‘Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction: Marxist Feminist Essays’ by Martha E Gimenez reviewed by Paul Cammack

Reviewed by Paul Cammack

About the reviewer

Paul Cammack retired from City University of Hong Kong in 2015 and is Honorary Professorial …


The recent re-publication of Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women (Haymarket Books, 2013, first published 1983), Michèle​ Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today (Verso, 2014, first published 1980), and Christine Delphy, Close to Home (Verso, 2016, first published 1984), reflects renewed interest in Marxist and Materialist Feminist approaches that had been out of fashion for a while. In the meantime, ‘intersectional’ approaches have displaced those that prioritize class, and a literature on ‘social reproduction’ has emerged. Over the intervening years the world has changed, so that many points of reference in the 1980s, whether in social relations or global political economy, are now a lifetime away. Martha Gimenez highlights some of these changes in the introduction to this collection of her essays – the great diversity in family and household circumstances in the United States and elsewhere, the increasing difficulties that working class women and men face in securing their survival, and the manner in which assisted reproductive technologies increasingly separate sexuality from procreation, all in the context of a wave of revolutions in the forces of production, the establishment of capitalist accumulation on a genuinely global scale, and the universal experience of ‘permanent job scarcity and relentless competition and change’ (13) to which this has given rise. She makes the case for a renewal of Marxist Feminism, with a primary focus on the oppression of working-class women, from the starting-point that ‘the functioning of the mode of production determines the mode of reproduction’ (12). Her conceptualization of ‘capitalist social reproduction’ (in a new essay, Chapter 13) constitutes the crowning achievement of what is revealed here as a lifelong intellectual project of exceptional coherence, originality and power.

The essays are organised thematically, and for the most part chronologically, with some combined or edited in order to achieve the best expression of the overall project. The resulting volume represents not just a decisive step forward in relation to debates over gender and social reproduction, but more broadly a comprehensive approach to contemporary capitalist development on a world-wide scale that recognizes that ‘the reproduction of labour power and the reproduction of capital are moments in the dialectical reproduction of the system as a whole’ (13 n. 42) and draws out the stark implications for the reproduction of people, and the poor in particular. It thereby points a way through and beyond the limitations of approaches that have moved away from a recognition that ‘under capitalist conditions, reproduction takes place under historically specific conditions in which production determines reproduction’ (16). The publishers, and Sébastien Budgen and the editorial board of the Historical Materialism Book Series, are to be congratulated on the initiative that enabled Gimenez to make this work available to a wider readership. It should soon appear in paperback.

Gimenez’ own geographical and intellectual trajectory is pertinent. She addressed these issues first at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the 1970s, from the perspective of someone, brought up in Argentina, who grasped the sense and relevance of Marx on first acquaintance, but only slowly came to realize the depth and dimensions of gender oppression in the United States in particular and so make sense of US feminism. Her relative isolation from major centres of feminist debate, along with her retirement in 2007, meant that, as she disarmingly confesses, she only became aware of recent social reproduction theory when putting this collection together. Her approach is shaped primarily by the work of Marx and Engels themselves, but draws also on the work of Godelier and Althusser, which was enormously influential among the Latin American intellectual left in the 1970s. The fortunate consequence of this personal history is that these essays, published from 1975 onwards, constitute a sustained and undeflected deployment of a non-deterministic structural Marxism that challenges the claim that Marx failed to integrate the question of the reproduction of labour power into the theory of capitalism and took for granted its availability (288), but equally devotes much of its energy to exploring specific empirical changes to household and family structure, the relationship between wage and unwaged work, the commodification of domestic production and deskilling of domestic labour, and the ‘out-sourcing’ to the consumer key aspects of production itself (as with ‘self-assembly’, for example).

Marx’s distinction between the capitalist mode of production (CMP), in which the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers reveals the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and specific capitalist social formations (CSFS) in which the particular trajectory of change and resulting totality is the result of ‘many determinations and relations’, is central. More broadly Marx’s method is used ‘to identify the non-observable structures and social relations underlying the visible patterns of interaction between men and women that place the latter in a subordinate position’, on the grounds that ‘[his] most important potential contributions to feminist theory and politics reside precisely in the aspect of his work that most feminists ignored: his methodology’ (347 n. 5, 348).

The first essay outlines the ‘scientific and political relevance of Marxism for feminism’ (45-9), primarily through a critique of liberal feminism and the limitations inherent in the attainment of civil rights: ‘so long as feminists struggle only for [liberal] goals, the advancement of “middle-class” women will continue to be predicated on the continued exploitation of the majority of women who, through their labour in factories, offices, and other women’s homes, provide the structural support for their sisters’ privileged “liberated” status’ (47).

The second, which outlines the structural Marxist approach, highlights the perils of ascribing too specific and enduring a content to such abstractions as individual biology, sex/gender systems, ‘mothering’, and ‘patriarchy’, in isolation from modes of production. The adoption of the concept of the ‘mode of physical and social reproduction’ within capitalism here allowed Gimenez to recognize the nuclear family and male breadwinner as currently dominant forms without mistaking them as fixed for ever. A passing reference to the ‘pitfalls of multiple causality’ (67) and a rueful comment that in the present historical conjuncture, ‘Structuralist Marxism is not likely to have a noticeable impact in the development of American feminist theory’ (81) pave the way for a cool dissection of intersectionality in two chapters that characterize it, in so far as it has pretensions as theory, as effectively a lowest common denominator for gender specialists with otherwise conflicting agendas and primary concerns, at best an analytical rather than a theoretical framework, and at worst a new form of liberalism that denies capitalist exploitation. A complementary chapter on ‘materialist feminism’ finds it to be either intersectionality or Marxist feminism by another name, depending on the practitioner.

These are fundamental contributions. But the true strength and originality of the volume comes in Part Two, in a series of linked essays that build towards a new account of capitalist social reproduction. First, a comprehensive framework for the study of population explores the relationship between the CMP and fertility, mortality and migration, starting from the proposition that ‘capital accumulation is indifferent to and independent from rates of population growth’ (133), and addressing changes in the technical relations of production, and their effects at the level of the household. The connections are complex, and mediated by ideology and class struggle, but reflect the proposition that ‘the kinds of migration processes, household composition, social stratification, population structure, composition, and distribution characterizing a given CSF at a given time are all structural effects of capital accumulation’ (137; and 138 Figure 1). The same essay offers an initial analysis of pronatalism and reproduction, locating the roots of the former in the alienated character of labour.

The following two chapters then explore reproduction and procreation under capitalism, in typically dialectical fashion: on the one hand, structural and ideological pressures make socially prescribed parenthood a ‘precondition for all adult roles’ (162), and in the course of capitalist development women are ‘segregated in the home as reproducers of the present and future generation of workers’ (178); on the other, the development of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) splits intergenerational social reproduction from procreation, with the technological fragmentation of the biological process of reproduction identified as ‘part of the overall development of the productive forces or forces of production’ (195). So capitalist development, ‘at the same time as it selects this family form as the most “functional” for daily and intergenerational reproduction, constantly undermines it through changes in the productive forces in the realms of production and reproduction’ (196).

In Chapter 9, what has been identified as the ‘feminization of poverty’ is shown to be better seen as the immiserisation of the working class: rising male unemployment, declining opportunities, and the insufficiency of the wage to support a family provoke major changes in women’s decisions regarding marriage, child-bearing, and household formation, and confirm at the same time the indifference of capital to the reproduction of the working class as a whole (in brief because capitalist development continually displaces living labour and renders it redundant):

Lack of access to the basic material conditions necessary for physical and social reproduction on a daily and generational basis threatens the intergenerational reproduction of the working class among all races, particularly among racial and ethnic minorities. The immiseration of the working class culminates in the breakdown of its intergenerational reproduction. Poor parents, particularly poor single mothers, are placed under conditions that deprive them of their ability to reproduce people with marketable skills. This situation may be ‘functional’ for the economy, insofar as the demand for skilled and educated workers is not likely to rise dramatically during the near future. (225)

The theme is expanded in Chapter 10, on the dialectics of waged and unwaged work: poor households no longer reproduce labour power, but rather simply produce people, ‘and people, in themselves, without marketable skills, have no value under capitalist conditions’ (247). The striking conclusion, completely in accord with a classical Marxist perspective and with contemporary empirical data, is that capital does not care if the price of unskilled labour falls below the cost of its daily and generational reproduction. In the meantime (Chapter 11), ‘scientific and technological change have affected sexuality and reproduction in ways  previously thought possible in the realm of science fiction; and increases in women’s labour force participation, levels of education, and political involvement have challenged traditional gender roles and the sexual division of labour’ (257), while the range of use values produced domestically has narrowed as commodification has advanced, leading to ‘the deskilling of domestic labour and the transformation of most domestic workers into consumers of commodities rather than the producers of use values’ (266).

After a short chapter on self-sourcing, or the transfer of aspects of production to consumers themselves, Chapter 13 sets out the logic of capitalist social reproduction, which hinges on the difference between producing people and producing labour power, and the complete indifference of capital to the former, with the corollary that ‘the economic survival of the working classes, and their physical and social, daily and generational reproduction, is at the heart of the class struggle’ (299). In short, there is a ‘permanent crisis of reproduction caused by the indifference of capital to the physical and social reproduction of the workforce’ (300).

Part Three then broadens the empirical focus to address the impact of global capitalism on working women in two chapters, and concludes with a review from 2005 of Marx’s relevance to feminism. As this section addresses the themes of the book from a somewhat different perspective, readers less familiar with the theory dealt with in the first section might find it helpful to read this part first.

In summary, these lucid essays are the product of a rare intelligence, allied to an admirably disciplined intellectual practice. By taking seriously the unified application of historical materialist analysis to all aspects of production, including the production and reproduction of human life itself, and applying itself to the circumstances of the present, the collection transcends Marxist Feminism. It should be recognised as a founding text for renewed Marxist theory, fit for the 21st century.

4 January 2019

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