Social Reproduction, Surplus Populations and the Role of Migrant Women

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In this paper1 I want to link togeth­er two strands of lit­er­a­ture that have often been con­sid­ered sep­a­rate­ly, despite of their impor­tant inter­con­nec­tions: the fem­i­nist lit­er­a­ture on social repro­duc­tion and the lit­er­a­ture on sur­plus pop­u­la­tions, as it plays out in the spe­cif­ic ques­tion of the sta­tus of migrants with­in their coun­tries of arrival.2

I want to sug­gest that when we con­sid­er these debates in con­junc­tion with one anoth­er, the­o­ries of social repro­duc­tion and sur­plus pop­u­la­tions become a priv­i­leged site for ana­lyz­ing the inter­sec­tion of racial and gen­dered oppres­sion with class exploita­tion. How­ev­er, unlike the many oth­ers who make this point, I will argue against an overex­ten­sion of the cat­e­go­ry of sur­plus pop­u­la­tion. When we con­sid­er the ques­tion of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions from the point of view of the fem­i­nist lit­er­a­ture on social repro­duc­tion, we see that migrant women do not con­sti­tute a sur­plus pop­u­la­tion, or reserve army, in Europe, but rather a “reg­u­lar army,” which is total­ly nec­es­sary to cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion. While the wide­spread debate around sur­plus pop­u­la­tions right­ly high­lights unem­ploy­ment as a cause of migra­tion, it runs the ana­lyt­i­cal and polit­i­cal risk of obscur­ing the fact that most migrant women do not take the jobs of oth­ers, and are waged rather than “super­flu­ous” in their coun­tries of arrival since much of the social­ly repro­duc­tive activ­i­ty in the Glob­al North has become com­mod­i­fied.

In order to make my argu­ment, I need first to clar­i­fy in what ways I use the notion of both social repro­duc­tion and sur­plus pop­u­la­tions.

Social reproduction feminism

In the last ten years in par­tic­u­lar we have wit­nessed a grow­ing inter­est in the­o­ries of social repro­duc­tion, not only amongst a new gen­er­a­tion of fem­i­nists who con­tin­ue to think along the lines of Karl Marx and var­i­ous Marxisms, but also among migra­tion and care schol­ars – and here I think of Eleonore Kof­man, only to men­tion one of the most promi­nent exam­ples.3

While appar­ent­ly self-explana­to­ry – in the end, social repro­duc­tion refers to “activ­i­ties and atti­tudes, behav­iors and emo­tions, respon­si­bil­i­ties and rela­tion­ships direct­ly involved in the main­te­nance of life on a dai­ly basis, and inter­gen­er­a­tional­ly,” in Bar­bara Leslett and Johan­na Bren­ner wide­ly used def­i­n­i­tion – the approach­es that are gath­ered togeth­er under the notion of social repro­duc­tion are in fact diverse.4 For instance, Marx­ist fem­i­nists involved in the “wages for house­work” cam­paign gen­er­al­ly define social repro­duc­tion as pro­duc­tive of sur­plus-val­ue. On the oth­er hand, mate­ri­al­ist fem­i­nists, such as Chris­tine Del­phy, would con­sid­er social repro­duc­tion as a set of activ­i­ties fun­da­men­tal­ly linked to domes­tic labor and as a sep­a­rate mode of pro­duc­tion. Final­ly, Lise Vogel and the Marx­ist fem­i­nists who have been inspired by her work under­stand social repro­duc­tion as not pro­duc­ing sur­plus-val­ues but only use-val­ues, and com­pre­hend social repro­duc­tion as above all the repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er and class soci­ety.

In this text I will lim­it my com­ments to this lat­est approach, both because it is the one I find clear­est when it comes to explain­ing the role of the work­ing-class house­hold and gen­der oppres­sion for cap­i­tal­ism, and because Vogel is the the­o­rist who points explic­it­ly to the link between social repro­duc­tion and sur­plus pop­u­la­tions, albeit only in pass­ing and in an under­de­vel­oped man­ner.

Accord­ing to Sue Fer­gu­son and David McNal­ly in their intro­duc­tion to the recent repub­li­ca­tion of Vogel’s Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women, one of the most impor­tant inno­va­tions intro­duced into the Marx­ist fem­i­nist debate by Lise Vogel in the ear­ly 1980s was to main­tain her rea­son­ing about women’s oppres­sion with­in the coor­di­nates of Marx’s the­o­ry of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. Unlike oth­er Marx­ist fem­i­nists who argued either for the irrec­on­cil­abil­i­ty between Marx­ism and Fem­i­nism, or that Marx’s seri­ous omis­sions regard­ing women’s oppres­sion had less­ened the util­i­ty of his ideas, Vogel main­tained that Marx’s Cap­i­tal was still the the­o­ret­i­cal com­pass to try to grasp the roots of the unequal gen­der order under cap­i­tal­ism. Albeit her­self rec­og­niz­ing the lim­its of Marx’s account on this issue – par­tic­u­lar­ly in those places where he fails to devel­op argu­ments or omits to explain the process through which labor pow­er is repro­duced in cap­i­tal­ist dom­i­nat­ed soci­eties – Marx’s Cap­i­tal, and par­tic­u­lar­ly Marx’s insights into pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, for Vogel remain of utmost impor­tance for social­ist fem­i­nists attempt­ing to make sense of women’s oppres­sion.

Accord­ing to Vogel, Marx encour­ages us to see that the roots of women’s oppres­sion under cap­i­tal­ism lie in the spe­cial role women are assigned – includ­ing for bio­log­i­cal rea­sons – in the key process of the repro­duc­tion of labor-pow­er. Social repro­duc­tion thus here refers not only to the repro­duc­tion of the worker’s capac­i­ty to work (and be exploit­ed), but also to the repro­duc­tion of the future cohorts of work­ers. In this sense, the key con­tri­bu­tion of Vogel has been to focus on the work­ing class fam­i­ly as the site of the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of labor-pow­er, not in its inter­nal struc­ture and dynam­ics but in its struc­tur­al rela­tions to the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal.5

Vogel, how­ev­er, does rec­og­nize that, as a his­tor­i­cal­ly deter­mined social-eco­nom­ic for­ma­tion, the fam­i­ly form is not func­tion­al­ly nec­es­sary to the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism – cap­i­tal in fact could resort to oth­er means in order to replen­ish its con­stant need for labor-pow­er (immi­gra­tion and slav­ery for instance). Fur­ther­more, Vogel under­stands that the repro­duc­tion of that spe­cial com­mod­i­ty called labor-pow­er also amounts to the repro­duc­tion of the work­ing class and class soci­ety, the lat­ter entail­ing an enor­mous set of devices (ide­o­log­i­cal, insti­tu­tion­al, eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal and so forth) that need to be ana­lyzed in depth to pro­duce a non-deter­min­is­tic or sim­plis­tic account. It is when she tack­les the prob­lem at this lev­el that Vogel talks of “total social repro­duc­tion”; and it is here that she touch­es – albeit almost unwit­ting­ly – on the issue of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions.

As she puts it:

At the lev­el of total social repro­duc­tion it is not the indi­vid­ual direct pro­duc­er but the total­i­ty of labour­ers that is main­tained and replaced. It is evi­dent that such renew­al of the labour force can be accom­plished in a vari­ety of ways. In prin­ci­ple at least, the present set of labour­ers can be worked to death, and then replaced by an entire­ly new set. In the more like­ly case, an exist­ing labour force is replen­ished both gen­er­a­tional­ly and by new labour­ers. Chil­dren of work­ers grow up and enter the labour force. Women who had not pre­vi­ous­ly been involved begin to par­tic­i­pate in pro­duc­tion. Immi­grants or slaves from out­side a society’s bound­aries enter its labour force. To the brief extent that Marx con­sid­ered these ques­tions in gen­er­al terms he spoke of laws of pop­u­la­tion. “Every spe­cial his­toric mode of pro­duc­tion has its own spe­cial laws of pop­u­la­tion, his­tor­i­cal­ly valid with­in its lim­its alone” … More­over, not all present labor­ers will work in a sub­se­quent pro­duc­tion peri­od. Some will become sick, dis­abled or too old. Oth­er may be exclud­ed, as when pro­tec­tive leg­is­la­tion is enact­ed to pro­hib­it child-labour or women’s night work. In sum, at the lev­el of total social repro­duc­tion the con­cept of the repro­duc­tion of labour pow­er does not in the least imply the repro­duc­tion of a bound­ed unit of pop­u­la­tion.6

In the pas­sage above, Vogel argues that when Marx tack­les the issue of total social repro­duc­tion when he dis­cuss­es the laws of pop­u­la­tion that are pecu­liar to cap­i­tal­ism. How­ev­er, she fails to men­tion that Marx’s descrip­tion of the laws of pop­u­la­tion occurs in the con­text of his dis­cus­sion of the pro­duc­tion of a rel­a­tive sur­plus pop­u­la­tion, or indus­tri­al reserve army.

Marx’s theory of surplus population

The dis­cus­sion on the cre­ation of the reserve army of labor is strict­ly relat­ed to Marx’s analy­sis of the organ­ic com­po­si­tion of cap­i­tal and the ten­den­cy of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion to encour­age the increase “of its con­stant, at the expense of its vari­able con­stituent.”7 In oth­er words, the cre­ation of a pool of the unem­ployed and under-employed (or what Marx calls the three forms of the reserve army of labor: float­ing, stag­nant, and latent), is due to capital’s need to increase the mass and val­ue of the means of pro­duc­tion (i.e., machines), at the cost of the decrease of the mass and val­ue of liv­ing labor (i.e., wages and work­ers).

In Marx’s analy­sis, (a) the increase in the mag­ni­tude of social cap­i­tal, that is, the ensem­ble of indi­vid­ual cap­i­tals; (b) the enlarge­ment of the scale of pro­duc­tion and (c) the growth of the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of an increas­ing num­ber of work­ers brought about by cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion in which the greater “attrac­tion of labor­ers by cap­i­tal is accom­pa­nied by their greater repul­sion.”8 For Marx, these three inter­re­lat­ed process­es set the con­di­tions accord­ing to which the labor­ing pop­u­la­tion gives rise, “along with the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal pro­duced by it, [also to] the means by which it itself is made rel­a­tive­ly super­flu­ous, is turned into a rel­a­tive sur­plus pop­u­la­tion; and it does this to an always increas­ing extent.”9 Marx describes this as a law of pop­u­la­tion, which is pecu­liar to the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion just as oth­er modes of pro­duc­tion have their own cor­re­spond­ing pop­u­la­tion laws. The para­dox of the cre­ation of the sur­plus labor­ing pop­u­la­tion under the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion is that while it is “a nec­es­sary prod­uct of accu­mu­la­tion,” this sur­plus pop­u­la­tion is also the lever of such accu­mu­la­tion; name­ly, it is that which “forms a dis­pos­able indus­tri­al reserve army, that belongs to cap­i­tal quite as absolute­ly as if the lat­ter had bred it at its own cost.”10

Already in Marx’s time migrants occu­pied a spe­cial place with­in the cap­i­tal­ist repro­duc­tion of sur­plus labor­ing pop­u­la­tions, a sit­u­a­tion that enabled cap­i­tal­ists to main­tain wage dis­ci­pline and to inhib­it work­ing-class sol­i­dar­i­ty by means of the appli­ca­tion of a divide and rule log­ic. In nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry and ear­ly-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry West­ern Europe these were usu­al­ly rur­al work­ers forced to move to the cities or to neigh­bor­ing regions or nations due to land dis­pos­ses­sion and the process of indus­tri­al­iza­tion, as well as due to state poli­cies aimed at pro­vid­ing labor-pow­er for the grow­ing urban man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­tries.11

Marx, how­ev­er, did not dis­cuss the spe­cial posi­tion occu­pied by work­ing class women in the pro­duc­tion of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions. In so doing, Marx was unwit­ting­ly exhibit­ing a well-known prej­u­dice that con­tin­ues to the present: the idea that women’s pri­ma­ry role is that of social repro­duc­ers and not as work­ers. It was most­ly in the 1970s and 1980s that Marx­ist fem­i­nists dis­cussed the role of women as that of a reserve army of labor12 At the same time, migra­tion schol­ars in those very same years – a peri­od that coin­cid­ed with the stop­page poli­cies to fur­ther influx­es of immi­grants from South­ern Europe and the Glob­al South – were dis­cussing the role of migrants in the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my as that of a clas­si­cal reserve army of labor. Once the 1973 oil cri­sis kicked off, migrants,accused of “‘low­er­ing the wages of Euro­pean work­ers,” were indeed the first to lose their jobs.13

Migrant women, social reproduction and surplus population

Both the­o­ries of social repro­duc­tion and sur­plus pop­u­la­tions thus have tra­di­tion­al­ly been devel­oped on the basis of the three assump­tions. First, that social repro­duc­tion activ­i­ties are not com­mod­i­fied, but per­formed at home by the female mem­bers of the fam­i­ly house­hold. Sec­ond, that migrant work­ers com­pos­ing the ranks of the reserve army of labor are main­ly male work­ers employed in the pro­duc­tive sec­tor. And last­ly, most­ly implic­it­ly and often with­out refer­ring to these the­o­ret­i­cal frame­works, both non-migrant and migrant women have been con­sid­ered as belong­ing to both the camp of those pre­dom­i­nant­ly in charge of social repro­duc­tion and as those fill­ing the ranks of the reserve army of labor.

Since the late 1980s what we now call neolib­er­al­ism has dras­ti­cal­ly changed this sce­nario. To begin with, Euro­pean women have entered the paid labor force en masse. Albeit at dif­fer­ent paces and in dif­fer­ent forms in each coun­try, the major­i­ty of work­ing-aged women are now in some form of employ­ment out­side the house­hold.14 Fur­ther­more, the immi­grant pop­u­la­tion is no longer pre­dom­i­nant­ly male; on the con­trary, in some Euro­pean coun­tries women con­sti­tute the major­i­ty of migrants.15

As any schol­ar of gen­der and migra­tion well knows, these two process­es are inti­mate­ly linked togeth­er. Inso­far as many women in the Glob­al North have less time and will­ing­ness to per­form the social repro­duc­tive tasks tra­di­tion­al­ly expect­ed from them, they out­source these tasks increas­ing­ly to migrant women. The demand for car­ers, clean­ers, child- and elder­ly-min­ders, or social repro­duc­ers in gen­er­al has grown so much in the last thir­ty years that it is now regard­ed as a phe­nom­e­non brought about by the glob­al cri­sis of social repro­duc­tion as well as the main rea­son for the fem­i­niza­tion of migra­tion.

In this sce­nario, not only are non-migrant women enter­ing the pro­duc­tive sphere at a grow­ing pace, but women are “not act­ing as a buffer either in pro­tect­ing men against job loss or act­ing as a labour reserve in vol­un­tar­i­ly with­draw­ing from the labour mar­ket,” in Maria Karamessi­ni and Jill Rubery’s words.16 On the oth­er hand, migrant women are not only employed in social repro­duc­tion in a com­mod­i­fied form, but also, as I argued else­where, they can hard­ly be described as com­pos­ing a reserve army of labor.17 This does not occur sim­ply because they are more often employed in the ser­vice rather than man­u­fac­tur­ing or con­struc­tion sec­tor, but also because the com­plex polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal process­es that usu­al­ly go with the cre­ation of the reserve army of labor – that is, the accu­sa­tion of migrants as jobs’ steal­ers – don’t seem to affect migrant women employed in social repro­duc­tion. No one accus­es these women of steal­ing Euro­pean women’s jobs. On the con­trary, their work is what makes Euro­pean women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in activ­i­ties out­side the house­hold pos­si­ble.

This notwith­stand­ing, social repro­duc­tion is still a preva­lent­ly female affair. And it is also a preva­lent­ly racial­ized affair. The sta­tus of social­ly repro­duc­tive work as non-prop­er work, non-pro­duc­tive from a cap­i­tal­ist view­point, degrad­ing and unskilled, accounts for its low pay; it is here that migrant women, as racial­ized women, enter the scene. Com­mod­i­fied social repro­duc­tion in fact not only fol­lows the rules of gen­derism and the “sex­u­al con­tract” with­in the house­hold, which estab­lish­es that women are still the sub­jects in charge of repro­duc­tion and care.18 It also fol­lows the rules of the “racial con­tract,” accord­ing to which eth­nic minori­ties and peo­ple of col­or are still those who per­form the least desir­able and val­ued tasks in a soci­ety.19

If one of the main objec­tives of social repro­duc­tion the­o­ry is to under­stand the roots of gen­der oppres­sion in the house­hold and the sex­u­al divi­sion of labor that dom­i­nates the work­ing class fam­i­ly under cap­i­tal­ism, then the con­tem­po­rary sta­tus of social repro­duc­tion as increas­ing­ly com­mod­i­fied and per­formed by migrant, racial­ized women demands that we study social repro­duc­tion also in its links with racial oppres­sion. Social repro­duc­tion has become indeed more and more a key site for under­stand­ing the inter­sec­tion between gen­dered and racial oppres­sion.

On the oth­er hand, if one of the main goals of the­o­ries of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions is to under­stand how cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion requires the impov­er­ish­ment of a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple and chron­ic unem­ploy­ment par­tic­u­lar­ly amongst cer­tain sec­tors of the pop­u­la­tion (women, migrants), then the fact that non-migrant and migrant women can be less and less asso­ci­at­ed with the reserve army of labor demands that we study how the neolib­er­al orga­ni­za­tion of labor also re-orga­nizes gen­der orders and racial hier­ar­chies.


  1. A ver­sion of this paper was deliv­ered at the His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism Rome Con­fer­ence, 17-19 Sep­tem­ber 2015. I am thank­ful to all par­tic­i­pants for com­ments and crit­i­cisms. In par­tic­u­lar I would like to thank Jami­la Mas­cat, Sab­ri­na Mar­che­t­ti, Alessan­dra Gis­si, Vale­ria Ribeiro, Anna Cur­cio and Bar­bara De Benedet­ti. The research lead­ing to these results has received fund­ing from the Peo­ple Pro­gramme (Marie Curie Actions) of the Euro­pean Union’s Sev­enth Frame­work Pro­gramme (FP7/2007-2013) under REA grant agree­ment n° 300616. The con­tents of this doc­u­ment are the sole respon­si­bil­i­ty of the author, and can under no cir­cum­stances be regard­ed as reflect­ing the posi­tion of the Euro­pean Union. 

  2. A par­tial excep­tion is con­sti­tut­ed by Sue Fer­gu­son and David McNally’s bril­liant arti­cle, “Pre­car­i­ous Migrants: Gen­der, Race and the Social Repro­duc­tion of a Glob­al Work­ing Class,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 51 (2015): 1-23. Though their cen­tral con­cern is not a dis­cus­sion of the­o­ries of social repro­duc­tion and sur­plus pop­u­la­tions per se, Fer­gu­son and McNal­ly empha­size the impor­tance of think­ing these two process­es in con­junc­tion. 

  3. Eleonore Kof­man and Par­vati Raghu­ram, Gen­dered Migra­tions and Glob­al Social Repro­duc­tion (New York: Pal­grave, 2015). 

  4. Bar­bara Laslett and Johan­na Bren­ner, “Gen­der And Social Repro­duc­tion: His­tor­i­cal Per­spec­tives,” Annu­al Review of Soci­ol­o­gy 15 (1989): 381-404. 

  5. Sue Fer­gu­son and David McNal­ly, “Cap­i­tal, Labour-Pow­er, and Gen­der-Rela­tions: Intro­duc­tion to the His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism Edi­tion of Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women,” in Lise Vogel, Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women: Toward a Uni­tary The­o­ry (Chica­go: Hay­mar­ket, 2013), xxiv. 

  6. Vogel, Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women, 145-6. 

  7. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal. Vol­ume I, in Marx and Engels Col­lect­ed Works, Vol­ume 35 (Lon­don: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), 623. 

  8. Ibid., 625. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Ibid., 626. 

  11. Michael Bura­woy, “The Func­tions and Repro­duc­tion of Migrant Labor: Com­par­a­tive Mate­r­i­al from South­ern Africa and the Unit­ed States,” Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Soci­ol­o­gy 81 (1976): 1050-87; Ottar Brox, The Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my of Rur­al Devel­op­ment. Mod­ern­iza­tion with­out Cen­tral­iza­tion? (Chica­go: The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2006). 

  12. For exam­ple see Veron­i­ca Beechey, “Some Notes on Female Wage Labour,” Cap­i­tal and Class 1 (1977): 45-66; Floya Anthias, “Women and the Reserve Army of Labour: A Cri­tique of Veron­i­ca Beechey,” Cap­i­tal and Class 4 (1980): 50-63.  

  13. Stephen Cas­tles and Gudu­la Kosack, Immi­grant Work­ers And Class Struc­ture In West­ern Europe (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1973). 

  14. Maria Karamessi­ni and Jill Rubery, eds., Women and Aus­ter­i­ty. The Eco­nom­ic Cri­sis and the Future for Gen­der Equality (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2013). 

  15. Unit­ed Nations, State of World Pop­u­la­tions: A Pas­sage to Hope, Women and Inter­na­tion­al Migra­tion, 2006. 

  16. Karamessi­ni and Rubery, eds., Women and Aus­ter­i­ty

  17. Sara R. Far­ris, “Femona­tion­al­ism and the ‘Reg­u­lar’ Army of Labor called Migrant Women,” His­to­ry of the Present 2, no. 2 (2012): 184-199. 

  18. Car­ole Pate­man, The Sex­u­al Con­tract (Stan­ford: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1988). 

  19. Charles W. Mills, The Racial Con­tract (Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007). 

Author of the article

is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She works on sociological and political theory, ‘race’/racism and feminism, migration and gender, with a particular focus on migrant women and their role within social reproduction. She is the author of , with a particular focus on migrant women and their role within social reproduction. She is the author of Max Weber's Theory of Personality. Individuation, Politics and Orientalism in the Sociology of Religion (Haymarket, 2015), and In the Name of Women's Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism (Duke University Press, forthcoming in April 2017).