Reading Social Reproduction into Reading Capital

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison


One of the main problems with the disciplinary quality of contemporary academia is the way in which the fragmentation of disciplines carries over into a fragmentation of analysis. Despite the best efforts of well-intentioned intellectual laborers everywhere, “interdisciplinarity” rarely succeeds in its aims, often remaining littlemore than the sum of its parts. Largely forbidden from the standpoint of today’s academia is an approach that totalizes and synthesizes,that addresses the global hidden domains of contemporary knowledge production and contemporary political action. While a theory of reading may not immediately seem to be the most obvious solution to the fragmentation of disciplines, it is clear that the concept of reading proposed by Althusser in Reading Capital is of enormous importance in the identification of “oversight” as a constitutive feature of intellectual practice—the identification of the process through which “one sees,” or understands as such. Any such attempt to identify what might be usually passed over in silence or simply missed is necessarily more open to criticisms along the same vein—this theory claims to identify the unconscious of the text but is itself unconscious of something else.

Yet for all the importance of Reading Capital in its attempt to identify the very way in which “incorrect” theories of reading have been unconsciously presupposed in earlier ways of approaching Marx’s Capital, it can certainly be said of the authors of Reading Capital that they too neglect, as Marx himself did, certain crucial concepts that in fact alter completely the way in which we might understand capitalism itself. While we might accept with Althusser that all readings are “guilty,” and not least guilty in the oversights of their own historical contingency, we might say that the time has come for a reading of Reading Capital that explicitly draws out the “absent” question of feminism. This is of course not to suggest that much work hasn’t already been done, both in terms of a feminist reading of Marx and a feminist critique or, more positively, use of the work of the various authors of Reading Capital. But there is much, positively, that can be done with the theory of reading presented in the text that allows for a more interesting double-reading of both Marx and Reading Capital. In this sense, then, the work of Ellen Rooney, which takes a polemical approach to the question of ideology, provides us with a useful model to ultimately move beyond the stasis of guilt. My brief chapter will attempt to adhere to Rooney’s description of “the irreducible difference of view, of terrain, that is reading,” an approach that “discloses double-reading as a hopelessly political and historical process, one that no text can escape, foreclose, or defend itself against.”1 Rooney’s emphasis on the politics of reading informs here the suggestion that it is possible to read the gaps of Reading Capital as full gaps, rather than empty spaces.

This essay, while siding with the position that emphasizes the importance of Althusser’s theory of reading, seeks to examine both the possibilities the text opens up for a feminist reading of Marx via the use it has been made by feminist theorists since its publication, but also to point to oversights of the text itself, particularly concerning the concept of social reproduction. This latter point will be made of both Althusser and, to a lesser extent, Marx himself, based on a reexamination of feminist responses to Reading Capital and of my own argument in direct response to the text. The chapter will be divided into two sections. The first will examine previous feminist responses to Althusser and Reading Capital, particularly the work of Rooney, the second to identifying the conceptual areas neglected by the text directly. It is a short intervention into thinking about the limitations of the model of reading and the model of reproduction proposed by Reading Capital, but hopefully something minor will have been opened up here.

Feminist Responses to Reading Capital

The relative (or rather complete lack) of references to feminism, gender, or women in Reading Capital has nevertheless not prevented some feminists taking up ideas from the text, particularly regarding a theory of reading. Nevertheless, as Rooney notes, by far the dominant use of Althusser stems from a feminist rereading of his theory of ideology, neglecting the framework and resources of Reading Capital: “The reception of Louis Althusser’s work has fetishized his theory of ideology and virtually overlooked, left unread, his theory and his practice of reading.”2 It is this theory of reading that Rooney (and I too here) wish to resurrect, with certain feminist caveats. We can certainly find much evidence of Rooney’s claim as regards the use of ideology. Hennessy’s work in the early 1990s for example, makes a positive case for understanding Althusser’s ideas in relation to feminist standpoint theory, avoiding the pitfalls of a transparent appeal to experience without understanding the constructed aspects of subject positions: By “foregrounding the material and productive role of ideology in social arrangements, Althusser’s theory of ideology stimulated developments in postmodern Marxist and feminist formulations of the discursive construction of the subject.”3 Gimenez in the 2000s gets closer to Reading Capital than other feminist readings, pointing to the usefulness of the methodological insights of this collective work for a sociological understanding of Marx’s methodology: “I have explored the relevance of Marx’s method as developed by Marx and elaborated by Althusser and Godelier, to identify the non-observable structures and social relations underlying the invisible patterns of interaction between men and women that place the latter in a subordinate position.”4 The work on ideology and the project of Reading Capital is thus seen as a useful supplement to a feminist approach that seeks to approach social interactions in a materialist way. But how might a return to the claims about reading be put in the service of a contemporary Marxist-feminist project?

Rooney’s work provides a highly fruitful way of understanding both how Althusser’s theory of reading is useful on its own terms (particularly for avoiding ideological conceptions of his own theory of ideology as she suggests happened in the reception of his work),5 but also how the theory can be turned against itself, not merely for the sake of some of sort of twist-in-the-tale game, but as a genuine attempt to reinsert, to revive, a particular concept, namely reproduction, back into a Marxist and materialist conception of capitalism itself. She is, along the way, critical of other types of feminist attempts to “use” Althusser, particularly if their focus is primarily on the problem of ideology (she identifies “those elements within feminist and Marxist-feminist discourse that have found ideology a useful way to speak about gender and the Althusserian subject of ideology a plausible figure for woman.”6 We must understand reading here as a broader political process, not the bourgeois model of the individuated reader, sitting alone with a book. It is reading that permits access to knowledge, because it allows access to its own effect, however open-ended and historically specific that process is:

Knowledge is produced only as an effect of reading practices, and this most emphatically includes knowledge of ideology. Althusser’s theory (and his own practice) of reading makes it painfully clear that this is a task that we may very well fail (will repeatedly fail) to complete.7

Reading is a “guilty, dynamic, flawed, open-ended, historically contingent, and wholly political practice of displacements reading as antifetishism.”8 What is clear about the Reading Capital project for all its confessionals, is its neglect, even relative to Marx, of the concept of social reproduction. Rooney touches on this when she notes that the stress on ideology as form, as eternal, serves to obscure the materialist emphasis on actual reproduction (in the broadest sense—everything it takes to keep capitalism going, from the reproduction of the species, to feeding, clothing, and healthcare, all the work that forms the backdrop to waged labor). By speaking purely of the reproduction of ideology we run the risk of neglecting the major processes that sustain capitalism: “The erasure of the feminine contribution to this process [the reproduction of labor power as such] is far from trivial; the history of Marxist feminist discourse on the family wage, domestic labor, and class itself is the arduous history of rethinking [the] proletarian and his children to the nth power.”9 Rooney argues that Althusser “ironically” was indeed precisely attempting to move away from such empirical questions in his discussion of ideology as a more psychoanalytically inflected framework for understanding the impossibility of getting beyond certain structures. But we can argue that the emphasis on ideology alone goes too far—a return to reading at least leaves open the possibility that we are reading from within antagonism, guiltily, problematically:

The articulation of an “unposed” or “absent” question, the question that the reading (the reader) establishes as unthinkable within the text’s own problematic. “Symptomatic” reading is precisely the production of this absent question, which figures the political and rhetorical relation—or more accurately, conflict—between a text and its reader, between readers, between positions. To read is to give form to this conflict, to pose the question that gives the problematic its structure. But the symptom is not something that afflicts only the texts of our opponents; our own symptom is visible as our guilt, the guilt that our reading will expose rather than conceal, the guilt that opens the text. Therein lies the very possibility of a politics of reading.10

Reading in this sense is unnatural. It cuts against Hegelian and biblical wholes, teleology, expressionist kernels. A feminist “reading” of capitalism is unnatural because it identifies both its own position as one taken against usual accounts of reproduction, but also because it articulates what is not said: the absent question of capitalism in this sense is the question of reproduction. It is reading conceived in the broad sense that, as Rooney concludes: “reading is risky because it is always a relation among readings and readers, a productive and political relation, but productive precisely in that it intervenes in the process of reproduction and thus cannot be guaranteed.”11 While Rooney precisely identifies that it is on the question of reproduction that the relationship between reading and ideology turns, there is much more to be said about what Althusser and indeed much of Marxism itself doesn’t say about the role of women and gender in the formation and perpetuation of capital. This requires a doubling, maybe even tripling of the reading (the absence within an absence within an absence), of rethinking countertraditions that have themselves become traditions.

The Ghosts of Reading Capital

So, guilty reading in mind, what unposed and absent question are we asking of Reading Capital here? We are perhaps dealing here with questions that are semiposed and barely answered on multiple levels. Althusser asks, in a discussion of the classical economists and Marx on the value of labor the following: “what is the maintenance of labour? What is the reproduction of labour?”12 Althusser argues that Marx precisely sees what the classical economists do not see, namely that the entire terms of the question need to be altered: “Marx can pose the unuttered question, simply by uttering the concept present in an unuttered form in the emptiness in the answer, sufficiently present in this answer to reproduce and reveal these emptinesses as the emptiness of a presence.”13 Marx’s reposed question, based on a complete restructuring of the entire framework, is, according to Althusser, “what is the value of labour-power?”14 But while it is true that the classical economists obscured the question of labor, they at least raised in the abstract the question of reproduction itself, outside of the epistemological concept of production (the production of knowledge by different domains) that Althusser wants to interrogate. Oddly then, the vaguer question about how labor is maintained and reproduced might in fact be the harder one to answer, not because it is misposed, but because the level on which it is asked is frequently misidentified. Reproduction is a question often unseen precisely because it suffers from an overabundance of meanings. As Lise Vogel puts it in Marxism and the Oppression of Women:

Problems in defining the concept of reproduction derive from its wide range of potential meanings. Felicity Edholm, Olivia Harris and Kate Young suggest that three levels of analysis might be distinguished: social reproduction, or the reproduction of the conditions of production; reproduction of the labour-force; and human or biological reproduction. While the suggestion has been helpful, the issue of the relationship among the different aspects remains.15

A Marxist answer to the question of reproduction has to attempt clarity on this question. Althusser’s reposing of the ground of the classical economists arguably restricts the question of reproduction to the second of these aspects, reproduction of the labor force. But this is precisely to ignore all the work that exists in order to keep life going, waged and unwaged. The erasure and undermining of women’s role in this is a central feature of capitalism. As Silvia Federici puts it: “Through my involvement in the women’s movement I realized that the reproduction of human beings is the foundation of every economic and political system.”16 “Reproduction” here should be read in the broadest possible sense as the “complex of activities and relations by which our life and labour are daily reconstituted,”17 that is to say, everything that makes life possible in the first place and everything that continues to sustain it. Reproduction in this broad sense is where the contradictions inherent in alienated labor are “most explosive,” according to Federici.

In Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women, she describes the convoluted and intense struggles over determining whether unwaged or domestic labor produced value, and could therefore be considered “productive” or “unproductive.”18 The wages for housework debates raised the broader question of social reproduction and questioned Marx’s position on the establishment of the wage level. It seems that today at least two of the positions that were staked in this debate have some kind of strange genealogical resonance today. On the one hand, the autonomist Marxist idea that domestic labor creates surplus value, either “directly or indirectly” as Kathi Weeks puts it in her recent The Problem with Work, and the related claim that there should be economic recognition of the value this work produces, not in order to valorize housework as such, but to make a broader point about how the wage relation operates within capitalism, and how it depends on vast quantities of unpaid female labor.19 As Federici puts it in Caliban and the Witch, summing up the earlier debates:

A social system of production that does not recognise the production and reproduction of the worker as a social-economic activity, and a source of capital accumulation, but mystifies it instead as a natural resource or a personal service, while profiting from the wageless condition of the labour involved.20

But how might we put Federici and others’ insights regarding the definition of reproduction in a Marxist-feminist way back in contact with the Althusserian project? A useful clue comes from a review of one of Althusser’s books, Montesquieu, la politique et la histoire, by Federici. The review is from 1969, slightly before we position many of the debates around social reproduction, but already Federici is very clear. She writes: “The question here is: how do we handle the past? If it is true, as Althusser reiterates, that prior to Marx every ‘production’ is merely ideological, why should we study it at all?”21 Federici’s criticism of Althusser’s reluctance to historicize reproduction is crucial to the feminist attempt to move away from the kind of analysis presented in Reading Capital, and Federici makes it very clear that Althusser’s attempt to make Marxism a “science,” by appealing to forerunners in the shape of Montesquieu and others, is predicated on false, generalizing assertions: “Althusser fails first and foremost because he chooses only a part of Montesquieu’s assertions to constitute his theoretical ‘praxis.’”22 What impact do these generalizing, non-or-ahistorical claims mean for any understanding of the relationship between production and reproduction, labor and sex? Federici claims that Althusser’s inability to determine what the motor of the dialectic might be for Montesquieu (for example, does law precede justice or vice versa?) leads to a curiously non-Marxist approach to the problem, and thus Althusser wastes “valuable space and ink on a problem which, for a Marxist, could easily find its solution in the 3rd thesis of Feuerbach.”23 “Structuralist-Marxists,” of which Althusser is the leading light, suffer, thinks Federici, from reading everything “within their own context.”24 This closed reading is very clearly in tension with the model of reading complicated in the discussion of the topic in Reading Capital. Are there resources in yet another theory of reading that could reconcile the structuralist-Marxist and Marxist-feminist readings?

In the meantime, I am suggesting, via Federici and Federici’s reading of Althusser, that the question of reproduction, reposed by Althusser via Marx, does not solve the complex interaction between social reproduction, the reproduction of labor power and biological reproduction, and indeed, perhaps further confuses the question. In Reading Capital, Etienne Balibar devotes an entire section to reproduction, but remains strangely opaque on the relationship between these kinds of reproduction, all crucial to the reproduction of capital. In his analysis, there are three ways in which a theory of reproduction ensures a triple continuity: firstly, the link between different economic subjects, which in fact move together and are intertwined, where the parts of the whole are more than their sum; secondly, “the permanence of the non-economic conditions of the production process,” where law is especially singled out, and thirdly, reproduction that ensures the “successive continuity of production itself”25, which is the basis for all the rest. It is on the third point that Balibar slightly mystifies the question, although unconsciously referring to it on another level:

Production cannot be stopped… it is the materiality of the elements which supports the continuity, but it is the concept of reproduction which expresses its specific form, because it envelops the different (differential) determinations of the material. Through each of the aspects that I have invoked, the concept expresses merely one and the same pregnancy of the structure which presents a “well-bound” history.26

Taking a quote from Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital, Balibar agrees that “reproduction appears to be the general form of permanence of the general conditions of production, which in the last analysis englobe the whole social structure.” What Marxist feminists strove to do was to begin from this question of the “whole social structure,” but here Balibar points to this as a potential site of analysis before retreating back toward a more narrowly economic reading. Even in the section “The Reproduction of the Social Relations,” Balibar avoids the possibility of beginning with the discussion of what is at stake in the “perpetuation” of the worker, that “absolutely necessary condition,” as Marx puts it, for the capitalist mode of production to function:

The concept of reproduction is thus not only the concept of the “consistency” of the structure, but also the concept of the necessary determination of the movement of production by the permanence of that structure; it is the concept of the permanence of the initial elements in the very functioning of the system, hence the concept of the necessary conditions of production, conditions which are precisely not created by it. This is what Marx calls the eternity of the mode of production: “This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation (Verewigung) of the worker, is the absolutely necessary condition for capitalist production.”27

Perhaps what is ultimately missing in the entire approach or reading in Reading Capital is an openness to the question of what “comes first” and what is and is not “eternal.” Marxist-feminism, by opening up the question of sex historically and pointing out that reproduction can be understood “in the last instance” not only in an economic way, but in a way that takes into account the entire conditions for the “perpetuation of the worker.”


The concept of reading that Reading Capital announces is an enormously productive one for feminist readings of Marx that seek to supplement and expand on Marx’s analysis while not remaining hidebound by its gaps and absences. The closeness of Reading Capital’s “guilty” reading disguises what is perhaps most productive about its model of reading. As Vogel puts it: “Scattered throughout the pages of Capital, Marx’s comments on women’s situation, on the family, on divisions of labour according to sex and age, and on the reproduction of the working class have never been sufficiently appreciated by students of the so-called woman-question.”28 What the discussion of social reproduction does is open up the possibility, once again, of a true meeting of Marxism and feminism to begin again to answer the complex questions of sex and value, and the relationship between structure and history, in the twenty-first century.

This essay first appeared in Nick Nesbitt’s anthology, The Concept in Crisis © 2017 Duke University Press.

  1. Ellen Rooney, “Better Read Than Dead: Althusser and the Fetish of Ideology,” in “Depositions: Althusser, Balibar, Macherey, and the Labor of Reading,” special issue, Yale French Studies, no. 88 (1995): 183–200. 

  2. Rooney, 183. 

  3. Rosemary Hennessy, “Women’s Lives/Feminist Knowledge: Feminist Standpoint as Ideology Critique,” Hypatia 8, no. 1 (winter 1993): 14–34, quotation on 21. 

  4. Martha E. Gimenez, “Capitalism and the Oppression of Women: Marx Revisited,” in “Marxist Feminist Thought Today,” special issue, Science and Society 69, no. 1 (January 2005): 11–32, quotation on 13n5. 

  5. Rooney, “Better Read Than Dead,” 183: “His theory of reading actually helps to resolve some of the very theoretical and political difficulties that many commentators on his theory of ideology find so troubling.” 

  6. Rooney, 192n12. 

  7. Rooney, 186. 

  8. Rooney, 185 

  9. Rooney, 190. 

  10. Rooney, 187 

  11. 194. 

  12. Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, and Jacques Rancière, Reading Capital: The Complete Edition, trans. Ben Brewster and David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2016), 20 

  13. Althusser, 21. 

  14. Althusser, 22. 

  15. Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (Leiden: Brill, 2013 [1983]), 28. 

  16. Silvia Federici, Preface, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland, CA: pm Press, 2012), 2. 

  17. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, 5. 

  18. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, 22. 

  19. Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 97. 

  20. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 8. 

  21. Silvia Federici, “Review of Louis Althusser, Montesquieu, la politique et la histoire,” Telos, no. 4 (fall 1969): 236–40, quotation on 237. 

  22. Federici, “Review of Montesquieu, la politique et la histoire,” 238. 

  23. Federici, “Review of Montesquieu, la politique et la histoire,” 239. 

  24. Federici, “Review of Montesquieu, la politique et la histoire,” 239. 

  25. Althusser, 426–27. 

  26. Balibar, 425. 

  27. Balibar 440, citing Capital vol. 1, 716. 

  28. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, 62. 

Author of the article

teaches Philosophy at the University of Roehampton and is the author of many articles on philosophy, culture and politics.