feu­dal vil­lage no social sep­a­ra­tion exist­ed between the pro­duc­tion of goods and the repro­duc­tion of the work-force; all work con­tributed to the family’s sus­te­nance. Women worked in the fields in addi­tion to rais­ing chil­dren, cook­ing, wash­ing, spin­ning and keep­ing an herb gar­den; their domes­tic activ­i­ties were not deval­ued and did not involve dif­fer­ent social rela­tions from those of men, as they would lat­er, in a mon­ey econ­o­my, when house­work would cease to be viewed as real work. […] in medieval soci­ety col­lec­tive rela­tions pre­vailed over famil­ial ones, and most of the task that female serfs per­formed […] were done in coop­er­a­tion with oth­er women.8

Con­verse­ly,  an exclu­sive strate­gic focus by rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies on the realm of pro­duc­tion cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion of impasse, by which move­ments of resis­tance end up being reab­sorbed into the tra­di­tion­al sys­tem of val­ues and its atten­dant social dynam­ics.

Fed­eri­ci offers two oppo­site exam­ples of this mech­a­nism. In the first one, we are tak­en back to the Great Depres­sion and to the move­ment of the hobos. Hobos were most­ly unem­ployed men or day labor­ers who lived a nomadic life, hop­ping trains and mov­ing con­stant­ly. Nev­er­the­less the hobos devel­oped a form of col­lec­tive liv­ing, the hobo jun­gle, with an inter­nal sys­tem of admin­is­tra­tion, includ­ing a juridi­cal process, an exclu­sive sys­tem of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and a moral code.

But because the hobos were unable to devel­op beyond a mere mas­cu­line soci­ety, with the excep­tion­al and spo­radic par­tic­i­pa­tion of a few women who were kept at the mar­gins, it was easy and, in a cer­tain sense, unavoid­able for them to be reab­sorbed into the tra­di­tion­al func­tion­ing of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem. The tra­di­tion­al soci­ety, with its allure of the dream of a home and fam­i­ly was able to con­sti­tute a strong moti­va­tion for re-enter­ing the labor force when the mar­ket need­ed it, exact­ly because the jun­gle was unable to offer any viable alter­na­tives.

As Fed­eri­ci writes:

… but for a few Box­car Berthas, this was pre­dom­i­nant­ly a mas­cu­line world, a fra­ter­ni­ty of men, and in the long term it could not be sus­tained. Once the eco­nom­ic cri­sis and the war came to an end, the hobos were domes­ti­cat­ed by the two great engines of labor pow­er fix­a­tion: the fam­i­ly and the house. Mind­ful of the threat of work­ing class recom­po­si­tion dur­ing the Depres­sion, Amer­i­can cap­i­tal excelled in its appli­ca­tion of the prin­ci­ple that has char­ac­ter­ized the orga­ni­za­tion of eco­nom­ic life: coop­er­a­tion at the point of pro­duc­tion, sep­a­ra­tion and atom­iza­tion at the point of repro­duc­tion. The atom­ized, seri­al­ized fam­i­ly house that Levit­town pro­vid­ed, com­pound­ed by its umbil­i­cal appen­dix, the car, not only seden­ta­rized the work­er but put an end to the type of autonomous work­ers’ com­mons that hobo jun­gles had rep­re­sent­ed.9

The sec­ond exam­ple Fed­eri­ci offers is that of the Sem Ter­ra in Brazil. The Sem Ter­ra are a move­ment of land­less peas­ants, active to this day, who aim at occu­py­ing and even­tu­al­ly expro­pri­at­ing unpro­duc­tive land in Brazil. The first record­ed orga­nized occu­pa­tion goes back to 1980/1981 and includ­ed 6000 house­holds on three estates in the State of Rio Grande del Sul.

The encamp­ment, known as the Encruzil­ha­da Natal­i­no, took the shape of a vil­lage, and revolved around the self-sus­te­nance of its fam­i­lies, where repro­duc­tive work was, for the most part, col­lec­tivized. The Sem Ter­ra also embrace a non­hier­ar­chi­cal form of orga­ni­za­tion, with­out any clear-cut lead­er­ship and where every unit elects two rep­re­sen­ta­tives, a man and a woman, for the Nucleo de Base and the region­al assem­bly.

Fed­eri­ci reports that when the peas­ants of the Encruzil­ha­da were final­ly able to expro­pri­ate the land and build their own hous­es on it, the women demand­ed that the hous­es includ­ed com­mon areas, and espe­cial­ly com­mon kitchens, so that they could con­tin­ue col­lec­tiviz­ing the work and pro­tect­ing each oth­er from the vio­lence of men.

New Theories of Social Reproduction

Federici’s argu­ment, as well as oth­er recent devel­op­ments in the the­o­ry of social repro­duc­tion, sug­gest that we need to recon­sid­er the clas­sic Marx­ist def­i­n­i­tion.

There is a remark­able increase in the vol­ume and the vari­ety of dis­course on social repro­duc­tion, which points to the fact that the empha­sis on its impor­tance has inten­si­fied  notably. At the same time, how­ev­er, it seems that the inher­ent mean­ing of this con­cept still escapes us. Fur­ther­more, social repro­duc­tion con­tin­ues to be treat­ed large­ly as an ancil­lary prob­lem in the larg­er plan for rev­o­lu­tion and resis­tance.

In clas­sic Marx­ist terms, pro­duc­tion coin­cides with  the sphere of prop­er  eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty while repro­duc­tion with all the  work nec­es­sary to cre­ate and re-cre­ate the con­di­tions that make pro­duc­tion pos­si­ble.10 In this way, repro­duc­tion is described as a rel­a­tive term, which exists only in rela­tion to pro­duc­tion and in order to guar­an­tee its func­tion­ing. Fur­ther­more, it is a lim­it­ed and insuf­fi­cient def­i­n­i­tion which does not reflect the vari­ety of activ­i­ties that should be includ­ed.

In the tra­di­tion­al fem­i­nist per­spec­tive, social repro­duc­tion is defined as all that is nec­es­sary to cre­ate and main­tain life, relat­ed or unre­lat­ed to the sphere of pro­duc­tion:

…fem­i­nists use social repro­duc­tion to refer to activ­i­ties and atti­tudes, behav­iours and emo­tions, respon­si­bil­i­ties and rela­tion­ships direct­ly involved in the main­te­nance of life on a dai­ly basis, and inter­gen­er­a­tional­ly. Among oth­er things, social repro­duc­tion includes how food, cloth­ing, and shel­ter are made avail­able for imme­di­ate con­sump­tion, the ways in which the care and social­iza­tion of chil­dren are pro­vid­ed, the care of the infirm and the elder­ly, and the social orga­ni­za­tion of sex­u­al­i­ty. Social repro­duc­tion can thus be seen to include var­i­ous kind of work - men­tal, man­u­al, and emo­tion­al - aimed at pro­vid­ing the his­tor­i­cal­ly and social­ly, as well as bio­log­i­cal­ly, defined care nec­es­sary to main­tain the exist­ing life and to repro­duce the next gen­er­a­tion.11

In a more recent read­ing, pro­posed by End­notes, repro­duc­tion is all the work we do that doesn’t par­tic­i­pate direct­ly in the mar­ket econ­o­my and does not direct­ly pro­duce prof­it. Repro­duc­tion would then be the Indi­rect­ly Mar­ket Medi­at­ed Sphere (IMM) to use a def­i­n­i­tion pro­posed in the 3rd issue of End­notes:

Because the exist­ing con­cepts of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion are them­selves lim­it­ed, we need to find more pre­cise terms to des­ig­nate these two spheres. From now on we will use two very descrip­tive (and there­fore rather clunky) terms to name them: (a) the direct­ly mar­ket-medi­at­ed sphere (DMM); and (b) the indi­rect­ly mar­ket-medi­at­ed sphere (IMM).12

Nev­er­the­less, what exact­ly con­sti­tutes this work is not yet entire­ly clear.

In Cal­iban and the Witch, Fed­eri­ci, when talk­ing about the tran­si­tion from slav­ery to serf­dom which marks the begin­ning of the Mid­dle Ages from an eco­nom­ic point of view writes:

The most impor­tant aspect of serf­dom, from the view­point of the changes it intro­duced in the mas­ter-ser­vant rela­tion, is that it gave the serf direct access to the means of their repro­duc­tion. In exchange for the work which they were bound to do on the lord’s land (the demesne), the serf received a plot of land (man­sus or hide) which they could use to sup­port them­selves.13

I use this dis­tinc­tion between demesne and man­sus as a metaphor and say that the work on the vil­lage gar­den (the man­sus)  rep­re­sents the sphere of repro­duc­tion, while the work on the lord’s gar­den (the demesne)  is the sphere of pro­duc­tion. It then becomes clear that the same set of activ­i­ties can be con­sid­ered pro­duc­tion when includ­ed in a rela­tion­ship of exchange/value and repro­duc­tion when not.

Again, in the third issue of End­notes, we read:

These nec­es­sary non-labour activ­i­ties do not pro­duce val­ue, not because of their con­crete char­ac­ter­is­tics, but rather, because they take place in a sphere of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion which is not direct­ly medi­at­ed by the form of val­ue. […] Indeed, the same con­crete activ­i­ty, like clean­ing or cook­ing, can take place in either sphere: it can be val­ue-pro­duc­ing labour in one spe­cif­ic social con­text and non-labour in anoth­er.14

The only dis­tin­guish­ing fac­tor that  can be iden­ti­fied is that pro­duc­tion cre­ates val­ue while repro­duc­tion does not.

Accept­ing  this def­i­n­i­tion makes it pos­si­ble then to  under­stand enclo­sure as the process of trans­form­ing or trans­fer­ring not only mate­r­i­al resources but also entire areas of repro­duc­tion into the pro­duc­tion sphere, by assign­ing them a mar­ket val­ue.

There is a rea­son, how­ev­er, why the task of defin­ing the field of social repro­duc­tion always eludes us: more than a con­tain­er with fixed bound­aries (a sphere), it should be con­sid­ered a process, a con­tin­u­ous­ly chang­ing one, which expands and con­tracts both in response to its own inter­nal dynam­ics, and under the pres­sure of the con­tin­u­ous attempts at enclos­ing it on the part of the cap­i­tal­ist machine. As End­notes argues:

Terms like the “repro­duc­tive sphere” are insuf­fi­cient …, because what we are try­ing to name can­not be defined as a spe­cif­ic set of activ­i­ties accord­ing to their use-val­ue or con­crete char­ac­ter.15

What con­cerns us should rather be under­stand­ing the under­ly­ing mech­a­nisms of social repro­duc­tion and, in this con­text, espe­cial­ly those relat­ed to the repli­ca­tion of the tra­di­tion­al val­ues of hier­ar­chy and dom­i­na­tion.

Social repro­duc­tion is, to this day, a process root­ed in a dynam­ic of pow­er, large­ly func­tion­ing through a divi­sion of labor that falls along gen­der and race lines.

Fed­eri­ci writes:

Accord­ing to this new social-sex­u­al con­tract [the one that result­ed from the enclo­sure of com­mons and the divi­sion of labor] pro­le­tar­i­an women became for male work­ers the sub­sti­tute for the land lost to the enclo­sures, their most basic means of repro­duc­tion , and a com­mu­nal good any­one could appro­pri­ate and use at will. […] In the new orga­ni­za­tion of work every woman (oth­er than those pri­va­tized by bour­geois men) became a com­mu­nal good, for once women’s activ­i­ties were defined as non-work, women’s labor began to appear as a nat­ur­al resource, avail­able to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.16

The Unseen Impact of Social Reproduction on Revolutionary Movements

In fact the rep­e­ti­tion of patri­ar­chal modes of rela­tions is at the core of the scle­ro­ti­za­tion of many rad­i­cal move­ments pre­cise­ly when they pre­sup­pose a pyra­mi­dal orga­ni­za­tion that mim­ics and repli­cates many aspects of the sphere of pro­duc­tion. This includes an eth­ic large­ly based on the process of self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with pro­duc­tion-based labor and a set of per­son­al val­ues based on pow­er and dom­i­nance, rather than on the social and emo­tion­al charge nec­es­sary to build and repro­duce durable rela­tion­ships. It also includes the accu­mu­la­tion and dis­play of male pow­er, as opposed to the con­struc­tion of col­lec­tive pow­er.

Emblem­at­ic in this sense is the case of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty, which focused its strat­e­gy in large part on the area of social repro­duc­tion. The BPP school and break­fast pro­grams, as well as their focus on self-defense from police harass­ment and bru­tal­i­ty, con­sti­tut­ed an approach, in many ways rev­o­lu­tion­ary, that made social repro­duc­tion both its tar­get and its area of recruit­ment. This strat­e­gy, nev­er­the­less, did not affect the inter­nal func­tion­ing of the par­ty itself. In fact, patri­ar­chal char­ac­ter­is­tics inside the par­ty were evi­dent in the empha­sis on male iden­ti­ty and the per­for­mance of mas­culin­i­ty, as well as, in the role assigned to women in the par­ty.

The patri­ar­chal prac­tices con­tained in  the inter­nal dynam­ics of the BPP, as doc­u­ment­ed in the biogra­phies of sev­er­al of its female cadres and sym­pa­thiz­ers, such as Angela Davis, Assa­ta Shakur and Elaine Brown, were cer­tain­ly one of the fac­tors that con­tributed to its demise, trans­form­ing it from a force focused on the con­struc­tion of col­lec­tive pow­er to one focused on the accu­mu­la­tion and exe­cu­tion of male pow­er.

It is well known, for instance, that when Huey New­ton returned from exile in Cuba, he swift­ly rid the par­ty of the women in key posi­tions of lead­er­ship, among them Elaine Brown, who was at the head of the par­ty dur­ing his absence, and Regi­na Davis and Eric­ka Hug­gins, who man­aged the par­ty school in Oak­land. His argu­ment, accord­ing to the account con­tained in A Taste of Pow­er by Elaine Brown, was that the men in the par­ty were feel­ing rest­less and emas­cu­lat­ed and had express­ly request­ed that the women “would be put back in their places.”

A week lat­er, Eric­ka Hug­gins called me […]. Regi­na Davis, her assis­tant, had been hos­pi­tal­ized as the result of a severe beat­ing, her jaw bro­ken. The Broth­ers had done it. […] I called Huey. […] he had indeed giv­en his autho­riza­tion for Regina’s dis­ci­pline. I explained to Huey exact­ly who Regi­na Davis was, as I was sure he had no idea. Regi­na held togeth­er the proud­est of our pro­grams, our school. With­out the recog­ni­tion of Cen­tral Com­mit­tee mem­ber­ship, she had worked more than fif­teen hours of every day of every week for the past two years. I empha­sized that Regi­na man­aged the teach­ers, cooks, main­te­nance peo­ple, and oth­er per­son­nel at the school. Regi­na planned the children’s dai­ly activ­i­ties, week­ly field trips, health check­ups. Regi­na over­saw menus, and food and mate­ri­als pur­chas­es. Regi­na com­mu­ni­cat­ed with par­ents and oth­er schools as to the sta­tus of cur­rent stu­dents, for­mer stu­dents, and prospec­tive stu­dents. “She is the fuck­ing school,” I said.

[…] The women were feel­ing the change, I not­ed. The beat­ing of Regi­na would be tak­en as a clear sig­nal that the words “Pan­thers” and “com­rade” had tak­en on gen­der con­no­ta­tions, denot­ing an infe­ri­or­i­ty in the female half of us. Some­thing awful was not only dri­ving a dan­ger­ous wedge between Sis­ters and Broth­ers, it was attack­ing the very foun­da­tion of the par­ty.

[…] He did not respond for a long time. “You know, of course, that I know all that,” he said final­ly, soft­ly, thought­ful­ly. “But what do you want me to do about it? The Broth­ers came to me. I had to give them some­thing.”17

The neces­si­ty to reassert a for­ev­er uncer­tain notion of mas­culin­i­ty cat­a­pult­ed the par­ty itself into a spi­ral in which the com­pul­sion to antag­o­nize and dom­i­nate its own mem­bers and the entire com­mu­ni­ty in its ter­ri­to­ry result­ed in the almost total estrange­ment of the lead­er­ship from its base.

While it’s cer­tain­ly true that the relent­less attacks by COINTELPRO were his­tor­i­cal­ly the main fac­tor in the even­tu­al dis­in­te­gra­tion of the par­ty, we can also say that, at the same time, the BPP col­lapsed because its focus shift­ed from that of orga­niz­ing and empow­er­ing its com­mu­ni­ty to that of self-sur­vival and the reifi­ca­tion of its own inter­nal pow­er.

I recalled a con­ver­sa­tion I had with sev­er­al of the Broth­ers one night […]. We have the guns and the men, they had boast­ed. We could take what we want from the Estab­lish­ment. […] They want­ed so lit­tle from our rev­o­lu­tion, they had lost sight of it. Too many of them seemed sat­is­fied to appro­pri­ate for them­selves the pow­er the par­ty was gain­ing, mea­sured by the shin­ing illu­sion of cars and clothes and guns. They were even will­ing to cash in their rev­o­lu­tion­ary prin­ci­ples for a self-serv­ing “Mafia.”18

It is nec­es­sary here to empha­size that in no way am  I try­ing to sug­gest that the BPP was unique in reit­er­at­ing gen­der dynam­ics that repro­duce the same oppres­sive pat­tern of domin­ion that we can find in the Capitalist/Patriarchal soci­ety at large. On the con­trary, what makes the case of the BPP so rel­e­vant is exact­ly the fact that, even giv­en its inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions,  so much of its strat­e­gy was focused not in the place of pro­duc­tion (work­ers orga­niz­ing, strikes and so on) but in the sphere of repro­duc­tion, (the neigh­bor­hood, the school, the street).

I con­sid­er gen­der and race oppres­sion to be a preva­lent char­ac­ter­is­tic  that his­tor­i­cal­ly affect­ed and still plagues most rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments and that cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion of impasse in our attempts at bring­ing change. I also believe these prac­tices of male dom­i­nance to be found­ed, among oth­er things,  on a series of errors in the analy­sis and def­i­n­i­tion of the dichoto­my production/reproduction. I’m fur­ther­more con­vinced these errors make it impos­si­ble to bring forth a cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism and mar­ket econ­o­my that could rad­i­cal­ly put into ques­tion its sys­tem of pro­duc­tion and  waged labor.

Conclusions: Resisting Wage Slavery and  Reappropriating the Commons

We are expe­ri­enc­ing today a mas­sive process of enclo­sure in which more and more of our lives is swal­lowed up by the mar­ket econ­o­my and the sys­tem seems to have engaged in a project of total­i­tar­i­an, cap­il­lary con­trol. More and more aspects of our repro­duc­tion are being del­e­gat­ed to third par­ties, while our time is being freed in order to be devot­ed to a life of total pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion. Many activ­i­ties that were tra­di­tion­al­ly part of the sphere of repro­duc­tion have now been assigned a mar­ket val­ue; they are thus being trans­ferred to areas of pro­duc­tion and are exe­cut­ed by the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in our society.This new phase of accu­mu­la­tion and enclo­sure, how­ev­er, doesn’t aim at the com­plete anni­hi­la­tion of the sphere of repro­duc­tion which, as a reser­voir of unpaid labor, is essen­tial for the sur­vival of the sys­tem itself.

At the same time, we are wit­ness­ing the revival of cam­paigns propos­ing  fam­i­ly wages  or a basic guar­an­teed income - which see among its sup­port­ers Toni Negri and Michael Hardt. Alisa McK­ay claimed in “Rethink­ing Work and Income Main­te­nance Pol­i­cy” that a basic income would be “a tool for pro­mot­ing gen­der-neu­tral social cit­i­zen­ship rights,” while in Italy last year the par­lia­ment con­sid­ered a pro­pos­al to imple­ment salaries for all the work of care done inside the house.19 Demand­ing com­pen­sa­tion for those activ­i­ties that are now not con­sid­ered labor seems nec­es­sary and even urgent, con­sid­er­ing the mis­ery and depen­dence in which mil­lions of peo­ple, espe­cial­ly women, are made to live. If these peo­ple were to receive wages  for all that they now do as a form of repro­duc­tion of them­selves and oth­ers,  they could eman­ci­pate them­selves eco­nom­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly. More­over, these cam­paigns are often used to high­light an essen­tial con­tra­dic­tion in the sys­tem: since cap­i­tal­ism is built upon the exploita­tion and appro­pri­a­tion of free work, it would nec­es­sar­i­ly col­lapse if all this work were to be ade­quate­ly com­pen­sat­ed.

How­ev­er, that’s exact­ly why the rul­ing class will nev­er con­cede, or at least not uni­ver­sal­ly. The most we could pos­si­bly hope for, which is par­tial­ly what’s hap­pen­ing, is that a hand­ful of most­ly white women, most­ly liv­ing at the cen­tre of the Empire will  be par­tial­ly relieved from the slav­ery of unpaid labor, by the thou­sands of most­ly black and brown women in those same coun­tries or some­where else on the planet.It’s unlike­ly that  the con­tra­dic­tions that exist in the areas of repro­duc­tion - name­ly the fact that it con­sti­tutes both work nec­es­sary for our sur­vival and one of the places in our life where exploita­tion and domin­ion tran­spire in the deep­est and most total­i­tar­i­an way -  can be resolved by accom­mo­dat­ing or even advo­cat­ing for its com­plete absorp­tion  into  the sphere of pro­duc­tion; in oth­er words by assign­ing a mar­ket val­ue to all our activ­i­ties.

This does not mean that we should  repli­cate cap­i­tal­ist schemes in the way we define and assign val­ue to our work, to then rel­e­gate part of it  to a ter­ri­to­ry of deval­u­a­tion or even utter invis­i­bil­i­ty. At the same time, the demand for a mon­e­tary com­pen­sa­tion in exchange for all the activ­i­ties that now fall out­side of the realm of the mar­ket seems des­tined to fail or to be sat­is­fied par­tial­ly and by repli­cat­ing the same kind of oppres­sion along gen­der and race lines.

Try­ing to bring down the sys­tem by offer­ing it slices of our life for total mar­ket con­trol offers the illu­sion that, if all we did could be con­sid­ered pro­duc­tive labor and be exchanged for wages, we would some­how be more free and hap­pi­er. If only the rul­ing class would some­how, one day, be pres­sured enough to con­cede and pay us more, pay us for more! And yet our nego­ti­at­ing mar­gins are get­ting every­day nar­row­er, along with our pos­si­bil­i­ty to access the resources we need for self-sus­te­nance.

This strat­e­gy also cre­ates a nar­ra­tive that offers legit­i­ma­cy to the sta­tus quo and ends up allow­ing it  to repli­cate itself: a con­tin­ue strug­gle for inclu­sion into an exclu­sive sys­tem of priv­i­leges, with the argu­ment that the urgency of the present sit­u­a­tion doesn’t leave time and ener­gy for more rad­i­cal projects of rev­o­lu­tion, has his­tor­i­cal­ly always end­ed with com­pro­mis­es that left out exact­ly those peo­ple whose liv­ing con­di­tions were the most urgent.

More­over, on the sym­bol­ic plane, this request could derail resis­tance from orga­niz­ing around issues and strate­gies that have a more radical/revolutionary poten­tial: resist­ing waged labor and reap­pro­pri­at­ing the common.In this sense, beside con­cen­trat­ing on reap­pro­pri­at­ing the means of pro­duc­tion, it’s impor­tant to start talk­ing about the neces­si­ty to reap­pro­pri­ate the means of our repro­duc­tion: essen­tial resources like land, water, ener­gy as well as time, pub­lic spaces, knowl­edge, infor­ma­tion, etc.

The con­tem­po­rary cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism could learn from the­o­ries and move­ments that in the past have advo­cat­ed an orga­nized resis­tance to waged labor. Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, look­ing back at his life as first a slave and then a waged work­er, affirmed that:

Expe­ri­ence demon­strates that there may be a slav­ery of wages only a lit­tle less galling and crush­ing in its effects than chat­tel slav­ery, and that this slav­ery of wages must go down with the oth­er.20

Sil­via Fed­eri­ci tells us that, since the dawn of Cap­i­tal­ism, poor peo­ple have resist­ed enter­ing the work­force, so much so that anti-loi­ter­ing and anti-vagrancy laws had to be intro­duced:

The image of a work­er freely alien­at­ing his labor,or con­fronting his body as cap­ital to be deliv­ered to the high­est bid­der, refers to a work­ing class already mold­ed by the cap­i­tal­ist work-dis­ci­pline.  But only in the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tu­ry can we glimpse that type of worker…The sit­u­a­tion was rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent in the peri­od of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion when the emerg­ing  bour­geoisie dis­cov­ered that the “lib­er­a­tion of labor-pow­er” - that is, the expro­pri­a­tion of the peas­antry from the com­mon lands - was not suf­fi­cient to force the dis­pos­sessed pro­le­tar­i­ans to accept wage-labor.…the expro­pri­at­ed peas­ants and arti­sans did not peace­ful­ly agree to work for a wage. More often they became beg­gars, vagabonds or crim­i­nals. A long process would be required to pro­duce a dis­ci­plined work-force. In the 16th and 17th cen­turies, the hatred for wage  labor was so intense that many pro­le­tar­i­ans pre­ferred the gal­lows rather than sub­mit to the new con­di­tions of work.21

The “dis­ci­plined work force” Fed­eri­ci is talk­ing about is none but our­selves! Our labor cul­ture seems to have ful­ly embraced the val­ues that sup­port pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, high per­for­mance and the dis­play of good work ethics, to the point that our rev­o­lu­tion­ary imag­i­na­tion has been short cir­cuit­ed into an impos­si­bil­i­ty to name or con­sid­er alter­na­tives to wages.

Yet, accord­ing to Hel­ga Kristin, it was only at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry that unions aban­doned the term “wage slav­ery,” and with it, the idea that one day wages could be com­plete­ly abol­ished:

By 1890 … ref­er­ences to wage slav­ery in the rhetor­i­cal toolk­it of North Amer­i­can labor lead­ers had all but dis­ap­peared, replaced by a much more prag­mat­ic vision of labor pol­i­tics, exem­pli­fied by the “liv­ing wage” cam­paign…22

Sam Gindin and Michael Hur­ley write in Jacobin that after WWII:

….a par­tic­u­lar trade-off evolved that saw unions accept an empha­sis on the price of labor pow­er (wages and ben­e­fits) trump­ing work­place rights…The small but effec­tive mil­i­tant Com­mu­nist minor­i­ty that agi­tat­ed for more rad­i­cal direc­tions was harassed and many were drummed not only out of their jobs but also their unions…In this way, post-war work­er mil­i­tan­cy was con­se­quent­ly chan­neled into the safer ter­ri­to­ry of indi­vid­u­al­ized con­sump­tion.

…Quan­ti­ta­tive demands over­took qual­i­ta­tive demands. Get­ting some­thing more rather than some­thing dif­fer­ent became the watch­word. A cul­ture of con­sumerism came to dom­i­nate, char­ac­ter­ized not so much by the under­stand­able urge to meet dai­ly needs and enjoy life, but to do so in com­pet­i­tive and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic ways that side­lined pop­u­lar pos­si­bil­i­ties for col­lec­tive­ly shap­ing the world and shar­ing equi­tably in humanity’s achieve­ment.23

A strat­e­gy that focus­es not only on more pay and bet­ter con­di­tions in the short term but also on less work, resis­tance to the idea of “good work ethics” and even refusal  to engage in pro­duc­tion alto­geth­er, could mean a switch where, instead of aim­ing exclu­sive­ly at mak­ing the con­di­tions in which pro­duc­tion hap­pens bet­ter for work­ers, the entire­ty of pro­duc­tion would be ques­tioned. Ide­al­ly pro­duc­tion should be reab­sorbed and coin­cide with the repro­duc­tion of our­selves and of our col­lec­tiv­i­ty.

  1. Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri, Com­mon­wealth, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press 2009, p. 139 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Cal­iban and the Witch, Autono­me­dia 2004, p. 8 

  4. Tiqqun, Pre­lim­i­nary Mate­ri­als For a The­o­ry of the Young-Girl, Semiotext(e), inter­ven­tion, series 12, 2007 

  5. Ibid, p 12 

  6. Ibid, p. 15 

  7. Ibid, p. 18 

  8. Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Cal­iban and the Witch, Women, The Body and Prim­i­tive Accu­mu­la­tion, Autono­me­dia, NY, 2004, p. 25 

  9. Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Fem­i­nism and the Pol­i­tics of the Com­mons, op. cit. 

  10. Through­out this arti­cle I main­tain a dis­tinc­tion between the terms work and labor. By  labor I intend waged labor as a form of alien­at­ed and exploit­ed work. I use the term labor in rela­tion to the sphere of pro­duc­tion. When I talk about repro­duc­tion I use the term work, to empha­size that it is not work exchanged for mon­ey but work we do to repro­duce and main­tain our­selves. The only excep­tion to this pat­tern is when I use the expres­sion: divi­sion of labor. 

  11. Bar­bara Laslett and Johan­na Bren­ner, Gen­der and Social repro­duc­tion: His­tor­i­cal Per­spec­tives, Annu­al Review of Soci­ol­o­gy, vol. 15, 1989, pp. 383-384. 

  12. End­notes, The Log­ic of Gen­der, in Issue 3, Gen­der, Race, Class and oth­er Mis­for­tunes 

  13. Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Cal­iban and the Witch, Op. Cit. , 2004, p. 24 

  14. End­notes, Issue 3, Gen­der, Race, Class and oth­er Mis­for­tunes 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Cal­iban and the Witch, op. cit., p. 24 

  17. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Pow­er, A Black Woman’s Sto­ry, Anchor Books, Dou­ble­day, New York, 1992, pp. 444-445 

  18. Ibid, p. 444 

  19. Alisa McK­ay, “Rethink­ing Work and Income Main­te­nance Pol­i­cy: Pro­mot­ing Gen­der Equal­i­ty Through a Cit­i­zens’ Basic Income.” Fem­i­nist Eco­nom­ics 7 (1):, 97-118, 2001. 

  20. Philip S. Fon­er, Yuval Tay­lor, ed. Fred­er­ick Dou­glass: Select­ed Speech­es and Writ­ings. Chica­go Review Press, 2000, p. 676 

  21. Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Cal­iban and the Witch, op. cit., pp. 135-136 

  22. Hel­ga Kristin,From Wage Slaves to Wage Work­ers: Cul­tur­al Oppor­tu­ni­ty Struc­tures and the Evo­lu­tion of the Wage Demands of Knights of Labor and the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor, 1880-1900, Social Forces, 85, 1393–1411, March 1 2007 

  23. Sam Gindin and Michael Hur­ley, Less Work, More Pow­er, in Jacobin, issue 18, sum­mer 2015 

Author of the article

teaches Italian Studies at University of Pennsylvania, and is a member of the editorial collective at Viewpoint.