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).