‘Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression’ reviewed by Joshua Depaolis

Reviewed by Joshua Depaolis

About the reviewer

Joshua Depaolis is an independent researcher currently interested in post 1977 strategic debates…


Since the early work of Engels and Bebel, the question of the persistence of relations of personal domination between men and women in societies characterized by the predominance of capitalist production relations, and the role which socialists should play in the democratic struggle for women’s emancipation, has been a preoccupation of the Marxist tradition. The post 1968 global upsurge of worker’s and democratic movements put this question in sharp relief with the emergence in the developed capitalist countries of women’s movements which carried out a critique of the continued reproduction of women’s subordinate status throughout the ideological and legal superstructure.

Many in these movements correctly noted the false universalism of bourgeois liberalism and revisionist Marxism alike, which asserted the universal figure of the citizen or the worker in theory while in practice condoning or endorsing the continued immersion of women in a private sphere of dependence and subordination.

Some, particularly those from the ‘Wages for Housework’- tendency which emerged from the post-1968 Italian left extended this critique to an argument that women’s disproportionate role in household tasks was value producing labour, just like waged work in the factory, and a structural necessity for the reproduction of capital. Thus, they attempted to amend the ‘omission’ in Marx’s analysis of capital which allegedly obscured the role of housewives in the production of surplus value. Others like Christine Delphy, noting the continuation of a gendered division of household tasks in the states of ‘actually existing socialism’, concluded that to posit any inherent structural determination of patriarchal household relations by capital or vice-versa was a conceptual error.

Since that time both ‘actually existing socialism’ and a dynamic global worker’s movement have become things of the past, while forty years of restructuring and class decomposition have made consistent faith in the enlightenment promise of universal emancipation into a virtual anachronism. In this context, Marxist intellectuals have spent decades in unresolved crisis, looking for new social subjects to fulfill the mission of the now dispersed and fragmented working class.

In a moment defined by such developments, the release of a methodologically rigorous and systematic treatment of the struggle for women’s emancipation from a Marxist perspective to wide acclaim from left academia would be a welcome sign. Unfortunately Social Reproduction Theory is not such a treatment and its seeming popularity is anything but indicative of a Marxist revival.

In fact, what is presented to us in Tithi Bhattacharya’s edited collection Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression is neither Marxist in the sense of adhering to the conceptual categories of Marx’s critique of political economy as a point of departure, nor a theory in the sense of an internally consistent conceptual object constructed in order to grasp the variegation of the real object and differentiate the essential and the inherent from the contingent.

From the beginning, we are informed that this discussion will depart from an acknowledgement of the ‘strengths of intersectionality theory’ which apparently possesses an ability to “develop nuanced descriptive and historical accounts of various ‘categories of social difference”’ (xi). This is an interesting admission for a volume that bills itself as an exposition of Marxist theory. In recent years, ‘intersectionality’ has become an umbrella term for struggles for substantive equality of rights in the bourgeois democratic order. However, it does not take the critique of the prevailing relations of production as its object, nor express the interests of the working class within such relations.

This deferential nod to bourgeois-reformist social thought is accompanied by criticisms of Marx who is accused of a severe crime of omission. Specifically we are informed that Marxism is silent on the question of how that peculiar commodity, labour power, is reproduced. This will come as a surprise to any reader of Capital who is familiar with chapter six of Volume One and its succinct but comprehensive summary of the reproduction conditions of labour power. Hence, what is allegedly missing on the theoretical level from Marx’s schema is never explained, leaving the claims in Social Reproduction Theory about ‘silences’ (3) and ambiguities (72) in Capital confusing.

Unless the authors have made the error of reading Capital not as a theoretical model, but a historical work. The reader might think this an unfair assumption to make, at least before they encounter the almost nihilistic attitude to conceptual abstraction which permeates latter chapters. We are informed by David McNally that the Marxist dialectical method with its ‘view of life as dynamic becoming’ can be equated to the ‘the priority of life, or lived experience’ (104), by Alan Sears that ‘[g]iven prevalent divisions of labor, men often know more abstractly…’ and that ‘this abstract way of knowing’ is ‘one underpinning of the cultural scaffolding of rape’ (185-86), and by Cinzia Arruzza that ‘[a]bstracting from experience leads to replacing materialism with rationalism.(195) Such a view of abstraction stands in opposition to the Marxist method of movement from the abstract to the concrete and to the supposed objective of Social Reproduction Theory itself. If ‘life’ should be understood as an undifferentiated totality of ‘directly experienced empirical facts’, how is theoretical construction possible?

This doubt is all the more pertinent because the formulation of a theory of social reproduction entails an unavoidable abstraction from experience. The appeal to experience in opposition to abstraction cannot be understood as anything more then a hypostasis without content. If analyzed, it dissolves into an affirmation of the prevailing ‘common sense’ conceptual framework within which experience is inscribed by the hegemonic subjectivity against the radical critique of the same, which instead of being understood as the precondition of transformative social practice, is castigated as ‘rationalism’.

Considering this hostility to theoretical coherence it is perhaps not surprising that none of the contributors provide an internally consistent articulation of what exactly social reproduction theory is. If we refer to Bhattacharya’s contribution in chapter four, which seems to be the only attempt at a sustained theoretical elaboration, we are presented with a confusing combination of commonplaces.

We are informed that contemporary critics of Marxism rely on a ‘narrow vision’ in which a ‘worker is simply a person who has a specific kind of job.’ It is left unclear how such a ‘vision’ is either narrow or in contradiction to Marx’s own schema. The working class can be objectively characterized as the totality of wage dependent individuals employed in the production and realization of surplus value, plus the reserve army of labour. That is to say, precisely persons who have (actually or potentially) a ‘specific kind of job’. (68)

If anything can be gleaned from this ‘defense’ of Marxism, it is that the proponents of social reproduction theory are motivated by an aspiration to substitute a diffuse attack on oppressive power relations for an analysis of the specifics of capitalist production.

In this sense, Bhattacharya goes on to inform us that ‘it is essential to recognize that workers have an existence beyond the workplace.’ (69) This leads one to wonder: who is being argued against here? Considering that the classical worker’s movement saw consumer cooperatives as one of the three primary working class institutions together with parties and unions, that the critique of gendered asymmetries in domestic labour and demands for its socialization is a reoccurring theme in the Marxist canon and that the early socialist and communist parties were always closely bound with neighborhood and community organizations of various kinds, this is a critique without a target.

What seems really at stake in this admonition is the validity of working class centrality as the producer of surplus value in the transcendence of capitalist production relations. This is essentially an attempt at a superficially Marxist restatement of the theory of ‘new social movements’.

Cinzia Arruzza’s contribution (192-96) is perhaps the clearest articulation of this perspective. After observing that liberal feminism has nothing to offer working class woman at this juncture, rather than concluding that the question at hand is the organization of working women around class demands and under proletarian leadership, she proceeds to note the ‘existence in the United States of dozens of grassroots collectives, networks, and national organizations that were already developing an alternative to liberal feminism: a class-based, antiracist feminism, inclusive of trans women and queer and nonbinary people.’ (193-94)

Anyone familiar with US politics is painfully aware that the ‘collectives, networks and national organizations’ (194) referenced here are a spectrum operating within confines largely dictated by foundation funding and the post-structuralist ideology accompanying it.

The impression that Arruzza’s objective is to theoretically legitimize the submersion of Marxist intellectuals and organizers within the ‘popular front’ of ‘social movements’ enmeshed with bourgeois politics is further confirmed by her characterization of the political mobilizations of recent years:

Important manifestations of the class as a political actor and an agent of conflict often take place in the sphere of social reproduction, where these struggles have the potential to attack capitalist profitability. In recent years we have seen a number of important labor mobilizations organized by nontraditional labor organizations and networks: for example, the Fight for Fifteen campaign or the mobilizations organized by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC); movements such as Black Lives Matter, the migrants’ strikes, and the mobilizations against the wall at the border with Mexico; and the near-spontaneous mobilizations against the “Muslim Ban.” (194)

Here we see the conflation of labour organizing campaigns at the sites of production of surplus value with cross-class mobilizations for democratic demands as a single ‘sphere of social reproduction’.

What unites these movements is not so much their social location as their political character of inscription within bourgeois democracy which is to say the absence of the ‘class as a political actor’.

At this point the broader conclusions will come as no surprise; a negation of proletarian universality in favor of a coalition of identitarian tribalisms (195-96) expressed by the author as a refusal of ‘economic reductionism’ and of ‘universalist politics based on abstraction from difference’. (196) It seems that this contribution merely functions as a strategic self-justification of positions for which the author seek to provide a theoretical framework post factum – regardless of the theoretical convulsions and self-contradictions, especially with regard to the problem of abstraction. This position, unable to test itself against an overarching conceptual framework from which it can be critically evaluated (according to the rejection of abstraction this collection proposes) therefore loses its coherence and becomes, ultimately, insignificant.

It is also worth noting the absence throughout the collection of any reference to the extensive literature on the current gender division of household tasks. This is perhaps due to the fact that because the empirical data presents a much more complex picture then the strangely reactionary view of ‘woman as nurturer’ which the authors of Social Reproduction Theory seem committed to defend. In fact, in some developed capitalist countries with strong women’s movements (e.g. Scandinavia), the gender gap in time spent on household chores has narrowed to a small margin in recent decades. A welcome democratic advance, but not one which threatens the viability of capitalism however much Bhattacharya might have you believe otherwise.

There is an urgent need for serious Marxist analysis of the democratic struggle for women’s emancipation in relation to the proletarian struggle to abolish capitalist relations of production. Unfortunately Social Reproduction Theory is not such an analysis, but rather another attempt at substituting the radicality of Marx’s critique for an essentialist and conventionally bourgeois view of gender relations.

25 April 2018

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